Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fixation Nation

Here's one definition (verb):
To cause to become physiologically or psychologically dependent on a habit-forming substance.
Here's another (noun):
One who is addicted, as to narcotics or a compulsive activity.
I have to admit, there's a pretty big stigma attached to that word. I just spent some time unraveling my association with this word and concept, starting with the now overplayed tale of James Frey and "A Million Little Pieces." In the meantime, I have our school nurse dropping by my room once a week to serve up a little slice of curriculum called "Too Good For Drugs." Since it's fourth grade, most of the time is spent teaching kids how bad smoking cigarettes can be, and we use the "a" word to describe why someone can't stop. A couple of the kids in my room offer up their testimonials - about a mom or uncle who "caught cancer." We also teach kids what to do if they are offered drugs. We tell them how bad peer pressure can be, but they need to be strong. They make earnest promises that they would never get messed up with that stuff.
I know for a fact that the kid who lives in the apartment building across from us went to public schools right here in the same district where I've been teaching for the past nine years. Given his age, every indication points to this kid getting the same education that the kids in my room are getting. I have to know that this kid made the very same heartfelt assurances to his teacher and his classmates that he would never let himself get hooked on drugs. This kid smokes - cigarettes (probably because his mother does), and marijuana (probably because he sells it). There's a hole in his life, and he fell through.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Au Revoir, Stanley

Today was the first day that Stanley wasn't in my class this year. He'd been absent before. He'd been tardy more times than I could count, but this was the first day that I knew that he wouldn't be coming. Stanley moved. There was even a little note on my roll sheet that said "transferred."
Will I miss him? Not for a while. I confess that the time I saved simply not having to remind him not to lean back in his chair today earned me (and subsequently the rest of the class) an extra five minutes. I didn't have to have this discussion either: "Stanley, take out your spelling book." "I'm fixin' to." "Please do it now." "I'm fixin' to." "Please stop 'fixin' and get it out so the rest of the class can move on." "I'm fixin' to."
By the end of the day, there was a number of things I was "fixin'" to do to Stanley. I begged and bargained and pleaded and hollered and joked and encouraged and used all the management tricks I could recall to try and cajole a good day out of him. I threatened phone calls home when he came without homework and refused to do it during recess. I tried any number of times to reach his mother to set up a conference to talk about his behavior and grades. He had all the classic kid dodges, including the most obvious one - his mom just didn't care enough to make the time to connect with his teacher. His was the one report card that went unclaimed from the first grading period.
Last week Stanley's mom came up to the school long enough to transfer him to another school in another town. I'm not going to have to send him next door to the second grade class for time-outs anymore. I'm not going to have to show him the difference between "b" and "d" anymore. I'm not going to be teaching Stanley anymore. In my class, each student has his or her name on a popsicle stick that we use to pick teams or who will answer the next question. We also have clothespins with each student's name on a behavior chart - Stanley's spent a lot of time down the "Warning" quadrant. On Friday I handed him his popsicle stick and his clothespin. I told him that I was his teacher now, and I always would be. I told him that I wanted him to make me proud of him.
Do I miss Stanley? Not yet. But I will.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Make Out King

As I watched Johnny Cash's life spill over the screen this afternoon, I was struck by what a cad he was - redeemed over time of course - but a cad nonetheless. It fit in well with the ruminations I have been having lately about my own past. I have been friends with cads. I have made excuses and fielded phone calls from crying girls for cads, but I was never much of a cad myself.
I came close once or twice. When I was a senior in high school, I ended up going to the Homecoming dance with a girl that I had been friends with since our sophomore year. I asked her because I figured that it would be a fun, easy date. We danced a little, then went out on the patio of the University Memorial Center to cool off. While we were standing there, I noticed that the other couples who were out on the patio with us were not exactly using the opportunity to "cool off" - if you catch my meaning. There were a great many teenagers mashing lips, swapping spit, tangling tongues under the moonlight.
I stood in front of her, looking for a cool line, wanting to sound like Bogart, but feeling more like Gallagher. "You know, I've always kinda liked you." It was the best my cad-free brain could come up with.
"Really? Me too."
I couldn't believe it. How could it be this easy? Was it always this easy? Why hadn't I tried this before? What opportunities had I missed simply because I was too busy - Hello, what's this? She's got her arms around my neck and leaning in - is she going to bite me? You're thinking too much, did you notice that? There are so many things that I want to say right now but I have a mouth full of someone else's tongue.
So, there I was, making out on the UMC patio in early Fall. This was pleasant and unplanned. What was I forgetting? Turns out there were two things: First, we had come to the dance as part of a double date with a buddy of mine and the girl he was planning on doing just what I had been doing but didn't stand a chance because she really didn't like him at all at least not in that way and what was the second thing? Stopping to breathe. That wasn't it though. The second thing was that the girl I was with drove. My license had been suspended for ninety days at the beginning of the school year, so I was still looking at a couple more months of bumming rides and bicycling to the places I absolutely had to be.
I needn't have worried. Turns out my buddy had become despondent at the lack of progress he was making with his date and was looking for us to call an early end to the evening. This coincided nicely with the revelation that the girl I was with turned out to be "fast." Well, to be fair, just about anyone would show up on a scale as "fast" compared to me, but I had the giddy sensation that she actually was hot for me. "That's okay, we don't mind taking you guys home first," she said. I could have kissed her - and later I did.
We waited patiently as we watched my buddy walk his date to the door of her house, endure the painful rejection of no goodnight kiss, and then come grumbling back to the car. From the back seat he asked if we wanted to go out to Denny's for a Super Bird. It wasn't a completely ridiculous suggestion, the three of us had made that trip any number of times over the past few years. Not tonight, however. Sadly, he was a little slow on the uptake as to the immediacy of our situation. He wanted to whine about his failed attentions and his misguided attempts at moving past the "just good friends" DMZ and into the fiery fields of high school senior heavy petting.
We dropped him off while he was in mid-sentence and headed for a spot where we could park. I'm parking with a girl. That just got me more confused. The fact that she seemed to have a spot all picked out didn't bother me in the least. Had she been here before? Didn't matter. Not now.
I made out. My jacket was balled up in the back seat, my tie was hanging over the rearview mirror. The windows were fogged over. I was making it all up as I went along based on memories of television and movies. The radio was on, but I couldn't tell you what was playing. I probably talked too much, since that's what I do when I don't know what else to do.
Then it was over. In hindsight I can only imagine why, but we seemed to reach a natural stopping point for the "making out" portion of the evening, and we readjusted our clothes (all but the jacket and tie had remained on), then she drove me home.
We didn't talk much on the way back to my house. I had talked enough anyway. I got a very nice kiss goodnight, then did my best to suppress the urge to skip up the sidewalk to the front door.
When Monday came, I saw her again. She was on her way to her locker. I tried to make some clever conversation, single or double entendre. She was friendly, which was nice, but she wasn't as friendly as she had been. It was obvious that any of the kissing that had taken place on Saturday night would not be taking place here in the hallway. As a matter of fact, it turns out the kissing was pretty much over between the two of us for good.
I carried a torch for her for a month or so. I tried to create scenarios in which the two of us could be alone, and I could try out my burgeoning cad line one more time. That time never came. We stayed friends. She came to my twentieth birthday party. She bought me Bruce Springsteen's first album. She told me if I'd never seen him, that I really owed to myself to check it out sometime. She went with me to see my first Springsteen show. She was absolutely right.
You know, I always kinda liked her.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Funny Lady

"We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee," Ann Coulter said. "That's just a joke, for you in the media."
Hoo! Ha! Those of us non-media types are rolling in the aisles over here, I can tell you! Ms. Coulter told the Philander Smith College audience Thursday that more conservative justices were needed on the Supreme Court to change the current law on abortion. Dale Carnegie suggests opening with a joke. Apparently her humorous notion is that the murder of one Supreme Court Justice (a liberal) would save the lives of countless unborn children. See, killing people for what they believe is okay, just keep your filthy hands off our fetuses!
Sheesh. I suppose when things go politically your way for most of a decade, you start to feel like you can say just about whatever pops into your head. The audience for the speech wasn't very receptive to her views, and she drew more boos when she said the crack cocaine problem "has pretty much gone away."
Another little gem from Coulter's past: "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building." How about "The presumption of innocence only means you don't go right to jail." She's a pistol, all right. "I am emboldened by my looks to say things Republican men wouldn't." This comment suggests that, because she has blonde hair and no visible scars or open sores, she has some prescient gift for truth that we mortals (especially wicked, amoral liberals) cannot hope to understand. We can only sit, jaws agape at her command of world events and murmur assent at her whimsy.
Perhaps most amusing to me, from her own web page is the list at the bottom of her personal history page REPORTERS WHO ARE ALLOWED TO INTERVIEW ANN AGAIN. Mildly amusing technical note - Ann's page is called "AnnCoulter.com" but has an address of "AnnCoulter.org" - silly girl.
Speaking of web sites, I got to thinking, "Who does this all remind me of?" Way back when wrestling was still a sport, and Aha had a hit with "Take On Me," there was Morton Downey Jr. Mort was a clown, and he knew it. He was doing whatever he could to keep his face on television, in 1989 while in a San Francisco International Airport restroom in which he claimed to have been attacked by neo-Nazis who painted a swastika on his face and attempted to shave his head.
Come 2008, we can expect some of the same wacky behavior from conservative funny lady, Ann Coulter.

Friday, January 27, 2006


ca-thar-sis n. A release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit.
I enjoyed one of these myself today. After a somewhat tumultuous week of elementary education, students were dismissed early - as some kind of recognition of the end of the semester. This was a little odd, since all the elementary schools in Oakland are on the trimester grading schedule, but a minimum day is a minimum day.
We have a sports program at our school that gets kids out to help supervise and organize games on the playground at recess. These Junior Coaches issued a challenge to the teachers for a friendly game of kickball. At two o'clock, that's what I headed out to do.
A number of the kids at my school have never seen me wear anything but my "teacher shoes," so they were a little aghast to see me in running shoes. There was a healthy cross-section of grade levels represented on the teachers' team, from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade. Seven of us sized up the ten Fourth and Fifth graders and their coach. We started in the field, and there was a little concern as the kids jumped out to a three run early lead.
As it turns out, we needn't have been quite so distressed. The coach had told us old folks not to go easy on the kids, as she was interested in promoting teamwork among her crew, and allowing them to deal with some adversity. We gave them plenty of adversity. Along with the rest of the teachers, I used this opportunity to work out the petty frustrations of the day on that red rubber ball. We put up a dozen runs before they got us out the first time.
I had a brush with guilt, feeling that with ten and eleven year old self-esteem at stake, maybe we should ease up a bit. I tried kicking with my left foot. I popped up, and one of the girls caught it. The teachers were still ahead by thirteen runs, but I could feel the jeers loosening up in the outfield.
Here's the deal: As a kid, I was the short round one with glasses out in right field, praying that the ball wouldn't come near me. When bigger, faster, more athletic kids pushed in front of me to kick when it was my turn, I didn't argue. I knew my place. Now I was forty-three, with plenty of coordination and stamina, and a team full of enthusiastic adults who had the same essential goal in mind. We were going to win the game to have something real to end our week. So often in teaching we have to settle for moral victories, or be satisfied with what might have been. Here was a chance to take an active role in the outcome of the day.
When it was over, we did not gloat. We gave high fives and compliments to all the kids who were brave enough to come out and give their best. Maybe next time we'll mix up the teams, or add some kind of handicap to the old folks. Next time. Today was ours. Yes, it was a group of prepubescents we beat, but we beat them - and we did it as a team.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tasty Dip or Militant Organization?

What's all this fuss about hummus taking over in the middle east? So what if a bunch of hungry folks out in the middle of the desert want to share a little chickpea paste with their crackers? I myself love a little hummus on my carrot sticks - or maybe a little bit of celery. It's a healthy alternative to chocolate flavored peanut butter, and it's especially nice with a dash of paprika and a hint of lemon juice.
What's that? It's not hummus, it's Hamas? Well, that's very different then. Never mind.
On second thought, maybe we should examine, at least briefly, what distinguishes Hamas from hummus. Branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU, Hamas is seen by its supporters as a legitimate fighting force defending Palestinians from a brutal military occupation. Their new-found political status hasn't done anything to soften their world-wide reputation. It also has a long-term aim of establishing an Islamic state on all of historic Palestine - most of which has been contained within Israel's borders since its creation in 1948. None of this would taste good smeared on pita bread.
Hamas maintains its opposition to the Oslo accords - the US-sponsored peace process that oversaw the gradual and partial removal of Israel's occupation in return for Palestinian guarantees to protect Israeli security. The spiritual arm of Hamas continues to predict Israel's destruction by 2025. Not exactly a good source of dietary fiber.
What did George W. Pinhead have to say about the elections? "If your platform is the destruction of Israel it means you're not a partner in peace," the president said. "And we're interested in peace." I get the Israel part, but I'm stuck on the "interested in peace" part. It seems almost incomprehensibly hypocritical for these words to spill out of his mouth, but that's why we love him so. Our president continued to hold out hope of some resolution with the democratically elected (are you savoring the irony?) Hamas led government. Can I defend Hamas' actions over the past twenty years. Suicide bombings are by and large not very conducive to diplomacy, and the first and second intifada haven't exactly paved the way for Middle East peace. Their stated goal continues to be the liberation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Sounds simple enough, right? The Jews and the Romans fought about it for a while, then that little dust-up in between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries - The Crusades.
Jimmy Carter couldn't do it. Bill Clinton couldn't do it. Richard the Lion-hearted couldn't do it. Why not give the guys in the nice green hats a shot (not literally)? We know what success would look like, but for now, the failure exists.
"Peace is never dead because people want peace." - G.W.P.H. Bush

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mergers and Acquisitions

What would you do if you had a kerjillion dollars? Would you work to promote peace in the world? To make sure that every child was fed? To fund research to eliminate HIV/AIDS? To create affordable housing for those living in poverty?
Would you work to create a really cool bunch of computer animated movies for the whole family? Would you work tirelessly to "retake the American roadway?" Those are the career goals of Steve Jobs and William Clay Ford Jr., respectively.
Jobs became Disney's biggest shareholder all at once when the House of Mouse bought Pixar for $7.4 billion dollars (go ahead and write that out in standard notation, it makes my fourth graders swoon). We can now look forward to watching "Mary Poppins" on our new video Ipods. All media marches toward the brink of a cliff where all media is controlled by Mickey Mouse.
William Ford announced recently it would close as many as 14 factories and cut up to 30,000 jobs over the next six years. This is how his smiling face came to grace the cover of this week's Time magazine. His company lost $1.2 billion dollars in North America this year. The good news he has to share is that his company is developing the Ford Escape Hybrid E85, a research vehicle marrying hybrid electric power and ethanol capability. This may be part of the reason why his company was still able to scrape together $4.4 billion dollars in profit worldwide. William Ford is all about the future.
How many more minutes until Disney makes a takeover bid to buy Ford? Soon we could all drive hybrid Mustangs home to watch the premiere of "Toy Story V" on your integrated iMac entertainment system. Not ready to accept my vision of the future? Check this out: "DEVO, one of the ’80s most innovative and iconic bands, has partnered with Disney Sound to bring their hits to a new generation with 'DEVO 2.0,' a combination CD/DVD package set for release on March 14th." DEVO 2.0 is just a harbinger of things to come. Soon all will be Disney.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Graceful in Defeat

I've been quiet about this for a while. I had to wait for the metaphysical swelling to go down a little bit before I put any narrative weight on the subject. The Denver Broncos lost their playoff game. To be more precise, they were beaten roundly in the AFC Championship game by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-17. My wife was very supportive, going so far as to bake me a chocolate cake in recognition of my relative stability throughout the long professional football season. I lost a dollar bet on the game. I'll live.
My son, sadly, had his first cognitive experience with being a good loser. He wore his John Elway jersey for two days leading up to the game. When it was all over, he told me, "Dad, I feel a little stressed out." I told him to imagine how good the people in Pittsburgh and Seattle felt, and that they had been waiting for thirty years to win a Super Bowl. He listened patiently, but I knew what he was feeling down inside. He knows we have to wait another year to see if it will be our turn again next year.
Meanwhile, last Friday in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, A 17-year-old high school student said he was humiliated when a teacher made him sit on the floor during a midterm exam in his ethnicity class - for wearing a Denver Broncos jersey. His teacher also made other students throw crumpled up paper at Vannoy, whom he called a "stinking Denver fan." The teacher's defense: "If he felt uncomfortable, then that's a lesson; that's what [the class] is designed to do. It was silly fun. I can't believe he was upset."
Gee, I guess I'd like to see the lesson plan for that day. Back here by the bay, I can honestly say that the people around me have been universally supportive, regardless of their rooting interests. It's just about time to switch from my winter Broncos jacket to my spring windbreaker - the one with the Chicago Cubs logo on it. Spring training starts in about thirty days.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Probable Cause

"A lie repeated often enough becomes truth." This quote is most often attributed to Lenin (the Marxist, not the Beatle). It applies easily to the times we live in today. I imagine that Osama bin Laden felt the need to release an audio tape just to remind us all what all this fuss is about. Remember when Iraq attacked us back on September 11, 2001? No? Well then you must recall how, after an exhaustive search, a secret cache of weapons of mass destruction were found iBaghdadad? Really? Remember how we were greeted as liberators?
Remember how we are protected from illegal search anseizurere by the Constitution of the United States? That would be the Fourth Amendment, right between prohibiting the government from using private homes as quarters for soldiers without the consent of the owners and forbidding trial for a major crime except after indictment by a grand jury; prohibits repeated trials for the same offense after an acquittal. Here's some founding father's wisdom: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
In a move that smacks just a little Orwellian, George "Pinhead" Bush has begun referring to his domestic spying campaign as a "terrorist surveillance program." At last! We have some way to monitor all that terrorist activity - or do we? A review of Justice Department reports to Congress shows that the 26-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court modified more wiretap requests from the Bush administration than the four previous presidential administrations combined. The court's repeated intervention in Bush administration wiretap requests may explain why the president decided to bypass the court nearly four years ago to begin secret National Security Agency spying on hundreds and possibly thousands of Americans and foreigners inside the United States, according to James Bamford, an authority on the security agency that intercepts telephone calls, e-mails, faxes and Internet communications.
Which brings us full circle, back to Osama bin Laden. G.P.H. Bush has to be the happiest camper of all for the most recent tape of threats. A renewed campaign of terrorist rhetoric ensures at least the righteous indignation of our Pinhead in Chief. So be careful out there - watch what you say, because at least for the time being, we don't know who might be listening.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Satisfactory Resolution

I used to buy every record that Cheap Trick released. I did it at first because I really loved their comic-book version of rock and roll. Then I was buying them out of politeness - a sense of dedication - then obligation. I started to buy them all over again on CD. Then I stopped abruptly. I'm forty-three. I don't have to have their entire catalog to be happy - just the songs I like.
This brings me to my knee-jerk consumer moment of the day. While wandering around Amazon.com this morning I got the news that Stephen King is putting out another book. Let's dispense first with the jokes about just how inevitable a moment the release of a Stephen King novel is: somewhere between rain in Seattle and objects in motion tending to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Stephen King has had a lot of adjectives attached to him, but "sporadic" has never been one of them.
This being said, why would this come as any kind of shock to me? Maybe because he's supposed to be retired. After he got run over by a van a few years back, he told the world that he was winding down his writing career, and was going to take it easy. The world continues to wait for this to happen. I had been buying Stephen King books with the same dogged obedience that I bought Cheap Trick albums. I received the approximate cultural nutrients from them both. I continued to buy new Stephen King books long after I stopped buying Cheap Trick music. I was buying the first edition hardcovers. I've got a shelf full of them that leaves little room for books that don't have zombies, werewolves, evil clowns, aliens and all manner of pshychokinetic children and adults.
I thought I was done a couple of times. Most significantly in 1987, after feeling particularly burned by "The Tommyknockers" and its vague story of alien abduction that never quite found an ending, I swore off King for good. Or so I thought. I tuned into the ABC miniseries of that novel to see if maybe I missed something in my reading. Nope. The TV version was every bit as obtuse and bloated as the book - no resolution. That should have done it, right?
Barnes and Noble has a lovely practice of setting out new hardcover books that aren't selling like the might for about the price of a trade paperback. Among the authors who show up on these tables regularly is Mr. King. I picked up "Dreamcatcher" back in 2001 because it was written during his recuperation after his brush with death. Maybe it was a sympathy purchase. As it turns out, there were all kinds of ways that it reminded me of the things I liked best about his work. It was scary and unsettling, set in a world that started out familiar, then turned abruptly unsettling and then grotesque. Then it just ran out of steam. I kicked myself for falling for the same trick again - even though it was a pretty good trick.
Fast forward to this morning. "Witness Stephen King's triumphant, blood-spattered return to the genre that made him famous." And there I was, salivating with my finger on the "click to pre-order" button. I continued to read: "Mobile phones deliver the apocalypse to millions of unsuspecting humans by wiping their brains of any humanity, leaving only aggressive and destructive impulses behind. Those without cell phones, like illustrator Clayton Riddell and his small band of "normies," must fight for survival, and their journey to find Clayton's estranged wife and young son rockets the book toward resolution."
Then I stopped. All those elements, especially a world full of zombies attached to cell phones, drew me in. The words "toward resolution" stopped me dead in my tracks. I don't want to be left near a resolution, I want resolution. Maybe it's a flaw in me as a reader, but I want an ending. I don't care if the zombies end up ruling the earth because everybody else gets eaten, I want all that writing and reading to have a payoff.
I backed off the pre-order button, caught my breath and went back to work (or what amounts to it on Sunday morning). In a few months "Cell" will be sitting on a table in Barnes and Noble for the low, low price of just - well - let's just say that I'm listening to Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" on my MP3 player while I wrap this up. Junk food is still food.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


When I worked at Arbys (America's Roast Beef, Yes Sir!), I told myself repeatedly that it was only a way station. I was, after all, on my way to bigger things. I was going to college (eventually) and would become a renowned writer and film maker, with plenty of gritty real-world experience to ground my art. I understood that I rose quickly throughout the ranks of the "tuna" (as the counter help was called) because I was so very clever, and the fact that I didn't really "need" the job made me all the more promotable. I was an assistant manager because that too was an interesting diversion. I spent years of my life in a fast-food restaurant, kidding myself that I could just walk away at any moment. I never saw myself as a career roast beef guy.
I'm pretty sure that Waldo never saw himself as a career roast beef guy, either. In a future I imagined during crazy lunch rushes, with IBM employees shouting orders at me in groups of three or five or eight, I saw myself following the path of Waldo. He would walk into the back room half an hour before the crush, put down his briefcase, grab a cup of coffee and pour two cartons of milk into it (his stomach lining wasn't what it once was). Whoever was working the slicer would make way for Waldo, knowing that he was a zen master of sandwich making. Three of us took orders at the counter, calling back our sandwiches to Waldo. "Two regulars, please." "Thank you.""Beef and Cheddar, please." "Thank you." "Hamchy." Pause. "Hamchy." Still nothing. "Hamchy, please." "Thank you." Politeness was part of the program at all of Waldo's stores. If you didn't say "please," he wouldn't make your sandwich, and there you'd be with your potato cakes, two large Dr. Peppers and no sandwich - waiting. Waldo's other insistence when he worked slicer was that when you called back an order for a Super Roast Beef, you had to ask for a "Waldo, please." If you called out "Super, please," you'd hear "Excuse me?" New tuna would have this exchange several times before they realized that he was completely sincere in his motives. "Two Waldos, please." "Thank you."
Waldo moved throughout the world of roast beef with effortless grace. He had a company car. He got to wear a nice white shirt without the godawful polyester vest. He had actually met the owners of our franchise stores, the elusive "Mike and Cowboy." But the most fascinating thing about Waldo was that he had actually appeared on "Tic-Tac-Dough." He met Wink Martindale. He played the game. He lost. He got a consolation prize. It was a hand-held vacuum that he donated to the break area of our store.
I stayed in touch with Waldo after I finally found my way out into the wider world. He eventually moved on too, opening his own pizza franchise. I became a regular there. When Waldo was putting together a team for the University of Colorado Trivia Bowl (Renegade Poodles From Hell), he asked if I wanted to be an alternate. I was flattered at the offer. Even though I had won my share of Trivial Purusit games, I had never been on a real game show. It was on the stage of the Glenn Miller Ballroom in the University Memorial Center that we forged our true bond. I moved as quickly from alternate to regular as I had from tuna to manager. I pulled a movie trailer bonus question out of the air when I saw a picture of Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepard: "At Long Last Love." It wasn't just having the right answer, it was saying it with conviction. Those evenings under the lights with the other Poodles are singular in my memory. When they were over, I felt a little lost.
I went and saw Waldo once when I went back to Colorado to visit. I took my baby son and my wife to visit him at the car dealership where he was the sales manager. I watched him close a deal on a Dodge Viper - with effortless grace.

Friday, January 20, 2006

A Love That Will Never Grow Old

I went to see "Brokeback Mountain" last weekend. I confess that from the time that I first heard about it, and read the Annie Proulx story, there was a little tweak of my heterosexual male ego that may have verged on homophobia. What's this? How could this thought occur in such an astute, sensitive, liberal mind? It's a love story, after all. It's an epic story of lifelong connections set against the backdrop of the mountains of Wyoming and the prairies of Texas. It was all those things that the critics and my friends had lead me to believe - and for my wife, just a little bit more.
On the way out of the theater, she sighed. There was a pause, and she continued, "I never got how guys like to watch two girls - you know." She blushed just a little, and then, "But watching Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. Well." I got it. That was some pretty hot guy on guy action. And besides that, they were also remarkably tender. All the really physical stuff happens early in the film, to make sure that you understand just how real their love was. Their first embraces are like pitched battles, almost like they might rather have killed the other instead of making love. I would imagine certain theater managers can anticipate the moment when those who will be offended will start heading for the exit.
For those who stay, expect to have your heart broken. The tragedy is as big as the sky. The number of on-line reviews that declare "I loved this movie, and I'm straight" seem all the more amusing to me now. "I made my boyfriend go see it." "I'm a Christian and I liked it!" Well, how about that - a film that opens minds and hearts. Bravo.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Letters, we get letters...

Ignorance or arrogance? Sometimes the line is so awfully paper thin.
Yesterday I received a letter from the state administrator in charge of our school district. After a few perfunctory remarks about the need to continue to rehabilitate our schools to create "The Best School District in the nation," he began to point fingers: "(T)he same forces that drove the old Oakland Unified into bankruptcy are again demanding an unaffordable contract." Those forces would (ahem) appear to be us teachers. Bad, shameful, wasteful slackers that we are - pushing what could be the Best District in the nation right over the cliff into bankruptcy.
Did I get this letter to bring shame on me as a professional, and cause me to rethink my arrogant, whiny ways? Nope. I received this letter as the parent of a student of the once and future Best School District in the nation. Doesn't anybody check the mailing list? Was the hope that perhaps when I came home from a long day in the classroom that I would have had just enough time to unwind and start to see things from their side? After all, I am a parent - and a taxpayer. Shouldn't I be thinking of how this affects my child's art and music classes? Shouldn't I be thinking about the importance of reduced class size? Shouldn't I be thinking about how to get behind the fiscal recovery movement of our public schools?
Well, in a word: No. I didn't experience a quiet shudder of recognition upon reading the letter from the state administrator. I did feel a shudder, or perhaps more of a cringe, as I pondered the challenge being laid out by this letter. Parents were being asked to take sides against the teachers. The horrible irony in this is the challenge I feel each year as an educator to connect to my students and their families, to try and impress the importance of their child's education. Sometimes you get lucky, and you get one or two parents who show up at school - even when they aren't being summoned. They take an active and interested role in the learning that takes place - connecting home to school. Trust is built, and on that foundation kids learn. I don't know much about what makes the Best School District in the nation, but I do know what makes the best education for students: establishing a connection between home and school.
I asked the father of one of my students if he had received a letter from the state administrator. "Oh that? I tore it up and tossed it in the garbage." Score one for "the same forces."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mom, DDS.

My mother had the lightest touch in the whole neighborhood. There weren't very many teeth in the mouths of the kids on Garland Lane that she didn't get to wiggle at one time or another. She was so very good at it. Kids who would not let their own parents within fifty yards of a loose tooth would happily surrender up their mouths to my mom's delicate fingers.
She never yanked. She never tied a piece of string to a doorknob. She never used any special tools - pliers, tweezers, hammers, chisels or drills. Just those careful digits, working that baby tooth around in its socket until it was just a quick twist away.
Out they came. The baby teeth of three of her own boys and those of any of the strays that they happened to drag home. Truth is, I don't remember telling anyone about my mother's "special talent." I'm sure I must at one time have mentioned it - maybe in the lunch room or on the way home from school. But mostly I recall kids showing up at our front door with their mouths wide open like baby birds, pointing at the dangling denticle.
She would ask them in, sometimes asking their name (if they were new to the neighborhood), then moving quickly to the task at hand. She didn't always pull the tooth. Sometimes she told the sad faced child that "it's just not ready to come out yet." After a day of wiggling with their own finger and tongue, I knew that they would be back.
Happy Birthday, Mom.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

For Whom The Blog Tolls

Time and events of the past few days have conspired to have me considering my audience. For what or whom am I writing this blog? For those who have been faithful readers since its inception, you are perhaps the best judge, since most of the time I sit down and start writing before I have made a study of the people who would most enjoy reading whatever it is that I have to say.
In this way, it is not unlike having my own newspaper column, where I attend to those things that are on my mind as they occur, without a solid notion of narrative, or editorial priorities. It dovetails nicely with the idea I had for many years during college: The Cult of Publication. My creative writing degree has netted me the sum total of two published works. The first came when a series of poems I submitted were printed in a magazine called "The train" (memorialized here on "Sensations" magazine's web site). The humorous bit about this job was that it paid in copies of the magazine, that apparently folded before I received my copies. The second time I was able to become part of the literary elite, I had a short piece of mine printed in a collection called "Where the Heart Is - A Celebration of Home." I'm right there on page 85, complete with notes on the author contributed by my lovely wife. What did I get paid for that one? I did get a copy of that one - and the knowledge that every copy sold was raising money for Habitat for Humanity.
Maybe that's why having a blog appeals to me so very much. I don't have to convince a bunch of editors or publishers that what I've got to say is interesting or unique or worthwhile. I just type and click the little orange button down there that says: Publish Post. Okay, I confess, first I do a spell check, because I don't want this to be a complete drain on you - the reader. Somewhere over there in a drawer are a couple of attempted screenplays, and there are dozens of short stories and poems hanging around the edge of my hard drive even as we speak - but for now, we'll stick to the things that I know. Thank you for your kind attention, and now back to our regularly scheduled infotainment.
Why do you suppose Brad Pitt wouldn't have had the cajones to call Jennifer Aniston before the world found out that Angelina was pregnant?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Three Day Weekend

"Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country." These were the words that Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, used to mark the celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
He continued, "Surely he doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretenses. But surely he is upset at black America also. We're not taking care of ourselves."
Meanwhile, George "Racially Sensitive Pinhead" Bush said during a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "The reason to honor Martin Luther King is to remember his strength of character and his leadership, but also to remember the remaining work."
According to an AP poll, three-fourths of the people in this country say there has been significant progress toward equality, but only 66 percent of blacks felt that way. Just under a fourth of the population said they planned to commemorate King's birthday on Monday. A solid majority of blacks, 60 percent, said they would be involved.
Atlanta's mayor Shirley Franklin suggested "bold, audacious action" to keep King's dream alive: "Employ a homeless man or woman," she said. "Sponsor a homeless family. Give a convicted felon who has served his time another chance."
The words of Dr. King, August 28, 1963: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal."
While we continue to install democracy around the globe like it was an appliance, let's take a look at our own version.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Working Girl

Seventeen years ago, we had given up on there being a new kid. No grandchild, no niece, no nephew. He or she was just a little more stubborn than we were, and so we decided to go about our lives as if there was no baby. We had lost our collective patience and figured life should just go back to normal.
What was normal? How about a trip to Wendy's? That sounds completely natural. Maybe a baked potato, or nice triple thick Frosty? There was some discussion of the pregnancy that seemingly would not end. Having dairy products just before a delivery might create some additional distress - but heck, this kid wasn't coming anytime soon so why should it matter?
The meal was pleasant enough, but on the way out to the car I was holding the door for my sister-in-law who made the only face I had seen her make during gestation. She stopped in the doorway of Wendy's and my brother came up and asked her this question: "Are you alright? I'm not in your body - you have to tell me what's going on."
Her response: "You were in my body nine months ago. That's the problem." A little harsh, but in hindsight, completely forgivable. We sat in the parking lot for a while, trying to decide a course of action. Why not just continue with our day as we had planned, since there was still no conclusive evidence of the baby's grand entrance that day. We went on to the movie theater.
We went to see "Working Girl" starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford. We walked in and found our seats. Some friends of mine met us there and we all sat down to enjoy the frothy little romantic comedy. Somewhere in the first act, there was a sudden lurch to my left where my sister-in-law was sitting. My brother turned to me and asked if I could get a ride home from my friends. I turned to ask, but when I looked back, the incipient mother and father were gone.
I went home and waited by the phone. A few hours later I got a call asking me to come and meet my new niece. I could hear her new voice being exercised in the background.
Seventeen years later, I uncover this tiny bit of trivia to add to the day: Kevin Spacey had a small role in "Working Girl" playing "Bob Speck." Happy Birthday - and may I suggest a family lunch at Wendy's to celebrate?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Amplitude Modulation

The notion of "home entertainment" started me chuckling just now. How, exactly, does one entertain a home? Right here one this very blog I have waxed nostalgic for those days when I would sit at night at our cabin beneath the glow of a pair of Coleman lamps reading all manner of paperback books, playing cards and a great many board games. We stayed entertained with the aid of an AM radio.
In those days the FM dial was below the AM on some radios, there was a lot of dead air down there - between announcers with baritone voices playing music that was incomprehensibly cool - or just incomprehensible. We stuck to the AM - especially KOA, the booming signal that was the voice of the Rockies (not the team, but the mountain range). It was on this station we heard "Radio Mystery Theater." Nightly we were treated to all kinds of different horror, science fiction, and suspense - just like old time radio. At the end of each episode, host E.G. Marshall would intone over the sound of a creaking door: "Until next time - pleasant dreams?" Creepy, creepy creepy.
But entertaining. Our other key diversion that centered around the AM radio was the KHOW kickoff to the weekend with "Hot Dog" Harold Moore. It was a countdown to five o'clock on Friday afternoon that always ended up with Colorado's state song, "If I Had A Wagon."
"If I had a wagon, I would go to Colorado
Go to Colorado
Go to Colorado
Where a man can walk a mile high"
Each verse of this song suggests a different mode of transportation - we all eagerly anticipated the "rocket ship" verse, where you "land in Colorado, land in Colorado." Oh, the magic of AM radio. So here I sit, in front of my personal computer with downloaded music streaming forth and my son plays video games on one of two platforms we have in the house while we anticipate the cable television appearance of the Denver Broncos' playoff game. They'll be playing at Invesco Field - at Mile High.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Watch Out, 'Cause Here It Comes -

I'm almost done with this, I promise. Tomorrow I'll write about football or how sad Jennifer Anniston is about not being informed about Angelina Jolie's pregnancy. Or something.
Tonight I want to try and finish off this thread about James Frey and the "truth." And addiction. And what it means to be an addict.
I was surprised by the acrimony in the comments I received on the last blog - "A Few Days Later." This guy wrote a book about being an addict. He said it was the true story of his ordeal. Turns out the story wasn't completely true. Parts of it were exaggerated for dramatic effect and details were manipulated. Does this make the story any less real? Probably. Did he do things that he should be ashamed of? You bet.
He was doing things he should be ashamed of before he started writing the book. I've been sober for coming up on two decades and there are still stories that I don't tell because I'm embarrassed by my behavior. Sometimes I like to trot out the more amusing ones to share with people who ask me "So Dave, why don't you drink anymore?" Here's some truth: I did plenty of stuff that should have gotten me hurt or arrested or killed, but mostly I just got really sick or bruised or tired the next day and had to walk around feeling like I was stuffed with straw and my skull was shrinking rapidly around my swelling brain.
The last time I had a drink I was asked to leave my good friend's house in Phoenix, Arizona. I had spent the day drinking, then taking LSD, then drinking more, and then trying to figure out how more drugs could be purchased so the drinking could continue. In my exalted altered state, I began to waver mightily from the stated "good friends" understanding that I had and began to push mightily for the love that I believed that was once ours.
I was drunk. I was high. I had no idea what I was doing. Did that stop me? Nope. It make perfect sense to me. This was the night that I was going to win her back. I made a scene. Compared to some of the scenes I had made in the past, it was not hall of fame, but it wasn't pretty. She asked me to leave. It was one thirty in the morning.
Many miles away in Mesa, Arizona my mother was trying to get to sleep. She had helped arrange our little vacation to the Grand Canyon State, but she had spent most of it alone at the hotel. I had spent most of it drunk. Starting from the airport on the way down, on the plane, at dinner the first night, and on and on. Now the trip was winding down. Our flight was at six thirty out of Sky Harbor. I was across the vast urban sprawl that is Phoenix in a rental car looking back at the profoundly closed door of my friend's house - under the influence of whatever I had poured into myself for the past eight to ten hours.
As I sat staring at a Hertz map spread across the steering wheel, stereo blaring, air conditioner blasting cold air into my face - my mother had decided that if I didn't make it back to the hotel that night she was leaving without me. I have no recollection whatsoever of the drive across town that early morning. I know that I made it back to the hotel, and as I sat in the parking lot with the stereo still up high and the fan still blowing I had a thought, "Maybe this is my chance. Maybe I should knock it off before I don't have a choice."
I may have gotten an hour of sleep before it was time to get up and head for the airport. I was still drunk and starting to feel more than a little sick. The plane ride wasn't much fun either. I don't recall that my mother spoke to me much that morning - if at all. When we arrived back in Boulder I was scheduled to start my first day as an installer of modular office furniture. As the new guy, it was my job to lift and carry the parts that were needed from the truck to our staging area, then break down all the cardboard boxes. It was a full day of manual labor that nearly killed me. When I finally made it home, I collapsed on the couch.
The relief that awaited me was only momentary, as I realized I still had one more crappy phone call to make. I called my friend in Arizona and begged her to forgive my slovenly attempts at rekindling our romance and whatever ancillary ugliness that occurred before, during, and after. I told this to her answering machine. I wasn't getting off the hook anytime soon.
That was the week before Saint Patrick's Day. I had always taken great pride in my Irish heritage on that particular day, as it was my best excuse each year for drinking green beer (as opposed to all the other days of the year when the yellow stuff worked just fine). I made a mental note then to skip the Saint Paddy's celebration that year. No beer. No LSD. No Coke. No Jagermeister. No pot. No more. If I could make it past the end of the week, then I might have a clear view of what comes next. Bob Dole was President. I was twenty-five. I never spent a night in jail. I went to the emergency room once to have a piece of a beer bottle pulled out of my hand (I put it there when I merged my fist, a wall and the aforementioned Moosehead bottle). I had become all to accustomed to making calls to friends the morning after to check on the status of their health, my health, the health of our relationship. I had a Saturday and Sunday morning conscience.
That's my truth.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Few Days Later...

I don't watch Larry King very often. Usually it's something that I happen upon when I've finished watching reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show" or if I pass by it on the way to the History Channel. I believe that Larry King television's answer to Paul Harvey. That is to say: I'm not a huge fan. Larry's just a little to obsequious for me.
My mother had been watching way out Colorado way, and having the jump on me by a time zone, she let me know that James Frey was on Larry King. She's a regular reader of the blog and was introduced to Mr. Frey's work via "The Truth and Where It's Been Hiding." She told me that after she watched the show, she was more interested in reading "A Million Little Pieces."
Okay, I confess that part of me cynically wrapped my head around an ingenious marketing scheme wherein a book that had already been successful in its original printing had an additional surge of popularity after it was selected by Oprah's book club. What could you do to keep that ball in the air? Generate a little controversy. Still, all publicity is good publicity, and the fact that I am now writing a second blog myself about a book I have yet to read speaks volumes for the power of media exposure good or bad.
That being said, since my mother reads the blog, the least I could do is tune in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out this James Frey character is a pretty straight shooter after all. He danced lightly around the issues of exaggeration and hyperbole in his memoir, but that (as noted here a few days ago) is the nature of personal memoir. Was what he wrote "the truth?" Maybe not. Was it truthful? You bet.
How do I know this? James' mother sat next to him for the last segment of the interview. She talked a little about the pain and fear of being the mother of an addict. I remembered my mother saying how she related to this lady's experience. I watched James Frey's face as his mother described her suffering, and eventually her relief at her son's recovery. I knew that face. He was ashamed, then embarrassed, then proud. If he had managed the details of his struggles with sobriety, he hadn't missed the core issues. He couldn't make up his mother.
Thank you mom, for telling me about Larry King and for giving me the chance to come back from the edge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Minimum Day, Maximum Drama

There it was. This afternoon, all the things that make urban life so terrifying came crashing into our little school. Just after one o'clock we let the kids out. We have "minimum days" every Wednesday, and the joke is that it usually turns into a "maximum day" for teachers: meetings, making copies, conferences with parents, more meetings. It was this transition to a playground full of kids to an empty expanse of asphalt that our minimum day got filled up with drama.
A mini-van came screaming down the street behind the school, followed closely by a number of police cars - two or twenty - it was difficult to tell in the flurry that erupted. Suddenly the van veered and bounced off a series of cars parked along the narrow residential avenue. The van spun and flipped over, finally coming to rest against yet another parked vehicle - a JC Penny delivery van whose driver had just gotten in and got to witness the whole scene through his side-view mirror. I didn't ask, but I would suspect that the damage to his van was probably exacerbated by the stain he left on the front seat watching a few thousand pounds of metal heading straight for him.
The police were out of their cars, guns drawn, before the mini-van even stopped spinning. The driver (we all agreed that the van was probably "borrowed") came out from the overturned wreck dazed, but able to stand on his own. That's when we started to assess the damage. Four cars (including the "borrowed van") were totaled. Nobody was hurt. All the children who could have been walking along the sidewalk at that moment had made it home, or were still inside the school. Three more vehicles sustained damage that was less severe. One of the totaled cars belonged to a tutor who had come to our school to volunteer her time to teach our kids math after school. Another belonged to my buddy (and constant reader) Banana Girl. She made a point of going up to the cop car to ask the young man who was now seated in the back seat if he happened to be carrying any insurance.
It was an ugly scene. Everyone wanted to get a look at what had happened, but it was all over. A long series of very bad choices had just reached its logical conclusion. All kinds of questions came to me in the hours that passed after the crash: Why were they chasing him through the neighborhoods? Was that pursuit necessary? Was this guy armed? What if he had popped out of the wreck and started shooting? What if we had dismissed the kids just a few minutes later?
It's over now, and everyone is safe - even if we don't all feel that way.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Reading Is FUNdamental

It's kind of a terrifying thought: I could read more than one hundred books this year if I kept up the pace I set for the first two weeks of the year. Right after Christmas I sat down and started reading. For some reason, a great many of my friends and family were kind enough to give me the gift of books this year. This wasn't always the case. For several years when I worked at a book wholesaler managing the warehouse operations, I was getting all my books for half price. Everyone I knew was getting books for Christmas, Kwanza, birthdays, Arbor Day - books were our currency back then.
Not as much anymore. These days the books I spend most of my time with are leveled fourth grade readers, with phonics lessons attached. "leisure reading" has become somewhat of an oxymoron around my house - for me at least. My wife has half a dozen books that she is "working on," while my son is routinely chastised for reading too much. I kid, of course, since I can't imagine what "reading too much" might actually look like, but he would read into the wee small hours of the morning if we let him.
Me? I'm feeling the legacy of my father. Like my son, I grew up with my nose in a book. I read novels, short stories, non-fiction, and on one celebrated occasion, an entire Film Encyclopedia (A to Z). I got my love of books from my mother. My father wasn't quite as attached to the printed word. The irony of his lifelong connection to the world of publishing is not lost on me. He had a copy of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" sitting on his dresser for more years than I can remember. I have not memories of my father actually reading the book, but I can recall him saying (especially around New Years' Resolution time) how this would be the year that he would finally finish that book.
He never did. It was a great big hardbound albatross around his neck. There were a great many things that my father left undone, but that's the one that sticks with me. When I find myself struggling to finish a book, I immediately picture the black and white cover of "Third Reich" peering out from beneath the detritus of my father's life. I head back abruptly to finish whatever I'm reading.
Have you read Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man : A Memoir?" I just started it a couple of nights ago, and I recommend it highly.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Truth and Where It's Been Hiding

There's some dust being stirred up about James Frey's best-selling memoir about substance abuse, "A Million Little Pieces." It seems that some of the facts presented in the book aren't exactly factual. Certain elements may have been exaggerated or even fabricated in order to make the story more compelling.
Now, let me think - what precedence does this literary hyperbole bring to mind? According to SmokingGun.com, "In what may be his book's most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy's third victim. It's a cynical and offensive ploy that has left one of the victims' parents bewildered. 'As far as I know, he had nothing to do with the accident,' said the mother of one of the dead girls. 'I figured he was taking license...he's a writer, you know, they don't tell everything that's factual and true.'" The truth, it would seem, was stretched. James Frey is not the desperado he paints himself as, and alas, he may be best described as "polite and cooperative."
This stands in contrast to the most recent work of Chuck Klosterman, who describes his story (at more than one point) as "85% True." In today's world, that seems about right - 85%. Names were changed, circumstances were rearranged, coincidences induced, and measurements were increased or decreased to suit the telling. I would love to believe every gonzo syllable of Hunter S. Thompson's rambling prose (I spent many weekends in college trying to recreate them experimentally) - but I guess a literal translation into reality may be asking a little too much. As for Ernest Hemingway? Don't get me started. If, as Robin Williams so rightly points out in Dead Poet's Society, poetry exists to "woo women," then the personal memoir exists to pump up the reality. As early as 1700, Samuel Pepys' diary was considered by many to be "the first novel."
Finally, at this forum, we can only imagine just how much more interesting the blog would become with a little manipulation of the true and factual events of the author's life. Tune in tomorrow as I discuss my awkward and difficult upbringing in the Congo by a family of genetically engineered spider monkeys.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Tommy Can You Hear Me?

Poor Tom DeLay (whose name translates roughly from the French "to stall") - he has given up his fight against relinquishing his post as House majority leader. He said he reversed course because "time was the enemy" and he concluded the party needed new leadership to allow it to pursue its election-year agenda. Apparently Tom also ignored his true enemy: reality.
Under indictment on campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas, DeLay is also waiting (patiently, one hopes) for the other shoe to fall in the Jack Abramoff plea bargain. In his confession, court papers said the wife of a former aide to the Texan had received $50,000 from Abramoff as part of an attempt to influence the outcome of legislation. Maybe time really is the enemy here. If the wheels of justice spin slowly enough, maybe all of this corruption won't see the light of day until after the next round of elections.
Or maybe not. In the meantime, let's take a look at the fellows who want to take Tom's place while all this unpleasantness passes: Roy Blunt, 55, is in his fifth term representing a district covering Southwest Missouri. He owes his presence in leadership to DeLay, who made Blunt chief deputy whip in 1999. Besides kittens and walks on the beach, this conservative Republican also enjoys an opposition to abortion, support for tax cuts and approval for the landmark Medicare legislation that passed during President Bush' s first term. The other leading candidate is John Boehner, 56, who also has a political organization attuned to the needs of fellow Republicans. Unlike Blunt, he came to Congress while Democrats held control. He joined the Gang of Seven, a group of energetic young lawmakers eager to draw attention to and a scandal involving the House bank and Democrats. Oh good - somebody who is no stranger to scandal!
Still, we're all going to miss Tom and his wit and wisdom: "Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?" –Tom Delay, to three young hurricane evacuees from New Orleans at the Astrodome in Houston, Sept. 9 2005

Saturday, January 07, 2006

What Happens At Happy Hour?

Some of the teachers from my school were headed out yesterday afternoon for Happy Hour. I felt a twinge as I remembered all the Friday Afternoon Clubs that I had attended back in the dark days - "before the Clone Wars." They wanted me to come along. I wanted to go.
Well, part of me wanted to go. The social part of me that is witty and charming and makes such a lovely first impression. I wanted to go and be part of the gang, blowing the dust off the week that was and opening up the weekend with a little bit of camaraderie. The notion of knocking back a few adult beverages hung in the air and then I recalled the reason why I go straight home after school: I'm an addict.
The short version would be that I don't drink anymore because I'm no good at it, but the truth is I was once very good at it. The more accurate description would be "addict." I don't tend to do things just a little. I do things a lot. Drinking was a compulsion. If the bottle was opened, it had to be emptied. A case of beer has twenty four cans, and that's how you know you're done - when the cans are empty. In college we would look at each other and ask (somewhat rhetorically) "Penny Lane?" and we'd meet at the bottom of the beer glass. I would go to Penny Lane dozens of times a night. It was a physical challenge. When I got to a bar, I was there until Last Call.
Lots of people have a period of binge drinking in their lives. Mine was the Reagan administration. I was losing focus and losing friends. People loved to be around me for the first few drinks. I was very entertaining. It was the next nine or ten that became the concern. In my twenties, I considered myself indestructible and couldn't imagine why (given enough water and Tylenol) I couldn't pursue the lifestyle of Hunter S. Thompson, or Ernest Hemingway.
Those guys didn't end up happy. They just ended up. I made a choice some years back to try to find addictions or compulsions that wouldn't end up killing me. Running is working out right now. Writing a blog is working out right now. I had to give up Peanut M&Ms. In Hotel New Hampshire, John Irving once wrote: "Get obsessed and stay obsessed." I'm not sure I have any choice.
I didn't go to Happy Hour yesterday. I would like to go someday.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The World According To Pat

The Reverend Pat "God's Little Elf" Robertson said Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was God's way of punishing him for surrendering parts of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians. This guy just keeps setting them up and knocking them down, doesn't he? The words from Pat were these: "(Sharon) was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course. ... God says, `This land belongs to me. You'd better leave it alone.'" As for the recent history of the Middle East, he said that it was God's insistence that Israel not be divided, Robertson referred to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had sought to achieve peace by giving land to the Palestinians. "It was a terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless he was dead," Robertson said.
In what will no doubt become a related story, the electrocution deaths of four Boy Scout leaders at the National Scout Jamboree last summer were found to be accidental, an Army spokesman said Friday. How long do you suppose it will take Pat to connect the recent comments made by George W. Bush about scouting ("Scouts have set a high standard of service and duty to God and country." He observed that "through the generations, Scouts have made America a stronger and better country.") to the wrath of God brought down on last summer's Jamboree? You can be sure that those Scouts must have been doing something to displease God, or they wouldn't have been smote - or is that smoten?
And before he starts in on the heathen coal miners of West Virginia, maybe we should all take a breath and be thankful that if there is a God (like the Flying Spaghetti Monster), then he/she/they/it must be merciful. Otherwise, why would God let a hate-filled little pinhead like Pat Robertson steer clear of any number of natural disasters?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Tuesday Night Fights

It's all about perspective. Tuesday night brought Bill "Fair and Balanced Pinhead" to David Letterman's show. I watched the exchange and then found myself wondering why this meeting occurred in the first place. Could it be that Bill's people and Dave's people got together and saw it as an opportunity for some "real good television?" It's difficult to tell just how genuine the interaction was - as the format was standard talk show, and there was never any furniture thrown.
The tense part:
LETTERMAN: I'm not smart enough to debate you point to point on this, but I have the feeling, I have the feeling about 60 percent of what you say is crap. [audience laughter] But I don't know that for a fact. [more audience applause]
PAUL SHAFER: 60 percent.
LETTERMAN: 60 percent. I'm just spit-balling here.
O'REILLY: Listen, I respect your opinion. You should respect mine.
LETTERMAN: Well, ah, I, okay. But I think you're...
O'REILLY: Our analysis is based on the best evidence we can get.
LETTERMAN: Yeah, but I think there's something, this fair and balanced. I'm not sure that it's, I don't think that you represent an objective viewpoint.
There it was for all the world to see - "objective viewpoint." There is no doubt that, if asked, David Letterman would happily acknowledge that his show represents his viewpoint, not one of objectivity. The notion that Bill O'Reilly is somehow different from Letterman because he is "news" and not "entertainment" is difficult to maintain in the face of "The No-Spin Zone." I can remember when the World Wrestling Federation staunchly insisted that they were "real." After losing a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Federation, the newly christened World Wrestling Entertainment company began slowly peeling back the curtain and referring to their "stars" as "entertainers" and "athletes" - not "wrestlers."
Is it possible that Bill O'Reilly is just an entertainer, not a "wrestler" after all? If he shrugged his shoulders and admitted to Dave or anyone else that "maybe 60 per cent of what I say is crap," would he still have an audience? The WWE still pulls millions of viewers each week to their "Smackdown." Why wouldn't the same millions tune in to watch the cartoon character Bill the Pinhead work himself up to a tumultuous frenzy about any of a number of conservative causes?
Here's my problem: O'Reilly continues to view the interaction as a victory for his narrow world view. It feeds in so well with his notion of a "culture war." The poor oppressed white, male, Christian majority at last has a champion in Bill O'Reilly. This has got to be comedy, right?
For the sake of all of us, pray that Bill is in on the joke.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Full Coverage

"Some Say Media Erred in Mine Coverage" - there's an ironic headline. Or is it just post-modern? When the media starts covering itself, what is it, exactly?
In the case of the mine disaster in West Virginia, it's tragic and pathetic. In a world of twenty-four hour satellite instant news around the clock from across the globe and into your living room, how could they have been so wrong? There weren't twelve miners found alive. They had it exactly backwards. There were twelve miners who died. Newspapers were printed bearing the headlines "12 Alive." "MIRACLE IN THE MINE." "They're Alive!" Whoops. This one isn't exactly on a par with "Dewey Defeats Truman," since Dewey got to walk away from that one. Additionally, everyone's favorite journalist/pinhead, Geraldo Rivera was swept up in the drama as if he had at last opened a vault with something in it. Whoops - twelve dead miners - sorry!
The Boston Globe played it safe. They ran a headline that said "Twelve Miners Reportedly Found Alive." Three hours later when they ran a final edition, "Jubilation, Then Horror" — a version that reached 145,000 of the paper's 400,000-plus readers. That "Reportedly" gave some wiggle room for the Globe. Not everyone else showed that kind of restraint.
Maybe the problem is that all this non-stop fast-food news causes information to come out half-baked. Deadlines are right now. Who wants to wait and confirm stories when you've got one chance to beat CNN to the punch?
Melanie Sill, executive editor of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., wrote an "editor's blog" to readers Wednesday explaining her paper's coverage. Her message, she said, was that "there's a difference between journalistic failure and getting bad information — which I call an honest mistake." That wasn't the sound coming from CNN. Jonathan Klein, the network's president, said "Unlike print, which has to live with its mistakes etched in stone, TV is able to correct itself immediately. I think the audience accepts that."
Thanks Jonathan. And now back to your regularly scheduled journalistic vortex.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Don't get me wrong, I love my house. I am especially proud of all the things that I have been able to fix, create, paint and repair in the eight and a half years that we have lived here. It seems that I acquire some new power tool with each passing year as the situation or project demands. I'm a very hands-on homeowner.
Still, I find myself periodically pining for a new apartment. I know that this means the horror of moving. Boxing my life up at this point would include all the clothes, toys, books, technology and photo albums that three people and a dog can possibly latch onto over the course of a decade. It is certainly enough to give me pause. But then I move past that to the memories of standing in a bare room, imagining my stuff in various arrangements and permutations. Would that make a good office, or a guest room? Apartments require you to think about the limits of your life and your stuff. Living in a house has made us lazy. We don't have to edit our stuff. We just box up the extra stuff and shove it in the basement, garage, or attic. There are whole lives in storage. There is no need to limit ourselves to just one bobble-head. We can have a dozen on display at any time.
When I was in college, I bounced back and forth from living by myself and living with room mates. I liked the freedom of living alone - no one to criticize my taste in TV dinners and no lengthy discussions about which David Cronenberg poster goes in the hallway. That same freedom was periodically outweighed by the need for some kind of feedback. I was pretty lucky with room mates. I only had one that I just couldn't stand. Four of us shared a rambling townhouse near campus, and three of us were just fine eating corn beef hash with our beer. The fourth was a little too conscientious for us to take. He wanted us to join the food co-op and get all our vegetables once a month in these great huge cardboard boxes. He also had a habit of sitting naked on his bed at odd hours of the day, strumming his guitar - with the door standing wide open. The three of us agreed that we could absorb the extra rent if we didn't have to have naked soybean boy strumming in one of the bedrooms, so we gave him the heave (long before Puck was tossed from "The Real World.")
Most of the rest of the time, I was living with my pal Joe. Joe and I shared the same aesthetics: beer in the refrigerator, and you should be able to see the television from any point on the living room floor. Joe and I shared three different apartments. Each one was just a little bit nicer than the last. Whenever we moved in, we paid our damage deposit with the understanding that we fully intended to spend that money on the damage we would inflict over the course of the lease. When we walked into a new apartment, our first question was: How hard is it going to be to get the Battlezone game in here?
My wife rescued me from all of that. Once I moved out to California, we lived in only two apartments before we made the big leap to home ownership. We moved out of the first one because we needed room for her stuff and my stuff. We bought a house because we understood that becoming parents would mean a geometric progression in the amount of stuff that would fall into our domain. Now we periodically end up storing things for other single folks who just don't have enough room in their one bedroom apartments. Life can be so ironical, sometimes.

Monday, January 02, 2006

I Can't Believe I Ate The Whole Thing

A lot of people have come to view stunt eating as simply the process of jamming as much of one particular food into themselves over a prescribed (usually fairly brief) period of time. How many hot dogs, oysters, Twinkies, or bull testicles can you force yourself to consume before the buzzer goes off? I blame "Fear Factor" for that last one. The sight of these competitions is becoming more frequent on cable outlets like USA and ESPN2, but it's only a matter of time before NBC feels the void of professional football and seeks to fill it by becoming the world-wide leader in Sport Gorging. What is missing from all of this intense mastication is an element of style.
For years now, I have been quietly building my resume as a stunt-eater of a different sort. Don't get me wrong, I have shown some prodigious skill in the quantity department, but the ability to ingest shouldn't be relegated to simply the number of french fries you can eat by unhinging your jaw and shoveling them in. It should be just as interesting to see what you put on those french fries before they are eaten. Anybody who has had a moment to spare while eating their McDonald's knows that a very tasty combination can be made by dipping your french fry into your chocolate shake. After age twelve, you start to forget that flavor, and you can shock and amaze a sizable group by doing just that.
The reaction is really what I'm after. I won't eat things that aren't food in the first place - no detergent or plastics (unless you count the frosting on Hostess cupcakes). I have a friend who continues to support me in these endeavors with these words: "I'll give you a buck if you eat..."
That's about all it takes, really. Sometimes there is a bit of haggling over the price, generally it depends upon how quickly it will end the meal that we are consuming at the time. I have eaten a bowl of Cocoa puffs swimming in Coca-Cola (great for staying awake at parties). On a few separate occasions I have helped myself to large amounts of pickle relish. For the delight of both bride and groom at my friend's wedding reception I swallowed an entire tube of decorator frosting (good enough for a collected seven dollars).
When did this all begin? My clearest recollection is high school. One food feat that stands out from these early years was when I ate an entire order of Red Barn fried chicken, bones and all. My reasoning was this: the chicken had been cooked sometime during the past week, and had been sitting in and around grease, slowly deteriorating. The bones were more like chalky balsa wood by the time I gnashed them up in my molars. I did consider the fact that I had been told never to give chicken bones to our dog, since they might splinter and injure his digestive tract. But, I was a junior in high school, and no one could tell me different.
A similar leap of faith resulted in one of my greatest triumphs. By fifth or sixth grade, my brothers and I had discovered (much to my mother's dismay) that we could easily mash an entire McDonald's cheeseburger into our mouths: the one-bite cheeseburger. As a senior in high school, I found that a cheeseburger no longer impressed my peers, so I needed to kick it up a notch. What makes the cheeseburger so easy is that it is mostly bun, and that bun is mostly air. A Big Mac has three buns (counting that middle bun-coaster), and all that left me with was the two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions. The patties were the same size as the cheeseburger standard that I had mastered in my youth. The rest was just a matter of keeping the mass moving. I performed this trick twice in high school, to the astonishment of my friends. The challenge with something like this is that once someone has heard the story, they will generally react this way: disbelief followed almost immediately by the insistence that I prove it. I am proud to say that since then I have eaten a Big Mac in one bite on three other occasions. The last time, I made a point of having pictures taken. This not only commemorates the event, but allows me to retire from this event with my pride intact (more or less).
In recent years, I have made a few forays into stunt-eating, but I confess that being a father tempers my enthusiasm just a little bit. I am at least responsible for the reaction my wife gives me in front of my son. My son, bless him, has seen his future - and it is a Hostess HoHo dipped in cheese fondue.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Welcome to 2006

"Nothing changes on New Year's Day." - U2
Right after "Auld Lang Syne," this is the song that shows up in my head as we begin another trip around the sun. It's interesting how nihilistic that sounds, coming from Bono - recently crowned one of the "People of the Year" by Time magazine for his humanitarian efforts. Still, it's kind of hard to argue the point.
A quick look out the window shows the lawn is where I left it, though the grass may be slightly longer, and the trees have failed to burst into full bloom. All is quiet on New Year's Day. Again, this makes sense, considering the late nights that most of our neighbors had clanging and hollering and exploding and honking. I was out in our front yard this morning taking down the yards and yards of twinkle lights that have festooned our house since the day after Thanksgiving. I had a twinge of sadness as I brought down the last string. An unfestooned house is a lonely house.
Here in California, we brace for another winter storm. President Pinhead continues to defend his domestic spying program. My son catches up on his television for the week. My wife takes a nap. The dog waits for the next meal.
Last night my wife was anxiously trying to get us all to come up with predictions and resolutions for 2006. I said that I predicted that my wife would be disappointed at my lack of resolutions. This is a metaphorical fresh start, since the messes I made in 2005 are still waiting to be straightened out, and the plans I made in 2005 are waiting for me to bring them to fruition. It's a fresh start and a whole lot of work ahead - at home, at work, in the world. It's a brand new year.
"Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says
Say it's true it's true...
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one"
- "New Year's Day" - U2