Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Had A Lot To Dream Last Night

My son woke up this morning, padded into the bathroom and made this comment: "I think my dreamcatcher is broken." He has one of these native American artifacts hanging in his bedroom window. Traditionally, the Ojibwa construct dreamcatchers by tying sinew strands in a web around a small round or tear-shaped frame. The resulting "dream-catcher", hung above the bed, is then used as a charm to protect sleeping children from nightmares. For those of you uninitiated, according to Lakota legend, "Good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person. The bad dreams are trapped in the web, where they perish in the light of dawn." His sleep was disturbed by a vision of a twister roaring through the mountain town where we had stayed just a week and a half before, terrorizing his family and friends.
My wife's slumber was unsettled as well. She awoke with images of detritus, vast seas of castoff items - including a great many lamps - that she felt compelled to sketch once her eyes were open and focused. Not exactly traumatic, but bothersome. As for me, I had a similar experience generated in my forebrain. Mine involved climbing over piles of debris until I stumbled on a nest of hand grenades. I knew that I needed to get them away from me, or vice versa. Happily, no one was hurt before my REM cycle ended.
Why wouldn't we all have creepy dreams on one particular night. We share so much experience, it seems likely that we would share our dream time as well. From the opening of "The Last Wave" by Peter Weir: "Aborigines believe in two forms of time. Two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity to which you and I are confined. The other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the 'dreamtime,' more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. Some people of unusual spiritual powers have contact with the dreamtime." Last night I was wandering around the aftermath of a tornado that had deposited a great many lamps and hand grenades with my little family in dreamtime. No wonder I was still tired when I got out of bed this morning.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


There is a moment in "Caddyshack" when Carl, the assistant greens keeper, tells the bishop for whom he is caddying during a torrential rainstorm, "I don't think the heavy stuff is gonna come down for a while yet." This is massive understatement. This is comedy. I laughed.
Today I wasn't laughing. When I stepped off my front porch to go for a quick run before dinner, I guessed that I would have a few sprinkles to contend with, but there had been a downpour just an hour before, so the timing seemed right. As I made my way up the street, the Murphy's law corollary that controls weather events kicked in. The rain picked up, and I heard a little voice inside my head saying, "Three blocks isn't much of a cardiovascular workout." So I kept running.
At the top of the hill, it was coming down in sheets. I told myself that this wave would push on through and leave me a little damp, but I congratulated myself on the foresight of wearing my snazzy rain jacket instead of my usual highly absorbent sweat shirt. My dog remained game, so I pressed on.
It was in my second mile that the hail began. To be fair, "freezing rain" might be the more appropriate term, since there was no residual ice left on the ground, but I could feel the wind kicking up as the little pellets whipped against the back of my neck. Both my dog and I were now having second thoughts. Sadly, I was at least a mile from home at this point no matter how I cut back through the neighborhood, and the protective layer of gortex that had given me comfort just a few moments ago had started to become a limp weight around my shoulders.
Coming back to the house, I had to turn into the wind, and the chill went right through me. My dog stopped to do her business, partly out of necessity and partly out of spite. I looked at my fingers. They were becoming white and pruny.
The rain stopped for the last quarter mile. It was almost like an invitation to take one more turn and go that extra few blocks. No thanks. We squished as we walked up the stairs. I toweled off the dog and peeled off my workout clothes. I smelled like a big, wet gymnasium.
Later, in the shower, as feeling returned to my extremities, I remembered one of the last times I went running as a resident of Colorado. There was ice and snow on all the streets and sidewalks. The footing was treacherous. The temperature was well below zero, and yet I felt compelled to "get my workout in." After four miles in the deep freeze, I returned to my apartment where I realized that my moustache had become caked with a quarter inch of ice from the vapor of my breath. It took five minutes just to defrost my upper lip.
I made a promise that day to remember what "cold" was, for future reference. Today I am making another mental note: Wet.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Since I became a father, and a teacher, I have had countless opportunities to plant things and watch them grow. My proudest accomplishment in this vein is the magnolia tree that stands in our front yard. We planted it when my son was born, and it was small enough to be pulled around in what would become his little red wagon. That tree is now well over fifteen feet tall, and stands as a monument to my green thumb. Well, that and the hearty nature of the magnolia tree.
The other happy surprise of my horticulture experience has been the daffodil bulbs that I helped plant around my son's school. A couple years ago, in a fierce wind and cold rain, my son and I braved the elements and spent three hours digging holes and planting bulbs. Sure enough, at the first sign of spring, little green sprouts began to show. Not too long after that, sturdy yellow blooms appeared. Last year, an even bigger effort was made in our neighborhood to plant still more bulbs and now as the days allow a little more sun to reach the soil, we are treated to an explosion of golden trumpets, heralding the change of seasons.
The joy of the daffodils is the way they hide away for months at a time, then show up when you'd almost forgotten them. This is how I felt today as I sat at my desk, as my students were packing up their books and heading for the door, and this one girl came up to me with a smile. This was the bulb I had planted months ago. She had been having a very hard time getting along with her classmates, and I have spent hours and hours talking and cajoling and exhorting, and she has been on a strict behavior contract for more than a month. For the past couple weeks I have been able to focus less and less of my energy on her outbursts, and though she still needs a reminder or two about her surly attitude, she has become more self-controlled. I looked up from the pile of paper on my desk, "Yes?"
"Can I give you a hug, Mr. Caven?"
There's my daffodil.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
By William Wordsworth

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

In the shadow of the former Confederate Capitol, the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously Saturday to express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery. This historical mea culpa stands as a lasting reminder to all of those governments and individuals who stopped just short of "my bad." For the record, Missouri legislators are considering such a measure, in order to keep up with the folks below the Mason-Dixon line.
This opens up a great series of opportunities, not the least of which would be to apologize for not having previously apologized for slavery. As gestures go, this is not on a par with generous cash awards, but it should make it easier to paint a Confederate flag on the roof of your Dodge Charger without all those nasty guilt pangs.
Virginia's measure also expressed regret for "the exploitation of Native Americans." Latinos, women, homosexuals, women who want to be men, men who want to be women,the obese, the obese men who want to be women, those suffering from mental illness, amputees, smokers, the Irish, Jews, Arabs, the abused, the disabused, Dennis Kucinich, members of the A/V club, the elderly, anyone named Milton, shuffleboard players, those who are lactose intolerant, circus clowns, circus clowns who are lactose intolerant - this is just a partial list - fans of "Punky Brewster", those receiving assistance, those needing assistance, those giving out needed assistance, George Michael, conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, anyone who has ever voted for the Green Party, jockeys, flammable parents without partners freshmen, sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads - ALL of these fine folks will just have to wait their turn. I'd give it about (pause to look at watch) four hundred years.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

This One Time At Band Camp...

The first time I saw my wife to be, I was perched atop a Pepsi machine. This Pepsi machine was located in the hallway of my high school's band room. Aside from allowing me the optimum vantage point for spying sophomore girls and other potential targets for abuse, this machine was the engine that kept the Boulder High School Band running. Three of the six buttons dispensed Mountain Dew. It was the drink of choice for bandies. Even though my friends ingested Dew by the gallon, I remained a cola man.
I knew of one beanpole of a lad, who was a year ahead of me, who could reach his gangly arm up inside the mechanism of the machine to pull out a can or two - when nobody was looking. When I was a senior, I had another reason for sitting on top of the Pepsi machine (because of the logo plastered on the side, not as much for the contents): If I rocked back and forth, with a little bit of help from one the few burly inhabitants of Bandiland, I could tip it forward against the adjacent wall, and cans of soda would roll out. We needed a certain amount of time and discretion for such a maneuver as it made a good deal of noise and then needed to be rocked back onto its base. This required a lookout or two, making sure that the band director or some other administrative type wasn't headed in our direction. Each tip would generate three or four sodas, and even the band goodies (or "B.G.s") would keep their mouths shut for a free can of Dew.
I feel sorry for kids these days. Music programs are being cut back, and vending machines have all but disappeared from high school campuses. Recently a high school In Colorado Springs banned a caffeine-packed energy drink and 7-Eleven pulled it from Colorado stores after some students said it made them sick and shaky and caused their hearts to race. To this I can only say, "What good is youth, then?" I suppose if I had to travel all the way to the local 7-Eleven to get my wicked caffeine and sugar fix, and had to pay for it at that, I never would have met my wife. Funny how things work out, isn't it?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Death Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

I'm a funny guy. I've been told this for many of my adult years. I do my very best to respect other people's viewpoints, and to act on them whenever practicable. However, I draw the line at the notion of becoming a "professional". This decision was made for me some time ago, and the fact that I still cringe when I think of this particular evening only reinforces just how right I must be.
I was standing in front of a group of very stoned Arby's employees. I had loosened myself up with a few cocktails - Mountain Dew and Southern Comfort (Sudden Discomfort) - and I came upon this couch full of easy targets. This was my kill zone. I was locked and loaded, or at least the latter.
I opened with some witty observations about the crowd at the party. This was met with vague indifference. Obviously they needed something a tad more visceral. I went into a sarcastic rant about the owners of our local franchise: Mike and Cowboy. It would have been better if they had been glazed over, or fixed on a spot just above my head, but the four of them just stared straight ahead, directly at me. The expression on their faces said it all. "Okay, Funny Guy, make me laugh. I dare you." I did characters. I did voices. I started to steal liberally from every comedy album I had ever heard. I stole jokes from Bill Cosby, Cheech and Chong, and Steve Martin. I may have even tried a dirty limerick or two. I was desperate. I was flailing.
Finally, one of the guys on the couch turns to the others and says, "You guys want another beer?" He gets up, turns to me, and says "Excuse me" before he heads across the room to the keg. I died a little that night. Since then I have taken great joy from those moments when I elicit a chuckle or two, and I probably lean a little too hard on those moments when I really start to roll. I'm still a funny guy, but I'll never be as funny as I was the moment before I stepped in front of that couch so many years ago.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lights Out!

There was a brown-out in our neighborhood this evening. It came at a time when our day was beginning to wind down. It was raining, and the streets glistened in the half-light of the dimmed sodium vapor bulbs up above. When cars drove by, headlights provided an almost blinding flash. Inside, we breathed a sigh of relief for having switched all of our fixtures to florescent bulbs. We were still able to generate a hazy twilight in our living room.
But it wasn’t the lack of light that struck me. It was the quiet. Without the hum of a dozen or more small appliances droning away in the background, the only sounds were intimate or distant: snoring dog, ticking clock, jet plane, freight train. We busied ourselves with candles and flashlights, but mostly we resigned ourselves to waiting out the storm. In my mind I pictured mobile news teams setting up remotes across the street, giving on the spot coverage of “Brown Out 2007”.
The unique irony for us was that the night before we had been at a meeting at my son’s school, discussing plans for disaster. What would we do in the event of an earthquake or fire? How would we respond to any sort of random cataclysmic event? When the lights went out, we became anxious, then frustrated, and finally resigned. We expected relief at any time. Then hours passed, and we comforted each other with the notion that it was only electricity that we were missing. That and Thursday night TV. What a cruel fate. Being bored by candlelight is so much more fun. Sheesh.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

For Crying Out Loud

"If you want to capture someone's attention - just whisper." This was the wisdom espoused by a seventies perfume commercial. My suspicion is that they never set foot in a fourth grade classroom. If they had, they might have reconsidered their entire campaign: "If you want to capture someone's attention - wait for the screaming to stop just long enough to insert your own assertive baritone."
Over a period of years several friends have mentioned to me that I do not, in fact, have "an indoor voice." This would seem to be a vocational asset, considering the fact that I compete on a daily basis with twenty-five vocally advantaged children. I know that yelling at kids is a great way to get kids to yell back at you. I know that whenever I do lower my voice to a low murmur, all the "good kids" lean forward and listen with great intent. This lasts for a moment before the peanut gallery erupts with cries of "What?" and "Huh?" I have learned that it is vital to modulate one's utterances over the course of a school day just to keep the kids in the cheap seats involved.
I know plenty of teachers who never raise their voice. They have that sort of Charles Bronson-type cool that translates easily into fear. I don't have that. I have what my wife refers to as "The Overpowering Voice Of Authority." It comes in handy when you need to get a fifth grader to let go of the arms of a third grader from across a crowded playground. It is also good for ending a flurry of "Shut up, no you shut up, why don't you shut up" when it's time to move on to Math.
And I know what the net result is. The relative volume of my classroom is higher than that of many of my colleagues. After a period of study, it is my contention that fourth graders (I have one of my own to study as well) are the most boisterous. I am reminded of my junior high school band teacher's assertion that he didn't like teaching eighth graders much because they were so busy trying to become something that they hadn't been before - and I believe the same can be said for their elementary counterparts. That roar you hear is the onset of the pre-teen years. Sometimes you have to holler to be heard over it. Or, maybe I need to take a moment and ride it out. Wait for the wave to recede and then move on - with quiet decorum. After all, if the good Lord only gave me so many decibels, I don't want to use them all up before the end of the year.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Banging One Off The Rim

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people." Straight talk from a very straight guy - Tim Hardaway. In its own twisted and stupid way, the honesty is almost refreshing. Compared to the way folks in Hollywood have lately been doing everything they can do to distance themselves from appearing the slightest bit homophobic, its almost a relief to hear someone speaking without a filter. Almost.
Hardaway reminds us of just how far we have to go. Standing six foot tall and weighing just shy of two hundred pounds, what exactly does he have to be afraid of? "I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." Gay people. Tim Hardaway is afraid of gay people - especially in the world or in the United States. And what gay person would be most terrifying to Mr. Hardaway? John Amaechi, the first openly gay player for the NBA. Tim's rant continued: "First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team. And second of all, if he was on my team, I would, you know, really distance myself from him because, uh, I don't think that is right. I don't think he should be in the locker room while we are in the locker room."
Okay - maybe we should slow down for just a moment and lay a little blame on Miami's Sports Talk 790 who allowed this venting to occur. Hardaway spent six years playing for the Heat (feel free to start snickering about "slam dunks" and "hoops" and "Heat") and is regularly offered a chance to share his opinions about the game of basketball - because he is an expert on this particular subject. Why he was asked to share his opinions about sexual preference remains unclear.
John Amaechi is ten inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than Tim Hardaway which may explain why Tim Hardaway fears him. He is also a basketball player who happens to be gay. He waited until he had retired from the NBA before he came out of the closet, or locker. In response to the Hardaway he said, "His words pollute the atmosphere. It creates an atmosphere that allows young gays and lesbians to be harassed in school, creates an atmosphere where in thirty-three states you can lose your job, and where anti-gay and lesbian issues are used for political gain. It's an atmosphere that hurts all of us, not just gay people." Tim may have had a higher points-per-game average, but it turns out that he loses out to Amaechi in the only statistic that really counts: humanity.

Monday, February 19, 2007

While I Was Away

I hope you all had a restful three-day weekend, full of presidential memories and the purchase of at least one major appliance or mattress. As has become our custom, my little family joined up with four other little families to make our annual Presidents' Day trek into the mountains. There was plenty of snow and frolics therein, and plenty of time to drift lazily off to sleep with that new John Irving novel resting comfortably on one's chest. Did I mention that, including my son, this crew consists of nine boys - ages six through twelve? This means that the couch-dozing moments are relatively few, but still savored nonetheless.
Meanwhile, back here at my Internet connection, Britney Spears has shaved her head! I only became aware of this awesome media event this morning as I began packing to go home. There was a little television on the corner of our dresser, and it was turned on, ostensibly, to tell me what the driving conditions would be on Interstate 80 between Reno and Oakland. Instead I found myself staring at the Today show, with their parade of experts making conjectures as to just why "Troubled pop starlet Britney Spears took reinvention to an extreme this weekend." How long had I been away? When I left, she was just a single mother who had checked in and out of rehab after a flurry of excesses following the breakup of her marriage to white rapper and Super Bowl commercial star, Kevin "K-Swiss" Federline. From the AFP: "Spears's post-marriage party life has been documented in pictures of her nightlife in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, famously without panties." I suppose at this point in history, the fact that she was not photographed in NASA diapers, she's probably ahead of the game.
But back to the hair - I shave my head once every three months and no one has suggested that I may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is also true that I have never sold seventy million albums, and my salacious bumping and grinding has not made MTV's Total Request Live - not even once.
She used to be a Mousketeer, for Walt's sake. She's twenty-five years old. She's got two new tatoos and a shaved head. I think my weekend was better than hers.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Put On The Red Light

There was a time when getting the best tickets, or any tickets at all, for the best shows meant that you had to be willing to camp out on cold concrete, sometimes for days in advance. It was first come, first served. There was some honor in acquisition.
There was also a good deal of profit to be made as well. I was reminded of this when I heard that the Police were reuniting to tour this summer. One hundred dollars for "cheap seats" we are being told - apiece. There was a time, in late 1983, when my friend and I were happy to scrape together two hundred and fifty-some dollars to buy our limit of six tickets for the Synchronicity Tour. We took shifts, and the thirty-six hours that we put in on the line seemed relatively painless, especially since we wound up with seats for the biggest concert of the year.
The plan was to keep two of the tickets, and sell the remaining four. In Al Gore's Internet enabled world, it would be no trouble getting top price on any number of ticket sites, selling only to the top bidders. Back in 1983, we were forced to "ask around." Finally, the week before the show, my friend made a connection with an acquaintance from his days at McDonald's. He bought our extra tickets for a price that 1) paid for our seats as well as theirs, 2) gave us enough extra to buy cheeseburgers and beer for the trip down, 3) bought enough gas to get us to McNiclols Sports Arena and back, and 3) funded the hallucinogens that we took in the parking lot before the show.
What I remember most about the show was wandering around in circles around the concourse of the arena during the opening act, UB40. When we finally found our seats just before the Police hit the stage, we found it difficult to sit next to our benefactors. We made small talk, and only giggled a little, and were relieved when the lights went down and the show began. The other thing I remember being most aware of was the acrimony between the members of the band. Maybe my altered state made me more sensitive, or perhaps I was projecting my own insecurities on the experience, but it seemed as though they were merely tolerating each other as they made their millions. By the following year, my drug-addled suspicions were confirmed as Andy, Stewart and Sting went off in separate directions to pursue "solo projects."
Now, in 2007, we will be treated to another big show. I think I'll be staying home this time, but I will remember the red lights that poured down on the stage during their ode to a prostitute: "Roxanne." Roxanne, it seems, was in it for the money.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Son of a Son of a Mailman

I never knew any of my grandparents except my father's mother. Esther, or "The Great Stoneface of Kansas" as we referred to her, became the epitome of what my previous generations had to offer. She was my link to "the olden days."
My father's father, Ira the mailman, was a series of veiled references from my father's youth. He was the cad who left his family to go to Chicago to watch the Cubs play in the World Series. He was the absentee father who had his son come out to Kansas to visit in the summers, who had the misfortune to marry a woman named "Athel." My father and his cousin would hold their tongues and say her name, mostly to be cruel. The one thing that I remember hearing about Ira that amounted to praise was this: After years of walking his route in Salina, he developed calves like canned hams
My mother's father, Ralph the druggist, always seemed much more heroic, somehow. He ran the only drug store in Granby, Colorado - Little Drugstore On The Prairie, except that they were high up in the Rockies. When he and his little family moved down to the expanding metropolis that was Boulder, he was poised to become one of the community's leaders as the pharmacist of the newly established Medical Center. Then one afternoon, as he was bringing a rack of soda bottles up from the basement, a blood vessel in his brain popped. Down went the bottles. Down went Ralph. And I never had a chance to meet him.
My mother's mother and I almost got to know one another. She battled cancer for years, perhaps with the intent of meeting all her grandchildren, but that plan wasn't enough. She was the crazy one. She used to drive all around town, chasing my mother's high school friends in their cars - including my father. She was the antithesis of Esther.
Sadly, I have only these romanticized versions of what their lives must have been like. No videotape or home movies. Memories of stories of how things used to be.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Tough Read

The circle is now complete. My mother told me that my fourth grade teacher had passed on. Alair Stuart was a no-nonsense lady. Hers was the first door that I encountered that had a sign that read, "Door's open, don't bother knockin' - Walk right in and don't disturb our talkin'." She meant it, too. She had a mission to fill our heads with knowledge, and we had better hold still while she did it.
I never felt the need to head down the hall to the library when I was in Miss Stuart's class. There were bookcases crammed full with every great (and some not so great) kids' book that you could imagine. She expected us to read - a lot, and I did. I read science and adventure and biography and lots and lots of fantasy. We all kept track of the books we read on color-coded charts, filling in a new bubble with pink or green or blue, depending on the genre.
I got hooked by a book called "Three Boys and Space" - I read a lot of books about space, and this one was even more interesting because it featured three brothers: Abercrombie, Benjamin and Christopher. I had two brothers, and we all liked space. It was kismet. As soon as I finished, I wanted more. I read "Three Boys and a Mine", "Three Boys and a Helicopter", "Three Boys and a Train", "Three Boys and a Tugboat" - I was on a roll. Somewhere in this flurry I discovered a formula, and I thought I might exploit it.
Whenever we finished a book, we had a quick conference with Miss Stuart, and she asked us a few quick questions to get a feeling for how we liked the book. I signed up for my conference for "Three Boys and H2O" before I had even cracked the cover. When she called me up to her desk, I sat down in the chair next to it full of confidence. Her first, and only, question was "What is H2O?" I had no idea. Had I bothered to read even the first three pages, I would no doubt have stumbled on the chemical equation for water, but in all my hubris, I neglected the tiniest bit of preparation for my ruse. I stammered. I turned red. I strained for any kind of answer. Finally, she let me off the hook: "Maybe you just need to take it back to your seat and read it a little more closely." I gulped. I nodded, and headed back to my desk where I sat for several weeks in shame - or at least until recess.
I never did read that book. I never read the remaining books in the "Three Boys" series. I was done. I read very carefully from then on. Front to back. I read a lot, and I even wrote a series of books of my own when I was in fourth grade, but most of all, I learned humility from Miss Stuart.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Virtually Dead

News Item: Legislation introduced in Tennessee would require death certificates for aborted fetuses, which likely would create public records identifying women who have abortions. There are all kinds of ways that I could begin to point out how wrong this particular idea is, but instead, I will digress into one of my oh-so-familiar tangents.
I have a very good friend who, even before she was the parent of a Nintendo-obsessed ten-year old, wanted there to be funerals for all the victims of video violence. Before continuing whatever bloody rampage constituted the theme of the game, the "hero" of our game would be compelled to sit through some heartfelt eulogies for the poor victims of the fallen. It might be nice if there was a mode in which the player could send a note of condolence and discuss his or her sorrow for the loss of the cyber-loved ones.
My closest brush with this notion was back in the mid-seventies, with a game called Death Race. The object was to run down "gremlins" who were fleeing the car that you drove (recklessly) across the screen. As the you hit them, they would scream or squeal and be replaced onscreen by tombstones. This increased the challenge of the game as the screen cluttered up and the player had to avoid the tombstones. Admittedly, the carnage to tombstone exchange was rather abrupt, but at least there was some outward sign of the passing of each "gremlin" (read: pedestrian). And the notion that it became more difficult to manuver as a result of the graves of the stricken produced an existential dilemma: The more you kill, the slower you have to go.
This brings me to the idea for which I expect to be richly rewarded: Sims Afterlife. Once you've grown tired of bossing your little Sim around this terrestrial plane, it takes a real clever player to navigate the Great Beyond. Purgatory, Levels of Hell, Nirvana, Reincarnation - you're God on this hard drive, you make the decisions - for eternity.
Okay, so this didn't bring us any closer to an actual discussion of the bizarro notion now being tossed around the legislature in Tennessee, but since the number of abortions is already reported to the state Office of Vital Records, the missing element is really a matter of finger pointing. But to be perfectly honest, I'm still getting over the guilt I've amassed from all those Centipedes I kept from reaching the bottom of the screen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Funny Valentine

I've been trying for days to come up with a positive perspective to Valentine's Day. I still wince in anticipation of appearing wholly adequate in the romance department. After all, the song does say that "each day is Valentine's Day" - no pressure. I find myself trying to strike a balance between grand gesture and a modest level that I can maintain for the rest of the year.
Around here, we have a phrase for it: "Of course I love you - I married you, didn't I?" That seems to be our standard, if not overly cynical, response to dealing with the 24/7 reality of a relationship that is based on love and mutual respect. At times like these I find myself replaying the words of Shrevie (Daniel Stern) in "Diner": “Before you get married, all there is is talk about the wedding — the — plans, you know, and sex talk. You know, when can we DO it? Are your parents going to be out so we can DO it? Where can we DO it? Then, after you get married, she's there all the time; when you wake up in the morning, she's there. When you come home from work, she's there … There's no more sex talk. Nothing else to talk about … But it's really good, you know, it's ok, it's good.”
This makes me feel good because I don't seem nearly as cynical as this guy. We still put toothpaste on each other's toothbrushes. We still cry at the end of "Philadelphia Story." We agree that "Born To Run" is a great song, but we like "Thunder Road" just a little more because it's a love song. She's the one that I want to make laugh more than anyone else in the world.
Is your mouth - a little weak?
When you open it to speak, are you smart?
Don't change a hair for me;

Not if you care for me;
Stay, little valentine, stay!
Each day is valentine's day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Disarming Notion

Here's a little gift from the universe: North Korea has agreed to nuclear disarmament. Like all gifts, however, there is a price tag: They agreed Tuesday to shut down its main nuclear reactor and eventually dismantle its atomic weapons program in exchange for millions of dollars in aid. When I first read the article, I read "four million dollars in aid." The truth is, that would be getting off cheap. It's more likely that there will be factors of ten applied abruptly, as well as a player to be named later.
Still, a deal is a deal, and we should all breathe a sigh of relief on that. Presently we see a result gained through diplomatic means, that should not go without notice. The part about it that makes me flinch most wildly is this: Just how do we keep the genie in the bottle now that he has come out and said "Howdy do" to North Koreans? I forget my cell phone number because I so rarely use it, but will their physicists have to take a super-secret oath never to tell anyone how to enrich uranium? What if we're a little late one month with the check? Will they fire up their reactor all over again?
Today, at least, it's better not to worry about such things. We can imagine a new era of cooperation on the Korean peninsula. An era fostered in mutual respect, collaboration, and hundreds of millions of dollars. Just so I'm clear on this, how much would it cost if they just let the reactor burn?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Something Fishy

Here's something I learned tonight: Mike Nichols, director of "The Graduate" was also responsible for a little film called "Day of the Dolphin." Not only that, but Buck Henry, who worked with Nichols on "The Graduate" and helped create the TV series "Get Smart" was the screenwriter of record. Seems as though it should have been more laughs. Instead, it was a plodding thriller about Dr Jake Terrell, who has taught his dolphins to speak and understand English, although they do have a limited vocabulary. When the dolphins are stolen, he discovers they're to be used in an assassination attempt. Did I mention that it stars George C. Scott? Somewhere in there are the ingredients for some massive satire, but it just never got off the ground.
Not to worry. Those merry pranksters at the U.S. Navy are working hard to make this piece of seventies fluff a reality. Dozens of dolphins and sea lions trained to detect and apprehend waterborne attackers could be sent to patrol a military base in Washington state, the Navy said Monday. The Navy said it needs to bolster security at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, on the Puget Sound close to Seattle.
And just how does this aquatic-mammal surveillance work? When a Navy dolphin detects a person in the water, it drops a beacon. This tells a human interception team where to find the suspicious swimmer. The last time the animals were used operationally in San Diego was in 1996, when they patrolled the bay during the Republican National Convention. Yes, you read that right: Dolphins were protecting the Republicans. No word on what phylum was at work at the Democratic Convention.
The sea lions are just a tad more confrontational. They can carry in their mouths special cuffs attached to long ropes. If the animal finds a rogue swimmer, it can clamp the cuff around the person's leg. The individual can then be reeled in for questioning. "And I would have gotten away with it too - if it hadn't been for those meddling seals!"
It's not as if the Navy doesn't have a conscience. The Navy hopes eventually to downsize its marine mammal program and replace the animals with machines. "But the technology just isn't there yet," Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Program said. "The value of the marine mammals is we've been doing this for thirty-five years, and we've ironed out all the kinks."
When asked for a comment, one dolphin said, "Fa loves Pa." Good luck, Ensign Flipper!

Sunday, February 11, 2007


The U.S. military is angry at Iran. They say that one hundred seventy coalition forces have been killed by Iranian-made roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that were smuggled into Iraq. Silly Iranians, don't they know this is our war? Why can't they stay out of it? Could it be that their barely-stable Middle Eastern country borders Iraq and with hundreds of miles of desert to cross unseen, Iraqi refugees continue to pour out and Iranian extremists continue to pour in? The obvious solution for this problem would be to have Haliburton construct (at considerable expense) a large fence or wall to keep all those bad guys with guns and bombs out while we sort through this thing.
The whole thing becomes frighteningly reminiscent of the swirling mass of conflict in Southeast Asia during the sixties and seventies. While the U.S. military was busy trying to reassert democracy in Vietnam, governments in Laos and Cambodia suffered the chaos of civil war and internal strife. In 1965, Cambodia broke off relations with the United States and turned instead to the People's Republic of China and the U.S.S.R. for relief. It is probably no coincidence that 1965 also brought the first wave of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. "We" trained and fought with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. "They" supplied, trained and supported the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. These were the heady days of the Cold War, and the "Domino Principle", in which it was America's responsibility to stop the Red Menace from sweeping the continent. In 1972, we left, and three years later Saigon fell to the communists.
Thirty-plus years later, the U.S. is attempting to plant the seed of democracy in a desert. The question should not be why the Iranians are becoming more involved in this conflict, the question should be "What took them so long?"

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cultivating A Better Community

Last Saturday morning, as is my custom, I ran past my son's elementary school. Someone had scrawled graffiti on the marquee out front. The security measures available to a public school are slim and none, so the "artist" was able to "tag" both sides of the sign and wander off into the night. I made a mental note to myself to come back up the hill before the day was out to remove the offending marks. I made a mental note to be relieved at the relative low end of the crime spectrum on which we found ourselves in Oakland.
Imagine my surprise when, on Wednesday afternoon, I heard that Oakland police were raiding a house across the street from the school. Six people were arrested and six million dollars of marijuana was seized. There were five different houses, and only one of them was across the street from the school, and no shots were fired as the arrests were made "without incident." There was some pretty tense looking videotape on the news that night, but it was mostly a matter of hauling people and plants away in the aftermath. Our principal was asked if anybody at the school was aware of the raid or of any illegal activity at the house across from it.
"That wouldn't be information we'd be privy to," she said. "Even though that is very serious, that doesn't necessarily pose a threat to the campus."
Today as I was making my run up the hill, Jimmy Cliff's "Harder They Come" happened to come on my iPod. Welcome to the Mean Streets of Oaktown.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Diversion Therapy

Somewhere, deep within the bowels of his ultra-secret dormant volcano bunker hideout, Dick "Dick" Cheney is making soft gurgling sounds and wringing his hands. The gurgling sounds are the result of his inability to experience human emotions and therefore he cannot actually laugh as he glances at the day's headlines: Anna Nicole Simpson autopsy continues - Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband involved in possible paternity. Bizarre love triangle between astronauts ends in kidnap/murder plot.
Nobody's talking about the mess in Iraq this week. Even as the "crackdown" begins, a tired and bored nation turns its eyes to the prurient and sad tales of desperate fame and those who will become infamous. Meanwhile, American officers, interviewed at the sprawling Camp Victory (whose job is it to name these things?) base at the western edge of Baghdad, acknowledge they are finding little in their initial searches of neighborhoods — suggesting either they received faulty intelligence or that the massive publicity that preceded the operation gave militants time to slip away.
The soft gurgling noises have stopped. The machinery that operates as a circulatory system for "Dick" struggles to keep up as his stress level rises. Somebody points out that Prince's guitar looked an awful lot like a phallus during that Super Bowl halftime show. "Dick" chuckles in spite of himself and grumbles, "Excellent." Everything is proceeding according to plan.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Whatta Life!

So maybe that Trim-Spa Diet isn't so hot after all. "Today, Anna Nicole Smith’s grief stricken and tumultuous personal life came to an end. Anna came to our Company as a customer, but she departs it as a friend." This one's going to be as tough a sell as the old Ayds weight reducing candy: "Ayds helps you lose weight" or "Why take diet pills when you can enjoy Ayds?" or even "Thank Goodness For Ayds!"
Anna Nicole Smith has become the punch line for her own life. With each tragic misstep, she became less of a person and more an inflatable version of celebrity - albeit a slimmer inflatable version of celebrity of late. She started out as a topless dancer at strip club before she entered her photos in a search contest and made the cover of Playboy magazine in 1992. She became Playboy's playmate of the year in 1993. She was also signed to a contract with Guess jeans, appearing in TV commercials, billboards and magazine ads. In 1994, she married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, owner of Great Northern Oil Company. In 1995, her life switched gears as she became the embattled widow, with a potential inheritance of five hundred million dollars. Now that both Marshall's stepson and Anna are dead, the litigation over the fortune will probably continue - just as the questions about Smith's son, who died September tenth in his mother's hospital room in the Bahamas, just days after she gave birth to a daughter.
An American medical examiner hired by the family, Cyril Wecht, said he died accidentally of a combination of methadone and two antidepressants. Last month, a Bahamas magistrate scheduled a formal inquiry into the death for March 27.
Meanwhile, the paternity of Smith's now 5-month-old daughter remained a matter of dispute. The birth certificate lists Dannielynn's father as attorney Howard K. Stern, Smith's most recent companion. Smith's ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead was waging a legal challenge, saying he was the father. And what will happen to DAnnielynn? The soap opera has only just begun, and I suspect that Anna Nicole wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Suppose They Played A Game And Nobody Came

Say what you will about American sports fans: They drink and swear and fight and drink some more. They give new meaning to the word "fanatic." They elevate sports beyond everything else in their circumspect lives, at times ignoring friends and family in favor of their chosen "national pastime." When American sports fans rally to appreciate the accomplishments of their favorite teams, cars get turned over, and couches get burned - people get hurt.
Over in Italy, birthplace of "The Sopranos", things are getting more intense. Reacting to the fatal attack on a policeman last week, the Italian Cabinet approved measures Wednesday that could force many of the soccer teams in the nation's top leagues to play in empty stadiums. The decree also also bans clubs from selling blocks of tickets to visiting fans and allows authorities to bar suspected hooligans from entering stadiums, even if they haven't been convicted of crimes. In Europe, we have a firmly established additional category: There are fans, and there are "hooligans" (not to be confused with the "best of" album by the Who with the same name).
Like so many things from the Continent, hooliganism has roots that run back almost two hundred years, but it has only been the last fifty years that a hungry media has elevated this "disorderly behavior" to front page status. And what sort of disorder led to the death of thirty-eight year-old policeman Filippo Raciti last week? Film from cameras mounted around the stadium showed Raciti being hit with a sink that probably had been ripped out of one of the stadium's bathrooms. Raciti continued to work, but about forty-five minutes later he climbed out of his car when someone tossed a firecracker inside, and collapsed to the ground as a small, crude bomb went off next to him, newspapers reported.
Perhaps it's not the spread of democracy that's to blame for all the world's violence after all. Maybe we should look into cancelling the upcoming Iraqi soccer season.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Praise the Lord! One of four ministers who oversaw three weeks of intensive counseling for the Reverend Ted Haggard said the disgraced minister emerged convinced that he is "completely heterosexual." This raises a couple of questions: First of all, what do the other three ministers think, and second, just what exactly did Ted have to do to convince that one minister?
"He is completely heterosexual," Ralph said. "That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing." No, indeed. Things like that tend to come in spurts.
Haggard resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals last year after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. He was also forced out from the 14,000 New Life Church that he founded years ago in his basement after male prostitute Mike Jones (completely homosexual) alleged Haggard paid him for sex and sometimes used methamphetamine when they were together. Haggard, who is married, has publicly admitted to "sexual immorality." Confession is good for the soul, but let's be honest, it doesn't pay the bills.
Another oversight board member, the Reverend Mike Ware of Westminster, said the group recommended a move out of town and the Haggards agreed. This suggestion, one assumes, was made along the same lines that the Clantons consider relocating somewhere outside of Tombstone.
Still, the lingering question is that of verification. What sort of stress or performance test was used to determine the "complete heterosexuality" of Ted Haggard. I imagine some variation on the "Clockwork Orange" therapy, with loud organ music playing instead of Beethoven, and pictures of naked men projected on a large screen, alternating with "No!" alternating with each slide, voiced by a heavenly choir. This and the electrodes attached to his manliness.
Oh - and the last recommendation from the oversight council? They strongly urged Haggard to go into secular work. Amen.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Houston, We've Got A Nutjob

U.S. Navy Captain Lisa Nowak, 43, who flew last July on a shuttle mission to the international space station, was charged with attempted vehicle burglary with battery, destruction of evidence and battery. This was in addition to the more impressive charge of kidnapping, as she drove nine hundred miles and donned a disguise to confront a woman she believed was her rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot.
Are you thinking of "The Right Stuff" right now? I am. Actually, I sort of expect that this is the kind of thing that will most likely end up on the Lifetime Network, starring Lindsay Wagner and Tori Spelling. Police said Nowak drove from her home in Houston to the Orlando International Airport to confront Colleen Shipman. I'm hoping that in the TV movie that they change that to stealing an F-16 from the hangar at the Johnson Space Center. The thought of driving nine hundred miles to do anything makes the question of just how tightly screwed on this lady's space helmet was a relative afterthought. About the second or third time I stop at a Denny's I'm starting to reconsider that whole federal prosecution idea. But that's just me. Nowak raced from Houston to Orlando wearing diapers so she wouldn't have to stop to urinate, authorities said. I guess that would cut down on the number of stops, and boy, doesn't that astronaut training pay off when you're just this side of section eight?
NASA spokesman James Hartsfield in Houston said that, as of Monday, Nowak's status with the astronaut corps remained unchanged. "What will happen beyond that, I will not speculate," he said. Hartsfield said he couldn't recall the last time an astronaut was arrested and said there were no rules against fraternizing among astronauts. It puts me in mind of one of those later episodes of "I Dream of Jeannie," like "How To Marry an Astronaut" - talk about zany hijinks!
You know, come to think of it, as far as that whole fraternizing thing goes, I'll bet we could get this thing on Showtime - "Chicks in Space." I tell you, this stuff just writes itself.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Super Silly Us

Probably the main reason that I wanted the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XII (Twelve) was that I wanted the Dallas Cowboys to lose. I came by my Broncos fanaticism fair and square. I watched my local AFL franchise limp into the NFL and hang around the bottom of the league for a dozen years or so before finally developing something that every fan dreams of: A Nickname. In 1977, the Denver Broncos became "The Orange Crush" - the most vaunted and opportunistic defense of its day. They finished the season with twelve wins and just two losses. Craig Morton came off the New York Giants' scrap heap to lead this "Cinderella" team to the biggest game the Broncos had ever played.
Across the field was a team with more than its share of nicknames: "Doomsday Defense", "America's Team", and their quarterback was "Roger the Dodger", with some rookie named Tony Dorsett - later "TD". All this would have been fine and I would have still been happy to root for my team, but the real reason for me to loathe The Dallas Cowboys was Glen. This smirking sycophant had been a thorn in my side since seventh grade. With his helmet of precisely combed hair and obsequious manner, he was the golden boy of the crowd I hung around with. Parents and teachers loved him. He was so polite. He was so bright. He was a Dallas Cowboys fan.
That Sunday afternoon, January 15, 1978, a little piece of me died as I watched the ball bounce all the wrong ways. I watched the first of what would become a string of ignominious losses by the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. The party in my parents' living room was a pretty quiet affair by halftime, with a thirteen point lead for America's team - Glen's team. When Craig Morton was yanked after his fifth interception, my hopes rested on the narrow shoulders of backup Norris Weese.
It didn't happen. Not that day. It took another four tries to get it right, setting new marks for futility along the way. Twenty years and ten days after that first ill-fated attempt, the Denver Broncos were Super Bowl Champions. I have no idea where Glen was that day, but I want to believe that stupid grin tilted just a little. The party in my living room went on a good long time.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

If I Had A Million Dollars

Five and a half years ago, we began the grand assault on our back yard known as "building a deck." We were most fortunate to have a hard-working and patient group of friends who not only helped us build what would become essentially an extra room on our house, but we learned the magic of using a carpenter's pencil to keep the boards evenly spaced, and that 107.7 FM "The Bone" plays AC/DC hourly at ten after the hour. When the smoke cleared, we had a place to sit on hot summer nights and wait for the grilling to be done, or look up at the stars on those rare occasions that the fog doesn't roll in, and we had generated a great deal of scrap lumber.
One afternoon, in a fit of Paterfamilias, I went out back with a fistful of screws and a cordless drill and created a tree fort in our apricot tree. I did this as my wife fretted about my safety and the health of the tree, and my son looked on with mild concern. Once the initial construction was complete, we drove for half an hour to find a place that would sell us a sturdy, bumpy slide and a nice rope ladder. I attached these to my barely planned structure, and pronounced it complete. My son made a few trial runs on the slide, and then retired to the sandbox, somewhat nonplussed by whole experience.
Over the years, the tree fort has seen its share of action - especially in the spring, when the squirt guns first come out and the branches provide good cover for a patient aqua-sniper. It has been the site of a number of Easter egg sightings, and when new kids first come to our house, they want to climb up and see the sights from inside. A great many different snacks and lunches have been consumed on the plywood floor, and it has even proved a sturdy platform for our apricot harvest in those years that such a thing was possible.
Today, the fort came down. The floor had rotted, and the railings were unsafe for even the smallest of children. The slide and the rope ladder were still in pretty good shape in all their pre-fab glory, but the rest came apart in a rather unsettling rush. It made me grateful for all the structural advice and planning we received on the deck, which is holding up quite nicely. Not so for the tree fort. After the screws had been removed from the lumber, a great portion of the rotting timbers now rests in our compost bin along with the branches that we were able to trim from the tree before it all came tumbling down.
I know I miss it more than my son - it was my project, after all - but I wonder how he'll feel when springtime comes.

If I had a million dollars
I'd build a tree fort in our yard
If I had million dollars
You could help, it wouldn't be that hard
If I had million dollars
Maybe we could put like a little tiny fridge in there somewhere
You know, we could just go up there and hang out
Like open the fridge and stuff
There would already be laid out foods for us
Like little pre-wrapped sausages and things
They have pre-wrapped sausages but they don't have pre-wrapped bacon
Well, can you blame 'em
Uh, yeah
- Barenaked Ladies

Friday, February 02, 2007

Damage Assessment

In the quiet and relative calm that is Friday night, I can see the textbook psychology of the kids I work with unfold with ease. As I was cleaning my room this afternoon after a long week of fighting the good fight that is fourth grade, I happened on a piece of note paper face down on the floor. On it was scrawled the legend "What I Wanted," above a crooked house and a pair of stick figures labeled "Mom and Dad," and a smaller stick figure named "Me." There were a number of hearts floating in the air around this little family. Below this was another title: "What I Got." Here there was a fiercely drawn set of bars with "Dad" inside, this was "Prison." Outside, "Mom" and "Me" were crying. There were more tears below than hearts above.
I know who made the drawing, and I know that we make efforts to reach out to this girl at school, and have for as long as she has been with us. The challenge is trying to do anything that doesn't seem like a band-aid while I continue to try and teach pronouns and antecedents, fractions and decimals, California history and where to line up for lunch. I know how fragile this girl is, and there are moments when I forget to imagine how terrible the fear and sadness of a ten year old girl who misses her father. I want to take fifteen minutes and talk with her, to try and make her feel better, if only for a little while.
And the other twenty-three kids? What about them? What about their stories and their heartaches and woes? Fifteen minutes for every kid? That would be the six hours I get to see them every day. So I hold on to that scrap of paper to remind myself that they all have stories, and so do I. We'll get to them all, as we have time.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Open Mouth, Insert Foot, Shoot Foot

Maybe Joe Biden had another brain aneurysm: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man." Oh Joe - What exactly did you mean?
In the latest non-event to involve Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, Senator Joe Biden referred to his junior colleague in terms that made all of us huddled around our radios lean forward in anticipation. Did he really say that? Bright and clean? Is he a candidate or a floor wax? Is he running against him or does he want to date him? "My mother has an expression: clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack," Biden said. Any guesses how many times mom used this in reference to her boy Joe?
Still, after all it's just another in what will no doubt be a long, two year span of politicians clarifying just exactly what they meant. "When I said that 'Senator Clinton had a pretty good arm for a girl.' I was merely suggesting that she would make one heck of a utility infielder - not that there's anything wrong with that." Those allegations that Barack Obama was educated in a radical Muslim school known as a "madrassa" are not accurate, according to CNN reporting. The key word here would be "reporting." Fox News was more than happy to play the "telephone game" by repeating opinions generated from hearing about an article in Insight magazine. Even Insight was more than happy (a week later) to back way off those claims. The junior senator from Illinois is not a one-man sleeper cell.
Meanwhile, back in the halls of the Capitol, one could probably slice up the tension between the Biden and Obama camps with a scimitar. "He called me," Obama said. "I told him it wasn't necessary. We have got more important things to worry about. We have got Iraq. We have got health care. We have got energy. This is low on the list." Maybe for you, but we've got twenty-four hours of cable news time to fill. Couldn't you be just a little more incensed - you know - for the viewers at home?