Monday, April 30, 2007

"Historical Obligation"

George Tenet says the United States needs to revitalize the Palestinian-Israeli peace effort and do a better job leveraging its own diplomatic and economic strength to offset Iran's growing influence in the Middle East. You remember George Tenet, don't you? Mister "Slam Dunk"? "George, how confident are you?" President Pinhead once asked Tenet, in an exchange depicted in Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack." "Don't worry, it's a slam-dunk," Tenet said. Pinhead was asking him how certain he was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. For this now catastrophic misunderstanding of intelligence, a war is currently being waged. George's new tack has been to show up all over the place with a cavalier shred of shame, without his Presidential Medal of Freedom, to say "Ooops! My bad."
Did I mention that he has a book to sell? The one he said he had a "historical obligation" to write? "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA" goes into great detail about all the reasons why Americans should continue to live in fear: thwarted poison gas attacks, attempts to buy nuclear material, face-to-face meetings between Osama bin Laden and the President of Pakistan weeks before 9/11. Al-Qaeda is everywhere.
That is, if you can believe anything this guy says. The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency relied heavily on the ironically named informant "Curveball", bringing his unfortunate connection with sports cliches to two - one baseball and one basketball. On Monday, the State Department released a report saying that Iran remains the biggest supporter of terrorism around the world, and yet we find ourselves mired via Tenet's own advice in Iraq.
When asked why it took so long for all of these revelations to come to light, Tenet said it took him time to compose his thoughts and write his book after so much time in a job that was a "swirling cauldron" every day. Whether or not he's pushing for another medal, it's probably best to take whatever George Tenet has swirling around in his cauldron with a grain of salt. A very large, industrial lump of sodium chloride.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


Periodically I enjoy a good controversy. I'm not even above wallowing in a conspiracy or two. I have a friend who insists that the only reason "New Coke" was introduced was so when the Coca-Cola company sheepishly announced they were bringing back "Coke Classic" they were able to do so without its main ingredient: sugar. "Coke Classic" is, according to his various sources (maybe just the voices inside his head), in fact a third recipe created to quell market fears and save enormous amounts of money by using corn syrup. Not exactly enough for Michael Moore's next film, but mildly entertaining for me.
This is why when I woke up this morning and heard that a major portion of our local highway interchange had been destroyed overnight, melted by a tanker truck fire and attendant explosion, I began creating my own set of troublesome concerns. The fact that the truck was carrying unleaded gasoline "at unsafe speeds" immediately makes me want to blame the oil companies. We have been promised that this will cause massive gridlock for weeks to come, and with gasoline prices already creeping toward four dollars a gallon, why not spend a few more of those dollars sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic? The fact that the driver walked away from the scene is even more disturbing. Was it Bruce Willis?
The other possible scenario I made up has the Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban. I already had this guy pegged as a nimrod some time ago, but is he also a saboteur? Tonight will be a pivotal game for Mister Cuban's Dallas Mavericks as they face off against the scrappy underdog Golden State Warriors. On Friday night, rabid Warriors fans who had gone without a home playoff game for thirteen years raised the roof and shook the ground as their home team beat the top-seeded Mavericks. For tonight's game, fans will be forced to alter their travel plans or, perhaps, cancel their trip to the arena completely. Sure, it sounds desperate, but what would you expect from a Texan who gets backed into a corner?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Warped Drive

I have always wanted to pitch this episode of Star Trek - in any of its permutations: As the show opens, we find that the ship is on a collision course for some cataclysmic end, and the valiant crew has only a few precious moments to avert their doom. Just then, a perky red-uniformed "Ensign Victim" type pops up from beneath his console and says, "Hey - isn't this supposed to be plugged in?" When the connection is made, the ship immediately goes back on its proper course and trajectory, all are safe and much relief is felt across the bridge, engineering, and even down in sick bay. Now there are fifty-two minutes left in the episode. That's when the captain looks around him (or her) and says, "This place is a pig sty! We need a cleaning detail up here, pronto!" The rest of the show shows the crew of the ship (or space station) busying themselves with the business of making their ship shine with the aid of a mixture of various high and low-tech assistance.
I thought of this because I read that Scotty (James Doohan without the accent) had his ashes sent into orbit, ten years after Gene Roddenberry's remains achieved a similar honor. In true Scotty fashion, the launch didn't get off without a hitch. UP Aerospace launched the first rocket from their New Mexico desert site in September, but that Spaceloft XL rocket crashed into the desert after spiraling out of control about nine seconds after liftoff. Company officials blamed the failure on a faulty fin design. I think the fault lies in using cheap commercial-grade dilithium crystals.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Why Ask Why?

I can see the humor in it now. Ten years ago when I was interviewing for this gig, I really believed that I knew what I was talking about when I sat down across the table from the head of the teaching intern program. I had taken the CBEST and passed with flying colors. I had lived through the MSAT without any additional preparation and managed to squeak by, and was busy finishing my junior college class in public speaking. I had met the requirements. Then this rather dour old coot leans across his desk and looks at me for a moment before asking, "And just why do you want to be a teacher?"
Why? There would be no more objective questions, now I had landed squarely in the land of the subjective. I fought off the urge to run screaming from the room and told him what I imagined was a clever answer: "Well, I've always been good with kids."
The old coot sat back in his chair. "My sister is good with kids. That doesn't make her a teacher." I worked to regain my composure, but I could feel my ears turning red and my confidence disappearing. I didn't have words to explain my career motivation - or lack thereof.
A lot of people have asked me that question since then, and I have become more relaxed and refined in my response. I can wax rhapsodic about giving back to my community, and reaching those kids most in need, but I never fully recovered from that punch in the guts ten years ago. I thought about it again as I walked along with my class on a field trip that took us on a hike in the hills of Oakland. One of the parents who came with us started to look a little fried around the edges after lunch. "I don't know how you guys do it. All these kids, day after day." I knew exactly how he felt, but I also knew the answer: "Because I'm a teacher."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Tangled Web

Here is one reason for me to love Al Gore's Internet: I sat down to catch up on the day's news, and in the fashion of my father, I find myself continually drawn to the obituaries. I suppose any day that I'm reading them is a good one. Today I learned that Jack Valenti was a special assistant and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson. That is, he was before taking over as president of the Motion Picture Association of America in 1966. He's the guy that gave us the letter-based rating system. That was back when "X" really meant something. "Midnight Cowboy" was initially rated X. I did not know that he was in the Dallas motorcade when Kennedy was shot. Amazing how the history just bubbles up in these moments.
A few years before that tragic day, one of the all-time great one-hit wonders creeped onto the airwaves. Bobby "Boris" Pickett released his Halloween anthem, "Monster Mash" in 1962. It was on the chart when it debuted in 1962, reaching number one the week before Halloween, then again in August 1970, and for a third time in May 1973. It was the song that would not die. And now, alas, Bobby is a graveyard smash.
How does this all come together? I remembered going to the Boulder Theater to see a movie called "Mad Monster Party" back in my pre-teen years. I remember us kids were allowed to go see it alone because it was rated "G" for General Audiences. It was a stop-motion animated film from the Rankin/Bass folks, who brought us the Rudolph TV specials. Perhaps it was intended as a way to corner the Halloween season as well. I went to hear the voice of Boris Karloff. What I saw was an homage to Bobby Pickett's classic, and the predecessor to one of our family favorite holiday films, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" rated (in 1993) PG - Parental Guidance Suggested.
If I spent more time here at the computer, I might be able to uncover or generate my very own conspiracy theory that links the death of these two men to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, but I've got TV to watch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


"They do not seem to get the fact that there are people, terrorists in this world, really dangerous people that want to come here and kill us," Rudy Giuliani said on "The Sean Hannity Show". "They want to take us back to not being as alert which to me will just extend this war much, much longer." In this particular instance (and most of the time Rudy Guliani is speaking) "They" are Democrats. I should confess now to having a great deal of admiration for his honor the Mayor during one of the country's darkest hours. To a certain extent, it makes sense that he would feel a sense of doom at all times after the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001. I tend to invoke the lyrics of Roger Waters at moments such as these: "We play the game/With the bravery of being out of range."
All the fear and woe that I felt on that sunny morning five and a half years ago cannot compare to what was felt at Ground Zero. That distance is what allows me to watch films like "United 93" and "World Trade Center" and wallow around in the terrorism and heroism. It is my contention that this current war was actually fought in about four hours on that early September morning, and all the rest of this shock and awe has been a complete waste of life, limb and tax dollars. In a war against an idea - terror - it seems that the best defense would be to come up with a better idea. Our current defense is to raise the level of fear, which doesn't seem to be much good against suicide bombers.
The other movie I watched recently was "Flags of Our Fathers". It tells the story of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. When the battle was over, the six survivors were whisked back to the United States to fill a void in the midst of a desperate need for heroes. They helped raise more than a flag, they also helped sell millions of dollars in war bonds that helped fund the winning of World War Two - "With the bravery of being out of range". I have no qualms calling Rudy Guliani a hero, I just wonder if the war will ever really be over for him.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Location, Location, Location

All this whining I have been doing about life on these urban streets is about to pay off. No more worrying about painting over graffiti. No more complaining about cars that go "boom". No more issues with parking. I have my eye on the first available lots on a planet one hundred and twenty trillion miles from here - astronomers insist that's a pretty short commute "by galactic standards."
Researchers found this potentially habitable planet this week, and their enthusiasm was dampened only by a few minor details. First of all, the star it closely orbits, known as a "red dwarf," is much smaller, dimmer and cooler than our sun. The star, Gliese 581, doesn't burn as brightly, but will burn much longer than our own sun. That actually seems like a plus, since I have a paranoid fear of getting everything right in my house just before our sun goes supernova. The other consideration in the "habitable" requirements is this: scientists also count Mars in that category. I'm not sure that I'm ready to put any money down on a condo in the Hellas Basin anytime soon.
The new planet, given the romantic title of 581 c, should start a stampede in astronomy circles to find planets circling similar dim stars. There is still an issue as to whether the atmosphere will be happy breathable oxygen or deadly chlorine gas, but that's why they call it a "fixer-upper." The problem is, so far all 220 planets astronomers have found outside our solar system have had the "Goldilocks problem." They've been too hot, too cold or just plain too big and gaseous. If this sounds like a problem you can relate to, I look forward to seeing you around the neighborhood.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Why Don't You All Just F-F-F-Fade Away?

Russell Simmons wants to clean up rap music. Come on now. No snickering. He's serious. "We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words 'bitch' and 'ho' and the racially offensive word 'nigger'," said Simmons in a statement along with Benjamin Chavis as co-chairmen of an organization called the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. You wanted action after Don Imus shot off his mouth while his foot was still squarely planted in it, and you've got it.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Mister Simmons was singing - or rapping - a different tune. On April 13, he said offensive references in hip-hop "may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but our job is not to silence or censor that expression." What caused this somewhat abrupt change of face? Perhaps it has something to do with New York City declaring a symbolic moratorium on the so-called N-word in February. Maybe it is connected to the awareness created by the wake of Don Imus' infamous last words. Or could it be that the hip-hop industry is moving to police itself before the "powers that be" descend from above as they did in 1984 when Tipper Gore started really listening to the lyrics of "Darling Nikki". The resulting circus, The Parents Music Resource Center, resulted in the "voluntary" labeling of recordings for containing objectionable lyrics. It brought together such visionaries as Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider.
Popular music has always been trouble. Rock and roll was a euphemism for "doin' the nasty" way back in 1934, and seventy-plus years later, things aren't getting any less tense. What was offensive thirty years ago seems pretty tame now. Just ask Pat Boone, who provided "clean" versions of Fats Domino and Little Richard for the 1950's and later gave us safe alternatives for Led Zeppelin and Guns 'n' Roses. Music is, after all, a business.
Simmons maintains that he has no interest in limiting anyone's freedom. "Our internal discussions with industry leaders are not about censorship. Our discussions are about the corporate social responsibility of the industry to voluntarily show respect to African Americans and other people of color, African American women and to all women in lyrics and images." Now, I'm just wondering if that includes Tipper.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

There's A Place For Us

I've been dwelling on place for the past few days. Ironic, since a dwelling is in fact a place, but only one of a myriad of spots that we might find ourselves throughout time. It began as a musing when I noticed that someone had moved into the house down the street that had recently been the home for a pair of boys my son played with. It became a place where my son could go and play video games and shoot Nerf guns at one another. Now that the boys have moved, it's a much quieter place.
It got me to thinking about all the places I have lived. They are most certainly quieter places now, since I am told by many of my close friends that I have "no indoor voice." All of these were apartments, with the exception of my freshman dorm room and my parents' house. Owning a home means I have a place to turn up my stereo without the people above and below me stomping on the floor - unless they happen to be my wife or son reminding me that I am no longer eighteen years old and Rush is not everyone's cup of tea at any volume.
The place I live now is having a surge in youth gang activity. We know this because of the surge in youth gang spray-painting. This morning as I ran past the tags of "School Boi" and "ESO" it occurred to me that these kids didn't have a place, or if they did, it wasn't the place that they wanted to be. A place where they could turn up their stereos, and the only guns they shot at each other were full of spongy darts.
This may be oversimplification. Maybe I need to go someplace and figure it out. I've got a few in mind.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Welcome Home

As I prepare to celebrate ten years as a property owner, I took the opportunity to revel in all the joy that can be (and is) found on Earth Day. A decade ago, my wife and I closed the deal on our little plot of earth, and suddenly we became solidly invested in all the land around us. The litter I see on the street reflects on the neighborhood I live in. I have no real obsession with property values, at least on a large scale. The value I am most concerned with is the palatial estate that surrounds me: Rancho Deluxe.
Having grown up in the very eco-friendly seventies, I have never been a litterbug. I teared up sympathetically with Iron Eyes Cody whenever I saw garbage floating near the shore. Or in the gutter. Or by the highway. It was never in my programming to toss a gum wrapper on the ground. Even now the idea seems completely abhorrent to me. One of my favorite books as a child was Bill Peet's "The Wump World", about the peaceful creatures who were displaced by the smelly old Pollutians. I still enjoy reading Dr. Seuss's "The Lorax" to my son.
This morning I got up and went to my son's school where I spent three hours picking up other people's trash. I tried to imagine the thought process of the people who dropped, chucked, placed or lobbed bottles, cans, wrappers, and sundry debris as I pulled these items from underneath juniper bushes, behind trees and lying in plain sight. My mind drifted to the kids in my fourth grade class. Maybe what makes it so easy for them to sit in a room that becomes increasingly filthy as the day progresses is the level of junk that surrounds them each and every day. The stark contrast for me were the suburban avenues I visited over spring break. I remember my friend's embarrassment over the vandalism in her neighborhood. I looked for the broken glass or spray paint, and then she pointed out the broken egg shells on the sidewalk. How nice to have compostible acts of delinquency.
Ten years later, I have planted some Truffula trees on our little acreage. I take some pride in the the way our Grickle-grass grows. Our little piece of Earth.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Limbo Rock

Limbo is closed. The Pope says so. His holiness has nothing against sliding underneath a pole to that crazy Latin beat. Well, actually, he probably does. But the Limbo Pope Benedict (our first Pope named for a fancy egg dish) is referring to is the place reserved for the unbaptized dead, including good people who lived before the coming of Christ. Infants killed in tragic baptismal font mishaps before they manage to have the words spoken and drops of holy water dripped on their heads were not allowed to ascend. Little babies who had the misfortune of not being baptized can now enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Church's International Theological Commission said limbo reflected an "unduly restrictive view of salvation." I would have to agree with that sentiment. You know who is not in heaven? Gandhi. Not because he wasn't baptized, but because he wasn't Catholic. Or Christian. Come to think of it, there's a whole load of people who would be hanging out in limbo. In "The Divine Comedy", Dante finds the place chock full of of virtuous pagans including Socrates and Plato. Come to think of it, maybe God just doesn't want anybody showing up at the Pearly Gates already dressed in flowing robes.
The good news is for the young set. "People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian," says the ITC. Now if we can just swing a deal for Jimmy Cliff.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

High First Round

Is it a revelation that three young men, who attended major universities here in the United States, admitted to marijuana use? Apparently if the young men in question are top prospects in this year's NFL draft, there is much shock and amazement. According to anonymous sources,Pro Football Weekly is reporting that Calvin Johnson, Gaines Adams and Amobi Okoye admitted to marijuana use during interviews with teams in February.
I would be much more impressed if a college junior or senior could claim to have steered clear from all manner of substances for the time he (or she) had been on campus. It seems just a tad naive of us to expect that these kids would have missed out on all that college has to offer. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Marijuana is the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States, with approximately 33 percent (72 million) of all Americans having tried it at least once in their lifetime." This number has been steadily rising since 1988, when the percentage was a more seemly twenty-six percent. Interestingly enough, use among college athletes had almost the opposite trend over the same time period, with the number of users hovering around twenty-seven percent in 2001, having peaked in 1985 with more than thirty-five percent.
With these figures in mind, maybe it is a little bit of a shock that these three gentlemen would admit to prior drug use. They must have been stoned.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

No Child Left Unscrutinized

I am trying to sort out just exactly where my ire lies. I am disappointed in my kids because I thought that they would do better. I am frustrated with myself because I didn't do enough to prepare them. I am chagrined by the notion that I had told my principal that I didn't want to force my kids to take one more math assessment before spring break. The whole thing is causing me to gnash my teeth and wish that I had answers for how this all came to pass.
I consider myself a good math teacher. I make this distinction based on the success that I have had with classes in the past, and the success that I have had, for the most part, with this group. Today the magic carpet ride came to a rather abrupt end. The initial response was to figure out how these scores could have been recorded incorrectly. For about an hour, there was some mild celebration in the possibility that the wrong key had been used, and that all the data was incorrect. Just about the time that I was ready to start being officially smug, the realization came that the only real problem was that my students had performed poorly on their math tests.
In a world that runs in the currency of test scores, primary education is a tough place to live. My job depends largely on the focus and attention of a group of ten-year-olds. One of my students asked me earlier this year why I got so worked up while I was teaching about decimals. She wanted to know if it was because I was being observed by my principal that day. I assured her that the next day would have just as much hopping about and gesticulating - because I know that the only way to get kids excited about math is to be excited about math myself. The Friday before spring break I was not excited about math. I was just getting on to the next thing. I was phoning it in. That was a mistake.
There is good news. I still have two weeks before the California Standards Test. The rest of this stuff has all been a drill. The real magilla is about to descend on their preadolescent heads. I will be ready this time, and so will they.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Dear Abby

I was alone in my classroom when the phone rang. It was the assistant principal. She said that a former student of mine was coming down to see me. "Do you remember an 'Abby'?" I tried to place the name among the hundreds that I have had run past me on the treadmill we call elementary education. Here is the truth: I remember about six or seven students each year. That doesn't mean that I can't place the names with faces if given a few minutes or a helpful reminder, but if you asked me to recite the names of the kids in my class from last year, I would come up with that half dozen previously described, and then ask to look at the picture. Denny and Karla are in my Hall of Fame. They're the ones that I tell stories about years later. They're the ones that keep me coming back to school after a particularly rough day.
But Abby? Even when I was given a number of connections to sisters and brothers and other teachers she had, I still drew a blank. "She says she remembers you when you were the computer teacher." That would be more than four years ago, so now I worried that I would just stare blankly. "Oh, and be happy for her. She has a baby." With these words my assistant principal signed off, and I waited, wincing in anticipation.
Then a stroller appeared at my door. I recognized the young lady pushing it. It was Abby. Six years older, but Abby. Suddenly I had context. I remembered her shyness. I remembered her awful spelling. I remembered everything about her. Now she's somebody's mom. Little Charlie stared wide-eyed from his prone position. Right behind Abby came her mom, pushing her own stroller with another baby. That would be Abby's little sister - Charlie's niece.
For eight minutes I stretched the bounds of polite small-talk. We exchanged memories of the school before the recent remodeling. She asked about other teachers who have long since left for opportunities elsewhere. I strained to keep from asking if I might know Charlie's daddy. I didn't really want to know, after all. Then it was time to go. She promised to drop by again. As the strollers made their way down the hall, I tried to put together just how long she had stayed in school before the baby. Math told me that in a best-case-scenario, she would have been a sophomore in high school when she dropped out. If she made it that far.
Abby looked happy. Her baby looked healthy. I sat back down at my desk and finished grading fourth grade writing tests. If my luck holds, I'll probably be seeing Charlie again in about nine years.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Reeling

How about this for the official statement from the White House: "The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed," spokeswoman Dana Perino said. Thanks Dana. I'm sure that comes as great comfort to any of the students and faculty at Virginia Tech who were wondering how this might affect his stance on gun control. There is every reason in the world to suspect that the gunman in this particular case had the correct permits and permissions for carrying the weapons that he used, but at this moment in time how could it possibly matter?
While the media rushes about putting this horror in its historical perspective, we need to know how this mass killing stacks up. Will there be a rush to find what music the crazed mutant was listening to just before he began shooting up the campus? Sure there will be. Video games too. I'll bet he played video games. Check on that. He played violent first-person shooter games while listening to Marilyn Manson. That's what did it. That and sugary breakfast cereal. And parents who abused him. Or ignored him. Or spoiled him. Whatever they did, they did it wrong and they should be blamed too.
Or maybe he was a bad guy who did a horrible thing. It is at this point I feel inclined to assert Chris Rock's stance on gun control: "... everybody's talking about gun control, got to get rid of the guns...You don't need no gun control. You know what you need? We need some bullet control. Man, we need to control the bullets, that's right. I think all bullets should cost $5,000. $5,000 for a bullet. You know why? 'Cause if a bullet costs $5,000 there'd be no more innocent bystanders. That'd be it. Every time someone gets shot, people will be like, “Damn, he must have did something...”
Sorry, but it makes as much sense as anything else right now.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Road To Nowhere

There are those who distinguish our waking life from our sleeping life. This past week, we became aware of the difference between our real life and our vacation life. This distinction was never more apparent than the hours that we spent trapped in a car, hurtling down the highways of California. Something about having enforced scenery makes looking out the same windshield a bonding experience. "Look at that!" someone screams, and suddenly we all focus port or starboard, whichever direction the call came from. Of course, when you're moving at an average speed of sixty miles an hour, there is a lot of discussion about just what we were supposed to see, since whatever it was is now miles behind.
A lot of conversations take place over a seven day trip. They tend to happen in fits and spurts, generated out of boredom, and interrupted by food and comfort stops. Somehow sitting in front of a moving landscape rather than a television tends to inspire communication. My wife began a riff on Saturday about California being the land of many vistas that didn't conclude until this Friday when we pulled back into our driveway. In between there was a series of recollections, both near and far, primarily about other trips we had taken together and apart.
Mostly what I observed this trip was how different time feels when you're on the road. Mile one feels like moving into a high wind, whereas the last few miles feel like rolling downhill. At some point in the middle, time stands still. Those are the perfect vacation moments. I heard the quote "hopelessly lost, but making good time" first attributed to David Letterman, while others insist that it was Meriwether Clark of Lewis and Clark fame who first made this observation. Rather than spending more hours divining the author of this pithy bit of road lore, I will offer up my own mother's best musing on the subject. A veteran of dozens of station wagon vacations, she told me once, "Sometimes lost isn't a bad thing." Mother knows best.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Killing Joke

Nobody is going to ask me, but I am glad that Don Imus was fired. Before the discussion of free speech commences, and the banners of racism and bigotry get unfurled, let's back up a step or two. Don Imus was the employee of CBS Radio. He had a boss. He was doing a job. His boss didn't like the way he was doing his job. He was fired.
Special circumstances? You bet. Don Imus is a massive cultural icon with a drive-time radio career that extends back to 1979. He was somewhat of an institution. He is part of a group of "pioneers" in his field. Howard Stern (the radio personality, not the creepy "husband" of Anna Nicole Smith) is probably better known, mostly for his ability to take moments such as these and turn them into self-promoting gold. Howard insists that Imus is merely a pretender to the crown, but they are both whittled from the same block of cheese.
The "shock jock" phenomenon dates back to the 1970's, a time when disc jockeys were searching for a way to get listeners back to the radio. Provocative, irreverent, confrontational, abrasive, and always looking for a fight with the FCC, these folks made their careers living on the edge of acceptability. The more offensive, the better.
Don Imus is sixty-six years old. He has been doing his job for decades, and we would all guess that he has a working knowledge of the regulations and limits of his free speech. The only radio show that I listened to regularly with this particular bent was Alan Berg's show on KOA back in the early eighties. On one particular occasion, the very liberal Jewish Berg chose to take on the white supremacist group The Order. On June 18, 1984, Alan Berg was shot thirteen times in the driveway of his home next to his Volkswagen Beetle. Members of The Order were widely suspected of the crime, but no one was ever convicted of the murder, though a number of its members were found guilty of conspiracy, including David Lane, the getaway driver. When asked about the murder, Lane, denied any involvement in Berg's death, but has repeatedly expressed no sorrow over it: "The only thing I have to say about Alan Berg is: regardless of who did it, he hasn't mouthed his hate whitey propaganda from his 50,000-watt Zionist pulpit for quite a few years."
Don Imus was fired. He can, and probably will, get another job. Alan Berg wasn't so lucky.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Goodbye Blue Monday

"So it goes."
I was on the way up to our family's cabin and my father allowed me to stop at Ead's News and Smoke Shop to get something to read for the weekend. This was back when they were located at Walnut and Broadway. The comic books were right up front, most likely to keep kids from wandering too far back to where "those magazines and "other smoking supplies" were displayed.
I wasn't looking for a comic book that day. My very good friend and confidante, Bill Johnson, had told me about a book that I just had to read. "It's science fiction. And it's funny. And it's got dirty pictures." Really? "But your parents will let you read it because it's literature."
I bought my first copy of "Breakfast of Champions" with my own money. I started reading it on the way up the way up the winding road to the mountains, and I am thankful today that I do not get carsick while reading on twisty mountain roads. When we arrived at our cabin, I paused only long enough to help carry some things from the car and say hello to my mother, but then I was quickly back to the book. I finished it that night, by the flashlight. I started to read it again the next day. It wasn't the dirty pictures, they were only crude line drawings to illustrate bigger points. It was those bigger points: life, death, time, art, that kept me going back.
The next time I was at Ead's, I asked if they had any more Kurt Vonnegut books. The guy behind the counter pointed me in the direction of a rack holding dozens of titles. Not all of them were Vonnegut, but I quickly picked two new ones and read them just as quickly as the first. Over the course of the summer before my eighth grade year, I became acquainted with the swirling ironic world that was Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
So much of my world view has been shaped by the ideas and colors of that world. Probably the biggest reason for you to be reading this blog or anything that I have written is that book I read so many summers ago. It's not much of a badge of honor to say that "I've read everything he's written," but I have a hard time relating to other people who have not. This was a man who shaped my life, and I will miss him terribly, but I am grateful for all those wonderful and subversive notions, and even those pictures of "wide open beavers" inside. I will keep reading books by Kurt Vonnegut because they are treasures and touchstones in my life. If you have never had this particular joy, stop reading this now and go to your local news stand and pick up a copy of one - I suggest "Breakfast of Champions." It has dirty pictures.
Goodbye. Hello.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shoes Al Fresco

I have lived my life in avoidance of sandals. I have worn shoes with tops on them for all the years that I can remember. I am innately suspicious of shoes that are, in effect, incomplete. Why should I be wearing - no wait - paying for footwear that does not properly cover my toes, my heels, my high arches? Part of my struggle was most certainly the lack of security one feels when wearing flip-flops. In my youth, and today in Australia, these shoes were known as "thongs". I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't wear anything on my feet that might also be worn as an undergarment.
That was until this past week. For more years than I care to remember, I have suffered from an ingrown toenail. Ever since I was twelve years old and had an unfortunate collision with a heat register, the nail of my right big toe has been a wild, mismanaged mutant of a thing that requires near constant monitoring and careful hygiene. To make a long and somewhat disgusting story just a little less so, the condition of my toe became such that wearing a conventional (in my case Converse high top) shoe became not only impractical, but extremely painful. After gutting it out for several days, it became apparent that I would not be able to keep up with my family on our spring vacation unless I lost my toe, or my perverse avoidance of these quasi-shoes.
I have now spent the last day and a half wandering the highway and byways of Southern California in my snappy new velcro-attached sandals. Air rushes over the top of my feet and toes, and I cringe in anticipation of my soles falling away. My toe, meanwhile, is healing nicely, but the psychic wounds that I have inflicted upon myself have left me looking forward to the day that I can once again pull my socks on and lace up as God intended.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Just One For The Gipper

I have now been to one presidential library. For the record, this leaves me with only thirteen more to visit: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, Nixon -two of them. Which one did I go see? I headed out to Simi Valley to see the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
I went there with my recovering Republican friend, and I had to promise that I would not make any public scenes. I found this difficult almost from the very beginning as we sat in the "Launch Theater" and watched a brief documentary on our fortieth president's life, narrated by close presidential friend, Merv Griffin.
The rest of of the exhibits reminded me of the Reagan Legacy. My son was most intrigued by Air Force One - the real thing - a full size 707 hanging up in space for you and I to walk through. It was much smaller than the one Harrison Ford kicked Gary Oldman off when he was president. It captivated my son's aeronautic imagination, and I was struck by the many images of President Reagan walking to his plane, or helicopter, or some other mode of transportation carrying a briefcase or folder or report. It let created the impression, at least, that this man was keeping up with his job. Via a video presentation, he spoke of keeping up with his correspondence while on board. A literate president. What a notion. Try and picture in your mind the last time you saw Pinhead carrying anything but his smirk onto Marine One out on the South Lawn.
When we left, I was struck by the memory of one exhibit in particular. There was a room full of Cold War artifacts and graphics that made me think of he fear that I grew up in - a sign that pointed the way to a fallout shelter. Ronald Reagan may not have single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall or ended the Cold War, but a lot of things changed on his watch. Some of them were bad, some of them were good, but when my son asked me what a civil defense siren was, I was glad that I was looking at history.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Working Stiff

I confess that I was never that big a fan of "B.C." or "Wizard of Id" but I confess that hearing that Johnny Hart had passed away gave me a little twinge. The main reason: He passed away at his drawing board. When it was my dream to be a cartoonist, this was my notion of how things would be: I would kiss my wife at the door to my office, carrying a big mug of hot chocolate into my secret lair. I would close the door behind me and sit down at the table that had been my workspace for decades. The first hour or so would be simply doodles - no finished drawings - just trying to get ideas on paper.
I would eventually grow tired and stare out the big bay window and wish that I had met my deadlines for the week already. Despair would creep in and doubt would cloud my mind. Why did I choose to be a newspaper cartoonist? Then I would spend another fifteen minutes talking myself back into my chosen profession before I realize that the hot chocolate is no longer hot and I must start making plans for lunch.
In the kitchen there is a sandwich with a note from my wife who has gone off to pursue her own fabulous life, and while I search for potato chips to accompany the roast beef and cheddar cheese, the seed of an idea begins to take root. I rush back to the office, sandwich in hand, and begin to sketch out what will most certainly be a series of cartoons that will run at least a week. When I look up again, it is dark outside and I see the headlights of my wife's car coming up the drive. It's been a good day.
I didn't get a lot of laughs out of the cartoon caveman or the kingdom of Id, but I respect and admire the work ethic. He was a working cartoonist for over fifty years. The next time I have a drink out of my Arby's B.C. mug, I'll do it with just a little more respect.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Round Ball

I have mentioned in this spot several instances of just how awful I was at Physical Education when I was in elementary school. My size, shape and enthusiasm worked against me in just about everything, with the possible exception of square dancing (I was especially fond of the Virginia Reel). Not that I didn't harbor a secret desire to be successful. Somewhere deep down inside, I wanted to make that catch, or score the goal. I just didn't have all the components that would have put me in a position to compete.
In gym class I was told to play guard along with the other sports-challenged kid Ken (I am not making this up) Butts. I reasoned that my job must be to stand there and guard the basket. Imagine my surprise when Mister Schemp (again, not making this up) hollered at us to get down to the other end of the court and help our team score baskets. Being eternally vigilant wasn't enough for him. We were going to have to run up and down the court, mindless of our lack of involvement in the game, but we were all about the appearances.
The kid down the street had an all-star jock for an older brother, and we would spend hours on his driveway playing one-on-one basketball. Why he never tired of pounding my sorry excuse for competition I do not understand, but I do know that after some time I gained two survival skills. I learned to be tenacious at defense, never leaving an open lane to the basket. This turned out to be less an issue for my nemesis, since he possessed a rather flawless jump shot and was intimate with just about every spot on the driveway. What did keep me in a few of the games was my own variation on Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Sky Hook. Mine was somewhat less elegant, and christened by those who witnessed it "The Flying Buttress". The shot relied on my inability to use depth perception, but rather a rough sense of my distance from the basket. I would back in to my spot, then loop the ball in a great arc over my head, and with any luck at all, straight through to the bottom of the net. I didn't win, but I didn't get blown out as awfully without it.
By this time I had moved on to junior high, and the gulf between those with aptitude in athletics and those without began to widen. I still played on the driveway, but I wasn't going to challenge a guy who was on the team at school, so our games became less frequent. I played a few games with my buddies in high school, but beating my fellow bandies in any sort of physical contest didn't seem like much of a victory.
My son loves to bounce his ball. He's getting a little big for his Fisher-Price hoop. These days I look out at my driveway and imagine what it would take to get a nice, smooth concrete slab poured out in front of our garage. I just don't want to lose my touch.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Emotional Rescue

Chuck Jones used to say that Bugs Bunny is who we want to be, and Daffy Duck is who we really are. I have felt this dichotomy for years myself, and have seen it in more ways than just Warner Brothers cartoon characters. When I was very young, my older brother got first pick on everything. He got Hot Wheels and I got Johnny Lightning. He got Quisp and I got Quake. He got the Beatles and I got the Monkees. It never occurred to me that these things were just islands in a pop culture sea, and that there was plenty of room to share. I began to identify with those things that were less than the epitome. It gave me a great appreciation for the underdog.
When I was older, by decades, I found myself attached to the characters in TV shows who were just this side of featured. For several years I was a devoted fan of "ER". My wife sighed every time that Doug Ross (George Clooney) appeared on screen, but I tuned in to find out what fresh hell awaited Doctor Greene (Anthony Edwards). Mark Greene showed up in my world as an earnest guy who sometimes felt like the job he was asked to do was too much. I got that. When he did snap, or lose his cool, he always came back and apologized. You could rely on this guy, and when he finally succumbed to brain cancer back in 2002, I stopped watching.
These days I find myself watching "Scrubs". It's another NBC doctor show, but it's much more amusing than your average day at County General. Instead of seeking out another good guy, I find myself drawn to Doctor Cox. Perry is a good doctor, and he's the first guy to let you know it. The thing I admire the most about this guy is his unfailing ability to end conversations with a withering blast of sarcasm. He cares deeply about his job and his co-workers, but it would be impossible to tell without spending a great deal of time with him - if you could stand it.
Doctors Greene and Cox are not me. They are Bugs and Daffy. They are hot and cold. I am the lukewarm. And that's just fine with me.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


It was chilly last night here in the bay area. It made me feel even more sympathetic for the three young men strapped to crucifixes at the neighborhood Catholic church. They were hanging there in the biblical equivalent of adult diapers, and I found myself wondering for the umpteenth time why anybody would consider this "Good Friday."
To begin with, just about once a week my wife rolls over as I am heading out the door and tells me to smile because "it's Friday." I usually give her a smirk and head to the door, knowing that Fridays are inevitably packed full of strange curiosities before the working day is done. I cringe in anticipation of all the things that can still go wrong before the last bell is rung. I'm more of a "half-empty" kind of guy.
Which is exactly why I keep wondering who decided to call the day that Christ was nailed to a cross "Good Friday." Thanks to Al Gore's Internet, I can ask the Catholic Encyclopedia - take it away: "The origin of the term Good is not clear. Some say it is from "God's Friday" (Gottes Freitag); others maintain that it is from the German Gute Freitag, and not specially English. Sometimes, too, the day was called Long Friday by the Anglo-Saxons; so today in Denmark." Now if I'm the guy hanging from somebody's poor excuse for a carpentry metaphor, I'm going to have to go along with that "Long Friday" idea. It also brings to mind the Bob Hoskins gangster film, "The Long Good Friday" - though I'm not sure I have a great allusion or connection to make beyond the title, but feel free to discuss this at your next Bible and Modern Film roundtable.
Finally, it reminds me that it is time once again to bring out all the tired but effective jokes that will eventually keep me from ascending to the kingdom of heaven. Maybe that's why it's called Good Friday.

Friday, April 06, 2007

When Varmints Are Outlawed...

Sometimes words fail me. Then, out of the blue we get a gift like this: "I'm not a big-game hunter. I've made that very clear. I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will. I began when I was fifteen or so and I have hunted those kinds of varmints since then. More than two times." You have until the end of this paragraph to identify the speaker. Give up?
These were the words of former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. You receive only half credit for "some Republican or other." This was Mitt's redux of his comments on Tuesday which came in a less explicit form: "I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life." Fewer specifics, and paints a much more rough and tumble picture of a guy who is named after a potholder.
The problem is, Mitt's also a periodic supporter of gun control. When he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1994 he backed the Brady law and a ban on assault-style rifles. As governor, he supported the state's strict gun-control laws and signed into law one of the nation's tougher assault weapons laws.
Then last August, he up and joined the National Rifle Association as a "Lifetime" member. I guess that Varmint Hunters International already maxed out their membership quota. Ah well, their loss, and to all you varmints out there, keep your head down - Mitt's on the loose!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Life Is Fra-gile (It's Italian)

This Christmas Eve will be a little less merry. Bob Clark, director of a Caven family favorite "A Christmas Story" was killed in a car accident on Wednesday. Bob and his twenty-two year old son Ariel were killed in a head-on crash with a vehicle that a drunken driver steered into the wrong lane. It is a tragic end to a life that brought, almost accidentally, so much joy.
"Accidentally" because there isn't a lot in Bob Clark's oeuvre that would lead us to believe that an American holiday classic would fit on a list that includes such treasures as "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" and "Black Christmas", though one can see a thread of kids and yuletide running through his work. His other best-known film is the "peek-a-boo" classic, "Porky's". Maybe the story of a group of Florida high schoolers seeking revenge on a sleazy nightclub owner should have given us a hint of the twinkling nostalgia that would come just a year later - along with the sequel, "Porky's 2: The Next Day".
In 1983, Bob Clark made a movie based on the Jean Shepard stories found in the collection "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash". The story of Ralphie and his quest for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle is the story of every kid who has ever coveted anything. It also includes a loving but very real family with grumbling and cursing and sibling rivalry, and enough apocryphal moments to fill three movies: The tongue on the flagpole, The bar of Lifebouy stuck in the mouth, using your little brother for traction on the stairs, "Eat More Ovaltine", and the list goes on and on, culminating in the refrain, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid!"
More than anything else, I know that round faced kid with glasses who lived in fear of the neighborhood bully and dreamed of getting an "A plus, plus, plus" on his composition. I was that kid who got pasted in the face with one too many snowballs. I was that kid who had his Christmas dreams come true. I am that kid who still watches as much of "Twenty-four Hours of A Christmas Story" as his family and friends will let him. Bob Clark never won an Oscar, but he certainly deserves "a major award."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Political Science 2007

A few years back, 1972 to be precise, Randy Newman put a fine point on the absurdity of the nuclear arms race in his song "Political Science". Over the course of this bouncy little tune, Randy implores us to "drop the big one now." His reasoning? "They all hate us anyhow." For thirty-five years, we've had a nice little soft-shoe to dance on the edge of Armageddon while we try to imagine a better world.
Back here in 2007, President Pinhead said today efforts to pull troops home from Iraq only make the U.S. more vulnerable to attack from an enemy that is "pure evil." I get the impression from him that Iraq is full of faceless, soulless creatures bent on the annihilation of all that is good and true on the planet: Red Lectroids, Nazgul, or maybe Amway distributors. Pinhead told a horrific tale in Iraq — one in which terrorists put children in a car to get through a checkpoint, then exploded the vehicle — to describe why he won't pull back. "It makes me realize the nature of the enemy we face, which hardens my resolve to protect the American people," Bush said. "People who do that are not — it's not a civil war, it is pure evil. And I believe we have an obligation to protect ourselves from that evil."
After pleading his case in front of a captive audience of combat troops at Fort Irwin, he left the Mojave Desert for the upscale Brentwood section of Los Angeles. There, at the home of friend Brad Freeman, he hoped to raise $2.2 million for the Republican National Committee before flying to his family ranch in Crawford, Texas. Are you afraid now?
And now back to Mister Newman. He's written a new song. It's called "A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country". Here's what he has to say to the new millennium:
A president once said,“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color coded
And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
Why, of being afraid
That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?
That’s what it used to mean
Come on everybody, let's sing along!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bringing Up Baby

One of my most cherished memories of my son's earliest days on the planet comes from the time that our good friend got nose to nose with him and said these words: pasta fazul. At this point, our friend turned to us, the puzzled parents, and asked, "Did you see that synapse fire? I did that!"
And so it goes. As a teacher, I am constantly aware of my son's progress through the chutes and ladders of education. My wife and I have always considered ourselves to be quite clever, so the expectations on our progeny were extremely high. We fretted over the time it took him to learn to roll over, and to crawl (which he never did - he just sort of scooted around on his bottom), and all the correlations that baby science told us there were between these early accomplishments and the chances of a child getting into the college of his or her choice.
We sat him in front of "Baby Einstein," which we hoped would teach our child to speak several languages and to appreciate art and classical music. In a moment of meta-media that only a parent could comprehend, we took video of our son staring at the television. Looking back on this moment only recently I was able to recognize the blank stare that all human beings develop when set in front of a television. He never did learn to count to ten in Japanese.
Then one day, he picked up a "Calvin and Hobbes" book. He was fascinated by the pictures and intensely interested in the words that poured out of Calvin's mouth. One morning he appeared in the kitchen, book in hand, asking, "What does 'transmogrify' mean?" We knew then that our concerns may have been overstated. Since then we have had to do additional reading on the side to keep up with him. Today when I read this: Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, a centrist Washington think tank says, "While neural connections in babies' brains grow rapidly in the early years, adults can't make newborns smarter or more successful by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einstein-inspired blocks." Of course not, Sara. Just feed them plenty of pasta fazul and keep them reading "Calvin and Hobbes. "

Monday, April 02, 2007

Full of Hot Air

At the risk of politicizing what should be a scientific discussion, the Supreme Court has ruled that that U.S. environmental officials have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming. This begins to cave in the arguments among a certain contingent of Americans (such as President Pinhead) who do not believe that such things exist. Admittedly it was a close vote - five to four - but if the Supreme Court is even discussing such matters, global warming must be real.
Pinhead has opposed mandatory controls on greenhouse gases as harmful to the U.S. economy, and the administration instead has called for voluntary programs. These voluntary programs, wherein industry was asked to pinky-swear that they would regulate itself since a whiny Environmental Protection Agency insisted that it lacked the power to enforce such regulations. "Even if we had the power, it would be unwise to do so and that would impair Pinhead's ability to negotiate with developing nations to cut emissions," the EPA said. The gas in question here was more hot air than carbon dioxide, but now Democrats in Congress can put pressure on lawmakers to push forward with first-ever caps on carbon dioxide emissions. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens (formerly the bassist for Led Zeppelin) said the EPA could not avoid its legal obligation by noting the scientific uncertainty surrounding some features of climate change and concluding it would be better not to regulate at this time. The four dissenting justices covered their ears, closed their eyes, and said "Muhmuhmuhmuh, I'm not listening, muhmuhmuhmuh."
Somewhere, Al Gore is dancing around his living room in his underwear, singing into the head of his Oscar to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll".

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Who Gives A Hoot?

How far wrong could you go with a "Girls Gone Wild" restaurant? Well, if one considers all the various and sundry themed restaurants there are to choose from, it doesn't seem like too big a stretch. In fact, it almost seems like a bit of truth in advertising compared to the more subtlety themed "Hooters". Many years ago I had an occasion to have a tasty beverage and some spicy appetizers at what used to be an Azar's Big Boy. It had been converted into a Hooters by replacing the sign out front, carting off the enormous fiberglass Big Boy, and supplying the wait staff with t-shirts that appeared at least one size too small. I didn't stay long, probably because I had retired from binge drinking (with my "Thing That Would Not Heave" title intact) and I had the sense that four dollars for a Coke was just the start of a whole lot of trouble. Or at least an excessive bar tab.
I've never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, though I have a t-shirt or two (they fit me better than those poor Hooter ladies). I once ducked into a Planet Hollywood, but headed right back out again after reading the menu from right to left. If I'm going to pay twelve dollars for a cheeseburger, then it had better be in Key West and autographed by Jimmy Buffett. And I might have enjoyed a trip to the Fashion Cafe, but a restaurant run by supermodels seemed like a doomed notion from the start. The Rainforest Cafe has used my hard-earned dollars to help carve out another chunk of old growth to make laminated kids menus in the shape of various endangered species - but I do so love the Sparkling Volcano dessert.
So why not "Girls Gone Wild" Cafe/Bistro/Ristorante? "This is going to be about fun, lifestyle, youth, sun. It's about everything 'Girls Gone Wild,'" founder Joe Francis said. "It's going to be sexy without being sexual." He sees franchises popping up mainly in college towns in the United States and around the world. Wherever there's a need for pitchers of beer, fried potato skins, and "women who want to feel sexy, exiting and edgy." Does that come with fries?