Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mission: Implausible

The blank stares of children, followed by the sadly rhetorical question, "What'd I do?" is one of those things that drives me buggy. These often occur while standing in the middle of a pile of debris or over another crying child. The oblivious state they assume is almost always more annoying than the actual infraction.
That's why it was so nice to see that "the White House" has finally admitted fault on the "Mission: Accomplished" banner. President Pinhead "is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said `mission accomplished' for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday. "And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner. And I recognize that the media is going to play this up again tomorrow, as they do every single year."
For those of you keeping score at home, it has been five years since ol' Pointy-Noggin told us, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended." Five years and thousands of casualties later, we are still waiting for combat operations to cease. One might feel a trace of sympathy for Ms. Perino, who has the inglorious task of trailing after the parade of horses like Tony Snow and Ari Fleischer. As the Pinhead Regime winds down, she's got a lot of 'splainin' to do. Back in October 2003, Pinhead disavowed any connection with the "Mission Accomplished" message. He said the White House had nothing to do with the banner; a spokesman later said the ship's crew asked for the sign and the White House staff had it made by a private vendor.
Five years ago, the President of the United States flew onto the deck of an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet, then stood in front of a thirty foot banner proclaiming: Mission: Accomplished. For five years he has stood there, with bodies piling up around his feet with that blank look on his face, saying, "What'd I do?"
He lied.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It Ain't Over Til It's Over

I've always liked Joe Walsh. It certainly doesn't hurt that he wrote "Rocky Mountain Way" and "Life's Been Good", but he also had what I believe is the definitive opinion on demise of the Eagles. Joe has suggested that as far as he was concerned, he was the only member of the Eagles for a stretch of time from 1980 until the most recent reunions, since the other guys all lost interest or their tempers and left. He was the only one who never quit.
While we are being bombarded with Obama's crazy clergy connections and Hilary's illusory hardscrabble working class upbringing and McCain's wistful inability to control the thoughts and deeds of his own supporters, nobody told Ron Paul that he was finished. Ron's a Republican Representative from Texas, and he's still running for president of the United States. Yes, a Republican from Texas, but wait: "Our continued presence in Iraq is serving as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. A recent National Intelligence Estimate found that the U.S. presence in Iraq has had a 'rejuvenating' effect on the terrorist group."
Doctor Ron Paul wrote that. And he means it. "On my first day as commander-in-chief, I will direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our commanders on the ground to devise and execute a plan to immediately withdraw our troops in the safest manner possible." Well, how about that? Or this: "The biggest threat to your privacy is the government." He's worked to repeal the Patriot Act.
Now go ahead and ask me if I'm voting for Ron Paul.
Well, in a word, "No." Because he also says, "I want to abolish the unconstitutional, wasteful Department of Education and return its functions to the states." School vouchers. Brrrrr. Then there's that whole "Pro-Life"/"Pro-Gun" dichotomy. Yuck.
In the end, I'm glad to know that Joe is still out there making music, and Ron's busy keeping our electorate honest, but I don't think I'll be having either of them over for tea anytime soon.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Evils of Western Civilization Barbie

Next year, Barbie will turn fifty. Mattel's iconic doll is officially rounding the mid-life bend and heading over the hill. Our gal is no stranger to controversy: In 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with a book entitled "How to Lose Weight" which advised: "Don't eat." The doll also came with pink bathroom scales reading one hundred and ten pounds, which would be around thirty five pounds underweight for a woman five feet nine inches tall. In 1997 Barbie's body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs. That and maybe just a little more realistic depiction of the female body image.
Even at her age, she can still create a stir. In September 2003 the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls, saying that she did not conform to the ideals of Islam. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful." In Middle Eastern countries there is an alternative doll called Fulla which is similar to Barbie but is designed to be more acceptable to an Islamic market. Fulla is not made by the Mattel Corporation, and Barbie is still available in other Middle Eastern countries including Egypt. In Iran, Sara and Dara dolls are available as an alternative to Barbie. "The appearance of personalities such as Barbie, Batman, Spiderman and Harry Potter and ... computer games and movies are all a danger warning to the officials in the cultural arena," said Iran's Prosecutor General Ghorban Ali Dori Najafabadi. Iranian markets have been inundated with smuggled Western toys in recent years partly due to a dramatic rise in purchasing power as a result of increased oil revenues.
One wonders what the enterprising black marketeer would get for a "Happy Family Midge" doll, with detachable pregnant stomach and baby. Interesting that there was no mention of GI Joes.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

This Must Be The Place

This is the day that we celebrate the birth of my younger brother and our homestead. Eleven years ago we asked him to drop by and lift every stick of furniture we owned at time, as well as our carelessly boxed earthly possessions. When we were all done, we fed him and a few other hearty souls pizza and drank Coca Cola from two liter bottles in tribute to his patience and good will.
Over the years, we have used this celebration to come together to marvel at the way time paints in broad strokes. After all, eleven years ago there was a Democrat in the White House, and most of us had yet to fret about Y2K. Bosnia was the international hot-spot, and George Lucas was still trying to make good on his promise to "finish" Star Wars. My own son was still a pending concern, and though we had done everything we could think of to be prepared for his arrival, we were at the very bottom of one of the steepest learning curves imaginable.
Fast forward a decade and some change, and things look awfully different. The home that we bought has been repaired and appraised and painted and reconfigured in big and small ways. I have watched my younger brother's employment history go through many of the same twists and turns. Sometimes I scratch my head, since I can't imagine such easy transitions in my job. I am always amazed at how he finds a way to keep himself a job that allows him to become the artist he wants to be.
Come to think of it, maybe it's just the outside world that keeps changing, and here at Rancho DeLuxe we make our little improvements without altering the foundation. Both of my brothers help me realize this on a regular basis. I guess that's what having a home is all about.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Broken News

If a tree fell in a forest and there wasn't a twenty-four hour cable news network there to cover it, would it really have happened?
This morning I took a brief tour of morning television before jumping into my day and was greeted by CNN's Headline News. They had a couple of major events that they were covering, so I sat, transfixed, waiting to be told what they were at the top of the hour. Returning from the briefest of commercial breaks, I was given lots of different vantage points of the devastation brought about by a tractor trailer ramming into a train station in Chicago. Although this occurred during last night's rush hour, there were still plenty of eyewitness accounts and amateur video to be shown. Two people lost their lives and twenty-one more were injured. The truck driver was taken to a hospital, and the speculation about what caused this mess continued to swirl. That speculation should keep the story in heavy rotation until a cause (terrorists?) can be determined.
The next story was about a shark attack at a San Diego beach. A triathlete was killed Friday morning, and the news impact was centered more on the fact that public beaches were being closed in San Diego as a precaution. Never mind that this was the first shark attack fatality in in San Diego County since 1994, and prior to that, the last known fatal attack in the area was in 1959. Details on the shark's religious or political affiliations, or if the shark had been drinking at the time of the attack.
Don't get me wrong, I believe the loss of any life is a tragedy, but I began to wonder why we don't see more video of trucks pulling safely into loading docks or people going into the water where no man-eating predators had recently been sighted. And we know the answer: Death is news, and death is a tragedy, therefore news is a tragedy. Especially when you have to fill twenty-four hours with it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

To The Point

The other night, my wife stumbled upon a sad little picture of a bull terrier who got the worst of an encounter with a porcupine. I am still unclear as to exactly what drew her Internet browser to such an image, but it immediately sent me into a nostalgic reverie.
We had a dachshund. For nine months out of the year, he was a suburban out-in-the-back-yard-occasional-walk dog. But every summer, we would pack him up with all our essential items and spend the summer living our lives in a cabin in the woods. Rupert had the run of acres of pine and aspen trees, along with all the wildlife that filled them. Bred for hunting badgers, it was Rupert's destiny to run afoul of many of the more low-slung creatures of the forest. He caught the business end of a porcupine on a number of occasions.
It became a familiar scenario: We would hear Rupert's "hunting bark", letting us know that he had something cornered, or that Timmy had fallen down a well. After several minutes of this persistent alert, we would inevitably hear his bark go up several octaves to a yelp, and he would come racing out from under some stump or pile of rock with a new white swatch sprayed across his muzzle or flank. We became very familiar with the cruel construction of the porcupine quill as we gently pulled them from Rupert's trembling hide. We always counted them, as if each attack would somehow bring the realization in him that these were sharp and pointy beasts who ought to be left alone. We kept most of them in Dixie cups as souvenirs. My father stuck a few of them in the band of his battered straw cowboy hat as a reminder, for us.
Rupert finally bought a clue when he finally tangled with a porcupine that left him with one quill lodged underneath his skin. This required a trip to the vet, something that we had avoided in all previous dog/porcupine mishaps. My younger brother, whose baptism of porcupine quills had him running inside our cabin and locking the door in fear of a rodent that could hurl razor sharp projectiles at him from vast distances, was chosen to go along for that visit. Rupert came through with a neat little incision. My brother got the worst of it, while standing over the operating table watching the procedure, he felt his head begin to swim and he passed out. My younger brother has toured the country in a van as a roadie for a rock band. He has lived in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. He worked as a dry cleaner. I can only surmise that it was his brush with a porcupine that made him the pillar of strength that we see today. Rupert retired from chasing burrowing animals, and he lived out the remainder of his years with a scar to remind him of his youth. But I suspect if there is a Doggie Heaven, he's hunkered down under a rock somewhere, barking ferociously at what he hopes is a fluffy toy, and not a pincushion.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


It's the year 2022... People are still the same. They'll do anything to get what they need. And they need SOYLENT GREEN.
That's a tagline from the 1973 film, titled appropriately enough, "Soylent Green". It took its name from one of the most nutritious of the Soylent (Soy+Lentil, get it?) line. Soylent Red and Yellow could never match the zest and delicious aftertaste of their Green cousin. Fresh food is a luxury, and the "high energy food concentrates" from the Soylent Corporation feed the masses. The Green version is supposed to be made from plankton, and it quickly becomes the favorite among the food-wafer consuming crowd. Couple this with a government sponsored euthanasia program, and you've got the beginnings of a real ugly little food chain, as our hero discovers.
How sad that Chuck Heston didn't live to see the world food crisis that is presently erupting. It's not 2022, but it might as well be. I have grown used to seeing images of starving people from foreign lands. Weren't we all raised with the need to clean our plates since there was somebody starving in China, or Africa?
Imagine my surprise when I heard on the radio that Sam's Club, a unit of retail giant Wal-Mart, said on Wednesday it was capping sales of rice at four bulk bags per customer per visit. The previous day, rival Costco Wholesale Corp reported mounting demand for rice and flour as worried customers stocked up. In my mind I pictured food riots being dispersed by giant front-loading tractors. And that's when I thought of my chocolate Power Bar. What are those things made of, anyway?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sobering Thought

According to a government report, fifteen percent of adult drivers nationally report driving under the influence of alcohol in the previous year. Does that seem low? It did to me. Up in Wisconsin, the average is more like one in four. That sounds a little more accurate. Maybe the folks in the land of a thousand lakes is just a little more honest than the rest of the country. Either that or they were drunk at the time they were taking the survey.
It got me to thinking about the sad but true number of times I had gotten behind the wheel when I had no earthly right. I can remember when I felt it was a testament to my manhood that I could operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated. I used to pride myself on this skill. Many was the time that I loaded up my metallic blue VW Bug and drove a carload of inebriated individuals from one drinking establishment to another. When that was over, I drove them all back to my place, where we drank some more.
In hindsight, I suppose I was doing the planet a favor by ending the evening at home, where the hearty souls who lasted that long could pass out on my couch and not press the edge of that particular envelope. But when I think of the number of times I drove drunk, it must certainly have skewed the data for others. What are the chances that I could have driven drunk for the better part of a decade, mostly on the weekends, and never wound up in jail? I know people who have had the misfortune of running into a sobriety checkpoint after a glass of wine. That wasn't me. I was the one pounding down the beer and then roaring across town to get to the liquor store before it closed.
And yet, here I sit, all in one piece, with nary an arrest on my permanent record. Do I feel embarrassed today? Sometimes. Mostly I feel incredibly lucky, and glad that I don't live in Wisconsin. Those people are nuts.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hard To Believe

Last week, my mother-in-law sent me an e-mail detailing all of the amazing coincidences paralleling the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. You know the one: Lincoln was elected in 1860, Kennedy in 1960, one hundred years apart. The first name of Lincoln's private secretary was John, the last name of Kennedy's private secretary was Lincoln. Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and fled to a warehouse. Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theater. And it goes on and on. She asked me what I thought of it. I wrote back that I believed that if you stared at any group of random bits and pieces that the human mind would eventually create links between them: The butterfly effect.
And now, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy in an audiotape Tuesday accused Shiite Iran of trying to discredit the Sunni al-Qaida terror network by spreading the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the September 11 attacks. Sounds crazy, right? Not to many living in the Middle East. Al-Zawahri accused Hezbollah's Al-Manar television of starting the rumor. "The purpose of this lie is clear — (to suggest) that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it," he said.
By another bizarre coincidence, my mother-in-law's e-mail also included the "truth" about the careful folding of a new U.S. twenty dollar bill. It reveals not only an image that looks vaguely like a burning Pentagon, but a startling if not equally vague image of the twin towers aflame. What were the chances that all of these things would occur to me over the course of just one week? I'm going to have to say, "One hundred percent." Now that's what I call a conspiracy.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Captain Sensible

I got this great insight in my e-mail today: "Now that I think about it, I suppose you always were the cool rain on my rabid sunshine." It was part of a larger discussion about youthful idealism, and it came to me as little to no surprise that this friend of mine from oh-so-many-years-ago pictured me as a kind of psychic storm cloud. She was being very nice about it, I thought, considering how many parades I had rained on of hers alone.
But that's been my method of operation for as long as I can remember. Phrases such as, "I hate to be the one to tell you this," or simply, "You really think that'll work?" just seem to fall out of my head without much help. I like to play this off as being a skeptic, or from time to time, being "helpful." Considering the number of creative types that I have surrounded myself with over the years, I'm surprised that I've gotten away with it as long as I have.
Of course I have the best intentions for bursting bubbles. My wife has suffered my overbearing practicality on any number of occasions. We haven't painted this or purchased that, all in the name of playing it safe. I like to keep track of just how often my point of view has been vindicated, when the real cost analysis of living just a little closer to the edge gets ignored. As I have grown older, the safety and comfort of the middle pulls ever stronger.
Has this made me less idealistic? Perhaps. I still prefer my politics on the left-hand side, and I know that my hedonistic period ended just a short time ago, in geological terms. Which is why it is such a big deal to me every time I decide to blow off cleaning the house in favor of catching a movie on a Friday evening. I guard my own impulses carefully because I feel that I lack the conviction to carry them out. I hide my artistic light under a bushel. But every so often it erupts into that same "rabid sunshine", and I revel in that part of me that can take a chance, until I hear that voice in my head: "You can't be serious." Well, sadly, I guess I can.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Super 8

It really was a magic time. When we would be sitting around on a weekend afternoon, trying to come up with something that a group of eight to twelve-year-old boys could do. My father owned a Super-8 movie camera. After a few short minutes of story pitches, we rode our bikes down to K-Mart and bought a roll of film. The next few hours were spent making a film.
In those days, it was all about what would fit on that one roll of film. That gave us three minutes and twenty seconds to tell our tale. Initially, we were all stars in my older brother's productions. He was fond of the classics: a western, The Hunchback, Bonnie and Clyde. In his version of Dracula, the title character wore a paste of flour and water, and after a good deal of coercion, a thin line of red on his lips. I played the werewolf assistant, and though I was relieved not to have to wear lipstick, I had handfuls of fur stuck to my face and hands with Elmer's glue. As the day's shooting wore on, my comfort level decreased, and I believed this enabled my performance.
When my older brother moved on from behind the camera, I took his place. We knew very little about splicing, so all of our editing had to take place in the camera. That meant we had to film everything in sequence, which made our stories incredibly linear. When we made our "Tank Movie" with many of my friend's army of miniature soldiers, artillery and armored vehicles, we had to save our explosions for the climactic battle, since we needed all our pieces intact until then. The rest of the effects were achieved by finger-deep trenches in the sand, filled with lighter fluid. At the end of the day, we had piles of molten slag that had once been toys. The sacrifice, we decided, was worth the spectacle, or so we believed.
Back in those days, there was a week's turnaround time for film processing. After we shot a roll, I would hand it over to my father, who would drop it off at Look Photo for us, and we would wait patiently for the return of the magic yellow envelope that would contain our finished reel. Then I would call everyone up to my house for a screening in my basement. The first showing was always straight through, with plenty of critical appraisal for our efforts. Then there were plenty of additional projections, this time dwelling on the fast, slow, freeze-frame abilities of our projector. The favorite was always the reverse viewing. Many of our films were spared from ignominy because they were so highly amusing to watch backward.
Eventually we became more independent, in that we used K-Mart's drop-off processing service. I made "The Six-Million Dollar Mistake" as a timely bit of parody of Lee Majors' main contribution to our cultural lexicon. I even went "on location" in the hills around our mountain cabin to make "The Rock Monster". The title character's makeup consisted of half of his face being painted red, and the other green, topped off with my Campagnolo bike hat. My mother even had a cameo in that one.
By the end of the sixth grade, I made my own Dracula film, "Drac Comes Back", stepping outside my neighborhood comfort zone, using my classmates for actors and crew. I even had a soundtrack for that one: Elton John's "Funeral For A Friend." After that, I found new ways to fill my time. Junior high was a much more social time for many, but for me it was more isolating. I didn't pick up the camera again until I was in college. By that time, I had a head full of ideas, access to a movieola, and a mild talent for cutting tiny pieces of film together in the order I desired. This period had its own charm, but in some ways the magic was gone. It wasn't happening in the camera, I was manipulating it with my hands. Many of the results were just as pleasing, but the secret was known.
I was watching my son strap our video camera to the top of his remote control car last week. Good for him.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Every Day

The flyer we sent home with our kids yesterday announced that we would be celebrating Earth Day from nine until eleven in the morning today. There were plenty of grunts and grimaces at the suggestion of spending any of their precious weekend at school, but some of my students seemed to be be considering it. On the way out, I had to admonish several of the boys in my class not to take the term "flyer" literally and chuck them onto the playground for the rest of us to pick up the following day.
Meanwhile, up the hill from my house, plans were being made for a much more ambitious program, from nine until noon. I know what kind of planning it takes to get volunteers to show up for any amount of time: coordinating tools and snacks and people and all of the intricate infrastructure that drives any effort. Still, it was the "Day" part that stuck in my head as I rode my bike from the end of my school's Earth Day work party to my son's. We have accomplished a lot at both sites over the years. There are more trees at both schools. Both of these urban Oakland schools have gardens growing flowers and vegetables. Kids have planted things that are growing. My son took a bottle of Ranch dressing to school the other day to enjoy a salad that he picked himself.
It made me think of Black History Month. Why should it be confined to one month, and the shortest one of the year, at that? Women's History? Same thing. I remember the old saw about Mother's Day and Father's Day that kids whine about at some point in their lives. "Why isn't there a Kids' Day?" The answer I heard back then is the answer I use now: "Every day is Kids' Day." And so it should be for Earth Day. I don't need a free T-shirt to pick up litter. I don't need bagels and cream cheese to be coaxed into pulling a few weeds. I invite you to keep the celebration going all year 'round.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Misery, Death, and Hope

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death." - Anne Frank
Getting out of bed this morning, I was treated to the news that Danny "Phantom Dan" Frederici had died. Losing a member of the E Street Band was a colossally bad way to start a day. The music that came out of that man brought me more joy than most of your average keyboardists. I was so impressed, I even bothered to remember his hometown: Flemington, New Jersey. And now he's gone.
My day at school was fueled by my own sense of loss, coupled with the mild to serious antipathy of my fourth graders. It was a struggle at times, but I made it through, in part because I kept thinking about those words from Anne Frank. We were reading her story in class last week. I rode a number of waves of sadness until the day was over. When I was on my way home, I heard someone calling my name. Doubling back, I found a group of kids shooting hoop at a nearby playground. There was one of my students with his brothers and his sister, yelling at me to come see what they could do. As it turns out, the rim on the basket was low enough for the sister, who was the oldest, to almost slam dunk. It was incredibly refreshing to see kids in their element, playing and having fun. They were all glad to see me, and were happy to share with me all their enthusiasm and plans for the weekend. I even got them to consider dropping by the school tomorrow for our Earth Day cleanup.
I rode off with a smile for the first time that day. A few blocks later, I heard more children's voices, calling to "Mister! On the bicycle." These weren't kids from my school, I was in a different neighborhood now. "Do you wanna buy some juice?" There were three of them: probably third graders from their look and level of excitement. I saw they had cartons of juice stacked up on the porch of their house. As I rolled up to he curb, the little girl in pigtails rushed up to me. "Do you want apple, orange, or fruit punch?"
The teacher in me had to ask, "Where'd you guys get the juice?"
"From school. We're selling it to raise money for the kids in Laguna!"
Enterprising and honest. "How much?"
I got three different answers, from a quarter to a dollar. I asked if they had a clean cup. They got even more excited. "Right here," cried the boy as he jumped up to grab one of the red plastic cups they had stacked next to the cartons of juice.
I pulled a dollar from my wallet. "I'll have the orange." The second girl opened one of the small cartons and emptied it into the cup. To my surprise, it was still cold, and since I had missed my lunch dealing with my classroom dramas, quite refreshing. "Now don't go using this cup on your next customer," I reminded them as I finished and handed the cup back to them.
"Thanks, mister!" They gushed. "Thank you for being our first customer!" I rode home feeling really good for the first time in weeks. People really are good at heart.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


The weekend's almost here, and that means another opportunity to rend and torture our son's self-esteem. He's still working out the kinks in his sleepover technique, and Saturday looms as yet another test of his ability to spend the night away from home. This has an added degree of difficulty: In just two weeks, his class will be going on a week-long trip to Science Camp. No pressure.
To his credit, he did make it through the night last Saturday, all the way up the hill at his friend's house. He stayed up until around eleven playing video games, and when the other boys went off to bed, he stayed up and read. Fifteen minutes after that, our phone rang, and he told us that he just wanted to say goodnight. He sounded a little uneasy, but he never asked to come home. He was determined to stick it out. My wife and I did a silent cheer and hoped that we would all drift off to dreamland in our various locations.
Alas, it wasn't to be. That was the first of five calls, twenty to thirty minutes apart, each just a little more desperate. Still, he never did surrender, he just wanted us to help him get to sleep. Finally, a little after one in the morning, my wife was able to calm him down enough to listen to a story that put him to sleep. Then we were stuck with the quandary of what to do with the phone. If we hung up, the dial tone on the other end might break through the sonorous breathing of our exhausted son, and we would have to start all over. My wife put the phone under a pillow, and we rolled over and went to sleep ourselves.
The reckoning the next day was partly from lack of sleep, but mostly from a profound doubt about what the next step should be. I know that my son is at least a third-generation victim of sleep deprivation. He has never been comfortable going to sleep by himself. I recognize this from my own childhood, when I used to have my father come in and count the number of songs that I could stay awake for as the night stretched on in front of me. The hours left to sleep decreased as my anxiety mounted. The desperation I used to feel on those Sunday nights before returning to school still show up in my life before I start something new. Being away from home only exacerbates the situation. My mother lived through much of the same in her youth.
What can I tell my son? It gets easier. You get used to it. You find other things to think about. At some level, I'm pleased and happy that my son is so very much in love with his home that he doesn't want to leave it. That must mean we've done something right, but now it's about time that we need to start the hostage negotiations. We've got to set him free. I don't want to be the reason that he didn't go to Science Camp, and I don't want to be the reason he had to come home after that first night.
We've got another couple of weekends to make it work. It's not as much about building a comfort zone as much as giving him survival skills. I know exactly how he feels, and that's why I feel such horrible ambivalence. I know someday he'll be gone for real, and then I'll wish that he would come back, if only just to visit. Cat's in the cradle and all that jazz. But I want my son to see just a little more of the world than I have seen, and if that starts with fifth grade Science Camp, so be it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Barack Obama picked up a key endorsement today. From Hilary Clinton: "Yes, yes, yes," she said when pressed about Obama's electability during a campaign debate six days before the Pennsylvania primary.
Okay, we can't really expect her to gush about his qualifications just yet, but it does start to right the Democratic ship, which has been rowing in circles in the middle of the lake for some time now. One would hope that they would save some of their fight for the road to the White House, not just the nomination.
Along those lines, Jon Stewart was making an interesting point the other night in response to the assertion that Obama was "an elitist". He asked, "Doesn't 'elite' mean good? Is that not something we're looking for in a president anymore?" Jon went on to say that he didn't want just someone who was "elite", he wanted someone who was "embarrassingly superior to me."
In a much related item, Bruce Springsteen posted a letter on his web site today, writing that Senator Obama "speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past thirty-five years." Flacks were quick to point out that Bruce also endorsed John Kerry in the last presidential election, and we all know how that turned out (heh-heh). A lot was made back then about how John's IQ was actually lower than President Pinhead's. Four years later, we see what leaving the Pinhead in charge has done for us, and one wonders if the elitist ketchup millionaire might have been a better choice after all. All I am saying, to paraphrase John Lennon, is give elite a chance.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Hey everybody, the Pope is here! In his first papal visit, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the U.S. today, and to his credit, after he met our Pinhead President, he still decided to stay. He also said that he was "deeply ashamed" of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has run through the American church. He had no official comment as yet on who has the firmer handshake, Pinhead or his wife.
But back to less savory details: The U.S. church has paid out two billion dollars in abuse costs since 1950, most of that in just the last six years. Who would have imagined that abuse would cost so much. Remember when abuse was free? The Pope pledged that pedophiles would not be priests in the Catholic Church."I do not wish to talk at this moment about homosexuality, but about pedophilia, which is another thing," he said. "We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry. It is more important to have good priests than many priests. We will do everything possible to heal this wound."
Ah yes, the wound. Please feel free at this point to break into small groups to discuss the meaning and significance of "this wound." The lives of the children who had their lives destroyed? The trust in clergy? The public image of the Catholic Church itself? To be fair, the priests who have been found guilty of these crimes and their subsequent cover up are not found exclusively on these shores. "Holy men" in Canada, Europe, and Latin America have been tried and convicted. Still, it's here in the United States that most of the "wounding" has taken place. There were six hundred and ninety-one new accusations in 2007 alone, according to an annual report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As head of the Vatican agency that enforces adherence to Catholic doctrine, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the Pope) was heavily involved in gaining Vatican approval for the reforms U.S. bishops proposed for the American church. The bishops have since released several reports analyzing the scandal and have pledged that all credibly accused priests will be pulled from public ministry. Not removed from the ministry, mind you, just removed from public ministry. They get to keep their jobs, they just get moved to more discrete location.
Come to think of it, maybe Pinhead and the Pope have more in common than I realized.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Some small-town voters...

Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances cling to membership in fraternal organizations that exclude women and minorities.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances turn to a life of crime.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances take up knitting.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances run for public office.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances volunteer for military service where they can cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances write beautiful poetry.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances write lengthy computer web-logs, or "blogs" about their situation.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances hold bake sales at their schools to help raise money to buy their children better playground equipment.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances chew sugarless gum.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances will make their choice for President the day they go to the polls.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances are more concerned with their vote for the next American Idol.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances wish the media would stop pestering them for comments about being small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances order from the catalog.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances will read this and laugh.
Some small-town voters bitter about their economic circumstances will be too busy.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Birthday Party Monster

What could I have been thinking? I missed the big guy's birthday, and not just any birthday. On April 7, King Kong turned seventy-five years old. He doesn't look a day over forty feet tall.
In hindsight, I should have known that something was going on, since WTBS and TNT were taking the time out of their busy programming day to simulcast Peter Jackson's remake to commemorate the occasion. A lot of folks sneered at that one, saying that three hours plus of a giant ape chasing a pretty blond girl was just excessive. To which I would say, "Excessive? Maybe, but necessary."
Necessary because, long before I starred in films made by my older brother and later made my own, I learned film magic by watching Merian C. Cooper's original. That little beauty clocks in at just about half the running time of its 2005 remake, but it hits all the same high points: Skull Island appearing out of the fog. The first look at that really big gorilla. The battle with the Allosaurus. The crash through the wall. The rampage through New York and the climb up the Empire State Building. The girl in the hairy paw.
My mother got me out of bed when I was seven to watch it the first time, and I'm still watching today. The psychological aspects of the story aren't that hard to dissect, and the subtext may be what gives the story such an enduring appeal. Sure, it's "Beauty and the Beast", as Carl Denham will tell you more than half a dozen times in the course of the film, but it's bigger than that. Lots bigger.
Or maybe it's lots smaller. The real King Kong was just eighteen inches tall when he prowled around Skull Island. When he got to New York, he had grown an additional six inches to appear ever more menacing - at a staggering two feet. It is a testament to the skill of Willis O'Brien, the special effects genius who animated the fur-covered armature that became one of the most beloved screen characters of all time, that size doesn't really matter. This stop-motion puppet has moments of comedy and pathos mixed in with all the stomping around. Dino De Laurentis may have imagined that people would cry when they saw his Kong die, but it they did, it was only upon reflection of the one, true King.
Happy Birthday, Kong.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Big Break

I was once a part of a student film. Not in the way that Robert Duvall ended up in George Lucas' "THX-1138", in that I didn't have to shave my head or anything, but there was still an arduous day's work involved. My older brother's friend Tom was making a movie for a class in high school entitled "Three Boys And George". It told the story of a trio of boys out for the day at the mall, when one of them happens upon a quarter on the ground.
I was the kid who found the quarter. The quarter was the "George" part of the title. To get a sense of how long ago this took place, finding twenty-five cents was significant in the lives of a group of kids seven to eleven years old. In the film, the dilemma was trying to find just the right thing on which to spend our new-found wealth. There was a candy store, a toy store, and eventually a row of pinball machines. My older brother, who was acting as cameraman and visual consultant, suggested that I pantomime my worries about the impropriety of these pleasure machines. I guess my ad-lib didn't meet our director's approval, since it never made it to the final cut.
The three boys came upon an arcade machine that we could all agree on: a remote control helicopter in a great glass case. We all hopped about in front of it for a moment or two, expressing our enthusiasm, and then I reached into my pocket to produce the quarter. To my shock and dismay, it was nowhere to be found. My little brother and my friend took this news even less well, and were ready to throttle me. In one of my finest moments on film, I improvised a quick check of my back pockets, even though the pants I was wearing had none. Needless to say, the quarter was still nowhere to be found, and the other two boys began to inflict bodily harm upon me as we cut to a shot of the quarter, a few short feet away, laying back on the ground.
It wasn't Chaplin. It wasn't D.W. Griffith. It was a five minute story that taught me a lot about what I would eventually learn all over again in college film classes. I took a lot of those classes, but I never learned more in a day than I did on location with "Three Boys And George".

Friday, April 11, 2008

Package Deal

Here is how I know that packaging is evil: When I worked for Arby's, way back in the previous century, our franchise was run by a pair of guys named "Mike and Cowboy". I am not making these names up. I never learned to distinguish one from the other, since they rarely appeared separately, and they didn't hang out much on the late night shifts that I ended up managing. What I do know for sure was the apocryphal tale about Mike and Cowboy on the first day that one of their restaurants started serving fries. They were in the back room with a scale, and when they weighed a small order of fries and found out that it weighed exactly the same as a large order of fries, according to our district manager, they both began to do a little dance.
Americans will always pay more for a pretty package, even if the cruddy wax paper bag weighs exactly the same as the flashy cardboard carton. My good friend and confidante from the great state of New Jersey used to buy most of his beer based on how cool the bottle looked. We drank a great many bottles of some imported swill that came in a white porcelain bottle. The connection to urinals was just a little too strong for me. I also remember the glee that we all shared when Miller began selling their beer in cases with handles on them. This enabled us to carry them sideways, with one hand. We called them "Briefcase Full Of Booze." It was all too soon a matter for recycling anyway, but it was enough to get us out of the store, giddy with our purchases.
This trend may have begun when I was a small boy, regularly treated to all the best new treats that the grocery store at which my aunt worked had to offer. There was Goober 'n' Grape: Peanut butter and jelly in the same jar. It came in a glass jar so that you could see the contents all swirled together in all their brown and purple glory. Clanky chocolate syrup came in a robot shaped squeeze bottle. That most certainly beat Hershey's dumb old steel can. I learned from my mother the practical concerns of buying based on value, but I was still regularly victimized by anything "new" or "improved". Gel toothpaste, toothpaste that sparkled, toothpaste with stripes, toothpaste with mouthwash built right in all seemed like such magnificent innovations that we would be poorer for not having at least trying them, especially when they came in a revolutionary new pump!
Now that I am the master of my own household, and I am asked, periodically, for my input on purchases made for our little family, I try to keep my responses on the practical side. The "refrigerator-friendly" twelve pack of Coca-Cola was something I couldn't pass up, and my son and I both favor any sort of flavor-added potato chip to those plain old fried spuds any day. We buy a lot of bulk foods, and my wife helps keep us in line when it comes to the creeping evil that is packaging. But every so often, when she has a weak moment, or when no one responsible is looking, I'll sneak a little Blastin' Green Heinz Ketchup into our basket. Just for fun.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mansion On The Hill

Come to think of it, I think it would be a version of hell to live in a house at the top of the street that my teacher rode his bike past every night. And furthermore, it would only add to the torment to have my grandparents be extremely friendly with my teacher, who would often stop and chat at the end of a long day. That's where one of the girls in my class lives.
Shelly's family, brothers and cousins and aunts and even her mom have been going to my school for years before I ever got there. Given the number of choices they have, we take it as a compliment that they continue to send generation after generation to us for their schooling. That kind of legacy does leave a mark, however. Shelly knows that at the end of a particularly bad day, I might just stop by the family homestead and have a little face-to-face with grandma and grandpa. To be fair, I have made it my practice to drop in when she has had a very good day as well.
Still, it's the familiarity that spooks her. Today, when she was starting to unravel a little under the stress of having to go to a little extra math instruction, there was some question about whether or not I would be making a visit after school. Shelly was very grumpy: "I wish my grandparents never lived on the same street as this stupid school." I gave her some time, and let her make peace with the fact that forces outside her control were conspiring to get her to go to math intervention. When at last I could see that she was done seething, I approached her again.
"Shelly, I think it's really important for you to go to math group this afternoon. You're really close to passing, and this extra help could put you right over the top."
I could see her letting go, but not all the way. "I'll go," she said, then added emphatically, "for you."
This evening when I rode past the house on the hill, most of the family, including Shelly, were sitting out on the porch in the sunset. I stopped for a moment and told Shelly how proud I was of her from pulling herself back from the edge. "Was it so bad?"
She shook her head. "Mister Caven?"
"Can I go back tomorrow?"
I rode home with a smile on my face.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Carrying A Torch

It could be funny, if not for all the human suffering involved, the Olympic torch controversy as it winds its way past my neighborhood. I didn't get to go out and cheer or sneer. I had to work. There was no silly bits of video of the flame being doused by a fire extinguisher, or fearful roller-skating police putting out the fire before some zealous demonstrator got his mitts on it. That was London and Paris. Here in San Francisco, they simply played hide and seek with the thousands of spectators and demonstrators.
Keeping the route secret kept disruptions and participation to a minimum. At the opening ceremony, the first torchbearer took the flame from a lantern brought to the stage and held it aloft before running into a waterfront warehouse. A motorcycle escort departed, but the torchbearer was nowhere in sight. Officials drove the Olympic torch about a mile inland and handed it off to two runners away from protesters and media, and they began jogging toward the Golden Gate Bridge, in the opposite direction of the crowds waiting for it. More confusion followed, with the torch convoy apparently stopped near the bridge before heading southward to the airport.
Six years ago, when the Winter Olympics were being held in Salt Lake City, no less a personage than Willie Mays helped carry the torch through the streets of San Francisco. Coca-Cola and Chevrolet sponsored the whole show. It was a big deal. Now there is shame and acrimony.
A lot of questions have been raised since this whole brouhaha began. Why wasn't there more outrage when China was first being considered as a site for these Olympics? Where were the protesters when the torch was headed to its destination in that human rights question mark, the United States of America? Will any of this fuss solve the crisis in Tibet?
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." And so the fight continues, in the streets and on television screens around the world.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Price Of Change

All of this talk about change, both here in the blog and out in the "real world" has made me start to assess just how capable I will be to accept this potential tidal wave of difference that is rumored to be heading our way. We are guaranteed to have a woman or an African American candidate to vote for this November, though we could still end up with an octogenarian or a Clinton again. Been there, done that.
But what about the rest of my life? I confess to being a creature of habit. I enjoy my ruts, and I savor their familiarity as others might enjoy the bouquet of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of these strange fixations have become the subject of prior blogs, and it often shakes me to the core to have one of my ruts interrupted. My wife often says, with mild chagrin, that I can make something a habit just by deciding to.
An illustration: I missed Bruce Springsteen Saturday night. He was in the Bay Area, an hour away in San Jose, and I kept flinching in the direction of going for several weeks leading up to the show. The only other time that I missed a Springsteen show in my area code (more or less), was an intimate little gathering on the "Devils and Dust" tour. The show on Saturday night was sold out as well, but it was in a much larger venue, and at the last possible moment I was offered a pair of tickets. Not for free, mind you, but I did have access to "pretty good seats". What kept me from going? Those same ruts that made my Springsteen addiction possible. I couldn't imagine shaking myself out of the routine that I had already set in motion for the weekend. How could I find the money, time, and enthusiasm required for a Bruce show in just twenty-four hours?
I didn't go, and I gave myself fits by indulging in another one of my habits: checking out the set list from the previous night's show. The fact that he played the "Detroit Medley" was a hard enough pill to swallow, but finding out that he did "Fire" and "Bobby Jean" for the first time on this tour the night that I decided to save a little money and spend some quality time with my wife and son, well, that was just about enough to push me over the edge.
I suppose there is another way to look at this. I could let myself off the hook by rationalizing the notion that I will probably miss a few more shows, and this is becoming my new rut. Sure, that's it.
Change is hard.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Candy Coated Popcorn, Peanuts And A Pulitzer Prize

"I'll stake my Pulitzer on it!" - Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in "The Hudsucker Proxy"
Hang on to your hats, kids: Bob Dylan has just become one notch more imponderable. Bob received an honorary Pulitzer Prize on Monday, cited for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." And now, everyone must get stoned.
It was the first time that the Pulitzer judges have given a nod in the direction of rock and roll. Previously they had stuck primarily with classical music, with an occasional daring foray into jazz. The competitive prize for music this year was given to David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion." Lang told the Associate Press: "Bob Dylan is the most frequently played artist in my household so the idea that I am honored at the same time as Bob Dylan, that is humbling." Not quite the transcendent admiration of Shelley Duvall in "Annie Hall", but some pretty heady company.
Since the Pulitzer was given for his lyrics, it shouldn't bring out any of those "I hate the way he sings" issues, but it does raise this one: Who will be next? If Bob gets a Pulitzer, why not Brian Wilson? Lou Reed? Chuck Berry for heaven's sake? I could go on and on, but I would only be sandbagging my eventual response. If they are handing out Pulitzers for rock lyricists, I will wait patiently for Bruce Springsteen to be awarded his. Probably right after Neil Diamond.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Row Well, And Live

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, and so I greet today's news of Charlton Heston's passing with more than just a twinge of sorrow. More than any other movie star of his era, Mister Heston helped to pave the way for my future consciousness. Only a short while ago, here in this blog, I wrote about my deep and abiding affection for "Airport '75". Given his longevity in the movie business, I must not be alone in my appreciation for his rugged bravado.
If he had only been the star of "Planet of the Apes", I would have been a fan. As Colonel George Taylor, he showed up in my world as the first anti-hero. He was a tough guy who left earth to explore the stars, if only to escape the mess that he and the human race had left behind. He was a cynical son-of-a-gun, and I like that. Imagine his shock at the realization that he had never really left at all.
But it wasn't just "Apes". He was also "The Omega Man", long before Will Smith, and a whole lot tougher than Vincent Price. He could handle a machine gun and ride a motorcycle, or do chemical research to find a cure for the blood-borne pathogen that created a world full of zombies. He watched "Woodstock" enough times to memorize the stage announcements and drove a convertible Mustang. Add this to Detective Robert Thorn, who told us what "Soylent Green" really was, and you've got the makings of a real counter-culture hero.
It was near the end of "Soylent Green" that I first fell in love with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony: The Sixth. It plays over the assisted suicide of suicide of his mentor Sol, played by Edward G. Robinson. Besides being a lovely way to bring these two legends back together one last time after their epic beginning in "The Ten Commandments", it gave me a reason not to fear death: the music of Beethoven.
Then there was "Ben Hur". I loved that movie, even though I spent most of my youth terrified at the eventual appearance of the "Leopards" (lepers). The amazing set pieces, like the galley ships fighting and the iconic chariot race made it favorite Easter viewing. But the thing that I will always remember most is the image of Michelangelo's "Creation" from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel behind the credits. God's finger reaching out to touch Adam's was one of my first artistic inspirations. In college I even painted "The Sistine Floor" on one my dorm-mate's loft.
Can I forgive Chuck Heston for his right-wing NRA politics? I don't know if I have to. That wasn't the guy I was watching in the dark, for all those years. When I saw Michael Moore go after him in "Bowling For Columbine", it seemed like justice, but in hindsight, it just feels like opportunistic celebrity bashing. Do I agree with "My cold, dead hands"? Well, I guess now Michael Moore has his shot.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Tick, Tock

Cyndi Lauper once sang "Money Changes Everything". I don't think it's just money. You don't have to have money for things to change, trust me. Time is the thing that washes over the sands of life and slowly changes the shape and size of, well, everything. It's not a new sentiment, I know. In my mind I hear the strains of "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Cat's In The Cradle". It's been a very musical morning in my head.
It really began a couple of days ago, when my son got out of bed and we met, as we often do, in the bathroom. He looked up at me through bleary eyes and told me that he had a bad dream the night before. "It was sad," he said. I found this significant, since most mornings he doesn't acknowledge having dreams of any sort. I asked him what the sad part was, and he told me that he had dreamed that a bad guy had been using a Lego store as a front for he evil schemes, and in order to get rid of the bad guy, the Lego store had to be blown up. That was the sad part.
I know that he has been feeling the looming spectre of middle school just over his shoulder, and I told him that I thought maybe the Lego store getting blown up was kind of like leaving the little kid stuff in his life behind. I said that I remembered being ten, and sometimes I wished I could go back there too, before all of the switching classes and changing clothes for gym, and all those big kids.
He said, "I wish you were ten sometimes too."
"Why's that?"
"So we could spend more time together."
That moment made the rest of my week seem easy.
Then I was watching the Costa-Gravas film, "Missing". When I saw that movie twenty-six years ago, I related to the son who had gone to South America to write a children's book with his new wife. I understood the pain of the father, played by Jack Lemmon, but I didn't really feel it. At that time I was more caught up in the political injustice of the whole thing: youthful idealism. Now I felt a father's fear and sorrow at losing his son. My wife came in and noticed my red eyes, and I tried to explain how time had shifted my perception of this story, and I cried a little because I was a son when I first saw the movie and now I was a father. "Ow," she said, "or maybe that's not quite the right word."
"No," I replied, "but it's in the right family." I don't think and feel the way I used to. None of us do. Change is good. Change is scary. Change is inevitable. And even though I wish I were ten, or sixteen, or even thirty sometimes, I'm glad that time keeps sweeping me forward.

Friday, April 04, 2008

What's In A Name?

I was listening to the radio and heard an announcement for an upcoming local show by a band called Medieval Knievel. This got me to thinking about band names in general. I'm sure that before they're done, this group will face their share of litigation, especially if they were to end up with a million selling single, but being an aspiring band on the move keeps their exposure limited. I felt the same way about the group The Dead Hensons. Their repertoire, Muppet songs from Sesame Street and other compositions for felt, keeps them in a tidy little niche. One can only assume that the Henson estate has little or no affection for their homage, but their minimal audience keeps them from becoming victims of the trademark curse.
Getting a band name that really works is tough on a good day, and if you seek to offend, like the Hensons' predecessors the Dead Kennedys, you're likely to stir up interest in the same motion. This was especially true of punk bands from the late seventies and early eighties, many of whom probably couldn't get their records played on the radio primarily because they couldn't say the band's name on the radio.
Then there's Steely Dan. Naming your band after a pleasure device from "Naked Lunch" makes it even more likely that your lyrics will be similarly obscure, like "Bodhisattva - I'm gonna sell my house in town". I'm sure William S. Burroughs wished he could have penned that one as well.
Finally, there is this little confession: Back in college, as most underclassmen do eventually, I made a list of possible band names for my run to the top of the pops, or at least to middle obscurity. My favorite stuck with me long enough that I decided to use it as the title of my blog. "Entropical Paradise": it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it. I give it a seventy-four.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Down Mexico Way

ATA said "TA-TA" and Aloha said "Bye-Bye" this week. That's two more low-fare airlines on the scrap heap of bankruptcy. This comes squarely on the heels of the announcement wherein Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged the U.S. could reel into recession. I would guess that the travellers stuck on the Hawaiian islands and elsewhere frantically searching for a way to get home would probably back that sentiment. Even if you're still not comfortable with the "R" word, the end of the fifty dollar fares to Honolulu are at an end.
This got me to thinking of my own experience with bankrupt airlines. Way back in the seventies, my family was taking one of our lavish vacations down south of the border. We flew to Mexico on Braniff, partly because of the deal we were able to get for our party of five, and partly because of just how groovy the planes looked. They were painted from tail to nose in colors like "Chocolate Brown" and "Metallic Purple." The Bradys wish they could have flown on Braniff to Hawaii. The problem with Braniff was not so much in form but rather in function. When we landed in Mexico City, we found out that the rest of our trip had somehow ceased to be. Here was my father and mother with their shiny happy children without a word of comprehensible Spanish beyond my oldest brother's junior high introduction. We were certain to find the nearest library, but it was doubtful that we could effectively negotiate the jungle of lost luggage and connecting flights that lay ahead of us.
The scary irony of this moment was that my father had wangled a way for us to take a small chartered prop plane to Acapulco, but cooler heads and a goodly bit of superstition about little plane got us a marathon taxi ride through the Mexican countryside to our next destination. We drove through the night on roads that wouldn't be mistaken for U.S. interstates, unless they were post-nuclear Armageddon interstates. When we arrived at our hotel, we were thankful for a few days of sand, surf and third-degree sunburns before we had to find another means of transport. For my grade-school brain, I was happy to get back home. Looking back on the experience as a parent now, I wonder how I would have coped with all that bad travel karma. I'm sure there was a moment where my father cursed a red, white and blue streak when he realized his little family was stranded in a foreign land without luggage or a way home, but I don't remember it. It was another thirty years before he got to scratch that itch of his for small planes, and it caught up with him. Nowadays, I flinch just a little when I see the Braniff logo at the end of every "South Park" episode, and I prefer my trips on the shorter side. Preferably ones I can walk home from.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Encyclopedia Brown Murders His Teacher

There was plenty of gallows-type humor around my school this morning. A lot of it went something like this: "Sure am glad I'm not teaching in Georgia," or, "Be careful or they'll transfer you to a district in Waycross." This was our friendly little teacher way of making light of the plot at Center Elementary School in Waycross, Georgia where nine children, ages eight to ten, were apparently angry after the teacher disciplined one of the students for standing on a chair. The students brought a crystal paperweight, a steak knife with a broken handle, steel handcuffs and other items as part of a plan to attack their third grade teacher.
Most of us could take solace in the notion that our students are generally less proactive than that. When they act, it is generally on poorly controlled impulse, and the line of cause and effect is pretty easy to trace. Police in Waycross said the plot had been organized enough that some students were assigned specific roles such as covering classroom windows and cleaning up any mess. The idea of my kids working together like that gives me hope for their future in cooperative groups - another nervous giggle.
"The reality is it is highly unlikely they would have been successful at this," Dr. Louis Kraus, a child psychiatry expert at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago said. "Even if it had begun, it's unclear whether they actually would have followed through with it." Most premeditated acts of student violence in schools usually don't occur until high school, Kraus said. Younger children have been known to bring knives or other weapons to school, experts said, but often it's more a matter of showing off or acting tough than part of a deliberate assault attempt.
While I agree with Dr. Kraus for the most part, I confess that I am still constantly amazed at the level of cruelty that even some of our youngest children are capable of. For now it makes a great story, and it's sure to invite plenty of public debate about school security, and whether or not we should be serving kids chocolate milk at lunch. The happy end to the story is that no one ended up getting hurt, and while it may not be very funny, at least it's a relief.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April Fool

The newsletter from my son's school came home today. In it, I was singled out by the principal for my contributions to this year's variety show. In her "shout-outs" she acknowledged my organization skills as well as being "an all-around funny guy." Considering the alternative, I guess that I should be pleased, since it would be much worse to be picked out of the crowd for being "not-so-funny".
Still, it struck me once again that carry this legacy around with me. I come from a pretty funny family. My wife and son are pretty funny too. Even my dog can be quite amusing, on a full stomach anyway. Do I feel a burden to be the life of the party? Sometimes. Do I get uncomfortable in a room full of straight lines? You bet I do. Being a funny guy is my chosen form of expression. Given the choice between thoughtful and amusing, I will almost always aim for the funnybone. It is a weakness.
This is never more apparent than when friends bring me bad news. I feel it is my responsibility to cheer them up. Whether they want me to or not. I know that it can be aggravating, and it usually ends up amusing no one, in spite of my best efforts, but it continues to be my modus operandi. Even my most ardent attempts at sincerity sometimes miss the mark, primarily because of my hard-won reputation. Words seem to fall out of my head with a tinge of sarcasm or a wink of an eye.
Would I leave it all behind if I could? Would I become a sober-minded elocuter of high-minded ideals and leave the punch lines behind? I don't think I have that kind of self-control. I will continue to seek out vile puns and juvenile double entendre, to preserve my image as "all-around-funny-guy". The satisfaction I gain from this small distinction comes, from time to time, at the expense of my own humility, but for me that's always been a fair trade. And to my friends and family who have to suffer through my periodic lame attempts at humor, my deepest and most sincere apologies. As sincere as I can be, at any rate.