Monday, June 30, 2008

Randolph Mantooth, Where Are You?

There's a joke in here somewhere: How many adults does it take to fix a potential gas leak in our front yard? At last check, about a dozen. The three guys from the cable company who were trying to put a new support in for the telephone pole in the corner of our yard nicked a gas line, one that had been clearly marked previously by another crew from PG&E. They called the fire department, who sent both a paramedic unit and a hook and ladder truck out with lights flashing and parked in the middle of the street. Then another PG&E guy came out with a wrench and a worried look on his face.
And then they proceeded to stand around in our front yard and exchange pleasantries and the occasional high-five while the discussion about next steps continued. The firemen leaned on the fence and did their best to stay in the shade as they wore their heavy jackets and helmets. The uniforms only exacerbated the sense of heightened drama for the kids on our street, who must have imagined some sort of desperate situation in or around our house. The biggest loss to those of us inside were the plums the firemen helped themselves to as they waited for the situation to unravel.
Eventually, another crew of PG&E guys will have to come out to our house, dig another hole, and repair the gas line. My son wondered who was going to pay for all of this, and we assured him that we wouldn't have to foot the bill. But as I watched the dozen or so healthy young men sitting around waiting for the next thing to happen, I knew we would all be paying for it in the months to come.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The "W" Is For Worst

I sat in my kitchen last night having another one of those, "How could things in this country have gotten so awful in just eight years?" My friend and I wondered aloud, not for the first time, if Pinhead wasn't the worst president of all time. I mentioned that I had grown up watching Tricky Dick Nixon and his gang of thugs run roughshod over the Constitution, but history also has that same administration to thank for opening China, as his legacy in environmental legislation. Another thirty years may provide us with enough distance from the Pinhead Regime to allow us to be more kind, but presently it's hard to imagine how we might choose to start our scrapbooking page for "The Accomplishments of President Pinhead."
Surely we can all gain a certain measure of satisfaction for having lived through these past eight years, but as with all things, a little perspective is probably necessary. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term Sunday, just hours after government officials said he overwhelmingly won a runoff that has been widely discredited. His main rival dismissed the inauguration as "an exercise in self-delusion." African and other world leaders have condemned Friday's election, in which Mugabe was the only candidate. Human rights groups said opposition supporters were the targets of brutal state-sponsored violence during the campaign, leaving more than eighty dead and forcing more than two hundred thousand to flee their homes. In recent years, Mugabe has been accused of ruining Zimbabwe's economy and holding onto power through fraud and intimidation. Zimbabwe's official inflation rate was put at one hundred sixty-five thousand percent by the government in February, but independent estimates put the real figure closer to four million percent.
I'm still not happy about paying five dollars for a gallon of gas, but no one has chased me away from my polling place. I am fortunate to be an American, but I'm still counting the days.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Those Three Little Words

You can't have enough friends. While I am sure that there are those who might argue this nugget of wisdom, I find myself reflecting back on my teenage years and wondering how I found myself agreeing with them.
It began sometime in junior high, along about the time that we all began our first attempts at coupling off. I felt like I had a pretty sure thing, having spent roughly six years anticipating my eventual betrothal to the girl down the street. It was a great story: childhood sweethearts. Little did I know that my childhood would continue for several more years.
I blame myself for showing up to seventh grade ill-prepared for the rigors and torments that junior high school had to offer. After all, I chose to join the band, and my lack of coordination in P.E. insured my label: geek. By the time eighth grade rolled around and I attempted to rub some of the nerd stink off myself by joining first the wrestling team and then the track team, it was already too late. Geeks were not part of the dating pool.
It was during these years that I learned to resent a certain phrase. A three word phrase that would have been fine if it had been left at just two: good friends. Good friends are hard to come by, but the part that always made me flinch was the "just" that went in front of it: Just Good Friends. It was that dash of flavoring that made the whole meal turn sour. When the girl down the street told me she wanted to be "just good friends," I began an odyssey that lasted another three years.
I was that guy who listened when boyfriends left them high and dry. I was the guy who went out and didn't "try anything." I was a nice guy. Consequently, I had a lot of good friends who were girls, and anytime that I felt like pressing the edge of that envelope, I was reminded that I was, after all, in band. I even had the temerity to ask a cheerleader to the Homecoming Dance in my junior year in high school. As crazy as it sounds, it seemed like a pretty safe bet, since she had spent the year before in the marching band's flag line. I was a gentleman all evening long, and when I walked her to her at the end of the night, I leaned in for what I hoped would be my first official goodnight kiss.
"I don't kiss on the first date," she told me.
How could I have been so foolish? I should have had a dozen or so dates ahead of this one so that the outcome would have been more certain. Of course, when I called the next week to set up a second date, I found out our relationship was better defined by those three little words.
It wasn't until my senior year that I finally learned what all of my other bandie friends had already discovered: We were not allowed to date outside our species. I took a girl from band to that year's homecoming dance, and it wasn't a coincidence that she was a French Horn player. She did kiss on a first date. A lot.
Imagine my surprise when I found out a few days later that we were just good friends. How could this be? Hadn't I just achieved my personal breakthrough? Wasn't this my little mitzvah? Nope. But here's where the magic starts to turn: This was the girl who, a year later, gave me my first Bruce Springsteen record. What a good friend.
By the end of my senior year, I had a girlfriend. The spell had finally been broken, and I was sure that all of that patience and good behavior was going to pay off. I shouldn't have been so hasty. After the breakup of my first and most, well, first relationship, I spent the rest of the Reagan administration waiting for another shot at being "more than just good friends."
When I finally met up with my wife-to-be, we had been friends for nearly a decade. Good friends. At the wedding of her high school boyfriend, who was my good friend as well, we happily took it upon ourselves to make the sign for the bride and groom's bicycles that read "Just Married." There was only one sign we could put on the back of our car when we left the wedding.
We're still good friends. And the "just" doesn't matter.

Friday, June 27, 2008

'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

Purple haze is in my brain. Lately things don't seem the same. Acting funny, but I don't know why. With apologies to Mister Hendrix, I'll be glad to kiss the sky once I can see it again. The haze isn't so much purple as ash grey.
Northern California is on fire. At the beginning of the week, there were more than eight hundred brush fires burning. This has provided some spectacular sunsets, but those are mediated by the fact that it has been hard to catch our collective breath in the past week.
Here's the ironic part: To start the week, I asked the kids in my summer school class to spend the week investigating this science question: Why is the sky blue? They haven't had a chance to see blue sky since Monday. For them, this doesn't seem odd. After all, they live in urban California, and even in June the fog that settles into the Bay Area in the morning can keep the sun away for more than half the day. When I asked them yesterday if they had noticed, they asked, "What smoke?"
Finally, I began to wonder if this wasn't just the leading edge of the Apocalypse. Maybe this is how global warming will take over: not in creeping bits, but all at once over the course of one summer. Right now the Midwest is underwater and California is ablaze. Droughts and floods. A nation of extremes. Come to think of it, maybe that's how it's always been.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Roid Rage

Yesterday I was reading about how Terry Bradshaw was finally coming clean about the fact that he wasn't always clean when it came to steroids. "We did steroids to get away the aches and the speed of healing," Bradshaw said. "My use of steroids from a doctor was to speed up injury, and thought nothing of it… It was to speed up the healing process, that was it. It wasn't to get bigger and stronger and faster."
This was about the same time I was reading about Don Imus' most recent faux pas. The latest comments by Imus to come under scrutiny were aired on Monday’s broadcast. During a conversation about Adam "Pacman" Jones’ run-ins with the law, Imus asked, “What color is he?” Sports announcer Warner Wolf said Jones, formerly known as Pacman, is “African-American.” Imus responded: “There you go. Now we know.” Don Imus, for the record, is white. Now we know.
But what do we know? Terry Bradshaw and his teammates took steroids "to speed up the healing process" and Adam Jones has had a troubled history? That and their relative skin tones don't really add up to much. It's the public perception of these bits of information that shape our attitudes and perceptions. Bradshaw had the cushion of living in a world where steroids were "legal" and "Pacman" was once celebrated for his aggressive play.
The Steelers won championships. "Pacman" did not. Terry Bradshaw is white. Adam Jones is African-American. This is all part of a rarefied bit of air called professional sports where the rules stretch and bend to suit the circumstances. Lately those rules have started to snap under the pressure of public scrutiny. In a world that wants to know more about Britney's child custody case than the war in Iraq, professional athletes cannot afford the same lassiez faire attitudes they might once have enjoyed in the 1970's. And maybe, just maybe, Don Imus is taking steroids - to speed up the healing process.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Where's The Party?

There are times when this corner of the planet where I live seems a little insulated. Perhaps I'm being too selective, but I don't tend to run into many people who disagree with me politically. Maybe it's because I talk so loud, or maybe nobody wants to argue with me for fear of causing a scene. Whatever the case, I'm having a hard time scaring up someone with whom to debate the upcoming election.
How can this be? All the polls would have us believe that Obama and McCain are in a virtual dead heat, and on certain issues, McCain is favored by those expressing an opinion. Please understand that I have spent my time in John McCain's corner. He continues to be near the top of the list when it comes to "good sports on 'The Daily Show'", but lately he's begun to sound more and more like "one of them" instead of the driver of the Straight Talk Express.
While I am sure that there are those who might have similar sentiments about Barack Obama, I haven't had conversations with them. Instead, I end up with a lot of knowing smiles and nods of affirmation. I live in Northern California, and maybe I shouldn't expect to encounter much "red" in such a "blue" state, but I am missing the dialogue.
It could also be that the Grand Old Party is beginning to fall apart from its center. Alan Keyes is gone. Michael Bloomberg left a year ago. There is even a convenient web site, Flee the, that allows disgruntled Republicans to re-register online as Democrats. The fact that no such alternative exists for Democrats to hop the political fence says a lot about the times we live in, or perhaps that Nobel Prize and Academy Award winner Al Gore invented the Internet.
Or maybe it's just too soon. Maybe all the great debates I am anticipating will come in the next five months, but considering the past eight years, I won't hold my breath.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pearls and Swine

Doctor James Dobson has criticized Barack Obama for "distorting" the Bible. First of all, everyone knows that distorting the Bible is Doctor Dobson's domain, so if there's going to be any biblical distortion, it will come on Doctor Jimmy's watch.
For some context, here are Obamas comments: He said Leviticus suggests slavery is okay and eating shellfish is an abomination. Obama also cited Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application."
"Folks haven't been reading their Bibles," Obama said in June 2006 to the liberal Christian group Call to Renewal.
Doctor Dobson? "I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology," Dobson said.
Well then. Is there any room for interpretation? Are we still stuck in the literal "forty days and forty nights" version of the most recent translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls? And what part of the Sermon on the Mount is Obama distorting? "Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God." Or maybe "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Let's see now, where would be find people being persecuted for righteousness' sake? What would the proper interpretation of that passage be in 2008?
Or maybe we should just be thankful for a separation between church and state. In which case Doctor Dobson should probably keep his feelings about Obama's a "fruitcake interpretation" of the Constitution to himself.

Monday, June 23, 2008

By George

It might seem a little hypocritical for me to make a big show of a tribute for George Carlin. For several years now, I have made a good amount of fun at his expense: "Didja ever notice how some comedians who used to be really edgy and thought-provoking have started to sound more and more like Andy Rooney?" For me, there was a point in the eighties, when I stopped listening to him. This was about the time of "A Place For My Stuff." By this time I was getting my observational humor from Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright. George just seemed a little tired.
He had come a long way from those "Seven Words" in 1972. Over the course of a decade George went from being a champion of free speech to wondering about lost socks. I stopped watching his HBO specials, and started listening to Denis Leary and Bill Hicks. I even thought Dennis Miller was funny for a year or two back there.
But they all owed their whole schtick to George Carlin, and as time passed, I found myself returning to the wit and wisdom of Wonderful Wino, "The big sounds in the big town", and "An Evening With Wally Londo". These were my primers. I learned to curse creatively from George Carlin, and I never looked back. I followed the stream upriver to Lenny Bruce, and I know that they are, after all, just words. We give them power.
And finally, I was given this last gift of Carlin from my buddy Joe: George never referred to President Pinhead by that office. He only referred to him as "Governor", since that was the last office to which he was elected. Thanks, Joe, and thanks George.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

My, My, Hey, Hey

"It's better to burn out than to fade away," or at least that's what Neil Young asked us to believe back in 1979. Almost thirty years later, one might wonder if Neil feels the same. The fact that Def Leppard quotes him at the beginning of "Rock of Ages" is hardly on the level of tribute that Kurt Cobain, but the notion of a "good way to go" echoes throughout pop culture, especially in rock and roll.
I wonder if Roger Daltrey ever flinches when he hears himself singing, "Hope I die before I get old"? The Eagles sang about the ultimate rock and roll bad boy, James Dean, telling us he was "too fast to live, too young to die." But it's Neil Young that wrote the words that bring us back to Kurt and Jimi and Janis and Sid and Nancy. Those are the words that play under the tributes to John Belushi and Chris Farley. Only the Rolling Stones seemed to anticipate "what a drag it is growing old."
That's what I was thinking as I watched the video of Scott Kalitta, who died Saturday when his Funny Car burst into flames and crashed at the end of the track. Scott was forty-six, the same age I had just turned when I switched on the television to watch the news. The phrase "blaze of glory" went through my head as well, but mostly I just couldn't imagine how three hundred miles an hour into a wall could be considered anything but a horrible mistake. "Scott shared the same passion for drag racing as his legendary father, Connie. He also shared the same desire to win, becoming a two-time series world champion. He left the sport for a period of time, to devote more time to his family, only to be driven to return to the drag strip to regain his championship form. ... He will be truly missed by the entire NHRA community," went the statement from the National Hot Rod Association.
He left the sport to spend time with his family, wife Kathy and sons Corey, fourteen, and Colin, eight. Will they be thinking "better to burn out than to fade away?" I would guess not.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

From The Bullpen

Today I am forty-six years old. Last year I made a lot of the fact that I was halfway to ninety. This year I will be halfway to ninety-two, which doesn't sound nearly as frightful. The thing that does stand out to me on this birthday, however, is the fact that Curt Schilling is two and a half years younger than I am.
Curt is having season-ending shoulder surgery on Monday. The Red Sox pitching staff will most likely have a Curt Schillng-sized hole to fill from now on. "Coming back from this surgery at thirty-one would be an enormous challenge, at forty-one more so," Schilling wrote on his blog. Just about the time that I am shouting down the well we call middle age, Curt is getting ready to hang up his spikes.
Please understand that Curt Schilling is by no means a role model for me, but only a convenient yardstick by which to measure my own accomplishments. He was drafted in the 1985 Major League Baseball draft, along about the same time I was graduating from college. He spent three years with the Orioles before heading to Houston. During those years I worked in a video store. After a stop in Philadelphia, he helped win a World Series for Arizona in 2001. When he finally returned to Boston, the team that drafted him in the first place, he helped them win championships in 2004 and 2007.
I was traded to Oakland in 1992 and worked my way up from the packing line at a book warehouse to eleven consecutive starts as a public school teacher. I have never been accused of painting my sock to make it appear that blood was oozing from my ankle.
Maybe Curt will make a comeback. Maybe he will end up in the broadcast booth, or maybe he'll sell real estate. Whatever the case, I wish him the best, just as I'm sure he would do for me. If he knew who I was.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Well, Duh.

One of the first things I remember learning in teacher school was this: Don't use sarcasm in your classroom. Kids don't get sarcasm. This came as bad news for me, since sarcasm is my primary mode of expression. I should point out at this juncture that the preceding was an example of just the kind of thing that gets me in trouble all the time. I have spent years of my life explaining to others "what I really meant." Sincerely.
And to the credit of the kids in my fourth grade classes, with very few exceptions, they seem to "get" me. "Oh, you're being sarcastic," they say.
"Really?" I reply in mock surprise.
I know that there are plenty of teachers who spend their entire careers relating to their students in a genuine way that I can only aspire to. Or sneer at. It's just not in my nature to spend more than a few moments at a time being sincere. I recognize that my communication with friends and family have suffered as a result. Happily, I maintain just enough earnestness at those moments when I really need it to keep people from giving up on me altogether.
So you must imagine my glee upon hearing that Neurophysiologist Katherine Rankin at the University of California, San Francisco, has also recently discovered that sarcasm plays an important part in human social interaction. People with dementia, or head injuries in that area, often lose the ability to pick up on sarcasm, and so they don't respond in a socially appropriate ways. If this is true, this makes me a sort of social canary in a coalmine. If you're not picking up on my tone, then there's probably something wrong with you.
And you don't have to believe me, but it's science!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Vaya Con Dios, Edgar

The shrine for Edgar is three blocks away from my house. Edgar was shot and killed on Monday afternoon on the corner where sometimes we stop and play at the park with our dog. She likes to run up and down the slides. My son is old enough now to read the graffiti that covers the play structure and benches. My dog doesn't read, but it's obvious that there are a lot of people who want us to know that this is their park.
Now a little corner will be devoted to Edgar. He lived to be eighteen. Now there are candles lined up in front of the sign that welcomes visitors to Nicol Park. There are a number of colorful mylar balloons tied to the fence along with three plain white T-shirts spray-painted with the legend: RIP Edgar 6/16/08.
It is a sad irony that one of the photos that our city councilman, Ignacio De La Fuente, chose to include in his campaign materials was a pretty color picture of Nicol Park shortly after it had been completed. In spite of the best efforts of city crews to cover it up, that was about the last time that the park was free of gang graffiti. I used to content myself with the notion that that kind of thing happened when I was safe at home, three blocks away. Edgar was shot and killed at one thirty in the afternoon. He has the nominal distinction of being the fifty-eighth homicide in Oakland this year. There were children playing in the park at the time. Police said none of them were hurt. And I guess that will have to serve as the good news.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Name Recognition

The International Institute for Species Exploration (IISE) at Arizona State University issued their Top Ten New Species list, which spotlights flora and fauna described during the previous year. Since there are thousands of new species discovered each year, the Institute picks only the most interesting or, in some cases, deadly for their list. The new list includes lethal animals like a box jellyfish (Malo kingi), named after Robert King, who apparently died after he was stung by this species, and the Central Ranges Taipan (Oxyuranus temporalis), now thought to be one of the most venomous snakes in the world.
The list also includes a shocking-pink dragon millipede, whose coloring says more about its toxicity than its fashion sense. There's a succulent plant called "The Michelin Man" and a sleeper ray from the east coast of South Africa that was named after the Electrolux vacuum cleaner brand due to the animal's ability to suck up prey in the water. This got me to thinking: Are the other nine hundred and ninety odd species that were discovered last year less interesting than their cleverly named counterparts? Does it help to have a good agent?
This trend confirms my belief that there are plenty of plants and animals out there with names suited primarily for the amusement of the scientists investigating them. This is never more apparent to me than our avian friends. Consider, if you will, the Blue-Footed Booby. Imagine this poor bird's struggle to get a decent job when he has to write that on all his applications, last name first, first name last. I makes me wonder what they call us behind our backs: "Hey, look at that Pinheaded Nitpicker!"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Dream Within A Dream

Yesterday evening at five o'clock, we waited expectantly to slide off into the ocean. Not because we live on one of the most dangerous and active faults in North America, but because California started performing same-sex marriages again. If there is some cosmic retribution, then one can only imagine that there will be a pause while the state fills up with sinners before the state cracks off the continent and drifts into some abyss.
But maybe its more a common-sense issue. My son asked what gay couples do, when they have kids, on Mother's Day and Father's Day. It wasn't a judgemental concern, just a procedural one. Just like today, when every county in California will be required to start issuing new gender-neutral marriage licenses with spaces for "Party A" and "Party B" where "bride" and "groom" used to be. And here's the other big deal for the Golden State: Unlike Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, California has no residency requirement for marriage licenses.
I know that there is a vast discussion of religion and marriage that can go on for several decades, but if the biggest threat that we can find to our current way of life is men and women getting married, not necessarily to each other, then we must be doing pretty well. Contrastingly, I would suggest that California's sagging economy will only benefit from the influx of couples coming here to "make it legal."
On Monday, three California lawmakers and a small group of other same-sex opponents gathered outside the Capitol to criticize the Supreme Court decision. They urged voters to approve a ballot measure that would overturn the high court ruling and again ban gay marriage.
"This is an opportunity to take back a little bit of dignity ... for kids, for all of us in California," Republican Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa said. "It really disturbs me that the will of the people was overridden by four members of the Supreme Court."
I'm not sure if Mister LaMalfa, married father of four, has considered the role that the Supreme Court played in this decision. Their job was to determine the constitutionality of a piece of legislation. They determined that no laws were being broken. Their job was is not to determine the "will of the people." For that, we have to wait until November, and until then we just hope that we don't bring on The Rapture.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Career Opportunities

I've seen enough science fiction movies to know that somewhere, in an alternative reality, my son is currently jetting down to Hollywood where he will be whisked away by "all that star-making machinery" behind a popular TV show. This divergence from the reality we have become so accustomed to (breakfast, cartoons, and then hours of incessant begging for just a few more minutes to play video games) came as a surprise to us on Saturday afternoon trip to Target.
My son and I were on our way to the checkout lanes with his latest Lego purchase, when a woman stopped us. She was tall, blond and tan, and she asked me, "Do you think he would like to do any television?"
It took me a moment to register just who she might be talking about, but then I looked at my son and asked him, "Whaddya think?" He shared my disbelief, and we waited for clarification.
Tall Blond Tan lady handed us a flier from her purse that my son and I looked at but neither of us read while she continued her spiel: "Do you ever watch Nickelodeon or Disney? 'Hannah Montana' or "The Suite Live of Zack and Cody?'" I shook my head. Next to me, my son nodded in affirmation. She went on about how they were looking for kids for a couple new shows, and she "loved his look."
Since it was me and my son, we smiled politely, took the flier and headed toward the front of the store. We talked a little about what might have been. When we met up with my wife, she was fascinated, and wanted more information. On the strength of my description, "tall, blond and tan", she was able to track down this lady and get at least one step closer to the veracity of the situation.
The irony of this whole encounter, for me, was that we had been telling our son that if he didn't pay more attention to his appearance, people might not treat him the way he wanted to be treated. He listened, and then went out in his shaggy haircut and poorly trimmed cut-off jean shorts. Apparently his parents know very little about "the look" these days.
We didn't end up going to the audition. It was deemed too much trouble and stress. We decided that it would probably entail too much time and money on our part to get him to the place where he would become the TV star that was suggested by the flier. We decided that those grapes were probably sour.
But somewhere out there in another plane of existence, my son is sitting in front of a big bowl of very sweet grapes that someone else picked and peeled for him, because he's got the look.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fifth Commandment

Way back when the school I teach at was a year-round affair, I remember the discrepancy between Mother's Day and Father's Day. We were encouraged to have the kids make poems and cards for mom. Some of the more adventurous teachers made lovely bouquets of paper flowers or other nice craft projects to mark the dia de los Madres. A lot of construction paper and glue was used to create those tributes.
But when it came to Father's Day, there was a quiet agreement to keep that on the low-down. We were reminded that many of our kids weren't in touch with their fathers, and it might stir up confusion and hard feelings. It made sense, I suppose, so we didn't get out our markers and fold a piece of clean white paper (hamburger style, not hot dog).
When my school went to a traditional nine month calendar, that concern was neatly removed. Even when we started a little late, we were always out by the third Sunday of June, and the emphasis was more on report cards than Father's Day cards, but it always felt just a little hypocritical to me. My son, with plenty of help and support from his mother, has always happily given me more than my share of attention on "my day." I don't have enough pencils to fill the pencil holders that he has made for me over the years. I still treasure the T-shirt he painted for me in pre-school, and the big red felt "S" he decorated with glitter glue still hangs proudly on my closet door.
Everyone has a father, but circumstances don't always allow us to maintain that connection. I am tremendously happy that I got to share those thirty-odd summer Sundays with my dad. I wish I had a few more, but I know that I had a better deal than a lot of kids. I gave my dad his own flurry of pencil holders and desk organizers. I drew plenty of cartoons featuring my dad's bald head on cards that he never seemed to throw away. Just like I'm sure that the checklist my son made for me this year ("play Guitar Hero", "go to Scandia") will find its way into my scrapbook.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

All Motion Is Relative

Anyone who has known me for more than a month will undoubtedly be assailed with the information that I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. After nearly sixteen years of residence in Oakland, California, I still feel compelled to share with those I meet about what I lovingly refer to as "My Hometown."
People who are familiar with Boulder will generally get around to asking me, "Geez, why'd you leave?" The answer is fairly simple. Usually I tell anyone who asks that it came down to the fact that I had an apartment full of rent-to-own furniture, while my girlfriend lived with a bunch of very nice antiques. Her stuff was heavier and more expensive to move: simple economics.
But the truth cuts just a little deeper than that. As I approached my thirtieth birthday, I had lived in Boulder for my entire life, less the nine months I spent in Colorado Springs during my freshman year in college. Many of my friends, including my incipient wife liked to joke that I would be the last person out of Boulder, and if that were true, could I please remember to turn out the lights.
I didn't wait until I was pushed. Instead I jumped, and in doing so, startled many of those closest to me. I landed in Oakland and immediately set about putting down roots. I own a house. I still hate the Raiders, but I root for the A's. I have a piano. The inertia that kept me in Boulder is nothing compared to the vortex that is now holding me fast in the Bay Area. Which is why yesterday's mail was so amusing.
The back of the brochure had a picture of the Flatirons, the iconic slabs of granite that mark the beginning of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Over this was the legend: "Come back home to Boulder." It was an advertisement for a new condo development called "The Peloton." The Flatirons, my hometown, and my one of my all-time favorite bicycle racing terms all together in one package? How could I pass that up?
Easy. I'm somewhere else now. I am excruciatingly happy that I have family and friends that I can visit in Boulder, and I am always pleased and gratified to drive into town over Davidson Mesa to get one more glimpse of Boulder Valley. It's where I grew up, or started to, anyway. I came out here sixteen years ago to finish the job, and I'm getting pretty close. So I put the brochure in the recycling, and started making plans for the next visit my family would make to my hometown.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bittersweet Dreams

It was late last night when my son realized what had happened to him. He had stayed up way past his regular bed time, and was closing in on what could best be described as "holiday hours." His mother and father were tired and worn out from a long day of moving children from one grade level to another, and had effectively collapsed in bed. We told him that if he stayed up much longer, he would have to turn out the lights and make sure the door was locked. This got him moving, but I had my face in my pillow with my eyes closed as he was brushing his teeth. He had managed to outlast both of his parents.
It was, after all, his promotion day. I heard him climb up into his bed, and turn on his favorite CD, still "Winnie the Pooh" after all these years. I waited for the steady rhythm of his breathing to tell me that his own big day had caught up to him. Instead, I heard him call out, "Mom?"
"Your mom's asleep. Is there something I can help you with," I called back.
"I'm just having a hard time getting to sleep," came the reply.
I know this drill by heart, and I went all the way back to the days when he was an infant in a crib, crying in the dark. I would go in and pick him up, and walk from room to room, looking out each window. "All the birds are asleep." At the next, "All the kids across the street are asleep," until we had walked around the whole house and felt the stillness. He never wanted to miss anything. I walked with my son last night and we looked out into the night to be sure that there was nothing better going on.
And that's the way he felt last night. He had finished elementary school, and he was ready for whatever came next. He didn't want to rest on his laurels, he wanted to figure out just how that next thing would feel. He was grieving for a past that was only hours behind him, and I could only tell him what he already knew: He has three months to prepare himself for the terrors and pleasures of middle school. He has three months of summer to celebrate the years he spent in grade school. I told him it was like the speeches his classmates gave, leaving was bittersweet. I started to describe the taste of bittersweet chocolate, the very satisfying flavor of chocolate chips, and enjoying the slow build of my metaphor. And then he was asleep. His brain had finally given up, and surrendered to the night.
When I got back to my own bed, it took me a while to get back to sleep myself.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

One Time Promotional Event!

Last night, my son lay awake in his room as he often does, calling out to us to keep the inevitable sleep away for just a few more minutes. He was experiencing a flurry of emotions about his pending promotion to middle school. He went so far as to wish that he would fail fifth grade so that he could stay at his elementary school for one more year. I went into his room and asked the darkness, "Do you remember when you walked the bridged at preschool?"
After a moment of reflection on his promotion from Peter Pan Cooperative Nursery School, he said, "Yes."
"Do you remember how you felt then?"
"Yeah. I didn't want to leave."
"But you did. And you went to Sequoia. You never would have gotten to the place you don't want to leave if you haven't left the place you never wanted to leave in the first place."
Pretty good trick, for a parent to use logic that sounds like wisdom.
Honestly, I've had mixed feelings about this day for a long time. I'm always excited for my son to move ahead and meet new challenges, but I also know the extraordinary comfort in keeping things the same. For as long as they will hold still on their own.
But now it's time to move on, and I hear the words of Mister Incredible, Bob Parr, grumbling about his son Dash's pending graduation from fourth grade: "It's not graduation, he's moving from the fourth to fifth grade!" Even though my son will be changing buildings, I see this as part of an evolutionary step, not a completion. As an elementary school teacher, I have seen so many families show up and fawn over the accomplishments of their twelve-year-old children who have managed to complete the first leg of their public education tour. It's a nice time to stop and reflect, but it is by no means the summit. There is still a long hard climb ahead.
I know how cynical that sounds. I know how hypocritical it will sound when I tell people that I am taking the morning off to go sit in that auditorium one more time to watch my son cross another bridge.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Self-Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

It's that time of year again, when I sadistically ask my fourth graders to write a persuasive letter to convince me to pass them on to the fifth grade. I say "sadistically" because I have already completed their report cards, and while I have several who are in need of the intervention of summer school, I won't be holding any of them back.
But they don't know that. Not yet.
I find it most interesting to see who takes their time, and who really states their case. There are always one or two that go above and beyond, and others that skip directly to begging. I was pleased to see that at least one of them even mentioned going on "to get a college education so I can get a good job." The fact that he also wrote, "that is why I should pass the forth grade," didn't keep me from being impressed.
I'm not going to hold anyone back because they misspelled something in the heat of their passion to persuade me how smart they are. Do I wish they would have been more "respectfull"? Yes. Do I wish they would have "lissened" more? You bet. And if they couldn't write a "sumary" or a "sentens", I could still find it in my heart to move them along, if I knew that they were doing the best they could.
Some of them know that. One girl in particular found it necessary to write not just a persuasive letter, but one of apology as well: "I know when I say I hate you, you know I don't mean it, and when I say I hate this school I don't. I just do it to show off to my friends. I say that because I'm mad."
If self-knowledge were a fourth grade standard, she would most surely be promoted. And since she will be, then I guess it is.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gone Fishin'

Researchers say they have discovered groups of silver-haired macaque monkeys in Indonesia that fish. The reason I mention this, aside from the obvious and profound anthropological impact this will have for years to come, is to share the overwhelmingly amusing image I was able to summon upon reading the first few lines of the story.
Of course, the story goes on to describe how groups of long-tailed macaques were observed four times over the past eight years scooping up small fish with their hands and eating them along rivers in East Kalimantan and North Sumatra provinces. But that's not what I imagined. I pictured a group of slightly overweight monkeys in flannel shirts, leaning up against the trunks of trees, each with a can of beer propped on or near their ample bellies. They're drinking Meister Brau. A couple of them are dozing, as witnessed by the bill of their caps pulled down over their eyes. The rest are simply staring out onto the lake, watching the bobbers at the end of their lines float lazily in the afternoon sun.
Fishing monkeys don't talk much, but if they did, I suspect it would sound something like this:
"Catch anything?"
"Nope. Not yet."
"Whatcha usin'?"
"Ever use one o' them electronic deals?"
And then there are profound silences as the sun sinks slowly into the west, and the beer gets warm. That's what I think of when I think of monkeys fishing. Agustin Fuentes, a University of Notre Dame anthropology professor who studies long-tailed macaques, said he was "heartened" to see the finding published because such details can offer insight into the "complexity of these animals." Not in my world, Agustin.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Sick Day

This is something that I'm really no good at: lying in bed while a virus works its way through me. I know, of course, that I have antibiotics on my side, but the fact that my class is finishing up their fourth grade year without me is troubling.Now why would that be? I have been anxiously awaiting this week for several months now. It didn't take a degree in rocket science to have noticed the smoke coming off the back of my head for the past several months. I've gone past burnout. I'm now on extra-crispy. So what could possibly be wrong with taking a little sabbatical in these waning days of the 2007-2008 campaign?The fact that it's not on my terms is what disturbs me most. Taking a day to go for a bike ride somewhere other than my school, or making a special date with my wife and son to soak up the last few moments of his elementary career: those seem like adequate responses to the year I have absorbed. Instead, I am stuck here in my bed, waiting for the pain relievers to do their magic. The case of strep throat is the last, poetically ironic gift from a group of kids that has consistently challenged my skills and patience as a teacher.I know that missing a day of school now and again is a good thing. I know that I should take heed when my body tells me to slow down. I know that I will be glad to have this year behind me. This is just like the commercial break before the Quinn-Martin Productions go to Epilogue. I lived through another episode.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


There I was, in the back yard with a hammer in my hand. Was it the fifth time? The twentieth time? I have lost count. I have built or repaired things, or repaired things that I have built so many times since we bought this house that I have no accurate tally on the number of projects I have found myself involved in over the years. My wife likes to describe it in terms of the pounds of wood and other materials that we have attached or affixed to our property. This last one wasn't quite a ton, but it took a couple of station wagon loads from Home Depot to make it work. That and the cracked windshield. In my exuberance, I shoved one more two by four into the back end of our car, and it bumped the windshield just hard enough to put a nice new starburst pattern on the passenger side. Such are the hidden costs of do-it-yourself.
But yesterday, when it was time to build a fence, it all happened like I knew what I was doing. My mother-in-law stopped by and marveled at my abilities: fence posts set, cross beams cut, joist hangers hung. I certainly gave the appearance of someone who knew what he was doing. I thought about the time that I have spent, before I owned a home, working with tools. There was my stint as a modular office furniture installer, and definitely the days I spent pounding nails wherever my dad told me to on our cabin when I was just a kid. So much of what I did at those times was about projecting the right appearance, making it look like I knew what I was doing.
Yesterday afternoon, when I stepped back to admire the thirty feet of new redwood that helps block our view of the dingy duplex behind us, I felt a little proud. It wasn't perfect, but it looked like I knew what I was doing.
Now if I could figure out how to make it look like I can fix a windshield.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dog Years

I spent a good deal of time in my youth being teased about having a girl friend. This was probably due to the fact that I did. She was a girl who lived down the street, and she was my friend. By that reckoning, there wasn't much of an argument. That is, until the "K-I-S-S-I-N-G" taunting began. That was hard to take, but somehow, having this relationship made it worth it, even in the face of ruthless teasing.
Heidi and I used to take our dogs for walks after dinner together. We both owned dachshunds. Hers was brown, named Baron. Mine was black, named Rupert. Taking the dogs for a walk: Baron, Rupert. On those evening strolls, the angst and ennui of pre-pubescence fell away. We talked and laughed and enjoyed the night air. We enjoyed the company and the time away from the noise of our peers and families.
It never was about k-i-s-s-i-n-g. We didn't even hold hands. We were too busy holding on to leashes. Sometimes we walked around Long's Garden, along Farmer's Ditch, then back home. Other times we took a more purposeful route around the block, stopping by the house of our school's music teacher, Mrs. Richter. She was always surprised and happy to see us no matter how many times we showed up just as it was getting dark. We rang her doorbell, and she invited us in. She always had some hard candies in a jar by the door. Heidi and I were careful not to presume too much or take too many. We didn't want to overstay our welcome. Baron and Rupert understood the gig as well, and were always well behaved, sitting quietly at the front door. They seemed to understand that if they kept still that they would continue getting their evening constitutionals.
In my mind, these walks went on for years, but I know that by the time we reached junior high, that time had come to an end. That was when the innocence melted away. Not by any conscious effort on our part, but because all those voices that said that boys and girls should be coupling up for more specific reasons: kissing and holding hands. As much as either one of us might have wanted that to work out, we just weren't that kind of friends. We were dog-walking friends, and for all those trips around the gardens and around the block, that was just fine.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Above All, Dignity

I have lived through another Spirit Week. I have participated in each of the five prescribed "days": Pajama Day, Hawaiian Day, Team Day, Hip-Hop/Disco Day, and School Color/Crazy Hair Day. I confess that my primary motivation is that I don't want to hear from others that I am "no fun" or have no school spirit. It's the last full week of school, and I'm hard-pressed to understand the motivation.
That being said, I still have a beef: What is the concern about School Spirit at an Elementary School? I have always been a proponent of community, and I am the guy with the megaphone out in front of everybody leading our weekly affirmation. I make it a point to get to know as many of the kids' names as I can. School Spirit? I wonder if that's not just a trickle-down from high school, where School Spirit is used to motivate spectators at athletic events. I do remember that my junior high had spirit days, and they tended to mirror the way high school kids did it.
And maybe that's the problem. I still remember the reactions I got in junior high, when human beings have the faintest level of self-esteem, showing up with my "Tacky Day" clothes, or wearing a silly hat. By showing up with an outward appearance of spirit, my own was crushed. "What is that?" they would sneer from their polyester shirts and carefully feathered hair. Back when appearance was everything, I dared to show up to school in my pajamas.
In high school I took it one step further, playing in Pep Band, where we donned costumes for every away football game and all home basketball games. We looked crazy, and our sound was awesome. I like to think that we helped bring our crowd to a fever pitch to root the team home for a win. With our spirit.
Now I'm sitting here, with my hair painted red, waiting for the end to come. Elementary school kids today are as concerned about their appearance as my contemporaries in junior high. I'm not sure what we're promoting, spirit-wise, but I will happily defend any and all crazy hair. I've got spirit, yes I do. I've got spirit, how 'bout you?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Time For A Chat

I should have known by the way he put his face down in his arms and said, "Uh - I don't really want to talk about this right now." I was threatening to talk to my son about the facts of life. Not the TV show with Alan Thicke, but the nitty gritty details about how boys are different from girls and all the rest.
I would love to be able to say that I had determined this to be the perfect moment for such a conversation via some extraordinary response to the parenting gene that I carry, or that I was stirred by some outward sign in my son. But that wouldn't be true. I decided to have "the talk" because I didn't want his school to beat me to the punch.
Yesterday, he came home with his permission slip to be signed. The boys will go to one room to watch "the movie," and the girls will go to another to watch "their movie." When it's all over, my son will know more than I do, I'm sure. I know this because I never got to see my "movie." I must have been sick that day, or maybe I managed to find a way to skip out on it. Whatever the reason, I spent a good deal of my teenage years being blithely unaware of just how rocky and tempestuous puberty was going to be.
I blame my own precociousness. I'm sure my parents were fooled by my oh-so-clever-responses to their queries, and my older brother certainly did what he could to keep me in the loop. I just never felt comfortable about the whole subject, and chose to steer wide of it whenever I could. Just like I am right now.
That's why I chose to talk to my son about sex last night after we had finished dinner. He's a pretty smart kid, and I'm sure he could find his own ways to avoid the inevitable, but sooner or later he's going to want to know the finer points. I started by using the words that make every kid who is a stone's throw from puberty snicker. He made a few faces, but hung with me. We agreed that we didn't have to talk about all the specifics just now, but he knew that his voice was going to start getting lower, and that he was going to grow taller and grow hair - everywhere.
He lived through it and so did I. We agreed that sex is a lot like roller coasters: People like to ride them because they're exciting, but it's not something you can do every day all the time because then it won't be fun anymore. Maybe by the time we're ready to have the talk again, I'll come up with a better metaphor.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How Dry I Am

Today our governor, Arnold Shwarzeneggator, declared a drought statewide. He then ordered the state Department of Water Resources to quickly transfer water to areas with the most severe water shortages. I wondered what took him so long. Isn't drought something that can be forecasted? Did he have a deal with some shady character in a battered pickup and a big bass drum that he was waiting to see if it panned out before announcing that California doesn't have enough water?
Just how much water would that be, to be enough? Schwarzeneggator urged local water districts and agencies to promote water conservation and encouraged Californians to cut water usage by as much as twenty percent. We are being urged and encouraged, but what will happen if we put the sprinkler out on the lawn in the middle of the day just for the sheer joy of running through it? I have heard that we might get a visit from the water police.
I can remember when, growing up in regularly-drought-stricken-Colorado, we were given a watering schedule. Houses with even numbers were only allowed to water on certain days, and the odd numbers had the next. We were being told when to water our lawns. People were given tickets for missing their day, and others prayed for rain on the days that they missed. It's a twisted way to go through summer, but when winter came, we all congratulated ourselves for our conservation.
This morning I put a bucket in the shower to catch the water as it warmed up. I collected almost a gallon before I hopped in. My intent is to use that water to keep the plants around my house alive. After all, it's not their fault that I decided to keep and grow them in a drought. I owe it to them to keep it alive.
My lawn isn't as lucky. The front yard is barely hanging on after last year's lack of regular watering, and the back yard supports only weeds and hearty desert vegetation. What used to be lush is now barren, and in some ways this has become our badge of honor. We gave up our lawn for the drought. My son reminds me "if it's yellow, let it mellow" to explain away his periodic forgetfulness when it comes to flushing. The best action, in this case, seems to be inaction.
I want the farmers in the Valley to get the water they need to keep their crops and our economy healthy, but I hope they don't start filling the dunk tanks at the County fairs with sand.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

First In Line

As I watched the volunteer at my polling place open up the side of the bin on the ballot box, I couldn't help but think about what might have been. I had arrived just a few minutes past seven in the morning, and I had finally achieved my goal: to be the first to cast my ballot at that location. I have been early a number of times, but never first. This afforded me the opportunity to be the citizen who got to inspect the bin inside the machine. Both the ballot box and the debris basket were free of paper. I was certain to be the first to start to fill it up.
And still I continued to wonder: What if? What if California had held off in its need to be first, or nearly first, in the presidential primaries? What if all of California's delegates were still essentially up for grabs on this, the final day of voting? Would the drama of the past two years have shaken down any differently than it has if California, as well as those claim-jumpers in Florida and Michigan? What if every delegate counted as one? What if everyone had waited their turn?
I continued to mull this notion as I went to my tagboard cubicle to carefully draw my lines connecting the two ends of the arrow to complete my ballot. What if we were electing our party's nominee via popular vote, instead of the current convoluted process of delegates and superdelegates and uberdelgates? What if we were asked to vote for the president one time, and the first place candidate won, with the second place winner would be vice-president? There is still the matter of the electoral college and how it reflects the people's votes. What if every vote counted?
Then I was finished filling out my ballot. The biggest issue for us was a city council race and a hotly contested state senate seat. I didn't mind much. I knew that I was going to be first, and I guess that was really what got me there with time to ponder all of this in the first place. But on my way out, I wondered if all those same volunteers would be back in November.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Reel Gone

My wife made an acute observation about the new Indiana Jones movie. She pointed out that we should have known what we were in for when we first saw the CGI prairie dogs. It is that part of movie making that has begun to wear on me. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that the tools exist to bring fantastic worlds to life, like "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter". Sure, it probably helps that I have friends in "the biz" and I have a predisposed affection for these films, but there's something else: A Story. When special effects become the show itself, you end up with, well, "Speed Racer."
That's why I felt the passing of Sydney Pollack came like the closing of an epoch. This was a guy who made movies with actors, many of whom were or would become movie stars. Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino all trusted him to manage what for many of them become Oscar winning performances. And every so often, he would show up in one of his own films, like "Tootsie", or another director would ask him to appear to lend a little "Pollack-ness" to the proceedings, like Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut".
Then there was Harvey Korman. I grew up watching Harvey attempt to stifle his laughter at his comic foil, Tim Conway on "The Carol Burnett Show". Later, I rediscovered his manic energy in the films of Mel Brooks. When he broke the fourth wall and drove off the set in "Blazing Saddles", my film world opened to grand new possibilities, and big laughs. He would be missed if only for contributing the voice for the Great Gazoo on "The Flintstones."
But the end of an era truly came yesterday with the fire that destroyed much of the back lot of Universal Studios. The courthouse from "Back to the Future" has been used in so many different movies, TV shows and commercials, when I first saw if from the tram, it was like going back to my old neighborhood. And of course, it is primarily a sentimental issue for me that the King Kong exhibit from the tour was devoured by flame. It reminded me of how many of the sets of the 1933 original were burned to simulate the burning of Atlanta for "Gone With The Wind."
I can already hear the powers that be at Universal discussing next steps for the studio: "Can't we just do that digitally?" Harvey wouldn't do it, and neither would Sydney.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

What's A Metaphor?

This morning, my wife and I began a conversation about the the care and treatment of our son. As with any discussions about parenthood, this one presented some challenges to our calm and reflective communication styles. While I believe we have done a very effective job of raising our son to the ripe old age of eleven, there are many times and topics that his parents have not seen eye to eye on. Such is the difference between mom and dad.
As we continued to negotiate, our talk spread out to other subjects, and we found ourselves free to chat about all manner of concerns, pressing and otherwise. It was then that I made my bold suggestion: Let's try to have a day free of metaphors. It sounded whimsical at first, but upon reflection, I was struck by just how necessary I find using comparisons or figures of speech to make my point.
I realize that the sheer volume of speech that emanates from me on any given day sometimes puts me in the position to have to make things up, or at least make them more colorful. And by doing this, sometimes I dilute my meaning. My need to be clever often overwhelms my need to be clear.
But not today. Nothing will be "like" or "as". Today things will be what they will be, and that is how I will address them. I may end up with very little to say, much to the relief of those around me. I may find it easier to be understood. If that is the case, then maybe I will be able to give my vocal chords some rest. Maybe I will have something new to share with my son.