Sunday, August 31, 2008

Well Worn

Yesterday morning I came home and unburdened myself. I filled two shopping bags with old T-shirts, and when I was done, I still had five drawers full. If I started wearing a different shirt each day and then simply discarding them it would take me several months before I had nothing left to wear.
Then why didn't I get rid of more of them? I have an absurd attachment to simple things. I have a history of being a bit of a pack rat that was mediated, in large part, by moving to California just after my thirtieth birthday. A great portion of my youth was boxed up and hauled across the country, but an even larger portion met with the dumpster. I was fortunate to have another smaller fraction of my stuff end up in storage at my mother's house, but when she moved into a smaller place, even the Twinkie I had been saving in her refrigerator as part of an elaborate experiment finally got tossed.
But when I got to Oakland, I still had Hefty bags full of T-shirts. Some of them no longer fit me, but I had a story that went with every one. Many of them came from concerts I had attended in various states of awareness, and were my most solid links with those experiences, since my own memory was not quite as reliable as the Hanes Beefy T that I managed to drag home with me. One in particular, a souvenir from the J. Geils "Freeze Frame" tour, has been lost to the ages. It was significant primarily because it helped me stay focused on the fact that I was attending a rock show with other humans even though at times my mind and the chemicals I had ingested had me watching "Macbeth" in a sea of swirling lights. That shirt was my link to reality. The fact that it has gone missing tells me that either I have lost that connection for good, or I no longer need it. The irony of that particular shirt is this: I never once wore it.
All of the others were well-worn. Some more than others. I still have a few very tired shirts that probably should have been let go. One in particular is a shirt I liberated, with the help of my older brother, from the dumpster behind the field house at the University of Colorado. It was used when I got it, and I've been running in it for more than twenty years. The fact that it has held together after weekly washings and other abuse is a tribute to its maker, who I can only guess at since the label has long since been worn away. A few of the shirts that were in line to be purged were rescued by my son. It will be a few more years before they fit him properly, but by then I should be able to part with a few dozen more.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pray For Morning

When I was a kid, before I went to sleep, I used to say this:
"Now I lay me down to sleep"
That part's easy. It's bed time and it is time to close our eyes. Then came the another pretty simple bit:
"I pray the Lord my soul to keep"
Nice rhyme. Nice sentiment. It's comforting, but it is also a setup for the next line:
"If I should die before I wake"
Oh please, I'm nine years old. Now the door is about to close. The curtain is about to come down. Maybe not today, but maybe in the middle of the night the Grim Reaper will creep in, toss the covers back, snatch me up and carry me off into the night. So here comes the consolation:
"I pray the Lord my soul to take"
There's the Lord again, taking possession of my soul. Thanks, Lord. But I really hope it doesn't come to that. I'm kind of looking forward to recess tomorrow. That's why we always finished off with:
"God bless me, mom, dad, Doug, Dan, Rupert, Jack, and everybody in the whole world, Amen."
I like the fact that I began my list with myself. I included my family and my pets. And everybody in the whole world. Even the bad people. Because you never know when you're going to need that sort of assurance. Especially if you die in your sleep. Nighty night.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Raise Your Hand If You're Undecided, Or Don't...

My first take on the McCain announcement of his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, was this: He can save millions on the federal budget since he will only have to pay her half as much as a man. And then the rest of the stories start filtering through. Palin describes herself as pro-life and against same-sex marriage, although she claims to have good friends who are gay. She supports the teaching of creationism in public schools, alongside evolution and is also a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. Not that all of these things really paint an accurate portrait of this woman of the wilderness.
John McCain has picked a woman and therefore trumped his opponent who could just as easily have done the same thing. It's a chess game, right? Obama went with age and experience, so McCain did just the opposite. Spin, parry, thrust. Got it. The whole thing just started to make me feel very tired today. Maybe it's hangover from the big rock show at Mile High (Invesco) Stadium, but I don't know how I will be able to listen to two more months of this hullabalo. Are there really that many people out there who need eight weeks to figure this one out? I confess that I have a hard time imagining that my choice would change if they stage any number of debates between presidential candidates, and I have a perverse interest in seeing Governor Palin discuss the finer points of foreign policy with Joe Biden.
But I don't get to make the rules. This campaign is years old now, and I suppose that I can just find something else to occupy my mind while I'm waiting for the polls to open. Thank God for football season.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mile High And Rising

"Just to add to what the Obama Campaign stated earlier today, while Bruce is an ardent and dedicated supporter of Senator Obama, he will not be performing at, and, in fact, had never planned to perform, at Invesco Field this Thursday." - from 8/28/2008
These words come as sad news for my mother, God love her, who told me last night that she had a vision of Bruce showing up just as Barack finished his speech and launching into "The Rising." I could not argue with her idea from a show biz standpoint. It would make great theater. But would it make great politics?
I can remember watching Springsteen unleash that song on the world back in July of 2002. It was a call from a fan after the September 11 attacks that set him to work on that song: "Hey Boss, we need you!" And so back he came, guitars a-blazin', drums a-bashin' and voices a-wailin'. He called on a wounded nation to reach out and take hold of that dream once again:
"A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line"
That's the reminder never to give up. That's hope dancing on the end of that line. So it's no wonder that the Obama campaign has been using that message, that invitation to "come on up for a rising tonight." It's a revival of the things that make America work for all of us. One of my wife's favorite Bruce lines came at the end of a show: "Remember, nobody wins unless we all win."
After the Steven Spielberg-directed, Tom Hanks-narrated tribute to our troops last night, the Democrats run the risk of becoming that thing that they have worked so hard to avoid: a caricature. Too much star power might just overshadow the real importance of what is at stake in the next two months. And so I'll be watching tonight, wishing just a little for that "special appearance" but keeping in mind that the time for celebration is behind us again for now. There's a lot of work to be done before election day. I'm guessing the Boss will put on a heck of a show at the inaugural ball.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Go Ask Julie

I was sorry to see that Mackenzie Phillips was back in the news today. Not because I think she's had too much time in the spotlight, but because she was arrested on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance after she allegedly was found carrying drugs at Los Angeles International Airport. "On suspicion" is kind of a gimme here, since Mackenzie has already had her share of run-ins with both the law and controlled substances.
I remember being impressed by her work in "American Graffiti." She was my pre-teen connection to that world of hot rods and sock hops. She was all arms and legs, hopping out of John Milner's '32 Ford to soap the windows of another car full of cruising girls. Mackenzie was never a star, but she certainly had her appeal. Which is why I felt just a trace of shame when I threw in whole hog for my first teenage crush, Valerie Bertinelli.
Even though I shudder a little bit when I see Valerie Bertinelli shilling Jenny Craig, at least she's not showing up in mug shots. Her TV older sister never had trouble keeping the pounds off, not with all that Peruvian Marching Powder she inhaled. It is the enduring story of the daughter of John Phillips, the one who got his looks and had to endure a life as the half-sister of Chynna Phillips. Chynna married a Baldwin, which may be its own curse, but Mackenzie lives on in the shadow of the sixties. She tells stories about how she started smoking pot and dropping acid at twelve years old, and how she was seduced by Mick Jagger when she was just eighteen. And today she was arrested by Sergeant Jim Holcomb of the Los Angeles Airport Police.
I wonder how Bonnie Franklin's doing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Night At The Opera

A month or two ago, I read a story about a new opera being written using David Cronenberg's revision of "The Fly" as its libretto. As source material goes, this has all the elements of great opera: love, death, sex, violence, murder, genetic mutation. Since Cronenberg wrote and will be directing the stage version of his story of metamorphosis, the emphasis will most likely be on the last three. It makes me wish that he had picked "Videodrome" or "Scanners" instead, but since I wasn't exactly begging, I guess I can't even begin to be choosy.
But all of this comes as good news for those of us who are starved for a gory good production that oozes and squishes satisfactorily. And you can sing along. Which reminds me of the entertainment sensation of the summer, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog," which in turn reinforces the idea that the ability to tell a story or joke is impressive, but doing it while you are singing is awe-inspiring.
Unless, of course, your songs really stink. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of opera being played, especially on Saturdays when my mother listened to the matinees from the Met. It serves me right that, after years of grumbling and complaining and eventually gaining a begrudging appreciation for the art form, my wife would choose to direct her career path into the musical theater. And while I think that our lives of quiet desperation out here on the left coast can be quite tuneful, I will remain relieved that I do not have to sit through a staging of the opera-ized "Inconvenient Truth."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Citius Altius Fortius

Last night, as the fortnight-plus broadcast of the Beijing Olympics drew to a close, Bob Costas and Chris Collinsworth began to pontificate on the wonderfully small and unified world they had seen on display during the Games. They both wondered aloud about how great it would be if this microcosm could be extended and expanded over from one week in one city to a month or a year, all across the globe. It is an amazing thing to ponder: that spirit of competition coupled with cooperation and sportsmanship spread like a veil over the world.
It would be petty to mention that while those same Games played out in China, Russia was invading Georgia. People and things continued to blow up in Iraq. Sudanese security forces continue to slaughter refugees in Darfur. The Olympic Motto, "Faster, Higher, Stronger," haven't exactly been on display outside Beijing. But we can dream, can't we?
Out in the Mile High City, the next big gala is about to begin. This is the one where all the Democrats get together to create their plan for world domination. In a vaguely touchy-feely-big-tent-kind-of -way. "Democrats will leave this Denver convention unified, organized and stronger than ever to take America in a new direction with Barack Obama and Joe Biden as president and vice president," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a speech to California delegates. She said that all twelve national conventions she has attended have been marked by contentiousness. I guess if you go to a family reunion, you sort of expect your Uncle Ted to get a little surly after the first few beers, but wouldn't it be great if all the choices were as clear as Usain Bolt's world record victories?
Well, I guess we don't get to live in that carefully choreographed world for very long, so we should savor those moments when our best is truly on display, and forgive those moments of weakness when they occur. And keep Uncle Ted away from the cooler.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow

My son and I went on one last summertime run. We agreed that it would probably be a good idea to check out the route to his new school: A Middle School. I already knew the way, and so did he, but I am having a harder time than he is about the distinction between "Junior High" and "Middle School." He's going into sixth grade, and in my world, he's still in elementary school. Not so in his world. He's about to become a little fish in a big pond.
With that in mind, we headed up the hill and wound through the neighborhood that makes his new path. On a Sunday morning, I tried to imagine the stream of children heading out each day on their way to their appointment with math and science and language arts. I thought about the backpacks and lunchboxes that had to be one notch cooler than the year before, since Dora The Explorer probably wouldn't quite pass the peer review for middle schoolers. My son lives in a world of Legos and car magazines, the latter of which will certainly ingratiate him with any number of kids at lunchtime. That is, provided they want to listen to him expound on the handling of the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4.
Once we got to the steps of his new school, I told him that I wished that I could be with him tomorrow morning, but I would be there in his heart and his head. He smiled in that borderline sheepish way that middle school boys have, and said, "Yeah Dad," and he gave me our special power-thumb connection. Then he looked up and asked, "Can we go home my way? It's shorter."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Final Cut

It's the time of year when the rosters of your favorite team are getting set to face the upcoming season. There's always a mix of fresh faces along with a number of wily veterans. Egos are inflated and crushed with the stroke of a pen. Stars are made and broken. All for a chance to win in January. Or November.
This year, presidential politics have taken on the tenor of professional football. With his selection of Joe Biden for his running mate via text message, Barack Obama has transported us all into the twenty-first century, reality-TV version of campaigning. Just as there are a lot of first round draft picks who eventually end up being nothing more than a trivia question, I'm sure there were a number of big-name Democrats who sat on the edge of their beds watching their cell phones in the middle of the night, holding out hope that that their name would show up on that little screen when the bell rang. I wonder if there were conciliatory messages sent to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh: "Sore U Cnt B R VP."
Still, it will be interesting to see how John McCain moves to match his opponent's pick. Obama chose age and experience to counter his relative youth and fresh ideas. Who in the GOP has the "fresh legs" needed to support the Straight Talk Express? Still, in the end, it seems that this is all a lot of fuss generated about a guy who will probably end up carrying a clipboard most of the season.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Coming Soon!

Twelve years ago when I went into my first classroom, my very own classroom, this was impressed upon me by my principal: Bulletin Boards. At no time prior to that moment had any of my brief but arduous teacher training had anyone mentioned this facet of the educational process. Keeping a colorful and lively learning environment seems like a natural thing to attend to, but eventually, not on the very first day in my very first classroom.
That wasn't negotiable. My principal wanted me to have bright new paper up on my bulletin boards with those crinkly little strips of border around the edges. She was my boss. She was the lady who hired me. She was the woman who made it possible for me to begin my career as a teacher. Of course I went to the teacher's lounge where the big rolls of butcher paper were available in a rainbow of hues, and then a few rolls of border. I cut and stapled and fussed and stapled some more until finally I had a room full of yellow and blue, surrounded by green and red waves of crinkly little strips of border. I had plenty of help back then. The assistant to the principal, before we had an assistant principal, gave me all kinds of good advice about how to make a bulletin board jump up and say, "Welcome to my room!"
A dozen years later, I started my day working on my bulletin boards. I picked a color scheme that featured orange and blue. It took me an hour or two to get things just right, but all of a sudden, ti looked like a classroom. As the day wore on, there were plenty of other teachers busying themselves about all the tasks that needed to be done before the first day of school: copies made, nametags written, desks arranged, and a hundred other tiny details. When the smoke cleared, some of our teachers had left without fulfilling their prime directive: They had left their bulletin boards bare. I spent the last hour or two before I came home cutting and stapling and fussing and stapling some more on boards outside other teachers' rooms. School starts on Monday, and my bulletin boards are ready to go. I just hope I will be.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


It has been a while, but it was kind of like I remember dorm life. The past two days were spent in a hotel up in Marin, while my days were filled with meetings and conversations about high-minded ideals and meta-cognitive thinking, the evenings were ours to do with as we pleased. When I say "we," I am referring to the staff of my elementary school. We had an off-site retreat to get us ready for the start of a new school year. Now that I am back home again, I believe that we achieved that goal.
But not without some challenges. As a group, we all do an excellent job, and we have a unique ability to get along both professionally and socially. That second part is what puts some of the adventure in our enterprise. There are plenty of moments when a candid snapshot of our staff unwinding after a hard day's "vertical articulation" might cause a stir. This is especially true when one adds the caption: "Elementary School Teachers." What does one expect from a group of young adults, cloistered away in the hills above Marin in a hotel with a pool and a hot tub. If it sounds a little like the beginning of a TV reality show, you're starting to get the picture.
In the end, however, we are still dedicated educators, and we all showed up the next morning in one piece. Some of us were a little worse for the wear and tear, but I was clever enough to bring my family along and enjoyed the morning's recap of the previous night's amusements. I heard some of it out in the hallway as I drifted off to sleep, safe in the knowledge that my youth was behind me, or in this case, just down the hall.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Farewell To The Pit

In the whirlwind that was my return to my hometown last weekend, there was a moment of ennui. It came when my older brother drove us past our old high school. Thanks to a large bond measure, Boulder High is being modernized. I have worked through a school year or two in which a school has been "modernized" (read: painted), and I know that there are periodically radical changes created in these periods. Other times, the buildings and facilities remain looking very much the same.
It's my guess that once the gym at Boulder High has been modernized, the change will be immediately obvious. For years, the "boys' gym" at my high school was infamous for being one of the most intimidating places to play basketball in Colorado. It didn't hurt that we usually had some pretty rabid fans, but the positioning of those fans proved to be the most important feature. There were only a few feet on the edge of the regulation basketball court before the walls rose straight up. The bleachers were found ten feet up those walls above the floor of the court. There were a few seats squeezed in on one side of the court, across from the team benches, but mostly the crowd hung over the rails and stomped on the benches up above, and as the outcome of the game became more and more inevitable they would chant, "Welcome to the Pit! Welcome to the Pit!" We had perhaps one of the best home-court advantages in the Centennial League. We were perennial contenders in girls' basketball, and we won the boys' state championship when I was a junior. We had a good team, but I think our gym and our fans proved to be every bit as important, especially when the game was close. The thunder raining down from above was enough to cause many an errant pass or missed free throw. We always wished that we could play more of our games on that court, and now, they're through.
I'm sure that the spirit will continue, but I don't imagine that any self-respecting architect of the twenty-first century would recreate the facility as it once was. I suspect that the original plan was modeled more on the Roman Coliseum than the average high school gymnasium. I guess that the new boys' gym will be state-of-the-art, but it won't be a pit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

All You Can Eat

I spent a long weekend with my family back in Colorado this past weekend. I flew out there with my younger brother, and while we were waiting in the airport, I decided to get a little dinner. I bought a sandwich and some cole slaw. I had a big Coke to drink. I kept trying to get my brother to get something to eat, since I knew that our flight offered only a bag of peanuts and some Cheese Nips. He refused to bow to my older brother pressure. He had a Coke and a smile.
"I know I'm going to be eating solid for the next three days," he told me.
He was exactly right. Even though we arrived at my mother's house near midnight, we were still obliged to sample the homemade chocolate chip cookies in the cookie jar. And some of the jelly beans in the bowl on the coffee table. And we noticed the twelve-pack of Coke in the pantry. My little brother was right.
We did spend the weekend drinking and eating. Not just at my mother's house, but at a number of favorite cafes and restaurants around my hometown. On our last night there, we went to the newest location of the Italian restaurant that we had been going to for more than forty years. I had a plate of spaghetti, and was pleased to find out that there were free refills. I was equally pleased to relieve my son of his extra meatball. I ate until I felt just a little uncomfortable.
I have a reputation among my family and friends. They call me "The Thresher." I will continue to eat what's in front of me until it's gone, and then look around the table to see what's left on other people's plates. But this was different.
I was not just eating the food. I was filling up on family and my hometown too. I wanted to be able to carry as much of that weekend home with me as I could. The next morning as I was starting to pack up, it wasn't just my belly, but my heart was full as well. Before we left, my younger brother and I ate almost all the chocolate chip cookies. We left a few for my older brother who couldn't be there. After all, why should we have all the fun?

Monday, August 18, 2008

I Read The News Today Oh Boy

I used to read the entire newspaper when I spent summers at our mountain cabin. It was reading material and therefore it was important to consume every page. I read a lot of stuff that eleven-year-old boys don't regularly peruse. I read Michael Chricton's "Andromeda Strain." I read "The New Yorker" cover to cover. I even read "Ms. Magazine" when my mom was done with it. Then there was the newspaper.
For a time, we received both the Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera at our house. That meant that we generally didn't get our news until the following day, since part of my father's duty as the commuting member of our family to bring both papers back up the hill to us at the end of his day. This meant that a lot of my newspaper reading was done at night by the light of kerosene lamps. In the cabin. In the middle of a forest.
That's the part that got me. We were isolated. We didn't even have a phone. That's why the articles I read near the back of the front section were the most troublesome. They were still news, but they were not exactly "hard news." These were the two inch items about UFOs and Bigfoot. They were on the same page as the day's weather. UFOs were out there, just like those intermittent thunderstorms. And Bigfoot? Back in the early seventies, I was sure that my next trip to the outhouse would be my last.
No doubt about it: the newspaper was every bit as terrifying as Michael Chricton's deadly space virus - or Gloria Steinem.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Once In A Lifetime

I keep wondering what will happen to the old shell of a building that used to house our neighborhood Blockbuster video store. It once stood as a proud beacon of newly revived commerce. Now it sits empty, behind a chain link fence, periodically the target of misplaced youthful angst. Or maybe not that misplaced.I continue to blame Blockbuster for bringing an end to my career as a video store manager. This is somewhat sad and ironic, since the the last days of that chapter of my life were spent in the service of a franchise outfit. I worked at National Video after our pleasant little local store was bought out by a guy who was intent on leaving the legal profession and supporting his family by owning and operating a string of video rental stores along Colorado's Front Range. We were selected to be the second jewel in his video crown. Even though we had done business in the same location for several years before he opened his first little store gave us, as a staff, quite a bit of leverage. If a group of twenty-somethings working to make rent and get a little extra beer money can have "leverage."It helped that we were movie snobs. We knew what we were talking about, and in the days when you needed a membership to rent videotapes, that was good enough for all of us to keep our jobs. It was even good enough to get our new owner to finance the production of three commercials for our newly launched enterprise to be shown on the local cable system. I took the job very seriously, and carefully scripted and storyboarded all three, with a special eye to my magnum opus that was set to the tune of the Talking Heads' song "Once In A Lifetime." I remember staying up late to catch a showing of my commercial on some channel at the top of the dial. And I remember seeing the beginning of the end.We all assumed that this guy knew what he was doing. Wouldn't earning a law degree afford one a certain amount of business sense? That was our assumption. It turned out to be false. He had no idea what he was doing. He was a big guy, and he often took it upon himself to order us all food when he came down to visit the store. When he discovered that we had worked, over the years, a deal with the pizza place up the sidewalk from us in exchange for slices, he wasn't upset. He wondered what they would have to get for a whole pie.The little store closed first, and we tried to keep it lively and fresh. We still gave sound advice on film and ate very well. Our fearless leader let his franchise lapse, and we experienced our third name change in as many years, only this time there was no commercial shoot. We started to sell off our inventory to tape traders. Our pride and joy, our extensive library, began to shrink right along with our profits. The number of tapes on the shelves continued to shrink until one day we locked the doors and sold off our inventory to some clown who wanted to open up his own video store. In another place. At another time.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Show Business

"Once again ladies and gentlemen, this is an exhibition, not a competition - please no wagering." - David Letterman
I know a guy who is actively trying to help put "Dark Knight" over the top. He continues to go out and see the Batman movie again and again with the expressed purpose of piling on to its already impressive box office take. He has seen it in big theaters and small, on IMAX and tiny multiplex screens. Within the first month of its release, he had seen "Dark Knight" six times. To be fair, he went out at the beginning of the summer and saw "Iron Man" two times in as many weeks. But the Batman thing is different.
Like so many of us out there, we now see that "The Titanic" is, if you'll pardon the pun, within striking distance. That untouchable six hundred million dollar gross now seems like a possibility for this superhero film. And why not? Records were made to be broken, right?
There was a time when I felt smug about the fact that I spent the summer of 1977 helping to rewrite box office history by using the local theater showing "Star Wars" as my logical alternative to "I dunno, what do you wanna do?" When in doubt, we went to see "Star Wars." I spent a good deal of my lawn-mowing money making George Lucas the wattle-necked-control-freak-kerjillionaire that he is today.
And for twenty years, that was the top of the pile. I was fine with that. Then along comes James Cameron and his epic about a boat. Now this great soggy mess of of a romantic tragedy is the "Number One Movie Of All Time." That is, if you count ticket sales. If you're counting darkly amusing ways to make a pencil disappear, then Batman now rules that roost.

Friday, August 15, 2008

It Wasn't The Planes That Got Him

I have often said that when I die, I don't want a lot of mystery surrounding my passing. I expect that it won't take Quincy to discover what took me down. As a matter of fact, if it would facilitate things, I am willing to carry the address of the nearest In 'n' Out burger franchise in my wallet for that moment when I cease to be. Again, I don't think a call to any of the various CSI branches will be necessary. Death by cheeseburger: animal style.
Of course, this flies directly in the face of my other deep-seated obsession. Why would I keep lacing up my shoes to go out running if I am really that intent on committing hami-kiri? It's a very deep-seated denial, I suppose. There's a whole lot of bargaining going on in my head on any given day. "If I put bacon on that, I'll just have to make sure and get that extra mile in tomorrow," and so on. The whole idea is never to become so incapacitated by food that by the next morning I am unable to get out on the streets again.
A study published on Monday shows middle-aged members of a runner's club were half as likely to die over a twenty-year period as people who did not run. Running reduced the risk not only of heart disease, but of cancer and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, researchers found. For the purposes of my longevity, I would put my name on the "runners" list, but for the sake of my taste buds, I fall squarely on the Super Size column. I know that the older I get, the harder it becomes to rationalize all of these little quirks. I understand that eventually something has to give. So there are more salads in my future, I suppose so that I will continue to have one.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Olympic Sized Controversy

I remember when the biggest concern that athletes faced in Olympic competition was the relative gender of the person in the lane next to you. Chromosome testing of the Eastern Bloc athletes to determine the proper personal pronoun to use when describing the feats that have been performed in any given arena continue in Beijing, but they are far from the biggest worry. Instead we are now questioning the relative ages of the woman gymnasts on the Chinese team. Does a thirteen-year old make a better gymnast than a sixteen-year old? It seems pretty counter-intuitive, but rules, as they say, are rules.
There are no rules for good taste, and that's what the Spanish basketball teams find themselves guilty of breaking. A picture, showing the players pushing up the outside corners of their eyes, was taken before the team left Spain for Beijing. These photos were taken of both the men's and women's teams as advertisements for a local courier service. One of the members of the men's team, Jose Manuel Calderon who also plays for the Toronto Raptors, wrote in his blog: "We thought it was something appropriate and that it would always be interpreted as somewhat loving. Nevertheless, some of the European media did not see it this way." European, American, International, twenty-first century - it's one of those subjective things, I guess.
Just like cuteness. Little girls singing about their Motherland with all their heart is about as cute as I can imagine, but cuteness is still relative. Lin Miaoke, age nine, was deemed suitable in appearance, but not in voice. Seven-year old Yang Peiyi's voice was pretty enough, but her distinct lack of pigtails kept her from taking center stage at the opening ceremonies, but she could be heard. "The reason was for the national interest," said Chen Qigang, general music designer of the opening ceremonies, who revealed the deception during a Sunday radio interview. "The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression." At least we're pretty sure that they were little girls.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

What did you do on your summer vacation? I went to Disneyland. If you're a member of the Russian army, chances are you got to spend time in Georgia. Not like the peaches and home of Coca-Cola where the Olympics were held just a little while ago Georgia, but the former Socialist republic. The Russians were there to put down a Georgian attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Russia.
Declaring that "the aggressor has been punished," the Kremlin ordered a halt Tuesday to Russia's assault on Georgia. Five days of air and ground attacks have left homes in smoldering ruins and uprooted more than one hundred thousand people. Remember that kinder, gentler Russia that we all looked forward to having in our Facebook at the end of the Cold War? It's not these guys. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered his defense minister, during a televised Kremlin meeting: "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them."
Why would Russia need to flex its muscle at this point in time, in this place? Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and bypassing Russia. Oh, that and that whole "freedom" thing. Stay tuned, it's been a while since President Pinhead has sent U.S. troops into a foreign country to protect freedom - and oil.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Blurred LInes

While President Pinhead was over in Beijing giving out high fives to the U.S. men's basketball team and practicing this beach volleyball skills with the girls, the rest of the world continued on its course. Things were blowing up and people were being shot, but Pinhead got to feel like a kid again. Never mind Pakistan and Russia and Georgia and Iraq, he's out there taking his victory lap.
Back home there's trouble brewing. Barack Obama's campaign announced Tuesday the launch of "Republicans for Obama." The group is being spearheaded by former lawmaker Jim Leach of Iowa, former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chaffee, and Rita Hauser, who was a prominent fundraiser for The Pinhead Regime. These are men who have seen the writing on the wall, most of it in crayon, telling them that the winds of change are blowing in a less conservative direction, away from the stink of the past eight years. Even Robert Novak noticed the trend when he coined the term, "Obamacons."
Meanwhile, back on the lone prairie, John McCain continues to do his best to appear as the candidate of change with his trusty sidekick, Joseph "Droopy Dog" Lieberman. That would make him a McCainocrat, except that Joe left the Democratic party after he lost his party's primary in 2006. He was elected to the Senate as an "independent Democrat." There has been some mild speculation that McCain might even pick Joe to be his running mate.
With all this confusion about "liberal Republicans" and "conservative Democrats," I begin to wonder if the clear distinction between parties is coming to an end. Partisan politics have brought us this far. Maybe it's time for a change.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Just Talkin' Bout Hayes

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw Isaac Hayes. I had spent a good many months ahead of that event listening to him, but when he took the stage at the 1972 Academy Awards in his trademark chain-mail vest and shades to perform what would be the Oscar-winning "Theme From 'Shaft'," I was in awe. He brought the funk. This was a bad mother-
I know, shut your mouth. But this was no one-hit wonder. Along with songwriting partner David Porter, created the sound of Stax records, including "You Don't Know Like I Know", "Soul Man", "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby", and "Hold On I'm Comin" for Sam and Dave. As a solo artist, he put his own spin on a number of Burt Bacharach tunes, including "Walk On By" and "The Look of Love."
As he moved through the seventies, he dabbled in disco, and began to move from cameo roles in films to take on larger parts. I remember turning on "The Rockford Files" and saying, "Hey, isn't that Isaac Hayes?" It was indeed. And then there was his much-celebrated turn as the voice of benevolent, sexy reason on "South Park"" Chef.
But none of these are my fondest memory of Isaac Hayes. For that we have to travel back to 1981 and a little film called "Escape From New York." Mister Hot Buttered Soul played The Duke of New York, and his pimped-out ride included chandeliers on the hood above the headlights. All that was missing was that chain-mail vest. He wrote hit songs, he won Grammys and an Oscar, but to me he will always be "The Duke - he's A Number One."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bizarre Love Triangles

"Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god." - General Corman in to Captain Willard in "Apocalypse Now"
So there he was, out there in the wilds of the campaign trail, and John Edwards fell prey to that temptation. The native in question, Rielle Hunter, was impressed enough to comingle with the once and future candidate to the tune of an extra-marital affair back in 2006. The Democratic Knight in Shining Armor turns out to have a morality challenge.
Certainly, the suggestion or spin that could be made is that the former Senator from North Carolina is merely holding up a grand Democratic tradition of "lusty, zesty men, seething with vital hormonal secretions." There was Bill Clinton most recently, and John F. Kennedy before him. And let's not forget the presidential infidelities of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Of course, with FDR and Elanor, can you really blame a guy for cheating on his cousin?
What is it about Democrats that inspire such salaciousness? Jimmy Carter, noted Baptist and former President of the United states said, "I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." By that measure, I'm guessing even Harry Truman was guilty of that sin.
What about those Republicans? The very idea of Richard Nixon coupling with another human being is creepy on the order of the idea that your parents once had to - well - you know. And Ronald Reagan divorced his first wife to be with that saucy little vixen, Nancy. Then there's John and Cindy McCain. John is also on his second marriage, after a string of extra-marital affairs, for which he has dutifully accepted the blame. But here's where this story comes full circle: Serving as groomsman at John and Cindy's wedding, none other than Playboy Senator from Colorado, Gary Hart.
And so, as the sun sets on John Edward's public life, we remember that we are all human, after all and subject to the frailties of that particular condition. Better still to remember the words I am certain that Lillian Carter must have passed on to her son so many years ago: "It doesn't matter where you get your appetite, as long as you eat at home."

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Guess Where I'm Calling From?

It used to be that if you wanted to reach out and touch someone, there was a certain amount of strategizing. Making a phone call used to be more of a challenge before we started carrying telephones around in our pockets, purses, or wedged into our ears. Not that I'm not impressed by all of this portable technology. I really am. It just takes all the adventure away.
When I was a lad, phones were attached to walls by "cords." You couldn't just walk around wherever you wanted while you talked. With the exception of those fifty foot long umbilicals made popular by Marlo Thomas in "That Girl," if you answered the phone in the bedroom, that's where you had your conversation. Or maybe you were lucky enough to have more than one extension, in which case it would be a matter of yelling across the house: "Can you hang up in there? I'm trying to use the phone!" Of course, finding the phone was a lot easier back then. You just followed the cord.
Then there was the omnipresent pay phone. There used to be banks of pay phones in airports, shopping centers, and street corners across this great land of ours. I had a friend in high school who saw it as his personal mission to make a call from most any of these conveniently located devices, and before he finished, he would always give the receiver one really good whack against the counter or the wall, and then before he hung up, he'd let me know, "Nope, still works just fine." He was a one-man quality control service.
Nowadays it's more difficult than it's ever been. Back in December 2007, AT&T got out of the payphone business for good. Over the past ten years, the number of public telephones in the United States has dropped from two million to one million. Up the street from me is a pay phone that doesn't look like anyone has used it for months - probably because the handset has been snapped into three distinct pieces, the wired inside hold the bits tenuously together. I thought I should grab my cell phone and give my friend a call to see if this was his handiwork, but I had left my phone at home.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Rules

For the past eleven years I have been running through the park with my dog. She has been my companion through wind and rain and sun and fog. On a number of occasions, I have met my the rest of my family near the playstructure and my dog has enjoyed doing her many circus tricks. She loves to go down the slide. She gets very impatient with us if we don't let her go down at least a couple of times.
Now that fun has to stop. I'll still go on runs with her. She'll still look longingly at the slide for a chance to show off her amazing talent, but we won't be running through the park anymore. You see, there are no dogs allowed in the park. This is not a new rule. I actually noticed it, right there at the top of the sign that says, "Park Rules." It's number one. But I confess that I continued to run past and around those signs on my way through the park, confident in the knowledge that I have a very well-behaved dog and a spare bag in my left hand in case of any "comfort stops."
This week, I've been running a little earlier in the afternoon, and I have encountered the kids playing at their summer day camp. My dog has never been anything but patient with kids, and so it never occurred to me that I would be bothering anyone. Quite to the contrary: I have stopped to let curious short people pet and stroke her while I catch my breath. So imagine my surprise when a little girl came running up behind me the other day, "Sir?"
I pulled one of my earphones out, expecting he usual request to pet my dog.
"My camp counselor says that you can't bring your dog into the park."
"Excuse me?"
"My camp counselor says," and before she could finish, her camp counselor came up behind her and told me that I couldn't bring my dog into the park.
"It's against the rules," he asserted.
"But I've been doing this same run for eleven years," I huffed.
"I'm sorry. Those are the rules," and he took his little charge with him back to the four square game.
Yesterday I avoided the situation by going on a different route, but today I found myself heading back to the park. And instead of running through the park, I ran around it. It's about the same distance, and my dog didn't seem to be too sad about missing the playstructure. I decided to change my route. Why? Because that's the rule. When I got a ticket for running a stop sign while riding my bike, I paid it. I could have protested the ticket and complained about how there must be something else that a policeman in Oakland could be doing rather than giving out tickets to bicyclists on their way to teach at an elementary school, but I didn't. It's the rule.
And the rule says "No Dogs." The good news is, there are lots of places where my dog is more than welcome. That's where we'll be going from now on. And we won't be breaking any rules.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Thin Line

"Thank you very much, I'll be here all week. Please, tip your waitresses." These were the words I left my colleagues with this afternoon as I left Ballroom Number One at the Airport Hilton. I've spent the past few days in the cozy confines of the Reading First Seminar hosted by the Governor's Reading Initiative. There are twenty-some of us teachers sitting patiently at round tables beneath questionable lighting and plenty of air-conditioning. And I'm doing my very best at behaving.
I wouldn't have thought that distinction necessary, but interestingly enough, it was pointed out first by a friend of mine the day before the training began. After listening to me complain briefly about being held hostage for five days, he suggested that I was secretly looking forward to it. It would be a chance to interact with my fellow teachers and maybe even entertain a bit. "Yeah, sure," I shrugged.
Then, on the first morning, I ran into one of my instructors from a previous year who asked me point blank: "Are you going to behave this week?" Apparently my reputation precedes me. I was the kid who was asked to leave my Elementary Functions class in high school because, in the words of my teacher back then, "You're an instigator."
I've never considered myself to be "class clown." I am happy to leave that distinction to other more manic personalities. It is true that I enjoy sharing my sense of humor with most any willing or captive audience, and I find that classrooms afford me just that.
I have gone to some great pains to make sure that I don't ignore or offend my instructor. On the contrary. I have been a very enthusiastic and involved participant. I sit at the front table and I am on task and ready to go. The challenge comes when things don't go. That's where I fill in with my witty bon mot. I have been careful not to overdo it, and I am grateful to have a set of fresh faces to apply my charm. I use the following statement as my measure: "I wish there was somebody like you on our staff."
Am I just there to amuse? No. I have learned a few things, and I have, as predicted, enjoyed the company of my fellow teachers. I have one more day to make an impression. I just hope they don't remember me as "an instigator."

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I Was Told There Would Be No Math

Peabody here: Kids, let's set the Way-Back Machine for minus ten years and head back just one decade shall we? Ready, Sherman?
The president said lawmakers must resist the temptation to "squander" that money. "In this election year, some now want to raid the surplus for initiatives instead of preserving every penny of the surplus until we strengthen Social Security. Let me clear: I will oppose any budget that fails to set aside the surpluses until we have strengthened Social Security for the 21st century." New White House budget figures that project a surplus of thirty nine billion dollars for fiscal year 1998, and a one hundred fifty billion dollar surplus over the next five years.
For those of you who are a little hazy about life before Pinhead, the president way back then was the husband of that cute little gal who was running for the office this year, remember? His name was Clinton, too.
And so now, because we have yet to convert the Way-Back Machine to a hybrid, we have to come back to the present, where falling government revenues amid a slowing economy, coupled with increased federal spending, will result in a U.S. budget deficit this year of around four hundred billion dollars. Just a reminder, that "billion" is the one with nine zeros. Maybe we haven't all gone out and spent our economic stimulus checks yet. Maybe the housing bubble is about to burst. Maybe the cost of fertilizer for all our flowering democracies in the Middle East is turning out to be more expensive than we had anticipated.
Before you get all excited and decide to pack your bags and head back to the past for good, remember that any fluctuation in the time-space continuum could result in disastrous effects. Sure, you might be able to go back to a time when gas was a dollar-something a gallon, and the president lied about sex, but the slightest fluctuation could change history forever. What if the fabric of time was ripped, and there was no "King of Queens?" Is that really worth four hundred billion dollars?
I thought so.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Piece Of Work

I got this great phone call last night from my wife. She was calling from the other side of the country to share with me the news of the stage debut of her musical, "The Souls Of Her Feet." This wasn't a full-on production, but rather a staged reading, in which the actors had a chance to say the lines and sing the songs that have been in her head for so many years now. It was her coming out party. After weeks of preparation, there was a day of rehearsal and then two shows. All of that potential show business became a reality right there in New York City.
I shouldn't have been surprised that she called me so late, since she's hanging out in the City That Never Sleeps. Of course, for the past few weeks that's pretty much been our house as well as she fussed and fretted over the final details and created a cast from one coast to appear on the other. My wish for her was one night of most excellent rest.
Because I know what happens now: rewrites. This is the thing that crushed my own dreams of becoming a screenwriter. I run out of patience with a story or an idea much too quickly to hold something like that together. Once I've told a story, I have a hard time going back and picking at it. I admire anyone with the patience and tenacity to dig in and make a good idea great. There is a great tendency to put something in a drawer and be satisfied that it got that far. The challenge is to keep it out of the drawer and on the desk where it can breathe. Now that it is alive, it's her job to keep it that way. It won't be easy, but I have faith in her. So let's let her have a little rest and a victory lap around the country, then back to work.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Learning From The Past

Today in my Reading Institute, I just happened to find myself sitting across the table from the sister of one of my former students. He's getting ready to attend the eighth grade, and his sister is starting her first year back teaching after a year off for maternity leave, so there's quite a big gap between them, but there I was, spending the day with Nestor's big sister.
"You remember Nestor, right?" she asked.
I tried to get a face from the past, but came up with a jumble of possibilities.
"He used to cry a lot."
Bingo. Now I knew exactly who her little brother was. This was a kid who spent half of the fourth grade in the hallway, too shy to come in the door. And the tears. Nestor would cry if you looked at him sideways, and there was a lot of that at my school. Somehow we made it through the year, and I remember that he even walked into class on his own for the last few months without his mother.
"You know, he wanted you to move up to fifth grade and be his teacher the next year too," his sister told me later in the day.
I didn't know that. Now that I'm getting ready to turn my teaching clock back a few years and return to the computer lab, that kind of information is a pleasant reminder of how things used to be. And maybe they will be again. Only without quite so much crying.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I'm A Loner, A Rebel

"I'm a ramblin' guy - got a lot of important things to do. Are you kidding? What time's the TV go off?" - Steve Martin
I hear you, Steve. I've just rambled through the first twelve hours of my week of bachelorhood, and I'm already starting to bump into things. Where I once considered myself quite the lone wolf, I now find that the silence in here is deafening. I plan on getting familiar with each and every one of the hundreds of cable channels at my fingertips.
Then later this afternoon I will be back to looking for something else to do. In the meantime, I'll be trying to pretend that I feel comfortable in my own house. But that's not the worst part. My dog misses my wife and son more than I do. She's wandering around the house, looking out the windows and staring at closed doors, waiting for them to come home. I don't know how to break it to her that I'm it until the rest of the family returns from the East.
It reminds me of another time that my wife and son went off visiting, and I was stuck here at home. For some unfathomable reason, I chose that weekend to go see "The Blair Witch Project" and then came home by myself. My dog was waiting for me then, too. She did the same thing then that she did last night, only back then I was pretty sure that she was peering out into the darkness at some approaching evil. I didn't sleep at all that night.
It's going to be a long week.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

My Son, The Rocker

I have always taken a great interest in what goes into my son's ears. I am the one who took him to hear Bruce Springsteen, DEVO, and The Police before he was in middle school. I feel as though I have a limited time frame in which to affect his music tastes, and the clock is ticking.
I found this out on our trip to southern California. On the way down, I rode shotgun and programmed the music we listened to via my iPod. I remembered all the road trips I took with my parents as a kid, and the lengthy negotiations we endured to listen to rock and roll as we drove through vast regions of the southwest United States. We listened to a lot of John Denver as a result, and I still have a deep and abiding affection for many of his songs. There are others that still cause a type of allergic reaction. "Rocky Mountain High" gives me hives.
Thus, I was determined not to create a similar reaction in my son. I hate to think of him merely enduring "Cadillac Ranch" or suffering through "Beautiful World". So, when he asked me if he could play a few songs off his iPod, I happily switched the cable and soon we were listening to the world through his ears.
At first I confess I felt a surge of pride as I noticed that many of his favorite songs were the ones to which I had introduced him. Then there were a few I didn't recognize. Happily I did not immediately reach for the volume control, but I was surprised to hear just how hard my son rocks. Bands like Linkin Park and Disturbed came out right next to many of the cute little ditties that I had recorded for him on birthday CDs from the past.
Last night it was time to fill up his iPod for his late-night flight back east with his mother. I worked hard to include as many rock classics as new favorites. I wanted to include Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" without skipping Powerman 500's "When Worlds Collide". It was a painstaking process, but when I had finished assembling his playlist it was seven hours long, and only filled half his disk space.
Oh well. He's eleven. I know that he probably wouldn't mind having a little "Winnie the Pooh" at the end there, just to help him get some sleep.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Once upon many years ago, while I was courting my wife-to-be, I wrote her a poem. The refrain of which read, "You can come and go in my life." At the time I was doing everything I could to appear as a witty, clever, and patient potential mate. I was going to play this one very cool. It was important to establish just how much freedom I was willing to install directly into this burgeoning relationship.
Over the years, fifteen of them as married folk, my words have come back in interesting and at times painful ways. The truth is I didn't fully explain myself back then. What I meant to say was, "You can come and go in my life, but I hope you choose to stay." That last bit didn't make the final edit. It wasn't very poetic, and it sounds just a tad desperate.
But that's where I was in the 1990s. I had gone 0-for-the Reagan/Bush administration when it came to girlfriends, and I was becoming very tired of sharing my one bedroom apartment with an ill-tempered budgie named Buttercup. I suspect that Buttercup's temperament was only a mirror of my own, and that made it all the more important for both bird and man to find a resolution.
Then, just shy of my thirtieth birthday, everything changed. I fell in love and moved to California and started a new life. Buttercup got a fresh start as well. She went to live with my niece. And I believe that I owe this upheaval, in no small part, to those words I wrote in my spiral notebook and mailed away in a romantic flurry. Did I know what I was getting into? Would I have had my lawyers look the document over before sending it? Should I have taken time for a rewrite?
Nope. Those were magic words. They changed two people's lives, and by extension dozens more. Since then, I've written a poem or two to express the love I feel for my wife. Many of them have been quite clever, but none of them has gotten me into the trouble that first one did. And you know what? I love trouble.