Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lonelines Of The Long Distance Runner

I woke up this morning at a quarter til five, even though I didn't have to get out of bed for another hour and a half. I could call it pre-race jitters, but that would be over-simplifying. I have been running in a ten-kilometer race of some sort for the past quarter century, so being nervous didn't seem likely. Instead, I used the time to obsess on the tiniest details of the day ahead of me.
I thought about my son, who was spending the night at his grandmother's house, with the expressed intent of making staying at his grandmother's house easier. I wondered what time he fell asleep. I wondered if he was awake like me.
I thought about all the mornings that I had rolled out of bed for the singular purpose of running six miles and change. I tried to recall how many times I had run a race in Colorado, and how many I had run in California. I knew that running at altitude was much more challenging, but the courses in California had been covered by a guy who was no longer in his twenties.
I remembered my father, and the number of trips he used to make to the porta-potties before the start of the races we ran together. I remembered that it was his idea that I start running in the first place. I remembered the time we managed to cross the finish line together.
I was waiting for six o'clock, and I knew I still had another half an hour. More to the point, I knew that my wife, who was sleeping soundly beside me, had another thirty minutes of slumber. I knew that sneaking out from under the covers would cause a shift in the bed temperature, and almost certainly set off the dog alarm. I decided to lay as still as possible and focus on relaxing for those last few quiet moments. In my mind, I could see a bright light. It replaced all the other thoughts and concerns I had put in front of it. I let myself sink into my pillow, the mattress. I felt my weight for a moment, and then I was gone. That's when the alarm went off and it was time to go for a run.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Down The Rabbit Hole

The potentially nice thing about having a week off is that it gives one a chance to catch up on all the news of the world that may have slipped through the cracks during the flurry of your typical workday. For me, that means actually reading the sports section, not just skimming over the scores. Nothing I found there was truly a surprise, but it certainly helped solidify my sense that the world of professional athletics is a separate and unique one.
For example: The New York Knicks needed Stephon Marbury to play, then suspended him a game and docked him nearly four hundred thousand dollars in salary after claiming he refused. Coach Mike D’Antoni asked the point guard to play because the Knicks were short-handed. Marbury insists that he never said "no," but the nature of the very strained relations between the Knicks organization and their one-time star suggests there may be more to the story. Marbury feuded with past Knicks coaches Larry Brown and Thomas, and there was speculation the team would release him before D’Antoni opened his first training camp in New York. It is, after all, just a game, but the behavior on both sides seems more reminiscent of a playground than professionals.
Just down the turnpike, New York Giants' wide receiver Plaxico Burress spent the night in the hospital last night because he accidentally shot himself in the leg. Team spokesman Pat Hanlon was just a little confounded about what to tell the press outside Giants Stadium before the Super Bowl champions left for a flight to Washington for a Sunday game against the Redskins. Burress wasn't going to play this weekend anyway, having suffered a hamstring injury against Baltimore two weeks ago, but this incident fits easily into a pattern of odd behavior. The star receiver was suspended for a game against Seattle in October and fined one hundred seventeen thousand dollars for missing a team meeting and failing to notify the team of his absence. He said he had a family emergency. He also was fined forty-five thousand dollars by the NFL for his conduct during a game against 49ers in which he abused an official and tossed a ball into the stands. However, this is still the guy who caught the winning pass in the Giants’ Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots.
As I work to manage my family's finances and avoid the vortex of the our nation's economic crisis, I find myself reading these stories with an eye toward the math. Any one of those fines would easily be a year's salary for most of the rest of us. Accidents and misunderstandings occur in all walks of life, but I wonder if the whole value system isn't just a little skewed. What would happen if I refused to teach? Would my health plan cover an accidental shooting of my own leg? As Alice once said, "Curiouser and curiouser!"

Friday, November 28, 2008


The good news around here is that we could all be happy for the relative health of the individuals who showed up for Thanksgiving dinner. One of our guests had a brief encounter with one of our neighbor's bumpers while he was parking his car, but the damage was mostly to his ego. After travelling over the river and through the woods, to have a minor fender bender fifty feet from your destination has to be a little demoralizing. A few cups of coffee and a lot of commiseration later, he was fine.
The same could be said of one of the grownups who got themselves involved in the touch football game on the street in front of our house. It was just a quick slip and fall, but when you get a little north of forty, you don't bounce back quite as abruptly as the eleven and twelve-year-olds. Our team won, so it was a little easier to bear, until he raised his hands over his head.
Happily there were no food or eating related mishaps, and the rest of the day passed without additional trauma. Which is why I was just the tiniest bit nervous when my wife popped out of bed just before eight in the morning to go and brave the Black Friday throngs. Safe and warm under the covers, still digesting yesterday's feast, I bade her farewell and tried to imagine a world that would include me in those crowds. A thirty-four year-old Wal-Mart employee was killed in a stampede of shoppers this morning at their store in Valley Stream, Long Island. Police said in addition a twenty-eight-year-old pregnant woman was taken to a hospital for observation and three other shoppers suffered minor injuries and were also taken to hospitals.
I just got a call from my wife. She's on her way home. If she can avoid the minor perils of our neighborhood, she should be fine. I'm going to stay home, eat leftovers, and watch football on TV. Like Steely Dan says, "When Black Friday comes I'm gonna dig myself a hole, Gonna lay down in it 'til I satisfy my soul."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sing A Song

Thank You.
Thank You For Being A Friend.
Thank You For Lettin' Me Be Mice Elf Again.
Thank Heaven For Little Girls.
Thank God I'm A Country Boy.
Thank God It's Friday.
Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Goodnight And Thank You.
I Thank You.
Thank You Lord.
Thank You Mom.
Thank God and Greyhound.
Thank You For One More Day.
Thank You For The Music.
Thanks For The Memories.
Thank You For Sending Me An Angel.
Thank God I Found You.
Thank You For Listening.
You're Gonna Thank Me.
Thank You For Calling.
Thank You For Today.
Can't Thank You Enough.
I Wanna Say Thank You.
Thank You Love.
Thank God For America.
Thanks That Was Fun.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pardon Me?

"Hey, George?"
"Is this turkey talkin' to me?"
"Yes, I am, George. And I hope you don't mind me being so very informal, but given the circumstances..."
"No sir. You go right on ahead."
"Well, I just thought that, since you did me this favor - saving my life and all - that I should find some way to repay you."
"Well Pumpkin, don't you worry about it. It's all part of the job."
"Really? You mean I'm not special?"
"Of course you're special. I only pardon one turkey each year. Well, two really, and you and your pal are the last ones I'm ever gonna do."
"Well then. I guess that makes this piece of advice all the more significant, doesn't it?"
"You sure got a good vocabulary for a turkey."
"And you've got a good vocabulary for a leader of the free world. Now back to that advice."
"I'm here to tell you that bad genetics cannot be overcome. You are what you are based on the twists and turns of the DNA strand, but you can compensate through strength of character."
"So - I didn't have to be a narrow-minded twit for all these years?"
"No. Even though sometimes you felt it was your destiny, just like a forty-pound turkey seems destined for a roasting pan. You can rise above it and be the person that you imagine yourself to be."
"You're a pretty smart bird."
"And that's a very nice tie you've got there."

"Pumpkin will be the honorary grand marshal of Disneyland's Thanksgiving Day Parade," President Pinhead declared. "Together, these birds will gobble the rest of their days in the happiest place on Earth. I just hope they stay humble there." With these words, yet another of the final, desperate acts of the most incompetent administration in U.S. history continued to grind to a halt. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the door is closing on the last eight years.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Up, Up And Away

Sometimes it pays to be loud and direct about your obsessions. A good friend and constant reader who understands my personal conviction that all Free Americans should have their own personal jet pack by now let me know that Eric Scott had launched himself across the Royal Gorge in Colorado wearing, you guessed it, his very own personal jet pack. He made the fifteen hundred foot trip in just twenty-one seconds, which turned out to be good news in a couple of ways: First, he set a world record for height and distance. Second, he only had thirty seconds of fuel. On the other side, he drank champagne and celebrated like a rock star.
This makes sense because Eric Scott is a daredevil. He is a corporate-sponsored daredevil. The friendly folks at the aptly-named Go Fast Sports & Beverage company happily supplied the stickers, signs and caffeinated drinks to get Eric off the ground, and their partners at the even-more-aptly named Jet Pack International supplied the rocket Eric strapped himself to. Congratulations and hearty handshakes all around. You should all be proud of your accomplishment.
But back to me. I'm still waiting. I remember watching James Bond in "Thunderball," and Disney's "Rocketeer" wondering when it would be my turn. Even Gilligan got his shot in an episode entitled "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Gilligan." Well, maybe I won't have to wait much longer. On the Jet Pack International web site, there is a link to purchase their machines. Since they don't include prices, I suspect that I will have to continue to save my allowance for a little while longer before I can buy my own, but there was one more thing that caught my eye. The Go Fast Jet Pack folks are looking for pilots. I've got a few days off. Maybe I'll take a few minutes and fill out their four-page application. Why not?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hope You've Got Some Spare Change

Today I am on vacation, but I already know what awaits me upon my return next week. My principal more or less let it slip to me on my way out Friday afternoon that we can anticipate yet another serious discussion about what could happen if our school fails to meet benchmarks set by the federal and state governments on our standardized tests. The bottom line is school closure. It's the death sentence in No Child Left Behind. Perform or perish. We have already had our staff reconstituted, and so the next logical step is to close the school and send us and the kids we teach out into the world in search of another school where we can try and accomplish these same goals with the same lack of funding and attainable goals.
This morning the federal government announced its "rescue" of rescue Citigroup. They agreed to shoulder hundreds of billions of dollars in possible losses and to plow a fresh twenty billion dollars into the company. Just outside is the auto industry, hat in hand, hoping for their own slice of the big bailout pie. President Pinhead is doing everything he can to keep the ship afloat while the President Elect warms up his massive Change and Hope Machine in the wings.
In the big picture, I understand why public education and private corporations are apples and oranges. I understand that simply folding our arms and saying, "How do you like your free market now?" would be foolhardy and ultimately ruinous. There are far too many innocent victims clinging to the wreckage of the past eight years, and simply setting them adrift would create a collapse from which we might not recover.
But just what are the expectations placed on these companies, brought back from the brink of destruction? Will there be a yearly accounting and performance assessment given to the CEOs and CFOs who accept these bailouts? Isn't anybody who is actually responsible for all this chaos going to lose their job?
Oh. That's right. January 20. Then everything will be fine. Right, Mister President Elect?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Surreality TV

You know all those movies and TV shows that have crowds of onlookers staring up at some desperate character standing on a ledge? Eventually, someone will shout "Jump!" because that's what is expected of a crowd of people standing on the street below. Given the opportunity to watch someone take their own life, would you be part of the group chanting for the big dive, or would you do whatever you could to keep it from happening? Or would you keep walking?
And what about the virtual sidewalk? Police found Abraham Biggs Jr. dead in his father's bed Wednesday, twelve hours after he declared on a web site for bodybuilders that he planned to take his own life. He took a fatal drug overdose in front of an Internet audience. Although some viewers contacted the web site to notify police, authorities did not reach his house in time. And there were plenty of chanters too. As Abraham was lying on his bed, Wendy Crane (investigator for the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office) said, people were typing things like, "Oh, that's not enough to kill you." Others, she said, were egging him on, saying things like "Go ahead and do it."
Twenty-five years ago, it was Ozzy Osbourne. Now it's the Internet. Suicide is much more interesting when you have an audience. Plenty of potential suicides have driven across the Bay Bridge on their way to the more iconic and infamous Golden Gate Bridge to end their lives. If life were truly meaningless, why bother with the ticket you would get for stopping on the bridge before leaping to your death? Because it needs to be a Grand Gesture.
I was up in Seattle a few months after Kurt Cobain swallowed a few ounces of buckshot, and I had the morbid opportunity to drive past his house. From his bedroom window, he would have looked out across Lake Washington to Mount Rainier. That view would have been enough to get me out of bed on any given morning. But I wasn't Kurt, and I wasn't Abraham Biggs. And like the front lawn of Cobain's house, the World Wide Web is filling with tributes to this kid that they never knew. They just saw his pain, and for a moment they shared it. Now the door is open for a hundred more to log on and share theirs.
Here's my advice, the words that I took from John Irving: "Keep passing the open windows."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Pity my poor son. Born and raised in California, he is in love with his automobiles. When he was very young, we all wondered when his fixation on trains would end. We now recall those days of glassy eyed rail fascination with great fondness. I would read his old copies of "Car and Driver," if I could find the time. I want to share in his enthusiasm, since he has plenty, but I haven't quite managed the focus of an eleven-year-old.
There was a moment or two when I had a vision of the car I would own one day. That was when I was fifteen. "Star Wars" had just come out, and envisioned a Chevy van painted with X-Wing and Tie fighters swarming around a doomed Death Star. It wasn't about the make or model. I have no idea why I fixated on "Chevy." It was all part of the plan, along with the extensive airbrush mural that I would be creating with my lack of experience and equipment. And for months I pined for this potential vehicle, while real life continued.
In the end, the first car I bought was a Chevy. It just turned out to be a copper-colored Vega. No shag carpet or dome windows, and the paint job was entirely factory awful. It was during the first few years of having a driver's license that I actually enjoyed being behind the wheel. I learned to change, or in the case of the oil-burning aluminum block of the Vega, to add oil as necessary, and eventually to change the occasional spark plug. Other than that, the maintenance of that car was left strictly to filling it with gas as needed.
As I said, I enjoyed driving in those days. I enjoyed it so much that I regularly drove my other friends who did not have their own cars around. I even took a few of them out with their dates, and then sat staring out into the middle distance, listening to the cassette player while they played slap and tickle in the back seat. The one thing I did manage to make happen in the car of my reality was the stereo of my dreams, with four speakers, AM-FM, and graphic equalizer. When you rode in my car, it was loud. Partly to cover up the sounds coming from under the hood.
For me, cars have generally been the transportation that I could afford, and always a place where I can play the music as loud as I want. The fact that I ride my bike to and from work doesn't feel like much of a compromise, since I now own a house where I can play the music as loud as I want - when my wife lets me. But my son still pines for sports cars and high performance machines that he can lovingly describe, feature by feature. All of this while the American auto industry is going in the tank, and his parents try to get him to reconcile his beliefs with the hope of a hybrid or hydrogen fuel cell. These are the cars he wants. They probably won't be the cars he ends up with, but I hope he always has something to dream about.
Tomorrow we're all heading out to the fifty-first annual International Auto Show in San Francisco. We will be taking public transportation. Dreams die hard.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Be Sure To Wear Lots Of Flowers In Your Hair

Talk about your sore losers. Bill O'Reilly, chief spokesdroid for the Majority Of Conservative Americans, just doesn't seem very comfortable at all as the Secular Progressives begin to assert themselves and ascend to the throne. No wonder Bill felt the need to lash out, once again, at the center of all things evil and wrong in his tiny little mind: San Francisco.
Bill sent one of his producers, who had "never been to San Francisco," out to do a piece about just how far the New Left had taken the City By The Bay toward the Rapture. The two of them sat, after the three minute package of disjointed images and interviews, thoughtfully comparing New York City with Baghdad by the Bay. Both men seemed content with the assertion that, since Rudy Guliani cleaned up the streets, that they would feel much more comfortable wandering the streets of Manhattan after dark than going anywhere in the Bay Area after sunset. They didn't mention what a nice job Disney had done with Times Square, which is now a family destination not unlike the "New Las Vegas."
As for the "packs of homeless" choking the streets in San Francisco, that city's Homeless Coalition says that there are approximately thirty-five thousand people living on its streets. In New York City, the number is virtually the same. Of course, these numbers are merely facts compiled by concerned citizens who seek to help those less fortunate, and not a hodgepodge of images edited together to elicit a fear response. Bill O'Reilly once had this to say in response to a ballot measure passed by sixty percent of San Francisco voters urging public high schools and colleges to prohibit on-campus military recruiting: "Hey, you know, if you want to ban military recruiting, fine, but I'm not going to give you another nickel of federal money. You know, if I'm the president of the United States, I walk right into Union Square, I set up my little presidential podium, and I say, 'Listen, citizens of San Francisco, if you vote against military recruiting, you're not going to get another nickel in federal funds. Fine. You want to be your own country? Go right ahead. And if Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we're not going to do anything about it. We're going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead.'"
Well, on Election Day, as I watched the returns roll in, I knew that those fifty-five electoral votes for Barack Obama were just waiting for the clock to chime eight o'clock in California. All of those awful secular progressives breathed a sigh of relief, then they danced in the streets. And they didn't have to step over any drug addicts or TV hookers to do it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Had To Bail

It's not the concept that I'm having trouble with. It's the semantics. Every morning when I listen to the news I hear another discussion of "this-or-that bailout." A nation founded on the principles of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is now bending over backwards to prop up its tired old institutions and corporations. Unlike many of the people who ran for president recently and lost, I don't mind a little socialism in my democracy. I'm just wondering why we have to make such a vibrant point of it.
Let's start with the visceral image of "bailout." That's what you do to a sinking ship. The fear is in the air and the water is up around your knees. If you've got a bucket out, things have already reached a point of desperation. At best, you hope to limp on in to the dock and pull that thing out of the water to repair the hull. Or more likely, you're going to drop that bucket, grab your life jacket and hop the rail. Keep swimming or you might get dragged down when the whole thing gets sucked under.
Then there's the other vision of "bailout." The kind you do when your plane is plummeting toward the earth and the control stick has come off in your hand. Representatives including Democrats Gary Ackerman of New York and Bradley Sherman of California criticized the auto chiefs for taking private jets to Washington to plead their case.
"Couldn't you all have downgraded to first class?'' Ackerman said.
No, bailing isn't the American thing to do. Instead, one of the few things that President Pinhead got right was to call his cash giveaway "an economic stimulus package." Wealth was redistributed, and we felt invigorated. At least we weren't being handed a bucket. Or a golden parachute.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Learning Curve

It would be difficult if not impossible to discern which pain is worse: The one I felt as a seventh grader in the cafeteria at Centennial Junior High, or the one I feel now as the parent of a sixth grade boy wandering down many of the same paths. I have an extremely vivid picture in my mind of the layout of that cafeteria, and my place in it. I sat near the entrance, close to the main hallway, with my lunchbox and a sense of impending doom. The best I could hope was for a completely uneventful meal with little or no interaction with my fellow students. I never had a hot lunch, so I never had to brave the far corner, where the popular kids held court and abuse was handed out with reckless abandon. Most days I didn't bother throwing my trash away, preferring instead to avoid that one last chance to mingle, and then headed outside, if the weather allowed.
It wasn't until ninth grade that I found a group of kids with whom I could spend that hour. In this regard, my son has already surpassed me. He has found a few friends who wile away the time before their fifth period, eating their sandwiches and keeping an eye on their backpacks as the world of middle school swirls around them. Sadly, there have already been more than a few intrusions into that reverie, with insults and random bullying becoming all too regular interruptions into an otherwise peaceful school day. I was a short, round kid. My son is short and, like his father, wears glasses. Aside from outward appearances, we share a fierce interest in justice, the kind that is sorely lacking in middle school. I used to take the abuse from kids who were strangers to me, but felt comfortable enough making their punching bag. I told myself that they were the ones who were really suffering, because they were just too dumb to deal with people in any other way. But I still came home with bruises on my shoulder: "Two for flinching," they would enthuse, regardless of my reaction and then thump me two more times.
I never hit back, and I suppose it's a credit to my son that he has a better sense of self-preservation than his old man. He threw something back today, and got thumped as a result. My first reaction was to tell him to avoid the situation, and make it to P.E. without conflict. But in my mind I could feel the embers of rage that burned in my pre-teen mind. Why should these clowns get away with this? Won't somebody stand up to them? Why not me?
Two wrongs don't make a right. Use your words. Love your enemies, it'll drive them crazy. Fighting never solved anything. I thought of all the aphorisms that I had learned and heard them falling out of my mouth as I tried to make sense of my son's world. As an adult, I know that this is part of a reckoning. He will learn from this experience and become stronger. The good news is, he seems to be handling it a whole lot better than I am. I still have so much to learn.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Where Were You?

"I don't work January the 8th, 'cause it's Elvis' birthday." - Gary Busey in D.C. Cab

Well, I have to say that, while I don't share Gary's particular mania about the King, or a whole lot of other things, I can say that I appreciate his enthusiasm for celebrating the date of his idol's birth. So much of our popular culture celebrates the end of people's lives rather than the beginning. In some ways, it acts as a kind of measuring stick for fame if you can answer the question, "Do you remember where you were when you heard..."
There were more people alive to remember 1977 when Elvis passed away on the throne than 1935 when he entered the world. Richard Thomas made an entire film based on the day that James Dean died, September 30, 1955. Ironically, this little film about teen angst and celebrity worship came out just two days before what would have been Elvis' forty-third birthday.
JFK, John Lennon, John Belushi, and a myriad of other famous people whose names were not John are sadly remembered best for their exits, rather than their entrances. The celebration of life is often obscured by our fascination with death. It is, after all, the great equalizer. I confess that this is not a phenomenon restricted to stars for me.
If you have read this blog over the past few years or talked to me in the past thirty, you know that I regularly do that thing that Bill Cosby once referred to as, "You know who died yesterday?" Many of the people I have eulogized have been denizens of the world of popular culture, but I have carried that ethos into my private life as well. Witness the relatively ridiculous challenge I have remembering my father's birthday, but how morbidly easy I find it to recall the day he joined the choir invisible.
Yesterday was my father's birthday. My son wrote a nice letter to him as part of a Day of the Dead project for his art class. He said that he wished that he could have had a chance to get to know him, and that I have referred to his grandfather as "a goof with a capital 'G.'" His memory remains, and his life still has great resonance for me as I make my way through my own version of fatherhood. I still remember where I was when I heard that he died, but I would rather share the stories of his life. The one that began November 17.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What I Believe

Hey, don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are drunks. But that doesn't mean I should be forced to support and condone their habits. I don't drink, and I think the world would be better off if nobody else did. That's why I would like to suggest a constitutional amendment banning the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
I know what you're thinking: "Hey, what about that Eighteenth Amendment? Didn't we already have Prohibition back in the 1920's? That didn't work out too well, did it?"
Okay, perhaps those thirteen years weren't our best effort. If we are truly devoted to lifting the moral and spiritual character of country out of its current low state, why not start with the gutters in which we find many of our saddest cases?
Think of the problems it will solve: Workers showing up on Monday morning without the burden of a forty-eight hour hangover. No more three-Martini lunches, more power lunches full of productivity. The front of the Drug War can now be expanded and will need many more trained "Buzz-Killers." Even those who have recently been laid off will rise bright and early to face the lines at the Unemployment Office with a smile on their face. And certainly there will be a whole lot less moral turpitude when we all sober up and face each day with a clear head and clean conscience. Finally we can stop spending all that time in our nation's classrooms teaching drinking games.
These are my personal beliefs, and I would be very pleased if my government would follow my every whim and prejudice, but in real life that's not what our government is supposed to do. We have a Supreme Court that decides which laws are constitutional and which are not. Here in California we have a Supreme Court that has already ruled on same-sex marriages. They said sexual orientation, like race or gender, "does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights." At the time, the ruling surprised legal experts because the court has a reputation for being conservative. Six of its seven judges are Republican appointees. So maybe it isn't just about what we believe, it's about what we believe is right.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Family Exercise

That's what we call it: Family Exercise. A couple of times each month, we decide and announce that we will head out as a group to work up a sweat. The intent is cardiovascular, but the underlying theme is togetherness. On any given day, I've got my runs around the neighborhood. My wife heads off to do a circuit or two at our nearby Curves franchise. My son now has P.E. five days a week. We're not exactly sedentary, but as our family grows older, we face the same challenge of all matter in the universe: entropy.
On any given weekend, we manage the social calendar of a busy pre-teen as well as active and concerned parents. Meetings and other commitments outside the home sometimes allow for less "together time" than we would like. That is why when Saturday and Sunday roll around, we look for ways to create that cohesiveness. The trick is getting all three of us on the same page at the same time. Since part of the reason that I continue to pursue running as my main source of voluntary exertion is that I can lace up my shoes and head out the door, I find it a challenge at times to wait patiently as all other alternatives for outdoor activities are weighed and discussed. I understand that this is all part of the plan.
Once we have decided on a method, we have to agree on a location. Since this is an event more than an occurrence, we generally look for someplace to go where we can enjoy each other's company in a setting that will enhance that experience. Just running around the block is kind of a defeat after all that discussion. Riding bikes down by the beach or going for a run around the lake are more suitable recreation for all of us.
By this time, we have almost always spent more time debating than we have working out. Then it's time for lunch, and we find ourselves once again on the horns of a dilemma: Eat out or at home? Sometimes being in a family can be a real workout.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Who's Gonna Drive You Home Tonight?

This morning I heard an amusing phrase: "lower than average annual fuel costs." It was in reference to the new H3 pickup. It's not exactly a surrender, but it certainly is a long way from the rough and tumble image that the Humvee has always projected. When Jeeps no longer satisfied the rugged individualists here in the United States, AMC began to churn out a civilian version of their military High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. It was just the thing for a truly massive personality like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That was back in the late 1980's, when the suggestion that Arnold could become governor of California was more likely to be the pitch for one of his movies. Twenty years later, science fiction has become science fact, and the Governator has managed to become one of those most elusive creatures, a prominent Republican in the state of California. That disconnect is hard enough to fathom, but the fact that in 2006 he signed a bill creating the nation’s first cap on greenhouse gas emissions is enough to confound even James Cameron.
In 2008, we continue to work at saving the planet while we try to save ourselves. Suddenly those silly little hybrids have become the status symbols, and urban assault vehicles sit on car lots across the country, dreaming of being adopted. The new trend is that automotive hermaphrodite, the hybrid SUV. Mazda makes one that gets about thirty miles a gallon, while most of the rest hover around twenty. Any potential fuel savings must,however, be offset by the amount of gas used driving around trying to find a spot large enough to dock one of these beasts. And so, we are left with a world where action heroes really can save the world, but only from the comfort of their climate-controlled environmentally-friendly bio-fueled all-wheel drive Wagon Queen Family Truckster.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sleepy Time

I try to be careful about what e-mail I take the time to read. I do not, in spite of various outbursts and antics that might make you think otherwise, have endless supplies of free time. That's why, with some trepidation, I opened a message entitled: "Are You Snoring Yourself To Death?" What in Heaven's name would I do if the answer turned out to be "Yes?"
The reason I would even begin to take such a suggestion seriously has a lot to do with timing. Here I am once again on the cusp of the anniversary of my father's passing. The more I settle into my own role as paterfamilias, the more I find myself wondering just how much of my father's path I will continue to follow. And in answer to the more pressing question: No, my father did not snore himself to death, but there were certainly nights that we all believed he might just do himself or one of the rest of us in via the cacophony of sound that emanated from his sinuses and slack jaw. I have made a conscious effort, as I have grown older, to sleep on my stomach.
It was sleep apnea that my father feared would be his undoing. As a result, he made hours of recordings, with his voice-activated micro-cassette recorder of the sounds he made while he was asleep. It was this series of tapes that his surviving progeny discovered shortly after his untimely demise. We had hoped that they might contain clues to the dispersal of his estate, or maybe just reminiscences of his youth. Instead we ended up with four sixty-minute tapes of my father sawing logs. Metaphorically, anyway.
That was many years ago now, but I am still haunted by the low rumbling sound of my father on the edge of slumber. Then today I got another message, this one entitled "Snoring Solution." Would I be willing to wear this rubber muzzle every night to avoid the onset of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which is associated with greater risk of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. Or so I've been told. Or so I've read.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Rush Is On In Nebraska!

"What's the best thing to come out of Nebraska?"
It's an old joke we, who were happily nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, used to tell when football season rolled around. While that particular version of antipathy burns a little less bright while the universities continue to sort out their athletic programs, another odd thing about Nebraska has recently made the news. The safe-haven law recently passed by the Nebraska legislature was intended to save "Dumpster babies" by allowing desperate young mothers to abandon their newborns at a hospital without fear of prosecution. But lawmakers could not agree on an age limit, and the law as passed uses only the word "child." Oops.
Since mid-July, twenty teenagers have been abandoned, along with eight children who were eleven or twelve. Five of the children dropped off have been from out of state. Yes, you read that right, people are taking their children to Nebraska as a form of punishment. Because of the recent flurry of campaigning and the election season, lawmakers haven't been able to reconvene to close this unfortunate loophole. A new session is set to begin on Friday, and parents across the Great Plains are racing to drop off their sullen and disrespectful progeny before the law gets changed. It's a sad story, but it has a certain "Nebraska Air" to it - or is that just the wind coming off the feed lots?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Regrets, I've Had A Few

And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.

"I regret that that sign was there," Pinhead said, referring to a huge "Mission Accomplished" banner on a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003, six weeks after the invasion of Iraq.

My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain.

The White House has always maintained that the sign referred to the sailors and pilots on board the USS Lincoln, who were returning home from their tour in the Middle East. Pinhead repeated that explanation Tuesday, saying that "it was a sign aimed at the sailors on that ship."
"However, it conveyed a broader knowledge," he said. "To some it said, 'well, Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over,' when I didn't think that. But nevertheless it conveyed the wrong message."

For what is a man, what has he got?

Pinhead also said he regrets having said he did not care whether al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was captured "dead or alive," and wished he had not said of terrorists, "bring 'em on."

If not himself, then he has naught.

"My wife reminded me that, hey, as president of the United States you better be careful of what you say. I was trying to convey a message. I probably could have conveyed it more artfully," he said.

To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.

"I cannot tell you what an inspiring experience it's been to be the president of this country because we're a nation full of generous, courageous, decent people," he said.

The record shows I took the blows
-And did it my way!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Vetting Process

Heard in the hallway of my school yesterday as a fourth grader explained to his mother why there was no school today: "Mom, it's Vegetarians' Day!"
First of all, everyone knows that Vegetarians' Day was weeks ago. Then there's the reality of Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the War To End All Wars. November 11 is the date that World War One ended. In 1954, it was changed to Veterans' Day in acknowledgement of those who served in those intervening years. As of 2007, the number of military veterans in the United States in is over twenty-three million, and today we salute them.
This got me to thinking about all the veterans I know, that I have known. I thought about how I refer to myself as a veteran teacher, having served a dozen years in classrooms in Oakland. I considered the "wily veterans" we have playing on professional sports teams across this great land of ours. I thought about the kinds of experience necessary to take on that label. Do you become a veteran by just putting on the uniform, or doing the job? It seems like there's something more.
Then I thought about the past five years, and how we have all become veterans of the War On Terror. Every time we line up and take off our shoes at the airport. Every time we add another three letter acronym to our vocabulary: IED, RPG, and APC. Every time listen to a casualty count. We are all veterans. We have all served.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hunting And Gathering

When I first moved to Oakland, I became fond of a particular two-to-three block area in nearby Emeryville. There was a Good Guys across the street from a Circuit City that was, in turn, just across a parking lot from a Tower Records. As a new kid in town, I found great solace in these outposts of consumer electronics and media. I didn't buy much at any one of these particular stores, but I was able to keep myself busy while my wife shopped at Trader Joe's. It used to be a big night out for us new parents, as we would trade off turns with our son, who would sometimes ride along in the cart with mom, and when he got a little older he would come and browse the racks with dad. When we were all finished, we would often make a stop on the way home at the nearby Toys R Us.
It may be that last bit that we all miss the most. Comp USA swallowed up Good Guys and went out of business together. Tower Records disappeared almost as quickly, and Circuit City is filing for Chapter Eleven protection. But it was the closing of Toys R Us that gave us all the biggest pause. They turned it into a giant Babies R Us, much to the grumbling chagrin of my son, who in turn began to vent his anger in the direction of Wal-Mart, which chewed up Geoffrey the Giraffe and spit him out in what could best be described as just another day at the office for the folks at Sam's Club.
I know it would make a much more tragic story if the local toy store was run out of business by the giant corporation, and since we can still find a great many Toys R Us stores that were able to dodge that particular bullet, it seems like we shouldn't have much to complain about. But that was our store. The one we bought first Lego sets, and even a few pair of shoes that lit up when he stomped really hard. We used that store as a kind of litmus test for prospective friends: If you could wander the aisles with us for an hour or so and find at least one or two things to get excited about, or even point at in ridicule, you were our kind of people.
Now Emeryville has an Ikea that obscures the view of the train tracks, another reason we used to make the regular trek to the mud flats. Our retail experience has become more directional. We don't often go into Best Buy without an expressed purpose, and most of my music comes from iTunes. Corporate realities have altered the contours of my lifestyle. It seems odd that I find myself becoming wistful for a group of chain stores in a strip mall, but such is the nature of nostalgia in 2008.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Holiday Stuffing

Last week, we went out to the local mall for lunch and found that Christmas, just moments after Halloween had ended, had come. The tinsel and trees and ornaments were everywhere, as were the Sale signs. Suddenly we were immersed in, and all we wanted was a visit to the salad bar.
Happily, we were able to blunt the effect of that trauma by going about our business and reminding ourselves that we still have months to go before the big day. The day that our house feels the strain of our consumerism. Perhaps as a reaction to this feeling of impending shopping, we found ourselves in our basement, looking through boxes and bags full of the things that we had acquired over the past decade, wondering why we still had all these boxes and bags full of things that we had acquired over the past decade. I turned my attention to the boxes. Not the ones that were full, but the ones that we had emptied, but held onto because you never know when you might need a box for a printer, or a Lego set, or a kitchen appliance that none of us could remember buying in the first place.
With the help of my son, we filled our recycling bin with cardboard that was folded and crushed into a fraction of the space that it had been taking up in our basement. My wife sorted and stuffed and put things back on shelves full of the possessions that we rarely think about and see even less. We made piles of things to give away, and things to be given a new life elsewhere. We made some hard choices about what we still wanted and what we still needed. When we were done, our house breathed a sigh of relief, as did we.
Then we went to check the mailbox, where we found a Target toy catalog waiting for us. The circle of life continues.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Artists Only

On my way to the back porch this morning, I paused for a few long moments to take in the most recent addition to our son's art gallery. This was an eleven by seventeen piece in crayon and pastel. It initially looked like the spidery arms of some dark galaxy, but as I looked more closely, I could see the layers of media stacked upon media, and the smudges that told the story of the work in progress. It made me think of the fury of the earliest paintings of my younger brother, back when his primary motivation was "freeing paint." This aesthetic is echoed in the postcards we get from "Art League Now," which are arranged in neat rows just above my son's drawings. I looked once again at the explosion of color, and thought of the past.
There was a time when I was going to be an artist. I enrolled as a freshman at Colorado College as a studio art major. I took Basic Drawing and learned, for what seemed to me the fiftieth time, about the different values of pencil shading. I learned texture and line. I made color wheels and explored primary and secondary and dreamed of the time when the visions that danced in my head would have some corporeal manifestation.
But I never had the patience. I remember the cone I turned on a lathe that started out as a four by four. It was the beginning of a model of a sculpture that was ultimately going to be thirty feet tall, with a sphere on the top, and hastily added fins that gave the whole thing the appearance of a clunky rocket ship that had crashed headlong into the moon. I satisfied myself with the intent of cleverly aping George Melies. But it was just another unfinished piece in a portfolio that was filling with near misses and half-hearted attempts. When I transferred to the University of Colorado in my sophomore year, I was required to take Basic Drawing one more time, because the credits didn't properly correspond. I was asked to learn the values of the pencil, and after a few weeks, I just stopped going. Because I never dropped the course, I received an "F," and subsequently spent the next two semesters on academic probation.
I have a deep and abiding respect for my brother and the patience he gives to his creative impulses. When I see my son get involved in a project, I try to keep my distance to keep from bringing it to a premature close. I still draw. Cartooning is a great way for me to get my clever ideas on paper, and then I move on to the next thing. Just don't ask me to color it in.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Barack Obama has been president for what, three days? Now all of a sudden the jobless rate is at a fourteen-year high. People are stocking up on guns and ammo. The stock market continues to plummet. And a blizzard is pummeling the Dakotas. What change?
In real life, I know that there are still seventy-some days of Pinhead's reign, but that makes me hungrier for the promise of a new world order. Not the kind we threaten people with, but the kind we reach out and share with the rest of the planet. Still, it was a clever move on Barack's part to say right there on election night that we won't be through all this in a single year, or even a single term. Bringing our troops home from Iraq won't happen overnight. Health care isn't going to up and surrender by reforming itself.
Today at school we were reminded of the realities of our situation. There were a great many little fracases that would have seemed quite natural just a few days ago, but here in Obama's America, it just seemed wrong. Shouldn't all the kids be getting along, safe and happy in the promise that, in fact, any one of them could grow up to be President of the United States? Maybe that's the problem. All of this hope has a natural backlash of feeling at times like a burden. If anything is possible if we work hard enough, then we haven't been working hard enough. Not yet, anyway. We've got seventy-three days to get ready.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


I confess. Yesterday I had no inclination whatsoever to crow about the results of the presidential election. After all, it's been twelve years since I picked a winner, and I'm still not exactly sure how to feel about it. I never did buy an Obama bumper sticker for our car, primarily because of my needless sense of sports jinxes. We never had a Clinton/Gore sticker on the car, did we? Of course we didn't have a Kerry/Lieberman sticker either, nor a Dukakis/Bentsen, and so on. I've always been much more relaxed about promoting "The Mystery Spot" than any particular political candidate. The idea of having to drive around for another four to eight years with the back of your car shouting "loser!" is too much for my fragile ego to bear.
Which is precisely the kind of sentiment that my wife was looking for when she turned to me, around the time the polls closed here in California, and wondered aloud if there was a way I could be cynical about this moment in time. Though I am known far and wide for my sarcastic impulses, I didn't have to suppress any dark thoughts Tuesday night. All that talk about hope and change really got to me. I thought of my father, who would have been bawling like a baby, having once served time in Jesse Jackson's original Rainbow Coalition in 1984. I thought about my niece, voting in her first election, and ending up dancing in the streets. Her words: "I have never felt more patriotic or happier to be a Boulderite. I have never been in a mass of hundreds of people, completely devoid of jerks. Everyone was grinning ear to ear, singing and dancing. We carried on for a couple hours, entirely peaceful the whole time. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, so I really wanted all of you to be part of it. Here's to making things a little better one bit at a time."
No less a cynic than Eddie Izzard suggested that this was the true beginning of the third millennium. And for that reason, we should all party like it's 1999.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Michael Chrichton died today. Or perhaps he has been cryogenically preserved in some highly scientific and complex fashion until a cure can be found, or until his next book comes out. This would be highly ironic, considering his pronounced skepticism about global warming. Or maybe a sliver of his DNA will be saved to create an army of science fiction novelists bent on taking over the world via Kindle.
I can forgive the man his politics, since he had such an early and emphatic impact on my life. The apocryphal tale of how I came to read "The Andromeda Strain" over the summer before my fourth grade year is just one of those moments. I read those three hundred-plus pages with all its technical terms and adult vocabulary. When I showed up that September and told my new teacher that I had consumed this novel that did not appear on the approved fourth grade reading list. I got a lot of hard looks from Miss Stuart until she realized that I had accomplished this mild feat in part because I spent my summer in a mountain cabin with no TV. Michael Chrichton was my video.
It just so happened that I picked up "The Terminal Man" a couple of years later, not because I had any real connection to the author, but it had a cool cover and even though I wasn't as fond of it as "Andromeda," I devoured it just the same. It was this same year that I went to see "Westworld," mostly because it was featured in "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine. Little did I know that this was yet another brick, written and directed, in the entertainment empire of Michael Chrichton. I was eleven.
By the time "ER" and "Jurassic Park" rolled around, I had become fully aware of the brand name that was Chrichton. I remember trying to get through "Sphere," and finding it mildly entertaining, but more like a polished version of a Stephen King book. At least Chrichton could write an ending.
And now we've reached the end of Michael. Thanks for the memories, if not the periodic nightmares, and for helping me set the bar extra high in Miss Stuart's fourth grade class.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Beautiful Day

I have never been with a group of people so happy about standing in line. None us actually burst into jubilant song, but that was certainly the vibe out there this morning at seven in the morning. In all the years that I have gone to this particular polling place, I have always been able to walk straight in. The poll workers has previously always outnumbered the voters somewhere along the lines of three to one. Not today. Today there was no time for small talk or donut breaks, this one was going to be work.
I had the good fortune to be standing in line next to a neighbor, the one with the McCain sign on his front lawn. We talked a little politics, but quickly turned to a discussion of the changing fortunes of the Denver Broncos. When the line spilt, we discovered that we were on the "B" side. We were told that "B" was on the left. I suggested to my neighbor that this might be the only time in recent memory that he would be going left for anything. We shared a chuckle at that as we took our ballots and headed to our fold-out voting tables. I filled mine out quickly, having spent the better part of the past two weeks studying, and I made my way over to officially cast my vote. The room was full of moving pens and paper. There was a quiet intensity hovering over the entire proceedings.
I gave the manager of my local polling place a hearty handshake and a pat on the back and headed off to work. In my pocket I carried my three souvenirs: the barcode tab from the top of my ballot, an "I voted!" sticker, and a red and white mint. The sun was out, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Monday, November 03, 2008


"Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party." I suppose we can forgive Charles E. Weller for not including "women" back in 1867 when he first devised this cunning typing exercise, since it would be another thirty-three years before women could vote here in the United States of America. This is significant, since there are still a number of countries that continue to deny this right to the ladies, Saudi Arabia chief among them. Then there's Lebanon where Proof of elementary education is required for women but not for men. Voting is compulsory for men but optional for women.
Compulsory voting? How can that be? Granted, the images coming from Registrar of Voters offices around our nation over the past few days certainly give that flavor. Lines around the block, eager faces waiting for their chance to participate in the democratic process. No doubt this is due in large part to the sneaking suspicion that those machines and hanging chads are what helped bring on the past eight years of Pinheaded Governance. Trust is a very important part of any relationship, and we can only hope that the faith that has been extended in the mail and via absentee ballots will be rewarded.
Then there's the genuine enthusiasm for getting out and voting. I became enamored of the experience relatively late in life, after a friend pointed out that, if I was so caught up in current affairs and global politics, I should find my way over to my local precinct and cast my own ballot. The fact that voting wasn't compulsory was the part that really challenged me. I am very good at doing what I am supposed to do, but not always so good at doing what I ought to do.
Tomorrow is different. Tomorrow is something I, along with an estimated eighty-five percent of the registered voters here in the United States, must do. See you at the polls.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Trick Or Treat

Over the past few weekends, the Republican nominee for president and his running-mate have subjected themselves to the playful ridicule of the jesters on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." In the latest bit, John McCain appeared during the cold opening of the show, making his plea for support on QVC, the Quality, Value and Convenience shopping channel. The joke being that his campaign couldn't afford the lavish infomercial unleashed by Barack Obama earlier in the week. Maybe this was a way for Lorne Michaels to kick in a little extra to John McCain's war chest, having already donated his maximum of $2,300 personally.
Or maybe at this point we're all starting to get the joke. Sarah Palin took a prank call Saturday from a Canadian comedian posing as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and telling her she would make a good president someday. "Maybe in eight years," replies a laughing Palin. After she was made aware of the joke, Palin campaign spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said, "Governor Palin was mildly amused to learn that she had joined the ranks of heads of state, including President Sarkozy and other celebrities, in being targeted by these pranksters. C'est la vie." Mildly amused in the same way that we all are to hear the rumblings of the Alaskan governor's plans to run for President in 2012. Near the end of the call, Sarah is informed of the true identity of the caller, to which she replies: "Ohhh, have we been pranked?" Obama's campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs, commenting on the prank, said, "I'm glad we check out our calls before we hand the phone to Barack Obama." You never know when Hugh G. Rekshun will be on the line.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Travis Bickle
Travis was talking about the Mean Streets of New York City, but he may have been on to something. Outside, the sky has opened up and there is currently a swirl of water rising up to the curb on the street in front of our house. The real rain is here. Last night's candy wrappers are making their way toward storm drains that haven't seen moisture for months. Our driveway has once again became a major tributary. The scum isn't all gone just yet, but there air is full of raindrops and change.
Travis wasn't referring to California's ongoing drought, or the relative ineffectiveness of the NYC Public Works. He was pointing a finger at the urban decay that he saw around him. That finger was on a trigger, and it was pointing at a fictional senator running for President of the United States. Then, as abruptly as the downpour began, he shifted his focus and went crashing headlong into rescuing Iris from her life of ill repute. When the smoke clears, Travis is a hero and Senator Palantine is on his way to winning the election. Travis is a hero, but he's still driving his taxi. When we see him last, he drops Betsy off in front of her flat, blows off her fare, and drives off into the streets that have swallowed their share of rain. But what will happen when the sky opens up again?
Outside, it's raining in America. Let's hope for a good, hard rain.