Saturday, January 31, 2009


I had a solid case of karmic whiplash yesterday. I was finishing up my Friday afternoon run, and I heard someone call to me from a car at the curb. It was the former manager of the rec center from up the street shouting out to me much the same way that he used to all those afternoons when I used to run through the park while he tended his flock of T-Ball players and Junior Soccer stars. It was odd to see him behind the wheel, without his regular t-shirt and whistle around his neck. This was the guy who gave my son his first taste of physical education.
He patiently led him through the vagaries of youth soccer, and understood that when my son's first header was also his first full-on bloody nose that he was discouraged from making a career of it. He listened with interest as my son stopped in the middle of his backward somersault to explain just exactly why he didn't feel comfortable with that experience. He was constantly encouraging all the kids to have fun, and to do their best. He was the antithesis of everything I had experienced growing up with my antipathy for all manner of physical education.
Now, once a week, I am the guy with the whistle around his neck. Every Tuesday I become Coach Caven, and I try not to let on how much I enjoy that. My challenge is to focus the interest and energies of kids from Kindergarten to fifth grade for fifty minutes at a stretch. It's easiest with the little ones, since every game is new to them, and the biggest challenge is just getting them to pay attention long enough to figure out where to stand or which direction to run. The fifth graders are preparing for their PE test that includes a mile run, and they take a little more convincing. The other coach and I make a point of running with them, if only to shake off the ghosts of PE teachers past. After years of being tired of being kept down by the man, I discover that I am the man.
And my son? He just brought home his first semester report card from middle school. He has an A in PE again. He's not the fastest, strongest, best. He's a good sport and he tries hard, and he's having fun.

Friday, January 30, 2009

For Everyman

Remember that guy who was just starting to hit it big back in the late 1970s? He was very active politically, but was still known for his impressive songwriting credits. During the eighties, he frequently performed at benefit concerts for causes he believed in, including Farm Aid, Amnesty International, making several appearances on the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope Tour. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three of his albums have been selected by Rolling Stone magazine as among its choices for the five hundred best albums of all time.And you might guess that I am writing about Bruce Springsteen.
Nope. Not this time. This one is about Jackson Browne. I wore out my copy of "Runnin' On Empty" long before I owned "Greetings From Asbury Park." That album, along with "Hold Out" helped define my coming of age in the Reagan years. Jackson Browne wrote the songs that informed my initial relationships with girls. He was always so sensitive. Maybe that's why I was surprised to find out that he had hooked up with Daryl Hannah. This seemed to me somewhat on a par with Bruce Springsteen marrying Julianne Phillips. Ah, so many parallels.
And then there's the fact that it was Jackson Browne who twisted David Geffen's arm until he signed Warren Zevon for his first album. He also sued John McCain and the Republican Party for using his 1977 hit, "Running on Empty," in an attack ad against Barack Obama without his permission. Who else but Mister Springsteen would be the one to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Jackson Browne is the real deal.
On Sunday afternoon, when the E Street Band shows up in the middle of Super Bowl Forty-Three, I imagine Jackson will be tuning in, just to see how much fun it would be to be the halftime entertainment. I don't suppose he's got much to be jealous of, but I wonder if he sometimes he doesn't start looking off into the distance and begin composing his own set list. Maybe next year.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Please Mister Postman

When I used to work in a book warehouse, our Human Resources guy had a postcard taped to his door that bore the banner: "No mail days are sad days." The scene below the banner depicts the consequence of not sending a letter to your sweetheart at some distant Army base who is anxiously awaiting news from home. The grief is palpable, with his face in his hands, the young G.I. sits on the step of his barracks, a picture of sorrow.
I have never actually broken down on those rare occasions that I have found my mailbox empty, but I still find it life-affirming event to bring in the mail. When I was a kid, I relished those opportunities to be the one who got to gather up all the envelopes, magazines and circulars and carry them into the kitchen counter. There I could sort it more carefully and look for anything that by some odd chance might be addressed to me. On a good day, there might be a card or, better yet, the latest issue of "Famous Monsters of Filmland." One of the primary reasons for me to get a subscription was to get a sure thing once a month. And once a week there was TV Guide. On Sundays, I shook off my impulse to check the box. On those occasions when I had ordered something that took four to six weeks to arrive, that impulse became all but unbearable. And now it may all be coming to an end.
Not an absolute end. The Postmaster General says that mounting deficits may force the post office to cut out one day of mail delivery. They say it won't necessarily be Saturday that gets the hook, but rather one of the slow mail days like Tuesday. As if that would make it any easier to bear. Picking up the mail is one of the things that makes us know that we are still alive. Think of Charlie Brown and that great big empty mailbox. It's a self-esteem issue. It's a money thing. It's a sad day.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Can't Stop The Rock

A long, long time ago, fifty years to be exact, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. Come Monday, half a century will have passed since Budd,y Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash. It might be the reason for the continuing predilection of celebrity deaths happening in threes. Though I have often wondered if the Big Bopper's star doesn't shine a little brighter because of the tragedy, it was still a big enough deal for Don McClean to call it "The Day The Music Died." Was it really?
There are those who might tell you that March 19, 1982 was really the day that music died. That was the day that guitarist Randy Rhoads went to rock and roll heaven via a small plane crash. For others, it might be when they heard that Biggie Smalls had been murdered back in 1997. Perhaps it was premature, but there were some people who believed that, when Napster was shut down as a "free music site" back in 2001, music was dead.
Jimi Hendrix died and the music lived on. John Lennon was shot, and the bands played on. Kurt Cobain shot himself and they kept right on making CDs. Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Joe Strummer and most of the Ramones, and still everybody else kept right on singing. When the King passed away on his throne, the music lived on. Sometimes the music was pretty awful, but it survived, nonetheless.
Maybe what happened fifty years ago was more of a blunt trauma than a death. If you believe John Milner in "American Graffitti," rock and roll has been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died. Some might say the same thing about the passing of Shannon Hoon. Or maybe it wasn't the music that died at all. Maybe it was part of our innocence. Bye, bye Miss American Pie.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Change Is Gonna Come

Have you gone out and purchased your digital converter box yet? Maybe you have cable TV, or a satellite dish, and you have already stopped panicking about the big changeover to digital TV. Perhaps you have been blissfully unaware of this switch and have yet to worry about how you will watch "The View" after February 17. If that's the case, you will be pleased to discover that the United States Senate has just provided you with four more months to panic.
The deadline is now June 12, and you will be encouraged to get your coupon and get in line to buy your magic box. The magic box takes the digital signal from broadcast stations and turns it into pretty digital pictures on your old TV set. Really. The TV my parents bought for me when I moved into my first apartment was the one that my wife insisted that we keep so that she could put it on top of the refrigerator to watch "Oprah" in the afternoons while she puttered about the kitchen. For many moons this was a machine that made a little noise and had a fuzzy picture, but it kept me from having to figure out how to string a cable through the basement or attic because she could get one or two fuzzy stations on it.
That was before we had the magic box. Now we get channels that we never knew existed. We get a half dozen different versions of PBS, and a wide variety of programs in Spanish, Korean, and languages we have yet to decipher. We even get a channel that shows a live feed from the traffic cameras placed at the end of our many area bridges. All of this comes out of a television that was purchased just before MTV went on the air for the very first time.
My first impulse was to rush right out and buy three more magic boxes for our "real TVs." Why pay for cable when there is all this great video tumbling out of the air? I could live without all those movie channels, and the on-demand video feature, Couldn't I? I could watch the traffic stack up at the toll plaza instead, right? I could watch the U.S. Senate debate weighty matters like this and others on C-Span. Well, at least I have four more months to fret about it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Political Perversity In Chicago

Last night I watched "Edmond," a film of a play written by David Mamet. It was unsettling from the first scene, and when I was done, it felt like I had been looking at one long train wreck. William H. Macy plays a man who decides to leave his wife, and with that decision sends the rest of his life spiralling out of control. When I woke up this morning, listening to the story of Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich, I felt as though the movie had never ended.
Maybe it's because Mamet is from Chicago, and it all sounds just a little too much like something from one of his plays. “The fix is in,” Mr. Blagojevich said of the impeachment trial. Who else but a Mamet character would tell NBC of his arrest on December arrest on corruption charges, "I thought about Mandela, Dr. King and Gandhi and tried to put some perspective to all this and that is what I am doing now." Rod is, by the way, white. Painfully so.
The fact that this guy wanted to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder is lost in a haze thicker than that Vitalis head of hair. He has likened himself to the hero of a Frank Capra movie and a Wild West cowboy in the hands of a lynch mob. Blagojevich said he briefly considered naming Oprah Winfrey to the Senate. That was first prize. "Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired." Or something like that. Obviously, Rod needs better writers.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Countdown To Kickoff - Get A Calendar

I feel empty inside. A week ago at this time, my life was full of possibility and excitement. There was so very much to live for. Now, just seven days later, I sit on the edge of despair, wondering how I will have the strength to go on.
You might think that I am having Inaugural Withdrawal. The balls are over. The speeches have been made. The throngs of people have drifted back to their home states. Washington D.C. is back to business as usual. Bruce Springsteen is back at home, rehearsing for his halftime show, and therein lies the rub.
There is no football this weekend. This is the week that the NFL has sadistically placed between the fever pitch that is the conference championships and the potential letdown that the Super Bowl and all its attendant hype. A week ago, I watched a pair of games that came down to the final quarter, with the upstart Cardinals providing the Cinderella story on one side and the dynasty that is the Pittsburgh Steelers on the other. Can Kurt Warner stretch the Steeler defense enough to break it? Will Troy Polamalu reveal himself as a true Uruk Hai berserker? Tune in next week and find out.
In the meantime, watch a bunch of sports that are not having their world championship. Or, heaven forbid, don't watch sports at all. I know that this is an attempt to build on the enthusiasm created over the past twenty-odd weeks. When the football season started, we still had Tom Brady and Lane Kiffin to kick around. I know that Tampa Bay deserves its chance to fill every single hotel room and fold out bed. I know that it takes a long time to get those hysterical talking-baby commercials for E*Trade just right.
Oh, and they probably want to give the two teams a chance to get all their players healthy and prepare a really super game plan for the game of their lives. All this while the nation continues to cling to every shred of new, inside information about second-string offensive tackle Elliot Vallejo. Well, I'm sorry. I'm bored. I want the game to be on now. I hate this weekend.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Knee-Slapping, Gut-Busting

The funniest thing I have seen in years was Rob Riggle knocking over chairs. Last night my wife and I went out to see a comedy show. It was part of "SF Sketchfest 2009," a yearly celebration of the kind of people and things that tend to make me laugh. Rob was part of a crew called "Facebook Improv," that included fellow "Daily Show" alum Rob Corddry, and they operated on a very simple premise: Look up an audience member's Facebook page, then with that victim's wholehearted consent proceed to poke merciless fun at the various thoughts, photos, and ideals contained therein.
It is a ridiculous stretch for me to explain exactly why and how this evolved into Rob Riggle knocking over chairs, but I can say that the context was barely important. It was the way that he knocked over chairs. For those of you familiar with his work, you probably have some idea about what struck me so very funny about it. On the drive home, still wiping the happy tears from my eyes, I remembered the word: Animus.
Part of Jung's psychology, animus is a masculine inner personality. It is supposed to be found inside women, just below their feminine persona. But if you let this thing out to live and breathe and stomp around on stage, it would look and sound a lot like Rob Riggle. Or Jackie Gleason. Or John Belushi. Or any number of oversized characters bounding through life in broad stroke caricature ways.
Then I remembered a quote that has been attributed to various clever people, including Wild and Crazy Guy Steve Martin: "Talking about art is like dancing about architecture." That's when I realized that any description of the show I saw would be inadequate, or at the very least, not funny. So instead, I leave you with another quote from Steve, who said, “Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” Last night, my wife and I did not puke.

Friday, January 23, 2009

And The Nomination Goes To:

Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose not to poll me when asking to select the best films and performances of this past year. I see a lot of movies. Not as many as I used to, and nowadays they tend to skew to more family entertainment, but I feel pretty firm in my convicitons and ability to judge disprate pieces of art on a completely objective level. I have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly.
Okay, that part about being objective? Forget that. It's impossible. I learned that long ago from George C. Scott. In 1971 he blew off his Oscar for "Patton," calling the Oscars "a two-hour meat parade." He didn't attend. Three years later, Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to stir things up by turning his acceptance into a protest moment. Perhaps unwittingly, these two giants of American Cinema helped to shine a light even more brightly on the Academy Awards. Woody Allen has only bothered to show up twice, even though he has been nominated twenty-one times, beginning way back in 1977. It took him twenty-five years to make it to the big show himself, preferring instead to take the stage at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel to play clarinet with his New Orleans Jazz Band.
But back to me: Why didn't anyone ask me who should win this year's Best Picture? Perhaps because I am too much a part of the pop culture firmament, and I would probably vote for some silliness like "Iron Man" or "Tropic Thunder." Robert Downey Jr. probably doesn't need this particular golden bone after the year he's had, but again, nobody asked me.
And that's okay, because you can bet your King Size box of Junior Mints that I will be happily ensconced in front of my TV on February 22, watching with a mix of awe and disdain for the industry that loves to love itself.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Distance Between Two Points

I know what a hundred miles feels like. I spent a year doing a weekly commute from college to home.The distance never changed, but the way I dealt with it did. To be fair, the stated mileage from Boulder to Colorado Springs is ninety-eight miles, but I bumped it up to account for the distance from my freshman dorm to the highway, and coming off onto surface streets to my parents' house. The route never changed. I did.
The first weekend of my college career, there were activities and indoctrinations that required that I stay there. After that, I would pop out of class on Friday afternoon, pick up my laundry bag from my dorm room and head out to the parking lot across the street. I knew that if I was careful and clever, I could get through Denver without getting bogged down in rush hour traffic. That would put me back at home in time to get my dirty clothes dumped, and maybe even get a little home cooking before I went out into the Friday night. In my hometown. Not in Colorado Springs. Without my dorm buddies.
This disconnect caused periodic friction with my friends who felt that I was abandoning them. It helped insure that I would be seen as a bit of an outsider whenever the ranks closed on Slocum One North. But it was only a hundred miles away. All that familiarity. All that fun. All that comfort. All that free laundry. Did I mention there was a girl?
That hundred miles seemed to fly by when I was driving up on Friday afternoon. But I would do everything I could to put off leaving, sometimes in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning so that I could still make it to class. In my glove box I kept a series of ninety minute cassettes, each of which was just long enough to get me from one major radio market to the next. I could listen to KILO in Colorado Springs until I got just outside the city limits, then I would pop in one of those tapes. If I managed to tuck my VW Bug in the draft of a semi, I could be in range of KBCO in Boulder before I had to flip the tape a second time.
That was way back when I was going to get married the first time. I drove a couple of hundred miles every weekend for love. Then we broke up. But I didn't stop making that trip. I started dragging my friends from college along with me. One of them decided to transfer along with me back to Boulder. The next year, my commute was more like one hundred yards. But from then on, every time I see a sign on the highway that says a hundred miles, I know exactly what it means.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Back To Work

We all know things change. Now we need to know just how fast things can change. Remember the first day at your new job? Did you have to do anything, really? After you filled out your W-4 forms and figured out the quickest way to the break room, there wasn't much time for much else. On his first day in office, Barack Obama sat down to meetings on our train wreck of an economy and wars that continue to rage half a world away. His predecessor left a note on his desk that was described as a "good luck" note. Determining the correct inflection on those words would be challenge enough, but the rest of the day's schedule wouldn't allow it.
By the end of the day, the new guy had sponsored a draft of an executive order that would close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year and halt all war crimes trials in the meantime as well as imposing a pay freeze for about one hundred White House aides who earn one hundred thousand dollars or more. That last one would be tough news for all those folks who showed up on the first day to find out that their salary had already been capped. So it goes in Obamatown.
He also made a point of getting in a "do-over" on his oath of office, just in case anybody out there was looking for a loophole to squeeze through. Somebody with a very pointy head, for example. All of this, and then Barack and Michelle played host and hostess for a select two hundred at an open house.
"Enjoy yourself, roam around," a smiling Obama told one guest. "Don't break anything."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day One

Here is how I know that today was a momentous occasion: My younger brother, whose chief means of communication is a terse but amusing line or two on the back of a post card, sent me an e-mail. It read, "One of my favorite things, among so many, about our new president is his sense of humor. After signing papers to become president he said a line I imagine my father or older brothers might say at that moment: 'I was told not to swipe the pen.'"
My president is a funny guy. I spent the morning of his inauguration doing something that I have done countless times before. I was ranching second graders, encouraging them to sit flat on their bottoms so that everyone behind them could see. I shushed the ones who weren't giving attention to the speaker at the front of the room. The difference was that the speaker in the front of the room was the first African-American President of the United States.
Actually, on reflection, it wasn't with Barack Obama that they had trouble sitting still. Aretha Franklin singing, and the strings of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma were the cause of a good deal of fidgeting. But when Barack took the podium, the chatter stopped. They were transfixed. A combination of the awareness of history in front of them and the charisma of our forty-fourth president kept a room full of kids as quiet as any juggler or Magic School Bus DVD.
Then it was over, and we went back to our day. My wife drove over to my school to share just a moment in the afterglow, caught me with a bunch of kindergartners who were as pleased and happy to see her as I was. One of them told her, "My mommy says that when I get home, we'll have a new president."
Because that's the way it works, after all. The really amazing thing, as President Obama mentioned in his address, is that for the forty-fourth time we are peacefully passing power to the next administration. Wars at home and abroad, economic boom and bust, social and civil unrest, and we still manage to keep it civilized. Hooray. When I got home, I had a new president.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Service Center

This morning I watched the vice-president elect do a little drywall. CNN and various other news-gathering operations were following Joe Biden around as he carefully cut, sawed, and later hung chunks of drywall in a house he was building with Habitat for Humanity. I've done a little drywall, and it takes a good bit of attention to detail so you don't get any massive gaps that have to be filled in later. Joe had a tool belt that hung just enough off of his hip to make me believe that it was probably his, and even if it wasn't, he looked like he could handle a hammer.
That's what Joe the Vice President did for his Day of Service. The Ayatollah of Barack 'n' Rolla spent the morning before he takes the oath of office helping to paint the walls of a dormitory at a temporary shelter in Washington for homeless and runaway youth. His wife was was at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium where she joined hundreds of volunteers under a large tent in filling bags with toiletry items such as suntan lotion and toothpaste intended for U.S. troops overseas. It's not like these folks didn't have other things to do on the eve of Inauguration Day.
That's why I had to cut short my grumbling when my wife suggested that we participate in the second annual Day of Service. My initial response ran somewhere in the range of "I spend all week doing service. Why should I have to do it on my day off?" The answer came in the form of action, not words. The men who are about to lead our country were out getting their hands dirty, even if they had to do it under the glare of the media. I rolled my trash can and recycling bin out onto the street, and with the help of my son, I spent a couple of hours picking up debris that sometimes feels like part of the landscape around here. When we were done, for at least a few blocks, our neighborhood looked clean. Then we took a load of his early childhood books and toys that he and his mother had sorted to a donation center. By mid-afternoon, we felt like we had given something back to our community. It's like the man said, "Everybody's got to pitch in."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Confessions Of A Cookie Monster

There were a lot of institutions and rituals in my house when I was growing up. Perhaps none was more abused than "Two Cookies Of The Day." The idea was that the poor, starving boys who lived there would have a chance for a quick snack sometime before their father came home to tide them over until dinner an hour or so later. My brothers and I were rarely content to let the number of cookies stop at just two. We always had good cookies in our train-shaped cookie jar. If it had been just Pecan Sandies that jar would be full today.
But it wasn't. There were Fudge Stripes and Chips Ahoy and America's favorite Oreos. Those were the ones that came from the store. My mother would regularly fill that little locomotive with home-made Toll House cookies. She used to put them inside the jar while they were still warm, causing there to be little smears of semi-sweet chocolate in the inside. How were we supposed to limit ourselves to just two?
The truth is, we rarely did. In the beginning, there was a lot of whining and cajoling and begging Mom for just one more. Or two. How long is it until dinner anyway? And when that approach fell on deaf ears, we turned to more desperate measures. Did we steal cookies? It sounds so unpleasant, and since we were the ones who would eventually be eating the cookies, we weren't so much stealing as borrowing against cookies that we would eventually consume. Not that we treated it that way. Our cookie-pilfering raids took on the air of an episode of "Hogan's Heroes": The distractions, the misdirection, the stealth, the fake moustaches.
I'm a parent now, and I know what we were putting my mother through. I know that, like any good business owner, she resigned herself to a certain amount of loss through theft. She had many more important concerns than remaining on high alert through the evening hours to catch us with our literal hands in the literal cookie jar. She needed a moment or two of her own to unwind and prepare for the next act. Clever children like my son sense this is the time to strike. In those quiet moments just before dusk, as parents begin to reflect on their day, that's the time to work them for that little something extra.
It wasn't just her three sons, either. There was an entire neighborhood that periodically emptied into her kitchen to be fed. She ran the House of Cookies, and I don't think she would have had it any other way. Over the years there was a parade of friends and acquaintances who came through our house and were treated to the same experience. I don't remember a single one of them having their dinner spoiled, but that was always the concern. The only lasting effect of Two Cookies of The Day is my continued need to be surreptitious about opening a cookie jar. I'm forty-six years old, and I pay for the cookies in the jar in my own house. But I don't just pay for them once: I still lift that lid gingerly, just in case Mom is listening.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Miraculous Perception

It's not often that the words "airplane crash" and "miracle" get run together in the same sentence, but that's the way U.S. Airways Flight 1549 is being described. In case you haven't been around a TV, radio, newspaper or Internet device for the past few days, you should know that all one hundred and fifty passengers along with five crew members escaped from their Airbus A320 dropped into the Hudson River shortly after takeoff on Thursday morning. One of the passengers' legs were broken, but no other serious injuries were reported. The plane didn't drop into any populated areas. It didn't burst into flames. It didn't sink like a rock when it hit the water. For these reasons, the media and the powers that be have chosen to view it as a miracle.
Now, on the other hand, if you are a member of the goose population in the tri-state area, you might not be as comfortable with this assertion. For them, this is a tale of woe and tragedy in which two of their feathered friends made their final flight. The "double bird strike" reported by pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III wasn't just a mid-air mishap, but the end of Bert and Larry. Tonight, geese around the world will be toasting to their memory.
Along these same lines, I did a little checking on the safety record of U.S. Airways. Since 1970, there have been nine not-so miraculous events involving their aircraft. A total of three hundred and two passengers and crew did not survive these accidents. In aviation circles, it is often stated that "any landing you can walk away from is a good one." In my mind, that puts U.S. Airways down almost two-to-one on the "walking away from the crash" ratio. Or in the case of Larry and Bert, any landing they could waddle away from, God bless their little beaks.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow

So much about what is wrong with this planet that still be wrong on January 21st, it's hard to get completely wound up about the beginning of the Obama administration. Or at least that's the old cynical me, the me that didn't know about Now I am gassed, stoked, and ready to go.
To give you just a little background, there was a time when I made a pledge that I would only go to movies that advertised with a web site. This was a promise that was initially easy to keep. I felt reckless, and expanded my vow to include snack food. Times change, and as many of you know, the "" revolution made it impossible or me to choose. Thanks to Al Gore, everything had its own web presence. Every movie, even the really bad ones, had their own web sites. All had become web. I went back to watching TV.
But now we have a new President, one who is actively seeking good ideas. Okay, so he's actively seeking ideas, with the hopes of finding a few good ones. That's what this is all about. President Obama wants to know what you and I think will change the country, if not the world. The economy, health care, foreign policy: you name it, he'll fix it.
That's why, when my wife showed me the post about flying cars, I felt renewed. Sure, it's not a personal jet pack, but what says "future" more than a flying car? If you answered more mini-skirts or Soylent Green, my suggestion is to seek professional help, or go ahead and drop the new boss a line.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I do a lot of math in my head as I ride my bike to and from work. The other night, as the sun was setting, I set my mind to the task of figuring out when I would be twice as old as my niece. Today she turns twenty, and since I am already looking at forty in the rear view mirror, I had to edge forward in time to discover the point in the future when she will be just half my age.
It seems like she has always been so much younger than me, it never occurred to me that she might somehow start to close that gap. She acts as a filter between me and my own youth.
When we began to raid one another's music collection, I got the feeling that somehow things had changed. She is, after all, from another generation. Hers is the one that knows only Bushes and Clintons. Hers is the one that grew up after the Cold War. Her generation carries their record collection around with them. For her, Clint Eastwood is a director.
In many ways, I have more in common with her than my own son. We grew up in the same town, went to the same schools. She went to dozens of football games at the University of Colorado with my mother, just like I did. Someday she will, no doubt, wax on about the significance and simplicity of these experiences. Because that's what we do.
In six more years, I'll have to find another way to create the illusion of superiority. For now, I can hold on to the phrase, "I'm more than twice as old as you are," as if it made a difference.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


This past Sunday, I stood in an art gallery admiring a variety of different pieces. They were assembled as an exhibit of "Illuminated Sculpture." Through the opening night crowd, I saw things that glowed or shone in unique ways. Some were items that were lit from within. Others were simply displays of light. I mingled briefly, until I found my brother, the artist.
He was there to show his work, to answer questions, and to bask in the glow that came from his sculpture and the glow that surrounded him. He has been working at this art thing for quite some time, and this was his first gallery show. He has exhibited his paintings and sculpture in less formal settings. He done work on commission, and he has sold a few more. I am pleased to have an eclectic selection of his oeuvre. I like to think that walking through my house, you can trace his evolution as an artist. I like to think that because it makes me happy to have a brother who has done so much to fill our blank walls and it makes me sound like a curator instead of just the proud brother of an artist.
But there I was, standing in that gallery, feeling that he had arrived. After years of refining his vision and his skills, he stood among the crowd eating cheese cubes on frilly toothpicks and sipping wine as they nodded and murmured while they looked at his piece. I started to babble to him about a book that I was reading called "The Outliers," by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell suggests that there is, in fact, a formula for success. He maintains Dr. Daniel Levitin's theory that "ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything." I told this to my little brother, and he smiled and looked around the room. "I think I'm at about," he paused for effect, "five thousand." From out here, his path seems a little meandering, but I know that inside he knows. I'm looking forward to the next five thousand.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Presidency Defined

After years of walking around in a pair of worn out shoes, you don't really notice how sore your feet get walking and standing all day on thin soles without arch support. There is a certain attachment one gets to things familiar. It would be ridiculous to say that you might miss having a toothache, or some other mild physical torment, but it's amazing what the human brain will do to compensate for challenges such as these. Still, I don't think anyone would wait eight years to go to the dentist, or to buy a new pair of shoes.
But I will miss President Pinhead, if for no other reason than his startling consistency. In his final press conference as chief executive, he said that "not finding weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment." To be certain, I checked my definitions: "a feeling of dissatisfaction that results when your expectations are not realized," or "defeated of expectation or hope; let down." Again, this has been the party line all along with President Pinhead. It makes sense that he would be let down not to find weapons of mass destruction, because that would have legitimized the invasion of Iraq.
But let's look at a few other possible reactions he could have had upon realizing that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found: Embarrassed, as in "made to feel uncomfortable because of shame or wounded pride" or "the shame you feel when your inadequacy or guilt is made public." How about it? Any shame here? No? What about relief: "the easing of a burden or distress, such as pain, anxiety, or oppression," or "the feeling that comes when something burdensome is removed or reduced." Sorry. Not this president.
No, these are the final days of the belligerent ("characteristic of an enemy or one eager to fight") man who never let the facts get in the way of his vision. He described the feeling he expects his successor to have on January 20th when, after taking the oath of office, he enters the Oval Office for the first time as president.
"There'll be a moment when the responsibility of the president lands squarely on his shoulders." Now define "burdened.".

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rocket Science

The first thing I noticed was that his name was misspelled: "Rick Rossner, World's Smartest Man." Domino's is using him to sell their new oven baked sandwiches, pointing out that his I.Q. is twice that of your average fifth grader, a ratio of two to one. That ratio is the same as that by which Domino's is preferred over Subway. Rick is a genius, and it shouldn't take a genius to show off that bit of math. Given the fact that the ad points out that Rick's I.Q. is two hundred, maybe it's really him that is using Domino's.
His "real name" is Rick Rosner. He went to the same high school I did. He was a couple years ahead of me, and in that regard always seemed a little smarter, cooler, and together than I did as a sophomore. Again, it wouldn't take a genius to figure that out. Once Rick got out of high school, he used his giant brain to figure out how to get back in. He applied his dazzling intellect to determine the "best way" to go through high school: Be cool, be popular, all that important stuff. He worked at his dream for another ten years, off and on, while he worked as a stripper, a bouncer, and other enterprises that emphasized brawn over brain. He became a local celebrity as a result of these and other hi jinks, and eventually he took his show on the road.
When he was no longer able to pass for a teenager, Rick tried his hand at writing for TV. Somewhere in there, he decided that he wanted to be a millionaire, so he asked Regis Philbin for help. Regis wasn't much help. Rick only made it to the sixteen thousand dollar level. He spent a few years arguing with the producers about the question that he missed. Now he's got this gig shilling oven-baked sandwiches for delivery. He hasn't found a cure for cancer, or discovered a grand unified field theory, even though at one point he claimed to be reading a book a day. Rick has found a way to keep his name and face in the world for the past thirty years.
Here's the thing: I'm no genius, but I do know that if you ask, the friendly folks at Subway will gladly toast your sandwich for you. I don't know what my I.Q. is, but I managed to get laid in high school, and I was in the marching band.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

All Hands On Deck

Pinhead lands on an aircraft carrier christened with the name of his father. The USS Pinhead was commissioned on Saturday by a host of people named Bush. Keeping the string of "presidential Kodak moments" alive, Pinhead and his family landed on the deck of the last of the Nimitz class carriers, the one named after Daddy Pinhead. Daddy fought in the war. Daddy was a pilot. On a mission over the Pacific in September 1944, his plane crashed into the ocean after being hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. He parachuted into the sea and was rescued by a Navy submarine. He returned to combat and served until the end of the war. When he grew up, he became President of the United States.
His sons must have heard those stories a lot when they were growing up. Now wonder little Pinhead chose to join the Texas Air National Guard. Over the course of six years, beginning in 1968, he kept the skies over Texas safe from enemy attack, and since nobody really needed him for those last two years, Pinhead did his very best job of phoning it in. This also kept young Pinhead safe from enemy attack in the skies over Vietnam. When he grew up, he became President of the United States.
Back in May, 2003, Pinhead showed off his mad jet-piloting skills by dropping in on the crew of another aircraft carrier named for a Republican president, the USS Abraham Lincoln. The USS Harry Truman was busy at the time filming the Bruce Willis film, "Tears of the Sun." In another thirty years, will Pinhead be landing on another flight deck? Stay tuned for "The Pinhead Legacy."

Saturday, January 10, 2009


The fact that I really enjoyed "Gran Torino" is not a surprise. I have been a Clint Eastwood fan since my older brother first introduced me to the spaghetti westerns, and later the Dirty Harry canon/cannon. The surprise to me is how much more interesting Clint has become to me over the past thirty-some years. The part of the trailer that plucks that old Eastwood string is the snarl over the barrel of a loaded gun, "Get outta my yard!" It's almost a caricature. The fact that he reclaims that moment and makes it pay off as something other than a cheap laugh is credit enough, but there is much more there.
The past sixteen years have been all about rewriting his own myth. The characters he plays and the movies he chooses to direct these days fill in the broad strokes of the seventies. William Munny, the hired killer of "The Unforgiven" is not that different from "The Man With No Name" by way of "The Outlaw Josey Wales," but now he feels free to show us just how a soul could be twisted. When his young associate suggests that the man he just shot "had it coming," Munny replies, "We all got it coming, kid."
And that's the story Clint has stuck to for the past decade and a half. He wants us to know that killing a man doesn't make you a hero. It's how you deal with death in its many forms that makes a hero. The once mighty physical presence of Clint Eastwood may have grown a little crooked and gray, but the squint and the gravelly voice have only become enhanced with age. Brad Pitt becomes younger and more beautiful, while Clint seems to revel in his own disintegration. Still, when his character, Walt says, "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have messed with? That's me," you believe it. "Gran Torino" is a requiem for the tough guys who have sneered and growled and served up justice for forty years. How do you live with yourself after all the shooting is done? I believe that Clint Eastwood has finally delivered peace with honor.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Word Is The Bird

The words I think of first are not my own. They belong to John Hughes, via Judd Nelson: "Obscene finger gestures from such a pristine girl." Then I think of the song: "Surfin' Bird." Then I realize that I have too many pop culture references in my head at times to be a completely effective parent. At the dinner table the other night, I found out that my son had flipped off one of his classmates. And thus the accounting exercise began.
When did this digit get raised, and why? Where did the incident occur? What was the immediate reaction, and will there be further repercussions? What was the relative size differential between the offender and the offended? What are the chances of this happening again? The math was hard, but the problem was simple enough. I spend enough hours each month telling kids that raising one's middle finger is bad form at the very least.
As an historical aside, I confess that it was sometime during my own sixth grade year that I honed my own bird. I weaved a pencil between my fingers to get just the right curl on the ring and forefinger, keeping that middle straight and tall. Most of these experiments took place out of sight of easily offended eyes. But it wasn't until I got my driver's license that I started to flip the bird with anything resembling abandon. Of course, even then I was generally performing for an audience of one. The middle finger has always been more of a personal release than an expression. I've always been more of fan of words than gestures anyway.
Which brings me back to my son. I asked him if he knew what the meaning of his gesture was. After a moment of embarrassed agitation, he assured me that he did. I asked him if he had considered the possible consequences of his act might have been. He told me that he regretted his actions, but he felt that it was the only way he could defend his family's honor. "He was talking about my parents."
Then I understood. He's in middle school, and he was responding in kind. It is what boys do, after all. I just didn't expect it would be my boy and so emphatic. I asked him if he felt that he had solved anything. He shook his head. Now that he's had the third degree from his dad, I suspect that he will, like his father, keep his middle finger to himself.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

These Utes?

I don't get a lot of calls from my brother-in-law, so I was a little surprised when my wife handed me the phone a few nights ago, and told me it was for me. When I got on the line, he asked me this question: "Did you see the Championship game?" Since my brother-in-law is not what you might call a huge fan of spectator sports, I was immediately intrigued.
"Championship game?" I stalled. I wondered if there was some clever connection to his love of chess or some cynical observation on my own obsessive relationship to sports.
"The college football championship," he reasserted.
And now I knew exactly what he was talking about. "How 'bout them Utes?" I asked rhetorically, knowing that his home in Moab, Utah suddenly gave him proximal rights to root for the University of Utah. Not Brigham Young, or the team from Utah State. They didn't finish the season undefeated and win their bowl game. The Utes did.
"Well, yeah. How 'bout them Utes?" Responded my brother-in-law, just a tad chagrined that I was able to determine his meaning without a lot of extra inquiry. The Utes are exactly what the Bowl Championship Series didn't need. Some little school that played a perfect season, and oh by the way beat some pretty stiff competition including Oregon State back in October and the Crimson Tide of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Sure, the Utes might have faced an ugly uphill battle against the likes of the Florida Gators or the Oklahoma Sooners, but that's why they play the games, right? As a result, there will be plenty of chest thumping and pontificating across the Beehive State as the "top two" teams as determined by a network of computers and buckets full of money go at it in the Fed Ex "Mythical National Championship Game." So what's a football fan to do?
Well, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff contends the BCS unfairly puts schools like Utah, which is a member of a conference without an automatic bid to the lucrative bowl games, at a competitive and financial disadvantage. He is investigating the Bowl Championship Series for a possible violation of federal antitrust laws. It reminds me of what a friend used to say about his high school's football team: "We didn't always win the game, but we always won the post-game fight." Utah might not win the National Championship, but at least they might win the post-game litigation.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Are You Smarter Than A Sixth Grader?

His name was Jeff Franklin. He was the first of a pair of student teachers who came into our class when I was in sixth grade. This was a very loosey-goosey classroom in Boulder, Colorado in the mid-seventies. There was no prescribed curriculum, and we were encouraged to follow our muse. Jeff was well-suited for such an environment, as he saw all us pre-teens as guinea pigs for his polite social experiment.
In the fall of 1973, this included exposing our fertile young minds to the conflict that was happening in the Middle East. He did this by asking us to prepare as journalists to interview Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat. We wrote up our questions, and Jeff kept pushing us to get to the root of the conflict. Then at the end of the week, he appeared first with an eye patch as Dayan, and later with a pipe as Sadat. He never let any personal preference or allegiance show as he embodied his characters, and gave very informed and direct answers to our queries. When it was all said and done, Jeff asked us to go back and write down what we had learned. The articles that we wrote varied widely in terms of editorial viewpoint, but we were all completely engaged. And in teacher-speak, it doesn't get much better than that.
Thirty-five years later, I find myself staring at the headlines and listening to talking heads go on about the conflict in the Gaza strip. I know exactly where they are talking about, because I learned about it in sixth grade. I have Jeff Franklin to thank for my awareness of that region and the history of war that surrounds it. But now that I'm a grownup, I don't claim to understand it any better. Maybe that's expecting too much, but I still wish someone could explain it to me like I was a sixth-grader.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Easy Money II

Michael Vincent really wants to get in touch with me. I get a couple of e-mails a day from this guy, and I have never met him. He says that he's got a new job for me. To be honest, I've been pretty busy with the job I've got, and as a result I haven't taken the time to check out what I'm sure is a terrific opportunity. Who is this guy, anyway?
Turns out he used to be a mail carrier. How about this for a coincidence? My grandfather was a mail carrier. Of course, back then he was called a "mailman," but things were different then. Michael, however, didn't want to be a mail carrier the rest of his life. One day, he saw a guy driving a red Ferrari Spider convertible. That looked more like his dream. A few weeks later, he sees the same guy pull up in a brand new Rolls Royce Phantom. Expensive cars apparently figured large in Michael's vision for his future. He had to ask this fancy-car-driver where he got the money to buy his fancy cars. Mister Fancy Cars' name was Jason, and it turns out he was a thirty-one year old retired school teacher. How about that for another coincidence? I am a school teacher, and I was once thirty-one years old.
Michael's big break came when Jason, Mister Fancy Cars, decided that he could share his Internet Underground Cash Secret. Jason didn't just have fancy cars, either. He had a big house with a swimming pool and a maid who brought him menus to order lunch from. Of course this guy knows how to make money using the Internet. He has all this cool stuff that rich guys have. It sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, if you are looking for more specifics about what the Internet, Al Gore's Internet, can do for you to make mountains of cash, it only costs you forty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents. I'm holding out for Michael's deal, which was getting all this great advice for free. Not to mention the lunch at Jason's house.
Can I let you in on another eerie coincidence? I have always wanted to go to Nigeria, too.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Take A Chance On Me

I should begin by stating that I have not purchased a lottery ticket in the state of California. I may have purchased one or two back in the earliest days of Colorado's lottery, but that is now decades in the past. I tend to look on this whole lottery experience with a mix of disdain and mistrust. First of all, there's that whole creepy Shirley Jackson thing to get past. Then there's the simple math of of it all. If you buy one ticket for just a dollar, you could win millions.
You could. You could also just toss that dollar out in the street, or give it to a homeless person. There was a weekly ritual at the warehouse where I used to work. Every Friday was Lotto day, and every Friday there was a line of expectant faces at the warehouse office door. And every Monday, those same faces waited for the announcement that never came. They went back to work, if only to generate that extra dollar for the end of the week.
Then there's the story of Donald Peters and his wife, Charlotte. After twenty years of buying a pair of tickets a week, on the first of November, Donald finally picked a winner. Then he dropped dead of a heart attack. The story might have a nastier twist if he had died when he heard the news, but he didn't even know he had the winning numbers when he expired. In all the fuss, Charlotte neglected to check the tickets. When the December drawing came around, it turns out that one of those tickets was worth ten million dollars. This was Donald's final Christmas gift to his wife of fifty-nine years.
This year, I gave my wife a toilet. It's not worth ten million dollars, but at least I didn't have to die for it.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Do You Remember Old What's-His-Face(book)?

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." These words from Arthur C. Clarke tumbled through my head as I considered the horns of my new dilemma, Facebook. I am presently besieged with requests from voices from my past to become part of their network of friends. "It's free, and anyone can join." That makes me nervous. Thanks to Al Gore's Internet, it has become easier than ever to reach out and touch someone.
But what if I don't want to be touched? I'm the kind of guy who routinely has to charge his cell phone battery not because it has been used so much, but because it has sat in the bottom of my book bag with nothing to do. I like the illusion of rolling through life without connection. If I'm such a loner, why then would I even consider these invitations to join up with the latest on-line gathering? Perhaps it's because I secretly want to be part of a larger group, but I don't want to appear too eager.
There's that service that is supposed to put you in touch with the people you went to high school with, if you're willing to give them your personal information and allow them to contact you when they have something they need to tell you. Or sell you. I found out that it's free to have your name listed, but it costs money to find out who is looking for you, and that's where my search ended. All those Boulder High Panthers from the class of 1980 will just have to find another way to reach me, since I've stopped taking mail from
Then there's this Facebook thing. I was just commiserating with my mother-in-law about how comfortable we can get with a certain level of technology. She had just learned how to listen to tracks on her CD player in random order. That was a revelation for her. My wife has been entranced with Facebook for some time now, and I'm fairly certain that is where all of these ghosts from my past have started to knock on my virtual door. "One of us, one of us," they seem to intone. But first I have to join.
What happens after that? I could be connected with all of those faces and places that I have so neatly filed away over the past thirty-some years. I could find a valuable new network of like-minded individuals. Or I might find another vast and ever-widening vortex into which I could throw my time. I wonder if Arthur C. Clarke would have been on Facebook.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Don't Worry If It's Not Good Enough For Anyone Else To Hear

Yesterday we closed out the official holiday season around here with the appearance of my younger brother. We exchanged gifts, shared a couple of meals, and experienced media of various sorts and flavors. My favorite moments were those we spent playing Guitar Hero together, with me on guitar and him on vocals. He's got the chops, as they say, and I was immediately transported back to the times that he and I have spent making music together over the years.
One of my favorites occurred on a drive back from our cousin's farm after our big family Thanksgiving feast. On a drive across eastern Colorado, it's best to try and keep things interesting, since the relatively straight lines of the highway and the horizon offer little diversion. Luckily, we found of the first album by the Police in the glove box. Much to my mother's chagrin, we turned up the volume and began to sing along. We knew every word. By the time we had finished the last song on side two, we were a little hoarse, but turning into our driveway at home. We had survived.
On another cold winter night, after closing the video store, I met up with my younger brother and a friend of his from way back in elementary school. We had a few beers, and we got to talking about music. As it turned out, my brother's friend was in a Christmas-covers band that played gigs around town. After a few more beers, I began to brag about my ability to sing the blues. In reality, my experience was based almost exclusively on the times I had sung along with my Blues Brothers album. This didn't keep us from finishing up after last call and heading out to the little shack that served as the rehearsal space for the band. My brother took some interest in the guitars, having played with more veracity that I had ever sung the blues. We put on Bruce Springsteen's "Cadillac Ranch," and I did my very best drunken slur-along with the Boss to some mild approval from my shivering cohorts.
In hindsight, it seems a little odd that both of these tales were holiday-themed. Maybe there's something about this time of year that puts a song in our collective hearts. As long as it's not "The Twelve Days of Christmas," I guess that's fine.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Starting The Year Off With A Bang

There was a time when the suggestion of a plot to blow up Aspen, Colorado would have been blamed on Hunter S. Thompson. The good Doctor certainly did his share of exploding things just up the road, including the moment when his cremated remains were spread far and wide via cannon. But on New Year's Eve 2008, Hunter had been blasted into the next life for nearly four years now.
This time it was James Chester Blanning, a seventy-two year old former resident of Aspen, who left two boxes containing plastic bladders of gasoline in a pair of banks along with notes demanding sixty thousand dollars in cash. The notes threatened "mass death," and included criticisms of Still-President Pinhead. Two more bombs were found in an alley, abandoned by Mister Blanning before reaching their eventual destination.
He was upset by so many things, as suicidal bombers often are, but he seemed especially troubled by the fact that his hometown had become a playground for the rich and famous. It was that same group who, no doubt, were forced to change their New Year's Eve plans when downtown Aspen was evacuated and, in a touch of irony, the celebratory fireworks were postponed as Blanning's threat unraveled.
In the end, James Chester Blanning's story ended up essentially the same as Hunter Thompson: Noted local loon shoots himself. Johnny Depp probably won't show up for Blanning's funeral.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

You Say You Wanna Resolution?

What we want to happen on the first day of the new year is generally emblematic of what we will find ourselves doing the rest of the year. Each year that I begin by laying around inside the fort that we build in our living room seems like a victory. How could this be? I recently had a few moments to consider this, and I think I am beginning to understand it.
There was talk at dinner about making resolutions for the next year. Most of the promises being formed had to do with making higher expectations for commitment and productivity. There was some discussion about when to schedule meetings, and how to get more done by planning effectively. I listened to all of this with my traditional sarcastic ear, and chose to come up with my own resolution: "I want to spend more time in the coming year playing Freecell."
There were a few puzzled looks. "Frecell?"
"The solitaire game that comes loaded on most Windows machines? That or Minesweeper."
Those who were unfamiliar with my skewed world view looked at me for some additional sign.
"On second thought, maybe I'll just spend time watching other people play."
That let everyone else in on the cynical nature of my announcement. In reality, I spend a lot of time being productive, and I work hard to cut out the wasted moments. Therein lies the truth of my resolution. I would really like to make the time to build my skills on the Guitar Hero drum set, and find a way to sleep past seven on the mornings that I don't have to be at work. The fact that I am lounging around in our tent of bedsheets after ten o'clock gives me hope for 2009. I resolve to get back to work again soon, but right now the Gator Bowl is on. Where's that remote control?