Monday, August 31, 2009

Warning Signs

The first day of school this year coincides with my older brother's birthday. This convergence occurred more times than I'm sure he was ever fully comfortable, but it also afforded him a three-day weekend almost as often to savor his day and the coming of the Fall. He shares this trait with his daughter, who has the same birthday as Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. In my family, birthdays have a tendency to go on for a week or more, when necessary, and a three-day weekend is beneficial in this way.
But not this year. It made me remember when my older brother looked at me with sorrow and explained that First Grade was a lot harder than Kindergarten. He told me about the relative perils of the second and third grades. Later he prepared me for the torment that awaited me in junior high school. He clued me in about which teachers I should look out for in high school, and what I could expect when I finally landed in college.
At the time, I wasn't sure what to make of these lectures. At first, I took them as gospel and used them to fuel my own insecurities. By the time I was twelve, I had a suspicion that maybe he as pulling my leg just a little. When I was a teenager, nobody could tell me anything, so I wasn't going to sit still and listen to my older brother's insights about my education.
Little did I know what a service he was performing. Not so much the lectures, but the experience he had to offer. It wasn't just school. Watching my older brother brave the various challenges the world had to offer, I became more and more convinced that I could rise those same challenges. I had the distinct advantage of watching somebody go first. A lot of my life was made easier by treading on the path that my older brother made before me.
That's why I feel he deserves the extra day, now and then, just to stay fresh. I can use all the help I can get.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Matter Of Lifestyle And Death

The lights are on, the television is roaring away, the cable is feeding us hundreds of channels that we are currently ignoring, and yet I feel like I'm wandering through the day with one eye closed. This morning at a quarter to eleven, our telephone stopped working. No sparks, no explosions, not a puff of smoke. Just one click and the noise at the other end of the line stopped. No dial tone, not even static on the line.
My wife, son and I went into crisis management mode and immediately set about finding the source of our outage. All the other phones in the house were hung up, and there was electricity going to all he places that would keep us connected to the outside world. We turned our DSL modem off and on. We looked for obvious breaks in the wires in and outside our home that might keep us from receiving important calls. Nothing.
Ever the resourceful pioneer, my wife found her cell phone and set out to contact anyone who might be able to help us in our hour of need. There was a moment's consternation when we realized that we would have to rely on the fearfully antiquated technology of a phone book to find the number of our AT&T customer service center. After a terrifying experience of analog data searching and a maze of possible choices of assistance droids, she put our name and number in a queue for service at the earliest possible moment: Monday afternoon.
I'm sure she heard me sigh. How could we go on without our telephone and connection to Al Gore's Internet? For a whole weekend? We went out to lunch and a swim with some friends, and I still felt anxious about our lonely existence. I called the customer service people back. This time I decided to attack it from the DSL side, since that was my chief concern. Not being able to check my e-mail for more than twenty-four hours might have a detrimental effect on my psyche. When I finally made it through the pre-recorded gauntlet and spoke to a human being, I was told that I was being transferred back to a service number for our home phone line. Happily, I only had to listen to a few moments of hyperbole about customer satisfaction before I got a flesh and blood response to my concern: There was a problem with "the outside line" and it would probably not be dealt with until Monday. "I've got to be honest with you," the tech voice said, "We've only got a skeleton crew out there on the weekends, dealing with lifelines and such. I told him I appreciated his candor, and then he tried to reassure me about just how quickly things would get straightened out. On Monday.
That's when it occurred to me: I used to live for months at a time with no telephone service, and I managed to live through a week-long vacation this summer with only the most infrequent peeks at my e-mail. It could be done.
I just didn't feel like it. I didn't like the universe telling me that I had to go without. I don't like making calls on my cell phone. I enjoy having access to the information super-highway, even if I'm not driving in the super-fast lane. I am posting this entry on one of those "free wi-fi" outposts, and it feels a little like using a public restroom. I'm happy for the convenience, but I just don't feel like I should sit down on anything. I expect all will be well on Monday, but if I don't call you back, please understand we're doing everything we can: waiting.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Grand Dad

It was a tough week for patriarchs. Very tough. Ted Kennedy, Lion of the Senate, had nothing on Pop-op. With all due respect to the youngest of the Brothers Camelot, none of them had to raise two generations of kids in east Oakland.
I was aware of Pop-op, grandfather to a pair of families at my school, before I ever met him. He was the one who was walking the kids, cousins, down the hill every morning. When there was trouble, he was the one who showed up. The kids' mothers both worked, so Pop-op got the duty. He didn't mind. He was there to make sure that the his grandchildren got their education without any unnecessary fooling around. He would always listen to the teacher's concerns and make the promises for his descendants. He would also make sure that they would hold up their end. You could count on that.
When I got my first fourth grade classroom, I had Pop-op's grandson on my roll sheet. James struggled with math and his attention span as much as I did, and I was relieved to finally meet the man of the house when he was heading for trouble. Pop-op told me that I would see a difference in James, and he wasn't lying. It was no miracle and James squeaked by at the end of the year with a lot of help from me and tutors who never made a mathematician out of him, but he passed.
James' cousin Shelly was even more of a mixed bag. She could do the work, when she wanted to, but she didn't always want to. Pop-op knew that. We had a deal, that year. I told Shelly I wouldn't stop by at the end of the day if she was able to keep her mind on her studies, but when the drama got started, it sometimes didn't end. Sometimes I would make the call, but mostly I just waited until it was time for me to go home and I would ride my bike up the hill, stopping at the top and walking up the short flight of stairs to their front door.
In twelve years of teaching, I've made my share of home visits, but this was the only one where I felt truly welcome. I wasn't the enemy. Pop-op and I were on the same team. We both wanted the same thing: Shelly to pass fourth grade. As the year went by, my visits became less frequent, but I made Shelly and Pop-op a promise. I promised that I would stop by one day when there was good news. I kept that promise, and the three of us all stood in the front room while grandma fried up some chicken in the kitchen. I wondered if they might ask me to stay for dinner.
I didn't stay, but I still felt welcome. I got used to my regular smile and wave from the front porch. Sometimes he'd call out to me,"Almost Friday!" or "Have a good weekend!" Shelly passed the fourth grade, and the following year I still made my connection with Pop-op as I got to the top of the hill. I didn't see him walking Shelly's little brother to school as often. I saw him on the porch a couple of times when summer school started. Yesterday afternoon, as I was finishing up preparations for the new year, I heard that he had died. My ride home was a little longer, and I was proud of our work together. I'll be keeping an eye out for Shelly's little brother this Fall.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Eternal Flame

"[Senator Ted Kennedy] was well-intentioned, but made a singular mistake that liberals often make. He did not apply discipline to his programs. [The] disastrous McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, for example, did not secure the border or provide assurances that criminal aliens would be deported. It was a pure amnesty play, and most Americans quickly rejected it. Kennedy had the third longest tenure in the Senate ever. So like him or not, he was a patriot, a man who was well thought of by conservatives. I said a prayer for Senator Kennedy today and his family. And it was sincere." - Bill O'Reilly on the passing of Ted Kennedy
My feelings about Bill O'Reilly are well known. My feelings about Ted Kennedy are a little more hidden, perhaps even from me. I was surprised at how much pause I had Wednesday morning when I heard that the Senator from Massachusetts had died. In so many ways, Ted was the punchline for the whole Kennedy family. He was there for abuse. Big, fat, drunken Teddy. Chappaquiddick. Why hasn't anybody shot him yet? Ha, ha, ha.
But this was a guy who served in the Senate since I was five months old. More than three hundred bills that Kennedy and his staff wrote were enacted into law. Aside from his "disastrous" work on immigration, he was also tireless in his efforts on cancer research, health insurance, apartheid, disability discrimination, AIDS care, civil rights, mental health benefits, children's health insurance, education and volunteering. Then there's that whole universal health care thing. He helped raise the minimum wage. He voted against the resolution of war against Iraq. He drank and fooled around a lot.
Nine terms in the United States Senate. Cal Ripken type numbers. Ted Kennedy was a man of enormous appetites and generosity. He worked with conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Independents and Republicans. He worked to make this country live up to its promise. When he ended his campaign for president in 1980, he gave himself a fitting eulogy: "For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Thank you Ted. I'll say a prayer for you too, and I don't need a disclaimer to make it sincere.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bottom Line

Raise your hand if you have "a deep-seated hatred for Glenn Beck." If you've got your hand up an you feel alone sometimes, that makes sense. Mister Beck is quite the ratings phenomenon. His tends to outdraw the competition on CNN and MSNBC with his little show over there on Fox "You Snicker, We Deride" News. Now he'll have to put on that same show with a few less advertisers.
CVS, UPS, and Clorox are just a few of the companies who are voting with their feet and hopping off the Glenn Beck Crazy Train. A spokesperson for Clorox said, "we do not want to be associated with inflammatory speech used by either liberal or conservative talk show hosts." That will make it kind of tough to find a spot to sell bleach on any of the twenty-four hour news channels. Maybe they can buy some time on The Weather Channel.
But getting back to Glenn Beck, who has described himself in these terms: "I am like Howard Beale. When he came out of the rain and he was like, none of this makes any sense. I am that guy." Howard Beale was the news anchor played by Peter Finch in the movie "Network" who, after he was fired and threatened suicide on national television, became a sensation and given his own show to rant and rave because "it was good television." Eventually, Howard gets called into the CEO's office because his rantings and ravings are having a negative effect on the bottom line: advertising.
Arthur Jensen: The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that . . . perfect world . . . in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.
Howard Beale: Why me?
Arthur Jensen: Because you're on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.
"Network" was made in 1976 as satire. Glenn Beck is on Monday through Friday, just like his hero Howard Beale. I do not know if he knows he is satire. Stay tuned. Or not.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Belief System

"A lie told often enough becomes the truth." - Lenin
"There's a sucker born every minute." - P.T. Barnum
"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care." - Sarah Palin
The initial exercise would be to determine what all of these quotes have in common. That third one kind of sticks out due to its wordiness, but you forgive that kind of thing from a maverick poet like the "relinquished" governor of Alaska. Instead, let's change the focus and try to figure out how all those quotes relate to a survey, on assertions the White House has called myths, that found that more than fifty percent of Americans believe a public insurance option will increase health care costs. See how more information makes it easier to connect ideas?
How about this one: Roughly six out of ten Americans believe taxpayers will be required to pay for abortions. According to Fox "We Declare, You Accept" News, only about four out of ten Americans believe in UFOs. So, if there's a sucker born every minute and you tell a lie enough, you're bound to believe that death panels will decide the fate of your unborn children. Death panels that may, or may not, be composed of beings from another galaxy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

He Shall Be Released

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds. Compassion is a good thing, right? If you know that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is better known as "The Lockerbie Bomber," does that change your level of compassion? If you know that this man was the only person convicted of the explosion of a bomb hidden in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie killed all two hundred and fifty-nine people on the plane as well as eleven others on the ground, would it flavor your thoughts? If you knew that most of those on board the plane were American?
For the record, the Scottish government was comfortable with the decision to set him free. Comfortable until a crowd threw rose petals and cheered al-Megrahi at the airport in Libya after they heard of his return through the media and spontaneously chose to greet him. "It is a matter of great regret that Mister al-Megrahi was received in such an inappropriate manner," Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill told the Scottish parliament. "It showed no compassion or sensitivity to the families of the two hundred seventy victims of Lockerbie." That's the tough thing about compassion, or any emotion for that matter, you can't always be sure you'll get back what you put in.
By Libyan standards, the reception Mister al-Megrahi received was muted at best, but rose petals? Perhaps that has some ceremonial connection to the terminal case of prostate cancer for which he was released. A symbol of compassion, perhaps.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cold Turkey

Kathryn Bigelow's film "The Hurt Locker" opens with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "War is a drug." That idea has been skittering about in my head in the days since I saw the movie. Hedges' book is entitled "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." As I reflect back over the past week, having watched a forty-five minute refresher of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" just prior, I now have a brain full of intense, horrifying images that have outlived "news" and become "entertainment."
Why else would I have paid for my seat and a box of Junior Mints to sit in a theater and watch the story of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq? Why would I have picked a thirty-year-old film about Vietnam from a choice of hundreds of possible cable television offerings. War is a drug.
It was the rapture of being on the winning side of an election that gave me the vision of every one of our troops coming home and peace reigning out throughout the world. I believed that early talk about our troops coming home early, and imagined all those sword being beaten into plowshares, or hybrid cars. I forgot all about Afghanistan.
Even as we meander through out Iraq exit strategy, United States armed forces continue to free the world from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Let freedom ring, if it can be heard over the sound of automatic weapons fire. "Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of (the) Taliban and extremists taking over again, and I don't think that threat's going to go away," according to Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It has also been about thirty years since the United States was sending guns to the Taliban to aid in their fight against the Soviet Union. That was back when we were fighting a "Cold War" with the Soviets, and it seemed like a good idea. Now we're fighting them. War is a drug.
The sequence that stuck with me back in the eighties is the one that I watched on cable TV last week. Robert Duvall, as Colonel Kilgore, has just finished up his famous "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" speech, and as he hunkers down amidst the smoke and debris, he stares off into space and says with a trace of regret, "Someday this war's gonna end." True enough, but that didn't keep us from getting ourselves mixed up in another one or two since then. President Obama announced, in February 2009, "Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end." That will leave us with a "deteriorating situation" in Afghanistan. Imagine a world where American troops were no longer in harm's way. It's not easy. War is a drug.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


We've got a DVR. We used to have a Tivo, but we decided to go with the machine that the cable company allows us to purchase movies and other shows on-demand. We used to have a VCR and a DVD player. Now we have a VCR/DVD burner combination. We've got a Wii. We've got an XBox and an old Playstation. All of this stuff can be pumped through surround sound speakers so when Lassie barks or Mario leaps we can hear it in "big movie sound." In our bedroom, we have a DVD player and the on-demand DVR box. We have three or more boxes helping us watch TV on any given day.
That's why I flinched when my son got this wild notion about hooking up a PC in our living room. We have almost as many computers as we have TV contouring devices. The idea that we should adopt another one came from an incident earlier in the week when he and his friend were playing a Star Wars game on my laptop. His little friend was bemoaning the relative size of the laser rifles and Wookies, compared to the screen he was used to playing on. This got my son's creative juices flowing, and when he was left alone again with his old man, he asked me if we couldn't figure out some way to connect that laptop to our TV.
We tried a dozen different inputs and cables, and eventually we got an image from the computer on the TV, but we couldn't get the game to play. There was mild satisfaction in being able to project lolcats on the big screen, but we left it as unfinished business. Until Saturday morning.
That's when the call came in from our breathless twelve-year-old that he had our problem solved. His uncle was giving up his Gateway entertainment center PC, and was willing to let us have it for free, providing we lugged it home. Away from his house. Where it was mysteriously no longer of any use to him.
These questions didn't slow us down. We unplugged some things and plugged others, we gathered our collection of possible cables and connections and we set to work. Permutation after permutation yielded the same result. No picture. No sound. We had better success with the laptop. Grumbling set in, and we began to consider our options. One of these was not ignoring the box that had been brought into our living room. It was far too big and full of electronic potential to simply let it go. By now, hours had been invested in this seemingly simple operation of hooking up a monitor to a PC. A very big monitor, but a monitor nonetheless.
Finally, we reached an impasse: lunchtime. The need for food outweighed the need to fly an X-Wing fighter across the living room. That's when my son made this suggestion: "Maybe we've got too much." I didn't need to ask for clarification. We unplugged, cleaned up, and went to the kitchen for a sandwich.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fast And Furious

There is a lot to be said for our relative comfort level as human beings at the beginning of this new century. We like our coffee fast and our communication faster. We have begun to abbreviate our colloquialisms to allow more time to place them on our personal profiles. Getting a great meal in just seconds has become de rigeur in a world of microwave entrees. Express is the name of the game, and if you have more than ten items, you'll still probably try to sneak into the line because life is far too short to wait.
So you can imagine how the folks on Continental Express Flight 2816 felt when they were stranded on the runway in Rochester, Minnesota during the early morning hours of August 8. Severe thunderstorms forced air controllers to divert the plane south to Rochester, instead of Minneapolis, where it landed about 12:30 a.m. It received clearance to take off at 2 a.m., but the storms started again. At this point, the suggestion was made that they let all the passengers off the plane and onto a bus to take them to Minneapolis, eighty-five miles away. According to Mesaba Air Lines , a unit of Delta and the only ones with employees left at the Rochester airport, there were no buses to be had.
And so they sat, because no one from Mesaba wanted to be liable for these passengers "in a closed airport." And they sat. At 5 a.m., the flight got clearance again. But by then, its crew had worked more than the legal limit of hours. Another crew had to be flown in. Even though they had run out of food and the toilet was full, the passengers had to wait another hour until they were allowed into the terminal where they waited another two and a half hours to complete their trip to Minneapolis. It was 9:15 a.m. when the flight finally landed in the Twin Cities, full toilet and all.
It took a half a day to get from Houston, the original point of departure, to Minneapolis. More to the point, it took nine hours to go less than one hundred miles from Rochester to Minneapolis. In a very stinky plane. In spite of the largess of Continental, who issued each passenger a refund for the flight, a two hundred dollar travel voucher and a fifty dollar American Express Gift Card, I'm guessing there might be a few of those folks who would rather drive next time, since you can still roll down the windows in the family station wagon.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Get Your Money's Worth

The thing I like most about the "Cash For Clunkers" program is the tangible results. A boatload of cars have been sold and rebates paid to consumers who have been nudged back into the game by this chance to raise their personal miles per gallon. "Buy a car, get a check." It all makes such good sense.
Then there's those deals that don't quite compute. In 2004, the Central Intelligence Agency hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda. Several million dollars on the program, which did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects. This made CIA chief Leon Panetta nervous. These were "hired guns," sent out to clean up the Wild Middle East. Or not.
It's a little like giving Clint Eastwood the run of your town, then it turns out that he expects you to take care of the bad guys on your own. That would be "High Plains Drifter." But in the end of that one, "The Man With No Name" comes back in time to save the miserable citizens of Lago from the desperados threatening them. What did Blackwater do? They were hired to guard American diplomats in Iraq and were subsequently accused of using excessive force on several occasions, including shootings in Baghdad in 2007 in which seventeen civilians were killed. Okay, so maybe some of those seventeen were Al Qaeda, but apparently none of the "big names" that we might have hoped for. Other than that, Blackwater (now known as XE Services) has been busy counting their money.
To sum up: Several million dollars later and no bad guys killed. “Director Panetta thought this effort should be briefed to Congress, and he did so,” Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman said. “He also knew it hadn’t been successful, so he ended it.” This Monday, the Cash part of the Cash for Clunkers runs out. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the program has been "a lifeline to the automobile industry, jump starting a major sector of the economy and putting people back to work." As the Bard suggested, "All's well that ends well," and some things, well they just end.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star?

There are a couple of things I know for sure:
First of all, my younger brother dropped by last Sunday for a visit, and we spent a couple of hours playing various iterations of Guitar Hero. He sang and I played guitar. To his credit, he was actually singing, while I was flapping away in my cyber-pantomime way on my "guitar-controller." When we were done, we both felt as if we had been put through a wringer. We wondered aloud how anybody could do that for a living.
Second, I know that Billie Joe Armstrong is younger than I am, but he still managed to run and jump and sing and play a real guitar for more than two hours on Tuesday night. Part cheerleader, part ringmaster, part clown and all musician, he drove the Green Day show I saw in San Jose like he hoped the wheels might just pop off. I still don't know how he was able to keep up the pace and never miss a note or a cue. Maybe it's the ten years I've got on Billie Joe, but he made it look easy. He made the correct career choice.
Then there was the matter of the lights and pyrotechnics. I know that at some point it became fashionable to eschew the smudge pots and lasers to "focus on the music." I went to an Electric Light Orchestra show way back when, and I know that there was a time when stagecraft overwhelmed what was actually happening on stage. But there has to be a way to put on a show without getting all Spinal Tap about it. What if you could get the spaceship to land right where you wanted it and still hit that high note? I am here to tell you that, through the smoke and flames and flashing lights, Green Day delivered.
Tre Cool pounded maniacally, and Mike Dirnt disciplined his bass, while three other musicians kept the ball in the air as Mister Armstrong worked himself and the rest of us into a frenzy. It was a rock and roll show that threatened to blow the roof right off the Shark Tank. After all, as we were reminded early in the evening, we weren't there to watch hockey. We were there for the spectacle. And I'm still tired.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Know Your Rights - All Three Of Them"

"In Arizona, I still have some freedoms," said the man carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder just outside the convention center where President Barack Obama was giving a speech Monday. If you made it all the way to the end of that last sentence without some visceral reaction, we may have a bigger problem than I had originally imagined. The man, who was not arrested or identified was exercising his Second Amendment rights, abetted by the "open-carry" portion of Arizona's gun laws, which means anyone legally allowed to have a firearm can carry it in public as long as it's visible. That, I believe was the point: making it visible.
This was not a random loon, either. During Obama's health care town hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last week, a man carrying a sign reading "It is time to water the tree of liberty" stood outside with a pistol strapped to his leg. Not concealed, just strapped to his leg. You don't need a license to own a gun in New Hampshire, but you do need one to carry it in your vehicle. Walking around outside a large public gathering where the President Of The United States is speaking with a pistol strapped to your leg is simply a matter of making practical use of the Constitution.
And what about the Secret Service? Aren't they just a little bit nervous about all of this? Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said armed demonstrators in open-carry states such as Arizona and New Hampshire have little impact on security plans for the president. "In both cases, the subject was not entering our site or otherwise attempting to," Donovan said. "They were in a designated public viewing area. The main thing to know is that they would not have been allowed inside with a weapon."
They could, however, enter the site and shout "Fire," as they water the tree of liberty by promoting the First Amendment without carrying a weapon. Unless one considers free speech a weapon. Or perhaps we could simply stay at home and pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster to lessen the strife with his noodly appendages. At least he might help regulate our militia.
By the way, has anybody seen Squeaky Fromme since she got out of jail?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Revenge Of The PMRC

This is one of those moments where I feel that I may have lived long enough. Another time I had this feeling came when I found myself standing in the aisle of a grocery store listening to a Muzak version of the Clash's "Train in Vain." I might have been able to laugh it off it would have been "Lost In The Supermarket," but that wasn't the case. I was standing in the frozen food section listening to a song by "the only band that matters."
Then there was the first time I heard Led Zeppelin playing "Rock and Roll" behind a Cadillac commercial, and the intrinsic irony of any Pete Townshend song used to advertise anything, since the Who "Sold Out" way back in 1967. Bruce Springsteen is on the cover of AARP's magazine.
And yes, "The Boss" made a deal with the devil when he decided to distribute a greatest hits package exclusively through Wal-Mart. Always a conscientious friend of the working man, Mister Springsteen suggested that he may have "dropped the ball on it," but stopped short of pulling the album off their shelves. After all, it didn't bother the Eagles, Foreigner, or AC/DC. With all these kids buying their music on "the Internet" these days, Wal-Mart is one of the last brick and mortar chains with a place to sell CDs. You remember them, right?
If you remember them, you might also remember this: "Wal-Mart Stores, Sam's Club and (collectively "Wal-Mart") do not carry recordings designated with the Parental Advisory Label." Okay, so I can imagine that there is a lot of room for "Life In The Fast Lane" and "Hotel California" to squeak by, and even "Hot-Blooded" could probably make the cut, but "Whole Lotta Rosie?" Or "Big Balls?" There was a day, not too long ago, when groups were lining up to keep their music from being sold at Wal-Mart. Now it's just the opposite, and it forms behind none other than those shock-rock pioneers, KISS.
Starting on October 6, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club will offer up a CD of the band's first new music in eleven years, re-recorded versions of famous KISS hits and a live DVD. I wonder if the lyric subtlety of "Christine Sixteen" will be wasted on Wal-Mart shoppers. Maybe they won't notice with all that family-friendly fire-spitting and blood-vomiting. Wet cleanup on aisle nine!

Monday, August 17, 2009


This weekend I was watching previews before the movie I was anxiously awaiting: "District 9." I was anxious because I had read that this was a movie that might cause me to think, something that I haven't been encouraged to do much in theaters this summer. And judging from the trailers that I was seeing, I didn't expect to be challenged much this Fall either.
That's when my wife and I began creating our own version of the big-budget hot-weather action movie. It began, as most of these exercises do, with the title: "I Am The Boss Of You." From there, it was an easy hop to casting. Arnold Schwarzenegger will soon be looking for post-gubernatorial work, so why not make this his big comeback vehicle? We envisioned a teaser reel that would start with a battered and bloodied young hunk pulling himself back up to his feet for what must be the last time, sneering through clenched teeth, "You're not the boss of me." Cut to the looming figure of a heavily armed ex-governor of California. In his distinctive accent he growls, "You are mistaken. I am the boss of you." At the sound of the gun in his fist going off, we cut to a black screen, then red titles: "Arnold Schwarzenegger IS the boss of you. Summer 2010."
For those five minutes, I was filled with giddy certainty. It would be so easy to do. Pinch a little from "Terminator," a little from "War of the Worlds," and plenty of things that go boom. It's a proven formula. It would be so easy. Too easy. Like Megan Fox, who described her experience on "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" like this: "I'm in the movie, and I read the script, and I watched the movie, and I still didn't know what was happening." Megan is our target demographic. See you at the movies.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Discretionary Spending

It really is all about the Benjamins after all. And the Grants and Jacksons and Hamiltons and Lincolns and even the Washingtons. Especially the Washingtons. I was watching the first preseason game for my favorite professional football team the other night. The Denver Broncos were playing in San Francisco, and it had occurred to me at some point to buy a pair of tickets and go on out to the stadium at Candlestick Point with my son. These would be the tickets to an exhibition game. One that does not count. Just a chance to see professional football players doing their job up close and personal. Well, sort of close. The cheap seats run about sixty dollars. I tried to reconcile this by remembering the wad of cash that I have thrown at Bruce Springsteen tickets over the years.
Then it struck me: They don't show most of Bruce's concerts live on TV. And when Bruce plays, everybody wins. I would not have that guarantee with the Broncos and Forty-Niners. Right behind that came a wave of jealousy that reached a peak with this question: "How many of the people on that field are millionaires, in part, because of the money that I am willing to plunk down for the opportunity to watch them play a game?"
The simple answer was a lot. And I know that Bruce Springsteen is a millionaire because of the money that I have plunked down over the years to watch him sing and play guitar. And the rest of his band. But now the economy of the United States and that of my own household has caused me to make some hard choices. I won't give up watching football. It's too much of a vicarious thrill that I can't simply let it go, but I probably won't be paying for the "cheap seats." I will still probably find a way to rationalize spending ridiculous amounts of money on Springsteen tickets because I choose to.
I know this might make me a shallow person. Or a fair-weather fan. But I look at it this way: The Denver Broncos have won one playoff game in the past ten years. Last year Bruce played the Super Bowl.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Father And Son

I love my son. I think the world of him and I am eager to share in his many enthusiasms. I learned more than I care to admit about trains during the first few years of his life. I was clear on the distinction between a diesel and a steam locomotive. I even learned to call them "locomotives" or "power units." I built and dismantled miles of Brio wooden track, then HO gauge, followed by O. I contented myself with the notion that I was raising a future rail baron, or at least a docent at the California State Railroad Museum.
At the time, especially during those long hours of setting up track that would have to be dismantled after dinner, I wondered why my son wasn't more interested in cars. As the saying goes, I should be careful what I wish for. Starting with Matchbox and Hot Wheels, he quickly developed a passion for "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go." Now I'm listening for clues about headers and drifting and rims. He's a happy little gearhead, and I'm happy to talk cars with him as long as I get a turn to talk about football somewhere in there.
We share music tastes, though his runs a little harder and louder than mine. I was happy when he enjoyed watching "Capricorn One," especially the cool Mustang that Elliot Gould drives for about five minutes. There is some friction about the necessity of Jar Jar Binks, but we generally agree that watching a Star Wars movie is a good way to spend a couple of hours. I was proud and happy that he chose "Calvin and Hobbes" to be the gateway to his voracious reading habits. That led to Peanuts and The Far Side, and I was fine with that, since he was also reading chapter books as well. I didn't mind when he would recite favorite bits and strips from memory. It was a shared obsession. Then he started reading Garfield.
I am the boy's father, and I am making an effort, but I can't stand Garfield. I didn't think he was funny twenty-five years ago, and I don't think he's funny now. Cats that eat lasagna and abuse dogs need more discipline. That's my opinion. Not his. My son laughs until he snorts at the fat feline's hijinks. I try to appear interested, but my lack of enthusiasm is obvious.
Sometimes he leaves things lying around the house, and when it's a Garfield book I must steel myself from the temptation to simply "misplace it" further. I know that his love of cat comics puts him squarely in the range of normal for his demographic, but I had hoped to hop over this one.
Or maybe he's more clever than I give him credit. There was a guy who, while everyone else was adorning the doors of their dorm rooms with Doonesbury or Bizarro strips, insisted on taping his weekly favorite Nancy comic on his. He steadfastly maintained his sincere love for the antics of Nancy and her pal Sluggo, creating levels of irony that were, at times, excruciating. And maybe that's what my son is working on. Perhaps he's harvesting a bit of sarcasm. I can relate to that.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Guitar Hero: Expert

Duane Allman, Billie Joe Armstrong, Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, Dickey Betts, Marc Bolan, Lindsey Buckingham, Vivian Campbell, Charlie Daniels, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Dave DaviesAl Di Meola, Rick Derringer, Elliot Easton, David "The Edge" Evans, Don Felder, John Fogerty, Peter Frampton, Ace Frehley, Robert Fripp, John Frusciante, Noel Gallagher, Jerry Garcia, Billy Gibbons, David Gilmour, Stone Gossard, Peter Green , Kirk Hammett, George Harrison ,Jimi Hendrix, James Hetfield, James Honeyman-Scott, John Lee Hooker, Davey Johnstone Brian Jones, Mick Jones Steve Jones, Mark Knopfler Alex Lifeson, Kerry Livgren , Paul McCartney, John McLaughlin, Mike McCready, Bob Marley, Steve Miller, Rick Nielsen, Jimmy Page, Carl Perkins, Joe Perry, Keith Richards, Gary Richrath, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, Mick Ronson, Gary Rossington, Todd Rundgren, Carlos Santana, Joey Santiago, Joe Satriani, Boz Scaggs, Tom Scholz, Neal Schon, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Slash, Steve Stevens, Steve Stills, Joe Strummer, Mick Taylor, Johnny Thunders, Pat Travers, Pete Townshend, Joe Walsh, Muddy Waters, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Winter, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Frank Zappa.
If you have ever heard of any of these people, thank Les Paul. If you have ever heard any of their music, thank Les Paul. Come to think of it, even if you haven't heard of any of those people or their music, go ahead and thank Les Paul anyway.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fear Itself

If, like so many Americans who are regular Fox "Scared and Unbalanced" News watchers, you are afraid of the government's plan to institute a "Death Panel" who will decide the fate of your loved ones, you can rest easy. It turns out that is not a feature of the proposed health care reform. Even though such clever pundits as former Alaskan governor Quitty McQuitterson would like you to believe that the health care legislation bill promotes euthanasia, it's not true. Even if the person in question is incredibly ignorant.
And so it goes this summer. The days are growing shorter again right along with our attention spans. Upon closer inspection, a provision in the House bill written by Representative Earl Blumenauer from Oregon, would allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues. It's more a "living-will" kind of thing, not a "Soylent Green" kind of thing. The legislation would block funds for counseling that presents suicide or assisted suicide as an option.
So what is all this hollering about? The government already requires hospitals to ask adult patients if they have a living will, or "advance directive." If the patient doesn't have one, and wants one, the hospital has to provide assistance. This mandate on hospitals was instituted in 1992, under President George H.W. Bush, a well-known socialist. The National Right to Life Committee opposes the provision as written. "I'm not aware of 'death panels' in the bill," said David O'Steen, executive director of The National Right to Life Committee. "I'm not aware of anything that says you will be hauled before a government bureaucrat. But we are concerned. It doesn't take a lot to push a vulnerable person, perhaps unwittingly, to give up their right to life-sustaining treatment." Gee Dave, how do you expect to get on "Fox and Friends" with rational discussion like that?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Legend In Her Own Mind

At the tail end of what will be remembered as a restful summer vacation, I picked up a Newsweek magazine. I read through the editorials from the side of my son's Aikido class, and found one, by Howard Fineman, confounding. He felt compelled to respond to the "talk around Washington that Sarah Palin is the reincarnation of Richard Nixon." Mister Fineman wanted the world to know, paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen, that she is no Richard Nixon.
Several moments later, I collected my jaw from the floor and tried to imagine why publishing such an opinion was even necessary. The list of things that Sarah Palin is not is an expansive list, and the fact that she is not comparable to our thirty-seventh president is merely one stop along a lengthy enumeration of differences. For example, Sarah Palin, despite rumors to the contrary, is not a marsupial.
Why then spend any time discussing it? Perhaps the powers that be have determined that if you say any two words in close enough conjunction, humans will start drawing comparisons. That's how advertising works. Like if I were to point out that Governor Palin is a quitter, just like Richard Nixon. And just like Tricky Dick, she harbors a paranoid streak as wide as the Alaskan Tundra. I've got to be careful here, I might just convince myself.
But this truth remains: Richard Nixon spent decades in public service, building his credentials for good and bad. He fought communism from the pumpkin fields of Maryland to the jungles of southeast Asia. He chewed up political rivals and spit them out. He was a machine. He was also the first political figure I was able to demonize. He opened China. All of NASA's moon missions took place during his administration. Defense spending decreased as a percentage of the Gross National Product, while food aid and public assistance rose. Why did I hate him so?
It turns out that, in spite of his own assertion that he was not a crook, he really was. A big mean bully who could eat punks like Karl Rove for breakfast. Sarah Palin is none of those things, good or bad. She approved a bridge to nowhere and got herself into a little "abuse of power" trouble with Troopergate, and before things ever really got ugly, she resigned. Come to think of it, she does remind me of another celebrity: Ryan Leaf.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Distant Voyage

It's a good thing to get away sometimes. I am not, as a rule, spontaneous. My wife would like me to be more so. That is why, on the eve of her birthday, I agreed to handing our dog off to one of our good friends, throwing our kid and a change of clothes in the car heading north. We stopped when we reached Calistoga. It was a very nice place with warm mineral springs and mud baths. After lunch and some haggling, we found a hotel that would allow us a few extra dollars to buy dinner.
And there we stayed. For the night. After we spent some time immersing ourselves in the pool as a family, my son and I went out and gathered groceries while the birthday girl enjoyed the wonders that were across the parking lot in the spa. The two boys were just as happy to be wandering around the store looking for dinner as she was to be up to her neck in warm mud. By the time we finished our personal pizzas and Cesar salad, we still had an hour left before the pool closed. Diving in was like falling in to a bathtub the size of our living room. When I came up, the underwater lights had just come on, accentuating the contrast between air. I rolled over and floated on my back and became instantly aware of the night sky. It was different from the one I had left back at home.
The summer sky in the mountains of Colorado was impossibly full of stars. When I was a kid, I had trouble making out constellations because there were so many points of light. Now, decades later, I found myself in this little resort town, away from the big city lights, I had a similar sensation. Only this time, it wasn't just the number of stars. I was staring out into a vast black velvet painting of the sky. There was texture. There was depth. I imagined that I could perceive the distance between the arms of our spiral galaxy. I was sure that I could pick out which ones were blue, and which ones were red. I was floating somewhere in the cosmos.
Then it was time to dry off and go inside for ice cream. Sometimes it's good to get away.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What's Your Sign?

I'm not a huge fan of Astrology. Maybe it's because I'm "on the cusp," born between two signs, feelin' like a fool. I'm never sure which I should read: Cancer or Gemini, so I usually don't read either. It's much easier that way, since we have yet to create words to describe just how skeptical I am of such things. Here's an example: "Your challenges are causing some frustration in the lives of your loved ones today." It's about three words longer and just about as meaningful as a fortune cookie. Just a click away, another trusted Internet astrologist told me "Don't waste precious energy trying to hide. Deal with any embarrassment you might be feeling about being the center of attention and graciously accept all positive vibrations that now come your way." This one is much more comprehensive, but don't know if it captures any more of my daily essence than the first.
Does this "science" that lumps Mother Theresa and Macaulay Culkin in the same cosmic vat of coincidence really make any sense at all? Well, friends and neighbors, I can only tell you this: Two of my closest friends were born on precisely the same day forty-five years ago today. Perhaps this speaks to the compatibility of Gemini/Cancer cusps and those proud Leo natives. Since we all know "Leos are friendly, warm-hearted and extroverted, with a talent for leadership, a tendency toward self-indulgence and a high level of generosity." Who wouldn't want to be pals with them? Maybe I would and maybe I wouldn't, depending on which way the arrow points on my side. So much to consider!
I can imagine Jean-Paul Sartre hanging out with Antonio Banderas in a very astrologically compatible way. Actually, when I attempt to calculate the chances of my having two people who are this close to me born on the same day, I always come up with the same answer: One hundred percent.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

What's That Lassie? There's A Fire In The Barn?

On his most recent visit to the Bay Area, my wife's youngest brother was confessing that "even though he's not a cat person," he has come to love the two felines with whom he currently shares his apartment. This was in spite of comments like "they're a lot like furniture," and "they watch more TV than I do." And so I felt another soul slip quietly away into the cat-trap.
Meanwhile, a recent study tells us that even the average dog has the mental abilities of a two-year-old child. Based on a language development test, findings show that average dogs can learn one hundred and sixty-five words, including signals and gestures, and dogs in the top twenty percent in intelligence can learn two hundred and fifty words. The most obvious way to expand your dog's vocabulary, by the way, is to use synonyms. Our dog knows more than thirty different words for "walk." She has a much better sense of time than we do, probably because she is so meal-driven, but I appreciate her feel for routine.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that dogs are just so darn eager to please. Learning comes easy when you're being obsequious. Stanley Coren, a canine expert and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, suggests that what we once believed was guilt was really just fear. "The social life of dogs is much more complex, much more like human teenagers at that stage, interested in who is moving up in the pack and who is sleeping with who and that sort of thing." And they do that without guilt? Sounds pretty advanced to me.
No, I have still not met a cat that I wanted to settle down with, even though I've been told by countless friends, "Oh I know, but my cat is different." I have, by contrast, had a great many lasting relationships with dogs. Curiosity may kill cats, but it just makes dogs stronger.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Life In The Fast Lane

In the summer of 1978, I was returning home from my weekly music lesson. My brass sousaphone was neatly stacked in the rear of my copper-colored Chevrolet Vega hatchback. It was Saturday morning and the rest of my weekend stretched out in front of me. The plodding low brass tunes that I had been playing just a few minutes earlier were being replaced by those pouring out of my cassette player.
As I rode to the crest of one of the few streets in Boulder with four lanes, I heard the unmistakable drum, bass and harmony intro to Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." It shouldn't have come as any surprise, since I had made the tape for the specific purpose of playing it in my car. Loud. As I came over the hill, I saw in the light ahead of me turn to green, and even though the street narrowed to just two lanes, I dropped the pedal to the metal and accelerated into the intersection. I was sixteen and the world was full of rock and roll possibilities.
That would include the police car that I failed to notice sitting in the Seven-Eleven parking lot. As I roared past, I was made instantly aware of its presence: lights, sirens and all. I was pulled over one block past the light. I turned off the car, ejected the tape, and began fishing in my glove compartment for my registration. I was sixteen and getting my first speeding ticket.
It wasn't the only ticket I got when I was sixteen, but it was the first. And I have always blamed Aerosmith. When I heard that Steven Tyler had fallen from the stage at a show in South Dakota Wednesday night, the first thing that I thought was, "Wow, how old is that guy?" He's sixty-one. I'm forty-seven. Since that summer afternoon, I have been cited for a number of different moving violations. Most of them came in those early years of proto-driving, resulting in the suspension of my license at the beginning of my senior year in high school. Steven has been in and out of rehab, raised a beautiful elfin daughter, and managed to keep his band and his career alive through thirty-plus summers. There was no word of any summons issued for Mister Tyler's stage mishap.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Character Building

"Could you describe the ruckus?" - Anthony Michael Hall in "The Breakfast Club"
The word "iconic" is being thrown around a lot in the wake of John Huhges' death. I'm not exactly certain what they mean. Does that mean the man himself was iconic? More likely they mean the characters that he created. The ruckus you are hearing is America coming to terms with their relationship to the work of the eighties auteur.
For myself, I openly admit to having a love/hate relationship with the guy. I loved "Sixteen Candles." It was a staple at the video store I worked at, and there is very little of the dialogue that isn't committed to memory by me and the rest of the staff. I have a special affinity for "Weird Science," partly because it featured a theme song by Oingo Boingo and mostly because my older brother and I snuck into a showing just after seeing a free preview of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." It was a mind-bending orgy of mid-eighties entertainment. Later we went out and chugged some nachos.
The hate part is pretty straightforward too. While I was watching "Breakfast Club," I felt connected to these teen angst archetypes, but when I walked out of the theatre, I felt completely manipulated. It made me suspicious of all of John Hughes' movies after that. The need to tie everything up in a nice package at the end. It made me appreciate movies like "Last American Virgin," with its complex and bitter denouement. In my twenties, I began to resent this man for painting a picture of adolescence that was prettier than my own. And speaking of "pretty," when I heard that he changed the ending of "Pretty in Pink" because test audiences wanted Molly Ringwald to end up with Prince Andrew McCarthy instead of Jon Cryer's Duckie, the scales fell from my eyes. When I was dragged to "Some Kind of Wonderful" by some girls who were "just good friends" instead of going to a club to see Cheap Trick, I was done.
That didn't mean that I was done watching John Hughes films. I worked in a video store. There was no escape in the 1980's. And I confess that I never got over that initial love. The one that started with his short story for National Lampoon: "Vacation '58." In it, he told the story of every road trip my family ever took in our family's station wagon. When the film was made, many of the sad and scary elements remained, and Chevy Chase made his last, great contribution to film with his portrayal of patriarch Clark Griswold. Clark was my father. Maybe he was everybody's father. Now my John and my dad can talk it over on long, winding trips across the desert southwest in a metallic-pea "Wagon Queen Family Truckster."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A New Hope

"When we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton," Laura Ling said to the applause of those who greeted her at the Burbank Airport. "We were shocked but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end, and now we stand here, home and free."
I want to believe that when Barack Obama asked Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State that he knew he'd be getting a "package deal." For those of us who were Bill fans, this was a nice piece of happy news. It would be short-sighted to suggest that he brought about the release of journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling all by himself, but its hard not to imagine that scenario. I picture Bill striding into the conference room, meeting Kim Jong Il's gaze with quiet assurance. "These two American reporters were not the spies you are looking for," he says with a small wave of his hand.
Kim's eyes glaze over slightly as he repeats, "These two American reporters are not the spies I am looking for."
"You will pardon them and release them immediately."
"I will pardon them and release them immediately."
Such is the way of the Jedi. I am sure that the Conservative Sith Lords snapped the necks of more than a few gray-tuniced subordinates as they watched Obi-Bill step off the plane and was greeted by his young padawan, Anakin Gore. And somewhere Princess Hillary was no doubt feeling the pull of the Dark Side. Barack Obama, in this particular scenario, would be Han Solo.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I Can't Bear Arms

The sign stapled to the telephone pole in front of my house said:
"Dear People with guns,
Please stop shooting people. It scares my family & makes us sad.
An Oakland Citizen"
It was printed on what appeared to be loose leaf notebook paper, and the font gave the impression of a very big typewriter. I noticed that they had been stuck to a number of other poles up and down our street, so it wasn't directed simply at my neighborhood. The bottom of the page told me who was responsible: Challenges of Champions, a local arts group that focus on the effects of homicide on Oakland's residents. It made me think of the three murders that have occurred in the past year within a quarter mile of my house. It made me sad.
When I opened up the local news page on my computer, the headline that caught my attention immediately was "Indiscriminate gunfire on the rise in Richmond." I don't live in Richmond. It's just up the road from Oakland. Ten people were killed in July up in Richmond. Many of them were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm guessing that anytime or anyplace that puts you in front of a bullet is the wrong place at the wrong time. It makes me sad.
Chris Rock once said, "Gun control? We need bullet control! I think every bullet should cost five thousand dollars. Because if a bullet cost five thousand dollars, we wouldn't have any innocent bystanders." And I still feel sad.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Priced To Move

I understand the government's love affair with acronyms, or GLAWA. It is as profound as it is insincere. Routinely, as a veteran teacher, I feel compelled to translate the TLA's (three letter acronyms) that seem to randomly generate in all corners of my profession for those who are new to the game. It's a form of shorthand that keeps people on the outside from knowing too much about what is going on the inside of the system that should be working for them.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the folks in Washington D.C. (District of Columbia) came up with CARS. The Car Allowance Rebate System is pretty self-explanatory. This is the one that gives new car buyers between three and four thousand dollars for their old car when they buy a new one. I would love to take credit for this idea, as I was busy ranting here on this blog at one point about what we should be spending our tax dollars on instead of the Iraq War. I suggested a program for subsidizing hybrid cars for low-income families, since they were the ones who would most likely be the ones who needed both reliable transportation and were probably driving some gas-guzzling, carbon monoxide-spewing beast on its last legs. Getting those Novas and Monte Carlos off the road, "clunkers" if you will, save money in the long run while saving the planet at the same time.
Thank goodness someone with a clear head, some car salesman no doubt, rechristened CARS "Cash For Clunkers." Whether the air is any easier to breathe or not, the other immediate consequence of the program was Ford reporting its first U.S. sales increase in nearly two years. It kind of makes me wonder if this plan, properly managed and introduced might have saved a few billion dollars in auto-maker bailout funds. Still, nothing golden stays, and who knows how long the government will be willing to provide cash incentives to car buyers. Eventually, as technology continues and electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars prepare to take the place of those gas-guzzling hybrids, the government may need a whole new program: Cash Replacing Aging Prius (you figure it out).

Monday, August 03, 2009


A long time ago, many years before I fully understood distances and their relation to time, I accepted my older brother's invitation to go with him on a hike to try and find the wallet that he had dropped somewhere along a motorcycle trek that he and his friend had undertaken the day before. At some point during the conversation, the words "seven miles" were spoken. As I mentioned before, this didn't mean much to me.
By the time I had finished this lengthy walk in God's country, I had a more full and complete understanding of how many steps that was, especially on my little pre-teen feet. My older brother was a Boy Scout, and he had a sense, I believe of what we were trying to do. Never mind that the wallet might have been a pine needle in the forest we were wandering through. He had made the trip the day before on two wheels. All we had to do was retrace those tire tracks and we were certain to find something.
We packed up our Army Surplus packs in the morning: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, a bag of cookies, and a canteen of water for each of us. My mother and younger brother watched us stride purposely off down the driveway of our cabin that morning, with no real sense of when we might see one another again.
For the rest of the day, I followed my brother over hill and over dale. Down dirt roads and dusty trails. When we finally reached the end of Gross Reservoir, we understood that we had only gone half way. The chirpy energy that I left with was gone as we ate our lunch. There was no wallet, and there was a return trip home. When we packed up our trash and started to walk again, my pack somehow felt heavier now that it was empty. I became aware of every little blister and scrape that I had managed to ignore up until noon.
I was surprised how familiar everything looked going back the other way, but it didn't make me resent it any less. The sun was high and our canteens were becoming empty. By the time we finally dragged ourselves back up on our front porch, most of a day had passed. There wasn't much of a story to tell at dinner that night, and when we went upstairs to bed it was only a matter of moments before we dropped off to sleep.
That was the first time I learned what seven miles feels like. Years later, when my father asked me if I wanted to run with him in a ten-kilometer race, I asked him how far that was "really." He told me it was six point two miles. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I figured that I once hiked fourteen, how hard could that be? Funny how time can change your perspective on distance.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

This Bud's For You

We're almost through here. The "Beer Summit" has come and gone and has been widely viewed as a guarded success. Professor Gates, Sergeant James Crowley, and our President drained their frosty mugs and agreed there was still a long way to go before we could all really get along. And then there was Joe Biden. What was he doing there? Widely known as a non-drinker, in his words, “Too many alcoholics in my family,” there he was on the patio outside the White House tipping a cold one. Who was "acting stupidly" now?
No worries. Joe had a Buckler, a non-alcoholic brew from Heineken. I understand Joe's plight. He wants to fit in, but he's got this issue about intoxicating beverages. That's what the friendly folks at Heineken want us to know: it's "for the enjoyment of those individuals who want to experience the taste of a fine beer without alcohol." Okay, fair enough, but when you're hot and thirsty and staring down the first big racial divide of your new administration, do you really want to savor the taste of something that tastes a little like a Heineken?
I faced that same dilemma when I had only recently retired from professional drinking and went with my buddy who had also just hopped on the wagon to see a Jimmy Buffett show. We drank a lot of ice-cold blenderized concoctions without the alcohol and found them all to be very expensive alternatives to Slurpees. So we slid on down the menu and found the non-alcoholic beers. We tried the Coors version: Cutter. We tried Kaliber, from Guiness. That was better, because it tasted like good beer. The problem was that when we used to drink beer, we tended to drink stuff that tasted more like Coors. Or worse. Truth is, we weren't drinking beer for the taste back then. We were drinking beer for the alcohol content. By the third or fourth one, we didn't notice how it tasted. Take the alcohol out, and you're left with that fermented hops taste that is exactly what you're looking for right after you've finished mowing the lawn.
And maybe that's what was going on out there at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last Thursday. As a nation, we were grabbing a cold one after working for the past forty years, three hundred years, to improve race relations. We know that, metaphorically speaking, the grass in our back yard will still need to be mowed next week, if you're black or white, or even if you drink Buckler.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


the circumstantial coincidence

of two arms swinging

side by side

feet falling neatly into stride

like in the old days

without thought

it's been going on for years

without any help

no worries

and maybe one of those arms

might brush the other

touch lightly

no one has to look or ask

it just happens

like never

like always

the fingers of the hands dance

and find one another

then it's done

you are walking hand in hand

hearts beat faster

smiles appear

the happiest place on earth