Monday, November 30, 2009

Course Record

Knowing that there was an end to the mindless churning of arms and legs helped. At each point that despair began to creep maliciously into my mind, I looked down the road for the next mile marker. The first one didn't make a difference. I was feeling fine and ready to run all day. The sun was out, and I was running in a T-shirt and shorts. My foul weather gear had been left behind with our thermos, snack bars, and sundry items for comfort or relief.
Part of our family post-Thanksgiving ritual. Get the lights up. Watch a lot of football. Run ten kilometers. This is how I consoled myself as I looked for mile two and three. Who was I trying to impress? I run all the time without all this organization. I don't need kids in orange vests waving flags at me to show me the way. I could just keep running straight off this course if I wanted to. If I wanted to. I could slow down and walk if I wanted to. I was going to see my wife and son on their way back from their five kilometer course. It would look bad for me to be walking. It would look bad if I just stopped.
Where was that mile three marker?
Then the community of runners took over. The mile markers didn't matter. I was out there with my pace group. This was the "about an hour" crew. We were having our Sunday stroll in and around the park. I wouldn't stop if I was past the half-way point. Three point one miles would put me over that edge. I shook it off and focused on the road in front of me.
I thought about the guy I used to work with installing office furniture. "You're a runner?" he asked me with a little too much surprise. "How fast do you run?"
I told him I wasn't exactly sure, since I really only timed myself when I ran my yearly race.
"Don't you want to know?" He couldn't imagine my lack of interest.
I told him that ever since my knee surgery, now some twenty years in the past, the idea of running at any pace for more than three miles seemed like the goal I was most concerned. The cloud that was this memory burst and I moved on, past the sign for mile four. Running the whole way. Slow and steady wins the race. That's what I tell the kids at school when we practice our mile run.
Now I was two-thirds there. I listened hard to the music that was in my ears, shutting out the protestations of my muscled and ligaments. I was enjoying the feeling of being able to run six miles. Ten kilometers. An hour. At mile five, I was going up a hill, and I passed a few who had slipped that gear. They would find it coming down on the other side, but I wanted to be up and over that last rise.
I didn't time my last big kick well, and the last hundred yards to the finish line were done under duress, but they were done. My wife and son were there to greet me. They gave me a bottle of water. They asked me how I did, and I looked back at the clock. "About an hour." I panted, "but I ran the whole way."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Car Care

I looked at my wife, and I thought she might cry. She had traveled miles and waited for nearly a year to see what was in front of her. It was the Nissan Leaf. For a woman who has championed her own "homemade hybrid," a way to limit her own idling time while stuck in traffic and who hopes someday to be able to power her own motor vehicle from the energy she collects via the solar panels on her roof, this was a slice of heaven. "It doesn't have a tailpipe!" she enthused as tears welled in her eyes.
We were at the Fifty-Second Annual International Car Show. We were there, ostensibly, to placate my son's deep-seated automobile urges. We came to see the Porsches and the Maseratis. We took pictures of the Camaros and the Corvettes. It was all about the fetishment of four wheels. My wife, who was born in Detroit, understands her son and was able to wrangle an opportunity for my son to sit inside a half-million dollar Lamborghini. That was his tearful moment. I tried to imagine meeting Bruce Springsteen, and I had something to compare it to. Surrounded by all that Italian machinery, he was a new car smell's breath away from paradise. I watched my wife struggle with the worries of a planet being slowly destroyed by the continued use of fossil fuels versus the love for her son. Seven miles a gallon?
But when it was all said and done, there was enough hybrid and hydrogen technology on display to temper the experience. I watched all of this with an odd sense of detachment. Both my son and wife have asked me what my favorite car was. I have an affection for all the cars that I have driven into the used car lot on their last legs just to trade them in for my next used car. Favorite? That level of appreciation doesn't register with me. I look at these four-wheeled vehicles as less-than-inspired variations on a theme. The emotional attachments I could imagine could only be culled from fantasy: The Batmobile, James Bond's Aston Martin, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I understand how potentially amusing a sports car that can go one hundred and eighty-five miles an hour could be. I appreciate the way that driving cars without tailpipes would make our planet more inhabitable. Then I notice how I am walking around the Car Show. On my own two feet. And when we were done, we went back to the BART station to take public transportation back home.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

He'll Be Back (Taxes)

I knew a guy who, whenever tax time came around and he was forced to write a check to his government for services nominally rendered, he would make a point of writing in the memo line: "To The (expletive) IRS." It wasn't much of a protest, but it made him feel better. I don't have a great deal of empathy for his experience, since I tend to imagine that we as a society get the government that we deserve, and paying for it is just part of the program.
Then there's this: Our Governator is apparently just a little behind on his taxes. When I say "little," it's a matter of perspective. For action-movie-megastar cum Republican-voice-of-moderation and millionaire several times over, a mere pittance. To me, a public school teacher in the state where Arnold is in charge of a swelling budget deficit, seventy-nine thousand dollars feels like a couple years' work. The IRS filed a federal tax lien against the governor last spring. Schwarzenegger's office blames on "a minor paperwork tracking discrepancy." Like maybe he "forgot" to send that check in. Or maybe he forgot to deduct those trips to the gym as medical expenses. Perhaps he's just not that good at math. That seems more likely, since California's deficit will balloon to nearly twenty-one billion dollars over the next year and a half. Again, with place value problems like that, tens of thousand of dollars seem like mere annoyances. Paperwork problems. He probably forgot to get a W-2 from Jim Cameron for "Terminator 3" or something. He's busy keeping the Golden State safe for democracy and freedom.
And the tyranny of the taxman. That's right Arnie! Stick it to the man, even if it turns out that you happen to be that man. Or relentless cyborg from the future.

Friday, November 27, 2009


The pitch would go something like this: "America's Favorite Terrorists. Each week, we see how close one lucky couple can get to bringing about armed insurrection and rioting in the streets." It sounds a lot like something from Paddy Chayevsky's "Network," with the"Ecumenical Liberation Army" working for a thirty share as they plot their next assassination on LIVE TV!
Michaele and Tareq Salahi are not, in the strictest sense, terrorists. These two are the ones who gained access to the dinner President Barack Obama hosted for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday, although they had not been invited. Aside from this being extremely bad manners, it is also prompting a security review by the Secret Service, which acknowledged that procedures were not followed properly. Did I mention that they were being followed earlier in the evening by a camera crew? Apparently these two Virginia socialites decided that pretending that their child was lost in a foil balloon would be too easy to dismiss. Why not crash a state dinner? They told the people with the cameras, Half Yard Productions, that they were invited. It's not the Salahis fault that nobody thought to check their credentials or to see if they were actually on the guest list.
Or if they were, in fact, terrorists bent on the destruction of our American Way Of Life. What if they had been focused on black ops, instead of creating a flurry of photo ops? What if they had smuggled poison into the crudite? Held a broken bottle to the neck of the Vice President? What if they bragged about it on Facebook?
Well, they did do that last one. And in the end, that's what they will be found guilty: Lack of humility. Turn off the cameras boys. Show's over. For now.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful For The Way Things Turned Out

There are times when it's really difficult to be politically correct. Thanksgiving is one of those times. We sit around and wallow in our ample good fortune, even as we share with those with less. Much less. We're celebrating the harvest feast the Plymouth colonists shared with the Wampanoag tribe. It was more than just bringing in a good crop, the Pilgrims were fabulously relieved to have survived to see the spread before them. The one we call the "First" was just the one that got the most press. Squanto, the Native American interpreter who learned his English while he was enslaved in Europe, also taught the colonists to catch eels and grow corn. I'm thankful that eel didn't have the staying power of a stuffed turkey. It was in the spirit of cooperation and understanding that brought everyone to the table back in 1621.
In 1610, there were Wampanoag. When the harvest rolled around sixty-seven years later, four hundred were left. So much for the spirit of cooperation and understanding. Four hundred years later, that number has crept up to just a touch over two thousand. And now the tribe would very much like to build a casino near Cape Cod. The current deal doesn't allow for the first bet to be placed until 2012. If that other nearly extinct tribe of Mayans can be trusted, that won't give the gambling public much of a shot at getting lucky. Well, at least they'll get a chance to check out the buffet. Try the eel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Potential Energy

Before I went off on my vacation, a number of my fellow teachers asked if I had any "big plans." "No," I assured them, "I'm going to stay close to home. Lay low." Now, three days into my week off, I wonder how I could actually accomplish this.
While it is true that I found the time to finish the entire medium level of "Guitar Hero: Van Halen," I don't know if I have been laying especially low. I have yet to sleep much past seven in the morning, partly due to the insistence of my dog, and mostly due to the extraordinarily rigid circadian rhythm that rules my sleeping and waking worlds.
If I slept in, I might have missed the morning news. Or I might not have been able to wash and dry two loads of laundry. I might not have been able to scrub the bathtub clean. I could have missed out on a run before noon. There were trips to the store, and groceries to put away. And there was my everlasting Albatross of a front gate to contend with. None of these things, including the added task of moving into my new computer, could have been accomplished without the "free time" I was allowed during these past few days.
A few years ago, conventional wisdom suggested that our school district could save money by giving us all a week off, rather than teaching to near-empty classrooms for the three days preceding Thanksgiving. Now I find myself in a mild panic, wondering how to fill those hours that would normally be spent in the service of others. How to be useful and relax at the same time, I wonder. The problem is that I don't tend to find that lethargic rhythm until I've been "resting" for at least two weeks, and by then it's time to pick up my shovel and helmet and head back to the mines.
Happily, the next few days bristle with opportunities such as pie-making and Christmas light installation. By next Monday, I should be ready for the relative peace of the classroom. Now there's a relaxing notion.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Clear Day

Raise your hand if you remember Three Mile Island. Residents of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania excluded. Extra points if you can name the movie that was release just two weeks prior to that little snafu. Special bonus if you can name any of the artists that performed at the anti-nuke concert just a few months later. Back in 1979, it was the next big threat. We weren't worried about terrorists as much as the nuclear power plant up the road melting down.
So imagine my surprise when I open up the news and find that radioactive dust emanated from reactor cooling system pipes. This accident is still waiting to happen? Didn't they have to shut the whole thing down thirty years ago when things went so terribly wrong? In a word, no. In a few more: The central Pennsylvania plant has two reactors. One suffered a partial meltdown in 1979 and is mothballed. The other is still in use, but has been shut down since last month so steam generators could be replaced.
The radioactive dust was stirred up from a steam pipe that was cut by workers at the plant. Plant spokesman Ralph DeSantis said Monday that the public was not endangered Saturday. Unless you count those dozen workers were exposed to radiation as "the public." And while we're at it, just what does it mean to "mothball" a nuclear reactor? We turned it off and nobody every goes over there, except to get snacks out of the vending machine. It's the one that still has Clark bars in it.
But really, I would be so very happy if there was such a thing as safe nuclear energy, but history doesn't necessarily point in that direction. I liken it to the line that I tend to draw when it comes to home improvement projects. I am willing to do most plumbing tasks, and if I mess it up, I might end up getting wet. I shy away from electrical challenges, since making a mistake there I could end up getting dead. And that's the way I feel about nuclear "accidents." Accidents are generally in the "whoops" category. Chain reactions and Strontium-90 exceed the casual whoops. These incidents tend to fall into the "disaster" file. Unless you happen to work for Mister Burns in Springfield.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Moving Pictures

When I was about ten years old, I was listening to the Beatles' song "Hello, Goodbye" on a jukebox in an Italian restaurant. As was my custom in my youth, I took a pen and started drawing on the extra napkins at our table as my parents finished their after-dinner cocktail. In my mind I was constructing an animated film to accompany the song. Heavily influenced by the "All You Need Is Love" sequence in "Yellow Submarine," I was keenly distracted as my mother sipped her Creme de Menthe and my father polished off his Wild Turkey. I dozed a little in the back seat on the way home, and in my dreams my little movie came alive.
That moment stayed with me for years, but the film never got made. The fundamentals of animation were impressed on me at an early age, and my patience and temperament were not suited for such a tedious process. I made a few feeble attempts. I drew a dozen separate drawings for a short about a cat chasing a mouse, then snapped off a few feet of film. When I saw the result, it took me another ten years to try it again.
In college, I took a film making class, and one of the assignments was a stop-motion piece. I used clay, and spent the better part of a day shooting a very arty thing about a sphere trying to seduce a cube. Or something like that. It was very clever, and it was in black and white. I got a "B."
Years flew by. Last night I watched "The Phantom Tollbooth" with my family. The last time I had seen it was around the same time I was experimenting with my dad's Super-8 movie camera. It was Chuck Jones. My memory of the film was far better than what I saw on the screen. In my mind, it was tied much closer to the illustrations by Jules Pfeiffer. Instead, I felt duty-bound to sit still for the whole thing while my son did the same. The story held up under the weight of some obvious budget shortfalls and some unnecessary songs, but in the end, it became clear why MGM never became an animation powerhouse.
Then again, neither did I.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Moving Day

A lifetime ago, my son's to be exact, we moved into this house. It was after months of searching and deciding and hours of paperwork and eventual heavy lifting, but we were finally in our own home after years of living in a one bedroom apartment. The baby was coming any day, and we were, at last, safely ensconced in the nest that my wife and I had so happily landed. As we lay there in bed that first night, sleep did not come quickly. With the whole rest of this great big house above and below us, my wife whispered into the dark: "Can we go home now?"
That's how I am feeling now as I sit in front of my brand new computer. More to the point, my brand new CPU. As I stood in front of the myriad of options at the great big electronics store, I tried to talk myself out of making a major purchase. I rationalized it. I agonized over it. I went into denial, and before I could remember the rest of the stages, I called my wife to come and meet me. Where the two of us agonized over many of the same points that I had been mulling on my own.
What does it mean that "upgrading" is something that I now feel that I must do? I have nursed my "old" machine for the past seven years with love and care, who's to say that I couldn't make it last another six or eight? Then it got easier when I realized that I could keep the old machine in the family. My son could move into it, and I could go and visit it whenever I wanted. It will be just down the hall.
But it's not the same. The keyboard is light and airy, without the rattle of crumbs and dirt that I have become accustomed to. All that speed that I had heard about on our new Internet provider was now visible in front of me, and applications opened without me having to step out to the kitchen for a snack. And best of all, there was a brand new terabyte of space for me to put whatever I cared to into it. Big, empty space.
Can I go home now?

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Oh wow man. It was groovy. It was outta sight. They really stuck it to the man, just like in the olden days. Forty-one demonstrators were finally removed from Wheeler Hall on the University of California campus after nearly twelve hours occupying a large chunk of the second floor. They barricaded themselves in as supporters gathered outside. The group of "mostly students" were protesting a thirty-two percent increase in student fees and job and program cuts. They demanded that laid-off custodial workers be rehired and amnesty for anyone arrested in the protest.
And I'm still hung up on that "mostly students" thing. Who else would be involved? Maybe some of the laid-off custodial workers? Perhaps some disgruntled parents, irate at the hike in tuition? How about misanthropic anarchists looking for a fresh wave of discontent on which to surf? No matter. It was all over before the late news. Plenty of video was taken and the great pot of nostalgia was stirred. The Free Speech Movement is not dead, and now it has its own Twitter feed.
This is how grumpy and jaded I have become. Instead of imagining a way to find my way up to Berkeley to be a part of that scene, I wish that they would all go home and make logical connections between fee hikes, a state and federal government being swallowed up by deficit, health care, and a world at war. Think about it like students. Find a cause and find a cure.
By contrast, everyone in my school district was asked by our new superintendent to unplug everything electrical before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. Not just turned off. Unplugged. It is our way of staving off the millions of dollars of budget cuts headed down the track next year. It's a team-building exercise. So I crawled under all the tables in my computer lab and unplugged the twenty-four CPUs and twenty-four monitor and assorted peripherals to do my part in making our school more green and put us back in the black.
And I can't help thinking that occupying a classroom in the English department is on a par with unplugging all those computers and pencil sharpeners. "This is what democracy looks like," was the chant heard outside Wheeler Hall. Since I know that I've got to go back to work a little early in a week to plug everything back in, and all those students who missed class on the Friday before Thanksgiving will have to make up those missed exams, I guess I wish democracy was a little more intimidating. It's like those guys at Faber College once said:
"I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."
"We're just the guys to do it."

Friday, November 20, 2009

How Do You Sleep At Night?

There I was, forty years ago, calling in requests to KIMN radio at my brother's behest for "Yellow Submarine," when I heard the news. Oh boy. Paul was dead. The round-faced guy who wrote all the songs was dead. How could this be? From where I was sitting, the Beatles ruled the world. The king of the world was dead.
How could we be sure? Well, he was the only one barefoot on the cover of "Abbey Road." Paul is the only one turned around on the back cover of "Sergeant Pepper," and his jacket has a patch on it that reads "O.P.D.": Officially Pronounced Dead. And this was just the album covers. Inside, things got even more bizarre. "Blackbird" had the backward message "Paul is dead now, miss him, miss him." Or something that sounded like that. At the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever," I am sure that I could hear "I buried Paul." Pretty sure.
And there was more. Much, much more. My older brother must have trashed a dozen needles playing records backward, forward fast, slow, and in-between. "Can you hear that?" he would ask me. If he told me I was listening to the fiery wreck that was the end of Paul McCartney, then that was what I was listening to. I sat in my brother's basement bedroom, with all the lights out, the experimental sounds of "Revolution #9" creeping out of the speakers. Creeping me out. Deeply.
F. Lee Bailey was fooled for a minute. When he asked the "expert witness," University of Michigan student Fred LaBour, if any of this sordid tale was true, he was told that it was a complete fabrication. Since they still had an hour-long TV special to fill, they decided to go ahead with the hoax.
And nobody decided to tell me. Or my older brother. We went on for months afterward, searching for clues that would explain how all this terribleness could have occurred. Two years later, when I heard "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" from Paul's second solo album, I heard the line "we haven't done a bloody thing all day," and was convinced that we were still receiving communiques from beyond the grave. I was nine. I was certain that something fishy was going on, and somebody needed to be held accountable. By this point, my older brother had moved on. There was no mystery. There was no conspiracy. My brother eventually gave me his old Beatles albums as he replaced the worn and scratched Apple labels with crisp new Capitol vinyl. I inherited history, treasure. But I never listened to them backward. In the dark.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


First of all, nobody asked me to vote. Secondly, no one nominated me, either. That's why it is no shock to me that Johnny Depp was named this year's "Sexiest Man Alive." Leaving aside, for the moment, all further discussions of the polling process, there is still a matter of that modifier: Alive. Just how would Mister Depp stack up against a phalanx of dead male celebrities? Keeping in mind that Johnny has been awarded this somewhat dubious distinction twice, the first time six years ago, one wonders just how many more he might have in store before his sexiness begins to ebb.
George Clooney and his "Ocean's 11" pal Brad Pitt have been honored by People magazine twice for their live sexiness. All three of these guys have made a point throughout their careers of not trading on their looks: Pitt in "Twelve Monkeys," Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and Depp in just about anything aside from "Chocolat." So what is sexy, man-wise? Pirates? Psychos? Chocolate Manufacturers? Movie-star good looks are a nice start, but a willingness to wear a funny set of dentures couldn't hurt.
Still, I find myself returning to the initial question: Who is voting for this stuff? The staff at People magazine seem to be uniquely qualified to make these kind of discernments. The most, the best, the worst, the year in review. Is there no epitome upon which these scions of journalism are unable to pontificate? Then I am reminded of the description Jeff Goldblum's character gives in "The Big Chill" of the journalistic integrity of People magazine. He suggests that every article needs to be just about as long as it takes one to make a trip to the loo. Come to think of it, that's pretty sexy too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Photo Op

It pains me to admit that, in this particular case, she has a point. And it's not on the top of her head. Sarah Palin has declared that Newsweek's cover, featuring her with elbows akimbo in her running shorts is "sexist." Especially in light of the fact that the picture was taken for the August issue of "Runner's World." In this context, the apparel and the pose still land just this side of cheesecake, but it's about physical fitness. That article was entitled "I'm A Runner," while the Newsweek article blares: "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sarah? She's Bad News For The GOP - And Everybody Else Too." The whole package may be just a little subtle for the average reader, don't you think?
And speaking of thinking, here's what Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham had to say in his defense: "We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do. We apply the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female: does the image convey what we are saying? That is a gender-neutral standard." How does Sarah Palin in her running togs equate with "A Problem Like Sarah?" I may be missing the point, but it does seem to me that next week we should be treated to a shirtless Barack Obama wading back to the beach with the headline: "He's Back From Overseas!"
The magazine is called "Newsweek," not "National Lampoon." It's the kind of thing that even Jon Stewart would be sheepish about flaunting, ready to apologize for the shoddy Photoshop work. No, it's not the photo that's been manipulated, it's the message. It's like the dull look that the boys in Spinal Tap give when they're told that their album art for "Smell The Glove" is sexist. Sexist? Is there something wrong with that?
What burns me is the number of things that could legitimately be pointed out or debated about Sarah Palin and her vision for the future. But for now, the media seems to be taking the easy way out. Careful on that one, because victims gain sympathy, and sympathy can turn into votes, and before you know it, we'll all be wearing little black shorts and running to work.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Prep School

I didn't have to become a teacher to find out that schools in America were geared toward making factory drones. I learned that way back in my high school history class. Public Education and the Industrial Revolution kind of went hand in hand here in the States. By the time I got my credential, I tried hard not to think about living and working in an environment controlled by a ringing bell. There has been plenty of research done and lots of effort made to create alternative forms of learning. The one we like to offer up most often is "cooperative," where small groups of students collaborate on a project or problem, much in the same way their parents are being asked to do the same thing in their cubicles at their jobs. And we still take those three months off in the summer for the harvest. What's that all about?
Meanwhile, across the aisle, a new report suggests that about seventy-five percent of the country's seventeen to twenty-four-year-olds are ineligible for military service, largely because they are poorly educated, overweight and have physical ailments that make them unfit for the armed forces. The other twenty-five percent win a chance to serve their country on the front lines. As an educator, I don't know how to feel about this. I certainly wish that only the best and the brightest of our young men and women would be defending our country, but that may not always be the case. The report, "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve," comes after the military had one of its best recruiting years since the draft ended in 1973. During the past year, the military met all of its recruiting goals and had a higher quality of recruit than in years past. About ninety-five percent of all Army recruits had a high school diploma, up from eighty-three percent the year before. The poor economy has also been a boon to recruitment, but our next crop doesn't look as promising. "When you get kids who can't do push-ups, pull-ups or run, this is a fundamental problem not just for the military but for the country," said Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accessions policy. Many kids are not "taking physical education in school. They're more interested in sedentary activities such as the computer or television. And we have a fast-food mentality in this country."
Maybe we've been going about this all wrong. Instead of training factory workers, we should have been preparing a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude. Factories are closing here in America, and we need to get tough. Which one of those third graders is going to be the next lean, mean, fighting machine? Hopefully it will be the one that can tie his own shoes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hello Cleveland!

In May of 1977, I was a small part of a record crowd at the University of Colorado's Folsom Field. I was there to see hometown heroes Firefall, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, and the biggest group in the world at that moment, Fleetwood Mac. As a special bonus, John Sebastian opened the show. That was okay with me, as long as he managed to work in the theme from "Welcome Back Kotter." I wasn't as familiar with John's musical legacy at the time, and I was not as enthusiastic a supporter of the autoharp back then. Then, he opened his mouth: "Hello, Denver!" he enthused. The reaction of the crowd was immediate and deafening. In his defense, it would have been difficult to make out the suggestions made from each of us through all the expletives, but the general message was that he wasn't in Denver. He was in Boulder, thirty miles up the road.
Dazed, confused, stoned or just stupid, at least John had the right state. On Friday night, Bruce Springsteen hit the stage at the Palace of Auburn Hills hollering, "Hello Ohio!" Auburn Hills is in Michigan. Luckily for the Boss, his very good friend, guitarist, and geography whiz Steven Van Zandt took him aside and whispered their current location into his ear. After Bruce had made several overtures to the great state of Ohio. Now, it would be easy enough for me to make excuses for Mister Springsteen. He has been on tour almost constantly for the past two years, and one Holiday Inn looks pretty much like the last. Maybe he sees us all as "being just a little Ohio." He did just turn sixty, and we are all certainly allowed our senior moments. Or for the rock and rollers out there, a Spinal Tap moment or two. But it sure puts a dent in the "Man of the People" thing. Just a little. And it also makes me want to apologize to John Sebastian. Just a little.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Yesterday, my son celebrated another half-birthday. It has been a point of reference for most of his life. We tend to take out the Sharpie and make another mark on the inside of the wardrobe door to illustrate the way his height continues to act as a function of his age, even as his parents begin to cling tenaciously to the feet and inches that they have. The official observance of this semi-annual rite of passage can be dated back to his time in preschool. While every child's birthday was occasion to have them sit in the Big Birthday Chair, and to have all the other kids and staff write tributes (my favorite being "Donald has a lot of good ideas in the block room"), half-birthdays were greeted with song: "Happy half-birthday, happy half-birthday, you're a little older now," to the tune of "La Cucaracha."
At twelve and a half years, it does occur to me that the next time we actively take note of my son's age, he will be a teenager. At the same time, I am also reminded of a Christmas card we received a few years back from a friend who wrote under her family's photo: "Carly - Seventeen Months, Shirley - Three Hundred and Thirty-Six Months, Bill - Three Hundred and Forty-Five Months." In elementary school there is a huge distinction to be drawn between a six-year-old and a five-and-a-half-year-old, and they will be the first ones to point it out to you. A time will come when the scale changes. We stop anticipating the next big thing: getting the training wheels off, middle school, driver's license. Instead, we start to dread the upcoming prostate exam. The rush to be older ends once you find yourself there.
But for now, we can marvel in that one and a half inch growth spurt, and the fact that he cringes only slightly when discussing the opposite sex. He's a little bit older now. But not too much.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Adjudicate This, Pal

Where in America could Khalid Sheikh Mohammed get a fair trial? I think it's a pretty fair bet that Manhattan would be the last place, but for the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, what exactly should justice look like?
I found myself thinking of a November that I have no true recall. I was only a year and a half old when Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, and was subsequently gunned down himself by Jack Ruby in the basement of Dallas police headquarters, accelerating the web of intrigue that had already formed around this national catastrophe. Did either of these men act alone? If not, who sent them and why? KGB, CIA, Marilyn Monroe. It all begins to sound like the refrain of a Billy Joel song. Far from being a catharsis, this moment only served to fan the flames of conspiracy.
Forty-six years later, we find ourselves on the brink of what could be referred to, without hyperbole, as "The Trial of the Century." Mayor Michael Bloomberg says, "It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered." Others are less convinced. The father of a firefighter who died that day suggests, "Ripping that scab open will create a tremendous hardship."
What then is the right thing to do? Would such a trial make New York more of a target? Or would it be like the graves at Boot Hill: a warning to the varmints that would seek to do harm to our American way of life. Whatever the decision, and whatever venue is chosen, I expect that the "alleged" terrorists and their attorneys might choose to avoid parking garages.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Value Menu

Once upon a time, I sat and watched a group of hungry drunk boys stand at the counter of a Burger King. One of them, a sweaty brute, kept pounding on the stainless steel surface, demanding "another cheeseburger!" The polyester clad BK employees scurried about, attending to his whims as his buddies egged him on. Each time he received "another cheeseburger," he took an animal size bite, then growled through half-chewed meat and cheese: "Dis one's cold too!"
I marveled as this piece of work continued to pound his way through half-burger after half-burger, until the refuse began to pile up in front of him. At this point, he had been served six or seven sandwiches, consuming three or more wholes. Finally, his friends had seen enough. "You're right," he mumbled as he smeared the excess condiments with the back of his forearm. "These guys'll never get this right." He spent a dollar, and ate five bucks worth of food. Franchise owners in the area must have been on the lookout for that guy after that.
Fast forward to this Fall, and Burger King is asking their franchises to sell a double cheeseburger for one dollar. It's a way to get customers to come back to fast food during the recession. Problem is, it costs one dollar and ten cents to make a double cheeseburger. That doesn't turn out to be much of a recession-buster for the owners of the restaurants. As a result, Burger King franchisers are suing their parent company, arguing that they should be able to determine their own maximum cost for each menu item. I wonder if that hungry drunk boy has since earned his law degree and will be sitting at the defense table when the trial opens. With a bunch of cheeseburger wrappers around his ankles.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Day The Music Got Old

"Over a hundred years of show biz experience on one stage." This is the way a friend of mine decided to crack wise about my purchase of tickets to see Billy Joel and Elton John. Together! A double bill! Co-headliners! Where could they possibly find a stage big enough to showcase all that talent? Well, if it's this Saturday, they won't need a stage at all. According to Elton's web site, he "has been advised by his doctor to postpone this performance due to a serious case of e-coli bacterial infection and influenza." Whatever happened to the rockin' pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu? Or Cat Scratch Fever? Most of your big names would play on through. Heaven knows Keith Moon would have given it his best shot. Of course, Keith died when he was thirty-two.
Mister John and Mister Joel are about to double up on Keith, age-wise, and will no doubt appear on the cover of AARP just as Bruce Springsteen did only a few months ago. The Piano Man missed a show earlier this year due to "fatigue." That would be much more polite than cancelling a gig due to old age. Pete Townshend wrote the words "Hope I die before I get old" at age twenty. Little did he know that he would continue to sing and play about "his generation" forty-plus years later, after half his band had already followed his advice. The choice of burning out or fading away isn't as clear for many, especially those who have become comfortable with the trappings of stardom: the cars, the drugs, the sex, the rehab stays and the alimony.
And so these are things I mull as I await the rescheduled show. I just hope they can get it in before rigor mortis sets in.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Don't Forget Rememberance Day

Near the end of the school year I get a Friday off to make the long Memorial Day weekend just a little longer. We call this Friday "In Lieu Of Lincoln's Birthday." Before you go chasing around looking for the proper gift for that occasion, or which state and federal offices are closed: don't. It's a fabrication. It's a way to tack on a little extra time for good behavior. As we all know, February is chock full of holidays, and even in a leap year there are precious few work days. If we had George Washington's birthday and Honest Abe's, we might as well phone the whole month in. But ask any teacher or any kid if they would rather just knock out that last few days of school and skip right on to summer vacation, and you'll find plenty of support sticking it out in lieu of the In Lieu day.
Which brings me to today: Veterans Day. We celebrate the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month because it commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. You remember the War To End All Wars. The one that started the oh-so-fashionable trend of numbering armed conflicts. It became a national holiday in 1938, just a few years before we discovered that World War was an inevitability. In 1953 it was decided that remembering just the Armistice was insufficient, given the number of veterans we had generated as a nation since then. Hence we have the expanded Veterans Day. In the seventies the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved it back to the fourth Monday in October. That made it easier to take a long weekend, and to sell more mattresses, but in 1978 Veterans Day returned to eleven-eleven. Banks, some schools and local government offices remain open, not out of disrespect but for continuity's sake. Taking a Wednesday off takes the edge off an otherwise productive work week.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the chance for an extra hour of sleep, followed by a day of remembrance and household chores. But I've got a notion that if I was offered a chance to staple that day on to my Thanksgiving break in a couple of weeks, I would probably jump at the chance. In lieu of trying to figure out what to do with myself for a day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flight 3022, Now Boring

I remember when dad wore a suit to work and came home late. He would have his cocktail, and then we'd all have dinner. And I also remember back in those days that air travel was an event. That suit that dad wore to work was the large version of the one that my brothers and I wore as we boarded the plane. My mother was dressed for church, or a flight to Los Angeles. We could have been extras on "Mad Men." That was then. This is now. I spent a good portion of my Monday on airplanes. We flew from Denver to Las Vegas first. My son and I were in our T-shirts and jeans. My wife was the stylish one, in her black turtleneck and red shawl. Still, no one would have mistaken us for churchgoers or society gadabouts. Nor would any of our fellow travellers. We looked as if we might have stepped out of a Land's End web site, as opposed to the 1965 JC Penny Even our crew kept that feeling going. Short sleeves and khakis. The pilots wore ties, at least during the time they were wishing us well as we made our way up the aisle on the way out. When we got on board for our connecting flight to Oakland, we were joined by an equally shabby group, with the possible exception of a couple of gentlemen cowboys in their black Stetsons and silver buckles. An upgrade of sorts, if you were heading out to the rodeo. Times have changed. Air travel is not what it used to be. It's not an event, and for many it is now simply a chore. And that's how we dress: like we were going to do our chores. Next time I fly, I'm going to make an effort. I'm going to wear my best Hawaiian shirt.

Monday, November 09, 2009

My Pigskin Odyssey

Standing in the baggage claim, I could swear that I could feel the power surging back into my tired, old Broncos windshirt. The altitude was probably part of it, but it was my son who began to point out, "Hey dad, that guy's got a Broncos jacket too." I had returned to the Mile High City, and all was right with the world, or at least that's the way it seemed.
The next day, having traveled up the road to my hometown, I settled in to listen to the University of Colorado Buffaloes take on the Texas A&M Aggies. Listen on the radio, since the Buffaloes' season hasn't been the prime-time-ABC-ESPN kind. Just the opposite. But still, there I sat, glancing periodically out the window to gaze at the front range of the Rocky Mountains, as my mother and I listened to every minute of a back-and-forth Big Twelve battle that the Buffs eventually won, thirty-five to thirty-four. It wasn't the same as sitting in the stands, but the intimacy of radio play-by-play and color brought to us by long-time Colorado broadcaster Larry Zimmer provided us with plenty of home-team insight.
The following morning, I packed my son into my mother's car and the two of us drove around town, taking in the local sights. We stopped at my high school, and I showed him the band room, where I met his mother the first time. Then we went back behind the school to the football field. He kicked at the snow that was still melting on the track behind the benches, and at one point, he looked up and asked, "Did you play football here, dad?"
"No," I confessed, "I did play in the band though."
"I thought so," he replied and went back to kicking at the icy patch.
"But I did play in junior high. I was a lineman."
"Oh," he said, brightening a little. He stopped kicking. I offered him my gloves so he could pack a snowball or two with the slush that he had knocked loose.
Driving up to the university, we passed my father's junior high. I told my son the apocryphal tale of how he had heroically blocked what would have been the winning field goal against their arch rivals, Casey, with his face. My mother was attending Casey at the time.
I pulled into the parking lot across from Folsom Field, and was happy to see that the gates were open, since the clean-up crews were busy clearing the filth from the crowd that had witnessed the Golden Buffalo victory the day before. My son and I went inside, and looked out on the field. Ted Nugent was pouring out of the speakers, and I was immediately flooded with a mix of memories of football and concerts. Days and weeks and hours of my life spend in that stadium, sometimes watching, sometimes selling concessions, soaking up sports and concerts, including the Motor City Madman himself. "Whaddya think?" I asked.
"Pretty cool," he said, soaking it all in. Then we walked around the end of the horseshoe, and out another gate, where we encountered the life-size Buffalo statue that now dominates the entrance to the stadium. My twelve-year old son climbed up on its back in his black and gold sweatshirt and announced, "You've got to grab by the horns, dad," and that's exactly what he did.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Where The Air Is Sweet - For Some

Sesame Street turns forty this year. I was already reading by the time Ernie and Bert rolled out, but I have many fond memories of laying in bed on sick days, watching that production of The Children's Television Workshop. Those memories are precisely the reason why I am so amused at the most recent dust-up between the Conservative Right and a bunch of Muppets.
A two-year old sketch that ran originally without any fuss featuring Oscar the Grouch playing a reporter for the "Grouch News Network," also known as "GNN," has a number of right-wing knickers in a twist. After Oscar conducts an interview in which he shares hugs and kisses with his royal interview subjects, an irate viewer calls him to complain that his coverage of the news wasn't quite grouchy enough, saying "From now on, I am watching Pox News," adding, "Now there’s a trashy news show!"
Forget for a moment that the bit seems to take on both CNN and Fox, it's a bunch of puppets. Muppets, to be precise. The ones who were recently sold to that liberal bastion, Disney. The ones who have been hanging out for the past forty years on Public Television. Guess which side was offended? One particular blogger, with the clever pseudonym "Stage Right," took umbrage at the way the Leftist Agenda of Sesame Street was being forced down his family's collective throats: "The message is clear, I can’t even sit my kids in front of “Sesame Street” without having to worry about the Left attempting to undermine my authority. And don’t tell me, “If you don’t like it change the channel.” There are no channels left! It’s everywhere. Just last week I had Obama’s service and volunteerism promoted on every single major network, including Disney and the way, why SHOULD I change the channel? This is MY channel, I’m paying for it!"
Well, Mister Right, it would seem that the other choice you have is to stop paying for it. Yanking that cable out of the wall and silencing those felt demons with their ping-pong ball eyes for good. And while you're at it, check those fillings in your back teeth. They're really radio transmitters. And all you can get on them is NPR.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Briefly Defying Gravity

I remember Dooley lying there in a heap. I was on the far end of my parents' Russian Olive, but I could see back through the draping foliage a moaning friend. Was he friend enough for me to go back and try to help him? My mind raced. I had, myself, just managed to escape almost certain capture by leaping from the fence to the ground below, then running to the end of the hedge for cover. Did I dare give up my position to go and check on my fallen comrade?
The danger was real. My little brother was chasing us, and I could hear him hollering and fiddling with the lock on the gate. Dooley was hardly moving. I had to make a choice. I ran. Straight to his side. He was holding his left arm at a scary angle, and it became immediately apparent what had happened: My relative age and experience had given my just enough coordination to make the jump, but my smaller, rounder counterpart had tumbled somehow and used his left arm to break his fall. The fall broke him. Behind me, I could hear the gate fly open and my little brother shout, "Aha!" He had us.
Then suddenly, it was all over. "What happened?" he said, looking down at Dooley.
"I think I broke my arm," hissed Dooley through gritted teeth.
I felt a little sick. "No you didn't. You'll be fine." I couldn't imagine how our game of "Run From Foo" had turned out so badly. The girl down the street, Doomsday, had broken her leg once but she was always on the edge of trouble anyway and that was bound to happen to her eventually. And that one wasn't my fault.
I was pretty sure that this broken arm probably was. It happened in my yard, running from my little brother, and Dooley had been hopping off the fence just like me. I might as well have beaten him with a baseball bat. That's when I noticed that my little brother was staring at me. He may not have been thinking, "What should we do now?" but that's what I felt. That's when I uttered the phrase I had heard in countless bad horror movies when the girl has fallen down and the monster is coming up fast: "Can you walk?"
The answer turned out to be "Yes, but it would have been much better to go get his mother than to drag him across the street holding his battered limb and fighting back tears." That's what I did anyway, and the fact that Dooley's mom was a nurse probably saved us from being in any specific trouble because her immediate concern was with the injury, not the cause. He was whisked away to the emergency room in their family station wagon, and we did not see him until the next day. The cast was substantial, and the sling made him just a little more pitiful.
There was no official blame placed for this accident, but I have carried it with me for all these years. For a few weeks, we were admonished by my parents not to climb on the fence since "we've already had one broken arm already." That stung, but not enough, after a few days, to keep from walking along that top rail, or scaling the inside rails to hop cleanly to the ground on the other side. The gate was a nuisance, since it would have to be re-latched and would almost certainly set the dog loose. Jumping the fence was a more practical solution, even when Foo wasn't chasing us. After that, Dooley stayed away. That was the only broken arm on that fence.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Undefeated

The election results are in: Democrats will no longer rule the planet. I hate to be the one telling you this, especially since I was among those who believed this to be the case a year ago when Barack Hussein Obama swept into office on a wave of Republican-crushing shock and awe. We even elected that guy from Saturday Night Live. That's how cool things were for us.
We were all going to be driving our hybrid cars to our government-sponsored health care appointment just before we head off to enjoy the wedding of our gay soldier friends who set up housekeeping shortly after world peace had been declared. We all got rich installing solar panels on government buildings, and the money they saved being off the grid was put immediately into a college fund for every child in America. Other countries who were once our enemies send notes of apology and offer their support in our brave new world order.
Then we went and lost in Virginia and New Jersey. Two more Republican governors. And in Maine, voters turned thumbs-down on gay marriage. Health care reform continues to swirl about on Capitol Hill, but no one is really sure what they are voting for anymore. Our Nobel-Peace-Prize-Winner continues to plot a course of meaningful change. What will it look like when it finally comes? Will it all be over before it starts?
I have been celebrating the quick-out-of-the-gate start of my favorite football team, the Denver Broncos. They were undefeated in their first six games and suddenly, for the first time in a decade, people began putting "Broncos" and "Super Bowl" in the same sentence. Then they had a week off, and when they came back they were summarily trounced by the Baltimore Ravens. In this metaphor, the Broncos are the Democrats, but I'm not sure if the Ravens are Republicans. I do know that it's a long season, and one game doesn't make or break your team. Unless that game happens to be the Super Bowl. Or the mid-term election.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Our school has been pretty lucky, so far. Last year we had one confirmed case.This year we think we may have another. Oddly enough, it seems to strike primarily fifth grade boys. The symptoms aren't that easy to detect. A lot of what kids go through at that age sometimes gets confused with the actual thing. Yes, we are all still very concerned with the spread of H1N1, but I am presently on the lookout for the outbreak of "Thug Flu."
Last year, Evan began the year quietly enough, but by the time Spring rolled around, he had begun to show the initial signs: baseball cap with the stickers still carefully in place, baggy t-shirt and jeans, and an overall monochromatic fashion sense. What he wore wasn't the problem, though. The attitude was the issue. He went from caring to surly in a matter of days. He was saving his files in the computer lab as "Evan Gangsta." Even his spelling became a concern.
The good news was that a few phone calls home helped straighten Evan out. It became apparent that too much contact with carriers of the virus had escalated the early onset of Thugness. With the attention of his parents, Evan was able to make a speedy recovery. This year's case may not be as easy to fix.
Thomas comes to us from another school, where last year he had already begun to show indications of infection. Fourth grade is a pretty young age to announce your gang affiliation, but that didn't seem to be a big enough warning sign. Before we ran our laps in PE the other day, this ten-year-old announced "Gangstas don't run. They walk."
His baseball cap was pulled down low, and later in the day he began decorating his arms with faux tatoos, inspired no doubt by the folks back home. Brothers, cousins, friends. We can only hope that we won't have to battle this bug alone. We hope the parents can keep up the treatment at home. It's hard to keep a completely sterile environment, but the hope is that Thomas can go back to living a normal ten-year-old life. Whatever that is.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

An Unbroken Chain Of Prior Occurrences

At dinner the other night, my young son announced that we all had a certain fate awaiting us, and it was pointless to try and diverge from it. He said this in reference to the relief he felt that his mother and I had decided, oh so long ago, to settle down and get married. Not that any other thought should have occurred to us, seeing as how we were in his mind destined to be with one another forever. What choice did we have?
It is interesting now, after having known my wife for almost thirty years, imagining how things could have turned out any differently. All of those seemingly random bits of chance and coincidence may have simply been preordained. The circumstances of our friendship, courtship and eventual marriage are all now a matter of public record. The magic that was afoot was simple but elegant. It made so much sense, as the rest of our friends would go on to point out.
Even the birth of our child was a matter of practical concern. When my father died, there was room for another Donald Caven. As I have pointed out on occasion, there was already a parking space with his name on it, so why not go ahead and fill it?
If I am to go along with my son's determinism, then I would have to surrender to the inevitability of what happens next. Whether or not everything happens for a reason isn't really the point anymore. Everything happens for a purpose, as Voltaire would tell us, in this best of all possible worlds. The fact that we didn't name our son Candide seems to be our only failing. But even that, he would tell us, was meant to be.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Victory Through Apathy

Imagine this: It's November in the year 2000. Election time. As the final national results were tallied the following morning, Bush had clearly won a total of two hundred and forty-six electoral votes, while Gore had won two hundred and fifty-five. All eyes fell on Florida, with its twenty-five contest-settling electoral votes. There is widespread discussion about voter fraud and abuse. We all learned about hanging and dimpled chad. All of this in the face of Al Gore winning the popular vote. But now the story begins to change from the ugly reality we all waded through nine years ago. In the face of a possible Supreme Court judgement and mounting furor about the technicalities involved in any recount, Gore concedes then and there, suggesting any recount would be doomed by fraud just as the first voting the week before was. And so, the Pinhead regime begins its reign, without the mandate of the people, and with the noble but vindictive former vice president watching from the wings, waiting. What might have happened then? Without all the legal challenges and machine and manual recounts, would the American public have been happy to welcome Mister Gore back in 2004? Sooner?
We'll have some idea soon, as we watch how things play out in Afghanistan over the next few weeks. Hamid Karzai won a second term as president of that country Monday when competitor Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of next Saturday's runoff. Without two candidates, the election was handed to Karzai, who now must bear up against the international scrutiny of his legitimacy. "Nobody has ever made the accusation that credibility was going to be had simply out of one election," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Or, in the words of Mark Twain: “History doesn't repeat itself - at best it sometimes rhymes.” Stay tuned.

Monday, November 02, 2009

What Would You Say...

"I'd like to ask you out, but I'm afraid of what your boyfriend might say."
"Boyfriend? I don't have a boyfriend."
And that's how I imagined I would wend my way into some strange woman's life. At some bar, or maybe browsing in the record store. My ultimate pick-up line was designed to be flattering and somewhat self-effacing. If I was met with only an icy stare, I hadn't really invested anything. There was no real harm in suggesting that someone might be lucky enough to already be in a committed relationship. I felt that it was airtight.
And yet I never used it. Not even once. I offered it up to friends from time to time as they made their own dating strategies, but I was much to fearful of the response. What response? Why, the one I imagined, of course. Back in the days when I was single, I simply could not get past the notion that I would always be alone. It was my fate, my destiny.
Standing in front of someone to receive rejection seems so desperately old-fashioned now. That's what the Internet is for. Friendships are made and lost by the click of a mouse. Even something as quaint as "speed-dating" seems positively provincial in a world that offers us a service that "matches compatible men and women based on twenty-nine Dimensions of Compatibility that are predictors of long-term relationship success." And that's the one that has all the commercials. If you want harmony in your match, just point and click.
Still, I'm guessing that at some point, there will be a box to fill in, or a face-to-face conversation that will allow some amount of ritual humiliation. Nothing's perfect. By the way, I once asked my wife what she thought of my line, and she rolled her eyes and thanked me for never using it. I thank her for relieving me from that awesome responsibility. That's the kind of honesty I have come to expect in my relationship.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

What Might Have Been

If you're like me, you miss the Cold War. We knew exactly who the good guys were. We knew who the good guys were. It really was Us against Them, and even your hardened skeptics would have a tough time making a case for the repressive regimes behind the Iron Curtain. They had the dictators and the bread lines. We had the blue jeans, VCRs, and capitalism. Greed, for lack of a better word, was good.
Twenty years ago. That was back when we thought it would be a good idea to support the "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan. They were fighting against the Commies, so the enemy of our enemy was our friend. That made sense. Muslim factions from all over Asia rallied to their aid as well, and eventually the Mujahideen ran off the Soviet Army, not unlike those scruffy rebels in "Red Dawn." What could be more American than Patrick Swayze? Wolverines!
Of course, a splinter of that resistance did evolve into what we now know as the Taliban, and a lot of our money and CIA was given to a then little known son of a Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden. At least there was no more Soviet domination of that region. If there ever really was.
Meanwhile, back in Berlin, after years of taunting by Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev tore down that wall.
Democracy flourished. Wall Street continued to surge. Bon Jovi played in Moscow. Our president, Pinhead senior, was so untouchable that he was able to throw up on other world leaders on a dare. We were the most powerful nation in the world. Twenty years ago.