Sunday, February 28, 2010

Looking Good

Yesterday as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, I was caught in a conundrum: Before I go to the dentist, I always floss, brush and rinse my mouth so that when the hygienist or the DDS gets his hands in there, it they will be working with a clean slate. The problem was, I wasn't going to the tooth doctor. I was going to the eye doctor. How should I properly prepare for this exam?
I blinked and then probed for any excess sleep in my eyes. I appeared rested and relaxed, with a nice pair of optics for presentation. Then it occurred to me that I might spend some time cleaning my glasses, since that chore had evaded me for the past couple of days. I am much more conscientious about it than I used to be. The story goes that once, at a very early stage of my glasses-wearing, I was at the circus with my family. I complained to my mother about not being able to see, at which point she offered to wipe my lenses clean for me. The trouble was, I had already been hard at work at just that, by licking them clean. After finishing a mound of cotton candy. The sugar had crystallized and I was now looking through a confectionery kaleidoscope. Bonus points for my mother who eventually returned a pair of usable, mostly clean glasses to the face of her young son.
In the intervening forty years, I have learned not to clean my glasses with my tongue. I have also made a point of using a soft cloth other than my shirt tail to get those spectacles at optimum clarity. Most of the time. Then I started thinking about my friends who insist that I am cheating myself on those trips to the dentist. Why bother making your mouth a sterile field before you go in for a cleaning? That's what you're paying them for, after all. I held my glasses up the light. There were a few smudges, but nothing that resembled crystallized sugar, and so I decided to throw caution to the wind and glasses on my face.
As I sat in the chair, I felt the usual tension about what that line on the bottom of the chart read, and whether one was better than two, or two was better than one. When it was all over, I got a pat on the back for "doing such good work" with my lazy eye over the past year. Then, since the doctor's ten-thirty was running a little late, he asked how my glasses were holding up. I told him they were fine, but I noticed that I had been shoving them back up my nose a little more than usual lately. He offered to tighten them up a touch, and when he handed them back to me, he apologized for any fingerprints he might have left on them.
"Here, let me get that for you," he said, reaching for my glasses one more time. He went to the back room and came back with his special cloth, explaining that he used just a mild hand soap to get rid of any smudges or stains. When I put them back on, it was like a new day. Everything had a sharp edge, and my eyes didn't wander around any of the drops or smears. The lights were on and I was home.
Walking back to my house, I enjoyed the sights of the neighborhood, and felt a twinge of remorse as I realized that I it would be another year before my glasses would be that clean again.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Racing In The Streets

"Maybe this town rips the bones from your back, it's a death trap, a suicide rap, we've got to get out while we're young..." And kudos to the clear heads in New Jersey who, in spite of their obvious love and affection for all things Bruce Springsteen for not making "Born To Run" their state song. I was thinking about The Boss' signature anthem as I rode to work on Friday. As a bike rider, I watched with mild disdain as a PT Cruiser went tearing up a residential street a block away from my school. At not quite seven thirty on a Friday morning, what is the point of racing down a street to a stop sign, only to accelerate another block or two to yet another stop sign? Where's the fire, bub?
Then I remembered my own youth. Our neighbors across the street used to wince in anticipation of my exit from the spot in front of my parent's house. The Chevy Vega was no mean street machine, but inside, with the stereo turned up, you couldn't have convinced me of that. I often left a little rubber next to the curb as I raced off to another day at thoroughly suburban Boulder High School. Or down to K Mart. Or over to a friend's house. When I was seventeen, I didn't go anywhere slow.
Nowhere was this more true than the four block stretch just east of us, where I could really let all four cylinders of that baby roll. Best of all, there were no stop signs on Grape Street. One block over on Glenwood, you had to stop at nearly every block. Not so on Grape, and I took advantage of the difference. I wasn't the only one, either. Both of my brothers, as a rite of passage, tested their vehicles on the drag strip of North Boulder.
Mostly though, I wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. I was on my way to a place that I hadn't been, but I had no idea where it was. Consequently, I kept accelerating in hopes of getting where I didn't know where I was going. It was that feeling: I had to get out while I was young. It took me another thirteen years, and I still go back there to visit. But when I do, I always obey the posted speed limit. I'm somebody's dad now. It's those darn kids.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Real World

A recent poll suggests that fifty-seven percent of American surveyed believe that statistics can be misleading. With that in mind, President Obama forged ahead with his forum on health care. alas, unlike the Beer Summit so many months ago, there wasn't much in the way of refreshments to be had there. There wasn't much refreshing to be found at Blair House on Thursday at all. Contentious, confrontational, critical and many other words that start with "c" could be used to describe the seven and a half hour discussion of competing ideologies, but "complete" would not be among them.
President Obama put aside suggestions of starting over, or moving ahead in smaller steps. He wants it all. Now. His proposed overhaul of the health care system is now a year old, and it sits atop a pile of other attempts made in the last fifty years. What was billed as an attempt to bridge partisan differences between Democrats and Republicans ended with the suggestion that he would encourage his party to push legislation through without the support of the Grand Old Party. After all, isn't that what a majority is for?
Then it all comes down to the mid-term elections. If that majority disappears, then all that momentum goes out the window while the divide grows deeper still. I wasn't able to watch the entire debate, since like many Americans I found myself hard at work during those hours, but I did tune in for a few choice exchanges. To read the media's version of it, it was a knock-down, dragout slugfest with plenty of yelling and screaming. There were plenty of pursed lips and terse words, but no name-calling and plenty of outward respect. The contempt that is supposed to exist between the two sides was mostly in evidence when one member of the Congress cut another off, or when the President exerted his authority and his professor's voice on those with whom he disagreed.
That's why I think it would have been much better if beer had been served. Loosen everybody up first, let decorum slip a little, and then see what comes of it. Like they say on MTV, "It's what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real." It's time to get real about health care in America.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"To Teach Is To Learn Twice"

Those rumblings you hear all across the country aren't necessarily seismic. They could be coming from the nervous stomachs of teachers you know. The practice of "pink-slipping" whole batches of school employees come springtime has become as seasonal as the Ides of March or Saint Patrick's Day. It's a way for "troubled districts" to lighten their budgets in anticipation of an ever-leaner future. More than simply getting rid of the "dead wood," it stirs the pot and keeps things moving. It also sends many teachers who yearn for job security looking for the door.
San Francisco, who dodged a budget bullet last year via the city's "rainy day fund," will be sending out more than nine hundred pink slips next month in hopes of managing their current hundred million dollar shortfall. The layoffs will be based on seniority, not performance. Again, if I were a brand new teacher, I would be wondering what sense it makes to land on the front lines of urban education, only to be told my services would no longer be necessary. Along with the job cuts, programs will disappear and class sizes will creep back up. Congratulations, you get to keep your job, but it just got harder.
At least I don't work in Central Falls, Rhode Island. In this corner of the country, they're getting rid of all their teachers. Every one of them. It's not the budget up there. It's the lack of performance. The district wants teachers to get more training and do tutoring. The teachers want to get paid for that time. And that's the rub. Negotiations ended. Will there be a compromise? Eventually, at least half of those teachers could be rehired. Just like those teachers on the left side of the country still have a chance to keep their jobs if there was some creative solution to the budget crisis. If they still want them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Thrill Of Victory

It might be simple enough to blame the Olympics. We've got a whole school full of kids who want to go for the gold. It is this spirit of competition that we celebrate every four years, or every two years in an alternating summer to winter fashion. Everywhere I look, I see the results and they are the first thing that is emphasized is the medal count. There is a tally of just how many gold, silver and bronze medals each country has won, while reporters from this country are quick to point out just how many more the United States has compared to other countries. Russia loses out, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Germany does better since unification. It makes sense, really.
But is winning what it's all about? "Faster, Higher, Stronger" is the credo of the games since 1894. "Let me win, but if I can not win, let me be brave in the attempt," reads the motto of the Special Olympics. Brave in the attempt. I like that. It's the part that I spend most of my time with on Tuesdays when I wear my PE whistle. I work hard to come up with cooperative games for each grade level: activities that avoid the distinction of winners and losers, but there is a constant challenge to steer kids away from faster, higher, stronger. Perhaps it is because I spent so much time standing against the wall, waiting to be the last one picked. I don't want anyone to be last if I can help it.
That's not how kids are wired, however. They have heightened awareness of the smallest differences. "More" and "less" is a huge deal for elementary students. Ultimately it all comes down to a self-esteem issue. Everybody wants to have a moment of being special. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the start of every day when all the classes line up on the yard. A lot of kids will leave their jackets or backpacks as place holders while they go off to pursue fun before the bell rings, but when that moment comes, there is a mad dash. In all that pushing and shoving, there is almost always at least one heart broken. "But I was first," comes the plaintive whine.
I have tried to explain that there has never been a time when a student has not been allowed to enter the classroom if they were second or third in line. There would be a desk waiting. I have even suggested that there is a certain nobility in allowing someone else to get into line ahead of you. These are not words that get much play. After any given dissertation, I will undoubtedly be met with the refrain, "But I was first."
And so it goes. Consequently, I have changed my approach. I drift to the end of the line, where I make a big deal about the person I find there. "Thank you for letting all these other kids in ahead of you. Aren't you the considerate one?" Mostly what I get are blank stares, but I expect that over time, I expect I will eventually have kids racing to the end of the line, but I'm looking forward to hearing it: "But I was last!" At least let them be brave in the attempt.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nobody Rides For Free

If you walk up the street from my house and stand on a particular curb at a particular time in the morning, you can get a free ride across the Bay Bridge. Normally this little trip would cost you four dollars, if you drove yourself into San Francisco. But if you are willing to ride shotgun into that city by the bay, you're actually helping the driver of that car bypass the toll gate via the carpool lane. Mine is not the only neighborhood, and the Bay Bridge is not the only toll crossing that experiences this communal experience. It's a pretty rare thing, however, when something so simple could really create a win-win situation. It's a little like being paid four dollars to carpool.
All that laissez-faire ends on July the first. That's when the State of California will start charging two dollars and fifty cents to carpool across its state-owned bridges. It's hard to imagine the negotiations necessary to complete what used to be essentially a wordless transaction. Should each prospective rider stand on the curb with a dollar and a quarter? What about those who merely filled up the empty seats in their sedan? Splitting the toll four ways is a mess, and three is even worse. Now that easy commute with a stranger suddenly degenerates into haggling. Free is so much easier to divide.
Then there's the even uglier side: If you've got to pay the toll anyway, why hang out on the street waiting for a stranger? Hop in your own ride, crank up BTO on your stereo, slap five crisp dollar bills on your dashboard and head west. And maybe a few extra bucks for parking. And leave a little earlier since you will now have to wait in line with the rest of the chattel. Or better still, save up your nickels and dimes since they haven't started charging you to get out of San Francisco. Yet.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Somebody Get Me A Doctor!

I know some Republicans. I have friends who are Republicans, but I confess that we tend not to discuss politics because it makes the whole friendship thing harder to manage. Most of the people I associate with on a regular basis are like-minded, left-leaning Democrat types. That gives me comfort at some level, but it makes getting a full understanding of some of our domestic problems difficult. Yesterday morning in the shower I tried to come up with arguments against socialized medicine, just to test my own mettle: How do I feel about paying for everybody else's medical bills? Do I really want another layer of government bureaucracy affecting my family's health care? Do I want the government to decide my health care options? Do I want to stand in line for health care?
The answer to all these questions in the right-leaning part of my brain, not to be confused with the right side of my brain which wouldn't necessarily have to lean right since it was already on that side, is a resounding "no." Not with an exclamation point, but resounding nonetheless. What then, asks the temporarily vanquished left-leaning portion, can be done to fix the health care system that already exists here in the United States? What about all those other "Commie Pinko Countries with Socialized Medicine?" And why can't we get the metric system?
To be sure, there are Republicans out there hard at work reforming our Health Care System. There are also Democrats out there hard at work preserving the rights of gun owners. What's missing is the common ground. How to solve a problem that affects every person in the United States of America? Maybe it's just too hard to get all worked up about a problem that you don't have yourself. Meanwhile, I'll go back to trying to solve the problem of common ground, at least in my own mind.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Large And In Charge

"'As of now, I am in control here in the White House." These were shocking words back in 1981. For many of us, the idea that anyone was in charge of the White House was a novel concept. It was a time when the country felt more like a feudal society, led by the Emperor Ronnie and his minions. It was only when the dictionary definition of "crazed loner" John Hinckley Junior tried to topple that power structure to impress his imaginary girlfriend Jodie Foster.
Had Mister Hinckley considered his actions, or studied the constitution, he might have thought better of his attempt on Reagan's life. With Vice President George Bush the elder who was, as his family dictates, in Texas at the time of the attack. Al Haig, Secretary of State, took the podium and the reigns of power and rode into history. Al wasn't really in charge either. If the President and Vice President are otherwise occupied, the mantle of power falls to the Speaker of the House, who at that time was Massachusetts' own Thomas "Tip" O'Neill. After that would have been President Pro Tempore Strom "Top" Thurmond. If these other gentlemen could have been disposed of, Al Haig's path to the throne would have been clear.
Happily, for most of us, by six thirty that evening, the Vice President had returned to Washington where he was able to settle Al's hash and provide a lesson in the orderly succession of power. It was at this point that Al turned fully to the Dark Side, and began filing his teeth to sharp points in order to make his own grab for the presidency in 1988. He had, after all, been slinking around the secret passages and back staircases since the Nixon administration. He knew where all the bodies were buried. He must have felt that somehow he we owed it to him.
Creepy as he was, at least he was up front about his lust for power. And he never shot any of his hunting buddies. Aloha Mister Secretary General Chief of Staff Haig. Sleep tight.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Olympic Fever

It's been more than a week. I confess that I have not made a concerted effort to alter my path or change my behavior, but twice this week in the staff lunchroom I have stared blankly at the following inquisition: "So, are you watching the Olympics?"
And while the rest of the group begins to exude about the feats of strength and daring that they have enjoyed over the past few days on ice and snow, I sit there chewing my turkey sandwich and waiting for the subject to return to movies or Tiger Woods or any other sport that doesn't involve sliding down some frozen surface. I admit I have no prior reason for my disdain for the Winter Games. I have made light of competitions such as the Biathlon (shooting and skiing, two great tastes that taste great together), and Curling (speed sweeping). Growing up in Colorado, I reached my saturation point with winter sports very early in life. I wobbled on skates and slipped on skis. It may have been part of my need to remain contrary to the dominant paradigm, but I never cared much for being outside in a blizzard.
I did watch the Opening Ceremonies. Skipping past the "human interest" stories on my DVR to get to the spectacle. I admit that, for Canada, they were quite spectacular. I was hoping that they might squeeze some Rush in there, but I suppose I'm asking too much. After that, my television has been virtually free from Olympiad. It could be that I am suffering from football hangover, and without a Pro Bowl the week after the Super Bowl to cushion the blow, it might be just too big a letdown to go from the feel-good victory of the Saints to the drama on the figure skating rink.
In the end, I know I don't need to worry. Just as there are still those among us who have yet to go see "Avatar," the world will allow some of us to skip these Winter Games. Thursday afternoon I heard an odd set of footsteps outside my door. The rhythm was step, hop, step, hop. I was headed out into the hallway to tell some kid to knock it off, but was greeted instead by the quickly blushing face of a fourth grade teacher. "I was speed skating," she explained. In spite of my personal ambivalence, I'm glad to see the Olympic dream live on, even in the hallways of an elementary school.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yawning Chasm

The words of celebrity John Mayer: “What is being black? It’s making the most of your life, not taking a single moment for granted. Taking something that’s seen as a struggle and making it work for you, or you’ll die inside. Not to say that my struggle is like the collective struggle of black America. But maybe my struggle is similar to one black dude’s.”
These are also the words of John Mayer: "I’ll be defragmenting my mental and psychological hard drive during the first seven days of the new year, and I invite you all to participate." The fact that all of these words have been widely disseminated across cyberspace may have something to do with the "digital cleanse" Mister Mayer is suggesting. He wants to be accountable for his thoughts, but sometimes they seem to come out in such a rush that he is unable to control them. Try as he might.
John Mayer is not alone. If you stick a microphone in front of just about any cognitive being, they will almost certainly deliver a gaffe or a malapropism within moments. It's almost Pavlovian, so if you find yourself in the public eye, why not do the clever thing and keep your mouth shut? Of course, then you run the risk of appearing aloof or uncaring. What will the public think? Abraham Lincoln, who never maintained a Twitter account, once suggested, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." John Mayer is a pop star, but he could certainly learn a thing or two from our sixteenth president.
Or our forty-fourth. Barack Obama takes a lot of grief for his use of a teleprompter, but it is precisely the moment when he goes "off script" that the trouble begins. Are you listening, Joe Biden? And even when Sarah Palin is cribbing off her hand, she seems just as likely to put her foot into it as when she's speaking off the top of her pointy little head.
Maybe it's not the microphones at all. A few weeks ago, my wife decided to try and discover what made roosters start their mornings by screaming their lungs out. There are some who speculate that the early light hits a nerve in their brain that sets off crowing as a reflex. Maybe that's what happens when people get famous. Suddenly their brains are pushed to deliver soliloquies whenever they are caught in the spotlight. And just what connection am I drawing between John Mayer and a rooster? I leave that to you.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Driven To The Brink

If you're out there on the road reading this, put your laptop or iPad on the seat next to you, pull over and then continue. This applies even more so if you happen to be driving a Toyota. You may remember how I have been espousing, over the past few years, the virtues and benefits of driving a hybrid vehicle: the money savings, limiting greenhouse gasses, that great feeling of smugness. Maybe you bought a Ford Fusion, and in that case God Bless You, since you get all those perks and you bought American. Hundreds of thousands of hybrid Toyotas were sold during that time, and if you purchased one at my behest, I apologize.
I tell people that my first car was a Chevrolet Vega, but for about two weeks, my real and true first car was a Toyota. Not a hybrid, but a pickup truck. I tend to put an asterisk next to that one, since I so abruptly dropped it off the side of a mountain road and into a tree that effectively ended the useful working life of the vehicle. The only need to recall that one would have been from my older brother, the truck's first owner, asking his dim younger sibling to give back his truck since obviously he didn't appreciate the gift of four wheels and a camper shell. If you own a Toyota of more recent vintage, however, you may be afraid to move it out of the driveway, let alone down a twisting mountain road. After months of mounting safety problems with the Prius, Toyota is considering a recall of its hot-selling Corolla subcompact after complaints about power steering problems. The world's best selling car may be the world's deadliest. Or at least pretty scary. Thirty-four deaths have been associated with "sudden acceleration problems" already, but when you add steering to that it gets a little messier. Let's just hope the radio still works. And if you're using a Toyota cup holder, just be careful with that hot coffee.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Streets Of Fire

Last month when I was called to serve on a jury, once I was called to a courtroom I was asked to fill out a questionnaire. It consisted, as you might expect, of questions that might help uncover any pre-established biases or predilections. About halfway through, I had to stop. I was trying to make a good faith effort to be as honest and forthcoming as possible until I came to this question: "Have you ever witnessed a crime?" I had to stifle my initial impulse, which was to laugh out loud. Then I looked around the room to see if anyone else was as incredulous as I was. Maybe they hadn't made it to that particular question yet. After a moment, I began to write my answer with the phrase, "I live in Oakland, of course I have witnessed a crime."
Please understand, I have great affection for the city in which I live. I take great pride in the efforts that have been made over the past few years to make life here just a little less dangerous. That does not mean that we are out of the proverbial woods as yet. It's a big city, and we've got big city problems. I envy any of those people who simply checked the "no" box and moved on to the next question. Maybe these folks don't hear the stray gunshot every now and then, or the squealing tires up the street.
Just over the hill from us in Richmond, it doesn't seem to be getting better at all. Up there, it's just the opposite. This past Sunday, as the choir sang "Leaning On Jesus," three hooded men entered the New Gethsemane Church of God and opened fire. Two brothers, aged fourteen and nineteen were wounded. This was just a few days after a pregnant woman was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting while picking up her son at school. Either one of these incidents would leave a town shaken, but this is the town that experienced a gang rape at a high school dance witnessed by twenty, and forty-seven homocides in 2009. In Richmond, the shock value is somewhat diminished.
I'm guessing they don't ask that particular question on surveys for prospective jurors in Richmond.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Power Of Pop

In stark contrast to the music legends that I paid to see over the weekend, Doug Fieger will not be remembered for his extraordinary body of work. I will allow the same amount of slightly cynical reverence into my reflection on his career and his impact on my life. Doug was the lead singer for The Knack, and he died Sunday.
If you don't remember The Knack, it's because you weren't listening to the radio in 1979. "My Sharona" was the kind of omnipresent pop song that enters your brain in the usual way, but takes voodoo or physical extrication to make it leave. The song's earworm status was confirmed via the Weird Al Yankovic parody "My Balogna." The hook-heavy single sat atop the Billboard chart for six weeks, and went gold. Run-DMC so admired the guitar riff that they sampled it on their own hit "It's Tricky," and paid for it later via a lawsuit. "My Sharona" returned to the chart in 1994, thanks to its inclusion in the slacker epic "Reality Bites." Winona Ryder and Janeane Garofalo helped dance the song into the hearts of a whole new generation.
But what about The Knack? They didn't fare as well. After the runaway success of their first album and hit single, they had trouble holding together. Subsequent releases failed to capture the magic of that initial blast of power pop. Like so many one-hit wonder stories, this one ended with the band breaking up and the lead singer clinging to those moments of fame. In 2006, Doug Fieger underwent surgery to remove two tumors from his brain. I'm still looking for the cure that will get "My Sharona" out of my head.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Upon Reflection

"She can ruin your face with her powerful thighs." With these words, Billy Joel delivered on his promise to destroy his song, "She's Always A Woman" once and for all for all of us. Much in the same way that, back in 1982, he had suggested an alternative title for "Honesty," and forever changed the way that I would listen to that tune, Billy proved that he could give as good as he could take, and he wasn't going to let Weird Al Yankovic beat him to the punch. It was nice of him to acknowledge the sillier side of writing songs that have, upon reflection, sounded more like Hallmark than Billboard.
That was just one of the takeaways from the evening I spent watching Billy and his piano pal Sir Elton John. As a concert-going experience, it was a pretty seamless production, with hit after hit delivered first by the Rocket Man, then an equally familiar set pounded out by Long Island's contribution to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They played for more than three hours without an intermission, and while I had memories of their glory days to compare them to, neither one seemed content to go quietly into the good night.
Elton John was the first rock show I ever attended, way back on the "Captain Fantastic" tour. It was a huge deal for me. I took piano lessons. "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" had served as the soundtrack to my sixth grade film, "Drac Comes Back." I was a short, round kid with glasses. That guy up on the stage, pounding the ivories, was an international superstar threatening to blow the roof off the newly minted McNichols Sports Arena. Thirty-five years later, I remembered all those possibilities.
In the end, it just the two of them, trading verses on "Piano Man," as the crowd sang along. I was able to shrug off the cynicism that followed me into another basketball stadium. It was a great big Karaoke machine with twenty thousand of my closest friends. And try as I might, even with Mister Joel's help, I couldn't manage to sneer on the way out.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Date Specific

I'm embarrassed to say that I have a date on Valentine's Day. When so many other people are out there beating the romantic bushes for their own true love, I am happily ensconced here at home with the love of my life. But this was not always the case.
I was stood up once on Valentine's Day. I had screwed up enough courage to ask a girl out after years of sitting idly by and hoping that my dream girl would come and find me. That wasn't happening, so I called up a friend of a friend and asked if she would like to go out some time. "When?" was her response. A perfectly reasonable one, and suddenly I was making much more headway with the opposite sex than I had in years.
"How about next Friday?" Friday night was, in my estimation, date night and was probably the expected response. I should have guessed from the sound of her voice that I had made some mild miscalculation.
"Uh, sure."
We discussed logistics: dinner and a movie, when and where to pick her up. Looking forward to it, bye. It was only after I had hung up that I realized the date I had chosen was February 14. I started to panic, but then consoled myself just as quickly with the notion that if she had been willing to go out with me on Valentine's Day, I must really be on to something.
When that day came, I was finishing up my shift at the video store, and I was checking my watch and wondering if I had made the right choice when I pulled a shirt out of my closet that hadn't seen an iron since, well, I didn't own an iron. I was going through a stack of returns when my co-worker passed me the phone, "It's for you."
I didn't panic right away, but as I put the phone to my ear, I sensed a disturbance in the Force. "I don't think I can make it tonight," she told me.
For just a moment, I thought about arguing the point: Sure you can. It's no trouble at all. I'll pay for everything. It will be great. Instead, "Oh. I see."
"I'm really sorry. Maybe some other time."
There was no other time. I hung around the video store for a while longer that night and then went home. I had a TV dinner. It was pitiful and I didn't do much to mediate the experience. It fit in so very well with most of the other romantic interludes of my early adulthood. After a dating renaissance in my senior year in high school and a few years after that, things had cooled off considerably. Think "arctic." This was going to get me back into the game.
Instead, I sat in my living room in front of the Next Best Thing To Your Good Cooking. Now, almost twenty-five years after the fact, it still stings just a little bit, but it can't dull the giddy satisfaction I have with how things turned out. As it turns out, I was just saving myself.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Walking back in to the locker room after our first eighth grade football practice, I was asked by one of my neophyte teammates, "When do we get our costumes?" A simple enough question, complicated only by this kid's lack of vocabulary.
"You mean uniforms?" I returned. The resultant laughter followed us all the way into the showers and most of the way home, but it never occurred to me to ask him if he did, in fact, know the difference. Uniforms: to create an orderly, singular appearance. Costumes: for disguise and to set yourself apart from your true identity. What would the eighth grade football team be issued?
It was about this time in my life that I started noticing what everyone else was wearing. It wasn't until ninth grade that I started insisting that my mother buy me clothes that would make me fit in better: Adidas, corduroy pants, rayon shirts. Costume or uniform?
My son wears a uniform to school. It's a public school, but most of the middle schools in Oakland prefer to have the kids in uniform rather than have any discussion or conflicts over the outward appearance of the student body: uniform. The entertainment comes from watching these burgeoning teens assert their personalities through those khaki pants and white shirts. Or blue shirts. And once a month or so there are "free dress days" where students are allowed to wear their finest, flashiest clothes: costume? It is interesting to me just how often my son chooses to simply wear his uniform, either out of habit, or a lack of interest in showing off his fashion sense.
I wonder what the uniform will be for him when he gets to high school.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Partly Cloudy With A Chance Of Inevitable

The 2010 Winter Olympics will not be held in Washington D.C. this year. There will be no hundred-yard Bipartisan Shuffle. No Pairs Ice-Filibuster. No thousand meter Staredown. Instead, that honor will be Vancouver's, where rain will be moving in for the weekend. This ensures that the Ladies Freestyle Puddlejumping will be allowed to go on, but most of the snow and ice-related events will have to shiver in anticipation of what could be.
My good friend and roommate from the olden days used to say this about the weather in my hometown: "If you don't like the weather in Boulder, MOVE!" His was a play on the whimsical notion that if you didn't like the weather in our little town at the foot of the Rockies, all you had to do was wait fifteen minutes. I feel more akin to Mark Twain's assertion that "Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it." It ranks up there with a discussion of the effects of gravity. As a natural phenomenon, the best we can hope to do is move out from under it.
Me? I've learned to complain about rain and when the temperature dips below sixty degrees. Scraping ice off a windshield is now a vague inconvenience when I travel up into the mountains in search of snow instead of the daily ritual that it used to be back in my youth. I feel my son's pain as he listens to the stories of "snow days" back east, and even though I have tried to explain that those days still end up on the end of the academic calendar at the end of the year, he still feels exploited. By the weather.
The recent blizzards and torrential rains have made discussion of global warming more exciting again, but the truth is for most of us it just gives us a little more science to hang on our regularly scheduled harping about the weather "in our neck of the woods." Punxsutawney Phil or Al Roker, it's all still pretty much your best guess. I'll stick to my trusty old weather rock.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

At Any Speed

For a while there, I was feeling a little deflated about our family car. We own a Saturn wagon, and when word came down that part of the dismantling of Chrysler was the elimination of the entire Saturn brand. Late last year the remainder of the company's assets were sold to Motors Liquidation Company. Not a lot of hope there.
In my mind, I toyed with the notion of getting in on the "Cash for Clunkers" program. Why not step up from our disenfranchised wagon and into a hybrid something or other? It would be good for the planet, after all, and Al Gore would be so proud. Then I considered the eventual resting place of our old car. Would it be parted out or sold for scrap? Could it be a new start for another family looking for reliable transportation? That was why we bought it in the first place. I could imagine that with proper care and feeding that it would continue going from here to there for another decade.
So why would I sell it? Why not keep it clean and healthy and skip the risk and heartbreak that major purchases always seem to bring? I kept hearing a line from a Bruce Springsteen song in my head: "Now, mister, the day my numbers comes in I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again." My dad used to buy new cars. I think it helped him somehow to feel in control of his destiny. When I looked out the window, I could see my destiny sitting in the driveway.
Cash for Clunkers came and went without me, and I tried not to get caught up in any regrets. Now there are millions of Honda and Toyotas being recalled for safety issues: brakes, accelerators, air bags. Any regrets I may have had gave way to relief. I imagined my family hurtling down an icy patch of highway with a stuck gas pedal, and smiled. Forget Al Gore. Where's Ralph Nader when we need him?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Prospering As A Cheater

I was a pretty clever math student when I was in eighth grade. My friend down the street was not. This was unfortunate for him, since he was on the basketball team, and the potential for him failing the class and suddenly not being on the basketball team was a very real one. He needed my help to pass the class and keep his hoop dreams alive. And do you think that he asked me to tutor him? That suggestion would have been dismissed in a heartbeat, so the only other option available to us was cheating.
At first I was nervous about getting involved in such a tawdry little scheme, but my conscience was soon overridden by my desperate need to fit in. By helping my basketball buddy and, as I learned just before we put the plan into action, his girlfriend, I was insinuating myself into "the popular group." Yes, I was cheating, but I was also helping a friend in need and elevating my own social status. Shut up, conscience.
The setup was easy enough: I had Algebra fourth period, Mister Round Ball hat it seventh. All I needed to do was to write down the answers to the test on a piece of scratch paper, then pass that scrap of paper to those in need at lunch. From where I was sitting, it all appeared to be seamless, and for two months it was.
Miss Stiffler was our Algebra teacher. I liked her. I liked Algebra. And I wasn't completely comfortable pulling the academic wool over her eyes. I needn't have worried. She was watching the progress of her struggling students in the afternoon with equal amounts of pride and skepticism. Miss Stiffler was no dim bulb. There was a simple enough way to check her suspicions: Two different tests, one for fourth period and one for seventh.
It would be nice to say that my friend and his steady were clever enough to look at the problems to see if the answers I gave them bore any reasonable connection. Upon uncovering their malfeasance, it would be nice to say that they would forget immediately where they had acquired the answers in the first place. No such luck. They copied the wrong answers and then rolled over on me like Beethoven. I was called out of my seventh period PE class and had to sit there in my gym clothes as Miss Stiffler poured out her displeasure and disappointment on me. How could I? Why did I? Didn't you think? No, no, and no.
The punishment, she decided, should fit the crime. With basketball season all but over, it meant that my friend and his gal pal were available after school for extra help in Algebra. Yours truly would be coming by during this time to assist in the tutoring process. Just desserts. For two weeks I answered questions corrected mistakes and became increasingly bitter. On the last Friday of my sentence, there was no scheduled tutoring, but Miss Stiffler found me something to do to fill up the time I owed her. She was on the social committee, which meant she helped coordinate the dances that occurred every so often in our gymnasium, which meant I spent an hour decorating the basketball court with crepe paper in preparation for that night's soiree. I was making it pretty for all the popular kids to bring their dates and experience all those things that I had dreamed about back when our scam began. This did nothing to alleviate my bitterness. I went home that night and watched TV. Alone.
It was only later that I learned that the really cool people didn't go to those dances at all. And most of them were pretty good at Algebra. Go figure.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Flights Of Fancy

I don't remember everything about it, but there are a few very vivid images that bounce around my head when I think of my preschool. I remember that you had to walk across a bridge to get from the main building to the playground, and the whole situation was nestled in among the trees. In my mind's eye it all appears so lush and tranquil from the outside.
Inside, the ceilings were low and all the foliage outside made it cool and dark. All the better for all of us little ones to drift off to sleep when nap time came. The cubbies that lined the far wall were painted in a rainbow of colors, and the mats we were supposed to lay down upon were hanging there along with our jackets and any other personal effects. I tried to relax and drift off when it was time for napping, but even at that very young age my agitated brain would not slow down long enough to participate in the group sleep. What went on when we closed our eyes? I couldn't help but peek. I never saw anything suspicious or frightening, but I attributed that to my own vigilance. Nothing bad was going to happen on my watch.
Then it was time to go outside, across the bridge. Other kids used their time outdoors to socialize, to invent games and to play in organized groups. Not me. I headed for the helicopter. It was big enough for two kids to climb inside, but I never invited a co-pilot. Instead, I hurried out and pulled the door shut behind me, set for a world of adventure. All by myself. The interior was not nearly as detailed or impressive as the bright blue exterior, but that didn't matter. My imagination created all the dials and controls and I took off for far off lands, always careful to remember to be back in time to go back across the bridge, retrieve my jacket, and head home. The next day, the same thing: no nap, then straight to the skies.
And now, forty-some years later, I miss the quiet closeness of that cockpit and the flights I used to take without leaving the ground. I still don't take naps, but every now and then I get the urge to take off and go into the wild blue yonder.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Prairie Home Complaining

"How's that hope-y, change-y stuff workin' out for you?" asked Miss Maverick. The partisan crowd at the first "tea party" convention. What better spokesperson for a group of antiestablishment, grass-roots folks who are motivated by anger over the growth of government, budget-busting spending and Obama's policies than our favorite "outsider" from the Great White North? Not content to simply speak from the auspices of her newly minted media base at Fox "We Declare, You Accept" News, Sarah Palin took her show on the road.
"America is ready for another revolution!" she crowed, sounding just a little more like a Bolshevik than the White House, but then irony was never her strong suit. I always figured her strong suit was more of a fashion thing, really. "Let us not get bogged down in the small squabbles. Let us get caught up in the big ideas," she exhorted, but then offered up few of her own. That seemed to suit the assembled rabble just fine. Solving problems is much more difficult than standing on the curb and pointing at them. That, apparently, is what Mavericks do.
The other things that "tea party"-types rail against is the outrageous sums of their money the government is spending on things like health care, defense and bailing out an economy that has only recently begun to show signs of life again. These are the same disgruntled Americans who paid Miss Rouge one hundred thousand dollars for her forty-five minute appearance. That would be putting their money where her mouth is. And so the 2012 meander to the White House begins for the ex-governor from Alaska.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Super Silly Us

Friday afternoon after the kids had all rushed out into the blur that would become their weekend, I caught up with one of our first grade teachers who was buzzing with as much excitement as any of his students. He is an Indianapolis Colts fan and, if it hadn't been apparent at any previous juncture, he was wearing his Peyton Manning jersey to drive the point home. His eyes were a little wild when I finally captured his attention. I asked him if he would be watching the game and a frown began to form. How could I be asking such a dim question? Then, as quickly as the storm blew in, it receded and he laughed. "Yeah," he told me, "I'll probably watch a quarter or two." With that, he was off, trailing blue and white vapor trails behind him, positively giddy.
When he was gone, I found myself just a tad lonesome. Not for anyone or anything in particular, but for a time when I was that enthusiastic about a Super Bowl. It's been more than a decade since the Denver Broncos have played in a Super Bowl, and though I have made some efforts to spread my football fanaticism across the league, I while I no longer bleed orange and blue we still have Band-Aids with the Broncos' logo on them.
I remember all those other Sundays, six of them, when I woke up early to watch every possible moment of coverage. From pre-pre-game to post-post-game, I soaked it all in. Even those first four inglorious defeats still ended with us in second place. I watched some awful football on four of those Sundays, and even worse halftime shows. But I didn't want to miss that one great comeback.
Then in 1997, we got that Super Monkey of the collective backs of Broncos fans everywhere, and the next year put a stake through its heart for good. There are still, as I reminded my son this week, NFL franchises that have yet to play in a single Super Bowl. Only four of them now, and I imagine the folks in Detroit may be the saddest of the bunch, since Cleveland fans can tag off on that Baltimore Ravens asterisk and the Jaguars and Texans have a little more history to make before they become truly desperate.
And yet, when the sun begins to set on Joe Robbie Pro Player Dolphin Land Shark Sun Life stadium, I will be sitting in front of a television with the same vicarious anticipation that most of the rest of the world will be savoring. I could go out to the movies or take a hike with my family instead of consuming fistfuls of potato chips and staring blankly at commercials scientifically engineered to be discussed more than the game from which they purchased advertising time. But I might miss something great. Something Super.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Watch This!

Over the years I have cultivated a number of friendships with people who work in the movie business. That has tainted my personal love affair with movies by one word: business. Even if I didn't experience these tales of compromise and woe from a series of extraordinarily talented people, my subscription to Entertainment Weekly would still probably be enough to sour me on the magic behind the magic. Last week I read an article about the "struggle" to get a new chapter in the Fletch series made. You remember Fletch. Starring Chevy Chase? Lots of silly names and a few disguises? It was the epitome of mid-eighties snark. Those of us who wander around with our heads stuck in that decade, like myself, continue to mumble snippets of Andrew Bergman's script.
Andrew who? The guy who helped write "Blazing Saddles." All those funny things that Chevy said weren't simply made up on the spot. Some of them were, but most were carefully planned, then filmed, then edited and color-corrected and on and on. It was lightning in a bottle, and the fact that it worked as well as it did makes the folks who live in those scary offices in Hollyweird get all creepy about making a sequel. Or a "reboot."
For the record, I am as tired of the term "reboot" as I am "app." As I slavishly anticipate the release of the second installment in the "Iron Man" series, the fourth Spiderman movie is being sent back to high school. James Bond has found fresh legs in Daniel Craig, but he's no Sean Connery. Star Trek continues to seek out strange new audiences and boldly go into yet another permutation. The stories of my youth continue to get a fresh coat of paint and rushed back into circulation in hopes of wringing that one last dollar from our collective memories. Why else would Ridley Scott consider making a movie about the board game Monopoly?
"Hey, the last movie we made about a board game made money," shouts the voice from the scary office.
Hard to argue with logic like that.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Stoned Slackers For Obama

The other night in the the Kingdom of "Nospin," his Majesty Bill O'Reilly referred to Jon Stewart's audience as "stoned slackers who love Obama." As a member of that audience, and a loyal one at that, I may have been too stoned to realize that I was slacking, but I was fully aware of my ambivalence toward our President. One of the reasons I tune in to "The Daily Show" is because I appreciate the filter through which the news of the day (barring reruns, weekends, and holidays) is filtered. Mister Stewart and his writers are that filter.
Currently, Jon Stewart is staying true to his promise of keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek even as "his guy" enters his second year in office. Allusions to the jesters in the court of long ago and far away are easy enough to be made. The "truth" can be heard in the words of the fool. King Bill was quick to point out that Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs refers to Jon Stewart as "an important cultural arbiter." His royal highness was quoting a Washington Post article, giving more credence to the notion that there is real media power in that late-night-basic-cable-half-hour. For those of us who aren't too stoned to listen.
Still, as someone who would at times consider himself a cultural arbiter, I know that the hard truths make the biggest laughs. Hence all those jokes about lost socks. It is the those broad, easy targets that get the best shots. Eight years of President Pinhead provided all of us with a generation of easy laughs: low-hanging fruit of malapropisms and narrow-minded fixation equals comedy. And there was that old scary guy who shot people in the face.
In the end, I am sorry to say that I have spent more time pondering the banter of two talk-show hosts than I have considering the text of the most recent State of the Union address. I guess that's what I should expect from a stoned slacker.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Read Me!

Are you reading this? If you are, first of all, thank you. The existential question of what happens when a blog falls in the forest and no one is there to receive it comes to mind. There are plenty of days that it feels as if I am shouting down a well. It gives me the satisfaction of hearing my own voice reflected back to me, but I often wonder what else is happening down there in the dark. It is always gratifying when I get those snappy comebacks or comments reminding me of the funny bit I overlooked.
A study released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that fourteen percent of Internet youths, ages twelve to seventeen, now say they blog, compared with just over a quarter who did so in 2006. Only about half in that age group say they comment on friends' blogs, down from three-quarters who did so four years ago. These are the ones who are busy Twittering and Facebooking or texting, leaving out vowels whenever possible. And that's fine. As long as they don't insist on making me interact as briefly as possible, let those kids have their fn.
But this same study had another number I was impressed by: one in ten adults blog. Thirty million of them in the United States. We are the ones prattling on and on about the elections in Iran and the births of our children and how Silly Putty doesn't pick up comics like it used to. We are the old coots who have stories to tell and experience to share, even if it ends up in the same bin as that deleted e-mail from Howgul Abul Arhu. It feels good to have it off our collective chest, and we thank you all for taking the time and energy to read about the passing of a childhood pet or our breakthrough at therapy last week. And if you're a civic-minded cyber-head, go ahead and click on that link up there at the top of the screen where it says "next blog." You'll be doing my demographic a great favor.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Frontier Justice

Last week as I struggled to a relaxed attitude and impartial view of the proceedings in the courtroom where I was a prospective juror, I was struck by the number of educators who found themselves in the room with me and eventually in the jury box, if only to be excused by one counsel or the other. The thing that the lawyers seemed most concerned about when talking to teachers and principals was how we meted out justice at school.
"So, you hear both sides of the story, and you pick the side that sounds best?" There was the faintest hint of derision in the defense attorney's voice as he asked an eighth grade history teacher what she did when there was a conflict that needed to be resolved.
"Well, yeah," she replied. A few minutes later, she was sent on her way, leaving us all to wonder what answer would have gotten her to stay on the jury. I would have answered the same way. Maybe the way we resolve things in our corner of the world doesn't meet with the exacting standards of our judicial system. One of the attorneys even suggested that teachers tend to decide who was in the wrong based on the kids' past behavior.
Ridiculous, right? Taking one student's word over another? How could we expect to experience and real justice when we are so ruled by hearsay and innuendo? In thirteen years I can say with absolute certainty that absolute certainty is at a premium in elementary school. Discovering exactly how and why somebody's lunchbox got thrown into the girls' bathroom is not the kind of thing that I or my fellow teachers tend to spend hours divining. Accessories before and after the fact tend to skip lightly away while the unfortunate trigger man loses his recess for the rest of the week. Then again, after the fact I am more than happy to listen to any further discussion of the crime during or after such time as the punishment has been served. Contrary to current popular belief, snitching is still very much in vogue, especially among those who are serving a week's cafeteria duty.
I know why those teachers were turned loose. It was for the same reason they wouldn't have kept me. We tend to view each incident for what they are: interruptions of the learning they were sent there to do. We're looking to expedite, and you better believe we'll be happy to take a plea bargain down to "I pushed him accidentally" in order to get the apology necessary to resume the rest of the day. Due process? How about let's get on with it so we can all have our recess?
I suppose, upon reflection, it's probably a good thing I sat there for a day and a half with my mouth shut. It was safer that way.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Thai Ping

"When I was a kid," I drone on and on to my students, "we didn't have computers to learn how to type. We learned on typewriters. And not those fancy electric typewriters, either. The great big clunky things with the manual carriage return." That's about the time that I stare out on the blank faces and realize that what I have just been saying may as well have been in Aramaic, considering the reaction. Or lack thereof.
Nowadays, we leave only one space after a period or a colon. It's "the modern way." When Gary Carnival taught me, it was two. Now, in a world that concerns itself with storage of bits and bytes, leaving two spaces after any punctuation mark is a luxury we can no longer afford. Today I can feel free to write lengthy sentences with multisyllabic words that go on and on without concern for where they might end. There is no bell going off to let me know that the margin is approaching. I simply continue to pound away on the keyboard and let the machine figure it out. The old Royal that I wrote many of my earliest stories and opinions let me know just four spaces before I ran out of room. Then smack that lever to the left and start on a brand new line. And don't even get me started about making mistakes. Learning to use a typing eraser, not correcting tape or white-out, was one of the sublime pieces of the art of typing.
The kids in my computer class eight years ago used to learn to type by moving Nintendo's mascot Mario through various paces by hitting the correct keys. What this has to do with plumbing, I will never know. These days I send them to an Internet site from the BBC that features a variety of cartoon animals urging those young fingers on, row after row, to master letters, numbers and symbols. In my mind, I can still hear Mister Carnival in the back of the room, tapping out the rhythm on his meaty palm with a yardstick and calling out each key as we tapped the keys in rigid unison. The keys we typed had no letters on them. We had to know what they were based on the position of our hands on the home row.
I would not have guessed that, thirty-five years later, I am still using this valuable skill. Every so often a former student of mine will drop by the computer lab with wistful memories of Mario bouncing from letter to letter, and my hovering presence as I admonished them to use all ten fingers. Now they know how to change the font size, shape and color. Setting tabs are done with a mouse click. They don't need to concern themselves with PICA or Elite in a world of Macs and PCs. Or the sound of that yardstick on Mr. Carnivals palm. And every time I leave just one space after a period, I flinch just a little.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Rush To Judgement

If you missed it, this year's Miss America is twenty-two year old Caressa Cameron from Virginia. Missing it would have been easy, since it could only be seen via tape delay on The Learning Channel. This may seem like an odd connection, but considering Miss America is, according to their own web site, "the world's leading provider of scholarships for young women." Viewership continues to decline, as it has over the past decade, even with the addition of host Mario Lopez.
Maybe it has nothing to do with who is hosting and our long-standing national love affair with Bert Parks. Changing the format of the show, showing the talent competition or not, one-piece bathing suits or skimpy bikinis, none of these things could save this tired piece of Americana from becoming another themed reality show. If only there was something the producers could do to drag your average couch potato back to the big broadcast.
How about roping Rush Limbaugh into being one of the celebrity judges? It's hard to imagine a more qualified candidate. Pageant organizers said they chose the judges because they were distinguished in their fields. I leave it to you to decide in just what field Mister Limbaugh might be found standing. But it's hard to deny that his presence alone would have some major impact on the proceedings. Rush's appreciation and consideration for women has always been a matter of record, or not. What remained clear was this: Limbaugh was a "get" for TLC. Short of getting Jon Gosselin back for a victory lap, this was a genius piece of casting.
Or does that sound too cold and calculating? After all, it is all about those young women and their scholarships. And their swimwear.