Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Oh Brother!

Gug. Yard Ape. Officer Friendly. Diego. Commander. Just a few of the epithets applied to my older brother over the years. Some of them he's earned. Others he just arrived at with little or no warning. He's the one I look up to, and not just because he's bigger than me. He's the one who gave me Beatles records and an appreciation for oysters. He was there at every rite of passage, letting me know that even though I came through preschool just fine, I could expect Kindergarten to be no walk in the park. And when I finally felt comfortable in junior high, he let me know that high school would be a great, glowing boil on the neck of my life. He was right, some of the time, and I could never say he didn't warn me.
He's also the guy who rallied us all together when my dad died. He sorted through the mounds of paper and debris to do the thing that my father never bothered to do: prepare for the inevitable. He's the go-to guy. He can handle it. I've always admired the way he wades through things that would make me stop and whine. Like the hike we took back when we were kids, searching for his lost wallet. I wanted to go along. I wanted to be right there, but I also wanted to sit down in the middle of the dirt road, finish my canteen, and wait for someone to come and carry us out of the wilderness. He wasn't going to let that happen. We were on a mission, and he kept me going, until we had walked for the better part of the day, stopping long enough to eat our lunches and talk about the path we were on. Then we packed up and headed on down the road. It was that same force that helped me make it to the top of Longs Peak. He kept a steady pace, up past fourteen thousand feet to the summit. I wanted to be there. I wanted to see what he saw: the view from the top. I remember crawling the last hundred yards or so, but I wanted to be there. With my brother.
Happy Birthday to you.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


There was a sublime moment in my house this past Saturday. As we rushed about, in and out of the bathroom and bedrooms, getting ready for the day, from the radio poured the sounds of Jimi Hendrix. My favorite Jimi Hendrix tune, to be precise: "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." I paused an made a note of this to my wife and son as they passed by me, and they too pricked up their ears.
That coy, slithering intro, followed by the moment the Experience unloads: "Well, I stand up next to a mountain. Chop it down with the edge of my hand." I believe Jimi Hendrix could have moved large chunks of geology with his hands.
I explained to my son that Jimi Hendrix didn't play a left hand guitar. He learned to play upside down and backwards. All of that amazing music that poured out of that Stratocaster came out the right way through the filter that was Jimi. And as I listened to the flurry, never showy or excessive, I was pleased to see my wife and son finding their own groove. It was a unique bonding moment. At alternating moments, one of us would be swaying, eyes closed, listening to the power and the glory.
As the song ended, I marveled again at the complexity of the song. So many notes. I suggested that maybe that was the explanation for the untimely death of Jimi Hendrix. He ran out of notes.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Just Good Friends has an online petition calling for Bert and Ernie to get married. The puppets. The puppets on "Sesame Street." The puppets on "Sesame Street," the children's show. It should be pointed out that they are asking the powers that be "let" Ernie and his old pal Bert get married. This isn't some sort of punishment. Perhaps, like a lot of voters in Orange County, you believed that once a statute about gay marriage was passed it would be mandatory. Not so. It's simply about the right to same sex marriage, not the enforced nuptials with farm animals that so many pundits seem to be fond of suggesting.
Oh, and Bert and Ernie aren't gay."Bert and Ernie are best friends," say a statement posted on Sesame Street's Facebook page. "They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation." Their cohabitation, then, should be seen more along the lines of Felix and Oscar in "The Odd Couple." Their association should raise fewer fuzzy eyebrows than Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson. The fact that the are both constructed of felt and we never see them below the waist shouldn't cause any further speculation. Plenty of guys have pants-optional days. Nothing weird about that. Besides, just think of the uproar that would commence if Ernie started shacking up with Miss Piggy.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why Is Abbreviaton Such A Long Word?

There comes a point in all new teacher's careers when they are sitting in a meeting, trying to keep up with all the latest pedagogy and curriculum, and are suddenly overwhelmed. Not by the sheer amount of information, which is considerable to say the least, but by the oppressive number and use of acronyms. "The API doesn't accurately reflect the AYP, but the CST scores are inconsistent with the goals of NCLB." The Academic Performance Index is a separate best from the Adequate Yearly Progress, but neither would exist without our good friend No Child Left Behind. Fortunately, if you've been in the teaching game for a few years, these abbreviations don't hang long in the air. They are simply digested along with the rest of the day's bulletin and we begin our day dealing with ELL students who were so recently ESL students and strive to remember to use our AE as we deal with the kids who will have to take the California Standards Tests. Then again, if you're new to the building and you're still trying to figure out where the bathrooms are, you probably want someone to make a distinction between English as a Second Language and English Language Learner. But by then, the fun bus has moved on.
Before you know it, someone will ask if you have read your student's IEP, and if you had considered scheduling an SST to discuss it before the next SSC meeting. I would be pleased and happy to tell you that I always make a point of stopping administrators and veteran teachers in their tracks and demanding, as a colleague of mine used to back in the day, to explicate themselves: Individualized Education Plan, Student Success Team, School Site Council. I try, but sometimes I get caught up in the wave. It reminds me of the observation my wife once made about the world wide web. It takes much less time to say those words than it does to say "WWW." Our efforts to save time and effort sometimes generate misunderstanding and obfuscation. Oh, sorry. I meant M&O.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Letter Man

Dick "Dick" Cheney had a letter that he kept in a safe in his office. It was a resignation letter, kept there in case he should become incapacitated while he was in office. "I did it because I was concerned that--for a couple of reasons," Cheney told Jamie Gangel in an interview for NBC's "Dateline." "One was my own health situation. The possibility that I might have a heart attack or a stroke that would be incapacitating. And there is no mechanism for getting rid of a vice president who can't function." The most obvious reaction to this news? At what point was Dick capacitated while in office?
Then there is the history question: What Vice Presidents have left the office before their term was up? Prior to ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment in 1967, no provision existed for filling a vacancy in the office of Vice President. As a result, the Vice Presidency was left vacant sixteen times, sometimes for nearly four years, until the next ensuing election and inauguration: eight times due to the death of the sitting president, resulting in the Vice Presidents becoming President; seven times due to the death of the sitting Vice President; and once due to the resignation of Vice President John C. Calhoun to become a senator. You might remember when Spiro Agnew resigned just ahead of pleading no contest to tax fraud. His boss, Richard Nixon read his own letter to a national television audience just a few months later. Gerald Ford filled in for Spiro, and when Nixon took a powder, Nelson Rockefeller took Ford's spot as Vice President. What comfort can be taken for that clean succession of power is left to the reader. It was Dwight Eisenhower who gave Nixon his first taste of power back when he had his heart attack and left young Dick Nixon to run things as he encountered health issues over the course of his administration, including a heart attack.
Which brings us back to Dick "Dick" Cheney. Surprising as it was for us all to imagine that he had a heart at all, it was this piece of hardware that made him write his fail-safe letter. Perhaps he was unfamiliar with the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. In the event of a vacancy, the President nominates someone to take his place. I can only assume that the puppetmaster was unsure of his puppet's ability to nominate someone to pull his own strings. All that being said, doesn't it make you just the tiniest bit curious about what else was in that safe?

Friday, August 26, 2011


My wife's plan for world domination took a few evil steps forward this summer. Over the Christmas break, she supplanted our Xfinity boxes with Tivo brand DVRs. They talk to each other and make cute booping sounds when you toggle from one screen to the next. It's all about the interface. That left the very unseemly and ancient combustion engine in her car. The one that she treated like a hybrid by turning off the engine at every idling potential over thirty seconds. It was her way of adapting to her circumstances. Now that she has a Prius that shuts itself off at stop signs, she squeals with delight at most every intersection. This is somewhat upsetting if you happen to be in the car, but she is considerate enough to keep the windows up to limit her embarrassment.
This wellspring of technology was not complete, however, until she had received her Kindle. Now she can read dozens of books at a time. Not that she wasn't already reading dozens of books at a time, but this allowed for her to read a dozen books at a time while appearing to be reading only the slimmest of volumes: "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T.S. Eliot. It's not really a thin book of poems, It's one of those e-lectronic digi-tal reading de-vices. It's oh-so-sleek and smooth. The other day she informed me that she was fifty percent through "A Tale of Two Cities." To me, that meant she had one more city left to go. It also reminded me of the way that kids no longer refer to time as "about eleven," or "quarter past three." That's okay. It's progress and I'm all for progress.
The one piece that is still missing from her over-arching scheme is a Roomba. You may have seen commercials for these robotic vacuums that follow programmed paths to keep your house free of dust and dirt, at least from the floor level. I have looked at these machines with a mixture of quiet awe and disdain. This job that I have done for so very many years could be done by a disc of plastic and metal not much larger than a dinner plate. I still have the edge, of course, since I'm able to do it much cheaper than the robot. Still, I am counting myself lucky, and hoping that I will remain viable for the next few years. I'm still under warranty.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Overheated Rivalry

One of the joys of spectator sports is that the violence is generally contained to the field. I am always quietly amused when, before a major league baseball game, I hear an announcement suggesting that the team or the league assumes no liability for injuries incurred as a result of objects leaving the playing field. "Keep your heads up, kids! A bat may come winging your way, or a foul ball, but if you catch it, you can keep it!" That might not be the precise wording, but it's certainly the underlying meaning. If you're lucky enough to sit very close, you might even wind up with one of the stars of your local franchise in your lap. It happens in football and basketball too, with varying degrees of appreciation. Even back in the days of the Roman Coliseum, the carnage was limited primarily to those who found themselves on the floor of the arena.
Not here in the Bay Area. Two men were shot and wounded in the parking lot of Candlestick Park after a preseason National Football League game between the San Francisco Forty-Niners and the Oakland Raiders, and a third man was beaten unconscious inside the stadium, police said on Sunday. None of these young men were wearing protective gear, let alone bullet-proof vests. Admittedly, this is a heated rivalry, extending back to the days when pirate ships, or Raiders, were known to troll the coasts of the San Francisco Bay, looking for prospectors, or Forty-Niners, to rob them of their gold. The fear and hatred between these rival groups has been maintained over the years as a mostly peaceful exercise played out in yearly, meaningless contests called "pre-season football." Still, what would you expect from the kind of thugs that attend those kind of contests?
Maybe the same kind of friendly folks that would beat a San Francisco Giants fan into a coma outside a Los Angeles Dodgers game five months ago. The connecting thread? San Francisco? Professional sports? The inability to distinguish real life from a video game? Who knows? One thing's for sure: It will be a while before I feel the urge to get up off my couch and race out to one of my local sports venues to take in a game. Sometimes my eyes get sore after watching three hours of televised sports, but Visine can take care of that. I don't need a trip to the emergency room.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Republicans Want To Raise Taxes

Okay, that's a bit of hyperbole, but in the discussion of our current economic and political state, it seemed in keeping with the tenor of the dialogue. Republicans in Congress are likely to approve of raising the payroll tax that feeds into Social Security from 4.2 percent back to 6.4. A year ago, the President wrangled this bit of tax relief for a limited time only, and now the Grand Old Party would like to have us wage-earners kick that extra two-plus percent back into the kitty. "It's always a net positive to let taxpayers keep more of what they earn," says Texas Representative and member of the House Leadership team Jeb Hensarling, "but not all tax relief is created equal for the purposes of helping to get the economy moving again."
Twelve months of this tax reduction cost the government about one hundred and twenty billion dollars this year, and a similar amount next year if it's renewed. Why not have everybody pay their fair share? Isn't that the deal, after all? Well, if you consider that Social Security payroll taxes apply only to the first hundred thousand dollars of a worker's wages. Therefore, two thousand dollars is the biggest benefit anyone can gain from the one-year reduction. A vast majority of Americans make less than a hundred thousand dollars a year. Millions of workers pay more in payroll taxes than in federal income taxes. Guess what portion of America would feel the pain, or relief from this particular measure?
If you guessed the working class, you may be living in a blue state of mind. If your mind is clouded by visions of job-creators, start making preparing your excuses now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


“When you have come to the edge

Of all light that you know

And are about to drop off into the darkness

Of the unknown,

Faith is knowing

One of two things will happen:

There will be something solid to stand on or

You will be taught to fly.”

I learned just the other day that this quote came from Patrick Overton. This "nationally recognized community arts developer" is also recognized as the "author of the 'Faith' poem. This comes as somewhat of a revelation to me, since those words had, up until now, been the words that were on a scrap of paper that my father had taped to the light on his desk. When I went to his office to clear out his desk after he died, it was the one bit of memorabilia I felt the need to hold onto once the rest of his considerable mess had been loaded into boxes and made ready for their next destination. Whatever that was. He was a printing salesman, and the paper on his desk was primarily references to other paper that would eventually become printing jobs: phone numbers and artwork and layouts and calendars and scribbled notes that would all eventually become, through some strange magic that only he understood, printed material for his customers.
There were probably some other sales-related witticisms or cartoons that I have forgotten now, He was very proud of his trade. He claimed to have ink running in his veins. I don't know if that's true or not, but I do know that he wasn't above getting his hands dirty when the occasion called for it. He liked to take us kids for tours of the printing shop where he worked. He offered to let us "test the temperature of the ink" by dipping our fingers in the tray at the top of the offset press. We walked around for a day or two later with black fingers as a result.
My father left his home and family shortly after his fiftieth birthday, hoping to find that thing that some fifty-year-old men go looking for when they become fifty-year-old men. To no one's surprise, he struggled to find that thing that was always there in the first place. He felt that he had come to the edge of all the light he had known. He took off in a plane that came back to something solid. Way too solid.
And though it took me years to come to grips with that tragedy. Not part of God's plan, more of an oversight, a mistake. Not the type of thing you might expect from an omniscient presence, but we all make mistakes. Then we try to learn from them. I learned not to stick my hand in the ink.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Special Orders Upset Me

Generally speaking, I have a hard time with change. I will stick with something long after new and more sophisticated choices have become available just to save myself the chore of making a new commitment. This is especially true of my fast food choices. I have been a devotee of McDonald's for nearly half a century, but lately that ardor has been tested. It would be nice, I suppose, if I could report that watching Morgan Spurlock's "Super-Size Me" led me to a wave of regret and consideration of the health issues wrapped up in two all beef patties, special sauce, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Not really. I understand that a diet that consists only of McFood is a fast path to the cardiac ward. I also understand that I can survive a certain amount of "alternative food" if I eat my healthy greens and life-sustaining proteins the rest of the time.
But now, I have to negotiate those fast-food choices with a family that has grown increasingly disenchanted with the Golden Arches. The fact that we live just a short walk from our nearest McDonald's pains me just a little, since that always seemed like a dream to me. It was a place that my son and I could wander toward, and we would be sucked into the commercial inevitability of it: me for the nostalgia, and he for the toy inside the Happy Meal. He has become aware of this trap, and has started to make different choices.
Again, it would be a comfort if he was making conscious healthy choices, but his allegiance lies in the quiet storm that is In 'n' Out. He knows that he can order a burger without any vegetables and they will serve it to him along with fries that were made just moments before. He also prefers the notion of filling his own medium drink from the fountain located just to the left of the cashier. This is the franchise that has won him over, and my wife, having discovered the "protein style" burger, has followed suit. They are pleased and happy to have it "their way."
Meanwhile, across town, Burger King has decided that their corporate strategy is "to put the focus the food," and they will be kicking the plastic-faced king to the curb. Children across the globe will sleep easier knowing this creepy vision won't be infiltrating their late-night french fry fantasies. Me? I'll still be pining for the denizens of McDonaldland.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Told You Never To Call Me Here

In the first few months of working at a wholesale book distributor, I learned when a "bad time for a vacation" would be. Having only recently relocated to California, I was anxious to make it home for the holidays, and planned accordingly. If I had taken a moment to consider just how busy a book warehouse is during the moments leading up to Christmas, I might have reconsidered. Should have reconsidered. But my boss, being the kind soul that he was, understood my predicament and allowed me to skip off to the mountains of Colorado while everyone else toiled in the flurry of consumerism that built to awesome proportions right up until Christmas Eve. After that, I stayed put during the holidays, and put off my vacation until the summer, after inventory. That's how I ended up getting married in August. It was the calm before the retail storm.
I thought about this a lot over the past week as our President prepared to take off to Martha's Vineyard. He's taking ten days away from the office to collect himself for what will undoubtedly be a busy upcoming year. Hanging out with Carly Simon and Mike Nichols in a rented multi-million dollar estate could be just the thing to soothe those jangled nerves.
Or it could make him look like an insensitive twit, since an ever-growing number of the people he serves are out of work, and those who are lucky enough to have jobs are busy watching their retirement savings disappear at an alarming rate. But there's nothing for him to do in Washington. Most of Congress left town in early August after the debt ceiling was hashed out, and they won't be back until early September. What could sticking around in Washington D.C. do for your average citizen?
Well, maybe a staycation is what the doctor ordered. There are plenty of things to do and see right there on the shores of the Potomac. Maybe a day trip to Mount Vernon, or a stop at the National Zoo? Perhaps a hike in Great Falls Park, or hanging out in the Adams Morgan neighborhood for a little international flavor? He and the family could spend days just visiting the dozens of museums located just a short walk from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Of course, on the scale that is vacations days per president, Obama is no Bill Clinton, who had taken just twenty-three days to Barack's sixty-one up until this point in his first term. Then there's that guy between them who managed to sneak in one hundred and eighty days. That would include the trip to the Crawford ranch back in August 2001 during which he was handed a memo suggesting an imminent terrorist threat, describing al-Qaida's intentions to strike the United States. That vacation ended pretty abruptly on September 11.
Maybe this president took some work along with him so that, in between rounds of golf, he can fix what's wrong with our economy. And end the wars. And figure out a way to unite us as a nation once more.
Or maybe he could use the rest.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Back To School

Right below the streamers and sky rockets announcing Fourth of July Savings at your local convenience store are the banners promoting even more gargantuan Back To School Savings. Like the line between Halloween and Christmas, what's the difference between a couple of months when it comes t marketing? If you're under the age of twenty-one: everything. My son began to wriggle and twist whenever the faintest suggestion of time passing came during his summer vacation. More than just about any year I can remember since he was tiny, the past two and a half months have held a minimum of organized activity.
That all ended on Wednesday morning. His mother dragged him from his bed into the harsh light of the morning, of which he had seen so little during this break from school. To his credit, he was up and ready to go for the five days in a row that he attended Debate Camp. And the morning that we got in our car and made one last, desperate attempt at vacating to Southern California, he was showered and ready to camp out in the back seat for the long haul down I-5. But mostly he worked on his sleep skills.
I understand that we're growing a teenager here, and it takes a lot more rest and food to generate a world class specimen. That doesn't keep me from pining ever so slightly for the old days. The days when he was up before either of his parents, wanting help to turn on the television so that he could watch cartoons "without disturbing" us. Now he wears his ability to sleep until nearly noon as a badge of honor. Each waking hour before the middle of the day is met with a tiny sliver of contempt. Not that he's gone surly on us. He's still one of the most pleasant adolescents I know, but he's definitely changing.
On the Wednesday morning that my wife took my son to orient and register at his new school, high school, I was at home getting ready for the beginning of my own new term. I was making lesson plans and agendas. I was also putting away the remnants of our last trip, carrying the luggage down to the basement until we needed it again. By chance, I happened upon a piece of red construction paper near the shelves in our basement. After I put the suitcases back in their slot, I bent down to try and discern from whence this piece of paper had come. Turning it over, I saw a carefully pasted white beard, a pair of beady eyes, and a cotton ball at the top of this portrait of Santa Claus. Scrawled at the top of the page was my son's name, in his best first-grade penmanship. Just below that was another piece of construction paper. This one was white, with alternating stripes of red and green pasted horizontally across it, forming a two-tone pyramid. Another glance told me that I was looking at a Christmas tree. I had stumbled on a tiny portion of my son's saved work. I felt a wave of nostalgia as I stood and measured the years between those art projects and the ordeal of high school registration. It made me sad and proud all in a rush.
When I came back upstairs, I made a mental note of where those particular Christmas decorations were. It's not so very far away.

Friday, August 19, 2011


"If this guy prints more money between now and the election - I don’t know what y’all would do to him in Iowa, but we - we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous - or treasonous in my opinion.” And welcome to the campaign Mister Perry.
Which campaign? Why the presidential campaign that is well and true underway in the heartlandtm of America. All that fuss you hear coming from the Midwest currently is the sound and fury of Republicans and a Democrat scratching frantically at their spot in the polls. It's a great way to try out a message. "Throw it out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up." That's the kind of communication that is going down in Iowa these days. When Texas governor Rick Perry playfully suggests that the head of the Federal Reserve is committing acts that are worthy of being executed, we call this "folksy." This might also be considered "airing one's views." This might also be considered "a threat."
Did he say that he wanted to string Rob Bernanke up in so many words. That would be ugly. It's what the listener does with those words. We call this "inference." That's when we take something we read or hear and apply our own life experience to it in order to generate our own new understanding. Did he say that he wanted to kill the head of the Federal Reserve? No. That was inferred. Did I say Rick Perry is a scary individual? No. You just inferred that.
So let me be clear: Rick Perry is a scary individual. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Judge Mental

My father had a pet peeve. He used to say, "Some people can be so judgmental." This used to make me sigh and laugh just a little bit at the irony. "Dad, isn't that statement judgmental?" He would look at me in mild confusion, and then insist that he was free of such character defects, and assert that being judgmental was a bad thing. I would then counter by saying something like: "But dad, don't you make judgements every day? Like which tie looks better with that jacket?" He didn't see that as coming from the same crop. "How about where you choose to have lunch?" Maybe a little closer, but still no willingness to accept my point. "What about the people you work with? Do you always want to have lunch with everybody? Aren't there people you exclude?" And though he would deny it, this made me feel very clever.
These days, I would agree more with my dad. In 2004, Michele Bachmann addressed the National Education Conference and she stated that being gay is "a very sad life. It's part of Satan, I think, to say that this is 'gay.' It's anything but 'gay.'" She also stated that the gay lifestyle is "bondage" that leads to "personal enslavement of individuals" and is "dangerous." But she also encouraged compassion for those dealing with what she identifies as a "sexual dysfunction." I don't know, but that sounds a little judgmental to me.
And of course she could explain away, as is her wont, that these were all verifiable scientific facts found in the Bible. But it would still be her judging others. On "Meet The Press" this past weekend, host David Gregory asked if these would be Bachmann's views on gays were she to win the presidency. She dodged the question, saying "Well, I am running for the presidency of the United States. I am not running to be anyone's judge."
Marcus Bachmann, husband of Michele, runs a Christian counseling business that offers "reparative" therapy for homosexuality, which backers believe can "cure" people of being gay. Marcus Bachmann stressed that the facility only offers "reparative" therapy if a client requests that type of treatment. How this aligns with his wife's insistence that she accords "honor and dignity" to every person seems to be, for the rest of us, a judgment call.
Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll last weekend. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bro's Love Inc. Zot

The "zot" came from a little lightning bolt that my older brother drew on the label of the first mix tape I ever owned. It came at a time when owning both a record player and a tape deck was a relatively new thing. To be clear, this was a turntable, and it was an integrated part of a stereo system. When these components were wired together, they could preform magical feats, such as playing music at impossible volumes through speakers or headphones to quell that urge to recreate that concert hall experience in your own bedroom. Or, you could funnel that music through those carefully inserted cables to reproduce albums, or parts of albums, on little plastic cartridges that could easily be carried from place to place, instead of lugging all those big platters of vinyl around.
Or maybe you could use this same setup to share your music. With your younger brother. This was how I heard "Bohemian Rhapsody" for the first time. Okay, to be fair, I had heard Queen's magnum opus pouring out of the room at the bottom of the stairs for some time, and even once or twice on the radio. But to be given the opportunity to play that same wildly operatic tune on demand? Priceless.
This is what my brother did for me. The second song on the playlist was Maynard Ferguson's version of "MacArthur Park," and over time and hundreds of repeated plays, I began to connect Queen with Maynard in my head. The logic of the tape's playlist began to supersede that of the original albums from which the songs had come. There were other songs on that first side, but aided by the rewind button, I listened to those two songs in a seemingly endless loop.
Side two was comprised primarily of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells." This became the soundtrack for much of the reading I did that summer, including Thomas Tryon's creepfest, "The Other." It would be several more years before I saw "The Exorcist" and was able to connect "Tubular Bells" with Linda Blair's possession by the devil, but I will always associate those sounds with that scary twin brother and a very nasty scene involving a cask of wine.
But mostly, I will be grateful to my older brother for opening the door through which music could be shared. I eventually got my own stereo system, and learned the ways of recording and cuing up the next selection. And segues. Knowing what songs naturally fit together with which other songs, and making clever connections between a series of seemingly unrelated tunes. It was an art. One that I continue to practice from time to time with much more efficiency in the digital realm of compact discs. Still, nothing beats those ninety minute assemblages. They were the ones that informed my youth and showed me the way to the future. And for that, I am grateful.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wish You Were Here

There I was. Again. Standing in the flurry that was the last hour of the Disneyland day, staring at the shelves and racks of all things Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, trying to decide upon the thing. The one thing that I could take with me to hold on to. To keep on my desk. To hang on a wall or wear on my head. To keep in my heart and mind this moment and place that has come to mean so very much to me.
I'm the guy who is always telling my son that we have enough stuff. We live in a house filled with so much stuff that we routinely have to sell, give away or simply throw out things to make room for the bits and pieces, the reminders, of our lives. Three humans and a dog and their various accouterments have filled the storage capacity of our home several times over in the past fourteen years, and now I want to bring more home with me? From a theme park? How can I possibly reconcile that?
Mark Trail taught me that we should leave only footprints and take only memories. It's a lovely aphorism, and a sentiment that I want desperately to abide by, but there I was, standing in that brightly lit fortress of consumerism, wishing that there was some little piece of my summer vacation that I could take home. That's when I remembered: My son's smile. For the longest time, and I can say this because we have been making a nearly annual pilgrimage to the Happiest Place On Earth since my son was born, I have taken profound joy upon entering the Magic Kingdom: We go to the left, through the tunnel, and out onto Main Street. Then I turn and look at my son's face. I love that smile. I have decided to take that home with me.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Jon Stewart was defending Michele Bachmann last week. Yes, in case you don't have a subscription to Newsweek and/or you missed all the fuss, there was some discussion about whether or not best journalistic practices were being used in the selection for the cover photo of the August 15 issue. Does it make her look crazy? Here's what Jon suggested: "Be honest Newsweek. You used that photo in a petty attempt to make Michele Bachmann look crazy. And that's what her words are for. You want a photo that makes her seem a little off? Make it out of her words."
Maybe this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, since "The Daily Show" has made plenty of crazy hay out of any number of images or sound-bites. The first and most immediate difference would be the fact that "The Daily Show" is aired on the Comedy Central Network. The name suggests the attitude. Their lead-in is often cut-out figures of little kids from Colorado with foul mouths. Newsweek, on the other hand, is supposed to be news. It's in the title, after all. In the past month, they have featured Sarah Palin standing amidst a field of hollyhocks with the legend "I Can Win" beneath her defiant look. This came just a week after editor Tina Brown photo-shopped a cover of Princess Diana at fifty. What do you suppose Tina's agenda is? It seems very much like news, does it?
Maybe after all these years of viewing the news through the Jon Stewart filter, I should expect that others would follow suit. Having an editorial point of view seems like a good thing, as long as it can be justified. The fact that the print version of Newsweek now reads an awful lot like the online version, The Daily Beast, with flashy graphics and infotainment seems like clue enough. But why not return to the original question: Is Michele Bachmann crazy? Perhaps not, but some of the things that come out of her mouth sound a little odd: "Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas."or "I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb," she told a New Hampshire audience in March. "And I think darn well, you New Hampshirites, if you want to buy Thomas Edison's wonderful invention, you should be able to!" Sure, it sounds crazy, but everybody used to think the earth was flat. Some still do. They should be on Newsweek's cover next week.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Long Can This Go On?

That's the musical question asked in the song "Workin' In A Coal Mine," and it seems appropriate to that particular trade. That question would be floating around in my head on a regular basis if I were swinging a pick in the dark and dusty tunnels hundreds of feet beneath the earth, waiting for the siren to sound or the canary to die. But that's not where I work. I'm a teacher in a classroom with four solid walls and lighting that continues to work, at a school that has at least three computers in each room and a roof that no longer leaks.
Could I find something to complain about? You bet I could. But that suggests that I would have to look just a little to begin with. I have a job. I have a house. I have an education. I can send my son to a public school for his. If I want a bag of chips with my foot-long sub, I can get it right along with my extra large Coca Cola. I know there are people living in my city who are sleeping outside. They're hoping that I don't finish that sandwich so they might snag it out of the dumpster. And yet, I'm miserable.
At least that's what I'm told. As the United States continues to teeter on the brink of being a less-than-super power, I keep hearing reports about how much we're all suffering. Not the ones sleeping in the park, mind you. The ones in the houses they probably can't afford. The ones who have invested in companies they read about in a magazine. The ones who drive cars that are good for the environment. People who are afraid to spend money because they don't know where it's coming from.
I get that. My beloved lawn mower sits in the garage in need of at least a hundred dollars worth of repairs. I continue to do my best with the push version of that same machine, and then it occurs to me, "You own two lawn mowers?" Well, one of them doesn't have a motor. Then it occurs to me that they've probably stopped worrying about the grass growing in East Africa. They're worried about anything growing.
Colin Quinn, in his one-man show "Long Story Short," suggested that we here in America have a while left on our Empire clock. He said that as long as he can stop by a newsstand and see magazines with articles promoting "How to lose that extra five pounds," we're okay. I would go one notch further and suggest that as long as we can support one-man shows about the demise of the American Empire, we're probably still good for another couple of years.
Then what?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Freedom of Choice Is What You've Got

How many times have you stood in between the shelves of a video store, shifting your weight from one side to the other, waiting for the people you're with to come to some sort of decision about what film you can all agree on watching? If you can't recall a single time that this has happened to you, then congratulations. That means your ability to choose hasn't become sullied by the oppressive need to gain consensus that so many of us suffer.
This probably means that you haven't been left standing on the sidewalk in front of a series of restaurants, peering in windows and perusing menus outside while you await some sort of magical solution to the dilemma in front of you: indecision. A limited number of choices would be the easiest possible solution. But that seems completely un-American. I can remember the struggle that ensued between my brother and I when the topic of fast-food came up. Initially, it was all about McDonald's versus Griff's Burger Bar. That was easy enough for my parents to sort out. We could take turns. It would also depend on which end of town we were on at the time. Then they went and opened a Taco Bell. Now we weren't restricted to which burger version we would consume. Now we had to consider those tasty treats from south of the border. Then came the Arby's. And the Burger King. We eventually got a Red Lobster. Then my younger brother started having opinions, and it was all over.
This all came rushing back to me as I stood out in front of a movie theater with my wife, son and brother-in-law. When I say "theater," I mean "series of concrete bunkers with stadium seating." Sixteen of them. Four of us. Each one of us had seen a number of the movies on the marquee. It was nine o'clock. We tried to arrive at some mathematical, democratic, systematic solution to our conundrum. There was none to be found. I briefly considered flipping a coin, but the sheer number of permutations left us all feeling tired, and so we went home. Where we spent another twenty-five minutes discussing what to watch on our Netflix-enabled cable-connected TV. Until "Raising Arizona" came on. Then we were done.
Until it was snack time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Caution: Downgrade Ahead

The Daily Beast refers to John Bellows as a "quick thinking by a little-known Treasury functionary." They also say that he was the guy who almost saved the United States' Triple A credit rating last Friday. In a flurry of back and forth projections and analysis, Standard and Poor's let our government know that they were looking to downgrade us. That's when Mister Bellows took a look at their math and noticed a two trillion dollar mistake. Their calculations were incorrect to the tune of twelve zeroes. Standard and Poor's acknowledged its mistake, then said it was charging ahead with the ratings change anyway.
Charging ahead? Since when has any of this process involved "charging ahead?" I get the impression that it didn't really matter much what deal was struck in the United States Congress, it was the last thirty years' behavior that was being discussed outside our borders. It's hard for me not to draw a comparison to my own profession. As a teacher, I can imagine the parent-teacher conference:
"Thank you for coming in, Mister and Missus United States."
"Is there some problem with our economy?"
"Well, yes there is. It seems that your national debt is fast approaching 10,000 billion dollars, or more than sixty-five percent of your GDP."
"Your economy is borrowing more than it is making."
"You're saying this is our fault?"
"Well, yes."
"Really? And just how do you suggest we go about fixing this mess?"
"Well, you could bring in more revenues."
"And how would we do that?"
"You could raise taxes."
"I'm sorry, did you say 'raise taxes'?"
"It's probably the easiest ways to -"
"No economy of mine is going to have to raise taxes. We're better than that."
"I'm aware of your history as world leaders, but I do think it's time to consider other options."
"Okay. What's the worst that could happen if we don't do anything?"
"You could have your national rating lowered."
"To what?"
"To double A plus."
"Double A plus? That doesn't sound too bad, does it honey?"
"But this could effect future earnings and current debt."
"Double A plus. That sounds great."
"Yes, but other nations depend on us to have a strong economy. It's not just us."
"I think I'll get a bumper sticker for the Escalade that says 'Our Credit Was Rated By Standard and Poor's At Double A Plus!"
"I'm not sure you're getting the big picture."
"Thank you for taking time out of your busy day."
"But Mister and Missus America, you might have to give up some of the things you value most."
"Right now?"
"Well, no, but in the years to come -"
"Well then, let's go out and celebrate our new rating!"
"Thank you for coming in. If you see that Bellows kid in the hall as you go out, could you send him in?"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another Apes Tale

I have, on more than one occasion, sat through all five of the original "Planet of the Apes" films. To be fair, it wasn't any sort of torture. It was purely by choice each time, and it was a choice that I relished in spite of the potential campiness of the proposition. It was, for me, like reclaiming my youth. These movies formed the architecture of my early adolescence, and though I have certainly found things to cling to in the pop culture stratosphere beyond the story of man's eventual enslavement to a race of super-intelligent apes, the remote still stops when one of them comes around.
For many sci-fi nerds of my generation, "Star Trek" was the drug of choice. The three-year run of the five-year mission of the Starship Enterprise was more powerful than dylithium crystals for many of my associates. Even though I still hold James Kirk and his crew in great esteem, I never bought myself a gold uniform and tucked my pants in my boots. I did buy a gorilla mask for what at the time seemed like the most ridiculously steep price of forty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents. I remember the total precisely because I had to drag my pennies down to the magic shop to scratch together just enough to bring it home.
I made Dymotape labels with quotes from the Apes saga and stuck them on my bedroom door. My brothers and I took turns reciting the plot details to my very patient mother as each new film padded the post-apocalyptic universe. The TV series just made me sad because I knew that it was a surrender to the fact that the demand could no longer support feature films, but a show shot on the Twentieth Century Fox back lot might just fill the bill and keep Roddy MacDowall off the streets. And so I waited. And when I heard that Tim Burton was going to bring his own unique vision to the "Planet of the Apes," I was heartened.
That didn't last. Mister Burton's vision couldn't get me past all the obvious comparisons to the original. How could you ever see that ending again for the first time? Impossible. The original five films made a convenient loop, with very few threads left hanging. Why start it up again if there was no hope of doing things any better the next time?
How about using digital apes? Now we have the "reboot." Attempting to insinuate itself neatly into the stream that would have been "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes," this new "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" attempts to explain where all these very clever chimpanzees originated. The original story was that a plague killed off all the dogs and cats, forcing humans to invite primates into their homes to fill their petless void. Over time, these pets became servants, and then slaves. Eventually, these slaves lashed out against their masters, and as this burgeoning freedom movement for apes came about, so did the eventual nuclear annihilation of most of the human race. The apes continued to evolve until finally they were left in charge of the planet. The one we blew up.
Now we're supposed to believe that that kid who got his arm sawed off in a canyon a year ago is a really clever scientist who figures out how to cure Alzheimer's and, by the way, make apes super-intelligent and computer generated. The whole thing feels like a really scary PETA commercial, and in the end we discover that it's genetic engineering that will kill us all while leaving all those chemically enhanced simian geniuses to rule the world from the redwood forest just north of San Francisco.
For the record, my son loved it. I wished that I could have seen it with my brothers. Then we could have gone home and told my mother all about it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Life As A Medical Experiment

At the beginning of the summer, I responded to a request from my health care provider to take part in a study. They were interested in finding out the effects of large-ish doses of Vitamin C on inflammation. I was interested in the hundred dollars they were offering to participate in their research. Now, several weeks later, I have been poked, prodded, weighed, measured and drained of a few ounces of blood. And I'm taking a thousand milligrams of Vitamin C a day. Or am I?
Because it's an experiment, it could be that I'm really swallowing a thousand milligrams of sugar every morning. It doesn't matter. That's my job for the next sixty days.
It made me think of my wife, and how she re-introduced me to vitamins way back when we first got together. As a bachelor, I had taken whatever minerals and nutrients were in frozen pizza and Chips Ahoy and done the best I could to metabolize them in some healthy way. This brought great shock and dismay to my future life partner, and she began to contour my diet and regimen in hopes of making that part about "til death do us part" more meaningful.
She has been quite successful in keeping me from succumbing to the general plague that exists in the petri dish of elementary school classrooms. She discovered early on that my strength is in routine. If she says take a multi and a C every morning, I do it. Until she tells me to stop. If she tells me fish oil is important for keeping the vampires away, I'll be choking down big greasy yellow tablets of that until she tells me to stop.
And that's what she does for me. She keeps me healthy, or healthy enough to participate in somebody else's experiment.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Kids Will Be Alright

The idea of having a Muscular Dystrophy Telethon without Jerry Lewis is akin to having Kukla and Fran without inviting Ollie. Harvey Korman without Tim Conway. Robert Deniro without Joe Pesci. In the grand tradition of show business, it seems unthinkable that, after forty-five years that the Muscular Dystrophy Association would kick their favorite funnyman to the curb, but that's what's happening. They said Jerry was a "world-class humanitarian and we're forever grateful to him for his more than half century of generous service to MDA." Adding that they would not replace him for the post of national chairman.
I suppose at some level this could be seen as good news. Maybe this means that this terrible disease, the one that degenerates the skeletal muscles that control movement especially in children, has been cured. Not yet, but the MDA feels that it's time to move on without the Jerry in Jerry's kids. Perhaps at eighty-five, they feel that he is more a liability than an asset. Maybe they feel like they'd like to appeal to a different demographic. A more youthful one? Paul Rodriguez, Larry Miller, Tom Dreesen, Norm Crosby joined a group of fellow comedians at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles last Friday to turn up their collective noses at this idea. "If this is the way we're going, we should also tell grandpa we don't need him for Thanksgiving," joked Miller. This group didn't go so far as to suggest that they give Jerry his job back. All signs point to the fact that he didn't really want it in the first place (read with lozenge in cheek): “I didn’t mean to sound rude. But you have to assume the question you asked was motivated by something, and it had to be a little emotion. And I have to tell you the truth. September the 5th, the day after that program, I will have an international press conference with press from Reuters and London and China and Taiwan and all over the world, and I will have plenty to say about what I think is important. And that’s the future, not the past. Okay.”
If you're working for the MDA, would you hand this guy a microphone for a quick five minute victory lap? Probably not, but it sure would make great television, in a very train-wreck kind of way. But maybe it would solve the question about what needs to be done with Dick Clark on New Year's Eve. We'll see if Paul Rodriquez shows up for that press conference.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Eyes Have It

When I was in fifth grade, back when the earth was cooling, I had my first taste of what I might do for a career. Our class put out a newspaper. When I say "a newspaper," I mean just that. We wrote, assembled, and edited exactly one issue of the Room Two Gazette. When the project was first suggested to us, I immediately imagined going to my strengths: writing and drawing. I envisioned myself as the staff cartoonist, with a weekly strip that paid homage in the careful way I borrowed from Charles Schulz. I could see pages of my fictional ramblings, collected neatly within the news of our class.
My teacher, Mister Conklin, wasn't going to have any of that. He expected us to stretch ourselves. He wanted me to write news. He wanted me to report. Just the facts. Short sentences. Who, what, when, where, why. So I set out to do just that. And I failed miserably. Where was the fun in that? Mister Conklin took pity on me. He assigned me to the editorial cartooning staff. That staff consisted of one other person: David Murrow. He was the other "smart kid" in the class. He was probably even smarter, because his parents had skipped him to the fifth grade right from the third. Not that I felt any competition there.
When I sat down with David, I saw that he already had a vision. He was already hard at work depicting the landslide victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern. It was mostly a sketch, but I remember how terrifying and dark he had drawn the head of Tricky Dick. The ski slope nose, great flopping jowls, and the most intense, beady little eyes possible. As I looked at this caricature, I tried to gauge my next move. What else could I add?
"Why don't we just show the arms and a leg of McGovern sticking out from under the rubble, down here?" David liked that idea. I began to draw. "And we could have Nixon flashing peace signs with both hands, like this." I kept drawing. Soon, there was a fully realized scene surrounding the demon-head supplied by my collaborator. Mister Conklin was pleased, and we were given a shared credit on the masthead.
In the coming year, that landslide victory became unraveled as Watergate became a fascination for me and the rest of the nation. I began to draw my own Nixons, always careful to extract some measure of the evil I saw in David's original. David had moved on at this point. His attention fell to chess and math, but I had found my calling. It seemed like each day brought a new revelation or affront from the White House. I filled notebooks with my pointed jabs at this would-be-king. Adults were always duly impressed by my cleverness. My parents introduced me to the work of Pat Oliphant, whose work informed and consumed me. So much so that, in fit of hubris, I sent a few samples of my work to his syndicate. A few weeks later, I received an autographed copy of one of his cartoons. It was inscribed, "David, Keep up the good work! Pat Oliphant."
This was all the encouragement I needed. I worked daily to refine my style and technique, but always haunted by that beady-eyed monster I had seen first in Mister Conklin's room. Then, all of a sudden, Gerald Ford was president. He fell down a lot, but the vast expanse of his face didn't allow me the same fun that Nixon gave me. All those wrinkles and furrowed brow, and that nose. And those eyes.
By the time seventh grade rolled around, the business of political satire was being taken care of by the gifted folks over at Saturday Night Live. Gerald Ford fell down a lot. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead. So was my political cartooning career. But every so often, when I remember the squint of President Pinhead, or the machinations of "Dick" Cheney, I wonder if I didn't give up the game too early. We shall see.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

I am a funny guy, or at least that's what I've been told on numerous occasions over the years. Part of my training, if there is such a thing, has been to collect other funny people along the way. Surrounding myself with funny people, or at least their ideas has kept me on this particular bent for decades now. Memorizing comedy albums and an entire film's dialogue was a vital and necessary function of my youth. And all that time I will confess to you now: I never thought Lucille Ball was all that funny.
Heresy, you say? Maybe the fault lies with the way I was introduced to Ms. Ball's body of work. When I was a kid, I saw her on "The Lucy Show." This wasn't the cool one, with Ricky and Fred and Ethel. This was the one with Mister Mooney, played by Gale Gordon. He showed up on the set ready for that slow burn that would have him fuming before the second commercial break. Vivian Vance came along from that first show to be the long-suffering best friend, but William Frawley had wandered on over to the Stephen Douglas household to take care of his Three Sons. That
meant there was a whole lot more opportunity for Lucy to get into all kinds of wacky situations all by herself. And the fact that a lot of this took place in pretty garish color left me believing that this orange-haired lady just needed someone to show up in her life and keep her from putting all that soap in the washer in the first place.
That somebody would have been Ricky, bless him. But that was another show. That was back when we loved Lucy. Not that she wasn't any less prone to being stuck in vats or at the end of an accelerating conveyor belt of candy. That was
the basis for every episode. The comic potential of this lady being put in all these dire situations was aided by the supporting cast. At the end of the day, we all really did love Lucy, even if she could be sort of a ninny at times. It was the love and acceptance that came at the end of the day that made it all okay. Lucy Carmichael in “The Lucy Show” was a widow, and that was just kind of sad to begin with. Even though Lucy Ricardo’s husband could be a bit of a Cuban hot-head at times, at least he was alive. And he could be pretty funny at times.
Lucy would have been one hundred years old this weekend. I have gone back and made myself aware of all that funny stuff Lucy did before I was born. Really funny stuff, even in Russian.