Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On My Mark

It happened again. Just like last year. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, since I asked for it, after all, but the ten kilometers that stretched out in front of me seemed particularly daunting on this cold November morning. How many years have I been doing this to myself? How many more years will I allow it to continue? These were the questions in my head at the starting line. My more sane and supportive family members moved to the left where the seemingly more relaxed five kilometer course looked like a walk in the park which, as it turns out, it is.
I thought about wandering over across that line. I could spend the morning as I do on so very many weekends, exercising with my family. My son pushing up ahead, and then waiting for us to catch up. Dragging my wife, now so much a part of the Zumba crowd, to run just a little bit more. We could all finish together, and I would feel so much fresher, having bypassed that whole second half of the race. The aches and pains would be minimized and the rest of the day could include physical activity outside of lurching into the bathroom to swallow another couple ibuprofen. It would be so easy.
But that's not what I signed up for. I signed up for the big one. The one with two hills and six miles that feel a whole lot like six miles after you've run them. It is the mild goal that I set myself at the beginning of each year. I won't finish first, but at least let me not collapse in the attempt. The rest of the year I train. Today I'm here to push myself. I'm here once again, to prove to myself that I can, in fact, run for an hour or so and then pick up a bunch of bottles of water and a bag full of energy bars before heading back home to savor my accomplishment. And those ibuprofen. See you next year on the starting line.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Our Long National Nightmare Is At An End

Did anyone else notice that the National Basketball Association has come to an agreement with its players? I just happened to be reading the scroll at the bottom of the screen while Michigan was battling Ohio State. In college football. The Detroit Pistons may have been ready to go, but all eyes were on Ann Arbor that day. A few days before that, most of your Detroit sports fans were glued to the action on Ford Field. It wasn't long before that that they were rooting on the Tigers in their race to the American League pennant. Basketball? are we ready for some basketball?
Maybe not. Not after one hundred and forty-nine days of squabbling over a few million dollars here and there. The details are essentially unimportant, since those who would watch the Pistons or any other NBA franchise will have their chance starting on Christmas Day. Their season will be an abbreviated sixty-six games, down from your standard eighty-two. That's a decrease of about twenty-percent, so I'm sure that both owners and players are expecting to make twenty percent less this year. Especially since the custodians, concession workers, and assorted support personnel will have to do without those sixteen games' revenue. You can be sure that part of the settlement reached between the big deals will include some sort of trickle down for those who are not millionaires. Or not.
In the meantime, I'm checking out the NHL schedule.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hunting And Gathering

If I were a good American, I would be busy clicking and clacking away on my Internet connection, doing everything I possibly can to end this long national crisis called "recession." I would be tapping into those credit lines and doing my best to relieve the strains on our country's economy by purchasing some nice candlesticks from for the friends and family that are still in desperate need of home decor.
When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. That's what President Pinhead told us it was our patriotic duty to do in the wake of the 9/11 attack. If we stop spending money, it could be perceived as a weakness. While you're at it, why not buy a house? Rack up all the debt you can muster for the good ol' US of A. Now, with the wolves at the door, we are being asked to wipe our mouths after Thanksgiving dinner and head out to the mall. Don't wait for the deals to come to you. You should come to the deals. Bring your pepper spray. You never know when you might need to fight for what you really need.
Those who are sitting in front of their screens, pads, or phones today might want to gather together just a little closer to enhance that feeling of desperation. Feel free to poke one another in the eye, or jab someone in the kidney. Those candlesticks aren't free, after all.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Where We Will Spend Most Of The Rest Of Our Lives

Welcome to the new century. I hope you've been enjoying yourself for the past decade or so. I've been busy trying to wrap my head around the way things are versus the way they should be. All of those science fiction books and comics and movies and what do we have to show for it? I can watch reruns of "Malcolm In The Middle" with the push of a button. Hallelujah.
Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. We're living in a world with electric cars, but just in case they have a gas tank too. And this is the future. The hydrogen fuel cells are still somewhere on the loading dock, waiting to be shipped, right? I can't even allow myself to start the flying car discussion, since they will need to be powered by banana peels. And the genetic engineering remains limited primarily to tomatoes and Republican Presidential candidates. I want the future, and I want it now!
Or maybe I'm glad we haven't found our way to a world where Morlocks lord over us weak and mild Eloi. We haven't been been loaded onto space arks and shipped off into space in hopes of finding a more habitable planet. Those snack crackers were probably made from plankton, not people, and though I know that Steve Jobs was keeping track of all the Olivia Newton John songs I downloaded, I am pretty sure that he is no longer aware of that stop sign I rode through on my bike last week.
Pretty sure.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

i Recall

The first thing I did a week ago, when I first received the e-mail, was to check out the potential for scams. This wasn't an offer to move large sums of money through my bank account to save a Nigerian prince or cancer-ridden Englishman. This was an offer to replace my potentially defective iPod. According to the notice, in certain instances, the battery on my first generation Nano has overheated, causing injury. There was no description of the injury, but I can only assume it lives somewhere in the realm of mild annoyance to nasty blister. I don't know if I would ever have considered such a thing if I hadn't been notified by Apple, if it really was true.
Well, it turns out to be true, or at least as true as electronic media will allow me to uncover. I suppose I could have gone further and hiked on down to my local Apple retailer, taken a number, and waited for a Genius to tell me what I had already read online, but my curiosity was satisfied. I clicked the link to have the box sent to me so that I could make the exchange. And that's when the doubts really kicked in.
They were suggesting that it could take up to six weeks to make the exchange. A month and a half without my second favorite electronic device, coming in just behind my Tivo remote control? I wasn't sure that I could make that sort of sacrifice. The idea of spending upwards of forty days without the happy connection to my favorite songs at the push of a button? The music that I can take with me wherever I choose to go? Maybe it would be character-building. Or maybe my iPod wasn't among those that made up the tiny percentage of the ones that burst into flame. Was I willing to take that risk? They were doing me this solid of sending me an overnight express box to ship it back to them, but I'm not sure I can let it go. I know that change is scary, but this isn't change, it's replacement. And maybe that's what scares me the most.

Friday, November 25, 2011

That Girl

"In all of this excitement, I've kind of lost track myself..." - Dirty Harry
I know that Inspector Callahan wasn't referring to Republican Presidential candidates, but it's kind of hard to remember a time when Sarah "Quitter" Palin was ruminating on the possibility of a chance that she might consider thinking about being a part of that field. These days the news is full of Herman Cain's call from God to be a part of a sexual harassment suit, and Newt Gingrich's improbable rise back the top of this barrel of fish, while Rick Perry stands in a corner trying to remember what that third government agency was. Debate after debate, someone always seems to show up as a new lightning rod for controversy, even if there is no clear front-runner. Sorry Mitt.
But what about Sarah? Sure, she's got books to write and TV shows to host, but what about her political career? Didn't she just fold the tents on her little circus back in October? Sure, it's not uncharacteristic for the former governor and almost vice-president to bail on a commitment, but as a paid correspondent of Fox "We Make It Up, You Figure It Out" News you would have thought that she would have given the scoop to her employer. She didn't. She picked Mark Lewis' radio show to make her announcement. No TV. No Fox. No thanks. "I paid her for two years to make this announcement on my network." A million dollars a year. Oh well, like the boys from Liverpool say, money can't buy you love. Or a political future.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Full Of Thanks

At the end of the day I am full of thanks. I am full of pie. I am full of turkey and stuffed with stuffing. I am able to make it to the living room where the football and parades continue to dazzle me with the spectacle of living in America. I am thankful for the time to spend watching television, above and beyond the hours I might ordinarily. I shiver with anticipation, knowing that our next great chance to win back our economy begins in just a few short hours. I have consumed enough mashed potatoes, and now it's time to turn my attention to electronics and housewares.
I am thankful my city made it through another flurry of riots. I'm happy that the tear gas didn't make it to my neighborhood. I hope the rains will help keep the tempers down while we try and sort things out. I am thankful that anarchy doesn't appear to be the solution.
I am thankful for all the things my son is learning, in school and out. I am proud of the way he is digesting the feast we prepared and the knowledge he has been given over the past year. I am excited to imagine a world that uses his best ideas.
I am thankful for the love of my wife and the adventure that continues to be our life. Not too many alligators, and just enough quicksand balanced out with the smiles and surprises that being married to an artist brings.
I am thankful for the life I lead here and the lives that I touch every week. I am glad that I can continue to teach as I learn. I am happy to be able to share this with you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Behind Door Number Three

My wife and I stood in our driveway and looked back up into our garage. Our garage. Our driveway. Inside we could see our barbecue kettle and our lawnmower. Our barbecue kettle. Our lawnmower. We looked back at each other. How did we acquire all this stuff? How did we acquire this garage?
Fast forward a few more years. I'm standing in that same garage. The barbecue is still there. The lawn mower, recently repaired, is still there. A heavy bag hangs from one of the rafters which already support a goodly amount of lumber, pipe, and cardboard. There is a barrel full of sports equipment that has seen better days. Tennis racket? Who plays tennis? That's okay. If there is a tennis-related emergency, we know where we can go to fix the problem. And if there is an issue that involves drip irrigation, the shelves against the south wall hold all the parts we might need.
Then there's the counter we hauled out of our kitchen when we remodeled. In the cupboards and drawers below are stored the bits and pieces of household improvements attempted and completed over the past fifteen years: sandpaper, caulk, wood putty, and all those tools. Screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, scrapers, and these are just the manual versions. Across the way are their powered cousins, corded and uncorded: saws and drills and more saws. I will work with all of these, but if I have to choose one, I'm going with the cordless drill. It's not much good for plumbing problems, but it has a way of solving and fixing the holes and loose hinges that occur over time.
And there's that big lump, sitting on the counter. It could be an albino turtle. It could be a blue whale's brain, but it's not. It's a wad of foam, left over from an experiment my son conducted when he shot most of the contents of a spray insulation into a shoe box. It's a relic, of sorts. It's a reminder of the holes we filled inside our house, to keep the outside out.
I know from whence all this all this stuff came. There are no secrets. Squirt guns, water toys and a wading pool waiting for the day when they make sense again. Until then, I know where they'll be.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Good Sport

You don't have to watch "Rollerball," very long to start feeling uncomfortable. Not because of the seventies vision of the future supplied by art director Robert Laing, but because of the sadly prescient nature of this thirty-six year old B-movie. I was thirteen when I saw it the first time, and it seemed a little scary to think of a world that was controlled by corporations, with the extremely violent sport named in the title providing most of the entertainment as well as a method of solving disputes between factions. As the tagline promised, "In the future there will be no war. There will only be Rollerball."
The trouble begins when the globally recognized star of the sport, Jonathan E. begins to question his place in the scheme of things. He is given a luxurious lifestyle, and all of the comforts of the executive class, but none of the power. The executives, meanwhile, are concerned that a player has become more important than they are. Something must be done. If you haven't seen the movie, the last thing I want to do is to spoil it for you here, but I will say that it is odd how much of what seemed bizarre and futuristic thirty years ago now seems like part of the plan. For example, books have been transcribed into computers, and many have been classified. Men wear wear these great big collars, and the parties are out of this world. But it's not all jumpsuits and jetting around the world, playing a game. The executives want Jonathan dead because he reminds people that they are not corporations, and vice versa.
If it were a totally accurate portrayal of our dystopian existence, however, Jonathan would be forced into retirement by a union-related work stoppage. You wouldn't have to kill Jonathan, just make him play in Europe.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Running To Stand Still

I am glad to have a week off. Once upon a time there was a need to keep kids in school until right before the day of much feasting. It became apparent, when checking attendance statistics, that our district had so many absences in the three days leading up to the Thanking Day it made sense to just cut our losses and give up on the entire week. As a result, I have become familiar over the past few years with this new rhythm. So have the kids.
The example I use is our Wednesdays: We call them minimum days, but somehow they end up feeling just as long as any other. It's almost as if the children sense the approaching void and start to cram in all the angst, ennui and drama they can into the time we have together. That extra hour at the end of the day after they have been dismissed often feels like recovery more than respite. We teachers catch our collective breath and prepare for the next two days.
And so it goes with this week in November. Last week I found myself coaching PE, running laps with a bunch of fourth graders. I kept a slow but steady pace, but found myself passing by clumps of listless kids who seemed to have plenty of better things to do. I was attempting to lead by example, and exhorted them to push themselves and try a little harder. To run. Some of them did just that, while others simply slowed down out of what I can only assume was plain old stubbornness. Later that day, as I headed to lunch, I stopped short as a gaggle of girls came roaring around a corner. Some of the same group who had been dragging their feet as I ran alongside them. "Please don't run in the hallway," I said with as much authority as I could muster. They giggled, "Sorry, Mister Caven," and off they went.
It's all about the timing, and I think its about time we had a break.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The sign read: "John & Kim Gritton Real Estate." I have probably passed by it dozens of times, but I hadn't taken the time to internalize it. "John and Kim." I'm not guessing that they are brother and sister, since that ampersand fairly screams a union other than blood. It's much more comfortable than the apostrophe "N" apostrophe convention found in so many commercial enterprises to instill familiarity. No, this was a symbol of marital bliss.
I know this because I am sometimes guilty of truncating the "and" between my wife's name and my own by a single symbol. Not to denigrate our union, but to enhance it. We don't need a whole word to describe our union, not even a contraction. That's how comfortable we are together. But would I feel that way if we had signs posted around the city? Across the country?
Then I stopped to ponder just how incredibly functional John and Kim, pardon me, John & Kim must be to go into business with one another. My wife has often wished aloud, in my presence, of owning rental property. Extrapolationg that experience out into a world that could hold a real estate company run by the married couple that is comprised by myself and my wife gives me shivers.
Not that it would be all pain. Collaboration is a wonderful and amazing thing, but I know how challenging it is to get a single room in our own house painted. I don't know if there is a property that could withstand our process outside of our own. All of which makes me pleased and happy for John & Kim. Though I do imagine those tough moments when it comes down to a brass tacks discussion about French Provincial versus French Country.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Please, Mister Postman

"No mail days are sad days." That was the caption underneath a drawing of a GI staring into an empty mailbox that my wife once sent to a friend. I understand this. For as long as I can remember, going to the mailbox to check the contents Monday through Saturday has been part of a life-affirming ritual. For a few years when I first moved to California, my wife and I had to walk up the street to retrieve all our letters, packages and postcards from one of those little post office boxes: with the key and the little door behind which all manner of circulars, magazines and catalogs could be stuffed. And every so often there would be a little slip of paper. I always greeted these with a mix of excitement and trepidation. If there was a package back there, somewhere, I could ring a bell and the mail droid would exchange the slip for a box at the window that opened at the far end.
Sometimes, no one was there, and I would have to walk down the street, poring over the letters and numbers on that slip, trying to figure out what might be waiting for me when the post office personnel returned the next day. Now I wonder how much more anticipation I will have to suffer as the United States Post Office expects to run out of cash in September of 2012. That could mean fewer deliveries. That could mean no more packages delivered or exchanged for those little slips. It will most definitely mean that stamps will be more expensive.
What am I willing to do to keep this from happening? Will I stop sending e-mail to friends and family? Can I imagine a form of communication that relies on the sure-footed clear heads of postal employees across this great land of ours? Could I have that package sent USPS instead of UPS?
Here's a little truth: My grandfather was a mailman. He delivered letters and packages and postcards back in Salina, Kansas seventy-some years ago. I never knew the man. When we finally met, he was in failing health on a bed in a rest home. Still, somehow I took this association as a badge of honor, much in the way that others salute the flag in honor of their grandfathers who fought in the war. I salute the mail carriers. I am considering printing this one out and putting copies in envelopes, the analog way. But don't sit by your mail box waiting.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Poster Child

Please don't tell the girls on our playground about Justin Beiber's recent troubles. Not that all of the children at our school would be shocked and amazed at the news coming from the Beiber camp lately. The notion of a teenager fathering a child isn't bizarre to the kids at my school. The friction comes from what is their reality and what they wish it could be. All those T-shirts and back packs are dreams of a better existence. They could go home after school and watch couples scream at each other about paternity tests on the Maury Povich Show. There is plenty of that already in their world.
They need a fresh-faced idol to worship. They need someone to sing to them about feelings and experiences they can only begin to imagine in fourth grade. And it's not just the girls. The boys rally around their own hate-Beiber standard, as tradition demands. Like the hard feelings I had against Davids Cassidy and Jones. Yes, it was a simpler time. A world without blogs and tweets, unless you counted those you heard beneath the desks after lunch. But it was all in good fun and it was a treat to have someone who was squeaky clean enough to put on a lunch box.
I don't really care who Justin calls "Baby," so long as he remembers that time has a way of catching up to child stars. Just ask Lief Garret.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Old Man

On this, the occasion of my father's birthday, I often reflect on all the mighty and wonderful things that he did, and all the things that he gave me: most notably my sense of humor and a part that begins somewhere near the back of my head and spans most of the top of my skull. Humor and hair were not the only gifts he ever gave me, but he did win the "Get Out Early" sweepstakes. When my dad died sixteen years ago, just a couple weeks after his sixty-first birthday, he left a lot of unfinished business behind.
I understand that it is generally considered in poor taste to speak ill of the dead, especially when discussing the paterfamilias. But good taste was not one of the attributes that my father passed along to me. He was the funny one. He was the one who dragged us all around the neighborhood on our sleds behind the big Dodge station wagon. It was my mother who dealt with all the soggy clothes and shivering children when they finally came back inside. He was the one who gave his three boys a pat on the back when they deserved it, but it was my mom who was given the wooden spoon to paddle our backsides when we deserved that. I wouldn't say that my father avoided heavy lifting, but I know that he much preferred the happy, carefree times. Not surprising, considering he was human and all.
But as I grow older, and start passing milestones that my father passed a quarter century ago, I find myself wondering about the choices my dad made. He was coming up on what should have been his victory lap. All three of his sons were grown and moved out of the house, heading off on trajectories that would find them making their own families and fashioning homes and traditions that echoed the ones he helped instill. Instead, he split. He left my mom, and went off to start fresh. This wouldn't have been quite as objectionable if he had actually done something courageous and new. Instead, he continued to hang around the periphery of our family, continuing to contact our mother without ever giving her the space and time to adjust to life as separate individuals. He wanted all the connection that their years together allowed without the commitment.
At the time, I made all kinds of excuses for him. I couldn't understand why he was leaving, but since he hadn't gone very far, it didn't seem so bad. Now that I'm a husband and father myself, I can see how confounding the choices he made were for so many around him. When he left for good, after the plane crash took him away forever, we all set about grieving the man who had gone away years before. I miss him today, but now I can see why. And why not.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Judge Not, Lest Ye - Oh What The Heck, Go Ahead And Judge Already

My wife and I were afforded the opportunity to judge the writing of some high school authors. We were happy to share our opinions and took our job very seriously. Almost as seriously as the students who wrote their poems, essays, and stories. They all shared a common theme, as any good writing contest should: "Diversity Is." We were curious to see what a group of suburban high school kids from southern California would have to say on the subject.
What I was reminded of, almost immediately, is just how much high schoolers know. Their vocabulary was on full display, not unlike a verbose peacock. Every line and every paragraph was littered with adjectives and adverbs, and I wondered if any of these kids talked like they wrote. If so, it would be a very earnest encounter.
There were some that took a more jaundiced approach, pointing out the unfairness of it all and one even went so far as to question why they were being asked about diversity at all, since they were routinely asked to state their race on standardized forms. I felt their pain, but I couldn't fully connect. There's just something about being a teenager that turns all your injustice sensors on full.
And so we read. Some of them rhymed. Many of them made full use of their thesaurus. Many of them sought out our heartstrings. Some of them came close. Then there was this one that tried a different tack. This one didn't target the heart. It aimed a little wider: for our funny bone. It told the story of an intergalactic diversity training. Creatures with six eyes met with tentacled beasts who pulled diamonds out of their ears. It was clever and it was on topic. It made me think about what I know about diversity. It gave me hope. I gave it a ten.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Look Out, 'Cause Here It Comes

I remember when I woke up with a start the first time I felt an earthquake. I had only lived in California for a few months, and I was unprepared for the experience. I woke up my then wife-to-be who assured me without opening her eyes that it was no big deal: "The closet's just shaking." The closet and most everything else around me.
And then it was over. Each time the ground beneath my feet has shifted it has become a little easier to accept. I know where the fault lies, and though I know there is nothing I can do to correct it, I have made it my concern. Not in a big way, mind you, but it's a good thing to be familiar with the forces of nature just in case you need to negotiate with them.
That's why I feel so embarrassed by the asteroid that narrowly missed us last week. It was as big as an aircraft carrier, and it came as close as anything like it to crashing into our planet in the past thirty-five years. Unless you count all those bits of space debris that continues to drop out of the heavens because we forgot about them after they stopped doing their satellite duties. Or unless you think that two hundred thousand miles shouldn't qualify for "near miss."
Okay, maybe it's not something that Morgan Freeman should be disturbed for, or for which we need to enlist Bruce Willis' aid. It wasn't a big enough deal to construct a space ark or generate international cooperation to ward off the impending doom. It was as if our galactic closet was shaking. Now we can all go back to sleep.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Human Drama Of Athletic Competition

"A riot is an ugly thing." That's the first thing that Inspector Kemp says, through a thick German accent in "Young Frankenstein." Then he finishes with, "and I think it's about time we had one." Why not? Riots are very much in vogue right now. It used to be a more isolated tactic, used primarily to celebrate the end of a championship season by the local sports franchise. The release of all that tension that feels like celebration at first turns into ugly unchecked violence after all the beer is gone. The curiosity being, of course, that you would expect that the losing team would be the ones whose fans would take exception to the outcome, but generally that's not the case.
Then there are those nutty soccer fans: the ones who can't wait for the game to be over before the tumult is unleashed. These guys might just burn down the stadium before the match can be completed. That's how committed they are. Or perhaps they should be committed, that's the answer.
Which brings us to the unrest last week in State College, Pennsylvania. Upon hearing that their football coach and semi-major demigod, Joe Paterno, had been fired for his part in an expanding the scandal surrounding accusations that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulted young boys. To be clear, these students were not enraged by the football program's involvement in the abuse of children, they were incensed that their beloved leader, "JoPa," had been relieved of his position. That's when they took to the streets.
“Of course we’re going to riot,” said Paul Howard, twenty-four, an aerospace engineering student. “What do they expect when they tell us at ten o’clock that they fired our football coach?”
“We got rowdy, and we got Maced,” said Jeff Heim, nineteen, rubbing his red, teary eyes. “But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”
Tarnished legend? I guess they don't teach irony at Penn State.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Brief Encounter

In the midst of a reverie concerning the pending closure of five Oakland schools, I was surprised to hear a voice from behind me: "Excuse me, sir?"
I stopped pedaling, assuming that the only person that could possibly be addressed in the early morning hours on this side street was me. I was also curious to see who would be calling after me in such a polite fashion on my ride to work.
It was another biker. This guy was much younger than I, and as he coasted to a stop next to me, I briefly admired the bright red paint job his bicycle was sporting. Then my fellow two-wheeler asked, "Is that your only bike?"
For a moment I considered my responses: What business is it of yours? No, I have several back in the bike port. This is the only one that I know of. So many sarcastic responses, so many layers of uncertainty. I settled on the truth: "Nope. This is the only one."
"Man," the young dude exclaimed, "I been seeing you ride through here for years, and I was sure that you had lots of different bikes."
"Same one I've had for years," I assured him adding, "Just a new inner tube now and then, but this is it."
"Wow. I was sure that you must have a bunch of bikes."
Then came the awkward pause. I didn't have a clue about where else this line of discussion was going to go. Maybe, "Well, now you've got no bikes," as his accomplice emerged from the bushes and pushed me to the ground. Or, "I don't really need this one. How would you like a new bike?" When neither side of the spectrum emerged, I smiled and nodded. "Have a good ride," I told him as I got back up on my pedals and headed off in the direction of my school. He waved goodbye and rode off in the opposite direction.
I started thinking about all the possibilities.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I can remember how important television schedules used to be to me. When the new TV Guide arrived at my mother's house, I would peruse the fine print page by page, taking careful note of the prime time and late-night Friday and Saturday grids. I was planning my week's viewing in advance so that I could politely decline any invitations that might interfere with this program or that, and eagerly anticipating that weekend's slate of science fiction and horror movies. In high school the night that I looked forward to most was Thursday, when I could be lulled into quiet familiarity by "Happy Days," and later assaulted by this bright young comedian, Robin Williams, on the spin-off, "Mork and Mindy." It was a time that I paid close attention to the goings-on in a sit-com world. Others had moved on to "Dallas" and "The Love Boat," but my attention span was rigidly fixed at thirty minutes. Even special two-part episode arcs bothered me, because this meant carrying the thread of a story across the hustle and bustle of a busy week. I wanted resolution, and I needed that tag after the last commercial.
When ABC moved on, and these shows were shifted in order to fill gaps in programming elsewhere, they eventually lost their mojo and went to TV heaven. I watched my fill of television after that, but it took me years to recover and I had a difficult time trusting networks and their machinations. Then, after decades, NBC gave me "Must See TV." It was a time that included such conveniences as home video taping machines, but the water cooler aspect of watching the shows with a wider community meant that you needed to stay current with Monica, Chandler and the rest of the Friends, and was Paul Reiser really married to Helen Hunt?
That time passed too. Now we have two Tivo boxes monitoring all broadcasts coming into our home, recording those we have asked it to save, and even adding in some of their own helpful suggestions. Nowadays, I don't even watch "The Daily Show" on a daily basis. I try and stay current, but I'm almost always a day behind, and there are weeks that go by when my family's favorite shows stack up on the hard drive, waiting to be seen. Sometimes it's because we have plenty of other important things to do: homework, meetings, exercise, chores. But most of the time it's because we're busy watching something else. Like reruns of "Mork and Mindy."

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Family Circle Of Life

It was the circle at the bottom of the comics page that I avoided: The Family Circus. Even in the days when I was a voracious enough comics reader to take in all the drama of Rex Morgan M.D., I couldn't bring myself to read the single panel of benign humor. There was something about it that was just a little too precious, a tad too sentimental for my very mature tastes. I preferred the bone-dry wit of "Peanuts," or the racial diversity of "Wee Pals." I wasn't going to fall into that saccharine trap. I still had "Hagar the Horrible" to read.

By the time I got to college, I realized that what Bil Keane was offering us all a convenient target for our angst. We could all roll our eyes collectively at the antics of Jeffy and Dolly. We could sneer with contempt at the relative struggles of P.J. and little Billy. What was their life if not a sardonic comment on the state of the American dream for the rest of us.

I had forgotten that Bil Keane was the illustrator of Erma Bombeck's "Just Wait Until You Have Children Of Your Own." This guy knew what was going on. He lived through the same reality we all did, and as a parent, I began to sneak a peek in that corner of the page, after I had read everything else. It turns out that he was doing that thing that artists are encouraged to do: He wrote about what he knew. And he drew pictures. He was friends with Charles Schultz. He had a dog in his strip that was named "Barfy." Not exactly subversive, but kind of funny that no one fussed about it for fifty years. Then there's this: Apparently Billy and Zippy the Pinhead were pals.

Aloha, Bil. See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Didja Ever Notice....

I have waited a while to comment on the passing of Andy Rooney. It has little to do with any other pressing matters and everything to do with my ambivalent feelings toward the man's impact on popular culture. Not the man himself. We should all devote ourselves to our career and family the way he was able to, and his devotion to both are examples to us all. Married to the same woman for sixty-two years, until death did part them, he made his last appearance on "Sixty Minutes" just three weeks before he died at the age of ninety-two.
So what is my beef with Andy Rooney? It probably has something to do with the way he was able to forge a life's work out of the mundane. Missing socks and other tiny elements of our modern life never escaped his ridicule: "I don't like food that's too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I'd buy a painting." So much of what he wrote and reported from his cramped office each Sunday evening was a complaint: "The dullest Olympic sport is curling, whatever 'curling' means." He was the quintessential grumpy old man, inviting us all to listen to one last harangue before he told us to get off of his lawn.
And I will miss him. Not because I agreed with everything that he had to say, but because he is probably as responsible as anyone for the words you are reading here. Andy Rooney may have been the alchemist behind Short-Attention-Span-Theatre. A few minutes with Andy Rooney was not unlike a few paragraphs with Dave. And maybe in another forty years, I'll feel comfortable with that comparison.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Making Hay

I remember sitting in my apartment, back in my college days, listening to the campus radio station and hearing the DJ bristling with discontent about USA for Africa's recording, "We Are The World." "Feed the world. Great," he snarled, "I know one thing: Somebody's getting rich." Well, as it turns out, it was a rare example of true altruism, with ninety percent of the money raised going to famine in Africa, and the other ten percent being used to feed the hungry here in America. Who would have guessed that such a thing was possible? Certainly not the cynic behind the microphone way back then.
And this mild sense of hope is what I confronted when I read the story of a local Oakland merchant who was having himself a bonanza as a result of the Occupy Movement. Our local Army Surplus store can't keep gas masks on the shelves. "They (the protesters) want to take precautionary measures," said store owner Moiz Raniji, pleased by the uptick in sales at his East Oakland outlet. He had sold at least fifty in the past ten days. At forty bucks a pop, that's a pretty nice bump in your autumn sales.
And it's not just here in Oakland where there is money to be made in Occupation. There are plenty of online opportunities to stock up on t-shirts and tote bags in all colors and styles for the well-dressed activist. While it is true that no one will probably hop tax brackets based on the profits they are making, it has opened the door for a more contentious point: Who owns the rights to "occupy" and "99%?" If you want to get in on the ground floor of the new world order, you had better have a good lawyer, and you had better move fast.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


I sat in front of my personal computer the other day, feeling quite clever at my own personal evolution into the digital world. I was listening to my favorite music and reading the news while in the background I was keeping track of the scores from the gridiron. If I had half a mind to, I could make a couple more clicks and start watching the most recent releases from Hollywood, the ones I missed because I was far too busy at my computer. That's when I read the article. The one that changed my rosy outlook to dusky gray.
It seems that I was operating technology from the last epoch. I still own not one but two video cassette recorders. I have found myself on the cusp of buying the Star Wars trilogies in yet another permutation. I own the VHS version. I sold my laser discs of Episodes IV through VI along with the player I was using to show off my devotion to all things cinema back in the nineties. The box set of DVDs have had some use over the years, but now when we need to reference a scene or line of dialogue, we call it up on YouTube. We have all this software, and now we are being told that it's really not necessary.
I remember how I had to reconcile my sadness in losing the artwork of my vinyl LPs first for cassette tapes and then for compact discs. Now I occasionally take the time to download some of the liner notes on those special edition mp3s, but mostly I'm storing bits and bytes on my hard drive with the intent of reproducing them for the moment of playback. Amazon and Apple will be happy to store those for me as well, even if it costs me a few dollars a year. I won't have to worry about space.
I used to have a video camera. Actually, I have owned a number of video cameras over the years. Mostly they were replaced by better, smaller, flashier versions, until just recently when my son took most of our family vacation videos with his phone, much in the way our snapshots have become an almost purely digital domain.
And here I sit at my antiquated desktop machine, plugged into a bunch of cables sprouting from the wall. A tablet would be so much less effort and one less dimension. A single flat surface that could maintain and retrieve all the media that I could possibly care about. That can take pictures and video and send them to a storage farm someplace on a cloud, or somewhere in the Midwest.
Or maybe I should anticipate a time when the relics that I use currently carry the same cachet as the wind-up Victrola my wife inherited from her father so many years ago. And I await the eventual implant in my skull for receiving and transmitting data. Until that becomes passe.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Things That Go Boom

I'm not much for first-person shooter games. Way back when the whole Columbine thing came to pass, I had a demo version of Doom on my computer. If you haven't spend your own requisite amount of time sitting in front of a screen, chasing monsters and ghouls with shotguns and assorted automatic weapons and killing them in ghastly ways, then you wouldn't have to worry about deleting it from your hard drive when your conscience woke you up in the middle of the night.
I was never one of those who felt that video games were to blame for any shootings, high school or drive-by. By that measure, we should have many more professional football players and rock guitar prodigies, based on the sales of video games. The reason I retired from the dungeons of Doom was that I didn't feel comfortable hunting humanoids in what was then a moderately realistic setting. I didn't make it a campaign of any sort, and when it came time for my son to ask if he could play the Star Wars version, the one where you could zap droids and Wookies with your T-16, I felt the need to talk with him about the difference between fantasy and reality, and how seeing things on a screen is different from seeing them in the real world.
To which he replied, "No duh, dad."
Now the video game shelves are chock full of war: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty. You can go around the world and across time to be part of an army that shoots, stabs, and blows up other humans to generate cyber-victory. It brings to mind the moment in "True Lies" when Jamie Lee Curtis confronts her super-spy husband Arnold Schwarzenegger about all the people he has killed in his career. "Yeah," the once and future governator sighs, "but they were all bad." And that's what we can do to tell ourselves that this experience is completely harmless. Unless you recall the dustup when a version of Call of Duty was released where players could control Taliban units.
And suddenly I'm transported to that moment when my son finished reading "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card. If you missed this one because you were too busy playing first-person shooter games on your PC, it concerns a future where the best and brightest of Earth's future are trained via computer simulation to deal with the invasion of an alien race. Since that time, my son has left the guns and ammo behind, preferring instead to focus on driving fast through city streets in fantastically expensive cars. In a video game. The good news is that if the Formics land on our planet tomorrow, he might not be available to eradicate the insect hordes, but he will be able to drive away. Really fast.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Mighty Wind

The streets of our city were littered with debris again. Branches and trash cans were strewn about, awaiting the day that they could all be carted away and order could be restored to the chaos from the night before. It happened over a couple of nights. The first one was a very literal storm with winds of up to seventy miles an hour that knocked things down and turned things over. The second was the trailing end of a peaceful protest that didn't stay that way. Windows were broken and fires were set.
No police were needed to quell the wind storm. The riot squad responded to the fires in the street. Both events could have been predicted, forecasted, but they both left the city worse for the wear the next day. Atmospheric disturbances don't specify targets, and sometimes I wonder if angry mobs are any more discerning.
Somebody has to clean this mess up. It won't be done for free. The costs for the people who are making their way to and from work to earn a paycheck haven't been figured into the equation. When a grocery store is closed and the employees are sent home because of a broken window, it doesn't matter if it was a tree branch that came through or a rock. Those people aren't getting paid. Force of Nature or Act of Force, the result is the same.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Relative Growth

The door to my wardrobe is a magical place. Not quite in a league with the one that C.S. Lewis wrote about. No one is getting to Narnia from that corner of my bedroom, but we can travel into the past. More specifically, we can travel into my son's past. It is on this door that my wife and I have been marking his progress through the years, and the inches from babyhood to teenageness.
It used to be that one of us would have to hold him steady as the other carefully marked, with permanent marker, the most accurate accounting of his growth to that point. In the beginning, we were fascinated enough by the way he grew that we felt compelled to mark it every six months. When I look at those initial lines on the door, I wonder how all that personality ever fit in something so small.
Eventually, he became as interested as we were in his relative height. That's when he started asking if it was time to measure again. It has been no secret that his peers have stretched out in advance of him, and he remains optimistic about his chances to reach six feet. He has seen the days when he was turned away at amusement parks because he was shorter than the clown pass. He can now stride directly past that turnstile with impunity.
The door itself ends five feet nine inches off the ground, the same height as his father. I know that I am done ascending, and my gradual descent is imminent. I remember that when I was my son's age I dreamed of being just a shade taller than my own dad. It was a mark my older brother reached, and I'm fairly certain that my younger brother would be looking at our father squarely in the eye if dad had lived this long.
That's what I 'm looking forward to. Instead of the fear that my son will surpass my in any way, I greet the idea with the same anticipation he does. Like the magnolia tree we planted in our front yard the week that he was born, I hope that he will someday tower above me. And I will take refuge in his shade.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Forward Into The Past

"In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. That may be a little fatalistic, but what would you expect from a Frenchman? A recent poll suggests that the government we wish deserve is Ronald Reagan. Second place went to Franklin Roosevelt.
The poll, conducted by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair, asked which president Americans would like to see take over in the White House if little complications such as history and death were no obstacle. Reagan got thirty-six percent to Roosevelt's twenty-nine. On the opposite end of the spectrum was William Henry Harrison with just one percent. This was the one percent of clever people who thought that picking a president who lasted only one month in office before he died of pneumonia was an amusing gambit. There was a pretty steep drop off after first and second place, with Thomas Jefferson picking up third with fourteen percent.
Really? The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence came in third? Fourth place went to Harry Truman who gathered in just eight percent. Where did Abraham Lincoln show up? How about Teddy Roosevelt? John Kennedy? What dead guy or gal would you like to see running our country? Who would you choose to be our first zombie president? Does it have to be a former president? As long as this is a wish-based experience, why not pick Steve Jobs?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Occupy Earth

With all this occupation of this city and that city across this great land of ours, I continue to be impressed by the wide array of responses the ninety-nine percent have to the one percent. Making tent cities is the most prevalent, with tear gas and public urination being featured elements of many of these experiences. And all the while, the earth continues to shrug. Literally.
Over the past three weeks, the three weeks that the Oakland encampment has been in place, there have been four earthquakes within a five mile radius of city hall. It is a reminder that we are only renters, whether we are ninety-nine or one percent. This vision was never more clear than when I was looking at the pictures of those who were displaced by the most recent earthquake in Turkey. Thousands of people driven out of their homes, living in tents, waiting for relief from this natural disaster.
I was struck by this image, because my family owns a tent, and we have our rolling box of disaster supplies, and we are waiting for the little temblors we have felt over the past few weeks to become something more assertive. And destructive. It is a great leveler in a very literal sense. It won't matter what your tax bracket is when an eight point oh hits. Everybody is going to be living in the parks. I suppose the ones who are already there will get the best spots.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Listening And Relistening

Drove downtown in the rain
Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night
just to check out the late-night record shops -"Brian Wilson" by the Barenaked Ladies
It's been a long time since I've been in any kind of record store, late-night or otherwise. This is unfortunate, since I live just down the road from some pretty tremendous examples of such retailers up in Berkeley. Of course, nowadays, the very soft, paper and vinyl thump that I fondly remember as the sound of hunting and gathering new sounds to bring home to my music machine has been replaced by the clackity-clack of the plastic stems that compact discs are stuck inside to create a deterrence to thieves who might otherwise simply pocket the little wafers in their trench coats and wander out into the darkness.
The iPod is ten years old. That's old enough that the word iPod doesn't cause my spell-check to flinch anymore. It is what it is: a brand name just like Band-Aids or Kleenex. Steve Jobs left us with the eponymous mp3 player, and that's where my Tuesday nights have gone. I don't get in my car. I log on to Al Gore's Internet and go searching for music, old and new, that I can play without packaging. No soft vinyl thud. No plastic clackity-clack. Just point and click. The rhythm of my life hasn't changed much, but the activity is much more sedentary. Buying new music could be done from anyplace with an Internet connection. Like a sandbox in your living room, for example.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Food For Thought: Brains!

One of the things I learned pretty late in the teaching game was this: Kids are weird. Just when you think you've got things figured out, they turn around and prove that, once again, you have failed to understand their motivations. I would imagine, as a practicing adult, that children who wanted to go to lunch would understand that the simple requirement of a quiet line would be a simple enough expectation to meet in order to achieve the stated goal. Not so. Instead, there are plenty of classrooms full of ravenous pre-teens who seem completely content to poke and prod one another, sing and hum, dance and wiggle, all while the clock continues to creep forward into the sacred time of lunch recess.
I learned a while back that all those rhetorical questions mean absolutely nothing to the minds of an elementary school student. "Why can't you stand still?" "Do you want to stand here all day?" "Do you want to miss lunch completely?" The answers are, "I dunno," "Sure, why not?" and "No." Not that anyone of them would bother answering any of them since, after all, they are rhetorical.
Which leads me to PE last week. I ruminated long and hard, and my wife helped me find a special game to play in anticipation of Halloween: Zombie Tag. It was hip, it was happening, and it was so simple, even a child could play it. For those of you who have never played Zombie Tag, it can best be described as a dry land version of Marco Polo. When the blindfolded zombie growls, the fleeing humans have to growl back, giving the zombie some idea of where the fresh brains are located. All the kids I taught grasped this portion of the game immediately. There was plenty of snarling and even a little moaning. The problem was, there was no sense of danger. Rather than being terrified at the notion of being touched by a member of the undead, these kids seemed intent on putting themselves directly in the clutches of the zombie. To be fair, it wasn't every child, but enough that it made each game last only a few seconds. Most of them seemed to be intent on becoming "it." They felt no stigma at becoming a member of the walking dead. Perhaps this means that our children have become even more accepting of all living creatures, and those not so much.
Or maybe kids are just weird.