Saturday, December 31, 2011


How will you remember 2011? Maybe it will be, as Time magazine suggested, the year of the activist. I tend to look at the empty half of the glass, so while I see all the things that have changed across the globe, I wonder where the change is for our neighborhood.
Osama bin Laden: not an issue anymore. Muammar Gaddafi: ditto. The vacuum their terminations have generated continue to swirl. The vortex of the Middle East began in Arab Spring, but continue on through the Winter of Discontent. The troops came home from Iraq, but stayed in Afghanistan. Plans for a family trip to the cradle of civilization are still on hold while things get sorted out. Perhaps in another thousand years or so.
That should give the radiation in Japan a chance to settle down enough to make it a little more tourist-friendly, though with all the earthquakes and extreme weather charging around the planet this year, I feel a little more comfortable hanging around the continental United States, where the scariest natural phenomenon continues to be Charlie Sheen. Can someone please explain how this guy got another job on another sitcom? If you said "The Lindsay Lohan Defense," then you can move your piece around the board six more spaces to land on the Compare and Contrast square to discuss Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Wiener.
Roll the dice again and you might come full circle to the Occupy Movement. The winter weather has dampened the resolve of those who weren't moved by the tear gas or pepper spray. As part of that ninety-nine percent I'm stuck scratching my head while, in spite of all the signs and tents T-shirts by Jay-Z, corporations like General Motors and Master Card continue to make record profits. Maybe regime change in a world run by corporations is a little more difficult than we had imagined. To that end, maybe I should leave the last words to a great imagination that ended this year: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow." See you in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Timing Is Everything

The first thing I thought about as I was preparing to write this entry was about how the media tends to - wait a minute - I am the media. Not the twenty-four hour worldwide leader in opinionated blowhards, but the once a day opinionated blowhard with access to a keyboard. That settled, it occurred to me how we, the media, tend to highlight moments of pain and strife with unnecessary calendar-related irony.
Whenever there is a house fire it is a dangerous and potentially deadly event. The fact that someone's house burns down just before Christmas makes the story more sad. Not because the fire burns any hotter in December or the damage done is any more severe during the winter months, but because of the proximity to the holidays. The same can be said for burglaries or theft of any kind. It's worse because of Christmas. Anyone who has their car stolen on December twenty-fourth is a victim of the highest echelon. I made a bad choice when I picked Father's Day to have my car stolen.
Hold on. I didn't pick the day. Nobody does. The guy in Texas who chooses to shoot up his family gathering in a Santa suit gets special attention because he did choose. We, I'm speaking of the audience this time, view this tragedy with greater sadness because it happened in proximity to the high point of love and understanding. There is no season that is immune from suffering, but we want to believe that. This time, I mean the media and the audience. There must be a time when the pain and grief of everyday accidents and acts of violence just doesn't happen.
Maybe next year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Paul's Epistles

For a while, like a good portion of the rest of the country, I have watched as Ron Paul has quietly become the voice of reason in the Republican Party. "Quietly" because he has been able to hang on the edge of the race to his party's nomination without getting the kind of scrutiny that many of the other front-runners have achieved, and wilted under. Herman Cain couldn't take it. Sarah Palin, true to form, quit before she ever got started. Remember when Donald Trump was going to run as a Republican? Gary Johnson, part of the "who's that again" faction, announced that he would be dropping out of the Republican primaries to run as a Libertarian.
Odd, since that's where you might expect to find Ron Paul. His anti-war, isolationist views are raising interest that sound more at home on another platform, rather than under the bright lights of the Reagan Library with the rest of the assembled Avengers. He appeals to Tea Partiers and Occupiers. He's the anti-candidate. He's also all about cutting the fat off our nation's budget. To the bone: an immediate, one trillion dollar spending cut that would slash the federal budget by more than one-third and eliminate the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, Interior, and Housing and Urban Development. If Rick Perry is looking in, that's six departments he would get rid of, doubling his cuts if he could only remember what they were.
Ron Paul is also preparing for Armageddon. That's pretty forward thinking, since the Mayans have predicted that the world will end shortly after Election Day 2012. Paul's version is less like a John Cusack movie and more Orwellian. "I'm afraid of violence coming," he told a crowd of more than six hundred in Bettendorf, Iowa. "When you see what the government is preparing for, and the arrests and military law, and the demonstrations in the streets, some people aren't going to be convinced so easily that you don't owe them a living." The Federal Reserve must go. He worries that the United States is about to surrender control of its own currency to the United Nations.
Then there's this: "Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."
"We are constantly told that it is evil to be afraid of black men, it is hardly irrational."
After the Los Angeles riots, "Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks."
Referring to Martin Luther King Jr. as "the world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours" and who "seduced underage girls and boys."
To Barbara Jordan, a civil rights activist and congresswoman as "Barbara Morondon," the "archetypical half-educated victimologist."
These quotes come from newsletters that bore his name and credentials in the eighties and nineties. Back in 1996 he took responsibility for their content, but now claims that they were all written by a ghost writer whose name he cannot recall.
Well, that's nice. At least he's starting to sound more like a real Republican again.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sour Grapes

I've been here before. Just a couple of years back, the Denver Broncos roared out of the gate and won six straight games. With a new coach, a new quarterback, and they were on the fast track to the playoffs. It all happened so fast. And then reality set in. The Broncos couldn't win a game. They couldn't finish what they had started. It came down to the last game of the year, and if they could just beat the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, they could squeak in.
It didn't happen. The next year, things went from bad to worse as the wunderkind coach only managed three victories before being fired halfway through the season. That set the stage for plenty of low expectations this year: new coach, but same old quarterback, a rebuilding year. That's certainly what it looked like after five games with only one win. Then they got a new quarterback. You may have heard something about that. He won six straight games. You may have heard something about that, too.
Then he lost a couple. The race to the post-season stalled. All that Mile High Magic seemed to have evaporated. That's when I started thinking about the times I have had my heart broken by the Denver Broncos. Back in 2005, the only time they have been in the playoffs since John Elway retired. Another great opportunity spoiled, this time by the Pittsburgh Steelers. And all those years when John Elway was the Denver Broncos, and he seemingly carried them into the post season on will alone, only to be diced up into bite-size pieces by one NFC Champion or another.
Until they finally won a Super Bowl. Then it became an expectation. They won another one the next year. And then there was a long time where they didn't. Now the Denver Broncos are once again poised on the brink of playing in the tournament to determine the championship of Professional American Football. What self-respecting fan wouldn't be rooting for these scrappy underdogs? It's a great story.
Yes, and it's one I've heard before.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It's Gotta Be The Shoes

That's what Mars Blackman told us a quarter century ago. We listened then, or at least a great many of us did. That's why the shoes that Michael Jordan promoted and wore under the auspices of "air" became such hot sellers. Millions sold, millions made. Money, money, money. For sneakers. Tennis shoes. Pardon me, basketball shoes.
And the thing is, it wasn't the shoes that made Michael Jordan such a great athlete. It wasn't the extra long shorts. It wasn't the tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth when he ascended to those great heights. But that's not what your average consumer thought. They wanted a part of that amazing spectacle. They wanted to buy some Air.
Fast forward a few years to my first year as an elementary school teacher. Way back then, my school had a uniform: White shirt, blue or khaki pants. The idea was that our low-income parents could save a few dollars on school clothes, and we could even help out with a few extra shirts or pairs of pants when things got really tight. Who needs to worry about buying all those snazzy new threads when you're trying to put food on the table? Well, here's the deal: The kids at our school did. We tried for two years to get our "voluntary" uniform policy to stick, and watched as kids showed up in sweaters that cost easily as much as a week's worth of uniform shirts and pants. And the shoes.
I know how much Air Jordans cost. I know how fast kids' feet grow. I watched kids come in and shuffle about in fifty dollar sneakers, only to wear them out in a few weeks of scuffing them around the blacktop. And sure enough, a few days later, that kid would have some brand new kicks on his quickly expanding feet. Heaven forbid that your parents would send you to school in some off-brand sneaker. The social order of the school would mock you relentlessly if your shoes came from Payless. It had to be worth it to buy the shoes and avoid the ridicule.
It's been thirteen years since we had a uniform policy at our school, about as long as it's been since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls. The first time. It's been eight years since he played for anybody, but this past weekend, there were fights and police called in to quell the excitement generated by yet another permutation of the shoes. Pepper spray, shots were fired, windows broken. I kept thinking: It's quite possible that some of the kids I taught way back then found their way out to the mall and participated in some of that action. It's gotta be the shoes.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Things Are Tough All Over

It's been a tough year for middle America. Once again, everything that was already too expensive got a little more so. We avoided a double-dip recession, and The Second Great Depression was something that we talked about but never occurred. Unemployment rates continue to decline, but we are told that we can't tax the job creators because then we'll never find work. The logical alternative would seem to become a professional job creator.
One person who lives in that rarefied air is the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings. The guy who keeps all those envelope stuffers and button pushers employed just got some bad news: His company is giving him a pay cut next year. It may have to do with the way his company handled their price hike back in July. Or the way they decided to change their name to Qwikster for those who were content to do without all those envelopes, and choices. It was a pretty solid corporate train wreck that required a certain amount of damage control. Stock prices fell, members left in droves, but the company survived. That's why the powers that be at Netflix decided to keep Mister Hastings' salary the same, but to cut his stock compensation in half. He'll still pull in half a million dollars this year, but his stock options will be reduced from three million dollars to just one and a half million. Ouch.
That "ouch" assumes that you can feel it when someone skims one and a half million dollars off the top of the two million dollars you are making in a year. "Looks like that family trip on Virgin Galactic will have to wait until next summer, kids."
Happily, Congress just voted in the tax break extension, so he won't lose all that FICA money over the next couple of months while he struggles to make ends meet. Maybe he should consider cancelling his subscription to that DVD rental outfit - what's their name again?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The War On Christmas

I thought all would be calm
all would be bright
but a war still rages on
right here at home
Happy Holidays, even though
there are dozens of them
is not sufficient
The day is Christmas
and that is that
We won't be lulled to sleep
by the C in Chanukah
Or the mysteries of Kwanza
We don't want our Christmas
mixed up with all that
That's what our fighting men and women
have been fighting for
Or something like it
The War on Christmas will not have
as many casualties
Just some bruised egos
and hurt feelings
Just like Boxing Day after
and Black Friday before
And a memory of the good Doctor
Doctor Seuss:
"He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming
it came just the same"
Happy Christmas
The War is Over

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hounds For The Holidays

Chocolate will kill your dog. I have heard this warning since I was very young, and back in the day I used to react with the proper respect and fear. But here is what I can say about the dogs that I have owned: Really? I know that cats have multiple lives, which seems unfair to dogs who age at seven times the rate of humans, why can't the canines get a little extra help in this vein? Or perhaps they do, and the dogs I have been most familiar with are evidence of such a gift.
Our current dog, Maddie, has found her way into more chocolate messes than a warm handful of Hershey's kisses. Most of these have occurred as a lack of oversight on the part of her owners' part. Anything that sits at nose level for her, especially if we are foolish enough to leave the room, is hers for the taking. Wrapped or unwrapped, it really doesn't matter to her. When it comes to procuring illicit treats, she is a machine. One particular Christmas Eve the humans bundled up to go out for dinner. We gave Maddie a treat and told her to be good, we would only be gone a short while to look at the pretty lights. We failed to mention that she should stay away from the chocolate torte that was sitting on the kitchen table.
When we returned, the kitchen looked as though it had been ransacked, and it had. The culprit was easy enough to find. She was the one with the guilty look and her feet in a pile of the crumbs. That look and the crumbs were all that was left of the torte. Cleaning the kitchen became a secondary concern to the health of our dog. We looked into all possible cures and indication of poisoning, going so far as to call a pets hotline for advice. The fact that she was ambulatory and drinking water was a good sign, but we were told to watch her carefully over the next forty-eight hours. We did, and we've been watching her closely in the years that followed, always reminding her of the dangers of chocolate. She has nabbed the occasional wrapped candy or cookie, just to make sure that we remain ever vigilant.
Stepping into the way back machine, I recall the Christmas Eve when my parents whisked us off to dinner in order to make the house ready for the early arrival of Mister Claus. Upon our return, we discovered our little black dachshund Rupert had gorged himself on the one pound chocolate mouse that Santa had left, apparently, for him. He probably ate as much foil as he did chocolate, and we stood by as we watched him make his way to his water bowl, which he drained in a minute or two. His generally sleek form became distended, giving him the appearance of an anaconda that had swallowed a bowling ball. Over the next few days we watched and fretted as he waddled from place to place. By the day after Christmas, he was as right as rain, or the freshly fallen snow outside.
And so maybe chocolate is death for dogs, and a higher power interceded on Rupert and Maddie's behalf, a Christmas Miracle. Or perhaps it's really not that bad for them at all, it just means more chocolate for the rest of us on two legs.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cinema Verite

There I was, standing in the kitchen of a friend, talking to my son's preschool teacher. To be clear, she was my son's preschool teacher about a decade ago, but we are fortunate enough to stay in touch with his educational past and present. It was a holiday party, and while the food was being prepared and dispersed, conversation was being pursued. I was asked, for what seemed to be the fiftieth time in the past couple days what my plans were for the long winter break.
"Are you taking off? Going anywhere?"
"Well, I expect that we'll see a lot of movies," I replied. Feeling this was somehow an inadequate response, I began to pad it with a discussion of all the coming attractions that had caught my family's collective attention. There were family movies, romances, action films and family films. When I was done, I had listed more than a half dozen titles.
"Wow," came the reaction, "your family really loves movies."
At first I tried to shrug it off, imagining I was simply relating the plans and goals of most of middle America. Wasn't everyone expecting to take in a movie every other day over a two week period? Add in the couch time for perennial favorites like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Story," ans suddenly the vacation was a non-stop screening room. With all the hype and promotion going into Hollywood's best and brightest, it would seem silly to miss out on all that entertainment.
Then again, all those tickets and concessions aren't free, either. We can try to get into those bargain matinees, and sneak in a can of pop or some snacks to take the edge off, but even then we could expect to lay down thirty to forty dollars for each blockbuster we lined up to see. All that cash would make a pretty good down payment on a pony or an air hockey table. A more realistic expectation would be that we might see three of those six movies that we set out to experience. The rest we'll have to wait around to see on Netflix. Or HBO. You know, for "free."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Dictator And The Playwright

One door opens as another one closes. The last troops leave Iraq, and Kim Jong Il dies, prompting North Korea to start its traditional period of mourning with short range missile tests. The Axis of Evil is alive and well, in spite of the demise of "Little Elvis." Iran has our super-secret stealth drone and a group of clerics every bit as nutty as the cabal in North Korea. And, it should be noted, the situation in Iraq is about as clear as the mud in the murkiest oasis.
Meanwhile, across the globe, Vaclav Havel passed away as well. The leader of the Velvet Revolution, not the rock band but the leader of a movement that changed the world in just a few weeks without a bullet being fired. Way back in 1989, when the Cold War was being decided, this playwright and dissident eventually became president of the Czech Republic, mostly because his was the voice of the people. He brought his country to NATO and to the European Union. When the Berlin Wall fell, it started a wave of reform that changed the face of what was once the Soviet bloc.
Kim Jong Il once said, "“In other words, one is responsible for one's own destiny and one has also the capacity for hewing out one's own destiny.” Vaclav Havel wrote, "Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not." Aloha to the both of you.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Is Truth?

I'm safe for another year. I did not put my foot in it as I have in the past. The secret of Santa Claus is still safe for the children whom I teach. Every year when we return from Thanksgiving break, I start getting nervous about what that inevitable question: "Mister Caven, is Santa real?" Of course, I have decades of popular culture on which to draw, from "Yes Virginia," to the Miracle on 34th Street. I've also been an uncle and a parent long enough to know how to skirt around the specifics of the issue in order to leave the myth intact.
But when you're dealing with three hundred kids a day, sometimes the burden of proof is just too much to bear. The easiest defense is to simply turn the question back on the kids themselves. "What do you think?" The responses vary wildly, starting with those who have long since put away such childish notions in favor of a rational and reasoned world view that doesn't include sleigh bells and a horde of toy-making elves. I believe a chief component in this lack of faith is connected to the disappearance of chimneys. If Santa is coming through a window or sneaking in the front door late at night, that's not magic, it's breaking and entering.
I am also wary of certain age groups. Third graders are much more wizened than their second grade counterparts, for example. That's why I was surprised when, last week, a pair of fourth graders began their debate, seemingly out of the blue: "No there isn't."
"Yes there is."
"Mister Caven, is there such a thing as Santa Claus?"
There it was out in the open. How was I going to enhance or deflate this discussion? I didn't have a chance to formulate my response before the next flurry.
"Like there's such a thing as reindeer, right?"
"There are so, aren't there Mister Caven?"
And now my path was clear, I walked over to the computer at which our young doubter was sitting and typed "picture of reindeer" in the search box, and pressed enter. There were more than twenty-million responses, and after flipping past a few artists' renderings, we found a photograph of a stately buck standing in the frozen tundra. The voice from behind me cried, "See? See? I toldja!"
There was nothing but a confused smirk as a reply. It was circumstantial evidence to be sure, but it planted that seed of doubt for another year. Thank you Al Gore.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lizard King

"She turned me into a newt!" cried the angry villager played by John Cleese, who waits a moment before adding, "I got better."
Imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and discovering that you were not simply an aquatic amphibian of the family Salamandridae, but a Republican Presidential candidate who suddenly found himself thrust into the limelight once again. That would be "Newt" with a capital "N." Which is the slimy one?
You won't find a lot of salamanders suggesting "The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting money from private industry or private sources is essentially a socialist argument." The one that walks on two legs did.
While most amphibians do not mate for life, one wonders if a toad would have said this about his first wife: "She isn't young enough or pretty enough to be the President's wife." Maybe that's why he left her. And his second. He is currently on his third wife, and there is no word from Newt on whether or not she passes his First Lady litmus test. With all his infidelities, it is interesting to note that he considers himself a staunch defender of the institution of marriage. Heterosexual marriage, anyway.
His lizard brain has some solutions, too: He suggested that poor children only be put to work in nonhazardous "three- or four-hour-a-day" jobs, such as "assistant janitors," librarians or "greeters in the school office." Adding, "Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. They literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash,' unless it's illegal."
Yes, I think the thing I like about the newts that live under rocks is that they are content to stay there and keep their mouths shut.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sounds Of Silence

"It's quiet tonight."
"Yeah, a little too quiet."
Insert sound of crickets chirping here.
Do they have crickets in Iraq? We can ask some of the American soldiers coming home this holiday season after nine years of planting seeds of democracy while avoiding improvised explosive devices. Sure, just up the road apiece there are plenty of service men and women ducking and dodging, but in the former Mesopotamia, the guns have gone silent.
Okay, maybe that's overstating it. It will probably be another few thousand years before lasting peace comes to the cradle of civilization, but for now we can savor the fact that after a decade of fighting and dying for regime change that occurred eight years ago when Saddam Hussein was captured. Then there was all that sorting out that was left to do. Wars don't just end when we capture the bad guy. There was still plenty of security that needed to be put in place and warring factions to be wrestled to the ground.
Now that's all taken care of. That's why we can come home from Iraq with a clear conscience. We certainly don't need to worry about any weapons of mass destruction. Any destruction that needs to be done there can be done a few at a time, thank you very much. Mission accomplished there. But can we put this one in the "W" column? Perhaps simply because we met our objectives and it happens to be the middle initial of the guy who got us into the mess in the first place. In the meantime, history will determine if all the sacrifices made by Americans on the front lines and on the home front. For now, we'll enjoy a pause in the action.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What Are You?

"What are you?"
I looked down at the kindergartner. I gave him what has become my standard answer: "I'm a teacher."
"No," he huffed, "What are you?"
I puzzled a moment while this boy's impatience grew. "I don't know what you mean," I faltered.
"Are you a Mexican?"
"No," I replied, starting to grasp the path of his inquiry.
"What are you?" he repeated.
"I'm Scottish. Irish," I was fishing.
His brow furrowed. "Have you ever been there?"
"Been where?"
"To Irish?" His patience was wearing thin.
"Ireland? No."
"To Irish," he needed an answer to his question.
I tried to explain, "People who come from Ireland are called Irish. The place is Ireland. The people are Irish."
"I'm Tongan," and this I already knew. He was part of a wide array of brothers and sisters and cousins who attend our school. They show up at every multi-cultural event and show off their dancing skills. Mad skills, both literally and figuratively, as the boys stomp about barefoot emulating their warrior ancestors. They stand in stark contrast to many of the kids at our school for whom heritage means the neighborhood in which they live currently. This kid had been to Tonga. He understood that if you were from Tonga, you were a Tongan. If you were from Mexico, you were Mexican. If you were from Africa, you were African. Irish? What was that?
"I've never been to the home of my ancestors," I told him.
He looked at me with a touch of sadness. I should have told him I was from Kansas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I sat in the diner next to my younger brother, the one we lovingly refer to as "the artist" because he is. We had finished taking in his latest flurry of art at a local gallery, and now it was time for the after-show. We walked down the street and found a little cafe that my son found fascinating because of its seemingly meme-inspired name, "Double Rainbow." We sat down at the counter, my family and I, ordered some refreshing beverages and an ice cream cone for my son, and that's when the memories hit.
We were sitting on stools covered in sparkling red vinyl. It took me half of my glass of warm tea to acknowledge the ringing thought in my head: "Just like the ones at the cabin." When we were much younger, and spent our summers in our cabin in the woods, my parents acquired a great many antiques to accentuate the rustic feeling we experienced day to day without running water, electricity or a telephone. Aside from the wood stove that provided us with heat and cooked our meals, the artifacts that got the most use were the three bar stools my father brought home and bolted to a plank, then shoved them right up to the counter that helped defined the kitchen area from the living room from the dining area. Three stools for three boys. There was a great deal of debate about whose stool was whose, but that wasn't the most annoying feature.
The sound they made. It never occurred to me until I was sitting there in the diner, hundreds of miles and decades removed that we were fortunate that our mother didn't chop us up into little pieces like the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Not because they squeaked. That would have been allowed in small doses, but the thunder that could be created by sitting on one stool and giving the adjacent one a good spin. "Thrudududududududud." Then another "Thrudududududududud." And another. There was no TV. "Thrudududududududud." There was no telephone. "Thrudududududududud." There was nothing to do. We had already absently followed the advice of the Von Trapps and climbed every mountain and forded every stream. There was nothing to do but "Thrudududududududud." Until my mother snapped. To be completely fair, she was and is the most patient human on the planet. She put up with three of us boys with our various complaints and frustrations with each other and the rest of the planet. She made things all right. "Thrudududududududud." Then she had enough.
"Out!" she would holler, and we knew that we had hit the target. We would scramble to get our shoes on and head down to the meadow or up the hill to the swing. We would rush out the front door, a screen door with a spring attached to it. The last words we would hear: "And don't slam the -" Too late. "Thrudududududududud." Sorry, Mom.

Friday, December 16, 2011

How Money Works

As we have established here numerous times, Soylent Green is people. That being known, we can now conjecture about corporations. Are they people? Mitt Romney believes that they are. It does help if there is a recognizable face for that corporation, like Steve Jobs at Apple or Dick "Dick" Cheney at Halliburton. Having someone alive in that position is even better, as evidenced by Mister Jobs' enduring contributions. We all miss "Dick" terribly, of course.
McDonald's is a clown, Marlboro is a burly cowboy and Heinz Ketchup is John Kerry. Why should we expect any more from these people than we do from ourselves? Possibly because corporations have many more faces and names than would fit on your average letterhead. These are called "investors." These "investors" are people too. They give money to corporations so that they can turn it into more money. That's how the stock market works. Or at least that's what I remember from the ABC Saturday morning show, "Capitalism Rock." People buy stock in a company that they believe will make more money, and when that company makes even more money, they share it with the people who were clever enough to buy stock in the first place. We call this "redistributing wealth."
The members of Congress are people, too. They can buy stock and benefit from the money that seems to be just oozing out of the sidewalks in lower Manhattan. One of the things that really helps when you're a person who wants to buy stock is knowing ahead of time what corporations are thinking. Let's say, for example, you knew that there was a readily available supply of protein available to the Soylent Corporation who was looking to expand their food wafer line. If you knew ahead of time that grinding up corpses of the poor and disenfranchised could be marketed as a a healthy algae-based food source, you might look into purchasing a few thousand shares. If you were Speaker of the House, and you were about to vote to kill the public option for health care, you might want to grab some of that insurance company stock. Or if you were involved in major legislation affecting the credit card companies, your husband might want to participate in a very large IPO deal from Visa. That's what John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, respectively, did. They are very clever people. So are the people at Visa and the Health Insurance companies. I just can't recall their names right now.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


You had better watch out. You better not cry. You had better not pout. I'm telling you why: Christmas is a time for abject paranoia. If you were looking to find a way out of that late-summer dust-up you had with your little brother that ended up breaking the mirror at the end of the hallway, now would be the time to do it. There are plenty of kids who are attempting to reconcile their behavior accounts just before the end of the calendar year in hopes that Santa Claus will check that list a third or even fourth time before loading up this year. But here's the rub: He knows who is naughty. He knows who is nice. So you had better be good, and not just for toys, for goodness' sake.
No pressure, right? Well if you're one of those last minute kind of people who wait until it's almost too late, the third week of December just may be too late. This is not strictly a kid issue, either. There are a lot of adults who are hoping that, in order to subsidize the generosity of Santa and his elves, a Christmas bonus may be in the offing. Choosing December to ratchet up productivity that had barely registered in the previous eleven months probably won't have the effect they had anticipated. After all, he knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows when you forgot to turn in the quarterly report for your section.
If you happen to be, young or old, in one of these untenable situations, you can surrender to the reality. Or you can start planning for next year. Unless we can get Santa to start recognizing the fiscal year as the measure of the quality of your character, or the amount of coal in your stocking.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Man

So who would you guess referred to the Occupy Movement as a "dance party in a public space?" Newt Gingrich? Michelle Bachmann? One of the chirpy talking heads on Fox "News" mayhaps? That would make sense, wouldn't it? Not in this case. It was none of the usual suspects. It was the self-described liberal and openly gay mayor of Portland, Oregon. It seems as though all of that open-mindedness has been used up with the now months-old protest that has come to rest in so many American cities. Initially he was in full support of the groups actions and goals, but lately he has been encouraging protesters to aim their ire away from local governments and instead pursue a national grass-roots effort focused on changing national policies.
How could this be? In the city recognized as: "#1 in sustainability," by the, and #1 green city by Popular Science magazine, "Best city for bicycling," by Bicycle magazine. "America's most vegetarian friendly city,"by and "#2 on list of America's most enlightened cities," UTNE Reader. The UTNE Reader, for goodness sakes. What could have gone so very wrong that a few tents, a few signs and a little civil disobedience is causing such a fuss in this liberal mecca?
"If it's too loud, you're too old," Ted Nugent once said. The Motor City Madman's politics will never be confused with those of Sam Adams, Mayor of Portland, but he may be able to relate. It is an interesting time in which we live where the openly gay liberal is the authority figure. I guess that's why we call it progressive.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Virginia Tech has a very good football team. They offer seventy different undergraduate majors and minors. The campus is on a plateau that overlooks both the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal report ranked Virginia Tech among the top 25 schools for "best-qualified" graduates. It was also the site of a mass murder.
Back in April of 2007, thirty-two people were killed and another twenty-five wounded when senior English major, Seung-Hui Cho, went on a killing spree. Murderous rampage. Massacre. He shot a bunch of people, and they died. It was horrible, and as an institution, they mourned. As a nation, we mourned with them and felt the page turn on another mass murder.
In the aftermath of the 2007 shooting, Virginia Tech examined the security of their campus and instituted more restrictions and controls, including sending alerts to students when something potentially heinous is about to go down. Like this past week when Ross Truett shot and killed campus police officer Deirek Crouse. The sirens went off, the texts went out, the alarm was sounded. The second body they found was the shooter, who turned the gun on himself.
The good news is that the system worked. Faculty and students got the message and avoided being additional numbers. This time the count stopped at just two, not counting shattered nerves. And so the echo went through Virginia Tech one more time, just like it will every time there is a shot fired in anger. Like the pipe bomb they found near Columbine High this past spring. The first question everyone asks: Are they related? In both cases, it turned out to be odd coincidence. Then again, maybe in a larger sense, they are all related. The fact that we can report "another mass shooting" makes every one of these tragedies part of one great big quilt of homicide. But this quilt won't keep us warm at night.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cannon Fodder

Adam and Jamie always make a point, if a tad sarcastically, to implore their viewers not to try anything they see on their show at home. Ever. These two gentlemen, along with their trusted minions Tory, Kari, and Grant have been uncovering the truth behind the myths that prevail across our modern world. They seek the truth while others simply accept the reality that is handed to them via Al Gore's Internet. And they tend to blow things up.
This makes great television, since just about every episode concludes with an explosion that makes viewers shudder, and the hosts giggle with teen aged glee. You see, I remember this mentality. If one firecracker merely pops the canopy off a model plane, how many will it take to split the fuselage wide open? If a squirt of lighter fluid gets the flame going, how about a steady stream? Remember kids, I tried all of this at home. Not when my parents were at home, of course, but that's the point: The Mythbusters want to be both the teenagers and the parents in this equation.
When they launched a cannonball through a suburban Bay Area neighborhood last week, it was an accident that had been waiting to happen for nearly ten years. Taunting sharks, dropping things from airplanes, and always looking for the bigger boom has never led to a catastrophe before. These are trained professionals, as we are assured with each airing. Now, because of the misfire where property was damaged and happily no casualties were incurred, there will be no more cannon fire on the Alameda County bomb range. Insurance will pay for the damages, and Adam and Jamie have assured us all that the footage and the experiment will be scrapped.
Until it shows up on Youtube where the rest of the teenagers are showing off how they can blow up a can of Silly String.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Transit Authority

The thing that sometimes escapes me about my bicycle commute is how deliberate it is. Sure, I can coast for a few feet, down a hill, but when that next hill comes it's back to pedaling. Each stroke is left and right, up and down. There is no radio to distract me, just the sounds of the morning and a neighborhood waking up.
This was the filter through which I watched the plume of smoke on the horizon. At first, I didn't even recognize it as anything but high clouds. The sun was coming up and I figured it was a chunk of weather that had skipped us, on its way to the Sierras. As I continued east, I noticed a distinct vertical-ness to the cloud. It was a column of thick, gray smoke. A block or two later, I could smell it.
That's when I started musing on the possible source: car fire, apartment building, somebody's house? It was the time of year when space heaters or holiday lights could be blamed for starting a blaze. I remembered another morning when I caught what was the end of a BART train derailment from a distance. It made a tall plume of potentially noxious fumes. I wondered if I was clever to be out in the streets, breathing in all that morning's poison.
In the distance I head sirens, no doubt heading toward the very same conflagration. I wondered how close I would be when I reached my final destination. Would it be my school on fire? But as I rode still further, I moved past the smoke and to the right. It was probably close to the hills. It made me wish, however briefly, for that regularly updated traffic report.
Of course I didn't need it. Nothing in front of me was on fire. I could deal with what was behind me on the way home.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Back in 1975, my parents took me to see the "Tommy," the film, not the stage version. The fact that it was playing at the cinema across the street from the university should have given us all the hint about the content. Part of this dynamic was fueled by having an older brother who wanted to go see it, and since the rating suggested Parental Guidance, they probably figured it was safe. Safe from the post-traumatic stress of witnessing the murder of Tommy's father by the man who would become his stepfather. Safe from the summary abuse Tommy experiences from Cousin Kevin and Uncle Ernie. Safe from the twitching smile of the Gypsy, the Acid Queen. Safe from the image of Ann Margaret rolling about in a sea of baked beans.
Baked beans.
Ken Russell died on November 28, and that memory did not die with him. Nor did all the images from "Altered States," or "The Devils" or "Salome's Last Dance." Mister Russell could be the first director whose work I began to notice by style and content. The lurid and sweaty visions of art and artists stuck with me from the time I was in the theatre across the street from the university to the time I was a student studying film there. I learned about Ken's beginnings as a director of TV commercials and watched as his vision progressed. I had discovered an auteur. All of that mind-blowing celluloid sprang from the mind of one man, and it opened the door for me to find Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorcese, and David Cronenberg. Though I had always loved going to the movies, "Tommy" was the beginning of my film study.
And those baked beans.
Aloha, Ken Russell.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Dance Of The Hours

There is a scene in the John Hughes film "Sixteen Candles" that is currently resonating with me: As the suburban high school kids are pulling up to the gymnasium for the big dance, a station wagon comes screeching to a halt right in front of the doors, and a middle-aged man and woman jump out and drag a teen-aged boy from the back seat. As they pull him toward the door, he keeps pleading, "Please Mom and Dad! I don't want to go! I want to stay home with you!" The parents shove the kid inside as the fire doors lock behind them. Mission accomplished.
I cannot say that my son is having that same reaction to the high school dance. On the contrary. He is willing to make the best out of his dateless existence and go with some friends. In some ways, he is every bit the grown-up boy we had planned on having, perhaps even more evolved than either of his parents in his freshman year. But on some level, he seems determined to cling to us in other ways.
My wife and I woke up in September of this year with the sound of a clock ticking on the four years our son has left in high school. A few years back he had been announcing his intention to attend the University of California at Berkeley so he could "sleep at home." Lately, that list has expanded to include MIT and the University of Texas in Austin. These institutions have only anecdotally been connected to his higher education, with the expressed intent of being some kind of engineer. Now the only thing that stands in the way of his dreams is his report card.
Somehow his meteoric rise to academic superiority has stalled, and he is struggling to find his way through the first year of high school. We gave him all these words to have conversations about subjects that would lead him to bigger and better things. We taught him to type so that eventually he could type his own essays and college applications. We taught him to walk so that he could walk out the door.
I wonder if that ticking clock isn't keeping him awake as well.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Unconventional Wisdom

Everything I know about football is wrong. I've been saying that a lot this season. I started out feeling so very clever, having a great many Fantasy Football seasons under my belt, having won the championship of my school teacher league just last year. This makes me a football insider, at least to those within my immediate circle. At least to those in my immediate circle who care about professional sports. This would be the cue for my younger brother to stop reading this post.
What have I done with all this experience? I have applied it systematically to the process of projecting and predicting the outcomes of the performance of athletes in the National Football League. This was not the year to apply science to this endeavor. So much about what we thought we knew about how this stuff works turns out to be run through a Cuisinart of chance and luck. When the fates handed me Michael Vick at the beginning of the season, I figured I could ignore the guy's shady past and focus on his abilities on the field. After all, the folks in Philadelphia had gone out over the off-season and purchased the best supporting cast he could ask for. Michael Vick should have been lighting up scoreboards from start to finish.
The comfort I can take is that I got burned right along with the rest of the point-fiends out there and sent him packing even before cracked ribs sent him to the actual bench. Contrastingly, I smiled kindly as my son grabbed Tim Tebow with his first pick in our family league's draft. I knew that the football wisdom was with Denver's game-managing veteran quarterback, Kyle Orton, who proceeded to win just one game in five tries. That's when all this Tebow stuff began. Again: I know nothing about football.
Meanwhile, my wife has compiled a completely respectable record for her own team, based on her interest in the personal stories of the players on her team. The inspiring story of Jimmy Graham, tight end for New Orleans, for example. And Marshawn Lynch? He went to the same high school as my son, once upon a time. For the record, she's very happy that Madonna is going to be playing the halftime show this year at the Super Bowl.
My wife. She knows everything.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Plane Crazy

This past weekend, Iran's armed forces shot down an unmanned U.S. spy plane that violated Iranian airspace along the country's eastern border. I know what you're thinking: "Oh great, now the Iranians have our model plane technology." Well, that depends on how much blew up on impact. President "Members Only" Ahmadinejad unveiled Iran's first domestically built unmanned bomber aircraft in August 2010, calling it an "ambassador of death" to Iran's enemies. My suspicion is that the powers that be will probably want to detain the wreckage of the U.S. drone for as long as they can, holding the bits and pieces hostage until someone comes forward to pay their absurd demands for "bail."
All of this got me to thinking about just exactly what was at stake here. The U.S. had a spy plane shot down by a country that claims that they are not making nuclear weapons. Had the drone been blown up by a nuclear weapon, that would have been a pretty clear sign to our intelligence gatherers that they were on the right track. Since that didn't happen, we can only assume that there is something over there in Iran into which they would rather we weren't sticking our infidel noses. Fair enough, we're pretty tight with our secrets too. That's why I'm looking into just what the over-under is on our going to war with Iran. If there's going to be a shootin' war in the Middle East in the coming year, I want to get in on some of that defense contractor action. Papa needs a new unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

To Bury Caesar

Okay, be honest: Would you really have wanted the leader of the free world to have running a pizzeria on his resume? "I'd like peace in the Middle East, a more understandable tax code, and can I get Crazy Bread with that?" Herman Cain didn't just run a pizzeria. He was Chief Executive Officer of Godfather's Pizza, the fifth largest pizza chain in the United States. While he has worked in and around politics for more than twenty years, he has never held public office. But it's really been the private offices that have been the issue for Mister Cain of late.
Like so many prominent leaders from John Edwards to Ashton Kutcher, Herman Cain had a problem with fidelity. The list goes on and on, including John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. Even Eisenhower had his indiscretions. These were powerful men, leaders. They have been elevated to that pinnacle of achievement wherein their likenesses appear on our coins, with the exception of Edwards and Kutcher. What I'm suggesting is that a lot of men who achieve lofty status seem to forget the lessons they learned about propriety in lieu of money, fame or power. Are you listening Newt?
And so we close the book on Herman Cain, the once and future second African American President of the United States. "Before you get discouraged, today I want to describe Plan B. . . . I am not going away. I will continue to be a voice for the people." That voice can be found on the Internet, the invention of another man who "drifted away" from his spousal commitment, Al Gore. The web site where multimillionaire and restaurant industry lobbyist Herman Cain will be holding forth can be found at Order now and get a free two-liter bottle of your favorite soda.

Monday, December 05, 2011

It's In The Can

I make no bones about it: Ours is a Coke household, and while there may be an occasional Fresca or off-brand root beer that sneaks into the house from time to time, we are happy to support the secret formula from Atlanta exclusively. There have been times when, as a friend or party guest has shown up on our doorstep with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi, we have welcomed the other cola in as a matter of decorum, but it is never a conscious choice. There are, by contrast, a number of friends and family who hear that I am on my way to their house and consequently they rush out to grab a six pack of Coca-Cola just for me.
"You don't drink Diet Coke?" In a word, "No." In many more words, I don't choose to drink Coke because it will make me healthier, happier or change my life in any noticeable way. It may be a reaction to that Pepsi slogan that insisted that they were the choice of a new generation. I am not that generation. I rode through that whole "New Coke" nonsense with a certain measure of forgiveness, but was relieved when the regular, unleaded version reappeared.
That's why I had mixed feelings about the new white can. In spite of being the world's most recognizable brand, the Coca-Cola company takes little risks every holiday season with the paint on the side of their cans. Santa, or polar bears or snowflakes, they feel compelled to remind us all as we stock up for the high-carbonated-holiday season that we are buying something special. This is Coke with something wintry on the side. It tastes fresher. Colder. Coke-ier. But apparently this time they powers that be went too far. People were confused by the white can, because it looked a little too much like Diet Coke. Or didn't look enough like The Real Thing. Or it was just different and therefore scary. Again, we all remember New Coke. And Coke Zero. And all those other excuses for soda that is not Coke that we love. It's supposed to be a red can, with a white logo in that distinctive script. Otherwise it could be anything. Maybe something healthy, and that would be too terrifying for words. So imagine some gagging sound effects here.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Does It Hurt To Ask?

I had forgotten how long it was possible for a teenage boy to obsess on the vagaries of dating. Specifically, I have stood in wonder as I have borne witness to the struggle my son is waging against the forces of the high school social order in hopes of securing a date for the upcoming Winter Dance. He has fired endless salvos of text messages, as well as direct frontal assaults after class and at lunch. Still, she won't budge. He stands on the precipice of her ambivalence: "I'm not sure," she replies.
My wife and I have suggested that he could see if a bunch of his friends all wanted to go together, you know, as friends. But I have memory of the ancient history that is my own campaign to avoid going stag to a dance myself. If you showed up alone, or with your best pal, you had surrendered. You might as well have taken out a full page ad in the school newspaper trumpeting, "I don't have a date for the Winter Dance, and I don't expect to have one for the Spring Dance either." My old man experience tells me that this is far from a death sentence, and at the very least it would free one from the intense pressure of trying to get that special someone to acquiesce to the demands of going to a gymnasium and standing around for a few hours in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. And if you pay an additional twenty bucks, you can get a souvenir photo of this most memorable evening that you can cherish forever.
After going oh-for-five in my sophomore year, I managed to swing a date to the Homecoming dance with a cheerleader. As a point of clarification, she had only recently made the leap from being a flag girl in band to the upper strata of our caste system. I knew her when she was "just a flag girl." After the exquisite torment that was that evening, I spent the rest of the year chasing after that same girl, never fully comprehending that "I'll think about it," may have been the most polite way she could have responded to my tenacity.
In my senior year, I had it figured out, and after a mutually awkward Homecoming dance that year that turned out to be a mildly entertaining pas de deux between two people who probably wanted to be there with someone else, but I had a nice time. I missed the Christmas Dance that year, but by January I had secured the Holy Grail: A Girlfriend. I had a date for the rest of the social events of the year, and since she was a junior, I was assured a victory lap the following year, if I weren't too busy at college.
Well, as it turns out, I took a year off after I got out of high school and that meant I was available for every dance that year, as I struggled to maintain the relationship that would allow me to go to every dance that year. Was it worth it? Of course it was. I was living the dream, after all. The dream that burns deep inside my son's heart. I have tried to share some of my worldly experience with him, giving him suggestions of strategy and alternatives to the tireless texting and begging. His reply? "I'll think about it."

Saturday, December 03, 2011


First, the good news: Police in Oakland have not been dispatched over the past week to deal with protests, march or riots connected to the Occupy Movement. This is good news because those resources will be needed to deal with the bad news: Police searched for multiple suspects Tuesday after a gunbattle in a parking lot where a rap music video was being filmed left seven people wounded, including a one-year-old boy who was shot in the head.
I live in Oakland, so the phrases "multiple suspects" and "gun battle" don't make me flinch anymore. The one that stuck with me was "one-year-old boy." Up until recently, the definition of "innocent bystander" was the three-year-old boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting last August. Now we have a new standard.
Blame the parents who took their child to a rap video set? Blame rap music? Blame the tiny brain that sent the message to the trigger finger?
I wonder how a gangster consoles himself with the knowledge that he managed to kill a small child, a baby. Does that mind have abstract notions like "collateral damage" in it? Firing indiscriminately into a crowd does not constitute accidental shooting. The gun wasn't wandering through the parking lot by itself when it tripped on a pothole and went off. The idea of a "stray bullet" conjured up the image of a wandering pack of shells that roamed that particular neighborhood, and one of them just happened to find itself lodged in the head of a one-year-old. That's one more kid who'll never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool, as the poet said.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Chain Of Command

A friend of mine was soliciting my opinion on the current dust-up with Pakistan with the following phrase: "You work for the government, what do you think about it?" First of all, I very much appreciate the elevated level at which my thoughts are seen through that filter. As an public school teacher, I am in fact a member of that not-so-particular group of employees who are part of the great big machine that makes those kind of decisions: foreign policy, federal bailouts, school lunches. I am just a little further down that food chain, however, than Hilary Clinton.
To put my decision making capacity in perspective, the kind of choices I generally get are along the following lines: Do you think you can get the four square balls out of the store room? Yes, I think I can. Not much of a choice, actually. I live in a much more rhetorical world, like when we were trying to figure out where the rug for one of our first grade classes went. I was in on this process from the very beginning. Once the rug was located, another question came up: Who will put it back into the room? That would be me. Then came the trickier issue of trying to figure out how the floor of the first grade room became flooded and caused the rug to be soaked and consequently removed. It was a little like the story of the Little Red Hen. "Not I," said the classroom teacher when asked if she knew about the water being left running. "Not I," said the after school program staff. "Not I," said the night custodian. And so we were left with a mystery that was more in line with the abilities of CSI than elementary school employees.
At the end of the day, there was a clean rug on which the first graders could sit, and the water had been cleaned up so that there was only a clean floor to remind us of what had happened. And that's pretty much how I feel about Pakistan.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Bye Bye, News Guy

"I'm gonna write a little letter, Gonna mail it to my local DJ." That's what I thought last week when I woke up to the sound of the morning show. I wasn't a jumpin' little record I wanted my jockey to play. It was a letter of regret, a little note of reminisce. The news guy, Peter Finch, had taken his leave of the station. His was the second departure in the past couple of years that caused me to consider the noise my radio makes when I am awakened by it before the sun comes up. I grew accustomed to the way the new guy ran the show, but having Peter there was a settling influence for me. Now I feel the need to turn the dial and see what else is on.
This isn't because what I heard in his absence was so rude or objectionable, I had a link to the past with Peter. His eighteen years at KFOG roughly coincided with my entry into the Bay Area. He was the voice that came through the radio one morning when I was adjusting to the Pacific Time Zone: "Hey, haven't I heard that guy somewhere before?" It turns out that this was the same fellow who used to read the news and special features on the radio station I listened to back in Boulder, Colorado. Some of the sting of the unfamiliar was taken away by that connection. It was there, at the University of Colorado, that I had the good fortune to play on a Trivia Bowl team with him. It would make a better story to say that we won that year because of his innate knowledge of pop music, but he was a good all around player who helped us make it to the middle rounds, where he was able to answer the question, "Who was the first actor to posthumously win the best actor Oscar?"
That would be Peter Finch. who has gone on to pursue interests in the light of day. I miss the sound of his voice.