Wednesday, February 29, 2012

All Apologies

If I was doing yard duty at my school, and some kid came to complain that another kid had torn up his homework, I would investigate. Even if that kid whose homework had been torn up was one who had trouble with his or her own behavior. The kid that did the tearing up would, at the very least, have to apologize. On our playground a simple "sorry" is not adequate. We need a whole sentence. There are plenty of times when this moment becomes confused with discussion of whatever transgression led to the homework being ripped up in the first place, but the apology takes precedence. After that, if there is a prior complaint, we can look into what happened to set the whole homework abuse experience in motion. There might even be an additional apology from the kid whose homework was destroyed. The bottom line is this: It's never okay to rip up someone's homework.
Why doesn't Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich get this? Maybe they went to private schools where such matters were treated differently, but it is still hard for me to comprehend why these men believe that our President should not apologize for the accidental burning of a number of Qurans in a garbage pit on Bagram Air Base. This set off a wave of violence focused on American personnel in the area, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. soldiers. "The response needs to be apologized for by (President Hamid) Karzai and the Afghan people for attacking and killing our men and women in uniform and overreacting to this inadvertent mistake," Santorum said on NBC's "Meet the Press". "That is the real crime here, not what our soldiers did." Newt said, "It is an outrage that on the day an Afghan soldier murders two American troops, President Obama is the one apologizing." The fact that there were at least thirty Afghan deaths related to the unrest has gone without official mention.
Back when the principal was George W. Pinhead Bush, an American sniper in Afghanistan shot a Koran, peppering the Muslim holy book with bullet holes. At the time, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had emphasized that it was important to show that the U.S. president "knew that this was wrong." Imagine a John Milius scenario in which Afghan troops invaded a small Colorado town and accidentally burned a few bibles in their garbage pit. I don't guess the Wolverines would stand for it. Unless they were on my playground.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Upon Further Review

Last year, I put off watching "127 Hours" until moments before the Oscar telecast. As a result, my Academy Predictions were skewed in such a way that only hindsight could correct. I am not a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but I do pride myself on the number of nominated films that I take in each year before they start handing out little gold statues. This year my wife and I were very pleased with ourselves for having taken in eight of the nine nominated best pictures, but even with her insistence I kept putting off "Tree of Life." Like its namesake cereal, I felt it was just some movie, supposed to be good for me. I had heard how intense/ponderous it was. I had read how thoughtful/boring it was. I was afraid.
As it turns out, I needn't have been so full of dread. It had Brad Pitt. It wasn't "Moneyball," but it wasn't "Un Chien Andalou" either. It was a story of a family. Three sons rang a bell for me, even if the images of the birth of the universe and dinosaurs did not. Perhaps the fact that we chose to watch it in the morning, shortly after we had awakened helped keep the dreamlike imagery from overwhelming me. The flowing water and the vast expanses of sky kept it from spinning off into the void. Somewhere inside was buried a story of grief and reconciliation, but it wasn't going to be easy. Terence Malick doesn't do easy. That's okay. I studied film with Stan Brakhage. I've seen "Mothlight" more times than I can count. I've talked about it and his other non-narrative films knowingly and with gusto. I like the pretty lights and colors.
I confess that I also like a little story with my pretty lights and colors. That's why I was happily relieved when "Tree of Life" turned out to be a much more accessible film than I had anticipated. I'm happy my wife and I accessed it. It didn't cause me to re-evaluate my Oscar ballot, since there was no category for "Best Tone Poem." Maybe next year.

Monday, February 27, 2012

And The Devil Makes The Loudest Noise

I've been watching and reading with some interest lately about the role that Satan has in our current national debate. Specifically these words from a 2008 speech from the Republicans' chief sweater vest, Rick "Dickie" Santorum: "Satan has his sights on the United States of America! Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition." The 2012 model Santorum insists that he is a person of faith and the media's insistence of bringing up this bit of his past is merely a distraction from the real issues at hand.
Or is he possessed by demons?
Is that literal or figurative demons? Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe that Satan is a concept, not an actual personality. That would fit in well with the platform of a party that declared war on an abstract concept: terror. There is no doubt that Satan, in all his varied forms, could incite terror, after all. By contrast, non-Republican John Lennon once defined God as "a Concept by which we measure our pain." He goes on to list the things that he doesn't believe in, including Elvis and the Bible. Or magic or the I-Ching.
All of which brought me to this vision of Harvey Comics. It was easy enough to cast Mitt Romney as Richie Rich, and we can only assume that Hot Stuff would be Barack Obama. Newt Gingrich is Baby Huey, and that would leave Rick Santorum as the Holy Ghost, Casper sans sweater vest. John Lennon never mentioned comic books.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

This Is A Dangerous Place

It was a tough couple of days for little girls. Savannah Hardin died after being forced to run for three hours as punishment for having lied to her grandmother about eating candy bars. Savannah's stepmother was also implicated in the death, brought on by seizures caused by severe dehydration. She won't be eating any more candy bars.
Savannah died in Alabama. Meanwhile, across the country in Washington, an eight year old girl was accidentally shot by a third grade classmate. No stolen candy in this one. Just happened to be in the wrong place when the purloined handgun went off. Their school went into lockdown immediately after the shooting, where first responders found Amina Kocer-Bowman and her clueless assailant safely ensconced.
Just down the coast and up the street from the school where I work, another elementary school was put on lockdown because there was a man roaming the neighborhood with a shotgun. In this case, no little girls or little boys were harmed. Physically. The bad guy was taken into custody.
It made me think about the first thing I was taught in teacher school, about how the primary need for kids to learn is safety. I wonder how much learning will take place up the street over the next week, now that the potential for lone gunman exists in that neighborhood. I wonder how the test scores of that school in Washington will be affected. I know how Savannah's report card will look. I know that we live in a scary world for boys and girls of all ages, but it does make me pine for the times when a kid could get in trouble for bringing Mad magazine to school. Nobody wanted to get paddled or spanked, but they didn't expect to die.
I know that everyone's going to get an extra water break after we run our laps this week in PE.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Songs My Father Sang To Me

"If you don't like my story, don't blame in on-a-me
for the one who wrote it is now far overseas."
As it turns out, the man who taught me the song is very far overseas. Like across the river Styx. But the synapses that hold the lyrics are still fused and they won't simply let go after all these years: "This morning when I woke up, I looked upon the wall. The cooties and the bedbugs were having a game of ball. The score was six to nothing. The bedbugs were ahead. I got so darned excited, I fell right out of bed." These words come to me in waves, and the tune follows close behind. Sometimes it comes when I think about breakfast. Sometimes it comes when I hear a sports reporter announce a score of six to nothing. Sometimes it just pops up because it's there.
"I went right down to breakfast, the meat - oh it was stale - the coffee tastes like tobacco juice from the old county jail." This may explain why I have never once had a cup of coffee in my life. "The Indian Rubber Beef Steak, the insulated cheese" were also on that menu. These are curious items, since in all the other versions I have heard of this particular ditty, my father is the only one to include them. The image of breakfast as a carnival of less-than-fresh food is one that has stayed with me for all of my days, and I hope that I won't soon encounter a "wiener doing a flip flop that lands right in the peas."
And this isn't the only melody that bounces around my head. There's the story of a cow that we once had us, oh the name of her was Gladys. The rest of the song explains why people used to stop and stare. And the ballad of poor Lilly White, whose teeth come out at night. They start to run into the bits I learned on the playground about Mary, who had a steamboat. The steamboat went to heaven, and Mary, she went to - Well, I hope my father is somewhere nicer than that, crooning along with anyone who will listen.
"He's fighting for our country, he's fighting for Uncle Sam
If you don't like my story, well I don't give a hokey-pokey-diddly-okey."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Living In The Future

I will no longer be living in the future. After years of constantly looking forward, I have decided to plant my feet squarely in the present and face the world as it is. How did I accomplish this? I set my clock.
For years and years, the clock beside my bed had been set a few minutes ahead, in hopes of tricking my brain into lurching forward because it always appeared to be later than it appeared. I was easily fooled, since I was the one who pushed the "set" button in the first place. I was also the one who had to do the increasingly arcane math to determine the actual time. It also meant that anyone who saw that clock would immediately experience the terror of lost time without the comfort of the knowledge of setting that clock.
It started innocently enough, back when I was in high school. Back then, I padded my day with four extra minutes, even though back then I was prone to waking minutes before any alarm I set. It gave me an air of superiority: master of time. I knew that no matter what the situation, I would always have an extra four minutes to deal with it.
By the time I got married, had a kid, changed jobs, those four minutes didn't seem enough cushion. I pressed the button forward and landed, after a few short stops, at twenty minutes. As a person who routinely shows up to events fifteen minutes early, one third of an hour became a burden. What could I possibly do with all that time? This was especially true when I added in the time that I used each week to discuss or navigate the time zones in my house. With two very analog clocks in the living room and kitchen that require constant winding and adjustment to keep up with the passage of time, the fabric of reality was being stretched to a breaking point.
I know what time it is. I'm not kidding myself anymore. If I'm making up for lost time, at least I'll be doing it the old fashioned way: by rushing about.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Clothes Make The Man

Mitt "En" Romney just can't seem to put a stake through the heart of the Republican Presidential Nomination. It could be because he's a Mormon. It could be because he's rich, as in "filthy." It could be because he teeters on the verge of being a social conservative without ever quite committing to that sensibility. It could be a combination of all of these, but whatever the case, we find ourselves less than nine months away from an election without a clear choice for a side on which to be.
Or not. A number of clever pundit-types have been suggesting that people, many of them voters, are seeking out Rick "Don't Ask" Santorum because "he's a candidate like them." Not a Mormon. A social conservative. And even if he is rich, it's not the filthy version. Rick wears a sweater vest. What could speak more loudly about a man's convictions than his choice of outer garments? Sure, he's committed to keeping his core warm, but he's not about to get his arms all tangled up in those pesky sleeves that keep other candidates' gestures from fully expressing their deepest meaning. When Mitt wears jeans, he looks uncomfortable without a blazer to top it off. We're a shirtsleeves nation, and we're fiercely proud of it. Rick's dad was a coal miner, who probably wore a sweater vest way down there in the dark. Mitt's dad wasn't a coal miner, but he was born in Mexico. Maybe he wore a serape. This may be the sleeveless angle for which the Romney campaign has been searching.
Until Ron Paul shows up in a dashiki, that is.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Green Thoughts

Van Morrison once sang a song about cleaning windows. It's about a guy who wants to be a musician, but he's happy cleaning windows. It's what I thought about as any number of other songs poured from my earbuds into my head as I mowed the lawn. I considered how music helps make the monotonous tasks less tiresome.
Suddenly I was back in second grade. Mrs. Richter was teaching me about sea shanties, and how sailors used to sing them to make the drudgery of life at sea a little less painful. In front of me was the mower. Behind me was freshly mowed grass. The roar of the engine played over the rock and roll tunes that did their best to take me away from the seemingly endless rows.
How many more? There had to be an equation to help me calculate the number of square feet that I had cut, and how many stretched out in front of me. It was finite. Eventually I would finish. I could stop in the middle and come back to it another day.
But that's not the way these things go. It was my work. It was my chore. IT was the work that I had chosen to do on a sunny day in February. No one stood over me with a lash and forced me to manicure my lawn. In some ways, I was only making matters worse. Hadn't someone told me that cutting grass makes it grow more vigorously?
All the while, the songs kept drifting in and out. I listened to one, ignored another. They became discrete marks of time that corresponded to the ever-diminishing task of mowing the lawn. When I came to the end of the last row, I let go of the bar that kept the mower running. I took off my turned off the music and looked at the newly trimmed sea of green. Number thirty-six.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Informatoin Retrieval

My son noticed the billboard first. It and several of its counterparts in both English and Spanish have sprouted up in our fair city over the past few weeks. "Legal/Illegal - Your Tax Preparer Is?" Accompanying the hazy grammar is the shadowy figure right out of Terry Gilliam's worst dreams. On the California Tax Education Council's website are even more Orwellian messages: "Never Assume. Always Verify," or, "Good Friend. Bad Referral?" It all rings too closely to "Don't Suspect A Friend. Report Him."
Paranoia aside, what is tax preparation but a scam within a scam? It's supposed to be a game. We pay the government money, and then we try and get it back. It's a little like a shell game or three card monte, except the odds are worse. The really interesting part of this equation is this: It is all the legal tax preparers who advertise how much of your hard-earned cash they can retrieve from the Internal Revenue Vortex. The really good ones, the ones that work for billionaires and corporations can get money back that wasn't even paid out in the first place. This may be why the Internal Revenue Service has been steadily increasing the number of audits for the past few years, especially for those making more than a million dollars a year.
With the acknowledged lack of millionaires in our neighborhood, it did make me wonder about the need for the looming presence of the Tax Education Council. Then I made a connection to a sign I recall seeing along the roadside: "Speed Checked By Aircraft." It gave me pause on a number of occasions when I was tempted to put the pedal to the metal, though I could never once recall seeing a plane or helicopter over any of those stretches of highway. It was my older brother who pointed out that the relative expense of such an operation would be ridiculous compared to the number of citations that could be written, since the details such as license plate numbers would be hard to come by at any kind of reasonable altitude. The signs, however, could be left in place as a deterrent. It would cost more money to take them down.
On your way over to your tax preparer, don't forget to watch your speed.

Monday, February 20, 2012

This Thought Is Worth 2.4 Cents

The other day on the way to work, I stopped and picked up a penny. A little further along in my ride, I stopped and picked up a nickel. I made more than thirteen cents. I know plenty of people who won't bend over to grab a penny sitting on the sidewalk, but if you knew that coin is worth two point four cents, wouldn't it be worth it? The next time you pass up a nickel sitting in the gutter, keep in mind that it is worth eleven point two cents.
Okay, the truth is that the valuation of our currency has not changed. I would not be able to turn these random bits of coinage into twice the agreed upon designation. The U.S. Mint puts their cost at just under two and a half cents to make one penny in 2011 and just above eleven cents for each nickel. They are spending about one hundred million dollars making each of those coins. That metal you're lugging around in your pocket or sticking in a jar on your dresser is costing the government about fifty million dollars a year. As stuffed those coins down to nestle with the lint, I felt a twinge of guilt for adding to the national debt.
Pile on the cost of scientists trying to discover newer and cheaper mixes of metal to make pennies and you can see how it all begins to add up. Even with all that research, nobody believes that they will be able to get the cost of minting a penny under one cent. Steel pennies might solve the problem, but not minting pennies would save even more money.
And I would probably get to work on time.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Who Is That On The Fifty Dollar Bill?

It is good to have a day to reflect. That's what President's Day Weekend is all about. I say this because the kids at my school are stuck on The Big Three: Washington, Lincoln and Obama. If you ask a first grader to name more than three, it might cause their little heads to cave in on themselves. Many of our fourth and fifth graders will add Martin Luther King to that list, but that's where they stop. They've named ten percent of the total and only managed to get seventy-five percent of those answers correct.
It is true that when I was a kid there was less to know. We were still in the thirties, president-wise. It was much easier to keep track of a couple dozen chief executives. My mother told me once that the thing that made Franklin Roosevelt's passing so difficult for so many, including herself, was that he was the only president that most of them could remember, what with all that four terms in office and all. Since then there have been a number of two-termers, and a flurry of one-termers to fill out that list, but the group I deal with have relative difficulty coming up with the guy that they were so glad to get rid of just one election ago.
To that end, I blame our process. When a pointy-headed terror like Kim Jong-il gets a bronze statue erected to him after decades of oppression and torture of his own people, it makes you wonder if four years is too short for our limited attention span. The idea of a president-for-life gives us all a chance to get familiar and even to grow comfortable with that ruler's imperfections. It might cut down on the monstrous expense of our current election cycle, too. For now, however, we'll have to celebrate the ones we can recall.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Born And Raised In The U.S.A.

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.” These were the words Ronald Reagan used at a stump speech in Hammonton, New Jersey to appropriate the patriotic fervor that he hoped would resonate with those rock and roll kids back in 1984. The Great Communicator was referencing the hit song, "Born in the U.S.A." The one that starts:
Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up
Bruce responded by saying, "The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album. I don't think he's been listening to this one,"just before he launched into "Johnny 99," the story of an about an auto worker who gets laid off in Mahwah, New Jersey and shoots and kills a night clerk while drunk. For the record, the Boss didn't work and play well with the other side either, giving a cold shoulder to Walter Mondale as well when his camp came calling.
A quarter of a century later, Springsteen has become much more overt in his politics, campaigning for Barack Obama four years ago and appearing at his inauguration. Now it's 2012, and the ghost of Ronald Reagan has been rattling his chains loud and clear on the Republican side, and Bruce has just released a song whose refrain goes: "Wherever this flag's flown,
We take care of our own." Feel free to take these words in any context you will, but know that they aren't the only lyrics. Having appeared on the cover of AARP magazine, I suspect his demographic may have shifted some in this new century, but the opportunity to be misread still exists. I'm not sure if President Obama is ready to take this one on as his new jingle, either.
From Chicago to New Orleans

From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled "help" but the cavalry stayed home
There ain't no-one hearing the bugle blown

Friday, February 17, 2012

When The Stars Fall From The Sky

Dealing with the abstract pains and challenges of being a celebrity must be difficult at times. I am sure that no one sets out to be the object of fascination and ridicule. Once those fifteen minutes of fame kick in, I am sure there are those who would happily give thirteen of them up. Would you like to be an actor? Would you like to be an author? Would you like to be, heaven forbid, a politician? Accepting a life in the public eye isn't as simple as putting your face out there and letting the media frenzy commence. You get to carry around a sack of regrets that will be cataloged for decades, if you are lucky enough to maintain the public's fascination with clever or unique people.
Why should I care about the relative infidelities of John Edwards, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton? Because they are a matter of public record. Why should I care about the slow and sad decline of Whitney Houston? Simply put: Schadenfreude. The only thing more exciting than watching someone rise to the top of the heap is their precipitous plummet from that peak, bouncing and scraping off every exposed flaw or peccadillo. Until they hit bottom and we can send the cameras in for the "Where Are They Now?" piece.
The 2011 Playmate of the Year, Claire Sinclair, sought a restraining order against the twenty-one-year-old son of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, after the son was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. For the record, which is fond of such things, the son's name is Marston Hefner. The fact that Hef has sired two sons comes as a bit of a revelation, but it raises an interesting quandary: Do we hold these boys who happen to be the progeny of the Head of the Playboy Empire up to the same scrutiny as their old man?
For the next seven minutes? Or until Lief Garrett limps back to rehab.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Biochemical Hazard

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find the absolute direct path of the plague that has consumed me. It might have been the kindergartner at computer number nine hacking away as if at any moment he might turn inside out. It could have been the fourth grader at computer number seventeen who sneezed and then came to me, hand still holding back the flow of the goo that has begun to creep from between her fingers. It could be that we are in the midst of the cold and flu season and life in an elementary school is full of hazards such as these and by now I should simply accept my fate.
It's not like I don't take precautions. I have a jug of hand sanitizer that I point children to at any an all opportunities for germ warfare. I spend hours each week reminding kids to do the vampire cough, and reminding them that the Mythbusters proved that snot can fly out of your mouth at upwards of thirty-five miles an hour. Impressive and intriguing lessons to be sure, but since many of them are still working on their multiplication facts and how to tie their shoes it's not surprising that some of this stuff slips through the cracks. Or their fingers.
Consequently, I find myself on the edge of a sick day myself, but I know that this too shall pass. In the meantime, I continue to wade through the petri dish that is my job, conscious of the fact that my own bacteria will need to be contained as I make my way through the sniffling and wheezing masses without infecting others. Movies like "Contagion" and "Outbreak" feel more like documentaries to me, because I teach in an elementary school. Please wash your hands after reading this blog.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Hey hey, my my. Rock and roll will never die. Neil Young didn't mention the fate of R&B dance pop. Maybe that's how Whitney Houston got away from us. "She was happy," fellow singer Kelly Price said the day after her death. "She was the Whitney I always knew." Maybe Ms. Price didn't know Whitney that well, or if she did, there was no way to keep her on the planet for more than forty-eight years.
The other thing that Neil suggests is that it's better to burn out than to fade away. Certainly I wouldn't be writing a tribute to Whitney Houston here if she had simply retired and gone to live a quiet life in the country with her family. Instead she found herself in a wicked dance with the media, searching for attention but hoping the vultures wouldn't pick at those moments when she was most vulnerable: drugs and the damage done to her once sonorous voice. To some degree she made herself a lightning rod for bad publicity, exemplified by her choice to show up on her husband's reality show. Whatever fond memories we may have generated from the eighties became sullied by the rehability of the nineties. Whitney Houston became a punchline.
And now she has her last headline.
My high school band director used to tell us not to drag the tempo of "The Star Spangled Banner." He reminded us that no one ever paid to hear that song. The possible exception I can think of for this rule would be Whitney Houston's rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl. At that time she was just about the same age as Amy Winehouse when she died. Burn out or fade away? The woman is gone, but that voice remains. Aloha, Whitney.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I spent the better part of last week teaching children how to draw a heart. Not the sticky, anatomically correct hearts and valve version, but rather the simple and sweet shape that is most familiar on playing cards. And Valentines. I gave them several ways to deal with the symmetry of the shape, offering to give examples wherever I could. But I drew a line when it came to drawing a heart for them to use on their card to their mom or dad or sister or whomever was about to receive this outward projection of their affections. It should come from them.
The happy news was that, to a one of them, they all understood this. Giving your heart to someone is a tenuous business at best, which may be why most of them chose to send their Valentine greeting to their parents. A few wanted to give their hearts to their classroom teacher, which seemed just a little more daring. And a few third grade boys even dared to inscribe the names of girls in their class. I didn't get to see if they had the courage to actually hand their card over to the girls whose names they had so carefully spelled.
That stage was taking place across town at my son's high school. Hearts were being shared and broken all week long. There was a flurry of breakups in the freshman class, one of which left my son's best friend on the skids without the possibility of parole. There was no way to tell him that there would be many more Valentine's Days in his future, with heartaches that would most certainly rival the one he was experiencing now. He will have to lean that just like the rest of us. Just like we learned to draw our first heart.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Good Guys

Hearts and minds. That's what the powers that be wanted to win in Vietnam. In order to stop the vile threat of worldwide communist domination, it was important to make sure that the Vietnamese were impressed with the duty and commitment of our soldiers on the ground. It's a pretty tough sell when you're asking nineteen and twenty year olds to put down their automatic weapons long enough to play soccer with the locals. Especially if the locals are as interested in killing you as you are them. Still, it's a noble notion that went horribly wrong with incidents such as the Mai Lai Massacre.
Maybe this sort of thing has its genesis in Sand Creek, sometimes euphemized as a "Battle." A band of native Americans, mostly women and children, were killed in Eastern Colorado. The discovery of gold brought settlers who needed the freedom to roam about and claim the land as their own. The Cheyenne and Arapaho that camped near Sand Creek were in the way. Keep in mind, gold was once more valuable than oil. After signing a number of treaties and assuring the tribes that were there far in advance of our white migration, the U.S. Army decided to rid the plains of the upstart "Dog Soldiers" who refused to play along with the negotiations of their chiefs.
There were no Dog Soldiers at Sand Creek. The massacre had the effect of inciting more raids and terrorizing settlers in that region over the next four years.
One hundred and fifty years later, we have U.S. soldiers urinating on the corpses of Taliban. And now Marines posing with a flag that is incredibly reminiscent of a Nazi flag from World War II. Investigators determined it was a "naive mistake."
Hearts and minds, boys. Hearts and minds.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Net

Mitt "Catcher's" Romney may have been on to something when he said that the very poor are doing fine. There is a safety net to catch them if something goes wrong, and he promises that if something goes wrong with that net we will do what it takes to fix it.
Bad news, Mitt: The net is already broken. One in four children in America is living in poverty. Twenty-five percent. These are the ones that Salamander Gingrich was suggesting could get jobs cleaning up their school to offset the embarrassment of accepting food stamps. This is one quarter of our next generation. I get to meet a lot of them at my job, where I do see many of them helping out by cleaning the cafeteria or picking up the playground. We don't pay them. It's their school. We are teaching them. And they are teaching us.
More than eighty-five percent of the kids at our school qualify for the free lunch program. This includes breakfast as well, and a snack if they stay for the after school program. Nothing wrong with the safety net there, unless it's the food that we have for them. We do the best we can with what we have.
There is some magic formula for figuring out how to get the right amount of money for each student, but that part of the net could use some inspection. There are those who would like to tie funding to test scores. Others have suggested that once students perform at a certain level, that funding can be taken away. For example, as a reward for bringing our school out of Program Improvement, we have had our Title One funds cut. As our teachers and kids close the achievement gap, the money begins to dry up. Once they are all reading and writing at grade level, that net gets smaller and smaller.
These are kids. Like Sammy, a first-grader, who was still in the office after school the other day because his mother had forgotten to pick him up. His aunt wasn't answering her phone. He had worked on his homework and drawn his pictures and was still waiting when it was time for our secretary to go home. She offered to drive Sammy to his house. Sammy had already been at school since seven forty-five that morning, and it was nearly four thirty. He had put in a full day. He got home all right, and made it back to school the next morning, ready to brave the dangers high above the crowd in the safety net.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


If you have an older sibling, you've heard this: "Possession is nine tenths of the law." This can be applied to just about any situation that involves material, from GI Joes to Hostess Ding Dongs. I have experienced this from both the small and the large, the have and the have not, and I can say that it is frustratingly true. If you are bigger, you have more stuff. And if you are bigger and you don't have more stuff, you try and take it.
This concept dates back to Scotland, where their brogue may be affecting their math, but they insisted that "Possession is eleven points in the law, and they say there are but twelve." I never studied law, but I'm starting to get the impression that if I were to study for the bar, I would start with a volume on possession. In the Hatfield-McCoy feud, with testimony evenly divided, the doctrine that possession is nine-tenths of the law caused Floyd Hatfield to retain possession of the pigs that the McCoys claimed were their property. The Hostess snack cake feud at my house lasted only a few minutes, but most of the same principles applied.
And so I am left to wonder: What is that other tenth of the law? Should I even bother to look it up, since ninety percent of everything else is tipped in possession's favor? Maybe I should content myself with the possessions that I have already acquired. All that stuff has to count for some sort of legal clout, and when I consider the rights of property owners and the way that banks can come in and take away houses full of those possessions it does make me curious about how one percent can control so much. What is ninety-nine percent of the law?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sky Scraper

There are a lot of ways to note the passage of time. One of the easiest ways for my family is to look out the front window at the magnolia tree that fills one corner of our yard. Fifteen years ago it was an empty spot, waiting for the sun to hit it. When we planted it, the tree was still feet below peeking over the fence. We needn't fear that it would attempt to escape. Now, after a decade and a half, that fence is obscured by a towering plant of magnificent foliage. It holds its own easily with the weedy white plum in the opposite corner that was there years before. It is the plant that we are most proud of. Unless you count our son.
When our baby boy grew too big for his crib, we considered getting him a "big boy bed." We even shopped for one of those plastic race car frames, but lost interest abruptly when we acquired a queen size mattress and box spring. We liked the idea that the three of us could all lay down at bedtime for a story, and there would still be room enough for the stuffed menagerie and assorted Lego constructions that found their way there before lights out. And for the longest time, he would ball himself up in one corner, surrounded by blankets and pillows with all of that comfy real estate with room to expand.
That's just what he did. When he was in elementary school we lifted that bed up high above the floor of his room, leaving a corral below for Bionicle storage and a place to build. Up above, he was growing. When I reached over the end of the bed to give it a shake the other morning, I felt a foot: my son's. He was stretching, but he was stretching to the length of the bed. I recalled the ladder that he used to climb into bed for so many years. That's out in the garage now. He uses a stool to hike himself up and let himself down, but he is no longer the little sprout that we planted there once upon a time. He's still a few feet behind the magnolia, but he'll get there.

Thursday, February 09, 2012


I remember when Ronald Regan told us all that it was "morning in America." He wanted us to know it was time to push the reset button. In his run to become the fortieth president of the United States, he was letting us all know that he was there to usher in a new era. He may have been doing the metaphorical version of shaking us awake.
Of course, it's not like we had been asleep, exactly. We had all been hoping that the Vietnam War and Watergate followed by massive inflation and recession was merely a bad dream. That was the strength of the grandfatherly assertion that a new day was dawning and everything was going to be all right again. Thirty-two years ago.
This past weekend, another voice of quiet authority: "This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime in America, and our second half is about to begin." This wasn't Grandpa Reagan. It was your cranky old uncle, Clint Eastwood. He may have been talking about our great nation, but he was referencing one city in particular: Detroit. He wasn't running for office. He was selling cars. He was selling cars to a country that was watching a football game when he said, America “knows how to come from behind to win.” Then, the New York Giants did just that. It would have been more amazingly impressive had it been the Detroit Lions who made that last-minute comeback, but with all that red, white and blue on the field, it couldn't have been any more quintessentially American.
And as the confetti rained down, Eli Manning stood on the podium and received the keys to a brand new Corvette. Not a Chrysler product. Don't tell Clint.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Into The Woods

This past weekend, we went up to the cabin. Well, we went to a cabin. This one was called "Cottage Springs." It was a change from the last two years. The place we went to previously was called "Capone's Hideaway." Prior to that we made a yearly trek to the Sierras to a place with toboggans nailed to the wall which I'm sure had a clever name because it is the very nature of such places to have an appealing epithet. One that would describe the pleasant, convivial experience that takes place in and around those faux log walls. Each year when the snow begins to fall in the east, we start to make our plans to go to "the cabin."
This is the easiest possible contrivance for me, since this is how I grew up. My family owned a cabin in the woods. It was built on a plot of land by a creek. It was purchased from a parcel that was cleverly named "Aspen Meadows." It could be that this was the name that had been roughly translated from the roaming bands of Sioux warriors, but more likely it was the brainstorm of a real estate developer who hoped to make the location as appealing as possible to the potential buyers out there, wandering in the grove of aspen.
And so we built a log cabin, and it sat at the end of a path that passed two towering blue spruce. The front window faced a great, green expanse of grass. Nestled between a great pile of granite and a pine-covered hill, we felt the cultural pressure of finding a distinctive name for our mountain getaway. But we never did. We always referred to it as "The Cabin," so much so that an artist friend of ours carefully painted those words on a small wooden sign that we hung at the top of the stairs on the front porch when we arrived. We never gave it much thought after that. The big pile of granite? We called that "The Rock." There were those who constructed their "Whispering Pines" and "Ponderosa Crossroads" and felt the need to remind anyone passing by of their choice by erecting some elaborately signage. That wasn't us. We went to the cabin. It was a lot more relaxing than Pine Hills Bluff Lodge. Too much name. Not enough relax.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

That's The Ticket

As I sat there at my desk, watching the time tick away on the lower right hand corner of my screen, I busied myself with a game of Freecell solitaire. I tried to keep my attention on the descending red and black order without clicking away to the window just behind the game where the Ticketmaster site lay. Taunting me. There were still three minutes left until Bruce Springsteen tickets would go on sale, and I was exercising all the restraint I had over my obsessive compulsive disorder by not refreshing every few seconds. What if the clock at Ticketmaster was just a few seconds, or even a minute, off of my own?
This was my line. There was no one to my left or right with whom to commiserate. Just me and that screen. No one to talk to about the achingly slow process of waiting. No one to share stories about shows I've seen or lines in which I had waited. Lonely. And focused.
When ten o'clock arrived, I refreshed one more time and hit the newly appeared "find tickets" button. As the whirly graphic attempted to hypnotize me into believing that they would return in "less than three minutes" with my requested three tickets. And whirled. And whirled. Until at last there was a new screen that asked me to type in a confirmation of the swirled letters that appeared in a box. Back in the olden Select-A-Seat days we sometimes had to wait while a person rejiggered their printer or reconnected to their computers, but you could watch them do that from just across the counter. Here I was typing in a secret code that made me wait yet again, just at the moment when all seemed right with the world. Suddenly, the clouds parted and there they were: three seats, near the back, in the upper level. Three hundred and forty-eight dollars with convenience charges. The convenience of sitting in front of my home computer and anxiously awaiting this moment. I clicked on "confirm." Then another round of confirmation processes, and finally an e-mail was sent, telling me of the fifteen minute experience I had just shared with their severs and how in seven to ten days this virtual would become real in my mailbox. And so I wait.

Monday, February 06, 2012


Care for a little light reading? Why not check out the most recent issue of the scientific journal Nature? Aside from the usual discussions of coral reefs and the pharmacological landscape and therapeutic potential of serine hydrolases, this is where you'll find out the truth: Sugar is bad for you. According to the researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, it is so bad for you that it should be regulated as strictly as alcohol by governments worldwide. These clever science-types propose regulations such as taxing all foods and drinks that include added sugar, banning sales in or near schools and placing age limits on purchases. Yes, one day you may be asked for I.D. before you buy a Twinkie.
At least that's what the unsweetened minds at UCSF would like us to do. In the United States, more than two-thirds of the population is overweight, and half of them are obese. About eighty percent of those who are obese will have diabetes or metabolic disorders and will have shortened lives, according to the UCSF authors of the commentary, led by Robert Lustig. And about seventy-five percent of U.S. health-care dollars are spent on diet-related diseases.
Oh sure, now you're going to bring statistics into it? How am I supposed to enjoy my American lifestyle without all the things that make it so sweet? I know. Carrots are good. Raisins are nature's candy. But I want my high fructose corn syrup, thank you very much.
But in moderation. More than a decade ago, they came for the soda machine in our teachers' lounge. At the time there was a great hue and cry: How can we possibly get through the day without boosted levels of sugar and caffeine? Couldn't we have some nice juices or Sierra Mist, just to ween us off the hard stuff? Nope. If the kids can't have it, neither can we. This prohibition hasn't kept teachers from sneaking in the occasional Coca-Cola in their lunch bags, but for the most part we're doing fine in a sugar free environment. Of course about once a week I have to shake down some kid who has smuggled a Hershey bar on campus, and while I put off my thoughts of longing, I toss the partially melted remnants into the trash. No candy at school.
Because I also serve as the PE teacher one day a week, I have to remember that sugar, in the wrong hands, is evil. Pixie Sticks, for example. Once we win the war on drugs, we can get to work on the next frontier. Good luck.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Super Star Wars

I remember the first time I cared about the Super Bowl. It was the year of the Orange Crush. It was the year of Red Miller. It was the year that the Denver Broncos finally made it to the last game of the season. It was also the football season that came directly in the wake of the first Star Wars movie: "A New Hope. " What better vision to take into this contest, with the scrappy underbroncs battling the Evil Dallas Empire. What shot did we really have against Darth Staubach and the rest of the Texas Stormtroopers. At that point we hadn't even found our Luke: John Elway. It was difficult to sit and watch the hopes and dreams come to such an ignominious end.
Young John Skywalker led the team to three Super Bowls in four years, redefining the margin of loss with each appearance. Sometimes the Force needs a little bit of help. A Wookie. Or a running game. Something. Between those three defeats, I began to catch the zeitgeist of the Super Bowl. The spectacle wasn't wasted on me. I began to watch games that didn't include the Denver Broncos. Imagine my surprise when, after I had moved to California, the Jedi managed to put together a win. Then they slapped another one right on the back of that one just in case anyone wasn't watching the year before. In the meantime, I watched them all. I still feel for the Buffalo Bills, who have been so close. The same goes for the Minnesota Vikings. I find myself pulling for the underdog most of the time, purely out of habit.
Lately, the games have become much more competitive. That's good news for me, who watches the game, and good news for the television networks that sell the ads that pay for Bruce Springsteen and The Who and Madonna to show up in the middle of all those very expensive commercials to connect with a demographic that doesn't really care about them. I suppose in this analogy, that would make Madonna Sy Snoodles.
I'll be the guy on the couch.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

For What It's Worth

You read a lot of whining here about how tough it is to be the parent of a teenager. I am that designated whiner. I can relate to all those parents who struggle with the ups and downs of the roller coaster of adolescence. It's a tough ride, but even the highest peaks and lowest lows have some bearing on the finished product: an adult that you can look at and say, "Well, that was all worth it." I know this because these are the words my mother uses to describe the years we spent, periodically, going head-to-head. Looking back, I wish that I could have been a better son. I wish that I could take back some of the things I did and said. But now that it's all over, it seems as though it was all worth it.
Which brings us to the sad case of the fifteen year old who killed his parents. It's not the first time something like this has happened, nor will it be the last. It is the first time that we knew the kid and his parents. Not our best friends, and it had been some years since we had crossed paths: middle school and high school came along and our paths diverged. Still, we found ourselves around the dinner table remembering when. We remembered when we took this kid along to the movies. We remembered how, even at the end of elementary school, this kid was very clear about what it was going to take to be popular. We remembered how his parents had let him play video games rated "M" for "Mature." We tried to make sense of what had happened. Along with the rest of the people who had any connection to the family, we tried to make sense.
How could this have happened? Did they make the right choices? Was there anything that could have changed this sad story? Why do bad things happen to good people? We went to bed that night with a quandary that outshone the worries about a math grade. We woke up with the lingering effects of a restless night's sleep. We woke up with fresh perspective. We went back to the work of raising our son. Sometimes it's difficult, but it's worth it.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Roots And Wings

My son is interested in getting into the movie business. His cousin has a friend who has written a short film and wants to cast him as the funny-but-wise buddy of the guy who is falling in love. Not the lead, but an important role. My son chatted up his potential director about the screenplays he had been working on. "Man," said the twenty-three year old director to my fourteen year old son, "If you keep that up, by the time you're my age, you'll be a beast."
These were very heady words for my son, who has been lurking around the edges of show business for most of his life. His parents write: short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, this blog. For many years his mother and I have worried that our son would grow into the engineer he had always imagined himself to be without ever stopping to smell the roses of the liberal arts. When he drew, he drew pictures of cars and machinery. Getting him to write was an assignment, and even then it took a good deal of coercion to move him off of his minimalist stance. Until now. Where we once had to admonish him from staying up late, poring over books full of schematics and specifications of various makes and models of automobiles, we were now having to go in and take away his laptop. "Aww, just five more minutes," he pleads.
He is writing. And now we find ourselves in an amusing parental conundrum: Where he was once on a straight and narrow path to a lucrative career as a designer of electric vehicles or Lego models, he is now teetering on the edge of a life in the arts. What does the responsible parent do? In our case, we back up and give him room. Like the time that he thought he might tie balloons to his arms so that he could fly. We were there to cut the strings off before they cut off the circulation completely, but not before he had given himself a chance to take to the air. And later we can write about it.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Occupy The Shark Tank

They guy on the radio had it right. He was grumbling that the Occupy Oakland movement had "jumped the shark." If you're not familiar with this term, it comes from a syndrome in which a situation comedy has used up all its ideas and has put on water skis in order to jump a pool of man-eating fish with the hope of revitalizing its tired storyline. A leather jacket helps. In the case of the Occupy Oakland brain trust, they seem to be stuck in a mode where confronting the police is their best trick, combined with a liberal amount of vandalism and property damage. The shark tank this past weekend turned out to be Oakland's City Hall.
The protest march swarmed around the downtown area, and besides trashing City Hall, the mob attempted to trash the YMCA as well as trying to take over the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center with the intention of turning it into a homeless shelter. Somewhere in all that chaos is the seed of a good idea: Turning unoccupied buildings in to shelter for those in need. If you stop on the way to spray paint public property and burn flags in the lobby of City Hall, you might not get the kind of support a more relaxed gathering would engender.
It is important to note that the Occupiers in Oakland are one of the very few slivers of the movement that refused to embrace non-violence in their platform. Consequently there have been plenty of special guest agitators who have shown up in this city by the bay to get their anarchist ya-yas out. Meanwhile, Oakland continues to sink further into debt and an overtaxed police department continues to be stretched beyond their means. The ninety-nine percent will continue to repair, clean up, and go back to work and eventually pay a disproportionate amount of the tax dollars to fund those reparations. Meanwhile, Fonzie dons his face-covering bandanna and heads out for another evening of mischief, high above the shark tank.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Crash Test Dummy

It will be several months before the Costa Concordia will be moved from its rocky resting place off the coast of Italy. And so there it sits, a reminder of just how wrong things can go when you try and put a hotel out to sea.
Maybe I should be more forgiving. I have suffered my share of vehicular collisions. They occurred predominantly in my youth and were my fault. I dropped a truck off the side of a mountain road. I pulled my Vega out of a parking space in front of an oncoming car. I merged the front end of my Volkswagen bug with a tree. I walked away from all of these wrecks. The cars I drove were not so universally lucky. Totaled the truck. The Vega had to be towed away for multiple repairs. I pulled the fender off the front wheel of the Volkswagen and drove it home. Between myself and the insurance company, I took care of my messes.
Years later, when I was employed by an office furniture company, I was periodically called upon to drive much larger vehicles. This included a twenty foot long Mack truck. A big diesel monster with air brakes. I did what I could to maneuver myself out of the driver's seat whenever I could, but every so often there was nobody else to go and move the truck. Or take it down to the recycling center to drop off all the debris we had generated from this or that installation. Or drive it back to the warehouse in rush hour traffic. And here's the frightening part: No one ever asked about my driving record. I would have been happy to confess my prior impacts and my relative level of embarrassment as a result.
Nothing bad ever happened. The next time I heard a crash was when another car leaped from the curb and insinuated itself into my passenger door. I was on my way home from working at the book warehouse. This was another job, a different state and years later. This one was not my fault. At first I didn't know how to react. My instinct was to apologize, but that went away abruptly when I felt a wave of indignation sweeping over me. Where did this moron get his driver's license from? K-Mart? What was going through his head besides air? Who was going to pay for this?
Which brings me back to the captain of the Costa Concordia. I wonder if anybody asked about his prior driving record. I wonder if his insurance is going to cover the salvage operation. At this point, I'm guessing he wishes he would have stayed on board. Or handed the keys to the First Mate.