Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 In Passing

Ah, 2012, how we will miss you. As my son pointed out, we survived the apocalypse and Mitt Romney, so what else do we have left to fear? If you're fifteen it's a cross between girls and zombies. Girl zombies would be almost unthinkable, though talking to them might be easier than the fully alive alternative.
Speaking of dead, we lost a few good ones this year. Most recently we had the double play of Jack Klugman and Charles Durning. Abe Vigoda, lingers on. I can continue without Andy Griffith and Clarence Clemons, but it won't be as fun. Maybe they'll get together and jam. Davy Jones, Levon Helm and Etta James could join in, and Dick Clark could host. Maurice Sendak has gone where the Wild Things are. Larry Hagman could have used J.R. Ewing's luck or Tony Nelson's genie to help him beat cancer, and Neil Armstrong beat him to the moon anyway.
The iPhone 5 came out, as did Anderson Cooper. NASA went even further by sending our Curiosity to Mars. Sandy wreaked havoc on the east coast, so very few people noticed this catastrophe. Nobody got rich on Facebook stock, probably because forty-seven percent of us were waiting for our handout.
Around the house, we all grew a little older. We worked a little harder. I won a prize. And there was much rejoicing. There was more laughter than tears, but we had our share of both. We learned a few new things and forgot some others. We're happy about the election, but worried about the fiscal cliff. And those zombies.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Murder City

We've been saving some of the good news for the end of the year. Oakland has engaged the services of William J. Bratton. former chief of police in both New York and Los Angeles. He has been hired as a special consultant to Oakland's crime fighting efforts. "Bratton will help us build on the smart police strategies Chief Jordan has already put in place," Mayor Jean Quan said. That would be Chief Howard Jordan, who has been serving as the interim chief after Anthony Batts resigned due to what he described as "layers of bureaucracy" he had to deal with on a daily basis.  
In the face of a record-breaking wave of crime this year, the powers that be have decided to add an additional layer to this bureaucracy: A special consultant. Please understand that as a resident of Oakland, nothing would make me happier than to have a cease-fire in our streets, even if that meant having circus clowns on every corner. As long as those circus clowns answer to some central authority and their funding and organization was transparent for the outside observer. Such as myself. 
What concerns me is that with or without the clown proposal, Mister Bratton may not be the best man for our job. In a Wall Street Journal interview last year he said he didn't "see anything positive at all happening" in the city. "It's a perfect storm of bad: too much oversight, not enough support from city leaders, too few officers," he said. And now he's here to save the day. Along with another consultant, Robert Wasserman, with whom the city is already running a tab for one hundred thousand dollars. That's less than a thousand dollars per homicide.
Eventually, however, the citizens of this town are going to have to consult with themselves. Competing with Detroit on the baseball diamond is one thing, but racing to the top of the list of most dangerous cities isn't he competition we should be looking to win.  Do we really need a consultant to tell us that mothers should not have to shield their children from bullets? A day without gunfire in Oakland? That really would be good news.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dad Talk #47

We sat there, my son and I, for a few minutes without saying anything. I had set up the intervention in hopes that he would simply accept my line of reasoning and fall in line with the family edict: No First Person Shooter Games. It seemed like such an easy sell, especially given my son's sensitive nature. I showed him pictures of some of the first graders who were murdered in Newtown. He showed the proper respect and sorrow for the tragic events in Connecticut. I launched into my own account of the number of kids that I have known and the countless others that I never met here in Oakland who never reached their eighteenth birthday because of guns. Or, to be NRA-specific, because of bad guys with guns.
That's when he came back with his best response: "Do you really think that I would do that?" He wasn't being petulant. He was curious. I told him that I couldn't imagine a reality in which he would pick up a rock in anger, much less a gun. I also never imagined a future when playing with guns would be such a conundrum.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, one kid had a trash can in which we stored our toy arsenal. Several times a month, we would find ourselves standing around that trash can, taking turns picking our rifles and pistols. These were the days when making toy guns as realistic as possible was the goal. No need for that bright orange tip on the end of the barrel. We wanted it to look like the real thing. Before audio chip technology, we all became quite effective at reproducing the sounds of various automatic weapons fire with our mouths. I spent years of my life playing "Gunner," a game in which the object was to gun down all my friends before they had a chance to resuscitate one another. All in good fun. How could I sit in this chair and argue with my son that there was no reason for him to play the same kind of game in a virtual setting.
How could I explain to him that the world is different now? How can I be sure that it is? Maybe it's just the sheer number of people and guns on the planet now that make events like what happened in Webster, New York more likely to happen, or that the twenty-four hour news networks feed on such calamities.
Or maybe it's time that someone saw an alternative. I told him that it definitely wouldn't be any fun being the kid who told his friends that he wouldn't be joining them for any "Black Ops," but ti would be fun to have all those friends around for his eighteenth birthday.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Christmas morning: I awoke early and let the dog out. It was a very analog experience. Once my wife and son joined me with eyes a little bleary from staying up too late the night before, we pursued the next round of analog experiences: opening presents. We were careful to sort our paper into the recycling pile and the plastic into the trash pile, always with an eye toward using those ribbons and bags for one more year.
This was the year my son found himself on the receiving end of a lot of clothes. I told him that this was a trend he would have to look forward to many more Christmas mornings with sweaters and robes and the like. Toys will continue to come his way, but not in the waves that they used to. Now that he is in high school, it is important for his mother to help nudge him toward a sense of style without making it feel like she is attempting to dress him. That's why I put a couple of Hot Wheels cars in his stocking.
Mattel and Hasbro are experiencing some of that same ennui, but theirs stems from the trend of American kids away from Barbies and GI Joes onto the digital frontier. Tablets and smartphones are taking the place of more traditional toys under the tree. Analog. Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the flurry of packages, I opened my very own miniature tablet. It was a new piece of technology, one that was distinctly from this century. The laptop that I used to have breathed its last over the summer, but it was a relic from the nineteen hundreds. Windows XP? What's that? Suddenly I was thrust into a world of apps and touch screens. Did this mean that I would have to start texting? Or playing Angry Birds? I looked around for a Tonka truck or a Lionel train, but none were to be found. The lid to Pandora's box was open, and I sat, transfixed. What could I make of this new thing? I was told that I could watch movies on it. I could track my fantasy football scores on it. I could send e-mail. I could play Angry Birds.
Maybe someday soon I will be writing blogs on my tablet. But not today. I'm still feeling a little analog. Just a little.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Shooting Off His Mouth

There are plenty of reasons to hate Piers Morgan. One might start with his haughty accent. Where does he get off, sounding like he's from some foreign country, anyway? Just because he's from England, do we have to suffer his oh-so-clever-sounding breathy "ahs" and "m-hms"? If you're going to hang out in America, and steal Larry King's job, do us all a favor and start sounding American. And while we're on the subject, if you're so British and all, what makes you qualified to decide which American's Got Talent?
Writer of books, interviewer to the stars or their equivalent, winner of the celebrity version of The Apprentice, is there anything this British ex-pat can't weasel his way into? No wonder people want to deport him. An online petition already has tens of thousands of supporters, a hundred times more than the petition that asks NASA to do a feasibility study and conceptual design of the Gen 1 USS Enterprise interplanetary spaceship. They must be serous. They must be serious about getting this Englander out of the country. Because he's attacking the second amendment.
You see, where Piers comes from, there is no constitution. or at least a handy, pocket-size version that one can easily reference when deciding who belongs in this country or that. Just because there is no handy index for approved behaviors in his stodgy old monarchy, that doesn't give him the right to pop off about ours. Maybe if there had been more Brits packing heat back in 1939, Hitler would have just backed up his blitzkrieg and headed back to Berlin. Everybody knows that putting guns in the hands of "the good guys" is the answer. Even if that means that some of those guns end up in the hands of some not so good guys.
Or maybe Mister Morgan was exercising his first amendment right. If you want to deport Piers Morgan, do it for the right reason: His feud with Madonna.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pinot Noir Usually Isn't This Sour

“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to run.If he could have found someone else to take his place, he would have been ecstatic to step aside." With these words we have the legacy of the Romney campaign. Once and for all. At least, this is how it went down according to Mitt's oldest son, Tagg.
The first question that comes to my mind is this: Who names these people? The father is named for a hot pad, and his son's name must have come from an unfortunate experience with the mattress police. Right after that, I wonder why the Romney family didn't just buy their own candidate and make him or her run for them. Or how about buying their own country, where they could have simply installed themselves as the royal family. Thus, their names, silly as they are, would not be besmirched.
Tagg went on: "He is a very private person who loves his family deeply and wants to be with them, but he has deep faith in God and he loves his country, but he doesn’t love the attention." I don't know about you, but suddenly I feel a wave of sympathy coming over me. Okay, it was more like a ripple, lapping at my ankles, but still. We wouldn't want history to judge Mitt too harshly.
Then there's this: "There are forty-seven percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are forty-seven percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ... My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
No wonder he doesn't want all that attention. Now he can go back and lurk in the shadows of boardrooms across this great land of ours. Feel safe from Mitt now?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Holiday Travel

"How much further?"
"It's just a little ways down this road."
"You're sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. Why don't you just close your eyes and rest."
"Rest? I haven't rested since -"
"I know, I know. Still, you need your rest."
"Right. I keep forgetting. 'My delicate condition' and all."
"I just don't think all of this stress is good for you and the baby."
"Sure, so why are we out here in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?"
"Do you see that light up ahead?"
"Look, why don't we just stop and ask someone for directions?"
"I know where I'm going."
"Oh. I'm sorry. I forgot who I was talking to."
"Have a little faith, okay?"
"You're right. I'm tired. But we have been on the road for a while now."
"Just a little bit further."
"And just where is this bed and breakfast we're supposed to be going to?"
"Ah, actually, it's not exactly a bed and breakfast."
"Not exactly. What exactly is it then?"
"It's really more of a - well -"
"It's got to be better than that inn we stopped at a few miles back."
"Well, I hope so."
"You hope so?"
"Okay. It's really more of a farm-kind-of-situation."
"A farmhouse?"
"Not exactly."
"Okay, what exactly?"
"It's a manger."
"What's a manger?"
"A barn."
"You're taking your pregnant wife and our soon-to-be-born child to spend the night in a barn?"
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a room at this time of year? Especially in this town."
"I'm sorry. I know you're trying your best."
"Thank you. Now get some rest."
"Oh, one more thing."
"I love you, Joseph. You're going to be a great dad."
"Thank you Mary."

Monday, December 24, 2012


I've never been very good at sleep. I've spent years of my life trying to get to sleep, and never was this condition more apparent than on Christmas Eve. When my older brother and I shared a room, I didn't notice as much, since our per-adolescent chatter kept us both occupied until we drifted off: "This is Captain Stinkypants signing off."
"This is Sergeant Booger signing off."
"This is Admiral Dorkybrain signing off."
And so it went. From the upper bunk to the lower, this level of hilarity was sustained until we were both fast asleep, or our father appeared in our doorway, ominously clearing his throat.
Later, we invited our youngest brother into the mix, and on Christmas Eve, we would crowd into that one bedroom and listen to the updates on Santa from the local radio station. Not that we needed anything to pique our anticipation, since the fever had been building for weeks. We knew that even if we did manage to close our eyes and get some rest, it was a certainty that we would wake before dawn. Or Don, my father. It was understood that we were under pain of torture, such as getting nothing but coal in our stockings, if we woke our parents before the sun rose.
And so we waited. We waited in those early morning hours, and I waited in my bed after my brothers had managed to nod off. I remember looking up from my bed, where if I positioned myself just right, I could see behind the curtain and out into the night sky. I could watch the multicolored lights hanging on the eaves, and the stars in the cold blackness above them. Sometimes I would kid myself into believing that I could see Rudolph's red nose making its supersonic trip across the globe, then closing my eyes and straining my ears to listen for the click, click, click of those tiny hooves. I wondered if I held still enough if it would count for sleep went the big guy in the red suit showed up. Waking my father was one thing, causing my brothers to miss out on their Christmas because I couldn't do them the solid of simply going to sleep? Unforgivable.
The good news is that I always managed, somehow, to find my way to slumberland, and when I woke up that big day had come at last.
I always slept better the next night.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Turn The Page

If you are reading this, the most recent slated apocalypse has passed. The Mayans apparently ran out of stone, or perhaps they were simply marking the end of one particular event or phase. The world will continue on its mostly circular path around the sun, but if you ask a Mayan, they will tell you that we are simply waking up to a new world, and a new calendar. Kind of like a great big, pre-Colombian New Year's Eve. Only this one won't have Dick Clark in it.
My wife, in one of her infrequent, less-than-optimistic moments, suggested that the world has been ending for some time now. We're just starting to notice it. The Middle East. The elementary school shootings. Cassadee Pope wins on "The Voice." The signs are everywhere. It's not just my wife who has this doomy outlook. If you Google the phrase "end of the world," you can get almost seven hundred million results. It's on a lot of people's minds.
Maybe that's because, way down deep inside, we all secretly crave that experience. Not in a scary, suicidal way. More along the lines of a secret reset button sort of way. Being able to take the cares and woes of this world and wipe the slate clean has some appeal. That explains the prevalence of survival sites on the interwebs. Sure, for most of you suckers, the world will end, but I've got dried food and gas masks. And plenty of ammo to protect it.
I suppose that's the appeal of the Rapture, where all the good, God-fearing folk will be lifted up out of the fear and destruction, leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps and shreds of this former civilization. It has echoes for me in the rush I see in kids shoving to be at the front of the line. No matter how many times I remind them that they will all be going to the same place, and there are plenty of seats for everyone, there are always three or four who seem to be desperate to muscle their way to that first spot. Interestingly, there are also a group of two or three who hang at the back. These are generally more quiet about their positioning, but they seem just as intent on being at the very end of the line. These are the ones who want to see what happens when the the door closes. They want recess to last just a little longer.
I don't know how much this world compares to recess, but I think I'll be with the group hanging at the end.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

An Immodest Proposal

Jonathan Swift once proposed that the solution to the famine in Ireland was for the hungry to eat their children. In the wake of the shooting deaths of twenty first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, legislators in Tennessee are suggesting a solution for any future loss of life in their schools: Train and arm the teachers. State Senator Stacey Campfield suggests, in his blog, that it is time for teachers and administrators to take back their campuses. With force. One of Stacey's cohorts, Frank Niceley, had this to say: “Say some madman comes in. The first person he would probably try to take out was the resource officer. But if he doesn’t know which teacher has training, then he wouldn’t know which one had [a gun]. These guys are obviously cowards anyway and if someone starts shooting back, they’re going to take cover, maybe go ahead and commit suicide like most of them have.” Niceley asserted that a ban on assault weapons would be pointless since those prone to violence would simply use other weapons. "If we outlaw spoons could we stop this obesity problem?" he asked. Great big, chocolate-flavored spoons? Maybe.
Remember back a few days ago when I asked for a discussion about how to make our schools safer? I wasn't asking for gun control, just some way to keep all the kids safe. I suppose at this level, I appreciate the quick minds of the Tennessee legislature, working to solve that problem. I would guess that gum-chewing in those classrooms would drop off to near zero. It also brings to mind the high percentage of faceless Internet commentators who type away at the bottom of virtually every article about mass shootings. The ones who insist that if there had only been one clear-headed gun owner in that crowd who could have returned fire, that everything would have turned out differently. You'll forgive me if I don't feel any comfort from turning our movie theaters, shopping malls and elementary schools into Dodge City. The one from two hundred and fifty years ago.
Jonathan Swift was a satirist. He wasn't actually suggesting that eating Irish children would solve the problem of famine. Who would have guessed that the Tennessee legislature was gifted with similarly sharp minds?

Friday, December 21, 2012

End Of Days

I set my third, fourth and fifth graders to the task of searching out the shortest day of the year. I also asked them to try and find out why it was the shortest. I was happily surprised by the way they took to this chore, especially since the Kindergarten, first, and second graders were allowed to make holiday pictures, most of which included the same four pieces of clip art. Still, those upper graders persisted, and they came up with a great abundance of information. One of the most interesting things about this process was how many of them found themselves linked to a web site describing the end of the world.
"Mister Caven? Is the world really going to end on Friday?"
There I was, unwittingly placing these kids squarely in the path of questioning the apocalypse. For most of the kids, I gave them the same vague assurance that I give them about everything: "Of course not. That's just a bunch of people using the Internet to scare people." For those who persisted in their queries, I turned the question back on them: "What do you think?"
And suddenly I was back in familiar territory. Over the past decade and a half I have had countless kids, including my own son, ask after the existence of Mr. S. Claus. I have neither confirmed nor denied knowledge of the big guy in the red suit. I have always asked the kids to look inside for the answer. Now, on the cusp of the end of days, I'm asking kids to do the same. Do you have enough faith and trust to step off into the next day? Can you allow the page to turn without tangible truth? Like so much of what you discover on Al Gore's Internet, can you believe it without seeing it?
The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere this year will be December 21. The Winter Solstice, as it is called on our end of the world, arrives at 11:12 Universal Time on that day. Winter begins, and the world, though tipped on its axis twenty-three and a half degrees, keeps turning.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Free Ride

Why was Brent Josh Brent standing on the sidelines of last Sunday's Dallas Cowboys game? What sort of sideways justification could there be for inviting an accused felon to take in all the excitement his favorite team has to offer, up close and personal? "His teammates asked him to come and be down there with him, so that's where we are," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "I do know that certainly there's the other side of the coin, but this is the case of the people that he's arguably the closest to really wanted him around." An interesting point of view, coming from a guy who is a week and a half removed from a rather heated exchange from another one of his players, Jay Ratliff.
Josh Brent was driving drunk and crashed his car, killing his friend and teammate, Jerry Brown. While he was freed on half a million dollars' bond, it still boggles the mind of this football fan why the team or Brent himself would see this as a good move. There was some talk about how, since Brown's mother forgave Brent, that this would all be part of a healing process. She invited him to her son's funeral. That's pretty amazing.
How all this forgiveness figures into having Mister Brent, accused felon, on the sideline the next week continues to perplex me. The National Football League continues to "get tough" on dangerous play, fining and penalizing excessive or unnecessary roughness on the field. Really bad decision making, however, seems to be rewarded with a sideline pass. Maybe that's just they way they do things in Dallas. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


When we left Oakland, the flight was full and since we were flying standby, my little family was split up among a number of middle seats, rows apart. It wasn't our usual practice, but since it was a relatively short trip, we slid into our seats and off we went.
My wife and I have had a practice for all the years that we have traveled together on airplanes, where we hold hands as we take off and land. It became a little more important ritual after my father died in a small plane crash. We came to understand just how difficult those transitions are: leaving the ground and returning to it. We like those processes to be as gentle as possible. This time, as we were separated by more than arm's length, we were left to make the leap all by ourselves. I certainly began thinking nice thoughts, but I was suddenly overtaken by a vision of a fireball hurtling toward me from the front of the plane. I imagined how quickly things could go wrong. I was stuck there until I heard the landing gear retract into the belly of the aircraft.
For the rest of the flight, I found myself wedged between two gentlemen who had less to say to each other than they had to say to me, so I was left with my thoughts. I tried to brush off those scary visions, and took comfort in the relatively quiet passage over the Rocky Mountains. When we made our final approach, the image of the cockpit bursting into flame and collapsing into the poorly navigated earth came rushing back. I closed my eyes and listened to the standard sounds of a jet opening its flaps and braking to a stop. Everything was normal when I opened my eyes again. Where did all this doubt come from?
On our return trip, my wife and I made a point to get seats next to one another, while my daring teenage son decided to stake out his own window seat. The takeoff was simple enough, and having that familiar hand to hold pushed those dark thoughts from just a few days previous to the back. In the row in front of us sat a father with his three-year old son, and they kept up a lively chatter about how planes work and what was happening next until it was time for the little guy to fall fast asleep. Just a few moments before landing back in Oakland. There was a little bit of what the captain referred to as "choppy air," and the plane swung and hopped just a bit on the way in. That's when little Rowan evacuated his complimentary beverage. And his peanuts. Both packages. I didn't have time to think much about what was happening, but as this little traveler and his dad began to deal with the after effects of re-entry, I noticed I was still holding my wife's hand. We smiled at each other, partly in reminisce of our own little boy, who was dealing with things rows ahead of us, and partly because we had made it back to the ground. Where we belong.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I spent last Friday focused on the work of my niece, who had finished her schooling. It was a celebration of her accomplishments. My wife and I sat in the ballroom of the Denver Convention Center, and whispered about our memories of graduations past: hers, mine, our son's. In keeping with our protocol, we were careful to go back and refer to our son's achievements as "promotions," since they are all part of one larger movement toward a goal. Currently embroiled in a struggle to get him through high school, we reflected on what had been and what will be.
When the day was over, we came home to the news from Connecticut. One of the headlines read: "Unspeakable Horror." Of course, that first adjective meant nothing, since that's all we would do for the days and weeks to come. We would speak of it. The shootings. The motive. The victims. How could this possibly have been avoided? More questions than answers.
My first reaction was to be thankful that I was hanging solidly in the bosom of my family in the town I grew up, half a continent away from Newtown, Connecticut. Half a continent away from my own home where the homicide count for the year had already surpassed the total for the year before. I thought of the shrines to the teenage girls who were killed on the corner that I pass each day on the way to the school where I work. The school where, last Friday, there was a Holiday Assembly. Children gathered to sing and dance and celebrate. What if it had been my school? Could it happen where I live?
It has. At last, an answer. Not the one I wanted, but it was an answer. Then I landed on the next question: When is it going to be okay to have a discussion about ending gun violence? Never mind the whole gun control debate. I don't care at this instant whether or not people should own guns. We've gone way past that. How are we going to keep five-year-olds safe in their Kindergarten rooms? How are we going to stop stray bullets from killing fourth graders? I'm tired of the questions, so I'll stick with that when. When the second amendment runs up against the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When will enough be enough?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Running Down A Dream

The fact is.. No matter how closely I study it
No matter how I take it apart
No matter how I break it down
It remains consistent.
I wish you were here to see it. - King Crimson "Indiscipline"
These were the sounds that came along to begin to describe the feeling I had. It was Friday, and I was going on a run. Nothing gargantually different there. But this was the run I took in Boulder, Colorado. It was the morning of my niece's graduation, and I was up before the rest of my family, so I laced up my shoes and went out into the just-above-freezing morning.
I knew what I would see, because as I have mentioned on several occasions previous, this geography is burned into the screen of my memory. Still, there I was, coming down the hill just a few blocks from my mother's house and looking to the west. There they were. The sign that I had returned home. The foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It might have been the altitude, or the short time I spent asleep the night before. It could have been the time change or the anticipation of a big day ahead of me. But I think it was most likely that thing: Home. I was running through a neighborhood where my mother and my older brother live. Where I had lived for the first thirty years of my life. Home.
As continued on my loop and made my way back north again, I went past what was, many years ago, the video store I worked at until it stopped working. I noticed the back door, and remembered a Fourth of July when my best friend and I shot pop bottle rockets out over the street behind. It was at that moment that the iPod began playing Billy Idol, as a tribute to those blurry days and nights back in the eighties when we were indestructible young men. And that's when I realized the road I was running on would eventually wind into the mountains, and pass by the spot where our other best friend breathed his last. I felt that feeling mix in with the euphoria and nostalgia in a swirl of sentiment that isn't often found in my cynical fore brain.
When I returned to my mother's house, I made a note to look for the beauty in Oakland the next time I ran there. Home.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

After Math

We may have New Jersey's Governor, Chris Christie, to thank for Barack Obama's second term as president. While it is doubtful that Christie was actively making any sort of last-minute campaign push for the other party's candidate as he worked feverishly to help his state through the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it sure didn't hurt Obama's cause. “The President has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA,” sits on a scale somewhere between "this guy couldn't lead us to a light switch in a dark room" and "American needs more Obama." He wants his own critics to know that he was just calling it as he saw it, and when someone does a good job, they should be praised for it. Did you hear that, Brownie?
So here we are, four years until the next election, and we're already running the odds for the presidential race in 2016. Hillary Clinton seems like a sure thing, but who could possibly run against her? Why not Chris Christie? He's got an approval rating of seventy-two percent? Why not? He's doing the job, and getting things done. When somebody does a good job, they should be praised for it.
But not everyone is getting on the Christie Bandwagon. Some have suggested that his weight might be an impediment to getting elected. Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, inquiring minds that they are, have both asked about this challenge. I'm wondering if either of them would ask Hillary about her weight. I guess it's all a part of getting the job done. Last year, Chris Christie hired a personal trainer. My guess is that if he decided he wants to change, he'll ask for the help he needs and take care of business. Four more years.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I have a very alert friend who knows how to tweak my sensibilities. He sent me a link about an auction of movie props. I could own my very own, screen-used X-Wing Fighter. Or the insides of a T-800. How about the outsides of an Alien? This is precisely the kind of thing that makes me revert to my fifteen-year-old self as I begin to shiver in geek anticipation. Just as abruptly, however, the fifty-year-old me gives that kid a nudge and asks where we would store such treasures, since we would have to sell our house and take a lien on the dog to afford them.
Still, when you walk into the living room, you might be impressed to see the portion of the movie poster collection I have mounted on my wall. You might also be interested in the scale model of the Deathmobile from "Animal House." Or maybe the light saber in my son's room. The one that isn't just a flashlight at the bottom of a PVC tube. It has really nice weight, and the sound effects are amazing. It's like having a really expensive flashlight at the bottom of a PVC tube.
These are the kinds of relics that have filled my house for decades. I bought a Darth Vader mask back in 1977, sure that someday it would be worth the forty dollars I paid for it. Plus shipping. I've got a Chewbacca mask form that same era that would probably be worth more if I had taken better care of his mat of Wookie hair. That's really the bottom line. I'm not much for the whole MIB thing. Not Men In Black, but Mint In Box. I want to handle these artifacts. I want to take them out and play with them. My older brother shows this kind of restraint. I don't. In this way, my house is more like one of those touchy-feely kids' museums where everyone is encouraged to touch and handle everything. And it's all covered with a thin film of daily-use filth.
That's okay. I don't mind living in an interactive world, but it's a bummer that I'm not going to have my very own face-hugger to wear to the Christmas party this year.

Friday, December 14, 2012


I went to Columbine Elementary School. I went to Centennial Junior High. I went to Boulder High School. I went to the University of Colorado. Part of the wisdom behind these choices was simple: I could walk there from where I lived. I didn't take a bus. In high school, I sometimes rode my bike, and once I got that fine set of wheels, I drove. But there were plenty of bright fall days in my sophomore year when I hiked a couple miles, backpack slung over one shoulder, to and from those hallowed halls.
I bring this up because my niece once attended Columbine Elementary School. She also attended Centennial Junior High, even though it had become a Middle School by that point. She went to Boulder High. And she walked to those august institutions. On the first day of school, specifically. She and her father made the trip together, even that first day at the University of Colorado. They made that walk because, once upon a time, he made that same trek himself. Retracing that path of his youth, he paved the way for his daughter.
My older brother and I received our degrees from dear old CU. As sometimes happens, my niece didn't find her muse at the vast expanse of the campus at Boulder. She eventually found herself a spot at the Art Institute of Colorado, even though she had to take a bus to get there. Today she will receive her degree: A real and true Bachelor of Arts degree. In fashion. I'm only the tiniest bit jealous, since the only class I ever failed was a basic drawing class, and my own fashion sense runs primarily in the Hawaiian shirt, high top Converse category. She's got a career ahead of her if she wants to help me get my style together.
So have a seat, and rest your feet today, girl. It's been a long walk, but now that day if here. Congratulations!

Thursday, December 13, 2012


"They tried to get into the boys bathroom." These were the words our head custodian met me with on Monday morning. It's usually over the weekend that they do what they do. They try to break in. They try to break things in general. They come to the school after dark and try to mess with it in ways that they could not during the daylight hours. This makes sense, in some darkly criminal way. Nefarious schemes are best played out under the cover of darkness.
And what would those plans be? By forcing one of the lower windows and attempting to break the glass out of another leading to the boys bathroom, they would have gained access to four urinals and three stalls. There are also four sinks, so they would have been fixed up if they were looking for a place to conduct their midnight ablutions. After that, I suppose they could have forced their way into the rest of the building, but this would have required another level of felonious skill that was obviously lacking in the way they went after the windows in the first place. Then they would have had easy access to hallways full of bulletin boards filled with student work. That may not have been their interest either. They were probably looking for a way to gain access to the classrooms, where there are pencils and paper, workbooks and erasers. Some of the teachers even keep candy in their desks.
Maybe they were after the electric pencil sharpeners or the fans. To date, none of the culprits has seemed the least bit interested in the classroom computers, perhaps because they already have one at home. No, they seem most interested in getting in. Then, I assume the trick is getting back out again as the alarm begins to sound and the police make their way to the scene. Trying to fathom the mind of these low-end culprits just makes me tired, but it does leave me with one lingering question: Who are "they?"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Maddie And Me

We stopped at the park for one more circus trick. Our dog used to love going down slides. Short ones, long ones, curlicue ones. When we stopped at a playground, she would be upset if she didn't get a turn. We took a short slide, and then we continued on our way home.
Climbing those stairs and skittering down on her outstretched legs probably wasn't exactly what the vet would have recommended for a dog who is, by now, well into her second century of her years. She is feeling her age in ways that I can only hope to manage when I reach my own golden years. I still have the instinct to block the door when someone rings the bell. I still wonder when the stampede and barking will erupt. Those days are done. Sure, every so often the postman will still catch her blurry eye and she will kick up a fuss, but only for a moment or two. She's far too relaxed to let a little thing like daily mail delivery mess with her head.
The fact that our rambunctious puppy has evolved into a mature, elder statesdog as we watch her brother sprout into a teenager in the bedroom down the kitchen makes sense. They came to us, essentially as a matched set. Most couples, I'm told, prefer to start out with the dog first, but we got our baby boy and then felt compelled to get him a furry best friend. It's hard to remember a time when we weren't a family of four.
It was our intent to get the dog first. It just didn't work out that way. My wife bought me a leash and a book, "Running With Your Dog," long before we had fully committed to either pet or progeny. There was a period that seems like just moments now when I put the baby in the jogging stroller and lashed the dog to one hand and pushed with the other as I got a workout for the whole family. Once my son grew out of the passive experience of watching the world go by as I pushed him, my dog remained enthusiastic. When I put on my running shoes and got down on the floor to stretch, she would begin to prance about the living room in anticipation. Back in those days, we would go for miles, with her tugging and leading the way.
These days, she tends to look at me with some mild disdain when I take the leash down off the hook. It's only when my wife is going along that she perks up. She knows that it won't be the same kind of forced march. It will probably allow for a little more time to stop and sniff the neighborhood. That's why I was surprised on Sunday morning when my dog came and laid down next to me as I worked on loosening my calf muscles. When I had finished stretching, I went and picked up her harness and leash. She looked determined. When she was all strapped in and ready to go, we walked out on the porch. I gave her a moment to decide. She didn't need it. She headed down the front steps to the gate. She wasn't dragging me along, but she was determined.
And so we ran. We didn't go as far as we used to. Both of us are currently more concerned with quality over quantity. That's why we stopped at the park. She's a good dog.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


When you look down at the bottom of your screen, do you see that little red shield? The one that is telling you that your computer is safe from offending viruses, big and small? You know the one. It sits down there, a quiet sentinel, to give you peace of mind as you wander about Al Gore’s Internet, looking for a recipe for grasshopper pie, or trying to unravel how Linkedin decided to connect you with your high school algebra teacher. Virus protection is like insurance: You keep paying for it because you don’t see it working.
Events of the past few weeks have made me reconsider this stance. Founder of this anti-virus giant, John McAfee is in the process of being deported to Belize after he was arrested in Guatemala for entering the country illegally. McAfee, not to be confused with Fleetwood Mac’s bassist John McVie, has been on the run from police in Belize since the November tenth murder of his neighbor, fellow American expatriate Greg Faull. During his three-week odyssey, he disguised himself as handicapped, dyed his hair seven times and hid in many different places during his three-week journey. It would seem that Mister McAfee is every bit as sneaky as your average worm or Trojan
That's why I'm wondering if I should keep trusting the total protection offered by a program created by a murder suspect on the run. Especially one that gets caught. If only D.B. Cooper had a background in anti-virus software.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What Are Words For?

Part of the reason I took on the teaching gig was the fact that I do so much enjoy the sound of my own voice. There was a moment during the interview for my admission into the credentialing program when I was told, in very calm tones, "You'll have to take a public speaking course." As if this would be some sort of deal-breaker.
It wasn't. I grew up as an introverted child. Sometimes painfully so. I found expression through writing. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I discovered that the best way to ensure that people weren't laughing at me was to ensure that they were laughing with me. While I never found my way to the peak of wiseneheiming, Class Clown, by the time I graduated high school very few people would mistake me for "shy."
Which is why it comes as very little surprise to those who watched me grow from that quiet kid, scribbling at his desk, to the "voice" of Horace Mann. I lead the whole school in our weekly affirmation, and sometimes add a little extra infotainment in on the edges. So appreciative of this quality, my principal made it even easier for me to spread my words by putting me in charge of the school's megaphone: The Fanon.
As anyone who has spent embarrassing time with me can relate, in detail, I have no "indoor voice." Handing me an amplifying device may be one of the more redundant things I can imagine. My wife might request a voice minimizer instead. That's why when it came time to say a few words on the occasion of my Outstanding Teacher Award, my first impulse was to say nothing. That would make the event truly special. Then I remembered the time I offered Academy Award nominee, and eventual winner, Joe Letteri ten dollars (American) to find a way to insert the word "mayonnaise" into his acceptance speech. I felt that it was a pretty good deal, but he declined. Moments before I was called to the stage at my district's award ceremony, I related this story to my friends and family at the table. I got an offer of three dollars from one of my colleagues. When I found myself in front of the microphone, looking out on that sea of expectant educator faces, I thought again about taking the high road. I thanked everyone for coming and how much I appreciated the honor. And then I said that as much as I do for the school, there was one thing I would never do: "check to see if the mayonnaise has expired."
I got some applause, and polite laughter, and there were three dollar bills sitting on the table when I found my way back. I think this teaching thing is really starting to pay off.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

For The Love Of The Game

It would be disingenuous of me to start in with the "it's only a game" attitude now as pertaining to the National Football League. Far too many Sundays and accompanying weeks have been spoiled by what I deemed to be "important" wins or losses made on behalf of my favorite team. Last year, I tried to be a good Tebow supporter, and when the winds in the Mile High City switched direction and it became Peyton's Place, I let that support go and became a Manning fan. Happily, I only have to answer to my own conscience when it comes to these shifting allegiances.
Still, when I read about Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs killing his girlfriend and the mother of his child, then taking his own life, I tried to imagine how football would respond. At a time when the league is working to make their game ever more safe for the players, what could Commissioner Roger Goodell say? This is a man who is so interested in the relative health of his players that he is considering eliminating that most dangerous of plays: the kickoff. Players are ever-more-penalized and fined for play or conduct on the field that could result in serious injury.
How about a gunshot to the head? That would probably be a personal foul, right? What if you were a commentator and decided to air your views about the connection between violence on and off the field and the use of handguns in our culture? Bob Costas had a week of appearances on various talk shows to answer for what many felt was an inappropriate soap-box moment. The Second Amendment is still safe and sound, and Mister Costas was flagged for unnecessary pontification, which results in an automatic first down and a trip to Fox News Studios.
Guns don't kill people, though speeding cars sometimes do. A week after Jovan Belcher committed murder and suicide in Kansas City, Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter after what Irving, Texas, police described as a high-speed early morning crash on State Highway 114 that caused his car to flip at least once before winding up on a service road. His victim was teammate Jerry Brown, a twenty-five-year-old linebacker from St. Louis. Brown, a passenger at the time of the crash, was a teammate of Brent's at the University of Illinois. That was an accident. One that involved drinking and driving. No one is going to ask to reinstate the Eighteenth Amendment. We are all about our freedoms here in America, whether it's owning a gun or getting wasted and sliding behind the wheel. But please be careful about how you launch yourself at that quarterback, and when you attempt to grab that speedy receiver who has just raced past you on the way to the goal line, show a little restraint. It's only a game. We've got rules.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The French Mistake

I live in a house that was built in 1895. Next door to us, on either side, are apartment buildings that were wedged in sometime in the sixties or seventies. The rest of our block is a patchwork of styles and eras, but it is apparent that ours is the oldest dwelling in the vicinity. My wife, who has a fondness for things historic, has spent some time researching our neighborhood. She has become ever more committed to keeping our house, or at least its outward appearance, true to the time in which it first sprang up from the Fruitvale district.
Which is why I'm sure she'll be devastated to read the story of an eighteenth century chateau that was recently razed "by mistake" in France. The mayor's office in Yvrac said last Wednesday that workers who were hired to renovate the grand 140,000-square-foot manor and tear down a small building on the same estate in southwest France mixed them up. Not everyone knows that the term "oops" has its origins in the French language. Originally, however it was spelled "oups," and pronounced in a very guttural way, in order to fully display the measure of self-loathing required from the kind of failure associated with a country that provided us with Waterloo. It might also bring to mind a Benny Hill skit, or a film with Laurel and Hardy. This one might be more along the lines of performance art.
The current owner, Russian business man Dmitry Stroskin who planned the whole renovation, said that he plans to build an exact replica on the spot where the pile of rubble now sits. What would Napoleon think of this?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Good Grief

Stage One: Springsteen played here in Oakland last week. We've been so busy with so many things and our finances have been so screwy, it really wasn't the foremost thing on my mind. After all, I've seen The Boss plenty of times. He's not the Boss of Me.
Stage Two: Wait a minute. I have seen Bruce Springsteen on almost every single tour that I could. Why should I have to give up this one? It was just down the street, after all. It's not like I had to schlep all the way down to San Jose or up to Sacramento. This show was essentially in my own back yard. What could I have been thinking?
Stage Three: Okay. Maybe this is what I get for not planning ahead. In the future, if this is really important to me, I will put money aside in advance. I can make a contingency Bruce Plan that will allow me to get to any show in my area, even if it means having to pay scalper's prices.
Stage Four: Forget it. I missed it. I missed hearing him do "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." I've been waiting for thirty years to hear that one. "Kitty's Back?" Are you kidding me? He played that back in '75, right? I'm sure that if I wait another thirty years, I'll get a chance to see both of those in the same show. Never mind.
Stage Five: I missed it. It will be okay. I have forgotten more shows than I have missed, and I am certain that I will have another opportunity to see Bruce Springsteen play live. I can accept that there are certain things that are beyond my control.
But it doesn't keep me from grieving.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A Bustle In My Hedgerow

I'm not a huge fan of dog and pony shows, but in this case, I didn't have a lot of choice. This is the ceremony that will be held, in part, to honor me, as "Outstanding Elementary Teacher for Region Two." As I continue to wrestle with this distinction, I prepare myself for the catered affair and the uncomfortable moment when my name is announced and I have to step up to the stage and accept my award. My prize for going to work each day and doing my job. The stuffed mushrooms and those little meatballs on toothpicks. It's not exactly my scene.
That's pretty much how I felt when I saw that Led Zeppelin was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors. The president thanked the members of the band for behaving themselves at the White House given their history of "hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around." Since these awards are given " for those who influenced American culture through the arts," I did wonder if trashing hotel rooms could be considered an art. I do know how Zeppelin influenced me, as part of my American culture. Perhaps the most significant moment in that flurry of influence came when, as a senior in high school, we attempted to blow the windows out of the studio in the Band Room by playing "Stairway To Heaven" at unsafe volumes through the very expensive speakers inside. Where we were. Banging our heads to every screaming hot guitar lick.
And so, as I ascend the stairs to accept my artfully sculpted acrylic plaque, I will be thinking of that song. I will be thinking of the incongruity of Jimmy Page in a tuxedo, and wondering about that ringing in my ears.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Communications 101

Driving home from dinner with my son the other night, I heard myself say these words: "You may find this hard to believe, but I used to be fifteen once myself." It was an echo of a speech I have given to countless students at my elementary school, though I tend to change the age to fit the circumstances. I know how meaningless this feathery bit of wisdom is, yet I feel compelled to repeat it, as if every time I say it, it becomes more worthwhile.
My son's response? "I always pretty much imagined you hovering somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and fifty." Not a bad little piece of calculation on his part, both in fact and in tone.
What did I expect him to say? Maybe something about how much he appreciates the way I can get down and rap with him. Man to man. Perhaps he could have used the opportunity to open up to me about how he really values our relationship, and how great it is to have a dad that he can get down and rap with. Man to man. After further review, I guess what he did say was the most realistic response for which I could have hoped.
I'm not worried about getting along with my teenage son. On the contrary. I feel very comfortable with the ease of our daily interactions. I even feel alright about the moments when I have to assert my position in the parent/child dynamic. We don't have a lot of disagreements. When we do, it takes a few minutes to unravel. I listen to him. He listens to me. We make a plan to move ahead. It's not something I could have done when I was fifteen. When I was fifteen, I was a lot more disagreeable. How did I manage to raise such a level-headed kid?
Maybe it has more to do with the years between thirty-five and fifty than when I was fifteen. Congratulations to both of us on that.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Little Credit

This Saturday morning, we had a visitor in our back yard. We had been expecting it, or something like it for some time, but with all the wind and rain over the days preceding, it wasn't really a shock to see half an acacia tree enveloping our much smaller plum tree just over our fence. Not a shock, but still quite a sight. A lot of limbs. A lot of wood. All done in by a bunch of water that fell from the sky. And gravity.
It was the gravity that made the most of the experience, since removing the mass of tangled branches became an extra-daring game of pick-up sticks. Three and a half hours of chopping, sawing, snapping, and dragging generated a monstrous pile of brush, but still left the bulk of the wreckage in an inverted crash position as a lasting monument to the work that nature can do, and the work that I would be doing for the foreseeable future.
I did take a quick break. I decided to look up the name and number the owner of the house that deposited the lumber in our yard. I wanted to use Al Gore's Internet, but I found that this option was unavailable. The phone had stopped working as well. I performed my usual ritual dance of unplugging and replugging the router and modem, and still came up with nothing. I used my cellular telephone to contact the Xfinity folks, whose customer interface began with a friendly reminder that I could access customer service anytime via the web. Suddenly, I longed to be outside again, wrestling with the acacia corpse.
As it turned out, the modem we had been our trusted companion for so long had given up the ghost, and when a lady in Phoenix told me that I would have to drive down to the local cable store to pick up a new one, I winced at the ugly reality of standing in line, waiting for someone to hand me a new box into which I could plug those same wires. Cutting down trees felt like an infinitely preferable alternative, but in order to receive a call from our neighbor, who would undoubtedly come home and realize the weight of his responsibility for his wayward timber and want to arrange a quick and painless removal of all that wood.
Another hour in the yard. Another two hours on the phone, and the danger had been eliminated, along with an Internet connection and a dial tone on our phone. I decided to hang on the line just a little longer to negotiate a little editing of my monthly bill. I had spent the day working in the forest and minding the vagaries of my family's electronic communications, and all I wanted was a little bit of credit.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Kobayashi Maru

Back in the mid-late-end of the twentieth century, during the old republic's celebration of their "bicentennial," the first space shuttle was built. Amusingly enough, as was the way in those times, the form was decided to be more important than the function. The Space Administration decided to make it for show, not for flight. The first space shuttle was not equipped with engines. Or a heat shield to protect it from the heat of reentry. It was, however, equipped with a most powerful addition: publicity. The powers that be decided, after an exhaustive letter-writing campaign which might have conflicted with Star Fleet's Prime Directive, that this first reusable space vehicle be named "Enterprise."
That first Enterprise boldly went where no extraordinarily expensive glider had gone before: On the back of a 747, the OV-101 was on a voyage of test flights and public relations missions that brought more excitement and enthusiasm to a space program that had suffered from a decline in interest over the previous decade, when going to the moon went from being a daring adventure to a mere 384,400 kilometer commute. The Space Administration decided they needed a way to spice up the image of their new "space truck." That's where the first crew of the Enterprise came in handy. Along with his holiness,Gene Roddenberry, that gallant and adventurous group appeared alongside this prototype just in time to build the enthusiasm needed to bring the master's work to fruition. And while Captain James T. Kirk was unavailable for that particular photo-op, he spent the next few years cozying up to the powers that would eventually evolve into the United Federation of Planets. He did this primarily by lending his commanding presence and vocal stylings to a number of "out of this world" projects. 
When that first Enterprise, the one that sailed the seven seas, was put into mothballs, James Tiberius Kirk was unable to put in an appearance. In the press, it was announced as a scheduling conflict. I sense a Klingon conspiracy.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Don't Shout "Fire" In A Crowded Sweat Shop

The owner of a Bangladesh clothing factory where a fire killed one hundred and twelve people says he was never informed the facility was required to have an emergency exit.
He was never told that his goldfish needed to have water in their bowl.
He was never told that grass is green, though it could be greener on the other side of the fence.
He was never told that the sky is blue, except when it is obscured by smoke and flames.
He was never told that roses are red, and violets are blue - bucking convention.
He was never told that there is no free lunch. You have to buy one entree and get another at the same or lower price for free.
He was never told that it was against the rules to run in the halls.
He was never told that showing up to an interview in your pajamas sends a message to prospective employers.
He was never told that the earth is flat, at least where I'm standing.
He was never told that if you don't have bees, you don't have honey.
He was never told that if you don't work, you won't have money.
He was never told that where there's smoke, there's fire.
He was never told that in space, no one can hear you scream.
Those last two have probably got more to do with the recent tragedy than the others, but we all live and learn. Unless we were one of the unfortunate souls inside that factory.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The New Math

I've got a fifteen-year-old living at my house. He's my son. He worries about passing Chemistry. He wonders if that girl he kind of likes will sit next to him on the bus. He hopes that he gets an X-Box 360 for Christmas. He's not that different from a lot of fifteen-year-olds. He, like so many other kids his age, is alive.
A fifteen-year-old girl and her sixteen-year-old companion are not. They were found near Brookdale Park in Oakland this past Sunday morning. They had been shot, and were pronounced dead in a hospital a few hours later. I mention the park, not because the girls came from that area, but because I ride my bike past it every day on my way to work. At a school. Where I teach kids, many of whom will grow up to be fifteen-year-olds.
Or not.
Just down the road in San Jose, there is a fifteen-year-old whose fondest Christmas wish is probably for a good attorney. Adonis Muldrow will be tried as an adult on charges he was one of two people responsible for a November 16 crime spree that killed a Campbell man and ambushed and wounded a San Jose police officer. These two crimes don't have a connection beyond their rough geographical location and their ages. Or maybe they do. I find myself wondering if I am finally old enough that I look back at the generation I am watching in my rear view mirror and wondering how they will survive. 
Kevin, a third grader at my school, came up to me the other day and asked, "Mister Caven, do you remember my sister Krystal?"
I told him I did.
"She has a baby."
And now I found myself working harder to remember Krystal. Pretty girl. Good at math. She had been promoted from our school just a few years ago. "How old is Krystal?" I wanted to check my own calculations.
"Fourteen. The baby is seven months old."
I appreciated him filling in that other blank. "That makes you an uncle. How do you like that?"
"It's okay," Kevin was done with his sharing for the morning and went off to play four square. I'm guessing he wanted to do that a little less than he wanted an X-Box 360 for Christmas, but more than being in jail or being shot. He's only eight.