Thursday, January 31, 2013


As much as I enjoy teaching, I know my limitations: I could never teach kindergarten. Sure, I can do it for fifty minutes at a time when they come to my computer lab and I have a room full of lights and sounds to distract them from all the tiny details of life for which they are so endlessly curious. Not to mention that they have the attention span of a kindergartener. Like kittens and puppies, their relative cuteness keeps them from being completely annoying, but the poking and prodding and squeals of "I gotta use it!" in the middle of what I would normally consider a riveting lecture on the importance of the letters S and T overwhelm me at times.
Not so with the men and women who teach our youngest every day. Many of those kids come to our schools without the leg up of a year or two of preschool. Hands and feet to yourself might as well be calculus for some of them, and oh by the way could you begin their formal math and language arts training while you're at it? Saints, that's what these people are.
I met one of our resident saints on the way in the other morning. She was carrying  a goldfish in a plastic cup. She told me, as if it were my concern, "I had to buy another fish." That was sufficient for me, but she continued."I gave the kids a fish as a reward. They were so excited. They named him Nemo." A sigh. I knew where this was heading. "I came in last week and Nemo was floating at the top of the -  I told the kids that I had to take Nemo home and clean the tank."
Hands and feet to yourself is a great start. The circle of life will have to wait.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Physics Of A Weekend Away

We had this little family vacation. Just a weekend away. We went to the mountains to hang around in a cabin with some friends and play in the snow. It was, and has been for ten years, an exercise in potential energy for me. I learned about this concept way back in high school, when I was still capable of absorbing new information. It has a lot to do with that Newton guy who believed that an object at rest tended to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. Only in my case, I tend to stay at home unless acted upon by my wife. I will most gladly pursue as little activity as I can get away with on any given weekend, until that moment that the pendulum has reached its furthest point from equilibrium. It was time to get up off the couch and interact with the world.
But first we had to drive. We drove for more than two hours, which took me neatly out of my comfort zone and put me squarely in a place where I had visited several times before, but had to lug bags of groceries and changes of clothes in order to achieve a relative level of calm. My little family had their own room. It was our oasis in the frozen Sierra. I never even bothered to fully unpack my bag because I knew that it would soon be Sunday, and we would head back down those same stairs and load everything back into the car and drive again.
Only this time we would be heading in the opposite direction. We would be going home. This is often the time that my wife takes advantage of that corollary that suggests that an object in motion tends to stay in motion by asking me about the next trip. But I knew that when I got there, I would need to take those carelessly wadded socks and sweatshirts and put them into the laundry. It's part of the deal. We weren't gone long enough to have to wash the clothes we took, and we are still not wealthy enough to simply leave the clothes that we dragged along in the drawers for the next unsuspecting guest.
And we brought home a bonus: Instead of groceries, we lugged a plastic bag full of compost, generated by four families and their teenaged offspring. The load felt lighter, and we were headed downhill. Still, I felt tired as the miles rolled by. I knew the next day would a return to pattern. All of that kinetic energy would be turned once again into potential. Another potential vacation. But not until I get some rest first.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

For Ever

I watched my son and his friend, up to their teenaged chins in snow, carrying on for quite a while. They discussed. They argued. They laughed and agreed again. During this time, they continued to move great chunks of ice and snow from the hole they were making in the drifts behind the cabin where we were staying. It was not the first fort they had constructed together, and it probably won't be the last, but in that quiet moment as the two of them set back about their work, I felt a twinge of jealousy.
I have built my share of forts, by myself and with others. I have made forts with my son. I have been on that very same hillside, tossing shovel after shovel full of cold, wet snow around in an attempt to generate a place to relax after a tough sled run, or a hole into which one could evade a fusillade of enemy projectiles. I didn't envy the fort. I envied the friendship.
When I was growing up, I never had a best friend without strings attached. The kid who lived down the street from me was mine via the coincidence of our neighborhood. He came into my life as a matter of course. His house was on the way to the elementary school we both would be attending. For all those years, it never occurred to me that I might have done better taking my chances on the open market, rather than suffer the extended verbal abuse that I foolishly surrendered to. It never occurred to me that there might be something better, just a couple of blocks over.
Of course, the circumstances that brought my son and his best friend together were not radically different from the way I was thrown together with mine. They were tossed into a childcare mix that proved convenient for the parents. It was a happy bit of luck that turned this association into a relationship that is still thriving as it meanders into its second decade. By the time I no longer had to rely on company to get me to school, high school, I had finally begun to figure out what I needed for a friend.
And in that moment when my past and my son's present began to coalesce, I realized that I didn't need to be jealous at all. The forts and snow adventures of my youth were shared with my brothers. They were the friends I had been forgetting.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Disturbance In The Force

It's not a real big disturbance. Not like when they blew up Alderaan. Ouch. This was more like a wave you might feel on the opposite side of a cantina in Mos Eisley when Greedo walked in. If ;you made it past those first few sentences, then you probably already know that J.J. Abrams has been contracted to direct the next Star Wars film. I can say "next" because, after years of having to explain which "first" Star Wars movie I was referencing, when everyone knows that Episode IV: A New Hope is number one, while number four in the series calls itself number one. Mister Abrams will be in charge of number seven. Lucky number seven.
No pressure. Just the desires and expectations of two generations of geeks who know what THX-1138 was, and have lengthy discussions about why it's important that Han shot first. Sure, there are millions of dollars at stake. Billions, probably. But those dollars will exist with or without pleasing the nerds who are busily imagining how the guy who rebooted the Star Trek series could possibly do the same for what is, for some, the sacred text. And what about Harrison Ford? How could he be coaxed back into that black vest one more time? Will Princess Leia be in space rehab by now? Will Mark Hamill be able to parlay all this attention into a sequel to Corvette Summer?
And so on. J.J. Abrams has quite the resume already. He's a little like Dan Fouts. A great quarterback, but he never played in the Super Bowl. Now he does color commentary for ABC and talks about his glory days. He's even in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What if he had played in a Super Bowl and lost? Would he still have a bust in Canton? If J.J. turns out something more on the Phantom Menace side of things, he might have to go back to his booth at Comic-Con. Or maybe the Empire really will Strike Back.
I can dream, can't I?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hey Officer Friendly!

The school police in Fontana, California are not going to let themselves be caught in the crossfire. The school district purchased fourteen LE6940 rifles last fall, and took delivery a week before the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Officers spent their Christmas break undergoing forty hours of training on these fancy new guns. And to think I spent that time hanging around the house with my family.
Fontana school police Chief Billy Green said he used money from fingerprinting fees to purchase the guns for fourteen thousand dollars after identifying a "critical vulnerability" in his force's ability to protect students. The officers, who already wear sidearms, wouldn't be able to stop a shooter like the one in Connecticut, he said Wednesday.
"They're not walking around telling kids, 'Hurry up and get to class' with a gun around their neck," the chief said. "Parents need to know that if there was a shooter on their child's campus that was equipped with body armor or a rifle, we would be limited in our ability to stop that threat to their children." That might get your everyday tardy student to start considering body armor, however. 
There were some who wondered if spending fourteen thousand dollars on assault weapons was a wise expenditure in a district that recently saved millions by restructuring guidance services. Of course, the price is right. For every kid who falls through the cracks and doesn't get the counseling he or she needs, the friendly folks in Fontana have a way to correct the problem. If necessary. 
Now hurry up and get to class.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Slime From Your Video

At this point in my life, as a participating American, you might think that I would be rooting for the success of all U.S. businesses. I would like to believe it's me that is putting the "us" back into U.S. Not so with Blockbuster Video. As I have written here many times, my career as a video store manager was cut short by the ubiquitous appearance, seemingly overnight, of this rental chain on every available parcel of land across this great land of ours. There was a time when you could make your way across a city by stopping first at a Blockbuster, then at a Starbucks, then repeat the pattern until you hit the outskirts of town. The "superstore" that plopped down in the middle of Boulder in those latter years of the twentieth century put a nice office furniture sized hole in my dreams to live out my days renting "Top Gun" to the masses and answering the musical question: "What'snewthat'sgoodthat'sinthatIhaven'tseen?"
In the next few weeks, Blockbuster will close hundreds of stores, and thousands of employees will lose their jobs. Now that companies like Netflix have all but eliminated the need for that periodically arduous trip to the video store, the need for each block to have a buster has diminished. Soon there will be only five hundred of these relics left. Dish Network, which would much rather have you push a button in your living room to rent your family's weekend entertainment, bought the lumbering giant back in 2010, after it went into bankruptcy. The fact that it has taken another two years for the axe to fall on the rest of the brick and mortar establishments speaks more to nostalgia than to a solid business plan.
In the meantime, Video Station, the independent store that served as our main non-chain competition for all those years, continues to live on in Boulder. Though they will be moving to smaller digs on the outskirts of town, they have outlasted the chains, and maintain a selection that exceeds anything offered by streaming services, with a knowledgeable staff that will most likely feel the downsizing pinch with the change in location. I will shed no tears for the corporation that once diminished my dreams, but I do feel bad for all those blue polo-shirt-wearing drones who will now have to look for work at Best Buy. The Blockbuster is dead, long live the Video Station.

Friday, January 25, 2013


The challenges of being an adult are vast and expansive, almost as difficult as those facing a child. That is why I'm encouraging us all to consider the Manti Te’o option of having an imaginary friend. If you're unfamiliar with Mister Te'o, he is the former Notre Dame linebacker who was the runner-up for this year's Heisman Trophy. He also helped his team, the Fighting Irish, to an undefeated regular season and a shot at the National Championship of college football. He also had an invisible girlfriend.
Maybe it says something about the stresses of big-time college football, or the quality of the education available at Notre Dame, but carrying on a relationship for three years with a person who only existed in the thin film of reality known as the Internet doesn't sound completely on the level. Unless, as I have suggested, this was done purely for the purposes of generating security in an otherwise dangerous and discouraging world. I quote the Atlanta Rhythm Section: "Imaginary lovers/Never turn you down/When all the others turn you away/They're around."
You're away from home. You're isolated from your friends and family. Your sole focus is on keeping your scholarship. A voice calls out in the night: "Hi, I'm Lennay." Did I mention that this is a kid who is going to a Catholic school? Sometimes imaginary is better than the reality. No sin in imagination, right?
Which brings us to Lance Armstrong. Why didn't he go the imaginary friend route? Perhaps, since the rest of his real friends have been thrown under the bus by the machine that was his competitive drive to be the best.  If only he had told Oprah that a six foot three inch tall rabbit gave him the drugs.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


My son and I watched Barack Obama's second inauguration with some satisfaction. This was the first presidential election where he felt completely connected to the events leading up to it. It was also the last that he will be able to sit quietly on the sidelines. Not that I expect him to do much quietly. As the assembled dignitaries and guests were seated for lunch, after the swearing in ceremony but before the big parade, I noted that they were serving bison.
"Why?" asked my inquisitive offspring.
"I dunno. I suppose it's 'cause he's president."
This elicited some giggles.
"And it's going to be served with grape jelly."
"I guess he just said, "'Cause I'm President.'"
"And if he wanted hot sauce on that jelly?"
"He could, 'cause -"
And there was no reason to finish, because we were both so very amused and taken with the idea of being the most powerful man in the free world, who could not only order anything he wanted for lunch, but he could make John Boehner eat it.
That's probably why, just a few minutes before sitting down to buffalo steaks, Barack Obama mentioned the gay rights riots of Stonewall in the same speech as the marches in Selma fifty years ago. He spoke of immigrant rights and global warming. He spoke like a progressive. 'Cause he's president.
Enjoy your buffalo steak, Mister Speaker.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tale of the Tape

I hope after you read this, you have someone who is willing to rock you to sleep: Subway foot long sub sandwiches are actually only eleven inches long. It might be worth noting that when things get cold, they tend to shrink. That should be sufficient for an explanation, especially since more details could be embarrassing.
Still, if you're a fan of those little disclaimers at the bottom of the screen (closed course, professional driver, do not attempt, not a flying toy), then you probably know that a quarter pounder is only a quarter pounder before cooking.
Have you ever peeled back that waxy paper and seen something that looked like acommercial? Disappointment is part of American life. I take great solace in the words I read on the side of a nondescript black and white box:
Color and content may vary, but should be suitable for everyday use. After all, what's an inch between friends? And please keep your nasty thoughts to yourself. Especially if they involve all that fast talk at the end of a Cialis commercial.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Horns Of A Dilemma

Imagine my surprise when, as I awoke to check the morning news, there were no additional homicides to report in the Oakland metro area. 2013 had not started out in an encouraging fashion, after one hundred and thirty-one people were killed the year before. That's about the time I turned to my e-mail, which included an article from my hometown: Boulder, Colorado.
It seems that two police officers conspired to kill and cart away a bull elk that had been seen rutting around a residential area. It should be noted that wildlife intrusions into the daily life of Boulderites is nothing new. Prairie dogs, mountain lions, and even the occasional bear wander into the city limits like they own the place. Most of the time, this is seen as part of the charm of living so close to nature, pushed right up the base of the Rocky Mountains. But what I remember most from when I lived there was the periodic flurry of aggressive deer encounters. The discussion has raged for decades about whose rights are being infringed in these instances. Plopping a subdivision in the middle of prime grazing land just seems like asking for these kind of problems. That's why, for the most part, wildlife and humans have negotiated a pretty effective truce over the years.
Until now.
Boulder police officers Sam Carter and Brent Curnow turned themselves in to the County Jail last Friday morning and were booked on suspicion of forgery, tampering with physical evidence, attempting to influence a public official as well as unlawful taking of a trophy elk, conspiracy, a Samson surcharge, killing an elk out of season, unlawful use of an electronic device to unlawfully take wildlife and first degree official misconduct.The electronic device, in case you were curious, was a cell phone, which used to coordinate the efforts of these urban Nimrods. What they may not have counted on was the public's affection for what many considered their "guardian." The community said goodbye to the elk, and probably to Carter and Curnow as peace officers.
Meanwhile, back here in Oakland, we wait to see what the news will be like for the next week.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Dream Continues

"I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice... A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love."- Martin Luther King Jr.
Take a moment to savor those words. A real person spoke them. He's the guy who had a dream. This was more of the nightmare portion of his vision. I have been reading articles lately about the challenges screenwriter Tony Kushner had bringing Abraham Lincoln to life on the big screen. How about a film of the Gettysburg Address? It might be difficult to get three hours out of a speech written on the back of an envelope, but that was him: Honest Abe. His words. What else do we need?
Maybe that's why we continue to wait for the Spielberg version of Martin Luther King's life. Mister Kushner might start with the letter from a Selma, Alabama Jail. He could end with a mountain top. And there is little doubt that any Hollywood endeavor would have to find a way to show the frailties of this man who gave us all his word and wisdom. More than the TV-movie managed, anyway. Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the Bourne films, is working on what has been called "Oscar caliber stuff that was a powerful testament to King’s struggle and his sacrifice."
Oscar caliber? For a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize, maybe this isn't the only measure. Perhaps the only measure would involve wisdom, justice and love.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

B Positive

The very informal poll I took of health care workers suggest that the National Rifle Association missed an opportunity to impress everyone with their calm, clear-headed handling of the current gun control debate. Admittedly, my sample was small: the folks at my dentist's office and the staff at the Red Cross blood donation center.
It was my dentist who made the most concise point. He wondered why the NRA didn't agree to some limited ban on assault rifles and ammunition magazines more than ten rounds. At that moment, he suggested, the rest of the country would have applauded their willingness to appreciate just how difficult this problem has become. As if in response to my dentist's suggestion, the NRA's president, David Keene said on Thursday that his organization has been "generally supportive" of stronger background checks. It was a little difficult to make his comments out, as he was wrapped in the Second Amendment.
Later, as I sat in another comfy reclining chair, the discussion about gun control was a little more pointed as the Red Cross folks went about the chore of relieving me of a pint of my blood. They seemed confused about the need for automatic weapons for any private citizen. Unless those private citizens were suddenly set upon by wave after wave of rabid deer, those assault weapons were probably not being used for hunting. Maybe they were concerned that same herd of feral fawns might attack them inside the city limits. In which case, I suppose, all bets are off.
On the way home from my health care visitations, I pondered the wisdom I had encountered. I thought about the fatigue I heard in the voices of the Red Cross techs. The thing they didn't say was that the blood I was donating was quite possibly going to be used in a hospital emergency room. Maybe even one where the patient was there because of guns. The problem about this whole gun control issue is the bleeding hearts.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Pros and Cons

Riding my bike on cold winter mornings had me thinking of alternatives. The one that caught me by surprise wasn't the bus. I have a little experience with mass transit. I have even, on rare occasion, taken the family car to work. The choice that I found myself considering was one that I hadn't encountered for decades: Hitchhiking.
When I was a kid, as my parents drove the winding mountain roads to and from civilization, I saw plenty of men and women with their thumbs out, hoping for a ride. My mom wasn't the one who stopped to pick them up. It was my dad who had a sense of community and adventure. I think he was happy to be picking up a little of the hippie life by offering a seat in our Dodge station wagon to some kid and his knapsack. In those days, we lived in a world where plenty of people wanted to get where they were going, but didn't always think it through. Boulder and its surrounding mountain communities were a very inviting destination for youth of the seventies, but with a lot of sharp turns and steep climbs between them and nirvana. That's where the thumb came in handy.
By the time I got my driver's license, the number of hitchhikers had diminished substantially, but I do have a memory of stopping once, while driving my younger brother down the hill to town. We picked up a very fury denizen of the woods who happened to be going in the same direction we were. I'm sure it was a memory of my father's helpful spirit that made me pull over. I got worried looks from my brother, reflecting my own, but when we got into town and dropped our passenger off, there was a collective sigh of relief and we were back on our own.
On the occasional weekday morning, I come across a line of cars parked at the curb near an on ramp. This is the "casual car pool." I see men and women in their business wear dropping into the empty seats of the cars at the front of the line. These wayward commuters are getting a ride across the bridge into San Francisco. The drivers are getting a break on the toll. Without ever having to stick out a thumb. I wonder if any of those inner city cubicle folks were ever part of the hairy generation that we gave rides to once upon a time. I'll keep an eye out for that knapsack with a peace sign on it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tick Tock

Just a quick time check here from the studio where it's five minutes to midnight, which turns out to be a good thing for those of you who were asleep, but not so much for those of you with insomnia. Especially if the reason that you're staring up at the ceiling because you're worried about the end of the world. Scientists decided to keep the Doomsday Clock where it's been for the past year. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists considered the current state of nuclear arsenals around the globe, the slow and costly recovery from events like Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and extreme weather events that fit in with a pattern of global warming. "2012 was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States, marked by devastating drought and brutal storms," the scientists wrote in a letter to the President. "These extreme events are exactly what climate models predict for an atmosphere laden with greenhouse gases."
This one's a little more complex than "spring forward, fall back."  It's also a little disturbing to think that, back in 1991, we were sitting pretty at seventeen minutes to Armageddon, but I guess that losing twelve minutes over the past twenty-two years does seem like a pretty good deal. Oh for the days of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. If you remember the early 1990's, when things were slow and oh-so-mellow, that was the least scariest time to be alive since the Atomic Scientists first set their clock in 1947. At least we're not hanging at two minutes 'til midnight, as we were in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other.
I guess I'm glad that the Mayans were happy to carve their calendars in stone.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Me, You, Wii

About a year ago, I signed myself up for Kaiser-Permanente's Personal Health Manager. It provided me with a steady stream of reminders and encouragement to lose weight. I figured this would be a simple enough operation, being a person who exercises regularly and has a number of experiences with getting into a particular shape. In this case, I was anxious to move out of the panda bear shape that I had been maintaining for the past decade or so. I was hoping to have something more along the triangle or at least parallelogram. I set my own goals, and though the e-mails I received were generally supportive, I couldn't help but feel as though I was letting the whole organization down by not meeting them. I had some successes, but eventually I clicked on the button to opt out of any further exhortations.
This Christmas, my wife found us a replacement for the Nintendo Wii that had been liberated from our home the previous summer. At the time, it was suggested that this was a way to reconnect me to the glory days of Guitar Hero (Medium). As it turns out, we didn't just get a bunch of plastic instruments on which to pantomime our rock and roll fantasies, we got a Wii Fit. For free. It was as if the universe was tugging at my sleeve, asking me to look up from my trough of chips and Coca-Cola and consider my health: One More Time.
So I created an avatar. I stepped on the balance board. I was weighed and measured. My balance was checked. I was told that I was overweight. I expected as much. I was asked to set a goal. I did. I spent the rest of the Christmas vacation working toward that goal. I did yoga and strength exercises. I did aerobic activities and balance games. The ghostly figure I had selected as my personal trainer gave me a lot of good, if not repetitive advice on how to improve my form and posture. I also got some good-natured  ribbing when I ran into trouble on any particular activity. There was no place to input my excuses about how I had already run three miles, or that I had been working in the yard that morning and was coming to the session pre-tired. Wii wanted no excuses. Wii wanted results.
When I went back to school, my BMI (body mass index, not British Music Incorporated) went back up again. I tried to explain, but Wii wouldn't listen. I worked a little harder, knowing that I still had time to reach my goal. Then it occurred to me that I didn't need the machine at all. I could turn down the volume or simply do the exercises on my own. Did I need this kind of pressure?
Sure I do. I could do it without Wii, but I don't because I need an us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bye Week

I woke with a start from the dream I will no doubt have for several more weeks: Joe Flacco escaped the tenacious Denver rush and heaved the ball into the frigid air. Seventy yards later, it was a touchdown for the visiting Ravens, tying the game and sending the divisional playoff game into overtime. Only it wasn't a dream. It was how all my excitement and enthusiasm died last Saturday. Forty seconds away from a trip to the AFC Championship Game, the Denver Broncos let the Baltimore Ravens crawl back into the game, and in double overtime, let them win it.
As a dispassionate observer, I might have appreciated the game for what it was: A heavyweight bout between two legends, Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis, going toe-to-toe for six quarters, since only one could emerge victorious. The trouble with that is I'm not a dispassionate observer. As the  path worn in my living room floor from pacing while I watch, I am a very passionate, or at least impatient observer of the Denver Broncos.
Last year, I watched as Tim Tebow did his Christian best to bring Denver a Super Bowl title. It was a great story. Comeback wins, an fierce defense, and plenty of last minute touchdowns and field goals. There was a good deal of luck that came along with last year's team. This year, Tebow was sent packing, and the quarterback position was upgraded to Hall of Fame status with Peyton Manning. After a slow start, all engines got running, and the Broncos went on an eleven game tear to finish as the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket. That gave them a week off, to practice and prepare. It gave them home field advantage. It didn't give them the luck they needed to get past the Baltimore Ravens, who just happened to be one of their victims on the way to that week off.
In the end, there were plenty of opportunities for the Broncos to win the game. But they made too many mistakes, including an uncharacteristic three turnovers from Mister Manning. When it was Raven's kicker, rookie Justin Tucker, booting through that winning field goal, I felt my own sudden death. Now we start over again. There will be plenty of football to watch in the next few weeks. None of it will feature the Denver Broncos. They are done for another year. I can work on the finish of the wood floor where my pacing has worn it down. I can go out on Sundays. I can watch football dispassionately. For about seven more months.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Truth

We are fast approaching the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most confounding conspiracies of our nation's history: The assassination of John F. Kennedy. The late president's nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is convinced that a lone gunman wasn't solely responsible for the death of his uncle, and said his father believed the Warren Commission report was a "shoddy piece of craftsmanship." The lone gunman theory is still being debated, half a century later. I blame Stephen King.
Which got me thinking, in a conspiratorial way, about all this fiscal crisis nonsense. It began with a little snippet I read about a trillion dollar coin that could be minted to stave off any sort of trouble with our national debt. There's this loophole that allows platinum coins to be created in any denomination, and the beauty is, all we need is one. Wouldn't a two trillion dollar coin be twice as good? Why not just print more money and give everybody a raise while we're at it?
As it turns out, none of this "finance" stuff is real after all. The stock market is just a make believe playground where "dollars" are traded for "shares," and inflation, recession and depression are just cards handed out at these bizarro games of Monopoly played by people nobody really ever sees. We continue to live this lie because it's a whole lot easier than trying to get the rest of the planet to agree to hit the reset button on the so-called Global Economy and start dealing with everyone as equals. That wouldn't be any fun, would it? What fun is a game that you can't win?
Which may have something to do with the announcement made by California's governor, Jerry Brown, that he just found a ninety-eight point five billion dollar surplus in his state's budget. How about that? He and his wife must have been doing a little cleaning around the Governor's Mansion after the holidays and found some change between the couch cushions. Jerry wants to put a big chunk of that money back into education and health care. What a guy. Of course, this is the same guy who just a few months ago pushed his own plan to raise taxes ever so slightly to avoid any further budget shortfalls - in education and health care. Confused? You won't be after you've read the full report, but I'll give you a preview: Jerry, Dallas, Marilyn Monroe. Just put the pieces together. Or believe everything else you read on Al Gore's Internet.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Dance

"You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. 'Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?' First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, "Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, 'You.. have never paid taxes'?" Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: 'I forgot!' How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don't say 'I forgot'? Let's say you're on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, 'I forgot armed robbery was illegal.' Let's suppose he says back to you, 'You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random,' and you say, 'I forgot'?' Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!"
That would be one way to explain the tax code. In the spirit of what is just and fair, President Obama raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, but that doesn't mean that they will be paying them. Income taxes, anyway. Forty-six percent of Americans in 2011 (Forty-seven percent 2010) didn’t pay federal income tax because they took credits and deductions for things like, going to school, retirement savings plans, childcare and mortgages. Wait a minute. I had a kid in 2011. I went to school. I had a mortgage. I even had a retirement savings plan, though you might not know it since it continued to trickle away in spite of my best efforts. Why was I paying taxes?
Maybe it's because I am too busy to find the loopholes and exclusions that would limit or eliminate my need to give money back to the government. What usually happens is my wife and I spend some time rounding up our receipts and forms and then she runs them all through the Turbo Tax machine. When all is said and done, we get a little bit back from the Feds, and pay a little bit to the state. It's an amusing balancing act that makes the passing of the seasons more apparent. Like Groundhog Day or Lincoln's Birthday, on which we remember the guy who came up with all this income tax in the first place. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is It Just Me?

“I think serious action is necessary. Sometimes we talk about very limited actions on the edges and I just don’t think that’s enough,” these were the words of General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He was talking about gun control. He said the M4 Carbine he often carried in the military held a .223 caliber round capable of doing “devastating” damage to a human body. “It’s designed to do that, and that’s what our soldiers ought to carry. I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America. I believe that we've got to take a serious look. I understand everybody's desire to have whatever they want, but we’ve got to protect our children, we’ve got to protect our police, we've got to protect our population. And I think we have to take a very mature look at that.”
One man's opinion. How about another? "We have to analyze how we deal with mental illness, how we deal with gun laws, how we deal with parenting." These words came from the star of the new action film, "The Last Stand," Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Does a mother need to collect guns and take her little kids shooting? Everything has to be analyzed; no stone unturned," he added. "I think that's what we owe to our people." This is also the guy who used to be Governor of California. The same guy who signed legislation to ban the sale and rental of violent video games to minors.
Today's last words will come from Mark Twain: "Don't meddle with old unloaded firearms. They are the most deadly and unerring things that have ever been created by man. You don't have to take any pains at all with them; you don't have to have a rest, you don't have to have any sights on the gun, you don't have to take aim, even." 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Long Answer

My younger brother, who went with me to the theater, asked me this question on the way out: "What would your twenty-five-year-old self think?" He was asking me about my reaction to "Django Unchained," the latest offering from former video store employee, Quentin Tarantino. What my brother was trying to elicit was a response from a guy who, himself, had once worked in a video store and had taken great joy in the gory excess that director Tarantino has made his stock and trade. All that screaming, bleeding, cursing and bleeding some more is now his trademark. And I had to admit, that would have been just fine with my younger self.
I would have reveled in all the clever homage to film, past and present. I would have squirmed pleasantly as I watched Quentin's variations on a theme: killing people. Good guys, bad guys, innocent bystanders. Splat, splat, splat, all to the tune of a highly eclectic and evocative soundtrack. I shared with my little brother the revelatory feeling I had on my first viewing of "Pulp Fiction." The red titles hurtling into the distance as "Miserlou" pounded through the speakers was a vision that we both agreed was a touchstone for us in our family cinematic history.
But something happened since 1994. I grew older. I lived another half a life. I got married. I had a son. That son is now pestering me to go and see "Jack Reacher" and "The Last Stand." Just a few years ago, these were guilty pleasures that I had to negotiate with my wife to go see myself, but now I can't understand the appeal of the former Mister Katie Holmes and the ex-governor of Caleefoeneeyah. It might also have something to do with the fact that, while my son was off doing what fifteen-year-olds might do with their friends on a Sunday afternoon, the family in front of us saw fit to bring their three-year-old daughter. I did my best to let that be their choice and immerse myself in Quentin Tarantino's vision of the antebellum south. But every scream and every splat and each additional human cruelty made a pile that was impossible to ignore. I was at an age when I could comprehend the intent of the filmmaker, but I was also old enough to comprehend what that three-year-old was seeing without context.
Since I turned twenty-five, I have attended the weddings of friends and family. I have witnessed the birth of my son. I have been to my share of funerals. I can't see Quentin Tarantino's movies the same way that I used to. I can't see life the same way I used to.

Friday, January 11, 2013


"Who would like to be on the Social Committee?"
A few grumbles and then some murmurs of assent, and a couple of hands are raised.
"Okay. Who would like to help Ms. Van Meter on the Assembly Committee?"
At first, there is silence. Then a few whispers before two volunteers can be added to the list.
"Alright. Now, in the event that Sandra and I are both shot by an intruder, who would like to be in charge?"
This third question wasn't part of our beginning of the year committee sign-up. It was preparation for our "Alternative Disaster Plan." This is how our district and our school is choosing to deal with the realities presented by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. In Oakland, there is a small and very busy School Police Force, but there are not nearly enough officers to allot one to each school in the district. For the most part, they are on call for larger disturbances with larger students at high schools and middle schools. The security officer that used to be part of our elementary school's staff is a position that has long since been eliminated by budget constraints.
And so, the question remained: Who would take over if our principal and secretary were unable to take charge from their position at the front of the school? There was a lot of discussion about "what if," and "why not," but the chain of command was left unclear. That's why I raised my hand. Not because I'm a hero. I did it because I'm more concerned about what could happen if there was no one willing to raise their hand. I remember the surprise I felt when I first came to this school and learned that, as part of our job description, we were expected to stay on site up to forty-eight hours in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. Our job was to make sure that all the kids were safe before we returned to our own homes. As a new father, this rocked me to the core. Would I really be able to make this commitment? Eventually it got easier, as I thought about my son's teachers making that same promise. Someone would look out for him. Fifteen years have passed, and when the time comes each year to make our disaster plan, I explain to our new teachers the reality of their situation. It's part of the job.
As I sat there, with my hand in the air, I tried to think about the potential of a crazed gunman in the same way that I thought about the earthquake. It made me sad to think of it as eventual, but if no one signs up for the social committee, we never get to have any parties. It's part of the job.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Off Position

It started with the preponderance of children sporting new electronic devices on their first day back to school after Christmas break. Santa must have had a big sack full of smart phones, because I had to remind at least a half dozen elementary school students that phones get turned off when they come in the door.
"My mom says I gotta have mine on," is the response I get most often.
"Maybe mom doesn't know that you are just a few feet from a telephone wherever you go in this building," is my standard reply. "It's the rule. For everybody."
I understand the need to be connected to everyone all the time, or at least I'm familiar with it. I have a certain amount of compulsive attention to e-mail that runs along parallel lines, but not to the degree that having a mobile device strapped on to alert me of any and all changes in the world that includes a new pair of shoes or Justin Bieber's relationship status. My son is constantly approximating annoyance with his phone, wondering aloud, "Who could be texting me?" The answer is pretty simple: anyone. That's what leaving this door ajar will do. These machines that are always turned on are an invitation to use them. Why not send a quick message to your friend next door, just to let him or her know that you were thinking of them? It's so easy, a kid could do it.
And that's why I ask them to turn the new Android iPhone Whatever off. Have an interaction with the person who is standing in front of you. Listen to what they say. They might teach you something. I'm guessing that your mom probably mentioned something about that once or twice as you were leaving the house. Maybe she could text it to you: "don't 4get 2 lern." Or perhaps I've been looking at this all wrong. We should embrace this new technology and send all of our curriculum through tweets, texts and pokes. It might be easier to learn long division in one hundred and forty characters.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Taxes? Fixed!

Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America. I hope you slept well. If you didn't, it could be because of all this trouble we've been having, as a country, with our finances. I know that we've been asking a lot of you lately: paying more for a gallon of gas, cutting back on those extras like food and clothing, and skipping the occasional mortgage payment. We really appreciate your patience and understanding while we got together and figured this whole thing out. Again, if you were having trouble sleeping or if you had any doubt that your government was on the case, you can relax, because the whole Fiscal Cliff thing has been settled. Just ask Mitch McConnell.
"The tax issue is finished. Over. Completed," McConnell said on ABC's "This Week." "That's behind us. Now the question is what are we going to do about the biggest problem confronting our country and that's our spending addiction. We didn't have this problem because we weren't taxing enough." Well, thanks for straightening that out for us, Mitch. He went on:"Why we end up in these last-minute discussions is beyond me. We need to function. I mean, the House of Representatives, for example, passed a budget every year. They've passed appropriation bills. The Senate Democratic majority and the president seem to like these last-minute deals." 
Poor Mitch and his downtrodden Senate Republican pals, just sitting there in that big old drafty chamber while the Democrats were all out doing heaven knows what when they should have been making whatever deal they were handed by their GOP counterparts and been happy with it. In the meantime, it's time to buck up and start confronting our country's "spending addiction." Unless that spending happens to be on Homeland Security or the Defense Department. Cut Social Security or those frivolous mental health programs instead. The National Endowment for the Arts? I guess we can all do without that, right? And while we're at it, why not go ahead a cut those subsidies to Public Broadcasting? Just when you thought you were safe, right Big Bird? 
So, thanks again for getting that whole tax thing fixed, and please let us know if there's anything else you'd like us to give up.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


My wife talked me into watching Downton Abbey with her. By her reckoning, I owed her this attention because of all the zombies she has endured over the past couple of years. The Walking Dead has required a new set of attentions on her part. Still, she comes back for the characters and the relationships. She is not yet accustomed to the periodic decapitations, but the standard skull punctures don't raise much more than a flinch these days.
So it seemed only polite for me to sit down on the couch and see what sort of gory goings-on were taking place in the halls of British aristocracy. Mutilations were kept to a minimum. Most of the nastiest business took place off-camera. At least as far physical dismemberment went. It was the emotional carnage that was hard to bear. I quickly lost track of who was sleeping with whom, and decided that it ultimately didn't' matter because of the horrifying inbred nature of the relationships in such places. I worried about the offspring of such upper crust canoodling.
When it was all over, I missed the undead. Those pasty folks wandering around that big empty house was some cold comfort, but I will be glad to get back to the brain-eaters to whom I have become accustomed.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Show Me The Money

Job security. I know a thing or two about it. Working in public education, even with tenure and a union on my side, I have found myself flinching in anticipation as the school year draws to a close. If I said that I was doing everything I could do to make myself irreplaceable, it wouldn't be an exaggeration. And yet, year after year, good teachers get kicked to the curb because of this cut or that budget shortfall. Thus we find a flock of wandering teachers looking for a classroom year in and year out.
It makes me think of the National Football League. This year, seven head coaches were fired by their various franchises. In most cases, it was a matter of "What have you done for me lately?" Winning games, and in some cases, not winning Super Bowls was the bottom line. Andy Reid had been the head coach in Philadelphia for fourteen years, almost as long as I have been teaching. But the past few seasons have been tough in the City of Brotherly Love, especially for the Eagles Faithful. There was a lot of money and talent floating around out there, but also a whole lot of missed opportunities. Even though they had made the playoffs in the past two seasons, this year's four wins wasn't enough to keep the coach of 2004's NFC Championship team in Philly.
So, along with six other head coaches, Andy Reid went packing. Partly because of his resume and the relative desperation of the Kansas City Chiefs, Andy didn't have to shop around long. Romeo Crennel, who had the top job with the Chiefs, who suffered through a two-win campaign and witnessed the suicide of one of his players after that player had already murdered his girlfriend, is planning to take some time away from football. Andy Reid spent the 2012 season dealing with the disappointments of a tough season as well as the heroin overdose death of his son at the Eagle's training camp.
Maybe Andy should consider taking a year's sabbatical too. I can't afford to.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

TheTheater, The Theater, What's Happened To The Theater?

"Other than that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?" So goes the punch line that lives on without a joke. If it seems obscure to you, perhaps a few lines to connect the dots: Mrs. Lincoln would be Mary Todd Lincoln, whose husband was Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president. Mr. Lincoln met his untimely end while sitting in a private box at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. He was shot and killed by the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It would be my guess that, since she was already a somewhat nervous person, Mrs. Lincoln probably declined any future trips to the theater. The notion that she would have an opinion on "Our American Cousin," the play the First Lady and her husband were watching when everything changed forever, is the ridiculous part. Get it?
If this explanation of the obvious seems completely unnecessary, you will forgive me, since it wouldn't seem wasted on the owners of the Century 16 movie theaters in Aurora, Colorado. Cinemark, Incorporated sent a letter to the parents, grandparents, cousins and widow of nine of the twelve people killed in the July shooting at that same theater back in July. They were asked to attend an "evening of remembrance" followed by a movie when the theater reopens on January 17. Sandy Phillips, mother of one of the victims, said she would like the theater where her daughter was killed to be demolished, though she acknowledged that it was unrealistic to expect Cinemark to give up the rest of the building.
But on with the rest of the surrealistc: What feature do you suppose the friendly folks at Cinemark might have in store for the grieving friends and families? "Django Unchained?" "Jack Reacher?" Or perhaps "Zero Dark Thirty?"  In this case, I don't think "Bambi" would bring them out to the theater. How about renting a bulldozer instead?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Past Due

When I got my syllabus, the first thing I did was look for the big assignments. The semester long projects that would require most or all of my attention for more than a few hours. I wanted to be certain that I didn't miss any of the big chunks of my grade for that particular class. Sometime during that first meeting, the professor would announce with grave certainty that this or that essay or research assignment would be "fifty percent of your final grade." Because of the type of person I am, I would go home and immediately look for ways to get started, even if the material I would eventually need to understand wouldn't be covered for weeks.
And that's how I survived college: by planning ahead. This week I did a little informal checking on the members of Congress. Almost every single one of them graduated from college, and a number of them hold advanced degrees. Doc Hastings the representative from central Washington state, for example, might be excused as he went directly into the family business. Steve King, from Iowa, went to Northwestern Missouri State University before he started his own construction business, starting with just one bulldozer. Both of these men could claim ignorance when it comes to matters of higher education, but I can't imagine that a business could be run with any degree of success without planning for the future.
So how is it that the Fiscal Cliff just showed up in front of our elected representatives all of a sudden, after the presidential election? This was a deadline that was more than two years in the making. It was a ticking time bomb put in place after the 2010 midterm election, but there was loud and sincere declarations that someone would know how to disarm it when the time came. That's about the time that the 2012 campaign for the White House began, and that booby trap went ignored while several dozen Republicans had several dozen debates to see who would be the one to stare down Barack Obama. Democrats didn't just sit idly by. They made their excuses and worried about who might be taking their jobs. I wonder how any one of them would have done if they had run on the platform of avoiding the fiscal cliff.
I suppose I can let this go, since the jokers who made the deal in the first place are the same ones who make the rules, and they saw fit to let themselves off the hook. At the last minute. After the last minute. And now everything is back to normal.
What's that ticking sound?

Friday, January 04, 2013

Our Lemonade Stand

According to most people, when life hands you lemons, you're supposed to make lemonade. One of my son's friends suggested that putting those lemons in your brother's pants would be another possible solution. If you're a fan of the video game Portal 2, you might demand that life take its lemons back. I didn't ask for these lemons. Can I see the manager?
This is essentially how I've been feeling about the volunteer tree in our back yard. Our neighbor from over the fence has disavowed his ownership of the slip of land from which the top of the acacia tree was launched. He has several additional excuses and even more reasons why the twenty or so feet of tree that is now upside down in a great splintered heap in our back yard is not his problem. Sure, we could call our home insurance carrier, but any further discussions with them at this point might cause them to believe that we were cursed or afflicted in some way as to make us uninsurable. Since the wood beast didn't cause any real property damage, my response has been to chop it up into ever smaller pieces and wait for a better idea.
That's where my wife comes in: As the community-minded individual in this relationship, she took to our neighborhood's electronic bulletin board, and started making inquiries about what might be done with the top half of an acacia tree. She got back a number of clever answers, most of which involved us selling or donating it as firewood. Then she came to the best idea of all. She discovered that the Oakland Zoo will drop by and pick up great leafy branches to feed their elephants. She made the call.
On New Year's Eve, John the Elephant Guy drove out in a great big dump truck and helped us load up most of the branches that were stacked five feet high in our back yard. When all was said and done, we had filled a well-packed dump truck full of acacia branches, and even added a treat of a plum stump for the four pachyderms. John told us that that truckload would be their dinner. One night. And dessert.
I've still got the thicker chunks of the tree to deal with, but that will wait for now. My wife and I are looking forward to the next big load of leafy goodness we can offer up to our new friends from the broad savannah.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Crunch Time

There was a time in my life when I had not yet tasted tempura. This seems odd, since it is a moderate favorite of mine, and I tend to enjoy most things that have been battered and deep fried. But there was a time, primarily before I ever tried things, that new things were to be feared and scorned, especially if they were to be eaten.
I lived a very comfortable and narrow existence of meat and potatoes. Cheeseburgers and french fries were subsistence for me. I rarely, if ever, entertained thoughts of food outside my comfort zone, much less outside my country. It is only now, as an adult reflecting back on my tangled existence, that I can reckon on the path that took me from Deluxe cheeseburger to spring rolls to sushi. The gateway drug, in the case of tempura, was the onion rings of the Branding Iron. To this day, when I am presented with the option of rings or fries, my heart does a little skip, because it could be that somewhere out there is another place where the onion rings live up to the exalted standard of that restaurant in Nederland, Colorado. The ones I learned, much later, tasted so very much like tempura.
Since then, there have been plenty of ancillary discoveries: lemon chicken, seafood fettuccine, and the occasional California Roll. I have been known, on occasion, to sit patiently through an Ethiopian feast, or a spinach crepe. I have happily savored tandoori chicken and waited patiently for someone to pass the broccoli beef. My wife has even instituted Meatless Monday, where vegetarian pot stickers and various experiments in chard are the rule.
When given a choice, I'm still all about the Number One, Animal Style. But if I find myself in line at Bento, I know what to ask for.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


When I was a kid, spending my summers at my family's mountain cabin, whenever I encountered litter on the floor of my forest, I picked it up and brought it back to the proper receptacle. By the mid-seventies, when recycling cans became vogue, it became even more of a priority to be certain that all that wasn't part of the flora and fauna was removed. It was a financial concern that tied nicely to my burgeoning ecological consciousness. I was being rewarded for my environmentalism, as long as I remembered to haul those bags of cans to the recycling center.
Times change, and now I'm miles and years removed from the piny slopes of Colorado. When I'm out walking these days, it's usually in my exceptionally urban neighborhood. I still hear the call of Woodsy, the Owl: "Give a hoot! Don't pollute." Right, Woodsy. Where do I start?
I do my best. When I am out for a run, I scoop up at least a bag full of various sundry detritus on my circumnavigation of the 'hood. Sometimes it's an easier process than others, especially when the litterbug was considerate enough to leave the bag from his Kentucky Fried Chicken binge near the rest of his terrible feast. It does help that the city of Oakland has done us all a favor by stationing trash cans stumbling distance apart, so if there was a conscience working in any of the tiny brains of many of our citizens, then it would be a simple enough connection to make: Trash in the trash can. So simple, even a child could do it.
And yet. every day presents a new mess. I try to snag the cans and bottles to put in our recycling bin back home, but the new trend seems to be trying to crush the glass into as many tiny particles as possible. The cans are harder to disintegrate, but they also have a quick enough cash value that they don't stay in the street very long. So that would count as the relief.
Maybe we could propose an incentive for fast food bags, or arrange some sort of trash exchange program that would pay off in silver dollars, or two for one coupons from the local Taco Bell franchise. Help an Owl out, won't you?

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Another day begins. Another year. Promises, promises. This is the year that we all finally get those things done that were left hanging on the list from years past. This is what we tell ourselves. Plans are hatched today that will never stand up to the rigors of three hundred and sixty-five more days just like today. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," sang John Lennon in his ode to his son Sean. These were the words that came to mind as I listened to my own son, making plans for his year.
He sounded wise, when describing himself as "cocky." He resolved to be less so in this coming year. I appreciated this bit of insight, since it wasn't something that had occurred to me, but was most certainly a factor in his academic struggles. Why wouldn't he be confident? He's been told for the bulk of his life just how clever he is, why wouldn't he face any situation believing that? Armed with this bravado, he has faced the periodically arcane challenges of high school. As it turns out, putting up a brave front isn't listed on most teachers' syllabus as a prerequisite.
"I'm going to ask more questions," my son went on. It occurred to me that I couldn't remember him asking a lot of questions, since my job has been primarily to tell him things. Coming from such a very intelligent clan, this has never been a skill that we have emphasized. Much to the contrary: We tend to revel in our own wit and inventions rather than inquire about others.
I waited for more, since this time of year tends to generate many more assurances and declarations. That was it. Less cocky. Ask more questions. I was impressed with the economy with which he was able to state his goals. I resolve to support him in these efforts, and to be more like my son.