Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fact Checking

We are now used to the idea of movies being banned. Some of them right here on our own shores. "The Interview" wasn't supposed to be seen in the United States. Then, suddenly it was everywhere: YouTube, private screenings, little theaters, big theaters. Nothing like a little controversy to stir up some box office. A big controversy translates to a big box office. This little movie made nearly three million dollars over the extended holiday weekend. Could it be that the Sony hack was an inside job? If so, then maybe the IT department should have been installed as the PR department for them a long time ago.
Then there are the controversies that don't center on those things scientific. What about the ones that are more historic? Do you live in Egypt? Did you want to see "Exodus: Gods and Kings?" You won't. Not as long as that country's Culture Ministry says that film puts forth a reading of Egypt's history that is at odds with the story of Moses told by the world's monotheistic religions. Censors objected to the "intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film." The ministry said the movie inaccurately depicts ancient Egyptians as "savages" who kill and hang Jews, arguing that hanging did not exist in ancient Egypt. It said the film also presents a "racist" depiction of Jews as a people who mounted an armed rebellion. The ministry said religious scriptures present Jews as weak and oppressed. How about that whole turning a staff into a serpent thing? Plagues of locusts? Parting the Red Sea? Nope. Not really an issue. Historical accuracy seems so start and end with the depiction of certain peoples and their cultures. None of that supposed magic or miracles were brought into question. Besides, everyone knows that Moses is Charlton Heston, not Batman.
Of course, it could be suggested here that the same kind of things that kept "Exodus" from being seen in Egypt are really the kind of things that would keep "The Interview" from playing in North Korea. Then again, last time I checked, there wasn't a theater chain in North Korea that was interested in showing "The Interview." So let it be written. So let it be done.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fantasy Final

If you're keeping score at home, which is the only way I ever do it, my fantasy football season came to a quiet end a couple weeks ago. Not with a bang, or even a whimper. It made the sound that balloons make when you let them go and they flutter about the room, emptying their airy contents in a flutter of a raspberry. All the things I thought I knew about professional football turned out to be wrong.
Coming down the home stretch into the playoffs, things don't look so very different from last year. Last year the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks ended up in the Super Bowl. That didn't turn out quite the way I had envisioned it. But that was real life. In the world of fantasy sports, I managed my way into the finals in both the leagues in which I played. Those contests, interestingly enough, ended in much of the same ignominy experienced by my favorite real-life franchise: second place. The trophy isn't as nice, but it did show that I was more than just a participant. A bystander. A silent witness. 
That's how this year felt: I was witnessing the opposite of what I believed should have been happening. I have learned over time that as much as I would like to influence the outcome of sporting events by staring hard at the screen or wearing a particular jersey on a particular day, I am not a full participant. I am watching events unfold. This year that turned out to be a pretty wacky place to be. Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice, two top running backs in previous years, spent more time in courtrooms than they did on football fields. This was the year that the NFL experimented with something new: a conscience. I could say that these suspensions had a major impact on the outcome of my season. I didn't draft either one. I did try and draft Peyton Manning in both of the leagues in which I play. I was sure that being aced out of Mister Manning's services was going to make me have to scramble to find better quarterback play from someone else. Why not Drew Brees? 
If you haven't been following professional football, none of that last paragraph makes any sense to you. Nor should it. It means that you probably spent the last four months talking to friends about a great many other things. Things that matter more than the individual performances of athletes who play for teams in cities I may have visited but know primarily through the location of their football stadium. There are plenty of folks out there who are enjoying a stress-free holiday, without thoughts of what might have been. It might have been for real. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Back Talk

I want to remind kids at my school of that old chestnut about how they can grow up and be anything they want to be. In order to do this with a straight face, I have to remember to qualify that statement with a reminder that it requires hard work and perseverance. I don't often add in the part about how luck also plays a part in things. I try and convince myself that the neighborhood where these kids live shouldn't play a part in the trajectory of the rest of their lives. I know that the trajectory may not be affected, but the location of the launching pad is going to make a big difference. 
I'm a big fan of physics. I like the way that math and science can help explain how things move. The laws of physics tell me that an object set in motion in Oakland may require more energy to move up an inclined plane than one located in one of our nicer suburban areas. Elevation has always played a role in how things roll in Oakland. An object set in motions tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force: like poverty or racism or any number of disadvantages found nearby. The most amazing thing that has happened in the past twenty years for my neighborhood was the election of Barack Obama. Suddenly, all that discussion of potential and how anyone could grow up and be President of the United States turns out to be true. Two years into his second term, kids still light up when they see him in pictures or videos. They know who the President is. All those dreams of being an NBA player or rap mogul seem completely realistic as a result. Movie star? Why not?
Unless you happen to listen to Rush Limbaugh. You might get to be President of the United States if you study hard enough, but Rush will tell you that not just anyone can be James Bond. "James Bond is a total concept put together by Ian Fleming. He was white and Scottish. Period. That is who James Bond is." This blather came in the midst of a stream of blather that has gone on for decades now, but came with what might be a refreshing bit of candor: "I know it's racist to probably point this out." Mister Limbaugh was letting us know that he did not believe that Idris Elba can't play James Bond n a movie because James Bond is white. Mister Elba is not. It would take more energy than I have to try and connect the dots for Rush. Like the ones that say James Bond is a fictional character that has been portrayed by more than a half dozen different actors on TV and in films, including Woody Allen. Woody qualifies on one of the counts Rush has set, but fails miserably on the rest. And why isn't Rush more upset about the blond-haired blue-eyed Daniel Craig calling himself 007? 
It's like the man said: It's racist. Ironically, the Civil Rights Act and James Bond on film have just celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. And so here's Rush Limbaugh, defying the laws of physics by living in the past. I will continue to tell the kids at my school that they can grow up to be anything they want to be, but I will encourage them not to be conservative radio hosts.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas (War Is Over)

The War on Christmas is over for another year. No word as yet on the body count, but we can assume that some nativity scenes are now absent a baby Jesus or two. Other than that, the only shots fired have been of the metaphorical variety. The winners? Probably retailers across this great land of ours who depend on that end of the year bump to get them to the finish line in the black.
What possible ties do sales and Christmas have? This question was posed to my family and I when were out at dinner on Christmas Eve. A rather opinionated gentleman sitting at an adjacent table felt comfortable sharing his views about the merchandising of the givingest time of the year. He rolled his eyes and asserted the idea that corporate greed was behind the whole enterprise and that image of a bearded elf carving wooden animals for the children in his village is a lot of hooey. These were the thoughts handed to us the night before Christmas. I was left trying to make sense of what that meant for the polite pile of wrapped gifts beneath our plastic tree.
I found that my own Yule Log wasn't burning quite so bright. I could blame the guy at the diner, but his was only the reminder I needed to bring all my cynical thoughts on the matter to the surface. War on Christmas? There have been plenty of years in which a ceasefire was necessary, and plenty of actual shootin' wars that didn't bother to stop for any sort of Christian holiday observance. But that's not exactly the War Bill O'Reilly has been babbling on about, is it?
His is more one of privilege. His is the wish that we should all remember the holiest time of the year, now matter what the United States Constitution says about Freedom of Religion. Ironic that it is the same amendment, the First, that guarantees the freedom to say what you might like about that very freedom. It is precisely this religious freedom that our puritan forefathers brought forth on this new continent and then proceeded to ban Christmas for the first twenty or so years that they camped out here. Discovering that Christmas was not a federal holiday here in Estados Unidos until 1870 was a revelation to me. Of course, that means that the actual assault on Christmas only began in the past decade or two. That's when the unbelievers took over. Or tried to.
I still opened gifts with my family on Christmas morning. I guess the terrorists lost again. Ha!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lest We Forget

I don't need to tell you the world is a mess. That is why we have Fox News. But seeing how this is the holiday season and all, I am stuck trying to figure out how to put some cheer in what has become a pretty desperate time. Telling you that Sony has decided to go ahead and sneak The Interview into some theaters and online doesn't exactly feel like a victory. I could tell you that Oakland's police body cam project has reduced the number of officer-involved shootings this year to zero. Good news, but it is as we say, just a start.
Where do we go from here? Well, one of the things that this time provides me with is the freedom to lay in bed for a few more minutes each morning, watching television that might inform or inspire the rest of my day. On one particular morning, I happened to be flipping around the channels and discovered two movies playing opposite one another: Men In Black and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Having seen them both a number of times, I felt free to toggle back and forth between the two, catching some of my favorite bits. Somewhere in that reverie, I began to piece together a common theme. Science fiction, yes, but something much more clear on the surface: mind-erasing. Both of these films toy with the challenge of "need to know." What you don't know can't hurt you, whether the threat is an alien invasion or an ex-girlfriend. It got me to thinking: Why couldn't we provide this service for all our citizens? Ferguson, Newtown, Cleveland, North Korea, Cuba, immigration, all wiped out with a simple procedure. Just press the reset button and let us all begin again. Decades of partisan bickering and racial divides wiped out with a few quick key strokes or a flash of light. What if we could all just start over?
Of course, the question becomes who gets to decide where that starting point is? When in our history have we ever been comfortable enough with one another to find that moment? I had a notion that Pearl Harbor or 9/11 might be a good spot. United, as a country, with a common enemy. That night when the United States Congress stood as one on the steps of the capitol and sang, "God Bless America." Or back when Franklin Roosevelt told us all that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
For now, however, we can forget. Can't we?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Words' Worth

You know the scene: the one where the good guy and the bad buy are in a standoff, pointing guns at one another, each waiting for the other to pull the trigger? That's tension, right? Then, because he's the good guy, he starts to talk. He says just the right things that help deescalate the situation until they both can put their guns down. It happens all the time. In the movies and on TV.
In real life? That's different. As was the case recently in Australia. Once you firearms are introduced to the negotiations. things don't turn out so well. It's not really a matter of rights. That part of the discussion will be left out of this particular rant, since the laws of Australia should have kept anything as awful as the siege on the Lindt Cafe. After talking for hours and hours, the hostages staged their own break for it, and were caught in a crossfire that they might have anticipated had they been highly trained SWAT team members. Civilians were injured. And killed. The good news? The bad guy was shot and killed too. I suspect that even now an enterprising screenwriter somewhere is working up a treatment of that sixteen hour crisis, and will have to decide just how to depict those last thirty seconds. Sixteen hours of waiting followed immediately by a hail of bullets that lasted less than a minute.
That's kind of how these things really play out. Then there's the aftermath. Ismaaiyl Brinsley had time to post his intent on Instagram before he went out and shot two NYPD officers as they sat in their patrol car. The time it took for him to pull the trigger four times on officers Liu and Ramos. Just a few minutes later, he blew his own head off. It takes seconds to manage things with guns. That's part of their unearthly power. They are like man-made lightning. Words take so much longer to change things. 
Generations, in fact. With patience and time, I continue to try and teach the with whom I come into contact to "use your words." It's a simple enough concept. It keeps the number of bruises and bloody noses to a minimum, and it creates a place where peace is still an option. It is precisely the reason why educators are so adamant about that whole "no gun" policy. When you are teaching kids how to behave in a community, putting guns into the mix is far too simple a solution. We are also more equipped to deal with the bloody noses and bruises than we are for gunshot wounds. Sticks and stones can break your bones, and words can sometimes hurt, but guns end the discussion. For better or worse. I would just as soon that the discussion went on and on, and no one had to die.  

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Jesus' Birthday (Observed)

What do you get
for the guy who has
All the time.
Back in the day
they brought him
gold, frankincense,
and myrrh.
They brought it all
to a barn
for God's sake.
As the years passed,
the celebrations
became more intimate.
Until that changed
and they moved the date.
your birthday
became a big deal
not just for you
but for everyone.
We rush about
shopping for everyone else
but don't forget
the Prince of Peace.
It's not too late.
Make room in your heart
for that child who started
all the calendars over.
Make room in your life
for the light
and the love.
Happy birthday
to you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bet The House

You can live in your car, but you can't drive your house. That's a pretty big distinction, and one that wasn't wasted on me when my wife and I drove down to Home Depot to buy a new faucet for our kitchen. She was curious what I thought was more complicated to maintain: a car or a house. I considered it for a moment, or at least I made the appearance that I was considering it, since my choice had been made via circumstance. I was traveling, via the courtesy of our family car that was running like a hybrid top, to the home repair center to purchase a part for the plumbing system that had only recently become an issue. My current experience told me that taking care of a house was a lot more trouble than maintaining a car.
There are plenty of ways in which they are similar. If you are a conscientious owner of either one of these, you can do all kinds of preventative chores that will keep them viable and useful for the long haul. When something breaks, fix it. If it's making a funny noise, check it out. When I was in high school, I tended to turn up the stereo when my car made sounds that I wasn't prepared to diagnose. As a homeowner, and as an adult, I don't tend to sleep if I hear a clicking coming from the refrigerator or a dripping sound from the attic. Or the kitchen.
That's how this whole interaction started. My wife and I had struggled mightily for weeks, bringing all our home repair skills to bear on the kitchen sink. We fiddled and tightened and checked hoses and connections, but we both knew we were forestalling the inevitable. Just like adding that extra can of STP oil treatment to quiet the knocking as you prepare to do the math: How can we afford a new transmission?
Happy news: Kitchen faucets are infinitely easier to replace than car transmissions. The hazards of plumbing, as I have mentioned to anyone who will listen, is that you can get wet. A transmission is a greasy, heavy mass of metal that could crush a small child and should probably be handled only by professionals. The same could be said of plumbing, and most other activities that require wrenches. Why not pay somebody else to take care of your home and your car?
But that would cheat us out of the satisfaction of a job well done. Another very significant difference is the relative age of homes versus cars. Our house was built originally in 1895. That was just a little while before our Prius rolled off the assembly line. Or any other motor vehicle. I guess I feel more responsible to something that has been around for more than a century. What's easier? I don't know. Now that we have a new kitchen faucet, I'm waiting for that rattle to come back when we're turning left. In the car. Not the house.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Riddle Of The Sphinx

On rainy days I can feel my left knee. To be more precise, I am more aware of the joint at the middle of my left leg. I can feel my right knee. I can feel my right elbow. I can feel my left foot. I am more intimately familiar with that sinewy lattice on the left because once upon a time I broke it. Then doctors cut me open and put the tangled mess that I had made of it back together. This was back in my twenties, and I spent some time studying up on how all those pieces are supposed to fit together. After medical science had given me back two good legs, I felt a responsibility to take care of them.
That started with rehab. I did exercises focused on making those muscles stronger. I wanted to get back on my feet. Both of them. I became familiar with just how much work the quadriceps do every day. All the time. It was part of an overall body renaissance that got me thinking about all the bones and muscles that I had been taking for granted in my life up until that time. That had been the privilege of youth. All of that flopping about, hither and yon, had become less of a given. If I wanted to run and jump and play, I was going to have to take care of myself if I wanted to be running and jumping and playing.
When I was twelve, I didn't have to think about taking care of myself. That was my parent's job. The food I ate and the exercise I got were primarily a function of what I was told to do. What happened to my body was a matter of the family record. When I fell down, my mom took care of me. When I fell down hard enough, they took me to the doctor. When I got sick, my mom took care of me. When I got sick enough, they took me to the doctor. It never really occurred to me that I might one day have to be responsible for these interactions.
These days, I am completely aware of the interactions and transactions that comprise my health care plan. Having lived in this body for fifty-two years, I am completely aware of what parts are in fine working order and which might need a strict maintenance plan. I am going to have to think about those little aches and pains and wonder if they might be harbingers of bigger aches and pains in the future. Or maybe it's just the rain.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Get Up And Go

It was not the first time that our son had been out of the house before me. What made this early exit significant was the fact that he had no real place to go. For the past several years, it has become increasingly difficult to get him "up and at 'em." I should add here that for a while in my youth I thought this phrase was "up and atom," with some veiled reference to nuclear power. That aside notwithstanding, I rolled over in my bed, eyes still closed and listened to the sounds of my son sneaking out of the house. Since he had announced his nominal plans the night before, "sneaking" may not be a fair term. I should perhaps focus on the consideration he was giving us by keeping his move through the back of the house and out the door as stealthily as possible, given the time: Before six. In the morning.
His mother and I had our suspicions. We wondered why this boy, who had shown a propensity for sleeping through multiple alarms and disregarding most any and all attempts to wake him up, would suddenly begin to seek out the hours before sunrise. He told us that it was because he wanted to get out and see the sun come up. There was some small precedent for this, having made that same commitment with his friends in the first few weeks of school as part of a senior tradition. He lapsed back abruptly to sleeping like the dead until the last possible moment.
Now, as we make the big slow turn into the last semester of high school, we all find ourselves wondering what life will be like when we don't all share one roof. Mom and dad will be responsible for getting mom and dad to wherever they need to go. Son will do what it takes to get himself on his appointed rounds on time. It's a work in progress. I can imagine all kinds of ways that he could get himself in trouble at o-dark-thirty. Meeting a girl, perhaps? He's seventeen. He has a driver's license and a car. Meeting a girl would be the next logical step. If his mother and I didn't want him to meet girls, we should have insisted on that bus pass in perpetuity.
It seems likely that after the first of the year, he will settle back into the routine of having his parents shake him out of bed. It's just too easy not to. But for now, that experience of walking out into a house with one less soul gave me pause. And a little bit of thanks.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Shouting Fire In A Crowded Movie HouseEv

I wasn't probably going to rush out to my local cinema to catch a screening of "The Interview." On the big list of Christmas movies, it was down the list a bit from some of the bigger titles, but if my son had insisted, we might have found our way to a matinee. Or maybe he wouldn't have had to insist. My family is one that tends to delight in the silly and profane, both elements that were advertised to be found in the new Seth Rogen, James Franco vehicle: Two self-absorbed TV journalists are enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Daniel Craig and Matt Damon for a cast could have brought a different flavor to the proceedings, but the boys who brought you the "Pineapple Express" probably weren't after terse political subterfuge. No superspies here. Just a lot of good old fashioned American pot jokes and flatulence.
Of course, now I'll never know, will I? Sony Pictures has decided not to release this feel-good romp because of some nonsense about bombing theaters and "9/11 style attacks" as a reprisal for this naughtiness. Difficult to imagine here, from these shores, where our president is heckled, ignored and vilified by his less-than-adoring public. Sometimes by members of his own party. In North Korea, however, the previously mentioned Kim Jong-un is referred to as The Supreme Leader, and is regularly referred to as "a great person born of heaven." A couple of Hollywood punks want to make a lighthearted caper about killing this semi-major demigod would probably be looked upon as heresy.
That's probably what got the powers that be in our government thinking that maybe it was North Korean hackers who busted into Sony Pictures network and wreaked havoc with all those ones and zeroes. Cyberattack sounds pretty scary, and since so much of Sony Pictures sits around inside of computers in neatly stacked ones and zeroes. Digital terrorism turns out to be a pretty nasty business. Especially for businesses. In this particular case, the forty-two million dollars that paid for Mister Rogen and Mister Franco to create this fine mess will be counted as a loss, causing Sony stock to dip five percent. Which may seem like no big deal until you start to do the actual math: five percent of Sony. Ouch. That's going to leave a mark.
Not like a bomb crater or actual physical casualties, but a mark. Every time a bad movie is yanked from distribution, the terrorists win. I that necessarily a bad thing?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Kids In The Hall

I was one of those skeptics who, upon hearing "Dookie" for the first time, thought: "Cute, but can you really make a career out of that?" It's been twenty years since that record was on everyone's turntable. Or CD player. Or one of those newfangled Mp3 players. It was a pop record, and it got Green Day, from the East Bay, kicked out of the gritty punk enclave known as Gilman Street. I suppose that now that they have their own promotional website, they might consider themselves sellouts, but this is the path we all walk, eventually.
Just like eventually I always succumb to peer pressure. I bought my first Santana album because my brother in law looked through my CD collection and asked, "What? No Santana?" That was pretty much the same experience I had with my friend Bill in junior high when he was flipping through my albums and asked where my copy of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" was. I went out the next day and bought it. Now, some thirty years after that fact, both Carlos Santana and the members of Fleetwood Mac are enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I suspect this is a direct result of my buying their records, which may explain why now, or come this April, the boys from Green Day will be joining all those other pop music relics like Lou Reed and Joan Jett at the party.
I bought "Dookie" under duress. That sounds funny now, but just about any sentence that includes the word "Dookie" would. I purchased my first Green Day album because I had just moved to Oakland and some of the guys I worked with at the book warehouse were surprised that a cool guy like myself would be without that essential recording. In order to fit in with my peer group of book schleppers, I raced out and picked up my very own copy. By then, I didn't really need to listen to it. "Longview," "Basket Case," and "Welcome To Paradise" had already been committed to memory by anyone who worked in the warehouse back in 1994. Someone had made a cassette that played in heavy rotation at the packing line, alternately with all the various permutations of the Grateful Dead and their offshoots. The Grateful Dead, by the way, are also members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You'll never guess why I bought my copy of "American Beauty."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Know Your Rights

It's been two years since twenty first-graders and six educators were killed in Newtown, Connecticut. One by one, or by the classroom, the victims continue to line up. I confess that I am a little surprised that no one has gone public with the assertion that if Michael Brown had been carrying a gun, he would be alive today. It is the thing that passes for logic in the gun "debate." The solution for so much of what is wrong in our country seems inexorably tied, for many, to our Second Amendment Rights. It is at this moment that I find myself confounded: Do they mean the right to bear arms, or a well-regulated militia?
My guess is that a well-regulated militia, if there is such a thing, would not be caught up in any of the mess currently found in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and the list keeps growing. Just like the list of cities with mass shootings keeps growing: Portland, Philadelphia. As I have expressed here time and again, there are cities and departments across this great land of ours where law enforcement works with the community to protect and serve without pause or question. And there are plenty of in-betweens. I live in a city where each new crisis is a call to, well, not necessarily arms but a call to some level of confrontation. Squaring off in the street has become an almost nightly ritual here in Oakland. We want to exercise our freedom to assemble and speak. We want our rights. And then there are those in-betweeners. Like the tweets from Officer Phillip White from San Jose, just down the road:  "By the way if anyone feels they can't breathe or their lives matter I'll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun." Or the chief of police in Richmond, who showed up at a protest in uniform, holding a sign that reasserted, "Black Lives Matter." I'll give you a moment to try and make some linear sense of those last two.
The sense I can make is this: I don't want either one of their jobs. I kvetch and moan enough about being a public school teacher. I know how hard being a peace officer is. I've listened to their stories, I have seen them in action. I am everlastingly grateful that if something is lobbed at me from a crowd, it doesn't tend to explode and more often than not it's a four-square ball. Nobody is shooting at me. That's my bottom line. I suspect that when Victoria Soto went to school two years ago, she didn't expect anyone would be shooting at her, either. 
Interestingly, education is not one of those things guaranteed by our Constitution. Guns? Check. Protests? Check. Education? We'll have to get back to you on that. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In His Shoes

I spend a good deal of time in the summer walking around barefoot. Not necessarily down the street or even outside of my own yard, but it doesn't occur to me to stop and put on shoes and socks when I am just traipsing around my own house. If I do find myself outside, I think of the time I spent in the mountains of Colorado, wandering to and from the outdoor facilities known as "The Outhouse." This made sense, since the place I spent summers was called "The Cabin," so that literalness was extended to the privy. There was a sense of pride in walking out the path, in the dark, across whatever rocks, pine needles or unidentified pointy objects laid in wait on one's way to do their business.
But this wasn't always the case. When I was very young, I marveled at my older brother's willingness to traipse about the woods without any shoes, even if it was just that short hop to and from the outhouse. I was initially much more timid than my reckless, devil-may-care sibling. I chose, instead, to look for my father's cowboy boots.
They were great, big things, almost always found near the back door. That was the way we went. It wasn't a long walk. Just long enough to be away from the odors associated with outhouses. My feet would swim about inside those boots, clumping along on the brief back porch and then shuffling along the path. If I was in a big hurry, from the immediacy of my needs or the chill in the air, I was kept from running by my borrowed footwear. If a bear showed up, as we often teased one another that it might, I would have been an easy snack. We didn't actually have to worry about predators, but we did have to worry about the threat of imaginary predators, making the trip to and from the outhouse a perilous adventure. In cowboy boots that were five sizes too big.
It didn't matter. I wasn't really wearing the boots to keep my feet dry or warm. I wasn't wearing them to be able to run in the face of hungry predators. I wore them to be closer to my father. That's why he left them at the back door. Just in case we needed him.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stupid Or Stubborn?

Attempting to quote John Adams, Ronald Reagan once asserted that, "Facts are stupid things." What John Adams actually said was, "Facts are stubborn things." Stupid or stubborn, facts remain just that: facts. Interesting that both men were expressing their opinions about facts, but such is the slippery nature of public speaking. Such is the nature of semantics. What do the facts mean? Who decides?
We have all sat and watched science be debated as it pertains to global warming. Scientific fact, in this world we live in, is open for discussion. How many parts per million are healthy for humans and other living things to breathe? We don't all agree, but isn't that what facts are all about? Should we argue about details, or should we use those facts as a basis to form agreements?
Argue, of course.
There is such a fine line between right and wrong, after all. I spend a lot of time on the playground at school telling kids that hitting other people is bad. On a great many occasions, I have been told by five to eleven year olds that their parents have told them that if someone hits them, they should hit back, so hitting people turns out to be okay, with an asterisk. That isn't the reason Ray Rice gave. He said that hitting people is wrong, but since the NFL couldn't decide on how they wanted to handle the fact that hitting people is wrong, it turns out that maybe hitting people isn't so bad after all. Unless you happen to be Adrian Peterson, in which case it's still a bad thing, bad enough that you can't play football and hit people if you hit people. It's kind of a situational thing.
What is not as situational anymore is the use of bullhooks on elephants in Oakland. Starting in 2017. Okay. It's a little situational, but the fact remains that the Oakland City Council passed this ban by a vote of five to two, with one abstaining. Cruelty to animals is something that most people will agree is wrong, but using a standard of "would you use a bullhook on your own child" may not be a fact-enhanced discussion. I expect that the use of bullhooks on protesters in the streets of Oakland would also be banned. The use of rubber bullets, however, remains on the table. The result of the bullhook ban has been felt immediately, as the circus will no longer be coming to our town.
Meanwhile, Dick "Dick" Cheney continues to assert his vision of the facts surrounding torture: “We were very careful to stop short of tortureThe Senate has seen fit to label their report torture.  But we worked hard to stay short of that definition." And that's a fact. A big, stupid, fact.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Strongest Force

At the end of "The Living," a play written by Anthony Clarvoe about the ravages of the Plague in 1665 London, a speech is made summing up the tragedy by referencing the work of Sir Isaac Newton: "What Newton found: the world would fly to pieces, but for a great force, a power in every single body in the world, which pulls it ceaselessly toward every other body." Gravity. I listened to this speech, given by a high school actor in a production that featured the backstage talents of my son and his friends. They were battling gravity at every turn: keeping sets and props from falling, rolling and lifting, pushing and pulling and making the most of the laws Mister Newton suggested. That was how I was viewing it, from the outside. Inside, I was full of other thoughts.
Gravity is a very strong force, but maybe not as strong as that of life. Or death. Then again, gravity is the thing that drags us down. It brings bodies back to earth. Like the plague. Like time. It's a physics problem, really. Time is a factor in those operations. Eventually, everything comes to rest back on the ground. Or under it. These thoughts were fueled by the memorial service I was going to the next morning. A memorial for a fallen father, who would not see his teenage daughter graduate from high school this spring. Mortality and gravity. Partners in crime. It was gravity that put my own father in the ground: plane crash. Sudden deceleration trauma. When all was said and done, we sprinkled his ashes, though Newton might not be able to fully describe the way they drifted on the breeze. My father, it seems had already done his part for gravity. 
I wondered how I might eventually find my own way back to earth. Riding my bike on city streets. Bending over to pick up those tiny bits of loose change. I strenuously avoid flying in small planes, preferring not to give the natural law of irony any help. I came back to the auditorium after those few moments of reverie, having never left my seat. This wasn't Newtonian physics, this was more like Einstein. Yet, there I was, stuck in my seat, slow to get up because of the gravity of the situation. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beware The Figgy Pudding

It's that time of yer again, with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. This is the time of year that drove Ebenezer Scrooge absolutely batty: Holiday Party Time. Whether you are Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Satanist or Pastafarian, there will be a gathering at your place of work in the next week or so. Maybe that blessed moment has already come and gone for you. The powers that be may have decided that in order to maximize what limited productivity there might be in the rank and file before the file cabinets are closed and the lunch room gets converted into a Karaoke palace, schedule that preemptive fest that has all the Egg and not so much Nog. These last few weeks of the calendar year are a time for reflection, tying up loose ends, and trying not to do or say something in front of your co-workers that will be remembered long enough to show up on somebody's Facebook page.
Aside from that particular ignominious fate, you might also try to avoid a trip to the emergency room. Most of us are clever enough to avoid the more frightening moments at these holiday revels, but navigating the buffet may be the trickiest part. Pot lucks are a good thing, since you can generally count on those meatballs that you brought being both edible and non-threatening. Jello? This could be a riskier proposition. Better to stick with those freshly opened relish trays and little buckets of Ranch Dressing. Unless they've been sitting out under the lights for the past four hours while everyone looks for a place to put their coats. Or maybe it's best if you have the whole thing catered so you don't have to worry about that.
Or maybe not.
Last Wednesday, dozens of people attending an office holiday party in central Florida fell violently ill from apparent food poisoning. Food samples were being tested to determine the cause of the outbreak at a catered event, when guests began complaining of illness within two hours of the party's start. Emergency responders evaluated two hundred people, treating fifty-five at the scene and sending twenty-five to hospitals. Other guests drove themselves to emergency rooms, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was called as a precaution. Last time I checked, bringing tainted salmon mousse wasn't a treasonable offense, but these are interesting times in which we live. Perhaps we're all better off skipping the appetizers and going straight to the bar. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not-So-Perfect Storm

I waited for the water to rise. I listened for the wind. I battened down the hatches and brought the livestock in from the north forty. This was Stormageddon, after all. A gully-washer of epic proportions. Eventually, we all assumed, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg would be called upon to depict the true heroes of this disaster: TV reporters sent out into the mess to get video of the rain that was coming down across the Bay Area.
I was safe inside my home, looking out on the streets of Oakland, strewn with debris, not as a result of the storm but rather because of the fifth straight night of protests. The wind and the rain had more of a cleansing effect. It was a relief. So was the day off work. I have worked for the Oakland Unified School District for more than seventeen years, and have never once experienced a "snow day." I went to school on September 11, 2001. I rode my bike, just like most every other day since I started. I rode my bike on dark and cold and windy mornings for all those years, until this one. The powers that be in the administrative offices downtown took their cue from the National Weather Service and a number of other adjacent districts and decided to close the schools in anticipation of what was anticipated to be the worst storm in nearly a decade. Since I have been employed by the district for nearly two decades, I couldn't find it in me to get that worked up about it. Before the recent drought, we have all endured a number of days of steady rain and though street flooding and a number of umbrellas have been wrecked as a result, but since kids have been making it to classes before, during and after earthquakes, fires and yes, even rainstorms, who would have guessed that a week before Christmas break we would all get an extra day off?
I would not have guessed that. I grew up in Colorado, and spent a couple of hours after the initial announcement of the closure announcement crabbing like the old man that I am about how when I was a boy we used to walk to school through drifts of snow in minus twenty degree temperatures and still go outside for recess. That was the excruciating part: getting all bundled up in boots, hats, mittens and scarves in just about the time it takes to go outside and hear the bell, just to turn around and go back inside to hang it all up again in the cloak room. I do remember a few extreme cases when school was called on account of blizzards in those days. My brothers and I would crowd around the radio, listening to the listings of school districts that were closed, cursing all those who came before us until the cheer went up because at last we were told that Boulder Valley schools would be closed as well. Which meant that we ran to our boots, hats, mittens and scarves to get dressed to go outside to play in the snow.
And that was essentially what I did on the morning that Oakland schools were closed: I watched a little of the forecast on TV, caught up on a few episodes of "Parks and Recreation" with my wife, who complained bitterly that the rain was so loud that we had to turn the television up. When that was done, I put on my running shoes and my rain jacket and went outside. I got wet. I want to thank my bosses for that opportunity.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wouldn't It Be Nice

Indictments are formal charges of a serious crime. They are charges, not verdicts. The idea behind them is they raise a question of guilt. They are not admissions of guilt. They are questions. From there, prosecutors and defense attorneys set about collecting evidence and witnesses intended to support or diminish the claims made in that question. A grand jury's job is not to determine guilt or innocence. A grand jury's job is to conduct official proceedings to investigate potential criminal conduct and to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. It is only after those charges are filed that the trial begins. We are led to understand that indicting a police officer is a very difficult task. There are those who disagree. Even here in the very troubled corner of the country, Alameda County, It took a good deal of public pressure and some compromises, but Johannes Mehserle was arrested and eventually convicted of shooting and killing an unarmed man, Oscar Grant. Was justice served? At the time, the guilty verdict for involuntary manslaughter felt like someone was getting away with murder. In hindsight, it seems like a comparatively functional use of the justice system. What has changed in five years? Are we more aware of the problem? Are we working toward some sort of systemic change?
Maybe this will help: This past Wednesday, a top U.N. Special investigator said that senior U.S. officials who authorized and carried out torture as part of former President George W. Bush's national security policy must be prosecuted. Ben Emmerson, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said in addition that all CIA and other U.S. officials who used waterboarding and other torture techniques must be prosecuted. So there it is: an indictment. Will George W. Bush and Dick "Dick" Cheney ever see the inside of a courtroom? It seems at this point unlikely, but it's like that old joke about what you would call the Bush administration being handcuffed and hauled off to jail? A good start.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stop Sign

For several nights in a row, the streets and highways around town have been crowded with angry people. Some of them threw bottles. Some of them broke windows. Some of them set fires. Most of them did not. This didn't make it any easier for my son to comprehend. He is more than old enough to understand why there are riots in the Bay Area. He was born in Oakland, or more to the point, just over the hill in Berkeley. Berkeley: where protesters shut down Interstate 80 for more than an hour on Monday night, part of a trend that has become a prevalent tactic among those voicing their frustration about current events in Missouri, Cleveland, and New York. And it is making my son more than a little frustrated.
He drives now. He drives in the evenings on the highways around Oakland, because of his work with the theater department at his high school, he has had to take several detours and found his way home much later than he had anticipated with a different perspective than some of his contemporaries about the relative freedom of assembly. It's not free to him. He's buying the gas. He's sitting in the traffic backup. He's waiting for things to go back to normal. Whatever that is.
All of us are, but in the discussions that followed his run-in with stop and go traffic, he found himself questioning the motivations of those blocking his way. As his parents tried to remind him of the importance of making those voices of the disenfranchised heard, as well as the long and storied tradition of civil disobedience across this great land of ours, and especially right here on his home turf. Impeding transit is pretty small change coming on the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Those were different times, when heads were cracked and tear gas was used indiscriminately. Come to think of it, maybe things haven't changed all that much.
You might think that there would be some clever way to make a statement or to have your voice heard above the din. Do you have to break windows? Do you have to burn things? Do you have to stop traffic?
I told my son, "Yes." For more than fifty years, America has needed to have its rafters shaken and its bells rung. This is how change occurs. It is most decidedly not pretty and it is not convenient, but it takes a very complex mix of wrongs to make a right. Just like when you're trying to get home and you can't turn right because the road is blocked. You might have to take some side streets and a couple extra lefts, but it will eventually turn out to be a right. At least that's what we hope.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Playing Telephone

I know that I have received good news via the telephone. I have, on a number of occasions, won tickets to concerts as well as the home version of Jeopardy by knowing how to operate this telecommunications device. That and a rudimentary knowledge of pop culture that has also held me in good stead lo these many years. I have connected with old friends and talked at length with family about matters every bit as trivial as the winner of the first Grammy award, but the connections made have been vital. I periodically enjoy my chats with strangers, having taken the time to participate in a number of public opinion surveys and the occasional wrong number. Telephones can be cool.
They can also be harbingers of doom. A great abundance of the bad news that has come my way over the course of my life has come over the telephone line. The death of a loved one is the bottom line in this category. It is a rare thing to be present at the moment of someone's passing, and therefore the phone becomes the tool of choice when it comes time to spread the news. It is more personal by yards compared to an e-mail. But any conversation that begins with the phrase, "Are you sitting down?" paves the way for a less than pleasant interaction. This is the introduction to a conversation that you probably don't really want to have. It has been my sad duty now on a few different occasions to be the one initiating those conversations. "Hello, I just called to say that the rest of your day and perhaps the rest of your life will be altered by what you are about to hear." Telemarketers would like you to believe that the drape cleaning service they are about to offer you is just that, but these are the phone calls that come from the people you already know. I am also the very bad son who chose to relay the message to my father that his father had passed away in Salina, Kansas by shouting up the stairs, "Hey Dad, Ira kicked the bucket."
In what little defense I might add to this callous, teenaged response, I can only say that I had only seen my grandfather one time, and all the rest of my life was spent hearing stories about how much distance there was between my father and him. No excuse, really, and I learned from every time that moment came up in discussion with my father. I completely deserved someone calling to tell me that my father had "kicked the bucket." Instead, I was the beneficiary along with the rest of my family of a very compassionate and caring call from the hospital that told me he was gone. But it was a phone call.
My wife got one of those calls the other day. The treasurer of the PTSA with whom she had worked tirelessly over the past two years had died in his sleep. As president of the PTSA, it was then her job to be the voice at the other end of the line when she let the rest of the school community know. It was sad. It was tragic. It was a series of very uncomfortable phone calls. She performed admirably. At no time did any part of the "bucket" phrase get kicked around. Calm, measured and respectful. I was proud of her. If good news travels fast, it could be that sad news is more clumsy and more deliberate. I hope whoever has to make the calls for me is as patient and kind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Snow On The Roof

It was a seasonal thing. I shaved my head on the summer solstice at the suggestion of a friend who had taken note of my challenged hairline. "Why not?" Was the motivation. The timing was more about having a few months to grow hair back on the places where it would grow than the position of the sun in the sky. If it turned out that my skull had some horrible deformity that would best be hidden by patches of fur. A hat would have been an option too, but certain occasions require more formal attire than my standard array of baseball caps. It turned out that I needn't have worried. Or my friends and family were all so very polite that they could not bring themselves to comment on just how awful my shaved head looked.
If that last bit were true, they have all kindly held their tongues for the past decade or so. What began as a twice a year celebration of hairlessness, occurring on the longest and shortest days of the year, evolved into a seasonal observance by putting the equinoxes into the mix. This last move was made to limit the clown hair that would assert itself on the sides and back of my head near the end of six months. Three months kept me much less clown-like. It also kept the obvious signs of my advancing years at bay by simply cutting off all those offending gray hairs.
This past year I have been much less rigid about the timing of my shearing. I have still made a point of being clean shaven on the twenty-first day of March, June, September, and December. This summer I found it was easier to just keep the razor moving when I was shaving my chin and upper lip. I found it to be less of a core to keep going up the side of my head and over the top. The time it takes me to cut all those whiskers off turns out to be not considerably more than the time it used to take to lather, rinse and repeat. The shampoo concession in my house has dropped off by a third. More or less.
Now I sense the close of the year coming, and when I look at the calendar I find myself wondering just how I will be marking the beginning of winter. There was a time when I used to give my holiday party guests a turn with the electric razor, making a game of cutting swaths through my balding pate. We will now have to resort to more traditional games and activities. My eyebrows are getting a little bushy.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014


I looked it up. It means, "rendered or clarified chicken or goose fat used for frying or spreading on bread." It's a German word. Germans have been known to use goose fat as a spread for their toast. But Websters will tell you that is not the only definition. Poultry sweat aside, it can also mean "music, art, etc., that is very sad or romantic in usually a foolish or exaggerated way."  That's where I was headed when I got sidetracked by all that fat rendering. 
That's what this time of year affords in great big bushels: Sentiment. I have been known to stop on the occasional Lifetime movie just to soak it in. I like to pretend that I am above that sort of thing, but after discussions with many of my counterparts and colleagues about Christopher Nolan's space epic, Interstellar, it became clear to me that all those emotions that were stirred in me may have been callously manipulated by emotional engineers with the focused intent of selling more tickets by bringing us a story we can all "relate to." It worked. For me. 
But I have this carefully managed persona of wily cynic, and getting all teary-eyed at the end of a three hour science fiction movie doesn't fit in well with that. This is nothing new, however. I was once swept away by the honesty of Urban Cowboy. Before that, I was totally bowled over by Don Roberson's novel, "The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened." I read the story of Morris Bird III, the sequel to "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread," over and over. If you haven't read the book, I can tell you that it changed my life, or perhaps I changed my life for the book. I surrendered to the schmaltz. For a while I was very caught up in the words of Ernest Hemingway, which I acquired from an early viewing of "Brian's Song": All true stories end in death. I tried to write stories like that. I looked for them on TV and in theaters near me. 
What hadn't occurred to me at that time was that it's not just all true stories, it's pretty much all stories that end in death. That's why they make sequels
And so I sit there, waiting for the lights to come up, savoring the tears forming in the corner of my eyes, and hoping that no one notices. Except for you, dear reader. The schmaltz is almost ready. 

Monday, December 08, 2014

How Long Has This Been Going On?

From Reuters: "The Cleveland police officer who fatally shot a twelve-year-old boy playing with a pellet gun at a park last month left his previous job with a suburban police department after a string of problems, including immaturity and 'dismal' handgun performance, personnel records showed." Add this to the videotape of Eric Garner being choked to death by a New York city cop, and you might think that you could establish a trend. Out here in the land of Oscar Grant and Fruitvale Station, we don't need a lot of convincing. Then there's this: The U.S. Justice Department last Thursday an investigation found the Cleveland Police Department systematically engages in excessive use of force against civilians. Civilians. There wasn't a distinction made by the Justice Department about what shade of civilian. I am guessing there are those that would suggest a more thorough investigation. I am also guessing that the investigating parties would not have to dig very far to uncover a trend. Some civilians are having excessive force used on them with higher frequency.
Why would that be? Aren't we all innocent until proven guilty? Aren't we all protected against illegal search and seizure? Aren't we all excused from choke holds and "dismal" handgun performance? Aren't we living in a country adjacent to a statue that carries a plaque inviting our tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free to do just that? Serve and protect. How hard can that be? If we were to believe in percentages, that answer would be "not that hard at all" for the vast majority of law enforcement officers. More than thirty-four thousand uniformed officers in New York City. Cleveland? Twelve hundred in that thin blue line. Are they all racist, trigger happy idjits? Sadly, it doesn't matter at all. There is a higher standard for peace officers. In Ferguson, Missouri. In Cleveland, Ohio. In New York City. In Oakland, California. So while we're at it, why not set some higher standards for us all? Everywhere. I like that whole "content of their character" measuring stick. Which also makes me wonder about the whole "hate crime" thing. Do we have anything that would fit in the category of "like crimes?" They're all hate crimes. Or maybe we can just stop killing one another. For a while. Please?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Checking It Twice

The three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in an elementary school are a very mixed bag. On one hand, we have our first report cards of the year to hand out. Those loom large. On the other hand, every child's mind is an active advent calendar, counting the days to the next vacation. And to the next big celebration. Even the kids whose families don't actively celebrate Christmas for spiritual or emotional or financial reasons get caught up in the fever. How does a classroom teacher maintain any semblance of order during this countdown?
First, and most important, there is the dual prong of report cards and pending gifts. If a student is recklessly careening off track, it behooves that kid's teacher to remind them that report card grades can change right up to the last instant before they are handed to a parent. All that great work in October and November could be obscured by a truly awful December. For those who have already decided that grades don't matter, we have the immediate and tangible connection between performance and reward. For the younger set, a simple reminder that Santa knows when they are sleeping, he knows when they're awake, and he knows when their behavior clip moves south of "role model." The more mature audience gets a simple reminder about how those presents find their way under the tree, and a refresher on cause and effect. If Sammy doesn't do her homework, Sammy's parents might not do the shopping necessary to make Christmas morning bright. This does nothing for those cases in which either the parents, the child, or both have given up on the whole education thing. Still, it's the holidays and there's that hope for renewal, so there's that new year to look for some resolution.
The second thing that teachers do is simply surrender to the season. Even out here in drought-ravaged California, we make our cotton ball snowmen, and we create snowflakes from a wide array of colors besides the traditional white. The halls are filled with the raucous and familiar din of children's voices singing at the top of their lungs, practicing for their three minutes of fame at the Winter Holiday Assembly. We like to kid ourselves into believing that we are providing some measure of rigorous curriculum, but we know that the public speaking standard will not be met by lip-synching "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree."
Then there are those who simply go to the bottom line. Go ahead and have your students write a Christmas list. This year, our fifth graders were in general agreement that an X-Box One would be the ideal gift for a girl or boy. There were a few who asked for iPads, and the girl who asked for clothes also wanted a motorcycle, so their wants seemed simple enough. Even if they weren't exactly altruistic. I held out hope that someone would ask for peace or harmony, and after reading an entire bulletin board, I had almost given up hope. In the very last corner was a picture, and beneath it was that word: Peace. For a moment I was swept away with the spirit of the Winter Solstice, and then I realized that the list I was looking at had been made by a fifth grade teacher. When I made that connection, it made as much sense as any of the rest of these three weeks.

Saturday, December 06, 2014


While you're busy unscrambling just how to pronounce the title, consider the question: What would you like to have in terms of morning manners from your fellow commuters? If you're sitting behind the wheel of your car and wishing that the person in front of you would move so you could get around or if your seat happens to be on a bus and the person next to you is flossing their teeth without a sense of what is public or private, you have a sense of what I'm discussing here. We are all in this together, and making that association clear is difficult for those of us who have to be somewhere on time, and most of us are at the very least ambivalent about getting there in the first place. Maybe that's where it starts. If we were all honest about the reasons for yelling and honking and cursing under our breath or in full throat, it might be a healthier process. I think about the relative calm I see on the faces of people waiting in line for Space Mountain. These folks are going to a happy place: thrilling, high speed, turbulent roller-coaster type ride in the dark that includes sharp turns, sudden drops & stops. If all commuters were assured of thrilling, high speed, turbulent roller-coaster type rides in the dark that include sharp turns, sudden drops & stops, maybe we would all be more patient. 

But since Disney isn't in charge of most of our morning commutes, I will suggest that we all consider how we could make the whole enterprise of getting to and from work a more enjoyable one. My commute is via bicycle, primarily on side streets. It pains me greatly when someone decides to park next to another car, obscuring one lane of traffic. We have, as a society, created a term for this practice: double parking. It sounds like a good thing. It's not. Double parking on a dark and stormy morning makes riding a bicycle past those two cars rather dicey. About half the time, drivers are courteous enough to put their hazard lights on, letting me know that they have decided to stop in the middle of what should be a thoroughfare. The other half, not. What bothers me the most is when there is an open parking spot twenty feet down the street, or just across, but rather than turning around or pulling ahead a couple of car lengths, here sits the family car invariably idling at their pretend second curb, waiting for some important transaction to take place. Meanwhile, I'm stuck wondering what oncoming traffic may or may not be just to the left of that impediment. If I'm lucky, the cars coming in the opposite direction have their lights on and are traveling at a reasonable speed for the area, allowing me to anticipate my next move. The alternative? Riding on the sidewalk to get around the whole mess, but becoming someone else's pet peeve in doing so. 
Double parking never happens at Space Mountain.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Why Is There Air?

One of my earliest talents was the memorization of comedy albums. The first records I committed to memory were those of Bill Cosby. I sat n front of my older brother's record player and listened with focused intent to "The Chicken Heart," and "Go-Carts." I could hear Bill's voice when I closed my eyes, and when it was time to recite, I was ready. I stood up straight and let fly with whole routines, complete with sound effects and pauses for applause. My parents were relieved, I assume, that I didn't choose to catalog the comic stylings of Lenny Bruce. That would come later. They were fans, too. They packed us all in the station wagon and loaded us into one of the last rows of the auditorium in Denver where I watched that little figure in the distance move back and forth across the stage. I would like to say that I incorporated all of those moves into my own act, but the distance and the size of the crowd kept me from fully absorbing whatever magic may have been out there. I didn't fully comprehend how anyone could understand a word of what was being said amid the din. I did bring back that badge of honor: I saw Bill Cosby.
As the seventies wore on, I retained all those great old bits. It put me in good stead when I was in a place where working blue was frowned upon. I faithfully watched "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," and for a while I even carried a lunchbox with their likenesses on it. I was a fan. In the eighties, I was happy that one of the shows that HBO seemed willing to run in an endless stream was "Bill Cosby: Himself." I marveled at this sit-down routine that seemed to move effortlessly from childhood to parenthood to drinking and back again. I was captivated once again: "Dad is great, he gives us chocolate cake." This became an anthem, of sorts when I became a father and my own me parenting methods were, at times, called into question.
Like the rest of the planet, I watched "The Cosby Show," and only rarely did I get stuck on the whole issue of its connection to reality. It was a lovely place to visit, and it seemed like the Huxtables were the family that my own family wanted to be. Only with fewer sweaters.
Now, those memories are hard to share without wondering what I could have missed. Allegations are just that, and there is still the matter of a burden of proof. But just thinking about all of that wisdom and sweetness being jostled up against the precise antithesis of that makes it difficult to say "I'm a fan." Some have pointed out that all the creepy things that Michael Jackson did can't take away from his musical genius. Maybe the same could be said for Gary Glitter. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Time has a way of washing some of those sins away. It was Bill Cosby who once entertained me with the story of him and his brother Russell, with whom he slept. Now? Not so much. Maybe time plus comedy equals tragedy.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Sonic Drive Through

There are a lot of people who don't like Dave Grohl. I get it. He was in Nirvana, and if he had any sense of polite decorum, he would have taken his opportunity to ride off into the sunset as the drummer of that pioneering rock band, surfacing only long enough to accept honorary awards and to bask in the polite glow of the fame he enjoyed as one of the grungiest of the grungy. Instead, he took his energy and talents to a new group: Foo Fighters. For many Grohl-haters, this wasn't the worst thing. The worst thing was that he sold records. He made money. Lots of it.
That's usually when art starts making people mad: when wads of cash start getting in the way. If those piles of dough aren't obscured by someone's ego. And then there's the whole pop music problem. Once you get popular, you start to lose that cred that you've been building all those years as a starving/struggling artist. Mister Grohl has jammed with Paul McCartney, and a great many other dinosaurs of rock. He's just asking to be kicked. But that's why I like him. He seems truly invested in what the kids call "rock and roll." Some of them, anyway. He knows his roots, and to show it, he took his band on a cross-country zig-zag trip to immerse them in it. The result, a record and an HBO mini-series, is called "Sonic Highways." Stopping in eight different cities, Dave and the rest of the Foos soaked up the local history and culture before recording a song in these very different locales: Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York. Those who would knock the Foo Fighters' attempts at expanding their (and by extension our) understanding of the roots of the rock they are playing are the same ones who would pick the nits on any of the albums from their catalog, so if you were looking for something completely new or revelatory, you could probably just skip on to the next really cool thing that nobody else has ever heard of. The real treat for me in watching this show was listening to the song that Dave wrote to celebrate each of the cities he and the band visited. Sure, they sound like Foo Fighters songs, but they open up a door to the influences that made each one special. I knew there was a punk scene in Washington D.C., for example, but it was via "Sonic Highways" that I learned about the "go-go" school of funk that sprouted from our nation's capitol in the sixties and seventies. Instead of focusing on the corporate machine that makes music in Los Angeles, Dave took us to Rancho De Luna, where weird records were made by even weirder people.
I could go on and on, justifying my love for all things Grohl and Foo, but if you have already made up your mind, what's the point? If you haven't, and you'd like to see and hear where the music from the past century came from, tune in or take a listen. You might like what you find.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Get A Job

It is the holiday season, and this is the time we tend to think of giving. To be an effective giver, you have to have something to give. The National Football League has just given Ray Rice the gift of reinstatement. Mister Rice, once the bane of the league's existence, could be out on the field making a paycheck doing the thing that he was doing before things got ugly: playing football. He might even end up on a team that gets to go to the playoffs. That's an extra check. Or two. Is that justice? Maybe with the small "j." The kind of justice that acknowledges just how ineptly his case was handled by his once and future boss, Roger Goodell.
He won't be playing for the Baltimore Ravens. That ship has sailed. That leaves thirty-one other cities that might be interested in Ray Rice's services. He's got options. As it turns out, he might be getting some competition from another former star: Adrian Peterson. The same loophole through which wife-puncher Rice squeezed may offer an opening for kid-switcher Peterson. All the righteous indignation the nation felt a couple of months ago seems to have drifted away. It's the holidays. It's the playoffs. Isn't there a way that we can all end up feeling good about this?
In a country that makes a celebration of shopping, what else would we expect? To the victor goes the spoils. Stirring, really. The unemployment rate continues to go down, so Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are part of that statistic, I suppose. That number will be mitigated somewhat by developments in Ferguson, Missouri where they just cut loose one of their police officers. In a move that should surprise absolutely no one, city officials say that Darren Wilson will not be receiving any severance package upon resigning from his job as a cop in that troubled suburban enclave. Former officer Wilson said he left the force because of death threats he has received. If your job is to serve and protect, it tends to undercut the process if you're more concerned with protecting yourself. By contrast, Ray Rice used to receive death threats from "fans" who had him on their fantasy football teams. Not the same thing, but interesting for discussion purposes.
In the meantime, we wait for the wheels to churn. Slowly.  Maybe the NFL will offer Darren Wilson a job. Sense will come from this mess. That's my job.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Left Behind Or Left Out?

I was courted, along with the rest of the staff at my school, by a group that was interested in turning our public school into a charter school. This was some time ago, back when it seemed as though this was the future of education. So it seemed. When asked, I would often tell those who were curious, that I understood what a great idea charter schools were. There are lots of good ideas out there, but not all of them to see the light of day. For a while I felt that by sticking with my traditional public school model I was impeding progress. I didn't want to be the one who left a child behind.
Getting a group of like-minded parents and teachers together in order to create a true community school sounds like a great idea, especially in neighborhoods where kids have been underserved by the school down the block. Shake things up, right? Turn things around. What charter schools did do almost immediately was to deliver higher test scores. Part of this was momentum was a gimme, since the students who found themselves in these new schools were the ones whose parents cared enough to put them somewhere that they felt success would be a fete accompli. When the emphasis is on education and not just housing kids with the hope of educating them, charter schools would obviously win out.
Did I say "obviously?" If everyone is on board with the curriculum and the charter, this thing would have to work. Until charter schools started to get some of that undesirable element, the families who had been struggling with the realities of public school: attendance, grades, parental participation. Back at my school, we felt that initial wave of students leave to check out the sunnier side of the street, and now we find them coming back. They are coming back because it turns out that charter schools aren't all that different from public schools after all. Except public schools don't suspend and expel students as often as their charter counterparts. In Boston, for example, students are being suspended for violating dress codes, or being disrespectful. This is according to a report just issued by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. Teachers and administrators defend their practice. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators in my school have been discouraged from suspending students, choosing instead to keep kids in school whenever possible.
Two different schools of thought. Two different schools.

Monday, December 01, 2014


The walls came down this weekend. It's not like we don't do stuff like this all the time. The precedent exists, since as a family we embrace the practice of building forts. It's been a New Year's tradition since before our son was born, and we have continued the practice of turning our living room into a Bedouin camp with couches on end and Christmas lights supporting the sheets that form our tent. But since it's all play, we know that before our real life can continue, everything has to be put back into what amounts to a more functional order. Mattresses on the floor and entrances and exits that require crouching or crawling allow for a goodly amount of silly fun, but it's not very good for day to day existence. Keeping a clean pathway from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom is important in a household as busy as ours. In the midst of a vacation, however, the temptation to leave things in that state of play is more than palpable. It's contagious.
All of those forts were probably what made us think that building a platform bed for my son would be easy. Before my son entered Kindergarten, we were far better equipped to build things with bedsheets and clothespins than with lag bolts and two by fours. Yet we persevered, and in my son's bedroom we created a relatively permanent structure that took up fully one quarter of my son's bedroom. I say "relatively permanent" because this weekend we took it apart, just like all the other forts we have built inside this house. To be fair, it was much more than a fort. It was the Lego Lab. Beneath the mattress and pillows on which he slept, there was a space for him to create and build all those things he imagined and dreamed about just a few feet away. Up top was the place where his mom and dad had climbed, night after night, to read a story and get that last kiss and a hug. It was always worth the climb.
This was the formal realization of the process that had begun some months ago. Some years ago. That bed way up high hasn't really been his for a while now. We took it apart and turned it back into a regular bed for a kid who is getting ready to graduate from high school . We turned it into what will be a guest bed soon enough. What was once our child's room is now in a state of flux. It's not a fort. It's not the pony corral that my wife first envisioned when we were bolting together the four by fours. It's now spare lumber in the garage. It's out there in case we decide to build a fort. Or something more permanent.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Play Nice Or Don't Play At All

Vladimir "Got Mine" Putin would like us all to know that Russia is not a threat to anyone. "We pose no threat to anyone and do not intend to get involved in any geopolitical games or intrigues, let alone conflicts, no matter who tries to draw us into them or how they do so." Comforting words from a man who was talking to his military chiefs on the shore of the Black Sea. Which is why he turned around with his next breath to say, "At the same time, it is indispensable to securely safeguard the sovereignty and integrity of Russia and the security of our allies." That one is just a little harder to parse. I checked out this whole "sovereignty" thing. It means "supreme power or authority." It could be that it's a tough translation from the original Russian: suverenitet. Should we take this guy at his word, that he doesn't want to be involved in geopolitical games, even though most of the past year has felt like a prolonged game of Risk in the Ukraine. Does this mean he's not interested in rolling again? Maybe he just expects the world to accept the geopolitical games that he has already played, and now we can sit back and accept his lack of intrigue, since it really wasn't that subtle in the first place: "Those guys aren't Russian soldiers. They may have been dressed like Russian soldiers, and speaking Russian, but they aren't Russian soldiers." And these aren't the droids we're looking for.
Subtlety from this guy would be something new anyway, if he's not hitting on China's first lady, or wrestling with bears, he's busy doing something manly or aggressive. Like turning a Siberian tiger loose on the unsuspecting goat herds of northeastern China. Keeping in mind, of course, that the tiger was a gift to China. Maybe it wasn't a Russian tiger at all. Just like in the Ukraine, there weren't a lot of witnesses left in the goat house to confirm. If only Vlad would stick to cribbage.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Building Something

For many years, my son dutifully held the light for me or handed me screws when I needed them. He was my little helper. Over the course of his life, we have built an entire new bathroom, replaced the insides of our kitchen, painted the outside of the house from foundation to rooftop, and a great many home repair projects in between. There's a picture somewhere out there that shows me holding my cordless drill while my son stares up at the fence we were creating in our back yard. It's a great father and son moment.
Except it wasn't, exactly. I have a tendency, like a lot of fathers I suppose, to take the lead when it's time to put something together or take it apart. I know where the tools are. I put them there. When it's time to get the saw out, I can tell someone where to go and pick it up. That someone is often my son. When he's not there, I ask my wife. There are also plenty of instances in which I don't ask for help at all. I just push on through. That's the way things get done.
Like the Boogle House in our back yard. It's the club house I built over the years with the bits and pieces of lumber that were left over from the home improvements we made. I built it. I thought my son would love it. His friends sure did. But he never took to it the way I thought he might. As it turns out, his mother had some insight that I didn't: Maybe if he had helped build it, he might have spent more time out there. Maybe he would have had his friends over to hammer nails and drill new spy holes. Or maybe he was more interested in his video games and Legos.
I'm pretty sure his mother had it right. I wish that I would have found a way to share the chore of making our house the estate it is today. Or will be, once we finish a few more small renovations. The ones I plan to ask for help on. You see, last week I went with my son to his school to work on some of the backstage construction he is doing for the Fall play with his friends, the Techies. I walked into his shop where he knew where the tools were. I held boards together while he used a pneumatic stapler to hold them together. He asked me to wait while he found the broom so we could help clean up. It wasn't humiliating, exactly, but I felt it. I watched him work, and I felt something else: proud. I can't really take credit for teaching him how to put things together. That was his teachers and his friends at school. Maybe a little bit of that leaked through from the days we spent together fixing things and putting them back together. Watching my son build things made me feel like I wanted to build something. With him.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Too Soon

It was Steve Allen who first suggested the following equation: Comedy is tragedy plus time. Or maybe it was Lenny Bruce. Or Carol Burnett. Or Woody Allen. Or Mark Twain. Regardless who came up with the concept initially, it would explain my reticence for making light of the events in Ferguson, Missouri. Any and all attempts at humor fall flat in the face of what has become a national tragedy. Rather than promoting any sort of understanding or peaceful response to what is becoming a far-too-predictable series of events, the reactions on all sides have been just as shameful as the past confrontations brought on by initial confrontations.
I should state here and now that I have no firm beliefs or convictions about exactly what happened on that August afternoon in a suburb of St. Louis. A Grand Jury was asked to determine, based on mountains of evidence and hundreds of eyewitness accounts, and they couldn't come up with anything. Or they chose not to come up with anything. What this meant, for the months prior to the Grand Jury's lack of decision, was that the accused officer, Darren Wilson, remained on paid administrative leave while the whole ugly mess was taken apart and put back together dozens of times by a steady stream of pundits, prosecutors, and experts who gave their opinions from just outside the closed doors where the actual deliberations were taking place. Meanwhile, in Texas, a high school teacher was fired for her angry rants about the situation on Twitter. The months that have passed have not made this funny. Not funny "ha ha," anyway.
And so we wait. Will there ever be anything funny about the death of Michael Brown? Is there anything amusing about a town being torn apart? Is there laughter to be found anywhere, on the outskirts of town? In the midst of the broken glass and spent tear gas canisters? My son and I watched the footage of a Little Caesar's Pizza restaurant being burned to the ground in Ferguson, and we made lame attempts to make a joke out of what we were seeing. What we were doing was "gallows humor," the kind of jest that occurs when the only way to make sense of that uncomfortable situation is to say something completely inappropriate. We couldn't make it funny. We couldn't make it right.
That will take time. Lots of time.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


If there was a works department truck, hauling a load of screens and barriers for covering storm drains, it would be grate full. Full of grates. Literally. If I were to be found near the faucet insuring that the aquarium, I would be insuring tank fullness. Literally. It's that time of year: When we make horrible puns and then wish that we hadn't.
I'm thankful that I live in a world where such a lifestyle is possible. I'm grateful for the opportunity to spread that lifestyle through my online presence. Literally. Words mean a lot to me. Making those words work is important to me. Emotionally. It's more of a feeling. It's hard to be literal about it.
I'm thankful that we have been able to move beyond the tensions of the mid-term elections. Politically. I'm grateful to still be connected to Al Gore's Internet. Electronically. It is a wireless connection. Specifically. I'm glad I have new worlds to explore. Boldly. I'm happy to have the ability to share my thoughts. Effortlessly. I am thankful that there are still things I can share. Joyfully.
Thankful for all those adverbs. Grateful for the music of Supertramp. I am grateful for the chance to speak with you today. What do I know about gratitude? I know a train of thought when I see it. I know a train wreck. But now I'm speaking metaphorically. It wasn't an actual train wreck.
And I wasn't speaking just now, either. I was writing. Or more to the point: I was typing. I am thankful for the opportunity to explain myself.
And to express how beholden I am you all, those of you who took the time to read this. I am indebted to you for giving me that chance.
And thankfully.