Saturday, March 25, 2017

More Stuff

"We'll be right back with more stuff."
That was the promise for which I sat still, in front of my parents' TV, waiting for The Gong Show to return from commercial break. I didn't want to miss a second. This was as real as television got back in the seventies, or at least for me. I watched singers, dancers, singing dancers, magicians and a steady stream of physical oddities that never ceased to amuse/nauseate. I watched them all, waiting for that moment when one of the celebrity judges would be moved to rise from their seat, with over-sized mallet in hand, and interrupt the act with the eponymous gong. 
Thanks to the Gong Show, I was introduced to such luminaries as Rip Taylor, Jaye P. Morgan, and Murray Langston. I know, I know: Who is Murray Langston? It is not surprising that you don't know him since he was the Unknown Comic. The Gong Show was also responsible for keeping the careers of Jamie Farr and Arte Johnson alive in between guest appearances on The Love Boat
And there was Milton DeLugg and the Band With a Thug. Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. And there was Chuck. Introduced once upon a time by Carol Burnett: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce a man with the charm of Cary Grant, good looks of Robert Redford, and the acting skills of Laurence Olivier. I'd like to meet that man, but until then, I'm stuck with Chuck Barris." I didn't mind being stuck with Chuck Barris. Even if all he had done was created The Newlywed Game. Even if he had only written Freddy Cannon's hit, "Palisades Park." Even if he had only been an assassin for the CIA. I wouldn't mind being stuck with Chuck Barris. 
Sure, you could say that Chuck helped lower our standards with his gonging and Treasure Hunts and $1.98 Beauty Show. I probably wouldn't argue, but Chuck Barris offered us a chance to see ourselves on television. He offered me a chance to see what it would be like if I hosted a game show. He also introduced me to The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. And Paul Reubens before he was Pee Wee Herman. These are gifts enough. Thank you, Chuck. You stomped on the Terra, and brought me all even more stuff. Aloha. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Season

It's that time of year again: Standardized tests return. While others are noting the change in the season and the lengthening days, It is part of a cycle that has been impressed on me since the days when I was a student and I nervously awaited those newsprint booklets and the bubble sheets that accompanied them. Learning was to be measured, and the best way to do that was to pen us all in and have us fill in those bubbles as best we could for a seemingly endless stretch and precious little took place aside from this silent activity. We were a school of test-takers, and when we came out the other side, we would be prepared to move on to the next grade, ready to spend a week filling in bubbles to prove what we knew. Some of us, with older siblings, were able to see where this path was leading: the PSAT. The ACT. The something-something-T. That stands for Test. And trouble, right here in River City.
Just like back then, there are still those students who look at us slack-jawed when we tell them that there is a test coming. We have done our best by immersing them in assessments throughout the year that mirror the experience to prepare for the Big One. Back in the day there was no need to reveal your thinking. Some of us took the time to eliminate the answers and make logical choices from A, B, C or D. "None of the above" was always a pretty good guess. Then there were those who were simply making patterns, attempting to beat the system by creating their own.
Not so much anymore. These days we ask kids to explain their thinking. We have included, along with a healthy amount of bubble filling, big boxes in which we hope students will fill with their ideas. Rationalize their process and explain their thinking. In anticipation of this experience, I have given our third, fourth and fifth graders practice tests that I hope will make the test-taking experience less fraught with anxiety. When they come to those boxes, they stop. They stare. And they ask me this question: "How much do I have to write?"
I give them a pretty standard teacher answer, "Enough to explain your answer."
Because there is no absolute. I would love to be able to tell them that if they write six lines they will get that question right. If they include a compound sentence that they will get extra credit. Spelling counts. Punctuation counts. Don't leave the CAPS LOCK button on and leave us all wondering why you are yelling. How much do they really have to write? I wish I didn't have to answer that question, so I mostly don't. I do what teachers have done for all time before mine: I try and get them to write as much as they can. The bubbles aren't enough. To be successful we need to see how those bubbles came to be filled in. Now they get to do it on a computer, so hopefully the strain on their number two pencil fingers will be spread out onto their clicking and typing digits.
And here's the other thing I can tell them: This too shall pass, and hopefully so will you.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

MASA

Why trust me? I have a bachelor's degree in creative writing. I am highly skilled in the realm of obfuscation and manipulation of words and phrases. I am not a scientists. To that end, I found myself as an undergraduate taking a course titled "Physics For Non-Science Majors." I tell you this in order to establish my distance from science, not out of any lack of respect. I maintain a great deal of respect for all the sciences: physical, life, earth. Science is cool
You don't have to take my word for it. You should believe real scientists like Bill Nye. Or maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson. Doctor Tyson doesn't know more than anyone else, but he does know a lot more than me. It is for that reason that I have decided to trust him when he says, "We all want to Make America Great Again. But that won't happen until we first Make America Smart Again." This was the initial shot in a Twitter barrage Neil set off over the past weekend. It was his reply to a budget released by the "President" that took great wide cuts from social and science programs that might have made it easier to achieve that smartness goal. He went on: "The fastest way to Make a America Weak Again: Cut science funds to our agencies that support it." And "The fastest way to Make America Sick Again: Cut funding to the National Institutes of Health." Of course, "The fastest way to Make America Stupid: Cut funds to programs that support education." And obviously, "The fastest way to thwart Earth's life-support systems for us all: Turn EPA into EDA -- the Environmental Destruction Agency." 
All of this was rounded out with a question: "We can all imagine a land that provides no support for Art. But is that a place you'd want to Live? To Visit? To Play?" 
It should be noted that, while Neil deGrasse Tyson is a very smart man with degrees in physics and astronomy with all kinds of astrophysics and space junk that go on for parsecs. But he is not an economist. Figuring out a way to pay for all of this art and science is not his responsibility. His job is to explain what happens to a station wagon travelling the speed of light and someone turns on the headlights. He is supposed to make science fun and available for us non-science majors. 
He wasn't supposed to make us think. 
Thanks a lot, science guys. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Historical Markers

The way things used to be: It's a conversation that has been taking place since the Graks moved in to the cave down the way and started smearing paint on the walls. I remember when we didn't need fancy "cave painting" to make a house a home. Remember when stories were something that were shared by word of mouth? We didn't have to have "books," right? Sooner or later, they're just going to be replaced by the electronic chip in the base of our spines that replaced the corneal implants that replaced the tablets we were dragging around that gave us access to that trickle of information we used to call "the super highway."
J.C. Penney is closing one hundred thirty-eight stores. That brick and mortar omnipresence is becoming less omni. Penney's is not disappearing, but it is shrinking. The place that once filled my Christmas wishlist left its location in Crossroads shopping center a long time ago. I bought some of my first stereo equipment from them. Much of what I came to understand about retail occurred to me through those doors. Now I shop and compare online. Thanks, Al Gore.
Goodyear will no longer be flying blimps, either. The Spirit of America was deflated last week. It was this moment in history that finally clued me into the difference between blimps and other airships. Goodyear will continue to fly airships, they won't look too terribly different from blimps. They will be semi-rigid dirigibles. Not just balloons filled with gas, but a structure that will hold its shape even when the helium is let out. Not hydrogen, though, since that would be looking back, Hindenburg-ish.
There was never a blimp among the tokens used to play Monopoly, but there was an iron. You remember irons. They came before permanent press. There was also a thimble and a shoe and a wheelbarrow. You remember wheelbarrows. They came before the Yardmax. Thimbles? We used them to measure drinks for mice. Now we're being asked to play with a penguin, a rubber ducky, and a T-Rex. How will this effect my play? Not much, since it's been at least a decade since I played Monopoly competitively. Or any other way. The closest I have come was a few years back when I got extra tokens from McDonald's when they were playing their version and I won a free order of french fries.
I still eat french fries, even if I don't find my way to McDonald's as much anymore. Things change. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What's "In The News?"

“And don't forget, when I say wiretapping, those words were in quotes,” the "President" said. “That really covers, because wiretapping is pretty old fashioned stuff. But that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that's a very important thing.”
See, when you put things in "quotes" it means we shouldn't take them seriously. Like those "alleged ties to Russia." See what I did there? I was letting you all know that there is nothing to worry about. Or "worry" about. It becomes difficult at times to understand just exactly what we "mean" when we use quotation marks. This bit of punctuation generally used in pairs in various writing systems to set off direct speech, a quotation, or a phrase is now being used for less direct purposes. Think about air quotes for a moment. The White House press secretary uses them. Those scratchy little gestures that hover around words or phrases that are meant to set them apart, and not in a good way. Those words are no longer "useful" but rather "suspect." What do we really "mean" when we use quotes these days?
I tend to use quotes when I want to give direct credit for a thought or phrase to an individual. This often happens when I am shocked or surprised by a particular sentiment and want to transfer it intact from one setting to another. For instance: "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" When those single quotation marks show up, by the way, it sets off a quote within a quote. It could be that the "President" was looking to add a little colloquialism into the message, since that is yet another of the myriad uses for quotation marks. Single or double. Or perhaps it is meant as some sort of double entendre or innuendo inserted so as to make us all wonder about the true nature of the relationship between presidents forty-four and forty-five. You know, "special." 
If that last bit served to make you just the tiniest bit squeamish, then I consider this time well spent. If all this talk about "quotation marks" and what the "President" really "meant" makes your head hurt, then imagine what challenges await us as we move forward. That same press secretary who has battled facts and tweets and a room full of reporters filled with a rage for blood was asked when we could trust the "President." His answer? “If he's not joking.” Make of that quote what you will.
Mic drop. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Sometimes I feel bad when I call a customer service representative. I am calling because I have an issue with the makers or supporters or advertisers or company that put its name on or near the product that has so recently begun to dissatisfy me. I am not calling to say, "Hey, nice job on this vacuum guys. It really sucks! In a good way." The reason for picking up the phone in the first place was to exact some sort of satisfaction from the nitwits who forgot to put the bag of screws in the box in the first place. Or raised the price of the service I have been using for years without bothering to notify me. Or sold me something that was defective, ineffective, or just plain useless.
I know that when I hear a voice on the other end of that line that they are wincing in anticipation of whatever it is that I have to say because that is why they were hired. This the job for which they have trained. They have the manual, the big binder of calm and rational explanations. They come equipped with soothing tones and concern for my well-being and self-esteem. The customer service person is there to bear the brunt of my dissatisfaction and to try and steer me back out of the rut that has me hating their company and all they stand for.
Which is why I generally open with something along the lines of, "I understand that none of what we are about to talk about is pretty much out of your personal control. You're going to have to listen to me rant and rave about something for which you have no responsibility other than your job which is to make me feel better." That being said, I launch into the previously announce rant and rave. When it's all over and the smoke clears, if this person has made a dent in my ire, or even managed to talk me off the consumer cliff on which I found myself in the first place, I feel better. I thank them for the catharsis and take quiet satisfaction in the time we spent hanging on the telephone.
This is why I feel a little bit bad for Sean Spicer. When he was growing up Rhode Island, he probably didn't harbor dreams of standing in front of a group of angry journalists looking for any angle to take the road too often traveled. He might have expected to take his bachelor's degree in government and go out to change the world. Instead of holding it at bay. When I watch Sean's face get all twisted up as yet another reporter asks, "What did the president mean when he said," or "Could you explain how this will actually work?" None of this was his idea.
He's just the customer service guy. And maybe, just maybe, under the circumstances he's doing the best he can with what he's got to work with. Does he deserve a break?
No.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Johnny Bye-Bye

I saw Chuck Berry perform once. Okay, not entirely accurate, since I saw plenty of Chuck on video and film, but seeing the man live was somewhat transcendent. Admittedly, I was part of that unfortunate generation whose first contact with Chuck was "My Ding-A-Ling." It was a few years after that that I heard "Johnny B. Goode" in the background of a scene in American Graffiti. It was at this moment that I began to understand what rock and roll was. It wasn't Elvis. It wasn't event he Beatles. These guys weren't rocking anything if not for Chuck Berry.
That's what I took away from that evening at Mile High Stadium. Saying something like Chuck Berry was the godfather of rock and roll would be short-changing the guy who played a guitar like he was ringing a bell. He was in his sixties at the time, but he was duck-walking and strutting across the stage like he owned the place. Because he did. It was the attitude and the aura that came off this guy in the lemon yellow jumpsuit who was just daring you to say something about the lemon yellow jumpsuit he was wearing. The life he lived set a standard that Mick and Keith spent their lives trying to emulate, but the Rolling Stones themselves seemed so much more calculated and careful compared to the fast lane convertible ride Chuck was on. Without Chuck Berry, there is no Elvis.Without Chuck Berry, there is no Beatles.Without Chuck Berry, there is no Rolling Stones.Without Chuck Berry, there is no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And no Bruce Springsteen.
The idea that there would be a guy in his sixties, racing around the stage, playing guitar behind his back and whipping a crowd into a tumultuous uproar might never have occurred to The Boss without Chuck. Living a life of late nights and hot licks in one town and then another was pioneered by that man in the lemon yellow jumpsuit.
Pioneer? Did I say pioneer? How else would you explain Chuck's inclusion on the Golden Record sent out into the galaxy on the Voyager probe by NASA back in 1977. Along with a bunch of Bach and Beethoven was that sound that Marty McFly brought back from the future: Johnny B. Goode. Which is why we back here on earth expect our first contact with extraterrestrials to be a message in reply which says, "Send more Chuck Berry."
Now Chuck is part of the heavens, where he will continue to duck-walk and stomp on the extra-terra. Aloha, Chuck. You B Good.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Re-Collecting

It probably started with the blog I wrote about horseshoes. That little trip in the Wayback Machine set off a ringing in my head that could only be answered by making lengthy reference to the good old days. Those were the days my friends. We thought they'd never end. We had a toilet paper dispenser in our outhouse that played that song. It was a windup box that made music each time you pulled on the roll. Taking a walk out into the woods to a little wooden shack wasn't surreal enough. The tinkling sounds of music would accompany the tinkling sounds of -
Well, you get the idea.
And the stories keep coming. As I sat down to dinner with my wife and her mother the other night, we began to reflect on those olden days and while I was outnumbered two to one in terms of childhood memories, I felt I could hold my own. Those three months a year that I spent with my family living in a log cabin were profound in my development curve. We woke up early because we had chores to do. Not the busy work of straightening our room. We three boys didn't have one as much as a communal loft in which we kept all our stuff in corners, and a waist-high box of comic books for our entertainment purposes. We were up and at the work of keeping the house working. Wood had to be chopped for the fire. Water had to be hauled for washing. Kindling had to be collected to start the fire that would keep the water warm for washing.
Once the never-ending work of making fuel for our stoves had been managed for a few hours, we were free to wander in the hills that surrounded us. Or we could take the softball and bat down to our meadow field to knock around a few fly balls for the neighborhood golden retriever Bacca to chase until he got tired and took himself and our ball down into the creek to cool off. And all the while, our dachshund, Rupert, continued his excavation of every square inch of ground into which he burrowed. Hours passed. Days passed. Weeks.
Until it was Labor Day, and we loaded up our lives to return to the lives of City Mice. All of that frontier living was forming a thick layer of appreciation for nature and a work ethic that still shows up when it's time to cut firewood or haul wood. Or teach elementary school.
And then when the shadows grow long, it's time to come inside and light the lanterns and sit around telling stories about the way it used to be.

Friday, March 17, 2017

In Which We Live

This is the country in which we are all currently living: The Central Budget Office tells us that fourteen million people will lose health care in the next year under the new and improved Health Care Act. You know, the one that replaced Obamacare. By 2026, twenty-four more million would be uninsured compared to the old school Affordable Care Act. Another difference? This one is called the "American Health Care Act." This might explain why it isn't as affordable. Or helpful. Premiums would go down for younger Americans, but older Americans would pay more. This is the country in which we are all currently living. 
What have you got to say for yourself, Paul Ryan“This report confirms that the American Health Care Act will lower premiums and improve access to quality, affordable care. CBO also finds that this legislation will provide massive tax relief, dramatically reduce the deficit, and make the most fundamental entitlement reform in more than a generation.” If you're one of those thirty-eight million Americans who will be left out of this reform, you might feel different about the term "entitlement." Access to affordable health care now falls under "entitlement?"
Then there's the looming specter of Steve King. Much scarier than his horror story generator for whom he may or may not have been named, Steve (not Stephen) is a Republican congressman from Iowa whose most recent entry into the "did he really just say that" sweepstakes was “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Okay. Full disclosure: he didn't say it. He tweeted it. Sound familiar? Sound distasteful? Sound hateful? Maybe he could explain still further. “I’ve said to them, ‘You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up and … you need to teach your children your values and in doing so, then you can grow your population and you can strengthen your culture, you can strengthen your way of life.’ And that’s not happening in any of the Western European countries.” This makes sense coming from the mouth that gave us the 2013 hit, saying that for every child of people who immigrated illegally to the U.S. “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there who weigh a hundred thirty pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling seventy-five pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Anything you'd like to add, Representative King? “It’s not about race. It’s never been about race, and in fact, the struggles across this planet, we describe them as race, they’re not race — they’re culture-based. It’s the clash of cultures, not the race.”
Welcome to the country in which we live, 2017. Sleep tight. 
Or wake up.
Now. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

What Have You Heard?

"What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately," including "microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera. So we know that that is just a fact of modern life." This reality was brought to you by the queen of alternafacts, special counsel to the "President," Kellyanne Conway. She left out hiding behind a door or holding a glass to the wall to hear what's going on in the next room. 
As to the claims made from King Twit's cell phone a week ago, "The answer is I don't have any evidence and I'm very happy that the House intelligence committee (is) investigating." Nobody has been found behind the doors in Trump Tower and all the glasses have been accounted for by housekeeping. 
America's favorite grouchy old man, Senator John McCain, grumbled, "I think the president has one of two choices: either retract or to provide the information that the American people deserve, because, if his predecessor violated the law, President Obama violated the law, we have got a serious issue here, to say the least." Then something about getting those kids off his lawn.
What I can say is that there are many ways to obfuscate in the face of mounting evidence that the emperor seems to have purchased his new clothes from a less than reputable tailor, if he actually purchased any clothes at all. Perhaps the prospect of the "President" wandering around anywhere without ample covering is too desperate an image to maintain without requiring sandpaper to get the memory off your frontal lobe. In which case I defer to a version in which a man from an alt-right web site gave some magic beans to a little boy with orange skin and odd hair. He planted them in the ground and, lo and behold, the next day a magic claim of an "illegal wire tapp" sprouted up as if out of nowhere. 
That's a fairy tale, but since fairy tales tend to wind up with everyone living happily ever after, we all wonder just how this could work out anything like that. Maybe it's more of a fable, after all, in which the little orange boy called "wire tapp" one too many times and a wolf came out of the woods and ate his cell phone. 
And we all lived happily ever after. 
Yes, that is a fairy tale. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Natural

When I was just a baby writer, learning how to make stories and put words together in ways that might make people want to look at them, I was instructed that there were three kinds of conflict: Man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus self. All the tales I could read or tell myself should fit neatly into one of those categories. It did not occur to me way back then to wonder aloud about the difference between man versus man and man versus  self. If your self happens to be a man in the first place, why wouldn't that be man versus man? Furthermore, if man is part of nature, do we really need to separate man and nature? And isn't all conflict in our minds anyway?
Sorry, I seem to have  taken you on a side trip into my conflict with reality.
So it all comes down to man versus the messed up junk in his head.
What about nature versus nature? On Al Gore's Internet I just saw a slow-motion video of a group of lions chasing a giraffe. I felt that I was being asked immediately to side with the giraffe. That great big gangly beast doing its gallumphing best to stay in front of that sharp-toothed pride. It seemed like just being a spectator in this moment was putting me in the position of having to having to root for the long-necked apparent victim in this milleu. As I cringed with each long stride, I watched one of the predators race around in front of the giraffe and crouch down, ready to spring. Here's what I found myself thinking: Why doesn't somebody stop this? There were at least three camera operators, probably a couple of drivers and assorted technical support types and all of this conflict was taking place in their full view.
Why didn't they do something to stop it?
Because that's nature. And, as it turns out, the great big hoof of that giraffe cuffed the crouching lion in the head just before she could pounce. Tragedy averted. Off into the distance ran that majestic, gangly beast. The video came to an end. I needn't have worried. Nature had triumphed over nature. For the duration of that piece of video, anyway. The chances that group of lions or some other hungry cats caught up with that winded, long-necked animal nerd seemed pretty good, percentage-wise. It was nature, after all, and what I know about the Circle of Life tells me that sooner or later we're all going to be somebody else's meal. It's not a conflict. It's nature. We like to think that our conflicts are more important than that. That's why we give them names and classifications. When it's an animal killing another animal, it's nature. Maybe it would be easier if we were eating each other after our conflicts. It's only natural.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Loving and Leaving

While my wife and I were courting, I wrote a poem for her. It included the line, "You can come and go in my life." It was my mildly plagiarized version of the old trope about "if you love something, set it free." Supposedly if you let that something or someone go and they don't find their way back to you then they were never yours in the first place. It's a great way to test your relationship skills. If you mean it,t hen you should be fine with departures and arrivals of all sorts. It is generally a good idea to maintain this position even if you aren't fully able to maintain it, since the desperate clingy thing is even harder to make work over time.
That being said, I found myself applying this idea to my relationship with my country. I hear voices these days raging on like I haven't heard in decades: "America, love it or leave it." And so we find ourselves with this very intriguing problem. There are plenty of us who have a deep and abiding love for this country but really wish that there were some things that could be different. :Yes, I understand there are marriages that have broken up over the position of the toilet seat, but these were not destined to stand the test of time anyway. Sooner or later there would have to be a discussion about the Netflix queue or what color to paint the baby's room. Basic problem-solving skills suggest that a closed mindset will eventually leave little or no room for negotiation.
Then there's the matter of those who might love our country and decide they would really like to come here to share in all the love, but since they come from one of those countries that have been determined by some bad screenwriter to be breeding grounds for terrorists, sorry. No green card for you. If there happened to be a recruitment center for ISIS in one of those strip malls in Yemen, I imagine the first few people in line were the ones spurned by their red, white and blue love interest.
While we're on the subject of love, I understand that this "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" stuff tends to dull our insistence on freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, but until the paint-by-numbers crew start rewriting the Constitution, we are still a nation founded in large part by pilgrims escaping religious persecution. They were looking for that city on a hill, and it seems we still are.
And so I find myself wondering why, when faced with all that terror and strife that existed here in America over the last eight years, those who were so repulsed by what was happening in America didn't follow their own advice? Maybe because we're the country that will put up with that kind of jingoism and chest-thumping rhetoric. The kind of thing that folks from other countries look at in wonder. And we just wish they would remember to flush.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Wanna Go For A Ride?

If, as Arthur C. Clarke has suggested and I have reiterated endlessly, all new technology is indistinguishable from magic, then each new service will be seen as a conspiracy or crime. Cell phones and those in-home "assistants" that are set up to record your every personal and discrete interaction for playback later to those big electronic ears of our intelligence gathering agencies. Why should I care if the CIA knows that I added broccoli to my shopping list? Maybe they would be interested in that series of calls I made to Brainerd, Minnesota a few weeks back. The truth is, I have given up trying to keep my private life a secret from the somewhat ironically named "intelligence community."
Then there's Uber. The advent of cellular telephones allowed us all to stay in touch with one another at all times of the day, seemingly regardless of our location. My father's favorite trick from way back when he was alive was to call on his brick of a mobile phone and ask, "Guess where I'm calling from?" My standard answer: Your mobile phone. These days, the ability to send and receive pinpoint satellite locations from all that technology we lug around in our pockets and purses turns out to be a great boon to those of us who are looking to be found. When we are lost. When we need a ride. This is part of the guiding principle behind ride-sharing services. You could call a friend and ask for a ride. Or you could call a taxi service and have them send a car over. Or you could do something right in between. You could call a company that would send a complete stranger to your location to pick you up and drive you to the destination of your choice.
I wonder about the interim moments when there were free ride-sharing services that worked more like that bulletin board in your freshman dorm. You drive and I'll pay for gas, or you drive and I'll buy the In 'n' Out burgers. That sort of thing didn't really need to be regulated beyond who got to control the stereo. Personally, I have always believed in the "my car, my rules" vision of the universe. You don't like Rush? Find another ride.
But what about Uber? Geddy Lee and Neil Peart don't really enter into that equation. They're a great big business built on the idea that folks who might never have used a taxi or a carpool are now tapping their app to get where they need to go. Do they regulate the vehicles and drivers the way cab companies do? Is that lack of regulation causing the taxi industry to become less viable and on its way to the fate of the corner pay phone?
Full disclosure: I have never used Uber. Or Lyft. Or Sidecar. But if you worked for the CIA, you already knew that.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Can We Fix It?

Here is what I know: There are better versions of public education out there. I read all the time about countries that send their kids to school for two days a week and maintain test scores that easily overshadow those in the United States. These are also the countries that tend to shudder when they hear the phrase "standardized test." 
"We don't have standardized children. Why should we have standardized tests?" That's about the time I punch out and go to computer solitaire. 
I expect there are a lot of folks in Congress who are working on their Frecell games even as we speak. Not because they are stuck trying to figure out how to build a better public school here in America. They are stymied by the challenge of trying to deliver something that looks like universal health care. They want to replace the demon Obamacare with something better, faster, stronger. They can rebuild it. They have the technology.
Or do they? 
Our current "President" said, “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.”
Okay, raise your hand if you knew that healthcare was complicated. One. Two. Three. Um, a lot. A lot of people knew that health care is complicated. That is why it took so long to get it close to right. Was the Affordable Care Act perfect? I don't expect that even President Affordable would argue that point. Web sites crash. Expenses that hadn't been accounted for crop up. Premiums rise. Oh there were problems, but there was a system.
Now there is a void. Finding a way to ensure insurance turns out to be a little more complex than complaining about a system that ensures insurance. It might days days. It might take months. It could take years. In the meantime, before you start driving that hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, you might want to hang onto that hybrid car you've been using up until now. Not because it's perfect, but because it gets you around. Forgive my metaphor if it's a little strained, but I am the product of public education, after all. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Capitol Capers

“122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!”
“The president just has a great nose for these things. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.”
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
These are some words that have come out of our nation's capitol. The first was a tweet from the man in charge of such things (tweeting, that is). First of all, ninety-three percent of those detainees who were released were let go before Obama took office. One hundred thirteen of those bad guys who "returned to the battlefield" were given their walking papers by the administration just prior to Mister Obama. Tush? Mush? The name escapes me currently, but his party affiliation does not. Another terrible decision? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At least now we have a sense in which direction to point that tweeting finger. 
Then there's that nose for "these things." You apparently don't need evidence when you have a nose for "these things." Facts, alternative or otherwise, have little or no bearing on "these things." That's what the "President's" people are saying about the wire tapping of Trump Tower. And what's the kicker? "Even if it turns out not to be true." Donald Trump can't read, and even if it turns out not to be true, we will have a very good point to make about the level of stupidity roaming the darkened halls of the White House, lit only by the glow of the screen from his "smart" phone and the big screen TV airing Fox News 24/7.
Then there's Ben Carson. A brain surgeon who was appointed to the "President's" cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. An African-American brain surgeon who is in charge of HUD. What could go wrong there? One wonders if all those who came to these shores "in the bottom of slave ships" would describe themselves as immigrants. Since slavery was outlawed, does that make them illegal? They worked harder "for less?" How about nothing? That's slavery, Immigration is different. 
Maybe it's not too late to get the "President" to appoint a rocket scientist to his cabinet. Oh right: Rick Perry.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

So Close

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I have some experience with that. The first one, anyway. When I was having trouble sleeping I decided to take a trip into the past, when entertainment came primarily from transistor radios and comic books. We played board games and cards. We took long walks in the woods and climbed on rocks. For three months out of the year, we were the Wilderness Family, and my chores included gathering pine cones and kindling. For three months every summer, my bed was a sleeping bag, and the bathroom was a quick trip up the path to the outhouse. And horseshoes were the measure of us all.
I knew this because I watched my father play. He worked on his game. He put a great deal into it because he understood that sooner or later Uncle Marvin would show up and want to pitch a few horseshoes. Uncle Marvin was born to the task of pitching horseshoes. In my mind, he had grown up tossing the horse, shoes and all, at that stake in the distance. Balancing a palomino on one hoof some forty feet away would be his version of a ringer.
Ah, the ringer. Getting both ends of that open circle to slide past the post. So satisfying to hear the clink of metal making any measurement unnecessary. Not that I wouldn't take the ones that had to be determined by laying the straight edge of a horseshoe against the edge or the post to see if the ends had actually made it around. Nor was I anything but gleeful when my shoe knocked my opponent's out of the way. One point for landing a horseshoe's width away. Three points for a ringer.
And two points for a leaner. Ah, that rare bird, when by some trick of physics you were able to land a piece of bent iron standing vertically against the post. I don't know if I ever made one, but I saw them. Uncle Marvin tossed them. So did my dad. And so did my mom.
Horseshoes were a family affair. As the shadows began to lengthen, and the water, kindling and whatever else needed to be hauled to the cabin had been hauled, we headed down toward the meadow where we would spend those late afternoon hours practicing. Our dog would hear the clink of the shoes when we picked them up and begin to do his happy dance. He would not relent until we walked down to the pits and threw. He used the time to catch up on his digging. There was a lot of digging to do back then.
I remember the technique I learned by watching the grownups. I remember letting go too early and having my horseshoe go rolling out of the pit and onto the driveway. I remember letting go too late and having it land with a thud on the grass, still feet from the post. No points for that one. I can remember a time when being close was good enough.
I miss those times.


Thursday, March 09, 2017

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

The friendly folks in Illinois would like you to know how to act when you get pulled over. The following list comes from a handbook they published called "Rules of the Road."
— slow down and safely pull over to the right-hand shoulder or nearest safe location.
— keep both hands clearly in sight on the steering wheel until the police officer instructs otherwise.
— be prepared for an officer to approach your vehicle from either side.
— do not exit your vehicle until asked to do so, since getting out may be viewed as aggressive behavior.
— when asked for your driver's license and proof of insurance, say where they are, then follow the officer's instructions.
— don't debate with the officer about the reason for the stop or a ticket. There will be time in court to defend yourself.
—don't be uncooperative, and don't resist if taken into custody.
— expect the officer to treat you with dignity and respect. Report any inappropriate behavior to the officer's superiors.
None of these seem ridiculous. They all fall into a very nice, cooperative place where those who protect and serve are there to make sue you are safe and so are they. The challenge here is the climate into which these suggestions are being lobbed. Getting out of your vehicle may be viewed as aggressive behavior? There will be time in court to defend yourself? Expect the officer to treat you with dignity and respect? On behalf of all the law enforcement officers that I know and love, I wish that they were free to operate within these parameters. On behalf of the law enforcement officers who have had a hard time, specifically with that last one, shame on you for making a radically difficult job nearly impossible.  Everyone else? Let's see if we can keep our end up. 

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Terrordome

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
We should be afraid. - Donald Jackalope Trump
Of what?
Stairs
Muslims
Drugs
Immigrants
Gangs
Gangs of immigrant Muslims on drugs
Gangs of immigrant Muslims on stairs
Nasty Women
Bad Hombres
Airports
Chicago (the city)
Chicago (the group)
Mexico
China
Russia (really?)
Refugees
Refugee (the Tom Petty song)
ISIS (Islamic State)
Isis (Princess of Power)
Wire taps
Hackers
Tap dancing hackers
And the hits just keep coming.
Sleep tight, America. Really.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

What Is It But A Dream?

Each day we spend on this side of the Looking Glass makes all that is absurd more and more recognizable but no more absurd. The King of Tweet Tarts announced in his own highly imitable style that Barack Obama had the phones in his offices tapped in the weeks leading up to the election. "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!" Bad or sick guy, but our forty-fourth president would probably check his spelling before delivering a rant with little or no basis in fact. Check that. He would probably not have used social media to announce his claims, and as President of the United States, he would have had some shred of evidence to toss in front of his barrage.
No. Check that again. He wouldn't have popped off for the obvious purpose of deflecting the country's continuing lurid fascination with all things distrumpian. If Richard Nixon became more paranoid and schizophrenic as his two terms in office continued, Donald Jehoshaphat Trump showed up in full-on bunker mode. If you missed the sputtering and spittle last week when he got up in front of Congress, you didn't have to wait long for its return.
Which leaves us all in this place where we don't really want to be. No one seems to know what or whom his next target will be. When he stops reaching for his "smartphone" at three in the morning and starts punching in launch codes, we're all going to wish that something else would have occurred back in October. I remember back in 2000, when so many of us clung to the belief that an investigation or a Supreme Court decision would set things right. Al Gore, Inventor of the Internet, would have been able to avert September 11 and the housing crisis. We would all be driving electric cars and luxuriating in the wealth redistributed the the social and economic reforms President Gore would most surely have enacted. 
Sixteen years later, I hear many of the same voices hoping for some rescue from the reality in which we find ourselves, when the most obvious one was there all the time: Vote. Vote as if your life depended on it, since it turns out that it just might be the case. Unless someone is able to grab hold of the Orange King and shake him, in hopes of turning him back into the little gray kitten he truly is. 

Monday, March 06, 2017

Write When You Get Work

So much about being a parent is a double-edged sword. All that talk about roots and wings, you know, sooner or later you tend to work yourself out of a job. All that love and nurturing, all that wisdom and care, the payoff is that your children wander off to live lives of their own. Or so we like to tell ourselves when we feel that drift. Last week we got the call from our son. His news was that he had a job. After years of having work dropped on him by his parents, grandmother, finding tasks that suited his time as much as his talents, we were told that he had found a job working for the mechanical engineering department at his university. He had applied weeks before, and was letting us know that he would be the IT guy. He described some of the duties for which he would be responsible, such as filling the batteries with distilled water. Not exactly the highest of high tech, but considering his major is theater arts it was quite the affirming moment.
And then came the other shoe. He figured with this new job, and a potential increase in hours over the summer, that he might possibly be staying down south for the duration. My wife and I had already begun to steel ourselves for the possibility that he and his chums might go off on some hedonistic voyage over spring break. That week that we used to take family road trips has become an opportunity for him to connect with his high school pals or drive into his own adventure free from the the insistence of his parents that he see this or do that. There  would  be time, come summer, to boss him around a little bit.
Or not.
He went and did what we had hoped that he would: He got himself a life. And it didn't necessarily have room for his parents. All that time and energy we have invested in this kid, and now he goes and ditches us.
We couldn't be more proud. Of course there are still plenty of opportunities for us to cross paths moving ahead. He's doing his own laundry now, and grocery shopping, and now he's going to have a paycheck that will start to take care of some of that expense. He has a world of his own to explore. We wouldn't want to hold him back.
Maybe just for a weekend or two...

Sunday, March 05, 2017

How're We Doin' America?

There he stood, striped tie and smug smile, ready to tell the country that all is well. We sat waiting for that moment when he would either A) start making things up, or B) the spittle would begin to fly. The good news is that we effectively avoided both of those as King Twit addressed the joint session of Congress. The reviews have been mostly positive, at least as far as the lack of fabrication and spittle is concerned.  
That's the happy news. Now we look back at the content of the speech and applaud those "presidential" moments that came after a month of stomping about, fabrication and spittle in full effect. "I am asking all citizens to embrace this renewal of the American spirit. I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big, and bold, and daring things for our country," Terrump said. "I am asking everyone watching tonight to seize this moment. Believe in yourselves. Believe in your future. And believe, once more, in America." Dreams. Belief. America. Nothing there to antagonize or belittle. It sounds downright pleasant with little or no context. Just like his suggestion that "the time for trivial fights is behind us."
As rhetoric goes, it's pretty benign. 
Does that mean the the fabricating spittle monster is gone for good? 
I wouldn't count on it. 
While Twitter set all kinds of records for the activity during about a president's address to Congress. We can only assume that the reactions were a mix of pro and con, but it is the aftermath that is the most curious. Who turns out to have reservations about the budget put forth by his orangeness? Republicans. Go figure. With all that shuffling around and putting an additional fifty-four billion dollars in the defense bin, some of the other coffers are running dry. Diplomacy and foreign aid would be cut thirty-seven percent under this plan. I suppose that makes sense if you imagine that we will be spending more money to blow other countries up, we really don't have to keep them fed or make any new friends. So at once this is a budget that cuts too deep and not enough. 
Go figure.
With all that speechifying and addressing, he hasn't had time to devote to his passion.
#Sad. 
Or #relief. 
Stay tuned. 

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Listening Wind

I took careful note, on that morning in the waxing months of my fifty-fourth year, of the breeze in my face and the sound of the tires on the street. My breath was coming just a little shorter as I crested the hill and rolled down. I kept pedaling not because I was in a rush. It seems like I am always in a rush to get somewhere when I am riding my bike. I was pedaling harder because I could.
I have been a bike commuter for twenty years, and though I tend to scoff a little at "Bike To Work Day," I am always happy to hear of a friend or colleague who finds a way to make that option work for them. There are a lot of people for whom the idea of getting themselves to work on a bicycle is unthinkable. That could be the climate or the terrain or the distance, but then again there are those for whom the idea is just a little too much work.
I was glad, on that chilly morning, to be able to make that choice. I rode past two individuals, blocks apart, with their smart phones out, looking expectantly into the distance. These are the rideshares, Uber or Lyft or just a friendly co-worker, they stood there in the glow of their screens, anticipating the ride they would get at any minute. It was at this moment that I gave thanks to my wife for the occasions when my health or what I had to carry to work would not allow me to make the two-wheeled trek myself. She has rolled out of bed to drive me through the dark when I was not able to make the commitment that is the norm. I put on my rain gear and ride through the downpours. I pull on my hood a little tighter when the weather dips below our customary room temperature. I await those moments in the spring and fall when I shed a layer and ride with the wind in what used to be my hair.
On this morning I thought about the time that must surely come when riding my bike would no longer be an option. Only for a moment, since I have always imagined that I would retire from teaching before I retired my bike. That would leave me a chance to do what I almost never do: ride for pleasure. Instead of rushing from place to place, home to work, work to home, I could roll leisurely into the middle of a day, showing up somewhere I hadn't been a thousand times for a picnic lunch. Maybe my wife or some friends would come along on their self-propelled machines. Bikes, scooters, boards, skates.
The sound of the wheels on the pavement and the wind in my face.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Hello, Walls

This year has been a tough one for bulletin boards. It used to be that this was a feature of our school that went largely unnoticed by students and staff, with some of the same paper and kid drawings hanging on the walls outside classrooms for months at a time. With a re-invigoration of our school focus on student learning and promoting the best and brightest as much and as often as possible, we started the year with a vision of using these vertical reminders as a place where teachers could promote all of that good learning, and students could reflect on the work they did.
Somewhere along the line, however, this renewed commitment to bulletin boards slipped off the track. We still have a lot of great things going on in our classrooms, and a lot of it gets stapled to the colorful backgrounds with die or hand cut letters describing it in clever terms. All of which would be lovely if we had velvet ropes to keep the patrons from interacting so abruptly with the masterpieces generated here. Maybe a glass case inside of which we could keep those objects most precious to us: the self-portraits or the autobiographies, the Black History Month essays or the book reports.
Maintenance is the challenge. All those wandering eyes and fingers searching for the loose edge of the corner not properly tacked down. One of our teachers reflected with great empathy on just how hard it is to keep your hands from rubbing along that corrugated border at the bottom of each board. She described the texture and the sound as both pleasing and soothing. And if it were just the occasional loose strip of border that needed to be tacked down, it wouldn't be such a drag.
It's not.
This year we have seen a marked rise in the straight up trashing of our bulletin boards. Whole boards have been torn apart by students who were supposed to be on their way to the bathroom, office or some other destination. Couple this with the increase of available targets. With all that student work hanging out there in easy reach, the temptation to take out whatever frustrations that exist in our kids is suddenly just too great. As a result the need for a daily stapler patrol has become part of the routine. The sad faces on teachers and students when they encounter shreds of butcher paper hanging in tatters outside their classrooms is an event repeated all too often these days. Putting the responsibility for repair of these fits of vandalism with those responsible is a tough lesson to manage. Building respect for the walls around you is not easy when it has always seemed that elves were in charge of their upkeep.
Putting the staplers in the hands of those who might seek to undo their job seems to be the first step.  

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Wrong Envelope

Millions of people watched the Oscar telecast on Sunday. If you stayed up late to watch all the awards, you know that there was some confusion right there at the end as to which of the best picture nominees won the award for Best Picture. The playful interchange between Bonnie and Clyde, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, gave way to perplexed looks and stammering. Warren seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to get from the words, "Oscar goes" to the name of the night's big winner. This could be because a lot rides on such an announcement. Millions of dollars in box office can be banked on putting "Academy Award Winner for Best Film" in front of your movie's title on the marquee. It was also a great opportunity for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to shed their hashtag of "Oscarssowhite." Handing the envelope to Ms. Dunaway did not make things any more clear, when she did as she had rehearsed: she read the card.
It was the wrong card. Somehow Warren was given the spare Best Actress envelope, and as he vamped in an effort not to milk the moment or the proceedings, he and Faye let it fly. The moments that it took for the La La Land cast and crew to assemble on the stage was the approximate amount of time that it took the producers of the evening's show to rush onto the stage amid the hoopla to correct the mistake. When the producer of that film then congratulated the real winner, Moonlight, there was a full-fledged snafu that will live on forever. Or next year.
The following morning, I wondered if there wouldn't be some similar moment when news anchors around the country would look back at their notes from November 8, 2017. Embarrassed looks all around as they realize they had hired color blind techs to read the electoral map and it turns out that Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida had all actually been won by Hillary Clinton, but once the balloons and confetti had already fallen, there was no way to get it back into the rafters. I give full props to the Academy for going ahead and admitting their mistake and fixing their issue, now isn't it about time for the country to come together and ask that we be given the correct envelope? The winner for Best President of 2016 is...

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Not Laughing With You

Here's some news: "President" Trump will be the first commander in chief to skip the annual White House Correspondents Dinner in thirty-six years. If you're not great with dates and history, let me refresh: The last president who missed attending this function was Ronald Reagan. Ronnie had a pretty good excuse, however: He was recovering after being shot in the chest by John Hinckley Jr. And still Mister Reagan managed to call in from Camp David to participate, It was a pretty funny bit. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon also declined the invitation. Tricky Dick and Dumpy Trump have something in common. They both have named the press as their enemy. As for President Carter, I believe both times he missed the dinner he was bailing his brother  Billy out of jail. Rim shot!
And so we have this new world in which our "President" has no discernible sense of humor. Couple this for his disdain for a Free Press, and you have the makings of a truly anarchistic experience. When certain members of the press corps are barred from attending informal briefings, it leaves them with little recourse other than  to make things up. Reports began to surface about "President" Trump having elective surgery to have his ulnar nerve removed completely. Doctors insist that he can continue to function normally with his foot stuck squarely in his mouth for some time.
All of this comedy aside, it should now be noted for historical purposes that George W. Bush did not miss a White House Correspondents Dinner in his eight year term. This includes the 2006 edition when Stephen Colbert stood at the podium, and arm's length away from W as he mocked him mercilessly for twenty-four minutes. Including this bon mot: "But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!"
That's the way it was, way back when. There were some hurt feelings and some confused looks, but the show went on. As it will this week. With or without the brunt of most of the jokes, the show will go on. There won't be any points made for being a good sport, even Nixon got those for saying "Sock it to me" on Laugh-In. Gerald Ford got it. He sent his press secretary, Ron Nessen, to host an episode of Saturday Night Live.  These days, we have Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy to take over for them, and it's a hoot.
If laughter is truly the best medicine, maybe there is some way we can get these chuckleheads to hold still long  enough to force feed it to them. Wouldn't that be funny?