Tuesday, May 31, 2005

It's Singalong Time!

A friend and fellow blogger suggested to me this piece of early twenty-first century wisdom: "There are no bad times, only good blogs." Everything becomes translatable into blog terms - miserable experiences make the best subjects (food poisoning, nose picking). Be careful about the conversations you have because you don't want to waste any blog fuel before you have a chance to type it into cyberspace. I try not to think like this, but I confess there is a certain anxiety that goes along with this performance.
That's why I chose today to discuss Karaoke. I came to the Karaoke party pretty late - at least in its most obvious form (see Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation"). My brother's fortieth birthday party featured a Karaoke machine. I shook off the initial four minutes of shyness and began perusing the catalog of songs: Show tunes, disco, even a little Johnny Cash. Where to start? "Ring of Fire" of course!
What followed was a haze of music and songs that I had forgotten or tried to forget. I sang alone. I sang with friends. I watched others sing as I worked to regain my strength. "Highway to Hell" takes a lot out of your upper register. At the end of the night, I sang a duet with my brother - "Summer Wind."
But it didn't end there. Days later, I spoke to my brother and he expressed the same feeling I had been having since the party. Every song he heard on the radio, in the elevator, at home or in the car was now potential Karaoke. Suppressing the urge to break into song was now a legitimate chore.
I've had time to tame those feelings - I still eagerly anticipate the chance to belt out this or that tune. And I've had time to consider the times in my life when singing at the top of my lungs has provided major catharsis. Springsteen concerts, Jimmy Buffett concerts - both have offered that kind of salvation. It helps to know all the words. In the back of my mind, I return to a night many beers ago - with my older brother at a place called the Dark Horse. It was Beatles night. We both knew every word, chord and pause to every song, and we played pinball and sang into the early morning hours. It was a little like going to church.
There is no bad singing, only good Karaoke.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Your Money's Worth

There was another near miss yesterday with a big screen TV. It wasn't the biggest or the best, but my lovely wife wrangled the financing and we gave in to our purient video urges. For about twenty-four hours. Then reality set in, again. So we're not going to have a great big deluxe plasma life-changing appliance in our living room.
Instead, we'll stay huddled around our thirty-two inch stereo TV hooked to the surround sound speakers with DVD, VCR and Tivo hookups. Alas, we are fated to stay firmly rooted in the late twentieth century. Did I mention the fact that we have three televisions in the house? My son doesn't have one in his room presently - though it was his understanding that if we were to buy another large TV that the trickle down electronic theory would put the twenty-eight inch mono set right there on his shelf next to his snake tank.
Why not? His parents have a TV in their bedroom - with a DVD player attached. We yearn for a TiVo in the bedroom for those moments when we're too lazy to drag ourselves the several feet to the living room to watch what TiVo has kept on hard disk for us. We live in a world of possibility constricted by our cash flow. We rationalize our home entertainment by the amount of time we spend being consumed by it. Consumer electronics - as in they will consume you.
The little TV in the back room is the one I got when I moved into my first apartment in 1981. I remember the year because it was one of those new-fangled "cable-ready" televisions, and I watched MTV on it for the very first time. It now has the Playstation hooked up to it. It makes picture and sound just like it's supposed to - but it's only eighteen inches - diagonally! We might as well be watching shadows dancing on the wall of our cave.
Will we own a monster television? Soon, I would guess. Right now it's all about the guilt and shame of excessive video. I could watch a DVD on the machine I'm sitting in front of right now. But it turns out this is better for writing.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Nostalgia Machine

The other night at the local food court I found myself repressing an urge to run up behind a pair of teenage boys and pull their pants up to their waists. I'm a cranky old guy now. There is no way to diminish it. The motorized scooters racing up and down the street outside our house have special names like "damn" and "fershluginer" - German models, I suspect. And the music these kids listen to these days - well, I don't mind most of it, but do they have to play it so gosh darned loud?
I used to ride a Kawasaki Trail Boss 100cc motorcycle back and forth on the same half mile of road for hours when I was fourteen. I could say that the engine noise from that machine was only slightly more sonorous than the two-stroke motors that power the "damn" scoooters, but I would be kidding no one. Once I got my driver's license and graduated to four wheels, did I become a more responsible driver and nieghbor? Not really - just ask anyone who saw me fly up Grape street (not Glenwood since it had Stop signs) in my gold Chevy Vega. I learned to "peel out" in front of my parent's house. They must have been so proud.
My parents were clever in one regard - as each of us passed into puberty, we moved into the bedroom downstairs where the ground provided some insulation from the pounding and feverish beat of the rock and roll that helped form our soft brains and limit our response to dinner time. I learned to recognize all Beatles songs by listening to them through the floorboards from my older brother's stereo. I'm sure my younger brother still has sympathetic vibrations to "You Shook Me All Night Long" - to name just one oft-repeated tune of my youth.
It's the perspective that gets you. I feel a certain amount of Karma leveling as my neighbors play Mowtown into the wee hours of the night. It reflects directly to a night when we celebrated Bruce Springsteen's birthday until one in the morning, culminating by pounding out the beat of "Born to Run" with a plastic baseball bat on our floor - and our neighbor's ceiling - on a Thursday night.
Still, in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I always left the house with my belt on.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Blowing The Lid Off Hooterville

Eddie Albert died yesterday. He was 99. Most people remember him as Oliver Wendell Douglas, gentleman farmer on the situation comedy "Green Acres." I will remember him as a full-fledged iconoclast and counter-culture hero.
A lot of people might make the mistake of viewing "Green Acres" as the opposite end of the telescope from "The Beverly Hillbillies." A cultured, privileged aristocrat is tossed into the boonies, where he must fend for himself. That would be short-sighted: Oliver chose to return to the land by choice, it was no fluke of "shootin' at some food" that altered his circumstances. It would have been easy enough to slip off into corporate attorney slumber and retire decades later as full partner - but this was not his path.
Having trouble buying this argument? Check out Mr. Albert's Academy Award nominated role as bohemian photographer Irving Radovich. I thinks Eddie comes by his beatnik cred very naturally.
So, here's this lawyer heading off to buy a piece of land he can call his own, along with his less-than-thrilled wife, Lisa. In Hooterville, he is viewed with some suspicion - an outsider who only wants the life of gentleman farmer. The residents initially set up a pool to see how long it will take before he and his flapjack flipping wife head back to the big city. Oliver is every bit as courageous in his convictions as Ray Kinsella as he ploughed his field under for a baseball field.
The obstacles Oliver encounters in his efforts to provide a simple life for himself and his wife are monumental. The contractors (Alf and Ralph - brother and sister - don't get me started) will never show up to finish the work on the house, Hank Kimball the county's agriculture advisor doesn't know a root from a stem, Mr. Haney would rather try and sell term life insurance than tractor parts, and to make a simple phone call Oliver has to shimmy up a ten foot pole. The help he receives? His hired hand, Eb, has only had his job for thirty seconds before he asks his boss about his vacation.
Does Oliver suffer these fools gladly? Not always - he is prone to outbursts of frustration and periods of latent stuffiness, but he has a vision that he wants to see through. He routinely seeks to unite his community, offering to mediate disputes and advocate on their behalf on legal matters large and small. Oliver is a man of the people - he even intervenes when Arnold the Pig is drafted.
Meanwhile, just up the railroad track, Kate Bradley is running a bordello called "The Shady Rest" - but all of that "Petticoat Junction" double entendre will have to wait - we bid a fond adieu to Eddie Albert - a man of means and conviction. May the Cannonball Express get him to heaven half an hour before the devil knows he's dead.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Memories Can't Wait

This is it. The beginning of summer. Gas up the station wagon and head out on the highway. It is expected - required. Perhaps in tribute to this notion, the Indianapolis 500 takes place on this very weekend as well - a 500 mile trip with only left turns.
This was the weekend that we would head up to the mountains to open our cabin for the season. A little like "On Golden Pond" without the loons. But before we went to the cabin, we stopped at Mountain View Cemetery. My mother walked around with dozens of cut iris from our yard, decorating the graves of the near and dear departed. The three boys always seized the opportunity to frolic and play on the field artillery piece that sat in a corner of the cemetery - standing watch over a very quiet patch of earth.
It has only recently occurred to me that "Mountain View Cemetery" is not unlike having a street named "Broadway" in your town. I live just a few miles away from a Mountain View Cemetery - about a hundred miles away from the nearest "mountain." A number of people who have lived here all their lives learned how to drive on the narrow gravel paths - I suppose in the worst possible scenario, it would be a great timesaver for any really bad drivers. I digress.
It took many years for me to start making a personal connection to the names on the markers and the people they named. I don't much care for cemeteries these days, as I have more and more intimate connections with the folks who have ended up there. I've buried friends, aunts, uncles, and a father. I prefer to keep my distance when I can - I'm sure I'll find my way back there by and by.
Memorial Day - a chance to head out on the highway and reflect on our own mortality before the summer begins in earnest. "I'm wide awake but these memories can't wait." - David Byrne

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Branding Iron

There used to be a restaurant in Nederland, Colorado called "The Branding Iron." It was owned and run with an iron fist by Vivian Ayers - her sister Celia held down a stool at the end of the bar and provided a certain amount of style to the place with her bright red hair and sailor's vocabulary. Sam, a sherman tank sized German Shepard kept an eye on things from the kitchen door. The help was a revolving crew of drifters and potential hippies, always on their way someplace else. We were lucky enough to be "regulars." We were good for a Friday or Saturday night just about every week during the summer, and even a few special winter and fall excursions.
The burgers were good: toasted buns and lean beef. A deluxe cheeseburger meant that you got lettuce, tomato and onion on the side. Kids never got deluxe cheeseburgers. Parents got the steak sandwich. There was an allure to the steak sandwich, but it seemed like an awful lot of work compared to the ground beef version. Everyone had onion rings. People who didn't like onion rings had onion rings at the Branding Iron. Decades before any of us had a concept of tempura these were the real deal. We would fight over the crumbled bits of batter left on the plate after the rings were gone, my father using his to scoop up any and all stray salt. It may not have been particularly healthy fare, but what doesn't kill us makes us stronger - especially if it tastes good.
The decor was wood. Tables, chairs, walls - all carved with initials of past and present. Behind the jukebox, someone had taken the time to inscribe the political ditty: "Why change Dicks in the middle of a screw? Vote Nixon in '72!" The Branding Iron was where the seventies happened in Nederland. There was plenty of spirited debate about Viet Nam, Watergate, and long hair as we held court at our table in the front room. My parents nursed their cocktails while the kids drew on placemats or went across the road to buy comic books.
There were times that we brought guests who weren't quite ready for the full-on BI experience. On those occasions, Viv would set us up with table in the back, behind the bar. We called it the Redneck Room, since it seemed to attract a more conservative clientele. When Pioneer Days came around once a year, we knew we had to get there early to stake out a table and then watch the action. I have a hazy memory of a guy going through the plate glass window at the front one time. I have a much clearer vision of the hush we all shared as we watched Nixon give his resignation speech. Looking back, I'm surprised that there wasn't more hooting and hollering - but that wasn't the kind of place the Branding Iron was. We shared the history quietly, and moved on.
Years passed, and we tried other places - the Stage Stop in Rollinsville had some of the same flavor, the Beaver Inn had the same initials, but the Branding Iron was a place and time. And those onion rings...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A Real American Hero

I read a haiku today about Ken - Barbie's boyfriend. It suggested that for a guy who had such a limited codpiece that he sure had his pick of the plastic chicks. Maybe he was that most rare of creatures - the Nice Safe Male. I played very much the same role for many years myself, but that's not what we're going to discuss here and now.
Instead I would like to take a few moments to celebrate the real stud of the doll world: GI Joe. When Heidi Wullschleger brought her Barbies over, Joe put in a request for extended leave. Skipper and Midge would toss Ken over in a second for a man in uniform. I am speaking at this point of the standard issue, twelve-inch variety - not the pathetic three and three quarters inch petite enemy of Cobra. Mine were rugged, fully jointed and poseable men of action. They sported life-like hair and a scar on his right cheek, left hand cupped to hold his rifle, right hand poised with his trigger finger extended. Joe was locked, loaded, and looking for a good time. By the end of the afternoon, there was always an elaborate wedding with much pomp, circumstance and small arms fire.
Joe provided me a link with that make believe world of "action figures" (dolls). Aside from the aforementioned adventures with Barbie and her friends, Joe opened a world of scientific possibilities as well. If you tie a string around the neck of a GI Joe and drag him behind the family station wagon down a dirt road, how many miles will it be before one has to shout at the driver to report that Joe has "accidentally" fallen out of the car? How many hours does it take to freeze Joe solid in a coffee can full of water? From what height will Joe's torso shatter when dropped off a cliff? Inquiring minds want to know.
Then there was the horrible mutations visited on my younger brother's astronaut Joe. Probably because he was so young, blonde and fresh shaven - he begged for abuse. We gave him a mohawk with an exacto knife and surgically implanted a dog's nose on his face. He deserved better. Later we painted him black and green and ran another in a series of "stress tests" on his 21 movable parts. Astro-Joe left this world as a pile of melted slag - he wasn't up to the lighter fluid. My guess is Ken would have fainted dead away at the sight of the kitchen matches.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

DVDs and the Death of Trivia

I used to enjoy a great deal of power when it came to wielding absurd bits of knowledge. The stuff that fell in the margins, on the cutting room floor, the missing pieces. I had conversational bon mot to last until the next millennium. "Did you know the guy who does the voice for Tony the Tiger also sand the songs for 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas'?" Thurl Ravenscroft, God rest his soul. And he was one of the voices in the Haunted Mansion - and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Now there are DVDs and the Internet - these things don't stay secret very long. Everybody has access to the blooper reel now. Pop culture comes in nice bite-size servings now, and we are all now film scholars and encyclopedias of the obscure - or what was once obscure.
I knew where the dirty bits in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" were. I knew the voice of Roger Ramjet was Gary Owens (who worked for a while in Denver on KIMN radio). I knew that the release date for Bela Lugosi's "Dracula" was Valentine's Day, 1931. These were monumentally important items for me to have ready at a moments notice - especially once a year at the University of Colorado Trivia Bowl. Trivia wasn't just encouraged, it was rewarded. These were the salad days for trivia heads. All those hours of TV, movies and comic books were finally going to pay off.
Until one day, when it stopped. The whole trivial pursuit lurched to a halt. All those boxes of cards that my friends had accused me of memorizing became useless. Who cared what day of the week "Talent Roundup" happened on the Mickey Mouse Club? What was the license plate number visible on the Abbey Road album cover? Ask Al Gore's Internet. Watch the scene over and over on tape - or laserdisc - or DVD. The snob appeal of trivia had disappeared. I was a walking repository of information found more quickly with a remote control or a few keystrokes. That kind of stuff is still amusing at parties, but it wears thin quickly. I have to restrain myself from waxing on about the inscription of Emil Faber's statue in "Animal House": Knowledge is good. The audience for that kind of thing has moved on. We live in the information age, so hang on while the headlines come in every half hour, twenty four hours a day. I confess there are things about Paris Hilton that I just don't want to know. Pop culture has lost its chewy center. We're already doing retrospective shows on the 90's. Remember when Clinton was president? Bill Clinton...
Oh, and by the way - Friday was Talent Roundup Day, and the license plate reads "28IF" - like if Paul had lived he would have been 28.

Monday, May 23, 2005


I was in fourth grade when I first started to contemplate long distance running. I was running the backstops at Columbine Elementary school. I was a round kid who didn't get team sports, and they didn't get me - but something about this running against a clock made sense to me. I wasn't the fastest in my class, but for once, I wasn't the slowest.
Years passed. I was on the track team in junior high. I didn't run distance then, there was a new special breed of lean young men for that, but I did train for miles at a time as I prepared to make a slot on the shot put or discus. I was no good at shot put or discus, but I didn't mind the training. I have the distinction of competing in both shot and discus against Kevin Call - who ended up being an offensive lineman for the Indianapolis Colts. I wasn't as good as Kevin Call. That didn't matter so much - the running part mattered and even if I wasn't the fastest, I knew what my time was and I knew who I was running against.
High school was a conscious avoidance of exercise - unless you count marching in straight lines and carrying large fiberglass instruments exercise. I learned to drive, lost my license for six months, rode my bike for half a year, and went back to driving.
My freshman year of college was when I started more endurance sports - most of which included consuming ever-increasing amounts of beer. When spring came, I was at a crossroads - I wasn't returning to the liberal arts school and I had broken up with my high school sweetheart. I needed solace. My father called one night to ask if I wanted to run a "10K" with him. 10K? That's not even American - how hard could that be? I spent the next few weeks running circuits around campus in my red suede Puma Clydes.
On Memorial Day weekend, I woke up early and met my father at the starting line. I stood and waited with thousands of other runners as my father (of the peanut sized bladder) searched desperately for an open port-a-potty. Then we were off. The first mile was nice and flat. Some people passed me, I passed some people. By the second mile I had found my pace group. We shuffled along at a steady clip and moved toward the half way mark.
Half way mark? Three miles was half way? What insanity had I left myself open for? I considered tearing the number from my chest and wandering off into the crowd. Three miles to go? I must have a long discussion with my father about his notions of recreation. Then I remembered something: I hadn't ignored running in high school. I read "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" in Miss Copeland's class. Alan Stilltoe had it exactly right. The runners on my left and right began to disappear - and I thought of pterodactyls.
There was a hill at mile four, but I didn't notice. I was back at Columbine, rounding the third backstop, heading for home. The clock was ticking.
When I finished the race, I got in line for my free lunch and commemorative t-shirt. As I waited, lean smiling folks tried to press applications for more races into my hands. No thanks - just the yogurt covered raisins and the shirt, thanks. I ran 6.2 miles in less than an hour, and I was still standing. When they sent me the certificate in the mail, I noted the number of people my age that were ahead of me, and behind me. I didn't win my demographic. I didn't lose, either.
I've been running since then. People ask me sometimes about my training regimen. I try to run a few times a week, and once a year I run a 10K. I know how far that is now - exactly. And sometimes, if I'm feeling really good, I think of pterodactyls.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tired of rhetorical questions?

Part of staying married, I believe, is to build a resistance or coping method for rhetorical questions. "Is somebody going to open the door, or am I just going to have to stand here." Every so often it requires conscious effort to stifle my smartass reply. That's what we do.
Early training with parents and siblings helped me to navigate these treacherous moments. Initially, it never occurs just how inane the phrase "Are you asleep?" can be. I'm trying to remember a time that I was able to answer "Yes."
Of course, anyone with an older brother can relate to this one: "Want to see something that really hurts?" There are lots of reasons to answer yes to that one, but certainly not if you're the only other one in the room. Lots of home chemistry and laws of physics were explored under the auspices of that particular inquiry.
All of this to say that the true proving ground for rhetorical questions is marriage. "Are you coming for dinner or not?" I'm a smart guy, and I've figured out (through trial and error, alas) that answering "no" to that one will probably get you a TV dinner upside the head. Not that I can blame my wife for reacting the way she might. I have made some careful study of the line that I dare not cross. "Are you coming to bed soon?" can be answered with another question - define "soon." The ones that give either/or options are tougher: "Are you going to pick that up, or are you going to leave it there until someone else picks it up?" That usually invites a discussion of the alternatives, usually standing in very close proximity to the offending object to maximize frustration.
Then there are the ones that sneak up on you: "Can you hear me?" I confess that I have shouted "No" from the opposite end of the house without thinking too much about it. I suppose I didn't expect to hear her, but at the last minute, my speech center let me down. The answer to the first one - about the door - is to get off the couch and open the door. Isn't that interesting?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Taking a Stand

I've made an effort, thus far, to keep my blog free of explicit political content. What I saw today while I was out running made me rethink that. A red pickup parked in a driveway a few blocks from here had this bumper sticker: "Vote Yes for Libraries." I confess that I'm not much for plastering my own ideals on the back end of my car (since most of the time I'm riding a bike). I've seen enough faded Dukakis stickers and paint peeled off from the furious removal of a Nader sticker to let me know the fickle winds of politics should not be the determining factor for decorating one's motor vehicle.
"Vote Yes for Libraries." Just what knuckleheaded lobby is voting "no?" I ask this with my tongue firmly resting in my left cheek, but I still wonder just how long we've been living in a world where there was some kind of question associated with the existence of libraries. Maybe we've got enough books now, and access to them is no longer any kind of issue, so let's start finding ways to limit our proximity to words.
It's that tax dollar thing that makes it a debate at all, right? And it's not like anybody's doing us a favor by taking a break from writing down all those good ideas and recipes and stories - they just keep writing more. Where do all those new books end up? In a library someplace! With mylar dust jackets and little pockets to hold the cards - not to mention all those Dewey Decimal stickers on the spine - running a library is a horrendously labor intensive endeavor.
Maybe from now on, whenever a book gets worn out or used up, or if it just isn't that interesting anymore, we could put it into some sort of recycling program - put all those old tired words back to work in some useful volume that would serve the public in some more cost-effective way. Unless that book is "Charlotte's Web."
"Vote Yes for Libraries." Indeed.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Rating Sunsets

My parents used to sit on the porch of our cabin in the Colorado mountains and rate the sunsets. Reflecting back, I am hard pressed to imagine anything but the most sublime pinks and vibrant oranges with the waning sunlight filtering through the blue spruce branches. There was a lot of intense discussion about the possibility of a "10." I remember that my mother was the optimistic one, who wanted to bump the scores higher, while my father was more discerning (or perhaps just more nit-picky).
I'm watching a corner of sky change color out here in Oakland tonight. My wife is quick to point out what a nice effect scenic industrial haze has on twilight around here. Red sky at night, sailor's delight - red sky at dawn, I could just yawn. Or something like that. My son and his friend were just out on the porch admiring the deepening colors before the brushing of teeth. For a few minutes, the sky trumped both Legos and video games.
Wondrous thing, really, even when you imagine the physics of it. Long rays of light bending into shallower angles until they become flat night light. I can still crane my neck for a hint of orange right near the horizon. There was a time when the sun set for me behind the foothills of the Rocky Mountains - the setting tended to boost even the fours and fives into the upper quartile.
The same could probably be said of my favorite sunset on the Gulf of Mexico. Just about anything seen from the deck of the schooner Wolf would have to be an eight or nine. There was gold in that one.
But a ten? I don't know. I suppose I'm holding out, like my father, for the transcendent moment. The clouds outside my window have turned back to grey reminders of what was and the pink sodium lights have come on up and down my street. Good night.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Pick a Good One

I was recounting for a teacher friend of mine tonight the emotional scar that lingers in me from fourth grade. I believed that I had a moment to duck in, give a quick scratch to the inside of my left nostril and extricate the offending booger nugget that was causing my eyes to water with its crusty occlusion of my sinus passage. My index finger was poised for the operation when, from behind me came a sneering voice, "Pick a good one, Dave!" It was Joel Hobbs catching me red handed (and abruptly red-faced). I was labeled for a good four years for that one.
My parents did me the favor of catching another such digital insertion in the family photo album. Naked baby pictures? Bring 'em on - but pictures of me rooting around in search of nasal treasure? No thanks. This photo was further immortalized by the careful artistic rendering of that moment by a family friend for my thirtieth birthday card.
I don't claim to have a great many attributes. I'm a good father and husband. I obey traffic laws. I pay my taxes on time. I volunteer my time and I sign the right petitions. And yes, I have picked my nose - on at least two separate and highly publicized occasions.
Why can't I live down this stigma? Is it because I must suppress my ever-present urge to ram my finger up to my third knuckle and probe for something sticky? I feel it the way I feel the rest of my latent nerd-ness. I played better chess than baseball. I read the novelization of Star Wars before the movie opened. I was in band for all of junior high and high school. I liked math. The list goes on and on - but nose picker? I have to draw the line somewhere. I imagine a 12 step program somewhere: "Hi, my name's Dave and I'm a nose picker."
"Hi, Dave!"
So, I told this story to my teacher friend, and in exchange I got a nice embarrassing story from her. It took away some of the sting. But I guess that's the exchange, after all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

End of an era

Tonight at midnight, the world will be forever changed. I suppose in the truest sense it is already different, since it's out there now. The last Star Wars movie is unspooling into pop culture history. I feel it, somewhere, down deep "like a thousand voices crying out at once and then suddenly..." Relevance? I can't be sure that by taking three decades to tell his story that George did anything but ensure his merchandising stranglehold on three generations (I am presently craving the "light saber spoon" available in specially marked boxes of Kellog's cereal).
It's nice that it ends where it began - the circle is now complete. My son is as rabid for all things Star Wars as I ever was. I bought the masks for Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and C-3PO. My younger brother had the stormtrooper - I don't know where that is now. I built the scale models. I listened to the "Story of Star Wars" on vinyl. Now I lay on the floor and recreate the Battle of Hoth with my son's Legos and watch the DVDs. Permutations of plastic.
I spent the summer of 1977 at Star Wars. A stranger once paid me a dollar to stop reciting lines during one of these showings. Another time I got in free because I was wearing the aforementioned Darth Vader mask. Good guys and bad guys with lots of explosions and a rousing score (I played the theme in my high school band - lifetime nerd quotient assured).
Now here's the truth: I won't be as sorry to see this one go as I was when the last Planet of the Apes movies came out. This one was a lot harder sell to most of my friends, but I stuck with it all the way through to the barely budgeted "Battle for the Planet of the Apes." John Huston played the sage orangutan Lawgiver in that one. My patience was rewarded twice - just barely - once with the TV revival which kept Roddy McDowall's career on life support for a couple more years, and then Tim Burton's ill-conceived "revisioning" (hey, Paul Giamatti played an orangutan in that one!). As was the case with the Star Wars movies, there was a circular story line leading back to the beginning - and the second movie was the best and most even toned for both. Go ahead and argue - I won't listen. Planet of the Apes is the reason I could never get fully pissed off at Charlton Heston (closet hippie - check out "Soylent Green" and "Omega Man" too if you don't believe me.).
I hear George Lucas wants to keep Star Wars alive in some way via television. It makes me shiver to think of what that might mean. I don't think I could handle that kind of disappointment, but I guess I'll have to tune in to be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

What You've Been Waiting For

TV dinners taught me how to eat. Start with the things you don't like and move them around in the gravy. Then proceed around the tray until you get to the brownie. Some of these new age TV dinners don't do a great job of compartmentalizing. Swansons has it down to a science. Food should not intermingle. Sure, every so often a few stray niblets of corn might find their way into the apple cobbler, but the zones are incredibly well defined. It's the attention to detail I respect and admire.
There was a Libbyland series of kid dinners in the seventies that had a hamburger that was pretty scary - the bun was like a pair of hockey pucks slapped around a surfboard of "meat." The real selling point of these meals was that they were made for kids, complete with forgettable cartoon spokescharacters printed on the fold out display tray for your dinner. The novelty of Libbyland was brief, and I soon found myself drawn back to the Swansons - the real deal: Meat Loaf. The green beans were forgettable at best, but they prepared you for the main event - tater tots. Take a few of those bad boys and dip them in the hearty tomato paste that had been infused into the "meat" and you have a magic moment. The meat loaf was a constant 435 degrees due to the insulating capacity of the sauce. What was at twelve o'clock? The chewiest brownie type object that could be ready in under 35 minutes (from the freezer to your table). Were there other choices for me? A Salisbury steak with lots of ketchup could simulate some of the texture, but lacked the important tater/brownie quadrant. Most important to these early experiments in dinner contouring was the fact that they came in foil trays with diagrams printed on the foil covering telling you what to peel back and for how long. Genius.
When I was a young man on my own (essentially the decade between my 20th and 30th birthday) I always had a Swansons stocked freezer. I had moved on to harder stuff by this time: Hungry Man. Most of the dinners were the same, but there was twice the "meat." Again, Genius! The foil trays were gone by this time, replaced with paper, and now recycled plastic. I have to squint to read the microwave directions, and the flimsy clear plastic that needs holes poked in it to ventilate the meal is a sorry reminder of an age that used to be.
I had Hungry Man turkey dinner tonight. My son had Kids Cuisine - complete with cartoon duck and green "frosting" for his brownie. He loved it.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A mouthful

It has been suggested to me that writing without anything to say is similar to chewing with nothing in your mouth. I guess that's not the concern I've had since this whole blog business began. I find myself awash in possible blog topics: memories, rants, conjectures, opinions, the price of tea and the china that might hold it.
Babbling on breathlessly has never been the concern - doing it with conviction, there's the rub.
I wrote "The Great American Novel" when over the Memorial Day vacation of my ninth grade year. It was a bustling forty-two pages (hand-written on college rule paper), and it bristling with insight and passion. I even had a literary device: The Voice From the Great Beyond. That is well and good and can wait for its very own blog.
We were addressing the need to continue addressing things in a blog. It's awful darn meta if you ask me, but we're part of a post-modern world, so why not strip naked and wallow around in it? When you're done with this, click on that little button at the top of the page that says "Next Blog." Find out all about what is on everybody else's mind. It's not just me. On the contrary, there seems to be an ever-expanding number of people who want to share their points of view with anyone with the bandwidth and spare time to look at it.
Me too. I started because I have a friend who has a lot of haiku to share and doesn't mind taking the time to spread it out here in cyberspace, syllable by syllable. It reminds me of the idea I had once upon a time for The Cult of Publication. Who needs all those rejection letters? I can pick my audience, and then assail them daily if I choose. Later I pester them if they didn't post a comment. "What, didn't you like it? Where's my immediate reaction?"
So, I'll keep trying to find big bites of the American Dream to fill up my evening downtime - and you (lucky you) will keep wondering just what my point must be. For now, it's the exercise. Tomorrow I promise something about TV dinners.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


I have succumbed. I caved. I gave in. I laid down my arms. Resistance, it seems is futile.
I now have a cell phone. I used to sneer at my father when he first got his car phone - "You'll never guess where I'm calling from!" Yeah, actually, I can.
For the longest time, I continued to savor my alone time. I reveled in being out of touch. This worked against me from time to time, but overall the excuse of being unavailable by phone gave me a defensible perimeter from people I probably didn't want to talk to anyway.
Now that's all gone. I know the rationale - if you don't want to get calls, just leave it turned off. Then the voice mail kicks in. Another place to leave your disappointment with me. "Where are you? Call me as soon as you get this."
Gads - no pressure. I've just raised the bar for my own expectations. Being on the way to your destination means nothing anymore - now you need to supply updated information about your trip's progress. Excuses evaporate.
So why did I tear down the ramparts of "Out of Touch?" My job - it would seem that being an elementary school teacher in 2005 requires constant contact. The "real-time-embarrassment" of fourth graders is an integral part of good classroom management. It is no longer enough to threaten a call home at lunch or after school. If you really want to make an impression on a student, you need to dial their number in front of the class and let the parents in on the day's drama as it's happening.
Sadly, it is as effective as any system I've encountered for the ones who are having the hardest time working and playing well with others. For a short time, I considered carrying a dead cell phone to use as a threat - but there are no threats with my crew, only promises. I'm stuck with it now because the parents expect it. "Why didn't you call when Abner starting biting that girl?" Oh, I dunno - maybe I was hoping for the respect of my students to carry the day and that order could be restored without excessive technology.
Or maybe not. In the meantime, I have this new fixture. It has lots of different ringtones, and a tip calculator. It's turned off right now, but if you leave a message, I'll be compelled to get right back to you from wherever I am.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

When Show Tunes Kill

In the waning moments of the eight year old's birthday party, I was lamenting that I had missed seeing "Fiddler on the Roof" on PBS that evening. Not that I would have missed the party or any part of it for anything, but I felt a pang for a time when I knew all the words.
Walking out of the Basemar Cinemas (where there were two movie theaters right next to each other - the wave of the future!) after seeing "Fiddler" with my family I was obsessed with the show-stopping nature of "If I Were a Rich Man." I strutted out into the parking lot, snapping my fingers and kicking up imaginary straw as I did the best Tevye that any nine year old could. So caught up in the moment, I did not notice the car bearing down on me from around the corner. "If I were a squished lad..." The tune stays on my MP3 player and I feel every breath and pause - but I don't dance so much.
It was around that same time that my parents took us all to a stage production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." It was a chilly night in downtown Denver that I emerged from the theater, singing "Herod's Song" and sashaying out into yet another intersection. This time the car swerved to miss me as I contemplated the existence of God. What was he trying to tell me about musicals? Maybe something more secular would have gotten me in less trouble - or maybe it was just eerie coincidence.
A few years later, a car did catch up to me - only this time it wasn't show tunes, it was college football. The fate I had avoided so narrowly in those musical moments was now dropped on me like a Volvo station wagon. I can only imagine that I would have been safe if I had been singing "The Impossible Dream."

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Worst Sunburn I Ever Had

This is the time of year when we pause to reflect on the gift of our son, and the way I manfully survived an epic sunburn on my thighs. I can speak proudly of this moment, as a health care professional who should know intense skin irritation when she sees it took very specific notice of just how painful it was going to be. She was very right - she was also the nurse on call in the birthing room as my wife was going through the last great throes of labor. Maybe it was some sort of random ice-breaker, I'm not sure. It lingers as a question mark over the otherwise stirring and affirming moment of the birth of my son.
That and the fact that I, as the partner of many birth classes, made the sloppy confession a few years too soon that I had no real sense for the stages of labor, and I was faking my way liberally through the process. This isn't to say I wasn't attentive. I was. I coached and rubbed and prodded and encouraged and massaged exactly as I was instructed - at the time. I had no grasp of the various peaks and valleys in order to anticipate or eliminate the suffering and pain as it was about to occur. I did, however, make a series of cassette tapes that were supposed to roughly match up to the entire birthing process. I was especially fond of the didjeridous on the "Transition Tape." Would I know Transition when it walked into the room and started its dance in my wife's belly? Not really. But the art on the cover was pretty keen.
Donald Max Caven came into the world to the sounds of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (I got that part right). This was followed abruptly by "Born to Run." Kristen had a popsicle - she had earned it, after all. "That's quite a sunburn you've got there," the nurse said. "You really ought to have somebody look at that."
Sorry, too busy looking at the new boy.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Food Poisoning

I thought I might have had food poisoning last night. I was up at two in the morning making fine use of our porcelain fixture and I thought about the time about ten years ago that I learned to fear the words "Last Piece of Lasagne." We were out on a romantic date - we did those kind of things before the child: cloth napkins, not a restaurant but a Ristorante. Everything on the menu looked so delicious, but my passion, the all-food, master of time, space and menus LASAGNE cried out to me. "You're in luck," the only slightly snooty waiter informed us, "we're down to our LAST PIECE OF LASAGNE."
Again, feel free to stop reading now if you haven't already determined the scatalogical vein of this post.
What kind of vile bacteria could grow over the course of a day in a nominally clean, reputable establishment such as this? It was a Ristorante, for Pete's sake. I expect now that had I applied the lasagne to my flesh, it would have eaten to the bone in seconds - but it tasted delicious. We went home (just a short walk around the block) and made happy full sounds to each other as we drifted off to sleep. Then came the evacuation alert. I spent the early morning hours laying on the bathroom floor in between bouts because going all the way back to the bedroom was just wasting energy for the onslaught.
The sun came up with no end in sight. A quick consult of Father-in-law doctor suggested that it might be flu but was more likely a form of anthrax or plague. Or something like that. I didn't talk to him. I was too busy. The suggested treatment was a trip to the emergency room. Luckily the trip was a short one, and there was a bathroom on the other end of it. Kristen filled out my paperwork while I did everything I could to turn myself inside out. They got me to a bed, put me in a gown, and stuck an IV in my arm. Then Kristen had to go on some very important errand. I can not remember now what could have possibly been more important than my imminent death, but off she went.
And there I lay - in the basement emergency room in an Oakland hospital, listening to ambulance chatter, waiting for some kind of relief. Then I had to go. I don't know why it didn't' occur to me to ask someone since I had been connected to the plumbing for about ten hours by then: "Which way to the WC?" I clenched and buzzed the nurse. No answer. I was alone in the bowels of the emergency department. I skittered off the bed and found to my relief that the IV stand was on wheels. The draft from behind made the trip out into the hallway even more precarious, with still no living soul in sight. At last I rounded the corner and found the deluxe emergency room lavatory waiting for me like a beacon in the night. It was carefully engineered with lots of extra leg room and a spot for the IV stand. Then it occurred to me that I might just disappear down this hole - a fecal Alice in Wonderland. No one knew where to find me. This was it.
Happily, after half an hour more of my digestive tract thrashing about, peace was restored to the kingdom. I found my way back to my bed just in time for the lone perky person in the building to come in and check on me. "How's everything going down here?"
A couple of days later, I returned to work. I was pale and gaunt, and the receiving manager told me how good I looked. I told him I had a new diet plan: THE LAST PIECE OF LASAGNE.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Statute of Limitations

I've never been quite sure how long to wait before telling a particular story. Friends periodically look at me when I start to tell of a college indiscretion or a profoundly drunken weekend from my past. The indiscretion and drinks have been left behind for a good long time now - it's just part of who I am.
Still, today I think I'll be safe by recounting a tale from the days when my driver's license was a new thing and I drove a Chevrolet Vega. As introduction I have to say that I lived in an inordinately close neighborhood as a child. It may be the fact that we all lived on a cul-de-sac from kindergarten to the time we graduated high school. Lots of street football, hide and seek, capture the flag - and a twisted version of tag we called "Gunner." In this game, one kid (I volunteered rather than having the job forced on me) carried his toy gun around and "shot" all the others. You had to stay "dead" until someone came and tagged you. If the "gunner" killed everyone the game was over. Initially these games took place around Ryan Sinner's house, then spread throughout the neighborhood. By the time we were in junior high, we would play "Gunner" using the back yards, driveways and landscaping of the entire block.
When we got into high school, the idea of running around with toy guns started to wear a little thin, but the notion of a large-scale "tag" game was still very appealing. Ryan was always good for a new wrinkle or innovation, and he suggested we use cars and select boundaries around several blocks. The toy gun notion was tired, so we decided that water balloons might be better ammo. Ryan would drive his dad's pickup truck, and I would drive my Vega. Each of us had a team of balloon tossers - three apiece. We filled a couple of buckets full of water balloons and headed out in opposite directions. I had to drive with my car's hatchback hanging open so we could maximize our firepower. If you can already see where this is going, you can punch out now.
If you're still with me, it must be morbid curiousity or perhaps you can't imagine a world where stuff like this really happens. It seemed like a really cool idea to us at the time. I drove around for fifteen or twenty minutes without seeing Ryan's pickup, and when we did see him, it was too late. We were pelted mercilessly and then he sped off down the quiet suburban streets. I was not taking my soaking lightly, and neither was my team. I devised a plan: Two of my team would take the bucket and lay in wait for Ryan to come back down the street where our elementary school was. I would sit at the intersection a block away, under a streetlight - a sitting duck. We waited for Ryan to take the bait. We didn't have to wait long. Ryan's pickup came flying down the darkened street, the boys in the back cackling loudly as they moved in for the kill. That's when my team stood up and unloaded on the front end of the pickup. I'd like to believe that Ryan was going about seventy at the time, but it was probably more like thirty. Still, the force created by a moving vehicle and a balloon full of water headed in the opposite direction was significant. Significant enough to punch a fist size hole through the driver's side of the windshield. Brakes went on. Ryan cursed a blue streak. Ryan could always curse better than any of us. I thought about running, but decided that this constituted a "time-out."
No doubt about it, Ryan's dad was going to be extremely unhappy. As quick as we had formulated the rules for the game, we began to make up a lie to cover our collective butts. Sure, for a moment there was a thought about blaming the balloon tossers (was it Doug Ross or Paul Whyman?) but the fact that it was DAD'S PICKUP made the problem much dicier. If it had been my car, the consequences would have been obvious. DAD'S PICKUP was another matter. So we determined that we had been all together, driving up near the university when somebody in the back of the pickup (probably Doug) had yelled something stupid at "a hippie." Wouldn't you know that he had picked not only an ill-tempered hippie, but one with a baseball bat? Rather than risk any further aggression (I know - eight or nine junior high and high schoolers and one deranged hippie with a baseball bat - but he looked like he was on drugs or something).
Ryan's parents bought it. In hindsight, I can imagine that they may have seen it as infinitely more rational to consider that the crazy hippie was lurking somewhere out there than they had a son whose idea of fun was to play water balloon tag with DAD'S PICKUP. When I got home, I said nothing to my parents, hoping that their long-standing lack of interest in conversing with Ryan's parents could be maintained until this could all blow over.
It's not a body in the basement or a missing twin, but it's time to clean the slate: I'm sorry about your pickup, Mr. Sinner.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Dylan and Eric didn't get it

I've been struggling lately - trying to explain and rationalize to my son (who will soon be eight years old) just why toy guns and video games can be bad things. It's usually about this time - twilight and before bed time - that I usually sit down in front of my computer and start playing "Civilization." It's my time-sink of choice; a way to unwind after a day of herding cats as I move the Aztecs or the Mongols toward eventual world domination. I like to kid myself that there is nothing visceral about what I am doing. I'm just moving bits and bytes around and trying to keep the culture I'm creating from turning into a corrupt military industrial complex. Then I get to the point that my science advisors suggest the Manhattan Project. It takes just a few turns, and before you know it: ICBMs. Just like that. If somebody comes and starts messing with me after that, it's nuke city for those bad boys!
I digress. I found out the other day that my son had been playing "Grand Theft Auto" over at a friend's house. I told him I didn't want him to do that anymore, since that game wasn't rated "E" for everybody. I'm not even sure what it is rated, but it started making me extremely agitated to think that my son was careening about a virtual Los Angeles in a Humvee, looking for virtual trouble. Am I worried about the effect the game will have on my son? I must be, since I felt compelled to tell him this story:
A few years back, at a high school in Colorado, some very confused boys brought a bunch of guns and some bombs and tried to make a video game in real life. These boys played violent video games. They listened to scary music. They went bowling before they did this bad thing. Video games didn't make them do this stupid thing. Scary music didn't make them do this very stupid thing. Bowling probably didn't make the stupid thing happen either. But a bunch of people died. One of them was a teacher. I came home that day and took "Doom" off my computer. I don't think playing "Doom" was going to make me want to hurt anybody - but it made me feel like I did something. I still have the Marilyn Manson songs on my MP3 player.
So here I am, tonight, not launching nuclear warheads into unsuspecting and "more backward" countries on my computer. I'm thinking about my son's ninth birthday - and his nineteenth. What little fences will I be putting up when he is sixteen? I think he gets it already. Dylan and Eric didn't.

Monday, May 09, 2005


In this life, there are losers and there are whiners. I'm thinking in particular about people who get what they want but aren't content until they scratch a medium size hole right through the quality of the moment. Why go to a Bruce Springsteen concert and complain about the songs that he didn't sing? Why carp about the consistency of the chocolate pudding that you didn't have to make? Do you really care about the size of the memory on your new PC? And while we're at it, can you really tell the difference between DSL and cable modem? Honestly.
My God we're spoiled. The cell phone reception here is very sketchy, but it beats the heck out of sending smoke signals. The local sports franchise can't put together a pair of winning seasons, but we'll buy the merchandise and moan about some 24 year old's inability to maintain his cat-like agility and focus while still more money is being forced into his already bulging coffers.
They don't make 'em like they used to. It's true. They used to be made of rocks and rough-hewn wood.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Career Path

I had a dream last night that I was doing stand-up comedy in a wood-paneled bar/cafe. The only bit I remember was how confounded I was that I had stumbled on the career path of Gabe Kaplan. Does this mean I will eventually star in a sitcom mirroring my sad existence, then be shuttled off to obsucre and seldom seen basketball films?
The work dreams I have aren't generally about jobs I want to have - they're about jobs I used to have. I no longer dream obsessively about not being prepared for the big test and being unable to remember my locker combination. Now they are "Brazil" infused nightmares of bureaucracy and middle management. Long hallways filled with paper - I try not to remember these when I wake up.
I didn't turn out to be Spiderman after all, but it was kind of a relief to find out just how cool everybody else seems to think he is. I didn't become a makeup artist in the style of Jack Pierce, but I'm happy to see that Rick Baker continues to find work since he won that contest in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I didn't become a screenwriter, but I have a pair of scripts that I work on when I find the time.
I became a teacher. Now, back to work.