Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Whistling in the Dark

They're on the move again. Rescue crews from the Bay Area are heading out to do whatever they can in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Presently the expectations are thirty days to get the water out of the city of New Orleans, then countless weeks, months, even years to rebuild. At last check, there were still people stuck in their attics, waiting for the waters to recede.
Way back in 1906, when San Francisco was all but destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent fires, by Imperial decree on the 30th Day of the Third Moon from Empress Dowager of China to send 100,000 tales as a personal contribution to the relief of the San Francisco sufferers. President Theodore Roosevelt declined the offer, as well as donations from other foreign governments. Governor Pardee told a newspaper reporter, “The work of rebuilding San Francisco has commenced, and I expect to see the great metropolis replaced on a much grander scale than ever before.”
Then there was that little shift of the plates in 1989 - I was watching the World Series, and made the off-hand comment to no one in particular (from the safety of seismically retro-fitted Colorado) "The only way the Giants are going to win this one is if the earth opens up and swallows the A's." I should probably be more careful about what I wish for. The fires only burned for hours, not for days, and fewer people lost their lives as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake.
In the meantime, there have been fires, floods, landslides and incidental seismic events, but nothing on the scale of the seasonal pounding that has taken place on the southeast corner of the United States. We keep tossing the dice, and coming up sevens out here in earthquake country. For now, our hearts and thoughts are with the folks stuck up there in their attics, looking forward to a time when they can think about lending a helping hand to those poounfortunateses out in California.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

OJT (On The Job Training)

When you first start working in a fast-food restaurant, they always tell you the same thing about when you get held up: go ahead and hand over the cash. It's the same drill at just about any retail establishment. Don't be a hero, just give them the money and a collector's set of Holly Days Glasses if they ask for them. Ask if they want any help getting their bag to their car. Most of all, don't do anything that could be construed as even mildly assertive. Money can be replaced, human lives are (for the most part) irreplaceable.
That being said, I will now relate the apocryphal tale of Jo Ellen, manager of Arby's extraordinaire. Jo Ellen (her real name, as it would have been difficult if not impossible to come up with a "funny" nickname for her) was a company gal. She had worked her way up from the bottom - starting as a "lunch tuna," or entry level cashier to the lofty perch of assistant manager of the Baseline store. Jo Ellen worked hours that no one else wanted, learned every chore and task in the building, and kept an immaculate set of books. When we were trained to clean the meat slicer or empty the shake machine, we were told "This is the way Jo Ellen does it." Joe Ellen was the measure of all that was America's Roast Beef, Yes Sir.
Again, she was also sadly afflicted with a shocking deficit in the sense of humor and personality department. For the most part, this was a career enhancement for her - she never had to worry much about what she might be missing in the world outside the restaurant. Late one night, Jo Ellen was in the back room working on the books in advance of the closing while her crew cleaned and took care of the trickle of late-night customers. This particular evening, a guy came in with a gun, ready to make a quick withdrawal from the fast-food national bank. Her crew, initially stunned, began to comply to the robber's demands. With very little cash in the register, the focus shifted to the money in the back. Jo Ellen was called from the back room. At this point she must have assumed that she was dealing with an unhappy customer, because she came around the side to the front of the counter to address this gentleman's concerns. The world may never know, but I choose to believe that it never occurred to Jo Ellen to even glance in the direction of the gun. Abruptly sizing up the situation, she chose this approach: "Hey buddy, I know times are tough - but don't you think getting a job would be the way to go here?" Some versions of the story have her handing the guy an application on his way out. It would be my guess that she would have given him an interview if he would have brought it back.
I've saved the best for last - one more little piece of information about Jo Ellen. She was married, and her husband worked in a dynamite factory, handling high explosives. Maybe that's not the real punchline for this story, but it ought to be.

Monday, August 29, 2005

One Down, 179 To Go

I moved the same pile of papers three times around my room, each time leaving it just long enough to forget where it was. By the time I had located it for the third time, it was time for me to head outside. I've been at the same school for nine years now, but I still feel the same mix of anticipation and dread on that first morning. There are class lists, posted in two different locations, and I know that they will be surrounded by parents, children and teachers - all trying to get a glimpse of not just what class they are in, but who else will be there with them.
Out on the yard I move through waves of young kids with their parents, then older kids who don't need mom and dad to take them to their first day. Then there are still others who might rather that their parents had come, but still try to look calm in the face of the eventual beginning of a new year. The last group is the ones with the whole family there, and the fourth grader who can only roll his or her eyes as the parents introduce themselves and share all manner of specific and pointed advice about what to do with their little darling.
And I listen to it. And I smile. And I nod. And I stroke my chin thoughtfully. I'm a parent too, I tell them, but that doesn't really matter because they need to tell me about their child because they are trusting me for six hours a day, five days a week not to forget that Debbie does best when she can sit close to the board and Gregory doesn't get along with Brandon anymore so could I please make sure that they don't sit next to one another please.
When we get inside the room, Debbie is sitting in the back corner. Brandon and Gregory have already plopped down across from one another - thick as thieves. This is how it begins. The door closes and I begin to shape young minds - again.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Methinks We Protest Too Much

Here's one that may have slipped past your wire service: In Smyrna, Tennessee, the God-fearing members of a small church say God is punishing American soldiers for defending a country that harbors gays, and they brought their anti-gay message to the funerals Saturday of two Tennessee soldiers killed in Iraq. Add this to the already terribly sad story of Cindy Sheehan, and I find it difficult to imagine how different these times are from the 1960's. No, wait - this is much more surreal.
The members of the Westboro Baptist Church are solidly exercising their First Amendment rights. There were the inevitable counter-demonstrations, and here's what one local man had to say: "If they were protesting the government, I might even join them," Danny Cotton, 56, said amid cries of "get out of our town" and "get out of our country. But for them to come during the worst time for this family — it's just wrong." Thanks for the perspective, Danny.
Here's the phrase that keeps rattling around my head: "Crazy with grief." Maybe that's what is happening all across the United States these days. We are all so incredibly sad for the situation that we find ourselves in as a country that we are acting like pinheads. Agree or disagree with the foreign policy of our country, you've got that right (we finished our constitution in record time - over a four year period in the late eighteenth century - read all about it!) The part I have a problem with is when those constitutionalprivilegess get pounded over other people's heads. Imagine that there is a difference between your right and your responsibility. We have passed the 1,800 mark for American casualties in our war in Iraq - approximately 1,700 since "Mission Accomplished." The most recently revised death toll for 9/11 stands at 750. I'm losing track of the logic here. Number of U.S. servicemen killed in combat in Vietnam 47,072. This really is crazy, isn't it? Maybe some of this is necessary for some national catharsis for our country. Are we destined to repeat history in twenty year cycles if only for the opportunity to ask ourselves if this is the way we want to be in the world?

Saturday, August 27, 2005

B Flat Double Bass

I've been making my confessions of a geek to any number of people lately, and the one thing that really sells them on it is when I tell them about being in band. That pretty much seals the deal. "Oh. You were in band." Not only that, but I played tuba in band. That's not the cool instrument to play in band. That's the goofy, comic relief instrument to play in band. When I first told my junior high school band director that I was going to play tuba for him, he asked if I didn't want to play baritone instead. I had spent the summer before taking private tuba lessons, and I wasn't about to be stuck playing some wanna-be tuba - I was going to play the tuba, but thank you very much for asking.
My father used to ask me about my choice, especially when he had to haul me from place to place with my sousaphone (the marching version of a tuba, developed by John Philip Sousa). He wondered why I didn't pick the piccolo, an instrument that I could easily shove in my hip pocket and walk home from school, instead of the great fiberglass beast that filled up the back of our station wagon. It came as a great relief when I entered eighth grade I was allowed to keep the ancient, dented brass sousaphone at my house while I played the shiny white fiberglass version at school. I still needed help dragging my oversized case full of tuba to my weekly music lessons, but they were on Saturday mornings, so I could load up on Friday night and be ready to go the next morning. All I had to carry to and from school was my mouthpiece.
When I got into the high school marching band, I kept the brass sousaphone at home, kind of a parting gift from my junior high band director. I kept practicing, and by the time I was a senior, I was section leader. Well, I was the only one who played tuba full-time. During marching band we had four or five other guys who couldn't really play, but we needed to spell out "BOULDER," so we needed eight sousaphones. When marching season was over and concert band began, I sat with a group of guys who were usually doing the band director a favor by playing low brass because they had too many saxaphones or oboes or whatever. I remained steadfast in my tuba commitment. For about a month, we had a loan of a pair of rotary valve tubas - beautiful instruments that played and sounded like nothing else I had ever experienced. But alas we never chose to buy them, so I went back to the tired old piston valve concert tubas that the school had owned since the Truman administration.
After high school I was done playing music. The sousaphone stayed at my parents' basement for years after that. Much later I collected up my old trombone and the sousaphone and took them to a music shop where they looked them over and told me they would give me seventy-five dollars for the pair. It seemed like a good deal at the time, since they were only gathering tarnish and dust where they were. I heard later that the people that bought them had a side line of turning old instruments into lamps and furniture. I'm guessing that's how my tuba ended up. I kept the mouthpiece; sometimes I play "Taps" on it. It makes a very silly, sad sound, but I guess that makes sense, doesn't it?

Friday, August 26, 2005


When I worked for an employee-owned book warehouse, I was elected to serve on the board of directors after my second full year. When I told my father about this, he replied, "Well, I guess that says something for you, doesn't it? Or maybe it says something about them."
I rose to a position of relative authority rather quickly on that job. I've been lucky or at least fortunate to have made it to the top - or nearly the top - of each of the jobs I've had over the years. Assistant manager is a pretty safe place to to hang your career. I learned the art of clipboard management early on - making notes and making discerning noises as I watched others perform. Still, the proletariat in me has never allowed me to sit still for long. I'm not much of a desk guy.
I used to get in trouble with the other managers at the book warehouse. They wanted to know why I felt it necessary to continue to do so much labor when there was all that management left to do. I figured that the best leadership came from example, so I tried to be the best employee first, and then added the evaluation, scheduling, and system analysis on top of it. I thought that this would be especially appreciated in an employee owned company. It turns out that I was wrong. As much as my employees appreciated my efforts, the rest of the company belonged in front of a computer on a desk in an office. I was a little too "hands-on" for my own good.
Here's the sad note: Most of the places where I've managed or directed have gone out of business or ceased to be for one reason or another. I hear my father's words again - and then I go back to work.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Word on the Street

I'm not certain that I am remembering this correctly, but I recall my mother suggesting that graffiti is a sign of poor toilet training. Maybe this isn't her quote, but it certainly rings with motherly authority. Regardless of its origin, these words played in my head as I rode my bike past the neighborhood park and noticed that the sign at the gate now included the admonition: "This park is owned by the Dubbas."
Well, how do you like that? Apparently any barely literate person with a Sharpie can take ownership of public property by scrawling their barely legible intent wherever the mood strikes them. I confess that it bothered me first on the hoodlum level - Who are the "Dubbas" and should I be concerned about them doing anything more than defacing public property? This is a park that my son, wife, dog and I have gone to play on occasion, and for the first few months the playstructure remained pristine. Free from any young toughs looking to establish their domain by scribbling on any moderately smooth surface with a permanent marker. Then the flurry of "tagging" began. If there's one, there will be a dozen - highly reminiscent of the way my dog stops to mark her territory as we move through the neighborhood.
The lurking delinquent factor is just the beginning though. I know that graffiti can be art. Someone is going around our neighborhood and spraypainting large green cartoonish birds on underpasses and sidewalks. Across town there is a series of odd versions of the street-crossing silhouette: one holding a candle, another sinking in a pool of water. We see boxcars with billboard sized tags with color and shading that make the freight yard come alive. Are these acts of vandalism, or public art? I'm reasonably certain that the bird person would probably get in more trouble just because he or she chose to work in such a large format.
Maybe I'm just fussy about the penmanship, but I'm always happy when they spell their threats correctly.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

God and Country

God's little elf is at it again. "I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it." These were Pat Robertson's remarks about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Pretty straight shooting for a Christian - unless you were to throw in any of that outdated "thou shalt not kill" nonsense.
This isn't the only recent pronouncement from the Christian Rights biggest star. Lately he's taken to asking the Lord, with the help of his Christian Broadcasting Network, to help create more vacancies on the Supreme Court. Since appointment to the highest court in our land is for life, we can only assume that Pat is calling for some smiting of our more liberal-minded Justices. Since these Left-leaning types call themselves Americans, we can only assume that the prayer is more for some kind of debilitating disease that would bring on retirement. Death and disgrace would then just be a matter of course. On ABC's "This Week," Pat described the trouble that had been stirred by those liberal types: "I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings."
So what's the big deal, free speech notwithstanding, with Doctor Robertson? One concern might be his "open line" to the White House. The Christian Coalition, which Robertson founded, is the largest grass-roots conservative organization active in US politics and handed out 70 million voter guides before the 2004 election. The Christian Coalition, from which Robertson resigned as president in 2001, lobbies Congress and the White House on moral and religious issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and the separation of church and state. One need not sniff too closely to George W. to catch a whiff of Pat.
Still, there's a bright spot - maybe even George can tell one whack-job from another. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said when asked about Robertson's comments: "Our department doesn't do that kind of thing. It's against the law. He's a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time." Well, I can't tell you how that soothes my mind, Rummy - I'll sleep better tonight knowing that. Right after I say my special prayers.

Everybody Promenade!

This is the image that sticks with me: I'm surrounded by kids, and we're all standing in a vast sea of rolling sand dunes. Every step forward is a struggle. What are we doing out in the middle of white sand nowhere? I'm teaching them how to square dance. We're doing the Virginia Reel, or making our best attempt at it, and the kids are learning to do-si-do. We try an allemande left, then a promenade. I can see that the circles and lines are not perfect, but the idea is starting to come through. I can see that they are learning and they are laughing - in the middle of the desert.
That's when I woke up, because I was getting very tired. Next week I start my ninth year teaching in the Oakland Unified School District. I will be one of five returning faculty to my school - at last check there were ten openings for teachers at our site. I'm going to gather my books and Schoolhouse Rock CD's and get back to work knowing that last year our test scores went up.
Are test scores the way I measure myself as a teacher? Not any more than I use one test score to measure a student's progress. I get my six hours a day with the kids in my class, then their world returns to its more natural state. Being in school is not the real world for the students I teach - for most of them it is very much the exception to the rules of their lives. So I give it all I've got, but I've got to play by the rules that are set up for me. These days if you don't play by the rules, you could be told not to come back. There are times that seems like a reasonable alternative. The truth is, I never much cared for square dancing, and I think there are better places to teach kids than the middle of a sand dune. But that's where I'm heading next Monday morning. Go figure.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Spectator Sports with a Purpose

Dave Barry has a term for it - he calls them "concern rays." It is his theory that men can, through keen concentration and force of will, alter the outcome of sporting events. Do you really think that Sebastian Janakowski could really miss two relatively easy (for him) field goals in the Oakland Raiders' most recent exhibition games? Sure, you could blame the relative inexperience of his holder, or the poor condition of the field or even the combination of chemicals running through "The Polish Cannon's" veins. I prefer to think that it was my focus and mental agility that caused both kicks to miss their target - either of which would have given the Raiders enough points to overcome the lowly Houston Texans. And keep in mind, this is only preseason - I'm just warming up.
Over the past month I began doubting my abilities as I watched the Oakland A's slide back from their ultimate goal of winning the American League West. Don't ask me to explain why I would want the Oakland A's to win, but the Oakland Raiders to lose, it's a very carefully considered and thoughtful plan that is as strategic as it is arbitrary. The A's had been rolling right along in July, first breaking even on the won/lost record and then making their assault on winning their division. I started caring deeply what happened each day - who was pitching, how many games were left in the season, doing all the math. I watched them win until they pulled even with the Los Angeles but Not So Much Anaheim but certainly southern California Angels. Then the bottom fell out. They dropped four games in a row - at home. The worst team in baseball, the Kansas City Royals, came to town and got better on the A's. Could it be that my concern rays had faltered or even failed me?
I'm guessing that there is a formula to explain it - why you can want something too much. I refuse to imagine that there are enough other men, women and children out there forcing the A's to make uncharacteristic fielding choices, or to keep just enough momentum off a fly ball to let it die on the warning track. I have not been true to my calling. I have let preseason football interfere with my meditation. In order for the Oakland A's to win the American League pennant, I must be willing to forego the first month of the NFL season, not to mention a whole mess of NCAA games. I'm not sure I can remain that unselfish and pure. If you can't join me in willing the A's to win, how about just wishing a lot of little hard luck on the New Yuk Yankees?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Morning Cab Ride

"Aloha," was the word that kept running through his head.
Charlie stood on the curb, looking down the street for the taxi. He didn't ride in taxis much, but today seemed like the day to throw caution to the wind. He thought about the TV shows he had seen where the detectives used the cab driver's records to trace the suspect, usually with the cabbie giving a dead-on description of the guy they had mostly seen through a rear-view mirror. He thought again about where he had spent the night: The Highland Motor Inn, located about eight miles from his house. "My apartment, our apartment," Charlie reminded himself aloud.
Would Violet send the cops after him? He doubted it. Sometimes he left for a while, till things calmed down. When he came back she never acted relieved to see him, just more relaxed. But he had never been away for the night. He had always gone home before.
"Aloha," he murmured again and fingered the silk flower lei around his neck. He wasn't headed anywhere tropical; the lei had been an afterthought as he purchased the rest of his traveling clothes. The canary yellow shirt and white pants shouted a greeting from yards away, but the black bowler hat really set the whole ensemble off. He didn't wear socks, and for the first time in twenty six years Charlie was wearing shoes without laces. He guessed that the laces would just slow him down when he hit Reno.
Wasn't there something else he remembered about Reno? Didn't people go there to get quickie divorces back in the day? Violet would have laughed at that. You'd have to be married to get divorced, Chuck. Nobody else called him Chuck. Once upon a time, that felt like being treated special.
When he looked up again, the taxi was turning the corner. Charlie picked up his bag and met the driver coming around to the open trunk. He handed the bag over - the one he bought to carry his old clothes in, just in case - and smiled at the cabbie, "Aloha!"

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Emotional Rescue

"When all hope is gone, Sad songs say so much" - Elton John/Bernie Taupin
This morning as I was out running, listening to my mp3 player, I was struck by just how many sad songs I know. All the words, all the melodies, all the sorrow - and I took the time to transfer them to a digital mode for easy transport.
"If someone else is suffering enough to write it down, When every single word makes sense, Then it's easier to have those songs around" - Elton and Bernie again
Why would I want to purposefully set myself up for ennui and melancholia? As I continued to run with the strains of Pearl Jam's "Black" roaring through my headphones, it occurred to me that I must be giving myself the emotional equivalent of a workout as I continued to work up a sweat in my physical sphere. Anybody can push themselves to the next level while listening to "Gonna Fly Now" or even "Eye of the Tiger." It takes a whole different set of muscles to keep going while "Hasten Down the Wind" is trying to distract you.
Even after the exercise is done, sometimes I'll ask my wife to sit down and listen to the lyrics of a particular song - to see if it's just me. Sometimes a song like Green Day's "Good Riddance" will hang around the radio and become popular without a lot of consideration. It's my understanding that it has become a favorite at weddings, with the refrain of "I hope you had the time of your life." Irony isn't suited for top 40 radio.
"The kick inside is in the line that finally gets to you, and it feels so good to hurt so bad" - Bernie wrote the words, not Elton
I guess we're all just a phone call away from that kind of feeling. Sometimes feeling bad is better than not feeling anything at all.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Rack 'Em Up

I went to a pool hall this afternoon to remind myself of my shortcomings. It's not really a self-esteem issue anymore - I have a fairly evolved sense of the cans and can'ts in my physical world. The whole hand/eye coordination thing has been a sore spot for me since I can remember.
I played a lot of right field. I'm always happier throwing a ball than catching it. Seeing how far or how long I can do something is a better test of my capablilities than how accurate I can be. If I work long and hard enough on a particular sequence of motions, I can usually approximate the look and feel pretty well as long as hitting the target isn't going to be required. Basketball was always kind of a laugh for me, until I figured out that with a hook shot, you really didn't have to be that good, you just had to find your spot. My hook shot was never truly graceful, but it did drop on enough occasions to win a game or two of HORSE.
Back at the pool hall, I tried to apply everything I could recall from watching "Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land" a dozen times in elementary school. I tried to connect what I knew about physics and all the times I watched "The Color of Money." I knew exactly what it should look like - but when the cue slid between my fingers, the result was generally a feeble roll across the table, dropping the cue ball as often as any of the balls I was supposed to hit. If I was looking to hustle anybody, they probably wouldn't have believed my best game enough to try to play me for money.
So this is probably why I continue to revel in spectator sports. I see these athletes as my surrogate hands and eyes. I grasp the innate physical difficulty of turning a double play, or sinking the eight ball off two rails in the corner pocket, but I can't truly conceive of it. I'll continue to work on my game - all of them in fact, since I've got an eight year old who doesn't care what my limitations might be. He just wants to play the game.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Rubber Match

I turned forty-three just about two months ago. I say this now because it gives a reference point for the rest of the story. I had to buy condoms for the first time in a decade last week. Most of the time my wife and I have been together, birth control has been a shared concern, but the options have been primarily of the long-term woman side of things. Condoms were from a breezier, young couple starting out time.
There I was, standing in an aisle in Long's Drug Store. The first thing I noticed was how poorly named the store was in the first place. You can buy lawn furniture there. You can buy two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola (for just ninety-nine cents). You can buy Hot Wheels cars (for the same low ninety-nine cents). You can buy a whole lot of things at Long's Drug Store that are not drugs. Most of the things you can buy at Long's Drug Store are not drugs - nor are they condoms. That is to say that it took me several aisles to discern what category of thing I was looking for in order to find the item I was there to purchase. I didn't have the courage to ask any of the pleasant and courteous staff for help, so I finally narrowed down the possibilities to the back end of the store, where I found a surprisingly large selection.
It made me proud to be an American, standing there in front of the contraceptive selection at my local drug store. In Russia you'd have to stand in line for six or seven hours to be handed something made from old tank parts that you still needed a doctor's note to use. Here in America I was stymied only briefly by the assortment of colors and shapes. Then there was the question of how many - if I bought three was I being too shy? If I bought a dozen was I being a lech? Did I mention that my wife was waiting in the car for me while I made my selection?
I decided on an assortment, and if I bought a dozen. On the way up to the register, I picked up a bouquet of flowers - did I mention that my wife was waiting in the car? There I waited as the lone cashier carefully rang up the items for the lady in front of me. I worked hard on my nonchalance with my flowers and condoms, and then it was my turn. He couldn't get the condoms to scan. The lady behind me tapped her foot. The cashier asked me if I knew how much they were. I told him my guess - I probably would have paid double just to move things along. He asked me if I wanted paper or plastic, and I told him I thought I could get along without a bag.
When I reached the door, the alarm started to beep and the security guard stepped over and asked to see my purchases and receipt. I handed them over and waited while he carried them back into the store and had them carefully removed from inventory. He walked back to where I was standing, bouquet in hand, gave me back my condoms, and said "Thank you sir, have a nice day."
My wife loved the flowers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

In the Box

My Aunt Nell was a very nice lady. I guess I should qualify that: I remember her as a very nice lady. She stood in stark contrast to her sister, my father's mother. That would make her my great-aunt, but that was never really an issue. She made us feel comfortable when we were with her. We referred to my grandmother Esther as "The Great Stoneface of Kansas." There wasn't a lot of play in Esther.
Nell was fun. I learned to eat carrots straight out of the ground in her tiny back yard garden. She did not insist on watching Lawrence Welk and "Hee Haw" when she as babysitting for us. It's not that she was any kind of pushover - when she needed to, she could set her jaw and let us know just how where her line was. And we respected that.
I didn't see as much of Nell after we were old enough to look after ourselves. There were still birthday cards with five dollar bills tucked inside, and a hug with a mushy kiss at the infrequent extended family gatherings. I was surprised by my father's request to attend her funeral. My father's side of the family was a little loose by design, and as I had never attended anyone's funeral, I expressed a good deal of concern about the details. My father assured me that it was a simple enough operation, just a short service, and then a trip to the cemetery - I'd been to the cemetery plenty of times. There was one thing more. He asked me, if it was necessary, to be a pallbearer.
That was the part that got my imagination going. I had never attended a funeral, but I had seen plenty on TV and movies. I knew that there were all kinds of ways for pallbearing to go awry. I told my father that my biggest fear was seeing Aunt Nell's body - especially since all of my memories of her were so active and vibrant. My father reassured me that there would be little or no reason for me to be concerned, since it was a closed-casket service and my cousin Al was almost a sure thing for the last position.
The call came on the morning of the service - Al couldn't make it. I congratulated myself for having the paranoid foresight to go over all the possible embarrassing possibilities. I dressed in what amounted to my best suit and tie, keeping in mind the somber tone with the darkest blue jacket I had and the black tie I had once worn as part of my Blues Brothers costume. When we arrived at the funeral home, my father showed me to a seat at the front in the corner where we sat with four other relatives who I remembered more by reputation than experience. True to my father's word, the casket was closed and I was free to reminisce as the minister spoke of the lively old lady that I knew. As the service concluded, my father nudged me in the ribs - it was time to wait outside with the hearse. Walking solemnly past the casket, I heard the minister say, "And if anyone would like to come up and share one last moment with Nell..."
He opened the box. The lid came open with a faint rush of air that I have imprinted on my memory as tainted with formaldehyde. There she was - or wasn't in the metaphysical sense, and I was standing right next to her. The time that it took my brain to disengage and start moving again was probably only the tiniest of seconds, but felt like days. I didn't see Aunt Nell, and eventually that was the relief. When the pallbearers were asked to come back into the chapel and carry the coffin to the hearse, I was able to do it with a marked sense of detachment. I was moving a box. It was an easy job because I had five guys to help me. I could do it with one hand.
I've been to funerals since. I've only been a pallbearer that one time. Maybe it's like jury duty - a service to your community that no one really wants to do. Many are called, but few are chosen. Lucky me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Blow Out Back To School Savings!

Having a hard time trying to find a new light bulb for your lamp at Target because of all stacks of binders and ream after ream of wide-ruled filler paper? It's that magical time again: Back To School. Stock up on pencils, pens, markers, crayons, erasers, pen erasers, crayon erasers, compasses, protractors, pocket dictionaries, rulers, spiral notebooks, pocket folders, safety scissors and Elmer's glue. Way back in the olden days, all this stuff was supposed to fit inside a cigar box that would then be stowed next your math book, science book, social studies book, and your leveled reader.
That was the easy stuff. The hard stuff was the school clothes. Due to my consistently panda bear shape, I was afforded a limited selection available in the "husky" section. You might think that thirty-plus years would be enough to lose some of the stigma from this experience, but it seems to run pretty deep. It didn't matter how long I looked with my mother, everything I ended up wearing looked like something you'd see on Peter Brady. Well, a husky Peter Brady. Coupled with this limitation was the onerous exercise of trying the pants on. I still don't like to try pants on. I want to wear those pants with the waist size that is smaller than the length, but that has never quite worked out for me. I remember standing there in the dressing room, a number of near misses balled up on the floor beside me, as another wave came over the transom followed by my mother's voice: "Here - try these."
I tried them all. Eventually we got a few new pair of pants, a bunch of new shirts, and a new pair of jeans for after school. Then there were school shoes. I wore Buster Brown until I got to sixth grade. Each year got a little easier. By junior high, I was able to get away with t-shirt and jeans a couple days a week. Every September I flinched a little less. Now I'm getting ready to go back to teaching fourth grade again, and I need some new teacher clothes. It's that time of year again.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Knot a Saffron Ligature...

My neighborhood is festooned with yellow ribbons. Well, not ribbons exactly, but magnets cut to the size and shape of yellow ribbons and stuck on the back of cars. If the meaning is somehow ambiguous, some of them have careful script writing that reads "Support our troops" while still others have a red, white and blue motif run along the underside of the loop. We support the troops. We buy magnets in the shape of yellow ribbons that say as much.
The sad irony for me is the number of people in our county with sons, daughters, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, buddies and acquaintances who are the troops - of course we support the troops. They're doing their job. They are protecting us from a madman wielding weapons of mass destruction. Or they are helping us win the war against the terrorists. Or they are participating in a global struggle against violent extremism. No matter what you call it, they're out there 24/7 in Iraq and Afghanistan being shot at while things and people around them continue to blow up. Daily. Brave men and women doing a dangerous job in a dangerous place at a dangerous time.
So we put up the yellow ribbons. Why? Some believe that it has to do with a folk legend that dates back to the (U.S.) Civil War. The song "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" tells the story of a young lady who wears a yellow ribbon to remind everyone of a boy who is "far, far away," and as a reminder to others that she is betrothed to someone who is "far, far away" (check out the reference to "Behind the door her daddy kept his shotgun. . . "). The song has the same title as a John Wayne movie - how much more patriotic could it be?
There was a book about a man returning from five years' imprisonment who had asked his illiterate family to decorate an apple tree with white ribbons if they wanted him back. In the early 70's there was a story printed in which an ex-convict was watching for a yellow handkerchief on a roadside oak tree, Parsons said. In 1972, Reader's Digest reprinted the story, and ABC aired a dramatized version of it starring James Earl Jones as the ex-con.
Then there's the Tony Orlando and Dawn hit from 1973, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree," that tells the story of a prisoner being released after "twenty long years." The yellow ribbon was a sign that his love was still waiting for him. On a televised newscast in January 1975, Gail Magruder, wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder, who was convicted in the Watergate scandal, decorated her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome her husband home from prison.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, yellow ribbons reappeared as symbols of solidarity with our captive countrymen. We put ribbons everywhere to remind us of the 60 Americans held against their will by Iranian extremists (look! A connection at last - extremism!). When the moral ambiguity level got high around the first Gulf War, the yellow ribbons came back out - this time as a symbol of support for our troops. Since then it has become apparent that any significant cause must have a ribbon of its own special hue worn on this or that lapel or Oscar gown to reference one's connection with a cause or concern.
But that yellow ribbon keeps coming back to remind us of our troops in far away places. It does not say "Support Our War" or "Support Our Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism" - it simply asks to support our troops. Okay. I can do that - but considering the connection with people being held against their will in places they didn't want to be - it makes me wonder if there's not a better, less ironical way to share our thoughts with the world.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

No Consonants Left Behind

I feel much better now. I just spent a week locked in a hotel conference room with thirty-seven other very intelligent people who shared this common goal: to teach the children of Oakland how to read better. Wait a second - what I meant was that our common goal was to better teach the children of Oakland to read. Okay, you get what I mean. While the five days we spent was essentially redundant to the training that we received in that same hotel conference room a year ago, we all came away with a sense of common purpose. That purpose was to make sure that we got out in time to miss the traffic leaving the A's game that was finishing up just about that same time.
So why do I feel better? I feel better because I just read a news item about education in Germany. Apparently the folks in Bavaria and North-Rhine Westphalia are having a hard time adjusting to the new rules governing spelling. The Bavarians and their friends in Westphalia have had seven years to prepare for the changes, intended to simplify things, but have decided to allow both old and new spellings as school begins this year. Meanwhile, Ulm and Neu-Ulm, on opposite banks of the Danube and in different conservative-led states, cannot agree how to spell the word "river," while "shipping" could have two "F"s in one town, but three in the other (Schiffahrt/Schifffahrt). Go ahead and snicker not just at the predicament, but the word "Schiffahrt/Schifffart."
Truth is, I took German in high school, and I know just how complex and rule-governed the language is. Learning German made it easier for me to teach English. The fact that all of this wrangling is taking place in a political context makes me even more amused. The lengthy debates about the spelling of "Krankenschwester" would probably have me in hysterics if they were broadcast on C-SPAN. For now I'll just have to take solace in the spelling of our governor's name.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Puberty Blues

A short time ago, there was a post here that recounted a time in junior high. An astute observer noted that, in a radical departure for this blog, the entry was written in third person. It could be that the third person change was an opportunity to try out some fresh fiction technique. It could be that the characters and ideas were so distant to the author that there was no connection to him. The real reason is this: I believe that all of junior high school is best viewed in third person.
When I recall the onset of puberty, I see it from above. Like the diagrams you see in newspapers of some horrible accident the day after. I have never heard of anyone waxing rhapsodic about their years in junior high (or middle school, if that configuration holds for you). It seems that for most humans the years from roughly thirteen to sixteen are spent trying desperately to adapt to the world in a constantly shifting body filled with surging hormones and oils. It's hard to imagine what might erupt on any given day.
Once you have reached the relatively calm days of high school, you can begin to imagine a future that doesn't necessarily include massive insecurity. That is not to say that high school years are care-free and safe from biochemical and psychological trauma. The main difference is that by tenth or eleventh grade you have some idea about where you fit in, if you fit in at all.
Junior high is a proving ground for social order. There is plenty of hope - you could still be cool if you ditched that backpack with Care Bears on it, or you could still experiment with sports and clubs. There is massive potential in junior high along with the massive terror that accompanies it. That's why I believe that way back in 1976, the folks at Saturday Night Live were on to something. There was a commercial for a product called "Rovco's Puberty Helper." Puberty Helper is a large brown bag with holes cut in it for her arms, eyes and mouth with a huge smiley face on the front. At the onset of puberty, kids pull the bag over their heads and don't have to worry again until their lives have become their own again.

"I've got a blue and red Adidas bag and a humongous binder,
I'm trying my best not to look like a minor niner.
I went out for the football team to prove that I'm a man
I guess I shouldn't tell them that I like Duran Duran.
This is me in grade nine, baby, this is me in grade nine
This is me in grade nine, baby, this is me in grade nine
Well, half my friends are crazy and the others are depressed
and none of them can help me study for my math test.
I got into the classroom and my knowledge was gone;
I guess I should've studied instead of watching Wrath Of Khan.
This is me in grade nine, baby, this is me in grade nine
This is me in grade nine, baby, this is me in grade nine"
-Barenaked Ladies: Grade 9

Friday, August 12, 2005

Be Prepared

"The jamboree gives Scouts an opportunity to test the skills they have learned through Scouting and try new things," said Roy Williams, Chief Scout Executive, BSA. "However, the greatest benefit of the jamboree is when Scouts from all over America and the world come together to share the brotherhood of Scouting."
What they failed to mention here is that when that many scouts come together, they seem to make a bigger target. It could be that the gods or God are unhappy with the Boy Scouts, but I'm pretty sure that the past month has been more than a little brutal to the Scouts. The BSA pride themselves as being "the nation's foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training." This past week, an 8-year-old girl died after a tree suddenly fell on top of her while she was sitting at a picnic table at a Boy Scout camp in New Jersey. Three other girls suffered minor injuries. The girls were attending a first aid class at the camp. This follows directly in the wake of two scouts who were killed during an eight-day backcountry hike with six other teenage Scouts and four other adult troop leaders when a lightning bolt made a direct strike on a tarp they had set up in a meadow while taking shelter from a storm on July 28.
It gets worse.
The deaths of four adult Scout leaders in an electrical accident at the Jamboree in Virginia, and five other deaths this summer from drowning and lightning during Scout outings in Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and California. Add to this a lawsuit or two from the ACLU (I quote from the BSA web page: "Scouts come from all walks of life and are exposed to diversity in Scouting that they may not otherwise experience. The Boy Scouts of America aims to allow youth to live and learn as children and enjoy Scouting without immersing them in the politics of the day.") and you have a real summer to remember for the Boy Scouts of America.
Maybe the motto needs to be amended, slightly: Be prepared for the worst.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Tucker Carlson is a Simp

Tucker Carlson is a twit. It's not just the bow tie this time - it's the stuff that leaks out of the hole in his face just above the bow tie. This is how he explained why he was pro-France: "You know, France blew up the Rainbow Warrior, that Greenpeace ship in Auckland Harbor in the '80s. ... It won me over."
For the record, French secret service frogmen planted two mines that tore apart the ship's hull as it was preparing to sail to France's South Pacific nuclear test site at Mururoa Atoll and campaign for a nuclear-free Pacific Ocean. Two French agents were arrested by New Zealand authorities in the bombing and convicted of manslaughter. They were released after less than two years in prison.
So, you do the math - Tucker Carlson promotes manslaughter. And who was this person who deserved to be snuffed out by Tucker's Froggie men? Fernando Pereira was a Dutch photographer, originally from Portugal. Pereira had just celebrated his 35th birthday in Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands with the crew of the Rainbow Warrior. He was planning to go to Moruroa to bring photographs of French nuclear testing to the world. Aha! One of those Portugese photographer trouble-making peace types. I can see Tucker's point.
If he's starting to remind you of another of our media's conservative blowhards, Robert Novak, it's no surprise. They shared a special little corner of journalistic hell called "Crossfire" until Jon Stewart showed up and pointed out that the emperor had no clothes - or maybe the emperor was just a big bag of gas, spewing vitriol.
Here's how Tucker is described by his pals at PBS: "Tucker Carlson's rise to prominence in the media landscape is rooted in his unique vision, combining wit, wisdom, insight and a wry perspective on the events that shape our lives politically, socially and culturally." Here's a bit of the touch of Tucker's wry perspective from April: Laura :Why isn't a Libertarian like you pro-choice? Why aren't you a feminist?
Tucker:If you think there is even a possibility that a fetus is a human being, and I do, then abortion isn't really a personal choice; it's a decision one makes about another's life. And I don't believe we have the right to kill other people, except in self-defense. As for feminism, I've lost track of what the term means. If it means treating women fairly, I'm a feminist. If it means pretending that men and women are the same, I'm not.
Okay - if you still don't believe me, go ahead and watch this pinhead's show. He's on MSNBC - he got fired from CNN.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Professional Development

We sit in these conference rooms for six and a half hours a day for five days in a row. When we're done, we're supposed to come out with a better understanding of what it takes to be a better (fill in the blank). This is the nature of seminars/conferences/retreats. Professionals are herded off into these hotel settings with their high ceilings and easels with chart paper, and suddenly we revert to our base instincts.
"Why can't we get the air conditioning to turn off when we come in?"
"When will the parking validation stickers be handed out?"
"What is the vegetarian lunch alternative?"
"How do you get Post-Its like this?"
It's a stirring sight, really. Watching adults mill about with no real sense of the task ahead of them except to avoid the task itself. It's a trick we learned in grade school. If we ask enough clarifying questions about process, the process might just cave in on itself. It is actually a pretty impressive sight, as trainers who came prepared to discuss the importance of the innovation of the implementation of the particular service or process that will impact the attendees are forced to scurry about researching menus and parking regulations while the rest of the crowd simmers in their minimally padded chairs.
Is it better than a day at work? Probably. Are we able to take some of our petty work frustrations out on the facilitators who won't see us again for at least a year? You bet.
See you next year at the Hilton - I hear the buffet is great!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Lunch Break 2

Last day of junior high school. He had waited for it. He had made some solemn vows over the course of three years, not the least of which concerned his lunch box. His mind traveled back to the sunny summer afternoon before seventh grade. He had admired his masterwork in the light coming through the window: a flying pig, a seal with a propeller for a tail. One end had a bullet shaped man with drooping eyes and enormous hands. His name swirled across the front. It was his lunch box.
He had used enamel paint, and almost three years later, even with daily insertion and removal from his backpack the graphics remained sharp and intact. So did the memories of abuse. After the first day of ridicule, he could have left it at home, but he promised himself then that he would carry his lunch in that bucket every day of his junior high career. He was called a retard, a baby, a fairy, a nerd, a geek. That rolled off. He rarely flinched when the bigger kids pulled their punches - still he invariably got "two for flinching." It made his resolve stronger.
By eighth grade he made the wrestling team (B-mat), and track (shot put and discus). The lunch box followed him on this adventure, and in ninth grade he was on the football team too - a three sport man. He still played in the band. And he carried a lunch box. He had a close circle of friends - none of whom carried their lunch to school.
That last day, as lunch was ending and his friends heading inside for yearbook distribution, he paused at the end of the soccer field. The sun came down through a cloudless sky to remind him of summer's approach. He set the lunch box down, carefully removing the thermos bottle and setting it aside. Closing the lid and flipping the latches shut, he closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. He jumped in the air and landed squarely, both feet on the lunch box, flattening it. The bell rang as he opened his eyes. He was alone with the black metal pancake that had held his food for three years. Picking up the thermos with one hand and peeling the lunch box from the grass with the other, he walked a few steps to the trash can at the end of the bike rack and pitched the hunk of painted metal. He hurried into the building carrying his thermos, on his way to get his ninth grade yearbook.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Lunch Break

He was just getting used to the lunches that his mother wasn't making him. In the eighth grade, he was finally turned loose on his own midday meal. It was ironic that he was using most of the same raw materials from his mother's pantry, but now he took special care in making a lunch that looked like he imagined teenagers should eat. No more Wonder bread - sandwiches came on rolls that were carefully split down the middle. Chips were pretty much the same - Mom wasn't buying any of those individual serving bags (waste, waste, waste!). The chip portion was larger because there weren't carrot or celery sticks. This too was sometimes cause for a moment of melancholy, since Mom was so very good at putting just the right amount of peanut butter in a celery gutter. There were days he wished he had the patience. Dessert was where the difference really showed. Instead of a few cookies in a bag, or a single Zinger, there was a pair of Twinkies or a foil wrapped Ding Dong. When he had the time to spare he went to the store with his mother to make sure she brought home the chocolate Snack Pack pudding - not those damn fruit cocktails. He didn't need milk, since he brought his thermos full of water kept cold by the ice cold aluminum of the mountaineering bottle that had his name etched in the bottom.
He was completely self-sufficient and didn't need to stand in line for a minute. He walked to the lunch room with his lunch box and started eating. Wait. Lunch box? Eighth grade? Not a brown bag? Nope. A big black construction worker's lunch pail that had been lovingly decorated with cartoons from his own feverish imagination. Lunch box in junior high school=social death. How could he have known?

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Shrevie: Ok, now ask me what's on the flip side.
Beth: Why?
Shrevie: Just, just ask me what's on the flip side, OK?
Beth: What is on the flip side?
Shrevie: Hey, Hey, Hey, 1958. Specialty Records. [Beth nods blankly]
Shrevie: See? You don't ask me things like that, do you? No! You never ask me what's on the flip side.
Beth: No! Because I don't give a shit. Shrevie, who cares about what's on the flip side about the record?
Shrevie: I do! Every one of my records means something! The label, the producer, the year it was made. Who was copying whose style... who's expanding on that, don't you understand? When I listen to my records they take me back to certain points in my life, OK? Just don't touch my records, ever! You! The first time I met you? Modell's sister's high school graduation party, right? 1955. And Ain't That A Shame was playing when I walked into the door!

That scene in "Diner" kind of sums up my periodic angst about being married. Why don't we care about the same things? Why doesn't it get easier? Well, the truth is, it does. It just takes time. And patience. What does it mean to get up every morning for twelve years with the same person? Well, if you're not a teenager sharing your room with anolder brother, then maybe it feels something like marriage. There is a certainty to it that I enjoy immensely. I do a little dance each anniversary that I like to call my "Thank God I Never Have To Date Again Dance."
I know more now about who I am than when I started this relationship. A lot of things that I believed to be certain truths turned out to be a lot of hooey. To her credit, my wife has had the same challenging learning curve. We're trying to do all of this as we glide through our own discovery of just what we want to be when we grow up.
Of course, this path is frought with peril. There is money and childrearing and chores and the ever-present spectre of failure. That fifty percent divorce rate does a lot to keep my brain attached to my mouth. I have learned to be more careful with what I say and how I say it. Do I still need practice? You bet I do - but the real amazing thing about this is that I am being allowed to get it right over time. Perfection is still quite a ways off, but I'm waddling there as fast as I can.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Hey, Kurt!

Here's my guilty pleasure for the week: Kurt Russell. I went to see "Sky High" the other day with my family and had a very pleasant time. Kurt plays Steve Stronghold, a.k.a. The Commander, real estate agent by day - super hero by night. It's a family movie, so the kids were the focus, but it was nice to have Kurt there to ground us parents squarely in our Disney litany.
Way back when he started being in movies, Kurt Russell was the new face with Fred MacMurray in "Follow Me, Boys!"(1966) He spent his teens working for Disney, perhaps no more memorably than when he played Dexter Riley in "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes ."(1969) Dexter showed up in two more films, "Now You See Him, Now You Don't" and "The Strongest Man in the World." He was always just this side of hip - but he looked like he might be trouble if you messed with him too much.
That would happen in 1975, when he played Charles Whitman in "The Deadly Tower." Kurt was more than a little stressed when he looked down on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. This role pretty much put an end to the speculation that Dexter Riley might reappear in "The Sniper Wore Tennis Shoes" for The House of Mouse.
After he left minor league baseball because of a shoulder injury, he auditioned for the role of Han Solo in a little sci-fi project George Lucas was putting together. That didn't pan out, but in 1979 he played Elvis in a TV movie directed by John Carpenter. The Elvis motif carries throughout his career, beginning with bit part in "It Happened at the World's Fair" when he was a kid who kicked the King in the shin. After the Elvis on TV, he had a voice-over as Big E that went uncredited in "Forrest Gump." He was an Elvis impersonator/casino robber in "3000 Miles to Graceland." And let's face it - unless his hair all falls out and his lip stays still - he's always going to have (with apologies to Mojo Nixon) a little bit of Elvis in him.
John Carpenter pushed Kurt's nice-guy all the way to the edge when he cast him as Snake Plissken in "Escape from New York." There wasn't much nice about Snake - he did save the President and all - but then he tore up the cassette tape that would have saved the world from World War Three. Kurt was a tough guy, and if you see him in "Big Trouble in Little China," he's got a sense of humor about it.
Kurt's in his fifties now. He's still hanging around with that Goldie Hawn, and he's back making movies for Disney. These days it's a toss-up whether the grizzled old dreamer will be played by Dennis Quaid or Kurt Russell. That's fine with me - but when they start work on "The Secret Life of Elvis," I hope Dennis isn't waiting by his phone.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Turf Wars

I just finished mowing the lawn. I've always liked that job. When I was growing up, the oldest kid got to mow the lawn, and the middle one got to pick up after the dog before the mowing could begin. I don't think I have to describe the details of why I was anxious for my older brother to pass along mowing duties to me so that I could hand off my "pooper scooper" detail to my younger brother.
While I was waiting for my time to come, I would hang around while the lawn was being mowed on the off chance that I would be allowed to empty the grass bag over the fence into the vacant lot behind our house. Or maybe I could bring the gas can from the garage for a quick refueling stop - anything to get me closer to the machine.
When the day finally came that I was welcomed into the fraternity of mowing, I was ready. I had studied the careful turns and cuts that needed to be made on our back lawn beneath the crab apple tree. A side-bagging mower meant that the front yard, with its twisting sidewalk and hedgerow, was especially treacherous. I learned early on to vary my path on a weekly basis. Constantly mowing in the same direction allows the grass to lie down and become matted. Sometimes vertical stripes - sometimes horizontal - other times I mowed in concentric circles until I reached the center.
I grew up in Colorado, so I spent winters shoveling paths in the snow, clearing driveways. The satisfaction of cutting a swath through the green grass was very similar to that of cutting through ice and snow. Now that I have moved to California and have a house of my own, there's not much snow to shovel - but I get to mow the lawn all year 'round. Today I did a combo pattern - the back yard got stripes, and the front got a capital "C."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Our Back 40

In the back yard of my childhood home there was an apple tree. It didn't last long, I can remember trying to get rid of the stump - eventually making way for the swing set that would stand for many more years. When the swing set came in, that corner of the back yard was covered in gravel - good for Tonka truck scraping and hauling projects, but not so comfortable in which to land.
We had a good time with the swing set - though I think we did more climbing on the structure than any actual swinging. It served as a launching platform for countless fireworks displays. It was the base of operations for a great many super hero federations. It grew tired and rusty as we found places to play outside of our own back yard.
When at last it was time for the swing set to go away, I volunteered for the demolition project. I spent a day unbolting and collapsing the red and green monstrosity. The pieces that were less cooperative were twisted and bent until they could be removed. Finally, the frame was pulled up out of the dirt that had been buried for so many years. The gravel stayed for a few more months, and then it was carted away as well.
We were left with a little plot of land, big enough for another swing set, and had it been twenty years later it would have been just the right size for putting in a hot tub. But this was the seventies - in Boulder, Colorado - there was only one thing to do: put in a vegetable garden.
We dug and turned and irrigated and sowed. We all made some effort on our little fraction of an acre, but it was definitely my father's baby. We were all a little surprised when anything came up at all, but we started to believe when we saw green things growing where we had planted them. Sadly, the only thing that grew successfully was zucchini. We harvested the first large crop of the great green squash and waited for the corn or the carrots to come along. The tomatoes withered on the vine, and the zucchini kept coming. It has become apparent over time that my father did not have any particular talent for raising zucchini - the trick would be to grow just as much zucchini as you might need. And we never did need any zucchini. We ate zucchini bread, zucchini boats, fried, sliced, diced, shredded, breaded, baked, broiled, and permutations heretofore unknown zucchini. It wasn't until the snow began to fall that the crop began to fail, and it was the first green thing we saw when Spring came.
It only occurs to me now that the only way to deliver my family from this curse would have been to go put the swing set back.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Crazy Flipper Fingers

My friend's birthday party was held at Lucky Ju Ju Pinball in Alameda. I went with a bit of trepidation - I had never shown much skill at the game of pinball (there are not many feats of hand-eye coordination in my scrapbook). I spent my youth wishing in vain for the abilities to show up after hours of concentrated practice. I remember that when I was eight or nine I believed that pinball was a game for burgeoning juvenile delinquents. You found machines in bowling alleys and stuck in the corners of laundromats. The idea of putting quarters into a machine was connected with two things: getting a candy bar and slot machines. Getting a Snickers bar was pretty much a sure thing - whereas getting three cherries in a row was definitely a chancy thing and therefore gambling. Pinball was definitely associated with the latter.
By the time I turned thirteen, I was stretching my boundaries a little bit. I could blame rock and roll, or hormones, but it was most likely a combination of the two - and these two items fell together in Ken Russell's film version of "Tommy." I had heard bits and pieces of the Who's opera, but never as a whole. The overture was used as intro music for the local station's late movie. I went to see the story of that deaf, dumb and blind kid at the theater across from the university campus. They were the first to install way too many speakers to give patrons that "concert (loud" experience. I was swept away by the music and images (it helped that it was loud and Ann Margret wrestled her pillow in a writhing mass of chocolate and baked beans). Then there was the pinball.
"Tommy" taught me that pinball was a means of salvation - a response to repression and a path to God. Elton John was the Pinball Wizard - how could this not be so? When the movie was over, we walked out to the lobby where there was a lone machine standing behind the ticket office. The machine was Fireball. It had tricks and features in its design that I had never imagined - most prominently a spinning disc in the center of the deck to twist the ball into directions that could never be fully controlled or anticipated. The flippers could slide together if you hit a certain bumper, and another would release any trapped extra balls (Wotan and Odin). I watched my older brother play first and was amazed at the sound and excitement generated by one silver ball. Then it was my turn. I pulled the plunger and let the ball go. I watched as it bounced, ricocheted, rang buzzers and bells and then slid abruptly right between the flippers: drain. My brother admonished me never to put both flippers up at the same time.
Thus began my futile search for the perfect technique. I tried to work my magic on the machines the way I saw other kids do - I was too shy to use a lot of "English" (hips and thigh). I stood in front of a new wave of machines that came just before the video game explosion came and all those pinball machines moved out to make room for Asteroids and Space Invaders. I felt a quiet bit of satisfaction as the video games took over - my frequent low scores would become a memory as the pinball machine became a relic again. The sad irony was that I was not that good at Space Invaders either.
Last weekend while I was listening to the jukebox play Canned Heat and Led Zepplin, I had a breakthrough. I played enough games on one machine that I finally started to anticipate some of its action. I won a high score on a match, then on a high score. I looked across the way at the others - staring intently at the glass in front of them - smiling. I pushed the start button and worked on my bonus.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Reality Bites

A very short time ago, I wrote about how proud I was that I had a dog that didn't solve her problems with her teeth. Well, that was apparently just an ironic way to introduce the following story: How my dog came to bite my good friend on her arm and leave a nasty bruise and a fair sized puncture wound in her bicep. Is that giving away too much at the start?
We had houseguests this weekend. Our friend from the olden days - the maid of honor at our wedding, the godmother of our son and all around good egg - came up from the southland to visit with her son and her dog. We have made noises over the years about how swell it would be if our perspective mates, children and now pets would all get along as famously as we always have. Truth is, for the most part, they do. The problem is that dogs are still animals and they sometimes act just like that. Trying to feed two dogs at the same time is a bit of a project even when you and/or the dogs are used to it. Timing is everything. We had figured out the easiest thing was to feed each one in a separate part of the house, allowing them the time and space to inhale their individual bowls, then go searching for the other's. When they were done, there was a little food left over in our friend's dog's bowl - our dog wanted it, and that was what started the problem. The lesson we all learned was that sticking a nice prime piece of meat like an arm in between two angry dogs is a bad idea.
When it was over, our dog had been banished and shamed in the front of the house, while we attended to the medical needs of our tattered and bruised friend. Her dog waited in the back.
This is when we began the discussion of attributing human feelings or characteristics to dogs. It would be nice to say that our dog felt guilty or embarrassed by her behavior - since we did. It would be nice if we could say that our friend's dog felt protective and concern for his master. Truth is, both of them wandered back into the living room shortly after the incident and fell asleep on the rug. It was over for them. The guilt and reckoning for the humans had just begun.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Current Affair

Thank you, Al Gore. First you gave us the Internet, and now you're giving us television that matters. "We want to be the television home page for the Internet generation." I found this extremely encouraging coming from a communications pioneer such as Al "You Can Call Me Al" Gore.
Why would I watch Current TV? I guess because I want to see if it's every bit as scintillating as its founder - or if there will be more naked chicks or heads blowing up than on, say, MTV. Get this - the groundbreaking notion this network will begin with is taking a "philosophical look" at Paris Hilton's phone list. Even better, Al promises us programs that won't tax our attention spans or busy schedules by limiting them to "pods" between two to seven minutes long.
At last! Now I can find out everything I need to know from television that I was stuck getting from the links that I downloaded to my cell phone. They even include an 0n-screen "progress bar" to let you know when you can stop caring about whatever topic they have probed delicately for the past 150 seconds. Whew - that just about wraps up world hunger, now - what about a new recipe for potato salad?
Originally, there were to be 200 video journalists hired and given inexpensive equipment to document the length and breadth of all matters that can be covered in two to seven minutes. Al figured that might be too elitist, so he abandoned that plan, and left the programming up to all of us - those of us with the bandwidth, spare time and enthusiasm for pushing the frontiers of telecommunication. If you're a video blogger, you can't use the stuff you sell to Current - they have exclusive rights to it. If that smacks a little of the same kind of elitist claptrap that they had hoped to avoid, well that's just too bad, isn't it Mr. Artsy Fartsy Video Blogger?
But hey, in a pinch you can always go to their web site to see what's on.