Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Big Fat Tuesday

Fat Tuesday is here. Tomorrow all fun vanishes from the face of the earth - more or less. Once upon a time, my wife took this pre-Lent notion to the extreme when she decided to give up her mild obsessions of Tetris and chocolate on the same night. The giddy fun part came when she got to stay up until midnight eating M&Ms and trying to improve her high score as the bricks kept tumbling down...
She finally came to bed completely wired and agitated, unable to sleep. When at last she was able to close her eyes, she could only imagine blocks falling from the sky as she tried in vain to twist and sort them into neat little rows. The next morning she had a decided aversion to video games and sweets - nice trick.
Mardi Gras, as it turns out, is French for "Fat Tuesday." Also known as "Shrove Tuesday," this is the day on the Catholic calendar that comes before Ash Wednesday. The origin of the name Shrove lies in the archaic English verb "to shrive" which means to absolve people of their sins. In some countries the drinking and beads get the heave and are replaced by pancakes. Ireland, Australia, England and Canada have "Pancake Day," pancakes are eaten to use up milk and eggs, which are not eaten during Lent and would otherwise spoil during this period - oh those ever-thrifty Brits.
What does all this have to do with absolution? Riding on a float and drinking gallons of rum drinks mixed in hotel trash cans seems like an interesting way to anticipate one's salvation. Still, it's nice to reflect on the catharsis of the moment: even at our most sinful, we are only a day away from being forgiven. Say what you want about Catholicism, but that seems like a pretty good deal. After all Louisiana has been through this year, I hope everybody down there can take a few hours away from hauling rubble and foraging for food and have a Hurricane on me. Pro Bono Publico!

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Courage Show

We were talking about talent, weren't we?
Okay - we weren't talking so much as you were reading and I was languishing in another crevice of nostalgia. The reason for me to have brought up my experience with the cartooning class approximately one million years ago when I was in sixth grade was this: I spend most of my waking hours around children. The vast majority of them are well below the age of puberty, and sometimes I marvel at the formation of the fragile egos.
Kids can be cruel. I will wait patiently for you to recall the person in your life who found that one thing about yourself and shouted it out for the rest of the world. Remember that? Boys can usually remember the moment when it wasn't okay to get a kiss or a hug from mom out in front of the school. Girls can give the name of the boy who told them he really liked them, but you didn't really like him "that way." And all of the other sundry pitfalls that come before, during, and after.
In the meantime, take a moment to savor these guileless moments from my Saturday afternoon: A kindergartener who wore a grass skirt and carried his wooden staff as he pantomimed "The Circle of Life" from "The Lion King." A third grade boy who sang the theme to one of his favorite TV shows - a capella. He wasn't sure he wanted to do it at first. He had to go out and come back in again, but when he did, he walked up on the stage and just sang from his heart. As the director of the variety show at my son's school I have seen lots of child performers. The most precocious ones don't do much for me. It's the ones who haven't felt the sting of peer pressure yet. By fifth grade we usually get groups of kids who want to lip-synch to whatever the pop flavor of the month that will pass the stodgy old director's ears.
Sometimes we slip and we call it a "Talent Show." The truth is, we don't require talent. All we require is courage.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Good Drawer

On Friday afternoons in sixth grade, we were allowed "free time" if we had finished all of our assignments. It was during this time that I made my first film: "Drac Comes Back." I also played a lot of chess. But the thing I remember most was the cartooning class I ran for two weeks. I had a reputation as "a good drawer" and some of my friends asked if I could teach them how. I remember standing at the blackboard, chalk in hand, making pictures on request while my "students" sat with their pencils laying on their desks.
"Can you draw it for me?" one of them whined.
"Draw it and I'll copy it," offered another.
Then came the one that still rings in my head, "I can't draw."
This was the voice of a twelve year old boy. From the first green crayon scribblings of preschool (that's a tree, right?) to the race cars and Barbie clothes designs of third grade, every child draws. Then something starts to seep in, and the approval of peers overwhelms the artistic urge. "What is that supposed to be?" You can hear the air coming out of the self esteem balloon in a rush.
"Of course you can draw. Everybody can."
"That's easy for you to say. Look at how cool that pig is that you drew."
Was I possessed of some secret talent that others didn't share? Not really. I had spent years drawing on the numerous stacks of paper samples that my father brought home from work, and feeling at home in my imagination. I could draw because I let myself.
"C'mon Dave, just draw me one pig."
"Okay, then you try to copy it."
And then drawing class was over. The next Friday there were only two people waiting. One of them had made a careful tracing of my original, and was working on a careful freehand line by line version. I asked my friends to picture something in their minds first and then draw it.
"Can't you draw another pig for us?"
I drew a dozen pigs that afternoon. I got a lot of compliments on what a good drawer I was. Then the class was over. My teacher asked if I wanted to teach again the next week. I told her that I guessed I had taught them all they needed to know.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bye Bye Barney

Why is it that I feel a ripple in the puddle of my life when certain celebrities pass on, while thousands perish every day with little effective notice on my part? The preceding question remains rhetorical for the time being as I relate the most recent Hollywood demise. Don Knotts has shuffled off his mortal coil and gone to that great sherrif's office in the sky.
I had a friend in high school who believed with all his heart that Don Knotts was the funniest person on the planet. I confess that when I was watching "The Andy Griffith Show" with this friend, it was hard to deny this. Watching Barney sweet talk Juanita (before his ongoing relationship with Thelma Lou) over the phone, or savoring the slow burn as Andy poked fun at his notions about modernizing Mayberry's law enforcement capabilities, or wincing as he tried in vain to reform Otis the town drunk - the rest of the show was just filler as we waited for Don Knotts to appear. For several years, if you wanted to make my friend laugh, all you had to do was say (in your most pinched, nasal voice), "Nip it, nip it, nip it!"
That alone would be enough to give me pause on the news of his death, but my fondness for the work of Don Knotts doesn't begin and end in Mayberry. One of my fondest childhood memories is from a visit to my great aunt and uncle's mobile home in Arizona. Tiring of the adult conversation and the recycled air, my older brother and I went for a walk and found ourselves sitting on the curb across the street from a drive-in theater. We watched all of "The Reluctant Astronaut" across two lanes of traffic with no sound and still laughed ourselves silly. Years later I sat mesmerized as I watched "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" on late night television. "The Incredlible Mr. Limpet" made me laugh and cry, when in the end Henry Limpet decides to stay in the sea. Don's later work lacked some of the heart that filled the characters he embodied in the sixties. By the time he put on a toupee to play Mr. Furley on "Three's Company," Don had resorted to playing a "Don Knotts type" - a fidgety, high-strung persona.
For me, that era will be just a grace note in a career full of big-time comedy. It's not a matter that's open to discussion - so just nip it - nip it in the bud!

Friday, February 24, 2006

May 1977

"I know, I know - Grass doesn't grow on steel."
It was a spring afternoon in 1977. I was sitting at one of the back tables of the room, but it was obvious at whom Mister Clements was directing his comment. My new polyester blend shirt was rakishly unbuttoned and a larger than usual amount of my hairless pubescent chest was exposed - hence the reference to grass and steel.
I was mortified. I wanted to climb directly into the backpack under my chair and disappear until eighth period was long past, and no one would be in the halls to snicker or point. I did so desperately want to be cool. I had finally gained some small measure of acceptance by finding my way onto three sports teams in my ninth grade year, and even the odd group of friends I surrounded myself with had moved from the periphery of the social structure to just outside the norm. I was the leader of a quirky but somewhat acceptable group of misfits, and now all I wanted was to feel comfortable in my surging hormonal presence.
Not in Pete Clements' room. Looking back, I should have seen it coming. I had seen the rapier wit of Mister Clements eviscerate a number of my more socially adept peers. Even the "grass and steel" comment was an old bit that I had heard before. I just made the mistake of showing up as a target at exactly the wrong moment. When I was in seventh grade, I had learned to fear Mister Clements, and sat quietly on the side of the room and learned my geography lessons from his thundering authority. By ninth grade, in early May, I thought I had it all figured out. I wasn't exactly popular, but I wasn't merely a punching bag anymore. It was 1977, why not take a chance with that extra button?
To this day, when I am checking my appearance, I check that top button. Mister Clements is just one of the voices in my head.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Most Important Show In The World

My wife and I often sit on the couch late in the evening watching a Tivo assisted episode of "The Daily Show," and the question inevitably comes up: "Don't these guys know who is interviewing them?"
Apparently not. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich says he didn't realize "The Daily Show" was a comedy spoof of the news when he sat down for an interview that ended up poking fun at him. The interview focused on his executive order requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for emergency birth control. Rod's job was to be the counterpoint to the other interview in the segment, an Illinois Republican Rep. Ron Stephens, a pharmacist who opposes the governor's rule. Stephens got the joke - or so he says. It would be a shame if it turned out that the Republicans were the ones with the sense of humor, after all.
Still, one can't help but wonder what kind of experiences Governor Blagojevich has had if he didn't flinch when the interviewer, Jason Jones, pretended to stumble over Blagojevich's name before calling him "Governor Smith." As the piece wore on, he urged Blagojevich to explain the contraception issue by playing the role of "a hot 17-year-old" and later asked if he was "the gay governor." Stephens said, "I thought the governor was hip enough that he would have known that, too."
Maybe all of this is the net result of too much Bill O'Reilly.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Doctor Is In

Last night at bedtime, my son asked me to read "Yertle the Turtle" to him. I do so love to read those stories out loud. There are dozens of them, and I am hard pressed to pick a favorite, but I suppose if I was left to recite just one of them over and over, it would probably be "The Grinch."
"All the Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not." -How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A lot of the resonance of that story comes from the animated special, directed by Chuck Jones. Narrated by Boris Karloff, the leering and snarling finally gives way to the promise of a morning full of Whos singing. "And what happened then...? Well...in Who-ville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!" I read that each year to my fourth grade class. I don't know if they like it, but it sure does the trick for me.
I'm also a fan of "The Sleep Book." It's one of those treats from childhood that is still as much fun to read and look at when you're reading it to your kid as it was to have it read to you. Likewise the breakfast staple, "Scrambled Eggs Super!" or the often overlooked "If I Ran The Circus" with its daredevil "Old Sneelock."
Then there's one sentimental favorite that I don't read aloud so much. "Oh The Places You'll Go" was a present to me from my father when I graduated from college. If you read this book, you'll know more about resiliency than Dr. Phil.
There are a few Seuss books that I steer clear of. I'm not especially fond of either of the "Horton" books, and the Sneetches seem just a little preachy (rhymes with Sneetchy). I'm impressed with the artistic exercise of working within the limitations of using only 222 common words to create the anarchy of "Cat In The Hat." Seuss went one better with "Green Eggs and Ham," which uses just fifty words. The good Doctor's publisher, Bennett Cerf, bet him fifty dollars that he couldn't do it. There is no record of whether or not the wager was ever paid off.
Here's another wager: Read "The Lorax" to a five year old. I'll bet you both have a great time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Curve Ball

The train of thought was a little slow coming into the station today, but when it got there, it was pretty satisfying. As I left the house for my run I started thinking about the steady creep into spring that has begun. I recalled the other fathers in our group talking about the inevitable baseball tryouts that were fast approaching.
We don't do a lot of team sports in my family - unless it's the spectator kind. There was an attempt at soccer that ended somewhat abruptly after my son's first attempt at heading the ball - and it bounced off his face, causing his first nosebleed. He really enjoyed tee-ball, but it was primarily a social experience. The details of the game were lost on him. He is only eight, after all.
As discussed here previously, my own experience in right field as a cringing non-participant has done little to encourage my son to become more involved than his father.
I mulled my options as I continued to run - noting the irony of the solitary nature of my own exercise - and considered the possibility of signing my eight year old son up for some youth league baseball. A great many of his friends have already been playing for two or three years. If I left it up to him, would he choose to be part of a team? What if I just signed him up and then dropped him off one afternoon, with his glove and his cap? "Good luck, son. Make your dad proud."
I couldn't do that. Our family is much too fond of discussion for anything that would approach that kind of fascist parenting. When I reached the park, there was an assortment of fathers and sons and daughters tossing balls back and forth. The snap of leather hitting leather punctuated the late afternoon. My brain took a nostalgic detour.
I don't have a memory of playing catch with my father. He wasn't absent or inattentive, he wasn't much of a baseball guy. His game was raquetball. He tried dragging his three boys into that a few times, but we just seemed to slow him down, and after we all became thoroughly discouraged, we stopped asking to go along. Years later, after my parents had separated, I went to see "Field of Dreams" with my dad. The final scene in which Ray finally figures out who the "he" is in "if you build it, he will come," he calls his father back from the corn for one more game of catch caught us both hard. We walked out of the theater with a lump in our throats and a tear or two in our eyes.
When I finally got home, my son was still working his way to being finished with his homework. "Go grab your glove. We're gonna play catch in the front yard." We played until the sun started to go down. He dropped as many as he caught. I kept encouraging him, watching his pose and gesture, making all the right sounds. When it was time to go inside, he said "You're pretty good, dad." I thanked him and told him he was pretty good too, and after another eight million catches he'd be even better. "Practice makes perfect, right dad?" Perfect? Maybe not, but it sure can be fun.

Monday, February 20, 2006

So, Whaddya Call Your Act?

"So, whaddya call your act?"
I went to bed on Saturday night with this refrain ringing in my head. Each time I rose slightly, the loop reappeared: "So, whaddya call your act?"
The answer was, inevitably, "The Aristocrats." It's the punchline of one of the most notorious jokes in comedy history. It's also the title of a documentary about this joke, and I have been waiting for several months for the best time and place to take in the lewd and politically incorrect spectacle that is "The Aristocrats."
Well, it just so happens that one of the moms who came along for our big family in the snow vacation brought the DVD with her. She brought it because she heard "that it was interesting." I asked her if she knew just how interesting it was, knowing full well that this was a woman who - while being very nice - is wound just a little tight. I had read quite a bit about the film, and had heard and seen clips on the Internet, so I had an idea about what we had in store for our evening's entertainment. I wish that I would have remembered David Ansen's review from Newsweek, in which he states: "The cumulative effect is oddly uplifting: it may be (and feel free to quote me) the first feel-good movie made out of fecal matter."
To be honest, if it stopped at fecal matter, it might not have been such a massive potential for uproar. There's incest, there are bizarre physical manipulations, there are animals involved - this is not a family film.
We waited until past ten o'clock to start the show, since all the boys (aged six to twelve) were late getting to bed. Then the parents turned on the DVD player. There was a twenty minute period when there was only a couple of us laughing. Little by little, resistance was worn down, and soon there was a room full of parents snorting and guffawing at some of the raunchiest bits of stand-up comedy that has ever been assembled in one tidy package. To be fair, we lost a couple - one dad was "just too tired" and another mom who couldn't "understand what all the fuss was about." But when it was over, those of us who stayed were wiping the tears from our eyes and holding our sides. We had laughed ourselves silly. The mom who brought it was embarrassed, but proud for her choice. The problem was, we all agreed, what could she possibly bring next year to top "The Aristocrats?"

Sunday, February 19, 2006

We Could Be Heroes

They're making a new Superman movie. I confess that I found myself just a little excited by the notion. Superman isn't my favorite hero - I think Frank Miller had it right in "The Dark Knight Returns." In Miller's vision, Supes is a corporate shill, an echo of the Reagan years. Superman is a pawn in the ensuing Cold War. Superman's problem is that he's just too good to be interesting.
The guys who interested me were the conflicted ones, the ones who were twisted way down inside. As a kid, Batman didn't have a huge appeal to me, since most of what I saw was the Adam West version, the one who always had exactly what he needed in his utility belt. He seemed like he was fighting crime as a lark, something to do until his tee time.
The revisioning of the Batman legend that took place in the 1980's helped reclaim the Dark side of the Dark Knight. Batman's parents are gunned down right in front of him. He wanted to strike fear into the hearts of the criminals of Gotham City. He was a vigilante. That's what made him so scary - his secret identity was due in part from the fact that he was hiding from himself.
Over in the Marvel Universe, things were decidedly less tidy than Superman's word at DC Comics. Chief among the head cases at Marvel was Spiderman. Peter Parker was a kid who was trying to get by on the tiny freelance photographer's salary while juggling a teenager's love life and the guilt of the world embodied by his "poor Aunt May." Spiderman's parents are absent, then his Uncle Ben is killed by the very man he let get away. Try and live out from under that "With great power comes great responsibility" jazz. Year of therapy couldn't undo that one. In the meantime, Spiderman was definitely part of the real world. He had to sew up his own costumes - even Batman had Alfred to iron his cape. He was also regularly subject to the laws of nature, he got hurt, things fell apart, Spiderman ran out of web-fluid.
I will probably go and see the new Superman movie. It might turn out to be as gut-wrenching as "Superman II." But I think I'll keep buying Spiderman comics - they rule.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Pandora's Ammo Box

"Hey dad, wanna see the blaster rifle I've been working on?" From the back seat, my eight year old son wants to show me the gargantuan weapon that he has created for the Lego figure that he has been carrying with him. His current fixation is on a PC game called "Star Wars Battlefront II," which his father introduced him to in spite of his mother's objections. Even before he started playing the game, he was actively pursuing the armaments and gear via a series of technical manuals from the folks up at Skywalker Ranch. Do you know the difference between an AT-AT and an AT-ST? The answer might surprise you.
His interest doesn't begin and end in a galaxy far, far away. He draws tanks and bombers. He talks with great seriousness about "chain guns" and "thermal detonators." We have two kinds of guns in our house: squirt and Nerf, but it hasn't stemmed the tide. My wife believes that guns should be used primarily by boys between the ages of eight and fourteen, while they are still fascinated by the machinery, and then put away forever. My son's preschool teacher referred to the swords that boys would pick up as "power extenders."
My own fascination with guns and ammo began in third grade, but really hit its peak in fourth and fifth grade. I read every book in the Columbine Elementary library about World War Two. I'm fairly certain that Mrs. Benson, our librarian, was keeping tabs on me as a result. I did enough research to to determine that the Germans had all the really cool planes and uniforms. I was a fan of the Luftwaffe and the Blitzkrieg because they sounded so very powerful. It was my fifth grade teacher, Robert P. Conklin, who made an additional suggestion to my reading list: "The Diary of Anne Frank." Oh, those Germans? They were the Nazis? That makes it kind of hard to feel good about my rooting interest in World War Two all of a sudden. I had an awakening. Many years later I was fortunate enough to have another teacher, Anthony McGinnis, who taught American History and all the machinery that helped create a super-power, from the Minnie Ball to the Bouncing Betty. By this time I had become much more of a pacifist, but I still had moments, like the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in "Apocalypse Now" when that thunder and roar took over.
Whatever bloodlust I may have harbored was kicked clean out of me after seeing "Johnny Got His Gun" and "Saving Private Ryan." I stopped playing first person shooter games after the Columbine massacre.
Now I've got a new boy looking for a power extender. I hope he'll be happy with a light saber.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Drive Time Forecast

I think sometimes about the things I take for granted living here in the Bay Area, but I haven't forgotten to be grateful for the freedom from the chore of warming up the car.
People here in California are funny. This morning there was frost on the ground for the first time this winter. That meant there was a certain amount of frost on car windshields as well. This meant I was witness to an extended version of the sunrise car ritual. On any given day there are those who are out in front of their houses, pouring buckets of warm water on the front of their cars, trying to get the temperature inside to match the outside.
I'm lucky, since I'm riding my bike, I get to experience all of this completely vicariously. Every so often, my glasses fog up a little bit, but then I just peer over the top of them, and continue on my way. There are others who are giving a full-on hose job to all the windows of their cars, gallons of water rolling into the gutters before eight AM.
My mind drifts back to a time when I drove a Chevrolet Vega. One of the idiosyncrasies of this vehicle was that it had an aluminum engine block, which made it completely susceptible to extreme cold. On very frigid Colorado nights, I had a special oil heater running inserted next to the dipstick to keep the oil from turning to the viscosity of caramel. Once I got the motor running, there was often another five to ten minutes of scraping to be done on the windshield before it was free of ice. I was glad to have a working rear defroster, because I couldn't always bear to be out in the subzero air long enough to clear off a spot on the back to see out.
I'm headed up into the mountains near Tahoe this weekend. I hope I can remember the tricks of the trade - or at least where I can get a few buckets of hot water.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Aloha, Bloom

Why would someone choose to watch Olympic coverage that is twelve hours old, with the outcomes known, when you could choose to watch the ritual humiliation of "American Idol" while it is still relatively fresh and the results are still "secret?" A great chunk of the United States made that choice this week. More of us chose to watch Simon and friends pick over the performances of the talented and not-so-talented on Fox, while NBC was left carrying the torch. I know that there was at least one heart broken yesterday, when my seventeen year old niece learned that Jeremy Bloom failed to medal in Freestyle skiing. It put me in mind of the list of second, third, and fourth place finishers in history, whose stories are left behind as soon as the competition is over. As a test, try to remember the losers of the last five Super Bowls, or the last five World Series. Olympic athletes have already climbed to the heights of their sport within their own countries, and then compete against the best from across the planet. Theirs truly is a "world championship."
Jeremy placed sixth on Wednesday. No shame in that. He had given up a chance to play for the University of Colorado football team (where he had been a star receiver for a couple years prior to that) because the NCAA says that you can't get money for doing sports when you're playing sports in college - it's a rule, okay. Okay, says Jeremy, but he petitioned the NCAA to allow him to receive money from ski endorsements while he played football. He argued that since freestyle skiing wasn't an NCAA sport, there wasn't a conflict. The NCAA said yes there was a conflict and stop bothering us with your silly petitions.
Jeremy left football behind and concentrated on skiing. Yesterday fellow American Toby Dawson won the bronze medal. Now Jeremy can turn his mind to something much more tangible: a career in the NFL. With six touchdowns of 75 yards or more during his two-year college career at Colorado, he might have been a first-round draft pick had he stuck with football. Now he goes home and gets back in line with the rest of the hopefuls. In the meantime, you can continue to support Jeremy's dream with the purchase of a poster or two from his official web site - and did I mention that he's a capital H hunk?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Citizen Dick

Imagine this: You're out in the woods with a friend, and all of a sudden there's a rustling. A bunch of quail come flying up right in front of you. Your highly refined instincts take over, and you raise your weapon and fire without thinking. You bag a quail, but inadvertently fill the side of your buddy's face with buckshot. What do you do now?
I'm no hunter, but I suspect that the first thing to do is check and see if my friend is okay. Then I'm hoping that I can get a signal on my cell phone to call 911. Once the bleeding is contained, if not stopped, the ambulance has sped away into the distance to deliver expert medical care, and I'm standing there talking to the game warden and I can only assume a varying number of the local constabulary.
Dick Cheney hasn't said much about this so far, but he did accept full blame for his little mishap. "You can't blame anybody else," Cheney told Fox News Channel in his first public comments since the accident on a private Texas ranch Saturday. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend." Whoops.
On this same day, Michael Chertoff was delivering his own mea culpa in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "There are many lapses that occurred, and I've certainly spent a lot of time personally, probably since last fall, thinking about things that might have been done differently," Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the Aug. 29 storm. He called the hurricane "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life."
Across town, Dick revealed that Sunday was "one of the worst days of my life," but he was defiantly unapologetic about not publicly disclosing the accident until the next day.
Meanwhile, back in Texas (home of free-range quail), Dallas defense attorney David Finn, who has been a state and a federal prosecutor, said Wednesday that a Texas grand jury could bring a charge of criminally negligent homicide if there is evidence the vice president knew or should have known "there was a substantial or unjustifiable risk that his actions would result in him shooting a fellow hunter." Whoops.
Heart specialists kept a close watch on Austin lawyer Harry Whittington, who had a mild heart attack early Tuesday after a shotgun pellet migrated to his heart, a complication of the accidental shooting by Vice President Dick Cheney. Whoops again.
Back in the rough and tumble days of The Untouchables, Elliot Ness finally brought Al Capone down on charges of tax evasion. What an ugly irony if things were to continue to spiral out of Dick's control until he was locked up for killing a man "just to watch him die." (That last bit is Johnny Cash, but it just worked so well...)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Heart Strings

I spent a lot of time when I was growing up identifying with Charlie Brown. I had a big round head, and I was prone to fits of precocious depression. I had a dog - a dachshund, not a beagle. I carried a torch for a cute little brunette haired girl, not a red-head. I spent a lot of time staring at the mailbox on Valentine's Day - waiting, hoping.
Fast forward to my well-adjusted middle age, and I find myself still having Brownian pangs as the pink and red hearts start to float around. I watch the kids in my class attempt to negotiate the terrifying transition between "friends," "just good friends," and "boyfriend/girlfriend." Who do you give a Valentine to? Mister Caven insists that anyone who brings a card for someone in class has to bring one for everyone in the class. I have mentioned, as an aside, that if they would like to give a special card to someone, then they may do that after school. That kind of cootie-inducing activity can't take place on school grounds, sorry.
Now I recall all the years I spent pooh-poohing the idea of Valentine's Day. I had a standing date with a couple of other friends, who happened to be girls, and we all agreed that if we ever found Mister and Missus Right, we'd introduce them so they could get married. Turns out that now I'm married to one of them, so I have all kinds of heart-shaped ambivalence about the holiday. The cynic in me says that most of those chocolates could be put to better use on the depressed folks who don't have a "Valentine" and all those flowers are compost in a week anyway. The happily married guy understands that this is yet another opportunity to remind the woman I love that she is unique in all the world, and if she would do me the favor of being mine I would be endlessly pleased.
I hope you all have someone to get a Valentine from, even if they did have to give one to everyone else in the class.

Monday, February 13, 2006

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Peter Benchley died of complications from pulmonary fibrosis on Sunday. Seems kind of sad, since it would have been much more poetic if a great white would have eaten him in a bite or two, but life is rarely as poetic or graphic as we might like.
Still, I remember the summer of "Jaws." 1975 was the beginning of the blockbuster summer movie craze. "Jaws" came before "Star Wars," and just like the story of Luke and Leia and Darth, I read the novel by Peter Benchley before I saw the movie. The thing I remember most about the novel was the feeling I got (at age thirteen) as I read the scenes in the book that detailed the tawdry affair between ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Chief Brody's wife. What was this doing in the middle of a murder/suspense/adventure novel? As I am sure that my retarded sexuality was not the targeted audience for the novel, I remained perplexed at the notion of Richard Dreyfuss seducing anyone. This was Curt from "American Graffiti" sidling up to some tall blonde woman and working his prep school mojo on her - I just couldn't see it.
I was relieved to find that the movie adaptation (co-written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) left that episode out, and focused on fears even more primal than sex: being eaten by a shark as big as a station wagon. I read this book in the mountains of Colorado, and I felt the same terror of open water that "aquaphobic" sheriff Martin Brody feels.
I tried a few of the other Benchley books. "The Deep" had its treasure guarded by vicious barracuda (or was it eels?). "The Island" had pirates, but no eyepatches. "The Beast" was a giant squid - scary, but just not vicious enough. I will, however, always cherish those nights with "Jaws," squished down in the bottom of my sleeping bag, flashlight under my chin, waiting for the next big bite.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Duck Season

A comedian once noted that he was more than a little nervous about having then-president Ronald Reagan as the man with his finger on the big red button. Reagan was well into his seventies when he was in office, and the comedian's point was this: "My uncle is seventy-three, and we pretty much just don't let him use the TV remote. How comfortable would I feel with Uncle Bob having control of half of all the nuclear weapons in the world?"
As I make my way through my fifth decade, I feel a little of the age-ism that exists in the world, but maybe this item may resonate for you: Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and injured a man during a weekend quail hunting trip in Texas, his spokeswoman said Sunday. "Fortunately, the vice president has got a lot of medical people around him and so they were right there and probably more cautious than we would have been," said property owner Katharine Armstrong. "The vice president has got an ambulance on call, so the ambulance came."
If you're keeping track, Dick (his real name) has been the subject of much medical concern over the course of his two terms as vice-pinhead. Dick is a vital sixty-five years young, and has a long history of cardiovascular disease and periodic need for urgent health care. I'm not guessing that Lewis "Scooter" Libby will be accepting any invitations from Dick to "do a little quail hunting."

Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Very Expensive Top-Ten List

Timing is everything.
This past Thursday, four days after George "Pinhead" Bush released his 2007 fiscal year budget, he addressed the National Endowment for Democracy where he listed 10 serious terror plots that were foiled by the United States and its allies over the past four years.
First, the budget: $2.7 trillion (that's twelve zeroes for you fans of the power of ten). Things the Pinhead in Chief would like us all to pay for include an additional $120 billion to help pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year and the early part of 2007. That increase is on top of a nearly 5 percent rise in Pentagon spending to $439.3 billion in Bush's budget. Billions would be the one with just nine zeroes.
Folks at the National Endowment for Democracy got to hear just how important it is to continue to pay for all this defense (war) stuff:
1. West Coast Airliner Plot:
In mid-2002 the United States disrupted a plot to use hijacked airplanes to attack targets on the West Coast of the United States. The plotters included at least one major operational planner behind the September 11, 2001 attacks.
2. East Coast Airliner Plot:
In mid-2003 the United States and a partner disrupted a plot to use hijacked commercial airplanes to attack targets on the East Coast of the United States.
3. The Jose Padilla Plot:
In May 2002 the United States disrupted a plot that involved blowing up apartment buildings in the United States. One of the alleged plotters, Jose Padilla, allegedly discussed the possibility of using a "dirty bomb" inside the United States. Bush has designated him an "enemy combatant."
4. 2004 British Urban Targets Plot:
In mid-2004 the United States and partners disrupted a plot to bomb urban targets in Britain.
5. 2003 Karachi Plot:
In spring 2003 the United States and a partner disrupted a plot to attack westerners at several targets in Karachi, Pakistan.
6. Heathrow Airport Plot:
In 2003 the United States and several partners disrupted a plot to attack London's Heathrow Airport using hijacked commercial airliners. The planning for this alleged attack was undertaken by a major operational figure in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
7. 2004 Britain Plot:
In the spring of 2004 the United States and partners, using a combination of law enforcement and intelligence resources, disrupted a plot to conduct large-scale bombings in Britain.
8. 2002 Arabian Gulf Shipping Plot:
In late 2002 and 2003 the United States and a partner nation disrupted a plot by al Qaeda operatives to attack ships in the Arabian Gulf.
9. 2002 Strait of Hormuz Plot:
In 2002 the United States and partners disrupted a plot to attack ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean.
10. 2003 Tourist Site Plot:
In 2003 the United States and a partner nation disrupted a plot to attack a tourist site outside the United States. The White House did not list what site that was.
I'm not sure exactly how we score this, but it does seem to me that the number of attacks that have been carried out in Madrid, London, and elsewhere in the world surely ought to figure into that "top ten list" somehow. Additionally, if the real concern is to "act on credible evidence" - the reason to have all this NSA wiretapping without warrants - how about the "big miss" of 2001 where our then national security adviser, now Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice said: "I believe the title was 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.' " Instead of spending billions of dollars for "defense" and listening in on other people's telephone conversations, how about reading their own inter-office memos?
Sleep tight, America.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Curiouser and Curiouser

I'm as relieved as I can be that the freshly released film version of "Curious George" does not include the scene in which George succumbs to the inhalation of ether.
"There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge." - Hunter S. Thompson
I suppose that goes double for a cute little monkey in the depths of an ether binge, but since George lacks a tail, that would make him an ape, right?
"The books are really irresponsible to me. It's sickening, really," said Robin Roth, managing editor of http://www.arkonline.com/, an animal welfare web site.
Start with the Caucasian, gun-carrying Man with the Yellow Hat venturing to Africa (imperialism alert!) to harvest wildlife for a zoo (animal repression alert!). Continue with George being unsupervised and allowed to smoke a pipe and huff ether (bad parenting alert!). There's that darn ether again.
This set me to thinking: What about Pinnochio? Wasn't he horribly mistreated too? All he wanted was to be a real boy, and he went through near biblical torment before it. Where's the web site devoted to the treatment of marionettes?
Here's some reality for you: The Curious George books were primarily the work of the husband-and-wife team of H.A. and Margaret Rey, German Jews who escaped France with the first book's manuscript as the Nazis invaded. Please form groups and discuss the subtext potential amongst yourselves. Compound this with the release of the remake of "King Kong" the same year and now ask why these competing tales of the attempt to domesticate a wild ape have appeared at the same time in our current political landscape. No fair making the easy reference to our president's chimp-like appearance or mannerisms.
On top of all this speculation, add the "man in the Yellow Hat" and "Curious George" to a bit of Swedish film-making, and don't you end up with "I Am Curious Yellow?" The story concerns Lena, aged twenty, who wants to know all she can about life and reality. Nudity, explicit sex, and controversial politics kept this film from being shown in the US while its seizure by Customs was appealed.
Certainly, this can all be dismissed as coincidence - but aren't you just the least bit curious?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Grate One

I am troubled by the revelations that Wayne Gretzky knew about his wife's "little gambling problem" (to the tune of $100,000 over the course of the last month and a half). "The Great One," as he has been known, was recorded on a wiretap talking to the alleged financier of a gambling ring, discussing how the hockey great's wife could avoid being implicated.
Wayne didn't place any bets, according to the investigation.
For history's sake, remember that Wayne began his career as the star of the Edmonton Oilers hockey franchise one of the few holdovers from the WHA that survived the transition to the NHL. In 1988, after breaking most of the existing records in organized hockey, Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. "The Trade," as it came to be known, upset Canadians to the extent that New Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis demanded the government block it, and Pocklington was burned in effigy. Gretzky himself was considered a "traitor" by some Canadians for turning his back on his adopted hometown, his home province, and his home country; his motivation was widely rumored to be to further his wife's acting career.
Canadians - gotta love 'em, eh?
Now there are three California hockey franchises, and two in Florida, and one in Phoenix, Arizona coached and owned (in part) by Wayne Gretzky. Zamboni drivers below the 49th parallel celebrate this bit of news, but maybe it's just another sign of the coming apocalypse.
As far as the betting goes, it probably won't snake its way up to overwhelm the legacy of "The Great One" unless it turns out that he was betting and, heaven forbid, if he was betting on hockey. Then old number 99 will start having to hang out with Pete "Charlie Hustle" Rose at the next Wrestlemania.
This latest bit

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What's Good For You

Every lunch rush I ever worked at Arby's had one of these:
"I'd like a Super Roast Beef sandwich, two orders of potato cakes, um, an apple turnover and a large diet Pepsi."
The idea that diet soda of any brand be sold in any size beyond medium is completely beyond me. If you drink enough of this stuff, you just start to waste away. I'm guessing that a few drops of appetite suppressant or syrup of ipecac would close the deal a little more effectively - just mix it in with the Splenda, caramel coloring, and fizzy water.
What got me going on this was McDonald's announcement on Wednesday that its fries contain a third more trans fats than it previously knew, citing results of a new testing method it began using in December. Paint my face red and call me Ronald. So many people have pointed out the hyper-irony of posting "nutritional information" inside a McDonald's restaurant, it hardly seems worth mentioning again. Still, the Golden Arches folks are starting to use new packaging for its menu items that contain facts about their nutritional content. You ought to know that your Big Mac has nearly half your daily allowance of fat before you start to inhale it.
Ever since Morgan Spurlock made us all sick with "Super Size Me" there hasn't been as much joy in every Happy Meal. It's probably worth noting that a thirty day diet of anything would probably bring on some disastrous gastronomic distress. I'm very sure that when I walk into the house that Mr. Kroc built, I'm not expecting to leave feeling "nourished." I want to be comforted. Friends of mine complain periodically about the burgers at McDonald's - as hamburgers they don't exactly stack up to the charcoal grilled epitome of hamburgerness. They are hamburgerish - created to evoke the sensation of food and provide inert bulk with few active ingredients. I'm not expecting to get healthy there - I'm expecting to get full. When I need to eat healthy, I'll stay home where we've got carrots, and raisins, and wheat germ, and bean sprouts, and carob chips, and mango chutney....

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Where Are You, Chuck Jones?

"Cartoon Protests Turn Deadly."
Go ahead, make up your own visual image to go along with that one. I'll be here when you're ready.
Did yours have Mickey Mouse in it? Mine did. And Popeye. And Droopy Dog. The whole thing was reminiscent of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
Alas, what's going on these days across the globe is not anywhere near as cute or entertaining. Go looking for the cartoons in question and you might find something like this: "CNN has chosen to not show the cartoons out of respect for Islam." It becomes a little bit like a Thomas Pynchon novel when the images in question aren't available for comment - and the whole problem is that Islamic law forbids the depiction of Mohammad. The fact that the Danish newspaper printed them in the first place remains the source of most of the furor, and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "Neither the Danish government nor the Danish nation as such can be held responsible for drawings published in a Danish newspaper," after meeting with Muslim envoys in Copenhagen.
Why apologize when you can beat the free speech drum? Afghan police shot dead four people protesting on Tuesday. Iran's best-selling newspaper has launched a competition to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust in retaliation.
Now don't you wish we could go back to Bugs and Daffy waving signs about "Rabbit Season" and "Duck Season?"
Let's wander back a few years to a less tolerant time in our own history here in the United States. We haven't always been so fond of "free speech" ourselves. Way back in 1987, a photograph entitled "Piss Christ" was unveiled. It is a controversial photograph by American photographer Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. Some have suggested that the glass may also contain the artist's blood. The piece was underwritten by the United States National Endowment for the Arts, which offers support and funding for projects that exhibit artistic excellence. The photo has been the object of much debate and outrage. There has been a collage displayed of the Virgin Mary constructed, in part, of elephant dung. In a discussion of the controversy, art historian Michael Davis notes: "Actually, the Virgin is no stranger to artistic controversy. Because we know so little about the historical woman Mary and nothing of her appearance, opponents of religious art in the early Christian church argued that any image of 'Mary' bore no relation to reality, but resembled instead a pagan idol." Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (who announced that the city would cut its funding to the Brooklyn Art Museum unless the museum canceled the exhibition) said "The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick."
All of this leads me back, inevitably, to a Monty Python skit in which Michelangelo and the Pope are going 'round and 'round about the "first draft of the Last Supper." It ends something like this:
Pope: Look! The last supper is a significant event in the life of our Lord, the penultimate supper was not! Even if they had a conjurer and a mariachi band. Now, a last supper I commissioned from you, and a last supper I want! With twelve disciples and one Christ!
Michelangelo: One?!
Pope: Yes one! Now will you please tell me what in God's name possessed you to paint this with three Christs in it?
Michelangelo: It works, mate!
Pope: Works?
Michelangelo: Yeah! It looks great! The fat one balances the two skinny ones.
Pope: There was only one Redeemer!
Michelangelo: Ah, I know that, we all know that, what about a bit of artistic license?
Pope: A one Messiah is what I want!
Michelangelo: I'll tell you what you want, mate! You want a bloody photographer! That's you want. Not a bloody creative artist to crease you up...
Pope: I'll tell you what I want! I want a last supper with one Christ, twelve disciples, no kangaroos, no trampoline acts, by Thursday lunch, or you don't get paid!
Michelangelo: Bloody fascist!
Pope: Look! I'm the bloody pope, I am! May not know much about art, but I know what I like!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Lock and Load

First of all, many apologies for all of you loyal blogophiles who came here over the past few days searching, alas, in vain for Friday and Saturday's posts. They were not necessarily representative of my best work, one was about my favorite piano players and their best piano playing moments. The other was a mild rant about urban living, only to be recanted the very next day when it turned out that I just needed to get some rest and stop grousing about every little thing. Still, maybe someday when I am an overpriveliged man of leisure, resting on my creative laurels, I will happily let fly with a bootleg CD of "the Missing Posts."
That being said, let's move on to today's news: "Big guns coming to Lawrence Lab." Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory plans to install high-powered machine guns over the next few months capable of hitting land vehicles or aircraft almost a mile away in the event of a terrorist attack. These things are the real deal - they simultaneously fire 7.6-millimeter bullets from six barrels at up to 4,000 rounds per minute, powerful enough to take down an enemy aircraft or helicopter.
There is a lot of plutonium at the lab, and we don't want anybody getting their grubby little metaphorical hands on it - since if they put their literal hands on it, they would probably immediately begin vomiting and all their hair would fall out.
Not that they're going to have a chance, since the Gatling guns should take care of anybody foolish enough to mess with the boys behind the gate. "A lot of people are willing to die if they can kill lots of Americans ... You want to make clear that when they come here to die (by attacking the lab), they die for a failure,"said Linton Brooks, head of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, a quasi-independent agency that oversees the nation's nuclear weapons complex for the U.S. Department of Energy.
It also couldn't hurt to have Arnold Schwarzenegger for your governor, at least when it comes to being properly armed. Still, to keep the plutonium safe, it's all good, right?
How about if you lived across the street from the lab, in a nice little suburban development? A local radio host said, "There's a bunch of half-million dollar homes up there." To which his partner replied, "Not anymore."
No worries, they tell us, since each of the Lab's "couple of hundred" security guards will be thoroughly trained in the use of the new weapons. There is absolutely no way that this could go horribly, horribly wrong - right?
How about removing the temptation? What if there was no plutonium to guard? Turns out, by pure coincidence, the lab is planning on bringing in more plutonium. In November, the Energy Department authorized the lab to increase its amount of stored plutonium to an amount exceeding 3,000 pounds -- enough for as many as about 300 nuclear bombs. Brooks defended the lab's continuing research on plutonium as essential to ensure that U.S. weapons scientists understand better what he characterized as the "nasty, ugly, complicated stuff with a metallurgy I don't pretend to understand." For the most part, I would agree - it all seems like nasty ugly stuff that I don't pretend to understand.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Up Side

Life is a series of opportunities to change your perspective. Yesterday morning, things looked pretty bleak. I was ready to put the house up for sale and move to Idaho or Montana - someplace where the trees aren't staked to the ground. I was full and overflowing with the pain of urban living.
Yesterday afternoon I went with my family up to Berkeley to watch a Cal Women's basketball game. I'm a sports fan, and always happy to lend my voice to the local university's cheering section - but this was a special day. It was elementary school day, and the lady that runs our sports program arranged for the girls on our basketball team to get tickets and go up to see the game. I went up with my wife and kid as some kind of chaperone, but it wasn't really necessary. There were five of us staff members (including a fifth grade teacher and most of our office staff) with the seven girls from the team.
The girls were amazed and impressed. I don't think any of them had ever made the trip over the hill from Oakland to visit the University of California campus. They made signs, they got bear-claw tattoos on their cheeks, they cheered, but most of all they watched. They watched the Cal Bears hang on to beat the Oregon Ducks 49 to 39. They watched two local girls, both Oakland high school products, lead the Bears in scoring. They watched the passing and the defense, and they watched the teamwork.
Would it have been different if "our team" hadn't won? Maybe a little, but yesterday I was reminded that I need to be there for these kids to show them opportunities when they come up. I have a lot of opportunities to introduce perspective.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Old Smoothie

As I was standing in the shower shaving this morning, I started thinking. When I first started shaving, I used to have an electric shaver. I never got fully certified with the electric, it seemed to chew my flesh as happily as it sheared my beard. For my eighteenth birthday, my father gave me a can of shaving cream, a razor, and a copy of "The World According To Garp" in a brown paper bag. I've been a blade man ever since.
For a long time, I used Edge - probably because the idea of a "foaming gel" appealed my artistic side. After college, I started buying Barbasol because you could get two or three cans of that for the cost of one can of Edge. It was more cost-effective, but not nearly as cool. All this time I had only one after shave: Old Spice. It was my father's smell - the smell of shaving. It stung like little else on the planet, but it was part of the ritual.
Then one morning, I happened to be watching the Today Show. This was long enough ago that Bryant Gumbel was still hosting. There was a discussion of morning ablutions, and Bryant offered up that he had taken up the practice of shaving in the shower to save time. This appealed to me greatly, as I have maintained a childhood fascination with efficiency and motion study that began with a viewing of "Cheaper By The Dozen." Frank Gilbreth Sr. demonstrated the sixty-second bath, lathering and rinsing each limb in succession and then moving on to the next without a wasted scrub or dub. Shaving in the shower would combine two dreary chores of personal hygiene and save water at the same time.
There I was, pulling the razor up under my chin with all these thoughts in my head, and a new voice appeared: "He's shaving against the grain!" I have watched parts of a great many episodes of "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy," and it seems no matter when I come in they're always hollering at some schlub who doesn't know how to shave with the grain of his beard. My wife has threatened to write to the Fab Five to have them come out and show me how to get my palette together, and most probably get me to spend more time, money and effort on my personal grooming. That would be fine with me, as long as they include the big screen television that they tend to leave along with their standard makeovers.
Then I was done. Shower off, check the towel for any tell-tale spots of shaving nicks or cuts - the kids at school are terribly alert to blemishes of any sort on their teacher. It is the nice thing about shaving - even when you mess it up, you get another shot real soon.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Mom went to the State of the Union, and all I got was...

"2245 Dead. How many more?"
That kind of talk can get you kicked right out of the State of the Union. Well, maybe not so much "talk" as "T-shirt." That's what Cindy Sheehan's shirt said last night when she was asked to leave, then arrested before G.W.P. Bush's speech. She was invited, given a ticket by her very own Congressperson (Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat from Marin County). Sheehan did appear to violate Title 40, Section 5104 of the United States Code, which prohibits displaying "a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement" on Capitol grounds.
In the interest of bi-partisan equal time, Beverly Young, the wife of Florida Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young, was removed for wearing a "Support the Troops" shirt in the gallery. Ms. Young says she was sitting in the front row of the House gallery last night when she was approached by someone who told her she needed to leave. She says she reluctantly agreed, but argued with several officers in an outside hallway.
Cindy Sheehan was also charged with unlawful conduct. Beverly Young was not. That might explain why Capitol Hill police dropped the charge early Wednesday. This is the most recent in a string of t-shirt imbroglio.
Is it okay to wear a t-shirt that says "Fire" in a crowded movie house? I know that at our elementary school we don't let kids wear whatever mildly amusing or offensive slogan they might care to on their t-shirts. We send them home, or have them wear their shirts inside out for the rest of the day. Are we limiting the kids' free speech? If there is a rule on the books that says you can't "bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement" in the United States Code, are we going to draw the line at outerwear? What about those tacky lapel flag pins, or the amazing array of ribbons for this or that cause?
The worst news in all of this? Sheehan's t-shirt will soon be out date.