Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Actions and Reactions

Let's start close to home: Today one of the girls in my class was suspended for pummeling another at recess. When I asked her about it later, she said, "I don't want to talk about it." As near as I was able to piece together, the conflict began as part of a four-square game. I tried to understand, but it just didn't make a whole lot of sense - especially without some further explanation.
Elsewhere in the world, a preliminary military inquiry found evidence that U.S. Marines killed two dozen Iraqi civilians in an unprovoked attack in November, contradicting the troops' account, U.S. officials said on Wednesday. This wasn't about a four-square game. A defense department official said, "Bad things happened that day, and it appears Marines lied about it."
Continuing our trot across the globe, we find roaming bands of youths fired sling shots, threw rocks and hacked rivals with machetes. Australian army medics treated a man who suffered head and back wounds after being attacked with a machete. At least eight people were hospitalized with machete wounds, and three of them were in critical condition, a hospital official said. Australia and New Zealand make up the bulk of the security forces trying to stabilize the city of Dili, where pro-independence factions fight those more loyal to Indonesia. "The prime minister should go," Rebel leader Major Alfredo Reinado told The Associated Press by telephone from a rebel outpost in the hills surrounding Dili. "Why doesn't he just leave? Do more people need to be killed?" I'm reasonably certain that his question was rhetorical.
Back home in the fourth grade, consequences are swift and direct. Hit a kid and get sent home. Maybe it makes more sense than I know.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Win Friends and Influence People

Fourth graders are supposed to be able to write persuasive letters. In the beginning of the year I teach them that if they are very clever, they can get free stuff. A couple of my students were able to wring a few stickers and a book cover out of the Oakland Raiders. A few more wrote to See's Candies and were sent information about factory tours as well as a few free samples of their caramel suckers. An even larger group wrote to Jelly Belly and came away with a bag of jelly beans and a "recipe book" for mixing certain flavors to get mixes like S'mores or Margarita. For the price of a stamp.
This year is winding down, so I trotted out one of my favorite lessons: Write a persuasive letter explaining "Why I should pass fourth grade." It's always a bit of an eye-opener, starting with the spelling of "forth grade." Still, there are always some gems:
"I'm not really good at long division or 3-digit multiplication. Look on the bright side - I'm great in spelling, language arts and comprehension."
"I want to pass fourt grade because I will go on with my life to get a job."
"If you don't pass me I might be in your class again, so that's why you should pass me."
"I made a promise to try to learn and to try to be smart for my family. I'll do it! This is my dream, my life, my responsibility."
I have three weeks left with this group, and I think I'll pass everyone - everyone who bothered to turn in the assignment, that is.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Mind if I crash on your couch?

Memorial day and memories - a combination that's as American as - well, Memorial Day. Something about a three day weekend gets one reflective, I suspect. On your standard-issue two-day weekend, you have just about enough time to catch your breath and get ready to do the week all over again. Three days makes it easy to drift just a little.
I got a phone call from my Manhattan buddy. He had just watched "Running Scared" on DVD - the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines buddy movie from 1986, not the more recent mess with Paul Walker (or any of the other half-dozen or so films with the same title). He was feeling a little wistful for the "old days" when buddy movies were a little less formulaic, and when we were going out to see those buddy movies together. Because we were buddies. This was the film that introduced me to "clinking" donuts (or anything else that wasn't a glass, for that matter) to make a toast. This was a movie that featured a guy who wore a Cubs jersey and had a Battlezone arcade game in his living room. This was a movie with the line: "One of these days we both have to find women at the same time." This was a movie in which the two main characters want to leave their jobs and move to Key West to open a bar together.
I have a hard time remembering another movie that resonated so soundly with me in my twenties. Now that I'm in my forties, I pine for those days just a little. I have a Nintendo game that simulates Battlezone, and I still wear my Cubs jersey from time to time - but I don't stay up all night trying to remember the name of the Cars' keyboardist (Greg Hawkes). I don't laugh the way I did back then - at least not as hard and as often.
Bottom line: I'm lucky because I still have buddies that think I'm that funny, and I still laugh just as hard at what they've got to tell me. I'm glad because they still think of me sometimes, and when I think of them, I smile.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sneezing Food

"I can't believe I threw up in front of Dean Wormer."
"Face it Flounder, you threw up on Dean Wormer." - Flounder and D-Day in "Animal House"
I mention this piece of wisdom about regurgitation because it happened to come up last night - along with the rest of the contents of my son's stomach. At three in the morning. Throwing up is kind of like an earthquake. There's never a good time for it to happen, and you kind of have to hope that you'll be awake enough to deal with it when the time comes.
As a parent I feel very lucky for the relatively few times I have had to answer the sound of the puke train. Last night was a regrettable combination of too much root beer, candy, ice cream and oh did I mention he finished off the second half of his hamburger at about ten thirty just before he climbed into bed? It should come as no particular surprise to anyone that the eruption occurred. The surprise might be that it took as long as it did to roil to the surface.
After parking the kid at the toilet, mother and father set about the task of hazmat cleanup. We were pretty solid for three in the morning, and it was only after ten minutes or so that we remembered to check in on the boy. We peeled his pajamas off and toweled him off for a night's rest on the couch - next to a just-in-case bucket.
It was at this point that my wife made the observation that unfortunately just after chow has been blown, the attention goes to the barf, not the barfer. Contain, isolate, remove, clean. Otherwise we all run the risk of yakking just from the sights and smell. It's a pretty good thing that most of the time we see the backs of people's heads when the lunch starts to reverse. I have been that nice guy/friend who held girls' hair as they prayed to the porcelain god. The sound is awful, but on a couple of very specific occasions I have stared into the face of vomit and lived to tell the tale.
Given the amount of drinking that happened in and around me back in the day, the fact that I only had two people throw up on me seems a little like a gift. Not that a great many people didn't throw up in my presence, but seeing someone's eyes go wide just before the spray is something that you don't forget. It's a bonding experience that embarrassment won't allow you to acknowledge in polite company, but it's a level of intimacy that very few of us share. Your innermost - well - fluids.
When the morning comes, it's back to normal. My son wanted to know why he couldn't have a soda at the movies today. Sorry son, it's still just a little too fresh for me still.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

News for the Attention Span-Impaired

I don't usually get to ride out a news wave. Most mornings I am in my classroom before eight o'clock, and unless the local "World Class Rock" station is leading with current headlines as opposed to traffic and "American Idol" results, I might not know what really important thing happened in the world until I came home and watched it on the eleven o'clock news. Sometimes I grab a look at the top stories before I check my e-mail at noon, but most days the outside world does not intrude.
Friday morning was a holiday - well, a manufactured one anyway. It was "In Lieu of Lincoln's Birthday" Day (thank you, Oakland Educator's Association for finagling us this extra day at the end of the year). My alarm clock didn't go off, but my head still told me it was time to wake up at six forty-five. I lay there for half an hour and tried to find my way back to sleep. When that didn't work, I opted for another odd bit of luxury: morning television. I flipped around the dial and discovered why it makes sense most days to go to work instead of relying on cable TV for an escape. I hadn't seen the episode of "Saved By The Bell: The College Years," but I decided to keep rolling around the dial until I found something just a notch more diverting. Waitaminnit - what's this? CNN says there is gunfire at the Capitol. Breaking News! Now we're talking!
I watched the static shot of the Capitol Dome with the reporter's voice crackling over the phone line, describing the chaos and confusion. They were in lockdown, and everyone in the building was to be detained and questioned. The anchor reminded me at least a half-dozen times in thirty minutes that "in this post-9/11 world, we have to take every threat seriously." There was another shot, this time from down near the parking garage where the shots were reported, but we were cautioned that there were no reliable reports of suspects, victims, or fatalities.
My remote finger started to get itchy. If it were really news, wouldn't everyone have it? Fox did. One of the local stations had switched to CNN's feed. This was starting to smell like a real panic. The Today Show was on tape delay from earlier this morning, and they hadn't broken in to their anticipation of Jimmy Buffett's appearance to tell us of any breaking news.
New Jersey Representative Jim Saxton heard what he thought were gunshots and had a member of his staff call Capitol Police. On high alert, police lined the street between the Capitol and the Rayburn building, rifles prominently displayed, and four ambulances, two fire trucks and other emergency vehicles were on the scene. Police methodically searched the sprawling building, where congressional staff members had locked themselves into their offices as a precaution. In the end, it turned out it was just "construction noise" that startled congressman Saxton.
For this I missed Jimmy Buffett mixing up Margaritas for Katie and Matt?

Friday, May 26, 2006

What I Believe

President Pinhead believes he may had made a mistake when back in July 2003, the tough-talking Texan responded to a question about the emerging Iraqi insurgency by saying "bring 'em on." Steve Martin once suggested "...I believe I made a mistake when I bought a 30-story, one-bedroom apartment." Hey, we all make mistakes, right?
I suppose the right thing to do here would be to appear gracious and appreciate his 20-20 hindsight. At a joint news conference with his personal English Lapdog Tony Blair, after three years of war that has killed more than 2,400 Americans and thousands of Iraqis, Bush said that remark was "kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong message to people." Somewhat in the same vein as "Mission Accomplished" - that was three years ago too.
More from Steve: "And I believe that the "Battle of the Network Stars" should be fought with guns." Again, pretty tough talk from a guy who got his start making funny balloon animals at Disneyland. Wait a second - Steve Martin is a comedian. George P.H. Bush is nominally the leader of the free world. He also cited the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal as "the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq ... We've been paying for that for a long period of time," he said. Suddenly this guy is awash in humility and retrospection.
Steve again: "And I believe that Ronald Reagan (George W. Bush) can make this country what it once was: an arctic region, covered with ice."
Said Bush: "Listen, I want our troops out -- don't get me wrong. I understand what it means to have troops in harm's way ... But I also understand that it is vital that we do the job, that we complete the mission."
Okay, which one is supposed to be funny?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Here Is The News

I don't want to get into any trouble here, but I suppose I owe it to my readers to come clean here: I wasn't a virgin when I got married. I had considered this a distinct possibility all the way into my senior year in high school. Again, I wasn't the one making the choice for celibacy. This choice was made by the girls that I dated.
By the time I was a senior, I could recite the various choruses of the "Just Good Friends" speech from memory and I was well on my way to earning my merit badge in abstinence. I was not, as I have mentioned here before, much of a "closer." As I type this, I am listening to Meat Loaf sing "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and marveling at the operatic scope of the back seat tango:
"I remember every little thing
As if it happened only yesterday
Parking by the lake
And there was not another car in sight
And I never had a girl
Looking any better than you did
And all the kids at school
They were wishing they were me that night"
In my junior year, I was driving my friends around, picking up their girlfriends, and heading up to a secluded corner or Boulder for them to bump uglies while I stared straight ahead. I fiddled only briefly with the knobs on the stereo, and at some point I might be asked to hold somebody's watch or glasses. I didn't look in the rearview mirror because I didn't want to see what I was missing.
It fit in well with the carefully crafted nerd persona that I had established over the past decade. I had several dates that year, but in hindsight I can see how the chance for slap and tickle evaded me. They were primarily "event dates" - school dances that required a certain measure of decorum. I know that there were kids having sex before, during and after the Homecoming Dance, but not if it was their first date. Making that smooth transition from "How about some punch?" to "Whaddya say we check out the upholstery in my Vega?" was never clear to me. I blamed it on the fact that I had been sick on the day in junior high school that the boys were shown "that film" and the girls were shown whatever it is that girls were shown.
Was I bitter? Terribly. Did it stop me from driving my friends around town for their regular make-out sessions? No - I didn't want them to think any less of me. I'm a nice guy.
I was a nice guy until the spring of my senior year. My girlfriend and I had been dating for four months. It was her birthday when we decided that maybe it would be okay if I wasn't such a nice guy for just a little while. I remember that "2000 Light Years From Home" was playing in the background, and then KOAQ (103 on your FM dial) went to news. Somewhere in there I misplaced my virginity. One door opened, and another closed. I lost my "loser" cred forever.
"Cause we were barely seventeen
And we were barely dressed" -Meat Loaf

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Hey! Guess what's up in America's Dairyland? Wisconsin's governor signed a bill on Tuesday that says Sex education teachers must present abstinence as the preferred behavior for unmarried people. I know why this strikes me funny. It's because I have a nine year old son who is still firm in the conviction that all girls except his mother will give him cooties unless he takes undue caution and preparation.
I also remember, with some mild shame, when I was a sophomore in high school and was swept up in a semester of giggling and snickering as the reproductive cycle of human beings was laid out for all us uninitiated (read: those of us in band). Teaching me about how a man and a woman would "make whoopee" at the fragile age of sixteen seemed a little like teaching that same person how to operate a motor vehicle. It was an all consuming thought for hours and days at a time (driving and having sex, alternately to start). Listening to anyone over the age of twenty-one talk about it just made me laugh. Still does.
Here's the funniest part: "The governor thinks that abstinence should be an important part of the message that kids hear from adults as part of their classes," spokesman Dan Leistikow said. We're going to tell you where the ignition is, and the turbocharger, how to make a left turn onto a one way street, and parallel park. Then we're going to ask that you forget about it until you are married. I don't know about you, but I practiced abstinence in my teens primarily because it was somebody else's choice - not mine.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


"Elvis is everywhere - he's in your cheeseburgers! Elvis is in Nutty Buddies!" - Mojo Nixon
We've all known this for some time, but it's only recently been okay to acknowledge this fact. CKX Inc. took control of Elvis Presley Enterprises last year, and Robert F.X. Sillerman wondered aloud in a recent interview with The New York Times if the company should do something about "unauthorized Elvis impersonators."
So just who is Robert F.X. Sillerman and why should he care who has a curling upper lip or a penchant for jumpsuits designed by Bob Mackie? Mr. Sillerman is the chancellor of Southampton College and serves as Mel Brooks’ unpaid real estate advisor for the East End of Long Island. He is also the founder and former executive chairman and controlling shareholder of SFX Entertainment, Inc., the world’s largest producer, promoter and presenter of live entertainment. His musing on a hypothetical question sent a ripple of fear through the Elvis Impersonator community.
Up until now, the business concerns of the Presley estate have been focused largely on the heart-shaped "Love Me Tender" pillows and "Fat Elvis/Skinny Elvis" stamp imbroglio. The "tribute artists" were, for the most part, left alone. "It's entertainment, which has traditionally been accorded a wide scope of protection," said Roberta Kwall, a DePaul University law professor and specialist on publicity rights.
Matt Lewis, an impersonator who has toured the world and now performs 12 times a week at the Imperial Palace casino in Las Vegas, says CKX would be hurting itself if it went after Elvis acts. "We get new fans all the time, which sells merchandise, sells CDs, which promotes Elvis' name. People don't go out and buy my T-shirt after the show — they get an Elvis T-shirt somewhere."
"If it comes down to somebody saying you can't wear that wig or you can't wear that shirt or you can't sing that song, that will upset a lot of people," Michael Hoover, a professional Elvis impersonator said. "You would see some really serious reaction from the impersonators."
"Elvis is a perfect being.We are all moving in perfect peace and harmony towards Elvisness
Soon all will become Elvis. Everything everywhere will be Elvis." - Mojo Nixon

Monday, May 22, 2006

Viva Knievel!

There was a year or so when I thought that I might like to be Evel Knievel. That was back in the seventies, when I learned to drive my older brother's Kawasaki Trail Boss. With a full one hundred cubic centimeters, the engine was a good deal more impressive than the mini-bike my friend rode around the block. I can remember the blustering around the front porch of our cabin, as the older boys from the hills dropped by to argue the merits of their Yamaha, or their Honda. I did not know that Yamaha made guitars, and those little cars were Hondas. These were motorcycles, and in my eyes inferior to the Trail Boss. Mr. Knievel drove a Harley Davidson. It would be many more years until someone opened my eyes to the difference between cubic centimeters and good old American cubic inches - but that's another story for another time.
In 1971, I went to see Evel's life story on the big screen. I had already seen the motocross documentary "On Any Sunday" and was ready for the next big thing. Evel Kneivel was that. Played in the film by George Hamilton at his most tan, we are given this introduction to the spirit of this American hero: "Ladies and gentlemen, you have no idea how good it makes me feel to be here today. It is truly an honor to risk my life for you. An honor. Before I jump this motorcycle over these 19 cars - and I want you to know there's not a Volkswagen or a Datsun in the row - before I sail cleanly over that last truck, I want to tell you that last night a kid came up to me and he said, "Mr Knievel, are you crazy? That jump you're going to make is impossible, but I already have my tickets because I want to see you splatter." That's right, that's what he said. And I told that boy last night that nothing is impossible."
Steve McQueen was cool, but this guy had a sense of showmanship and a death wish that walked hand in hand to the rim of the Grand Canyon, and then...
Well, Evel never did jump the Grand Canyon. In 1974 he didn't even make it over the Snake River Canyon in his jet-powered rocket-cycle. He just went mostly straight up, then came crashing back down to earth. And that's pretty much where he's been ever since. We all got our chance to see him splatter - for the last thirty years. But the folks in Butte, Montanta welcome their hometown hero back every July for Evel Knievel Days. I haven't driven a motorcycle since I moved to California, but I think I could still do it. Evel can't. He's sixty-seven and he's dying. He's dying from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis - not from the stroke, diabetes or forty broken bones he received during his career as "the last gladiator in the New Rome."
There aren't many days that I would want to be Evel Knievel anymore, but I'm glad that there used to be.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


I had forgotten how awful May was until I saw it last week on the faces of my colleagues. There were a pair of teachers sitting around the staff room last Wednesday, staring off into space, waiting for our meeting to begin. They wondered what was going to happen next. The standardized testing was finished, and there was still a month left of school.
"What do we do now?" They asked me.
I stopped, considered, and drew on my almost-a-decade of experience in the classroom: "We play out the string." I knew exactly why they were perplexed. I knew why they were depressed. We have all been at this education thing for nine months, we had just taken our "finals," and we were still looking at more than a month left. If the kids didn't get it yet, how could we save them before the middle of June?
The kids, on the other hand, have a solid sense of completion. They may not vocalize it, but they know the year is over. Some of the scariest behavior on the playground can be seen in the month of May. The stress that builds in the school as a whole during standardized testing peaks as they finish filling in their last bubble. For the first time this year, I have students asking me, "Mister Caven, will I pass fourth grade?"
Truth is, most of mine will be moving on. A month from now. One long, value-added, crisis-riddled, hypertensive month. Then I'll be back for summer school. For now, let's take out our books and review: April may be the cruelest month, but May isn't exactly a garden party either.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dead Dads Club

I was awakened early one morning by the phone. As a teenager, I was reluctant in the extreme to drag myself out of my bed, across the bedroom, and answer it. The voice on the other end asked for Donald Caven, and I told them that he wasn't home (otherwise I would have been saved the indignity of rising in the pre-noon hours to answer this call) - I was his son. The voice told me it was coming from a retirement home in Salina, Kansas and it gave me the message that Donald Caven's father, my grandfather had died during the night. I mumbled thanks to the voice and headed back to bed. An hour or two later, I heard my father come in the front door. I dragged myself back out of bed to the bottom of the stairs and hollered up:
"Yes, son?"
"Ira kicked the bucket." And I went back to bed.
I make no excuses for my callousness. I only offer as explanation that my family has always maintained a rather cynical distance from death. We make light and dance on the edge of gravesides, not unlike John Belushi in "Don't Look Back In Anger." Our behavior during the mourning period for my father must have struck many as troubling. What was all this snickering and guffawing? I have made a certainty of those closest to me making light of me when I shuffle off this mortal coil.
And that's okay. I talked to my father some years after I shouted at him from the bottom of the stairs and told him that I regretted being so callow and unfeeling. Beneath his goofy exterior, my father was quite the marshmallow. He cried each and every time he heard "Stars and Stripes Forever" or "Amazing Grace." He hugged and kissed his sons well past the time that they were squirming and wiping them off. It's not like we were emotionally distant.
We laugh in the face of Death - or to be more precise, we tend to walk up to Death and point to a spot on his robe. "Hey Death, what's that?" When he looks down, we flick him in that black space where his nose should be - gotcha!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Doe! A Deer (a female deer)

Students at Southern Illinois University have more to worry about this spring than final exams and military recruiters on campus. They are on the lookout for killer deer. The fawning season is upon them, and if last year is any indication, they should be extra cautious. Seven people were threatened or injured by female deer last year.
"Before last year, no one really had heard of this sort of thing," says Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at the university. Nielsen believes different deer were responsible for the three attacks that sent Emery and at least three others to the hospital, mostly with minor injuries.
"It wasn't like it was one crazy animal," Nielsen says. The victims were unable to pick the offending doe out of a lineup, and no arrests were made.
A combination of protective motherly instinct, and squeezed habitat are probably most responsible for the attacks. Campus officials are using signs, radio spots, e-mails and fliers about the deer. Some might consider this species profiling, but it is just standard operating procedure for the folks at SIU. Their mascot is the Saluki. Salukis are dogs used by the Bedouins for hunting hare and gazelle. Maybe the deer are threatened by the encroachment of all of these "sighthounds" and they fear for the safety of their children. Perhaps they would be less concerned if they were surrounded by the "Cuddly Bunnies" of Southern Illinois University. The deer are probably trying to shake that whole "Bambi" rep. "When they're mad, they're vicious. They're not the pretty creatures they were to me before," said one of the women who survived a vicious attack from one angry doe. After years of being the punchline to "Bambi Meets Godzilla," the deer have decided to fight back. Astronauts may someday find themselves flung forward in time and crash land on a planet run by super-intelligent deer - this may be the dawning of The Planet of the Deer.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Guilt Cycle

I found some irony in starting this entry, as I looked for some outward confirmation that today was, in fact, National Bike to Work Day. The Bay Area and most of California seems to be squarely behind the notion that May eighteenth is the day, while other locales such as Houston and Minneapolis assert that Friday is the day to pedal to the office (or the factory, construction site or coffee bar).
Regardless of the date, most of the items posted are quick to cite the high price of gas as the best reason to leave your car at home. I would agree with that - for a start. Then you can start making a list: reduction of greenhouse gases, the comparative expense of maintaining a bike versus a car, bike insurance is not a requirement, aerobic exercise, stress release, and a magnified sense of well-being. Riding your bike to work can be a real self-esteem bonanza.
I started riding my bike to work when I became a teacher back in 1997. I've been riding the same two and a half mile route for nine years, five days a week, with the very occasional switch to a car when I have a flat or there's a plague of frogs falling from the sky. Mostly I just put on the rain pants and gut it out. It is, after all, only a ten minute ride.
For me, Bike to Work Day is every day. There were an estimated one hundred thousand commuters expected to take part in today's Bay Area pedal-palooza. And I know that I am not alone. 73-year-old Colin Beard of Palo Alto took the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's prize as Santa Clara County's bicycle commuter of the year. Beard's co-workers at Roche Laboratories nominated him for cycling to his job at Stanford Business Park every day for the past 40 years, rain or shine. Colin's got a little jump on me, but I'm hoping to catch up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Dream Within A Dream

Paul McCartney and his wife, Heather Mills, are splitting up. I know this seems confounding, but it can all be blamed on the media. The couple said the constant attention had made "it increasingly difficult to maintain a normal relationship." Said the former model and former Beatle. I wonder what either one of them had in mind when they were imagining this "normal relationship."
I've been married for a while now - long enough that it isn't cute anymore to try and figure out which arbitrary gift we are supposed to give each other to mark the passing year. I think we're about to have our "pocket lint" anniversary. Pocket lint aside, I wonder if it would be appropriate to blame the media for the relative success of our marriage, since it seems to be quite normal. We laugh at each other's jokes, and we try not to bring our daily stress back to the dinner table. Sometimes I wish that she would clean the hair out of the drain when she's finished with a shower (it's been an awfully long time since that was my fault). She periodically becomes agitated at the plodding and methodical pace of my life. We have different styles, different modes of operation. She's from Venus. I'm from Mars. Or at least that's what the book she made me read says. We make money and we spend it. We make food and we eat it. We make love and we fall asleep. I'm sure the media would only mess that up.
Here's a little reminder for Paul: You were married to Linda for twenty-nine years, until death did you part. That's an extraordinarily tough act to follow. A friend of mine finalized his divorce this week after separating several years before. They didn't want to rush into the whole divorce thing. The magic was that they got along better, became world-class parents, and stayed clear of public spectacle. The whole lawyer thing was merely an afterthought.
Every so often, when marriage is chafing like a pair of new shorts, I reflect on just how ridiculous it is to maintain a relationship. It takes tremendous effort to move through life in tandem. The slightest variation can send the whole contraption whirling into chaos. Alone you only have yourself to rely on or to blame. As slimy divorce lawyer (too redundant?) Gavin D'Amato in the film "War of the Roses," Danny DeVito suggests "If love is blind, getting married is like having a stroke." This would be highly ironic coming from Mr. DeVito, who maintains a marriage of twenty-four years (he and Rhea Pearlman have lived together since 1970). Maybe it's not the press at all. Maybe it's just incredibly different to do the wedding dance for every human being. Cranes and beavers and wolves and hundreds of other species all mate for life. Perhaps not this particular Beatle.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


My fourth grade class is hip-deep in a story right now about advertising - specifically television advertising. Among the many points raised for discussion in the story is this little factoid: The average TV viewer sees approximately twenty thousand commercials every year. This is a fairly round number that seems to be backed up by some research, so we decided to do some math with it. First, we assumed that most of the ads we saw were probably of the thirty-second variety (though a few of my students professed an appreciation for the occasional infomercial). That put us at ten thousand minutes a year watching commercials.
Wanting to push the point still further, I asked if anyone could tell me how many hours that would be. When we divided our ten thousand by sixty, we got one hundred and sixty-six hours (and a little bit of change). I still wasn't satisfied, so I asked how many hours there were in a day, "Twenty-four? How many days would that be?" Turns out to be just a little shy of seven days. I told my class that they could look forward to watching one week of commercials this year.
They were not excited at the prospect. A bunch of them wanted to tell me that they never watched the commercials (fourth graders lie about a lot of things) and they were not the least bit affected by the advertising that did make it through their considerable defenses. To this I responded by writing the phrase "Is it in you?" on the board. Before I turned around, three students shouted "Gatorade!" So much for the avoidance theory.
When it was all said and done, I told them that I wanted them to watch half an hour of television for homework, and I will be surprised if I get a phone call from a parent on that one. I asked them to keep track of the number of commercials they see in the course of one program. When I'm done here, I think I'll be doing some homework as well.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Farewell to Flutie

I'm not sure how I'm going to break the news to my wife. The only football player she ever really cared about is retiring from the sport. After twenty-one years of professional football, Doug Flutie is packing it in. I don't expect everybody to have the same feeling that my wife (or I) have about this news, but it is significant for this reason: My wife is an extraordinarily good sport about sports. She has suffered through my fixation on baseball, hockey, the occasional basketball game, and most significantly collegiate and professional football.
At the end of each August, we bid each other a fond adieu, safe in the notion that we will see each other again after the Pro Bowl. She has become profoundly more tolerant of the endless hours of football that is watched in her house. She started to get the rhythm of college Saturdays and pro Sundays. She understood that there would be frequent Monday night contests that required my attention. Then they started sneaking in Thursday evening college games. And Sunday Night Football. The moments in each week that the television was football free became few and far between.
She has always enjoyed the "human side" of the sport. She shared John Elway's pain when she heard the story of the years that he had struggled on the brink of a World Championship, only to be turned away one more time. She understood why I cried when number seven finally got his ring. She will also find some connection to an interesting name - she was intrigued by "Wolfork" and "Klopfenstein" on the University of Colorado team.
Then there was Doug Flutie. She came to the story pretty late. She had no memory of the hail Mary pass he threw to put lead College over Miami or his subsequent Heisman trophy. She didn't know that he played his first pro season for the USFL's New Jersey Generals, owned by Donald Trump, then spent two seasons with the Chicago Bears and three with New England before starting his eight-year CFL career with British Columbia in 1990. He won three CFL Grey Cup championships. He came back to the NFL and played for Buffalo, San Diego, and finally New England. He passed for 14,715 yards and 86 touchdowns in 12 NFL seasons.
Now the story was getting good. I told her that he was the same age as me, and almost the same height (if you can believe the five-foot-ten on the program). That was all good, but the hook was the cereal. Doug Flutie put his face on "Flutie Flakes," frosted corn flakes that generated profits that were donated to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, created in honor of Flutie's autistic son. Good dad points there. She started asking me about her "Flutie Cutie" when football season rolled around. When I suggested that we might put together a fantasy football team, she had only one player she wanted to draft.
Last year, a season in which he played only sparingly, he made the first drop-kick for an extra point in the NFL for the first time in sixty-four years. "It's just been a fun run for me," Flutie said. "It's given me the great thrills. It's not a right to play professional football. It's a privilege, and especially in the NFL." Thanks Doug, now I have to start looking for another good story.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day

I have been present at the grand total of two births: my own and my son's. Since the memories of my own birth are sketchy at best, I have to rely on the experience I had on the morning that my son entered the world. These are my qualifications for writing about the miracle of birth.
First let me say that I have already had this discussion with my wife some years ago - much to my embarrassment and her chagrin. I consider myself a fairly clever person who holds both a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing and a Teaching Credential from the State of California. I have, periodically, studied hard and learned much to become the person I am today both personally and professionally. Now here comes the embarrassing part: I attended somewhere between three and seventy pre-natal classes with my wife before the birth of our son and the practical knowledge I retain from all of that schooling is approximately nil.
Early in the morning on May fourteenth, 1997 I drove my wife to the delivery room at Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, California. Let the record also show that after days of sleep deprivation, we had both managed to fall asleep for a few scant moments that night when the call to action finally came. It should also be noted that I had made this trip twice before for "false alarms" and was perhaps lulled into complacency. Then I did the stupid thing. I asked if I could please take a shower before we left so that I could be more awake for the drive. Hindsight is like x-ray vision on this one as I can examine every tiny detail of how wrong this idea was. Still, I took a fast shower and then drove us all up the hill to the hospital.
Here is where all that training and study would have paid off. I remembered where to park and what floor maternity was on, and then I start to lose track of the progression of events. I had spent days leading up to this moment preparing the soundtrack of the delivery, in careful consultation with the incipient mother. There were happy songs for this stage, then that stage would feature the droning sounds of didgeridoo, and would culminate in the joyous sounds of celebration, and maybe I'm forgetting one stage, oh yes that must have been transition.
Out here it all felt like a flurry and a blur and I want to believe that I was doing the right thing, especially when I was asked very clearly and directly by my wife to "please shut up." At that moment she had my trachea in her hand and I am sure that, had I not shut up, she would have crushed my windpipe.
Then it was over. My son came into the world and I lurched over to the tape player and changed to "Ode To Joy" followed immediately by "Born to Run." I changed my son's first diaper, kissed my wife - the mother of my son - and drove back down the hill through a very grey morning to make several thousand phone calls.
I think I did alright, given the relative health and happiness of both mother and child nine years down the road, but I that may be the reason it's called "the miracle of birth." It's a miracle that it all turns out so well when they let clowns like me in the delivery room.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Having a blog is, at times, like strapping a lightning rod to your forehead and grabbing your nine-iron to go play eighteen holes in an electrical storm. It's easy to have opinions and spout them off. I believe that Todd Rundgren is doing the music world a horrible disservice by tarnishing the memories we all have of the seminal New Wave band "The Cars." The fact that it is being called "The New Cars" and nobody else seems to like it much doesn't sway me. I have courage and faith in my convictions. It is what I believe.
"I believe that robots are stealing my luggage." - Steve Martin
Pop culture gets a pretty fair workout here on Entropical Paradise. I fully expect to hear back from someone about why I should give "The New Cars" a fair shake before I dismiss them out of hand. I might even get a comment about my decision to strap a lightning rod to my forehead, instead of carefully aligning it with my spine in some other fashion. These are, after all, opinions. Land of the Free, Home of the Brave and all that rot.
All of that is a run up to this one: I checked myself twice, then three times about this border patrol question. I don't generally receive two quick hits like I did last night, but I seemed to have twanged a nerve. As the moderator of some mild form of discourse, I felt the need to consider the alternatives. My ongoing concern about the immigration issue isn't about a need to control it, it is how we go about it. I have no issue with the weekend "Minuteman" sitting in his folding chair, waiting for those wily Canadians to sneak across into the wilds of Montana. I feel very differently about erecting a fence along our southern border. It has a faint smell of Berlin in 1961. Erecting a wall between the two sides of that city effectively decreased emigration (escapes - Republikflucht in German) from 2.5 million between 1949 and 1962 to 5,000 between 1962 and 1989. That would seem to be a pretty good model to follow if limiting emigration (escapes) is the stated goal.
Wait a second - wasn't that the Communists who built that wall? Didn't we always want them to tear it down, as it stood as a symbol of oppression? Maybe I'm missing something. As for the relative severity of the border patrols of Canada and Mexico, that seems like a no-brainer to me as well. Of course people want to flee an oppressive system, even if it is only on display in the enforcement of immigration. Read the history of the United States as a continuum instead of selectively and find that each new wave of immigration has caused doubt and fear.
Again, I don't know of anyone who is suggesting that we open the door and start handing out citizenship to the United States to anyone lucky enough to find themselves inside our borders. I am saying that I won't buy "The New Cars" CD.

Friday, May 12, 2006


I was having a discussion with a friend of mine the other day about America's won/loss record. Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War (perhaps a little ambiguous), Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II are all pretty much "wins." The Korean Conflict and Desert Storm show up as draws - we held the line at least. The Viet Nam Quagmire is a straight up loss. At this point, we've racked up a fairly respectable 6-2-1 record. Those are hall of fame numbers.
Unfortunately, in the past decade or two, we've started to pick abstract nouns for enemies. The Cold War was won without a single nuclear weapon detonated in anger (though a whole lot of them were built and tested and stored and then dismantled and tested some more). The war on Drugs has been a pretty solid waste of time, money and resources. The body count isn't particularly high unless one considers all the collateral damage done on either side. Drugs continue to be bought and sold on the streets of these United States, so this isn't an official result, and the combatants continue to make a show of it (US versus drugs). For all practical purposes, the War on Drugs began in November 1880, when the U.S. and China completed an agreement which prohibited the shipment of opium between the two countries. By February 1887, the 49th Congress enacted legislation making it a misdemeanor for anyone on American soil to be found guilty of violating this ban. Then in the 1930's, the marijuana scare banned possession and cultivation of cannabis.
That's seventy or one hundred and twenty-plus years of trying to work that one out. The War on Terror, or The Global War on Terrorism, or The Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism is in its fifth year, and the results look at least as encouraging as those when we were fighting against Narcotics. This one is a pretty dicey challenge, since the group we are fighting doesn't seem to coincide with any particular nation or uniform, just "extremism." We are not presently "winning" this one either.
This must be why President Pinhead is considering deploying National Guard troops along our nation's borders. This would finally give us a shot at having a discernible enemy again. That would be anybody but us. The Minutemen, a citizens' border patrol group, have vowed to begin erecting a fence in southern Arizona on May 27 unless Bush sends National Guard troops to the border.
Here's your quandary - if it was a choice between troops being deployed on our borders or enforcing the installation of New Democracy (tastes great, less filling!) in Iraq, which would you choose? Chances are we won't have that choice, but it makes one pine for the days of the Monroe Doctrine, doesn't it?
No matter, we're holding steady with a very respectable 7-2-2, and when we have the scores from that extremism thing and the border patrol, we'll make sure to pass those along.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Harpo Dog

The cult of personality has never been that appealing to me. I will invariably find fault with whomever I might set high upon a pedestal. Human beings have the tragic and usually fatal flaw of being human. I have tried to maintain a certain misty-eyed distance from people like Bruce Springsteen and John Elway. I am certain if I were to pay any more attention to them than I already have, that the illusion would be shattered and the bubble would burst. It's amazing to watch an entire city (more or less) go through that same kind of denial with Barry Bonds.
Who cares if he took steroids? Steroids don't affect hand eye coordination anyway. Babe Ruth drank beer during prohibition, and that was a banned substance. This is a stadium full of folks who are not aware that the rest of the planet is booing this man in every other city in which he appears at the plate.
Need a new semi-major-demigod? How about Oprah Winfrey? "She's a really hip and materialistic Mother Teresa," says Kathryn Lofton, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who has written two papers analyzing the religious aspects of Winfrey. "Oprah has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality." The Pope can't compete with that - when was the last time the Vatican gave away cars?
"She's a moral monitor, using herself as the template against which she measures the decency of a nation," Lofton says. This was made most apparent this past season on her show when she initially lauded James "A Million Little Pieces - Lies, Mostly" Frey, then just as abruptly brought him low with a very public tongue lashing (which wasn't nearly as sexy as it sounds). "I left the impression that the truth is not important," she said on the show. "I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe." Jamie Foxx and Ellen DeGeneres have both suggested (with varying levels of jest) that God might in fact be a black woman named Oprah. Claire Zulkey, 26, an Oprah follower who has written about Winfrey in her online blog at, says, "I think that if this were the equivalent of the Middle Ages and we were to fast-forward 1,200 years, scholars would definitely think that this Oprah person was a deity, if not a canonized being."
All that is well and good - but I think it's a real good thing that they don't test talk-show hosts for steroids.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The War Rages On...

Straight off the mark, I feel it is only fair that I let you know that in the world-wide schism that divides the planet between Beatles and Rolling Stones, I will almost certainly find myself on the side with John, Paul, George and Ringo. I could make my case for songwriting and cultural relevance, but at the end of the day it has more to do with the music that we were allowed to play at dinner at my house.
By the time we were teenagers, or on our way to becoming one, one of the three Caven boys would drag a record in from their rooms and ask that we listen to it during dinner. My mother generally had the radio in the living room tuned to KVOD, then Denver's classical music station - now "Denver's Jammin' Oldies." We knew that the audition process wasn't as difficult as we imagined it, but we also understood that my mother wasn't going to put up with any "language issues" or anything that rocked too heavily.
My mother was no music snob. She listened to just about anything that we brought home, appreciated it, and sometimes asked for more. I still send her music I think will she might like - and as a result I have created a Springsteen fanatic on a par with myself. That being said, I knew that Boston probably wouldn't get played, but Leon Redbone was a shoe-in. She was very patient. Elton John would get more play than Black Sabbath. And so it went. If you wanted to hear "kid music" at dinner, you had to pass muster. "Revolver" could be played with meat loaf, but "Sticky Fingers" couldn't. We were still clever enough not to try and get "The White Album" into the mix.
So I didn't get much of a chance to hear the Stones until I was getting satisfaction from my own stereo system. I got "Hot Rocks" and wore it out. "Some Girls" hit my high school like it was something brand new, and I had a college roommate who desperately wanted me to write a screenplay that would feature the songs from "Tattoo You." I'm still working on that screenplay, by the way.
Then there are the Beatles' albums. Aside from the attempts to repackage their ouvre, theirs is essentially finite. There are twelve of them (discounting hits, reissues, etc.). I find it hard to pick one to leave off the "desert island" list. They are the genetic material for pop music after 1962. Does that mean that I wouldn't try to sneak a little "Paint It Black" or "Gimme Shelter" into that mix? The Stones show up in my world as songs, not albums. They are the comic books, no, the graphic novels in my music library.
All of this is to say that I'm sorry to hear that Keith Richards hurt his head falling out of a palm tree or in a jet-ski accident. My remaining question would be, how do we judge "complete recovery" for Keith?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Entry 366

Now I have another way of marking time: I started this blog three hundred and sixty-five entries ago (with a bonus here and there to even things out). I've had something to ramble on about for one trip around the sun. My son is about to turn nine. My dog has lived through knee surgery and rehabbed to the point that she can go running with me once again. My wife has finished one book and moved onto another - and that's just writing them - she reads half a dozen books at a time. I'm stuck in the fourth grade, where my son is about to land. The big screen TV has finally found a home here in our living room. That would be the domestic front.
Out there in the world we still have an Austrian immigrant for a governor. The war in Iraq continues. The war in Afghanistan continues. The pinheads continue to rule the roost. There is finally drinkable water again in the Ninth Ward. Tom Cruise has a daughter. Don Knotts is only available in reruns. A Super Bowl and a World Series were played with no solid rooting interest on my part. I heard the Winter Olympics were fascinating. Bruce Springsteen is playing hillbilly music. Neil Young is still singing a protest song.
I've grown older. I've grown slower. I've grown smarter. I've grown. I'm writing everyday. I don't always have much to say, but I write anyway. Sometimes it just feels like I have a lot to say. I said what was on my mind, and tomorrow I'll do it again.
And you, dear reader - you're back again to see what's on my mind. Today it's a little karmic breath as I begin a new year. Thanks for checking in.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Come And Go With Me

On the way home today I tried to remember when I started thinking about "going with" a girl. The wiseacre in me always asked "where are you going?" but I seem to recall that the notion of having an actual relationship with a girl started creeping into my head in the sixth grade. That's not to say that the idea of "girlfriend" hadn't been swimming around in there for some years prior to that, but it was sixth grade when the politics of romance became real for me.
I was fortunate to grow up with some very good friends who happened to be girls, and one in particular became the object, initially of my other friends obnoxious taunting. "David and Heidi, sitting in a tree..." I told them to shut up, but part of me was very smug about the attention. This was during the second, third and fourth grades. By the time we all reached the fifth grade, sitting in a tree with someone started to seem mildly appealing. Maybe not the K-I-S-S-I-N-G, but definitely the sitting in the tree.
Fifth and sixth grade was when the threats of mashing lips started to disappear. Focused attention from a girl seemed like a really great idea - not that any one of us boys would admit it to each other. When we spoke to one another, we all agreed that girls were certainly harbingers of cooties and much worse, but I know most of us on the cusp of puberty were simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the opposite sex.
Oh, and that word: Sex. You might as well whack a twelve year old boy in the face with a poorly strung tennis racket if you want to stun him more than saying that word in polite conversation. The existence of another gender was frightening enough, but comprehending their relation to our own was beyond us. What would a twelve year old boy do with a twelve year old girl, given half a chance and a dark basement with parents out for the night? We had all heard that certain girls would let you see or touch or would in turn look at or touch your - or we all were pretty sure that it was true, because why would somebody lie about that, after all?
The only reason to "go with" someone was to give everyone else the perception that you knew what the heck you were doing when it came to the opposite sex (there it is again, tee-hee). There was some hand-holding. There was some making out for the truly advanced, but "going with someone" meant one thing primarily: You had to talk to that person endlessly about "going with" them. All other conversations ceased to have any relevance. If your girlfriend's hair was on fire, you might want to ask her how that would affect her interest in continuing to "go with" you, and if you were to help put out the flames, would it mean that you were still "going together?"
The other most important feature of "going with" anyone is the incessant need for reassurance from your friends and her friends that the two of you really, really like each other. You might pass a note in class to one of her friends. You might have one of your friends ask one of her friends at recess. Under no circumstances should you have this interaction directly between yourself and the object of your affections. The closest you are allowed to come is when the inevitable breakup occurs. "I thought you liked me," you can feel free to opine. How could this have all gone so wrong?
You were twelve.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

All You Can Eat, Carry, or Sell

We're rounding the clubhouse turn, and we're starting to smell the barn. This is my none-too-subtle reference to the end of the school year. It came on me all of a sudden this afternoon as we were cleaning up after our annual Dads' Club Pancake Breakfast. This one's in the can. Stick a fork in it, metaphorically, turn it over - it's done.
We start each year with the hopes of bringing new faces out to the Back To School barbecue in September. In October we gather together again to sell pumpkins for little or no profit, but we always have a shot at cleaning up the garden. This November we slipped in a new bit of fundraising that had us selling wrapping paper and scented soaps. After a little holiday respite, we're back to raising funds again, only this time we sell miniature pizzas and cookie dough. When that money is counted, we're ready for March and the Talent Show. April has us cleaning or constructing someplace to beautify or revitalized the school. Now it's May again and we're up at dawn getting ready all the sausages, eggs and pancakes that our community can hold down for only five dollars (three dollars for kids). Before the year is over, we'll have our little self-congragulatory celebration - patting ourselves on the back even as we start to count the days before we have to start counting burlap bags for the sack race next fall.
The rhythm of it amazes me sometimes. It has such a natural flow compared to the other side of my brain, the teacher side. Teachers don't have a continuum. Time runs out - eventually it always runs out. As a parent I follow the current from Kindergarten to First, First to Second, and the grades just stack up over time. I'll be planting trees in front of a middle school before you know it. But for now, we're putting our spatulas away and washing our aprons. File this one under 2005-2006, and we'll see you at the wrap party.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Special Widescreen Digitally Dismantled

It is May, right? So there's no chance of this being a clever bit of April Foolishness. It would seem that George Lucas is getting ready to release the original "Star Wars" on video. According to Variety, ""Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" will each be released in two-disc versions containing the original theatrical version along with the 2004 digitally remastered version. "
Well how about that? This is the same guy who told the world a few months back that we were going to have to get used to the "special editions" (now with even more Ewoks!), so stop your whining! There must have been a disturbance in the Force, or a rip in the fabric of the universe, because once again the world awaits the video release of "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope: They Can't Print Money Fast Enough For Me."
I have purchased "Star Wars '77" - "Star Wars Classic" - "American Graffiti With Light Sabers" no fewer than than three times: VHS, Laser Disc, and Special Edition DVD. I did the same thing with "Lord of the Rings" (all ninety-seven hours of it, eventually) and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The notion of a "definitive edition" has long since passed. There is another permutation of deleted scenes, commentary or bonus material to jam into a double-disc, triple-disc, quadruple-disc, google-disc (highest number of discs before infinity).
Truth is, I'm fine with this repackaging. It's as American as Cap'n Crunch. The part that gripes me is the ultimatum, then relenting at the expense of a fanbase. When I worked at a video store, I remember sharing with customers who asked about "E.T." coming out on VHS this story: Steven Spielberg once watched a pair of grown men struggle with the weight and size of one thirty-five millimeter print of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He was impressed with how much time and effort it took to get one movie into the projection booth. Supposedly, this is why he decided that he would never release his films on video tape.
"E.T." was rereleased in a "special edition" (that digitally left out the government agents' shotguns) in 2002. This is why they call it "show business." Coincidentally, this blog will soon be available in Dolby DTS with commentary by Jar-Jar Binks.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Pickin' and Grinnin'

First things first, I love the new Bruce Springsteen album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." There wasn't a huge doubt that I would find it at least moderately entertaining, but it was quite the revelation to hear Bruce hip-deep in hootenanny. Even so, when the second track "Jesse James" started up, I couldn't help but feel just a little wistful. There's a lot of banjo on that track. There's a lot of banjo on the album. Most of the time I agree with Steve Martin's assertion: "The banjo is such a happy instrument--you can't play a sad song on the banjo - it always comes out so cheerful. "
To prove his point, he starts to play a little riff and sings "Oh death, and grief, and sorrow and murder..." It's funny. The part of the banjo experience that tweaks my wistful button is the fact that my father longed to play it. After he died, we loaded a banjo in its case out of the mountain cabin where my father lived. Like so many things that eluded him, he just never had the chance or didn't make time or kept putting off learning how to play the banjo. It's just a little more sad because he would have been great at it - it would have been a perfect complement to his corny songs and stories. He took a lesson or two, but he never gave himself the chance to become a banjo player.
I had a guitar once. I had a notion that I would learn how to play window-rattling electric one day, but the right way to do it was to learn on an acoustic. My parents bought me this amazing steel string Martin and a beginner's book with chord diagrams. I learned a few chords and most of the song "My Beautiful Brown-Eyed Girl" and then I shoved it under my bed. I dragged it around with me through college - always with the idea that I would eventually pick it up and commence to strumming just like David Gilmour, or Bob Mothersbaugh, or maybe Bruce Springsteen. I took some solace in the fact that other guitar players I met looked at my fingers and shook their heads. "How can you play with big ol' fingers like that?" I was physically limited by the fleshiness of my digits.
My friend and frequent room mate Darren discovered my guitar at the beginning of our sophomore year, and he taught himself the first two chords of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." At parties he would pull out the guitar and strum away - for just a couple bars, and then set it down, appearing far too shy and humble to play any more. We all knew that he didn't know any more, but the girls who showed up at our apartment didn't. It was one of the most calculated things I've ever seen.
The guitar went away after I graduated. My father kept his banjo, propped in a corner with his beginner's book curled around the neck inside the case. Maybe he was keeping it in case he got real sad one day. Pete Seeger had this to say about the banjo: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Oh alright - I surrender.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Come Aboard, We're Expecting You!

If you were to ask me "What is your favorite ride at Disneyland?" I would answer this way: You know when you come in through the turnstiles, and then merge left with the milling throng, you go through a tunnel under the railroad Station, and all of a sudden there you are on Main Street U.S.A. You look down the lane with Tomorrowland on your right, Adventureland to the left, and Sleeping Beauty's Castle dead ahead. Then you look down at the face of your son as he drinks it all in, and that's my favorite ride.
The worst part about that ride is that you can only do it once a day, at best. If you want to do laps on an attraction, I suppose you could time your visits to Space Mountain or Indiana Jones, but for me I would gladly queue up half a dozen times for The Jungle Cruise. If you have to ask why, you haven't been on the ride for several decades. Truth is, not much has changed on this ride in the fifty-one years. The fact that little if anything has been done to make the actual experience any more realistic is part of the charm. State of the art animatronics from 1955 aren't exactly state of the art anymore. What would keep me coming back? The patter of the boat captains as they navigate the treacherous waters of Orange County. The trick is to try and get on as many different boats as possible, and listen to the slight variations of the schtick that pours effortlessly from these intrepid cast members. In a place where irony is at a premium, The Jungle Cruise is a place where you can float in a sea of sarcasm and mockery. To Disney's credit, they have figured out that they have many more thrilling and diverting amusements, so to keep things fresh, they let their employees make fun of it. "Do you know what the difference between the crocodiles and alligators are? The crocodiles are made of plastic and the alligators are made with fiberglass."As the boat rounds a bend to view a pride of lions gnawing on a zebra carcass, you might hear, "Ohhh, don't worry kids. See, those lions are only protecting that sleeping Zebra. Look! It's Simba and Nala from The Lion King! [Singing] Can You Feel The Love Tonight."
Yes, I know this is not for everybody. There are charms to finding the places where you can make the skeletons tell you to sit down in Pirates of the Caribbean, or knowing exactly when to make the obscene gesture when your picture is taken on Splash Mountain, but this is comedy. In terms of jokes per minute, you could do a whole lot worse and still have to pay a two-drink minimum at the Laff Factory down the street. The best thing about being on the Jungle Cruise ride is that they never try to trick you into believing that you are any place but the Jungle Cruise ride - and as Bill Hicks used to say, "It's just a ride."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Really Big Shoe

My son is in the market for a pair of cleats. It's such a leap in the level of commitment to sports to have to buy specific footwear. I can remember showing up to the first few Young America Football practices when I was in fourth grade in my Keds. It became apparent very quickly that there was no way I could possibly compete physically or socially with a group of kids who had their own cleats. That meant going to a special store to buy special shoes. In the days before Footlocker and the like. We had to schlep on over to the Sporting Goods store. My parents bought me a pair of football cleats - nothing really fancy, but I remember that they were white and I liked this because it put me in mind of kick returner Billy "White Shoes" Johnson of the Houston Oilers. I was an offensive lineman, and the closest I ever came to a kick return was when I heard a punt go off over my head, but it felt cool to have that association.
In junior high I went out for wrestling, and after my first year of wrestling in my red suede Puma Clydes, I was made to understood by my coach that if I was "serious about wrestling" I needed to get a pair of wrestling shoes. These things were fifty dollars a pair. My parents were politely but supportively skeptical, and in ninth grade I place third in the district on "B" mat at 124 pounds in my Onitsuka Tiger wrestling shoes. I loved those shoes. I was chastised for wearing my "bowling shoes" to a piano lesson. My piano teacher didn't understand.
These days I buy a new pair of running shoes about every six months. I tend to buy last year's model so the price doesn't sting quite so bad, but I always love that first run in new shoes, when everything is still bouncy and cushioned. Someday I'll buy my son a pair of wrestling shoes - not because he needs them necessarily - but they're just so darn comfortable.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Say What?

Remember the first time you heard your voice on tape? You probably said something like, "That's not what I sound like!" or "Is that really what I sound like?" It's quite a difficult thing to come face to face with yourself, vocally at least. Over the years I have become increasingly aware of the nasal timbre of my voice. In my mind I have the very expressive booming bass voice of authority, able to stop small children in their tracks from across a crowded playground. I have been told that I do not have "an inside voice." Still, much to my chagrin, when I hear myself echoing across the yard, I wish I had just a little more baritone and not quite so adenoidal.
With all of this self-doubt, you might guess that I am the shy and retiring sort. Instead you can find me inflicting my voice on individuals and groups throughout the course of each and every day. When I was ten, I got my own cassette recorder, and I made hours of hilarious comedy - primarily for my own amusement. Years later I was asked by a friend to lend my vocal chords to some commercial spots he was preparing for the college radio station - the terror and the pleasure. Hearing me with lots of production and sound effects was very gratifying, and terribly embarrassing at the same instant. When he asked if I wanted to sit in on his show, I jumped at the chance. When I hear the tapes from those shows, I often wonder what it would have been like if someone else would have said all the clever things I managed to say.
This afternoon I watched myself on video tape, teaching a lesson about music and slavery. Not only did I flinch mightily at the periodic warbles, but I had to endure my middle age paunch at the same time. What did I notice? I noticed that I talk a lot. I have a lot to say. I want people to listen to me. My fourth grade audience is my captive audience as I pontificate on the Middle Passage and the slaves of pharaoh. God, how I love the sound of my own voice. What feels like an eternity but is actually half an hour later, I move on. Most of my kids are still breathing, but paramedics may be necessary to get them back to a more responsive state. Why do I talk so much?
Tomorrow morning I'll be at it again. Guess who they give the bullhorn to when they want all the kids to line up and say our daily affirmation? That would be me. If you hate my voice on tape, wait until you hear it through a bullhorn.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Penal System

Want to feel good about "The System" here in the good old U.S.A.? Let's take a stroll over to the Supreme Court (that would be the United States Supreme Court, with all the fuss and hullaballoo). Anna Nicole Smith has been given a new legal lease on life. Is she fighting censorship, as her years as a Playboy Playmate and stripper have opened her eyes to a world of hypocrisy and ignorance? Nope. Is she using her celebrity status to promote a woman's right to choose? Not so much. Is she doing anything that could be considered in the least bit altruistic? Sorry.
Today the Supreme Court (again, that "First Monday In October" bunch in black robes with the Constitution and all) ruled that she can continue her pursuit of her late husband's oil fortune. Initially, she won a $474 million judgment, which was cut to about $89 million and eventually reduced to zero. There is no guarantee that she will receive any money as a result of this ruling, but she is now free once again to stake her claim. If you are unfamiliar with Anna Nicole's story, she and J. Howard Marshall II, the colorful Texas tycoon married in 1994 when she was 26 and he was 89, after meeting at a Houston strip club. Marshall, who had a penchant for strippers, died the following year. The trouble started when Marshall's son, E. Pierce Marshall, insisted that he get his fair share - or at least to be certain that Ms. Smith would get nothing.
That was several dress sizes and a reality show ago for Anna Nicole, who will no doubt be back in a California federal court before long. All that being said and done, here is my question: Shouldn't Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens be working furiously on the legalitites of covert wiretapping, or gay marriage or something other than the fortunes and misfortunes of an ex-stripper? I just went and checked their calendar, and it looks like they're pretty full up (except for June, July and August). They've been hearing arguments with names like "MOHAWK INDUSTRIES V. WILLIAMS" and "ZEDNER V. UNITED STATES." It sure sounds impressive, doesn't it? But what do you suppose it takes to get CERTIORARI granted or denied? Given the nature of this case, I'm not sure I want to know the particulars of "NEBRASKA BEEF, LTD. V. GREENING, DENNIS, ET AL." Just send me a brief, okay?