Friday, June 30, 2006

Mister Community Guy

Oh, I've been all kinds of community this week. I spent all Saturday in the parking lot of our neighborhood's new grocery store, introducing acts as the Master of Ceremonies for the show that celebrated their Grand Opening. At one point, people were ignoring the music and milling about the front of the store. I announced that I would give a crisp, five dollar bill to the first five people who came and sat in the front row to watch the next act. Four people came running. One of them was fourteen, and he demanded his money up front. Sheepishly, I played up the moment as I drew five of my few remaining dollars out of my wallet and handed them over. It was a nice bit, and good for a laugh. Much to my chagrin, three more people came up to me after I had introduced the next band and retreated to the side of the stage. Each of these people were in their fifties or older, but they came after me in a humorless way that said, "I'm not kidding, MC boy - fork over my five bucks."
I ended up having to borrow money from my mother-in-law to pay off the last gentleman, who seemed particularly put off by the notion that I might joke about such a thing. Bottom line: The seats were filled, I was out fifteen dollars, and I owe my mother-in-law five dollars. Did I mention that I did this gig out of the goodness of my heart, and I didn't even get a souvenir t-shirt? Did I mention that I'm a public school teacher in my real life, and five dollars has deep an resonant meaning to me still? Did I mention that I was just joking?
Here is what they don't know: It was worth twenty dollars for me to see people dancing in the parking lot in my neighborhood. It was worth twenty dollars to hear a group of local musicians play their hearts out for a periodically indifferent crowd. It was worth twenty dollars to see my community come together out there in the sun. And I'd also like to thank that fifth person for staying in their seat. Twenty-five bucks would have drained me.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

What's New In The People's Republic?

What's going on up in Berkeley? The folks there are going to get a chance to vote on whether or not to call for the impeachment of President Pinhead. Many local governments across the United States have passed resolutions urging impeachment, but the Berkeley city council wants to be the first to put the issue directly to voters. The Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which advises the city on civil rights issues, recommended the measure to the council. The panel accuses the Republican White House of intentionally misleading Congress to justify an unnecessary war in Iraq, pursuing unlawful surveillance programs and permitting torture of detainees suspected of links to terrorism.
Republican National Committee spokesman Tucker Bounds said the city council's move was "absolutely out of step with mainstream American voters ... but entirely predictable for liberals in Berkeley."
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court (the "conservative" Supreme Court)ruled Thursday that
President Pinhead overstepped his authority in ordering military war crimes trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees. The president also has told reporters, "I'd like to close Guantanamo." But he added, "I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darn dangerous."
On that, I couldn't agree with him more.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Volume One In A Series

My wife was kind enough to create a compilation of all of my "teacher" blogs from the past year. I found it a little intimidating, and a little satisfying. It told me that I tend to go on and on about my job - at least from time to time. The most comforting part of knowing this comes from having a marginally interesting job. A great friend of mine, and fellow blogger, has reminded me more than once that having a bad day is a blessing, as it will most certainly yield a good blog.
With this year behind me, I look forward to the fall with mild anticipation, as it will be my tenth year of teaching. Shouldn't this be easier now? I've got almost a decade of experience, so why does each day rise up and taunt me? I learned in my first year the power that knowledge has: Being smarter than all the other people in the room gives you power. I learned the power that ignorance has: Being ignorant can empty a room of reason faster than any good idea. When I give up the light of knowledge, I stumble through the darkness of ignorance - usually bumping my head in the process.
I taught a kid how to do long division yesterday. It was in summer school. He's a smart enough kid, but he never quite got the hang of the process. I worked with him for about eight minutes and then turned him loose. It was a lot like watching someone take off on a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. I know there will be some collisions with large objects and disagreements with gravity, but he's got the idea. I told him I could see that his brain grew just a little because his ears were a little further apart than when he came in.
So there it is, another teaching moment. They don't come every day, but when they do I like to wallow in them. Over on 1 painting every day Jeremiah Palecek is knocking out a new picture every twenty-four hours. That's impressive.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

La-La, Ha-Ha

Twenty years ago, Frank Zappa released an album entitled "Does Humor Belong In Music?" All the songs on the record exist to prove Frank's point: The answer to his somewhat rhetorical question is a resounding "yes!" Titles such as "Zoot Allures" and "Penguin In Bondage" alone are enough to bring a smile to your lips, while Zappa's take on the old war-horse "Whippin' Post" let's you know that they understand irony as well.
But let's not just take Frank Zappa's word for it. Turn back in your musical history books to Haydn's Symphony number ninety-four, best known for a jolting chord sounds near the beginning of the second movement after a relatively tranquil opening. The chord "disappears" as quickly as it arrives, and the music immediately returns to its original dynamic, as if nothing had happened. That nutty Haydn.
I consider my own music collection to be full of explicit models of humor in music. Sure, I have a lot of very earnest and heartfelt songs by very earnest and heartfelt artists. Pearl Jam, for example, probably won't be showing up on Doctor Demento any time soon. DEVO, on the other hand, has spent decades culminating their image - once referred to by David Letterman as "The Fisher-Price of rock and roll." I own a lot of DEVO. I also own a lot of Barenaked Ladies. These guys are Canadian, so if they're in a rock band, they've got to have a sense of humor (are you listening, Geddy Lee?) My idea of a musical genius is somebody like Lyle Lovett, who can write a three-hankie song like "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" and follow it up with something like "She's Leaving Me (Because She Really Wants To)."
Yes, Frank - humor doesn't just belong in music, it's vital to its very existence. If you don't believe me, try listening to the beginning of "Get Back" and see if those lads from Liverpool weren't having a little fun with us: "Sweet Loretta Fat thought she was a cleaner, but she was a frying pan."

Monday, June 26, 2006

Just Another Day

Watch out, 'cause here it comes: Mortality. I know it well, because I belong to the Dead Dads Club. Every time I think to cringe in grief, I am reminded of the vast number of kids who have lost a parent when they were younger, or older, or the same age. Truth is, as I wander around my middle age, I know that the number of people I know who belong to the Passed-Away Parents Club will do nothing but grow.
I also know what the worst part about that is: It makes you smell your own mortal coil. How many more trips around the sun? Watch your sugar intake and your cholesterol. Get plenty of exercise, then get plenty of rest. You have to think more about being alive the more you stay alive.
I was lucky enough to be a charter member of the Dead Roommate Club as well. This gave me all kind of emotional currency as I headed into adulthood. Other friends of mine would stare in awe as I regaled them with stories of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Trouble is, I kept forgetting how insulated my life tended to be, and every so often I would look up into the face of someone I knew who had experienced a loss more profound, or more recently, or just plain more experienced.
It reminds me of the survey that was done some years ago about the effects of divorce on kids relative to the age their parents split. Turns out there was no discernible difference between the kids whose parents divorced when they were young versus those who experienced it later. There's never a good time to lose your parents. There's never a good time to lose anyone. Life, though at times excrutiating, is far to short.
"There's an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such ... small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." - Woody Allen in "Annie Hall"

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Excellent Birds

I remember the swarms of hummingbirds just before sunset. They need to feed heavily for their tiny metabolisms to make it through the night. We had six feeders, most with at least four perches, and they were still lined up, waiting. Every so often, a territorial male would roar through, scattering the hungry birds for a moment, before they returned to the chore at hand: drinking their fill.
What was their fill? Sugar water with a drop or two of red food coloring. We had been told by several "experts" that the dye wasn't necessary, but it was more of a habit than a necessity, so we kept it in. We started feeding hummingbirds in the late spring, before we had even moved up to our cabin for the summer. They were waiting for us when we did arrive - waiting for us to fill the empty feeders. The first one we had was a small inverted bottle with a single tube stuck in a rubber stopper. With the bee guard off, three or four birds could hover around it and consequently we had to refill it twice a day in the middle of the summer. My father hung a perch near it made from a bent coat hanger, and we watched as they lined up to fill their bills.
Over the years, we tried all manner of feeding systems, usually preferring the larger models if only to limit the number of times we had to push our way through the crowd to fill them. We had to warn guests not to sample the "Kool-Aid" in the back of the refrigerator. Those gallon jugs were the spare nectar: boiled, cooled, and ready to pour.
I have a completely visceral memory of the sound of hummingbirds. I called my mom for the recipe for hummingbird food. She has a house full of hummingbird knick-knacks. Over the years she got quite a reputation, and her house filled with all kinds of reminders of her attentions to the needle-nosed avians. I continue to try and coax them to my back yard with my four-perch, figure eight bottle feeder. Sometimes I stand at my kitchen window, listening for the sound. Then I close my eyes and imagine the swarm.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Hybridize. It means that you can make something a hybrid. Makes sense, right? Well, it didn't to me last night and so I stubbornly stuck to my belief that it was not a real word, but rather one of those concoctions that the kids in my room periodically create when they discover prefixes and suffixes. I came home and looked it up. It's in the dictionary. I was wrong, and this is the public apology that was demanded by Mark. Sorry, Mark - and anybody else who was offended by my strident insistence on being correct.
The flipside of that would be the events of today. I spent most of the day in the parking lot of the grocery store up the street that was having its Grand Opening. They had a big celebration and invited everyone in the neighborhood. All the local merchants had booths, and there was lots of food and fun - and a stage which featured live music and entertainment from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon. I was the Master of Ceremonies for this event. I got the gig because the assistant to our city councilmember had caught me running the talent show at my son's school back in March. I came highly recommended.
And here's the deal: I didn't disappoint. I got everybody's name right, and when there were acts that needed a few extra moments to set up, I filled the breeze with what passes for witty banter about the goings-on. Don't ask me what I talked about. I don't remember. I know that I stuck pretty close to the script, since I was dealing with a number of real and true professionals. My wife opened the show with a song of her own composition. She may not have had the experience of some of the other performers, but the gang of kids and parents she brought up on the stage were one of the highlights of a magical day.
I got today right. We got today right. We had our moment in the sun, and I learned a new word. Hybridize. Look it up.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Force Fields

Anybody who has a sibling has probably at some time or another played this game:
"Stop touching me!" screams sibling one.
Sibling two moves within fractions of an inch of sibling one, and then proceeds to move an extended index finger to points even closer to sibling one's person, but maintaining the faintest trace of a "no-touch zone." As this harassment continues, sibling two calmly assures anyone who is willing to listen, "I'm not touching you."
"Stop touching me!"
"I'm not touching you," as the torment continues.
Sometimes mom has to get involved. "Are you touching him?"
"No, mom."
"Is he touching you?"
"Yes - no -he's annoying me."
"Stop touching your brother."
"I'm not touching him."
And so on. You get the picture. Now Treasury Secretary John Snow says a program tracking millions of financial transactions was not invasion of privacy of Americans but "government at its best" and vital to the war on terrorism. They're not touching you. Disclosure of the program comes on the heels of intense controversy over President Pinhead's ordering of National Security Agency surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails of private citizens. Again, they're not touching you.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Mr. Bill Show

You could have Bill Gates' job! You won't end up with Bill Gates' money, but you could have Bill Gates' job!
What exactly is his job? Presently it involves a lot of philanthropy, and that's the part that he wants to keep, so don't fall in love with that particular aspect. So if you're not giving away wads of cash, just what exactly would you be doing if you take over for Bill? Citigroup analyst Brent Thill suggests the leadership transition "will give a new generation of leaders a chance to step out of Bill's shadow, evolved new business models and develop the software and services vision of Windows Live." That would be a fifty billion dollar shadow these leaders would be stepping out of.
Instead of trying to find a way to take over for Bill, since it seems that he has some flunky (Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie) already picked out for the software chunk of it, why not figure out how to insinuate yourself into the operation at some new and preeminent level? How about Microsoft CRE (Chief of Random Expenditures)? The salary might not be enormous, but the fringe benefits would be incredible. Remember how Elvis used to fly the Memphis Mafia out to Denver in his private jet to grab some fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the middle of the night? I'm thinking Bill could fly all the homeless people in Memphis up to Denver for a weekend of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, served by Elvis impersonators. He could buy Lief Garrett's house and turn it into a walk-in rehab center for addicts who never got to be on "Behind the Music." He could buy and sell Donald Trump's piddly three point seven billion dollar fortune and force him to get a decent haircut.
I like the idea that Bill will have a chance to devote more of his life to charity, but I think it's also important for him to use his foundation to level a little karma.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Playing Favorites

Last year, during a rather contentious disciplinary hearing, an irate father suggested that I had favorites in my class. He said this in an attempt to get me to confess that I also had less-than-favorites - his son in particular. I told him that I didn't have favorites. I told him that I subscribed to my father's school of thought in which there were no bad children, only bad behavior.
I lied. Not about the whole thing, but I lied. I do believe very firmly that every kid can be just as witty and charming and successful as any other given the right opportunities. I do believe that I have favorites. I know this to be true because today as the fifth graders were being promoted, I felt my heart break just a little. Some of them had been my fourth graders just a year ago. I gave them all the same hearty handshake and told them that I hoped that they would stay in touch. I told them I want to know how they do in middle school. I want to know what high school they attend. I want to know if they apply to colleges. I want to know what happens to all the kids I taught. How will they turn out?
Then there's Alfonso and Karla. I was extraordinarily lucky that when Alfonso came to fourth grade he decided he was ready to be a scholar. He pushed himself. He had been in reading resource class for years, but he got himself further in nine months than he had in the previous four years. His mother made sure of it. On the day of his fifth grade promotion, he brought me a birthday card, and he thanked me. Alfonso is a favorite of mine.
Karla was already a good student when she was in my class. She was the one who asked the good questions. She always wanted to know why something worked. When there was chaos or apathy in my room, I would teach to her. If everyone else got it, that was fine, but I wanted to be sure that Karla got it. I used to tell her to hold onto the sides of her head when we encountered a tricky new math concept, because I told her, "I'm about to blow your mind."
It's the end of another year. I know that there will be some favorites from this group too. I need a little time to figure out who they are, and then I can start missing them too.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Axis Update!

Karl Rove isn't being indicted. Al-Zarqawi has a big red "x" over his face in Time magazine. America's missile defense system is being activated. Hello? What was that? And things have been going so very well for President Pinhead this past week. The United States has activated its ground-based interceptor missile-defense system amid concerns over an expected North Korean missile launch.
This whole time we've been trying to keep our thumb on one third of the "axis of evil," the other two thirds have been busy making nuclear weapons and throwing them around with reckless abandon. Do you ever get the impression that we took on the country that seemed like it would give us the fewest problems first? I do. North Korea has weapons of mass destruction and they're not above showcasing them for all the world to see. Hans Blix could have found these babies with his glasses off at night in a driving hail storm. Folks up in Alaska are rightly nervous about this little update.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to play us like a cheap violin as the rest of the world politely snickers behind their hands. It's pretty apparent that we have our hands full with Iraqi insurgents, so any threats on our part would be hard to back up. "It's as though some have forgotten that the time of threats is over. Threats are unacceptable in today's world," said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, adding that "the political rights of Iran must be respected." Oops, there you go getting all diplomatic on us. Shame on you.
Back on the missile defense system, John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, suggested, "This is a perfect international Kabuki dance. The North Koreans may test a missile that they will have no idea will work in the real world and the United States has a missile defense which we have no notion whether it will defend against the North Koreans. It is perfect symmetry."
Perfect? Well maybe for someone.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Getting On With Things

It's June. It's June nineteenth. I'm still in Saigon. Wait, strike that - not Saigon - school. I've been catching bits and pieces of "Apocalypse Now" on Bravo the past few days and my mind is easily distracted. Owing to some schedule peculiarities, our school is still in session while most of the rest of the district, nay planet, is off starting their summer vacation. We have to go for one hundred and eighty days, just like everybody else, but a group of us called "program improvement schools" had four extra days of teacher training inserted at random spots throughout the year. Kids didn't have to attend.
Now they do. There are no words of consolation for a ten year old who has to show up at eight thirty on Monday morning while older brothers and sisters are busy sleeping. Or playing video games. Or eating Pop Tarts. Anything but hauling themselves one more time down the street to school. These kids are not, for the most part, the serious and dedicated students who might see the benefit of an extra day or two of curriculum. That is part of the reason why we are a "program improvement school."
To make things even more annoying, the "non-strike" day we had here in Oakland (when kids were given the day off even though teachers had resolved their contract at the eleventh hour and showed up to work) has to be made up as well. Don't get me wrong - I have memories of working at a year-round school where I would routinely take a couple weeks off and then work through the rest of the summer. Before that I had jobs that routinely allowed just two weeks of vacation a year. I get two weeks off for Christmas, a week off at Thanksgiving, another week in the spring, and any number of odd days off here and there. My favorite is "In Lieu of Lincoln's Birthday" - that comes in May.
So why complain? Maybe it's just that the rhythm is all wrong. Summer school could start in the third week of June - but how is it that we haven't even finished up the regular year yet? It reminds me of the little-seen but much appreciated gem of a film called "Three O'Clock High." While anxiously awaiting a showdown with the school bully, the nerdy protagonist watches the clock as the big hand inches toward the twelve - then flops back a whole minute. It's time. We're done. Let us go so we can come back and start summer school.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Smiles, Everyone!

The background you need is this: My mother was the chief recorder of all events, large and small, at our cabin. She and her Kodak Brownie could be seen flying out the front door and down the path to the driveway any time guests arrived. It was vital that every visitor was documented. If you didn't have your picture taken by my mother, you weren't there.
This was also the case for any and all occasions that occurred over the course of the summer. With a June birthday, I was fated to have a great many photos snapped "candidly" as I worked my way through adolescence. As a family, we all got used to it and we even started to suggest opportunities and subjects for my mother to practice her photographic skills.
On a particular Father's day, after the eggs and bacon had been put away and the one skillet we used to fry it all up in had been set to soak, the Caven men knew it was picture time. Obediently we all walked out the back door, and up the hill into a nice patch of sunshine. My mother stood near the bottom of the hill, just across the creek from us and began framing her composition. We had our usual bit of fun with her by moving about in ways that made it impossible for her to get the shot she wanted. It was my older brother who whispered the suggestion in our ears. I had to explain it briefly to my younger brother, quietly as mom kept urging us to "move together." I am surprised that my father went along with it, but on the count of three, the four of us all did move close together, turned around, dropped our pants and flashed an eight bun salute at our mother. As we pulled up our pants and turned around, giggling and guffawing, we saw her standing on the edge of the creek, stirring the water with a stick. At first I thought she might have dropped the camera into the stream, but luckily it hung safely there around her neck by the strap. It took as long for us to quit snickering as it did for her to speak to us again. I'm sure that part of her wishes that she would have taken the photo at the time, just to prove what a bunch of insensitive male pigs she was forced to live with, but alas, she only has a much more polite version, taken some time later to remind her of that day. The extra smirk on the faces of all the boys is the only evidence. Happy Father's Day - sorry Mom.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Very early this morning, as I lay awake, flopping on the bed, trying to find the "cool side" of the pillow, the phrase "gateway drug" dropped into my head. I know essentially how it got there, since I had been up an hour previous that that, getting a pair of Advil to calm my screeching joints. I wouldn't have been up for the Ibuprofin if I hadn't had the two souvenir cups of Pepsi the previous evening while watching the Oakland A's defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers. No Pepsi, no Advil - No baseball, no Pepsi - an ugly string of contamination.
As I lay there, I started pondering other "gateway" experiences. Peanut butter obviously opens the door not just for grape jelly, but celery as well - and the real hard cases end up hooked on Thai food. French fries will send you down the long and scary road of curly fries, garlic fries, Cajun fries, potato planks and, I shudder to think of it, shoestring potatoes. Comic books lead directly to graphic novels, digital cable leads to high definition TV, and having a garage will most certainly lead you to the path of power tools.
The "gateway" theory has been used for years to encourage the prohibition of marijuana - as it has been linked by "experts" as a psychological stepping stone to injecting heroin and snorting lines of laundry detergent. It seems to me that finding a scary enough connection between undesirable habits and behavior that is even worse. A good example of this was the whole cell phone/brain cancer thing a while back. If people really thought they could get cancer from talking on their cell phones, maybe they really would turn them off at the beginning of movies, or in meetings, or ever. Talking on cell phones deteriorates the valuable communication lines between the public and private sectors. In the event of an emergency, all available circuits must be available for important news and information. Without this link, chaos will ensue, and society will collapse. Cell phones are the gateway to Armageddon.

Friday, June 16, 2006


This week the United States moved to restrict media access to the military prison at Guantanamo. Prior to this week, journalists could not talk to detainees, they had to be accompanied by a military escort and their photos were censored. Now, the Pentagon has shut down access entirely. This action comes in the wake of the much publicized suicides of three prisoners at the facility last week. Pentagon officials defended the temporary ban on media, saying guards and base officials are preoccupied with investigating the deaths and maintaining security as detainees become more defiant. A clash with guards in May left six detainees injured. Another 10 prisoners were on hunger strike Thursday, including six being force-fed with nasal tubes.
It's an old Jedi mind trick: "These aren't the detainees you're looking for."
Meanwhile, flashbulbs were a-poppin' for President Pinheads surprise visit to Iraq. As he shook hands with a beaming Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, he said, "Thanks for having me." Shucks, Mister President, it's not like we have a whole lot of choice, what with your army occupying us and all.
Two days later, on the day the U.S. military death toll in Iraq reached 2,500, Senate Republicans moved to renounce calls for a quick withdrawal from the conflict by forcing a vote on an amendment from Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to pull out of Iraq by year's end. It was Pinhead's administration that accused the detainees who hanged themselves of making a "PR stunt." The President has not visited Iraq since a hush-hush photo opportunity for Thanksgiving dinner in 2003. Why now? The jaded and cynical type might feel that they were being jerked around by a Machiavellian government. Hey, look over here at this shiny thing! No, really! Shiny! Did I mention flag burning is bad? Did I mention flag burning gays who want to get married are even worse? Satisfied? Good. Now, back to work on that two thousand mile fence on the Mexican border.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do!

I showed up at school today in my Astro/Elroy Jetson print shirt, fruit print surfing shorts, and my Batman insignia Converse All-Stars. I looked pretty wacky. I looked pretty tacky. Today was "Wacky Tacky Day." It was day four of Spirit Week, and I could feel my spirit being crushed as sure as my collar chafed me yesterday on "Dress Up Day."
Nobody asked me if I wanted to have Spirit Week. I confess that when we had almost made it to the end of the year without anyone bringing it up, I figured that I had gotten away with something. Alas, middle of last week brought a hastily penned memo in our mailboxes announcing the lineup: Monday - Pajama Day, Tuesday - Twin Day, Wednesday - Dress Up Day, Thursday - Wacky Tacky Day, and Friday - Sports Day. I don't know who came up with the categories, but I recognized most of them right away. This is not my first Spirit Week.
Back when I was in elementary school (back when the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the earth), we didn't have Spirit Week. That kind of ritual humiliation was saved with special ironical glee for that time when self-esteem is at its most fragile: junior high. When the posters went up at Centennial Junior High, I made careful note about which day was what and started making plans to participate as fully as I possibly could to show my school spirit. The thing is, nobody in junior high really wants to admit that they own pajamas, let alone wear them to school. Cheerleaders were exempt from the horrendous cruelty that awaited anyone foolish enough to fully engage in the whole "spirit" deal. The rest of us who were foolish enough to try and go along with the program were fated to being punched in the shoulder, hard - two for flinching - whether you flinched or not.
In high school, school spirit was doled out a little more evenly, but cheerleaders and the most popular kids could get away dressing in the most outrageous ways without attracting unnecessary attention or torture. I was in the Pep Band, so spirit was pretty much required. We made a point of dressing in different and bizarre costumes for all of our many appearances. By this point, we had the comfort of our own oddness to ward off the zombies who might do us harm. When our basketball team went to the state championship, it was almost cool to be a part of the Pep Band. We were the ruling class of band geeks.
Now, in my forties, I have this whole perilous threat to my ego set up once more. "Mister Caven, why are you dressed like that?" I explain to them that it's all a part of showing your enthusiasm for the school and being a part of something bigger. Whee. Isn't this fun? A few years ago, I won a certificate for "Best Pajamas." I found it when I was cleaning out my room for next year. Tomorrow I'll wear my John Elway jersey and the kids will all want to know who he was, and then it will be over - for another year.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In The Super Closet

Somebody asked me just the other day if I was looking forward to seeing the new Superman movie. I suspect the reason she asked me was that I was wearing a big red "S" on my chest at the time. I told her that I was looking forward to it, since I'm a sucker for most things superheroic - and this one will be directed by Bryan Singer, who acquitted himself most ably in two X-Men movies. I have also stated here before my deeply held sentimental attachment to "Superman II."
But I still have trouble with Supes. It's related to the "Star Trek" conundrum in which they figure out how to go back in time to fix problems, so why is it then that we still have problems? Once Superman turned back time by speeding around the globe in reverse to bring Lois Lane back to life, I wondered why he didn't just keep going and fix up that whole Holocaust thing, or at least stop by and give Hitler such a super-pinch. Batman's utility belt has the same problem (mainly during the sixties). If the Joker dropped him into shark-infested waters, it would be just Bat-Karma that Alfred would have thought to replenish the shark-repellent spray before Bruce Wayne cinched up his tights that evening.
Contrastingly, when heroes in the Marvel Universe set out to fight for justice, they do it with a chip on their shoulders, or a rip in their uniform they forgot to get fixed. In the latest edition of the Marvel comic "Civil War" on sale, Spiderman does the unthinkable and removes his Spidey mask to publicly reveal his hidden identity. In front of a press conference held in Times Square, he pulls his mask off to reveal that Spiderman is in fact Peter Parker. "Any questions?" Parker asks in the final panel of the issue, amid a barrage of camera flashes.
Ultimately, this brings me back to Superman, and what an incredible nitwit Lois Lane must be. Spiderman wears a mask over his face. Superman's disguise? A pair of horn-rimmed glasses. I know, the spit curl is a little distracting, but how could Metropolis' investigative reporter par excellence miss that one?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Many years ago - a lifetime ago - I had surgery to repair the damage I did to my knee after jumping from a swing. More to the point, I had surgery to repair the damage my landing did to my knee. There was a lot of rehabilitation, most of which was done at home with little or no special equipment save my mom's stationary bike. It seems that there was a little problem with my medical insurance at the time - like the fact that it didn't exist.
Fast forward twenty years to last Friday night. I stood around and watched while other people danced to the band that we had hired to play for our end-of-year fete for my son's school. I tapped my foot. I bobbed my head. I may even have snapped my fingers to the beat. I did not dance. It wasn't because the music was no good. The music was fine. The band was a lot of fun. They played James Brown and Chuck Berry and Santana. It was a party, after all.
But I didn't dance. I found this significant for this reason: Twenty years ago, as I was trying to get myself upright after knee surgery, I was at a bar with some friends. They had taken me out for some adult beverages to help me get over the fact that I was still hobbling around on crutches, and probably would be for some weeks to come. This would make a better story if I could remember exactly what song it was that moved me to my feet. I remember that it was Mowtown, but not a lot after that. The dance floor at this bar was set down a short flight of stairs and made a kind of pit in one corner of the place. I hopped over to the stairs and out onto the floor. Very gingerly at first, I began to test my weight on my reconstructed knee. I had a lot of liquid courage and painkiller in me, so I might not have noticed if anything was explicitly wrong unless there had been blinding pain or jets of blood. As it turns out, there was none of that. Just the joy of shaking my backside to music that moved me.
Bottom line: I danced before I could walk again.
So why didn't I dance last week? I'm old and tired. I was preoccupied with the goings-on around me. I was waiting for just the right song. These are fine excuses, but they are just that: excuses. I was waiting for a moment that just wouldn't come, to paraphrase Mister Springsteen. In hindsight, I'm terrifically sad, since I know how few and far between those moments really are. I wish I would have danced.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Public Relations

The topic today is public relations. Everyone can use them. Most of the kids in my class could use a team of public relations people to help steer their behavior patterns come report card time. I could use a little help now and then when I'm talking to parents about their childrens' progress. "Perhaps you should start with a compliment - like 'Abner's personal hygiene has really improved this semester!'"
I'm just saying that public relations is an honorable field and should not be dismissed out of hand. Tom Cruise, I'm not talking about you, specifically. Here is what I am talking about, specifically: Two Saudis and one Yemeni hanged themselves Saturday, the first successful suicides at the base after dozens of attempts. Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC that the deaths at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba were a "good P.R. move to draw attention."
Oops. Now who needs the P.R. firm? "I would just point out in public that we would not say that it was a P.R. stunt," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, using the abbreviation for public relations. "We have serious concerns anytime anybody takes their own life." Because a P.R. stunt would have to include some kind of cash prize or souvenir T-shirts?
President Pinhead expressed "serious concern" in his modulated comments regarding the suicides. Military officials said the suicides were coordinated acts of protest, but human rights activists and defense attorneys said the deaths signaled the desperation of many of the 460 detainees held on suspicion of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban. You say "to-may-to," I say "to-mah-to." The camp commander at Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, told reporters Sunday that the detainees "have no regard for human life, neither ours nor their own."
"I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us," Harris said. Is it too late to try to teach these folks about hubris? "Asymmetric warfare?" I think you've got to be pretty desperate to see prisoners committing suicide as an act of war. Again, Tom Cruise can breathe out again. These guys are nuts.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Toys R I

I'm close to another birthday. I can feel it in my toy store reflex. As I sat in the kitchen this morning watching my family mill around breakfast, I wondered if my father ever secretly pined for the toys that he was buying for me. I make no secret about the things I buy for my son. I buy the stuff I would like to play with. Sometimes this gets me into trouble with my wife, who actually reads those "suggested age ranges" and ratings on video games.
Come on - who is going to love an X-Men video game more than a ten year old? While I suppose I could eloquently discuss the relative merits of the game, and the intellectual agility of our son, I also know for whom I am making this potential purchase. I also know that I would feel ridiculous somewhat abruptly as my son's nine-year-old motor skills quickly consume my abilities.
The other end of the spectrum exists as well, with my wish to buy things I wish he would still be interested. The talking "Lightning McQueen" car, for example. "Yeah dad. Cool." "But his eyes move and he makes like twelve different sounds and..." "I'll be over in the video game aisle, dad." Okay. Maybe I'll buy one for myself, you know, keep it mint-in-box - a collectible. I dunno. I thought it looked pretty cool.
For now I'll be comfortable just languishing in the memory of toys gone by: Hot Wheels, Major Matt Mason, GI Joe with life-like hair, Thingmaker. Maybe someday I'll find a Vertibird at a garage sale. I can dream, can't I?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Give Them Roots and Wings

A few weeks back I went out on a Saturday morning to plant trees around the school where I teach (a necessary distinction, since I have also planted trees around the school my son attends). Yesterday morning as I rode up, I noticed one of the trees had been snapped off at the middle. This was no mean feat, since they were young they were supported by steel poles that had been sunk two feet into the earth next to the saplings. It was a solid effort to get both pole and tree. I sat in my room wondering how and why such a thing would happen. Was it an impaired driver? Was it a passing band of ruffians? Was it one angry kid?
This morning I sat in front of my computer, pounding out the year-end's report card comments. I found myself obsessing once again about the kid in my class I never did reach. He's in another school now. I heard he's already having the same kind of stupid problems there that he had at our school. He's not quite eleven yet. It's like when you lose a tooth and your tongue keeps sliding back into that hole.
I'm not recognizing the kids who were successful. The ones that read when they didn't before I taught them. The ones who want to learn more about whales because we took a field trip to the ocean. The ones that know what seven times seven is because it's Mister Caven's favorite math fact. I'm not seeing the forest for the trees. I'm not seeing the other fourteen trees that are still standing in front of our school. I tend to see the glass as half empty. I know this about myself. So my solution is this: Get a smaller glass.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Wild, Wild East

"Whenever there is a new al-Zarqawi, we will kill him." – Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
It’s good to know that President Pinhead’s Wild West rhetoric can be so successfully implanted in the Middle East even if Democracy seems to be having a hard time getting a foothold.
So, they finally got their man. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death comes at a time when folks here in the United States would just as soon have their soldiers guarding their own borders rather than dodging shrapnel on the other side of the planet. Fifty-nine percent of adults say the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq, according to a new AP-Ipsos poll. The Oliver Stone in me imagines that Coalition Forces may have had al-Zarqawi’s body on ice for just such an emergency.
Four other people, including a woman and a child, were killed when F-16 fighter jets dropped two 500-pound bombs, obliterating the terrorist leader's safe house five miles west of Baqouba. Fingerprints, tattoos and scars helped U.S. troops identify al-Zarqawi's body. The fact that there were fingerprints left is significant in itself, and then the exhibit of the photos of his face with his eyes closed and spots of blood - images reminiscent of photos of Saddam's dead sons – and those images were reminiscent of the tintypes of dead outlaws. My mind wanders from that to a scene from "The Outlaw Josey Wales": Josey rides out to meet the chief of the Comanche tribe that is threatening the homesteaders’ farm.
Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.
Josey Wales: That's true. I ain't promising you nothing extra. I'm just giving you life and you're giving me life. And I'm saying that men can live together without butchering one another. Ten Bears: It's sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life... or death. It shall be life.
Here's hoping that's how things shake out after the next meeting of the burgeoning Iraqi government. Sleep Tight, America.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


A friend of mine once noted, after attending a Bruce Springsteen concert with me, "I think I've just been to church with Dave." I was somewhat chagrined to hear that at the time, but last night Bruce hit the stage with "Good Evening Sinners!" It has long been his schtick to "throw a rock and roll revival - a rock and roll exorcism - a rock and roll baptism - a rock and roll bar mitzvah!" He doesn't do much to hide his spirituality, but the act is only part of the experience. Last night as I sat under the moonlight, listening to one of the most powerful horn sections I have ever encountered, an owl patrolled the night sky as the voices rose even higher and the crowd was converted.
A lot of the current lingo would say that I was very "present" at that moment. I could feel the air in my lungs and the warmth of my wife's arm next to mine. I could hear my voice finding its way into a mix with thousands of others. I got a little self-conscious just once when I stopped to look around to see if everyone else was grinning. They were.
There are a lot of experiences that people will tell you, "You won't know until you've actually been there." I heard this a lot before I got married. "It's not like living together. You'll see." My older brother told me how tough junior high was. "It's not like elementary school. You'll see." In 1980, a friend told me, "It's not like any other rock show. You'll see." She was exactly right. Don't get me wrong, I have had my share of giddy good times at rock shows, but there have been a few transcendent moments at Springsteen shows.
Last night I had one of those. I was saved. Thanks, Bruce.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Sweet Loretta Fat Thought She Was A Cleaner

Paul McCartney's living right, I guess. How else could you explain Billy Preston dying before "the divorced Beatle?" I know - Billy wasn't a real Beatle. He wasn't from Liverpool or anything, but he made some of the most Beatle-y music ever recorded. "Let It Be" would not have happened if Billy hadn't shown up to bring the flabby fab four back together. Musically at least.
George brought him in to play, on the record and in front of the cameras. He suggested that Billy was like company, and the lads wouldn't fight in front of company. He played piano on the rooftop with the Beatles in their last live performance - "Get Back." He was the only "non-Beatle" to receive a credit on a Beatles single. He played with George on his Concert for Bangladesh. He played with the Stones. He played with John's solo records. He played on Ringo's solo records.
He won a best instrumental Grammy in 1973 for "Outta Space," and scored hits with "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Nothing From Nothing" and "With You I'm Born Again," a duet with Syreeta Wright that became a favorite at weddings. He also wrote Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" (which I have covered myself at various Karaoke establishments around the Bay Area). We hope he will be forgiven for his appearances in both "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
But perhaps his most profound impact on popular culture is the answer to the trivia question: "Who was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live?"

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Neighborhood of the Beast

There are about half a dozen kids (six?) in my class who are convinced the world will be ending today. They have been convinced by the monstrous billboards around their neighborhood that have been promising doom on 6/6/06 for the past several weeks. The local news channels have fed into this nicely, by shoe-horning "Da Vinci Code" in on top of "Omen" furor and creating an environment of unspeakable fear.
It's unspeakable mostly because no one really understands it. Iron Maiden is the place I first learned of the number of the Beast, but apparently it shows up in the Bible - Revelations, to be precise. After I told one of my students that there were a lot of stories in the Bible that weren't exactly literally true, he wanted to know why there were lies in the Bible. I could feel my safe zone shrinking, so I suggested that with daylight savings time and leap years and so on, there was no way to be completely sure of the exact date and time of Armageddon.
To be completely honest, I should confess (especially since it's good for the soul and I should be cleansed before the end days come anyway) that I first became aware of The Mark of The Beast thirty years ago (divisible by six?) when I was thirteen (don't get me started!). As was the case for most summer films, I read the novelization of "The Omen" before I ever saw the movie. I remember taking my questions to my own private Biblical scholar - my mother. As with so many investigations of this sort, she was very direct in her tutelage: Look it up yourself. So I read the book of Revelations. It made sense to me that a great many folks throughout history have used this relatively short piece of literature to fuel the imaginings of everyone from John Milton to Charles Manson and Keanu Reeves.
It has some very impressive imagery in it, and it lends itself to vast interpretation. The other thing I'm teaching my kids right now is probability. Is it possible that June sixth, 2006 will bring about the rapture? It's possible - but not likely. I've got tickets to see Springsteen tonight.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Must Delete Spam

I know that the correct thing to do with any e-mail that I do not immediately recognize the sender is to delete it. Delete it with maximum aggression and haste. Spam is evil and can lead to viruses and lower interest rates and penis enlargement. Aren't you tempted to peek? I am.
Today I got a message from Lavonne Lynch called "Fwd: Information." What information? Could this be the missing piece of data that would help me finally realize my Grand Unificaiton Theory? Maybe it has to do with my contest entry with the Coke Rewards program - Coca Cola in unlimited supply for the rest of my natural life. Or maybe it's something I really don't want to know, like my house was built on an Indian Burial Mound.
Now don't you see my conundrum?
I knew that opening the Spam would be wrong, so I decided to use Al Gore's Internet to do a little checking on Ms. Lynch. Turns out she is an employee of DLR Properties and recently reported $700 damage to the walls and three doors of a rental home on the 1000 block of E. Emma Ave. She is also a very community minded individual, having nominated Gloria Sneed for the 2003 AARP Andrus Award. Gloria didn't send me any e-mail, but I wonder if the "information" has anything to do with the Adrus Award. In a letter to the editor from January 2004, she suggests we "Insist on a real answer and don't stand still for the canned speeches and pablum answers." One thing is certain, even if I tempt fate and delete her most vital missive, Hayden, Idaho is lucky to have someone like her around.
As for the message from Collin Pack, well I can only assume he's writing to brag about his golf score.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Breath of Fresh Air

I've put a lot of stupid things in my body over the years. A lot of it was just sheer quantity, but some of it was just plain misguided. Having attended one of America's Top Ten Party Schools, there were very few evenings that didn't involve some sort of hijink or antic. At the University of Colorado, we had a reputation to uphold.
That being said, it is important to note that I have been a "helium-head" for most of my life. For the uninitiated, here is a little bio-physics: The sounds you make come from your vocal cords vibrating away across the top of your larynx. We're all used to the sound they make when you force oxygen in and out of them. When you use a lighter gas, such as helium, the vibrations are faster and the pitch is higher. That is why you sound like a "munchkin." You don't have to be drunk or stoned to find this particularly amusing, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Belting out show tunes, especially warhorses like "Some Enchanted Evening" is always good for a laugh.
I remember one year for my older brother's birthday, we had a big green balloon about the size of a coffee table filled with helium. We passed that thing around for hours - at one point pausing long enough to crank up the stereo to sing along (like chipmunks) with "Born in the USA."
Fast forward to 2006. In Lutz, Florida, two college students were found dead inside a large, deflated helium balloon after apparently pulling it down and crawling inside it. Their bodies were found Saturday partially inside the balloon at the entrance of a condominium complex a few miles north of Tampa. The 8-foot-diameter balloon was used to advertise the complex. Is it a fate that I have narrowly avoided? The Compressed Gas Association (no flatulence jokes here, please) has posted an article on their web site entitled "Inhaling Helium: Party Fun or Deadly Menace?" It begins pleasantly enough, "What could be hazardous about a helium-filled party balloon, you ask? After all, balloons are supposed to be fun, right? The answer may surprise you." I was surprised. I was surprised to find out that the warnings were primarily for ninnies who were taking "hits" off of commercial balloon-filling systems. Okay, I confess to being one of those ninnies. After reading this article, I am just a little chagrined to find out just how quickly I could have been suffocated by my own amusement. So for now, I'll stick to the infrequent (but hilarious) moments of fun supplied by balloon-fed helium, and in the meantime, I have to imagine this will get The University of South Florida at least an honorable mention in next year's poll.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Castles In The Sand

It was one of those quasi-miraculous days that begin in doubt and trepidation only to end in smiles and satisfaction. I understand that at this moment I'm speaking in hyperbole, and that by Monday morning things will have a way of evening out, but for now this feels like minor revelation.
The fear that started the day was legitimate enough: I was going on a field trip with my students and their families to Muir Beach. It was to be the culmination of a year-long program to educate fourth graders about the watershed they live in. Where do those storm drains lead to? What sort of plants and animals live in and around the bay? How do the things we do here on land affect the water in the ocean?
Early this morning my thoughts ran more along the lines of "How many will we bring back?" The answer? All of them. With smiles on their faces. I watched as a group of kids that routinely have trouble standing in line to go to lunch without incident sat side by side in a very full school bus next to parents and siblings for an hour and a half. Then they sat and ate a picnic lunch (some even shared their Go-gurts) while we arranged the activities on the beach.
We walked up a trail above the beach and looked for plants and animals, then we went back down and explored the tidepools. We saw starfish, sea anemones, and a few very shy crabs. Then it was time to hit the waves. It truly was a joy to watch children play in the surf. They got wet, they got sand all over themselves, and then ran back to the ocean to wash it off. All without a single problem.
I do know that the group I took was, to a certain extent, self-selected. The real hard cases wouldn't be caught dead at the beach with their families, but even some of the ones I had my doubts about came through like champs. Part of it has to do with the presence of their parents, but not all of it. I think the most important thing was that we took them out of their world for a day. They could be children, not grown-ups in training. They laughed and frolicked and were sad when it was time to go home. Still, not a cross word or pouting lip.
Sometimes I forget that I'm teaching ten year olds. It was nice to see a bus full of ten year olds and their families have a fun day at the beach.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Drop Leaflets Before You Bomb

There's going to be an election here in California next Tuesday. You can feel it in the air. You can see it on the streets. You can find it stuffed into your mailbox. Even as Al Gore invites us to listen to his "Inconvenient Truth," we find ourselves buried under a giant Sequoia's worth of leaflets, flyers and pamphlets. It makes me think of the unholy irony of the bulky mailers my wife gets with frightening regularity from the "Save The Redwoods" foundation.
I'm tired of all the paper. I've stopped reading most of it since one flyer will contradict another in a stack of twenty dislodged from my mailbox this afternoon. These days you have to be clever how you align yourself in California politics. It's generally a good idea to distance yourself from "The Governator," but it's still important to tout your ability to work in bipartisan cooperation with the powers that be. When the phone rings now, I know it's a fifty-fifty shot that there will be a recorded voice on the other end spitting vitriol or shaming me for not seeing things their way.
Some of the nastiest bits are flying around Oakland's mayoral race. The three front runners seem content to gnaw on each other's entrails while three lesser known candidates shout from the relative safety of obscurity. Arnie Fields, Ron Oznowicz, and Hector Renya all believe they have what it takes to run a city. Fields, who condemns the current city government as dysfunctional and corrupt, promises to "rock the establishment" by uniting Oaklanders and keeping the Oakland A's from moving to Fremont. Oznowicz, who has participated in most of the mayoral debates, said he decided to run for mayor after realizing the city needed a chief executive officer — someone to wrangle the bureaucracy while keeping an eye on the big picture. Reyna attends most of the council meetings, his black stretch limo plastered with campaign signs and bumper stickers supporting President Bush parked outside of City Hall. His remarks often end with him shouting at council members and being escorted from the microphone by an Oakland police officer.
The main thing I take away from all of this is that slice of the American Dream that tastes like anyone can grow up to be President - or Mayor. And after June sixth, they can stop stuffing my mailbox and calling my house.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Oakland Über Alles

I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles and never frowns
Soon I will be presidentÂ…

Jerry never made it to the White House, but he did get a swell loft in downtown Oakland, in lieu of the Mayor's mansion. He's far too sensitive to the plight of the working man and woman to hole up in a mansion. He and his wife, former chief counsel for GAP Anne Gust, live near downtown Oakland, at the former Sears Roebuck Building, with their black labrador, Dharma.

I will be Führer one day
I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school...

Jerry has created the Oakland Military Academy; a charter school with his personal blessing and encouragement. He convinced us all to turn Oakland's mayor from "weak" to "strong" with one initiative. It's hard to imagine this guy is the same "Governor Moonbeam" that used to date Linda Rondstadt. He is the one who, as Governor of California, amassed a huge surplus in state coffers that led to the infamous tax rebellion, the Jarvis Gann initiative, (proposition 13) which halteincreaseses in property taxes for both homeowners and corporations that held on to their property. Blessing or curse? I suppose it depends on whether you're trying to buy or sell your house this year.
Now Jerry wants our vote to become Attorney General of California. It's frightening and just a little fascinating to imagine what he might morph into next. Maybe he had it right last September when he said, "It doesn't matter what I say as long as I sound different from other politicians.'"

You will croak, you little clown
When you mess with Attorney General Brown
California Uber Alles
Uber Alles California
-"CALIFORNIA ÜBER ALLES" - The Dead Kennedys