Saturday, September 30, 2006

Feel The Power

Kids say the darnedest things. "Mister Caven, were you acting like that just because there were people in the room?" Charlotte had a point. My principal and a pair of visiting math coaches had walked into my room just as I began to foam at the mouth about the thrills and excitement to be found in finding a rule for equations. I was, for lack of a better term, "acting weird." In fact I had hoped that my enthusiasm might carry over to my students and get them worked up enough about algebra that I would appear to be doing a stellar job teaching mathematics.
Yes. I was acting like that because there were people in my room, but I do tend to get excited about teaching math. There is little in the world that is more gratifying to me than when a kid looks up at me and says, "Oh, NOW I get it."
That being said, it's still very hard to shine your average fourth grader on. Case in point: The big Ice Cream Party for the best line ploy. It's a lot like Santa Claus at that age. You want to believe, because non-believers end up more disappointed in the lack of magic, but still - how can two grown-ups really watch all three hundred kids and be sure that the best line gets rewarded? Possible? Maybe. Probable? Let's just say that when my kids lost out "by just a few points" this week, there were some broken hearts, but mostly a lot of sideways glances, and a lot of resignation to the idea that getting an ice cream sandwich on Friday afternoon is under the purvey of a higher power.
Will I get an ice cream sandwich for my math lesson this week? I believe it can happen. Still, maybe I should take it down a notch or two - Charlotte's watching.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Turn The Page

I have a pretty good spam filter on my e-mail, so I don't bother checking on messages that look like they might contain stuff like this: "You in your boxers, too? ... Well, strip down and get relaxed." I'm to announce that not all communications on Capitol Hill have the same restrictions, especially those emanating from Florida Representative Mark Foley's office.
Representative Foley abruptly resigned from Congress on Friday in the wake of questions about e-mails he wrote a former teenage male page. Please take all the time you'd like to savor the details: Florida Republican, male page, teenage, questions. And now, ladies and gentlemen, prepare for the coup de gras: Foley, as chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, had introduced legislation in July to protect children from exploitation by adults over the Internet. He also sponsored other legislation designed to protect minors from abuse and neglect. "We track library books better than we do sexual predators," Foley has said. He once accused the Supreme Court of "siding with pedophiles over children."
Does the fact that Representative - pardon me - former Representative Foley turns out to like boys make the whole situation any more or less creepy? Not according to Foley's own litmus test, comparing himself to one of those poorly tracked library books. On the November ballot, Foley's name will still appear next to Democratic challenger Tim Mahoney - a millionaire who used to be a Republican (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Power Of Four

I am teaching my fourth year of fourth grade this year. I am doing this in room four. All of this might be too much to take if I didn't also have a son who was also in the fourth grade. The numerology of it all just makes my new age heart swell. What does it all mean? I haven't the foggiest notion, but I do feel as though I have a solid understanding of the mind of your standard ten-year old boy or girl.
This is how it struck me: I was attending yet another Back To School Night, and I was sitting in my son's chair, listening intently to the glowing terms that his teacher used to describe her first month with this new class. We were invited to paw through our child's desk to see what sort of curriculum and surprises we might find. I found nothing out of the ordinary. There was the requisite pink math workbook, red math textbook, and purple reading anthology. There were crumpled tests and carefully folded sheets of notebook paper with barely recognizable marks on them. There were signs of writing growth, but in a hard to decipher scrawl that made the challenge of getting ideas on paper doubly intimidating. And there were pencils of every shape, size and condition - dozens of them.
These words brought me out of my reverie: "Parents don't want to hear this, but this is the year that your children will change. They become more independent, more social. They're starting to grow up." My son's teacher was exactly right. I have said the same thing to countless parents at conferences and our own Back To School Night. It occurred to me at that moment why it is that fourth graders never stop talking: There are just too many words in their heads, and some of them just have to leak out. It is a fourth grade teacher's challenge to get them to focus all of that verbal energy in a productive direction.
So I left a few notes in my son's desk - just to let him know that I'm watching. And I like what I see.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to do.

Kris Kristofferson, Rhodes Scholar, Farm Aid Organizer and songwriter, had it right. Freedom occurs in a vacuum. And since the United States abhors a vacuum as much as nature, we won't be leaving Iraq anytime soon - much to the dismay of the people we are there to defend.
About six in 10 Iraqis say they approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces, and slightly more than that want their government to ask U.S. troops to leave within a year, a poll finds. This doesn't come as particularly shocking news, given the state of Iraq after the initial glow of "liberation" has become somewhat more desperate.
University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes also discovered that four in five Iraqis say the U.S. military force in Iraq provokes more violence than it prevents. That seems to match the trend we see on the television each night. Additionally, the poll revealed an overwhelmingly negative opinion of terror chief Osama bin Laden and more than half, 57 percent, disapproving of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These folks don't seem to like much.
What are they whining about? Three years of foreign military occupation? Continued fighting by insurgents and a much-delayed reconstruction effort? Mounting civilian (read: non-combatant) casualties and a mounting pressure toward civil war? "We will be seen as liberators?" We will be seen as an occupying force, stirring up militant elements of an already unstable region. Iraqi deaths (for which no official tally exists) have moved past forty thousand. Whiners.
"What I hear from government representatives and other anecdotal evidence that you hear from Iraqis that is collected by embassy personnel and military personnel is that Iraqis do appreciate our presence there," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "They do understand the reasons for it, they do understand that we don't want to or we don't intend to be there indefinitely."
An Iraqi public opinion research firm with a proven record of conducting scientifically valid surveys conducted the department's poll, press officer Janelle Hironimus said later.
"We will not identify the firm in order to protect it and its employees from danger," she said.
And if that last bit doesn't have you laughing, or wincing, then maybe irony just isn't your cup of tea.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Most of my runs start by going up a hill, so I was pleased that I had taken the momentary consideration of putting "Rock and Roll, Part II" on my iPod. It is the quintessential jock-type motivational song for getting your blood pumping. Not coincidentally, its use in professional sports venues has its roots in the Mile High city, where the Colorado Rockies (back when it was a barely decent hockey franchise instead of a barely decent baseball franchise) used the tune to rock the house and whip fans into a frenzy. From there, it was just a hop skip and a jump across the parking lot from McNichols Arena to Mile High Stadium where the Broncos played it after every touchdown by the home team.
That tradition has come to an end. From the Rocky Mountain News: "Gary Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd) performs 'Rock 'n Roll Part II.' Earlier this month he was formally sentenced to three years in a Vietnam prison for committing obscene acts with children earlier. Shortly thereafter, NFL officials encouraged teams to drop the song from their stadium play-list." I could understand the uproar if the song included lyrics that in any way incited or alluded to obscene acts with children. Since those lyrics consist solely of the word "Hey" in various permutations, it seems like a tough connection to make. If the NFL is concerned about the publishing royalties that might be paid to a convicted pedophile, that might make more sense. "Disgraced British rocker GARY GLITTER will earn $3,400 (GBP2000) a week while he is in prison, thanks to a salary from the London-based publishing firm he owns," rails an article on
Fair enough. We shouldn't be paying convicted felons to play loud rock music at our American sports venues. Unless those convicted felons happen to be The Rolling Stones. The glimmer twins have both spent time in the pokey for possession of controlled substances. And don't get me started about Bill Wyman and little girls...
Which brings me to my point: Not only is "Start Me Up" (from the classic Stones' album, "Tattoo You") is still being played before the kickoff of just about every NFL game, and a great many college, high school and maybe even a few middle school games. Now, compared to the undulating "Heys" of Gary Glitter's tune, this one is in fact quite filthy. "If you start me up I'll never stop," is only the beginning. After we are reminded several times that the woman in question could "make a grown man cry," we are told that she could - ultimately - "make a dead man come." Are you ready for some football?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Eye Of The Beholder

Most art is intentional. There are some lovely accidents that don't start out as art, but become that way: dripping candles, the 9/11 Commission Report, really bad haircuts. Those are endeavors we can't get back. They just happened. Painting, writing, film making, sculpture - these all began with an idea, then went through some creative process until some finished product emerged. Art with malice aforethought.
I have always subscribed to the Woody Allen notion about creativity - that every step after the initial concept is a compromise. It's in the stone you choose, or the brush you pick, or the light that particular day. What comes out on the other end is never precisely as you imagined it. That doesn't always mean you end up with something less than you imagined. Movies are a great example of this. Ronald Reagan as Rick in "Casablanca?" Good compromise. Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones? Good compromise. Still, one never knows until you start the ball rolling just exactly where you'll end up.
What got me thinking about all this in the first place? The other day I was walking past a car that had a Kleenex box stuffed up against the back window. I found myself momentarily caught up in the pattern on the box: a number of fat cats in bright colors lolling around in a sky blue background. Not great art, but enough for me to remark on it. It was colorful and pleasing to the eye. I'm fairly certain that the person or committee that painted it had commerce as their chief aesthetic goal, but there I was, staring at the design on the side of a Kleenex box. How about that? Now I've written a few hundred words about it. Intentional or not, art was made. The jury's still out about how good that art is, but I know what I like.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Down Time

I had to get out of bed this morning because I kept going to work in my head. It was a typically frantic day in my classroom, but I seemed to be handling it fine. The problem was, I was acutely aware that I was still laying in my bed on Sunday morning. Opening my eyes and moving around my house was the only way I could shake the feeling I had that I needed to be someplace else.
Usually when my mind is asking for work, I go and find it. Today I got up and went for a run. Instead of doing work, I got a workout. And still, my thoughts were about work. As I ran, I remembered a job I had in high school. My dad had a friend that owned a news and smoke shop. He wanted someone to run the store for him on Sundays, the only day of the week that he didn't feel he absolutely had to be there.
It was a simple enough job, the most pressing thing about it was the responsibility that I was given. I had to enter through the back of the store, bring in the day's newspapers and set them on the stand. I opened the cash register with the keys that were hidden in the old Seven-Up machine that was in the back room. At nine o'clock, I flipped the sign from Closed to Open, unlocked the door and waited.
I read a lot of Rolling Stone magazine that summer. I read cycling magazines. I read the New York Times. I read for hours between customers. It seemed odd to me that location alone didn't draw more traffic. The shop was just around the corner from Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. I sat for hours on a stool behind the counter full of pipes and cigarette holders, behind jars of aromatic tobaccos, in front of a rack of dozens of imported and domestic cigarettes. No radio. No TV. Just endless magazines and seven hours of potential commerce.
One Sunday, a group of Austrian tourists wandered into the shop, and I found my high school German was abruptly overwhelmed as I attempted to make polite chatter with them. They bought a magazine and a pack of Gitanes. On another afternoon, Robin Williams and Pam Dawber were up the street, filming exteriors for "Mork and Mindy." I could hear the crowds cheering and calling. Some guy wandered in and told me what a hysterical show I had missed. On still another bright Sunday around noon, I accidentally swallowed a fly.
That was my job for three months of Sundays: Sitting on a stool, reading magazines, waiting for customers, swallowing flies. This morning, I felt some relief. I could watch TV. I could go outside. And it turns out that the last season of "Mork and Mindy" wasn't that funny anyway. Now I can relax.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Twenty-one years ago I saw Bruce Springsteen for the fifth time. It was back in the heyday of Bossmania: The Born In The USA Tour. I went with a group of other fans who had all pulled their time on the ticket line in the weeks before the show: Robin, Darren and Joe. Joe was hardcore, having been raised in and around the friendly confines of the Jersey Shore. The part I like best about this story is that, at this point in history, I knew more about Springsteen and his music than Joe. He was still recovering from a bout with Billy Idol worship, and he needed to be shown the light.
That night, September 23, 1985 the light came from a stage across the wide gulf that was Mile High Stadium in Denver. By this point, Bruce had been misquoted and misappropriated enough that the fire that burned in the opening chords of "Born in the USA" let everyone know that this wasn't a patriotic anthem. It was a story of a lost soul, part of a lost generation searching for redemption. By the time he was winding down, some three hours later, "This Land Is Your Land" answered the questions raised at the beginning of the evening. Then came the national anthem of Bossland: "Baby this town rips the bones from your back, It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, We gotta get out while we’re young,`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run."
And this is the part that I don't remember for certain, but it seems that somewhere before the last encore, the crowd - at least a large portion of it - burst into a loud a capella version of "Happy Birthday." Bruce turned thirty-six that night, but I want to believe that we were the ones who got the present.
Today Bruce Springsteen is fifty-seven. Twenty-one years burnin' down that road - Happy Bossday, everybody.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Invisible Pedestrian

Hasbro Incorporated, the nation's second-largest toy maker, is recalling parts of a toy workbench set after two children apparently suffocated on oversized plastic toy nails, company officials said. As a parent, my mind immediately goes to the "paper towel tube test," wherein objects small enough to pass through the tube are too small for children under the age of two. Or is that twelve? Or eighteen?
No matter, it seems that a nineteen month old boy choked on one of the three inch plastic nails, and another two year old boy "allegedly" choked on one within a seven month span. About 255,000 the Playskool Team Talkin' Tool Bench have been sold. Two deaths.
Now, don't get me wrong, zero deaths from a child's toy would be the desired outcome - or at least that's what we'd all like to think. It brings to mind Dan Aykroyd as Irving Mainway on Saturday Night Live shilling "Bag O' Glass", "Mr. Skin Grafter" and "Pretty Peggy's Ear Piercing Kit." It's what they used to refer to in Viet Nam as "acceptable losses." When you first read that "three inch nail" thing, did you hold your fingers up, about that far apart and try to imagine - "three inches? two years old?" My kid, who I consider to be of above average intelligence, had to have an eraser pulled out of his nose when he was in second grade. That would be second grade, not second year of life.
Now prepare for the litigation. It's never really a tragedy in the United States until the lawyers get paid. But here's the deal: Hasbro is offering a fifty dollar gift certificate for their products if you return the nails. The whole tool bench sells for thirty-five bucks. So who's going to suffer? The ones who are going to have to pay the difference - those of us buying the retro-lawn dart sets.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Sounds like President Pinhead's new terrorist interrogation guidelines may have been written by Bruce at the University of Walamaloo: "Rule Two, no member of the faculty is to maltreat the Abbos in any way at all - if there's anybody watching." This is a scary Pinhead. The one you don't want to meet in a dark alley. Check out this interchange between Matt Lauer and "Master P":
Matt Lauer: I don't want to let this "within the law issue" slip though. I mean, if, in fact, there was water boarding used with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and for the viewers, that's basically when you strap someone to a board and you make them feel as if they're going to drown by putting them underwater, if that was legal and within the law, why couldn't you do it at Guantanamo? Why did you have to go to a secret location around the world?
President Pinhead: I'm not going to talk about techniques. And, I'm not going explain to the enemy what we're doing. All I'm telling you is that you've asked me whether or not we're doing things to protect the American people, and I want the American people to know we are doing so.
Ladies and gentlemen, when he says he doesn't want to talk about techniques, I think it's best that we take him at his word. Lauer mentioned that the head of Amnesty International said that these secret sites are against international law. Pinhead replied, "Well, we just disagree with him. Plus, my job is to protect you. And most American people, if I said [to them] that we had who we think is the mastermind of the 9/11, they would say, 'Why don't you see if you can't get information without torturing him,' which is what we did." And if that didn't work? Again, probably better not to ask. Wasn't it always the bad guys with the bamboo splints under the fingernails? The Nazi dentist with the drills and "Is it safe?naive not so naiive to believe that America has always played by the rules, but I want to believe that when we get caught breaking them, that we will own up and make every effort to work within the law: International, Geneva Convention, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's like what Wilford Brimley used to say about Quaker Oats - It's the right thing to do.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

In Dreams

The past couple of nights have been tough ones. The night before last found me leading a group of fourth graders through a cityscape that was very reminiscent of downtown Boulder, Colorado. The children were walking, according to form, in a single-file line and I was hard-pressed to keep an eye on both ends of it, as I had stragglers and sprinters. This caused the line to increase to an altogether unmanageable length, and I found myself jogging back and forth to encourage and impede progress, alternately. Suddenly, from the front of the line came shouts of "Hey, Mister Caven didn't tell you to do that!" and "Get back here!" When I looked up I saw a small band of kids crossing four lanes of traffic. It was precisely at that moment that a power line snapped and fell down in front of me, blocking any hope or chance I had of reaching the children on the other side. Oncoming traffic, high voltage: horrifying combination.
Last night I was driving up the road to what I surmised was my childhood home. I had been told that there had been a terrible fire, and as it came into view, I could see that the entire front of the house had been burned off, leaving it exposed to the elements. Night was falling, and I could hear sirens approaching from the distance. This seemed odd to me, since it appeared that the flames had been extinguished some time ago. That's when the nose of a 747 dropped from the sky and landed just yards from the fire scarred remnants of my house. The fire trucks had been dispatched in anticipation of this fresh, new disaster. Very proactive for chaos, I thought.
Both mornings I woke up thankful that the new day was starting. That was the up side. The down side was the lingering feeling that something awful was on the way to happening. Maybe I'm just too sensitive. Maybe I'm not quite awake yet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Down The Rabbit Hole

Curiouser and curiouser. Out there in the world, sides seem to be choosing up for a croquet game with flamingos for mallets. For the second time, The chief judge in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial was replaced Tuesday amid complaints from Shiite and Kurdish officials that he was too easy on the deposed Iraqi leader.
`The trial cannot proceed,' said the King in a very grave voice, `until all the jurymen are back in their proper places-- all,' he repeated with great emphasis, looking hard at Alice as he said do.
Alice looked at the jury-box, and saw that, in her haste, she had put the Lizard in head downwards, and the poor little thing was waving its tail about in a melancholy way, being quite unable to move. She soon got it out again, and put it right; `not that it signifies much,' she said to herself; `I should think it would be quite as much use in the trial one way up as the other.'
Meanwhile, across the border, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted Iran's nuclear activities are "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye" of United Nations' inspectors and reiterated his nation's commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as it faces accusations that it is seeking to develop atomic weapons.
`I see nobody on the road,' said Alice.
`I only wish I had such eyes,' the King remarked in a fretful tone. `To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!'
Earlier in the day, President Pinhead said to the people of Iran, part of the "axis of evil," that he looks to a day when the two peoples "can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream --
Lingering in the golden gleam --
Life, what is it but a dream?
- with many thanks to The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

Monday, September 18, 2006

2,686 - If You're Keeping Score At Home

Sergeant. David J. Davis, 32, of Mount Airy, Maryland, died in Baghdad, Iraq, on September 17, of injuries sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Stryker Armored Vehicle during combat operations in Sadr City, Iraq. Davis was assigned to the Army's 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. This brings the United States' total casualty count (as of September 18, 7:48 Pacific Daylight Time) to 2,686.
So let's take a moment for some perspective: Even while the "official tally" of the deaths that occurred on September 11, 2001 continues to expand and contract (some say more than 3,000 lost their lives that day, the revised government number is 2,792 for the World Trade Center attack) we can finally find a connection between the events of that day and the war in Iraq. At some point, and perhaps the ambiguity surrounded an exact death toll for the day may be connected to this, there will be an exact corollary between the number of Americans killed on that one infamous day and the number of Americans killed in combat during our prolonged "slog" (Donald Rumsfeld's word) into the heart of Darkness once known as Mesopotamia.
So? How about a point of reckoning? At what point will the cost in human lives be worth defending Iraq's freedom? At some point the number of combat deaths will exceed that of the lives lost on September 11. It's accounting, after all. Numbers don't lie? People do.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Picnic in the Woods

Yesterday afternoon I stood for three hours in front of a charcoal grill, moving meat and meat-like objects over heat in order that the attendees of this year's Sequoia Elementary School Welcome Back Picnic could (in the words of Beldar Conehead) consume mass quantities. This has become something of a tradition with my family, ending the summer with a sun-baked gorge-fest under the towering redwood trees in the park up the street. As I stood there, spatula in hand, I began to reflect on summers long since past.
The summers of my youth ended with a family reunion, my mother's side of the family, at our cabin in the mountains above Boulder. The Johnson Family Picnic was a gala affair, attended by generations of cousins that I still cannot name. Weeks ahead of the actual event, I created dozens of hand-drawn invitations for relatives whose connections to me were always more clear in the abstract than in reality. Then, with just a few days to go, my brothers and I would make signs to point our town-based folk down the twisting mountain roads to our cabin in the woods. The morning of the picnic came and we were up early, loading tubs ice with soda and beer. We kept the overflow cool in the creek that ran just down the hill from us. And then we waited.
Sometime before noon, we saw the dust kicking up at the bottom of our driveway, and we knew that it had begun. Hugs were exchanged, coolers were unloaded, pictures were snapped, and "my how you've grown." There were tables full of salad, but we all held out for the burgers that came from one of two grills that filled the air with the smells of late summer. When everyone got fat and happy, we waddled on down to the meadow for a game of volleyball, while some of the old-timers worked out the horseshoe pit. Back up on the front porch, stories about the olden days filled the late afternoon.
Then it was time to go. The soda was gone, the cans waited to be crushed in a barrel next to the front steps. "Oh take that home, it'll keep in the fridge." Coolers were shoved back into trunks. More hugs, and promises of return the next year. We walked to the end of our driveway as the last car backed down slowly to the road and picked up the sign pointing the way. Maybe we could use it again next year.
Back in 2006, I awoke from my reverie in time to watch the water balloon toss, and then went to join in the kids-versus-dads tug of war. Then I went back and had a burger. Summer's almost over.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Drop That Call

California on Friday banned motorists from talking on cell phones unless they use a headset or speakerphone, although the law will not take effect until July 1, 2008, to allow time to educate the public. Wait a second - or a year - time to educate the public? To teach them that driving while you're ordering Thai food or screaming at your housekeeper with one hand while you gesture wildly and try to shift with the other is a bad idea? Okay.
I confess: I own a cell phone and have found it very convenient for making connections from places and situations that might have proved inconvenient at best without one. I have also made cellular phone calls from moving vehicles. I am proud to say, however, that I have not been driving any of these vehicles (including the Monorail at Disneyland). This makes me just pompous and smug enough to holler, "Hang up and drive," at drivers who are periodically oblivious to the world outside of their rolling phone booth.
It's reminiscent of what I've always felt about the world inside your car: Once the door closes, the engine starts, and the radio comes on, the inviso-ray takes over and you can no longer be seen behind the wheel. This is how nose-picking and singing at the top of your lungs to REO Speedwagon happens to good people.
So, come 2008, you won't be able to have one-handed conversations with your optometrist. You can use a headset or a hands-free speaker attachment, but you will have to pay a fine for driving with your phone stuck to the side of your head. The exception to this rule is if you are making an emergency phone call. I wonder if calling Moviefone to find out the next available showing of "An Inconvenient Truth" counts as an emergency.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Predator and Pray

I must have been about nine or ten years old. My friends and I were making boats out of scrap lumber to float in Farmer's Ditch, an irrigation canal that ran just across a great open field above my house. My best friend, or what I understood to be my best friend, provided the hammers and nails, and a great deal of the criticism that went into the creation of our vessels. His father was a carpenter, and he made sure that we all understood that, regardless of the features or unique traits of our boats, his would be superior.
We worked for some time, until almost noon. Then we went to our bikes and road to the concrete bridge. We decided to ride as pairs: one on the front pedaling while the other balanced carefully and clutched a pair of boats to his chest. We rode the quarter mile to the ditch, laughing and trying to keep from crashing into a fence, or a bush or simply toppling over from the sheer exertion. When at last we reached the bridge, there were six of us - three bikes full. We each made careful last minute adjustments to our crafts and then, with little or no ceremony, set them loose on the rushing torrent of the creek in May. As soon as they started to disappear downstream, we raced to our bikes and began to speed down the trail after them. Our pursuit was hindered by numerous shrubs and twists in the rutted path. We could still see all six boats as we neared the first culvert where the water went under the street. We had to stop and get off the bikes to walk them up to the street level where we had to wait for the traffic to let us across. I could feel the boats slipping further away from us. When we got to the other side of the street and got back on the bikes, my best friend asked me, "What are you doing?"
Since we lost sight of the last boat, I had been muttering under my breath. "Praying," I replied without the hesitation that might have saved me everlasting torment. My pal, my best buddy, my neighbor and friend since Kindergarten stopped the bike.
He nearly fell over laughing. "Praying?" he snorted. "For what?"
I felt myself go red and wanted to disappear, but answered, "For the boats." The rest of the guys had caught up to us by then, and they joined in the guffaws. "I was praying that the boats would be okay."
I don't remember how I got home that day. I want to believe that I walked home alone. Alone in my embarrassment. Alone in my shame. Alone in my theological quandary. I want to believe that I wrestled with the questions of faith and God and Man, but I know that's not what happened. I rode back to our neighborhood on the back of my tormentor's Stingray, gripping tightly to the bar at the back of the banana seat so as not to exacerbate my already imploding self-esteem by holding on to another boy's waist. We didn't laugh on the way home.
Over the years, as the situation presents itself, death, birth, crises or varying proportions, I have been asked by some more caring individuals if I pray. I tend to avoid the question, preferring instead to keep my discussions with higher powers strictly between myself and the deity of my choice. I still pray, just very quietly, and always to myself.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Go Bears

I haven't really made much of it, since the teams I follow have yet to make much of it for me, but football season has begun. My wife and I did our annual tearful farewell at the door to the living room, where I will be found on Saturdays, Sundays, Monday evenings, and sporadic Thursday nights for the next five months. It's not as tragic as it sounds, since we've both managed to become more forgiving and understanding of each other's peculiarities. I like to pace and curse as I watch strangers play games in distant cities, and my wife - well she likes the stories.
Like this one: The backup punter at Northern Colorado has been accused of stabbing his rival in the leg — his kicking leg. I confess that, even when I lived in Colorado, I didn't follow the progress of any particular UNC Bear football campaign. That would have meant worrying about something that happened in Greeley. Since I know that my wife has a certain fondness for that corner of the front range, I suppose this will provide her more connection to this piece. The stabbing took place Monday in Evans, a small town adjacent to Greeley and about 50 miles north of Denver. Mendoza was attacked from behind after parking his car outside his apartment at about 9:30 p.m. About ten minutes after the attack, a liquor store clerk told police that a car matching the description of the assailant’s getaway car stopped outside the store, where two men stripped tape off the license plate and drove away. The clerk gave police the license number and the car was traced to Cozad, who was arrested Tuesday.
Last Saturday, the Bears fumbled their way to a 45-3 loss to perennial Big Sky Conference power Portland State. The week before that, they rolled over for UC Davis to the tune of 38-7. This Saturday, when the Bears tee off against the Texas State Bobcats, you might expect that no one will care. But perhaps all is not yet lost. I wasn't a huge fan of figure skating, but Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan got me watching. I'm guessing they'll be handing out a few more press credentials up in Greeley this weekend. Welcome to the spotlight, University of Northern Colorado.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


My buddy is heading out to the Garden tonight to see Roger Waters. That would be Madison Square Garden, and Mister Waters is the brain/misanthrope behind the heyday of Pink Floyd. I'm not going, primarily because I'm on the opposite side of the country. He e-mailed me to chastise me for this oversight, and I took his criticism with the grain of salt with which it was intended.
The truth is, we used to go to concerts together all the time. Over a ten year period, we probably saw thirty-some shows with each other. Some of these involved camping out overnight for tickets in the weeks before the actual event, so we had plenty of time invested before we ever heard a note. This was back in the days when lining up to buy tickets meant you got the seats - before having a speed dial or a high-speed Internet connection meant front row. Somewhere in the basement is a box containing a wad of ticket stubs from a dozen different venues and dozens of different bands.
My favorite thing about our concert-going experience was never the actual concert. What I always truly reveled in was the post-concert debrief. We generally headed for a nearby Denny's and pored over the set list, our expectations, our disappointments, and what we would have wanted to see and hear if we had been running the show.
This ritual probably had its roots in the way that my brothers and I would line up to take turns regurgitating the plot and details of the movie we had just seen to my mother. She was endlessly patient to listen to three different versions of "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" and even often even lesser fare. Those late night discussions at Denny's provided endless recapitulation of what we saw and heard. We snickered at those neophytes around us who were foolish enough to buy a souvenir shirt and wear it at the show where they had purchased it. We created spectacular bills with headliners that only we wanted to see. And most of all, we picked the nits out of the list of songs that were chosen for the night's performance. What was missing? What was unnecessary? Most of all, why wasn't it the list that we had imagined when we sat out on the cold concrete in front of the ticket window for thirty-six hours?
I'm forty-four now. I'm not going to as many shows because it generally involves getting someone to watch our son while we go out into the night. I haven't seen my buddy from New York for more than a year now - even though we stay in touch. And we're tossing around a rendezvous somewhere in the midwest - maybe seeing Cheap Trick in Illinois. I sure hope they play "High Priest of Rhythmic Noise." That would be awesome.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

It's Not Easy Being Green

Thousands of plant species are being pushed to the brink of extinction by global warming, and those already at the extremes are in the greatest danger. This comes to us courtesy of Paul Smith, head of Britain's Millennium Seed Bank, who really should know about such things. This comes as especially scary news in my house, where the plants are plentiful, but not always thriving.
For historical perspective it is important to note that most, if not all, plants that have come into my charge have lived long and fulfilling lives both indoors and out. Way back in college, a female acquaintance of mine marveled at the lack of green things in my very spartan bachelor digs. I suggested if she was keen on growing things that she ought to check out the shower curtain. Feeble jest aside, she took it upon herself to remedy the situation and showed up the next week with the tiniest cutting from her spider plant. We rooted around the cupboards in the kitchen and came up with the only suitable container for a living thing I had to offer: a big plastic tumbler. This is how Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider Plant, came into my life.
Peter moved around Boulder county with me, from one bedroom apartment to another, and all that time I managed to find a sliver of sunlight for him and kept his soil moist. It wasn't until I moved across the country to live with another plant lover that I began to feel the weight of plant ownership. Dogs will bark at you if they don't get fed. Plants just die. I had become somewhat accustomed to the relative ease of caring for one spider plant, but the demands of a house full of growing things. Too much water, not enough water, indirect sunlight, fertilizer, and if you do that well, you'll get to repot the ever-expanding sprout into ever-expanding buckets or pots or pans. It prepared me, in some small way, for the rigors of child-rearing.
Emboldened by my relative success - nobody ever died on my watch - we decided that the ecologically responsible thing to do would be to buy a live Christmas tree. For the second time in my life, I named a plant. We called our blue spruce Fahrvegnuven. Each holiday season, we would dig up the pot from our back yard and drag the beast into our living room where we kept it alive with daily feedings of ice cubes and lavished it with just the right number of lights and silly ornaments.
Until last year. We realized that Fahrvegnuven was not at all well. He looked a little like the victim of a very selective forest fire. All that carting about and shuffling had taken its toll. Drastic times called for drastic measures. My wife called a woman who specialized in tree rescue, and after a quick examination it was determined that Fahrvegnuven would be better off if he was set free. We were told we could visit him anytime, but as yet we haven't had the heart. It's still too soon.
Back at home, Peter Parker continues to fill the big tumbler he started life in, and we try not to speak of the blue spruce in front of the other plants, but they know that sometimes bad things happen to good seedlings. This whole global warming thing, however, is not my fault.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Time Zones

Three hours. That's the time difference between here and New York City. Five years. That's the time difference between here and 2001. Four years is the difference between now and the last time I was in New York City.
When I asked my friend how he felt about going down to visit Ground Zero (ironically it shares the name with a dance club we used to go to in Boulder together), I already knew the answer. He was just blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Like so many people who worked in the financial district, he lost several friends and associates that day. Even better, he knows an even larger group who walked, ran, or were carried away. It's easier to meet survivors.
Back on that summer day, when he asked me what I wanted to do with my family on our one day in Manhattan, I told him I wanted to go down and look at the hole. He shrugged, understanding that my morbid curiosity was a part of that three hour time difference. As I watched the tape delay out on the west coast, hell had opened up back east. I had the vicarious experience, but not the sheer pain of having one's world ripped apart. It was only in the third hour of coverage that it occurred to me that my friend might be somewhere in the midst of all that chaos. That's when everything changed for me. I knew it made no sense to try and call. I knew that he didn't work in the towers. But sometimes he had meetings that took him there. Hopefully not that morning.
He wasn't there. He saw it. He heard it. And it wasn't on tape delay. When I asked him to go back a year later and look with me, into that great big hole. He suggested we take the ferry instead. It turns out he was exactly right. The view from the water was much more dramatic, like a smile missing its two front teeth. In the middle of the world's mightiest skyline there was this great big hole.
As the ferry turned around, we floated back past the Statue of Liberty. I was amazed again at how close everything seemed: the bridges, the buildings, and all those people. We didn't talk about it then. Our kids were up and down the stairs of the ferry, looking at everything and nothing, enjoying one another's company. New York is full of things you've seen in movies and TV, at least that's how I tend to see it. I've seen Ground Zero before and after on big and small screens, and it's still nothing without the context.
Now it's been five years. And three hours.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Last Song

It occurred to me today just how many dead guys I have on my iPod. All those Ramones, bless 'em, and Warren Zevon. John Denver's on the list, as is Johnny Cash. Steve Goodman keeps the company of Freddie Mercury, and Buddy Holly reminds me of the day that music died. I've even got Robert Palmer telling me how he's addicted to love, since now he's not so addicted to breathing. The Who count for just a half, but it was their whole rhythm section that went to the great gig in the sky.
This opens the discussion I was having in my head as I mowed the lawn: I wondered what it must feel like for those folks left hanging around here on earth while the lead singer decided to take a dirt nap. Kurt Cobain was where this musing began, as I listened to Dave Grohl sing, "This is the last song
That I will dedicate to you
Made my peace, now I'm through
This is the last song
that I will dedicate to you."
Bitter? Confused? Hurt? All of the above? Probably not because he feels any lack of artistic or monetary fulfillment. Foo Fighters continue to bash it out with five major label releases and have earned the distinction of being one of David Letterman's favorite bands. Still, the specter of Kurt Cobain looms large, especially as Courtney Love continues to milk her extra fifteen minutes of fame from the ghost of Nancy Spungen.
Then there are the remaining Beatles. What will Paul's legacy be in another ten or twenty years? Ringo's place in pop culture will be safe simply for providing the blueprint for "goofy marries beauty (Barbara Bach)" that has been followed so carefully by Lyle Lovett and Chris Robinson. For the record, Ringo and Barbara are still married - sorry Lyle and Chris. Paul could have been dead, but now it's George and John who are heralded on high.
Which brought me back to Kurt Cobain, the Grunge James Dean. Imagining a world with a fifty-something Kurt Cobain is just a little unnerving. James Dean was too fast to live, too young to die - almost. In the meantime, Eddie Vedder continues to brood about the Pacific Northwest like a rock and roll Sasquatch, waiting for the revival of the Seattle sound.
"This is a sound
The here and the now
You've got to talk to talk to talk to get it all out
I listen, I listen, I listen."
- The Last Song by Foo Fighters

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Only Thing We Have To Fear...

Coming around the bend on my way home Friday evening, I encountered a fire truck, an ambulance, a police car and a motorcycle cop. They were part of the crowd that had assembled at the top of the hill near my house to watch as a mini bike, or most of a mini bike, was wheeled out of the intersection. The lights on the ambulance came on, and I stopped to let it pull away. Whoever was on the mini bike was probably in about as good a shape, so off they rolled to the nearest emergency room. Still, the crowd waited, boys from down the street ran to join the curious. Once they got to the edge of the first group of bystanders, they were quiet. No one talked. It was all too plain.
Later that night, when it got dark, the commotion from the apartments next door heated up again. There had been a few days of uneasy truce, but somebody's stereo got turned up too loud, or somebody disrespected someone in a way that set all the bad blood back on boil. And I sat there in my living room, feeling the anger like a wave. There was no crossover between the crowd on the hill and the screaming tenants across the fence from me, but I the fear was a shy cousin to the hate that filled the late night air.
As of September 9, there have been ninety-nine homicides in Oakland during 2006. A vast majority of the victims and the suspects in these killings were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. And there's my connection: Living in Oakland, especially for those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, is dangerous. Francis Bacon once wrote, "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark." I get that - and so do the kids on the hill, and the ones next door.

Friday, September 08, 2006

If You Wanna Know The Players, You Gotta Have A Program

Saddam Hussein saw al-Qaida as a threat. It doesn't take a rocket or political scientist to make sense of that. Al-Qaida is a pretty nasty group with some rather distinct and severe philosophies. Their stated objective is the elimination of foreign influence in Muslim countries. They're not always polite about how they go about this, however. Osama bin Laden first took interest in Iraq when the country invaded Kuwait in 1990 (giving rise to concerns the secular, socialist Baathist government of Iraq might next set its sights on Saudi Arabia, homeland of bin Laden and of Islam itself). In a letter sent to King Fahd, he offered to send an army of Mujahideen to defend Saudi Arabia.
Osama bin Laden viewed Iraq as an enemy - in 1990. But since "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," one might argue or suspect (there's lots of that going on) that the moods and allegiances would change like the desert wind. Okay, how about this: An October 2005 CIA assessment that before the war, Saddam's government "did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye toward" al-Qaida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or his associates. As recently as an August 21 news conference, President Pinhead said people should "imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein" with the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction and "who had relations with Zarqawi." You'll have to imagine it, since it never really happened.
So, maybe an oppressive regime is an oppressive regime. It's not hard to imagine the lunch meetings that al-Zarqawi could have had with Saddam as they discussed the infidels. But eventually they'd have to get down to specifics, and I'm guessing that their common ground turned out to be more limited than one might have suspected. So they went their separate ways, promising to keep in touch - "Death to America," they shouted as they pulled out of the driveway.
But we went ahead and invaded Iraq anyway. It's like we can all agree that having a big, feral cat in your house would be a bad thing, but once you chased it out the rats with rabies showed up because there was no feral cat to keep them away. Oh, and it's not our house, by the way.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Reading Is FUN-damental

Put this one on your reading list: "The Pet Goat" by Siegfried Engelmann and Elaine C. Bruner. It's just one of the stories that can be found in "Reading Mastery II: Storybook 1," part of the thirty-one volume Reading Mastery series published by the SRA Macmillan early-childhood education division of McGraw-Hill. It uses the direct instruction teaching style.
At the school I work at, we use the Open Court reading curriculum, which is also created by SRA. Five years ago, I was the computer teacher, so I don't have a specific story to connect me to the events of September 11, 2001. If I had been teaching fourth grade back then, I would have been just beginning my first unit, themed "Risks and Consequences." I suspect that we may have been reading about a little elephant who gets separated from his mother called "Toto."
But, as I said, I was the computer teacher, and on that day I sat in my room and watched television. None of the classroom teachers were sending their kids to my room, or anywhere else. That's what happened at our school. Students at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School have the historical distinction of knowing exactly what story was being read to them that morning. "A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat. She played with her goat in her house. She played with her goat in her yard. But the goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad. The goat ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes. He even ate capes and caps." And now, five years later, those little minds are scarred for life. Why didn't the President of the United States stop reading, get up, and go do something about all those terrible things that were happening? Was he scared? Was he confused? Did he want to find out how the story ended?
It hasn't ended yet. That goat is still out there, running and eating. God help us all.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Wash 'n' Wear

This morning I received a compliment on my clothes from another teacher as I strolled out to the playground before the morning bell. I thanked him, and immediately deflected the praise, since the person who really takes the responsibility for my sartorial state is my wife. I have been fortunate to be on the pity end of her fashion stick, which sometimes comes with the carefully aimed, "Are you going to wear that?"
The answer, on any given day, would be a shrug and a "why not?" In my previous life, I had uniforms, or even better, when I ran a warehouse, I could wear any of the hundreds of t-shirts that I have collected over the latter half of the twentieth century. South Park and Ramones are not considered appropriate attire for elementary school teachers. Nor are the vast array of sports jerseys that I have stashed away. I know of a number of teachers who have made a career out of their Hawaiian shirt collections, but I prefer to save mine for occasions outside of school. In this way I create only positive associations with my "fun" shirts. We have a new fifth grade teacher who has set a campus record by wearing a tie for each of the first seven days of school. How long will that last? I know that I have worn a tie to school a total of fourteen times in ten years. Clothes are fairly low on my list of priorities, I confess.
To a certain extent, I rely on the popular myth about Albert Einstein wearing an identical suit every day of the week. I have my school clothes, and my play clothes. In my youth, I relied on the magic of Garanimals to confirm my sense of style. Without the aid of matching tags, I am left to sort out combinations from a select number of pants (primarily Dockers) of polite shades, and a slightly larger group of "shirts with collars." Every so often I stop and think about which pants "go" with which shirts, but for the most part, I grab a pair of pants, pull a shirt off a hanger in the early morning light, and off I go. Being well-dressed means that I choose to wear socks that are not white. You know I'm trying to impress when I'm wearing argyles.
So, thanks for noticing, and I'll pass along all the kind words to my fashion consultant. And for those days when it looks like I got dressed in the dark - well, you'd be right.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

2,4,6,8 - We're All Gonna Caliphate

Consider this juxtaposition: Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter" gets a stingray tail jabbed through his chest one day. The next day, President Pinhead releases his defense strategy which says, "we are not yet safe." Well, how about that? Just when you thought that you might be able to safely swim with large and certainly potentially dangerous fish, along comes the leader of the free world to let us know that we still have so very much left to fear.
I know that Pinhead didn't have television's naturalists in mind as he made his proclamation, but it certainly makes you think: If I stay on the shore, or even the relative comfort of a glass bottom boat, the terrorists win. By not rushing out into the wild and grabbing nature by the short hairs and yanking, I'm surrendering to a world of fanatics - fanatics who mean to do us harm: bite us, blow us up, thumbing their noses at democracy and/or walking upright.
Pinhead said al Qaeda's vision was to create a "unified totalitarian Islamic state that can confront and eventually destroy the free world." Not if he gets to it first, however. The amazingly intricate circular logic that drives this terror (hence the term "terrorist," one supposes) is initially mind-boggling, then ultimately soothing. The terror in Iraq occurred in a power vacuum created by our invasion and the limited success we have had installing a fully-functional democracy - or police force, or military, or running water. John Kerry replied, "Afghanistan is slipping back into chaos, Pakistan is one coup away from becoming a radical Islamic state with nuclear weapons, Iran is closer to a nuclear arsenal, and Iraq has become a recruitment poster for terror." Kerry, not known for his rapier-wit did make a clever suggestion in response to the numerous quotes from Osama bin Laden in his speech, asserting that if Pinhead had killed bin Laden in late 2001, "he wouldn't have to quote this barbarian's words today."
Poor Steve Irwin. If only he had read the transcripts of the most recent meeting of al-Dasyatids, maybe he would have had a chance.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Wild Life

The easiest thing to do today would be to pile on the whole "Croc Hunter" pile, but that might be too simple. If you spend the bulk of your life taunting reptiles with sharp, pointy teeth, maybe you shouldn't be surprised when something jumps up from the swamp and bites you on the cargo shorts. For the record, it should be noted that it was a stingray barb that finally caught up with Mister Irwin. He was, after all, the "Crocodile Hunter" and not the "Stingray Molester."
Steve Irwin is just another link in the long chain of animal annoyers. Marlin Perkins sits on the top of that particular heap, for me. Watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" as we waited for "The Wonderful World Of Disney" to start, I often wondered how Marlin stayed so clean and nattily dressed while Jim was out in the bush, attempting to subdue an enraged ocelot. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his obituary contained the line, "one of only a handful of people to survive the bite of a West African Gaboon viper." So Marlin may at one time put his finger where it shouldn't have been. Jim was the hired hand, after all, and not the host. It was expected that he would be stomping about the underbrush, trying to flush out any number of foul-tempered beasts. And why were they in such bad moods? Some "naturalist" was knocking dirt down their hole, or disturbing their nest, or smelling just a little too much like lunch.
Okay. So I said I wouldn't pile on. Sue me. Or maybe instead we should take the most archetypal example of this "man versus nature" fixation to heart: Carl Denham, adventurer and film maker found himself on Skull Island, locked in a life or death struggle with an ape the size of Def Leppard's tour bus. When he was afforded the chance to escape, he chose instead to go back and try to box up the eighth wonder of the world and bring him back to civilization. We all know how that turned out. My guess is that Carl Denham never worked New York City again. I'm a big fan of nature, and I applaud the efforts of all those, Steve Irwin included, to create a better understanding of the planet that we share with all other birds, beasts and bugs. To this end, I leave you with the words of my favorite naturalist, Mark Trail: "Take only pictures, leave only footprints."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Crisis? What Crisis?

A few days ago Hamed Jumaa Farid al-Saeedi, known as Abu Humam or Abu Rana, was captured north of Baghdad. Who is Abu, or Hamed, as the case may be? According to coalition forces (the coalition of the willing, mind you - at least the countries are, even if the individual soldiers need encouragement from time to time), this is the second most senior figure in al-Qaida in Iraq. Nice work, guys. I will continue to be impressed with the effort of our soldiers. Extremely dangerous, hard work in conditions that most sane people would expressly avoid. It's the mission. From above it's the message that gets all messed up.
Here's the most recent example: Iraq's national security adviser announced on Sunday, that al-Qaida now suffers from a "serious leadership crisis." Please feel free to take a moment to pick yourself up off the floor and stop that giggling while you fully savor the irony. What exactly constitutes a "serious leadership crisis?" Poor communication, faulty vision, and dissent among the rank and file? That sounds a lot like the 2006 Republican approach to the mid-term elections.
Here's how the power vacuum in Iraq has impacted the violence this weekend:
• An overnight mortar attack east of the capital killed six people, including two children, and wounded 15.
• A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in eastern Baghdad killed two policemen and a civilian and wounded three policemen.
• Gunmen killed two policemen in a civilian car and wounded a third in Baqouba.
• A car bomb also killed three people in Baqouba.
• A civilian was gunned down and killed in a drive-by shooting in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
• A suicide car bomb struck a police patrol in the northern city of Mosul, killing two policemen and wounding five people.
But seriously folks, we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in world history in the past twenty-five years. We have heard President Pinhead wring his hands and apologize for his failure of leadership during one of thedevastatingtating natural disasters just one year ago, how long should we have to wait for him to apologize for him dropping the ball at what could have been America's greatest opportunity to unite the world? Abu Humam or Rana is no doubt a dangerous character and the world is better off if he is locked up or removed from his position of power. He is not Osama bin Laden. That would be a "serious leadership crisis."

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Putting The "U" Back In Labour

Labor Day weekend, the official end of summer is here (though I tend to cling to the notion that it lingers until September 20, when the Vernal Equinox occurs). Aside from a reminder to put those white bucks back into the closet for another year, it's also a time to reflect on the efforts of organized labor here in the United States - and to fire up the grill one last time.
I will probably do both this year, as the past twelve months have afforded me an up-close and personal view of labor relations. Way back when I first signed up to do this teaching gig, I wondered when I would get a chance to decide whether or not to join the union. I was clever enough to have anticipated the existence of a teacher's union, I just didn't know that by signing a contract with the district that I was signing a contract with the Oakland Education Association. I had never been a union man before that - quite to the contrary. I had been on the "management" side of things for most of my working life. I was that guy with a clipboard and an extra set of keys. I was "the man."
Still, I understood the history and purpose of labor organization, and agree with the loose definition: "A Trade Union (Labour union), ... is a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment." I'm a big fan of worker's rights, especially when I'm working. The challenge I encountered was the somewhat Byzantine nature of union politics. More to the point, I discovered the extremely Byzantine nature of Oakland Teachers' union politics.
Over the past several years, the Oakland Unified School District has suffered and struggled through a great many financial and organizational crises. There were month long strikes in 1986 and 1996, the year before I became a teacher. This past year, after wrestling with a state administrator for several months, another strike was narrowly avoided by a settlement at the proverbial eleventh hour. The result of this "victory" for this union member was a nine hundred dollar deduction from the last paycheck of the year, with the promise of an ongoing two percent raise that would be retroactive from the previous year. The deduction was part of the settlement, and it essentially covered the extra days that I had already worked beyond those contractually obligated - they were "voluntary" then, and became "required."
I confess I'm still not completely sure how it all worked out, since I spend most of my contractually obligated hours unraveling fourth grade math, and reading, and California history, and then spend numerous additional hours preparing to unravel those mysteries both at school and at home, before collapsing in a teaching-induced coma on Friday night. So here's the deal: Back in April, I got a call from our local Peace Action group, asking us for an additional donation to help support their efforts to inform and support "Peace Voting" in the upcoming mid-term elections. At the time, I related to this patient volunteer that my heart was certainly there, but I was concerned that my family might be needing our extra nickels and dimes if there was a teachers' strike. I evoked the classic bumper sticker in my response: "What if the schools had all the money they needed and the Air Force had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?"
It's time to put my money where my mouth, or my bumper sticker, is. I'll be sending along a little extra to Peace Action this month - not the whole two percent raise - but something that starts to make sense to me, balancing out all of my political convictions.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Week That Was

It is not the first week of school that drags on and on, it's the last week. It feels like I just looked up at the clock in my room on Monday morning and it was eight thirty. Wait a second, there still aren't any clocks in our rooms. You know what I mean. The week is already over, and the magical number has dipped from one hundred eighty to one hundred seventy-five. That's the number of instructional days on our calendar.
I tell my kids we have one hundred and eighty days to learn everything they need to know about fourth grade, so we can't waste any time. This week they all seemed to believe me. Right now there is some romance, some mystery in the air. Does Mister Caven really give homework every night? Yes, he does. Does Mister Caven really charge two dollars for a drink of water in his room? Actually, the price went up in the first week to three (classroom) dollars when the demand went through the roof - going to the bathroom during class time remains a relative bargain at two dollars. Does Mister Caven really think he's funny? Yes, and by the time you learn everything you're supposed to know in fourth grade, you'll think he's a hoot, too.
It's just a week, and I know there are a lot more in my future, but this one didn't raise a welt on me or any of my students, so I remain cautiously optimistic. Maybe it has something to do with the convergence of my life here in my tenth year of teaching. I now live with fourth grader, so his lifespan mirrors my tenure. I have told my son that after this year I will no longer be qualified to help him with his homework, as I specialize specifically in the curriculum of the fourth grade. Next year he's on his own. For now we pause, briefly, and reflect on our first week successes. Next week we'll see about getting a clock for the wall. Fourth graders need to know how many minutes there are until recess.