Sunday, December 31, 2006

Re: Solutions

"A man's got to know his limitations."
- Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry in "Magnum Force"
Admittedly this quote isn't as eternal as "Go ahead, make my day," but it is definitely more suited to my purpose. My wife asked me last night if I had any New Year's Resolutions. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have said, "A man's got to know his limitations."
From this you might guess that I don't put much stock in resolutions, New Year's or otherwise. Making promises at the onset of an experience will almost automatically come back to haunt you. At the first slip, someone will undoubtedly pipe up with a cheery reminder: "Remember when you promised..."
No thanks. I'm not fond of setting myself up for those annoying confrontations with the aforementioned limitations. By contrast, I am very good at keeping my promises. In this I tend to favor another character, Horton the Elephant. "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent." Since I work on a planet that is comprised primarily of nine and ten year olds, I know that they hear any vague commitment as the word from on high and I will be held to whatever oath I may have absent-mindedly made. If I give away a pencil for a perfect score on a spelling test once, you can be sure that I will be doing it for the duration of the school year.
I understand that resolutions are primarily for the purpose of self-improvement, but that doesn't make me feel more open to their evil influence. In my mind they seem perfectly suited for some "Gift of the Magi/Monkey's Paw" whammy that would hound me for the rest of my days, or at least three hundred and sixty-five of them. Instead I prefer to continue to look at my life as a work in progress - an open book. To this end, I feel comfortable making the only resolution I can imagine for myself: "I resolve not to make any resolutions." After all, I know my limitations.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Montage Is Conflict

Many years ago I studied film. I studied the history and the techniques. I studied film makers and their work. I learned to speak knowingly of "mise en scene" (what is in front of the camera) and "montage" (the way images are put together). Aside from giving me a slightly larger French vocabulary, I was able to bore friends and family at parties with my discussions of Eisenstein and "dialectical montage."
This morning, I felt some quiet vindication for all my blathering on: Apparently the drones over at Fox News (We Report, You Submit To Our Will) went to the same classes I did. In Sergei Eisenstein's "Strike", a shot of striking workers being attacked cut with a shot of a bull being slaughtered creates a film metaphor suggesting that the workers are being treated like cattle. This meaning does not exist in the individual shots - it only arises when they are juxtaposed. Fast forward ninety years to this morning's report on Fox News (We Juxtapose, You Nod Dully): On one side of the screen, a talking head blathers on about the death of the vile dictator Saddam Hussein. On the other side of the screen is a series of graphics listing the past six month's activity of al Qaida. As the talking head continued his discussion of the potential for violence in Iraq following Saddam's execution he mentioned Shiites, Sunnis, and the four-day Eid al-Adha festival, the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar for Shiites. At no point was there an attempt to link the information on one side of the screen to the other.
We are supposed to do that. In "The Godfather", during Michael's nephew's baptism, the priest performs the sacrament of baptism while we see killings ordered by Michael take place elsewhere. The murders thus "baptize" Michael into a life of crime. I got that. I got the subtle inference in "North By Northwest" when Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into their bunk on a train just before we see that same train speed into a tunnel. At this point I feel compelled to rhapsodize about the "language of film." But I will spare you.
Instead, I wish for the new year that we can start to see things without the aid of green screens and news tickers. We are all in need of some good editing - but be fair and let us decide.

Friday, December 29, 2006

2006 In The Rear View Mirror

This morning, from the comfort of my nice warm bed, I watched one of those "sum up the year in two minutes of video footage" montages that played over a loop of solemn music. You know the kind of piece I mean - with periodic sound bites that creeped into the mix: "When we came in they were all dead," and "There were no survivors." Cue the swell of even more solemn music.
What was missing from all this (with apologies to Steve Martin) death and grief and sorrow and murder? Usually in the midst of the mining disasters and the war-torn regions and the children crying for their missing parents or food or both comes a few seconds of hope. That's when the music turns a little sprightly and we get a flurry of sports and other whimsical silliness that serves as a palate cleansing sorbet for the ugly mess that was the year we all lived through.
There was no sorbet this year. Or at least it was hard to cobble one together out of the news from 2006. Even Pluto got demoted this year. Sure, I could get a little smile from the Democrats sweep through Congress, and there was a Super Bowl and a World Series - but the Democrats have done little so far beyond dropping balloons and making many assertions that things will change, and the sports world is filled with steroids and ugly behavior. Where will our slow motion moment of triumph come from?
Instead, I propose a "Pollyanna" vision of the preceding year. Instead of focusing the ongoing strife and human suffering, let us take a moment to consider the up side. To quote another comic sage, Bill Murray, "Talk about massive potential for change!" 2006 was a struggle, and those of us who made it to the other side can look back and breathe a communal sigh of relief. And with that, the music slows to a triumphant chorus as we make our secret wishes for 2007. See you on the other side.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Looking Back

There's just something about "secret tapes" and Bob Woodward. In 2004, former President Gerald Ford submitted to an interview with Woodward under the conditions that it only be released after his death. "Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do."
This is coming from a guy who gave "Rummy" and "Dick" their first big shots at White House politics. Jerry also gave interviews to the New York Daily News last May, saying "Saddam Hussein was an evil person and there was justification to get rid of him," he observed to the Daily News. "But we shouldn't have put the basis on weapons of destruction. That was a bad mistake. Where does (Bush) get his advice?"
Well, sadly, he got his advice from some of the same guys who looked so spirited and young in file footage of the Ford Presidency. Asked why Cheney had tanked in public opinion polls, he smiled. "Dick's a classy guy, but he's not an electrified orator," Ford said. And not such a great shot, either, as it turns out.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, that much is certain. Gerald Ford is another American citizen hopping on a bandwagon that is getting very full these days. What public official outside of Pinhead's enclave is still leading the cheer for the war in Iraq? Timing is everything, but Ford gave his interview with Woodward two years ago, and more than six months ago to the News. The difference here is that he felt the need, as he almost always did, to do the right thing. "I don't think, if I had been president, on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly," Ford said, "I don't think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I'm Gerald Ford, And You're Not

For a couple of years, I forgot exactly what Gerald Ford looked like. For two years, when I thought of Mister Ford, I thought of Chevy Chase. I know now that these two men knew nothing alike, but Chevy became, for me, the embodiment of our thirty-eighth president. Whether he was falling over a podium or asserting that he was "told there would be no math" during a presidential debate, my world view was formed by late-night television.
Gerald Ford fell down a few times, smacked a spectator or two with a golf ball, and was shot at by a girl named Squeaky. His presidency had a certain Murphy's Law element to it. Of course, anyone who walked in to pick up the ball after Richard Nixon had dropped it near his opponent's goal line would have had a long road. Gerald Ford walked that road with his head up, so it was natural that it would bump into a few things on the way.
He was left with the wreckage of Watergate and Vietnam. He walked into the Oval Office without ever seeking it. By virtually all accounts, he was a nice man asked to do a nearly impossible job. Moments such as the time he asserted that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" as he mounted his campaign for re-election in 1976, or his ubiquitous "Whip Inflation Now" (WIN) buttons, he always seemed just a little overmatched by his circumstances.
Maybe that's why I appreciated him so much. He was so very obviously human, after the scary Shakespearean caricature of Tricky Dick. He had a golden retriever named Liberty. His wife speak her mind and periodically gave him fits, but he loved her fiercely. He was, perhaps, our first mensch president. He kept the ship of state afloat during an economic and constitutional crisis, and made the world safe for "Foul Play."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Time The Avenger

Seven hundred and fifty-five days, ten hours, and two minutes - give or take a second or two: That's how long President Pinhead has left in office as I sit down to write this. The good news is that the clock is ticking.
The bad news? Well, there seems to be plenty of that. The U.S. military announced the deaths of seven American soldiers, raising the death toll significantly in one of the bloodiest months for the military this year. Thank goodness that we had been warned by his Pointy-cranium-ness that we could "expect more casualties" as Operation Liberate Reason continues. These additional fatalities brought the number of U.S. military members killed since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to at least 2,978 — five more than the number killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
I understand that we continue to compare apples and oranges here - dead apples and dead oranges - but when will the weight of common sense and decency cause the leadership to face up to the face that what we are doing is not working. We are not introducing liberty or democracy to Iraq. We are stirring up a civil war and our troops are caught in the crossfire.
Here are some thoughts from Emily Miller, a sister of a member of the Army National Guard, serving in Iraq: "Victory being out of the question at this point, the only democracy my brother is fighting for in Iraq is our democracy. The only constitution he is in Iraq fighting to defend is our Constitution. If my brother dies, it will not be for a mistake but rather because of his deeply held belief that the time it takes us as a people to figure out through democratic processes that we are wrong is more important than his own life." She closes her comments by reminding us, "My brother is doing his constitutional duty. Now it is time for us to do ours."
And now there are seven hundred fifty-five days, nine hours and forty-one minutes left in Pinhead's reign. The clock continues to run.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Papa's Got A Brand New Bag

A lot of people are going to remember James Brown as the Godfather of Soul. While I certainly understand his place as a giant in the music industry, this is not the way I will store his image. Instead, it is much more likely that I will remember him best as the pre-fight entertainment in "Rocky IV." It is during this scene that we are treated to the least of the pop singles generated by the Rocky series, "Living In America." The song reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and in 1986 the song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song and James Brown won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Aside from the fact that it sounds like somebody ran an old funk groove over a John Mellencamp song, it also serves as the "swan song" for Apollo Creed. If only Apollo would have taken his fight with Ivan Drago as seriously as Rocky would (eventually) - maybe he's be alive today to fight in sixty year old Sylvester Stallone's newest boxing opus.
But that's all water over the metaphorical dam. The other very vivid memory I have of the hardest working man in show business is the little dustup he had in 1988: He was arrested following a high-speed car chase down Interstate 20 in Augusta. He was imprisoned for threatening pedestrians with firearms and abuse of PCP. Work hard, play hard, leave a really embarrassing mug shot behind.
Still, without James Brown, there would be no Prince, no Al Sharpton, no eyebrow tattoos. It would be a smaller, less danceable world. "I Got You - I Feel Good."

Sunday, December 24, 2006

It Could Be

There is music coming from the meadow
It sounds like an echo at first
As you move closer it starts to change
You can hear so many different things
The wail of a siren
The howl of the wind
The roll of thunder
A plucky banjo
A dancing flute
A low brass tuba
Now you can almost see the sound
Of angels crying
Of children playing
Of songbirds soaring
In your ears
In your eyes
In your heart
The music of possibility, light, and hope
And You Can Sing Along

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Land Of Milk, Honey, And Rattling Windowpanes

"Now I don't like the sound of the ground movin' round
Or winds spinnin' out of control
California earthquakes only seem make me shake, rattle and roll"
Jimmy Buffett - "Treat Her Like A Lady"
I spend a good portion of my life here in California in deep denial. Every piece of science and prediction tells me that the house I am sitting in will be rubble at the worst possible moment, and yet here I sit. Waiting.
As my family and friends dig themselves out of the Blizzard of '06 out in Colorado, I look out my window at the green lawn and scattered leaves and wonder why we can't forecast tremors, tumblers, and aftershocks. My mother was clever enough to trust the local weatherman and she went out to get enough soup and crackers to get her through before the snow fell. Out here, we talk a lot about being prepared for "The Big One," but most of us have little or no idea about what or when that might be.
We have had three earthquakes in the past four days. They weren't furniture-tipping, appliance-rocking, or glassware-breaking. They felt more like some big -very big - guy taking a run at the side of the house and hitting it full force. They were big bumps, and they got our collective pulses going. They did not send us screaming out into the street. Their magnitudes, in order, were 3.7, 3.7, and 3.5. Probably the most troubling part isn't the size, but the frequency. There was a full day between the first two, and then only twelve before the third. At this rate, we should be having quakes on the half-hour soon.
We've got supplies in the basement. We have bottled water. We have a tent to pitch in the back yard if the house comes down in a heap. But would I really stick around? All those people who head back to the Gulf Coast to rebuild, or buy yet another trailer in Twister Alley - is there honor in confronting nature? If discretion is the better part of valor, why aren't there more people packing up their belongings and fleeing this nexus of fault lines?
This is our home. It doesn't have two feet of snow on it. Natural and cultural resources abound, and plenty of parking - if you know where to look. It takes away some of the stress associated with waiting for The Big One.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"We're not winning. We're not losing."

All the gang over at the Pentagon wants for Christmas is another ninety-nine point seven billion dollars to pursue that ever-elusive victory in the Middle East. It's that "point seven" that really bakes me. That's three hundred million dollars before we have to trot out to the warehouse for another zero. If President Pinhead gives this number his personal "Okey Doke" and it gets approved by Congress, that would boost this year's budget for those wars to about one hundred and seventy billion dollars.
Overall, the war in Iraq has cost about $350 billion. Combined with the conflict in Afghanistan and operations against terrorism elsewhere, the cost has topped $500 billion. This comes at a time when the Pinhead in Chief is preparing to send thousands more troops to try and finish whatever it is that he intends to finish. There is a plan for all this cash, right?
The cost of the war has risen dramatically "as the security situation has deteriorated and more equipment is destroyed or worn out in harsh conditions." I'm thinking the "destroyed" part is kind of hard for budgeting purposes.
All of this comes about at the moment when troop levels are increasing, and Pinhead is being (according to press reports) unusually candid: "I'm not going to make predictions about what 2007 will look like in Iraq except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices because the enemy is merciless and violent." In his bizzaro logic, one might guess that he expects that the only way "win" is to tip the balance in sheer numbers - bodies and dollars. The mission remains a mystery to those both on the inside and out, but it's going to cost you another one hundred billion dollars next year. Give or take. And take. And take some more.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Breakin' The Law

This particular train of thought began the other night as I was walking down the chilly streets of San Francisco, and came to a culmination a few mornings later as I rode my bike to school. That night in San Francisco, a group of us were deciding - as rational adults - whether or not to jaywalk. The truth is, most stop lights have a period that roughly equates with the time it takes for a group of four individuals to make up their minds to cross against it. If you have to think about it, you probably won't do it. That particular law remained unbroken.
Contrast this with the ride I took on my bike. I have a very clear memory of the time, nine years ago, that I willfully rode straight through a stop sign on my way to my job at the school just over the hill. A motorcycle cop who happened to be in the neighborhood turned on his lights and siren and pulled me over. He gave me a ticket for failing to come to a complete stop. I had no argument. I had broken that law. It occurred to me only briefly to complain or moan about all the other things that this Oakland police officer might be doing with his morning, but I still had to face the reality of being caught breaking the law. I took the ticket. I paid my fine and my debt to society.
Nine years later, I stop at all signals and signs, and yield the right of way to pedestrians and water fowl whenever praticeable. It was at one of these stop signs that I looked up and saw the back window of a parked SUV that had been smashed in, probably overnight. That was a crime: vandalism at least, if not theft of some kind. Then I thought of Bonnie and Clyde, and what made them heroes to many, and of Ocean's 11 (and 12). Why is breaking the law so charming and exciting in some cases, and then so horrible and embarrassing in others?
I think it has to do with grace. Rolling through a stop sign is just sloppy. Smashing someone's car window is annoying and costly. Stealing diamonds from a laser protected vault has an element of the artistic to it. Robbing a bank with a vial of colored water you tell everyone is nitroglycerin is audacious enough to be applauded. Shooting somebody immediately puts you in the idjit category. And the real bottom line? If you've ever been the victim of a crime, big or small, the point becomes moot. It doesn't matter how cleanly they managed to get the tape deck out of your dashboard - all you see is the hole.
So, after careful consideration, I've decided to give up my life of crime, such as it was, and walk the straight and narrow. Look for me at a crosswalk near you.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ice Capades

I heard a sound this evening that gave me pause: a small engine, maybe two or three horsepower roaring away down the street. What could it be? Then it occurred to me that I had closed my mind to the most obvious source. It was a lawnmower. Five days before Christmas, some industrious lad was out cutting the grass in his family's front yard. How very nice. It's Christmastime in the city.
I know it's an old saw, but I still catch myself wondering where my snow shovel is. Fifteen years ago when I landed here in the land of milk and honey, I went to a friend's house in Sunnyvale for Thanksgiving. After dinner, we all piled into her great big convertible, and drove around with the top down as we watched the sun set. It was a California moment that let me know I wasn't in Kansas (or Colorado) anymore.
Flash forward to this week, and the relative cold spell that has gripped the bay area for nearly a week. No snow. No hail. Very little precipitation to speak of, but there was frost on the ground until the sun made short work of it. I watched the kids at my school find the slick patch on the playground padding, and carefully measured my reaction as they slid wildly from side to side. Grumpy old Mister Caven was ready to tell them to knock it off before somebody got really hurt, but the more thoughtful and child-like cortex of my brain told them to take turns and try to avoid any grievous bodily harm. For fifteen minutes, until the bell rang, it was a winter wonderland next to the play structure.
I watched one kid's legs shoot straight out from under him as he fell square on his backside. He looked up at me for that moment of kid/adult recognition. Was he in trouble? Would he cry? Nope. He just laughed, and so did I. It's Christmastime in Oaktown.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On The Outside

I got out of teaching for a few hours today. All I had to do was, in the words of a comrade of mine, "cross over to the dark side." What this entailed was essentially joining a group of administrative types as they observed the morning goings-on in several of our classrooms. I could feel the tug of the eight thirty bell as I sat across the room from the breakfast that was provided. Tempted though I was, I don't know if my digestive system would allow me to eat at six forty-five and at half past eight. I sat in front of my carefully collated folder and looked over the rooms that we would be visiting.
Then, suddenly, we were on the move. They wanted to see how our kids came into the room, and how prepared our teachers were when they got there. As we arrived at the bottom of the stairs, we followed a fifth grade teacher into his room and watched his class start the day. I watched the others scribble notes as they moved silently among the students, pausing to check an answer or to ask a quick question. I shifted nervously in my seat and tried to focus my attention on the question that we had been sent to investigate. It was an orderly group, and there seemed to be learning going on, so inwardly I cheered.
Our next stop was the classroom of my fourth grade partner. She had her group humming along, and the watchful eyes nodded their approval and noted all the clever ways that students had to participate. I breathed a sigh of relief and wondered how I would have fared under the same scrutiny.
By the time we went upstairs to our third and final room to visit, I was feeling proud and happy with the job that my fellow teachers were doing. Sure, there were plenty of ways that things could have been improved, or tweaked, or managed differently, but here in the week before Christmas, kids were in their seats learning. Teachers hadn't given up and put Rudolph on the VCR while they cut out snowflakes. Education proceeded apace.
Then, just as quick as it had began, the time had come for me to bid farewell to the world of three letter acronyms - TLAs - and to return to my own group of eager faces. Don't get me wrong, I'm still desperate to have those two weeks off, but I felt better about finishing out the calendar year after seeing our school from outside the fishbowl. It felt good to get back to work.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Exit, Stage Left

For many years I have had a bit of shtick about how our little finger is the only thing that separates us from Fred Flintsone. That goes along with a certain morbid fascination with the film adaptation of everyone's favorite stone-age family. Were you aware that Steven Spielberg was doing pre-production on the first live-action Flinstone film while he was up to his armpits in the making of "Schindler's List"? Make of this what you will. I already have.
And now, with the passing of Joseph Barbera, one half of the evil genius that was Hanna-Barbera, we can set this whole matter to rest. The Flinstones were to the Honeymooners what the Simpsons were to the Flinstones. Prime time comedies with big fat patriarchs - that list begins to swell like Fred's leopard spotted tunic after you add such luminaries as Kevin James, Jim Belushi, and Roseanne Barr. It would be more accurate to blame Jackie Gleason for this spate of family funnies, but Fred and Wilma kept the beast alive for a new generation.
Instead of laying blame on Hanna-Barbera for cheapening character animation and bringing Scooby-Doo to an unsuspecting planet, we should instead be celebrating their triumphs. Specifically, their creation of Tom and Jerry. And where do we find echoes today of our beloved cat and mouse throughout pop culture, but nowhere more plainly than on Bart Simpson's favorite cartoon: Itchy and Scratchy.
Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Snagglepuss, Magilla Gorilla, Touche Turtle, Top Cat, The Jetsons, Josie and The Pussycats, Johnny Quest, Huckleberry Hound, The Herculoids, and Space Ghost - if you don't get a mental image of one of these characters, you've lived in a cave for the past fifty years. That would be a legacy - especially that Space Ghost thing. If you've never witnessed the power of "Space Ghost - Coast to Coast", you have not seen one of the triumphs of post-modernism. Today we come not to bury Joseph Barbera, but to praise him: Yabba dabba doo.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Holiday Services

We went to church last night. The lights dimmed, and the organ began to play. We worshipped at the altar of the virgin Saint Sandy, and prayed for her deliverance from that very condition. It was an enthusiastic congregation that met at the intersection of Castro and Market streets in San Francisco. We did our recitations and sang with hearts full of joy. When the service was over, we were all hoarse and tired, but it was a good kind of tired.
Last night we went to the Sing Along Version of "Grease." To be more precise, we went to be a part of the Sing Along Version of "Grease." The people who surrounded us came to be a part of the show as well. Talking in this theatre was encouraged. Singing, and even dancing in the aisles was encouraged at this theatre. It truly was a joyful communal experience, cheering for Danny and the T-Birds and hissing at the Scorpions - especially that hussy Cha-Cha.
It was also an opportunity to acknowledge and revel in my movie-nerdness. I waited two-thirds of the way through the film to shout along with my favorite line, "C'mon Sandy, you can't walk out of a drive-in!" Couple that with karaoke subtitles for all the songs, and I had a chance to recall just how filthy the lyrics of "Greased Lightning" really are.
"In the beginning was the word and the word was with Grease and the word was Grease." (John Travolta 1:1).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only One

There was Bruce Springsteen on my TV this morning, talking about his song, "Jesus Was An Only Son." He was talking about how he hoped that his kids would be able to face the struggles of life, and that they wouldn't be surprised at how hard life could be once they got out there on their own. He said a friend told him not to worry, "Do your best and life will take care of itself." Just another refrain of the "give them roots and wings" ideal, but it caught me at a moment when I was reckoning one more time about having the one child as opposed to the house-bursting brood.
I have my wife convinced that I never think about this, and that my mind is set and I never have any doubts that the one son that we have is our gift to the world and any additional progeny would be risking a falloff from our extremely high standards. When she reads this, she will know that is not entirely true. Most likely, she will look at me sideways and not say a word since she knew this about me all along anyway.
But we did such an amazing job with the first one. He knows nothing of sibling rivalry and shines as the apple of our eye each and every day. When we buy Legos, we don't have to worry about "fair" - it just is. Decisions are made for the kid, with a focus that would not exist if there were facets to refract our laser-like parenting intensity.
He wakes up alone most mornings. He reads or watches TV. He excels at one-player video games. He is a solitary lad. That's not to say that he is a loner. He loves the company of friends and family, and looks forward to every new play date or gathering. But he doesn't handle random cruelty from other kids well. He expects the consideration and patience he gets from his parents in all interactions. This isn't a ridiculous expectation, but between the ages of nine and nineteen he can look forward to a lot more social injustice from his peers.
Brothers and sisters help cushion the blow. They don't always protect you from the looping right hooks of childhood, but they do teach you when to duck. Having an older brother to look out for you while at home introducing you to the phrase "wanna see something that really hurts?", or having a little sister to yell at for messing up the carefully layered levels of toys and comic books in your room - these are things for which siblings are created. If somebody is going to call you a name that makes you cry, it's always best to hear it from your brothers or sisters first.
These are my regrets. This is my reality. I know that I love my son with the length and breadth of the sky. I know that love comes back to me every day in ways I would never expect. And so I am content with the choices that we have made, and I feel lucky.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Some Pig

This is the time of year that I am reminded just what a softy I can be when all the pop culture chips are down. I get a little choked up every time I read the last few pages of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas". Go ahead, you try it:
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
Okay, so maybe your heart didn't grow three sizes just now, but that's because you're made of stronger stuff. So that would mean you're ready for a bigger test. Chapter 21 of "Charlotte's Web": "Last Day" is as heartbreaking as any work of fiction before or since, and took me an extra evening to get through when reading it aloud to my son. Wilbur's future is assured, just as Charlotte's is not. Ultimately, of course, Charlotte's progeny remain as echoes of their sainted mother, and Wilbur must content himself with the memories of his dearest friend and all that she has taught him. "Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
I might go out and see the "live-action" version that opens on movie screens this weekend, but it seems like a pretty hard act to follow. Garth Williams' illustrations and my imagination have done such a nice job for so many years. Even a regrettable 1973 animated musical version couldn't kill this story. Debbie Reynolds and Henry Gibson? And those songs? I'll stick with the source material, thanks. It is, to quote the goose, "T double-E double-R double-R double-I double-F double-I double-C, C, C."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Girl Gone Wild

Let's take a break from trivial matters like war and education and family. Instead I would like to turn the spotlight of concern directly onto that which matters most: The conduct of current Miss USA, Tara Conner. For some time, rumors have been circulating regarding Ms. Conner's behavior in and around several New York City nightclubs. Those most excellent and hard-working reporters for have revealed that pageant officials expected to make "a big announcement Thursday."
If that announcement involves the lowering of the legal drinking age in New York State, then - as we say in Oakland - "it's all good." Tara is twenty years old, and while there are plenty of twenty year old girls falling off bar stools this very evening as they make the very best use of their older sister's ID, Tara ought not to be one of them. She is reigning royalty: Miss USA and the very embodiment of all things that suggests. Underage drinking, it seems, would not be part of that vision. Lark-Marie Anton, spokeswoman for the Miss Universe Organization, which produces the Miss USA pageant, said "Miss USA is considered a role model and must act accordingly." This lady's boss is Donald Trump, after all. We all know what happens when you disappoint "The Donald". In 2002, Russia's Oxana Fedorova won Miss Universe but was stripped of her title after violating her contract. "We had a Miss Universe from Russia that was a total disaster, and we fired her, and Miss Panama took over and she did great," Trump said.
Make no mistake, these women are "goal savvy" - as they are promoted on their web site. Many previous winners pursue careers in the entertainment industry. But unlike the Miss America pageant, there is no talent section at Miss USA. Ms. Connor may have missed her calling, if one considers "slamming Jello shots" a talent.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Silent Nights

President Pinhead said Wednesday he would "not be rushed" into a decision on a strategy change for Iraq. After all, with the holidays - the Christian holidays - fast approaching, he certainly wouldn't want to start up any of that radical deciding for which he has become so famous. That might eat into his time on the Ranch back in Crawford.
Still, I couldn't help but reflect on a pair of historical holiday items, connected with this time of war and strife. The first is the brief unofficial cessation of hostilities that occurred between German and British troops stationed on the Western Front of World War I during Christmas 1914. I've always enjoyed this story, primarily from the standpoint that the decision was not made by politicians or commanders, but by the guys in the trenches. They decided to take a day off killing one another, and bury their dead. They mourned their dead together in No Man's Land, and in some versions of the story, went on to play soccer against one another in the open field between the barbed wire. Without a common religion, this kind of spontaneous eruption of peace seems unlikely to occur in Baghdad later this month.
It is more likely that we could experience something more along the lines of The Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese leadership decided that the time was ripe for a major conventional offensive. They believed that the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. presence were so unpopular in the South that a broad-based attack would spark a spontaneous uprising of the South Vietnamese population, which would enable the North to sweep to a quick, decisive victory. They chose the beginning of the Lunar New Year at the end of January, 1968 to launch this attack. North Vietnam had announced in October that it would observe a seven-day truce from January 27 to February 3, 1968, in honor of the Tet holiday, and the South Vietnamese army made plans to allow recreational leave for a large part of its force. Historically viewed as a strategic failure, the Tet Offensive is generally considered the straw that broke America's back in Vietnam. It was in March, 1968 that Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek another term in the White House. LBJ didn't want to be rushed, either.
Decades later, we approach another holiday season. Maybe we can hope that it will be the soldiers on the ground making the decisions this year, and not the "deciders".

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pictures Of You

My good friend and confidante on the right coast sent me an e-mail attachment that was his purported doppelganger for his high school yearbook photo. The picture was a tasteful black and white head shot of Adrian Zmed. It was an astonishing likeness, I confess, and it made me think about how much hair there used to be. I used to hang around with this guy. This was the guy who used to get all the girls. I used to get all the phone calls after he broke up with all the girls. "No, I don't know when he's coming back to the country. He said something about a five year mission to explore strange new worlds..."
In the meantime, I was the kid who was told by one female classmate in fourth grade, "You ruined the class picture. You look like a walrus." To be fair, she wasn't exaggerating too awfully much. I've never been too fond of having my picture taken, and it shows. There I was, in the second row, looking round and wan, glasses reflecting the photographer's lights. This indignity continued for all the years of my public education. When I was a senior in high school, I got a friend who had graduated the year before to take my picture for the yearbook. I did my best to mat down the unruly mass that was my hair, and selected a flannel shirt that seemed to suggest a certain - oh, I don't know - rustic outdoorsy feeling. We drove up into the mountains where I hopped across a rushing creek and perched myself on a rustic, outdoorsy boulder. My friend shot up most of a roll of film, trying to capture my essence. What we got instead looked a lot like a Coors Commercial.
And what is the punchline for all of this photoplay? Now that I am a teacher, once a year I get to stand in line with my students and wait for each of them to smooth or ruffle their hair, adjust their smiles, and turn their heads just slightly so they aren't staring directly into the camera. Then it's my turn. One of the perks of being a teacher is that I get a free eight by ten of my slowly aging self for - well - posterity. This year's photo isn't nearly as walrus like as last.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Casting A Stone

I hope that my son never realizes just how much I hope for his everyday safety and the ability to steer clear of life's random annoyances. I think the weight of that expectation might crush him. Yesterday it all came crashing down around his ears when he threw a rock at some lady. To be fair, he wasn't throwing the rock at her, but in a random trajectory that had the unfortunate happenstance of intersecting with the path of a woman who was out for a walk in the late fall afternoon.
Sadly for my son, she was not one of those "kids will be kids" kind of ladies. She was more of the "you kids get out of my yard" sort, and wasn't interested in hearing any lame excuses about how he had never intended to hit anyone and it would have to have been the most amazing ricochet shot in the world, since it was a carom caught her. She would have none of his apologies or attitudes - even if he had given her any.
To be clear: I don't think he should have been throwing rocks around in a residential neighborhood, and I would have been grouchy if I had been the one pegged by the errant missile - my kid or not. When the lady walked my son down the street - marched - to see his parents about all this, I could feel all the knots in his stomach and the tears welling up in his eyes. He's a good boy. He has a conscience as big as all of outdoors, and no real sense of aim. He stood by quietly as the riot act was read to him. I could see the wheels in his brain turning trying to make sense out of this random accident. What could he possibly be learning? My wife asked the woman if she was all right, and was told abruptly that it did not matter, since the important issue was that she had been violated in the extreme. In the calf. Leaving no discernible mark.
But it's the principle, isn't it? Unfortunately for my son, he was at a friend's house, and there were five other sets of parents ready to chime in with their opinions and visions of the correct and appropriate response. By the time I got to him, my lecture must have felt like the most warmed-over of all possible parental nonsense. I could say that I was disappointed in him, but anybody who lived through nine versions of the "good-choice/bad-choice" sermon without running screaming into the night has my vote for kid of the year.
And when all was finally said and done, I think he knew that. I told him how I once broke a window on accident and I was terrified that the lady who came screaming to the door was going to do me bodily harm, but she was more scared than angry. I told him that someday he would tell his son about how he once made a similar mistake. He said he hoped not. Upon further reflection, neither do I.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Grave And Disintegrating

Those were the words: "Grave And Disintegrating". They were carefully chosen by a bi-partisan committee to describe the situation in Iraq. They didn't ask me, but I believe that their collective thesauruses got quite a workout in the last few days of writing their report. President Pinhead has even seen fit to use one of the words, "grave" in his weekly radio defense of his crumbling administration.
The other one? "Disintegrating" immediately brings a mental image from a Daffy Duck cartoon to my mind. In "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century", Daffy battles Marvin the Martian for control of Planet X, the last remaining deposit of the rare element Illudium Phosdex, "the shaving cream atom". As eager young space cadet Porky Pig stands by, Daffy is blown to smithereens by Marvin. Luckily for our hero, Porky has access to a "re-integrating" pistol. Only when the two powers, Earth and Mars have battled until Planet X is nothing more than a square foot of clay with a lone root hanging from beneath the victorious Daffy, who claims the dirt clod that is left in the name of Earth, and Duck Dodgers. To this, a less eager Porky stutters, "B-b-b-big deal."
Which brings us back around to the situation in Iraq. With no "re-integrating" ray at our immediate disposal, we are stuck with the recommendations of those who have taken the time to study the problem. That, and send Rummy on one last "Victory Lap" around the country. This is the guy who resigned his post just ahead of being hauled out by an angry mob of newly elected and vindictive Democrats. Now he's out shaking hands with the troops, wishing them godspeed and happy holidays. Don't be surprised if Pinhead loops a medal around his neck upon his return. "B-b-b-big deal."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Possible Retention

Today I am feeling a sense of relief. All but one of my report cards have been distributed. All the news upon which my fourth graders' holiday wishes hinge has been issued. Many parents came away proud and happy. An few left feeling that I had horribly misjudged their child and their accomplishments. Still others finished the encounter with the same sad, shameful face as their kid. Anyway you slice it, report card time is a stressful time. Even for teachers.
A few years ago, our principal introduced us all to the idea of doing parent conferences with every report card. I felt, as I often do, much like Lothar of the Hill People - saying "It is a good idea, but it is new, so naturally we fear it." Sitting on the stage in the "cafetorium" for a whole day, ushering parents and kids in and out, all the while speaking high-minded platitudes about the importance of fluency practice at home and the need for early intervention for children who have no discernible awareness of multiplication.
Now that I've been doing it for three years, I can't imagine another way to hand out the good and bad news that comes at the end of every trimester. For our school especially, it creates the unavoidable collision between school and home. It's always a satisfying moment when a mother sits down across the table from me, and we discover that we have a very similar chore. Fourth grade is a lot about gaining independence, and for many kids this translates to "ignoring responsibility." Suddenly confronted with a united front, a number of my students fell back on a response they might not have shared in the classroom: tears.
Friday afternoon, and I still had two report cards left. Two parents who had yet to make an appointment with me. Two parents who were probably as concerned about the contents of that secret envelope as their kids. Both of these were parents I had not met over the course of almost four months of school. I thought about going home and starting fresh on Monday, but something made me try the number one more time. I got the first mother at home, and decided, given her circumstances, to make the connection I could over the phone. We talked about her son's potential, and I felt sad that I seemed more interested in his progress than his own mother. When I hung up, I felt drained, but emboldened by the success. I called the other house, expecting to leave yet another message. After a moment of confusion, I heard a man's voice, "Mister Caven? Are you still down at the school?" I told him that I was just finishing things up, but (pause) I would be there for a few more minutes. "Great. I'll be right down."
To his credit, he showed up after only about a ten minute wait, with both of his young sons in tow. We took a few chairs down off desks, sat down and talked about ways we could improve fourth grade for his son. His son sat quietly and patiently nearby, nodding and wincing slightly at the specifics of the grades that he had earned. When it was all over, dad told me "There will be improvement," and with a look at the boy, "Isn't that right?"
We shook hands, and he walked off into the early evening. I went back to my room, filed all the copies and folders, got my jacket and a folder full of papers to grade over the weekend. A new trimester begins.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bye Bye Johnny

One of my earliest memories is the reflection on the tile of my parent's basement of the black and white images of John Kennedy's funeral procession. I was no more than a year and a half old at the time, but every time I see that footage, I think of that ghostly light flickering in the gloom. Then there was Martin Luther King, followed abruptly by Robert Kennedy. These were men who opened the door for my generation to make the world a better place, and they were gone before I got to know them.
There wasn't a lot for me to comprehend back in those days. Political assassination seemed almost matter of fact - our best and brightest would be taken from us tragically as a horrified nation looked on in stunned silence. "The Father, Son and The Holy Ghost" as Don McLean once suggested. In many ways, this set the stage for us to be numbed into a world that would give us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Then came December 8, 1980. I remember who told me that John Lennon had been shot: Howard Cosell. "This, we have to say it, is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival." I was at the top of the stairs at my parents' house, headed to the basement. Now, at seventeen, I was finally ready to face the death of a dream.
"I can't remember if I cried
When I red about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ice Flow

I have memories of cold vinyl seats. I have memories of frost on the inside of a frigid station wagon. I have memories of just how special a treat it was to be allowed to go out in the morning and start up the car before we all got a ride into school. Blessed as we were with cars equipped with automatic transmissions, it was a fairly simple operation. I got the keys. I put on layers of clothes to the extreme, and footwear that could withstand the sub-freezing temperatures. Then, out the front door I went.
This was a privilege. Sometimes, there was even loud discussion about which of the boys would be allowed to venture out into the frozen tundra. I liked the responsibility. I liked the power. I liked to turn the defroster up on high and watch the ice disappear. And yes, there was a large portion of "pretending to drive" mixed in there, but I wasn't supposed to put it in gear. I could play the radio, once the engine was started and the battery was charging and I had no real interest in going back out into the snow. I sat there and waited for the world inside to warm past freezing. The seats no longer crackled beneath me, and the rear window defroster made a pattern that looked a little like loose leaf notebook paper.
Then it was time to go to school. Time to give up control of the mother ship. Time to renew my passenger status. Years later, when it was my own car, I had no one to send out to warm up the Vega. There was no thrill in starting my own vehicle. I sat there and shivered. I turned the radio up loud, and waited for the winter to be over.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Charlie don't surf! "

Back in 1941, December 6 was the day that diplomacy failed, and we found ourselves waking up the next morning to a world at war. Sixty-five years later, a blue ribbon panel has come to the conclusion that a world at war needs to return to diplomacy. The circles that we travel in are constant and amazing.
After four years, four hundred billion dollars and more than 2,900 U.S. deaths , violence is bad and getting worse, there is no guarantee of success and the consequences of failure are great, the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats said in a bleak accounting of U.S. and Iraqi shortcomings. The implications, they warned, are dire for terrorism, war in the Middle East and higher oil prices around the world.
Off in the distance, we hear the refrain, "We will stay until the mission is completed." Is there anybody left who can say, with a straight face, just what that mission is? "Because none of the operations conducted by U.S. and Iraqi military forces are fundamentally changing the conditions encouraging the sectarian violence, U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end," the report said. Was that the mission to which we had been referring?
The panel suggests a "diplomatic offensive" starting by the end of this month, as well as including Iran and Syria in the stabilization of the region. At this point, the panel could have suggested installing a ouija board as the central ruling process for the Middle East and they would have been taken seriously.
Or at least as seriously as the Pinhead who keeps spouting off about "finishing the mission." Haven't any of these guys seen "Apocalypse Now"? Come to think of it, that would make a fine subtitle for this report.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Magic Of Christmas

A friend and constant reader sent me a link to a web site that really struck a chord with me. Of course kids are scared of Santa Claus. I'm afraid of him now. The very idea of this bearded old coot sliding down our chimney and rooting around in our house while we are asleep gives me the willies just sitting here with the lights on. If he came through a window and he was homeless, he wouldn't make it past the end of the block - not in my neighborhood.
The lurking isn't the hardest thing to take, either. It might be all that manic laughter with little or no provocation. "What is so darn funny about a Hot Wheels Supercharger Set? How about a little more focused attention instead of that patronizing 'Ho, ho, ho' all the time." And since he knows when I am sleeping and knows when I am awake, why do I have to make this itemized list anyway? Shouldn't his borderline psychic powers reveal all of my wants and needs along with my sleep habits?
Combine this with the mystical way that he gets around, flying reindeer and squeezing his ample frame up and down smokestacks, and you've got one creepy dude. Essentially this is one great big red clown. Kids are terrified of clowns. That beard and those rosy cheeks are just like a big red nose and blue hair. In your wildest imaginings, did you really think that any five year old would want to sit on the lap of a fat guy they never met and ask them for free stuff? What about that whole "Don't Talk To Strangers" lecture? I know, I know - it's a treasured memory for parents that they can stick in the album right next to the photo they have of their child up to their third knuckle rooting around for booger nuggets. America's Most Humiliating Portraits - coming this year to ABC, right after Personal Hygiene With The Stars.
Give the kids a break. Take them to see Santa when they ask to go see Santa, and don't get me started about a giant hopping rodent leaving unfertilized multi-colored chicken embryos laying around.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect 200 Dinar

I once wrote this in a notebook during my mildly angsty high school years: "Progress - or what you notice you're not making." I thought of this little aphorism today as I read the headline, "President says Iraq progress too slow." Now that Pinhead has made it clear that we are staying until the mission is complete, I guess it's important for us to know what that mission might be.
In a conference today with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, prominent Shiite cleric, the Pinhead in charge said, "I told him that we're not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq, and that we want to continue to work with the sovereign government of Iraq." At this point, it should be noted that al-Hakim leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq's parliament. His party also is backed by the Badr Brigade militia blamed for sectarian killings. He lived in exile in Iran for years, and is considered by some a more powerful political figure than Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This is one of the "good guys." Last week it was suggested that the cleric was expecting to try to persuade Bush to enlist Iran's help in quelling violence in Iraq.
Are you dizzy yet? Iran is going to help quell violence in Iraq, specifically that sectarian violence such as that engaged in by the Badr Brigade. I think the whole thing would be much easier if there was a series of trading cards with vital statistics, affiliations and alliances printed on the back. They could be marketed to kids as "Iraqemon" - and peace in the Middle East could be brokered by children in our nation's school yards.
Now that's what I call progress.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Life Is A Movie, Write Your Own Ending

In Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," when Billy Pilgrim praises the peacefulness of Tralfamadore, the aliens inform him that Tralfamadorians are at war sometimes and at peace at others. They add that they know how the universe will end: one of their pilots will accidentally blow it up. It always happens the same way and that is how the moment is structured. They state that war cannot be prevented on Tralfamadore any more than it can on Earth.
I read that book when I was a teenager. At that time, I was already up to my armpits in nihilism, and this turned out to be a little like throwing lighter fluid on a fire. Now I had my private joke with Kurt and the millions of other disgruntled adolescents who kept their dog-eared copy in their school backpacks. The end of the world is coming, but it doesn't matter since there's nothing we can do about it.
I thought about this again today, after decades, and found that I did care if the world ended, and I do care about how it ends, because now I am somebody's father. I want there to be another sunrise. I want the world to keep spinning after I'm sleeping in the dirt. For my son. But now I find myself watching President Pinhead continue to steer the country into the wall of Apocalypse, and it gives me a cold shiver. This is a guy who has seen how the world could end dozens of times, a guy who has looked into the abyss, and this is the guy who keeps accelerating as the darkness approaches. And still the story continues. We hope that we can pick the ending, but most of us continue reading along with our mouths agape.
I don't despair because now I remember the final chapter too: "There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."
Thank you, Kurt. Hello. Goodbye.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Armageddon Time

I dug holes today. I planted Sticky Monkey and Goldenrod. I learned again about the importance of our wetlands. "Our" wetlands. That's the piece that stuck with me. As a teacher, when I go out and participate in these educational environmental experiences, I always come away with a good dose of civic pride, and a healthy bit of new information, plus more than just a smattering of guilt.
Did you know that ninety-three percent of the wetlands surrounding the Oakland Estuary have been paved over, filled in, or lost to the ages? Did you know that absent wetlands were one of the major causes for the catastrophic losses of Hurricane Katrina? Did you know that most of he world's oxygen comes from phyloplankton, not trees?
What were we thinking these past one hundred and fifty years? Didn't we know that the Clapper Rail would be nearly extinct if we kept encroaching on their habitat? Have you ever seen a Clapper Rail? I lived here in the Bay Area for fifteen years before I ever saw a Clapper Rail, but now I feel a tremendous responsibility to save these odd little birds and their homes.
And where are those homes? Just down the street from me, in the estuary that leads to the San Francisco Bay. When that hurricane comes, I'll be huddling in my basement, hoping that the wetlands break up the massive storm surge waves - or at least seven percent of them - breathing the last few breaths of phyloplankton oxygen as I feed another mussel to the Clapper Rail who is shivering in the corner of the converted dog carrier next to me. It's a terrifying existence.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Scotty, We Need More Power!

There's nothing really tasteful going on in my front yard right now. The sun has gone down, it's after Thanksgiving, and so that means the Holiday Magic has begun. I sit up here looking out the window, wondering just how many gallons of crude fossil fuel I am burning every hour with the display I insist on lighting up every night from the last week of November until we toss our old calendars into the recycling bin. If you listen carefully, you can hear the allosauruses squealing over the sound of sleigh bells jingling.
A lot of my hypocrisy is embedded deeply in my sense of tradition. The Cavens have a long and storied tradition of lighting up the winter nights. I can remember a number of evenings when the show outside combined with the lights on the tree would trip a circuit breaker, and we would all sit around in the dark for several minutes, trying to imagine what appliance we could do without in order to keep the twinkle lights from going dark again.
Still, I think there's something about living here in California that has made the obsession grow even stronger. I have a seven foot tall inflatable snowman on my front lawn. As a kid growing up in Colorado, we were a traditional big-bulb, single strand under the eaves family. Now that I'm in charge, I'm climbing up into trees, and experimenting with rope lights and four different extension cords. There really isn't much competition around. Our house is the most belighted in the entire neighborhood. In years past, there was a family that had a pair of those reindeer effigies, but it was hard to take them seriously, since they kept them on their roof year-round.
In another three hours, the show will be over for another night, and the people next door will be able to get some sleep - until tomorrow at sundown when the whole thing starts over again. In the words of the poet Dennis DeYoung:
Light up everybody
Join us in this celebration
Light up and be happy
Sweet, sweet sounds will fill the air