Monday, March 31, 2008


I watched the Today show this morning. No, I wasn't anxiously awaiting the return of Kathie Lee Gifford, though if I had known this cultural epoch had been achieved, I might have lasted longer. Instead, I was watching Matt Lauer and crew for the plain and simple reason that I could. There was nothing calling for me to leap out of bed and stop watching. Quite simply I had reached the logical end of my Spring Break.
For the rest of the school year, this is it, vacation-wise. We get Memorial Day off, but April is a vast desert with not a shady spot in sight to pull over and recharge my mind and body. There are plenty of weekends, and those will be eagerly awaited as the culmination of this school year approaches.
Baseball season has begun, and I know that the ritual of changing from my Denver Broncos windshirt to my Chicago Cubs windshirt must happen today. I know that standardized testing looms just over the rise, with all of its attendant expectations and stresses. I know that the fourth grade boys will return from recess just a little more pungent than when they left, and the fourth grade girls will announce, as if it were news, "Mister Caven, it's hot in here."
They're right. It's spring and everything is getting hotter as the days get longer. I shudder a little when I remember a time when two weeks of vacation was the standard. The very notion that I would take César Chávez Day off would have seemed ridiculous to me. Now it is expected. I know that there is a reason for teachers and students to have time away from one another during the school year, but every so often, I wonder if we don't all lose some of that educational mojo by extending our vacations.
Nevertheless, I have this Monday to ponder the life of César Chávez, and imagine what will happen tomorrow. And while I'm waiting for that time to come, I think I'll play just one more round of Guitar Hero.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bad Motivator Unit

A friend of mine was lamenting the steepness of the curve to getting back into shape as we all grow older. It used to be that missing a workout or two would be an easy fix. It would just mean pushing just a little harder the next time. Now there are numerous factors that drag us down. Certainly we have the best intentions. Since we are more mature and understand the direct correlation between mental and physical well-being, there should be no trouble getting up and going.
Why then is it such a struggle to peel myself out of bed and strap on my running shoes on a bright sunny morning such as this one? Maybe now that I am older I tend to contemplate my options more fully before rushing off. Perhaps I am hoping to make some cohesive exercise strategy that will bring me a more fully realized experience. It could be that I am pondering the nature of all energy in the universe, and I am massing all my own potential energy before converting it into kinetic. Or it could be that I am just being lazy.
As I lay in bed this morning, gathering the will to get up and out, I turned on the TV. I did this with a remote control, and the calories expended were negligible. For a few terrifying moments I watched "Can't Stop The Music". Not only does it feature the acting talents of Academy Award-winning actress Valerie Perrine, Olympic Gold Medal-winning Decathlete Bruce Jenner, and Steve Guttenberg, it also tells the story of the rise to fame of the Village People and documents the demise of disco and the first wave of the fitness craze of the late 1970's. For this, the film was honored with the very first Razzie for worst picture of the year in 1980.
I watched these nubile young bodies (mostly male) flouncing about to the hit single, "YMCA" and suddenly I felt young again. At least I felt young enough to turn off the TV, get out of bed and flee the room. I can thank director, and Rhoda's mom, Nancy Walker for giving me the necessary motivation for getting back on my feet and out the door. Whatever it takes.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sins Of The Flesh

I confess that I have never been much of a fan of strip clubs. I would like to say that this is because I am a steadfast and adamant supporter of women's rights, but this isn't entirely the truth, since I know that there are plenty of women who choose to take their clothes off for money and it would then be their rights that would be infringed by calling for a ban on such business opportunities. I suppose it might be better to say that I am morally opposed to such activities, and that strip clubs are havens for animal lust of the most salacious kind. To me, that's an argument for their existence: providing a place where such behavior could be confined, acknowledged, and channeled into an eventual return to that "normal" place where women walk around fully clothed without the incessant pounding of ZZ Top.
At least that's what I tell myself. It helps explain moments like this: Police in Ohio say they found a missing pastor from Niagara County in a place where many people would not expect to find a man of the cloth. If you guessed a strip club, then you must have been reading the previous paragraph. The embarrassment and pain that his family and congregation are about to endure will be on a par with the local version of former New York Governor, Eliot Spitzer. The pastor, whose wife and son were on vacation in Disney World at the time, claimed not to know how and why he was at the KC Lounge in the first place. While the pastor may not remember how he got to the club, at least one dancer there claims to remember what he did while he was there. According to the police report, the dancer says the pastor was there for about two hours, had three or four drinks and an equal number of private dances.
Police talked with his wife about her husband's state of mind. Sergeant Frank Previte said, "She stated there was nothing unusual. He was under some stress because of the Lenten season and Easter." I had never considered the potential stresses of the Lenten season, but I am glad that Pastor Rhodenizer found a way to deal with them. Now his big problem will be the hypocrisy challenge. He has to be able to appear contrite and remorseful and hope that he will be allowed to continue to lead his flock as they attempt to forgive him. He has to go back to that place where he was just a man, caught up in the vices of adult males. Won't this Sunday's sermon be interesting?
I know that a fourth grade teacher with a wife and kid would be doing himself a favor by staying away from strip clubs. If nothing else, it's a good career move. But the real reason why I've never been that big a fan of strip clubs? I'm just way too shy to wander around a bar, handing out money to women who take their clothes off - though I am a big fan of ZZ Top.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Uptight Liberals

I don't live in Berkeley. I live just down the hill a ways, in Oakland. That doesn't mean I'm not familiar with it. On the contrary, I find myself confronting the various shades of reality found in our neighbor to the north on a regular basis. I lived in a college town growing up, and I am used to the profoundly politically charged environment that they can foster.
For example, I have witnessed the "tree-sitters" in all their glory on a number of occasions as I have gone to the University for various sporting events and outings. The "tree sitters" are a group of zealots who are hoping to protect the oaks, redwoods, laurels and other trees in the grove from a University of California plan to build a one hundred and twenty-five million dollar sports training center. They "celebrated" a year in their perches in December, and show little sign of giving in. It kept the folks from ESPN from bringing Lee Corso out to the stadium, while it caught the attention of a number of other visiting announcers over the past fall's football season. If this were Norman, Oklahoma, I'm guessing these folks would have lasted a couple of days, not a couple of years.
Then there's the Marine Recruiting Station on Shattuck Avenue. Pity the poor Berkeley youth that gets it into his head to sign up to be one of the few, the proud, and so on. A consortium of anti-war groups have succeeded in shutting down the station, along with the tacit blessing of Berkeley's city council. The council rescinded their statement that the Marines were "unwelcome" in their city, but made no public apology for their initial outburst: "we recognize the recruiter's right to locate in our city and the right of others to protest or support their presence." Fox News ate that up with a spoon for a few weeks. Even "The Daily Show" managed to get a few minutes of silliness out of the giddy hippie reverie.
And now Berkeley has banned smoking on sidewalks in all commercial areas. It also stops smoking in parks and recreation areas; near ATMs; bus stops and taxicab stands; within twenty-five feet of doorways and windows of buildings open to the public; and within fifty feet of buildings used for health care, child care or senior centers. If this sounds like a lot of extra work for your average law enforcement officer, you'd be right. What with all the various new statutes and protests going on, I suspect that the Berkeley police department might just have to call in the Marines.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Echoes Of History

"They're trying to build a modern democracy on the rubble of three decades of tyranny, in a region of the world that has been hostile to freedom. And they're doing it while under assault from one of history's most brutal terrorist networks," President Pinhead said. "When it takes time for Iraqis to reach agreement, it is not foot-dragging, as one senator described it during Congress' two-week Easter recess. It is a revolutionary undertaking that requires great courage."
Prepare yourself for another flurry of comparisons between Iraqi politicians and the founding fathers of these United States. While the process, "building a democracy", sounds familiar, it's the circumstances that are still a bit skewed. First of all, it's my memory that the Declaration of Independence was the document that got our whole Revolution underway, and it took years of war to come to a settlement with our former Empire. That's when the work on our constitution began. There weren't bullets in the air while all of that debate and discussion took place. It took six years from the surrender of the British for a document to be completed, but that was before there was such a thing as word processing, before cut and paste. Why not just take the one we've got and do a global replace with "Iraq" for "United States" and be done with it?
Meanwhile, another main difference between then and now is this: The French didn't hang around looking over our shoulder with an occupying force while we got to work forging our democracy. The flowering of Iraqi democracy is, at best, taking place under laboratory conditions. And not the clean, careful labs of white coats and precise calculations, but rather the scary explosive mad-scientist type place where scary mutations are fabricated. This is no desert rose.
"No matter what shortcomings these critics diagnose, their prescription is always the same: retreat," Pinhead said, referring to the Democrats calls for timetables or troop withdrawals. "They claim that our strategic interest is elsewhere and if we would just get out of Iraq, we could focus on the battles that really matter." Like getting a copy of Microsoft Word into the hands of the Iraqi Parliament, for example.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Memory Lanes

Yesterday I took a break from my continued attempts to master all forty-two songs on the easy level of "Guitar Hero". I went with my son down to the lanes in Alameda to bowl a few frames. It was his idea, starting primarily as an alternative to video games, with the not-so-hidden agenda of running into the half-dozen arcade machines that line the back wall of the AMF Fun Center. What could possibly be more fun than bowling?
I have a permanent visceral memory of Timothy Hutton describing his fondness for the sport to his date, Elizabeth McGovern, in "Ordinary People":
"Can you break the ball?'' she asks.
"You can't break the ball; you can't break the floor; you can't break anything in a bowling alley,'' he says. "And that's what I like about bowling alleys."
After a slight pause, he adds: "You can't even break the record."
I felt this all over again as I watched my son work on the mechanics of his game. He wanted to roll just like his dad, but after a number of false starts, he returned to his kindergarten form of heaving the ball with both hands between his legs. It was this technique that brought him his first strike, so I stayed far away from giving him any additional coaching.
I kept thinking about the unbreakable aspect of the game as I hurled my own ball down the lane. I thought about my own youthful experiences, going down to the bowling alley with my Aunt Peggy, who bowled in a league. She was a supermarket checkout girl. It made sense for her to bowl in a league. I don't know if she was any good, but I do remember getting my shot, along with my older brother. It was a time before the kid-friendly bumpers that have saved so much frustration for my son's potential gutter balls. I remember the rental shoes and the shine on the floor. I remember the bright lights on the lanes, and the dim recesses behind, where the scores could be projected on league night.
By the time my son and I had finished our game, we had each managed a strike, and I had stayed mostly free of the rails. I was grateful for the automatic scoring, since I inevitably forget the extra ball in the last frame. I was grateful for the chance to stay just ahead of my son's burgeoning talents in friendly competition. When we were done, I thought about buying another game, but they were already preparing for the evening. It was league night, and they were busily waxing all the lanes in preparation. We sat at a table across from the snack bar and watched the real bowlers roll in with their bags on rollers, and I wished that my Aunt Peggy had been able to afford that mild luxury for lugging her ball to and from the alley. We drove a few virtual laps on the "Fast and the Furious" driving games just to be sure we didn't leave any fun behind, and then we walked out into the cool evening.
Maybe today we'll do some bowling on the Wii.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Scars Of Youth

"Hey everybody look! Zit makeup," yells Steve Bolander in the boy's room at the Freshman hop. It's probably not a huge surprise that my first memory of teenage personal hygiene came from "American Graffiti". I do recall my older brother's battles with his skin as puberty roared into his life, but not as distinctly as I remember this moment from one of my favorite films. The very idea that Ron Howard (Opie Taylor) would have an unsightly blemish on his movie star skin seemed revelatory to me at the time.
They didn't mention the "zit makeup" by name, but I became familiar with references to Clearasil over the next few years. It showed up in Mad Magazine, after all, and there was a Wacky Package sticker for "Queerasil". Skin care was in my future, and the anticipation seemed oppressive to me.
No more oppressive than the reality. By the time I began my own struggles with unsightly blemishes, the emphasis had shifted from covering them up to scrubbing and medicating them. I went through jars of Stri-Dex pads, marvelling each night at the amount of filth my face was capable of carrying around. I felt my pores responding, and I hoped that each morning would bring relief from the scourge acne that had afforded my "friends" the opportunity to add "Zitface" to the string of epithets by which I was recognized.
I moved from the medicated pads to the hard stuff: Benzoyl Peroxide. I used the face scrub and the lotion and whatever the Oxy 10 people were pushing at the moment. I trusted them because they didn't euphemize. They called a zit a zit, and they seemed to understand the terror that each new eruption created. For a time, I only wished that Oxy 10 came in formulas that increased geometrically, Oxy 100 -1000, to suit the challenge presented by my face.
Now that I am older and clogged pores are the least of my worries, I have the perspective to recognize that my dermatological problems were slight compared to many who I met in college, and for years after. The fact that I still encounter the periodic blackhead or pimple is now a faint echo of my youth. Zits, compared to a kidney stone or getting one's prostate checked, seem like a relief. I know that a proper diet and healthy routines can save my son from the anguish and torment caused by the hormonal imbalances of adolescence. But just in case, I'll have some zit makeup around for his freshman hop.

Monday, March 24, 2008


There are a series of mountains in New England that are significant for their height. Each one rises at least four thousand feet above sea level. This may not seem that impressive compared to some of the peaks in places like Colorado, or the Himalayas, but compared to the rolling hills that surround them, these mountains are distinguished by Prominence, or the vertical separation between a peak and the low point of the highest ridge connecting it to a higher peak. In other words, these are very tall things that tower over everything else around it because of their height.
One of Jesus Christ's best tricks was to feed four thousand with only seven loaves of bread. It certainly begs the question, how big were the loaves, or how much did each person get? But it stands as a miracle, and rightly so.
A group in Boston called Silent March made a dramatic show of four thousand empty pairs of shoes, representing the annual gun death toll for youth age 19 and under in the U.S. Some shoes were sent to Silent March by family members of victims, while others were sent by concerned citizens: boots, slippers, sneakers, baby shoes, even a pair of pink ballet shoes.
Then there were "four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire", referred to in the Beatles song "A Day in the Life". It was a reference to the number of potholes in the roads, so many that they couldn't all be repaired. Over time, some had suggested other, more sinister meanings: a Typhoid outbreak that meant everyone had to be immunized - holes in arms, or unmarked graves of bodies of people that died during the German blitzkrieg on London during World War II. Whatever the source, potholes or corpses, now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
Or at least that's what John Lennon had in mind when he wrote "A Day In The Life". It was a bit of hyperbole, comparing the number of holes to the number of seats in a very large theatre. There are actually more than six thousand five hundred seats in the Royal Albert Hall, which means that U.S. casualties in Iraq still have a ways to go before they could literally fill the Albert Hall. For now we'll just fill the orchestra and mezzanine.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Freedom From Religion

Today is Easter. The rest of my family was getting ready to go up to church. A couple of my son's friends were going along too, and just before they all headed for the car, the younger of the two looked up at me and asked, "Why aren't you going to church?" There was a mild accusatory tone to his voice, so I measured my thoughts carefully before answering.
I thought of telling him that it was because of Buster Brown. I had spent too many Sundays as a child wearing stiff, uncomfortable shoes. The fact that I only wore those shoes on Sunday only exacerbated the problem, keeping them much too rigid and shiny to be of any use to me outside the confines of the First Methodist. Of course I knew that my present footwear was a matter of personal preference, and I could choose to attend services in my best Converse high tops, providing a taste of my fashion sense as well as needed ankle support.
All of the possible theological and philosophical arguments came to mind as well. I chose not to ask him about all the Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Pastafarians who would not be attending services today. I decided not to press him about all the "good Christians" who were unable to go to church today because of weather, illness, or natural disaster. I knew my own mother was foregoing the Easter Service back in Boulder because of snow. I wondered if this kid's God would forgive a seventy-year-old woman for missing a Sunday on account of icy roads.
I even thought about pushing the question still further by asking him about his new favorite movie, "Horton Hears A Who," and asking him if he ever wondered if God was really an elephant carrying our dust speck on a piece of clover. I wondered if he would have that same stoned revelation years later along with Pinto in "Animal House", as he stuns himself with the idea that we could all be living in a solar system that is just an atom in the toenail of some giant being.
And all of these thoughts passed quickly enough before I gave him my final answer: "Because I'm a grownup." With that, I laced up my running shoes and headed out the door to greet the morning in my own particular way.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


I have always loved swing sets. Even though one of my most ignominious defeats came as a direct result of my misuse of swing technology, I still carry a lingering joy in my heart whenever I pass by a school or park with a full complement of swings along with the compulsory play structure.
I grew up with a swing set in my back yard. Before the gravel pit was turned into my father's zucchini patch, we had a pair of swings and a glider, painted in what must at one time have been attractive shades of red and green, but mostly I remember them with a rusty patina. The feeling of the chains going slack at the top of the arc, back and forth, with the hope that you might flip over the top if you kicked hard enough. The danger was more in the flat metal seats that warmed in the heat of the sun to roughly the temperature of liquid magma.
Then there were the swings at school. No one spent a lot of time being amused by the swings on the primary playground. They were fine for kindergarten, but just a few hundred feet away were the upper grade swings. They towered above even the backstops and tether ball poles. They were the tallest structure on the playground. They had the black rubber seat that wrapped around you as you sat down, and cradled you as you climbed higher and higher. They also allowed a good deal of free-form play. By wrapping the two outside swings around the poles, one could sit in the middle and move, slowly at first, side to side. Eventually you could make large ovals covering the range of all three swings, and if you were very daring, you could reach out with one hand and grab one pole to hang, for a moment, before returning to the odd pattern of left and right, around and around.
Then there was the option of lying face down, with the seat on your belly, and twisting up the chain above you until your feet barely touched the ground, then lifting your feet to spin spread-eagled until momentum or your own nausea caught up to you. It is precisely this activity that I believe was a precursor to my later fondness for mind-altering substances. But after all that, it was always best to turn things back to the swing that the makers had intended. The push and the pull. The vain attempt to escape gravity, if only for a moment.
There aren't as many swings on playgrounds these days. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the way that kids of all ages create potential lawsuits with them, and there isn't enough rubber padding in the world that could have saved me on that summer night when I last took flight. Not unlike the the frigate bird of the south seas, it wasn't the flying, it was the landing that caused all the trouble.

Friday, March 21, 2008

To Live Is To Fly

Yesterday was pretty bad. I had children literally running around my room, others shouting profanity, and a few more hurling objects that fit in their little hands at one another. There was even a subset that managed to do all three things at once. These were my exceptional students. My wife suggested that it would have been pretty funny if you didn't have to be there. She may be right, but my perspective hasn't allowed much humor in just yet.
One boy in particular was making the nightmare that was my morning one for the ages. He was taking every scrap of paper he could find and folding it into some sort of airplane, then hurling them across the room, much to the delight of the rest of the revelers. With a number of potential fights brewing between any number of boys and girls, I felt myself torn between chasing the kid down and just letting him go. It was his petulant little laugh that pushed my button. I got his last plane, sat him down, and had him sent to another class for the rest of the day while I put out the rest of the brush fires. It was nearly lunch time before there was some semblance of order in my class.
There is something about this group of kids. In the past I have struggled with one or two personalities that have outgrown their fourth grade bodies, but this class has only a few that I would call "easily manageable". Consequently, I have been hard on myself and, in turn, hard on them. When I got home last night, I felt like I had gone through a ten-round exhibition for no one's entertainment. I resolved to do something about it.
Over the past few years, I have made a point of having "only pleasant interaction" days. Rather than confront anyone in an angry or frustrated way, I would simply ask for what I wanted pleasantly and wait for the response. If I didn't get what I wanted, I would just move along, knowing that I might have an unpleasant interaction at another time, but not on only pleasant interaction day. That's why I waffled a little when my paper airplane maker showed up this morning with a sneer, "I don't want to be in this class anymore. This class sucks. I want to be in the other class."
I took a breath, then: "Gosh, I'm sorry we can't make that happen," I said as I brushed aside his opening shot. "I was thinking about those paper airplanes. You really like making them, don't you?"
An indifferent shrug.
"I was thinking that instead of getting in trouble for making them, that we could have it be an activity at recess, or during P.E. Would you like that?"
His lip uncurled just a bit.
"And I was thinking maybe you would be the guy to be in charge - since you're so good at making paper airplanes."
Now there was actual eye contact.
"Who else likes to make airplanes?"
"Greg. And Chris. And Manuel."
"Great. Maybe you can teach each other how to make all kinds of different planes."
"I know how to make really fast ones, and ones that can do tricks."
He smiled. For the first time in weeks, he was smiling. "At recess, can you be in charge of taking out the paper, and collecting all the planes at the end?"
That kid kept his word. He did his work. He passed his reading test and stayed on task for most of the day. I did a lot of ego-stroking to help him along, but he did it. I have no illusions about this being the magical turning point of the year. I know that this kid will still probably talk trash about me to his friends, but I don't care. During the morning recess I had yard duty, and I watched a blizzard of paper airplanes floating around the playground. We kept them confined to one area, with one trial being to fly from one side of the map of the U.S. painted on our blacktop to the other. Girls and boys participated, and when it was over all the planes were scooped up in a great big pile and brought back inside. Only planes made outside were allowed in the classroom. We agreed that "planes made inside would die there," and be thrown into the recycling bin. Kids were giving them up so as not to lose their flying privilege at recess. We now have a big green folder full of various designs. I am seeing enthusiasm for something other than mayhem for the first time this year.
After spring break, we start studying aerodynamics.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dimes To Doughnuts

I was talking with a friend of mine at work the other day, and I asked him how he liked being part of the third world. I made this query after hearing that the dollar had continued its precipitous drop, and the United States' hold on the top spot on the chart seemed to be slipping. The British Pound is doing quite nicely, thank you, just as the Euro continues to be more and more valuable. Asian currency is making strong movement as well, and us here in the land of the free and home of the brave? Well, we think we might be entering a recession.
Might be? What sort of indicators would help us come to grips with this realization? I think of the 1979 film "Americathon", in which a telethon is organized to save the U.S. form being repossessed by native Americans. President Chet Roosevelt, ably played by TV funnyman John Ritter (God Rest His Soul), has been elected on his one and only campaign promise: "I'm not a schmuck!" He aims to make good on that, and bring America back from the brink of bankruptcy. Set in 1998, who could blame the filmmakers for missing by ten years the actual date of foreclosure.
The powers that be continue to refer to what is taking place as a "slowdown", but from where I'm sitting it's hard to see it as anything but a "smackdown". When something actually hits the wall and stops moving, it is no longer slowing down. This is where we could use Doctor Leonard McCoy to pop up and tell us, "He's dead, Jim." Step one is always the same: admitting that you have a problem. The sad irony is that Democrats will happily trumpet the onset of fiscal instability until they get their guy or gal in there, and then suddenly the "R" word will disappear from the lexicon again.
But for now we can relish the opportunity to discuss the problem of living in an economy that is taking on water fast. And don't forget to wave at the friendly boaters passing us by, the ones from China, and Japan, and Europe, and Australia, and Brazil, and even Sri Lanka.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

When Irish Eyes Are Squinting

A couple of nights ago, we had corned beef and cabbage for dinner. We don't especially like corned beef, but my wife is very fond of cabbage. Why then, did we choose to extend our food budget for such a delicacy? Well, it has become our family tradition to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day in the best Irish tradition since we like to think of ourselves as having some large stake of our heritage in the Emerald Isle. I have spent many years rehashing my father's rather lofty claims to have roots in the north of Ireland, County Cavan.
There may be some truth to this, but it has always been more of a family agreement that it was a fact. It made sense, after all. The notion that our family name had once been "Cavanaugh", or literally "of Cavan" didn't seem like much of a stretch at all. And then those clowns at Ellis Island had casually oppressed my ancestors, all those generations ago, to drop the "augh" and then simply misspelled the rest, leaving us without a link to our nation, our home. It makes a nice story, but I honestly don't know if there is any truth to it at all, since the people who care most about it have passed quietly on, and I use it primarily as a reason to wear my green shirt proudly every March 17. As far as I am concerned, my ancestors all came from Kansas.
I once related this bit to a friend who was born and raised in Ireland, and even brought a considerable amount of his brogue with him. He told us that he knew exactly the place that we were talking about, and that it was possible that some or all of the story was true. My wife, who is always keen to go off on an adventure, asked him what County Cavan was like. "Oh, it's fairly boring. Pretty flat. Mostly farming country. A lot like your Kansas." Makes sense to me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bunker Mentality

President Pinhead says he has no doubts about launching the unpopular war in Iraq despite the "high cost in lives and treasure," arguing that retreat now would embolden Iran and provide al-Qaida with money for weapons of mass destruction to attack the United States.
What were you expecting him to say? "Whoops! My bad!" Sorry, but that won't be forthcoming anytime soon. As we mark five years since our initial invasion of Iraq, the U.S. casualties creep every closer to four thousand with countless more wounded and maimed, military and civilians alike. And the treasure? Try five hundred billion dollars and climbing. That's a lot of bouillon, chicken or gold.
"If we were to allow our enemies to prevail in Iraq, the violence that is now declining would accelerate and Iraq could descend into chaos," quoth the Pinhead. I wonder just what his vision of chaos is, or if he truly sees the current situation in Iraq as stable. All of this leading to his punchline: "An emboldened al-Qaida with access to Iraq's oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations. Iran could be emboldened as well with a renewed determination to develop nuclear weapons and impose its brand of hegemony across the broader Middle East. And our enemies would see an American failure in Iraq as evidence of weakness and lack of resolve."
All of this emboldening makes me shiver. Or maybe it's the fact that all of this bluster comes hard on the heels of a Pentagon study that found no pre-Iraq War link between late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network. Add this to the embarrassing-for-anyone-else revelation of "Whoops, no weapons of mass destruction," and you've got massive potential for egg on your face.
But not our Pinhead. "In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network. And the significance of this development cannot be overstated ," he said.
I imagine a bunker in Berlin, April 30, 1945. Just before der Fuhrer popped his cyanide capsule and put his Walther PPK pistol to his temple, he probably said something like, "No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure, but those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies." Bang. End of story.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Erin Go Barf

Happily, I had a cousin who worked at Liquor Mart (big liquor store that used to be a supermarket - makes sense). He's the one who told me that I didn't have to pay extra for the dyed green keg for my Saint Patrick's party. All you really need to do, he assured me, was put a generous dollop of green food coloring just inside the rubber ring at the opening just before you tap the keg, and you'll be drinking Kelly green suds for the duration of the evening. He failed to mention that this can cause a certain amount of mess and splatter as the tap is being inserted, but hey, it ain't a party til something gets dyed permanently.
Back in the day, my roommate and I referred to Saint Patrick's Day and other "drinking holidays" such as New Year's Eve as "Amateur Night." After all, we didn't really need an excuse to get face down drunk. March seventeenth did allow us the chance to wallow in all things emerald. We put the remainder of our green dye to work on anything that we might ingest: food, drink, or any other non-toxic substance that might find its way into our systems. Processing all that food coloring proved to be a challenge for our digestive tracts, and those who were unable to keep all that fun down in the first place may have been better off. Days later there was still a pale vestige of the shamrock experience we had enjoyed so much on that festive night.
Invariably we ended up with extra food and liquor, and the challenge was trying to work up the interest consume green food or liquor in any quantity after the initial onslaught. For this reason, we ended up with a bottle of gin, very cheap gin, that looked to be mouthwash after our experiments. As a confirmed beer drinker, I had no interest, and my roommate kept his distance because - well - it was green gin.
So there it sat, for months. Until one evening, the guy next door dropped by for a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit. We offered him a drink, and he asked, "What's that green stuff?" We told him it was gin, but didn't bother to elaborate on the color, since that was obvious. We didn't bother to tell him that it was generic, since the color had actually enhanced it beyond that. And we had carefully scrawled on the label "Real Good" right above the plain black letters that said "Gin." "Gimme a shot of that," he drawled. We happily obliged, and we proceeded to trounce him thoroughly as we did most contenders to our collective trivia crown. He took our abuse with good humor, and went home to sleep it off.
He came back the next week for more trivia and more green gin. As he got more and more "relaxed", he pontificated on his own personal hell: Bloomington, Indiana. He never won a game, but he drank a lot of green gin. He pined for his old girl friend, and he drank a lot of green gin. Eventually, this guy, whose name was also Dave, moved away and we poured the last few shots of his favorite spirit down the drain. When the next Saint Patrick's Day came, we bought Tanqueray.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star?

When I got my guitar, so many Christmases ago that I was a senior in high school, I sat in my room and pushed myself to work out the chords for my first song: "Beautiful Brown Eyed Girl". Not to be confused with Van Morrison's classic, this was about twenty measures of strumming with exactly two chords. I read and followed the instructions in my E-Z guitar book to be sure that I had the right combination and placement of fingers.
After a few hours, my fingers were sore and so was my ego. I had taken music lessons since I was in the third grade, starting with piano and moving up to brass instruments by the time I was in junior high. I was never a terrifically gifted musician, but I understood the mechanics very well. If I could plug away long enough, I was sure that I would eventually come to some primal mastery of the guitar as well. I never bothered to take lessons. I just assumed that if I practiced enough that I could become mildly proficient.
Eventually, my frustration level was reached, and the guitar went back in its case, where it stayed as I moved out to various dorm rooms and apartments in my college years. In my freshman year I met a guy with amazing spider-like fingers who played his electric guitar with an effortless grace that belied his pre-med major. I even remember on one particularly chemically enhanced evening that he attempted to play the spokes on a bike wheel, with some very tantalizing results. I never asked him for a lesson either.
My younger brother, who also enjoyed and endured a good deal of musical education picked up the guitar at about the same time he was getting ready to leave college. It was our first warning sign that he might be an artist. He learned to play some nice licks, and he liked to play them loud. I remember picking up his blue electric and thumping out the one-string version of "Smoke On The Water" with only passing satisfaction. I never asked him to show me how to play it for real.
One of my roommates in college was also digitally gifted, and even though he had given up his high school saxophone, he took an interest in my now dormant guitar. A friend of his back in high school had shown him how to play the opening of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and he had gotten good enough to make it look casual in front of girls at parties. Then he would abruptly put the guitar down and pretend to be humble and embarrassed. It really worked for him. I never asked him to show me how to play it.
My buddy in New York has elevated his passion for Bruce Springsteen to a passing ability to play many of his songs on a guitar. He has taken his act on the road to perform amusing songs at fortieth birthday parties across this great land of ours. He taught me how to play darts. I don't think I could ask him to show me how to play guitar.
I have spent the bulk of my life making crazy gestures with my hands whenever I hear a song on the radio that I love. I know that my right hand strums and I should hold down the frets with my left - unless I'm doing my pseudo-Eddie Van Halen hammer technique. It's taken my half a year to work up the courage, but I went out and bought Guitar Hero for our video game system. I sat down yesterday afternoon and went through the tutorials, and finally worked up to my first song: "Slow Ride" by Foghat. I followed the rush of red and green and yellow dots with my left hand and "strummed" with my right. There were moments of real enthusiasm and delight as I hit fifty-four notes in a row. Then my son took a turn. He rocked Alice Cooper's "School's Out" after just a couple tries.
I'm going to ask him how he did it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Show Must Go On

I know that I will be tripping over debris from this year's variety show for weeks, but it will be worth it. After six years, I guess I really don't want the magic to end. Even though I am still bleary-eyed from the past few weeks of burning my elementary school candle at both ends, I wouldn't have missed it.
There were plenty of moments to store away, but the one that I am savoring presently came hours after the curtain closed and the chairs were stacked safely away. When the show was over, as has become our custom, a number of the dads who had given their weekends and evenings in support of our cause went out and hoisted a few in recognition of our accomplishment. A couple of us had our root beer, others had another amber liquid that helped them find a celebratory note. It was fun to hang with the guys and tell a few bawdy stories that couldn't be told in front of our grade school audience, but my favorite moment was yet to come.
Sometime after midnight, making it clearly the next day, I came home to my wife and child who had just wound down their post-show celebration and had drifted off to sleep. My wife lifted her head up when I came in, and we compared notes on how the show looked and sounded and felt. Then she said it: "Your father would have been proud of you."
I pretended not to know what she was talking about, so I made her elaborate. But I knew what she meant. My father was a father for everyone. When I was in band, he was there, pitching in and running the concession stands at football and basketball games to raise money for uniforms, instruments or general upkeep of the Boulder High Marching Panthers. Before that he was a mover and shaker in the Y Indian Guides. He was the guy who used to string four or five sleds off the back bumper of our station wagon and drag all the neighborhood kids up and down our cul-de-sac on those cold, snowy nights. I know that part of it was because he was looking for a way to extend his own youth. He stayed young by playing with kids. He was good at it.
When I went to bed at last, I thought about all the kids that I have seen singing, dancing, telling jokes: the ones that were nervous, the ones the were supremely confident, the very serious, and the just plain silly. My own son has found his own voice and inspiration through his experience over the past six years, first from the wings, then on the stage beside me, and finally performing his own act with his buddies. If I had anything to do with that, then I am very proud. And ready to move on to the next thing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Cycle Logic

"You are not a car." A motorist rolled down his window to shout this piece of information to me as I made a left turn onto the street where my school is. I suspect that since I was riding my bike that he felt the need to remind me of the inherent dangers of riding a bicycle on busy urban streets. The truth is, I stay to the side streets for most of the trip from my house to my job so that I can avoid just such an interaction. The problem is I can't avoid them forever, since I live in a big city, pretty soon I'm going to have to cross one of those big avenues where all the automobiles are.
Riding a bike in the Bay Area can be a dangerous if not deadly business. In the wee hours of the morning a few days ago, a woman was badly injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco.
Two bicyclists died Sunday after being struck by a Santa Clara County deputy sheriff who allegedly fell asleep at the wheel of his cruiser. They were riding on Stevens Canyon Road, a rural route frequently used by cyclists in training. "Speed," said Sean Co, bicycling coordinator for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, "is probably the highest contributing factor in any bicycle collision that results in a fatality." Rural or urban, it doesn't seem to matter much.
Tough to argue the physics of that observation, but it's still not enough to get me off my pedals and into a "shiny metal box", to paraphrase Sting. The morning of my own not-nearly-fatal altercation, my mind filled with many a pithy comeback, congratulating the motorist on his observational skills, but I didn't say anything. I jut kept riding, with my eyes and ears open, watching for the next potential disaster. But if I did say something, it might have owed more to "The Elephant Man" than The Police: "I am not a car! I am a bicyclist!"

Thursday, March 13, 2008


If God helps those who help themselves, what does he do with people who read self-help books? I am currently in the midst of doing just that, as I am about halfway through Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar. My usual reticence about such reading material was tempered by the fact that Ben-Shahar is a professor at Harvard, and has appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart". This must be one clever, hip, happening kind of professor. Who wouldn't want a few pointers on becoming more self-aware and, hopefully, happier.
Still, I'm not much for getting help on these things. I am generally suspicious of anyone claiming to be an expert on human potential and fulfillment. I've done my share of introspection and have had some very nice experiences in therapy. I've also had a few less-than-comfortable moments that were intended to create a deeper understanding of myself that turned out to be essentially money making ventures. I spent a weekend in an attempt to build my self-esteem, in one of those overtly touchy-feely remnants of the seventies. We laughed and cried and hugged and learned a poem and hugged and cried some more, and after I had paid in full, I was told that I had done such a good job that they wanted me to come back and enroll other unhappy people into their program.
I am embarrassed to say now that I did just that, for a little while. I really felt that what they were selling was important. Then one day as I was working my line on a kid who would probably have to work an extra shift at McDonald's to cover his enrollment, it occurred to me, "If this stuff is so important, why isn't it free?" The powers that be at the center told me that worrying about money was just another trap, and if it really was important, anybody could find the five hundred dollars to do the course. I didn't go back.
When the time came to sober up, I didn't go to any meetings. I read some of the books and talked to people who had done the program, but I felt confident about where I was headed. I have friends who have had lots of success with varying levels of participation in a great many different twelve step programs. They are, by contrast, free unless you count the contributions for coffee. They give people the thing that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote about in so many of his stories: an extended family.
Tonight before I go to bed, I will read a few more pages of my book, and maybe take a swipe or two at the exercises at the end of the chapter. And I'll be grateful to my mother-in-law for giving it to me. And I'll smirk a little at the irony of marrying into a family whose business is writing self-help books. Whatever makes them happy, I guess.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Third Trimester

It's been a tough week in and around the halls of my school. The strain of fourth grade seems to have gotten to some of my kids, and it's not just my class. There are plenty of little problems becoming big problems all around our campus. Part of me wants to shrug my shoulders and play it off as just the early onset of Spring Fever. Another part of me wonders if I'm just not remembering how tough things get right around the time of our second trimester report card. But the voice that keeps winning out is the one that says it has something to do with a world that continues to wage war and refuse to raise taxes to pay for education.
I know that's an oversimplification, but it's the way it feels down here in the trenches. I understand that we have lived for way too long in a world that has let public education wander away from its expressed purpose and connection to the community that it serves. I know that I take no greater satisfaction than those moments when I have not only fired a synapse or two in the average fourth grader, but when I see those same kids walk out of my room and tell their friends or parents what they have just learned.
This year I have encountered more of the students from my past than I can remember in any year passed. I asked one of them how school was, to which she replied, "Mister Caven, I'm twenty." Sorry, my mistake. I might have pressed the issue by asking her what college she was attending, but her answer was enough for me. I understood her implication. She had come down to pick up her cousin who was leaving the after-school program early that day. I wondered if she would ever move away from her old neighborhood. It was nice to see her, but it made me wonder if I hadn't failed her somewhere along the line. While we waited for her cousin to come up to the office, she told me she still remembered how I taught her about typing with all ten fingers. So I had given her a skill after all. The time she spent with me had some value.
And so I head into the last few months of this school year with a mix of hope and resignation. I have no way of knowing what impact I will have on this group, but I look forward to a time where the world I am preparing children for feels more hopeful.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Love Sick

Hello - at least one in four teenage American girls has a sexually transmitted disease. How's that for a grabber? Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted the study and were more than a little surprised by the results. Only about half of the girls in the study acknowledged having sex, but of those who admitted to doing the dirty deed forty percent had an STD.
This is the part where I compare myself to the youth of today: When I was a teenager, I thought that STD was the Racer's Edge. Most of the people I hung out with were only wishing that they were having sex, and so the very notion of catching something was out of the question. Oh, we had stories about this girl or that guy, but never anything that amounted to more than ugly rumors about diseases that we couldn't begin to comprehend.
The worst I knew about were the girls who thought they had mono. Mononucleosis used to be called "the kissing disease" because it is found, like so many things, in saliva and mucus. In junior high, anyone who was out sick for more than three days in a row was almost certain to have contracted mono.
All the truly horrifying viruses that came later were simply punchlines to jokes I claimed to get. The fact that Valentine's Day and Venereal Disease had the same initials was a great big hoot, at least for a few days every year. But did I know anyone with persistent itching or open sores? Heavens no. Fast forward to 2008: The overall STD rate among the eight hundred and thirty-eight girls in the study was twenty-six percent, which translates to more than three million girls nationwide. Three million teenage girls with something swimming, floating or crawling around inside of them making another who-knows-how-many teenage boys sick. And vice versa. It was probably some genius teenage boy who first promoted the myth that douching with Coca-Cola will kill STD germs. Have a Coke and smile.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Client 9

Recent history is chock full of moments like the one that found Golden Globe winning actor Hugh Grant with his literal pants around his literal ankles. I have long subscribed to the notion that his indiscretion was one thing, but the fact that he chose the sixty dollar charms of Divine Brown, who has never won a Golden Globe, over those of his long-time paramour Elizabeth Hurley. Hugh's actions only solidified the notion that men do not always make good decisions when under duress.
The irony of the Hugh Grant scandal was that he managed to turn it into a few more movies and a few more minutes of fame before the whole stammering Englishman thing wore thin. His appearance on the Tonight Show will live on in infamy as one of the great moments in damage control of all time.
Such can not be said for New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer. His honor brought dishonor on his office with a romp with a high-priced call girl. "I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself," said the forty-eight-year-old father of three teenage girls and corruption-fighting politician once known as "Mr. Clean." "I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family."
Isn't that always the way? His poor wife, standing up there on the podium with him, must have needed a whole medicine chest full of nerve tonic to keep from wringing his neck. Somewhere behind those glassy eyes must have been screaming, "What about your legacy?" She deserves some special compensation for keeping it together while her husband tried to reconcile his illicit acts with his "Sheriff of Wall Street" image.
Managing one's indiscretions is a tricky business, just ask Bill Clinton. Marital infidelity is certainly an ugly business, but heaven help you if you pay for those trysts. It's a pretty simple case of the Ten Commandments being trumped by the penal code, which in New York can be pretty stiff.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Time The Avenger

I have, to a certain degree, surrendered myself to the low-grade annoyance that is daylight savings time. While I am routinely struck by just how many devices we have to keep track of time in our house, I am happy that only two of them are distinctly analog and take the most effort to maintain.I take no real solace in the notion that I am somehow manipulating or creating time by moving the hands of the clocks in my house forward or back. Since it takes my time to do either one, I suspect that I am going to be out a good fifteen minutes twice a year, working to keep track of this arbitrary shift.
I also take no solace in the knowledge that the idea for daylight savings time dates back to the ancient Romans and has often been credited to one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, even though his was somewhat more tongue in cheek. I understand that this extra hour of sunlight is intended to stimulate our economy, and as economic stimulus packages go, this is a far cry cheaper than billions of dollars in tax refunds. I also understand that when all is said and done, it is still a sum-zero equation, where the hour that we gained disappears six months later. I know that there are places where energy use is happily impacted as well.
As I was pondering all of these concerns, I was struck by the one thing that is certain: Time, as Alan Parsons suggested, keeps flowing like a river, and even the amount of time it has taken me to put down my thoughts on the matter is never coming back. The time that I used to spend holding my son's hand as we walked across the street is gone. The time that I spent worrying about hair care products has receded as well. The past has passed, and now I can only steel myself for the return of daylight standard time and the cheap thrills to be gained by beating the clock.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mint Condition

It is that time of year. As I was walking into my neighborhood grocery store this afternoon, a group of three pre-teen girls were laughing and teasing one another near the entrance. They stopped just in time to hear my most pressing concern: "Do you have any Thin Mints left?"
The laughter stopped. With appropriate solemnity, they looked up and said, "No." My heart sank as I reconciled my situation. The window for Girl Scout cookies was closing fast, and I knew that there were still a few options open to me, but I had let time get away from me, along with that most savory of treats, Girl Scout Thin Mints.
Over the years, friends of mine have pointed out to me that there are plenty of mint/chocolate confections available, and if I was completely set on having these particular cookies, I could use any of the readily available recipes to make my own. This would completely spoil the whole transaction for me. The bright green box and the two cellophane wrapped cylinders inside are part of the intrinsic joy. Everyone knows that each one of those cylinders contains approximately one serving.
Yes, I've got a problem, but back when there was a Girl Scout who lived right next door, it was manageable. I can still remember the look on her mother's face as I explained that I knew the difference between a "box" and a "case", and I would still be happy to buy a "case" of Thin Mints thank you very much. After that initial contact, she made her first stop every year. She earned her cookie badge each year just for walking up our driveway and ringing our doorbell.
But that was then, and this is now. The remaining boxes from last year's overindulgence have finally disappeared, and I am faced with another long year without that sacred snack.
I know that I can be strong. I know that over the next week or two, I might pass by another card table set up in front of a shopping mall, or some bright street corner, and just maybe a glimpse of the distinctive Kelly Green package that tells me "These girls have what I want." I've got my eyes wide open now.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Through The Looking Glass

President Pinhead chastised most other countries Friday for "a sad and curious pattern" of doing little to speak out against human rights and political abuses in Cuba. "Unfortunately, the list of countries supporting the Cuban people is far too short and the democracies absent from that list are far too notable."
On Wednesday, the Democratic-led Senate voted fifty-one to forty-five in favor of a bill calling for the Central Intelligence Agency to adopt the US Army Field Manual, which forbids waterboarding and other types of coercive interrogation methods. On Thursday Pinhead said he plans to veto legislation passed by the Senate to bar the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods including waterboarding.
Anybody see a trend emerging here? No? That may be because it's been a while since you read any Jonathan Swift or Lewis Carroll. How does this man keep his head from spinning off of his neck when he keeps talking out of both sides of his mouth like that? "The president does not favor torture. The president favors making sure we do all these programs within the law," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, adding that "all the interrogations that have taken place in this country have been done in a legal way."
Evoking the struggles of pro-democracy protesters Miguel Sigler Amaya and his wife, Josefa Lopez Pena, Pinhead said, "For Miguel and Josefa, the horrors of life in Cuba are behind them, but millions of others are still trapped in the tropical gulag. Yet most of the world says nothing."
How's your geography? What island nation is the home of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp? If you guessed Cuba and not Australia, take a pair of electrodes and move ahead two squares. Of the roughly three hundred and fifty detainees still incarcerated there, U.S. officials said they intend to eventually put sixty to eighty on trial and free the rest. On February 9, 2008, it was reported that six of the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility would be prosecuted for conspiracy in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That leaves a whole bunch of people in "a tropical gulag" that much of the rest of the world have closed. The Pinhead administration has declared that the Third Geneva Convention does not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters, since the Geneva convention only applies to uniformed soldiers of a recognized government. That would be the way that we keep things "legal".
Please understand, I feel that the treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Cuba may be apples to our al-Qaeda oranges, but they are all endowed with certain inalienable rights, because apples or oranges, they're still human beings. Try that logic on for size, Pinhead.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Prestige Piece

I recently enjoyed watching Christopher Nolan's film "The Prestige". I find it rare that a movie will keep my interest for the entire running time, but when this one was over, I found myself revelling in all the intricacies of the plot and the precision of the performances. It provided a nice palate-cleansing sorbet for that afternoon's viewing of "The Spiderwick Chronicles", which tested my patience from the very first reel.
My fascination with "The Prestige" probably stems from my childhood fascination with magic. While I was never particularly adept at sleight of hand or card manipulation, I appreciated a good trick, and I remain a good audience for the better-than-average conjurer. This is because, in my youth, I was regularly called upon to "pick" my friend's tricks. He would usually spend an hour or two practicing on his own after returning from The Wizard, Boulder's downtown magic shop. Even if I had gone to the store with him, he would insist on this brief period of rehearsal before showing me his new illusion. I was the litmus test. If I could figure out how the trick was done, then he was due for a few more hours in front of the mirror before he was ready to trot it out in public.
From elementary school and into junior high, I served as the quality control for prestidigitation on my street. If I could see the flip or the switch, the bit was not ready for the stage, or the living room as was most often the case. I learned to ignore the misdirection and focus on the downstage hand. There was always a reason for a magician to stand awkwardly: it wasn't mysterious, it was just awkward and it was almost always hiding something.
I'm still a tough audience. Doug Henning and David Copperfield only impressed me with their willingness to spend money to create bigger and better illusions. Penn and Teller are infinitely more interesting to me, since they spend most of their act telling you exactly how they do a trick, and then right at the end kick it up an Emeril notch, and sending me scurrying to the possible explanations.
For a short period of time, David Blaine occupied this same spot, as he wandered around the streets of these United States asking people if they wanted "to see something weird." Somewhere along the line, David turned into more of a geek show than a magic act, and his stuff has become more tedious than anything else. And don't get me started on Chris Angel - Mind Freak. If you take away the eye liner and marginally hip haircut, you've still got the president of your high school's magic club. His image is his biggest illusion.
I look for the strings, watch for the trap doors, and am always suspicious of a dimly lit stage. Still, in the end, it is as Michael Caine's character says at the end of "The Prestige": "Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it because you're not really looking. You don't really want to know the secret... You want to be fooled."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Murphy's Law In Retrograde

This morning I woke up late. For me, this means that I woke up when the alarm clock told me to, not eight minutes before. When I got out of bed, my left shoulder was sore, probably due to the fact that I had spent most of my early morning dreamtime pulling books orders at the warehouse I used to manage. Once I got into the kitchen to get breakfast, I realized that I had neglected to empty the dishwasher the night before, and I would have to do that before I could put my dirty cereal bowl and juice glass in. I managed to maintain my speed and balance through these minor obstacles and finally got out the door an onto my bike to pedal to school.
When I arrived, I discovered our cafeteria supervisor, a first and a fifth grade teacher sitting on the steps outside. No one had sent a substitute custodian to unlock the school. I put down my kickstand and joined them, as other teachers, parents, and students began to join us in our wait. After more than a half an hour of pleasant morning chit-chat, our assistant principal arrived to turn us collectively loose on our day.
Unfortunately, this left precious little time to prepare for the day, and I spent the little pauses that I was afforded in the day trying to make up for the time that I had lost. That's when I started thinking about my wife's refrain, "Maybe Mercury's in retrograde." This is something that she says in hopes of giving a blanket explanation for days that go like this. Astrologically speaking (as my wife is prone), three or four times a year, if you care to watch carefully, the planet Mercury appears to turn around and go backwards for about three weeks. It isn't really going backwards. It's just an optical illusion based on the relative speeds and orbits of the Earth and Mercury around the Sun. Astrologers will tell you that the effect of Mercury retrograde is annoyance. Little things get snarled up and a low-grade frustration emerges. Anything involving communications, verbal activity, technology, short trips and journeys, primary education, and siblings can be affected.
When I came home, after having to suspend a student who had already been suspended and had returned to school just long enough to cause an already injured girl more injury, there was a sink full of dishes, and once dinner started to be prepared, the smoke alarm started to blare. I went to Al Gore's Internet to look for clues. After waiting for new anti-virus software to download and install, I was able to locate a table that told me when to expect this Mercury problem to occur. We recently experienced a little retrograde, but the next one won't happen until May. Perhaps there's another planet to blame. Or maybe Pluto is in Capricorn. Or maybe it has something to do with Uranus.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Cold Reality

After more than a decade, I have essentially resigned myself to having a cold from roughly October through April. As an elementary school teacher, I have grown accustomed to the fact that I work in a petri dish. Long before the rains come, the post nasal drip is in full effect in my classroom, and I watch in horror as germs are moved in bulk from one side of the room to the other, sprayed or slathered by any means necessary.
Oh, we do try to limit the spread of any and all bacteria. We encourage children to sneeze into the crook of their elbows, rather than their hands so that only those who come in square dance contact with the sneezer will be likely to become infected. We do the same with coughing, but once the TB ward opens up in the fourth grade, there isn't a lot left to do but ride it out. My wife, a proponent of herbal medicine and homeopathic cures came home one day, thrilled with her latest purchase.
From the Airborne web site: "When Victoria Knight-McDowell taught second grade at Spreckels Elementary School near Carmel, California, she often brought home more than papers to grade. 'Back to school meant back to being exposed to germy students,' recalls Victoria. That inspired her to create a drug-free formula that would give her immune system a fighting chance against germs and viruses." An herbal remedy for colds, created by a teacher? This sounds like it can't miss!
Can't miss unless you're one of those spoilsports at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "There's no credible evidence that what's in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment," said CSPI Senior nutritionist David Schardt. "Airborne is basically on overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that's been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed." Now the makers of Airborne, and not just poor Victoria, will have to pay off a twenty-three million dollar class action lawsuit for false advertising. This is bound to come as hard news for Kevin Costner, celebrity spokesperson, who is quoted on that same web site: "Look, Airborne is great. I wouldn't go on a movie set without it; it's on my plane and in my house."
Sorry Kevin. I'll be going back to my standard regimen of exercise, getting plenty of rest along with my vitamin C, and I won't be doing the Virginia Reel with any fourth graders for a few more months.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Wanna See Something That Really Hurts?

If you have paid any attention to my rants and whining, first of all, I apologize for being such a wiseacre and malcontent. Secondly, you are probably familiar with my continuing issue with the fact that even though we find ourselves living in the twenty-first century, I am still awaiting my own personal jet-pack.
But take heart! The United States Army has begun field testing its new Ray Gun! As with all new weapons, it has a lovely new military euphemism: called the Active Denial System, it projects an invisible high energy beam that produces a sudden burning feeling. Before you start your minds to other high energy beams that produce a burning sensation, let's remember that we're talking about our national defense here. It can penetrate clothes, suddenly heating up the skin of anyone in its path to one hundred twenty-two degrees. It only penetrates the skin to a tiny depth, just enough to cause discomfort but no lasting harm. A Reuters journalist who volunteered to be shot with the beam described the sensation as similar to a blast from a very hot oven.
Obviously this guy never had an older brother. If somebody tells you that it makes you feel like you're going to burst from the inside out, you take their word for it. These reporters are probably the same guys who routinely put themselves in harm's way to give us, the public, a vicarious thrill: standing in the path of a hurricane, or being a crash-test dummy for the latest lawsuit from Detroit, or even allowing themselves to be microwaved like a baked potato.
But when things get really tough, the Army isn't going to be attempting to repel a wave of annoying reporters (despite the obvious satisfaction that could be gained). They will be trying to get bad guys to drop their weapons, or hoping to quell a riot. Again, the manufacturers say that this avoids injury, but the long-lasting effects are still unknown. Who knows, maybe it will help eliminate the violent and overpowering need for a personal jet-pack.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Down At The Mall

Today is just the kind of sunny, pre-spring day that used to make it hard to stay behind the counter at the video store where I used to work. We used to prop the door open and let the fresh air in, waiting with limited patience for the next customer. Sundays were the worst. After an initial flurry of morning returns, the day would settle into a tedium broken only by the occasional late fee or phone call from the mom who wanted to keep that Berenstain Bears tape one more night because her kids absolutely adored it. Then back to the tedium.
To make the time pass with any speed at all, diversions were needed. There was never anything as extreme as the hijinks in the movie "Clerks", but I could certainly relate to Randal's mild antipathy for his customers: "You know who I could do without? I could do without the people in the video store." His friend Dante asks him, "Which ones?" Randal replies, "All of them."
That was the video business back in the eighties. There was still an air of privilege to renting video tapes. Beta had just been quietly phased out, even as we began to move away from our two-tier membership plan. I spent my days answering the same question for dozens of blank faces: "What's new that's good that's in that I haven't seen?"
I never screamed at one of these lost souls, but Sunday brought the biggest challenge. Saturday night was always our biggest of the week. All of our big hits were reserved for members on the weekends, and the newer the release, inevitably those were the last tapes to come through our drop slot. Why return a tape at ten in the morning if, technically, you had it until six o'clock that evening? That left me with the non-planning malcontents who expected to be surprised with a brand new copy of "Top Gun" that just happened to be on the shelf just for them.
That's when I would ask them if they had seen "Endless Love". "It features Tom Cruise in his prime, before he became just a Hollywood boy toy," I would tell them. Or I would give them one of my sure bets. Everyone who worked at the store for more than a month had one or two. Movies that they could rent out when "everything else" was gone that that sad little customer would come back the next day raving about. My buddy never failed with Alan Parker's "Birdy". He used to put it out with a money-back guarantee. "If you don't like it, it's a free rental." Partly due the fact that it is a very good film, but mostly because of his chutzpah, every one of those customers ended up paying for "Birdy".
Still, all of this left us with another six and a half hours to fill on a Sunday. We couldn't go outside, since we had to answer the occasional phone call, but that same phone allowed us to work deals up and down the strip mall in which we were trapped. Free movie rentals were the currency, and we bartered for pepperoni slices from the pizzeria and the occasional six-pack of beer from the liquor store. A few of our employees even arranged some chiropractic treatments in exchange for free movies.
What then, to do with the other six hours? Sundays were our Theme Days. We had "Big Rubber Monster Day" (Japanese Monster flicks), and "Whole Lotta Sweatin' Goin' On" ("Cool Hand Luke", "Das Boot"), and "Really Bad Musicals" ("Paint Your Wagon" - Clint Eastwood sings!). Then finally, blessedly, eight o'clock would roll around. On Sundays we closed early if only to limit the torment for those of us behind the counter. But our day was never complete without that one last desperate idjit squeezing in just before we got the sign flipped and the door locked. "What's new that's good that's in that I haven't seen yet?"

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Are These Your Cues?

My favorite Pat Benatar song is "Promises In The Dark." This is not just because it is an instant click on the eighties refresh button. It is also because it has one of the great rock and roll pauses. Just as the song is building to its melodramatic climax, Pat sings "they whisper promises in the", and then nothing. There is a big open space where nothing happens. Nothing happens until you hear Pat's husband and guitarist in the background counting the band back in. Then Pat belts out the last word, "dark!" It doesn't read like much on the page, but when I hear it, I still get goosebumps.
My visceral reaction is probably due to the years I spent playing in bands. Not rock bands, but there were moments in high school Pep Band that felt like it. Playing music has always been as much about silence as noise. Those pauses have always been magic. Bruce Springsteen knows. Just about the time "Born To Run" is going to come roaring into the station, The Boss pulls it to the side and the band idles loudly as the crowd builds to a frenzy. The last verse cannot be played until he hollers out "one, two, three, four!" That is the only way we know that the highways really are jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.
It's a lot like atoms, or the solar system, where we discover that most of the universe is made up of empty space. It's not all those notes in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, it's the rests.