Thursday, July 31, 2008

Komedy Klassics

Stop me if you've heard this one: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap." No? Well, according to researchers, that joke goes back to Sumeria in 1900 B.C. It's not exactly a laugh riot, I grant you, but it does include one of the funniest words in any language: husband.
But seriously folks, we've got scientists getting paid to find the word's oldest joke. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about the "killer joke", not to be confused with the eighties band, Killing Joke. The Python joke went something like this: "Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput." If your high school German is up to snuff, you're probably just now picking yourself up off the floor. Or not.
Because that's the thing about jokes, isn't it? Sometimes the magic works, other times you just get a blank look for your trouble. Or worse, you could get the omnipresent joke-killer, "I don't get it." I wonder if the originator of a 1600 B.C. gag about a pharaoh, said to be King Snofru, "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish," got only shrugs on his delivery. Ancient Egyptians weren't known for their timing.
Long before the boys in Monty Python got together, sometime in the 10th Century, we get our first English joke: "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key." Again, not exactly "The Parrot Sketch", but back then there was all that trouble with the Vikings, and it probably seemed like the height of levity. I guess you had to be there.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Eat To The Beat

I ate a lot of cheeseburgers last week. I was on vacation. That was the way I reconciled the fact that I was pounding down red meat with the occasional slice of bacon. The fact that I spent at least three of those days taking that fuel out on high-speed-turbulent-roller-coaster-type-rides was just a way to test my digestive process. The good news is that everything stayed put. That turns out to be the bad news too.
Since a good meaty chunk of the time I spent on my proto-Atkins adventure was spent in Los Angeles, I took special interest in the news that their City Council is putting South Los Angeles on a diet. The council voted unanimously Tuesday to place a moratorium on new fast food restaurants. The definition exempts "fast-food casual" restaurants such as El Pollo Loco, Subway and Pastagina, which do not have drive-through windows or heat lamps and prepare fresh food to order. This comes hard on the heels of California becoming the first state in the nation to bar trans fats, which lowers levels of good cholesterol and increases bad cholesterol. As one of the chief architects of the now infamous "Hamdog," I feel a wave of change sweeping the state, if not the country. I can smell it. It smells like cilantro.
Dunkin' Donuts will begin offering a new slate of better-for-you offerings in August. "We're staying very true to our brand and very true to our heritage," said the company's executive chef Stan Frankenthaler. "We're just growing and evolving." Evolving into a muffin and flatbread turkey sandwich company, he means. In gastronomically related news, restaurant chains Bennigan’s and Steak & Ale have filed for Chapter Seven bankruptcy protection and stores owned by its parent company will shut their doors. It just got a little harder to find a good plate of Cheese & Bacon Potato Skins.
I guess it's a good thing to eat healthy. You live longer. But do you really want to live forever in a world without Asiago Fried Cheese with marinara sauce?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


President Pinhead continues to make history, even as his days in office trickle down to a precious few. Monday evening the White House announced the Pointy-Headed One approved the Army's request to execute a soldier convicted of rape and murder. Private Ronald Gray has been on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, since 1988. His execution would be the first for the U.S. military since 1961. "While approving a sentence of death for a member of our armed services is a serious and difficult decision for a commander-in-chief, the president believes the facts of this case leave no doubt that the sentence is just and warranted," White House apologist Dana Perino said.
Gray pleaded guilty to two murders and five rapes in a civilian court and was sentenced to three consecutive and five concurrent life terms. But guess what? A general court-martial at the Army's Fort Bragg then tried him and in April 1988 convicted him of two murders, an attempted murder and three rapes. He was unanimously sentenced to death.
Pinhead allowed one hundred fifty-two executions as governor of Texas and has signed off on three executions of federal inmates since he became president. It's unclear why Pinhead didn't act until Monday, since the request for Gray's execution was sent to the White House in 2005 by the secretary of defense after Gray exhausted his appeals. Executions nationwide have been on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of lethal injection. Lethal injection is the official method for execution at Fort Leavenworth.
Maybe our President feels that clock ticking. The one that says that time is running out for him to have the power of life and death. I suppose if there is a bright spot, this is a confessed murderer who has received the due process of two legal systems. Then there's the case of "ex-soldier" Steven D. Green. The former Army private was charged with killing four members of an Iraqi family and raping one of the victims before shooting her. Green was honorably discharged from the Army as a private first class for what court papers referred to as a "personality disorder." It is still possible, if convicted, that former private Green could be executed for his crimes. Given the time consuming appeals process, it's still possible for Pinhead to establish residency in Kentucky and run for governor before sentencing. What Would Pinhead Do?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Conservatively Compassionate

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak says he is suspending his journalistic work for an indefinite, "but God willing, not too lengthy period." His statement did not say if the tumor was malignant. I can't imagine that anything that might be found in or around Mister Novak would be anything but malignant.
On April 27, 1972 Novak reported in a column that an unnamed Democratic senator had talked to him about McGovern. "The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot," the Senator said. "Once middle America - Catholic middle America, in particular - finds this out, he’s dead." The label stuck and McGovern became known as the candidate of "amnesty, abortion and acid."
In 2002, Novak's attitudes towards animal welfare came under scrutiny when he stated in an interview that he attended a cockfight in Puerto Rico and "relished it tremendously", adding that the United States has "too damn many" anti-cruelty statutes. He also expressed his avid support of dog fighting and bullfighting.
In 2005, he left CNN after twenty-five years after an on-air dustup that ended up with Mister Novak throwing down his microphone and storming off the stage. And where do you suppose he reappeared just a few months later? On Fox "We Report, You Deride" News as a "news contributor."
If it was their intent to acquire a maker of news, then they got their money's worth. Novak was the first to publicly reveal the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. "Scooter" Until his sentence was commuted by his Pinhead Boss, "Scooter" Libby went to jail for being one of the few government officials to be caught spilling the covert beans about Ms. Plame's identity. Bob Novak used the opportunity to switch networks.
Just a few days ago, Novak was cited by police after he hit a sixty-six year old pedestrian with his black Corvette in downtown Washington, D.C. Bob told reporters, "He's not dead, that's the main thing." Mister Novak was chased down and stopped by a witness on a bicycle who caught up with him and then put his bike in front of the car to block it and called 911. According to an item in The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column, Novak explained away a prior near-miss with a pedestrian: "He was crossing on the red light. I really hate jaywalkers. I despise them. Since I don't run the country, all I can do is yell at 'em. The other option is to run 'em over, but as a compassionate conservative, I would never do that." Two years later, the same column reported that Novak had gone to a racing school in Florida. "I've wanted to be a racecar driver all my life, and anyone who has watched me drive can tell you that,” Novak said.
Maybe now that he has a brain tumor, someone at the Make-A-Wish Foundation can make that dream come true. Until then, let's all enjoy the quiet of Robert Novak's absence.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Well Of Souls

I've been getting a lot of e-mail lately exhorting the joys of "Christian Dating." I have no doubt that if I were a single Christian, this might be the first thing I look at, right after that message from this poor Angolan woman whose husband was killed by evil despots and needs my help to return his fortune to his family. So many people need my help out there, why not help myself with a little Christian Love Connection?
I guess the best reason for this would be that I am already married, so my need for a dating service seems a little redundant. I also wonder a little about just how "Christian" it is to seek out potential life partners using Al Gore's Internet. If the eyes are a window into your soul, what kind of view does one get from an on-line profile? What makes this service morally superior to any other?
I wonder this because of a time in my now distant past that I once drove down to put my face and idiosyncrasies in the pool of Great Expectations, a dating service of some renown. I went after work, so I carried a couple extra shirts with me, as I was reminded oh-so-politely that making an impression is the first step. My sweaty Western Systems Installation shirt was probably not going to net me the girl of my dreams. I entered with an open mind. After all, I had gone a number of years without going on a single "real date," and I reckoned that maybe I needed professional help.
To make a long story short, I found that I couldn't really afford their service, and not just financially. During my introductory interview, I found that I wasn't nearly as desperate as I thought I was for companionship. There were plenty of other sad and lonely people ahead of me willing to part with a good chunk of cash along with a portion of their dignity to be fixed up with their life partner. I never bother changing my shirt. I drove home alone, but just a little bit happier than when I started the day.
Now one can enjoy the same experience from the privacy of their own homes, from the relative safety of their computer screens. Like adult entertainment before it, the dating experience has found a safe and discreet home on Al Gore's Internet. Part of me wonders if I would have been more willing to participate in my own Great Expectations if I could have done it with a keyboard and a mouse. I guess I'm glad that it never came to that.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Y"? Because We Like It

We get the same response from a lot of people when they hear where we're going on vacation: "You're going back there again?" We are nothing if not creatures of habit. We like our Disney, and we like it in big steamy, fun-filled days. It is a tradition that has been handed down from my father and, well, from my father anyway.
Growing up, my family didn't make that many trips to the Magic Kingdom, but when it was time, each of us three boys were introduced to the House of Mouse in order that we might one day find a way to preserve the order. My older brother, though he lives half a continent away from either of the American Disney parks, has made it a priority to get himself and as much of his family as he can manage to Anaheim on a regular basis, with an occasional stop in Orlando as well. He is a franchise kind of guy.
I am very much the same way, having made my biggest connection to Disneyland eighteen years ago, when I drove down from Oakland with my girlfriend to meet my younger brother and some friends for the day. Little did we know that we would be inaugurating a trend. Later, when that girlfriend became my wife, we insisted that one of the ports of call on our honeymoon was Disney World. It gave my father-in-law great pause to know that this new addition to his family was so consumed with an amusement park.
I could have told him what I tell other people: It isn't just an amusement park. It's a way of being. The people are nicer there. They're helpful to the point of absurdity at times, and while I've certainly had a few tough days in The Happiest Place On Earth, I know that any day in Disneyland beats the heck out of any day on the job. Even standing in line is relatively pleasant there, and they've just given us all a way to avoid even that by clever use of the Fast Pass system, that allows guests to return at a more convenient time to skip the extra stress of having to wait for a chance to get spun, turned, dropped or tossed about. You could spend day just sitting on a bench near Main Street watching the people go by and have a pretty good time. One night, as we stood watching a fireworks spectacular from behind Sleeping Beauty's castle, a helpful Disney insider - not an employee but a seasoned observer of such things - shouted, "Look to the Matterhorn!" Sure enough, suspended high above the expanse between Fantasy and Fontierland was Tinkerbell, flashing through the rockets' red glare. It gave us all a deeper sense of community, and mild obsession. The next day, a cast member gave my son an "Honorary Citizen of Disneyland" button just for being such an interested observer as we loaded into the submarine ride. I don't know when I've been so proud. Or so jealous.
We're just about done with this trip, but we're already anticipating the next. Waiting in line for Pirates of the Caribbean is nothing compared to waiting for your next trip to Disneyland.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Amped Up

There are a few peak moments in my musical memory: Hearing the swirling keyboard intro to "Baba O'Riley" pour out over the crowd at Folsom Field. The thunder of the opening chords of "Born in the U.S.A." roaring out into Mile High Stadium. The echoes of the crowd singing along with the chorus of "Biko" as Peter Gabriel told us "the rest is up to you."
There are more, but the thing that these all have in common are that they were all loud. I studied music, and I was instructed in the ways of dynamics. Sometimes it's necessary to be quiet. There should always be contrast. That is why it is so very important to have an amp that will go up to eleven. After all, it is one more, isn't it?
I remember there was a short period there when Pete Townshend wasn't going to be playing electric guitar anymore. This was due in part to The Who concert at Charlton Athletic Football Ground, London, on May 31, 1976 that was listed in the Guinness Book of Records, where the volume level was measured at 126 decibels. I still remember wondering, after the first concert I attended featuring a very exuberant Elton John, how long that ringing in my ears would last. Pete's working on about thirty years now.
I know that there is danger in those decibels. I also know that my goose flesh is connected directly to the volume control. It's a terrible habit, and I know that I need to be careful about what I model for my son. He wore his ear protection when he went to see DEVO. And The Police. And Springsteen. This kid rocks, and even though I sometimes have to call his name two or three times to get his attention, I know he's not losing his hearing. He's just ignoring me.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nice Is A City In France

A little over nineteen years ago, I became an uncle. It's a great way to test your parenting skills with all the benefits and very little downside. It is basically the uncle's responsibility to do fun stuff and remain entertaining without endangering the child. We get them stirred up, and the parents have to calm them back down. We also understand that as soon as we demonstrate any kind of competence as caregivers that the potential for more responsibility looms.
That's why, when my niece was just a few weeks old, I announced that she was more than welcome to spend the night at my house as soon as she could say, "Uncle Dave, I need to use the bathroom. Where is it?" This was the line I drew in the sand, which immediately set my older brother to work on exactly what he hoped his daughter's first words would be. The clock, as they say, was ticking.
I am pleased and happy to say that this past week she hasn't asked me once about going to the bathroom. She has managed that just fine on her own. After years of making the trek from her home in Colorado out here to California with various and sundry guardians, this time she came by herself. We had a great time together, playing Guitar Hero, going to the movies, and shopping for new shoes. I feel very pleased and honored that she picked our house as a travel destination. We even gave her a shot at taking care of our dog.
Who could blame her if she said, "I'll be happy to keep your dog overnight as soon as she can bark 'I need to go use the bathroom, where is it?"

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mean Motor Scooter

My older brother owned a motorcycle before he could legally drive a car. That set the precedent for his two younger brothers to do just the same. I did inherit Kawasaki Trail Boss for a summer, but like all hand-me-downs, it never had that stink of something new. It wasn't mine. I was just riding around on my brother's motorcycle. My younger brother and I shared "my" motorcycle for a couple more summers, but when it was time, he got his own. The reason for this transition isn't hard to fathom. We graduated to cars. Four wheels beats two every time.

Well, almost every time. I have very fond memories of the summers I spent tooling around the dusty mountain roads on my Kawasaki. I learned a good deal about the care and maintenance of a motor vehicle as I did. I learned to handle a clutch, and the vital distinction between a front and rear brake. I learned to judge RPMs by ear, and how to jump start a flooded engine. Mostly I remember the feeling of mastering the hand-foot coordination that is required to handle a manual transmission.

Many years later, when I had long since given up on two wheels, I was given the opportunity to apply my talents to a paying gig. After I left the world of video rental, or to be more specific, the world of video rental left me, I went to work installing modular office furniture. My boss had another business on the side: Motorcycle escorts for funerals. A cool way to get out of having to lift and move heavy steel desks aroune the Denver metro area was to ride a motorcycle with a siren on it, stopping traffic at major intersections in the Denver metro area. There was one sticking point: I had no motorcycle endorsement on my license. I had also grown up riding little trail bikes, and that was a very different experience from the Harley Davidsons I was being asked to ride. On slow days at the warehouse, I would take a bike out and practice in the neighborhood. Stopping. Starting. Popping the clutch. Starting again. I never had the skill or confidence to go down to the DMV and take the test. I just kept lugging those steel desks from room to room in IBM branches across the front range. And I dreamed of riding motorcycles.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

That's Kind Of Interesting

Back in the late eighties, I lived a very trivial existence. That is to say, I was very pleased and gratified when the rest of the planet came around to my point of view and began to fully celebrate those absurd little bits of information that I had spent all of my life retaining. Larry Mondello's real name, Robert "Rusty" Stevens, became useful cogs in the machine once again as Trivial Pursuit was all the rage.
Yes, I was one of those guys who looked forward to the release of each new batch of questions, and I was also one of those guys who winced every time someone called it "The Genius Edition." That's "Genus," okay? My friend and I played marathon games on a board that had soaked up almost as many beers as we had, but our playing pieces were not the simple plastic pie holders. We had the Executive version, that came with tiny holes on the bottom to allow stuck scoring wedges to be removed with relative ease. We took our trivia seriously. Which is why it became increasingly difficult to get any kind of competition.

I lived between two worlds: Too good for my friends to play a nice, relaxing game with me, and not good enough to go on "Jeopardy." This meant that I had to look bored and disinterested when someone would spot our game in the closet. "Does anybody want to play Trivial Pursuit?" Oh, gosh, if I have to. Then it was important to take it easy for the first few trips around the board, hanging around the Science and Nature questions, and even the occasional Geography inquiry. Then it was time to move in for the slam-dunks: Stage and Screen and Literature. If I didn't take it slow, the games were inevitably over before they began. Once I started playing the Baby Boomer Edition, it got even worse. One guy got so fed up with the string of answers I had put together that he accused me of memorizing the cards. Even if I had, six questions per card and hundreds of cards, wouldn't that have been a significant enough accomplishment to sit back and appreciate?

That wasn't the case. Being good at Trivial Pursuit just left me in that odd position of being asked for obscure pieces of information on subjects that I had little or no knowledge. If I didn't know the answer, I was always anxious to find out what it might be in case it came up again. To my great dismay, many of these clever individuals didn't come with the answer, they just assumed that I should know. This was back before the easy access to Al Gore's Internet and the information superhighway. If you wanted to know who played the Professor on "Gilligan's Island," you either knew it or waited for a rerun to verify your best guess. And woe to the scruffy nit who wanted to know what the Professor's real name was. Not the actor's name, that was Russell Johnson, but the character's name.

Or Mary Ann's last name.

Or the name of the drummer in The Cars.

Or the title of the book on which the movie "A Christmas Story" was based.

I know. Who cares? I did. I still do. My wife thinks I should have my own TV show. It would be called "How Does He Remember All That Stuff?" It would come on right after the show my younger brother and I wanted to host back in the eighties. It was going to be a showcase for all those people who weren't quite amazing enough to be on "That's Incredible." It was going to be called "That's Kind Of Interesting," starring TV's first Wonder Woman, Cathy Lee Crosby. I don't just remember trivia, I make it up, too.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Brain Freeze

The other day I was making a rather lengthy trek across Oakland with my wife when we stopped to get a little refreshment. Once inside, I began to make my selection, and I was suddenly confronted with this question: When did 7-11 lose their hold on the Icee Bear? According to Al Gore's Internet, it was way back in 1967 that 7-11 began selling their own version of the partially frozen soft drinks. I really want to believe this, but I have very vivid memories of seeing the red-sweatered polar bear sipping from the iconic striped cup at my local 7-11 store. Could it be that I was only five when this change occurred?

Or is it possible that the change from Icee to Slurpee happened over a period of years, giving me a chance to become attached, unnecessarily, to the mascot and logo of one, only to be replaced by the somewhat less consumer-friendly of the other. Maybe I am simply projecting my experiences with Icee from another venue on those I would have expected to have at 7-11. Which all leads to one inescapable question: How could it possibly matter?

Another nice thing about Al Gore's Internet is the opportunity to check your minute obsessions against those of others. There are plenty of folks out there who will gladly go on pontificating about their preference: Icee versus Slurpee. I might naively lumped them together as one in my mind if not for the words and images of those with much more free time on their hands. Perhaps the most important distinction for me is the fact that Slurpees are made with "real Coca-Cola". You can get a cola-flavored Icee, but it could be any cola.

7-11 has that kind of clout. That's why they licensed the frozen treat in the first place, way back whenever it was. Every July 11 you can get a free 7.11 ounce Slurpee for free to celebrate all that is 7-11. Then you can try driving all around town trying to find an Icee machine. See if you get that for free. Maybe I don't miss that polar bear so much after all.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Physical Education

Coach Straight had a twin brother. Together they were the Straight Brothers, Larry and Lou. As circumstances would have it, I got stuck with Lou. We heard stories about Larry. He had a moustache. He didn't play favorites like his brother did. His gym classes were fun. He was different from his brother. I was stuck with Lou.

In seventh grade, all the boys had Mister Clark. He was an old guy who was not much taller than most of us, but he was a lot tougher. Not in a mean way, mind you, he had a muscular-Harry Truman thing about him. He helped ease the transition from weekly P.E. to daily. He expected us to show up in our uniforms and do our best, then take a shower. I never felt threatened by Coach Clark. He also kept us relatively safe from the eighth and ninth graders. I say "relatively" because all that fear and hate has to go somewhere, and when you are being systematically broken down by a sadomasochist like Coach Lou, some of it is bound to spill over.

It was in eighth grade that I started to dread going to P.E. I was never a particularly gifted athlete, and being in Lou Straight's class only exacerbated this flaw in my character. The guys who could catch, throw and run without thinking about it got to pick the teams, and the ones who couldn't catch, throw or run didn't end up on their side. We were the dregs, and Coach was busy with the minutiae of his job: clipboards, whistles, and flirting with the eighth and ninth grade girls.

Lou Straight's main contribution to the curriculum of Centennial Junior High was "The Fifteen Minute Run." We would change into our gym togs, meander out to the track, Coach would blow his whistle and click his stopwatch. For the next quarter hour, we were expected to run laps around the quarter-mile track. Those of us who were less physically gifted lived in fear of missing the cutoff of six laps: one and a half miles. If anyone in the class ran less than six laps, the whole bunch of us had to do it all over again the next day. You might think, if you were in a coma during your junior high years or have conveniently forgotten such behavior, that this might instill a certain amount of support and encouragement among those who were more fit. There was a pretty clear understanding that, if you were faster and stronger, it was your job to torment those who were not so fast and not so strong. All of this would eventually be made right by the creation of the TV show "Freaks and Geeks", but while I was in eighth grade, there was no justice.

I have a lingering memory of Coach Lou, clipboard in hand and whistle in mouth, dressed head to toe in puffy green down. He needed to stay cozy and warm as he watched us trot around the track in the freezing rain and prevailing thirty mile an hour winds. This contrasts mightily with the image I have of his twin brother showing up during our band practice one morning. He was friends with our band director, Mister Whitehurst, taught at two schools - just coincidentally the other one was where Coach Larry worked. I don't remember Lou dropping by the band room once in the three years I went to Centennial. Larry came by several times, partly because he was there to see his brother, but also to see his friend. And those of us who just happened to be less coordinated and just happened to be in band took solace in this. He didn't mind coming over to "the other side." On the contrary, Larry seemed to genuinely enjoy his time there, and he put us all at ease. That is, until the bell rang and it was time to go across the building to see his brother.

Time has healed most of those wounds. I can run for more than fifteen minutes, and I suppose I owe that in part to Lou Straight. In my own teaching career I learned to never play favorites, and I suppose I owe that to Lou as well. Those were what we in the business call "teaching moments", and I learned my lesson.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Are We There Yet?

I'm about to hit the road in celebration of the brief period of time that I have between summer school and regular school. We do this even though all kinds of conventional wisdom tells us that it's not a great idea. The rest of the planet seems to be hanging close to home, giving rise to a silly new trend: Staycations.
I know that gas is hovering right around five dollars a gallon, but the idea that I would spend another two weeks hanging around my neighborhood seems more ridiculous than the newly fabricated word to describe a trend that has been generated by years of road trips and hitting the highway. At last, the highway is hitting back.
I could spend the next fortnight staying right where I am. I could wake up late, or as late as our dog and my son would allow. I could go out to a museum, or maybe take in a movie or two. We're paying for cable, after all. Why not stay home and catch up on all those TV shows and movies that I missed while I was so busy working? There is so much to do right around here, after all.
Well, I am not predisposed to such activity. If I did decide to hang around the house, I would almost certainly find myself immersed in some home improvement project before the first week was half over. What kind of vacation would that be? Truth is, it would be a lot like the weekends and vacations that I have had for the past eleven months.
I know what vacations mean to me: Vacate and Shun. My brothers and I spent months of our young lives in the back seat. Let those newspapers pile up on the front porch and get somebody to look after the house plants and the dog. Packing up and taking off is a leap of faith. Everything will be fine back at the ranch if we take a little ride in the country. Leave those cares behind and start worrying about who gets a window seat. Roadside diners and sleeping in different beds are all part of the allure. There's nothing like the confines of a car to bring about a little creative and enforced family togetherness.
So, in open defiance of Al Gore and fiscal sense, we're loading up the Family Truckster and vacating the premises. It is, after all, my family legacy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pluto's Not A Planet Anymore, Either

I sit here in my darkened room. My room for just a few more hours. I am finishing my stint as a fourth grade teacher today after five years. The good news is that I won't be going far. I will be heading upstairs to become the Computer Teacher. This won't be a huge stretch, since I have already done that job before. The computer lab has moved across the hall, but it's pretty much how I remember it.
Twelve years ago, when I interviewed for my first teaching job, I was asked if I knew anything about computers. Literally. The principal asked, "Do you know anything about computers?" Since I had just spent five years running a book warehouse with computerized inventory, and had been working with computers at some level in most of my adult life, I could answer "yes" without much hesitation. But that was the end of the questioning. I became the Computer Teacher back then because I knew "something about computers."
Over the next few years, with the help of generous benefactors and patient staff, I rebuilt the Apple II lab into a room full of PCs connected to the Internet, with an abundance of educational software. I also managed to get the rest of the school wired, and created a school web page. That's when the wheels started to come off.
Lots of things have changed since I got here. I can no longer simply name all the teachers that I have worked with, and it takes me a moment or two to recall the succession of principals during my tenure. Many of the folks that I have worked with have moved on, changing schools or jobs. One has even changed gender. Nothing is forever. That's what I told myself when I realized that the Computer Teacher position was being scaled back to a part-time position. I jumped headfirst into the opening in fourth grade, hoping that I could pick it up on the fly.
Now it's five years later, and I have been offered the newly recreated Computer Teacher position. I'm leaving Room Four and heading upstairs to Room Eight. No more desks. Instead of twenty-four kids, I'll be dealing with three hundred. I'll be handling software instead of books. There will be a lot more calls for help, since I know "something about computers." But whether it's Room Four or Room Eight, it will still be Mister Caven's Room.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


"You have more chance of reanimating this scalpel than you have of mending a broken nervous system!" - Frederick "Fronkensteen" on why "Dead is dead."
In the case of Brett Favre, I would say Doctor Frankenstien, excuse me, Fronkensteen has hit the nail on the head. To aid in this discussion, I have brought with me two bits of evidence. First let us examine the various careers of the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan. MJ had already cemented his position in NBA history before he decided to retire and try to do the same with Major League Baseball. His impact was not quite as substantial on the base paths as it was on the hardwood. So he came back. But he had lost some of his magic, as was apparent by the way the Bulls lost to the Magic in the semi-finals. Then he bounced right back and won three championships. Go figure. Then he left again, only to resurface in a Washington Wizards uniform, where he was barely recognizable as the man who once soared through the air, delivering MVP and championship trophies to the fans in Chicago. Now all that's left are his shoes.
My other example comes from the NFL: John Elway. Admittedly, I have a certain personal connection to this case, but there are few that would say that Elway didn't go out on top. He won a Super Bowl, got that monkey off his back, and then showed up next season to prove it was no fluke. He won the MVP award in the championship game, and he walked off the field a winner. He held his tearful press conference, and he was done. Sure he shows up now and again in some regrettable TV commercials, but he's not out there trying to recapture a time that has passed. I've got a ton of respect for Brett Favre's competitive fire, but it's time to pack it in, and let some young guys take over. Does the world really want to see "Favre" on a Minnesota Vikings jersey? I hope the next time we see Brett, he'll be selling some of those Wrangler jeans he likes so much.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome To Potterville

I know that somewhere, George Bailey is smiling. You remember George, don't you? He's the richest guy in town, if your town happens to be Bedford Falls. If you're living in Southern California and you've got money in a savings and loan, you probably don't care if George and his Uncle Billy are in charge or not. You just want your money before it all disappears. Hundreds of people have crowded outside IndyMac Bank branches this week, many waiting hours in line to withdraw their funds from the failing bank that was seized by federal regulators.
While hundreds of frightened customers waited for days in the summer heat outside their local IndyMac bank to get as much of their money out as they could, employees of rival Comerica Bank arrived to hand out water bottles with their business cards taped to them. They said they hoped to scoop up some former IndyMac customers. Sounds like something Mister Potter would do.
Where did their money go? IndyMac was in an unusual situation because it had an "extremely risky" exposure to assets, says Stuart Plesser, a banking analyst for Standard and Poor's. "Their specialty was no document or low-document loans," he says, meaning borrowers didn't need much proof of income to get approved. Most banks hold a more diversified portfolio of loans. It's in your house, and your failing business, after all, cries George Bailey, standing on the counter.
Or maybe not, but these are desperate times, and one hopes that if there are angels who are up to it, this would be an excellent time to start earning those wings.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Humor Of Fear

This is a little lesson on what it will be like: The cartoon drawn by Barry Blitt shows Barack Obama and his wife Michelle standing in the White House's Oval Office with an American flag burning in the fireplace under a portrait of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It's on the cover of this week's "New Yorker" magazine. Now we're paddling out into the waters of satire. What is funny, and what will be funny, over the next four years?
Maybe we've gotten a little too sensitive, since we have spent the past eight years with a President who somehow seemed impervious to satire. Not that he wasn't easy to lampoon, but he just never seemed to take any of it personally. He just kept doing what Pinheads do. For that matter, I know that this blog has walked a fine line for the past three years, running the risk of offending pinheads everywhere with the association.
Over the past few weeks, I have been reminded by watching the first season of "Saturday Night Live" about the nature of political comedy. There are hours of screen time devoted to Chevy Chase, as "Gerald Ford", bumping into and falling over things. While he will never be remembered as the most effective leader, it's interesting to see his presidency distilled into pratfalls. Near the end of that season, a new face emerged: Dan Aykroyd as "Jimmy Carter." The most memorable skit featuring "Jimmy wouldn't appear until the next season, with Bill Murray as "Walter Cronkite, in which Aykroyd/Carter takes calls on a phone-in show and eventually talks a kid down from a bad trip. Aykroyd was also a very scary "Dick Nixon" in his Final Days. Respectful? Hardly. Funny? You bet.
Now back to Barack: The "New Yorker" cover is certainly over the top. It is obviously intended to "Make Us Think." On that level, it succeeds. But is it funny? I just got my Obama shirt in the mail, so I am probably not best qualified to make this judgment. New Yorker editor David Remnick says, "Our cover 'The Politics of Fear' combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are." Distortions yes. Obvious? Only time will tell. When somebody starts shouting "tasteless and offensive," I confess my first reaction is to take a second look.
A couple of weeks ago, Jon Stewart was in the middle of a bit about Obama, and he reacted to the hushed response he was getting: "You're allowed to laugh at him, you know," he reminded us. Even though I may flinch, I hope he's right.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Do They Know It's Been Twenty-Three Years?

Last night, as I was tucking myself safely into bed, VH1 did me the favor of reminding me that yesterday, July 13, was the anniversary of the Live Aid concerts. That was way back in 1985. I have a very distinct memory of that day. My roommate and I had our VCR rolling. It was our intent to get every last minute on tape so we could remember that time forever. I'm glad that VH1 knows where their tapes are, since mine have been buried by the sands of time and forgetfulness.
Back then, music was a vital force in my world, and when I was told by this sea of musicians that I could help change the world, I believed them. I had already pledged my allegiance to Bruce Springsteen and the food banks of the United States, now I was ratcheting my commitment up a notch to follow Bob Geldof's vision of feeding the planet. I pledged my money somewhere in the third hour, after the concert in Philadelphia had begun, and the one in Wembley had begun to wind down. I pledged enough to get the T-shirt. I may have been altruistic, but I was still a capitalist at heart.
Somewhere in there, Bob Dylan said, "I hope that some of the money...maybe they can just take a little bit of it, or two million, maybe...and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and, the farmers here, owe to the banks..." and Farm Aid was born. With that, a flurry of additional charity were launched, and suddenly it became impossible to pay for all the good intentions of the planet. Then came the backlash, where all the pundits pointed out how little of the donations actually made it to the source of the problems. Corruption and misappropriation caused the whole affair to become less of a miracle, especially in the eyes of some cynics.
I confess I did pledge to that first Farm Aid show too. I got a bandanna.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Report Card

I don't know how many years it's been since I last saw "The Blackboard Jungle", but I know I haven't seen it in the past year. I don't know if it would have made a big difference if I had, but now that I am entering the last week of teaching fourth grade, I found it echoing oddly off my experiences.
If you've never seen it, this is the movie that gave us "Rock Around The Clock" and Sidney Poitier. Not that both of them didn't exist prior, but "Blackboard Jungle" pushed them both to center stage. It is probably not the least bit ironic that twelve years later, Sidney ended up playing a teacher in "To Sir With Love", but here he plays a student in Glenn Ford's inner-city high school class. He learned his lessons well.
What about me? Did I make the same kind of heart-warming difference in my students lives? I know that I have, but not this year. It is interesting that the denouement in the film takes place over Christmas break. Ford's character Mister Dadier, whom the kids all call "Daddy-O", is feeling tired and frustrated. He is ready to leave teaching rather than go back and face the hoodlums in his classroom. When some of the young toughs turn on their leader, played by Vic Morrow, he feels a renewed sense of purpose. He has broken through: "Yeah, I've been beaten up, but I'm not beaten. I'm not beaten, and I'm not quittin'."
I didn't have that breakthrough. Not this year. But I'm not beaten. And I'm not quittin'.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wilderness Area

This morning I finally went out to face my yard. It has been several weeks since we abdicated responsibility for the lawn. My wife has engineered an interesting series of pipes, ducts and siphons to create a gray water system that brings a little water to one corner of the front yard, but for the most part, it's dry and yellow out there.
Again, I say "for the most part" because there are still patches along the side of the house and next to the fence that have defied convention and continued to grow. Yesterday I noticed that many of these patches had reached the height that set off my internal alarm. I'm a yard ape, like my older brother before me, I feel the call of lawn care and maintenance. It may be genetic, or it may be that as children we were both exposed to David Hornsby's yard.
David Hornsby was our piano teacher. He was a very nice man, and taught me a great many things, not the least of which is still in my repertoire: "The Little Drummer Boy." That Christmas carol not withstanding, the other thing that made a lasting impression on me was the swirl of grass and shrubs that nearly obscured the front of his house. I remember the polite suggestions being made first to my older brother, then to me as I came of age that "a good way to make some extra money" might be to ask for the opportunity to shape the Mister Hornsby's overgrown tangle of weeds into something resembling a lawn.
It was never a regular gig. I definitely got the impression that, being an artistic type, my piano teacher didn't want to have any rigid parameters for his yard, especially any that might cause him to eventually become involved in maintaining. So there were a few desperate, onerous attempts to tame what my mother first dubbed "The Wilderness Area." Each time, it took several hours and pitchers of iced tea to cut and trim until we eventually surrendered to the inevitable. You could hear the grass growing behind your back as you whacked furiously at the mess in front. Finally, as the sun began to set, we hauled our bent tools and smoking mower to the family station wagon, knowing that we had given it our all, but maybe not our best.
Over the next few summers, I turned my focus to the tiny patches of grass that lay between the mobile homes at the trailer park where my new piano teacher lived. I could knock out six of these little plots in the time it took me to make a path in Hornsby's yard. It was, by comparison, easy money. But every time I drove by the Wilderness Area, which sat on the corner of a regular thoroughfare, I felt a twinge.
That was the twinge I felt this morning as I pulled on my gloves and unspooled the extension cord. I powered up the trimmer and whacked at the weeds, and pulled up the blackberry runners. I tried to get things to a place that at least looked level. It doesn't have to be green, and it doesn't have to be pretty, but it shouldn't be dangerous. Then I turned my attention to the plants inside. I can still save them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Don't Cut Off The Senator's Microphone

On Father's Day, Barack Obama said at the Apostolic Church of God: ``Any fool can have a child. That doesn't make you a father. Too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes.''
On July 6, Jesse Jackson said that the Illinois senator was "talking down to black people'' in his recent speeches, and furthermore, he had a very crude suggestion about what he might do to keep that from happening anymore. Though Jesse insisted that he was unaware that his microphone was turned on, Fox News (We Report, You Deride) managed to get it all over the airwaves where the remarks have spawned a life of their own. Jackson's remarks are looking to settle down in the Texas Panhandle, raise some crops and have a few little remarks.
As a media event, it most certainly begins to set the tone for what will be a very dicey six months. At one moment, we are asked to be color-blind, because it is the politically correct thing to do. Then suddenly we are forced to confront the racial divides that continue to exist in our country.
No one plays this game better than the Reverend Jesse Jackson. This is the guy who first asked us to "Keep hope alive" back in the eighties when he was running for President of the United States. This is the same guy who wore a bloody shirt for days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it was Doctor King's blood. Crude yes, but effective. It got him noticed.
And now, twenty years after his last campaign for President, forty years since that tragic day in Memphis, Jesse is still stirring the pot. It's what he does. Just like accepting the nomination in a football stadium, it's great theater. "It reinforces Obama's effort to present himself as an advocate of responsible personal behavior, a position that Republican candidates like to secure as uniquely their own,'' said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. The cynic in me winces in anticipation of what comes next. The Democrat in me can't wait for more.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Date For Two At The Movies: Priceless

I'm a big fan of the American version of "The Office." I love movies, but even more, I love free stuff. So, when my wife brought home a pass for two to see a new movie starring one of the actors from "The Office" for free, I could not imagine a downside.
First, by way of background, it was back in the summer of 1985, as a member of his fan club, I was invited to bring a guest to a free preview screening of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." When that was over, my older brother and I used the opportunity to "do laps" in the multiplex and take in a showing of "Weird Science." Two movies for the price of none, but we did buy our own Junior Mints. The eighties were very heady times.
I have been fortunate enough to attend two Hollywood premieres in my life. There were free soft drinks and popcorn at both. The fact that I was allowed free treats to accompany my free movie only made the experience even more sweet. Having spent most of my life worshipping at the altar of the Silver Screen, I have enjoyed the feeling of being, from time to time, "an insider."
That is why, when my wife appeared with tickets to a free screening of a yet-to-be-released feature film, I felt compelled to go along.
Now a word or two about the "free" part. The theater was located twenty-five minutes away, which necessitated not only a Google map, but a tank of gasoline to be purchased. Fifty-odd dollars later, we were on our way to the movies. When we got there, we were pleased to find the parking was, indeed, free. Checking the fine print on our pass, we noticed that we needed to be at or inside the theater early, since the show had been purposely overbooked to insure a packed house. We decided to forgo dinner and take our chances at the snack bar.
This particular superfaplex had one of those cafeteria-style snack bars, where you pick your food, then pay for it on the way out of the big snack corral. We went straight to the hot dogs, which we were informed by the lady who was dropping them onto the hot rollers would be ready "in about twenty-five minutes." To our right, we saw an unclaimed personal pizza that we considered sharing, until we took a look inside the box. By this point, the line was beginning to stream into the theater, and the mild fear that we might miss our "free" movie began to assert itself. We took our ticket stubs and queued up.
Inside the concrete bunker they called a theater, we decided that we would take our chances on the popcorn. This alternative would allow us both to have something to eat and drink for under twenty dollars. My brave wife went off to brave the snack corral one more time, while I endured the endless string of advertisements that played before the feature. When she returned, I was gratified to hear her tale of acquiring free popcorn via a communication bubble with the blue-vested droid who was shoveling kernels into bags. The drinks still cost us eight dollars, but we reveled in our grocery sack size container of popped corn.
Then, after a few unctuous announcements from a studio PR weasel, we were finally treated to our "free movie." If time is in fact money, then I definitely came out on the losing end of this deal. I tried to enjoy myself from the "free" end, but it just kept feeling like the expense to my sense of humor was too great. It wasn't until we were on our way out of our stadium-seated tomb that we finally felt free to let loose. It was a relief, of sorts, to find out that we both had very similar misgivings and complaints.
When we got out, all the local eateries were closing, so we drove home to scrape together a late dinner of leftovers and sarcastic comments about the film. At the end of the evening, on the way out, we had been handed another card that encouraged us to drag our friends to another showing, and to post our love for their film on Facebook. If we did, we were told we could get a free T-shirt. While supplies last. There are no free T-shirts either.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


I suppose I was fortunate to have an older brother who let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I had it easy in elementary school. I had better buck up and be prepared for everlasting torment. Or at least three years of it.
Those warnings ring in my ears as I try to help my son get ready for his first year in middle school. Not unlike me, he gives the outward appearance of a kid who has nothing to fear. He seems eminently capable of making good choices and staying out of trouble. But it's not his choices that I'm worried about.
I'm worried about the choices being made by kids around him. I'm worried about the choices those kids' parents make. And don't get me started about the teachers. And then there's P.E. How does one prepare for the rigors and potential embarrassment of middle school Physical Education?
Yesterday I insisted that my son accompany me on my daily run. It was a hot day, so we agreed to make it short. Even though he was right in the middle of what looked like a very intense Lego creation, he agreed to come along. When we left the house, he needed a little nudge to get him going, but we kept chugging along. We worked our way near the top of the hill, and he slowed to a walk. True to the assertion he had made to me earlier, he was looking at the things he saw around him. "That's why I don't like to run the whole time," he told me.
So I slowed down, but I kept moving too, imagining what a P.E. teacher might say to a kid who stopped in the middle of a lap around the track to inspect a piece of cardboard that had been left the night before. I chose not to say anything, and we picked up our pace again as we made our way down to the next corner. This was the way we made our way around the block. That is, until we reached the top of the last hill, where he let himself tumble forward, arms and legs flopping around, dashing headlong down to the bottom. Every few steps, he would skip, then run a few more, and skip again. I heard the coach's voice in my head once again, and I told it to be quiet. I was watching my eleven-year-old son get his exercise. It's summertime, and the living is easy. Middle school? Well, we'll figure that one out.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Peace Train

Which candidate would get us out of Iraq quickest? That's pretty simple: Today it was John McCain who reiterated his warning that security conditions must dictate troop withdrawals from Iraq. Barack Obama started saying that the United States should set a timetable to pull its troops out of Iraq to pressure leaders there to establish peace way back in April. This is no big news, since this has been the dividing line between most Democrats and Republicans since the war began. Democrats: soon. Republicans: never.
Well, now you can put the Iraqi government on the "soon" side. The Iraqi timeline proposal appears to set an outer limit, requiring U.S. forces to fully withdraw five years after the Iraqis take the lead on security nationwide. That precondition could itself take years. Some type of agreement is required to keep American troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires on December 31 of this year.
John McCain: "I have always said we will come home with honor and with victory and not through a set timetable."
Barack Obama: "I think it's encouraging ... that the prime minister himself now acknowledges that in cooperation with Iraq, it's time for American forces to start sending out a timeframe for the withdrawal."
Honor and victory, or cooperation?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Change Of Venue

The little clock on my desk has finally dropped below two hundred, and now with a rational number of days left in the Pinhead Regime, I look forward to an orderly transition of power. That's not to say that with six months left that "Dick" and Pinhead won't try to manipulate the Constitution to milk every last drop of grief and woe from their administration. I can almost picture the pointy-headed one clinging tenaciously to his chair while the movers carry boxes and load up furniture around him. "I won't go! You can't make me! I'm a sitting President during wartime!"
But until that day, we still have things to look forward to. In a break with tradition, Barack Obama will accept the Democratic presidential nomination at Invesco Field at Mile High, a seventy-six thousand seat stadium, rather than at the site of the party's national convention across town, the fifty-thousand seat-less Pepsi Center. First of all, since I'm more of a Coke guy than Pepsi, I couldn't be more pleased that Barack Obama will be accepting the nomination in the place the Denver Broncos call "home". While the Broncos have yet to win a Super Bowl since they moved across the street, I am willing to allow a little of the Rocky Mountain Thunder to be shared with the Democrats. I have grown tired of watching my home state glowing red on election night, and I am looking forward to a nice cool blue come this November.
Matt Burns, a spokesman for the Republican convention, dismissed the new speech locale as "stagecraft and theatrics" that "isn't the kind of change the American people deserve or expect." Sorry to disagree with you there, Matt. I guess the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild and the NLL's Minnesota Swarm, just doesn't hold the same appeal for me. But time will tell: On June 3, 2008, Senator Barack Obama gave his first speech as the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Over seventeen thousand people attended the event with an additional fifteen thousand watching on big screens directly outside the arena. I wonder if the Republicans are hiring seat-fillers now.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Light And Run Away

Once again, the gutters and curbs are clogged with debris from our last flurry of pyrotechnics. When I say "our", I refer to the neighborhood in which I live. I took the year off, out of solidarity with those who have been forced from their homes due to the wildfires that continue to rage across Northern California.
But I did think about my history with fireworks, both responsible and otherwise. Mostly otherwise. As a young bachelor, I set off sparkling fountains on my enclosed patio. This was the same apartment that my roommate and I shot pop bottle rockets at one another - inside. I had to give up my much beloved Pep Boys shirt when one of the errant missiles sailed past the intended target and into my dresser drawer. Fortunately for the rest of my laundry, Manny, Moe and Jack were the only victims of that particular conflagration.
Given the range and recklessness of many of our other experiments over time, I am happy to say that all of my fingers and toes remain attached, and I continue to have the highest respect for things that go "boom". Maybe I learned early on, when a friend of mine and I had spent a couple of years collecting the gunpowder from any unexploded or "dud" fireworks in a mayonnaise jar. As another Fourth of July approached, he was invited up to our cabin in the mountains, where we were under very strict instructions not to light any fireworks. But we smuggled that mayonnaise jar up inside of his sleeping bag, and when my mother was busy getting dinner ready, we purloined a book of matches and crept off to the little shack across the creek from the cabin to figure out what we could do with our dangerous cargo.
At first, we made little trails of gunpowder in the dirt, like the ones we had seen on "The Wild, Wild West". We were eleven, and it only took us a few minutes of these controlled demolitions to start wishing for something more significant. I would like to say that I remember whose idea it was to drop a match into the jar that was still more than half full of gunpowder, but it doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter who actually dropped the match, since we were both poised with our heads just a foot or two above the mouth of the jar when it went off. It wasn't an explosion, just a white flash that shot straight up to the roof of the little shack.
When we both got back off our backsides, I noticed that my friend's eyebrows were considerably thinner, and mine must have been too, considering the way he was laughing and pointing. There was nothing left in the jar but smoky residue. Our immediate impulse was to do it again, but we had nothing left. We had literally shot our wad. The mayonnaise jar stayed in the shack, and when we went inside for dinner that night, my mother never mentioned the faint smell of burned hair or our newly manicured brows. My friend and I didn't speak of it again, and we didn't feel bad about missing out on any big firework displays later that night. We had our little show, and we were happy to let another year pass before we lit another fuse.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jesse "The Body" Helms

Pinhead had this to say on the passing of Jesse Helms: "Throughout his long public career, Senator Jesse Helms was a tireless advocate for the people of North Carolina, a stalwart defender of limited government and free enterprise, a fearless defender of a culture of life, and an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty." Keeping in mind that it is always best not to speak ill of the dead, it still makes me wonder if our President hasn't given up on being the U.S. record holder for worst leader ever. I think he's got his eyes on the world record.
In his senate campaign for senate in 1990, a Helms commercial showed a white fist crumpling up a job application, with these words underneath: "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority." This was a man who likened abortion to the Holocaust and the September 11 terror attacks. Unwavering champion of what?
I suppose that it is incumbent upon a sitting president to comment on the death of someone who had spent as much time in public service as Jesse Helms did, but one wonders if the full accounting of that service was examined by Pinhead. Helms opposed civil rights and a holiday honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was one of a small number of senators who opposed extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982. Take that, those of you struggling for liberty. Maybe the pointy-headed one should have left it to someone else to eulogize the Senator from North Carolina. Bob Dole said, "You don't have to look under the table for Jesse. You always knew where Jesse is." And now we don't have to look for Jesse anymore.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Shoiwing My Stripes - And Stars

I have a very clear memory of putting my flag out on September 11, 2001. It was one of the very few things that I could think to do in the face of events that had so completely overwhelmed my nervous system. I took some solace in the fact that many others seemed to follow suit, as there was a spontaneous surge of patriotism that was felt across our country. It was a reflex, not a habit.
Seven years later, as our great nation turns two hundred and thirty-two, I found myself in the middle of a discussion over which flag we would be flying today, if any. Should we put out our rainbow "Peace" flag, or stick with the traditional stars and bars? The very notion that we needed to talk about it gave me pause. Is that what the Pinhead Regime has done for me? Have they co-opted the flag?
I am greatly relieved that I do not have to regularly pass any sort of litmus test for patriotism. None of my suits have flag pins attached to the lapels. My bumper stickers advertise the Mystery Spot and the fact that my family supports Sequoia Elementary School. This evening's barbecue will not be served on red, white and blue paper plates.
But I do own an American flag. I am proud to display it, because it reminds me that I am part of a country that gives me the freedom to vote, to disagree, and when I feel like it, to wave another flag in its place. Today is the day to marvel at the history and accomplishments of these United States. There will be plenty of time to fuss and moan about the inadequacies and failures of our nation and its leaders, but today I choose to wave that grand old flag and salute all those who made it possible for me to make that choice. Long may it wave.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Penny For My Thoughts

"Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you'll have good luck." I am not a particularly superstitious person, with the possible exception of my fervent belief in "concern rays" generated by fans watching spectator sports events. After that, I remain generally skeptical of all things that might be out of the realm of my specific influence. Which makes it all the more interesting that I still hear those words in my head every time I bend over to pick up a penny.
Over the past year, I have had a sort of crisis of faith when it comes to my habit of picking up loose change. Many days on the way to school I have stopped and stooped to pick up one red cent. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I have made the wish that this act would, in fact, have some transformative power over the course of the rest of my day. There have been a number of days when, as the sun was going down, I wondered: "What happened? I picked up a penny, didn't I?"
Having the benefit of hindsight, I know that I have an easy recourse. I know that in the accounting of this year I can definitely apply the Pollyana corollary: It could have been worse. For all those days when I stopped and picked up a penny, things could have been much worse. I have my job, my home, my health. I have a circle of family and friends that encourage and support me, and put up with my obsessions and fears. I am grateful to have all those things and more, and when I roll up all those coins I feel lucky to have the sense to save for a rainy day.
That's why this morning I looped back around on my bike to bend down one more time and pick up a shiny piece of copper. It's a little bit of hope, after all.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What A Long Strange Trip

Ladies and gentlemen, Voyager 2 has left the building. Or, more to the point, the solar system. Our little probe has now made its way more than seven billion miles from the sun, and still going strong. Launched way back in August of 1977, Voyager 2 managed to stop by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. This is a pretty keen trick when you consider how much space exists between those planets, and the trajectory had to be timed so that they would all be in a rough line. That's a lot of math.
It was way back in 1979 when Voyager 2 passed Jupiter. I was in high school. In 1981, it passed Saturn while I began my career at Arby's. Five years later, there was a Uranus flyby. That was the year I graduated, at last, from college. 1989 brought Voyager 2 to Neptune. I was working in a video store. Keeping the planetary streak alive was more a matter of debate than engineering, when Pluto was reclassified a "dwarf planet" and was therefore off the list of hot-spots to visit on the way out of the solar system.
Now Voyager 2 is leaving home, with another fifteen to twenty years of faithful service. Most of what we're learning from it today is about the shape of the heliosphere, which turns out to be flat on the bottom. Then it's off into the stars. Voyager 2 is not headed toward any particular star. It will pass by the star Sirius at a distance of 1.32 parsecs (4.3 light years, 25 trillion miles) in about 296,000 years. Both Voyagers carry gold records, with greetings from Jimmy Carter, with tunes from Back and Chuck Berry. Carl Sagan, who helped compile the music and sounds for the record, had originally asked for permission to include "Here Comes the Sun" from the Beatles' album Abbey Road. While the Beatles favoured it, EMI opposed it and the song was not included. You can't get the Beatles on iTunes. Why should you be able to get them on Sirius?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Guess Where I'm Calling From?

If you guessed my car, you guessed wrong. Today's the day! Here in California we are no longer allowed to drive while we talk on our cellular telephones. There is a loophole, wherein you can continue this habit while using a "hands-free device." More to the point, it is illegal to use hand-held telephones while driving. If you get caught, you will get a ticket for seventy-six to one hundred twenty-five dollars.
My love for cell phones is well known and documented. I maintain that I prefer to have periods of every day when I am not available by phone. For many years, this meant that I simply did not own a cell phone, and anyone who needed to talk to me had to wait until I could get back to them on a land line. A few years back, I joined the wireless community and bought my own leash. I used it primarily as a classroom management tool, using it to call parents of unruly students directly from my classroom. The installation of telephones in our classrooms has made the need for me to run up a bill for calls to the homes of recalcitrant youth avoidable. Something about going to the corner of the room with your teacher to call your parents has a little harder edge.
I don't use my cell phone to make calls from my car, since I don't drive very much. When I do, I look forward to the chance to use another electronic appliance, the stereo. Playing music in my car will always be more important to me than talking on the phone.
What about emergencies? If it were an actual emergency, I imagine that pulling over would be the most prudent advice in the first place. Watching people come out of the door of their house, opening the door of their car, and dialing a number on their phone always amazes me. This is usually done with a handful of coffee and other detritus, making the task even more challenging. Then they start up the car and roll off down the street, continuing their juggling act until they reach their destination, at which point they feel free to hang up long enough to fill their hands with another armload of distractions before they begin their next call.
Last night on the news, I hear a seventeen-year-old, who was studying for his driver's test, complain bitterly about the part of this new law that makes it illegal for anyone under eighteen to use a cell phone, hands-free or not, while driving. "It's just unfair," he moaned. It's another way for the man to keep us down. To that kid I say, "Fight the power." Get in your cars and start dialing. Can the Highway Patrol keep up with all those people with phones to their heads? Or is it just a conspiracy by the Bluetooth folks to sell us more of those hands-free implants?