Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Changing The Guard

Given the number of concerned phone calls I received yesterday afternoon, you might think that a family member or close personal friend had passed away. Happily, this was not the case. All of these kind wishes came as a result of the firing of the Denver Broncos' head coach, Mike Shanahan. Why all the fuss?
I've made no secret over the years of my attachment to professional sports, and my devotion runs deepest to those Denver Donkeys and their travails. The fact that Mike Shanahan showed up and guided John Elway not once, but twice to a Lombardi Trophy makes it hard to say goodbye. This is the guy who finally got us past the "almost" hump. We were champions. Twice. After years of showing up as a team to set records upon, the Denver Broncos won a couple of Super Bowls. After thirty-some years of "next year," it finally came.
But that was ten years ago. Since then, there's been a lot less joy in Mile High Mudville. Once Casey left, in the person of John Elway, no one seemed interested in stepping up to the plate, much less strike out. Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler are merely part of a list that includes Norris Weese, Craig Penrose and Frank Tripuka. They never won a Super Bowl either. Come to think of it, neither has Mike Shanahan, without John Elway.
Still, it would be easy enough to let the guy play out the string until he wanted to retire. He hasn't put any truly miserable teams out on the field. Not like the Detroit Lions, but the Broncos have been stuck in second gear for a decade now, and not showing any real indications of making any hard charges upward any time soon.
Then there's the circumstances of the way he was fired. After fielding one of the worst defenses in the NFL this season, Mike Shanahan refused to fire his defensive coordinator. When my school's test scores continue to lag behind expected norms, all of us teachers were asked to interview to get our jobs back. Some of us came back. Some of us didn't. Whether that was the best way to bring up test scores remains to be seen, but it was clear that we needed to show an interest in change, and that the status quo was no longer good enough. I suppose I can give it up to Mike for sticking to his guns, but he wasn't being all that realistic. Change, after all, is what this year has been about.
It reminds me of being a junior in high school, the day after our basketball team won the state championship, the local news came to our school to get some footage of the pep rally. Someone stuck a microphone in my face and asked me what I thought. I said, "As long as we've got Coach Smith, I think we can take state every year!" We went to the finals in my senior year, and lost. A few years after I left Boulder High, so had he. The dynasty never really happened. Boulder High Basketball has one trophy in the case. Coach Smith was a science teacher when he wasn't coaching, and he probably got a better gig at another school. That's the way these things go.
Mike Shanahan will land on his feet. I'm not worried about him. He should land another job before they play Super Bowl Forty-Three. And that's the way these things go.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bridge To Nowhere II

The state of California will soon be broke. We are presently hemorrhaging money at or above the pace of the federal government. With this fact in mind, our Governator and legislators are preparing to cut any number of state programs and projects. These are the guys who ultimately decide how many dollars end up in the budget for education. And just like me, they're taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays.
Meanwhile, down by the bay, a ship sits at the dock stacked full of steel structures for the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. For the third day, it sat without being unloaded. For the third day, work was stopped on the Bay Bridge. At the heart of the work stoppage was a disagreement between two unions as to who should be allowed to take cargo off the Zhen Hua. Longshore workers say they have a right to unload the ship, while Caltrans is defending its decision to use two other unions, representing iron workers and operating engineers, who are involved in the Bay Bridge construction.
Negotiations took place in a building overlooking the pier where the ship is moored. Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney said he could not provide estimates of what the delay might cost. It's possible workers will have to put in overtime to catch up or that longshore workers will be given a role, both of which could add costs to the project. Adding costs to this project that has already been funded, but still taking place in a state where money is running out, and people are looking for work in record numbers.
I could make ridiculous suggestions like bringing in some of the unemployed workers of Oakland to get the steel off the ship, but that wouldn't answer the question of safety, the sticking point for the longshoremen. I could suggest that Solomonic wisdom suggests that we tear the ship in pieces and have each union pull what they can as it sinks into the bay. Or maybe I could point out all the obvious points made along the way. Or maybe I've forgotten the most obvious point of all: Keeping all professional negotiators fully employed.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Winding Down

The nice thing about the week between Christmas and the New Year is that it gives most of us a chance to take stock of the fifty-one weeks leading up to this one. 2008 gave us all a chance to stretch our limits and test our patience. A year ago, I was wondering if there wasn't a way to get Martin Sheen into the Oval Office. This was about the time when the great heavyweight bout called the Democratic Primaries began. Hilary or Barack? It took another six months to decide which history-making candidate would run for president on that side of the ballot.
Meanwhile, the Republicans were trying to figure out why they shouldn't run John McCain. Now they have their answer. A year ago, there were very few "short lists" that included Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as a candidate for much of anything, let alone a heartbeat away from the potential of possibly becoming the next President of the United States. Now, it seems, we're stuck with her.
A year ago, taxpayers were told that we could expect a nice check in the mail, between six to a thousand dollars with the expectation that we would rush out and stimulate the economy. In hindsight, it appears as though we failed. If only we had spent that money on stocks or a new car instead of groceries or rent. Silly taxpayers. We had a chance to save the economy, and we squandered it.
Last year, the American Dialect Society chose the word "subprime" as the one that best typified 2007. I expect that "bailout" will be in the running for 2008. All the while, we wait for our hunky new President to put his shirt back on and get to work. This must also be a year of miracles, since we've spent the past eight years waiting. War in the Middle East, financial crisis at home, and Jay Leno moving to prime time: there are plenty of opportunities. "Opportunities multiply as they are seized." -Sun Tzu

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fourth And Long

I have spent a good long while finding excuses not to go out to view any spectator sports. Why would I want to go anywhere but my living room? There's a big soft couch across the room from a big TV. I know where the volume control is, and if I want to make my own replays, I can always use the pause button on my digital video recorder. It is a deeply controlled environment. Sitting outside in weather that I cannot control in crowds that I cannot control while watching games that I cannot control has become a less appealing opportunity.
But today was different. A friend of mine came up from Los Angeles for a visit, and he happened to have tickets to see the San Francisco Forty-Niners play the Washington Redskins. Tickets and a parking pass, and he said he would drive. My responsibilities included showing up, and precious little else. I told him that I would be foolish to turn down such an invitation.
As it turned out, I had a grand old time. With little or no interest in the outcome of the game, I was free to take in all the subtleties of the day. The crowd was impressive, perhaps because the weather had cleared and we enjoyed the first sunny day in a week, or perhaps because the Forty-Niners still manage to fill their stadium even for a "meaningless" game based on the legacy they have created over the past thirty-odd years.
That was the thing that stuck with me: Meaningless Game. In professional sports, it is hard for me to imagine just what that means. If nobody showed up for the game, they would still play. The coaches and the equipment managers and the TV crew would all go right on through their motions, but the players? They know that if they don't perform, even in a losing effort, they might not be asked back next season. I suppose the same could be true of a vendor who failed to move as many hot dogs as he might have, but their performance is more a function of the people in the stands, not on the field. The players' physical performance would be the measure of their job.
I wondered if the players thought about those kinds of things as they lined up each down, across from other athletes facing the same potential fate. What role would desperation play in such a contest? Well, as it turns out, maybe quite a lot. After being down by ten points in the second quarter, San Francisco rallied to take the lead, then held Washington came back to tie with one minute left. In front of the home crowd, the Niners rolled down the field and with just three seconds left, kicked the winning field goal to send the crowd happily rolling out into the parking lot, singing the praises of the home team.
That home team still finished the year with a losing record. They showed a lot of grit and determination, but they were never even close to making the playoffs. On a day when so much was decided about which team would play whom and where for chance to make it to the Super Bowl, the Redskins dropped their last game of the year to the Forty-Niners. Everybody still got paid, and for the moment, everyone still has a job. Maybe winning that game even saved a couple jobs. But that's not the nature of professional sports. It is, after all, a business, and winning really is everything. Being entertaining while losing is only good if you happen to be a member of the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters. The NFL doesn't have much patience for such theater.
That's why you can expect that, while twelve teams start to prepare for their run at the Lombardi Trophy, twenty more will be shaking the tree to see who will stick around until next year. I'll be watching that part from the couch, but I'm glad I took the time to go out and see what I've been missing.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Coincidence and convenience combined today to send me back into the retail fray. After doing everything I could to avoid becoming lost in the mall by doing almost all my shopping via Al Gore's Internet, I found myself in the midst of a swarm of post-Christmas consumers for the second time in as many days. I suppose it makes some kind of fiscal sense, since many stores have done us all the favor by continuing to make fleece vests and big screen TVs more affordable. But I don't need a fleece vest, and I've already got a very nice TV. What was I thinking?
Most of all, I was being a good husband. It would be hard to imagine a more personal gift than the Christmas Commode she received last week, but there was still the matter of finding a present that was at least a little more traditional. That's how we found ourselves at Old Navy. This is where my endurance was tested.
I knew that my son, who attends a middle school with a very specific dress code, needed a new blue sweatshirt. With the promise of sixty percent off everything, why not take a chance that there was something there for mom as well? I had forgotten my training. Way back in high school I agreed to go shopping with girlfriend, who introduced me to the very clear distinction between buying and shopping. For me, once you had gone once around those circular racks of clothes, you had seen what was available. I soon learned that it was important to make several trips around the same rack, just in case your mood changed, or in case a new and more perfect piece of clothing was spontaneously generated as you completed the circuit. I eventually became dizzy, and discovered the need for those little benches just outside the dressing rooms.
Today I found myself getting just a little queasy as we cycled through the racks, and I avoided the temptation to whine. I knew it was my predilection to make a straight line directly to the item I wanted to purchase, and another one straight to the cash register. Any attempt made to track us during our time in Old Navy would have broken your GPS. It was a maze of indecision and false starts, but in the end, we found exactly what it turned out we were looking for. I didn't understand it at first, but we had been looking for bargains, and that is the gift that keeps on giving. My wife got a sweater. The local economy got a little nudge, and I got a roundabout, winding trip down memory lane.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Power Corrupts

First of all, the story has a happy ending, so don't get too upset as you read on. That being said, let me begin in a more traditional spot: the beginning. My desktop computer has slowly been losing its power supply. On Christmas morning our neighborhood was visited by a series of brief power outages. When I went to sit down to write my holiday blog, I reached over to make the machine work, and nothing happened. No lights, no noise, nothing.
I spent a few minutes grumbling at myself for not taking better care of my personal computer, protecting it from power surges and all manner of potential calamities. Eventually I was able to find the strength to take it apart and discover the root of the problem. As someone who once owned a Volkswagen Beetle, I tend to believe that I can usually fix anything with a limited number of moving parts. I confess that I hoped to open the case and find a dangling wire with a big red flashing sign that said, "Connect Me!"
That didn't happen, but I was able to carefully remove the power supply, making careful note of which wires plugged in where. Then I was stuck. I tensed myself for the morning trek to Best Buy to purchase a replacement. Would I really subject myself to retail on the day after Christmas?
As it turns out, I needn't have worried. The crowds were sparse, and the nice young gentlemen of The Geek Squad lived up to their name. "Oh that? That's a little thing," said Geek number one.
"That's a special order. You'll have to call HP," agreed Geek number two. "All the power supplies we have are way too big."
My do-it-yourself ethos was taking a beating here. I thanked them and returned to my poor powerless machine. Happily, we live in a household with an abundance of computers, and using one of them, I was able to find the spare parts hotline for HP. I didn't want to take the chance on this special piece by relying on my own expertise and clicking on the wrong item. Imagine my surprise then, when the voice on the other end of the line turned out to be Geek number three, who was every bit as helpful as his cousins. This power supply no longer existed, he told me, and I might have some luck tracking down a replacement under a different part number. He even suggested a third party vendor that I might try. HP had washed its hands of my machine because it was more than five years old. Silly me, trying to keep machines out of the landfill.
The third party vendor was a touch more helpful. The lady there wasn't quite a Geek. She commiserated with my situation, and while she was unable to locate a power supply for me, she understood my plight and suggested I search the Internet using the part number to find someone who might.
Lo and behold, the first hit I got when I put in the part number was a place called "Just Power Supplies." I flashed briefly on the old David Letterman bit about the shop in Manhattan called "Just Lamps." "Wonder what they sell there?" asked Dave with a wry grin. As I looked at the page, I noticed this disclaimer: "Does your power supply look different than the pictures above?Did you get this 0950-4107 part number from HP when you called them? Does your old power supply look like the one on the left? You should go by the part number on your old power supply to get the correct part." This caught my interest.
I called Just Power Supplies. I talked to a very cheerful guy named Bill. He told me he wished he had a nickel for every time HP gave out the wrong part number, and that if I had ordered the one that they had suggested that I would be sad. The one that they suggested would not fit. He told me that he had just received a pallet full of this supposedly obsolete part and would be happy to send me the right part for a reasonable fee.
Honestly, I would have paid twice what he charged just to have the pleasant and informed interaction I had with Bill. Bill was not a Geek. Bill was a mensch. And in a few days, depending on the speed of shipping, we will all live happily ever after, machines included.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Whether it's your CD collection or your iPod, there are certain albums, artists or songs that you don't make a point of sharing with just anyone. These are the guilty pleasures for which the personal stereo headphones were invented. You can go on listening to your private tunes without letting on just how quirky and/or pedestrian your music tastes might be. For example, I'm guessing my relative hipness would take a hit among certain quarters if it were known that I have a great many John Denver songs on my playlist.
As a native Coloradan, I suppose you might guess that before I left the state I was asked to take along a certain amount of its culture along with me. I never was much of a skier, so I guess it was inevitable that I would choose the songs of John Denver as my chief export. But this was no compulsory act. I did it of my own free will. I genuinely like the guy's music. There. I've said it and I feel better. That's why I kept all those songs in my library. That's why I was pleased and happy when my older brother sent me a Christmas CD with a generous helping of John Denver. This morning I was running in the hills of Oakland, listening to "Rocky Mountain High," and it made me feel glad.
But how could I reconcile this with my otherwise cynical outlook on life? How did John Denver fit into a music collection that was so wildly diverse? Then I remembered one of the best things John ever did: He appeared before the Senate, testifying against the proposed mandatory labeling of records and tapes by the Parents Music Resource Committee. Once upon a time, "Rocky Mountain High" was banned by many radio stations for its drug references. He sat next to Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and Frank Zappa and faced down Tipper Gore and her husband. He suggested that the trouble with America's youth wasn't the music they were listening to, but the future that their government was providing for them.
And so, for this, I have decided that feeling guilty about listening to John Denver is a waste of my time. Especially when there are still all those ABBA songs to live down.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Yule See

We can make a Twinkie
that can last for twenty years
We can send clever robots
to the surface of Mars
We can dial long distance
from inside our cars
But that's not the trick
The magic comes from inside
The helping hand
The friendly wave
That certain smile
The one that says
We're all in this together
We made it this far
With a long road ahead
We'll go together
Robot Twinkie Phones
For everyone this year
It is the beginning
Of a great adventure

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Merry Wish List

I know this comes a little late, but just in case you happened to draw one of these folks in your office Secret Santa pool, maybe some of these suggestions will help make their Christmas just a little brighter:
When it comes to Blue Christmases, it's hard to imagine one more indigo than the one that will be occurring at the McCain home this year. That is, once they decide in which home they intend to spend it. When that's settled, I hope someone has the kindness in their heart to pay for the services of a really good computer tutor and hook John up to Facebook. This will give him a chance to connect with the twenty-first century and get him a few more "friends." We can always use a few more friends.
Along the same lines, my wish for Sarah Palin this year is a DVD copy of "The Best Of Tina Fey." Remember all those silly things Tina said about the "pro-America" parts of our country and how she can see Russia from where she lives and how she was going to charge right in there as vice president and make policy changes right along with Congress. That stuff still cracks me up. Those were Tina's, weren't they?
John Edwards needs a copy of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." Bill Richardson needs a week off to grow his goatee back. Hilary Clinton just needs a hug. For Soon-To-Be-Private-Citizen Pinhead, a chance to return to his glory days with the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Not necessarily at the top, however.
And for President-Anointed-One Barack Obama, the box set of the complete series of "The West Wing," or the time to watch it. He can't have it both ways. Or can he?

Monday, December 22, 2008

How Much For That Humbug?

I have been hearing a lot of talk about the commercialization of the Christmas season this year. A good portion of this has been directed squarely in my direction, since I am one of the prime offenders of doing just that. I put up my lights. I watch the holiday specials on TV. I do my shopping early and often, and what's probably worst, I ask my child to do this right along with me. What chance does he have to grow up in a world without the mind-numbing anticipation of "The Big Day?" Presently, I would say slim to none.
I have been told that things weren't always like this. I have been told that kids today are subjected to much more advertising and overt stimulation of their consumer cortex than their counterparts of previous generations. It has been suggested that we turn the clock back to "the good old days."
If that means back when my parents were children, then I wonder if we haven't set the Wayback Machine for a point in history that is still too immersed in the terror and pleasure of Christmas morning. I choose as my reference point Jean Shepard's book of short stories, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." The fact that this was a commercial venture in itself and he massaged and adapted those stories into a product that eventually turned into a film called "A Christmas Story" probably disqualifies this whole argument since it's all part of that moneymaking scam. Nonetheless, I am stuck with the image of Ralphie, the hero of these tales, sitting transfixed by his radio, listening to the adventures of "Little Orphan Annie." That show was sponsored by Ovaltine. Then there was the more pressing matter of what Ralphie asked Santa to bring him: "An official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time." It's a real thing, and you can still get it less the compass in the stock and so on. It wasn't made up for the movie. Those words were probably the exact ones that rattled around Jean Shepard's head for thirty years before he had a chance to share them with the rest of the world.
My mother, who was a contemporary of Ralphie and Jean, often recalls with great reverence the "Wish Books" from Montgomery Wards that she used to pore over as a little girl. She had her list, just like we do now. Only we do it with computers. So maybe we need to keep going back to a time when Christmas wasn't about gifts. We'll have to go back more than two thousand years, since back then it seemed like every kid wanted his own gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
Only two more shopping days...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

We Are The Champions

"Life is just a fantasy, can you live a fantasy life?" This is the musical question that Aldo Nova asked, and during this football season, I have used these as the watch words as commissioner of my friends and family fantasy football league. As we celebrate the inaugural Phutsux championship game, I would like to salute the owners and players that have made this year such a giddy good time.
It might seem a little strange to name a seventy-three year old woman Rookie of the Year, but my mother has stuck with the ups and downs of a very unpredictable season as well as a very steep learning curve to uphold the family honor.
Speaking of family honor, my wife has earned the title of Comeback Player of the Year. As someone who has always been patient with her husband's sports obsessions, she not only maintained a team that made a real run over the last few weeks of the season, but she was "a little sad" to discover that it was all coming to an end.
Speaking of the end, I take my hats off to the owners of the two teams in our championship game. As a married couple, they have made all the right moves to put themselves into a position to win it all. They have done this and remained civil to one another, at least when they are out in public. For this, I have named them Co-owners of the Year.
And then there's my son, with whom I am currently engaged in a life-or-death struggle for third place. He gets my Most Courageous Player Award. He stuck with his lineup, especially his quarterback, through thick and thin. He's a fan, and that's what it's all about.
And me? I got to live vicariously through the exploits of a bunch of big sweaty guys for a few months with the love and support of my family and friends. Some might call this "enabling." I call it fantasy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fear Itself

During the end credits of Jim Carrey's new film "Yes Man," I felt myself cringing. The movie itself wasn't so bad, even though paying eight dollars and seventy-five cents for a bargain matinee might have created such a reaction. No, the feeling I had was brought on by watching two people fly down a twisting road laying on a rollerblade rig that was more luge than skate. All I could think as I stared at these two accelerating downhill mere inches off the ground was this: "What happens if something springs up suddenly in the roadway?"
Not that the roller-luge activity wasn't thrilling enough on its own. I had to add my own element of fear to it. I'm very good at creating my own irrational fears. For example, as long as I can remember, I have had this bizarre thought as I walk across grates on a sidewalk: "What if I should suddenly become extremely thin and slide down into whatever abyss is below this metal grate?" As yet, this has never occurred, though I continue to expect it each and every time I find myself in this situation.
It doesn't happen every time, but I still have the ability to terrorize myself in a dark room. I imagine a cold, clawed hand reaching to grab my own as I reach for the light switch. Or maybe the back door that's hanging slightly ajar was closed tightly when I left, wasn't it? I've been stalked by a homicidal maniac since I first moved to the room downstairs at my parent's house. Sometimes I think that talking loudly in what I hope is an empty house will take some of the stress away, or maybe just scare this drooling psychopath off via the sheer volume of my monologue. Other times I remain silent, preferring to play it cool, or at least be able to hear the tiniest creaking floorboard or slobbering from the next room.
Then I became a parent, and all the possible awful things that could happen to me in any given time or place pales by comparison to the possible awful things that could happen to my son. I work hard to stay rational because I am, after all, the grownup, but I don't always succeed. The things I find to worry about happening to my son would be more useful if I could keep them from veering into territory like alien abduction. I know that I would be a better dad if I put my effort into keeping him safe from eighth graders and busy intersections, but that's not how we roll in this house. I will, however, be happy to save my son from any roller-luge accidents or spontaneous miniaturization. At least we'll be covered on those fronts.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mourning Show

I will miss Dave Morey. He's been retiring for a while now, and I confess that I've never been a fan of long goodbyes. But now it's here and I confess that the reality of the situation has just begun to dawn on me. On those mornings over the past sixteen years that I have awakened to my radio going off and I didn't hear Dave's voice, my first instinct was to wonder: What's up with Dave? He has become part of my morning ritual, as he has for countless listeners across the Bay Area. It helps that I fit neatly into that demographic that his radio station lovingly refers to as "Fogheads," but it runs deeper than that. On any given weekday morning, it was Dave's voice that I heard before anyone else's.
My morning dial was set on KFOG back in 1992, and that's where it has stayed. That's really the heart of the matter, but it's not to say that it has always been a non-stop lovefest. There have been plenty of mornings that I have caught myself talking back to the radio, and even a few more when I made the rational leap of calling the station to share my feelings. I knew he wasn't addressing me directly, but I have a very deep-seated need to share my ideas and concerns. Even if it means waiting on hold.
I remember a time when I called in to share my favorite Christmas films: "Brazil," "Gremlins," and "Lethal Weapon." I'm not sure if my tongue-in-cheek selections played as well to a larger audience, but I felt the need to add my voice to all those other listeners who weren't nearly as clever as I was. Judging from the relative silence coming from the studio end of the line, I may have been alone in my fixation. The fact that I felt comfortable enough to call up and share my own perverse tastes speaks loudly to the connection I have felt with this group of people.
The only prize I have ever won off a radio contest came from Dave Morey's "Request-O-Rama." Because I knew that "The Chipmunk Song" received one of the first Grammy awards, I got a pair of tickets to see REM, as well as a home version of Jeopardy signed by Alex Trebek. Those came as icing on the cake. And the very tasty cake was getting Dave to play my request.
I had been listening for years, and had never won. I was either stuck listening to a busy signal while other callers got through, or nowhere near a telephone where I could have used my knowledge of trivial bits for good, or at least the chance to hear one of my favorite songs. This caused me to plot and imagine what my request would be on the off chance that I actually did ring through. Would it be as clever and obscure as my favorite Christmas movies? I decided that it really should be Springsteen, because one can never get enough Bruce on the radio. But what song?
Clocking in at nearly ten minutes, there was only one choice: "Jungleland." When I told Dave what I wanted to hear, there was a pause. "Are you sure?" he asked. I had a notion what the problem was. Ten minutes is a big chunk of time on the radio, especially on morning radio with traffic reports and news and weather and plenty of other regular features. But Dave played it. Even though they were still scrambling to catch up two hours later, Dave played it. I got the tickets and the Jeopardy game. And I got to hear "Jungleland" on the radio.
That was years ago. I'm still listening. When the holidays are over and I the radio pops on in the darkness, I'll still be listening, but that question will still be there: "What's up with Dave?" My mornings will never be quite the same.
Vay con Dios, Dave Morey.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shoe Fly

It's not like I missed it. It was even on YouTube. Still-President Pinhead almost got pegged in his tiny noggin by a pair of shoes hurled at him by an irate Iranian reporter. Showing those cat-like reflexes that he has become famous for, the pointy-headed one dodged one of the most profound insults in the Arab world. Shoes are considered ritually unclean by the Muslim faith. Remember all those angry Iranians slapping statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein with their shoes? That was after thirty years of violence and oppression. It only took Pinhead five. He's always been exceptional.
And so, as we continue the onerous countdown to the official start of the Once and Future President Obama in the same way that my son counts down the hours until Christmas, Pinhead continues to take his victory lap. In an interview with the soon to be marginalized Fox News, here's what the tiny-brained leader of the Free World had to say: "What do you expect? We've got a major economic problem and I'm the president during the major economic problem. I mean, do people approve of the economy? No. I don't approve of the economy. ... I've been a wartime president. I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."
As his job approval rating continues to hang just below thirty percent, he remained oblivious to his rather personal an active role in history. He continues to look tired and bewildered as he meanders from one last photo-op to another. This all happened on your watch, big fella, and lobbing a shoe at you seems like one of the more polite ways I can imagine to show our displeasure.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Meet The New Boss

Barack Obama finally got around to making the appointment I cared about: Secretary of Education. The man of the hour is Arne Duncan, who was most recently dealing with the challenges of the Chicago public schools. During his tenure in the Windy City, Mister Duncan was able to raise test scores and graduation rates. For this we say, "Bravo," and now get your hip waders on for the big swim.
Public education in the United States is in trouble. I know because I work there: in the United States, in public education. It just so happens that I work at a school named for the founder of American Education: Horace Mann. Way back in 1837, he wrote about the problems facing our schools. The six main problems he targeted were: (1) the public should no longer remain ignorant and free, (2) that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public, (3) that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children of all diversities, (4) that this education must be free of religious influence, (5) that this education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society, and (6) that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers. One hundred and seventy years ago. What sort of challenges face Arne today? Pretty much the same thing?
I know that we in the teaching biz have until 2014 to make sure that every student can read and do math on grade level. To put it more colloquially, No Child Will Be Left Behind. But that's five years from now. That shouldn't be any problem, right? More than one in four students still score below basic on eighth-grade math and reading tests. The news is worse among black and Hispanic children, nearly half of whom score below basic on the same tests. Dropout rates remain high: One in four students quits high school. Among black and Hispanic kids, one in three drops out. How can we be saved? Duncan and Obama have lots of ideas. Some of which include merit pay for teachers, charter schools, and the revamping of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Not the dismissal, just the revamping. And longer school days. The Once And Future President said to a group of kids at a Chicago school just after announcing his appointment, "Well, let me tell you, kids in a lot of other countries go to school more than kids here in the United States," adding that he hasn't made any decisions. "The longer you're here, the smarter you get."
If only it were that simple.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

You Better Watch Out!

We are now smack in the midst of the holiday season. I know this because I have been asked by my son to Tivo Rudolph, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown. There are plenty of animated TV specials on in the next few weeks, but these are the "big three" around our house when it comes to Christmas. Sure, we might take a peek at Spongebob's Holiday Special, or flip past the colorized version of "Miracle on 34th Street," but we won't stay long.
The truth is, we don't have enough time before the big day to watch all the stuff that has the stench of ice or holly or pine boughs about it. That's why we simply skip watching "Frosty the Snowman." It's a poorly animated version of a three minute song that goes on for half an hour, with commercials. I suppose the same might be said about Rudolph, but given that it's twice as long and has more laughs and heart than twenty viewings of Frosty, it's an easy choice to make.
Then there's the Grinch. Not the live-action misinterpretation directed by Opie Cunningham, but the real and true Seuss/Karloff/Jones collaboration that provides me with more joy than your standard animated special. I would happily watch any three minutes of this one than Jim Carrey flopping around in a pile of green shag carpet any day. "Given the choice between the two of you, I'd take the seasick crocodile."
Then there's Charlie Brown. Chuck and I shared the same wary ambivalence about the holidays. Still, he gives it his best shot, and when that little tree collapses under the weight of the lone ornament he tries to put on it, I shared his pain. That's why it's such a relief to have Linus show up to let us all in on the true meaning of Christmas. It was a daring choice, back in 1965, not to stick with the safe and secular. Because that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
We're going to try to find some time to do something other than just watching TV in the next week or so, but if we don't answer the phone it's because we're stuck on the Island of Misfit Toys, or down in Whoville, or if we're very lucky, we'll be dancing with the gang at the rehearsal for the big Christmas Pageant.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Day The Earth Had To Sit Through

I went to the movies yesterday. I asked a friend to come along because I knew that it wasn't going to be pretty. We went to see "The Day The Earth Stood Still." I was fairly certain that the casting of Keanu Reeves as Klaatu would be enough to assure my displeasure, since I had already had my own version in mind for several years, and mine starred David "The Man Who Fell To Earth" Bowie. I confess that I paid for my ticket with the understanding that I would be disappointed.
In my version, Klaatu descends from the stars on Super Bowl Sunday. Mine was set in the days shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. How would the world react to a visitor from another planet at such a xenophobic time in history? I saw this as a mirror of the red scare that ran through Robert Wise's 1951 original. What would happen, my pitch went, if the world had to stop and consider a reality in which we were all suspects. Showing up just before kickoff in front of millions of viewers to announce that he had come in peace might not be enough to instill trust and hope in a frightened and jaded population.
To be honest, I hadn't decided if I wanted Klaatu to be completely sincere in his motives. I wanted to keep open the possibility that he had come to trick us into laying down our weapons just long enough to have his big silver robot take over without a fight. None of that ambivalence exists in Keanu's version. He has come to save the Earth from mankind. The rest of the film plays out like a sci-fi version of "An Inconvenient Truth" including product placement by such Earth-friendly corporations as Microsoft and McDonald's. The cast seemed to be under strict direction not to out-emote Mister Reeves. In the end, the big silver robot gets his name from a military acronym and then turns into a cloud of metallic locusts out to chew up the man-made mess we created before returning the carefully collected space arks full of the animals to return the planet back to the way it was meant to be: without us. But Keatu discovers what it means to be human, which apparently includes feeling really sorry about all the mess he made of Jennifer Connelly's home life. An intergalactic "my bad." Then he packs up his great big old glowing sphere of swirling lights, because a flying saucer would have been much too cliche, and leaves Central Park and the rest of Manhattan and the eastern seaboard a colossal wreck strewn with millions of dead metal bugs. There was no reckoning, we just had to promise to get our act together and stop littering. Right after we clean up New York City. Again.
Part of the reason that I abandoned my screenplay back in the early days of our new millennium was that I didn't think that I could do justice to the sentiments expressed in Edmund North's original: "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you." It's been said as well as it can be.
Meanwhile, "The Man Who Fell To Earth" has already had a second shot as a TV-movie, and the friendly folks at Warner Brothers has yet another remake in pre-production. I won't be writing that either. But I might just drag a friend along to see it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


This weekend was all about getting ready. There was some shopping. There was some baking. There was a whole big mess of signatures affixed to the inside o a whole big mess of cards. While I was busy doing all this hustle and bustle, I had several moments to ponder the ongoing War On Christmas.
After all, there I was, inscribing a great many of our Christmas cards to friends of ours who were most certainly not of the Christian persuasion. What could I do? Should I create a separate series of cards for our acquaintances who do not celebrate the nativity of Mister Christ? Happily, the folks who we send our cards to aren't the easily offended type, so that wasn't of great concern. This year's card was pretty secular, but it did mention Christmas by name. I felt pretty safe writing "happy holidays" and sticking with my traditional glib approach to the season.
Then there was the matter of stimulating the economy. I had to pick up a couple of pounds of raw Spanish peanuts and a bag of sugar to make the brittle that I was making, and the impulse to buy just two more strings of lights struck me hard. Tis the season, after all. The idea that "it only comes once a year" seemed like adequate justification.
"It" being Christmas, or the December holiday my family chooses to recognize. Then there was happy little Amir, the kindergartner who took great joy in explaining his family's celebration of Eid al-Adha, religious festival celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God. Well, his focus was primarily on the coconut cake that his mother made, but he was happy to share his culture with me. Why not take the opportunity to chat him up about the joy of Christmas? My guess is that Amir will have plenty more opportunities to nod and smile while the kids in his class sing about reindeer and silent nights, so why push it?
I hope this Gregorian calendar year ends happily for all of you and yours, and whatever rituals or feast you happen to attend brings you a smile or two. The peanut brittle turned out fine, and those extra few lights really made a difference. Happy Holidays.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Miracle Whip

It didn't have a faint image of Jesus layered across the top. It didn't fall to the floor creating a pattern reminiscent of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But it was a Miracle Cake nonetheless. How do I know this? To begin with, it was the expressed intent of the baker, my principal, that this cake would create a miracle. The fact that I work at a school where the principal routinely bakes cakes and tarts and other treats for her staff is miraculous in itself, but this one needed to be even better than that.
For the past few months, the stress level across the planet has been increasing, and our little school has been no exception. The high expectations and daily challenges of working in an urban school in Oakland, California were always enough to make any week a tough one, but the addition of shrinking budgets, economic collapse and massive impending change for everyone has made tensions run higher than normal. It was my principal's wish that baking a chocolate pudding cake for her staff would help transform our fragile reality into one that could be enjoyed, rather than endured.
The morning started auspiciously, with four teachers calling in sick. Two of those had not been assigned substitutes, requiring those students to be parcelled out across various grade levels into the rooms of teachers who were just as happy to get through Friday without the addition of kids for whom they were unfamiliar and unprepared. Shortly after eight o'clock, half an hour before the school day officially begins, two fifth graders got into a fist fight on the playground while a crowd of their peers egged them on. The cake needed to be very good.
By lunch time, there was a sampling of the usual difficulties, including a fourth grade boy who had chosen this day to become an official bully by shoving a bewildered classmate out of her four square box and calling her a sadly impressive list of ugly names. In the office, the cake was quickly disappearing. When the bell finally rang to bring the day to a close, there were just a few crumbs left.
That cake worked miracles. Nobody walked off the job. Some kids' feelings got hurt, but they escaped without any real physical damage. The staff worked together and did their job. At the end of the day, every child and every adult left the building under their own power. It was a miracle. Want the recipe?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Workin' For A Livin'

Before I was in charge of shaping young minds, I ran a book warehouse. More to the point, I supervised a crew of employees whose job it was to fill the orders that were sent to us via phone, mail, or by what was then a very sophisticated computer network. I was also in charge of hiring, which I found ironic at times, since I had risen through those same ranks just a few short months before. My extensive management experience in prior years apparently gave me the leg up on a number of other hopefuls who had wanted to rise to the top of the heap. That heap included a number of recovering addicts, Grateful Dead fans, and addicts in full delusional affect. The fact that I was promoted now seems like a no-brainer.
So there I was, interviewing potential book pullers and packers, all the while wondering if I wasn't talking to the next warehouse manager, or the next extremely short-term asterisk on a long list of short term asterisks. Nobody really wanted to make a career out of working in the warehouse. The ones that stayed ended up in the order department, or sales, or accounting, or anyplace else but the warehouse. Not one applicant ever told me that it was their life's ambition to move freight.
Of course, as a book wholesaler, an employee-owned book wholesaler, we weren't exactly attracting Teamsters. We got a lot of college students, Grateful Dead fans, and addicts of one sort or another. We generally hired four with the hope of keeping two. We didn't expect to keep more than half because we were hiring them to walk on concrete floors where it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. We wanted them to work hard for long hours for little pay. We weren't just hiring employees. We were hiring shareholders.
And so, in effect, while I was busy interviewing my future bosses. By some quirky bit of Berkeley free-love socialist experimentation, if you managed to hang on for six months, you were allowed to become an equal shareholder, alongside the folks who had been with the company since the mid-seventies. If they didn't end up in an office somewhere, that fresh face would be voting on all sorts of company matters. Matters such as the disposition of warehouse management.
I stayed there for almost six years, until I got tired of managing twenty-somethings who did things like work for us long enough that their medical coverage kicked in with their shareholder status and they could enter rehab on the company's dime. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about others. And I learned to have a healthy distaste for the Grateful Dead. On my worst day teaching school I don't have to listen to "Dark Star" nineteen times.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

All Puffed Up

Living here in the Bay Area, I have learned the wisdom of dressing in layers. My standard Fall through Winter ensemble includes a hooded sweatshirt worn underneath a wind shirt. This usually means that when I ride home in the late afternoon, I stuff the sweatshirt in my book bag and wear just the wind shirt. Wear one layer, carry the other. Sometimes it makes me long for the days of clear-cut seasons and weather in Colorado.
That's when my mind wandered off to the Rocky Mountains. When I was a kid, for a brief period of time, there was such a thing as down vests. During the late seventies and early eighties, they were as important a fashion statement as they were for staying warm. Michael J. Fox memorably wore one in "Back To The Future," and everyone he encounters in 1955 assumes he must have just fallen off a boat wearing his life jacket. The other cultural icon of that era who routinely appeared in his rainbow vest that covered his rainbow suspenders was Boulder's own Mork from Ork, Robin Williams. These were wonderful snapshots, but my favorite down vest moment was less Hollywood.
When I was a sophomore in high school, a couple of my friends who were juniors who had spent most of their days at Boulder High known as band geeks decided to go out for track. They did this for the singular purpose of earning a letter jacket. That Spring they were successful, and the next Fall they were proud to wear them wherever and whenever they could. And here's the connection: When they went out to sporting events and other public appearances, they wore their down vests underneath their flashy new letter jackets. They believed it made them look "more buff." In fact, they looked as if they had been inflated, and even on the warmest of Autumn days, they wore their armor out in the world to show just what they were made of: layers of nylon, feathers, and lots of air.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On The Bus Or Off The Bus

Joe Wurzelbacher. Remember him? Well, it turns out that he doesn't want the rest of the country to think of him as just "Joe The Plumber" anymore. More to the point, he doesn't want people to think that he was all that thrilled to be the poster boy for John McCain's ill-fated presidential campaign. He was recently recalling a conversation he had with the senator from Arizona about the pending seven hundred billion dollar bailout for the financial industry: "I asked him some pretty direct questions,” he recollected. “Some of the answers you guys are gonna receive — they appalled me, absolutely. I was angry. In fact, I wanted to get off the bus after I talked to him.”
The bus to which Joe referred was The Straight Talk Express, apparently some sort of misnomer. The talk Joe got was anything but straight. He spoke for many of us when he suggested that Americans did not want that bailout to happen. He could do this because he was a duly recognized representative of the common man, named as such twenty-odd times during a presidential debate. What other qualifications could this person possibly need? When asked why he didn’t leave McCain’s campaign then and there if he was so “appalled” by the candidate, Wurzelbacher (the Plumber) said, “honestly, because the thought of Barack Obama as president scares me even more.”
Who doesn't scare Joe the Plumber? Sarah the Maverick, that's who. Joe says she "is absolutely the real deal.” And now I will spend a few quiet moments being appalled myself.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I Don't Know How To Take This

So much for liberal euphoria. With the clock winding down on Still-President-Pinhead, President-Yet-To-Be-Obama has eased off the rhetoric of change, and has started making some moves toward the middle of the road. “He has confirmed what our suspicions were by surrounding himself with a centrist to right cabinet. But we do hope that before it's all over we can get at least one authentic progressive appointment,” said Tim Carpenter, national director of the Progressive Democrats of America. If he was expecting Bill Ayers to become Secretary of Education, then I suppose I understand his disappointment.
The notion that the last troops in Iraq would leave the ground at the moment that Barack Obama places his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office seems like a lot to ask. Just like getting a chicken in every pot and a hybrid in every garage before January 20th might be a little it of a stretch. He is, to quote Yvonne Elliman, "just a man." He is not the Messiah. He's a good man in a tough position.
When I heard that Gates would be named to Obama's cabinet, I figured he meant Bill, but Robert has a lot of experience too. I remember being let down while the campaign was still heating up and Barack said that some offshore drilling would be okay. I try not to worry about all the talk I have heard about charter schools and vouchers coming from just offstage. And then I raise my head up and look around me. This is still a world full of possibilities, and I would rather not start worrying about how things could be worse before they even have a chance to get better. Best and brightest? Team of Rivals? I don't know about that. I know that it's not going to be a Nation of Pinheads.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Chutes And Ladders

If I had a good idea where to start, I would, but Al Gore's Internet can be very useful up to a point. Then you just have to shrug your shoulders and move on. I would have liked that chance to apologize, but I don't know how to start, so here goes:
As I have mentioned on several occasions, when I was in junior high school, I was not part of any particular social strata. I lived on the cusp of seventh grade, feeling as though I had missed some important piece of training or conversation that would have enabled me to fully engage my peers. There was one kid who seemed just a little more lost than I was. His name was Ken Butts. That's the name I have googled off and on for several years, in hopes of discovering his whereabouts. What would I do if I found him? I would start by reminding him that we went to school together. After all, I have no reason to believe that he even remembers who I am.
I remember Ken because he was the kid that I used to make myself feel better. I may have been the round, uncoordinated kid in the corner getting whacked in the face during Dodgeball games, but Ken was the round, uncoordinated kid in the corner getting whacked in the face during Dodgeball games whose last name was Butts. He's the one who had to write his last name in big block letters inside of the big green rectangle in the middle of his Physical Education t-shirt. He's the one who played the clarinet, a woodwind nothing brass, in band. He's the one who showed up at Centennial Junior High with fewer friends than I did. He's the one I used to give myself social leverage.
Everyone could agree that I was a geek. But I was one notch less pathetic than Ken. Now comes the worst part: When Ken asked if I wouldn't like to come to his house some afternoon after school to hang out, I told him I was busy. He kept asking all the way through seventh grade. And I kept putting him off. Then in eighth grade, he stopped asking.
Ken wasn't in band in eighth grade. That's where I started finding my niche. Ken stayed on the shallow end of the pool, while the rest of us floundered and bobbed and learned to navigate as best we could. By ninth grade, I had lost track of Ken. He may have found his own crowd to be with. He may have lived a quiet happy life without me in it. All I know is that he appears in the index of my senior yearbook just once. The ultimate litmus test of high school connections and accomplishments, and there he is looking quite handsome in his suit and tie. But that's it. No clubs, no candid shots, no honors. Just Ken, without his glasses, staring off into the middle distance of some photographer's studio.
I'll probably keep looking. I want to tell Ken that I'm sorry that I wouldn't give him the time of day primarily because so many other people wouldn't do the same for me back then. I felt like that was the way to climb the ladder. I was wrong. I hope that he's happy, somewhere.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Who's Going To Clean Up This Mess?

We return to our financial crisis, already in progress...
BIG THREE AUTOMAKERS: So you see, Senators, that's why we absolutely have to have twenty-five billion dollars to save our corporations.
SENATORS: We were hoping for something more along the lines of fifteen.
BIG THREE: (with furrowed brows and stroking of chins) Well, gee, I dunno. I'll tell you what, let me pop back to the sales office and see what the sales manager can do on that.
SENATORS: Okay - but how about asking what it would be without the undercoating?

Every morning that I wake up and hear about companies being saved via billions of dollars in government money, I bristle just a little more at the way that wealth is being redistributed. Where were these jokers when they closed the Toys R Us? Forget terrorists. What about when the Hungries hit? They closed Red Barn! Why don't I get to choose what corporations survive and which companies close?
Workers laid off from their jobs at the Republic Windows and Doors factory near Chicago have occupied the building and are demanding assurances they'll get severance and vacation pay that they say they are owed. About two hundred employees began their sit-in Friday, the last scheduled day of the plant's operation. Just like the heads of the Big Three automakers, if they sit there long enough, maybe the cash will show up, but their jobs are gone. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler will, most likely, continue to exist, and they will be "out to win us over this year" with their "Ram tough" vehicles that are "surprisingly affordable." In November, more than half a million Americans lost their jobs. That's half a million more. Not just half a million Americans out of work. Just so we're clear.
We continue to explore vast new regions of darkness before the storm. My mother likes to remind me of the way history has always worked: "Things will probably get worse before they get better." This is a fact that hasn't been wasted on our President-elect while warming up in the bullpen. When the truth is finally revealed that for the past eight years, we have been governed by a group of Red Lectroids overseen by Lord John Whorfin ("Dick" Cheney), everything will become clear. Until then, we live with the hopelessly tangled mess left inside Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems.

They say that these are not the best of times,
but they're the only times I've ever known - Billy Joel

Saturday, December 06, 2008

What Becomes A Legend Most?

It's a sad day in Horrorwood, Karloffornia. Forrest J. Ackerman has gone to another world. The distinct irony being that many would suggest that the founding editor of the pulp magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland spent most of his adult life in another world. Now he's really gone. I owe most of my early love of film to this man. Not only did I learn all about the illustrious canon of Universal horror films from the 1930's, but through the pages of FM I traveled back to the silent era of "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari." I learned about German expressionism before I had mastered my multiplication tables. I have Forry to thank for that. Or is that to blame?
No matter. It is what it is and what I became. His was the first magazine that I chose to subscribe to after hauling home numerous back issues from my friend's house. It was also the first magazine from which I read every word, cover to cover. I pored over the tiniest production details of "King Kong" and stared intently at the photos of Jack Pierce at work in his makeup studio. It was from this same publication that I learned about Hammer Studios, and eventually the new wave of creatures and demons that appeared began to appear in the seventies. Long before I was ever old enough to catch a single frame of "The Exorcist," I was filled with images of Linda Blair in fully-possessed mode, dripping pea soup from her chin.
I spent my pre-teen years imagining a career in the movies, working on the inevitable next installment of Planet of the Apes. Or maybe I could go work for Ray Harryhausen. Perhaps just skip all that and go straight to work as curator at the Ackermansion as some sort of tour guide or curator.
And why not? This was the guy who discovered Ray Bradbury. He was Isaac Asimov's literary agent. He coined the term "sci-fi." Uncle Forry, as he liked to refer to himself, wasn't just a publisher and purveyor of pop culture. He can be forgiven the horrible puns and the less-than-stellar roles in such grade-Z fare as "Dracula vs. Frankenstein." The man was larger than life. He was an institution and one of my first true-life heroes. I never wrote to "You Axed For It," or entered any of the amateur makeup contests, though Academy Award winner Rick Baker did, but I could have. That's the world that I grew up in, and now that chapter is closed. Good night, Forry, scary dreams.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Careful With That Axe, Eugene!

And finally, some good news. At least that's the way I am choosing to see it. Here it is: British newspaper The Times reports this week that up to two and a half million children in the United Kingdom have graduated from playing toy instruments in video games to playing real guitars and drums. As a Guitar Hero devotee for most of a year, I believe this is the leading edge of the Hope and Change wave that will be spreading over our own great land in the coming months.
Much in the same way that we all fretted about our children picking up automatic weapons and trenchcoats after spending hours in front of their first-person shooter games, we can now start worrying about the price of music lessons. Instead of watching my son sit slack-jawed in front of our TV for hours at a time, I now stand slack-jawed next to him, windmilling and strumming for all we're worth.
I took a lot of smug satisfaction from this particular report, having to defend my mild obsession to various friends and relatives. "Do you really think that your son will be more interested in playing a real guitar after playing that game?" Yes, I do. He has been picking up my wife's ukulele and picking out "Smoke On The Water."
Meanwhile, I have been introduced to Linkin Park and my son has a growing appreciation for Ozzy Osbourne. We have shared many happy Father and Son air-guitar battles in those moments when we didn't have access to our "real" instruments. It's a renaissance of my own adolescence. We both know enough to shudder at Ted Nugent's politics, but we still appreciate the virtuosity of his jam on "Stranglehold."
My son is eleven, and I know that a certain amount of rebellion is inevitable, but I will be fascinated to see what form it takes, considering I'm the one who gave him his first Green Day album. Will he start his own band? Will he grow his hair long and give up the piano for something he can plug in to a Marshall stack? Will he end up playing the keytar? Who cares as long as it's loud.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


The past week has been full of bad news. My wife and I have been turning off the television without waiting around to see what the next day's weather will be like to avoid feeling more immersed in the sadness and strife. I'll take my chances on looking out the window in the morning if it means I don't have to hear any more stories about teenagers being tortured by their guardians. The only thing I could think, after I heard the sordid tale of abuse in Tracy, California, was that for every battered and emaciated child who escapes their tormentors there must be dozens more who aren't so lucky.
I'm sure that's why I had horrible dreams the past few nights. I woke up early this morning from a very Lovecraftian flurry of images, and wondered if I should try and put myself back to sleep. I have become much more cautious about what I let my son watch before he goes to bed at night. I know that he carries plenty of awful things around in his head, sometimes by pure suggestion. My own psyche has taken much more stress over the years. I've seen and read plenty of shocking stories, and always managed to put them aside before I lay me down to sleep. My standard bad dream is to agonize over some trivial annoyance, like not being able to find my classroom at school. But the sheer weight of the past week's reality has conjured up monsters like I have never seen, with tiny red eyes and pointy teeth. They live in the sewers under my house, and it is the filth that they live in that makes them stronger.
Maybe the best solution is to watch only the weather, then pull the covers up to my chin and turn out the light. Sleep tight.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

We Could Be Heroes

It began with a careless remark about X-Men and Wolverine. A member of our staff was saying that she was excited about seeing "Australia" for the considerable talents of Hugh Jackman, "and not because of that whole X-Man thing." Fair enough, but the talk went directly there, and then on to all things super-heroic. We reckoned that the next few years would have a fairly liberal sprinkling of movies devoted to men and women in tights.
Then our resident comic book expert wondered aloud if we wouldn't soon see Ant-Man on the big screen. As it turns out, he needn't worry, because the story of Hank Pym is on the fast track to a theater near you, probably in 2010. That would be before Captain America. And right about the same time as Thor. And just about any other major player in the Marvel Universe. The story of a biochemist that can shrink down to the size of an ant while retaining his full human strength is odd, but not necessarily super. Hank is, after all, pretty much the Marvel equivalent of Aquaman.
It's an easy target, a little like shooting man-fish in a barrel. Aquaman's powers consist primarily in his ability to talk to fish. And he can swim very fast. That was enough to get him into the Justice League of America. He occupies that spot in the very pleasant pantheon of DC comics akin to Marvel's Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Except that Namor would probably eat Aquaman for lunch. With a little tartar sauce.
That's why the folks at HBO decided it would be fine to let their big star in "Entourage" appear, tongue in gill, as Aquaman. He's the Super Friend that nobody really wants to talk about. So what if two-thirds of the planet is covered by water? If I'm a super-villain, I'm not worried about my caper being foiled by vigilante dolphins. By the end of lunch, we had decided that if talking to fish is a super-power, then Doctor Dolittle should be a member of the Justice League as well. And he'd be a much snappier dresser.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Today as I stood out on the yard watching swarms of fifth graders playing a game of kickball, I found myself in a moment of quiet reverie. It occurred to me that these kids would probably never know the sublime simplicity of the ghost runner. For those of you who may have missed out on this particular bit of arcane playground lore, or maybe those who may have misplaced the significance of this convention, let me explain.
Ghost runners took the place of the player who was needed to advance them. That is to say, if you had a runner on first and second, and there were only two players on the team, then a ghost runner would be left on second while that player returned home to bat or kick. The tricky part came when everyone started to move. The standing rule was that the ghost runner could only run as fast as the person right behind them, and even though you couldn't tag a ghost runner, it was a simple matter to run them into a force out. In our example, if you were to tag third base before the runner on first had made it to second, then the ghost runner would be out. If the runner on first made it all the way to third, then the ghost runner would score.
Pretty simple stuff, but I liked to imagine the spectral shapes, sometimes dressed in pinstripe sheets gliding around the base paths. My younger brother and I played plenty of short-handed games of softball in the meadow at our cabin, and our lineups were primarily ghosts. We were often fortunate enough to have fielding assistance from the neighborhood Golden Retriever, but he was better on defense. Many times we were able to load the bases with ghosts, and then drive them all in when our retriever failed to live up to his breed.
As I watched the fifth grade argue about who would play "pitcher's helper" and who would be in left-mid-center-field, I made a wish for them of solitude and all the ingenuity that comes with it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

It's All Made Up

This is the response I give to people who ask me about the current state of our economy: "It's all made up." The reason I can say this is that I have been saying it for many years, through boom and bust, and it is still the best way I know to describe just how the financial world rolls. Take today for example. For the past week or so, the stock market had been making some modest gains on the speculation that the crisis would soon have new management, even if the crisis itself might continue for some time. Then it was announced that the United States had been in a recession since December 2007, and it is getting worse. This caused the Dow to plummet six hundred and eighty points.
Hey, I'm no E.F. Hutton, but haven't we all been pretty clear on this recession thing for some time now? Did it really take an official pronouncement to create the reality, or is it all just made up? Still-President Pinhead had this to say about the lost jobs, nest eggs and other damage brought on by the financial crisis: "I'm sorry it's happening, of course." Of course.
In the meantime, this made up news isn't all bad. You can now purchase a house in California for less than one hundred thousand dollars, provided that you aren't adverse to a little "fixer-upper." And yesterday in San Francisco I saw a gas station selling unleaded for less than two dollars a gallon. Three months ago that same gallon of gas cost almost five dollars.
Seven hundred billion dollars has already been tossed into the vortex, and there is a promise for another five hundred billion in economic stimulus coming our way on Inauguration Day. The Fed has already lowered the prime interest rate to one percent, and is threatening to drop it even lower. How about negative levels of interest? Why not just start paying us to borrow money? That would be a neat trick, and sure to stimulate the economy at some level. How about having the new Secretary of the Treasury drop by and mow my lawn?
In the end, it really doesn't matter because it's all made up.