Thursday, December 31, 2009

Aero Dynamics

And so the decade comes to a close much in the same way that it began: Terrorists win. That is, if you consider the additional levels of scrutiny and security that all airline passengers must now experience as they attempt to get from place to place. It was just ten years ago that you could test the level of intimacy of your relationship by where you were picked up at the airport. If your sweetheart met you at the gate with flowers, you were in. If they waited at the curb, they cared, but not as much. And if they waited for you to catch a cab and greeted you on their own front porch, well you might be just a long-distance booty-call.
Only ticketed passengers at the gates now. No nail clippers or sewing scissors will be allowed on board. Personal hygiene and crocheting at thirty thousand feet took a solid hit. Since you don't need a fork and knife to cut your complimentary peanuts, that little issue was taken care of by the economy. Richard Reid made loafers the footwear of choice for air travelers. I am grateful that my scalp required little if any product, since the thimble-sized vials that are now allowed in carry-on bags wouldn't last long on some folks. And whatever you do, don't congregate near the front lavatory, no matter how bad you might think you have to go.
That was then. This is now. Now you may be subject to additional search if your underwear is considered suspect. I don't know about you, but I've spent a few uncomfortable hours on flights sitting next to strangers who may have been smuggling explosives or something much more dangerous in their undergarments, and a chance to freshen up or discard those offending boxers or briefs would be a welcome advance to everyone's in-flight experience. Then again, if the TSA requires everyone to "fly commando," I might be staying home more often, though it would make picking somebody up at the airport that much more interesting again.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


As is her wont from time to time, my wife paused in the middle of our morning run to ask me this question, "What was the best year of your life?"
My initial reaction was to answer in some borderline cynical way, deflecting the possibility of actual reflection. It struck me in much the same way that "What are you thankful for?" hits me on Thanksgiving. Is there a good and clever way to assess the preceding year with any sincerity? If you're me, the answer is usually "no."
But I fought the urge to reply, "Any year that doesn't include that question." One of my strengths, after all, is summing up, so I looked for some signposts in the road of my life. I have a very profound memory of my eighteenth year, but I cannot say that it was my best. There were still so many pieces that had yet to fall into place. It was the salad days of my teenage existence. It wasn't my best year.
When I turned thirty, I left my childhood home to strike out on my own with the woman who would become my wife. I had finally loosened some of the chains that bound me so closely to my fears. I learned to admit that I didn't know everything, and consequently I learned a whole lot more. That was a pretty good year.
Not the best. That might have been when I turned forty. My friends and family turned out to celebrate me, and I had a son, a house of my own, and a career to pay for it all. Middle age didn't feel so desperate. It felt like coming home.
Then I came full circle and realized that when I was forty, I hadn't been married by Elvis in Las Vegas. I was only beginning my stint as director and Master of Ceremonies at my son's school Talent Show. There was no blog back then.
I hadn't yet driven back home from San Rafael with my son riding shotgun, talking about all the things we had done that day. I now measure my days more by the successes of my child than my own. His yellow belt in Aikido. His first Jazz Band concert. The first time he talked about girls without flinching. And so I determined that eighteen, thirty and forty were all important and special because they brought me to the place that I am right now. It is still unfolding: This is my best year ever. So far.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Road Barely Travelled

John Rhoads and his wife, Starry Bush-Rhoads were stranded for three days in the snow of eastern Oregon. The happy news is that they were rescued by a Lake County deputy who found the couple in the Winema-Fremont National Forest after they were able to make their GPS-enabled cell phone to get a weak signal and relay coordinates to a dispatcher. They were carrying warm clothes, water and extra food. Being prepared saved their lives.

Except they never would have been on that remote forest road in the first place if they hadn't been following the electronic advice from their GPS unit. The same GPS unit that brought help is the one that sent them down a path that got them stuck in a foot and a half of snow near Silver Lake. The Rhoads followed the twisting Forest Service roads for some thirty-five miles before their four-wheel-drive Toyota Sequoia became part of the winter landscape.

At what point would you start rethinking your allegiance to an electronic navigation device? After you've passed the same caribou three times? When the pavement has turned to a pair of wheel ruts, then nothing? How about when the big red line with the number on it turns into a little gray line with no number? I'm a big fan of straight lines, and I have a mild affection for shortcuts, but I think blizzard conditions would keep me on that big wide line with the red, white and blue sign on it. I'll use Google Earth, or Yahoo Maps, but if the road turns into a trail, I don't mind turning around. My brother-in-law likes to point out that all roads in these United States connect eventually. I just don't want to have to wait until I get pulled out of a snowdrift and get carried home on a stretcher to find out how.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Master Of My Domain

I don't have to wait until next week to find out who wins my division. I have already won. I am speaking now about the Fantasy World, where I have spent the past sixteen weeks fretting and sputtering over the outcome of most every game played in the National Football League. The ones that had players of mine in them as well as those that featured players of my erstwhile opponents. Then there was the additional concern of keeping the rest of my league up to date and on top of things as the season progressed through bye weeks and injured reserve and even the occasional suspension for banned substances. It has been a hectic four months.
Now I can look back on the path that took me to the top, and I wonder just exactly what got me where I am. Back in the days before I became a Fantasy Owner, then a Fantasy Commissioner, I was a one-team guy, and my attentions were fixed on the success of that one franchise week after week. Following that one score was plenty to keep me occupied, outside of the real-world concerns that keep me busy for the other six-or-so days a week. Now I was consumed by statistics and relative performance. Comparing this quarterback's rating versus another, and trying to anticipate how this running back would fare against a particular defense. As the season progressed, I felt the football cortex in my brain begin to swell and itch. I was evolving. I was becoming a champion.
So, here I am. On the top of the heap. I finished off my last opponent, my twelve-year-old son and now anxiously await the virtual trophy that will appear in my virtual trophy case. On the way, I crushed my wife, her brother, my very good friend and my own mother: good sports all. I say this because it was my clever idea to put this whole Fantasy thing together in the first place, and the fact that the Commissioner of the League is also the one who won it all rings just a little hollow. But you'll excuse me if I take just a little satisfaction for the job I just virtually finished, as the team that I tend to root for continues to claw for their playoff lives. They still have another game to play. I'm all done. Virtually.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

On A Long Enough Timeline...

My family is still enjoying the fruits of Y2K. Even though we ran through the last of the cotton swabs a couple years back, there is still a roll of duct tape out in our garage that represents the last of the cache that was left to us by our friends after the world failed to come to an end ten years ago. It seems patently ridiculous now to imagine that the fabric of our society would be torn apart by a couple of decimal places, but way back when, that was the conventional wisdom. I wonder if all those companies that hired all those programmers to "debug" their dates in the weeks and hours leading up to the turn of the century feel as if they got their money's worth. I remember, as our school's computer guy, being asked by a number of nervous teachers just what to expect when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 1999. I told them not to expect much. Not because I couldn't imagine any sort of cataclysm, but I didn't want anyone to profit from a simple oversight. And the reality was that there were plenty of clever people working on the problem two years in advance, and fears of a power grid collapsing or plague of genetically mutated frogs never came to pass.
It's a little like the recession. For better or worse, certain things like the United States' economy is just too big to fail. It sags mightily in the middle, and things fall off of it only to be glued on or wedged back into place at some later convenience. Armageddon is just too hard to pull off all at once. The disintegration of our middle class and the steady erosion of our polar ice caps are happening quickly enough, from a galactic perspective. The thing is, we're such clever monkeys that we tend to have just enough time to create a work-around or patch as we lurch from one near-collapse to another: the indomitable human spirit. That and a few rolls of duct tape.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Friendly Skies?

Remember the War On Terror? Or is that just too 2002 these days? It's not like we made any major headway, like we did on the War On Drugs. The jefe de jefes, the patron de patrones, Beltran Leyva went down in a blaze of gunfire and grenade explosions during a military raid last week on a high-rent apartment complex in the capital city of Morelos, Mexico. As a result, there will be no more drugs. Finito. The End.
Of course, that's not how things work, and to expect anything like that to happen in the War On Terror would be ridiculous. Or maybe, when a Yemeni air raid purportedly killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda's regional branch Thursday, and an American Muslim cleric linked to the man accused in the fatal shooting of thirteen people at a U.S. Army base may also have died, and suddenly all terrorist activity stopped. Nope.
But then there is the case of a Nigerian man who said he was an agent for al-Qaida tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane Friday as it was preparing to land in Detroit. His fellow travellers, who smelled smoke and heard what sounded like firecrackers, rushed to subdue him. It does take the edge off of terror when people stop being, well, terrified. My guess is that interfering with a group of passengers who are already stressed out about flying on a major holiday is a little like sticking your face in a high-speed fan. Remember, these are people who have already gone through all the additional security measures put in place after everything changed back in 2001: no shoes, no liquids, no nail clippers. And this clown gets on the plane with some explosive widget or other and tries to blow up the plane? It's a wonder the guy got off the plane alive, not just a little singed. Tell this same group of folks that they won't be getting their in-flight peanuts and you might have trouble getting the plane on the ground safely. Who needs Air Marshals when we have a cabin full of frustrated passengers? Sorry Mister Mutallab, there's just not a lot of terror left in the not-so-friendly skies these days.

Friday, December 25, 2009


we brought it home in a box
it wasn't a puppy
it wasn't a toy
it was tiny
when we first found it
it seemed so easy
a piece of cake
a snap
when we started digging
just a few minutes
then be gone
on our way
we didn't know how very much
time, effort, water and love
it would take
to grow
my mother and I brought home
a Christmas tree
a Blue Spruce
of our own
for years it crouched unnoticed
in the corner of our yard
peeking over weeds
to the sun
and somewhere in there
it became substantial
it topped the fence
it grew
our family joke of a tree
became our pride
it was ours
to share
its branches carried snow
its needles dripped rain
taller than me
it stood
we've gone and it's still there
embracing each day
doing its job
our tree

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Exchange Rate

I was watching the end of "Same Time, Next Year" this morning on cable. Aside from providing me with twenty-five more minutes to stay in bed, I was also struck by the way director Robert Mulligan chose to depict the years that fly by between the annual trysts between Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. As the story takes place over three decades, we see the characters age in their style of dress and the color of their hair, but we are also pushed through time by a series of black and white photo montages that help give the viewer a sense of place: Elvis is the Fifties. Hippies in the Sixties. Dick Nixon in the Seventies. There were plenty of other images swirled around to ground one firmly in the era depicted. They only lasted a few seconds each, but it kept the actors from having to blurt out dialogue that would explain the when. They only had to express their feelings for each other against that backdrop.
And this got me to thinking: What photos would I use to help the casual viewer from the future to let them know about the decade that is drawing to a close? I thought of President Pinhead standing in front of his "Mission Accomplished" banner. I thought of the Twin Towers burning. I thought of Colin Powell shaking his vial of anthrax. I thought of Green Day. I thought of "Lord of the Rings." I thought of Election Night 2008. That brought me up to six thousand words. Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch? A Rainbow flag? Michael Phelps? Did I need any more to sum up this decade without a proper name? Maybe that's the challenge. Until we have a word to contain all those disparate images, maybe it won't matter. It was what it was. In words and pictures.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Consumer Confidence

I had already been Christmas shopping with my son earlier this season. It was a rush job. We were having lunch at the closest In 'N' Out to our house, which happens to be adjacent to the closest Wal-Mart. It is not my practice or my pleasure to shop at Wal-Mart, but my son assured me that he could get the things he needed for his friends there. He had his own money, and it was refreshing to have him aiming his consumerism at targets other than himself.
It didn't occur to me much, as we waded through throngs of bargain hunters, but this was an evolutionary step for my child. For so many years, I have pulled the strings that made his gift-giving happen from behind the scenes. To his credit, he has always been good about signing his name to the card, and even helping wrap. His mother and I have been the expressly pleased recipients of many a handmade pencil holder or an original work of art. But this was different. He wanted to buy his friends a toy. He knew what they wanted, and he wanted to give it to them.
As I said, I was more distracted by my own conflicted Wal-Mart issues to take note of this rite of passage. That's why I was so flattered when he asked me to come along with him when, just the other day, he decided to go look for the perfect gift for his mother. As we wandered through the aisles, I listened to him describe his plan. He was directed. He knew what he was after, and he wanted to make sure it was just the right thing. "And best of all," he confided, "You won't have to help me with the money."
The surprise for my wife awaits. The surprise for me has already come and gone. I got my gift early this year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Arful Truth

Scientists, not me, have determined that dogs may be more of a factor in global warming than Sports Utility Vehicles. In their book, "Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living," New Zealanders Robert and Brenda Vale analysed popular brands of pet food and calculated that a medium-sized dog eats around three hundred and sixty pounds of meat and two hundred and nine pounds of cereal a year. Combine the land required to generate its food and a "medium" sized dog has an annual footprint of about two acres. That's twice the footprint required by a 4x4 driving six thousand two hundred miles a year, including energy to build the car.
That's a lot of math to say that owning a dog is an extravagance in a world whose polar ice caps are melting. Cats' eco-footprint adds up to slightly less than driving a Volkswagen Golf for a year, while two hamsters equates to a plasma television and even the humble goldfish burns energy equivalent to two cell phones. Don't like the weather where you live? Blame the guy who owns the poodle next door.
If we must own pets, the Vales suggest, why not get something that doesn't upset the balance of nature so very much. They suggest hens to lay eggs. Or feed them something besides Fancy Feast Elegant Medley. Or make the very responsible choice of adopting a garden slug. They're great company, but not very good at catching a Frisbee.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Living With The Enemy

I live a sad little piece of sports psychology. I am a Denver Broncos fan living in the heart of The Raider Nation. I work with some of them. I am friends with some of them. You can't walk out onto the sidewalk most mornings without tripping over some silver and black regalia. Don't get me wrong, these people are serious about their team. Many in ways that I can only imagine. Not just bumper stickers and T-shirts, but tattoos and children's names. "That's little Otto, and our youngest Biletnikoff."
And so, every year I play a quiet little game of schadenfreude. "The Raiders lost again? Oh that's terrible," I say as I secretly make another notch on the wall next to my bed. In recent years as the Broncos' fortunes have declined from their Super Bowl victories in the previous century, and a subsequent peak in the luck of the Oakland franchise, I have remained vigilant about one wish for the football season: That Denver should have to win just two games. The two against the Raiders.
You might think that this puts a lot of karmic weight on two weekends of the year, and you'd be right. I was pleased that our previous coach took special delight on beating the organization that fired him once upon a time, and he won twenty-one of those twenty-eight games. And that was fine with me. Still, every time the boys in Orange and Blue drop one to the Silver and Black, I have to walk out into that neighborhood. The one with the skulls and eye-patches, the "Commitment To Excellence" billboards, and little Casper over there.
The long and the short of it: Oakland 20 - Denver 19. It's going to be a long winter.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dave Is Currently...

I don't do a lot to protect myself from the evils of the Internet. I don't reply to the odd e-mails from Nigerian widows. I don't download "funny videos" from strangers. I pay for my music online. On the other hand, I do sometimes spend hours googling the names of people I remember from grade school, and if I can buy it from Amazon, I will just point and click. Then there's the little matter of this blog.
I am found easily enough on Al Gore' best invention. I don't use a pseudonym, and when I change names, it's because I want to protect others, not myself. For the most part, this keeps me thinking about what I have to say, rather than simply spouting off anonymously. This thing has a spell-check, unlike those forums where rabid sports fans congregate to vent their collective spleens, horrible grammar, creative spelling and all.
I won't Twitter. And not just because it makes me think of Bambi. No, much more than that is the "character limit." I like to believe that I have no character limit, or that my character has no limits. Nor should it. But really, I can't recall a moment or subject that I could fully appreciate, disseminate or eviscerate with only one hundred and forty characters. This little paragraph rant about Twitter cost me more than three hundred. And I hardly scratched the surface.
Which brings me to Facebook. My wife, the social butterfly, is quite enamored of this cyber-coffee bar. She enjoys keeping up with friends and acquaintances via the types of wedding dresses they would buy, or the Harry Potter character they most resemble. It is, for her, a wish fulfilled. If you had told her just two years ago that she would have the opportunity to be friends with everyone on the planet, she would have broken down and cried. Okay, the part of the planet with Internet access and the time to update their profiles.
That's not for me. In spite of what you read on the screen in front of you, I am a fairly private person. I would rather not share my status with search engines around the world. I prefer there be a certain amount of mystery. And now the friendly folks at Facebook agree with me. They are encouraging their users to update their privacy settings. "Don't let everyone know who your friends are," they suggest. "You don't have to tell everyone everything," they urge. "Hide yourself from web searches," they warn. Well, whatever happened to "find people you know on Facebook?" Apparently there is a limit to the carefree social networking ethos. And then there's this: "Let your friends know that you have boundaries - in person." What? An actual conversation with another human being? Perish the thought. That sort of intimacy can only lead to further conversations, and before you know it, people will be using the social utility of talking to each other all the time, and we simply don't have the time for that.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Adeste Fideles

I might have gone with the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, or "Always Faithful." But before you rush off to translate that phrase, it is not only seasonly appropriate, but also Latin for "O Come All Ye Faithful." These are the words I woke up with in my head as I pondered the odds for Tiger Woods divorce. Tiger is yet another in a series of high-profile players to find their private indiscretions made public.

I can remember during the heyday of John Elway's superstardom when rumors swirled about his fidelity to his marriage vows. I recall being outraged at the suggestion that the greatest athlete I had ever been made commercially aware could be capable of cheating on his wife: his college sweetheart, Janet. As his career continued to chug along, and he finally won a Super Bowl, then two, he retired in a blaze of glory. He even left with the Super Bowl MVP trophy under his arm.

Then, when the dust had settled and real life came to the Elway household, the stress and strain of all those years of "putting a good face on it" ended. John and Janet were no more. They went their separate ways. If Chuck and Di could get divorced, why not Mister Bronco? As a fan, I felt bad for him and his family. I sympathized with the challenges of carrying on a private life under the microscope of the Mile High Media. Then, last year, he did the unthinkable: He got married to a cheerleader. A former Raider Cheerleader. It would be somewhat akin to Chuck taking up with Princess Caroline instead of scary old Camilla. If England were at war with Monaco.

And as the days go by, we will be subjected to more tawdry details of Tiger Woods' descent in to regular-old humanity. We will probably also be provided with more insights into the tragic and untimely death of Cincinnati Bengals' star Chris Henry. It is the problem with putting people on pedestals. It makes it so much easier to see them. All the time. Doing all sorts of things we might rather not see. And in the end, there are always choices. Remain faithful. Or, if you don't want to know, turn it off.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mister First Nighter

There wasn't a lot of question about whether or not I was going to go see James Cameron's "Avatar." With all the attendant hoopla, a "movie-guy" like myself would feel embarrassed and completely out of the pop-culture loop if this one passed me by. I'm the kind of guy who sits outside of movie theaters hours before the first midnight show of the newest summer blockbuster.
Or I used to be. I did that for "The Phantom Menace." That was the last one. Ten years ago. Since my son has turned blockbuster age, we have made several early attempts at opening night. Alas, I can't imagine keeping my son's interest while camping out on the sidewalk in front of our local superfiplex theaters. This is a child who lives and thrives in a world of on-demand video. He doesn't have to wait around for his favorite show. He just dials it up from a list and it plays at his convenience. I could tell him to bring a book, but I don't think he'd be into the whole romance of the experience.
And so I know that there will be some valiant attempt to getting out opening weekend, if only to have that ridiculous nerdy rush of seeing our hard-earned dollars in the box office totals on Sunday night. We like to think that when a movie goes to number one, it was with our help.
Or not. Being a grownup is a lot of details and responsibility. Sometimes getting out to a premiere takes a back seat to sleepovers or laundry. Or maybe we'll stay at home and watch a movie. On demand.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I'm Just A Bill

The headline read "Single Payer Health Care Plan Dies In Senate." I looked across the table at Joe Lieberman, and I asked him why he couldn't have found another way to break the news to me.
"What do you mean?" asked the formerly Democratic Senator from Connecticut.
I told him I wish there was some way he could have drawn out the exchange. It just seemed so harsh. Maybe he could have told us about how it was still in committee. Then there was some nasty partisan nit-picking as amendments were added and taken away. As the days passed and the holidays approached, a spirit of goodwill began to permeate the hallways and offices of the Capitol. Senators who would ordinarily be at crossed swords came together and began to see a Single Payer Health Care Plan as the future for our country, not simply a political football to be kicked around the chamber. Impassioned speeches were given. Opinions were swayed. Grown men and women were seen weeping as others spoke of the challenge before their august body. The United States Senate had finally begun to see just how powerful bi[partisanship could truly be.
And then, just when all seemed to be going in the right direction, the question of funding became the central concern: How could we, as a nation, pay for all this? Would it be right to pass the cost on to the future generations who would benefit most readily from this new Single Payer Health Care Plan? Could this be done in good conscience? After a marathon filibuster by the last hard line supporters, a roll call vote was taken. One senator was wheeled in on a stretcher just to cast his vote. It was standing room only in the gallery as the results was read, and alas, Single Payer Health Care failed to pass by the slimmest of margins.
"Gee," said a shame-faced Joe Lieberman, "I guess that would have been a better way to break it to you."
Yes, that would have been a much nicer way to learn about it. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me, Senator?
"Well, your mom is still in committee..."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Talkin' Trash

As a public school teacher, I am always eager to find new and different ways to interface with the community around me. Yesterday afternoon I was afforded such an opportunity when the head of our after school program stuck her head in the room and said, "Somebody just called the office to say that some guy is throwing trash all over the sidewalk across the street." There was a brief discussion, and I offered to be the one to go check it out.
Heading down the hallway and down the stairwell, it did occur to me that one of the options I had was to ignore the situation. After all, "some guy" wasn't dumping trash on school property. He was tossing it onto the sidewalk across the street from school property. When I got outside and looked across the intersection, I saw the offending mess, but "some guy" was gone. Crossing the street, I noticed that the pile had been heaped up next to the fence so that anyone wanting to walk to our school would have to traipse around or wade ankle-deep through the Hefty bags of old clothes, broken toys, and miscellaneous household goods that "some guy" tossed.
As I was busily assessing the situation, I was approached by a pair of rather gruff looking gentlemen, one of whom stopped grumbling into his cell phone long enough to look at me and inquire, "Did you put that garbage on my truck?" Except that he used much more colorful language to describe the potential circumstance.
"Uh, no," I assured him as I pushed a set of Levilor blinds out of the way with my foot.
"Some guy thought he was being a good citizen and tossed this stuff on my truck," he continued, only much more colorfully. "I'm not willing to pay to haul away somebody else's garbage."
That's when I realized what had happened. I was talking to "some guy," who had only moved a pile of trash from his truck back to the street where it had been since "some other guy" had left it there over the weekend. I promised "some guy" that I would keep my eye out for both the guy who tossed the trash back on his truck and the original miscreant who had unloaded his dumpster on the sidewalk in the first place.
It is, after all, what I do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When Icebergs Attack

A Nielsen/Oxford University survey showed that thirty-seven percent of more than twenty-seven thousand Internet users in fifty-four countries said they were "very concerned" about climate change, down from forty-one percent in a similar poll two years ago. "Global concern for climate change cools off," the clever folks over at Nielsen suggested. In the United States, the number fell from thirty-four percent to twenty-five.

Who can blame them? Wars, the economy, health care, Team Edward or Team Jacob: There are so many things to be worried about right now, how can we expect Americans to be more interested in climate change than Gatorade discontinuing Tiger Woods' perhaps unfortunately named beverage?

Maybe it has something to do with the creative accounting being found in e-mails from scientists working to convince the world that it has something to fear. If you wanted to start a war based on trumped-up data about weapons of mass destruction, that would be terrible. But it didn't keep us out of the desert. If you wanted to assert that the votes of thousands upon thousands of concerned individuals were miscast or simply "lost," in Afghanistan or right here in the United States, that would be considered "fudging the numbers" too. But we still ended up putting the two pinheads in question into office.

Global warming is real. It's happening, and those of us Internet users who happen to look outside on any given day might soon be persuaded to reevaluate our level of concern. Check with your friends down in Sydney, Australia, where an island-size iceberg has broken away from the Antarctic ice shelf and is currently terrorizing local shipping lanes. Monstrous as it sounds, it will be gone in a couple weeks, just like our good pal Frosty. There is, however, no magic hat to bring it back to life. Maybe we're asking the wrong sample. Try polling the two hundred protesters who were arrested in Copenhagen Sunday.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Time The Avenger

The fact that time has slowed to a crawl may have something to do with the days getting longer. It may have something to do with the fact that I am struggling to fight off a cold. My right side feels spry and ready to get on with the day, but my left is full of goo and consequently I am listing somewhat to port. I suppose the Seattle-ish weather is contributing to the overall dullness of the outlook around here, but it still doesn't explain exactly how extra hours seem to get mixed into my days.
I woke up at seven on Sunday, and it was another eleven hours until lunch. That doesn't seem right. I think it probably has something to do with the relative proximity of Winter Break. They are squeezing extra days into the week, and slipping minutes into the hours that make up those days. "They." The wicked minions of Chronos. The ones responsible for making my life feel as though I am walking through pudding.
I know that things will only get sludgier as we approach the end of this week. I fully expect that the Christmas Assembly on Thursday will run somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen hours, including the extended dance remix of "Mele Kalikimaka" sung by Kindergartners. Taking a nap somewhere during the last act would only prolong the experience.
But then, I know that it will end. Time will, as it always has, march on., and I will be released from the vortex that now surrounds me. Friday is coming, right after Wimthersday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Write On

I've made apologies on this blog before, but they are generally for deeds long since past. Events that have become part of the firmament and therefore easily forgiven. This one is more about an ongoing condition that rears its head each year about this time. I'm talking about, of course, inscribing Christmas cards.
For the longest time, the torture I associated with the Christmas season was posing for my family's annual holiday greeting. My brothers and I knew it was coming, and my expression in any number of these photos bear witness to my utter lack of enthusiasm. "Merry Christmas from the Cavens, except for our son David who passed away quietly after this picture was taken from acute ennui." Not pretty. That's why it was such a relief when I got married and was able to start my own family's tradition of drawing a clever cartoon gag and some clever quip on the inside. Relatively painless. Until I realized that, as patriarch of this clan, I was required to "write a little something" on each and every card that we sent out. Our list hovers just below one hundred recipients, and simply signing one's name that many times is challenge enough. Writing something intimate and clever on every one of those same cards? Bring back the endless photo shoot, please.
And yet, I persevere. Over the past few years, I have set aside a particular time to knock them all out at once, much in the same way that I have attacked the chore of report cards for an entire class. Each comment is carefully considered, and depending on the point in the process that I get to your card, the sincerity level may have slipped just a smidge. I regret that I only maintain a certain amount of holiday cheer, and that it comes in waves. I try to make each epigram as unique and singular as a snowflake, but fifty cards into that pile I start to question my own commitment.
That's when the little voice in my head says, "Take a break, Dave. You're tired. Come back when you're fresh." I show that little voice the back of my hand and sneer menacingly enough for it to slink back into the shadows of my mind. Music helps, like most chores, but it starts to skew too close to Jingle Bells, I hit the "next" button. A few years back, I made the ill-advised choice to watch a movie while I was writing notes to all my friend and relatives. I could have picked "It's A Wonderful Life" or "Holiday Inn." Nope. The movie I chose was "Fight Club." On the plus side, I finished in record time, but I can't account for all the comments I may have scrawled as the movie and I neared the end. For those of you at the end of that list, I apologize. This year, I stayed away from the TV for the most part, and if that didn't make a difference, I'm sorry. Just don't make me pose for any more holiday snapshots, please.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Don't Call It A Comeback

Everything old is new again. Everything odd as well. I can say this with some certainty, since we are about to witness the second coming of Pee-Wee. Fully aware of the entendres I have placed before you, I shall continue with as little snickering as possible, please. "The Pee-Wee Herman Show" will open next month at the Club Nokia theater in Los Angeles. It has been eighteen years since the Playhouse doors were closed, and now its creator and host believes the world is ready for another dose. Again, enough of the giggling.
Many of the original gang will be there, including Jambi and Miss Yvonne. Cowboy Curtis may show up, if he's not too busy solving crimes, and alas, Captain Carl has gone to that big fishing pier in the sky. Time goes by, some things change, but not Pee-Wee. I had the giddy good fortune of seeing Mister P.W. Herman on tour way back in 1981, and still remember my secret club name, how I just missed getting to be Tootsie Roll Monitor, and those giant underpants.It's a little naughty. It's very immature, and it will be very amusing.
Speaking of "a little naughty," most of us will remember that it was a minor transgression in an adult movie theater that signaled the end of the fun back in 1991. Indecent Exposure is precisely the thing that most kiddie show hosts don't want on their resume. With the passing of Soupy Sales, the world is ready again for the man-child to return to his throne. We've all been very patient, and it is time for a new secret word.
One wonders if Tiger Woods' "indefinite leave from golf will last as long.

Friday, December 11, 2009

But, Coke Adds Life

I've got to hand it to my wife. She's always looking out for me. Yesterday she sent me this article. It laid bare this unholy alliance between the American Academy of Family Physicians and Coca-Cola. The point was "not everything goes better with Coke." Who are these peddlers of sugary, caffeinated bubble water to tell us how best to live our lives? They're bottling death, after all.
Okay, maybe that's a little harsh, but as the number of my vices dwindles the little and few, I find myself making excuses for one of the world's largest corporations. I drink Coke socially. I've even been known to drink it alone, but I can handle it. I am not hooked. I can quit anytime I want. I just don't feel like it right now.
I'm straying from the point: Why shouldn't Coca-Cola dispense health advice along with their tasty beverages? The problem, it seems, is that the marketing folks down in Atlanta are peddling their wares to children. When they say they'd like to buy the world a Coke, they mean everybody between the ages of two and one hundred and two. "When you're done doing those push-ups, why not toss back a six-pack of The Real Thing?"
Again, maybe that's over-simplifying, but the thing that stuck with me most, after reading the article, was this little factoid: "American Idol" is a "top-rated show for children two to eleven." Coca-Cola is a major sponsor of that show. Now I have a very real moral dilemma. Would I rather have toddlers waddling around with Coke in their sippy cups, or watching Simon Cowell? The end is nigh.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's Okay, I'm With The Band

When I tell people the story, and I do this with alarming frequency, I always say that "I was in band." As if this was proper or complete explanation for a world of behavior and experience. That was the back story for my youth. Barring just one word, an indefinite article, that sentence could have meant so very much more. "I was in a band." That sounds so much cooler. It takes me out of the group of non-descript nerdtypes and puts me right into the tortured artist camp. Alas for me, it was the former, and not the latter.

I never played in an orchestra. That would have happened had I begun my instrumental career in elementary school. At that time, I was more concerned with my piano studies, and I knew that I wasn't going to get a gig playing keyboards for Mrs. Colson. When I moved on to junior high, I chose brass, probably in part as a reaction to my brothers both playing woodwinds.

In seventh grade, I played in the seventh grade band which was called "Cadet Band." The name would have been more effective had there been any uniform or insignia to go with it, but it was clear that we were the beginners. After a year of slogging through "EZ" charts, I was promoted to "Concert Band," where we started playing music that wasn't simply a chore to listen to or play.

All this time, my parents dutifully showed up to concert after concert, for me and my brothers, sitting through many of the same pieces with the patience that only parents can muster. I can't say how well we played at any one of these performances. I always assumed that we were great, given the number of rehearsals we had. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was in "Stage Band I," which was just a notch below the level of talent found in "Stage Band II." We wore these awful polyester shirts with poofy sleeves that my mother helped sew. All the more reason for her to show up on the night of the concert to see her sartorial efforts on display.

But mostly it was the "Marching Band" that became the focus of my high school experience. I accepted the epithet of "Bandie" with grace and aplomb. I even tried to make it seem like a cool thing to be. I did this by joining the "Pep Band." Three years and hundreds of hours later, my parents sat in the stands while I played my last concert, just prior to joining my graduating class in the bleachers. Then, with the rest of the world watching and waiting, my music career ended. Washed up before my eighteenth birthday. My parents had sold candy and sewed uniforms and hauled instruments and paid for lessons and sat through some of the most pedestrian versions of classics and today's contemporary hits. They did it for all three of their sons.

My younger brother got hip to all that para-military stuff going on in marching band, and dropped it after his sophomore year. When he got to college, he bought himself an electric guitar, and when he left the university to expand his horizons, he hit the road as the lone crew member for his buddies in the band.

And then last night, I was sitting there in the middle school auditorium, watching my son pound the keys with the jazz ensemble at this year's Winter Concert. That can lead to only one thing: A Spring Concert. We arrived early and set up the concessions table. We stayed late and helped clean up. We heard some Miles Davis, Tchaikovsky, and even some "Green Onions." When I listened I knew I was doing so with the ears of a parent. So it goes.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Golden Slumbers

It is shocking how quickly one person can usurp another. Here I was, settled and happy in my choice of Bill "I Decide, You Shut Up And Take It" O'Reilly as spokestwit for our generation. We have no math currently to calculate the expanse of his arrogance and hypocrisy. He's like the Energizer Bunny of Right Wing Rhetoric. He keeps going and going and going.
But wait, what light through yonder window breaks? Is it the moon, or is it Glenn Beck? While Bill is having Muppets on his show to apologize for their apparent liberal slant, your buddy Glenn is out there keeping you safe in the event of a worldwide economic meltdown. How will he do this? He tells you to buy gold in anticipation of the collapse of the dollar and the advent of a new world order. It's not exactly 2012, but the planet is in for a pretty hefty shakeup before we know it, and Mister Beck wants us to be ready for the big fall. Buy gold. Got it?
Okay, that's sound advice from survivalists as far back as nine years ago. When the digits were about to roll over and we all feared the worst, we stocked up on duct tape and Krugerands. In the event of some catastrophic event, such as nuclear war or a Roland Emmerich film, it's good to have gold around because you can spend it just like money. Only there won't be any money because the Earth will be overrun by flesh-eating zombies who favor a public option in their health care bill. I used to suggestive sell Arby's Holly Days glasses by telling customers that the tiny bit of gold on the rim would make them legal tender in the event of some worldwide cataclysm. Gold, for lack of a better word, is good.
It's especially good for Glenn Beck. He is, after all, a paid spokestwit for Goldline International, "one of the largest U.S. dealers for you to buy gold." Get a little fear from Glenn, then head straight on over to Goldline and get yourself some bullion. Come on, America! It just makes sense, doesn't it? And if Glenn Beck makes a few bucks on the back end of your heightened paranioa, where's the harm in that?
I guess just the stabbing pain that I get between my eyes when I think about it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Blinded By Science

The Obama administration took a major step Monday toward imposing the first federal limits on climate-changing pollution from cars, power plants and factories, declaring there was compelling scientific evidence that global warming from manmade greenhouse gases endangers Americans' health. Other compelling scientific evidence includes: Ground glass makes bad baby food. Objects dropped from moving cars tend to fall to the ground rather than disappearing or hovering just above the ground until they can be retrieved. The prime cause of obesity is eating too much. People are more likely to wash their hands when they are being watched. Ducks like water. "Cramming for exams" is not a long-term study strategy. Bad singers continue to hog the Karaoke machine whether they know they are bad singers or not. Bunk beds are dangerous, especially in conjunction with ceiling fans. Many people drink alcohol to increase their chances of "hooking up." In a related study, college-age heterosexual men who viewed images of women misidentified their body language and facial expressions as sexually suggestive twelve percent of the time. Those who work around alcohol tend to abuse it. Parents are more strict with older children. Sad people spend more when they are shopping. Allergies make you uncomfortable. It's healthier to take the stairs. Cell phones distract drivers. And that stuff at the bottom of the refrigerator you thought was food probably isn't. Tune in next week as we examine time as the cause of old age.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Looking For Trouble

We have no idea where Osama bin Laden is. I don't know about you, but it makes me feel a whole lot better just to have it out there. In the open. Where we can all just deal with it. The top of our Top Ten List is missing and presumed, well, missing. He may be in Pakistan. He may be in Afghanistan. He might be in Wheretheheckisthatistan, but for all of our looking and wishing and hoping, he continues to elude us.
For a while there, we took some solace in the notion that he might be dead. That was our shot at a feel-good moment. But it also meant that we weren't able to exact our very specific and total revenge upon him. Capo di tutti capi expired quietly in a cave somewhere in the mountains between one of the various 'stans, hopefully from some very virulent strain of pneumonia that affected his bowels as well.
Just three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. troops had a bead on him, but the decision was made not to send massive force after him into the hills of Tora Bora. And since then, those tapes keep showing up. The ones that taunt and exhort and remind us that Osama bin Laden was the guy who put the "F" in "fanatic." I'm sure the CIA is checking the return address and postage, but still no bin Laden.
That is why I make this suggestion: Try as I might, I was unable to stay hidden from my alma mater. It only took one phone call for my mother to give me up. We know where he went to high school. Now all we have to do is put their alumni association on him. What a coup it would be for them to have him at the next reunion. We send a couple of guys to hang out at the registration table and wait for him to pick up his name tag, and then we make our move. You can thank me later.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Grinch Who Stole Everything But Christmas

John and Susan Maloney and their two young children were killed last Saturday night in a crash on Highway 37. He was a sales and marketing vice president at a solar services company. She had just quit her job and was going back to school to become a Pilates instructor. Their son was eight years old and their daughter five. They were coming home from the airport, returning from a Hawaiian vacation. While we await toxicology reports to make it official, most signs point to the driver of the other car, which ran a red light before colliding with the Maloney's car broadside, was drunk at the time of the accident that made them all die. Steven Culbertson was only nineteen years old, and had already had his license suspended two years ago for drunken driving.

And you might think this story is horrible enough and Mister Culbertson is the demon in this piece. As it turns out, there are lower forms of life walking around on two legs. Michael Gutierrez and his girlfriend Amber Marie True burglarized the Maloney's home in the days after the fatal crash. They took the Nissan 350Z. They took jewelry. They took a Blu-Ray player. Some credit cards. Who would miss that stuff, right? They're dead and all.

When they couple appeared in court, they insisted that they didn't know that the Maloneys were the ones who died in the crash. "Someone" had told them that the house was going to be empty, they said. "I had no idea what had happened to the family. I am not a monster," said Gutierrez from his cell. "I don't want people to think I'm a cold-hearted man. If my little girls had to go through that, I would be devastated." He was referring to the his daughters, a two-year-old and four-month-old twins, fathered on between his stints in prison. Their father, who was arrested in October in San Mateo County for methamphetamine possession, being a felon in possession of a gun and possession of stolen property, is not a monster. Their father, who left the mother of his children for a woman who was a criminal just like him, is not a cold-hearted man.

Yeah. Right.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Artists Only

I have learned, over time, to show up to my younger brother's art shows with a good deal of humility. Back when I was publishing my own picture-story books in fourth grade, he was the one who was chasing after me with his magnum opus, "How Did The Red Baron Die." While I was the toast of the fifth and sixth grade editorial cartoon circuit, he gripped his pencil tighter and waited for his time. While we painted our plywood bunks outside our mountain cabin, he nearly gave up out of sheer frustration.
That was back when I was going to be the artist. He was going to be a stockbroker. Or a secret agent. Or something that involved making and spending lots of money. Neither one of us found a career in finance, but he is the one who found his muse and stuck with it. Last night at the opening of his show at the Transview Gallery in Alameda, I marveled once again at his ability to produce unique and colorful works of art. This time: interpretations of frames from romance comics, painted with enamel model paints on found scraps of wood and metal. They hung next to our friends careful collages, culled from the same publications, and the show became like one great, vibrant graphic novel. Tears were shed. Hearts were broken. All in vibrant shades brought to us via bottles of Testor's.
And suddenly I could feel the release of all that frustration, real or imagined on my part. This was my brother. The one who slept one bunk over from me in the loft at our cabin. The one who got to read those same comics as soon as I was finished with them. The one who drew on as many placemats and napkins as I did when I was on track to become a studio art major. After I failed a basic drawing class, I switched majors. It's not that I couldn't draw, I just stopped going because I didn't want anybody to tell me how to do it.
Not my little brother. He's been studying. And practicing. And getting better and better. He is a creative force, and not just when he's doing vocals when we play Guitar Hero together. He sees the world differently than the rest of us, and he's willing to share it. I've got no real shame. When I draw a shoe, it looks like a shoe, and that's fine. What my brother's got is different. When he paints a man's face being slapped, it's like a whole episode of "Mad Men." When he blows up that look of fear, you want to know the rest of the story. And finally, it's not humility that I feel but pride. The artist is my brother.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Can We Talk?

Yesterday, the friendly folks on the radio were talking about whether or not they should be talking about Tiger Woods. Would it be sensationalist media to play the voice-mail message that Tiger allegedly left urging his paramour to take her name off her number so that his wife wouldn't be able to track it back to her? Everyone else, it seems, is talking about it. Why shouldn't they?
It's a pop culture vortex. A feeding frenzy of terrifying proportions. This one has much better traction than the balloon boy, and even the White House party-crashers have to bump up their level of annoyance to compete with the sound and fury that is the Tiger Woods Affair. He might even give Mark Sanford a run for his money. This one has, as they say, legs.
But it still pains me just a little that this tawdry bit of marital infidelity has to fill our waking hours. I admit that I am as curious as the next person when it comes to figuring out just how this all came to pass. What was going through his head? How could he let that happen to him?
That's easy enough. He's human, and therefore capable of stunning lapses in judgement and taste. Tiger Woods doesn't get to do this sort of thing in private because he is Tiger Woods. In a world that seems to have an ever-growing hunger for their heroes failures, fueled by a twenty-four hour news twitter network facebook update, stars don't get to hang in the sky very long. Over the course of anyone's life, dirt accumulates, and it would be shocking to find out that your favorite TV or sports personality really was a nice guy after all.
All of which brings us back to the original question: Should we be talking about it at all? With the world economy still on the brink of collapse and wars across the globe to keep us occupied while we try and decide whether or not to insure American children from Swine Flu, it does seem like there must be something else to discuss. But those things are too hard. Tiger and his putter getting into trouble, that's something I can wrap my head around. God help me.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

"Gentlemen! You Can't Fight In Here...

...this is the War Room!" Thus spake President Merkin Muffley in "Doctor Strangelove" forty-five years ago. Kudos for those of you who recognized the quote immediately, and shame on you who may have ascribed it to any of our more recent heads of state. Or not.
I have the distinct feeling that Barack Obama believed with every fiber in his earnest soul that he would bring about world peace, starting with his own country. But then there's that security briefing that every new president gets as part of the "transition." Suddenly the rubber of all those hopeful timetables about troop withdrawals and change in our foreign policy meets the harsh road of reality. Thirty thousand more troops will win the war in Afghanistan, and eighteen months later, they'll be packing up and heading home.
Michael Moore had some harsh words for our president in an "Open Letter" posted the day before the troop increase was announced. Never a fan of subtlety, Mike states that raising the number of troops in Afghanistan makes Obama the next "War President." He never makes the connection to Albert Einstein's assertion that "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war," but that's the idea.
And somewhere, in a world that makes much more sense, this sentiment would ring true and we really could beat our swords into ploughshares and put all that money back into education and a health care program that would be the envy of every other country on the planet. That's not the world we live in currently. Taking a look at "the big board," and realizing that we have some strange commitment as the world's only remaining super power to keep the rest of civilization from tearing itself and us to tiny bits.
Would I prefer that there were some peaceful means to end all this strife? You bet I do. I am certain that our president wishes he could hit the reset button on the past eight years himself, but he's stuck playing out the string. It is ironic to me that Mister Moore chooses in his letter to cite Harry Truman's courage when he fired General MacArthur rather than letting him invade China. How different would our lives be now if that had happened? Would we still owe them all this money? And if George Patton would have pushed on into Russia at the end of World
War Two, there might not have been a Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan in the first place. But back to Harry Truman for a moment: Wasn't he the guy who ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I wonder what Mike thinks about that decision. I'm guessing that in a distant time and celestial plane, Harry and Barack will probably have a nice shared perspective about what it means to be "leader of the free world."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Creature Comfort

There was a crisis in my house Monday night. Upon returning to school after a long week of rest and relaxation, my son's senses were jolted by terrible news: January 2010 will be the last wave of new LEGO Bionicle sets. It hit him like a ton of little plastic bricks. To say that he was devastated might be an understatement, but it certainly rocked him to his core. The folks at LEGO think it's time for a change. After ten years and countless variations on the theme of otherworldly action figures that you build yourself, they believe it is time to go in a new direction. Makes sense, right?
Well, when I said "countless variations," I was speaking from my own jaded sensibilities. My son could count them all. He can name them all. He can describe the differences between them and the relative merits and advances with each succeeding generation. The Matoran. The Rahi. The Mistika. We have lost track of the actual number of figures he owns. At one point, we purchased a gallon barrel of miscellaneous parts that he was able to fashion into any number of masked and weaponed creations. Way back in 2002, my wife and I bought him a Happy Meal with a little six-piece LEGO creature called Maku inside. Since then he has been an avid collector.
We have Bionicle video games, Bionicle DVDs, Bionicle novels. It is a rare week when there isn't at least one Bionicle on display somewhere in our house. We have made special trips to book stores to pick up the new Bionicle book, or Target, where you can still get great deals on Bionicles.
And now, it's about to come to an end. My son is twelve. I tried to reason with him and tell him that there would be other toys and, heaven forbid, there would be a time when toys weren't so very important. Now is not that time. Then I realized how I felt when I heard that Bruce Springsteen may have played his last shows with the E Street Band. I thought of the ticket stubs and the T-shirts and the set lists. There will be other bands. There will come a time when concerts aren't so important anymore.
My son has a right to grieve. Long live Mata Nui.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The "H" Word

"These are his first 'H' pants," my wife whispered to me as she held a pair of blue trousers up for me to inspect. At first, I did not fully comprehend. Was "H" a particular style or cut that my lack of sartorial awareness kept me from appreciating? Was "H" a friend or relative who had been so kind as to hand down a nearly new pair of school pants to my son? That seemed likely, since much of his wardrobe has come to him over the fashion transom.
Then it hit me: "H" was for Husky. My wife, the mother of our son, was trying to spare both our feelings by not uttering the word. I have opined for years about the scars I still carry from having to move down the rack to find that particular section. My memories are of clothes that seek first to fit, then to conform to some obscure point of style. To this day, I bristle in anticipation of trying on pants. There are several forms of medieval torture that I would rather have visited on me than being handed a fistful of hangers and pointed in the direction of a changing room. I understand that the clothes I buy should fit, but I am still feeling the quiet shame of husky.
Maybe I'm being overly sensitive. This happens on occasion, but I wonder why, when we are talking about children between sizes four and eighteen, that they couldn't find another epithet. One that isn't quite so Nordic. Or so canine. Huskies are a proud and strong breed, but they aren't getting a lot of dates in middle school.
My own mother will be the first to point out to me that I was not obese as a child. I was, however, wider than I was tall. But one of those is a circumference, and the other is a straight line, so making the math work out there is a matter of aesthetics. My son shares with his father a rather familiar panda-bear-shape, and I expect that as he enters his teenage years, there will be moments of sadness and grief as he continues to navigate his way into his adult form. Even now, he seems to be adjusting in ways that I never did. Husky? It's just a word. A really annoying, persnickety, judgemental word.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Course Record

Knowing that there was an end to the mindless churning of arms and legs helped. At each point that despair began to creep maliciously into my mind, I looked down the road for the next mile marker. The first one didn't make a difference. I was feeling fine and ready to run all day. The sun was out, and I was running in a T-shirt and shorts. My foul weather gear had been left behind with our thermos, snack bars, and sundry items for comfort or relief.
Part of our family post-Thanksgiving ritual. Get the lights up. Watch a lot of football. Run ten kilometers. This is how I consoled myself as I looked for mile two and three. Who was I trying to impress? I run all the time without all this organization. I don't need kids in orange vests waving flags at me to show me the way. I could just keep running straight off this course if I wanted to. If I wanted to. I could slow down and walk if I wanted to. I was going to see my wife and son on their way back from their five kilometer course. It would look bad for me to be walking. It would look bad if I just stopped.
Where was that mile three marker?
Then the community of runners took over. The mile markers didn't matter. I was out there with my pace group. This was the "about an hour" crew. We were having our Sunday stroll in and around the park. I wouldn't stop if I was past the half-way point. Three point one miles would put me over that edge. I shook it off and focused on the road in front of me.
I thought about the guy I used to work with installing office furniture. "You're a runner?" he asked me with a little too much surprise. "How fast do you run?"
I told him I wasn't exactly sure, since I really only timed myself when I ran my yearly race.
"Don't you want to know?" He couldn't imagine my lack of interest.
I told him that ever since my knee surgery, now some twenty years in the past, the idea of running at any pace for more than three miles seemed like the goal I was most concerned. The cloud that was this memory burst and I moved on, past the sign for mile four. Running the whole way. Slow and steady wins the race. That's what I tell the kids at school when we practice our mile run.
Now I was two-thirds there. I listened hard to the music that was in my ears, shutting out the protestations of my muscled and ligaments. I was enjoying the feeling of being able to run six miles. Ten kilometers. An hour. At mile five, I was going up a hill, and I passed a few who had slipped that gear. They would find it coming down on the other side, but I wanted to be up and over that last rise.
I didn't time my last big kick well, and the last hundred yards to the finish line were done under duress, but they were done. My wife and son were there to greet me. They gave me a bottle of water. They asked me how I did, and I looked back at the clock. "About an hour." I panted, "but I ran the whole way."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Car Care

I looked at my wife, and I thought she might cry. She had traveled miles and waited for nearly a year to see what was in front of her. It was the Nissan Leaf. For a woman who has championed her own "homemade hybrid," a way to limit her own idling time while stuck in traffic and who hopes someday to be able to power her own motor vehicle from the energy she collects via the solar panels on her roof, this was a slice of heaven. "It doesn't have a tailpipe!" she enthused as tears welled in her eyes.
We were at the Fifty-Second Annual International Car Show. We were there, ostensibly, to placate my son's deep-seated automobile urges. We came to see the Porsches and the Maseratis. We took pictures of the Camaros and the Corvettes. It was all about the fetishment of four wheels. My wife, who was born in Detroit, understands her son and was able to wrangle an opportunity for my son to sit inside a half-million dollar Lamborghini. That was his tearful moment. I tried to imagine meeting Bruce Springsteen, and I had something to compare it to. Surrounded by all that Italian machinery, he was a new car smell's breath away from paradise. I watched my wife struggle with the worries of a planet being slowly destroyed by the continued use of fossil fuels versus the love for her son. Seven miles a gallon?
But when it was all said and done, there was enough hybrid and hydrogen technology on display to temper the experience. I watched all of this with an odd sense of detachment. Both my son and wife have asked me what my favorite car was. I have an affection for all the cars that I have driven into the used car lot on their last legs just to trade them in for my next used car. Favorite? That level of appreciation doesn't register with me. I look at these four-wheeled vehicles as less-than-inspired variations on a theme. The emotional attachments I could imagine could only be culled from fantasy: The Batmobile, James Bond's Aston Martin, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I understand how potentially amusing a sports car that can go one hundred and eighty-five miles an hour could be. I appreciate the way that driving cars without tailpipes would make our planet more inhabitable. Then I notice how I am walking around the Car Show. On my own two feet. And when we were done, we went back to the BART station to take public transportation back home.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

He'll Be Back (Taxes)

I knew a guy who, whenever tax time came around and he was forced to write a check to his government for services nominally rendered, he would make a point of writing in the memo line: "To The (expletive) IRS." It wasn't much of a protest, but it made him feel better. I don't have a great deal of empathy for his experience, since I tend to imagine that we as a society get the government that we deserve, and paying for it is just part of the program.
Then there's this: Our Governator is apparently just a little behind on his taxes. When I say "little," it's a matter of perspective. For action-movie-megastar cum Republican-voice-of-moderation and millionaire several times over, a mere pittance. To me, a public school teacher in the state where Arnold is in charge of a swelling budget deficit, seventy-nine thousand dollars feels like a couple years' work. The IRS filed a federal tax lien against the governor last spring. Schwarzenegger's office blames on "a minor paperwork tracking discrepancy." Like maybe he "forgot" to send that check in. Or maybe he forgot to deduct those trips to the gym as medical expenses. Perhaps he's just not that good at math. That seems more likely, since California's deficit will balloon to nearly twenty-one billion dollars over the next year and a half. Again, with place value problems like that, tens of thousand of dollars seem like mere annoyances. Paperwork problems. He probably forgot to get a W-2 from Jim Cameron for "Terminator 3" or something. He's busy keeping the Golden State safe for democracy and freedom.
And the tyranny of the taxman. That's right Arnie! Stick it to the man, even if it turns out that you happen to be that man. Or relentless cyborg from the future.

Friday, November 27, 2009


The pitch would go something like this: "America's Favorite Terrorists. Each week, we see how close one lucky couple can get to bringing about armed insurrection and rioting in the streets." It sounds a lot like something from Paddy Chayevsky's "Network," with the"Ecumenical Liberation Army" working for a thirty share as they plot their next assassination on LIVE TV!
Michaele and Tareq Salahi are not, in the strictest sense, terrorists. These two are the ones who gained access to the dinner President Barack Obama hosted for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday, although they had not been invited. Aside from this being extremely bad manners, it is also prompting a security review by the Secret Service, which acknowledged that procedures were not followed properly. Did I mention that they were being followed earlier in the evening by a camera crew? Apparently these two Virginia socialites decided that pretending that their child was lost in a foil balloon would be too easy to dismiss. Why not crash a state dinner? They told the people with the cameras, Half Yard Productions, that they were invited. It's not the Salahis fault that nobody thought to check their credentials or to see if they were actually on the guest list.
Or if they were, in fact, terrorists bent on the destruction of our American Way Of Life. What if they had been focused on black ops, instead of creating a flurry of photo ops? What if they had smuggled poison into the crudite? Held a broken bottle to the neck of the Vice President? What if they bragged about it on Facebook?
Well, they did do that last one. And in the end, that's what they will be found guilty: Lack of humility. Turn off the cameras boys. Show's over. For now.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful For The Way Things Turned Out

There are times when it's really difficult to be politically correct. Thanksgiving is one of those times. We sit around and wallow in our ample good fortune, even as we share with those with less. Much less. We're celebrating the harvest feast the Plymouth colonists shared with the Wampanoag tribe. It was more than just bringing in a good crop, the Pilgrims were fabulously relieved to have survived to see the spread before them. The one we call the "First" was just the one that got the most press. Squanto, the Native American interpreter who learned his English while he was enslaved in Europe, also taught the colonists to catch eels and grow corn. I'm thankful that eel didn't have the staying power of a stuffed turkey. It was in the spirit of cooperation and understanding that brought everyone to the table back in 1621.
In 1610, there were Wampanoag. When the harvest rolled around sixty-seven years later, four hundred were left. So much for the spirit of cooperation and understanding. Four hundred years later, that number has crept up to just a touch over two thousand. And now the tribe would very much like to build a casino near Cape Cod. The current deal doesn't allow for the first bet to be placed until 2012. If that other nearly extinct tribe of Mayans can be trusted, that won't give the gambling public much of a shot at getting lucky. Well, at least they'll get a chance to check out the buffet. Try the eel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Potential Energy

Before I went off on my vacation, a number of my fellow teachers asked if I had any "big plans." "No," I assured them, "I'm going to stay close to home. Lay low." Now, three days into my week off, I wonder how I could actually accomplish this.
While it is true that I found the time to finish the entire medium level of "Guitar Hero: Van Halen," I don't know if I have been laying especially low. I have yet to sleep much past seven in the morning, partly due to the insistence of my dog, and mostly due to the extraordinarily rigid circadian rhythm that rules my sleeping and waking worlds.
If I slept in, I might have missed the morning news. Or I might not have been able to wash and dry two loads of laundry. I might not have been able to scrub the bathtub clean. I could have missed out on a run before noon. There were trips to the store, and groceries to put away. And there was my everlasting Albatross of a front gate to contend with. None of these things, including the added task of moving into my new computer, could have been accomplished without the "free time" I was allowed during these past few days.
A few years ago, conventional wisdom suggested that our school district could save money by giving us all a week off, rather than teaching to near-empty classrooms for the three days preceding Thanksgiving. Now I find myself in a mild panic, wondering how to fill those hours that would normally be spent in the service of others. How to be useful and relax at the same time, I wonder. The problem is that I don't tend to find that lethargic rhythm until I've been "resting" for at least two weeks, and by then it's time to pick up my shovel and helmet and head back to the mines.
Happily, the next few days bristle with opportunities such as pie-making and Christmas light installation. By next Monday, I should be ready for the relative peace of the classroom. Now there's a relaxing notion.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Clear Day

Raise your hand if you remember Three Mile Island. Residents of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania excluded. Extra points if you can name the movie that was release just two weeks prior to that little snafu. Special bonus if you can name any of the artists that performed at the anti-nuke concert just a few months later. Back in 1979, it was the next big threat. We weren't worried about terrorists as much as the nuclear power plant up the road melting down.
So imagine my surprise when I open up the news and find that radioactive dust emanated from reactor cooling system pipes. This accident is still waiting to happen? Didn't they have to shut the whole thing down thirty years ago when things went so terribly wrong? In a word, no. In a few more: The central Pennsylvania plant has two reactors. One suffered a partial meltdown in 1979 and is mothballed. The other is still in use, but has been shut down since last month so steam generators could be replaced.
The radioactive dust was stirred up from a steam pipe that was cut by workers at the plant. Plant spokesman Ralph DeSantis said Monday that the public was not endangered Saturday. Unless you count those dozen workers were exposed to radiation as "the public." And while we're at it, just what does it mean to "mothball" a nuclear reactor? We turned it off and nobody every goes over there, except to get snacks out of the vending machine. It's the one that still has Clark bars in it.
But really, I would be so very happy if there was such a thing as safe nuclear energy, but history doesn't necessarily point in that direction. I liken it to the line that I tend to draw when it comes to home improvement projects. I am willing to do most plumbing tasks, and if I mess it up, I might end up getting wet. I shy away from electrical challenges, since making a mistake there I could end up getting dead. And that's the way I feel about nuclear "accidents." Accidents are generally in the "whoops" category. Chain reactions and Strontium-90 exceed the casual whoops. These incidents tend to fall into the "disaster" file. Unless you happen to work for Mister Burns in Springfield.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Moving Pictures

When I was about ten years old, I was listening to the Beatles' song "Hello, Goodbye" on a jukebox in an Italian restaurant. As was my custom in my youth, I took a pen and started drawing on the extra napkins at our table as my parents finished their after-dinner cocktail. In my mind I was constructing an animated film to accompany the song. Heavily influenced by the "All You Need Is Love" sequence in "Yellow Submarine," I was keenly distracted as my mother sipped her Creme de Menthe and my father polished off his Wild Turkey. I dozed a little in the back seat on the way home, and in my dreams my little movie came alive.
That moment stayed with me for years, but the film never got made. The fundamentals of animation were impressed on me at an early age, and my patience and temperament were not suited for such a tedious process. I made a few feeble attempts. I drew a dozen separate drawings for a short about a cat chasing a mouse, then snapped off a few feet of film. When I saw the result, it took me another ten years to try it again.
In college, I took a film making class, and one of the assignments was a stop-motion piece. I used clay, and spent the better part of a day shooting a very arty thing about a sphere trying to seduce a cube. Or something like that. It was very clever, and it was in black and white. I got a "B."
Years flew by. Last night I watched "The Phantom Tollbooth" with my family. The last time I had seen it was around the same time I was experimenting with my dad's Super-8 movie camera. It was Chuck Jones. My memory of the film was far better than what I saw on the screen. In my mind, it was tied much closer to the illustrations by Jules Pfeiffer. Instead, I felt duty-bound to sit still for the whole thing while my son did the same. The story held up under the weight of some obvious budget shortfalls and some unnecessary songs, but in the end, it became clear why MGM never became an animation powerhouse.
Then again, neither did I.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Moving Day

A lifetime ago, my son's to be exact, we moved into this house. It was after months of searching and deciding and hours of paperwork and eventual heavy lifting, but we were finally in our own home after years of living in a one bedroom apartment. The baby was coming any day, and we were, at last, safely ensconced in the nest that my wife and I had so happily landed. As we lay there in bed that first night, sleep did not come quickly. With the whole rest of this great big house above and below us, my wife whispered into the dark: "Can we go home now?"
That's how I am feeling now as I sit in front of my brand new computer. More to the point, my brand new CPU. As I stood in front of the myriad of options at the great big electronics store, I tried to talk myself out of making a major purchase. I rationalized it. I agonized over it. I went into denial, and before I could remember the rest of the stages, I called my wife to come and meet me. Where the two of us agonized over many of the same points that I had been mulling on my own.
What does it mean that "upgrading" is something that I now feel that I must do? I have nursed my "old" machine for the past seven years with love and care, who's to say that I couldn't make it last another six or eight? Then it got easier when I realized that I could keep the old machine in the family. My son could move into it, and I could go and visit it whenever I wanted. It will be just down the hall.
But it's not the same. The keyboard is light and airy, without the rattle of crumbs and dirt that I have become accustomed to. All that speed that I had heard about on our new Internet provider was now visible in front of me, and applications opened without me having to step out to the kitchen for a snack. And best of all, there was a brand new terabyte of space for me to put whatever I cared to into it. Big, empty space.
Can I go home now?

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Oh wow man. It was groovy. It was outta sight. They really stuck it to the man, just like in the olden days. Forty-one demonstrators were finally removed from Wheeler Hall on the University of California campus after nearly twelve hours occupying a large chunk of the second floor. They barricaded themselves in as supporters gathered outside. The group of "mostly students" were protesting a thirty-two percent increase in student fees and job and program cuts. They demanded that laid-off custodial workers be rehired and amnesty for anyone arrested in the protest.
And I'm still hung up on that "mostly students" thing. Who else would be involved? Maybe some of the laid-off custodial workers? Perhaps some disgruntled parents, irate at the hike in tuition? How about misanthropic anarchists looking for a fresh wave of discontent on which to surf? No matter. It was all over before the late news. Plenty of video was taken and the great pot of nostalgia was stirred. The Free Speech Movement is not dead, and now it has its own Twitter feed.
This is how grumpy and jaded I have become. Instead of imagining a way to find my way up to Berkeley to be a part of that scene, I wish that they would all go home and make logical connections between fee hikes, a state and federal government being swallowed up by deficit, health care, and a world at war. Think about it like students. Find a cause and find a cure.
By contrast, everyone in my school district was asked by our new superintendent to unplug everything electrical before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. Not just turned off. Unplugged. It is our way of staving off the millions of dollars of budget cuts headed down the track next year. It's a team-building exercise. So I crawled under all the tables in my computer lab and unplugged the twenty-four CPUs and twenty-four monitor and assorted peripherals to do my part in making our school more green and put us back in the black.
And I can't help thinking that occupying a classroom in the English department is on a par with unplugging all those computers and pencil sharpeners. "This is what democracy looks like," was the chant heard outside Wheeler Hall. Since I know that I've got to go back to work a little early in a week to plug everything back in, and all those students who missed class on the Friday before Thanksgiving will have to make up those missed exams, I guess I wish democracy was a little more intimidating. It's like those guys at Faber College once said:
"I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."
"We're just the guys to do it."

Friday, November 20, 2009

How Do You Sleep At Night?

There I was, forty years ago, calling in requests to KIMN radio at my brother's behest for "Yellow Submarine," when I heard the news. Oh boy. Paul was dead. The round-faced guy who wrote all the songs was dead. How could this be? From where I was sitting, the Beatles ruled the world. The king of the world was dead.
How could we be sure? Well, he was the only one barefoot on the cover of "Abbey Road." Paul is the only one turned around on the back cover of "Sergeant Pepper," and his jacket has a patch on it that reads "O.P.D.": Officially Pronounced Dead. And this was just the album covers. Inside, things got even more bizarre. "Blackbird" had the backward message "Paul is dead now, miss him, miss him." Or something that sounded like that. At the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever," I am sure that I could hear "I buried Paul." Pretty sure.
And there was more. Much, much more. My older brother must have trashed a dozen needles playing records backward, forward fast, slow, and in-between. "Can you hear that?" he would ask me. If he told me I was listening to the fiery wreck that was the end of Paul McCartney, then that was what I was listening to. I sat in my brother's basement bedroom, with all the lights out, the experimental sounds of "Revolution #9" creeping out of the speakers. Creeping me out. Deeply.
F. Lee Bailey was fooled for a minute. When he asked the "expert witness," University of Michigan student Fred LaBour, if any of this sordid tale was true, he was told that it was a complete fabrication. Since they still had an hour-long TV special to fill, they decided to go ahead with the hoax.
And nobody decided to tell me. Or my older brother. We went on for months afterward, searching for clues that would explain how all this terribleness could have occurred. Two years later, when I heard "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" from Paul's second solo album, I heard the line "we haven't done a bloody thing all day," and was convinced that we were still receiving communiques from beyond the grave. I was nine. I was certain that something fishy was going on, and somebody needed to be held accountable. By this point, my older brother had moved on. There was no mystery. There was no conspiracy. My brother eventually gave me his old Beatles albums as he replaced the worn and scratched Apple labels with crisp new Capitol vinyl. I inherited history, treasure. But I never listened to them backward. In the dark.