Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Parental Control

"While Sasha and Malia are very different girls with very different paths forward, both need a fresh start to implement the restructuring plans they develop. That may mean using our bankruptcy code as a mechanism to help them restructure quickly and emerge stronger."
"We cannot make the survival of our daughters dependent on an unending flow of tax dollars. These girls - and this family- must ultimately stand on their own, not as wards of the state."
"We cannot, and must not, and we will not let their allowances simply vanish," Dad said. "This family is like no other, it's an emblem of the American spirit ... And we cannot continue to excuse poor decisions. And we cannot make the survival of weekly allowances dependent on an unending flow of taxpayer dollars."
"There are chores that won't be saved, there are plants that may not be watered."
“If they’re not willing to make the changes and the restructurings that are necessary, then I’m not willing to have taxpayer money chase after bad money. And so a lot of it’s going to depend on their willingness to make some pretty drastic changes. I think it is appropriate for us to say, are there ways that we can provide help for the girls to get through this very difficult time? But the price is that you’ve got to finally restructure to deal with these long-standing problems.”
And that is why the President's daughters won't be asking for a Wii anytime soon.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Wildlife Alert!

Thanks to suburban sprawl and a growth in numbers of both people and animals, a rash of coyote encounters has alarmed residents on the high plains of Colorado. Since December, four people in the Denver area have been nipped or bitten by coyotes. A fifth told police a coyote lunged at him.
"Ninety-five percent of this problem is a human problem, and we really need to focus on that ninety-five percent to solve it," said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
Ms. Rosmarino is exactly right, of course. In addition to the biting and lunging episodes, there has also been an uptick in the number of disturbances created by Earthquake Pills, Giant Rubber Bands, and Rocket-Powered Roller Skates. This isn't a coyote problem. It's a people problem: The people at ACME.
For too long, the evil greedheads at the ACME corporation have been exploiting the desperation of the coyote, or "Eatibus anythingus," for their own selfish gain. Moving their corporate headquarters to the Denver metro area had the obvious and unfortunate environmental impact of creating a mass migration of coyotes to the Mile High City. Many of these animals have made the trip with just the fur on their backs, unable to afford the exorbitant shipping rates charged by the exclusive provider of Dehydrated Boulders. Finding work of any sort during these tough economic times is extremely difficult, even if the coyote in question is a super-genius.
One such creature, who declined to be named for this article had this to say: "It was the philosopher George Santayana who reminds us, 'A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.'" Then with a feverish lick of his lips and a wild look in his eye, he added, "Could you loan me a few bucks? I'm trying to score some Triple-Strength Leg Muscle Vitamins."
Keep an eye out for these wretches. They're desperate.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Best Buy

Retailers around California are encouraging all of us consumer-types to rush out this weekend to shop until we drop. No, it's not part of some big "Cesar Chavez Chavez Day Blowout," but that would seem like crass commercialism. Instead, we are being asked to get out there and stimulate the economy before our state sales tax goes up a penny on April 1st. Starting Wednesday, every dollar we spend will have an additional penny added to it. This is our last chance to "stick it to the man."
I have recently been given the task of explaining sales tax to my son, who is a ferocious consumer of all things plastic, metal, and video game related. He tends to save his money for items right up to the pre-tax price. Then he has to start scrounging his nickels and dimes and begging his parents to make up the difference. The up side of reaching the ten percent sales tax plateau is that the math becomes so much easier.
And for many, so does the outrage. Ten percent? You've got to be kidding. Where does all that money go? First of all, the swirling vortex that is our state's debt, and then little things like roads and bridges and police and fire and, oh yes, schools. I'm a school teacher. If I want a new refrigerator, I think I'll wait until Wednesday.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I Know What I'm Missing

The message came to me, appropriately enough, through the "Messages" tab on my cable TV interface. It told me to expect that the NFL Network would soon disappear from my channel menu. It was the antithesis of a "coming soon" announcement: "Evaporating on this spot!" And my initial impulse was to fly into yet another frenzy of trying to find television service provider that would offer me all the choices that I so desperately require.
Then I remembered: I have already been down this particular rabbit hole. I know that I could have called my cable provider at any time this past season and, once the check cleared, they would have flipped the switch to bring me not just regular season games, but hours more football related programming. There are a variety of ways that I could spend my weekends watching more televised sports. Most of these involve ever-increasing outlays of cash money for the opportunity to watch my favorite teams on Sundays. And the occasional Saturday. And Thursday. And Monday. Getting my football from a satellite in outer space would have allowed me an even larger choice of venues and teams. I could be watching the draft combines. I could be sitting on the couch for even longer stretches of time watching others exert themselves. Saying yes to any one of these packages would require me to deal with someone whose chief reason for existence is to encourage me to buy that one more service that would make my sports fantasies a reality. At least that's been my experience over the past few years. Maybe the NFL will start a program to stimulate fan interest and ticket sales by offering all of their programming to the public at limited or no expense to the average fan.
Maybe John Elway will be starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions next season. I surrender my need to see every down, every penalty, every time-out. I know that games can and will take place without my active participation. It was one of my wife's friends that pointed out how much more fun and satisfying it is to watch only the highlights of the day's games. She has a point. even though the immediacy of the contest is eliminated, you get to see the parts that really mattered. Until they start making me pay extra to watch Sportscenter.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Rise Of The Machines

Today when I got to school, I thought I should check our rolls to see if there was a John Connor enrolled. Those of you who got the reference can feel free to wait while others follow the link. Now that we're all safely back together, it's time to face the facts: The machines are winning. Not because they are so vastly superior. We built them after all. But because they don't have any feelings.
I thought about this as I recalled my "hassle-free" interaction at the grocery store where I scanned my own items, bagged them, and walked out of the store without a single personal interaction. Just like the electronic check-in at the airport. Not a word needed to be spoken. Unless you count those utterances under my breath when the bar code reader wasn't able to make sense of my carefully printed boarding pass.
Guess what? Even if the machine did hear me, it didn't care. It kept right on doing the thing that it was supposed to do. Without a smile or a frown. It kept right on beeping and booping like it was made to do just that. And it was.
Machines are not required to care about the quality of the experience. They are designed to process a transaction as efficiently as possible, and if that means you don't get any pleasant conversation as you meander through your day, so be it. Of course that means you also get to avoid the occasional surly manner or fed-up-with-this-boring-job-attitude. Which leaves you with even less to commiserate about with the humans that you interact with.
I thought of all the science fiction movies and novels that included the replacement of all service functions by machines. Doctors, police, food service, care maintenance, and even teachers put out to pasture by robots: machines without feelings. Ironically enough, it is precisely those emotions that I believe makes me a better teacher. And a better human being.
Until Cyberdyne makes an even better one.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Listening In

From the Presidential News Conference March 24, 2009:
Q: But on AIG, why did you wait -- why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general's office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, look, we're outraged. Why did it take so long?
OBAMA: It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.

Lately our new president has been taking some heat for his use of a teleprompter. Maybe we are about to discover the limits of this man's rhetoric. So be it, I say. If it will keep him from popping off with witty bon mot about Special Olympics, I might suggest that he continue to stick with his prepared remarks. Leave the awkward moments to the Vice President. Joe seems much more accustomed to humiliation and ridicule.
Our new president does not. He wants to be prepared. This is in stark contrast to "The Decider." President Pinhead periodically gave the impression that policy was being created at the podium, and quite possibly it was. The "outrage" called for in the past eight years has been all too easy to see and hear. We didn't send troops in to occupy AIG or attack it with cruise missiles. That seems like evolution. Barack Obama is a thoughtful man, and I think we can expect much more direct and directed communication from him. If we have to wait an extra day or two to get a straight answer from our commander-in-chief, that's a price I'm willing to pay. His Nielsen ratings may be slipping, but he's got more to worry about than pre-empting "American Idol."
It may be a while before we get another rafter-shaking bit of elocution like the ones that got him the job in the first place, but I will still be happy with some straight talk while we're waiting for the fire and brimstone.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Purple Hazing

My son came home on Friday with a story that struck me square in my parenting solar plexus. He told us that it was "Freshman Friday." What, his parents asked quizzically, was "Freshman Friday?"
"It's the day that all the seventh and eighth graders beat up the sixth graders."
All of them?
"Not all of them. Mostly just the boys. Before P.E."
And now my heart sank. All of the joy that my son had been taking in his progress and participation in middle school physical education was suddenly at risk of evaporating into the ether. Didn't the coach do anything to stop it?
"We had a sub today, and it all happened before they came out."
Thus began a days-long project of getting to the bottom of this "tradition." We discovered that it was a hand-me-down from high school, and it had occurred to the seventh and eighth graders that since they were destined to be embarrassed and pummelled when they became ninth graders, it was only fair that they pass along their potential torment ahead of the actual grief to kids who had no reckoning of such torture. There are, after all, no freshman in middle school.
We talked to the principal and his P.E. teacher. We told him how it was really a backhanded (unfortunate choice of words) compliment. The boys who shoved him around were welcoming him in a way that made little or no sense to him or his parents.
But it reminded me of the fear I felt from the first day of spring when I was in sixth grade. The kid down the street had told me that I should look forward to "initiation" into junior high. I walked quickly past his house, or avoided it by walking the long way around the block. A few friends suggested that I could just surrender to the inevitable and get it over with, but I had heard stories from other friends who got "smeared." I had no interest or inclination to have shaving cream in my hair or lipstick on my face, arms, neck, back, and so on. It would also, almost certainly, involve a degree of pain with which I was uncomfortable.
That's when I came back to the present. I realized that there were no reassuring words I could offer my son. We can walk him to and from school, and he can eat his lunch in the science room, but there is always some nimrod out there ready to share his fractured vision of acceptance when you least expect it. And for the record, the kid down the street never did follow through on his threats. I just spent the summer in hiding. This is how we learn.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Love, Exciting And New

David Letterman finally married his longtime girlfriend, and mother of his child, Regina Lasko last week. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt best wishes to the newlyweds, and I hope they have many happy years together. But I can't help but feel just a little sad. Regina wasn't the woman I had hoped Dave would end up with. I had hoped that he would have lived happily ever after with Merrill Markoe.
Way back in the eighties, Merrill was the head writer for both Dave's morning and his original "Late Night" shows. That was back when they were "an item." They didn't have any kids, but they did raise a pair of German Shepherds. They inspired the creation of "Stupid Pet Tricks," as well as serving as set dressing: in photos behind his desk. Alas, when the eighties were over, so were they. She went to California, and he became the king of "late night tellyvision." They just seemed so good for each other.
Workplace romances never pan out. Still, I was hoping that Burt Reynolds and Sally Field would end up together. They seemed to have such a nice influence on each other, she kept his ego from swelling disproportionately and he kept her from being too cute. It was a pleasant symbiosis. Then he went and married Loni Anderson. Yeesh. I wonder how often he wishes he could have that one back.
It's tough to keep a relationship afloat in the seas of everyday life, but when you toss in a typhoon of celebrity, it becomes a challenge few manage to navigate without incident. Spencer Tracy never left his wife for Katherine Hepburn. Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson are "just good friends." And poor Jennifer Aniston. Sigh.
I can remember how sad I was, when I was just a kid, to find out that Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore weren't married in real life. Maybe "real-life" is just overrated.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What's The Pontiff It All?

Nobody asked me, and it's probably none of my business since I have no particular religious affiliation, but I think the Pope is off his nut. That is to say I believe that that pointy hat may be concealing an even pointier head. For most of my adult life, I have been quietly pleased and happy with the work of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Maybe it's because he's named after one of my favorite song-writing teams, or perhaps it's because he worked to bring about more understanding and thought among the world's religions. He was a uniter, not a divider.
Pope Benedict XVI, though named for a very tasty egg dish, has little of John Paul's public demeanor. This is the gentleman who recently told reporters, "You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." The "it" in question is the AIDS epidemic, and his comments were made en route to Africa, the continent estimated to have more than sixty percent of the world's AIDS-infected population. He also said that 2009 will be "The Year of Africa." For those who survive.
I know that Benedict has the same party line as John Paul when it comes to condoms, but this comes fast on the heels of the excommunication in Brazil of doctors who performed an abortion on a nine-year-old girl who had become pregnant after being raped by her stepfather, along with family members who sought the abortion. If the father had used a condom, would souls have been spared?
On the flip-side, a bishop who had denied the Holocaust saying that historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed," had his excommunication lifted back in January. For the Vatican, there is a line between heresy and lying, and they are keenly aware of the difference, regardless how it may seem to us out here leading less-than-Catholic existences. While in Angola, the Pope took a stand against sorcery. The faculty of Hogwarts Academy could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, two teenage girls were killed in a stampede at a youth rally for the Pope in Angola on Saturday. No contraceptives were involved.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spring Cleaning

I am sitting at my desk, looking out the window into my front yard, watching the first blossoms from our plum tree swirl around in the first spring breeze. It looks calm, in spite of the wind. Friday evening I was sitting in the same place when I looked up to see a car pull into the parking lot of the apartment building next door. A pair of young men jumped out, and as the driver polished off the can of whatever was in his brown paper bag, the passenger scooped the contents of the back seat out onto the ground. I thought it was an odd time and place for this chore, and it became a little more suspicious when the passenger scurried to the curb to drop a purse into the trash. To be more precise, he dropped it into the compost-only green bin. Then they were back in the car, heading up the street.
I made a note of the color and model, as well as the lack of license plate. Then my wife, the adventurous one, went to fish the purse out of the compost. There was a library card, some mail, food stamps, and a few other personal items. The only way these items were trash was if they didn't belong to you. We called the police with a description of the car and its occupants, along with the contents of the purse, along with the papers from the back seat.
If I lived in Mayberry, I might expect some straightforward resolution to this story. Hoodlums from Raleigh, no doubt. Instead, I live in Oakland. The first three items in our local news Saturday were about shootings, one of which occurred just a few blocks from where I'm sitting. I quickly checked that one for more information on the off chance that there was some connection between my incident and the homocide. Somehow, to me, it would be more reassuring if it were all connected. A crime wave perpatrated by a kingpin, a druglord who was on the verge of being apprehended as his empire crumbled in the light of a new day.
No such luck. In spite of the change of season and our new administration, bad things continue to happen right outside our door. I know that it is no different than any number of large urban areas, but this is the one I call "home." Outside the branches wave their assent.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


The thing that struck me first was the fact that my family and I arrived together just before seven, bought our tickets and went inside. We had never bought tickets for the Sequoia Variety Show. Over the past half-dozen years, we had sold our share of tickets, but we had never purchased any. This was primarily due to the fact that we were, some or all of us, part of that show.
But not last night. We were part of the audience. The next thing I was aware of was how full the auditorium was. For all those years before, I just assumed that the chairs I had set up hours earlier were full with excited onlookers: paying customers. Now I was out there in the dark, standing at the back because it was the only room available.
That's where I watched the show, just to one side of the follow spot that was perched on a table behind me. My wife and son found places to sit, and friends to talk with. I kibitzed with other dads who I had worked with "back in the day." But mostly I watched the show and noticed how much the same it was, and how very different.
It is a variety show, and the Kindergarten girl who sang a flawless acappella version of Elton John's "Your Song" contrasted mightily with the breathless fourth grade girl doing her best Beyonce. This year there were two "air bands," but unlike my son's groups, these featured live vocals. There was a raffle, but this year the prizes were donated movie tickets and gift certificates, a far cry from our fifty dollar cash giveaways.
Standing at the back, I was acutely aware of a phenomenon I had only guessed at in years past: The crowd thinned mightily just after the prizes had been handed out and just before the Dads' Club Act at the end of the show. Watching the parents stomp about onstage in their hastily prepared and roughly rehearsed skit, I remembered years past when I struggled to get line readings and cues caught from a bunch of guys who were already doing valiant service putting on a show from behind the scenes. Now I was asking them to be thespians.
It was a beautiful thing because it was something new, but immediately recognizable. When the lights came up, I shook some hands and congratulated everyone on a job well done as we folded and stacked chairs. And this thought came to me: It's like that first time you go back to your old school after you move on to junior high. You see your old teacher, and there are a whole crop of new kids in your class, and you wonder how you were ever small enough to fit in those desks. Last night I wondered how I ever managed to do that for six years. The answer was simple: I had a lot of help. Not just the men and women and boys and girls who were there at the time, but the ones who came before me.
As winter turns to spring, I look back fondly on the months of preparation and the weeks of rehearsal and the night of the show and then it's over. I miss that seasonal rhythm, but I'm happy now to be just an observer. In the back. In the dark. Applauding.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rule Number One

"The first rule of Fight Club," Tyler Durden reminds us, "Is nobody is supposed to talk about Fight Club." Somebody should have told the folks at South Oak Cliff High in Dallas about Rule Number One.
Allegations were made Thursday that staff members at the inner-city high school made students settle their differences by fighting bare-knuckle brawls inside a steel cage. In the report, a teacher was quoted as saying Principal Donald Moten told security personnel to put two fighting students "in the cage and let `em duke it out." The cage in question was an equipment locker in the boys' locker room.
Here's where it gets interesting to me: The charges came to light during a grade-fixing investigation that eventually cost the high school its 2005 and 2006 state basketball titles. School officials were suspected of altering students' grades so that they could remain eligible to play. The fights in question took place between 2003 and 2005. Would an investigation have occurred if there had been no grade-fixing?
As a regular apologist for public schools, I'm at a loss for an excuse. Am I pleased and happy that the discussions that take place over lunch in our staff room aren't recorded or monitored in some other way? You bet I am. Many times I have made suggestions alluding to "Lord of the Flies" or "Thunderdome" to break the tension of an otherwise stressful day. Gallows humor, but humor just the same. Because when kids are truly in danger, even from one another, it's my job to keep them safe. Because that's the first rule of Teacher Club.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Find Yourself Here

I grew up in "Colorful Colorado." I know this primarily because I read a lot of license plates in my youth. In the seventies, there was a great move afoot to insert "Rocky Mountain High" into that mix, but it never quite caught on. A very good friend of mine came from Muskogee, Oklahoma, and I always felt the need to remind him of his state's adequacy: "Oklahoma is OK." Not great, not terrific, I would remind him. Just "OK."
Over time, state slogans can change. The friendly folks in New Jersey decided to change theirs from "New Jersey and You: Perfect Together" to "Come See For Yourself" in 2006. There was a move afoot in 1980 to make "Born To Run" the state song, but a closer look at the lyrics (It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap) kept it "unofficial." The legacy of "I'm From New Jersey" continues.
I'm sure no one really considered the irony of Texas' slogan, "It's Like a Whole Other Country," until the past eight years. Ohio and North Carolina continue to bicker about who is "First in Flight" and who is the "Birthplace of Aviation," but at least they don't have the braggadocio of Delaware's "It's Good Being First."
And now there's Wisconsin. For so long we have known them as "America's Dairyland." It worked well with that whole "cheese-head" image. Well, not anymore. "Live like you mean it" will take the place of the previous official slogan, "Life's so good." Not a bad change, but it does sound a little more like a threat. Kind of like the motto of New Hampshire: "Live free or die." Not a lot of choice there, but it's good to have options. The other problem with the new vision for Wisconsin is there are at least five trademarks covering the term's use for promoting real estate, dietary supplements, and even Bacardi rum. Then there's the overlap with the self-help industry. "Live like you mean it" has such an empowering feel to it, why limit it to just one state? If it doesn't stick, I suggest they try to work something out with Springsteen for "Cadillac Ranch."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker got himself into the fray with comedian Jon Stewart on Wednesday, saying it was "unfair" and "absurd" for the comedian to criticize CNBC and question its coverage of financial news. Mister Zucker's assertion was that his network was not responsible for "what is going on now." Is CNBC responsible for the collapse of our country's economy? No, they are not. But that is not what Jon Stewart and many of the rest of us are irate about.
Ironically enough, Fox News saw fit to air the public and rather embarrassing dressing down of Jim Cramer as a point for the conservatives. TV funnyman criticizing a competing network is good fodder for them, but they insist it would have been better if Stewart would have taken Chris Dodd or Barney Frank to task in the same manner. Frankly, I'm not sure why Cramer showed up, hat in hand, to take his lumps in the first place, but I am sure that if anything like that was in the wind for a politician like Dodd or Frank they would duck and run.
In some ways, Jim Cramer did us all a big service. His appearance on "The Daily Show" last week served as a lightning rod for the ire that is brewing among holders of 401Ks. Jon Stewart never suggested that anyone at CNBC was responsible for bad finances, he said that they were guilty of bad reporting. If they knew that the house was on fire, it was their job to report it, not to encourage everyone to redecorate.
I have long held that what happens in the stock market is made up, and I try to distance myself from the daily surges and upheavals of trading and exchanges. I am focused on doing my job, and I rely on the skill and cleverness of people I trust to manipulate my money in ways that keep it safe and will allow me to live out my days in front of a TV, shouting out answers to Final Jeopardy. No, Mister Zucker, it is not absurd that your star and your network was singled out for ridicule. Jim Cramer had enough shame to admit as much. What is absurd is that it took a guy who, by his own admission, "makes a lot of fart jokes" to point it out. Just be glad it wasn't Carrot Top.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Insenstive Incentives

When I got my first salaried position I felt as though I had been cheated. I am the type of person who shows up early and stays late as a matter of course, and when I used to punch a time clock, I used to end up with a few extra bucks in my paycheck along with the everlasting praise and appreciation of my employers. When I found myself in management, I kept putting in those extra hours as a matter of course. This is what I expect from my employees, after all.
Then I became a teacher and one thing became apparent from the very first day: There was no "quittin' time." Sure, there were plenty of mornings that I arrived just before the custodian unlocked the school, and just as many evenings when I was politely urged toward the door so it could be locked behind me. And there was still work to do. I brought it home. I did it on the weekends. I did it after dinner. I did it after my son went to bed. I have learned, over the course of my career, to set limits that allow me to get things done without doing me in.
Barack Obama wants to create a system of merit pay for teachers. I'm thinking that installing a time clock might be a good first step. But that's not the whole picture. The other thing I left behind when I became a teacher was the idea of bonuses. Just about every job I had before I was a teacher brought me a little something extra right around Christmas. Depending on the job and the times, it was usually just a little monetary pat on the fanny for a job well done. Something in the envelope to go along with the cheesy card.
My President wants to keep AIG from handing its executives one hundred sixty-five million dollars in bonuses after taking billions in federal bailout money. "This isn't just a matter of dollars and cents. It's about our fundamental values," he said. I'm guessing that one hundred and sixty-five million dollars would go a long way to improving test scores in the Oakland Unified School District. In case anyone's asking.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Madoff With The Money

Raise your hand if you knew what a Ponzi scheme was before last year. If you think it's when you conspire with your friends to show off how cool you are by jumping on water skis over a shark in a tank, then put your hand down. If you answered "pyramid scheme," go ahead and pat yourself on the back and let us continue. If you knew that it was named for the infamous swindler, Charles Ponzi, feel free to skip to the end. It's not the same as selling Amway, at least Amway gives you all that great soap in the end. If you believe that you're going to make a ton of money in "hedge futures trading", "high-yield investment programs", or "offshore investments," chances are pretty good that you've been Ponzied.
What sort of people fall for this "get rich quick" scam? How about writer, professor, political activist, and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel? Wouldn't you guess a man of his intellect would be able to smell a rat? “I remember that it was a myth that he created around him,” Mr. Wiesel said, “that everything was so special, so unique, that it had to be secret. It was like a mystical mythology that nobody could understand.” The "he" is in reference to imprisoned con man Bernie Madoff, and Mr. Wiesel was not the only victim. In order to make the manipulator of imagined wealth truly wealthy, it takes thousands of victims.
And this is when I thought of Tatum O'Neal. Tatum has had her own share of dust-ups with the law, but most of her bad investments have been limited to crack cocaine. No, the reason for me to remember the youngest winner of an Academy Award was the role that made her famous: Addie Pray. As young Addie begins to uncover the truth about her father the confidence man, they have this exchange:

Moses Pray: I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?
Addie Pray: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!

If the money in question belongs to somebody else, then it isn't yours. We've become used to thinking that some people deserve to be swindled. A fool and his money are soon parted, after all. But it's never the case when it's our money.
"I wish it grew on trees, but it takes hard work to make money." - Jim Cramer

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Supply And Demand

A few nights ago, my son and I were sitting on the couch watching TV. It was a rerun of "The Simpsons" that we had both seen more than once. That didn't keep us from enjoying it, each in our own ways, and with plenty of overlapping bits that we laughed at together. During a commercial, our thoughts turned to snacks. "It's a shame we didn't get any Girl Scout cookies when we saw them out in front of the grocery store," I said.
"Mmmm," replied my son, channeling his best Homer Simpson.
"What I wouldn't give for a box of Thin Mints right now."
"Mmmm, Thin Mints."
"We should have bought a case right then."
"Yeah," he said, still a little glazed, "but Samoas are good too."
This is when the conversation stopped. I didn't know how to continue. Sitting next to me, my own flesh and blood, was a child I no longer understood. Samoas? The uncomfortable silence was broken when he assured me, "I still like Thin Mints."
Some measure of trust restored, and the commercial over, we returned to the relative sanctuary of Springfield. We watched in relative silence, broken by the occasional snicker or guffaw. My son will be twelve in a couple of months. I know that this kind of interaction will be coming our way more often over the next few years.
Today, my son went out bowling with his friends. I stuck around the neighborhood, and stopped by the grocery store where the Girl Scouts were out once again. They were out of Thin Mints, so I bought a box of Samoas.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sober Reflection

Yesterday morning I tried to recall how many years it had been since I had a drink. I remembered the date, but not the year. I resigned myself to the notion that if I couldn't remember how long it had been then it must surely be less of a big deal than I had been making of it. Like remembering the anniversary of your first date. Once you get married, and have a kid, the focus shifts.
Speaking of those last few things, I believe I can draw a fairly straight line from the moment I stopped drinking to the events that culminated in the creation of my little family. Would they have happened anyway? It's possible, but I doubt it could have transpired in the same way or at the same speed. My life changed abruptly once I decided to stop drinking. By removing one major source of activity and confusion in my life, I was able to find other more practical ways to spend my time. It is no coincidence that it is my wife who helped me recall that I was celebrating my twentieth year of sobriety.
Not that I don't have some regrets. I still miss the warm, fraternal buzz of sharing a pitcher of beer. I have fond memories of bottles of Chardonnay: their smell, their taste. I miss that excuse to sit at the end of a bar, hammering away at the video trivia game for hours. I miss the gut-busting laughter that a two-drink minimum ensures. I miss the periodic release of all my demons.
Not everyone is with me on that last one, and I understand. I didn't have an "off switch." My college roommates called me "The Thing That Would Not Heave." Long after I had lost the power of comprehensible speech, I was able to stagger around and continue to consume. Twenty years ago, I had made a name for myself as a guy who could really throw 'em down. On my twentieth birthday, I made a point of drinking a beer for every year I had been alive. I made a name for myself as a number of other things, but decorum prohibits their mention here. The up side has been tremendous, but I know that it was a choice I made way back when to stop drinking, and that means I have had plenty of time to second guess myself. And now, I can turn the page and start forgetting again.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Steele In His Words

Michael Steele must be developing a taste for shoe leather, his own that is. In a recent interview with Gentleman's Quarterly:
“Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?” GQ’s Lisa DePaulo asked.
“Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice,” he said, according to GQ’s transcript, which he did not dispute.
“You do?” he was asked.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” he said.
The pages of GQ isn't where I would expect to find news about platform changes in the Republican party, and certainly Mister Steele has a right to his own opinion, even if it contradicts with the one that he has held previously. In a statement issued through the RNC press office on Thursday, Steele said, “I am pro-life, always have been, always will be.” Not everyone was as understanding as he was with himself.
Last week he had to apologize to Rush Limbaugh. Now he's got the whole pro-life movement mad at him. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, called Steele's comments “disturbing and demoralizing." Ms. Yoest, welcome to the last eight years of my life.
“Chairman Steele needs to reread the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and the 2008 GOP Platform,” said former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. “He then needs to get to work or get out of the way.” Wait a minute, he gets a choice?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Are You Ready For Some Football? Really?

I'm old enough to remember the Denver Gold, but I'm also young enough that I can't forget them. The Denver Gold was Colorado's USFL team. Between the years of 1983 and 1985, they were our only football outlet, after the "real" football was over. This was the league that gave Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and Herschel Walker their starts. There were truckloads of money dumped on this Spring Football idea, but it never quite caught on. For a year or so, though, I learned to care about Larry Canada, a running back for the Gold. His nickname was "The Mailman," because, we were told, "he delivers."
Fifteen years passed, and at the turn of the century, paying little or no heed to the lessons of the USFL, World Wrestling promoter Jim McMahon launched the XFL. The new "extreme" brand of football came with no particular rooting interest for me, and so I watched a couple of games purely for the visceral impact of the potentially dangerous rule changes. And then there was "He Hate Me," remembered more for his jersey than his accomplishments on the field. That's the kind of show they were running.
Now we are told, as our economy is about to collapse on itself, that a new league is forming. The United Football League will try once again to fill that outdoor football need that all red-blooded Americans feel. In September. Their mission statement reads, in part, "To fulfill the unmet needs of football fans in major markets currently underserved by professional football by providing a high quality traditional football league comprised of world class professional football players." An interesting notion, considering one of their teams will be headquartered in San Francisco. When they say "underserved," maybe they mean quality more than quantity, since there are already two professional football teams that call the Bay Area home. They're promising to kick off in October 2009. Maybe they'll get Larry Canada out of retirement, since they know that he can deliver.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Honeymoon's Over

Don't you just love those first few months of a new relationship? "Oh, you like the Beatles too? And you like sushi? Me too!" Everything they say is interesting, and you can't wait to hear their next thought. Each new utterance is like a door opening on a brand new day. Then, eventually, comes a day when some of the magic has worn thin. "What do you mean comic books? These are graphic novels!" It is precisely this kind of friction that makes life more interesting, and I believe the thing that keeps relationships alive.
So imagine my surprise when I discover that my love affair with my President has just hit a snag. "You want to redistribute wealth? Sounds great, especially the way you say it. Tax breaks for the middle class? What a wonderful idea. Merit pay for teachers?" And then the room goes quiet.
I can't say that it came as a surprise. It has been on all the badges, posters, stickers and T-shirts. I guess I wasn't sure that we would get to it this quickly. Education reform is going to happen right along with the economy and health care and Iraq and a playoff system for college football. Barack Obama is a man of his word. It just so happens that this particular word gives me pause.
"Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom." Teachers, as a union, held their breath. Does this mean that teachers with high test scores get big checks? What about those of us who dare to stick it out in Program Improvement schools?
The good news is that "achievement" is a broad term, and his administration is showing an active interest in working on this with educators, not to them. "That is a wonderful feeling, for the president of the United States to acknowledge and respect the professional knowledge and skills that those educators bring to every job in the school," president of the National Education Association, Dennis van Roekel said.
Still, he gets a gleam in his eye when he starts talking about charter schools and a longer school years, but I just can't stay mad at him. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Well Of Souls

There was a time when the job I had installing modular office furniture routinely brought me to downtown Denver. That was the major reason that I even considered joining the video dating service "Great Expectations." There was no office in Boulder, and so it would only happen if I found myself in Denver and we had finished early enough on that particular afternoon that I could drop in and not be trapped by rush hour traffic.
It took me some months to find this coincidental moment, but I made sure that I was ready. I brought with me the change of clothes they suggested on the phone, as well as the "get acquainted" coupon they had sent me in the mail back when the snow was falling. The fact that they had sent the special offer to "single resident" didn't matter, at least they got my address right.
It was a warm spring day when I pulled into the covered parking adjacent to the Great Expectations sign. I double-checked the suite number one last time and headed inside. The first thing that struck me when I entered was how empty it was. How was I going to meet the woman of my dreams if there were no women around? The receptionist checked my name off a list and told me to have a seat. They were waiting for two other single residents to come along on our introductory offer.
The magazines in the waiting room were far too hip for me to comprehend, so I flipped through some of the brochures that were laid out carefully within arm's reach of where I was sitting. As I waited for the rest of my tour to arrive, it crossed my mind for the very first time: "I have no idea how much this will cost."
When the two young men, both of whom would have had a much easier time coping with the reading material in the lobby, showed up, we were escorted to a meeting room. There we were shown a number of feel-good happy-ending testimonials from satisfied customers on videotape. It never occurred to me to ask my host if he had used the service himself, but after a few more minutes of preliminaries I dropped the big one: "How much is this going to cost me?"
"How much is it worth to find your soulmate?" came the response.
I knew exactly what he was getting at. He had zeroed in on the desperation I had felt by coming there in the first place. I had been on a grand total of two "real dates" in the previous eight years, and I was ready to believe that I really needed help meeting people. I needed their help enough to pay whatever it was that they were asking, so why was I asking?
The answer came to me in a flash: Because I didn't need their help that bad after all. I picked up my carefully selected wardrobe changes, still on their hangers, thanked them for their time and excused myself. As I walked past the closed doors that I could only assume contained video production equipment and banks of computers for selecting compatible couples, I half-expected to be chased out the door. "But we had a deal!"
We never did. I got back in my car and drove into the late afternoon sunshine. I wished the men I saw and all the women I never met success in their Great Expectations, but they weren't mine. I took a leap of faith and decided to save the money, however much it might have been, for the next date I went on. For the record, that came more than a year later, but it was with the woman who became my wife. That was a good investment.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen? Me

The poet once asked, "Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?" These are Bob Dylan's words. They come from a protest song. They come from a song that is not featured on the soundtrack to the movie version of "The Watchmen." I mention this because there are three other Dylan compositions heard over the course of the film, or about one an hour: "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "All Along The Watchtower," and "Desolation Row." In the alternative reality of the Watchmen where Richard Nixon is still president in 1985, Bob Dylan is still asking the musical questions that need answers.
The question being asked in "The Watchmen" is simple enough: Can a bunch of super heroes save mankind from itself? Or in the case of Doctor Manhattan, would he even care to? Setting the film during the Cold War compounds the feeling of "us versus them," and as the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to nuclear midnight, the line between the good guys and the bad guys gets fuzzier and fuzzier.
Superman used to fight for "truth, justice, and the American Way." In "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace," the Man of Steel seems intent on breaking from the political ideologies of his countrymen to work for nuclear disarmament at the behest of a kid who writes him a letter. When all the good and trustworthy governments send their missiles off into space for Supes to destroy them, a vacuum is created. Lex Luthor and his unscrupulous arms dealer friends swoop in to fill that void. Nuclear weapons, it seems, are a necessary evil.
Christopher Reeve is a much more benign presence than the Superman in Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns." In this one, Krypton's favorite son is the tool of a government that that teeters on the edge of fascism. Superman is sent to kill Batman for his vigilante ways. Order must be maintained, but not at the cost of the status quo.
Which brings us back to the Watchmen. In order to make nuclear annihilation unthinkable, it is important to think of something worse. Instead of having two countries mutually assured of the world's destruction, what if that power came in the form of just one man? The big blue guy, Doctor Manhattan. What happens if the guy who can destroy a planet with a thought has a bad day? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


My wife watched for a few minutes, then turned to me and asked the obvious question: "Why is he doing that?" I knew exactly what she was talking about. We were watching "Live And Let Die," and the villain Kananga was chatting up James Bond, with the expressed intent of killing him shortly after. Kanaga was just another in a series of vociferous scoundrels James has encountered in his career. They always feel compelled to brag about their plans for world domination before dispatching that pesky 007.
This syndrome is not exclusive to the Bond series. Villains always seem more interested in showing off just how clever they are than actually committing the crime. This was best described in Pixar's "The Incredibles," when old friends Bob and Lucius (aka Mister Incredible and Frozone) are reminiscing one night:
Lucius: So now I'm in deep trouble. I mean, one more jolt of this death ray and I'm an epitaph. Somehow I manage to find cover and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Bob: [laughing] He starts monologuing.
Lucius: He starts monologuing! He starts like, this prepared speech about how *feeble* I am compared to him, how *inevitable* my defeat is, how *the world* *will soon* *be his*, yadda yadda yadda.
Bob: Yammering.
Lucius: Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won't shut up!
It is precisely at this point that Frozone or Batman or James Bond or Austin Powers spot their opening. This hubris always leads to the undoing of the bad guys. And do you suppose that it only happens in the movies and comic books?
Yesterday morning, police and FBI agents raided thirty homes in a gang bust meant to break up a violent group who call themselves the Taliban gang. One of the ways they were able to locate and track members of the gang was through their regular posting of videos on YouTube. On their Facebook pages they were probably updating their status regularly, including important details for their plans for world domination.
It's not that different from the bozos who videotape themselves driving around smashing mailboxes. Eventually that tape makes its way to the very authority they hope to flaunt. James Bond doesn't need a lot of fancy gadgets these days, he could just hang around an Internet cafe and wait for Goldfinger to upload his latest video.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Talk Show

This particular trip down Memory Lane was inspired by tuning into an interview between William Shatner and Jimmy Kimmel. My wife had the correct response, which was to ask who was interviewing whom. As it turns out, Shatner was asking the questions, one of which was about Kimmel's early days in radio. He talked about the challenges of talking to a microphone, with no audience around him. He recalled one night that he was giving away a pizza "to the tenth caller," and then waiting. After a lengthy pause, he changed it to the fifth caller. He never did give away the pizza.
This made me think of my first concerted dalliance with the people inside the radio. I had grown up calling the KIMN request line, begging them to play "Yellow Submarine" one more time, and on Autumn afternoons pestering the friendly voices at KBOL's Ken Penfold Grid-A-Phone for that Slippery Rock score. But it wasn't until I was in college where I had my first serious connection with an on-air personality.
My roommate and I were flipping around the cable TV dial, and as the practicing inebriates we were, came to rest at a channel that featured a scrolling calendar of upcoming campus events and the audio was coming from KAIR, the radio voice of the University of Colorado. We might not have stopped, but we heard "We Are The World" playing and being socially responsible inebriates, we felt the need to stick around and listen to this new anthem for social responsibility. When the song was over, the DJ came on and said this: "I dunno. I'm all about feeding the world, but I'm pretty sure somebody's getting rich." This, along with the seven minute diatribe that continued from that point kept us glued. We listened for another hour, and though the music never made an impression, we were intrigued enough by the bitter banter to make a note of the day and time of the show so we could tune in the following week. We were not disappointed.
The show started like most college radio shows, with a bit of way-too-hip music back announced with a few reminders of other shows that we had already ignored. Then, instead of another surly diatribe, it was announced that there would be a special guest on the air that night: Johnny Dragon. Curiosity piqued, we sat through a few more bits of electronica and a public service announcement before we were introduced to "a very big rock star in his native Bolivia." An interview, of sorts, began and then a flurry of less-than-politically-correct suggestions were made by Johnny Dragon. The studio phone lines began to light up. We listened to angry and offended callers mixed with those who sounded more like us: drunk and amused. As the subject turned from sex to mass murderers to less polite matters still, my roommate and I felt compelled to get involved. We dialed 492-KAIR with the hope of getting on sometime before the end of the show. To our surprise, we were allowed directly into "The Dragon's Lair."
We said our piece, listened a while longer, and when something came to us, we called back, always surprised at how quickly we were allowed access to the public airwaves. When the show was over, we were determined to let the world know about this slice of late-night anarchy. We told our friends, we let everyone we knew on campus and off about The Johnny Dragon Show. We were in on the ground floor. The next week, we organized a listening party. More beer. More people. More calls to the station. We made recordings and shared them with those who were outside of the pitiful transmitter range or didn't have cable TV. We were building a cult.
A couple of weeks later, it was just the two of us again. My roommate and I made our initial calls to let the Dragon and his host know that we were listening, and we sat back to listen. That's when my good friend and confidante turns to me and says, "We should go up there." Though I knew exactly where the KAIR studios were located, it had never occurred to me that we could, or should, go up there. "We could take them some beer," he suggested. This logic was impenetrable to me, and so we loaded our case of Little Kings cream ale into my car and drove the half-mile to campus.
When we got to the studio door, we were surprised to find it open. Shouldn't such a high-profile celebrity like Johnny Dragon have some measure of security? We were met in the office by a pair of fresh-faced co-eds who wondered why we were there. "We came to see the Dragon," we explained, hoisting the case of beer. In the distance, behind a pair of closed doors, we could hear the show going on. That's when we notice that a third young woman was in the far corner of the office, talking on the phone. She was complaining, as a feminist, about all the misogynistic suggestions in Johnny's songs and poems. When she hung up, she looked at my roommate and me. "You guys here to meet the Dragon?"
We put the beer down on a desk. "Yeah. I guess." The dream was unraveling fast.
"Just a minute," Phone Co-Ed told us, and went down the hall to the studio. We listened to the show through a tinny speaker in the office, and when the Dragon stopped long enough for a musical interlude, we heard the door to the studio open, and moments later, we were in the presence of The Dragon and His Host.
Only it couldn't be. These were two guys in T-shirts and jeans, clean-shaven, no dark glasses. We could have been looking into a mirror. I don't remember much about what we said, and we left the beer without sharing one with them. It was all just a little too embarrassing. It was very quiet when we got home.
We listened for a few minutes the next week, and weeks passed before the next time it crossed our mind to tune in. The Dragon had disappeared. He was rumored to have returned to South America. Then we stopped listening to KAIR.
Sometimes, when I'm flipping around the dial, I hear a lonely voice talking to the night. It crosses my mind to call in, but I never do. I just think of The Dragon and smile.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Just Cause And Effect

I have spent the week teaching elementary school students about causal relationships. The one that works with just about any age level is the one about giving a mouse a cookie. You know, if you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for a glass of milk. If you give him a glass of milk, he's going to ask for your first born son. And so on. You get the idea. When that fails to catch their fancy, I go directly to "What happens if you don't turn in your homework?" Even the six and seven-year-olds get that one.
Actions have consequences. Some of them are good, some of them are not. These were the thoughts going through my head as I was preparing for my after school tutoring group. One of the ladies who usually helps me out during those afternoon sessions told me she was leaving early to avoid the potential mess at her BART stop. There was another protest scheduled for commute time, and she didn't want to be stranded or have to walk miles out of her way just to get home. I told her that we would make do and wished her well.
The protest was another in a series staged as a call for justice after a BART policeman killed an unarmed suspect on New Year's Day. The officer in question has been fired, arrested, and released on bond as he awaits trial. In the past three months, there have been numerous protests, some of them large, some of them small, some of them peaceful, some of them not so peaceful. There has been a great deal of property damage and a great many arrests. And now, I face my after school crew shorthanded. The kids in my room were patient as we rushed around to meet their needs, and they got most of the attention they deserved. It wasn't easy.
Just like the small business owners who had their windows smashed during those early demonstrations, I wondered if this was a planned consequence, or simply the ripple effect of a situation that continues to wobble on the edge of anarchy.
It's the butterfly effect, if the butterfly in question happens to be Mothra.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Athletic Supporter

A friend of mine sent me the story of Barack Obama's night out. Our president is a big basketball fan, and being the leader of the free world, he was able to score court side tickets to watch his hometown Chicago Bulls play the Washington Wizards. While we have all become accustomed to the sight of celebrities down on the floor at Lakers games, it was a bit of a shock to watch the Commander-In-Chief sitting elbow to elbow with the general public. Or at least the part of the general public who can pony up a few hundred dollars for those seats.
As a matter of fact, at least one of those lucky ticket holders saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself to his Chief Executive. Basketball aficionado Miles Rawls made a point of wearing the president's likeness on his t-shirt, and then proceeded to make the visiting fan feel more at home with a little friendly chatter. "I wasn't heckling the President and I don't heckle the players. I talk about their weaknesses. We was having a good time. He was talking trash and I was talking trash. I couldn't believe he was that laid back and real. I loved it."
Even though our most recent president was once the owner of a professional baseball team, it's hard to imagine Pinhead sitting in the bleachers with the other diehards, watching the Senators battle the Rangers. Ol' Pointy Noggin seems much more like the "owner's box" kind of fan. But that's the difference, really. Obama is a sports fan. Pinhead was an owner. Anybody who has tried to comprehend the minds of George Steinbrenner or Al Davis can understand the schism. Watching sporting events as a fan is a communal activity. Even the playful trash-talk exchanged between Rawls and Obama echoes the sense of bipartisan competition found in the new administration.
For example: "I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight," Obama said, "My message to them is this: So am I." It makes me wish that I could be a fly on the wall for the next meeting of the Senate Budget Committee. "You call that deficit spending? Check out these revenue options! Boo-Yah!" Oh yes, I'd pay for court side seats for that.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Rush To Judgement

"He wants people in fear, angst and crisis, fearing the worst each and every day, because that clears the decks for (him) and his pals to come in with the answers, which are abject failures, historically shown and demonstrated. Doesn't matter. They'll have control of it when it's all over. And that's what they want."
Sound familiar? Maybe it reminds you of some of the things we, on the left side of the fence, used to say about President Pinhead. Maybe it reminds you of something that you read right here in this blog. It's not. This is a quote from Rush Limbaugh's hour and twenty minute "first national address." This is the right side talking now. This is the guy who said that he wanted Obama to fail. Not in so many words, exactly those words.
This is the guy who is looking to stir up the conservative base for 2012. This is the guy who has no sense of cause and effect. He is taking issue with the new administration's attempt to repair what has happened over the past eight years. This is the guy who was once called, by the new senator from Minnesota, "a big fat idiot." What I'm saying here is that things change.
Limbaugh asked his adoring crowd, "Did the Democrats want the war in Iraq to fail? Well, they certainly did. And they not only wanted the war in Iraq to fail, they proclaimed it a failure." Could this be true? Sure it could. There are plenty of liberal voices that could be heard making such claims. Such is the nature of punditry. Now the wind has changed direction, and what feels like hope to some feels like fear to others.
There are many Republicans who are uncomfortable having Rush Limbaugh as their new figurehead. Republican National Chairman Michael Steele dismissed Limbaugh on Sunday as a mere “entertainer,” who is “ugly” and “incendiary.” Then on Monday, Steele was forced into calling Limbaugh to apologize. What a difference a day makes.
Or a year. We live in interesting times.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Right To Know

Remember when our new President promised a new era of trust and "transparency in government?" If you thought that was going to refer strictly to the fight to resurrect our crippled economy, then you have a surprise coming your way. On Monday, the Obama administration released anti-terror memos from the Pinhead administration that claimed exceptional search-and-seizure powers and divulging that the CIA destroyed ninety-two videotapes of interrogations and other treatment of terror suspects. In the days following September 11, 2001, Pinhead and his minions determined that certain constitutional rights would not apply during the coming fight. Within two weeks, government lawyers were already discussing ways to wiretap U.S. conversations without warrants.
For many of us, this doesn't come as news, exactly. We have spent the past eight years believing that "Dick" Cheney and his puppet pal Pinhead were angling toward a monumental dismissal of the Constitution. We just didn't have the proof. It was always just rumor and a dull ache with each new revelation. Now it is all being laid out, end to end, for a horrified public to gaze upon, not unlike the wreckage of some massive collision at sea.
Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure, for instance, did not apply in the United States as long as the president was combating terrorism, the Justice Department said in an Oct. 23, 2001, memo. Crash. "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully," Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote, adding later: "The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically." Bang. New CIA interrogation tactics could be used on U.S. citizens locked in military brigs without charges. Boom. Blub, blub, blub. That would be your ship of state sinking.
Colorful metaphors aside, I suppose the good news is that this is all finally coming to light. The bad news would be that there are probably things that we won't know for some time still, if we ever do. I'm not guessing that we'll see a lot of this stuff on display at the Pinhead Presidential Library when it opens for business in 2013. By then I hope all the ugly secrets will be found on "Oprah."

Monday, March 02, 2009

Working Blue

This is the city. This is the county. This is the week. Los Angeles County is scheduled to issue a proclamation by Supervisor Michael Antonovich making the first week in March No Cussing Week. To them I say, "Good Luck."
Already I can see that a good many of you have already taken the liberty of inserting an adjective between those last two words. Believe me, I understand. There is so very little in our society today that keeps us from popping in an expletive every now and then for flavor. It has become part of our American discourse. That's why fifteen-year-old McKay Hatch of South Pasadena has taken the charter of his high school's No Cussing Club to a bigger forum. It's about civility, after all.
No citations will be issued, "But it's a good reminder for all of us, not just young people but everybody, to be respectful to one another and watch the words we use," said the supervisor's spokesman, Tony Bell. I know what he's talking about. I became a parent and a teacher within a four month span, and my word to curse ratio dropped to almost zero overnight. It takes a certain amount of vigilance, and there are certain moments and experiences that seem to elicit more opportunities for foul language.
Football season is a tough one. I confess that, now that my son is in middle school and has heard more colorful language from his peers, that I will occasionally pop off under stress. He has even used the "d-word" and the "a-word" a few times himself, though he has asked our permission first.
And this is not because we live in a cuss-free zone. To the contrary. We don't censor our media, and I have been known to drop an "f-bomb" here and there just for effect. That's not the big picture, however. I have learned over the years to hold on to those words because of their unique power. Use them sparingly and they will be much more vital and potent when the time comes. That time will have to wait a week in Los Angeles, where everyone will have to be on their best behavior. In the meantime, McKay says "Next year I want to try to get California to have a cuss-free week. And then, who knows, maybe worldwide." Makes you wonder how that would play in Jersey.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

End Of Days

I know that my son is especially sensitive to movies, TV shows and stories about the end of the world. He still flinches when "Battlestar Galactica" comes up in conversation, and even otherwise ridiculous and silly fare such as the Tommy Lee Jones opus "Volcano" can trigger deep-seated fear in him that echoes on for days after. The ersatz destruction of Los Angeles by a lava cone formed beneath the La Brea Tar Pits is a significant event in my son's life. Maybe this is because he grew up with September 11 as one of his first media memories. Maybe he is a very sensitive child. Maybe he is related to me.
As previously described here, I have long been perplexed by matters of life and death. I believe that I seek out visions of Armageddon. Somehow, for me, it is more comforting to think about the destruction of a city, state or planet than the loss of any individual. That explains my infatuation with the works of Stephen King. Uncle Stevie (as he is wont to call himself) has blown up the state of Maine more times than I can count, and has taken regular swipes at the country as a whole, when he is not eliminating human life as a whole. The thing that he figured out is that there is always hope for mankind if there is one witness. In books like "The Stand" and "Cell," he seems more intent on hitting the reset button for the planet. Once all those annoying idjits are wiped out via super-flu or the very cellular telephones that made us less human in the first place, then the good and virtuous among us can inherit the earth. Having grown up in Boulder, I felt a huge sense of relief and entitlement upon discovering that Stephen King made that city the base of operations for the good guys in "The Stand." Now that I live in California and own a cell phone, I'm worried.
But that's nothing new. I've been worried since I watched "The Day After" in the basement of my parents' basement back in 1983. I had written my own apocalyptic tale three years earlier for a creative writing class in high school. I was worried way back in 1970 when I saw Charlton Heston fall down on the ignition switch for the Doomsday Bomb in "Beneath The Planet Of The Apes." That one even gave me a date to anticipate: 3955. That's when the Alpha Omega device will be detonated by Colonel George Taylor. Of course, this does come about some time after mankind has reverted to a primitive state and the planet is being run by a race of super-intelligent apes, so maybe it won't be so bad.
But all of this is no solace for my son, so I decided instead to tell him about Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians. The idea that time is more like a map instead of an escalator seemed like a soothing notion back when I first read it. The world does end, as it always has, but there's nothing we can do about it, so why worry about it? Instead, we can choose those happy moments to relive and savor. So it goes. My son listened with some interest, and then returned to his Sunday comics. So it goes.
Paul Harvey is gone, and that's the end of the story.