Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Keys To The Kingdom

Happy Independence Day! For some of us, maybe it came a little early. For others, just a little late. No matter, Iraqi forces assumed formal control of Baghdad and other cities today after American troops handed over security in urban areas in a defining step toward ending the U.S. combat role in the country. There were fireworks, though I wonder how one cold easily distinguish celebratory explosions from those with a more sinister intent.
So it's independence day in Iraq. Hooray for them. They have certainly paid their revolutionary dues over the past few years, so why not cut loose now that the "liberators" are in full retreat? Or are they? The United States is currently working on a timeline that will have all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August 2010, and all American forces out of the country by December 31, 2011. That gives Iraqi security forces about a year to get things in hand before we head home for real.
For many Iraqis, that moment can't happen soon enough. "All of us are happy — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds on this day," Waleed al-Bahadili said as he celebrated at the park. "The Americans harmed and insulted us too much." I suppose we might have felt the same way if France had stuck around after our Revolutionary War to help us out with our constitution and keeping the peace. My guess is that we would have felt harmed and insulted too. But I guess that's what happens when democracy begins to flower. You've got to expect a little fertilizer with your fireworks.

Monday, June 29, 2009

That Blowed Up Real Good!

Last Thursday I found myself strapped once again into the roller coaster. Even though I had left Disneyland behind two days before, I felt the same churning anticipation as I waited for that first big thrill. This one wasn't coming from the movement of the car, but the pictures on the screen. This was the summer blockbuster that my son had been counting down to far in advance of our visit to the Magic Kingdom. "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" had all the sound and fury that we have come to expect from Michael Bay and his brethren. My family and I braced ourselves for the Big Summer Movie.
Last year I felt like we got off pretty easy: "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" were both fast and furious, but entertained past the simply visceral. There were even moments of discussion after both of these films that included words such as "character" and "plot." Such was not the case with "Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Shredded Script." I left last summer feeling like two out of three is pretty good for Hollywood.
This year? Well, I confess that I was quietly surprised at how captivated I was two years ago by a movie about robots that turn into cars, so I fought off my initial apprehension about sequels and tried to latch on to the youthful enthusiasm of my son. I must not have had a solid connection, because I never managed to get past the roar and the flash and the Optimus Prime-sized plot holes that seemed to appear every few minutes. Even if I had managed to suspend my disbelief for a moment or two, it would have eventually been brought low again by two and a half hours of explosions and computer-generated machinery.
I blame Steven Spielberg. It's no coincidence that his name appears on so much of the summertime dreck that we call "blockbuster." He is the executive producer of the Transformer series, and he was in a position to tell Mister Bay, "That's enough." Please understand, Steven Spielberg is a brilliant filmmaker, and he has earned the right to pass off some of his lesser efforts on us a compensation for the really good ones. "Jaws" was the first big summer event movie, and it is a great film in spite of its special effects. Imagine if you went to see a Transformers movie and didn't see a robot until halfway through. Outrage! But that's what Steve managed to do thirty-four years ago. I suspect now he would feel compelled to deliver a computer-generated shark in the opening reels, much in the same way he enhanced "E.T." a few years back.
Would you like more evidence of Spielbergian excess? Look no further than "1941." A pleasant enough diversion now when it shows up on cable, but back in its day it was the standard-bearer for excessive movie making. That's why I can assert that it is no happy accident that Steven has a cameo appearance in the cocaine-fueled classic "The Blues Brothers." If one cop car crashing is funny, then why not one hundred?
Returning to present day, I recall with a bemused smirk the commercial I watched before things started to blow up. As a part of an advertisement that must have been a marketing coup for the Los Angeles Times who used the moments before the film began to sell subscriptions, Michael Bay confides to us that he considers himself to be "an old-school filmmaker." John Ford. William Wyler. Michael Bay. I guess Orson Welles really missed out when he didn't make Rosebud an Autobot.
I know there will be a third Transformers movie because this one has already made a kerjillion dollars. It frightens me to imagine how the next one could be bigger, louder, more degrading to women, and less concerned with making sense than this one. But then again, since when did a roller coaster have to make sense?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Triple Shot Weekend

"Pardon me sir, but there seems to be a great big hole there in your youth."
That's how I felt this past week when I watched the landscape of popular culture shift from my deck chair on the S.S. Vacation. There have been plenty of days when, struggling for a topic or place to vent my ire, I have flipped through dozens of headlines to find just the right mix of pathos and irony. Over the past week, I have been sitting on the sidelines while that "rule of three" got one of its most profound tests in recent memory.
Ed McMahon. Farrah Fawcett. Michael Jackson. That's how we say celebrities are supposed to go: in threes. But what a triple play this one turned out to be. It wasn't until I found myself watching the taped bio of Johnny Carson's sidekick that I was forced to reevaluate his place in history. Thirty years of announcing on "The Tonight Show" would be profound enough, but if you add in all the commercial tie-ins and "Star Search" and almost as many years as Jerry Lewis' right-hand man on his Labor Day telethon as Mister Carson. For a few years, it seemed like Ed was giving Dick Clark a run for the guy with the most shows on television.
Farrah didn't have the same kind of staying power, but when she burned, pardon the pun, she burned bright. I didn't need to watch "Charlie's Angels" to know who she was. I didn't. I didn't need to own her poster to appreciate what all the boys thought about her. I didn't. But I do remember watching "Extremities" and thinking that when I saw her last in "Cannonball Run," I hadn't seen "the real Farrah." Then she showed up on Letterman and it seemed like maybe that had been a fluke. Or maybe she was one of those candles in the wind.
Then, just a few hours later came the news about the King of Pop. Like the Farrah poster, I never owned a Michael Jackson album. I didn't need to. Everyone else did. I remember my buddy Darren buying "Thriller" because it had a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen on "Beat It." And there was that spoken intro from Vincent Price on the title track. And the whole album just seemed to defy easy categorization. And then there was the freakish personal life. If Farrah seemed a little ditzy from time to time, that could be forgotten on the scale of Michael Jackson oddness. Then it got creepy. Then it got sad. Now it's over.
A very large section of the seventies and eighties just became material for the History Channel this week while I was on vacation. Maybe now that I'm home, things will settle down a little bit. For a while anyway.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Community Property

Like many kids in high school, I chose to decorate my room with a number of street signs, orange pylons, and even a flashing barricade. That last one might not have been so typical, but it was the only item that I actually removed on my own. It only took us fifteen minutes or so to figure out how to open up the lens and twist the bulb to turn it off. There was probably some easier way to turn the thing on and off, but the tools we had made this solution viable. The problem was, we didn't have the Phillips screwdriver in the back of my friend's Ford Bronco. The Ford Bronco that we shoved the flashing barricade into after we picked up our pizza and raced back to my parents' house.
All the way there, my friend kept howling at me to "cover up that light!" Even with my jacket over it, the thing was making photon explosions in his back seat. He was panicking. He didn't need to. When we came down the stairs with our trophy, we were heroes. As the party wore on, we turned off the lights in the basement and danced to the strobe of Public Works.
The barricade became a staple at all of the parties we had in our basement my senior year. It made my parents a little bit crazy, since they had quietly put up with the number placards that used to be on the side of city buses. I never stole any of those. I found them sitting on the side of the road and carried them home. Just like the Stop sign, the one that was sitting in a bush, and had been for weeks when I liberated it. My room was decorated, in part, by things I found on or next to the street. As I said, it made my parents just a little nervous.
The flashing barricade was a new thing, though. It was larceny, plain and simple. It hadn't simply followed me home. It wasn't discarded. As my mother pointed out on more than one occasion, I may have inadvertently caused some poor soul to drive off the road into a ditch by removing the only warning that they had in the dark of night. I felt a twinge of guilt, but not enough to do anything about it.
It was my father who, in a fit of righteous indignation, waited until I had moved out of the house and loaded up all my ill-gotten booty in the back of the family station wagon and drove down the Municipal Building to turn it all over to the proper authorities. He did it at night. He left a nice little pile of city property right in front. I never asked him if he left the barricade flashing. That would have been a nice touch.

Friday, June 26, 2009


"I like it here in the summer, but when we go downtown it's HOT!" These were the words that effectively summed up the way my family used to wile away three months of every year. They were written by my younger brother in the guest book we kept at our mountain cabin. That book was the living record of our stays: guests, important additions or events, and eventually one of the early training grounds for my writing.
If you read the whole thing, front to back, you would see a rhythm to the way we lived, but only from a monthly perspective. The day to day, week to week rituals that took place on those Rocky Mountain acres became second nature to us all. On Memorial Day, when we made our first big push to settle in for the summer, it was often a struggle to throw off the habits of the city. No TV. No phone. The nearest kids to play with were close enough, but they were also your brothers. It was hard to adjust to our Little House ways at first.
But by the middle of June, we found our mountain legs. We knew we would be hauling water or chopping wood or gathering kindling. When you have only a wood stove for heat and for cooking, keeping the fire going even in the warmth of July is vital. That was the part my brother had exactly right. It was summer, but it was summer in the mountains, and it rarely got so warm that we didn't look for a jacket by dinnertime.
When we weren't actively involved in the routines that kept the place running, we found places to climb, hide, and run. Rupert, our dachshund, wasn't going to let us spend the day sitting on the porch wishing that we were somewhere else. There was far too much to do and see, even if we had seen it a hundred times before.
When it was all over, and the sun started to go down, we found ourselves a corner of the cabin lit by a kerosene lamp to read a comic, or a book that we never would have had the attention for if we weren't living in the woods. Then it was time to turn off the gas and head upstairs to our sleeping bags where we continued to read with our flashlights, listening to our Panasonic AM radios with one ear, and the rolling thunder of my father snoring below us. When the morning came it was time to get up and do it all over again.
That's how it went: June, July and August. My father would get up early and hit the road to go to work in the city, returning each night with newspapers, mail, and stories from civilization. Once a week my mother would gather up the laundry and her sons to go back to where there was a laundry and a grocery store. For six to eight hours, my brothers and I relished the opportunity to see what life was like "downtown." We watched TV. We didn't care what it was. We watched "Match Game" because it was on just before we had to load up the car and head back up into the hills.
As we grew older, some of this mystique lifted. When we were old enough, we each started spending time by ourselves "downtown." It was a rite of passage. In hindsight, I wish that I could have squeezed just a few more weeks of chores and freedom from our mountain retreat. It seemed so very important to make that separation. Now I find myself hungering for one more night of solitude. The Cabin is gone, but the guest book lives on. It tells the story of those summers and all the people that came to visit. And all the people who stayed.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Curb Your Pet

They call them "Pet Peeves." It conjures up an illusion of something cute and cuddly, but probably still needs to sleep in a cage at night. These are the quiet annoyances that drive us all quietly mad. Like the one about people who stand in line at a fast food restaurant just to wait until they get to the counter before deciding what they want to eat. It's fast food. Even for the people behind them. That's why they put the big, colorful pictures up there on a lighted board. They even put the prices right next to them so you can figure out how best to maximize your fast food dollar.
And that's the problem with pet peeves. You don't really own them. Much in the same way that "no one can own a cat," you can't really be in charge. You feed on them, and they feed on you in some twisted symbiotic fashion. If you have acknowledged that you do, in fact, have one of these then it has already grown to some unmanageable size. Pet Peeves need to be let out now and again for air. We call this "venting." Without this periodic adjustment, they can turn nasty, and start to compete with rational thought.
It may have lead to something more insidious. You could become "one of those people" that others reference when they are talking about the pet peeves that they have about people like you. Or worse, you could become a stand-up comic.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Death Is Easy

I know the pain of being a "funny guy." It becomes an expectation, a label. What's the alternative? Being known as "the serious guy?" No thanks. Does that mean that I'm always at ease with my role? Not really. Sometimes it feels like a challenge, and not a fun one. There have been plenty times that I have been introduced as a world class laugh riot, and proceeded to let the rest of the room down. "What's so funny about this guy?" At that moment, absolutely nothing.
But that doesn't keep me from putting out the effort in most situations. This makes me a "smart aleck," and I've become accustomed to that epithet enough to focus on the first part, rather than the latter, since I've never been sure what an "aleck" is.
And every so often, it goes horribly wrong. Like the party I attended at the book warehouse I used to manage. There were a number of friends and family along that evening, and I felt that old urge to be the life of the party. This required me to regale any and all passersby with funny stories and anecdotes to cement my place as Bookpeople's Yukmaster. At one point, a little girl roared past, bouncing a beach ball that was almost as big as she was. Suddenly, an errant bounce sent the ball onto the table where the food was, landing squarely in the middle of a pan of chocolate brownies. At this point, I announced to the mischievous child and those within earshot, "I'm sorry dear, but now you're going to have to eat all those brownies." A cute enough assertion, coming from a complete stranger, the look on the girl's face didn't register surprise or amusement. Instead, I read "terror."
A friend of the family leaned over and whispered the reason for the little girl's shock, "Uh, she's a diabetic."
I didn't miss a beat. "Well, that's too bad, but actions have consequences and that's one of those things you're just going to have to learn."
Now it was very quiet. I laughed nervously at my own attempt at humor and waited for any kind of relief. It never came. Then I excused myself to the men's room.
I would like to say that this story had something to do with the period of time when I drank. I would like to chalk this up to a night of excess, but the only excess on this night was me. I was sober, with the possible exception of the sugar and caffeine found in your average can of Coca-Cola. Looking back, I would like to have that moment back. And I would like to tell you that I didn't think what I said was funny. I'd like to tell you that.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meet The New Boss

A number of people have asked me if this year was any easier than the past few, when I struggled to maintain control over a room full of fourth graders. My return to the computer lab hasn't kept me from dealing with a room full of fourth graders, but they only come in shifts now. Fifty minutes is a fairly discrete amount of time, and doesn't allow for much shennanigans. The other thing that has made a difference is the fact that last summer I actually received some training in classroom management. Instead of simply borrowing bits and pieces from other teachers and channeling my own personal "style," I now had a framework on which to lay my expectations for students. That made this year easier.
This wasn't always the case. I have a fond memory of a birthday cake my older brother had made for me way back when I was named manager of a book warehouse. It featured a picture of Spiderman in a business suit, web in one hand, briefcase in the other, necktie flapping in the breeze. In lovely frosting script it read: "Happy Spidermanagement!" At that point in my life, I had managed to be a manager at most of the jobs I had. It was a matter of course. I tended to show up as "the responsible one," and eventually my employers would hand me a key and a clipboard. The fact that I knew the job so well somehow qualified me to be in charge of a group of other guys just like me, only apparently less responsible.
Like the guys I managed at the video store. There were two of them, in particular, who didn't need the job at all. They needed it to fill the time between business classes at the university. Like the time they called me ten minutes after they were supposed to be starting their shift on a Saturday night: "Hey, we just got out of the game and we're pretty wasted. Do you still need us to come in?" It turned out that they were calling from a pay phone around the corner. They just wanted to see what I would do. For the record: I huffed, and I puffed, and when they showed up moments later, snickering at their cleverness, I didn't speak to them for an hour. It was my management response.
Year later, when an employee from the book warehouse failed to report to work for seven days, I asked him why he hadn't called in. He told me, "The place where I was staying, the phone didn't have any sevens." Nothing in my management training told me how to respond to this. He lost his job. Hopefully wherever he landed, his new employer had a number without any sevens in it.
When I became a teacher, I imagined that I would at the very least have a height advantage over my elementary charges. While this was true, it didn't grant me immediate respect. That was, and continues to be, hard won. Even though one of the first tips I received as a new teacher was "you don't need any ten-year-old friends," I still felt compelled to relate to every one of those kids. Over the years, especially the most recent one, I have learned to temper these relationships. I have learned to be the boss, because sometimes the situation requires one. Since I'm the one with the teaching credential, that would be me. And that's okay. It makes all of our jobs easier.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On A Long Enough Timeline...

If you're tired of worrying about war, the collapse of our economy, public education, home-grown terrorists, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, escalators, or killer bees, why not set your sights on something a little more dramatic: astronomers predict a possible collision between Earth and Venus. Now that's something to worry about.
Of course, the fine print includes the time frame of three and a half billion years from now, but the point is still this: It could happen. A force known as "orbital chaos" may cause our Solar System to go "haywire," leading to the potential collision. Astronomers are funny that way. They tend to view things on galactic terms, and a billion years may seem like a lot to me and you, but for them, well it's just a billion years. And these things that seem somewhat catastrophic to you and me are events of great interest to people who study such things. "There is one scenario in which Mars passes very close to Earth," four hundred and ninety-three miles to be exact, said French researcher Jacques Laskar, barely able to control his astrophysics glee. That's the part where the planets rip apart and all the life on this one ends. It will be pretty cool to see, I suppose. But why wait billions of years to find out?
Back in 1933, Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer wrote a book called "When Worlds Collide." Their version of planetary Armageddon allowed a ray of hope: Scientists arranged for pilgrims to hop off the Earth in time to skip on over to another rouge planet that came in right behind the one that crushed ours. It was interesting enough to be made into a film in 1951, and a remake scheduled for sometime next year. So, I'm guessing that maybe those astronomers could have saved a few bucks by reading a pulp novel or two, or just hanging around the video store. I suppose next they'll be telling us about a future in which global warming and overpopulation lead to depleted resources, which in turn leads to widespread unemployment and poverty. Hey guys, let me clue you in ahead of time: Soylent Green is people.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Piece Of Cake

The birthday cake I remember best wasn't my own. As with so many things, it was my older brother's cake that became the object of my desire. It was one of those supermarket bakery specials: nice and big and round, loaded down with butter creme frosting. What made this one unique was what came on top. It had a half dozen miniature astronaut figures all scrambling about the creamy surface of some distant planet, and right in the center was their ship. It may have only been six inches tall, but to me it appeared to stretch several stories into the sky. What made it even more impressive was that once it became unmoored from its icing, you could load the nose cone with caps that would snap when it hit the sidewalk.
I know that I was an ungrateful little twerp for never fully appreciating any of the cakes that were set before me over the years. It saddens me now to think of how I pined for that one perfect confection. I remember thinking that I could just ride my bike over to the local five and dime and buy my own cap rocket and astronauts. I knew right where they were, but there was still something so serendipitous about having all that cake delivered with all that fun right on top. It was more than my imperfect world view could stand.
And so the years passed. Now I watch the fabulous parade of cakes that passes in front of my son. I have learned a valuable lesson from him. He gets in on the design stage, and routinely supplies one of his own toys as the centerpiece. He's had Rescue Heroes and Bionicles, and last year his mother even managed to pull off a baked version of Speed Racer's Mach Five. There is a crew that gets together weeks advance to plan and fabricate, and even when sometimes their vision outstrips the eventual product, they always have fun putting it together. That's really the important thing: on your birthday, you really should be allowed to play with your food.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sudden Impact

Considering the things that I do store away in my memory, it's odd when gaps appear. I ran into one of those hazy areas the other day when I was passing a Seven Eleven in our neighborhood. A gentleman coming down the sidewalk had just helped himself to a jumbo hot dog with all the fixin's. That smell put me immediately back at Folsom Field, selling concessions. Hot dogs were a sure thing, especially on cold days. You could make money fast with a steaming hot box of foil-wrapped dogs. The only trouble was that smell. When the day was done, the game was over, and you turned in your apron, you and everything around you smelled like a boiled wiener for the next couple days.
It was one of those frankfurter days that I got hit by a car. I remember that smell, but I don't remember the impact. As near as I've ever been able to piece together, I made the mistake of trying to cross the street without the aid of a light or a crosswalk on a drizzly afternoon when hundreds of cars were pouring out of stadium parking lots. The bumper-sized bruise on my left hip told me where I had been hit, and the large goose egg on my forehead suggested that I had probably made contact with the pavement upside down. I don't know. It's that part of the experience that is missing. My next concrete memory was another smell: wet wool. I was the beneficiary of throngs of concerned passersby, and my face was resting comfortably on some kind soul's stadium blanket. The rest of me wasn't resting comfortably at all. If I had made it across the street, I would have had to wait outside the high school where I was supposed to meet my parents, and I might have gotten wet. Now I was laying in the middle of the street, able to lift my head and not much else, getting wet.
Somewhere in there, an fire truck showed up, followed closely by an ambulance that would eventually take me to the emergency room. I remember the ceiling of the ambulance, and the darkening gray of the sky as I was wheeled into the hospital. I don't recall how my parents figured our where I was. I was in junior high at the time, so I don't think I had any useful identification on me. I must have been able to tell someone my name or address, because I didn't have to wait long to be reunited with my family.
What did take long was recovering from the collision. I have a very full and painful memory of those weeks on crutches. Nothing was broken, but as the days passed the bruise on my hip progressed through a rainbow of shades. Eventually I had to go back to participating in gym, but it was several years before I was comfortable waking down that particular stretch of road, and I still get very nervous at the suggestion of jaywalking.
Many years later, I was walking home from a protest against the first Gulf War, and a car blew a stop sign, clipping me in much the same manner as that wet fall afternoon. This time I had the presence of mind to get my hands out on the hood and roll off to the side without significant injury. I was older then. And wiser. Or at least that's what I like to tell myself.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sporting Chance

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport: the thrill of victor and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition, this is Entropical Paradise's Wide World of Sports!
Dateline: Houston, Texas. The NFL now allows individual teams to sell advertising space on their practice jerseys, and the Houston Texans have made it known that they'd like to take advantage of the new policy. Zero Tolerance Entertainment, which makes and distributes hardcore pornography, would like to take advantage of the Houston Texans taking advantage of that policy. My guess is that the Texans will probably wait for a more suitable offer, such as the one being made by the California Lottery to the San Diego Chargers. There's a lot of synergy in this one, as the lottery will release a line of scratch-and-win tickets with the Chargers' logo, while the practice jerseys of the team will sport a three by four inch patch, not unlike those found on the gear of most NASCAR drivers, promoting the lottery. Everybody wins!
In other football news, this time the kind the rest of the world calls "football," at least five Iranian soccer players wore green bands around their wrists or arms during a World Cup qualifying match against South Korea on Wednesday. The bands were a protest against a disputed election back home. The players, including captain Mehdi Mahdavikia, wore green in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. No word yet on what sort of payday these brave souls can expect when they get back to their country, or if they are allowed to return. My guess is that they just might get to keep those green bands. It would make it easier to string them up.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Forgiving Without Forgetting

A year and a half ago, Christopher Rodriquez was paralyzed from the waist down. Chris was at his piano lesson when a stray bullet passed through the walls of the studio. His life was changed in an instant. It would be a freak accident if the bullet had magically appeared, but that wasn't the case. The man who fired the gun, Jared Adams, was convicted of a dozen of felonies, not the least of which was this "accidental shooting." As he was robbing the gas station across the street, he started shooting at an attendant who was dialing 9-1-1. There was no magic about it, just malicious physics.
Christopher is twelve years old. He plays piano. He lives in Oakland. There are a lot of reasons why this story hits very close to home for me. I am the father of a twelve-year-old piano-playing kid from Oakland. I am always amazed at how resilient my son can be. I am amazed at how resilient Christopher was. This is what he told the man who put him in a wheel chair: "I'm sorry about your financial problems, if that's the reason why you were robbing. And, I also want to say I forgive you. I just hope you realize there are other ways to make money that do not break the law."
Mister Adams probably won't have much of a chance at finding other ways to make money anytime soon. The judge gave him seventy years to life for the month-long crime spree that included carjacking of former state Senator Don Perata at gunpoint. It all ended on January 10, 2008 when Jared crashed his car attempting to flee the scene of his last in a string of crimes. A year and a half later, once the courtroom had cleared, Rodriguez approached Adams and shook hands with him. For a kid in a wheelchair, it's amazing how tall he stood.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What Me Worry?

Over the past couple of months, my family and I have been taking a Worry Class. Not that any one of us needed any help in the worry department. We each, in our own way, have mastered the art of working ourselves into a tumultuous frenzy over the smallest thing. The class has helped us start to rein in our fears and anxieties. The three of us have emerged with the same number of worries, but with new and better tools to deal with them.
One of the most important things we learned was to distinguish between three different kinds of worry: realistic, exaggerated, and imaginary. I have noticed that not everybody sees these as distinctly as you might guess. Yes, my fear of suddenly becoming very thin and sliding down a subway grating is easily filed under "imaginary," but my son will argue that his fear of lightning is a very real thing. We tried to dissuade him of this and reclassify it as "exaggerated," after all, here in coastal California, thunderstorms are a fairly rare occurrence. As we tried to convince him of this, a woman was killed by lightning outside of Los Angeles. Okay, maybe it just got a little more realistic.
Then there's the kind of fear that keeps you from doing things like sending your kid to see relatives on a plane by themselves. We have a friend who works for the airlines, and she routinely packs her kids off to this and that destination without a flinch. Then something like this happens: Continental Airlines sent a ten-year-old Massachusetts girl flying alone to New Jersey instead of Ohio. I could understand landing in Newark instead of JFK. Or maybe ending up in Oklahoma because of some mix-up with state abbreviations, but this one is wrong by about half a continent. Continental has apologized, but I'm wondering how long it will be before the girl or her parents get on board any mode of transportation without checking the destination first. Just being realistic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

The police chief of Los Angeles blames a mob of "knuckleheads" for the looting and vandalism that broke out in the aftermath of the Lakers' basketball championship. Fires were set, objects were thrown at police officers, several businesses were looted and buses, police cars and other vehicles were vandalized. These same 'knuckleheads" hurled rocks through the window of one bus abandoned under an overpass. "It would be different if we got burglarized, but they were literally lighting stuff on fire," said store owner Richard Torres, whose business usually does well after games when sports fans stop in. Knuckleheads, indeed. Twenty of these thought-impaired types were arrested in the hours after "their team" won.
What happened in the town that lost? In Orlando, the headlines on Monday read like this: Four bodies have been found in a home in a gated community outside Orlando in what authorities believe was a murder-suicide. Knuckleheads are probably to blame for that one too, but not roaming bands of them, celebrating or commiserating over a sporting event. What is it about victory that brings out the riot in some people. You know, the knuckleheads?
I know with a high degree of certainty that if the Magic had somehow managed to reach into their hearts and pulled off a come-from-behind victory and eventually won the championship, there would have been looting on the streets of Disney World. That's just the nature of the beast. Last year, when the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, a riot broke out in their city that police asserted was unrelated to the sporting event. “I’ve never heard of them,” replied a man looting a hardware store when asked if he was stealing a rotary saw because the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. “I needed a saw, though.”

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gastromical Distress

So, what were you planning to do with your summer vacation? If your plans included hanging around the homestead and perhaps going out for a nice meal or two with the family, you might want to call before you pack the family into the car and head off into the night. If you've got reservations at your local Bennigan's or Steak & Ale, check again because they don't exist any more. Casualties of the first round of bankrupt restaurant chains, these two eateries boarded up their casual bars and grills months ago.
The good news is that getting a Happy Meal won't be a problem for the foreseeable future, as McDonald's will probably pick up some of the market share left in the wake of some of the other mid-priced outlets that don't have dollar menus. Even some of the fast-food chains that survive off their strategically positioned corners of shopping mall food courts are feeling the pinch. Hot Dog on a Stick doesn't make as much sense in a recession as it did back when we all had money. Come to think of it, did Hot Dog on a Stick ever make any sense?
Still, bad debt and slowing sales are crushing places like Perkin's and its sister store Marie Callender's. With Denny's and IHOP still standing tall in the "breakfast anytime" world, these two suffer mightily in their wake. Why go "someplace like Denny's" when you can go to Denny's? And while we're on the subject of Grand Slams, even the beloved Krispy Kreme franchise is closing stores. It's a sad day when fried dough can't stay afloat.
What are the alternatives? You could buy more Top Ramen and stick close to home, waiting for the eventual boom that will bring all those "sit-down food at fast-food prices" places back to life. Or you could use this time to become more creative. I checked out the recipe for Bennigan's Broccoli Bites. Now all I need is some kitschy decor and some extra flair for my wife's suspenders and I'll be set.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


When the winner of the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election was up in the air for weeks after all the votes had been counted the first time, the rest of the world held their collective breath along with all of us. Who would become "the leader of the free world?" Would it be Al Gore or the other guy? There must have been some hushed conversations behind closed doors outside of our borders. "What are we going to do if they really do elect that guy?" Many European newspapers openly questioned the legitimacy of Pinhead's presidency.
Here in the United States, the world's remaining superpower, we managed to keep that "Who's The Boss" balloon in the air longer than anyone could have imagined. The words "hanging chad" became highly significant, and widespread allegations of voter fraud erupted across our country for the first time in decades. How could something like this happen? And how could it happen, with a tad less ferocity, all over again four years later?
This weekend, Iraq had their version of our "too close to call" election. In their version, Al Gore is being played by pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and Pinhead comes in the form of that guy in the Members Only jacket, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In their version, the streets are on fire. Ahmadinejad claims he won in a landslide. A great many Iranians beg to differ, as does the rest of the world who maintain a "wait and see" attitude.
Wait and see if anyone dies in the riots. Wait and see if the security forces will put down the upstart reformers. Wait and see if hope and change can be brought about by hurling rocks and bottles. Wait and see if the outcome of this election marks any kind of shift from the hard line policies of Iran's chief cleric and supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei has already validated the published accounts of a nearly two-to-one victory by the incumbent, calling the result a "divine assessment."
In 2000, we all sat and waited while the media and the Supreme Court attempted to make sense of our muddled electoral process. This summer in Iran that same challenge may take place with bricks, clubs, and guns. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What Are You Looking At?

Okay, raise your hands if you can still watch TV. Let's see: one, two, three, four, okay, more than four of you, so that will be my scientific sample that says that "most of you" have made the jump to the digital age without a great deal of pain and discomfort. Congratulations to you. And to that guy in the back who was slow on the uptick and waited to get his converter box because he thought this whole thing was just a fad, my apologies.
It reminds me of the scene in "Diner" where a customer complains to Shrevie about the new TV he is being shown, "Is this show in color, or is there something wrong with the set?" There is nothing wrong with your set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture.We are in control of the transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will turn up the volume. If we want it softer, we will turn it down. We control the horizontal and the vertical. We can alter the focus, to sharpen or distort the picture. From now on, we will control all that you see and hear. Believe me, there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to take an adventure. You are about to experience the awe which is associated with a journey to - Digital Television.
There may be those of you who are still skeptical. The ones who believe that the government is seeking to control our thoughts and impulses with their hypnotic siren's song. Paranoia could lead one to believe that a digital signal will allow more direct and focused access to our cerebral cortex. Why are Russia and China lagging behind us on the big switch? Do we know something they don't? Maybe they're just saying that they're going to convert, and once we're all sitting in front of our idiot boxes drooling, that's when they'll strike. Probably while we're watching "Red Dawn." In high definition.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My Hangover

My fellow teachers and I sometimes joke about how much easier our job would be without all these kids. Then comes the day when all the children are gone, and we really are left alone. The desks are emptied and the books go back on the shelves. All of us grown-ups who have collected yo-yo's and toy cars and little rubber balls and any number of restricted playthings are now looking for a place to dump the drawer where they landed. And the thing that I notice most? The bare bulletin boards.
When the year started, there was a flurry to get colorful paper and borders up on the miles of vertical space that line the halls of our school. The boards were all prepared for the appearance of student work. I made my own contribution to the gallery over the course of the year, showcasing writing and pictures created in the computer lab. Now they're heading for the recycling bin.
I know it's all a part of the Circle Of Life here in elementary education. Kindergartners become first graders, first graders move on to second, and so on. They grow taller and smarter until they move on out the door after their fifth grade promotion. That's when the teachers clean the slate and step back for a moment. We have just a few moments to consider the successes and challenges before we start to ponder the next time that kids will fill those empty chairs. Some of us will be back in a week for summer school. Others will take as much time as we can manage before coming back to our rooms. Some of us will be moving on to other schools, other jobs. It's the nature of things. But right now I'll just enjoy the quiet, and wait for that bell to ring.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

But Will He Work Blue?

There are all kinds of reasons to like our new president, starting with that modifier. He is new. After eight years of clearing brush at the Crawford ranch, it's nice to have a little change. It's also nice to know that this is a guy with a discernible sense of humor. The last guy seemed to think that most everything he said was funny, characterized by his persistent chuckling at his own remarks. Obama seems to "get it," at least in the first few months.
First of all, I give him credit for swinging for the fence. The Reagan-seance bit was a little over the top, and he had to apologize. Likewise his Special Olympics quip on Leno. I give him credit for being funnier than his host, at least. But I guess that's what happens when you leave the relative comfort and safety of the teleprompter.
Then there was his appearance on "The Colbert Report." Do you remember when Stephen Colbert showed up at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner? I remember his speech as being very funny, but the powers that be at the time were unamused. It was kind of the opposite from "you had to be there." Maybe that's why when our new president showed up via satellite to admonish Mister Colbert in Baghdad, it played so well. As commander-in-chief, he ordered General Ray Odierno, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq to "cut that man's hair", explaining he was a "man who understands the appeal of a close crop." For his part, Colbert did shock and awe well, asking how he got wind of his appearance in Iraq. "Do our intelligence satellites really work that well?"
"No," replied the president, "but my ears do." This is a funny guy. Now if we can just get some laughs out of the economy.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rise Of The Machines

"Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen" opens in just a couple of weeks, but one of the stars of the original has already started his promotional tour. Only this one isn't about everyday machines that turn into fierce fighting robots. His is about saving our country in real life. Jon Voight, aka Defense Secretary John Keller, is going on the offensive to bring our nation back from the brink of destruction.
According to Jon, the leader of the Decepticons must be defeated. "We are becoming a weak nation," he told an audience of eager faces at a Republican fundraiser Monday night. Republicans need to find their way back to power to free the nation from "this Obama oppression," and called Barack Obama a "false prophet." Pretty strong words from a fictional Secretary of Defense.
"I’m still just reveling that someone from Hollywood made a speech like that. I hope you’re going to be able to find work after this," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I really enjoyed that." This was one of the better reviews Mister Voight has received in some time. The fact that many of the characters he has portrayed recently fall in the "nutjob control freak" category should come as little surprise for those of you who have followed his career trajectory. But what happened to the baby-faced star of "Midnight Cowboy" and "Coming Home?" Then again, Jane Fonda was married to Ted Turner for a while.
The fact that Angelina Jolie's dad has become a right-wing ideologue is no more confounding an idea than Megatron being brought back from the bottom of the ocean. Hollywood is constantly reinventing itself. Don't be surprised if Jon picks up the title role in "Rush To Judgement: The Limbaugh Story." That one will be way more terrifying than a car turning into a robot, but come to think of it, maybe that's what Barack Obama has in mind with the bailout of GM. He's secretly funding Bumblebee. Obama Prime.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Get Well Soon, Heidi!

I don't know how you feel about torture, but I think it's bad. There, I've said it. Now I feel that we can have a more full and informed discussion about Heidi Pratt and the ordeal she suffered on the television show "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" Ms. Pratt was hospitalized in Costa Rica this weekend for a stomach infection after she and her husband, Spencer, were sent to an isolation chamber as part of the competition. Her sister-in-law reported that she was suffering from a gastric ulcer. "She thought she was dying."
Again, Heidi's sister-in-law: "They treated them like they were criminals or terrorists." Heidi and her husband were sent to the "Lost Chamber" after spending the first week trying to get off the show. The couple agreed to the punishment once they decided that they really did want to get back on the show. Depending on which account of the suffering you are to believe, the pair were either "locked in a dark room for three days w no food" and had bugs lowered in through the roof and onto the couple in the pitch black, or they spent fourteen hours in the chamber during which they slept most of the time, with food and water and emerged from the chamber in good spirits. Guess which version is the sister-in-law's and which is the production company's.
Okay. How was this torture? Did it cause agony or pain? Was it punishment for an act she or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed? In reality TV, it's really hard to get a sense of just who is being tortured, but if that's the letter of the law, then the Pratts were tortured.
Why did they sign on to a show that is obviously so rooted in abuse? It's not called "Hey, I'm Really Looking Forward To The Daiquiris And Tapas." I imagine that there are a lot of detainees in Guantanamo who might like to audition for that one. And what about poor, tortured Heidi? She checked out of the hospital on Sunday and is now recovering in a hotel in Costa Rica. One can assume that it is a very nice hotel. With light switches she can control, and the bugs are mostly underfoot.

Monday, June 08, 2009

To The Letter

Over the past few years, I have made it a practice to ask my students to justify to me the reasons that I should pass them on to the fifth grade. This year I find myself back in the computer lab without a particular group of kids to antagonize. I worried that I might miss this peculiar interaction. Happily, the fifth grade teachers afforded me some consolation. They had each of their students pick a teacher or staff member to write a letter of thanks. I was the lucky recipient of two of these missives.
The first was a very straightforward accounting from a very serious-minded girl who wrote: "Thank you for teaching me in computer class. Thank you also for teaching me in P.E." No fluff, no excess. I wouldn't have expected anything else from this one. She's all business, but I didn't doubt the "sincerely" on the signature.
The other one came from a more complicated girl with a few more distractions. Her letter read, "Thank you for teaching me for the time that I was in your class. I really enjoyed your teaching even if I didn't show it. So thank you." She signed hers "sincerely" as well, with the addition of a big green crayon heart. This is the one that seemed to want to say more, but felt constrained by the form. I suspect that she probably didn't tell many of her friends she was writing to me, since that wouldn't have been very cool.
I really appreciate both of them taking the time to think of me. Sometimes it gets a little lonely being "the computer guy." I don't always feel the same connection to three hundred kids like I used to with twenty-some. It says something to me when somebody uses their best handwriting and follows the business letter format to tell me that, secretly, they didn't think I was such an awful pain. It is one of those secret perks of being a teacher. That and unlimited access to a really big paper cutter.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Key Largo

On any given weekend, the fact that our car didn't leave the driveway would be a happy sign. There are certainly plenty of things to keep us busy right here at Rancho Deluxe. What can't be found inside these four walls could almost certainly be scared up within a few blocks' walk. It's a matter of choice, however. If you can't leave, it's different from choosing not to.
Our car sits quietly where we left it, after a Saturday morning trip to the track for a little family exercise. Once we were safely home, my wife went to take the key out of the ignition only to find that this was no longer possible. The key was stuck and would not come out. She tried wiggling. She tried turning the wheel and jiggling. She tried cursing, but since that's not her forte, she turned the project over to me.
I wiggled and jiggled and cursed. I came inside and looked on Al Gore's Internet for guidance. I was initially encouraged to find a great many links to "easy fixes" to keys stuck ignitions. I tried compressed air. I tried applying the brake and turning the wheel simultaneously. I tried WD-40. I tried tapping the bottom of the steering column with the heel of my hand. I tried to remain patient with this simple endeavor, and finally succumbed to the inevitable call to the locksmith. Walt seemed like a clever enough guy, even though he needed to be reminded every few minutes of the make and model of the car we were talking about. We agreed on the fact that it was better to be stuck at home than on the highway somewhere.
Okay. Fair enough. So we made arrangements to have Walt come by on Monday, alleviating the time and a half that we would have to pay him for rescuing us this weekend. This left us with a great big hunk of metal in our front yard that needed cleaning. We washed it. We vacuumed it. We wiped off grime that had been left from any number of previous trips. When we can drive it again, at least it won't be dirty.
Until then, we'll focus on just how small our carbon footprint is and pretend that this was a conscious decision.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Before Jack Black Was A Panda

And now, as a tribute to the passing of the late, great David Carradine, my Reader's Digest version of every episode ever made of "Kung Fu."
"Hey, Chinaman!"
"I am called 'Caine.'"
"Yeah, whatever. Anyway Chinaman, we don't take kindly to outsiders around here."
"I am called 'Caine.'"
"Looks like the Chinaman needs us to teach him a lesson!" "I am called -" At this point, the toothless brutes begin to descend upon the shaggy, barefooted guy carrying a bed roll and a wooden flute. The edges of the screen get fuzzy and faintly ponderous, plunky music begins. Walking through a room full of candles, an old blind man with a shaved head turns to his equally bald companion, "The road of life is full of pebbles, Grasshopper."
"I know master. They stick in my foot and make me angry."
"Do not get angry with them, Grasshopper. Get even."
After a commercial break, the soft focus is gone and there is much slow-motion chopping and socking. Boards are broken and windows are smashed all in the name of passive resistance. Getting up off the floor and wiping the blood from his mouth, the first brute extends his hand. "Well Chin- I mean, Caine, you sure taught us a lot about understanding there."
Bowing deeply, "Yes." With that, the stranger picks up his bed roll and wanders off into the trackless dunes of sand that are apparently just outside all frontier towns of the 1800's. And he just keeps wandering. Goodbye, Caine. Thank you for teaching me so much about understanding.

Friday, June 05, 2009

What Not To Wear

It's almost over again. Spirit Week comes but once a year in elementary school, not like I remember back in high school, when each major sport needed that "extra little push over the cliff" (in the words of Nigel Tufnel). Now I only have my orderly routine obscured for five days, right near the end of the year. That gives me some solace.
I admit it. I'm wrapped a little tight when it comes to my "school clothes." When I started teaching, my school was struggling to implement a uniform policy: white shirts and blue pants. It was a tough sell. We were told by numerous parents that it was too expensive and it was stifling to their child's creativity. I tried to comprehend this as I looked out on the sea of identical FUBU jerseys and Air Jordan sneakers with retail prices somewhere around my weekly teacher's salary. But it did cement my feelings of solidarity with the kids. I had a few pair of blue pants and while I didn't wear a white shirt every day, I wore a solid color with a color. No T shirts. No jerseys. Over the past couple of years, the rest of the staff has instituted a "casual Friday" clause, wherein we all wear our purple Horace Mann T shirts. I have managed to fit this into my rigidly scheduled rotation, though at times wearing a T shirt gives me the impression that I must be someplace else. When I came home from work, I shed my uniform and put on my "play clothes." It provided me with a clear line between work and life at home.
This is the way it has been for twelve years. When Spirit Week comes and we are asked to wear various apparel or combinations of apparel, my first instinct is to toss it off and just continue the regular pattern. But the existence of Spirit Week is apparently a more powerful pull than the routine I have created the rest of the year and I succumb. I wore pajamas on Tuesday. Monday featured a Broncos jersey. Thursday was a "funky hat." And oddly enough, Wednesday's costume was blue pants and a white shirt. Today is Crazy Hair day. I'll do what I can with what I have, and on Monday, I'll be back to the comfort of the same old same old. I've got spirit, and a rigidly precise sense of fashion.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Now He Tells Us

On a day when the biggest news seemed to be that Eminem "faked" his outrage at having the bare backside of Sacha Baron Cohen drop in his lap, we also got the following quote: “On the question of whether or not Iraq was involved in 9/11, there was never any evidence to prove that. There was some reporting early on, for example, that Mohammed Atta had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official, but that was never borne out.” These words came out of the head of Dick "Dick" Cheney during an interview Monday night with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren.
Repeat after me: Never any evidence. Never. And who is to blame? The Intelligence Community. “They misread Saddam Hussein's intent when he invaded Kuwait in 1990,” Cheney said. “They underestimated the extent of the Iraqi program to try to acquire nuclear capability back in '90 and '91. They missed 9/11.” He explained the early uncertainty of the connection by insisting that intelligence gathering is “more an art form than a science.” Gee, that's too bad. I was kind of hoping that it was a science. An exact science. The kind that would provide evidence to back up hypotheses. A science that would lead to concrete conclusions that could be documented and studied. Not abstract expressionism, the kind that gave us "weapons of mass destruction."
Don't get him wrong, he still has nice things to say about our spies: “The intelligence community has had some enormous successes in the last few years,” he said. “You usually don't hear about the successes. What you hear about are the train wrecks, the things that didn't work out quite right.” It's true. Just like Barack Obama decided to meet with the winners of this year's Super Bowl rather than the losers. But if it didn't bear mention, why is he taking the time at this late date to bring it up? Slow news day.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Big Bang

In a universe that continues to expand, I still find myself subject to the panic about the way things change. The breakup of General Motors is consistent with the laws of physics, at least the way we understand them now. The idea that something could sustain its mass and size over time is part of an imaginary static universe, not the one we live in.
All of these little pieces that have been gathered together: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, GM Daewoo, Holden, Hummer, Opel, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Vauxhall and Wuling will eventually be scattered across the galaxies, or at least our planet. It took one hundred years for the beast to grow this big, and now it will take just a matter of weeks for it to shrink back to a more rational and manageable size. It cost billions of dollars to keep that hulking monstrosity alive until it began to wobble and fall apart under its own weight, and it will take more billions of dollars to stabilize it and keep it from tearing a whole in our galactic economy.
There was a time when our telephones acted this way. Perhaps you remember the old AT&T. The one we used to call "Ma Bell." The Bell System became the largest largest corporation in the world and survived for nearly one hundred years before collapsing under its own mass in 1984. That's when the company was broken into pieces, Baby Bells, that continued to connect our calls and charge us ever larger bills for the privilege of telecommunications. AT&T in its new form would like to swallow up your Internet and cable TV as the pattern of expansion and contraction of the universe continues its pattern.
Is it inconvenient? You bet it is, especially if you own stock in any one of these companies that disappears in the wink of an eye. But it isn't forever. We know that mass attracts mass, and eventually gravity and cash will draw these corporations back together. You only need to be patient, in galactic terms.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


It's not the phone call that I would expect to get on a Sunday afternoon. My wife and I were relaxing after sending my son off to this year's Maker Faire with his uncle and his cousins. The call came from one of the support people who was helping with lost children. Ours was a lost child. The good news came quickly: he was safe. Then came the challenge: how to hook him back up with his party, since at that point they were the ones who were technically "lost." With a little bit of cellular phone wrangling, we were able to triangulate and reunite him with his extended family unit.
But for a moment there, it was a little disconcerting. Even now, at this late date, I still find myself reaching out at curbs for a little hand to help across the street. In airports I make a chore out of keeping him in sight. The idea that he is now often in places and situations over which I have no control gives me pause. Then I reflect on just how clever my son is. On Sunday, after he had become separated from his group, he looked around and saw a familiar sight: the distinctive silver Airstream trailer of Lucky Ju Ju Pinball. My son walked over and found Mike, the guy who runs Ju Ju, and asked if he could "climb up on top of the trailer to see if I can see my cousin. He's pretty tall." Mike appreciated the can-do nature of his suggestion, but pointed him instead to the guest relations tent, where a very nice lady made a call home for him to reconnect with his temporarily misplaced family members. It was a moment worthy of a merit badge.
After a few more reassuring phone calls, my wife and I settled back into our quiet afternoon. Even though I flinched a little each time the phone rang after that, I was able to enjoy the way that things work out in the end.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Light Hearted

When my son told me that he really wanted to see "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," I was relieved to hear that my wife was willing to take him and his friends while I stayed home. If I wanted a nap, I could do it there instead of in a seven dollar matinee seat. I fell asleep in the first "Madagascar," and I felt the same relief when that same crowd went off to see the third installment of the "Shrek" series. I faced a very tough choice when, just last summer, I found myself at the multiplex with my son wanting to see "Space Chimps" and my wife wanting to watch "Mamma Mia." We were already out, and the couch would not be my escape. I chose to earn husband points and skip the computer animated romp about talking chimps shot into space. It was, with apologies to Ms. Streep, a bit of a Sophie's choice, but one I made with a clear head. It was made easier because none of these animated films were made by Pixar.
I suppose it could be that I have a deep and abiding affection for the folks at Pixar due to my relative proximity to their studios. I recognize many of the streets and skylines that have found their way onto the big screen because of them. I like to think that they are making movies for their kids the same way I would make them for my own. Apparently I'm not the only one. This weekend, their tenth entry into my favorite movie contest had me laughing and crying and wishing for more. "Up" isn't just a good kids' movie, it's a good movie. Period.
Movies are supposed to take us places that we've never been, or show us the way things ought to be, or help us see things about ourselves. In a wordless montage reminiscent of the first twenty minutes of "Wall-E," the creators of "Up" tell a love story. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and they know it. What could have been a deadly dull or saccharine is as sweet and concise an exposition as any I can remember. All of that to set up an adventure about a seventy-eight-year-old man sailing in his house lifted up by hundreds of helium balloons to South America. How many movies for kids have a seventy-eight-year-old hero? A friend of mine said "'About Schmidt' on acid." A nice pitch, I thought. A day later, I think it might be just as good to call it "'Harry and Tonto' on helium." When it was all over, I was sad because I knew that I would never again see it for the first time. My son went with me. He liked it too, and neither of us fell asleep.