Friday, December 31, 2010


I started to make some resolutions for the coming year. I thought that maybe I could try and being less compulsive when it comes to doing certain tasks. I thought that perhaps I could hold my tongue more often when I feel a cruel word coming on. I thought that I could work on being more patient with those around me. I thought that I could become a better human being. No pressure.
That's what I like about New Year's Resolutions: You can start breaking those promises almost as soon as the clock strikes twelve. Obviously the intent is to try and keep these commitments as a measure of your personal resolve, but the odds are against you. A study made a few years back suggest that four out of five people who make New Year's Resolutions will break them before the end of the year. A third of them won't even make it to February. Extrapolation along this curve suggests that our very best behavior can be found in the month of January. Shortly after that cigarette and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream sales probably begin to trend upward.
My wife and I had the clever notion of creating resolutions for one another. There's no way that any guilt or acrimony could creep into that interaction, is there? Not that her list was all that different from the one I came up with myself, but it won't be just me that I have to answer to when I start harping on my son for leaving his clothes strewn about the living room, or on those late nights when I find myself sitting up fretting about the next day's tumult. It's another layer of potential disappointment. I don't mind if I let myself down, I'm used to that. Breaking my promises to other people is a different matter entirely.
I have a pretty good idea about how to make promises that I can keep. Start with little things and try not to make a fuss about the courage of your conviction to be a decent person. Others tend to frown upon the idea that you have to work at remembering your own child's name. But if that's a promise you can keep, so be it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I Can Dream, Can't I?

I know they're still broadcasting football games. As a matter of fact, with all the college bowl games and the way the NFL moves its schedule around to try and get Brett Favre into just one more game, there seems to be more football on TV than ever right now. But for me, the season ended months ago.
Both of the college teams I follow, the University of Colorado Buffaloes and the University of California Golden Bears, are sitting at home this holiday season watching all the post-season hoopla with the same passionate disinterest that I have. When success is measured by becoming "bowl-eligible," which is an equation that requires that your team wins more games than it loses, you might expect that it wouldn't be that hard to make the tournament. And yet my fan rays were simply not enough to carry the day this year. Not even the Beef 'O'Brady's Bowl, which coincidentally has the most apostrophes of any major college bowl game, wanted to give the Buffs or Bears a shot.
On the more professional end of things, the Denver Broncos began this season's slide into ignominy began late last year and just got worse as the 2010 campaign persisted. Consequently, it was the first time in years that I felt a twinge of embarrassment as I wore my blue and orange windbreaker in front of the kids that I teach. At least the Spotsylvania Knights are still alive.
You say you're not familiar with the Golden Knights? Maybe you missed the press release. Perhaps you aren't one of ten individuals with a fantasy football team in our little league. Or maybe you haven't spent any quality time with me over the past few weeks.
My team, the one I virtually own and operate, is playing for the championship. With just one week left in the season, I still have a chance to land on the top of the heap. It won't be an easy run, since I am matched up with the commissioner's team. I remember all too well how things turned last year when I was commissioner. I don't expect to win, but I want to give it my virtual all, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.
In the meantime, I anticipate that when I return to school to begin the new year, I will be sporting my other windbreaker, the one with the Chicago Cubs' logo. And I can start making excuses for them, like any good fan should.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some Kind Of Help Is The Kind Of Help That Helping's All About

"And some kind of help is the help we can all do without." At least that's what Shel Silverstein wanted us to believe. I know what he meant. I had a moment on Christmas that reminded me of this assertion. Santa Claus brought us the new Rock Band game, with the keyboard controller. It was a calculated move to drag our son back into our virtual family jams. He would much rather spend his video game time blowing things up or moving as quickly as he can from left to right collecting coins or rings. The appeal of pantomiming with guitar and drum shaped controllers has diminished some over the past few years.
Who could blame him? He's a musician, after all. He plays piano in his school's jazz band. At thirteen, he's got a better ear than I ever did, and he has begun to transcribe some of his favorite songs for keyboard and saxophone for he and his buddy to play. That's why, when his dad was first sitting down with the keyboard controller and was muddling about trying to figure out how to sync up his fingers to the flashing lights on the screen, my son looked up from his Lego Lamborghini and asked, "Would you like some help, dad?"
I was suddenly transported back to a lecture in college where my professor was describing comedy as a father helping his son, while a tragedy is a son helping his father. Wanting to avoid the tragedy, I reminded my son that I had several years of piano lessons in my past long before he was even a glimmer in my eye. I would figure this thing out, thank you very much.
Happily for all of us, my son's interest was much more fixed on his Legos than on me, and so he didn't notice the bruise I had inflicted upon my ego. Ten minutes later, I was plunking out the chords for J. Geils' "Centerfold."
"Nice job, dad." He was sincere. That's when he got me: "Maybe you can show me how to do that next." Back from the brink of tragedy, we resumed our regularly scheduled comedy.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

California Uber Alles Over Again

"I am governor Jerry Brown,
My aura smiles
and never frowns,"
- So spake the prophet Jello way back in the late twentieth century. How could he have known, so many years ago, that we would be under the hippie thumb of the Moonbeam? Perhaps he lived through Brown 1.0. Is the Golden State ready to return to the past? The past that includes our most recent chief executive who swept into office on a wave of Twisted Sister and Jay Leno. Why not return to the kinder, gentler ways of that bygone era?
Governor Schwarzenegger, whose very name and title sound like a punch-line to a joke that was made back in 1980, is preparing to leave office after seven years of a ride that has been every bit as bumpy as Big Thunder Mountain. After he threw Gray Davis under the bus, he announced upon assuming the office that he would not simply think outside the box, but he would "blow the boxes up." This was met with cheers oddly reminiscent of those heard in darkened theaters when Conan the Barbarian is asked what is best in life.
It turns out that Arnold was secretly a Greenie. While the rest of his party were hiding their heads under the global warming bushel, he was pushing for more regulation and tougher restrictions on greenhouse gasses. Not exactly what one might expect from a futuristic killing machine, but he's never been one to be type-cast. As it turns out, he would have made a very good Democrat, unable in his seven years to stem the tide of the recession that saw him trying to reform health care and a deficit that is expected to balloon to twenty-eight billion dollars over the next eighteen months. It turns out to be pretty expensive to blow up those boxes.
And now we await the magic that former and future Governor Brown will bring to the condo just a few blocks from the Capitol in Sacramento. If age becomes a factor and he's looking for some of that free-thinking idealism, that young punk Gavin Newsom is just down the hall. I wonder why Jello Biafra didn't warn us about him.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Inventory Time

J.D. Salinger will no longer be counted among the "reclusive authors," but will now reside in the "dead authors" file. If love means never having to say you're sorry, what does death mean, Erich Segal? There is no truth to the rumor that doctors list Doug Fieger's cause of death as "got the Knack." Alexander Haig can now be found rushing about Heaven, insisting that he's in charge. Peter Graves never did get to visit that Turkish prison. Lena Horne is currently in charge of stormy weather. Ronnie James Dio will have an opportunity to explore what happens after a lifetime of singing about Satan. Gary Coleman has always known what Willis was talking about, but he won't get to tell Art Linkletter, even though it's the darndest thing. Dennis Hopper is doing research on his next big comeback. John Wooden continues to win basketball games from beyond the grave. I suggest you wait a year before sampling any of Jimmy Dean's sausage again. Senator Robert Byrd is going to be just a little late to that roll call vote. George Steinbrenner is working on a deal to come back to life in a trade for Alex Rodriguez. Ted Stevens will be appearing as a central tunnel support in Alaska's new billion dollar highway project. Word has just come in that someone has snatched Kevin McCarthy's body. Tony Curtis now lies yondah in de castle of his faddah. Tom Bosley and Barbara Billingsley are setting up housekeeping in paradise. Everybody cry when Kong die, but I don't know if everyone could say the same thing about Dino De Laurentiis. Blake Edwards will directing the whole mess of them in a farce called the afterlife. Aloha.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Where No Man Has Gone Before - Kids, On The Other Hand...

My wife and I decided to use some of the big empty space that is Winter Break to share some treasured memories with our son. We rented the first DVD of the original "Star Trek" series with the expectation of filling in the void between Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. We hoped to lay a foundation for all his future science fiction viewing. This was no lark, either. We had just recently spent a very happy family evening watching "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." My son had all the correct responses: initially creeped out, amused, and finally awed. Why not strike while the metaphorical iron is allegorically hot?
Here's the reason: Seat Belts. Along with any lengthy dissertation on the relative special effects budget that caused the writers of Star Trek to invent "beaming down" to a planet because they couldn't afford to film a ship taking off and landing once a week, comes the inevitable cheese factor. Even though I had prefaced our viewing with disclaimers about how far and how fast things had changed in the world of science fiction. Surely he would be captivated by the writing and characters, and the daring experiment that was once described as "Wagon Train to the Stars." All that being said, just a few minutes in, the Enterprise encounters a barrier at the edge of the galaxy, creating great turbulence on the bridge. And everyone gets tossed around in haphazard directions. With all of this advanced technology, where was the personal restraint system? Sure these guys can travel across the vast reaches of space at several times the speed of light, but nobody thought to strap themselves to their chair. Sick bay must be full of barked shins and bumped heads as a result.
By the time we watched Chief Engineer Scott repairs some of the ship's modular circuitry with a chunk of plastic resembling a kitchen sink, my son's assessment was in: "Cheesey," he said. I started to argue, but I had just sat through the same episode he had and resistance was futile. His eyes are accustomed to 3D computer graphics. The new worlds that we had to show him belonged to another time, another age. I had hoped that, like Tronya, he would relish it as much as I, but this frontier had been tamed.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The War On Christmas

In 1914, Christmas was a big deal
No one had to tell the soldiers
The ones dug into their trenches
On the front lines of the Great War
They put down their guns
For just a little while
They stopped killing one another
Long enough to sing "Silent Night"
And play a game of football
It helps to have both sides
Agree on their deity
Now the war rages on
Because we don't have consensus
About what Christmas means
The year gets so bottom heavy
With things to celebrate
Why not pause for all of them
Instead of just the one?
World War One didn't end
That silent night in 1914
They went back to killing each other
The very next day
It is the season to remember
The power of love
And to shed a little light
on a dark and stormy night
There isn't one right answer here
Christmas is just one of them
This war is being fought with words
And I know they will never hurt me
So I'm laying my weapons down
To listen to what others have to say
Season's Greetings

Friday, December 24, 2010


I stood out there on my back porch, staring out into the midnight sky, and in the back of my mind came this lonely thought: "Why didn't I put anything on my feet?" There I was in my bath robe, marveling at the blood orange directly overhead that had begun the night as our silver moon. This lunar eclipse brought memories of every flashlight, globe and tennis ball example I had ever created or witnessed in my youth. At that moment I understood that our sun, the flashlight was directly behind me, standing on the globe. The tennis ball was now in my shadow. This experience sent me back inside to wake my family.
And suddenly I was my father. Waking his sons and wife to witness this celestial anomaly or that. I remember standing in my parents' back yard, gawking up into the blackness with the assurance that I would see the comet called Kohoutek. I was, along with most of the rest of the planet, let down. The fire I had expected to see and the blinding flash that I might have hoped for never materialized. I stood there, shivering, looking at what appeared to be a faint gray smear of cotton trailing across the sky. But my father made sure that I saw it.
Much in the same way that I dragged my son out into our own back yard to tip his head back and stare in awe at the only winter solstice lunar eclipse in the past three hundred years. He blinked. He squinted. He adjusted his eyes to being awake in the middle of the night. "Cool," he said as he started to head back inside.
Was he looking at the same thing I was? This natural wonder? This astrological coincidence that had been waiting for centuries to appear?
Yes, he was. My wife was more enthusiastic, but still felt the need to warm herself in her cozy bed. I continued to stare at the slowly returning moon as it dipped behind layers of clouds. I tried to give the moment some significance. It was significant because there aren't that many nights when I find myself awake past midnight these days. It was significant because it happened on a winter's night that allowed us to see it without a thick layer of fog. It was significant because it linked me with all those other fathers who stood in their back yards, trying to coax their families to commune with the spectacle that was this lunar eclipse. I leaned against the rail on our deck and watched the light return.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thank You For Reading This Blog

Thank you for reading anything, for that matter. A poll released in 2007, conducted by The Associated Press and market-research firm Ipsos, found that the typical American read only four books last year, and one in four adults read no books at all. Maybe they were too busy trying to figure out how to use their Kindles. Maybe they were taking advantage of all the literature that is readily available for quick and easy download on Al Gore's Internet. You could be reading Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities" in mere seconds, depending on your download speed. Or not.
Instead, you could be catching up on your daily dose of YouTube. Or perhaps you would like to commune with the funny, furry creatures on Lolcats. Then there's always updating your Facebook status. These are all worthy pastimes, all of which could be the twenty-first alternative to curling up on the couch with a good book. With your laptop or iPod and you Snuggie, you could approximate the experience in a very post-modern way, even if it were only ironically. Books are, after all, such a burden.
I live in a house full of them. Several of our book shelves have been layered with an extra row of volumes of various sizes. The window seat next to our bed has become a vast repository of printed material for my wife's easy consumption. As for myself, I try to keep just the current book on top of the dresser, next to the clock. I can't scatter my train of thought like that. Each issue of "Entertainment Weekly" gets read front to back during the week of its publication, then becomes part of the greater stack of stuff I have read.
And to think there was a time that I wanted to contribute to this mass of printed material. How much cleaner and simpler to tap out these digital missives to the masses on a daily basis without the mess and fuss of actual publication? When I click on the "publish" button, I'm an author. My reading public, dwindling though it may be, awaits. Statistics suggest that you're more women than men, so I'll try and keep this in mind for future posts. Or, you could head on over to Amazon and pick up the book in which you could find one of my trademark bittersweet memories. Sorry, it's not yet available in digital form.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Don't Ask Me, I Just Live Here

With the repeal of a seventeen-year-old policy, our government took one giant step into the twentieth century. Gone is that terrible restriction on our freedoms, the one that was put in place as a compromise to hard-line hate by Bill Clinton. The original title of the act was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue." The Pursue part was there to discourage someone from snooping around without asking about a soldier's sexual preference. But why would anyone pursue any sort of investigation if they weren't tipped off in the first place? Don't talk in the first place and everything will be just fine. After all, loose lips sink ships, not to mention what they can do to tanks and bombs and other soldiers.
So all that is behind us now, and I will give Barack Obama credit for riding this one home before the big change of the next term. Now we can all hang around and enjoy the legal gymnastics that will no doubt take place in order to try and tear it down. And passing a law won't suddenly make everyone in uniform open and accepting of other's lifestyles, just like it won't do anything about the way we treat each other here on the home front.
Take the case of Martin Gaskell, an astronomer who asserts that he is being discriminated against because of his life choices. He feels that he was passed over for the directorship of the new student observatory at the University of Kentucky. We all understand how the intolerant history of those who live in our southern states, but one wonders why Mister Gaskell would openly admit to being Christian. You're supposed to be a scientist, man. Keep your mouth shut about all that stuff you do in your free time. We just don't want to know about it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Take A Picture Here, Take A Souvenir

Photo, light. Graph, write. Writing with light. That's probably why the exchange rate for pictures to words is so very high. And there are so many more pictures now than there used to be. Back when Mathew Brady was snapping pictures of Civil War troops and their generals in the terribly painstaking way that the era demanded, it probably occurred to him once or twice how nice it would be to have a camera he could just pop out of his pocket and click away without the aid of several assistants. And when he was done he could make a quick call to Abe Lincoln to let him know that he would be late for their four o'clock portrait sitting. Happily, people in those days were much more patient and willing to sit still for hours at at time while a single photo was graphed.
Not so these days. Technology has allowed us to become much more carefree with our images. The idea of posing for one shot seems ridiculous now. Al Gore's Internet is awash with pictures that capture the immediacy of our times. This particular flurry of ennui came about as a result of looking at several dozen pictures my niece posted on her Facebook page. It also reminded me of the way I used to look at photo albums as a kid. I was never fully engaged until I stumbled onto a picture of myself. As I clicked through the moments of her life that were represented, I found myself wondering, "Who are those people?" When she was so very much younger, I could expect to see my brother and his wife, or even me looking back from those pages, but not anymore. These were her friends, and I was peeking into her life as an incipient adult. I have a shoe box full of very similar photos in my basement that represent the years I spent becoming a grown up. They aren't saved on a hard drive, and a number of them have been deleted because I have moved the box so many times.
It made me think of all the pictures we have of our son. If I'm not in it, I probably took it. The level of intimacy is preserved. But I know that I am creeping up to a time when I will be looking at his life in photos and I will be saying, "Who are those people?" A collection of light. A story without words. Memories.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What'd I Say?

Sir Elton John would have us believe that "sorry" is the hardest word. Or perhaps it would be fair to cite the lyricist, Bernie Taupin. It is likely that neither Bernie nor Elton coined this notion, since it's a sentiment that probably predates the song's 1976 release date. It probably also depends a little on how you classify "hardest." It has only two syllables, and the r-controlled vowel adds a degree of difficulty, but I think that the idea is that it is the circumstance that makes it so very difficult to say "sorry."
It's no "hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia," the longest non-technical word in the English language. It means "fear of long words," and if that were truly the case, those four syllables would come in handy if you wanted to avoid the fifteen found in that monstrosity. That one's hard because it's contrived and unwieldy. It's no floccinaucinihilipilification, that's for sure.
Perhaps the "hard" we're looking for comes more from the listening end. If that's the case, we should avail ourselves of the new poll conducted by Marist College. The word "like" when used as an all-purpose filler came in at, like, number two with twenty-eight percent of respondents finding it most irritating. The phrase "you know what I mean" was third, though I suspect that it doesn't bother the folks in the Kreskin household as much. The number one annoyance for listeners of the English language, for the second straight year is "whatever." I am not shocked or surprised by this result. I don't need thirty-nine percent of Americans to tell me how divisive three syllables can be. In those eight letters is all the ambivalence that one person could possibly muster. Add a sigh at the front or the back of it and you have a world class conversation-ender. I imagine that many of those who were asked, if they would mind answering a few questions about annoying words, rolled their eyes, shrugged and said, "Whatever."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Solstice

It was cold the other day. Not bone-chilling, teeth-chattering, skull-numbing cold. As a matter of fact, it was just a bit below what my mother would call "sweater weather." Out here in the wilds of urban California, what that meant was that I saw a number of drivers out at the curb with their garden hoses, pouring water on their front and back windshields to promote the condensation of the moisture that had been, ever so briefly, frost. I live in a land without ice scrapers and snow brushes.
By the time I reached school, there were a few kids there. They were the ones who were taking advantage of the slippery surface of the mat below our play structure. They took turns racing halfway across, then sliding until their sneakers caught some of the less-icy rubber beneath and they tumbled to the ground. These brave souls were soon joined by brothers and sisters and friends until every inch of frost had been worn off by the friction of twenty-some kids hurtling back and forth, suddenly bringing to mind the frozen pond in the beginning of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Then, just as suddenly, it returned to the familiar fractal of our students at play.
They were energized by the coming holiday, or at least the coming vacation. I have learned over the years not to lean to heavily on any particular connection to any kid and any holiday. Even if their particular belief system doesn't allow for the recognition or celebration of certain special days, every kid celebrates two weeks off school. The Winter Assembly skewed heavily to the secular version of Christmas, with a sprinkling of Kwanza. Then the rains came and winter had truly arrived.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Example Number One

Coming down the hill in the opposite direction was another biker. I was in the middle of giving him the "way-to-go-saving-the-environment-and-getting-exercise-on-your-bike" head bob, when I noticed something wrong. Two things, actually. First, he rolled right through the stop sign at the bottom of the hill. The same stop sign that I had stopped long enough to look up to notice my fellow two-wheeler. Second, he wasn't wearing a helmet.
It was probably more of an issue for me now, since my son had recently had his own close encounter with the rules of the road and the importance of proper head protection. His experience left him shaken but not stirred, and his helmeted head ended up doing more damage to the car than it did to him. The rules of the road have been impressed no him in a very visceral way.
Long before my son's feet could reach the pedals, I had my own awakening at the very intersection I watched the helmet-less guy roll through. I got a ticket on that hill for running a stop sign. A motorcycle cop was watching from the left as I roared past the red reminder of safety. I heard his much larger bike start up and he caught up to me in less than a block. Feeling a range of emotions from shock to bitterness, I pulled my bike to the curb.
"You know you ran that stop sign back there?" the officer asked rhetorically.
"Yeah. Well. I was on my way to school and," and that's when I decided to stop arguing and realized that I had no leg or kickstand on which to stand. He wrote me a ticket. I signed it. I took it with me to school where I began to fume at any of my colleagues who would listen.
I was stopped in mid-rant by my mentor teacher, the one who had helped me navigate much of my first year in public education. "You didn't stop, did you?"
"No," I replied, full-on sheepish.
"And you weren't wearing a helmet?"
I didn't see that one coming. She must have noticed my comings and goings for months prior, but said nothing about it. Why was she kicking me while I was down?
"It's only a two-mile ride, and it's mostly side streets," I sputtered in defense.
"You're modeling for kids. They see you come and go every day. You wouldn't want them riding around the streets of Oakland without helmets, would you?"
Conversation and lesson over. Since that morning I have worn a helmet and stopped at that stop sign in particular, along with all of its many brethren. I'm not just filling heads with knowledge. I'm protecting them from possible damage. Lesson learned. For me, anyway.

Friday, December 17, 2010

With Friends Like These

The National Football League suspended New York Jets strength coach Sal Alosi for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs without pay. If you live anywhere outside of New York or Miami, you might suspect that Sal was found shooting horse DNA into the spines of the players for whom he has been trusted to care. That would make sense, right? Not really. Instead, he received his punishment for intentionally tripping Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll on Sunday during an otherwise routine bit of punt coverage. Bad sportsmanship? You bet. Maybe this guy thought he was channeling Woody Hayes, but if you add the twenty-five thousand dollar fine to the three weeks of missed work plus the potential earnings of any Jets playoff games, it looks like a pretty bleak Christmas in the Alosi household.
Holiday depression is nothing new for fans of the Los Angeles Clippers, but you might not expect that someone making more than a million dollars a year to play a game to be free of such anxiety. Unless you happen to be Baron Davis, and your owner happened to be Donald Sterling. Baron isn't having the best year. Donald would like him to know about it. That's why Mister Sterling has taken it upon himself to show up at all of his team's games to heckle his own superstar from the very good seats that owners allow themselves. “Why are you in the game?” “Why did you take that shot?” “You’re out of shape!” These and other less encouraging barbs are routinely hurled in Davis' face as he attempts to live up to his salary. Mister Sterling may want to investigate the power of positive thinking, given the fact that his team has already lost more games than anyone else in the National Basketball Association. It does make me wonder what the holiday party at Clippers' headquarters must look like.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost My Appetite

The talk at dinner last Saturday night turned to politics. Normally, I don't like to mix meal time with messy conversations that might disturb my digestion, but I was pretty familiar with the group and I guessed that I wouldn't run into much discordant discourse. Then came the question: "Are you disappointed?"
He was talking about our president. The one that we elected. The Hope and Change guy. The wind that was going to sweep into Washington and make everything alright. And it didn't happen. What did I expect?
I expected that the wars would be over. I expected that our troops would be home and that diplomatic solutions would be applied to situations in the Middle East. I expected that the economy would begin to rebound based on the enormous surge of green business generated by the new administration. I expected that education funding would be restored from the top down, and that Bruce Springsteen would be appointed to a cabinet level position for Boss-ness.
That didn't happen. Now we're in the way of the pendulum swinging back the other way, and compromise is the only thing that is keeping us Democrats from being swept to the side. Or at least that's what they keep telling us. The embattled ones, anyway. The pundits as well. If we just back off all that high talk and rhetoric and start making some deals, things will be just fine. They can go back to normal: Tax breaks for everyone! Don't ask, don't tell! Cut spending, unless it's defense-related! Drill baby, drill!
My wife suggested that we are all in love with politicians when they are running for office and immediately let down once they get into office. The reality is so much harder to manage than the potential. Solar powered high speed trains would have been nice, though.
Yes. I'm disappointed. I wish we would have spent the evening talking about the new judges on "American Idol."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some People Call Me The Space Cowboy

This past weekend, my wife was feted at our neighborhood's annual Winterfest holiday arts and crafts celebration. On posters placed strategically at intersections and heavy-traffic areas, her name was listed first on a list of attractions that included handmade jewelery and knitted ornaments. She was described as "local artist/cartoonist." We had some fun discussing this categorization. Isn't "cartoonist" a subset of the larger group "artist?" The celebrecogniton was the bottom line, and she made the most of her moment in the December sun.
It also got me to thinking about how I might be perceived. Most recently, I suspect, I would be known as "husband of local artist/cartoonist." It's a label I am comfortable with for certain times of my life. It's a nice spear-carrier position. Other times I feel better being "computer teacher," "Mister Caven," or simply "teacher" for Kindergartners who are still trying to remember the names of all the kids in their classroom, let alone the guy they see once a week for fifty minutes. At school I have a number of very specific titles, including "Academic Liaison," "Site Technologist," and "EEIP Teacher." That last one suggests that I teach a room full of EEIP's, but it's an easier job to fund.
At home I'm mostly "Dad," though every so often I recognize my first name and respond. When something gets misplaced, I become "Finder of Lost Objects." Then there's always my house title of "Guitar Hero: Medium." When I'm hanging around the house alone with my dog, I become "The One With Opposable Thumbs" who can open and close the front door.
The fact that I have all of these epithets is some measure of how far I've come as an individual. It also made me remember being in sixth grade and being asked to lead a group of classmates in a cartooning class. I got the gig because one of my friends recommended me to my teacher because I was a "good drawer." After all these years, that's the one that sticks in my mind. My wife may be "local artist/cartoonist/author," but I'm still a good drawer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Did You Know?

Some other things we have learned from Wikileaks:
Mongolia is just north of China.
President McAleese of Ireland is a big fan of Pink Floyd.
Brazil's chief exports include coffee, soy, sugar, cocoa, beef, pig and chicken.
Many Russian women are seeking compatible mates here in the United States.
The Central Bank of Nigeria hires some real shifty characters.
Australia has its own version of "American Idol" called "Australian Idol."
Canada recently declared war on Belgium but nobody noticed.
German President Christian Wulff was upset when he found out that back rubs from other heads of state are not common practice.
Teenagers in Japan wonder what all the fuss is about Hello Kitty.
Greenland has a new flag!
It is very hard to find a Denny's in Iran.
Everyone in Britain thinks it is cute that Americans still make a fuss about "tea parties."
Hilary Clinton secretly wants her own talk show after Oprah retires.
The Republic of Congo is engaged in a billion dollar lawsuit with the makers of Congoleum floor tile.
Julian Assange has been an American Express card member since 1985.
And the revelations keep pouring in.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What's On?

There is so much television to watch these days, I have had to bring in a machine to help me watch it. My digital video recorder works much harder than my video cassette recorder ever did. This is probably because of the programming aspect. Even though I worked at a video store for several years, the effort it took to make the VCR spring to life at the right time and on the correct channel was always just a little too much for me. Inevitably there would be a step that would include the time flashing 12:00 at me, taunting me with its high tech superiority. Not so with the DVR. It does my bidding in a much more relaxed manner: by time, by title, and weeks in advance.
But my DVR won't be recording TLC anytime soon. It's not like I don't have anything to learn. The Learning Channel has twenty-four hours of programming anticipating those gaps in our education that night classes might miss. How does a family deal with nineteen kids? Do you need to know what not to wear? Want to know who the boss is, when it comes to cakes? TLC has you covered. Would you like to visit America's last frontier with one of our nation's last mavericks? If you would, then you're on your own. I won't be providing you with links to Sarah "Quitter" Palin's offering. The mere mention of it here in this blog gives it far too much publicity than it merits, and Aaron Sorkin has already said it much more richly and amusingly than I could.
What I want to know is why disgraced former governors from all parties and states can't get their own show. I would love to know what California's Gray Davis is up to now. Maybe the producers could set him up running a truck stop near Bakersfield, and the cameras could follow Gray around as he deals with all the wacky and often heart-warming situations that arise as the impeached governor encounters on a daily basis.
I would set my DVR for that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I am often pleasantly surprised by the reappearance of former students of mine. Whether it is at school when they pop by to pick up a younger sibling or in the aisles of Target where we are all searching for a bargain. It's always interesting and confounding to see how voices change and bodies grow. They usually have me at a distinct advantage since I haven't changed much beyond the fringe of hair around my temples has become mostly gray. They are all grown up.
I have a fond memory or two to share with most of the kids who stop by, even if I have to pad the exchange a little by asking about how their grades are, or who they still see from the old gang from elementary school. It's nice of them to remember me, but there is only one kid that I still look for: Denny.
In my first year of teaching, I was sitting at an Apple II GS, trying to figure out what the previous computer lab teacher might have left as a password, when I turned to my right and found him standing there. "Whatcha doin?" he asked.
At the time, I didn't have the management skills to question him about his whereabouts. I told him I was trying to get the computer to work. He nodded and waited for me to return to work. "Did you know it was boxes like this that made the dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park?'"
"You can make dinosaurs with that?" He continued to stare, intent on seeing what I might make the box on the table do next. Immediately I felt embarrassed that all I was managing was a few clicks and a beep that told me that I wouldn't be using that machine anytime soon.
We were both surprised when his third grade teacher stuck her head in my door and exclaimed, "Denny! Leave Mister Caven alone. He's got work to do. You should be at recess!" So we bid a quick farewell, and I looked forward to the moment when he would come back with his class and I had the whole lab up and running. We might not be designing computer graphic dinosaurs, but maybe we could draw one in KidPix.
As I gained my sea legs as a teacher, Denny continued his interest in what I had to offer. He was one of the first kids to take me up on my early morning chess challenge. I had a number of chess boards in my closet, and I told kids who came before school that if they wanted to learn how to play chess, I would teach them. Denny was there nearly every morning. Eventually, he became familiar enough with the basics that I could get his help with other kids, setting up the board and explaining how it wasn't like checkers, and each piece had its own special way of moving. I also told them all that anyone who beat Mister Caven could keep the board. Every kid who ever heard this immediately took it to heart and challenged me abruptly. Denny was the only one who made a point of making it a regular part of his week. Not every day, but we had a game once or twice a week, and he kept me thinking as I walked around the room, preparing for the upcoming day, returning to make my move and then walking away again while he pondered his strategy.
He came back in fourth grade. He came back in fifth, and he noticed that I had a book: "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess."
"Is that how you beat me?"
I told him there were no secrets, and he was welcome to take a look. We didn't play that day as he pored over the diagrams inside. When the bell rang, I told him he could borrow the book. He thanked me and left to start his day. As the rest of the year went on, I saw Denny less and less. Fifth grade required more of his attention, both academically and socially, but he still found time to drop by once a week or so for a game. One day I realized that I hadn't seen my Bobby Fischer book for a month or so, I asked Denny if he had lost it.
"I haven't finished reading it," he complained.
Reading it? If he was serious about reading all three hundred and fifty-two pages, I wasn't going to stop him. Weeks passed, and in the spring of 1999, Denny beat me. I could make an excuse about how I was busy turning on the computers in the lab or checking attendance or some other adult preoccupation, but the truth was, he caught me in a six-move checkmate. I looked at the board, and he smiled.
"I guess this is mine." It would be impossible to say who was more proud.
After that, Denny didn't come by as often. He had made his mark. He told some of his friends they should check out Mister Caven's Chess Club. After he was promoted to middle school, I waited to hear about how he had taken all those other sixth graders by storm, but he was done. I heard he had moved away. I wondered if he might come back to visit.
I wonder if he's still playing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Esteemed Compliments

Mr. Emmanuel Akwasi, Branch Manager of the International Commercial Bank Takoradi Branch in Ghana, wrote me today to let me know of yet another of what seems to be a very unfortunate series of circumstances. As a family man, I was immediately struck by the fact that he mentioned that he was happily married with three children twice in as many paragraphs, but then our paths began to diverge. He spun a tale of twelve and a half million dollars and offered me a chance to be part of some illicit scheme to share in part of this windfall. Sure, a little extra cash around the holidays would be a welcome relief, but all of this international intrigue leaves me just a little cold. What if I had to travel to Ghana to pick up this wad of bills? I hate to travel and dealing with strangers always makes me nervous. Still, just one percent of all that money would drop one hundred thousand dollars into my account. So very tempting.
But in real life, I just crushed it into the spam file and deleted it with the offers for natural enhancement and the opportunity to meet attractive Russian women. Odd how those two things tend to show up in the same e-mail flurry. Odd, again, that this particular ruse continues to swirl about Al Gore's Internet years after they first appeared years ago. Like info-mercials for the Shake Weight, they seem to linger. Somebody must buy this stuff. Not me.
My wife, on the other hand, just might. To be fair, she is a pretty savvy consumer and is the one who introduced me to way back when I was new to the cyber jungles myself. Still, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Unless it's happening to you. She was trying to sell a dresser set that my son has long since outgrown, and having little to no success at various garage and rummage sales, decided to take her chances online.
That's when the creeps came out. One in particular was very excited and pleased to offer her a chance to sell her merchandise, and in a very awkwardly written reply, this potential buyer began to spin a tale of woe and confusion that made the time and effort my wife was putting into the transaction seem ridiculous. Several different attempts were made to send a check, but never for the purchase price alone. She was asked to deposit the funds, then remit the difference back to a third party. Not the party of the first part, since they had recently experienced what was described as "a very fatal accident."
Somewhere along the line, I caught wind of all of this, and attempted in my husbandly way to talk her down out of her tree. After a few days of negotiation, I began to understand that my wife understood the scam, and was happily playing along, without the expectation of making a penny off the experience. The dressers are still in our basement, and my wife has had an amusing week or two dangling herself in front of the cyberscum as a potential victim, knowing that at any moment she could simply hit delete and get on with her life. That's not how she wanted to play it. She loves to travel. And if you've got a big check that needs to be cashed, she's open to negotiation.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Drives Me Crazy

You don't have to walk very far these days to find yourself bumping into outrage. Whether it's moral or philosophical, there's always something truly annoying right there on the horizon, even out here in sunny California. With all our vast resources and potential, we still find ourselves fumbling around in the metaphorical dark.
Now we get word from Sacramento that our state's lawmakers, amidst a flurry of budget cuts covering everything from welfare-to-work programs to the AIDS prevention office, have saved their cars. More to the point: California taxpayers will be paying for their legislators to drive around the Golden state in style. The rides in question are not Ford Focus Sedans. We will be buying Cadillacs, and a hybrid Lexus or two. I suppose we could congratulate the representatives who chose the green alternative, but green really is the issue. The long green. The tall cash. The program that provides wheels for the idjits who can't seem to pass a budget on time will cost us in the neighborhood of five million dollars this year. As a state that is some six billion dollars in the red, this probably seems like an inconsequential sum, but as another great Californian once said, "It ain't the size that's in question here. It's the principle."
Does it make more sense to provide legislators with monthly passes on Caltrain? Should we encourage carpooling from Bakersfield? Better yet, why not ask them to pick up the tab on their transportation out of the ninety-five thousand dollar a year salary that we are already paying? Since we're also paying a one hundred seventy-three dollar per diem for mileage, do we really have to buy them cars to use it up?
The good news, if there is any, is that the Governator and his hydrogen powered Humvee drive recklessly off into the sunset we return to our past: Jerry Brown will be looking to get his hands on the 1974 Plymouth Satellite he drove back in his first term as governor. That's one sweet ride.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

How Many Days Of Christmas?

There is an eternal debate in my household about when Christmas starts. I understand that the actual date never shifts, but depending where December twenty-fifth falls during the week can make a big impact on my holiday state of mind. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the outside lights go up on the day after Thanksgiving. This is true no matter how far back in November Turkey Day gets pushed. We are still out there stringing bulbs in a tryptophan haze on the Friday that is traditionally known as "Black."
That's when the countdown begins. I know that my wife would like to have the tree up in the living room that day as well, but I'm not ready for all that foliage. I prefer to have a few days to warm up to the notion of Tannenbaums. The rest of the planet may be rushing about with Douglas Firs strapped to the top of their sedans, but I will hold out as long as I can until I am forced to go down to the basement and haul up our nylon-umbrella-technology "tree." Something about staring at all that glittering festiveness leaves me feeling less than cheery. It feels like an obligation. It is probably because I know that just as soon as I feel comfortable with the whole idea, it will be time to haul the boxes back up the stairs and reverse the process.
Something about having a six foot tall reminder of the season next to the television that will spout Christmas themed programming and commercials for six solid weeks seems redundant. Maybe if we put the tree up in the kitchen it wouldn't seem so redundant. Outside, there is plenty of room for all the merriness to dissipate somewhat.
Eventually I surrender my my Grinchy ways and find myself at a mall, all decked out with boughs of holly. This past weekend as I watched shoppers rush home with their treasures, my family was serenaded by "apprentice toy soldiers from the North Pole." The three uniformed musical theatre fanatics performed a medley of Christmas tunes that won me over, as I stood in the shadow of Emeryville's shopping cart tree. All of this Glee-inspired cheer pushed me over the edge and before noon the next day our own halls were officially decked. It might be a stretch to say that my heart grew three sizes that day, but now I can share the living room with our twinkling artificial pine.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Turn Out The Lights

Don Meredith picked Monday to toss his last forward pass: into the Great Beyond. No other games scheduled. As an old-timer, it would be nice to say that I remember his playing days with the Dallas Cowboys. I don't. I remember his extremely casual presence in the broadcast booth of Monday Night Football. He was the swig of gin that accompanied the very dry vermouth that was Howard Cossell in that martini. He kept the game from becoming too serious. It was a game for Don. That's why he walked away from the Cowboys back in 1968. It wasn't fun anymore. When Howard Cossell left the broadcast team in 1983, Dandy Don only stuck around one more year. Without Howard's toupee to ridicule, there wasn't much reason to be there.
Just up the road from Santa Fe, where Don passed away, things were becoming very serious for Josh McDaniels. As wunderkind of the NFL last year, he led the Denver Broncos to six straight wins to start his first season as head coach. For a month and a half, he could do no wrong. Then all of that changed. On Monday afternoon, Josh was relieved of his duties. This came just a few days after the owner's dreaded "vote of confidence." Pat Bowlen had said that he wasn't interested in making any coaching changes until the season was over. After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos were eliminated from playoff contention. The season was, effectively, over. There was no reason to prolong the suffering.
And so the search for a new coach begins. One of the prime candidates for the job will no doubt be Jon Gruden. Jon is currently hanging around the broadcast booth of Monday Night Football, auditioning for a job by complaining about the way other teams are being coached. Whether he ends up in Denver or not, Josh McDaniels could save himself some anxiety by sharpening up his singing voice and prepare himself for a season or two high above the action as part of the Monday Night team. All together now: "Turn out the lights, the party's over. They say that all good things must end. Let's call it a night the party's over and tomorrow starts the same old thing again."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Way To Go, Einstein just released a list of their two hundred brainiest cities in America. Having spent some time there, I was unsurprised to find Boulder, Colorado at the top of that list. Having one's home town selected as the smartest spot in the nation certainly does something to one's self-esteem. The effect I experienced was a brief period of pride, then polite chagrin. When I lived in Boulder, I didn't pal around with a lot of rocket scientists. My neighbors were not constructing their own nuclear reactors in their garages. The kids I went to school with had decent verbal skills, but there was no Proust Reading Competitions at lunch time. Though there was some discussion of it, I never knew anyone who actually got their very own Mensa belt buckle.
The truth is, I ran into my share of stupid people in Boulder. To be completely honest, from time to time, I was one of those stupid people in Boulder. Some of the worst decisions of my young life were made inside those city limits. It was there that I built and fired my own Polish cannon, and suffered the mildly unpleasant impact of a tennis ball returning from its point of origin at the speed of its muzzle velocity less a little wind resistance, on my forehead. It was in one of the many scenic parks there that I made the drug and alcohol impacted bad choice of jumping out of a swing and into the night, landing daintily on one leg, then collapsing in a heap as the ligaments in that leg succumbed to the impact.
I was hit by a car in Boulder. Not once, but twice. I had more than my share of youthful misadventures and collisions in motor vehicles that I was driving. I suspect that if you asked my parents if I were some kind of poster boy for the educated mass that is Boulder, Colorado, it would have difficult for them to recommend me on any given day. Yes, I graduated from high school, and received a degree from the University just up the hill, but I don't know how much I actively contributed to the city's overall "brainpower index."
Maybe there's something flawed about the survey. After all, Washington D.C. came in third.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Don't Ask

It was raining one day after school. The group of kids who stay late for our reading program all wanted to go outside. "No, I'm sorry," I explained, "It's raining."
After a few moments of staring blankly out into the downpour, at least three of our best and brightest announced, "No it's not." Faced with the blank indifference of precipitation, they chose to crib from Mythbuster Adam Savage, effectively announcing, "I reject your reality and substitute my own."
Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on our students, after all our nation's leaders are perfectly capable of doing exactly the same thing on a regular basis. One particular shining star in this firmament is John "I Picked Who?" McCain. The Pentagon released a report last week, which surveyed members from every branch of the military, and concluded that allowing gays to serve openly would not have long-lasting negative consequences on the military. Senator John disagreed. "What I want to know and what it is that Congress' duty to determine is not can our armed forces implement a repeal of this law, but whether the law should be repealed," McCain said. "Unfortunately, that key issue was not the focus of this study. It is, however, the fundamental question that must be answered by Congress -- not by the president or the courts, but by Congress."
Apparently, Mister McCain disagrees with another expert in the field: Himself. "The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it," He said in October 2006 to an audience of Iowa State University students. He also disagrees with his wife, who appears in public service announcements for the organization NOH8, and said "Government treats the (gay) community like second-class citizens" and does not give young people hope.
Sorry, military. You're going to have to wait until John McCain gets the answer he wants.
My suggestion is this: Don't ask John McCain.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

You Better Recognize

A few nights ago, I sat in a ballroom, decorated with festive lighting and crisp linen table cloths on the tables that filled the floor. I was there as part of the entourage of my principal who was accepting an award for her hard work and dedication at our school. No one asked me to speak on her behalf, but I would have gone on and on about all of her efforts to put together a committed staff and her perseverance through the tough years of rebuilding and digging ourselves out of program improvement. Did I mention that she bakes for us? Her double fudge cake alone would be worth district-wide recognition.
She wasn't the only one receiving an award that evening. Custodians, teachers, office staff, and nutrition specialists all had a chance to come up to the stage and get a moment in the spotlight. Since the administrators were given their awards, a lovely laser-etched crystalline monolith, I had a chance to listen to the stories of dozens of other school employees who were nominated by their colleagues and bosses, and applaud all the good work they do day in and day out. It made me reflect back on the feelings I had when my son's seventh grade teacher was selected as the county's Teacher of the Year. It made me happy to know that my son was getting attention from our county's best. It made me proud to know that one of my fellow teachers from just up the road was worthy of such an honor. And there was, I confess, a moment of jealousy. Just a taste of "what about me?"
That passed quickly, especially when it was backed up by the way my principal chose to use her moment at the microphone in accepting her award. She echoed the sentiments of so many of the rest of the recipients: "This award belongs to all of us. I couldn't have done it without my staff." And I knew that she meant it. It is the village that we keep hearing about. The one that makes it possible for three hundred and thirty kids to get fed, play, get cleaned up after, and learn one hundred and eighty days of the year. I don't need a trophy to feel good about that.
But the next morning, as I was biking to work, I passed a gentleman who I recognized only dimly. He might have been a parent or an uncle of a student I had years ago. He might have been a community member who volunteered with me at a school clean-up day. He nodded at me as I passed and tipped his coffee cup as a toast: "Teacher of the Year," he said. I didn't even know that I was nominated.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

First Name Basis

Kids at my school ask me, "What's your real name?"
I tell them: "Mister Caven."
"No. What's your first name?"
And that's how we go. Every so often, one clever fifth grader figures out that if he read the staff roster that is posted in the office, they could know the first names of every adult on our campus, but those are few and far between. That's okay with me. I prefer the distance.
Probably because I never called any of my teachers by their first name. Except one. She was my sophomore English teacher in high school, and she insisted that we all call her "Sylvia." It was part of her vision of putting us all on equal footing. If she got to call all of us by our first names, why shouldn't we be able to return the favor? If the intent was to build familiarity, it certainly worked. When I had a free period, I would hang out in Sylvia's room. When it came time to pick classes for the next year, I looked for classes Sylvia taught. In three years, I took four different semesters of what she had to offer, including a Science Fiction class that I didn't even really need to graduate in my senior year.
In that time, I believed that we had struck up a friendship. When I had questions or problems, I didn't bother with my guidance counselor, I headed to Sylvia's room. Eventually, I was one of the favored few to gain admittance to her office, where I helped out grading papers, making copies, and general clerical drudgery. I didn't mind. I was helping Sylvia. When my personal life began to blossom and I had questions about girls and dating, I turned to Sylvia. If that seems like an odd leap of familiarity, you probably didn't know Sylvia.
She accepted my confidences and listened patiently. She gave me plenty of good advice, and confessed to me that she wasn't always such a hip and together person. When she was in high school, all the other kids used to call her "Saliva." Knowing this somehow made it easier to navigate the hazards and pitfalls of high school.
Then one day, Sylvia went off on maternity leave. It didn't happen all at once. I may have been naive, but I wasn't stupid. Still, when she left during my senior year, I felt a loss. I had a girlfriend, and I was in even more need of her wise counsel. The day that she packed up her office, she told me that we should keep in touch. I know now that this is what grown-ups always tell kids, and each other. But I knew where she lived. Only a hundred and fifty yards from where I went to junior high. In a trailer. With her husband: Mister Sylvia.
I stayed away for a few months, and then when I felt confident in my relationship with my high school sweetheart, we decided to pay a visit to Sylvia and her baby. It was dark outside, and I parked in what I assumed was their driveway. I knocked on the door to the trailer, and my girlfriend and I waited at the bottom of the cinder block stairs. We heard the footsteps, and then the door opened. Sylvia looked a fright, or at least she did back then. What I recognize now as new-parent survival mode made me think twice before I accepted the invitation to come on in.
I don't remember a lot about our visit, except that it was brief. It was cramped inside the trailer, and the smell of new baby was everywhere. Sylvia was wearing glasses, something that I had never seen her do at school. We made small talk and looked in on the baby, who seemed impossibly tiny. I had intended to make a show of how well my girlfriend and I were getting along, and to thank Sylvia for helping us find our way as a couple, but there was never a comfortable moment. All of that familiarity seemed to have vanished.
When we left, there were more vague promises of coming back to visit, but in the back of my mind I knew that I would be graduating soon. I would head off to college and return only briefly for holidays and the eventual wedding to this girl I was sure would be my wife. None of those things happened. I ended up taking a year off before I went to college, working at Arby's. I didn't marry my high school sweetheart. And I never went back to see Sylvia and her little family. It was just a little too close.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The World Of Illusion

Penn and Teller are illusionists. They begin their shows by explaining why what you are about to see is just a trick, and then proceed to make that trick so confounding that it looks like magic. You might believe that they were catching bullets in their teeth, for example. But, as they are quick to point out, there is no way this could happen. They have applied this same ethos to their Showtime television show in which the pair seek to uncover hoaxes and ruses that plague our society today. Think of them as new-age Houdinis.
One particular episode sought to knock a hole in the myth of bottled water. The hoaxbusters set up a number of "taste tests" with plastic bottles of water filled from a garden hose at the back of a restaurant and then sold at inflated prices. Invariably, patrons chose the most expensive and eloquently described labels. They often commented on the delicious sensation they experienced in sampling each of the various choices, even though they all came from the same hose.
I should say at this point that I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and I have made much about the privilege of drinking water that came directly from our own glacier, but that time has passed. I know that I have had some vaguely unpleasant experiences drinking the "local water" when I have traveled to other cities and towns in the United States, but it's still water, and it's pretty clean. Picking a particular brand of bottled water has always seemed a little silly to me, since the recipe is pretty much the same for all of them.
Now we are told that Fiji water will no longer be hauled up from the Artesian wells found on that tropical island. Fiji Water president John Cochran said that his water's namesake nation's decision last week to hike taxes on the mineral water it extracts at an aquifer on the main island Viti Levu by five thousand percent made the move inevitable. That means that you may soon be finding a new and possibly more enticing imported water on your shelves soon: How about a refreshing swig of Bayonne?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

One Of Us

When you identify yourself as a part of any group, Middle Aged Teachers For Chocolate Treats for example, you run the risk of painting all Middle Aged Teachers who believe that chocolate treats are yummy as Middle Aged Teachers who believe that chocolate treats are necessary. Others might believe that this opinion is shared with all teachers. Pretty soon there is a call for chocolate treat reform across the country, and then around the globe. It's all a part of the Groucho Marx rule that suggests that you should never be a member of any club that would have you as a member.
Imagine how Muslims in Oregon feel about last week's attempted bomb plot. Nineteen year old Somali-American Mohamed Osman Mohamud planned to blow up a van filled with explosives near a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Luckily, the explosives were duds, bought from undercover officers, and the cell phone he used to detonate the device instead called the authorities, directing them to his location. That happy coincidence aside, things could have turned out much worse for all of those holiday shoppers. Consequently, things look to turn much worse for those who identify themselves as Muslims in that corner of the country. Portland Mayor Sam Adams said Sunday that he beefed up protection around mosques "and other facilities that might be vulnerable to knuckle-headed retribution" after hearing of the near-miss.
"We left Somalia because of war, and we would like to live in peace as part of the American community," said Kayse Jama, executive director of a local organization founded after the 9/11 attacks to fight anti-Muslim sentiment. "We are Portlanders. We are Oregonians. We are Americans, and we would like to be treated that way. We are your co-workers, your neighbors."
And the rest of us, it would appear, might be knuckleheads who like chocolate treats.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Nietzsche's Dishwasher

How many college graduates does it take to install a dishwasher? If you guessed three, you'd be pretty close. I would put it closer to two and a half, since my wife threw in her towel, of the dish variety, somewhere about halfway through. Her mother and I kept at it though, and when the sun had set, there was a new Kenmore Ultrawash peeking out from under my mother-in-law's kitchen counter. There is still some cosmetic work to be done, but it fills with water and it drains without leaving gigantic puddles on the floor, and so that makes it a big win for me.
The puddles were the first hurdle we encountered. Being the novice plumber that I am, I carelessly overlooked the handle that would have shut off the hot water from the appliance that I was removing to make room for the Ultrawasth. Before we were done, every towel in the house had been used to sop up some mess generated by our quick and easy installation adventure.
After we had the old machine out of its old home, we turned out attention to the spanking-new one that had only recently been uncrated in the entryway. I stared at the instruction booklet and asked my wife to help me imagine where I must have missed something. It became apparent abruptly that all the talk about "getting a dishwasher that just needs to be plugged in" was a lot of high-minded babble, since there was no power cord included with the Ultrawash. Once we had wrestled the beast on its back and found the place where our newly purchased power cord would go, we had to go out and newly purchase said cord. When my wife returned, we found that we were missing the proper hoses and connections to bring water into the Ultrawash, even though my mother-in-law had made a special trip to the hardware store where she was assured that the flex hoses she was given would be "all she needed." Back to the hardware store to get one more little elbow that didn't turn out to be just the thing anyway and so there were some phone calls made to the nearest Sears outlet. They didn't have it, but the one up in the Hilltop Mall had four. Did I mention that this machine came as a "great deal" from Sears? This is when my wife dropped out of the program. She had a life to live, after all.
My mother-in-law and I made the trip up the highway to find the elusive connections, and after some poking around and shrugs of shoulders from employees who don't install dishwashers, the bag that I found was revealed to be just the thing. "It's what all the installers take out with them when they go to put in a new dishwasher."
Our questions about why these parts couldn't be included with the purchase of your average Ultrawash were met with blank stares. "This is the thing the installers use," said the mildly pleasant Sears droid. And so we headed back to the damp confines of my mother-in-law's kitchen, where we discovered that the fitting on one end of the elbow that we had hoped would solve our problem turned out to be just a shade too big. With the local hardware stores closing for the day, we were left with a trudge across town to Home Depot where after some mildly pleasant interaction we found a fitting that would, at last, connect the Ultrawash to the water that would be used to wash the dishes inside.
When the smoke was cleared and the machine was shoved back under the kitchen counter where it will undoubtedly live a long and purposeful life, we picked up our tools and towels and congratulated each other for the tenacity we had shown in our collaboration. And we hadn't called each other names. But we did reserve a special chunk of bitterness for the mildly pleasant folks at Sears who managed to let us down at each step of our process. Had the machine come with a plug and hoses in the first place, it would have been an hour or two of briefly moist installation. Instead there were half a dozen different false starts, and almost as many trips to various locations to pick up this or that piece in hopes that it would solve our problem. The simple solution, for me, will be this: to avoid the mildly pleasant folks at Sears, even if the deal seems too good to be true. Since it probably is.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A New Chapter

Are you sitting around, staring out the window at your mailbox, waiting for the delivery of your share of General Motors' payback to the American people. Your generous taxpayer donation of forty-nine and a half billion dollars helped keep GM from ending up on the side of the road, another rusted-out casualty of the Great Recession. That amounts to about one hundred and fifty million dollars per person.
I sense your skepticism. Why would some giant corporation suddenly turn benevolent and share their prosperity with the people who made it possible for them to come back from the dead? Maybe you didn't take advantage of the fact that we owned a car company for a while there. I didn't get a chance to head over to Detroit for lunch in the executive dining room. Nor did I manage to find the time to send all of my ideas for flying cars, deluxe paint jobs, and cup holders to the powers that be. That's okay, since I am sure they've been very busy trying to figure out how to pay back all that money.
The truth is, GM isn't going to pay back the fifty billion dollars, and I hope they forgive my rounding that figure up. Instead, they are working on the much more pedestrian amount of the pure loan: six point seven billion. Or seven billion, to be fair. How did they turn things around so fast? Back when this whole package was being put together, the President put thirteen and a half billion dollars in an escrow account for use as working capital while GM sorted out their bankruptcy. That's the cash that is finding its way back to the U.S. Treasury. And that initial public option? The world's biggest? The White House would like us to know that all of that money will be back in our metaphorical pockets by the middle of 2012. So, if you're camped out next to your mailbox, you might want to bring a good book. It could be a while before we get our piece of the pie.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Big Jello Sheriff Of The House

My younger brother, the very insightful man that he is, was helping me string lights around my yard. After a while, our conversation veered from the very simple instructions and requests that decorating our house for the holidays required. It's a simple enough task, why not catch up on current events?
"That whole Korea thing made me think about Bill Cosby," he said as he passed me another strand of multi-colored bulbs.
I thought about it for a moment, then asked him to finish his thought. Mostly because I knew that he would.
"It's like that whole covers thing on 'To My Brother Russell,'" and now it started becoming more clear. Besides having spent all of those formative years listening to the same Bill Cosby records he did, I also had plenty of experience stealing covers from my sibling, and having that favor returned just as often. There were plenty of nights when we should have been asleep, but brotherly angst and silliness made for a lot of extra reminders from our father to knock it off. As the middle brother, I got to experience both extremes. Sometimes I ended up on the floor. Sometimes I ended up with all the pillows. All that pushing and shoving, living in such close quarters, it's a lot like the DMZ.
Except I love my brothers. All that fuss and bluster, punches and bruises, and nobody died. Coexisting in cramped quarters. Going our own ways when the circumstances required. Coming together when things needed to get done. Like stringing lights. It's the key to world peace: Brotherhood.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

That's Show Biz

At first blush, it seems like the perfect storm: Julie Taymor, winner of Tony Awards and nominated for an Academy Award will direct. Music will be supplied by the Grammy Award winning supergroup, U2. And what will they be dripping their multiple talents upon? Everyone's favorite wall-crawler, Spider-Man. How could such a convergence not end in even more awards? I loved "The Lion King," and after we bought my son a truck to play with in his seat, so did he. We both agree that "Vertigo" may be one of the most awesome songs of the past ten years. We may disagree on a lot of things, but Spider-Man is the man around our house.
Why wouldn't I line up for tickets? Maybe for the same reason that I didn't rush out and get in line for the Green Day musical. It should be noted here that I am not a musical theatre snob. On the contrary. I was raised on a steady diet of MGM musicals and spent numerous evenings attending live performances of classic and contemporary productions. Original cast recordings found their way onto my turntable with surprising frequency. Sometimes I still sing along. But that was before the odd curve of inspiration began creeping down the Great White Way.
Maybe it started with Mel Brooks'"The Producers": a movie about two scam artists bringing the worst possible musical to Broadway in order to make a bundle became a hit musical itself and made a bundle. Then "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" found their way from Disney's vault to New York, followed abruptly by "Shrek." In today's economy, it has become more and more important to have a sure thing in which to invest, so why take chances on something that doesn't have some sort of built-in audience? Make sure you can sell the T-shirts and video games before production starts, and you've got a hit on your hands.
Will I feel dumb if "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" turns out to be a smash? Maybe a little, just like "American Idiot." And I'll chalk it up to all those things that I still don't understand about show business, and then I'll download the cast album and learn to sing along.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Playoffs? Playoffs?

College football season is winding down. The big rivalry games will be played, then the student-athletes will start preparing for finals and other annoyances of campus life. Some of them will have bowl games to look forward to. Then all the powers that be will gather and begin the endless discussion that will create the mythical "National Champion" for this year. Who could dispute this highly scientific, computer-aided process? Anyone who has a brain, I suspect. The reason that certain teams are considered and others are not should be as simple as finding those that won all their games. But then the "big schools" that have tradition, history, and a large bankroll might get left out.
Take the case of poor old Ohio State. Their football team won most of their games, but not all. They lost to lowly Illinois, and have drifted south of the top five teams in the country since then. Meanwhile, two upstarts, Texas Christian University and Boise State have continued to win all of their games and have passed the Buckeyes, heading up to numbers three and four in the polls. E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University thinks that's a travesty. "I do know, having been both a Southeastern Conference president and a Big Ten president, that it's like murderer's row every week for these schools. We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor. We play very fine schools on any given day. So I think until a university runs through that gantlet that there's some reason to believe that they not be the best teams to (be) in the big ballgame." Gee, long an admirer of the BCS and the current bowl system, said he was against a playoff in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
That "Little Sisters of the Poor" chop was aimed squarely at TCU and Boise, who are seen as playing in less-competitive conferences. President Gee can point proudly to his university's national championship team of 2002. A couple of years ago, Ohio State lost only one game, and ended up playing in the "championship game" against Southeastern Conference member and loser of two regular season games, Louisiana State. No wonder Doctor Gee maintains his enthusiasm for the Bowl Championship Series.
Then there's this: Back in 1990, the University of Colorado finished the regular season with one loss and one tie, but still managed to find themselves playing in the Orange Bowl for that elusive national championship. Here's the interesting coincidences: The Buffaloes' lone loss came at the hands of Illinois. The president of the University of Colorado back then? E. Gordon Gee. Coincidence or Big Ten Conspiracy? You decide.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A-Little-Too-Friendly Skies

With the holidays squarely upon us, now seems like the perfect time to consider our collective fates at the literal hands of the Transportation Security Administration. At first blush, and I do mean "blush," it might seem as though we have little wiggle room when it comes to our safety in the air. The potential for danger exists in everyone's underwear, and consequently we must all submit to embarrassment or discomfort for a few moments while Security of the skies is assured. I've been taking my shoes off in airports for nearly a decade now, to the point where I hardly think about it anymore. It's as much a part of the pre-flight inventory as buying a "Rolling Stone." I know that I have to leave my Leatherman behind at home, and I am grateful that the amount of shampoo my bald head needs has dwindled to just about zero. I pack my belt in my luggage and I try to rid myself of any spare coins before I ever make my way to the line that stretches past the ticket counter. I used to be able to get a couple of flights out of your standard issue of "Rolling Stone." Now I hope that I still have album review to read by the time I board.
Now that everyone seems destined to be x-rayed or groped in order to get over the river and through the woods, Grandma may have more time on her hands this year.
We are assured that the scattering of our x-rays will not hurt us, even if it lets a couple dozen highly trained security screeners know what you look like naked. It does make me wonder when we will find out that members of the bin Laden family are major shareholders in American Science and Engineering.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I wasn't always in love with five o'clock in the morning. It is most often associated in my mind with having to get out of bed in an hour. Or in a worst-case-scenario, it could be that I haven't been able to get to bed until then. That's the home stretch. The last hour before the inevitable stirring and hitting the reset button on the day. Five o'clock in the morning used to feel like doom.
Late last week, however, I had a quiet change of heart. The room was still dark, and it didn't bother my eyes at all to open. There was a sliver of light coming in the window where the drape wasn't doing its job. The people next door were up and moving about. I heard them shuffle out onto their front door and down the stairs to the car waiting in the garage. They sped off into the traffic that lead them into their day, leaving me to stare off into the darkness once again.
That's when I heard my family. The dog's paws made a faint scratching sound as she pushed herself more deeply into her fluffy nest. My wife stirred just long enough to mumble a greeting to the new day, or comment on the dream she was trying to complete before the sun came up. Moments later, my son flopped in his bed, making contact with something hard enough to make a thump that would have awakened a less seasoned sleeper.
That would be me. I'm the one who never sleeps through anything. That's why I'm awake at five. This morning it doesn't seem like a curse. This morning it feels like an opportunity: safe, warm and quiet. I made a conscious decision not to worry about what might happen the rest of the day. I would have plenty of time to do that when I actually got out of bed. I pulled the covers up to my chin, closed my eyes, and listened to the pendulum of the grandfather clock tick off the moments I had left to face the day. And I was thankful.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Girls Just Want To Have Fun

Iran's president, always the clear-thinking rationalist, has announced that the best age for girls to get married was between sixteen and eighteen. Mister Ahmadinejad went on to suggest that boys should wait until they were nineteen to twenty-one. This comes six years after Iran's parliament raised the legally acceptable age of marriage for girls to fifteen from nine. This then sounds like real wisdom coming from the world's favorite Members Only model. Authorities have been encouraging marriage as a way to fight what they call the "spread of immorality among youth."
Maybe someone should point out to the hard-liners and clerics that immorality is the province of youth. Or at least it should be. That's why "the man" is so very hard on young folks, not just in Iran, but all across the globe. It's like Will Smith said, back before he became "the man": Parents just don't understand. Maybe that's why Will is so down with his nine year old daughter whipping her hair around like that. But I don't guess that even the former Fresh Prince would be down with Willow getting hitched to Justin Bieber.
Meanwhile, back in a country where two-thirds of the population is under thirty and more than sixty percent of university graduates are women, Iranian politicians try to figure out just how they can appeal to this young, educated, mostly female electorate. The fact that they aren't simply locking them up and even allowing them to vote seems impossibly progressive for a country whose president dances on the line of hypocrisy and psychotic with lines like, "I don't know why some countries do not want to understand the fact that the Iranian people do not tolerate force." The same country where stoning is a punishment and not a pastime. Maybe they should just lure kids into watching MTV long enough to catch a few episodes of "16 and Pregnant."