Friday, April 30, 2010

On The Line

As students filed out at the end of the day, I stopped a number of them to ask what has become a fairly routine question for me: "What did you learn?" Since this was one of the few days in the pas thirteen years when I had no other way of knowing besides asking, it seemed important. I had not made it past the sidewalk in front of the school all day, having walked the picket line since long before any of them had probably been awake. I saw them go in. I saw them come out. I knew that most of their teachers, including myself, were busy with their work action, and when the bell rang, I was curious.
Then a voice came to me, asking me the same question: What did I learn? The first thing that came to me was the words I read on the signs I saw at our noon-time rally at City Hall. "I'd Rather Be Teaching." The novelty of being on strike lasted only a couple of hours for me. I am far too concerned with staying busy to confine my day to carrying signs and shouting slogans. Then it occurred to me, at a deeper level, sometimes that is the work. At that same rally, we were addressed by a group of Borax miners from Boron, California. They were in the eighty-eighth day of their union's lockout, and they wanted to come up and participate in our mobilization. Solidarity. It made me think of Lech Walesa. Nobody was going to arrest me. On the contrary, the police we encountered throughout the day were universally enthusiastic and supportive of our teachers' cause.
I learned that I have never been much of a joiner. I prefer to think of myself as a lone wolf, a loner. I learned that there are times and circumstances that make that difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes you have to pick a side, and live with the consequences. Martial law was not declared, and no one was sent the gulag for going on strike today. It felt good to be part of something bigger, much bigger. And then again, it also made me wince a bit at times when the sound of the group didn't sound like me.
The kids I talked to seemed as eager as any other day to share their experience in the classroom with me. "It was alright," or "We did some math." It reminded me of something that good teachers do: Ask better questions. That's what I learned.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Strike One

"It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done." - Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"
I won't be lining up for the guillotine today. I will be lining up, however. And I hope that the revolution that I am taking part in is bloodless and brief. I have been a member of a union for thirteen years now, and I have never walked a picket line. I have attended rallies and carried a few signs, but for the most part, I tend to ascribe to the Marxian philosophy that I would never be a member of any party that would have me for a member. Groucho Marx, that is.
Why now? The most obvious reason is that this is the first time that the Oakland teacher's union has had an official strike since I have been a card-carrying member. We came close, once before, but the superintendent called a "snow day" and cancelled classes to turn it into a "teacher's work day." We all ended up in the break room, eating sandwiches our principal bought for us. It was, to say the least, less than confrontational.
Today is different. We have already had some of our thunder stolen by a school board who voted to impose a contract on us that keeps us "status quo." The truth is, I can survive on that. I can limp along in these horrid economic times with the salary that I have managed to ascend to and keep my house, and buy new tires for my bike. It's the new teachers who come to our district and have to make a life out of thirty-eight thousand dollars a year. Where will they be in thirteen years?
It is easier for me to remember the names of all of my own elementary school teachers than to list all of those I have worked with at this school since I began my teaching career. I have also seen all the numbers that say that giving anybody raises at this point in time is mere folly, and we should all be happy that we have a job at all.
Believe me, I am happy about that. I am also sad. Sad because once upon a time my son said something that many children say at some point: "When I grow up, I want to work with you." If he were to say that now, I would probably flinch. The relative value placed on education versus the expectations we have for it is skewed. We want no child to be left behind, but we want to be able to do it on the cheap. Higher test scores with lower spending.
I understand that by standing in front of my school for a day, carrying a sign that I will not change the world. Not all at once.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Farewell A: Drive

Earlier this week, Sony announced the death of the three and a half-inch floppy disk. They said they will cease production of them in March 2011. That means you have eleven months to stock up, I suppose, since Sony accounts for seventy percent of all the floppy disks manufactured.
If you're scratching your head and wondering what this "floppy disk" is, congratulations on your youth or relative naivete. That quarter-inch slot in the front of your computer, or many computers these days, is not for feeding your machine, nor does it shred unwanted credit cards. It is there to read files from magnetic film, the floppy part, contained within a three and a half-inch plastic case. You could move files from one computer to another by simply transferring files to the disk, ejecting it and slipping it into the other where those files could be read by the new machine. Simple, right?
Unless you wanted to move more than one and a half megabytes of data. Then you had to split files up, use multiple disks, or wait for technology to evolve. For example, a single MP3 song would not fit on a floppy disk. You need CDs for that. You need DVDs. You need a USB flash drive. You need Al Gore's Internet.
And that's what happens to technology in these fast-paced, hurly-burly times. Nothing lasts. Except Post-its. They just celebrated their thirtieth anniversary, and they're still going strong. Maybe you could use that little slot in the front of your PC to hold a stack of Post-its.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Starry, Starry Night

I remember my older brother wondering aloud if life on other planets might be carbon-based. I didn't care what they were made of, as long as they didn't have disintegrator rays. I read "War of the Worlds," but I wasn't counting on any flu virus to take out the BEMs that were undoubtedly headed our way. What were the chances, my brother would ask the heavens, that we were the only intelligent life in this galaxy? In this universe? It just didn't make any sense. It also didn't help me sleep at night.
Now that I am much older and wiser, I tend not to panic at the suggestion of extraterrestrial visits. I have had years of soothing images from Steven Spielberg to comfort that part of me that is still traumatized by tales of abduction and probing found in so many other forms of media. Beings from another planet would just drop by to show off their profound wisdom and empathy, and a common taste for tasty candies.
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," says Stephen Hawking. "Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach." Thank you very much, Professor Hawking. Why wouldn't they be charmed by our whimsical attempts to contact them by beaming a Beatle's song "Across The Universe?" We already sent them Chuck Berry, why can't they just leave us in peace?
Maybe the answer is simpler than that. Like the guy said in "Close Encounters," in response to one of his flunkies suggesting that Einstein was right: "Einstein was probably one of them." In this case, I might suggest that Stephen Hawking is actually a visitor from a distant planet, who sadly miscalculated the effects of our gravity on his musculature. Now he's just talking tough to scare us. At least that's what I'm going to tell myself when I look up at the stars at night.

Monday, April 26, 2010


In the course of your average day, how many times do you think about the drain in your bathroom sink? Unless you're a professional plumber, that figure would probably be in the once or twice range, depending on how many times you brush or wash or find yourself in the vicinity for any other particular reason. And in those spare moments, the actual pondering of said drain is brief, at best: a second, maybe two. The rest of the day is blessedly free of concerns or care for that drain.
Until it stops working. When the water just sits there in the sink, and there is no satisfying rush of water down the pipes. Just a pool of water that mocks your intention to go about the rest of your day. "Deal with me," it cries in a display of passive aggression that stands as a hallmark to all others. This is a problem. What will happen if more water goes in that sink? Where will it go? This is not the way things are supposed to work.
So you stop what you were doing and start poking, prodding, plunging and cursing. All the other drains in the house are doing their job quite nicely. Why can't this one simply behave? Is it because I have neglected you for so long that you feel the need to take it out on me now, of all times, now? Couldn't you have waited for a better, more convenient time, like when we were ready to sell the house?
Alas, no amount of pleading does the job that gravity and a certain amount of chemical inducement will. When it's all over, the muck has to be wiped from all the previously muck-free surfaces and all those surprised that came from the cabinet beneath the sink have to somehow fit back inside. And I am reminded once again of the way life gives us metaphors. Thanks, life.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Unusually Cruel

What's it gonna be, Old Sparky?
More points for the firing squad
Grand prize, step inside
The Hundred Thousand Dollar Gas Chamber
Answer one question:
How do we teach, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'? - "
Generation Execute" by Lard

I admit that this past week I was struck with the somewhat regular test of will that stems from being against the death penalty. A pair of young men had been drinking rum and were angry and frustrated with their lives, so they decided to punch the next person they met. That was another young man, and when the two perpetrators were then confronted by their victim's father, they punched him in the face too. And he fell down and hit his head. He died a couple of days later. Defense attorneys are quick to point out that just because the assailants were African-American and the victims were Asian, this is not a hate crime.

Meanwhile, over in Utah, convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardener was given his choice of execution and picked a firing squad. After all, the only other state in the union that would give him that choice would be Oklahoma. There are those who worry that this is simply another avenue for Mister Gardener to find a way around his sentence since all his other avenues of appeal have run out. Shooting an unarmed man at point-blank range seems like a pretty cruel and unusual way to kill him, after all.

What does it all mean? I still believe that if the rule book says "Thou Shall Not Kill" without any asterisks, then we ought to be able to live with that. Even if they ask us very, very nicely.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Money Matters

The president is working hard to find ways to regulate our financial system. I am very interested in this, because I don't want what happened a few years back to happen again. Recession is a bad thing. I know this because I have been watching the news. What I don't know is exactly why recession is a bad thing.
It makes sense, I suppose, since it sounds like there's not enough money to go around: receding, right? Metaphors abound, and everyone wants to explain it to me in some colloquial way. Whether it's the butcher shop or mowing the lawn, financial experts would like me to see it through their eyes. Hedge funds make me think of the shrub in my front yard, and after just a few moments, I start to glaze over. It's a carryover from my personal financial situation where my wife would love to get me involved in mutual funds but that sounds a little too intimate for me. And don't get me started on securities, which I connect to owning a blanket.
Speaking of which, I continue to be confounded by reports about the SEC. What does the Southeast Conference have to do with the price of tea in China, or Auburn? The fact that this three letter acronym also stands for the Security Exchange Commission just makes my head hurt. Trying to make sense of any of this stuff is just way too hard. Until I read this: California Representative Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it was "disturbing that high-ranking officials within the SEC were spending more time looking at porn than taking action to help stave off the events that put our nation's economy on the brink of collapse."
Now I understand.

Friday, April 23, 2010

School Principle

"It ain't the size that's in question here. It's the principle." These are the words spoken to Richard Dreyfuss, who grew up to be Mister Holland, by the leader of the Pharaohs in "American Graffiti." It is also the phrase that keeps rattling around in my head as I try to make sense of the Oakland School Board's decision to impose a contract on its teachers. The move, made on Wednesday night amidst a rather raucous and unhappy crowd of educators, was to keep things "status quo." After two years of negotiating, the decision came down from the top, or as top as it gets around here, to keep the lid on.
Cost cutting, don't you know. Like in January when the school board voted to give itself a raise. Admittedly this raise was from seven hundred and fifty dollars a month to seven hundred and eighty-five, but that works out that to a five percent raise. Cutting costs. Tony Smith, Oakland's newly-minted superintendent received a six percent raise to take his job here. Mister Smith makes substantially more than seven hundred and eighty-five dollars a month. The argument has been made on both accounts that it is important to pay quality people in order to retain them. Percentages can be tricky things, as most fifth grade teachers can tell you.
I am no apologist for my union, either. Walking into one of their meetings is a lot like walking into a story by Lewis Carroll. After two years of negotiation, this is the best we can come up with? Okay. I'll show up for the twice-rescheduled one day strike next week, but then I'm going to have to consider becoming a free agent.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Home And Garden

This past weekend, my wife and I went to visit my younger brother at his home-away-from-home, The Crucible. While visiting our local arts collective, we spent a good deal of time in the neon gallery where little brother's work was being exhibited. As usual, we liked his piece the best, but we found ourselves lingering there amidst the glowing gas. Part of the attraction was the ever-ebullient conversation I was having with my sibling, but the other reason was the location. All of the neon pieces were being exhibited inside a restored caboose. We got to hang out for an hour or so in a restored train car.
It took me back to my youth, when our father took us to visit a friend of his who had recently acquired an old caboose, and was in the process of finding some way to turn it into a lounge or restaurant. Mostly I remember spending all my time climbing up the ladders with my brothers and leaping from one side of the cupola, a perilous leap of some three feet.
As I related this story to my wife, she confessed to her own enthusiasm for retired rolling stock, and wondered if there might be some way to get a caboose into our back yard. In terms of aesthetics, it would easily fit in. Then came the discussion of just how we might go about getting the many thousands of pounds of steel and wood over our house and into our back yard. I suppose if we were truly serious about it, we would knock down our garage for the occasion, then rebuild it after the placement. How hard could it be? We never discussed expense. It was amusing enough just to entertain the idea of flatbed trailers and massive cranes that would be involved. We enjoyed, however briefly, living the dream.
Yesterday morning, I was reading about how NASA is wondering what they will do with their three Space Shuttles after next September's final flight of the Discovery. I'm no expert, but I believe those things are more modular in construction, and could be taken apart into larger, discrete pieces to be re-assembled later. I'm just saying.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Y Cnt U Rd Ths

I am so very old. I am such a fuddy-duddy. I wouldn't know a good time if it fell on my head and commenced to wiggle. Perhaps that last one is too strong. I would probably deduce after some momentary shock that a good time had made contact with my person and I would attempt to surmise just what all that wiggling business was about. Once I had made that connection, however, I would not immediately text all my friends and let them know about it.
That is because I continue to be enamored of communication in the long form. I became a teacher, in part, because I so very much enjoy the sound of my own voice. I became a writer because I wanted to share my love of language with anyone who had the time or patience to read those that I had strung together. I have fond memories of phone calls from my youth that lasted more than three hours. With these attitudes in mind, why would I ever choose to text? Finding new and clever ways to truncate my verbal exchanges seems both antithetical and confounding. In a world that strains for understanding, why would I suddenly begin to leave out all my consonants? I do not want everything I write to suddenly appear as though they were written by Prince.
And now the news: A third of U.S. teenagers with cell phones send more than one hundred texts a day. New research, from everybody's favorite Research Center, the Pew Internet and American Life Project says that texting is now youth's favored mode of communication. It gives me great pause to hear this, considering the monosyllabic nature of the interactions I have with so very many in that demographic. Texting is young. It's hip. It's lazy. And most insidiously, it's expensive. Even if you pay just pennies per garbled message, it adds up fast. That's why most phone companies will happily give you "unlimited texting" for twenty to thirty dollars a month. Three hundred and sixty dollars a year doesn't seem like much to keep your kid connected to his peers, especially when you consider that text messaging has become so much a part of teenagers' lives that eighty-seven percent of those who text said that they sleep with, or next to, their phone. Nyty nyt.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bein' Kept Down By The Man

On their 1979 album, "The Wall," Pink Floyd asked the musical question, "Mother should I trust the government?" Well, according to a new survey, four out of five Americans would answer, "No." This eighty percent says they don't trust the federal government and have little faith it can solve America's ills. The survey also found that just twenty-two percent of those questioned say they can trust Washington almost always or most of the time and just nineteen percent say they are basically content with it. Nearly half say the government negatively effects their daily lives.
The survey suggested that this is a trend that has grown over the past twelve years. Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center that conducted pointed out that, "Some of it's backlash against Obama. But there are a lot of other things going on. Politics has poisoned the well."
And that's the really sad part. I remember vividly the scene on the Capitol steps as members of Congress gathered there on the evening of September 11, 2001. They all began singing "God Bless America." It wasn't an event. It was a reaction. It didn't take long for that moment of spontaneous bipartisanship to slip into memory. Over the past nine years we have experienced extremes: At first we were told that not supporting your president was unpatriotic. Now we seem to be hearing just the opposite. The wars aren't being won. The recession continues to drag on and on. What are the options? Take up arms? Stop paying taxes? Get a show on Fox News?
I would suggest this: Participatory Democracy. Vote for the candidates and ideals in which you believe. If they don't work out, know that it's only a matter of time before we get to elect someone new. Try Googling the quote "We get the government we deserve." You'll find the author of this quote to be anyone from Barry Goldwater to Joseph Heller to Eldridge Cleaver. Now who do you trust? Mom?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged On A Scale From One To Ten

I understand that somehow, perhaps simply by the size of the paychecks that we award them, sports stars and those in show business are somehow due more of our collective scrutiny. It is a conscious decision one makes to enter public life. In spite of this, I do wonder from time to time just how I might stand up under that same microscope.
For example, how is it that we continue to feel the need to connect job performance to strength of character? The fact that a particular human being possesses an otherworldly ability to pull prolate spheroids from the air is not always found in concert with the ability to treat all humans and pets with respect should not come as a surprise. Statistics should prove that exceptional traits found in any given human being tend to found in narrow bands: physical ability, artistic talent, emotional stability. Finding those rare examples who happen to be stand-up individuals in addition to their other gifts seems like to much to ask. Once you get recognized for those unique traits, expectations tend to slide in the other departments. The phrase "Just Win, Baby," comes to mind.
Who cares if the pitcher, golfer, quarterback, or movie star is morally bereft and devoid of compassion as long as he or she can deliver a performance that causes us mere mortals to look on in awe? Once they start running afoul of the law, it seems like we don't have a lot of interest. When the police get called, suddenly it's in everybody's interest to say what they think of this degenerate's behavior. Truth is, it was probably in evidence for years before, but it was easier to focus on the box score or the box office than what happens for the other twenty-two hours of the day.
Charles Barkley once said, "I'm not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." The Round Mound of Rebound has a point, but what about his kids? Just because someone has the strength to dunk a basketball, does that mean that person will have strength of character? Opinions vary. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Gods Must Be Angry

Suffice to say that somebody in Iceland failed to keep up with their virgin sacrificing duties. How else to explain this massive eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. It may have had something to do with spelling or pronunciation, but whatever the cause, the gigantic ash cloud that now hangs over Europe is keeping planes on the ground. The somewhat whimsical notion of hopping on a jet airliner and zipping off to London is, for the time being, purely hypothetical. Find a train or a boat, but avoid that airborne hazard whatever you do.
To that end, even Whitney Houston was forced to reckon with the elements. Her planned concerts in England necessitated a less-than-diva-like ferry ride across the Celtic Sea. Hers was not the only tour disrupted by the plume of debris that has now settled into the jet stream above the EU. With no way to anticipate the event, since it has been nearly two hundred years since the last eruption, mere mortals are left to their own devices, or simply scratching their collective heads.
Even the travelling contingent form World Wrestling Entertainment was grounded at the end of their exhibition tour, leaving some doubt as to whether or not all the "athletes" scheduled to appear at this week's "WWE Raw" would be able to appear.
When will this suffering end?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On The Brink

There is a corner that I ride past each morning where I often see a little boy going off to school. His mother watches from the front porch as he makes his way to the curb and steps onto the bus. One morning I saw her holding the family cat up, waving its little paw farewell. On another cloudier day, I watched as mom sank to her knees just outside the front door as she blew kisses to her son. It's not often that a sight jostles my cynical heart, but this did the job.
I remember my son's first day of preschool. More to the point, I remember getting ready to go off to work at my own school as my wife prepared to send him off into the cold hard world. We have a picture of him, standing at the top of the front stairs, looking back over his shoulder with his little horse backpack loaded up with all the things he might need for the next five hours. The thought of it brings a smile even now as he trudges up the hill to seventh grade to encounter all the excitement and danger that awaits him there.
This weekend, he will be attending two days of "college classes" at Stanford. He'll carry a lunch packed by his mother and myself. Back in the days of Peter Pan Co-op Preschool he didn't carry a cell phone. Mom was there, helping all the kids carry their three-wheel bikes to the top of the hill. His horse backpack has been replaced by a more futuristic version in the style of his beloved Bionicles. And his father has insisted that he wear his Cal sweatshirt.

Friday, April 16, 2010


I was sixteen forever ago. That doesn't mean I don't remember it. Quite the contrary: I remember it all quite vividly. That is the very nature of adolescence. Everything is painted in the brightest colors, the starkest contrasts. The friends you make as a teenager are your soulmates. Every decision is life and death. It is all big. It is all beautiful. It is all important. Until it isn't.
These were my thoughts as I sat and watched MTV's "Sixteen And Pregnant." I'm not generally big on reality television, but this was a Saturday afternoon when it was pouring rain and the rest of my family had gone off to do this or that. I was left at the whim of my remote control. I watched as Leah was forced to give up her spot on the cheerleading squad and move into a mobile home in West Virginia. Not with the love of her life, but with "the transition guy." And then come the complications. And then come the twins. After a few months, she's ready to go back to school, leaving the kids with dad while she attempts to regain her former glory. The trouble is, she had only been dating Corey for a month when they were, pardon the pun, thrust together. In spite of their mutual devotion to their babies, the relationship only has enough gas to get them halfway through Leah's senior year. Before Valentine's Day, they have split up. Leah moves back in with her mom, who helps take care of the twins as she learns that Corey has begun dating another girl.
Tragic. And all so completely avoidable. The passion, the confusion, the tears. I was there too, once upon a time. Not exactly, but thereabouts. It was sad, and it was exhilarating. I laughed harder then. I cried harder too. I watched those teen-aged hearts break and I had to turn away. It was too sad. It was all too much.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Down To The Borderline

A dark figure in a trench coat emerges from the mist. The glow from the tip of his cigarette illuminates the jagged scar that runs from just below his right eye to his chin. He takes a long drag, inhaling deeply before stepping directly in front of the anxious pedestrian. "Do you have your papers? I need to see your papers."
Maybe you thought you were watching an episode of "Hogan's Heroes," or that ill-fated section of "Twilight Zone - The Movie." The one with Nazis. Even when I was a kid, back when the earth was cooling, I knew that was the question that the scary Gestapo officer would always ask the frightened refugees. Just before he rounded them up and shot them. They were the bad guys. Now that scene threatens to be played out, most likely without the mist, in the Valley of the Sun. A measure which is now on the verge of approval in the Arizona Legislature would make it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. It would also require local police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal. Those who are unable to produce documents showing they are allowed to be in the U.S. could be arrested, jailed for up to six months and fined two thousand five hundred dollars. The police unions insist they wouldn't engage in anything as low or despicable as profiling, but when you consider that even a naturalized citizen could be arrested under this law because he or she was not carrying the appropriate documentation, one begins to wonder how they would use it. Arizona came up with this solution to deal with the estimated four hundred sixty thousand illegal immigrants in their state. That puts them seventh on the list for most illegals, a list topped by California with more than two and a half million. What would they have the cops in San Diego do? Maybe the best answer really is to build a wall to keep all those illegal immigrants out. And all the stupid ideas in.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Revolution Will Be Televised

My wife wondered aloud, as opposed to her written musings, if our country might be on the brink of a civil war. My initial response was to use a corollary to the rule that people used to invoke when speaking of the U.S. economy: It's too big to fail. It was my assertion that it was in no one's best interest for this currently tenuous union to fail. And, to be honest, at this point, I hadn't read the day's news.
Mike Huckabee, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012, says the effort to allow gays and lesbians to marry is comparable to legalizing incest, polygamy and drug use. Huckabee also told college journalists last week that gay couples should not be permitted to adopt. "Children are not puppies," he said. According to Mike, not every group's interests deserve to be accommodated, if their lifestyle is outside of what he called "the ideal." So there was that.
Then there was this: Tea party leaders and some conservative members of the Oklahoma legislature say they would like to create a new volunteer militia to help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty. "Is it scary? It sure is," said tea party leader Al Gerhart of Oklahoma City, who heads an umbrella group of tea party factions called the Oklahoma Constitutional Alliance. "But when do the states stop rolling over for the federal government?" Scary indeed. Perhaps Mister Gerhart is unfamiliar with the works of Timothy McVeigh.
I suppose the bright side is that all of this frightening rhetoric is taking place out in the open. None of this is behind-closed-doors, secret society stuff. There are web sites, blogs, and an entire television network devoted to stirring things up. It's like that song by the late, great Guns 'n' Roses:
Look at the hate we're breeding
Look at the fear we're feeding
Look at the lives we're leading
The way we've always done before

It's hard to imagine Axl Rose as a prophet, I understand, but these are strange days indeed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Post No Bills

Lately I've been mourning the passing of Saturday mail delivery. I know it hasn't happened yet, but it makes me sad to think that I won't be able to meander out to the mailbox sometime after noon to peek inside to see what communications have arrived from the outside world. Now that my son has figured out the joy of bringing in the mail, Saturday is one of the few days I get that chance. Thanks, global recession.
But what is it that I find on any given day when I flip through the day's correspondence? We don't get many bills anymore. Those are now dealt with electronically. Bank statement? Same deal. What is it that necessitates a trip to the front gate and back every day except Sunday? Honestly, it's a lot of advertisements. Some of them are solicited. Some of them are not. Today was a good example. There was an envelope that was pleading for "A Minute For Peace." I knew why we were getting it. Once upon a time, my wife and I donated money to an organization that wanted to stop all the wars. That seemed like a pretty good idea, so we joined up. Then, once they had us as "sustaining members," they started asking for more money. That's how fundraising works. The same thing happened when we sent a check to the local food bank. Apparently there are still some hungry people that we didn't manage to feed with the money that we sent them. Again, I understand the need to keep asking, and I like getting those requests in the mail a million times more than when they call on the phone. At dinner time.
Then there are the ever-present solicitations for new credit cards. These get my special treatment. Once I have removed the portion of the letter that contains any personal information or my address, I stuff the rest of their advertisements back into the envelope and send it right back to them. Thanks, postage paid!
Every so often, there is an actual letter or card addressed to someone who isn't a Resident or Occupant. Those are sweet. It makes the trip back up the stairs from the mailbox just a little livelier. And if we're really lucky, some satisfied client will send my wife a check for her design work. It's like getting paid to pick up the mail.
So, until all of our mail becomes electronic, I will savor those little Saturday sojourns out the front gate.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Near Beer

Spring Break was a good time to gather some wool, metaphorically speaking, and that meant I found myself staring off into the middle distance for brief periods, causing my wife to ask "What are you thinking about?" At times they were deep thoughts about foreign and domestic policy. Other times it was an idea for a movie that I would love to write, if I could only get past the first three pages. Mostly it was "what are we going to have for dinner?"
Then there were those moments of quiet reverie when there was no one around to rouse me from my stupor. That was the time that I was recalling my love affair with 3.2 beer. You may not be familiar with this particular concoction. Growing up in Colorado, it was the "gateway drug" for youths such as myself. Because of the low alcohol content, it was legal for those eighteen years or older to purchase brew. This also meant those under eighteen had a shot at a fake ID that would allow them to buy this swill, and even more who would simply stand up straighter at the Seven-Eleven and hope that the guy working behind the counter was only a year or two older and cared little about enforcing the law during his shift while reading car magazines and snacking on Slim Jims.
3.2 beer was how I learned to drink. Because of the limits on the alcohol content, it took a good deal more Miller, Bud, or Coors to achieve the appropriate buzz. I can't imagine this math escaped the accountants at these major breweries. It occurred to them to the point of encouraging us all to "drink responsibly," but not enough to consider banning the sale of beer at convenience stores. But you couldn't buy it after midnight. Or on Sundays. It wasn't anarchy, after all. It wasn't even Wyoming, where my older brother and I were surprised and happy to find that you could buy beer on that traditional day of rest. So we did, along with several gross of bottle rockets.
The joy of 3.2 beer was giving the youth yet another ledge from which to jump. At sixteen you get your driver's license, and twenty-one you can get the hard stuff, but eighteen gave us all a shot at inebriation if our kidneys didn't shut down first. It was even a big enough deal that most towns had a "3.2 nightclub," where those ready to sample the nightlife and choke this stuff down by the pitcher. There were two when I was "that age" in my town: Characters and Middle Earth. Characters was on the south end of town, and catered to a more "disco" crowd. Middle Earth had live rock bands and was located across the street from the University. Middle Earth changed its name and format to Pogo's when the New Wave swept in. It was in the basement. It was dark. It was loud. And they served us 3.2 Coors light until we couldn't hold any more. And sometimes after that.
What woke me up from this trip down memory lane? The article on Al Gore's Internet that told me that super-high-alcohol beer is on its way to the United States: thirty-two percent. That's a factor of ten. I wondered if you had to be a hundred and eighty years old to buy it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Survival Of The Fastest

The article on Yahoo promised to tell me the reasons behind bullying. At last, I thought, I will finally have the answer. The one that I have waited nearly forty years. The one that I need right now. When I was a kid, I had bully trouble. Now that I have a son, he's got it too. Would the answer be some sort of genetic map? Generations passing down their victim or bully strain? That didn't seem likely, since he Darwinian model would suggest that those weaker sorts would have been thinned out over time. Survival of the nastiest, after all.
According to the article, "decades of research have shown that the power differential between bullies and victims is a crucial component of the interaction." Power differential? That sounds a like something I've had to pay to have fixed on my car. Then again, duh. The difference in power is what makes bullies possible? Bigger kids pick on smaller ones? Decades of research? They went on to say that "other researchers have found evidence that kids who are already socially awkward are more vulnerable to bullies." And yet, the scientists could not decide on the one thing that made kids vulnerable to bullies.
I believe "socially awkward" will be sufficient. Math Club. Band. Debate Team. My guess is that you won't find a lot of bullies there. Just victims. The researchers suggest that bullies do their job in public. They want attention. Really? Decades of research.
And yet, the social scientists want us to know that bullying isn't inevitable. In spite of a culture that seems to inspire and periodically revere its bullies, I'm looking at you, Rush Limbaugh, the rest of us slower gazelles continue to find our way with the rest of the herd. And every so often it would be nice if one of those slow gazelles would turn around and knock the snot out of that lion. Just to mess with the balance of nature.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

There Is No Try - Only Do, Or Do Not

This is how Master Yoda might introduce Jedi Sex Ed. The Jedi are a notoriously stodgy bunch. And that makes me think of the Dave Barry book I bought for my brother and sister-in-law on the occasion of the birth of my niece: "Babies And Other Hazards Of Sex." Watching all the furor over government funded abortions makes me wonder why we aren't spending more money on teaching kids birth control.
In Wisconsin, Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth last month sent a letter to area school districts warning that health teachers who tell students how to put on a condom or take birth-control pills could face criminal charges. Southworth, a Republican Christian Evangelical, has warned that teaching kids how to use contraceptives would be considered contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months behind bars and a ten thousand dollar fine. This was his response to a law passed by governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, that requires schools that teach sexual education to adopt a "comprehensive approach." In Juneau County, they won't include most forms of birth control. What would the District Attorney have health teachers do instead? Teach them abstinence, of course. A very dicey subject, since talking about sex in the first place might lead impressionable minds into thinking that it was somehow condoned or, dare I say it, natural.
Just what connection is there between sex education and sex? In an interview Thursday, DA Southworth pointed to Milwaukee Public Schools, which teach a comprehensive sex education curriculum but still struggle with high teen pregnancy rates. Sex education experts, however, say many social factors influence teens' decisions to have sex, including lack of parental supervision and poverty. So, if we get rid of poverty, get some more parental supervision and some condoms, maybe kids will stop having sex. Or maybe we should apply the same standard to Driver's Ed. For many teens, abstinence from driving is best. All those back seats, don'tcha know.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Don't Mess With A Streak

Like him or not, your President has been on a bit of a win streak lately. There was that fracas of a health care bill down drama, then he showed off a nice outside touch when he beat Clark Kellogg in a game of HORSE. After slinging one high and outside on opening day, he went back to what he does best: signing stuff.
Barack Obama and Russia's Dmitry Medvedv sat down in Prague on Thursday to sign a new nuclear arms treaty. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or "ReSTART," will replace the old one that is now almost twenty years old. In other words, it's been a while since we were actively reducing our strategic arms. You know the ones we're talking about: the ones that can be lobbed from missile silos continents away, or dropped from bombers miles in the sky, or launched from deep beneath the sea on a submarine. The ones that showed up as colorful dotted lines on the big board in "WarGames" with Matthew Broderick. The limit on those bad boys is now seven hundred. The United States currently has seven hundred and ninety-eight. The Russians are sitting somewhere just below six hundred. It used to be that being ahead of the Russkies was a good thing, now they've got a clear advantage on us in the stockpile reduction race.
Then again, we've still got the edge when it comes to having fewer actual warheads. They've got around twenty-six hundred, while we top out at around twenty-two hundred. While we're busy trying to dismantle our missiles, they'll be just getting started taking apart those extra four hundred warheads. And when it comes to short-range nuclear weapons, Russia has ten times the number we have yonder in Eastern Europe. Those are not currently up for discussion under this treaty, but limits for those will have to be part of the next round of negotiations. That should give Mister Obama a chance to work on his hanging curve.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

And So It Begins

The first e-mail came in on Tuesday. Followed by another the next day. I assume from this pattern, I will receive daily updates until the actual date: my thirtieth high school reunion. The fact that I graduated from high school the same year that a number of my co-workers were born is a constant source of amusement for them, and I tend to think about 1980 more as a punch line than a reality of my life. The simple math is this: I have been out of high school as long as they have been alive. That means that I have had a lifetime, give or take, to adjust to life outside the hallowed halls of Boulder High School.
But back to this e-mail: It came from a girl, now a woman, who was a cheerleader in junior high and high school. As a matter of fact, my association with this lady goes all the way back to kindergarten, when I played the title role in my class production of "Peter Pan" and she had the pivotal role of Tinkerbell. My interest in donning greet tights to reprise my role is right on par with that of attending my reunion.
I went to my tenth reunion. Not as a registered member of the class of '80, but as the date of my childhood sweetheart and all-around good egg Heidi. She really wanted to go, but not alone. I was flattered and amused at the notion of appearing at such an event without any hoopla or fanfare. It was at a bar just up the hill from the high school, one that I had frequented in my collegiate years, and when we entered there was much fuss and ado about finding me a name tag. I told the people behind the table not to worry, as I wasn't registered. "I'm with her," I said, pointing to my date.
We spent an amusing and periodically awkward evening catching up and explaining to anyone who asked why I wasn't wearing a name tag. I explained that I just happened to be in the neighborhood and I wanted to stop in for a Coca-Cola. How was I to know that there was a reunion going on? What a happy coincidence.
Twenty years later, I have maintained the associations with the people I felt most connected to way back when. I don't spend a lot of time wondering where old what's-his-name ended up. My mother has kept me apprised of those member of my graduating class who made it to the obituary pages of the local paper far too soon. Sometimes I have fits of nostalgia that cause me to look back fondly at those three years I spent trying to enhance the reputation of tuba players across this great land of ours. I confess to having spent some idle moments Googling the some of the names of people with whom I graduated. It was during one of these fits of reverie that I answered a bit of spam that asked me to register for updates for the class of 1980. Since then, I have deflected most of the followups, including the occasional attempts to have my name removed from their lists. Mostly I just press "delete."
Now I face a new onslaught. Who, besides Tinkerbell, will be hounding me with requests to get back together with "the old gang?" Part of me wants to ask them to leave me alone in exchange for information about some of the other hard to find types. I'm sure something can be arranged.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Have It Your Way - Sir!

Commanders of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan would like their soldiers to remember that "they are not at an amusement park." That is why they will soon be shutting down the fast food franchises that have been serving "meals" to the troops in the field: Burger King, Pizza Hut and T.G.I.Friday's. They also warn that chains such as Orange Julius and Dairy Queen could be next. They've got Dairy Queen? We don't even have one of those here in Oakland.
The powers that be seem to be of two minds on this issue, both of which want to close these little outposts of the American Dream. Besides the practical concern of the resources that making Whoppers and non-alcoholic margaritas take, generals and majors don't seem very comfortable with the image of their enlisted men sitting down to a plate of chicken tenders in the middle of a war zone. If it's true that an army travels on its stomach, I guess the commanders don't want them moving on guts full of onion rings and baby back ribs.
A cynical view might wonder why an operation called "Enduring Freedom" doesn't feel the need to extend that notion to menu choices, but perhaps this isn't the part of the American Dream we want to export first. All those soda cups and burger wrappers may not be sending the right message. Then again, if you're about to lay down your life to ensure the enduring freedom of a country to which you may have only recently introduced, maybe you'd like to have a chocolate shake before you pile into your Humvee. Hearts, minds and stomachs.
Or maybe they could solve the whole thing by shipping all those grumbling troops back to America, where the Burger is King and the Dairy is Queen.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Why Pad

I made a declaration, of sorts, a few weeks back when my wife asked if I was interested in getting an iPad: "I'm not really a 'gadget' kind of guy." This statement was met with a resounding snort and looks of dismay. Not a gadget guy? Really? Mister Big Screen TV with a digital video recorder. Mister Laptop and Desktop computer. Mister never runs without an iPod. Not a gadget guy?
So, perhaps my assertion wasn't fully thought out. Maybe what I meant was I don't buy gadgets that I can't immediately insert into my lifestyle. I can't be blamed for the electric juicer or Mister Loaf, the bread maker under the counter in our kitchen. I make juice the old fashioned way: with three cans of water. I am suspicious of bread that isn't already sliced. Anything could be hidden inside that lump of baked dough. Both of these appliances came to us as gifts. They seemed to make sense, given the fact that we were homeowners and all.
So what does an iPad have in common with Mister Loaf? I will continue to use Al Gore's Internet even though I don't have an iPad, just like I continue to eat delicious bread baked by someone else. I can drink juice made from concentrate and read books printed on paper. I didn't buy a Kindle. I don't own an iPhone. These devices were not vital to my continued existence. Since Apple managed to move three hundred thousand iPads in their first few days, I don't think they'll miss my participation. I guess when it comes to gadgets, I'm kind of a snob. Just don't ask me to give up my Whirly Pop.

Monday, April 05, 2010


I popped by Google yesterday, just to see what they might be doing to acknowledge Easter. Turns out they weren't doing anything. Just the same old primary color letters. No clever links. Just Google. I was a little let down, since I thought they might take the opportunity to something really interesting, given their ongoing feud with "Fox and Friends."
The day after their mildly elaborate ruse of renaming their site "Topeka" for one day: April Fool's Day. The next day, they chose to alter their splash page again by honoring the two hundred and fifth birthday of Hans Christian Andersen. Not big news for a Friday morning, unless it happened to be Good Friday morning. Why would Google choose to commemorate the author of "The Ugly Duckling" instead of our Lord and Saviour, the Friendly Fox Folks wanted to know. They weren't as concerned that the search engine didn't choose to feature a graphic last week smeared with lamb's blood in honor of Passover. Where was their Good Friday spirit, after all?The powers that be at Google were happy to point out that even though a third of the world's population call themselves Christian, they chose to remain more secular in their tributes, aside from the Dutch author's middle name, at least.
And that's when the bell went off in my head, reminding me of a spring some thirty years passed. My high school sweetheart's mother and I had a bit of a rocky relationship, but one evening we started talking about religion. She was Jewish, and said she never understood what all the bunnies and eggs were for at Easter. I suggested that it was probably a lot more comforting to kids than the image of Christ nailed to a cross, and we agreed that it wasn't exactly fair to appropriate all these pagan images of fertility while celebrating the death of a great prophet. With that, she bid me goodnight and left her daughter and I to "watch TV" downstairs. Rather than use that opportunity to make out on the couch, I asked if we could get some paper and some markers to help get the place ready for Easter.
The next morning, my girlfriend's mother came down to see a very gory Jesus tacked up on the cross that was created by her stereo's FM antenna. I was pleased and honored to see that it was not only still there when I came by to pick up her daughter the next day, but he stayed up there on the wall for the whole weekend. It was a twisted bit of humor that we shared, and it gave us something to laugh about together. For a while. Too bad we can't expect the same from the Friendly Folks at Fox.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


When we walked into the office sometime past midnight, the guy behind the desk looked at us with a Vietnam vet's thousand yard stare and asked, "You aren't spring-breakers, are you?" When he told him that we weren't, he relaxed just a bit and told us, "Good, because I'd have to charge you an extra hundred dollars each for deposit on the room." What we couldn't imagine was why anyone would answer "yes" to that first question.
This was twenty years ago, when I made my first trip to Key West. It was, to be completely honest, a break we were taking in spring, but none of us were enrolled in school at the time so we felt comfortable with that assertion. Instead, we were there to celebrate a year's worth of sobriety for two of us. Hazy Davy and Killer Joe had hopped on the wagon coincidentally in March the year before, and we felt that a little tropical excursion would be the proper reward. Mikey came along as our designated drinker.
I flew into Miami from Colorado and met up with my east coast counterparts who had come in just ahead of me from JFK. We paid a little extra for a convertible, and proceeded to drive the hundred and seventy miles down Highway 1 to our nation's southernmost point. The sun set in the Gulf of Mexico as the moon began to rise over the Atlantic as we drove into the night. When we finally reached our hotel and discovered that we had indeed landed in the midst of a bit of a bacchanal. Most of the revelry had finished up by the time we headed to our room, but the dawn of the next morning gave evidence of what fun we had missed: Two doors down from us was a pair of Converse sneakers that had either been left or placed to greet whomever might leave that room first the next day. There was no way to tell if they were hi-tops or oxfords, since the canvas portion of the shoe had been burned away and all that was left was the scorched rubber soles.
But that wasn't why we were there. We were there on a pilgrimage of sorts, with our key inspirations coming from the music of Jimmy Buffett and the movie "Running Scared," the one with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, not the Paul Walker mess from 2006. This was mostly for my benefit and Joe's, while Mikey looked on patiently. We spent our days at the pool or at the beach, and whenever we drove anywhere we kept a strict rule that no one should open the doors to enter the car. We ate conch fritters. I had a Cheeseburger In Paradise. We drank a lot of drinks that came out of blenders, and we kept asking Mikey what we were missing without the booze. I wrote some postcards. I neglected to take a picture of the manta ray I saw jumping out of the water. When the skipper of our sunset cruise first told us of this phenomenon, we all laughed and assumed it was the Florida version of a snipe-hunt. And yet there I sat, jaw agape with my camera in my lap as I watched this great leathery disc launch itself cleanly out of the sea before diving back into the depths. It was a peak moment for me.
I have been back to the Keys since then. Once as a port of call on my honeymoon, and again on my fortieth birthday. It remains the one place on earth where I feel completely relaxed wearing my Hawaiian shirts. Even in Honolulu, it just felt a little too spot-on. Little did I know that trip twenty years ago was the beginning of a much larger expedition. The one that took me where I am today: Oakland, California with a closet full of tropical print shirts.

Saturday, April 03, 2010


From Merriam Webster, who defines things:
1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
That would be your dictionary definition of fascism. I confess that it has been some years since I actively studied such things, so I thought before I got all bent out of shape, I should check my sources. All of this talk about how what is happening under President Obama's regime is, in some people's view, "fascist." Exalting nation and race? That sounds a lot like what the folks who are shouting "fascist" do, but maybe I'm missing something. The centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader? Maybe that's where it's coming from. Except this guy was democratically elected by a majority of voters. Maybe it's the severe economic and social regimentation. That might be a tough sell too.
My own mind keeps swirling back to seventh grade, when my social studies teacher handed us a slip of paper with the title "Isms Defined." One of them read: "Fascism - If you have two cows, you keep the cows but give the milk to the government, who then sells you the milk at a high price." To some, that may sound like public health care, but I am not sure I could make that association. Maybe they meant Communism: "Communism - If you have two cows, you give them to the government; and the government gives you some milk." Most of this works best if you understand the conversion rate between cows, milk, taxes and relative levels of oppression.
The thing is, I've learned a lot since seventh grade, and since I don't own a cow, I'm glad to have a government that will work to help all the people, and cows, that it can. I suppose that makes me a fascist. Or just a really bad farmer.

Friday, April 02, 2010


No, it's not about the football franchise from back east. There's plenty to discuss there, including the sartorial choices of the head coach to the way the NFL has manipulated its own rule book to preserve their "dynasty." That will have to wait for another day. In the autumn, perhaps.
For now, do you remember Patriot Missiles? They were deployed by the U.S. Army during the "first" war in Iraq. They were the valiantly named hero missiles that shot down the vile SCUD missiles during Operation Iraqi Freedom. That made sense. We were firing our patriotic projectiles at those evil Soviet-made clunkers from Saddam.
How about the Patriot Act? That was the one that was supposed to straighten things out after the events of September 11, 2001. The irony, of course, was that this patriotic legislation was enacted to curtail our freedoms in many ways. Some might argue that limiting some freedoms to ensure freedom for all is a worthwhile trade. Others might wonder why they still have to take their shoes off in airports, but not their underwear.
Which brings us to 2010, where patriots of still another sort are making the news. You may have heard of the Hutaree. This is the militia group that was recently disrupted by the FBI in Michigan. These are Christian soldiers preparing for the appearance of the anti-Christ. Their purpose is defined by select verses from the New Testament. The irony here, again, is that they tend to use the words of the "Prince of Peace" below photos of heavily armed men and women. Heavily armed men and women who are ready to "defend" their country and their beliefs at any cost. And yet, on the advent of Good Friday and Easter and other Jesus-centric moments on our calendar, I find myself wondering why trust in God is regularly supplanted by trust in Smith and Wesson.
The fact that the Second Amendment seems to be one of those core beliefs shouldn't be any surprise, weapons and militia-wise. Of course, I'm not sure exactly where stockpiling C-4 plastic explosive fits into the self-defense picture, but the loyal members of the CCR certainly do. And if you thought this meant that they were big John Fogerty fans, then you need to get caught up on your Christian Colonial Republic newsletter.
Here's where we come full circle: The Patriots of Hutaree are charged with "attempting to deploy weapons of mass destruction." The statutes that will help convict them? None other than the Patriot Act.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Attention Subscribers

I thought about if for a long time. I thought about it for most of the last year, every time I sat down to write a blog about this petty annoyance or that little grievance. It's become apparent, to me at least, that this daily grind of writing whatever it is that comes to my mind is taking its toll on me in a very spiritual way.

When I started this blog nearly five years ago, I had a son in elementary school. There was real evil and stupidity swarming around the seat of power in our country. I was a younger man. Not a lot younger, but just enough that these things seemed like a challenge to me. I felt like I could handle all the oddness and mild difficulty that confronted me on a regular basis. Now, as Tim Rice once wrote, "I'm sad and tired." Besides, the country has finally begun to right itself, and I can content myself with the momentum that our leaders have started to generate, and the Hope and Change we all anticipated a year ago is surely just around the corner.

My son and wife will benefit from the time I used to spend in front of the computer screen. I won't be tied to my keyboard when I should be in the kitchen, helping with dinner, or clicking through news items when my son needs help with his homework. That's why I feel it is best that I take this opportunity to sign off while everyone's memory of me is still witty and clever. I would hate to think that I have overstayed my welcome.

And if you believe that, check the date at the top of this post, then wait and see if I'll be back tomorrow with another one of my amusing anecdotes. April Fool.