Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is It Getting Chilly In Here?

Oleg Gordievsky, a former head of the KGB in London who defected in 1985, has suggested that there could be fifty or more couples living in the United States who are on deep undercover espionage assignments for Russia. This comes as news primarily because of the timing. It was just a week ago that Obama took his new pal Medvedev out for burgers. We're all about cutting nuclear stockpiles and international cooperation. What's a a few spies between friends?
Before you start poking around your neighbor's mailboxes, searching for return addresses that appear faintly foreign, or surnames that have a Slavic ring to them, remember that we are in the spy business too. Suggesting that there are no U.S. operatives in Russia seems like a pretty hard sell, even in these enlightened times. They haven't been caught yet. Or maybe they have, and in the formidable style of the IMF, "as always, should you or any of your force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions." And then the tape self-destructs.
The eleven suspects arrested this week were charged with "conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general." Their mission was described as attempting "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US." If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison. Not exactly Tom Clancy stuff, but we have been promised that this is "just the tip of the iceberg."
Has anybody checked on Tareq and Michaele Salahi lately? How about Brad Pitt?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Tony Hayward

821 Cushie St.

Sevenoaks, Kent

(401) 555 - 0293


A challenging and rewarding position as a Highly Paid Executive.

Summary of Achievements

• member of the Citibank advisory board, from 2000 to 2003,coordinated accounts for several multi-national corporations

• senior independent non-executive director of Corus Group

• Dinner/Dance Captain, Lloyd's Yacht Club

• Strong background in sales, marketing, lying, cheating and stealing


Creating value for shareholders

Taking care of the world

Managed deposits of over oil across the globe, many of which can be found deep underwater, and some very near the surface

Ecological Criminal

Cribbage Champion, Lloyd's Yacht Club

Controlled fourth largest company on the planet, appeared before U.S. Congress, said as little as possible, destroyed several ecosystems, ran up a bill of 2.6 billion dollars to clean up the mess we made, Consistently snappy dresser


Geology degree, Aston University, Birmingham

PhD, Corporate Brown-Nosing, University of Edinburgh

Golf Management, University of Birmingham/Florida Gulf Coast University

"I just want my life back."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Just Us

Here in Oakland, we sit quietly, awaiting a verdict from a courtroom in southern California. Closing arguments will be given this week in the trial of former BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle, who is accused of murdering Oscar, whom he was trying to arrest on New Year's Day 2009. That incident set off several nights of rioting in downtown Oakland, and subsequently the venue of the trial was changed. At this point, it's hard to imagine that any verdict won't bring some sort of tumult. Oakland's city officials are advising residents if possible to park cars in a secure location, remove large trash bins and report any vandalism or destruction once a verdict is announced.
These would be the same city officials who, last week, decided to lay off eighty officers from their city's police force. I don't claim to know what the proper verdict should be in the Mehserle case, nor do I have an answer to the crushing budget woes that create no-win scenarios like the one Oakland is currently facing. In Mayberry, the city council struggles with issues like whether or not a woman should be allowed to run for a seat. Their sheriff doesn't even carry a gun, and the deputy keeps his one bullet in his breast pocket to avoid any sort of comical misfire.
But we don't live in Mayberry. Just down the road, a man who was put in jail for offering to sell his baby daughter for twenty-five dollars in front of a Salinas Wal-Mart. Overnight, he was badly beaten by other inmates. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." He wasn't from Mayberry. Let's hope he knows what he's talking about.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


At Kellogg, they know you want the best for your family. That's what they tell us, right there on their web site. Right below the notice of a recall of boxes of Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, Froot Loops and Honey Smacks, about twenty-eight million of them. So far, twenty people have complained of nausea and vomiting after eating the tainted cereal. Some who consumed the less-than-fresh morning treats reported the cereal smelled or tasted waxy or like metal or soap.
And then they ate it anyway. It's a sad but interesting truth that we tend to trust Toucan Sam's nose more than our own. When I was a kid, we were happy to have a great big bowl of "Sugar Smacks." Now they have rejiggered the formula to a much more health-conscious "Honey Smack." I'm still fairly certain that, sugar or honey, I wouldn't be wolfing down great spoons full of either if they smelled like metal or soap. Remember, this is coming from a person who has, completely ignoring the serving suggestions on the side of the box, poured a can of Coca-Cola over his Cocoa Puffs before. Those smelled a lot like Cocoa Puffs covered in Coke.
For its part, Kellogg's is willing to issue coupons for replacement packages of this recalled batch. They want us to know that this cereal does not meet their quality standards. It makes me think of the apocryphal tale I was told by my high school English teacher, who insisted that there was more nutritional content in the box that Kix came in than the cereal itself. Of course, she is the same woman who told me that Taco Bell was the number one purchaser of Kal-Can dog food. She lived in a trailer. She taught me a lot, but she was also a little scary.
Even at my advanced age, every so often, I am still fond of the experience of having the roof of my mouth becoming raw from the intensely sugared "fun" found in kids' breakfast cereal. Once my heart rate returns to the normal range and my pupils can adjust to light again, I promise myself, "never again," and if I open the "fresh-seal pouch" and a metallic or soapy odor begins to emanate from within, it probably will be.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


As family legend has it, I once became so tired of standing in one neighbor's doorway as my mother attempted to extricate herself from yet another grueling session of cigarettes and coffee that I evacuated my bowels in hopes of hastening our exit. Though I was just shy of two years old, I had begun to set a pattern that would extend into my adult life. Happily for all concerned, I have become much more discreet about my methods, but I still don't like "chatting."
This was always much more of an issue with my father, who seemed to know every third person in Boulder County, and if you spent any time at all with him, that meant you were going to be catching up with that fraction of the people whom we encountered on our travels. My response was always pleasant to begin with, and quickly degenerated to constantly shifting my weight from one leg to the other, accompanied by heavy sighs. Whether or not my dad was oblivious to my suffering I will never know, since he never seemed to notice all the flopping and moaning out of the corner of his eye. I was hostage to my father's endless good humor and enthusiasm for others.
It makes perfect sense to me that when I got married that I would find someone who could replace that experience in my life. Not only does she seem to know a disproportionate number of the inhabitants of this sprawling urban area, but she also seems completely willing to introduce herself to those with whom she has not already become familiar. And so I smile, and shift my weight, and sigh. Waiting for the moment which she turns to me and says, "So and so, this is my husband, Dave." Suddenly I am no longer merely an appendage and I am forced into obligatory interaction. I shake the hands that are offered and always assure So and so that it was a pleasure meeting them, too.
Whether it's true or not. At least I don't have to go home and change my pants anymore.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Stuff Index

There is a lot of grumbling and scrambling about these days as we, as a nation, try to overcome our economic malaise. There are those who say that creating jobs is the key. Others will tell you that the housing market drives this bus, and it continues to teeter on a cliff. Phrases like "consumer confidence" get trotted out and I wonder if they are talking about me. I consumed yesterday, and I did so with confidence.
Or did I? I confess there has been a degree of uncertainty in much of my recent consumption. Once something is gone, how do I know that it's coming back? Small children have this problem more than I do, but when you take the toy off the table that was in front of them only a second ago, it could be gone forever. Where did it go? Where did our government surplus go? Where did all the jobs go? They were here just a few years ago, right?
Well, maybe they're not really gone. They could be under the table, in the hands of some malevolent grown-up who is taking secret delight in watching us consumers flail about helplessly, as we wait for the magic reappearance of goods and services. Or perhaps we already have all the stuff we really need.
Thursday's news had plenty of live footage of confident consumers waiting in line outside Apple Stores. They were waiting patiently for the opportunity to buy a new cell phone. It's a really cool cell phone, that does a lot of things really well with the possible exception of being used as a cell phone. Maybe these were simply the deluded ones, the ones who haven't heard that we're in a recession. Maybe they went and cashed their unemployment checks to buy this one last gadget before completely cashing in their lifestyle.
And yet I know that I was one of those families who lined up to generated more than a hundred million dollars of ticket sales for a movie about toys. I saved so much money buying my new desk at IKEA that we stopped by their cafeteria later for a plate of Swedish meatballs. Sure, everything costs more than it did back when Bill Clinton was president, but I'm still buying stuff. I'm just not as confident as I used to be.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's A Beautiful World We Live In

"There it was, just like Old Faithful: The Eternal Fountain of Filth!" - DEVO
Last week the Spudboys showed up on The Colbert Report. Before they played, Mark and Gerald sat down to talk to Stephen, and were quick to point out just how real De-evolution has become. For his part, Stephen says he believes in "intelligent decline." We now have streaming video of oil shooting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Well, since it's brought to you by the friendly folks at British Petroleum, you can bet that you won't see the endless plume of crude oil shooting endlessly up toward the surface. You'll get to see the robotic vehicles that have yet to stem the flow, or a blank screen when the frame becomes obscured by oil.
In the meantime, scientists and engineers across the globe continue to bang their heads against this problem: The world has sprung a leak, and we can't seem to plug it up. A few years after they wrote "Fountain of Filth," DEVO had their big hit: "Whip It." In spite of the sadomasochistic imagery found in the video, the song is all about hope. We are told, "When a problem comes along, you must whip it!" Why not? It's what makes America great. Make a mess and clean it up. That's how we roll. The time has come to move forward, and "give the past a slip."
Sometimes wisdom comes from the strangest places. Like Akron, Ohio. We're all DEVO.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shooting Off His Mouth

To paraphrase the late Desi Arnaz, "General McChrystal, you've got some 'splainin' to do." Based on comments the General made to Rolling Stone magazine, it sounds like he isn't too fond of his boss, the Commander in Chief. McChrystal complained that he was being handed an "unsellable position," and that waiting for the President to decide on the number of troops he would send to Afghanistan was "painful."
These are tough times for all of us, whether we are waiting for news from Iran or North Korea, or waiting to see what washes up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, or simply wondering what the next catastrophe will be. But in Afghanistan, the war rages on, having recently become the longest running conflict in American history. It still has a few years to go before it overtakes "Cats," but nine years later, the United States is no closer to victory than when the war first began.
Why is that? Too much politics, not enough troops on the ground? Perhaps, but it is certain that the public's interest in armed conflict has dipped to a dangerous ebb. Having to do the politically correct dance between supporting our troops and being against a war that has lost its focus keeps plenty of folks on the sidelines. After nine years, it's hard to get as riled up, one way or the other. And yet, that's what General McChrystal and all the soldiers in his command have to do every day. He seems to be lining himself up for his Douglas MacArthur moment, getting ready to fade away. Unfortunately, even as he prepares his letter of resignation, the bullets and rockets continue to fly and the bombs continue to explode. It made me think of Corporal Klinger, always on the lookout for his Section Eight, always looking for a way to get home. Is it really that crazy for a soldier, even one of very high rank, to act a little nuts in order to be sent home?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I Have To Admit It's Getting Better

I do a lot of complaining about the state of entertainment here on this blog. I whine and moan about how they just don't make them like they used to. I want everyone to know just how awful the state of the motion picture business is currently.
Until now. I want to say that I had a fantastic time at the cinema on Father's Day, thank you very much, and I owe it all to the friendly folks at Pixar. You remember them, the bouncy light guys? The ones who made "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles?" Last summer I became concerned when I hear they were releasing a film about an old guy who flies his house to South America. Right. That's going to be really funny. But it was. And sad. And exciting. "Up" was as good as any movie I saw last year, with or without the 3-D glasses. I went on and on about it a year ago. "Toy Story 3" seemed like a real gamble, even when one considers the impressive track record the folks over in Emeryville have.
Sequels can be death, and the notion that you could make more than two movies based on the same characters and come away with a winner all three times seems like anything but a sure bet. George Lucas ended up putting Muppets in his. Francis Ford Coppola had an American classic going and then he gave his daughter, a fine director herself, a speaking role in "Godfather 3." The third Superman movie features Richard Pryor as a computer genius hired by Robert Vaughn to kill the Man of Steel. By the time Indiana Jones got to the Last Crusade, it was vital that it began to make up for some of the damage done by the Temple of Doom, but was only a pause on the cliff before plummeting into the abyss of The Crystal Skull. If you were very patient, you could wait out the odd-numbered Star Trek movies and keep your expectations low as the hairpieces got better, but the uniforms kept needing to be let out. Then there are those nutty hobbits, who seemed to be the exception that proves the rule.
Until now. "Toy Story 3" walks the walk and talks the talk. It's not a cash-in straight to video enterprise. It's the real deal. And best of all, you don't have to see it in 3-D. It's the circle of life, and wishing on a star and all that old-time Disney stuff for a generation that grew up with Woody and Buzz. But don't trust me, go out and see it for yourself. It's like when Jerry Rice used to catch a pass, my friend would say, "He just set another record." Of course, it was his own record that he was re-writing, but that's how good he was. That's how good Pixar is. Let's just hope they never go and play for the Raiders.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Past Tense

My younger brother stopped by to help me ring in another year as well as appreciating my role as a father to his nephew. It was a low-key celebration that featured one of our favorite activities: talking about the past. On the way out to his car, he was wondering aloud if it was a good thing to be more interested in the past than the present or future. I told him that I figured it was probably a measure of where we find ourselves currently. The present is awfully mundane, consisting primarily of prior commitments and regular chores. The future is becoming less fun to think about, ever since we got our driver's licenses and got drunk and got married. Looking forward isn't all that different from looking at the present.
But the past is a pretty good gig. It's like a big library, where you can select a volume at random and find all kinds of hidden treasure. For example, the two of us spent an hour or so last night going through each house in our old neighborhood, listing the inhabitants and the various curiosities that kept life so interesting on our street. What was the name of their dog? Tippy. The oldest daughter was Julie. The time we went Christmas caroling and we stopped at Mister Ransom's house, he slammed the door on us.
The perspective of years gives us plenty of room to laugh at the things that seemed so terribly serious at the time. We have grown up, but we have immediate access to our shared youth. It reminds us of the days when we used to ask our parents to tell us stories about the olden days. Those were the days we couldn't remember on our own, but are happy to add to the shelves in the library, and the ones that help round out our own stories. We're very lucky, having grown up in a family that revels in the past. In the midst of unfurling one particular tale, my son came wandering out to tell us goodnight, and upon hearing the thread of the story we had begun, he picked it up and finished it off all on his own. He has been around long enough to start hearing some of these stories for a second or third time, and he has begun to assimilate them himself. It makes me feel good about the future.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Had A Dad

My wife suggested, the other day, that there is no better Father's Day than the first. As is my way, I tried to work some angle, some way to disagree with her. I searched my memory for a Sunday in June since my son was born that could compare with thirteen years ago. Certainly there have been interactions that have been happy and profound. There have been handmade gifts of pencil holders and painted T-shirts. It is a rare occurrence in my house for me to be the last one in bed on any given day, but that trend is rigidly reversed on Father's Day. But that wasn't the case thirteen years ago.
Way back then, I was taking shifts hopping out of bed to check on the new life form that we had inserted into our ecosystem. What did it want from us? Food? Diaper? Attention? Love? He got all of that in abundance, if not always in the correct order. That first Father's Day coincided with my son's naming ceremony, during which friends and family were encouraged to gather in a circle and speak my son's name aloud and welcome him to the planet. It was a tad new-agey for me, but I was glad that it came with the bonus of a magnolia tree. At the time, it was merely a shrub. It fit neatly in my son's Radio Flyer wagon, and was only as tall as my infant son, all stretched out. When most everyone else had wandered off to their own homes, I went out to the front yard with a couple friends and dug a hole. We planted that tree in the corner of the yard and wondered aloud how big it might grow. Twelve more Father's Days have passed, and that Magnolia now obscured my view of the street in front of the house. It's over twenty feet tall, having long since surpassed my son in height.
Why a magnolia? There was a moment in time when our incipient child could have been a girl. My wife agreed to call her Magnolia, if that eventuality had occurred, as a tribute to the meadow where we were married, and to the cabin where I spent so many summers. The one my father built. When my father died, it opened a spot in the parking lot of life for another Donald Caven, and we agreed that if we had a son that we had a name that was already pretty well broken in. When we got a boy, he got my father's name and the magnolia got to be the tree in the front yard. My first Father's Day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I Got A Gut Feeling

"I've got a bad feeling about this," said Han Solo when he heard the telltale creaking that preceded the walls beginning to push in on the garbage compactor where he, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Luke found themselves after rescuing the Princess from her cell. And that's pretty much how I'm feeling as this school year comes to a close.
Please understand, I am grateful to my principal and the school district to seeing that I have continued employment this coming fall. There are plenty of teachers out there who are currently looking for work, and not all of them are going to find them in their chosen field. Budget cutting has become the refrain to the tune that we all know too well. The walls are closing in on education, and as my mother is wont to say, "It's going to get worse before it gets better."
I noticed that teachers in Colorado will soon be hired, fired, and paid based on student's performance. No more tenure. I've never been a huge fan of tenure. It seems like a pretty big gift to hand to someone who has only been on the job for a few years. When I was first granted tenure, I felt relief, not accomplishment. It is only after a few more years that I feel as though I have really earned it. Does that mean I would rather be judged by my job performance alone? I want to believe that my hard work and dedication would keep me employed, but I also know that there are plenty of variables that I cannot control in the equation that is my job.
Will we receive standardized students to take those standardized tests for which our jobs will be evaluated? Will we have a group of standardized parents who will deliver their standardized children to our standardized schools at the standardized time each morning? Why then would anyone in their right mind choose to work in an urban school where such things are far from guaranteed?
I went out on strike for a day this year. Me. Mister "I would never be a member of any club who would have me as a member." I walked the line because I knew that I could probably find a job somewhere in my district because of the years I have already put in, but I couldn't say the same thing for some of my younger and less-veteran teachers. How these people have been able to survive here in the Bay Area on their starting teachers' salaries is beyond me. And in return they are being assailed from all sides about being "highly qualified." How about the most important qualification: They volunteered to be a teacher in the first place.
The lights are off and the doors are closed, but summer school will be starting in a week, and even though "summer" sounds endless when the Beach Boys say it, August 30th will be here before I know it. I've worked hard this year, dancing on the edge of the abyss, and for the first time in I don't know how many years I will be taking those weeks for myself. It is almost certain that before long I will be itching to get back to the classroom, since that's how I am. I'm a teacher, but I've got a bad feeling about this.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Am I Blue?

They're making a Smurfs movie. If you're scratching your head and saying, "Smurf?" you weren't around in the eighties, or you have a mouth full of peanut butter. Computer graphics have allowed filmmakers to digitally insert the blue-skinned devils into our modern world, though they will still only be three apples high. I suppose the fact that they have existed in the pop culture firmament for more than fifty years may have something to do with the reasoning behind the production of a new Smurf vehicle. There are those who would say it's about smurfing time.
I am not one of them. The great wave of Smurfmania hit American shores back in 1981, when we were all high on greed and cocaine. Somehow their simplistic life struggles against the authority, represented by Gargamel, captivated millions and a decade passed with no one questioning their existence. Almost no one. Andrew Dougherty wasn't fooled. He recognized these Euro-trash mites for what they were: card-carrying communists. Well, they would have carried a card, if they had any pockets.
And now everything old is new again. Oliver Stone put a fresh coat of Shia LeBeouf on "Wall Street," and there is wild talk of new features starring Voltron and Thundercats, respectively. Here, I use the word "respect" ironically. Have we really run out of new stories? Can we only look forward to focus-group blockbusters that mine our collective pop-consciousness? I am afraid of making jokes about a "Pillsbury Dough Boy movie," since saying it only makes it more likely.
I confess that I am the happy consumer of much of what is being shoveled my way, but I believe I can still smell a "Marmaduke" coming, and I will do what I can to save my family and friends from such a fate. In the meantime, Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg is marshaling all his creative forces to bring us a computer-generated Tin-Tin. Sounds a little smurfy to me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


"A lot of kids grow up and say, `I want to be Rambo,' you know? Well, he is," said Gary Brooks Faulkner's brother, Scott. Gary Faulkner was armed with a sword, a dagger, night vision goggles and a pistol, when he was picked up by Pakistani authorities. His mission: to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden. This had become, according to his brother, his passion in life. Mister Faulkner, a construction worker by trade, had made several previous trips to the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, picking up some of the language, and growing a beard to fit in with the locals. Apparently he felt the time was ripe for a strike.

Opinions will vary greatly as to why he was picked up by the Pakistani police. Perhaps they thought he was on to something, and they were desperately trying to cover their own covert tracks. Maybe they were worried about some foreign nut-job wandering around the forest with night vision goggles, hacking and shooting at anything with a beard and a turban. Whatever the case may be, he certainly embodies the pioneer spirit, perhaps as a result of living in the wild west town of Greeley, Colorado. Maybe he was the one who was listening when President Pinhead told us all we'd get that guy, "dead or alive."

Gary Faulkner did what any red-blooded patriot would do: he sold his tools and made it his life's work to bring the mastermind of 9/11 to justice. He was going to do what nearly a hundred thousand highly trained and better equipped U.S. troops have been unable to do for the past nine years. Why wouldn't he be successful?

Then there's the little matter of dialysis. Gary's family says that he might be in trouble if he doesn't get his regular treatment. Not unlike his arch-enemy, he's got bad kidneys. Maybe that's the way he hopes to track him down, with some sort of renal-simpatico-sensitivity. That's something even Rambo didn't have.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Class Of 2010

I was asked to speak at our fifth grade promotion. These were the thoughts I tried to stick in their head:

Let’s start with something you already know. A little review: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until my good is better, and my better is best." Every Monday morning, right? The affirmation that starts our week here at Horace Mann. By the time you get to fifth grade, most of you have stopped saying it out loud. You might think that the grown-ups don’t notice. We do. But that’s okay, since the important thing is that you already know those words. To summarize: Always do your best.

Now something new: This book. It was given to me by my father the day that I graduated from college. That was a long time ago. It’s called "Oh, The Places You’ll Go," and it’s by Doctor Seuss. It starts like this: "Congratulations, Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places. You’re off and away." It’s all about a trip this kid, named "you," takes and all the exciting and dangerous things that happen to him along the way. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it, and you should trust me because I’m a teacher.

Speaking of teachers, I’d like to show off for just a moment. I remember when we did the play of "Peter Pan" in Miss Lutz’s class. I got to be Peter Pan. I was the best speller in Ms. Minger’s class. I remember how much Miss Hoff liked my stories. She got me started writing. Ms. Pyle was very strict, but I was glad I wasn’t in Miss Dillon’s class because we all heard that she tied kids to chairs. Miss Stuart let me print out my stories and illustrate them. Mr. Conklin suggested that I read "Diary of Anne Frank." Miss Leonard let me make a movie with all my friends at the end of the year.

Now here’s the crazy part: Way back when I got married, which was still a long time ago, my dad ran into Miss Hoff a few days before the wedding, and he arranged it so that we could all get together and have lunch. And even though I was all grown up and graduated from college and about to move out to California to start my own family, Miss Hoff still remembered me. She told me about the first story I wrote in her class: "The Drunken Snake." She told me that I was a very good student, but my desk was always messy. My second grade teacher remembered me.

It’s what teachers do. It’s what I hope you do: remember. I hope you can remember all the teachers you’ve ever had, and the kids who were in your classes. And all the fun things you did together. And all the things you learned. And while you’re busy doing that, I hope you’ll remember to do your best. "So, be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray ore Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way!"

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fi Fa Ho Hum

The best answer, as it turns out, is "Mexico." The question would be "Mister Caven, who do you think is going to win the World Cup?" The kids that ask me this question, and there have been a surprising number of them, are almost exclusively Latino, and are ferociously loyal to their team. I have tried to be polite in my response, suggesting that there are a number of very good teams playing this year, including that of the host nation, South Africa. I have also said that I would be happy if the United States managed to find themselves in the finals. And that's when the conversation begins to break down, primarily because I know so very little about soccer. Pardon me: football.
I am not comfortable with the rhythms of the game. I am conditioned to TV time-outs and commercial breaks that allow me to nip out to the kitchen or bathroom, or simply to digest the action that I have just witnessed. Their football just keeps going and going. Forty-five minutes of non-stop play, with the occasional pause to toss the ball in from the side or line up for a corner kick. The rest is a flurry of bodies running up and down a great green expanse, chasing a ball with their feet. Please understand that I appreciate the extreme level of skill found in professional soccer compared to the version I am used to watching on our playground every day. Players pass to one another, and there is an over-arching strategy to the way they boot the ball about. I know that I am happy to kick a ball in the direction of another player on my team, let alone with top-spin and lead them just enough so they can snap their necks at it and knock the ball into the opposing goal.
I also know that I could watch one of these matches for two hours and not see a single point scored. We Americans prefer our points to come in bunches. We like Kobe because he can score forty points in a game. We manage our own version of football so that a single score can generate multiple points, making it easier for our children to master the sevens time tables. If you win your World Cup game, you get three points. That's the only way to get more than one at a time. I watched this past weekend, and was impressed to see that the United States was able to grab themselves a tie with a tough match with England. Of course, I also know that the World Cup isn't scheduled to conclude until the middle of July, so I can't get too worked up just yet. By then they might have four points.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Not My Cup Of Tea

I let myself get talked into sitting through "Get Him To The Greek" this weekend. I did not, as so many other ticket-buying Americans did, enjoy myself. It may have been that I was distracted by the fact that my son was watching the new "Karate Kid" just a few doors away. That was the movie that I was leaving my house to go see. With my son. But some friends of ours talked my wife and I into going to see the "grown up" movie instead. My son, who is preparing for his orange belt in Aikido, was happy to be left with his buddies and Jackie Chan. Who says we always have to go the movies together, anyway?
I wish I would have gone with him. This fresh assault from the Judd Apatow school of comedy. You know, the comedies with heart, and a lot of other body parts, as well as a very laissez-faire attitude toward drinking and drugs. "It's funny because it's true," is the line that gets tossed around a lot in these cases, and back when it was "Freaks and Geeks," I couldn't have agreed more. Judd's brand name was one I felt I could trust as he moved to feature films and brought his wacky ensemble of misfits with him. I think I was with him right up to "Knocked Up." All the crudity but still all the heart. You laughed, you cried. You left the theater feeling good. When "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" came out, I started getting a little nervous, and so I stayed away initially. When I finally caught it on video, I was happy to see that the formula was still more or less intact, and by the end of the movie I still cared about what happened to the characters. Just not as much.
I skipped "Funny People," since it seemed like a bad idea to stretch that joke over terminal illness. I did enjoy "Superbad," though I was becoming increasingly aware of just how I was being marketed to. It made me think of premise behind the Friday the 13th movies: ninety minutes divided by thirteen means that a teenager gets killed roughly every seven minutes. Don't go get popcorn, or you'll miss something bloody. With the Apatow group, you won't want to leave because you might miss something raunchy.
"Get Him To The Greek" seemed to me to be an exercise for stretching taste boundaries. As Ian Dury once suggested, sex and drugs and rock and roll have always been good to me, but maybe not in the amounts and frequency depicted here. My wife and I found ourselves pining for Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," a much more sentimental look at the backstage world of rock. There was sex. There were drugs. There was rock and roll. But our noses weren't being rubbed in it.
Maybe I've simply become too old. I didn't care for "The Hangover" either. It made me feel sad and tired. I grew up reading National Lampoon and listening to George Carlin. I have committed every frame of "Animal House" and "Caddyshack" to memory. I am a firm believer in the notion that comedy is all about pressing buttons. I enjoy a good version of "The Aristocrats" as much as the next guy, especially if the next guy happens to be Penn Jillette. But I couldn't find a way to enjoy "Greek." I understood how and why the movie got made, and I hope that Russell Brand continues to have a career that allows him to share his considerable talents for years to come, but perhaps in a setting where he doesn't have to do it "at eleven." After all, even Spinal Tap had their quiet moments. Comedy isn't just loud noises. It's about the quiet noises between the loud noises, too.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sweet Surrender

I had forgotten the hangover. I woke up twice in the middle of the night, heart and mind racing. I finally gave up trying to stay asleep after six thirty chimed on the living room clock. How long had it been since I had a night like that? Weeks. Months. Since Valentines Day, when I gave up dessert.
Like so many lifestyle decisions, it came to me all at once. Now that I will officially be pushing fifty over the metaphorical hill, it seemed like a good experiment. How hard would it be to simply eliminate all the cookies and candy from my diet? These were the "May-Do's" in my diet. In spite of evidence to the contrary, Oreos are not a staple. Yet, somehow, at the end of every business day, I seemed to find myself lining up some nice little confection or two with the rationale that somehow I deserved it. When I heard my son echoing these sentiments for his own nutritional requirements, it made me think: What have I done to deserve this fistful of chocolate covered almonds?
Valentines Day this year was another flurry of sugary treats. My wife, who knows my druthers, provided me various permutations of chocolate, including my very own half-pound bag of peanut M&Ms. When our dog found said bag and devoured them in a pique, there was a lot of discussion about how we might go about replacing the missing dessert. That's when I suggested that maybe it wouldn't be immediately necessary. And the days became weeks. The weeks became months. I watched as my son's birthday party with mint-chocolate ice cream cake came and went. By then I had only a slight regret, but I knew that all that frozen goodness would find a home. The only times I felt the urge to snack outside my prescribed fruit, nut and Power Bar limitations were when I was left alone and the impulse came to me to fill the void with something from Hostess. I suppose the fact that I allowed myself to continue drinking Coca-Cola helped me from becoming hypoglycemic and for the record, I never succumbed. Until last Friday night.
Friends arrived to celebrate birthdays, including mine. They brought pizza and salad to feed a platoon, and the nine of us did what we could, but there were still mountains of leftovers. And a cake. A great big, dark, thick, moist, delicious chocolate cake. And as is customary around this time of year, it even had my name on it. How could I resist?
I had a medium sized piece. I skipped the whipped cream to concentrate on the frosting. Then, just as soon as it began, it was over. Or was it? We turned on the Beatles Rock Band and sang along until nearly midnight. I felt surprisingly energetic. It was all fun and games until I woke up at three in the morning in a cold sweat. And again at five. I was woefully out of shape. Drinking a couple of Cokes and eating a piece of chocolate cake shape, that is.
So I don't know if I will be getting back on the regular dessert train anytime soon. I like the sixteen pounds I have left behind, and sleeping through the night. But I know that learning to be flexible is also part of the plan. As my piano teacher taught me, "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge."

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Fourth grade this time: It's a spring day, and I am waiting in line to take my turn in "D" square. My friend Kent, who embodied everything you might expect from a fourth grade boy named Kent, announced from "A" square, "The rules are: no cheating." As those of us in line took in the action in the four squares. Mary Symanski stood just behind me. In a fit of twitterpation, I offered her my spot in line. She smiled and thanked me, but politely refused. My mind filled with possibilities. It must have been that smile. I sorted through my options and came up with this: "I know, when I get in 'D,' I'll be your robot."
Decades later, I spent some time in therapy, and one of the moments that came up in my discussions about relationships was that four square game with Mary Symanski. Why did I feel the need to subjugate myself to a woman? What was my motivation? Did I think that the only way that I could connect with a girl was by being her servant? And on and on, but that was never very fair to Mary. I don't know if Mary was happy to have the chance to watch me make a fool of myself over her. I don't know if she was as confused as I was in the moment or if she secretly enjoyed manipulating me from afar. She was in fourth grade. Most likely she was wondering how much time was left in lunch recess and if this meant she might have to talk with me later.
Back in "D" square, I entered stiffly, as a good robot should, and awaited instruction. When Kent served the ball to me and it bounced past without my reaction, Mary cried out, "Robot, why didn't you hit the ball?"
In my best robotronic voice, I replied, "Because you did not tell me to."
Kent agreed to serve again, as "do-overs" were apparently part of the not-cheating canon. I hit the ball back to him, and the volley continued for a few more moments until the girl in "B" square missed. She was out, and I advanced to "C." Rather than take her place in "D." Instead, she chose to take a place just behind me and cheer me on. I lasted a few more serves, making it all the way to "B" before my stiff-arm-and-leg technique knocked me out of the game.
That's when it occurred to me that I had no exit strategy. Would I be Mary's robot once I left the game? Could I keep up this charade for the rest of recess? The rest of the day? I needn't have worried. Mary let me know the show was over when she said, "That was really funny, what you did."
Past tense. I was free to return to my normal fourth grade persona, whatever that was, and that was the end of that relationship. The four square game was the high water mark, and unlike so many other relationships that I chased in my life before and after, I was content. I didn't continue to plot and stalk her throughout the rest of elementary school and into junior high. It was a moment. I fell in love in line, and by the time I got to "B" square, we had parted. And that is how fourth grade should be.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Seems Like Old Times

I was rolling my bike up the driveway to park it in our basement when I looked up and saw, past the garage, a pair of young men I did not recognize. At first I pushed it to the side, assuming that they were acquaintances of my son who was surely nearby, waiting to swoop in and bombard them with Nerf darts. Upon closer examination, a few steps closer to the gate to the back yard, I ascertained that these boys were much younger than my son, and I didn't see or hear him. Or my dog. I opened the door to the basement as I continued to ponder this disjoint. When I came out, they were gone. I was out of practice.
When we first moved into our house, we were pioneers. Our front and back yards had been the frontier for the neighborhood kids for some time. They climbed the trees. They played baseball. They pulled the fruit from the branches, ate some, and hurled the rest at whom or whatever they chose. They hung out. The fact that they would do this at any time of the day or night was a challenge to my new little family, who simply wanted to establish their patterns and territory in this new place. One night I laid in wait for a pair of boys who were after the apples in our back yard. I hid behind the garage and waited for them to come over the fence before I surprised them and caught one of them as he was coming down out of the tree. Then I marched him back out the front gate, down the sidewalk, and up the stairs to his the apartment he shared with his father.
I remembered all of this as I made my way inside the house where I was met by my son and his friend, breathless in anticipation of telling me that "there are kids in the yard and we didn't invite them." I recalled the basic patterns of egress for boys in our yard, and walked to our bedroom, where I threw open the window and spotted the trespassers scurrying along the other side of our fence in an attempt to escape to the street. I knew that they were about to run into a locked gate, so I watched them for a moment. They looked to be about eight or nine years old, about the same age as the kids I had once chased out of our apple tree. "Good afternoon, boys," I called down to them.
They stopped dead in their tracks. They had nowhere else to go. I had the high ground. "Uh, hi," they winced.
"I'm Mister Caven. Did you want to come and play in our yard?"
I watched as the two of them worked silently on an excuse or alibi, but to my growing satisfaction, shame gripped them tight. They said nothing. I asked them their names. "I'm Frankie, and this is Johnny."
Really? "Where do you live?" I asked, not sure if I should believe anything they might say.
"In the apartments down the street." Or maybe they were going to simply confess. This was turning out to be much easier than I remembered.
I launched into a lecture that I hadn't used in more than ten years. I told them about how all our friends and neighbors came to our front door and knocked when they wanted to play in our yard. I told them that when people hop our fences without saying hello first, we might think they weren't our friends.
"That we were criminals," said Johnny, showing off his vocabulary and his sense of the justice system.
"Would you guys like to come in and play in our back yard?" I asked again from my lofty perch.
They nodded.
"Well then, hop over that fence, go out to the street and come in our front gate. Knock on the front door and you can meet my son, his friend, and our dog."
Johnny looked up with wide eyes. "You have a dog?"
"Oh don't worry," I assured him, "she's a nice dog. She doesn't bite." I waited for the prescribed beat, just like the old days, "Unless we tell her to."
In the end, Frankie and Johnny came in and were welcomed to our back yard with its swing and trees to climb and the clubhouse to examine. They stayed for half an hour or so, probably much less time than they might have stayed if they had sneaked in. And that's what I remembered best. Once they've been invited, it's just not that fun anymore.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Astronaut Training

I was in second grade, getting ready to make the big move down the hall to third. It was lunch recess and I had wandered away from the throng that clustered around the "little kids' playground." I knew where the big swings were, and I was eager to try them out. It wasn't the first time that I had crossed that line between cultures, big and little. There had been plenty of weekend afternoons when my friends from the neighborhood rode our bikes down to the school and had our run of the entire yard, from the merry-go-round to the backstops at the far end. We were free from the school day restrictions, and we took advantage of all the equipment and space. It was one of those times that I had discovered the thrill of the big swings.
There were swings up on the little kids' corner of the yard, but the frames were much shorter as were the chains, allowing only a small range of motion. The swings just down the way were much more impressive and, it so happens, were mostly empty during the lunch recess at the end of the year, since big kids tended to have more pressing social matters to attend to than swing endlessly back and forth.
When I arrived at the swing set, I had my choice of six rubber seats, and chose the one in the middle on the left hand side. This was the one that offered the greatest possible area in which to hurl myself, if I chose to leave the swing abruptly. But sitting and simply swinging wasn't what I had in mind on that day. Instead I chose to lay down with across the seat, facing the ground. It was important to position the seat squarely on my diaphragm to get the proper balance. I was attempting to simulate weightlessness. I could be underwater. I could be in outer space. Breathing shallowly to compensate for the pressure on my chest, I wiggled my arms and legs to set myself in motion. I was off on an adventure, and I left the playground for a world of my own imagining.
"Hey, Cindy," a voice broke my other-worldly reverie.
"Yeah, Becky?"
"We've got a worm-spitter here."
I looked up. Two sixth grade girls, impossibly developed amazons who I had only seen across a crowded lunch room were standing just a few feet from my head. I leaned back until my feet rested on the ground and looked at them quizzically. "Worm-spitter?"
"Yeah, look," the one called Becky was pointing. "In the sand, where you were drooling. It made little worms in the sand."
"Look at that," marveled an apparently astonished Cindy.
For a moment, I felt proud of my absent-minded saliva drippings. Then the two girls burst out laughing. They squealed and snorted and patted each other on the back. At my expense.
I peeled myself off the seat and back on my feet, wishing that I was climbing the jungle gym or sitting alone on a teeter-totter. Anywhere but here. I started to wander back to where I belonged.
"Don't go!" called one of the two older women. "We need more worm-spitters!" More gales of derisive laughter. If they said anything else to me, I didn't hear it. I was already gone. Back to the relative safety of my own demographic.
The next fall, third graders were allowed to use the big swings, and I spent some time there over the next few years. Mostly sitting, and always with my mouth closed.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


He was walking out when I was coasting to a stop just in front of the door of the polling place: Our neighbor. The one with the "Meg" sign perched high on a post in his front yard. The one who had a "McCain/Palin" sign on the same post a couple of years back. I smiled, waved, and called out to him, "You beat me!" It took him a moment to recognize me in my helmet and Cubs jacket.
"Yeah," he chuckled, "I was first." He went on to describe how the poll workers had to have him inspect the inner workings of the box before he could slide his ballot into the tractor feed.
I told him that I remembered that from a couple of elections ago, when I had been there when the doors opened and I had the honor of casting my votes first. We shared that moment of pride in our civic duty for a moment before he raised an eyebrow. "Yours will probably cancel mine out, but, oh well."
That was the moment of reckoning. The one where we had so much in common and then suddenly found ourselves on the opposite sides of a fence. The fence that has grown taller across the country, for everyone. But this was my neighbor, and I wasn't going to let partisan politics spoil our collective day. "Do you think Tim Tebow will play this year?" I asked.
He threw his head back and laughed and repeated our party line: "It doesn't matter as long as we win two games."
I knew what he was talking about. We don't care who is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos this year, as long as they beat the Oakland Raiders twice. "Just win, baby," I replied, aping the Raiders so-called "Commitment To Excellence." And suddenly we were back on the same page. We were the first two Bronco fans to vote at that Oakland polling place.
I know that before November there will be new signs. I know that my wife and I will still sigh as we walk past his yard to bear witness to his agenda. He knows that just two doors down there is a family that doesn't generally share his views. We don't tend to discuss politics much. But we all vote. And cheer for the Broncos.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Movin' Out

Over the weekend, we lost somebody in the neighborhood. Well, to be fair, he's not exactly lost. We know where he is. He's in jail. It's not the first time, and it probably won't be the last, but from now on when he gets out he won't be coming back to our street.
When we moved into our house thirteen years ago, Greg was ten years old. At the time, he was lumped in with the rest of the kids in our neighborhood. They were sad to have to give up their playground, the one that was our yard, that they had the run of while the house had been empty. Over the first year that we lived there, we made peace with the tribe and made a deal: we would be happy to share our grass and our trees with them as long as they remembered to knock on our door and ask first. Greg never did. He was easily identified even at that relatively young age as a kid who was looking for trouble. He would hang to the back, and seldom made eye contact. Even though the front door of his apartment opened up with a view directly into our living room window, we didn't have much of a connection, if at all.
As he lurched into his teenage years, his mother remained patient with him, and his younger brother seemed to be embarrassed by his increasingly frequent outbursts. At first we were patient. I felt like it was a little karma payback for my angry youth period. Now I was the neighbor and there was a kid across the way who screamed and slammed and tore things up. Even so, my wife and I wondered how long the family could hold on to their apartment with all the other tenants either confronting or being afraid of this burgeoning hooligan.
Then there were the drugs. As he grew older still, it became obvious that he wasn't simply smoking the occasional joint. He would sit on the steps of his building, sometimes with a buddy or two but more often all by himself, enveloped in a cloud of ganja. Having done my time back in the day buying drugs myself, it was apparent that Greg wasn't simply involved for his own personal use. The short drives around the block in strange cars. Visitors at all hours of the day and night. He was in sales. Often times I wondered if that was why his mother tolerated his behavior. Maybe she was happy to have the additional income, or at least that her son had found an avocation.
Somewhere in there, the younger son moved out. He had enough of the stress and strife, not to mention the increasingly frequent visits from the Oakland Police. By now, my wife and I wondered how much longer we could put up with this kid. This young man. I had repaired and replaced slats on our fence after he had thrown a tantrum. On one particularly memorable evening, he kicked his front door hard enough to split the frame. After he had stormed off into the night, I went over with my tools and repaired it as best as I could, just so his mother could close the door.
Last week, she finally chose to close the door and keep it closed. She and her younger son have moved away. They aren't telling Greg where they are going. They gave his girlfriend all of his stuff, packed up their own and left. To say that this parting was bittersweet would be an understatement. The relief my wife, who was subject to his foul moods and carryings-on throughout the week, felt was large enough that she had to contain her glee as she hugged Greg's mom and wished her well. But it wasn't a victory. It was an escape. I can easily imagine an enraged Greg, fresh from his stay in jail, showing up across the way and having one more flurry of obscenities and destruction of property before he disappears for good. And becomes somebody else's neighbor.

Monday, June 07, 2010

It's Only A Model

I didn't even know that Bruce was missing, but an intrepid journalist kept the unthinkable from happening. Corey Turner went in search of the star of the very first summer blockbuster, "Jaws," and when he found the twenty-five foot long mechanical shark at a junkyard in Los Angeles it came as a surprise to Steven Spielberg. Steve thought all the big rubber fish had been destroyed. Technically, he was correct. The three robot sharks that were used in filming had gone to the big feeding frenzy in the sky. But one more had been cast from the original molds and had hung by its tail at Universal Studios for fifteen years until it was taken down in 1990. With the thirty-fifth anniversary of the release of Spielberg's second feature, after "Sugarland Express," the clock is ticking on history.
And what would have happened if this movie prop had been consigned to the scrap heap and there was no evidence beyond that which unspools in theaters and flashes across TV screens of one of the greatest villains of movie history? Would we as a culture be any poorer for lack of a mechanical shark? Perhaps not. I live over a vast, unfinished basement that has filled up over the course of thirteen years with bits and pieces of "history." Very little of that is Mint In Box. A lot of it doesn't have a box at all. This is to say that I understand how a rubber shark, even a twenty-five footer, might have become displaced over thirty-some years. We know where the original King Kong ended up. The bulk of the animation cels used to create the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the forties and fifties were destroyed to make room for a publicity department. Either way, we still have memories of the Eighth Wonder of the World and What's Up Doc. The plastic isn't the thing. It's the movement they were given and projected into our brains all those years ago. Those are the real treasures.
All that being said, if they're looking for a place to store Bruce for the next thirty-five years, I've still got some room in my basement.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Practice Room

Sitting in our front room listening to my son practice piano is an experience not unlike going to a cocktail lounge and gathering around the baby grand for a flurry of requests. He does touch on the pieces that he has been assigned, both by his piano teacher and the director of his middle school jazz band, but in between there are flourishes of songs that he played months, or even years ago. These sounds are then mingled with the experimental bits of songs that he is working out by ear: Green Day, Coldplay, Linkin Park. Once upon a time we searched out sheet music for a Linkin Park song that he was fond of, and it nearly killed his interest. He is much more interested in discovering the sounds than he is being told which keys to press.
He plays differently than I did. I had my lesson book in front of me, and I shuffled through the assignments I had been given for the week and practiced each one the prescribed number of times in the fashion that I had been instructed: Three times, count out loud. Left hand first, then add right hand slowly. I did these things under the watchful eye of my mother and brothers, who also played, and it was understood that each of us would have our turn at the keyboard. It is interesting to reflect at this late date on the fact that there were two pianos in our house, but we never took advantage of the old upright in the basement for getting in additional practice, or simply to streamline the process. But that wouldn't have put us under the watchful eye of the Practice Gods. There were times when conspiratorial alliances were formed when my mother was out of the house, "I'll say that you practiced if you say that I did."
I am familiar with this mild disdain for practicing in my own son. There are plenty of days when we have to stand over him, but once he finally sits down to play, the music tends to simply pour out of him. It's not that he plays everything without effort. His rhythm and tempo fluctuate as wildly as his attention, but the resulting medleys are often more entertaining than your average recital. It gives me that wonderful mix of emotions that parents often encounter: pride for the accomplishments of their child, and a sense of missed opportunity from their own youth.
Saturday morning, after a twenty minute run through of some of his greatest hits, my son announced that he might like to take up the electric guitar. He has a buddy who is buying himself a bass, and wants to put a band together. My head swam with the possibilities of the all day jams going on in our unfinished basement. It made me proud, and a little bit sad.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Happy Meal

When I was a kid, there were no "kids' meals" at McDonalds, and I was happy with that. It was understood that you could order small, medium or large drinks, and way back then there were no quarter pounders or Big Macs, so your choice of sandwiches were pretty limited. You got a hamburger, cheeseburger or a daringly unique Filet-O-Fish. Since the fries came in one size as well, if you wanted more, you ordered them. The relative "value" and "Happiness" of a meal at McDonalds stemmed from one's ability to carry the food to a car where it could be eaten on the way home, or at home if you made it that far.
When the menu began to change, so did the promotions. That's when souvenir glasses started to show up, with all the McDonaldland characters. You could order a large drink or a shake and they would pour it right into one of those collector's items, back in the olden days. That stopped rather abruptly when sanitary concerns were raised. You had to buy the glass and the drink separately, and while you found your way to your newly appointed dining area just steps from the counter, you could put your favorite beverage inside Grimus, Captain Crook, or even Ronald himself.
Eventually, McDonalds began to search outside of their own mythos to gather synergy with other entertainment icons: tie-ins with popular characters who lived outside of the realm of Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar. I was witness to the late-seventies birth of fast-food cross promotion. I have waxed on at times about my experiences marketing Arby's "Holly Days" glassware. I used to tell people that the "real gold" they used on the rim of each glass would make them legal tender in the event of a nuclear war. I had to tell them something, since they never sold the way our series featuring the characters from the B.C. comic strip did. I still have one in my cupboard with the Anteater on it.
That was all twenty, thirty years ago. Now McDonalds has figures out how to make their glasses instantly collectible: announce a recall. The new Shrek-themed tumblers contain a certain amount of cadmium in them, less than your standard Hannah Montana bracelet, but still a potential health concern. The fast-food giant is doing the responsible thing and asking for all twelve million glasses that were sold be returned. You can get your two dollar back, just don't drink your Shamrock Shake out of them. Or, you could hold on to them for a few more years, wrapped in plastic and sell them in mint condition on Al Gore's Internet. Or you can wait just a little longer and sell them with your radioactive Fiestaware.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Never Enough

I read "The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened" by Don Robertson when I was thirteen. My dad took me to see "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" about that same time. To suggest that this was my introduction to mortality would be a lie. At that age, I was already very aware of the Sword of Damocles. I wanted to know how it was all going to turn out. What happens when you shuffle off that mortal coil? I was fascinated by the fates awaiting doomed characters like Morris Bird III and Randle Patrick McMurphy. If there had been Goths in 1975, I might have been one. It suited my introverted personality, and since black is generally thought to be slimming, the wardrobe might have helped me out, too.
As I grew older, I came out of my shell a bit, and it became harder to maintain the shadow of gloom that I had maintained in the seventies. I tended to teeter back and forth from being the life of the party to a wounded soul on a path toward "the truth." That worked well for being a liberal arts major, but once I graduated, real life seemed much more rooted in the daily routines of life. Where we went when we died was a question that got pushed to the back of my mind as I focused on going to work every day and paying the cable bill. The novels of John Irving kept the Under Toad alive for me, along with the admonition to "keep passing the open windows." I learned to hold off those nagging questions of death by making a life for myself.
Gary Coleman, Dennis Hopper, and now Chris Haney. You may not be familiar with Mister Haney. He's not the guy who sold Oliver Wendell Douglas a tractor on "Green Acres," but rather one of the creators of the game Trivial Pursuit. Haney and his collaborator Scott Abbott gave me hours of enjoyment and superficial self-esteem by giving me a game at which I could excel. When I heard the news of his passing at fifty-nine, I was stopped cold by the news that the creator of Trivial Pursuit had died. Was this some sort of cosmic joke? If it is, I hope this is only the setup, and the punchline is still a long way off.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


If there is a sucker born every minute, then they are logging on to Al Gore's Internet at a rate that is much higher than that. What makes me believe this is that when I opened my e-mail this morning, there were no less than four different messages imploring me to get compensated for someone else's mistake or misfortune. That number would have been five, if I had bothered to count Mister Richard De Bongo's invitation that he sent to me twice. Even if I only took Dick De Bongo up on his offer one time along with the other four opportunities, I would be sitting pretty. For just being a kind and trustworthy soul, I could lay claim to several million dollars. Along with my name, address, and phone number.
Everyone knows by now that these offers of Irish lottery winnings or transfer of offshore funds are the byproduct of a wish to get rich quick and machine-generated mass mailing. My wife has chided me, in the past, for taking the time to peek into my spam file. Why would I need to look at anything that a machine has already determined that another machine has sent to me? I suppose it stems from that same horrible urge I have to peek into the Kleenex after I blow my nose, but also because every so often there are communications that slip through the cracks, Mister De Bongo notwithstanding.
It is the danger of dealing with others across a medium that is so expressly devoid of character. Why else would we feel the need to include random punctuation to insert our state of mind or feelings :)? Why would anyone hang their personal information out into cyberspace for anyone with a million dollar scam to latch onto? The recent concerns about Facebook's privacy settings makes me wonder if our need to connect with each other isn't deeper than our need to connect with funds from an unfortunate industrial accident in Hong Kong.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Pandora's Well

The best hope for stopping the flow of oil from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has been compared to hitting a target the size of a dinner plate with a drill more than two miles into the earth. What a relief. At least it's not a salad plate.
This attempt will work, according to scientists and the folks at BP. It may take a few weeks, but it will work. The leak will be plugged by August, the experts tell us. This works in favor of the corporation and the government, since we as Americans tend to dial down our outrage after a few months. We're pretty much over Tiger Woods these days, for example. You can only watch so many hours of video taken of brown sludge pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico before it becomes background noise. After all, the target they're trying to hit is the size of a dinner plate. Shouldn't we be patient?
Nope. They dug the hole they're trying to fill. Someone somewhere should have had a notion about how to deal with the potential ecological catastrophe they were generating. BP should have been every bit as interested in capping that well as they were in opening it in the first place. That is what is missing from this "I dunno" shrug-of-the-shoulders response. Meeting with the president at the White House won't keep the slick from spreading. In the meantime, Fox News would like us to know that boycotting BP gas stations would only be hurting small businesses, but hey, they just report. We decide.
But if they're sincere about looking into a solution for this problem, I suggest putting the problem back in the hands of our youth. I have watched my son navigate through storms of flying debris and attacking robots to achieve his goal. I know that given the proper joystick and a forty-inch monitor, he could drop a plug in that hole and probably get the high score.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


There has been some discussion in the past week at my school about the wisdom of counting down the days until summer. Kids are doing it, at least the ones in the upper grades. Fifth graders have a special reason: They will be promoted out of that place in a scant three weeks, and they have begun to track the number of recesses they have left. Middle school has passing periods and PE. There won't be any languorous games of four square, or laps around the play structure. There won't be play structures. It makes sense that they would begin to shiver with anticipation. The rest of them will be released into their neighborhoods for two and a half months of relative freedom: pencils, books, dirty looks.
What about the grown-ups? Does it make any sense to keep tally marks in the corner of the white board? Will it make things easier to cope with as the "must do" list runs down and the "may do" list expands? The students, for their part, will come back to a different room for the next school year. The fortunate members of our staff will be coming back to the same place they left, with the main difference being fresh faces in the seats in front of us. Then there are those who won't be coming back. Every year we lose a few. Sometimes it's because a better opportunity came along: a chance to work at "a hill school" or a position at an educational software company. More often than not, however, it's the job that chews teachers up and spits them out, either by stress or the machinations of the system. For those members of our staff, counting down days means counting the days until the next big career move. It takes a little of the giddy edge off the wind down of the school year.
As years go, this has been a tough one. Budget cuts and expectations of moving our school out of program improvement has had us all on edge while the district and the teachers' union continues to do the bargaining dance that has been going on for the past two years. Would a first year teacher want to stick around a district with all of that pressure? Summer vacation isn't much of a vacation if it includes a career change. Maybe not vacation, but resolution. And so, out of respect for all those involved, I will play out the string without loud pronouncements of how many hours are left n the school year. It will come soon enough for everyone.