Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead Celebrities

To my credit, I did wait two years. After I figured that the wounds had begun to heal, I tried this one out at a party I was throwing: "What do you suppose John Lennon would be doing if he were alive today? Maybe finishing up another album with Yoko, or even getting back together with the lads?" Then a beat. "Or maybe he would be scratching frantically at the lid of his coffin." From across the room, a rather large young man with many beers in him got up and bumped his rather impressive chest against mine. Though I was hosting the party, I had no idea who this person was who was telling me, "Hey man, that's not funny."
There was a lot of hemming and hawing and I ended up making some vague apology before I slithered off to the bathroom to savor the fact that I hadn't just joined John in Heaven. Imagine that. Actually, when I reflected on it, I assumed that if any person, famous or not, would appreciate that joke, it would be "the smart Beatle." As a result, I have made it a practice over the years to make that same joke about a great many stars who have left our material plane. I consider it, in my own snotty way, a tribute.
That's why, when I read that Michael Jackson earned two hundred and seventy-five million dollars this year, I wondered if passing on wouldn't be the best possible career advice. It also gave much more credence to the notion that someone might fake their own death just to cash in. Elvis made sixty million dollars last year just for hanging around a pet store in Kalamazoo, Michigan. John Lennon showed up on the list by raking in seventeen million the year he turned seventy. That's not AARP money. That's some serious cash.
Maybe it is cruel to suggest that bankrupt artists, either financially or creatively, would fake their own deaths. Maybe it's cruel to joke about it. Or maybe it's better than imagining John, Michael and the King clawing their way out of their own graves and dancing in the moonlight. Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

'Tis The Season

Make no mistake: I grew up in a house that did its best to go overboard when it came to decorating for Halloween. Each year, my mother would allow each of her three boys to pick a scary candle from the selection at the local five and dime to add to the display that grew and grew each year on window ledges and other horizontal surfaces around our house. There was also a big box of autumnal colored bric a brac mixed with countless cardboard cutouts of witches, skeletons, and monsters of every stripe. Each October, it became increasingly difficult to find a spot to place and tape it all.
As a parent, I have taken this tradition and passed it along to my own little family. We have our own box of Halloween, and there is a sense of mild relief that having only one kid means that our presentation is limited by a factor of three. It does mean that my wife and I feel free to carve our own Jack-O-Lanterns to place beside the one my son dutifully creates to decorate our porch each year. We have some orange lights that roughly approximate a spider's web that we hang in one window, but our spectacle is generally limited to our front porch.
That's not the case with some of the houses in and around our neighborhood. There is one house in particular that gets my notice. It should be noted that this is a house where you will find the icicle lights for Christmas hanging from the eaves year-round. And at the end of September, their tiny yard begins to fill up with a wild assortment of ghouls and ghastlies. Not simple cardboard cut-outs, but full-sized animatronic contraptions that pull their own heads off or writhe about on the lawn in electronic agony. There are a number of faux stone tombstones, and a skeletal pirate that guards the front walk. This year they have even added an inflatable black cat that towers some eight feet over the rest of the display. The fact that they are only a hundred yards up the street from my elementary school may have something to do with their mild extravagance. They are guaranteed an audience of three hundred and fifty parading youngsters each years when we empty onto the sidewalk for our annual parade around the block.
By the next week, the zombies and headstones have all been put away again, but the icicle lights are still hanging there, waiting for the first week of December to signal the coming of winter.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Let's start with the headline: "Romo breaks his collarbone in loss to Giants." To read that, you might expect that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo threw a ball so hard that it snapped his clavicle. Or in some fit of pique, he reached up and collapsed his own shoulders around his neck, causing his collarbone to break. In reality, New York linebacker Michael Boley, all six-foot three and two hundred and twenty-three pounds of him, ran at full speed and landed on top of the Cowboys' field general. Tony Romo, according to Boley, "let out a little scream." This was how the weekend of the National Football League scrutinizing "hard hits" ended. Boley was not penalized or flagged for driving Romo into the turf. This is, after all, a contact sport.
Because, sports fans, it was a "legal hit." We watch the game to see the extraordinary physical feat: the fingertip catch, the ninety yard runback, and yes, even the occasional teeth-rattling "snot bubble." As long as it's legal. That's what made Brett Favre the man he is today, hobbling about, throwing interceptions and grimacing in pain, but still almost leading his team to victory. It is what we are paying him to do.
Of course, speaking of "hits," we aren't paying for him to hit on female employees of the NFL. This kind of contact will get you a call to the commissioner's office, and maybe a few game's suspension. Contrast this to the six to eight weeks that Tony Romo is expected to miss as a result of the on-the-field activity he found himself in, and you wonder just exactly where the priorities of our great nation have fallen. Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, received a six game suspension for sexual assault. Not on him, but by him. This ruling was then backed off to just four games, because he was "contrite."
For his part, Tony Romo was contrite as well. With his arm in a sling. Michael Boley? He'll be showing up on highlight reels for the next few days.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sunday Bloody Sunday

It happens every so often. You sit down on the couch to cheer your favorite team on, and whoops, it seems as though your favorite team didn't bother to show up. In a vague, physical sense, they are there, but they don't seem to have any kind of vested interest in what is taking place around them. Which is too bad, since there's not much I can do from my couch but sit, slack-jawed, and watch the evisceration take place. That's what happened last Sunday in Denver. The Broncos gave up three touchdowns before I had settled into my proper viewing position. They gave up those three touchdowns to the much detested and loathed Oakland Raiders. I tried, in vain, to get my family interested in sharing my pain. My son looked at the score and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Dad, I've got better things to do." I watched it all unfold like a slow motion train wreck. How could a group of professionals show up so woefully unprepared? Were these two teams so horribly mismatched that someone should have simply thrown in the towel at halftime?
That's what I'm starting to feel about the Democrats in the upcoming elections. My team seems ill-prepared at best to do what it takes to win the game. Nothing that I have seen or heard makes me think about switching parties or crossing the line to vote Republican, but I keep wondering why it is that my party seems so ready to simply drop back five, and punt. Just two years ago, we won the Super Bowl, right? I understand that repeating that success is a tough road, but the Denver Broncos did it once upon a time. Bill Clinton too. If you're a true fan, you don't just hop on the bandwagon of another team, but maybe you wonder what is going through the coach's head, or where the quarterback might be playing next year. And while you're watching the massacre, you might find yourself wondering the relative competitiveness of the rest of the players on your team. Are they content to play out the string, or will they rise up and give it their best effort when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys. I don't know where I'll be then Rock, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Not One Of Us

One of the things that I have always taken solace in is the way certain celebrities have the ability to appear in our world as "just plain folks." The suggestion that Bruce Springsteen drives his kids to school just like any hard-working New Jersey dad helps me make sense of the world. Knowing that the guys from DEVO met in art school and used their collective nerdiness to become one-hit wonders gives me hope for my own collective nerdiness. It is my absurd wish to relate to those in the public eye that keeps me renewing my subscription to Entertainment Weekly.
Then there's the other side of the coin: Katy Perry and Russell Brand were married in a traditional ceremony last Saturday. In India. On a tiger preserve. With horses and sitars and elephants. I remember when I was planning my wedding with my soon-to-be-wife, and for a few minutes, we considered a Disney wedding. Then we realized that we were shopping in a realm that was at least a decimal place higher than we were likely to cough up. So we looked into getting a horse on which she could make her entrance. We finally settled on a Dodge convertible. We skipped the tigers and elephants, too.
Then there's the marriages that have lasted and lasted, like Mick and Keith. They've stayed together for fifty years. For his part, Mister Richards insists that he has been able to maintain his calm in the eye of the hurricane we call fame the old fashioned way: heroin. There were sitars, but there was no word on whether the Brand/Perry reception included any pharmaceuticals.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Batting Cleanup

There was a work day at my son's school this past weekend. I have lost track of all the times I have shown up at various public schools, the one at which I work and the ones my son has attended, on a weekend. Sometimes I fix things. Sometimes I clean things. Sometimes I pull weeds. Most of the time I wonder what I'm doing there.
Five days a week, your traditional work week, I roll my bike into my classroom sometime around seven thirty in the morning. I don't tend to roll it back out until after four in the afternoon. These aren't the ten and twelve hour days that I used to put in when I used to run a book warehouse way back in the twentieth century, but they're full days. Those thirty-five minutes of "duty-free lunch" provide the only quiet moments in what can be best described as a marathon. When Friday afternoon comes, most of us teachers are headed for the door and not looking back.
But not all of us. There are those, myself included, who understand that schools don't magically reconstitute themselves over the weekend. Even the most dedicated custodial staff can't keep up with all the wear and tear that buildings and grounds take over the course of a school year. It takes a little extra help to keep things up and running. That's what parents do. That's what neighborhood volunteers do. That's what teachers do. On the odd weekend when you can round up enough dedicated hands, you can put your school back together again.
That's when my wondering stops. I know why I'm there. It's a public school, and I'm part of the public. Wouldn't Horace Mann be proud.

Monday, October 25, 2010

If You Build It, They Will Come

The deaths of Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley marked the passage of an epoch. White America was already given notice that by 2050 they will no longer be in the majority, and now Mom and Dad are dead. Of course we're angry. Angry and afraid. All these foreigners keep showing up on our doorstep, wanting a piece of our apple pie. What little solace we might have taken from the notion that the world would end in 2012 was shattered when we found out that we weren't that good at reading a Mayan calendar after all. Now we're stuck with this ever-churning melting pot, soon to become just another minority.
And so, while the clock continues to tick, we who are Caucasian sit and stew in our own juices. Bitter and frustrated with the way that our country has become a repository of the world's huddled masses. Why should we care if they're yearning to breathe free? It was some chick who stuck that poem on the front of the statue given to us by the French that started all this touchy-feely stuff in the first place. This is our country, after all. We cleared all the Native inhabitants off pretty much all by ourselves, thank you very much and now we'd like to be able to sit around and enjoy it for a couple hundred more years without having to worry about any other languages or religions or cultures beyond the amusing and comfortable mash-up that we've all become familiar with over the years.
Angela Merkel understands. As she told a gathering of the Christian Democratic Union last week in Potsdam, "The approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side by side and to enjoy each other ... has failed, utterly failed." Her sentiments echoed the a study from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation that found more than thirty percent of people believed Germany was "overrun by foreigners" who had come to Germany chiefly for its social benefits. This thirty percent were probably not Germans "of color." The study also found that thirteen percent of Germans would be happy to have a new "Fuhrer" to run the country "with a firm hand." Some sixty percent of Germans would "restrict the practice of Islam," and seventeen percent think Jews have "too much influence," according to the study. The study does not mention whether or not sales of brown shirts have gone up as well.
And the Germans are not alone. Last year, the Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The French may have missed the boat on the whole Coalition of the Willing thing, but they have been more than happy to get on board with banning headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in their schools. I assume that means they won't be getting any visits from the Pope anytime soon. We're building a big wall on our southern border. No word on whether we will call in any German architects for consultation on that one.
In the meantime, we can sit in our bunkers, having fever dreams about the Beav's little friend from Mexico, Chuey, and how Arnold's was really owned by Mister Miyagi.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Color Scheme Of Things

What are the chances that I would end up living in the heart of the "Black Hole?" Born and raised a Denver Broncos fan, I am surrounded throughout the year by silver and black reminders of what I learned from infancy was, plain and simple, evil. The Oakland Raiders were the bad guys, and there were simply no two ways about it. And yet, here I am, sitting in a house that I bought just scant miles from the center of all this vileness. The chances of all of that occurring are currently standing at one hundred percent.
Maybe it has something to do with the way that the colors blue and orange find themselves on the opposite sides of a color wheel, creating harmony. Those are the colors of my team, while the combination of silver and black seems to be just asking for trouble. But my experience suggests that's the way a Raider fan would want it. They are the ones who mined this image with the tag line: "Just Win, Baby." Take no prisoners. That one takes precedence over the more pompous "Commitment To Excellence." It doesn't scan as well on a bumper sticker.
My most excellent and revered Bronco Bud won himself a Tivo way back when they were just starting up by writing an essay that suggested that the best use for a digital video recorder was that it would allow him to slow down or freeze broadcasts of Raiders games to keep track of how much they were cheating. Considering that corporate headquarters for Tivo are located just a little over thirty minutes down highway 880 from where the Raiders play their home games, there must be something to that. And most inhabitants of the Raider Nation probably won't put up much of an argument about that.
Now here's the weird thing: It never occurred to me, back in the day, that I was moving into enemy territory. I fell in love and moved out to California. It was only when football season began that I became excruciatingly aware of just how this choice was going to affect my life. Love is blind, after all, or perhaps only color blind. And so my wife and son will huddle together one more time this afternoon to watch yet another chapter of the AFC West rivalry unfold. Neither team seems to be particularly dominant this year, so it should provide some mild entertainment, giving us one more shot at bragging rights for the season. One more chance to be complementary.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Love On The Rocks, I Know It Well

I sat in the front room of my house and watched a couple walking down the street. To be more precise, I watched them start and stop walking down the street. It took them several minutes to make their collective way past our front gate. They were deep in conversation, or what appeared to be conversation. It was very intense. It wasn't loud, which was a feature of many of the discussions that have taken place on our street over the years. I watched the man reach for the woman's hand, as if to beg her indulgence. She shrugged and pulled away. He stomped away for a few steps, then returned, hands on hips. There was another brief exchange before he threw his arms up in the air and retreated back down the sidewalk.
As this dance continued, I tried not to stare from my window. There have been occasions when these interactions have not worked out quite as politely. There have been times when a call to the police has been necessary to keep the relative calm. Something about being out on the street must make people imagine that they are somehow invisible, not unlike the illusion created by getting into your car: no one can see you picking your nose or singing along to ABBA at the top of your lungs. When you take your relationship problems out into the world, everyone can see and hear it.
I know this because I have been there myself. I have succumbed to the tunnel vision of male/female discord on a number of occasions. It was only now, as I watched the sad couple in front of my house that it ever occurred to me what I might have looked like in that same predicament. No one ever called the cops on me. Maybe they should have. I have been plenty loud, even when I'm getting along with my mate. As the anxious couple continued on past our house, I wondered if I might see them again. Only this time they would be strolling hand in hand, not saying a word.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blessed Are The Yellow People

I don't know how my son will react to this news about his favorite show: The official Vatican newspaper has declared that beer-swilling, doughnut-loving Homer Simpson and son Bart are Catholics. This kind of revelation might seem more appropriate for a clan like the Ewings or the Cleavers, It seems a little out of place for a TV family whose patriarch once announced, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life - uh, Christianity."
That's just the tip of the theological iceberg in the Simpson household, but it doesn't keep the Osservatore Romano newspaper from claiming the yellow brood as their own. They assert that the Simpsons are "among the few TV programs for kids in which Christian faith, religion and questions about God are recurrent themes." While that may be true, this is also a father who has proudly insisted, "In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" Homer, it would seem, is every bit as dedicated to the good book as he is to the textbook.
Maybe they were focusing on the Homer moment when he was confronting convenience store proprietor and Hindu, Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon: "You make people miserable and there's nothing they can do about it, just like god. No offence Apu, but when they were handing out religions, you musta been out taking a whizz." Is it that kind of tolerance that the Catholic church hopes their followers to embrace, or is that just a "tea-party moment?"
Or maybe it's as simple as this: "The Simpsons" air every Sunday evening, football and baseball permitting, on Fox. They've been there since 1987. They are, by television standards, an institution. At this point, I imagine that the Pope is getting a little tired of trying to find fault with this "tender and irreverent, scandalous and ironic, boisterous and profound, philosophical and sometimes even theological, nutty synthesis of pop culture and of the lukewarm and nihilistic American middle class." I guess they'd rather switch than fight.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Price Of Face

Perhaps I have mentioned this before, and it might seem a little hypocritical to be taking aim at anything on Al Gore's Internet when the very words you are reading would have to come to you carefully bound and written by quill pen without it, but what is the deal with Facebook? Maybe I just missed the demographic, or maybe I am way too immersed in my own musings to imagine taking on anyone else's, but what is the deal?
It would make more sense if I were the one who went to see "The Social Network" and had the scales from my eyes. At last I could see what a craven enterprise this thing is. I would simply go home and cancel my account, relieved to be free of this horrible time-sink. I would start meeting friends the old fashioned way: looking someone in the eye and having conversations longer than the size of a text box. I would connect with people on a level just a shade deeper than their favorite "Gilligan's Island" character. I would stop using "friend" as a verb.
Or not. There are plenty of very happy and healthy individuals who continue to be very polite and active in analog ways who continue to use their Facebook accounts
. Sometimes we even make eye contact. These are the people who can walk away whenever they want. They aren't updating their status by the half hour. The trouble is, even members of that first group are apparently just as susceptible to the creeping tendrils of online creepiness. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that even those with the strictest privacy settings were in danger of having their personal information transmitted out into cyberspace for advertisers and those less scrupulous to do as they see fit with them. What I am saying here is simple: It's not just me.
Facebook currently boasts half a billion users. McDonald's would love to sell them all a hamburger. Coca-Cola would happily give them all both a Coke and a smile. And some bad people would love to use your personal information for making bad choices with someone else's lives. It's like the movie suggests: There's this great big party on Al Gore's Internet and no one wants to be left off the guest list. The trouble is, the guys who are running it keep changing the rules, and they seem to have a hard time keeping everyone safe. It reminds me a little of the 1980's.
Or maybe it's a little like heroin. "First one's free," says Captain Jack. Or like Captain Zuckerberg says, "It's free, and always will be." That one probably is just me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Something For Nothing

This past weekend, my wife was minding her own business in a very literal sense at our neighborhood yard sale. That was until she was approached by a woman who wanted to share a very exciting opportunity with her. She wanted my wife to take a look at some products she had for sale. Ever pleasant and curious, my wife accepted the pretty green catalog. The woman was selling Herbalife: natural health and weight loss. Why wouldn't my wife be interested? Three simple letters: MLM.
Multiple Level Marketing has been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God I'm glad I'm not one. I am sure that the Herbalife Personalized Protein Powder would provide me with the results I so desperately need, both from a personal as well as a powder position, but I don't like the idea that I am going to be getting those results on the back of some poor schmuck who decided to get into the Herbalife game just a little late. Somebody's relative. Somebody's friend.
Once upon a time, I got a call from a chum of mine from school. It had been years since we had seen one another, and he invited me over to dinner. It never occurred to me that I was walking into an Amway Ambush. Being a clever sort, I immediately confronted this friend of mine from childhood: "You want me to work for you? Selling soap?"
"It's not what you think! It's not one of those pyramid schemes," and then it was too late. I wasn't in love with the idea of dragging a bunch of samples around and trying to find someone who needed paper towels by the caseload, but then trying to convince them to come and work for me so that I could stop selling paper towels by the caseload and start sitting on my couch counting money just wasn't going to happen. I didn't want to be part of the pyramid. Not at the bottom. Not at the top. It reeked of scam to me, even way back then.
I didn't finish dinner. I never saw my grade school pal again. He may have eventually found his underlings and ascended out of the one bedroom apartment in which he was living. Or maybe he used up the gallons of multi-purpose cleaner that he had shoved into his hall closet and moved on with his life. I hope he found happiness. But I will never understand how reasonable people become consumed and attached to such silliness. I understand that there are still plenty of people who believe that you can pop corn with cell phones. Responsible people with real jobs. They fall prey to the words that have been used for scams like this for years: "It really works!" It's simply a corollary to the words that make every ghost story truly scary: "It really happened." I guess, in the end, it depends on what is more terrifying: a guy with a stainless steel hook preying on young lovers in their cars, or some friendly face babbling on about a "business opportunity." They all end about the same, and no matter how many cell phones you use, they still won't pop corn.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Race To Nowhere

"Everything is walking distance, if you have the time." - Steven Wright
It's that time of year when I start to consider the length of the runs that I take around the streets and lanes of my neighborhood. I don't think too much about ten kilometers. That's how far I run once a year: the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It's the organized, measured race that I participate in each year, and right about now is the time of year when they send me an application, just to remind me that I could run ten kilometers. If I wanted to.
The rest of the year I satisfy myself with the distance that time permits. That generally clocks in somewhere around three to four miles two or three times a week. These are generally loops that use my front gate as a starting and finish line. Occasionally my family and friends coax me into more directional routes that take me from one place to another. "Let's run over to the Lake," or "Let's run the trail up at Roberts Park." But mostly it's just me, running in circles.
Last week I had a memory of my first and only interview for a teaching position. The weekend before, I looked at a map of the area to get a rough idea of where the school was, strapped my son in our jogging stroller, and trotted off into the unknown. I had some vague idea of how far away the school was, but a number of dead ends and a few wrong turns added to the mix. Eventually I found myself on the curb, looking up at the place that would be my home away from home for the next fourteen years. I caught my breath, and pushed my son back up the slow incline, heading home.
That was a long time ago. Many miles ago. I've gone through dozens of pairs of running shoes. My son runs alongside me, from time to time. My dog has retired from the circuit, preferring the more relaxed pace of my wife's constitutionals to my hurried cadence. And it makes me think of another Steven Wright bit: "I took my dog for a walk, all the way from New York to Florida. I said to him 'There, now you're done.'" Me? I'm not done yet.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Strict Interpretive Dance

Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(d) prohibits players "from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground," also known as unsportsmanlike conduct or excessive celebration. That's what the National Football, or "No Fun" League officials will tell you when you commence to cavort about the end zone after a touchdown, or dance like a maniac over the prone body of your mortal enemy, the opposing quarterback. It is what distinguishes professional football from Championship Wrestling. For the record, a flying chest bump is within the rules, but if you happen to fall down while attempting such a risky maneuver, it will cost your team fifteen yards. That's what happened to the Dallas Cowboys' Marc Colombo, after he missed the rather sizable target that is Jason Witten's chest. He fell to the ground, a flag was thrown, and the subsequent penalty helped the Tennessee Titans set up for their winning score. Incidentally, he was also flagged for unnecessary roughness, an ironic term in a contact sport, and the league office decided to fine him five thousand dollars. It was not Mister Colombo's week. This is a guy who, in his spare time, is the lead singer for heavy metal group "Free Reign." Maybe he should have saved up all that fury for the stage.

Or not. He's a big guy playing a game with a bunch of other big guys and things get pretty exciting out there sometimes. I confess I have always appreciated Vince Lombardi's suggestion that if you happen to make it to the end zone, "act like you've been there before." For this reason, I thought that Terrell Davis' "Mile High Salute" was a nicely understated acknowledgement of the reason he was on the football field in the first place: the fans. Then there was the other infamous Bronco end zone celebration, when Godwin Turk spiked a ball so hard that he dislocated his shoulder, keeping him out of the lineup when Denver went to the Super Bowl for the first time. Self-penalizing.

That was back in the days when the exuberance flowed a little more freely, before the highly choreographed displays of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. Dancing with the Stars, indeed. Is football a business? Is it a sport? Is it entertainment? Is it supposed to be any fun? Using Mister Ochocinco's statistics as a starting point, one might guess that he will continue to misbehave when he scores, since he's been there more than sixty times as a professional, and maybe that's just how he acts when he gets there. Go figure.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Big Fix

Megbay Whitman wants us to fix California's education system from the top to the bottom. The California teacher's union doesn't want her to get a chance. It comes a no surprise that the traditionally Democratically-aligned CTA has their differences with the state's leading auctioneer. Instead they find themselves in an uneasy alliance with Jerry "Been There, Done That" Brown. He's the guy who started the rush to charter schools in Oakland back when he was mayor here. The two that got his personal attention continue to survive, even if they don't quite meet the federal standard for "thrive." Jerry does say, on his web site, "I have gained first-hand experience in how difficult it is to enable all students to be ready for college and careers." I'm not going to be the one who goes out and searches for evidence of his hours in the classroom, but we'll give him a point or two for continuing to have his name associated with these institutions. I like the idea of reforming the state testing program. I like the suggestion about broadening the scope of instruction to include more science, history and humanities. That sounds nice. So does having chocolate milk every day at lunch. Megbay, on the other hand wants us to know that, "If our schools don't improve, our prisons will continue to be overcrowded, welfare costs will continue to spiral upward, and we will lose our ability to be a center of innovation." No chocolate milk for her.
The reality is this: Neither Brown nor Whitman will inherit any sort of quick-fixable agenda for anything, especially education. There will be plenty of photo opportunities to go along with all the lip service that is currently being paid before the second of November. Then, suddenly, it will be time to put all of these words into action. Or not. Whitman's plan to cut welfare and shovel that money back into higher education, and Brown's concern over the ability to transfer credits between the CSU and UC systems seem quaint compared to the challenges faced by public education as a whole. None of this can happen without some sort of change and/or relief on a federal level. Unless California finally becomes its own republic, and since I didn't find any plans for secession on either one of the candidates on either web site, I'm guessing we'll continue to wait and hope for change.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Watch Where You Swing That Price Club

If, as Newt "So Silly A Name That A Nickname Is Unnecessary" Gingrich insists, Democrats are the food stamp party, where does that leave Wal-Mart? Those courageous retailers who have lead the fight to keep our families fed, even if it is via the variety four-pack of Pringles. There's a battle being waged out there, and the friendly folks at Wal-Mart want to make it safe for you and yours to put one more meal on the table. Unless it starts eating into their profits.
A few months ago, the great blue beast that is Wal-Mart started a campaign of "rolling back" its already low prices. There would be bargains on top of bargains, and who would be foolish enough to turn down a deal like a six pack of Lipton's sweetened iced tea mix for just thirty-one dollars and ninety-eight cents? You'd have to be crazy to miss out on an offer like that. And while you're there, you should probably pick up a few items that you really don't need.
That's how they roll: back. They don't make any money on the stuff that they sell for next to nothing, but hope that you'll stick around long enough to purchase enough "impulse buys" to make the trip worth their while. Like that forty ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup, for example. Except that's not what consumers have been consuming. They have the temerity to buy only those items that have been rolled ridiculously back, and then fled. There have been unconfirmed reports of blue-vested employees chasing customers out into the parking lot, ranting about the deals that they are missing and pleading with them to purchase just one more twelve pack of Rayovac D cell batteries. Even though the recession is over, there are just so many D cell batteries that your average family of four can use in a month.
And so Wal-Mart will no longer be rolling back prices. You might pay a little more for that case of Wilson Titanium tennis balls, but at least you'll have your self-respect. It's all a part of Wal-Mart's new "Build Your Self-Esteem By Buying Junk You Don't Need At Inflated Prices" program. I smell a winner.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What's In A Name?

If you type "Vernon Park" into your search box, you probably won't get much specific response. Contrastingly, if you put "Juan James Rodriguez" in that same box and press "enter," you'll get a whole lot more than you might have expected or wanted to see. This is the guy who got arrested this past weekend for streaking in front of the president. He did it, allegedly, to snap up the million dollar award set up by billionaire media "prankster" Alki David. Mister Rodriguez was quickly arrested. Mister David said it was unclear if his naked minion met all the criteria to qualify for the prize.
More to the point, it was the name of the web site,, that needed to be stenciled across the streaker's chest, and had to be shouted "six times within earshot of the President." In the big book of "there's no such thing as bad publicity," I suppose Alki David just wrote a chapter all his own. His web site gets all kinds of traffic, his bio gets refreshed on Wikipedia, and Juan J. Rodriguez slips quickly into the footnotes, right next to Robert Opel.
Then there's the still-unnamed author who, in a fit of what might be best described as exuberance, tossed his new book at the President. Same day. Same park. He too was quickly taken into custody, even though he remained clothed during the exchange. According to reports, the guy "really wanted the President to read his new book." Obviously he missed the mark. He should have written it across his chest and run past the podium. The font would have to be smaller than a simple web address. Or better yet, he might have hired somebody else to "show off his shortcomings." Then maybe we'd know his name too.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

TV Party Tonight!

The headline read, "Too much TV psychologically harms children: study." Or, for those of you unfamiliar with the parlance of the fourth estate, "There's a study out that says that TV is bad for kids." The fact that I read this story while staring at a slightly rectangular screen, I took it with a grain of salt, but less than I would had I seen if first on CNN.
The folks at the University of Bristol want us to know that kids who "spend hours each day in front of the TV or games console have more psychological difficulties like problems relating to peers, emotional issues, hyperactivity or conduct challenges, than those who don't." I could suggest that they talk to the pasty-faced kids eating paste whose parents don't allow a television in the house and see how well they interact with their peers, but that might seem a tad hostile. But what would you expect to a child of the TV generation? Most of the history I have witnessed has taken place on TV. Some of my happiest moments have come bathed in its warm glow. I remember who shot J.R. I remember seeing the Fonz jump the shark before it became a national trend. Captain Kangaroo started my day, and Johnny Carson ended it. Like most parents of that age, mine were alternately concerned and apathetic about the hours my brothers and I spent in front of the tube. My grandparents were probably worried about how my mom and dad spent all those hours with their ears pressed to the radio, and their parents fretted about the effect that vaudeville was having on them.
I tell my son to turn off the TV or close up the laptop. I try and count the minutes he spends in front of screens of any sort, and it makes me crazy. Especially when I try and justify the way my couch faces the big slab of pixels. It's video feng shui. Still, it is hard to argue with the wisdom of Aristotle, who insisted on moderation of all things, but then again, his buddy Plato had us all staring at shadows on the wall of a cave a couple thousand years ago. I wonder if his kids were hyper too.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

We've Got Another Riddle For You

This was the image I stared at over the weekend. This was the image that stayed with me as I thought about all the ways that my family and I could keep the planet clean enough so that we could raise another generation on it. This is not a picture of Oompa Loompas stirring chocolate in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. These are community workers, wearing protective gear, cleaning a street flooded by toxic mud in the village of Kolontar, Hungary. The sludge continues to threaten the town as a hole fifty yards wide has been blocked, but cracks around the rest of the retaining wall show cracks and signs of giving way. Residents of Kolontar, accent on the "tar," have been evacuated, while the folks just up the road have been told to pack a bag "just in case."
Just in case the goop continues to creep down their streets and toward their houses. Just in case this ugly incident keeps getting uglier. For the record, the company responsible, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, has apologized for their participation in the mess. The mess that includes seven deaths and one hundred and fifty injured, with three still missing somewhere in all that muck. The company says they are willing to pay compensation "in proportion to its responsibility" for the damage caused by the deluge. As the slop has already painted the Blue Danube red, and threatened countless flora and fauna in the region, one might wonder why that percentage wouldn't be one hundred percent. And then there's the fact that the head of the company has been detained by local police. Are you listening, British Petroleum?
There's not a lot of naturally occurring instances of bauxite being refined into alumina, but we can expect that corporate lawyers will be working as hard as the folks in this picture to keep the gunk from sticking to them. Something Oompa Loompas would never do.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stories We Could Tell

Sometimes I like to give my father all the credit for my love of books. It was, after all, his life's work to bring the printed work to the masses. I learned about offset presses and binding machines by wandering through the press room and eventually finding myself working there one summer. It gives me shivers to see the spine of a book stressed to its maximum, laying face down on a couch or coffee table. The stitching and glue are strong enough, but show a little care, please.
For all the philos for biblio I may have found at my father's feet, I would still point to my year in Miss Stuart's fourth grade class as the point in my life where there was no turning back. Miss Stuart's room was lined with bookshelves, and it was a rare occasion when we needed to leave the friendly confines to search the school's library for something to read. Miss Stuart is the one who gave her class the rules for book etiquette: Don't lick your fingers before you turn the pages. It will turn the corners yellow and cause them to rot. Book marks should be thin, like a piece of paper, not thick like a pencil or ruler. And she was in complete agreement with my father about leaving books face down while unattended. Following these rules was the simple reason why she was able to amass such a wide selection of kids' books. We all shuddered when we saw the way other classes mistreated their library books. We knew that many of them might not last the year. We knew that if any kid tore a page or wrote in Miss Stuart's books, that kid might not last the year.
She was, as the phrase goes, "a tough old bird." She is the one who set me to writing. I had some brief success back in the second grade with "The Drunken Snake" and an account of how our dog, Snoopy, helped the Denver Broncos win a football game, but it wasn't until the fourth grade that I found my audience, my voice. It was Miss Stuart's suggestion that I write and illustrate a "picture-story book." I wrote "Arthur The Fish," a tale of loneliness and desperation from under the sea. It was eight pages long and had a happy ending. The fact that each page only had a couple of sentences on it along with a clever cartoon did not hinder me in the least. It worked for Maurice Sendak, so why not me? It was Miss Stuart who put the vision of Newberry and Caldecott Medals in my head. They became my driving inspiration for my next effort, "Larry the Lion." It was a tale of loneliness and desperation from the jungle. It was ten pages long and had a happy ending. I had found my stride. When another kid in my class asked if I would illustrate his book, "Bubbles the Bear," I recognized it as a cheap Arthur the Fish knock-off, but took the gig anyway. Everyone said their favorite thing about Bubbles was the funny pictures of the cute bear. I knew what I was doing.
I turned my attention next to science fiction, with a tale of loneliness and despair called "The Day It Snowed Ten Feet Deep." I was way ahead of "2012" and "The Day After Tomorrow" on this one. It was about this time that Miss Stuart started sending me on book tours. At first, it was next door to the other fourth grade class, where I became instantly aware of my mild celebrity status. Then I moved to the Kindergarten circuit, where I showed up as awesomely clever and wise.
And so it went. Each time I finished a story, it was carefully typed up for me and then handed back to me to carefully fill the lower half of the page with my most imaginative illustrations. I thought about Maurice Sendak. I thought about Robert Lawson. I thought about the time when I would simply ascend out of Miss Stuart's class and be well on my way to being an internationally famous children's book author. I had Xerox copies of my books at home so that I could practice in front of the mirror, peeking down at my upside-down text just enough to keep each reading fresh. The originals were kept in the classroom, on a shelf not far from where my inspirations dwelled.
My father was the one who got those stories typed up. He was the one who got them neatly bound with a plastic comb binding and a clear plastic cover to preserve his son's work. My father's love of books may not have been as profound as that of Miss Stuart's, but it was for those books written by his son.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Welcome To Our World

Maybe it was all some sort of cosmic coincidence, but last Friday when Wal-Mart announced that it was no longer going to be sharing its profits with its employees, and all the kids in Oakland had the day off school, a newly refurbished Toys R Us opened its doors just across the tracks in Emeryville. It used to be a Toys R Us. It used to be "our" Toys R Us. It was one of the places where I felt at home when I moved out here from Colorado. I bought my wife and I matching Nerf dart guns there that became our go-to present for newlyweds foolish enough not to register at a place we could afford.
The Wal-Mart thing is easy enough to understand. They're pretty stingy anyway, and it is my son's lasting conviction that they were the ones who originally came between him and his beloved toy store, the ones that turned it overnight into a Babies R Us. It wasn't any kind of a place for a boy over the age of three to be found unless dragged there by his parents on a mission to buy some plastic shield to protect him or the rest of us from the potential spewings of a child much younger than him. It was our Toys R Us too. Many dad and lad afternoons had been spent there, wandering the aisles with no particular purchasing intent. Just miles and miles of toys, and smiles.
And on that serendipitous Friday night, all that magic came rushing back. We had on our list of things to do: pick up baby shower present. That got us to the parking lot, and then, once inside those sliding doors we found shelves of toys stacked to the ceiling. Action figures and video games. Legos and skateboards. Sure, the left side was still all cuddly and smelled faintly of talcum, but once you crossed that center divide, there was a world of toys once again. This was where our good friend passed our family's audition by showing us that she could hang with the Cavens at Toys R Us. She spoke wistfully of her Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, and joined us in a fast-paced critique of a wide selection of board games. We knew we had a keeper.
There was too much mojo on that spot to let it live out its days as a place to stop by when you need a refill for the Diaper Genie. This new hybrid will take some getting used to, but for now it's a relief to know where I can start shopping for my Tron: Legacy Light Cycle.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

She Choked Me To Death With Science

My wife likes the Earth. She wants to save it. I like it too, but I don't spend nearly the time or effort that she does. That's why when she told me about, I gave her my customary response: I nodded and smiled. I am, after all, a pretty clever guy and I know all about "parts per million" and carbon dioxide. It's a fraction problem. It's a poison problem. No matter how you slice it, it's a problem. My initial shrug didn't seem to work as well when I started to consider the reality.
We all know that there has been and always will be carbon in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we have more than we can use right now. This is that "greenhouse effect" that Al Gore wanted to tell us all about with his "Internet." Instead, we used his invention to look up recipes and stalk old girlfriends. Now I'm using that power to let you know that three hundred and fifty parts of carbon dioxide per million in our atmosphere is the safe edge of scary. We are currently past that. The count is now three hundred and ninety-two. That creaking sound you hear is the Greenland ice sheet melting.
It doesn't take a lot of imagination to imagine life without ice. Or breathable air. We saw that in countless science fiction movies from the 1970's starring Charlton Heston. They didn't end well, but this one can. It means giving some things up, and taking new things on. It means thinking about what's going to happen next instead of waiting for it to happen to us. It doesn't require a monumental sacrifice from any one person, but it will mean change. Change is hard. Coincidentally, so is breathing after that three hundred and fifty. Solar energy, conservation, and simply thinking before you buy something is an easy enough start. Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
It's like I tell the kids who are sitting in the Principal's office: "Make better choices." Or wait for Al Gore to invent the climate-fixing machine.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

What A Country!

Yakov Smirnoff never knew how good he had it. Here we are, a year and a half after The Recession ended, and people are still looking for jobs and shopping with food stamps. So much so that Republican demigod Newt Gingrich has labelled the Democrats as "the party of food stamps." I don't know if Newt has been to the A&P lately, but it's pretty hard to party on four hundred and fifty dollars a month.
Forty-one million people are on food stamps in America, up from thirty-five million a year ago. Newt wants us to look to his party as "the party of paychecks." The once and future face of the GOP insists, "Most Americans would like to get a paycheck. Most Americans would not like to be forced to have food stamps handed out by liberal Democrats." The mental image of those left-wing ninnies strong-arming their way into people's homes to impose their charity on the otherwise hard-working families of our great nation is a painful one to me. How, exactly, does one force food stamps on an individual? It's my guess that the choice to accept this government assistance is not one that is taken lightly by any family or individual. The whole idea runs in hard contrast to the image presented by so many conservatives of the welfare state lining up with their lazy hands out, expecting to be paid for doing as little as possible.
But Newt wants their votes. If you feel victimized by Democrats for being forced to take their smelly old food stamps, and here comes a guy who tells you that he's got a paycheck waiting for you right outside your polling place on election day, you can bet there will be a lot of proud Americans willing to do the right thing. He wants you to know that the Republicans will cut taxes and spending so that you can get your job back, and get off the dole. The jobs that went away didn't start disappearing when the current administration moved into the White House. Nor have we miraculously turned the boat around and started sailing for greener shores. There is enough blame to go around, but you can't eat blame.
Did I mention Newt is considering running for President in 2012? He needs a real job. No word on when his food stamps run out.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Air Up There

Sometimes it's nice to see the alma mater back in the news for something other than being nudged out of the top ten in competition for Party School of the Year. I know. I was there: A mile high and rising wasn't just a way to intimidate other schools' athletic teams. It was a good way to describe a large portion of the student body at the University of Colorado. It is also a way to connect to our astronaut alumni.
We had one of the first: Scott Carpenter. He was in "The Right Stuff" and everything, even if he wasn't played by a Quaid. And we had some guys go up in the Apollo missions, including lucky number thirteen. Jack Swigert gives us one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon. We have also lost a couple to the "surly bonds of earth." Ellison Onizuka died in the Challenger launch. Kalpana Chawla was a member of the ill-fated Columbia crew. I guess I'm suggesting that, in the big book of space exploration, CU has certainly made their contribution by any measure. Boulder, Colorado even gave us Astronauts who could rock, like out of this world, man.
Now, the college from which I graduated is preparing a mission to Mars to investigate what life may have existed there, once upon a time. NASA has budgeted four hundred and thirty-eight million dollars for the expedition. No one from Colorado or any other academic institution will ride along with the suite of instruments that will probe the Red Planet's atmosphere and its interactions with the sun. No one, that is , unless somebody gets really wasted and passes out in the capsule the night before the launch. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Final Frontier

On weekday mornings, there is always a crush of people: standing in line, going about their personal business, making mild chit-chat. And that's just my bathroom. Mom, dad and son all start their day by crowding into what would be politely referred to as "the master bath." Some days we are lucky enough to get the dog as well. As a result, I do what I can to get in first and clear the way for everyone else, but it's not always possible. This is especially true when the heater comes on, since both son and dog enjoy the vertical vent that sits below the sink. This is ideal for warming oneself as one prepares to face a day. It does make for an interesting dance around the sink and bathtub as dad goes through his own morning routine through bleary eyes.
It has become as much a part of our morning ritual as the dueling alarm clocks. Mine goes off at six-thirty to the sounds of album-oriented rock. My son begins to stir just a few minutes later when the slightly younger and louder modern rock pours from his radio. These disparate musics meet somewhere in the middle, or right over the bathroom sink. You can turn left or right to choose the transmission of your choice, or you can simply hop into the shower to get the jump on the rest of the action.
The most curious part of this experience is that we manage to move past and around one another without too many collisions in spite of the fact that we do have another bathroom in the house. It's not a full bath, so baths and showers are still a first-come, first-serve proposition. And since the other bathroom is found at the far end of the house, an arctic region to hear some describe it, it doesn't get as much traffic. It would also preclude all this family togetherness. Now here's the kicker: Once upon a time, a family of seven lived in our house. They did so without the additional bathroom. Mom, dad and five kids: one bathroom. Somehow they all managed to get up and out to face the day in some fashion. How they did this without turning the garden hose on the boys and asking the girls to primp in the curved reflection of the toaster is anybody's guess, but it does take my own consternation down a notch or two.
When I was growing up, like so many other kids, my mother had a decorative plate that hung over our refrigerator that read: "No matter where I serve my guests, they seem to like my kitchen best." I'm still working on the cute rhyme for the decorative plate for our bathroom.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

On The Back End

I can hear my father's voice telling me not to put stickers on any painted surfaces. He was talking specifically about bumper stickers landing anywhere but the chrome bumper of our car. That was further limited by the fact that my father's car was "a company car" and we weren't allowed to put anything on that. That meant that any stickers we had to stick had to go on a pretty finite chunk of real estate on my mother's bumper, and she wasn't too thrilled about BudMan or STP as a sponsor of her station wagon. All of those stickers found their way to my bedroom door, much to my parents' chagrin.
I heard my father's admonition as I looked at the back end of my own station wagon. It was sitting in the parking lot of the Mystery Spot, near Santa Cruz. The friendly folks there are happy to give away bumper stickers to their "gravitational anomaly" to continue to spread the word about how physics had gone awry in this corner of the redwood forest. Free sticker? How could I keep myself from slapping that bad boy directly on my bumper? The painted, plastic bumper of our Saturn hatchback? I would like to tell you that there was a lengthy internal struggle, but that was limited to the time it took me to peel the paper backing off and smooth the yellow and black beauty on the lower left quadrant. Suddenly, we became "one of them."
I have seen other cars that seem to be held together by the paper and vinyl strips and adhesive that cover the back end of their motor vehicles. They make for good reading as we travel the highways and byways. It's always nice to see the occasional clever sentiment or Dukakis for President. Then there's the back of our car: "Warning: This Car Transforms Into Robot," and "Parent of a Brett Harte Middle School Honor Roll Student," and the "Mystery Spot." Plus a number of others that escape my memory. Layers have begun to accumulate, and while I am relieved that I haven't had to scrape a "Kerry/Edwards" decal off in a fit of pique, I wonder how much longer we can continue to lacquer the hindquarters of our Wagon Queen Family Truckster. Or perhaps we should blame the Mystery Spot for sending us down this road in the first place. Aside from having gravity that's all askew, it is apparently a vortex for the wisdom of my father.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Departed

We lost a trusted family friend last week. After years of faithful service, it was time to pull the plug and move on. Too much sentiment in these cases always leads to more regrets and a wavering resolve when it comes time to do the right thing. I got tired of having to run around with a towel, cleaning up all those little wet messes. We could have spent a lot of money and time trying to get a few more quality weeks together, but what's the point, really? Sometimes it's best just to close the book on one and pick up another: younger, faster, stronger. I will miss our old washing machine.
I can't get too sentimental about an appliance, even a major one, since I am notoriously hard on tools. It set me to thinking about the life span of the machinery in our home. The guy who came out to look at our old washer gave us a tip or two about how we might be able to get a few more spins out of the old girl before we sent her to the retirement community, but the bottom line was that we had reached the end of the line with this one: planned obsolescence. I thought about the computers we have moved into and out of over the past eighteen years. I thought about the dishwasher that used to roll around our first apartment that eventually got replaced by a larger "family model" once we started to sterilize baby bottles and pacifiers. And then there was the washing machine that was here when we moved into this house.
Originally, it lived at the back of the house, and when it hit the spin cycle it was like the Orange Blossom Special was roaring by outside our window. One of our earliest household projects was to pour a concrete slab in our basement where the thundering beast would be out of our immediate earshot. It served us dutifully through all the diapers and blankets and baby clothes, asking only the occasional sock or two in payment, until one day it just stopped. It filled with water and soap and then just gave up.
That was nine years ago. We went out and found ourselves a deal on an Energy Star front-loading Kenmore that was every bit as dependable as its predecessor, doing all the things we asked of it and more. Then, last week when I went downstairs to check on it, there was a puddle forming at the back, where I noticed that rust had begun to form. How long had this been going on? Had I become so insensitive to the needs of my appliances that I had cavalierly ignored its cries for help? My wife called the repair man, but it was too late.
Now there is a stranger in our basement. One that I have to read up on to be able to use correctly. It has more buttons and lights than the other two had combined. It is a new technology, and as Arthur C. Clarke would remind me, it is magic. I don't doubt that one day it will be welcomed into the family like a trusted friend, but for now I am still coping with the loss of one now departed.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Tired, Tired, Tired

Perhaps, while I still have it, I should start wielding some of the tremendous power I apparently exude upon this planet. As a member of a teacher's union, I have been getting away with murder and other heinous crimes for decades now, and all I have to show for it is ten hour days and a list of things to do that keeps me coming back for more. That and an unquenchable thirst to underperform while sending all my union dues away to a vault somewhere to help the next liberal candidate look the other way while I conduct my nefarious business.
Okay. Maybe I got a little carried away there, but it is my reaction to the teacher bashing that is currently all the rage in our media. I am by no means an apologist for public education or teacher's unions. I can smell the stink from where I'm sitting. By contrast, I can also see the beauty and wonder of the kids who show up at our school on the first day without letters or numbers and go home with their heads full of a whole new world. Public education is just that: it is for the public. We tend to reflect the community in which we work. When we have motivated students and families coming in the door, our job is much easier. When we don't, we don't have the option of turning them away, or offering them a spot in next year's lottery.
We work with what we are given, and though much has been made about the increase in per-student spending over the past few years, no one would suggest that education is our nation's top priority. Not with a straight face, anyway. The crisis that film makers and talk show hosts are finding their way to currently has existed for decades. That's why we had movies like "Blackboard Jungle" and "Dangerous Minds." There's just got to be a way to get through to these kids. For a couple hours at least. Then we slide back into our preoccupation with the effects of a world that has lost its center. If our children really are the hope, why don't we see any change? Are there terrible teachers and principals going to work this morning? You bet there are. Just like there are terrible real estate agents and baristas. And talk show hosts. And politicians. "Throw the bums out!" is the message that currently gets all the sound bites, and association with any of those bums even by profession is enough to start ugly generalizations. That's why teachers formed unions way back when. Like any bureaucracy, things have certainly swelled beyond their original intent, not unlike the job that teachers have been asked to do. Is a house cleaning necessary? Sure, but don't blow up the house, and don't wait for Superman to come and clean it.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Coming Soonish

I knew that I had grown too old for the whole sci-fi geek trip when I spent three hours sitting on the sidewalk outside my local superfaplex to see the midnight premiere showing of "The Phantom Menace." Once inside and seated in the relative comfort of the climate-controlled theatre, I waited along with my nerdy brethren to watch the beginning of the trilogy unfold. The anticipation was palpable. We had all waited sixteen years to find out what had gotten young Darth Vader's knickers in such a twist. As it turns out, it was The Evil Trade Federation that was to blame. Or something like that. It was numbing. Jar Jar Binks almost had me wishing for the return of the Ewoks. I was ready to swear off a galaxy far, far away for good.
Then my son came along. Suddenly he had a say in the pop culture that became part of our family. Episodes I, II and III became "his" Star Wars. I rolled my eyes and held my tongue as much as I could as I watched the legacy that I had come of age with get swept aside by a flashy, digitized vision that was hollow on the inside. I had the same challenge when eighty-six year old Harrison Ford decided to get back into the archaeology game. This wasn't your dad's Indiana Jones. Instead of Jar Jar Binks, this one had prairie dogs.
Now, George Lucas is revving up his money-making machine, not unlike Sylvester McMonkey McBean, to get all of us bored Sneetches to plunk down our hard earned cash to see his twin trilogies again. This time it will be in three dimensions. This should expand the dimensions for the first three by two, and should end up making another kerjillion dollars for Mister Lucas. James Cameron only waited a few months before unleashing his "new vision" of "Avatar" on the unsuspecting public, so this shouldn't be anything but a love fest. That one was already in 3D, but it borrowed a script from "Ferngully."
And so I wait for the news to trickle down to my son. He uses Al Gore's Internet. He reads "Entertainment Weekly." It's only a matter of time before the Wookie gets out of the bag. And then I'll have to start preparing my excuses. Or finding a nice soft cushion to sit on that sidewalk.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Less Than Zero

One in seven Americans are now living in poverty. That's what the census tells us. That means people are living on eleven thousand dollars a year for an individual under sixty-five or twenty-two thousand for a family of four. The good news, if there is any, is that experts had expected that number to be even higher. Experts who make more than twenty-two thousand dollars a year.
It set off the alarm that sometimes rings in my head when I'm riding my bike through the streets of the city. The one that gets me to scan the neighborhood for apartments for rent. The one that makes me consider my lifestyle. How close am I to dropping my family below the line? There are plenty of clever, qualified folks out there staving off the inevitable while they look for their next meaningful employment. The idea that one in seven people in our country is happily waiting around for their welfare check or looking for some angle to make their lifestyle work.
On the flip-side, I continue to imagine how I can move a few dollars here and there so that I can go out and buy the newest version of Guitar Hero. Embarrassing priorities. Choices I can make when I'm not that seventh person. Instead, I could be moving that shopping cart down the street in the early morning hours, looking for that bin full of last night's party: glass and aluminum that I can load up and haul to the recycling center. I remember watching a husband and wife team work both sides of a street. She would run ahead, scouting for the mother lode, while he crushed and stacked in their borrowed Safeway cart. It made me wonder if we got my son up early enough to get into the act if my wife and I could put food on the table before the sun went down. The statistics only say that one in seven live below that poverty line. That means there is still plenty of room before zero, and none of it is comfortable.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Tony The Tiger

"Yondah lies the castle of my faddah, da king." I can't say for sure if Tony Curtis every uttered these words. That line may be of the same stripe as "Play it again, Sam," from Bogart or "Judy! Judy! Judy!" from Cary Grant. No matter. It's what people hear in their minds when they think of Tony Curtis. At least that's where they start.
Then they think about the rest of his career. I think about "The Vikings." As historical epics go, it's no "Spartacus," but then again, I didn't get to spend three days in my high school English class watching "Spartacus." Tony and Kirk Douglas play half-brothers named Eric and Einar. Their father is Ragnar, played by the Ernest Borgnine at his most Borgniniest. And, spoiler alert, Tony gets the girl in the end. It probably helps that he was married to her at the time, but we wouldn't expect anything less. It also features one of the most insidious earworm of a musical theme. Just a few seconds of it drifting from the TV as I flip by on cable is enough to keep it in my head for weeks.
Speaking of being in my head, for years before I ever saw a photograph of the real Harry Houdini, I could only imagine that he was the spitting image of Mister Curtis. Janet Leigh was in this one too, as his lovely assistant and wife Bess. This was the film that gave me a thorough grounding in both magic and skepticism. It helped me look for the strings connected to the floating ghosts, but gave me hope to imagine that if anyone could escape death's icy grip, it would be the Great Houdini.
Alas, Tony couldn't do the same. He went away and won't be coming back, but we can all keep him alive in our favorite moments: seducing Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot," or going toe to toe with Burt Lancaster. This was a movie star. Aloha, Tony.