Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A New Chapter

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Big Jello Sheriff Of The House

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

That's Show Biz

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Playoffs? Playoffs?

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

A-Little-Too-Friendly Skies

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010


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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Girls Just Want To Have Fun

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I have a lot of respect for Edward Norton as an actor. He gets big points for being Tyler Durden before Brad Pitt. He made a better Bruce Banner than Eric Bana. He's got a lot of artistic integrity. None of those things made it any easier to listen to his interview with Bruce Sprinsteen on National Public Radio. It made me think of the Steve Martin quote: "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." It made my wife think about James Lipton. As much as I admire both Bruce and Ed, this interchange didn't bring me any closer to the music.
It makes me think of the way I can marvel at Robert De Niro's performances, but listening to interviews with him are like watching paint dry. It does not diminish the art in any way. I would much rather listen to "Darkness on the Edge of Town" than listen to the discussion about it. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of anecdotes, but the dissection of pop culture usually ends up being a pretty unsatisfying conversation. It's the part of Bruce Springsteen's shows that I miss these days. He used to do lengthy introductions to songs that infused the lyrics with meaning. These days, those moments tend to be saved for fitting in one more big hit or a pitch for the local food bank.
Nothing wrong with that, but as I sat there listening to forty-some minutes of back and forth between the Boss and his little buddy, I found myself wishing that they would just shut up and play some music. Contrast this with the joyful treat of Jimmy Fallon and that same Mister Springsteen singing their version of Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair." At just under four minutes, Neil Young and a scruffy, young Bruce bash away at a song that will be gone tomorrow, but I'm betting that their cover will be in your head for a good while after that. That's genius.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pardon The Interruption

Recently, author and noted rock icon Keith Richards took the time to publicly dis Mike Huckabee's guitar skills. He did so in spite of the fact that, as one of his last acts as governor of Arkansas, the Huckster pardoned the Rolling Stone's axe man for a 1975 drunk driving conviction in his state. "Governor Huckabee also thinks of himself as a guitar player," Richards writes in his newly published memoir. "I think he even has a band." The name of the band, by the way, is "Capitol Offense." For his part, Mike remains a Keith Richards Superfan, holding out hope that his semi-major demi-god would deign to appear on his Fox TV show.
Maybe somebody should tell outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist that, first of all, Jim Morrison is dead, and secondly that he doesn't have a show on Fox where Mister Morrison might appear if he may indeed turn up alive somewhere. It seems that, in a final act of altruism and tribute to Doors fans everywhere, Charlie wants to pardon Jim for the profanity and indecent exposure convictions dropped on him by the man way back in 1969. Was the Lizard King unjustly accused and found guilty on trumped up charges? "There was some doubt how solid the case was," explains Crist.
Maybe it's just me, but I would suggest that, with the time that he has left, maybe the governor of Florida could spend some of it looking into the convictions of the three hundred and ninety-three men and women on his state's death row. I would guess that very few of them have recorded anything on a par with "Light My Fire," but none of them will die in their bathtubs in France.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

People Say The Darndest Things

Sarah Palin says a lot of things:
Buck up or stay in the truck.
We eat, therefore we hunt.
I think on a national level your Department of Law there in the White House would look at some of the things that we've been charged with and automatically throw them out.
We used to hustle over the border for health care we received in Canada. And I think now, isn't that ironic?
"Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!
They are also building schools for the Afghan children so that there is hope and opportunity in our neighboring country of Afghanistan.
They're our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
What's the difference between a pitbull and a hockey mom?
Drill baby, drill.
She also says she could beat Obama in 2012.
She also said, "I quit."
Winter is coming.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The New Computer Age

My wife likes to tell a story about the Harmonic Convergence, as in the happy portion of the end of times. Back in 1987, many people believed this two day event ushered in a period of peace and understanding. The outward evidence my wife, her mother and her brothers experienced was the amazing windfall of airline tickets, hotel rooms, and cash awards when they were bumped from their flight back from Europe where they were broke and becoming a little desperate. They found their way home after a couple nights' stay in plush accommodations with money in their pockets, ready to face the end of the world.
That was what the seventies and eighties were all about for many. It was the New Age. Folks wore crystals around their necks and searched the stars for answers to the problems found here on our home planet. They used pyramids to sharpen razor blades, cure diseases and improve their alpha states. They listened to angels and spirits and any other voice that might have had wisdom for them coming from the great beyond.
That was thirty years ago. Now we use computers. The Internet gives us all kinds of important perceptions that might not have reached us without the oracle on our desks. Al Gore's Internet has been implicated in the deaths, or rumored deaths of dozens of celebrities, yet we continue to trust it. We feel compelled to forward bad poetry to one another in hopes of spiritual awakening or face impending bad juju. Good fortune comes our way on a regular basis from bankers in Nigeria, or Bill Gates. There is a world of virtual oneness waiting at the end of your connection to the World Wide Web.
And skeptics like me keep bursting that bubble. There are no easy ways to get rich using just your Internet connection. Most of those opportunities are merely opportunities to have your bank accounts drained. If you open an e-mail from a stranger that tells you that you have just received a major cash award, enjoy the moment. Then delete it. The magic comes from the way that we can reach out and interrupt strangers' lives with a simple key stroke. Photoshop enables us to amuse each other with "real pictures" of sharks attacking helicopters and kittens doing the most adorable things. But there is no real magic. For that you must consult the Magic Eight Ball. You might start with: "Will the world really end in 2012?"

Friday, November 19, 2010

Beatles For Sale

I read some of the hype before it happened. There were plenty of people who wondered if having The Beatles available on iTunes would be any sort of revelation. After all these years of holding out, would there be any mania left? Many complained that it would stick a pin in the magic balloon that was the Beatles magic: Albums. Buying "A Day In The Life" for ninety-nine cents without the music that necessarily proceeds it? Sure, completists can now have their single of "I Know Your Number (Look Up My Name)" on their mp3 player, but at what cost? I don't mean the thirteen dollar per album cost, either.
Cynics like myself will point out that the last few years have found the corporation that has come to represent the Fab Four has cannily found ways to connect with anyone who might still have a way to spend money on the Beatles' catalogue. The Cirque de Soliel show in Las Vegas proved that "Love" wasn't really all you need. You'll need the CD of songs that you already had, remixed especially for the show. You'll want the T-shirt and the souvenir program. And before you know it, you'll need the video game where you can sing along with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
I may be a cynic, but I found my way to the local electronic noise emporium to snap up some of these items.
I didn't buy any of the newly remastered versions of all the Beatles' albums last year. Part of me pined for them, while the rest of me bristled at the calculated capitalism of it all. Now I can buy the same sounds in an inferior quality for less than a dollar a song? I shouldn't be surprised. As long as there have been artists, there have been agents, patrons, or hangers-on willing to squeeze the last dime out of whatever creation the artist manages to produce. How else could one explain the existence of a "Milli Vanilli Greatest Hits" package?
It was Brian Epstein who got the lads into suits and ties in the first place, long before they ever wore marching band uniforms. For now, I'll go ahead and line up for the digital Revolution. Not because I am so gullible, but because there is still some magic left in those lads from Liverpool. And their accountants.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Night Moves

Whenever I hear Bob Seger singing "Night Moves," the first thing I think about is: What does "tight pants points hardly reknown" mean? I know that the rest of the song is about making out in the full heat of adolescent passion, but I have no idea what those points are. Then almost as quickly I remember my own back seat memories.
What I remember most is that I wasn't there. Instead, I was such a good friend to my buddy, who was a year older but had not yet made the commitment to buying his own car, that I drove him and his girlfriend around the dark cul de sacs and mountain lanes of Boulder. I listened to the stereo while they steamed up the back window. Every so often I would get a command from the rear, like "Change the station," or "Hold my watch." These things I did dutifully for a pair of reasons. First of all, I was so desperate to please my upperclassman friend that it never occurred to me that when asked the question, "Will you drive me and my date around this Friday night?" I could answer "no." Secondly, I imagined that I was somehow involved in this tempestuous love story that had me as the go-between, the savior of their relationship. I was doing something almost literary in its nobility.
Or maybe I was simply being used. Looking back, it is the portion of my youth that I have the hardest time reconciling. I gave up plenty of evenings when I could have been pursuing my own companion for my own back seat. I could have been home watching "Fantasy Island." I could have found a job babysitting and been paid to watch "Love Boat." Instead, I was using my gas and spare time to drive this tangled mess of heavy breathing around the outskirts of town. It's a self-esteem thing, and I wish that I could go back and tell my sixteen-year-old self to get some esteem, but it turns out that it was one of those events that helped to shape me. And make me flinch every time I hear Bob Seger.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lip Reading For Amateurs

"Read my lips: No new taxes." Those words came from the father of best-selling author George W. Bush. While history has begun to reveal that the elder Bush was far less objectionable than his progeny, this loud assertion put him in a most untenable position. This attempt to channel Clint Eastwood may have been the high point of his peevishness. It also gave many people in our deluxe-air-cushioned-built-for-speed country that this was some sort of clever option. Republicans love to tell us that taxes are bad and that we should be able to keep our hard-earned money. Thank you, Republicans! Now I can afford to go out and buy my own health care coverage and pave the roads of my state and keep the doors of my public schools open.
I learned to hate taxes way back when I used to play Monopoly. Seventy-five bucks for "luxury tax?" Can't you see I'm constructing an empire here? Did you expect me to redistribute my wealth to the other money-grubbing thieves sitting around the table? That's my hard-won cash, and I'm not giving back to the bank just because I had the misfortune of landing on that space instead of Boardwalk or Park Place.
But rules are rules, and I am no cheater, so I paid up and waited for my turn to come around again. Now it's the Republicans' turn in the House of Representatives. They just rolled double sixes and they want to make sure that the tax cuts that were put in place under the Son Of No New Taxes. Those are the ones that protect Americans making more than two hundred thousand dollars a year. The current President, who has also made a lot of promises, would like to see those people "pay more of their fair share." Meanwhile, the guy who wanted to be President but made some bad choices of his own had a suggestion: "They should be extended until we are out of this recession," John "You Picked Who For Your Vice-President?" McCain said. "At such time we can look at other tax hikes. But when we're in a serious recession I cannot believe that raising taxes is a good thing on anybody." Somebody wake John up and tell him that the recession is over. Especially for those lucky enough to be making more than two hundred thousand dollars a year.
And so the dance continues. The debt clock continues to tick away in the background, the debate over how we're going to pay for all of this. I suggest we start tossing all our extra money in the center of the board until somebody lands on "Free Parking."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


It happened before. There have been plenty of mornings when we have stood on the porch looking wistfully at our son as he heads off into his future. Most of the time, however, one of us had to drive him, so the moment wasn't quite as poignant. This was the second time that he has spent the weekend at college. The waking hours, anyway. The rest of the time he was in a car traveling back and forth to Palo Alto. I was the one watching him go.
This time he was going as an eighth grader. He is now scant months from his freshman year in high school. A couple weeks back, we went to a prospective parents' night and listened to teachers and administrators talk about how they wanted every student to be prepared to go to college upon graduation. Advanced Placement, College Credits, sending kids up the road to Berkeley to take upper division classes, choosing an academy that would give them a better chance at getting into the college of their choice. It made my head spin.
A few years back, I made the joke that, as a fourth grade teacher, I would no longer be able to help my son with his homework once he was promoted to the fifth grade. Standing in the Engineering Department of his prospective high school, I watched my son's eyes light up as he sat at a drafting table. As a cartoonist, I could only imagine how straight the lines in his head were, and as an elementary school teacher, I could only wince in anticipation of the work he might be doing in the coming years. Maybe my hope for a flying car was sitting right in front of me all along.
This child. The one who still carries his Bionicle backpack to school every day. The kid who sleeps above one of the largest privately-owned collections of Lego in the continental United States. The boy who listens to the same CD of Winnie The Pooh stories he first heard when he was four. The same kid who has started talking to girls. The same child who has to be told to turn his Linkin Park down. My child. My son.
Driver's licences, dating and a thousand other tiny rites of passage await between now and the day that he pulls out of the driveway for that first day of college for real, but for now I feel the pangs and the wonder at how far we've come and how far he still has to go.

Monday, November 15, 2010

When It's Time To Go, It's Time To Go

Sometimes it's better to get out while you're ahead. Back in August, the creative genius behind the "Cathy" comic strip, Cathy Guisewite decided to pack it in. After thirty-four years of creating a daily comic strip of unparalleled humor and pathos, Ms. Guisewite put up her pen and paper and she also revealed that after three and a half decades of meeting newspaper deadlines she could not give time to her family and failed to meet her “personal deadlines” which made her take this decision of not to “procrastinate” any longer for her retirement. Take a moment to savor the unnecessary quotation marks.
She went the way of her idol, Charles Schultz, creator of "Peanuts." In this case, the quotation marks are necessary to set the title of the work apart, the work of a lifetime. With fifty years of syndication, Mr. Schultz created a world of happiness, fear, sadness, security and imagination. His comic inspired classic TV moments and a number of giant helium balloons that have appeared in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Cathy never did that.
But Jim Davis did. I mention this because Mr. Davis managed to do something that neither the queen of low self-esteem or Old Sparky did: He ran a strip on Veterans Day in newspapers across the country that shows a spider daring the pudgy orange cat to squash it. The spider tells Garfield that if he is killed, "they will hold an annual day of remembrance in my honor." The final panel shows a spider-teacher asking its students if they know why spiders celebrate "National Stupid Day." Garfield's creator said that the publication of this particular comic on Veterans Day was the "worst possible timing," and it came as a complete surprise since he had written the strip over a year ago. Davis said his brother served in Vietnam, and his son is a Marine who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he is grateful for the service of veterans, and called any offense "unintentional and regrettable." Feel free to figure out what those quotation marks mean.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cruise Control

We are closing in on that time of year when we reflect on the struggles and hardships that befell our Puritan ancestors on their tumultuous voyage to the New World. After sixty-six days at sea, many poor souls had succumbed to disease, and two in their company had died. Initially all of them were to make the trip in two ships, but when the Speedwell was found to be less than seaworthy, everyone was crowded onto the larger Mayflower, and off they went. Inclement weather kept them from arriving at their destination until winter had come to Cape Cod, where the waters became even more treacherous. This was no pleasure cruise.
Three hundred and ninety years later, the brave souls who set sail from Long Beach on the Carnival Splendor experienced many of the same travails as our forefathers. A fire in the engine room broke out one day into their journey down the coast of Mexico, and the forty-five hundred souls aboard were left without lights or hot water for days as the Coast Guard worked to rescue them from their floating nightmare. One passenger described her torment, saying that she wanted nothing to do with the cold sandwiches and salads that were offered up by the crew, and that she had been subsisting mainly on Pop Tarts. Another lamented the four days he had survived without a hot cup of coffee. No shuffleboard on the Lido Deck. No frozen daiquiris poolside, served by Isaac your bartender. None of this was in the brochure. As the survivors of the S.S. Minnow once opined, "No phones, no lights, no motor cars, not a single luxury."
One thing is certain: Those who disembarked in San Diego will have stories to tell their grandchildren. Unless they were forced to eat them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Hawk And Me

"I am the hawk and there's blood on my feathers." When John Denver wrote those lyrics way back in the seventies, I don't expect that he imagined that the blood would be the hawk's own. I am referring to Dan "The Hawk" Hawkins, the now former coach of the University of Colorado football team. Hired five seasons ago as a refreshing change of pace from the scurrilous Gary Barnett, The Hawk brought a new optimism to a beleaguered program. Fifty-eight games later, he had won only nineteen of them. The optimism that was once mile-high reached sea-level this year, and last week, it went underwater.
The Hawk had his team up 45 to 17 in the fourth quarter against perennial also-ran Kansas, and the Golden Buffaloes ended up losing 45 to 52. They gave up thirty-five points in less than fifteen minutes. It was the biggest collapse in the one hundred and twenty-one years of college football at the university. My university. My alma mater. The one I attended and the place I have watched more football games with the possible exception of my living room. After this debacle, the athletic director decided to pull the lever, cut the string, and otherwise end the suffering of Buff fans across the globe.
All that being said, I can't argue the specifics of that decision. Even a losing program would be a nice change from a program that encouraged ugly behavior from both players and coaches. But college football is a business, and nothing succeeds like success. They had to let the Hawk fly. Now they're going to pay him two million dollars not to coach. This comes on top of the three million dollars they paid Gary Barnett not to coach. That is what contracts are for. It protects the coach from the university, and in this case it protects the university from having the money to hire a new coach. I mention this because I continue to send the University of Colorado a pittance now and then to keep their college of arts and sciences in paper and pencils. I won't be receiving a plaque or a mention in the program for any arts performance. I send them money because I appreciate that they gave me a degree, way back when.
I failed miserably as a student, for a while. When I failed a Basic Drawing class, mostly because I stopped going and neglected to drop it, the powers that be put me on academic probation. I am grateful for this opportunity to square myself away as a student and get my life back on track before they simply cut me adrift. However, at no point was there any discussion of giving me a couple year's tuition and sending me on my way. I had failed, and I was given a chance to put together a transcript that would allow me to graduate just a few years later with a modicum of respect. No cash settlement, but I did get to keep the tassel. I paid for that. Maybe next time, I should read my contract more closely.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Such A Thing

Dear Santa,
It has been a long time since I have written, but I noticed the other night that my son had started his letter to you, and it seemed like now might be the right time. Even though there are still plenty of workshop or shopping days left until the big day, I think my little boy may be on to something. First of all, he's not that little anymore. He has been touring high schools to prepare for his freshman year, and he has more than a passing interest in girls these days.
Still, he continues to make the time to sit down and compose a rather detailed list of things he wants, as well as an equally comprehensive accounting of his behavior over the past year. He knows that you know who has been naughty and who has been nice, but he still feels compelled to share it with you. Maybe this is because we lack a certain amount of organized religion in our home. We don't have a ritual confession on a regular basis, so maybe this is the best way to get that kind of catharsis. He could be praying to Yaweh or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but he picked you.
Flattered? I imagine you probably don't have the time, but I hope in those quiet days after the twenty-fifth of December, you can take time to reflect on your elevated status, at least around our house. It is a beautiful thing that a teenager feels the trust and faith in anything like my son feels for you. That's a gift. Better than a plate of cookies and a cup of egg nog. I don't know if it makes you more inclined to fill his list or put a little extra something in his stocking. It know it works for me.
And speaking of me, I don't have much of a list myself this year. I suppose all I really want is one more year of letters to Santa Claus.
Yours Truly,

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's Five O'Clock Somewhere - Sometime

Archaeologist Brian Hayden of Simon Fraser University in Canada would like us to acknowledge the role that beer has played in the Rise of Civilization. As an avid fan of Civilization, and a vocal advocate of beer for many years, I can back his assertion with a number of easily verifiable anecdotes.
2630 B.C.: Egyptian teenagers, having consumed more than a case of beer, make the creative leap of stacking their cans in an orderly, geometric fashion. This "beeramid" became the model for the architectural triumphs that were to become the Great Pyramids. Without the scale model offered up by these ancient adolescents, we might never have achieved one of the great wonders and tourist destinations history.
1509 A.D.: Michelangelo discovers that, while maintaining a pretty solid beer buzz for three straight years, he could paint the ceiling of a church while laying on his back. A shocked Pope Julius II wandered into the Sistine Chapel just about the time Mike had finished up his drunken vandalism, and decided to call it "a work of art." Why he didn't start on the walls or the floor, we may never know.
December, 1773: A bunch of drunks, dressed like Pocahontas, hop aboard a ship in Boston Harbor, hoping to find beer. Finding none, they do the only thing that right-thinking inebriated patriots could do: they started history's first environmental disaster by tossing a bunch of English Breakfast into the ocean, paving the way for future drunken idiots.
Today is Veterans Day, originally the celebration of the signing of the peace treaty ending World War I. Why not celebrate by recreating the event that lead to the beginning of that conflict, when a couple of Bosnian Serbs tossed back a few Hungarian brews and decided to pull a prank on the Archduke's motorcade.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Brother, Can You Spare A Rib?

It's back. That creepy, indistinguishable slab of protein that McDonald's likes to promote as the "McRib" has found its way back onto the menu. No one asked me, but the appearance of the "rib" portion has always put me in mind of the space slugs that Khan shoves in Chekhov's ear while exhibiting some of his now infamous wrath. I'm not sure what sort of dare might get me to put something like that in my mouth, but as my legend precedes me, I don't think that I would turn down the chance to make a little money off the exchange.
Really? In a word: yes. In a few more words: I have, on more than one occasion, consumed a Big Mac in one bite. The pride that I might take away from this accomplishment is minimized by my age and the relative health consequences that could still appear years after my last performance. I didn't start off by shoving two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun into my face. I began with a simple cheeseburger. Using atomic theory that suggests that most matter are mostly empty space, I surmised that most fast food is made of air. Compression is key. Once all the meat, bread and condiments are condensed into a more compact form, the rest of the process is pretty simple. Ugly, but simple.
Which brings us back to the McRib. It is not, as the name suggests, a bone-related product. It is a ground pork patty. There is nothing on which to gnaw. I suspect that your average denture wearer, using extra-strength Poligrip, could chew their way through this bad boy. Not that they might want to, but the marketing genius that is McDonald's would certainly love every AARP member to line up at the counter for this limited-time offer. And every pre-schooler. And every mother of three. And anyone who has a neck. Just don't expect to get a toy with your Mcground pork Mcpatty.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

How Is MLB like NPR?

I'm a fan of Keith Olbermann much in the same way that I'm a fan of Woody Allen. The younger, funny one was the best. Then came all the trouble. Some might argue that taking up with the adopted daughter of your wife is less objectionable than making contributions to political candidates. Neither did Keith, but he did have a clause about conflict of interest. Woody's interest was conflicted, but not contractual.
I used to love Olbermann's sports bluster. It was the perfect oversized rush of opinion that makes otherwise meaningless sporting events take on amusingly mythic proportions. There was always a certain amount of wink-and-grin in what he did that let us all know that it was a game, after all, and he was getting paid for talking about a game. All that bombast was really just stuff and nonsense, but we were all in on the joke.
When Keith landed on MSNBC, it seemed like an interesting stretch, but he made it work. Take it from a guy who spent four years referring to the leader of the free world as "Pinhead," I appreciated the fact that there was another cynic out there jabbing his finger in the collective chest of an administration. He rode that horse hard into the election of a new president. He was unafraid to shine a light on "the worst person in the world." Across the cable system, another jester suggested that maybe pointed vitriol of either stripe might be simply feeding the fire that is burning under our feet. The hypocrisy ball was lobbed back and forth, and then suddenly there was this: Keith Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay for making contributions to the campaigns of several Democratic candidates. The same ones he was reporting about on election night a week ago. It wasn't exactly a Rick Sanchez or Juan Williams moment, but that's the world we're living in now. Sportscasters "tell it like it is," even when they come off sounding a little partial to the hometown team. That's a sweet sound. Maybe Keith Olbermann just needs to get sent down to the minors. I wonder if MSNBC has a farm team.

Monday, November 08, 2010

What's That Sound?

I used to love getting new stereo equipment. I was all about upgrading: speakers, receiver, tape deck, turntable. When I had two speakers, I upgraded to four. When I had one tape deck, I upgraded to two. Keep in mind that this was a sound system that was responsible for filling my bedroom, not an entire house. Eventually I even ran speaker wire into my bathroom to make sure that I didn't miss a tweet or a woof. My favorite part about all this expansion of sound was hooking up the new components. Cables and parts spread out in front of me, I had to match inputs with outputs, test connections and make sure that my ever-expanding stereo could support the stress I was putting on it.
Later, when I moved into my dorm room, I packed and unpacked all those pieces and put them back together again in a space designed to accommodate two college freshman. When my roommate arrived, from Trumbull, Connecticut, there was simply no room for any stereo equipment he might have wished to unload into our shared lebensraum. My sound system was preeminent. There was no need to mess with perfection.
Not until I moved into my friend's house over the summer. He too had a monster set of speakers and even higher quality components. We spent the first two days mapping out where all the parts would be stacked and hung. Eventually, we assembled a six speaker wall of sound that, when the doors were left open, filled not just the house but the mountain valleys below. When we blew one of the speakers in the midst of a party, we celebrated the fact that it had stood up to most of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" before the cone of the woofer ripped in two. It gave its life for our guests' exquisite torment.
Over the years I have slowed down the process of upgrading the way that music comes into my life. I had to buy a compact disc player, but kept my turntable for years after to allow the vinyl that I dragged around in crates to be heard. Bits and pieces have been replaced. Now I have surround sound in my living room, which comes in very handy when thrashing my medium mad Guitar Hero skills. I even have the cassette deck, the one that created so many mix tape masterpieces back in college, sitting on a shelf awaiting the next opportunity to play ninety minutes of music with auto-reverse. Every so often I see black or chrome boxes in the local electronics store that make me think that it must be time to renegotiate the aural landscape of my life. Then I remember how the sound that comes out of those little speakers attached to my computer is every bit as triumphant as the thunder I once made with big wooden boxes eight times the size. I know that this is my son's time. He's attaching ever-increasing speaker sizes to his iPod. He wants to make a bigger noise. And I know now that it has become my job to yell, "Turn it down!"

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Bye, Bye Bye

This weekend, the professional football team that I follow regularly will be taking what might be considered a well-deserved week off. This is called a bye week, as in: bye to the stress, bye to the strain, bye to the rhythm that has brought us to this point. It is an opportunity to sit back and lick the wounds from previous weeks and prepare for the long haul that will be the rest of the season. My question is this: Why don't I get a bye week?
Professional football players and coaches play sixteen regular season games, preceded by four before that that are exhibition, and if they are extraordinarily successful they might get another three after that in the post-season. If you toss in an extra pre-season game for the primary purpose of getting the year off to an early start, a professional football team will play a maximum of twenty-five games over the course of a season. Twenty-five weeks adds up to roughly half a year. That means that about halfway through that half-year, they all sit down and take a break. In my life, this is known as Christmas Break. For two weeks all the teachers and kids go home and prepare for the second half of the year.
Just like the NFL, sometimes game plans change. The rosters are also up for revision as kids move away or arrive at our school ready to find their place on the team. This year we even have a couple of teachers going out on injured reserve. How will this impact our performance heading into the playoffs? We hope that the third grade equivalent of Randy Moss doesn't land on our doorstep. The waiver procedure in elementary school is a little more complex than that found in the NFL, but if he can bring our test scores up, we will find a way to work with him. I don't think we would let him interview himself, however.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Accidents Will Happen

I know there are not a lot of other ways to go about it. I know that when bad news comes, no one wants to be the person bringing it. I feel this most oppressively in the fall. This is the time of year when I came home and got the call from my mom on the answering machine telling me that I shouldn't call back, but I should just come over to the house. When I got there, I found out that my friend Darren had died in a car accident. Fast forward a dozen years, and I come home from work to find my wife sitting on the front steps of our apartment building. She had just been on the phone and was waiting there to tell me my father's plane had crashed. Though he lived long enough for me to get back to Colorado for one last tag, he was gone shortly after that.
This is why, when our school's secretary came out on the playground to find me before the bell rang last Thursday morning and told me that I needed to call my wife, my initial reaction was to run in the opposite direction. What possible good could come from this interaction? If I had won the lottery, she would have announced it to the world. If there was a problem with the washing machine, I would have expected an e-mail that I could pick up somewhere in the course of the day. No, this one had "emergency" written all over it. Did the house burn down? Is the dog all right? Are all our parents moving around, taking in air?
As it turns out, my son had merged his bike with a car while riding to school. Happily, the sandwich and pear in his backpack cushioned his spine and the helmet he was wearing did more damage to the car than the windshield did to his head. He got a police car, an ambulance, and countless middle-schoolers' attention, and abruptly after that I got the call at my school. When I called back, I was immediately relieved when my son answered and said, "I got hit by a car and I'm okay." Those nine words were all the roller coaster I needed. There was a day of reflection after that, where I mulled over all the things I still need to tell him about life and how to live it, but the fact that he is now telling all of his friends that they need to wear a helmet when they ride their bikes seems to be the most profound piece of wisdom that I could share. Sometimes life can be short and scary. Other times it stretches out for weeks and months when you walk across a playground to make a call home to find out what is happening. That's scary too. The good news is that sometimes the story has a happy ending.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Race To The Finnish

"Finland, Finland, Finland: The country where I quite want to be." - Monty Python
To be quite honest, as a teacher, I'm not sure it's exactly where I would want to end up, since the starting salary for primary teachers is only eighteen thousand dollars a year, but I guess that could buy one a lot of fried Pike Perch in Beetroot sauce. It would also make my son very happy and extremely well educated. This is a country that has a one hundred percent literacy rate. Their math and scientific literacy rates are in the top percentile as well. Maybe it's all that fish they eat.
My wife sent me a report about Finnish education reform. Here's the part that made me look twice: "Primary school, particularly, is, to a large extent, a 'testing-free zone' reserved for learning to know, to do, and to sustain natural curiosity." The only high-stakes standardized test comes at the end of high school. That would be quite a change from the early-and-often assessment program that we follow here. We run on data, and if that means testing Kindergartners in the first week of school to find out if they know their letters, so be it. Here in the United States, it's all about performance.
Or is it? Our literacy rate is ninety-nine percent, so should we bother with why Johnny can't read? Well, if you consider that that one percent difference represents some three million people, maybe we should be concerned. Maybe we should be looking into the "trust-based school culture" that Finland adopted back in the 1990s. But that would also mean addressing our problems with children living in poverty. That doesn't happen in Finland. We have six times as any kids per capita living below the poverty line. That might be why we approach school reform in the United States like a corporation. In Finland, they treat their schools like places where kids go to learn things. Go figure.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Fear Itself

Recent headlines pose this question: Has al-Qaeda become more organized? The bombs found on airplanes in Dubai and Britain are signs of a new, more dangerous wave of terrorism. I guess they want to differentiate from the kinder, gentler waves of terrorism that existed prior to last week. Maybe they're trying to distinguish these guys from the ones who carried their explosives around in their underwear or shoes.
Maybe the folks who make such distinctions about our level of fear have a point. According to reports about one suspect in the most recent attempts to blow things up, suspect Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri, was described as a young man so ruthless he once hid a bomb inside his own brother in an attempt to kill a top Saudi counterterrorism official who was encouraging jihadists to reform. I'm an older brother, and while I have used my younger brother as an accomplice for numerous despicable acts, most of them centering around getting out of practicing the piano, it never occurred to me to use him to blow up the piano.
That's why they call them "terrorists." If the intent is to strike "intense of overwhelming fear" into the hearts of their enemies, then I believe they are doing their job. It will certainly give little brothers across the globe pause, but I remain less impressed and here's why: entropy.
I know. This is my answer for so many things, but it hasn't let me down yet. Think of every group you've ever belonged to. As it has become more and more "organized," has it become more and more efficient? I, for one, will be happy to see layers of bureaucracy eventually choke off the relative effectiveness of al-Qaeda. Imagine the United States Congress, but with high explosives. How long do you suppose something like that could survive? Be afraid, but take solace in the third law of thermodynamics. I do, and so does my little brother.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Scary Monsters

Zombies are back at my house. Not in a life-threatening, wear protective headgear to keep your brain safe kind of way, but as a topic of parental discussion. It is interesting to note that the walking dead have appeared on the playground at my school as well, as the X-Men and Transformers that used to chase one another around the yard are now, more often than not, flesh-eating corpses. Why then would I have any hesitation to allow my thirteen year old son to own a copy of "The Zombie Survival Guide?" The seven year olds at my school seem quite happy to act out their undead dramas on a daily basis. My son merely seeks a way to protect himself from such danger.
I am well aware of the fact that I think way too much about parenting. It does get a little confusing, when I play the argument that I want my kid to turn out better than I did next to the whining lament, "Hey, I turned out okay, didn't I?" It makes for some very annoying cognitive dissonance. After all, here is my chance to welcome my son into the world of creepy beasts and blood-sucking freaks. But the gore out there these days seems so much thicker than it did back in my day. My night of the living dead wasn't even in color. That was Bosco chocolate syrup all over that little girl's face, not blood.
In the meantime, while I fret and stew about how best to proceed, my son has taken it upon himself to make time on our stops at bookstores to pore over the book, committing sections to memory much the same way he does with favorite Garfield or Foxtrot cartoons. He begrudgingly respects the fact that his mother and I continue to monitor the purchase of his video games based on the rating stickers on the covers. The same kind of stickers that I scoffed at when Tipper Gore tried to keep me from listening to Frank Zappa. Back when I was a free-thinking college student. Now I'm a fussy buzz kill: somebody's parent.
I know it's just a line in the sand, really. There will be plenty of other concerns that will come along soon enough that will push this to the side. Some of them will be more serious. Some of them less. But at least I'm using my brain for something other than food.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tone Deaf

Forgive my late arrival to the discourse, but digital video recording allows me to generate opinions far past the window of prime time. In this case, I refer to the "Rocky Horror" episode of "Glee." I have plenty of friends and co-workers who are very enthusiastic about this musical-variety-comedy-drama that airs on Fox. I have seen bits and pieces of episodes, and thanks to their efforts, Kristin Chenoweth is no longer singularly responsible for the revival of musical theatre. Here is where I tell you that my wife is a huge fan of muscial theatre. And "Rocky Horror." And Kristin Chenoweth. That is shy I felt the need to set my DVR to record this very special episode.
When it was over, I held my tongue, because I did not want to trample on the feelings of my dear wife. We grew up as band geeks together, and this story of kids finding their way in the rough and tumble world of high school glee club seemed to be a fitting allegory to our youth. And they just got an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for outstanding comedy series, so why didn't it seem particularly sensitive?
Initially, the performances of the songs seemed extremely faithful to those of the 1975 film. Then came the discussion among the faculty and kids, sorting out issues of the maturity of the subject matter, as well as casting the central character, Doctor Frank-N-Furter. The good doctor is, by is own admission, " a sweet transvestite," and though there were several odd feints at certain male characters taking on the role, including John "Uncle Jesse" Stamos, it went to Mercedes, played by Amber Riley. My wife said, "It's like 'what if Frank were played by Aretha Franklin?'" And that would be fine, given the grand tradition of casting against gender, from Shakespeare's time to Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan. Then they started messing with the lyrics. Why couldn't this character, appearing in a very special episode of a GLAAD award recipient show identify herself for the purposes of Rocky Horror as a "transvestite?"
The answer seemed plain enough to me: It's a show that is still being paid for by Rupert Murdoch. This point became all the more painfully apparent when, at the end of the episode, the Glee Club's director decided that "pushing the envelope" of what his kids should perform was asking too much of them at such a young age. So he had them stage it in an empty theatre. Where no one else could see it. Not unlike a closet.
Maybe I just don't get it, but for the record, neither did my wife.

Monday, November 01, 2010

What Are You Doing Tomorrow?

The death toll for campaign staff and election workers during the elections a year ago numbered twenty-one, according to Tabish Forugh of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission. Another twenty-one people were wounded.
Back in March, the turnout for the election in Iraq was sixty-two percent. This was in spite of attacks that killed thirty-eight people. Contrast that to our last general election, the one in 2008, where we saw sixty-one percent of our registered voters in the the U S of A show up at the polls.
There are a couple of things that struck me about this news: First, and perhaps most obviously, it has been some time since anybody was shooting at potential voters in our country. Violence on election day is limited primarily to those hanging chads. Secondly, how do we reconcile the fact that these fledgling democracies seem to have greater participation than the country that is out there trying to plant and fertilize them?
I know. We've been at it for almost two hundred and fifty years. Representative democracy: ho hum. My boss won't let me have time off work. I just spaced it. This Tuesday? Really? Or how about everyone's favorite: "It doesn't matter anyway. They're all idiots."
The suggestion that we shouldn't vote because it only encourages them was tired before P.J. O'Rourke got to it. It is the opportunity that we have to make a difference in our daily lives in a simple, yet profound way. The stories of our elections have become mundane because of their relative calm and efficient occurrence. Glitches like the presidential election of 2000 are the exceptions that prove the rule. If more registered voters had found their way to their polling places way back at the turn of the century, Albert Gore might never have won an Academy Award.
It is the part of the otherwise nutso rhetoric that flows from the tea-bags of the party of frightened Americans: participation. Maybe it takes a certain amount of anger or fear to become completely connected to the democratic process, but perhaps it doesn't have to be a life or death proposition.