Monday, February 28, 2011


James Cameron wasn't the first to coin this term. For decades, this has been way wonks of various stripes have described that which cannot be found, but would be really cool to have nonetheless. Whether it referred to expensive materials to fabricate a spy plane or a mountain bike or elements that could be found if we only looked hard enough, it probably would be worth at least "twenty million a kilo." That's why some bad humans thought it would be worth killing off an entire race of big blue cats to get their hands on the stuff.
It is also a good way to describe my son's feelings about snow. Not in any sort of cool, hip way. The stuff that falls from the sky in certain climates at specific times of the year. Unlike his mother and father, he has grown up on a planet where this resource is rare in the extreme. One of his treasured childhood memories is a hail storm that blew threw the bay area when he was just a toddler and left his back yard, for a fleeting moment, covered in white. He raced out with his toy dump truck and loaded up what he could of the frozen goodness and watched the rest of it melt away. Was it really ever there?
That's why we have made a tradition out of dragging ourselves up into the Sierras once a year: to satisfy this precipitation itch of my snow-deprived son. Imagine the shivers that went through our household when local meteorologists began predicting that San Francisco and the surrounding area was on a course for its first measurable snowfall in thirty-five years. Never mind the percentages or "chance of." My son heard "snow in the bay area" and started making his plans. "If we get at least two inches, mom and I are going to ski to school," and, "Do you think they would close off the street down the block so we could sled on it?"
On Friday morning, he was up and out of bed much quicker than usual. He was at the window and surveying the landscape. Very wet. Slightly breezy. No snow. His hope was renewed abruptly as the radio suggested that there was still a twenty-four hour window for that exceptional weather event. He began making his strategy for Saturday morning. When he got out of bed and found the frost melting off the grass, he scaled them back. And started to wait for the next time.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

And The Winner Is...

Now that the Super Bowl of football is over, we can focus our attention on the Super Bowl of movies: The Eighty-Third Academy Awards. Perhaps more than anything else, this is a chance for America to show off the best they have to offer: very expensive commercials for cars we can't afford anyway and red carpet fashion that we can't afford anyway. They also give out some awards, but by this time next year we'll all be congratulating ourselves about how well we did on last year's Oscar pool.
But it wasn't always that way. For as long as I can remember, I have sat and watched the ceremony rapt with fascination, imagining what it must be like to attend such a gala. When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why not one of the "Planet of the Apes" films was ever nominated for best picture. When I was older, I was cheered by the inclusion of a special Oscar for John Chambers, who created all those amazing make-up effects in the original, but the other four got no recognition whatsoever. Where was the love for the best movies ever made?
As I started going to see movies that didn't feature super-intelligent apes, I discovered a world of film that begged for recognition. Part of the problem was that I wasn't allowed to see the really good movies, the ones that were rated "R," for "Really Good," I suppose. Seeing movies by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Jack Nicholson helped open my eyes to what was Oscar-worthy: not super-intelligent apes.
And so I will tune in tonight, with my ballot filled out in advance, hoping that having seen eight of the ten nominated films somehow gives me an edge over my son, who has seen one. He'll be wondering why there isn't a category for best performance by a transforming robot.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cookie Monster

Law enforcement officials say that a pair of roommates argued and deputies say that it turned physical when one woman began chasing to other with scissors and hitting her repeatedly with a board and then a sign. What's the big deal? Things like this happen every day, right? Especially around Girl Scout Cookie time. Thirty-one-year-old Hersha Howard woke up her roommate early last Sunday and accused her of eating her Thin Mints. That's when all the commotion started.

It started much earlier than last Sunday for me. I have never threatened anyone physically over purloined wafers of delight, but there was a time when such a thing was possible. This was back in the days when I was on high alert from the last week of January through mid-March for any and all opportunities to purchase Girl Scout cookies, or more to the point: Thin Mints. There came a point when I was in college that I surrendered to the notion that the secret ingredient was heroin, and I would do whatever was necessary to get my fix. The fresh-faced little pushers would try and interest me in other varieties: Do-Si-Dos, Trefoils, Samoas. But they didn't work that angle long. They could tell by the glint in my eye that I was after one thing and one thing only. I wanted the ones in the Kelly green boxes and when I was done I wanted more. There is only one serving size for me. When the box is open, the only thing that slows me down is the plastic sleeves that politely suggest that you eat half. Back in the day, there wasn't much hesitation before the second tube of minty goodness disappeared as well.

There used to be a little girl next door who was at first perplexed when I insisted on buying a case of Thin Mints. "You mean a box, don't you?"

"No. I want a box full of boxes. I don't want to have to go looking for you later."

She gave me a worried little smile, and I noted that when she came back, she brought her mother. Just in case things got a little weird. Instead, her mother made careful note of our address and came back the following year with the expectation that her daughter would probably get her cookie badge by just knocking on my door.

And ten one year, I just stopped. Not cold turkey, mind you. I still enjoy a dozen or two thin mints once a year or so, but I don't seek them out like I used to. It is no longer a requirement. I would not chase anyone around with scissors if they ate mine. Not anymore, anyway.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome Home*

Dear Mom,
I recently read that parents are three times more likely to welcome their adult sons home than daughters. The study showed that returning sons or "boomerang boys" are considered more obliging house guests than their sisters and that they easily wrap their mothers around their little fingers. I suspect that these mothers are unfamiliar with the Plum Jelly Gambit.
Many years ago, through no fault of my own, I found myself in need of a place to stay while I rehabilitated after knee surgery. Okay, there was some fault on my part. I probably should have stayed in the swing rather than jumping out into the cool night air. I probably should have considered the relative height of my leap as a function of my age at the time, which was over eighteen. I should have also inquired about the status of my health insurance. All of these factors lead to a prolonged stay in the comfort of my mother's basement.
After a few weeks of literally waiting on me hand and foot, I finally managed to hobble up the stairs to mom's kitchen one morning for breakfast. There was juice there was toast. There was sun streaming in the window. I felt welcome. I felt at home. I looked over the table and after a moment, I asked my mother "Do we have any grape jelly?"
"No," she replied from in front of the sink, "but we have plum jelly."
"No grape?"
"Have you ever tried plum jelly?"
This question seemed, at my advanced age of twenty-something, to be just a little condescending. "Whether I've tried plum jelly or not shouldn't be the issue. I wanted to know if you had any grape jelly."
And that's how we figured out that I was all better and it was time for me to strike out on my own once again.
So, dear mother of three sons, I suggest you market this strategy and maybe consider a marketing campaign that might even include your own line of plum preserves. I know now that if I want to come for a visit, I should bring my own jelly.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Future Daze

Experts would like us to know that by the year 2050, our planet could be "unrecognizable." First of all, this is something that experts have been saying since the invention of experts. Whether they would like us to shiver with the anticipation of all the grand and glorious technology and additional labor-saving devices, or cower in fear of life on a burned-out cinder, these experts would like us to imagine a world where their vision holds sway. This one happens to be more of the latter, citing the global population which will reach seven billion this year and will most likely top nine billion by their target: 2050.
The problem with a lot of these dire prognostications is that they fall into a bin with those made by Aztecs, Nostradamus and Al Gore. These scientists want us to take seriously the depletion of resources and the strain on our already overburdened food supplies. And here I thought Chuck Heston had taken care of all that. Or maybe that was the future in which super-intelligent apes had taken over the back lot of Twentieth Century Fox. It's really hard to know just exactly what to fear.
Like Charles Dickens before them, thinkers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science want us to know that what they predict is only one possible future. Their bottom line is family planning. If I may be so bold, I would like to suggest that we start working on the next phase of human evolution: more cubic folks for ease of stacking.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Roughin' It

Standing at the top of the snow covered driveway, I saw the pickup slow down, but keep driving past. Then it backed up again, right into the bank of ice and snow that I had been piling up for the past hour. A bearded young man hopped out of the cab. I called down to him, "What can I do you for?" Before I had time to think, these words, or at least the syntax of my father had become my introduction.
Mister Beard had arrived to clear the snow off the deck of the cabin that we were renting for the holiday weekend. I had just introduced myself in the manner that I had become accustomed to hearing my father interact with strangers so many years ago. Standing in the midst of ten foot drifts on all sides, it seemed appropriate. My father spent years after he left my mother living in our cabin in Colorado without any electricity or running water. The only heat he had came from a pair of wood burning stoves, one in each corner. Try as he might, there was never a way to get his bedroom, located opposite from both stoves, anywhere near comfortable once winter set in.
Consequently, he took a number of house-sitting jobs during these months, but that didn't keep him out of the cold forever. Sooner or later he had to drive that dark and twisting road up into the ice and snow and brave the elements. I mentioned that there was no plumbing, which meant the closest "convenience" was an outhouse a good ten yards up the path behind the cabin. All of this tended to spur his frontier spirit, and phrases such as "What can I do you for?" came quite naturally out of the mouth of a printing salesman from the suburbs of Boulder.
And so I found myself negotiating with this mountain dweller in a patois that I assumed he would immediately understand. We talked in this folksy manner about the potential of six feet ice and snow falling down off the roof as he worked to clear the deck with is snow blower while I chipped and scraped away at the four inch ice flow just below him. It was good, honest work, and when he was done, I gave him a comradely tip of the cap, and off he went to where other vacation renters were struggling with their own drifts. I leaned on my shovel and thought of my father once again, and was grateful that I was just a few steps from indoor plumbing and electric space heaters.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Smells Like Team Spirit

When we get together to have our five family gatherings, the ones we have known since our kids were all in preschool together, the talk eventually turns to sports. Not the pro game, or even the college teams, but the organized gatherings of kids who play together, and who have since about the time they all got out of preschool: a little soccer, but mostly baseball. My wife and I drift away at these moments, since our son is not a team sports guy.
Way back when he was five, at his first soccer practice, he was set to make his first practice header. Unfortunately, his concentration slipped to his mother who was standing nearby, and the ball bounced off his newly bloodied nose. My wife lost her chance to be a soccer mom at that moment.
A couple of years later, he tried his hand at T-ball. He was the biggest kid on the team, and while he managed to impress his coaches and teammates with his speed, he never quite got comfortable getting in front of a ball that was speeding toward his nose or any other part of his body. There was no Little League in his future.
His buddies, meanwhile, have had varied degrees of success in their team sports endeavors, and while there has rarely been much jealousy or envy, it's always been a point of demarcation between him and his friends. And his friends parents and us. We know we have to work our schedules around baseball tryouts and soccer tournaments if we want all his friends to be there. We know that we will endure a certain amount of discussion about which coaches are doing a good job and which shouldn't be asked back next year in spite of our lack of participation. We nod and smile. We understand that the Pelicans should have won but the new rules this year have made it more difficult for all the kids to compete in the way that they have become accustomed. Or something like that. We would care more if our son was part of a team, but he isn't.
And that's okay, because if we learned anything this past weekend when we all went away to a cabin in the mountains, our so has some mad hide and seek skills. If anybody's putting together a team, give us a call. We'll let you know if he's available.

Monday, February 21, 2011


It's good to know that the fear of public speaking has a name, especially since it ranks right up there with the fear of death for most people. I'm not sure how speaking at someone's funeral stacks up as a function of this, but I do understand how frightening it can be to stand in front of a group of people with something to say. What if it doesn't come out right? What if I'm misunderstood? What if it doesn't come out at all?
Imagine how terrifying it must have been for Serene Branson, KCBS television reporter who was standing outside the Grammys, ready to report on all the festivities going on inside, and the words just didn't come out. Sounds, yes, syllables, but not a light piece of entertainment news to put us all at ease. At first the fear was that she had suffered a stroke on live TV. Now the diagnosis is that she was having a very particular kind of migraine headache. As yet, no one has come forward to suggest that she was speaking in tongues because she was possessed by demons that were congregating outside the Staples Center, possibly on their way to Ozzy Osbourne's house.
All of which makes me wonder why no one has checked out any of the footage from Fox News lately. They've got all kinds of crazy jabbering going on over there twenty-four/seven and nobody seems to mind. I guess in this case the fear of public speaking lies squarely on the listener.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Important Dispatch From Headquarters

"Thug Teachers." That was the phrase one commenter used in his response to an article about Wisconsin lawmakers voting on an anti-union bill. A crowd of pro-union folks, many of them in the education business, showed up to voice their displeasure. Apparently, there are some cracks in our well-maintained facade. The casual reader is now beginning to see our evil machinations for what they are: The systematic lowering of our nation's standards until teachers can quietly ascend to their rightful position at the top of the economic food chain. We've been teaching kids poorly or just plain wrong for so long now, Republicans are beginning to make sense to them. Our plan to create an easily-manipulated illiterate mass is backfiring on us. Even though their math skills have degenerated to the degree that they no longer understand that you can't get something like a war in a foreign country for nothing, we haven't had the impact on their listening skills that we had hoped. They won't listen to us anymore, but they will listen to the Tea Party. Go figure.
Still, we can't let down now. The lavish lifestyle that our profession has afforded us is far too valuable to simply walk away. In order to continue living the high life and experiencing every joy that teaching has to offer, including the opportunity to grovel for our jobs on a yearly basis, we must stand fast. If everyone knew how great this job is, we might suddenly be flooded with interested applicants and then the truth would be out. Happily, that whole "questioning" phase is just about taken care of, as we can step back and admire the way we have transformed the country into a nation of sheep. Now if we could only figure out what frequency our woolly flock responds to, our problems would be solved.
Instead, we have to figure out to manage on a budget that will potentially cut nearly a thousand dollars from the per-pupil spending in many California districts. What will become of our staff barista and our daily foot massages? How will we afford our homes in the Hamptons, the ones we visit on our voluminous spare time? Something has got to be done.
In case you stumbled on this blog by accident and you still have any cognitive skills left, please repeat the phrase "something about Justin Bieber" and the programming should take care of the rest. Have a blrugnefstle day.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Little Lies

If you're like me, you're probably still stinging from the scratches and bruises that were inflicted upon you back in those lazy, hazy days we now refer to as "The Bush Administration." If you're not like me, you'll probably find a reason to leave some eye-opening comment to help me reframe my thinking, but for now, let's just agree that I am still not quite over being lied to for eight years about what we were trying to accomplish in Iraq.
I have very vivid memories of Colin Powell waving his little vial in front of the United Nations general assembly, and if you didn't see Colin Powell waving his little vial you can only imagine the scars that it left. That was all we needed to see. That was the evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Consequently the World Movement for Democracy will have to wait for their own acronym. And we will have to spend the next generation unraveling the mess that those WMDs created.
And now the joker who identified himself as "Curveball" has given an interview with The Guardian where he tells us this: "I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that." The cherry on top of this bio-weapons sundae is the headline: "How US was duped by Iraqi fantasist looking to topple Saddam." Hey, Britain, check me on this, but I'm pretty sure that Tony Blair was standing right behind our guys, quick to join in on the coalition of Pinheads. Mister Curveball, or if you're not into that whole brevity thing Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, has said that he was surprised that the United States took his story hook, line and sinker. Ten years and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, the war he inspired is only beginning to wind down.
If only he could have waited a few more years and posted it all on Facebook.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Chute$ and Ladder$

Are you scrambling around, looking for receipts, scouring Al Gore's Internet for appropriate deductions, and generally racing about as if there was a big exam coming up? You're not alone. That's what tax time does for many of us: It makes us think that if we do it right that we will somehow do it better. "It," in this case being the payment of taxes.
I've never been much of a rebel when it comes to the Internal Revenue Service, but let's start with that name: I get the first couple of words, but how is this a "service?" They're asking us to do a lot of math so that we can eventually pony up the money they have already decided that we owe them. Only when we are very clever do we manage to turn those tables. "Aha!" we cry as we notch a few dollars here or there because we qualify for the "indoor plumbing exemption." "Gotcha!" we exclaim when we uncover that missing dependent who was in the basement doing laundry for the past two years. When you get a refund, it's money that the government "owes" you. You paid too much. If you're clever and it ends up a wash, you paid the government the right amount in the first place. If it sounds a little like Las Vegas, then you're starting to get the idea.
Then there's the alternative of simply not paying your taxes at all. If you only buy your gardening supplies when Orchard Supply and Hardware has their "we'll pay the sales tax" event and you follow the wisdom of Steve Martin, who once suggested the simple solution of simply saying "I forgot" when the tax man came to the door, then you could get out from under the thumb of the man. Or spend considerable time in a federal penitentiary, depending on your economic status at the time.
And that's really the rub, here. If you've got a ton of money, you generally pay a bunch of very clever people to help you keep your money. If you don't have much money, your alternative is late nights with a couple of busted pencils and a tired calculator or a ride on the Turbo Tax fun wagon. When it's all said and done, and the wars you never liked in the first place are paid for and the school down the street has closed because there wasn't enough money, do you get a nice card from the Internal Revenue Service thanking you for your donation?
Don't stand by the mailbox waiting.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Conspiracy Of Dunces

When I was a kid, the conventional detective wisdom was that the criminal would always return to the scene of a crime. I suppose that's a natural enough impulse, if you wanted to revisit the site of your most glorious triumph, or if you really wanted to get nabbed by Columbo. That was one of the dumb things that crooks used to do. Now they don't have to. They just post their crimes on Youtube.
An Oregon man filmed the speedometer of his car while driving more than one hundred forty miles per hour so he could post it on Al Gore's Internet. The oh-so-clever master of speed forgot that law enforcement has recently acquired access to the world wide web, and the easiest part of their job is now typing "stupid things I did" in the search box and pressing the enter key. Anything that shows up as a local disturbance can be checked out, and if the crime in question is in a neighboring county, just send an IM over to the sheriff's office over there. The rocket scientist in Oregon was pulled over by a state trooper, but the old "do you know how fast you were going" rhetoric was unnecessary in this case. He was arrested and tossed in jail Saturday night, charged with reckless driving and speeding. It was his third speeding incident in the past year. The video was confiscated and will be used as evidence against him.
It's part of the world we live in. For many people, some of them less than honest and most of them less than clever, if it doesn't appear on Al Gore's Internet, it didn't happen. So we get footage of boys and girls, men and women, beating and cheating, stealing and breaking, in the service of instant notoriety. Who needs Big Brother when you post your own surveillance video? It's a creepy contrast to the images we have seen coming out of Egypt in the past few weeks. Discuss amongst yourselves,

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Domino Theory Revisited

When I was a kid, I used to listen to politicians who made their living off the fear of creeping socialism. We needed to stay vigilant. We could not relax, not for a moment. If South Vietnam fell to the Communists, it would be only a matter of time before all of southeast Asia would fall under the grip of the evil despots behind the Bamboo Curtain. It all seemed so very frightening and inevitable. We, as Americans, were duty-bound to let freedom ring.
That was back in the seventies. Ten years later, we had Ronald Reagan demanding that Mister Gorbachev tear down his wall. This assertion did little to stir things up in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Or in North Korea. Or in The People's Republic of China. Way out west, Europe became a free-wheeling hot-bed of democracy. Poland even elected an electrician to head their newly minted government, signaling the collapse of Soviet-style oppression. Soon there were other forms of oppression to choose from.
And now, thanks to Facebook, we have our newest revolution in Egypt. Coming fast on the heels of Tunisia and southern Sudan, things are changing quickly in the cradle of civilization. In Yemen and Algeria the winds of change continue to blow. Here in America, we tend to vacillate wildly from wild enthusiasm to cautious optimism. It was so much easier when we could keep a blind eye to the human rights abuses while we made our deals for oil and military bases. Now we might have to deal with the people of some of those countries, many of whom are less than thrilled with the United States. In the meantime, Vietnam is making contracts with Iran to develop vast new oil fields, and have invited a US solar energy company to build a billion dollar factory outside of Ho Chi Minh City. And all those clever Vietnamese have figured out how to work around their government's Facebook block. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be posted on Youtube.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Long Story Short

My son had to write a sentence for his English class using the word "epic." He wrote this: "Dude, that was epic." He was pleased enough with his repsonse that he felt the need to share it. I asked him if his sentence illustrated his understanding of the word. He changed it to "Dude, that kick flip was epic."
I sighed. Thirteen years old. Eighth grade. I collected myself. "What is the definition of 'epic?'"
"It's a long poem that tells the story of a hero's journey."
"Really?" I was surprised by his confidence. "Can you give me an example?"
"The Odyssey."
My journey was at an end, even though I had just started. He had the right answer. He had an epic answer, but it wasn't his first impulse to write it down. It wouldn't have been very cool to simply give back the answer that his teacher had given him. He was trying to find his own voice. Oddly enough, the one he chose sounded more like a skate punk than a kid who hasn't been on his own skateboard for more than a year. But he has seen a kick flip on line, and he assures me that it was epic.
Kids these days. That's what was going through my head. Followed almost immediately by the sound of my mother laughing. I was in upper level math classes until my senior year in high school, where I began the year taking Elementary Functions. I was having such a good time with my friends that math became secondary. I was the class clown. At some point, my teacher took me aside and told me that while he couldn't force me to drop the class, he could make it very difficult to pass it. I left the room and went straight to my counselor who found me a spot in "Selected Topics In Math." I had gone from the heights of calculus to the slums of algorithmic review. It was more important for me at that moment to be social than to be "smart."
That was more than thirty years ago. A lifetime ago: my son's. Now I'm trying to make sense of this from the other side. I'm trying to keep him on the fine line between being clever and being a smart aleck. It's a wicked tough dance. It helps if you're very smart to begin with.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Politics Of Dancing

For my thirtieth birthday, I got a girlfriend. She came halfway across the country to carry me away to a new life. It finally put to rest any lingering fears or concerns I had about catching cooties. And while it would be nice to say that there were no strings attached, that might not be entirely true. My new girlfriend had this crazy notion that I should know how to dance.
Not just flopping about as I was prone to at the time, much in the style of Donald O'Connor or Elwood Blues, but real and true social dancing with a partner and everything. I tried to explain to her that the scars from doing the Virginia Reel with the girls in my fourth grade PE class were still to fresh, but she would have none of it. Any man she would permit to date would have to come across with some clever footwork or find himself sitting alone.
This was all imparted in the most loving way, of course, but I took it hard. I had spent the last decade creating a persona that was free-standing, aloof. Holding anyone that close was in direct contradiction in terms for me. But she held her ground, and eventually I found myself wondering how I would rise to this particular challenge. I understood the mechanics well enough. I had listened to and played enough music that I knew a tango from a cha-cha, but it had never been a primary concern to imagine how I might trip the light fandango. I had admired my older brother's enthusiastic polka technique from afar, and realized that somewhere in my genetic makeup was a dancer waiting to be turned loose.
So I set about teaching myself to waltz. It seemed straightforward enough. If you messed up the first step or two, you could get back on the beat by the third. I spent a couple hours in my mother's basement, practicing by myself to Richard Thompson's "Waltzing's For Dreamers." The odd pantomime made my arms sore and my legs stiff. I was getting a headache, and when she finally showed up later that evening, I figured that I was as ready as I might ever be. I turned on the stereo, and asked her to dance.
It was clumsy going. Having another body to engage and avoid made things exponentially more challenging. A few steps in, she started coaching me. The best advice she gave me was to relax my shoulders. She told me to move around the floor. I listened to her. I listened to the music, and the four minute song seemed to last forever.
When it was over, I thanked her for the dance. She thanked me for taking the chance. Later that month, as we travelled back across the country to what would become our home, that song came up on a tape we were listening to in the car. I pulled over, got out, and asked her to dance by the side of the road.
Now, every few years or so, I get up on the dance floor. Sometimes we waltz. Sometimes we do a simple box-step. Sometimes we just sway back and forth to the music. The way we used to. I still have a lot to learn about dancing.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Virtual Buzz Kill

Well, that's it. I have officially lived through an era. Way back when I brought home my first plastic guitar in a box with Slash on the front, and my son said, "Is that for us?" I couldn't imagine that it would all come to an end so very abruptly. That is, if you count four years as "abrupt." Activision has pulled the plug out of the virtual Marshall stack and cancelled any further iterations of its Guitar Hero franchise. A moment of virtual silence, please.
I have expressly fond memories of the first time I plonked through Alice Cooper's "School's Out," and the first time I survived the galloping triplets of "Knights of Cydonia." It filled a void that I could only manage to sputter about to my wife. The idea that I could make noises as I played along on my prop guitar with Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones was too much for me to make intelligent sentences. After a day or two of listening to my exasperated noises, my wife shrugged her shoulders and told me if that was the toy I really wanted, I should go and get it.
Since then, I have purchased most of the iterations of the Guitar Hero franchise. I even scored a copy of the Van Halen version by being one of the first to buy the fifth volume of streaming red, blue, green, yellow and orange dots. On those weekend afternoons when the rest of the family was busy or out of the house, dad would strap on his faux Stratocaster and shred the night away.
I was a loyalist for a long time, steering clear of the MTV sponsored Rock Band, preferring the essential nature of almost-air guitar to the complex nature of microphones and drums. Until Rock Band nabbed the Beatles' catalog, and I surrendered. When they lassoed Green Day, it was all over in my house.
In some ways, I can only blame myself for the decline of Guitar Hero. I didn't buy "Warriors of Rock." I spent my fun money on Rock Band Three. Now I won't have Johnny Napalm to kick out the jams with anymore. I know I just lived through a trend. Like arcades and Intellivision before it, Guitar Hero will live on in the hearts of those who seek it out. With proper care, I should be able to keep my plastic axe in tune, and on those nights when the family allows me to turn the volume up to eleven, you'll still hear me rocking the night away.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Getting Up In My Kitchen

One of the things I do, along with my colleagues here at Horace Mann Elementary, is to always speak to kids as though going to college was an eventuality. Not "if you go to college," but "when you go to college." That is why I have always had issues with Kobe Bryant. Years ago, when he broke through in the NBA as a superstar, my assertion to ten-year-olds that they needed college to assure their success in life fell flat. Here was a seventeen-year-old kid who announced back in 1996 "This has been my goal about since I was in ninth grade," he said. "I remember coming home and telling my dad, 'I don't feel like going to college. I want to go right to the NBA.'" And thus began my regular and enduring discussion with the youth that passed through my door about the relative importance of a college education. I made inroads with some by talking to fifth graders about proportions: the number of kids playing basketball in Oakland versus the one kid in Philadelphia who had the requisite skills and backing to get him into the NBA. There were a number of others who simply shrugged and assumed that they would be the next one. Then along came LeBron James decided to drop out and become a spokesperson for Nike. Why would you ever want to go to college when you could have a shoe named after you?
Fast forward a few more years, and now I don't have Nike or the NBA to blame. Now it's Formula Capital's James Altucher who will happily share with you his theory on why sending your kids to college is a bad idea. The skyrocketing costs of tuition and other expenses makes it a risky investment. Avoid the risk and take on one of his suggested alternatives: Start a business. Work for a charity. Travel the world. Create art. Master a sport. Master a game. Write a book. Make people laugh.
Yes, I did notice that the list includes sports. And that landed me right at the end of the list. I had to laugh.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Put A Spell On You

Feeling oppressed lately? Wish the government would stick to paving roads and printing money? Tired of being kept down by the man? Just be happy that you don't live in Romania. And that you're not a witch.
Not the kind of witch that appears on our late night talk shows or periodically runs for the Senate in our country, but the spell-casting cauldron-brewing sort. Romanian officials have turned to witches to help the recession-hit country collect more money. They won't be spinning gold from straw, but they will be handing over their share of the profits from turning the neighborhood children into gingerbread. Last month the government officially made witchcraft a taxable profession, prompting angry witches to dump poisonous mandrake into the Danube in an attempt to put a hex on them.
While many of the ruling party resemble toads, there was no immediate report of any actual transformations, and the situation continues to look bleak. Just ask the fortune tellers: a new bill that threatens fines or even prison if their predictions don't come true. "They can't condemn witches, they should condemn the cards," Queen Witch Bratara Buzea told The Associated Press by telephone. Of course, had the Queen really wanted to send a message, she would have appeared in a swirl of fire and brimstone in the employee lounge of the Associated Press, but that's just the problem. It's going to take some really intense magic to bring Europe and the rest of the world out of its economic spiral.
Might I suggest supply-side incantations?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Works?

Okay, the smoke has cleared. We don't even have the distraction of the Pro Bowl to blind us to the fact that it will be six long months before we can comfortably plant our potato backsides in front of competitive football. It's time for a reckoning. Starting with the fool who called in to the radio station I was listening to the morning after the Super Bowl to suggest that Budweiser should spend half of their advertising budget on making a better beer. I didn't have the time then, but what I would have asked that person what province in Canada they lived. All Americans know the answer: What makes Budweiser the King of Beers is the fact that it tastes faintly like the byproduct of those iconic Clydesdales, but remains the most popular brew in the country, in spite of the recent influx of "better tasting" beers from around the world.
As opposed to Starkist tuna, we don't necessarily want things to taste good. As a matter of fact, we don't even care that much about their relative good taste when it comes to aesthetics. One need only watch a quarter of the big game to gather the importance of corn chips and pickup trucks to our culture. One might even come away from the experience believing that taste of any kind is optional. Whether we are selling hybrid cars or Internet naming services, the important thing is that you come away with an image. That faint ringing sensation you have in your head, days after the presentation of the Lombardi trophy, is not the after-effects of a Black Eyed Peas halftime show or the oddly truncated Aguilera version of our National Anthem. It is the mindworm that is slowly gnawing its way to your cerebral cortex with a message that sounds not at all faintly like, "buybuybuy."
And so that is what the next six months will be about. It's time to get off the couch for another six months of stimulating the economy, with short breaks for the draft and the rookie combine. Now it's time for an ice cold Bud. I don't drink them anymore, but I can't resist this insane urge to buy the stuff by the case.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Can You Dig It?

You must be familiar with the old adage: "Well, it sure beats digging ditches." It's the thing we say when we want to diminish the relative pain and suffering of whatever occupation we find ourselves in at the time. It was only recently that it occurred to me to wonder what ditch diggers say when they're trying to make themselves feel better about their line of work.
This happened while I was standing at the bottom of a hole with a shovel. I was out in my back yard working on the project that my son started a few weeks ago. He wants to have an underground bunker for his Nerf gun battles. In his initial plan, there was going to be room enough for he and a couple of friends to stand up inside, peering through carefully concealed ports, waiting for the inevitable storming of the fortress. He has plans all drawn up for how the frame for the roof will be constructed with pvc pipe and plywood. The floor is going to be flat and smooth, probably plywood but maybe paving stones. That is if he ever gets the hole dug. He and three friends hacked away for a couple of hours on that initial weekend, and since then there have been another couple of half-hearted attempts at getting back to it, but digging a hole is hard work, hence the aforementioned ditch digging sentiment.
That's where I come in. I had just returned from taking a leisurely stroll around the block that didn't quite scratch my exercise itch, so I grabbed a shovel and headed out back. As I pushed and lifted and strained and dug I started t sweat. And I started to notice the pile of dirt next to me start to grow. I thought of Cool Hand Luke, with his dirt in Boss Keane's ditch. I figured that, at some point, all that dirt would have to get out of my yard and back into the hole. But not now. This was far too satisfying. It was hard work. I was sore afterward, but I could see what I had accomplished. And it's still not deep enough. There's always next weekend.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Domestic Tranquility

A few days ago, I got a big scratch on the side of my head from a tree branch. Primarily because of the absurd nature of this accident and the additionally absurd lack of hair on my head, the mark it left was cause for a great many conversations. "What happened to you?" was how most of them started. It didn't take long before I grew tired of the mundane details of my collision with a shrub that I had avoided successfully for years but suddenly fell victim. I started making up answers. Especially for kids: "I was in a knife fight." "I was wrestling with a bear. You should see the bear." To which most of the listeners, old and young, replied, "No. Really."
Then, to my surprise, several of my co-workers and friends went to a place I hadn't anticipated. "Did you get into a fight with your wife?" The thought that my wife might come after me with a tree branch, or a knife, or even an angry bear never figured into my equation. While it is true that in many ways my life can resemble a situation comedy, the very cartoon-ish image of my bride attacking me with a frying pan or any other household implement struck me as quite absurd. It made me happy to imagine myself in such a functional relationship.
A couple in San Francisco wasn't quite as fortunate. It seems that when hubby came home at seven in the morning, the missus met him at the door with a small caliber handgun and shot him once. Realizing their situation had now escalated into the realm of felony, on the way to the hospital they constructed a tale of a drive-by shooting. Such events are not unheard of in south San Francisco, but the couple were unable to keep their stories straight under routine questioning. She was hauled off to jail for attempted murder, felony assault with a firearm and felony domestic violence. I think they would have been better off if they had stuck with the rabid bear story.

Monday, February 07, 2011

End Of The Line

At the beginning of each year, there are hundreds of hopefuls, all vying for that same spot. Over the long autumn months, those are dwindled down to the best of the best. They are the ones who join the other thirty-some competitors in the tournament that will decide who will be the one: the champion. There is definitely an element of luck involved. Who will stay healthy? Who has the skills for the long haul, not just the sprint to the finish. Over the years, I have seen many, but this one was special. I had a rooting interest.
Not the Super Bowl. The Oakland Unified School District Spelling Bee. This one was different because my son was one of the students on the stage when it came time to weed out the pretenders from the contenders. I had very mixed feelings, sitting in the audience, watching him on the stage. I wanted him to succeed primarily because of all the times I had watched and judges spelling bees at my elementary school. All that pressure. All those tears. I believe he was fortunate because at his middle school, the initial rounds were done in a quiet room, written on paper. There were no burning gazes from his peers out in the crowd. All he had to do was take a series of spelling tests. Easy enough.
Until he made it to the district level. This one was the real deal. Rows of the cleverest kids from across the city with yellow tag board signs designating the order in which they would step to the microphone and attempt to spell words that many of them had never heard before. When it was my son's turn, he didn't falter. Not in the first round. "C-O-N-C-E-R-N" was out of his mouth before he let himself think about it too much. When round two came, he had already seen half a dozen of his fellow spellers fall by the wayside. When I heard his second round word, I flinched: restaurant. As a fourth grade teacher, I had struggled with that word when my class had an entire week's study of a Mexican eatery. Sure enough, my genetic predisposition for misspelling that very word was passed down a generation. The annoying bell of epic failure, as he called it, chimed his moment to go and join us out in the cheap seats. His time in the sun was through.
He was awarded a certificate and a medal, a rather hefty piece of metal, for his efforts. He wore it to school the next morning, humbled but still proud of his ascent into the lofty realms of the district spelling bee. I was proud too. I was proud before he ever got on the stage. The good news is there's no Brett Favre moment. He's reached mandatory retirement age. To celebrate, we went out to a place that serves food.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

That One Left A Mark

Doomsday came to visit this week, and I have the scars to prove it. The appearance of the gash on the right side of my head might have been connected to a recreation of a capture the flag game where she pulled one of the neighborhood boys back through a hedge by his ankles. It might have been a grazing from a dart thrown in the same fashion that left another lad with the tip of one of those babies sticking straight out of his own noggin. It could have been reminiscent of any of a dozen near-misses that we all experienced as kids growing up on a suburban cul de sac. But it wasn't. It was simply my own near-sighted brush with a tree limb that gouged my skull as we were making our to dinner. Be that as it may: Doomsday left her mark.
Actually, it would be unfair to suggest that she was the one-girl wrecking crew described above. As we piled up recollections of our youth, it became obvious that the survival rate of the kids on our block was kind of astounding, considering the way we went after each other. With sticks and BB guns. With boxing gloves and wiffle ball bats. With hands and feet. And always in good fun. The fact that only one garage was burned down and that no one was inside is a great example of the charmed way that we all made it through our pre-teen years. Did Doomsday flip one of the matches that landed in the fertilizer? No one will ever know for sure, but the bigger story is that we were able to gather together after a quarter of a century and talk about the old times with nothing but fond memories.
It is one of my favorite things about my life: my childhood. I know that I approached life then much as I do now, with a sense of foreboding that often kept me from experiencing the joy that could have been mine. I can look back now and see how much fun I had, and savor the way our neighborhood hung together for all those years. It was a merry band of children who never got into any serious trouble and escaped with just a few broken bones and the occasional bruised ego. I sat there at my kitchen table with my younger brother and this friend from childhood, thirty-five years removed from those halcyon days, and reveled in every sordid tale and wisp of memory. We are grown-ups now, with grown-up jobs and responsibilities. We couldn't stay up talking into the wee hours of the morning, partly because my son kept hollering at us from his bedroom to be quiet. But when she left, there were still years left undiscussed.
In between, we talked a little about all those years between the old neighborhood and our dinner that night. There was college and weddings and the birth of our respective children. There were a thousand things that we might have caught up on, but we kept going back to that same street, those same houses, that same crew of kids. It was a magical time. It is a treasure.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

You Have To Learn To Pace Yourself

The past couple of weeks have been filled with all kinds of picayune details of adult life, not the least of which is the compounding budget crisis here in California. We have been told that public school budgets will once again be tightened to the tune of fifteen percent. Luxuries like field trips and PE teachers are now negotiable. This is the way we try to keep budget cuts away from the classroom. But there have been no assurances about computer teachers. And so we wait.
While I am waiting, I have dealt with a whirlwind of home entertainment confusion that, after dozens of toll-free calls to various technical support lines and visits by three different cable TV technicians, has resulted in our family's ability to watch Youtube videos on our big screen. A relative triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.
I have also received notification that my TB test certification has lapsed and needs to be renewed to continue teaching in public schools. Not a huge project, just a quick visit downtown to get stuck with a needle, and a return visit three days later to have someone check the appropriate box, then hand deliver that checked box to the human resources department. Just a lot of running about.
And the very next day, I received my annual invitation from the justice system to be a part of the process. Having lived through the onerous non-event that was my jury duty last year, I am not as worried about the vagaries of the experience. It's one more thing to stick on the calendar. All of which probably lead to the dream I had.
I was standing outside my high school band room, knowing that I was on the late side to report for a performance of the concert band. The problem was, I didn't have a white shirt to wear underneath my uniform. Conveniently enough in my dream version of high school, there was a yard sale going on out front, and there were a number of shirts for sale, unfortunately the only white shirt had just recently been dyed blue. My mind raced with possibilities: where could I go, quickly, to find a button down shirt that would pass? If I got in my car and drove anywhere, I would be late. Maybe there was one in my locker inside. When I got there, the whole back end of the band room was being remodeled, and my locker was hanging open, empty.
That's when I woke up and decided to go back to dealing with the humdrum process of being a grown-up.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Flowers In The Desert

Hey kids, let's build a democracy! I've got some disgruntled people. You've got some friends who understand constitutional law, and my mom can make us costumes! You know, it's crazy enough that it just might work.
It's got to work better than hauling a bunch of American soldiers across the globe and having them enforce the flowering of democracy. It has been my experience that very little flowers at gunpoint, with the possible exception of dissent. That is what makes the events of the past few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia so amazing. The people took to the streets and demanded a change from the tyranny of business as usual. Oppressive regimes can be overthrown by the will of the people.
That's not to say that this enterprise is not without cost. Hundreds of people lost their lives in Tunisia before freedom began to ring. A similar body count in Egypt appears likely, though the fact that the military seems to sense a change in the direction of the wind, which may limit the bloodshed.
The irony shouldn't be wasted on us here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. As our troops begin to make their way out of the Middle East, countries will be forced to reckon with their own situations. It is the decline of our presence there that is making it possible for the people to take control of their own destinies. They will be able to forge a democracy that they will have earned and will not resent, at least immediately.
For every "bloodless coup" there are uprisings that fail horribly. The image of a lone protester facing down a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square is a standard for every peaceful revolution, but that gentleman waits in eternity for China to become a democratic republic. Who knows? Things change.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Loud Family

It didn't take long before the media made the connection between Jared Loughner and the band Slipknot. They were quick to point out that the song "Bodies Hit The Floor" by Drowning Pool was in heavy rotation in the scary, cold place that is Jared's brain. If there was any Britney Spears or Jack Johnson on his iPod, it certainly wouldn't have made any ripples, since that isn't the expected connection. Heavy metal songs of rage are what they were looking for and that's what they found. Of course Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold listened to Rammstein. That is what angry teenage boys' brains sound like. Even if you turn the music off.
I remember my own brush with Satan and the powers that force us to kill and kill again. I bought Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" when I was fifteen. I picked it up because it was already considered by many to be a classic of the genre, and I wanted to find out what that genre was all about. A few of my friends began whispering behind my back about how I had fallen into the clutches of "acid rock," and they weren't sure how I would be able to handle it. I did the only thing that a child of my generation could do: I turned it up. Loud. All that howling and screeching guitars and throbbing bass made me feel better. It was good to know that these sounds weren't just inside of me. I could hear others playing them, and it gave me a sense of community.
Did it promote my sense of alienation? Maybe a little. Did Black Sabbath become my favorite band? No. That distinction remained with Cheap Trick for years after that initial taste of Ozzy and the boys. The Trick wrote some pretty fierce songs themselves, including "Surrender," which is still one of the best teen angst songs going, and it sounds better loud, too.
A couple of years later, I brought home "Get Happy" by Elvis Costello and "DEVO Live." My girlfriend at the time was concerned that I might "get into that whole punk rock thing." For the record, it would be several more years before I ever purchased "Never Mind The Bollocks." I maintained a healthy respect and just a touch of fear for those leather clad safety-pinned enthusiasts. They were just a little angrier than I was.
But maybe the biggest difference is that my mother and father knew what I was listening to. Not just because it was easily audible through the floorboards of our house at times, but because they asked. There were some furrowed brows, and there was plenty of music that was deemed inappropriate for dinnertime, but part of what took the air out of my teenaged angst was having my mother listen to something, carefully scanning the lyrics, and saying, "I kind of like this." This was not wasted on me as I now sit down and listen to Linkin Park with my son. Or My Chemical Romance. Or Slipknot. Or Black Sabbath.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ms. W Retires

It never occurred to me all those years ago when I trooped up to my son's elementary school to ranch the children who would be performing in the annual talent show that there would be any need for a balcony in the auditorium. The very fact that there was a separate room for eating lunch and dancing and singing seemed like a very good move, architecturally. There always seemed to be just enough room for all the parents and aunts and uncles and friends and siblings of those who were on stage to sit in rows of folding chairs, along with a few spots on the side and back of the room to stand. I hadn't considered what might happen if you tried to fit fifteen years worth of students, family, and friends into that same auditorium.
That same room was full and overflowing this past Saturday for Ms. W's memorial. My son's third grade math teacher lost her battle with cancer back in November, but it took some time to get everyone and everything organized to pull off a celebration of her life. Teachers, students, principals, family, friends that helped tell the story of her life could hardly be contained by the four walls of a school auditorium. My son and I took our spots just outside the door and watched and listened. There was laughter. There were tears. There was music. There was more laughter. It made me happy to learn more about this woman who had been a piece of my son's life, and therefore a piece of my own.
It made my son uncomfortable, at first. He had dealt with the passing of pets, and he had listened to stories of others who were only faces in photos or names in his parents' stories. This was his one-degree-of-separation moment. He had a hard time standing still, which is a struggle for any thirteen year old boy, but all those memories swirled around his head making his math teacher into a human being: a mother, a wife, a friend. And now she was gone. After some consideration, he made his addition to the book that sat on a table in the lobby: "Dear Ms. W., Thank you for teaching me fractions." He signed his name. He slipped it into one of the back pages.
On the walk home, we talked about memorial services. We talked about something Ms. W's sister-in-law had said about how the Chinese tradition is to send people home with a piece of candy. It's a way to come away with something sweet. We stopped at the 7-11 and bought a Hershey bar. Later that evening, we split it up into fractions and shared it as a family. And once again I thought about how they needed to put a balcony on that auditorium if they wanted to get the whole of everyone who was touched by Ms. W. inside.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Rise Of The Machines

In a series of continuing updates to the internal combustion transport that still refuses to make them fly, car makers are adding more and more "soft technology." What do I mean? How about a car that parks itself? Feel free to text your friends while your Toyota Prius completes its docking maneuvers. There's a new BMW feature out there that will keep you from wandering into someone else's lane. It figures that those Germans would want to keep everyone in line. And yet they refuse to commit to the vision of Caractacus Potts and build a flying car.
Ford wants all of its new cars to turn themselves off at stop lights. No more idling at the drive-through window. Waiting outside your friend's house while he goes inside to find your Linkin Park CD? Then park yourself and your car will tell you when your engine has been sitting there doing nothing long enough. You don't need to warm up your car. My wife is so very happy.
Me? Not so much. Here in America, cars have always been a symbol of our freedom. If Thomas Jefferson had been able to envision a 1969 Dodge Charger, I'm pretty sure the Second Amendment would have included the right to bear monster-honkin' street rods. The open road, the feel of the wind in your face, Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor. That's what being an American is all about.
And now, our own government wants to stick a sensor in all new cars that will decide whether we are too drunk to drive. This might lead to a new distinction for all parties: designated breather. Maybe this is just the way the cyborgs creep into our world and slowly dismantle our way of life. Or perhaps this is the way the machines help us make it to the next generation. I might suggest an intermediary step: Having an OnStar function that will automatically call your bail bondsman when you get pulled over.