Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blame It On The Rain

I don't know about you, but when I started hearing about the Greenhouse Effect, I was worried about having to scramble around, looking for a drink of water. I imagined a scorched version of our Earth, brought on by the magnified effect of our sun's rays pouring through an ozone-free sky. Now it seems that would be, at least for the time being, preferable to the people living on the Mississippi Delta. Lack of water is not the concern.
Even out here in Sunny California, there are those who believe that not only is our drought over, but now we are in line for a flurry of summer flooding as the exceptional snow-pack begins to melt. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. How do we go about solving this crisis of plenty? Where did all this water come from in the first place?
That's when I remembered what my friend, the science teacher, always used to tell kids about the water cycle: It's the same water that has been here for millions of years. The same water that dinosaurs drank, and later evacuated. Then it got evaporated again, and became clouds that rained and so on and so forth. The way most kids remember that lesson was that every time it rains, it rains dinosaur urine. And so it goes for eons and eons, until now, when it seems as though the dinosaurs must have been having some sort of party, and we're all the wetter for it. But how do we solve this problem?
Once upon a time there was a claim made by Scott Tissue that ninety million toilets were flushed, nearly simultaneously, during halftime of the Super Bowl. Their calculations suggest that somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred million gallons of water was moved at that moment. That would help empty some of those reservoirs. Unfortunately, the current labor situation in the NFL may keep the Super Bowl from being played this year. Metaphorically speaking, it never rains, it just pours.
As the water continues to rise, I find myself wondering if this isn't Al Gore's Fault.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Vast Indifference Of Heaven

I always try and arrive at a destination at least fifteen minutes ahead of whatever time is listed on the invitation, screen, or e-mail. This gives me time to poke around enough to be sure of my surroundings. I don't like the idea of getting somewhere and finding that the front door is locked, only to discover, after several minutes of lurking about that the side entrance has been propped open and there's a big sign that says, "Please use this door."
This is how I feel about the afterlife. There is an old Irish blessing that wishes that you should arrive in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you're dead. That's pretty generous, considering my timeline. I expect that if I really am going to spend eternity somewhere that I will have time to become familiar with my surroundings. But that doesn't keep me from wanting to peek ahead, just a little bit. Like practicing the route to the bus station. If I know where it is, then I can rest easy in the days before my scheduled departure. Paradise, Purgatory, or and of the various levels of Damnation are no different to me, perhaps because it seems like the whole game feels rigged.
As I have written here before, I don't have very high expectations of my acceptance beyond the Pearly Gates. I expect that any sort of God or God Committee will be far too busy to go over my application personally. There are far too many innocent bystanders to sort out, and I am just hoping to catch up with a few souls who left ahead of me. And when that party is over, as David Byrne suggests, it will start again. "It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same." I'm in no rush to get to that party just now, but I hope I can find it when it's time.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Last Waltz

I volunteered for the job. Not because I haven't done my part as a parent at my son's middle school, but because I knew that the time for me to stand behind a table and sell baked goods was slipping away. It also gave me a unique vantage point from which I could observe my son's last performance with his middle school jazz band.
From the back of the cafetorium, I stood and watched the group shamble on the stage. There were some hoots and some hollers. The audience was hip to the notion that for many of these kids it would be the last time they played together on this stage. I could see boys and girls who had been in school with my son since kindergarten, and I knew that they would soon be going their separate ways in high school: some up the hill, some across town. I know that they will write their e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers in each other's yearbooks, but it won't be the same. Their world has expanded.
Never was this more apparent then the walk up the hill to the show. My wife and I watched as our son pushed on ahead of us, searching out his friends in the crowd. Friends we have only heard stories about. Not the ones who used to come over for arranged playdates. The ones who had Spanish with him, or stood next to him in Gym. As I stood behind the dozens of chocolate chip cookies, I watched these associations ricochet around the room. Budding romances were everywhere. Packs of boys moved around in a swirling mass and girls huddled close for secrets as the jazz band prepared to play.
The show itself was a good one. It wasn't as memorable as their Oktoberfest gig, or my son's nerve-jangling first recital, but he got something special this time. After two years worth of concerts, his teacher gave him a shout out before the next to last number. "And on piano..." He sat up a little straighter and smiled out into the darkness. Back at the bake sale, I smiled back, and I looked forward to what high school might bring.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Done In A Day

That's the name of the Junior Achievement program that comes to visit our school each year around this time. It serves a couple of purposes: First of all, it gives the kids a break from the standard curriculum that is beginning to run a little thin after eight months, and second it gives teachers a chance to sit down. The volunteers that show up are the guest lecturers for the day. The regular teachers provide support in terms of managing the more "enthusiastic" kids, but mostly hang in the back of the room while the mysteries of the world of business unfold in front of their students.
That's when it's working well. The range of volunteer commitment ranges from one to one hundred percent, usually in connection with the number of years they have been working for the bank. Yes, we are getting Bank of America employees to spend the day at our school and share their experience and energy with kids whose only contact with banks are Automatic Teller Machines. You can usually get a pretty good read on how the day will unfold in the first few minutes. If the volunteer introduces him or herself by their first name, then they probably won't last the full five hours. Less lunch. And recess. You can usually see the fear in their eyes as the hands shoot up around the room and the questions start: "How old are you?" "Are you married?" "Do you have a car?" "Why do you wear a tie?"
At this point, most teachers will step in and deflect some of the more aggressive questioning, pointing volunteer and kids back to the packaged lesson they have in front of them. If the volunteer skips past important instructions or whole chunks of the lesson, you can be sure they will be heading for the door sometime before lunch. It's the regular teacher's job to try and get as much out of them as they possibly can.
Those of us who have been doing this a few years will steer the class and their guest back to the details like vocabulary and descriptions of finance, producers and consumers. In some cases, when the volunteer hasn't shown up prepared, we pick up where they left off and teach the lesson ourselves. It is by no means a mistake that this is scheduled on one of our early dismissal days. Another hour might cause some of these well-intentioned fresh faces to melt on the spot. By the first break, many of them will be loosening their now-questioned tie. "I didn't think it was going to be so hard." By lunchtime, they are anxious to pass out their prizes and move on to the thank you portion of the day.
Most of the volunteers have left the campus by the time the bell sounds to bring the kids back to class from lunch. We teachers wrap up the last hour with letters of appreciation, many of which are decorated with crayon drawings of tall people with smiles and ties. We know we'll be here for a few more weeks, but they were done in a day.

Friday, May 27, 2011

When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder

Harold Camping has been praying. A lot. It's what he does. Well, that and when the mood strikes him he reveals what God has spoken to him. Last week it was the end of the world. You may remember that, or the fact that the world kept spinning. This, in Harold's words, "flabbergasted" him, along with a good many of his ardent followers who had spent weeks and months preparing for the Rapture.
Not to worry. He has clarified his position: Judgement Day did come on the twenty-first of May, just as he had predicted. It wasn't the fire and brimstone version, however. This was the spiritual version. The ugly mess with people disappearing, leaving only their clothes for the rest of us to have to pick up is coming in October. The twenty-first, to be precise. It seems that the bureaucracy that deals with such matters moves a little slow, and judging a few billion souls is a time-consuming proposition.
And so we wait. I confess, since confession is good for the soul, that when six o'clock rolled around I had the same smug relief that I felt when all the computers clicked over to the new century without any disruption. I did end up with a bunch of duct tape and motor oil that a friend had been hoarding for the occasion, but other than that, life went on pretty much the same on the first of January, 2000. I went about my business after the moment of Judgement Day came and went. Until the earthquake hit.
One hour and five minutes after we were set to be consumed, I felt a jolt. That's when I considered all the things I did not know. Try telling the folks in Joplin, Missouri that the end of the world hasn't come. Or the people of Japan. The end is coming for all of us, but Harold may not have the best answers. At least we've got another six months to bet on the over/under for Armageddon.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Do You Think They Call It Doping?

I've written about Lance Armstrong here before. It's been a while, but he's back in the news. There are plenty of reports, some from established pillars of journalistic integrity as "Sixty Minutes," suggesting that all of those cycling victories were aided by chemicals. Winner of the Tour de France a record seven times, some of his teammates would now like to "come clean." They say that Lance was taking PEDs and EPO. That would be "performance enhancing drugs," and Erythropoietin for those of you unfamiliar with your performance enhancers.
The first thing that springs to mind is this: If he did inject himself with any stimulants, depressants, thinners or coagulants, it would have been on top of the drugs that he took when he was diagnosed with cancer, but still managed to come back and compete in the most grueling sports contest on the planet. If that sounds like I'm defending Lance, it could be that. Or it could be that I would be glad to simply have an answer to the question once and for all. Or not.
Barry Bonds has been rattling around courthouses almost as long as he has locker rooms. When it comes right down to it, we really don't want to have our heroes dethroned. As soon as we get them down on the ground with us, we start looking for someone at which we can rail.
I would love to believe that exposing Lance Armstrong will be the beginning of a new trend of drug-free sportsmanship. Just say no to PEDs, kids. Hitting a slow groudner up the right field line is every bit as honorable as knocking the cover off the ball. Winning the Tour de France once is a great accomplishment. After all who's keeping score?
We are. That's why I'm just a tad cynical about this whole enterprise.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Appliance Discipline

I spent some quality time with my washing machine this weekend. I went down to switch the washed clothes to the dryer, and I was greeted by a flashing red message: "dL." I puzzled over this momentarily, and did what has always worked in the past: pushed a bunch of buttons. When that didn't achieve the expected result of starting the machine back up, I pushed more buttons and then fell back on my second line of defense: I swore. When a third flurry of button pushing brought the same flashing message, I went back upstairs to consult a different set of machinery: Al Gore's Internet.
I was pleased to find a number of entries that listed my malfunction, or rather the malfunction on the washing machine, and I began to read. There were a variety of opinions, but most of them centered on the failure of the locking mechanism of the door lock. I was gratified to discover the meaning of the secret code, but was troubled by the wide variety of solutions offered by so very many experts. There was even a link that offered consultation with a Whirlpool technician. Curious, I typed in my problem. After I was prompted to insert my machine's make and model, I was then told that if I would simply enter my credit card information then the friendly and experienced technician on the other side would give me a gaurunteed answer.
I backed out of there before my identity and bank account were sucked into the void. It was then that I stated thinking about armageddon. Not Judgement Day, since that seemed to have passed without too much strain, but according to Sarah Connor, it was way back in April when Skynet became self-aware. Only, I don't think that the machines got together to launch an attack on humanity. I think they all got together and decided to start messing with us.
There was a time when you could take a screwdriver and a pair of pliers to most household appliances and get them to do your bidding. Now they all come with some sort of added cleverness that make them more convenient to use. Until they stop. Now, with my years of applied software and hardware experience, I was stuck with a bunch of half-damp clothes and a big grey box that was not cooperating with me.
Then I looked at one more web page. One that suggested "three quick solutions to dL messages on Whirlpool washers." I skipped past the first two, which were essentially combinations of my button-pushing/swearing technique. The third one suggested hitting the back right corner with my fist. It was elegant in its simplicity, positively Fonzarelli. I went back downstairs and sure enough, one solid thump did the job.
And so my fears of a mechanized future have been waylaid for the time being. I'm looking forward to this summer when Megatron shows up again. It's my guess that a good whack upside the head will turn him back into a perfectly obedient toaster oven.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Church And State

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman says he is Mormon, and he doesn't think his religion will be an issue if he decides to run for president. I suppose in this way he's saving us all the trouble of traveling to Salt Lake City to look up his name on the big list at the temple there. As confessions go, this one is pretty small potatoes. For all practical purposes, why wouldn't a Mormon be just as effective as a Baptist or a Methodist or some other protestant type?
Believing that fossilized dinosaur bones are from creatures that lived on other worlds that were destroyed to create the Earth doesn't necessarily mean that a person is unfit for high office. It gives opens up the option for more than one First Lady. It's really a mixed bag. Would it be any worse than having the guy who used to run Godfather's Pizza? Herman Cain has never held an elective office, but he did pioneer the concept of the stuffed crust. I suspect that his beliefs may skew closer to those of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarians. Latter Day Deep Dish? I'll take mine with anchovies, please.
Because, in the end, it doesn't really matter if you're Hindu, Muslim or Jew. Anyone can grow up to run for President of the United States. Newt Gingrich is a light saber-carrying member of the Church of Jediism. Welcome to the carnival, Mister Huntsman!

Monday, May 23, 2011


I lived through the Governator's Reich. I watched as he worked to bring California out of its decades-long tailspin and get us back on track. More to the point, I sat and watched as he attempted to bring California out of its decades-long tailspin. For the seven years he was in office, our state's debt tripled. His promise to cut up our credit cards with comically large prop scissors didn't keep us from sinking even further into the red. Come to think of it, Arnold had a lot of comically large props, like the giant bear statue he placed in the lobby outside his office. It would be ridiculous to suggest that that object d'art might have had a fiscal impact on our financial situation, but it does make one wonder. Coming from a guy who announced that he was coming to Sacramento, not to think outside the box, but to blow the boxes up, it all starts to feel pretty disingenuous.
Because at the end of the day, it is the legacy that remains. Right now, that Arnie's legacy is not one of fiscal responsibility. It's not even about responsibility. Now we have marital infidelity to toss on the pyre. I think of the tweets from his son, and the way we are now invited to share in California's first family dysfunction. I am reminded of Bill Clinton's bald-face lie to the country about Monica Lewinsky, and I imagine that Marilyn Monroe probably had plenty of stories left to tell about Jack Kennedy when she went to her early grave.
Kennedy? Could that be the connection? Maybe it's just that part of the executive brain that skips past the part about infidelity. Or maybe he's not a cyborg after all. Maybe he's just a man. A great, big, man who now gets to live out this part of the American Dream. Bon Voyage, Ahnuld.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Neighborhood Watch

The helicopter kept us all awake. It was circling overhead, and we all eventually went to sleep with the sound of the pounding rotors in our heads. What we all knew, but didn't say, was that we knew there war trouble nearby. We also knew that it wasn't a television news chopper. They don't come out after ten o'clock. The news for the day has already been made by then. What we were hearing was trouble in progress.
Sure enough, when we woke up the next morning, my wife got the news from the TV without a helicopter. Two men had been shot by police and DEA agents just about the time we were all trying to pull the covers over our heads and close out the day. Six blocks from our house. It made me think of the way our realtor described our neighborhood fourteen years ago as we looked at properties around Oakland: "Some streets are nice and quiet, but you can walk just a few streets one way or another, and it's completely different." At the time, I trusted him. I still do, but it doesn't always make me more relaxed.
My trip to school every day takes me on a path that winds through those streets. The shrines with candles and Remy Martin bottles. The graffiti tags that describe and define territory. The debris that tells a story left in the gutters and the middle of the street. The sun is up, and sometimes you have to go around the caution tape, but the immediate danger has passed.
I suppose I do myself a favor by not associating with known felons or gang members. I know my neighbors and they know me. But sometimes I don't recognize the city in which I live. It's the city we chose to raise our child. It's the city that gave us speed bumps on our street to slow down the traffic. It's the city where I work and play. It's Oakland. It's home.
Sometimes home can be a very scary place.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I Feel Fine

I'm very glad that I took the time last Sunday to mow the lawn. Even though the skies were threatening and it began to spit rain as I finished the job, it was a relief to have a nicely manicured yard before the end of the world as we know it came. I'm talking about the Rapture. It's been a great reason to make sure that I get little things done around the house. No more dishes left in the sink. Get those cobwebs out of the corners. I know that it's all coming to an end, but I can't help but think that I will have other things on my mind once the fire and brimstone show up.
See, we're supposed to have five months of earthly torment starting today that will last until the universe collapses on October twenty-first. My first reaction would be the cynical one, which would be to ask, "How will we know when this particular torment begins?" I think I speak for many of us who have lived through the last decade or so and wonder how much worse the End Times might be than the second Bush administration.
The next reaction would be more proactive: My family and I have a plan in case of an earthquake, and even though I have probably assured my own personal damnation after years of making fun of people and things that might have assured me a trip to Paradise, I would like our last five months on Earth to be comfortable. As it crumbles around us. We've got a tent, and Clif bars, and a wide assortment of canned goods. I suppose it would be everlasting torment to be stuck in a tent with all that fruit cocktail and no can opener, but we were careful to put one of those in the kit as well.
We've even got a plan to figure out where the rest of the tribe has gone if we get separated. Since land lines will probably be down, we will make a cell phone call to my mother, who happens to live in a more seismic-friendly state: Colorado. In the event of a biblical catastrophe, I figure she's still a pretty safe bet, as she's about as reverent a person as I can name. I understand this is a sliding scale, but since I don't have Harold Camping's digits, she'll have to do.
In the meantime, I hope you all have Internet access for the duration of our time in agony, but I will encourage you not to spend your last five months looking at Lolcats. I'm pretty sure that it is Satan's work.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Near the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," as wayward travelers who had been abducted from Earth over the years by various contacts with extraterrestrials, one of the NASA scientists marvels at how the returning humans had not aged. "Einstein was right," he murmurs. His boss leans over and suggests, "Einstein was probably one of them," indicating the big-headed spiny-fingered aliens.
That's what went through my mind when I read this past week that Stephen Hawking asserts that the afterlife is "a fairy story." I wasn't surprised by this, since the renowned physicist and author has been letting us in on the secrets of the universe for some time now. Still, his quote: "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven of afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark," struck a nerve for a lot of people.
Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. Just a bunch of broken-down computers on a scrap heap somewhere. According to Stephen, science can explain the universe without ever having to bring up God. There is no past or present, just a quantum phenomenon in which we we lucky enough to be caught.
At the same time, it is medical science that has kept Professor Hawking alive long past the time that most people who suffer from ALS, as he does. It's no miracle that he has outlived many others with the same disease. Just science. The fact that he can travel the world and give lectures without being able to walk or speak is a byproduct of the quantum event we call "technology." If he had been born in some other alternative history, he might not have had the opportunity to pursue his life's work. Instead, some galactic force deposited his neurons here, where he's been able to spend the last forty-nine years trying to discover from whence we came. Imagine that.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Prepare To Make The Jump To Hyperspace!

It all seems so matter-of-fact when Han Solo says it, but how does one really prepare to make the jump to light speed? For that matter, how does one really prepare to move in with their girlfriend or boyfriend? I will suggest that cohabitation is a much trickier navigation than making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Forgetting for a moment that parsec is a measurement of distance and not time, imagine how much more difficult it would be for our old buddy Han to find a spot to stow all of Princess Leia's things in the Millennium Falcon. In those storage compartments under the floor? Sorry. I'm pretty sure she didn't want to move all her stuff across the galaxy just to shove it down in a hole where some Wookie has just been hiding. And so it goes.
I have a friend who is on the horns of this very dilemma. If he were captain of a starship, it wouldn't be any more difficult. His biggest concern currently: Where to put all of her books? I get that completely. My wife and I have stuffed bookcases in every room in our house to the point where the shelves have begun to bow. Some of the books are hers. Some of them are mine. And they are all ours. Even the ones that we have sadly boxed up and stored in our basement are all part of our collective library. When we do let one go, to a friend or a garage sale, it's only after consultation with one another. It's all part of the negotiation, part of the dance.
But there is one book that we would never let go. It's a trivia encyclopedia I got for my high school graduation. Most of the information has been internalized by me, or become outdated in the thirty years since, but my wife and I cling to it for one reason: It has a comprehensive list of the traditional gifts one gives another on specific anniversaries. That's how I got my cashmere jacket for our seventh-wool year together. I wrote her a script on our paper anniversary. And every year, about the same time, we both go looking for that book. Even though we both know where we could find the answer on Al Gore's Internet, we still cling to that book. It's how we prepare to jump to the speed of light.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Writer's Block

It does make me wonder how Thoreau got along without an Internet connection. Hanging around for months at a time next to that pond, how do you suppose he was able to pass the time without checking in on how his readers were reacting to his ramblings? Who was his audience? Trees, rocks, and the occasional rabid squirrel?
That's the thought I had the other day as I stared at the message on my monitor telling me that my blog was unavailable. My frustration lasted for a few minutes, as I tried to find some clever way to work around the cyber-roadblock the powers-that-be had set in front of me. I began to consider my options. The first, and most obvious one was that I could simply let it go for a day. I was sure that the world would continue to creep along without my immediate comment on its progress. Sure, I had strung together a Cal Ripken-like string of six uninterrupted years of idle comparisons, reflections and introspection, but would anyone notice if a tree fell in my virtual Walden?
Perhaps if it fell directly on top of me, or if I could find some topic that might incite the Internet trolls to come out and argue with me. But mostly I felt a twinge of loneliness. I feared severing that connection with the outside world. There was a time when I filled legal pads with my handwritten scribblings, very few of which ever saw the light of day. I kept my musings to myself and crafted what I believed was a writer's persona: brooding and intense. That lasted a few years, but it conflicted mightily with my need for attention. Turns out I was more of a comedian than a writer. All of that solitude wore on me.
And so when I read the sign that told me that Blogger was down, I was too. I tried to live past the despair of never communicating with the outside world again. Then I realized that I could always open a word processor or even pull out my old Bic pen and start carving away. I thought about walking outside and taking in the beauty of my surroundings. Instead I looked at the bulletin board outside my room and noticed that it hadn't had new paper for more than a year. The traffic in the hallway had torn the background and the border to the point that it hung in tatters. I took those moments that might have been ranting about Newt Gingrich or complaining about my weekend to replace the paper with a nice smooth sheet of fadeless sky blue. It was an energizing experience. This was my pond, my reflection. Once the stapler was put away, I took a chance that Al Gore and his team had straightened out the issues with my on-line journal. I was relieved to find that they had. So I sat down and wrote this blog. And then I thought of this: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." I guess I'm going to have to work on that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blood From A Stone

I believe that all good ideas have a shelf life. After a certain amount of time, they start to get a little gamey. This, I find, is most exceptionally true in the world of television. I am often surprised to discover that certain shows have continued on long past their prime. The easiest connection is "jumping the shark." You know, by the time that the Fonz jumped a tank of man-eating sharks, all the stories of the Cunninghams from Milwaukee and their pals had been told. Most of them more than once.
That's why I continue to maintain that three seasons of any television series is plenty. Which brings me to the case of Charlie Sheen and his misbegotten show. It's called show business for a reason. You can't just pull the plug on something that's making millions of dollars every year. Check that, hundreds of millions of dollars. The more you make, the more you can sell into syndication, and someday Nick at Nite will spend an entire Memorial Day weekend showing episodes back to back to back. That's why it was so important for the Columbia Broadcasting Network to rush Mister Demi Moore into the void that Charlie created in "Two and a Half Men." Confession Time: I have never seen an episode of this show. Not one. I like Jon Cryer just fine, and had no initial concerns about spending a half hour with Mister Sheen. But nothing about it ever clicked with me concept or schedule-wise to bring me in. I was surprised when the on-set feud began and people began describing this ratings juggernaut. "Is that thing still on?" Apparently enough that losing a large portion of the titular cast doesn't affect it. The clever folks at Warner Brothers TV will simply graft Ashton Kutcher onto the stump that was left. No worries. And I know that two groups will tune in: the loyal fans who want to see their favorite half-hour continue endlessly, and those peering in to watch the train wreck. It's guaranteed to last at least one more year. It's surprising that they didn't ask Ted McGinley to fill in.
Me? I'm getting a pitch together for a series about Richie's missing older brother: "Chuck: The Lost Years."

Monday, May 16, 2011

What You Say Can Be Used Against You

This is good advice for anyone being arrested, under indictment, or parenting. I confess that I have spent mot of my time as a father using very direct and simple terms with my son. If there was something that I wanted him to do, I would ask him. If I needed to tell him something, I did just that. I try not to flavor or sugar-coat our communication. When you have to remind a person that the final resting place for dirty socks is not the spot where you lost interest in wearing them, it's best to be concise.
While most of that remains true, it is still important for me to consider tempering my speech when it comes to my son and the topic of girls. Under direct questioning, he is often evasive, and at times unresponsive. I get it. He's fourteen now. It is time for him to cultivate a private life. I remember my own voyage through these treacherous waters. I remember how I used to tell my mother everything, until suddenly I didn't. I'm sure there is some hormonal, developmental cause for such an abrupt change, but it doesn't matter since it happens.
And I have to deal with it. I also have to be aware of the fact that I need to apply a filter to any and all discussions of such matters in front of his friends. Every utterance is a potential deathly embarrassment. As we stood around waiting for my son's birthday celebration to conclude, I found myself face to face with the object of his affections. The two of them had barely begun to negotiate their feelings for one another, and all I could think of to say was, "So, do you like my son, or do you like like him?"
I didn't say that. Instead I asked which rides she had enjoyed on our day at the amusement park. I told her how happy I was that she was able to come along. Then I immediately sought out another one of my son's friends to ask them the same question to appear more nonchalant. I wanted to avoid any possible appearance of being too interested in the affairs of this group of teenagers.
When all was said and done, and everyone had been dropped off at their respective houses, and we walked back into our own, I got my reward. As he was getting ready for bed, my son made a point of coming into our room and telling his mother and I what he had enjoyed about his day. There were a few things that stood out, but none more than the time that he got to spend with the girl that he had asked to come along. Special. I know that my wife had another thousand questions, as did I, but I know there will be plenty of time for them to go unanswered. For now we smile and wait.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Day Three Thousand Four Hundred Fifty Four

Dear Diary:
OMG! I can't believe that we're getting cable in here! It seems like forever since we moved in, and now - at last! - everybody agreed on what our lineup will be. I'm kinda sad that we won't be getting Nickelodeon, but I guess if I really want to watch Spongebob I can see it online.
Oh yeah - that's right. We don't have an Internet connection. This place is so boring. I've read all the books in here like a thousand times, and even if I hadn't, it's still so boring. I know what you're saying. "Why don't you go outside and do something?" Like what? Everybody's so busy with all their stuff, nobody ever has time for me. I swear, sometimes it's like I'm invisible or something.
I wish my family was normal. Not like on TV normal (not that I would know what that looks like without cable) but just like everybody getting along and not screaming at each other all the time. I miss the family vacations we used to take. I miss the family dinners where everyone could stand to sit at the same table and have you know, regular conversation. Is that so much to ask?
Well, I gotta sign off now because it's my turn to cook. Guess what? Lentils again! Oh and don't forget to remind you about my plan to blow up the stagecoaches in Wyoming. They still have stagecoaches, don't they? Oh well, TTFN and Death to America.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


These days it's hard enough to get my son out of bed without calling the paramedics. On any given school day, it takes two parents and a specially prepared set of ropes and pulleys to get him moving. This is what we've come to expect from our teenager: second dinners, and the ability to sleep through an artillery barrage. The need for sleep is pre-eminent, which might explain the blank looks we get at times when we are trying to break the spell that binds him to his various screens.
But that wasn't always the case. Back in the olden days, when he could still be carried about in the crook of one arm as I fumbled for various objects with the other, the need for sleep was squarely on his parents' account. He would wake up in the middle of the night and remain inconsolable for hours at a time. He was not a squalling infant, but he could work up a solid storm of tears when it came time to being convinced that it was time to close our collective eyes and wait for the morning to come.
It was on these dark nights that we walked through the house, looking out windows into the darkness. "All the birds have gone to sleep. All the squirrels too," I would say to him as I pointed out into the void. "All the cars are going home and parking in their garages. The trash trucks won't be moving until the sun comes up again." I was babbling, but I was babbling in the most soothing way I could. I knew that if I showed my desperation that he would immediately sense it and tense up, causing us to continue our pre-dawn meander out into the back yard, where we could look at the stars. I would tell thim that everyone was asleep on all the other planets too, even though I hoped that the thought of extraterrestrial life might not make him even more inconsolable.
And somewhere in there, he would drop off against my shoulder, and I would look off into the shadows of my late night, feeling his deep breaths against my chest. At this point I would slowly negotiate him back into his crib, careful not to make the last few inches onto the mattress be the thing that woke him back up. Then I would stand there, for a minute or two to make sure that sleep had come for him, savoring my comforting powers and thinking about how I might send myself back to slumberland when I found my way back to my own bed.
Today is my son's birthday. He is fourteen, and every so often he has trouble sleeping. The old tricks don't work for us anymore. He's far too clever for that. He knows what "nocturnal" and "insomnia" means. But I like to think that all the hours he spends these days with the covers pulled up over his head are left over from the spell I cast back in the olden days. When we were young.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Testing 1, 2, 3...14

It was a long time ago, in a galaxy not unlike this one. It was long enough ago that all the kids who go to the school where I teach weren't born yet. It was my first year teaching, and the time had come for us all to sit down and take the test. The test that would decide just how well we had all been doing our jobs: teachers, students, parents, office staff. That was a year that saw more than half of the staff replaced with fresh-faced newbies like myself. All that happy enthusiasm was tempered by the anticipation of a high-stakes standardized test designed to show once and for all the gaps in our students' education. As new teachers, we all felt the pressure.
Well, that's not completely true. I was the computer prep teacher. My principal had only begun to imagine tasks for me in that first year, and consequently when the first day of testing arrived, I was sitting in my room, puttering with one of the MacIntosh LCII's that were my responsibility to keep humming for at least another year. Across the hall, a third grade class was sitting down to the very serious business of bubbling in all their English Language Arts knowledge. Throughout the school, doors were closed and hallways were silent as we got underway. The teacher across the hall, a good friend of mine from our credential program, had finished with his scripted instructions and passed out number two pencils and waited for the first random question or request for a bathroom break. After five minutes of focused concentration, a girl in the front row stood up, snapped her pencil in half, screamed at the top of her lungs, and ran from the room.
The scream was heard all around the school, but nowhere better than my room, where the door had been left propped open. I saw her sprint past my room, and sat there, stunned. It was my first year, and all of my problem-solving teacher instincts hadn't fully developed yet. My friend across the hall was trapped with the rest of his young charges, and after I heard more stirring out in the hall, I got up to check out the scene.
It turns out that it had all been just too much for this one third grader. After weeks of preparation and expectation, when the moment finally came to show her stuff, she did just that: she fled. Who could blame her? Over the past fourteen years, that seemed to be the most correct response I could possibly imagine. I'm only surprised that more teachers, parents, students and office staff don't follow her example.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

That's Cold

If revenge is, as Khan once observed, a dish best served cold, then Osama bin Laden got his lunch straight from the freezer. Ten years is a long time to wait for payback. Not as long as some, but certainly long enough that he probably had a moment of confusion when the Navy Seals burst in, wondering if he had forgotten to pay his cable bill. Then, probably just as quickly, he remembered us infidels and how he probably should have been expecting something like that all along.
Then there's this guy Al Kydah. He keeps talking about how he's going to get us back for what we did. Which is a little ridiculous since he was already in the middle of figuring out how to mess with us before we ever messed with him. There was that matter of the passenger trains, which really stinks since up until a week ago you could pretty much walk on to Amtrak with your family size shampoo and personal box cutters and not even be worried about being asked for a ticket until you were half way across the country. I know. It's not nearly the kind of revenge that they he was hoping for, but it will do in a pinch. In the meantime, I understand that he has been taking credit for the tornadoes in the southeast as well as the NFL lockout. He's not a nice guy. He's a terrorist, after all.
And so we wait for cranky guy down the street to do something crazy. Unless he blows himself up first.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Days Of The Teacher

Tis a puzzlement: The Day of the Teacher was last week, on the third of May. Or maybe it's really on the ninth, when our state's superintendent of education issued a press release honoring all of us who make our living as educators. It might be the thirteenth, since that's when our principal will be having us all into the staff room for lunch. Or maybe it's today, when a number of different calendars suggest that we observe "Teacher Appreciation Day." Whatever the date, it's nice to get all this attention, and this time it's not necessarily for destroying our country's economy.
The truth is, I get plenty of appreciation on my job. The fact that most of it comes from kids aged five to eleven doesn't diminish it. Would I like it if their parents remembered to drop by and thank us for the work we do? Sure I would. I would love to have the moms and dads of some of the real hard cases drop by and give us a thumbs-up now and again, but I know that's not realistic. They're busy with their own struggles, most of which contribute in some measure to the challenges faced by their children. Just like it's easy to point a finger at one bad teacher, it's easy to lump parents into categories that make their absence from their child's education understandable.
I don't know their struggle. They don't know mine. The connection we have is the kid having trouble sitting in his chair. Or winning the science fair. Or coming to school on time after weeks of being just a little bit late. I'm a parent, too. I can appreciate that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ghost Antics

My younger brother took the train out to Colorado to spend Mother's day with our mom. Aside from ensuring his favorite son status for months to come, he also got to share plenty of hours of conversations with complete strangers on the trip. He said that he had a twinge of regret for not responding to his fellow traveller's bizarre stories with his own vision of the world, including his belief that the world actually ended in a nuclear holocaust in 1990. The intervening twenty-plus years have simply been phantom pains much in the same way amputees experience the sensation from lost limbs. Our lives ended a couple of decades ago, but we're still sorting it all out.
Why not? He went on to suggest that if he were to be a ghost, he would like to have a choice about what sort of haunting he might get to do. This made me think of my friend Darren, who once announced to his younger sister while they watched John Carepenter's "The Fog," that he wouldn't be one of those creepy spirits that would come back and make things scary for those of us who are left behind on the material plane. He anticipated an afterlife more along the lines of the Three Stooges than Jacob Marley. Whenever things go missing around my house, or the kitchen sink sprayer squirts me directly in the chest when I'm trying to rinse my breakfast dishes, I suspect him, God Rest His Soul.
Like the sixty-one percent of those responding to the poll who were sure that Osama bin Laden was currently residing in someplace less than Heaven, I want to be certain about what waits for me on the other side. Though I expect that if I am to be truly and effectively punished for my sins here on Earth, then I will have to wait. Hopefully eternity will bring me less time with a stainless steel hook, and more time with a whoopie cushion.

Monday, May 09, 2011


This week marks a turning point for our little family. The same day that my son's penultimate middle school report card came home, he went down to his incipient high school and registered for classes for next fall. High school classes. With high school teachers. With other high schoolers. Way back when I started writing this blog, he was finishing up his second grade year. He was halfway through his elementary school experience, and the thought of selecting classes was limited primarily to picking which teacher would nurture his cleverness for the coming year.
All of that was in preparation for this: His permanent record. The responsibility for that scholarship to the engineering school of his choice now rests squarely on his shoulders. Those ever-broadening almost fourteen-year-old shoulders. No pressure.
Or at least that's the image we like to project. But when his regular stellar performance started slipping into the merely acceptable, his mother and I had many anxious moments. Somewhere in the last semester came the mild realization that we might not be raising the valedictorian. Currently we are raising the best friend of the valedictorian. We're becoming more comfortable with that, and it seems that our smug satisfaction with that perfect four-point-oh has waned. Ultimately, we know, it's not up to us and our lofty expectations. He's making his way now, and if all the possible permutations that create what we all call "good grades," then so be it. I hope he learns. I hope he learns a lot and he is happy with the grades he receives for his effort. I hope we can help.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Yore Mama

If you really want to start something on our playground, those are the words that will start your assault. Most of the time, the rest of the sentence won't even be heard, just the introduction is enough. That is because even in our disaffected, embittered, cynical world, some things are sacred. Or at least they give that appearance. It doesn't matter what the reality of the situation may be. If you mess with somebody's mother, you're going to get fists or tears or a combination of both.
That's usually about the time that I show up, separating the warring factions, desperate to bring peace to the yard. The first thing I ask when I come on a situation that involves mothers I learned from watching "Roadhouse" with Patrick Swayze, God rest his soul. I ask the offended party if the numbskull on the other side even knows the mother in question. After a few sputtering, huffing moments, the response comes back, "No." Then I suggest that the only one on the playground equipped to make any judgements is the one who knows them best.
"Does she pick you up from school?"
"Does she take care of you when you're sick?"
"Does she make sure you get fed?"
The the kicker: "Do you love your mother?"
Long pause. "Yeah."
Now I turn and face the tormentor. "Do you love your mother?"
Long pause. "Yeah."
"I'm pretty sure she'd be unhappy with you for talking about somebody else's mom."
From there it's a short hop to the apologies, and it generally doesn't come up again, since most tough guys don't want to talk about how much they love their mothers.
I love my mom. She took care of me when I was sick and made sure that I was fed. My son loves his mother. She walks with him to school and gets him where he needs to go. That's what mothers do. So don't say nothin' about my mama.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Auto Tune

As a kid in high school, it was my wish to have enough power in my car's sound system to make those fortunate to spend any time in my back seat to have a concert experience, so much so that I hoped to have passengers waving their lighters over their heads shouting, "Freebird!" Or at the very least, I hoped that they might wince as the volume creeped ever closer to that mystical Spinal Tap Eleven.
I accomplished this to a fair degree with the help of a few friends who worked tirelessly with me in my parent's garage for hours until we had moved the polite standard two-way speakers from the back and stuck them in the door, and installed a pair of big watt Jensen Triaxial speakers where the little ones used to be. It took many hours and several jigsaw blades, but before the night was over, I had one screamin' machine. There are those who suggest that putting that much time into the stereo of a 1972 Vega may have been an irresponsible investment of money, and effort. To them I would only ask if they had heard "Renegade" by Styx in my back seat. Without that experience, I feel they are unfit to judge me.
These days Styx still shows up on my iPod playlist from time to time. I think about the days when I spent most of my quality music time behind the wheel. I think about the cars driving by on my street that I feel blocks before they pass by because of the thumping bass that they carry around in their trunks. After they go by, I hear the rattle of ever nut and bolt, straining to hold the car together against the massive vibrations they are generating. There are even some who have rigged a speaker outside to share their music tastes beyond the booming bass.
The first thought through my mind is: "You kids turn that noise down!" Followed almost immediately by, "I wonder how many jigsaw blades they went through to get that thing installed.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Shadow Of A Doubt

Kudos, I say, to those who immediately responded to the release of Barack Obama's long form birth certificate with cries of doubt and suspicion. These are the values upon which this great nation was founded: "You colonies need to pay the King for that tea."
"I don't think so, King. As a matter of fact, we don't even think that tea will float." And so they tossed it into Boston Harbor. This was shortly before the colonists demanded to see proof of his majesty's birthright. In a world without fax machines or scanners, only those fortunate enough to have access to the royal papers in person and were able to read were able to make an informed decision. For everyone else, the suggestion that the King of England wasn't the boss of them was good enough to start kicking up a fuss, and the rest, as we say, is history.
Or something like that. It was a long time ago, and sometimes facts get mishandled or mistreated along the way and they don't come out looking like they did when they went in. What amazes me today is how quick the turnaround is. Texas Tech football coach and noted political analyst Tommy Tuberville joined real estate mogul and game show host Donald Trump to insist that our president prove that he was born in America. He did that and then faced a new flurry of skepticism from people with credentials every bit as impressive as these two.
The suggestion that there is no pleasing some people is guaranteed in our Constitution. So we expect that a travelling road show that would include both the actual paper document alongside the decaying and slightly fish-nibbled body of Osama bin Laden will be necessary to prevent another revolution. Or maybe the doubt is the thing that drives us. If we started trusting one another, or our leaders, we would soon find ourselves right back where we were in 1776. Right before the spaceship landed and those vaguely humanoid aliens helped us write the Declaration of Independence. Don't believe me? Can you prove it didn't happen?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Teachers Gone Wild

My older brother and I commiserate from time to time about our jobs. One of the things we tend to agree on is the way that certain jobs don't allow for bad days. Much in the way that Bill Cosby once suggested that doctors can't say "whoops," teachers and cops don't tend to get a lot of room for "a case of the Mondays." Nothing sweetens a headline like the phrase "off-duty cop" or "Las Vegas teacher." Such was the case of forty-year-old Carlos Enrique Barron.
Last week, Mister Barron fired shots at a television crew for the Spike TV reality show "Repo Games." A crew from the show was looking for a vehicle belonging to one of Barron's neighbors Tuesday night. He got upset that the crew's security van was parked in front of his home on Vigilante Court. It says Barron confronted the crew with a gun, slapped one of the crew's security officers and fired at least three shots. No one was hurt.
The first question would be: What would you expect to happen on Vigilante Court? The second one would be: Why didn't they offer this guy his own series? Instead, police were called and reports were filed. News gathering agencies added that Mister Barron has been suspended with pay from his job as a special education teacher at Smith Middle School while the investigation continues. I wouldn't argue the action, but it does make me wonder if he had been a car dealer or an accountant would his occupation and position been part of the press release? Maybe I'm just a little too sensitive. And unarmed.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Under New Management

My mom and dad dropped me off at Arby's after they drove me home from the airport. Not that I was yearning for a tasty Beef 'n' Cheddar, though that was an itch that could always be scratched, but because I needed to check the schedule. I had been away for a few days, and I hadn't put in a schedule request. I hadn't put in a schedule request in more than four years, relying on my personal connections with the powers-that-be to get me the shifts that I wanted. I had been working there since I had taken a year off to prepare myself to start college, and I had worked my way up to weekend closing manager. I have no idea how this was actually going to pave the way to my collegiate career, but making roast beef sandwiches for the masses certainly filled many a waking hour back in those days.
When I walked in the back room, I noticed that someone had cleaned up a little. Not that we ran a dirty restaurant, but the back room doubled as the break room and it had a certain amount of character. Not anymore. The desk was neat, the manuals were stacked in an orderly fashion on shelves above the filing cabinet. The first thing that I noticed was missing was the tape. Once upon a time, I had put a dotted line of electrical tape down on the floor to mark where the "office" was, including the door, as an homage to WKRP's Les Nessman, winner of the Buckeye Newshawk Award. It was also one of the best laughs I ever got from our regional manager. The other things I couldn't locate were the cartoons I had drawn for the bulletin board. "Clark Works Late Night?" Gone. "Mongoloid Smokers?" Gone. As a matter of fact, the bulletin board was clear with the exception of the freshly laminated "Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning To Work" sign. Even more telling, the vacuum on which I had so carefully scrawled Wink Martindale's name in tribute to our regional manager's appearance on "Tic Tac Dough" was no longer in its corner. The fun, and the thrill was gone.
I looked out into the front where I recognized a few of the newer tuna, the employees who hadn't made it to the lofty position I had with its register keys and polyester vest. I knew the back of the head I was looking at: the new regional manager. The joy sucker. The one who had shown up and eliminated the reasons that I had hung around for so long. Working fast food is no one's idea of a really good time, but it had been made tolerable by a wave of whimsy that ran through the franchise where I did my time. Now it was just work.
I walked back to the desk, wrote my schedule request, and left my key. I requested more time off. A lot more.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Spring's Bustin' Out All Over!

The cherry blossoms have begun to appear in Washington D.C. Professional hockey and basketball teams are vying for spots in their respective playoff series. The Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive. Yes, it truly is that time of year when man's thoughts turn to love.
Wait a second. The Taliban have announced the beginning of their spring offensive. In a two-page statement, the Taliban said that beginning Sunday they would launch attacks on military bases, convoys and Afghan officials, including members of the government's peace council, who are working to reconcile with top insurgent leaders. Where was the grainy video or poorly recorded voice message about death to America? Sure, I understand it's all implied, but now that the leadership council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban refer to themselves, are announcing their plans for terror in advance, it won't seem nearly as scary. Think of "Blair Witch Project 2." Once we all understood that the first one was just a cleverly concocted, made-on-the-cheap horror movie, the sequel was never going to have the impact of the first one. It's a little like trying to sneak up on someone while wearing corduroy pants: it's a giveaway.
It is the part of the war on terror that really does work. By shining a light on the monsters, we make them less terrifying. As soon as you start imagining the meeting that had to take place to come up with the title "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," then you start appreciating just how human these folks probably are. The fear of a suicide bombing is lessened ever so slightly by the image of a member of the Taliban searching in his desk drawer for a post-it on which he could write the names of possible martyrs.
Then again, there's not much we can do about taking the fright out of a few pounds of C-4. Maybe they should be taking their cues from the U.S. Navy Seals.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Mission Accomplished

It didn't take Chuck Norris, but heaven knows it probably wouldn't have taken a decade if he had been involved. Our long national nightmare is now at an end. My niece wrote me just moments after the announcement: "I'm rarely this jazzed to be an American, but..." And I knew exactly what she meant. We got the bad guy. We got him and killed him and we kept the body because we know that Donald Trump needs that kind of proof.
I confess that the "Wanted: Dead Or Alive" part of the post 9/11 America made me nervous, but I could never escape what had become a very personal vendetta against one man. Why should it be so personal? My usual liberal bias had a hard time absorbing this, and it was diminished by our subsequent invasion of Iraq. What was that about? Was I really going to be satisfied by the death of any old Middle Eastern crazy man?
Nope. Not really. It was a way to get at an itch that George the First hadn't quite finished scratching. It was like when James Bond takes out Oddjob at Fort Knox. Satisfying, sure, but it's not Goldfinger. We won't be happy until the big bad guy gets it. It was April 30, 1945, when Allied forces moved ever closer to capturing him that Adolph Hitler shot himself in the head. Sixty-six years later America managed to get there first. They got the bad guy and killed him. The guy that sent planes to crash into skyscrapers full of men and women, the guy who has been gloating about it ever since, Public Enemy number one, is no more. And as cathartic a moment as we've had since September 11, 2001 erupted. Better than beating the Russians at hockey in 1980. Better than passing a national health care bill. Better than a Super Bowl. Better than a Coke and a smile. Yes we can. Yes we did. Aloha, Osama.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Update Your Life

That was the headline of the article: "Update Your Life." The subtitle was: "iPhone 5 Preview." I had that momentary twinge of regret that all consumers do. You know the one. The one that says that your life would be incrementally better if you just had the newest best and did we mention new gadget or gizmo. How much better depends entirely on the gadget you get. For example, my wife just unloaded the automatic juicer that had been sitting on a cart that is loaded with our kitchen appliances. My mind immediately turned to all the fruits and vegetables that I never had a chance to liquefy. After a few seconds, that feeling passed and I was glad that we no longer had to store the big beige box with a plug on it.
The new iPhone? I'll probably be okay without that one too. Not that it would make juice, but it would give me a way to connect to Al Gore's Internet and play Angry Birds while I try and make a call to someone to explain why I am nowhere near a place that might normally support such activity. It reminds me of all those proto-car phone calls I got from my father back in the late eighties: "You'll never guess where I'm calling from!" I tried to play along, but after the first half dozen iterations, I started guessing "your car," and that was that.
The thing is, I don't know if my father's life was better because of this ability to reach out and connect with his son from the front seat of his Ford Explorer. Getting a signal back then was even more of a challenge than it is today with AT&T, so maybe the satisfaction of that struggle was something that he was able to massage into his life. He wasn't able to get 1080p high definition video, on a screen that is more than three and a half inches across. But not much more than three and a half inches. He was lucky to be able to squint and see the tiny slit that showed the number he was calling.
My cell phone isn't much better than his was. Twenty years later, if I push the right buttons, I can make my phone turn into a flashlight. When I hold it up and point it at kids I can pretend to take their picture. And when I turn it on, I can make phone calls with it. Sadly, I never owned a mobile phone while my father was alive. It would have been fun to be able to call him up and play his game, "guess where I'm calling from." That would have been sweet. Maybe the next iPhone will allow me to call the afterlife. I'd pay for that app.