Thursday, June 30, 2011

Roll 'Em

I can remember the smell. The way it rushed out of the plastic lining of the foil packet. It was petroleum, chemical, magical. It was Super 8 movie film. If I opened one, I opened a hundred. I started out as a grip on my older brother's projects. Then a featured player. I let him stick rabbit fur that he shaved off a pelt to my face with Elmer's glue to become the werewolf henchman of my friend's vampire. He was lucky. His makeup effect was created by pouring flour on his wet face. He did have to wear red lipstick, however, which kept me ahead of things in the macho department. We worked fast in those days. We edited in the camera. We shot in the daytime and hustled the footage down to K-Mart to be processed by the end of the week.
It was my father's camera, and it was purchased for the primary use of recording our family's vacation to Mexico. The Super 8 replaced the clunky Regular 8 that had been witness to so many Christmases and birthdays. No more clunky reels to load. This one was Instamatic, just pop that cartridge in and start filming. It had a zoom lens that was impossible to ignore. It had an optional trigger handle that could be removed for getting those shots in tight places. It was the machine that made my movies.
Like my brother before me, I rounded up my friends and we generated our scripts on the run. A pitch meeting went something like this:
"Hey, we haven't burned any tanks, have we?"
And while everyone else was rounding up the plastic guns and model tanks and lighter fluid, I would hightail it down to K-Mart for new stock. When I showed up with the film, we started cranking. To say that we improvised would be kind. To say that we made things up as we went along would be more precise. Luckily there was a meter on the side of the camera that told us we only had five feet of film to wrap things up. Nothing was more unsatisfying than the coup de grace being delivered at the precise moment that the screen flashed white. There were no reshoots.
That's how we made them, back in the olden days. No sound. No lights. Special effects were Elmer's Glue and lighter fluid. It was fast. It was cheap. It was fun.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's Not A Competition, Please No Wagering

My good friend and confidant from New York was out visiting a few weeks back, and he mentioned the relative gay-ness of his home to mine, and I suggested that San Francisco alone would certainly tip the scales in California's favor, since it was internationally recognized as the headquarters of such things. Way back in 2005, Bill O'Reilly announced to his viewers, "[I]f Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we're not going to do anything about it. ... You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead." All just a part of his continued support of our city by the Bay. As a hotbed of secular progressives, Bill is not alone in singling out the left coast for his conservative bile.
That may be why the door has swung open for New York to become the sixth state in the union to legalize gay marriage. If you are keeping score, California was second in that race, but there was some unpleasantness a few years back, and now we are all waiting for judges, gay or not, to decide the eventual outcome of this whole mess. Meanwhile, four other states:
Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and even the District of Columbia have joined Connecticut in this alternately ground-breaking or common-sense legislation. And now, New York's governor Andrew Cuomo has signed his state's bill into law. The legal wrangling has only begun in the Empire State, but for now it would seem that the part about "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence extends to all of us, at least to those living in one of those six states. The rest of us will have to wait while the exhibition continues.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Car And Driver

There has been a lot of pain, suffering and reflection connected to this car theft business. Well, to be fair, there's been a good deal more reflection than pain and suffering, most of it centered around that empty space where our car used to be. We have been fortunate enough to have a rental car to fill that void: a big black Dodge Charger that we are fully expecting to turn into a robot when we push that certain button. There are a lot of buttons. Buttons that make the seat go down. Buttons that make the radio louder. Buttons that make the radio softer. Buttons on the steering wheel that will do either one of those tasks if you're too busy with your other hand pushing buttons that help you determine the relative fuel economy of the trip you're taking. And somewhere in there is a button that opens the flap that covers the gas tank.
As fantastic as this machine seems to be, it still requires fuel, and its expansive American-ness make it a challenge to park anywhere without mooring lines and a dock. The machine guns are a nice touch, but we tend to favor the smoke screen for quick getaways. Did I mention that you can hook your iPod right into the sound system? That great big sound system that can be controlled with the touch of a button located conveniently on the steering wheel, just below the targeting computer.
But it's not ours. The family wagon with the T-shirts for seat covers, and the sundry scratches and dents that tell the story of the past ten years. The two-inch Bobble Obama on the dashboard could probably be replaced via Ebay, but it won't be the one that came to us from our friends' trip to Hawaii. That gold Saturn wagon is slipping slowly into the bin of "cars that I have owned." The ones that I cursed while I poured oil in them, and replaced the batteries, and changed the tires on the side of the road. The difference being this: I knew when I drove them smoking and sputtering onto the lot one last time in trade for the next set of wheels, I was done with them. Somebody else decided this one for me.
Maybe somewhere on that big black rental dashboard is a tracking function. If I catch the guy, I promise to set the phasers on "stun."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

If Elvis were alive, he would be seventy-six years old. He would be one of the wealthiest performers on the planet, and if my dream was any indication, he would be an avid falconer.
That was the message I was sent in my sleep: If you really want to find Elvis, get yourself a falcon and take it way up north. That's where he's been living for some time, and if you can trust my late-night synapses, he's really let himself go. Of course, I wasn't able to make this discovery alone. There were plenty of townspeople willing to be bribed for more information and participation in my search. It became apparent that, somehow, Elvis really didn't want to stay hidden. It's just that once he went into seclusion, way back in 1977 it seemed like a good idea. Jumping out of the spotlight at that point seemed like the best possible solution to all his woes. But now, with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis gone, he's ready to take in all the glory that his past has to offer.
Except he's stuck in Montana, living a hermit's life, It was the guy who ran the general store that told me what to do. He even loaned me a peregrine he said would bring E out of the hills. This cost me a wad of bills, but seemed to worth it, especially since his granddaughter agreed to take me up in the hills and get pointed in the right direction. Once we got to an open patch in the trees, she showed me how to heft the great bird into the air. We watched it circle, and then make a lightning descent. On the next rise was a battered shack, with a bent figure standing on the decaying roof. He held the falcon on his arm, protected by a thick, leather glove. He was so busy admiring the bird that he didn't notice as I approached from below. He was feeding it strips of raw meat when I called out to him. There was a look of surprise, then of resignation. He looked at the falcon and then back at me. Discovered.
When I awoke, I wondered if I would have the same success with Jim Morrison.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Only Causes Worth Fighting For

"We just watched "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" last night. Corruption and greed have been a part of politics since at least 1939, and probably (he suggested sarcastically) before that. When the people (us) have had enough, we (they) will look for change. Somehow we (us) have forgotten that." This was part of the e-mail I wrote to my mother-in-law in response to the video she sent me about the upheaval in Spain.
It could have been Greece, or France, or Syria. You can type in "unrest in" before just about any country in the world and get back some pretty disturbing footage of chaos in the streets. The people (us) are fed up. The way things are tightening up around the globe, it would appear that we have a summer of rioting ahead of us. Some of it will be put down in angry ways. Some of it will be negotiated in less violent terms. Some of it will flare up, simply to burn out in the haze of indifference that pervades so much of our existence. If change is hard, revolution is virtually impossible. That is why this summer shows up as such an amazing thing.
Meanwhile, back here in the land of the brave and home of the free, we (us) continue to grumble and strain against many of the same issues. And yet, it's up in Canada where things are on fire. Corruption in the parliament? Economic meltdown? Nope. The Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Talk about lost causes.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Frations And Percentages

It took ten years for us to get here, but it took only twelve minutes for our president to announce that we were in the process of turning this big boat of ours around. "We are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource — our people. America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," he said.
He said he wants to bring thirty-three thousand soldiers home by summertime next year. That leaves sixty-eight thousand more to find their way back to our shores by 2014. It's a proportion thing, I suppose, but the idea that one third of the troops in Afghanistan coming home should be a victory, but leaving the majority of them for another two years doesn't exactly fill my heart with glee. It is definitely a sharp contrast from troop surges and getting our noses into everybody else's business over there. The seeds of democracy have been sown, fertilized and started to put down roots. Or at least that's what we hope.
In the meantime, our debt has swelled up and the economy has slowed to a crawl. By contrast, it took only four years to get things settled between the North and South in our Great Civil War. Likewise it took the same amount of time to fight the War To End All Wars. Its sequel ran a couple years longer, it got over in less than ten years. We stuck around Vietnam longer than that, until we were asked to leave. By an overwhelming majority of the American people.
Fifty-six percent of the American people would like our troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. More than half of us want that. We're going to get one third of what we want. I suppose in the big book of political math, I guess that will have to do. For now.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Party Like A Rock Star

The world of rock and roll is not for the squeamish. Plenty of bad things happen to good people. Though to be fair, plenty of bad things happen to bad people as well. Plane crashes, car wrecks, and the ever-present overdose. Whether it's drinking, drugs, or bizarre combinations of the two, there's always a chance that too much will be just enough to end the most promising career. You know the list: Jimi, Janis, Elvis, Johns Bonham and Entwhistle and so on. Kurt Cobain and Shannon Hoon. What we seem to learn from examples, but not the lessons that might save us. Too bad, since the story hasn't changed much since Billie Holiday.
Singing the blues can be dangerous. Just ask Amy Winehouse. Now that Charlie Sheen has taken his show off the road, we have Ms. Winehouse and her attendant wreckage. What one might expect from a woman whose biggest hits asserts, "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, 'No, no, no.'" She continues to appear every other year or so, fresh from whatever facility has most recently deemed her ready to show up on stage in no condition to do anything but start the clock ticking once again on how long it will be before we can add her to the list.
She has cancelled the remainder of her summer tour based on the reaction to her most recent "shambolic" performance in Belgrade. Whether her act is a roller coaster or a full-on freak show, it's hard not to wonder when someone will come in and pull the plug. Maybe we're all too busy anxiously awaiting the ugly scene at the end of the ride. Maybe we're hoping for a survivor's tale, a la Keith Richards or Ozzy Osbourne. Maybe we just enjoy watching train wrecks. I hope that she leaves the party before it leaves her.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Matters

Some days, when circumstances are mounting and the pressure demands, I lay down on the floor of my living room and look into the eyes of my dog. She leads, by definition, a dog's life. If I can find a way to relate to her at those low moments, then I can start picking up the pieces of my own existence and start to make sense of my world.
That's where I was last Sunday. I had a very pleasant day with my family. We had a very relaxing morning, during which I was showered by gifts and attention as the paterfamilias, and I looked forward to going out later that day to a movie and then dinner. It would be a full day of father recognition. The movie was plenty of fun: 3D glasses and a bucket of popcorn, my wife on one side, my son on the other. When we came out of the theater, we decided to walk up the street and check out the new restaurant. I was told there would be a steak in my future. We headed up the sidewalk, talking about the day's events and plans for the coming week.
The dinner was delicious. We ate and laughed and even saved a little money, thanks to my wife's clever massaging of coupons. When we were all full and then some, we walked back out into the late evening sun, carrying our leftovers. We strolled back down the street, past the theater, and across to the parking lot where we did not find our car.
And that's when the day changed. It stopped being Father's Day and became the day that our car was stolen. My little family sat on the grass next to the spot where our car had been just a few hours before, and dealt with the surreal moment of clarity: our fun family truckster, the one that had served us so faithfully on all those trips to Los Angeles and made the great circle voyage through the southwest was missing. The officer who took our report let us know that they had already received a report of our car being driven recklessly around the time we had been sitting down to dinner. It wasn't being driven recklessly by anyone we knew. A stranger was out for a joyride in the vehicle that hauled our groceries and carried my son to Aikido. We were told that we would be called if the car was located. Then we sat back down on the grass and waited for my mother-in-law to come and pick us up to take us home.
Home to where my dog was waiting. She greeted us at the door, and when we all came in and got settled, I took my spot on the floor across from her. She loves to go for a ride in the car, but she can do just fine without it. She was just happy to have her pack back with her. We were safe. We were together. For a moment, I had visions of borrowing a car and driving around town looking for our car. Then I let it go. I sighed and looked into the eyes of my dog. We were home safe, and that was the important thing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summertime Blues

I wasn't ready, in 1975, to appreciate all that was Bruce Springsteen. I was just coming down from a heavy dose of Elton John and was on my way toward Billy Joel. I was in junior high, and wasn't ready to get all that New Jersey in me. Long Island was pretty fierce to my tender young ears. All that piano attitude filled me with what would become considerable angst in the years to come. I knew Bruce was out there. But I wasn't ready.
I went so far as to make fun of him. I was one of those smart alecks who sneered at the way he sang, and sniffed at the notion that anyone, especially a rock star deserved to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Really? Where were their priorities, after all? This is the future of rock and roll? Puh-leeze.
For my birthday in 1981, I was given "Greetings From Asbury Park" by a girl who told me, "I know how much you like music, I think you'll like this." And since I had secretly imagined that I was going to seduce this young woman after the party was over. I listened to her wax on about seeing "The Boss" live and how it changed her life, or at least a corner of it. Yeah, right.
I knew that Springsteen was going to be in town a couple of months later, and since I liked music, I suggested we get tickets to the show. It sounded like a drunken good time, and so the next morning, I shook off the cobwebs of a hangover to stand in what I will now always remember as the shortest line possible to buy tickets for Bruce Springsteen. I walked up to the counter and bought two. "Which show?" the guy asked. "He's playing two nights." I told him I didn't really know, and so he suggested the second night. What did I know?
Well, as it turns out, I knew nothing. The young lady I had expected to join me had become a bad idea by the time the show rolled around, and so I went with another doubter. We were both willing to be entertained, but we weren't ready for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. That night, we were tested in ways no ordinary audience can be tested. Bruce was out to show that he could play harder and sing longer than we could. He was out to let us know the hype was real.
By the twenty-third song, we were all fairly whipped, but he and the band came back for an encore that had us all twisting, shouting, and ready for surrender. That's when I heard "Jungleland" for the first time. All that rocking and rolling turned into an epic song about ballets being fought out in the alley and operas out on the turnpike. And that's when I drank the Kool-Aid, the Bruce Juice. I was sold. The saxophone sole at the heart of the song filled the Rocky Mountain night, and I was ready. It wasn't just Bruce Springsteen. It was the hardest working band in the business. They were all there to make sure that when the night was over, we'd come back. For thirty years, that's the way it's been.
Clarence "Big Man" Clemons passed away this past weekend. The Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah. The Master of Disaster. The King of the World. I wasn't ready for that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Happy birthday to me. The longest day of the year and I can't think of any better way to spend it: at the dentist and giving blood. It's a little like getting a fifty thousand mile checkup. Check the plugs and points and maybe an oil change while I'm on the rack. Back in the olden days, I used to listen to John Denver croon, "It turns me on to think of growing old," and get all wistful and imagine how life would be once I rounded the bend to that "certain age." Now that I'm squinting at labels on packages of extra-strength Tylenol, I wonder if that sentiment isn't a tad overrated.
For the most part, when I am asked what my favorite age was, I generally choose the one I am currently, since it is the most inevitable. I hold great affection for days gone by, but it is the now that I am stuck with, so why not make the best of it? I really liked being eight. And twelve. And certainly sixteen held its allure. Even my thirties had their own surprises and mysteries, representing the end of my bachelorhood and the dawn of my fatherhood. As much as I enjoy looking back, I don't find myself wishing I could live there.
It's a little bit funny, but not ha-ha funny, that John Denver wrote those words when he was twenty-eight years old. He died in plane crash before he turned fifty-four. I hope for his sake that he had a good enough imagination to extrapolate beyond that sad fate. He worked with George Burns, after all. John only outlived George by seven months. Life can be short and ironic, sometimes. Mine just keeps humming along.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summertime Rolls

At the top of the big water slide that is summer vacation, I pause only briefly to remember what the trip is like to the bottom. There are plenty of days that are filled with activity, productive and otherwise. There are weeks that stretch out like empty coloring books with all sixty-four Crayola crayons sharpened and ready. We try desperately not to color outside the lines, but invariably we do, but it can't matter because it's summer vacation.
Soon enough, however, those expanses begin to shrink and time grows short. Panic sets in as the days begin to creep into darkness. Back to School flyers start showing up in the Sunday papers right after the Fourth of July. The clock is ticking and we have hardly begun our journey down the highway to nowhere.
The notion of doing nothing on summer vacation is appealing enough. Hook me up to a feeding tube and hand me the remote. I can read a book if I can only find someone to turn the pages for me. All the sleep that was mitigated by anxious nights and early mornings will be paid back in full to the slumber bank. I will emerge from this experience rested and refreshed. I will be ready to return to whatever fresh challenges await me in the coming year because I have done what I had to do: I relaxed.
Or I will do what I do: Fix this. Replace that. Drive here. Fly there. See this movie. Watch this show. Fix that thing that I thought I fixed when I started this list. Stay busy because nature abhors a vacuum, which is to say that nature would rather that we used a broom and a dust pan. And that's how we roll. Ready to start? Here we go!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On The Job Training

Coming into the teaching biz, I was never a "student teacher." That oxymoronical term was left to those who could afford a more traditional credentialing program, the kind that allows you to sit down after a long day and debrief with a master teacher and discuss the ways that the day's lessons might have gone better. Instead, I opted for the intern approach, taking classes in the evenings and trying them out on my students during the day. What I did discover was that the best way to become a better teacher was when I saw somebody doing something in their classroom that worked, I would take it and make it my own. This theft of intellectual property was encouraged, and little by little, I got the training I needed primarily through osmosis. It does make me think that the first room full of kids that I had are due a large apology, but they were all a part of my professional growth. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.
Being a father isn't a lot different. I have already confessed here that I didn't always do my required reading ahead of the birth of our son, and I imagined it would be a walk in the park compared to the daily crush of dealings with adults. This was my chance to form my own little person, with a mind that would reflect my own in the most positive ways. Then, suddenly I was a dad and I found myself learning on the fly. It should be noted that this event was essentially concurrent with my teacher training. To suggest that I was making it up as I went along would be a stretch, though it seemed like it at times. The truth is that I had some great inspirations: my older brother and my father, both of whom gave me hope that my gene pool could create another generation. A big heart, a sense of humor, and boatloads of patience were required, but as I kept at it, I found the job tough but profoundly rewarding.
The other day, as I guided my son through his first few passes at mowing the lawn, I thought about my dad and my older brother, the guys who showed me how to overlap the rows just a tiny bit, and to keep the bag from bunching up at the grass chute. It made me smile. Fourteen years later, it turns out that I might be good at this after all.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


It's June, and that means it's wedding season. Love is in the air, along with a number of different pollens and molds that are creating a variety of allergic reactions. Maybe that explains how Hugh Hefner's third marriage fell apart before the happy couple ever reached the altar. What else could it be?
It would be cynical to suggest that the sixty year age difference between the bride and groom had anything to do with it. To be clear, the founder of Playboy magazine and assorted entertainment enterprises is the elder. Otherwise that would mean he would be marrying a one hundred and forty-five year old hag. Sometime in the past week or so, the bride had second thoughts. Could it be that the three generations that separate them had some mild effect on the decision to carry on with the nuptials? That would just be age-ism, wouldn't it?
And so we are stuck with a number of other possibilities. It could be that, as an employee of Mister Hefner's, Miss Crystal Harris felt that mixing business with pleasure would be unseemly. This does put Hef in a bit of bind, since he had already sold the rights to video highlights of the ceremony to the Lifetime cable network. Alas, we will now probably be stuck with reruns of "The Girls Next Door."
A depressed Hef announced that his heart had been broken still further when Miss Harris moved out and took his cocker spaniel with her. Feel free at this time to spend the rest of the summer composing the joke that most effectively uses those facts.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Load Out

So here we are, at the end of another school year. All the kids get ready to move on to the next grade, with all its attendant curiosity and apprehension. Teachers get ready to send them along, hoping that the one hundred and eighty days that they spent together were sufficient warning for what was ahead of them over that next rise. We listen to yet another group of fifth graders who insist "I ain't never comin' back here," and we all know that they will.
As much as things will stay the same around here for us teacher types, we know that it will be different in the coming year as well. Budget cuts have taken away our nurse, our attendance clerk, and our assistant principal. While it's hard to fathom how any one of these losses will impact day to day operations, we know that eliminating positions might save money, but somebody's going to have to hand out the band-aids and ice packs, calling when that sore throat looks like strep. Someone's going to have to print those reports that teachers need, always at the last minute, and to answer the phone when everyone else stands there and watches it ring. And someone is going to have to do all those things that an Assistant Principal does, but it would have to be more than one someone, since keeping track of the discipline, afterschool programs, teacher observations and a million other significant details would take an army.
We have all benefited from the experienced, competent, assured way these women did their jobs, and all of us, kids and grown-ups alike, shiver in anticipation of what the future holds, but most of all, we'll miss the people. These hard-working cogs in the machine of public education are going to be missed for their personalities as much as their hard work. We couldn't have made it through the year without them.
And yet, next year, we will. But I won't be happy about it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Long Goodbye

I've never been good at saying goodbye. Well, maybe that's not entirely true. I have made a great show of saying farewell to family and friends over the years, but there was always just a taste of bitterness back in those long-ago partings. I was the one who was inevitably going to be staying put. I was the one who would hold down the fort. As friends from high school began to drift away, I kept my place. I was easy to find. Even when I went away to college, I only lasted a week at the first one. Classes hadn't even started before I bounced back. A year later when I travelled down the highway once again, I came back nearly every weekend, and when that year was done I came bounding back to my hometown, ready to settle in for another decade or so.
In the meantime, my pals were all searching out their futures: careers, wives, husbands. Each new connection created a new address, a new phone number. As base camp, it became increasingly difficult for me to keep an eye on all the ships at sea.
Then, one day, I caught a flight to the coast. While I was there, I noticed that I didn't turn to dust, nor did the folks back home. Everything remained more or less the same, but I was somewhere else. Why not try doing that for a little longer? How about nineteen years? Now I understand the adventure that was out there, all those years. Now I understand how people fell off that map I had so carefully constructed. I still keep a long Christmas card list, and I'm always surprised when I don't get something back from everyone on that list. I know that some people have slipped quietly from that list, while other faces have reappeared. New faces filled in the gaps, and I'm told that if I were only on Facebook, I wouldn't have to pine for any of those who may have gone missing.
Instead, I see a more galactic model. Those at the center are bound tightly, while other more distant stars spin off onto the spiral arms, only to be seen on rare occasions. These are events. When I encounter those distant world in my travels, or when they drift past through the void, I am amazed at how familiar it all seems. Those are the moments that I await the inevitable collapse of the universe. When everything will be compressed into this one little spot, and we will be together again.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I'm not sure who coined the phrase, "It seems like just yesterday," got their sense of the time/space continuum, but it does seem that they may have been more capable of ignoring certain ways in which days an months stack up on one another. I understand the initial shock of looking down and discovering that our babbling baby boy is gathering his things and preparing to make a trip across town to go to high school next year. I can relate to others' surprise that our son is now fully capable of making this transition. I think that maybe those people, and myself on occasion, are not ready for that to happen to themselves.
My son is being promoted to the ninth grade today. Previously, he had only been switching grades, but now he is gaining a title: Freshman. When he was still tiny, his mother and I watched as he got up and made the most literal transition of his life. At his preschool, where it was said that he always had good ideas in the block room, he walked across a bridge. Literally. It was that short trip, guided by the sure hand of his teacher, that he arrived at the next stage of his school life. When he finished up in Kindergarten, there was another ceremony, this one less literal, that presented him ready for first grade. It was a longer haul, but when fifth grade was over, he buttoned up his white shirt and made another walk down the aisle to sit in the auditorium to listen to some final bits of wisdom and appreciation from his teachers and classmates.
Now he prepares to make that trip once again. This time the auditorium is bigger, and so are the kids in his class. He has survived the bumps and flurries of middle school, and he tells us that he is anxious to move along the path toward higher learning. His mother and I will watch as we always have, from a distance, but we wouldn't miss it for the world. When I lay it all out like this, it seems like it took forever to get here. But then again, it took no time at all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Between The Lines

I have suffered the indignities of Spirit Week: "Mister Caven, are those really your pajamas?" on Pajama Day. "Why is your hair all different colors?" on Crazy Hair Day. "You like the Broncos?" on Sports Day. I even endured the chafing of the back of my collar under my chin on Backwards Day, only to be asked "Why aren't your pants on backwards too?" Yes, I understand that Spirit, true Spirit, comes at a price.
But all those aggravations fall away at one point during that week. When the teachers finally take the field against the fifth graders in a friendly game of kickball. It is a relatively new tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. For the past seven years, when things in the classroom have run down to the very limited, life-support activities such as taking roll and checking in books, we all start looking out to the corner of the playground where we know destiny awaits.
It should be noted that the rest of the year goes by with teachers taking a quiet, passive role on the yard. We are generally out there to settle minor disputes, or find lost balls. Once a year, we get to line up and try to kick the ball over the fence. We want the kids to spend some time looking for the ball.
That happened this year. One of our first grade teachers connected with a soft roll from the pitcher and buried it in the limbs of a distant patch of ivy at the top of the fence. That was a foul ball. The rest of us teachers were more successful keeping the ball in play, and we kept our team of eight busy both in the field and in the dugout. The fifth graders put nearly fifty bodies between the baselines, and that meant many of our best attempts at blasting one over their heads was caught. The teacher's more traditional alignment relied on concentration and hustle. When it was all over, including giving the kids one last turn behind the plate, the grown-ups prevailed eighteen runs to eleven.
We did not rub it in. We gave all the kids high fives and congratulated them on a game well played. We breathed a sigh of relief, keeping our record intact of seven wins and no losses, but we never mentioned this. Until we got to the staff meeting where, for just a few moments, we allowed ourselves a little trash talk. We've got spirit. Yes we do.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I have been hit by a car. Twice. I still flinch a little when I walk into a busy intersection, but I don't stand on the curb waiting endlessly. I have a certain amount of faith that the drivers of the cars to my left and to my right will follow the agreed upon norms that keep us all safe. I do not fear crossing the street. On the other hand, I do not like walking over grates. You know the kind: narrow little gaps or slots that threaten to eat me up as soon as I set foot upon them. Never mind that I have long since passed the size that would easily slip through those openings. What if I should suddenly shrink or twist or turn to make such a calamity a reality?
I'm not alone in irrational fears. I happen to know that a number of other adults continue to harbor secret worries that would sound ridiculous to others. I have a friend who harbors an all-consuming terror when it comes to bungee cords. The ones with those unforgiving metal hooks at the end, waiting to spring from their secure station and lash out viciously at unsuspecting passersby.
I understand that one. I have experienced the full-on contact of one of those wicked straps and their sinister curve of hardened steel. Right in the upper lip, and yet I come back just about every day to the back of my bike, pull the elastic tight over my backpack and for a split second, I think about how that hook is situated. Then I go about the rest of my day.
But you won't find me riding over any storm drains.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I have a friend, and constant reader, who is just a little put off by the state of Alaska. She feels that releasing Sarah Palin's e-mails constitute infringement on her hobby: printing out the Internet. I should mention that she is planning on using a very small font, and going double-sided on this project, but it will take some time and use considerable resources. This was never more apparent than when the dollies were rolled out with case after case of paper containing the Wit and Wisdom of Sarah Palin, the Juneau Years. Twenty-four thousand, one hundred and ninety-nine pages. Two hundred and sixty pounds. Perhaps the time and cost it took for such an undertaking is what took Alaska such a long time to get to work on this process, at three cents a page.
But it was totally worth it. Now you can catch up with all those years when Sarah's light was a faint beacon shining in the tundra. You can even be a cub reporter for the Washington Post, who is enlisting your help reading all these earth-shaking missives. Included are such hits as, "What areas can be looked at to veto out of operating budget? Were there big adds by loggies in it?" Or how about this one that came to her: "You rock. That's why Blockbuster's offering you one month of Blockbuster Total Access - No Charge." Yes, you even get to read Sarah's spam.
And so, days later, what have we learned? Well, there's no naked pictures of Anthony Weiner here, and no stunning revelations about her plans for world domination. And with that mountain of what we can only hope was recycled paper, I can only come up with one thought: Thank God she quit when she did.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Greetings From The Other Side

A door opened last weekend, and my son walked through. He went to his eighth grade dinner dance, and he came home with a smile on his face. The girl that he had hoped would be his date for the evening gave him the limited cold shoulder. She agreed to meet him at the dance. He spent the week leading up to the event fretting about what this might mean. His mother and I assured him that he would have a good time no matter what the outcome of that single interaction turned out to be, but we both knew that his heart and soul was riding on the outcome.
As it happens, she stopped just short of the "just-good-friends" speech. As it turns out, she was just as nervous as he was about the evening, and they were both relieved to find out that their expectations were not all that different. She was pleased and happy to have his attention, but didn't want to "rush into anything." Well, those are my words. I may never know exactly what was said, since now is the time when teenagers turn inside for answers. Or to each other. My clever son made a connection with this girl's best friend and enlisted her as his ally in this pursuit. At home, we ask questions and get polite, straightforward answers, but we know that mom and dad are currently on a need-to-know basis.
In the meantime, all those years of video games have paid off, as his extremely durable thumbs have become the articulators of his innermost thoughts. I know that he has spent more time texting this young lady than he has ever spent in face-to-face conversation. That's why he has limits on the number of hours he can spend with his face in a screen. I made it clear to him early on that I would periodically be peeking over his shoulder to check on the content of his messages. I needn't have worried. The bulk of them are descriptions of the preceding moment: "Sitting on the couch now, watching 'Top Gear.'" Hers are every bit as revealing: "In the car now. Going to my cousin's house." The happy news is that nobody seems to care that I might be snooping. He's happy to be able to share his life with another person. A peer. A friend. A girl.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lost In The Shuffle

Is this any way to run an airline? To be more precise, is this any way to run an IT department? Last week, the folks downtown at the concrete bunker known as the district office decided to send out a network command to delete student accounts. The intent was to eliminate student accounts on administrator's machines. It was a nice notion for housekeeping purposes, as it is the end of the year and all those saved links for Cartoon Network and forgotten attempts at essays describing the Industrial Revolution probably should go away to be re-imagined next year. But here's the rub: School is still in session, and they didn't isolate the computers that the wanted to affect. They just made a great big network command that made all everything go all wonky.
That's a technical term. I don't expect everyone to understand, but it's sort of like gishy, or gontflondernootz. Those of us who had business with computers, which is just about everybody at some point in the day, ran into some version of this aggressive bit of housecleaning. I live in a computer lab, and while I was able to keep things up and running for the most part, I had a number of perplexed kindergarteners who were unsure how to proceed when they were suddenly confronted with error messages and interrupted their progress making pictures of underwater scenes. "What's this, Mister Caven?"
I didn't have an answer, and like any good system administrator, I immediately assumed the problem was on my end and set about attempting to make sense of things on my end. Once I got the kids settled back into their comfort zone, headphones on, mice swirling and clicking. None of them were aware of the potential tragedy that awaited them at the end of the class: There would be no printing. Somehow the network zap had eliminated our ability to send our pictures to the printer. "I'll save them and try to print them later," I promised.
Alas, at the end of the day, there was no solution to the problem, and I had to go on with my routine. I don't know what will become of all those pictures of starfish and sharks and squids and crabs. They will probably be lost in the memory wipe that never should have touched them. At least they won't ever underestimate the magic of crayons again.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Don't Forget To Dance

As I sat there, second row center, I was reminded of an old ploy foisted on me when I was a bachelor. My friends and relatives who were starting their own families took great amusement in tossing a baby in my lap. "Let's see how the single guy handles a baby" was the name of the game. I understood it as a time-honored tradition and a test, of sorts. I accepted each bundle of squirming, gurgling joy even when they were not so joyous. The anticipated reaction was supposed to be one of fear and confusion: "What should I do with this?" Instead, I chose to connect with the newly formed being in front of me in the only way I knew how. I talked to the baby. I made friends. When something came out of the baby that wasn't happy babble, I smiled and waited for some relief, or at least a towel. I never surrendered or ran away in fear.
That's pretty much how I handled the ballet recital. My nieces' year-end performance was optional for me. I was told that I did not "have to come." I regarded this non-invitation for some time and initially, I confess, I did decline. But at the eleventh hour a ticket became available, and it seemed to me that it was the right thing to do. I am a big fan of the right thing to do. The fact that we went out for cheeseburgers before the show was a bit of an enticement as well.
Second row. In the center. There would be no nodding off or looking elsewhere. I was face to feet with group after group of prancing youth, showing the range and limitations of their training. After each dance, I could feel the eyes of the girls' parents and grandparents, waiting to see if I was "having fun." I show up in their world as a sports fan. A Bruce Springsteen fan. What would I know about ballet?
Happily, as a kid, I was introduced to ballet by my mother. As with many things cultural, there were no strict requirements other than I watch it and decide for myself. I kept an open mind, and I have a very fond memory of watching "Coppelia," a very nice entry-level ballet that didn't tax my patience and had its amusing moments. I was made familiar with "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" primarily for their cultural significance. And then, of course, there was "Dance of the Hours" in Walt Disney's "Fantasia." All of these memories floated back to me as I watched little girl after little girl leap and bow and skip across the stage. They were all very impressive, but one little girl, who had her left leg in a cast and still managed to make her way through her piece, was the one I chose to remember. Her determination and concentration was apparent and incredible. She was When it was all over, and the bouquets were handed out, I stood in the lobby of the theater and watched as families filed out. My left leg hurt just a little, perhaps from the surgery I endured so many years ago, or maybe from the coming rain, but I think it was a sympathetic twinge for my prima ballerina.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

He's Too Sexy For His Job

If there is a bright spot for New York's Representative Anthony Weiner, it could be that his first name is not Richard. Other than that, things look awfully bleak for this guy. I confess that it's been difficult to choose words that wouldn't be simply adding to the fourteen-year-old boy's field day that this entire escapade has generated. Conspiracy theories will no doubt center on the fact that pictures of some virile stud's barely concealed genitals who just happens to have the surname that was already a burden was just too easy. To quote former CIA director George Tenet, this would be a "slam dunk."
Now the clock ticks on Mister Weiner's career. It doesn't matter if he is a Democrat or Republican. It doesn't even matter that much that he got caught, quite literally, with his pants down. It matters that he lied about it. Was it embarrassing? Sure it was. Of course it was. But the instant that he bent the truth, he bought himself a ticket on the express train out of D.C. Did he apologize profusely for treating women shabbily over the course of the past several years? Sure he did. He even apologized to his wife, who was noticeably absent from the news conference. Missing from his mea culpa was an apology for lying, or the words, "I resign."
Admittedly, this guy had an uphill battle for most of his life, given that name. His impassioned rants from the floor of the House had to be all the more inspired just to get people to take him seriously. Benefits for first responders to Ground Zero? Support for Israel? We'll get to that in a moment Representative Weiner, but first let's talk about sexting. Get in line behind the Governator, Chris Lee and John Edwards. The bus is waiting. Get on it or get under it. You decide.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


The Food and Drug Administration is gearing up yet another version of warning labels and advertisements to try and encourage people to stop smoking. Polite assertions such as "Cigarettes are addictive," and "Tobacco smoke can harm your children" are taking over where the Surgeon General's urging left off. Back in the 1960's it used to be enough to simply remind folks that "Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health." Just like playing hopscotch in a minefield may be a bad idea as well.
It is interesting to me that after all these years we still feel compelled to save ourselves from our worst impulses. "Caution: Do Not Ingest." What about the people who forgot to bring their thesauruses and fail the synonym test. "Oh, I don't ingest nothin'. I just hold the smoke in my mouth." And there are plenty of hardened nihilists that tell you that breathing will kill most of us soon enough, so why not toss a little nicotine and menthol in on top of your daily oxygen intake while you're at it? Scary pictures and dire warnings are good for people who believe them, but if you're sixteen and invulnerable, you don't stand a big chance of getting through with a bunch of x-rays of shriveled lungs.
I suspect that you could make the entire package a warning label that said, "This will kill you," and you could still sell them for five dollars a pack. This is coming from a guy who enjoys a cheeseburger and a Coke on a fairly regular basis, and who has been known on occasion to make a cellular telephone call. The list of things that are bad for you has long since gone past my full understanding. It keeps growing every day. But the fact that I have never bothered to have a cup of coffee or a cigarette in my life makes me think that it might be possible to live forever. Then I could start to fear all those smokers using their last breaths to come and do me in out of spite. It's always something.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Power Of The Radio

Perhaps if I started with the dream: I had chosen a small crawlspace for my path to the back porch where the soda was stored. I had even gone so far as to open the latch to the door when my father stopped me. He said that if I were to go back there I might disturb the crash site. The plane crash site. It was a disturbing enough moment, since it was my father warning me away from the wreckage of someone else's downed aircraft, or maybe it was his. It was a dream, after all.
When I awoke, I was suddenly reminded of a song. As far as I know, I only heard it once on the clock radio that sat beside my bed in my room at my parent's house. Two round dials, one for tuning and one to tell the time. There was a knob just below the clock face that you could twist to the right to get an hour of radio as you drifted off to sleep. I did this most every night, falling to sleep to the hits on KIMN. On one particular night, I heard a song that made it hard for me to sleep. Impossible. It described a bloody plane crash in some detail, and afterward I called for my father, whose bedroom was just down the hall. He came directly, the light from the hallway following him in. He sat on the edge of my bed and listened patiently as I described my torment. He seemed a little skeptical, but stayed and listened to another three or four songs. "They're all about three minutes long," he consoled me. "You'll probably be asleep in just a few more."
So he sat there, and listened as the sounds of seventies AM radio filled the dark room. Sure enough, somewhere in there I dropped off, just like he said I would. The next night, I stared at that knob a long time before giving it a twist. I didn't know what might come out.
I have spent a good portion of my life since laying awake. I never heard that song again, but it was stuck somewhere deep in my cerebral cortex. I tried to describe it to a number of different acquaintances, who were able to remember plenty of teen tragedy songs, but none that featured airplanes.
The morning after my crawlspace dream, I asked the only person who knows everything: Al Gore. After a few minutes of pointed searching, I came up with "DOA" by Bloodrock. It includes lyrics about blood flowing and hitting something in the air. Speaking of hit, the song made it all the way to number thirty-six back in 1971, which explains how it found its way onto my radio that dark and stormy night. Twenty-five years later my father died in a plane crash. It was nice of him to comfort me way back when, and to show back up now to help me unravel this knot of insomnia.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Listen, And You Shall Hear

Sarah Palin's summer vacation continues: "He who warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and, um, making sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were going to be secure and we were going to be free." This is how she chose to describe Paul Revere's ride during her stop in Boston. Perhaps Longfellow was not required reading at any of the five universities she attended. Perhaps reading was not required at any of the five universities she attended.
This could be part of the reason her vision of American history is so skewed, or it could be that she hadn't looked into the truth of the matter: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" nearly one hundred years after the event. It was written as the United States stood on the brink of civil war. It doesn't have anything to say about the midnight ride of William Dawes, who made the ride to Lexington as well, taking a slightly different route. And there was Samuel Prescott, who managed to complete his ride without being captured by the British, as Mister Revere was. Alas, both Prescott and Dawes lacked the necessary meter and scansion.
Now here we are, a hundred and fifty years after the publication of Longfellow's myth, and Silly Sarah is still unclear about both fact and fiction. How is it that she continues to be considered anything but a font of comedic straight lines? Her grasp of our national and international scene continues to be tenuous at best, and she continues to string us all along about whether or not we should take her seriously as a candidate. If she's running for President of the Historical Society, she'll have to work a little harder to get my vote. In the meantime, brace yourselves for another flurry of blaming the "lame-stream" media for twisting her words and making her appear foolish. I don't thing even Longfellow could save this one.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Big Wheel Keeps On Turnin'

A co-worker helpfully pointed out last week that I had "missed" National Bike To Work Day. I suspect what this person meant was that I didn't make a big deal about it. There was no parade. There was no fanfare. On the morning of May 20, I got on my bike and rode to school. At the end of the day, I got on my bike and rode home. There was no parade. There was no fanfare. It was just the way I got to work.
The part of the crisis in education that has gone unreported until now is this: If I were to change jobs, I might have to change my commute. Sure, I know there are plenty of alternatives, but this is the way that I have always done it. When I became a teacher, I started biking to work. Fourteen years, one hundred and eighty days a year, two miles there and two miles back. If you don't have your calculator handy, that comes out to be about ten thousand miles. Even if you take out the occasional day when things needed to be hauled or jury duty or other interruptions to that string, I would still add back in the days I taught summer school and weekends when I came in to do a little clean-up. If the circumference of the Earth is just about four thousand miles, and there was a bike path on the equator, I would be around two and a half times by now.
As another Bike To Work Year draws to a close, I have to admit that there have been days when I wished for a cushioned ride in climate-controlled comfort. But that doesn't keep me from being pleased about the low-cost, low-stress way I have made my way to work over the past decade and a half. I don't know if all that smug keeps me from being classified low-emission.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Nice Ink

Jim Tressel quit his job on Monday. Things must be pretty tough around his office if he picked the next to last day of the month, a holiday no less, to give his resignation. It must be doubly bad considering the unemployment rate around the country, especially in the Midwest. The now ex-coach of the Ohio State Buckeye football team must not have been too shy about the publicity, since he picked a day in sports just after the Indianapolis 500 and just before the NBA finals were scheduled to begin. I guess he figured things couldn't get much worse.
He of the dapper sweater vest/tie combination has decided that it's best to get out of the way, rather than being swallowed up by the ugly storm that is about to drop on his football program. Well, it's not actually his, anymore, is it? If he had acted in his own best interest once upon a time, he might not have lied about his part in Tattoogate. His players received cash and discounted tattoos from a local establishment, and he knew about it. Then he lied about knowing about it. Then the e-mails that described what he knew surfaced and he went on vacation. When he came back, he typed up his resignation.
It could have been the very same keyboard on which he once authored his book, "The Winner's Manual: For The Game Of Life." With chapters entitled Faith, Responsibility, Discipline, and Excellence, it should give him some excellent opportunities to reflect, especially the chapter about Handling Adversity and Success.
The proud image of Ohio State football is now sullied by this tawdry scandal. Of course this is the same program that gave us the legendary Woody Hayes. And maybe Jim will use this time to go shopping for some different color sweater vests, kind of like Pete Carroll did when he got out from under the USC axe just before it fell and landed a job in the NFL. Or at least get that Brutus Buckeye tattoo removed.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Buzz Kill

A group of American doctors urge kids and teens to avoid energy drinks and only consume sports drinks in limited amount. How many electrolytes does one actually need, anyway? "Children never need energy drinks," said Doctor Holly Benjamin, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who worked on this new report. "They contain caffeine and other stimulant substances that aren't nutritional, so you don't need them."
Need them? Since when was "need" the concern? I thought the whole idea of being a teenager was to see what the limits of your mind and body are, then push just a little harder. It is certain that the makers of these drinks are not targeting the thirty-year-old demographic with their Monster and Rock Star beverages. They are after the kids who can sleep until noon the next day after a binge. Doctor Holly recently saw a fifteen-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who came into the hospital with a seizure after having drunk two twenty-four-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew. When I was a kid, the ad campaign featured hillbillies insisting that this recipe that resembled Prestone in color would "tickle your innards." It was the drink of choice of my high school marching band because it had been determined that the caffeine level was higher than Pepsi or Coca-Cola. If we had access to Red Bull back in those days, we would have insisted that the vendor put an additional button on the machine to give us one more choice: More Red Bull.
Jolt Cola on the other had, was something that I was able to find in great abundance during my college years. It brought me up while Miller Lite brought me down. It was self-medication in its purest form. What do the doctors say? They say that water is still the best way to quench your thirst. But what's the best way to cram an entire semester's worth of American History in your head over the course of one night? If you have to ask, you're too old, man.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Whisper Words Of Wisdom

Of course I'm nervous about my son entering into the fast-paced hurly-burly world of dating. I am bound by sacred oath to the Secret Society of Parental Semantics not to call it that: dating. Just like I am honor bound never to speak of my son's after school activities as "playdates." I know that fourteen is far too young for anyone to begin the odyssey that will last a significant chunk of his or her lifetime. The confusion, strategies and heartbreak that await him in wave after wave could wait another year, at the very least.
I waited until the end of my ninth grade year for my first date. Convention stated, in those days, that junior high school was grades seven through nine, and as a line of demarcation, the ninth graders were encouraged to go to the final dance of the year, which was called "Prom." Never mind that we had to get our parents, or in my case my older brother, to drive us from place to place. Never mind the fact that we had only recently been given the real truth about male-female relationships in health class only months before. We were ready. Or at least that's what we thought.
I had never been to a dance at my junior high prior to that night. I had heard stories. I had never been to a party outside of the neighborhood birthday cake and balloon fests that had been the staple of my youth. But I had heard stories. Couples were formed at these events. Making out was done. I had no tangible notion of these concepts, save for what I had heard in the hallways, but I was certain that it was the next stage of my development.
And so my mother took me out to buy a new shirt. A very shiny polyester garment with plenty of multi-colored stripes. I eschewed the traditional sport coat in favor of my older brother's black leather jacket. It fit a little like Tony Stark's first model armor, and made sound like a saddle. It was the look I was after.
There were six of us in the station wagon: three couples who had been friends for the past three years, and now we were carefully paired off in hopes that romance would naturally ensue. Or at least that is what the young gentlemen assumed. I know now that the emotional weight that I had put into play after spending a nine happily platonic years with the girl down the street made every moment a struggle, even without my brother's bulletproof jacket.
Here's the truth: Even without any prior experience, I simply assumed that something magical would occur. Throughout the giddy dinner at the local Italian restaurant to the horribly awkward moments upon arrival at the gymnasium when it suddenly became apparent that we were expected to dance at the ninth grade dance, prom or not. In the years since that night, I have become much more relaxed about expressing myself in this mode, but I was in no way prepared to trip anything close the light fantastic. Like a tiny child clinging to the edge of the swimming pool, I watched as others dived right in as I hung in the shadows, waiting for my moment to come.
I had heard so much about these dances, and how they always ended with "Stairway To Heaven," I felt as though I could bide my time and take my cue from the mighty Led Zeppelin. But that didn't happen. Instead, it was announced that the last dance would be "Let It Be." I had waited long enough. I don't remember now what clever way I used to ask my friend who just happened to be a girl out onto the dance floor. I know she felt a similar obligation, but neither one of us could give voice to just how clumsy this all felt. And so we found a spot, somewhere away from the swirling crowd and began to sway rhythmically to Paul McCartney imploring us over and over to "Let It Be." I didn't get the irony back then. Subtext was not my thing at the time. I had this amazing friendship that I was pushing to its logical extreme, and I could feel myself sweating and all the while I never could quite open my hands. They stayed clenched in tight fists as we gamboled about the gym floor. When the song was over, I stood up straight and the lights came up. It was time to go home.
My brother was waiting for us outside, and we dropped off the others in girl-boy order until it was just the three of us. Me in the back seat of the station wagon with the girl I had known all through grade school and junior high, and now it felt like we were on the edge of a cliff, with high school waiting below in the abyss.
And at this moment I choked, perhaps both literally and figuratively, but I know that I did not manage to walk her to the door and get that magical goodnight kiss. The moment came and went without me doing anything about it. There was no music cue, no hidden director in the bushes feeding me lines.
I spent the rest of the summer trying to sort out my feelings and manufacturing a way to make it work. It never did. We stayed friends. We still are. She was the one who pinned my boutonniere on before I went out and married my wife, who started off as a very good friend of mine. And now my son is heading out into these same waters, with his mother and me watching from the shore. Bon Voyage, and don't be afraid to Let It Be.