Friday, September 30, 2011

What A Wonderful World

Don't know much about history,
Don't know much biology.
Don't know much about a science book,
Don't know much about the french I took -
Sam Cooke "Wonderful World"

For the last decade, I have made a practice of sitting down at dinner with my son and turning to him to ask, "What did you learn in school today?" To his credit, he has attempted to answer this question in a thoughtful way more times than not. Many times he has settled for an anecdote from the lunch room or playground, but he knows that a shrug of the shoulders and "I dunno" will not be sufficient reply. There have been plenty of days that he has been anxious to let us know about the things he's learned, especially in science, where things blow up and are set on fire.
Then there are the days that take a little more prying, and that's when I feel sorry for him. I know that when I was in school it was 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Sure, there was some wild talk even back then about how it might have been Vikings who ran aground on these shores ahead of him, but it certainly wasn't going to be on the test. Now he needs to know that Christopher Columbus' navigation skills were suspect and that he may have been responsible for the genocide of Native Americans. Not Indians. He will have to remember the events of September 2001 as part of history with causes and effects. He will probably be in school long enough to witness the revision of George W. Bush's presidency, much in the way I was asked to reevaluate Richard Nixon's administration: He opened China. He was tough on crime. He started the Environmental Protection Agency. Vietnam? Watergate? Bad choices made under duress.
My son is also responsible for more science than I ever was. New planets are being discovered, while Pluto is being relegated to being the name of Mickey's dog. Knowing that there are atoms and what they are made of is a jumping off point. Now he needs to know what comes between them. Thirty years ago, I had to sign up to get some time on the school's punch-card driven computer. Now my son is asking if he can unplug my laptop to plug his in because mine runs too slow.
Then there's French. As it turns out, there's really only one reason to learn that language: to order in a French restaurant. The good news here is that my son is taking Spanish, since we live down the street from a really great taqueria.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Everything I Know Is Wrong

So, here we are, just about one month into the football season, and already I find myself scratching my head: Buffalo Bills? No Peyton Manning? What is a poor, self-respecting Fantasy Football owner supposed to do? Well, maybe the key lies somewhere in that "self-respecting" part. I'm not sure, but I think that personal integrity may be the challenge I have encountered. It all started with the Perfect Storm of coincidence that brought me Michael Vick. Sure, I'm willing to forgive and forget, especially when I have a thirty-point a week machine to forgive and forget.
But I can't forget the fumbles and interceptions, and the injuries. It's one thing to feel the pain of losing your favorite player to the sting of a concussion or the crunch of a broken hand, but when your franchise rises and falls based on the actions or inaction of that head and hand, the reaction in the front office, my couch, is different. I found myself full of doubt and anxiety, and very little care about my fellow man, if that fellow man wasn't throwing for three hundred yards and four touchdowns.
Then I started thinking about Sabermetrics, and wondering why I wasn't applying those methods to my football problem. Maybe it was because the averages and statistics of a baseball season can be stretched over a number of games ten times longer than an NFL season. The dispassionate among us would simply drop the player in question and move on to the best player available. It's a numbers game, after all, right?
Alas, not for me. I still have too much love for the personalities. I want to believe in the star who will rise up, one more time, and bring home that win. I grew up in the tall shadow of John Elway, who spent most of his young career being introduced to turf around the league by opposing defensive linemen. Then he started winning games. Improbably, impressively and incredibly. Highlight film stuff week after week. I got spoiled. When he retired after winning his second Super Bowl and the game's Most Valuable Player trophy, I winced. But I didn't recognize that it was the end of an amazing run.
Now John's in the front office of our beloved Denver Broncos. He's playing the fantasy game for real. He's watching good players drop balls, fall down, and be helped off the field. I wonder if he's thinking about completion percentages and yards per carry when another "L" gets hung on the board. We're not even a quarter of the way through the season, but I'm thinking of calling Billy Beane in on this one.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

By Degrees

I was in college a long time ago. It's been a quarter of a century since I graduated. It's been long enough ago that I don't have a solid grasp on all the things I learned way back then. I remember some of the books. I remember some of the teachers. I remember a few of the faces, but not many names. It's been just about long enough to forget about all the fun I had way back then.
My reading of Melville offered me the wry bon mot, "I would prefer not to," from his short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," but I don't think I would feel comfortable discussing the whiteness of the whale. I took an astrophysics course so I could find Orion in the winter sky. I took a music appreciation course because I had to. I had taken so many film study courses and creative writing workshops that I was well on my way to generating two degrees instead of the one that I was after. I had started late, taking a year off after high school to figure out that growing up might mean moving away from the faces and places that I was most familiar. And I transferred from the small liberal arts college I entered in my freshman year to return to the great big university just up the hill from where I grew up. It was not my most decisive time. That first year in school found me experimenting with drink and drugs. I got engaged to my high school sweetheart. I broke up with my high school sweetheart. I moved to full-scale research on drink and drugs. If there were wild oats to be sown, I sowed them.
Eventually, my parents let me know that the funding was not unlimited, and I should look into graduating. I took my fistful of credits to a counselor, a visit that I had put off for four years, and asked him what I could do to get out of college. He looked at my transcript and raised an eyebrow at the semester I spent on academic probation. He laid out a plan: no more movies or short stories. Take the required courses, get a diploma, and get on with my life.
Which is what I did, and I didn't look back. Every now and then I will stumble on my copy of Janson's "History of Art," or find a way to steer a conversation into the neighborhood of my arcane knowledge of F.W. Murnau. I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree, which essentially means I am uniquely qualified for the task of writing the words you are reading right now. I hope you enjoy my education as much as I must have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Eat Here, Get Gas

One of the quirks about the death penalty: The attending physician always swabs the arm of the inmate who is about to be given a lethal injection It is one of the most tremendous schisms of Hippocratic reality imaginable. At one instant, you are doing everything you can to benefit the patient, making sure the needle doesn't leave a nasty infection. The very next you are connecting them to a pump that will insert a potion of death. I suppose it would be complete overkill to do an autopsy after the fact.
It's an unpleasant thought, even for those who might seek to further the cause: The Death Penalty. It gets passionate responses from both sides, pro and con. There are a lot of practical concerns that come up for both sides: the appellate system, the consistent application of the sentence, and the expense. It costs way too much to kill people these days. In a country where we are trying to cut costs at every turn, why are we spending so much on the death penalty?
Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed last Wednesday for the hate crime slaying of James Byrd Jr. more than a decade ago, asked for two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. Prison officials in Houston said Brewer didn't eat any of it. As a result, there will be no more last meal requests granted to death row inmates in Texas. In Florida, they have a forty-dollar limit, which would have covered a good chunk of Byrd's feast, But is that really the point? Even Amnesty International couldn't find much to be incensed about: “It’s a minor thing compared with the fact that they are killing him. The cruelty of the whole process is much larger than whether you get to pick the last meal that you eat.”
And so on that, we can all agree.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tramps Like Us

Last Friday was Bruce Springsteen's birthday. It would have been a great time to go out and celebrate the memories of concerts past, and listen to music that has entertained and consoled me throughout these many years. It was a Friday night, after all. No reason to jump out of bed the next day. If I had chosen to, I might even have stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing my favorite tracks and regaling any and all who would listen with anecdotia about The Boss, since it's my house after all, and if I'm keeping my family up on such an important occasion, so be it.
It wasn't always that way. More specifically, there was a time when I didn't own my own home. There was a time when I was an apartment dweller. More to the point: I was the upstairs neighbor to a single mother with a young daughter. My roommate and I did not let this stand in the way of our compulsion to revel in the nativity of our semi-major-demigod. The evening started with some basic hungry drunk boy math: three of us went out to buy some beer for the occasion, and we quickly realized that the price of a case of beer was only slightly higher than it was for a quarter keg. Reasoning that we owned our own tap and the deposit would therefore be moot, we agreed that the option of having more beer and fewer bottles and cans to deal with. And much more beer. We lugged the keg back up the stairs to our apartment and set it just outside our front door in a tub we filled with ice. The party began in earnest just before eight o'clock.
Did I mention this was not a Friday night? I believe it was a Tuesday. We didn't care. We were carrying on as if it were a national holiday, and it never occurred to us that anyone would take issue with our passion. By ten o'clock, there were just two of us left: my roommate and I. We didn't slow down, we sped up. The music got louder, and so did we. Just before midnight, we arrived at our National Anthem: "Born To Run." We turned it up again. We stomped about the room, sloshing beer on our carpet, and as the E Street Band built to its ultimate crescendo, we were pounding on the floor with our fists and counting down with Bruce: "One, two, three, four..."
Did I mention that we were on the upper floor? It was then that we heard a noise. Faint at first, so we turned the stereo down. The phone was ringing. The poor woman downstairs was calling to plead with us. Could we please turn it down? It is the intervening years and decades of maturity that allow me this perspective, since at the time, we may have felt the tiniest bit of embarrassment, but no real shame. Instead, we mumbled some half-hearted apology and then loudly derided the idea that anyone would possibly be worried about getting to sleep on Bruce's birthday.
This is one of the stories I tell when asked, "Dave, why don't you drink anymore?"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Take A Picture Here, Take A Souvenir

There are plenty of memories rattling around my iPod and hard drive about REM. I hear their music in the shuffle of seventies, eighties and nineties that pour into my head as I sit at a computer or wander about outside with earbuds keeping the bad news out and the music in. To say that I am a fan could be stretching the facts a little bit, depending on your definition. Do I own more than one of their recordings? Yes. Have I paid to see them perform live? No. Still, I'm generally interested in hearing what new direction these guys from Athens, Georgia might be taking.
Now I won't. After thirty-some years together, their folding the tents and calling it quits. Of course, they do this in the realm where "retiring" means taking a year or two off until the checks being offered to reunite and play one more show swell up to the size that whatever integrity might be gained by staying retired becomes economically unfeasible. I'm looking at you, Rolling Stones. Then there are the inevitable reunion and farewell tours, followed by a new single or two, yes you heard me Motley Crue. Eventually, the original myth of the band is subsumed by the burden of keeping the machine running, and the job of maintaining that myth becomes a tiring and endless road: Eagles.
I will be the first to confess that I have followed my share of dinosaurs around, and bought music that has been made long after it was relevant, but I hope that REM can stick to their guns and stick by their announced plans to walk away. I will always treasure the first time I heard the garbled lyrics of "Radio Free Europe," and fifteen years later winning tickets to see them was only radio contest I ever won. That was about the time that Bill Berry, their drummer suffered an aneurysm, and a lot of people thought we had seen the last of them. Four years ago, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The continued to make music with Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe.
And now they're done. At least that's what they said last Wednesday. A Greatest Hits package will be released soon. I won't be shocked to see them lured from their comfortable stasis, and I won't begrudge them any further creative endeavors, but for the sake of their integrity, I hope they can stick to their faintly intelligible word.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hey Joe, Where You Goin' With That Gun In Your Hand?

That was the musical question posed by Jimi Hendrix way back in 1967, to which the standard reply was "I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady. You know I caught her messin' around with another man." The "standard answer" because the song had been around for some years before that, covered by many different artists, including The Byrds and They Surfaris before Jimi made it his own. Eventually, Rolling Stone magazine recognized this story of a man on the run, hunting down the woman who done him wrong as number 198 in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. Monster honkin' blues riffs, and a compelling story of spousal abuse. I never thought much about the lyrical content. Until recently.
Now I'm hearing "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People on the radio. It tells the story of a kid who is having homicidal thoughts, and it suggests that you probably won't outrun his bullets. It's part of a tradition of delusional youth songs that can be traced back through Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," The Boomtown Rats "I Don't Like Mondays," Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy," all the way to The Beatles' "Maxwell'ls Silver Hammer." The list goes on and on, but I'm getting old and cranky, and as a result I am feeling the rust on the wheels of my brain. Is it a good thing to have a pop-dance tune about kids shooting one another? In this day and age?
The phrase "in this day and age" sticks out in my mind because of the the incident I caught on my local news the other night: A fourteen-year-old boy was shot and killed on Sunday night in South San Francisco, and another was wounded. I have a fourteen-year-old son. I know a bunch of fourteen-year-old boys, and I am hard-pressed to think of what they might do that would be worthy of being killed. Sent to their room. Maybe even bounced around a little by their siblings or the neighborhood bullies, but killed?
To a dance beat? I'm getting old.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fair Share

I suppose that if there is going to be class warfare, I would want to have the President on my side, whatever side that turns out to be. Currently, the big push is to get all those fat-cat billionaires to start paying their taxes, much to the dismay of those who seek to protect those fat-cat billionaires. Oddly enough, some of those fat-cat billionaires are anxious to pay their share. Whatever that is.
It takes me back to a time when I was walking around the streets of Oakland with another newly married young man who began to espouse his belief that there should be a personal salary cap of fifty thousand dollars a year. "Why would you need any more than that?" he asked as we walked through a neighborhood that would definitely support such an ideal. He was borrowing a concept that he became familiar with by watching professional sports. At the time we were all living in our comfortable newlywed nests that held our limited possessions and we were driving used cars. Why would anyone need more than fifty thousand dollars a year to live on?
That was almost twenty years ago, and I imagine that inflation might have pushed that number somewhere north of sixty thousand dollars, but I'm pretty sure that this egalitarian view has fallen by the wayside.
We bought houses. We had kids. We started making retirement plans. We put money aside for one thing and another, and suddenly we find that the money we used to need is not enough. We need more. Lots more. My guess is that we might all be looking at that minimum for the National Football League of a little more than three hundred thousand dollars a year. Of course those guys don't generally play more than seven years, and then they're tossed back in that less forgiving pool of used car salesmen and TV sports analysts.
Then again, maybe it would be easier just to ask all those fat-cat billionaires to write a bigger check to the IRS this year.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tom Joad Versus Jack Kerouac

This past weekend I was out with my family when I saw a couple of young men hanging on a corner. Dressed in their shaggy best, cargo shorts and sleeveless shirts with multiple piercings evident, one of them held a cardboard sign which read: "Traveling, Hungry, Broke." Strangers on corners with cardboard signs are no curiosity on the streets where I live. I am always intrigued by the creativity that is on display at these moments. I am also impressed by the level of desperation that I have seen. These two scored some points for creativity , but zero on the desperation scale.
When I give money to help the hungry or the homeless, I send it to shelters. I give cans of food. I want to get help to those who need it. A pair of young hipsters making their way across this great land of ours seems like a romantic notion to other young hipsters. To me it was grating. Down the road apiece we encountered a much simpler sign, "Please Help," written in a scrawl that echoed the sentiment on a piece of cardboard that may have been this character's only possession beyond the clothes on his back. There was no skateboard propped up next to this guy. Personal grooming had become less than a priority some time ago. The difference between these two corners played havoc in my head all the way home.
Why was I making this judgement as I made my own way across town? Over the last couple of years, the word "hobo" has found its way back into the lexicon of the kids who attend the school where I work. It's used as a put-down, often to describe a moment when someone's shoes or jacket don't conform to the latest style. I ask the kids who are tossing around this epithet if they know what it means. To my surprise, most of them come up with the image of vagrants with cardboard signs. Considering how close many of the families I deal with each day are to this line, I am amazed at how comfortably superior they are flaunting this distinction. That's not me, they declare. That's somebody else. And it always will be.
I hope they are right.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Merry Pranksters

According to a new Bloomberg News poll, one third of Americans believe Hillary Clinton would have been a better president than Barack Obama, and two-thirds view her favorably. Thirty-four percent of those polled believe "things would be better under a Clinton administration and almost half say things would be about the same, and thirteen percent say things would be worse. That's a lot of percentages to digest, but it looks like the forty-three percent of folks who disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing are probably going to agree with them.
Maybe this is why that one tiny fraction of a percent, Dick "Dick" Cheney, is suggesting that Hillary make another run for the White House, perhaps as soon as 2012. When asked about the sincerity of his motives by "Face The Nation" host Bob Schiffer, Dick replied, "No, I just thought Bob, that the Democrats ought to have as much fun on their side as we are having on our side figuring out who is going to run."
Fun? Gosh, maybe he's right. Remember when presidential politics was fun? If you miss those days, and wish we could have them back again, you shouldn't be lonely. There are percentages among you who would love to stir things up just a little. Even though she has repeatedly denied any interest in running against her boss, and is now working hard to still those muddied waters, the helpful droids over at Fox News are doing their best to keep that ball in play.
It brings to mind the glory days of Republican Dirty Tricks. Back then, there wasn't any real shame in belonging to an organization whose acronym was CREEP. Back then, "Dick" was working for a guy named Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld. And then he was Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford. Ah, for the good old days. When Ford had a job approval rating of thirty-seven percent. If only Al Gore had invented the Internet back then, he and his buddy Bill Clinton could have put up a "draft Ronnie Reagan" web site. Wouldn't that have been funny?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Fruit Of Knowledge

An apple a day is supposed to keep the doctor away. But not Doctor Oz. He's all over that bad apple. He wants us to know that red delicious is killing our children. On his Fox show last Wednesday, he let us know that testing by a New Jersey lab had found what he suggested were troubling levels of arsenic in many brands of juice. I'm not a doctor. Nor do I play one on TV. But I am immediately "troubled" by the words "arsenic" and "juice" appearing in the same sentence. The images in my mind of my young son downing a bottle of yummy juice with a big grin on his face, just before his eyes roll back up in his head and starts foaming at the mouth.
Hold on. Put down the phone. No need to call the paramedics or Child Protective Services. As it turns out, the Food and Drug Administration wants us to know that there is no need to panic. "There is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices. And FDA has been testing them for years," our government assures us. It turns out that arsenic is naturally present in water, air, food and soil in two forms : organic and inorganic. According to the FDA, organic arsenic passes through the body quickly and is essentially harmless. Inorganic arsenic, the type found in pesticides, can be toxic and may pose a cancer risk if consumed at high levels or over a long period. This was not a bit of information that Doctor Oz included in his show. Instead, his website tells us, "American apple juice is made from apple concentrate, 60 percent of which is imported from China. Other countries may use pesticides that contain arsenic, a heavy metal known to cause cancer." Cancer? China? Children? Evil, plain and simple.
Or not. Where is Oprah when you need her?

Monday, September 19, 2011

God Shuffled His Feet

It must be almost Fall. The leaves are beginning to turn and Pat "God's Little Elf" Robertson is once again spouting off in his very special way. Ten years ago, he was earnestly agreeing with the Reverend Jerry "Lee" Falwell about the causes of the attacks of September 11: Gays, lesbians and the American Civil Liberties Union. This was God's judgement on us, according to these guys, who claim to know Him well.
Then there was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Once again, Pat pointed the finger at the Supreme Being, saying that He was angry about legalized abortion. He was also lumping natural disasters along with terrorism. Televangilism seems to require a certain amount of creative thinking. It's that kind of thinking outside the box that gave him the notion that he should run for President of the United States. When God called him, he was ready.
Well, that was a long time ago. Now we're left with the ripples and waves of the tempest he stirred way back when. And another Autumn is nigh. We know because Pat has announced that it's okay to divorce your spouse if they have Alzheimer's. He legitimizes this view by pointing out that the disease is "a kind of death," and so it means it's okay to part. Just like that. The sickness and health part is really kind of vague, but death is the final answer, so go ahead and let your wife or husband go if they have this terrible affliction. He promised not to "put a guilt trip" on anyone who made this choice. Are you listening, Newt Gingrich? How about you, John Edwards? Cancer? Alzheimer's? Aren't we splitting hairs here?
I guess all we can hope is that the title of Pat's show, "The 700 Club" refers to the number of viewers he has.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Function Over Form

I was congratulating myself for deftly steering around the foot-long pothole in the street. I was imagining myself as a bicyclist of the first degree: someone who has pedaled thousands of miles and was able to navigate urban hazards. I recalled the times that I have been standing up on my pedals and pumping up a hill, believing in my heart that I looked just like Davis Phinney in his prime. Then I settle back down in my seat and listen to the squeak of my wheels and the occasional ping of a pebble squirting out from underneath my tires. I'm a commuter, not a racer in the same way that everyone sitting behind a steering wheel is not Mario Andretti.
It brought to mind the idle comment my wife once made about my "loping stride." When I run I like to see myself as a tired but steady participant in the 1972 Olympics, maybe David Whottle. A steady pace and focus in finishing, but a stride that never varied. Loping? I had to look it up. A steady, easy gait. Was that me? Was that a compliment? It got into my head and wouldn't leave. Now I find myself wondering if I am loping around the neighborhood, and I wish for something that sounds just a tad more dignified.
But that's not really what I am. I'm not a full-time athlete. I'm a teacher, dad, husband. I don't examine my technique. I can only imagine it when I get the chance. I don't have to feel bad about my style as long as I am making the effort. But one thing is certain, my fantasy football skills are crazy mad.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


I remember once when we were up at our mountain cabin, my family encountered strangers walking through the woods. We were immediately suspicious, since we were not used to running into anyone as we strolled about our property. What were they doing there? What did they want?
"You re here to steal from our garden," my brother cried. We had a fine crop of lettuce that had just grown big enough to harvest.
"You probably smelled the cookies my mom was baking," I said with a raised eyebrow.
They began to stammer and protest. We didn't listen. Of course they would deny the actual purpose of their interloping. They must be there for some nefarious purpose.
We set on them and took them, struggling, back to the cabin where we shoved them into a curtained area between the two bedrooms: the spot where our chemical toilet used to be. Then we began our deliberations. How best to deal with trespassers?
Outside, we began to hear cries and calls. Someone was looking for these "hikers." I went out on the porch and shouted into the coming darkness that we had found spies wandering in our territory and we would let everyone know when we were finished dealing with them. Even as the shouts became louder and more intense, we held our ground and guarded our organic garden. We would not be rushed to judgement.
Wait a second. That wasn't me. Or my family. That was Iran.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New! Improved!

Good old science. Just when you're ready to call it a day, science shows up with a new idea. Though it would be tempting to cite the existence of the first commercially available jet pack, I science wants us to aim higher. A lot higher.
More than fifty new alien planets, including one so-called "super-Earth" that could potentially support life, have been discovered by an exoplanet-hunting telescope from the European Southern Observatory. Exoplanets! Planets that could support life. One in particular, called HD 85512 b, has captured astronomers' attention because it orbits at the edge of its star's habitable zone, suggesting conditions could be ripe to support life. Support life!
That's a whole lot better than the rock we currently inhabit. The air is dirty. The oceans are foul. The forests refuse to grow back at a rate that we can comfortably harvest them. And don't get me started on endangered species. Why not start fresh? Isn't it about time to latch on to some of that Star Trek ethos and start boldly going where no man, woman or Vulcan has gone before?
First of all, we'll have to find a better name than HD 84412 b. It sounds like a big screen TV. "Terra Nova" and "Earth II" have already been taken. Since marketing is everything, I suggest we use some of that science speak and call it "Super Earth." It would be all fresh, and clean. Unsullied by the war and disease and pollution that is currently plaguing our little blue sphere. We could start all over. And this time we promise to get it right. Starting with jet packs for everyone.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Realty Reality

"There are good neighborhoods and bad in Oakland," our real estate agent told us as we drove around town, looking at houses to buy. "You can go down one street and feel completely safe, while just around the corner, you might be thinking 'uh-oh.'" And so it went as we went from one side of the city to the other. We began to understand this feeling as we continued out tour. We understand it even more fully fourteen years after we bought that house.
Across the street from the park where the urban spray paint and candle shrine still rises out of the sidewalk once or twice a year to Edgar, an upstairs apartment burned early Sunday morning. I was out on my morning run when I came across the crime scene tape. I stopped to ask the officer who was standing next to his cruiser if anyone was hurt. "We're not sure yet," he replied.
I went home to check on Al Gore's Internet. The tenant who was renting the apartment was in jail, so it couldn't have been him, but there were two bodies found inside. Signs pointed to the pair being left for dead after the fire was started. Witnesses saw someone leaving the building with gas cans. Firefighters suggested that the victims may have suffered trauma before the fire was set. An investigation is underway.
Meanwhile, around the corner, life continues. Down the hill from where the gunmen holed up in his apartment. A few blocks away from where the shoot out with the DEA agents took place. Just a little further down the road from where the kid ran past me shooting at a passing pickup truck. In the town where the homicide rate clicks on up toward eighty for the year. There are good neighborhoods and bad in Oakland.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


The morning of September 11, this year, I opened the door and let our dog out. After that, I walked outside and put our flag up. When I cam back in, I went into the kitchen where I found an armored robot with a long-barreled ray gun and a heavily armed air transport vehicle on the table. They had been left there by my son the night before. It was not a response to anything in particular. It's what he builds with Legos.
My wife and I have wondered how we could have encouraged such a wide streak of interest in guns and ammo. It is true that my wife did buy my son a squirt gun after much soul searching and debate between us. We found ourselves tumbling down a slippery slope as his young imagination became attached to Nerf guns and the armed struggles of robots throughout the universe. In a household that regularly discussed the evils of war and the challenge of peace in our time, we could not understand the way our son gravitated to things that go boom.
I started to understand when I stood there in my kitchen on 9/11. My son has grown up in a world that explodes. It's part of the way he sees things. Those block towers he made in his bedroom would eventually come tumbling down. The response to terror is fear and anger. It's not what we have taught him, and it's not what he understands outwardly, but inside it's a scary place. He has grown up in a time that calls to arms. If you were to ask him, he would tell you that he is a pacifist, but just outside his front door is a world at war. It's got to be a comfort to him to know that if it ever makes it inside we've got the mechanized robot infantry to deal with it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


The first thing I think of when I read "Irreconcilable Differences" is the movie starring Ryan O'Neal and Shelly Long. It also reminds me of the nascent talents of a post-E.T. Drew Barrymore. And it makes me think of how easy marriage used to look to me. Hollywood has a way of doing that: simplifying the an incredibly complex situation or process and turning it into easily understood and digested pablum. If you don't love your spouse anymore, you throw some clothes in a suitcase and storm out. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, you'll come to realize that you've made a mistake and you have to find some way to win your way back into home you just left.
That's in Hollywood. Most of the time, in other towns, it takes a little longer than an hour and a half. Sometimes years. And if you leave, there is no guarantee that you'll be welcomed tearfully back at any point. You might just keep on going. Or you might change your mind and find out that your spot at the dinner table has already been taken by somebody else. That's what divorce statistics would suggest. Those who choose to stick it out are in the minority. Learning to deal with those differences, like who balances the check book or how much TV is the right amount, is the challenge. Who unloads the dishwasher is reconcilable.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Oh, Professional Football. I can't stay mad at you. All your off-season struggles and arguing over millions of dollars while I struggle to keep pace with the price of cable TV to watch your shenanigans, I just can't stay away. You show up with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees slinging the ball all over the field. Seventy-six points? How much more patriotic could it get? The world is a safer place when the National Football League is playing.
Of course I feel a little bit of shame about forgiving you so quickly. I know that there are plenty of things I could be doing on Sunday afternoons in the Fall. I could be taking a hike in the hills, watching the leaves turn in the annual symphony of color. I could be in the back yard, helping my son construct the Zombie Crisis Shelter he's been planning all summer. I could be volunteering at the local food bank. Except those activities might take me too far away from the nearest monitoring device. I need my updates. Even if I don't watch the whole game, I need to know how the day is transpiring. Will this finally be the year the Texans break into the playoffs? Are the Cowboys still America's team? Will Peyton Manning's surgery affect his ability to be a crazy fun commercial pitchman?
These are all questions that will answered over the next few months. And try as I might to avert my eyes when I hear that siren's call: "Da da DAT DAH," I find myself sitting in a Pavlovian stupor. What lockout? What hundred million dollar contract? I don't care. It's a double-header Monday Night. (unintelligible grunting sounds)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Burnin' Down The Road

Mostly I remember the confusion. I was at work, and that meant that I caught bits and pieces of the news between the times that teachers brought kids to my class. I was also one of the few rooms where the television was fully functioning, so I had a steady string of parents and teachers appearing at my door with expectant eyes.
"The second tower fell," I told them because I had seen it. It was mixed in with the flurry of taped images of planes flying into the first tower, then the second. The first tower fell while I was on my way to work, even though I wasn't sure that we would have school that day. We did. Kids knew that the grown-ups were distracted and nervous, but they were never sure exactly why. In those first hours, none of us were sure if we were witnessing the end of the world.
Like the rest of the country, I fought the urge to stare at the television, watching the same video over and over. Sometimes a new angle would be added as amateur footage got into the mix. And all the while, in the back of my mind, I kept assuring myself that my family and I were safe. My brother and his family had been ready to fly off to Europe that day. That trip was postponed along with every other flight for days afterward. That sound, or lack of it, is what sticks with me today. There were no planes in the sky. None.
And in the years since I have heard stories from friends and acquaintances who were steps closer to the event. When I visited New York City with my family for my fortieth birthday, I tried to cajole my buddy who works in Manhattan to takes us down to Ground Zero. It felt, at the time, like something we should do. As it turns out, he wasn't at all interested in sharing this moment with us. Instead, he offered us a ferry ride out to the Statue of Liberty. It was a sunny day, and our kids busied themselves by going up and down the stairs from the top deck to the bottom, more concerned with the architecture of the boat than the sights we had set sail to see. I recall coming up one side of Liberty Island, looking up at that monument to freedom. Then I looked back to the shore and saw the hole in the ground. My buddy had friends who died that day. They worked in the towers. He watched it come down. Not from across the country, but down the street. He remembers that day differently.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Question Authority

I'm a big fan of Green Day. I have a lot of respect for the way that they have risen from the streets of Oakland and hit the big time. They paid their dues, and they are now reaping the benefits of a career that now spans three decades. Who would have guessed that these grungy twits would have found themselves on the Great White Way, auteurs of a rock opera and rubbing shoulders with rock and roll's elite? I suspect it's pretty tough to stay a punk.
These were the thoughts I had when I read the article about Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong being kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for wearing his pants too low. To be more precise, he was escorted off the plane for not complying with flight attendants' request to pull said pants up. "Don't you have something better to do?" Was his response. This sounds pretty punk, but since I fly Southwest on a somewhat frequent basis, I wonder why a millionaire several times over is flying commercial on the short hop from Oakland to Burbank. Perhaps because Virgin Atlantic has yet to add the Oakland/Burbank flight to its schedule. I've heard that Richard Branson is totally down with wearing your pants any way you'd like. Or not wearing pants at all.
It reminds me of the dust-up Kevin Smith had with this same airline. He kept his pants on, but was asked to buy an extra seat because he was too big to fit in one. He claimed to be embarrassed by the incident, but took to Twitter and anywhere else that would listen to his story to share it. Now, more than a year later, he suggests that he has Southwest to thank for his idea of spreading word of his new film, "Red State" via cross-country bus tour. It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that no major studio wanted to distribute his religious horror film, would it? A major studio that would fly him on a chartered jet with ample room to settle in and relax from a hard day's press junket?
Kevin Smith, director of "Clerks" = punk. Kevin Smith, director of "Cop Out" = sell out.
Billie Joe Armstrong, composer of "American Idiot" = punk librettist. Billie Joe Armstrong, disgruntled airline passenger = needs a belt.

Friday, September 09, 2011


I had a hard time sleeping last week. Something about being locked up in an elementary school while men with guns roamed the neighborhood kept me agitated and awake. While the experience was not that different in process from a rainy day recess, it was still a difficult way to start the year. Teachers I work with reported feeling the same way for the rest of the week. The anxiety that already exists at the beginning of any school year was magnified exponentially by putting us all in the most extreme conditions without the benefit of a fire drill to prepare us. Happily, all the staff and kids made their way back the very next day, and those who didn't make it until the third day of school now feel somehow cheated, having missed all the excitement.
And somewhere in there, the news came down that our little school in East Oakland had just become a "good school." At least that's what our Academic Performance Index tells us. We finally scored above eight hundred, and we can now say with certitude that we work at a "good school." At the end of that long week, a number of us went out to a local pub and celebrated the beginning of another school year. It's one of the things that makes it possible for us to do the things we do. I hoisted a couple of root beers to the potential that exists at the start of any new enterprise, and welcomed the challenges. I toasted the somewhat arbitrary eight hundred and two points in our API, and wondered aloud if we could continue the slow climb toward that illusory moment when all our kids are above average, just like Lake Wobegon.
This question was quickly shouted down as I realized that the next day was really the thing that mattered, and the next year would take care of itself. It was the end of another week. A very long week indeed.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

My Jobs Program

There are still a lot of people in our country that don't have jobs. I know this because the fully-employed folks on the evening news told me so. Armed with this insight, I have some suggestions about where all of these unemployed folks should go to get jobs. First of all, they really ought to check out the Subway shop up the street from me. Seriously. I think they have a sign in their window most every week saying,"Help Wanted." I'm not sure what they're doing with the people who keep showing up there to make sandwiches, but they are in dire need of replacement on a regular basis. Maybe it's all part of that foot-long Soylent Green promotion.
Once the vacancy at the local sandwich shop is filled, there are still a few people left in that ol' unemployment line, so I will remind everyone about how much you hate waiting for your tall half-skinny half-one percent extra hot split quad shot (two shots decaf, two shots regular) latte with whip. All those guys waiting to pick up their unemployment benefits might as well be wasting their time. You've got a game of minesweeper waiting for you back at your cubicle, after all. And speaking of that, if you're lucky enough to live in one of those municipalities where you can file your claim via Al Gore's Internet, why not have those folks spend their extra time pointing and clicking as part of a national shop at home for somebody else campaign?
It wasn't that long ago that the land of the free and the home of the brave was also the land of opportunity. The wretched masses, who yearned to breathe free, came to these shores looking for work. They built railroads and dams and cubicles where you could play minesweeper. And once all those cubicles were built, they were exported to other countries where it was a shorter commute for the wretched masses to get to those jobs. Now we Americans must do the thing that we are know for: make things up. There are still thousands of openings in the field of hubcap stenciling. This is also true for ShamWow testers. Remember, you can't spell "ingenuity" without using most of "genius." Except for the "s." Get to work, America!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


As I stood in the garage, beating the bag that had never done anything but hang there, I sang along with the voices in my head. At this moment, they happened to be REM, and they sounded like "Cuyahoga." I put it in my iPod for the chorus, and the fact that I like to sing along. It was that moment in the garage that let me know that I may have made a slight miscalculation. I had only recently added a brace to between the roof and the rafters, having the effect of dampening the thunder I was creating by punching the heavy bag. This new, relative silence gave me the opportunity to experience my voice amid the sounds around me. It was disconcerting.
I don't claim to have a great voice or perfect pitch, but I feel confident in situations where I am asked to carry a tune. I understand the principles of harmony and melody, having once been taught voice by my piano teacher. After a few weeks of singing scales and checking my pitch against the tones on the piano, I became familiar with what it took to sound like I knew what I was doing. To a degree.
As I grew older, I knew that I was better off listening to some tunes, waiting for something in my range. The songs I would pick were those that felt comfortable. Later these songs became my playlist. Not that I run around Oakland, warbling as I go. It's those voices in my head. But when you've got headphones on, sometimes those voices leak out, and I become intensely aware of the difference between my voice and those generated in a recording studio, after multiple takes and years of training.
When I was in high school, I never took a shower without my stereo blasting away in my bedroom. There was no chance for me to be heard over the roar. When I moved into a dorm, and then a series of apartments, it became clear that sharing my music tastes at such a reckless volume would not be encouraged, or in some cases, allowed. On those rare occasions when my family is gone for the day and I revert to my teen aged habits, I find myself hollering along, just like the old days. But mostly such behavior is reserved for those rare occasions when I find myself in the crowd at a rock show. Even then, I have become more self-conscious, after I looked over at my son at one particular Bruce Springsteen show and he was rolling his eyes. "What's the matter?" I asked him, above the din. "You're the only one singing every song."
And so I have learned to keep my music to myself. Every once in a while in the car, I get away with a song or two, but mostly I've got my ear buds in, with the music bouncing around the inside of my head. And every so often, a song will find its way out. Much to the dismay of my son and record producers everywhere.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Spy Kids

I read an article on Al Gore's Internet the other day that offered tips to parents about when it's okay to spy on your kids. Check their e-mail. Read their texts. Look in on their Facebook posts. I will admit that all of these things occurred to me before I read the article, but I've never been fully able to do any of those things. Oh, I've peeked over his shoulder from time to time, and I've asked enough questions to make him roll his eyes, but that's not what I was wondering about. What I really wanted to know was: When is it okay to have your child followed?
Not that I'm terrifically worried about the things my son is getting himself into, but his world did just expand in a profound way. His mother has walked with him to each of the last ten plus years' first day of school. This year, she walked him up to the bus stop. The bus came. He got on, and he was gone. He's halfway across town, doing those things that freshman do in their first week of high school. He's got his friends. He's got his schedule. He's got his life. His mom and I catch up at dinner time.
It's not that different from middle school, but we feel it. It's only been a week, and I've already heard the phrase, "I don't want to talk about it" three times. We're used to hearing everything. Last year we got exasperated updates about the girls in his life. Now we've been relegated to a "need-to-know" basis. He has friends who can carry his confidences. He has four or five different devices to establish communication with his peers. Not that he would use our land line to accept any calls, but every so often one sneaks through. If I wanted to know, I could always check caller ID. There's nothing too nefarious going on. Getting his PE locker, finding his classes, negotiating the minefields of teen romance.
Check that. Maybe it's not too late to hire a private investigator.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Saga Continues

One of the fourth grade teachers at my school and I have a new favorite student. We know that we're not supposed to have favorites, but this kid said, when asked, that his favorite movie was "Howard the Duck." However misguided this opinion may or may not be, there is no argument about how profound it is to have a ten-year-old expressing it. "Howard" is twenty-five years old, and the comic book from whence it was adapted goes back more than another decade. The fact that this kid is mining the depths of pop culture from the past century is heartening, giving me hope that I won't eventually live long enough to see Justin Bieber run for president.
In my own home, I am always pleased when bits of my own media past surface long enough for my son to gobble them up: AC/DC, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Otter Pops. The last thing in the world I would want is for him to grow up in a vacuum, immersed in only those things that his parents thought were cool back when they thought things were cool. I am happy for every new song or podcast that my son drags in front of me. Sometimes I feign indifference, since I can't imagine a world where a video series where smart-alecks put new dialogue on video game footage. Who laughs at this stuff?
There is, however, some common ground for all of us. George Lucas, the producer behind "Howard the Duck" and the of "Radioland Murders," wants yet another swing at the fences with his Blu-Ray version of the Star Wars saga. In keeping with his tradition of keeping up with the latest trends, he would like us all to know just how truly remorseful Darth Vader (spoiler alert!) was about giving his son, Luke, up to the evil emperor. Way back in the twentieth century, I was able to infer that a dramatic pause that occurs just before he grabs the emperor and throws him down a tube and into space is that moment of recognition. Now George has gone back and added a bit of dialogue that should fix everything. None of that subtlety for us. We would like it explained. Instead of blaming George Lucas, maybe I should be looking at Rooster Teeth.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Where's The Beef?

A friend of mine, who once wrote a very compelling blog himself, suggested to me that a good day doesn't do much to spur one's creativity. His feeling was, "Bad day, good blog." Those weren't his exact words, but they have been tempered over the years to make an easily digestible aphorism. Something that looks good on a bumper sticker. The events of the past week, specifically the lockdown of the elementary school at which I work, got me thinking about the way I choose my topics. It made me think about Jay Leno.
Okay, I haven't watched Mister Leno host the "Tonight Show" for longer than the few seconds it takes my tired brain to register that I am watching it, shriek, and change the channel. I'm not talking about the peevish pet of the National Broadcasting Corporation. I'm talking about the stand-up comic who appeared in "American Hot Wax," and "Americathon." I'm talking about the guy who used to show up on David Letterman's show back in the early 1980's. The guy who had an axe to grind. The guy who had a beef. He complained about TV Guide, about bad science fiction movies, about bad jobs: whatever was on his mind. And he was always pretty funny. Somewhere along the track, he sanded down most of those rough edges and became the very popular host of a late-night talk show that I will not watch.
It would seem I have a beef with Jay Leno. And that's the magic of having this bully pulpit. I'm not angling for anybody else's job. I don't expect that if I keep cranking on my particular bent that I will eventually get my own sit-com. I know that being myself can sometimes lead to unhappy readers. I can live with that. I know that the list of things that I like is probably longer than that that I don't, but I know that those topics don't lead to the same kind of catharsis. Still, those happy bits are sprinkled about amongst the complaints and sneers. Just don't get too used to them. Another bad day is just around the corner.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Acceptable Losses

Sixty billion dollars. That's a lot of them. It's the amount that the Commission On Wartime Contracting, or COWC, belied has been lost to lax oversight of contractors, poor planning, and just plain old corruption over the past ten years. That figure is expected to grow as reconstruction trail off and the cost of maintaining schools, roads and medical facilities continue. The commission said that contracting waste in Afghanistan accounted for about ten percent of the two hundred and six billion dollar total spent there, and that another five to nine percent of that total was straight up fraud.
What to do? They suggest creating a new position: Inspector General in charge of monitoring contracting. And another senior government official to improve planning and coordination. If you're like me, you probably assume that the salaries for these two positions will come in somewhere below the sixty billion dollar mark over a ten year period.
To flip this equation briefly on its head, the cost of the war over the past ten years, excuse me wars has ticked up past a trillion dollars. Suddenly we're talking about deficit type numbers. Saving any part of this wad of cash would start pushing some of that red ink back into the black. The idea that we could start spending money on our own roads, schools and medical facilities is just one way that we could turn this thing around. Jobs could be created right here at home with that sixty billion dollars. But I'm no expert. I keep thinking that number sounds familiar.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Maslow's Hierarchy

When I tell the story in the future, maybe even as soon as next year, I will tell it as though it all happened on the first day of school. The first day of school would be an awful day for kids to have to live through a lockdown. Nobody comes in or out. Parents are kept out until we are sure that we can release their children safely. And they have to show up with an ID. Small groups of children are walked to the bathroom. Lunch is eaten in the classroom. The hallways are empty. The windows are kept closed. The blinds are drawn. The heat is sweltering.
That would be a horrible way to spend the first day of school. Thank heavens the bad guys waited until the second day of school to hole up just two doors down with a heavily armed SWAT contingent just outside our school. From ten in the morning until after four in the afternoon. When it became apparent that the standoff could continue longer than the standard school day, we called parents to come down and pick up their kids, but because of volatile gunfire related concerns, we couldn't just bring the kids outside to wait for them. In groups of two or three, we slowly brought them up and out into the anxious waiting arms of their caregivers. Then there would be another shift in the tension level, and the police would ask us to stop sending kids out. And so we waited. And waited. Teachers used their best rainy day activities and students were extraordinarily patient as the hours ticked by. Parents grew more and more nervous and frustrated as they waited just outside the danger zone.
People have asked me if I was scared. I can honestly say that I wasn't, at least for myself. Being concerned for the kids I have been entrusted with was my core anxiety. That and boredom. It was hot and monotonous, and those rooms seemed to shrink as the day wore on. I thought about those poor Kindergartners who got to spend their second day of public education locked in a room with strangers. When it was all over, I wanted my mom, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for a five-year-old. Half the time they had been in school was spent under lock and key. Those parents who had such a hard time saying goodbye to their babies will no doubt cling to them just a little bit more in the coming days. Maybe that's the good news.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Gaffe City

I'm not a big fan of the idea that death and destruction is "all part of God's plan." Earthquakes, disease, famine, not really on the Supreme Being's "To Do" list. The Flying Spaghetti Monster does not communicate directly to me, but perhaps his noodly appendages are long enough to contact Michele Bachmann.
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?"' Of course, we are reminded, she said these things in jest. Kind of like when Pat "God's Little Elf" Robertson announced that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for legalized abortion. ROFL indeed.
This is a lady who previously revealed that while serving as a state senator, she asked God for guidance "and just through prayer I knew that I was to introduce the marriage amendment in Minnesota" that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. She also has said that God gave her and her husband visions of marrying one another prior to their first meeting, and that God called her to run for Congress. All of these comments were made, we assume, in jest. Like her humorous mix-up of John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy. And there's the amusing tale of how she wished Elvis Presley a Happy Birthday on the anniversary of his death.
Am I picking on Michele? Probably. But it's all part of God's plan.