Monday, April 30, 2012

Physics Explained

I hope that whoever first postulated that "time flies when you're having fun" won a Nobel Prize or two for that idea. Probably one for Physics and one for Philosophy, though I believe that they call it "Literature" just to keep everyone honest. Try and imagine a moment in which you were having fun, and then contrast it with one in which you were not. Maybe this is a very special kind of relativity, and we should be congratulating Albert Einstein for yet another bit of oppressive cleverness.
There are all kinds of tests for this theorem. Anytime you find yourself in a line, you know that there are seconds wedged into each minute spent there, watching the front that line expand as your position remains unchanged. This feeling is exacerbated by the relative unpleasantness of the line in which you find yourself. The line at the bank is somewhat interminable, but that same line in the Department of Motor Vehicles is tantamount to eternity. At least at the bank there is the possibility of getting cash money at the end. Or maybe the place will get robbed. Even criminals avoid the DMV.
I know that certain days stretch on for weeks, while others are gone in a heartbeat. I understand that this is all due to my own perception. When I have a day filled with happy kindergartners who hang on my every word, the day is over before it started. If I am confronted by a room full of surly fourth graders who lost their recess, I know that I will be in for a long one. And so it goes, until we find a way to even it out. I only hope that reading this took you only a few seconds.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Before I became a teacher, I had to interview for the job. To ease my OCD tendencies, I logged on to a very early form of Al Gore's Internet and searched for the school at which I hoped to become part of the staff: Horace Mann. At least that's what I put into the search box. When I was rewarded with several thousand responses, I realized that I had failed the first rule of web searches: narrow. Of course, at the time I was unaware that Horace Mann was the father of public education, as well as the namesake of at least one institutional learning facility in every major metropolitan area in these United States. I wanted the one in Oakland. Not the county in Michigan. The city in California.
Once that was all settled and clear, I was able to make my way without incident to the interview where, after fifteen years, I believe that it must have been some sort of success. Over the course of those years I have become increasingly involved with the inner workings of the school, from committee work to serving as the webmaster for our school's web page. That means that I try and keep the information on our site relatively current, provide links to educational resources for teachers, parents and kids, and on occasion answer an e-mail that lands in our in-box. Usually these are former students who discover us after a year or twenty or more and want to share their memories with us.
That's what I thought I was opening when I started my day with a check of the mail. It came from a very upset professional type who asserted that all the teachers and administrators should be let go for the treatment of one particular child. I was surprised by the angry tone, mostly because I had no knowledge of any incidents outside of our usual playground frustrations. Happily these days, we deal primarily in hurt feelings and bruised egos. I didn't think much of it until later in the day I received two more angry messages from the interwebs, and then another just after lunch. One of them made reference to New Jersey, and suddenly the door opened wide: They wanted the Horace Mann in Cherry Hill. That's where a pair of teachers had recently been fired for verbally abusing an autistic child. I did my best to try and reroute the frustrations of the concerned citizens wishing to vent their feelings on this matter, but since most of them used pretend e-mail accounts, there was no way to get their concerns to the right place. For those I was able to send along, I let them know that as an educator and a parent, I shared their outrage.
I also hope that they will be more specific in their use of Google from now on.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Growing Up

That kid at the end of the table, the one that doesn't say much? It 's his birthday today. Of course you all know him now by several other epithets. Foo, Dan, Waela, maybe even Mister Caven. It depends a lot on your proximity, I suspect. I've been half a continent away for part of our lives, and sat on top of him for other more intimate gatherings. I suppose the fact that he lives about twenty-five minutes away at this point about averages out that equation.
He's out there right now. I can feel him reading this, or so I like to believe. He is the person who has told me straight up that he tends to skim over whatever it is I have to say, but reads with great interest when he sees himself reflected in the words here on this page. It's that kind of honesty that makes me appreciate him all the more as a reader. Sometimes it almost makes me feel bad about all those times I used him for traction as I raced to dinner up the stairs at my parents' house. Almost.
He's describing a syndrome I know very well. When spinning tales around the living room in our youth, we used to try and force our parents to tell us stories about "the olden days." We would sit still for tales of their youth, but what we were really after were the fables generated from our own misspent youth. It gave us a sense of belonging to that bigger fabric of our family. We were part of the continuum.
To that end, I will always mark my younger brother's birthday with the anniversary of the day which we moved into our new house, now fifteen years ago. That mild proximity we happen to share worked in our favor as my wife and I called him across the bay to help us lift and carry everything we owned. And he came willingly. With a smile on his face, he moved lamps and furniture and boxes and appliances up the stairs and through our new front door. That smile was still there when we finished. As payment, we gave him first pick of the pizza we bought for the rest of our helpers. At the very least, he deserved his very own pie.
And now, a decade and a half later, I still wince in anticipation of the day when he decides to move to his own palatial estate. Up a couple flights of stairs.
Happy Birthday, Dan.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kodak Moment

There was a package for a Kodak disposable camera flattened in the street. It reminded me of all the bright yellow and red trash that I had generated in the years that I used film. Before digital photography. Before video. These days, most people carry a machine in their pocket that is a notch smaller than most of the disposable cameras you could find in abundance at your local drug store just a few years back. And those same machines do all the processing you need to see the pictures you take instantaneously. Those bulky photo albums now live on a cloud somewhere in Iceland. And don't get me started about having to set up a screen and a projector to show you my slides or home movies. Just push a button on your phone.
There have been plenty of corporations that have wilted and died on the vine of our new economy. I haven't shed a tear for them, but I have a soft spot for Kodak. Maybe it was my dad's camera that switched over time from being a recorder of his sons' passage through life to nature journalist. It could be my mother's Brownie that took pictures of every living soul that made their way up the path to our mountain cabin. It could be the time my older brother spent as yearbook photographer for his junior high. It might even possibly have some tangential connection to all those lovely pictures that Linda Eastman took with the Beatles.
It gave me pause, as I thought about all those cell phones making their way through the intense security to get into see Bruce Springsteen. No professional photography or recording devices allowed. That's okay, we'll leave the fancy stuff to the professionals. We just want a few snapshots to remind us of the night. Maybe a quick snippet of video to remind us of the encore. Even those pioneer moments as inventors of digital photography couldn't save the big yellow and red beast. Goodnight, Kodak. Sleep well.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

La Triviata

When I was a freshman in college, I was asked by one of my instructors to keep a journal as part of the requirements for my "American Renaissance" course. There was no requirement as to the content of this journal, and so I enjoyed myself immensely for the duration of this class, making sly comments and ruminations on the way my life was shaping up at that point. It was, in many ways, a proto-blog. One of the entries I remember best was my awestruck revelation of the lyrics to the nonsense song, "Mairzy Doats." I wrote: "I've just discovered that those words are 'mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.' How could I have lived this long and just discovered that these were the actual words to that song?" My professor read our journals on a fairly infrequent basis, just to see that we were meeting the mild goal of writing a page a week, which I managed to do daily. In the margin of my comments about "Mairzy Doats" he wrote in red pen: "My God - I'm seventy-two years old and I never knew that before."
Such is the nature of a liberal arts education. Fast forward to this past weekend, as my son was prattling on about how Disney had fabricated the whole "lemmings run to the sea" thing. This absurd function of nature has been a source of fascination for me, and has become a central metaphor for many of my philosophical rants. Political rants. Emotional rants. Lemmings rushing forward to their imminent demise. I confess that my initial response to my son's assertion was doubt, since he has also made Internet-based claims on the existence of a United Nations ban on stealth helicopters, among other big ideas garnered from the pages of Wikipedia. So I turned on our Internets, in hope of finding some sort of corroboration. As it turns out, there is plenty of it. I have lived my life to this point oblivious to the ruse that the Disney film "White Wilderness" played on the world's understanding of lemmings. Why shouldn't I trust a film that is part of the "True Life Adventure" series? Well, it turns out that those scenes showing those short-tailed voles committing mass suicide were faked. You can just rock me to sleep tonight. Disney? Manipulators of truth?
And so I am stuck with the flurry of images this experience provides: Mares and does may eat oats and little lambs may eat ivy, but it is the human who runs pell-mell to the brink of destruction to reach the keyboard that will provide them with the answers to the world's great questions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Through A Glass Darkly

In my science fiction story, things changed on the evening of September 11, 2001. When the United States Congress stood as one on the steps of the Capitol, singing "God Bless America," a new sense of unity was instilled among the leaders of our great land, from sea to shining sea. That's when a new set of national priorities emerged: compassionate conservatism, without the stigma attached to either term. We could take care of our own people and use the terrorist attacks as a wake-up call for our foreign policies and involvements. That's the science part. The fiction comes in when we look at how far away from that ideal we have moved since that dark day.
I thought of this as I looked over Mitt "German for With" Romney's proposed spending plan for when he becomes president. Right at the top, he says that "we have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in." I get the idea, but "moral responsibility?" Fiscal responsibility? Sure. And how is cutting funds for public health care while increasing military spending "moral?" On the flip side, do I believe that raising the tax rate on billionaires will suddenly bring a rush of cash into our coffers and solve our leaky deficit problem? Am I even exactly sure what a coffer is? It's my party that wants to cut farm subsidies and funding for NASA. At least we get to keep public broadcasting to complain about it.
And so the seesaw madness continues. The art of compromise is not to be entered into lightly. It takes time and consideration, but rarely provides clever sound bites or bumper sticker slogans. The idea that there is a right way or a wrong way to make this country run is fundamentally wrong in itself. Sure, we've bounced off the guard rails a few times over the past two hundred and fifty years, but mostly we've kept it between the lines. When we have landed in a ditch, we've found ways to turn things around and get it back on the road. The United States has a pretty impressive track record in spite of all the rhetoric you might hear from this side or that at any given time.
Over the next few months, we're going to get blasted with plenty of that "our way" and "their way." But it doesn't have to be that way. We could all pull together and figure out the best solutions to the problems that ail us. There may not be a right or wrong way, but there is a best way to do things. It's not the Democratic Way or the Republican Way. It's the American Way. Cue the patriotic music.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Free For All

I paid to see Ted Nugent once. The Motor City Madman was part of a very heavy bill that included Richie Blackmore's Rainbow and the Scorpions, and somewhat improbably headlined by REO Speedwagon. Generally speaking, my music tastes in the eighties ran more to the New Wave side of things, while it was my roommate Darren who held down the hard rock corner. Still, it was an opportunity to hear such nuggets as "Great White Buffalo" and "Cat Scratch Fever" live and in person, so off we trotted in search of a head-banging good time.
Turns out, I really enjoyed Ted's show. He was the quintessential arena rocker, and everything he did was big and loud. It was 1984 and he was just the right level of cartoon-machismo to drop on top of my late-summer college-drunk-haze. It never occurred to me that he might grow up to be a political force of any kind. Maybe it was the rum we stirred into our stadium Cokes, or the housewarming party we had survived the night before, but I don't recall any calls from the stage back then to do anything but keep on rockin'. There was no mention of Walter Mondale or Ronald Reagan.
Times have changed. Ted Nugent recently added to his ultra-conservative reputation by suggesting "We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November," in reference to the Obama administration and the upcoming campaign with Mitt "En" Romney as his preferred candidate. He made this comment at an NRA convention, so the metaphor seemed appropriate to the occasion, if not just a little over the top. After meeting with Secret Service agents, the matter of threatening the President was put quickly put to rest. "Metaphors needn't be explained to educated people," he said.
Educated people don't need to have Ted's exhortations from four years ago any more than they would need a lyric sheet to examine the lyric subtlety of "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." Educated people are probably looking for something just a little more thoughtful from their pundits, right or left. This guy kills grizzly bears after all, he doesn't use them as metaphor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Who Run Bartertown?

This is the question that Auntie Entity asks while trying to enlist the help of the raggedy man, the artist formerly known as Mad Max. In a world that includes the concept of Thunderdome, in which two men enter and one man leaves, control is a very big issue. This may have something to do with all of Mel Gibson's subsequent problems with authority, but it also says a lot about our larger societal issues with those who run things.
A couple weeks ago, I was awakened to the bottom line of my cable television bill. Along with access to the Internet and phone privileges, I was paying nearly two hundred dollars to watch TV. At first blush, this seemed about right to me. I love my TV. I watch a lot of TV. I am exactly the target for those campaigns that want to get me more choices to watch more TV. And I want them in high definition.
Then I thought about it a little more. On that same TV that I have been watching so tenaciously for all these years, I have been witness to the low introductory rates offered by the very same company that is providing me with all of these choices, including hundreds of channels that I haven't ever had a chance to look at. Yet. But why should these new customers, who apparently just fell off the video turnip truck, be offered a discount? I have been sending a monthly check to Comcast, now Xfinity, for most of my adult life. Right after the electricity that I need to run my TV machine, I make sure that our connection to the world that includes three different permutations of the NFL Network is not severed. I called the friendly folks at Xfinity, to find out.
Initially, my question was shunted to the billing department. Crystal was unable to sort out just why my bill would be three times higher than that of someone who just got it into their head to sign up for this "cable TV." Something about the tone of my voice and my persistence made Crystal pass me on to the sales department. Clifford told me that he was happy to listen to my inquiries and promised to help sort out my confusion.
"Why is it that when I call your eight-hundred number, I get a droid voice congratulating me on being an Xfinity insider, then I wait on hold while more recorded voices encourage me to try and manage my account online?"
Clifford was a pro, and wasn't rattled by my snarky tone. He opened up my account and checked to make sure that I was, in fact getting those services for which I was paying. Then he did an interesting thing: He offered me more choices in my cable lineup. My Xfinity Insider brain blanched at this quandary. Why would I want more when I am already paying too much? Clifford explained that he would be happy to get me a deal where I was paying less for even more channels, and a faster Internet connection. More for less? This is still America, right? You bet!
When I finished making the deal and hung up the phone, I felt a little tired and a bit soiled. With all that high definition video swimming around out there in the air currently, I still chose the secure plan that gave me a wire coming out of the wall, pumping all those movies and cooking shows into my bedroom and living room. Never mind that I will never have enough time to watch them all, I took absurd comfort in the thought that they are still there, some of them filling up disk space on my digital video recorder, waiting patiently for me to arrange my life to finally be able to watch them all. For a price. I got a deal.
Who run Kabletown? Clifford run Kabletown.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I Give Him An Eighty-Two

We all make choices as teenagers that we look back on with some regret. Forgive me. I never got a chance to watch Dick Clark when it wasn't ironic. Or perhaps I don't deserve forgiveness, since the sardonic layer through which I viewed Dick's career was a choice I made a very long time ago.
When I was the focused demographic for American Bandstand, there wasn't a lot of music going on. In many ways, the mid-to-late seventies were a desert through which we all traveled to be delivered on the other side by the Sex Pistols. I blame the bell bottoms. I have company in this assertion. Denis Leary agrees with me. All those flared-out pants on boys and girls just proved that their priorities were in the wrong place, and over all this ambivalence, Dick Clark held sway. Oh sure, some scary moments slipped in there, like DEVO. And Joey Travolta. I still couldn't help feeling that it was Mister Clark's intent to steadily lower the standards of America's listening pleasure via his Bandstand.
Then he started branching out. Twenty-five-thousand dollars was a pretty good Pyramid, but to get the level of double-entendre that would bring in a discerning viewer after a hard day at work, you'd have to give away a hundred thousand dollars. And excuse me if I feel that Ed McMahon was slumming it a bit when he left his drunken position on the end of Johnny Carson's couch to pal around with Dick on his Bloopers shows.
But for me, the biggest challenge came when Dick promised to rock our New Year's Eve. They didn't rock. They mostly sat there and chatted things up, while giving us one more shot of that crystal ball hanging precipitously over Times Square. When I watched Dick Clark, I wasn't expecting to be rocked. I was expecting to be annoyed.
Now that he's gone, I can salute the man's accomplishments. He rose to the top of an industry that has an attention span of an eight-year-old, and he stayed there, more or less, for sixty years. Not bad for a kid from Philly. I mean that sincerely. Aloha, Dick.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dream Machine

I remember the bumper I dragged back to our mountain cabin. I was as tall as it was long, back in those pre-teen days, and I had it in my head that it was going to be part of the car I would eventually build from parts that I found in ditches and on the shoulder of highways. By the time I was ready, I would have something to drive. As that summer passed, I kept my eyes open. I spotted a few tires, but they were obviously worn or blown, and therefore not useful to my purpose.
That great big hunk of steel stayed under the porch of the cabin for a decade or so, long after I had surrendered to the fates and purchased my own used car. My '72 Vega hatchback was never going to need a bumper, front or back, that weighed as much as the aluminum block engine that was under the hood. If I had been the kind of guy who had the notion to weld it to the front end, it probably would have rocked all the way over onto its front wheels, with the rear wheels spinning furiously to gain purchase.
I don't know what happened to that bumper. Nor do I have any real idea whatever became of that copper colored Vega. I expect they became part of the same crushed cube of debris that was my experience with motor vehicles back in the late twentieth century. Maybe, just maybe, some little scrap or part escaped being melted down and found its way to Michigan, where a twelve-year-old girl named Kathryn started collecting parts to help her rebuild a 1988 Pontiac Fiero. She spent the past four years getting ready for the day that she could drive that sweet machine herself. I checked the bumpers. They didn't look familiar. Maybe all those hubcaps my son has dragged home over the past few years will eventually turn into a Toyota Camry. Time will tell.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Eyes Have It

I still get all bunged up when the eye doctor asks me which one is better: "Number one? Number two?" I want to give the best answer, since I know that correcting my vision is the optimum result, but sometimes they look just about the same. The last time I was in the chair with the impossibly ornate vision-checking goggles lowered in front of my face via spring-loaded arm I decided to let this slip. "They look about the same."
There was a pause, then my doctor enthused, "Good!" And suddenly all that tension slipped away. It is related to the paranoid fear I have of dental guilt, the hygienist tsking at me for the plaque and tartar that creeps inside my mouth in spite of my concerted efforts to brush, floss and rinse it away. Brushing and flossing my retinas doesn't seem like a practical plan, but I do wear my glasses every day, and avoid eye strain by taking breaks from staring at screens on a regular basis. Still, I've got this wobbly left eye that will never be as clever as his partner on the right, so I do the best I can with what I've got.
And that's just how my optometrist made me feel. I felt like I was being coached instead of shamed. As I read each line, I could hear, "Nice! Nice! Good!" in the background. I could feel my self-esteem growing as I worked my way through the random sampling of letters of ever-diminishing size. I wanted to read that last line of tiny text, but at last they were simply a gray blur.
And as a bonus, as I worked my way through the various permutations of the alphabet in different sized fonts, there was a rambling conversation that covered topics from movies to John Denver to the Occupy movement. This one was different from the one-sided discussions that take place in the dentist's office, while my mouth is full of tools and someone else's hands and I am left with nods and grunts as my only viable responses. Sadly, my insurance plan wants me to see the dentist twice a year, but I only get to hang in the optometrist's office once a year. I guess it makes sense: thirty-two teeth and only two eyes. I guess that's what makes the experience so very special.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I suspect that the reason that the cafeteria at Centennial Junior High was so dimly lit was part of the energy-saving efforts that were so popular in the late nineteen-seventies. It gave me the feeling, at times, of being underwater. It's where I spent three years, waiting to come up for air. I've written before about my self-imposed torture of carrying a lunchbox for the entirety of my junior high career. A lunch box of my own careful design. It was the beacon that shined up out of that relative darkness to say, "I am unique. I am different."
I had no idea at the time just how hard life can be in junior high when you are different. Different in junior high is not good. It tends to get you noticed, and not in a good way. Part of me wanted to wear my specialness as a badge of honor. That part would be the spot on my shoulder that got nearly constant attention from the passing ruffians. Or maybe my ears that soaked in the taunting and verbal abuse. It made me want to shrink away, into a shadowy corner until it was time to return to the relative safety of the classroom.
Why didn't I tell anyone about my torment? These were the words that echoed in my head as I watched "Bully," the documentary that my wife correctly pointed out was mis-titled. It should have been called "Victim." I watched the kids in this movie and heard the grown-ups wondering the same thing about the ones who were subject to the same kinds of treatment I endured, and worse. Teachers and administrators who were well-intentioned but oblivious to the way kids treat each other. Especially the ones that are different.
It made me wish that I could lean in and tell each one of the subjects of the film, "It gets better. Life is not middle school. There are plenty of people out there waiting for a chance to be with you and share the world through your eyes. It won't always be this way." When I made it to high school and found a crew with whom I could hang, a band room where I could eat my lunch in peace, a group of friends, it got better. When I grew up and met people who thought it was cool that I carried a lunch box in junior high. It got better. I wish I would have known that when I was thirteen. Or maybe, somewhere I knew it, deep inside. And that's why I never bothered to tell anyone that I was being bullied. I knew it would get better. When I came up for air.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sympathy For The Devil

Each year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony allows participants and fans to wallow in the mess that is personal and professional politics. Will this band be able to get along together long enough to stand at the podium to accept their trophies and snap a few photos before sitting back down to their chicken cordon bleu. Led Zeppelin put together a good face, the surviving members anyway. Even John Fogerty left his lawyers at home that night back in 1993 when Creedence Clearwater Revival had their moment. The Beach Boys managed to put all their bad blood behind them and put on tuxedos even. It was Mike Love, of those same Boys of Beach, who said of Sir Paul McCartney, who missed his own 1988 induction because of litigation with the other Beatles: "It's sad that there are other people who aren't here tonight," he said. "People like Paul McCartney who couldn't be here because he's in a lawsuit with Ringo and Yoko. That's why he sent in a telegram to some high-priced attorney in the room."
Paul wasn't the only one to ever skip out on the honor of being celebrated. Roger Waters didn't want to sit at a table with the rest of Pink Floyd in 1996, much less share a stage with them. The Sex Pistols sent a scrawled note, declining their invitation to the Hall in 2006. So when Axl Rose decided to turn his down this year in a slightly more lucid letter to the powers-that-be, it wasn't earth shattering. It was actually kind of affirming. Slash and the rest of the guys showed up to jam and enjoy the aforementioned chicken. Axl may have been in the studio putting finishing touches on "Chinese Democracy II." It would be nice to say that he was missed, but since he was booed in absentia, one wonders how the crowd might have reacted if he had made an appearance.
So we are left with the image of Axl, as an old man, strutting about the Old Rockers' Home with his headband and tricked-out walker, ranting at anyone who will listen: "I could have been in the Hall of Fame. They wanted me there, but I was too good for them. I told them where they could stick their little statue." And that's right where it will be: in somebody else's trophy case. Sleep tight, Axl.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Storm Front

My son loves the rain. He is not, however, a big fan of thunder and lightning. This could be because he grew up in Northern California, where thunderstorms are a unique occurrence. It might also be connected to his aversion to the way the house rattles in Northern California when we have "earthquake weather." Or possibly it's the last vestige of his little-boy fear of "fireworkers" exploding in the skies overhead. Unfortunately for him, his mother and father are fond of turning off the lights and savoring each flash and crash.
He learned to minimize his fears the way any son of mine would: by talking about them. He was told at a very early age that he could approximate the distance all that electricity was from us by counting the seconds between the light and the sound. The other night, as the Bay Area fell beneath the greatest display of natural pyrotechnics in generations, I could hear him counting under his breath: "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi." Boom. "That one was pretty close." His running commentary kept us all connected to what was happening in the midst of the downpour. The streets could be running full of water, the downspouts could be choked and the storm drains covered by feet of water, and that would be fine with my son. Flooding is infinitely preferable to him to a lightning strike.
And that makes sense. Wet is better than fried. There were more than seven hundred and fifty lightning strikes over the course of the night, and it brought back memories of my youth in Colorado, where afternoon thunderstorms were as regular as the fog rolling in across the bay. And I remembered my mother's confession that she was always terrified of electrical storms, in part because of the way she was forced as a child to sit in a dark and watch the room light up with each new strike. That's why we always baked cookies with her when the storms raged as they dropped over the Rocky Mountains. It was a distraction. It was therapy. I'm guessing that my son will be taking up baking soon.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bright Star

How should we, as Americans, feel about North Korea's failed missile launch last week? When that rocket went up in the air, the world took a deep breath: Would we all have to start worrying about another nation with the ability to toss nuclear weapons about the globe? Or at the very least, send sneaky spy satellites into the skies above us, sending back information as to our whereabouts and goings-on? Of course, they could just dial up Google Earth if they really wanted to know where we were keeping all those capitalistic icons, but that's beside the point. When it disintegrated ninety-three miles into its journey into infamy, the state-run media of North Korea described the situation as the missile “failed to enter its preset orbit." The South Koreans were far too busy snickering into their hands to describe it themselves, but they did roll their eyes a bit as most of the rest of the world went into scolding mode: “We urge the North Korean leadership to honor its agreements and refrain from a pursuing a cycle of provocation,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Washington after a Group of Eight foreign ministers’ meeting. “It can pursue peace and reap the benefits of closer ties with the international community, including the United States, or it can continue to face pressure and isolation.”
In the meantime, the scientists in North Korea seem determined to go with their government's planned nuclear test. In a cave. Underground. In their own country. And that deal for food aid from the United States? Sorry. Currently it's the civilians of North Korea who have the most to worry about when it comes to North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


"In our experience, Callista and I both believe CNN is less biased than Fox this year. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of Fox, and we're more likely to get distortion out of Fox. That's just a fact." The Callista the speaker, or former speaker, was referring to was his eighth wife (give or take) and the I was Newt "Slimy Reptile" Gingrich. He might have added that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, but let's stick with the facts Newt himself wanted to talk about.
"I assume it's because Murdoch at some point said, 'I want Romney,' and so 'fair and balanced' became 'Romney,'" Gingrich said. "And there's no question that Fox had a lot to do with stopping my campaign because such a high percentage of our base watches Fox." It has nothing to do with him bouncing a check that would have registered him in the Utah primary. Or his sixty-five wives (at last count). Or the moon base he wants to build by 2020. Or the wild shifts in personnel he has made on his campaign staff. Or the fifty dollars he is charging to have a picture taken with him. Or the fact that he's just not a very likable guy. Okay, that last one was an opinion, but how can this grown man continue to blame others when it is his campaign?
Rick Santorum bowed out of the race for the Republican nomination, and he didn't blame Fox News or his daughter for getting sick again. Does this make him a better person than Newt? That would be a matter of opinion, not fact. Maybe Fox News never got behind Santorum or Gingrich the way they did behind "Mittens" Romney, but we'll miss the sweater vest. That's a fact.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Standing Eight Count

What am I so worried about? My son, who will turn fifteen next month, is planning his sophomore schedule for high school and I am fretting about just how he will manage to turn all of these disparate bits of information into his life's work. He has been saying for most of the past decade that he wants to design cars. How will his world evolve if he misses that particular bus? I suppose it's a parent's job to feel the urgency of following your dreams. Maybe that's because I never used to dream about being an elementary school teacher. It just kind of happened to me. Now I dream about being an elementary school teacher all the time.
When I was fifteen, I had in my mind a future in the arts: film, cartooning, writing. The path to any of those possible careers were as hazy and indistinct as the Northwest Passage. It seemed to me at the time that if I stuck around school long enough, I would matriculate in the direction that was best for me. And so I spent years at jobs that might have been mere way stations for other more motivated individuals. I was a manager at Arby's. I unloaded trucks for Target. I managed a video store. I installed modular office furniture. I managed a wholesale booksellers' warehouse. I was on my way to a life of managing this or that for someone else. It wasn't until I was thirty-five that I fell into the open pit that has evolved into my teaching career. As it turns out, a great many of the skills I needed to become a teacher were nurtured by the jobs I had before. I can fix the furniture in my room. I can help unload boxes of supplies when they show up late. I help out in the lunch room. There are books everywhere, and the managing thing? Well, I manage to stay busy.
All of that came two decades after my fifteenth birthday. The idea that my son will have honed his own career path to a fine edge at this point would be a surprise. By contrast, the fact that there seems to be a pause on the path to becoming the next John DeLorean or Enzo Ferrari comes as something of a relief. In another twenty years, when I'm sitting in his office and talking about how worried I was when he was trying to decide between Honors English and the Paideia Program. He'll be fine, even if he has to spend some time making roast beef sandwiches to figure that out.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Suspended Animation

George Carlin is not the only one to point out the differences between football and baseball. Still, he did a fine job of distilling the disparities between America's Game and America's Pastime. The one that has stuck with me for many years is the way baseball managers have to wear the same uniform as the players, as if there was a chance that, in a pinch, they might trot out on the field and turn a quick double play instead of merely hurling a few epithets at an umpire before skulking back to the dugout. Even those relatively fit specimens in the coaching ranks of the NFL would look pretty silly in full pads and helmet. And that's not where the divergence ends.
Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen has been suspended for five games because of his comments about Fidel Castro. In case you're unfamiliar, Fidel is not an up and coming lefty from the Dominican Republic. He is the retired leader of Cuba. A communist. Ozzie told Time magazine he loves Castro and respects the retired Cuban leader for staying in power so long. At least two local Miami officials said Guillen should lose his job. Praising Castro in Miami is a little like supporting a mosque in lower Manhattan. Free speech? Maybe.
Meanwhile, over on the gridiron, Sean Payton's boss upheld the New Orleans Saints coach's season long suspension for his team's pay-for-pain bounties. That would be sixteen games, or twenty if you count the preseason. There aren't very many voices in the Big Easy calling for coach Payton's head. They're just trying to figure out how to keep things running while they sort out how things could have gone so wrong just three years after their Super Bowl win. Or maybe they're trying to figure out how they got caught. Paying your team to commit extra-curricular violence is one thing. Lying about it to Roger Goodell is another thing.
Now Ozzie Guillen is going to try and save his job and some face by explaining just exactly what he meant when he was talking about his respect for a brutal foreign dictator. Sean Payton is going to try and find a brutal dictator to come in and take his place until it's time for him once again to play ball.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Def-Con 2012

I remember watching the missiles coming out of the silos in the TV movie "The Day After." I remember writing my own short story about waiting for the missiles to fall when I was in high school. I survived the Cold War. We all did. The United States is 1 and 0 in wars in which atomic weapons were used. Hooray for the Red, White and Blue!
Now we fret and fuss about who might want to join that club. Iran? North Korea? Pakistan? It's not the pervasive fear that I remember from my youth. This one is more pointed, sometimes mixed with haughty superiority. "North Korea? They can't even get their missile all the way across the Pacific Ocean." I might feel differently if I on Maui, of course. And then there are the stories of "dirty bombs" that aren't intended to level cities, just kill off thousands with lethal doses of radiation. It does make me pine for the days of Matthew Broderick and the WOPR. We should all learn so much by playing a few games of tic-tac-toe.
In the meantime, those silos in Kansas are still proving to be useful for someone. Real estate developer Larry Hall has options to retro-fit War-for anyone who seeks comfort inside concrete walls that are nine feet thick and stretch one hundred and seventy-four feet underground. He is installing an indoor farm to grow enough fish and vegetables to feed seventy people for as long as they need to stay inside and also stockpiling enough dry goods to feed them for five years. The top floor and an outside building above it will be for elaborate security. Other floors will be for a pool, a movie theater and a library, and when in lockdown mode there will be floors for a medical center and a school.
It will be a place where even the most paranoid could relax and enjoy themselves until the threat of solar flares or zombie infestation runs its course. Or Obama's second term.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Choir Invisible

There's a lot of mortality going around these days. People shooting other people over grades. People shooting other people because someone else shot their daddy. People shooting other people because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are in addition to the daily flurry of death that doesn't require ammunition: cancer, natural disasters, car crashes, mine collapses. And no Mike Wallace to report on it.
It gets me to thinking, as I have for most of my life, about what it might be like when I shuffle off this mortal coil myself. I have always maintained a solid fear of death which, as I grow older, seems less and less appropriate. Every day that I make it through is a gift and I know it. Not that I live any sort of risky lifestyle, outside of my predilection for cheeseburgers. I am pretty cautious and the older I get the more I find myself slowing down as I approach that yellow light. I just don't want death sneaking up on me.
I have therefore decided to accept the following scenario: At some point in the future, hopefully a good while from now, I will be out in the yard, mowing the grass when I will be felled by a massive stroke. This suggests that I won't have to wither away in a bed someplace, and I will be useful right up until the moment that I am not. It also means that each and every time that I am able to complete both front and back lawns without dropping death, I am cheating death. It might not sound glorious, but it beats the heck out of "innocent bystander."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Playing With Fire

I had an Earth Two moment the other night. I was out for drinks with my co-workers after a long week, and we were regaling one another with tales of our challenges and frustrations. At one point, the lady sitting next to me started asking everyone around the table where they went to college. This quickly changed to the date we graduated. Once again, I was confronted with the generation that separates me from most of the rest of the people with whom I work. As a matter of fact, it occurred to me the young woman sitting next to me could have been my daughter.
Not because of any soap opera type subterfuge, but simply because of the math. Back in 1980, when I was a senior in high school, I chose to jump the line into the world of those without virginity. Over the next few years I experienced, along with my girlfriend at the time, a few moments of "what if?" The certainty of birth control and sexually active teenagers is an exercise in probability that confounds just about everyone, but mostly the teenagers themselves. Had any of those percentages that had been so much on our side been turned around the other way, I would be the father of a thirty-something man or woman. To say that I was unprepared for such an undertaking would be an understatement, considering the relative difficulty I am having as the parent of a fourteen-year-old. To say that I am grateful that the metaphorical bullet was dodged is yet another understatement.
But it does give me pause. First to reflect on the gray hairs that I must have given my parents while I was busy playing with fire. Second, I feel like I will be much more ready to discuss the full facts of life with my son as I consider how many lives are touched by the coupling of two enthusiastic teenagers. I wonder how things might have been different, but I'm glad for how they all turned out. That's the gift of another generation.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Super Stitions

One of the things I like about the idea of Karma is the notion that there is some sort of payback. Life and luck aren't generated spontaneously. In some ways, this metaphysical theory is subject to physical laws: you get back what you put in. That was the jumping off point for the train of thought that I followed on my bike ride to work late last week.
I saw a black cat start to cross the street in front of me, and whether it was simply a moment of feline indecision or the sound of my approaching bike tires, he turned and slunk back into the shadows beneath a parked car. Whatever bad luck that might have come my way was circumvented by the mechanism of my bicycle or the food that cat had eaten the night before that kept him from making his mad dash across my path. A block further down the street, another cat was more assertive. This one made it across the street in front of me without much hesitation. I noticed that this one was mostly black, with white paws and chin. That's when I began to speculate on the bad luck ratio that is described by the relative blackness of the cat which crosses one's path. If the cat is fully black, but turns back is there any bad luck delivered, or will it simply dissipate without having made the full connection? Would it take a white cat going the opposite direction to counteract any of the bad ju-ju created by its darker cousin? How about if any one of them happened to walk under a ladder on the way, or broke a mirror? If I had stopped to pick up a penny a block before, would it be a wash?
Then a crow flew out of a tree and flew on ahead of me for a while. If birds are somehow opposed to cats, would this black bird have an impact on my fate, or would its blackness be the operative detail? It occurred to me briefly that another choice I had was simply to turn around and go home, avoiding the entire scenario. Or maybe it's all a lot of hooey. I just crossed my fingers and turned around three times after that last one. Just in case.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Time Off For Bad Behavior

AJ and Riley didn't make it to Spring Break. Don't worry. They'll be fine. They just got a little extra time off before their regularly scheduled vacation. Of course we might never know exactly what happened at home when the news came about the fight they had in the hallway after school, but we can assume.
AJ's mother tends to answer the phone this way: "What'd he do this time?" Sometimes his teacher is calling to tell her what a good day AJ had, but when she sees that number on the caller ID, she simply assumes. Admittedly it's a pretty safe bet on his mother's part, but AJ didn't stand a chance on this one.
Riley, on the other hand, responded in a way that many of us might relate: He ran away. Rather than go up to the principal's office as he was directed, he took off. He got it into his head that being sent to the principal's office was the next step to being shipped off to Juvenile Hall. Maybe his mom had let him know that he was on this slippery slope, and he figured that bypassing the principal's office would short-circuit the process. It was my brother the sheriff's officer who taught me this lesson: "You can't outrun Motorola," meaning that if you blow past the first patrol car, the radio will just call up the next one to watch for you half a mile down the road. Such is the case with the telephone in our business. Add to that Riley's siblings who were more than happy to take the suspension notice home. For Riley, there was no escape.
And what was so important to these ten-year-old boys that they would poison their week by starting with a fist-fight two days before they would be free of each other for nine days? It was a girl, I'm told. Ginny was the face that launched a thousand ships, or in this case, a few dozen fists. No word yet on how her Spring Break will progress.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Rock And Roll All Night, And Republican Party Every Day

"Hindsight is 20/20. I have some real issues with the economy and how it's being done. America should be in business and it should be run by a businessman," said the musician, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. "Americans, smartly, and I applaud them for doing so, vote on the issues and not the party," he said. Ladies and gentlemen, you've seen the rest, now here's the best, endorsement, that is: Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS is supporting Mitt "Catcher's" Romeny in his run for the presidency of the United States. Gene, as the God of Thunder and star of reality TV is uniquely suited to make this judgement because he is, after all, a celebrity.
And an entrepreneur. Gene would be very happy to take care of your merchandising needs from the cradle to the grave. He never met a licensing deal he didn't love. This may be why his net worth bumps into that of his preferred candidate. I don't know if it is still vogue to throw around such numbers, but they must certainly frequent some of the same posh clubs and eateries. And speaking of restaurants, Mister Simmons is opening up his own chain of eateries, which he managed to include in his stump for his man Mitt.
This summer, you can catch Gene on stage, singing, playing bass, and alternately spitting blood and fire. No word as yet on who Tommy Lee is supporting, but we can only assume there will be some lively backstage banter, especially if Dave Mustaine shows up. Link

Friday, April 06, 2012

Fear Factor

My wife has decided to refer to the tragedy at Oakland's Okios University as a "self-esteem shooting." I believe her suggestion is based on the idea that when a personality collapses under great pressure from its own weight, bad things happen. I don't know if we will ever make full sense of what happened on Monday morning, mostly because we are probably just a few hours away from the next incident requiring us to consider all the reasons why these things continue to happen. I won't pretend to understand the motives of One L. Goh, just as I can't understand all the sound and fury that events such as this generate.
I remember when Colorado enacted legislation intended to keep homeowners safe in the event of a home invasion. This became known, colloquially enough, as the "Make My Day" Law, after the terse threat given by Clint Eastwood in a Dirty Harry movie. It should be noted that, at the time Inspector Callahan uttered these words, he was standing in a coffee shop, not his living room. A number of states followed suit, and now you can feel safe in your home because of that fictional San Francisco Police detective.
But what if you're walking down the street? Florida has the answer for that: It's called "Stand Your Ground," and it allows a person to use deadly force without a duty to retreat. If you feel threatened. It's also called "Line In The Sand," and if you like your ordinances with a macho feel, they don't come much better than this.
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the Oakland killings, there has been a renewed cry for those of us on the front lines to start carrying guns. These folks fervently believe that if there had been more citizens carrying weapons at Okios University, lives would have been spared. They would like us to pack heat in the classroom. One of the first things we learn in teacher school is that after biological needs like food and water, human beings need to feel safe in order to learn anything. Apparently having more guns in a room makes some people feel safe.
Me? I believe that a society that has truly evolved will need fewer guns, not more. Amendments to the Constitution have been amended and repealed throughout our history, and I can imagine that there might come a time when we have outlived our need for guns. We solve things with words and actions that don't leave innocent victims dead. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Certain Restrictions

I've flown JetBlue on a couple of occasions. It's nice to know that there is a discount alternative for flying from Oakland to New York. Not discount like forty-five dollars discount, but if you saved your nickels and dimes, you might end up feeling as if you saved a few of those nickels and dimes by flying the skies of Blue. Of course, you might also be a little nervous about the flight crew of this bargain airline.
Last Tuesday, Captain Clayton Osbon ran through the cabin before passengers tackled him in the galley. He screamed incoherently about religion and terrorists, which put a damper on the in flight entertainment found in the back of every headrest. Consequently, Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas was diverted to Amarillo, Texas where Captain Osbon was taken in to custody. Later in the week, his wife let everyone know that "he was not intentionally violent toward anyone." Unintentional violence at thirty thousand feet is still a pretty dicey proposition.
It got me to thinking about the relative safety of other kinds of travel. The advantage that a jet has over a bus is a co-pilot. If the bus driver goes nuts, you had better hope that Sandra Bullock is on board to grab the wheel, or you're probably going to end up in a ditch. Even at sixty-five miles an hour, the descent probably won't be as abrupt as flying. Then there's the train, which certainly has its potential for becoming runaway, in which case you had better check to see if Jon Voight isn't your conductor. You could always settle for the family road trip across this great land of ours, but after a few hundred miles of getting the back of your seat kicked and choruses of Ninety-nine Bottles Of Beer, even the most responsible of us might begin to crack.
And that may be the point where discussion ends: After twelve years of slogging back and forth across the continent, Captain Osbon may have reached his limit of being asked "Are we there yet?"

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


By way of admission, I know that I am not the target audience for "The Hunger Games." I passed the "young adult" marker a few miles back, and I probably won't be seeing it again anytime soon. That's okay with me, since it has also kept me free and clear from both Team Jacob and Team Edward. The down side has been a certain distance generated between myself and the young adult who lives with me. Though he eschews all things Twilight, he has been fully caught up in the flurry of Suzanne Collins' blockbuster trilogy. He read all three books and committed the details to memory, and was pleased with how readily those details were reproduced on the screen adaptation of the first book. His biggest frustration is the wait for the next movie.
This was my wife's reaction as well. She's more in touch with her inner young adult. She is also the one who started us all off on the road to Hogwarts before my son was able to read anything but Calvin and Hobbes. Happily, his interest in transmogrifying things easily translated into the world of Harry Potter, and we spent the decade leading up to Deathly Hallows periodically immersed in that world.
But when it came time to jump on the Katniss Everdeen bandwagon, I stayed behind. It might have something to do with the fact that we are just a few short years before Soylent Green becomes a staple in our pantries, and we missed Skynet becoming self-aware by a year now. Dystopian societies don't seem that frightening to me. If you want reality TV shows pitting angst-ridden teens against one another, the next "Sixteen and Pregnant" marathon is just minutes away on MTV.
Maybe I just don't get it. I already got "Logan's Run," "The Running Man," and "The Long Walk." I'm about ready for someone to write the first JOG novel, for us jaded old guys.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

All The Busts Aren't In Canton

If you've been hanging around this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that your daily productivity has slowed somewhat and you really should think about getting back to work. You might have also noticed my passing fancy with the world of professional sports. Just recently I reported on the trials and tribulations of the Denver Broncos' search for a franchise quarterback. They sent Tim Tebow and his mania packing in favor of a battle tested veteran who may be playing out his last few games in the Mile High City. It has generated all kinds of amusing anecdotes, not the least of which are the accounts of what lengths other teams went to secure Peyton Manning's services. People across the country were falling all over themselves just to get a chance at throwing more money at this guy.
Way back in 1998, Peyton Manning was considered the "safe choice" for the Indianapolis Colts behind the much more physically gifted kid named Ryan Leaf, who was picked second by the San Diego Chargers. Leaf stated on draft day, "I'm looking forward to a fifteen-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego." The parades weren't in San Diego. They were in Indianapolis. That fifteen year career turned out to be about three. He appeared in twenty-five games and started twenty-one. Conversely, Peyton Manning has won a record four league most valuable player awards, was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLI, has been named to eleven Pro Bowls, has eleven four thousand-yard passing seasons (including a record six straight), and is the Indianapolis Colts' all-time leader in passing yards (54,828) and touchdown passes (399). Ryan Leaf took his 11.5 million dollar signing bonus and four year 31.25 million dollar contract and disappeared into infamy. He has become the gold standard for sports failure.
Is it any wonder that he turned up this past weekend in Montana, arrested on felony charges of burglary of a residence and criminal possession of dangerous drugs, plus a first-time charge of misdemeanor theft. These counts were backed up on his probation for burglary and controlled substance charges in Texas back in 2009, around the time that Peyton Manning was working his way toward his second Super Bowl appearance.
This must be what Jim McKay had in mind when he talked about the "human drama of athletic competition." Now we can start watching for Tim Tebow to get caught breaking into apartments in New York City.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Chances Are

I don't know when to hold 'em. I don't know when to fold 'em. But I do know when to walk away. When I was approached by a very enthusiastic co-worker last week to pitch a dollar into the well that was the Mega-Millions Jackpot, I politely demurred. I was told that I would be sorry when the rest of the staff was rolling in the dough. I was admonished for talking to them about "if they won," since it was not a matter of "when." It was a certainty. Educated people who were in the business of educating others were rabid for a chance at that six hundred million dollars. A one in 175,711,536 chance of winning five hundred million dollars.
As I have stated here before, I'm not much of a fan of wagering, especially on those things over which I have no control. While it is true that I have paid a few dollars for the opportunity to participate in March Madness bracketology, or the elusive opportunities presented by managing a Fantasy Football team. Those experiences offer some measure of control beyond their randomness. If I were to be allowed to wad up a dollar bill and toss it into a vast pool full of floating ashtrays. If my dollar bill happened to land in the correct dish, out of nearly two hundred million, I would win a prize. The odds of being attacked by a shark are one in 11.5 million. Somewhere in Las Vegas there are professional gamblers crying into their breakfast buffet, since three tickets beat those odds. The megamillions, not the shark.
I'm thinking of setting up a concession where people can pay me a dollar to guess which number, between one and two billion, I am thinking. I promise to give a percentage of the money I don't end up giving away to the local school district. And a hefty donation to the folks at Gamblers Anonymous.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Call

"Who am I speaking to?"
David Caven, who is this?
"This is Officer Frendlich with the Boulder Police Department, you said your last name was 'Cave-in?'"
Cav-en. What can I do for you?
"Well, I'm afraid I have a little bad news Mister Caven. Your mother is, well..."
My mother is - is she okay?
"Did you just speak to her, Mister Caven?"
Yes, well, a couple of hours ago, but she was fine.
"We did a cursory trace of this line and we found that the last call that came through on this line was from your number."
But what about my mother?
"She's laying here in a heap, Mister Caven, still clutching the receiver. What did you say to your mother in that call?"
And that's pretty much why I am retiring from the practical joke business, at least where my mother is concerned. Fear not. She's fine, if not the tiniest bit chagrined after all the years of abuse she has taken on April First. We have lived through earthquakes, trouble with our young son, and even the trials of having my younger brother join a cult. All in the name of fun. I have benefited greatly from the unconditional love and trust I have been given by my mother, and how how have I paid her back? A yearly dose of torment, designed primarily to amuse myself and anyone who might hear about it later. Like the time I rearranged her Netflix queue to send her nothing but movies about April Fools. Or when I amended her online calendar to include a series of imaginary meetings with imaginary clients and strangers.
It would serve me right if my mother would arrange any sort of prank to try and pay me back for all my yearly Spring attentions. She has flinched in anticipation long enough. Now it's time to set her free from all this silliness.
I wonder if she'll believe me.