Saturday, June 30, 2012

Burning For You

Here I sit, in the land of sunshine and earthquakes, watching my home state crackle and burn. It used to be that living here in the Golden State meant learning where your closest shelter in case of evacuation was. Now, with thousands of acres currently on fire, the Centennial State seems to be the place to flee. I've heard of global warming, but I didn't expect it to happen all at once on a state-by-state basis.
Not that California has been fire-free this year, but when I look at a map of Colorado and see the animated flames closing in on the towns where I went to college and grew up, it gives me pause. I can remember a summer when there was a fire in Boulder Canyon, threatening to burn all the way through Roosevelt National Forest and onto right through our cabin in the woods. As we drove higher and higher, the smoke remained thick, and we wondered if we should grab everything we could and look for some alternate way back down the mountain.
When we pulled into the driveway, we were met by my older brother with a friend of his, along with my father. They were carrying shovels and axes, charging toward us with a gleam in their collective eye. It was, after a moment of excited jabbering, all just a goof on their part. They weren't going to fight the fire. They were rushing out to push my mother's buttons, who was not at all amused.
We surrendered to the flames that night, choosing to drive back down to the relative safety of our suburban neighborhood where we could watch the fire's progress on our television. Happily, containment came quickly and we were back up the hill the next day, just like always.
Now we sit and wait with the same wishes as before, but across the Continental Divide, praying for rain.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Fourth Law Of Robotics

My wife has had a robot vacuum on her technology wish list for a long time now. If you're not familiar with the Roomba, they come in several models. These low-flying saucers are a boon to anyone who hates to vacuum. They have sensors that detect objects in their way, as well as one that can sense particularly dirty patches of carpet that may require special attention. Which raises the question: Do robots pay special attention, or is it all merely programming that gives the illusion of specialness?
Whatever the case, my wife had pined for this item long after she received a Kindle for reading digital books and purchased two Tivos that allow us to digitally watch television. These machines allow her to relax more effectively, or at least more digitally, so why not put the digital revolution to work on the household chores? In my mind's eye, I envision scrubbing discs scurrying hither and thither, leaving sparkling trails on every surface they contact. As a family, we step back and admire the way that technology has enhanced our lives.
Until they start to chase the dog. And tear at the drapes. And consort against us in the wee small hours of the morning while they are supposed to be lashed to their charging stations. Soon they have begun to corrupt our digital video recorders, choosing to record hours of home shopping network and infomercials that inspire us to bring even more robot servants into our home. The Kindle has begun to leave faint, subliminal messages behind the text of the Dickens novel my wife had only recently downloaded. That's about the time the drapes catch fire because the little gadgets have begun to move to higher ground and they are testing out their lasers.
Or I could give my wife the gift of doing the vacuuming until I get over my fear of robots.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

"Arizona bears the brunt of the country's illegal immigration problem. Its citizens feel themselves under siege by large numbers of illegal immigrants who invade their property, strain their social services, and even place their lives in jeopardy. Federal officials have been unable to remedy the problem,and indeed have recently shown that they are unwilling to do so. Thousands of Arizona's estimated four hundred thousand illegal immigrants—including not just children but men and women under thirty —are now assured immunity from en­forcement, and will be able to compete openly with Ari­zona citizens for employment." These were the words Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia used to criticize President Barack Obama's announcement earlier this month that he would stay the deportation of young illegal immigrants and suggested that the federal government does not want to enforce its immigration laws.
Maybe that's why the Supreme Court let stand the part of Arizona's draconian enforcement measures allows police officers to ask about immigration status during stops. Most of the rest of the legislation was found to be unconstitutional, but the most dubious portion of the law is set to go into effect immediately. Is it any coincidence that Arizona is also a hotbed of birthers? Justice Antonin Scalia, but the way, is a natural born American, even though his father wasn't. Kind of like Mitt "Missionary" Romney.
Hey kids, last time I checked, unless you're a full-blood Cherokee or Miwok, you're probably part of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. To paraphrase Mister Springsteen, "the ones whose hands that built the country we're always trying to keep out." Incidentally, the Boss was also Born in the U.S.A., if New Jersey was a state way back in 1949.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Taking Direction

I'm about to celebrate my twentieth year of living in California, but I still have a tough time describing myself as a Californian. For instance, I still have a relatively difficult time describing the local geography. I live just down the road from San Leandro, on the way to San Francisco, but still a nice bit of a ride from San Jose. I do know the way to San Jose, but the GPS does come in handy when it comes to getting to the HP Pavilion.
Back in the olden days, we used to have dozens of maps stuffed into the pockets of the door and in the glove box depicting various chunks of the bay area and the West Coast. My brother-in-law once pointed out that all roads eventually connect, so if you keep driving, you're bound to find what you're looking for, unless you end up driving into the ocean. That's why the bossy lady who seems to know the best way to get from point A to point B is so very useful. We tell her where we want to go, and she commences to order us about: "Left turn ahead. In four tenths of a mile, turn right." And we trust her. Mostly because she has yet to let us down in any major way, but also because the other choice would be to stop and ask someone for directions. Would I rather put my faith in the disembodied electronic voice coming from my dashboard, or the guy walking out of the Seven-Eleven on your way to Bakersfield? The machine, of course.
And so this is the rub: Would I rather put my faith in a machine that got to this state in 2006, or access all that experience I've had in the past two decades? It's not a contest. I'm going to play the video game, the one that rewards me with bell when I reach my destination, and politely reminds me to nudge my left turn back to a couple of rights to get back on the predetermined route. In another twenty years, that content will be downloaded directly into my brain, and I'll feel at home wherever I go. For now, I'll do what I'm told.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Circus Has Moved On

When I turned fifteen, my parents did me the favor of dropping all my closest pals from my ninth grade class into my birthday as a surprise. It was hard to keep the defense of "my parents don't understand me" while they did everything they could to connect me with the people I called my best friends. All at once I had this feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the attention, and at the same time wanting to crawl under the porch of our cabin to shy away from that bright light.
Thirty-five years later I found myself on the receiving end of a weekend full of activity to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. I wanted to believe that I was prepared for this experience. I was an adult with a fifteen-year-old son of my own. Why shouldn't I be showered with affection on the golden anniversary of my entry into the human race?
I don't generally look to be the center of attention. I tend to seek a quiet corner from which I can observe others and comment to those closest to me about what all those other folks are doing. I want to take my pot-shots from the wings. But not on my big day. My friends put me in the center ring, and let the circus begin. I would not have guessed that there were so many stories and anecdotes about yours truly to fill up an evening, or rather I would not have imagined that my presence would stir an evening full of laughter and reminiscing such as I have lived through this past Saturday. I have a room full of clever, creative friends who treated me to a show of their appreciation and affection for me. I laughed. I cried. I laughed some more. I was so happy to have the chance to hear all of this wonderful news about me. It was painless, unless you count the cramps I got in my sides from laughing so hard. And now the show moves on, but I've got a room full of happy memories for my scrapbook, and a touch more confidence not to flee the spotlight next time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Win For Us

As a part of the celebration of my fiftieth birthday, some friends and family went out to the ballpark to watch the Oakland A's take on the Los Angeles Dodgers. On a Thursday afternoon, the stadium was less than full, but we were admonished by an usher to clear out of the seats just behind the ones we had purchased. Perhaps there was a party on their way down to those seats and we were intimidating them away from their rightfully purchased place. Being courteous fans, we obliged. As the game wore on, a pitcher's duel that reached the late innings in a one-all tie, we became aware of the preponderance of Dodger Blue filling the stands in Green and Yellow Oakland. The score was still tied in the eighth inning when one of those blue and white clad individuals plopped down in the row behind us and began to spout drunken fan rhetoric that let us know just exactly how badly he wanted his team to win, and how boorish he could be about showing it. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodger's relief pitcher walked one batter, made a wild pitch to advance the runner, and failed to field a bunt on the second Oakland batter. This outraged the man in blue, but he kept his hooting and hollering up, right until the third batter yanked one over the left field fence. The A's won on a walkoff three run homer. The noise behind us diminished abruptly as Mister Dodger grumbled toward the exit. A very satisfying and cathartic ending to our day at the stadium.
And that's what I thought about when I read the verdict on Jerry Sandusky. Guilty, guilty,guilty. There was nothing that would save this man in Blue and White. He's done. Forty-five counts of evil, predatory conduct that will send him away for more than four hundred years. Satisfying and cathartic. Our team won.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


My wife and I were having this discussion as we walked through the woods the day before my birthday: "If you could know in advance the date and time of your ultimate demise, would you really want to know?" She was happy with the notion that she would have some warning. I disagreed. Once I had a piece of information like that, I would do nothing but fret about it. Not that death isn't worth fretting about, but I'm pretty sure that there is no amount of time in advance of that announcement that would make me comfortable. Negotiations would begin immediately upon receipt of such news.
It's a little odd, since most of the time I am anxious to learn as many details as possible about upcoming events and commitments. I will drive to the bus station the day before I have to pick somebody up just to make sure that I know the route. Why wouldn't I want to do the same thing when it's time to meet my maker? Upon reading the question over my shoulder, my son announced that he would be happy to know when he was going to have his ticket punched, since that meant that he could take all manner of ridiculous chances leading up to that final exit. The idea of predetermination was a freeing one for him. Maybe that's because he's fifteen, not fifty.
Many moons ago, a therapist told me that all relationships end. Eventually somebody's got to go, even if it's to the great beyond. My initial response was to shy away from any and all relationships. If you never take a chance, you never have to worry about the consequences. For now, I'm laboring under the assumption that I will be the one who bucks this trend, and sticks around forever. Of course, now I'm worried about being bored for eternity. It's what I do.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Once In A Lifetime

I've just finished going eight rounds with my past. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to go the distance, since that's pretty much the kind of guy I am. But sometimes I wonder. Over the past week I've had the sneaking suspicion that I am waking up from a long sleep, and all that stuff I remember must have come from a dream. "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!" Yet, the people around me seem to be on to whatever scam I'm trying to perpetuate, so I'll let it slide.
I remember a party when I was eighteen. I was being feted for my departure from my home planet of Boulder. After much anguish, tears and excitement, I was launched in to the void of Santa Fe, only to bounce back one short week later. The future that included me going to school in New Mexico had evaporated. Instead, the Foothills of Colorado held sway and there I stayed.
I remember another party, a few years later. My father turned fifty. All his friends were there. I wandered through the crowd of middle-aged revelers directing my roommates who had been enlisted to make a video record of the event. Later, after many drinks had been consumed, I was asked for the keys to my car. Having nominally completed their task as videographers, they were anxious to move onto the next chore: buying us drugs. I stayed and drank with the grownups while they wandered around in the winter night, in search of something different. Harder. Scarier. When they came back empty handed, they told me a story about how they almost bought heroin because there was no cocaine to be found. And there was a new dent in my Volkswagen's fender that no one could explain. By the next winter, we were down to just one roommate. We had a party for him when he died.
I kept waking up from that dream. When I was thirty, I lived alone. A girl who would become my wife came to work a magic spell that would release me from the spell I was under. I could finally leave. But not before there was a party. This one was on the patio of that house that had become my mother's. I turned thirty, packed up my possessions and drove west. Only to return a year later to throw another party in the meadow in front of the cabin that had become my father's. We danced. We sang. I got married.
I came back to Boulder for another party. This one was to introduce my son to the people and places where I had grown up. "These are the mountains. This is your tribe." He learned to love the thin air and the fireworks, but his home was by the bay, and he needed to get back there. He misses his place like I used to miss mine. The place where his birthday parties have been. Where we finally celebrated not one but two Super Bowl victories for the Denver Broncos.
Did I sleep through the twenty years that I've lived in California? How can this be? It seems like I was just leaving Boulder. Bon Voyage. Welcome Home, we've missed you. "Same as it ever was."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hypothetically Speaking

Hypothetically, if Marco Rubio were not an American citizen and could not provide food for his family, he says he would cross the border illegally to come to the United States. You all know Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida. The Republican senator from Florida. "Many people who come here illegally are doing exactly what we would do if we lived in a country where we couldn't feed our families. If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn't give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn't a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here." Those words come from his new book, "An American Son," which he is selling along with his chances to be his party's vice-presidential candidate.
Hypothetically, why would a guy, a Republican guy, want to muddy the waters like that? Is he serious? Does the GOP know about this? Mitt "Pretty Tough For A Guy Named Mitt" Romney spent the primary season voicing opposition to an immigration plan that would give those who came illegally permanent residency or citizenship without returning to their home country first. Senator Rubio was born in the United States, the son of Cuban immigrants who left in 1956.
Hypothetically, is this the guy the Republicans want riding shotgun on Mitt's Presidential Bandwagon? This kid who grew up as a Kennedy Democrat, and a self-proclaimed "union activist?" The former Mormon? Maybe that's what this campaign needs: A Maverick.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's What's Inside

The first thing that occurs to me is this: With fifty years of pop music in my head, couldn't I do better than Flock of Seagulls? Today I begin the second half of my first century on this planet. The first five decades have been quite eventful, but a lot of the major advances have occurred over the past two. It was on my thirtieth birthday that I struck out from my childhood home and moved to California where I started up my own household, complete with wife, son and dog. I also sprouted a career in education. It makes sense that what I identify as me comes as a result of what I have done with myself over the past twenty years, but I wasn't always going to be a teacher in Northern California.
Way back when, I was going to make monster movies. Director, makeup artist, key grip, I wasn't particular. When I was ten I was aware that a great many of the films I was watching on Creature Features were made in Hollywood. It did not occur to me that to pursue this dream I might have to leave the thin air and safe haven of Boulder, Colorado. This could be why, when I finally chose a major in college, I picked something that might allow me to freelance wherever I might find a typewriter. I could submit manuscripts from anywhere in the world that had a post office, or one of those newfangled fax machines. Being a writer would allow me to hole up anywhere, even if that anywhere happened to be just a few short miles from the home in which I grew up.
I still write. You can probably see that. I just never got my short story collection or book of poems sold to the publisher that would pay me exorbitantly for my clever three page ramblings or my twelve-line free verse. I needed a job. And I had them. I learned that my greatest talent was my ability for following directions. It is quite a marketable skill, as it turns out, allowing me to rise to the relative pinnacles of fast food, furniture installation and warehouse management. I studied none of these trades in school. I got those jobs because I could follow directions.
I learned how to do that when I was even younger than ten. All those teachers at Columbine Elementary were preparing me for a life that would eventually bring me back to a classroom much like the one that I left. And my parents taught me before that. And during that. My father gave me the gift of stories that had a beginning, middle and an end. My mother gave me the gift of literature and film on which I built so much of the rest of my life. My brothers sat on either side of me, giving me daily reminders of what was to come and what had just passed. Through all of those years there was music: My father's silly songs, my mother's opera, my older brother's Beatles, my younger brother's Pixies. And everyone who ever said, "Have you heard...?"
I heard Grateful Dead in the back room of Arby's and in the Bookpeople warehouse, but it never quite stuck. I heard Rush on cassette in high school, but it wasn't until I was thirty that it connected. I've had a head full of musical theater for all these years and now I have a wife who writes her own. My son told me just the other day that "Sweet Emotion" is a great driving song, even though he knows that it can lead to speeding tickets. The Pink Floyd my older brother bought for me on vinyl that he got around to making sure was one of the first CDs I owned as well still haunts me. The Bruce Springsteen songs that made me smile and carried me through the loss of a best friend and the birth of my son. It's all still in there, rattling around. So why am I humming Flock of Seagulls?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Forty Summers

"A third-rate burglary," is how press secretary Ron Ziegler referring to the break-in at the Watergate hotel forty years ago. If that was true, then he was describing the most famous third-rate burglary" of all time. I will always remember that summer as the one in which I became aware. It would be two more summers before Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon would resign in shame, but when I was ten, this was the news: Five men were arrested in the wee small hours having been discovered inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located inside the soon to be infamous hotel.
Amazingly, Nixon won the election that November in a landslide, and the only recount that was necessary was to discover if George McGovern had actually voted for himself. But things had already begun to unravel. All those machinations and manipulations the appropriately abbreviated Committee to Re-Elect the President started to surface. It started with Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, spreading over the next year to Walter Cronkite and even the funny papers. The fuse was lit, and it was only a mater of time before the whole charade came tumbling down.
The most visible mark that we bear as a society is the way we now put "-gate" at the end of anything that even hints of scandal, but the real change is deep inside. Out trust in government has returned to those low levels experienced in the early seventies, and despite the fact that we have more information than ever before because of the response to that third-rate burglary four decades ago, we don't trust our elected officials as far as we can throw them. Even if that throw is the metaphorical one out of office. I grew up in a world that regularly painted its public officials as glad-handing liars, but back in 1972, we learned that some of them were actual criminals. A twenty-six-year-old lawyer not long out of Yale Law School recalled her days on the Watergate investigation as "one of the greatest personal and professional opportunities I've ever had." She would soon marry former schoolmate Bill Clinton. What a long, strange trip it's been.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Occupatonal Hazards

My father had a bit that he used to do about how professional football players are probably more prone to injury during those end zone celebrations than they are just playing the game. I think of this every time I see players thumping and slapping one another to get "psyched up" to go out on the field. Last season, coach Jim Harbaugh got his quarterback Alex Smith game-ready by smacking him around a little bit. The San Francisco Forty-Niners might have played in the Super Bowl if Alex hadn't been so "ready."
I remember the Denver Broncos had a linebacker who once separated his shoulder as he spiked the ball after returning a fumble for a touchdown. That would be Godwin Turk who, along with eight other Broncos, are suing the NFL for workers' compensation for injuries sustained while playing football. I looked on YouTube for some video evidence of Mister Turk doing damage to himself, but found nothing. Except Gus Frerotte butting his head against the wall after scoring, and giving himself a concussion in the process. No word on how Gus' lawsuit against vertical surfaces is going.
And it's not just football. This past week, San Francisco's Matt Cain pitched a perfect game. In all of the excitement that ensued directly after this accomplishment, Cain survived the bench-clearing dog pile on the mound and was able to walk, unassisted to the podium afterward to talk to reporters. His teammate, Aubrey Huff was not so lucky. The left fielder, who was not playing in the game, sprained his knee as a result of all the tomfoolery that ensued after the final out. History was made by Matt Cain, and Huff will be headed for the DL. Maybe he should give Godwin Turk's lawyer a call.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mystery Solved!

"Forest boy," wandered into the German capital nine months ago, carrying only a tent and a backpack. He told police he had been walking for five days to get to Berlin. He called himself Ray and told authorities that both of his parents were dead.
Authorities went to painstaking lengths to identify Forest boy, having checked his DNA with international missing person lists, made public appeals, and sent his fingerprints around the world, all to no avail. It was only this week that he allowed his photo to be released.
"There were things that did not fit with his story -- he was relatively clean and the tent he had with him did not look like it had been used for five years," Thomas Neuendorf of the Berlin police told German news website The Local.
German police said Forest boy insisted that he buried his father before starting his five-day trek that landed him in Berlin. But he didn't know where his father died, police say. Because he spoke English with an accent, German investigators thought that one or both of his parents could be American or British.
Now the mystery has been solved. He was actually lost in the woods for many months with his sister, Gretel, having escaped from the gingerbread house in which they had been held captive for several weeks. Apparently his story was disjointed and hard to track because of the diabetic coma which he had lapsed into after eating all that candy. Perhaps the German police should have checked for crumbs before DNA. Unless they were trying to figure out where Gretel went. there's been a lot of cannibalism going around these days.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Circumstances Being What They Are

Another school year ends before Father's Day. It's a gift to a father like me, who gets to relax into his vacation as the fires of summer barbecues begin and the lawn begins to beg for attention. But it wasn't always that way. When I first started at this school, it was a year-round affair. That meant that I was working through the summer and the kids came in and out in three month cycles. I took a couple of weeks off around my birthday each year to recharge my batteries, but mostly what I did was teach. Or learn how to teach back in those days. At that time I was still making it up as I went along.
One of the things I had to experience the hard way was this: There is no blanket experience that can be applied or appreciated by every single person in the room, even if those persons happen to be six to twelve years old. When I assigned Mothers' Day cards, I had a kid or two in each class who wanted to volunteer the stories of how their mother didn't live with them anymore. "Can I make one for my grandma?" Sure, of course you can.
Over the years I heard about mothers who were in jail, or who had died, or who had simply gone away. Kids will tell you these things because no one has told them they should be secrets. I even had a couple of Jehovah Witnesses who announced that they don't celebrate such occasions, so could they just make a picture of something else? Sure, I suggested, and you can give it to your mother.
Then there was the one time when I suggested making a Fathers' Day card. I was a new father at the time, reveling in all things fatherly, including that second Sunday in June. But if you take the number of mother exceptions and multiply it by a lot and you've got an idea of how poorly this idea went over. I did hear a lot of very sad stories, however. Remember how I said I was making it up as I went along? I figured something out, way back then: Let the kids bring the sentiments to you. If a kid asks to take a few minutes to create a tribute to his mother, father, sister or brother, then it's a good idea. Assigning sentiment can only lead to confusion and frustration.
No one asked me to write this, by the way. Happy Father's Day.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Needs-Based Assessment

I know that school is out. That would explain my teenage son's presence around the house on a more frequent basis. It would explain my presence around the house on a more frequent basis. It would explain my wife's ever-changing levels of appreciation that the two of us are are around the house on a more frequent basis. That doesn't mean he stopped being a student or that I have stopped being a teacher. We are, to borrow a phrase from Ross Geller, "on a break." That doesn't mean I've stopped being a teacher. It also doesn't mean that enrollment is down and my son's school doesn't need teachers.
Quite the opposite is true. Hiring and retaining qualified teachers is something that school districts across the country struggle with, and these two months that serve as Summer Vacation for some is the time that others are auditioning and seeking positions in classrooms for the fall. So, why would Mitt "Cumbertonfitzwilly" Romney suggest that we need fewer teachers. And firefighters. And police. I understand that it is Mitten's assertion that class size is not a factor in the education of our kids, but enrollment is expected to increase by ten million students by the middle of the decade. Is his Mittiness suggesting that we raise class size limits to a couple hundred thousand to accommodate this change?
Or maybe he's still grinding the axe about unions. Firefighter and police unions. Teacher unions. Mitters saw in Wisconsin the people affirming this notion when they failed to recall their governor, the poster boy for union-busting. If public sector unions and their pension plans are the issue, let that be the issue. Deal with it up front. Don't tell me that we don't need more teachers because they have an expensive pension plan. Pension reform is a discussion that makes more sense, regardless of which side you happen to live.
I'm going on summer vacation soon, but I won't stop reading the news. Or being a teacher. We need more teachers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Grand Experiment

It only occurred to me the week that we began tearing down our bulletin boards. For fifteen years, with a five year hiatus in fourth grade, I have been housed in the same corner of our school. I have had some sign or cut-out letters welcoming students to "The Computer Lab." When we moved out of our building for renovations for two years and moved back in, the room was switched across the hall, but the name remained: Computer Lab.
Now, a decade and a half later, I'm finally questioning that distinction. Lab? What sort of nefarious experiments are taking place inside? Is this where I will find the Bunsen burners, bubbling flasks of chemicals and towering, crackling Van de Graaf generators? It's a room full of computers. The exciting distinction here being that we have enough that every kid from any given class can have his or her own for fifty minutes at a time. A couple years ago we did an investigation into what might happen if we had to make some of those kids share when we had more than thirty kids in a couple of different classes.
But mostly my room is the place where the PCs are housed. Every classroom in our school is equipped with the same machines, but only three or four of them. Having spent some time as a classroom teacher, I know how challenging it is to come up with a rotation or procedure that will allow a fair resolution to the question, "When is it my turn?" In that way, my room is a resolution to that quandary, not a question in itself. More of a stasis chamber than chamber of hypothesis.
I know that I inherited this nomenclature. That was back when a room full of Mac LCIIs and tractor feed printers seemed like science fiction. It was another time, another century. There was a mystery to such things. Last year when we upgraded to flat screen monitors, we had a number of kids who were suitably impressed, but just about as many who sniffed and rolled their eyes. "I've got one like this at home."
And so it goes. Here in the Computer Lab we continue to try and stay ahead of the frightening speed of technological advances. Students wonder aloud why they need to learn to type with ten fingers on a Qwerty keyboard when their thumbs do a completely serviceable job on their phones. When are we getting iPads? The experiment, obviously, is being conducted on me.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Behind The Curtain

Suddenly, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the flustered old man spinning the dials and shouting into the megaphone: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" That's when we found out that the Great and Powerful Oz was just a bunch of special effects. It's an empire built on the simple conceit that no one peeks. It's show biz.
I had echoes of this moment when I read that Frank Cady had died. "Who is Frank Cady?" you ask. He's the guy who played Sam Drucker on "Green Acres." He is also the guy who played Sam Drucker on "Petticoat Junction." He is also the guy who played Sam Drucker on "The Beverly Hillbillies." Sam Drucker's store was the Nexus of Hooterville. Not familiar with Hooterville? I suppose then I am showing my age, but these crossovers and spinoffs left my head spinning as a youth, long before "Happy Days" spawned Laverne, Shirley, Mork, Mindy, Joanie or Chachi. These shows used a lot of stunt-casting to bring in viewers for "events." Sam Drucker was just a guy who happened to show up for a line or two now and then to keep us all rooted in the reality of Hooterville. A thin root I will admit, but root nonetheless.
I have gone years without considering this vast conspiracy, even when I delved into the life and passing of Eddie Albert some years ago. It recalled an incident much earlier in my life when I realized that the clown I was watching in the afternoon named Blinky introduce cartoons was also the nutty old Captain Dooley who introduced cartoons in the morning. It is only now that I can try and wrap my head around what his work day must have been like. This was live television, after all. A pre-dawn call to the makeup chair to get the sideburns and mustache for the Captain, an hour or so of production and cleanup, and then lunch. That gave him just an hour or so to turn around and start to prep for Blinky. Blinky was also in great demand for local charities and public appearances of all sorts, so his day wasn't over until it was time to collapse and start dreaming of doing it all over again. Sam Drucker was just Sam. Same counter. Same apron. Same mild frustration with city folk and their ways. The Great and Terrible Oz had it easy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The First Rule Of High School Is: Don't Talk About High School

"I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped ... feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. ... We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of six point eight billion that means there are nearly seven thousand people just like you."
Somewhere in the midst of Tyler Durden's wisdom are the words of a Massachusetts high school English teacher, David McCullough Jr. He was speaking to the graduating class of Wellesley High last week. Applauded in some corners for his straight talk and derided in others for bumming everyone out on their most special of days, Mister McCullough asked that the matriculating seniors go on and become special in ways that matter. "We cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of the Guatemalans." And now, on to Project Mayhem.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

We Win Science!

Hey guys! China is going to launch three astronauts this month to dock with an orbiting experimental module, and the crew might include its first female space traveler. At least that's what their government news agency is saying. To this, I say, "Congratulations, and welcome to the twentieth century."
You heard me right. I'm having a little bit of fun at the expense of the country to whom we owe, at last check, a little over one trillion dollars. Or about fifty times the cost of the United States' Apollo Program. The one that took us to the moon. And those were 1969 dollars. Like way back when dollars. The kind of dollars that we are now so nostalgic for that we make science fiction movies that fondly reference the fun we had up there, planting the Stars and Stripes and playing golf and tearing around in our moon buggy. And after we bagged up a bunch of cool rocks, and stirred up the dust a bit, we came back. And we left the place a mess. Because we're Americans and that's how we roll.
Oh, and that whole "female space traveler" thing? Been there. Done that. Even the Russians had the good sense to get in that game early on. It took us a little longer, but we got an American Woman in space nearly twenty years ago. In the eighties. That was during our space shuttle phase. Back when we were regularly sending our fleet of space trucks up to various floating outposts amidst the stars. That whole deal only cost us a little over two hundred billion dollars. We could do it all over again five times for the money we owe them.
If I sound smug, it could be that I'm just feeling my oats as the United States gears up for the next phase of our exploration of space: The privatization program. James Cameron is going to up there soon, mining asteroids and bringing back the riches of the universe. Or at the very least setting up very expensive package tours to sell to Chinese tourists.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Right of Passage

If I came to my school and found painted footprints, scrawled graffiti on the front steps, a concrete bench that had been moved and a lamb tied to a pole, I wouldn't suspect that it was a senior prank. I would assume that it was Tuesday after a three-day weekend. That may be because I work in Oakland, not in Brentwood. And we don't have seniors. We have fifth graders.
Still, on the whole I didn't see or hear of any damage that couldn't be put to rights after a half-day of buildings and grounds attention. Does that excuse the behavior of these miscreants? The fact that they used washable paint? The lamb does seem a little over the top, as a living creature, but kids will be kids, right? Some will point to the several page packet that was given to all the graduating seniors that warned them away from any such hijinks, or they could suffer the consequences. Like they wouldn't get their diplomas. They wouldn't be allowed to walk across the stage to stop at the podium long enough for the photo-op with the superintendent. The worst? Summer school.
It also set off, as so many things do, the nostalgia alarm in my head. I was scared off of any senior pranks with the threat of having my diploma held if I misbehaved in any way leading up to the trip our high school band took to Mexico directly after graduation. I was one of those who knuckled under to the man, and walked the straight and narrow, even though all the other goodie-two-shoes were skipping off to sample the nightlife in Acapulco and getting frisky down by the surf. Do I wish that I would have taken a chance and sowed some wild oats? Not really, since I did that before and after the trip south of the border. My senior prank was probably this: Our band director and a certain number of his minions were no doubt consumed with the task of catching me, my girlfriend, or any of my associates doing anything that could have been considered inappropriate. If that kept them from having the frolic they might have been considering, the joke was on them. It didn't involve farm animals or washable paint, but it will have to serve as my legacy. Congratulations to the Class of 2012.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cannon Fodder

Pity George W. Bush, if you will. He is the only living ex-president to have an approval rating below fifty percent. Pretty far below. Like forty-three percent. His dad sits at fifty-nine percent, while Jimmy Carter keeps his spot just above the line at fifty-four. Bill Clinton shines at sixty-six percent, perhaps because he continues to show up from time to time to keep things interesting. It could be that George the Elder's willingness to hang with Slick Willie may be part of the reason why he continues to poll so high. Jimmy Carter builds houses for people who need them.
Which leaves George W. out in the cold. He may be the focus for all things evil and bad, at least on the Republican side of things. The next few months will no doubt bring about discussion of the greatest hits of Bush the younger: Two wars, weapons of mass destruction, tax cuts that won't go away. And didn't he invent the recession? I suppose we could blame him for Dick Cheney, and by extension Sarah Palin.
Maybe legacies just take a little longer to become more viable, like cheese or wine. Currently he's got a tub full of sour milk and a vat filled with sour grapes. In a few years we might be able to look back with some fondness on that brush-cutting, aircraft carrier-landing straight shooter who stood up to terrorists in our time of crisis. But not right now. Sorry George.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

You Must Be Taller Than The Clown

I understand. I'm not supposed to disparage or throw stones at Facebook because I'm not on Facebook. Only if I were to join the ever-widening cult that is Facebook could I feel free to voice my opinion. How do I know unless I've tried it? Well, maybe because of the strange effect that I've noticed in my contacts with those who have become part of the social media scene. The ones with whom I no longer have in-depth conversations, or share personal connections. I'm asked to log on and check their status. I'm a big fan of three or four very close friends versus dozens of quasi-intimates. Or thousands.
And now the Book of Face would like to add kids under thirteen to its legions. Currently there is a age requirement to become one of the nearly one billion users: You have to be over thirteen, or be able to do the simple math that will allow you to figure out in which year you would have to be born in order to be included in that pool. You might get some help from your parents, if you message them first.
So I'm not on Faceybokk. What do I know? I know kids under thirteen. I know that one of the battles I wage almost daily is trying to get them to interact in positive personal ways. I'm trying to teach them that there are other human beings out there just beyond the end of their fingertips and they can be made happy or sad by the interactions they have with them. I'm trying to teach them empathy. Try doing that online.
I'm very happy that I was able to raise my son right up to the edge of that time without getting him immersed in the poking and liking and clicking that passes for human contact. His Face is part of the Book. Or at least Bill the Cat is, since he declines to use his own photo. I periodically have to ask him to disengage from his screen to share a little of that face, his not Bill's, with me. I'm glad that he learned to talk to us all without the aid of a keyboard. I wonder how insurmountable that challenge would be if he had opened his account on his ninth birthday. We still get to hear about his day without having to sit at our computers waiting for the updates. We know who is bothering him and who he is bothering. The level of much of the discourse on Fazeboock is perhaps not too much more intricate than that of most nine-year-olds, but I would love to give them a chance before we begin limiting their expressions to emoticons and txtspk.
But then again, what do I know?

Friday, June 08, 2012


It is a silly distinction, since I understand that statewide elections generally have a pretty light turnout. It makes me think of a movie called "Hanover Street," best known as the film Harrison Ford made while he wasn't busy being Han Solo. Mister Ford's turn as an American pilot in World War II England isn't the reason I remember this one, however. It's the Richard Masur role I remember best. He's the bombardier on Harrison's plane, who complains bitterly about the amount of flak that they experience on any given mission. The exploding kind. The kind with shrapnel. "Someone forgot to tell the Germans we're only supposed to have light to moderate flak today."
And that's what I thought about as I strolled into my polling place just after seven in the morning. I was outnumbered ten to one by election officials, and I had my choice of carrels behind which I could do my voting business. The flak there was moderate to light, and certainly not the exploding kind. I drew my line across the arrows that I had chosen the night before with my mostly-like-minded wife, and watched as the judge fed my ballot into the machine, counting me as the first. There was no line behind me, and the rest of the crew there busied themselves about their volunteer responsibilities. Some of them were obviously offering up their service for the first time, as the conferred with others about just where people were to sign and exactly what to say to those incipient voters on their way into the converted gymnasium.
When I rolled by bike back on the street, there was no line at the door, with anxious citizens waiting to cast their ballots. I knew this was just a warmup for November, and we've all got plenty of time to practice our technique before then. I expect moderate to heavy flak by then.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Circus

Here's the ugly truth: The circus is packing up and getting ready to move to its summer quarters. We'll be back next year, putting on the greatest show on earth, but for now, we're tired and we could all use a couple months' rest. Maybe it's not the best metaphor to describe the school year, but it feel apt from down here in the trenches. We've given the state-mandated comprehensive tests, boxed them up and sent them to Sacramento. We should be getting those results sometime in August. The kids know this. The teachers know this. The parents know this. This last couple of weeks is all about patience and staying power.
That may be why I bristled at the sight and sound of Michelle Rhee coming from my television this past weekend. It could be because she refers to herself as an "education reformer" rather than an educator, in spite of the fact that she was chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010. She moved on to education reform in 2010, forming Students First, a political advocacy group that works to reform public education. As a part of this machine called public education, I'm the first to tell you that it needs reforming. On their website, they ask us all to sign a pledge for all California kids to have a great teacher. I'll get behind that!
Unless that means you want to end teacher tenure. They didn't ask me to sign a pledge to end teacher tenure. They asked me to pledge that every kid in California has a great teacher.
That's what reform does, I guess. It asks for change by offering logical outcomes to big questions that haven't been answered for decades. I'm not going to make big excuses for all teachers achieving tenure. I don't believe that should mean that the teachers in question suddenly become "great." But they have survived. They made it through a number of years, navigating the maze of observations, curriculum, meetings with parents, meetings with administrators, meetings with each other. And then they go do their job. Some of them aren't going to do a great job. Some of them start out doing a good job and then slip into a haze of delirium that comes with staring at the same room and the same text for years at a time. These are the tough cases. They are also the ones that cost the most, because they have climbed to the top of the pay scale. If we could just get rid of that "dead wood." I checked to see if there was a pledge on that I could sign to get rid of dead wood. Nope.
That's because they won't say it. I know it's a problem, and I have been in that position. Happily, I was given an opportunity to refine my practice and reinvigorate my own career. And after fifteen years I'm making a living wage.
I don't have the answers. I know that it will take a good stir of the pot to get all the good ideas to rise to the top. I know this because I am a teacher, and that's what I do. And until it's time for the circus to reform, I'll be busy getting ready for next year. It's what I do.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Casualties of the Feud

When I heard Richard Dawson had passed away, I did not mourn for the host of "Family Feud." I never held him any kind of esteem for that job. He was an overbearing lounge lizard by that time. His insistence on kissing every female contestant was the definition of harassment before there was such a thing. He lolled from one side of the stage to the other, reading cards as if they contained the lessons of the ages, when they were merely the top ten responses to the question "what do you take with you to the bathroom?" Between his attitude and some of the worst suits ever worn by a human being, it was not an admirable time for Richard.
What did make me sad was losing Newkirk. When I was much younger, I spent hours reenacting entire episodes of "Hogan's Heroes" with the other kids in my neighborhood. Though I often picked the cherry role of the irascible Colonel Hogan, I was always somewhat drawn to that shady character played by Mister Dawson, Corporal Newkirk. He was the safe cracker and the confidence man. He was also supposed to have trained in both knife throwing and bow and arrow while traveling with a circus in his youth. Go ahead and put him in the cooler. He won't be there for long. And those sideburns.
But a job is a job, even if it's being a quizmaster. That's why there was some measure of redemption in Richard Dawson co-starring in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film "The Running Man." He played Killian, the host of a life-or-death game show hosted years in advance of Stanley Tucci in "The Hunger Games." He was slimy before slime was cool. And so I won't really have to miss Richard, because he will be back, but only in reruns. Aloha.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Word On The Bird

Even though Harper Lee taught me that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, I want this one dead. Like the proverbial doornail. Over the past week or so, this feathered monstrosity has made it his mission to sit in the trees just behind our house and practice his peculiar abilities. For a while he sounds like a whippoorwill. Then he's a bluebird. Then he's a car alarm. Then he's a car starting up. Then there are long, looping symphonies of original and imitated sounds that stretch from sundown to sunup.
I have become accustomed to sleeping through all manner of urban noise, from the neighbors across the street who keep their reggae raves roaring past midnight or the passing traffic in various levels of urgency and repair. Even the occasional next-door domestic disturbance can be ignored with a shift or a flop of a pillow. I live in a city, after all, not the wilderness. And maybe that's the problem. I've become so unaccustomed to the sounds of the woods that I can scarcely catch a wink between all of nature's wonders: the mockingbird's song.
For the record, I don't sleep through gunshots or earthquakes either, one being a more naturally occurring phenomenon, but I don't know if I will rest easy until this bird has flown. As for Ms. Lee and her admonition about keeping Mimus polyglottos safe and sound, I say this: Taking the Lord's name in vain is a sin, but every time I drop a something heavy on my toe, that's exactly what I do. Time to pack your bags, Mister Mockingbird.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Generation What Me Worry?

No one is currently asking to see my birth certificate. Even Donald Trump seems pretty much content to allow the facts of my entrance onto this plane nearly fifty years ago. For the record, I wouldn't dispute the birth of Donald Trump. His hair, maybe, but not the Donald himself.
Which brings me back to the data in front of us currently: Fifty years of Dave. Some days it seems impossible that I have been at this business of life as long as the Beatles have been recording. I came about just about the time that prayer in the classroom was declared unconstitutional. Feel free to make what you want of this synchronicity, but I prefer instead to look at my life as a much larger canvas, spread across six decades. There are plenty of artifacts left from that era, many of which can be found on YouTube. I have arrived at a fairly comfortable acceptance of my age.
Until I opened my mailbox last week and found my membership to AARP. Not just a mass-mailing to "Resident," but a personally addressed envelope with a membership card with my name printed on it. What a great opportunity to take advantage on the travel deals and benefits offered by this august institution. Or not. I'm as pleased as I can be for Bruce Springsteen getting on the cover of not just Time and Newsweek once upon a time, but the AARP magazine a few years back. He's over sixty and all. I'm still lagging behind the Boss. Of course, my knee slide isn't as practiced as his, but I get around all right. I exercise and run with the kids on the yard and ride my bike to work. I also find myself lurching toward the ibuprofen on a little more regular basis. I'm guessing that Bruce might toss back a couple Advil after a three hour show, too.
Am I ready to be a part of the American Association of Retired Persons? Well, not yet. According to the powers that be at the school district, I've got at least ten more years to grab that brass ring of a pension, and I'm guessing it will be more like fifteen before I can truly afford to do just that. And just when I was getting comfortable with that whole "Springsteen is sixty-something," along comes AARP's new spokesmodel: Betty White. I'm not ready for that yet. 

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Painted Sky

Along with a few hundred thousand of our closest friends, my family and I attended the big Fireworks Extravaganza that accompanied the seventy-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. When I say that we "attended," I mean that we stood along the shore some miles away and watched the bright flashes in the sky. It was, as these things go, impressive.
Why so dismissive about aerial shells and erupting volcanoes of colored sparks and flames? I suppose that at this point in my life I feel as though I've been there and done that. Not that there aren't some surprises left  now and again. The ones that blow up into the shape of smiley faces or cubes are a nice addition, but they are still working with the same basic palette. Maybe that's why the folks in charge of the Golden Gate display hauled out a bunch of lasers to spice up the mix just a little.
And that was cool, but from where we were it looked a little like someone shining a flashlight up into the prevailing clouds of smoke. I do sound a little jaded, don't I? But I have stared up into the night sky enough to become familiar with the patterns and colors. There is something that keeps it fresh to me, however: The explosions. This wasn't an option for us along the shore that night, but on those occasions when we can get up close enough to hear the bang and feel the concussion, then it's all new again. As a little kid, my son loved fireworks, but hated the boom. If we were half a mile away or more, he was happy. Any closer, and my wife and I would take turns holding our hands over his ears as we all winced in anticipation of the next barrage. Maybe that's why he suggested, before we found our spot on the shore, that maybe the best way to take in the spectacle would be on YouTube. Or maybe I can just close my eyes and remember all those fireworks shows I've seen over the past fifty years.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Dubious Distinction

It's Award Season in the world of Elementary School!  However, the mother of an eight-year-old Arizona girl who was presented with a "Catastrophe Award" for apparently having the most excuses for not having homework believes her child was humiliated by her teacher. "I think it's cruel and no child should be given an award like this. It's disturbing," she said, adding that she was not aware her daughter had a problem with homework, and that the girl had been enrolled in an after-school homework assistance program.
Wait a second. Back up the tape. Did she say that her daughter had been enrolled in an after-school homework assistance program and she was unaware that her daughter had a problem with homework? That's a little confusing, isn't it? I'm not going to side with the teacher on this one, since an eight-year-old probably isn't going to get the layers of sarcasm that are involved in presenting such an award. He or she might get the humiliation part, which is a vein that had been mined each time that student had appeared in the morning without homework. I can relate to this, since my son has been struggling with a similar experience this past year as a freshman in high school.
He didn't got through that one alone, however. His mother and I have doubled our efforts to find the holes in his filing system and poked through his backpack on an increasingly regular basis, looking for those stray assignments or missing worksheets. Initially we cursed his teachers for not giving him the attention he deserved, and then became aware that the gap in the fence was the locus of control. He had made it all the way to fourteen without fully understanding that homework was his job, and that his teachers and parents were there to help and facilitate, but turning in papers and projects was his responsibility. Not ours. But if he brought home a Catastrophe Award for his efforts this year, I would share it with him. It's my job to get him ready for the work he's got in front of him and to get it where it belongs. I guess I would thank a third grade teacher who gave me the heads-up just so we could have had a jump on what was ahead of us. For him.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Smoke And Mirrors

Given a chance, I would take the opportunity to vote against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. Not the guys themselves, since they're not running for anything, but they are campaigning against Proposition 29 here in California. In our play, R.J. and Phil are the bad guys known as "Big Tobacco." They are the ones who oppose this suggestion by our legislature that we raise a bunch of money for cancer research by raising the taxes on buying tobacco products. The cool thing about this one is that you don't have to pay this tax if you don't smoke or chew or snort or ingest any of these products. The products that cause cancer.
Then I hear my wife's voice. The one that reminds me that the industry that is in charge of finding a cure for cancer is capable of just as much waste and corruption as our pals R.J. and Phil. She makes the argument that this cancer-curing industry has nothing to gain from eliminating their source of funding: the disease itself. It's a pretty scary conspiracy theory, but not out of the realm of possibility. If there was a cure for cancer, what would all those folks in white lab coats do? We can't afford to put all of those highly educated people out of work right now, can we?
And what about that idea that only the addicts have to pay for finding this cure? Aren't they the victims in this tragedy? It's pretty easy to sit back, without a pack-a-day habit, and suggest that the ones who are puffing away are the problem, and they somehow deserve to pick up the tab on all this science that will benefit them. Well, them and all the other people who get cancer from any number of other sources aside from tobacco. And what about taking care of them when they do get sick?
It seemed like such an easy question when the conversation started.