Sunday, September 30, 2012

Goodbye, My Huckleberry Friend

It's taken me some time to piece it together, but I know now why I will miss Andy Williams. It might be because of his quintessential version of "Moon River." It might have been his connection to the Kennedys and their tragic kingdom. It might have been his steadfast support of his ex-wife, Claudine Longet, after she was accused of murdering professional skier Spider Sabich. Eighteen gold and three platinum albums? How about his record company signing then little-known singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffet?
Nope. None of those. It was the bear.
Which bear? The cookie bear. It was a guy in a pretty obvious bear suit, usually sporting a necktie, who regularly appeared just about the time Andy was getting ready to croon on his weekly TV show. I wasn't watching for Andy's crooning. I was watching for the bear. I wanted him to stop Andy from singing. Not because I was particularly adverse to Mister Williams' vocal stylings, but it was better when the bear showed up. It was funny.
And the bottom line was this: Somewhere in this equation, Andy Williams knew that. Consequently, he allowed himself to upstaged by a guy in a bear suit at least once a week. A running gag. A similar ploy was used to get the Osmonds on the show on a regular basis. I didn't find this as amusing. But now that he is gone, I can forgive Andy for that. I think I'll have a cookie in his honor.
Aloha, Andy.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Making Room

Much in the same way that I wonder if our elected officials in Washington D.C. feel honor bound to root for the Senators when baseball season rolls around, I am curious how the family that lived in our house before us managed. Not so much their sports affiliations, but their living space.
Currently we have three humans and one canine comfortably ensconced in our home. When we first moved in, there was one bathroom, located in the middle of the house. This wasn't a problem for most of my son's early years, as his commitment to indoor plumbing was still being negotiated. Even so, whenever we had guests at the house, there were certain times of the night and day when access to that plumbing needed to be negotiated. This lead to the first big household renovation we made: a second bathroom. To be more specific, a half bath. This meant that whenever there was a need for showers or general hosing off, the line still formed outside the door of the one room with the facilities to handle such ablutions.
This past week our niece came to stay with us for a couple of days. A ten-year-old girl with hair that requires washing, rinsing, conditioning and drying far beyond any of those experienced by the rest of us currently under our roof also requires time and privacy that we don't normally encounter in the course of our nuclear family day.
Here's the thing: The family before us managed to raise five kids, three boys and two girls, along with two parents in that house with just the one bathroom. This boggles my mind. This is a mind that is not often boggled, since I tend to make up solutions even when they aren't particularly practical. Then I remembered the film "Yours, Mine, And Ours." Not the Dennis Quaid remake, but the 1968 version with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. I can remember watching that movie as a six-year-old, living with my two brothers in a house with three bathrooms, and trying to imagine how they managed. Hank Fonda played a naval officer who put all of his years of being in the service into a system that involved numbers and colors and coordination that left the kids just a little dazed. Ultimately, the twenty or so members of that family made do with the beast of a Victorian in which they lived and worked and played and slept. And no doubt, had to use the bathroom. It's what families do.
I don't know about you, but I suddenly feel considerably less boggled.

Friday, September 28, 2012

They Look Like Little Ants

"When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no — and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem. So it's very dangerous." These were the words of a concerned husband whose flight was forced to make an emergency landing when a small electrical fire was discovered on board. There is little doubt that his concern for his wife's safety initially overshadowed his concern for science. Rolling down the windows of a pressurized jet aircraft would lead to a much more catastrophic failure than a fire.
Such is the mind of Mitt "Don't Know Much About Science Books" Romney. It is this same quirky focus that had the Republican Millionaire Presidential Candidate defending his own very low tax rate: "I think it's the right way to encourage economic growth - to get people to invest, to start businesses, to put people to work," the former Massachusetts governor said. It is also a very good way for people with a lot of money to keep a larger portion of that money, but that's not the way he's seeing it. He truly believes that making the rich ever richer will encourage economic growth and get people to invest. It might increase the economic growth of the wealthy, and it would be nice if the middle class had something left over from their paychecks to invest, but that's not how things look from the top, is it?
Way up high in the sky it's hard to see the little people when your windows don't roll down.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Object Permanence II

How did I explain to my son the relative fairness of how his friend's dog was taken away, succumbing far too young to cancer? I didn't. He remembered how his cousins' dogs had died, both of them, within a year of one another. We had the talk then. I don't know if it made sense then. I am sure that it didn't make sense to him that his great aunt died the day after we had seen her poolside just down the hill from her retirement condo.
Then someone broke into our house and stole his video game system and the blanket from his bed. A couple of weeks after that, passing hooligans threw rocks at his dog and his house. And his father. At this point, I am grateful that he seems to lack the kernel of Charlie Brown that was deeply embedded in my youth. I sat and glared at the mailbox, expecting it not to be filled with invitations to parties and valentines from that pretty red-headed girl. I groomed that dark cloud over my head, and without any of the peculiar flurry of bad luck that has recently swirled around my son.
Now he has a new challenge. In a parental attempt to make lemonade from lemons, I bought us a pair of tickets to see Green Day at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was my hope that it would take some of the sting out of the past couple of months. That was before Billie Joe threw a fit onstage in Las Vegas. and bought himself a trip to rehab, leaving us wondering what might happen to those make-good ducats I had so cleverly acquired.
Again, I find myself blessed with a son who has seemingly endless patience and understanding. No stomping about or slamming of doors. Just a sigh and a shrug of resignation. I still have so much left to learn from him.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


We're closing in on one month left until Election Day, and the conversations about who will become our next president are not showing any signs of becoming more civil. Digging in the dirt for an "October Surprise" is a tradition that dates back to 1980, when it was alleged that Ronald Reagan's campaign conspired to keep the American hostages in Iran until after the election in spite of incumbent Jimmy Carter's best efforts to work for their release. In 2008, many point to the financial crisis that boiled over in the midst of the presidential debates that year. Not a surprise, really, for those who had been watching their neighbors lose their houses.
What could it be this year? World politics are such a train wreck that it would be hard to find a particular spot to single out, but Libya certainly seems to want attention. So does Europe. And then there's those pesky unemployment numbers. Do we count the number of people without jobs, or the number of jobs created? And how about that forty-seven percent, or the ninety-nine or the one? Math is hard.
Who will be the voice of reason in the midst of all this name calling and finger-pointing? Who will stand up to the media and the pundits who are making hay while the mud is flying? How about Ann Romney? “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring. This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now, and it’s an important election, and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”
Okay. It would be simple enough to snicker at how it was the candidate's wife had to come out on the front porch to admonish us all to pay attention to the real issues of the campaign. America can be a pretty tough town. While I wouldn't find myself agreeing with her on the matters that face our nation, she does have a point. Right now, even his own party won't cut Mitt a break. I suggest everyone take a stress pill and think things over. And keep your eyes open for that October Surprise.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New School

I feel that I was very fortunate to only have experienced that awkward feeling associated with transferring schools in my sophomore year in college. My path up until then was a pretty straight line, and I have nothing but the stability that my parents offered me as a child to thank for that. I wish I could say the same was true for the kids at the school where I teach.
It is not a bizarre occurrence for a kid at our school to attend for the first few months then, just before Christmas break, announce loudly that their family is relocating in some faraway locale like Stockton. Off they go, with construction paper letters of farewell and attendant files sent along by the front office wishing them success in the next phase of their young lives. Only to bounce back again a couple more months later, after whatever opportunities in Stockton abruptly ended or ceased to exist in the first place. Back again, without a real sense of how the yo-yo experience might affect them down the line.
Then there's the kids who showed up on our campus as a result of their school closing at the end of last year. Never mind the friends they might have made at their old school, or the relationships they had forged with teachers and other adults where they had once felt comfortable and safe. Or as comfortable and safe as kids in urban Oakland ever feel. Now they're confronted with finding their way with a whole new crop of kids and grown-ups. Nobody at their old school told them not to kick the four-square balls. There was no upstairs or downstairs at their old school. Everything was better at their old school. They hate their new school.
At least that's how it has to feel. Sometimes. Until the walls come down a little bit, and the soccer goals at this school are pretty cool. So are some of the kids. It will take time. And patience from all of us.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Not-So-Instant Replay

Steve Sabol is gone. If you read that name and said, "Who?" you haven't been watching professional football closely for the past fifty years. Steve was the son of NFL Films guru Ed Sabol, and even though his dad got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it was Steve that gave the induction speech, and it was Steve that made those slow motion pictures of grown men running into each other so very pervasive.
My own experience with the Sabol family was not always so easy. When I was nine years old, at the YMCA Camp of the Rockies with my Indian Guide tribe, we were offered an evening of football entertainment in the main hall. Presented by NFL Films. As it turned out, the sixteen millimeter projector set up at the back of the room was showing "Football Follies." Again, if you're unfamiliar with the genre, these are collections of foul-ups and mistakes made by ordinarily graceful athletes caught at their worst. The rules of slapstick humor have not been lost on me, but at that time in my life, I wasn't able to accept the sight of my nascent heroes looking like fools. On top of that, there was the oh-so-familiar vocal stylings of Mel Blanc layered over the mayhem.
I ran from the darkened auditorium in tears. My father, who had no way of knowing how his overly-sensitive son would react to this supposed treat, followed me outside where we sat and he listened as I tried to explain my confusion and sadness. Eventually, he helped me understand that this was comedy, and maybe it wasn't funny to me. That happens sometimes. I didn't get the joke.
Since then, I have learned to appreciate all that NFL Films has done to bring the once lowly spectacle of professional football to the forefront of American culture. I was happily relieved when our local cable company added the NFL Network to our lineup. Watching a game in slow motion takes longer, but it's endlessly entertaining. Just don't ask me to watch Football Follies. 
Aloha, Steve - in super-slo-mo.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


It wasn't until I was back inside and my nerves stopped humming and lowered their frequency to a very unsettled rattle that I thought about this: Never bring a baseball bat to a gun fight. Happily, there were no guns, but while I was out in the street, it hadn't occurred to me that the teen aged hooligans I was confronting might be packing something a little more technologically advanced than my Louisville Slugger. To my post-traumatic relief, they were armed with pockets full of rocks and incredibly foul and sadly redundant mouths.
It was the rocks that got me up off my chair in the first place. I heard our dog yelp and then a thud. She skittered in the front door as I got there, and I saw four young toughs laughing heartily at their little prank. That's when the barrage of filth started. They were every bit as ugly and disrespectful to my wife who opened the window to try and reason with them. And that's when the cable that had been tethering my patience snapped. Stolen car. Burglarized house. Now someone was throwing rocks at my dog.
I remembered exactly where the bat was from the night of our break-in. I was out on the front porch and down the steps before I ever thought of putting on shoes. This had the effect of moving the creeps down the street. When I went outside the gate, they turned around to yell back at me. "Just keep moving," I growled.
They did, but that didn't keep them from hurling rocks and epithets. I didn't think to try and knock any of their missiles back at them, nor did it occur to me just what kind of cranky old man I must have appeared. That came afterward, when my wife congratulated/admonished me for "getting all Clint Eastwood on those kids."
I guess I should be relieved that I haven't as yet been reduced to shouting at empty chairs.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Searching For Words

Guess who is calling the Republican presidential nominee "obviously inarticulate." If you guessed forty-seven percent of the United States, that would be a great start, but this little bon mot came from Mitt's running mate Paul "obviously more articulate" Ryan. It was the Republican vice-presidential nominee who attempted to clear up the confusion about his presumptive boss's assertion that ''There are forty-seven per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what. All right, there are forty-seven per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,'' he said. ''My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.''
I'm not sure what Paul "Mister Marathon" Ryan's definition of "articulate" is, but I thought that Mitt's meaning was abundantly clear. I don't know if John "What Is That Vetting Thing Again?" McCain would agree with that. "I don't think that people will believe that, as Governor Romney made very clear, that we will exclude a single voter." I suppose that at its tiny corroded black heart, Mitt's comment suggests that it isn't his fault at all. It's the forty-seven percent's fault. We just don't get him. We're the ones who are excluding him. "Lead or get out of the way," he says as he moves ever onward, in search of the past. I suspect there's at least forty-seven percent of the country who aren't interested in taking that ride. 

Friday, September 21, 2012


The weight of my replica orange and blue jersey held me there on the couch as I watched the Denver Broncos muddle their way to a Monday Night Football loss. Most notable for me on this night was the replacement of Hank "Just To The Right Of Ted Nugent" Williams Junior with Charlie Daniels. While it got me to wondering about Mister Daniels' politics, I spent the rest of the night considering my other affiliations. Just down the road from the school where I teach, the local baseball franchise is engaged in a life-or-death struggle with a spot in the playoffs. I care about that. I'll wear a green and yellow shirt if that helps. Contrastingly, however, I don't have room in my closet for a silver and black anything that would connect me to the professional football club that shares, for the time being, that same field.
And it's not just sports that define my sartorial splendor. I was asked by my union to wear red to show solidarity with my fellow teachers in Chicago during their recent strike. Ironically, it was my various sports allegiances that keep my wardrobe essentially free of the color red. It also helped me resolve my ambivalence about my Second City union brothers and sisters who turned up their collective noses at a sixteen percent raise. While I appreciate the concerns raised about extended school days and evaluation processes, I know that there are a number of us here in Oakland who would jump at the median salary of $76,000 a year, plus sixteen percent.
In the meantime, perhaps my strongest argument against red was growing up in the heart of Buffalo Country, where we were routinely assailed by the scarlet and crimson waves of Nebraska and Oklahoma fans who made the trip to Boulder each year to rub our noses in our football mediocrity. Then one day, the silver and gold rose up and became a national champion*. That was more than twenty years ago. Since then, things haven't been all that glorious at Folsom Field. Last weekend, the University of Colorado lost to the Fresno State Bulldogs by a score of sixty-nine to fourteen. This came hard on the heels of two previous losses and an e-mail plea from the Buffalo's athletic director for contributions that would go toward eventually expanding and rebuilding the stadium which had only recently had luxury boxes stapled to it just a few years ago.
All of this made me tired, and so I went to bed and dreamed in black and white.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I can remember what a revelation it was to me to find out that there was a word that described how things get messed up: entropy. This "gradual decline into disorder" was a relief to me. It was the word that described Alvy Singer's ennui as a child. I've written about it before, and judging from the title of this blog, I probably will again. So here goes: Reading Thomas Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49" as a freshman in college gave me the sense that I was opening a door to knowledge that had been hidden from me all those years. There was a vast conspiracy out there, and it wasn't just human beings involved, but the very laws of physics themselves. The whole world was falling apart, but that was precisely the thing that made all this art possible. "Every act of creation is first an act of destruction." Pablo Picasso said that. Of course he was using words from other people's sentences to do it.
I've been feeling this more keenly as I age, and the people and things around me move from order to chaos, in spite of my best attempts to keep them from going that way. Maintaining a house and and a family center is more and more difficult as forces beyond my control keep us slipping toward the random. This was most apparent to me this past weekend as I stood in front of our dryer. Here I was, cleaning our clothes with the expressed purpose of putting them back into drawers where they could be worn again. I am constantly fishing the odd sock out of this crevice or pulling that one from the static flurry of a freshly dried sheet. It wasn't the socks that got to me. It was the lint. When the dryer was empty, I pulled out the filter and skimmed a handful off gray fluff into the basket next to the machine. That basket, though not very large, was stuffed and overflowing with similar-sized balls of gray fluff. This was the distillation of our laundry, the clumps of loose threads and fabric that have been diminished from our clothes over these many months. That pair of pants that had to be retired a couple of weeks ago? They might still be around if not for the lint filter working its evil magic. That favorite shirt will someday be part of the void.
I'll bet Woody Allen gets all his clothes dry cleaned.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Baked Beans, Sausage and Spam - That's Not Got Much Spam In It

I always check the contents of the spam file on my e-mail before I eliminate it from my computer forever. I liken this activity to the cyber version of peeking inside the Kleenex after one blows his or her nose. You never know what might be in there, and it's always better to check. Amidst all those requests for my kind patience and help delivering some poor soul's life savings to his relatives here on the American shores, or perhaps some young thing would like me to know that her husband is away on business and should I be interested in virtually dropping by, or maybe there is some new wonder cure for a less-than-politely described ailment that the makers feel testing on me would be far less cruel than lab rats, is a message that inadvertently got misfiled.
This is a rare occurrence, admittedly, but every so often I have been rewarded with a note from a friend or relative who just happened to trip whatever switch my mail server has that directs anything over a certain size, or with an overabundance of recipients, or used too many verbs. When I find these little nuggets of truth, I congratulate myself for being just a little more clever than the machine that is supposed to know whom I want to correspond with and with whom I do not. Sometimes I stretch this definition a bit, just to keep that smug feeling alive. Like the coupons I rescued from the electronic waste bin. The ones for Doritos and Coca Cola. How did that get in there? Sure, I'm no great fan of the new Cinnamon and Chipotle style snack chips, but I can always use a good deal on the Real Thing. Of course, upon closer inspection, it required that I register for some service that would send yet another avalanche of spam my way, and so I finished up the operation by hitting the delete button. Maybe these newfangled doo-hickeys are good for something after all. I console myself with having the good sense to leave them turned on.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Whatta Doll!

It probably came about as a result of viewing pictures of "real-life Popeye" Moustafa Ismail and his thirty-one inch biceps. "It" was my very clear memory of a favorite childhood toy, "Big Jim." Jim sported a highly ripped physique, and was Barbie's pal Ken on steroids. Of course, when I was ten years old, all of the less-than-subtle erotic overtones to this "action figure" never occurred to me. Big Jim's best trick? He could pop a muscle band with his flexing bicep.
It was really just a trick of a lever wedged beneath a wad of flesh-colored rubber. My brothers and I discovered this mechanism after one of our Jims' arms broke, necessitating exploratory surgery. We found that Jim couldn't move his arm without crushing whatever happened to be in the crook of his elbow. But that didn't matter to me. This lesson was not lost on me, nor was the way that he always put his socks on before his pants, "for that neat look." For a couple of years, birthdays and Christmas were all about getting the latest gear for my action figure. Of course, just like GI Joe and his Action team, there was no end to the accessories that could be acquired. Jim had other sports buddies, and eventually a rough and tumble cadre of enforcers called "The Pack." By this point, fighting evil had become less of a concern for me than getting along with the real-life guys in junior high. The revelation that I was still playing with dolls, at this point, would not have furthered that cause. Like Captain Action and The Adventure Team before him, Jim moved down the hall to my younger brother's room. Until they become the victims of more non-elective surgery.
I wonder what Moustafa Ismail's arm looks like inside.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Substitute Me For Him

It was a kind of tradition, when I was in high school band, to torment the occasional substitute teacher that came to take the place of our infrequently absent director by switching instruments for the day. Trumpet players mishandling clarinets. Oboe players attempting to decipher the subjective mystery of the trombone. Percussionists picking up anything that they couldn't make a noise without hitting it. We all knew that we would probably suffer for it the next day, since our band director was not easily amused. Just as we knew that any similar antics in other classes had a comedy half-life of about as long as it takes for the regular teacher to read the note left by the substitute at the end of a trying day.
Which is why it might seem odd that today I find myself writing today in appreciation of all those substitute teachers that have come before, and all those who will come after, Alex. Alex came to me from the Ukraine, or more directly, from the district office. He had hoped that he would have a nice relaxed day of Reading Intervention. Instead, he was thrown into the maelstrom of elementary Physical Education. Even though "Red Light, Green Light" and "Mister Fox" were not playground staples in Alex's youth, he worked through our collective cultural differences and made it work. Just having another adult on the yard with me was significant enough, but the fact that he was willing to dealt with the vagaries of fifth graders playing four square made him a hero in my eyes. At the end of the day, we walked out. No one carried either one of us. No child was left behind or hidden behind a dumpster. We did the best we could.
I am always happy when we have full attendance, students and staff, because it means that we can continue our program at the pace that one hundred and eighty days of instruction demands. But if one of us has to make that call, I look forward to seeing Alex waiting on a chair in our office, looking forward to another unpredictable day.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Begninning

I wasn't much of a party guy in high school. I staunchly defended my "I don't need to get high, I get high on life" style to anyone who would listen. A good portion of this defense was, to paraphrase Marx, centered in my fear of actually becoming a part of any group that would have me as a member. Instead, I generated my own mythos as comic relief for the world. Little did I know that I was creeping along a path that had already been worn by my father a generation before.
I have a clear memory of the first party I threw: a Halloween bash in my parents' basement. It was a dry affair, partly because my parents were waiting upstairs to usher my costumed guests in and out, but also because I had somehow gathered a group of like-minded individuals as my friends, and the idea of sneaking around getting wasted was lost on us. It never occurred to us that sitting around in a room full of like-minded individuals could become boring or tense after that initial ice has been broken. Dropping that ice into a cocktail and giving it a stir was something that many of our contemporaries were busy doing even as we gathered around my Atari 2600 to play yet another highly competitive game of Breakout.
I have another memory, one that came from a time shortly after that All Hallow's Eve, in which I drove out to a friend's house in Heatherwood, a much more prototypical suburban spot, where the parents had left for the weekend, and the kids had the run of the place. There was no Atari at this soiree. But there were girls. People, some of the same guys who were there in my basement just a few weeks before, brought dates. And the lighting wasn't as good. I don't recall if there was any drinking going on, but I know I didn't have any. I was still clinging righteously to my drug-free existence. I know that I was incredibly ill at ease. Conversations seemed to be filled with a code I did not comprehend. I looked for a friendly face, and found one as soon as I began to rip liberally from the most recent episode of "Mork and Mindy." I became The Funniest Man In The Room. Little did I know, at the time, that part of what made Robin Williams the funniest man in his room on any given day was the snoot full of cocaine he maintained.
Fast forward to New Year's Eve of that same year, and the more mature and refined gathering I had talked my parents into letting me host in that same basement. The guest list was similar, and there was Breakout to be played, but at midnight, I had convinced my mother and father that it would not be a fitting celebration without champagne. Andre Champagne. It was this swill that enabled my first drunk, in what would become a series that stretched through the Reagan administration and into the Bush years. I found witty and charming after the first few drinks, and then proceeded to move straight on to babbling incoherence just after the new year rang in.
The cork was out of the bottle, and I didn't know how to put it back in.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Land Of Hope And Dreams

It is no small coincidence that both my wife and I awoke that same morning from dreams of Disneyland. It has been a tough month for us. The loss of her aunt. The burglary of our house. At the end of any given August, it's hard enough for our family to transition back into school mode. This year, events have had us looking over our shoulder, wondering what the next catastrophe might be.
Certainly, we have counted our blessings in each case: That we were able to have the time we did with our aunt before she died. That the only thing that we lost in the burglary was stuff that could be replaced. Still, we notice that Rita-shaped hole in our lives. My son's blanket, the one that was used to cover up the thieves' ill-gotten gains on the way out of our house, is gone. It is no longer a source of comfort for him, because that is what we are missing. That is why my wife and I went to the happiest place on earth.
This is the place where I don't fret about the motion sensor lights. I don't worry about the quality time we have left. I want to know what the wait time is on Space Mountain. Ironically even now I feel the twinge, as I sit here writing this, of doubt about leaving my house again for any stretch of time. What will be left when I come back?
This same morning, as I was going out the front gate to make my ride to work, a tow truck was pulling up just in front of a California Highway Patrol car. They were there to haul away the abandoned vehicle that I had reported online three days earlier. The one that set off echoes of the car we had stolen just a year ago. The one that sat in front of our house for three days with the windows rolled down and the stereo indelicately removed. This little piece of urban blight was being taken away. I thought about the way you never see wads of discarded gum on Main Street in Walt's place. Welcome to the Land of Personal Responsibility.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Give Me A Kid With Hair - Or Not

Ah, science. Research has determined that every hair follicle on your head produces a hair every two to six years and then lies dormant for a few weeks or months. For some, these follicles simply stop waking up over time. Then, a breakdown in communication stops new skin cells from becoming follicles. They become regular skin cells instead. These are found on top of the heads of bald people. Scientists believe that Vitamin D holds the key to turning those skin cells around and getting them back on the hair-growing track again.
What if you don't want to grow hair? I'm proud to show my scalp to the rest of the world. I don't feel that my virility or vanity has been affected in any particular way because my forehead went the way of my father's: all the way back to his neck. It was my father who showed me the way to cope with a less-than-full head of hair. Growing hair is not exactly the survival concern it was back when we lived outside in the elements. Sure, I want to protect the top of my head when the weather outside is frightful. However, the invention of hats was a significant one, and doesn't require a doctor's prescription.
My showers are just a couple of minutes long. Once I towel off the water that has beaded on the top of my head, I'm good to go. I contrast this mightily with the efforts of roommate in college, who had a regimen that could take a full hour to complete. Yul Brynner. Telly Savalas. Michael Jordan. Did hair loss somehow impede their progress through life? Not to worry, since the exact formula hasn't been generated, so I won't feel the need to start buying up tubs full of Vitamin D. It is not, as the King of Siam might say, "scientific."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Save Ferris

Last weekend, I watched "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" with my son. As is his wont, he focused on all the action in which the Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder was featured. This did not mean that we didn't enjoy the rest of the hijinks that ensued as Ferris and his pals play hooky from school. Those moments when Matthew Broderick, as Ferris, broke the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience were some of our favorites. We watched the whole thing, all the way through the credits.
Never mind that Ferris' adventures came out the year I graduated from college, or that Matthew Broderick is three months older than I am. It was part of an effort to instill the values and culture of my generation on my teenaged son. We hope, in this his sophomore year, to show him "Breakfast Club," and "Heathers." What possible good will it do to steep our child of the new millennium in a John Hughes-infused soup? Perhaps we hope to insulate him from the world that he wanders through each day.
Being a teenager in 2012 is much more complicated than it was in 1980. I know that in my heart, and that is why I cling to these images from my youth. Perhaps I should be watching "Stand and Deliver" or "Dangerous Minds"  with him. Last year, his English class watched "One Eight Seven." His mother and I were shocked and dismayed to discover that this terrifying tale of urban education had been shown in his classroom. Of course, this was right about the time we were sitting down as a family to watch "Dead Poet's Society." Maybe we should let him do a little more of the movie selection. There's probably a scathing indictment of high school education buried somewhere in "Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Election Returns

Everything I know about politics I learned in eighth grade. I had never been a fan of elections. I had become used to being the one casting the votes rather than sitting nervously on the sideline as ballots were counted, hoping that my name would be on some of them. As was the case on the playground, I pretty much expected that if I was going to be picked, that I was going to be picked last. But when my friend, Doug, decided to run for Head Boy, I saw an opportunity: I became his campaign manager. I designed posters and wrote clever slogans. Caricatures of Doug and his infamous mouth full of big, shiny teeth were everywhere. In the halls. In the cafeteria. In classrooms. I even suggested that since "head" is another name for a toilet on a ship, we could post flyers in the bathrooms.
That didn't happen, but we did end up winning the election in what could best be described as a landslide. That is, if your definition of "landslide" extends to a difference of more than fifty votes. The celebration of this victory never fully extended to Doug's staff: me.
It was at this moment, sitting at the back table in our Earth Science class, that I felt the separation of social strata as oppressively as I ever would. The popular crowd found their way back to our table. Not to see me. To see Doug. I moved my backpack and scooted my chair out of the way to make way for the well-wishers, boys and pretty girls, who wanted to connect with the newly minted Head Boy. My work was done. The five dollar fee which we had joked about when the election was still weeks away was forgotten. We were friends, after all. Were friends.
We still talked after that, but we were never as close as we were during that stretch run in eighth grade. Our paths diverged. I watched as Doug's star grew brighter, and I hung out with my friends in band. I wonder if James Carville still gets a Christmas card from Bill Clinton.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One Is A Very Lonely Number

Eleven. It's an interesting number. I have a friend whose favorite time of day is eleven-eleven. All those ones, together. It's an interesting image. Dominoes. Bars. A picket fence. Today is the eleventh anniversary of September 11. Fixed as I am about writing numbers out, as the training I received as a student of English composition, that continues to be the one that evades me. 9/11. Just a slash away from being a call for help. I am certain that if something had come up and the terrorists had to postpone for a week that I would now be searching for meaning in 9/18. Instead, we're stuck with the numerology of 911.
Nearly three thousand people died in the attack on the World Trade Center towers eleven years ago. There is no equation that diminishes that. Here's some more math: Private First Class Shane W. Cantu of Corunna, Michigan died last week in eastern Afghanistan. Private Cantu was ten years old when the towers fell. The announcement of his death was overshadowed by news of the Democratic conventions. The deaths of soldiers the week before were pushed to the back pages by coverage of the Republican Party's party. It's a steadily dripping faucet. The war in Iraq has wound down, but just a hop over Iran to the east, American soldiers are still fighting and dying. More than two thousand American soldiers have died since the war began. The one that made sense, since we were tracking the bad guys to their homes. Iraq was the distraction, and needed to be ended before it began. Now it's been eleven years. That's an average of an American every other day. In Afghanistan.
In New York City, the New World Trade Center nears completion. 1 World Trade Center. Eleven years. That's a lot of ones.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Would You Like Fries With That?

How does one explain the success of the McRib? A sandwich made with something that looks like the thing that crawled into Chekov's ear in "Wrath of Khan" and garnished with pickles is a huge sensation. People line up for it. It will not go away. Why are we lining up for it?
There is no question that the marketing machine behind McDonald's is second to none. Their food is the reward for being drawn into the restaurant by the siren song pouring out of the television over the last fifty-eight years. Are there better burgers? Sure there are. And all those other menu items that come with the prefix "Mc?" From the Big Mac to all those "healthy alternatives?"
It has nothing to do with nutrition. Feel free to ask Morgan Spurlock about that. Yet, I feel drawn to the Golden Arches time and time again. Sometimes I even drag my family and friends along with me. I feel the shame, but I line up anyway. I deserve a break today.
Why would I feel the twinge when I get yet another e-mail from the Obama campaign, begging me to kick in just a little more: fifteen dollars here, thirty dollars there. I already gave. And I put a link on my blog, right over there. Haven't I done enough?
I hear the refrain of those e-mails, and the news reports announcing how Mitt "I Care More Than Obamacare" Romney and his party have outspent Obama and continue to rake in money for even more.
Is this really how we're going to elect our president? The same way that we make our questionable fast food choices. I don't know for sure, but if they can sell an super-sized earwig on a bun with a good ad campaign, maybe we should keep this in mind.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Begin Again

It has become something of a tradition in our house: Football season begins and my wife and I go our separate ways. I try and get her to sit down and watch four quarters of a game with me. She nudges me in any direction away from the couch on Sunday. But this has become our pattern, our life. It's not like we live a completely stereotypical sit-com life, but in this one regard all we are really lacking is a laugh track.
Probably the most amusing weekend is the very first of twenty-plus: The NFL kickoff weekend coincides with my wife's annual pilgrimage to the Gatsby Picnic, an Art Deco event that allows her to indulge in her fantasies of a simpler, more refined time. She eats sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and wanders about the grounds of a mansion beneath a parasol, chatting with friends in period-perfect costumes as they admire her own period-perfect costume. But before all that, there is the preparation. Hours before that relaxed stroll, there is a flurry of ironing, salad mixing and sandwich trimming, hair spray, and a half-dozen changes of these shoes and those accessories before everyone piles out the front door and into a decidedly non-period hatchback for the trip to the past.
All of this takes place in and around what could be considered prime viewing spots for the early game. I try to be supportive during commercials and time-outs. "Yes dear, that looks great," or "I think I can find that picnic basket for you." At this point, I am thankful for instant replay and a digital video recorder that allows me to pause the live action that is taking place all around the league while the womenfolk collect themselves and their accouterments tumble out into the light, leaving me in the cave with my manly pursuits. With the faint smell of nail polish remover still hanging in the air.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Neverending Story

The word on the back of the car was "Maxima." I looked it up. It is the plural form of "maximum," and that means the greatest value or quantity possible. These cars are, by definition, the greatest. None greater can be imagined of conceived. They are made by Nissan, which continues to build cars. They continue to make other models. Lots of them. How can that be?
There is also an Ultima. This supercar is described by its makers as "the result of over twenty years of extensive research and development and is a product that takes the Ultima marque to sensational levels of fit, finish and performance." Pretty awesome, but if it truly lives up to its designation as "ultimate," how am I going to get that sheet of plywood to my house from Home Depot?
Hyperbole. There are still plenty of cars left to be made. There are still better ways to get stains out of Billy's chinos. There are lots of ways to decrease or even eliminate our national debt. There is no one final answer. It's a long run. Who is still using their first generation iPhone? There are people working hard, at this very moment, trying to figure out what to do with all those expired smart phones. Ultimate? Maxima? Not yet. That's why they went ahead and made a sequel to "The Neverending Story." Two of them.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Crosstown Traffic

"The more you drive, the less intelligent you are." At least that's what Miller would tell us in Alex Cox's "Repo Man." It may be that these words seeped into my cerebral cortex way back when I worked at a video store and watched that film, mostly in bits and pieces, dozens of times. It could also be that regular exposure to my younger brother, who has seen it front to back more times than he can count, has something to do with it. Ironic on that note because he now makes his living as a driver.
I don't. I ride my bike to and from work. I tend to defer to others when it comes time to get behind the wheel. Not because I lack the capacity to drive, but because I find it boring. My son is on the cusp of his sixteenth birthday, and he is all about the incipient freedom of the open road. I remember that youthful idealism. That was before I learned about traffic. Sitting in traffic. Dealing with traffic. Crosstown traffic. Traffic jams. Driving isn't about getting from place to place. It's about getting from place to place while avoiding all those other folks who are trying to get from place to place without collision.
This world view may be why I wasn't particularly shocked by a pair of recent news stories. The first concerned a one hundred year old man who drove onto a sidewalk near a Los Angeles school and hit eleven children. It could be that after a certain age, we should think twice about letting our older citizens get behind the wheel. Or address the Republican National Convention. The other story comes from Bangkok. The heir to the Red Bull fortune struck and killed a policeman with his Ferrari, dragging him for several blocks. Let's hope that besides giving one wings, that Red Bull will also give one a good lawyer.
Me? I'll stick to two wheels, and my head on a swivel.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Family Jewels

I think it was the underwear drawer that will stick with me the longest. I have been made aware that a good many people use such a location to hide very important or valuable items. I don't. Unless you count underwear as a very important or valuable item. Nonetheless, the person or persons who broke into our house the other night while we were away chose to toss my boxers and briefs around the bedroom in a vain attempt to locate the good stuff.
They took TVs. They took a computer monitor, mouse, and keyboard. They took some cash. They took my son's video game system and the blanket off his bed to cover it all. Like my underwear, I'm sure that it's the blanket that bothers him most. That made it more personal. That made it a violation.
That's what the officer talked with us about, in between writing down the serial numbers of the missing items and apologizing for the agonizingly slow response. We live in Oakland. Things get broken, stolen and shot all the time, and with budget cuts, there aren't enough police to keep up with all the things that are broken, stolen, and shot. Nothing was bleeding at our house, so we waited our turn.
While we waited we counted all the things that weren't taken. They took the TVs but left the cables to connect them. They took the monitor, but left the computer. The broke into our house, but all of us were safe and sound when it was all over. That was the relief that spread over me from almost the instant that we came in the front door and noticed all that space where our stuff used to be. Here was my wife, there was my son, and coming out from the back bedroom was our dog: all accounted for and ready to start the work of putting our lives back in order. Starting with that underwear drawer.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Sudden Impact

As it turns out, Barack Obama is a big fan of Clint Eastwood. Make that "huge" fan. "He is a great actor, and an even better director," the president told a USA Today reporter aboard Air Force One last Saturday. "I think the last few movies that he's made have been terrific." As for Clint's one-man show, the President had this to say: "One thing about being president or running for president — if you're easily offended, you should probably choose another profession."
I will have to take his word for it, but I confess that I have now had moments of disconnect so severe with this campaign that I don't know what needs to be thicker, one's head or one's skin. If you missed Mister Eastwood's special appearance at last week's Republican National Convention, you may have missed the future of public discourse in America. Once you get past the part where he was arguing with an empty chair, you're left with a number of pithy ad-libs that seemed to delight the partisan crowd. To wit: "I think if you just step aside and Mister Romney can kind of take over. You can maybe still use a plane." Facts? Who needs facts when you're arguing with an empty chair? Clint mentioned the "twenty-three million" unemployed Americans. The actual number is about half that.
Who cares? This is show biz! Just like back in 1985, when Ronald Reagan threatened Congress with his veto pen, "Go ahead. Make my day," he snarled. This was the chorus the crowd chanted at the real Dirty Harry as he stood on the stage in Tampa last week.
I suppose it beats an unemployed reality TV star chanting, "Drill baby, drill!" But not by much.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Uncle Duane. Uncle Way-wee. Because kids had a hard time with "Duane." He was also the guy who used to pull out a pocket knife and carve off a chunk of Longhorn Colby Cheese. Cheeb. Because Uncle Way-wee wouldn't give us "cheese." He was the first pipe smoker I knew. He and a great portion of his house smelled of pipe tobacco that came from a pouch in the living room, next to his easy chair. The pipe smoking, we were told, was a reminder of his years in the Navy. As were the tattoos that covered both of his forearms. Living in landlocked Colorado, it never occurred to me how far he was from the ocean and those days gone by.
He was my father's sister's husband. Aunt Peggy worked at the grocery store, and raised my older cousins Sharon and Cathy, and kept Way-wee in pipe tobacco and cheeb. What did he do for a living? I don't recall that, aside from his years as a sailor that there was much employment in Duane's life. Mostly he sat on the front porch, carving off slices of cheeb.
I know that my father kept his side of the family at arm's length. His brother-in-law may have played a part in that choice. I remember one particular summer afternoon at our cabin in the mountains, where a family reunion got more than a little tense after Duane had a few extra beers. He grew very bitter and accused my father of never sharing what he had. This came as some puzzling news for my father, who had invited Way-wee to his home away from home and bought most of the beer that was consumed. By my uncle. The same guy who stood at the bottom of the stairs, slurring curses at my father. The same guy who sat on the front steps of his own house, spinning tales of his years at sea and whittling on that block of cheeb.
We saw less and less of Way-wee as we grew older. That summer day took most of the patience my father had left with his brother-in-law. It was easier to get along with my mother's side of the family. In his twilight years, Duane was most visible as a local character. He was "that guy on a bike," riding around the streets of Boulder, always with seemingly someplace to go. Seemingly. Mostly he was pedaling about, sure that someone was after him, as his paranoid delusions got the best of him.
I still think of my uncle when I ask my son if he wants some cheeb. He looks at me with the same curious look that I once gave Way-wee. And when I get on my bike, I make sure I have a place to go.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Workers Of The World, Unite

Ah, Labor Day. A celebration of our working men and women. We celebrate by taking a day off of that work to reflect on all the good work that we would be doing if we were at work. It's a vacation day. Not one that comes out of your personal stash of fourteen, on average, but a day away from the grind. Americans get a bunch of those, which tends to supplement the two weeks that we are generally allotted by our employers. As an elementary school teacher, I am afforded a great many more opportunities for this reflection, in part because I belong to a union.
When I first signed up for this teaching gig, I had no idea that I would be asked, nay required, to be part of organized labor. When my contract was brought along in that first month, I figured I would have a chance to mull over my options, and then decide if the union life was for me. It turns out that working for the Oakland Public Schools meant that I had already made that choice. I got my union card, but no wedding coat. I was already married.
Over the years, I've thought a lot about what it means to be a part of the dwindling number of U.S. workers who affiliate themselves with organized labor. At last count, only eleven percent of us workers belong to a union, compared to eighteen in Germany and a full seventy percent in Finland. I've participated in work actions, including a one day strike  a couple of years ago. I even went to some union meetings back before I became numb to the roar of dozens of different voices all heading in different directions with the ultimate goal of finding one vision: How best to serve our members.
For years now, I have complained to anyone that will listen that I would be happy to continue to donate part of my pay for union dues if we got to choose what our premiums were. I don't want a subscription to teacher magazines. I don't want to have to pay an additional twelve dollars for the T-shirt that identifies me as a union member. I paid my dues. Give me the shirt.
Still, I can't say it's all bad. At the end of just about ever school year, just as the children and I have reached that magical point where we really need an extra moment or two away from one another, there is an extra day off inserted in the calendar just before Memorial Day. It's called "In Lieu of Lincoln's Birthday," and it was part of a deal brokered by my union. And I suppose that's what I will be reflecting on this Labor Day.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Gaffe Patrol

"It's giving me a tumor!" These were the words I shouted as the extended family continued to make more and more permutations of our group for photos to remember the occasion.
From behind me, I heard the admonishing voice of my son: "Dad!" He was scolding me because the occasion for which we were taking all of these pictures was the memorial for his great aunt Rita, who had just recently passed away. From a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
He was right, of course. What I said was totally without thought or merit to the situation, and it fit in well with my history of inappropriateness. I once scolded a little girl at a party for launching her bouncy ball onto a pan of brownies, telling her, "Now you're just going to have to eat all those brownies."
Her shocked mother replied, "But, you know she's a diabetic."
"Sorry. Actions have consequences."
The little girl was not forced to eat any of the brownies, but I was briefly marginalized by the crowd for my over-commitment to comedy, regardless of the taste.
Back at the memorial service, the photo-ops continued. My son sat and watched his little cousins hang from their older uncles and fathers, and out of mild concern for their safety, he called out, "Don't die!"
Just as there wasn't a break in the action after my tumor comment, the crowd continued in their busy way to get the requisite number of memories for the moment. But I stopped for a moment to make eye contact with my son. He looked at me with an embarrassed smile. Welcome to the gaffe patrol, my son.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

It's Our Party, And We'll Whine If We Want To

When Ron Paul supporters walked out of the Republican National Convention, they were sending a message. It was a message that I, as an elementary school teacher, are very familiar with: "That's not fair." In the months leading up to the big show, Paul's campaign had worked arcane local and state party rules to take over several state delegations, including garnering twenty of Maine’s twenty-four spots. The Republican National Committee decided to replace ten of them, effectively stopping the state from being able to submit Paul’s name for nomination. Ron Who? Wiselot Rouzard, a delegate from Nevada and a Paul supporter, compared the situation to Adolf Hitler taking power in Germany. “There’s nothing American about what just happened,” he said. “This is the death of the Republican Party.”
Mark Twain is dead, but the Republican Party charges on. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and sideman for Ted Nugent, believes that this is merely a bump in the road. You lost. Get over it. "I don't think they've been disrespected," Huckabee told reporters. "Elections are about—you get numbers. I lost four years ago, and I didn't feel disrespected as much as I felt defeated. You have to accept that the voters make a choice and the voters made a choice." If it makes any difference, I'm happy to let Mike know that I disrespect him.
In the meantime, as hurricanes rage and the inevitable run up to the national election sits just over the rise, the Democrats prepare to get their party on. Leading up to that show, Barack Obama told his fans, "Don't boo. Vote. That's the best response. Vote and get some of your friends to vote." Even if you have to write Ron Paul's name in at the bottom.