Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back

I don't feel cheated by the poorly administered web site for health care. I am surprised that after years of waiting and with all that was riding on it, our government still managed to deliver a confusing and frustrating product. Maybe "surprised" is too strong a term. I think that "chagrin" may be a more accurate description of the feeling I have about the situation. That might be a good way to describe the way I have felt for most of 2013.
To say that things continued pretty much "business as usual" over the past year would sound cynical, but apt. What we gained in a new Pope and incipient King of England was more than outweighed by the loss of many of our brightest minds and personalities. Lou Reed. Annette Funicello. Nelson Mandela. It's an accounting issue that will probably make more sense as time goes by, but for now the debits don't quite match the credits.
Especially when it comes to dogs in our house. This will be the year that we stopped having Maddie around. The emotional math of that one is going to take some time to figure out. On the one hand, we've got all those years of white fur and fun stored up. On the other we have this big empty place that only she could fill. Will it get better? Sure it will, but there is no replacing her, only spreading out the blanket of memories to cover that hole.
Another memory we will have of 2013 is the way gay marriage became less a legal battle and more of a reality for so many more people. Someday it will just be marriage, and we won't have to qualify it. Like so many things this year, the battle was won, but the war is far from over.
Speaking of which, there are still Americans dying in Afghanistan. Sergeant Daniel Vasselian was killed in combat two days before Christmas, and four days after his fourth wedding anniversary. Not the hundreds that have been killed in years past, but still the body count continues. We get the same kind of news here in Oakland: despite the recent flurry of homicides, the murder rate is down from a year ago.
What do I want? No needless death. No anguished families. But I suppose I'll settle for a web site that works. Goodbye, 2013.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Quick Shot

The fact that I couldn't make a fist for about twelve hours without wincing in pain seems totally worth it. Considering the alternative: being able to make a fist for twelve hours without wincing in pain. Actually, the variety of choices at my disposal were much larger than that. I could have stayed home in the first place, but since we were all together, and in the spirit of Boxing Day we didn't want to be separated on the off chance that there be some savings opportunities to which we had yet to avail ourselves. First, however, there was a stop at my son's doctor to make certain that he was healthy enough to face the new year.
While we were waiting, I decided to nip on down the hall to see if I could work in a flu shot as long as we were in that great big building full of doctors and medicine. As it turns out, they were able to fit me right in, and the time it took me to fill out the form was longer than the time it took to jab me once in the arm and send me on my way.
Did I mention that it hurt? More than just having a needle poked through my skin, this one felt like it hit a muscle, which it turns out is just the right thing to do. It reminded me of the times, back in junior high school, when the boys who wanted to prove their worth to other boys watching would take turns punching me in the shoulder. The bruise I got back then was considerably larger and more colorful than the one the nurse left with the injection, and also didn't come with some stinging epithet or further threat to my safety.
The flu shot was given in the hopes of keeping safe from further infection. Even though I was warned against the possibility of "soreness or swelling at the site of shot, low grade fever and aches," I was holding out hope that once I regained the use of my arm, I would be indestructible. Or nearly. Next week I will be returning to the petri dish that is elementary education, and I imagine I will encounter all manner of viruses and germs. It's what one gets for hanging around a bunch of snotty nosed kids: a snotty nose.
For now I will have to settle for the sore arm, and hope that I wasn't inadvertently injected with some experimental serum that will eventually cause me to swell up to massive proportions and start slinging a red, white and blue shield around. Then I wouldn't have to worry about the flu at all, just the Red Skull.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

After The Fact

Last year was the first time that the parents were up before the child. Our son had sublimated his inner Christmas desire in exchange for more sleep. It was a none-too-subtle change in the dynamics of our household. It brought back all those memories of the pre-dawn awakenings that we experienced for fifteen years, and the anxious nights when we used all manner of cajoling and threats to get him to sleep so that Santa could do his job. And mom and dad held out the slightest hope of getting just a few hours before the full force of yuletide frenzy woke that little boy and brought him tearing into our room with all the anticipation replaced by adrenalin. The day he had waited for since the wrapping paper had been cleared a year ago was finally here again.
This year took an additional turn for the low-key. With no dog to insist on an early morning comfort stop outside, the three of us were free to stay in bed until the spirit moved us. Which may explain why I was wide awake just after six AM. I tried my usual insomnia routine: watching infomercials with the sound turned off, but I kept finding myself drawn to the "Christmas Story" marathon. I knew that somewhere there were households that were vibrating with all the frenzy that ours had not too long ago.
But now things were quiet, save for the hum of the Tivo and the exhausted snores from my wife in her kerchief. I lay there and thought about all those times that I had jumped out of bed, still bleary from the hours I had spent the night before, applying decals to the Hot Wheels garage that became the centerpiece for the wave of presents that awaited our only child. I could hear that boy's mother insisting that we all have something to eat before the deluge began. Something other than the chocolate that was almost certainly awaiting us at the bottom of our stockings.
I stayed in bed for a couple more hours, taunted by the ghost of Christmas Past. I wondered if I would be doing anyone a favor by going into the living room and turning on "Christmas In Hollis" by Run DMC at excessive volumes to rally the troops. Or not. Maybe we had rounded a corner in the family's approach to December twenty-fifth. We were older, wiser. Christmas could wait. I put on my shoes and sweatshirt and went out for a run.
When I came back, I recognized some of that old energy. It wasn't the vibrating, wild-eyed fury that I used to know, but the excitement had returned. We set to work, the three of us, alternately tearing into the carefully wrapped items beneath the tree, pausing to make sure that the present we were opening really was intended for us. We took a moment to note with some sadness and frustration that we were able to leave our candy on the coffee table without a concern of a dog helping herself to the treats we had so callously misplaced.
Then it was all over, just like before. We picked up the recycling and threw out the rest. We sat around and appreciated the good will we had shared. And we prepared to do it all again: not exactly the same.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Quitters Inc.

There aren't many people who have quit as often as Sarah Palin, but lately Justin Bieber is making a run at that distinction. Last week, he showed up on a Los Angeles radio show ostensibly to do an interview about his new album and movie. Then he dropped the bomb: "Um, I'm actually retiring, man," he told the surprised host. Was he following through on those thoughts he had a year ago, when he told the world, "I got to the point where I thought, 'I don't want to do this. I just want to be normal.' It was difficult because I'd never gone through anything like that. Usher was like, 'Prepare to have this for the rest of your career because it's not going to stop.' He's gone through some stuff and most artists go through their fair share of bull. That was just my first time." That feeling in the pit of your gut could be sympathy for the boy-child, or it could be the shrimp fajitas you had last night.
Which brings us collectively to Christmas Eve, the day before his concert film was set to open, and the Tweet he sent out. "My beloved beliebers I'm officially retiring." Half an hour later, he followed up with this one: "The media talks a lot about me.They make a up a lot of lies and want me to fail but I'm never leaving you, being a belieber is a lifestyle." Things were looking tough for the true "beliebers" out there, but two minutes later he returned to Twitter to tweet, "Be kind loving to each other, forgive each other as god forgave us through Christ Merry Christmas IM HERE FOREVER."
Forever? That last little mood swing lasted just a little longer than an episode of Hannah Montana. What sort of relationship is this guy trying to cultivate with his fans? Well, since he's a nineteen year old male, it would be a shock if commitment was at the core of any of his decisions, business or otherwise. At nineteen, I was still struggling with decisions like picking a new pair of speakers for my car. I wouldn't call myself any more or less emotionally mature than the Biebs, but at least the only emotions I was toying with were mine and the salesman at TEAM Electronics who really felt I needed the extra boost of the Jensen Triaxials.
Hey Justin, maybe you don't need to retire. Maybe you just need some decent speakers in your car.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Give It Here

The phone rings a lot at our house. Thankfully, through the aid of caller ID, I am able to duck and dodge a great many unwanted entrees into our home. Just like I have developed a cruel but keen sense of people on the street who would like to take "just a moment of my time," I make an effort to avoid those plaintive cries for funding, especially in my own home. Especially at dinner time.
There are some holes in my defenses. One of these gaps exists on my wife's desk: and old touch tone phone that she has held onto for sentimental reasons, but has no way to tell us in advance who might be on the other end of the line when we pick up. It could be anyone. It could be my mother, calling from flood-ravaged Colorado moments before the water reaches her. It could be my boss, letting me know that the rest of the school year has been cancelled but due to my good behavior and perfect attendance it won't be necessary for me to do any further work this year and I will be paid for all that good faith. It could be the bank calling to declare a mistake in my favor of some fifty thousand dollars. It could be any of those things from my fevered and periodically overworked imagination, but it's not. It's another plea for money. My money.
I know, intellectually, that it is no crime to hang up on someone, especially a stranger. But since I am also the kind of person who has been known to chat with people who call my number accidentally, even wrong numbers often get my courteous attentions. Thus, whenever I am confronted by those chance meetings with professional and semi-professional beggars, I feel compelled to give them some of my time. Don't I think that kids in our city deserve a chance to see the program presented yearly by the Benevolent Order Of People Who May Or May Not Have Been Police Officers? Shouldn't I give whatever I can spare to keep the doors of the University of Colorado open, at least for those student athletes who continue to choose my alma mater in spite of their recent difficulties winning games? And what about cancer? Don't I want to stop cancer? What is wrong with me? Of course I want to stop cancer and I hope that if I donate to my college that they will produce a cure that will also generate enough interest in the performing arts that retired or aspiring law enforcement officers will no longer be pressed into that particular duty.
Or not.
I could just walk into the kitchen and take a gander at that little window just above the keypad on that phone that would tell me that merely by waiting out the five or six rings before the dump to voice mail I wouldn't have to hear any of it. I could do that, but then I wouldn't have anything to complain about.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Response To Aremd Response

I won't be sad to see this year end. There has been enough annoying, sad, gut-wrenching news that I will simply chalk it all up to the fact that this year ended with a thirteen. It wasn't a lucky year for most anybody. Except maybe for the folks at the National Rifle Association.
Yes, the folks at the NRA would like us to know, from their website where they offer "food, fun, fellowship and firearms," that the most recent school shooting had a silver lining. "Gun control laws didn't stop a possible massacre at Arapahoe High School," the NRA wrote in a letter to its members last Friday. "A good guy with a gun stopped the rampage and in doing so almost certainly prevented much greater harm. For that, we can all be thankful." It is the opinion of the friendly fellows with firearms that "much greater harm" was avoided because there was an armed response to the shooter at Arapahoe High. "The attacker's mission was stopped short by the quick response of an armed deputy sheriff who was working as a resource officer at the school," the letter continued. "Upon learning of the threat, the deputy ran from the cafeteria to the library, yelling for people to get down and identifying himself as a deputy sheriff.  The horrific incident lasted only a total of 80 seconds and ended with the shooter turning his gun on himself in the library as the deputy was closing in on him." I'm no expert here, and I won't be on the mailing list for any of these letters in the future, but it seems to me that what really put an end to the threat was a bad guy with a gun. When the shooter, armed with a shotgun, about one hundred twenty-five rounds of ammunition, three Molotov cocktails and a machete, blew his own head off, the threat was eliminated.
The rose-colored glasses at the NRA see it differently: "As bad as that was," they wrote, "things could have been much worse." Thank you for that perspective, friendly firearm folks. I'm pretty sure that neither of these views makes a difference to the family, friends of Claire Davis and the community of Arapahoe High. 
In an oddly related note, Mikhail Kalashnikov died Monday. The inventor of the AK-47, the most popular firearm in the world, has gone to his final rest. When asked how he felt about his contribution to bloodshed, he said, "I sleep well. It's the politicians who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence." Didn't he get the letter?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

As It Is In Heaven

She didn't wake up that Christmas morning
She didn't run down the hall
Like so many kids
The next time she would do that
Would be forever
Like so many kids
Hundreds this year
They weren't naughty
They were nice
They won't be waking up this Christmas morning
I feel it every time
That sudden end
To a story just begun
The one that doesn't get
A happily ever after
 It's like the poet said,
There's one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool

We can ask why
We can still cry
And hold those close
Who saw the sun come up
This Christmas morning
- for Claire Davis and hundreds more
Peace on Earth

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Short Timers

I spent the last week of school teaching third, fourth and fifth graders about the shortest day of the year. Actually, a more accurate description of the activity would be that I instructed these kids to help each other figure out what the shortest day of the year was, and why. I had them search Al Gore's Internet for clues. Most of them found the Winter Solstice occurs on or around December twenty-first each year. Some of them even made the distinction that this is true for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Working in groups of four to six members, I understood that asking them to maintain their focus the week before Christmas vacation was going to be a challenge. It was the "why" part that stymied them.
To their credit, each class had a couple of kids who pushed themselves just a little harder and read past that first couple of lines, discovering something about the tilt of the earth's axis, and the Arctic Circle. I understood that I was asking elementary school kids to stretch their minds to imagine that the North Pole was tipped twenty-three degrees off the perpendicular, since most of them had not the slightest clue what perpendicular was, let alone the notion that we were all spinning more than a thousand miles an hour around this pole that runs through the center of the planet. I made a mental note of the number of globes I had seen in these classrooms: none.
But this is the challenge of the job that I do: getting kids whose world rarely extends beyond the end of the bus line to think and experience a bigger place. Their state. Their country. The world they share. It's a challenge, since Facebook and YouTube takes them to places they haven't fully imagined without leaving their couch, but they don't always understand the realities of all this globality.
That's why, when a fourth grade girl stood up and gave her answer to the reason why December 21 was the shortest day of the year, I gave her my full attention. "Because Jesus made it that way." I chose not to argue with her. It made the kind of sense that fourth graders can make. It was straightforward, and most of all, it was an answer. She probably read it on Wikipedia.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Just Keepin' It Real

I had this great pitch for a reality series. It was based on Disney's "The Lion King," and it follows the lives of the Mufasa pride, who became wealthy from their family-operated business. The problem was when we went to shoot the pilot, the lions tended to do one of two things: lay around and sleep, or attack and viciously kill their meerkat and warthog co-stars. As it turns out, reality is nothing like Disney.
As it turns out, the folks on "Duck Dynasty" aren't quite ready for their time slot on the Disney Family of Networks either. That's why the House of Mouse only maintains a fifty percent stake in A&E, formerly Arts and Entertainment, Television.  While it is certain that there is a great deal of entertainment to be found on this channel, discussion will continue on the whole "Art" portion of that moniker. Their show follows the lives of the Robertson family, who became wealthy from their family-operated business. That business is based in Louisiana and the products they sell are for duck hunting. Hence the Duck in the title. It is not the story of Donald and his nephews. They aren't real. The Robertson family, headed up by patriarch Phil, have been crafting duck calls for more than twenty-five years, hence the Dynasty in the title.
And since it's a reality show, why were we surprised to find out that the sixty-seven year old star would have some reality to share with us all: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men." That's what Phil told GQ magazine in an interview for their January issue. Now A&E is suspending him from their show because, in their words, "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely."
Sorry kids, daddy's been put on hiatus. You know, just like real life, only back then it was Phil who was kicking his family out of his house. Colorful characters like these are the kind that make reality TV work. If they didn't open up their mouths and let colorful thoughts fly it's doubtful they would put a camera crew in their living room. You can take it from somebody who knows, Kim Kardashian: "It seems that shows like Teen Mom are all of a sudden making teen pregnancy seem cool in the eyes of young girls. The kids from these shows are all over the news, even on the covers of magazines, and have been become almost like celebrities, but girls, these are not people you should idolize!" 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It's Official

I read an article the other day about football, only this one wasn't about my favorite team or the game that had just finished. This one was about the referees, the third team on the field. It was all about how the officials weren't able to keep up with the speed of the game and were missing calls that might have cost one team or another the game. Part of me harrumphed and agreed with these gentlemen who wanted to have more technology brought to bear on those tiny moments when an extra inch or a tug on a jersey means the difference between winning and losing. I wonder why NFL referees are looking at instant replay on some tiny screen under a plastic pup tent when right above them is twenty-five thousand square feet of video just above their heads. Then there's the matter of the chain gang. These guys must have a great union, since even with the event of laser sighting and global positioning satellites, the best method we can come up with to determine ten yards between two points is by having a couple of guys with orange vests on carry around thirty feet of regulation links that will be used to decide whether or not a first down has been made. Why aren't there microchips in the balls, why can't they be tracked by the NSA, instead of listening in on our phone calls?
But I know the reality. It's a game. It's the same thing I tell the kids at our school when the ball goes out of bounds and they want to argue for the next ten minutes of a fifteen minute recess. It's a game. I understand that it's professional football and millions of dollars are at stake, but part of the joy that is left if there is any, is that it is being played by human beings, capable of catching or dropping the ball, making or missing that fifty yard field goal, or missing that one pass interference call that could have changed the whole game. It's still a game.
I expect that I will have this same response no matter what happens to the Broncos in the playoffs. Please be kind.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mile Stones

Bill Cosby used to do a bit about his father reading the obituaries, announcing loudly, "Ya know who died yesterday?" It very accurately described a time in life when you start to feel your own mortality. Reading names you know in the newspaper is one measuring stick. It's a pretty morbid place to spend a lot of time, but I've been there. Around here in blogtimes, it usually shows up as celebrity deaths. The one that caught me and my son off guard was Paul Walker. If you're not familiar with Paul's body of work, you haven't been attending many movies with your teenage son. The fact that the star of a series of movies called "Fast and Furious" died in a car crash was maybe a little too on the nose, but I found myself conflicted as to the level of tragedy: Paul Walker was forty when he took his last ride. He was a father. He had started his own charitable organization, Reach Out Worldwide, to provide relief to victims of natural disasters across the globe. Forty years is hardly a life, but is it any more or less tragic than James Dean who wrapped a Porsche around a tree when he was twenty-four.
Maybe it's silly to try and rate sadness. How about jealousy? Brad Pitt just turned fifty. The guy my wife fell in love with way back in 1991's "Thelma and Louise." This crush has gone on more or less unabated for more than twenty years, and now I find myself a contemporary of Mister Pitt's. I would like to think that I have aged as gracefully as the star of "Interview With A Vampire," but mine are Oakland miles. His are Hollywood. I'm pleased and happy to be saving my corner of the planet and my wife is every bit as fabulous as Brad's, but my lifestyle does not afford me an estate in New Orleans or the opportunity to show up regularly on film stuffing my face.
The contrast to this experience is the fact that Kieth Richards just turned seventy. Congratulations, Keith. You make me and everyone else feel positively sprightly.

Friday, December 20, 2013

I Would Never Be A Member Of A Club That Would Have Me As A Member

Daryl Hall and, parenthetically, his pal John Oates will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Perhaps because of their delicious and eponymous breakfast cereal. Not a lot of controversy there, right? What about Nirvana? They belong in the museum simply for putting a stake through the heart of Hair Metal back in the late eighties. Besides bringing about a new and less-than-commercial sound that proved to sell millions of records, they probably helped save our ozone layer. The gentlemen from Seattle got in on their very first opportunity.
This was not the case for Detroit's favorite Kabuki Band, KISS. They have been hoping to get a call from the Hall long enough that they have become bitter and disgusted. At least that's the way Paul Stanley sounded back in May: "Look, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is marketing," he said. "You've got a bunch of faceless people in a back room who trademark a name that sounds very official. Well, if you had thought of it first, you would have been the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." As well as "The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame has reached a point where they're really scrounging and scratching to find someone left that they consider viable. With all due respect, when you get to Patti Smith, you're about two steps away from Pete Seeger." This is coming from a guy who is pretty well-versed in the art of marketing. Think "KISS Koffins." Think "KISS Kondoms." And now, seven months removed from that last tirade and an invitation to join Madonna Patti Smith and Blondie in Cleveland, Paul had this to say: “As much as we stomp our feet and question the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame over the years, clearly they’ve come to see things our way, and we respect it,” he laughed. “It’s very cool. There were some people there who were working hard and championing us…and we’re certainly proud for all the people who have fought for us and believe in us, so thank you everybody.” Except maybe Pete Seeger.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Peter Out

The cruise ship my family sailed on way back in my youth had a number of films playing on the Cinema Deck. I watched all of them, as I was an aspiring movie aficionado and introvert who didn't care much for Junior Casino Night or shuffleboard on the Lido Deck. One of the films I watched, and since I was trapped at sea I watched all of them many times, was "The Lion In Winter."  It served as my introduction to Peter O'Toole which, in turn, provided me with a lifetime's worth of fascination.
I know he made some bad films, but I even watched "Creator" in hopes of catching a glimpse of some of that extraordinary talent. Yes, I watched "Supergirl" with the expressed purpose of watching him chew on the very cheesy scenery. I paid full price admission back in 1986 to see Mister O'Toole play Governor Anthony Cloyden Hayes to Robin Williams' retired Chicago firefighter Jack Moniker in "Club Paradise." To see Peter O'Toole act, I watched a lot of bad movies.
Of course, the obverse is true as well. My fascination brought me to a lot of great films. Like "The Stunt Man." Or "The Ruling Class." That movie about the desert and camels and such. And "My Favorite Year." That one gets extra points because it includes my favorite line as well: "I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!" It also stands as the supreme irony regarding Peter O'Toole. He wasn't just a movie star. He was an actor. A very good one. So much so that he was nominated for the best actor Oscar eight times. He never won. His consolation was the special Academy Award he was presented with a special honorary statuette in 2003. There was that and the adulation of the masses, meaning not just me. I had a friend in college who harbored lustful impulses toward Peter O'Toole to the degree that she announced she would "gladly swim in his underwear drawer." A higher tribute I have difficulty imagining.
Aloha, Peter O'Toole. You stomped on the terra.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dreaming Of A White Christmas

In case you missed it, Santa Claus is white. Megyn Kelly says so. Specifically: "And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is maybe just arguing that we should also have a black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we're just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.” Somewhere in there is this kind impulse, shielding our kids from any ugly rumors or questions to the contrary. It is what it is, and what it is is white. Then she added, “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too,” Kelly said. “He was a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact — as is Santa, I want you kids watching to know that — but my point is: How do you revise it, in the middle of the legacy of the story, and change Santa from white to black?” Okay kids, are we all clear on that? It's a verifiable fact. You know because you heard it on Fox News.
I really did think that we all might get away without a lot of silly fuss and hollering about this one, but it seems that the race and creed of our sacred mythological characters seems to be a tipping point as the War On Christmas rages on. To tell you the truth, Megyn, I understand how you feel. I remember how I felt when I heard that they were going to make The Green Lantern a black guy. And is it any kind of coincidence that his name was John Stewart? Doesn't everyone know that The Green Lantern was a white guy named Hal Jordan, who just happened to look a lot like Ryan Reynolds? And don't get me started about Spider Man. Spidey is a white nerd whose secret identity is Peter Parker, not some bi-racial kid named Miles Morales. And to top all this off, they want to make both of them gay. Of course, when I say "they," I mean everyone and anyone who sees the world differently than me.
And that's when it starts to sound like crazy talk. Sure, you can trace Santa back to Saint Nicholas who was probably a white guy, but Santa Claus is a fictional character. I would like to believe that Sherlock Holmes was really Basil Rathbone, but I'm betting that I would get a lot of blowback on that one from fans of "Elementary." And wasn't Doctor Watson a dude?
All of this comes as a response to an op-ed piece on The Slate, written by Aisha Jones. It wasn't news. It was opinion. Ms. Kelly clearly missed that part of the fourth grade where we learn to separate fact an opinion. As for the heritage of our Lord, Jesus Christ, well let's just say that opinions vary.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Will This Be On The Test?

I don't remember exactly how long it was between the time that I read the article about criticism of "traditional" lockdown procedures and the news that came, yet again, from Colorado. This time it was an eighteen year-old at Arapahoe High School in Centennial. Karl Halverson Pierson went back to his school with a shotgun, seeking his school librarian and debate team coach. Not finding his target at the school, he shot two other students and then killed himself. Arapahoe High is about ten miles away from Columbine High. And about fourteen years.
You might think that after all this time the sight of SWAT teams descending on schools wouldn't raise such a stir with me. Or maybe it was the fact that it came on the eve of the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. One year ago, Newtown was another one of those little-known spots back east, just like Littleton was just a suburb of Denver before it became part of the list of spots on the map marked by tragedy. Once upon a time, my niece went to an elementary school, the same one my brothers and I attended, and it was called Columbine. They had a fundraiser called the "Mile Marathon," and she got me a T-shirt as a souvenir. The design featured a number of silhouettes of boys and girls running. It was only after the events of April 20, 1999 that that image became something I felt uncomfortable wearing. It stopped being a memento of that time in my niece's youth and became something people would look at me sideways for wearing outside the house. It's the reason they decided to bulldoze Sandy Hook Elementary.  The only memories there are dark ones.
Back to the article which started this parade of bleak: It has lately been suggested that rather than having our kids locked in a room, cowering and waiting for the bad guys to come and kill them, that we should rise up and defend ourselves. This goes beyond the initial suggestions that teachers start carrying guns. It has been suggested that we train the students to fight back. With schools making up more than a third of the "Active Shooter Events" each year, according to a report from Texas State University that studied ASEs over the past decade,  that makes sense, right? Of the forty-one cases the study looked at, sixteen were ended by the victims subduing the shooter. Twenty-one culminated by the shooter killing himself. It's a pretty slim margin, but the trend suggests that if you wait the bad guys out, they will end up taking care of the problem themselves. Why should we ask teachers, administrators and kids to put themselves in danger?
Maybe because we're all getting more than just a little tired of being held hostage by the potential of a crazed gunman showing up at your school, mall, or business, looking to settle some score that makes sense to no one except the guy carrying the shotgun. We're angry. We're scared. It's a bad combination. It flies directly in the face of the things I learned in my first weeks in teacher school: Maslow's hierarchy of Needs. We are charged with providing our kids first with a safe place to do the learning that we can only do when that security is felt. It can't happen at the end of a gun. Do I have an answer? No, but I can't say that I ever expected that this is a question that I would be asked.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Situational Football

That's what the guys on ESPN called it: Situational Football. They were referring to a play in the San Diego/Denver game in which the Chargers needed four yards and were going to punt from inside their own ten yard line. The Broncos, who were behind by two touchdowns, and they really needed to get the ball back. What they they jumped offsides, resulting in a five yard penalty and a first down for the Chargers. If the defensive lineman who jumped across the line would have simply stayed put, the worst that would have happened was that the Broncos would have the ball back with a chance to make up some of those fourteen points. That didn't happen. The Broncos lost to the Chargers.
In the big scheme of things, it didn't matter a lot. The Broncos are still in the playoffs, and the Chargers are still clinging to a hope that they might make it there too, but it did affect my week. This past week has been cold, for Northern California standards, and so I have been wearing my Broncos windshirt outside to do yard duty and after school. This means more parents have noticed my team affiliation. Here in Oakland, that can be a dicey thing. I have had a number of polite but charged conversations with parents and caregivers about my favorite football team. One particular grandmother, who was well-versed in the ways of the gridiron, was curious about the Denver Broncos' chances with a defense that was giving up somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-seven points per game. I shrugged and gave her my best answer: "I guess that's why they keep playing the games. You never know exactly how they're going to turn out." That mildly uncomfortable situation was part of my own experience with football. That's why I keep watching those games.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Holier Than Thou

It's hard for me to argue with Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2013: Pope Francis. They refer to him as "the people's Pope" enough that you might start to forget about that John Paul II cat. JPII had that Person distinction about twenty years ago, back when he was the Pope of the people. Well, at least some of the people. Out of the seven-plus billion people on the planet, more than a billion of them call themselves Catholic. With odds like that, it's a wonder that there isn't a pontiff on the cover of every end-of-year issue of Time. But aside from the aforementioned JPII and Pope John XXIII, that's been it.
Maybe that's because most Popes last a long time. Even Pope Benedict XVI lasted eight years before he ditched the red shoes for a stay in the Vatican Gardens. Paul XXIII didn't get the cover until just before he passed on, most likely to a spot even nicer than Benedict's condo. JPII had the job for sixteen years before he was awarded this special distinction. But he was still quite the rock star, having been featured on Time's cover sixteen times over the course of his service. That's more than the Beatles. With apologies, it would seem that Jesus continues to be slightly more popular than John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
There's also the little matter of the fact that we've been appointing Popes for two thousand years, and Time has only been published for ninety, and they didn't start picking a Man of the Year until they had been in business for four years. There have been lots of presidents both foreign and domestic, and a number of war heroes, but it takes a certain something to get picked your first year in the job. FDR did it. Stalin did it. Nixon did it. You had to wait around for eighty-three years to be selected.
What did Pope Francis do? How about writing this: "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" That works good enough for me. I'm just glad it wasn't Miley Cyrus.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Secret Code

Over the past week, I have been teaching kids in my computer class about code. We talked a lot about passwords and secrets, since that's where most of them start: memorizing mom's username and password for her phone so they can borrow it to play Angry Birds. I was happy when a third grade girl made the suggestion, "It's like sign language." It proved to be a perfect segue into my next presentation piece, where we played Simon Says with me acting as Simon, using only hand signals to get them all to stand up, sit down, put their hands on their heads, and so on. Now the rest of the class picked up on the sign language idea. I told them that every time they clicked their mouse or pushed a button on their keyboard that they were sending a message to their computer. They were using a code.
Apparently, so was the sign language interpreter at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Deaf South African and board member of the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section Braam Jordaan said the interpreter was simply making up his own signs. For the benefit of my third graders, that would make this a truly secret code. “ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off,” tweeted Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman elected to South African Parliament. Well, maybe it was a secret, but it was a bad secret.
Who knows? Maybe the guy who stood behind all those dignitaries was sending a message to someone, somewhere. For now, all we have is the reply from those who didn't understand what he was doing up there in the first place. Or maybe it was an interpretative interpretation. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Uneasy Rest

For some time my neighborhood has existed as a sort of shrine to Edgar. Edgar was a kid from around the corner who was shot and killed. For the past five years, around Christmas or his birthday, we get some new graffiti reminding us of the loss of Edgar. Most of them read, "RIP Edgar." These are, no doubt, contemporaries of Edgar who had the good fortune not to be shot and killed doing the memorializing. I wonder sometimes if Edgar wouldn't rest more peacefully if his spirit wasn't being spray painted on fences, sidewalks and bus benches. I wonder if his contemporaries might rest more peacefully here on earth if they were to let him go.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have noticed a usurper in our midst. Porky is currently the name on everyone's blank wall. Now we want Porky to rest in peace. I don't know what part of the neighborhood Porky is from. I can't be sure that Porky is even from the neighborhood, but his name is certainly in evidence there. I don't know all the teenagers on the block, but I am pretty sure that none of their Christian names are "Porky." Or were.
Porky's fans are a little more industrious than Edgar's. They have marked a much wider swath through our streets. They don't seems as fixed on one particular corner. They also don't seem as limited in media and color. Where Edgar's clan seems to be limited primarily to black Sharpie marker or spray paint, Porky's gang favors a much wider pallet of colors, paint, and even chalk. In some places, Porky has overwritten Edgar.
Did I say "gang" just a paragraph ago? Maybe that's the problem. I don't understand this whole gang thing. Why would we want to celebrate someone when they die? Why not appreciate all that they are and can be while they are alive? Live in peace? Sounds like a nice dream.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Great Saxaphone Nebula

There is a scene from the TV show "Freaks and Geeks" in which the gang heads out to see "Laser Floyd" at the Laser Dome, but they are aghast to find out that the Pink Floyd soundtrack they were expecting had been switched to southern rock hits. Set in 1980, this was a particularly evocative series for me, as I graduated from high school that year. And I went to see Laser Floyd a good many times "back in the day." With a bunch of other geeks.
That's why it was so exciting to get a chance to relive some of that experience when the local planetarium up the hill decided to bring Laserium back. I flinched initially at the notion, imagining that the reality of my circumstances would leave me wanting something more than shiny lights zipping about a round ceiling. It was the urging of my wife and friends that I decided to take a chance and try to bring back this little shard of my youth. Would it disappoint? Would they play "Ghost Riders In The Sky" with dancing cactus and lariat twirling cowboys etched in laser light?
As it turned out, we decided to begin our day with "Laser Holidays," a collection of seasonal hits accompanied with a selection of dancing colors and shapes, including some unfortunately cheesy animations that left nothing to the imagination: Santa Claus waving to us from the ceiling of the planetarium? Is this what I was going to get when the lights went down and "Dark Side of the Moon" started up?
I made my way over to the Laserist's booth. I told Danny, our laserist, how much I had enjoyed the show. I kept my mild discontent to myself as he explained that the holiday show wasn't his best, since he had only had a few rehearsals to get it down. He suggested that his Floyd would be much more impressive. When we came back a few hours later, we were not disappointed.
Just sitting in a big room with an excellent sound system listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" would have been a treat, but Danny had obviously brought all his twenty-seven years of Laserium experience to this show. It was 1980 all over again. The multi-colored pattern that served as a moving cloud of light was punctuated by a coil of yellow that danced to the sax solo of "Money" was a particular highlight. When the final mumblings of "Dark Side" faded out, I was content. Then came the rushing wind that I recognized as the opening of "One of These Days" from "Meddle." Danny pulled out all the stops for this one, and as encores go, it filled my nostalgia cup to the brim. I'm glad that it's pretty dark inside the planetarium so only I could enjoy the goofy grin that spread across my face.
Who knows, I might even come back for southern rock night.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Tortoise Without Hare

This year, there was no Run to the Far Side. There was no Run Wild for a Child. We kept our post-Thanksgiving exercise on this side of the Bay. There was some crazy talk about doing a local version of the "Turkey Trot" that a number of different communities like to put on in the latter days of November. Instead of simply falling back on slothful ways, we did keep ourselves active and made a number of attempts at staying fit in spite of the excessive burden of stuffing ourselves in the manner of that eponymous bird. Still, we didn't have a chance to get together with a crowd and go for a run. Not until this past weekend.
My wife, the president of my son's high school PTSA, thought it would be a good move both politically and physically for us to join in the "fun run" sponsored by the freshman PE class. It was nominally being held for extra credit for all those kids in their first and least elective year of physical education. My son grumbled to anyone who would listen that it wasn't his concern since he had already passed his PE requirement. His parents didn't let that be the thing that kept him in bed on Sunday morning. Instead, we all piled into the car and drove over to Lake Merritt, where we stood in the chilly morning breeze with a hundred or so fresh faces, many of whom made the trip with their parents.
It was a pretty casual affair, as we signed our waivers and took our gold plastic ribbons down by the waterside to await direction. As it turns out, the instructions were as laid back as the rest of the program: Run around the lake, and we'll have some water and pastries waiting here when you get back. As for the course, it was a pretty simple matter of following the path around the circumference of the lake, returning to the place where we started, next to the downed eucalyptus tree.
Then we were off, and like so many races before, I started with my wife and child, only to be encouraged to run off on my own instead of waiting for them. It was what I was waiting for, and I took off, weaving my way through the mix of walkers and other runners. Soon I found myself moving along the path, climbing the ladder of those slower individuals who had started out in front of me. I kept my pace as gangly young boys and girls stomped on by me, and their parents watched them go. It wasn't long before I caught up to them again, one at a time, winded and shuffling their feet. They had used up their burst of speed and had slowed to a burdened walk. There was no time requirement. To get the extra credit, they just needed to make it back to the start/finish line to receive their "certificate of excellence." I kept moving.
About three quarters of the way around, I passed a kid who seemed like he wanted to finish strong. Then he started walking. I wanted to encourage him, to drag him along with me. A few hundred yards later, he came up from behind me again. I let him get a few yards ahead, and then I reeled him in again. We repeated this dance a number of times in that last mile. With the finish line in sight, I surged ahead and didn't look back. I wasn't going to let a freshman beat me. I expected a contest, but he didn't accept the challenge. There was no need. He could see his certificate up ahead, and he had done his part. There would be no extra-extra credit for beating the fifty-one-year-old elementary school teacher.
I tried not to notice how many kids were standing around the pastries already when I made my way past the finish line. I came in in front of at least a couple of high school students. That would have to be enough for the day.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Merry Christmas - The War Ain't Over

“A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations including (1) “Merry Christmas”; (2) “Happy Hanukkah”; and (3) “happy holidays.” This is, in part, the law of the land in Texas, where everything is bigger including the fuss. The friendly folks at Gene and Ruby Nichols Elementary School in Frisco may not have gotten the memo about the big win against those waging the War On Christmas. Why else would a PTA member send this e-mail: 
The Winter Party Rules… 
1) No reference to Christmas or any other religious holiday 
2) No red/green or Christmas Trees 
3) Nothing that will stain the carpet (red juice, dark colored icing, etc.)
No dark colored icing? Heresy! Of course, that's not the bee that has itself nestled in everyone's unseasonal bonnet. It's that lack of reference to the Christ child and his birthday party. The one that is ensured by law for all students regardless of their race, creed or "religion." As a a measure of reassurance, Frisco Independent School District Superintendent Jeremy Lyon, and was told the rules are not, “district policy.” He was also told by the PTA that kids could indeed say, “merry Christmas.” And so the frothing commenced. “I feel like my calling in life is to protect the students, parents and teachers,” State Representative Pat Fallon said. “They have a constitutional right to express themselves. They have freedom of religion.” Pat is the author of the bill that became law, allowing for all this "freedom." He went on to say the ban on Christmas trees and traditional holiday colors remains in place and calls it “unnecessary, inappropriate, and quite frankly draconian in nature.” Mister Fallon told Fox News, “One teacher wanted to do ‘Elf on a Shelf’ and she thought she would get in trouble." Did I mention that Gene and Ruby Nichols Elementary School is in his district?
So, in Texas when angry parents want to have dark icing on their Christmas trees, we should listen to them, but when angry parents want to keep the last week of school in December a more secular in keeping with that notion of separation of church and state, they are dismissed as politically correct nuts. 
Here's what I know about kids in elementary school: If you give them a snowflake-shaped cookie covered in white frosting and wish them "Happy Holidays" before you pat them on the head and send them out the door for two weeks off school, they aren't going to scream or cry. They're going to lick off that frosting with a smile on their face and wish you a Happy Kwanza.
“We’re celebrating Christmas, so why can’t it be a Christmas party or maybe a holiday party?” said Fallon. “But they’ve skipped over ‘holiday’ and go to ‘winter.’ That’s political correctness gone too far.” - See more at: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/how-the-pta-stole-christmas-school-bans-red-green-and-the-word-christmas-from-the-winter-party_122013#sthash.s7X30Pbd.dpuf
“We’re celebrating Christmas, so why can’t it be a Christmas party or maybe a holiday party?” said Fallon. “But they’ve skipped over ‘holiday’ and go to ‘winter.’ That’s political correctness gone too far.” - See more at: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/how-the-pta-stole-christmas-school-bans-red-green-and-the-word-christmas-from-the-winter-party_122013#sthash.s7X30Pbd.dpuf

Monday, December 09, 2013

Pop Goes The World

I found out about Stephen Biko first. Like so many clever Americans, my world politics were shaped by popular music. And while Peter Gabriel's song, "Biko," at almost eight minutes long was never exactly a "hit," it was still the way I started to educate myself about what was happening in South Africa. A lot of people were dying there. It had something to do with Apartheid.
As the eighties wore on and I began to learn more about the way things were on the rest of the planet, I decided to join Amnesty International. By the time I got my membership card and sent my first round of letters to various governments who were doing horrible things to their own people, I became aware of Nelson Mandela. It helped that there was a pop song to go along with the story, but I was amazed at the story of this one man and his struggle to free not just himself but his entire country. He was South Africa's Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington all at once. The twenty-seven years he was imprisoned only served to make him stronger, and when he was finally released in 1990, Apartheid was ended, and he became South Africa's president.
Mandela's strength and resolve are the kind of things that books are written about, movies are made, and songs are written. Little Steven shined a light on the evils of Apartheid with his musician friends as he encouraged us all "not to play Sun City." Even if Queen and Elton John didn't listen, it was pop music stirring the pot that got us all curious what all the fuss was about. Or maybe that was just the lens through which I was looking. For the first time ever, Little Steven's Boss will be playing South Africa next year. It's just a shame that Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela never got to see Springsteen live.
Aloha, Nelson Mandela. You stomped on the terra with dignity and grace. You will be missed.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Location, Location, Location

My wife and I had this chat the other day. It went a little like this:
"Didja see where Johnny Lydon is living?" I asked.
"No," she replied, moving toward my point of reference: the screen of my computer.
"Can you believe that?" I continued, looking for something like affirmation.
"Well, what did you expect him to live in?" she shot back.
That wasn't at all the interaction for which I might have hoped. I expected her to be as incredulous as I was over the Malibu "fixer-upper" that the former Mister Rotten has put on the market for one point nine million dollars. I gasped a bit as I tried to respond to her query. Where did I expect the singer of "Anarchy in the UK," "No Feelings," and "Pretty Vacant" to be holing up? "I thought maybe something a little more urban, at least," came my flustered reply.
Here I was, thinking that I had a point of common interest between my loving wife and I, and instead I was defending myself for being a presumptuous twit. For the record, I truly was surprised to find out that Johnny Rotten had been living by the beach in California for all these years. It seemed incongruous to his image, which is why I'm sure the article was posted on Al Gore's Internet. Still, I suppose I should have approached the experience with a much broader perspective. This is the guy who sang "Holidays In The Sun," after all. And he was the leader of Public Image, Ltd. So maybe my wife was right to question my thinking. It is part of the reason we stay together. And who knows? Maybe we'll put in an offer.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Give The Gift That Keeps On Giving - Until It Stops

'Tis the season: to drag the artificial Christmas tree out of the basement and try to remember how to put it back together, to pull long strings of lights between the shrubbery and fence posts in the front yard, to try and think of some witty aphorisms for a hundred different holiday cards, to shop for deals without feeling cheap, to survive the season with a reasonable amount of cheer and figgy pudding. That shopping pressure is the one that I am currently feeling the most. Walking a line between thoughtful and thoughtless, I want to make everyone's Christmas bright, but not so bright that the next three months are spent paying off all the brightness.
Good news, then, comes from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. An aide sent out an e-mail suggesting that we take the money meant for children's toys and send it to the Walker campaign."This year, we are celebrating the Holiday Season with a Black Friday special that is better than any deal found in stores," promised the message from recently dismissed Taylor Palmisano. "Instead of electronics or toys that will undoubtedly be outdated, broken, or lost by the next Holiday Season, help give your children the gift of a Wisconsin that we can all be proud of." Mister Palmisano was not, according to reports, let go because of this e-mail, but rather for for making demeaning comments about Hispanics on social media. Meanwhile, Governor Walker continues to recover from a rather nasty recall attempt back in 2012, and is in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger in his upcoming re-election campaign.
My guess is that the Taylor Palmisano household will not be on the list for Hickory Farms gift baskets from the Walker household.

Friday, December 06, 2013

More Luna Sea

Newt Gingrich would be so proud. NASA is planning to put a garden on the moon by late 2015. You may remember a couple of years ago, when Newt was yet again running for president of the United States, and ruler of the known Solar System, as part of his platform he wanted to put a colony on the moon by 2020. The surprising thing was that not everyone laughed. Some people were angry. Most of us were confused. Where was Newt's plan to help us all here down on Earth? Maybe he had seen a preview of "Elysium." Maybe he knew that he wasn't going to win unless he got the lunar vote.
Well, now it's for real. At least it's for real in a gardening state. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration would like to drop a greenhouse on the moon. With a little bit of help. NASA got out of the manned spaceflight business a while ago, and so they are willing to hitch a ride with a sub-contractor who meets the stringent qualifications set by the company that first set foot on Tranquility Base. One of these private companies will carry the "LP-X" up into space and drop it where scientists can monitor the growth of lima beans in limited gravity. If it seems a little like practical jokes on lower life forms, you're not alone.
This particular project shouldn't be confused with the slightly new-age vision of a very earthbound bunch of foliage best experienced by the light of the moon. This is science. The kind that is best described in very nuanced terms: "This will be the first life-sciences experiment on another world." This will also be a great big chore for whoever has to travel the 238,900 miles to water the plants each week.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Back Again

I was off for a week. That was our Thanksgiving Break. It came just after our Veteran's Day Break. I liked the Thanksgiving Break because it was longer. This was the wisdom I took away from the second grade class that came into my room on Monday morning. I had no way to refute them. I listened to other teachers in the hallway, admonishing their students with reminders like "Vacation's over, back to school." I heard the grumbling response and understood. That's one of the big challenges I have as a teacher. I know how these kids feel, and yet I routinely find myself asking them rhetorical questions like, "Don't your remember how to sit in a chair?"
Well, of course they do, but part of my job is to find new and increasingly diverse ways to encourage them in proper chair management. And how to stand in line. And how to be quiet. All of these skills are not necessarily at the top of the list of conditioned behavior for five to eleven year olds. They would much rather run and/or talk in hallways in free-flowing mobs than follow one another in single file, silent to the world. During the week we had off, none of them stood in line, except for those who waited outside Wal-Mart with their parents for those screaming Black Friday deals.
But we all came back to give it another shot. What I loved the most was that first class of the day, when I came in and took off my coat as they were taking their seats: "Good morning, class," I said.
"Good morning, Mister Caven." Their welcome sounded like a song. It's the genius of a room full of children. Whenever you can get them to say things in unison, whether by chance or practice, there is music in those little voices. We were all there again, ready to begin anew.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Broken, But Not Bad

What's the hardest part about being done with "Breaking Bad?" It could be that now my wife and I will have to find something else to watch. To extend that just a touch further, it means that my wife and I will have to find something else to talk about. Since I've known her for more than thirty years and we have yet to have very few pauses of more than a few minutes, this isn't my biggest concern. I do worry about that finding something worth watching on TV, however. Maybe Newton N. Minow was right: "when television is bad, nothing is worse." I watch a lot of television, but I don't. With all the choices that I have streaming into my house twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I don't avail myself of all the opportunities I have. Our two Tivos work  diligently to find those programs that they believe will best suit my family's viewing needs. And what do I do? I delete them.
All those high standards that I put on the moments when I actually sit down in front of the video delivery systems come into play. The truth is, I probably spend about as much time watching things I have already seen as I do shows and movies that are brand new. This might explain my initial reticence toward the story of the high school chemistry teacher who became a drug kingpin. I made up my mind early on that if there was that big a fuss about something, I would probably get another chance at it. A TV series that spawned its own Wiki showed some staying power. What I hadn't counted on was that there actually was a beginning, middle and an end. 
On numerous occasions, I have pontificated on my belief that television shows should be limited to three seasons: One to get in, one to flesh things out, and another to tie things up. Don't hang around until things get stale or you have to replace Chrissy with some other blonde. Most series rely on keeping their characters stuck in prescribed patterns that allow endless repetition of the same tropes. If you let Wile E. Coyote catch the Road Runner, it's all over. If Mister Coyote gets discouraged to the point of giving up his carnivorous endeavors, watching him eat bugs won't make for much of a show. 
And that's why Vince Gilligan and the folks who created this show deserve my respect and gratitude. This was a show with a character arc, one that ended in a bang befitting the trajectory it took. Not a Big Bang, as amusing and diverting as that show might be, but a shattering of how we think of our beloved TV dads, of whom Bryan Cranston stood as a goofy ambassador before he took on the role of pater familias of the White clan. It is exciting to think that this really is as good as television can be. 
It is also a little unnerving. All those people who told me, for years, how great "Breaking Bad" was. I didn't listen. Maybe I have to start listening.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Why Phutsux

I have never been a big fan of Pizza Hut. Even though they come up with all sorts of clever ways to deliver melted cheese and dough, I have very few happy customer service experiences to relate. Once upon a time, when my fantasy football league wanted to get together around lunchtime to start our draft, we fell under the spell of their heavily marketed P'Zones. So entranced with this idea of a folded pizza, we decided to order up some big carbs to take us through the rigors of pointing and clicking on our favorite players. We placed our order in advance of the start of the draft, and sat by our computers shivering in anticipation. The draft came and went. We picked our teams and still there was no P'Zones. We called our local Pizza Hut to ask what might be the problem, and they assured us that they were hard at work on our order. An hour later, there was still no pizza, folded or otherwise. When we called back, the sheepish manager confessed that he had no drivers, and that getting our order was going to be difficult, if not impossible. We felt embarrassed for choosing to name our team after the trademarked name of the calzones we would never receive. The next year, we decided to name our league "Phutsux."
It's been many years, and since that time, I have participated in a number of different fantasy leagues, both football and baseball, with that name. Sometimes I have wondered if I wasn't carrying a grudge a little too long. Then came the news from Elkhart, Indiana this Thanksgiving. Pizza Hut fired one of their managers for deciding to give his employees the day off. "There are only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off to spend with their families," Tony Rohr, the former manager, said. The folks at corporate quickly replied, "This was clearly an unfortunate situation, and we are very upset by what has transpired in Elkhart." So much so, that they have decided to offer Mister Rohr his job back, much to the chagrin of the local franchise owners.
I hope that Tony doesn't jump at the make-good offer by PHut. Only when they can guarantee their employees Thanksgiving and Christmas without the threat of having to roll dough or sprinkle cheese will this world be a better place. And I promise not to schedule my fantasy drafts for either one of those days.  

Monday, December 02, 2013

Pray For Them

The Roman Catholic Church has been "outmarketed" on the issue of gay marriage. This was the assertion made by New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan in an interview on NBC's "Meet The Press." Father Dolan also maintains the church has been "caricatured as being anti-gay." So really it's just a bad marketing plan that's keeping the Catholic Church from spreading its message that gay marriage, while an abomination, isn't really that bad after all. He said the church supports "traditional marriage and is not "anti-anybody," adding, "When you have forces like Hollywood, when you have forces like politicians, when you have forces like some opinion-molders that are behind it, it's a tough battle."
Political opinion-molders from Hollywood? How could any good Catholic stand up to that? That's how gay marriage became legal in Illinois, no doubt. Like those Hollywood-types who say things like, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?" Oh. Wait a moment. That was the Pope. The political opinion-molder Pope.
Actually, that may be the least caricaturish statement the Church has issued in years. Francis from Hollywood seems to be willing to concede that the edicts issued in Leviticus may not be fully applicable to the twenty-first century. Those admonitions against shellfish, for example. Thanks to the miracle of refrigeration, we can even buy oysters in months with the letter "R." Unless those refrigerators are the work of the devil. Or Steven Spielberg. Or maybe Steven Spielberg is the devil. Steven supports gay marriage, so it's entirely possible.
But these are just caricatures, after all. To truly understand one's faith, it is important to look inward. Or get a really great PR team together. Where is Don Draper when you really need him?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Quitters Incorporated

I'm not a big fan of quitters. Generally speaking, I would just as soon try and do my best rather than giving up. This is precisely what puts me at odds with someone like Sarah Palin. The other problem with quitting is that it becomes a habit. I'm talking about you again, Sarah. So, how am I going to feel when the shoe is on the other foot? What if there was a high-profile Democrat who up and quit their post just when the going got tough?
Evie Hudak, a former educator who represented Denver's northwest suburbs in the Colorado state senate is resigning her seat in the face of a potential recall election. Two other Democratic senators were unseated in September recall elections, leaving that party with a one vote majority in the state Senate. These three lawmakers were targeted, if you'll pardon the pun, when they supported a package of laws to strengthen gun control following the mass shootings last year in a suburban Denver movie theater and at a Connecticut elementary school. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Evie.
Except Evie is actually doing something quite clever. First of all, in her resignation letter, she wrote that she was stepping down to spare taxpayers in her county from having to pay for a special election, after budgets have been slashed for mental health and senior citizen programs, among other services. What she didn't mention was that by resigning she opens the door for Democrats to appoint a successor, who will take over until the general election next year. Pretty crafty. It also means that she can take a few, pardon the pun again, take a couple pot shots on the way out: "Most Coloradans believe that the convenience of high-capacity ammunition magazines is less important than saving lives in tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora and Columbine," she wrote.
And so the wheel keeps turning, and go back to maintaining my stance against quitters. But Evie Hudak may be the exception that proves the rule.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


When it comes to change, I'm not a big fan. I understand it's inevitable. But I am always relieved when everyone understands that there is a time and place for spontaneity. I went to the elementary school down the street from my house. I walked there, just like my older brother did. Even though we managed not to have any of the same teachers, I took some comfort when someone at the school would say, "Oh, I remember your brother." I felt like a legacy.
That's how I felt when it came time to head up the hill to junior high. I was literally following in my brother's footsteps. This is where I found myself in a number of different classrooms where my brother had sat, same gym, same auditorium, same hallways. We might even have had the same locker at some point. Knowing that he had gone before and warmed it up for me took some of the fear out of seventh grade, in spite of all his admonitions about how terrifying it would be.
It was toward the end of that year that the school district announced that they would be changing the boundary for junior high enrollment. By moving that line just a little to the north, I found myself suddenly cast into the position of attending Casey Junior High. I was a Centennial Cyclone, not a Casey Cub. Never mind that my mother had once attended Casey, I had followed a rather fierce indoctrination against her alma mater spurred on almost entirely by my older brother. Leaving Centennial and all the familiarity with the facility and all my friends was unthinkable. My parents did me the solid of writing an exception letter that got me what I wanted: permission to finish out my junior high career as a Cyclone.
Meanwhile my younger brother, who had followed along in two older brothers' wake through that same elementary school,  was preparing for his seventh grade year. His friends were headed to Casey, and he didn't look back. His interest was in continuity with his peers more than clinging to some vague sense of tradition. His colors would be blue and white, instead of the green and white favored by his brothers. He didn't need any exception. He was ready to go.
For those three years, it never occurred to me what a trifle all of this was. Separated by just a couple miles, these two schools were no doubt capable of giving any of us virtually the same education, or my parents never would have allowed it to happen. Only now do I feel just a little embarrassed by the way my younger brother's willingness to roll with the changes that came his way while I dug in my heels and refused to alter my trajectory the tiniest bit. What made him so relaxed and flexible?
Maybe it comes from being the youngest. You get a chance to look at things coming down the lane just a little longer, making it easier not to flinch when the curves start to show up. Or maybe the difference between blue and green, hard and soft C, and junior highs in general weren't really that big a deal after all. Thank goodness we all ended up at Boulder High instead of Fairview.

Friday, November 29, 2013

No One Can Eat Just One

I've already blown my chance to eat just one Lay's potato chip. It was several hundred bags ago, I would expect, that I missed that opportunity to show freakish self-restraint. I have, on occasion, made a point to eat just one chip and then give the rest of them away to whatever voracious crew I find myself with at the time. I do this because I have been told by someone that I can't. It makes little or no sense to me why this should ever happen, but living in the land of the free, I feel compelled to test the advertiser's assertion.
A very similar feeling has come over me in the past few days. This one is connected to television as well, and it concerns "Breaking Bad." Since "must-see-TV" is more or less a thing of the past, this AMC series would be filed in the "I figured you'd be watching this since everyone else seems to be-TV." My wife and I had put off tuning in to the story of Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who chooses a very interesting way to respond to his cancer diagnosis. It was going to be a weekly commitment, and we were already immersed in another AMC series about zombies. Taking on a whole new cast of characters and their problems seemed like too much of a burden. We had already lived through the demise of "Northern Exposure" and "ER" together. In both cases, our initial emotional and time investments were eventually stretched to their limits, along with our patience. Why would we want to take on the story of a methamphetamine cook and his criminal cronies?
Because, as it turns out, everyone was right. My wife and I gave Walter White a chance, and wouldn't you know it? It turns out that Walt's show is every bit as addictive as the drug that he makes in RVs, secret labs, and tented homes. We started burning through episodes, sometimes two or three a day. We stuck our fingers in our ears and refused to listen to anyone who wanted to give us spoilers as the broadcast run of the series finished up. We kept plugging away, on evenings, on weekends. Finally we found ourselves rounding the bend: season five. It was when we were just a few shows into this final stretch that we discovered that Netflix would not be able to deliver us the final eight episodes for some time. We were hours away from completion, but direct access was limited. We could pay Amazon a dollar-ninety-nine for each episode. Not a bad use of our allowance, but since we were already paying to have Netflix stream our choice of extra TV into our living room, could we just wait? Or could we surrender to all the chatter out there in pop culture land and let the spoilers land where they may?
Or maybe we could just stop watching. Fifty-four out of sixty-two episodes, we could probably make some pretty educated guesses about how things turned out. Or we could start watching "Game of Thrones."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Table Rasa

I'm thankful for tables. Like the round one in the kitchen where I grew up. It was big enough for four of us and a highchair: three boys, mom and dad. Later we grew into an oval, and the circular one we had sat at for so many moons moved downstairs to become the basis of a great many forts. That oval served us long and well. It gave us an extra place in addition to the five of us. A place for a guest. Friends and eventually girlfriends who came to share a brunch or a dinner with us. On Sunday nights a great many of us would crowd around to savor my father's hot fudge sundaes.
A couple times a year we would drag ourselves into the dining room for a family dinner, the kind with real silver and cloth napkins. My mother wanted us to behave differently around the big wooden table with a leaf in the middle, but when our cousins showed up it usually disintegrated into the same raucous chatfest that the five of us enjoyed with an additional seven voices. When the kids disappeared downstairs to watch TV, the grownups spread out and the Cold Duck flowed. I remember the sound of my mom and her cousin Gail snorting and cackling into the night. That was one fun table. And at the end of all those tables sat our dog, Rupert, waiting for his turn to eat. If he felt that we were running a little long, he would get up from his spot next to my mother's chair and give her what-for until she surrendered to his hunger pangs.
When I moved out and lived in a series of apartments, I tended to skip the dining room and head straight to the coffee table. That was the best surface for TV dinners and frozen pizza. I spent my bachelor years hunched over plastic trays, forgetting any of the manners I was taught but avoided at my parents' tables.
When I moved out to California, I was introduced to another oval, smaller than the one that kept my brothers and I fed. This one was just big enough for a young couple starting out, and when we had a few extra guests, we moved them to the living room where we ate buffet style. That table was where we served our first turkey together. It's where we had romantic dinners and not-so-romantic ones. It's the table we moved into our new house and made room for our own high chair. We have crowded a great many boys around that table for sleepover late-night snacks and morning-after breakfasts. At the end of this table we found our dog, Maddie. She waited just a little more patiently than Rupert did, but she knew when we were done it was her turn to feast.
This year we upgraded to a larger table, more of a rectangle, with high back chairs. It's our "grown-up table." It's big enough to get even more hungry mouths crowded around it, and as the years go by I suppose we can look forward to a new generation of high chairs and chatty children. And I'll be thankful for the chance to sit down with them and listen to the laughter.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Big Adventure

Over the weekend, my wife and I went out for some exercise. I ran over to Lake Merritt, where I met her and we walked around the rest of the lake together. On the way over the streets and sidewalks, I was alone with my thoughts, as usual. Once I came over the last hill and started to run around the path next to the water, searching out my wife's form in the distance, I became distracted. Distracted by dogs. It seemed that everyone had a dog but me. I looked left and right, and straight ahead. Everyone seemed to have a furry friend at the end of a leash. It reminded me of all the times I had made this same trip. I would leave the house in advance of my wife and child. They would put our dog in the back of the car and drive over to the lake. I expected to find the three of them not too far from the spot at which they had unloaded. In the earliest days, there was a stroller and a leash. Later there was no stroller, but then there were water bottles and sometimes a toy car or robot that needed to make the trip as well. I was fortunate in that I was only responsible for getting myself over the hill. All I had to do was keep running until we ran into one another.
On this day, my son did not make the trip. He was spending the weekend with some friends. No stroller. No toys. Our dog did not make the trip. She was gone too. To a better place. No leash was necessary. At least not for my wife and I. As we made our way around that heart-shaped body of briny water, I kept being distracted by all the dogs that weren't mine. I felt a little like Pee-Wee Herman when he got his bike stolen. As the reality of his loss begins to sink in, Pee-Wee suddenly feels surrounded by people on bikes: big, small, short, tall, even remote control. Everyone has a bike but Pee-Wee.
That's how I felt without my dog. When I saw my wife strolling toward me in the distance, I was greeted by her smile. It was a treat, as was the rest of our walk around the lake. And I tried not to notice all those dogs.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Break Time

Seventeen years into my teaching career, and I still marvel at times at the number of days off we are afforded. When I used to run a warehouse, we worked when UPS worked, and sometimes a little bit more because that would keep us ready for the next onslaught of shipping and receiving. Teaching is different. It requires so much more interpersonal relationships: students, parents, other teachers, anxious volunteers who want to contribute their time but have little or no idea about how to interact with children. When the holidays show up, and there are a lot of them, they somehow seem completely appropriate even if I still harbor a secret shame in taking them while the rest of the planet seems to be gearing up for Black Friday, or whatever the next big thing is. I'm at home, recharging my emotional batteries, because teachers can't have a bad day.
This was true long before the advent of social media and cell phone video, but these two technological advances have made teaching a much more stressful occupation. To this end I submit the case of the Pre-Kindergarten teacher at the B.U.I.L.D. Academy in Buffalo, New York. The teacher sent home a letter which read, in part, “Several children in Pre-K ages 3-4 are coming to school (sometimes daily) with soiled, stained, or dirty clothes. Some give off unpleasant smells and some appear unclean and unkept.” The teacher went on asking that parents address the matter as, “It is a health and safety concern. It also makes it difficult for me to be close to them or even want to touch them. Enough said.” There was a blank at the bottom of the page for parents to sign the note and return it, stating their compliance. Horrible, right?
The parent section of my brain is shocked by this, and saddened. I would be stomping into the principal's office at this moment to demand satisfaction. If I was a parent at this particular school. Thanks to Al Gore's Internet, everyone with any sort of axe to grind about public education across this great land of ours can now feel free to jump on the angry villager bandwagon. Outrage is easy. Understanding is hard. I did, just recently, spend the day with a group of Pre-Kindergarten students at our school when we didn't get a substitute for their teacher at the last minute. Most of the time I experience four and five-year-olds, I see them for fifty minutes at a time and send them back to their classroom, proud of the way I kept my calm demeanor as I moved quickly from one plaintive cry of "Mister Caven" to the next. Before an hour is up, so is much of my patience. The day I spent in our Pre-K class was an early dismissal day, and I still found myself wondering if I could maintain my polite and professional composure after the thousandth time I was asked if a child could "use it" or the millionth time I reminded my young charges to please keep their hands to themselves. It takes a very special soul to deal with a room full of proto-humans. Most of mine were quite well-behaved and I can't say that I noticed any particular smell or hygiene issues while I was there. But I know that they do come up, and that's why I have nothing but empathy for those who choose to teach your youngest students.
Can I imagine writing a note home like the one from Buffalo? No. But I can imagine sending a letter to some of the guys I used to manage at the warehouse. Some of them were rank.