Thursday, October 31, 2013


"We have 'nonchalant,' so the concept of chalance exists. What about 'chalant?'" These are the kind of thoughts I grew up with, these in particular coming from the mind of George Carlin. It would be naive of me to suggest that it was simply these comedians and clever-types who broadened my mind without including the people who introduced me to most of them: My parents. I appreciate that they gave me the freedom to explore the questions that plagued me, and I am grateful for all that opportunity in my search for truth. One of the lingering challenges I have, however, is that all this free-thinking led to one of my outstanding quandaries in life: Brunch.
I have never been a big breakfast fan, though I have always enjoyed a big bowl full of sugary cereal. The phrase "stays crunchy, even in milk" was written with me in mind. That's probably because I have never cared for mushy food. The appeal of oatmeal mystifies me. This distrust was probably further fueled by another comedian, Bill Cosby: "My mother would put in a lot of raisins to try to disguise the fact that the lumps were there." What were those lumps, anyway? I wasn't interested in finding out. Then there was that whole issue of eggs and their relative squishiness. I prefer my food to be more of a chore to chew.
For this reason, when it was suggested to me that brunch would be served and that I had no hope of redeeming those suspect poached eggs with a nice chewy sandwich for lunch, I was forlorn. I am a huge fan of order and process, and this idea of skipping a meal and pushing it into some gray area, hitherto limited to between meal snack status seemed like a cheat. What was next? Collapsing lunch and dinner into mid-afternoon and calling it "lunner?" Could this be where the elusive "supper" that I had heard so much about originated?
I'm an adult now, and I still hold pretty tight to those scheduled three meals. If I miss one, I expect to make up for it at the next opportunity. I don't try and manufacture dining opportunities that coincide with my wakefulness. Sleeping in until ten just means that I have two hours to wait until lunch. This puts me at odds with my wife who happens to be a big fan of brunch. And oatmeal. I wonder how she feels about chalance.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Magic And Loss

The name of the album is "Magic and Loss." At one point in my life, it was my favorite Lou Reed album. Released in 1992, it was a meditation on the death of his friends Doc Pomus and Rotten Rita. It came into my life as I turned thirty, and began a new life in California. It was full of clever thoughts about surviving in a world where being an adult meant dealing with Magic and Loss. Like these: It must be nice to be steady, it must be nice to be firm
It must be nice never to move off the mark
It must be nice to be dependable and never let anyone down
It must be great to be all the things you're not
As I listened to Lou's matter of fact delivery of his words, I took heart. This hard-living survivor of Warhol's Factory was still willing to admit his vulnerabilities. His fears. When my father died, I turned to this record once again and the wisdom: No there's no logic to this - who's picked to stay or go - If you think too hard it only makes you mad. I knew there was no logic. It helped me to deal with the frustration and sadness. Knowing that such a rugged soul struggled with these same questions gave me comfort. This gathering of death coming at the end of October makes some sort of metaphorical sense to me, a fan of Stephen King and monster movies since I was far too young to imagine why all this fascination with the other side might have crept into my mind.
Now it is Lou Reed to whom I say a fond farewell. I don't mind that most of his songs don't rhyme. Even that one line in "Walk On the Wild Side," where he rhymes "head" with, well "head." It wasn't singing along with Lou that made him so good. It was thinking along with Lou. 
In that song, "No Chance," he regrets that he didn't get a chance to say goodbye to his friends. I get that. That's why I'm taking this time to do just that: Aloha, Lou. Thank you for making it easier for me to say goodbye.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

There Is No "I" In Team, But There Is A "Me" If You Rearrange Some Letters

It seems appropriate that the heart of the Oneida Indian Nation would raise a fuss about "The Redskins" coming to town. Denver is the confluence of many of the tribes of the Great Plains. The aim of the protest is to get the Washington NFL franchise's owner, Daniel Snyder, to consider picking a new mascot. It's not as if there were no precedent for such a thing.
It was in 1995 that the Washington Bullets, our capitol's National Basketball Association franchise, decided to change their name to the Washington Wizards. Aside from the gift of alliteration, this switch allowed the team's ownership to distance themselves from the violent and somewhat unfortunate irony of being named after ammunition that was killing the city's residents in record numbers. There was a lot of discussion, and fans made plenty suggestions, including Dragons, Express, Stallions, and Sea Dogs. By selecting the Wizards, the fans of the DC area proved to be somewhat prescient, anticipating the Harry Potter zeitgeist by two years.
Whatever the case, Hogwarts or social consciousness, the ownership responded to the community at large. I'm reasonably certain that the outcry connected to gun violence is probably heard more readily than that of Native Americans. It should be noted, however, that some of the initial and most profound victims of gun violence on these shores just happened to be Native Americans, and that probably has something to do with the size of the protest in the first place. The defense Mister Snyder likes to fall back on is the long and proud tradition of his football team. As if the relative success or failure of this group of athletes was integrally connected to the totem to which they connect themselves, at least for commercial purposes.
Here's something to consider: The Baltimore Ravens used to be the Cleveland Browns. They have a long and proud seventeen year tradition of being named after the poetry of Maryland's favorite opium addict. They have won precisely one less Super Bowl than the team down the road, the Washington Redskins. Maybe it has nothing to do with the name at all. The Ravens used to be the Browns. Cardinals that used to be in St. Louis are now found in Phoenix, and Rams that once inhabited Los Angeles have filled the void in Missouri. Baltimore got their Ravens, in part, because somebody wanted to sneak their team out of town and set them up in Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, back in the NBA, I found myself confounded by a box score for the Pelicans. There is a professional basketball team called The Pelicans? They were Hornets, just a little while ago. Now the Hornets are going back to Charlotte, where they apparently belong much more than Bobcats. Confused? No wonder Daniel Snyder wants to stick with tradition. Even offensive tradition.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shoot The Messenger

Now here's an interesting spin: The most recent school shooting in Sparks, Nevada is under investigation. Part of what is being examined is an anti-bullying video that includes a dramatization of a child taking a gun on a school bus to scare aggressors. Maybe it has something to do with Oscar Wilde's suggestion that, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life."
It's not that hard to imagine that a troubled mind might seek any sort of solution to the problems confronting it. Cherry picking evidence from a larger context is something of which we are all susceptible. Adding to the weight of this particular series of misconceptions is the fact that the twelve-year-old shooter watched the video at school, where lessons are learned. Concerned adults showed this to a bunch of kids who were supposed to take a different lesson away from it. It would be so much easier if this student would have stayed up the whole night before, drinking Red Bull, listening to Marilyn Manson, and playing Grand Theft Auto Five. That's the line we expect to follow.
It's also a lot easier to blame Ozzy Osbourne's "Suicide Solution" for any kid who chooses to take their own life. It's a lot easier to say that this kid never should have had access to his parents' weapons. Blame the Bible for that whole "eye for an eye" thing.  It's a lot easier to blame anything other than the kid who picked up a gun and killed. How could this child, not even a teenager, come up with such a horrible plan? It must have been the movie.
Or maybe the net is bigger than all that. Maybe it's all of us. Everyone who saw the pain and did nothing about it. Everyone who knew that middle school is torture for even the most popular of kids. Everyone who was a bully. Everyone who was bullied. Everyone who didn't stop it. Or go back to blaming the movie. It's ironic, and it's safe.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Leave The Driving To Us

Computerized cars: What could possibly go wrong? Listen, I'm no spring chicken. I've lived through "Westworld" and "Wargames." I have seen what the very efficient robots of Delos and the government's extremely capable WOPR can do when left to their own devices. I was also around when Skynet became self-aware. None of these events or experiences were particularly encouraging, at least when it comes to the  notion of leaving the driving to Gort.
Then again, computers don't drink and then climb behind the wheel. They don't do drugs, get distracted, fall asleep, run red lights or tailgate. They live to serve. If they follow the laws of robotics, we should all arrive safe and sound at our predetermined coordinates, none the worse for wear. A study by the Eno Center for Transportation, a foundation dedicated to improving transportation, suggests that if only ten percent of cars and trucks on the road were self-driving, they would reduce traffic deaths by one thousand per year and produce nearly thirty-eight billion dollars in economic and other savings. That feeling of freedom when you get behind the wheel, however? Gone.
That's okay. We're getting used to surrendering our freedoms for technology. I can remember a time when I was trained by my parents to answer the phone with this formal greeting: "Hello, Caven residence. May I ask who is calling?" Caller ID just wiped that whole exchange away. GPS systems have eliminated the need to pull over and ask strangers for directions. Instead, we now rely on the ability of strangers to properly program in the points on the map that is installed in that device. Put your faith in technology. What could go wrong? Eventually, highways and streets will be lined with sensors and computerized connections that will enable us all to get from place to place without having that annoying chore of checking mirrors and keeping our hands at ten and two. We'll just hand over our keys to our new designated driver. I'm certain that with the proper governmental oversight, we can enjoy a seamless transition by the end of the decade.
But don't ask the web designers for They're a little busy right now.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

How Many More?

With all my concern this past week over the relative health of my family and the prospect of spending another week or two sorting out my emotions regarding loss, I may have callously overlooked those who are sharing my feelings. Like the family of Michael Landsberry, the middle school math teacher who was shot and killed in Sparks, Nevada. Mister Landsberry was trying to intervene when a student with a gun began firing at his classmates just after the seven AM bell. Accounts of how "Mister L" used himself as human shield, protecting the seventh and eighth graders from further harm as police rushed to the scene. Two boys suffered gunshot wounds to the shoulder and the abdomen, but were expected to survive. Not the shooter, who took his own life before he was able to be taken into custody. Not Landsberry. He gave his life in the line of duty. Being a teacher shouldn't be that hard.
It continues to confound me how anyone who signed up to teach kids the quadratic formula should be asked to put their lives on the line the was Mister Landsberry did. The way Victoria Soto did. The way Dave Sanders did. The way too many educators have come to tragic ends over the past twenty years. It makes too much sad sense that a teacher, who has already put themselves in a situation that will bring them rewards other than riches, would be the sort of person to try and protect their young charges from harm, even if that harm is directed by one of their own.
I like to kid myself sometimes, imagining that all the stress and violence in my urban life gets channeled pretty cleanly and directly. Even if it is misdirected and has its own evil effects, the shootings that take place in Oakland are primarily out of school. So much attention is given to security and safety, it would seem unlikely that the kind of outbursts that we see in those suburban schools would be as likely here. Like I said, I kid myself.
I know the refrain all too well: "We never thought it would happen here." That is precisely what everyone believes until suddenly, they are forced to rethink.It is a shame that teachers would ever have to do that. No one should.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Peyton's Place

A week ago, my attention was profoundly affected by the upcoming Denver Broncos game. I was, along with a number of other Americans, completely immersed in all the hoopla leading up Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis. How would this wily veteran respond to this homecoming? Would there be any grudges held? How would he feel about returning to the field where he delivered so many division championships? So many wins? So many touchdowns? That Super Bowl ring?
When it was all over, the Broncos had lost, and those of us who were wearing our hearts on our orange and blue sleeves had tasted defeat for the first time this season. It was a sad day.
I went to school the next morning, feeling like I must gird myself form the inevitable joshing that I, as the lone Denver fan in an Oakland public school, was bound to receive. I was grateful that I received only a modicum of razzing. I was even surprised by a measure of sympathy from the football fans who had fully expected Peyton Manning and his newly supercharged team to march through their season without a loss. I came home and commiserated with my family, who understood my affliction.
And something happened in that evening: I began to consider how I felt, and compared it to the feelings that Peyton Manning might be having. Not only did he lose in front of the crowd that used to call him theirs, but he took a couple of wicked hits that caused the normally unflappable one to become, well, flapped. I didn't have to suit up, nor did I get tossed to the ground by a three hundred pound lineman. I sat on the couch and watched. My wife brought me dinner, and I stared into the screen, hoping that somehow my concern rays would somehow influence the outcome of this spectator sports mega-show. When the final gun sounded, and the Broncos had failed to mount a last-minute come-from-behind win, I was devastated. But I wasn't battered, bruised, in need of medical attention, and still have to talk to a room full of reporters devastated.
Things were looking up for me, I figured. The schedule offered another chance at redemption for Peyton and me the following week, and keeping my priorities straight was probably key to our collective future success. Then, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, my dog died. Suddenly I had my perspective forced. I hope that Peyton's dog is healthy and happy. We could all use a break this weekend.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What Matters

As it turns out, it was a matter of life and death.
I know that when my roommates wrote that note, they were trying to be polite. As polite as any three young men in their early twenties can be expected to be. But neither one of them really wanted to sit around waiting for me to get back from my class until we could all head up into the mountains for one last glorious blast of Indian Summer. I got left behind.
When I came back to the apartment after my afternoon class, I was expecting to decline their offer of driving up to Estes Park, ostensibly to pick up the faux-vintage photograph that was the last remaining piece of evidence connecting our household Lothario to his most recent lady love. I was going to do the noble thing and tell them that I was going to stick around and head back up the hill to my evening class. They should go on without me.
They already had.
When I returned home after that second class, night had fallen. The two of them hadn't returned. There was just that note, right where I had left it, mocking me. Now it was nearly seven o'clock, and they still hadn't returned. They must have had some awesome time up there in the Rockies. Beers, darts, maybe even a water slide? I gnashed my teeth just the tiniest bit and vowed to skip whatever class I had the next time the fun bus was headed out.
That's when I noticed the blinking light on the answering machine. I was sure it would be the sounds of the debauchery I missed. Instead, it was the weary voice of my mother, imploring me to come straight to her house. Not to call. Just to come. As soon as I could. I had never, before or since, heard my mother's voice sound like that. It scared me.
I don't remember driving across town, and all the day's antagonism drifted away as I began to imagine what cruel fate must have come to my father. Or older brother. I couldn't imagine anything bad happening to my younger brother. Anyone younger than I was indestructible. At least that's what I thought right up until my mother gave me the news. There had been an accident. One of my roommates was going to be fine. The other one had died.
Now it's been nearly thirty years since that crash. I forgave them for leaving me behind, but I still wonder what might have happened if I had cut class that day. I still flinch when I see notes on the table. I always prefer to speak to someone face to face when there's bad news. The road from Boulder to Estes Park was almost completely destroyed during this September's flooding. If that road hadn't been there twenty-eight years ago, I wouldn't be writing this. They never would have written that note. They might have gone out for a beer or two, but it wouldn't have been a matter of life and death.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


To paraphrase the noted showman Carl Denham, "It wasn't chocolate cake. It was beauty killed the beast." In this particular version of the tale, the beast wasn't a forty-foot tall gorilla, but an animal more singularly impressive and noble: Our dog Maddie. She was a beauty, inside and out.
People would stop us and ask what breed she was. For years we would shrug our shoulders and listen to whatever theory this kind stranger would have to offer about our pet's lineage. "There's some pit in those shoulders," They might offer. Or, "Those ears tell me she's a shepherd." "The spots look like she's got some Dalmatian in her." For this reason, we called her "The Rorschach Hound."
We called her a lot of things: Maddie, Mad Dog, Maddie Gas Car, Madeline Albright. Mostly we called her ours. She was a member of our family and was always the most patient and forgiving of the Cavens. That didn't mean she wasn't capable of being forgiven herself. Over the years, she consumed her weight in tasty chocolate treats. Far from being the poison that so many dog experts told us it would be, chocolate seemed to have the effect of prolonging her life, not shortening it. If that were her only trick, it would have been a good one.
I taught her a trick. It was one I learned from watching the TV show "Taxi." Alex, played by Judd Hirsch, had a dog that he taught to played dead whenever you pointed a finger at him and shouted "Bang!" So enamored of this bit, I spent a weekend teaching Maddie how to do just the same. She took to it quite easily, especially since she knew that rolling onto her back would cause me to come over and scratch her belly to break the spell.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 22, Maddie hopped up onto that Great Big Couch In The Sky. I pointed my finger at her, and made a little "bang." Best Trick Ever.
It will be some time before we are rid of all the genetic material that she left around our house. All that white fur that we always joked about using for making a rug, or cloning, it's going to be in our carpets and under our dressers for months to come. She won't be leaving our hearts anytime in the foreseeable future. Aloha, Maddie Caven. You truly stomped on the Terra. 

The Dog Days Are Over

That Florence and the Machine song snuck up on me: "Happiness hit her like a train on a track," specifically. Now I'm finding myself going through the days, counting the stages of grief. Anger, denial, acceptance, bargaining, and so forth. But in no particular order. The loudest voice is the one shouting down the peevish little one that wants to argue that "She was just a dog."
Forgive me if I go on here, but I'm guessing that it may take a few more days until I can keep these thoughts to myself. I want to be strong and serene. I have lost close friends and family members before. I should be better at this by now, if only because of the sheer repetition. Why am I complaining, after all? In dog years, she was more than one hundred and twelve years old. She lapped several of her doggie friends. She lived forever.
But not forever enough for me.
It's a pretty selfish feeling, ultimately. I wanted Maddie to stick around to keep me comfortable. This does not fit in well with what my older brother correctly diagnosed as an allergic reaction to change. The way I go through the house, still, looking for the dog. Or getting halfway through the impulse to fill her water bowl before I realize that it's not necessary. Missing the sound of her clicking nails as she wandered from room to room across our wooden floors. Year and years of my life spent letting her in the front door. Opening that same door minutes later because there was one more thing she needed to check on outside.
Last week when I came home from work, Maddie met me in the front yard. She gave me a playful growl and made a dive at the rag bone that sat in front of her. For five minutes, we had a pitched tug-of-war with her digging in her hind legs trying to wrest the big knot from my hands. Then, as suddenly as this fit of play came on, we were done. She dropped her end and went to the stairs. She, and by extension we, were through playing. It was time to go inside and rest.
In my grief-twisted mind, I started to feel sad, then angry that I hadn't made more of this tug-of-war. Maybe I could have coaxed her into one more lap around the block. If there had just been more time. But the reality is what it is, and I am reminded that every minute we got to spend together was lucky. I was lucky to have a dog like her. Lucky to have my patterns and rhythms determined by the connection and care for another living creature.
My wife is going to leave Maddie's beds out on the floor for a while. Just in case she would like to leave that sunny patch on the yard and come in and fluff up one of those cedar-smelling cushions. There's no rush. We've got all the time in the world now.

Run For The Hills

I used to run more. More often. Longer distances. I used to run late at night and early in the morning. It was my avocation. Way back when I was a single guy, living in a one bedroom apartment, it was an easy thing to come home, lace up my running shoes and head out the door. I used to run to fill up the hours that I was alone. Even though I was alone when I ran, it didn't feel the same. Because it was intentional.
Those were the days when I would walk out of that apartment building and just start running. I picked a direction and ran off into whatever wind, rain, sleet or snow happened to be out there with me. I had my layers and protective gear. The important thing was just to keep moving. I ran until I thought I my legs or lungs might give out, but I kept moving. I wasn't training for anything in particular. I was running out of desperation.
The loneliness of the long distance runner is something I've been considering ever since my father first suggested that I take up the sport when I was a freshman in college. I had just broken up with my high school sweetheart, and I needed something to fill the time that I had previously spent pining for her. All of that youthful energy found its way into binge drinking as well, and so I became a sort of two-sport athlete.
Eventually I gave up the drinking, but I kept on running. I kept running to fill the void that was left from the lack of girlfriend and the lack of drinking. I got into the best physical shape of my life as I spent my days moving and assembling modular office furniture and my nights and weekends attempting to wear out as many pairs of running shoes as I possibly could.
I would like to believe it was this conditioning that made me a more attractive prospective mate. That and the sobriety seemed to be a selling point when my wife-to-be came knocking so many years ago. Suddenly I had other things that kept me from the marathon routes that had once been my preoccupation. Those late nights and early mornings started to fill up with social gatherings and couple-type commitments.
I got married and became a father. The miles I ran were fewer and farther between. When my son grew too big for the jogging stroller, I had visions of the two of us taking long runs together. To his credit, he has periodically gone along with his old man in attempts to share his mania, but it's not quite the same. As he grew older, I realized that he will eventually find his own obsession.
This weekend, I ran out into the hills of Oakland and didn't worry about when I was coming back. It felt like old times. Only when I got home, my family was there waiting. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, "Lonesome no more."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

There Were Giants In Those Days

For some, the seventies were a simpler time. But they were curious, the "me" years. It was a time when that most self-indulgent experience in the world, cocaine, flourished. It is probably no coincidence then that this was also the high-water mark for the second-most self-indulgent experience in the world: The Drum Solo.
As a kid, I can remember going to rock shows and waiting, with some fevered anticipation for that moment when the lights would go down and the spotlight would fall on the great beast of a drum set, set high on the back of the stage. The rest of the band would take a few minutes to meander offstage while the percussionist got his ya-yas out. These were always explosive flurries full of speed and daring, with the certainty that each of the toms, snares, cymbals and chimes were whacked with some purpose. The epitome of this trial by rhythm was, of course, the late, great John Bonham's "Moby Dick." It is certainly no cheap coincidence that Bonzo's masterpiece was named for a Great White Whale. It is also a certainty that many Great White Lines were snorted by the rest of the Mighty Led Zeppelin as Mister Bonham thrashed away.
My own substance use came about in the1980's when all that thundering started to give way to machines and computers that replaced all that tumultuous pounding away, so I can't say that I had any sort of communal experience with the masters of the genre, but I was certainly aware of the live album cuts that included "Drum Solo" on the track list. I was one of those guys who, having never played drums in real life, felt compelled to pantomime along with any and all fills and solos produced by Neal Peart. I would enthuse to anyone who would listen that Carl Palmer was a god. What I knew about paradiddles and flamadiddles I cribbed from my buddies on the drum line. The idea that anyone could play either one of those with two bass drums using their feet astonished me.
By 1985, I had stopped caring so much about that sort of spectacle. I was more interested in the theatrics of it all, which is why the show I saw back then which featured Utopia's drummer on a spinning platform that required a roadie's constant attention and finally ended up getting stuck facing backward marked the death knell for my interest in drum solos. It was a Spinal Tap moment to be sure.
These days, I find myself tapping a toe or slapping my thighs along to those crazy beats from long ago, and I feel the need to hold a lighter above my head. Until I look around and notice that everyone else is holding up their cell phone. I know, it's only rock and roll. But I like it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Early Reviews Are In

Have you ever been so angry after you walked out of a movie that you wanted to beat up the people responsible? After you spent ten dollars, or more, for a ticket. After you paid for a nine dollar "medium" soft drink. After you bought a "king-size" box of Junior Mints that disappeared in the palm of your hand. After you waited through twenty minutes of ads for TV networks you never watch. After you've spent all that hard-earned money and time to see the latest blockbuster and it turns out to be an annoying rehash of every blockbuster that came before it, don't you feel like punching that director right in the face?
That's probably what was going through the minds of Mak Chi-shing and Mak Chi-hang. These young men came on the Hong Kong set of Michael Bay's "Transformers 4," looking to do some harm. Bay said "drugged up" assailants had been belligerent toward the film crew and one rolled metal carts toward actors on the set while trying to "shake us down." A police spokeswoman said two brothers who own a shop near the movie set approached Bay and demanded one hundred thousand Hong Kong dollars, or about thirteen hundred American."We will keep rolling metal carts toward you if you continue to make these absurd action films that have no point," or words to that effect. My Mandarin isn't as good as it probably should be.
Of course, I know that hitting Michael Bay in the face with an air conditioner isn't the real solution. I need to stop going to those 3D Imax surround sound screenings of the latest iteration of CGI hooey on the opening weekend. So, in a way, I'm really to blame for Michael Bay getting whacked in the face. Which I promise I will only take some small satisfaction. About twenty-seven dollars' worth. American.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blinded, Yet Again, By Science

Scientists. They make funny TV shows and clever predictions. What do they do with their spare time? Well, aside from imagining doomsday scenarios and being overly concerned about which seat in the living room one occupies on a consistent basis, they tend to do experiments. Many of these experiments seem geared to diminish our collective joy. Like those undergraduate researchers at Connecticut College.
According to the big brains at Conn College, led by professor Joseph Schroeder, Oreos are as addictive as cocaine. They determined this by placing rats in a maze with Oreo cookies on one side and rice cakes on the other, measuring the amount of time the rats spent on each side. Doctor Schroeder said in his press release, "Just like humans, rats don’t seem to get much pleasure out of eating [rice cakes]." Schroeder conducted a similar experiment, except that instead of tempting the rats with Oreos and rice cakes, he did so with injections of cocaine or morphine on one side, and saline injections on the other. It turns out that the rats spent as much time on the Oreo side of the maze in the Oreo experiments as they did on the drug side of the maze in the drug experiments. Science is telling us that Milk's favorite cookie is a drug.
Thanks, science. I'm not really sure that I need  a bunch of neuroscientists to tell me this. I know precisely how long a bag of Oreos can stay in my house before they are consumed. "Our research supports the theory that high-fat/high-sugar foods stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs do," Schroeder said. "It may explain why some people can't resist these foods despite the fact that they know they are bad for them." He went on to talk more about pleasure centers of the brain, and how Oreos activated more neurons than cocaine or morphine. This could be just me, but I took that last bit as a good thing.
The most intriguing part of the study to me? The part where they determined that rats tend, like so many of us non-rats, to eat the creamy filling first before the cookie. Maybe that just shows what good sense we all share. Now back to that whole global warming/collision course with an asteroid thing.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

What Are Words For?

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me. This is the mantra I was given as a child to help me navigate the harsh realities of being a round kid with glasses. Who liked to read more than he liked to play sports. Who didn't have a date until he was sixteen. Who was painfully shy. Who was exactly the kind of child who needed that sort of wisdom. I needed that kind of wisdom because I could not understand why anyone, especially another kid, would want to inflict any kind of pain on me.
I want to tell you that this phrase helped me through my formative years and made every interaction with cruelty. I want to believe that my sterling character was buoyed by a sense of my own self-esteem. I want to say that I was able to develop a Teflon-coated soul onto which no evil thoughts would stick. That's the thing about evil thoughts. They don't have to stick. They just have to leave a dent.
The dent that was left by all the words I heard when I was that round kid with glasses has made me hyper-vigilant on the behalf of round kids with glasses everywhere. And thin kids. Even kids with chicken pox or who happen to like Armour hot dogs. Growing up is horribly difficult, and all my worldly perspective tells me what my parents tried to clue me in on all those years ago: Those kids who are doing the teasing and bullying are terribly unhappy themselves, and even if misery doesn't exactly love company, there seems to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the two.
When I read about Rebecca Sedwick, I thought about how easy I had it back in the day. There was no Facebook. There was no cyberbullying. If you wanted to torment someone, you were pretty much left to your own face-to-face torture. Sure, you might have somebody write about you in a note or the bathroom wall, but the way word spreads these days, it would only take a couple hours for the Internet to circulate globally the news that Bobby eats boogers. I've seen a rumor fly through three hundred sixty kids in an elementary school over the course of a lunch recess. Toss a few smart phones into the mix and that brush fire has turned into a raging inferno.
Sticks and stones won't break your bones, but a cell phone just might break your heart.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Think Good Thoughts About Pussycat

That was the title of a collection of cartoons by George Booth. I have always considered myself to be a "dog" person, and I assumed that Mister Booth were kindred souls. That scruffy Bull Terrier became my familiar, a connection with dog lovers across the globe. I felt a division between the canine and feline worlds, and I wore my puppy badge proudly. Long after I made the barely enlightened choice to eschew jokes at the expense of racial and religious stereotypes, I continued to make fun of cats. Though I could proudly proclaim that I was no longer a racist, I was still a confirmed specist
I kid the cats, because I love them. It sounds ridiculous now, I know. I used to show how tolerant I could be of my friends' pets by allowing them to rub against my leg or leap up into my lap. I was never able to form any sort of lasting bond with a cat. I know that this is a limitation in myself, not the cats I have met. I told myself that I was simply predisposed to ignore their kind.
Or fear them. Like the way I have always taken note of black cats when they were crossing my path. It wasn't a paralyzing kind of thing, more of annoyance. Oh great, I would think, a black cat crossed my path. It never occurred to me to consider the luck of a black cat crossing a city street.
Until the other night. I was on my way home from a very long day at school. It was past seven o'clock, and I was riding my bike up the hill next to my school in the twilight. The cat had not crossed the path. Someone or something had stopped it. I stopped. Not just my bike to move the cat out of the street, but I stopped my irrational hatred of cats. Fifty-one years into the game, it's time to start thinking good thoughts about a pussycat.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Heroes Have Always Been Comics

Chevy Chase turned seventy last week. This caught me a little off guard, since I had been thinking of myself as a contemporary of Chevy's. I can remember when his star was on the rise. I can remember those first, tentative steps out on the ledge. He was the voice of a new generation. And you're not.
He didn't stick around on Saturday Night very long. Hollywood called, and Chevy stumbled his way out to Los Angeles where he became a star. On a par with Goldie Hawn, who also got her start on a boundary-pushing television comedy program. Hers was "Laugh-In." These two iconoclasts joined forces to make the highly revolutionary film, "Foul Play." Okay, this may have been why Chevy was labeled a sell-out. It's also why Bill Murray, upon Chevy's return to Saturday Night Live as a host, called the first SNL breakout star a "medium talent."
Don't get me wrong. I still laugh at things that Chevy has done. His smart-aleck demeanor helped me define my own comic persona and there are still dozens of Chevy Chase lines that fall from my mouth instinctively when my own dialogue fails me. Why isn't he a bigger deal? Maybe because he's never taken himself a seriously as he would have others do it for him. Why isn't the star of "Fletch," the Griswold family patriarch and most importantly to me, Ty Webb, more a part of the comedy firmament? It could be because of "Fletch Lives," "Nothing But Trouble," and "Spies Like Us."
Or maybe he was just a hero of a generation that didn't try so very hard. The Proto-Slackers. It probably also has something to do with the fact that he didn't die young. John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley: Saturday Night Live cast members who never got to see fifty-some, let alone seventy years. I suppose the snarkiest thing left to say is this: At least Chevy outlived Charles Rocket.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Yesterday's Gardenias

Just as men of a certain age need a certain amount of focused attention, a house of a certain age should probably receive the same. I come by this opinion in one of the least pleasant possible ways: Coming home from dinner last Friday night, I went to check on the progress our dryer was making in the basement only to find the laundry sink next to our washing machine was half full of brown water. And it was rising.
I tried to kid myself into believing that what I was about to stick my arms into was a sink full of muddy water, possibly contaminated by lint or phosphates from the detergent that our washing machine had drained most ineffectively back into the closest receptacle rather than down the drain and out into the sewer. And illusions along this particular line were quickly extinguished once I caught a whiff of what was seeping back into our home. Yesterday's Gardenias. That was the name my father had for the gunk into which I was about to plunge.
I remembered the times that my father battled with the sewage that somewhat regularly found its way back into the basement of the house in which I grew up. That was the drain of the shower in our downstairs bathroom. For years we were told that the roots from the hedges in our front yard were to blame for this periodic backwards flushing of stink. We called for a plumber to come out and run a snake through our drain to get this misdirection corrected, but it rarely came before we had at least a quarter inch of less-than-fresh water across the floor of the basement. The whole family sprang into action, bringing towels and mops in and attempt to stem the tide.
It was this image that kept me working on my own sink, years later, but the water level kept rising. It would soon spill over the side of the sink. I grabbed a bucket and bailed, carrying the water out the door and dumped it into the driveway. I alerted the rest of my family and ordered the shutdown of all plumbing-related activities. I worked furiously on pushing the bad water out with my plunger.
Ultimately, it only succeeded in bringing more goop back up. My wife took the next logical step: call a plumber. We waited. The waters didn't recede, but they didn't advance. Finally, we got a call back from a plumber who promised to be out the first thing in the morning.
I didn't sleep well that night. I was nervous about all the possible outcomes, and aside from that, the only thing I could smell, even though I had used the hose outside and lathered up solidly to clean my arms, was Yesterday's Gardenias.
When morning finally came, Ygnacio showed up just like he said he would. He made rather short and effective work of our clog with his roto-rooter. He suggested that we run a camera down the pipe to see if there were any problems, and offered to have an associate of his come out later in the afternoon to take a look. Victor showed up a couple of hours later, opened the drain, and this time instead of a spinning blade, he pushed a camera down into the darkness below our house. I watched as the snake progressed foot after foot, yard after yard on its trip toward the main sewer. I felt a twinge of empathy as I imagined our one hundred and thirty-eight year old house wincing at the indelicacy of it all.
Finally, just a dozen yards from the middle of the street, we saw a clump of roots. "There's your problem," Victor said, "He just punched a hole through that. He should have used the big blades."
I felt a twinge of my own now. This one was connected to my checkbook reflex. The good news was that Ygnacio and Victor had worked it out so that I wasn't going to have to pay for the extra cleaning. "He shoulda used the big blades in the first place," Victor confided to me.
And so yet another steel cable was launched into the bowels of my home. This time with the big blades. Now it was mid-afternoon. I had spent the past twenty hours trying to make sure that the only thing I had to deal with was Today's Gardenias, and only briefly at that. Once the trucks were loaded back up with all the tools that were necessary to keep drains clean, and everyone was paid, I took the time to call my mother to share my experience.
She told me that, years after I had moved out, it was determined that all those plumbing crisises were not the fault of the roots of the hedge. There was an odd turn out under the street that periodically became blocked. It wasn't our fault, or that of our vegetation. If only Victor had been there with his camera way back then. Then again, if we were all as careful with our plumbing, you might not have to be reading about this now.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

You Guys Are Gonna Be On A Record

I got an e-mail from a friend who was reminiscing about the time that her band played the same venue as Nick Lowe. It wasn't at the same time or bill, nor were the shows on the same stage. Nick played at an outdoor section of the rambling bar/entertainment complex, while my friend's band played in "a garret that holds about thirty people." It's still a point of pride that she can make this claim.
I followed this line of logic, and became impressed by the number of artists with whom I have shared a venue. When I was in Pep Band in high school, we were invited to play at a Nuggets game in Denver's McNichols Arena. This is the place I saw my first rock and roll show: Elton John. The Pep Band played a lot of interesting charts, but there was no "Crocodile Rock" the night we played. Still, I can say that I played the same arena as Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath, The Police, and the Electric Light Orchestra, just to name a few. If one ignores the time portion of the space/time continuum, I shared the stage with a whole lot of big acts.
If we extrapolate still further, as a member of the marching band, I played the same stadium as the Eagles, the Who, and Ted Nugent. I would love to tell you that we rocked the place harder than any of those groups, but we were a marching band after all. That doesn't keep me from feeling a link to Mile High Stadium, where we once played the National Anthem before a Broncos game. This allows me to connect with the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, not to mention John Elway. Stretching still further, I can say that since the new Mile High Stadium was constructed on the site of the old McNichols Arena, I can even lay claim to some sort of karmic bond with Peyton Manning.
But this is really just an extrapolation of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. My real claim to fame is that I appear on Steve Martin's second album, "Wild And Crazy Guy." I'm the guy on side two, recorded at Red Rocks Amphitheater, shouting "All Right!" from the crowd. It sort of figures that I would make my debut on a comedy record.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fold, Spindle, Mutate

I should now better. I grew up in a home where French Folds were part of the learning curve. If you're not familiar with the concept, it's not the name of a band you wish you still listened to. It's part of the way I was taught the art of paper manipulation as the son of a printer.
The best thing about growing up in the house where I did was the unfettered access to paper. My father brought home reams of the stuff. Sometimes in nice neat pads, other times on great big three foot tall rolls that could become murals or maps or tablecloths. As a kid who took great delight in filling most blank space with cartoons, I was never long without that spot to place my ideas. I didn't care for coloring books. Filling in other people's line drawings felt like a cheat. I needed that blank page.
This is how I got into the business of drawing cards. Birthday, get will, and eventually the Grail: Christmas. After decades of family cards that featured the three boys in this or that manufactured spontaneous pose, usually on the hearth in front of the fireplace, my parents allowed me to submit work for approval to become the public forum for the Cavens.
First, I had to learn how printing gets done. Most of my work prior to this had been exclusively done in the "hamburger" world of half-sheets of notebook paper. The idea that you could draw on one side of the paper and still end up with something that appeared to have two or three sides to it fascinated me. Once I mastered the quarter-page French Fold, I used it up. I made invitations. I made greeting cards for every occasion, all of which could be copied on your garden-variety copy machine and then manipulated into professional looking product. A simple trick that I played for years and years.
And now I find myself at an elementary school that is in the midst of switching over to a balanced literacy program. That means that the big old basal readers that we had been lugging about for the past fifteen years were being replaced by books designated for each student's reading level. In order to meet such a demand, we have been using an online service that delivers just that, providing we can print these books out and staple them together in such a way as to make them meaningful.
I worked a few summers in the bindery of the company where my father worked. I put together a lot of books, and saw thousands more assembled by machines. With all this background, you might think that folding and stapling a few dozen ten-page books wouldn't be too taxing. You would be wrong.
The French Fold didn't save me. Nor did those summers working on various binders and presses. All that paper and no real sense about how they might come together. My father would be so embarrassed.
After an hour of fussing, I was able to figure out the pattern. I'm hoping that the proofs that I made will be all that other teachers need to follow in my fumbling footsteps. Sorry, Dad, wherever you are.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Give Us A Brake

This past week, the theoretical became reality. The driver's permit that my son had been on the verge of for the past several months became his. Not a license, but a permit to learn how to drive. Even though he has been telling his parents for the past couple of years that this whole driving thing was going to be a slam dunk, it turns out that all those picayune details are significant after all. Several trips to the Division of Motor Vehicles to make certain that the proper paperwork had been brought along, and two attempts at taking the written test have finally given the green light to our son's vision of the open road.
But first, he's got to sit next to a grown up who will watch him drive for about sixty hours. For her part, my wife was surprised by how different it felt to be teaching her son to drive compared to simply supervising him as he backed the car down the driveway to park it ten feet away so that it could be washed. All that forgotten high school Driver's Ed came rushing back at her. The stated speed limit was fifteen miles an hour, not twenty. Every stop was a near catastrophe, as the brakes are still a fresh new thing to our young Mario Andretti. Each start was a lurch as Enzo Ferrari familiarized himself with the power of acceleration. When it was over, it was difficult to tell who was more frazzled, mother or son.
I know it will be my turn soon enough. My first thought was of the emergency brake. This was one of my father's favorite tools when he taught me to drive. If he didn't like how things were going, he would reach between the seats and pull up hard on that lever, letting me know that I had missed something. It was punctuation. The emergency brake for our Prius is on under the left foot of the driver, about as far away from the passenger's side as possible. I know that I will have to come up with a different strategy if I am gong to be successful in getting my son and I out of this in one piece.
"Trust" comes to mind. My son learned to crawl, walk, run, bike and ride a bus without me pulling the emergency brake. He made it through his sophomore year and into his junior year in high school without me pulling the emergency brake. He has made it through sixteen years in our house without me once having to pull the emergency brake. Not that I didn't have the urge to do just that, but his mother and I haven't. Not literally or metaphorically. We've made it this far on trust. Brakes stop. Trust keeps on going.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

To Infinity And Beyond

Like so many kids of my generation, I grew up wanting to be an astronaut. So much so that this inspired one of the most long-standing rifts between my mother and me. Not that she didn't want me to be an astronaut. We never really discussed that. What we discussed was what I wanted for Christmas. I wanted the S.T.A.R. Team Adventure gear. I made a careful list. I asked for the helmet, that came with the astro-headset. I asked for the space utility belt. I asked for the remote gripper device, or R.G.D as it was called by those in the know. I did not ask for anything else that year. On Christmas morning, all of these items were there, under the tree. Addressed to my younger brother. It was years before I could bring myself to speak to my mother about this bizarre mix-up. How could "Santa" have made such a grievous error?
She told me that when she looked at the age range on the boxes, they were recommended for children six to eight years old. In 1971, I had just passed that window. My mother believed these toys would be more appropriate for her youngest son. Developmentally. I could have blamed Ideal Toys for making such an obviously poor marketing decision. Instead, I blamed my mother with a grudge that carried over for decades. I should have blamed Scott Carpenter.
It was Scott Carpenter who, along with his six Mercury compatriots, would usher in a world in which young boys like myself would announce proudly that they wanted to be an astronaut. It was an occupation that did not exist prior to these brave pioneers. His trip into outer space preceded my arrival on earth by less than a month. His capsule, the Aurora 7,  was ironically christened after a celestial event but also happened to coincide with the intersection of the streets on which he grew up. In Boulder, Colorado. By the time I was born, I already had a national hero to whom I could look up. As I grew up, I didn't spend as much time on Aurora Street as I did at the park which would bear Commander Carpenter's name. There were other parks in Boulder, much closer to my own home, but making the trek out there was special, mostly for the three-story rocket which stood as the centerpiece of the playground.
I climbed up the ladders and slid down the slide of that towering monument more times than I could ever count. I was still going there in high school with my friends, late at night to continue my explorations, leaping from the swings in an attempt to experience just a taste of what Scott Carpenter must have felt during his four and a half hour orbits of the earth. Each time I leaped out of the seat, I pushed for just a little more of that weightless feeling, only to come crashing back to the sandy pit at the base of that rocket. It was still a few years after that when I took my final flight from that launching pad. My senses were dulled by chemicals that were unnecessary for my adventure, but made the trip all the more interesting. Until I landed on my left knee, tearing five of the six ligaments, requiring surgery and months of rehabilitation. As I lay there in the shadow of that jungle gym disguised as a Mercury rocket, I quietly retired my commission in the low-altitude space explorers. My astronaut days were behind me.
Now Scott Carpenter has gone where so many men have gone before. He went on this last great voyage ahead of his good friend, John Glenn. It was John Glenn's who went into space just before Scott, and he wished his fellow pioneer luck with these words: "Godspeed, John Glenn." It was these words with which Glenn bid his fellow S.T.A.R. Team member farewell. I echo them today. Godspeed, Scott Carpenter.
And I forgive you, Mom.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dog Duty

"Sleep when the baby sleeps." This was the advice my wife and I were given after the birth of our son. This led to some very interesting patterns being developed, where the three of us learned to savor those two and three hour periods when everyone in the house was slumbering, before the needs of the smallest brought us all back awake. We were grateful for the opportunity to piece together eight hours of sleep over the course of a day. Eventually we all grew up and became good little sleepers in our own way.
Then we got a dog. This spirited young canine took some time to acclimate to the rhythms of our household, and we worked as a family to let our new puppy member know just how it was that we worked things, especially bedtime. Over the course of a year, we trained her to sleep next to our bed and to respect our waking hours as hers. She is a very clever dog and soon became comfortable with the idea of where her bed was and when she should sleep in it. Not that she didn't sleep at other points throughout the day. It only occurs to me now that if we had adopted the "sleep when the dog sleeps" model, we would all be much more rested. None of us would be employed, but we would be more rested.
And so it went for a decade and a half. Now we have a sixteen-year-old dog, and the needs of our best friend have changed. She needs to go outside much more often than she ever used to. Sleeping through the night is pretty much out of the question at this point. My wife and I trade off when those middle of the night excursions arise. It takes me back to the days when we had an infant. My wife makes a point of not opening her eyes to look at the clock when she gets up to open the door to let the dog out. I can't help myself. When it's my turn, I have to do the math. If I get back to sleep right now, I'll still have three hours before the alarm goes off. But of course, I never get right back to sleep.
And the irony at the bottom of this whole experience is that now we have a teenaged boy just down the hall who sleeps through it all.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Carrying A Torch For Vlad

Vladimir Putin, shirtless President of Russia, received the Olympic torch in Moscow earlier this week. The easy joke is to point out that this is the only flaming thing that Vladimir has accepted in his country in some time. Vlad the Inhaler is welcoming the Winter Games of 2014 to his country. With open arms, and an iron fist.
I have no doubt that the very manly pursuits of the biathlon will be welcomed by President Putin, as will the very straight and conservative alpine skiing. The "Nordic Combined" is bound to raise a few eyebrows, as will the "Freestyle." The fact that the rough and tumble sport of ice hockey will be played by both men and women will most certainly be looked at with great suspicion. Team sports are especially good at creating comradeship, but one must be careful not to tip the scales too far in any one direction. It is not good to be too special or unique in Russia these days. That might be considered "fabulous."
Which brings us to the obvious question for these Winter Olympics: How will this intolerant, homophobic regime treat those most flamboyant of Olympians, the figure skaters? Not that one should assume too awfully much about the sheer athleticism of the Olympiad's most spangled participants. Still, considering the way that Mister Putin and his government has treated gays, it could give one pause before pulling on your spandex and lashing yourself to the luge.
Still, Vladimir insists that the games in Sochi will show "respect for equality and diversity -- ideals that are so intertwined with the ideals of the Olympic movement itself." Did he say "intertwined?" That sounds pretty gay to me.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Miracle Nightshade

I have definitely spent more time in my back yard in the past. Back when we used to water the grass, specifically. Over all those long summer months, I didn't feel compelled to get out and trim or mow the lawn. It didn't need it. Instead, I spent the first couple weeks of June filling up our yard waste bin with the leftover branches from our winter tree debacle. Once that mess was pretty well sorted out, I pulled out the weeds that had sprung up in the newly sun-drenched plain that was once shaded by towering eucalyptus. That was how I discovered the gourd vine. Stretching ten or more feet across this expanse was a green twist of a plant, sprouting at least a dozen fist-sized yellow and green striped gourds. It was what we call "a volunteer."
This little plant became part of my weekly water runs, as I couldn't imagine simply leaving it to its own devices after I had found it struggling so gamely in the outback. I made a point of giving it a little drink each time I dropped by to tend to the roses who spent most of the summer trying to adapt to their newly solar-enhanced position.
When September came, it was time to harvest the apples from the tree that marks the edge of the frontier. This year's crop was a healthy lot, seemingly happy with all that extra sky into which they could grow. The biosphere of our backyard continued to evolve. It wasn't until the last week of that month that we had anything resembling precipitation. At last, the dusty scrub that was our lawn finally began to green up, if only in patches.
As autumn began to take hold, those green patches continued to grow, until it became necessary to drag the lawn mower out for only the third time in as many months. I used all that power to level the various breeds of grass, and to mulch up the leaves that had begun to collect at the bottom of the trees out front. When I went into the back yard, behind the now clean-picked apple tree, I found something entirely new. Just a few yards away from our volunteer gourds was an equally healthy and thriving tomato plant. The twenty-or-so tomatoes were easily an embarrassment over the plant that we had struggled to keep alive on our deck all summer long, producing just a couple of tiny fruits, more suited to garnish than an actual salad. We couldn't have done any better if we had planned it.
Or maybe not.
My wife thinks she remembers tossing some tomato seeds into the back yard sometime last summer, much in the same way she remembers tossing a gourd back there in the spring. The reality of the plant that has grown takes some of the edge off the fantasy of beanstalks and giant peaches. We talked about all the things we might toss out there over the next few months, just to see what might sprout up. I suggested throwing out a couple dollars in change.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

What's In A Name?

Syria's not a big enough mess, nor is the government shutdown here on our own shores brought on by the health care program that bears his name. Now our President wants to get involved in the tempestuous world of professional sports. This isn't completely without precedent, of course. Mister Obama has previously been immersed in the highly charged debate about a playoff system for college football. POTUS tends to think that the BCS is BS. Then there is the matter of our chief executive's yearly foray into NCAA basketball bracketology.
Now he wants to weigh in on the matter of his local team's mascot: The Redskins. "I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things," he said in the interview conducted last Friday at the White House. Still, he's a politician, which is why he felt the need to add, "I don't want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here. They love their team and rightly so."
Would they love them just as much if they were called the Washington Genociders? Maybe the Smallpox Blankets? Hard to say, but since the team's owner, Dan Snyder, has proclaimed that the name will never change as long as he is the owner it seems like the kind of argument with which Obama has become familiar.
"The name 'Washington Redskins' is eighty years old. It's our history and legacy and tradition," Lanny J. Davis, an attorney for the Redskins, said in an emailed statement in which he also identified himself as an Obama supporter. "We Redskins fans sing 'Hail to the Redskins' every Sunday as a word of honor, not disparagement." Davis and others have been quick to point out that baseball has Braves and Indians, the NFL has Chiefs as well, and hockey has its Blackhawks. The difference being that none of these epithets point directly to any sort of disparaging term. How about "Honkies?"
Generally speaking, it seems that sticking to the animal world when shopping for mascots is probably best, though I do wonder how many Broncos and Bears fans have considered the number of equine and ursine Americans they have offended over the years.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Art For Art's Sake

I have never been a big fan of graffiti. Long ago, I heard my mother say this about people who scrawl their gnarly epithets on fences and bare walls: "Bad toilet training." It took me a while to figure out what she meant, but once I gathered in just what she meant, this marking of territory started to wear on me. Moving to Oakland did little to take the edge of this aversion. There aren't a lot of "blank canvases" around here.
When I managed a book warehouse here, one of my employees insisted on leaving his tag on every surface he could. That tag was "Intel." He was careful to annotate, as he had space, his borrowed catchphrase: "It's what's inside." The artsy part of me appreciated the hip message that he was sending. The management part of me was incensed by the defacement of company property. Intel's scribbles were everywhere: carts, crates, posts, walls. If it held still long enough for him to get his permanent marker on it, it got tagged. As "The Man," it fell to me to express this outrage on behalf of the company. Since it was an employee-owned company, and I was talking to one of the owners, it turned out that my rants were less than effective. Intel felt pretty solidly that he was only adding to the ambiance of his work surroundings, and as an owner he felt that his mission of self-expression far outweighed the concerns of this petty little man who stood before him complaining about "vandalism." Graffiti, for Intel, was not a crime.
Nor is it for Banksy, whose work is currently  on display in and around New York City. This street artist is giving his fans and graffiti abatement crews a real run for their money, announcing online the appearance of new pieces with the hopes that they can be seen by those who might enjoy them before they are painted over. Banksy's street art scavenger hunt is a return to his roots, before his stenciled bits could be found in prestigious galleries and movie theaters across the globe.
I wonder if I'll ever find a documentary about Intel in my Netflix queue.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Fanfare For The Common Team

Money can't buy you love, or at least that's what the poet said. If Sir Paul had been a baseball fan, back in the day, he might have pointed out that money can buy you lots of other things like an Aston Martin DB5 he once drove, but it can't necessarily buy a World Series.
One hundred and sixty-three games later, after that one-game addition to determine the American League wild card spot, the playoff teams are set: four from the National League, and four from the American League. The New York Yankees, with the largest payroll in organized baseball at more than two hundred million dollars per year (not including A-Rod's legal defense fund), will be watching this years postseason from home. Very nice homes, to be sure, but I'm guessing that Vernon Wells' pleather couch won't be as comfortable for him as a seat on the bench of the dugout at Yankee Stadium.
Instead, the American League will be sending Tampa Bay, with the twenty-eighth lowest payroll along with the Oakland A's in twenty-seventh place out of thirty major league teams. Monster salaries are not the leading indicators of baseball success. The Los Angeles Dodgers may want to argue this point, since they lead the majors in a number of categories, including salary. Across town, their American League counterparts the Angels, are sporting the number seven batch of big paychecks for baseball players. The Angels might take notice that they are being paid, as a team, twice as much as the Oakland A's and they are going to be spending the next few weekends cleaning out the garage and thinking about what might have been.
Of course, this is professional sports and all things will eventually turn. The players that Oakland turns into a team to win their division will likely show up as stars on some other GM's map for next year. The Pittsburgh Pirates will have to decide whether to give everyone a raise for making it to the playoffs for the first time in this new century, or starting fresh with a bunch of no-names. It may make stirring entertainment, but fans seem to like the star power. Those great big salaries get paid for by great big attendance at home games. You could call it Moneyball, or you could call it supply and demand.
If the A's or the Rays win the World Series, we can all take pride in the victory of the common man. Keeping in mind, of course, that those common men are still making at least $480,000 a year. To play baseball. Go A's.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Forever For A Six Year Old

There is a problem with having perfect attendance. Sure, the accolades are nice. It's nice to get that gold star. But you don't get missed very often. This is what I noticed the other day on the desks of one of my colleague's room: "I miss you." It was the beginning of a letter to the teacher who had been out for a few days, and the substitute had taken it upon herself to have the kids send best wishes to their teacher who had been absent.
When you're six years old, if someone is out of your life for three days, it feels like a very long time. It's a big chunk of their lives, percentage-wise. I know this, not because I'm absent from school very often, but because of the nature of my job I am periodically pulled away to do this or cover that. Those are the days that kids don't get computer class. This makes them sad. When they see me again out on the playground, I am generally treated to hugs and high fives, and the kids ask for assurance that I won't ever leave them again. I try to let them know that I will do whatever I can, but sometimes people have to go away to do other things.
This is especially true at my school. Teachers have left, sometimes in the middle of the year. Programs that students have enjoyed have ended, leaving them wondering about the routine of life. Friends that they have made in class suddenly move to another school, or city. Even parents go away. Permanence is a tough sell in this neighborhood.
Of course they miss their teacher, and we hope that he comes back very soon. To stay.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Family Exorcize

I went out for a bike ride this weekend. During the week, this would not be news, but since I did it on a day during which I tend to find my way via my feet or my hybrid car, this became news. It was a form of family exercise. Not just a cardiopulmonary workout, but logistics as well. Since we chose to ride bikes, another choice was made for us: the dog would stay home.  This meant we had to still had to decide on a number of different actions items, including the route we might take as well as when and where we might take a nutrition break.
It seems simple enough. There are just three of us, after all. But how were we to fit in our priorities of getting to ride across the new span of the Bay Bridge and have lunch at the market at the end of the Berkeley Marina? That could have put us out on the trail for a perilous amount of time, without a sense of how long it might be before our next chance to buy Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. We decided to fuel up first, and as we ate, we planned our next move: Drive to IKEA, and make that our base camp. With any luck, we could be back to the car before the snows began to fly.
As it turns out, we were not anywhere near the only family to have this inspiration. There must have been a half dozen vans and cars with bike racks, all disgorging kids of various sizes and ages while parents sorted out helmets and water bottles among them. Our little family made its preparations and got underway.
The curious thing about the path on which we found ourselves was that it doesn't really go anywhere. You can ride out almost all the way to Treasure Island, and then you have to turn around and come back. This gave us all a sense of being at an amusement park, following the line to its eventual end, then traipsing back along nearly the same path, after having seen what Jungle Cruise skippers might describe as "The Backside of the Bridge."
The trip up was interesting enough, but coming back down from the highest point of the span allowed us all to make the most of gravity and our two wheels. Because we were limited to a narrow lane going up, and another skinny path coming back down, we didn't get much of a chance to talk along the way, but when we were done, and the bikes were strapped once again to the back of the hybrid car, we congratulated ourselves on the effort. We had ridden to the edge of our world and found our way back, and there were still Reese's Peanut Butter Cups waiting when we got back. It was, in the words of my son, "totally worth it."

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Special Issue

I should have learned my lesson. I read a biography last year about Charles Schulz. I learned how sad he was, and how all that misery turned into joy when he put it in thousands of newspapers every day and called it "Peanuts." Then I read a biography about Kurt Vonnegut Jr. It turns out that he was a very unhappy man who turned to writing science fiction as an escape from his mundane and pained existence. These heroes of mine that had given me hours of happiness in my youth were miserable old men who used their art to seek out acceptance they weren't finding in their own lives.
Why then, do you suppose I would take on a volume about the rise and inevitable fall of the witty young men and women who brought me all those laughs in the pages of National Lampoon? I had already read a number of behind-the-scenes accounts of Saturday Night Live, the place where humor had gone to die on television. John Belushi. Gilda Radner. Chevy Chase. I knew how those stories ended already, and they were the "successes" in the Lampoon canon. Of course, so was P.J. O'Rourke.
So many of the voices, both in print an on record, that made me laugh as a teenager are now gone. The aforementioned Belushi and Radner. Then there was Michael O'Donoghue, Mister Mike's least loved bedtime stories. And Doug Kenney, who walked off a cliff in Hawaii. John Hughes, staff writer and creator of the "Vacation" series as well as a bunch of movies about teenagers succumbed to all that teen angst in 2009. Original managing editor, Robert K. Hoffman, has shuffled of this mortal coil. The magazine itself has ceased to be. They don't even have a website of their own anymore. But they do show up on Twitter.
I guess it's what they say: "Death is easy, Twitter is hard."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

One Door Closes, Another Remains Shut

While the government shutdown remains more palatable to Americans than the Affordable Health Care Act, I found myself confounded once again at the nature of the "decision" to shutter the doors of what are considered "non-essential" government services. Items and services that remain open during the embargo: Nearly a million federal employees are not furloughed and will not be paid. Half of the Defense Department's civilian employees are furloughed. The annual influenza program, the one that tracks the flu and helps people get flu shots, has been shut down. The Center for Disease Control has also stopped offering its usual assistance to state and local authorities, who rely on the agency for help in tracking unusual outbreaks. NASA will furlough almost all of its employees, though it will continue to keep workers at Mission Control in Houston and elsewhere to support the International Space Station, much to the relief of the two Americans and four others are deployed. All national parks will be closed. Visitors using overnight campgrounds or other park facilities will be given forty-eight hours to make alternate arrangements and leave those parks. Among the visitor centers that will be closed: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and Alcatraz Island near San Francisco.
We still get mail. Social Security and Medicare will still get put in that mail. The U.S. Military will still get their checks, though not in the mail, since who would really want to depend on that? The TSA will keep asking you to take off your shoes and dump your shampoo. And the folks who started all this fuss, our elected representatives in Congress and in the White House, will still get paid.
And those same elected representatives will also continue to get their federally funded health care. That "Closed" sign isn't completely accurate. But that sort of makes sense in this operation, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Sole Survivor

I was trying to make a connection between "Get Smart" and Iran the other day. Why, you ask? Because someone threw a shoe at Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, as his motorcade returned home last Saturday. The shoe was thrown after Rouhani had participated in what amounted to a somewhat historic phone call with President Barack Obama. For those who may have missed the 1960's, "Get Smart" was a TV show about a secret agent who among other amusing traits, had a phone in his shoe. I'm not guessing that within the crowd of upset Iranians there were a lot of fans of Maxwell Smart, but maybe this was their way of aligning themselves with KAOS, the archenemies of CONTROL.
Or maybe it was that in the Middle East, shoe throwing is considered the height of insult. Shoes touch the dirt and filth, so when you toss that big size twelve at somebody, you're really tossing filth at them. It should be noted that the angry mob shouting "death to America" was outnumbered by a group four to five times larger heaping praise on their new president. It's been a long time since had any real diplomatic relations with Iran. Three decades, to be precise. Back in 1979, before Ted Koppel was a household name and Ben Affleck was just seven years old, the United States Embassy in Tehran was overrun, and fifty-two hostages were held for four hundred forty-four days. Since then, it's been pretty difficult to carry on any sort of substantive conversation, what with all those Ayatollahs running things, and that guy in the Members Only jacket shooting off his mouth about this and that. But mostly it was that "death to America" thing.
Now there's a dialogue. Sure, the call between Barack and Hassan was only fifteen minuted long, but this could lead to a text or two, or maybe they could even Skype. I'm guessing that Iran's Facebook relationship status is "it's complicated." After thirty years, that will do for a start. Now if we can just keep everybody's shoes on.