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.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wedded Bliss - ish

There was a comedian, I wish I could remember who it was but time has a way of shaving off attributions, who once suggested that nothing says "I'm getting my life together" like carving a fresh swastika in your forehead. This very funny person was referring to Charles Manson's approach to his upcoming parole hearing. That was many years ago, and Charlie is still doing time up the road from us in San Quentin. He is seventy-nine years old and will almost surely die in prison, but that doesn't mean things aren't looking up for everybody's favorite Beatles revisionist.
Chuck M.'s in love. Or to be more precise, someone's in love with Chuck. "Star," as she was named by the convicted killer, is a twenty-five-year-old girl who has spent the last six years pining for the mastermind behind the Tate-Labianca murders. Visiting him is just part of her plan to become the number one fan of Charles Manson. She maintains a number of pro-Manson websites, as well as carving an X on her forehead. Ah, young love. Young love with a nearly eighty-year-old nutjob who won't ever take a breath outside prison walls. It's enough to make you wretch. Unless you happen to be Star.
“I’ll tell you straight up, Charlie and I are going to get married,” she told Rolling Stone. “When that will be, we don’t know. But I take it very seriously. Charlie is my husband. Charlie told me to tell you this. We haven’t told anybody about that.”
It won't be the first time Charlie's been married. He tied the knot with Rosalie Willis back in 1954. That one didn't last because he ended up in jail for stealing cars. While he was out for a couple of years he got married again to Leona "Candy" Stevens in 1958. Back in stir, Charlie must have considered his relationship status, because when next he found himself on the other side of the bars, he chose to avail himself of a great many delicate flowers: Leslie, Susan, Patricia, and a whole host of other pretty young things who just wanted to tune in, drop out and commit murder. Sharing a common interest is vital to the success of any relationship, which is why it's probably a good thing that Star seems to have her mind set on just one: Charlie.
Again, it's just great to see a guy getting his life turned around with the help of his lady love.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Master's Thesis On Slavery

This past Wednesday, Sarah Palin  cancelled a scheduled interview with NBC's Matt Lauer following MSNBC host Martin Bashir's suggestion that she deserved a graphic punishment for comments made about slavery. The suggestion for that punishment was way out of line for a news commentator to make about a potential interview subject, but perhaps in line with punishments that might have been handed out in the days of slavery. Days that with which perhaps former governor and former sportscaster Palin might not be familiar.
Speaking about the United States increasing debt to China, she said: "When that note comes due -- and this isn't racist...but it's going to be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to be beholden to a foreign master." I'm pretty sure that most people would have let that one slide on by without the "and this isn't racist" parenthetical. Who could possibly be a better judge than Ms. Palin as to what is or is not racist? Well, maybe Mister Bashir, an Englishman by birth and a Pakistani by blood living and working in the United States. He may, at one time or another, have encountered racism.
He may also have a sense of the history of the world, which has included many different instances of slavery based on race. Bashir does seem to share a certain flair for public speaking that might compare favorably to that of Ms. Palin, considering they both had to apologize for their most recent fusillade of words. His apology: "Upon reflection, I so wish that I had been more thoughtful, more considerate, more compassionate, but I was not and what I said is now a matter of public record." Hers went like this: "I apologize for not being clearer in my response, thus opening the door to critical media that does what it does best in ginning up controversy." Only hers wasn't about the slavery comment. Hers was an apology for comments she made about Pope Francis. In that apology, she also mentioned this: " I was reminding viewers that we need to do our own homework on news subjects, and I hadn't done mine yet on the Pope's recent comments as reported by the media." Perhaps Ms. Palin can work the diary of Thomas Thistlewood into that hectic reading schedule of hers. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Post-Feeding Frenzy

"Suddenly, it's Christmas, right after Halloween. Forget about Thanksgiving it's just a buffet in between." - Loudon Wainwright III
These are the words that ring in my head about this time of year as I prepare for the slide into winter that is marked here in California primarily by the plastic wreaths hanging from the telephone wires strung across the streets. The other leading indicator is the number of amount of mail both analog and electronic that fills my box reminding me of all the savings I could be experiencing if I wasn't so busy recycling the fliers and deleting the e-mail reminding me of all the savings I could be experiencing. Christmas may be on its way, but Black Friday is practically here already.
These days, it isn't enough to rush out the day after gorging ourselves on turkey and football. The rush to get our loved ones all the gifts they so richly deserve a full month before the day on which they are to open them up under their obligatory tree is palpable. So much so that retailers have taken the additional step this year of pushing that boundary back to Thanksgiving Day. Now, instead of simply eating your fill of cranberries and the oh-so-apporpriately-named stuffing and sitting on the couch with a glazed look on your face not unlike the yams that you consumed just prior to staring at the Dallas Cowboys playing whoever else lost the coin flip this year, you can rush out to the mall and get your shopping frenzy on at a number of retailers who are excited and anxious to have your dollars before you've fully digested.
It would be somewhat disingenuous for me to scoff at this notion completely. Since I moved away from my family in Colorado, I have participated in this sweepstakes primarily online. In order to beat shipping deadlines, I have made purchases well in advance of December just so I didn't have to stand in line at the UPS Store and fret that my packages would make it to that spot under the tree before the joyous day. Maybe I participated in the panic. Maybe I contributed to the need for a petition from Target employees, anxious to have their bosses consider relenting on their promise to open their doors next Thursday, eliminating the one day of calm in what is traditionally a buzz saw of commerce with those red-vested folks with name tags squarely in the path of all that fury.
I worked at Target. I unloaded trucks, I never had to stand amidst the chaos on the sales floor during the height of Christmas Season. The week before Thanksgiving, we got bigger trucks, stuffed with more merchandise that needed to be tagged and sorted so that wild-eyed customers could have their Cabbage Patch dolls and mini-refrigerators. The rest of the crew and I were afraid to go out on the floor where all that carnage was taking place. That experience was what made me such a fan of shopping on Al Gore's Internet. Over the next few days, I'll probably be sitting down in front of my computer and I'll be making a list. I'll check it twice. And I'll be glad that I can stay at home on Thanksgiving and the day after, doing the thing that is most important: hanging the highest number of lights before infinity on my house.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Core

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Thanks for that update, Arne. These were the words Secretary of Education Duncan had for a nation full of parents who are concerned about the new standards that will be applied to their children's education. It was in addition to comments he had made previously to debunk the "fringe elements" who suggest that the conspiracy theories about the claim that Common Core Standards are "a scheme for the federal government to usurp state and local control of what students learn." There are those on both the left and the right who fear the effects of these new guidelines. When does the fringe stop being fringe and start becoming the rug? I'm guessing that white suburban moms are rug and not fringe.
For that matter, so are the teachers and administrators who are implementing these standards. There are a great many of us who are still finding our way in the midst of this seemingly radical change. I have moms, dads, aunts and uncles of all circumstances coming to me with questions. Why shouldn't they?
It's the urban African-American fathers, Latino aunties and Tongan mothers who want to understand what their children will be experiencing in the classroom as we move forward into the twenty-first century. As an educator, I have learned that it's not a good thing when your class is sitting still, not asking questions. It would be bad if those students started a rumor suggesting that what I was teaching them was indoctrination for some secret society or clandestine organization. Or if they felt that my teaching was somehow undermining the principles of America.
We fear what we don't know. I've learned that over and over again as a student, teacher and parent. If you take the make expectations clear, there shouldn't be a problem. It's when we start to roll our eyes at the inquiring minds that want to know that we get ourselves into trouble, whether they live in the suburbs or the trailer parks, the barrio or the gated community. That's why it's called "public education," Arne.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pass The Stuffing

The scene: a rustic wood cabin in the wilds of Wyoming. The prairie winds howl outside while inside a family sits down to their holiday feast.
"Daddy, what are you thankful for this year?"
The patriarch leans back in his seat and considers, "Well dear, this year my heart is full. I'm surrounded by those I love and those who love them."
"That's beautiful, daddy," the eldest daughter dabbed a tear.
"You mean somebody's heart is full," snickered the younger, "It's not really yours."
A loud harrumphing comes from the head of the table.
"Now, now," soothes the mother, "can't we just have a pleasant meal without all this sniping at one another?"
"I'm not sure, mom," says the younger daughter, "Some people just don't know when to keep their mouth shut."
"I suppose you're talking about me?" The elder pushes back from the table, arms folded across her chest.
"If the Dolce Gabbana fits..."
"Daddy? Do I have to sit here and take this?"
Before Daddy can clear his throat one more time, the younger daughter rises from her seat, “Liz — this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history.”
"You're talking about her, aren't you," pointing at the seat next to her younger sister.
"You're addressing my wife, and she has a name."
The young lady next to the younger sister puts down her napkin, "Liz you've been a guest in our home,  spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 you didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us.To have you say now you don't support our right to marry is offensive to say the least."
From the other end of the table, Mom speaks up. "Would anyone care for dessert?" As the cold November breeze kicks up again outside.
Happy Holidays from the Cheneys.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wanna Bet?

Sometimes my son asks me questions for which I have no answer. Not like when he used to ask why the sky was blue. It turned out that I happened to have an explanation for that. As it turns out, I told my inquisitive five-year-old, that the water droplets and dust particles in the air are bigger than the wavelength of blue light, which is what gets reflected back, causing that to be the color that we see down here on earth. I know, it was a lot for that kindergarten brain to absorb, but if he didn't want to know the truth, he never should have asked.
Just recently, my now sixteen-year-old asked me why gambling was illegal. I thought about all the wavelengths of light that might help answer this quandary. I thought about all the things I know about gambling, and how it's only legal in Nevada. And Atlantic City. And on Indian reservations. And in church basements where the Bingo games are located. And when the government sells us lottery tickets. But other than that, I came away a little confounded.
Maybe it was more of a moral issue. It's only really bad people who you find making bets. Like the little old ladies playing Bingo.Or those members of the Wintun Nation who opened the Cache Creek Casino back in 2002 on the site of an old Bingo parlor. So maybe the loophole had something to do with getting the corresponding letters and numbers to match up on your card. And maybe that's why the lottery is legal, since it borrows so heavily from that five in a row notion. Two in a row would be just dumb luck, but five shows some sort of divine intervention. God must really want those people who can achieve this feat to have more money, hence that whole church connection.
Which may be why there are so many wedding chapels in Las Vegas. This legitimizes all those otherwise nefarious goings-on. But there still wasn't a solid line to be drawn about what was legal and what was not. Or why. The stock market is legal, or at least it gives the impression of being so, and it seems an awful lot like gambling.
Maybe it had to do with the way the profits were dispersed. Our state lottery is supposed to eventually pay for schools and parks and so forth, when it's not making new millionaires. That church Bingo game is supposed to buy new pews or hymnals. The Cache Creek Casino profits are supposed to be used to make us all feel better about that whole Native American genocide thing. Illegal gambling profits go to a guy named Guido. That's not right. So it's illegal.
I hope I've cleared this up for someone.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Buh-Bye, Buh-lockbuster

It would be wrong for me to dance the jig I have imagined so very many times on the grave of Blockbuster Video. I have written here almost as many times about my antipathy toward the video rental giant as I have about Dick "Dick" Cheney. It was always an easy axe to grind. So much of what I felt was wrong with the home video business was engineered and proliferated by the big blue and yellow boxes that held all the movies you might ever want to see. If you happened to be a male, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, and believe that Jerry Bruckheimer is a genius.
But why should I, as a person who passed straight through that demographic once upon a time, still hold a grudge against an American business that was only catering to the whining demands of its paying customers. Give the people what they want. Supply and demand, after all. Just because I took some film classes in college and spent my years dreaming of a career behind the camera doesn't make me some sort of oracle. It was the advent of home video that made every Tom, Dick and Mary a film critic. That didn't mean that everyone spent their time immersing themselves in the greatest films ever made. Instead, they lined up at the counter for what was new, good, that they hadn't seen that was in that night. That counter happened to be inside one of those big yellow and blue boxes. For a shining moment, Blockbuster had the model everyone wanted. They were the the team to beat.
In the end, they beat themselves. The block is busted. Long live the block. Can I move ahead now and make peace with the past? It's not like Wayne Huizenga was targeting me personally when he set out to crush my VHS dreams when he got into the business. This guy who got his start moving other people's trash was just looking out for his own American Dream. His version included bringing ice hockey to south Florida, but that's what makes this country great, right?
No need to worry about Wayne, by the way. He got out while the getting was good. As in billions of dollars good when he cashed in with his partners at Viacom. I got out of my video store with my National Video polo shirt and name tag, along with a six-foot-tall stuffed Woody Woodpecker that had once terrified small children in our Kids' Section, neither of which made the move to California with me. But I'm sure that Wayne and I share some memories, even if I am still looking for my first major-league sports franchise.

Monday, November 18, 2013


These are the words, or phrase, that I won't allow the kids at my school to say to me anymore: "Wha'd'Ido?" Or to be more precise: "What did I do?" These are generally spoken moments after I have made my way across a classroom or playground to speak to one of the little darlings about some minor maleficence, but one that requires some sort of adult interaction. Many of these interactions begin before I ever say a word. Having witnessed Tommy kicking a ball over the fence, for example, it usually takes me a few seconds to get to where Tommy is now standing, admiring his work.
This is pretty much the opening salvo, and it often degenerates from there. Foolishly, I used to choose to answer the question, "You kicked the ball over the fence."
Grunts and eye rolling often come next, sometimes followed by an echo of the same plaintive, "Wha'd'Ido?"
This particular loop has the potential of being endless, but it does remind me exactly where the burden of proof lies: Not on Tommy. This is how I have come to understand politicians.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is the most recent example I can cite. After weeks of denying that he had been caught on video smoking crack, he apologized. After weeks of "What'd'Ido?" Anthony Weiner soldiered on through a full campaign for the New York mayor's office running strictly on the platform of "What'd'Ido?" He lost, but ex-governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford surprised everyone but himself by getting elected to the First Congressional District seat that he left just prior to serving two terms as governor, the office he left in disgrace after it was discovered that his "trips on the Appalachian Trail" were actually visits to Argentina to canoodle with his mistress. What'd'hedo? 
Which brings us back to Tommy, who would apparently be forgiven by most voters after a month or two for something as slight as poking another kid with a pencil while waiting in the lunch line. And someday, that pencil-poker might grow up to be Mayor of Toronto.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Writing On The Wall

I am the computer teacher at my school. Why would I care if the kids I teach have readable handwriting? It's a digital age. At this point, I'm happy when I can get kids to type with ten fingers instead of two thumbs. Navigating the strange and often arcane seas of proper penmanship seems like unnecessary torture for children of the twenty-first century. My own son has handwriting that prepares him primarily for a career in medicine, but his scrawled notes to himself remain as impenetrable as his scribblings in Kindergarten. That's about the time that his mother and I sat him down in front of "Reader Rabbit Teaches Typing."  We surrendered. Now he texts and types much faster than his late-twentieth-century elders, but we still don't seek him out for his mad cursive skills.
Maybe we were just ahead of the curve. State leaders who developed the Common Core Standards have omitted cursive for a host of reasons, including an increasing need for children in a digital-heavy age to master computer keyboarding and evidence that even most adults use some hybrid of classic cursive and print in everyday life. Penmanship is a dying art. But that hasn't kept seven of the forty-five states that have adopted the Common Core Standards from fighting to keep Handwriting as a part of the curriculum. "Modern research indicates that more areas of the human brain are engaged when children use cursive handwriting than when they keyboard," said Linden Bateman, a state representative from Idaho.  "We're not thinking this through. It's beyond belief to me that states have allowed cursive to slip from the standards." Bateman, who handwrites one hundred twenty-five ornate letters each year, adds, "The Constitution of the United States is written in cursive. Think about that."
I wonder if Mister Bateman thought about how hard it is to read that document, and what a treat it would have been for the framers to have access to a word processing program that could have done all the additions, deletions and amendments to that big old piece of parchment with ease. No matter, it continues to be part of our heritage and a link to our past, and so we will continue to ask our kids to slow down and think as they write. Come to think of it, maybe I should start issuing an all-cursive blog.
Please, don't hold your breath.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mmmmm. Bacon.

What becomes a legend most? What do we prize and value more than anything else? I suppose it's those things that are most rare: integrity, love, a parking space in the Best Buy lot the morning after Thanksgiving. It depends on your values. What you hold dear is different than what is most important to the person sitting next to you. That is why auctions can be tricky things. When you bring together a room full of people who are all interested in the same items, they can push the value of particular things through the roof.
This may explain how a painting by Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," recently sold for a record one hundred forty-two million dollars. And change. This beat the old record, set by Edvard Munch's "The Scream" less than a year ago, of nearly one hundred twenty million dollars. The Bacon painting sold after "six minutes of fierce bidding in the room and on the phone" to Acquavella Galleries in Manhattan, according to a statement from Christie's. The auction house, not the New Jersey governor.
In that same auction, Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog (Orange)," a ten-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture resembling a twisted child's party balloon sold for almost sixty million dollars, a record for a living artist. This immediately makes me concerned for Mister Koons' health, since obviously his earning potential is limited by half simply because he is alive. Or at least that's what the math tells me. Then again, it may not be math that drives this particular machine. Supply and demand seems to be the underlying motif. There is a greater demand for Bacon, since he will no longer be painting. And besides, who doesn't love Bacon?

Friday, November 15, 2013


I spent last weekend being driven about in various forms of transportation: rockets, boats, taxis, jeeps, and still more boats. I did this all under the auspices and watchful eye of the Disney Corporation. As ghouls jumped up from behind gravestones and hippos threatened to overturn our Jungle Cruising vessel, I found myself amused, not terrified. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was in an "amusement park," but even more it was because I was in a "theme park." This meant that when I was sitting in a skiff with cannons going off all around and being threatened by one-eyed scalawags with cutlasses, I assumed it had everything to do with the sign under which I had walked just minutes before that read, "Pirates of the Caribbean." What was I expecting, Stormtroopers and Darth Vader? That would put me across the park in Tomorrowland, right? Or is that Fantasyland?
The bottom line is this: You go to Disneyland to be moderately thrilled. You want to be terrified only up to a certain point. Mostly, you wander from line to line, looking for moments of what feels ever-so-briefly like real tension. It's not like those parking lot carnivals that I remember: the ones that used to set up in front of Woolco for the weekend, just ahead of the state inspectors. Getting on any one of those rides was a thrill, even if they didn't necessarily leave the ground. Things in the Land of Disney are quite the opposite. If someone experiences any sort of discomfort or the motion caused the Mickey Mouse Ice Cream pop to make a hasty exit, things will shut down abruptly until the mess or the malfunction has been cleared. Back in the Woolco parking lot, they're tossing some sawdust down on top of whatever that used to be and hoping that you don't notice the missing safety bar that seems to be on all the other cars. If you hoped to sue the roving band of carnies who fled before you returned from the emergency room, good luck. Disneyland has been there since 1955. It's not going anywhere soon. That's why they want to keep their guests satisfied. And in their seat whenever possible.
It was this thought, and a number of of connected ones, that filled my mind as we loaded up the car and headed out on the Interstate to return home. With my teenage son behind the wheel.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gentle On My Brain

Tony Dorsett, star running back of the Dallas Cowboys during the seventies and eighties, has been diagnosed with having signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. The 1976 Heisman Trophy winner has suffered memory loss and depression for several years, symptoms of this degenerative condition of the brain. At fifty-nine years of age, Mister Dorsett is not pleased to be joining the ever-expanding ranks of professional football players who suffer from this condition. Two more players were found to have CTE after months of clinical examination and study at UCLA. Five more were found last year. It is unlikely that this number will get smaller as time goes by, since detection of CTE is still in the early stages.The disease is shown by a buildup of tau, an abnormal protein that strangles brain cells. “Don’t ask me what tau protein is because I don’t know exactly what it all is,” Dorsett said. “All I know is that before, they could only be able to find tau if you die first and they open up your brains.”
A small relief for Tony Dorsett, and perhaps for other former players who are currently wrestling with similar circumstances. Maybe that's why  John Moffitt is quitting the game now, even though he is currently on a team that could take him to the Super Bowl. He told the Associated Press, "I just really thought about it and decided I'm not happy. I'm not happy at all. And I think it's really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness for money. Everybody, they just don't get it and they think it's crazy. But I think what I was doing is crazy." Crazy like a Fox? Not necessarily if you mean John Fox, Moffitt's coach, who is currently residing in the cardiac care facility of a North Carolina hospital. John's brain seems to be alright, but his heart wasn't in it. Meanwhile, down in Texas, Gary Kubiak is recovering from a transient ischemic attack, a condition that temporarily stops blood flow to the brain and causes stroke-like symptoms. What do all these men have in common? They have, at one time or another, played or coached for the Denver Broncos. Maybe those brain surgeons at UCLA should check out the thin air at Mile High Stadium.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Plus Attitude

"We are all different, and we all make a difference." These words are part of the A Plus Attitudes that I read out loud and the rest of school repeats after me. Kindergarten through fifth grades. Teachers and parents. We repeat these words together because it is what we teach. It is what we want the kids to learn. It is what we want to believe.
My wife told me that she wants to believe that the kid who set fire to another kid on a bus in Oakland last week was just "playing a prank." That would be the very nicest possible lens through which this event could be viewed. You see, Sasha Fleischman was different. Choosing to identify as neither male nor female, eighteen-year-old Sasha shows up as different. Sasha shows up as a challenge for pronouns at the very least. Sasha also shows up, periodically, in a skirt. It was that skirt that was lit on fire by the "prankster" as Sasha slept on the bus home from school. As a parent, of all the threats to the kids of Oakland, falling asleep on the bus isn't one that you might expect to have to warn against. Remaining ever-vigilant against the possibility of roving practical jokers with lighters is not where I would spend my parental lecturing hours.
Neither my wife nor I actually believe that Sasha was attacked because of some teenager's incredibly poor sense of humor. I believe Sasha was a target because of that difference. That diversity that Oakland celebrates so proudly doesn't always seem to play out in every corner of this melting pot of a city. How do we choose to celebrate that diversity? By setting people on fire?
Sasha Fleischman is different, here to make a difference. This is what we believe.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Like It Mattered

What's the old saying? You can lead a voter to a trough of poisoned Kool-Aid, but you can't make him drink it, unless he's already developed a taste for it. Or maybe it's something about tainted tea, I can't remember exactly now. My point, and I do have one, is this: American politics is broken.
Like the Obamacare website, there may be no amount of repairs and updates that make this tired old machine function properly again. That siren call of "Hope and Change" seems like the stuff of dreams now. Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, and the economy is still cruising along like it was going to be 2008 all over again at any second. It used to be that I could take solace in the aphorism that used to be applied to the weather in my hometown: "If you don't like the weather in Boulder, wait fifteen minutes." That idea was easily transposed to government: "If you don't like the government, just wait until the next election."
Well, a couple things about that: My good friend and confidant who lived with me back in my college days had his own version of that weather thing: "If you don't like the weather in Boulder, MOVE!" Which brings us to the love it or leave it mantra. I don't know if I want those to be my only choices. I want to believe that I am working every day to make my city, state and country a better place. I know that this process relies on compromise, and I'm not foolish enough to think that I can get what I want by simple force of will. Or shutting down the government.
It would be an awesome thing if there was some sort of united moment for these fifty states. Like the singing of "God Bless America" on the capitol steps. Like a government by and for the people. Like it mattered.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sour Oranges

The other day I was talking sports with my neighbor. As it happens, he is the other Denver Broncos fan living in the city of Oakland. We both agreed that this year had been a good one so far, and he wondered if maybe this would be the year that we, or rather the Broncos football team, might make it back to the Super Bowl. "But really," he confided in me, "I just want 'em to beat the Raiders." He went on to expound on his various allegiances and rooting interests. He told me that he really only watched football and rugby, and the other team he was sure that he didn't want to win anything was the Dallas Cowboys. "Or the New York Yankees," he practically spit.
I began to form a picture that made sense to me. He was doing the classic underdog gambit. The one where you can't root for teams that have been successful for any amount of time. Winning traditions are boring. It's much more interesting to hook up with the group of guys who struggle a bit.
I recognized this trend in myself. Once upon a time, the University of Colorado Buffaloes' football team was a perennial also-ran in what was then the Big Eight Conference. We accepted our place just behind Nebraska and Oklahoma as the powers in the ways of the pigskin. Every so often, we might beat one or the other, but never both in the same year. Then in the late 1980's, things began to shift. Suddenly CU became a football powerhouse, and we ended up playing in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame. Those were heady times. Now that the Buffaloes have switched to the somewhat arbitrarily constructed Pac-12 conference and taken up residence in the cellar, I feel more comfortable with my fandom.
Notre Dame. The very notion of their Golden Domes causes me to gnash my teeth. They were the only college team I knew of back in my youth to have their own TV show. Not just in South Bend, but across the country. When Colorado finally beat the Irish on their second attempt at the Orange Bowl, I was satisfied. We had a National Championship. The kind that people could argue about, like we used to in the olden days. We had made it to the top of the mountain, and looking down there wasn't much to see but where we had come from.
Which brings me back to those Denver Broncos. It's been a while since they won a Super Bowl. I wouldn't mind if they did, but I'm guessing that when it's all over, the Orange Crush won't be nearly as sweet.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Athletic Support

No one needs to explain the hierarchy of the locker room. I spent my time there, back in the day. But it was the time I spent as a student athlete in junior high that let me know just how intimidating life can be even though I had ascended to the ranks of the elite: The Jocks.
Centennial Junior High was one of the first junior highs to have separate locker room facilities for the kids who were on their sports teams. When I was in seventh grade, I only heard stories about showers that were really hot. Lockers in which you could hang your clothes and had room for your books as well. And there was even a whirlpool. This was a radical step up from the ventilated baskets that we were used to stuffing all of our non-PE accoutrements while we were out in the gym. If you chose to try out for one of the varsity sports teams, you would be afforded a spot in that athlete's Valhalla, the downstairs locker room, providing you stayed on the team.
I spent a year upstairs, being tormented by the eighth and ninth graders, and the seventh graders who had the genetic advantage of size even if their brains and opposing thumbs were slow in development. It was part of the reason that I decided to go out for wrestling when I got to eighth grade. Even though I was a fixture on "B" mat, never quite good enough to make "A" mat, I was happy for the step up. The initial experience of being welcomed into this fraternal organization was a welcome change to the Lord of the Flies touring company I encountered upstairs. Saying goodbye to my nerdier friends as we entered the gym to go change with the other guys on the wrestling team before PE each day gave me the air of superiority. But that air was pretty thin.
As I came to find out, all the harassment I experienced upstairs was just distilled into a finer, more intense version with warmer showers downstairs. The towels still got snapped, and I still found crusty snot blown on my locker door by those who felt compelled to mark their territory by any means necessary. I didn't feel any of the security I might have expected. Rather I felt the pressure to maintain my position in this unnatural order of things. I chose to join the track team in the spring so that I wouldn't have to give up my spot downstairs.
I never stopped getting abuse, but I didn't want to surrender. I stayed and when I entered ninth grade, I went out for football so that I could be in the sports locker room year round. The name-calling and random abuse never fully subsided even though I was, by all outward appearances, one of them.
I wasn't really. I felt the sting of the homophobic insults and the snap of their rat-tailed towels. I stuck with it because I really believed that I would triumph via sheer tenacity. It never got any easier. Which is why when I got to high school, I left my athletic career behind and focused on music. I was in the marching band. We had lockers for our instruments in the band room. I got along with most everybody there. And I never once got snapped by a towel. Maybe Jonathan Martin should have done the same.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Picture This

Janet Yordon blamed me for ruining her third grade class picture. I wasn't making a face or acting foolish. Okay, I wasn't acting foolish, and I wasn't making a face on purpose. I was wearing an expression of profound dismay. It was probably brought on by the trace of Navajo blood that coursed through my veins. I was deeply concerned that the act of taking my photo would take a portion of my soul, or at least the portion of the portion that would equate with the fraction of my soul that would be equal to the bit of my bloodline that could claim to be Navajo.
Or at least that's the story I like to tell myself forty-plus years after the fact. I think the reality was more like this: I was pouting. I didn't know how to be a good sport when it came to sitting still and allowing everyone to put on their best face. I'm fairly certain that if we could have all gone to our positions on the risers and taken the picture as abruptly as humanly possible, I might have been able to manage a smile. Or at least I could have avoided sticking out my lower lip and letting ever other muscle in my body go slack, giving the appearance, as Ms. Yordon put it, of being "a walrus."
As lasting mementos go, this one goes down as a finger-pointing-who-was-that-guy kind of thing. I was in the front row, and as the rest of the class filed in behind and around me, I could feel my level of disdain rising. How much longer do we have to sit here? I was sitting up straight, looking forward, not at my neighbor. Why couldn't everyone else do the same?
The whole experience could not have lasted more than seven or eight minutes, but for me it felt like an eternity. The kind of an eternity that only a very sensitive third grader with glasses sitting in the front row could possible sense. Or a walrus. Sorry, Janet.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Act Two

Last weekend my son and I were driving up the highway, listening to the radio. We heard a song by the Foo Fighters. We stopped and did a few errands, then as we drove home, we heard a song by Nirvana. I made an offhand comment about how we were hearing the band that Dave Grohl played with before he became a Fighter of Foo. This was a pretty snarky riff on a bit I used to do about how The Beatles were the group Paul McCartney played with before he got together with Wings. It was only later that evening that I began to reflect on my own snarkacity.
The Beatles recorded a dozen albums in the ten years they were together, which have since been repackaged and dispersed in at least another dozen permutations. Wings produced seven albums from 1971 to 1979. Paul's latter group had twelve top-ten singles. The Beatles did a little better than that, but did that make it okay for me to toss around my snotty remarks? I don't think that Sir Paul is concerned primarily with my point of view, but I did find myself feeling a little ashamed of making fun of the guy who wrote "Live and Let Die" as well as "Yesterday." After all, my personal total of hit singles totals exactly zero.
Which brings us back to the Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl has had enormous commercial success with his second group. He's got eleven Grammys with "Foo" all over them. That's ten more than Nirvana won. Were the four years Dave spent the drum kit with Kurt and Krist ultimately more artistically impressive than the nearly twenty years he has been out in front of the Foo Fighters? Is it fair to compare "Hey Jude" with "Silly Love Songs?" Of course it's not, but it does make me wonder about F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that "There are no second acts in American lives."
It makes me wonder what Fitzgerald's band was like after Gatsby.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Hunger Pain And Suffering Games

Making sense of tragedies like the shooting at Los Angeles' International Airport seems futile at this point. Police have charged Paul Ciancia with murder of a federal officer and committing violence at an international airport. The charges could qualify him for the death penalty. This is horribly ironic, since according to many reports he was suicidal just prior to going on his rampage. It the idea was that he could show up with a loaded rifle and let the nearby law enforcement officers do the job for him, he misunderstood the equation. Mister Ciancia shot and killed one TSA agent, then wounded two more along with a civilian with his assault rifle before he was shot four times while the rest of Terminal Three dove for cover.
It doesn't make sense because it's not the product of a stable mind. Ciancia's duffel bag contained a handwritten letter signed by him stating he'd "made the conscious decision to try to kill" multiple TSA employees and that he wanted to "instill fear in their traitorous minds." Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee observed, "It's very difficult to stop these types of attacks. And you know, it's like a shopping mall outside the perimeter, it's almost like an open shopping mall. So it's very difficult to protect."
Take note, crazy people with guns who live closer to shopping malls than they do to airports. Ultimately, there is no safe place to hide. Which is why I would like to suggest a ridiculous solution to a terrible problem: Create free-fire zones for those individuals who feel moved to end their lives at the end of a gun. Don't make law enforcement officers have to struggle with your motivations. Drive on down to the local shooting gallery, lock and load and take your chances with the other nut-jobs who are alternately anxious to kill or die. It would be substantially less expensive than making sure that people like Ciancia get the mental health care that they need. Instead of medication, money could be spent on ammunition. Why spend all those hours sitting in front of your X Box playing Black Ops when you can live it? And if the government could give up some of its broadcast time on C-Span to broadcast the melee live, it could become a revenue stream itself.
Or maybe we can spend a little more money, time and effort trying to deal with the twisted reality in which we currently find ourselves. The one where a lone gunman can walk into a crowded airport and kill innocent victims.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

New Math, Same As The Old Math

My son and I have a favorite T-shirt that we haven't managed to buy for one another. It says, "2+2=5 - for exceptionally large values of 2." It's the kind of thinking that makes sense for a family of non-math majors. To a certain degree, we are all happy to have the latitude to use our very extensive vocabularies to extrapolate and expand upon all the potential answers to life's problems. The facts of math and science make us all a little uncomfortable. That doesn't mean, however, that I have no appreciation for the concrete nature of these subjects. I was well on my way to being an exceptional math student when my personal life got in the way. The discipline that was required to study Elementary Functions was not available to my mind as a senior in high school. After years of tracking in the upper realms of whatever math courses were available, I opted to finish off my public education with a class called "Selected Topics In Math." It was a place holder, a review, for those who needed that math credit to get them into the college of their choice. Whereupon they could choose to take exactly no further math courses.
This was true to the absurd degree that I took a class that was listed in my university's catalog as "Astrophysics for non-math majors." It would be another ten years before I would need to remember the quadratic formula. That was when I decided to become a teacher. As it turns out, the powers that be would like teachers to know more about the subjects they teach than what he answer keys in the back of the Teacher's Edition of the textbook has to offer. Suddenly, I found myself in love once again with the precision of it all. The way those equations balanced and the steps that made complete sense when followed in the proper sequence. It turned out that being able to explain to kids why there was such a thing as a perfect square gave me peace. During my years as a fourth grade teacher, I reveled in the connections that math allowed me to bring to my ten-year-olds' minds. Getting them to fold pieces of construction paper to find their own equivalent fractions was more satisfying than I can describe.
And then our school district decided that they wanted to emphasize math facts. All that touchy-feely investigation was over, replaced by the rote memorization of rules and correct answers. Never mind the "why," just get to the bottom line already. This was one of the reasons why I didn't feel particularly sad about returning to the computer lab, leaving the regurgitation of times tables to those whose temperament was more suited to such things.  Every so often, I would take a fourth grader aside and try to blow his or her mind with the amazing correlations between the diameter and circumference of a circle, but mostly I returned to my life as a man of words.
Until last year, when the pendulum of education swung back. All of a sudden, they want kids to talk about how they figured out that whole two plus two thing. The "why" is back. And I don't really mind if it's always going to be four, as long as I get to talk about it.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Ah, Youth

There was at time when I believed that "Urban Cowboy" was the epitome of what a film ought to be. I wrote in a journal, after watching John Travolta as "Bud" and Debra Winger as "Sissy" live out their dreams of the New West: "Someday I want to write something as honest as this." I was referring to the movie I had just finished watching on HBO. The movie I had just finished watching on HBO as I consumed six or eight beers. I was feeling it. Deeply.
The beers helped. They helped obscure my memory of "Saturday Night Fever," and how Bud and Tony Manero were pretty much the same guy. Okay, one was set in Houston, the other was set in New York. One of these guys was going to use his talents on the dance floor, the other was going to ride a mechanical bull to win the heart of his lady love. One was a Bee-Gees-infused disco extravaganza, the other was a country-western lollapalooza. It should be noted that only the Urban Cowboy soundtrack had the distinction of receiving the "Chipmunk Treatment." Was that the only difference?
Well, in my mind, I had all but forgotten Tony Manero. It could have been that I was drinking Lone Star beer as I sat in my apartment, tearing up at that honesty. It was probably a contributing factor that I was alone. And drunk. It was probably the beer. It wasn't that "Urban Cowboy" was such a fantastic piece of work. Like its cousin, "Saturday Night Fever," Bud's story had sprung from a magazine article, "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit." Of course there was honesty in there somewhere. The script began its life as journalism.
It also didn't occur to me, sitting in my somewhat furnished living room that I was watching the next iteration of "Grease." Another hit soundtrack, only this time, Sissy was Sandy and Houston was Rydell High. All of my disdain for the star-making machinery that was making John Travolta a hit-making dancing machine fell away as I switched off the television and headed down the stairs to sleep off the effects of six or eight beers over a two hour period.
When I woke up the next day, I looked at my journal and felt my head throb just a little more like Gilley's nightclub. And I went back to my search for honesty. 

Monday, November 04, 2013

Bang Bang

We don't play Cowboys and Indians anymore. We play Cattle Management Specialists and Native Americans. We negotiate appropriate payment for agreed upon parcels of land, and we would never take up arms against one another. Not because it wouldn't be fun to pretend to shoot your friend. It's a lot of fun. It is completely cathartic and satisfying in a way that actual killing can never be. I know this because I spent a lot of time in my youth killing the other kids in my neighborhood. And we all lived to tell the tale. We all walked away. Andy Lopez Cruz did not.
If you've been avoiding the news, and why wouldn't you, you might not know that Andy was shot by sheriff's deputies in Sonoma County two weeks ago. He didn't pop back up and play again. There was no reset button. Andy was carrying a toy gun. It was an Airsoft BB gun that looked  a whole lot like a real AK-47. The biggest distinguishing characteristic in this case would have been the orange tip at the end of the muzzle. The one that had been removed. If you have a very cool, realistic replica of an AK-47, you don't want some silly neon orange tip at the end of your very realistic barrel. Not when there are hundreds of videos on YouTube that will tell you just exactly hot to take that silly neon orange tip off the end of your very realistic AK-47 BB gun.
There are not a lot of YouTube videos that will tell a community how to deal with the tragic and mistaken shooting of a thirteen-year-old boy. I suppose you could go back and take a look at the old "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode starring Billy Mumy in which a six-year-old boy finds a loaded gun that he takes for his empty toy holster. The suspense came from wondering just when that real gun might go off. Spoiler alert: There was a happy ending.
I don't feel happy about the way things are now. I do feel that as a parent I am keeping my son from doing things that I did when I was a kid, and it makes me feel more than just a little hypocritical. It also makes me feel glad that, after I've told him what a bad idea it is to carry around guns that look real even when they aren't, he grumbles and moans and keeps on living. I won't offer a judgement on the case of Andy Cruz and the officer who shot him. It's far too terrible and complex for me to decide. I will continue to miss those days when kids could "play guns" the way we used to back in my old neighborhood. For the record, all the kids I grew up with are still around, though I 'm guessing that they feel the same wistful feeling for the way things used to be as they carry on with the party line. The incredibly careful, politically correct and boring party line.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Loss Leader

I remember when my older brother described having conversations with his daughter about big topics. He referenced the chat he had with her as she was beginning to learn about the bombing of Hiroshima. Listening to her awakening as an up-and-coming adult gave him pause. It was a chance to reflect on where his views and priorities lay. What was it that he had passed along? How had he impacted his little girl's world view?
I found myself in a similar situation this week, as I was engaged in a discussion of Humanity with my sixteen-year-old son. Such a big idea, it came with a capital letter. Such a big idea that it could be a major in college. His English class was reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." It was his teacher's idea to ask his students about their personal experience and reflect on what it might take for anyone to lose their humanity. Or diminish it in some way. What makes us less human? Pretty deep stuff for a high school junior, but I was surprised by how much thought he had already given it when I heard him talk about his response.
"I think experiencing loss can make you lose your humanity," he said. He said this with a great deal of certainty. I know that he had been thinking about grief and its attendant concerns since the death of our dog a couple of weeks ago. I wondered if being a sixteen-year-old boy made it difficult to feel human as he mourned. The past couple of years have been a rough introduction for him in terms of losing those close to him. His great aunt passed away suddenly last year, and his uncle's dogs both died within a few months of one another. These were attachments that he didn't talk a lot about, but he has always felt things deeply without having to wear those feelings on his sleeve. Something about still waters running deep.
This is why I had to consider what he said for his truth. As his father, it worried me that I hadn't done enough to prepare him for the tough times that life had to offer. How could I have made him ready to lose the people and things closest to him? I certainly didn't do a great job of insulating from it.
And now he was losing his humanity. He went on: "When you experience a great loss, you eventually become numb." Numb? My parental circuits were overloaded. How could he be numb? Hadn't we given him plenty of opportunities to express his grief? Did I ever tell him that it wasn't okay to show his feelings?
No. The reality check came as we continued our conversation and I asked him if he thought that maybe in those moments of loss that we might have a chance to feel with those things that make us more human: love, friendship, connection. Weren't these the bedrocks of Humanity. The capital H.
"I hadn't really thought about that," he looked at me with eyes that had seen it all, at least for the past sixteen years. "Let me get back to you on that."
I'm anxiously awaiting that response.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Heroes Are Hard To Find

The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least that's the way it is in real life. It's also true in comic books. Over the years there has been all kinds of furor raised about this or that super hero being married or killed. Captain America died, and the comic-world mourned. Peter Parker died. Or his clone did. And one of them ended up marrying Mary Jane. Even Superman died. The Man of Steel. How can this be? Oh, that's right. It's make-believe. I know it's okay because I saw them all last couple of summers at the movie theater and they looked just fine.
There's a scene in another made-up story that pretty much sums it up:
Vern: Do you think Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman?
Teddy: What are you, cracked?
Vern: Why not? I saw the other day. He was carrying five elephants in one hand!
Teddy: Boy, you don't know nothing! Mighty Mouse is a cartoon. Superman's a real guy. There's no way a cartoon could beat up a real guy.
Vern: Yeah, maybe you're right. It'd be a good fight, though.
That came from the movie, "Stand By Me," set in 1959. Even though pretend kids said it, this bit of dialogue pretty much sums up how I felt about Superman fighting Spider-Man. I knew that it wasn't really a fair question, since Spider-Man was obviously living in the real world, a.k.a. New York City. Superman came from some obviously fictional place called "Metropolis." And before that? A place in Kansas called "Smallville." Come on, please. At least Batman inhabited a synonym for New York: Gotham.
Now, the makers of Superman and his Bat-infatuated doppelganger are moving their headquarters from "Gotham" to Burbank, California. I'm trying to imagine a world in which this brings more verisimilitude to the son of Krypton. But only if he ditched his job at the Daily Planet and went to work for The TMZ.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Who Ya Gonna Call?

In honor of Dia De Los Muertos, I would like to offer up the following solution to a couple of problems that have troubled us for some time now: The question of the existence of an afterlife and the issue of government sponsored spying on our own people. Let me start by saying that no one should be particularly surprised that the United States has a bunch of spies lurking about. These are the ones that have lovingly been referred to as "spooks." The concept of espionage is hundreds of years old. I know because it's one of the accomplishments I can gain on my way to building my winning Civilization. The one that I'm building on my computer, that is.
Out in the real world, spying is a treacherous business. Nobody really likes to be spied upon, but everyone seems to do it just the same. Just like everyone seems to want to know about what happens in the afterlife. Since we haven't had any really "good" intelligence since we found out that Osama bin Laden was hanging out in a condo in Pakistan, I suggest we focus our efforts on finding out where the dead people are. All the technology we have could easily be turned to this purpose. Motion sensing cameras and infrared goggles could be used to collect data on apparitions that have previously been captured by fuzzy Polaroids or bad VHS tape. Why not bring the other world to its knees by uncovering all its secrets. This could even become a multinational program, with international cooperation and funding. Once we figure out where the phantoms are, then we can decide how we want to deal with them. Just like we banded together to rid the globe of seaborne creatures with gigantic robots, we could unite in the effort to detect and contain poltergeists and the like.
Some might call me crazy for suggesting this. Others might call me Bill Murray.