Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tipping Point

My wife said she was intrigued to find out that "they don't tip in Italy." The question of who "they" are and who "we" are starts to get a little blurred here, but pronoun trouble aside, we discover that it is a widely held belief that leaving a gratuity is unnecessary in certain parts of the world. Italy would be one of those places, if you are to believe the Internet posted wisdom of world travelers. Then again, some have suggested that though it is not required, it is encouraged, especially when service is exceptional. This is a little confusing, since I thought that was the purpose of tipping in the first place.
Or not. I am generally a pretty soft touch when it comes to leaving a tip. I have, on occasion, been overly generous or comparatively stingy in my own gratuitousness. This has been primarily because of poor math skills and lack of concentration at that moment of truth: putting an amount on that little line or laying down the proper number of bills and coins. Math is hard. The principles of tipping are not. Leaving an extra bit of money as a reward for someone doing you a service is completely accepted in certain countries and many venues. Before I got married, I never tipped a Skycap because I was pretty much a one-bag-carry-on-customer. I wasn't in the habit of tipping maids in hotels because I didn't ever see them. They were simply part of the door hanger signaling system for which I had specific focus on the "Do Not Disturb" part.
And yes, part of me was consumed with the notion of just who deserves a tip and who does not. Waitrons do. Maids and hair stylists do. Generally speaking, if someone is touching you or your stuff, you probably want to tip them. But I don't tip my dentist. He's got his hands in my mouth and I trust him with all of my teeth and that he washed before he set about poking and prodding. But I don't leave a couple bucks on the instrument tray on the way out. I tip the guy who parks my car at a fancy restaurant, but I don't push a five in the hand of the kid who hands me my burger and fries. Maybe I should, considering the kind of business I do with kids who hand me burgers and fries.
It's what I wonder about: Who deserves to put a tip jar on their counter? On their desk? At their work station? But don't ask Mr. Pink. We already know how he feels about the subject.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Do You Think They Call It "Dope?"

Whoever said "Cheaters never prosper" didn't know Lance Armstrong. Mister Livestrong  made a career out of it. And while a good portion of the rest of the globe awaits the next installment of the unfolding drama that is "Deflategate," Lance took the opportunity to show up and remind us all what real cheating looks like. 
In case you've forgotten, Lance Armstrong was once the winner of the Tour de France seven times. In a row. It was an awesome accomplishment made possible, we find out later, by cheating. Through a series of injections and transfusions and chemicals we now call "PEDs," Lance and his team of altered supermen took the biking world by storm in the late twentieth century and into the new millennium. It took nearly a decade, but eventually this house of cards came tumbling down. Lance Armstrong is now the winner of nothing much more than a public shaming by Oprah Winfrey. At least James Frey showed a little humility when he got caught lying to the most powerful woman with her own magazine. Lance? Not so much. 
"If you take me back to 1995, when it was completely and totally pervasive, I would probably do it again. People don’t like to hear that." In this case, "it" would be doping and the "I" stands for Lance. You might argue that there is no "I" in Lance, but I would counter by saying that that is the only thing there is in Lance Armstrong. It is truly a shame that this person that was once held up as a standard for living, nay surviving, should have been brought so very low. Now he's just a poster child for arrogant cheats. Speaking of himself in a mix of tenses and persons, Lance Armstrong continued: "I would want to change the man that did those things, maybe not the decision, but the way he acted," he said. "The way he treated people, the way he couldn't stop fighting. It was unacceptable, inexcusable." 
And his tires were probably underinflated too. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015


My son downloaded and installed Windows 10 on his machine. He did this after he heard that it was available on one of the corners of social medial which he hangs. The good news is that it worked very well, and it has done everything that has been asked of it. So far. Do I know if this will last? If it doesn't, will he come to me, looking for a solution? I'm not sure what to tell him if he does.
Updates are a vital and ever-present part of the circle of cyber life. I tend to ignore most calls from my task bar to check this or that program. I believe that, for the most part I should dance with the one what brung me. If that sounds a little backwards and country, that may explain a lot about my approach to technology. I am the guy who tells his students about the punch cards he had to make in order to use the one computer at his high school. The one that was only available after school, and if you got a card wrong or out of sequence, you missed your turn and you had to wait until there was another clear hour of computing time. I don't know why I tell kids this. Probably for the same reason I feel compelled to use the word "brung" in order to sound more colloquial. Nevertheless, I am expressly familiar with the history of computers, having played a tiny part in the inception of the age. I programmed in Basic, and learned DOS prompts in order to make the terminals function at the video store I ran back in college. The idea that there was something other than an operating system was foreign to me. That's about the time the Macs started showing up.
They were so very cute and likable. They talked to you in ways that didn't seem like robot overlords. I didn't own one, since the idea of a "personal computer" seemed too incredibly space age for me. I stuck with my electric typewriter for at least another five years after Commodore 64s and the like began to become pervasive. I did not own a PC until I moved to California. That seems very odd to say now: "I did not own PC until I moved to California." When I needed to use a computer, I went to my mother's house, where I found a big, strong DELL that she used for her accounting business. I typed my little stories in there, played a game of Captain Comic, and I was on my merry way. I didn't concern myself with the maintenance of her machine. Every so often I dropped by and moved something to or from floppy disc so that I could pretend to be computer literate, but I was faking. Big time.
By the time I started teaching technology to kids, I had been the proud owner of exactly one computer. I nursed it through hard drive evolutions that eventually put it through the change from Windows 3 to Windows 98. From XP to Windows 7, neatly bypassing the reviled and stinky Vista. It was right around this time that my son began to get his fingers in the porridge. He happily engaged in all the pointing and flipping required of a touchscreen tablet running Windows 8. I watched in wonder. Somewhere in the background you could hear my wife cursing under her breath of the latest jungle cat to be stuck with the name of a Mac OS: Ocelot. Caracal. At some point over the course of any given week, one member of our family is busily replacing and/or repairing the operating system of their computer. Not because it needs to be, but because we were told to. We wouldn't want to miss out on the newest feature. Or bug. Or the opportunity to reset the clock once again to prepare to make the next step in the unending series of making things ever easier to play Tetris.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It's How You Play The Game

To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. To win a Super Bowl, you might have to deflate a few footballs. Over the the past week or two, we have heard quite a lot about how the New England Patriots may or may not have taken air out of more than just their opponents' hopes to play in the championship game. At issue are a number of footballs that were manipulated so as to give the home team a distinct advantage in case of inclement weather. It's easier to catch a ball in the wind and rain when it's not quite so full of air.
That's the stuff we get to talk about for the two weeks between the semi-finals and the finals. That, and the lingering questions about the relative merits of French Onion dip versus Guacamole. Cooler in the kitchen, or ice bucket in the living room? Carrot sticks and celery, or just bag after bag of chips? Should we flip over to the Puppy Bowl at halftime, or record the whole thing? So many choices, so little time.
Well, actually, there's a lot of time. That's kind of the thing that is working against the whole Bill Belichick/Tom Brady legacy deal. What if it turns out that, aside from winning Super Bowls, the thing these guys are really good at is manipulating the football realities. We call these "rules." If you happen to be one of the red, white and blue clad Foxboro fans, you probably see things a little differently. "Everybody uses whatever advantages they can," or more simply, "Everybody cheats." Remember "The Tuck Rule?" The Patriots used a rule that barely existed to get themselves into position to win an AFC championship, and eventually a Super Bowl. They lost a bunch of money and draft picks for using communications and surveillance outside the generally accepted framework called "the rules." They called that one "Spygate." Since then, the Patriots have not won another Super Bowl.
Now we've got "Deflategate," and this one has all the earmarks of being a world class distraction before the world class spectacle of the most watched sporting event on our corner of the globe. When it's all over, win or lose, the New England Patriots will go back to the business they know best: attempting to win games. In the meantime, the Seattle Seahawks have a player who has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for his conduct on and off the field. He was most recently asked by the NFL to pay twenty thousand dollars for grabbing his crotch after scoring a touchdown in what was a furious come from behind victory that put his team into the Super Bowl. This is approximately twenty thousand dollars more than any Patriot player, coach or equipment manager has been fined by anyone for anything. Mister Lynch was celebrating his play on the field. It should also be pointed out that he was grabbing his own crotch, not anyone else's. All the people he hit were opposing players on the way to the end zone. What he did was deemed obscene by the powers that be. This was the decision made by the National Football League. What I'm pretty sure of is this: I don't think I want them deciding the snack menu for my Super Bowl party. They probably won't suggest sausages.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tick, Tick, Tick

Remember the Doomsday clock? I do. When I was a kid, it was the stuff of nightmares for me. In my mind, it was a great big thing in a room full of scientists busily working day and night, looking up anxiously at regular intervals to see the hands moving steadily toward midnight. That was the big fear: midnight meant it was over. We were over. Civilization was finished. As a child of the sixties, the Cold War kept things pretty stressful, but the clock was actually set back in those days. When it was first put into operation back in 1947, the Atomic Scientists who made up this odd chronometer set it at seven minutes til midnight. Two years later, it moved closer when the Soviet Union (the bad guys in "Red Dawn") tested their first nuclear weapon. It got still closer when America (the good guys in "Red Dawn") decided to go ahead and build a hydrogen bomb.
And so it went. Back a few ticks. Forward a couple more. In 1991, when the Cold War was over and we had to start blaming those "breakaway republics" for the bad things that happened in the world, the Doomsday Clock was moved back to seventeen minutes to midnight. Russia began to dismantle their nuclear arsenal, and flowers began to grow in what used to be missile silos. Peace in our time. The sun shone down on us all and we sang "Kumbaya." Seventeen minutes? We were all going to live forever.
India and Pakistan started to blow up atoms in 1998, and suddenly we were back inside of ten minutes. Cue ominous music. Those flowers in the missile silo began to wilt. By 2002, we had a bigger concern than angry countries with nuclear weapons: radical factions within those angry countries with their own nuclear weapons. North Korea bumps it up still further with all their stiff-legged marching about and their willingness to blow things up underground. This was a dangerous place.
In 2010, Moscow and the United States started making noises like maybe they would just give up this whole mutually assured destruction business. That didn't last long. Two years later, tensions grew and these "Atomic Scientists" decided to extend their influence by adding in the specter of global warming. For some, this counts as science. Now, in 2015, the Doomsday Clock is as close to the end as it has been since it was set in motion nearly seventy years ago. "The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization." That's what the scientists say. The science fiction writer says: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Now if we could only close that wisdom gap. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Pushers

Keep track of the amount of time it takes you to read this post. It should count as part of your screen time for the day. It should count against your daily allowance of one hour. You read that right: one hour. That is what pundits in the business of deciding how much of everything is good for us have decided is the duration of combined peering at screens each day. Of any size. This comes to us via a "healthy kids" initiative, but who really pays attention to that kind of stuff?
In a word: Teachers. When we get fliers or assemblies that tell our kids to eat five servings of fruit each day, we go out and find a basket of oranges to drag back to our room and hand them out. When the NFL tells us that kids need sixty minutes of exercise every day, we take them out on the playground and run them until they drop. Or they need to go to the bathroom. Or get a drink of water because they are DIE-ing. When we are told that kids should limit their screen time to one hour a day, we look at them and say, "What century are you speaking from?" I ask this from the twenty-first century, not just as a teacher, but as the Computer Teacher.
Every week, I sit kids down in front of screens for fifty minutes at a time. When they're finished in my room, that leaves them with ten minutes left on their allotment for the day. Then some other clever teacher sticks a tablet or a laptop in front of them and suddenly they are over the limit. How do they expect us to find clever ways to insert learning junk into kids heads without screens?
Okay, maybe I'm hyperbolizing just a little bit. What the powers that be would like is for there to a limit on the bad things that get into our kids' heads. Video games, for example. Not the ones we play in the computer lab, where we try to match the vowel sounds with the correct letter for which we are rewarded with a song about "Backpack bear," Sometimes they get to go up to a new level, which sounds exciting until the kids begin to figure out this is just another way to trick them into learning. "When do we get to the real games?" Sorry, we won't be playing Black Ops in school.
The good news is that elementary school kids, for the most part, are still fascinated by the variety of educational software I have to offer them. This is more a credit to them than to the very patient and creative folks who are designing fresh new ways to teach kids math facts and the alphabet by pointing and clicking. They know that the really cool graphics and achievables aren't going to be found in the computer lab. They're at home in their PS4 and XBox1. They're waiting me out while we continue to encourage them to go outside and play and read books. I know the standard third grader is spending way more than one hour in front of a screen every day. So is your standard computer teacher. But every so often, I get a win: Like when that kid stops me on the way out of my room and asks, "Mister Caven, how do I get to that typing web site at home?" I write down the web address, and tell him to ask him mother before he goes online. And to eat plenty of vegetables and read a book first.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Home Away From Home

I will be finishing my eighteenth year at the same school this June. The first time I visited the campus, I ran here with my infant son in the jogging stroller just so I could have a sense of how far away it was. By the time I had pushed that stroller, as advanced and aerodynamic as it was, up the hill back to my house, I was exhausted. I have felt that way, off and on, for nearly two decades, but that isn't the only constant. For the past eighteen years, this has been the place I go for the majority of my weekdays. And the occasional weekend. It is a place where I hang my hat.
As such, I have become quite comfortable with the architecture and the layout, to the point where I know where most everything can be found, even if I don't have a key to get to it. Quite often, I get requests like, "Do you know where there is an extra desk?" I understand that I am being asked if I have an awareness of our furniture inventory as well as my willingness to help secure said desk for the classroom in question. This is sometimes a more confounding question that it might seem from the outside, since we have such a very transient student body. Almost every teacher, over the course of the year so far, has lost and then gained a student or two. Just when we thought we were operating at a desk surplus, along comes a new family with three kids filling in for the two kids who just left. That's when we find out that the only spare desk we have is in a first grade classroom and it is far too tiny to keep a growing fourth grade girl comfortable for any period of time. That's when my experience with modular furniture comes in handy.
When that fourth grader needs a taller desk, I raise it. After a month or two, when suddenly the call goes out for more first grade furniture, I might find that recently adjusted fourth grade desk empty, which means I take my screwdriver to those same legs and put them right back where they were before. It's what is known in the furniture business as job security. It reminds me of the way I used to be dispatched with a crew to the IBM plant back in the day when office furniture was my living. We would go into the customer service center and raise a workstation for an employee who had decided they wanted to be able to stand as they took calls. When we were done rolling in the tall stool on which they would perch, we knew that we would be back in a few weeks when the staff was shuffled yet again to move the work station back to standard height. There was wild talk about keeping a couple of us on site a few days a week just to be sure the comfort of the customer service group was insured. That never happened, primarily because I moved out to California and became a married guy with a teaching credential. Happily, all those mad modular furniture skills were never allowed to atrophy. Sometimes I get the urge to switch out the drawers in my desk or move the pencil tray from one side to the other, but it doesn't last long. That's because somebody always needs a new desk.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Stand Up, Sit Down, Fight Fight Fight!

I keep watching the State of the Nation speeches, even though I know how they tend to turn out. There are a whole lot of platitudes. There are calls for bipartisan cooperation and unity. There are bold assertions for the direction of this ship of state over the next year. There is always a little saber-rattling to do too. Mostly it would be nice to get any kind of happy convivial, atmosphere going on under the Capitol Dome in mid-January. It didn't happen this year.
Instead, we got a perky Joe Biden, clapping at most utterances from his boss and the sour but incredibly tanned face of John Boehner. Who would have guessed that two men who share a common career goal of public service, not to mention identical initials, would have such different reactions to the speech given by their commander in chief? But that's the real game afoot here: Reactions. How does one choose to respond to ideas, good or bad, when they come from "the opposition?"
If you happen to play for the same team, your job is obvious. Bang your hands together at all the appropriate pauses, and stand as often as decorum will allow. It starts to feel a little like a Catholic mass with all that shuffling about, but without the kneeling. The drama comes from the moments when everyone stands and applauds. Those are the moments of true bipartisanship. Or maybe they are simply the sound bites for the nightly news. When you sit or stand can be a very strategic thing, especially with an election coming.
Mostly, we stand when it's a "moving ahead" kind of thing. If you think it's a bad move ahead. Stay seated. If you would be embarrassed later to be the one person sitting when everyone else is standing, probably best then to stretch your legs. When Barack Obama talks Cuba, Marco Rubio sits. When Barack Obama talks Trade Promotion Authority, Marco Rubio is on his feet. If you were a Republican, you didn't get in your full cardio workout.
Meanwhile, our president continues to work on his career after he leaves office. When he mentioned, offhand, that he had no more campaigns to run, a snarky bit of laughter and applause came out of the red seats. Waiting a beat, he smirked and replied, "I know. I won both of them." It wasn't as big a show as "Oh yeah, and we got bin Laden," but don't be surprised if he's doing a couple of shows at Zanies in a few years. He's used to working that big room.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Iraqi Sniper

I assume that Clint Eastwood will now turn, as he did with "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," to the other side. Or the other end of the barrel, if that would be more succinct. "American Sniper" tells the story of Chris Kyle, who is referred to often in the story as "the deadliest marksman in U.S.military history." He is credited with saving hundreds of American soldiers' lives. The flip side of that is that he is credited with one hundred sixty kills, officially. That number swells to more than two hundred fifty if they didn't need certification. That's a lot of dead people.
I don't suppose I should have expected much more from the title, but Mister Eastwood has, in the past, shown a much more even-handed way of dealing with life and death. This was no more in evidence than in "The Unforgiven," a move for which he was given an Oscar for directing. Clint starred himself as William Munny, a hired killer lured out of retirement for one last job. He plays Munny as a broken man, who has turned to farming, but allows himself to be dragged out for one more killing by a young tough and his old partner. As things get darker and darker, Munny becomes more alive on the outside, but more dead inside. He tells "The Schofield Kid" after the kid shoots his first cowboy, "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man." If that's true, then it's a hell of a thing, killing a mother and her young son.
I'm not giving anything away here. It's been part of the "American Sniper" trailer for months. The decision to kill a woman and her child is not taken lightly. We understand that Chris Kyle had his own wife and young son at home even as he was surveying the scene through the sight of his high powered rifle. He took those lives to save those of his comrades. He did this at least another one hundred and fifty-eight times. It must have been a hell of a thing. Maybe that's why we see Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle in the film, flinching when doors slam or dogs bark once he returns home. This was a man who was consumed by his duty, and eventually when that duty changed to giving back to others who served, it killed him. It's a hell of a thing.
So why does it feel like the movie is a two hour video game? Why aren't we asked to question the circumstances that made this former rodeo cowboy the deadliest killer in our nation's history? Kyle's nickname among his fellow soldiers was "The Legend." We are a nation that loves a legend: Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, Pecos Bill, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Ox wrestlers, train engineers, sharp shooters. But these are examples from long ago. Chirs Kyle was a legend for post 9/11 America. His only regrets, he said, were for the people he couldn't save. Well, not those two hundred or so folks that he wasn't exactly saving. That was war. That's what makes a legend, after all.
Jimmy Stewart didn't shoot Liberty Valance. The man who shot Liberty Valance was John Wayne. Nobody would dispute that Valance had it coming, but why did Jimmy Stewart, or rather his character, Ransom Stoddard, get the credit? When a newspaper reporter decides to dig into the matter, years later, it becomes clear that Stoddard and his eventual ascendancy from territory delegate to Governor of his new state to the Senate makes a better story. The truth is thrown into the flames along with the lives of those forever changed by that bullet. "This is the West," insists the reporter. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It's all just a little more complicated than Clint has laid out in his version. Or maybe I should just wait for the sequel.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Big Wheels

This great pause, the one that comes at the end of the professional football season, pains me. The week between the final playoff game and the Super Bowl sits there like it was an option. A respite from all the hubbub that will build to a frenzy over the coming days. It's a countdown to the Biggest Game Of The Year, and yet I really can't get that interested.
That probably has a lot to do with the lack of Denver Bronco involvement. Last year's buildup was a blur of anticipation and adrenaline. I listened to every report, read every article, and willingly stirred the pot by being a fan of one of the last two teams left in the tournament. All the hoopla was enhanced by every speculative conversation I had with a third grader. They hype grew every time I crossed paths with one of our Kindergarten teachers who just happened to be a Seattle Seahawks fan. At least she's still having fun.
She can endure the non-stop coverage from Phoenix, waiting anxiously to hear about Marshawn Lynch's cleats or Tom Brady's haircut. I'll be here, clicking on links to find out more about the new coaching staff the Broncos are hiring.
That's what third place teams do. Fourth place. And so on. There is a whole lot of business going on behind the scenes. The teams that are no longer playing are now putting their collective houses in order with the hopes of getting one of those two spots next year. In two weeks, everyone will start over. Who will be coaching? Who will be throwing the ball? Who will be catching the ball? Will it matter?
For the next week and a half, the only game in town is the Super Bowl. The town is in Arizona, and even their team will be at home watching. Or not. I could choose, as some of those disqualified teams and players will do, to ignore the spectacle in the desert, There are a lot of channels on my cable lineup that could help me in this avoidance. I could pretend that this "Super Bowl" had already come and gone.
Or, as I have so many years in the past, I could pick a rooting interest and get on with the spectacle. I have no serious doubts that February will begin with my living room being one of millions that will be locked in on the NFL finale. Meanwhile, in offices and boardrooms across this great land of ours, plans will be made for next year. And the big wheels keep on turning.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fountain Of Youth

My father used to hang out with my friends and me when I was in high school. It felt very natural, probably because he had been doing much the same with my older brother and his buddies. Eventually, when my younger brother started bringing his pals around, my dad hung out with them too. It wasn't like he was going out to McDonald's with us, or stalking us outside the homecoming dance. He was there in our basement playing ping-pong. He was there when the pizza showed up. He paid for it. That wasn't the reason my friends liked him. They liked him because he was a fun guy. He seemed to have an innate understanding of how teenage boys worked, and didn't make a show of it. Not exactly.
I know that the way I am around my son's friends has a direct relation to the way my of dealing with everyone's favorite dad. To be honest, I would love to be every bit as favorite as my dad was. We don't have a ping-pong table downstairs, our basement is unfinished. The guys play video games down there, and when I go down to see what's happening, they all acknowledge me by briefly looking up from their screens and grunting their familiarity. X-Box is not anywhere close to ping-pong when it comes to generating intimacy. I do buy them pizza.
Ping-pong and pizza aren't really what it's all about. I know that. I know that my father was compensating, way back when. He was trying to connect to what once was, and what he wanted for me. He wanted me to have a close group of friends who would be with me as I grew older. He stayed close to his high school buddies, right up until the end. I want to believe I will be connecting with those friends of mine from the basement as I grow older. When my son is in his fifties, I hope that he can call up those X-Box buddies and invite them to his wedding. The way his dad did. The way my dad did.
It's a tricky balance, being there but not overwhelming. It's not my childhood. My youth is gone. My son is helping me out by letting me have a little sip from his fountain. I can't go back. I don't want to. Being seventeen was a tough place to live. But it's a nice place to visit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hot Set

We find out we live in Anytown, U.S.A. Or at least that was the case this past weekend. When I left my house on Friday evening to go for a run, there were signs posted two blocks up: No Parking 9-12 Saturday. When I went out again on Saturday morning, just after nine, I saw why. Well, initially I didn't. I thought that maybe there was going to be some sort of festival at the Catholic school up the street. They have those, especially around the holidays. They don't always have police cars blocking intersections. They also don't have trucks full of fancy camera equipment, lights and miles of cable.
Just a couple of blocks from my front door, a little more than a hundred yards, there was a film set. I might have been tipped off by the sign in front of the school that now identified it as "Jefferson Academy." When did that happen? This is not the neighborhood I left just a few hours ago. I raced home to get my nascent film student out of bed to show him what he was missing. This time, when we approached, we were waved away by an officer in an unmarked car. But we could see milling throngs up the street, working at something. They were turning our street into "Anywhere U.S.A."
They did this in the service of creating a commercial for Fiat. They were filming the tiniest portion of a car chase just up the block from us. A great big black truck was chasing a little red Fiat around the corner. Over and over. My wife had joined us by now and we watched the mini-spectacle take place. We chatted up the parts of the crew who were willing to take the time to talk with us. The assistant to the assistant director came over and my son was introduced as an aspiring filmmaker. He asked to which colleges my son had applied. My son got a great burst of real life advice straight from the horse's mouth. The assistant to the assistant horse's mouth. A quarter of a mile from where my son had so recently been sleeping, he was standing in what was for him, Nirvana: on location at the filming of a car commercial.
Then I was stuck thinking about all the things I knew about trains. I learned all kinds of things about locomotives and rolling stock because of all the time I spent hanging around with my son and a herd of other glassy-eyed rail freaks. I remembered standing next to the train tracks and watching my son's face light up as the Union Pacific locomotives roared by. I saw that same look as my son watched the lights and cameras being packed away. We could be anywhere. And everywhere. All at once.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Will This Be On The Test?

What's happening in the legal realm of Arizona these days?
A) It is illegal to hunt camels.
B) No more than six girls may live in any house. 
C) The sheriff of Maricopa County put inmates on bread and water for destroying an American flag he put in their cell. 
D) High school students must pass the U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate.
If you didn't find the right answer, that's because I didn't include the all-purpose and dependable E) All of the above. 
That's because it would be the right answer. Not that any of these answers necessarily skew to the right. At least in the "correct" sense of the word. Unless what we're asking for is an educated electorate. If we can assume positive intent on the Arizona legislature, then we can see this as an attempt to provide community-connected individuals straight out of high school. If you would like your average eighteen year old to be able to answer the question, "What does the Constitution do?" then Arizona is the place they should be sent. How about "The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?" What, no multiple choice? 
I realize that I have been quite hard on the folks in the Grand Canyon State. I haven't always seen the wisdom of their actions or jurisprudence, and their law enforcement. Perhaps this is the first step to enlightenment in the Valley of the Sun?

Or maybe it's part of  a movement driven primarily by a conservative institute whose motto is "Patriotism Matters." The leader of the organization is former California U.S. Representative Frank Riggs, who came in last in Arizona's Republican primary for governor after running a hard-right campaign focused on immigration. Oh. That sounds about right. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

It's A Mystery

An object appeared on our kitchen table last week. This is nothing new. Objects appear on our kitchen table all the time. Sometimes they are kitchen appropriate. Sometimes they are not. Mail, shoes in need of repair, screwdrivers, photographs, and hundreds of other things that are on their way to a home elsewhere inside our walls, but they don't always have a specific purpose related to the kitchen table. This was a rare exception.
At first, I struggled with the mechanics of the thing. How was this to be used, and who would use it? Then I looked at it from a different angle and it came clear: This was the mixing bowl attachment for a mixer. It looked as though it had seen much better days. I assumed at this point that it was a reclamation project, pulled off the world's scrap heap by my son or wife to find some future use in our daily process. Or to be shoved into a pile in this or that corner until we finally got around to giving it away or having that mystical and legendary event only described in tales told late at night or early in the morning: A garage sale. This mixing bowl was, in my mind, probably rescued from someone else's garage sale heap to be stored at our house for an indeterminate amount of time until we could marshal our forces to have one of our own. It turns out that I was wrong.
The mixing bowl attachment in question was the stand for the hand mixer that I had been using just a few days before. It had never occurred to me that you could lash the durable and trusty mixer that I have grown so fond of over the years to another chunk of plastic and make it hands-free. This revelation was, for me, stunning. I briefly questioned my wife's assertion that we have owned this machine for any period of time, but she assured me that it was part of a wedding gift that we had received at the dawn of our homesteading project. I thought of all the times that this little conversion kit would have come in handy. I considered all the ways that my life could have been made simpler by using this adapter. It was, in a word, embarrassing. It got worse.
"Where has this magical piece been all these years?" I asked my patient wife.
"In the soffit,"she patiently replied.
"We have soffits?"

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Oh, Mike. What exactly don't you get about popular culture? This is the bassist of "Capitol Offense" we're talking about here. It's not like he is totally ignorant of the inner workings of show business. Or is he? This is a guy who hangs with such acts as Charlie Daniels, REO Speedwagon, .38 Special, and Dionne Warwick. Mister Daniels' politics certainly seem to be in line with Mike's. .38 Special? Well the connection there seems pretty obvious. Kevin Cronin and REO Speedwagon? That one begins to stretch the bipartisan bounds, I should think. Dionne Warwick?  I'm not sure I get that one at all.
But isn't that what makes music and the rest of the arts so very interesting: collaboration. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga comes to mind, but they still  might be the kind of different that Mike Huckabee and Willie Nelson are. I guess Ms. Warwick put it best when she sang, "That's what friends are for."
Even in the hurly-burly world of the music business, Mike Huckabee probably won't be performing any duets with Jay-Z or Beyonce'. In his new book, "Guns, Grits and Gravy,"  Huckabee describes the Grammy Award-winning Beyoncé's lyrics as "obnoxious and toxic mental poison." He also accuses Beyoncé's husband, of "exploiting his wife" like a "pimp." Okay, so maybe he's got a point, or maybe he's on his way to make an even more insidious point. Promoting his new literary effort in People Magazine, Mike added this little swipe at the First Family:  I don’t understand how on one hand they can be such doting parents and so careful about the intake of everything – how much broccoli they eat and where they go to school and making sure they’re kind of sheltered and shielded from so many things – and yet they don’t see anything that might not be suitable for either a preteen or a teen in some of the lyrical content and choreography of Beyoncé, who has sort of a regular key to the door [of the White House].”
Now here is where I add the obvious connection between Mike Huckabee and Ted Nugent. You remember Ted? The author of such family-friendly anthems as "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" and "Cat Scratch Fever." I wonder if we should worry about how Mike is pimping Ted? 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Visions Of The Past Are Easier Than Those Of The Future

This past Monday, the White House said that President Barack Obama or another high-ranking government official should have joined other world leaders in Paris for the anti-terror rally on Sunday. Oops. For the record, our ambassador to France was there, and Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris, but was busy with "security meetings." And so, while the rest of the world was linking arms in a show of solidarity against terrorism, the White House Google Calendar failed them. Sorry, rest of the planet, we whiffed that one. "It's fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. The administration also announced that Secretary of State John Kerry, who was on a long-planned trip to India Sunday, will visit France later this week. Okay, France, set your charisma-meters on "stun." Here comes John Kerry.
Sure, it would have been great if one of the remaining world super-powers would have shown up, but were we missed? Really? Well, if you happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel, in which case you would have been discouraged to come by France's President. Francois Hollande asked Benjamin Netanyahu to stay away from the big parade. To be fair, it was stated by the French government that they would "prefer that Netanyahu not attend, which sounds just a little more polite than, "We're sorry but your invitation must have been lost in the mail." Why the freeze out? French officials felt that the Prime Minister might use the occasion to make speeches and divert attention to other issues like Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do those things have to do with global terrorism, anyway?
(Insert photo of kosher grocery store here. Include story about Muslim who saved seven Jews.) In the end, it really is all about coming together in the light. Not as Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Not as Black, White, or Brown. Not as American, French or Israeli. What should have been isn't the point. What will be. Looking back with anger and pointing out that two of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen were on the U.S. "no-fly list" does nothing to bring back the innocent lives. "What if" and "If only" are best suited for looking ahead. Won't it be great when we can feel bad because we missed the celebration of world peace?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Over Again

It's been a lifetime since the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl. My son's lifetime, that is. He entered a world full of the hope and promise that was John Elway. He came of age during a time when guys like Brian Griese and Jake Plummer were our next great hope. Then along came a couple of young upstarts: Jay Cutler and Tim Tebow. All those quarterbacks didn't have what it took to make the Mile High Magic happen one more time. Then, when dreams seemed dashed, they came true in the form of Peyton Manning. Why wouldn't we be on the fast track to multiple Lombardi trophies?
Okay, there are a lot of you out there who, after reading that last paragraph who have some questions. You probably recognize some of the names, but what is a Lombardi trophy? Jake Plummer? And besides, it is just a game after all. Played by millionaires paid by billionaires. How can this matter? In the big scheme of things, it really doesn't.
I know that, and after forty-plus years of riding this roller coaster, I have become somewhat accustomed to the end of the ride. Sooner or later, all the hoopla and anticipation is over, the game is played and somebody has to clean up all that confetti. And clean out their lockers. The good news is that this year the Denver Broncos kept that particular event from occurring for an extra few weeks. They won three times more often than they lost, bringing plenty of vicarious thrills to yours truly, which I passed along to my wife and my son. So much so that it eventually became important for our family to sit down and have "chicken parm" sandwiches this past Sunday. It did not have the effect that we had desired. Peyton Manning and the Broncos tasted defeat for the fifth and final time this season, and now the coaching, player and personnel carousel begins to spin. Who knows where things will be six months from now? Will it matter?
What I do know is that it matters now. Buying into my fanaticism only served to dampen the spirits of my otherwise cheerful family. I brought them along with me on this ride, and now we have a choice: get back in line, or go see what else there is to do. Maybe we could take a drive next Sunday. See the sights. Take in a movie. Life outside of football awaits. Thanks to everyone who came along on this most recent little jaunt, and we'll see some of you next August. For now, the highlight reel is over.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Contemplative Competition

When I came running into my driveway, a voice in my ear congratulated me on completing "another two hundred fifty miles." I knew that a) this was not the distance I had just covered that morning, and b) I have probably covered a few of these two hundred fifty mile chunks over the decades that I have been running. Six miles a week over the course of a year would get me past that mark. It wasn't the distance as much as the milestone. The speed with which I have been able to cover those miles has long since been laid to rest. I don't tend to measure myself by other runners. That would be discouraging. Instead, I find myself allowing these disembodied machine voices to be my coaches. The Wii Fit ghost lady and the happy mouths of Nike that come through my iPod  are my motivation. The good news I take away from this is this: apparently I don't need a lot of motivation.
That isn't the case when it comes to the kids at my school. Once a week I take each grade level out for PE. The third, fourth and fifth graders run laps around the playground at the beginning of each class, with an emphasis on the fifth graders preparing for their spring fitness test in which they have to run a mile. I make a point of telling them, amid a flurry of excuses that range from asthma (undiagnosed) and footwear (improper), that they are not competing against one another bur rather against themselves. They should do their best and that should be their measure.
The challenge works for many of them. But not all. There are still a great crowd of boys and girls who obviously feel no particular compunction to push themselves any harder than their friends with whom they continue to stroll languidly around the playground in spite of the exhortations from their coach. That would be me. Even when I am running along with them, coming up behind kids who are more than forty years younger than I am, they look at me with mild disregard. Would they ignore a synthesized computer chip, urging them on?
I know that in the classroom they feel the motivation supplied by a computer-generated scoreboard to keep them at their typing practice. They spend almost as much time at picking out the home row keys as they do searching for their names on that list of leaders. I'm at the top, but that doesn't keep kids from telling me, "I'm going to get you, Mister Caven." I guess I need to figure out a way to get keyboards out on the playground.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tall Tale

At a few points in "Electra Glide In Blue," Robert Blake's character reminds anyone who will listen that "Me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height?" This was, of course, many years before Robert Blake was put on trial for the murder of his wife. He was five feet four inches tall. He was acquitted of the murder, but his star never shone quite so bright. Another star who once burned quite bright and who rarely ducks to get into his limousine, Mel Gibson, no has receded into the background with the rest of those of us who don't top six feet. This has less to do with his distance from the ground than the distance from reality.
Franklin Roosevelt was six feet two inches tall. He was loved and hated in the course of his career as a politician. He was also a philanderer. And the biggest secret kept from the rest of the world was that he had polio. It was not a secret that was kept very well. Maybe it was a more genteel time, when we didn't make the kind of fuss we do nowadays. Babe Ruth was a drunk. So was Mickey Mantle. The Babe and the Mick were able to finish out their career paths without being dragged down by their personal demons or frailties. In some corners, it made them even more revered. What becomes a legend most? Drunks and cripples and racists and midgets. We used to be so much more forgiving of our legends.
I blame what a college professor of mine called "the drag of animality." Movie stars and sports heroes are, for the most part, human beings. They have to live with the constant reminders of age, physics and all those urges and limitations that would be perfectly understood among the beasts of the wild. Or in strict avoidance of that burdensome reality. What that means is that the moment that someone presents themselves as anything but an animal with nasty pointy teeth and smells that defy other explanation, we should all do that animal thing ourselves and start sniffing around to uncover the truth.
Unless what we really want are heroes, in which case all that animal stuff should be ignored. Darwin would tell us that only the fittest survive. But since we're all so evolved, maybe it's not the strong who survive, but the ones with the best publicists.

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's Just A Ride

My son gave me a ride to work the other day. It was on his way to school, since I wasn't going to my school, heading downtown for an all-day meeting. It was somewhere during this transaction that I began to piece together how natural this felt. Well, not completely natural, since I am totally committed and focused on the rut I make with my bicycle one hundred and eighty plus times a year to that same destination, but as exceptions went this felt pretty normal. This is probably weighted in this direction because I don't own a car. More to the point, I own a car, but I don't drive it. I spend a lot of time riding shotgun, with my wife driving. Or my son. I am not what you would call a "designated driver," except when circumstances arise that put me in that driver's seat.
This wasn't always the case. When I was my son's age, I drove everywhere. All the time. I gave rides to all manner of friends and family. But the thought that keeps popping up in my mind is this: I have no memory of driving my father anywhere. By contrast, I have oodles and bags full of memories of my father driving me here and there. He dropped me off. He picked me up. He took me places I need to be, and maybe a few that I didn't . My father liked to drive. He was behind the wheel for the absurd bulk of time our family was out on the road. One of the enduring images I have of my father is that of the lower half of his face reflected to me in the rear-view mirror in the back seat. It was the order of things. That is probably why I now feel comfortable handing over the chore of driving to anyone who volunteers.
That would be my son. I have a hazy memory of wanting to be the guy behind the wheel. It was freedom. It was power. It was being a teenager. What I don't remember is giving my father a ride. On the other hand, I do recall a great many times when I drove my mother here and there. Sometimes I drove her crazy, but that's another matter. Most of these trips involved me dropping off my car and taking hers. That was the way we went where we were going after my father was out of the picture. My mother was happy to let someone else do the chore. When I go back to Colorado to visit, I expect to be driving. When I go out the front door of my house here in California, I don't have that expectation.
I could offer to drive my son's car, but that would mean having to get out and go around to switch back after he dropped me off. I don't need that kind of control. Most of the time, he lets me sit up front.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Mass Of Media

I could spend some more time amusing myself with the wordplay surrounding the term "Mass Media." One alternative would have me going off about how the future, where we find ourselves living, provides an excellent opportunity for the Catholic Church to reach its many antennae, as global communication continues to expand. I might also switch a vowel and talk about the "mess" that media has made over the years. Instead, I will speak directly to the volume and displacement created by all of this noise.
My wife woke up the other day wondering when conformity became such a force in our culture. We both rather abruptly jumped on the innovation of television as the chief cause of the homogenization of everything we do and say. Radio was a great first step, but it still involved a lot of that singular talent: imagination. Once you could put moving pictures with that sound, there was no question about what was the right way to be. How to comb your hair. How to dress. How to dance. It's got a good, beat, and you can dance to it. I give it a seventy-eight.
Dick Clark is not to blame, but he certainly rode a wave of communication that benefited greatly for its passive ability to creep into households across America. There was a time when movie stars were the epitome of style and grace, but there was a conscious choice about the theater you chose to go into. Once you turned on the cathode ray tube, it stayed on with all kinds of interesting sounds and sights pouring into living rooms day and night. Indoctrination. My wife pointed out the amusing irony that this came about right about the time of the Red Scare, when communism and conformity was the terrifying consequence of not being on the alert for such things. Broadcast nightly, live from the halls of Congress.
AM radio with those great big transmitters blasting pop music into the ears of children with transistor radios made them all want to sing like Elvis. Or the Beatles. Dance like Chubby Checker. Or Adam West. Maybe that's going a little far, but I can blame Adam West for the decades it took for Batman to become cool again. Of course, I needed mass media to confirm this for me: a little thing called "Al Gore's Internet." Nowadays, we aren't content to have the occasional broadcast transmission trickle through our aerials  on a need to know basis. We have cables and satellite dishes to scoop up all that content and dump it on us like an information waterfall. When we go outside, we try not to be far from the wireless connection that will hook us up to the latest whereabouts of Kim Kardashian. We are currently overloaded by the mass of media available to us.
I close now, under the weight of the irony of writing a blog about the burden of pop culture.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


Here is a true story: I learned about the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, from my wife's Twitter feed. This means that what I was getting was reaction from others about a news event that had taken place half a world away. Not polite reactions, mind you. I was getting the raw, uncensored one hundred forty characters that people across the globe had to unleash on the matter.
In case you haven't already caught the news yourself, on Wednesday morning, three gunmen burst in to the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper, shouting "we have avenged the Prophet Muhammed," killing twelve and critically wounding several others. What were they avenging? The cartoons. Death to the unbelievers, especially the cartoonists. The pen, in this case, may have been mightier than the sword, but not quite up to deflecting bullets from an AK-47. It was a Charlie Hebdo cover some months ago that made a somewhat brutal joke about the Koran. They suggested that the Koran was not as good at stopping bullets as other holy books. Something like that. One might suggest that a holy book or two might have helped this situation.
Now, it's time for me to be snarky. Which is unfortunate because on a certain level I feel nothing but sorrow for the victims of this shooting. As someone who has drawn his share of cartoons, many of them in questionable taste and some which might have been considered blasphemous, I can only imagine how terrifying those last moments must have been. There truly is a line between bomb threats and masked gunmen showing up and killing anyone in front of them. Or there ought to be.
What is the response? Should the surviving members of the Charlie Hebdo staff have to go into seclusion for decades the way Salman Rushdie did? If any of them ever do bother to take pen in hand again, will they be willing to take a stand and thumb their noses in the same way that they did before the attack?
I would like to think so. Not because I am an American and have all that Free Speech and Press hoo-ha to stand behind, and not because I want to support my fellow satirists, but I would like to believe that you can't keep ideas down with bloodshed. I was never threatened for the cartoons I drew of Richard Nixon. I was never worried that my unrelenting reference to our forty-third president as "Pinhead" might cause me to be mowed down in a hail of machine gun bullets. I have a regular seasonal routine of Jesus jokes which I trot out each and every Easter, and I have never been beaten up. Blasphemous? Guilty. Politically Incorrect? Guilty. Executable offenses? Sorry. I just don't get it. Every time a cartoonist hangs up his or her pen, the terrorists win.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Spin The Dial

They're back inside my radio. They're back inside the radio and they're messing with it. The Morning Show on KFOG is different, and it doesn't take a sensitive ear to discern the difference. The most obvious change would be that there is more than one voice talking to me between songs. The need to "chat it up" in the morning has reasserted itself, and now I get to hear sparkling repartee along with the music that starts my day. Joy.
My friend the once and future disc jockey has always maintained that the way radio is supposed to sound is this: play a record, talk a little bit, play another record. I understand that market research will probably not bear out this simple process, seeing as how it completely ignores the commercial aspect entirely, but shouldn't it be that simple? Okay, there should be traffic updates and the occasional bit of news, but shouldn't it sound like somebody playing music? The level of forced intimacy is just a little much, reminding me of a past when there was no "News Team." There was once guy who read the news and hinted at the weather. If there were sports, it was scores of games that had already taken place. That's the way I feel about "The Morning Show" on KFOG. It continues to slide back into this gabfest for which I am the only person who has an issue. I liked the idea that one person was sitting behind a big console with dozens of CDs arranged around them, pausing only long enough to back announce that cover version of "Blister In The Sun" was actually performed by Guster.
Instead, I'm getting a lot of cheery banter that sounds like it belongs at a much different hour, which is really the chemistry behind FM radio in the AM. If these people can be happily going about their jobs on the radio as you pilot your vehicle to your place of employment, it's going to be a great day, right?
Not as much for me. Now I've got this guy called "No Name" chortling in the background as the once laconic Renee does her best to perk up into the void. They've even brought back "Irish Greg" to fill in that nostalgia piece, returning to the scene of the crime where he was unceremoniously dumped less than a year ago. And since "Irish Greg" is a producer, why is his microphone even turned on? Shouldn't he be, oh I don't know, producing?
I'll keep turning the radio on. I'll keep listening on the off chance that they will make some wild change that actually pleases my ears. Until then, I'm happy just to be the guy in the cheap seats, complaining.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Dog-Shaped Hole

It sounds a little like something you might see in a Warner Brothers cartoon: Dog-shaped hole. It's not in our fence, however. We maintain that with the attention usually reserved for dog owners. Which we are not currently. Hence that dog-shaped hole. 
That is why we were selected by friends of ours to take care of their medium sized black dog over the first week of 2015. It is entirely reminiscent of the way that single people are constantly being fixed up by their married friends, and the way that those married folks are hectored about getting busy with procreation by their friends who already with child. Those with one child are encouraged by those with multiple progeny to increase their brood. A year ago, when we first got that dog-shaped hole, our friends were much more anxious than we were to fill it.
"Have you thought about getting a new dog?" They were polite and sensitive to our plight. We weren't sure just how quickly we wanted to try and replace a family member. Our son, who had grown up in a house with his doggie sister, was not enthusiastic about creating a new bond with a new pet sibling just before he left to go and pursue his fame and fortune. He encouraged my wife and me to hold off on any additional adoptions until he had gone away to college. This put an effective stopgap on any discussion that we might have about such things. 
That isn't to say we didn't have discussion about such things. There have been plenty of times over the past year when a dog really would have been just the right thing. Cold nights. Lazy afternoons. Sunny days. Come to think of it, there weren't a lot of times over the past year when having a dog around wouldn't have enhanced the situation. It's a pretty great thing to have an unconditional best friend.
So, what's the holdup? The inquiring minds of our friends and neighbors want to know. I wish I knew. It makes so much sense that we have borrowed dogs and taken care of them for days at a time, but we always end up feeling that dog-shaped hole. Maybe that's not completely accurate. It is a very particular shape and a very particular space to fill. We haven't found it yet. We're getting closer. These things take time. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Cluba Libre

Guess who is reading? Mark Zuckerberg! Mister Facebook has invited his legions of followers to read along with him. He did this after he asked his followers to suggest a New Year's Goal for him. Some of Mark's previous challenges were to learn to speak Mandarin, wear a tie every day, and write a daily thank you note, Pretty hefty challenges for a billionaire CEO, why not take on something truly outrageous like reading a book? How about setting some extreme goal like reading a book a day? That would be ridiculous, right? Three hundred and sixty-five books would be impossible. Depending on the book. Instead, Mister Zuckerberg has chosen to read a book every other week, a more manageable twenty-six books in 2015. Additionally, he expects to read books that  will focus on"different cultures, beliefs, histories, and technologies."
What sort of list are you currently generating for this challenge? If you knew that the first book on the list is "The End of Power" by Moises Naim. Currently, this title is out of stock at, which might make sense since Mark invited thirty million faces to read along with him. Currently, more than eighty thousand of those invited faces have given him their thumbs up, which means that sales for Mister Naim's book are likely to experience a very steep spike. The subtitle, "From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be," does give me pause, considering the massive influence Mister Zuckerberg's invention seems to have. Being in charge might not be what it used to be, since once upon a time being a leader took place in a world without the Book of Face. Now, leadership starts with a web address. This is the bully pulpit of our generation. Not too long ago, all you really needed was your own television show.
Now, we have the CEO of Facebook reminding us that "books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today." Most media? I can remember a time when I laughingly suggested that I would only see movies that had their own web site. If I were to reverse that stand, that would put me back in that media void. Now I live in a world where cultural trends are determined via thumbs up or thumbs down, clicking on "like." I know that I shouldn't complain, since anything that gets books in readers' hands is a good thing. Isn't it?

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Logic Of Myth

Would I like to believe that there is such a thing as Big Foot? Sure I would. How about the Loch Ness Monster? Why the heck not? If you asked me about life on other planets, I would have to hold out hope that yes, there are other interesting things in the universe outside our mundane day-to-day existence. Hum-drum, that is. Monsters and aliens would make this planet so much more interesting, it's not even funny.
Okay, it is a little funny. Like the picture John Rodriguez sent to the Huffington Post.  If you were to  believe everything you see on Al Gore's Internet, then it would appear as though this Florida fisherman caught a missing link up to his chest in swamp water. Maybe taking a mid-morning dip? Perhaps he was feeling a little sensitive about his Florida designation as "Skunk Ape," and he wanted to take a little of that earthy edge off. It would be just as likely that the chest up photo was a staged opportunity that doesn't have to be proved beyond the obvious: Hey, that looks like the upper third of a Sasquatch. This shouldn't come as a particular affront to Mister Rodriguez. Over the years, we have become used to seeing blurry, or distorted images of this most elusive upright primate. We have also become quite accustomed to seeing Sasquatch being tormented by fans of jerky. Interestingly, most of the beef snack ads have footage that make it apparent just how temperamental a beast we are dealing with. Why not bait a trap with those tasty meat treats, and see if they couldn't take one alive?
But that wouldn't be the real answer, and not just because it could be that those Jack Link ads are pretend, and not real after all. Harry and the Hendersons?  Made up junk. From Hollywood. Would it be appropriate to guess that what John Rodriguez photographed was actually Andy Serkis?  Or instead, would it be more fun to imagine that this particular pointy-headed gorilla was actually there in the swamp would open the door for the potential of Nessie and even a unicorn or two.
So, if all these creatures are real, then it makes us all wonder why all our good science hasn't caught up to them yet. As soon as we've got a an extraterrestrial on display in the national zoo, we can get to work on that whole global warming thing.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Out Go The Lights

Gravity is a helper. It brings things down to the ground. It does not help get them off the ground and into boxes, but that initial plummet can be quite useful. This is especially true when it comes time to take the Christmas lights down. A great many of them were placed high up in tree branches where a month of wind and rain had failed to knock them to the earth. On one side of the yard, I was able to take the end of a string and simply unwind it from the bottom. Not exactly dangerous, but the potential for dizziness was very high. On the other side of the yard, I had set myself up for a much greater adventure. Climbing up into the branches, I tried to recall just why I had made such an effort to create the tangle I was now encountering. I spent almost as long undoing the display I engineered as I did dismantling it.
That's the way these things go. It gives me a modicum more understanding for those who choose to leave their lights hanging from their eaves and wrapped around their shrubs all year round. That's not the choice I make. I'm much more of a "clean-slate" type guy. After New Year's Day, I feel the need to clear the air, or at least the part of it that hangs above my front yard. Hundreds of feet of twinkling happiness needs to be wrapped up and put in a great big box, waiting for the sun to dip a little lower in the sky.
It is also time to do a little inventory. This year was especially hard on the LED strings that I placed strategically out in front of my house. When all was said and done, there were four coils of plastic bulbs that failed to light, and no amount of fiddling or fuse fussing would bring them back to life. I was proud of the effort they had exerted right up until Christmas Eve, then things started to fall apart. All of that sparkle and glory was dimmed by a bit, but there was still light in the sky.
And on the fence. And the side of the house. I do well primarily because I live in a neighborhood that doesn't compete. There are a couple of windows down the street with some twinkly windows, but ours is the house with the show. And now that show is over. When I ride home after dark, I won't be able to find my home via the electrical glow. The stars fell on Alabama, and my front yard. Then I had to pick them up again. Until next year.

Sunday, January 04, 2015


Throw a pebble into the ocean and it will make a ripple. Demi Lovato would have you believe that this ripple will become a wave. I am inclined to agree with Ms. Lovato, and not just because she has the power to limit traffic through Disneyland. There has been a lot of discussion lately about how every life matters. Those lives would be the pebbles to which I will refer to in this metaphor. The ocean is the rest of the world. It's a pretty tried and true idea, dating at least as far back as Charles Dickens, or George Bailey if you're a fan of Zuzu's petals. One person's life can make a huge difference in the big scheme of things.
This is what amazes me about the recent reporting of two deaths: A mother in Idaho and a teenager in Ohio. Part of what makes these potentially worldwide stories is the way media works. A story of small town tragedy can go global in minutes, thanks to Al Gore's Internet. Veronica Rutledge and Leelah Alcorn are now instantly recognized names because their sad ends made ripples. Ms. Rutledge was a mother of a two-year-old who left her child in the car with her purse that contained a loaded handgun. Immediately, her loss is the door opening on a debate that has raged for decades now, never mind the loss felt by her family. Never mind the rest of this two-year-old boy's life who will now be bent in a series of interesting ways because of this horrible accident. This is a chance to make political hay, and to toss parenting opinions and judgments into the stiff breeze stirred up by search words like "handgun" and "children." She joins a long list of other names, other pebbles: parents who made an awful choice that had even worse consequences. Would it be worse if somehow the two-year-old had been the victim? I don't want to make that distinction, but there are plenty of people out there with access to a keyboard who do.
Leelah Alcorn made an awful choice herself. She decided to kill herself after she felt that her parents would not be able to help her manage her transgender transition. She did this by stepping in front of a truck. The question of transgender teens has become a flashpoint, just as Leelah had hoped in her suicide note. A number of people, myself included, wondered about how all of this might sit with the driver of the truck. A gun is a pretty obvious tool for destruction. The country is not currently in the midst of a truck control debate. Now we can all discuss that along with the relative safety of Wal-Mart parking lots.
And families in Ohio and Idaho scramble to make human sense of the ripples.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Resolute Shun

A solution is homogeneous mixture composed of only one phase. That's chemistry. Or it's an action or process of solving a problem. Put a prefix in front of it and you get "resolution." Since "re" means "again and again," it would be hard to imagine that working with a noun, so we'll focus instead on that action or process. Something we could do again and again. 
I wish I could have had this flurry of logic available to me on New Year's Eve as my son and I were discussing resolutions. I was sticking my big parental nose into his business, asking him if there were any goals or expectations he wanted to set for himself in the coming year. In my mind, I had a number of different ways he could have gone: scholarship, employment, time management, exercise. I didn't suggest any of these, I waited for him to give me his answer.
"Why do we bother making resolutions at the beginning of the year just so we can look back a few months later and feel bad about ourselves?" His answer was a question. I shouldn't have been surprised, since it was a tack I have used since I was his age. Teenagers delight in their ability to focus attention on the question itself rather than the answer. Adults too. I played along.
"Why do you think we promise ourselves we'll do better after each report card? Does the end of a grading period seem any different than January first?" Spin, parry, thrust
I waited for his considered reply. Nothing.
"It's kind of like counting down three, two, one before we jump off into," I was going to say, "whatever" but was interrupted with his considered response.
"I could work harder on keeping my face clean." Well played, since that was definitely a parental gripe that would be assuaged by setting it as a goal for the coming year. It wasn't on the list I had in my mind, but I should have anticipated that none of those big ticket items would have shown up on their own. This was a negotiation that would take some time. This was a process that was going on and had been for a couple of years already. The idea that it might take another year to get him to internalize his own locus of control shouldn't have surprised me.
If he had told me, "Dad, I think this year I really want to focus on academics and make sure that I am prepared to go off fully prepared to take on the rigors of college. To do that, I will have to manage my time more carefully and make sure that I eat right and exercise to be sure that I am physically prepared to take on the challenges that I have set for myself," I would have laughed. Who does he think he's kidding? 
This year, I resolve to get off my son's back. 

Friday, January 02, 2015

Buddy, Not Bud

As with many experiences around our house, this one started with a phone call. My mother-in-law called to let my wife know that there was a pit bull just up the street from our house. She knew this because she had just pulled out of our driveway just moments before and, through the magic of cellular telecommunication, she was able to alert us to this canine crisis. To be fair, she was calling to let us know that one of our neighbors was walking their little white dog down the street and she feared for their safety.
Dutiful daughter and animal lover, my wife struck out immediately for the corner in question with her leash and best intent. The big, red-nosed pit turned out to be quite friendly to both my wife and the little white neighbor dog, but since he had not collar or tag, once he was at the end of a leash, she needed somewhere to take him.
First stop: Our house. This was the third stray my wife had brought home, not counting me. Meeting our guest for the first time, I asked the question I have asked each of those previous three: Now what? The subtext of the conversations are always pretty much the same: "I wish we could keep him." In this particular case, she was careful not to go there too quickly, since pit bulls in Oakland are a dicey proposition at best. This is not the dog that either of us would have picked as a replacement for our departed doggie pal, Maddie, and yet here we were.
This is when we began to do the dance of distance that turned out to be more difficult than we had expected. This dog was a sweetheart, and thrust his great, bony head into our laps to encourage scritching and scratching. He wasn't a slobberhound, and he kept his tongue in his mouth. A little on the thin side, he appeared as though he might have been tied up prior to his escape. My wife and I agreed that it might not be the worst thing if we didn't find the people who had been taking care of him right away. Our son, who is planning on going away to college next year, has already established that we are more than welcome to adopt any number of dogs, cats, parakeets, and so on after he leaves. He has decided that he just doesn't want to bond with a new pet before he takes his leave. Fair enough. What then to do with our orphan?
As a plan was formulated, the afternoon slipped away and it became apparent that we were going to have a doggie guest for dinner, and probably for the night. It was around this time that my wife's resolve not to fall for that big broad head and happy tail began to falter. We had been comfortable up until that point calling him "boy," or "good boy," because he was. We borrowed some kibble from a neighbor and settled in for the evening. I started calling him "Buddy," in the style of Pauly Shore. By the time we were all ready for bed, we had decided that we would take him to the animal shelter in the morning and hope they were able to find a home for Buddy. Whether it was the one he came from, or the one he was going to, we hoped that his sunny disposition would be enjoyed by someone deserving. After the third charged time outside while it was still dark outside, some of Buddy's charm was wearing thin. He had a predilection to announcing to the world that he was on our front porch by barking a few dozen times before he ever went out into the yard to do his business. This took another few petals from his courtesy daisy, and by the time the sun came up, my wife and I were both ready for Buddy to move on.
Still, we worried a little around the edges because even though we knew he possessed a winning personality, Buddy was a pit bull in Oakland. The folks at the animal shelter gave us a number with which we could keep track of him, and we will hope that he finds a nice family who can keep his head scratched and doesn't mind a few extra trips to the front door in the wee hours. If you'll pardon the expression.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

All Is Bright

New Year. What can we expect? Perhaps the best news is this: Robin Williams cannot die again. That one time was plenty for me. Russia cannot invade Crimea again. They haven't left since the last time they came rolling in, pushing people around and making people remember just who put the "in" in Stal"in," Vladimir Put"in." Russians are in Crimea, and not just for the bargains at the after-Christmas sales at the Apple Store. Jay Leno can't retire from the Tonight Show again. even if he is creeping back onto TV in that way he has. Note to Jimmy Fallon: check your brakes before you take any long drives in the country. We can also stop looking for the Malaysian Airlines jet, since now we have an Air Asia plane to find. Bowe Bergdahl can't be sent back to active duty in Afghanistan, not because he's been cleared of all wrongdoing, but because the army doesn't shoot deserters the way they used to and we seem to be just about done with our longest war. It would be a fabulous thing to say at the beginning of a new year that we don't have to worry about war anymore, but ongoing conflicts across the globe don't lend themselves to making any sort of obscure or joyful predictions about peace in our time.
As the boys in the band have reminded us time and again, "nothing changes on New Year's Day." Partisan politics that reached a new and bizarre peak in this year's mid-term election show no signs of slowing down. If anything, business as usual will continue as we ramp up to a presidential election that will only serve to heighten the contrast between red and blue. At the same time, the contrast between blue and black and white has become even more of a pressing concern. Drawing lines and picking sides in this fight starts to feel like a zero sum game, but it's the one we seem to be playing on an almost daily basis. In 2015, it would be nice if we could find an answer with which we could all agree. Stay tuned.
Ebola and LeBron James, Michael Sam and ISIS, all that news that came and went in 2014. The war continues. The battles rage on. We fight the good fight, though sometimes we don't know which side is the right side. Maybe in 2015 it will be as easy to discern right from wrong as right from left. It should be that easy. It's a brand new year.