Thursday, April 30, 2015

"The Real Deal"In

I use them a lot. "Quotation marks." They are useful in the setting aside those words or phrases that are direct quotes, hence the name. Inside those little sets of what many of my students have called "backwards apostrophes" are the utterances of a person that the writer would like to set apart. Just like I did there with the description of the punctuation itself. I thought it was a particularly effective and amusing way to describe the look of those marks. It also showed the level of understanding that the kids I teach have for them. I don't know how aware they are of the power we have invested in these backward apostrophes.
Maybe it would be more useful if I started from the place they know them best: hanging in the air, not on the page. The use of air quotes by children as young as six and seven surprises even a hardened veteran teacher like myself. This is especially true when I consider that one of the earliest lessons I remember getting at teacher school was that we should avoid using sarcasm in our classroom. Kids don't get it, we were told. Or maybe what I mean is, "Kids don't get it." Or perhaps the most accurate depiction of my meaning is, "Kids don't 'get it.'" Notice the single quotation marks set inside the double there. It sets apart the 'get it' from the rest of the quotation. Not only are those the words my instructor used, but their meaning became more specialized with the addition of an additional set of punctuation marks. I might have chosen to write it thus: "Kids don't get it." Those leaning letters suggest that they be heard differently than the rest of the sentence. Italics. Another game changer, at least as far as meaning goes, but I am not aware of a culturally prevalent way of conveying the same meaning that the air quotes have for anything in italics.
Unless you include the eye roll. It is very interesting to me that the use of quotation marks, which used to be a verifiable way to check to see that the exact words that were used by a speaker were taken down directly by the writer is now being used as a device to throw doubt on those very words. Take this headline: Southwest Airlines flight diverted to Denver over "pressurization": media. Those quotation marks around "pressurization." Are they there to make sure that we, the readers, know that someone officially declared the problem with that flight to be pressurization, or should we be taking that assessment with a grain of salt? In the body of the article, this sentence appears: The diversion was blamed on a "pressurization issue," though the statement did not elaborate on the problem. This statement about a statement casts some doubt about the problem on board, primarily with the use of quotation marks. Are we to believe that there may have been some more nefarious goings-on in the sky that are being blamed on "pressurization?" So-called "pressurization?" 
How much better would we all be understood without these "backward apostrophes?" I guess "the devil is in the details." And you can quote me on that. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Just Like The Ones I Used To Know

This past weekend, it seemed like anywhere I turned, every TV station and cable outlet had a superhero movie running. Spider Man. Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. Captain America. X-Men. Originals. Sequels. Everywhere. It was saturation programming, obviously in anticipation of the release this coming Friday of the highly anticipated "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, it should probably be pointed out that there are are plenty of folks who look to the first of May as a celebration of the Workers of the World, not a chance to sit inside on a lovely Spring day, watching a bunch of spandex-clad goofballs perform computer graphics-assisted feats of heroism and strength. I will be in the latter category, staring at the screen in wide-eyed amazement, as if any of what I was about to see was new. These movies have been playing in my head for decades.
I grew up reading comic books. Lots of them. Most of them from Marvel. Much in the way that I became a Coca-Cola drinker instead of Pepsi, I found myself drawn to the titles of Stan Lee's company more than those of their main competitor, DC. The DC line was too straight down the middle for me. They were the ones who were selling their characters to the American Broadcasting Company to form "Super Friends." These were cartoons in the most juvenile sense. It would be years before Frank Miller would come and resuscitate their goody-two-shoes characters. I wanted pathos. I wanted soul-searching. I wanted drama. Marvel gave me that. First in Captain America, the super soldier the Avengers found floating in the North Sea. A man out of time, a hero from another era, who is asked to find his place in the modern world. I followed Cap and his partner Falcon for years. It was a short hop from there to the teenaged slinger of webs, Spider Man. As long as I stayed away from the CBS TV show, which may have been produced in my back yard, I was fine. The action contained in the images that fairly exploded off the pages of those comic books kept my mind racing.
It wasn't until Sam Raimi worked is magic on everybody's favorite wall crawler that I believed that I would ever see a movie as lovely as a Kirby. Then came the flood, and all of a sudden I believed not only that a man could fly, but a Hulk could smash. I don't read comics much anymore, but I do go to the movies. Especially when they swing, fly, smash and blow up just like I remember.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Belated Apologies

Staring into those bleary, drunken eyes so full of contempt, I searched for the answer to the man-boy's question: "This is a roast beef restaurant. How can you be out of roast beef?" There were a number of rational answers, but none that would adequately meet this beast's needs. He needed to be fed, and in lieu of America's Roast Beef, I was offering him a Hamchy. It seemed like a better alternative than the cold turkey club.
What I really wanted to explain to him was that he had stumbled into the last fifteen minutes of a very long day in the fast food business. One that had been planned and calculated down to the last potato cake and large drink cup. The previous year's transactions for that day had been reviewed and special circumstances like weather and Simon and Garfunkel concerts were taken into account as each hour was forecast as a measure of dollars to beef. And buns. And the aforementioned large drink cups.  There was no vast supply pipeline that emptied into our back room on demand. We were going to have to make the meat last as long as we could while maintaining the strict portion control demanded by the home office. Oh, and did I mention that it takes six hours for each one of those "roasts" to cook to delicious perfection? That means that if I wanted to have that one more sandwich just before two in the morning, I would have to have made sure that it was in the oven at eight o'clock, around the time that the back room was being hosed down and cleaned in anticipation of the following morning's opening prep work. There was no waste, or at least we tried not to make much. If there was extra beef left over at the end of the night, we chopped it up and put it into a vat with Chef Larry's Barbecue Sauce, carefully covered with foil that could not touch Larry's sauce for fear that it would eat through that protective barrier overnight. The misfired buns were counted up and counted against our total, and every other portion of every other item edible or inedible was inventoried to prepare for the next day and to generate a record that could be used to plan for the next Saturday night when a hungry drunk boy stumbled into the lobby looking for that last meal of the day, the one he was probably going to spew somewhere between the counter and the parking lot. The meal that I was going to have to clean up before I finished the bookwork that was going to tell us all just how much roast beef we were going to need to feed the surly frat boys who just missed being locked out of their chance to berate a fast food employee instead of banging on the door with their keys, insisting that we let him in for just one more roast beef sandwich.
Sorry. We're all out of roast beef.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I Wish We Had A Bigger Village

I get it. "I wish my teacher knew..." A third grade teacher in Denver, Kyle Schwartz, wanted to find out more about her students. She found out. Mostly her discoveries were of a socio-economic nature: "I wish my teacher knew I don't have pencils at home to do my homework." Not to diminish the revelation, but since Ms. Schwartz works in a school where ninety-two percent of the kids receive free or reduced lunch, it follows somewhat logically that pencils might be at a premium in that neighborhood. Far from ridiculing the sentiment generated by these disclosures, I felt the tug that the rest of the planet experienced on their collective heartstrings. Mostly because after eighteen years on the job, I still forget sometimes.
Last week, I arrived at school each day before seven because it was our first week of standardized testing, and it was my charge to roll out the carts filled with online machines with which our students would demonstrate their massive skills and capacities acquired over most of the past year. It was, for the most part, a solitary exercise that gave me a chance to reflect on my job. Especially when, on Friday morning, I was rolling one of those refrigerators on wheels across the yard to one of our portable classrooms and I noticed two figures standing near the gate. A fifth grade boy and his fourth grade sister raised a hand in my direction. "Hey Mister Caven," hollered the big brother, waving his Burger King cup in my direction.
"Mom dropped you off pretty early, didn't she?"
This time it was the sister who called back, "Yeah." She held her own cup of something, but seemed much less enthusiastic than her brother. It was not yet seven in the morning, and these kids would be waiting an hour and a half for school to start. This was not the first time this had happened. I had spent a good part of the last year, off and on, negotiating with their mother to make sure there would always be someone to watch her children. Before school. After school. She had to work. She had to drop off her kids before dawn. Had to. At least she felt that she had to. I suggested alternatives that included stopping off at a friend's house, and letting the kids walk to school with them when it was closer to the scheduled beginning of the day. The one announced by a bell. Or maybe they could walk to school after waiting for a little while longer, maybe even having breakfast at home. The one that was only a few blocks from the school. In order to get that Burger King, they had to go a mile in the opposite direction first, leaving at least a few minutes earlier than if they would have simply waited to eat the breakfast we provide every morning. Free of charge.
And so there we stood, across the playground from one another, with the understanding that they were now on school grounds and therefore safe. I knew that mom had to do what she had to do. It was a choice she was making. A reality she was creating. This was something I wish this teacher didn't know.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Presumptive Nominee

Who is running for president? If you had a chance to vote for Lincoln, you would do it, right? Even if he were a Democrat? Okay, we're not talking Abe here. Honest or otherwise, this is Lincoln Chafee we're talking about. Chafee is a former governor, a former senator, former mayor and former city council member. He is also a former Independent. And a former Republican. If you leave Libertarian Dog Catcher off the list, you've pretty much got this guy's resume. Now he would like to add to that.
I know. It's a long shot, since everyone knows that former Secretaries of State and former First Ladies who have also been senators usually get the inside track when it comes to getting the keys to the Democratic Presidential bus in 2016. Muddying the waters at this point can't help. Unless those waters weren't particularly still in the first place.
What chance does this "outsider" have when it comes to big time party politics? What chance does an outsider have? This is a very interesting discussion, considering Lincoln Chafee's record qualifies him to be an outsider. Outside what? This is a guy who puts, on his website, that "A strong middle class is the bedrock of any prosperous community." You want controversy? He was one of only twenty-three senators who "saw the folly of allowing Bush/Cheney to invade Iraq." Linc says he's proud to be one of those twenty-three. It's on his website. Seeing folly and doing something about it are two different things. A certain senator from New York does not share this distinction. If voting records matter, it should be noted that Senator Clinton from New York voted for the authorization for use of military force against Iraq. Speaking of records, Linc wrote a book called "Against The Tide," recounting his experience of trying to find the middle in a party that had moved far to the right. In this model of the universe, it is the political parties that shift, not the people in them. In Chafee's case, the Republicans moved right out from under him and subsequently he found himself adrift for a while, and now finds himself in Democrat territory.
It is from this blue launching pad that Lincoln Chafee hopes to begin his new mission: the one he aims to land in the White House. He's pro-choice, gun-control, and voted against building a giant fence on the border between the United States and Mexico. This guy was a Republican? Well, not anymore. Just like he's not governor anymore. Or senator. Or city council member. Lincoln Chafee wants to be President of the United States. Has anybody told Hillary yet?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

So Thirsty

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. That's kind of how I felt when my family was driving down the coast, with the Pacific Ocean hanging out the passenger side window. Drought? What do you call that? A great big puddle of wet, just waiting to be distributed to the proper field or lawn or glass with ice. Except it's full of salt. And it wouldn't do much good to try and irrigate the Central Valley with salt water. It would probably cause more trouble than it would cure. That's why we need to take the salt out so we can keep the water. It makes so much sense that scientists are hard at work at making desalination their next big challenge. It isn't exactly rocket science, since desal plants already exist. They're just incredibly expensive. The one in Santa Barbara, working at full capacity would cost five million dollars a year and would only provide about one third of the water needed annually in that community. Not quite what we were after.
So, maybe there's another way to get moisture from this dry sponge of a state. William Shatner, better known as "Mark Preston" from the film "The Devil's Rain," has an idea. Before you start worrying that this Hollywood type is going to start suggesting sacrifices to Satan or some other mumbo jumbo, let's remember that this is also TV's "TJ Hooker." He wouldn't send us off on some wild goose chase. His mind is like a steel trap. He won't miss any obvious holes in logic or science. He'll simply pause, lightly, and then proceed.
William Shatner wants to build a pipeline to bring water from Seattle to the parched folks down in sunny California. The price tag on this project: Thirty billion dollars. Or, if you were to put it into desalination terms: six thousand plants running for a year. Providing thirty percent of the water needed by their communities. It certainly beats the heck out of that "conservation" talk that has been tossed around lately. Besides, who better to find a cure for our drought than the guy who saved the whole planet by gong back in time and procuring a pair of humpback whales who could then communicate with the outer space machine that was threatening to planet in the present. Easy as one, two, three, four The Voyage Home showed that nothing is impossible for Captain James T. Kirk and his crew. Sound crazy? Crazy like a Starship Captain, you mean.
Of course, I think I would feel a whole lot better if Scotty were still around.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Open The Classroom Door, Hal

Suppose they gave a test and nobody took it. Three states, Nevada, Montana and North Dakota, are currently attempting to right their assessment ships as their newly prescribed computer-based Common Core tests crashed and burned. At least around the edges. Software problems and technical glitches have kept students in these states from being able to complete the federally mandated exams. The U.S. Department of Education has not backed off their expectation that ninety-five percent of students need to be tested by the end of the year. It must be done, on earth as it is in Washington.
And just what are the results going to show? My guess would be that high-stakes testing is not a viable way to get fair and accurate data on student achievement. But that has never really been the aim of these tests. Teachers know how their students are doing without sitting them in front of a computer for hours at a stretch to measure their capacities and abilities. The simple fact that these tests are given in March and April and the school year doesn't end for another month or two lets us know that the summative nature of these measures are not that. If you want to find out what a kid knows at the end of a year, you ask the kid at the end of the year. Instead, we come back from our spring break and lash them to their chairs and ask them a battery of questions that are designed by companies who are trying to deliver statistics to government officials, not teachers and administrators. Yes, it will be interesting to have scores from these tests while the students who take the test are still in the grade for which they took that test, but how meaningful will that be for the teacher, student and parent who look at the aggregate score of the week that student took doing something that they tend not to do for weeks at a stretch: taking tests.
What will they get? A picture of how the testing system is working, and a chance for those companies that sell their services to school districts across the country to improve the software and network issues that cropped up on these most recent go-rounds. Far from getting an accurate snapshot of how each student is performing in their studies, we will find out that this vast chunk of a percentile is under-performing to the degree that shows that we have somehow failed and that our students must apply themselves more fully and their teacher must commit themselves to creating better test subjects for these wacky experiments in computer adaptive assessment. I didn't think I would ever find a time that I would miss those pages of bubbles and newsprint booklets full of questions. How friendly and benign they suddenly seem by comparison. What do I suggest instead? The old standard: D) None of the above.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Old Enough

It was observed, not so much the day but the idea. My younger brother is turning fifty. The mathematics of this sentence is pretty evident. My younger brother is turning fifty, therefore I must be older than that. That means the last of Mrs. Caven's boys has crossed the half century mark. It is an interesting time. We noted that our father, Mr. Caven, had been a grownup for a lot longer when he hit the big five-oh. He had put three sons through high school, with one graduated from college and another slowly finding his way. The youngest one was looking for a career in business. He was the one driving the sports car. He was the one making money. My parents must have been so proud.
Thirty-plus years later, the business man is an artist, the artist turns out to be a teacher, and the big brother is about to retire from a career in law enforcement that spans as many years. Life, I am reminded once again by John Lennon, is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans. That plan for my younger brother's observed birthday was simple: start with some lunch, and see what spirals out from there. We did the lunch, and had some ice cream after, and then came back to my house where there were presents and the potential of more fun. In this particular case, the case that he had dragged with him from his home across the bay, there was collage. We took a heap of magazines and calendar pages and scraps of otherwise recyclable material and made art. It was a very calming way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We sat on the deck in our back yard and cut pictures and patterns and glued them into place. Carefully, but not exactly. There would be no grade on this, jut experience points.
When we were done, we were done. We cleaned up the detritus and listened to a story, written by Dave Eggers and read to us by the young one. The younger one. Then we took our work inside to dry. Then it was couch time. We sat and talked the way that fifty years of knowing someone allows you to. Big pauses. Big laughs. We even found a place for a few big ideas somewhere in there. Mostly about growing older and how we could recognize it. It wasn't an aches and pains discussion, it was more about how we move through life. I mentioned that it was starting to get dark and how that has always given me pause on a Sunday evening. The dread of Monday morning was something I have always felt, and it made me feel better to say it out loud to my brother who just happens to be old enough to understand such things.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Your Mother Should Know

When I was a kid, I had a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. It helped to scratch the itch that was my nascent nerd impulses. I could blame my mother, who was feeding those urges long before I was getting a monthly delivery of stories and pictures of classic creatures from movies made long before I was born. She let me stay up late to watch King Kong. She let me know when my good friends Frankenstein or Dracula were going to be on. And she would listen to me when I wanted to talk about what I had seen. This was especially generous when it came to the Planet of the Apes series. Science fiction movies with apes at the center. Delicious. So much so that my brothers and I felt compelled to come to my mother, one at a time, and recount the specific details of what happened Beneath, above around and between the five installments of that particular vision of the future.
When I read in those pages about some kid who made a movie about an abominable snowman with his friend to win the Famous Monsters of Filmland home movie contest, I became a fan of John Landis and Rick Baker. It was only a matter of time before that pair created their first feature, "Schlock." A big ape, or something like it. I never saw it in a theater, but I knew all about it because I read about it via the in depth reporting found in my mailbox once a month. I talked to my mom about that one a lot, too.
Years later, I sat in a theater and watched these two guys team up again for American Werewolf in London. I watched it a dozen times, and read even more about it in the slightly older, sometimes more gratutious big brother publication to FM, Fangoira. I read about all the Star Wars movies before they came out in Starlog. I kept up with all the sci-fi flix and creature features. And I shared this with my mom.
Fast forward to this past week, when my subscriptions to all these magazines had lapsed, and Al Gore's Internet allowed everyone to participate in this vision of Nerdvana. In the space of two days, a trailer appeared on the web for The Force Awakens, followed almost immediately by a "leak" of the Batman vs Superman teaser. Suddenly, I found myself two weeks away from the opening of the Avengers sequel, with the next year mapped out, with another Planet of the Apes reboot sequel on its way in 2017. No word on just exactly when they're going to remake King Kong again. Maybe I should call my mom. She would probably know.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Just Visiting

It took me a moment to comprehend what my colleague was telling me: "Todd just went into the boy's bathroom."
On the first check, I couldn't make a problem out of it. Todd was a boy, and that is where I would expect boys to go, especially during lunch recess, which is what we were currently experiencing. Could it be that this First Grade teacher was trying to point out an upper grade kid using the bathroom during the younger kids' recess? I ran another check in my head: Todd. Hold on. There is no Todd in Kindergarten, First or Second Grade. That must be it. Except there isn't a Todd in Third, Fourth or Fifth Grade either. As I stood there, puzzled, my First Grade associate looked at me as if I should be doing something. Then he offered, "Do you want me to go down and see what he's doing here?"
Bingo. Todd doesn't belong here because he is no longer a student at our school. Todd was a familiar name because he was a student of mine when I taught Fourth Grade. That was a long time ago. That would make him eighteen years old. Not a Fourth Grader.
This slow realization suddenly burst upon me, and I lurched into action. "I'll go check it out," I assured my First Grade partner, and I strode off in the direction of the boy's bathroom. I heard water running as I walked into the dim light from the bright sunshine. There was a tall figure, hunched down over the grade school size sink. He looked up as I came in. "Hey, Todd."
Todd turned around to face me and when he stood straight up, wiping his hands with a wad of toilet paper, it was apparent just how much he had grown. He was now almost a full head taller than me, and a straggle of a beard hung from his chin. "Hey, Mister Caven."
His smile of recognition was a huge relief. He was not my favorite student, way back when, probably because I had no idea how to deal with his behavior. We did not "reach" when I was his teacher. What I did understand, a year later, was that I had a much better handle on his wandering focus than I did with his younger brother, Terry, who followed him into my room. Terry was a much bigger handful. Where Todd was goofy and hard to motivate, Terry was sneaky and required constant attention. Encountering a sixteen year old Terry in the bathroom during a regular school day would have created a much different reaction from me. Seeing Todd there, drying his hands was a relief. "They said I could come in and wash my hands." He was letting me know that he was checked in and working within our parameters.
"How about some paper towels instead of toilet paper?" I offered. To my mild embarrassment, we were out of paper towels in both dispensers in the boy's room. I changed the subject, "Have you been around to see your teachers?" I knew that lunchtime wasn't the best time for a visit, since most teachers are either rushing about gathering what they need for the next few hours to finish up the day, or taking that brief time to gather themselves for what was coming right after lunch: more school. I really wanted everyone to see Todd. The last time he had visited the campus, his hair had been painted gold, and he looked dazed from whatever life had been handing him. He was also wearing a state-issued ankle bracelet to track his movement after a recent brush with the law. Now, he looked much more alert, with a natural hair color and lacking any government hardware. He was in the neighborhood to visit his sister and his nephew. He had stopped by because he knew that he could. He wasn't being sneaky. He was being resourceful. He was visiting.
It was good to see him.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Musty Old TV

It would be easy enough to wax nostalgic here about how I used to watch TV. I have mentioned here previously that before the advent of remote controls, we sometimes watched whatever came on the box sitting across the room from us. Then, upon the discovery my first remote, my little brother, I could be more discerning with my tastes. Or more scattered at least. It took me a while to understand that most broadcast stations had commercial breaks scheduled each quarter hour. That meant every fifteen minutes I was commanding my little brother to twist the dial around to check out our alternatives, only to discover that we were watching ads at each stop. This brought on a new sense of complacency, one that was never felt more keenly than Thursday nights.
There was a time when there was such a thing as "Must See TV." The National Broadcasting Company may not have invented it, but they surely made a big deal about it in the 1990's. What else were you going to do on a Thursday night? You had to be at work or school the next day, so you weren't going out to whoop it up, necessarily. Why not find that comfy spot on the couch and settle in for some quality comedy and maybe an hour of drama to top it off? In the early days of my marriage, it was the sure thing we could turn to, without having to worry about a remote control. We were watching "Must See TV." Appointment TV. TV that you needed to have watched in order to have cogent conversation around the water cooler the following day.
I used to look forward to Thursday nights. Mostly for "Friends" and "Mad About You," but before that there was "Cheers," and eventually "Frasier." For a while we had us some "Seinfeld"and I admit that I used to keep track of the sweaters Cliff Huxtable wore, but that was indeed another time. I used to avoid making plans with people, much to my new wife's chagrin, just so I could keep track of all the goings-on in what was invariably an East Coast setting, laugh track included. She didn't have much of a leg to stand on, since she was as invested in the trials and tribulations found in and out of the emergency room of Chicago's County General Hospital. Maybe Doctor Ross could have helped her with that unipod stance. She wishes.
Just like I wish that I could still get that "Friday Eve" feeling when dinner was over and it was time to go warm up the tube. It will be waiting there on the DVR when I get around to binge watching the entire series run of this or that show, but not on NBC. Not this year. For the first time in more than thirty-three years, the Peacock did not air a single sit-com in its Thursday night lineup. Three hours of drama. Drama that I may or may not see, but I do miss that compulsory television. What I'm doing now just seems so arbitrary.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Broken Spring

The shock of a third arrest being made in the Florida Spring Break Gang Rape case is that it took this long. Not just to make the arrest, but for something like this to occur. How long have we, as a youth-infused nation, been promoting this kind of "fun?" Back in 1960, a group of friends discovered their companion Melanie is in distress after going to meet upperclassman Franklin at a motel. However another of the "Yalies", Dill, arrives at the motel room instead and then rapes her. She ends up walking into the nearby road looking distraught, her dress torn. Just as her friends arrive, she is hit by a car and ends up in the hospital. The friends realize the potentially serious consequences of their actions and resolve to act in a more responsible, mature manner. Fifty-four years ago. And if that story sounds a tad familiar, that's because it is the story of a Spring Break gone wrong titled, "Where The Boys Are," which came from a somewhat less cautionary novel originally titled "Unholy Spring." As for the exact location of the boys, feel free to use your comedic imagination and then keep your dirty minds to yourselves.
But that's the real crux of the problem. After decades of promoting the hedonism and escape of this annual rite, things have gotten ugly. Uglier. Remained ugly. Just like those fictional twenty-ish kids of fifty years ago, this new crop of burned-out college students, as well as many of their high school hangers-on, make the trek to the beaches of these MTV sponsored beach-blanket Gomorrahs. Dancing, Drinking, Drugs, and Debauchery. What could be more American? My angry old man response is probably weighted on the side of disapproval from the fact that I was never invited to pack my towel and trunks and head down to Daytona or any of those other dens of unbridled youth gone wild. I mostly hung out at home. So did my friends. I guess we weren't the types who went in for that kind of thing.
Until I graduated. After I had been out of college for a few years, some friends of mine and I decided to take a little trip to Key West. It just happened to be in mid-March, coinciding with the anniversary of my first year of sobriety. How ironic it was indeed for us to find ourselves within crawling distance of dozens of bars and hordes of drunken boys and girls out sowing their oats gone wild. When we pulled into town, late, we had to ring for someone to come to the desk of our motel to check us in. We were greeted by an obviously sleep-deprived local who asked us, "You're not spring breakers, are you?" 
We looked at one another and back to our disheveled host. "Uh, no."
"Good," he said, turning over the registration forms with a sigh, "I would have had to charge you an extra hundred dollars deposit if you were."
So there it is. The real reason that we tolerate all these youthful transgressions: Money. Many local economies depend on this yearly trade of cash for depravity. Totally worth it, right? You're only young once. Then, suddenly, not. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Don't Go Away Mad

We stared at each other for a minute or two. I had wandered into the back yard with a handful of junk mail to deliver to the recycling bin, and there he was. Or she. Or it. A black cat, curled up in the half barrel in the midst of the nasturtiums. The cat, gender unspecified, and I stood and looked at one another, or rather I stood and the cat stayed curled up, but eyes focused sleepily on me. My immediate suspicion was that I had woken this feline interloper from what had been a nap, as is their custom. The half-lidded eyes were indicative of a mind lurching into consciousness. I excused myself, "Pardon me. I didn't mean to wake you. I was just taking this junk mail to the recycling bin."
No response from the bleary-eyed cat. He or she remained curled on top of our newly mashed nasturtiums.
"Just hanging out? Catching a few winks before dinner time?"
Still no response. Just that dull look. I started to imagine some mild contempt coming from this furry visitor. Was it imagined?
"You know," I began to confess, "I'm not much of a cat person."
Now the cat began to stir. I must have hit a nerve.
"Not that I'm chasing you off or anything. That would have been our dog's job, once upon a time." This was a threat of the most idle kind. It has been some time since our dog had chased anyone or anything anywhere. The cat population of the neighborhood had sent out the notice that this was now a safe haven. A back yard with ample sun and a barrel of nasturtiums in which to lay down for an afternoon siesta, let it be known far and wide. Had our house become some sort of cat way-station, part of a network of halfway-plotzes where one could relax and recover from a tough day of wandering the mean streets of Oakland?
"I hope you're comfortable," I said this as I turned to continue my path to recycling. The opening and closing of the bin got my visitor up on his/her haunches, now appearing just a little more lucid. When I came back down the sidewalk, I let my feelings be known: "I'm not going to run you off. That's not going to save those nasturtiums. You look like you've had a tough day." Maybe I was reflecting back some of my own ambivalence about the day.
The cat stretched and then hopped lightly to the ground in front of me, but quickly turned tail and sauntered off toward the front yard. I followed, in no great hurry, watching the exodus. There was a pause, without looking back, that seemed to take in the options: climb the plum tree? head out the gate?
The black cat went out the gate, off to whatever adventure or rest awaited it. I went inside and congratulated myself for my handling of the event.

Friday, April 17, 2015

It's All That

There was a while back there when I thought that Disney would take over the world. It was part of some new Reich, where the severed head of Walt was not just cryogenically frozen but kept alive specifically to give orders from beyond the grave for global domination. How else to explain the purchase of Star Wars, Marvel, ESPN, ABC, cruise lines, hotels and real estate holdings wherever you may roam? On any given day you could walk out of the house and never set foot on anything that wasn't owned by the Disney Corporation until you tucked yourself under your Mickey Mouse sheets at night. They've got their three fingered hands in just about everything.
This was my thought before I started noticing how much of my life is on Google. I get mail from them. I get pictures. I get videos. It used to be that when I wanted to see baby elephants romping with golden retrievers, I could use a search engine like Ask Jeeves and I would be supplied with a link to click on, a fun little site called "you tubes." People were uploading videos of their favorite cute things and occasionally some things that weren't so cute. Google owns them now. As if that creeping paranoia weren't enough, there's always this: The blog you are reading right now comes to you via the auspices of Google. Blogger was purchased by Google way back in 2003. That's before I got here, so I really don't have anything to complain about. I knew what I was getting myself into: A whole mess o' Google.
I used to be a pretty solid fan of Internet Explorer. The Big Blue E was my gateway to Al Gore's Internet. This was after I had tired of Netscape and the relics from another time. Then for a while I flirted with Firefox, mostly because it seemed so flashy by comparison to its dull Microsoft counterpart. Now is the time for Google Chrome, mostly because everything my school district does these days springs form the font of Google. Mail, documents, cloud drives, calendars: It's all found under that green, yellow, red and blue swirl. At home, I resisted a bit, sticking with my Firefox friends until I realized that it was taking forever to get things to open and then one day I switched and never looked back.
One of us. One of us.
Now I operate almost exclusively from the eye of the Google storm. I teach kids about a variety of search engines, but like so many other infected individuals, I have begun to use the name of the company as a verb. I have become googled. When I watch previews for Disney movies, I watch them through Googly eyes. And if I ever have time to waste, I need look no further than the doodles on the opening page. No more Minesweeper for me. I'll be sitting and clicking at the front page of Google. I surrender.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Trying To Separate The Furious From The Fast

There are plenty of ways this could go. The folks in the NRA often like to point out that guns don't kill, people do. It does help speed up the process for the people in question to have guns, but that's a matter of process, not intent. It also begs the question of intent a little, since the people and guns don't always have to be looking to kill, it happens accidentally. Guns are dangerous. So are knives. And airplanes and cars. I personally have suffered more loss via automotive and aeronautic disasters than I have through gun violence. So why not have mandatory waiting periods before the purchase of a car or plane?
Maybe that would keep tragedies like the one that happened in Disney World this past weekend from happening. A Lamborghini crashed into a guard rail, injuring the driver and killing the passenger at an exotic car event held at the second happiest place on earth. As part of an attraction that allows fans of these killing machines to get up close and personal with the object of their desire, people can drive or ride along in one of those really fast, expensive cars. It's the ride of a lifetime. Until it stops. Suddenly. That's not usually how these things go. Most of the time it's a quick photo and a video that can be posted to Youtube before it's off to search out the next big thrill. The Exotic Driving Experience reminds us, in small print, that you must be at least fourteen years old to participate, and if you are under eighteen you must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. That would be the level of liability that is required. For a thrill ride.
Or you could avoid all those tiresome restrictions by heading out to Beijing, where you can race a Lamborghini or a Ferrari through the streets of China in the fashion of the Fast and Furious. Or is that in the spirit? Probably the latter, since the drivers of both those fast cars survived the crash, but left the passengers, one a naked woman, injured. In the repressive, no-fun capital of Communist China. Way to go, freedom fighters!
Back in the good old US of A, a van of no particular exotic make or model struck and killed a two year old girl. It was a hit and run in Milwaukee, Without the run. The driver, in this story, was killed. By a gun. Details are still sketchy, but apparently this particular accident was compounded by some of that people killing people with the aid of a firearm. A fifteen year old boy was found shot dead at the scene as well. Hitting and running in this case might have saved some lives.
I think I'm going to stay inside for a while. Where it's safe.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Hilary Clinton is running for president? I can't believe it. This comes as such a shock. It is not something that I would have expected. What sort of clues were out there for us? Oh, sure, her husband was president, wasn't he? Way back in a previous century? I remember that George Bush's dad was president, and it sounds like we have a chance to give his brother Jeb a shot. But Hilary Clinton? Who could have seen this coming?
Who could have imagined that, as Fleetwood Mac so thoughtfully reminded us, thunder only happens when it's raining. 
Cereal tastes better in milk. 
Pigs love mud.
Students who do their homework get better grades. 
Your cat doesn't love you. 
Al Gore's Internet is where productivity goes to die. 
Fog is really low clouds. 
There may not be a Santa Claus, but reindeer are real. 
Prunes are to plums what raisins are to grapes. 
Eeyore was named for the sound that donkeys make. 
It's "soup or salad," not "supersalad."
Every kiss does, literally, begin with "Kay." 
The alphabet song, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star are the same song.
There is no rhyme for "orange." 
Roses are red, but violets are violet
The Bible has been translated into Klingon
Hilary Clinton is running for president in 2016. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


My wife and I went to see "While We're Young" at the moving picture show a few days back. It was okay. As a movie, it was an okay way to spend a couple hours. We were out of the house. There was popcorn and a big soda. There was Ben Stiller. There was butter on the popcorn. It was fine.
Fine. Not a great big lollapalooza of a CGI extravaganza with lines around the block. Fine. Not that we would have expected Noah Baumbach to give us anything with robots or lasers, having previously directed quiet, angry little movies like "The Squid and the Whale." What were we expecting? It wasn't going to be a laugh riot. It was going to be introspective little slice of humor. Like "Greenberg." Not a blockbuster. Just a quiet afternoon at the movies. An afternoon during which we were asked to consider our place in society and what our generation is doing with their lives. Ben plays a guy who is married to a gal played by Naomi Watts, and they live Woody Allen type lives of quiet desperation with built-in schadenfreude snickers. These snickers escalate to knowing nods of self-awareness when this forty-something couple crosses paths with their twenty-something doppelgangers. The fact that they have another couple of forty-something friends, one of whom was played by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, with their first baby made the choice obvious. Obvious? Did I say, "obvious?" Maybe in the world of cinema, where we learn lessons by watching others make bad choices and we leave the theater talking about how we would have handled that situation.
My wife and I are in our fifties. We don't have friends half our age. We don't get invited (spoiler alert) to ritualized ceremonies of hallucinogen ingestion. We don't. We do find ourselves wondering about our paths in life. We do look at the choices we have made and ask each other if we could have done more. Or less. It's just not very cinematic or dramatic. That's why we go to the movies.
That's why, when we left the theater, we tried to figure out if we had a good time. Which is why my next screenplay is all about a couple, in their fifties, who stand outside a multiplex struggling with the indecision created by all those movies, all those times, all those formats. What brings them together? Butter on their popcorn.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Alternate Endings

In real life, we call it "what might have been." Sometimes we reach a little further and call it "if only." Circumstances don't always play out the way we plan, or sometimes they do, but then we revise the plan in hindsight and wish that we had made different plans in the first place. This comes as hard news for those of us who stand hard and fast by the space-time continuum, If we really want to change the past, we're going to have to accelerate past the speed of light in order to curve back around to those things for which we wish we had another shot. Until then, we stack up our regrets and hope that our kids make better choices than we do.
But speaking of light, it does make me pine just a little for those in Hollywood. The place where alternate endings are a real thing. In the book "The Natural," Roy Hobbs doesn't bring down the lights in his final game with a mammoth home run, he strikes out. Thanks, Hollywood. Thanks to focus groups and preview screenings, Molly Ringwald didn't end up with Jon Cryer, her best friend and soulmate, she walks out into the parking lot with richie rich Andrew McCarthy. And you can thank Alfred Hitchcock for not giving us the final scene of "The Birds" perched on every square inch of the Golden Gate Bridge, too expensive in the pre-CGI days. That thought of leaving viewers with some shred of hope was also behind the revision of Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," where a hastily added coda allowed us to believe that the pod people could be stopped. Don't worry, the police will take care of it. And don't I wish I could have seen the pie fight that was supposed to be the coup de grace of "Dr. Strangelove," even though the mushroom clouds choreographed to "We'll Meet Again" still marks a level of dark humor I can only admire from afar. Whether you take the happy road or the sad, you can always imagine improving on real life, but the reshoots are so incredibly expensive.
Like the ones that it would have taken to get my college roommate and I out to Hollywood to write and star in the Bruce Springsteen biopic that we had imagined on all those nights when we were out of our minds on this or that and creating the world we wanted to be ours. That could have been, but it lacked exposition, which is really the trick with those endings. If you don't put in your time on story and character in those first reels, you can't expect it to pay off any old way. It would be silly to suggest that Rhett and Scarlett would just patch things up and get on with their lives. Not without a lot of counseling.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Operas I Was Too Lazy To Write

I miss mix tapes. I like to kid myself that I had a certain talent when it came to their creation. I spent hours in front of my component audio system, carefully selecting tracks from my record collection, lining them up and then just as carefully rearranging the order of songs I wanted to play. Nick Hornby was on my wavelength when he discussed all the myriad rules that define the perfect mix tape. I tried to keep one thing foremost in my mind as I made those little plastic cassettes of joy way back then: Don't repeat artists. If you've got one shot at putting a Bruce Springsteen song on a ninety minute sequence, it had better pay off. Each segue was cleverly engineered for a particular visceral or emotional response. When I got it just right, I got both.
Originally, the idea was that those tapes were created to share music with friends who didn't have the same record collection you did. Not a lot of my contemporaries had the record collection I had, way back then. I would stand in front of all those vertical titles, staring at those narrow reminders of what was inside, searching for inspiration. Then a song would come to me: "Cool for Cats" by Squeeze. Should I go for the obvious feline angle there? Maybe take a slight detour into David Bowie, before eventually landing somewhere like "Rock This Town" by Stray Cats, allowing me to move into all those Rock songs, but not to stay, since we had all those songs to fit in before the hour and a half was up. I used to give them away like candy, and if you told me you liked what you heard, you got more.
It was an exact science, but the tools I started out with were less than forgiving. Cuing up a record, finger on the pause button, waiting for the needle to drop into the groove with the barest of hesitation, trying to keep the clipped bits to a minimum. It was nerve wracking. Would it have been easier to just start the tape at the beginning of the album and let it play? Sure. but it wouldn't have allowed me to send all those none too subtle messages to those closest to me. I wasn't creating greatest hits compilations. I was making song cycles with meaning that came along with the gift of music you might not have heard otherwise. Sometimes, amid the hit parade I would stick a comedy bit, a parody commercial or new favorite stand up routine, just to make sure my listeners weren't lulled into a false sense of complacency. All the while, I kept my eye on the steady progression of tape from left to right, watching for the magic total of four hundred thirty. It was always magic when the songs I had selected for side one actually fit on side one without a lot of shifting or back tracking or worse: Having to record over something that didn't quite make the cut.
These days I have all kinds of computer assistance for finding just the right running time to fit on a compact disc. I can pick songs by searching via keyword. I don't have to have a head full of songs about trash, but sometimes I still do. I have to resist the urge to track down some Maxell UD XLIIs, and set to work. These days I don't even have to make a CD, I can just send a playlist somewhere and let the digital magic happen elsewhere. Pandora will find me music that I long since gave away or sold to make room for all those DVDs I never watch. But I know that somewhere out there, are some ninety minute jewels that were gifts from me to those lucky few, tucked away in shoe boxes or glove boxes. Waiting for that hipster revival of the audio cassette.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

All Good Rides Come To An End

I've been a good sport for a while now when it comes to going to movies that are both Fast and Furious. I was even coaxed into buying tickets for my family to see the off-brand "Need For Speed" because of its vague association with the series of films starring Vin Diesel and his poly-ethnic family of fast cars and their furious drivers. That my son, a fan of video games, brought us to the theater on most of those occasions, comes as little or no surprise. Their connection to the virtual driving games he has enjoyed all these years is concealing the true inspiration: Sonic The Hedgehog. Sonic is that most precocious of rodents, whose motivations are essentially to move from left to right as quickly as possible, gathering rings that are far too large and cumbersome for him to carry safely, along with his family of furry friends who share his furious need to get from the left side of the screen to the right.
And those character motivations are about as deep as I have ever mined the franchise that has just released their seventh installment. That's two more than the Apes managed, originally. One more than we have currently imagined for the Star Wars saga. Only three Godfathers. The adventures of Indiana Jones have only generated four films. My son, would argue that there are only six furiously fast films, since that third page turned out to have little or nothing to do with the characters of the first two. Tokyo Drift? Okay, they did move from left to right as fast as they could, so the underlying theme was the same. But for the sake of the canon, and the cameo appearance of Lucas Black in Seven, it is part of the whole. The whole deal. We've seen them all. We have even held a Furious-A-Thon in our living room, screening them all in order, skipping over that Tokyo episode.
I found myself wandering the streets of San Luis Obispo with my family this past week, having just installed my son in the next episode of his real life. I suggested we find the closest theater that was showing "Furious 7." There are lots of ways that we might have celebrated this rite of passage, but this felt right. There is probably something about the departure of Paul Walker, star of six of these, who left this level to go race James Dean. We sat in the dark, watching the roughly Roadrunner/Coyote antics of the characters we have come to know, escaping even bigger explosions and beating one another senseless but still getting up to throw one more punch before jumping behind the wheel of an even faster, more furious car. It was ridiculous, and then suddenly, tremendously sad. It was a farewell. It was a celebration of life and family. We all cried, a little. My son was as emotional as I've seen him in quite some time.
I hear they're planning an eighth Fast and Furious movie. I don't know if I will feel the same need to go and see that one.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Thirty-Five Years Away From Home

Back in 1980, my family went on a Spring Break trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was not a radically new idea. My family took a great many trips to the desert southwest. This one was different, because it was done for the expressed purpose of getting me a visit to the campus of the College of Santa Fe. I would love to tell you that I was paying strict attention to what was happening in front of me. I was not. What might have been a victory lap of sorts, having been awarded a five hundred dollar academic scholarship from that small but august institution, was a foggy blur of familiar places and blank indifference on my part to engage in the institution that had made this generous offer.
I was not ready to go off to college. That's why I have no specific memory of any campus tour or even stopping by the bookstore for a souvenir T-shirt. It is also the reason that I made certain that my son was up front when it came time to join the group for his campus tour this past week. If I asked him once, I must have asked him a hundred times how he was feeling as his mother and I walked across the campus of his choice. I guess the whole picture would show that this was one of the choices he made, but this was the place that had chosen him. All he really had to do was say, "Yes."
That's what he did. And he paid attention while we walked from this set of classrooms to that. He looked interested as we wandered through freshman dorms. He seemed confident when we asked if he was feeling good about where he was and what was about to happen to him. He was picking his new home away from home.
I'm pretty sure my parents stood over my shoulder and asked a lot of the same questions. They were every bit as committed to me finding an institution of higher learning where I could feel at home. It seemed like such a no-brainer: Why not go to school in the place where we had spent so many family vacations? Why not, indeed. I wasn't ready. I don't know if it would have mattered where I stood or what I asked or didn't ask on that campus tour way back then, but I know that it felt different when my son made that same trek thirty-five years later. Will it feel the same in five months? I sure hope so. This felt different. It felt good. It felt like home.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

What, Me Worry?

Does it help to have a name for it? When you're in bed and trying to keep your eyes closed because it approximates sleep, knowing that there is a label for the condition in which I find myself brings little comfort. Being "anxious" is not making me any more relaxed at four in the morning. It tends to make me more anxious because I should be clever enough to talk myself down off this precarious perch.
Then it's six in the morning, and all the worst-case-scenarios have been run and I am ready to face my day. More or less. Except it's Sunday morning and I really should be getting more of what is colloquially known as "shut-eye." This is not one of my strengths. In a family that is two-thirds log when it comes to the skills of sleeping, I stick out like a something that is not quite log-like in terms of sleeping prowess. And guess what? That makes me anxious.
Or not. I have become more accustomed to the fact that I am up getting things done instead of staying in bed and just thinking about them. All this worry won't get done by itself. Somebody has to be up and fretting. That's me.
To say that I should be used to this by now is an understatement of colossal proportions. I've been wound this tight for most of my life, and I have found ways to make the stress of being the guy in the room who is thinking about tomorrow's crisis before the fire in front of him has been fully extinguished. Even that says a lot about my vision of the world. I'm not anticipating the calm before, during or after the storm. I'm anticipating the deluge. And if the rains don't come, I worry about the drought.
I am fortunate that I am not alone in this absurd struggle. My wife puts up with my insistence that we arrive early to get good seats. She understands the concerns I have about relatively small transactions. I have learned to be brave and put a good face on in front of my son, who knows that his dad is a worrywart, but loves him anyway.
And the fact that I can write about it, put it all out there like this, shows how far I've come. Hi, my name is Dave and I'm anxious. Now I walk away and try not to think about what you all must think of me.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Fun Zone

As I waited for my dinner to be served, I watched a young mother and her son at the table across the way from ours. They were playing a game. They had to. They were waiting for their dinner too, and the option of staring at the bald guy sitting at the table across from them was less appealing than any other options, and so they played: She would start with her hands in her lap. He would peer down expectantly from his high chair. Slowly, mom would bring one hand out from under the tablecloth, and walking two fingers in tight lock step across the checkered pattern, she moved closer to her son's tray. There were no other props. There were no sound effects, save for the anticipatory giggles from both participants. Once the marching fingers had made their way across the table, they made the perilous and surprising jump up onto the high chair tray. More laughter, especially from the boy who was mesmerized. So much so that he never noticed that his mother's other hand had quietly and stealthily crept around behind his head and while the little hand soldier stood and waited for the next command, the sneaky hand reached over and tickled the exposed neck of this unsuspecting young man. Both of them laughed as if this was the very first time this combination of events had occurred. As I sat and watched, I knew full well that it wasn't. The kid should have seen it coming. His mother performed the same trick at least half a dozen times, and she got away with it every single time. Maybe it was because he was no more than two. Maybe it was because you should always trust your mother, even when she is trying to distract you with a soldier-puppet with one hand while trying to give you a motherly Vulcan nerve pinch with the other.
Or maybe it's because, even in 2015, there are ways to be amused that don't require wi-fi. One of the reasons I would find it difficult to leave my job at an elementary school for the discrete challenges of teaching kids who might get more of my jokes is that I love to watch them play. It is a source of joy for me to see the unbridled enthusiasm six-year-olds have for running across an open space. There doesn't have to be a particular goal or destination, just a direction. When they stop and catch their breath, they turn around and run back. Sometimes, if I am standing still, they will even choose to collide with me. One little girl in particular this year, Janet, has made a point of spotting me before school, at lunch, and after school to run headlong at my waist, where she grabs on tight for a few seconds of giddy affection, before calling out my name as if it were the first time she had ever heard it. And then, just as abruptly, she is off to find someone else to hug. I wish I could bottle that and save it for those late nights or dreary mornings when the sun doesn't make its way to wherever I find myself sitting. I want to be able to hang on to some of that ebullience so when she gets to fifth grade and forgets that she and her friends used to pretend to be bunnies together beneath the play structure, I will have evidence of that simpler time.
A joyous time. A wondrous time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Stretching The Definition

This comes as a great relief: "Yoga doesn't bend rules on religious freedom." Having a California Court of Appeals decide this for me leaves me feeling vindicated, and a little more limber. A few years back, my wife bought me a book: Yoga For Regular Guys. At the time, I confess it felt like a bit of an indoctrination. I had my exercise regimen, and it included stretching as a course of precursory activity before the main event which was going for a run. The idea that I needed additional flexibility or strength came to me as a bit of an insult. And it frightened me just a little. Like so many things that I had never tried, this felt like my wife was trying to get me to do something in her oh-so-subtle way. She did yoga, and she was happy not just in body but in mind as well. This book, written by a professional wrestler, was the gateway. The door to becoming something better. One of us.
Who? The professional wrestlers? Or maybe it was just the cool thing to do. There were yoga outlets springing up all over the place. Some called themselves ashrams. Others called themselves temples. A long time ago, I gave up churches and temples and ashrams. The worship I do has been centered around a more secular spin. And twist. And stretch. My body is my temple, and my congregation is essentially pretty small. I started doing some of the poses and forms in the book, mostly so I could show my wife what a good sport I was, and eventually it became part of my program.
At home. The idea of doing yoga in front of a crowd or with an instructor outside of Diamond Dallas Page or the ghost lady from Wii Fit was creepy and foreign to me. I didn't need to indoctrinate anyone else. But it sure did seem to work. Maybe that's why, when it came time to find group exercises for the third, fourth and fifth graders I teach PE to once a week, I picked yoga. Nothing that spectacular or strenuous, just a few poses to get their pre-teen bodies prepared for something other than couch surfing. Guess what? Most of them seem to like it.
Which is why I got nervous when some parents, in other places and other schools, began to suggest that teaching yoga was like teaching religion. I didn't think that then, and I don't think so now, but I"m glad that I've got the court on my side, even if I don't have the Lord.

Monday, April 06, 2015


I should probably save a lot of what I'm thinking for a lecture somewhere a little further down the road, but since I find myself currently preoccupied with the cost of just about everything, I suppose I should jot down a few reminders for me and anyone else who happens to get in front of the rambling dissertation I'm about to let fly.
I thought when I was older that things would get easier. I would be more capable and resolute. I wouldn't have as many fears as I did back when I was not this old. I figured I would eventually understand everything and that same group of everything would come to me in simple, bite-size chunks that I would chew up and spit out. That hasn't turned out to be the case. Back when I had a small circle of friends, I could sometimes keep up with their demands, and I was aided and abetted by an external hard drive of memories called parents who would nudge me back on track when I needed it. Now I have a vast ocean of acquaintances and colleagues and partners in crime. I have trouble remembering them all, in part because there are more than there used to be and also because my brain is not as soft and absorbent as it used to be. As much as I pride myself on my ability to recall arcane bits of pop culture, as well as the details of childhood and the adventure that it provided, I know there are faces and places and events that have now receded into the mist. There is precious little room on this drive.
But I remember college. I remember how free it felt. How inventive and clever I imagined myself to be each time I walked into yet another creative writing workshop. From that vantage point, I could imagine looking back on those formative years from my study, on the way to the next publisher's gala where I would be celebrated for my wit and seemingly endless productivity. Stories and images would flow from me via the Bic pen I used almost exclusively onto yellow legal pads that someone else would transcribe, turning all these great ideas into books and screenplays and the occasional memoir. I took courses like "The American Novel" not because I had a profound interest in the reading list outside of "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas." I took enough film study courses that I saw a lifetime of movies before I ever worked in a video store.
And I never stopped to think about the cost.
Not until my parents got divorced, and suddenly that gravy train of higher education had to come to an end. I took my armload of credits to an academic counselor, after nearly six years without visiting such an office, and this helpful gentleman took those varied and sundry classes and wove a tapestry that became my creative writing degree. It could have been a double major, coupled with film, but that would have taken another year and a half and suddenly it was time for me to find my way out of this ivory tower and into the real world. I didn't have the time or the money, and so I was admonished not to take another English or film course, not a single one. Get one science and one history and get the heck out.
Which is what I did. Looking back, it would have been great for me to remember the name of that guy, the one who pasted together my bachelor's degree from six years of wandering in the woods of higher education. But I don't know. I don't have a strict accounting of the cost of that degree, but I am eternally grateful to my parents who paid for it. No outstanding loans. No debts. Just a head full of Hitchcock, Melville and the tiniest bit of Physics. For flavor. Forever.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Teaching Tolerance

Does it ever happen to you that you find yourself arguing a point, and then suddenly you turn around to find the voice agreeing with you from behind is not the one you would have expected to be on your side? John Boehner and I agree on absolutely nothing, but if suddenly he were to come out and admit that he is concerned about global warming as it pertains to the strange tan he's been sporting all these years, I wouldn't automatically switch sides of the argument just to spite him. Strange bedfellows, and all that.
Which brings me to Arkansas, and that state's sudden left turn when it comes to their Religious Freedom Act. Their governor, Asa Hutchinson, has sent the Arkansas version of the one that ran into trouble in Indiana back to the legislature in hopes of getting a few things straight. If you'll pardon the pun. Even if you don't, these are heady times when the governor of the Razorback state is asking us to think twice before presenting potentially discriminatory bills for signing. This is the state whose freshman senator presented an "open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." It is also the state that gave us a governor who later became President of the United States who signed the federal version of this law back in 1993. Of course, a lot has changed since 1993. Attitudes toward gay marriage, for one. Attitudes toward Bill Clinton for another. 
And that's not the only place where things feel a little twisted and unclear. Guess who said this: "Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve." If you were guessing the CEO of Starbucks or that lefty duo Ben and Jerry, you would be wrong. The person who was pleased and happy to expound on the virtues of diversity was none other than Doug McMillon, Chief Executive Officer of Wal Mart. Since when has Wal Mart been this bastion of tolerance? Maybe since they adopted a business model that says black, white, or rainbow, what really matters is the green. Lesbian and gay money spends just the same as Christian Conservative cash. Or maybe they've been working at doing the right thing for a while now. That would be refreshing. Of course, now we need to get them to extend that same benevolent gaze in the direction of their own employees. Maybe it's a good thing that I don't find myself agreeing with Wal Mart all at once. 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Possible Paths

This summer will see the eighteenth birthday of my son as well as his graduation from high school. For me, those events occurred more or less back to back as well, but in reverse order. Confused? Sure you are, because this all took place thirty-five years ago. How could any of this come into sharp focus after all that time?
Well, it does. and I feel nothing but gratitude for that. It is helping me manage the ups and downs in my son's life as I recall this age from my own back pages. I sat across the table from my son at our most recent dad'n'lad dinners and listened to him describe the next few months of his life. Negotiating his date, or lack thereof, for prom stood out as big a challenge as figuring out who his roommate might be for his upcoming freshman year. The terrors and pleasures of being nearly eighteen came back to me in a rush: Every problem and each new experience was on par with the others. The thing that was coming up first was generally the one that got the most attention. There was no perspective that would eventually generate this response: "I wish I knew then what I know now." When you're almost eighteen, each day brings a new potential for drama and danger. Nothing feels impossible, but everything feels life-changing. Because it is.
My life changed a lot in those weeks between graduation and my birthday. I was preparing to shove off into the world of adulthood, or what amounted to it back then, by going away to college. Before that, I was headed to Mexico, on a trip with our high school marching band. It was a celebration in the back yard of my parents' house, that afternoon after commencement exercises. My best friend and my girlfriend were there with me as we tried not to contemplate a future that went much farther than the three weeks until my birthday. A future that included a chaperoned trip to Mexico City and Acapulco, with performances interspersed with sightseeing. As much as I might have been ignoring my possible futures, that didn't keep my girlfriend and I from imagining, as we strolled along a moonlight beach, spending the rest of my life with this person that I had known for nine months.
That's not what happened. Instead, I came back from Mexico and turned eighteen, at which point I promptly went into the cocoon of my parents' basement where I played Atari and waited for the calendar to turn to August, when I would pack the bag I got for graduation and head down to the College of Santa Fe to begin the next chapter of my life.
That chapter was never fully written. As it turned out, the big farewell party that I attended with all my pals from high school echoed the ones from my birthday and graduation. We all talked about what would be. What would be is not what was, and I came back from College of Santa Fe without ever attending a class. I didn't marry my high school sweetheart, but at least that dream lasted longer than the one about going to college in New Mexico. The woman I did marry went to college in New Mexico. She was one of those friends from high school. This past weekend, I spent some time with my best friend from high school and his wife. My wife and son came along and we spent the day alternately laughing about the past and imagining the future. My son's future, primarily, since his has all that possibility. He will turn eighteen in a month, and will graduate a month after that. Between now and then, there will be countless futures made possible by countless choices. I can't wait to see what happens.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Power To The People

That electric car that makes us feel so smug. My son loves the acceleration. It jumps when you say "go." It glides through traffic with the ease given, in part, by the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that would be more rightfully won by a minivan fully loaded with soccer and lacrosse players and equipment. Using electricity gives us the quiet assurance that we have high occupancy of some sort that can be best measured in that smugness. These vehicles were made by pixies under the bright blue skies of Smyrna, Tennessee. Fabricated and built from pure sunshine and good wishes, these cars that make our world a better place. We should be pleased and happy to be motoring about, sneering at those "hybrid" cars. The ones sporting those ugly tailpipes and adding to the problem and not the solution.
Which brings me to the anecdote. It comes from the world of fast food, but like so many of my anecdotes, it packs a lesson neatly inside: Standing at the counter of the Arby's, I obsequiously await the order of the somewhat corpulent customer who stares past me to the menu board above my head. "I'll have a Super Roast Beef, two orders of potato cakes, a cherry turnover and a large diet Pepsi." What I never said in response: "Way to go, Spanky! Take that lifestyle bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Sure, the powdered sugar and water frosting alone on that turnover might be enough to stop your heart, but I'm almost certain that your choice of beverage will be the thing that saves you. Clinical studies show that diet Pepsi will actually cause you to lose weight, since not unlike celery the act of sucking it up the straw burns more calories than can be found in its carbonated content, and by choosing the tub-sized delivery system, you're almost assured of walking out of here today a thinner and more shapely version of the super-size one that walked in the door just a few moments ago."
Electric cars? Same thing. They make them in factories. And the electricity that we pour into them isn't coming from the wind turbine in the back yard. A very clever guy with a very clever name, Elon Musk, has suggested that the cars all of us drive currently will be illegal in his vision of the future. Robot driven cars will replace the ones we drive ourselves, which will be made in factories run by robots. The same factories that will be making those solar panels that will generate the electricity and smugness necessary to human life on this planet in the future. Those factories which have no waste or poisonous emissions of any sort, unless you count unicorns and rainbows as dangerous.
Where's my diet Pepsi?

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Slam Dunk

Indiana's Governor Mike Pence assures us that if he thought his state's Religious Freedom law was in any way discriminatory, he would have vetoed it. Of course, he also said this: "After much reflection and in consultation with leadership of the General Assembly, I've come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that his law does not give business a right to deny services to anyone," Pence, a Republican, said at a press conference in Indianapolis last Tuesday. "We want to make it clear that Indiana is open for business. We want to make it clear that Hoosier Hospitality is not a slogan, it’s a way of life."
Indiana is open for business, much to the chagrin of businesses and customers across the United States. From basketball coaches to starship helmsmen, the call went out far and wide: open for business or not, the state of Indiana is less-than-hospitable for the LGBT community. Governor Mike insists that the law isn't broken, it's just our perception of it. If that's the case, why is he calling on his legislature to fix something that is so obviously not broken? Shouldn't he be calling in perception specialists, trained in the art of showing us all just how wrong we must have been to perceive a law protecting businesses from being sued because of their religious beliefs could never be used to defend discrimination of any sort?
Sorry. That was a long rhetorical question, and I apologize for putting you through that. The answer, it seems, is to go back and take out all the parts of that Religious Freedom Act that could have led to legitimizing hate or fear. The challenge is obvious, since even though there are no Star Trek conventions currently scheduled in Indiana, but there is a basketball game or two on tap this weekend in Indianapolis, and the clock is ticking. The final buzzer could sound without any banners, posters, stickers or T-shirts sold, let alone hotel rooms and bar tabs that will remain empty until something happens to change all that nasty perception out there. Right before the big show? If this were Arkansas, it might be different, but after God and corn, you'll find Basketball in the holy trinity of Indiana. Just about the time you thought you had your Religious Freedom all worked out, it seems as though laws that might somehow impinge on the freedom of hoops and the money they provide might need to be "tweaked." And that's the way the governmental ball bounces. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

One More Ride

Over the past few years it has become increasingly difficult to get my whole family into the car. This is primarily because we are now a two car family. If there is ever an option in which two cars could be argued as an alternative, that argument will be made. There will be no more sitting in the back seat, watching the world go by. Not for our son. This is due in large part to his deep and abiding affection for being behind the wheel. My son drives his parents in a lot of directions, and if he had his way it would be in something other than his parents' Prius.
There is also the simple matter that our son's parents are no longer his most entertaining friends. He has a close circle of associates who share his values, interests and age. In order to compete with this, we would have to offer him something bigger, better, faster. The back seat of a Dodge Charger? Probably not. Maybe something German and even more expensive. Okay. The truth is the back seat for anyone in our family is not really a great option. Now that we tend to have conversations that involve all three of us at any given moment, whoever is wedged back there between the roar of whatever is coming out of the speakers will automatically have their part of the discussion limited to, "What?" or "Huh?"
Gone are the days when we could strap our little boy into his car seat and hit the road with the playlist ready to go. As long as we kept him surrounded by his favorite things, we could drive for hundreds of miles stopping only for fuel for the car or ourselves. In those days, it might also require a trip to McDonald's which would give us the food we needed and Happy Meal toys which would buy us another couple hours of preoccupation with the world in the back seat.
We don't have that same deal anymore. The world outside the car has become much more interesting than any tchotchke we could dangle in front of him. There were real cars out there, after all. Making noise, passing us, as we sometimes passed them. Most of them were far more interesting than our family car. Now he's interested in taking his car on road trips of his own. There's not much of a back seat, but he can still bring someone to ride shotgun. Every so often, I get that ride. And every so often, my wife gets that seat, and I squeeze into that cramped back seat. Where you can't hear a thing, but we are all together. For one more ride.