Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?

I have, in the past, related a story about my somewhat misguided attraction to the Nazi flag and its army, way back in the fifth grade. This came from a pretty steady diet of World War II movies and Hogan's Heroes. The Luftwaffe and Panzer tanks and the Blitzkrieg. It all sounded so very impressive. Never mind that the vile curse "schweinhund" turned out to be the not-quite-so-exotic "pig-dog" when literally translated. For me, for about six months, Nazis were the bomb. I even went so far, along with a classmate, to make a big construction paper Nazi flag to post on the bulletin board where I would also include my book reports on the weaponry of the Third Reich. To his credit, my teacher held back until I had fully mounted my work and other faculty and parents began to wonder what was going on in his class. He took that opportunity to hand me a copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank." He told me it was about a girl, but it was also about my favorite time period, and I should find it interesting.
I came back the next Monday a changed human being. Good job, Mister Conklin. I took the flag down with the full and complete realization that uniform and weapon design was no basis for having a rooting interest in global conflict. I was embarrassed to the core, and even though my flag-making buddy gave me a little grief for it, I steered clear of the World War II section of the library. I was done with that scene. I had been handed my reality check, and I was all done with Nazis. They were, after all, the bad guys.
I didn't really need that kind of handling when it came to the American Civil War. I was pretty clear that there was a derogatory term that flew around back in those days that never held the same appeal for me that schweinhund did. And while the soldiers of the Confederate Army were pretty snappy dressers, their flag was always linked in my mind with the oppressors. The losers. The guys who wanted slavery. When I went to visit the Gettysburg battlefield, it never occurred to me that I should pick up a "stars and bars" to go along with my "stars and stripes." I wanted to be on the winning side. The side without slaves.
When I was in fifth grade, it was that simple. It seems as though the powers that be down below the Mason-Dixon line had their Mister Conklin Moment. Some will still insist that it's not the flag that makes people think those racist thoughts, and that the "n-word" can be found on CDs for sale in Wal-Mart, even if you can't buy a Confederate flag there. It's an interesting debate if you haven't read the book. The Confederate flag isn't about hate. It's a symbol. It's a reminder. Of the past. Time to turn the page.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Just Say No - Really?

Somewhere in the wilds of the Great White North is a house that must be terribly difficult to heat. What with all those great big windows. It's a glass house, and the mailbox out front says "Palin." This might explain why the estate's matriarch was so very invested in mining her state's oil reserves. And those of the lower forty-eight. But keeping the house warm is probably a big concern for mom these days, since she was recently let go by the one company that seemed intent on keeping her around, Fox News.
And there will soon be some new mouths to feed in that glass house. Sarah's little girl, Bristol is pregnant. Again. You may remember the last time this happened. Back in 2008, while mom was busy trying to get a gig at or near the White House, she went and got herself knocked up, much to the chagrin of a great many people, including John McCain. Getting married to the teen dad, Levi Johnston, didn't make things a whole lot better, and when that was over, Bristol went on to devote herself to teen abstinence. Those who can't do, teach, right?
Sorry. I apologize for making light of any young person's trials and tribulations. We all do and say ridiculous things when we are teenagers. Still, since this has become something of a career choice for the younger Ms. Palin, who makes her living as a speaker and opinionator, it might be worth checking in from time to time on just how that pledge of abstinence is working out. Well, here's how she chose to share the joyous news of her second out of wedlock pregnancy: "I know this has been, and will be, a huge disappointment to my family, to my close friends, and to many of you," the twenty-four-year-old Palin wrote, before asking for privacy for her and her son Tripp. "I do not want any lectures and I do not want any sympathy," she said.
Privacy sounds like a good way to go on this one. Now if we can only convince your mother of the same. In the meantime, I might suggest moving out of that big glass house and into something a little more traditional for the tundra

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dignified Response

Another day, another big Supreme Court decision. This time it was Gay Marriage. Feel free at this point to move about this great country of ours and marry whomever you would like. With access to affordable health care and the right to bear arms. It's all so constitutional, it hardly seems like fun anymore. As mentioned yesterday, none of this comes easily. For every man or woman who is rejoicing at the opportunity to marry a man or woman, there is a man or woman who is profoundly upset at this addition to our civil rights. Change is hard.

"The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away." These words came from Clarence Thomas, in his dissenting opinion on marriage equality. His argument was that there is no dignity clause in the U.S. Constitution. It is not, in Justice Thomas' opinion, our government's job to bestow or take away dignity. You remember dignity, don't you? From the Latin "dignitas" meaning "worthiness." In Enlightenment- era discussions of inherent, inalienable rights would have included this concept. John Locke had three. Life: everyone is entitled to live once they are created. Liberty: everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn't conflict with the first right. Estate: everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two rights. Sound familiar? How about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"(R)ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." 
Separating dignity from civil rights seems like a very interesting direction to go for Justice Thomas. It is consistent, so I guess we can respect that. But when it comes to dignity, I'm not sure Clarence is the voice I'm going to listen to first.  
And that's what makes America such a great town. We are all free to have our opinions. And marry whomever we choose. With dignity. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

It's The Law

Be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. That's what we try and teach to our children. We call this "being a good sport." It's not exactly what Winston Churchill proposed: "In war: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill." If Winston had been watching the ruling from the Supreme Court this week on the Affordable Care Act, he might have wondered about the Republican response. They definitely got the defeat/defiance part down, but isn't the overall scheme of things to bring things to the Supreme Court and let them sort it out. They are kind of our legislative Ro Sham Bo. Isn't it time to be gracious in defeat, or does the war continue to rage on?
If you missed it, on Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court  upheld the provision of tax subsidies under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. It was the second time in three years the nation’s highest court has handed the Obama administration a key victory in its fight to defend the law, which has been under near constant attack from conservatives since its passage. Five years. Aren't there other things on which we could spend our litigation? 
Probably not, since this one has the guy's name on it. By calling it "ObamaCare," conservatives have done everything they could to cheapen it by making it a personal vendetta. Never mind the millions of Americans who will be covered by medical insurance because of it. Just keep twisting the dial that says "Obama." It took Marco Rubio two separate tweets to get his thoughts out: "I disagree with the Court’s ruling and believe they have once again erred in trying to correct the mistakes made by President Obama..." along with "...and Congress in forcing ObamaCare on the American people." The division was pretty clear: Democrats called it The Affordable Care Act, while Republicans insisted on ObamaCare. Democrats weren't uniformly magnanimous in their victory, and we can all wince in anticipation of the next year and a half as "common sense solutions" are put forth by all those Republican candidates and their brain trusts. Like Rick Santorum: "Today's Supreme Court ruling is another reminder that if we want to get rid of #Obamacare, we must elect a conservative President." Kind of hard to argue with that logic, even if it is quite circular.
In the meantime, I am considering mounting a constitutional challenge to the Second Amendment. I figure that will keep me busy until the election is over.

Friday, June 26, 2015


The bathroom in between our bedroom and our son's has been a crossroads for many years. This is where many summits have taken place. Decisions that would alter the course of our family's history have been made in and around those doors. It is the place we return to over an over again. When the cars are in the driveway and no one is in the kitchen or living room, it makes sense to check out that oddly communal spot.
This is where I encountered my son in the very early morning hours after his senior prom. I heard him come in, and since it was way past midnight, he made every effort to be discrete. This didn't keep me from waking up when I heard his stealthy footsteps enter the bathroom, then I heard him just as quietly reach for the doorknob to close himself off to his presumed sleeping parents. He had come to brush his teeth. As our family tradition would have it, he found his toothbrush ready with a nice dollop of paste. Whoever brushes first prepares the brush of the next in line, since they have to wait for the Sonicare handle to be free. My wife had prepared my son's brush and then headed off to bed, returning the favor I had done for her just a little earlier. Neither of us had any idea whether we would see our son until the next day, let alone hear that distinctive hum coming from the bathroom, brushing his teeth.
I did, and I got out of bed to see how he was feeling. Did he have a good time? Was he going back out to get breakfast with his buddies? Did he dance? Did his date like her corsage? Were you really brushing your teeth at three in the morning?
I found him standing in front of the sink, completing his rinse and putting the toothbrush away to charge for what would undoubtedly be my turn first thing in the real morning. All the questions I had for him seemed inconsequential, as he was fairly vibrating from all the excitement of the night. It was awesome. It was the best night of his life. I tried not to pry too much. I asked if he was headed back out into the dark, and he assured me that as happy as he was that he was far too tired to go out to find any further wild oats to sow. He was content. Extraordinarily happy, but bushed. I went back to bed with just a taste of the joy he was radiating. It was a magical moment that I am glad I didn't miss.
A few weeks later, my son discovered our old Sonicare handle in the back bathroom. The bathroom that he doesn't have to share with his parents, having moved to the back room some months ago. He took his Sonicare brush and assembled his very own toothbrushing station at the back of the house. When I was done with my dental hygiene for the night, there was an empty spot in the brush holder. It was yet another focused reminder of the space that will be left when our son leaves for college at the end of the summer. That spot is preparing me for other holes and new gaps that will be opened in the fabric of our lives.
It's a big world, and there are a lot of sinks. I expect he'll make good use out of many of them. We'll be happy to see him back in front of ours, now and again.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shake It Off

When Taylor Swift speaks, people listen. Since she's a pop singer, I suppose that's probably a good thing, since that's kind of the way she makes her money. Singing mostly, not speaking, but you get the idea. It was a little surprising, however, when Apple's plan for world domination had to take a slight detour because of Ms. Swift's insistence that she be paid for her work. She was one of a number of artists who are uncomfortable with the way money gets passed along, or not as the case may be, to musicians whose tunes get offered up with a small "i" in front of it. Or on any of the vast and varied streaming video and music services across the vast cyber sea. Who pays for the song that you hear "for free?"
Ms. Swift's concern was focused on the new Apple Music, not to be confused with Apple Records which had their own beef with the computer monolith over the past thirty-plus years. Comparing Apples to Apples in this particular case cost millions of dollars. Taylor Swift's concern could easily eclipse that. She was worried that the promotion of a three-month free trial period of Apple Music would leave writers, crew members and musicians wanting, while customers poured all that free content into their ears for the low, low price of absolutely nothing. She was quick to point out that she was not advocating for herself, having already established herself as firmament in the pop music heavens, but rather for the young songwriters who were trying to get their music out into a world that has become all too comfortable with "free music."
This took me back to a time when you couldn't download Metallica's "I Disappear" from the Internet, or at least you had to be one of those Napster users who flew under the pirate flag of Shawn Fanning. How could this hurt anyone? I'm sharing my music just like I used to when I made all those mix tapes back in the dark days before the clone wars.
Except it took hours to make one of those mix tapes, and you can have Taylor's new album in just a few seconds, depending on your connection to Al Gore's Internet.
Ultimately, it's a beautiful thing that Taylor is doing for her fellow artists. She can be the standard bearer for this new wave of file-sharing. Taking people's art without paying for it is stealing. Sure, it could be that all of this tweeting and public posturing is excellent press for anyone who is already established, and the speed at which Apple had its apology ready does make it seem like an orchestrated show of just how much more responsible they are than say, Spotify. Meanwhile, in garages across the country, bands of teenagers imagine a day when their album can mysteriously show up in people's iTunes accounts. For Free. And they can continue to charge three hundred dollars a ticket to get into their shows.
Show business.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rational Discourse

The gun control debate will flare up again, as it does so regularly now. Whenever three or more are gathered in its name. National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton suggested that the slain members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church would be alive today if not for the actions, or inaction, of one of the victims. Charles Pinckney was a state legislator who voted against carrying concealed weapons, and in Mister Cotton's reasoned argument: " ... he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue." Country music star Toby Keith made a similar comment, suggesting that if an armed police officer had been praying at the church, "maybe seven or eight of those nine people would still be alive." It wasn't clear if Mister Kieth was also implying that our police officers needed to spend a little more time in church, but that may only be subtext. The real question seems to be how to fight fire. The solution for some, it would seem, is not less guns but more.
This is not the first time that this line of reasoning has been trotted out. Arming theater going-patrons was the solution to the Aurora killings. There are school districts across the country are considering having their teachers carry guns so that they can deter any further killing of innocent school children. Arming those school children would seem to be the next most logical step.
And this is where I close my eyes and try to imagine a happy place, where this isn't a conversation that takes place outside of a satirist's convention. Tragedy plus time equals comedy. Tragedy plus firearms equals a really bad joke. In the meantime, the discussion will skitter off to important ancillary arguments about mental health and Confederate flags. We're going to have to stir the pot until it becomes the same gray paste we had the week before last. Never mind the fact that we are currently having all kinds of difficulty keeping our trained law enforcement officers from shooting the wrong people at the wrong times, but we should probably prepare ourselves for the arguments and riots that will ensue once everyone who needs a gun has one. The debate is over. The absurdity begins now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Good Work

I used to scoff at friends who talked about "working on their relationship." It was my rather insistent view that relationships shouldn't need or take work. They should be value-added, and at the precise moment that they stop being that they should be cast aside with the expectation that another would come in and effortlessly fill its place. Until it became work.
I held this point of view for a portion of my life that we like to call "The Single Years." Others refer to it as the Reagan/Bush years. For a little more than a decade, I stuck to these metaphorical guns, taking whatever opportunity presented itself to continue my scoffing at those coupled friends whom I encountered on their trips toward marital bliss. Why suffer? I would ask them this in hopes that they would see just how ridiculous it was to try and meet some unrealistic standard set by pop music and movies. There were entire sections of bookstores that offered tips on how to make those rocky paths smooth.
And still I scoffed. My scoffing became something of an avocation. Scoffmaster. Then I fell in love and realized that I had been wrong and that a relationship is a living thing and must be fed and nurtured in order to grow. You need things like patience and forgiveness by the bushel in order to keep moving toward the next page. If you want understanding, you've got to give it. Love and commitment takes a lot of commitment and love. And that can be a lot of work.
And I'm not talking about myself anymore. I'm not talking about my wife or my friends. I'm talking about Lyle Mitchell. If that name doesn't ring a bell, it could be that you weren't watching the Today Show last Tuesday. Lyle was on the show to talk about how he is dealing the the somewhat strained relationship between him and his wife, Joyce. You might recognize Joyce as New York prison employee who is accused with aiding and abetting the escape of two convicted killers back on June 6 from the Clinton Correctional Facility. These two gentlemen are still at large. If this were an episode of "I Love Joyce,"  she would have a lot of 'splainin to do. Did I mention that part of the plan included slipping her husband enough pills to knock him out long enough for the bad guys to get away? And in one draft, the bad guys were going to kill Lyle so that Joyce could run off with them to a cabin in Vermont? Lyle works at the Clinton Correctional Facility, and he will probably be spending some time in damage control, and not just for his career. The question on everyone's mind was would he stand by his wife? As of right now, I don’t know what to think,” he said. “I do not know.” He added: “Do I still love her? Yes. Am I mad? Yes. How could she do this? How could she do this to our kids?" It's going to take a lot of work to bring these two back into harmony. May I suggest reading "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Cell Block A?"

Scary Looking

I confess, I wasn't terrified. I was just terribly sad. I thought about the line from "Iron Man 3":  Some people call me a terrorist. I prefer to think of myself as a teacher." That guy was a comic book villain, The Mandarin. As it turned out, that scary voice and visage was (spoiler alert) just a facade. The real bad guy had generated this image of how villains ought to appear, and that was what he used to instill fear in the world at large. What does evil look like? For a while, our country united behind the vile countenance of Osama bin Laden. The scariest part of that man's demeanor may have been his propensity for posing with automatic weapons, or wearing camouflage jackets. Maybe it was his beard, but if that were the litmus test, then how should we feel about Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps the defining feature was the headgear: turban versus stovepipe hat. What does a terrorist look like? Facial hair? Skin tone? Timothy McVeigh looked an awful lot like the guys with whom I went to high school. He was a terrorist. So were the Tsarnev brothers. I may have flipped past their photos in my senior yearbook, once upon a time. James Holmes? The jury is, at this point, still out. When it comes to terrorism, it doesn't seem to matter as much about body count or appearance, but intent. Webster's online version defines a terrorism as "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal." 
Now I feel compelled to examine just what "a political goal" might be. I think we can be pretty sure that Osama and Timothy fit into that category, and even though Temarian and Dzhokhar may have been involved in one of the most unfortunate instances of an older brother daring his younger sibling to do something really stupid, they easily fall into the terrorist bin as well. Stirring that political pot with plastic explosives. Which leaves us with the potentially insane Mister Holmes. Was there any kind of political bend to his twisted mind? 
What about Dylann Roof? He looks like the freshman we used to make fun of, but like we learned from Pearl Jam, don't mess with Dylann. No beard on this guy. Was his attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church an act of terrorism? Police have said they believe it was a hate crime. At this point, I guess it doesn't matter if he was acting out his vicious agenda based on political and sociological ideas that found their way into his head over the years. Hate crime. I don't think there is a court in the world that would disagree with that assessment. Most crime involves a little hate. This one had it by the bushel. Terrorist? Hate crime? Murder. That's scary enough for me, thanks. An act of intolerable sadness. Hate crime? You bet I do. It's terrifying. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer Wind

The summer wind came blowin' in from across the sea. That's what I'm feeling today, since it's summer and the wind I feel could logically be blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, or more precisely the San Francisco Bay. But before all of that, when I lived on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, if we got a breeze, it was most likely coming from the pending afternoon thunder shower that was such a part of those Junes, Julys and Augusts. Just like the annual announcement of Feyline's Summer of Stars.
Who would be playing where always caused a surge of excitement through our house. My older brother and I would go down the list, paying careful attention to which bands would be playing at Red Rocks Amphitheater and which would be crowding the multi-act bills for the "Sunday" concert series, held on the field at the University of Colorado. Sure, there were plenty of little shows and smaller venues, but that wasn't what we were looking for. We were after headliners: Eagles, Stones, Springsteen, and of course, Jimmy Buffett. We planned our summers based on the tours that would be winding their way into those Rocky Mountains. We did this with full knowledge that in spite of three hundred days of sunshine each year, the last snow might be melting as late as the first day of the summer. This combined with those summer showers meant that if you were going to hang out all day long in one of those big outdoor venues, you probably want to have a poncho or a parka or a blanket, not to mention a bucket of chicken and plenty of beverages. General admission, it was the cross that we chose to bear, but that wasn't the thought that was running through our collective head when we looked at that schedule. We could only imagine how we could get up the enthusiasm and cash to buy one of those package deals: Heart, J.J. Cale, Cheap Trick, and Jimmy Buffett. Single shows meant you had to wait and buy each ticket separately. Would they be there when it was time? Sure, I could stand in line, but could I stand to wait? Having that ticket in hand, knowing that I would be back up there climbing all those stairs in just a couple weeks. It's what we used to do in the summer: go to concerts. Back when you could buy a ticket for eight dollars. The ticket stub you can now sell for thirty dollars.
I kept mine. They are memories of summers gone by. Like the wind.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Banding Together

"We're putting the band back together!" These were the words my son's godfather greeted me with as he came into our back yard. He was there to celebrate my son's graduation from high school, and suddenly I was transported back thirty-five years. He was one of the guests in my parents' back yard when we both graduated from high school. One of the other guests, way back when, was my girlfriend who had once been his girlfriend. His girlfriend, at that point, ended up marrying me and becoming the mother of the child whose graduation we were celebrating in the present.
Are you following this?
My wife's best friend from high school, who has the designation of godmother to that same child, did not attend the party on my parents' back porch either, but she was one of the driving forces behind getting all of us together to attend a performance of drum corps just down the road in San Jose. All of these adults had spent their formative years together in a paramilitary organization known as the Boulder High School marching band. We spent a lot of time together, and became very close. So close that we generated all those coincidental and eventual relationships that carry on today.
This was the core group that came to my house to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. It is the group that would make up the bulk of my Facebooking, if I was prone to such activity. Since I am not, and have not as yet seen fit to attend any of my high school's reunion festivities, this will suffice for that purpose. That purpose would seem to be reminding me all at once how long I've been alive and how lucky I am to have made these lasting connections when I was the age my son is now.
I tried to make a little speech out of this, at my son's graduation party. I was marveling at the room full of friends that stuck around to hang out with him after the force majeure had moved on. This was the gang that closed the place out, and I felt the need to comment on it. I interrupted their Mario Kart binge to say how lucky I thought they were, and how I hoped that someday they would be sitting around one another's living rooms as grownups, reveling in their children's high school graduations.
They weren't ready to be impressed by the dangling thread of time.
I was.
I still am.
I'm lucky to have a band to put back together: Clarinet, flute, cymbals, drums, and tuba.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thanks For The Ride

I am not much of a bandwagon jumper. I tend, instead, to stand by the choices I make with the tenacity that I apply to most other decisions in my life. This is evident in my insistence on sticking with the Denver Broncos as my favorite football team in spite of the disappointments they have handed me over the years. Sure, those two Super Bowl victories back in the previous century helped take some of the sting off, but living in the Bay Area I am reminded regularly of the one that was lost to the San Francisco Forty-Niners. The Forty-Niners outscored their team's name by six points, and ran up a score differential that has yet to be eclipsed. Not even by the Seattle Seahawks when they rolled over those same Broncos nearly twenty years later. I've stuck to my guns, metaphorically speaking. Even though I show up on a playground in Oakland, surrounded by a nation of children in silver and black, I stick to my road cone orange and blue.
Being a Chicago Cubs fan has taught me this: There is always next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. And so on. Professional sports may mean never having to say you're sorry, but a little apology now and again would probably be okay. Or how about putting together that winning season? That seems to take the edge off for most of us die-hard types.
I didn't grow up as a basketball fan. I had a certain disdain for the sport, based loosely on my experiences on the driveways of my neighborhood, where I was routinely treated as the hoop version of a tackling dummy by the kid down the street who had some mad skills. I would have been more comfortable with kick the can or freeze tag or four square or anything that didn't require supreme amounts of physical coordination or skill. I didn't get that chance. Instead, I endured countless afternoons of being blown past with a drive to the rim, or endless rain from that spot in the corner. All of this came accompanied with my "friend's" running commentary. He was very fond of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, and would punctuate his pronouncements with the endlessly aggravating "swish!" Because that's the sound the ball made when it slid neatly through the hoop without touching the rim. My shots tended to make even less noise, falling in that category known as "air ball."
I endured, and eventually I latched onto the Boston Celtics, not because of any understanding of their dynasty, but because of Dave Cowens, whose name was close enough to mine that it made it easy to made the same kind of play-by-play. Even if the results were less than stellar. My reward for this allegiance did not come for many years later when the Celtics drafted Larry Bird. Suddenly, all those missed jumpers and stumbles our of bounds drifted away. I had attached myself to a dynasty. This kept my connection to the local NBA franchise, the Denver Nuggets, limited to the few times a year when the Celtics would roar into town and put a hurt on. I took some quiet satisfaction in those drubbings.
When I moved to Oakland, I kept my football team from Denver, adopted the Oakland A's (since the Colorado Rockies were born the year that I left) and let my basketball fandom slip after the retirement of "The Hick From French Lick." This worked, primarily because I had entered a dead zone for basketball. The Golden State Warriors had established themselves as perennial also-rans, with a scattering of playoff appearances and not championships since I was playing on those driveways back in Colorado.
That changed this year. At first, I paid little attention to the record breaking success of the Warriors. I remembered their last trip to the playoffs, and the "pretty good for them" feeling it gave the city. I didn't want to give into that feeling: The Bandwagon. I watched the sea of silver and black t-shirts on our playground switch to blue and gold. Suddenly, every kid wanted to be Steph Curry. Recalling all my driveway humiliations, I did too. And the message the team kept sending, "Strength In Numbers" came through loud and clear in a city that is too often divided and distracted by any number of concerns.
A couple of weeks ago, as things started to heat up in the Finals, I went out and bought a shirt. I bought one for my wife. I bought one for my son. If I was going to make this trip, I wasn't going alone. As it turned out, I needn't have worried, but I like the idea that by hopping on I didn't slow the wagon down. It only picked up speed. The NBA Championship won't fix Oakland, but we all have something we can agree on. At last. Thanks for the ride.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Rainbow Brite

You mean I'm gonna stay this color? This was the question Navin Johnson asked his mother as he came to realize that he might have been adopted. His identity had been shaped by those around him, not by his reflection in the mirror. As far as Navin was concerned, he was "born a poor black child." You might say that he identified as black. You might also say that Navin Johnson was a jerk. You might say that Navin was judging himself not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Navin's story is the dream within the dream.
What is the story of Rachel Dolzeal? In an interview with Matt Lauer on Tuesday's Today show, she reasserted that she "identifies as black." As the chat progressed, Ms. Dolzeal made the distinction between black and African-American. She continued this tack by explaining, “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon." I could identify with some of that, except back when I opened my big box of Crayola and was drawing a self-portrait, I went looking for the "flesh" colored crayon. It was 1962 when Crayola changed the name of that particular shade to "peach." I was using an old box of crayons, admittedly, but I remember wondering what I might do if I were to draw myself with a sunburn. Or some of my friends who weren't so "peachy."
And all of this would be anecdotal rememberings or brand-name nostalgia if not for the fact that up until last week, Rachel Dolzeal was the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. That would be the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She resigned because her parents chose to kick up a little fuss about their daughter misrepresenting herself. They say they come from a long line of truth-tellers. The crayon story, as well as stories about being born in a teepee and growing up hunting with a bow and arrow did not meet that standard. 
Still, I find myself wondering, as I did back in my Crayola days, about what it means to be "white." I'm not Casper, after all. More Richie Rich. If the truth were told? I can also remember coloring myself in with blue and green, from time to time. Sometimes it was because my peach was all used up, and sometimes I just liked to pretend that I had aquamarine skin. It's all a part of the dream. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Muse Of Blog Production

My wife sits at her desk just a few feet away. Her desk faces the window. Mine faces the wall. When I hear her voice, I try to remember to turn around and face her, but sometimes hers is the disembodied voice of inspiration. Or commitment. Or responsibility. Or friendly reminder. Over the past few days she has peppered our conversation with questions about muses. She is quite invested in this topic, and not just because she is part of a reading that will feature various visions and reflections on the topic. I heard that disembodied voice ask: "Do you believe in muses?"
So, as I do quite often, I turned to face her. "You mean the spirits of entities that swirl about, poking an prodding artist-types into creating the things that they create?"
"I know that sometimes you say that I inspire you to write poetry and," now that we were facing each other, some of the magic faded and the practical matter of sprites in charge of creative endeavors seemed silly to me.
"Not in the magical way that works so well in your universe," I replied. This is my wife who prays to the goddess of parking spaces, Asphaltia, and when she leaves the car unlocked she is just as likely to "wrap it in white light" instead of going back and making sure. In the Venn diagram of our universes, this is not an overlapping section.
How is it, then, that I am able to generate the interest or enthusiasm to write a blog every day, sometimes with aspirations toward being clever, funny, or vaguely artistic? My inspirations come from very practical places: Yahoo News. Objects I see on my runs or rides through the streets of Oakland. The inadvertent spark of a synapse brought on by encountering a person, place or thing that starts a flood of memory. Is it possible that these people, places or things were placed in my path by Thalia or Calliope? That's the kind of thing that doesn't always end well in my world view. I present as my evidence of this phenomenon the film, "Xanadu."
If you are unfamiliar with the early 1980's, I will simply tell you that you may be better off for it. Back when movies were being made for money, inspired primarily by the piles of cocaine on the board room tables, in hopes that more money could be generated to buy more piles of cocaine, someone had the bright idea of mashing up roller disco with Greek mythology. Olivia Newton-John, fresh from her triumph as Sandy in "Grease," starred as Kira. short for Terpsichore. She showed up on Earth to inspire Gene Kelly to come out of retirement to open a roller disco with his young partner, played by Michael Beck. Which muse was in charge of roller disco?
Okay, maybe there were ethereal forces involved. It wasn't Roger Ebert, however. His praise for the film included the observation that "it's not as bad as "'Can't Stop the Music.'" Which brings me to my major challenge to the notion of muses. If there really are such things, that means they are present for the creation of all art, from "Citizen Kane" to "Xanadu." I think I would rather believe in the goddess of parking. 
Or maybe I should start believing in my wife, at whose insistence I wrote this. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bat Girl

I went to my first Bat Mitzvah. I learned a lot. Well, some of it was review, but it was interesting to sit in a temple and watch how things go down, ceremony-wise. Considering I have spent the last month feting my son for his arrival at the brink of adulthood, this was an opportunity to see how others signal this moment. Thirteen year-old girls won't be allowed to register to vote, and most of them will still have a few years left to gain their high school diploma, but they probably won't get hassled about getting into a PG-13 movie. This particular girl, now that she is a Bat Mitzvah, does get some perks. The parents are also in for some good news too, since God can no longer punish them for the sins of their child. She is now responsible for her own actions.
Isn't that interesting? There is a ritual, a ceremony, that marks the moment when a child can no longer expect to push off the blame for her, or his, missteps. As far as God is concerned, it's time to hit the reset button. Maybe it's not a real surprise that this passage also coincides with puberty. All that eye-rolling and foot-stomping suddenly becomes God's problem. Now she can read from the Torah. She can possess property. She can, according to Jewish law, get married. And all those laws of the Torah have to be followed.
No pressure.
It also means you get a really big party. Lots of food. Lots of family. Lots of dancing. Plenty of time to consider the significance of the rite that has just been passed on. Depending when your birthday falls and when the next Shabbat is, you could double down on that whole party deal too. But it's not like it's a free ride. There is a lot of work involved. Like learning a whole new language. For me, just sitting in the audience, picking up the Siddur was confounding enough, reading from the right to the left, and trying to keep up with the cantor as these consonant-heavy words fly by. I started to get some. Baruch ata adonai. Ah-mayn. Then I considered the thousands of other words and sounds that remained mysterious to me and my admiration for this newly minted member of the community grew. I wondered if I could have coached my son through such a steep learning curve when he was thirteen. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been much of a Bar Mitzvah boy myself, back in the day.
So it was a big deal. I'm glad I got to wade into a culture other than my own.
Mazel tov!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Testing The Limits

Maybe we should have been emphasizing the "roll" part of "rock and roll" more. In the past few weeks, things have become very dangerous in the arenas of the world for guitar players. For the record, I'm not talking about heroics like Pete Townshend type heroics where he played until his fingers bled. Or Keith Moon who used explosives to blow up his drum kit. Back in the day, there was a whole lot more willful destruction going on out there on tour. Jimi Hendrix set stages on fire when he used to play, and that was metaphorically. And every now and then, he would take it to a more ridiculous extreme.
In the late seventies, the punk rock scene gave us all kinds of self-inflicted punishment. I'm looking at your Iggy. And you Sid. Battered and bloodied, these guys took their performance to weird new levels, making us all wonder what would come next. What we all kind of knew was the lyrics of Neil Young were written about this very thing. For so many, it is better to burn out than to fade away. Jimi and Janis. Jon Bonham, and Brian Jones. Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. It may not have been better for them physically, but it sure didn't hurt album sales. Ask Ray Manzarek, who lived about three times as long as his former lead singer, but never managed to sell as many records as he did with that flash in the pan.
And then there's Dave Grohl, who continues to record and perform and sell music by the ton, but still everyone wants to know about his old frontman: What was Kurt really like? Maybe it was a fit of pique for being left out of the Cobain documentary, "Montage of Heck," but what does a guy have to do to get a little attention in this post-Nirvana world? How about fall off a stage, break your leg, and then come back from the hospital to finish the show in a cast? I suppose a real rock and roller would have skipped the trip to the emergency room, and there are still those who will roll their eyes at Dave for putting the x-ray on Twitter.
These are the same people who giggle at the video of the Edge living up to his name during "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." If he was looking for the front row, he found it. His lead singer, having recently put himself back together from a not-too-rock-and-roll bike crash had the correct response: just keep on singing. Because that's what it's all about, in the end. You never know when you're going to drive off that cliff. Or fall off that stage. Maybe if they had been wearing their bifocals.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pain In The Neck

For having one of the least threatening character names in the extended Star Wars universe, Count Dooku should win some sort of prize. An additional award should go to Christopher Lee for bringing some galactic menace to this guy who sounds like he was imagined by some eight year-old Super Fan in a Starbust and Slurpee induced haze. "I know, let's call him 'Count Doo-Doo.' No wait. That would be too easy. How about 'Count Doo-Coo?'" Gales of derisive laughter.
Yes, that was screen legend and master thespian Christopher Lee wielding that light saber and creating a path for Anakin Skywalker to tumble on over to the Dark Side. Pardon me, Sir Christopher Lee, knighted back in 2009 for "services to Drama and Charity." This was long after I first took notice of Sir Chris. He was the heir apparent to Lugosi and Karloff. He played the monsters. His friend Peter Cushing was the monster maker of vampire hunter. Christopher Lee was the one making all those horrible gashes in ladies' necks and terrifying them wrapped in bandages or rising from the dead. He did most of this, from my perspective, in the pages of magazines. I was too young to rush out and take in the splashy, blood-soaked, cleavage enhanced films of the Hammer canon. But it didn't stop me from reading all about them. That is why, when the seventies rolled around and I was told that "The Man With The Golden Gun" would be portrayed by Sir Christopher, I made sure that I got in line even earlier than usual for this latest installment of the James Bond series. Francisco Scaramanga did not disappoint. He was not just your average evil genius, but a rival assassin to 007. Fascinating in spite of the presence of Herve Villechaize as his diminutive presence.
And that's the one that sticks with me. Even his appearance in the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy couldn't keep me from remembering the slicked-back sneer of Scaramanga. Perhaps it was the flying car. Or maybe it was that looming presence that made him so very memorable. And now he is gone. The good news, for us fans, is that Christopher Lee demonstrated a proclivity for rising from the dead, but after ninety-three years and more than two hundred films, he could use the rest. Aloha, Sir Christopher Lee. You stomped and slunk and cast a scary shadow on the Terra.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Gives Me Pause

"Why can't people like that just stay home?" These were the uptight words that floated through my head as I sat in the audience of my son's high school graduation ceremony. Held in the rarefied confines of Oakland's historic Paramount Theater, the evening began in a festive but reasonably dignified fashion. Friends and family were there to celebrate the achievements of the Class of 2015. There was Pomp. There was Circumstance. There was plenty of attention to pay to this next generation of thinkers, leaders, and fresh faces to bring the world along into the bloom of this new century. There was extra gravity in the room that night.
That didn't mean that the evening was filled with somber directives for missions and work left undone. There was talk about the future, but it was mostly directed in the vicinity of adventure. Grownups weren't handed the microphone to hand out advice and warnings. The kids stood up and shared their vision of their past and their future. It was refreshing and candid. Some of the ties began to loosen as the ceremony wore on, with speeches building to the valedictorian, who urged his classmates to remember where they were from and where they were going, and always to remember to come back, representing that geography: Oakland.
Oakland is a proud city. A diverse city. A city with problems. A city with solutions. Oakland rises to meet their challenges day after day, and the Class of 2015 showed by their attentive listening and boisterous responses that they were up to it. Oakland hoots. Oakland hollers. Oakland shouts its approval at the top of their lungs. As the evening wore on, the refinement of the beginning gave way to the hoots and hollers. As it should. The graduates each took their moment as they crossed the stage to pause, if only to shake hands and get a photo with the principal. Some of them danced. Some of them twirled. Some of them made a show of how the distance across that stage. They had earned it. There were hugs. There were high fives. And shout outs.
And there was an anarchist. One kid, who came to the ceremony with his bandanna, waited until his name was announced and then pulled it up over the lower half of his face reminding everyone in the theater of the riots that had taken place just outside on the streets in front of the theater. He strode up to his principal, who looked at him with brief shock and then abrupt dismay. The crowd settled at this moment, trying to discern just how real this threat was. There was a pause, and then the authority of the occasion won out, however briefly, the mask came down and the hand came out. As he took his principal's hand, he turned to the camera, with his free hand he pointed a finger at his head as if it were a gun.
Then it was over. The next name was called, and the procession continued. Some of the joy had been knocked down, but it wasn't out. Soon, the anarchist was back in the seat from whence he came, congratulating himself as the rest of his class rose back to the moment of their achievement. The problems evoked by the gesture from that one student wouldn't go away that night. The parents and grandparents in the audience knew that. Anarchy is primarily a young person's pursuit. But that wasn't the youth we were there to celebrate. It was a night of beginnings. Hope. Change. Memories. I suppose we have him to thank for "keeping it real."
But I just couldn't help thinking, "Why can't people like that just stay home?"

Saturday, June 13, 2015


My father used to advocate for equal rights for balding, middle-aged printing salesman. He was a man of deeply held beliefs, one of which there weren't many glass houses at which he was afraid to lob a stone or two. He had a long and storied history as a liberal and compassionate person. He was a committed delegate to Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential bid, and supported all kinds of causes that would have made him cozy in any blue state. But he missed being a hippie by a decade or so, and his middle-aged printing salesman buddies in Colorado didn't always see things his way. Which may be why he chose to put his tongue so squarely in his cheek as he made his demand for equal rights.
It was the latter half of the twentieth century, the part that came after "Mad Men." For the first time in American History, the white male, balding or otherwise, printing executive or not, were no longer seen as the simple be all, end all. Somewhere in my father's sarcasm was a trace of the fear that maybe there would come a time when he was no longer at the top of the heap.
And now, as the next century rolls on without him, barriers continue to be broken. Women are running for President of the United States. Sure, there was Geraldine Ferraro back in the day, but my dad was far too immersed in the Rainbow Coalition to be distracted. It is interesting to note that the folks at Wikipedia would like us to know that Ms. Ferraro was "the only Italian American to be a major-party national nominee in addition to being the first woman." We are a nation that prides itself on firsts: First man on the moon. First teacher in space. First electrocution of a criminal. There is a lengthy list of "first woman," "first African American," and "first openly gay," this that and so on. Considering the odds against any of these achievements, set up as they were by the ruling class of middle-aged white guys, they continue to be notable. It should be noted, amid the ever-expanding Republican field of candidates for the 2016 election, the first African-American to run for president was Frederick Douglass back in 1888. As a Republican. 
Things were different way back then. There have been many firsts since then. Latino bisexual disabled veterans remain under-represented, but strides are being made. The balding, white male printing salesman might still have a renaissance. Until then, I will consider each advancement of common sense as a first, and will look forward to a day when being first is mostly important when it comes to the one hundred meter dash. I look forward to a time when men and women are judged by the quality of their character, not by their place in line. It shouldn't matter. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Summer Camp

Last summer when I visited my hometown in Colorado, I had the strange and eventually easily overcome urge to go out and try to score some weed. Not because I wanted to smoke it, or otherwise ingest it. I just wanted the chance to stroll into the corner dope store and proudly announce that I was there to purchase some cannabis, thank you very much. It would be sweet retribution for all those weekends I spent wandering around, looking for somebody who knew somebody who could hook me and my friends up. The only dealing would be the search for clearance items.
And now I should point out that my own marijuana use was of the very limited variety. For a brief time, I lived with a guy who truly enjoyed his afternoon bake. It was part of a social order that I had no trouble falling into, since slamming back a six-pack was certainly in my list of things to do on any given Friday night, and once the cans were empty, they could rather abruptly be turned into rudimentary pipes. Not that I'm condoning such behavior, mind you. This was how I lived. I never owned a pipe or a bong.
My mother did. Not wittingly, of course. She received, as a gift, a curious piece of ceramic that looked to be a martian, with funnels for antennae on the top of his head. On one side, he wore a great bloodshot eyed expression of glee, while on the other those eyes were narrowed to slits and the goofy grin was replaced by a very small hole. About the size of a reasonably rolled joint. This was back in 1970's Boulder, Colorado, where such items could easily have been slipped onto the shelves at any gift store, and I'm sure that it came to her as an object d'art, not a piece de pot. It sat in my mother's window sill for years before the true nature of this little sculpture became hysterically apparent. I am quite confident that in all those years, it was never utilized for its intended purpose.
Now, with the legalization of marijuana in the Mile High State (disclaimer: it is forbidden to write more than a paragraph about pot in Colorado without using that phrase), it seems like a missed opportunity. But the good news is this: Over in Durango, the first cannabis-friendly ranch resort is opening in July. CannaCamp offers the expected outdoor adventures and water sports you might expect from your more traditional summer camp, but also has a number of "cannabis activities" on tap. Or on bud. Laying down in a meadow and staring at the clouds. That kind of thing. And I did check: There are arts and crafts. I can only hope that some enterprising guest takes it on themselves to spend a little times in the ceramics hut recreating their version of my mom's little alien visitor. If they want to get their bud badge, that is.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Know Your Rights

Is it okay to shout "Fire" in a crowded movie house? That question used to shade a little easier before James Holmes shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado back in 2012. Racing out of the exit doors to avoid smoke and flames seems infinitely less dangerous than ducking for cover as a spray of semi-automatic weapon fire opened up just after the patrons had settled into their seats. The question currently in front of a jury in Denver is whether or not James Holmes was sane at the time of his rampage. Which brings us to these next two items.
A man walked into the Atlanta airport last week, carrying a loaded AR-15 assault rifle. You might remember the AR-15 as one of the weapons James Holmes was carrying in his midnight movie assault. Jim Cooley was dropping his daughter off for a flight and while he was there, he figured he would just take his constitutional rights for a stroll as well. According to Georgia State law, Mister Cooley was abiding by the letter of the law as long as he didn't try to take the gun through the TSA checkpoint. However likely or unlikely it was that an alert TSA agent might have stopped him, it was still local law enforcement that was called to check up on just exactly what a guy carrying a loaded rifle through one of the nation's busiest airports had on his mind. With the extended one hundred round drum. When police caught up to him and told Cooley that they had received a number of calls and that many people were worried, he responded, “People’s fears are not my responsibility. If you’re detaining me, then I’m going to have to file a lawsuit against the airport." And everyone knows that there is nothing in this great land of ours that stirs more fear than a loaded lawsuit. Mister Cooley was not arrested, and has become a Youtube celebrity. 
Up the road in Massachusetts, a forty year-old man was arrested for disturbing and loitering within one thousand yards of a school. At this point, it should be made clear that this man, George Cross, was dressed as an Imperial Stormtrooper and carrying a blaster. How could anyone tell that it wasn't a real laser gun? Authorities were called and the bad guy was taken away, much to the protestations of Mister Cross: "Like I'm some kind of weirdo or something? I bought a costume. I was walking through the neighborhood showing friends." Apparently dressing as an Imperial Stormtrooper is not a right protected by our constitution. At least not until the Imperial Senate has their say. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Begin Again

Commencement. We tend to think about that at the end of things. At the end of a school year, specifically. But I did some checking, and it turns out that "commence" means to begin. Isn't that interesting? Up until now, as a parent and educator, I have been stressing to my son the importance of "promotions." When he finished up at preschool, there was this brilliant ceremony called "Crossing The Bridge" in which kids who were on their way to Kindergarten walked across a plank set across two red boxes from one side of the playground to the other. When they had completed that journey, they were ready for the big time: public school.
The next promotion came a year later, when he had finished Kindergarten, my son wore a construction paper mortarboard and celebrated with his classmates by singing the songs they had learned and the letters they knew. He and his little friends had survived their first year and were looking ahead to first grade, and a few years off the whole promotion tour.
His fifth grade promotion was reminiscent of the one held just down the hall from the auditorium where the big kids were getting ready to say goodbye to elementary school. Those six years, all in one place, made a great foundation for memories: field trips, recess, paper airplanes, boys and girls some of whom would stick with him on his move just down the hill to middle school. It was a packed house.
Fifth grade was a full house, but not nearly as jammed as the Scottish Rite Temple where his middle school promotion took place. The tone was different here. There were more warnings, more admonitions. The kids didn't recite poems or sing songs. They strolled in, sat down, and listened. There were some encouraging words, but it was made clear to my son and his classmates that there was still a long road ahead.
Which brings us to today. The end of the road, at least where public schools are concerned. A great fuss will be made. Speeches too. There will be parties commensurate with the occasion. My son has learned his lessons and sung his songs. It's not the end. It's a beginning. Now all the songs are for him. It's a celebration. It's a commencement for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

In California

A lifetime ago I packed up all my belongings, or those that could be stuffed into a camper-van, and left my childhood home. I left with the expressed purpose of starting a new timeline, one that I could refer to as my adulthood. It wasn't much of a negotiation, when it came right down to it. My girlfriend and incipient wife lived in California with all the antiques. I was living in an apartment filled with rental furniture and no real sense of where I was going. I was installing modular office furniture and wandering over the same ruts that I had for thirty years. I was going to trade in that rental furniture and tired ruts for some brand new ones. In California.
That was the big leap. Leaving Colorado, my birthplace. My heritage. My family. I was as grounded and comfortable as any middle son in his late twenties had a right to be. I had begun to figure out what my life might look like in twenty years, and my usually impressive imagination couldn't come up with much more than a bigger apartment. It took this woman from my past returning to offer me a future. In California.
But it was terrifying to imagine leaving. I had failed before. My initial shot at going away to college turned into returning home and living in the basement for a year, working at Arby's and creeping ever closer to the realization that nothing would change if I didn't do it myself. When I finally made the big leap, it was an hour and a half drive down the interstate that allowed me to be home to stay in touch with those ever-lovin' ruts. After a year of that, I bounced back to my hometown, where there was a perfectly good university just up the hill from where I went to high school. Meanwhile, there was life going on elsewhere, and my eventual bride ended up there. In California.
California isn't that big a stretch from Boulder, Colorado. Sure, there's an ocean. No, there isn't any snow, unless you drive way up into the hills and there isn't a drought. The old joke that compares life in a bowl of granola has easily been applied to both Boulder and California. Flakes and nuts. It's true of a lot of places on the globe, but I staked a claim on the northern coast of the Golden State, and moved out to an even smaller apartment with the woman I loved. In California.
I'm starting to acclimate, twenty-three years later. Happily, Google Maps and GPS have made generating those ruts an endeavor that has only taken a couple decades. The fear that I felt once upon a time about leaving Colorado is now the fear I deal with when ti comes time to consider leaving California. This is where I live now. It's where I vote. It's where I raised a son. It's where I fell in love a hundred different times with my wife. It's where I buy my cheeseburgers. In California.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Too Many Choices

Freedom of choice
is what you've got
Freedom from choice
is what you want
- DEVO, "Freedom of Choice"
When I was a kid, I used to ask for a Band-Aid if I fell down and got a scrape. When I needed to blow my nose, I asked for a Kleenex. When I got to high school and took a course called Semantics, my teacher instructed me that I had been brainwashed by popular culture and advertising. These weren't necessarily Band-Aids. They could have been Curads. All those Kleenex in the trashcan could have been mixed with Puffs. I was caught up in a brand-name vortex, and I needed to be clear about my meaning. I really meant "adhesive strips" and "facial tissue." Someone else had slapped a catchy name on these products and caused me to line up in vague allegiance to a particular manufacturer because of the limited hard drive space I had for storing such information. After that class, my eyes were opened, and I wasn't going to be forced into arbitrary distinctions by popular culture or the media. It didn't occur to me at the time to ask if the course I was taking was really "Semantics" or was it "Semiotics?"
Words and their meaning have fascinated me for the time I have been using them. Before I went to high school to be taught about brand-name recognition and subliminal images in advertising, I took German. This is where I learned more about the mechanics of words and language than I ever imagined. It is also where I first encountered the notion of masculine, feminine and neuter. Like many languages, German nouns are given the distinction of being one of those three. Nurse, for example, is feminine: Die Krankenschwester. Doctor is der Doktor. Masculine. When constructing their culture, the Germans decided to apply sex roles to certain occupations. Things are generally neuter, or das with their article. Except for words like der Spiegel, or "mirror" in English. The thought process behind making a mirror masculine must have been an interesting one. Gender, according to articles, seems to make for more confusion than less.
Labels do that sometimes. Labels are limits. They do a very nice job of making a fence around a person, place or thing. Der, die, das. He, she, it. Pronoun trouble. That's what I've been thinking about lately. Those three don't seem to offer enough room for all the choices that exist out there. Some have taken to using "they" when describing oneself. Singular. Not first person but third person. It does have that clue about multiple spirits inside one person, but I prefer instead to borrow a trademark name from another company: Wii. First person plural with two "I's." For now, let us consider this a Band-Aid for our personal pronouns.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Pop Goes Our Culture

Let's start with an affirmation: "I'd like to buy the world a Coke." Never mind that the cost would be prohibitive, and getting all those cans and bottles back into the proper recycling streams would be a huge pain. I would like to buy the world a Coke. Things go better with Coke. It's the real thing. Coke, after all, adds life.
I didn't need Don Draper to tell me any of this. I've been a Coca Cola devotee for the adult span of my life. I confess to feeling a little deflated when, upon ordering a Coke, the waitron tells me somewhat apologetically that the establishment only serves Pepsi. I have been known to let this happen to me, with the understanding that it is an aberration, and won't be repeated regularly. But to be denied a Coke, or any cola product anywhere in this land or anywhere else on the globe is unthinkable. Until now.
It seems that last week, while flying what we understand are the "friendly skies" of United Airlines, Tahera Ahmad asked a flight attendant for a Diet Coke. When she was brought an open can, she asked for an unopened can for "hygienic reasons." Who knows where that can has been, after all? Aside from a cruising altitude of some thirty thousand feet, that is. Ms. Ahmad's request was rebuffed by the flightron, who asserted that an unopened can could be used as a weapon. Never mind that the man next to her had been handed a sealed can of beer. Never mind that Ms. Ahmad is Muslim. Wait a minute. Back up. First of all, it could be that if she had simply ordered a beer, or a Coke (Classic), or had a last name like "Smith," she probably would have been offered an unopened can, and some extra peanuts.
No Coke for you. And now, no work for the flight attendant. What could be more quintessentially American than losing your job after you acted like a xenophobic twit? All of which brings me back to an event some six years ago: The Beer Summit. This was back in the early days of Hope and Change, when our newly elected President sat down with black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and white Cambridge, Massachusetts police Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested him for disorderly conduct. They had a beer together to see if they could work things out. Judging by the past year or so, I'm guessing there are still a few beers to be shared. In the meantime, maybe Barack Obama could find a way to get government funding for this "buy the world a Coke" idea. It might even slip past the Republican majority, disguised as part of a defense package, since we all know now that Coke can be a weapon. A weapon of mass destruction for your thirst.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Tradegy Plus Time Plus American Equals Real Tragedy

The death of any one is a tragedy. There is always some way or someone who has a connection that will spend the rest of their lives coping or mourning the moment of that passing. Sometimes it is the sheer number that makes an event even more terrible. Thousands die in an earthquake in Nepal and the world reacts. The challenge being that those who died are strangers, too many to be remembered as one face or one name. They become a statistic, like the death toll on our nation's highways during three day weekends. Somewhere, however, that number translates into a missing plate at the table. A name scratched off the Christmas card list. An empty bedroom that has to be walked past daily until moving to a smaller place is the only option.
This is how we grieve. It makes sense that we do it in the most personal way possible. We light a candle. We say a prayer. We hang a wreath. We pour a bit of our 40 on the ground. We tag off on the departed, but rarely do we do so en masse. Unless you're Obi Won Kenobi, that's not how we feel things. We mourn up close and personal.
That may be why, in the midst of all the death and destruction in Nepal, we chose to highlight the story of Chris Norgren, a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot who went missing along with his crew during a rescue mission there. Knowing that a guy from Wichita, Kansas had gone missing amid the ruins of Charikot makes it all so real. Real personal. Assistant coach at Bishop Carroll High School close. And now we have a face for the tragedy. An American face.
This thought came to me not as a result of the coverage of the earthquake. It came via the side door, another story about a horrible death: A lion mauled a tourist at an animal park in Johannesburg, South Africa. Why should I care? Because the headline informed me that it was an American tourist. This was the third attack in the past four months at this park, so why are we just hearing about it now? At the end of March it was an Austrailian, as well as the beginning of April when a thirteen-year-old local boy was gnawed on by a cheetah, wild animals have not been working and playing with humans. This past week, somebody died. Katherine Chappell. An American.
Now that's a tragedy.

Friday, June 05, 2015

What Do I Know?

"We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they're not polite"
- Talking Heads "Psycho Killer"
And so, years later, the trial of Colorado's "cinema gunman" continues to unravel in a Denver courtroom. Guilt or innocence isn't the issue here. The murders James Holmes committed back in the summer of 2012 continue to spark frustration, concern, and paranoia by the truckload. Mister Holmes is not denying his participation in the events that lead to the death of twelve moviegoers at that long-ago midnight premiere of "The Dark Night Rises." He has admitted to that. The trial is all about whether he was sane when he did it.
I am not a mental health professional, but fifty-some years of living in a moderately polite society has given me some guidelines, some of which I try to impart to my young charges on the playground each day: If you are upset, it's best to use your words to try and solve your differences. If the differences you are having happen to be with the voices in your own head, then there may be a bigger problem. I deal with problems like ADHD, but not schizophrenia. Being able to distinguish reality from fantasy can be a chore when you're seven, but if you're still not clear on the distinction once you pass twenty-something. And when those differences are so very unclear that you start to see murder as a chance to "power up," as Holmes did, then maybe we're leaving the realm of the common senses. 
Of course, when he said that he targeted a midnight showing of a PG-13 movie with the intent of avoiding any children as casualties, James showed a kind of reasoning that might border on compassion. This contrasts mightily with his assertion that the seventy people he wounded "didn't count" because it didn't fit in with his spiritual economics. "Human life has value. If you take lives away, that adds to your value," Holmes said. "Anything they would have pursued gets canceled out and given to me." As for that whole reasoned attempt to avoid killing children? He shot six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan four times, killing her. So much for the master plan. 
Is he sane? I would suggest that my rule of anybody who goes to a movie theater with the intent to kill as many people as possible for "power-ups" would probably live on the opposite side of the fence from those of us who don't. Then again, when they make a movie about a guy who goes to war with the intent to kill as many bad guys as he can, we call him a hero. It's a pretty thin and twisted line.