Sunday, February 28, 2021

Attention

 There is a little girl who now frequents our desolate playground. She stops by and climbs and sways on the play structure. She runs in circles or straight lines around and under it. She doesn't come alone. She is accompanied by her mother, or sister, or her aunt or her baby sitter who doesn't tend to move around as much. Mostly she sits and looks at her phone while she waits for her young charge to run down her batteries. I witness this from a polite distance as I take my regular constitutionals around the yard. And each time I pass by, the little girl who is not more than three, she shouts out "Hi!" 

Beneath my mask, I smile and wave or say a muffled "Hi" back. And if I pass by twice, she will do the same thing. If she is still there after I have made six circuits past the monkey bars, she will still greet me the same way. Sometimes she embellishes just a tiny bit by updating me on the activity she is currently pursuing. "I'm running." Or "I'm climbing." Just in case I hadn't noticed. Because these are strangers and because the nominal adults might not look on with favor if a gentleman of a certain age would stop and chat up their youngster for a whole bunch of different reasons.

But that doesn't stop the spark in the little girl. She will not be stopped from telling me "Hi."

Maybe it's my vague indifference that keeps her interest. I nod or wave or make a brief reply, but I keep going on my way. Maybe she imagines that I am a new person with each pass. But it made me think of the cat.

The cat named Fluffy who has been staying with us for the past few months. Fluffy is a reclamation project for our neighborhood. After living a nomadic life on the streets for several years, it became apparent to those who encountered him that something was wrong with Fluffy, and only an expensive surgery involving the removal of all his teeth would save him. A collection was taken up. Fluffy was defanged. He began his convalescence in the home of the local Cat Lady. When circumstances that may have included having one too many kitties to care for made it possible for us to foster Fluffy, my wife eagerly campaigned for the opportunity. I begrudgingly relented on my "not a cat guy" stance, and we welcomed Fluffy in. 

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Fluffy was, for the most part, just a rumor of a cat. He stayed in his carrier, huddled in a corner, or under the bed in our back room. When I did encounter him, I was rewarded with a hiss and an arched back. Confirming my belief system about the inherent evil of felines. Which did not hinder my wife's enthusiasm for Fluffy's rehabilitation. She cleaned and coaxed and prepared mush for him to consume, and after weeks of this consideration, she was rewarded with a brief cuddle and a purr. 

This was a sign of what was to come. Since then, Fluffy has only become more and more interactive. Purely on his terms, of course. Sometimes he would hop up on top of the bed under which he had once hidden for days. He would allow me close enough for a scratch behind the ears. Me scratching him, to be clear. Mostly he seemed content but certainly not overjoyed. But as the weeks passed, he became more accustomed to us, and us to him. We started leaving the door to the back room open, no longer worried that he might end up under something without our notice. 

And just the other night, just after three in the morning, he jumped up on our bed. I woke with the faintest start, but quickly understood whose feet were padding their way toward my head. Fluffy stopped once to curl up between my wife and I, so I reached out to give him that now customary scratch behind the ears. Which he seemed to appreciate. So much so that he meandered up a little closer to the top of the bed where he put his paws on my arm, sending the message that it was okay to continue. 

Which I did for a few more minutes. Then it was time for me to return to sleep. After I paused, I got the faintest reminder that Fluffy was calling the shots and though his teeth had been removed, his claws had not. I did not get scratched, but he exerted just enough pressure with his dew claw to give me the notion that he could be more persuasive. If necessary. 

Later, as my wife began to stir, she took over the need for Fluffy's petting. Through the haze of sleep, she mumbled, "It's a miracle." 

I didn't say this. I just thought it: "It's inevitable." I thought about the terms necessary to this interaction, and became convinced that the little girl and Fluffy were spiritually linked. 

Then I went back to sleep.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Airborne

 A couple things happened this week that knocked me off my feed. Normally I am a very good soldier. Teacher, actually, but with a sense of duty that borders on the compulsive. Okay. Not so much "borders" as "defined by." I am very well suited for this job in public education which runs on a schedule. A great many of them, in fact. A bell schedule. A weekly schedule. A monthly schedule. 

A testing schedule.

The past year has presented all kinds of challenges to those schedules, perhaps none as much as the way we coordinate assessments. As we meander through the early part of the twenty-first century, the onus of this portion of education has fallen squarely on the shoulders of technology. Last spring, as we struggled to connect with students and families in this new-fangled enterprise called "distance learning," the focus on assessment drifted away. Creating this virtual schoolhouse was a big enough test for all of us. A third grade colleague suggested that we were "trying to fly an airplane while we were still building it." 

And to our satisfied surprise, it flew. Not high. Not strong. But it flew. Our kids were attending class online and learning. Our teachers struggled and raced around trying to find ways to keep their students in attendance, and on a path of learning. There was great relief when the district announced that it was not imposing the ritual standardized tests that usually close out a school year. This was survival mode. We were just trying to keep our metaphorical plane off the ground. It was our hope to avoid any sudden deceleration trauma.

Well, now it's another year. The district and state have higher expectations of us all this year, especially for those kids who have been sitting in front of screens for months on end. Some of them have made heroic strides. Showing up on time ready to learn is still a challenge for many. And so will the proposed return to "normal." Even as we attempt to imagine herding kids from the playground to the classroom to the bathroom and to lunch and back again while observing strict COVID protocols, there is a move afoot to reinstall that battery of standardized tests. 

For a moment here, I will say that as a veteran teacher, I have struggled with the idea of high-stakes testing of eight to twelve year olds for decades. No one likes to be tested. Some are better at it than others. It was the saving grace of my son's high school experience, for example. The high school experience that was not marked by the interruption of a global pandemic. 

What exactly do we hope to discover with this barrage of assessments? That our kids have fallen behind due to the extraordinary challenges into which they were dropped over the past year? Maybe that the gap that was supposed to be closed by providing all those Chromebooks and hotspots have not, in a year, been closed? Or perhaps we will discover that on this sliding scale the kids who have had computers in their homes all this time are still the ones who have an advantage when it comes to measuring their learning? And those that have been hardest hit by the disease and the economic and social devastation are going to show up as "below grade level?" 

I could fill in the charts and graphs ahead of time and save everyone the implementation ulcer. Meanwhile, I know how hard our kids have worked to stay in school, completing assignments and participating in seemingly endless Zoom meetings. I know what they have achieved.

They are flying.  

Friday, February 26, 2021

Terrible Math

 A moment of silence. We tap the breaks on our lives that have continued while half a million Americans have have no lives to continue. Because they died. They died from a disease that continues to mock our attempts to understand and cure it. Sorry cancer and common cold, you're going to have to take a back seat to COVID-19. 

I should start, since the paragraph break up there counts as my moment of silence, by saying that this five hundred thousand number is not any kind of mechanical ticker that updates thanks to some Audio-Telly-o-Tally-o-Count Chap variant that counts dead bodies rather than the ones that fall asleep in Dr. Seuss. These are the numbers reported by the Center for Disease Control, and the suggestion that they may be off by a few thousand here or there starts to fall into that margin of error that large numbers so often do. The fact that reading each one of those roughly half a million names, just their first names, would take more than sixty hours gives you some idea of the enormity of what we are dealing with. 

I should also like to mention that we, as Americans, tend to focus on the number of red white and blue coffins. There are nearly two and a half million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, and while this number has an even bigger valley of potential error, it is worth noting that it is the United States that continues to lead the pack when it comes to having the most. 

Or maybe it's China. Or Russia. You can't trust them. They're probably hiding their numbers in hopes of appearing more masterful in the face of a crisis that is killing thousands of humans every single day, and has not relented for a year. 

I'll say it again: Half a million. The problem with saying it over and over doesn't change the reality of every individual father, daughter, cousin, friend, co-worker or lady from down the street who has died from this virus. And millions more who contracted the disease and though they have recovered will likely suffer after-effects for the rest of their lives. The ones they get to keep living. 

A quick experiment: Try and picture in your mind the faces of all the people you know. They can be movie stars or people you never really met. How long before they become a muddy smear of noses and mouths and eyes and indistinguishable features that simply overwhelm your tired brain? Half a million is a number best suited for describing budgets, or distances to the moon and back. It is a number so big that it does not allow for much distinction. Tragic, because each one deserves their own story, their own headline. But we don't have room. Or time. We lower the flags and light candles. And we write blogs. 

And the number keeps growing.

Wear a mask. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

What Does He Know - Really

 I am a teacher. I am a bad guy.

Not to the parents and kids with whom I work, mind you. I have received nothing but love from them over the past eleven months. I am the guy who has been making it possible for them to see their classmates, friends and yes - their teachers. When I show up on someone's Zoom meeting to check in on a tech issue, I am greeted by a chorus of welcome, never mind the mute convention. When parents come to me with their compromised Chromebooks or hotspots, they tell me how much they want their kids to be back in "real school," and their kids agree. They miss the way things used to be. But they also are acutely aware of how things are. Those stickers reminding us all to stay six feet apart, and the masks that obscure the smiles are there to keep us all in line. 

We are in the midst of a global pandemic.

I cannot believe that I am still typing those words. 

It is not safe out there. Which doesn't keep me from wishing there was a way to bring kids back to the empty hallways and vacant playground. And it doesn't keep the occasional parent or caregiver from cursing the snail's pace at which things are progressing.

Or idiots like Don Jr. from spouting off about how teachers “prevented schools from opening." He shares so much with his father, but he is still allowed on social media. Which is where he made his rant about how “(t)he teachers unions are out of control & are destroying our kid’s futures!” Apparently his beef was all about how educators are not "following the science" of COVID-19. “Teachers unions and those representing them have definitely failed our children in terms of education and everything else.. Certainly failed the science they are supposed to be teaching us. It is all political.”

This is quite rich coming from a guy who got himself a case of coronavirus by flaunting the conventions of social distancing and wearing a mask. Just like dear old dad. In terms of politics, it makes sense that if he were going to gnaw on a bone he would choose teachers and their unions, since they have ever been big fans of the family. That one particular family, anyway. But the argument that schools have opened with "only a a handful of cases" to report is what we are supposed to take to heart as "science." Exactly how much is a "handful?" What is the acceptable number of students, family members, and staff that can contract this deadly disease before it becomes unacceptable? How many have to die?

Which is the question that hangs in the air as you watch Don Jr. foam at the mouth. In front of a display of custom handguns that would make Dirty Harry blush. Is this a threat, or just a precursor to the pivot he's about to make about handing out pistols to public school kids to protect them from mass shootings? Or the germs around them? 

I have been there, all this time, on the front lines. I wasn't battling nuts and their custom made firearms, but keeping the connection to our community open. Yes, I understand that our test scores might improve if we were able to see our kids in the flesh. It would be a whole lot less creepy in this mostly empty building, but it wouldn't be safe. But since all of this is coming from a man who never attended public school and has spent the past five years or more railing against them, it's just habit now. Much like the varied and many spittle-laced ravings for which he is known. 

Not because he is an infectious disease specialist. Or the parent of a public school student. And for the record, I never left. I've been here. I don't need to go back to school. And my fellow teachers have been working to reinvent their jobs to adapt to these extreme conditions. We are here. Teaching kids. It's what we do. 

Without the guns. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ding

 When the movie was over, and the credits rolled, I asked my wife what she thought. I already knew, since at least twice during the film she had said, "good movie" out loud. And since I could see her eyes brimming with tears, I knew that she had felt it too. 

I have been lugging around Bless The Beasts And The Children in my heart and mind for fifty years. Back in 1971 I was nine years old and saw this story of a bunch of misfit children who took on the adventure of rescuing a herd of captive buffalo from slaughter. It was easy for me to project myself into this story of "dings," useless creatures, nobody wants them, their camp counselor insists they have no excuse for being alive. Other groups of boys have cool Native American nicknames: Apache, Navajo. The "dings" are given their own signifier: Bedwetters. Not quite ten years old, I decided then and there while watching this movie that I would never go to summer camp, and if I did, I would want to end up in the Bedwetters cabin. 

In my mind, I concocted scenarios in which I could rise to the top of the geek heap. Still a weirdo, but still recognized as a leader among weirdos. Not content just being the comic relief, and far too interested in justice to live too close to the juvenile delinquent label, I imagined leading a rag-tag group of my contemporaries on some brave mission that could lead to everyone else having to reevaluate the way they had thought of me. Maybe I could be a hero.

Just for one day.

Which essentially set the trajectory for my teenage years. It is most certainly what kept me in band rather than picking the "safe" spot on the wrestling team. It's what nudged me to buy that DEVO record the same day I bought my first Elvis Costello album. I chose the path I was on, and I savored the Bedwetter martyrdom. By acknowledging and accepting my low rung on the social ladder, I took solace in knowing that I had put myself there. I had no illusions about someday being accepted by the strata above me. If I was to be a nerd, I would be the best possible nerd, and if there were nerds around me that needed support or attention, I would give it to them. 

Rather than burden you with the story of my life from that point on, I can tell you that my lovely wife, whom I met while a member of that high school band, insists that it is the weirdos and the outcasts that make the most interesting people. A life of conforming leads to more conforming, and while it may not cause many sleepless nights and an easier time spent at summer camp, it doesn't make for much of a story. I should also point out that I never get a chance to free a herd of buffalo, but (spoiler alert) this also did not require me to die in a young and tragic way. It gave me something to hold onto that is my very own and fifty years down the line, I wouldn't have traded it for anything. 

Good movie, indeed. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Can't Cun

 I offer no apologies for Ted "Pleasure" Cruz and his awesomely poor timing and judgement when it comes to taking the family on vacation. I'm sure you're tired of hearing about how the Senator from Texas packed up his troubles in his Samsonite Roller and whisked his wife and daughters off to Cancun, Mexico. Even as the state which he nominally represents was experiencing a disaster of somewhat epic proportions. 

A couple things here: If, like Ted, you are skeptical about the "science" behind climate change then you might be excused from paying attention to anything connected to the subject. Many who espouse their doubts about such things like to prattle on about how "if we're supposed to be having global warming, I guess we could use a little bit right now, heh heh heh." Or maybe we should applaud Ted for finally taking up for his wife and kids, after knuckling under to the "president" for the past four years. The guy who once responded to the suggestion that his wife was ugly from Trump, "It's not easy to tick me off. I don't get angry often, but if you mess with my wife, if you mess with my kids, that will do it every time. Donald, you're a sniveling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone." Where do you suppose all that vitriol went? Once Trump became "president," it was almost as if all that bad blood just drained away.

So maybe he's forgetful. Or forgiving. Or it could be that all those things that people have been saying about Ted Cruz, not his wife, for all these years are true. He may not be the person best suited to support the best interests of the Lone Star State. It's possible, right? While the guy who lost the most recent senate election to Ted Cruz, Beto O'Rourke waded in and organized volunteers to make more than 784,000 wellness calls to senior citizens around the state. I don't know. That sounds like leadership to me. 

Upon his return, somewhat abruptly because of the media frenzy in which he found himself, Ted Cruz set about doing what comes natural: Making excuses. “With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.” We can forget the travel restrictions and the global pandemic for a moment here. Instead, let's focus on the "good dad" thing. If he's such a "good dad," why would he throw his daughters under the bus as the reason for his poor judgement? Perhaps the weather conditions froze some of the pipes in his moral compass. 

Or maybe we have finally had enough of watching our leaders toddle off to the golf course or fly down to Cancun while their constituents suffer and die. Maybe it's time to stop electing truly awful people to positions of authority. 

Yeesh. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Stuck

 Once I finally sat down in that chair, I felt I could relax. This was a bit odd since I was about to be stabbed with a needle and injected with a vaccine that was rushed through clinical trials and had, just recently, dropped my older brother like a stone after his second dose. Still, I couldn't help but feel that I had come to the end of a very long journey. A Hobbit-like trip there and back again. Not just the ten minute walk from my school to the high school where the vaccination station was set up. Or the three hours I stood in line, waiting. I was there in that line because all my attempts to get an appointment had been stymied by the web-gremlins and software demons. I was part of the walk-in rabble that had shown up in hopes of receiving one of the one hundred fifty doses set aside for educators like myself. The ones without an appointment. Now I am on the spot where so many have hoped to be, right on the precipice of being stabbed and given my return appointment for my second dose.

The one that would make me invulnerable. 

Hopefully. 

Because it's been almost a year now of waiting and watching and wanting there to be a cure. An end to this madness. I have a visceral memory of that last day of school, back in March when other school districts around us were closing and somehow Oakland was not making the same announcement. Then all of a sudden they did, and almost without waring, everything changed. There was an infectious disease, a plague, that was finding its way into the very fabric of American society and creating a state of emergency like none of us had experienced before. Suddenly, our world shrank. I was stuck at home, which felt like a gift at first, but then it became apparent that if we did ignore the strictures and the guidelines, we could die. It was that simple. Wearing a mask and maintaining a safe distance and all those other behaviors were instilled in me as I watched hundreds of thousands around me die. 

As I was standing in line to get my injection, I received the news that the priest who married my wife and I died. From COVID-19. When I was finally rewarded with my shot and that incredibly valuable vaccination card, I felt like I could breathe out. Breathing out is something I have been doing for the past eleven months, but I may have been taking it for granted. This was a lengthy exhalation that probably had the air of a satisfied sigh. I had made it through to the other side.

Part of me wants to parade about without a mask, licking elevator buttons and seeking out crowds. Not a big part. The big part of me is far too conditioned to The New Way. But my shoulder is sore, and that's a good thing. 

It's been a very long, strange trip. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Vocem, Silentium Inposuisset

 I know that convention suggests that it is inappropriate to speak ill of the dead. Still, even with seventy years on the planet, there was not quite enough time to speak ill of Rush Limbaugh while he was alive. If you missed it, Rush died earlier this week after a battle with cancer and reality that lasted for years. It was this brave face that he hid behind a microphone long enough to redefine the qualifications for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The former game show host who chose to honor the former radio host with the highest civilian award described it this way: "It was an idea that we had that a lot of people suggested to me, frankly, a lot of great people of our country, largely Republican. It was an amazing night because the Republicans went wild and the Democrats sat there, but they all respected Rush."

Well, maybe not "all." Representative Bobby Rush a Democrat from Illinois tweeted at the time, “There is no 'both sides' to this issue. Rush Limbaugh is a racist who uses his platform to inspire other racists. Rewarding him with a #MedalOfFreedom is a slap in the face to every person who ACTUALLY deserved that honor.” People like Ralph Bunche, E.B. White, Helen Keller, Neil Armstrong, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr., Earl Warren, Clare Boothe Luce, Buckminster Fuller, Jacques Cousteau, Arthur Ashe, Colin Powell, Rosa Parks, Simon Wiesenthal, Harvey Milk, Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou, John Glenn, Bill Bradley, Sally Ride, Gloria Steinem, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and that's a pretty solidly cherry-picked list of a much longer one dating back to 1963 when John F. Kennedy first started passing them out. 

Actors, politicians, sports figures, activists. Not self-styled hate mongers working from the safety of their subterranean studio bunkers. A year ago, when the presentation was made to Mister Limbaugh, I marked the occasion with a selection of choice quotes from the mouth of the beast. I may have missed a few. Like, "The only way to reduce the number of nuclear weapons is to use them." Or perhaps, "The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies." Maybe, "Women should not be allowed on juries where the accused is a stud." 

I could go on. Rush Limbaugh's career was packed with such wit and wisdom. We didn't need the grotesque irony of handing a medal named Freedom to a man who sought to undermine it for so many. And maybe about now, if you're still hung up on that "but he's dead" thing, we can all make lists of people without whom the world would be a much nicer place. I might appear on one or two of those lists. 

But not nearly as many as Rush Limbaugh. Vaya con Dios, Rush. The world has a little less hate without you in it. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Baby, It's Cold Outside - And Inside

 I grew up in Colorado. One of my first driving experiences was crossing Wolf Creek Pass in the family station wagon with said family packed in around me. Did I mention that I did this on the tail end of winter? Ice and snow everywhere, jackknifed big rigs all around me, and a lot of support coming from the back seats: "You know, they let you drive a little closer to that yellow line in the middle..." If anyone could see the yellow line in the middle, they would have been one up on me, but I white-knuckled us over the back of the Rocky Mountains to eventual safety. Ever since, slick roads have been less of a problem for me. 

Many years later, on a trip to Miami to see the Colorado Buffaloes take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, a freak cold snap descended on the southeast United States. There were freezing temperatures. Not metaphorically freezing. Scientifically below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit freezing. Highway traffic came to a standstill, including the Sunshine State of Florida, where ice is generally something you find in your drink, not on the roads. People were freezing in their homes, built as they were without insulation from the cold outside. In Miami, the temperature on game day was a "frigid" fifty-eight degrees. Returning back to the house where my father and I were staying from a run, I went for a quick swim. Bracing, to be sure, but not scientifically freezing. 

It was scientifically freezing in Texas this past week. Driving became treacherous, primarily due to the lack of experience folks in the Lone Star State have with navigating highways with frozen anything on them. While the homes were built for slightly more inclement weather than their Florida counterparts, many suffered because of a loss of heat, electric and natural gas. Power outages continued for days as Texans suffered through an Arctic Blast that froze the midsection of the United States. A few states north of this havoc in Colorado, my mother was enjoying the comfort and safety of her newly installed windows. That and the dependable power grid the state in which she lives maintains. 

The Texas power utilities failed to properly prepare their generators and regulators since the last tough winter back in 2011. Or the fabled Super Bowl Blackout of 1989. As temperatures dipped into the teens, officials from those Texas utilities scrambled to find someone or something to blame. Other than themselves. They pointed fingers at wind turbines and solar panels. Perhaps not surprisingly, reports suggested that the biggest area of failure came from natural gas facilities, undercutting many politicians' insistence that gas and oil were the solution to the problem. Add to this the deregulation for which so many Republicans have been mad for, allowing a range in energy prices from a low of twenty-two dollars per megawatt hour when demand was less severe to nine thousand dollars. To no power at all. 

Everything's bigger in Texas. Even the failures. 

Yee Haw. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Free*

 There is this myth out there about Free Speech: that it is absolutely free. The whole "fire in a crowded movie theater" chop has been used so often lately, but one might have trouble recalling just what a movie theater is. The reckoning there, whether you can remember crowds of any sort outside the flag-waving mobs that attacked the Capitol, is that you have to consider what you say as a part of an equation. Simply announcing that a blaze has begun in the projection room so that everyone sitting in the dark watching the latest offering from Hollywood's sequel factory is irresponsible. It could lead to panic. It could lead to injury and even death. Or at least the incineration of Zach Snyder's Justice League

That might not be a tragedy in and of itself, but the responsibility factor should not be overlooked. If there truly was a fire in the projection room, the last thing you want to do is have whatever crowd assembled out front to injure one another on their way out of the theater. If they were to flee, it should be in an orderly disgusted manner as dictated by the ridiculousness of the film being shown. Not trampling one another in a race for the exits as smoke and poisonous gasses fill the room that had previously held only mediocre entertainment. 

There is a responsibility to tell the truth. Not just when it comes to movie theaters. This extends to speech we share at peak volume or in whispers. Oddly, both seem to carry effectively, with whispers holding a slight edge when it comes to moving bad information quickly. The veracity of those whispers should be checked, but because they tend to involve that unique invitation to become part of a secret society that knows "the truth," humans tend to savor these bits most. Then there's the amplification of those whispers that makes things even more dicey. Having television networks and dark corners of Al Gore's Internet where these "secrets" can be collected and traded makes that whole free-flowing speech dangerous. It would seem that millions of Americans have been hoodwinked into believing all manner of salacious and less than accurate drivel. Millions of Americans who lack the discernment to distinguish truth from Q. That thrill of being on the inside, in the know, is so very powerful that when those lies start getting repeated by folks you might expect should have their knowledge bases covered, you get some very dangerous momentum. 

Momentum that can lead to folks being trampled underfoot. Values and institutions, crushed under the weight of hate and fear that started as a whisper and turned into a scream. It is just a little sad to discover after all these years that there is a cost to Free Speech. The cost being an effort to speak truth, and to correct mistakes when they are made. Not to amplify them, or push even harder in hopes that somehow repeating a lie big or small to make them true. That's Joseph Goebbels' Territory, and there's nothing free or freeing about that. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Adventures In Perspective

 Would it shock you to know that I have mentioned Britney Spears by name eleven times in this blog over the years? It that doesn't surprise you, then it probably won't surprise you to hear that none of those mentions were particularly kind. Dating all the way back to 2006, Ms. Spears has been a stopping point on my pop culture snarkfest. Around here I suppose I don't really ascribe to the old adage about not saying anything at all when I don't have anything nice to say. 

You see, Britney Spears and I are not friends. We have never been introduced. What I know of her is what "the media" chooses to shovel my way. And, in turn, my relationship turns directly on my reaction to what I am told. I have not been complimentary or sympathetic in my assessment of her experiences. The slack I have cut Britney is next to none. She has been the poster child for excess and poor choices in my vision, and that was all that mattered in the big book of blog fodder.

Until now. This recent reconsideration of how we have all treated Britney Spears has caused me to look back with more than a twinge of regret for the way I tossed her around as if she were a caricature and not a flesh and blood human being. I made the somewhat late-twentieth century American assumption that anyone who found themselves living their lives in public were asking for me to lob my opinion on top of those others that were also privy to her every move. Who is she dating and who is watching her money and who is saying what about the person or persons who are dating her and taking care of her money and what car was she driving when she did that thing that ended up in all those magazines and splashed across Al Gore's Internet? 

Who cares? 

Well, sorry to say that at least eleven times I felt it was my job to care, and in doing so I asked you all to do just that because that is what we do, after all. Isn't it? We shove folks into the limelight for one reason or another and then after a while we delight in watching them crumble. It makes us feel good about all that fame and fortune we never experienced ourselves. 

Sadly, I confess that I might not have come to this point unless I had been beaten to the punch by one Justin Timberlake. This former Mousketeer/actor/pop star and now apologist for and to Britney Spears recently announced how sorry he was sorry: "I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I have failed." He failed to protect and defend both of them from a business and society that is inherently misogynistic and plays by different rules for boys and girls. Witness the slow and steady rise of Mister Timberlake and his brother in Mouse Ryan Gosling. Contrast their careers to the flash and dash of those endured by Ms. Spears and her Mouse-sister Christina Aguilera. 

Of course it is quite possible that none of this regret would be expressed without the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears,  that asks the question, "Why are we treating this person this way?" 

The only answer I can offer is the one I suggested earlier: We are hungry to watch those in the public eye disintegrate. It makes us feel better.

I don't anymore. I feel worse. Britney, if you're out there, I'm sorry. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Aftermath

 “There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it.” 

That was how Senator Mitch McConnell chose to sum up his opinion about the evidence he saw during the weeklong impeachment trial of the former gameshow host. It is also a matter of public record that Senator Mitch did not choose to vote to convict the person whom he believes is practically and morally responsible for the siege of the Capitol. It is a certainty that if his vote had been added to the other seven Republicans that crossed party lines with their guilty votes, more would have followed and that would have changed the outcome dramatically. 

But, as the bard once put it, you can't always get what you want. It is significant that this is the only president to be impeached twice. And he managed to do that within the parameters of his first and we expect only term in office. The managers of the case against the twice-impeached "president" chose to focus on the hours of January 6 that showed a clear dereliction of duty as well as incitement to a mob to riot. And while these folks allowed the argument to get mired down in the semantics of the word "fight," there was no way that anyone watching the video evidence presented could ignore the very real threat presented by the aforementioned mob to representatives, senators and the Vice President himself. Unless you were one of those senators like Cruz or Hawley who chose to tweet or work on their overdue homework as the prosecution made its case. 

Ultimately, it was made clear to us that the former gameshow host maintains his death grip on the Republican party, who seem determined to go down in a blaze of glory even though the former majority leader believes there is "no question" that the gameshow host was responsible for the events that put him and his colleagues in danger. A majority of senators were willing to convict him for inciting the violence that lead to the deaths of a civilian and two Capitol Police officers. A majority of American citizens polled felt the same way. Which wasn't good enough. It give me pause to imagine under what circumstances would ten more senators been willing to vote their conscience instead of their party line. After four years of failed leadership that culminated in hundreds of thousands of Americans dying from a virus that should have been controlled instead of ignored, a crashed economy that was built on the backs of working people rewarding the rich, and a tumble into disrespect worldwide as our country became the laughingstock of the rest of the globe, they couldn't come together to say, "Yeah, actually encouraging the violent overthrow of the United States government is a bridge too far." 

However, that same bard once noted, "if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need." The cracks in the fa├žade of the Republican party are there for all to see. A light has been shone for all to see the hypocrisy and blunt arrogance that has been fomented over the past four years. Not just in the oval office, but in all our elected officials. The ones who are there cheering on the agenda of one man versus those who are there to serve the people who elected them. Organizations such as the "Proud Boys" are starting to splinter because they feel they have been left out to dry. As citizens are being charged and sentenced for their part in the siege of January 6, it will be more and more difficult to hide the truth. Donald Trump got away with murder. His minions won't. 

We cannot let that happen ever again.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Excitable Boy

 I was about eighteen when I chose to climb over a friend's Honda wagon, stepping on the back bumper then leaping on the roof, crawling to the front and rolling off the hood "like Starsky and Hutch." It was that last bit that made my cousin, our insurance agent, turn off the tape recorder as I described the incident. This resulted in my A) having to retell the story without background snickers, B) the loss of whatever friendship I might have had with Mister Honda in the first place, and C) an increase in my parents' insurance premiums. The late night phone call to my parents' house was their tip that their middle son was about to make their lives a little less comfortable for a little while. I did this a few times. A lot of these had to do with errors in judgement on my part, fueled by youthful indiscretion and the mistaken belief that I was indestructible. Which I may have been, but the objects and vehicles around me most certainly were not. This behavior reached its peak around the time I chose to leap from a swing at a playground while under the influence of a somewhat regrettable mixture of chemicals. The result was trashing of my left knee that might have looked better if it came at the end of a career-defining touchdown run. Instead, it was yet another late night phone call to my parents.

I feel that I would be remiss if I did not mention that this experience has come back to me, albeit in a blessedly less frequent form via my own son's teenage antics. Firs of all, the fact that he chose to phone his mother and I when he got pulled over for speeding or the time he was in his friend's pickup when it rolled down an embankment is a source of some mild satisfaction. We have no secrets. Huzzah. However, I could continue to live a happy and productive life without ever receiving another call that starts, "Well, the good new is that I'm still alive." Yes. That is good news, but it is a setup for what comes afterward. I know it all too well. 

Bruno Joseph Cua's parents are probably way too familiar with this syndrome too. Young Bruno was arrested for his part in the January 6 insurrection at our nation's capitol. The eighteen year old was recently charged with a number of counts including assault on a federal officer; civil disorder; obstruction of an official proceeding; restricted building or grounds; and entering or remaining on the floor or gallery of either House of Congress, violent entry or disorderly conduct, engage in physical violence, obstruct, or impede passage, and parade, demonstrate, or picket on Capitol Grounds. It was Bruno's dad who suggested that they make a family trip out of their pilgrimage from Georgia to Washington D.C. to see what their Dear Leader might urge them to do two weeks before the Inauguration. What Bruno's parents might not have known was how deep he was into the mentality of the siege. And while mom and dad hung on the periphery, young Bruno went ahead and pushed and shoved his way eventually into the Senate Chamber, taking picture and swinging a baton. It was only after the hours of video and self-posted admissions of participation that all these MAGAts were picked up and arrested. At his hearing in federal court, Bruno Joseph Cua was denied bond and was kept behind bars awaiting trial. 

Which is to say that I was fortunate. My older brother was in law enforcement way back when, and the family joke was that he couldn't necessarily keep me out of jail, but he could get me a good room. Never arrested. Never jailed. But I did absolutely no favors for my parents' insurance. 

I wonder what the Cua's premiums are like. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Don't Ask

 You don't need to. I'll spill.

I was going to write a blog a week ago about how Bruce Springsteen may or may not have sold out by appearing in a commercial for Jeep. I confess that I did the thing that so many of us do these days: I jumped at the chance to peek at the ad on YouTube. Why wait until some pre-ordained moment during the Super Bowl to see this bit of media that will require my focused attention? I could be in the kitchen scraping the nacho pan or watching replays of all those Kansas City touchdowns. Turns out there were no nachos, only chips and salsa. And those Kansas City touchdowns? Well, let's just say at least I had the chips. 

The ad was a stirring bit of poetic thunder one might have expected from the Boss. It was called "The Middle," and it was all about reuniting America. A noble thought from a man whom I tend to presume is noble himself. 

But it was used to sell Jeeps. Or Jeep the company. Not by name, of course. That would have been crass. Instead, there was a discussion about a church in the middle of the continental United States, and how we can all strive to get there. In our Jeeps. 

Or maybe it really was something more. I do not doubt that Mister Springsteen's heart was in the right place, and I would imagine that whatever he was paid was not the driving force behind his decision to make a commercial for anything after all these years of saying, "Thank you. No." Still, my mind couldn't help but recalling another time I felt my heart break just a little when it came to this semi-major demigod in the pantheon of my life: The time he made an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart to sell a greatest hits package, which came fast on the heels of an appearance at Barack Obama's inauguration, and would you believe that was the year The E Street Band was the halftime show at (wait for it) The Super Bowl. 

And at that time, there was a shrug of the shoulders and some forgiveness for being let down by this paragon of human nature. The operative word there being "human." Which brings us to the DWI. Seventy-one year old Bruce Springsteen was arrested for Driving While Intoxicated. Back in November. And somehow this news became important enough to report just days after his debut as a pitchman for Jeep. Jeep decided to take down the ad upon which they spent ridiculous amounts of money as a zero tolerance response. 

The whole thing left me feeling, as a fan, a little disappointed. Not in terms of the level of scandal, but the existence of scandal at all. I immediately went about uncovering the details of the arrest, which seem to hinge more on a momentary lapse of judgement than a hidden past of drunken debauchery. 

Look at me making excuses for the man.

Because a large part of me needs my heroes to be above all that, and even though this most recent incident occurred in response to a request from a fan to have a shot with him, it still fuels that set of voices that clamor to bring down the mighty. Or at least those I find to be mighty. The ones that like to point out that Springsteen did by his own admission dodge the draft, never had a "real job" or cheated on his first wife. Or maybe I should remain awestruck that this blue collar hero managed to find himself in the position that so many of the characters in his songs have been. I will not be throwing away any of my albums, T-shirts, or ticket stubs. 

But I probably won't be buying a Jeep anytime soon. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Never Really Lost

 I left my heart

in San Francisco 

once.

I had to go back

to see about

retrieving 

it.

When I got there

I found that it was now

shared.

I was not going to take

it back as I had

planned. 

Instead I chose to say

with my heart to be

whole.

And though I don't 

make it to San Francisco

much,

I am able to keep 

my eyes on my

heart.

I know right where it is

morning, noon, and

night.

Turns out that trip

helped me find

love.

So after years of thoughtful

consideration I think I'll 

stay. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Them Too

 If you are having trouble remembering where we are in the swirl of a calendar we have experienced since last March, I advise you to take clues from those things around you. Not unlike remembering a truck stop on a desolate stretch of highway, you can use certain recurrences as signposts in this wilderness. Now that the election is over and the Christmas lights have come down and the inauguration with its pomp and the riots that preceded it have gone by, it might be a little hard to grab hold of exactly where we find ourselves. 

It's time to announce the finalists for this year's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And there is some good news: A whole bunch of women received nominations. Mary J. Blige, Dionne Warwick,  Tina Turner, Kate Bush, Chaka Khan, and Carole King all made the short list this year. I understand how some of those names might cause a bit of head scratching when it comes to the "rock and roll" part. Ms. Warwick's talent is undeniable, but I can't be sure of her rock cred, exactly. 

No matter. This year, we have seven nominees who happen to be women. In a year that has already seen the first woman elected Vice President of the United States, it seems like a relief. Not that this solves any equity issues by itself. Let me explain further by noting that the seventh name I carefully omitted from my initial roll call is The Go-Gos. Are the Go-Gos. That's the name of the group, not one person so conjugation gets a little messy. As do the justifications for keeping this band our of the Hall for so long. With all due respect, the Go-Gos rocked much harder than Carole King, and it has been forty years since their debut album was released. Beauty and the Beat became the first, and to date only album by an all-female band that wrote all their songs and played all their instruments to go to Number One on the Billboard 200. That's history. That's what a Hall of Fame is for, those who blazed trails and opened doors and made it possible for those who came afterward to ride a little smoother. 

On the testosterone-y front, we've got bands like Iron Maiden and Foo Fighters, both of whom can be found in my record collection, and whose efforts to expand their own section of rock's frontier is notable, but first? Only? Not really. I am not sure where to put the Beautiful Mutants of DEVO in this discussion, but I confess I will be pulling for them and the Go-Gos as the date gets closer to the actual induction, which happens in May. If you're curious, that's the month that comes after April. It's February now. Plenty of time time stir up some enthusiasm for those who kicked down the door to the boy's club. 

About time. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Our Bad

 Sorry.

This is not an apology. It is a word. It is, in fact, a sorry excuse for an apology. Depending on the tone of voice used to deliver it, this one word can sometimes exacerbate a situation rather than resolve it. I know this because I have spent a quarter century attempting to get apologies out of young people that are effective when it comes to their purpose: forgiveness. I have a pretty standard rap about how, if someone stepped on my toes, I would expect them to say that they were sorry. But if they kept stepping on my toes with the notion that simply repeating that one word each time, I would get the impression that it was there to ask permission to step on my toes repeatedly. For sorry to work its true magic, an apology should involve some sympathy and maybe a pinch of empathy. Apologies are not the place to spread blame. 

I am looking at you, Marjorie Taylor Greene. "Representative" Greene stood up in front of Congress and asked to be forgiven by explaining that it wasn't her fault. It wasn't her fault that she spouted conspiracy theories about school shootings, California wildfires, and the leadership of the Democratic Party. During a closed door session, she told Republican colleagues that it was just a phase she was going through, and House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy bought it. He listened to what she had to say and believed that she would stop embarrassing herself and the rest of the members of Congress with her wackadoodle ramblings. Kevin characterized her remarks as "an apology."

Well, let's take a look at what we know she said. Marjorie's initial remarks told us the story of someone who grew up, when to school, and started a successful business. She told us that she had never been arrested, but had a few speeding tickets. And that she was swept away by the first candidate that  she felt really spoke to her: Donald Trump. "I thought ‘finally, maybe this someone that will do something about the things that deeply bother me, like the fact that we’re so deeply in debt, that our country has murdered over sixty-two million people in the womb. The fact that our borders are open and some of my friends have had their children murdered by legally aliens, or perhaps that we can stop sending our sons and daughters to fight in foreign wars and be used as the world’s police, basically.'"

Still waiting for the apology.

She rambled on: “And so what I did was I started looking at things on the internet, asking questions, like most people do everyday, use Google, and I stumbled across something - and this was at the end of 2017 - called QAnon." And she went ahead and posted them and made videos and posted them and kept asking questions. "The problem with that is, though, is that I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true and I would ask questions about them and talk about them." And so here is her sorry: "And that is absolutely what I regret, because if it weren’t for the Facebook posts and comments that I liked in 2018, I wouldn't be standing here today and you couldn't point a finger or accuse me of anything wrong because I’ve lived a very good that life that I’m proud of and my family’s proud of, my husband’s proud of, my children are proud of, and that’s what my district elected me for."

Okay. Maybe you missed it. She's sorry that she was allowed to believe the wackadoodle stuff and those Facebook posts, she wouldn't be in trouble at all. She was just doing what all the cool kids were doing, and she just happened to be the one who got in trouble. Insert Marjorie's huff and eye roll here. See, we are the ones who made the mistake here by misunderstanding her intentions. We are the ones who owe her an apology. And who exactly is in charge of allowing an adult woman to believe things? 

Sorry. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Playing Out The String

 Ah, the Super Bowl: culmination of a football season and a notice to families across the nation that dad will be back, muddling in your business and acting like he hasn't just been off for the past six months staring at his fantasy lineups and the injury reports and the Thursday Saturday Sunday Monday games. Games that were shifted at the last minute to accommodate COVID protocols that kept threatening to end up in the cancellation of a regular season game. Or a playoff game? Or the Super Bowl? 

A hush fell over the crowd.

Not that crowds were in evidence for most of the season, unless you mean the cardboard cutouts or the sprinkling of fans that were allowed in to witness this or that contest while the league worked to end systematic racism and make sure that all two hundred fifty-six games would be played and all the corporations that would not survive without the ad revenue generated by the express train to riches called the NFL. 

I won't lie. I watched a great many of those two hundred fifty-six games. I got caught up in the excitement. Partly out of habit, admittedly, but there was also a large element of "the only game in town." After I had tired of binge-watching whatever dramas my wife had uncovered on Netflix, there was a void that needed to be filled. And on February 7, the folks at CBS breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated themselves and everyone associated with the National Football League for bringing the ship in for a landing. Intact. All games played. TV contracts paid. Systemic racism? Well they did put up two hundred fifty million dollars to make it go away and they let players put Breonna Taylor's name on the back of their helmets. 

They did not find Colin Kaepernick a job. Colin Kaepernick who, like Tom Brady, has played quarterback in a Super Bowl and lost. 

As the Super Bowl failed to live up to its modifier, it became apparent that the goal seemed primarily to be completion. Making it to the finish line. The game was as lackluster as the halftime show as the commercials. Football season now complete. Check. Next year will be different. Next year will be better. Next year will be Coke and Pepsi and Budweiser and pickups galore! 

And football. 

Side note: Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif chose to take this season off and do his other job: doctor. He spent this football season working on the frontlines saving lives. He missed the whole football season. 

How about that?

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

It Could Work

 There is a struggle going on, and I can feel it. Most Americans can. It centers on schools, so anyone with school-age kids or is a school-age kid or has acquaintance of someone who is or has school-age kids has an opinion about opening schools. The prevailing notion seems to be much the same as it was with the previous regime: Open the schools and you open the economy. Moms and dads can go back to work if kids have a place to go. Keeping schools closed is creating more depression among young people and an economic depression among adults. Figuring out a way to make this work seems to be in the best interests of everyone involved. 

But those darn teachers keep digging in their heels and saying, "not yet." Those darn teachers are still not sold on the idea that going back to in-person instruction solves a problem for them. While there have been quantum reassurances that children are less likely to carry or pass on the COVID-19 virus, there are still so very many asterisks and variants in the data that suggest that there is still something of a crap shoot when it comes to just exactly who is at risk to exactly what. This strain, that strain, asymptomatic carriers and tests that still manage to miss some positive cases. 

"Do it for the good of the country." comes the suggestion from a loud group protected by masks and social distancing. Can I imagine a school full of five to twelve year olds walking in formation and respecting all the protocols required to keep everyone safe? Yes I can. I can also imagine a world where teachers are not viewed as slackers who only work a few hours a day and take three months off a year to visit their time shares in the Bahamas. I can imagine a lot of things. Like I can imagine a reality in which there wasn't a debate about to whom and when and where vaccinations would be doled out. Oregon's governor got quite the blowback for prioritizing teachers in her plan, the one that hoped to get Oregon's teachers and seniors inoculated by May 2. 

California's governor has a similar plan. It will be rolled out in mid-February. And if the goal is to get all those darn teachers vaccinated before the end of the school year, then the other end of this supply chain needs to be examined. Doses of available medicine to make all this magic work seem to be of limited supply, and even if they happen with startling efficiency, there is the matter of the month between shots. If, for example, yours truly were to get his first shot right around Valentine's Day (mid-February) it would not be until Saint Patrick's Day (mid-March) before I would be fully immunized. This leaves two and a half months to get yours truly back in a classroom surrounded by what we assume is a smaller than normal cohort of non-vaccinated kids, who will be returning at the end of each day to parents who are likely less-than-vaccinated. In the meantime, recess, trips to the bathroom, lunchtime and simple movement around the classroom will all have to be carefully monitored in order to limit contact and possible contagion. 

I can imagine that working. It should also be noted that I have, at times, imagined taking my flying car to work. That is to say that I am enthusiastic about returning to in-person learning because it is what we all know best. Distance learning has been a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. Kids don't learn as well on Zoom. They don't socialize or experience the world as they need to. 

However I will say this without any reservations: None of this is worth dying for. Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The Long Run

 Here's the thing about running thirteen miles. Well, thirteen miles and change: You have a lot of time to think. A great many of these blogs are at least partially composed as I am out exercising, and I find that three miles is a pretty good way to clear my mind enough to grab a topic for discussion and come up with a clever sentence or two to seed the process. After running seven miles, which I do from time to time on the weekends, I try to sit down as abruptly as possible so that all those clever bits don't get lost before I have a chance to use them. Doing that once again gave me a head full of threads that I struggled to manage. 

The fact that I am currently using this opportunity to discuss the process of writing gives you the feeling that I may have over shot the mark when it comes to finding something to say. Do I want to go with the question of whether or not I am a joke machine? How about the my evolution as a patient in the modern health care system? Maybe a simple recounting of what it's like to be fifty-eight years old and find yourself unwittingly participating in a half-marathon?

Because that's what happened. When I left the front gate, it was my plan to try and get in my standard Saturday workout, with a likelihood of getting all my steps for the day in at once. This little gadget my family gave me for my birthday has turned my life into a bit of a videogame. I get a little buzz on my wrist when I've been sitting too long. I get another buzz when I have met a goal. And I can earn badges for doing a lot of that kind of thing. All of which suggests that I'm an easy mark when it comes to achievables. Keeping in mind that these are not even real gold stars. These are virtual. And once you acquire one of these badges, I know that getting the next one will require more effort on my part. 

But what about that joke machine thing. Somewhere around mile six, I started to mine the image of the writer's room at the Alan Brady Show. For those of you not in the know, that's where Rob Petrie worked. Rob was played by Dick Van Dyke, and he was a big enough star that they decided to name the show after him. Alan Brady was the show within the show. Am I going too fast? It all seemed to make sense between miles six and seven. Buddy Sorrell, played by Morey Amdsterdam, was the one they called "The Human Joke Machine." No matter what the situation or occasion, Buddy had a line. I decided when I was still fairly young that I didn't want to be that way. I wanted to be the clever, whimsical kind of funny that Rob was. Buddy and his old-school counterpart Sally, played by Rose Marie, always seemed just a little at odds with Rob's "college boy" attitudes. Maybe they were also a little jealous that this "college boy" got the head writer's job. It was his job to take all those flying bits of funny and corral them into something that could be used on a television show that we never really got to see because we were so busy watching the show about making the television show. Buddy's life is show-biz, having married a former showgirl. Rob is more a product of suburbia, with a wife at least two steps less wacky than Buddy's. 

It was the beginning of mile nine when I started thinking about health care. I was giving myself credit for being fit enough to keep chugging along as I approach sixty years. I was composing a note to my doctor, whom I have not seen since before this whole pandemic thing began, and assuring her that I have been being safe and careful, and maybe even getting healthier during all this shutdown time. Which caused me to reflect on my son's health, and it occurred to me that his connection to our health insurance was close to timing out. He would eventually be in the position of finding his own personal physician, and that's when I realized that when I was his age, I was more often than not in touch with medical care through the auspices of the emergency room than scheduled office visits and checkups. 

Look at me now. Running half a marathon and not collapsing as I made it back to the front gate. Because as it turns out, that's really the mark of being at least marginally healthy: not collapsing. And being able to make it back to the keyboard to write about it. 

Monday, February 08, 2021

Slept Like The Dead

 My dad snored. This was not a secret. He had a habit of falling asleep in front of the television in the living room just before the weather came on. You could safely assume that the weather forecast was being delivered because it could not be heard over the snorts and squonks coming from the chair where my father's head had lolled back slightly, allowing for the guttural clanking to spill from his open mouth. He once made the mistake of recreating this performance while staying as a guest at a friend's Central Park West apartment. Lying near the end of the bed, my mother watched as he began his early-sleep ritual, with their old high school chum looking on. As my dad lapsed into the quaking state and into window rattling, his dear friend lashed out with a foot to the middle of his back: "Don! Wake up! You're snoring like a pig!" 

Which is just one in a series of apocryphal tales about the sounds my father would make when he wasn't awake. One of the last times I saw my father alive was the night before he started his cross country trip via small plane. He fell asleep waiting for the weather. Once I was sure by the timbre of the rumblings that I could get away with it, I changed the channel to the news in Korean and went to bed myself. The last practical joke I played on my old man. 

But as much as everyone who knew him around bedtime would tease him, he seemed steadfast in his habit. His affliction. He blamed it on the deviated septum he got as part of the heroic act of blocking an extra point as the highlight of his junior high football career. With his face. A facemask might have saved him and the rest of us from years of being frightened of monsters in the night. 

Now, decades after he went to sleep for good, I am wearing my own facemask. The kind that forces air up my nose to keep me from snoring, just like dear old dad. I have suffered from insomnia for most of my life, but now that I don't have my own racket and that of my father to contend with, I sleep much more peacefully. Which is kind of a shame, since a few extra hours of sleep might have benefited us all back in the day when the very foundation of our house shook just before the weather came on. 

When we were cleaning out my fathers things from our mountain cabin after he passed, we found a mini cassette recorder. There were a fistful of sixty minute tapes, which my brothers and I anticipated might be songs or stories or some final words of wisdom. Nope. Instead we listened to hour after hour of that sound we all knew so well. It took just a day or two after that discovery to figure out that he had been documenting his log-sawing in hopes of presenting it to a doctor who might alleviate his septum from its deviation thereby freeing us all from the late night din. 

These days, I make a point of crawling into bed before I start to drift, but every so often, I feel my head tip back and my throat open just enough to release the call of the wild. And I miss my dad. 

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Curtain Down

 You'll have to excuse me, but there are those bits of news that come as a surprise. When I read that Hal Holbrook had died, I was a little taken aback. With all due respect to the late actor and his incredible body of work, I had naively assumed that he had already passed. In my mind, Mister Holbrook was old when I first encountered him  in the late sixties. He was the tall, reedy presence of authority, a curmudgeon before his time. Whatever time that was.

When you consider that the role with which he was most associated was that of Mark Twain, and he started doing that in 1959, it's no wonder that I always assumed that he was in his seventies or eighties. To be fair, he was ninety-five when he made his exit from this stage, metaphorically speaking. I was fortunate enough to catch Mark Twain Tonight on one of the many tours it took across the country. Hal Holbrook created the show, which appeared first Off Broadway, then on Broadway, then on television, and crisscrossed the country for decades. It was on one of those crisses or crosses that I caught his act. It had the mild side effect of making me look in each one of his other portrayals for a little bit of Twain. 

It wasn't always on display. He regularly played tough but fair lawyers or government officials, including Abraham Lincoln. But my favorite roles of his were the ones where he started out looking like that tough but fair guy but turned out to be a real bad guy. Like Lieutenant Briggs in Magnum Force, providing Clint Eastwood with one my favorite lines, "Man's got to know his limitations." I was also entranced by Mister Holbrook's turn as the head of NASA in Capricorn One. This had him riding the wave of conspiracy theories about faked landings all the way to the beach, and then some. 

And then there was that voice in the garage. All The President's Men came tumbling down because of that shadowy figure nicknamed Deep Throat. When I was fourteen, I had no idea that this sobriquet was lifted from an adult film of the same name. All I knew was that Hal Holbrook was responsible for bringing Nixon down, and that redeemed him for any and all past and future sins. 

Deep Throat and Mark Twain. That was plenty, but his stage, television and film credits fill the pages of IMDb and Wikipedia. Hal Holbrook didn't so much stomp on the Terra as much as he sauntered across it, which may have helped lead to his longevity. "We never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead -- and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier." That one was Twain, but it could just as easily have come from Hal. And night after night, it probably did. 

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Dancing About Architecture

 Cotton candy sunrise clouds

That's a phrase that has been bouncing around my head for months now, and I have not had a place for it. Until now.

Now I'm going to write about poetry, which hovers right next to the notion of dancing about architecture, an idea that has been suggested by Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Steve Martin. But I am happy to believe that the person who first declared that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," was the inimitable and opinionated Martin Mull. 

Which is not the tangent upon which I want to be stuck, but it is the idea that has fueled my attempts at poetry for decades. Before I was ever a published essayist, before my wife decided to gather together some of these bits of whimsy into bound collections, I was a published poet. It is a part of my literary resume. I was a poet in the most excruciating way possible. That's how I look back on it now. I wrote pained couplets that rarely rhymed in attempts to capture my tortured soul. With a little more talent and access to a synthesizer, I might have become a K-Mart version of Trent Reznor. This is not what happened. Instead, the veil of strife lifted and I eventually became free enough to write complete sentences, only a few of which rhymed. Now there is the occasional flight of fancy that has me in a poetic mood, mostly anniversaries and holidays. If you hang around here long enough, you're bound to run into one or two.

All of which is to say that I am not really a poet. Amanda Gorman is a poet. If you did not attend or watch the Inauguration, you may have missed her poem "The Hill We Climb." I'll give you a moment to catch up if this is the case. She stood up in front of a crowd of officials and celebrities and read for nearly six minutes. She stood in the footsteps of Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. She brought us all words of confidence and hope. "...for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it." Her words appear on the page like prose, but sing from it like a song. These were the words of a twenty-two year old daughter of a school teacher who was speaking for an entire nation. That's what a poet does, move you with words. I look forward to future inaugurations and celebrations where we can hear Amanda's poetry. Maybe not anything as sublime as "cotton candy sunrise clouds," but we can dream, can't we?

Friday, February 05, 2021

Phil-osophy

 Twas the day before Groundhog

and up and down the block

I was going for a run

not just a walk

I met a neighbor, which is where the poetry stops. We were conspicuously avoiding the topic of politics, since I know how red he tends to lean. Instead we talked briefly of the Denver Broncos' disappointing season because it was a shared bond. 

Then he asked me if I was ready for the rain. For the past week or so, local forecasters had been predicting torrential storms that would cause flooding, power outages, and maybe even insurrection. Okay, maybe not that last part, but we were being prepared for a deluge. And I suppose, by comparison, that is what we got. This winter has been pretty dry, and so the advent of any precipitation was worth celebrating. Or fearing. I told my neighbor, with a roll of my eyes, that I was sure that we would welcome the moisture because that is the refrain my mother taught me. I did let on that I was not expecting a monsoon.

That's when my neighbor dropped some knowledge on my noggin. He said that he had studied meteorology in anticipation of a pilot's license, and let me know just how difficult it is to forecast the weather on the left coast, especially the Bay Area. Fronts don't organize as neatly over the vast Pacific Ocean the way they do as they make their way across the continental United States. This is when I was struck by a pair of feelings: One, a newfound respect for my neighbor and his teachings. Two, a sense of forgiveness for all the times I had sneered at meteorologists or those folks who wave at a green screen on television in attempt to explain what might happen in tomorrow's skies. They were doing science. Some more than others to be sure, but they were attempting to understand the heavens and explain it to us here on earth. Pretty lofty. Plenty of hubris there. 

Which brings me back to the rodent from that first stanza. For hundreds of years, going all the way back to the Old Country, folks have been gathering around a hole in the ground to see if the aforementioned rodent (groundhog here, badger elsewhere, marmots even) would emerge and somehow discern that what he saw on the ground was his shadow or the coming of another six weeks of winter. So in love with this tradition, we created a holiday around it. Because when it comes to predicting the weather, you're probably just as well off with a tiny mammal than a big-brained one with advanced degrees. Look outside your own hole in the morning. Is it raining? Put on a jacket. 

Thursday, February 04, 2021

White Noise

 Happy Super Bowl week. 

I can understand how you might have missed this point in the otherwise busy news cycle. I confess that I had to do some quick tallying to recall last year's matchup. Kansas City won Super Bowl Just Shy Of Fifty-Five against the team from San Francisco. This year, Tom Brady has a new team with whom he would like to win the NFL championship. The Kansas City Chiefs are hoping that the more things change, the more they should stay the same. 

Except for their team name. And that obnoxious "tomahawk chop" favored by their fans. As I said, so much has changed, including Tom Brady not being a Patriot but now a Buccaneer. Pirates feel very well represented in the professional sports landscape, with two NFL franchises and a Major League Baseball team to call their own. Out in Washington, before the election and the riots and the virtual inauguration, there was a seismic shift of sorts coming from the sports world. The Washington Football Team is now called just that. Pending approval of a new mascot, football fans had to be satisfied with urging their team on without an avatar. It should be noted that this change accompanied a trip to the playoffs after a five year drought. 

It could be argued that in Washington, they didn't have much to lose. A lack of success created a pretty desperate situation, magnified by a summer of racial unrest and heightened awareness that made what had been suggested as inevitable come to pass. Meanwhile, in Missouri, the choice was less clear. Why mess with success? The argument was made that their team name was more honorific and less derogatory. Who wouldn't want to be a Chief? Unless you're uncomfortable with cultural appropriation, or the guttural caterwauling made in hopes of cheering on the home team. "Tomahawk Chop" is not a cultural thing outside of sports stadiums, dating all the way back to the 1984 Florida State Seminoles. That tradition continues today as a tribute to the persistent tone-deafness of sports fans.

Which is kind of interesting, considering that this year's football season has been played in the vacuum of near-empty arenas. For broadcast purposes, sound engineers have piped in noise to simulate noise made by spectators. And in some locales, a limited number of fans have been allowed in to take in the spectacle. One of these spots has been Kansas City, where those who have very loosely packed socially distanced stands have brought their tired rituals back with them: barbecue and racial insensitivity. 

I should note here that, as a football fan, I have a great appreciation for the game the Kansas City team puts on the field. They are fast, exciting, and creative. They are a lot of fun to watch. I try not to listen. The the pumped in white noise. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Games People Play

 We haven't played the Pollyana game for a while. Circumstances have been dire enough that the suggestion of playing The Glad Game, in which one tries to find the positive side of any and all things, seemed a little absurd. 

I'm here to tell you things are looking up. Not a lot, but enough that we can give this a shot. I'll start.

Domestic terrorism. I am glad that the riot at the Capitol happened. By crawling out from under their rocks and showing themselves in the daylight and documenting their every move with easily traced mobile phones, the creepies that issued forth on January 6 showed themselves for what they were. Anyone who might have been on the fence about agreeing or, heaven forbid, joining up now have a very clear picture of exactly what the Proud Boys and Qanon have to offer. And little by little, the rank and file of those who might once have sat in quiet approval are being forced to speak out.

Not all of them, mind you, but some.

Also, I am glad for Marjorie Taylor Greene. If you are not familiar as yet with this firebrand from Georgia's 14th Congressional District, then you may have been napping over the past couple weeks. She's the one who announced that she would, on Joe Biden's first day in office, submit articles of impeachment against him. Testing the system. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. And what about all those questions she has about mass shootings? She's hoping to open our eyes to all possibilities. Could it be that the murderous rampage in Las Vegas back in 2017 was just a ploy to make it easier to take everyone's guns? And while we're at it, why not tag along behind Parkland High massacre survivor David Hogg as he walks to a meeting with lawmakers, questioning his motives and the reality he lived through? Isn't that what free speech is all about? I am so glad Marjorie is out there testing the limits of that right, if not everyone else's patience. 

And I am glad for this chance for the rest of us to start talking back to these crazy voices. No longer inside our heads, they are out there spouting bile made possible and even fashionable by the previous regime. I am glad that we are finally starting to see people raising their own voices against the din of irrationality. I am glad for the light returning. I am glad for this chance to renew. I am glad I don't have to play this game anymore. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Presto

 I was thinking this morning about Rocky and Bullwinkle. That part in every show where the moose says, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat." To which the squirrel replies, "Again? That trick never works." Except it does. After a fashion. Bullwinkle does not, in fact produce a rabbit, but he does prestidigitate a bear, a tiger, a rhino and a lion. Like the moose says I guess he doesn't know his own strength. 

It is not, as it turns out, pulling rabbits out of hats. But when it comes to making something out of nothing, it turns out that he's pretty amazing. These images are the ones that came to my mind as I reflected on the GameStop peccadillo. By means of introduction, I have never been a big fan of the stock market. I refer to it as "pretend money." During the last four years as the former game show host would honk his joy horn every time the Dow closed at some new record or other, I tried to imagine how this translated to prosperity. Was this an indicator of our nation's wealth, or just a slice off the top? That thin slice that we refer to as "the one percent." These are the folks who are making the money when the market goes this way or that. These are the folks that seem to make money whether or not the market goes up or down. They make money when jobs are created. They make money when jobs are eliminated. When jobs are eliminated, the people who had those jobs no longer make money. But that one percent? Somehow they just keep making money. 

Hedge fund manager. That's the job everyone wants. I looked it up on Investopedia. It says, "Managing a hedge fund can be an attractive career option because of its potential to be extremely lucrative." Which leads to the logical question, "What's a hedge fund?" Would you believe that it has nothing to do with gardening? It's got everything to do with making money. It's investing. 

Making something out of nothing. It's magic. And until very recently, it was only a select few who got the something, and the nothing wasn't really that: nothing. The nothing was all about speculation. Will this company do better next year or worse? It makes sense to think that a company like GameStop, which deals in new and used video games would make less money this year because so many people have stopped going to the malls where their stores used to be. The ones that have closed because of the pandemic, and the ones that have closed because so many video game companies have stopped selling discs in boxes and gone to online digital sales. You might speculate that this company would experience a downturn. Which would make a good investment opportunity, if you wanted to pick up some stock cheap. 

Which is what a bunch of folks out there on Al Gore's Internet decided to do. Kind of like a prank. Or maybe out of a sense of nostalgia for the way things used to be. These once and future gamers now have access to online trading apps that allow them to buy and sell stocks just like the big boys. That's how these apps were marketed to them, anyway. So all of a sudden, this GameStop prank turns into a real mess for the big boys. Hedge funds start getting affected. The truckloads of money headed to the mansions of the one percent are a little lighter. 

Panic set in. And then those little rascals decided they wanted to rescue movie theaters, so they started snapping up stock for AMC. And way up high in those distant towers, money that should have been trucked into their vaults was finding its way into the pockets of these - well - nerds. Everybody knows nerds don't make that kind of money. 

But they did. Which is why word came down that they needed to stop all that. It wasn't their place. Suddenly, there was no more GameStop stock to buy or sell. Or AMC. There would be no radical redistribution of wealth. There would be no magic. Not in the stock market. 

But for just a moment there, they pulled a rabbit out of a hat. A pretty good trick. 

Monday, February 01, 2021

Forcing Open The Window

 When I was a mere slip of a lad, my window on the world was extremely narrow. This was especially true of race relations. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado where the concerns of a generation were regularly played out in living color on the campus of the University of Colorado. Living color if that color happened to be beige. I grew up in a place and time when there was a peach colored crayon called "flesh." I lived in a modest suburban enclave where the families looked, within some very basic parameters, just like me. 

This did not mean that I wasn't sensitive to the struggles of those who were colored with different crayons. I was an extremely sensitive kid. I was six years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I felt that. When I did see news on our television, I understood the problem with black and white even though we had a color TV. My parents helped pave this path, even as their own awareness was being forged. But for me, those were lives being led somewhere else, and the fully formed thought that Black Lives Matter would not have occurred to me back then.

Not until I watched The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Now at the ripe old age of twelve I was able to absorb more of what was happening, had happened, and needed to happen My narrow window was forced open by the performance of Cicely Tyson, who played Miss Pittman who was born into slavery and lived long enough to become a touchstone for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The scene in which she finally walks up the sidewalk, brushes past the gun toting peace officers to drink from the Whites Only water fountain opened my eyes. This was also the woman whose portrayal of the mother in Sounder two years before might have had the same impact, but I wasn't ready. In 1977, when Ms. Tyson played another mother, Alex Haley's great great great great great grandmother, the world was starting to become ready. I hedge here because I note that while the world seemed enraptured by all the performances and story of a black family's generational journey, that struggle still had to be remade just a few years ago. As if to remind us all that the struggle continues. 

I salute Cicely Tyson here on the occasion of her passing, and thank her for that opening of my eyes, and helping to provide me with role models and heroes that were some other color than beige. She stomped on the Terra, and she made me watch. And listen. And learn. She will be missed. Aloha, Cicely.