Thursday, October 23, 2014

Play Nice, Or Don't Play

One of the things I stress on the playground where I work is sportsmanship. It is kind of an obscure concept for five to eleven-year-olds, but we do the best we can. This is true of many of the lessons we try to teach in elementary school, but if we can catch them while they still have those stretchy and absorbent brains, we all might stand a chance when it comes time to solve simple problems in the adult world.
For example: What should happen when you don't agree with someone else on the playground? It is not okay to hit, or spit, on the person with whom you are having a disagreement. That would only make things work. We start with "I messages." We encourage kids to share their feelings about the situation that caused the conflict. For example: "I don't like it when you laugh if I miss the ball." Or "It makes me feel bad when you cut me in line." We teach best by modeling the behavior we would like to see. That's why I would expect that the best place in the world for this kind of instruction would be "The Show Me State," Missouri.
Unfortunately, we can't always expect what we teach to stick the first time. For instance, "I don't like it when you hang the United States flag upside down," would have been a much better opening line than simply grabbing it from a protester, inciting what could best be described as even more of a ruckus. Maybe, "It makes me feel bad when you put the handcuffs on too tight." Upside down flags? Handcuffs? What kind of playground was this? Well, it wasn't exactly a playground. It was just outside a sports facility in St. Louis. You might think that after having watched the hometown team surprise the reigning world champs, Rams fans might have been in a more forgiving mood. It could be that the lack of forgiveness was also being felt on the part of the protesters, who were outside the Edward Jones Dome calling for justice in the case of Michael Brown.
I suspect that people who pay upwards of one hundred dollars a ticket to watch professional football in any city don't expect to walk out of that experience and into civil unrest. I'm also guessing that citizens of Missouri might have become desensitized to the sounds of voices raised in anger, but I could be wrong. Maybe the best outcome would have been for both groups to enjoy their First Amendment rights and keep it at Freedom of Speech. I know we have that lawful assembly thing in there, but I'm pretty sure our founding fathers didn't include a "Freedom of Scuffling" in any of the original versions of the Constitution. They chose, as we do now, to use their words. Good modeling, Mister Madison!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Crank It Up

The natural progression of things: Boy gets stereo. Boy gets car. Boy gets car stereo. It's a story I know well, and it is currently getting another play in our driveway. This makes sense, since car stereo is the place where I would fully expect to intersect with my son's love of cars. For months now, my eyes have glazed over as my son has described all the moving parts of the automobile he would eventually own. He has entertained all kinds of notions about mufflers and ignitions and wheels and all manner of other modifications he could make to his once and future car. I changed some spark plugs back in the day, and certainly added my share of oil to the crankcase of my Chevrolet Vega, but I would not have labeled myself as a grease monkey.
I did, however, spend a good deal of time and energy connecting speakers and equalizers and cassette players and radios to the interiors of cars that I owned as wells as those of my friends and family. This was an extension of the enthusiasm I had for home stereo systems, generated in large part by hanging around with my older brother who was fascinated by all things tweeter, woofer, and component. Finding new and louder ways to play music at home and in our cars was our prime directive. The seventies and eighties were a magical time when it came to portable stereo. Not the Walkman kind, but the Carman kind. A couple of my friends offered to come over and help me install my new Jensen triaxial speakers in that misbegotten Vega. It took six hours and as many hacksaw blades, but they finally found a way to get them effectively mounted on the inside of my car. It was a traumatic experience, and I swore that if anyone was going to tear up the vinyl of my car, it was going to be me.
I added a graphic equalizer, then upgraded the radio and cassette player. I stayed busy connecting wires: blue to blue, red to red, and what's this green wire with a black stripe? I made them all work, eventually. More often than not, the stereo equipment in cars that I owned far outstripped the value of the cars themselves. As I have mentioned here from time to time, I don't really like to drive. But I do like to listen to music. By taking that music out of the house, my parents weren't there to tell me to turn it down.
That's why I went out in front of our house this past weekend to watch my son move his own music out to the streets. There was some mild frustration, and some equally mild cursing, but mostly the scene was familiar. I wanted to get my head up under the dashboard and start snipping and splicing, but I knew this was not my time. Not my car. Instead, I went inside and burned a CD for my son to test his new system: Aerosmith, Van Halen, Judas Priest. His car. My music. Once everything was hooked up and ready to go, he did the right thing. He turned it up.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Some Days Are Diamonds

The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of other things: Of cleats and bats and stolen bases, of curve balls and rings. The Giants and Royals will square off in a battle between two wild card teams that few, if any, baseball pundits would have expected. That's what makes it so exciting. Underdogs, essentially, slugging out for the championship of the World.
Around my house, we're trying to rejigger our rooting expectations. Do we go with the Bay Area team, in spite of the fact that they seem to be making a habit of winning a World Series every other year? Or maybe we continue to pull for the Royals, who have gone nearly thirty years without a trip to the big dance? The team from Kansas City would also be the schadenfreude choice, as they were the ones who sent our Oakland Athletics home with a bang and a whimper.
Then there's the whole Kansas connection. Once upon a very long time ago, my father's father left his home in Salina, Kansas, explaining to his wife that he was off to Chicago to watch the Cubs play the Detroit Tigers in the last World Series that featured Chicago's North Side team. The Cubbies were my grandfather's team. My grandmother didn't care. She let him know that if he left, he would be coming home to an empty house. He went to the game. My grandmother moved her children to Boulder, Colorado where my father eventually met my mother and started his own family. That's where I came in.
If not for the World Series, there would be no me. That's why I wondered aloud to my son, after the Giants won their now seemingly obligatory National League pennant, how much it would cost to go see a game in this year's Fall Classic. He and I have seen our share of baseball together. We have the distinction of never having attended an Oakland A's loss. At times we have considered the potential of buying season tickets, just to test that streak, but now the number of baseball seasons we will spend together is dwindling. Why not make one last big show of our love for baseball? This was the musing I left my son with as we went to bed last Thursday night.
As Friday wore on, my mind filled with workaday concerns. Until just after three o'clock, when I received a text from my son: "Cool son thing - I checked out WS tickets. $600-$15,000." I wrote him back: "Well, there's always TV." Just like there's always baseball. Forever.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Foreign Correspondence

Foreigners. What do they know?
Well, for one, they know a foreign language. So they've got that going for them. They are also acutely aware of just how creepy we Americans are. For example, there is the simple conversational move of saying, "pardon me" before asking a simple question. What's the big deal? Do you have the time? I'm just looking for a little information here.
Well, if you're not from these shores, you may have missed that little piece of polite interaction that allows us to intrude into someone else's day only with a mild apology for interrupting whatever reverie they might be enjoying. "Pardon me, do you have the time?" It suggests that we, as the interrogator are asking a favor, since it is not the rest of the world's responsibility to keep us informed of the time. It also puts wiseacres like myself in the position of simply answering, "Yes," and walking away. We could be asking for just a moment out of their day, but it is still their day. It is not a huge intrusion, but we're not doing anyone a favor by asking them for bits of information that could be gleaned from the watch around your wrist or the phone in your pocket. If only you hadn't forgotten both of them in your mad dash to get out of the house that morning.
Still, there's a time and a place for civility, which sounds a lot like civilization, which is what America is still busy creating. European cultures have been steeping in their own juices since before we were busy wiping out the native population of this continent. A lot of us came here from Europe, but apparently we left our manners back home.
Or maybe it's just the arrogance that comes from being in first place. When you're a Super Power, you don't have to say you're sorry. Or excuse me. Or even thank you. Everybody knows it's your planet, and the rest of us are just here to roll our collective eyes at you. This might also explain our cuisine. Cheez-Whiz means never having to say your sorry. I looked it up.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Dignity. Above all: Dignity. That is what I would appreciate from my party of choice, the Democrats. Yet, here they were, filling up my inbox with topics such as, "painful loss," and "we regret to inform you." There was even one that showed up whining, "David, we're begging you." It was so nice of them to make their pleading so very personal. Money. They want it now. Great big wads of it. Joe Biden wrote to encourage me, "I trust that you're listening when Democratic candidates ask for help, David, and if I'm confident about where these elections are going to end up, it's because I have so much faith in you." Flattery, Mister Biden, will get you nowhere.
You see, I've given in the past. I contributed to senate races and both Obama campaigns, as well as a variety of ballot measures. I understand that the price of freedom is five to fifty dollars, all bundled up in stacks that will never match those great big checks that corporations disguised as people write every day. I used to donate money because it made me feel like I was a part of the solution. Now I feel like giving is not what they're after. The want me to give in. 
Surrendering to the inevitable is what I refuse to do. Of course I'll give you twenty-five dollars because I did it once before. You've got my e-mail, why not just keep pounding on the digital door until someone answers? Well, here it is: No. You can keep "pleading...PLEADING," and telling me that "all hope is lost," but I'm not caring anymore. The terrible sameness of politics as usual in these United States has left me numb to the suggestion that any one candidate could make a difference. 
That's awful, right? Well, if it's my fault that the senate ends up in the hands of Republicans, I will have to take that in stride. Short of running for political office myself, I just don't see how putting more money in this particular hole is going to make any sort of difference. Billy Connolly once admonished us, "Don't vote, it just encourages them." If we give them our money, it can only do something much, much worse. It could legitimize what they are doing. Or in the case of our congress, what they are not doing. The bottom line for me is this: They are not currently electing anyone. All of these histrionics are in anticipation of an election that will take place in a few weeks. This is all about raising money to tell us all about the election that is coming up in a few weeks. And how to vote. 
If you really want my vote, quit asking me for money. That's not how I work. I'm thinking that instead of begging and pleading for my spare change, how about a nice gift? For me. But I won't beg. That wouldn't be dignified. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014


"Community Schools, Thriving Students." That's what the Oakland Unified School District web site says right on the front page. This is a change from the past few years when we were touting the fact that Oakland was "the State of California’s most improved urban school district over the past eight years." We're still shouting that from our Linkedin page. 
We. What do I mean "we?" I mean that I am a part of that organization. Actually, I'm more than just one part: I'm a parent of an OUSD student and a teacher. My wife is the president of the Oakland Tech PTSA, and my son has attended Oakland public schools from kindergarten to his senior year in high school. We are consumers and producers. We reap what we sow. That is why I am so very pleased to know that graduation rates have increased across the district right along with our Academic Performance. Test scores are a great indicator of how we are doing, but it's that graduation thing that I'm most impressed with. We are taking kids from the ABC's to the ACT, and that's a good thing. 
Students are thriving, and that's a great thing. Now, to be clear, I did not take a job in teaching because I believed it was my ticket to the fast lane. I did not expect to have to rent storage units to house the pallets full of cash that I would be making. That's more of a Walter White kind of thing. It should be noted, while he was a fictional character, Walter chose a career path of methamphetamine kingpin over that of public school teacher. In New Mexico, where the salaries are below the national average.  Not like they are in California, where we are quite simply rolling in the dough. It's what you might expect from the most improved urban school district with thriving students. 
And yet, teachers continue to flee our district for other opportunities. Some in education. Some outside the halls of academia. Most of the time, when a teacher leaves their job, it's not because of the salary. You don't tend to spend that many years in school and not figure out that millionaires are not forged in classrooms. They leave for a myriad of other reasons, but mostly because they are "unsatisfied." Most of them are new teachers, with  less than five years of experience. Who fills those vacancies? Newer teachers with even less experience. As dedicated as fresh recruits can be, they will still end up going home at the end of a hard week and wonder if the job they are ready to turn around in a couple of days and do it all over again. After five years, for half of them, the answer is "no."
Would paying anyone more money actually make a difference? I think it might. I would like to live in a community with thriving teachers. I would like to believe that the improvements we have made over the past eight years aren't some randomly generated bump in a curve, but rather momentum being gained over time. Momentum that will not be slowed or stopped by an exodus of experienced teachers. The last raise we got was a year ago, amounting to one point five percent. Because of the economic windfall that blew California's way last year, that was bumped up to a whopping two percent a few months later. For starting teachers, that amounted to seven hundred eighty dollars. A year. Sixty-five dollars a month. Take that, you hard-working, thrive-inducing improvement makers!
I'm not in it for the money. But it would be nice.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Short Attention Span

I blame Michael Jackson. He was the guy who brought "long-form video" to the forefront. A million years ago, give or take, the King of Pop released "Thriller," a mini-movie that starred him as a shy high school boy who turned into a werewolf then a zombie. All set to the beat of the title song of an album that had already sold enough copies that families had begun to use it as pre-fab siding for their houses. At the time, I ate it up. With a fork and a spoon. It was directed by fan favorite John Landis, who had given the world "Blues Brothers," but more significantly to me, "American Werewolf In London."
Maybe I should blame John Landis. He paved the way for the eventual collaboration between Mister Jackson and Martin Scorsese. And so the world of film and music video became inexorably intertwined. Which was unfortunate, since my memories of music videos was based more on the notion that these were commercials from record companies sent into our living rooms in hopes that we might like the look of this new band or that old group.
Of course, my own experience with short films and music date back to clips from "Yellow Submarine," inspiring me to plan to make an animated short for the Beatles' "Hello, Goodbye." It was heavily influenced by the "All You Need Is Love" segment from the Fab Four's psychedelic romp. Okay, wasn't so much "heavily influenced" as much as it was a blatant rip-off, and since I was ten years old at the time and my sketches never really advanced beyond the restaurant napkin stage, I didn't fall into trouble with Apple Corps' lawyers.
Years later, when my parents bought me a camcorder in hopes that my film studies might actually turn into some sort of useful vocation, I made a few sputtering attempts at making something that might show up on those proto-MTV years. Nothing was broadcast outside my living room. But that didn't keep me from watching all those early clips in heavy rotation. You remember the ones with that flat, grainy shot on video feel? If you don't, that's okay, because they won't haunt your dreams the way the do mine. Human League. Vapors. Flock of Seagulls. All the rest of the New Wave. The ones that came before "Thriller."
Then suddenly, it wasn't enough to have a three minute video for a three minute pop song. You needed that long-form video that would set you apart from the crowd. The crowd that wasn't being played as a special event. I have heard that music videos are still being made. I don't tend to watch them because they take me back to 1983. Who needs that kind of flashback?
Oh - that's right: me.