Saturday, February 28, 2015

Your Permanent Record

It's that time of year again, when I start telling kids as young as eight years old that the test they are about to take will be following them around for the rest of their lives. Okay, maybe I don't shovel it on that heavy, but state testing is a pressure-filled time for kids and adults alike. If only "state testing" meant that students had to come up with all fifty states and their capitals, or they would have to exercise their knowledge of their own state's history. That might fit in some nice, convenient box. How about a test that encompasses everything you've learned in third grade? What about the stuff your teacher didn't quite get to? What about the stuff you missed while you were absent? Do your best, and know that it will follow you in an ever-expanding folder to the college of your choice. At least that's what we would like the children to imagine.
What does that do to kids? What does that do to teachers? Administrators? Parents? Advertisers? As it turns out, data collection in our schools has become big business. That's a big deal to a lot concerned parents and students as well as the aforementioned teachers and administrators. Like Traci Burnett, from Colorado. Ms. Burnett wonders what we are doing with all this data. The quick answer is that we are making an ever-expanding folder of information that follows your child from preschool to the grave. Why would that folder need to include household income and marital status of parents? For those studies that we periodically read about. The ones that tell us that kids who come from stable, well-funded families do well in school. Oops. Spoiler Alert. Kids that are absent from school a lot don't do as well. Especially on standardized tests. Sorry. Another Spoiler Alert.
Once a kid gets to middle or high school, the data collected starts having to do with personal habits like drinking and drugs and, Spoiler Alert, sex. Suddenly I am very interested to know what sort of achievement we are getting from our stoned, liquored up canoodling youth. That could be because I'm an educator, and we're the ones who hold on to such information. As if it mattered. Forever.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

It's a sad thing, really. When the phone rings and the voice on the other end tells me that they are calling from Microsoft, I don't flinch before I go into my act. My whole aim is to try and keep this person on the line as long as their patience will allow. Not because I want to aggravate them. I do this so that they won't aggravate someone else. I know that Microsoft is not in the habit or practice of cold-calling customers who are sending errors to their servers. That is why I take those opportunities to take their "concerns" and milk them until they give up on me.
"My computer is sending error messages? Is that dangerous?" I like to start out sounding frightened. The voice on the other end is generally reassuring.
"Which computer is it? We have a number of them in the house." I am reminded that they are interested in the Windows computer.
"The one that's sending the bad messages, right?" At this point, I am still very nervous because I can only imagine what trouble I may have caused a great big company like Microsoft. "Maybe it's the one by the window. Do you think sunlight might be causing the trouble?"
This is generally where the voice at the other end starts to become less patient with stupid old me. But I am anxious to have them fix whatever the problem is, as long as it doesn't mean actually turning on a computer at my house. Instead, I wander about from room to room, doing odds and ends that can be accomplished as I string this Microsoft employee along. I know it's over when I get passed along to a supervisor, and then ultimately I use up their patience and the line goes dead.
Wouldn't it be great if Microsoft was actually calling their customers and checking in on the service they are providing? Wouldn't it be nice if these people calling from purloined cell phone numbers were not trying to hijack personal computers and information for their own illicit purposes? For that matter, wouldn't it be nice if the credit card I was just asked to approve via e-mail was truly offering me a line of credit at little to no interest? And don't get me started about all those reminders for messages I missed on my Facebook account. The Facebook account I don't have. It would be so nice if we could all trust everyone and these amazing offers were real.
Then maybe I would spend less time on the phone.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This Just In:

Our government officials feel shame. What had once been thought to be a dormant center in their otherwise profoundly reptilian brains turns out to have some activity after all. “I’m ashamed of my country, I’m ashamed of my president and I’m ashamed of myself." These were the words senator and Maverick used to describe his reaction to the ongoing standoff between Russia and the Ukraine. A couple of key points should be made here: John McCain is not a senator in Russia or the Ukraine. He is a senator for the great state of Arizona. Furthermore, when he says, "my president," he is referencing neither Vladamir "Bear-Wrassler" Putin nor Petro Poroshenko. 
The other point to be made here is that United States Senator John McCain made these comments on CBS's Face The Nation. He was facing the nation, on a Sunday morning, to tell us all how embarrassed he is that his country, the United States, was failing to halt Russia's advance on the Ukraine. He would very much like to see his country, himself and his president included, doing whatever we could to stop this aggression. The Ukranians “are not asking for American boots on the ground, but merely weapons to defend themselves against the Russian onslaught,” McCain said. “Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine not to be part of Europe, and he is succeeding in doing so,” McCain continued, adding “this is really a dark chapter in the history of our alliance.” 

John McCain knows a few things about dark chapters. He fought in the Vietnam war. He was a naval aviator who was shot down and taken prisoner for more than five and a half years. This experience has most certainly given a charge and direction to the public service career of John McCain. The bad guys are pretty obvious to him, That may be why he felt the need, back in 2011, to tweet at President Putin,  "Dear Vlad, The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you." The bear-wrassler's response? "Mister McCain fought in Vietnam. I think that he has enough blood of peaceful citizens on his hands. It must be impossible for him to live without these disgusting scenes anymore. Mister McCain was captured and they kept him not just in prison, but in a pit for several years," he said. "Anyone [in his place] would go nuts." Ouch. Let's just say that before and since then, these two gentlemen haven't exactly seen eye to eye. Unless they happened to be narrow slits through which they can sneer at one another. 
In the meantime, trying to figure out how to get things to go "our way" without putting "boots on the ground" or using "needless quotation marks" has proved to be most challenging. While many here in the U.S. media scoff and scold our president for not moving fast or decisively enough, Vlad has a pretty sweet deal because his state run media as well as our fair and balanced fourth estate has gone so far as to laud his assertiveness, even as his tanks go rumbling into the Ukraine. Ashamed? I think I know who ought to be ashamed, but I'm not guessing that bear-wrasslers get that either. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pretty Vacant

My wife was sad about our back yard. Her suggestion was that it had taken on the look of a vacant lot. The lawn, which has always been a work in progress, shows no current signs of being trained back form its wild ways. The same could be said for most of the planned vegetation. Trees, bushes and shrubs have taken on lives of their own. One particular volunteer that sprouted up beside the Boogle House, the clubhouse we built over the years from the scraps we kept from home repair projects, now towers above the structure we now use to catch rain water. The plum tree that used to provide us with big, red delicious fruit is now a twisted snag, a victim of the neighbor's acacia that fell over into our yard and snuffed out the last of the life it had in it. A similar fate came to our apple tree, which no longer fills the center of the yard with its shade and inviting lower branches. Suckers have sprouted up on the sides, but hopes for any kind of apple harvest in the coming year are solidly dashed. Currently, the healthiest of the main trees in our back yard is the apricot. We try not to notice the sap that collects at the end of some of the branches, and we ignore the holes where limbs have become less full. This was also the place where our son had a tree house, placed there by his father in a fit of whimsy rather than fully planned carpentry. The scars of that experience are still visible if you look carefully. The rose bushes have survived a few years of drought, but as the most scrupulously maintained aspect of the yard, they continue to produce blooms at a pleasantly regular pace. I understand how she feels when she looks out from the back porch and sees what she can see.
I don't see a vacant lot. I see a lot full of growing things. The vine that we planted and trained to crawl up the plum tree trunk is becoming its own symbiotic being. The resiliency of the plants we have alternately cared for and ignored as our attention has been drawn elsewhere is amazing to me. What we, as cartoonists, have been able to achieve horticulturally is still pretty stunning. And even if all we were left with was dried twigs and scorched earth, I would look back there and see a lot of memories. Water fights. Kids climbing trees. Birthday parties. Bouquets of flowers taken from the plants that we watered and nurtured. The improvements we made that are now nestled into the firmament. Grass and moss now creep onto the bricks and boards we placed there years ago. It is far from empty, and a long way from vacant.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bloviation

Mother Jones magazine, described by some as "the bottom rung of journalism," has suggested that Bill O'Reilly may have "His Own Brian Williams Problem." First of all, it should be duly pointed out that the description of Mother Jones comes from Bill O'Reilly himself.  To clarify, The Brian Williams problem is one of veracity, not necessarily being from New Jersey. It is the opinion of writers Daniel Schulman and David Corn, writing from that bottom rung. These gentlemen suggest that Bill may have conflated his own resume as a war correspondent. Bloviation was what he was accused of, which of course was the ironic point Corn and Schulman were trying to make, in contrast to the field day O'Reilly had with Brian William's credentials.
Well, I'm here to tell you that I have never been in a war zone. I have had my own brushes with life and death, and each time I tell the stories, I understand that they become a little more colorful. I know that the day I witnessed a gang shooting on the streets of Oakland is one that has only become spicier over time. The first time I told it, right after I got home, it was a two paragraph, run-on sentence kind of thing. Just the facts. Upon reflection, I was able to make a few edits and add some appropriate lyrics, and suddenly it became a blog entry. Five years later, my memory of those events have become more emphatic but I don't know if they are as specific as they used to be. That's one of my war stories. Over time, they change. I've used that story to illustrate a number of points, not the least of which is how lucky I am to have been standing just to one side of the gun that went off very near my head. Handgun. Not a machine gun. Was it six shots, or was it only five? To tell you the truth in all this excitement, I've kind of lost track myself.
Like the 1960's: If you remember them, you weren't there. Unless you really were, in case you probably do and your memory of those hazy crazy days are bent by fifty years and whatever you did to twist your mind between now and then. Given what we all know about Vietnam and Woodstock, why would we believe any first-hand account? Why would I believe any first-hand account of any incident involving drugs, gunfire or both? I'm looking at you, Doctor Hunter S. Thompson. Most of my war stories are confined to the silly and deranged things that stoned, drunk and otherwise altered college boys get themselves into. I'm glad that no one is busy fact-checking those. With age, they have only become more grandiose and embroidered. That is the privilege of a misspent youth. At least that's the way I like to tell it.
But I'm not a News Anchor. I am not the most trusted man in America. Who is?

Monday, February 23, 2015

My Second Favorite Organ

That's how Woody Allen once referred to his brain. That turns out to be a little apocryphal, given the trouble he's had using his brain to manage some of his other organs, but even if you had your heart or lungs in the number one spot, your brain has to have a spot somewhere in the top five. It's the command center. It's the one that minds the store. At least that's what we hope.
A friend of ours recently had brain surgery. It started one day when she noticed that she wasn't seeing in color on one side. In the olden days, we might simply had asked for an adjustment of her antennae. After that, old school television repair suggests a good whack on the side of the set to get all those tubes to line up just so. Of course, brain surgery is not television repair. Nor is it rocket science. It is a job that I would rather not have, since "good enough" tends to be my standard for repairs. With something like a brain, you probably want it put back in showroom condition. Even better, how about an upgrade?
I am regularly upgrading programs and operating systems on my external brain. I add memory to help it keep up with the brighter, faster future that is in front of me. With all this poking around in our friend's head over the past couple weeks, it occurred to me that maybe we're missing out on an amazing opportunity here: elective brain surgery. As it turns out, this is a real thing. Doctors are cutting people's heads open and rewiring things to make them run right. Admittedly it's not as simple as changing the spark plugs on my '74 Super Beetle, but practice makes perfect, right? And isn't that what doctors do: practice?
I know. "Practice brain surgery" sounds a little like "military intelligence." I'm sure that it is just my own semantic squeamishness that causes me to flinch. Or maybe that's a systemic reaction that could be sanded off my thalamus. Perhaps I could get a trim on my anxieties or my insatiable appetite for peanut M&Ms. Now it begins to occur to me just how dangerous this trend could be. Like the addictions some people get to plastic surgery, having someone poking around in your brain on a regular basis may not have the effect you had hoped. I'm thinking Randle Patrick McMurphy, for example. In the meantime, I'm happy to announce that Nurse Ratched has not been seen on our friend's ward.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Learnin'

The old wisdom I learned growing up in Colorado was this: The best thing to come out of Oklahoma? I-40. I have been to Oklahoma, and I can say that it is not without its charms. It was there, in Muskogee, that I learned the joy of a Friday night curb party. It was also the place where my Volkswagen threw a rod and had to be towed to a garage in Tulsa. There, the mechanic on duty inspected the vehicle and gave me the following summation: "Veedubyah. That's a foreign car." Thus my journey into the heart of semi-darkness continued.
Eventually I made it home, in large part because of the love, attention, and some of the strongest sweetest iced tea I have ever enjoyed. Somewhere in the gulf between the mechanic and the tea and the curb party falls this little item: Oklahoma Legislators Move To Push AP U.S. History Courses Out Of Schools. "AyPee, that's advanced placement, right?" Yes sir, and the folks in Oklahoma, for the time being, don't want any of that anti-American junk being perpetrated in the name of history. Some of us think of history as objective facts. Others are clever enough to notice that the word "story" appears nestled at the end there. Those are the people who are probably familiar with the phrase, "History is written by the victors." That comes from no less an historical figure than Winston Churchill. He probably gets credit for it because he was a winner. He will also probably be included in the vision of history accepted by the Oklahoma state legislature. And the Republican National Committee. All this talk about slavery and dropping the atomic bomb and nothing about Daniel Boone?
Apparently, the biggest concern for the political types is that there is a fair degree of discussion encouraged by this Advanced Placement course. With fewer dates and people's names to memorize, students might get caught up in questioning the dominant paradigm: America! It would be nice to say that this kind of thinking was limited to states with panhandles, Nice rectangular states like Colorado are feeling the strain to keep thinking as part of the U.S. History curriculum. We know that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. After that, the rhyme scheme for "got lost and couldn't really find India like he planned," gets a little skewed. But I'm sure the folks in Oklahoma can fix that pretty quick. Even if they can't repair a VW Bug.