Thursday, April 30, 2009

With age comes other stuff

I knew many things would change as I got older. I do not gasp in shock when I reach the top of a long flight of stairs and find that my knees creak a bit and there is discomfort. It is expected that a person whose dedication to physical well-being is easily over-powered and bludgeoned into submission by his desire for a comfortable chair and a half a dozen cookies. I do, however, gasp when I reach the top of a long flight of stairs because there suddenly seems to be severe lack of oxygen in my lungs.

There are times I am surprised when I look in the mirror. The surprise is not the amount of gray hair on my head. It is the split second of thinking I am looking at my father in the mirror that causes the short-lived sense of astonishment. It does not bother me in the slightest that I look my dad. Truthfully, it is much better to look like my dad when he was pushing fifty than to look like Christopher when he was fifteen, really bad hair (even though none of it was gray), a gawkiness which would make a baby giraffe taking his first steps look like Nureyev dancing in a brand new pair of Keds, and the single persistent zit, approximately the size of the Hope diamond, which established permanent residence on the left side of my nose. It is definitely preferable to look portly and distinguished rather than skinny and geekier than the entire Stephen Hawking fan club.

One thing I particularly like about the middle aged me as opposed to the younger me is the calm demeanor. It would shock most people who know me that a nickname my mother had for me at one stage of my life was Tigger, because I was so rambunctious. Nowadays the word rambunctious is about as likely to be used to describe me as the word contemplative is to be used in reference to Terrell Owens.

I prefer the even keeled life. It bothers my family sometimes. When something really cool happens they get put out I do not skip about the room belting out Irving Berlin tunes and hugging the cat. What they fail to realize is this lifestyle also means when the power bill comes and it is astronomically high because the children still refuse to turn off lights or televisions or computers I do not operatically bust out in Wagner’s Ride of Valkryies as I napalm their bedrooms.

One aspect of being a boring old guy which I am just now getting used to is having a little bit of money at the end of the month instead of the other way around. From the time I was a freshman at the University of Kansas to about eight months ago I, and later my wife and I, and still later my wife and three children and I, lived like freshmen in college. Ramen Noodles, macaroni and cheese, store brand peanut butter (which may not have salmonella but really kind of tastes like it does) and never buying so-called luxury items from a store which does not also sell milk, fertilizer, shoes made from petroleum by-products and gerbil food.

My wife has worked very hard to properly handle our finances so we are out of credit card debt and very soon we will pay off the last of our car debt. Before heretofore unknown relatives start calling for loans, I need to make it perfectly clear we do not have wealth to manage. (Have you noticed most all of the commercials for those firms which promise to help you with volumes of money have been replaced by commercials showing nervous people choosing between a serious and circumspect financial advisor and placing their life savings in a mayonnaise jar and burying it in the backyard which is home to a family of angry Dobermans.) We are simply in a position where it’s possible to imagine our kids going to college without having to sell various vital organs on eBay.

Another benefit to having an income without debt is we can patronize locations which genuinely benefit the people of our area. When you are living paycheck to paycheck you do not have the luxury of choice when it comes to stores to go to. You have to go to the cheapest place in town. I have a friend who calls that single choice “the store which must not be named” so my family now calls it Voldemart.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Passing a test is not just for ten year olds

My real job is in the field of education. So I know a little something about tests. I know how to grade them. I know how to write them. I know how to prepare students to take them. I know the government requires schools to reach a certain level of success when their students take them. I know how to read and create fancy graphs to show people all the disaggregated data pointing out how each sub-group performed, which curriculum indicators are mastered by which demographic groups and which need remediation in order to have children performing at proper grade level and age-appropriate development. (The previous sentence is meant to prove they do not give out Educational Administration Master’s Degrees in boxes of Cracker Jacks.) I also know the stress they can induce on individuals taking them and schools watching students take the big scary ones. Even though I have that aforementioned Master’s Degree, it only recently dawned on me that we are giving the wrong people all the tests.

I am not saying we should stop giving students tests. We need to assess all the little darlings and see that they are learning the necessary knowledge and skill sets for successful academic careers and so they can be well-rounded human beings when they reach the age to vote and work at the nursing home in which I will one day reside. My newly arrived upon theory is there needs to be more testing for grown ups.

The issue is we stop giving tests after everyone stops going to school. Someone out there is saying we have to take a test to re-new our driver’s licenses. That doesn’t count. It is an open book test. You can look up each answer as you take the thing. If you fail it they should not only deny you a license they should also check to make sure your shoes are properly labeled with a big L and R.

At the risk of being accused of intellectual elitism I have a few suggestions for tests which should be routinely administered to individuals in order for them to be allowed to participate in many different daily activities. They would not be long and they would not require any all night study sessions to get the information crammed into one’s cranium. We know that knowledge only stays put long enough for the next day’s test and then it floats away like an errant feather in a springtime Kansas zephyr (which moves faster than most top fuel drag racers).

Suggestion Number One:
You have a shopping cart filled with enough food to feed the entire 172nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the United States Army headquartered in Grafenwoehr, Germany. You should…
A. Step into the express lane and hope nobody notices you are over the 12 item limit.
B. Go to the self-service check out lane and keep it occupied until Rush Limbaugh applauds a decision made by President Obama or hell freezes over, whichever comes first.
C. Bite the bullet and get in line behind the guy with the cart supplying the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment headquartered in Fort Irwin, California and pass the time reading about Brangelina’s latest relationship issues.
D. Reevaluate your needs and pare down your purchase to the things you really need (Dr. Pepper, cookies, and that magazine about Brangelina…I just love those crazy kids).

Suggestion Number Two:
You are sitting in a crowded movie theater watching the latest romantic comedy with Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl or Reese Witherspoon (I can’t really tell one from the other). You should…
A. Have your cell phone fully charged and the ring tone set to a level sure to be heard by all the patrons in the theater because everyone truly loves to listen to “Get Down Tonight” by KC and the Sunshine Band right at the denouement of a love story.
B. Take out a second mortgage on your home so you can buy a tub of popcorn the size of a Ford Festiva, a soft drink served in a cup large enough to house a family of badgers and some candy which could be used to caulk your shower they are so chewy.
C. Sit quietly and watch the movie
D. Question just how sad your life has become that you are going to romantic comedies starring faceless starlets all by yourself as a forty-six year old man (maybe that’s just me).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Veni, Vidi, Volvo

The other day I saw a commercial for a car which stops itself. I don’t really need a car that can self apply brakes. I have been perfectly capable of stopping my car. Other than the time I ran over a speaker pole at the Airport Drive-In Theater and another time I hit a house (very gently) I have been able to avoid having my automobile come into unintentional contact with other objects. What I need is a car which can clean itself.

It cannot be a surprise that the first company to create a car with this kind of feature is Volvo. No, I am not piling on the American car companies by implying that only a foreign company would have the smarts to do this. I know that is not true. I mean American car companies are more concerned with things which actually sell cars to the general public. Things like voluminous amounts of cup holders strategically placed throughout the vehicle or television screens imbedded in the backs of seats to keep children neurally numb (a fun and alliterative way of saying brain dead) by allowing them to watch the Hannah Montana Battles the Tranformers while My Little Pony Kicks the Living Daylights out of Barney Sing-A-Long Songs DVD as the family motors along.

I guess when you stop to think about it many, many cup holders are a safety feature for the reason that before such things existed many an accident occurred because a man was distracted from watching the road due to the fact the ice cold soft drink he just purchased at the convenience store, the one which is so large it has an undertow and virtually the same volume as your average lobster tank at Trader Vic’s, was placed between his legs, due to the lack of proper cup holder availability, and the frigid temperature of the cup worked its way through the fabric of his jeans and he suddenly was more concerned with the fear of frostbite to a certain zone of his person than about the bicycle rider who really did have the right of way but failed to yield to the Camaro piloted by the distressed man with the frosty…thighs. (Apologies to Ms. Lisman, my high school English teacher, but I am more than a little proud that I was able to create the preceding 153 word sentence, a new personal best. Boo-yah!)

We now return to the Volvo Company. Of course they were the ones to develop such a safety feature. Volvo is the company which decided long ago to pin all their hopes and business plan on the reputation that they are safe. We got the first 3-Point Safety Belt. We got the first padded dashboards. We got the sex appeal of Larry King in a Speedo. They have no trouble cashing in the cool, hipness that is intrinsic to so many car models and going with the unstated motto: You look like a geek driving a Volvo, but you get to become a very old geek.

Actually, in some circles a Volvo is cool. Granted you will never see a rap star pull up to a Grammy after-party with his blinged-out entourage and spill onto the red carpet from the doors of a Volvo Laplander (maybe if they changed the name to a Volvo Lapdancer you might). But, you will see a veritable wagon train of Volvos lining up to pick up blazer wearing eight year olds in front of private schools with names like Westminster Uppingham Prep and croquet teams called the Fighting Monocles.

Upon closer inspection I have found another reason to believe there is a super secret coolness wrapped up in the Volvo brand for people in the ultra-snobby, esoteric intellectually-based culture residing in certain regions of the planet. Latin is a dead language. Right? If you become fluent in Latin you can only use the language to communicate with biologists swapping genus species jokes around the centrifuge in the entomology lab at Cal State – Berkeley (I have no idea if a centrifuge has any place in an entomology lab but it was the only high tech device which came to mind, because I am not a biologist at Cal State – Berkeley) or talking to high brow aesthetes at cocktail parties in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So those are the only demographics who would know that Volvo is the last word in the ultra-cool Latin phrase: Illud est quemadmodum volvo. Which translates for that rap star in the Volvo Lapdancer to say: That is how I roll.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

You May Be Write

Of the 46 years I have been on this planet I have spent 35 of them in school. Before you assume I have the intellect of a push pin I need to point out a little less than half that time I was a paid employee at a school. I did not flunk over and over like that one distant cousin in everyone’s family who is never given sharp implements at the Thanksgiving get-togethers.

Other than being a student and an educator I also have spent large chunks of my time trying to be a writer. This means I have a notebook handy most of the time, one next to my official Dad Chair (the recliner in most homes that by state statute must be relinquished by whomever is sitting in it, be the sitter spouse, child or even hundred and ten pound Rottweiler when the father enters the room), one next to my bed, one in my shirt pocket at school, one in my jacket pocket and two in my backpack. I have them stashed all over the place in case I have a good idea. Note: I do not indicate these notebooks are used with any frequency I simply state they exist for that purpose.

OK, I told you all this as background for this statement: I love writing utensils. I buy pens for fun. I specifically asked for a particular kind of pen for Christmas. I have one pen I use for everyday run of the mill jotting down stuff at work. I have another pen which writes really well that I use for those times I am communicating with colleagues and friends or signing my name on things. I have another pen which is used for writing notes, ideas and short passages on my various writing projects. I can spend more time at the pen and pencil aisle at Office Depot than most men spend at the big screen television aisle at Best Buy. I am a pen/pencil geek. (Many would say I am a geek in a variety of ways, but we won’t go into that at this juncture.)

Just yesterday I learned something new about the history of the pencil. I already knew the word pencil came for the Latin word “pencillus” which means little tail. This really makes you wonder where those ancient Romans carried their pencils. I already knew pencils were made from graphite and the largest deposit of graphite in solid form was first discovered in 1565 at Seathwaite, England. I already knew that Nicholas Conte, an officer in Napoleon’s army, discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite, easier to find than solid graphite, with clay and firing it in a kiln to make a graphite rod suitable for pencil making. The new bit of information I learned is it was 150 years ago this very week (March 30th to be exact) the first ever patent of a pencil which had an eraser attached to it was granted.

Hymen Lipman not only had a name which was guaranteed to be made fun of by adults, kids and particularly verbal parrots but he is also the inventor of the pencil/eraser combo. My source on this is so tenuous that I am embarrassed to site it, but it was stated this outside the box thinker created the first dual use item in the history of human invention. His foresight made it possible for others to follow in his wake and give us clock/radios, keychain/flashlights, and Prince.

I know what you’re thinking. The pencil/eraser combo was not the first dual use thing. Granted Homo habilis used rocks for a variety of purposes, as bludgeons on small animals in order to eat them, as projectiles against larger animals to avoid being eaten by them and as hand puppets for telling simple stories about caveboy meets cavegirl, caveboy drags cavegirl by her hair to his cave and therefore gets dumped by cavegirl and caveboy gets cavegirl back by saving her from a rampaging mastodon. How do I know about this last use? There is a little known cave painting found near the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania showing the oldest known ancestor of Jim Henson doing Bert and Ernie routines with hunks of basalt and feldspar. This does not disprove the special place in history for the pencil/eraser combo. You have to remember rocks were not invented by man. We just perfected them in the mid-70’s when me made them pets.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Seeking Refuge from Economic News

Okay, I’m tired of bailouts. Everywhere you turn people are discussing bailouts, the merits of bailouts, the idiocy of bailouts, the yahoos who don’t deserve bailouts, and the fact you and I aren’t getting bailouts. Commercials are even using the crummy economy as the hook for their products. Direct TV has bumbling cable company execs asking for a bailout, those annoying commercials which are kind of cartoons but not really, have their people gnashing their teeth about their investments (the advantage of being poor: my 401K consists of hoping one my kids likes me enough when I retire to let me live in his or her basement) and the Dominoes Pizza CEO is being so magnanimous and bailing us out of our economic doldrums by offering us three pizzas for only five dollars a piece. Holy heartburn, Batman, I can’t believe he is doing that just for us and he’s even driving one of the delivery cars. What a swell guy.

Maybe I’m just not very bright but I’m surprised by the depth of the obsession the world has with the fact that, shock, gasp, people are greedy. If Mother Teresa had been offered a $1.7 million bonus (on top of a seven figure salary) to take a job which included such perks as being flown to exotic vacation spots on a private jet fully stocked with gourmet food, the best booze, and hunky flight attendants, driven to her mansion in a car large enough to qualify for its own zip code, and sleep in a bed with mink sheets and pillows stuffed with the clippings from a million babies’ first haircuts and the only expectation was she would turn the company into an empty shell of itself worth roughly the equivalent of a cup of sand offered to a man standing in the middle of the Sahara she would’ve told all her leper buddies, “Catch you on the flip side. I am outta here.”

In an effort to get away from the myopic media’s fixation with AIG bonuses and congressional posturing I went looking for other news.

The first one to catch my eye: French Workers Hold Bosses at Caterpillar Plant. Well, I always heard the French were lovers and not fighters but what a touching moment it must have been when the regular everyday Joe Assembly Line (or in this case Jean Assemblier Linez) stepped up and gave his boss a big old hug. Then I read the first paragraph. The workers were trying to hold the bosses hostage while they demanded further negotiations on their contracts. There went that Sally Field “you really like me” vibe the headline had set up.

The next headline which made me stop was: Pakistan Court Lifts Ban on Politician. My thought was Pakistan had had the right idea to begin with but they just hadn’t taken it far enough. It has nothing to do with the particular story of the Supreme Court in Pakistan allowing the chief minister of Punjab to return to his position. I was thinking Pakistan had simply messed up by making the ban singular instead of plural.

Think about it. Just how much would the world improve if the highest court in every country on the planet were to ban politicians, with an “s”, meaning plural, meaning all of them. There will now be a slight pause as we imagine a world with no partisan bickering, no pandering to lobbyists and rich donors, no worrying more about polling numbers and getting re-elected than about what will actually benefit the people represented, and no more need for Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olberman, Anne Coulter, and Arianna Huffington to tell us how we should feel about things. Deep sigh as we return from Big Rock Candy Mountain to the real world.

This brings us to headlines which made me wonder why someone was paid to type them, much less go out into the world to research and write them. How about this one: Charles Manson Spends Most of His Time Alone. Well, I wonder why. Or this one: Rain, Snow Moisten Soil. It would have been news if the rain and snow hadn’t moistened the soil. (Scientists baffled by soil impervious to rain and snow.)

This headline really got my hopes up only to dash them again. KU Wins National Championship – In Debate. I have to admit my debate bracket didn’t have the Bricker - Johnson Team cutting down the nets, or in the world of debate, cutting off the ties of their opponents? Lost the office pool, again.