Sunday, July 31, 2011

Repaying the Debt #2: Jon Talton

One of the reasons my blog exists is to say thank you to people who have influenced me or had an important effect on me, people I can’t just pick up the phone and say “Hey, thanks!”

I am calling these posts “Repaying the Debt,” because in each case I feel like I owe the person big time for something wonderful they gave me, often without even knowing it.  A few weeks back, the first “Repaying the Debt” focused on the late, great Bill Rocz, local movie maven, channel 5 film critic, and host of a show that catalyzed my transformation into a lover of great, old Hollywood movies, “Hollywood Greats.”

Today’s “Repaying the Debt” recipient is a man by the name of Jon Talton.  Some of you may remember that Jon used to write a local commentary column that appeared in the Arizona Republic’s business section.  The column disappeared in 2007, for reasons which should become obvious as you read on.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Happy Dayz - Whoa! or is that 'Woe?'

Took this picture around 35th Ave and Thunderbird a few days ago. . .

All right class, did anyone notice a problem with this sign?

That’s right, the name of the place is “Happy Dayz Learning Center.” “Dayz.”  With a “z.”  Now, I don’t want to get all curmudgeonly here, but do we all still agree that the word "days" is spelled with an “s” and not a “z?” 

Yes, I know the kids these days for some reason find it appealing to replace "s’s" at the ends of words with "z’s."  Zorro wanna-be’s, I suppose.  I wouldn’t even pause to comment on it, except for the fact that they call themselves a learning center.  Not a daycare center for preschool children that ends with the first day of spelling, not a become-a-hip-hop-star center, a learning center.  How much hope can you possibly expect to have for your child’s purported edification in a place that has chosen to call itself “Happy Dayz?”   They might as well have gone the rest of the way, and called themselves “Happy Daze,” because I’m guessing only the parents who are in one will put their kids there.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Manifesting the past by destroying it

Last week, in a small town in Germany, a former Nazi leader’s bones were dug up, removed from the grave and burned to ashes, which were then scattered at sea, a very popular interment choice these days.  Seems like a lot of trouble to go through for someone who’s been dead for 24 years.  The long-deceased Nazi was named Rudolph Hess, and apparently the man was a top leader in the early years of the Third Reich.  In fact, it is reported that Hess is the man to whom Hitler dictated much of his Mein Kampf manifesto while in prison.  And by the way, is it some kind of law that we have to refer to it as ‘Hitler’s Mein Kampf manifesto?’ Is manifesto Latin for ‘lame, boring piece of crap?’ Moreover, how is that for a claim to fame?  “Yavoll, my name is Rudolph Hess, and I took dictation from ze great Adolf Hitler.” Big deal, so did about 6 million Jews.

When Hess died in 1987 at the age of 93, he was buried in the family plot in Wunseidel, Germany.  The cause of death: he hanged himself.  At 93 years of age.  That’s like being in a restaurant and telling the waiter you’re extremely dissatisfied with the food they brought you, but then eating everything except the last bite before sending it back. Who does that, unless they’re Jewish?  Hey, wait a minute . . . Are you sure you’re Aryan cred’s in order, Herr Hess? Papers, please.

In the years since his burial, the grave has become a rallying spot for Neo-Nazis who see him as a martyr. Why? My personal guess is that it’s for having the balls to off himself at 93.  The family, church, and town, understandably uptight, used the opportunity presented by a lease renewal on the grave site to conduct their brash, flash, dig’n’dash, burn to ash, final splash rehash operation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wouldn't you like to be a cynic too?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cynicism lately, and as usually happens when I ponder an idea, I get curious about the word itself: what it means and where it comes from.  So this morning (actually last Sunday - ed.), I went to to find out more about the word, and I discovered something surprising.

The first definition of cynic, according to Random House (via is “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”  That part’s not surprising; that matches my mental definition of a cynic pretty well, and probably yours too, although I would add something more, which we’ll get to in a minute.  It also seems to me to sum up the age we live in about as well as one word can:  cynical.  But we’ll get to that, too.

The face of a cynic?
The thing that surprised me was the origin of the word.  Apparently, the word “cynic” comes from Greek, and literally means “dog-like,” as in behaving like a dog. Now I don’t know about you, but this made me think that maybe crack has been around a lot longer than any of us has realized.  Dogs?  Really?  Only motivated by selfishness? Dogs?  Not believers in selfless acts? DOGS?!!  I’ve always had a high opinion of the Greeks, especially those ancient ones; I’m a big fan of their mythology, and gyros.  But either when they said “dog,” they really meant “cat,” or they were just plain stupid.  Some of the least selfish people I’ve ever met are dogs.  What about Lassie, or Benji, or St. Bernard’s?  You don’t see any cats willing to lug alcohol up mountains through blizzard-like conditions to quench the thirst of skiers who have gone two hours without a hot toddy, do you?  I’m willing to bet that in all of human history, no cat has ever gone out of their way to help a human.  Oh yeah, I’ve heard the story on the news about the cat that dialed 911 when its elderly owner had a heart attack and couldn’t reach the phone.  But first of all, that’s one cat; dogs do that every day.  They do it so often, it doesn’t even make the news anymore. And secondly, I’m pretty sure that if you could ask the cat, it would tell you that it was really just trying to order a pizza from Domino’s.  And it was probably planning on paying for it with the old lady’s credit card, and not tipping the driver, either, because CATS ARE CYNICAL!!!

Now that's one cynical cat.

But, this isn’t really about cats, is it?  Word origin aside, cynicism is about us.  As the dictionary states, a cynic is someone who believes that people only act selfishly, which of course provides the cynic with the perfect excuse to act selfishly, because “everyone else does it, so why shouldn’t I?”  To me, that is complete BS, and in my opinion, all cynics should be rounded up and -

Excuse me for a moment, the phone’s ringing.  I’ll just be a second . . .

Is this Kevin Thorson, author of the “thunderstrokes” blog?
“Um, yes, it is.”
What kind of a name is that for a blog? Thunderstrokes? I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.
“Well, it’s kind of a long story . . . You see, when I-”
You know what? I really don’t care. That’s not why I’m calling.
“Oh. Why are you calling?”
I represent the Greater Southwest Chapter of Cynics International. Have you heard of us?
“No, no I haven’t.”
We don’t do much marketing. Our organization has plenty of members, but we have a hard time collecting dues.
“Well, I’m sorry about that. But I don’t really know why you’re-”
We noticed that you’re working on a post for your blog about cynics.
“How did you notice that?  I’m actually working on that right now.”
I know.  That part about the cats and dogs, that’s cute. You should do more of that.
“Wait a minute, how can you see what I’m doing on my computer right now in the privacy of my own home?”
We’re always watching.  We’re cynics; we leave nothing to chance.
“Hey, you weren’t watching yesterday, around 4:30, were you?”
That depends.  Were you doing something cynical?
“I’m not sure . . . possibly.”
I usually get an early dinner around that time, you know, take advantage of the senior discount.  Well, I suppose I could look it up, if it’s really important . . .
“Oh, no! No. No. Not important. Not at all.  Uh, so . . . you’re a senior citizen then?”
No. Why would you assume that?
“Oh, I just thought-”
Look, it’s clear this inane babble could continue for hours.  Let me come right to the point.  I’ve been authorized to pay you a five-figure salary if you will cease and desist from this negative portrayal of our members, and instead write a fair post that depicts us in a more balanced light.
“Five-figure salary? What precisely are the figures in that salary?”
I’m only authorized to tell you that it will definitely be five figures.  Will you do it?
“Let me make sure I understand this.  You will pay me to stop writing this post about the evils of cynicism and turn it into a ‘fair and balanced’ piece instead?
Forget fair and balanced. For five figures, we want abject flattery.  We want to be buttered up like a cow in a centrifuge.  Will you do it?
“Well, that’s kind of funny.  I mean, it would be kind of cynical of me to take your money and reverse my stand on something that’s important to me.  You know, make it sound like I endorse cynicism when I really don’t.  It’s actually-”
I’m not stupid. I get the irony. Will you do it?” 
“Five figures?”
Five figures.
“Can I think about it?”
Think about it all you want.  But, remember, we know what you’re posting before you post it.  You should also know that, as cynics, we place very little value on your individual life, and the lives of your ‘loved’ ones, as if there were such a thing.  Now, if you were a dues-paying member of Cynics International, that might sway our opinion of you. . .
“Wow, you guys play hardball.”
We’re Cynics International, Thorson, not Namby-Pambies International.
“Gee, I don’t know what to do. . .”
I’ve got five figures here that say you do. We’ll be in touch – or something.” Click.

Talk about your moral dilemmas.  How can I turn what was going to be a vitriolic condemnation of cynics and cynicism into a love letter in their behalf on such short notice?  Plus, I swore to myself that I was not going to sell out as a writer.  I’ve only been blogging for a month, and already I have to make a decision like this?  Still, five figures could keep me blogging for a long time, stress-free.  Then I notice my shirt, which bears the logo of my former favorite soft drink (former because I stopped drinking soda last November, which is a whole other story).  I am inspired, and I am desperate.  I feverishly copy down the revised lyrics that just seem to pop into my head.  I look it over.  It’s pretty good.  You know, maybe these cynics are on to something.  I read it again.  This time, the novelty’s wearing off, and it loses some of its charm.  I opt against reviewing it a third time.  Besides, it’s Sunday, and we’ve got church in 30 minutes.  I just hope it’s good enough to placate Cynics International (and to pick up that five-figure salary I was promised).

So here it is, my song of praise to cynics everywhere (sung to the tune of the Dr. Pepper commercial from the 70’s, “I’m a Pepper” (you know, the one with David Naughton where he dances down the street with a flash mob of young, hip fellow Peppers)).

If you don't remember, or if have no idea what I’m referring to, check this out: 

“I’m a Cynic”

I’m egotistical and I’m proud
I don’t give a damn about the crowd
If you’re contemptuous these days
You should come and join the cynical craze!

I’m a cynic, he’s a cynic, she’s a cynic, we’re all cynics!
Wouldn’t you like to be a cynic too?
I’m a cynic, he’s a cynic, she’s a cynic
If you are selfish you can be a cynic too.
Be a cynic, C’mon be a cynic!
Be a cynic, C’mon be a cynic!

Well, we’ll see what happens.  Keep your fingers crossed! 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Noman's Land - Archive

The Noman's Land archive is now open!  Those of you who missed my comic strips the first time around (it was only 13 years ago!), or those who would like to relive my glory days with me as an unemployed cartoonist are welcome to check it out.  I posted every strip I could find, including the good, the bad and the ugly.  There are 43 in all, some never before seen. 

To get there, click on the "Noman's Land - Archive" button underneath the  "thunderstrokes" header, right next to the "Home" button.   

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Are we supposed to recycle everything now?

First of all, let me say that I love the City of Phoenix and its recycling program.  Having lived in other places, I can tell you that this city goes out of its way to make recycling simple, convenient and comprehensive.  At our house, we now throw out about two 13 gallon bags of trash each week, but we recycle three times that amount, at least by volume.   However, I am now wondering if they have become the victims of their own success.  They recently sent out these helpful cards clarifying what can and cannot be recycled.  Here's what the card looks like: 

Now, I realize that the list of what can be recycled includes items that might be surprising to some people, but was it really necessary to remind us to not recycle the babies? Are people actually trying to do this? Why is there a baby on this card? I'm guessing that it's because they don't want you trying to recycle used diapers, but that's not even mentioned on the list of "Nots." Did they want to draw our attention to the "Nots" by luring us with an image of a cute baby?  Even the baby has a 'surprised to be here' look on his face. 

In the spirit of public service, I would just like to make the following announcement:

Citizens of Phoenix and elsewhere, please be advised that no municipality is currently accepting babies with other recycling material.  Your best bet is to try again, and hope the next one turns out better. 


Friday, July 22, 2011

Haiku #2

I can now see why people say that writing haiku is addictive.  Since writing the first one a couple weeks ago, I'm having a hard time not arranging my thoughts in a 5/7/5 syllable order.  

  buzzing cicadas       
  high-voltage sweltering sound
  hum summer madness

These are the kind of cicadas we get each year in Phoenix.  They come out in late June/early July, whenever we get our first sustained spike in humidity.  For instance, July 3rd was the first day I heard one this year.  They serve as a bellwether of the approaching monsoon season, which tends to hit right around the time we're all getting fed up with the heat.  With the monsoon, the weather changes from simply hot to sweltering.  The cicadas play their high-pitched, irritating serenade (think of a really overindulgent harmonica player who sits on one high note for hours on end, kind of like listening to John Popper live) all day long, every day until the end of summer. I can hear them right now, through the walls of the house, with the fan on and the television in the background.  They are the sound of summer madness in Phoenix.

The Open Door - Second Postscript

I've received a number of emails and messages wanting to know I if I ever did get that new bar of Irish Spring into the shower.  Well, perhaps this will allow all you worriers out there to rest a little easier tonight:

This is what order in the universe looks like

Ah, life as it should be.  Note the pale green halo exuded by this glorious concoction of sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate, and/or sodium palm kernelate!  Note also that Elizabeth's Dove Bar is noticeably worse for the wear.  It's definitely approaching the critically massless threshold.

And since I was in the shower with a camera and soap, here's a bonus photo . . . 

Don't be afraid to scroll down . . .

I'm ready for my endorsement deal, Colgate-Palmolive Co.

What did you think it would be?!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Open Door - Part 2

The door at the center of the controversy.
It just looks guilty, doesn't it?
In Part 1, we learned that I often do stupid things, like forgetting to lock, or even close, doors that are supposed to be closed and locked.  This causes occasional friction between Elizabeth and myself, and  usually ends up with me sleeping on the sofa, which is where I was at the end of Part 1, wondering why I do those stupid things I do. . . 

The next morning, I get up and start writing at the usual time: 4:30.   I didn't have to go far; the living room sofa is right next to my writing perch.  Elizabeth gets up after me, gets ready for work and leaves without either of us saying a single word to each other.  The girls wake up around six, and turn the TV on.  At 6:30, I head for the shower, the questions that had been plaguing me all night still revolving in my mind.

I get in the shower, get all wet, put the shampoo in my hair, turn to grab the soap and – slump inwardly.  Great, I sigh to myself. I forgot a new bar again. I pick up the sliver of soap from the tray; sharp enough to cut someone.  It’s so thin, I can feel my fingers pressing through it.  This bothers me. It really, really bothers me.

Now would probably be as good a time as any to provide a little background information, a little-known fact that is part of the very core of my character.  I like my soap.  I like my soap.  I happen to be partial to Irish Spring.  I like the smell of it; I like the heft of it.  I even like its marbled appearance: varying (and oddly pleasing) shades of green swirled together. I like the way it curves out to precisely the right degree for gliding through those convex parts of the body, and the way it curves in on the other side to slide across the concave parts.  I really like my soap.  I like my soap so much, I stockpile it the way dragons are said to stockpile gold, and jewels, and candlesticks or whatever, so that I never have to worry about running out.  I must have eighteen bars of it, sitting five feet away, in the cabinet under the sink.  It really bothers me when I don’t have my soap.  For one thing, it means that I have to borrow Elizabeth’s soap, which I despise using, even for a single day.  Her soap is perfumy, and hard to grasp, and it leaves an annoying oily feeling on my skin even after I dry off.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I saw my soul

This poem comes from an image that has been burned in my memory since we took a trip to Alaska in 2005.  We flew into Anchorage and rented an RV.  We arrived late in the day, so we only made it about 70 miles out of the city before stopping at a campground next to a lake for the night.  The next morning, I was by myself, walking along the shore, when I saw this enormous bird swoop in silently and land on the lake maybe fifty yards away.  It was larger, more powerful, and a purer white than any egret or heron I’ve ever seen.  I was completely dumbstruck by the sheer improbability of this amazingly pure thing in such a dirty place (literally dirty; it was a forest after all - there was dirt everywhere).  This vision also touched me on a deeper level, but I couldn’t quite figure out how or why. 

So this morning I was working on this image in connection with another poem about Alaska.  I was trying to combine it with some other impressions and observations, and they just weren’t going together.  Then I realized:  this image is its own thing, and needs to be its own poem.  Once I separated it from the rest and began looking at it in a new way, I understood exactly why it was etched so clearly in my mind, and what it meant to me.

I saw my soul

in the incomprehensible
pure whiteness
of a trumpeter swan.
Delicate, dignified and brawny
descending calmly
to merge onto the mirrored lake
amid the ring of pine-spiked and
bouldered shore
within a corrupt and
brutal wild.

Imagine the sublimity of seeing one pure white swan settling down on this. . . 

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Open Door - Part 1

One of the great things I've discovered about writing a blog is that I can tell my side of the story the way I want to tell it, completely unobstructed by the objections of others, or even the truth.  In this case, I get to tell the story of a fight Elizabeth and I just had, the way I feel it should be told.  If she doesn't like it, well, she can get her own blog.

Elizabeth and I got into one of our uglier fights this week.  The cause?  Well, when taking my daughters to swim lessons yesterday afternoon, I apparently forgot to lock the front door.  Actually, I didn’t forget to lock the front door; I forgot to close it first, and then lock it.  She came home before we did, found that I left the door open, and apparently spent the intervening time thinking of exactly how she was going to, as my dad would say, “tan my hide.”

For the record and in my feeble defense, the front “door” actually is two doors: a regular wood door and a glass storm door.  I didn’t leave them both open, just the regular door.  However, I didn’t lock the storm door either, and being glass, it was kind of easy to see that the inside door was not closed, especially since there were no cars in the driveway and the house gave the appearance of being completely unoccupied.  Still, it’s not like I was letting all the cool air inside the house out, or as my dad would say, “air conditioning the outdoors.” I would hate for anyone to think I was being environmentally negligent. 

The kids and I come back from swim lessons around six.  One of my sisters happens to be there, dropping off her daughter for a sleep-over, so Elizabeth doesn’t jump me immediately, like in some bad ghetto movie. Instead she brings it up casually, almost light-heartedly, in a ‘Can-you-believe-what-my-silly-man-did-today?’ way.  So I play it off just as light-heartedly, in a ‘Oh-my-God!-As-soon-as-my-sister-leaves-I’m-dead!’ way, and immediately begin checking, as discreetly as possible, for any blunt, heavy objects that need to be secured. 

Now, I happen to have a long and distinguished criminal record when it comes to leaving doors unlocked, and I know just how frustrated Elizabeth is with me when it comes to this particular foible.  My best hope, I reason, may be to use my sister’s daughter as a human shield. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Repaying the Debt #1: Bill Rocz

Posts like this one may seem somewhat odd, but you’ll probably get used to it.

I know this seems an unlikely topic for a blog post, but I was working on an essay about the film Casablanca, and in it I wanted to explain that I first saw that classic movie in the early 80’s as part of a late night TV show hosted by Bill Rocz.  I’m sure many locals, and probably even some natives of the Phoenix area, either don’t know or have forgotten who Bill Rocz was.  But to a kid like me, growing up in Phoenix during the 70’s and 80’s, Bill played an important role in fostering my love of great movies.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I needed to stop and pay a small debt of gratitude to Bill, even belatedly as it is. 

The show was called “Hollywood Greats,” and it was on Channel 5 (KPHO) every Saturday night at 10 o’clock.   At the time, Channel 5 was an independent station and not a CBS affiliate, and that meant that they created much of their own programming.  The most famous example of this, of course, was “Wallace and Ladmo,” the great children’s show that ran throughout my childhood. But by the time I was fourteen or so, my favorite show on Channel 5 was “Hollywood Greats.”  The premise of the show was simple:  each week, Bill Rocz presented a different movie from the hallowed Hollywood canon, and he would talk about the movie in bit-sized pieces before, during, and at the end of the show.  This may not sound all that impressive, especially to those raised with Turner Classic Movies and a handful of other cable channels, which do essentially the same thing, all day, every day.  But the early 80’s was a vastly different era when it came to movies.

Looking back, I realize now just how difficult it was to be a film buff in Phoenix in the 70’s and 80’s.  As an example, let’s set the DeLorean for 1982:  no Blockbuster, no Netflix, no Redbox, no Turner Classic Movies, no internet streaming. Video stores were mom-and-pop operations, and rarely carried more than a few obligatory titles from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Not all the great films even existed at the time in a home-viewable format such as LaserDiscs or VCR (VHS or Beta) tapes; and all of this was irrelevant if your family didn’t have the cutting-edge pieces of technology needed to play them (mine didn’t).  This was the age when The Big 3 Networks (CBS, NBC, ABC; Fox was not even a gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s eye yet) would pay astronomical sums of money for the rights to show the hit movies from two or three years ago (popular movies would often play in theaters for 6-12 months, sometimes longer), and they would hoard them, deigning to trot them out in all their commercial finery perhaps once each year.  For instance, when I was growing up, The Wizard of Oz appeared on CBS each year in the spring on a weekend evening during prime time, and was considered an event, not just in our family, but all over the country.  This was similarly true for a very small, select group of movies such as The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, and The Ten Commandments.  Pretty much anything else might appear tomorrow, or not appear on TV at all for several years at a time.  Many big cities had theaters that were devoted to playing classic films on the big screen. In Phoenix, unless you could get to Harkin’s Valley Art (by ASU in Tempe, which might as well be Show Low for a bike-pedaling west-sider like me), you were essentially doomed.  Compared with today, it was practically the primordial ooze.  Seen in that context, “Hollywood Greats” served as an absolutely vital connection, really a lifeline, to a wondrous universe of rich, powerful, life-shaping celluloid experiences, especially for an ardent young fan of films with such limited options. 

I’m sure many communities across the country had TV shows like “Hollywood Greats,” but what those communities didn’t have was Bill Rocz.  Bill was an affable, friendly host. He wore big glasses, dressed in brown suits, had neatly parted and styled hair; he looked like an accountant, or a little like a certain, locally well-known car dealer of the time (by the way, if you want to see or remember what Bill Rocz looked like, find the movie Raising Arizona (which is a fun, funny, great movie in its own right); Bill appears very briefly in the film (on TV, of course) as an anchorman delivering the news in one scene).  We would meet each week in his two-dimensional living room, where he would stand and confidently begin again to bring a legendary movie and a somewhat shy, but curious, viewer together.  He was a terrific host; forthright but sly, authoritative but never condescending.  It was obvious he knew his movies inside and out.  It was also obvious that he loved these movies, each one in its own right.  But he also seemed to take just as much delight in presenting all of the ancillary stories, trivia, and Hollywood gossip associated with each production.  This is what hooked me, and made Saturday nights my version of Sunday mornings. It was obvious to me that he dwelled in the minutiae of the movies, and as a burgeoning film fanatic, I recognized that he was where I wanted to be.  His mastery of movie history, movie making, and movie lore became the yardstick by which I measured the growth of my own cinematic expertise.  Of course, much of my knowledge came directly from him; he would slip me information along with the movie, and I would absorb it instantly and insatiably.  To me, he was nothing like an accountant or a car dealer; physical image aside, he was a world-class hunter leading me on safari through the wilds of the savannah in search of elusive, but majestic, game. Or, if you want to step up to a literary level of metaphor, he was a kind of Virgil to my Dante, guiding me sure-footedly to a greater appreciation and understanding of my passion for movies.  And because of him, I came to believe that maybe someday, God-willing, I could be that, too.

So, thanks, Bill Rocz, for being that person who could show me how to be passionate about something without having to be superior.  Thanks for affirming that my love of the movies was not misplaced, and that I wasn’t wrong for seeing something special in certain films that no one around me seemed to see.  Thanks for your wit, irony, and the occasional subtle sarcasm; none of it was lost on me. 
Thanks for everything.

P.S.  Bill Rocz died in 1996 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  In checking some of my facts about him, I ran across a very interesting story in the New Times about the end of his life. 
Be warned, the article is obviously intended for an adult audience.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Taughter Files - What is a Taughter?

The Taughter Files is a series of reflections about my four-year career teaching high school English.  It proved to be highly instructional, for me at least, if not my students.

Where to begin?  I suppose explaining the word “taughter” would be a good start . . .

A few weeks after the end of the school year, I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and looking at the newspaper.  This routine, although recent, was predictable enough that today my two-year-old, who was already actively engaged in applying her breakfast to her face and hair, wouldn’t let me sit down until I had both my coffee and the paper, in my hands, simultaneously.  The conversation went something like this:

Maria:  “Daddy! Daddy! DADDY! . . . Coffee?”  I was holding a cup of coffee. She recognized my coffee cup.  Isn’t that cute?

Me:  “Yes, Maria, coffee.  Will you please not touch your hair when you’re eating peanut butter toast?”

Maria: “OK.”  Hands clutch hair tightly. 

Me:  “I said don’t touch your hair.” She lets go, smiles wryly, and grabs two fresh handfuls.  “Maria, I said no!”  She freezes, drilling me with that adorable, defiant, maddening smile.  Realizing I'm not ready to die on that peanut-buttery hill yet (it's only 7:30), I try instead ignoring her, pretending to engross myself in my coffee cup.  I pull out a chair and begin to sit down.

Maria:  “NO!NO!NO!NO!NO!  Daddy, daddy, DADDY! . . . Paper?”

Me: “What paper?”  Then, realizing what she was referring to: “Right, newspaper, I forgot the newspaper. I’ll be right back.” I set my coffee down.  “Do you think you could eat your breakfast instead of rubbing it on your head?”

Maria: “OK.”  Her hands begin moving spastically all over her head. 

I stare blankly for a moment.  Alright, I think to myself.  What’s the next move? Do I yell some more?  I could count it as cardio work. Do I lecture her about how much it’s going to hurt when we have to “brush the stickies” out of her hair? Right, use the old foolproof two-year-old lecture strategy. Do I do the only logical remaining thing and simply handcuff her and/or shave her head?  I wisely opt to grind my teeth (it's only 7:31) and, very patiently, pick up the newspaper from behind me on the counter.  “See? Paper?” I say with the cheeriest tone I can manage with a clenched jaw. I reach for the chair again. 

Maria: “NO!NO!NO!NO!NO! Daddy, daddy, DADDY!  . . . Coffee?”

Me:  “My coffee’s right there.”

Maria: “NO!NO!NO!NO!NO!” 

I pick the coffee cup up.

Maria:  “Daddy, coffee?”

Me:  “Yes, Maria.”

Maria:  “Daddy, paper?”

Me: “Yes.”

Maria:  “OK.” Her hands are firmly planted on either side of her head.  It may be that they are stuck there; but the calm, peaceful, happy child has returned, and for that I am thankful.  More importantly, she has allowed me to sit down in my own kitchen.  I look at her hair, a gooey, tangled mess, and accept defeat philosophically.  Oh well, I think.  It’ll grow out eventually.

About this time, my older daughter comes in.  She takes a seat, plops her chin onto her folded arms, and regards me sleepily.  Somehow, this precipitates a fit from Maria, who starts screaming because Jessica is sitting too close, or not close enough, or, more likely, is there at all.  I’ll spare you the play by play; just fill in the next three minutes with the general sounds of screaming and the image of a two-year-old trying to assault a nine-year-old with a flimsy piece of toast from the confines of her highchair.

Eventually, I am able to say, “Good morning, Jess.”

Jessica:  “Good morning, Dad.  What are we going to do today?” 

We’re two weeks into summer vacation, and she’s already bored out of her mind.  Part of me feels bad for her, because 60% of my attention is on what I need to do today, and 40% is on what I am going to do with Maria today, which leaves 0% for what I am going to do with Jessica today.  And then I think: nobody planned my day for me when I was nine.  My mom and dad didn’t go out of their way to make sure I was entertained on a daily basis.  I entertained myself, dammit! My thoughts turn dark.

Me:  “Oh, I have a great day planned for us! First, I booked us on a tour of a rendering plant, where they make hamburger and sausage.  We’ll get to see them grind up cows’ noses and pigs’ lips and other easily identifiable body parts and turn it into the food we eat everyday!”

Jessica:  Silence.

Me:  “Then, we have reservations at eleven o’clock to see a performance where they make music using only their own fingernails and giant chalkboards!”

Jessica:  Eye roll accompanied by a jaded shake of the head.

Me:  “And then, after Maria’s nap, I’m taking you to a petting zoo! I reserved it just for you.  It’ll just be you and hundreds of small goats, fawns, llamas, and other innocuous-looking farm animals!  For three straight hours!  Can you imagine the fun you’re going to have?”

Some people fear clowns; some people are afraid of heights.  My daughter is deathly afraid of petting zoos.

 Jessica:  Head falls face-down, back onto arms.  She is already inoculated to my particular strain of sarcasm, and none of this has had any effect on her.  “Never mind,” she says, voice muffled by her arms.

A minute passes.  I’m almost able to start reading the paper, but I’m gun shy by now.  However, Maria appears to be consumed with the mangled piece of toast on her tray, and Jessica looks like she might have gone back to sleep.

I pick up the sports section.  Oh, here’s a story about the Diamondbacks possibly having to move to the American League in a few years (Over my dead body!).  I am just working myself into a state of righteous anger, when . . .

Jessica:  “So, you’re really not going back to Glendale next year?”

Me:  Still reading.  “That’s right.”

Jessica:  “And you’re not going to teach anymore?”

Me:  Still reading.  “Uh-huh.”

Jessica:  “So, what are you now?”

Me:  Not reading.  The question struck me as it must have stricken her.  What am I now? I wanted to tell her that I’m a writer now, but what proof could I offer?  My daughter has a very legalistic mind, and she pounces on the smallest discrepancies like a dingo on a baby.  How do I answer that?  “Well, that’s a very good question (Need more time). . . And I’m glad you asked me (What am I going to say?) . . . I guess the best thing to call me right now is a taughter.”

Jessica:  Arched expression. She senses a fast one in progress.  “What is a taughter?”  She says it slowly, suspiciously, as if I’m trying to get her to say “Seymour Butz” or something.

Me:  “Well, a taughter is a teacher who doesn’t teach anymore.  You see, if a teacher is someone who teaches, then a taughter is someone who taught, but doesn’t teach anymore.  Does that make sense?”

Jessica:  “No.”

Me:  “Sorry, sweetie, but that’s the best I can do right now.”

As subsequent mornings passed, I grew smart enough to make sure I had both my coffee and the paper in hand before I tried to sit down at the table.  But I’m still not smart enough to not say the words “hair” or “head” while Maria’s eating her peanut butter toast or oatmeal or mashed banana, or whatever.  Needless to say, she takes many baths. And I still don’t know how to answer Jessica’s question.  I believe I am a writer, and I believe I will make a living at it somehow, at some point.  But until it starts paying for the peanut butter toast, can I really call myself “Writer?” 

Maybe not, but I do know that I am definitely a taughter. 

And that’s the origin of the word “taughter.”  Stay tuned for part 2.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Meditation on Fear

Having just left behind a career as a teacher to become a writer has left me thinking about fear and facing the unknown.  Teaching was the only real career I actually chose to try. I’ve worked plenty of jobs, but we all know the difference between a job and a career:  a job is about the paycheck, and a career is about making a mark.  I think the biggest reason it took me so long to even try to start a career (39 years) is because I have always been afraid of making a mark.   And so we come right back to fear again.  Looking back, it is amazing to me just how much influence fear has had over the decisions I’ve made in life.  More about that later.  However, these reflections have motivated me to write the following.

Meditation on Fear 

Fear will not control me
I am greater than my fears
Fear is not who I am
Fear seeks to prevent me from realizing who I am
Fear kills not only the mind, but also the heart and the soul
Evil is done when fear stops me from doing what I know is right
Fear only has as much power as I give it from myself
The unknown does not need to be feared
Change does not need to be feared
Failure does not need to be feared
The only thing I need to fear is not knowing myself
and not being true to who I am
The universe does not want to destroy me
I am connected to a power that makes all things possible
Fear must return to its proper place
Irrational fear must die

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Haiku #1

The idea behind this haiku has been rattling around my head (in prose form) for years and years.  I’ve never written a haiku before, but the thought just seemed to lend itself to the form.

sudden desert rain
washes clean the dusty lens  
clarifies the world

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cars 2 review

I thought it would be fun to write this in the style of a car review, instead of a straight movie review.  So I guess it’s kind of a Cars 2 car review. 

I had the opportunity to test drive the latest Pixar roadster last week, which is always an occasion for celebration in my book.  Over 11 model years, the engineers and designers at Pixar have consistently produced the highest quality vehicles of any manufacturer.  I could gush uncontrollably for hours at a time about the sheer bliss I have felt  behind the wheel of previous Pixar rides, whether it was the unrestrained power of a Toy Story 3 or Up, or the classic lines, uncompromising character, and industry-leading features of older models such as Finding Nemo or Monsters Inc.  Pixar products are uniformly constructed to exacting standards using the highest grade materials, yet are always priced competitively; in fact, no model has ever exceeded the industry average in consumer cost.  The simple fact is, year in and year out, nobody has come close to delivering the same level of value to their customers.
Unfortunately, almost none of this applies to the newest steed to be released from the Pixar stables, Cars 2.  The signature styling points are all there: sparkling design features, nifty handling and suspension, creative accessories and loads of unexpected extras, but once you get beyond the trim line, the vehicle loses its ability to command your attention. 
When you start it up, you still feel that familiar rumble of refined energy and precision that is the hallmark of a Pixar product.  It feels as good off the line as any other Pixar model; the transmission engages smoothly and effortlessly, and at first it’s so much fun to drive that even you can’t wait to see where you’re going.   You spend the first 10 or 15 minutes just marveling at the cleverness of the interior layout, the thoughtful design, the ingenious way Pixar engineers incorporate details that simultaneously surprise and make you ask “Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?” 
It’s not until you reach cruising speed before you begin to suspect something may be amiss.  The engine seems to peter out, and you develop this sinking feeling that a head-on collision with disappointment may be waiting just around the next blind curve.  You drive on, warily double-checking the features.  The fit and finish, as usual with Pixar, is within tolerances not only for high-quality vehicles, but also for most nuclear physicists.  Yet questions start to arise. Is the suspension system as good as you remember from other models, or is it just a tad soft? The handling seems to be in order, but is it really as supremely responsive as your memory says it should be? It takes a while, but you finally identify the source of your mounting concern:  it’s the Cars 2 engine that’s letting you down.  You’re moving smoothly at highway speed, keeping up with the other vehicles on the road, but what’s missing is the overdrive.  When you want to kick it into high gear, when you want to plant your foot and leave everyone else eating your dust, it’s just not there.  And that's when you realize, with disturbing impact, that this Pixar product is really just a very pretty commuter.
If you’ve never driven a Pixar vehicle, the overdrive is its heart, and the primary source of what makes it special. At its best, the joy to be found in a well-executed overdrive is the pure joy of driving itself.  It is the very reason we love to drive:  to go somewhere new, to be taken there in a thrilling way, to experience a journey that affects us, and then to reach a destination that makes you feel great to be there, but just a little sad that the drive couldn’t have been a little longer.  A well-designed overdrive creates a purpose, and as a driver, you respond with a willingness to share control with your ride because you can feel it knows where it wants to go and that it will take you there more surely than you could yourself.   Pixar, more than any other manufacturer out there, understands the essence of driving, and has been delivering some of the highest quality overdrive artistry that the industry has seen in sixty years (we’ve missed you, Frank Capra, but we’re doing OK now). It, more than any other company, has been responsible for ushering in what, down the road, is likely to be known as a new Golden Age among vehicles in its class.   So, to get in a Pixar vehicle with an overdrive as anemic as this one is admittedly a little shock to the soul.
The gang's all here for Cars 2 - but is it enough?
The designers over at Pixar insist that the power plant in Cars 2 is comparable to previous years’ models, and that no major changes have been made.  A visual scan of the technical specs doesn’t reveal any substantial differences.  However, speaking as someone who’s driven every vehicle in the line (as well as thousand of competitors’ models), the robustness of the overdrive in this model can’t hold a piston (or a Piston Cup) up to the others.  Cars 2 is like Nemo without Marlin, like Buzz without Woody, like Carl without Russell. 
Driving can be enlightening, inspirational, and yes I’ll say it, even spiritual. Or it can be dull, lifeless, and redundant.  Unfortunately, Cars 2 falls short of the high end, even if it doesn’t sink to the depths of the low end.  This is not to say that Cars 2 is a bad ride.  It’s definitely not; but, aside from the skilled accoutrements, it is no different from the typical, middle-of-the-road family hauler that we’re used to seeing from other companies.  And that, because it’s Pixar, makes Cars 2 a bit of a lemon. 
Every manufacturer has a misfire at least now and again; just ask Toyota.  The fact that Pixar has suffered one only means that they are being led and managed by human beings, and not ultra-evolved Prometheans from a far-distant future who are here secretly to smuggle us sparks of perfection, which is what I personally suspected.  Unless, of course, Cars 2 was deliberately calculated to thwart exactly those suspicions.  With Pixar, who really knows for sure?
Bottom line:  Stylish, but overall performance doesn’t rise above average.
Rating:  3.25 grease monkeys (out of 5)

3 Goddesses - a one scene skit

I wrote this one-scene skit for my daughter and two of her friends when she was devastated to learn that, for her first role, she had been cast as “Cecil the Slithering Sir” in a church-produced version of “The Little Mermaid.” I thought it might cheer her up.  If you have a nine-year-old budding performer with a penchant for Greek mythology, feel free to use it.     

Venus – Beautiful
Athena – Smart
Diana – Talented

All three – Jealous of each other, superior attitude towards others

Scene:  Morning.  Diana, Aphrodite and Athena are standing in front of Mt. Olympus High School, talking to each other. 

Diana:  Veen, Mom told you to make sure you wore a toga that covers both shoulders. The school has a dress code, you know.

Venus:  When I left the house, it did cover both shoulders.  I can’t help it if some jealous sister tore one of the sides to get me in trouble with Mom.

Diana:  I didn’t do anything!

Athena: Don’t worry, Diana.  Mom’s not going to believe it for a second.  She knows Venus’ tricks.

Venus: Oh, you think you’re so smart Athena.  But you’re not very smart if you think the boys will give you a second look in that outfit.

Athena: As if I care what boys think of my fashion sense.  I’ve got far more important things to worry about.  Like how are we going to finally win that stupid Trojan War?  It’s been almost ten years and the troops are ready to give up.  I’ve been wracking my brain, but I can’t come up with anything. (Pause) For some reason, I keep having this vision of a giant horse.  But why?  Why a horse?  Why not an elephant, or a bear, or a kitten?  Everyone loves kittens . . . (goes into deep thought).

Diana: (ignoring Athena) Why do you waste your time trying to impress boys anyway?  Boys are ridiculously stupid and impossibly dull. What could you possibly see in them?

Venus: (sarcastically) Oh no, you’re not jealous at all.  What else is there besides boys?