Sunday, April 25, 2010


Sometimes I wonder how long I will be able to hold out against the cellular telephone onslaught. It is likely the vast majority of you have one, maybe even two. They provide you with peace of mind possibly, or just a convenient way to communicate with others. Whatever your reason for having one, I don't begrudge you your possession. Nor your monthly bill.

I don’t have a cellular telephone now, but I did get one a long time ago. Long, long, long ago. Eighteen years or so, by my best calculation. It was the size of a shoe box and incurred roaming charges and all sorts of other mysterious fees. It didn’t take pictures or have ring tones or play games. It didn’t even have a calculator.

It was—and this may be hard for you to understand—a “phone.” Friends were envious, because most didn’t have one. Because it was such a new toy I sometimes used it foolishly. Once I called my mom from her front porch rather than ringing the doorbell. I was a phone phool.

There was no discussion when I had it that it operated on the 1G or the 2G network. Perhaps if there had been, I would understand the current television commercials and freeway billboards that boast of the 4G network. Of course, other companies still call theirs 3G. None of which makes any sense to me, so I did a little research.

Apparently the “G” stands for generation. The first generation (hence “1G”) utilized analogue transmission. That’s like having a wind-up watch or an Atari 2600 or a push mower. In other words, it dates you.

The switch to 2G began around 1991, when I had such a device, but I don’t know if mine was analogue or digital. Probably I was fooled into using a 1G phone even when 2G was available. Perhaps the salesman was unscrupulous and was just trying to get rid of old merchandise. Being the size of a shoe box wasn’t repellant as it would be to you smart phone owners. It might have even been a selling point.

“Look how big it is! You’ll never drop it between the sofa cushions!”

“I’ll take it!”

Sometime in the last decade the transmission network for cellular telephones began to include multi-media support and operated at a minimum of 200 kbit/s (whatever those are). This was decreed the third generation; that’s right, 3G. These phones were two generations removed from mine, basically turning me into the old guy in the recliner who does nothing other than complain about how fast the world is changing.

Even so, I don’t remember hearing much about 3G. Maybe I forgot to put my hearing aids in. For the last year or so, however, I have seen commercials that tout 3G as the thing to be. Someone offers the fastest 3G network, or has the greatest number of whatzits or flibbitygibbers. This must have been because they saw the future, and the future was their competitor: 4G.

Another entity began to proclaim that it had the first 4G network, and also the fastest (but if they are the first and only aren’t they currently the slowest 4G network also?). I don’t know who to believe, so I don’t believe anyone.

It doesn’t really matter to me, of course. I’ve been cellular telephone-free since 1996, and I have no plans to join the pack anytime soon. Sure, lots of people make fun of me. Many elementary school kids carry one and laugh at me when I tell them I don’t have one. Then they get angry when I say they don’t need one, either.

They have been indoctrinated by their parents who fear the next calamity, and want their children on an invisible leash. Of course, there’s no real way to know in what direction that leash stretches because the kid could be anywhere.

“Where are you?” Mommy asks her son.

“At Jimmy’s. We’re making birthday cards for his grandma.”

“How nice. Have fun!”

“Did she believe you?” the friend asks after the cellular telephone is flipped closed.

“Of course, she always believes me!” Thirty miles from where he is supposed to be, the boy takes the pack of cigarettes from his friend and lights up.

That little fantasy does not mean all cellular telephones are unnecessary or only used to lie, cheat, and steal. As I said, I don’t begrudge anyone who wants one. But I will stay happily on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. When the victor of the 3G/4G battle is decided (and it seems pretty obvious it will be 4G unless the Earth starts spinning backwards and the Atari 2600 begins selling more units than the Nintendo Wii) it will have to take on the inevitable 5G.

And then every new G after that. The networks will become more powerful, the phones will become smaller and do more, and eventually one will be embedded in your skull and you will be able to call your friends with just a thought. Your physical body will no longer be of use and you will become just another cog in the Matrix.

“Welcome to the new 10G network. Please park your soul at the door.”

Gee whiz. And good luck to those of you already ensnared.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


We must always protect and nurture the precious youth, because they are the future. Have you ever heard that before? “Children are the future.” As far as I’m concerned, I am the future, and the children can be so once I become worm food. You know what else is the future? Everything. Well, everything minus dodo birds. And anything else that might have reached extinction or obsolescence by the time this illusive “future” has arrived.

Everything is the future, even the past if you want to be cosmically mystical, so let’s stop talking about the children as if they are all we have to look forward to. Tomorrow is the future, and yes, the children will be around and we must do what we can to ensure their survival. But I am still more concerned about whether I will get a bacon sandwich for breakfast tomorrow than I am about such issues as child labor in foreign sweatshops or playground politics or quality public education.

The latter, for example: public education is going to work out one way or another whether I worry about it or not. The bacon sandwich is not so inevitable. Which is why I’m not so worried about the kids. Yours, mine, and ours. They’ll all be okay.

They have it easy, nowadays. They have online homework help and teachers are always worried about the pupils’ self-esteem and never again will the students have to walk a mile through the snow to get to school because their parents will drive them and drop them off at the gate, even if they live a quarter mile away.

Of course, I never did either. Snow, that is. Not a mile or any other distance in the snow, and not barefoot, poorly shod, or in any other unfavorable footwear condition in good weather, and I have never complained to my children about having done so. Some things in my time were more difficult than what the modern youngsters face, and likewise they deal with things that I am glad I never had to.

When I was a kid there was minimal acknowledgement of birthdays at school. A song, a card from the teacher, and then on to the math lesson. More recently parents have become lunatic, wanting to bring treats, drinks, gifts, and interrupting class for thirty minutes or more. They start in kindergarten and continue every year until the teachers finally yell, “Enough!”

This can happen as late as middle school, and can be completely embarrassing for the child (which is all right with me, I think the world might be a bit better off if the youth could not only spell and define “chagrin” but also feel it on occasion).

Of course when I was a kid, those with summer birthdays wouldn’t even get the brief song and short note. It was as if their birthday never happened, they just magically aged one year before returning to school for the next grade . . . or possibly to revisit the same grade. How sad it was to have a summer birthday.

Except it might actually be a warm day to have a party. You would have to track down your chums to invite them to the soiree, but it would be better than having a mid-February celebration in three feet of new snow. Let’s face it, there are always downfalls to any possibility. You have to make the most of it, even if your guests all suffer from frostbite before they go home.

To remedy this dreadful summer birthday situation, the modern era has invented the half birthday. Enthusiastic parents who had the temerity to give birth in late July can bring tomfoolery into the classroom in late January instead.

It is almost more exotic, this half birthday. There are fewer such celebrations based strictly on the statistical odds of non-school months versus calendar months. Soon the other students want to celebrate their half birthday as well. The odd little boy born on October 13 who brought in a tray of cupcakes on his special day wants a do-over on April 13 (unless that is during spring break, in which case he would be glad to postpone it until school is back in session).

In the younger grades there are now enough “special days” that interruptive treats arrive practically every week. Parents think they are doing a nice thing for their child, but if they don’t stop there will be a rude awakening when the kid hits middle school and the only thing that is likely to happen on his or her birthday is some enjoyable bullying.

Unless the persecutor can be appeased with a cupcake.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


When I see a pile of leaves, I want to take a running leap and fall into it like a giddy schoolboy. Probably because that’s what I used to see in the movies when I was a schoolboy—giddy or otherwise. Kids were always running across expansive lawns and jumping into enormous piles. If their older brother had been doing the work he would chase the hooligans around the yard with the rake. If Dad were the workhouse, he would just lean against a tree and chuckle, no doubt fondly recounting his own youthful leaf jumping.

The problem I had was the leaves I raked and swept from my childhood front yard were left in the street to be picked up weekly by large bulldozers. It only took me a few times to realize that an under layer of asphalt and concrete is not the same as spongy earth. I could do little more than stare at my well organized piles and dream.

My brother had it worse. He was responsible for the back yard, which required numerous trips back and forth with a wheelbarrow, and by the time he was done with his yard he was too exhausted to contemplate diving into the heap. Probably why he never hurt his back.

I still gather yard waste and put it at the curb for the weekly pickup, though my piles aren’t particularly large. Certainly not big enough to support my falling body. Some of my neighbors have leafier trees and collect larger amounts, but it would still be dangerous, at least for a man of my age. Other neighbors put all of their trimmings in green plastic containers, so colored to separate them from the trash and the recycling cans.

In this environmentally friendly age when you can always find someone trying to reuse what would formerly be called trash (old tires into playground surfaces, wire hangers into child motivators—thank you Joan Crawford), everything has to get separated so it gets to the right place. I didn’t want to use the third container even though it was free, because I already had the other two stinking up the side of the house.

The black one is for trash, and trash smells no matter what I do. The gray one is for recycling paper, plastic, and glass, and it could smell better if the various bottles and cans were rinsed thoroughly, but I’m too lazy to do that. When I was offered the green one by the garbage company, all I could imagine was the slow breakdown of biodegradable material that would stink to high heaven as it baked in the sun for a week. No thanks. I’ll just throw it at the curb and try not to jump in it.

There’s one truck the city folk use for the lawn waste in the bins. It hoists them up with a mechanical arm and dumps them in seconds. Later, a mobile tractor comes scooting along with its large horizontal pinchers and picks up the stuff in the street to drop it into the back of a different truck. Three vehicles for the compostable stuff, which seems like overkill, but hey, we’re saving the rainforests and not burying disposable diapers under biodegradable mass. Al Gore would be proud.

I only have to make two trips to the curb each Tuesday afternoon, to retrieve my newly emptied garbage and recycling containers. My green-binned neighbors must make three, and I laugh silently at their misery because I believe I have found a better way. At least, that is, until I stand at the empty curb and see just what has happened. While my neighbors are putting away their third bin, I see what the jaws have dropped from between their pinchers in front of my house.

Leaves, small branches, spiky balls from the cursed Liquidambar trees, and other escapees from different yards up and down the street. Sure, the machine is ninety-nine percent effective, but that one percent is a doozy. I can’t even tell what it all is, but I know for sure it isn’t all mine. Bits and pieces from the yards of people I don’t even know.

I think in earlier years I didn’t worry about it much. I didn’t even really notice it, as I drove in and out of the garage twice a day. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the yard. Any abandoned detritus would get scraped up by the tractor the next week, or dragged along the street underneath whichever neighbor’s car was parked in front of my house because they have too many vehicles, or washed down the gutter in the next rain. Something would always take care of it.

Now I have more free time on my hands, and on occasion I stand in the front yard. I see what is strewn from side fence to side fence, and I grab my broom and dustpan to finish the job. I have become the crazy old man who sweeps the street after the trash has been hauled away. Every neighborhood has at least one such oddity.

Of course, I wouldn’t have to do it if I used the third green bin, because everything would be contained and the tractor wouldn’t have to stop in front of my house. Or if I ignored local laws and burned my yard waste like in the good old days.

The good old days when kids could safely jump into a pile of leaves.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Easter egg hunts are a part of my past. I eagerly participated when I was young, possibly even into my late teens. I distinctly remember the event becoming more physical between my brother and me, combining tackle football and wrestling with the keen-eyed observation required to find yellow-dyed eggs in the backyard lemon bush.

At that point it was more about the competition than the wide-eyed wonder of finding edible treasures behind every rock, plant, and spigot. We had grown up, and it was time to celebrate Easter in a different way. Like eating too much ham and deviled eggs. And let me tell you folks, turkey ain’t the only meat high in tryptophan.

Next on the memory hit parade was setting up Easter egg hunts for my own children. Sometimes we dyed eggs and sometimes we filled plastic eggs with small chocolates, jelly beans, or coins. Kate and Kelsey and Kyle searched in Palo Alto and Campbell and San Jose and once in South Lake Tahoe after a blizzard. That was the quickest hunt on record, what with none of the eggs having been left their natural white. There is nothing so obvious as a pink egg on a field of snow.

I ended my Easter egg hunt experiences with five years of teaching kindergarten. With copious contributions from generous parents, we scattered hundreds of eggs around the schoolyard before releasing several classrooms’ worth of five-year-olds. It was dangerous to stand in their way, lest you be trampled.

Now, with free time on my hands, and having finally learned the difference between “showers” and “rain” in the weather forecast, I embarked on solving another mystery. Because I am tired of being invited to Easter dinner and never knowing when to show up.

Most holidays have a fairly easy way to remember when they occur: a certain date! Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and that most important of all, my birthday, all happen on the same day, year after year, without complication. (May 15 for those of you wondering; plenty of time to get a gift.) You can just take down your kitchen calendar every December and copy those special events to the new version, easy as pumpkin pie. For those of you who have more successfully made the transition to the new millennium than I, your so-called smart phone will take care of it for you.

Easter, though, is totally wacky. I never really cared when I was a kid, because as long as the solid milk chocolate bunny was sitting at my breakfast table, I didn’t care what the date was. I didn’t even care what month it was, which is important, because Easter is so totally wacky that it actually migrates between months.

The earliest it will arrive is March 22, but if that doesn’t work for you, no worries! It might just come along the next day, or the day after that, or by March 31. And if you’d like to put it off as long as possible, just stay alive until 2038 because that year Easter will finally land on April 25. The reason it fluctuates so much is because some geniuses gathered in what is now present-day Turkey (hmm . . . maybe they picked the Thanksgiving meal as well) in A.D. 325 to attain consensus on various items relating to Christendom. Settling the issue of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father, constructing the first part of the Nicene Creed (the profession of faith widely used in Christian liturgy), and promulgating early canon law. Makes my head spin just thinking about it.

Which is probably the same reason some doofus at the table wasn’t thinking straight when he blurted out, “What about Easter? We still haven’t picked a date yet!”

The bishop leading the proceedings might well have been trying to break for lunch, but our hapless hero—I’ll blame Secundus of Ptolemais until someone tells me otherwise, mostly because he has a funny name—brings everyone back from the buffet room with his simple question. And in their rush to fill their bellies, the assembled clerics put together a hasty mishmash of a plan involving the vernal equinox, the next full moon to follow, and the first Sunday after that.

Might as well just have picked a day and made it easy for the rest of us. For goodness sake, in 2018 Easter falls on April 1. Who are you gonna believe, your grandma or your teenager?

Grandma: “Happy Easter!”

Teenager: “April Fools!”

Good luck not opening a plastic egg that year and finding a rat turd in it.