Monday, June 30, 2008

Schools Kill Creativity

Over the past several years, as our girls have left elementary school, my wife and I have become increasingly frustrated with the public education system, even in our happy upper-middle class suburban locale. In short, our public education system in the US is a mess.

Sir Ken Robinson has some fascinating ideas about education. Its 20 minutes, but every minute is worth it. Check this out:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Wooden & Scully, A Match Made in Heaven

A couple of weeks ago, something wonderful happened in downtown Los Angeles. Two of my favorite people, and living legends, John Wooden and Vin Scully, sat down together to talk about sports, life, love, and their remarkable experiences in life.

I had no idea this was happening, or I would have done my best to be there. I did read about it, at several places on the Internet, and wanted to share it here, so I could remember it.

Scully and Wooden first met by chance while living in the same Brentwood apartment building, when Scully held the gate open for Wooden, who was carrying groceries inside. Wooden introduced himself by saying, "Hello, I'm John Wooden, the new basketball coach at UCLA". Can you imagine?!

Scully and Wooden kicked off Father's Day weekend with a 1½-hour chat. A sold-out crowd of 7,100 paid rapt attention at Nokia Theatre, while a live television audience listened in. (As I understand, it was a one-time broadcast - if anyone reading this ever hears that it will air again, PLEASE let me know)

Scully and Wooden received prolonged standing ovations when they arrived and left the stage. Despite looming large over the Los Angeles sports scene for decades, the 80-year-old Scully and 97-year-old Wooden have never sat down together publicly to share their memories.

In agreeing to participate, the men requested that all money raised benefit children's charities. This is so like these two selfless men.

Ticket prices ranged from $25 to $200, with proceeds split between UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital and ThinkCure, the Los Angeles Dodgers' charity that focuses on cancer research. Scully and Wooden appeared beforehand at a dinner, where tables went for $25,000 each.

Wooden came onstage in a wheelchair pushed by UCLA athletic trainer Tony Spino, who helped the former coach settle into a leather chair. Wooden made a passing reference to having broken his left wrist and collarbone in a fall at home in February.

His body may be frail, but Wooden proved his mind is as sharp as ever as he recalled snippets of his life from decades ago in between making the audience laugh with his retorts to Simers.

Wooden tenderly admitted he still writes his late wife Nell – the only girl he ever dated – a letter on the 21st of each month. “She's still there to me,” he said. “I talk to her every day.”

Scully's famously soothing voice has defined summer in the city to generations of Angelenos. But he is fiercely private away from the announcer's booth, rarely giving interviews or discussing his life.

He explained that he grew up in New York being taught not to show his emotions.

“I'm less of a man because of it,” he said.

Scully said he's not a fan of the Dodgers because “if I did that every flyball would be a home run.”

Scully remembered a game that Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier, and the Dodgers played in Philadelphia on a hot day. A man outside offered slices of watermelon to each of the players as they got on the bus.

“When Jackie came out he was not aware of anything, and all of a sudden, the man hands him a piece of watermelon,” Scully said. “He was ready to go pyrotechnic until we were able to say, 'No, no, Jack. Everybody is having watermelon, me, a redhead Irishman.' So it was fine, but there was always that underlying feeling.”

Scully said the worst thing anyone could do was make Robinson angry.

“Most of us, if not all of us, lose something when we get angry,” he said. “When Jackie got angry, somehow he took his game to a higher level. One game, he knew they were trying to hit him. So he got to first base on ball four and proceeded to steal second, third and home. The word around the league was, I remember hearing Leo Durocher say this to the Giants: 'Don't wake him up.'”

At one point, Scully, a former barbershop quartet singer, launched into his favorite song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” with the audience joining in.

Asked the secret to his long life, Wooden replied, “Not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. All of life is peaks and valleys. Don't let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

Scully was asked when he plans to retire.

“I still get the goose bumps every day when the crowd roars for whatever reason,” he said. “I'm looking forward to at least next year. But I remember the old thing about talk about next year and make the devil laugh, so I'd rather just go day to day like we all are anyway.”

In a takeoff of “Inside the Actor's Studio,” Simers asked Scully and Wooden a series of questions requiring mostly one-word answers.

Their favorite words? Both men replied love. Their least favorite? Both said hate.

The noise they hate? “Booing,” Wooden said. “Chalk on a blackboard,” Scully said.

Their favorite curse word? “Goodness gracious snakes alive,” the clean-living Wooden said, drawing laughter. “Darn it,” Scully replied.

The profession they would like to try? Civil engineer for Wooden, and song-and-dance man for Scully.

If heaven exists, what would they like God to say when they arrive at the pearly gates?

“Well done,” Wooden said as the audience applauded in agreement.

“Can't really top that,” Scully said. “Welcome my son, well done.”

At that, the two legends reached toward each other, grasped hands and smiled.

There is a brief video of these two great men last week at this event, here at MLB.


Now, may I recap for a moment?

1. Vin Scully tell us that when you hide your emotions, you are less of a man for it. To me, this is wisdom in its purest form.

2. Coach Wooden still writes his long deceased wife a letter once a month. This, my friends, is love.

3. Coach also tells us that the secret to is not being afraid of death and having peace within yourself. I am working on both of those. Maybe someday I will have it together.

4. Both of their favorites words are love.

And all I can say to both of these men is "well done". I know of few other men who more deserve these words.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fighting Gravity, Reaching 50, Flying, Joy

"John, Michael, wake up.
There is a boy here who is to
teach us to fly and take us to
the Never, Never Land.
He says there are
pirates and mermaids and redskins."
- Peter Pan, by Sir James Matthew Barrie

Have you ever dreamt that you could fly? I have lots of times, mostly when I was younger. My dreams in middle life seem to be more earth bound, for some reason. I wonder why? But the other night, it really happened; we flew, all of us. And reality was way more fun than a dream!

Friday night was my 50th birthday, and 11 of us piled into two cars and headed over to IFlyHollywood for what turned out to be an unforgettable 90 minutes of thrills, fun, and laughter. Now I think I want to turn 50 about once a month!

IFlyHollywood is a vertical wind tunnel, where you can make like you are skydiving without the hassle (and risk) of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Oh, that and you can avoid the wetting your pants part, too.

How to describe the feeling of floating in a 120 mph wind tunnel? Well first of all, completely non-frightening. It seems like just the most natural thing one could do; you stand in the doorway, fall forward, and, well, just float. Instructors fly with you, so you feel totally in control. You go from 5 feet above ground to as much as 25 feet. Awesomeness! All 11 of us, young and old had a complete blast, and our youngest daughter wants to come back for her 16th birthday party. What a kid!

To float, for just a few moments, beating gravity. All these years, we are held fast to the ground by a force we cannot see, but is surely there. Unavoidable. Pressing us down. Life itself does that too. Maybe I am pressed closer to the ground by the seriousness and gravity of life. Closer to the earth than when I was born. Sir Mathew Barrie understood this, I think.

But I wonder, did Sir Barrie know, there is more to this life than meets the eye? Sometimes, we can fly, if only for a few moments. And then, there is Joy.

“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

- Peter Pan, by Sir James Matthew Barrie

Monday, June 23, 2008

Matt is at it Again!

Two years ago, Matt produced a video that has spread around the world.

Matt is at it again, and this time, there is no possible way you can watch this without smiling, and then laughing and wondering again about this amazing, beautiful, troubling, fantastic world we live in.

Observation: Last time, Matt did a lot of dancing on his own. No longer. Isn't that the way our lives should all be lived? We don't have a long time to live on this planet. Come on, people...lets dance.

I give you Matt:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Turning 50 - Part 1

The other day I turned 50 years old. For what happened on the momentous day I was born, go here.

Friday morning I awoke to find that the clock (at l
east at our house) had been turned back about 35 years. My yard had been "TP'ed", or in the south also known as "rolled". This used to happen regularly to me when I was a teenager, but more on that another time.

The culprits? Teenage friends of my daughters? Local hooligans? My eccentric Cal Tech chemist neighbor? Paroled white-collar criminals? Nope. None of these.

As it turns out I was the birthday-boy target of this mischief - by our good friends the Wiericks - a couple of in-denial fel
low 50-year olds in the neighborhood. This was a very cleaver decoration job that also involved free beverages, for which I am very thankful. Along with the decorative toilet papering of my lawn, porch, and rose bushes, I received 50 (count 'em) bottles of fine German beer, each festooned with humorous and thoughtful quotes on age and aging.

This was wonderful stuff. Below, I give some of the pithy beer bottle quotations (click to enlarge):

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Lining Up, Promotion, The Future

They all lined up.

About 300 8th graders stood in line to receive their promotion handshakes, certificates, and photographs. Suits and ties, new shoes, new dresses. A Big and Special Day. I was reminded of the James Taylor song, "Line 'em Up". All those amazing lives, all clumped together in one place. If we had time to listen, what stories they could tell us.

I am never ready for these sorts of things. They thonk me over the head like I never saw them coming in the first place.

Its the end of the school year, and it always seem to hit me before I can prepare. Its a time of change; the end of spring, the beginning of summer. Bittersweet endings, yet new beginnings. This year my feelings and emotions are different than other years. I have blogged about kids growing up, and the changes at the end of the school year here, some time back. But today, it feels different.

We have one high schooler ending her junior year; senior year coming up. Big Decisions ahead. This will be an interesting year for her, and for all of us. In less than 18 months, we will hopefully have a child off to college, and all the emotions and excitement that go with that. Our family population will be reduced by 25%, not to mention the noise level, that should be in the range of a 50% reduction!

And now, our younger girl is finishing her time at Middle School, and oh, what a ride. Academics that were challenging, great teachers, great friends, the school play for three years in a row, volleyball, softball, and soccer. What a life!

Today, I dropped 14-year old Heather off in front of the Middle School for the very last time. I watched her walk up the steps, never to return this particular way again. It was then that I remembered those last days of both of our girls, first at Marengo Elementary, and then here, at the Middle School. Fleeting moments in time. I pulled away from the curb, smiling to myself; thankful for the years past, and looking hopefully to those ahead. The past is beginning to softly fade, as are our memories of the Junior High years.

What an amazing ride this is, this life. Today, my heart is very full.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Time, Cleaning the Panels, and My Future Self

Its Father's Day.

Albert Einstein once said:

"The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

I have thought often of this idea, this "illusion", over the past two years, as I have faced the death of both of my parents, and a bit more again in the past couple of weeks, as I muse upon turning 50.

Today, I went on the roof of our house with a garden hose, some dish soap and a brush. No, I am not loosing it completely, I have solar panels that require periodic cleaning. My sweet wife does not warm to the concept of me, The Provider, on the roof playing with water and dish soap. She logically fears an accident by somewhat awkward me, resulting in much trauma for our family. I am sobered by this, as a neighbor on our street, who was roughly my age, fell off a ladder to his death while cleaning his gutters several years ago, leaving behind a wife and daughter of elementary age. I am not kidding.

This life we lead, as Einstein knew, exists on one side of a thin veil from death, another dimension.

As I was scrubbing panels on the roof, doing my part to reduce my Big Foot-sized carbon footprint, I started to chuckle thinking how silly this solar-panel-scrubbing effort will very likely someday seem. Surely, within the next 20 years some new technology will either scrub my panels for me, or the whole idea of solar power will be transformed in some way I cannot even now imagine. Such is the future.

While alone up on the roof in the sun, I thought of all those pictures from my parents photo albums from when I (like my girls now) was a teenager. How old-fashioned and tacky they all look. Time marches on, unimpeded by our memories of better or more simple times.

And then, I came downstairs to watch the final round of the US Open. I could write another post about that, but suffice it to say, Tiger and Rocco are amazing. During the midst of the tournament, another commercial came on from Lincoln Financial. To me, Lincoln has the most amazing advertising agency ever. Almost every add they do grabs me right in the heart.

Einstein would like this ad's idea. What if the laws of time were, for a brief moment, abolished, and we could chat with our future selves? It might be amazing.

And so, I give you this commercial, from the people at Lincoln Financial. Think less about the financial aspect, and more about the timelessness of this. It is wonderful. The question that punched me in the gut, from the new father
(note: its a baby girl, just like our two) to his future self, was, "How'd I do?". Oh my!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Now That is Some Banjo Playin'!

Now, y'all listen up. I don't know much, but I do know me some good banjo pickin' when I hears it. I want to go to a show where everybody gets a seat suspended on a giant elastic band. Oh my!

Can we not all just dance when we hear the music?

Tricky Dick, MTV, and Being a Parent

When I was a kid, the three of us, me, Mom, and Dad used to sit at the little dinner table in our kitchen each night for dinner. Tater tots, pork chops, and reconstituted frozen lima beans. Dad would hold forth on events of business, politics, and culture, in his own modified suburban white Archie Bunker sort of way. My Dad loved Richard Nixon. He considered himself one of the Silent Majority. He thought Vietnam was a worthwhile endeavor to thwart the commie threat. He never understood the civil rights movement.

And so now, 35 years later, I feel I have been, in some ways, transported back in time, and the roles are reversed. I am playing the uptight, ultra-conservative parent, confused at the responses of my kids to culture.
But after watching The Merchants of Cool earlier this week, I am wiser about the poop that is being foisted on our youth, all in the name of hipness, but really with the intent of making money. Lots of it. And MTV is a big part of the force.

Those of you who are parents, or are even thinking about becoming parents will want to watch this.
Want to know what is going on? First, go take a look at one of the most recognized market research firms in youth culture, LookLook. These are the people that study youth culture, and then tell the giant marketing machines what is the latest, the coolest, and the most. Another good source of cultural overview can be found in the books of the Merchants of Cool producer, Douglas Rushkoff.

So, is this a battle? Are we in a fight for the character of our kids? Well, I do not do well with the language of war in the attempt to win the hearts and minds of young people. I prefer groups like Young Life, they do a much better job. However, the machinery of marketing to youth is large, formidable, and determined. Its about making money, and clearly, the moral ramifications of how money is made just do not matter.

Read the comment on the post below from my friend Scott, who has spent a number of years in the entertainment business. Often, I feel like I am watching our culture unravel. Save for the grace of God, I feel helpless sometimes.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Merchants of Cool

Parenting is not for cowards. Chalk one up for MTV.

We have been recently dealing with a teenager in our house who is telling us our values are bogus, and those of the MTV generation are more fitting. We have been told, essentially, that we can go pound sand.

The specific issue we, as parents, are dealing with is not so important as is the fact that the culture, at this point, seems to be winning. Young, and hip, cool and relevant are winning out over tradition, character, and values.

I love my kids, but I really hate this situation.

Last week, I spent some time with a 26 year old seminary student who has spent the better part of the last 8 years working with young people. He mentioned that I should really watch "The Merchants of Cool" to get a better bead on youth culture and how it is being shaped by large companies, and sold to kids.

I am going to watch it tonight.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Final Salute

I spotted this image today on the front page of the New York Times. I was transfixed, and humbled. This is the caption that goes with the photo:

"When 2nd Lt. James Cathey's body arrived at the Reno Airport, Marines climbed into the cargo hold of the plane and draped the flag over his casket as passengers watched the family gather on the tarmac. During the arrival of another Marine's casket at Denver International Airport, Major Steve Beck described the scene as one of the most powerful in the process: "See the people in the windows? They'll sit right there in the plane, watching those Marines. You gotta wonder what's going through their minds, knowing that they're on the plane that brought him home," he said. "They're going to remember being on that plane for the rest of their lives. They're going to remember bringing that Marine home. And they should."

We should. All of us.

To see the slide show, go here. To purchase the book, go here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Its Coming!

In four more days:

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Orange Grove Park, The End of a Softball Era

Yesterday marked the bittersweet end of an era in the life of our family. Our last girls softball game at Orange Grove park.

We have been watching, cheering on, encouraging, and participating in coaching our girls at this simple little ball field for the past 10 years or so. Yesterday, our team won the league championship for 14-year old junior girls, and will advance this month to the area "Tournament of Champions"; that has a rather Olympian ring to it, does it not?

But back to the bittersweet. As Heather is our younger daugther, we have now exhausted the years that our girls can play ball at this park. It has been a wonderful ride, and I have written about it several times, both here, and here. We are so blessed.

Every once in a long time, we get the chance to stand still, if just for a moment, and reflect on what is going on in our lives. I had that chance last night. It was the 5th inning or so, and our girls were in the field. We had the game under control, coming from behind in the earlier innings; pretty darn exciting! I wandered to the far end of the dugout where the trees that ring the stands open up to the western sky. It was nearly twilight. Twilight has always been my favorite time of day, a place in time to reflect, if only briefly, on the day gone by.

As you move to the end of the dugout, its like removing yourself slightly from the action of the game, the crowd noises get a bit less, the intensity of the game seems less, somewhat softer, if you will.

There I stood, reflecting on a decade of softball games at Orange Grove Park. Thousands of people glide by each day in their cars, oblivious to the games full of little and (now, for us) bigger girls. Ten years full. Of strikeouts, walks, fly balls to left field, dropped ground balls, laughter, tears, screams, and silly girl-team cheers from the dugouts. A lot has gone on here on this green patch in the midst of the city; many memories. Little girls turned big. Toothless smiles turned bright and straight (with help from the orthodontist). Characters of young ladies were formed, by winning, and loosing, and being a good sport on the way to the car afterward. Families reconnecting each week in the stands.

Its a just a city park, a little patch of green, surrounded by homes, tennis courts, a brick office building and the Arco station. But to those of us who played there, coached there, and raised our girls on this field, its a whole lot more.
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