Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Live From New Jersey

The following selection was constructed on Sunday morning following the 2007 Breeder's Cup Championships at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

Live from New Jersey

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m just slowly coming back to the living after a whirlwind 72 hours. As some may recall, after the football game Thursday night (VT lost to BC 14-10 at the last second), I got home to Roanoke at about 2 in the morning. Then it was up at 5:45 for work. I left work around 11:30 and hit the road heading for New Jersey, specifically the Breeder’s Cup Championships at Monmouth Park.

For those who aren’t initiated, The Breeder’s Cup Championships are a series of races over a two day period that pit the best and most proven horses against each other in different classifications and distances. Horse racing in America shuts down for this weekend just so these races can have the undivided attention of the racing world. ESPN gave up an afternoon of Saturday football just to cover these races on their number one channel.

I really hadn’t been to Jersey for any length of time before, and in my little spot in the road called Cranberry, NJ, I’ve found the people to be very nice, although I really haven’t come across too many that speak English without a foreign accent. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a true Jersey accent from English spoken over Spanish.

Another thing about this part of Jersey is that there are a lot of deer on the roads at night, and they are very fast. Thankfully, one was just fast enough to dart safely across the road in front of me and the car that was passing me last night as I was traveling RT 33. That deer flashed across from the median as a brown blur like a horse making a move down the stretch. It missed the front of my car by about 6 inches.

Roads in Jersey are unusual for a Virginian. The road signage in this county is severely lacking. There are seemingly street name signs posted in the center of traffic light standards; however, those signs always look bleached out at night. Another odd thing is the whole idea of making any kind of turn. Basically, you can’t do it. To make a left turn, you have to get in the right lane, exit, and loop around. Also, you can’t make a right turn at a traffic light intersection. Instead, you have to know that there is a right turn exit hidden directly behind the sign telling you that you can’t turn right at the light ahead. An out-of-towner doesn’t have a chance.

The races yesterday (Saturday) were amazing. My two sisters and I brought the torrential rains with us from Roanoke. So I pulled out my still soggy football rain gear and put it on. Our seats, although extremely expensive ($100…for the cheap seats), were located far into the first turn. Before I saw them, I thought that was such a rip off. Once there, however, I realized that I would have an incredible view of the whole place. We were sitting in nice, chair-backed bleachers located within ten yards of the outer dirt track. We had a perfect and close-up view of the horses jostling for position on the first turn and accelerating through to the backstretch. They had trucked in lots of port-a-johns and betting machines for us folks in the far turn. It was like we were segregated from the main grandstand and had our own track just to ourselves. Many people didn’t show for the races because of the rain and the extremely steep ticket prices, so we pretty much sat where we wanted.

The races were all awesome over a most sloppy mud track and a boggy turf course. Obviously, the head-liner today is Curlin’. That horse just exploded on his stretch run in the championship mile and a quarter classic and tossed aside my favorite horse, Hard Spun. Hard Spun had the best first turn of any horse that raced yesterday. He was dug in to the slop and made the sharp turn with power and perfection. Thanks to Hard Spun rabbiting around at incredible fractions, Curlin’ ended up tying a track record that had stood since 1963. The field in that race was the strongest I ever remember seeing in one race before. Five true champion contenders: Curlin’, Street Sense, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, Lawyer Ron.

There were some other massive performances. Two horses with Virginia connections won two major races. Kip Deville, who once visited Colonial Downs and ran in the Turf championship there two years ago surprisingly, won the Mile. English Channel, the greatest horse to ever race in Virginia (VA Derby winner), blew away the touted field in the B.C. Turf. Especially enjoyable was how Channel won powering away from the field led by heralded Dylan Thomas from England/France. Another performance worth noting was Midnight Lute in the Sprint Championship. This is one massive horse and he plodded through the extreme slop with seeming ease to smoke the tough field. If you are looking toward the future, keep your eye on War Pass. This two year old dominated the Juvenile championship. Juvenile winners don’t always head to the Triple Crown races next spring/summer and do well, but it will be very hard to overlook this horse now.

As many of you know, I really don’t bet much at the track. I went in yesterday and placed bets on 8 races. My bets totaled $60. I ended up doing respectably well and came out roughly even for the day. My sisters both did very well. They probably bet about $100 a piece and came out with double that.

We were also joined by our family’s long time friend who we all met at Virginia Tech many years ago. He was a perpetual student, so he came to know our whole family as we cycled through the school. He and his wife are real students of the racing game. They own/rescued three thoroughbred racehorses and care for them beside their tenant home on a 6,000 acre horse farm in NOVA. Our friend is especially savvy with his wagers, and rarely loses big, but he sometimes does hit big. Anyway, yesterday, he was commenting that all of his handicapping skills were pretty much thrown into the muck. Soggy turf and mud is a great equalizer. It can also bring out stunning performances from horses that just get it and stinky performances from horses (Lawyer Ron) that despise it. So our friend started goofing around with some cheap exotic picks. Just before the Turf Championship he placed four Superfecta Quick Picks. That’s similar to a lottery ticket where the computer makes the picks. English Channel powered to his win and my friend realized that he lost his regular bets and began double checking his Quick Picks…that’s when a goofy smile came over his face. His last Quick pick had the correct four numbers in order…and he had accidently placed $4 bets on each pick instead of the usual $1…so he won 4X the amount. That Superfecta paid $1,280 X 4. Amazing stuff. To see that look of shock and surprise come across his face made my whole trip worth every penny I spent on the $6 foot long hot dog.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Beatles On My Porch

Beatles On My Porch

On February 7, 1964, The Beatles flew to America, coming across the pond and landing in New York City. Two days later on February 9, they played live on the Ed Sullivan Show. On February 11, they slipped down the coast and played their first American concert at the Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. Without a doubt, they were an instant hit and immediately became international super men. From then on the world was watching every move they made.

Coinciding with the release in America of their 1965 mega-hit album, “Help!,” The Beatles came to America for a second tour. Lost in the hoopla of that visit was a concert the Beatles gave on the side porch of a small, two story Cape Cod-styled house at 2129 Garstland Drive in Roanoke Virginia. In attendance were the owners of the house, Jeane and Joe Ryder, their five children (one infant), and several neighbors who were enticed to come over with the offer of ice-cold lemonade. There was no press. The only camera was Joe’s silent 8mm wind-up K-Mart camera.

Well, hopefully you know enough about the Beatles to realize that they never came to Roanoke, Virginia, let alone the house in which I grew up. However, a faux-Beatles group did “pantomime” a concert one summer afternoon in August of 1965*at my house.

Hatched in the creative imaginations of kids who lived in a time when entertainment was something that had to be conjured from within, my sister and brothers came up with the idea of performing a Beatle concert on the side porch. My eldest sibling, Becky, was the natural leader of the gang. Since she was a long-time pupil of Miss Mona at Miss Mona’s School of Dance and since she possessed the only known collection of Beatle 45 rpm records (singles) in our family, she took charge. Becky drove the choreography, designed costumes- complete with Beatle wigs, created the set list, and publicized the event in the neighborhood. Becky was a veteran of side porch neighborhood performances. She had staged plays, skits, variety shows, and dance routines in front of eager, generous crowds of neighbors and relatives. No one in our family was more qualified to produce Beatlemania in Roanoke.

My brothers, Jody and Greg, built the guitars out of broom handles and wood blocks. They also assembled an excellent trap drum set out of garbage cans. While Paul’s bass guitar was a rather ordinary left-handed mop, the George Harrison guitar was a thing of beauty. In fact, it was designed with a hand-crafted (nailed) wooden handle attached to a varnished wooden block that had been pre-shaped with a saw (I suspect my father helped with that). Strings were attached to the guitar neck and attached in realistic fashion to the wood block. I wished I could play that instrument, but I knew that I was lucky to just be included.

Casting was a matter of matching personalities to Beatles. Our neighbor, Toni took the role of Paul McCartney. Jody drew the part of John. Greg became George, and I drew the Ringo assignment. The preparation and practice were intense. For days, Becky pushed and pushed us to bring forth our inner Beatle. For me, it was easy. I was just five years old and that was an advantage in creating my Ringo. After all, Ringo was widely known as being the most childish of the Beatles.

On concert day, Becky sent us out to the neighborhood to herd the neighbors over to the grassy area beside the side porch. They knew the drill. It was another in a long line of “shows by those Ryder kids.” Pitchers of lemonade and Kool-aid were set up on a table beside the porch to refresh the guests and make them feel comfortable. Lawn chairs and kitchen chairs were carefully placed in the grassy area in front of our porch stage in rows. The porch stage itself was adorned in Beatle signs and the instruments were carefully placed on the stage awaiting their masters. My father carefully wound his 8mm movie camera.

My brothers, Toni, and I waited nervously, resplendent in our Beatle outfits and wigs, in our living room which adjoined the side porch. Besides my wig, I wore my Sunday best white shirt and thin black tie. Our look was obviously patterned after the cover of the “Help!” Album.

“Ladies and gentlemen…THE BEATLES!!!!!”

We came charging out and took our spots on the stage. Becky dropped the needle of her record player tone arm onto the worn 45. After the telltale scraping that only loved vinyl can share, John and the Beatles launched into it…


Help, I need somebody,
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone, help.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me?

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
But every now and then I feel so insecure,
I know that I just need you like I've never done before.

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me.

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody's help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self assured,
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won't you please, please help me, help me, help me, oh.

We were one hot band, milking the crowd. I was smashing my garbage can drums while my brothers and sister air-banded their parts convincingly. My father darted all around the front of the stage like a modern rock concert videographer filming this memorable performance in Chaplin-esque style. There we were, lip-syncing on a silent movie.

After two minutes and twelve seconds, the final “oh….” was vocalized and the final chord struck. We stood and the crowd went wild with whistles and applause. Together, we moved to stage front and took our best “Family Von Trap” bow. After signing a few autographs, the crowd began to thin, and we were left to rehash the gala concert for days and weeks to come.

On a gentle August 1965 afternoon in Roanoke, Virginia, The Beatles took over my side porch.

*The dates and events, the principals and roles, the setting and sequences have all been reconstructed from my foggy memory. I make no guarantee of the accuracy of this story. What I know for sure was that there was a side porch Beatle performance, it happened in the 60's, and I was Ringo. The rest of the story...well, you know....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Magic Agenda

The Magic Agenda

I was thinking this evening about what I wanted my next United States President to be like. What kind of leader? What focus? I've come up with a simple list of five key areas that I feel need to be addressed soon by the next President.

1. Iraq War and Aggressive Posturing Must End

America was led blindly into a pit from Hell when we were sold the idea of WMD's in Iraq. That initial lie has been compounded since with lie upon lie in increasingly futile attempts by the administration to justify their egregious mistakes. We need a President who will dig us out of that pit. Our troops deserve to be used to defend our Nation instead of in arrogant attempts to build nations. Additionally, we need a President who sees our country as a vital member of the world community instead of the self-anointed leader of the world. Walt Disney was right, "It is a small world after all."

2. National Unification

The citizens of our country are polarized. We've been divided into two camps that despise each other. The political parties feed the boils of division while the media pricks those festering boils. We need a President who will unify this country. We need a true leader.

3. Health Care

Our health care system is broken. Fees are out of control. Prescription drug costs are ridiculous. Care has become compromised. The excluded in society clog the arteries of the emergency care system. I cried last week as my 79 year old father-in-law was forced to wait for treatment in a hospital emergency room for seven hours with the incision from his recent triple bypass leaking blood down his shirt while destitute people with colds, homeless pregnant women, and people with no insurance jammed the room on a Sunday trying to get the most basic treatment. My mother, a very wise and smart woman, planted a value in my soul that directs me to fight for a society that doesn't charge for the basic needs of life. According to Mom, food should not be taxed, shelter should not be taxed, and free, appropriate health care should be available for all.

4. Education

Our public schools are in crisis. It's a quiet crisis that you don't hear much about. Schools are situated squarely between two disparate forces. ESEA, a.k.a. NCLB which is about to be renewed, demands that by 2012 100% of all school children will be able to pass approved state measurements. The penalty for failure (less than 100% success) is that these schools run the real risk of being shut down or having their funding revoked. At the same time, schools are handling a more diverse and challenging school population every year. The numbers of non-English speakers entering our schools has jumped dramatically in the last three years. Yet, these children who can't read and write in English are still expected to pass tests in English by the end of the school year. We are rapidly coming to a point when schools will implode. We need a President who will lead the Congress to develop sane accountability measures and who will provide real, positive direction on the immigration issue, not lip-service.

5. Social Security and the Budget Deficit

The next President will get us out Iraq. Billions of dollars, formerly spent on that disastrous "war" will be free to shore up the ailing Social Security system and to help retire the budget deficit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

On The Edge

Yes, I am living life on the edge right now. That's why I haven't been creating earth-shattering blog entries lately.

My father in law recently went into the hospital for a triple bypass with two valves replaced. The surgery went well, but the vein taken from the sternum area left the sternum starved for blood, and it died. So he needed a second more painful surgery to remove his surgery then a third even yet more painful surgery to rebuild his sternum area with stomach tissue and his pectoral muscles. Needless to say this 78 year old man has gone through the ringer. He's still being kept mostly sedated until his body can get a grip on the healing.

On top of that, I have regular stuff like running my local education association and being a father and husband. Plus, I have this regular job where people don’t really understand my job description and responsibilities after 2.5 years.

It’s a complicated time. I long for a time where I can just sit beside the computer and write.

Monday, October 08, 2007

ESEA 2007

This piece was directed to an audience of my fellow teachers.

ESEA 2007

I didn’t envision creating such a sad and serious blog entry this morning, but that is the card I’ve been dealt this evening. Some of you may be old enough to remember the series of “Keep America Beautiful “ commercials featuring an American Indian surveying the land of litter, polluting smokestacks, and unbridled development with a tear rolling down his cheek. I feel like that Native American tonight in regards to the state of public education in our country.

As we all know, public school education has been under attack from all sides for many years. I remember the famous words of Education Secretary Terrel Bell from back in 1983, “We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Secretary Bell’s words struck me then with an intense sadness. Deep down, I suspected his words were a bellwether of changes to come.

Fast forward almost 25 years. The whole institution of education has changed. The art of teaching has been largely replaced by standards based instructional practices. “Accountability” has become the marquee word of the day; a linear, one way, one size-fits-all term.

Through it all, teachers like you and me have struggled to maintain the sanctity of the classroom. We’ve fought to keep education meaningful for our children. We’ve endured ill-conceived curricular changes at the national and state level coupled with unrealistic performance standards. Through it all we’ve been pounded by the media, by parents, and by our government. Do you remember when the Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the NEA a terrorist organization? Oh we grumbled at the changes, especially in how these changes affected the childhoods of our students. Yet we’ve been engaged in a futile fight against that rising tide of over-reaction, over-regulation, institutional blindness, micromanagement, and vilification. It’s enough to make a teacher just want to throw up her hands in despair.

Today I received two pieces of information that rocked me. Monday, I received information direct from NEA that suggests discussions on the reauthorization of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB) with members of Congress are not going well. In fact, NEA believes that House Education Chairman George Miller is close to releasing the revamped ESEA legislation this week. In it, NEA is hearing that there will be no relaxation of NCLB AYP (Average Yearly Progress) requirements. Worse than that, word on the street is that the bill will tie teacher compensation to test performance. That’s right. If the reauthorization passes, our pay will hinge on how well the children we can’t choose from parents we can’t choose from homes we can’t choose perform on tests we can’t modify or adjust.

The second piece of news I received today shook me equally and at a more personal level. A teacher from another school system came to me and told me that a child she received a couple of weeks ago from another country who speaks no English will not be granted an exemption from the Virginia SOL tests this year. So this third grade teacher is faced with the virtually impossible task of somehow imprinting four years worth of curriculum material onto a child who at this moment has no capacity to process it. The teacher was just flabbergasted and at a complete loss. How is she going to be able to get this child prepared to meet the expectations? Is it fair to have this child, who counts in several AYP groups, impact that school’s scores negatively? Imagine if ESEA passes…is it fair to have this teacher’s livelihood negatively impacted because she just happened to have a child placed in her classroom who couldn’t speak English?

It’s all so preposterous. For me, this is a sad Native American-looking-at-litter-tossed-at-his-feet moment. If the new ESEA evolves from draft as anticipated, I don’t see teachers across America taking it quietly.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Devastating Impact

Devastating Impact

It’s a little known fact that cave crickets jump toward that which threatens them. I learned this a few years ago when I spent considerable time hunting the hideous creatures in my basement with a flyswatter. Over the course of a few months, my basement went from a home to a few nymph-sized little fellers to a cauldron of ravenous jumpers ready to devour anything in their path.

Warning: Strong Language in video

They are born in the twilight of the day; the time when solitary bats swoop and dive in and out of the darkness silhouetted in a moonlit sky. They have the sharp fangs of vampire opossums that drip the blood of their victims. They eat their own with no sense of remorse. Their bodies operate as twitchy robotic mechanisms reacting to specific threatening stimuli in surprising and shocking ways. Their hideous, hairy legs are seemingly attached backwards to their bodies as if some perverse Frankenstein experiment went wrong. If Satan were an insect, he’d be a cave cricket.

As I watched the little fellers grow and multiply like rats in a horror flick, I knew I’d have to act. My first attempt was a dismal failure. I’d take my swatter and wade into the basement looking for targets. To my dismay, targets were everywhere-glaring at me with their insidious compound eyes. That’s when I made that most startling discovery. Cave crickets do not react like regular crickets when threatened. Regular crickets flee from the threat. Cave crickets embrace the threat and attack it in a kamikaze leaping frenzy. When they perceive a threat, they uncoil their backwards legs and spring right at it.

The first time I went to swat one of them, it stared right at me and leaped for my throat. I immediately recoiled away from the attack and darted away, but I was immediately attacked by another cricket creature. On and on this horror circus was replayed. Every time I flashed my swatter, I was attacked. Most of the time, they missed thanks to my cat-quick reflexes, but every now and again they struck me and tried to attach to me with their prickly sharp legs. Only quick action saved me from their sharp fangs.

The creepiest thing of all was what happened to the crickets I sent to oblivion. At first it was a bit of a mystery to me. I’d go into the basement, adjust my strokes for the inevitable forward attack and kill evil cricket after evil cricket. Some evenings, I’d knock off twenty or thirty of the buggers. Yet invariably, the next morning, there would be no sign of the dead that I left littering the floor the night before. Then one morning, my mystery was solved. In a corner of the basement sat a really fat cave cricket with its fangs sinking into another large cave cricket. It seems that these most evil creatures are cannibals. They leave no trace of wounded and recently killed crickets. Later I even observed crickets attacking one another live.

My fight against these heartless beasts was no doubt doomed for failure. No matter how many I slaughtered during an evening, the next day there were more. It was like the rats in the old suspense horror thriller, “Willard.” Instead of Willard and his platoons of “friends” invading my house, it was the spawn of Satan, more horrific in my mind than any rats in a movie theater. That’s why I decided that I needed to take the ultimate action. An apocalypse needed to visit them to end their domination once and for all.

I visited my local grocery store and purchased a two flea bomb canisters. Carefully following directions, I set off the bombs in my basement among the mildly suspicious beasts. They watched me blankly as I sneaked in to the room. I thought I could hear them whispering among themselves, their last thoughts. As the canisters began spewing their poison, I took my family and dog and evacuated our house. I didn’t see them writhing and taking their last breaths. Hours later, we returned and aired out the house. When I went to the basement, I found no living cave crickets. They were gone. The devastation was thorough and complete.

That was several years ago. I’ve recently begun to see some cute little cave crickets in my basement...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Pass Out

When my son was between one and two years old, he would sometimes go in to temper tantrums. These usually happened when he was very tired or was balking at going to bed. No big deal. It's just what kids do.

One day, he started screaming and got himself so agitated and worked up that his face turned red, then blue. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out cold, limp...non-breathing.

My wife and I were shocked and fought the urge to panic. We lived about 45 minutes from a doctor and knew that we could never get him there in time. But neither of us have any real first aid training other than scouts. For about 30 seconds to a minute, my son just dangled limp in my arms. I knew he was dying, and I was about to start mouth to mouth when his eyes snapped back, and he took a huge breath. Within a few seconds, he was back with us and very tired. The rest of that night went fine although we watched him very carefully.

The next day, we took him to the doctor and the doctor told us not to be alarmed. Some kids pass out when they are angry. So when he did it again a few weeks later, we were less worried, and he came back to consciousness within a minute. This scene repeated itself probably a half dozen times that year.

The best time was when he passed out on the concrete deck at our community swimming pool. There he was all limp and clammy. The concrete ladies club was in a full panic, but my wife and I were cool. "He'll come around in a minute or so." They thought we were the worst parents in the world and gossiped to no end about how horrible we were.

By the time my son was two, he outgrew that phase in his life and turned his attentions to things that boys traditionally do: playing with sticks, riding big wheels, and catching/torturing insects.