Monthly Archives: December 2008

Hold It Up High

The other day, I saw a commercial on television for a new gizmo from the “i” people. This is what it can do: If a song is playing in the atmosphere around you, and you do not know its name but want to have it as your own, you can hold up your tiny machine into the ether and it will name the tune. Just like that. Raise the thing into the air as if you were a sailor assessing the wind, and poof…title, artist, musical xerox.

I do not understand why people would need or want this capability. I do not understand why people carry these pods, or whatever they are called, in their pockets, to begin with. When your ears are stopped up with metal, you can miss what is happening in front of you. You can trip on the sidewalk or fail to notice a mugger. Mostly, though, I can’t fathom why the technological energy and brainpower would be devoted to such an invention unless, say, it has ramifications elsewhere, you know, like with national security.

Speaking of national security, two seconds after I saw the advertisement with the man holding the song-snatching gadget over his skull, I heard on the news that the chance that the United States would be attacked by weapons of mass destruction some time in the next few years had increased. It will, no doubt, happen while music-loving Americans are pointing their pods to the heavens, like followers of some supreme deity. I am struck by the priorities some people set. Shouldn’t there be some unified effort—among government, educators, law enforcement, ditty duplicators—to keep the significant goals at the top of the list. Get to the moon first. Cure cancer. Keep biological, chemical and nuclear warfare at bay. My father, a surgeon, told me that if a career didn’t lead to saving a life, then it was silly. Arrogant, perhaps, but philosophically sound. If you are not around to dance to the music pulled from the skies, then what’s the point of being able to pull it.

Given the plummeting interest and performance among American school kids in math and science, and college students in fields such as engineering, I think that it would make sense to harness the talent we do have in specific ways that would protect and enhance our existence on Earth. This does not mean channeling Rihanna, as much as I love her. I think it means handing out assignments.  Computer people, you get to disrupt nuclear smuggling rings. Laboratory researchers, you work on technology to reduce the bioweapons threat. Governmental and other agencies, monitor and enforce treaties. Everyone else, be aware, volunteer, use your skills to play a part.

And if we want to groove a little while we’re saving the planet, how about pushing the button on the radio. 


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What is Potential, Anyway?

Today, my sixth grader has a science quiz on potential and kinetic energy. It shouldn’t be too difficult, just the basic concepts and definitions, and then, some examples. On the way to school this morning, I reminded her to take a quick look at her notes before class, to remind her brain about what she studied last night. Then, I explained that her brain was, in fact, a nifty representation of the idea.

It is full of stored energy, I told her, and when it takes in information from the world, the energy becomes kinetic, or is set in motion. Crazy ideas flying all over the place. She seemed to like the concept, so I suggested that she include it if she is asked to provide one. Your teacher will think you are clever, I told her, feeling clever. Sometimes, kids don’t take you up on your suggestions, even though they are good ones that come from having been a sixth grader already. Unfortunately, it’s not always enough just to know things. You have to show people that you  know them, particularly teachers. They do not live with you. They do not know that you are always clever, especially after dinner, or when you’re brushing your teeth. They only get to see it sometimes. This is a time.

I hope she uses the brain idea. Actually, I hope she comes up with another thought that is just as smart, but more of her own. That’s the definition of potential.

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A Texas Evening

There is a drive-in movie theatre a half hour south of our house. On the way back from Houston on Friday, an idea sprouted in the back seat. It was a terrific idea, actually, to stop along the way, catch a flick in a field, sitting in your car. I told the kids what it was like, from what I could remember of the experience. Something about hanging speakers on the window.

The Galaxy had a marquis, right on the highway, and we had a phone. The movie was at eight. We would be too late. Instead, I thought we could come back the next day, spend a little time beforehand exploring the local territory. This is Texas, after all, and we are northeasterners. It is all an adventure, even if they don’t remember being born in Boston. 

I made a plan. We would leave the house at 2:30 and head for what I learned was a “historical town” created to accommodate a railroad back in the 1800s. Brick sidewalks, flat-topped Western buildings, tearooms and antique shops. Fabulous. An outing. We’d walk around, mingle with the townsfolk, eat crumpets and experience what it was like growing cotton in the heartland. Then, we’d see the movie.

So, we arrive in Ennis, Texas–rhymes with “tennis”–full of expectation. We take the wrong exit, but manage to locate the downtown historic district like homing pigeons. Having grown up traipsing the northeastern corridor in search of Colonial candlemakers and pilgrims of every sort, I have an internal tracking device when it comes to American landmarks. I see red brick in the distance. 

“Kids, look, brick!”

We drove two blocks instead of one, and had to turn around because we had gone through the downtown historic district as quickly as we entered it. There were Wild West storefronts and wide streets. It looked old. It looked historic. 

“Mommy, it looks abandoned,” came the assessment from behind me.

“What are we going to do here for two hours?”

Well, the children had raised valid points. No one was present on the sidewalks. All but two diagonal parking spaces in the two block square were deserted. We pulled up next to the parked cars. 

“Hey, here’s something that’s open, kids,” I said, enthusiastically. At 11 and 13, kids get sarcasm. We went into a collectible shop and found old Coke bottles and Elvis records, Archie comic books like the ones I read at Camp Towanda, and jukeboxes. It smelled a little funny.  We found a lady behind a desk. 

“Excuse me,” I said, like a cheery tourist. “Are there any restaurants around here?”

“Not open,” she mumbled. “Everything closes at 2pm.”

“On Saturday?”


We left, and went into the other open shop, a florist, where “the ladies looked nicer.” We made the same query, and were directed to a place called Bubba’s. Who can refuse a place called Bubba’s, especially if it’s right on the highway. From the outside, of course, it did not look functioning, or safe or advisable. The younger thought that, maybe, we should select another option. The more experienced child liked the trekkiness of it and knew well the books and covers concept.

We chose the barbecue “line,” rather than the menu or the pick-you-own-meat option. At the front of the restaurant, a refrigerator displayed various cuts of beef, each individually wrapped and priced. People, we came to see, walked in, took a slab and handed it to the waitress. For all we knew, the cows could have been in the back. There are a lot of cows in Texas.

Anyway, we loved Bubba’s. The lights were made from milk buckets. The waitresses had nifty hairdos, each one different. The brisket was delish, and the patrons, regulars. Mostly older couples out on a Saturday night. A few families, like us. One cowboy in a hat.

“Don’t they have to take off their hats inside,” I asked.

“Not cowboys,” the kids said.

We left our new favorite restaurant and headed up the highway to the theatre, where for $14, three people could see two movies. For the price of one soda in a regular theatre, three people could have hot chocolate, twelve pounds of popcorn and seventeen candy bars. The ticket-seller instructed us to tune our radio to a certain station and leave the ignition key turned. I asked her if that would deplete our battery. She said that it might, but that they had jumper cables we could use after the movie. Once we figured out how close to park to the poles holding the speakers, which had really short cables, we were able to hang one on the window. We thought this was a smarter idea than the radio. The girls sat in the front seats, with blankets. I slunk down in back. 

The next morning, we found corn kernels and chocolate wrappers all over the floor. 

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