Sunday, June 24, 2007

Goin' Green

Back in good ol’ 1970, when I was 12, the environment issue seemed to be front and center. NASA photographs sent back to Houston from manned space flights had shown “spaceship” earth suspended in the black vacuum of outer space like a glowing blue and white marble. We earthlings felt small. We felt like our planet was an ark containing all the precious life that was to be found in the galaxy and that our little ark was itself precious and fragile. The movement to protect the earth from human destruction was one more grass roots concern fomented in the idealistic decade of the 1960’s.

Pretty soon governments caught on to this populist attitude. The Mayor of San Francisco declared a public holiday on March 21 and the first national recognition of Earth Day occurred on April 22nd. Over 20 million Americans turned out for the event and within a year even the United Nations had jumped on the bandwagon with its own environmental proclamation.

This was powerful stuff for us teenagers just learning about the world, social opinion, and the power of motivated masses of citizenry. We collected newspapers for recycling and trees were planted with the proceeds. We earned Boy Scout merit badges in environmental citizenship. A friend and I even logged 300 miles earning a bicycling merit badge. We picked up trash. We participated in Park Service projects repairing walking trails and foot bridges. After the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, cars began to get a little smaller and thermostats got turned down in the winter and up in the summer. National interstate speed limits dipped to 55 miles per hour.

Then the movement died out. Kicked the bucket. Flat disappeared. Only a few radical lefties carried on the torch. Where did the 20 million go? Well pundits and politicians can do their post mortem speculation forever, but the result was devastating. Those battleship sized station wagons from 1970 were simply replaced by the gasoholic SUV as vehicle of choice and the thrifty four cylinder engine gave way to the muscular Hemi in the family sedan. Who needs thrifty when you can afford serious power as you cruise to private school and the country club with your freckle faced cargo?

But now it’s 2007 and the radical left is becoming radical chic. Even evangelicals give a hoot about spotted owls and reversing glacial melt is now a multi-party campaign platform. Hybrid engines are cool and recognizing the interconnection between the sustainability of human life and the sustainability of all other life on spaceship earth is talked up by more than just a few nutty professors and liberal theologians.

I don’t know where everybody went, but welcome back.

So not being one to fall behind some neophyte wave of sanctimonious, green converts, I had to jump back into action. When the ancient and puttering riding lawn mower that I inherited when we bought our house finally expired, I grabbed the chance to act.

It seemed every year that with just a bit of tweaking, a new belt, spark plug or battery, the old fossil-fueled fossil could be manipulated into running just a little longer. For three seasons that old thing would grunt and groan and then eventually crank up and I would ride off into the pollen with a yeehaw and a prayer. But every year it seemed that the little roll of stomach lap that flopped over my belt got a little bigger. And beyond that, the tweaking was getting more and more expensive all the time. So when I’d replaced everything on the ignition and wiring diagram and the engine still wouldn’t turn over, it was time for the venerated veteran riding mower to join the mothball fleet.

But what to replace it with?

At first I thought of sheep or goats. Alas, they eat the grass right down to the root and would probably eat the house too. Rabbits? No, even a seventh grader with a C in math can figure out their astoundingly prolific reproduction rate. A cow? Nope, there’s a leash law and besides, the wife drinks only no-fat vanilla two pump decaf lattes. The kids go for Gatorade.

I wasn’t about to pay full price for a new walk-behind mower either, self propelled or not. I mean, let’s face it; lawn mower technology hasn’t changed since Toro came out with the low torque engine in 1974. I remember it because of the acres and acres across which I pushed one that summer. The real value of a $200 walk behind lawnmower in terms of manufacturing costs and technological research is about $47.50 plus gas.

Never one to miss a teaching opportunity, I enticed my 8 year old to go along to some yard sales. Maybe there was an old mower that could be had for a bargain. No such luck. Overpriced, rusted out, and un-startable junk awaited us at every house and my evil first grade teacher’s evil twin, who seemed to be operating every yard sale cash register, had a strict no haggle policy. But the kid had fun running his fingers over all the stuff and that was fine until he started finding things he wanted like a unicycle or a Shriner’s sword or a World War II helmet. I grew tired of saying no.

Finally, we found it. It was an aluminum handle, regulation push mower. Yep, one of those old people powered mowers with four, twisting blades parallel to the ground, set in a cylinder that turned with the wheels. Yep, a push mower. It rolled smoothly. It was quiet. It was non-violent, non-polluting, non-invasive and even the kids could use it. It was great! My little boy laughed, “What’s that thing?” I told him then showed him and he immediately wanted to try it. Fifteen dollars later the new mower was ours.

Back home, the grass was waiting and it was long too since the old mower had reposed in its immobile, collapsed state for several weeks. Junior grabbed the handle that came up to his cheek bone and started to push, but in the tall, thick fescue he got no forward progress. He tried a different section of the yard, then another section. The sun was high. He was thirsty. He quit.

My next oldest boy came out of the house. “What are you doing?” Then, looking at the mower he said, “What’s that do?” I told him it mows the grass when you push it. “You mean, when YOU push it,” he retorted with a smirk as he swung a leg across the seat of his bicycle. “I’m out of here.” Strike two.

Then my oldest son came flying out of the house, eager to prove his mature sense of responsibility. “Woah, Dad. Can I try it? This is great. It’s awesome conditioning for football! And guess what. I can cut the grass with this and you can pay me!”

I awoke from that comment, head spinning, lying flat on my back in the grass with our dog licking my face. As I picked myself up, my last best hope, my namesake, my oldest and most mature son was pushing the mower in a zig zag across the yard. “Hey, you need to go in a straight line and then turn back on your path to return,” I called out.

“No, Dad, I’m writing my name in the grass! See the letters? Cool, huh?”

I started to comment about how writing your name in the grass didn’t actually achieve the desired result of getting the yard mowed in any kind of an organized manner. But there were blaring tunes thumping out of his Ipod and I knew that trying to explain anything to him was a waste of time. Anyway, his enthusiasm lasted about fifteen minutes at which point a single bead of sweat appeared on his manly brow and he shuffled inside the house to slurp up some kind of sports drink.

Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do so I waited until about 5:30 when the candle power of the sun had diminished. Then I went outside, picked up the handle of the mower, glad that there was nothing to crank, and began to push. It was amazing. No gas tank or oil level to check. No sparkplug to clean. No battery. No grinding, mechanical droning. No noxious fumes. I felt like Sonny Jurgenson dropping back for a victorious, 50 yard, end zone pass on the power of his one good knee. Or Babe Ruth hobbling around the bases one final time. Or the guy in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who raises his head up from the cart of deceased, plague victims and claims: “I’m not quite dead yet.”

Then neighbors began to pass by in cars or on foot, every one of them with a wise comment. “Hey old man, what happened to the guy who lives here?” “My great granddad had one of those; he donated it to a museum.” I thought I’d heard them all but then a car pulled up at the intersection by our house and a complete stranger leaned out the window. “Can I buy some of your carbon credits?” he asked with a smile.

Carbon credits. Now there’s a concept we didn’t have on Earth Day 1970. Maybe that’s where interest in spaceship earth went: Wall Street. That’s it. Let’s commoditize environmental initiative. Let’s give an incentive for the average guy to remain interested in the environment. Attention deficient America can’t sustain the interest of 20 million people in a free pizza offer, much less environmental protection. There’s got to be some value incentive!

Well carbon credits may not motivate my kids to cut the grass with dad’s curious, antiquated, pre-nuclear relic, but at least I feel better about spaceship earth. Hope, like fescue, springs eternal.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Carpool Etiquette

It’s almost over and some of you know what I’m talking about. It’s that spooky inhabitant of a reality which private school parents know intimately- car pool. Admit it. You’re kids are too special to join the hoi polloi on the public school bus or maybe we parents just are too special to be seen loading them up when we can strut about in our chrome trimmed, leather padded, twelve mile per gallon ego-mobiles with super charged V50 engines designed by NASA.

On a typical afternoon we swish through artist designed, hand forged iron gates reminiscent of a private housing estate. Maybe these bombastic barriers exist for the sake of security or just to strike some tone of exclusivity that upper class wannabe parents expect. Either way, once inside, certain rules of behavior and etiquette apply to all inmates. Don’t get sideways with The Man.

I engage that endless carpool lane to perdition, my usual degree of driving care now accelerated 1000% and my speed decelerated enough to accommodate a no wake zone in a mangrove bordered channel. The slightest mishap might drive untold numbers of herons and manatees and sea turtles right to the brink of extinction. I’m so alert that my eyes are popping out of their crow footed sockets. My right foot nervously twitches back and forth between the gas and the brake. Sometimes late at night I awake to find my wife’s foot twitching that same way while she murmurs in a distressed hush, “No, no. Please, no.” It’s PTCS, Post Carpool Trauma Syndrome, and there’s no cure.

Dozens of luxury SUV’s stretch out before my grill and a dozen more trail my tailpipe. In the ancient Volvo wagon I’m Dinky, the eighth dwarf who didn’t make the script cut in Snow White. Don’t ask me why the convoy stops or starts or remains in suspended animation for interminable periods. I can’t see anything but the white, oval stickers on the land yacht ahead announcing it’s owner’s proclivity to vacation in JH, her identity as LAX MOM, and the fact that somebody in the family has run 26.2 miles. The marathon runner was probably the dog now painting the rear window with a fresh coat of slobber.

Every forty yards speed bumps the height of Pike’s Peak jump out from under LAXMOM’s rear bumper. Marathon dog topples back and forth. The speed breakers are so imposing, signs should indicate: “Bumps May Freeze Before Road.” So imposing they effect, in even the most unrepentant speeder, the vehicular conservatism of some inhabitant of a sunbelt retirement community.

But I’m not going to slink along behind this marathon running, Jackson Hole vacationing dog any longer because Option Number Two lies just ahead.

You have to be really good at carpool to exercise Op 2. It’s like unlocking the highest level in one of those police chase video games: you have to drive more nimbly than Speed Racer, be more audacious than James Bond, and decode all the shortcuts faster than a politician can find a handout. Today, I’m on top of my game and the rented off-duty cop sanctions my turn with a knowing smile and a flick of the first two fingers of one hand. I wave back with the same flick and turn in to the infield parking lot.

You see, Op 2 allows the elite parent to park, walk to the student waiting area, and personally claim one’s child. It’s a genius strategy for the truly talented multi-tasker because while cellular phoning is unswervingly verboten in your car, there’s no prohibition on outdoor ambulatory cell use. And if you act really smooth, with one of those ear mounted Star Trek communicators and the attitude of a seasoned, metro-sexual, golf resort regular, you never have to actually terminate your phone conversation when they ask for your child’s name. You just whisper: “Trouble in the Market.”

I navigate to a space between a breezy, overpriced Lexus sports coup and a Cadillac Escalade with headlights like the eyes on a genetically mutated Siamese cat. Check the time. Carpool’s only just begun. Grab the blazer off the back seat and sling it over one shoulder just to affect the accepted, swank parent dress code. I’ve made it; really got this fatherhood thing down. A true car pool Grand Master. A Golden Boy.

Snapping along the sidewalk, a gabbing gaggle of desperate housewives check me out. Some flirt in couture tennis togs or designer work out clothes and others wear chic, low rider mommy outfits. I smile to a couple other dads. It wouldn’t be cool to have an actual conversation. The name-taker sees my approach and mentions my kid’s name with the vocal uptilt of a question. I nod and lean casually back against a railing, listening to the phone. I am so good. I can beat the system like a stubborn mule. My nine year old walks out with that look of love and admiration all parents crave.

Then he grimaces. “Dad, school ended three minutes ago! You’re late…again. How embarrassing could you get?!”

I may never get the hang of this.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

These Kids Today

Every generation has been the font of consternation for its elders. Perhaps complaining about younger folks is a perennial right of passage for older folks, a criterion for AARP membership. Even my own sainted generation, that bit of calloused skin on the heel of the baby boom, is not exempt.

The first rock concert I attended erupted like a vast, sensory feast of spontaneous expression. The Doors and Doctor John blasted great big noise from great big amps while Frisbees connected the dots among a new generation whose eyes radiated enough serious idealism to change the world. My dad met us at one a.m. in ironic and yet irenic automotive repose smack in front of the building, Mel Tormé softly crooning through the open windows of the Plymouth. With a face-full of fatigue and puzzlement, dad was clearly thinking to himself: “These kids today…?!”

Now it’s my turn. So one afternoon this summer, I entered my favorite neighborhood burrito joint only to confront the contemporary version of the adolescent me. I was dumbfounded. How could this many kids get this much money to spend? The shear volume of cash flow from resources obviously not work derived was mind blowing. At two p.m. there couldn’t be this many people of any age coincidentally and simultaneously on lunch break. No, this was some vast, sensory feast of spontaneous, post-modern communication acted out by Diet Coked and networked teenagers with wireless umbilicals to host servers back at the home office.

“Holy cow,” I thought. “Are these extraterrestrials emailed to earth through toothpick thin cell phones? They eat low carb organic. Don’t smoke. Have no bad habits.” Yet an attitude of self-advocating self-confidence choked the air like incense in a VW Microbus after a Dead concert. Girls glowed with designer sunglasses roosting atop designer hairdos, their teeth glistening from the kind of buffing only given by a pediatric oral cosmetologist. Boys came in two varieties, either jocks with backward caps, Cheshire grins, and fashionably grizzled chins coolly scrutinizing the babes over chips and chipotle dip or wall flowers playing dull, goofy looking foils for exuberantly extravagant girls.

You’re probably thinking that I’m just cynical, but do you realize how big a consumer group teens actually are? Try $190 billion big and growing. With that size wallet, marketers lick their chops like drivers hearing some rumor of gasoline for a buck-fifty. And as swanky deodorants and hair colorings top the guys’ shopping lists, those dull looking wall flowers may even outspend the girls yet.

Yes I was jealous of that teenie-bopper buying power and a little scared too. After all, my sons are starting to sniff out the prevailing breeze of parental indulgence in America and work me over like nobody’s business. But later in the car, listening to a scratchy CD of the Who while my twelve year old lobbied to tune in who knows who on the radio, I realized that as a balding, forty-eight year old dad in a Volvo wagon, what had really piqued me over lunch was not the money after all. It was the total lack of serious idealism in those gleaming, adolescent eyes.

My generation felt the need for social change as strongly as we felt blisters burning on our palms from summer construction jobs. We passionately and vociferously objected to the Vietnam War, Watergate, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and the environment: code words for some soul-sapping power establishment. So how did such a consuming desire for change get replaced by spend-it-while-ya-got-it relativism only a generation later?

Perhaps America is truly a superficial culture with a short attention span and kids today don’t know they should be worried. After all, they’ve got neighborhood burrito joints. College scholarships blossom from the proceeds of lottery ticket sales to the working poor. Today’s middle class teenagers don’t need to work and if they all mowed lawns in the summer, every illegal immigrant in the country would be thrown out of work. We just don’t need that kind of crisis.

On the other hand, maybe we baby boomers never actually eradicated those social ills we griped about. Maybe we met the enemy, realized he was us, and hid our heads in our 401K portfolios. Maybe these kids today have realized that our activism and protest brought about a revolution of technology and sex but not much social change. What if they’ve decided to chill together and be real for as long as home office is willing to sign off on the old expense account? And just maybe we parents remain willing to sign off on those expense accounts because the love of a child is ephemeral and we only want to keep them around as long as possible.

Well. Now that that question’s settled, excuse me while go I tell my boys to turn of the video games and mow the grass.