Entering the age of the little black box

Patiently perusing a pile of press releases that had found their way to my moss-encrusted desk, I recently learned about an electronics firm in Southern California that’s been developing a high-tech device to help parents find out exactly what their teens have been doing on those periodic but oh-so-necessary drives to “the library.”

(You remember how it goes: “Dad, can I have the car? I’ve gotta go to the library to check out ‘Plutarch’s Lives’ before I become, like, really ignorant and flunk algebra. Shouldn’t take more than six or seven hours – I’ll drive real slow…”)

Similar to commercial airline flight recorders, these little black boxes will someday be available for installation on the family sedan to record how fast teens have been driving, how hard they’ve been braking, how radically they’ve been turning and, presumably, if they’ve been the subject of a high-speed law enforcement pursuit across three states.

After studious teens have dutifully returned from the library, inquisitive parents will be able to download data from the black box into their home computers and find out why Becky Sue and Bubba had to drive to the library in Napaskiak, Alaska, to secure a copy of “Plutarch’s Lives.”

And how quickly they drove to get there…

Eventually, the black box may be linked to a Global Positioning System so 21st century parents can find out exactly where their son or daughter is violating 25 or 30 sections of the state vehicle code on their purported trip to the library.

Admittedly, the whole concept sounds rather intriguing but I wonder how necessary it really is.

When I was making frequent trips to the library during my somewhat chaotic high school years, my dad somehow always managed to determine if I had strayed from my stated destination (or ever got there).

Maybe it was returning from the library with 425 extra miles on the odometer. Or the telltale steam belching from under the hood. Or the occasional article of feminine clothing caught under the armrest.

(“Gee, I dunno where those came from, Dad – maybe they’re the librarian’s…”)

My dad also had the uncanny ability to gauge how quickly a new set of tires went bald after only two or three trips to the aforementioned library.

Then there was his long-range intelligence organization.

Like a CIA station chief in eastern Europe, Dad had clandestine operatives in every corner of our small Northern California town.

If the druggist saw somebody who looked suspiciously like me spinning doughnuts in the funeral home parking lot – on the way to the library, of course – Dad was sure to hear about the sighting.

If the local grocer observed me hanging out in the parking lot of Eddie’s Northside Market with a trio of hooligans collectively known as Those Damn King Boys, Dad would know about it before we could even begin to plot the overthrow of civilization.

And if any of the three professional drunk guys at the Black Watch Tavern observed my dad’s car anywhere but at the library they were sure to put in a call between boilermakers.

A black box would have been a blessing compared with the small town surveillance network with which I had to contend every time I drove off to the, er, library…

Originally published August 25, 2002

A Jolly jumbuck mired in memory

It’s been said that an eclectic education is, perhaps, the best kind of education one can have – varied, broad-ranging and spiced with bits of arcane information that may someday prove essential to a fulfilling life.

I tend to agree with this philosophy of education, although I’m not always sure why.

Only last week I was half-heartedly listening to the radio when one of the on-air personalities (don’t ya just love that term?) quizzed a listener about the Australian term jumbuck. Did jumbuck refer to a kangaroo, a sheep, a cow or a wombat? asked the radio talk show host.

Stumped, the befuddled contestant eventually launched a frantic computer search for the answer via the Internet. I, on the other hand, instinctively knew the correct answer: Jumbuck is the Australian term for sheep.

I was enthusiastically patting myself on the back for being a fine fellow with a mind like a razor when a disconcerting little cloud of uncertainty slowly drifted over my celebration.

Sure, I knew what a jumbuck was, but why did I know what a jumbuck was?

I’ve never visited Australia, served in its armed forces or even spent a lot of time in the Outback Steak House. Yet the jumbuck-sheep connection seemed crystal clear.

Even I have to admit that’s a little weird.

Then it came to me – I blinked and suddenly it was a bright, sunny morning in the strategically unimportant California community of Los Gatos in 1959 and 20 fourth-graders were gamely trying to sing the unofficial Australian national anthem “Waltzing Mathilda.”

I was one of those fourth-graders and learning the tune was no easy task, even for a group of imaginative 9-year-olds.

The “waltzing” in this song has nothing to do with dancing, “Mathilda” is not a woman, and the rest of this 1895 ditty is full of tuckerbags, billabongs and, of course, the aforementioned jumbuck. Not just any jumbuck, either – a jolly jumbuck.

Despite the difficulty of musically juggling swagmen and coulibah trees, we eventually mastered that song about an ill-fated hobo and an inappropriately acquired sheep. A handful of us even managed to compose some rather vulgar alternative verses with which to torture our fourth-grade teacher.

We learned the meaning of billabong (water hole) and tuckerbag (primitive Australian food storage container quite unlike Tupperware) and Matilda (a heavy coat or blanket). We sang it loudly and we sang it proudly. But to this day, I can’t really tell you why we sang it at all.

What, exactly, was the real agenda? Was the United States contemplating war with New Zealand? Was this musical interlude a subtle warning about the evils of sheep rustling? Was our elementary school about to adopt the kangaroo as a mascot?

I suppose I’ll never really know the answer, but I can’t help but wonder how many other 50-somethings are wandering around out there sporadically humming the dulcet strains of “Waltzing Matilda” for no apparent reason and wondering why…

Originally published 3/9/2002

There’s no place like, er, home…

I recently had the pleasure of viewing one of those idyllic Thomas Kinkade creations, a luminous painting that depicted a typical “Hometown Morning” somewhere in the heart of America’s recent past.

Kinkade, the popular “Painter of Light,” had captured a truly charming scene – a quiet street lined by quaint cottages, a rustic church and sheltering trees. This was clearly a time and place where children and senior citizens could feel sheltered and safe – even from each other.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, it was woefully incomplete. I mean, there are home towns and then there are home towns. Every one of them is unique to someone’s concept of what home is all about, and my own home town had several very basic features that were sadly absent from Kinkade’s work.

I carefully examined “Hometown Morning,” but I could find neither hide nor hair of our town inebriate, a revered figure who was always up at dawn to begin his daily rounds of hospitable thirst emporiums.

No, he was not a target of ridicule or pity. If you saw the nattily dressed fellow teetering down the sidewalk in your direction, you nodded politely and knew that you were in the heart of your home town. In fact, depending upon the municipal mainstay’s direction of travel on any given sidewalk, you could also tell the time of day. He had a rather set routine…

Also missing was Prince, the home town mad dog. Prince was believed to have once been a military guard dog who was kicked out of the service for unnecessary roughness. The ill-tempered German shepherd lived in a big, dark house with a reclusive retiree nobody knew.

With the body of a timber wolf and the temperament of a Republican, he’d escape from his yard every other day and terrify the neighborhood by simply standing around with all his hair standing on end. He effortlessly foamed at the mouth and could spend an entire afternoon savagely barking at an inoffensive dandelion or a crack in the sidewalk.

“Come right home from school or Prince will chew your face off,” parents would cheerfully tell their offspring to prevent after-school dawdling.

Then there were the King boys. During the 15 or 20 minutes a week when Prince was safely chained to the rusted frame of a 1947 Buick, parents in my home town could still keep their children in line by warning them that they would “end up like the King boys” if they didn’t behave.

The King boys were three elementary school males who were routinely blamed for everything from liquor store holdups to aircraft hijackings.

If a 300-pound, 68-year-old gunman knocked over the First National Bank and managed to escape, some home town detective would nod sagely and opine, “Yup, those King boys are masters of disguise. They’re probably halfway to Jersey by now…”

If a winter storm flooded downtown streets, blew the roof off the library and sent power poles crashing to the ground, you can bet there would always be three or four red-faced residents shaking their fists in the air and demanding that somebody do something about those damned King boys.

I guess by now some of you can understand my dilemma – Kinkade paints a lovely picture, but if it doesn’t have a mad dog, some soused citizenry and a fifth-grade felon or two, is it really home? Ya gotta wonder…

Originally published on January 7, 2001

There’s no place like, er, home…

I recently had the pleasure of viewing one of those idyllic Thomas Kinkade creations, a luminous painting that depicted a typical “Hometown Morning” somewhere in the heart of America’s recent past.

Kinkade, the popular “Painter of Light,” had captured a truly charming scene – a quiet street lined by quaint cottages, a rustic church and sheltering trees. This was clearly a time and place where children and senior citizens could feel sheltered and safe – even from each other.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, it was woefully incomplete. I mean, there are home towns and then there are home towns. Every one of them is unique to someone’s concept of what home is all about, and my own home town had several very basic features that were sadly absent from Kinkade’s work.

I carefully examined “Hometown Morning,” but I could find neither hide nor hair of our town inebriate, a revered figure who was always up at dawn to begin his daily rounds of hospitable thirst emporiums.

No, he was not a target of ridicule or pity. If you saw the nattily dressed fellow teetering down the sidewalk in your direction, you nodded politely and knew that you were in the heart of your home town. In fact, depending upon the municipal mainstay’s direction of travel on any given sidewalk, you could also tell the time of day. He had a rather set routine…

Also missing was Prince, the home town mad dog. Prince was believed to have once been a military guard dog who was kicked out of the service for unnecessary roughness. The ill-tempered German shepherd lived in a big, dark house with a reclusive retiree nobody knew.

With the body of a timber wolf and the temperament of a Republican, he’d escape from his yard every other day and terrify the neighborhood by simply standing around with all his hair standing on end. He effortlessly foamed at the mouth and could spend an entire afternoon savagely barking at an inoffensive dandelion or a crack in the sidewalk.

“Come right home from school or Prince will chew your face off,” parents would cheerfully tell their offspring to prevent after-school dawdling.

Then there were the King boys. During the 15 or 20 minutes a week when Prince was safely chained to the rusted frame of a 1947 Buick, parents in my home town could still keep their children in line by warning them that they would “end up like the King boys” if they didn’t behave.

The King boys were three elementary school males who were routinely blamed for everything from liquor store holdups to aircraft hijackings.

If a 300-pound, 68-year-old gunman knocked over the First National Bank and managed to escape, some home town detective would nod sagely and opine, “Yup, those King boys are masters of disguise. They’re probably halfway to Jersey by now…”

If a winter storm flooded downtown streets, blew the roof off the library and sent power poles crashing to the ground, you can bet there would always be three or four red-faced residents shaking their fists in the air and demanding that somebody do something about those damned King boys.

I guess by now some of you can understand my dilemma – Kinkade paints a lovely picture, but if it doesn’t have a mad dog, some soused citizenry and a fifth-grade felon or two, is it really home? Ya gotta wonder…

Originally published on January 7, 2001