Saturday, November 9, 2013

What I Think Of On Veterans Day

     One of my childhood memories is the image of my mother standing at an ironing board, applying lots and lots of Faultless Spray-On Starch to my dad's Army uniform. When she was done starching and ironing, it seemed to me that I would risk cutting my finger if I touched the razor-sharp crease that ran down the front of those uniform pants.
     Not that I was ever allowed to touch them. The point of all that ironing and starching was to make sure that there were absolutely no wrinkles in the clothes my dad wore to work. I'm not sure how comfortable he was in starched khaki shirts, Army-issue solid, black ties, and perfectly-creased pants, but he looked really good.  His hair was Brylcreemed, and parted on the left, in a way that mimicked the straight-line crease of his pants.
     I understood that my dad was a soldier and that we had to move at least every three years, and sometimes more often than that. That's what soldiers did. In addition to his stateside assignments, my dad was sent to military bases in Germany, France, and Panama. The family went along for the posting in the Canal Zone, and we stayed together for the hitch at Fort Knox.
     But when I was ten years old, my dad was sent to Vietnam for a tour of duty. Of course, we couldn't go to a war zone and there was no Internet, so we relied on airmail letters and, a couple of times, a really hard to hear overseas phone call that had to be patched through several operators.
     In one of those letters home, my dad sent a picture in which the uniform he wore was decidedly different.  No starched shirts. No ties. No khaki.  He was dressed in camouflage pants and an olive-drab undershirt. And his hair was uncombed. In fact, he seemed more unkempt than I had ever remembered him.
     What I came to realize later is that it was a lot hotter and more humid in Vietnam than it had been on base in the U.S. But, more than that, when you're in danger of being shot at or blown up every day, you start to worry less about the outer trappings of a freshly-starched uniform.
     Don't get me wrong. Dad wasn't in a combat unit. He was one of thousands of personnel who shuffled the necessary paperwork (in triplicate) to see that men and supplies got from one place to another. But, even in that relatively innocuous job, he had some close calls from random sniper fire and unexpected mine fields.
     He returned from Vietnam and continued his military career, ironically at the induction center in Knoxville, Tennessee, where 18-year-old draftees were being prepped for their own trip to 'Nam. He was back in starched khaki uniforms with crisp collars and on his way to retirement and to status as a veteran.
    He's buried today in the Mill Springs National Cemetery, eight miles west of the town where he grew up.  And with all due respect to everyone else who served, when I think of Veterans Day, I think of Dad.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Life As We Know It

     My kids are always asking me about what my life was like growing up, and I think I've figured out why. It is impossible for them to envision my life as a child. To them, it's like a storybook tale, as it would be for anyone trying to envision how things really were before they were born.
     I remember pestering my own parents to talk about their childhoods. My dad, for example, would go to the movies every Saturday and pay a dime to watch B-grade westerns all day. I couldn't imagine paying just ten cents for a movie.
     My mother was raised in a rural home without access to electricity or running water.  She took a bath in a tub that was hand-filled with water hauled from a nearby spring. She used an outhouse, and when her family went to church, they did so using a horse and buggy. It all sounded very pioneering to me. To her, it was just her life.
     My dad's family, meanwhile, had a car. And, while my dad enjoyed the conveniences of living "in town," his house was heated by a coal-burning stove. The sewage from the indoor plumbing went into a cesspool in the back yard. He could read by electric light, but he didn't have a television because those appliances did not come into common use until he was an adult.
     So, even though I get mildly annoyed when my children ask whether cars were invented when I was a kid, I understand their curiosity. The fact is most of things they use daily were not around when I was their age.
     The cars I rode in did not have seat belts, much less car seats. The TV I watched (the only one in the house) was in a big brown box that showed two or three fuzzy black and white channels. I didn't realize then that there would come a day when my perfectly serviceable square TV screen would seem antiquated next to all the cool, high-definition, rectangular displays.
     And I'm pretty sure my kids find it difficult to imagine a world without streaming media or big screen televisions. They have never experienced a situation where they had to look things up in an encyclopedia rather than looking them up on a phone.  They also never knew a time when people didn't carry their phones with them everywhere they went.
     Soon, my kids may not be able to remember broadcast or cable television. We have cut the cord in our house and now watch TV almost exclusively over the Internet.  In that sense, life, as we know it, has changed in a fairly dramatic way. But I don't think the kids even noticed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Curse

     To my knowledge, my wife's family never crossed paths with an evil Gypsy fortune teller. They don't have a history of witch burning or whatever else it is that causes people to fall victims to a curse. But, logic aside, my in-laws certainly appear to be affected by what the family calls (cue the spooky music) ... The Curse.
    Granted, it's a mild curse. It doesn't involve warts and boils appearing in strange places or true loves being kept apart. No, this particular curse manifests itself as a variation of Murphy's law: If anything can go wrong, it will. Except, in this case, it applies mostly to decision-making.
     Say, for example, you're trying to decide which grocery check-out line to queue up in. One of them has just a couple of people waiting, while the other line is much longer. The Curse mandates that if you choose the shorter line, there will be an issue that causes you more of a delay than you would have had if you had chosen the longer line.
     Conversely, if you acknowledge The Curse and choose the longer line, there will be absolutely no problem in the short line. In fact, that line will begin to move so fast that shoppers who weren't even in the store when you got in the longer line will be checked out ahead of you.
     Apparently, once upon a time, someone (maybe a leprechaun) said to one of my wife's ancestors, "I curse thee, so that whatever decision thee and all thine progeny shall make, it shall be the WRONG decision."
     Piffle, you say? Superstition? I would have said the same thing until I saw The Curse in action.
     Just last week, my wife had a doctor's appointment where she was scheduled to get a shot. The medicine in the shot was being delivered specifically to her doctor's office on that specific day, specifically for her. She was there on time. The doctor was ready. The medicine got delivered to the right building - but the wrong office. It was turned away by that office and went back on the truck. My wife then cursed The Curse and spent the bulk of her day tracking down the package to get it re-delivered.
    Our kids became aware of The Curse earlier this month when they had a choice of going on a river cruise or seeing an IMAX movie.  They chose the dinner cruise, and thereby suffered the consequences of The Curse. The food was awful, the entertainment was worse and they spent two hours trying not to throw up from motion sickness.
     One said, "We should've just seen the movie." But that's because she didn't realize the power of The Curse. Had we decided to watch the movie, something would have gone awry anyway. That's how it works. If your choice is either A or B, whichever one you choose will be the wrong choice.
     So if you decide to hang out with my wife, or more to the point, if she chooses to hang out with you, be aware that The Curse will follow.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Becoming A Mysophobe

     The older I get, the more I think about becoming a germophobe. It would be a conscious decision on my part because I'm not actually that worried about germs, but I like the idea of pretending to be phobic so I can avoid unnecessary contact.
     First, though, let's put things in context.  According to Wikipedia, a germophobe is more properly called a mysophobe. Their entry:

Mysophobia (Verminophobia) (from Greek - musos, "uncleanness" and phobos, "fear," also called germophobia/germaphobia, a combination of germ and phobia to mean "fear of germs", as well as bacillophobia, bacteriophobia, and spermophobia) is a pathological fear of contamination and germs. Someone who has such a fear is referred to as a mysophobe.

     Okay. Not sure I'd have defined spermophobia as a fear of germs, but I'll let that go. The point is, I don't have a pathological fear of germs. I don't change what I do in life to avoid situations in which I might possibly come into contact with them.  I shake hands with people; I exchange money with cashiers; I use public restrooms. And I trust my body's immune system to handle whatever pathogen I may inadvertently acquire by doing so. 
     But I have also been exposed to co-workers who insisted on showing up to the job when they were clearly contagious. I try to discreetly avoid these people who spread their disease willy-nilly in a misguided attempt to show that they have a good work ethic, but the germs inevitably settle into my nasal passages.
    Hence, the idea of telling people that I'm a mysophobe has some appeal.  I imagine that I could blow off virtually any social event by saying that my mysophobia prevents me from being there. Once people Googled that word, they would, I expect, have sympathy instead of disdain for me.
     Of course, I'd have to remember to bump elbows all the time, so people knew not to offer me a handshake. I'd have to fake being grossed out by paper money and use copious amounts of hand-sanitizer. And I'd have to leave rooms whenever someone coughed.
     In fact, now that I think about it, there are probably too many things I'd have to remember and that would cause anxiety, which is the whole reason I want to avoid social engagements to begin with. Excuse me while I look up what that phobia is called.

Monday, October 14, 2013

One Score and Zero Years Ago

    On October 16, 1993, Dreamlover by Mariah Carey was the number one pop song in the country; President Clinton delivered his weekly radio address asking the nation to support the North American Free Trade Agreement, otherwise known as NAFTA; and, just after eleven o'clock that morning, I became a married man.
     That third thing is the one I remember the most. On that day, twenty years ago, the luscious and beautiful Jane Ellen and I said, "I do." Or maybe it was "I will." In any case, it was the greatest day of my life.  The births of my children were great days, too, but I can't say those days were greater than my wedding day. (Sorry, kids.)
     I think it's because I was involved at the beginning of the pregnancy, but was more or less an observer in the birth process itself.  With the wedding, I was a full participant.
    For example, I remember it was raining on the day we got married. I have no recollection of the weather on the days my children were born. In fact, I don't remember, offhand, on what day of the week either child was born, but I remember we got married on a Saturday.
     It was fortunate for me that we'd had a rehearsal the night before the wedding. It was during that rehearsal that I got incredibly emotional as I saw, for the first time, my bride-to-be walking down the aisle.
     I settled down as we did a run-through of the ceremony, and on the wedding day itself, I was less emotional and more joyful.  I had never been so incredibly happy and full of love for all mankind, and Jane was the reason.
     In retrospect, I probably ignored my friends and relatives more than I should have on that day because I was too busy mooning over my new wife.
     I remember that the "short" sermon the priest had promised to give seemed to drag on and on and on.  I remember that people who had RSVP'd and said they would be there blew off the ceremony, while others who didn't RSVP showed up anyway.
     I also remember thinking that people would wonder where Jane found that troll she was exchanging vows with and couldn't she do better than him? The truth is that she probably could have done better. But it's also true that if I had not married Jane Ellen, I would not be married today.
      To paraphrase Back to the Future, it was our "density" to be together. As happy as I was twenty years ago, I am happier each and every day that we're together. I expect to be more jovial, jocular and jolly "as long as we both shall live."

Happy Anniversary, Boo.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Clueless

     It all began with the toilet paper. It was not, as you might expect, a disagreement over whether the roll should come over the top or go underneath. It was the realization, some twenty years ago, that I had no clue what women are really like.
      I had been a single man, blithely using maybe a roll of toilet paper every couple of weeks.  I'd get a four-pack, and when the last of the four went on the roll, I'd remind myself that I needed to pick some up the next time I went shopping. After all, how many times do you use toilet paper in a single day? I was soon schooled by my newlywed wife. One never buys JUST a four-pack. In fact, if you're down to four rolls of toilet paper, you need to drop what you're doing and rush to the store to re-supply.
     Jane, I realized, used lots more of the stuff than I did.  My use of it was limited. I used toilet paper in the way that my ancestors used the Sears catalog or a random corn cob for. Jane, on the other hand, went through the T.P. like no one I had ever known.  
     In addition to, shall we say, its traditional use, Jane used it to take care of a runny nose. She also used it to assist her in removing make-up. I don't know how. She used it to clean the mirror, to wipe down the counter and, for all I know, to brush her teeth. Usage of this particular product had gone way, way up once a female was added to the household.
     And then there was the closet. When we bought our house, I was impressed by the size of the closet in the master bedroom. I had never had a walk-in closet and couldn't imagine how we would use all of the space that it afforded us.  I mean, how much room could a couple of dozen shirts and pants take up?  Once again, I was clueless.
     I had some clothes. Jane had a wardrobe. She had summer outfits, winter outfits, spring outfits, fall outfits, formal outfits, informal outfits, clothes that used to fit but were now too small, clothes that used to fit but were now too big, clothes she bought and then decided she didn't like and clothes she had not worn in several years but just couldn't get rid of because of some sentimental attachment.
      Our spacious closet became crammed (and cramped) with her stuff.  If I added up every single piece of clothing I have ever owned, it would be still be less than the number of red shirts that Jane has right now. And she doesn't particulary like red. She also has masses of blue, green, brown, purple, black and white shirts. And pants. And shoes. Oh, the shoes.
     I came into our marriage with a pair of tennis shoes and a couple of pair of dress shoes. That's what I have today.  Jane has hundreds of sandals, heels, flats, running shoes, walking shoes, dancing shoes and, at least count, five different colored pairs of Chuck Taylor sneakers. Her wardrobe now takes up ninety percent of our very spacious closet.
    I have a nugatory nook for my stuff, some of which I decided to move out of the closet so Jane could have adequate space. It's what you do when you're married. If I've learned anything in twenty years of marriage (and that's a debatable point), it's that when your spouse is happy, you are happy.  And if it takes a few gross of toilet paper to keep her happy, I'll certainly oblige.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Impulse Control, Part 2

     Having written about sequels the other day reminded me that I needed to do a sequel to my original blog post on controlling impulses. The first blog dealt mainly with controlling physical impulses like eating and drinking.  I don't have much of a problem with that.  I have a much more difficult time controlling what you might call mental impulses, or the need to spout off on whatever is in my head at the moment.
     A co-worker said to me this week that she was concerned about getting older because her joints would ache whenever it rained.  I could have offered some platitude about how she was actually very young and need not worry overmuch. Instead, I piped up and said, "The good news is it'll only get worse from here on out."
     It was meant as a joke and was taken as a joke, but it was also the very first thing that popped into my mind and, therefore, the first thing that came out of my mouth.
    There's an old saying about having your brain in gear before you put your mouth in motion, but, frankly, that's not been very helpful to me.  My brain is constantly in gear. It's usually gearing up to say something snarky. Many times I can stop the comment from reaching my lips, but many times I simply cannot. It's gotten to the point with my wife that I don't actually have to say anything.  She looks at me, sees that I'm about to say something, and tells me to shut up.
     Others, who don't have my wife's experience with me, very often don't know how to react. So let me assure all of you that if you think I'm making a joke, you are correct. It may be a lame joke, but it's still intended as a joke, not a thoughtful, insightful comment on whatever it is we were talking about.
     For example, one Christmas my sister was struggling to come up with a word to describe my niece's newest boyfriend. She said, "I'm not sure if I should call him a friend, or a boyfriend, or a fiance, or what."
     I said, "How about future ex?"
     My niece didn't find the remarkin nearly as humorous as I did, but she also doesn't have to deal with the clutter created by all of the things I DON"T say.  Thousands of potential responses flash through my mind for every one that gets by the filters.
     And I do have filters. After all, it wasn't me, it was my wife who once said to a friend, "I'm sorry. I don't speak mumble."
     So when you combine my tendency to pipe up with an inappropriate comment and my wife's inability to NOT say what's on her mind, you can see that our children are destined to unintentionally tick people off for many years to come.
     We were enjoying a picnic lunch the other day in a public park when some cyclists came through. My eight-year-old daughter looked at them and loudly proclaimed, "Bicycles? Really? We're trying to eat here."
    Mom and I gently scolded her while laughing quietly to ourselves.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Some Things Cannot Be Improved

     My friend Adam wrote a post on Facebook the other day about movie sequels that Hollywood would never make, but that he would "totally pay to see." That list included Blade Runner 2 and Back to the Future IV. Adam is a geek of the highest order and knows far more about comic book and sci-fi movies than I ever will. But, like many fanboys, he is yearning for stories that are best left untold. 
     Adam could do a dissertation on all of the various incarnations of Batman or Superman and what worked or didn't work with each one. He would admit, I think, that there have been more disappointing adaptations than there have been exciting, well-made versions. But he will still pay to see the next film in the franchise because he couldn't live with himself if he didn't. 
     My wife, Jane Ellen, is like that with some movies. Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings come to mind.  Jane is a member of the "Han Shot First" brigade.  She's still annoyed that George Lucas added extra special effects on the re-releases of the original films. And she, like most of the planet, was extremely disappointed in the mess that was Episode I: The Phantom Menace.But that didn't keep her from plopping down cash for Episodes II and III.
     I remember telling her before Revenge of the Sith started, "I bet by the end of the movie, Anakin will become Darth Vader." She elbowed me in the ribs.
     Adam and Jane are trying to recapture the magic they felt when they first saw great movies in the theater. But what made those movies great were fresh, original ideas, not a rehashing or, as Hollywood likes to say, a "re-imagining" of an old story. There are exceptions. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a better movie than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but, again, only because it told a better story.
     If I were a Hollywood executive, I would have never given the green light to The Lone Ranger movie, and -- in hindsight -- I would've been correct. I also wouldn't have greenlighted the remake of True Grit because, for all of their talent, the Coen brothers could not resurrect John Wayne, who shall always be Rooster Cogburn. And I wouldn't have OK'd any of the Transformers movies. I would still have been right in making those decisions, but I would've lost my studio millions of dollars.
     It's not creative inspiration, but the opportunity to make lots and lots of money that drives Hollywood decision making these days. How else do you explain plans to make Jurassic Park 4? (By the way, both Jane and Adam will probably shell out cash to see that movie, too.) And while Adam had an impressive list of sci-fi superhero films that deserve sequels, I would submit that some films simply cannot be improved.
     No writer will come up with a better script for Casablanca. No actor will turn in a better performance than Jimmy Stewart did for It's A Wonderful Life. No director will make a better version of North By Northwest. And yet, in my darker moments, I envision a Hollywood executive thinking that Return to Casablanca, It's A MORE Wonderful Life, and Further North and West are blockbusters in the making.
     But only if they're shot in 3-D.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Impulse Control

    Let me tell you something about me that many people find irksome. I have an apparently unusual ability to control my impulses, especially when it comes to food. It annoys my wife to no end.
    When Jane Ellen gets up in the morning, she has to have a cup (or five) of coffee before she can start functioning. I have several co-workers who, even after their morning cups at home, arrive at the office and fix a pot of coffee so they can get through the morning. They're surprised that I don't drink coffee. It's not that I don't like the taste. It's just that it doesn't really help me become more awake than I already am.
     I once interviewed a drug counselor who said something like, "If you try meth one time, you'll be addicted." And I'm sure he was correct about the effect of that particularly vile concoction on the majority of the population.  And yet my first thought was, "Not me. I could try meth once and then never use it again."  (Of course, I've never tested this particular hypothesis because I know what's in meth, and I don't want those ingredients in my body.)
     I find it hard to imagince ingesting any substance that I don't make a conscious choice about.  I may have a craving for one thing or another, (pepperoni comes to mind), but if I choose not to act on that craving, it goes away. It's difficult for me to understand how people who are alcoholics, drug addicts, or nicotine fiends don't just stop -- if that's what they want to do.
     Apparently, according to the drug counselor, it's all about brain chemistry, and I got lucky. My brain doesn't react to drugs or food or other addictive things in the same way that an addict's brain would.  My wife isn't a drug addict, but would probably admit to being a food addict.  I've noticed that she gets far more pleasure from food than I do, so she has a much more difficult time passing up a delicious  treat than I do. Just thinking about food causes her to salivate.  If there's a bag of potato chips in the house, she can snarf them down in a matter of minutes.
     Me? I can eat a few. Or not. They don't call my name when I walk past the cupboard.
     Some years ago, I drank two or three Mountain Dews every day. Then my wife had baratric surgery, so -- to help her out -- I stopped drinking soda. Cold turkey. No big deal. At least, not for me.
     Jane was grateful, but still amazed that I didn't go through some sort of withdrawal symptoms. But I didn't. I had random cravings, but my innately stubborn nature refused to give in to those cravings. I had decided NOT to drink sodas, and I would decide when to start drinking them again. In fact, I could have kept sodas in the house and ignored them, but I didn't because it would've been an unnecessary temptation for Jane.
     Are you aggravated yet? Then understand that I don't bring up these examples to brag about my incredible ability to resist temptation.  As I say, I just got lucky with my brain chemistry. I know many people who struggle with addictions every day. But I also know that you can do whatever it is that you decide you want to do.  If you know that having a cookie will lead to having a bag of cookies and turn you into a Junk Food Junkie, then DON'T HAVE THE COOKIE. It's really that simple.
    Ok. I'll shut up now.

Monday, September 16, 2013

On Being A Parent

     I must admit that there are times when I think my kids were born with the specific life goal of discovering things that aggravate me, so they could tweak those things on a regular basis.  And there are other times when I wonder how such beautiful, caring individuals came from the DNA of a cantankerous, old grouch like me.
     The other day, at the swimming pool, the girls noticed that someone was a bit frightened to jump into the water, so they offered to hold hands and jump in together.  A small act of kindness, to be sure, but one which was unexpected given their behavior in other situations.
     For example, they were singing a song in the house one day . over and over and over and over again. Then, they began singing it in the car. Then they found out that the song had started to get on their mother's nerves, so they decided to sing it even louder and more often. Finally, my wife had to say, "Do not sing that song anymore!" And, knowing our children so well, she added, "And don't hum it."

      "And don't whistle it."

     "And don't tap it out in Morse code."

     Those extremely specific instructions must be given to our children because they would otherwise keep asking question after question after question.  There's a great scene in "The Family Guy" TV show (which has since been borrowed for a commercial about the Chrome browser) in which Stewie says Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom incessantly, while Lois sits on the bed in a stupor.
     That's what kids are like at a certain age. They seem to be able to drain your every last resource. And yet I've been told that the pre-teen years are the time when parents most enjoy their kids. I think that's probably true. My kids are at that age when they're old enough to know what's expected of them, but young enough to not be embarrassed by my very presence.
     The infant years, on the other hand, were a challenge for me.  I was constantly worried that my babies were going to spontaneously stop breathing, so I was inclined to wake them up at random times just to make sure they were still alive.  And it didn't matter how many diapers I changed (my wife would say not enough), I still couldn't get over the gag response that baby poop brought on.
     It was exciting when they took their first step and said their first word, but, for me anyway, those moments don't compare to the enjoyment I get from going on a walk or having an actual conversation with them.
     I'm not sure who came up with the term Terrible Twos because I don't remember that either of my girls went through that. Maybe I'm just blocking that memory. I do remember that the first day of Kindergarten was especially tough.  The school lets you accompany your child to class on the first day, but then you have to leave. Try being a grown-up man when your child is holding back tears as you walk out the door.
     So now they're in grade school and have learned how to push Dad's buttons. They also pick on each other all the time, just for the fun of it. But they're also turning into really interesting people. We have family movie night; we have sleepovers; we have swim lessons. All the "normal" stuff you get to do with kids.  I should be enjoying every minute of it, and I do, mostly.
     But then I begin to think about how the natural meanness of some children comes out in middle school, and I worry about that. I worry about the mood swings that are undoubtedly coming with puberty. I worry about having to listen to boy bands. I worry about high school. I worry about them learning to drive. I worry about what loser is going to want to date them. In short, I worry too much.
     Then again, that's what parenting is about, right?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why I Don't Have An Outrageous Accent

     You've probably noticed that the Internet is full out of outrage. Some people seem to be offended by just about everything that comes along. I'm not one of those people. I don't get offended by even the most outrageous things. However, I am easily annoyed, which is, I suppose, a mild form of outrage.
     For example,  I once had a co-worker deny knowing anything about  a relatively non-importanat work issue when, in fact, he was the ONLY person in the entire organization who could have had knowledge of it.  He had made a mistake and didn't want to take responsibility for it. I can't say I was outraged, but his insistence that he didn't know what was going on really, really, really annoyed me. I spent far too much  energy that day stewing over why this idiot didn't just say something like, "Oops, my bad," and move on with the day.
     That's the problem with minor annoyances and my reaction to them.  I cannot keep from being annoyed and then I'm annoyed that something so small was annoying to me.  (As a side note, I cannot watch "Annoying Orange" because the show lives up to its title.) Outward annoyance usually leads me to inward reflection, but has yet to provide any kind of enlightenment.
      I don't know why I can't get worked up over the things that set most people off when I can go on a tirade about, say, the old lady in front of me driving FIVE MILES below the speed limit.
     "Oh, come on, Granny! Some of us have places be!" I shout to the dashboard of my car. 
     And yet if someone makes an inappropriate and politically incorrect joke, I either laugh or decide that, regardless of subject matter, the joke just isn't funny. I don't get upset. Even if I did, I wouldn't share the outrage with all my friends on followers on social media in the hope that they might also get upset.
     So why, I ask myself,  do I get genuinely upset when a meeting drags on longer than it should because the speakers can't get to the point, already? Why do I have such a visceral reaction when someone grabs something out of my hand, rather than waiting for me to give it to them?
     I think, probably, because the minor life annoyances all involve me personally, while the the major world problems (take your pick) don't really affect me. 
    The other day, I was asked to edit a piece of writing as a favor to a friend. In other words, I wasn't getting paid.  The writing was so incredibly disorganized and grammatically atrocious that I began to resent the fact that I had to spend so much of my time slogging through it.  I experienced outrage. The rest of the world was expressing outrage (or something close to it) about the Syrian civil war, the NSA, or the plot line of "Sons of Anarchy." Me? I was outraged by poorly written words on a page.
     My priorities are clearly out of whack, but maybe that's a good thing. I have been able to live for many decades in an almost uninterrupted state of constant annoyance. I'm not sure I would have survived being outraged for that long.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What We Have Heah ...

     The art of communication has always fascinated me. My wife has been working recently with someone who is soon to appear on the QVC network to promote a product he has invented. She has been helping him improve the way he presents the information about that product and the way he presents himself to a camera and an audience. She's exceptionally skilled at that kind of work and you should seek her out if you need similar services.
     I like to think I don't need her services because I'm fairly comfortable with public speaking, having spent most of my adult life in the broadcast industry.  And yet I still come across situations where I present  what I believe to be clear and concise information which is, ultimately, misinterpreted or misunderstood.  And, in my experience, the misinterpretation usually comes from a female. This is not misogyny; it's reality.
      I have also been on the receiving end of information that the women around me understand immediately, but which confuses me.  Maybe I'm slow on the uptake, but I believe it's just that I'm a member of the male of the species.
     Some years ago, my wife and I had finished our meal at a dining establishment, and I was getting ready to leave when she proclaimed, "We can't leave. We're next to the salad bar."  I was absolutely befuddled because the salad bar was not blocking the exit and, therefore, not preventing us from leaving.  When I told the story to a female friend, she immediately figured out what I could not. The reason we couldn't leave was because the waitress had not yet come by to pick up her tip, and because we were by the salad bar, some scoundrel getting bean sprouts might steal the tip money from the table, leaving the waitress to think we were cheapskates.
       There have been volumes written on the differences between the way males and females communicate, and I've read much of that material, but I still can't make that intuitive leap that women seem to make. I talk in concrete terms and find myself getting frustrated when I can't make someone understand things that are bleeding obvious to me. Like how to get from Point A to Point B. The example once again involves my wife, who in spite of her great intelligence, claims to be incapable of figuring out which way is north, south, east or west.  
       She cannot, she says, look at a map and then translate the lines on the map to the road in front of us.  This became apparent when we took a vacation trip in the days before GPS. I was driving and she was navigating. As I came up to an intersection on the route, I asked her to tell me which way to turn, and she said, "I don't know." I said, "How can you NOT know?  You're looking right at the map!" Soon after, we decided that she would drive and I would navigate, so that we could actually arrive at our destination in a timely fashion. 
     As I say, my wife is really smart. There's no logical reason that she shouldn't be able to read a map, but she can't. Like many women, she uses landmarks, rather than street names and compass directions to get where she needs to go. Don't tell her to turn north on Main Street; tell her to turn right or left on the road by the billboard with the big hamburger ad on it.
     Fortunately, what she focuses on with her clients is not map-reading, but relaxing and relaying information in an interesting and entertaining fashion. I'm in awe when I watch her natural charisma capture an audience in a way that I never could. She's done wonders improving the presentation skills of the future QVC'er. And, one day, she may even be able to tell him how to get to Carnegie Hall.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

True Love

     My youngest daughter turns seven years old later this week and is already showing an uncomfortable (to her Dad, anyway) interest in romance. We were watching a family movie the other night (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) when she announced that it was clear that Mr. Potts and Ms. Scrumptious would end up married at the end of the story. She then made kissing and smooching sounds in between giggles for the rest of the film. 
     Meanwhile, I've been obsessing over what I should tell my daughters when the subject of "true love" comes up.  I hope they will be smart enough to realize the difference between love and infatuation; between a committed relationship and a physical attraction.
       I also hope that my wife and I are setting a good example.  We have told them the story of how we met, but one of these days I'll have to relate the details of how we fell in love. In case I forget between now and then, here it is:
     First, a clarification. This is the story of how I fell in love. My wife most probably followed a different path.  As I have mentioned before, I spent the first 30 years of my life generally avoiding long-term relationships.  I didn't fall in love, in part, because I didn't allow myself to.  I went on dates here and there, but never felt any sparks.  I was great friends with lots of women -- just none that I cared to pursue romantically.  And then I met Jane.
     After one of our first dates, I decided to send flowers to her place of work.  I had found that this ploy was a quick way to determine whether a girl was mutually interested, or just freaked out that someone she barely knew would send her a bouquet.  Jane was both pleased and probably slightly embarrassed by the flowers. But she didn't take out a restraining order, so our relationship continued.  
      The first feelings I remember having were of happiness. Contentment. I enjoyed her company immensely, although I wasn't sure I was actually in love with her.  Furthermore, I was clueless as to whether she was in love with me.  But the happiness deepened day after day. If I wasn't in love, I was in severe like. I became quite the moon-faced cliche I've seen in so many movies. My co-workers began to wonder why I was smiling more than I ever had.
      Still, I had my doubts. My wife is so beautiful, I was pretty sure early on that someone was staging a grand practical joke on me. No one as effervescent as she is could possibly be interested in a curmudgeon like me, I thought. Because of that, I was guarded when discussing the relationship with our friends. It was, in short, none of their damn business whether we were "serious" or not.
     But I could not deny that I thought about Jane all the time. I worried about her when she travelled. I wondered what she dreamed about. Did she think of me as much as I thought of her? I worried that if I rushed things, I would screw it up and scare her off. 
     Then came the magical day when she asked me how she should refer to me when her friends asked about the relationship. Was I a friend, a boyfriend, something more?  I dropped to one knee in her kitchen and said, clumsily, "Shall we get married?" No ring. No special preparations. Just a sure and certain knowledge that I had found my soulmate and would do whatever I could to ensure her happiness. I can't say I've always been successful in that effort, but I still try every day.
     Our daughters' happiness is now paramount in our lives. Whenever they find their own "forever bears," I pray that their married lives will be as filled with love as mine has been. Ideally, they'll fall for incredibly rich, incredibly kind, genetically monogamous mates. But I'll settle for someone who realizes that true love is unconditional and meant to last a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Sensitive Sniffer

       Many years ago, when I was in college, I used to sit behind a girl who wore a perfume with the faint odor of coconut and chocolate. It was like being surrounded by Mounds bars. I never asked her what the name of the scent was, but I have never encountered it since.
     What I have encountered are women who were clearly never told how to properly apply perfume.  These poor souls have apparently lost all of their olfactory abilities because they slather on enough perfume to choke a normal person. You can smell them coming from at least ten feet away, and their scent lingers long after they are gone.  What was for my college friend a pleasant suggestion of an aroma becomes a nasal assault for these women. 
     And it appears that they are overusing their perfumes on purpose because most of them also put on so much make-up, the color of their eyeshadow could be seen from the cheap seats of a theatrical production. I say it seems they are doing it on purpose because I imagine that no one has ever had a private and frank discussion with them about the fact that in their efforts to smell good, they end up smelling very, very bad.
    Sensitivity to bad smells is something I have lived with for many years.  My wife doesn't believe it, but I simply cannot clean up dog vomit or kid vomit without throwing up myself. The smell overcomes me, I begin to gag, and then I have to walk away lest I add to the mess.
     Ironically, (or is it?), I grew up in an environment where everybody smoked cigarettes.  There were overflowing ashtrays all over the house and the car.  And yet I never noticed it until I moved out of the house to go to college.  On my first trip home, I wondered where the haze that hung over the house came from.
    These days, when I meet someone for the first time, I can immediately tell whether they're a smoker.  How? They exude a foul odor.  Much like the overperfumed ladies, I have to wonder if these smokers realize just how bad they smell to the rest of us.  Maybe they do realize it and just don't care.  
     I don't believe that smokers practice poor hygiene per se. I'm reasonably sure that they shower and wash as much as I do. But when burnt plant material oozes from your pores, the only solution is to stop inhaling that burnt plant material. For the rest of us, the solution would seem to be holding our breath and gritting our teeth until the odiferous offender is out of range.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Ugliness, Cruelty and Chaos

     My kids start back to school this week and, like many parents, I'm worried about how they're going to get along with their classmates. What's going to happen when they inevitably have to face the same challenges that their dad faced as he went through school?  Those times on the playground when you're the last one to get picked for a game. Or when you find out that someone you thought was your friend is making fun of you behind your back. Or when a school bully decides it's your day to get picked on.
     I know many of us have gone through these supposed rites of passage, but that doesn't mean I want my children to experience the ugliness, cruelty and chaos that can be a part of childhood.  I've always been amazed by my kids, as I suppose most parents are. They seem to be much smarter than I remember being at the same age. But I'm getting old, so maybe I'm forgetting just how smart I was.
     My kids are often mistaken as twins although there's about a year's difference between them. They come from essentially the same genetic material, so you'd think they would have similar personality traits. You'd be wrong.
     In fact, I believe they began developing their unique, individual personalities in utero. One was constantly kicking; the other wasn't. Once they were born, one could be calmed down with a pacifier; the other spit out pacifiers and sucked her thumb.  One was prone to public tantrums as a toddler; the other, not so much.  One is more inclined to try dangerous things; the other is more cautious. One is a negotiator when it comes to chores; the other is a pouter.
     Each responds to situations in her own way, so I worry about how they are responding to difficult situations at school. Ideally, I'd watch them all day, every day, intervening whenever there was a slight chance that they might be upset by some jerk of a classmate. But I can't do that.
     For a couple of years now, they have been navigating on their own through the jungle of grade school, and it's only occasionally that I get a hint from them that things might not be all peachy. If I ask them directly how their school day went, they'll say something profound like, "OK." 
     So I try again. I say, "What did you do in school today?" 
     I get a shoulder shrug and a grunt that sounds something like "Ah-unh-oh," which, translated, means "I don't know." 
     It's only in the unguarded moments when I get a sense that things may not always be going their way. Even then, getting details from them is difficult, so I have begun trying to interpret the non-verbal signs. For example, both of my girls have read and enjoyed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of books. I take that as a sign that they recognize something of their own school experience in the experience of Greg Heffley.
    Are they wimpy kids? Probably not. And, truthfully, I don't think they're going to be forever scarred by the usual shenanigans of kids in a school yard. But, from my experience, what happens in school does affect the person you grow up to be. 
     And, like all parents, my hope is that my kids grow up to be, above all else, to be happy. And perhaps they can't get to that point without some adversity. I just don't want some little punky jerk (or jerky punk) providing that adversity.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Love And Marriage

     I heard someone on the radio the other day having a discussion about what makes a marriage last, and it seems to me that the discussion missed a major point. I believe that people mostly stay married for a long time because they went into the marriage with that intent.
     I have a lot of friends and family members who have gotten divorced, and, in almost every case, the news that their marriage didn't work out makes me sad. Sometimes, the breakup was probably for the best, but I can't help but wonder whether they understood that part of wedding ceremony about  "in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, as long as you both shall live."  Of course, no marriage comes to an end in a vacuum, but some couples seem to want to get out of wedlock and on with the next relationship if their marriage turns out to be more difficult than they expected.
     And marriage can be difficult. I knew that from a young age. Although my own parents stayed happily married all of their lives, my aunts, uncles and cousins didn't fair as well. I thought maybe it was because they had gotten married too young, but that's probably oversimplistic.
     All of my sisters got married (and stayed married) as teenagers, but I didn't. In fact, I stayed unmarried for so many years that I'm sure some of my relatives began to question whether I was asexual or homosexual or just not trying hard enough.  Certainly, a part of my extended bachelorhood was my own doing.  Unlike my sisters, I didn't want to be married as a teenager.
     I also discovered that I didn't want to be married for most of my twenties. I was too busy pursuing a career and enjoying the single life. I went where I wanted to, when I wanted to, and didn't have to explain my whereabouts to anyone. For example, on one vacation, I attended four sporting events in four different cities within a week's time. I didn't know any married people who did that.
     I also believed (incorrectly) that I couldn't just drop everything and move across the country or across the world to take advantage of a great job opportunity if I was saddled with a wife and family. But, as things happen, I matured somewhat as I got older.
     In my late twenties, I began to think that marriage wouldn't be such a bad thing. I began accepting the invitations of friends who tried to set me up with what they thought was just the "right" person for me. And, just like in the movies, my friends mostly didn't have a clue as to what I was looking for.
      I went out with an absolutely gorgeous young blonde woman who turned out to be perhaps the dumbest person I had ever met. I don't know what she thought of me. In fact, I don't know if she was actually capable of forming a coherent thought, but I knew I couldn't have a relationship with someone who didn't engage me on more than a physical level.
     I also went out with a divorced woman, who had a couple of kids. She was nice enough, but she smoked and I didn't. Plus, I didn't want an instant family. There was the overly aggressive co-worker who pursued me until I moved to another town. And there was the time that I developed a serious infatuation with a girl who ended up not liking me much at all. I turned 31 years of age without many prospects.
     Then one day, I got a call from my friend, Lesa -- who wasn't trying to set me up. A friend of hers needed the answer to a trivia question, and Lesa knew that I could answer it. She told me to call her friend with the answer. I resisted, but eventually made the call and made sure that I acted like a complete ass.
     We ended up talking for hours and hours. We ended up meeting. We ended up married.
     And when I married my wife, it was because she was truly the first person I met who I could imagine spending the rest of my life with.  That was my intention when I got married. I remember arguing with a friend that I would never sign a pre-nuptial agreement because it wouldn't be necessary. When one gets married, one stays married. At least, I have. It's not always been easy, but it's always been worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

If I Were A Rich Man ...

     Several years ago, I found myself in a 7-Eleven store on July 11 -- that is 7/11 -- at just about eleven minutes after seven o'clock in the morning. I was there to grab an unhealthy snack, but signs all over the store reminded me that I could also purchase a lottery ticket that could pay out millions of dollars. If I believed in superstitions, I would have believed that this was clearly the time and place that I needed to buy a lottery ticket.
    I mean, seven and eleven are "lucky" numbers, right? If you've ever played the dice game known as craps, you know that rolling a seven or an eleven is a good thing. Unless you roll them at the wrong time, in which case a seven or eleven is a bad thing.
     In fact, the idea that a particular number is more or less lucky than any other is, quite simply, ridiculous. And so I didn't purchase a lottery ticket on that day and, in fact, have not ever purchased one.  Mostly, it's because my mind cannot get past the fact that millions of lottery tickets are sold every day, and every day almost every one of those millions of tickets turns out to be worthless.
    Still, like most of us, I sometimes dream of what it would be like to have so much money that I wouldn't have to worry about finances. The question I am most often asked when discussing such fantasies is whether I would quit work, and the answer is yes. And no.
    I have pictures of my wife and kids on my desk at work. They're not displayed so that my co-workers will know what my family looks like. I put them there to remind me of the reason I drag myself out of bed every day and go into work in the first place.  I don't do it for myself. I do it to for my family.  Left on my own, I would probably end up like Bruce Banner on the old TV show version of The Incredible Hulk -- travelling from town to town, taking whatever job came up just to feed myself.
     So, if I won the lottery, I would most definitely quit my job. But I wouldn't stop working. I'd simply start working for myself rather than somebody else. And I'd make a great boss for myself, too, giving me as many days off as I wanted and not requiring much in the way of real accomplishments.
    So what would I do?
    Depending on how much money I won, I can imagine maybe buying a radio station and then playing only the music I wanted to hear -- without any talking or commercials.  On second thought, even that might take more effort than I'd be willing to put forth if I didn't absolutely have to.
    For example, while I love professional football, I wouldn't go out and purchase an NFL team with my newfound fortune -- even if that team could make me more money than I already had. Owning a team would require me to do things like drafting players, hiring coaches, and making payroll. That's too much like real work.
    When it gets right down to it, I figure I'd use my lottery money to purchase a handful of consumer goods (new house, new car), and then I'd stick the rest in a bank somewhere and hope to live off the interest. I realize that shows an incredible lack of ambition, but if I'm rich, I don't see myself striving to be richer. I see myself working on pet projects that give me personal satisfaction whether I end up making any new money from them or not.  And I see myself giving away a fair amount of the money that I don't need to live comfortably.
     Of course, none of that's going to happen if I never play in the first place, so I may just purchase a ticket one day. But, for now, I'll continue to keep the money I'd spend on a lottery ticket in my pocket, so the water bill (or whatever) can get paid. However, I will say that if some past lottery winner (or other millionaire) is tired of dealing with their excess, send it my way. I promise I'll put it to good use.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Reading Dilemma

    I have a dilemma. I have calculated that I will most likely die before I get to read all of the books I want to. Indeed, my life is reflected by a sentiment I once saw on a T-shirt: So many books. So little time.
     This is, as the Internet likes to point out in hashtag fashion, a First World problem. I'm not in danger of starvation. I'm not likely to be killed by an IED. I probably won't be lured into prostitution by the promise of a job in another country.  Still, there are so many books I haven't yet had time to read. And, just for fun, I'm going to blame ... the public education system.
    It all began back in the first grade when I was required to read about Dick and Jane. At six years old, I had already determined that the Dick and Jane books didn't have the kind of action that I needed to stay interested in reading.  I much preferred Go, Dog, Go, which was available in the school library, but which wasn't required reading. (The links are included for those too young to remember what I'm talking about.)
     This theme of schools and schoolteachers requiring me to read exceptionally dull, but supposedly educational material, continued throughout my years of schooling.  My father was in the military, so I attended more than a half dozen schools by the time I got to 12th grade.  In every one of them, students were assigned reading that could put a caffeinated giraffe to sleep -- if giraffes were able to read.
     Keep in mind that I love reading, so I can only imagine how my friends who didn't like reading got through such dreck as Moby-Dick or, worse, Bartleby The Scrivener. I also hated having to read The Metamorphosis. What did I like? Lots of stuff.  Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe were far better writers, or at least told better stories, than Herman Melville, Henry James or Henry Fielding. Why couldn't I have memorized passages from Neil Simon plays instead of having "Friends, Romans, countrymen" stuck in my brain for a lifetime?
    I will now irrationally rationalize that the time I was forced to spend reading Shakespeare and all of the other alleged literary greats has led me to my present dilemma.  If I had back the time I slogged through the Tragedies, the Histories and the (ahem) Comedies, I could use that time to read what I want to, not what I have to. (I can tell you're beginning to see my logic.)
     And because I want to read more books than I'll have time to get around to, I must decide which ones get priority. I am in the midst of Vince Flynn's Kill Shot and Michael Connelly's The Black Box. But waiting in the wings is The Heist co-authored by charming man-about-town Lee Goldberg and super-mega-ultra bestselling author Janet Evanovich.
     Here's the thing. I love Goldberg's work, especially his series of books based on the TV show Monk. But I'm not really a fan of Evanovich.  I've read a handful of Stephanie Plum novels, but have found them only mildly amusing.  So my innate pessimism tells me their collaboration may end up disappointing me.
      Let me also say that my personal reading tastes exclude a lot of "best-selling" authors.  In addition to Evanovich, I'm not particularly fond of James Patterson or Stephen King. On the other hand, John Grisham, John Sandford, and the late Michael Crichton all occupy space on my bookshelves.
     So what am I to do? I can't get back that stolen time from my school days, so I will forge ahead and read as much as I can. And, so I don't leave the impression that all of my assigned reading in school was a waste, I should mention that I wouldn't have discovered Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" on my own, nor Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." Of course, those were short stories that didn't take up an entire semester.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Refined Palate

     I was given some fresh garden squash today by a co-worker, and I must now try to make something edible out of it. Or, more precisely, my lovely wife must try to make something edible. She would say that I'm a picky eater, but she would be wrong.
     As my co-worker and I were discussing today, there are plenty of ways to ruin a perfectly good squash. She, for example, is not a fan of squash casserole, preferring to slice the squash, dip it in milk, and then bread it in flour and meal before plunging it into hot oil and deep frying it.  Frankly, that method of cooking would make virtually anything a tasty treat.
     Sadly, many people in my family are enamored of the casserole-i-zation of food.  I don't know if they liked the convenience or were convinced that putting a bunch of different foods together and baking them actually improved the taste.
     I remember the big hit for years at family get-togethers was something called a garden casserole, which I believe my Aunt Ruth came up with.  As I remember it, you took cooked ground beef and put it into the casserole dish and then added potatoes, beans, peas, carrots, onions and whatever other garden vegetables you could come up with.  I wouldn't be surprised if there was some squash in there, too.  Then the whole think was topped with biscuit dough and baked in the oven.  Everyone in the family thought the resulting dish was great.
      Everyone but me.
     And the thing is, I liked each of the items contained in that casserole, when they were prepared individually and separately and put on a plate in the way God intended them to be.  Mixing them together in a giant glass bowl and baking them was just, as I recall I said at the time, "Yucky."
     Of course, my palate has been refined over the years and, no matter what my wife says,  I'm a far more adventurous eater than I was as a child. That refined palate still doesn't tolerate certain foods -- lima beans, hominy, liver and shellfish to name a few. But maybe if I mixed them together and baked them into a casserole....

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Too Much Time On Their Hands

     Many years ago, I caught some flak for saying on the radio that the people who drag out the discussions at city council or other governmental meetings are the ones who don't have full-time jobs. I make the remark after having covered one such meeting that dragged on for hours.  It was taken by some as a criticism of stay-at-home moms. It wasn't. I was including in my commentary retired people, students,  the unemployed, and anyone else who didn't come to the meeting having already worked an eight (or more) hour day. People with jobs, I believed, hated long meetings just as much as I did.
     When you finish your day job (or shift), you are very often tired, either physically or mentally, and you don't have the energy to engage in extended debates over issues on which you have already made up your mind. That's why you won't often see me engaging people in political or other kinds of debate on the Internet. It's not that I don't care. It's that I don't care passionately enough to bring the proper energy to the discussion.
     I can easily post a quick smart aleck remark, but frankly I just don't care about Monsanto, the NSA, Agenda 21, gun control or any of the other things that people argue about online. For the record, I don't like offline arguments about those topics either. What I enjoy is a spirited, civil discussion (not argument) about whatever topics my friends feel passion for. I particularly enjoy playing devil's advocate, pointing out the flaws in their logic and challenging their preconceptions.  That's easier to do in person than it is online, where you can come off looking like a jerk.
    I've often wondered how some people are able to post so very, very much to social networks. And I've concluded that those people are the same ones that I referred to above. They don't work for a living, so they have lots of time on their hands and way more energy than I do. (See, how I sounded like a jerk right there?)
      That lack of energy is the reason (lame excuse) that I haven't been writing as much lately. There's a great episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which Buddy Ebsen plays a character who is, politely speaking, a vagabond. He expresses his philosophy to Opie by saying: "The most perfect day to start any job is tomorrow." That's been my approach to writing lately, and I've got to snap out of it.
     Like those people who hate long-winded meetings, and like many writers,  I have a full-time job. That job helps to pay the bills. It also sometimes just zaps the mental energy right out of me.  What's worse is that I've heard many stories of successful authors who had far more perserverance than I apparently do, as they were able to work full-time "day jobs" while pecking away at the keyboard at night or very early in the morning.  Me? I'd rather do, more or less, nothing.
     But doing nothing won't get me where I hope to be one day. So, even though it's the middle of the year, I hereby resolve to get off the couch and to spend more time "in the chair," as Dean Wesley Smith so eloquently puts it.
     I think the issue for many would-be writers is that full-time employment provides a cushion that allows us to ignore the very hard work of selling enough of our own creations to keep a roof over our head. A regular paycheck for doing someone else's work is more comforting than a less than steady income doing work for yourself. For the time being, I plan on doing both.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This Is A Rant

     As the title implies, some of these posts are ruminations. This particular one is a rant.
     Whenever I want to annoy my wife, which is almost always, I point out that my public school education is superior to her far more expensive private school education. She's still naive enough to think that her four years of Latin has an application in today's world, while I point out that the nuns clearly failed to teach her basic math.
     And it's that mathematical advantage I have over her that has led me to realize lately that the "free" public education my kids enjoy is, in fact, not free at all.
     It came to a head this week when my daughter got a free ticket to a local minor league baseball game because she had earned a certain number of points in an accelerated reading program. As a loving father, I decided to take off from work so I could attend the game with her. As it turned out, the game ended up costing me about fifty bucks.
     Her ticket was free. Mine was not. That was the first twelve dollars. She had to ride a bus to the stadium and I had to chip in two dollars to pay the bus driver, even though I was driving to the same place myself.
     Parking was also not free. That's another fiver.  Lunch was not free. Six bucks apiece for a really bad hot dog, chips, an apple and a Sprite. By the way, my daughter doesn't drink carbonated beverages, so the Sprite went to waste and I had to shell out an additional four dollars for a bottle of water. And because the ballpark frank was inedible, we went to the concession stand and doled out another ten bucks for something we could stomach.
     Then, because there were no shaded seats in the place, we endured about three innings in the full sun before my daughter got sick and decided she wanted to leave. She felt much better once we got back to the car and she was able to cool down.
     Don't get me wrong. We had a great day together, but I could have taken her to a major league game with better food and better players for just about the same amount of money that the free game ended up costing me.
     The experience crystallized for me just how many, many things our family has to pay for each and every school year.  I expected to buy a pencil or two, but not the insanely long list of particular supplies that each of the kids' teachers feel are required. Then there's the activity fee that apparently doesn't pay for any activity because we are hit up each time there's another event. A foot race. A book fair. A luau. A "free" ball game.
     I'm beginning to understand the allure of homeschooling. I'm thinking it has to be way more affordable than the public schools. It's just too bad my wife's private school education has left her so ill-prepared to be a homeschool teacher. (Rimshot)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

     I have a friend who lives her life in fast forward. This woman does not believe in wasted motion. If she has something to tell you, she gets to the point and then leaves you on the way to her next task.
    She walks fast.
    She talks fast.
    I would guess that she sleeps fewer hours per night than I do, that she dresses more quickly, and that she has more energy. I also think she probably gets things done more efficiently than I do.
     Is she happy? She certainly appears to be, but I would suggest that she may be missing out on a very important part of life. It is the serenity that comes with doing absolutely nothing.
     I know some of you are saying, "Yep. I enjoy relaxing with a good book, myself."
     No.
     If you are reading a book, you are doing something.
     "Oh. Well, I meditate."
     No.
     If you are saying a mantra during meditation, you are doing something.
     If you are whittling on a piece of wood, you are doing something.
     If you are listening to music, you are doing something.
     I'm talking about doing absolutely nothing. I have become something of an expert at the practice. I will say, up front, that the best version of doing nothing is also thinking about nothing, but it's hard to control unbidden thoughts.
     You can, however, control your actions. Try it sometime. Sit down in a comfortable chair or lie down on the couch or in a hammock and just ... do ... nothing.
     How long can you keep at it before becoming restless? A minute? An hour? A day? I've never had the opportunity to test my theory, but I'm of the belief that I could spend several days doing absolutely nothing before I got bored. You have to factor in meals, bathroom visits, and sleep, but other than that your main activity would be no activity.
     Obviously, you can't do this with anyone else in the house, unless they, too, are committed to doing nothing.  Conversation, it seems to me, would be cheating.
     I first discovered my ability to do absolutely nothing as I sat on the front porch of my grandparents' house many years ago. My grandfather was there, staring off into the distance, and I decided to mimic him.  I found an inner calmness.
     I know many people report this same zen-like sensation from doing daily meditations. But meditation doesn't work for me nearly as well as just sitting and staring off into space. I'm not chanting in an effort to reach some peaceful place. I'm just gazing at whatever is in front of me.
    It becomes a form of self-hypnosis, a daydream, if you will, and I've found myself waking up from the nothingness on occasion. It's probably my body's signal that nothing time is over, and I need to get started on something. I'm always a bit sad when that happens.
     I've often wondered what would happen if I participated in an experiment where I could turn off the lights and sleep whenever I wanted, but would not otherwise know whether it was day or night. Would my body naturally fall into the same sleep pattern that having a family and a job and responsibilities forces upon me?
    I think I would probably sleep more often than I do now, but I also think I would get a lot more accomplished, both real work and a fair amount of practicing the art of doing nothing at all.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Book And Its Cover


     The other day I heard a woman describing how her husband-to-be had taken her to the rodeo on one of their early dates. Without consciously meaning to, I immediately envisioned what her spouse looked like. And when I met her husband a few days later, my pre-conceived notions about him turned out to be fairly accurate.
     But I have to say that I was a bit disappointed in myself for taking a minor tidbit of information and creating a virtual biography of this man in my mind before we had even met. I wish he had turned out to be a scholarly, academic type who walked around spouting Shakespeare or Keats, instead of a "dumbass hillbilly." (That's how he referred to himself.)  If it had turned out that he wasn't a hillbilly, I would have been forced to rethink my unfairly judgmental assessment of his looks, education and background.
     For many years, I have been a fan of professional wrestling. Take a moment now to conjure up what my other interests should be based on that small piece of information. I can guarantee that you are wrong about most of what came to your mind.  In fact, people who know me through my other interests are most often shocked (and that's not too strong a word) to find that I like 'rasslin'. They usually follow up with the inevitable "You know it's fake, right?"
     If I'm in the mood to engage them in conversation, I point out that I have been aware of the cooperative nature of the pro wrestling dance from the first time I watched it as a five-year-old.  I knew instinctively that, unless I was knocked out, no one of my approximate size could keep my shoulders on a mat for three full seconds. But guess what? I enjoyed watching the story unfold anyway.
     The same people who would ridicule my love of pro wrestling have no issue with my enjoyment of, say, Jackie Chan movies. They don't try to tell me Bruce Willis didn't kill actual terrorists in Die Hard. They seem to understand that movies are entertainment. They cannot understand that entertainment comes in many forms, from opera and ballet to mixed martial arts and monster truck shows. I like it all, to varying degrees. And I contend that what I like says absolutely nothing about my level of education or sophistication.
     But back to the point. I'm as capable as anyone of making inferential leaps. Even though my better self would rather judge people on their individual merit, I often find myself deciding that a person has "too many" tattoos or piercings to be taken seriously. I need to stop that.
    You have, perhaps, heard of a man named Charles Ramsey by now. He's the black man who helped a woman in Cleveland escape her kidnappers this week. When asked about what happened, Ramsey was quoted as saying, "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something's wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she's homeless or she's got problems. That's the only reason she run to a black man."
     I find that statement both enlightening and sad. It rings more true than most of what I hear from so-called pundits as they talk about race relations in this country. In Mr. Ramsey's view of his neighborhood, something has to be wrong for a white person to seek out the help of a black person. I suspect the reverse is also true. And yet I continue to hope.
     In addition to pro wrestling, one of the things I watched as a child was the original Star Trek series. That was the one where a black woman, an Asian man, and a member of a different species all worked together without concern for skin color. (Or blood color, for that matter.) Somewhere along the way life experiences cause us to put people into convenient categories. Rednecks. Thugs. Jocks. Nerds.
     Sometimes, those stereotypes prove accurate, and they form the basis for some of the funniest stand-up comedy you'll come across. But, while I love a good ethnic joke ("Watch out, Scratchy! He's Irish!"),  I'd also like to squelch my baser instinct to automatically and unconsciously judge the book by its cover.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What Are You Scared Of?


     Once upon a time, when I was about 12 years old, I somehow ended up in the house by myself one evening and made the ill-fated decision to watch a vampire movie on television.  I don't remember the name of the film or anything else about it, but what I do remember is one particular scene. One of the female characters is in an RV when she decides to pull back the curtain on a window and, BOO!, there's the vampire's face looking back at her.
      I was so startled (scared, freaked out) I almost wet myself. I didn't watch the rest of the movie. I couldn't sleep that night, and I had nightmares about the face in the window for several months after. I'm not sure why. The face of the vampire wasn't particularly scary. It was just a guy with his hair combed back, wearing fake teeth. But the image haunts me to this day and I still jump if I see someone unexpectedly pop up on the other side of a window.
     That irrational fear began for me, I think, as a much younger child when I watched the "family" movie The Wizard of Oz. The flying monkeys didn't bother me, nor did the tornado which lifted Dorothy's house. What I was most frightened by was the scene where Dorothy tries to call out to her Auntie Em whose face has appeared in a crystal ball, only to have the witch's face pop up and start laughing. (Excuse me while I take a moment to calm the shiver that just ran up my spine.)
     The fear rekindled itself during a viewing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Can you guess when it happened? It was during the scene when the Child Catcher slowly lowered his big-nosed face upside down to peek through,  yes, a window, while chanting about all the candy that he had for little boys and girls. Again, a so-called family movie that scared the stuffing out of me.
     So you can understand where I'm coming from when I disagree with my beautiful wife as we have our ongoing discussions about what movies our own children should be allowed to watch. I can only imagine that unlike me, she was never scared out of her wits by images on TV, at least not in the way that I was. If she had been, she would think twice before allowing (and even encouraging) our children to watch certain movies.
     Over my albeit mild objections, my wife has let the kids watch Jurassic Park, Jaws, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She thought by telling the kids to close their eyes during the scary parts, they would enjoy the movie without being permanently scarred. That was before one of our children crawled into bed with us for two weeks straight because she kept seeing Gollum's face in her dreams. Oddly, the other child kept insisting that the "Frodo movie" was cool. That's the same child who is spooked by episodes of Scooby Doo.
     So, as you can see, it's a bit tricky. We are all scared by different things, be it spiders or blood or monsters. Plus, I'm usually overprotective. I thought Monsters, Inc. was a bit much for the kids, although they loved it.
     Their mom worries more about real-life dangers like what might happen if they ride their bikes past a pedophile house. She also refuses to park next to panel vans with no windows in the back because, you know, that's the type of van that kidnappers use.  She has fewer concerns about pop culture influences.
     Who's right? The safe answer is that she is right. The more complicated answer is that, to some extent, we both are. I'm probably more like our older child -- affected by scary images, but less concerned about the evil outside our door, while my wife is like the younger child -- oblivious to horrors on the screen, but keenly aware of the weirdos in the real world. 
      Still, if they ask us, we'll both tell the kids to never, ever watch The Exorcist. We can't sleep with them every night forever.