Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Halloween Weekend Begins

For the past week or so, nothing has delighted Natalie more than putting on her Cinderella dress and dancing in the living room. Since Kara went back to work yesterday after her much lavished month off, Natalie oscillated between the two ends of the fashion spectrum, wearing next to nothing and donning her full-length Cinderella costume. Most definitely, Natalie is taking a liking to this Halloween business, and I’m not sure where she gets it from.

Me, on the other hand, I’ve always abhorred dressing up for Halloween, and what I like even less about Halloween is Halloween parties, where there’s a bunch of people trying to be somebody they're not; the world is too full of phonies as it is, and we certainly don’t need a holiday celebrating that fact. I seem to enjoy Halloween when it is on a Wednesday or Thursday, too far away from either weekend to make an excuse for an extended holiday weekend of costume-clad kids trolling the neighborhood for candy and costume-clad adults doing things they probably shouldn’t only because their anonymity derides them of any morals and inhibitions. This way, most of the idiocy is confined to one day and not a whole weekend, and since it is a school/work night, usually there are less kids getting into trouble and less adults blowing a 0.08 or better into the breathalyzer.

Sure, call me a killjoy or a fuddy-duddy or an old man, I don’t care, but I like to think that maybe I’m one of the last few people in this world who have a shred of dignity left in them that they don’t need to put on face makeup and pretend I’m Dracula and drink myself into a sullen stupor all in the name of Paganism.

It’s not that I’m particularly religious, for my hatred of the holiday, but it is mostly because finding the right costume stresses me out and I’ve spent too much time as an adult around other adults that don’t partake in the festivities. Of my last 10 years working in an office, if I were to dress up as something for this God-forsaken holiday, I would have been the only one, and there’s one thing worse than dressing up like an idiot for Halloween and that’s being the only one that dresses up like an idiot for Halloween.

I took her to dance class that morning and it was a “wear your costume to dance class” day. It was cute to see all of the little three-year-olds dressed up for Halloween, and we had everything from Supergirl, Darth Vader and a butterfly to all four of the Disney princesses, Pocahontas and Ariel. The uber-moms that seemingly don’t have a whole lot of things better to do with their stay-at-home-mom time but pour affection on their children came bearing “goodie bags” for everyone, making us lesser parents look like slouches for not ponying up with the treats. I’m not talking a bite-sized candy bar and a themed pencil; these are small Chinese take-out sized boxes full of various plastic Oriental Trading Company rubble themed for All Hollow’s Eve… for each kid. It amazes me. Even if I was apprised of the fact that they bring treats in for the holidays, I wouldn’t have even taken it that far. I can’t wait for Arbor Day so we can each get a redwood for the backyard.

Of course, it figures: The one day I don’t bring my camera to dance class (where picture taking is strictly verboten by the dance instructor) is the day everyone brings their cameras to dance class, where there’s a free-for-all photo session of all the darlings lined up in their Halloweeny best.


Last night Kara, the kids and I went to their school for the Halloween festival they have there every year, and at first I didn’t really want to go. It’s like going to a work party; you spend all day with these yahoos and then you have to spend an additional evening with them, trying to find something social to talk about that isn’t work… and you end up talking about work anyways because the only thing you all have in common is the fact that your paychecks have the same signature on them. Natalie, on the other hand, was all for going because she got to dress up in her Cinderella costume, and even wear the glass slippers and crown to boot. She looked like… well, a princess, and she was excited about going. Once we got there, it was a different story, and when we made our way down the hallway toward her classroom, she burst into tears the moment she saw her teacher, all the while thinking that we were going to leave her there for the night. Assured that we were there for a party, she sniffed it up and said, “Oh,” later exclaiming, “I was crying when we came here but I’m fine now.”

In her room, there was a pumpkin decorating table set up, and Natalie covered hers with a variety of things, and we set it aside to dry. The room was full of strangers. With the exception of one of Kara’s coworkers and her daughter (also Natalie’s fellow dance classmate as well as a school classmate) and Dan and Janeal and their son Maxwell, we knew nobody there, so we might have well have been by ourselves putting glue on a gourd. So much for holiday cheer.

Later, the creeps were well handed to me when I was forced to watch the beginning of a marionette show, a spectacle 10 times more horrifying than a normal puppet show and 100 times more creepy than that wooden McCarthy fellow. Child entertainers are a rare breed and I’m happy to state that I don’t personally know any of them… I don’t think I could once I found out what they did for a living. “Oh, so that explains why you carry a pocket full of sticky candy canes.”

Natalie loved it, and since she was well amused and in the company of her good friend (and dance mate) Christina, it gave me an out to sit in the other room, eating hard tack shaped like cookies and drinking slightly warmer than room temperature fruit punch, the kind that gives you a red mustache for the rest of the night, telling everyone you meet that you have an inability to sip liquids; they all must be pounded.

The end of the story leaves us with the fact that Natalie is a cute Cinderella, she loves nothing more than to dance her heart out in her costume, but if you were to ask her, she’s a “Butterfly Mermaid Princess.” Okay?

I shouldn’t be so hard on Halloween or those that really have a lot more spirit and a lot less inhibitions than me. It can be fun, and under the right circumstances, I’ve had my fair share of good Halloweens…not that many, but a few worth remembering. The rest were just various psychological studies of an introverted person forced to turn on the limelight and aim it in his face for everyone to look at, and my worst fear walking into a Halloween party is someone asking me: “What are you supposed to be?” Either you have poor costume planning, or you hoped nobody would notice you.

The real heartbreaking thing about Halloween is driving through the neighborhood the day after and seeing the occasional smashed pumpkin in the street. As a kid, I think I would have cried if that happened to my pumpkin, but then again, if I carved a face on it, that meant it had a personality and if it had a personality, it had feelings.

Never mind that a pumpkin is merely a vegetable, and not much good for anything else.

Hey, kind of like Clinton (either one)! Hahaha.

Remember to vote on Tuesday, folks.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Happiest Place on Earth… Well, For Some

Being closet Disneyland enthusiasts forced into a sabbatical after having babies, Kara and I felt the time was nigh in our lives to introduce Natalie to all the wonders and joys that the Magic Kingdom has to offer, from that feeling of euphoria that’s power injected into yours senses the moment you push through the turnstiles at the front gates to the somber elation of showering off the dust and germs of thousands of people before you snuggle deep into your bed after a long day of pushing through the crowds for a piece of that euphoria.

It is easy to see why people are fascinated with Disneyland—the rides, the movies, the innocent recollections of your childhood—and it is easy to see why people hate it—rude people, bratty kids, exorbitant prices, forced charm, and the blatant marketing used to hock it’s wares (that subject will go on my list for future blog topics), but if you overlook the negative and concentrate on making it a memorable experience for your kids, no amount of people walking in front of your camera or clipping you with their shoulder because they’re too unrefined a civilian to consider other people can affect your day at Disneyland.

The day almost didn’t start at all. We had originally planned to go on the 17th and then stay the night at the Grand Californian for a follow-up day on the 18th, but I had a series of projects to finish by the end of that week and economics reared its ugly head, so we decided to push off the trip until Tuesday and then make it only one day. Instead of staying over and going for two days, we settled on saving some money by getting season passes so we could go any day we wanted, assuming Natalie would like it.

A couple of days leading up to our foray into all things Walt, Matty started to look worse for wear, runny nose, dark circles under the eyes and general crankiness. We opted to again postpone the trip, but figured that if he’s going to be sick, he’s going to be sick, and he can do it at Disneyland just as good as he can do it at home. Of course, I decided to start work on a freelance project the night before, figuring Mother Bear—who was also complaining of illness—wouldn’t allow one of her cubs out of the house with the hints of a cold, so I was up to nearly three in my office here writing. Wouldn’t you know it that bright and early I was rousted out of bed by Natalie, exclaiming, “We’re going to Disneyland” (even though I’m sure she really didn’t know what that meant).

I had some trepidation about our trip, especially concerning the sizable outlay of money that was ahead of us. For starters, they don’t just give season passes away anymore. When we first started getting them (about 10 years ago), the premium, no-holds-barred passes weren’t that much, maybe topping $200, including parking, but the same pass today equates to $1 a day for the year, plus parking (another $50 or so). Yikes, and the fact that Natalie is over that magic age of three, she’s now a full-terms ticket holder. What if she didn’t like it? What if it just didn’t agree with her and she never wanted to go back? I know, I know; it’s Disneyland, and how is that possible, but she doesn’t like chocolate or Twinkies so it could happen.

Plus, I had worries about losing her in the crowds. I know, I’m a worse-case-possible kind of person sometime, but I pictured the torrent of multitudes engulfing her when I was distracted by the marvels of the tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki room and we’d find her in some security detention center in the bowels of the park, three lands away. That sort of experience not only ages a father to the point of geriatrics but it scars a small kid for life (I still remember being lost in the supermarket one time and that was just for a minute). So much so that we considered writing Natalie’s name and our cell phone number on her stomach so she could show someone if she got lost, as it is the method of choice here amongst the neighborhood parents whenever they take their youngest out to theme parks and county fairs. Sure, sounds silly and maybe even a little country, but not so much when your cell phone rings and its some stranger saying they found your daughter following Tigger into ToonTown and do you mind coming to get her.

Then, I worried that Natalie would be afraid of everything from the sound of the trolley on Main Street to the roar of the roller coasters in Tomorrowland. After all, I can’t vacuum with her on the same floor of the house, and the sound of anything from an electric toothbrush and razor to the whirling of the blender sends her into crying hysterics, a condition I’m sure she’ll grow out of. Disneyland, if anything, can be an assault to the senses if you’re not prepared for it (such as we will see with poor Matty).

It wasn’t that crowded, as we arrived there about 20 minutes after they opened up the park in the morning. First order of business was to shell out the cash to pay homage to the mouse, but I considered it an expense well worth it (I say through gritted teeth), as I pictured countless hours of enjoyment in the year to come since it allows us to visit Disneyland and California Adventure any time during the day and night for as long or short as we wanted.

I’m sure everyone reading this has been to Disneyland, and if you’re from out of town or have just never made it to the park, I assure you, the core essence of what you can imagine Disneyland to be like could never amount to the actual delight you’ll experience on your first visit. I saw that in Natalie’s pancake eyes as we wheeled the stroller under the train tunnel and onto Main Street.

For weeks, we had described some of the things she was about to see, and I wonder what she had actually pictured up until she finally saw them. “You get to ride in a tea cup as it spins around.” “You’ll sit on the back of Dumbo and fly just like he does in the movie.” “You can say hello to Mickey Mouse and you can see animals and monkeys up close on the Amazon--that's a river!” “We’ll even see a parade with lights and dancing, and all of the princesses will be there.”

Surely, I described some nonexistent figment of a senile old man’s imagination, as there cannot possibly be such a place where all of my favorite movies actually come to life and I can walk around them and see them in action… with my own eyes. Please, I maybe three, but I'm not that gullible.

Yes, Natalie, you can, and we’re here. It’s Disneyland, and there is nothing better than to see Disneyland through the eyes of a three-year old.

We figured the best way to introduce Natalie to the Magic would be in Fantasyland, and the first ride she went on was “Snow White’s Scary Adventure.” There was no waiting at all, and we basically walked right onto the ride. Nice. Once tucked into the little car, with Natalie and Kara up front and Matthew and I picking up the rear, the ride began and we were off on our adventure.

Neither kids liked it, and I suppose it wasn’t such a good choice to start off with, because it is laden with elements of such evilness as it is probably one of the most evil of the movies. Of course, upon reflection, all of the rides end up either in some psychedelic mind trip, such as Alice in Wonderland, or in hell, such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (after being clobbered by a train). I guess it is the essence of the “dark rides” at Disneyland, and they’re dark for two reasons, lack of light and lack of good cheer. Up front, Kara said later, Natalie was asking if she could go home because it was too scary, while in the back, Matty’s head was darting back and forth like a scared monkey from one indigo-glowing element to the other, and each time I could hear a squeaking squeal come from his mouth.

I found his fear cute; I guess, because there was nothing to be afraid of and he didn’t understand it. Yes, that’s cute in my book. When the snail exited the doors later on Alice in Wonderland, I looked over at a couple roughly our age waiting in line and they were giggling in that “poor baby” way, and when I glanced down at Matthew to see how he faired, his mouth was crinkled down and his eyebrows were half-moons over his head, not sure if he should cry for Mommy or just close his eyes and wait until the darkness goes away. If he could, he probably would have exclaimed, “What the hell was that?” As an adult going on Alice in Wonderland, and it’s probably been 10 years since I have, I was thinking the exact same thing.

Next up was Dumbo, and since Kara doesn’t like to spin, I got to be the one to take Natalie. I was surprised that Natalie was so excited to go on it, as it was one of the rides I thought she would want to avoid because of the heights involved. We lucked out on a couple of levels that may have made the ride easier to stomach: First off, the line was only about 10 minutes long and second off, we got a purple Dumbo. The whole 10 minutes we were waiting, she kept saying, “I want to go on Dumbo. I want to go on Dumbo,” to which I could only reply, "We are going on Dumbo, but we have to wait our turn." When she saw it, she insisted that we get a purple Dumbo. I looked up the line and counted out the groups ahead of us and compared it to the number of Dumbos, 16, (and the number of purple Dumbos, 2) and then steeled her to the fact that since we were the 14th group in line, the odds weren’t good we’d get a purple, especially if the purple one landed right in front of the line. I suggested a green one, but as it turns out, we were able to dart to the back of the cirlce and score the second purple one. She controlled it well, soaring right to the top as fast as possible so she could look down and see Mommy and wave.

It was really fun; her eyes wide, mouth open, hair blowing in the wind as we zoomed around on the back of a purple Dumbo. Of course, she wanted to go on it again, but we thought it best to make sure she saw other things too. One thing we went on that I hadn’t been on since I was probably Natalie’s age was the Casey Jr. Circus Train; we sat in the Wild Animals Cage car for the trip, and it was the only thing all day that I think Matthew enjoyed.

Lunch at Village Haus Restaurant (which I remembered being called Geppetto’s Resturant, or something like that) consisted of ridiculously overpriced food, but I was surprised at one thing: There is a lot more fresh fruit at the snack stands and resturants around the park than I remember; it’s everywhere, bananas, apples, oranges. I only remember churros, sodas and those giant lollipops shaped like Mickey Mouse when I was younger, and on your way out the exit that night, they handed you recommendations for local dentists and coupons for dentures.

With our season passes, we enjoyed a 10 percent discount on all the food, which takes care of the tax at least. Hey, it was better than nothing, but my $9 bacon cheeseburger left me a little hungry, and I can’t imagine how Natalie’s $5 glop of macaroni and cheese filled her needs either, especially when she dropped most of it on the floor. I think the only one happy with their food was Matthew, who devoured his share of the fresh fruit bowl.

However, Kara’s sandwich left her a little sick to her stomach, which kept her out of action for an hour or so.

While Kara was changing one of Matty’s three poopy diapers of the day (why he saved it all up for that day is beyond me), Natalie and I rode the tea cups, and since Kara can’t handle spinning rides—I haven’t gone on that ride since I met her; it’s no fun going by yourself—I had to teach her the ropes of how to make the cup go around. Natalie’s Baby Sara even came along for the spin, and though I took it easy on Natalie, it was too much for me not to give the cup a few good hard spins to push her back into the rim. She squealed with delight.

We parked the stroller at ToonTown and took the train around the park, through the Grand Canyon and a visit to the dinosaurs and then back to ToonTown, where Natalie got her picture taken with Goofy and we all took a tour of Mickey’s and Minnie’s houses.

Matthew was getting tired—well, we all were but him specifically.

In ToonTown, they have the Gadget’s Go Coaster, a short 30-second roller coaster for kids, though I thought it would have been too fast for Natalie’s tastes. I was wrong. Kara and Matthew watched while I took her through the line, and every time the coaster whooshed overhead, Natalie’s face burst into a smile and she said, “How fun!”

We were in row five of the train (I'm waiving), and as it climbed to the top of the first incline, the people in front of us (a mother and daughter) both raised up their hands. I’m sure Natalie, who has never been on a roller coaster before, thought that just what people do when they ride a roller coaster, so she let go of the bar and put up her hands, all the while, a big smile streaming across her face. The train of cars reached the summit. The familiar clicking gave way to the roar of the wheels on the track, and we started our decent. Natalie’s hands instantly grabbed onto the bar as we twisted and turned around on the ride, and she tucked her head under my arm and held on tight. At the end, she said it was her favorite ride!

While Matthew slept (finally), Kara and I took turns escorting Natalie on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in what is now called Critter Country (nee Bear Country), which she went on three times in a row. If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t feel bad, I hadn’t either. However, picture where the Country Bear Jamboree used to be and put in a Fantasyland-esque “dark ride” and a bunch of broke-open honey pots and you’ve got the Pooh ride. Incidentally, it fits the dark theme in the same manner as the rest of them, because Pooh’s soul leaves his body during a dream sequence. I can’t verify this exactly. I really wasn’t paying attention too closely, as I was watching Natalie enjoy the ride and thatwas much more enjoyable than the ride itself.

We avoided Tomorrowland, not on purpose, we just didn’t go in that direction, but there’s nothing really there for us yet. People Movers are gone, so is the Submarine ride, and even what replaced the People Movers is gone too. The Skyway has stopped dumping people off there. The Monorail was closed for the day and Autopia (which I irritatingly heard being pronounced by people all day as “auto-topia”) was always crowded. She can’t go on Space Mountain or Star Tours until she grows another three inches, and I thought we would save the Rockets (excuse me, Astro Orbitors, as they call them now) for a later trip.

There was plenty that we didn’t do, for whatever reason, but that is okay. We have season passes; we can do it next time, but if I had shelled out $170 for the three of us (Matthew's free) to get in for just one day (10am to 8pm), I would have been miffed with all that we didn’t get to do. It’s not like we sat around and stared at the people walking by. It was an action-packed day, at least action-packed for those with single-digit ages.

We ended it with hot cocoa and cookies, sitting on the curb by the Main Street train station waiting for the parade, and there must have been technical difficulties as it started 20 minutes late. Natalie sat in my lap and a five-year-old girl from Colorado sat next to us and told us all about her Cinderella phone and blinking-light necklace. By the time the parade started, my feet were completely asleep and tingly, but I still managed to get some good video of Natalie in awe of the sights of the parade, especially of the princess float.

All in all, it was a great first day. Natalie earned her ears on her first day at Disneyland, but I think we’ll wait until Matthew doesn’t want to eat them before we get a pair for him. So far, he’ll have to settle with the frightening memories of some queen yelling at him, “Off with your head!”

Ah, Disneyland. They say it is the Magic Kingdom, but I didn’t find any magic in the park that day, no matter where I looked or how hard I searched. The real magic was found in the sparkle of Natalie’s eyes, as she gazed at all of the wonders of the happiest place on earth.

Guess who’s going to be a princess for Halloween?

Matthew on Disneyland? He could take it or leave it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fly Hunter

When I was a kid of about 11 or 12, I spent a lot of time at my friend Dom Covello’s house on Pennsylvania Avenue; we spent time a lot of each other's houses, but to his we frequently congregated. It was one of those small houses built in the 1920s when they figured an average family only needed two bedrooms and a living room, but since his closet led to another part of the house via a secret tunnel built into the walls, the mystery of the house, along with its wooden porch, back alley and creaky floors, made it that much more charming. I enjoyed what most boys that age liked to do, hang out with my core group of friends and get into a variety of mischief, and since his mother was a cocktail waitress and worked weekend nights, that meant our mischief was mostly unsupervised. Dom's mother did, however, leave us under the general care of a girl I remembered as being named Tara, a peroxide blonde hair stylist who was the closest thing to a woman us boys had seen up close that wasn’t our mothers or our teachers. When she was in charge of watching us, we spent a lot of time hanging around with her; she was fun… and she wore a lot of small clothes, which made our time spent with her most educational. To us, at the time, she seemed like she was as old as my parents were—you know, a grown up—but in all likelihood, she was probably no more than 18- or 19-years old, and since her boyfriends would come over frequently (and rotate frequently as well)—at which time we were summarily ushered out of the house—we picked up a thing or two about the facts of life by periodically taking in an eyeful at the living room window when we should have been a couple of streets over playing video games at Jughead Liquor.

Speaking of video games, Dom was one of my first friends to get a computer, a Commodore 64, a wonderful system that helped usher us into the age of computers, and my game of choice (since on those early machines the only thing you could do was either play games or write short stories—I should show you “The Tara Saga,” a great example of literary achievement for 1986. No, it was about a different Tara, and now that she's a lawyer, she would probably threaten litigation if it were to ever again see the light of day). So, my game of choice was “Spy Hunter,” where you are a secret agent fleeing in a James Bond-style car, equipped with missiles, smoke screen, those spikes that flatten pursuers’ car tires and oil slicks. It could turn into a boat when needed and you got frequent upgrades from a semi that periodically picks you up and outfits you with extra accessories. It was fun and challenging. Well, mostly fun because it was novel.

However, here I am, 22 years later; this time, I’m the hunter and I’m not stalking runaway spies but instead flies, houseflies, the damnable miserly irritating ever-circulating buzzers that land at the most inopportune times on the most inopportune places.

There is no love lost between them, and if there is a fly in the house, I will expend untold amounts of energy and time to find it, kill it and discard the body. If I could hang them by their spindly necks near the door as a warning to other flies who choose to enter my house, I would.

The story starts a couple of weeks earlier. I was gone on my hunting trip, and Elsa ripped through the screen door on the back patio because she was so heartbroken from her master's absence. Since I’ve been too cheap…I mean, frugal… to plunk down the 40 bucks for a new one, I’m in the process of braining up a way to fix the old one until Elsa really tears it up (the leading plan is to buy a section of screen and “sew” it together with the old one—I know, I should just spend the money for a new one, but it keeps me busy and keeps me resourceful). Since then, whenever the screen is “closed,” is becomes a revolving entryway for all things flying, from moths and gnats to those God-forsaken flies.

Friday, Kara decided to cash in some “me” time and escape to Glen Ivy, a pampered day spa for the non-working women in the area, and while she was away, I was the Daddy on Duty for the tykes. After Dance Class, I took the kids to the Party Store for our Friday balloon, which popped in the car as I was putting the stroller in the back. All I heard was a pop and Natalie bursting into tears, sobbing, “Myyy-hhy-hhy-hy bah-bah-loon broke.”

Okay, everyone out, kids out, stroller out, car seat out… dead balloon: Out. Let’s get another one, and lucky for us, after Nicole, the girl in charge of the balloons, saw little Gnat with wet cheeks, told us about this little-known policy that says you get a free replacement balloon no matter the circumstances of the original balloon’s popping. Good thing, because once we were headed across the parking lot toward the Party Store to get a new balloon, Natalie fessed up that the reason the balloon mysteriously popped was because she bit it.

“What did we learn today, Gnat?” I asked as she picked out another purple balloon.

Hushed tone, Gnat: “Don’t bite the balloons.”

So, balloon’s full again, floating over the couch where Natalie crashed, asleep, and lucky for me, Matty hit the sack for a couple of hours as well. That’s good parenting, folks. The house was quiet, all was peaceful… until… until…

I’m not sure when it happened, but Mick Jagger moved into the neighborhood and almost every day since he has invited Keith Richards over to jam in the garage, and they’ve decided that because their amps go to 10, they’re going to push them to 10. Lucky for me, they're latest to bottom out on the Billboard Low 1000, but they don’t entirely suck; however, the constant droning of guitars, drums and some kind of synthesizer…no singing, yet, thank God... does make for a constant clatter.

Remembering a good portion of my early teenage years and my brother’s dream of rock stardom, I don’t completely hate the fact that a loud garage band is adding to the air pollution of the world, especially four doors down. Granted, I don’t like it, as it makes for a constant soundtrack to my life, my house, my backyard, etc., but when they take a break of some sort, roughly every two hours of practice, the thing that makes my spine ache is that some younger brother takes it upon himself to bang on the drums for a while. There is nothing on this earth more annoying than hearing a repetitious base drum thumping erratically, without rhythm or tempo for a good and solid 20 minutes straight. It’s like tone-deaf Mohicans on a warpath.

So, what is a self-respecting homeowner supposed to do? Well, in this case, nothing. Garage bands don’t last and it will just be a matter of time before they break up and get on with their lives or get signed and go on tour. Either way, they’re gone and peace and quiet will prevail.

Friday afternoon, I decide that the best thing for me would be to finish a book I started a couple of days hence, a little relaxation with a trip through history, this time courtesy of John Cannan’s retelling of Burnside and Meade’s great debacle on June 30, 1864, in a battle outside of Petersburg called “The Crater.” Good read, technical, exact with a host of first-person accounts that not only add credibility to the author’s story but gives it a sense of realism.

I hear elements of the band warming up down the street, a faint whisper of a keyboard plunking out a few notes, and some idiot pulls his beat up Honda Civic in front of my house, parking backwards, facing the wrong way down the street. Get that? The wrong way like he owns the place, and it only makes me look bad, reflecting on the sort of people I allow into my house. Some furry-headed wide-load drummer has no respect for my neighborhood was what I began to think. I tried to sit there and read my book, but at the break of every paragraph, I would look up to see if the albatross was still darkening my parkway, and lo it was. The more time that went by, the more irritated it made me, a backwards facing Honda with the crunched-in front, oxidized roof and several stickers on the trunk lid supporting some archaic and immature causes like “No Fear” or that stupid anarchy logo. The front windows were down and there was the usual clutter strewn about on the front seats, papers and fast food wrappers. What a moron, I decided.

Okay, it got to the point that I would accept the noise of the band but I couldn’t take the presence of the car, as if it was some sort of guilty weight on my conscious, ever eating away at my sole. I pictured a disrespectful punk who thinks he’s God-gift to the music industry because “he’s in a band.”

I had to do something to let him know that I didn’t appreciate his lack of respect. I considered hitching up my truck to his bumper and dragging the car around the corner, or at least pull it around so it was facing the right way. I wanted to let all the air out of his tires but then that would mean that it would remain longer, no doubt. Honestly, I thought about tack welding his doors closed and then spritzing the welds with some primer so he wouldn’t notice. Oh the hilarity as I would watch him scratch his head puzzled that his doors wouldn’t open.

In the end, what did I do? I called the police. Sure, it’s petty and lame of me, but I couldn’t stand it, like someone cutting in front of me while in line or getting whacked in the back of the ankles by a stroller.

I was almost apologetic when I spoke with the dispatcher (because of my volunteer work, I have an inside number), telling her that it would be an easy ticket and some easy revenue for the city. She assured me that she would send by a car, and I decided I wouldn’t hold my breath. In the interim, I discovered an amusing solution that would keep the delinquent from parking there: I turned on the sprinklers. With the windows open, I was hoping for a deluge of water cascading into his car like the 40-day flood, but alas, my usually unfaithful sprinklers wouldn’t cooperate and merely wetted his tires. Dejected, I turned them off and waited for Johnny Law to roll up… and I waited and waited and waited.

Meanwhile, I settled back into the Civil War, trying to concentrate, and wouldn’t you know it? There was a fly in the room, circling, circling, buzzing, buzzing. I was sitting in the front room to enjoy the light streaming in through the blinds, and every now and again, the fly would get caught behind the blinds, bouncing from blinds to window, forever buzzing. Concentrating on Burnside’s inability to persuade Leylie’s troops to advance on the Confederate fortifications was impossible, as every time Cannan described the whirling of a mini ball, I could only picture a housefly zooming by.

Something had to be done, so I became the Fly Hunter (wow, it took a really long time to get from the title of this blog down to the source, didn’t it?). Armed with a rolled up magazine (Time, if you must know), I stood in the middle of the room, swatting at air, mostly, as it was a young fly and quick on its wings. But, he had a weakness, a weakness I would soon exploit, the window, and every time he would get stuck behind the blinds, he’d buzz stupidly and frantically trying to escape. My plan was a little grotesque, but quite effective: just squish him between the blinds and the window. Easy enough, he really didn’t get out of the way before I flattened him into a black and yellow gooey pancake. After wiping his guts up with a napkin, I was back in The Crater with the gallant boys of IX Corp.

What? What the? Could it be? Did the flattened fly reassemble his body, unwrap himself from the napkin, make his way out of the trash can in the kitchen and lose himself behind the blinds again. Grant will have to wait; there’s another fly to kill, but he was quicker. I actually pinned his leg under the vane of one of the blinds and he stood there frantically buzzing his wings in an attempt to escape. I crushed him like the one before him.

Okay, where were they? Ferraro’s colored troops were about to be slaughtered in The Crater… mostly for being black, and sometimes by their fellow white troops.


Another fly. How could this be? I annulated him post haste, but as soon as I returned from dumping the body in the kitchen trash can, another had taken his place behind the blinds. He was dispatched as easily and as quickly as his brothers before him. The body count at the end of my battle was five, five flies invaded my sanity and five flies were killed.

Finally, peace at last, as no other flies made an attempt at prevailing my tranquility.

Then Matthew woke up, then Natalie, and I got to read about five pages total in two hours.

Ah, peace, wherefore art thou?

As for the idiot, the cops never showed up (surprise, surprise) and he got in his POS and drove away, scot free, to offend the sanctity and sanity of others.

I think I’ll keep my TIG welder handy because band rehearsal is at 2pm sharp, and they can’t rock the Kasbah without a drummer… of course, let’s see him get his kit back into the trunk after I weld the lid shut.

I’m such a grouch.

Gimme Three Steps, Mister...

In short, Matty’s walking. It’s official. Call your friends and family. Get out the video camera and “make a memory,” buddy. I don’t know best how to describe it, but Friday afternoon, he just decided to get up and take a walk, as if he had it on his schedule of things to do that day. “Let’s see, fill diaper to capacity, smear lunch all over my face, grab the dog in the one place that makes her cry… oh yes, and walk.”

After we returned from picking pumpkins yesterday at our old Alma Mater, we were all hanging out in the front room for some reason or another, and Matthew was playing around his car seat. For the first time I’ve ever seen him, he would stand up, let go of whatever he was holding onto—in this case, the car seat—and he stood there for about two or three seconds before plopping back down on the carpet.

And then, as if the mood struck him just right, he turned to Kara, put out his right foot and took a step toward her, following that with his left and then again his right. He was all over the place, like a high-rise during an earthquake, arms flapping, but he was upright and on his own.

After the three steps, he fell into Kara’s arms with the pure elation only a baby who had just undergone the greatest feat of his life could muster. My boy is walking; next stop, the Olympics!

However, pride for me was soon replaced with skepticism for me, thinking that it was just a fluke. I’m mean, I’ve seen Elsa walk upright before too and that doesn’t mean she’s going to suddenly, only day, saunter into to the room and root through my shoe rack for something to wear. But instead, Matthew wants to do it all the time now, and although his balance is a lot like Bambi’s was, he is slowly getting the hang of it.

Please send shoes.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Malfeasance of Oreo

You might accuse me of lacking any pleasing moments in my life, but I enjoy no bigger delight than to find a mistake in my package of Oreos, and as a result of mass production, I’m not surprised that the whirling machines that carefully assemble my Oreos and place them lovingly in the packages (as lovingly as a machine can, but then again, I like to suspect that all of the machines laboring away at the Nabisco plant are preprogrammed with many megabytes of love) would be able to make a mistake from time to time. It seems that I have to polish through three or four packages of Oreos in order to come across a mistake, but I’m tickled when my fingers palpitate the smooth logoless side of the Oreo cookie intended to hold my sandwiched cream filling. The cookie on one side was facing the wrong way, not deformed or twisted, but just on backwards.

Usually, since I’m not intently studying each and every Oreo I pick up and pop into my mouth—it’s a consumer’s supreme act of faith—when my finger slides over the smooth cookie, it throws me for a loop, as I’m expecting a rutted texture. So I sit there for a moment and give it a good going over, marveling at the cookie de errata and the fact that it survived through whatever quality inspection Nabisco has in place only to make it into a package with a host of regular Oreos, to the store, into my basket, my pantry, my couch and my mouth (stopping along the way to be drown in a glass of milk).

I’m not complaining, mind you, as the backwards Oreo tastes the same as all of the regular ones (as long as you don’t tongue it, of course); that’s not what this is about, but it makes for a nice introduction to the source of my complaint.

I’m not 100 percent sure how I found this out, but I think the good folks at Nabisco have been shortchanging the general public, probably—now I can’t verify this—but probably since 1912 when the wonderful cookies were invented.

But how, Ryan, how? Tell us the details.

Since you asked, way back in 1898, a few bakeries combined forces and called themselves the National Biscuit Company, and since it was a pain to write that on ever check whenever they paid someone, they shortened it to NaBisCo. Don’t take my word for it; here is a quote from the book Advertising in America—The First 200 Years:

“In the early 1890's there were hundreds of hometown bakers putting out generic crackers in barrels and plain cookies in square shipping boxes...There were soon far too many bakers for anyone to make a decent living, so they began to combine. For eight years, savage merger fights reduced the market to three very large companies: New York Biscuit, American Biscuit, and United States Baking. In 1898, a Chicago lawyer named Adolphus Green convinced the big three that they would all do better as a single unit; they worked out a deal and the National Biscuit Company was born with 114 bakeries firing 400 ovens. In its first year, NBC owned 70 percent of all the bakeries in America. Green was convinced that to make it all work, he had to kill the idea of 'a cracker is a cracker.' A National Biscuit Company cracker — or cookie — was going to be one of a kind.”

The idea for the Oreo was born.

Incidentally, you may have enjoyed those little boxes of animal cookies way back in your youth (in fact, I’m fairly certain there is a box in the pantry as I write this), the one that looks like a circus train car with the little string? Yeah, those people. By the way, the string was attached so that the box could be hung on the Christmas tree, or so say the folks at Kraft.

The year was 1912, and nothing much was happing in the world, save for the quiet buildup to World War I, and some genius in the research department of the Nabisco factory came up with a new cookie consisting of two chocolate discs with a dollop of cream sandwiched in the middle. They called it the Oreo, and it’s shape, form and appearance has changed greatly since the first one rolled off the presses. In 1952, William A Turnier developed the sandwich form that we know and love today; it was based on the chocolate wafers designed by John D. Unger

But why Oreo? What does it mean?

Seriously, I don’t know. Nobody does. Not Nabisco, not Kraft, not anyone. Some people think that it comes from the French word for “gold” or, since the early packages were gold in color, while others think that it comes from the Greek word for mountain, “oreo,” because the original shape of the first Oreos were mounds… which I can’t possibly picture, so I can’t even describe it. Maybe “Oreo” was just easy to pronounce and fun to say… like Ohio.

Though I can’t picture it mound shape, I can describe the Oreo as we know it today: It is 1-3/4-inches wide and ¾-inches tall, and if every Oreo cookie ever made—some 400 billion—were stacked on top of each other it would reach from the couch in my living room to the moon… and back… five times. That’s 3.9 billion miles, folks, one heck of a lot of Oreos. Can’t picture that? Okay. On my ottoman here, I’m going to start lining up Oreos, side by side, not just the ones in my package, but the Oreos in all of the packages, all of the packages ever made. As I keep lining them up, side-by-side, I’ve circled the Earth, not once, not twice, not even thrice, but 381 times. Still, that’s a lot of Oreos.

So, why is it, that when I first open my package of Double Stuf Oreos, do I feel like someone along the production line at Nabisco clipped out a few for themselves? There is about an inch to an inch and a half in each of the three compartments, which seems like there is plenty of room for more Oreos. Miffed, I pulled off the wrapper… and I know I’ve committed myself to eat all of them as soon as the wrapper—have you ever tried to get that plastic tray back into the packaging?

According to the package, each Oreo weighs about 14.5 grams each and the whole package tops the scales at 510 grams, which leads me to believe that there should be 35 Oreos in this package, but there isn’t. There’s only 34: two rows of 11 and one of 12, the middle row. Given the amount of room left in the package, there is enough space to at least make it an even three dozen cookies.

A few years ago, I read a book called Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, which told of the sordid details of the RJ Reynolds/Nabisco leveraged buyout by its CEO F. Ross Johnson and the heavy opposition from Henry Kravis and his associates in the late 70s.

Little sidebar here: Kravis was my connection at the time because I working at a company that was part of his vast holdings, hence my interest in the book. One day, I received a letter from an angry reader who didn’t like that I included Hitler in a list of the 25 most influential people in the history of the Volkswagen, and this letter had traveled up the chain of command, actually reaching Kravis’s desk before it plummeted down into the trenches to mine. I wondered who Kravis was, and my publisher loaned me that book.

At any rate, when you want to ask a few questions about an Oreo, you don’t call Nabisco, you call Kraft, the makers of Macaroni and Cheese for kids and truckloads of cigarettes… also, they hope, for kids. So, let’s give Nabisco a call, and even though their message on the package isn’t as welcoming as other companies I’ve bugged in the past, their number is [(800) 622-4726, which spells Nabisco by the way]. I’m not going to say that the folks at Kraft weren’t as gracious or full of the hospitality I would have expected, but it is clear that they don’t like questions asked of them; that or I got a customer service representative who was either about to be fired for sleeping on the job or was sleeping on the job when I woke her up with the ringing of the phone.

I asked about the packaging, I asked about the missing Oreos, and I asked about the weight. I was told that it was due to settling, which I didn’t exactly believe; these aren’t potato chips but hard cookies that shouldn’t settle unless their wet. I was assured that nobody was sneaking Oreos out of any of the packages, specifically mine (though I’m still skeptical), and I was told that the weights are approximate measures. How can a computer and automated packaging machine make approximations? I was assured that they do (with love, I remembered).

When they package the Oreos, they are divided up according to weight and sometimes that means there is 35 Oreos and sometimes 34 Oreos… a lucky few get the magic number 36, I’m sure.

I’m not so much disappointed about the number of Oreos in my package; frankly, I shouldn’t eat any of them anymore, but what irks me is that a multi-billion-dollar company can’t seem to hire CSRs that are in good spirits and informative. I mean, really, the interchange was hardly worth me writing about, and that’s what I find really upsetting.

So, why don’t I switch to Sunshine Hydrox cookies which are remarkably similar if I have such a problem with Oreo? First off, it would be nice to try the competition; I’ve never had a Hydrox, and if I ever did, I probably looked at them as if they were some strange local cookie trying to get a chunk of the chocolate cookie sandwich pie. Well, ignorance is bliss, right? History will show us that the first to market isn’t the first to the bank: Sunshine came up with the idea for a chocolate cookie sandwich in 1908, four years before Oreo, but sadly, after almost 90 years in the business, in 1996, they were acquired by the little elves of Keebler and quietly shut down.

Oreo rules, literally.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Me, a Name I Call Myself

As I have, at great length, established the fact that I went hunting last week, and only if you have been reading this with your eyes closed would you not know that because I’ve labored intensively on the psychological details of the trip more than I have about the actual events that transpired. Well, perhaps you weren’t able sift through my over-analytical diatribes about the hunting trip to establish that I actually left the house and went on a hunting trip, but I assure you, despite my ramblings to the contrary and the hard evidence that I didn’t come home wrapped in deer hide or proudly displayed a mount above the mantle on the fireplace. Truth of the matter is that I would like to think that we weren’t that lucky when it actually came down to the brass tacks of hunting, but upon further realization of the facts of nature, that isn’t exactly so.

Simply put, the deer were more skilled than I at being in the wild by every stretch of the imagination, but before you sigh a deep exhalation of relief that the barbarous hunters clad in camouflage and armed with rifles that have the ability to propel a projectile at 700 feet per second into the soft flesh exterior of one of God’s fairer creatures, please take note that with all of technology available to mankind, the thousand years of advances in firearms, my college education, the ability to reason, to analyze the outcome of a variety of events with hundreds of variable, my opposable thumbs, my language, the skills at walking upright, and the countless other things that genetics, technology, education and my long-dead humanoid ancestors have given me… With all of these things working to my benefit, we were decidedly at a disadvantage when it came to hunting for deer.

Think about it this way: An intruder enters your house set on killing you. You’re naked, but that’s okay, because all of your walls, windows and furniture is flesh colored. He steps into the front door, but that’s okay because you can hear him coming, smell him coming and see him coming a long time before he even knows that you’re in the house at all. Stand behind the credenza and watch him walk right by you, and when he looks the other way, walk down the hall to the bathroom in complete silence.

That’s what it was like. Dad and I saw 31 deer, like I mentioned before, but only two of them were bucks. Since our deer tags were for buck, we couldn’t hunt anything but those, which means not only are you looking for a hay-colored needle in a haystack, but you have to see what the eye of the needle looks like before you pick it up. If you pick up the wrong needle (i.e. kill a doe by “accident” or hit a spike, which is a buck with an underdeveloped antler), they take away your rifle, ban you from the season and slap you with a huge fine; which is why it is hardly ever reported, I’m sure.

Since last year, when I first decided that I was going to go on this hunting trip, I was slapped in the face with a moral dilemma, not to mention a marital one as well. My views on gun control, hunting, the NRA, gun collecting and society’s views on such subjects has always been very clear. I grew up with the constant presence of guns—pistols, rifles, you name it—and I have been accustomed to them. They have become, not only a source of family pride and interest while I was growing up, but I have learned to see guns as a Constitutional right the likes of which is not found in any other country in the world.

My wonderful wife, on the other hand, is vehemently against guns; she doesn’t like to see them or hear about them, and I don’t even know if she’s ever handled one. Further, I’m sure the conversation would be a tense one if we were to ever debate gun control and I’m willing to bet that she would vote for gun control if it ever appears on the ballot. I respect her opinions because I respect her as a person, regardless of our political views.

However, as the calendar clicked off the days closer to the impending trip, she wanted to make it quite clear that I wouldn’t be killing anything while I was gone. To make it easier for me to go (and for future trips), I agreed, and at the time, I think I actually believed what I was saying. My purpose for going was merely a observational one, as I would enjoy the company of other men while carrying a rifle around in the forest, breathing in the bounty of nature’s clean air and seeing the magnificent vistas not found in the city. It seemed a lofty goal, and I assured her that the probability of us even seeing a deer, much less shooting one would be slim to none. As the day of our departure drew near, I played over a few different scenarios in my head—shoot, don’t shoot—ones that would haunt me day and night during the week of the trip. As a result, the outcome of those scenarios perhaps would end up defining my character, who I am as a person and how I stand on the ultimate decision.

Once we arrived at my Uncle’s house at the beginning of the trip, I called home to assure Kara that we had arrived safely and that it would be the last she would hear from me in a week because of the lack of cell phone reception in the mountains. At the end of the conversation, as we were saying good bye, I expected to hear an “I love you,” “Be safe” or at the very least a “Have fun,” and instead of any of those well wishing comments, the very last thing she said to me, perhaps the very last thing she would have ever said to me if I were Dick Cheney’d in the head while hunting, wasn’t “Have fun,” “Be safe” or “I love you” but “Don’t kill anything.”

I know where I stand in my marriage, as the safety of a bunch of strange deer take precedence over that of her husband. It’s okay. I understand how she feels about the subject, so it was less than I expected. However, the following day, she called me so that Natalie was able to say hello to me and ask when I would come back, and the very last thing she said to me again wasn’t one of well wishing, but “Be kind to God’s creatures.”

The whole thing reminds me of “My Cousin Vinni,” when Joe Pesci gets the opportunity to go hunting with the prosecuting attorney and he is worried that the leather pants he’s wearing isn’t appropriate for hunting. Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar for the role incidentally, comes back with this line: “Imagine you're a deer. You're prancing along. You get thirsty. You spot a little brook. You put your little deer lips down to the cool, clear water - BAM. A f***in' bullet rips off part of your head. Your brains are lying on the ground in little bloody pieces. Now I aks ya, would you give a f**k what kind of pants the son-of-a-bitch who shot you was wearing?”

So, there’s potential that I could be facing some serious sleep-on-the-couch time if I come home with 50 pounds of deer meat (which she already exclaimed she wouldn’t eat) and a decomposing deer head for the above the fireplace, but then again, I was clear that I had no intention of shooting a deer, regardless of the situation.

During World War I, a man by the name of Alvin York, from Tennessee, was drafted into the Army but objected under religious conditions that he was a conscientious objector and that he couldn’t kill another person. I don’t exactly remember what changed his mind, but he later went on to not only being a skilled soldier but one of the highest decorated soldiers of the Great War.

I felt like Sergeant York after a few days in the forest with my rifle.

When I first went out on Opening Day, I was steadfast in my promise to my wife that I wouldn’t kill a deer if I had the chance, and my cousin Brent, who saw us before we left, pontificated that I would be the only one out of all of us that would probably end up getting one because: “You have nothing to gain and everything to lose by it,” and the joke went on through the week that the odds were good that deer would drop dead in front of me by the score and those that didn’t would come up to me and nuzzle right up against the barrel of my rifle with a “please shoot me” sign on its back.

The first day out was the most difficult for me, as the potential to test my dilemma was at its strongest. On the first day there, I don’t think I would have shot a deer if give the chance, regardless of the situation.

The second day I might have.

The third day I’m sure I would have.

After actually seeing a buck on the fourth day there’s no question that I would have pulled the trigger, none at all.

Dad and I had just spent the previous two hours walking up a dirt road that snaked its way through a field of yellow grass and into a thicket of trees. On our left was a towering wall of lava rocks that, who knows how long ago, cooled and solidified right there, a giant wall of black permeable stones like the ones you find in Hawaii. We saw nothing, which was getting to become pretty much par for the course. The catalyst to turn around and head back to the main road where we were dropped off was that I thought I dropped my radio when I was taking care of business, ahem.

We returned to the main road at Julia Glover Flats (or so the sign said) and turned right. I couldn’t tell you who saw them first, Dad or I, but we both reacted at the same time. Since it was most comfortable to carry my rifle in the cradle position, with my arms folded in front of my stomach and the rifle tucked under my right elbow and resting on my crossed hands, I was able to bring it up to my shoulder quickly and begin to take aim at something, anything. I’ll verify what I was aiming at after I take aim, knowing that it would take a while for my eye to adjust, not to mention for my brain to react. Before me, there were five deer, three doe and two buck, both of which were called forked horns, meaning they had two points on either antler; aka, fair game.

I remember Dad saying, “wait, wait, wait.” Maybe he was thinking I was going to start shooting wildly into the pack of animals, which I might add, were already on the move long before we saw them. In fact, that’s what gave it away is that they were well spooked by our tromping feet that the began to scatter over the lava rocks and into the trees.

Now, let’s make one thing clear. The hooves of these animals are far from nailed to the forest floor, and the events that I have described in the last three paragraphs so far have a timeline of two seconds at the most. Everything is happening very fast, and that is where the excitement is. That’s where the heart races and the thrill of the hunt really takes its hold.

As I’m standing there, my brain becomes confused with an overabundance of information, half of which is coming from my right eye looking through the scope of the rifle to take aim at the brown swirls of fur and hides as they scampered up the rocks, and my left eye is trying to count deer, decide which ones are the bucks, count them, decide if they had antlers or not, how many, where they are in the pack, where they are headed while they’re running away from me and where I need to shoot for the cleanest hit. All the while this is happening, my feet are adding to my brain’s confusion by telling it that they are not balanced enough to take the force of the rifle’s recoil. Basically, they argue, if you pull the trigger, you’re going to end up on your butt, and foolishly they added.

The group of deer begin to thread their way up the jagged rocks with the adroitness and nimbleness of Baryshnikov, and if they were conscious of their potential fate, the doe and buck were intermingling as they climbed the rocks.

By the third second of the event, the deer had disappeared behind the grasses and twigs they were so good at hiding behind. But it wasn’t over for us, as I know that deer aren’t very smart and they seem to settle down after a good scare only a few hundred feet from where they were originally scared. In the excitement, I peeled off my backpack and my camera and threw them in the bushes and took chase. I realize that wasn’t the wisest thing to do because we didn’t give them enough time to calm down and return to activities as normal, but excitement took over and I scrambled up the rocks after them while Dad flanked around to their left. When I got to the top of the rocks, I slowed down to a creeping crawl, thinking they were just around the corner from where I was at.

Alas, they were long gone, but it was a defining moment for me and the trip. Before that moment, I would hesitate about pulling the trigger, but afterwards, when I actually came upon the situation where the choice would have to be made, I decidedly figured out what I would end up doing.

Was it a massive revelation for me? Not really, but part of me was surprised at my reaction when I saw them. Excitement took over and pushed me. I was as ready as any hunter could be, and I figured I would deal with the wrath of my wife when I came home with a mounted deer head for the fireplace.

After all, me, the name I call myself—at least for that week—is Hunter.

**The lead picture at the top of this page shows the area where we saw the deer... or where they saw us, and Dad is aiming his rifle to where they scattered over the rocks.

**The second shot is the four of us eating dinner. I expected that after all of the walking that I did, miles every day, that I would lose some weight, but when I came home, I had gained five pounds. Who roughs it in the woods and gains weight?

**The final shot is the only deer I was quick enough to get a picture of before she ran off to join her friends for reindeer games later (I know, they're not reindeer, but I've played Mahjong before and I'm not Chinese).

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ray, a Drop of Golden [Son]

I have always considered myself one who can easily talk to anyone, despite background, education or life experience, and regardless of the topic. People are social animals, and we get no more enjoyment from life than by being around other people with similar interests and sharing stories about their lives. Most times, people love to talk about themselves, and if you’re with someone who is telling a story about something they’ve done in their past, the best conversationalist is one who just sits there and listens, adds a few encouraging nods and “and then what happened?” phrases during the pauses and ingests everything that he hears.

That’s what I do best, and I think my wife appreciates that facet of my personality; of course, the other day, she started sharing with me how much she saved on a couple of shirts she found for Matthew and I didn’t have any interest in hearing shopping lore so I ended up saying: “Did you not get to talk to any of your friends today? Why would you think that I’m remotely interested in this?”

Well, most times I’m a good listener, but remember this, nobody ever learned anything by talking. Anecdotes tend to whitewash the history of the event and convert it to quaint nostalgia for the purposes of sharing a lesson learned or a mistake paid for through inexperience, and in doing so, if you listen hard enough, you too can learn the lesson or avoid the mistake if you ever come across it in your future.

On the hunting trip I just recently returned from, I had the opportunity to exercise the basic functions of listening. Believe it or not, but I’m not good at sharing anecdotes in any way shape or form. Basically, I don’t think people are interested in a story about my life (ironic, this is, isn’t it?), at least a story in anecdotal form, so I rarely go deep into a monolog about something that happened in my life. During the times that I do, I don’t think anyone cares to hear the story, much like when you ask someone how they are doing, and when they start to answer, you dreaded the fact that you asked in the first place. I’m like that, so I rarely share. Sure, I talk a lot, but it usually doesn’t amount to much.

Sharing anecdotes boils down to who can come up with the best story, as usually one has to either top the previous one in some way—funnier, less believable, more unlikely the outcome, better point, longer or more entertaining, etc.—or it has to lead the conversation in a new way. Mine rarely do either. Surprisingly enough, I’m quite a succinct story teller and when it comes to sharing, I quickly get to the point. When I was a kid, my folks used to ask me about an event I went to—say a school dance for instance—and my response was usually, “It was fun” and nothing more. I know they were acting as caring parents only interested in my day, but my social anxiety about sharing stories was stunted at best from a young age (I know what you’re saying: There isn’t one inch of this website that even hints at the description of someone who is “succinct” at story telling as I can describe a monkey eating a banana in no less than 2500 words, but it’s true).

So, after a successful morning of hunting…well, successful from the deer’s point of view, I guess, because we didn’t see any bucks, most of the afternoon was spent talking about a wide variety of subjects from marriage, childhood, and parents to a story about witnessing a circumcision on a grown man and the difference between round saws and circular saws (that and how Indian food comes from India). Mostly, the conversation centered around firearms, either guns they had, guns that came down from the upper branches of the family tree to guns they wanted but couldn’t find or afford.

It was Greek to me. I don’t know a Mouser from a mouse, and when all four of our rifles were leaning up against a tree, side-by-side, they looked remarkably similar, aside from the different shoulder straps. Mostly, I felt they might as well have been talking about vascular surgery (and at one point, what with Uncle Tim’s heart attacks and Dad’s heart troubles during the last hunting trip, they were), so I was lost in some of the details.

I am interested in guns, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t have delighted so much in carrying one on my hip for a week if I wasn’t, but I just don’t know that much about them. My interest is superficial at best, only because I I know trivia about guns, like Kalashnikov invented the AK-47 (you know, the gun “that has a very distinct sound when fired at you.” –Heartbreak Ridge) and a bunch of little things that I’ve picked up along the way over the years, but I can’t talk too much about them.

For three days, Uncle Tim carried his rifle around with the wrong ammunition in it, and when he discovered it, hilarious laughs were had by all. Except for me, of course, because I pictured the breech exploding when he pulled the trigger… I’m just like that. When he held up the two different shells for everyone to see the difference; even though they both looked the same to me, everyone else went “ah ha” as if one shell was a swizzle stick and the other a broom handle.

On the afternoon of the third day of our trip, Tim² and I planned to run around on the quads, hit some of the back roads, scout out a few places for the next day’s hunt. Uncle Tim asked if I was going to take along my rifle in case we saw any deer. I said no because I didn’t want to have to worry about the rifle as well master the controls of the quad, both at the same time. For someone who has never ridden a quad before in his life, it is slightly easier than a motorcycle but more difficult than a bicycle, of course. Plus, it goes like 50mph and I didn’t want to have a rifle slung across my back while flying down the back roads of some foreign forest. That’s too much responsibility for a novice at both skills.

I said no, and Uncle Tim gave me a look… it was only for a split second, as if he was shooting it out to his own son and then recalled it as quick as he let it go, but it was a look of disappointment that was strikingly similar to the one that my father could muster up upon occasion during my childhood. It wasn’t pleasant, as much as I think he tried to suppress it. To him, I’m sure my reluctance to carry the rifle was similar to me waltzing into a cafeteria, where everything is free, only to say, “no thanks, I’m full.” (I know, my analogies are usually better but you get the idea).

The rest of the afternoon was spent in torture thinking that I was someone that wasn’t measuring up to the heightened level of manliness that is expected on a trip such as this, and I wanted to ride back and get it… to save face… but I’m sure it was too late and my gesture would look stilted, two dimensional.

The quad was a blast to ride, however. And as far as manliness, I do alright…of course, I brought an air mattress and a DVD player on a hunting trip. I know I was supposed to be roughing it, but I’m too old not to have a certain measure of creature comforts, even though I didn’t use either one (the comfort was that I knew they were there). So, I just had to throttle up on the quad, suck it up and remember the first cardinal principle on every hunting trip: Don’t go anywhere unarmed lest you actually want to disappoint your fellow deer hunters, most of which are usually close relatives that will judge you for the rest of your life.

It goes without saying that there was a lot of poking fun at each other on trips such as this, and when you get a collection of men together, regardless of background or disposition, one common thread that connects all males together is the innate ability to humiliate each other through pitiful ridicule, finding one weakness—be it that you once got lost, or you’re overweight and tend to take naps under a tree, or that you work for the government, or that your wife will make you sleep on the couch for the rest of your life if you kill a deer—and exploiting it for the profit of laughter and acceptance by your fellow man. It is male bonding at its finest, a rite of passage that begins in the locker room during high school and doesn’t end until death (actually, all through high school I was able to avoid gym class because I ran track and cross country, but I’ve poked my fair share of fun in the locker room… of course, now that I wrote that, it didn’t come like I intended; forget you read it. I poked nothing in the locker room). Anyway, my brother is merciless at finding my weaknesses, and rightly so because he is probably the one person on earth other than my wife who knows me best… and he uses it to his skilled, honed-after-years-of-practice advantage.

This is the crux of the entry. Since my Dad is the younger brother to Tim, there was no question he was the focus of a lot of Uncle Tim’s jokes and rightly so. My brother probably doesn’t make fun of anyone else in the world but me, at least he doesn’t make fun of anyone in the world with the same ferocity as he does me, and when I come around he digs up the “Remember when…” stories that usually end with me getting pooped on by a bird… or a cat… or scooped up by aliens and anally probed. You get the idea. It’s easy for him to find material, and as it should be, as we shared the same room for 10 years of our lives and the same house for 20.

It probably comes as easy for Uncle Tim to make fun of Dad as it does Jason of me, and if I’ve received anything from my genetic makeup from the family tree it’s the habit of combating our ever-mounting nervousness by making jokes, poking fun at the situation and lightening the mood with a little jocularity aimed at someone nearby. From what I understand, my grandmother on my father’s side was a master of the one-liners, those quippy retorts that only the greatest sitcoms could ever get away with. I was too young to be as skilled as she, but I have always thought I would enjoy a “wit off” with her if we meet again one day.

There lies the inner turmoil. I have always been very respectful of other people. I say sorry to people when they bump into me, and I’m always very polite when I interrupt someone while they’re working… I’ll say excuse me before I ask an information desk clerk a question. That’s just the way I was raised, I guess (I wish kids these days had a fraction of my respect but that’s a subject for a different day), but most importantly, I have always subscribed to the belief that you don’t disrespect your parents, regardless, even if the comment is so obvious that you have to use every fiber of your being to refrain from saying it.

I doubt he would have cared either way, but I found myself equalizing my station to that of my uncle and father, something that I equated to shameful. Sons are sons and fathers are fathers, and a good son doesn’t jump on the bandwagon to make fun of his father, regardless of the innocence of the comment. There were many times I held my tongue from throwing out a zinger that would have brought down the house at his expense because I just felt that I was too easy a target. I know too much about the man to make it fair, and I’m sure he feels the same way about me. I’ve told him things that I’ve shared with nobody else and I wouldn’t appreciate it those things were used against me for the sake of a quick laugh. If I gave you examples, you’d know what I meant, but it would be doing what I didn’t want to do. To make it worse, not once to my memory do I remember him leveling a joke at me the whole week, at least nothing like what everyone else was shooting back and forth. He’s known me all my life and I’m sure he could come out with some good jokes about things concerning me that I didn’t even know about myself.

We’ve done a bunch of things together, but this is the longest stretch of time I spent alone with him, and after the first couple of days I found myself oddly comfortable at joining everyone in making fun of each other. It was easy, as I have a pretty sharp tongue, and if family is anything, they’re easy targets when it comes to ridicule.

There were a few times even that I felt like I was pushing the boundaries of our relationship, as father and son, and I was treating him more like a friend than a father. I don’t want that ever. The older I get the less friends I want to have, but the last thing I want to do is make a friend out of my Dad. It’s hard to explain, but I’d rather have him as a father, as having a father is like having a gold coin over a friend, which would be an old bottle cap, and I felt that every time I would push those self-imposed limits I was trampling my own needs, as if I was being disrespectful of his authority and experience (like when I was a kid) and he didn’t want to say anything…Despite what you may read here, men don’t share their feelings to other men, especially on a hunting trip with rifles loaded and knives sharpened. It’s akin to a catcher joining the pitcher on the mound to share that he felt like his feelings were a little bruised from that last fast ball pitch. Internalize it like a man and vent it at an appropriate time (chopping wood, skinning a deer… you get the idea).

Very few incidences in my life have I spent this much time with my dad alone, just the two of us with nothing else distracting our time together but a couple of deer, and it was strangely comforting, unexplainably warm and genuine, like that feeling you get after he shows you how to ride a bike or tie a tie (something he still does… I wear a tie maybe once a year if someone dies or gets married, so I’m always forgetting… I actually have to look it up on the Internet under the “idiot’s guide to being in civilized society”). This time, it started with him showing me how to load the rifle, and he kept correcting me, passive aggressively, but correcting me nonetheless, that it was a “rifle” and not a gun.

It was a great feeling sharing something with my father that I know he enjoys, and the longer I spent with him the more I realized how much we really have in common and how similar we really are. Remember the other day I shared that I was fantasizing that I was a soldier with my rifle in the Ardennes during World War II? Well, so was he at the same time; I just said it first. They say that an acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that’s a good thing sometimes. Of course, I don’t share his views and opinions on everything, but that’s what makes being around people all worth the while, and if you listen enough—even after 33 years—I still might learn a few things about life, guns and hunting for deer (well, guns and life anyway).

Maybe one day, Matthew will be on a hunting trip with me, Jason and his son Alex, and Jason will bring up the time he punched me in the gut because I bought the Indiana Jones fedora at Miller’s Outpost when he wanted to buy the hat for himself, and Matthew will look at me with a gleeful twinkle in his eye and bring up the time I threw down a super ball in the garage as hard as I possibly could, and when we all looked up to watch it bounce, it hit the ceiling of the garage in the rafters and knocked me square in the forehead.

No, that didn’t happen to Matthew’s father, but to mine. And it’s a funny story that left a big round red mark on Dad’s forehead for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll tell it to you sometime for a good laugh… at Dad’s expense of course.

If by the time you got to the end of this and you’re humming “Cat’s in the Cradle,” just go click somewhere else. Then again, maybe Harry Chapin was on to something there.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer

When I told some of the people that I have contact with that I was going hunting for the week, they seemed surprised that such a mild-mannered writer/editor who is seemingly chalk full of sensitivities and sentimentalities would be interested in carrying a rifle around a distant forest in search of something to kill for the sake of fun, adventure, excitement and romance. Maybe they see me as a pacifist, an anti-violent introvert who shies away from conflict, confrontation or anything that may cause harm something else. If you think this, than maybe you’re right, but when you’re 600 miles from home, hiking through the woods with a Remington 30-06 at the ready and a Smith and Wesson 38 on your hip, it changes a man. For a week, I was able to forget my soothing nature, my calm demeanor and my typically caring character, and I was given the rare ability to reinvent myself to be The Hunter.

Everyone one should do it, reinvent themselves I mean, be it a high-roller in Vegas, a basketball star on the courts or a secret agent in a foreign city, it is liberating to change your perspective. Around me most of my life, I am stuck in a concrete forest of streets and buildings, whitewashed, echoing and loud. The stars have disappeared, the trees in neat manicured rows and the constant clamor of the cars driving by fills the air with dust and noise. Rarely am I able to shrug my responsibilities as a normal citizen, a husband, father, guy who mows the lawns and keeps the cars washed, and venture out into the woods to transform into a persona I’m only able to read about. Those that live in Northern California, where we went, embrace this as a way of life and have taken it for granted. Opening Day of the deer season is just another day, but for us surrounded by urban sprawl, domestication, air pollution and unnatural resources, Opening Day was an tense dawn, filled with excitement.

For me, all it took to find this enthusiasm was a rifle and the chance to live like my ancestors did 150 years ago, when resourcefulness, motivation and willpower put dinner on the table instead of Albertson’s or McDonald’s.

We left Redding on the 299 headed east through the picturesque Fall River Mills region, a placed marked for scattered logging at the base of the Modoc National Forest. Our trail took us north past the city of Glenburn and McArthur, up McArthur Road to the 40N04, a dusty gravel road that points towards the hills. We followed a swath sliced in the forest to make way for the high-tension lines and then cut into the woods over a clattery dirt trail that led to our camp site. We were situated near a vast meadow of grass with a small creak that ran through it. Tall pine trees created a canopy of waving branches and needles, and if you ventured merely 100 feet from camp, their trunks masked any view of where you had come from or where you wanted to go. Up the trail from our camp were what was left of three old trucks, scattered under beds of pine needles as if tossed like toys by a negligent child, and nearby was the remains of a saw mill built out of lava rocks and mortar probably 100 years ago. The walls of the main boiler were crumbled and broken; all of the machinery long gone, but the remains of the workers were heaped in several piles of old tin cans, rusted beyond recognition and scatterings of junk waiting for time and Mother Nature to return them to the earth.

I had every intention of sleeping under the stars for the week. I had brought with me all that I thought I would need for the basics of comfort, sleeping bag, air mattress, a couple of wool blankets and a tent in case it rained (we had some showers on the drive north). I didn’t find out until later that my cousin Tim (Growing up, I’ve always known my cousin as Timmy, but it is difficult to look a 36-year-old man in the eye and call him Timmy, so I called him Tim for most of the week… but since my uncle is also a Tim, there was some confusion that resulted in me calling him Timmy, like when we were kids). Anyway, I didn’t find out until later that my cousin Tim² (we’ll give him the superscript so you’ll know which one I mean without have to modify him with “cousin”) was bringing a camper up as well (my uncle brought his), so there was no sense in sleeping outside, as much as I wanted to.

Uncle Tim and I rode a pair of quads (four-wheeled motorized off-road personal vehicles… picture a motorcycle with four wheels) out to the main road to escort Tim² through the near darkness of the evening. We enjoyed a light dinner and sat around to talk, which was mainly each of us sharing humorous anecdotes, most of which wouldn’t translate well here so I’ll skip them entirely.

Darkness in the woods comes early and it comes quick, something we almost hardly notice down here in the city, what with all of the street lights, but when the sun goes down in the middle of nowhere, the sun goes down, light is gone, shadows nonexistent and movement restricted to those with a flashlight (I brought three…you never know). Standing in a small clearing and looking up at the sky, I don’t remember the last time I saw so many stars, like someone had spilled salt on a black table. An hour later, a full moon washed down the forest in a pale light, and it turned cold, bitterly cold… gloves, hat and four layers of clothes cold.

I settled my six-foot-one-inch body into a six-foot bed around 9pm and Tim² and I talked for about another hour, sharing how we met our wives, the best attributes of our children and what each of us did for a living. It had been many years since I had last seen my cousin, so it was nice to catch up…but since neither one of our memories were too good (family curse) we couldn’t remember the last time we saw each other but narrowed it down to a wedding or a funeral, usually one of the only times family seems to get together these days.

Opening Day of deer season started with promise. For some reason, perhaps it was part of my week-long reinvention, I awoke before the sun. Maybe I went to bed too early or the mountain air was too crisp, but my feet were over the side of the bed and in my boots as the sun was just first peaking through the trees…everything had that blue hue to it and you could see your breath in the air. I donned my wool-lined trench coat (later in the day I wore a similarliy themed three-quarter coat), a fleece-lined cordoroy jacket, my fleece-lined leather gloves and a wool cap, and I was still cold. Breakfast consisted of a couple of those nut and grain bars, basically coagulated trail mix in a brick shape. It was nearly frozen and I had to gnaw through it with my back teeth. I loaded my rifle, strapped on the Smith and Wesson to my belt, along with my Case knife and radio, and we were off on Opening Day.

I didn’t see rhyme or reason to go one way or another from camp, as I assumed deer would be dispersed all over the mountains and ripe for the hunting, but as soon as the sun was completely into the sky and the deer season in full force, I knew no deer would stick around for the assault. It was bad enough that I started my day in a fantasy that I was a soldier in World War II, patrolling the thick forest of the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge (well, my jacket was West German army surplus at least), but the added sound affects coming from the various surrounding mountains was too much. It was a war zone, and more experienced hunters we met along the trails said they had never heard so much gun fire in this area before… but as it turned out, there was a shooting range a couple of miles away. Still, about once or twice a minute, there would be the familiar report of a rifle shot drifting to us on the wind, and each time I heard it, I knew a buck had met its fate. Or, so I thought.

Dad and I hiked up a trail to the crest of a mountain, and we pushed through a narrow peninsula of trees and out onto a swath of cleared land that cascaded down the mountain to a wide valley below. The sun was up and bright, but there was a palpable chill in the air. We stood in pleasant silence, about fifty yards apart, me on a huge bolder, scanning the edge of the forest for any sign of movement. I squinted in the sun but tucked my chin into my coat whenever the wind blew up from the valley. We stood there a long time, maybe a half-hour, my rifle cradled in my crossed arms, and I enjoyed the peaceful solitude of being there. Quietly waiting for a buck to appear. None did.

Dad made a small noise to get my attention and when I turned to see him, he motioned behind us, further toward the top of the mountain. Cautiously investigating the strangers on her mountain was a small doe, no more than 100 pounds at the most, who carefully picked her way through the rocks and bushes to stand looking at us as if she didn’t believe her eyes. She was young enough to have probably never seen such creatures before in her life. The doe stopped, stared, moved toward us by ways of a random path; then, without warning, she bounced away a few leaps, stopped, looked and left out of view as quietly as she came into it.

It was the first deer I saw of the week, and I would see 13 more like her on Opening Day, but no buck, no antlers… not a one all day. I didn’t level the scope on my rifle on anything but tree trunks, rocks and shadows that may have looked like deer.

I had mixed feelings, disappointed that I didn’t have the chance to feel the elation of the hunt that I had heard so much about but glad that I didn’t have to kill anything, a dilemma that would present itself to me more and more as the week wore on. I’m not a hunter; I buy my food from the store, but for that one week, I was Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill.

I carried a rifle and I hunted for deer like my father, my father’s father and his father that came before him.

It was exhilarating.

More later.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Gone Fishin’

… with guns, and by “fish” I mean deer.
See you in a week.

A Day in the Apple Orchards

It turned out to be a nice Autumn day when we headed up the mountains to Oak Glen to pick apples. Of course, since it was a Monday, there was hardly anyone there… which was nice… but the two places we like to go were both closed, so we picked apples out of the bins at our favorite apple suppliers. It was a nice relaxing Fall day of picnicking, eating apples and looking at the animals in the zoo.

Instead of me droning on and on about it (frankly, I just don’t have time today), why don’t we just look at the pictures, and since Natalie brought her own camera on the trip, let’s look at the day through her eyes. It was cute to watch her wander around, snapping pictures of things that interested her, and every time she would click off a good one, she’d exclaim, “Got it!”


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