Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Interview With A Vampire

Today marks the passing of one of those parenting milestones that I’m none too proud of: This afternoon was the first time I ever swore at the kids, Natalie specifically, but Matthew was there too. I didn’t mean to, if I had the chance to think about it, I wouldn't have, and I’m sure Natalie had no idea what the word meant (in spite of my intonations when I bellowed it). I’m not going to tell you that it was completely unavoidable, as I could have picked a better word to use, but it was a similar reaction to smashing my thumb with a hammer. Something had to be said, and that's what came out.

The day had been long. Matthew didn’t grace me with his usual lengthy sleeping pattern of two two-hour naps, but instead barely cleared an hour in the morning and a little more than that in the afternoon, and Natalie was—she admits this even—a little high-strung today, as if the walls of this house became her prison and all she could do was go a little crazy, a little institutionalized. We all do it, and today was her day. I had nothing planned to do, no outings, no trips to Target and no balloons at the Party Store, which leaves everyone a little bored by the time three in the afternoon rolls around, and that is precisely when this little story unfolds.

It seems that the kids see me as little more than a six-foot-tall jungle gym, and as the day gets on, they gravitate to me like climbers to Mount Everest with all intentions of making the summit before nightfall. Usually, it doesn’t take Natalie long to end up on my shoulders, holding onto my hair or ears or covering my eyes in the name of fun. All I have to do is knee down and she’s up my legs, over my hips and has each leg hooked over a shoulder quicker than a reeses monkey after a banana. For Matthew, maybe he’s a little more patient or a little less assertive, but it takes him a few minutes to get into the fray. Soon enough, it is a general melee, and it may be a little ruckus to a bystander, but that’s what father’s are for; I’ve read that you should swing your kids by their legs (no not Matthew, yet), run around the room with them on your shoulders, or pretend to toss them into the bathtub from the center of the room. It contradicts the soft loving gestures of their mother and it shows them the world from a different point of view. How many of us get the chance to see their living room upside down or swinging around in circles by our arms? That’s right, none of you.

By this time, Matthew is repeatedly jumping on me. I’m laying on the floor of the bonus room, and “Seinfeld” has just started. He is walking more and more, so now he can take a “running” leap at me from a few feet away, and he grasps every opportunity to do so, always finding that soft spot between my belt buckle and my rib cage—you know, that soft spot that lacks general muscle development other people who exercise would call an abdomen. At least it is cushiony, and Matty loves to jump on me. Bursts into a wide-mouth howl of laughter every time I go "oomph!" But, he leaves himself exposed after the initial jump, so I grab him and toss him up in the air a few times, to his utter squeals of joy, and if I’m lucky, a string of droll will find its way from his mouth to my face underneath. That’s the way I know he’s had enough, despite the squeals. Gnat almost always wants a piece of the action too, so I give her a turn, but since she tops the scales at about three times what Matthew weighs, her ride is considerably shorter.

Then the wrestling match starts again, the clash of three forces meeting on the battleground of the bonus room, surrounded by toys, letter blocks, Leap Frog activity tables and an odd assortment of Barbie paraphernalia. Then it happened. I had just given Matthew a faux-pile drive into the carpet and I had my left arm around Natalie’s head and I was tickling her mercilessly. Giggles all around, sloppy, wet, drippy giggles from both of them, punctuated by the occasional slurping sound of sucking up drool from laughing so hard. Nice. It's the height of fun.

Out of the blue, I feel a tremendous pinch on my arm, like someone had just staple-gunned an inch of skin together. I look down: Natalie bit me! Right in the arm, with just enough skin between her teeth to puncture, and it hurt like someone jabbed me with a hammer and nails. My reaction was as customary as if my hand had slipped off of the wrench while working on my car or if I had hit my head on a pipe under the sink: I pushed her head off of my arm and barked, “Damnit!” while jumping up.

Right then, I felt bad, instantaneously, not for what I said, because I knew she didn’t know what that word meant as she’s never heard it before, but for how she looked when I said it. She had, not a look of horror on her face, but one of those “uh oh, I don’t know what 'damnit' means, but by the tone of his voice, this won’t end well for me.” And it didn’t. I shoved her in her room, sternly scolded her by telling her that she shouldn’t bite people, and slammed the door.

I knew she felt bad about it because it was quiet in there, and I know she didn’t mean to bite me so it would hurt. She was just playing and it got out of hand. I know she knows this becuase usually, when she feels she’s been wrongly incarcerated for some crime she’s surely innocent of, wails of tears and shouts of pity emanate from the cracks in the door. This time, her guilt means silence, and my arm developed two penny-sized bruises where her fangs had been.

Moments later, Kara’s car pulled up and everyone recognizes that sound no matter where they are in the house. Elsa jumps up from a dead sleep in the hallway and bounds downstairs to the front door, tail wagging; Matthew perks up and fishes out that “oh thank God, she’s finally home” whimpering cry he’s so good at, all the while making tracks toward the stairs to glimpse her; and from behind the door, I hear Natalie jumping up and down, elatedly exclaiming, “Mommy’s home, mommy’s home!” over and over.

I open the door and kneel down to her, asking in my best Robert Young tone, “You know why I put you in here, right?”

Her eyes hit the floor, “Because I did something to Matthew…” she trails off.

“What? No. You bit me!” I lift of my sleeve and show her the Dracula holes in my arm.

She gazes at them and is quiet for a couple of seconds, perhaps contemplating her response, vigilantly crafting the careful structure of her gracious apology, hopefully to lift forever our relationship from predator and prey to that of daughter and father, all the while addressing the situation as cautiously as possible, being diplomatic and ever tactful. Her mouth opens, the tearful, woeful apology is about to spill out…

Instead: “Mommy’s home!” Her eyes grow wide, and she skirts around me and runs toward the stairs as if nothing ever happened.


Thank you Robert Young. “Father Knows Best” my eye!

To her credit, she did later come back and say that she was sorry, that she “got too excited,” like the time she threw sand in that kid’s face. She gave me a hug and said, “I’ll never bite people again.”

So, I didn’t win any Father of the Year points for this one, and justifying it by saying that’s how people talk these days doesn’t make it right. I’m no preacher when it comes to my language in the real world—when especially frustrated, I can weave a colorful tapestry of four-letter words that would leave few unimpressed—but, as a dad who is trying his best to raise a lady and a gentleman (an ever dwindling subspecies of mankind it seems these days) I would like to keep the real world and its language on the outside of my front door for a few years longer, if possible.

It could have been worse, I guess.

I mean, really, she could have taken my arm clean off with those choppers!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Just Trying to Relax…

To suggest that I suffer from some slight degree of stress would be a gross overstatement of what stress actually is. On any given day, my life is about as taxing as a three-toed sloth in the zoo just after supper; granted, I have projects due, clients to satisfy and I am always a striving for more, always more, but thanks to a healthy sense of procrastination, the anxiety over getting my work done is spent during the smallest amount of time possible. Since school, I have always done my best work under pressure, and that philosophy, whether you agree with it or not, has given me an untold number of those creative sparks that bolt through my veins at three in the morning when a 10,000-word article on the climate of the Russian mafia is due in four hours (not that that’s ever happened… or so the mob told me to say).

I do have more time on my hands than most people my age, which is why I go to the movies by myself or that I don’t mind to sit in a restaurant alone (funny as it seems, I’ve signed on to do a monthly food critic column for this website, so I guess I’ll be eating alone quite frequently). I do have an inner script of introspective dialogues and pensive thoughts that keep me mostly busy, and since I don’t have anyone else to spend it with on a whim, I make do with solitude. Though sometimes it is nice to not have to rely on anyone, relaxing to be the guardian of my own fate for the day—if I want to take the long way home, I’ll take the long way home—but other times it’s just lonely.

Roughly two weeks ago, I started taking nice scalding hot baths in the evenings, after the kids were in bed—don’t judge me, it’s mostly medicinal, and it's not like I use candles and bubbles, just water—but I have found it to be a disappointing source of relaxation. I just float in there for about 45 minutes reading the book of the week (see sidebar to the right), and most times I've visited by the kids, Natalie who finds it tremendously amusing that daddy's taking a bath and Matthew who tries his darnest to climb up the smooth tiles of the tub to plop in. So, it's not like I get a lot of the alone time you might be thinking, though Kara does her best to corral away the curiosity of the masses. After that, it is relaxing for the most part, but I can rarely rely on my plumbing to hold up its end of the bargain. Some days, I can barely dip a toe into the clear molten lava that is spewing from the faucet and other days I have the knob cranked over to “surface of the sun” and I’m festering in room-temperature liquids just hot enough to invigorate the scores of bacteria and microbials breeding around me. Like laying in the rain.

If that wasn’t enough, I looked to the ancient oriental art of origami to sooth my soul, not really like it needed soothing, perhaps a variety of activities is all. A couple of years ago—I don’t know when really—I bought this book, thinking it would be fun to make my money do something other than fly away from me as soon as I get two bills rubbed together. The other night, I happened upon it again and remembered that soon after I bought it I came across a perfectly brand new dollar bill that I placed between its pages to save until I decided to begin my training to become an origami master.

I have heard people profess that origami is soothing, like becoming one with the paper, nature and a hightened sense of self-awareness, that it relaxes your mind while you create simple things of beauty and creativity from small scraps of paper. Yeah right. The first one I tried, a simple 15-step sea lion on Page 14 (in the beginner section) was a study in impossibility, a myth that origami sooths anything.

But I tried.

Take a deep refreshing breath of air, clear your mind of everything except for the visualization of a sea lion basking in the summer sun on a rock with the waves crashing all around him, light din of a fog horn in the distance... perhaps a seagull or two in the air. Begin to fold the paper, follow the directions, fold the paper, breath, fold, follow... fumble, stare confused at the wall for several minutes, wondering why do the directions tell you to fold to the left when the head is clearly facing to the right, and what the hell does an "inside reverse fold" mean? All the while, that pain in the base of your neck resurfaces, a twitch develops in your eye and you feel your back teeth begin to grind together and you're hoping and wishing your stupid sea lion would look parially like the one in the final picture. Smooth it back out and flat and start to look for a vending machine.

All it did for me, for three solid hours of torture, was dwell up hatred for paper, disdain for sagacious Asian men in temples on tall mountains dispensing wisdom to those that trek to seek it, and above all give me stress. Get that. What does that say about me? A relatively stress-free individual piling up trauma, tension and anxiety over 15 simple folds of a dollar bill.

For all of my efforts I could not become one with the paper, I didn't see nature in my creation and if I wanted to become more self-aware, I'd stick to bathing with an audience, thank you very much.

Perhaps origami isn’t for me. I think I'll bury the book like Jumanji in the backyard for some other hapless soul to struggle with, and I'll give dust spotting a try. It's like star gazing only you follow little specks of dust as they float around the room, the only thing to think about is blinking and there isn’t a whole lot of movement involved (provided you do it in calm weather).

Slake My Thirst and Rape My Wallet

While in college, I worked at the 222 Espresso Bar, one of those kitschy and lively places populated by individuals that are slightly on the other side of the fringes of normal society—artists, poets, general weirdoes and those who live their lives strictly adhering to an –ism—while the walls dripped with local expressionistic art that borderlines on offensive if you look at it just so. We served mostly hot drinks with the polar exception of this ice sludge I hated to make for people, but everything we served was a good value for what you got. The cappuccinos were in big mugs and the coffee was bottomless (and if you were my friend or family, most times, I didn’t care if you paid or not).

In addition to never drinking the coffee, et al, I don’t drink hot drinks in general. Kara enjoys a cup of tea when the weather turns, but I could never get into it. I like them cold. When we patron restaurants, I expect my Diet Coke to have ice in it, lots of ice; it seems complete and natural, but at home, I rarely add ice to anything I drink, unless the two-liter bottle was just pulled from the grocery bag. Then I start with a big cup of ice, but the funny thing about regular Coke or Pepsi is that it can never be cold enough. I could just pull a glass of Pepsi out of a cryogenic freezer powered with liquid nitrogen and it would still have a “warm” flavor to it, which is one of the reasons I enjoy Diet Coke, as it is lighter in flavor, not syrupy, giving it a refreshing taste.

One of the pleasures of fast food—despite the heart-squeezing cholesterol levels and the rampant cruelty to animals, not to mention the use of illegal aliens for a workforce—is the fact that they serve fountain drinks (if you haven’t read it, read this and you’ll swear off fast food forever). It goes without saying that certain levels of cola syrup and pressurized carbon dioxide mixed together at just the right amount is far superior than anything you’ll find in an aluminum can or plastic bottle from the store.

When I was a bus boy at a Mexican restaurant during the summer before my senior year in 1990, I lived on half Diet Coke and half Dr. Pepper, maybe a gallon of it a shift. I don’t think I slept all summer.

Maybe it’s the plastic straw or the waxy paper cup that makes it a better drink, or perhaps it’s the fact that I can press down those little plastic tabs that says I’m drinking “other,” but it might be the ice that helps with the flavoring, a psychological effect that makes me think I’m getting a better drink. More than likely, the ice gives the CO² more surface area to form bubbles on, therefore keeping it carbonated for longer, and I think the fact that I’m paying for a service, something that someone else made and delivered to my table or car window makes it taste better (How is it that a sandwich tastes better when your wife makes it rather than when you make it? Is it because you’re experiencing all of the sandwich elements in their original and separate forms instead of amalgamated into the final product and mayonnaise by itself smells like cat vomit?).

However, from this day forth, when I do eat at fast food, I will request “no ice” in my drink, regardless of the situation, and this is for two distinct reasons.

The first is something I discovered while nosing around the Internet, looking for interesting facts about ice as it pertains to soda and fast food compaines. According to a report from ABC News a couple of months ago, for a science project, a 12-year-old compared the bacteria levels in ice samples from five restaurants in South Florida with toilet water samples taken from the same restaurants. I’m sure you can guess the results, but Jasmine Roberts of Benito Middle School in Tampa, discovered that the bacteria levels in the ice was higher, much higher, than the toilet water. It makes sense if you really think about it. How many of us clean the plumbing of our ice makers with chlorine as opposed to how often our toilets get cleaned (especially if you have some every-flush-type cleaner hiding in the tank that dumps bacteria-killing chemicals every time you flush)? And how often do they clean out the ice buckets, trays, makers, and storage bins? Remember, I worked at a restaurant, and the answer is hardly ever.

The second reason is a bit more miserly, more frugal and more of the need in today’s commercial environment to get a bigger bang for my buck. A couple of weeks ago, after a visit at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the family brood swung by the drive-thru at Wendy’s for a hopefully nutritious meal of cheeseburgers, French fries and a Diet Coke… of course, for Natalie, she got chicken nuggets, orange slices and white milk. The cheeseburgers and fries were fine, I won’t starve for another day, but when I polished off my Diet Coke in less time than it took me to finish half a hamburger, I thought something was amiss. Sure, I drink a lot of soda, but 42 ounces of it down the gullet in a few minutes? It seemed that the massive jug of Coke they handed me must have had a hole in the bottom, because it was gone in no time.

When I finish eating, I usually dump the ice I the sink and crush the plastic cup into oblivion so it will fit in the trash can—after all, it is a 42 ounce cup that I can barely get my hand around. What seemed muddled to me was that there was hardly any Coke in the cup, so I left the ice in it and filled up the cup with tap water to measure how much room was left. Even with the ice somewhat melted after the trip home, the Diet Coke in it and now the tap water, I was only able to fit 24 ounces of water into the ice-filled up. This means that, out of 42 ounces, 42.86 percent of the drink’s volume consisted of ice.

What gives?

For starters, let’s give Wendy’s the benefit of the doubt and assume that they have a solid policy on how much ice is supposed to go into the cups… and if we can establish the baseline, I can discover to just what level I’m getting screwed at the drive-thru. After all, the jumbo large drink is upwards of $2.00, which means that $0.83 of that is paying for ice.

On Wendy’s nutritional chart, which can be found on their website, I discovered that they expect their small cup of soda to consist of 325 grams by weight, which converts to about 11.45 ounces of soda by volume. Similar ratios are expected as you go up the size scale to the large size, which is 682 grams of soda.

Funny enough, that calculates to 24.056 ounces, or two cans of Coke, which means that I’m getting It seems as though I’m not getting screwed after all… as long as you read the fine print. And a footnote to the nutritional chart states this: “f Soft drink serving size reflects the amount of liquid in the beverage cup. A beverage cup will be filled ½ full with ice (unless otherwise requested)”

So, unless otherwise requested. And since I don’t normally eat in my car, instead I take it home, I’ve got loads of free ice at home. I think, from now on, I’ll request “no ice” so I can have 42 ounces of soda in my 42-ounce cup.

Call me cheap, if you will, but when your Diet Coke runs out in the middle of your meal, don’t come crawling to me.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Reunion of Sorts

It is amazing how much time can slip by in a blink if you’re not really paying attention to it, and how the events transpiring within those forgotten years seem like ancient history, the kind of which happens to someone else; that is, until they blindside you on some random Monday afternoon, as they did to me last week.

My friend since the third grade, Scott, who has accompanied me on many adventures (most recently the concert de vomitorium two weeks ago), emailed me somewhat out of the blue to reminded me about all the glories associated with TurkeyBowl, an ad hoc football game among some old friends that was celebrating its 20th Anniversary this Thanksgiving. And would I like to attend this anniversary game? Since, after all, I was there at the first one in 1986 and a few every year after that, but the family was headed south to San Diego for the holiday and it would have to wait until next year. However, the Wednesday night before the big game has been marked by a gathering at a local tavern for ribbing, jocularity and pickling by the main principals of the game, namely several of my friends who have been organizing this game for two-thirds of their lives. To be quite honest, I didn’t even know they still played the game, or that they had been playing all these long years. Like I said, I went to the first few of them, but time and distance pays its tolls and I lost touch with the event.

In light of that, why not go, right?

At the last minute, I decided to go, drove up to J. Phillips (formerly Heroes) on D Street in La Verne and found a table in the middle of the bar, by myself, as I was the first one there. Or so I assumed. A half-hour passed, and I began to look like the sad pathetic friendless guy who is desperately searching for three acquaintances to fill the empty chairs at his table, and as the bar filled up (it is a college town, after all), I began to field dirty looks from parties of four who waltzed by looking for a place to sit down…and here I am, single, and hogging a perfectly square table and four solid chairs. Not to add to the pressure of being solitary in a group environment, but three individual servers implored me to order food, three individual times.

After all this, I nearly gave up, thinking that they changed their minds and went somewhere else without calling me (after all, my attendance did sound full of regrets when I spoke to Scott, whom said he was surprised to see me there, thinking I wasn’t going to come). I had decided to give it another fifteen minutes—a night out’s a night out and I would make the best of it. At least there was music and I could have fun vicariously through the fun of others, right? How sad.

Then I saw Chad Smith, or I thought I did. It looked like Chad Smith, but it didn’t look like what I thought Chad Smith would look like. He walked by my table and ducked behind a massive pillar (decorated with a boar’s head, naturally) to where the bar was. I hadn’t seen him in three years, and to his compliment, he had lost a lot of weight since I saw him before that, and so calling out his name in a crowded bar (by the lonely guy) would seem awkward if I were wrong. Then I saw Dom Covello, whom I haven’t seen in five years, but there is no mistaking Dom, like Dick Clark, he looks exactly as though he has forever, without change since the third grade, save for a few extra pounds of maturity and age. He was speaking with a waiter, and I assumed it was about obtaining table.

Again, I didn’t want to lose my table, as the vultures were forever circling, searching for a space to land, and (again), shouting across a crowded bar isn’t my forte, so I asked the waiter to give him my business card. Upon retrospect, I probably looked a little on the swishy side, a man giving another seemingly random man his business card in hopes of a meeting, but it did the trick: Out from behind the pillar appeared a few faces, to me that were lost in time.

It is nice to catch up with old friends. It was, in fact, Chad Smith, and he now lives in Redwood City (I think, Frisco area) and is into IT now. Dom’s little brother was there, and I say little brother in the sense that the last time I saw him he was probably 11 or 12 years old, an age he will always be. Nick’s 28 and works in the oil industry, but to me he’ll be the tag along little brother. After a while, Dave Gotto (above picture, seated on the left)and his wife Farrah showed up, as did Scott. Also, a face that I never would have expected to see was Rob Lowe (no, not the actor), whom I drove to school every day for almost six months our Junior year—he didn’t remember my face but it all came back to him when I uttered my name. Dave’s wife Farrah sat down at the other end of the table from us, with Chad and Dom’s wives, and they pretty much ignored us the whole night, which I thought to be very 1950s.

Needless to say, a merry time was had by all, and the conversation revolved mostly around football and the big game on the following day. The music, from one guy we labeled “The Machine” and his guitar, was loud, and we mostly had to shout (which I hate about bars), but the amusing part is that The Machine played for three solid hours, with only maybe a two-minute break from time to time.

My voice was hoarse from having to yell, and I missed some of the conversation, but I was sitting next to Scott so we swapped a few stories about this and that.

I didn’t stay that late. My bed beckoned, and considering I had a long drive home (30-plus miles) and a big Thanksgiving Day planned, I left around 11:30. I was the first of the table to leave, and I never like being that guy who breaks up the party early, but I was getting tired. In my truck, about a mile towards home, it dawned on me that I forgot to chip in for the check. I had two beers and a cheeseburger (I was famished), and I skipped out on the bill like a George Costanza. Was I too far away to make it worth while going back, taking the chance of being labeled a cheapskate until I see them again, maybe in a couple of years? Maybe they wouldn’t even notice. No, my conscious got the better of me and I turned around, drove all the way back, and ponied up the dough. Nobody noticed I had returned (or maybe that I actually left in the first place) so I gave the money to the trio of wives, who seemed most responsible at that late hour.

I will see them again in a year, no doubt, on the eve of the big game, a perpetual event that harkens us all back to a simpler time when all there was to occupy our minds was a football game on the morning of Thanksgiving. Of course I could always email them, but then again, they are the worst bunch of correspondents I have ever laid eyes on…but a good group of childhood friends a guy like me could have asked for, I’m sure.

Monday, November 20, 2006

“I Want That…”

As much as I try to fight it, the Christmas shopping season is upon us like a professional wrestler on a bargain-basement leotard sale. The no-holds-barred way of advertising is to make your product most appealing, the most fun for as many kids as possible and the least expensive sounding. Go on and try to find another Wetsy-Besty doll that can solve complex Trigonometry problems while it changes itself to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” for under $49.95. Just try. As much as I grit my teeth and cuss obscenities under my breath at the marketing teams of huge conglomerations for their ruthless ability to wad up the airwaves with a relentless onslaught of coveting desire for their products, there’s no getting around their allure, not as long as you’re breathing and watch at least 14 minutes of television a day that is bookended by some kind of advertising. The result of millions, nay billions, of dollars spent on product studies, research and development, prototypes, advertising, product placement and possible subliminal messages broadcast to seeing eye dogs during Saturday morning cartoons amounts to nothing more than the simple fact that Natalie has an ever-lengthening Christmas list, albeit a mental one and it is a complicated process.

Basically it is everything she sees on TV, every commercial featuring some cast-plastic, foam-shaped, fur-lined Made-in-China effigy of a cartoon character provokes the concierge of the Master Christmas List File in her head to shout out, “I want that…” That message is first sent to the neurons controlling the eyes. They confirm that what she is seeing—a commercial for a My Little Pony Corral, Stable and Grooming Center—is in fact something she wants, and the affirmative response signal from her eyes is relayed back to her brain’s Cortex of Possibilities, where a standard list of questions is first reviewed: “Do we have one already? Can we readily get one by merely going upstairs? Do we have the resources to get one of these ourselves?” and if the answer is “no” to all of these questions, a new message, highlighted by urgency, is formed and dispatched to the neurons that control the Main Short Term Memory Filing Center. There cubical-dwelling neurons dutifully scan through file after file of pleasurable thoughts that she could associate to this new item (She could keep all of her My Little Ponies clean and well fed; she could put them to sleep at night in a warm little stable; and she could forever rid the world of orphaned My Little Ponies, which, to her, run unbridled in the prairies of America somewhere and need dire rescuing, for example), and once a list of reasons for having such a toy is assembled, cross-referenced and justified by the Common Reasoning Department, it is organized back into the Master Christmas List File, now occupying nearly one-third of all her current thought processes. That makes it officially on her Christmas List, but one last action by the caretakers of the Master Christmas List File is to send a Go-for-Green message to the Confirmation Order Center, where little neurons assemble a message created from the pool of known English words that would best describe her situation. That uncoded English version of the message is transferred to the mouth (circumventing the Inner Dialogue Editor, which hasn’t been fully developed yet). Then, Natalie announces: “I want that” for all to hear.

I won’t tell you about the rest of the process, but in essence, her ears hear the phrase she just uttered, and the impulse is transferred back to the Call to Action Department of her brain, where they open a new file usually entitled “What are They Going to Do About It?” And then there are neurological agents and investigators that check in on these open accounts from time to time until they are closed by one of two ways: Either, we were told “no” or we have the item firmly in our right hand and it isn’t a false alarm (and false alarms would be having the item in hand but still in the store or holding it, but at someone else’s house, etc.).

All this takes a mere fraction of a second, maybe more if it is an especially confusing commercial, but if it is, she will tell me “I want that” just to make sure it is covered on the list and she’ll weed it out later if, in fact, she doesn’t really want it.

My responses to her announcements have become less and less enthusiastic as we get closer to Christmas and as her list starts to resemble the list of Gross National Products of Taiwan. At first, I told her to “Add it to your Christmas list!” and then explained how she needs to send her list to Santa Claus at the North Pole who will then decide what on her list she has earned for being a good little girl. It is exciting to see the magic of Christmas/Santa through a child’s eyes. Well, though the course of the day, explaining that Santa Claus uses a complex Excel spreadsheet to monitor and average childhood moods throughout the year and ever adjusting the Naughty/Nice list and the amount of presents weighed against that list takes up a great amount of time, so it seems, especially if she is announcing that she wants something at least four or five times per commercial break. After a few hours of lessons on the ins and outs of Santa’s North Pole operation, I grew weary of explaining the same thing over and over again, so I started muttering, half-heartedly at her, “You can’t have everything.”

But she thinks she can, and she usually answers either “Why not?” or “Yes I can.” And I can see it in her eyes, she thinks she actually can have everything, as she is usually busy checking another thing off of her list for Santa’s bag and onto his.

This morning, I probably uttered the phrase, “Add it to your Christmas list,” and “You can’t have everything” 20 or 30 or so times, as she announced, “I want that!” after seeing the commercial for a Littler Mermaid full-sized vanity complete with talking lipstick and eyeliner, Lucky, the animatronic dog that answers to your various commands (as if our real live dog isn’t good enough), Crayola Wonder Color spinning activity center (cardboard box sold separately), Aquadoodle, a water-coloring art system that is guaranteed to not damage bleach-white furniture (Gnat’ll find a way, I’m sure) and a host of other random toys the commercials insisted would be a welcomed addition to the piles of plastic already ensured to clog our landfills two days after the warrantee expires.

So, thanks to big business and television, Natalie has down pat the meaning of Christmas as they would like her to have it: The more presents your parents buy, the more you get to play with and the more money we make…and the more they love you. No presents, no love. “You wouldn’t want your old Uncle Mattel to go broke, now would you?” Of course not, so bolster up that Christmas list kids!

From her point of view… hey, she’s three. She should want everything that flashes lights or shines. I’m 33 and I can’t walk through the entertainment section of Best Buy or the tool corral at Home Depot without muttering under my breath, “I want that.”

The sad part is that I don’t get to author a Christmas list for Santa and roll the dice on the morning of the 25th to see what I get.

In this house, I am Santa.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Old Greek Letters On the Wall

In that haughty old way of debonair gray men swirling brandy snifters at the local club, surrounded by like business tycoons who chortle at life’s foibles because the plight of its triviality doesn’t affect them, let me say this: I’m a Fraternity man. I have been so for nearly half of my life, longer than I’ve been formally educated, longer than I’ve lived on my own, longer than I’ve been married.

I remember nothing more from my days at the institution of higher education than my time spent being an active brother in my fraternity, as the rest of my time spent earning my degree was a utilitarian function of making my grades each quarter, and while most people are “working for the weekend,” I was “studying for the fraternity.” My degree was inevitable (though I did have my share of setbacks—what writer fails English 321?), but I knew then I would only have a short time to spend in that wonderful period of legally being an adult without the responsibilities all that entailed.

However, I’m not going to marginalize my memories by merely recanting the tales of debauchery and irresponsibility all for the name of the fraternal order, though there are many—San Francisco, Reno, Santa Barbara, Laughlin, Vegas—but there was more than that. Instead, I will share with you the spirit of an organization I so dearly enjoyed, and how I have decided to return it after so many years.

The good thing about Cal Poly, Pomona, is that it is a big school with lots of people and it was close to home, and the bad thing about Cal Poly, Pomona, is that it is a big school with lots of people…and it was close to home. I dearly wanted to go away to college, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me, and I spent the first two weeks of school not knowing a soul and barely talking to anyone, and since most of my friends had scattered across the country in search of an education, there wasn’t much in my life to do; I guess I could have found a job, no wait, on second thought. Though I did make some friends outside of the fraternity, they were fleeting relationships based on the quarter system of the school. Every time the class ended, who knew if of when I would see that person again, but granted, I did have some people continually appear in most all of my classes (as if they were following my class plan), I didn’t make friends with them beyond the classroom.

I only knew of one other person in the whole sea of 18,000 students (Ann Flynn, a long-time family friend from before I even started Kindergarten), but I rarely saw her and after a while, I didn’t see her again until my high school reunion 10 years later (and she only went there for a year). Anyway, it was a lonely place to be three days a week, as I had classes all day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Tuesdays and Thursdays off, nicely.

The only thing I knew about fraternities and the clout that surrounded their mystique was what I saw of “Animal House,” which is probably a lot of people’s first and sometimes only impression of Greek life, so I didn’t know what to make of the booths and the flyers and all of the fuss made by the dozen different fraternities on campus. I read the handouts that were given to me in front of the student union and I was vaguely interested in what it was all about. At least I would meet some friends and have something to do. I went to the information nights and a couple of the events put on by a few of the chapters, and there was a group of guys I met at one of the house that I liked. They seemed naturally down to earth, and the brothers I spoke with were genuine and straightforward. At home, Mom saw the flyers and suggested that I do it, as she wanted to join a sorority when she went to Cal State LA but my grandparents wouldn’t let her, for whatever reasons.

On “Bid Day,” the day each fraternity offered perspective pledges entrance into the fraternity via the pledge class, I thumbed through the invitations and found my name listed under the fraternity of my choice: Sigma Phi Epsilon.

And I didn’t look back.

Our Fall 1991 Pledge Class (Alpha Zeta), now 15 years ago, consisted of 21 men at the beginning, but three months later, only 18 initiated… yes, in that double secret initiation ritual I cannot speak of, of course. Dr. Rico, aka Nathan’s dad, was one of my Pledge Brothers and now one of my best friends, and frequent reader of this very blog Brother Brain lives only a few streets from me.

Pledging is similar to boot camp in many regards; the pledge class is the platoon, its members new recruits, and the rest of the fraternity is the drill instructor with the charge of conforming a bunch of guys into a group of men befitting the badge. Say what you will of the process or the end result, but if it wasn’t for the Brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon, Cal Poly would have been a lonely place to get an education indeed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that I liked every single guy in the fraternity either; I’m not that amicable. When I was an active brother, our chapter (Cal Mu—which means that it was 12th chapter to establish itself in California) had nearly 100 men, and it would be foolish of me to suggest that the personalities of every single one of those guys meshed nicely with mine.

As with any group of men, you become very close with two or three of them, and for whatever reason, Rico and Robert became part of my triangle clique, so much so that we were known as the Three Rs, mostly inseparable, but each one of them fed the two major portions of my Id: Rico was grounded and focused, willing to just sit in a bar and watch the people go by, which fostered my introversion and quiet shyness; while Robert was passionate and extreme, always ready to “take it outside,” and he was handy to have around when my untamed and extroverted side wanted to burn the bar to the ground.

I see one of them all the time and I miss the other greatly.

However, it is hard to describe the complex relationship I enjoyed with the fraternity for the nearly five years I was in college. We played sports together like a team; we lived together like a family; we stuck up for each other like a gang; we supported each other like a church congregation; we argued like politicians; and we confided in each other like priests.

But the years pass, the times change, and life’s evolution takes its twists and turns. I got married to a Chi Omega sorority girl (thanks to a meeting at a fraternity event that I’ll tell you about one day), and some of the relationships fell by the wayside. Peter Miller disappeared soon after he stood up with me at my wedding. Marc Ruiz, son of a Mexican consulate and my roommate for nearly two years—with whom we enjoyed abusing his diplomatic immunity—moved back to Mexico and last I heard was running a big hotel in Central America. Things like that happen, and out of the 18 pledges of the Alpha Zeta Pledge Class, I can only tell you, with any degree of certainty where only two of them are.

I moved on with my life, every now and again, coming across a Brother when I wouldn’t have expected it. Kara and I ran into Keith “Flipper” Franks, also a roommate, at Target one day, and we saw Kevin Cutter and his Chi Omega (Kara’s sister) Hope in Sam’s Club one afternoon. It is pleasant, but like I said, life goes on and I don’t have the same relationships I once did with these men. Though we are bound by the ritual of the fraternity, they are no longer my family, my teammates, my priests.

Fast forward 15 years, and Kara and I went to one of her high school friend’s daughter’s birthday and I saw one of my Brothers there as well (he is also one of Kara’s high school friends). He suggested that I come out to help with the Alumni Board of the fraternity, a segment of alumni who still offer advice and support to the active members. I said I would be happy to help, but a year went by until I heard from him again. He suggested that I come out to the Sig Ep charter chapter at UC Riverside and give them a hand, see what area I could offer some assistance.

Why not?

Two weeks ago, I drove out and found the chapter president’s house, what is actively being used as the Red Door (all Sig Ep houses have red doors), and the second I opened the door, five years of fraternity life came rushing back to me in the form of couches, computers, books, guys lounging around in grubby jeans and t-shirts complaining about finals or fees or tests and papers due. The house was filthy, as I expected it to be, as ours was, and the bathroom was worse—I’m glad I was wearing shoes.

Moments after introductions were made, a list of unclaimed responsibilities found its way into my lap, and the president of the alumni board asked me which one I would be interested in taking on. At that point, I was only interested in getting a feel for how they were doing, where they were headed and what kind of guys they were. I didn’t intend on getting involved, at least not just then.

I made the mistake of pointing out what I did for a living—wordsmith and all—so that was the nail on the coffin. Secretary was open, naturally, and it could only be fitting that I take on that duty. I’m not sure what kept me speaking, but I couldn’t shut up about the fact that I was chapter Secretary when I was an active member. That was it. It was settled. Congratulations, they said, “you’re the new Secretary.”

Shanghaied, yes, but I didn’t mind too much. I was there to help, and volunteering my time seems to be a phase I’m currently in, so why not jump right in and get started. There was a stigma I enjoyed by being there. I was one of the old crew; in fact, nearly the oldest one there as far as I could tell, part of the old school pledging brothers (Sig Ep doesn’t pledge anymore, but instead has open enrollment that takes the perspective member through a series of steps leading toward initiation; I don’t know much about it, but look here for more information). With that age comes knowledge, respect and wisdom. I survived college and I currently reside in the “real world,” the ultimate goal of each of those men at the meeting.

And being that old guy—the alumnus that came out of the woodwork to help the fledgling chapter get on its feet—I got to see the exuberance of their youth from the other side of the coin. I was beyond the parties and the sorority girls and the drinking and the annual Carlson Leadership Academy, the Buchannan Cups, Greek Week, Intrafraternity games and the eternal struggle for campus supremacy among the other fraternities.

It seemed like eons ago when all of that was at the forefront of my life, and it was refreshing to hear that it hasn’t changed much in the 15 years I had been absent from it.

Let them have at it. It’s their turn. I’m one of the elders now, which means I sit in my wigwam dispensing wisdom and platitudes about the old days and how good they were, too far removed from the warrior days to make any good use of a well-planted tomahawk. Nope, let the tribe whoop it up and I’ll just sit back on my buffalo rug, smoke my peace pipe and watch.

In my office, always above the door, hangs in a dusty frame my Certificate of Brotherhood to the hallowed halls of Sigma Phi Epsilon, the old Greek letters on the wall, one of the only things in my office, besides my pledge book, that reminds me of the time my life changed for the better when I agreed to pledge that October afternoon in 1991.

It was fun while it lasted, but all good things come to an end.

This time, I’m just happy to volunteer.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Wherefore Art Thou, Thanksgiving?

What happened to Thanksgiving? When did it go away as a major American holiday only to be encompassed by all that is commercial about Christmas? I thought there was a nice blustery Autumn period in the calendar year, between Halloween and Christmas where the leaves fall off the trees and everything is awash in orange and yellows and families get together to appreciate the bounty of nature and the good graces of our Pilgrim forefathers who sat down with the Indians and shared customs, etc., (though I’m sure the events that I was taught in grade school about such a white man/red man union are completely and utterly fictitious folklore. Yes, I know all about the first harvest of the Plymouth Plantation in 1621 with Massassoit, Squanto and all the rest… I just don’t buy into it is all). I thought we had a holiday for this, not just one day, but one of the good ones, a two-day event that made for a wonderful four days away from the grind.

Now, all I see are Christmas decorations in stores, I hear Christmas music softly in the background and that twinkling of bells that precedes most commercials on TV.

Still, I remember there was a day called Thanksgiving once way back, where Christmas music wasn’t piped into the Hallmark stores the second the decision was made to start breaking down the Halloween displays, and I remember a Thanksgiving when advertisers didn’t start the seasonal push until the “big crazy shopping day” after Thanksgiving, after the tryptophan wears off, after two loads of dishes have gone through the dishwasher, after the relatives leave, after the leaf from the dining room is returned to the hall closet for next year and after all of the leftovers have been relegated into Ziploc baggies in the back of the refrigerator to await their fate in school lunches and Sunday’s dinner. After that. Christmas came after all of that. Well, not anymore.

Where did that Thanksgiving go? Where did November go?

Now we have skipped an entire month, 30 whole days of cool weather, windy nights, sitting by the fire and watching the leaves fall, and we are left with the Christmas season, 60 long days of it. Christmas lights are hung. I’ve seen them already. Wreaths have been placed over doors, and those typically God-awful sweaters with snowmen and reindeer on them have appeared in the windows of the Gap and Old Navy.

But is the Christmas carols that cut through me and abash all that is wonderful and family-oriented about the Thanksgiving holiday. For a while after Halloween, Natalie at first didn’t believe there was such a day of eating and spending time with our families, but after the concept of Thanksgiving was firmly implanted in her head, she was dead set against it coming before Christmas. Certainly, she pondered, a holiday so wonderful as Christmas, so magical and so full of free presents from splendid companies like Mattel, certainly, it is not possible that there would be any other holiday that would stand in the way. We have the candy from Halloween, now make with the presents for Christmas.

Who needs it anyway? Thanksgiving, I mean. What good is it anymore to the lot of us? Life isn’t a Norman Rockwell painting. You know the one I’m talking about, "Freedom From Want," where the Midwestern-looking matriarch is setting down the fatted turkey for the head of the household to carve up for his unnaturally jubilant family (except for the one guy seated to his right who looks somewhat shocked, as if senile old Aunt Millie is rubbing her foot slowly up his thigh…again).

It started in 1924, when the first Macy’s Christmas Parade marched down 34th Street with Santa bringing up the rear… on Thanksgiving. Now they call it Macy’s Day Parade but the meaning is still there. On TV, in the stores, on the radio, tomorrow is Christmas, tomorrow I must provide the perfect example of a Christmas holiday tradition, and by gum, if I don’t have a holiday tradition, I can run down to Target and pick one up. They just went on sale today in the form of a pre-lit faux Christmas tree; you know where they are, right next to the Halloween stuff on the clearance rack.

Thanksgiving, sadly, is being killed, shoved off of the calendar because it lacks marketing appeal, it lacks consumerism. You don’t give gifts for Thanksgiving (but it makes perfect sense to do so; when I’m thankful of someone, I usually say it with a gift), and you don’t run to the store at the last minute and pick up a box of chocolates to put under the turkey because there’s a white elephant round-robin present opening after dinner. You just don’t, but I’d be willing to bet if someone could think of a way to make it work, to make a dollar at it to boot, they’d do it. But as it is Thanksgiving can’t be commercialized, so far, sold to the masses in the form of Sony Play Stations, TVs, alligator skin wallets and festive holiday ties that you’ll never ever wear. The first toe-hold the mass marketers had was the day after Thanksgiving, a day people have had off from work for years; get them out into the stores and get them spending, after all, Christmas is a mere 31 days away and you mustn’t disappoint your family. You won’t want them sad on Christmas would you?

Forget about leftovers for a second, Wal-Mart has a McDonald’s (but no turkey). Who cares if you have relatives staying with you. Bring your family from Albuquerque so they can spend too; they could use some West-Coast style, I’m sure. Most of all, spend your money now before Christmas is upon you, and now that Halloween is over (which is usually on the first trash day the rotting pumpkins can be discarded signifies its end) Christmas is only a short one-sixth of a year away!

Jesus, Santa’s already been making toys for 305 days! You’ve got some catching up to do?

Of course, it is just a matter of time before the atheist, socialists find out the true source and meaning of Thanksgiving and decide for the best interests of public equality among religions and those without religion, that Thanksgiving is a day founded for the blessings of God and that we are not celebrating our Pilgrim forefathers who found bounty in the new land, but we are celebrating the many “single favors of Almighty God.” And they should decide that it is in the best interests of us all to remove it from the official calendar and instead call it Migrant Worker Day, because, after all, they are the new Native Americans who are helping us poor Pilgrims survive by providing us all of our food for the long winters to come. Too far, you say? Who cares, I say, as the whole thing pisses me off.

So, those who want to remove “in God we trust” from our money and “under God” from our Allegiance and all of the symbols that have provided comfort, guidance, salvation and direction to millions upon millions of Americans for hundreds of years, and are wondering where I found the quote above (“single favors of Almighty God”) and why would I attribute that to the real meaning and reason behind Thanksgiving and not the one we were taught in school?

Well, where would I find a quote such as this?

George Washington, October 3, 1798, in a paper he called “The Thanksgiving Proclamation”

Don't bother reading it. He's long winded, and it's full of that ancient talk we call proper English. Basically, to sum up, he says, "Hey guys, I know we're a new country and all but wouldn't it be cool to have a day that binds us all together as a people. I know, let's have a day where we can eat dinner with our families, break out the good china and silver and pray to God in thanks for being such a wonderful guy and allowing this little spit of land we call America to be fruitful and so far prosperous. Sure, some folks came before us, had a few laughs and many folks will be here after we're gone, but God, you're okay in our book and hat's off to You. This is your day. "

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to "recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many single favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for His kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His Providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Though Thanksgiving had been celebrated long before Washington proclaimed it should be officially, this was the first time the new government designated a specific day for such an event, and a very religious one at that. Perhaps that's why it's being strangled to death by ornaments and garland; everyone knows, especially churches, God doesn't sell.

Today, in a very festively Christmas Hallmark store, admiring the hundred little animatronic penguin families decorating a hundred little Christmas trees in the window display, Kara, the inspiration for this seemingly over-the-edge rant tonight, asked me, “What happened to Thanksgiving?”

And it is too bad to see it go too. I rather enjoyed the pie.

**For those in the know, I understand I misquoted the true meaning of “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” in the title above. I was an English major in school; I took three separate Shakespeare classes, suffering through his work three separate times. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” doesn’t mean “Where are you, Romeo?” like I suggest it means in my title. Think about the scene: Romeo was right there under the balcony listening to Juliet while she asks this. If the love of my life was high up on a balcony asking where I was, I would have certainly spoken up and started climbing the trellis. “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” mean “Why are you named Romeo, part of my family’s sworn enemies, and not some body else?” Later, what was Romeo’s answer to her question? “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When It’s Dark, Nobody Knows You’re Alone

The problem with war movies is a confusion about who is who, especially these days when moviemakers strive for accuracy, all the Marines storming the hill look exactly alike. No longer do you have the swagger of John Wayne on the “Sands of Iwo Jima” to tell him apart from the rest of the Leathernecks, and, in that desire for accuracy these days, actors don’t charge pillboxes without a helmet so you can tell it’s Gregory Peck in “Pork Chop Hill.” For today’s action-packed, visually stunning retrospective war movies, it is a different story, and if you’re not paying acute attention to subtle characterizations of the actors at the beginning (usually when they’re in basic training), I’m afraid one camouflaged soldier in a low-to-the-brow steel helmet will look like all the others who accidentally get in the way of the shells… just before you think the lead character bought it in a dramatic pirouette as he steps off the LCVP, don't worry, that was Stunt Guy Number 65.

I’m just glad I read the book first, so I knew all of the characters, their names and what happens to them. In affect, I knew the ending fairly well, but I wasn't there to see how it ends, I just wanted to see how they got there. Reading this book is one of the few movies I've been able to do that to; in fact, the only other book I think I read before I saw the movie was "To Kill a Mockingbird." Come to think of it, besides those two examples, I can only think of two other books in my life that I read that are also movies ("Goonies"--don't laugh, I was young, and "LA Confidential."). Secretly, I don't really like to read... Shhh, don't tell Kara, she won't let me buy any more books if she finds out!

I have always been interested in military history, a genetic byproduct from my dad, who collects historical mementos from the “greatest generation.” As a sub-category of my interests, I have always been fond of Iwo Jima, that little island in the middle of the Pacific that played host to the culmination of two nations' struggle for supremacy in that grand drama only true history can offer. On that small piece of land, only eight square miles, seven thousand Americans lost their lives and the lives of 20,000 other American’s were forever changed. Yes, high drama indeed, so when I heard that they were making a movie about it—that Clint Eastwood was the man responsible—I was eagerly anticipating its arrival.

This, of course, is “Flags of Our Fathers,” an adaptation of John Bradley’s book of the same title, about the lives of the six flag raisers (his father being one of them).

At our house, going to the movies is a major upheaval of everyone’s scheduling, from getting a babysitter (at $10/hour) to finding an appropriate day for a night out. Needless to say, it is a complicated task, and expensive just for a night at the movies…and compound that with a movie that Kara says, with an indifferent shrug of her shoulders, “eh,” it means that I either wait to rent it or go see it by myself.

Finding a certain day to go, even when I’m the only one that is planning the event, is just as difficult as if I were orchestrating a Fourth of July Parade, as it seemed that over the last few weeks, there is always something standing in the way. Last week, we flushed $110 down the drain by having a pest control guy come out and, probably, just spray water around the house… as there are now more ants in this house than ever. Albeit, they’re wandering around the place in a quiet stupor, seemingly drunk, they’re still wandering around the house. The day after that, we had a meeting with our financial advisor at 3pm, just a few minutes before the Thursday matinee would finally let out. The week before, I had a project due and it would have been monumentally irresponsible to duck out to the movies with that looming over my head, plus on Wednesday, for the 12:50pm show, it was an “open caption” showing at the theater, which means that the movies, even though the dialogue is in English, it is still captioned (and I dearly hope it is for old people who may not be able to hear rather than people from out of town who can’t speak the language).

So, last night, I figured the best medicine for a guy who is feeling a little out of his element lately would be to sit in a dark theater with a bunch of strangers and take a vicarious trip back in time to an event about which I have read several books and watched countless documentaries. Yes, today was the day.

Granted, I felt a little guilty dumping the kids off at daycare and then running off to the movies, but if you don’t do certain things for yourself, you slowly lose your own identity. Maybe not, but it is a good justification.

For some reason, I assumed that I would be the only one in the theater. The movie has been out for a couple of weeks and it was the middle of the day in the middle of the week (in the middle of the month), so I thought they would play the movie just for little old me. However, when I was in line for a Diet Coke (more on that), in front of me was an older guy with a t-shirt that said “Death from Above” and I knew that guy—the 18-theater Cineplex lobby was barren aside from a few people—was going to share the movie with me.

Why is it that I was okay with paying $5 for a Coke? It wasn’t in a gold cup. It didn’t come with a book or a magazine and there was nobody there to wipe my mouth after each drink. The cup was plastic and quite non-descript, and it wasn’t 10 liters, which is what $5 would buy at the store. So, why? That, and I got a pretzel, which together with the Coke cost more than the ticket to get in the movie… on top of which, I paid for a ticket, walked in, and nobody in a bellman’s outfit with a pillbox hat greeted me, tore my ticket and insisted that I enjoy the show. What a waste.

I have always been okay with doing things by myself. I’m not going to say that I’m an independent person by nature, as I could be easily classified as shy and introverted, but I enjoy some level of autonomy in my actions. Sometimes I just want to be left alone, and telling this to the people around you always comes off as defensive and rude; how can you tell someone you love (and who loves you) that you want to be by yourself without them cocking their head to the side in that worried way, asking, "Is everything okay? Do you want to talk about it?"

Some would say that going to the movies by yourself is pathetic and sad, but it is the same to me as reading a book and I rarely read with someone else (or over their shoulder). The desired outcome is the same…escapism and entertainment. I read to glimpse into other lives, other times and other places, and I watch a movie for the same reasons. I don’t mind that I didn’t have someone to share it with; plus, I told Kara all about it when I got home and it was like she was there with me.

So, stop feeling sorry for me. I have friends, they're just busy. Yeah, that's it.

Once in the theater, I found a seat in the second row of the balcony, a little off center; the paramilitary guy was all set up for the duration and he commanded front and center. His shoes were off, his $5 Coke was in one cup holder and a host of other things lined his seat. On top of which, he was reading a book in the ever failing light of the theater, which I found as a strange duality, either read or watch, not both.

Then, the place began to resemble a porn theater, as nothing but single men began slinking in and occupying far-flung seats with enough girth between himself and the rest of us to seat a small classroom of children. Of course, then it happened, as it always happens… an older couple walks in, she the only woman out of seven, and where do they sit? That’s right, right in front of me. Out of the whole theater, they choose the two seats directly in front of me to park, probably because it was in the front row, but really, there’s only five seats occupied out of probably 300 and you choose two in front of me. He was too young to be a World War II veterans, so I didn’t refrain from burning a hole in the backs of their heads as I shifted down a couple of seats.

I ate my pretzel and drank my Coke, a costly mistake on my part. The house lights dimmed slightly for the previews, then completely for the feature presentation, and as far as movies go, I was awestruck by the special effects. I was on Iwo Jima. I was in the Corsairs as they strafed the island. The visceral carnage that I’ve read about splashed into my lap, but wasn’t gory like “Saving Private Ryan” or cerebral like “The Thin Blue Line.” The film, as a whole, was cursory and pedestrian, as are most movies made from books I’ve read. Some of the plotlines, while integral to the movement of the story, were different from the book, and there was one aspect of the book I was worried they were going to include in the movie, but didn't to the degree they could have. I knew they had to touch on it, but I was anxious they were going to use this one very important psychological element of John Bradley (played rather anonymously by Ryan Philippe), and that is what happened to Bradley’s Marine pal “Iggy.” The book tells all, but the movie gives the scene a decorously dignified treatment in the same manner you see Jimmy Stewart’s face when they tell him that they’ll close the Building and Loan if he doesn’t stay on in his father’s place and Humphrey Bogart’s troubled “gin-joints” speech in Casablanca. That was Philippe, face caught in anguish in a slant of light, when they finally found out the fate of his friend Iggy.

The downside of drinking your entire Coke a few minutes before the movie was about to begin is that an hour into the film, nature calls in a most unrelenting way, and I ended up missing a scant three minutes of the 132 shown. But still, I felt cheated and betrayed by my own body, as you hurriedly return to the theater with that "What happened? What'd I miss?" empty feeling.

Though it isn't that great of an image, here is a comparison between the real Rosenthal image (on the left) and a capture from the movie (on the right). Look at the flags especially. Now that's attention to detail. Thank you, Dirty Harry.

The movie ends, and the house lights partially come up…everyone gets up and leaves. No sooner than the final scene fade to black were the old couple hobbling their way back to their Buick Cutlass to watch Matlock at 3pm, and everyone else followed suit, except for the “Death from Above” guy and me. Me? I'm a credits guy, plus I wanted to see where they filmed it, and would you guess "on location" at Iwo Jima? Me neither, and I can't imagine the dipolmacy that took to pull off, especially since Nixon gave the island back to Japan in 1968. Of course, to sweeten the deal, I'm sure the fact that Eastwood was making two movies at the same time about the same thing (the second one due out next year called "Letters from Iwo Jima" from the Japanese point of view).

Well, lucky that we stayed for the end, because during the credits, they showed actual pictures of the real people portrayed in the film and scenes from the battle itself. On top of which, the pictures they chose to show us, were images that were used as inspiration for the movie itself; I could remember certain scenes that were duplicated, and to me, that gives the movie another notch up on my ratings system. Aside from the accuracy elements in “Titanic,” regardless of what you thought of the movie, the storyline, Bill Paxton’s incredulous acting, or Kate Winslet’s horrific accent (even though it is her real one!), this movie put me right in the battle. At the very end, it shows what the island looks like today, from the vantage point of Suribachi and the memorial that is there now.

It was a sad picture in many regards and I left the theater in a pensive mood but feeling a little more American than when I went I first went in there.

At least I got to see a movie this year. One a year, that’s all I can ask for, right?

I think 2007 will be a good year!

Monday, November 13, 2006

When The Flu Flew Out The Flue

So, what torturous maladies have I recently inflicted on my poor children in the interest of public health and their own well being during this flu season? That’s right, it’s flu shot day here at our house, and I and the brood trekked down to our local Kaiser, a communistic healthcare program if there ever was one, and stood in the soup line for our annual poke in the arm...free to the masses.

No, you can’t just tell your weary-eyed children that you plan to give them a shot, and you can’t even say the word “S-H-O-T” in front of Natalie without her bursting into tears and a tirade on how she’d rather skim down a metal playground slide at noon in 100-degree weather buck naked than get a flu shot in the arm. The ruse began early. We started the day at the bookstore, where nary a word about shots was mentioned, so much so, that we avoided the cannonball section (not to mention the mixed drinks books) and concentrated on listening to StoryTime, a weekly read-along hosted by one of the Barnes and Noble’s staff members. Last week, she declared us “regulars,” which is not unlike a group of people calling out “Norm!” when you walk in the room.

Today’s keynote speaker was Arthur, a round-headed something-er-rather (aardvark perhaps) who is a children’s book character of some kind. He bound on stage… excuse me, it was clearly a woman in the suit, and if they had a “comment/suggestion” box, I would note that they should use a less busty woman to play the role of a children’s character. I could understand it if it was Maisy or Blue (from Blue’s Clues), but really.

Not surprisingly, Matty decided he’d had enough of Arthur, and he gave me the international symbol for “I want to leave this place now.” He pooped. Great, well, despite the occasional grunt, he was quiet about it at least. Why does he always download some software at the bookstore; I get it every time. Right then, Natalie decided that seeing a giant aardvark in real life wasn’t as much fun as she thought it was going to be and wanted to leave as well (After all, according to the ABC website: “Arthur is an 8 year old aardvark who guides us through energetic, emotional stories about growing up” and we are hardly their demographic. Plus, she too had to go to the bathroom.

With both of them taken care of (I changed Matty in the truck), I looked at my watch. It was 10:45, and the flu shots were given out until 11:30, so we had some time to kill and I needed to sweeten the pot a little. I suggested, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm I was sure she was going to see right through, that we go get a purple balloon at the Party Store. Natalie’s eyes brightened, and I suddenly felt bad for setting her up for a big fall. Matthew not so much, as he doesn’t know what’s coming, and seeing the medical building doesn’t yet strike fear in his heart as it does Natalie’s.

Balloon in hand, I got everyone back in the truck, and I broke out the Tylenol bottles, infant for him toddler for her. Kara gave me explicit instructions to give them their dosages right before we went for the shots, and I didn’t want to forget, so I wrote their names and how much on the bottle.

The jig was up. As I doled out Natalie’s portion into a spoon, she asked, “Daddy, why are you giving us this?” She was on to me, and since I didn’t want to lie to them when that lie would be obviously not true minutes later, I had to tell them. At first, Natalie was okay with it. She said she wanted to go home, and I told her that if she was a big girl, we could come back to Target and pick out a treat…anything she wanted (After saying that, I feared she would pick this, something we saw a couple of weeks ago).

Once inside Kaiser, it didn’t initially go well. She knew what we were in for, and she wasn’t going to have any of it, no doctor was going to stick her in the arm, not without a fight at least. I had to pick her up and have the “bravery” talk, to which she didn’t immediately subscribe, and it was nice to hear that sisterly love goes flying out the window and she would sooner throw her brother under the wheels of a truck than take one for the team. “Matthew goes first,” became her motto. “Make Matthew go first.”

And he did go first. I thought he would explode into fits of tears—who wants a needle in the leg—but, surprisingly, he took it like a man: He cried out once and then got over it. All the while, Natalie’s backing towards the door, small steps in the hopes that I wouldn’t notice her duck out, but when it became her turn, she poured on the waterworks. I held her, and she cried over and over, “I want to go home now. I want mommy.”

It was over in a blink of an eye. She got a little band aid and a big red sticker that says “Flu Fighter” on it, and at least her manners weren’t in pain because she said, “thank you,” through the tears.

By the time we were back in the truck, I was extolling her with all kinds of praises, how brave she had been, how much of a big girl she was and how proud I was of her, but she felt a little better when I told her that Matthew has to come back for another shot in a month but she was done for the whole year.

I asked her if she wanted to go back to Target and pick out anything she wanted as a treat, In a small voice, she answered, “No.”

Do you want to go to Wendy’s and get some chicken nuggets and orange slices. “No.”

I looked back and she had pulled her right arm into her shirt sleeve and had it resting across her stomach like a sling. Eyes red, nose dripping, mouth turned down.

“What would you like Natalie?” I asked her. “If you could have anything at all, what would it be?”

She thought for a moment and then replied… nay, demanded but still in that hurt voice of sadness and pain, “Vanilla ice cream from Old Mac Donald’s,” which McDonald’s. Easy enough, ice cream before lunch… Father of the Year, here I come. I managed to convince her to also get some chick McNuggets, but she ate the ice cream on the way home.

Forty minutes later, everyone passed out, Gnat on the couch and Matty in his crib, and when I came down stairs almost four hours later, Natalie had fallen off the couch—still asleep mind you—and was laying in a heap on the floor. By then Matthew had woken up and was terrorizing the toy section of the bonus room (lead picture) while we watched “To Have and Have Not.”

It was a nice afternoon, so much so, that I wish flu shots were everyday. And, you may be wondering, but no, I didn't get one for myself...I'm not going to have some doctor stick me in the arm!

For additional reading material apt to this subject, check out this book I read last year. Long winded, but Barry tells quite the tale of desperation and illness.

One Night at the Opera

Ah, the opulence and grandeur of the opera, one of civilization’s most ostentatious achievements of art and music. A night out on the red carpet with tuxedos and corsages, champagne and those little jewel-incrusted one-handled binoculars for the ladies of society in the box seats. The house lights flicker, signaling the start of the overture, and the orchestra begins to flutter, while ushers gently clear their throats to remind you to take your seats.

The show is about to begin: Madam Butterfly, La Boheme, Carmen… Mötley Crüe.

I haven’t been to a concert in more than a dozen years, not since Oingo Boingo’s farewell tour in the mid-90s, and for this, I’m sure my liver is most thankful. I had always convinced myself that I couldn’t appreciate live modern music, and you know how much I hate crowds of drunk people… well, that is, unless you are one of them.

What defines a rock concert of the ilk of Mötley Crüe? Loud, sure. Obnoxious, you bet. A visual display of fantastic lights and sounds with idolized rock stars bringing to the masses the great songs of the long-dead hair-band days? Not so much.

Now, regardless of what you read here, I did have a good time. Seriously, I think it was just what I needed, something that got me out of the house where I wasn’t reading a book, trying to write one or mulling through the mindlessness of some inane project for a client. Perhaps I was a suffering from a little touch of cabin fever, but it felt good to be outside in a parking lot with the smell of burgers wafting through the air and a cold beer in my hand.

At least it felt good for a while.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my office on the beanbag in the corner, watching Natalie play a video game, one of those educational games for first graders that she’s really good at. On one of the shelves was a promotional copy of a book called “Idiot’s Guide to Tailgating” that I got while at the magazine. I had never given it much thought before, but, with very little to do at the time, I took it out and polished through it in about two hours. It was filled with little gems on how to best experience the fine art of tailgating at a sporting event or rock concert. As luck would have it, a few days later, Jason asked me if I wanted to go with him and the guys to see Mötley Crüe and Aerosmith at the Glen Helen Pavilion. Sure, I said, thinking of the book and how it must have been fortuitous that I been so prepared.

We all met up at Jason’s house on Saturday afternoon, Scott, Max, Jason and I. In the back of my truck were two coolers full of beer, hamburgers and the sundries associated with tailgating. It was cold and slightly sprinkling when we found a spot in the parking lot, somehow skipping out on paying to park. I broke out the barbecue, opened a beer and began the night.

The beer flowed freely, as did conversation about all things rock and roll. To my utter amazement, Scott proved his prowess at opening beers, a skill I didn’t know he possessed. While I was struggling with a regular bottle opener on mine, he whips out a disposable Bic lighter and with the edge easily flips the top off of his Corona with all the slight-of-hand of a smooth magician. Amazing. He said, “I can pretty much open a beer with anything.” “Like what?” I challenged. “How about another beer bottle?” Like a chain smoker who lights his next cigarette from his last, Scott pulled out a fresh beer, and, with the empty in his hand, pops off the top of the new beer. Upon doing so, the bottle broke and he sliced a razor-thin cut on his finger that started to gush blood, everywhere. So, being the Boy Scouts that all four of us were (and lacking proper first aid equipment), we fashioned a nicely absorbing bandage out of parts from a spare diaper I had in the truck. The adhesive straps of the diaper proved to be a great bandage. By the way, trust me when I say that the powdery stuff inside a diaper is not salt—thank you Max.

Once the bleeding stopped, the hamburgers were ready, darkness was setting in, and the freaky people started to come out of the woodwork. There were two guys straight out of 1985 in the truck next to us—part of a cover band, replete with guitars, and two aisles over, a faux Mötley Crüe band was rocking on top of their van with wooden guitars, wigs and full hair-band regalia.

After a couple of hours, I was feeling great. Tipsy, sure. Stupid drunk, not even close, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to safely operate heavy equipment. The gates opened and the exodus of fans commenced to file into the pavilion. Surprisingly, the four of us didn’t get lost in the crowds, as we handed out tickets over and headed up the hill toward the lawn. Max stopped and bought all of us a beer at one of the stands… $28 bucks for four beers, which cost more than all of the food and beer I had brought with us.

Apparently that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

I am going to admit that there were a few forces at work that led to my inevitable illness that night. One, I wasn’t feeling 100 percent to begin with, as I was complaining of stomach issues on Thursday night and all day Friday (I still say it was Kara’s homemade peanut butter), and second, I haven’t had multiple beers in a long time and I think my body wasn’t really in the mood for it. Then there was the cigarette smoke, everywhere, and the very smell of the burgers was no longer appetizing.

I had figured on taking it easy—that was the plan—as I didn’t want to get three sheets to the wind and do something stupid like get hurt or pass out in the parking lot face down in a puddle of water, so I regimented myself to eight or nine beers. I think I was close to my target, and I figured over the course of eight hours, that would be a good pace.

Once we were up on the lawn, I lost everybody. I was standing there by myself, until I saw Max’s t-shirt in the darkness. He was talking to a woman who was also standing there by herself, crying. She had lost her husband… or her husband had lost her. Max wandered off, so I stood there for a while, telling her about my kids and she told me about hers. And sure enough, about 10 minutes later, a very upset husband showed up and yelled at her for getting lost. She cried some more, but thanked me for waiting there with her.

That was the excitement, and it was at that point that I didn’t really understand why I was there. Looking at the stage from where I was standing, it looked like I was watching a 13-inch television from down the block. But it was very bright and very loud. I held up my fingers to see how tall Mötley Crüe was, and they were tiny, barely a half-inch, so I walked around a little bit. Max was gone. Jason was gone. Scott was gone. I was by myself again, but I didn’t mind…and this might sound silly, being at a rock concert and all, but it was quiet and peaceful for me.

I walked up toward the top of the lawn and sat down where I could watch the people go by and listen to the bands play. Most everyone around me was drunk (the lawn doesn’t bring out the upper crust of society). Just then, my stomach began to turn on me. Damn traitor. You know the way it does, when you start to feel the individual bubbles percolating deep inside you, and you realize that the evening is about to take a turn for the worse. I longed for the comfort of my truck, and as I walked out of the gates toward the parking lot, the security guard said to me, “If you leave, you can’t get back in,” to which I replied coldly, “I’m not coming back.”

I fell asleep in the front seat of my truck, still listening to the concert through the open windows, and I felt good. It was cool. I was warm and comfortable.

When the guys all found the truck again, I don’t know how long it had been, two or three hours, maybe more. It was 1:30 when we left. Then it got bad. I climbed over the front seats and nestled my head against the open window and prayed for it to all be over...but it was just beginning. Then my stomach gave up on me, and thank God we had what was affectionately referred to as the “chum bucket,” a plastic bucket I brought with us just for that purpose. But I didn’t think I’d be the one that would have to use it, as the last time I went to a concert with Scott (Jimmy Buffet, 1992 or 93), he cleared out three rows in front of us with projectile vomiting. So, I thought I was doing them a favor, as I wasn’t the one that was going to need it. Ironic, ain’t it, but let’s just say that I got most of it in.

Long story short, I spent $62 and two hours on Sunday afternoon at Lenny Dykstra’s, getting my truck washed and detailed, paying special attention to the backseat.


So, I had a good time…I really did. That is, until I saw the hamburgers for the second time. Then, not so much.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Label Maker

From the time we were small children until long after we have died, those that live among us today and those we may leave behind go to great lengths to confine our existence into a singular definition, usually one or two words that blanket a lifetime of cyclic emotional experiences that can cater to our most basic of mentalities or our highest delusions of grandeur.

Mussolini made the trains run on time
David Koresh was a crackpot
Rosa Parks was brave
Hemmingway was a drunk

Society puts us in a box and places us on a shelf with a diminutive, cramped classification of our largest personality trait that, if left unchecked and—God forgive—even believed in, can end up taking over our lives and changing how we not only see ourselves but how we see the world around us.

Parks may have been scared all her life; Hemmingway sometimes sober; Koresh sane.

Often times there is nothing we can do about it but finally come to terms with our label, what defines us as a person; as a result, we tend to bend our personality toward that one attribute, like the prophet predicting the outcome of an event, thereby controlling that very outcome through his prediction. What we do, who we are, how we decide to live our lives is something that is reflected by the actions we take, the roads we walk, the connections we make and the perceptions of those around us: “Every cop’s a criminal and all the sinners saints.”

Sure, we’re all different in some subtle way, just like one snowflake is different from another, but lumped together, it’s all snow just as we’re all people. What we learned from The Breakfast Club: At times, we can be eccentric, grounded, dark, affable, depressed, elated, loyal, untrustworthy, zealously Christian, atheistically Pagan, emotionally scarred, abandoned, simple, easy going, ruthless, passionate, shy, bashful, selfish, crazy, easy, closed off.

Sometimes we’re all of these things at once… or none of them at all. But in the end, after all is said and done, our skeletons…the bones we leave behind…they all look exactly the same.

How's this: We’re all lost in one way or another, and that’s the scariest label of them all.

During our years between birth and death, most of what we do comes across as a visible perception to others, what we look like, who we are, where we live, the people we associate with, how we dress. People look angry, they look selfish, crazy, abandoned, scarred, loyal or grounded. There’s a physical appearance attached to a scoundrel, a malcontent, a punk, a princess. In a judge-a-book-by-the-cover world, you are what you look like and first impressions are often times lasting impressions regardless of the weight of their truth. Have you ever disliked someone merely based on their appearance; maybe you were right, the stuffy looking man in the expensive suit really is a jerk or the one in rags is actually crazy, but I’m sure you’ve been wrong too.

We place so much importance on appearance, much more so than on character or personality, that we are driven by it, rejecting the conventions and standards of an emotional response, instead coveting material beauty. What’s worse is that we live by the categories we create for other people, fearing the moment when our cover is blown or our predictions about someone’s personality becomes true. Our fears translate into conformity. Be like everyone else, just like we were taught in school, and you can’t be wrong. Where will it end? At some sort of anti-Darwinian thrust into the genetic code to predispose our children to a certain list of criteria in the distant future as the abilities of science overcomes the miracles of nature: “My baby must have green eyes like her grandfather, but brown hair like her mother…and if she can be tall, I’d like her to play basketball at Amherst.” In People magazine this week there was an article about a 12-year-old girl who decided that liposuction could solve her weight problem, and kids in Japan are getting treatments that make their eyes more rounded, more “western.” They’re even augmenting eyelashes now so they’re bigger, fuller.

Is it right? Is it wrong? Well, yes and no to both questions, if that makes any sense.

When Natalie was born three years ago, the position her head just prior to delivery (Kara was in labor for most of a day) caused both of her ears to fold over and inward, and when she came out, she looked like a little elf. Upon seeing her for the first time, I wouldn’t have cared if she was sprouting maple leaves from the top of her head (such is the blind love of a father) but I remember my brother Jason’s reaction specifically. He saw her laying there on the warming table as the nurses poked and prodded for measurements and in a genuinely concerned tone, he said, “Oh, her little ears.” He had a worried look on his face, as if seeing something so beautiful but hurt or damaged, like a painting with a scratch on it. He had good reason to make that comment as his ears make barely noticeable points at the top and if you were looking right at him you wouldn’t think to notice. Since I was too busy making fun of him and his elf ears for most of his life, I’ve never taken the time to ask him if they had made him self conscious at all. Perhaps they have, but at that moment, he had a connection with Natalie that I found interesting.

Kara and I just supposed that Gnat’s ears would right themselves over time; after all, when we first got Elsa, her radar-tower ears were equally folded over. One day they popped to attention…but getting her to listen is another story.

So we waited on Natalie, but no such luck. She grew up from a baby to a toddler to the little girl she is today, and her ears are just as pronounced as they were that first day of her life.

Come to find out, it could have been prevented. Thanks to mankind’s need to label everything, the structure of the ear is well defined, physically, and the problem for Natalie stems with her lack of antihelical fold. Reach up and feel your ear with your fingers. At the top of the outside of your ear is the helix, that sharp flap of skin that creases over, giving your ear its nicely rounded shape, and if you were to follow the helix down the back of your hear, you would come across the lobe. At the top of the ear lobe, feel for the hardened bit of cartilage. It’s called the antitragus (right below the tragus, that part you use to help plug your ears with your fingers). Follow the antitragus up and around your ear, through a small indentation that dips slightly toward your auditory canal and up to the antihelix. This part of the ear follows the same course as does the helix, but it is larger and smoother than the helix. The part at the top is called the antihelical fold.

Well Natalie doesn’t have one of those, and because of that one missing development, her ears stick out. Take your fingers and put them on the back of your ear, and with your thumb, push on your antihelical fold and you’ll see what I mean. Without that fold, like a piece of corrugated cardboard, there’s no support to hold the ear in place against the side of the head.

It bothers me. I know it shouldn’t, but it does.

Over the course of the last six months of reading my entries, I’m sure you’ve surmised by now that I’m a worrier, and if you haven’t: I am. I picture into the future. Natalie’s in school and the kids are making fun of her ears, calling her Dumbo, Mickey Mouse or the Easter Bunny, giving her a nickname like Rabbit or Radar and making her life miserable. I see Natalie as a fragile person, easily upset and often sensitive. I see her either retreating into a shell of seclusion and isolation or striking out against everyone and anything.

It should go without saying that I want the best for my children and that I will try to provide them with every practical advantage possible (of course, that very idea is the folly of parenting in America today), but how can I counter this? Teach her not to care what people think or say? Impossible, as that is just a defense mechanism. Every child wants to be accepted by their peers, their teachers and their parents, and the ones that don’t are just fooling themselves. Kids care what others think. It is the very nature of being a kid, and conformity is one of the first concepts to be taught in school—school bells, line up, desks are in rows, raise your hand, “one of these things is not like the other.” The list goes on, so how can we not notice the differences in those that are around us and point them out.

When I was in preschool, I remember there was a Chinese woman aide that worked in the classroom and I asked her why her face was flat. I feel bad for it now, but I didn’t know. I was three or four years old. Kids are like that. In grade school, we made fun of a Motts Johnson (I doubt very much I spelled that right) because he was Swedish, another because he had red hair, Mylon Miller. We used to chant that he had fleas until he cried and went on a rampage. For what reason? None at all. He just had red hair and an unusual name, and it is easy to do if other kids are doing it too. Not me, as I always felt a little bad for him but some kids made fun of Brenton King because he as a little slow, and another, Tony Romano, because he had ADD, although we hadn’t heard of that then (he was in the second grade doing sixth-grade math, so perhaps he was a little on the savant side too).

Were those kids affected for the rest of their lives because of the taunting they endured when they were kids? I couldn’t tell you because after a few years, I never saw them again. I don’t remember if Mylon or Motts was in junior high with me or not, and Brenton’s parents were divorced soon after the first grade so he moved away with his mother. I’m going to guess that they were. I’m going to say that everything someone else says to you makes a lasting impression, and every time a label is slapped on your forehead, for whatever reason, you file it away in your drawer and build on it. Maybe you construct a fanciful wall around those feelings, forever shutting down certain emotions of trust and compassion or maybe you overanalyze it all and spiral into a self-conscious puddle of emotional mess, but either way, it changes who you are, what you believe about yourself and your peers and the kind of person you become in life. Hands down, the wonders of childhood, the horrors of adolescence and the identity crisis of the 20s are all psychologically designed to develop you into something, a good person, an achiever, a producer, a consumer, a warrior, a princess…whatever. Each brick builds you as a person, and I believe you get those bricks from the people around you and the situations you encounter.

Nobody made fun of me, at least not to my face and not that I know of (or remember… have I repressed them?). I’m not going to say that I was liked by all, as I have some letters from some girls in junior high that don’t mix words on that fact, but I wasn’t an outcast. I wasn’t the subject of ridicule because of some obvious thing “that’s not like the other” and I certainly didn’t live on the receiving end of torment.

A person’s physical appearance is an easy target, especially for kids, and I don’t want to see Natalie shying away from people because she thinks they are making fun of her. As it is now, I transpose my self-conscious characterizations on her when she wears a ponytail in public, and I try to resist the urge to do so, but it gets me every time. Fridays, we go to dance class, and in dance class, the girls have to wear ponytails for reasons beyond my male comprehension. With her hair pulled back, Natalie’s ears poke out like an alert poodle, and I think that people might be snickering at her, or at least they don’t look at her in that same way they do when her hair is down. It’s terrible to say that, and I feel horrible for even thinking it, but I can’t help it. Natalie gets lots of comments from strangers, and nearly every time we go out, someone is commenting on how beautiful she is. Matthew gets them too, and when they’re together, I get the impression people want to take a picture of them to show their folks back east how beautiful California-bred children are.

Am I ashamed of her or embarrassed by her? God no, never. Like I said, I’m the father, and she could be akin to Shrek and I would still see her as Cinderella. What I’m embarrassed of are my own feelings, and I’m ashamed that I entertain such thoughts of kids making fun of my daughter, that she’ll have a difficult time making friends or that she’ll metamorphose into an emotional recluse. I think that’s where the real pain originates, and I secretly ensure myself that she’ll grow up to be a rock of moral fortitude, a solid foundation of inner personal fiber and an emotional statue that will deflect the most critical of comments.

But what is to become of Natalie and her ears? They won’t fix themselves it is evident, and kids are cruel. One of the largest pains my heart is recently forced to tolerate is Natalie’s emotional well being. I like to make her happy, and I love to see her smile, and that might be pushing me down the self-righteous road to spoiling my little “Princess, Mermaid, Butterfly” but seeing her upset just kills me. She cries when I take her to school. She doesn’t want to go, and this morning, she stood there as I was hugging her good bye, saying that she wanted to “go home and be with you.” She insists she won’t have a good day and that school is not fun (even though when we go and pick her up, she’s having a ball and sometimes doesn’t want to leave).

Kara and I decided to take Natalie to a plastic surgeon for his opinion, and a couple of weeks ago we met the Doogie Houser of plastic surgery, and the doctor couldn’t have been any older than 20 it seems (perhaps he had a facelift…after all, a good landscape designer should have a beautiful front yard).

He told us two interesting things:

1) It could have been prevented. When born, your cartilage has that fresh-from-the-oven softness, and it is still malleable if need be. All they could have done was add a couple of clamps to the antihelical fold and the problem would have been solved.

2) He wants the kids to make fun of her.

That was indeed an interesting revelation. Psychologically, the doctor wants Natalie to understand the need to have the surgery, and he wants her to be “on board” with the process. That can only happen if she endures some ridicule or decides on her own that she’s not happy that her ears don't look like everyone else’s. If not, she may struggle with the bandages and end up hurting herself by constantly trying to remove them. Plus, it is proven that positive people heal quicker. On the other hand, he said, if kids don’t make fun of her ears or she doesn’t mind, then there’s no sense in going through with it if she doesn’t want to. The doctor wanted to make the surgery as much Natalie’s decision as it is ours, as her parents.

Still, no matter the outcome, she’ll get labels from people and there is very little I can do about but teach her to be true to herself and what she believes in. We all get typecast from everyone we meet, put into a little category and subjugated to a routine examination. And we usually return the favor, because interactions between people inevitably require a description of who or what we encountered, be it only a mental note to ourselves whispered in the basement where nobody else will hear or a blasting, defaming remark shouted from the rooftops for everyone’s ears.

Everyone’s ears, that is, but Natalie’s.

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