Wednesday, January 31, 2007

32 Steps to a Clean Kitchen

Admittedly, I enjoy cleaning. I really hate to say it, but there is something about removing dirt and returning something to its former glory that fills some empty void to make things right again. Maybe in a former life I was a pig, and granted, I’m rather on the lazy side—I’d sooner toss my jeans on the floor at night than put them away, knowing I’ll put them on again the next morning. But we spend so much money and time on our possessions and it surprises me when people don’t take care of them.

Take your car, for example. How many hours did you toil under the pressure and stress at the dealership and how much hand-wringing went into picking out the right color, the most apt options and the just the right look… not to mention, how much money you spent on it. Look at your car now? I’ll bet it resembles a trash can, right? Strewn about is wrappers, bottles, extra jackets that you’ll never wear, and strata after strata of disposed of garbage. Those beautiful carpets that cost you an extra $300, rarely ever seen, and let’s not mention the much-covered paint job. Cherry red looks more Arizona mud.

Well, for me, that’s how the kitchen was and it was high time to clean it, top to bottom. My method of cleaning is called “slash and burn,” tear out everything in the room and start with a clean slate (or a dirty one, however the case may be). Cleaning is one of the few things I do that has tangible results, and nothing is better than restoring white tile to its original whiteness. My main motive was a year of built up God-knows-what sort of stuff that accumulates in the grout, those porous spaces between the tiles that usually start out one color and end up quite a different one. Ours was white when we moved in a year ago and now they have transformed into a multitude of colors from red to brown to black. Yum.

So, use the following as a primer for your education about the best way to clean a kitchen.

Step 1: Complain to anyone and everyone who will listen that the kitchen is resembling a pig’s sty and that you’re going to start refusing to eat meals within its slimy walls and stain-speckled floors. Threaten to strike.
Step 2: Realize that nobody is listening (and if they are, they’re not caring), and you’ll have to take matters into your own hand.
Step 3: Sulk, stare resentfully at the mess and then deny that it exists.
Step 4: Set down a slice of bread, look away for just a few minutes, and when you return, the slice of bread is gone, soaked into the mess.
Step 5: Realize that the majority of the surfaces in your kitchen have metamorphosized into living entities and they must be stopped before they spread throughout the house.
Step 6: Discover that you’re too late; they have consumed the house. That slice of bread… you felt it underneath the carpet on the stairs.
Step 7: Don a HAZMAT suit, complete with rebreather, rubber boots and gloves and a hard hat. Enter the kitchen.
Step 8: Find the center of the kitchen, the very vortex of the filth, get down on your knees, cast your unwashed eyes toward Heaven and offer up this prayer: “Dear God, I don’t know how this kitchen arrived at such a state of disrepair. I’m sure I had nothing to do with it, but I find myself in the position to be used as a powerful tool to fight those germs and grime that has inundated my humble existence. With your help, your guidance and your graces, I shall overcome. As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be dirty again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be dirty again.
Step 9: Make a list of things to clean: grout, sink, microwave, pantry, fridge, cupboards, floor, windows, baseboards, etc. Start at the top of the kitchen and clean down.
Step 10: Decide that the pantry will be your first hurdle. Clear out everything that expired during the administration of the last president. Vacuum up all of the spilled rice, all the while hoping they’re not dead maggots. Collect together the hundred or so packets of tea that have scattered to the far flung regions of the pantry. Organize the half-empty boxes of cereal by size, and wonder who bought some weird Chinese flax-seed rice patty cereal and never opened it… from 2005. Put like things together. The flour and sugar need to be next to each other and the brown sugar, powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla extract and cake decorating amenities all should be nearby. Potato chips and pasta don’t mix, and frankly, I don’t want to meet anyone who thinks they do.
Step 11: Take a break. Remember that you’re the primary caregiver for two children and the alternating screams of joy and terror that you’ve tried to block out while contemplating the subtle difference between catsup and ketchup have become most annoying. Find that one child has tied a robe drawstring to the other and is leading him around like a dog, much to his squeals of delight. He’s just happy to be included.
Step 12: Cringe at the irony that Mr. Mom is on cable, and comfort yourself and your own lack of a “motherly” instinct by the complete incompetence of Michael Keaton.
Step 13: Open the microwave and decipher the difference between the clean smooth walls and the crusty speckles of dried food that has been subsequently cooked a number of times. Fantastik and a paper towel makes quick work of it.
Step 14: Celebrate having cleaned the first appliance in the kitchen with a glass of Diet Pepsi.
Step 15: Fresh from the grand success of the microwave, break out the heavy artillery, the industrial-grade cleaners, solvents and acid-based formulas made to remove most dirt on a sub-atomic level.
Step 16: Disregarding the warnings, mix up a plump vat of ammonia and bleach. Sprinkle in a generous amount of Comet to form a sticky paste. Overcome by fumes, lay down on the floor and concentrate on not dying.
Step 17: While on the floor, you notice that there is an oil slick on the tile and it is slowly seeping into the grout. Resolve to stop it.
Step 18: Spread the thick pasty ammonia/bleach/Comet concoction into the grout and wait. Splash water on your face periodically to keep from passing out. Begin to scrub the grout.
Step 19: Realize that Scotch Brite pads are not strong enough, venture out to the garage and scavenge for something with a little more bite. Triple-aught steel wool should work. Maybe a steel-wire brush would work better.
Step 20: The steel-wire brush was no match for the perseverance of the crud. Return to the garage and decide to quit messing around. Go straight for the 60-amp angle grinder with the four-inch diamond/carbide wheel… stop when you smell the smoke of burning grout. Tim Allen would be proud.
Step 21: Oiling the cabinets seems like a good idea until you discover that you should have worn latex gloves, especially when your hand slips out from under you while you’re trying to get up off of the floor and you clack your ankle bones together, unanimously the worst pain imaginable, short of clunking your head on the corner of the pantry door hard enough that all thoughts concerning the spiritual wonders of the Siberian Yak are completely gone.
Step 22: Don’t waste time scrubbing the range, just put the whole thing in the dishwasher and set it for Scalding Surface of the Sun.
Step 23: Remove the throw rug that is designed to catch all of those random pieces of food a 12-month-old baby throws off of his highchair, or whatever the dog won’t eat. It turns out to be a lot. Shake it out. Sweep the floor. Don’t waste time with the dust pan. Just use the vacuum, but when you return from the utility closet, vacuum in hand, you find the dog standing over the dust pile, wagging her tail furiously with intense excitement. Sweep the floor again and put the dog outside.
Step 24: Dust the light fixtures…because nobody else has ever done since they installed them. Sneeze repeatedly until your youngest one laughs himself silly.
Step 25: Remember that about six months ago, some spaghetti sauce splashed onto the ceiling during one of those impromptu food fights. Find it and scrub it off.
Step 26: Mop the floor, and by mop, I mean scrub it on your hands and knees. While you’re down there, you can recite the prayer again, if need be.
Step 27: Don’t neglect the top of the fridge, as it is starting to resemble the surface of the moon, only without the craters. You’ll use three towels, which you’ll have to throw out because they have ended up too dirty to clean. Yeah, it’s possible.
Step 28: Clear out the cobwebs from under the kick panels. Discover the shriveled remains of several dead spiders. Perform a respectful funeral and begin to pen letters to their next of kin. Consult Charlotte on the spelling of “fundamentalist dogma.”
Step 29: Look at the clock and appreciate that you’ve spent the previous four hours of your life in the kitchen: Your finger tips have been melted off from the sulfuric acid, your lungs are scarred from the ammonia and bleach, you don’t know where your children are, your eyes have changed color thanks to the dust and there is an unfamiliar shine to various surfaces of the kitchen.
Step 30: Stand back in amazement to discover that the refrigerator is actual white and not beige like you previously thought. You knew it was, but wasn’t sure. Look forward to collecting on the bet.
Step 31: Wait until the wife comes home, sets down her purse and keys on your clean tile countertops, dumps crumbs from the toaster crumb-collector, opens a jar of baby apples and spills some of the juice onto the grout.
Step 32: Steam in resent, check your calendar and consign yourself to clear a weekend sometime in July to do it all again.

Natalie on Life and Death

I suppose the topic would have to come up sooner than later, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be until Elsa kicked the bucket (or the doggie bowl, whatever it is animals do when they die). And then I’d have to explain to a young Natalie (and Matthew) where she went and that she won’t be coming back.

To me, the topic is fascinating, and I love to discuss it. Where you go when you die; what happens to your soul; What is the meaning of life? Why do you die in the first place? It reminds me of all of those beer-soaked nights spent with friends trying to solve the world's mysteries while blowing our minds with concepts difficult to comprehend. "But wait, what if the Solar System is just an atom in the fingernail of a giant being...." Whoa!

It seems that I won't have to wait until the kids are in college to relive such discussions, as Disney has beaten me to it.

At first, based on the influence of “The Little Mermaid,” Gnat insisted that she had lost her voice to Ursula, the Sea Witch, and she’s spend parts of the day silently mouthing words and pointing to her throat—which was nice because it was quiet around here for a change—and the rest of the time she’d can’t wait to get into the bath tub at night so she could have her tail back. And that was nice too because she'd more readily want to take a bath. (Sometimes her tail would come out during the day: She’d stand there with her feet pinned tightly together and complain that she couldn’t walk because of her tail and mermaids can’t use their tails on land).

Now—thank you very much Walt Disney, you misogynistic matricidal mother hater—now, Natalie has been watching such movies like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” and she has apparently paid particular attention to the scenes where Aurora and Snow White go to sleep (a.k.a. slip into an apple-, or spinning wheel-induced coma and die only to be awakened by some magical means). A few days ago, Natalie rolled onto the floor, closed her eyes and folded her hands over her chest, whispering to me that she can’t wake up until a prince kissed her. This prince instead tickles maidens in distress in lieu of kisses.

If her death pose wasn’t bad enough, yesterday afternoon, while I was trying to scrape together a project during a particularly odd quiet time, Natalie came into my office with a somewhat worried look on her face.

She’s not one to beat around the bush, so she got right to it, saying: “Daddy, I don’t want to die.”
My stomach churned at the string of words coming from my daughter.

So, what is a father to say when his three year old is contemplating the steps into the great beyond? I’m sure it is the first of many tests to come for me, when perplexing philosophical reflections come to pass and challenge my ability to explain them in a way that won’t keep her up at night thinking that if she closed her eyes to sleep, she’d never wake up again. It's bad enough I do that myself, I don't need her insomnia on my conscience.

First off, I strongly believe in two things when it comes to talking with my kids: 1) I speak to them as I would any other person, which means no baby talk and no asinine sentence structure that makes me look like a second-grade malcontent. There’s nothing worse than hearing a grown person say things like, “Baby want bottle?” or “Where ball?” It hurts me grammatically to hear it, and I think it slows down their development of conversational language. How do I know this? I don’t. I just hate baby talk. And 2) I’m not going to tell them tall tales about the facts of life because I can’t handle the topic myself or I can’t find a good way to explain something complicated. I’m not going to tell her the stork brought Matthew, but I’m also not going to tell her that he was the result of passionate make-up sex either (which, of course, isn’t true, but more interesting than the truth, as it turns out). Something innocent and in-between will help her understand the situation. “Babies come from Mommy’s tummy…not all of them, mind you, just two… you and your brother.”

It’s usually enough to send her on her way.

Lately, she’s been nothing but questions, endless questions about everything. I was putting a new car seat for her into Kara’s car, and I couldn’t twitch my thumb muscle without her asking me why I did that. I was reaching the last scrap of patience under the weight of her endless barrage of queries, as if each and every action needed to be deftly explained to her. “I’m moving my leg because it is cramping up.” “A cramp is when the muscle tightens painfully after being constricted for a period of time.” “Constricted means tightened, like when you flex your arm.” “Yes, that’s your left arm.” “No, this is my right arm. They’re opposite when we face each other.” It went on like that for nearly an hour.

So, I was rather shocked to here her voice her concerns about death. I told her, “You’re not going to die, Natalie, at least not for a long, long time. You’ll be much, much older than me even.”

"When are you going to die?"

"Nobody knows. It's one of the mysteries of life."

“If I hurt my finger, will I die?” she asked, pointing first to her thumb and then to her index finger. After that, I figured out that “Sleeping Beauty” was to blame for the line of inquiries.

“No, there’s nothing you can do to your finger that will make you die,” I explained. “It’ll hurt a lot but you can’t die from it.”

“What if I hurt my toe? Will I die then?” I can tell it just happened to be the next body part she looked at.

“Don’t worry, you can’t die from hurting your toe.” I didn’t explain to her that Jack Daniel’s died from an infected toe after kicking his safe because he couldn’t get it open one morning. But that was almost 100 years ago and I’m sure medicine has improved since then… so it became a moo point (you know, a cow’s opinion, it doesn’t matter).

“I hope you don’t die.” Her face wrinkled a little. “I’d miss you. And I’d miss Mommy and Matthew and Elsa if they died too.”

“Well, nobody’s going to be dying around here any time soon.”

By this time, I heard Matthew making his way toward the stairs, and lately he has been attempting to descend them by himself—and granted he does really well—but he gives away his intentions by saying down the hallway, “boom, boom, boom,” which is the sound we taught him to go along with going down the stairs on his bum. So, every time he goes down the stairs, each riser gets a “boom” attached to it as his bum plops down. Although, sometimes he flops over and body surfs down. It's quicker and elicits many more giggles than the safe way.

Maffy was standing at the top of the stairs when Natalie and I came up behind him, and Natalie was obviously still thinking about what we had just talked about. “We don’t want Matthew to fall down the stairs, do we?” she asked.

“No, he could get hurt.”

“Could he die?”

“Well, maybe… but let’s not find out.”

So Natalie and I helped the little grub safely down the stairs.

There was more to it, between her and I, as we talked for another 10 minutes or so about death. I didn’t explain too much as I didn’t want to cloud her mind with too many new thoughts. But one thing was made quite clear as she summed up our little chat: “Daddy, when you die, you don’t ever come back. And I don’t want to die because I like it here.”

Yeah, I like it here too.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lights by Electrolysis

I wouldn’t have been much of a good friend to Benjamin Franklin if I lived in old timey colonial days. For starters, I don’t carouse with French women of questionable lineage, I don’t like indoor pot-belly stoves, and I don’t wear bifocals. I find lightning rods less interesting than the workings of the post office, but most important is that I don’t like electricity. Not that I’m one of those flat-earth freaks who shun the conveniences of the modern age—I like plumbing like the best of us—but I think what I don’t like about electricity is that it is one of the only facilities you come into contact on a regular basis that can stop your heart. Say what you will about the quality of water in Southern California, but at least it won’t make your hair stand on end and your eyes spin around in their sockets. I’ve had several run-ins with the buzzing beast in my life, and here are two introductory tales to illustrate my point. Sorry Ben, we just wouldn’t have been able to hang out is all; nothing personal (but I do enjoy looking at your picture on my money, whenever you show up that is).

Jason and I spent the weekend at Grandma and Grandpa’s house one year, and we went to the clubhouse (they lived in a mobile home park, hence the clubhouse) for a rummage sale where we found an old radio for ¢50. It was from the 60s, off-white, plastic (very much like the picture here of an Admiral Y3006 “Ashley” model from 1961). In our room, we put the radio between our beds on this yellow step-stool Grandpa made for us—one of those Rosebud items I wish I still had—and I remember staying up as late as we could on Sunday nights to listen to the Dr. Demento Show but usually we fell asleep before it came on. And there were countless times we got into trouble for listening to it “after hours.” Anyway, more to the point, the radio had one interesting flaw, a good reason it was only two bits to begin with, but every time you came near the plug, it would shock you, just one of those little buzzes but enough to make you jerk your arm back. I don’t remember why we were unplugging and plugging it in all the time, but maybe we felt that we didn’t want to burn down the house from a radio with obvious faulty wiring.

My second memory of being on the grounded side of free electrons was during high school. My friend Heidi and I went to play tennis at Finkbinder Park in Glendora and it was getting onto dusk while we were playing. Soon it got too dark to play and we were wondering why the lights didn’t come on. Since even then I thought I was more mechanically minded than I actually was, I figured I could get the lights to go on, easy as pie. There was a control box at the base of the light pole, and I flung it open, hoping to find a switch with an “on” sign, but instead, I found two nasty looking wires poking out. Well, simple enough, connect the left wire with the right wire, complete the circuit and flood the court with light. Maybe it would have been a good idea to use my racket to push the wires together or go find a couple of sticks instead. Being just a hair over 16, good ideas were then hard to come by. When I grabbed both of the wires, one in each hand, it was as if a pair of vice grips had seized me by the arms and shook me, and a split second later, a pair of hammers pounded me on the shoulders. The lights didn’t go on and I was sore for a couple of days.

Needless to say, once bitten… I’ve become leery of electricity. I don’t understand it, and I have trouble comprehending the mechanics of it even (and I was, for a brief while, the editor of an electronic magazine—I know, crazy). My neighbor, an engineer, was complaining about having to replumb his toilet because it leaks and he doesn’t understand how plumbing is possible. Give me a toilet over a breaker box any day.

About 15 years ago I, ahem, acquired a stop light in that manner people acquire things when no one is looking. It was a simple red/green two-light traffic light, as I thought at the time it would be cool to have a blinking traffic light in my garage. Well, here we are, 2007, and the light has collected nothing but a decade in a half of dust on its bulbs. I figured it was time to open it up and take a look at what makes the lights go on.

As it turns out, it was an easy fix that didn’t cost me a dime. I had a length of electrical wire, a wall-socket adapter, a multi-meter and a screw driver. Inside, there was a bunch of wires going to both of the lights and when I removed all of the wires that controlled the lights (it originally stayed on red until someone used an access card and then it flashed to green for about 15 seconds), I was left with a simple set of wires. I unhooked a few of the redundant wires and connected the red and green bulbs to the same wires and then plugged it in. Much to my amazement, it worked; both of the lights shined bright.

Now, I’m looking to find a schematic for a circuit that will make the lights oscillate like a real stop light. I know it’s possible with resistors and stop-gap switches, but it is just a matter of finding out how it is done.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

My Solutions to All the World’s Problems

Conflict and controversy are what drives people to political aspirations—it makes great six-o’clock news—but, funny enough, political aspirations are what causes conflict and controversy. Imagine for a moment if the United States were a monarchy and, I don’t know, King Bob ruled the land. There wouldn’t be much conflict if his was the last word, but since this country is nearly as far away from a monarchy as indeed possible, everyone has the last word, from John Q. Public, all the way up to those behind the velvet ropes in the Senate. A bi-partisan government, such as ours, is in one way flawed in that varying political beliefs, which are so usually so polar opposite, are in such conflict that nothing worthwhile gets done. But when it does, when a meaningful bill passes, someone sues and the whole thing gets tied up in court for years… and things never get done and then some liberal panel of old obsolete judges declares it unconstitutional because it violates someone’s human rights, Heaven forbid.

Is there an end to the quagmire that I see the country spiraling toward? When will the good of the whole finally outweigh the good of the few, the very few, and what will become of those of us who pay the most taxes into the system but utilize the least of its resources? Can I stop contributing if I promise not the use the services of the government? I won’t drive on the Interstate. I won’t visit the National Parks. I won’t burden whatever pathetic healthcare system is feebly in place. I won’t require the use of the military. I won’t declare bankruptcy. I won’t use welfare. I won’t commit a Federal crime. I won’t vote. I won’t watch C-SPAN (that one’s easy). And I won’t complain about any of it.

Maybe a state can be set up for people like me, those of us who wish the system was a little different, a little less arrogant and a little less demanding without owning up to its responsibilities of being a government “by the people, for the people and of the people” instead of being one that caters to the people that complain the most or those that have loud lawyers.

Start taking care of Americans, and since I’m not one to offer criticism without solutions, following is a list of all the world’s problems and their best solutions (in no particular order except for the order in which I thought of them).

The War in Iraq Problem: The real problem isn’t the war itself, it’s the way the people of the United States choose to support it. Nobody wants war, of course, but when it comes, there has to be a certain element of trust for the decisions of the government. That aside, here’s what needs to be done for a quick end to the war, so that all of our troops can finally come home: Make it a total war. If we are there to end the insurgents, break up the fighting between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and restore peace and order to an otherwise orderless region of the world (and fat chance that), we need to go into the war with everything we have and decimate those that oppose us. Is the city of Baghdad a problem? Okay, surround the city and wait for a week. During that time, make it well known that everyone needs to leave the city via six specific roads. Everyone will be searched, everything will be looked through and those caught with anything (guns bombs or whatever) will be arrested. Then, take the city. Anyone left will automatically be considered an insurgent and therefore the enemy. Treat accordingly.

What really burns me is that we are letting the enemy take control of the operation. They hide in mosques and we seem to have some kind of mentality that those buildings need to be respected and not fired upon, and our troops have been ordered to mind the wishes of the local ward bosses. Did we take into consideration the populous’ requests when we bombed Dresden during World War II, or did we watch out for historic buildings when Hiroshima was obliterated? Nope, because it was a total war. We were fully committed to stop whatever atrocities were happening, and is that a fair comparison? Yes and no. No because the Germans and Japanese were a standing army fighting a war based on a conventional terms of agreements. Insurgents are animals with loyalty to a outmoded cause, one that places some kind of code above that of human existence.

Immigration Problem: This one is simple to solve and I’m surprised that our government, which is supposed to look out for the well-being of its American citizens, hasn’t thought of this solution yet, but now that I’ve brought it out into the open, I’m sure it will be no time until it is implemented. Close the border. That’s it. Period. Build a giant wall (you can raise my taxes for it even and I’ll be happy to pay) from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and don’t let anyone in or out. I have no problem with never visiting Mexico again, and if I do, I’ll take a boat or a plane to get there. Truth be told, I have no intentions, as the Mexico I know is a cesspool of crime and depravity. But wait, what about the cheap labor companies use to manufacture goods that are shipped to this country? That’s no problem. Goods can still be traded back and forth as it has always. They just happen through one port of entry, say, Nogales. When a truck comes through. It gets searched. People get deported, others arrested.

But wait, what about the millions of people that are already in this country illegally? That’s easy too. Round them up and send them home. When INS says, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” they can hand them a packet of papers containing the proper forms for a VISA, a worker program or citizenship request. Fill it out in your own country and mail it in…and since you didn’t mind waiting for 10 years in our country while the papers are processed, I’m sure you won’t mind waiting in your own.

What about those with babies and children who were born here? As they say, if you’re born in the U.S., it makes you a U.S. citizen. That’s a nice rule and it worked for a while, but I think that it isn’t being used in the spirit of its original intention; therefore it needs to be altered slightly to read: “If you’re born in the U.S. and you have at least one parent that is a citizen, then you are a citizen too.” Problem solved…and not only that, but this will solve other problems too: less demand on the hospitals, lower health insurance rates, less cars on the freeway, less kids in schools, less crime on the streets.

And don’t for a second try to tell me that the majority of illegal immigrants are a benefit to American society, that they respect this land, that they pay taxes. There isn’t a single person who gets a cash-paying job from a Home Depot parking lot that says to himself, “I can’t wait to go to H&R Block and file my taxes”… Give me a break. The money is converted to pesos and sent back home. Our country is hemorrhaging cash through the holes at the borders… and through the holes in government that are allowing it to happen.

Poverty Problem: Get rid of welfare, for one. Stop the free handouts and the soup kitchens and the shelters and the subsidizing of people’s lives. Make them be resourceful again. What caused the largest breakdown in the family core was welfare. When we started handing checks out to poor families in the hopes that that would help prop them back on their feet, we took away all of the fathers in those families… back in the day when the biggest part of getting respect as a father was bringing in the paycheck. When the U.S. government became the daddies and husbands to thousands of children and mothers, the respect vanished, the problem escalated and those fathers became obsolete and faded away. What happened? No strong role model from the father, no respect for the one that is there, no rules about right and wrong, no solid ethics of hard work, no morality code of the working class… and you end up with a large group of people that decide the check from the government isn’t enough. Crime rises and the cycle continues.

What to do about it? For one, stop giving people a crutch to stand on. Our society is based on productivity, so start providing jobs. Better yet, bring back the alphabet soup of the Depression, the CCC, the WPA, and brainwash the mindless loafers who have been milking on my tax dollars for decades into thinking a man is nothing unless he has a job. Infuse pride into working for a living again and you will have a society of producers.

Frivolous Lawsuit Problem: Laws need to be changed. Tactics surrendered. There is too much money spent on defending institutions, personal property and governmental agencies because of idiots who can’t think for themselves, who can’t take responsibility for their own actions or who see it as an opportunity to make a lot of money they didn’t earn. A fireman has a lot of fun playing the usual pranks at the station, repeated refers to himself as the “Big Dog” is the focus of a prank that involves him eating dog food. If you’re suing somebody because you did something stupid, then it’s a frivolous lawsuit. Did you stick a plastic bag over your head and nearly die? Did you try to walk up the down escalator and get partially sucked into the mechanism? For every warning label you see on products, equipment, toys, out in public that have these asinine warnings, the ones we all read and say to ourselves, what sort of idiot would do that? You know what I’m talking about: “keep you hands inside the ride,” or “this is not a flotation devise” or “not intended for use as a toy,” or “keep away from children” or “for external use only” For every one of those, there is some moron who doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground and did something wrong, got hurt and filed a lawsuit. Slip on a wet spot in a store? You weren’t paying attention. Your child choke to death on a toy? You weren’t watching him.

Why can’t people own up to their own responsibilities? Well, now they can. If you’re going to sue someone, first you have to pass my Frivolous Lawsuit Test (patent pending).

Question One: Did you get hurt doing something somewhere other than at home that any normal person wouldn’t do or try?
Question Two: Do you expect to claim over one million dollars even though you only make $7.50 an hour and/or are you suing because you hope it will make you famous or at least appear on the news?
Question Three: Are you suing because you ate something, drank something or smoked something that millions of other people eat, drink or smoke on a daily basis?
Question Four: Has anyone quietly shook their head in disappointment at you when you told them why you were suing?
Question Five: Are you suing because you did something you saw on TV or heard on the radio?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you my friend, are filing a frivolous lawsuit and should be stopped immediately and placed into some sort of holding tank for self-aggrandizing idiots.

Here’s a good example and let me know what you think: A Florida phone sex operator won a workers’ compensation settlement claiming she developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands from giving herself an orgasm as many as seven times a day while speaking with callers.

Here’s another: The parents of a 27-year-old man who was found dead in a killer whale’s pool at Sea World Orlando sued claiming the theme park caused his death by portraying the dangerous five-ton orca as safe and huggable.

Just asinine.

Violent Crime Problem: There’s a very easy solution to this problem: More cops, more jails, more penalties. The main psychology of the situation is that people commit the crimes because they are willing to risk the sentencing. It’s not that bad of a risk. Say you want to go to Las Vegas for a very good chance of winning a million dollars, but it will only cost you a few to take that risk. That’s good odds. Now say you can murder someone, plead temporary insanity and only spend 10 years in jail or so? Sounds like a reasonable risk. We need to, first, bring back the Hammurabi's law code, incidentally one of the first set of laws in human history. If you are convicted of premeditated murder, sorry, but it’s the death sentence for you, and if the crime you’ve committed one someone will forever change the rest of their life, then your life will forever be changed. Stiff penalties for crimes will make those on the verge of doing them think twice about playing with their own life.

Global Warming: Haha! For starters, just to let you know right off the bat, I don’t believe in global warming. That is, I don’t believe in it in the same way others want us to. Sure, the Earth’s temperature is rising a few degrees a century. It’s going to do that, as it has been doing that for millions of years, but what I find so annoying is that scientists (and you Al Gore) are so self-centered and egotistical to think that mankind is important enough to the vastness of the ecosystem to cause such a dramatic change in the climate.

Pollution is bad, greenhouse gases, o-zone layer and all that, I agree, but it can’t possibly be enough to make the temperature of the Earth rise or fall one way or another.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, they say that pollution was many times greater in London and Paris and New York than it has ever been. Since that was 150 years ago, why didn’t we see a horrendous spike in “global warming” then? I’m not going to say that pollution is under control, not by a long shot, but I am willing to bet the air is a lot cleaner than it used to be… but why do it? Not for the good of the Earth, but for the good of the individual. Who wants to breathe polluted air? Not me. But it’s not enough to kill the planet. The deserts in the Middle East used to be lush with vegetation. The now frozen tundra of northern Siberia was once a giant forest. Who turned an oasis into a desert and a forest to a tundra if mankind wasn’t around to do it? Wow, maybe there’s something larger at work here than just little old us.

Gun Control Problem: The idea of a gun is more a psychological problem than it is a physical one. A gun is another muscle that people use for intimidation and if you take away that option, you take away the psychology of the gun. And you can do that without making guns illegal… instead make them very legal. Think of it this way, if you’re about to pull a gun on someone and there is a strong possibility that this person will also have a gun. Oh, you gush, what about those countries that have strict gun control and their crime rates are almost nil… like Japan, for example. That’s a good argument, but you have to take into consideration the mentalities of the peoples involved. Good or bad, Americans today are imperialistic, domineering, self-centered, egotistical, self-righteous and altogether conquering: Manifest Destiny, Trail of Tears…the whole take California from Mexico just because it contains gold and we’ll soon need it to fight a civil war. It has all added up to a society that takes what it wants by whatever means necessary to take it. Japanese are more respectful of authority, their fellow countrymen, acquiescent maybe to the will of the way.

World Police Problem: Doesn’t it always seem like if there is a problem in the world, everyone looks on the U.S. to come to their rescue? We do it all the time, and in the last 100 years, I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a country on Earth we haven’t had to send troops for whatever reason. What happens after that? That country gets invited to be on our world welfare program and all we do is dump truck loads of money into their coffers.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (a government group), the two goals of U.S. foreign assistance are to further US foreign policy interests ( which is to say we are interested in democracy and free markets) and to improve the lives of people in the developing world. Why, when there are so many people in this country whose standard of living is well below the norm, yet we pump a great deal of the economy’s money into other countries.

In 2004, we sent 8.5 billion dollars to the Middle East (Iraq $6.4 billion, Egypt $664 million, Israel $555 million, Jordan $400 million, West Bank $137 million); 3.9 billion to Africa (Ethiopia $433 million, Sudan $474 million, Uganda $222 million, Kenya $176 million, Liberia $138 million, South Africa $126 million, Nigeria $125 million, Congo $119 million, Angola $118 million, Tanzania $101 million); 2.2 billion to Latin America (Colombia $648 million, Peru $275 million, Bolivia $178 million, Haiti $158 million); 2.8 billion to Asia (Afghanistan $1.5 billion, India $172 million, Philippines $168 million, Indonesia $157 million, Pakistan $155 million); and 2.4 billon to Europe and Eurasia (Russia $1.1 billion, Serbia $235 million, Kosovo $110 million, Kazakhstan $107 million).

That's 19.8 billion dollars all in the interest of spreading democracy to some lands that frankly aren't interested. Does it end? No, of course not. We give money to everyone and they’re starting to expect it. I say, let other countries handle their own problems and if they don’t, they’ll cease to be a country and someone else will have a go at it. What about the poor people? Who cares? What about the poor people in our own country? Have you ever seen a “send us just 13 cents a day” program on television that sponsors poor kids in Kentucky? Of course not, and why not? Because we’re the world’s police department. Foreign aid needs to stop, entirely, unless we directly benefit. Do we get free oil from the money we send Kuwait? No. Do we get free vodka from the money (and grain) we send Russia? No.

So, how many of you did I piss off? Let’s see a show of hands. Good. Doesn’t it feel good to get mad about something? Doesn’t it feel good to know that there is still conflict about highly charged topics and that you are free to voice your opinion about them without the care of hurting someone’s feelings or violating their personal beliefs?

Now you know how I feel.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chicks Dig Scars

Actually, I don’t know if that’s true or not. Perhaps scars link a man to a mystique of ruggedness, stories of danger, peril, and adventure, a careless abandonment of life and limb, or an element of the bad boyism that some women are oddly attracted to. Maybe chicks dig how the guy got the scar in the first place. “I got that one in a knife fight in Caracas, and this one? I was a bush pilot hunting the infamous Enkidu in the Himalayas. When I woke up, I was hanging upside-down in his ice cave and all I had to free me was my light saber.” Really.

However, never in my life has a woman come up to me and commented on the attractiveness of any of my visible scars (not that I have that many visible ones), and even Kara, my wife, who is bound by law to love the entirety that is me, has never quivered at the sight of any of them—even the dashing one above my left eye… or the one she caused—exclaiming in a sultry voice, “Ooo, baby, show me your knee again. I like a man whose open wounds have healed.” In fact, I think I’d be a little suspicious of her if she did.

To me, scars are like little dents on your car, each one a memory of something that happened to you over the years, proof that you didn’t just spend the time on the couch, and as I reach out for my middle-30s, most of my childhood-related incidents that left a mark on the topography of my body are beginning to fade, like erosion from the winds of time. I’ve lived with most of them for so long, I can tell you where all of them are and were, even the ones that are long gone (I shaved off a good chunk of my left thumb while whittling a smaller stick out of a bigger one when I was 12, and that scar is completely gone but I remember where it was), and since I spend a lot of my day looking at my hands (when I can’t think of a word while writing, I sometimes stare at them as some kind of inspiration—at least that’s where all the letters are), I know my scars like I know…well, the back of my hand. I have three on my left hand and four on my right, but with just a cursory glance at them, you probably wouldn’t see any scars at all. But they’re there.

I was helping one of Kara’s friends move out of her apartment, and while carrying out a couch, I crushed my right hand between the soft couch and a surprisingly resilient thermostat on the wall, right on the corner. It hardly bled and it didn’t hurt, which surprised me, but it was deep enough that it left an inch-long scar. Though it was 10 years ago, the scar is still there, a thin line of slightly raised skin.

On my left index and middle finger knuckles, there used to be two rounded discolorations caused by a severe burn while at work at a coffee shop in 1994. I was busy chatting with the customer while steaming some milk (for a cappuccino) and wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. The milk boiled over, scalded most of my hand, and when I let go of the metal carafe, it slid down on my two fingers that were stuck in the handle. I think I heard them sizzle, and later that night, I was at a friend’s house who had an aloe plant in his backyard. I tore off a gooey leaf and taped it to my knuckles for a couple of hours. It helped ease the pain. The scar is gone, but sometimes I catch of glimpse of it if the light is right.

The weird one came from Kara. This was probably a few months after I proposed to her, and she was still a little unaccustomed to the ungainly size of the one-carat diamond I gave her. Frankly, I’m surprised she didn’t just topple over to her left every time she tried to lift her left hand. We were on a walk (believe it or not, we usually did some form of exercise—the gym, the track or just a walk—on a daily basis before we had kids) and I don’t know how she did it, but her hand swung into mine and her ring gashed open the back of my hand. I bled like a stuck pig. Was that an omen? Maybe someone was trying to tell me something (maybe it was Kara!). The scar is just now fading away.

Knees always get the brunt of everything, and mine are no different. They’re as scarred up as a pious Catholic, both of them, but the largest scar I ever had has finally all but disappeared. In the eighth grade, I took journalism as an elective for my sixth period class, and during an intramural softball tournament (where all of the sixth period classes played each other), I earned a four-inch-long abrasion sliding into first base. Actually, I was sliding back into first base. The batter after me popped a fly ball that was caught, but by then I had already started toward second. The outfielder fired the ball to the first baseman and since I didn’t want to get tagged out (I know, it would have been a forced out), I decided that sliding was my best method, in shorts. My right leg ended up tucked under me and I dragged it along the ground into the first base. By the end of the day, my sock was soaked in blood, and by the end of the month, a long red scar was formed.

A few inches down from my knee on that same leg, I had a crescent moon shaped scar that has finally become difficult to find. Kara and I were boating off the coast of Cape Cod in a friend-of-the-family’s boat, and the current pushed the motor into a large clump of reeds. Since turning on the motor might have caused the blades to clog, we decided to push it out of the shallows. As I jumped overboard, I don’t know what kind of metal debris I landed on, but it sliced a gapping hole in my shin; since it never closed right, I had a deep red scar there that has finally returned to the regular color of my skin.

Which leaves hope for my other knee. Remember the garrulous story about taking the Single Cab to Subway and having to push start it in the parking lot, where I subsequently slashed open my knee? Sure you do. Fine, here's the link, but you should really pay better attention to my blatherings. Well, I’ve still got this nasty scar on my knee (photo at right), and to add to the misery of having to look at this on a daily basis, it itches like you wouldn’t believe, like I’ve got a colony of ants crawling around just under the skin. I can’t wait for this one to go away.

Okay, last one. You may have seen this one, just above my left eye, a small but jagged criss-cross scar I got in the Spring of 1993. It was the last day of the quarter at Cal Poly, Pomona, and, as usual, most of my fraternity brothers and I spent a good portion of the day in the Beer Bar (formally known as Take Five… it had a movie theme for some reason). Theoretically, you can only drink so much beer in a small, dark little bar without the urge to venture outside and see what the sun is up to, and so a bunch of us thought it to be fun to go back to my apartment (I lived across the street at the time) and go swimming. It was a wonderfully warm day.

While splashing around like idiots, excuse me, drunken idiots, Steve and Clint (their last names will be withheld for the sake of the guilty) started tossing people up in the air and back into the pool. I thought to myself, “Hey, that could be fun!” Me next! Now, most times in my life when I thought to myself “Hey, that could be fun!” it actually turned out that it wasn’t fun and I ended up doing some damage to myself. Take swinging on a wet soccer goal post as an example. September 26, 1986. Other kids were doing it before soccer practice. “Hey, that could be fun!” I said, and snap! Off to the hospital with a broken arm.

Well, there was no snap this time, but a dull thump as my face hit the bottom of the pool (we were smart enough to do this in the shallow end). I stood up, a little dazed, and Robert pointed out that I was bleeding. I hadn’t really noticed (drunk remember)… then I really didn’t care too much (drunk remember) and then it started to bleed a lot (drunk remember), and I mean a lot.

Our first mistake was going to the Heath Center on campus, but I had never been there before, so I didn’t know what they did. Now, we would have been okay if we needed condoms, aspirins or to talk to someone about a burning sensation (and then they’d tell you that you should have come in for some condoms), but it was clear from pre-med Dr. Rico that I needed stitches. And that was one of many things the Health Center didn’t do apparently. Instead of thanking them graciously for their time and retreating back to our car in search for a more suitable place to get above said stitches, I decided it was a great time and place to argue the case that my tuition demanded a facility that could give me stitches (remember, drunk). As a footnote here, surprisingly enough, that wasn’t that last time I would yell at bystanders in the healthcare field.

So, we drove all the way up to Glendora to my hospital of choice and we sat in the waiting room amongst the injured, me with highly thinned blood in my alcohol system dripping from my face. Rico and Robert were there, along with Clint and Steve, and as I’m sitting there waiting, Rico comes up to me.
“Hey, you have to go to the bathroom.”
It was an odd thing to say for sure. “No, I’m fine.” I reply.
With urgency, “You have to go to the bathroom.”
I still didn’t get it. “I went before we left.”
“Would you just go to the bathroom!”
“Fine!” I got up and went, and wouldn’t you know it—as if I hadn’t enough to drink that day, but lo and behold, there were two beers in the bathroom. As we were waiting, one of them thought it to be a great time for a beer run. They were refreshing. Later, I told the doctor that my friend Rico is premed and wouldn’t it be quite the learning experience if he could participate in the stitching process. He still has the utensils. Neat huh?

Well, there you have it. Whether you wanted to know or not, I’ve preserved forever the source of the little details that makes me unique. Sorry to bore you with all of this, but at least now you can identify my body if need be. Of course, I didn’t bother to mention all of the emotional scars I carry around, but really, who wants to hear about that, right?

Not me!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Much a Day About Nothing

Day Four of Not Leaving the House—It’s not like I planned to be a recluse this weekend, loafing around in various states of disarray, much less to stretch the hermitage that is this house into the week. It just so happened that I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and with the bug still laying siege to the ramparts of our home, currently smiting Kara as I write this, I figured I’d do the right thing and not spread it around the community.

You’re right, I’m not that socially conscious, I just didn’t have anywhere to go.

I was daddy on duty today, playing nursemaid to a little sicklet, who wandered around the house cycling through the highs and lows of illness from sobbing to giddy hilarity. Natalie is much better today, but to play it safe, I was okay with her lounging around on the couch in her nightgown. It is obvious she hasn’t yet learned humility; at one point during the day, she lifted up her nightgown to show me that she wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“I’m not wearing panties,” she explained, “so that my bum can air out.”

“That’s nice honey. Do you want to go put some on please? Please?”

Arms akimbo, leaning forward, emphasizing the important words: “No, daddy, I’m airing out my bum” as in what part of that don't you understand?! It struck me as a most unusual thing to say and I really don’t want to know what she means. Frankly, I’m not checked out on equipment and it isn’t my department, so I’m going to let it go as one of those things a father just isn’t supposed to understand. Later, Kara said it was alright.

Anyway, this morning, given how we spent most of last night, I was happy that I wasn’t feeling completely exhausted. I fell asleep a little past three, watching some documentary about motorcycles that I hardly remember, listening to Matthew wailing, and was soon rousted out of bed by Kara, lethargically ticking off a laundry list of things that are paramount in caring for a pair of sick kids for the day, half of which I didn’t remember and the other half I only agreed to so she would stop talking and I could go back to sleep. It was a bittersweet moment, a rarity that the kids slept in, as I figured both would spring from their beds at any moment and trample whatever slight enjoyment I was getting for sleeping a few minutes past seven. Every squeak of the crib or rustling of the covers amplified through the monitor, cracked an eyelid in the fear that my blue moon luxury had ended. Soon enough, at slightly before eight, Matthew hailed my attention and the day began.

Usually, by nine o’clock, I’m craving a nap, wishing that I didn’t stay up so late researching catamarans and their impact on the baleen whale, or whatever, but today I was bright-eyed all day, so apparently five hours of sleep for me is just the perfect amount.

In the anticipation that Kara was going to spend the evening face down in the toilet (which she currently is), she bought a couple of things at Target to keep the kids occupied and not gazing over her shoulder with such questions as, “Mommy, why are you yelling at the toilet?” and “Can you get me some runny eggs and greasy sausage?” What she bought Matthew was a Fisher-Price Sesame Street-sponsored “Silly Sounds Giggle Remote” in the hopes of keeping him away from ours (so we don’t have to wonder why we are suddenly watching the Nebraska pork futures report from Lincoln only to discover Matty with the remote in his hands and a look of mischief on his face). The downside to having a toy remote that looks remarkably similar to my Sony remote is that when I go to change the channel, nothing happens on the TV and all I can hear is Grover mocking me.

Of course, it came in a box from the store, and besides the fact that the packaging is twice the weight and mass of the toy itself, which would take up less space if I threw away the toy and kept the packaging, the remote was affixed to the back of the box with that 10,000-lbs. tensile strength wire that can only be cut with a blow-torch. The genius behind the design of the toy allows for holes in its back for the wire to pass through and that retaining wire comes in contact with the electrical wires that allow the toy to function. Of course, as with all toys these days, you can play with them in the store, which means that you’ll need to replace the batteries after about three days from bringing it home. So, in the box, out of the Target bag, on the floor of our living room, it worked in perfect order. Kara ripped out the packaging wires from the back of the remote (which is the only way to do it), and it stopped working. Ernie didn’t say, “Hi there.” Bert didn’t wheeze, “Hi everybody.” And Oscar didn’t tell me to “get lost.” Press the buttons and you get deafening silence. All that for just over $10 bucks.

So, I replaced the batteries, and that does nothing to remedy the problem. Instead of getting in my truck and returning it at Target, I dig out my little screwdriver and proceed to take it apart and maybe, with my limited small toy electronic expertise (from the University of Santa’s Workshop), I can find the problem and discover a solution. The second the last screw fell out, everything on the inside of the toy dumped out in a heap on the ottoman, my workbench of choice. Crap. If this all goes back together again, I’ll be the first to be amazed.

Funny enough, I did find the problem and I fixed it. A ground wire tore loose during the wire extraction process, and lacking a soldering iron, I Scotch taped it back together. Mickey Mouse, I know, but it is all I know. Nice, huh? And that only means it will function as long as Matthew doesn’t drop it, which means about fifteen seconds after I put in the last of the 12 screws the designers found necessary to keep this toy together in the case of a nuclear holocaust. “Oh God, we lost New York and the Pentagon… but the Giggle Surprise Silly Sounds Giggle Remote seems to be working fine. Quick, call Mr. Hooper. What? He’s dead? It’s much worse than we could have possibly imagined.”

Now, I’m suffering through the parade of torment that is the sixth season of American Idol, and since there are probably 1500 other blogs starting right at this moment to complain about the very same things, I’ll keep my comments brief. As usual, I’m disgusted by the inflated sense of self-esteem that young people on this show have. Do they listen to themselves sing without the drone of the shower? Why would their friends and family lie to them for so many years, only to be there when they are completely crushed? Some of them know they’re bad, and they want to be bad enough to get themselves on television—and I admire that ambition, even if you have to dress up as Apollo Creed to do it—but it’s those that stand in front of the judges, ring a cat to death with their bare hands and stand back with a look of exalted supremacy, as if to say, “Well, pile on my accolades.” When the truth smacks them in the face, that they couldn’t sing even if it was lip synced, they unleash on the judges as if they don’t know their jobs… c’mon. I think it stems from bad parenting, but that’s me fixing the world again. I should change the channel.

Why won’t this damn remote work? What is it Grover?

Okay, there’s a lemon strudel in the kitchen I’m going to make scarce… so I’ve got to go. Plus, when the almighty bug attaches itself into my lower intestine, I’ll have something worthwhile throwing up; sure’ll taste better than hot dogs.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Condemned Man

What a difference a night can make. Earlier this evening, Kara and I enjoyed one of those rare romantic moments on a blanket in front of a roaring fire in our none-too-often used bedroom retreat… and an hour later, Natalie’s laying on the floor by the very same fireplace under a few blankets, using a folded up towel for a pillow because her's is covered in vomit.

I thought the night was done; it’s been a difficult weekend, health wise, and you know that wonderful feeling of climbing into bed, thinking that all the troubles of the day and worries about tomorrow fall by the wayside during a few hours of coveted slumber? That was me. Kara was out. I was almost asleep, watching the last few minutes of a stupid movie, “Periscope Down,” when Matthew starts crying, wide awake. He’s been on a juice diet for a couple of days because milk makes him yak. He has the flu, stomach variety, and he spent most of yesterday throwing up and blowing out diapers so badly that we deemed his pajamas unsalvagable (and there was only a few small inches of area on the diaper that wasn't covered... I kid you not).

Anyway, unsuccessful at putting him back down, I wake up the reserves and Kara takes over. Suddenly, Natalie’s calling for help from her bedroom in that all to familiar sound of a sick little girl, somewhat muffled and forelorn. I take Matthew from Kara and we both start to her rescue. The smell hits me like a punch in the face long before I walk in the door. Natalie threw up all over her bed, herself and her pillow, even the Glow Worm got a piece of it. She’s frozen in place, unable to move for fear of miring further in the viscous vomit, and she’s partially embarrassed that she made such a mess and partially upset that she thinks she’s forever ruined her sheets and her pajamas (special ones that match those of her American Girl doll). It’s after midnight, all the lights are on upstairs and Matthew looks at me with that wide-eyed thrilling gawk of excitement he gets when there’s drama afoot; he’s not going back to bed any time soon, probably thinking, “Hey, I already puked in my bed. I’m glad it’s someone else’s turn this time. Being a spectator rocks.”

So we strip Natalie to nothing, and pull apart her bed, toss everything into the third bathroom’s bathtub and carry a sticky Natalie to our tub for her second bath of the night. The water’s warm but she’s shivering and looking a little sad. Matthew’s hanging his arms over the side of the tub, repeating “bahh, bahh,” maybe hoping he’s going to be next, but intent nonetheless about watching the proceedings. Gnat looks tired, worn out, a little despondent, sitting there motionless in the soapy water.

I go back and see what I can do in her room. It smells like a toxic waste dump, and despite the 30 degree weather outside, I turn off her heat vent, open the window and close the door behind me to hopefully air it out a little. Matthew’s delighted by the chaos, but I can tell he’s tired. We all are, and I'm sure this is just the beginning of the night.

But we all have to sleep...somewhere.

The last thing I want is a germ factory sleeping in our bed (like I'm not already infected with whatever bug is floating around the house)—and if someone throws up on our bed, it isn’t designed to repel it like kids’ mattresses; ours is a sponge—so I set up an adventure sleeping bed for Natalie, campground style in front of the fireplace. A couple of blankets for padding, a set of sheets and our last “extra” pillow. I moved the small TV and put in “Sleeping Beauty” for her to watch, something to get her mind off of throwing up. It worked too well. She threw up out of the side of her mouth because she didn’t want to miss a moment of the movie. So, pillow number two gets tossed into the tub and an expendable towel goes down under her. “What’s that for?” she asks. “It’s so you can be more comfortable,” I answer as she lays her head down, not wanting to say "so you won't ruin our blankets." “Oh, it’s soft.”

Elsa’s fascinated by all of the commotion, like always, and the smell of vomit is too much for her to ignore, so she takes a special interest in Natalie, the source. I’d like to think that she was concerned that Natalie was sick, which is why she wanted to lay down next to her, but she was probably hoping someone would spill something she could lap up. Sorry old girl, maybe next time.

After three times of coating the bottom of the bucket with barf (it is the wash tub we got from the hospital when she was born) and washing it out in the sink, Natalie had finally hit the empty mark on her stomach. The last time she was sick was at Julie and Joe’s wedding in April 2005, and she had no idea what was going on; what normally went in her mouth came flying out and there was nothing for her to do but keep backing up and let it fly. Luckily we were in a hotel, but unlucky for the maid, I guess (if you ever stay at the San Diego Hilton, don't ask for Room 623). This time, she was able to sit up and say, “Daddy, I’m going to be sick,” which gave me enough time to position the bucket under her before she erupted. I held her hair back and let her rest her forehead on my palm, and I haven’t held back a girl’s hair while she threw up since Kara’s at that USC party in 1993…good times. A couple of dry heaves later (and the end of the movie, of course), everyone’s asleep, finally. Elsa’s snoring, the baby monitor is humming and Kara and Natalie are adventure sleeping in the retreat.

I’m sure I’m next.

I feel like I’m sitting in a prison cell with my execution scheduled for the morning. As sure as the sun setting tomorrow night, I’m going to talk with Ralph on the Big White Telephone, as the bug will make it’s way up the family tree to me. It seems to strike in order of size: First Matthew, then Natalie… probably next will be Kara and then inevitable it will grab a hold of me by the stomach and drop me to the floor.

Perhaps it is psychological, but my stomach feels a little sour right now.

Natalie just awoke to throw up again.

Ugg. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Magic Kingdom Mayhem

I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t a good idea to go to Disneyland on a Friday, the week after New Year’s (last Friday), but it was a nice alternative to work. Of course, I had an article due in a couple of days and it didn’t thrill me too much to work on it at that moment, so I proposed a Disneyland trip. My enthusiasm was deftly matched and then exceeded by Natalie’s, who needs very little in the way of an excuse to visit Mickey Mouse and all the splendor of his house.

From an adult’s perspective, it didn’t go right from the start: We didn’t leave the city until 11:30 (after dance class), and when we got there, I knew it was going to be busy when the parking attendants pass out tissues for possible bloody noses, as they directed us up to the top floor of the parking structure. Throngs of people crowded onto the trams like it was the last train to Clarksville, and the line for strollers was twice what it usually is. We decided to walk instead, and I’m sure we still made it to the park before the last people in line. Good for us… at least until we got there.

(Right) Bright but chilly, Kara, Natalie and Matthew ride It's a Small World... still Christmasized (but nary a mention of the word "Christmas" to be found).

Years ago, back before kids, the house, the dog… this shirt I’m wearing… Kara and I had annual passes (which cost a fraction of what they’re fleecing today) and if the park was slightly crowded we’d either sit on a bench and make fun of Midwesterners as they walked by in their black socks and sandals or we would simply turn around and go home. Nothing lost, nothing gained.

(Left) Natalie, in her Addie Pray hat, awaits her turn behind the ears of Dumbo... we were almost there.

Now that Natalie’s in the picture, crowds be damned, we’re going on Dumbo…and then It’s a Small World… and then the carrousel… and if you parents are really good, I’ll let you take me to California Adventure and we’ll go on a host of rides over there even. The economics of waiting 40 minutes for a 30 second ride is lost on her; she only sees a purple saddle on Dumbo and the chance to fly. And tricking her into leaving because the park “is closing” doesn’t work when the sun’s out. Yep, we were committed to fishing the stroller through the crowds like a salmon swimming upstream, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the many faces of humanity, to absorb astronomical prices to our bottom line and to walk and to walk and to walk. I never complained before, but then again, I wasn’t weaving 60 pounds of children, stroller and more equipment than on an Oregon Trail covered wagon through hordes of people for six solid hours either.

(Right) Once on the ride, Natalie takes control and then says "Hi Mom!" every time we circled around to where she was watching us.

Of course, we did have fun—how can you not?—and Kara and I shared “let’s make the best of it for the sake of the kids” looks all afternoon when one string of people in line followed another.

We stopped at McDonald’s for dinner, a nice nutritional meal for the family, and I was surprised at how hungry I was, like I’m supporting a family of tape worms, but I had two Big Macs, fries, two large Cokes… and then I went back and got two more hamburgers for the ride home. I guess since I limit myself to eating at McDonald’s only once or twice a year, I’m allowed to splurge when I do go. But the sick part is that I had a bowl of ice cream when I got home; and the next morning, I didn’t gain a pound. I feel sneaky, like I got away with it!

The kids conked out on the ride home. We got stuck in some predictable traffic and listened to AM talk radio.

Typical family outing.

(Left) For some reason the Little Hippie just hates the Casey Junior train ride and merely holds on for dear life until it's over. Some tears were shed.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hippie Gets a Haircut

Most may have noticed Matthew’s hair was getting a little shaggy on the ends, and you may have asked yourself what kind of look we were going for with our son. I, myself, have been making “long haired freaky people need not apply” Five Man Electrical Band references for weeks, calling him a hippie at most every chance I got; you know that endearing way a father ridicules his son to show him that he cares enough about him to make creative comments? That was me. I went through a phase where I called him Ringo, saying, in my best British accent, “There goes Stu Sutcliff, he could’a been a Beatle,” but frankly his hair grew too long to be a Beatle, so I just settled on calling him a hippie. If you think about it, it fits: He doesn’t talk to the Man or do as he asks; he’s naked quite a bit; he dances in a strange manner to most any music; he stumbles around aimlessly without a care in the world; and he’s always pointing at things, the sky, clouds, balloons, as if they are the most wonderous things he’s ever seen and we, too, should all gawk in amazement. I think the other day I heard him call me a narc, as for weeks I was yelling at him to “get a job, you hippie!” and all the while Kara was fretting over getting it cut, wanting to wait until after his first birthday (for some reason but for which there was no explanation). I think, however, she didn't want him to pass his first “growing up to be a little man” milestone... you know, the milestones that line that road that leads out the front door in 20 years.

All this didn’t change the fact that when we went out in public, we’d get scornful looks from people, insisting that we shouldn’t have used hair-growth tonic on an infant. It's hard to explain to someone that the kid's hair is like a weed; it just won't stop growing no matter how many cigarettes we give him. One even threatened to call Tom Bosley to sort it all out. And I always found myself making excuses for his hair, as if I needed to explain to people that we know he needs a haircut but we just haven’t gone yet. Do you know how crazy our lives are? Well, do you!?!

Of course, Kara, being his mother and seeing no wrong, just loves his curls in the back and hates to see them hacked off. She didn't use the term "mullet" but she tried to explain to me a way that we could cut his hair short in the front and leave it long and curly in the back. I told her that was most definately a mullet, but she was in denile, so bad that she refused to even use the term, instead thinking of a different plan that involved a similar combination of long hair in the back and short hair in the front. I looked up "mullet" in the dictionary, and it that's what it pretty much says a mullet is, adding that all mothers go into denile when their sons come home with mullets, fooling themselves into believing that it is merely long hair in the back and short hair in the front.

I think the curls are fairly dashing for the young man too, but I didn’t want to keep them at the cost of the contempt of society, not to mention the rest of his head. I forgot he had ears, for one, as I haven’t seen them in so long it was starting to make sense that he doesn’t listen to me. In another couple of weeks, I’m sure his eyes would have disappeared behind the thick locks of hair dangling down his forehead. Speaking of which, all of that mass of messy hair made his head look small, making him look like quite the little baby… that is, when it was straight. But, up the humidity even a couple of percentage points and he magically turned into the Flying Nun. Wisps of hair darted out from either side of his head above his ears in long swooping upward curls that gave his head wings like a Red Bull commercial.

Time came, and it took us a couple of weeks to even find a place that we wanted to take Matthew for his first hair cut, but we settled on a place called Monkey Dooz a couple of towns over. They came highly recommended from Rico and LeAnne, as that is where they take Nathan. Kara made an appointment, finally, and off we went for his first haircut.

We got lost. Kara wrote down some weird directions. I wasn’t paying attention. Something like that. We ended up miles from where we wanted to be, and it took 20 minutes to find the place after that… so we were late, one of my largest anxieties come true.

Natalie, for one, didn’t want any part of the whole thing. She kept insisting that she wasn’t getting her hair cut, and she didn’t even want to come to the chair and watch the process (though I did see her keenly interested from a far). She actually sat in a round cushion chair and colored and read, very patient all the while.

So, Matty got his first haircut. He got to sit in an Army Jeep, a war command car. He got a balloon, a sucker… the whole nine yards. But I really don’t think he had too much of an idea as to what was going on. The hair tickled his face as it fell, I'm sure, and he wanted to play with his balloon. He tried to stand up a lot and Kara had to hold him in place, and he was very curious as to what all the fuss was about in the room. They have kids' parties there, and one particular girl was understatedly overjoyed about the arrival of all of her friends; there was another dad there, one of the girl's friends, and he looked numb. I pictured myself in his shoes in a few years. Deaf to the screams of delight, blind to the fact that my daughter is wearing a tiny skirt or that she has pierced ears... and dumb to any ideas of how to make it better. Just sit there old man, it'll be over soon.

The end result is that Matthew falls down a lot more often than before. I think it's because his head is lighter without all that hair up there, and he has to get use to balancing it again. All in all, he looks older, wiser, more of a little boy rather than a little baby, and when you look at him now, you’re not seeing a Flock of Seagulls hairdo, instead, you’re seeing Matthew, his smile, his eyes, the tops of his ears… the big boy after his first haircut.

Milestone One Towards Manhood: Check.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Work? What Work?

Some would say, “Ryan, why don’t we ever see you actually working? All we see is you screwing around. What kind of job do you have that allows you that much free time?” It’s an honest question, I’ll admit, and I can’t argue with the sentiment, of course, as on most days you’ll find me poking around at odds and ends, tackling an anomalous project or two or simply wasting as much time as possible until something interesting finds me (my movie production of Hamlet starring Little People falls under this last category).

But as a freelance writer I do work. I have clients, trust me, and what I do is a full time job, for sure, and much more so some times; the difference to the Johnny Nine-to-Fiver is that I choose alternate hours of the day to accomplish my tasks, and usually, I’ll cram 40 hours into two solid day of vocation.

Take today for example. I’m wearing what I wore yesterday, and I only know the difference between today and yesterday by the calendar in front of me; other than that, I’ve been doing nothing but work. I haven’t yet showered. I don’t remember the last time I shaved or combed my hair for that matter, and I left the house twice in two days...and both of those times was to get the mail. Basically I look as though I just woke up, which is true, but it was how I looked when I woke up yesterday.

What do I do? Well, on a good day, I research a story, make some calls, conduct some interviews, get some quotes, write the story, proof it and then wait for the check to arrive. On a bad day, I do nothing and feel guilty about least until the checks from the good day start to roll in. Some checks are small, like the mere $50 I get for my 500-word tech column and the big fat nothing I get for the food critic gig (I did gain four pounds however), but I do these two jobs because I enjoy the subject matter and it doesn’t take insurmountable effort; but some checks are big, like the auction house catalog work I did in June, which covered the bill for the wheels, tires and lift on my truck.

The days that I’m writing a story or “chasing a lead” are what keeps me doing what I’m doing, because it is always something different. The whole point is that I like to write. However, for my main client (and I say main client because they are the ones with the deepest pockets who keep me regularly busy with daily work and a biweekly invoices that amounts to what normal people would call an annual salary)… anyways, for my main client, the work is always different (but related to a singular subject), changes frequently and varies in degrees of difficulty to mind-blowingly exasperating to mind-dullingly monotonous.

The weird part is that I really like it. I find the subject matter interesting, the people I work with are really nice, and I'm learning a great deal (not to mention that I'm somewhat of a favored editor--nice little pat on the back there). Plus, where else can I work in my shorts and a t-shirt or sweats and no shoes? That’s right, only at home! The best perk of all is that everything is tax deductable! Everything I touch during the course of my work gets an automatic 40 percent discount from the government. That book I bought for research is $10? Nope, come April 15, it actually turns out to be $6! How grand!

Don’t judge me unfairly, I’m a avid showerer, as I usually take one or two a day depending on the day and whether the first one “took” or not, but my lack of personal hygiene today is indicative of the monotonous side of my job, as there is a project that must be finished by today but it took longer than I anticipated it would, so I had to pull an old fashioned college-approved all nighter.

It isn’t as though I made it a point not to take a shower today, but I got so wrapped up in my work, time slipped by, the sun went down…and sometimes it comes back up again before I know it. I could have started on it earlier, but then that would go well against the whole put-it-off-until-the-last-minute thing I’ve got going here that gives me the free time to go to Disneyland and spend silly time with Gnatty and Matty.

So, what’s the project that demands you abstain from showering, you dirty bum, you ask? Okay, here’s what I just finished up: I was given from my editor a master file containing 76 pages of charts, probably 250 such charts. The heading on each chart is an individual code that relates to one or two or several different car models from one particular manufacturer (in this case, Toyota). The file is surprisingly thin, about one-third the size that I would have expected, especially for Toyota, as the files I was building last summer were topping out at 300 pages and nearly 1000 charts each. This was a welcomed reprieve.

For this particular manufacturer, Toyota, it has 23 models, and each one has one to five different engines used over a span of 10 years from 1996. I have to take this master file and parse out each individual car for all 250 codes and on all 76 pages… and I have to do that 23 times, once for each model. The end result is 23 files plus the original master.

But there’s a catch, a big catch: Most all of the 250 codes are shared by several different models and all of the engines and years for those models are listed together, so I have to be an expert on this particular car, knowing what models use what engines over which years. For example, the Tundra and the Tacoma each share a single engine, the 3.4L 5VZ-FE VIN N, but the Tundra uses one other engine and the Tacoma has two others that they don’t share. And those three extra engines are usually listed under like codes (the diagnostics of both trucks are very similar), all jumbled together. To make matters worse, the Tundra’s years span from 2000 to 2006 while the Tacoma is from 1996 to 2006. So, with one particular code, take for example P0302, a misfire of the second cylinder, there are four different things (each with two or three possibilities) you have to beware of and separate from the rest of the list before moving to the next code. For instance, you can't have Tacoma's engines listed in the Tunda's codes and you can't include a 1998 Tundra under P0302, of course, as they didn't start making them for another two years.

It can be incredibly intricate and complicated, especially if you make a mistake, as all of the engines are listed by the letter that corresponds to its VIN number (the engine above, VIN N). Sometimes two very different engines will have the same displacement but slightly different letters (the Highlander and the Camry share an engine, the 2.4L 2AZ-FE, but the VIN for the Highlander is D while the VIN for the Camry is E), and if you’re not paying attention you might miss that difference or superimpose the two and not notice it until you 100 codes down the list… well, you’d have to scrap the whole file and start again from scratch.

There you go. That’s the bottom end of the spectrum of my job, and I love what I do, where I do it and the manner in which I’m allowed to do it. However, it doesn’t matter how glamorous your job is, there comes a time you’ve got to sweep the floors, and even though I get immense satisfaction from 80 percent of what I do, sometimes I have to sit at my desk and banally clack away at the keyboard producing what appears to be 23 individual 76-page documents of indecipherable technical automotive jargon. Good times.

I’d kill to write a regular article about now.

My next big project for 2007 will blow your mind, and though I’m just in the outline stages of it, I already feel as though I’m about to jump off a cliff with a giant parachute and it’s going to take me all of 2007 to reach the ground again. Picture a giant spider web, and consider what I told you about the charts and the 76-page document. Well, that was just for one manufacture and 23 models, but this one will cover all domestic vehicles, every production car made in the US… it’s hundreds, and instead of merely 76 pages, there’s going to be probably 300 pages. Okay, are you still picturing the spider web? Good. Now, at each intersection of the strands of the web there is a single code, only this time there are thousands of them and thousands of connections. My job is to write the technical text that connects all of those codes together, so that when one of the strands breaks, you can find it and fix it. Each of the connections are related to the others, but whereas some crossover, most don’t so they’ll need individual instruction for that specific intersection.

Make sense? Probably not, but then your job probably wouldn’t make much sense to me either.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A New Beginning…

Well, it was bound to happen, inevitable like a sunrise. I couldn’t have told you when it was going to happen and I couldn’t have predicted how much would befall us, but the point is that it finally occurred: Our house has become a toy store. Toys everywhere. Natalie’s “Train Room” (shown here) has been converted into a dumping ground for Santa’s workshop, as every conceivable and imaginable type of toy is represented from workbenches and tools, riding rockets and dump trucks to princess salon complete with chair and mirror and a doll house taller than Natalie…not to mention the gads of stuff that was already there, and that's just a fraction of it; there's a whole room's more of it upstairs. There’s more molded plastic around here than at a Beverly Hills PTA meeting, and frankly I’m surprised the deluge even stopped.

Though last year was heralded as the “Christmas That Wouldn’t Die” because we cycled through a half-dozen gift exchange sessions with various close friends and families, coupled with a “we gotta see the new baby” syndrome that grips families in the wake of a birth, this year the worst is finally behind us and we can get on with our lives again. The Christmas tree is still standing, surprisingly, as Matthew—who see everything in the house as a Mount Everest that must be ascended—didn’t try to poke his head up through the branches toward the summit as I predicted he would do. Although, the tree is nothing but fuming kindling ready to go up at the slightest hint of a spark, so much so, that I demanded that our holiday guests wear rubber booties in fear of static electricity. There are a variety of presents still scattered under the tree and a wide assortment of various pieces of toys that have completely lost their companions. Natalie got a clock with removable numbers in the shapes of blocks, and she likes it, but systematically has dispersed each of the 12 blocks to far flung reaches of the house that will only be found after a complete tear down.

This year, I’m glad it’s over with. Never before have I wished Christmas through much sooner than it was. I wasn’t in the mood for it on the run up the hill toward Christmas and when we finally reached the pinnacle of the day, it was a mad dash to get everything done…and not to mention the post-Christmas blues that most people get, that anticlimactic emptiness associated with the unusually quiet atmosphere that surrounds December 26th. For me, very little time was spent just sitting there looking at the tree, fondly remembering Christmases past…and breathing, simple “I know I’m alive” calm breathing, the sound of the air leaving your mouth and the relaxed feeling of your chest rising on the next breath, escaping reality. I didn’t get to do that this year… I don’t get to do that hardly ever. Sadly, there’s always something to get done, from mowing the lawns to creating a path through the toys so I can safely navigate my way in the dark from my office to my bed without the fear of A) Getting lost in the flotsam, B) Breaking a leg on a Little People Michael—who looks like he’s giving me the finger but he’s really holding an airplane—or C) Inadvertently breaking a toy and then having to pay to replace it because, without a shadow of a doubt, the said broken toy will be Natalie’s favorite toy in the whole world and now that it is broken—even though she hadn’t played with it, seen it or even excavated it from the lower strata of the ever mounting toy pile in a number of weeks—it’ll be all that she will talk about until it is replaced.

Always something to do. Professionally, Christmas is a frustrating time because there’s an entire week where the world shuts down… good luck in calling a city hall to speak with a councilman about the living conditions of his town for an article that is due tomorrow, and good luck in getting anyone to return an email about a book project I’ve started (more on that later) because Christmas is paralyzing to procrastinators—I know, ironic that I complain about it, right?—and good luck in getting paid for a previous project until after the holidays because every sticking soul in accounting has decided to take a vacation for the last two weeks of the year. Sigh.

What I like is New Year’s Eve. Always have, ever since I was a young boy, excited at the concept of a year changing from one to the next. It is a nerdy result of my fascination with the passage of time, but I especially remember watching Jack Benny in his 1945 “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” a silly movie about an angel who comes down to Earth to destroy it on New Year’s Eve. Some New Year’s Eve, they’d show it and my brother and I would stay up as late as we could watching it, celebrating if we made it to midnight.

What I enjoy most about it is the ability to “start again” on a clean slate, which is probably the driving force behind all of those New Year’s resolutions that float around, and now for the next few days we have to suffer through the endless parade of “news” items about the galactically rich and stupid New Year’s resolutions. Who cares if Britney Spears’ resolution is to be less of a tramp or that Brad and Angelina are going to swear off eating baby seal meat (Oh, by the way, there’s an actual AP story online all about Spears’ falling asleep in a night club… really. Bookended on either side of her drowsiness is a feature about Saddam’s execution and President Ford’s funeral. So we’ve got Ford’s funeral… that’s news, right? Then there’s Hussein’s hanging… certainly news, but smack dab in the middle is little Britney snoozing it up at a night club. I just don’t understand how we allow ourselves to be force-fed this crap as news… and now I hear that Demi Moore says that children with Ashton I-wear-my-trucker-hat-sideways-and-I-so-wish-I-can-be-a-legitimate-actor Kurtcher is a possibility. There is also the possibility they might each realize they’re using each other; he’s using her for mainstream acting gigs through her production company and she’s using him to stay young and in the spotlight. You’re 44, act it.)

Sorry about that. Where was I?

Yes, of course, New Year’s resolutions. Mine, of course, is the same one it is every year, and that is to spend less money, which seems just as improbably as it is ever year, but I try. Doing great so far: Spent 45 dollars on furniture for Natalie’s doll house and nearly 50 bucks on an over-priced dried-out shoe-leather of a hamburger, with an additional 1.50 for a mere hint of bacon and an extra 85 cents for a partially solidified slice of Kraft cheese. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and just because I wrote one restaurant review last week, it doesn’t make me an expert on food; I just know what I like, but comparing the hamburger I had last week to the piece of tire I gnawed on today is like night and day.

Another one of my resolutions is to not write so much. God, I can just blather on, can’t I? I’m sure I’ve bored most all of you to the brink of tears by now, and on that note, I’ll say that it’s nice to be back after taking a break over Christmas and let’s hope 2007 is better than 2006 (not that 2006 was especially bad, but better is always good).

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