Saturday, April 28, 2007

Half the Family Meets the Scissors

What is it about hair? We spend so much time and money on something that is completely useless to the evolution of our species, but it is the one thing that, no matter who you are or what you’re doing, you indelibly care about (Kurt Cobain aside of course, but he’s dead…). We comb it, wash it, primp it, cut it, and make sure that it doesn’t attract nesting birds, and what is the point? I’d just as soon buzz it all of, which is an easy thing to say since I’ve been blessed with thick, albeit heavily graying, hair, and when it does start to go 40 or 50 years from now, I’m sure I’ll rue what I’ve just said here.

Hair is usually one of the first things we notice about a person, and it has become a benchmark on which we guide our opinion about someone, from their hygiene and personality to their health. Healthy looking hair, befits a nice person onto which we place value; not so healthy looking hair, is a sickly person whom we pity. Have we ever had a bald President? Has a bald man ever been Time’s Man of the Year (actually, I have no idea; I’m just throwing that one out there in the dark). And when is the last time you saw a bald man accepting an Oscar?

That said, I spent time at two different barber shops getting two separate heads of hair cut, as it became time for Matthew to have that Flock of Seagulls—that is weighing down his brain and undoubtedly doing irreparable damage to his neck muscles and spine—cut for once and for all.

Of course, the same problem dredged to the surface again, and that is dealing with his curly locks, a collection of tussled tresses that has defined his character as a sweet-hearted little toddler. Kara is afraid that, without them, he will degrade into some kind of menacing hellion with a buzz cut, suddenly turning to a mean-spirited 15-year-old up to his eye sockets with angst and rebellion. I for one attach no sentimentality to his hair, curly or otherwise, and think that he needs to have a haircut that reflects the times rather than the heartstrings. Would he look any less cute without the curls? Of course not, but at the same time, we’ll have a lot less birds trying to balance eggs on his head.

Kara felt differently, which is probably what motivated her to get a pair of scissors and attempt a modification of his nose-reaching bangs. Good intentions aside (I’m sure he was having trouble seeing through the cascades of fringe), when I saw his new hairline, it reminded me of two things: the jagged, rocky tips of the Teton Mountains, those incredibly rugged and impressively uneven peaks in Wyoming, and the plastic hair that you attach to the tops of the heads of Lego people, snugly fitting, face framing and very constricting.

The fact that the boy lacked ears is really what it came down to, and although I once considered haircuts to be outside the realms of my duties as a father, I’m realizing that in order for the boy to start on the road to become a man, he needs a good haircut (something I lacked until well into my late 20s, so I know all about it). And putting his faith in the scissor-armed hands of his mother to look fashionable, cool and dateable outside the circles of the Audio/Visual department, is like the sheep putting their faith in the wolves. The last thing a mother wants is her son to be attractive to other girls, her ultimate replacement.

Perhaps with a tinge of passive-aggressiveness, she put it off and she put it off and she put it off. I mentioned it every time I saw Matthew, and the more time that went by the more he started to look like Cousin It from The Addam’s Family. And I found myself making excuses for him when we other people commented on his hair, which made me resentful. The last thing you want to do is defend your son, especially when it is about something that is totally not his fault or problem, and soon it dawned on me that I wasn’t defending him for his appearance, I was defending our lack of parenting skills, thinking that people were judging my laziness to get his hair cut.

“If they won’t even cut his hair, imagine how long they go between diaper changes!

So, I made the appointment, and not really sure where to take a toddler for a haircut, we returned to the place where he got his first one, lo those many months ago. I called to make an appointment, and I was given the impression that it would be a madhouse if I didn’t arrive prompt and I didn’t get there before school lets out at 3pm. And as I’m driving the 25 or so miles out there, I’m wondering why isn’t there a place closer to my own house, surprised at myself for not doing a little checking around.

We were late because I got lost, but it was only five minutes or so. I pictured the shop mobbed with throngs of heavy-headed kids all clamoring for a spot in the chair, and the poor hairstylist up to her hips in hair clippings from the hundreds of other procrastinating parents who want to see what their own kids’ ears really look like.

The place was empty, dead quiet empty, and I though I saw a tumblehair drift by in the afternoon breeze. Like last time, we propped him up into the barber chair shaped like a mini Jeep, and that’s when he started to cry and he didn’t stop crying until I picked him out of the Jeep again merely 10 minutes later.

The woman who cut his hair was a surprising choice by management to have around impressionable children, so much that I don’t think we’ll go back. Just for description’s sake, she wasn’t a small woman, and I’m not going to hold that against her at all, but what I will is her choice of clothing. Now, granted it was in the low 90s and we are on the verge of summer here, but that doesn’t mean you should go around in a tank top, especially when there are children around, especially when some of them are fresh from being weaned from breastfeeding. It was like she had two bald-headed men hugging under her shirt, and she was wearing what I can only describe as a shelf bra, one that goes well above and beyond its job as a lifter and separator, but instead wrenches those things up as high as they can go. The end result was Grand Canyon cleavage they can probably see from space.

Though somewhat disturbing, I was mostly bothered by the tattoos…not one, not two, not even six, but eight visible tattoos on her arms and shoulders, and she was sporting that rat rod mod-style haircut that is straight from the 1953 car culture era, jet black, straight bangs with a ponytail or two. However, she looked like a Harley rider, and I expected a Harley to be parked outside. When she rode it, smart-ass people would undeniably utter, “Look, there goes a couple of hogs.” Too far? Probably, especially since she did seem like a nice person, but regardless of the fact that we were taught not to judge a book by its cover, often times we do. I always do: You look like a dirtbag, odds are good that you are on.

Here is a video clip of the poor little guy subjected to thousands of his little hairs being unceremoniously hacked off.

So, he stopped crying when I rescued him from the unbelievably not-fun Jeep and the scary tattoo hairstylist woman and we left, taking nearly three times longer to get home than it did for the whole haircut.

Admittedly, I compromised with Kara. I didn’t tell Dita Von Teese to take to take off too much… wow, I could leave this sentence at that and let you draw your own conclusions from my Dita Von Teese reference (if you get it)… but this is a family blog, so I didn’t tell her to take off… as much hair as I thought she should of, so the results are kind of mixed for me. It’s short but not short enough, so when he wakes up from a nap he looks exactly like I do when my hair is too long.

Speaking of which, I found myself in his exact situation the day before, only that time there was a lot less crying and it only cost me a couple dollars more. My main motivation for getting a haircut was because I could no longer brush my hair. It wasn’t that it was so long or thick or infested with lice that I couldn’t get the brush to go through it, it was that I physically couldn’t brush my hair because I had lost my hairbrush. Matthew is at the age and the height where he can get into the top drawers now, and there’s very few things that gives him more fun and enjoyment than to have his hair brushed (don’t judge). Evidentially, he can do it for himself, so periodically my hairbrush winds up missing, and that’s okay, because I don’t normally have to use it unless my hair gets at that length that deems a cutting; therefore, needs combing. As it was, for the past few days, my hair was getting long enough that I was missing my brush… astute readers could say, “Ryan, why don’t you just go down to that Target you so love and pick up a new brush and end the suffering?” That, my dear reader, is a fine idea, but you know what would happen the mere second I came home with a replacement brush? Yep, the old one would turn up faster than a fish in chlorine and just what would I do with two brushes? I don’t need the moral dilemma of throwing out a perfectly good brush just because I have a brand new one… plus, once I did that, I would find out that I don’t like the new one and I’d be stuck.

But it is a moo point (a cow’s opinion…thank you Joey), because the need to comb my hair with a brush is the signal that I need to get it cut. And that is exactly where I found myself on Thursday morning, contemplating the paradox of a piece of hair.

It wasn’t crowded in the haircut place I go, but the fact that they only had two people cutting hair, cause quite a backup, and Thursday must have been bring in the youngin day to get them gussied up for some family event this weekend. To my left was a guy and his teenaged son, who both seemed to have mixed feelings about being there, and to my left was a white couple with an obviously adopted daughter, who must have played the cello because of the band aids on both knees. They wanted to take down some of her well-developed afro without losing any of the poofiness of her hair; the concept baffled the hairstylists, this Amazonian woman who towered well over me, as she looked like she was standing in front of one of those funhouse mirrors that stretched her out, and it didn’t help that she was stilted on three-inch platform-heeled boots. She probably bumped her head on the doorframe, and it is no wonder she cuts her hair really short, because nobody can see up that far anyway.

The other girl was much shorter, so much so, that her three-inch-fat flip-flops barely raised her up over the counter. So, today, it was like Laurel and Hardy were cutting hair. And I was all too willing to be subjected to it.

As I was sitting there, I noticed something profoundly interesting. In the chair was a attractive woman. She must have been in her middle-40s and probably was quite a catch 20 years ago, and more interestingly, she had really nice hair, long, wavy and fairly thick. The father-son team on my left spent an inordinate amount of time looking in her direction, at least the father did. She was there to take about two inches off of the bottom, which left quite a pile of clippings on the floor around her chair. When she got up to leave, the hairstylist didn’t have a chance to sweep up all of the excess hair before the father sat down in the hair. But funny thing is that he purposely picked his way through the piles of hair, careful not to step on any of it. It made me wonder: Why is hair so attractive on a person, but as soon as it travels the five or six feet to the ground, it is instantly transformed into something to be reviled? I will run my fingers through my wife’s hair at any given chance, and its qualities are the stuff fairy tales are made of, but when I see that exact same hair clotting the holes of the shower drain, I don’t even like touching it with the scrubby brush. Why?

So, that guy got his hair buzzed even shorter, and I stalled around to make sure all of the hair was swept away before I came near the chair… hey, I don’t condone it; I just think about it.

The hairstylist that cut my hair—I got the short one (Hardy), which gave me some relief because the tall one (Laurel) had a slack-jaw and spend a considerable amount of time with her mouth gaping open, one of my peeves—did a meticulous job at making sure everything was perfectly even, and she took a lot longer than I expected her to, but one thing worried me. While she was snipping away, the phone rang. I don’t mind that. It’s a business and people have asinine questions they can’t answer for themselves so they have to call, and the people that work there have to answer those asinine questions. However, not while they’re cutting my hair. So, Oliver Hardy goes from being a competent hair stylist (even though she had skulls on above said three-inch-tall flip-flops and only three of her ten finger nails were painted…and the paint was black)…anyways, she goes from being a competent hair stylist with two hands diligently practicing her craft on my head to being a questionable hair stylist with one hand holding the phone, distractedly answering a scheduling question from some woman who needs a perm and a trim. Hello, is my head getting in the way of this lady’s calendar problems?

She hung up, I check that both of my ears were still there, and then she hands me the giant mirror. Aside from signal planes, I never know why I am supposed to care to check her work. She rotates me so I can see the back of my head with the giant mirror, not knowing that I don’t give a damn if it looks good or not… anyone worth their merit to hold a cosmology license should be able to make a straight line on the back of my head without me having to approve it. Plus, I never, ever, ever get the opportunity to look back there, and if anyone has a problem with it, I don’t care because it means they’re seeing me walk away from them (I don’t walk away from people I care about) or they’re standing too close to me at the ATM… and they should back the hell up.

The experience cost me $15 bucks, and on top of the $12 for Matthew, that still puts us well ahead of the curve as far as hair cutting costs in this household… in fact, we still have five more credits each until we catch up to one of Kara’s outings.

And guess what I found when I came home that day? That’s right, my brush.

It figures.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sick and Tired

No, this isn't a rant about some asinine topic that only I care about... I'm sick and tired in every literal sense of the words.

It is very rare that a bug will get the better of me, and I like to think that because I don’t ever go to the doctor or take medicine, every time I get sick and miraculously survive, I’m somehow stronger, more fortified against any future ailments, more prepared for the next wave of flu or whatever virus is floating around. So far, nothing has happened to prove my theory wrong; a super bowel-busting buggy will sweep through the house, laying to waste most every mortal soul on two legs, and everything around me begins to resemble a hospital ward… but I come out on the other side unscathed. I’m like Superman, laughing in the face of influenza.

I don’t know why. I have just as much contact with everyone else in the house as everyone else does, so my “fortified” theory gains credibility each time. The bad side of my invincibility is that, when everyone’s moaning in their beds for a drink of water, some medicine, soup, crackers or to be smothered out of their misery by a pillow I’m the one in the house that get saddled with nurse duties when the bad tidings of illness come creeping. The joke’s on them, however, because I’m not that good at it. “Suck it up,” is one of my more memorable suggestions to the ailing masses. “You gonna waste your day in bed?” These comments usually illicit dirty looks and occasional threats: “Wait until it’s your turn.”

But it never comes.

That said, I spent most of last week wondering what sort of strain of illness had commandeered my body, leaving me a sticky, sniffy, sneezy, drippy mess, not to mention a couple of other factors that let to a really horrible seven days. It started with a headache and it ended with a headache, and about two or three times an hour, a deep, throaty cough dredges up a horrible concoction of God knows what kind of greenish-pale yellow bile-ish goop that’s best spit out in the sink.

Last week, I was at an awards dinner for Glendora's Citizen of the Year and just when they are starting into the speeches, whatever was damning up the river in my nose broke and a river of ooze began to sweep the natives downstream. Ever since I was in U.S. History in my junior year of high school, I hated people that sniffed or constantly cleared their throats. The guy that sat behind me cleared his throat and sniffed probably two hundred times in the course of a fifty-minute class, so every time I’m in this particular situation, I always think that when I sniff, those around me are plotting my death. My mother was sitting next to me, and she did offer me a Kleenex in that, “stop it, you’re bugging the hell out of me” voice that mothers have a knack for without being obvious, but there’s one thing worse than sniffing in public and that is blowing your nose in public. I refuse, regardless of the costs. It is one of the most reviling, disgusting acts imaginable, especially by those that use cloth “hankies” and then they stuff them back in their purse or pocket. Yuk, so I waited for the laughs and the applause to sniff up my brains that were slowly seeping from my face. I know, it’s gross, but there was nothing I could have done to make it any better. Had I blown my nose, I surmised, it just would have been a sign to the mucus makers lodged in my nose that it was okay to grind out more and I would be back to square one. The catch is that my nose would be cleaned out, slick, with nothing to slow down the deluge.

And I’m left with the residuals: sinus blockage (my best guess). I feel like I’ve been slugged in the back of the jaw, and every time I open my mouth wide to yawn (which I just did while typing the word “yawn”… anyone else?), a racking pain throbs its way up the side of my face, around my left eye socket and into my head where it clatters around, taking up what seems like a permanent resident as a full-blown, twenty-four-seven headache. Sometimes, I just have to sit there and think about it and my jaw begins to ache. Try this: Clinch your teeth together as hard as you can for about two hours. That’s how it feels, much like a leg cramp or a root canal (not that I would know as I’ve never had one).

I broke down and took Excedrin yesterday morning and it might as well have been jelly beans because it had zero affect… so I spent the morning laying on the couch, watching all of last week’s shows I missed, wondering at what point my head will tear open.

On top of which, for the past week, I’ve been waking up every morning as if it was the day after the big prize fight and I was the loser, pummeled about the head and shoulders by some monster three weight classes heavier than me. From my shoulders to my hips, everything is sore, creaky and bent, as if I’ve aged to 90 overnight. Getting out of bed takes a good five minutes before all of the parts wake up, stretch out and lose their stiffness. Some of it was just plain painful, like bedsores… and having bedsores after only six or seven hours in bed is just silly. I think the mattress is softing out on us, because I’ve been experiencing some level of back pain for a number of months now and sleeping in on the weekends (the only thing I really look forward to anymore) just isn’t the same, more painful than enjoyable. Laying down at night is like plopping into a bed of Jell-o. Granted, Kara and I don’t come crashing together into a giant divot in the middle of the bed, but I can certainly discern the small gorge where I’m losing the battle of gravity. In another couple of years, I’m sure my back will be touching the box spring.

It didn’t help that I pulled a muscle in my neck when I sneezed last Thursday. I should really stop being polite by turning my head when I sneeze and just let it go straight on, damn all who are in the way. During Easter dinner a few years ago, I turned away from the table to sneezed and it was as if someone planted a hatchet squarely in my spine. I had to lay down on the floor, and I couldn’t walk upright for a week Every time I moved, sat down, laid down, rolled over in bed, adjusted the seat in my truck, or took in a deep breath, it was like shards of glass scraping down the insides of my back. That might have been the last time I actually shed tears from hurting myself.

And every now and again, I can feel it pull. If I lift of something heavy and awkward… or sneeze, I can feel the exact same pain in the exact same spot and it is as if I’m just a microsecond away from snapping my spine and ending up in traction for six months.

At least the backboard would be hard, and I might just get a good night’s drug-induced sleep.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Budding Artist

Is this what Picasso’s parents had to put up with? Did Van Gogh’s father groan every time little Vinnie wanted to drag out the paints and inadvertently redecorate the room with mistaken splashes of paint, little drips and splattering oops?

For Easter, Matthew got a set of these fancy markers that only mark on a certain kind of paper and nothing else, which is good because it is a rare moment when the two—the paper and the pens—ever actually meet. However, he has come up with his share of masters from a blue scribble entitled “Ball” and, my favorite, a green scribble entitled, “Ball.”

Natalie likes to take it up a notch, break out the big girl paints and let the creativity fly. It usually means that everything from the elbow down will be a mix of colors by the time she is through and that I’ll have to break out the industrial cleaner on the kitchen table, but what she comes up with is really great art. I'm just happy that I remembered to put her in a smock.

Today, she was all about rainbows, and little Matthew wasn’t completely content with just using his markers on the floor. Since he’s part monkey, climbing up on one of the chairs has the extra incentive today because there’s a host of messy paints there to smear around. And Natalie was all too obliging by handing him a paint brush to use, paint-dipped bristles first, which Matthew immediately smeared all over his new Elmo shirt I put him in.

No harm done; they’re water colors, but still.

When Natalie finished her series of rainbows today, we sat for a while and admired it, and that is one thing I have always been impressed with Natalie: She knows her colors, and not only that, but she knows the proper order they go in to make a rainbow.

Here’s a little clip of Natalie showing off her art work.

Flight of the Bumble… er, Ladybug

Here’s a little secret: When I go to any of what mom-and-pop-shop owners call, “Big Box” stores, those wildly busy home super stores that carry most anything you can possibly imagine—yes, I mean Target, Home Depot, Lowes, Sam’s Club; where else do I go? Certainly not the cesspool that has become of all WalMarts—I park in the garden section. There’s always ample parking because people think that if they’re not buying anything in the garden section, there’s no need to park there and walk all the way across the store. Funny thing is that, no matter who you are, you walk three miles through Target anyway, and the joke is on you because now you have to wait in line to check out with all the other schlubs and then hoof it through fifteen acres of deadly blacktop to find your car.

The garden section solves all of those problems, and more. What’s more? Got aphids? Garden section can help.

I forget why I was at Home Depot the last time I was there, but undoubtedly I found myself in the garden section waiting behind an indecisive lady who was pondering the many possibilities gardenias have to offer the curb appeal of her double-wide, and in one of those moments of boredom, my eyes wandered to the various “point-of-purchase” impulse buys they have littered around the checkout stand. What caught my eye were several packages of ladybugs and a few packages of praying manti (is that the plural for a praying mantis?).

The package said it contained 1500 ladybugs and I wasn’t sure how that was possible. One hundred and fifty maybe, so it could have been a typo, unless they were all pregnant with 10 offspring each. I didn’t see any little maternity nurses walking around with tiny speculums or a bunch of gentlemen ladybugs smoking cigars and chucking each other on the shoulders for a job well done (man’s only true responsibility in the whole reproductive process). There was nothing but a bunch of creeping ladybugs scurrying around in the mesh bag. It looked like a little prison for bugs and I think they would be most delighted to come to my house and enjoy some freedom.

In that moment, I pictured the glee of Matthew and Natalie screaming about the lawn, chasing flitting ladybugs… and I pictured all of my aphid problems solved. Well, first off, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an aphid “in the wild,” and second off, I’m not sure if they’re an actual problem where I live.

So I bought them anyway. It was only four dollars. I’m sure their diet doesn’t consist solely on aphids. I’m certain they eat other things my yard has in plenitude. How about ants? Can they eat those. That’d be nice. In the cart they go and back to my house.

Natalie was sure excited to see them; next to butterflies, I think ladybugs come in a close second on her list of favorites. The package suggested that they be released just after sunset and into wet plants, preferably flowers, so they’ll settle in and sleep. As luck would have it, the plants that ring our patio (I don’t know what they’re called) had just started blooming, and each plant was bursting with tiny pink flowers I’m sure ladybugs would just love to nestle into for the night.

The sun had dipped below the horizon and the sky was turning a dark blue. The air was still and it was relatively warm. Natalie filled up her watering can and went around to each bush and sprinkled it with a healthy dose of water for the bugs. I clipped a corner of the mesh bag, careful not to sever any of the little gals in half (how horrible a sight that would be for them?) and I began to sprinkle them around the flowers. Most were willing to go, as they tumbled into the bushes, but some were reluctant. With a little coaxing, they joined their friends among the flowers.

And all was happy in the garden.

The next morning, before I went outside, I pictured the yard swarming with scores of red and black little bugs, eating a bounty of aphids and multiplying like rabbits. I pictured the neighborhood kids, walking by our house, calling it the “ladybug house.” You need ladybugs, you go there.

I walked outside to see the swarms and I saw nothing. Okay, they’re still sleeping, maybe. I inspected the bushes where we put them. Empty. I looked around the ground. Nothing.

That was three weeks ago, and to this day, I have yet to see a single ladybug in our yard. What’s more is that I’ve never even see a dead one… not one single carcass anywhere. And it’s not like I haven’t looked either. I’ve been on my hands and knees investigating the bushes around the prison break and all that remains is the barren tuft of grass they arrived with. It’s a conspiracy, as I’m sure they’re well on their way back to Home Depot to be packaged up again and sent out with another unsuspecting buyer.

So, beware: There are packages of homing ladybugs out there waiting to be set free... again and again and again!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hugs: A Public Service Announcement

I spend most of my days alone, sitting in my office, trying to maintain credible working relationships with my varied clients or busily plunking away at one project or another. My contact with the outside world is usually via that cold, heartless communication system we recluses savor, email, but sometimes I get to chat with them on the phone or once in a blue moon see them face to face. Other than that, camaraderie and company here at my little home office filled with books is at the barest of minimums. Some days, it is just Elsa and I working on an article and all seems right with the world. She is usually asleep on the landing for most of the day anyhow, or she’ll sprawl out on the floor by my chair and I’ll listen to her breath. It’s fun to watch her dream, which is one of the only times I 100 percent love my dog. When she’s sleeping.

Other than that, the UPS guy, John, comes around, Elsa goes berserk, and we exchange a brief chat about whatever is big in the news or what might be in the box that he’s delivering. Cars will go by, people walking… an occasional Jehovah’s Witness will attempt to convert me, but mostly it is a very quiet existence. And that might sound sad and lonesome, but most days it isn’t. I enjoy the freedom of being able to control my schedule, prioritizing my life and checking off the items on my list of things to do while other people are punching the clock in an office somewhere.

Some days, like today, I miss a good old fashioned hug, the warm kind you get when someone really likes you, that kind of hug that tells you that you have value and significance. I can say that, for not only is this my blog where I can say what I want, but I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to know when I need a good hug and to appreciate a good one when I see one. Frankly, I don’t get good hugs very often, and maybe that’s what missing in the world; you’d be surprised how many people don’t give good hugs. Perhaps they don’t know that they’re hug-challenged, or maybe they have issues with human contact.

Hugging, as a sport of polite society is such an awkward experience, as there has to be a predetermined type of hug you plan to give to someone before you go in for it. It is hard to tell if the other person is going for a slap on the back, a chuck to the shoulder or if he is a wide hand shaker. You’ve met them, the guy that swings his arm out, like a dolphin breaching the water, to come in at you. Sure, for a second it looks like he’s going to keep that arm up and wrap it around your shoulder, and to cover your bases, your right hand juts out in the direction of his soaring hand while the left scoops upward in case of a sneak hug. You don’t want to look like an idiot, and the most awkward thing to imagine doing is that little dance where one offered a handshake and the other offered a hug. To be obliging, you switch your tactic, but at the same time, so does the other person and you both end up looking like two people whose paths cross and they both are trying to let the other pass.

For the record, I really don’t like to be touched. It’s rather ironic, I know, but every time someone I don’t know touches me, I feel like I need to wash my hands. It’s nothing personal, but all I can picture are germs where their hands were. I’m not sure why, but I think it is associated with my rigid sphere of personal space, where I feel violated when someone I don’t know is standing too close to me or when their skin touches mine. Just back up, man, you’re not going to get any closer to the ATM by standing two inches from me. We’re all going the same way at the same time.

But hugs are different, because when I expect a hug from someone, I’ve already dissolved my personal space issues and I’ve allowed that person the right to hug me. Lately, I’ve been disappointed with the quality of hugs I’ve been getting. Bill Keene (creator of that disgustingly sick comic strip “Family Circus” said that a hug is “like a boomerang; you get it back right away,” and I think he’s dead wrong. Sure, I guess you get it back, but they never come back the way you give them; if I’m throwing out a solid cherry mahogany boomerang right from the Aborigines of the Outback, what has come back to me lately has been a plastic one from Wham-O.

Just before Christmas, I made a pledge to go all out with my hugs, you know, double armed, elbows at their shoulders, hands wrapped around their back, full body hugs… maybe even a couple of nice pats to boot.. and that cheek kiss thing. I was all over it. I figured that if I’m going to get that close to someone, then I’m going to pull out all the stops and give them something from the top shelf. And I didn’t get top-shelf hugs back for certain, and in the last four months, besides Kara and the kids, of course, I’ve only received a great hug from two people. The hugs I received in return from most everyone else were nothing better than a hug you’d give a porcupine on a cold day, cold and prickly.

My least favorite is the one-armed hug. I’d rather not be hugged at all, as they might as well come out and tell you that they think you have some kind of communicable disease they don’t want catch. It’s perfunctory, automatic, obligatory, mechanical, lacking all emotion and feeling and it is damn awkward. People on fire get hugged with the one-arm hug. Plus, I never know what to do with the other arm, as it is usually in flight, making its way to the other side for a two-armed hug. I can understand if you’ve got only one arm available, and I’m not going to crush a bag of groceries just to get a hug, but if your other arm is empty, that just says you find personal contact uncomfortable and you’re only hugging because society says you should in that situation.

Next up in order of least favorite is the shoulder hug. Usually women hug men with the shoulder hug; sure, it is a two-armed hug, but contact is limited to the shoulders only, like both people are trying to make a big A. I get them every now and again, and I’m not too crazy about it. It’s impersonal and lacks warmth and genuine affection.

The forklift hug is another on my list of much loathed hugs, and this one always comes from insecure men who feel that in order to hug another man, they’ve got to imitate some athletic event to justify the physical contact. Hugs turn into tackles or hockey blocks for fear that they may get a little touch of the gay if they linger too long. It is a variation of the bear hug, where you actually try to inflict injury on the person you’re hugging, which really goes against all those positive touchy-feely things psychologists promote through hug therapy…not that I know anything about that, if it does exist even.

Another variation of the man-hug is what I like to call the half-and-half, half handshake and half hug, but what it ends up being is a half-assed attempt at a full hug, stilted again by the rampant fear of contracting homosexuality. I shouldn’t be so bold, as I do this kind of hug all the time, as it is a socially acceptable hug between two men. You can pull this one off in a sports bar and nobody’d look twice at you, but if you go in for the full-body hug that has an “I’ve missed you” linger, people will expect fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them to soon arrive at your table. But the half-and-half is a good one, while still shaking hands, the two men crash their shoulders and upper chest into each other for a brief moment. It says I've missed you, but without exchanging body heat or mixing cologne. To me, it is a familiar hug, given to a good friend I see on a regular basis, more of a glorified handshake than a knocked-down hug. Of course, if I haven’t seen you in a while, you’re getting the full hug. I’ll shake your hand when you leave.

For the most part, a nice warm full-bodied hug that doesn't cause me to have to sign divorce papers is the nicest compliment someone can give me. It says, "I enjoy your company," "I'm glad to see you again," "I don't find you utterly repulsive," and "Good, you no longer smell like bait."

I’ll leave you with this caustically sugary poem by “Where the Sidewalk Ends” author Shel Silverstein. Careful, it causes cavities.

Hug O' War
I will not play at tug o' war.
I'd rather play at hug o' war.
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.


As luck would have it, a primer on the proper way to give another man a hug without compromising your masculinity.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Night at the Fraternity

I haven’t had a beer in the shower in a long time, but it seemed appropriate that I did for some reason. I haven’t had a beer while shaving in a long time either, but it seemed to make some sentimental sense that I did. Then again, I haven’t been around a bunch of 20-year-old kids since I was a 20-year-old kid, which was nice to do in that old sentimental fashion, but even sentimentality gets old pretty quick when you least expect it. I don't party, and I don't dance and I find it hard to revel in the new delights from the old times. On top of which, it was nice to go home at the end of the evening and be 34 again, not having to worry too much about the future like I obsessed about 15 years ago. Standing on the edge of a dance floor watching the crowds pulse to music I had never heard before reminds me of a time of uncertainty and carelessness. Perhaps I liked it then, I don't remember, but I don't welcome it now, not by any means.

One of the three organizations that I am currently volunteering my time to is my old fraternity, and since I told you about it a few months back, I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that the fruit of the kids’ efforts was realized last Friday when they hosted their Chartering banquet at the picturesque Mission Inn in Riverside, just west of the University of California, Riverside, campus. No, I didn’t go to that school, and since Cal Poly’s Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter has been around for 27 years, they really don’t need my help any—not like they’re sitting around weighing that thought—but these guys needed some guidance and organization and I was asked to help. Plus, it's close by. After three years of being a charter to the national fraternity, they were finally awarded chapter status and it was a treat to not only be on the ground floor of the night but to be at the banquet and see the excitement. I wasn't especially excited to go, because of the pressure to be interesting and extroverted (two things I try not to leak out), but once I was there and spoke to some of the members of the executive board, it was a pleasure to see how much it meant to them and their exuberance was infectious.

On one hand, it was nice to see such festivities, even. The room was glitzy, and all of the active brothers were dressed in bow ties and black jackets with pretty girls on their arms; the recent memories of their proms were probably not such a distant recollection for a lot of them. And, of course, formal dresses on the women were the du jour I expected. The whole nine yards.

I met a couple of guys that I hadn’t seen in a while, a couple of older alumni from my old chapter at Cal Poly, and I spoke to a lot of new faces. I got to meet the Grand President from Richmond (where the HQ is), and his old-school southern drawl was delightful, and I ended up saddled with a lot of the wives for some reason. Perhaps it is my wall-flowerism. I don’t mind standing off to the side and watching the people go by, and maybe other people see that and think that as an invitation to chat me up. Look, there’s another guy who’s by himself, so let’s go talk with him. Maybe he's alone. Granted I was, but it hardly means I'm lonely. However, I spoke at great length to a pregnant woman (talk about a fish out of water) about the excitement of being a first-time mom. Cripes, I can’t even get out of the house with other adults without talking about babies, and I sat at our table next to the grandparents and the mother of the chapter president, who were all charming people of course. The grandfather asked a lot of questions about the proceedings that I was only too happy to answer.

I sang fraternity songs. I charmed the bartender (which is something I always try to do, as it sometimes eases the cost of later drinks) and I talked shop with the hotel detective who wondered in to keep his private eye on things. He explained that fraternities are among the most respectful and rule-abiding groups that use the facilities, and weddings are the worst. He said that he’d rather have a room full of rodeo clowns than a wedding party, and I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that because I have never been around a large group of rodeo clowns. Frankly, I hope I never do, but I nodded in agreement all the same. Rodeo clowns. Wild. Uh-huh. Sure.

I ate the dessert intended for the person sitting next to me. Hey, he didn’t show up until late. His loss. I ate his salad too, and would have eaten his dinner if they’d brought him one. I was also lucky enough to have the bread basket land in front of my place setting, meaning free reign to the remaining bread, which was nice that I didn't have to share the spoils. Back in the day, we used to put our coats on the backs of empty chairs for the extra meal, telling the servers that there's someone sitting there, when there wasn't.

I had a good time--I always have a good time--but it was nice to go home, away from the turmoil, the fervor, the verve of youth. God, that makes me sound old, but I was never one for boisterousness and ruckus noise, especially that which is caused by modern music. By 10:30, I was pretty tired, and since I got smacked in the head by a cold toward the tail end of last week, a insurmountable headache started to drill me in the back of the eyes. Without a headache, even, I'm sure I would have wanted to leave. It was time. I don't dance, and that's where the evening was turning. I saw the old people, the grandparents and the parents, quietly leaving the night to a younger generation. I thought to do the same.

Regardless of all of it, I spent the evening out of place. Out of maybe 500 people in the room, there were perhaps 10 people older than me and another 10 people whose names I actually knew (or could remember), and not that I’m ancient by any standard. I’m old in my responsibilities and I felt it. Plus, I was by myself, so I had really no one to relate to.

So, it ended up that I spent the evening drinking by myself in a room full of people, leaving as many strangers as I met when I arrived.

Sorry, I’m not in a good mood, so I didn’t tell the story very well. There’s a couple of atmospheric-type pictures here and you can draw your own conclusions.

I did get a logo champagne glass to go with the collection.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Day of the Bird

Sadly, this isn’t one of those “Ah, Spring is here” stories that share with you the splendor of the rebirth of nature in this annual rite of the environment. It’s a lot more disappointing, but at the same time, very much part of nature.

Today, I had to stand there and watch a small bird die.

It started this morning, outside of dance class, where, on the sidewalk, lay a tiny dead bird. I wouldn’t have thought much about it, but Natalie and Matthew were both with me. Although I stood in front of it to block them from seeing it, Natalie’s very observant and pointed through my legs and asked, “Daddy, what’s that?” What could I say? I didn’t want to say, “It’s a dead bird, leave it alone,” so instead, I told her it was nothing. I felt bad about lying to Natalie, but I felt worse by leveling a bird’s life to that of nothing. After all, it was a life, but especially, because it was a baby bird, bald head, hardly any feathers, small wings. Probably fell from its nest in the middle of the night. Do mother birds look for lost little ones? I like to think so, but all she had to do was to look down.

Then we saw another one, same age, same fretful condition. I hurried the little ones past and into the dance studio. On our way out we took the long way to the truck.

A few days ago, a project Natalie did to celebrate the coming of Spring was to build a birdhouse. It was a creative affair: a paper drinking cup smeared in white frosting with birdseed stuck all over it. There was a string poking out of the top and so we hung it from my newly planted ficus tree (that’s been in a pot for the last six years).

Needless to say, she was very excited about seeing birds hanging on her paper cup covered in white frosting. Lately, we been visited by two little birds intent on crashing through the window in the living room. They sit on a potted palm tree and periodically jump at the glass. Maybe they’re seeing their reflection and thinking they’ve got a fight on their hands or maybe they don’t understand the glass barrier, but whatever it is, they hang on the screen and peek at the window. Natalie named them both “Natalie” and she’s always on the lookout for their mother.

This afternoon, we spent quite a deal of time in the backyard, playing in the sandbox and running around on the grass. The sky is littered with birds, and we sat on the patio and watched two of them swoop in on Elsa. Undoubtedly, they’re interested in her fur to line their nests with, but it still looked like an impressive David and Goliath dogfight that the birds were winning.

I’m always looking for ways to keep the birds off of the patio, as they perch on whatever’s available to wait until the coast is clear to scavenge from Elsa’s food bowl. She hates it and gets all in a tizzy if she catches one of them in the act. They always get away, but I hate it because they always poop right before they take off, so I’m constantly cleaning up bird poop. We bought a fake owl that they spotted immediately and are unaffected by it. I think they feel it keeps away the gullible birds. Gulls maybe? I haven’t seen any around, if that’s what you’re asking.

Today, I remembered a bird feeder that my brother Jason bought us a few years ago and we had it hanging at the old house, but haven’t yet put it up at this one. It sounded like a nice project for us this afternoon, so I dusted it off, unwrapped the bag of seed and we looked around for a place to put it. While we were doing so, Elsa was just being herself, running around the yard, chasing bees, and gnawing on an ant-covered leg bone of the ham we ate on Easter (she wouldn’t touch it for a week as it laid in the yard, but suddenly, after the ants began their ravaging, she became interested).

Natalie points to Elsa, “Daddy, what does Elsa have?” I look over and Elsa is standing over a very frightened and defensive bird. It was crouched on the ground with its wings extended and its beak at the ready. Drool drained from both sides of Elsa’s mouth. Yelling at Elsa to “Leave it!” didn’t do any good, and half way to the bird’s rescue, Elsa grabbed it and flung it into the air.

All the while, Natalie is asking, “What’s Elsa doing with that bird?” and Matthew’s making his way across the grass to the impending carnage. I told her to take her brother inside the house and that I’ll take care of the bird. Surprisingly, she did. Maybe she understood that it wasn’t a good thing that was happening or maybe she thought that somehow she was in danger. I assured her it was okay; meanwhile, Elsa had grabbed the bird again and I heard a small crack come from her mouth.

She dropped it on the patio and looked down her nose at it on the cement. It was still breathing, head drawn out on the ground. It’s legs slowly kicking and only one of its wings was waving in the air. I escorted Elsa into the house and she complained the whole way.

Back outside, I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought to get a BB gun and finish the job, and that would have been a lot easier than some of the gruesome alternatives I was thinking of. I got the shovel and stood over it for only a few minutes.

The legs quietly stopped moving. The black and white wing, sopping wet from Elsa’s saliva, came to rest over its body like a blanket. Up until then, the one eye I could see was wide and unblinking, black, staring up at me, the patio, the sky. I couldn’t tell. I hoped it wasn’t looking at me, but if it was, I was glad that it knew it wasn’t alone. Especially now. It’s body relaxed, sunk in on itself a little, and its eye first became a slit, blinked slowly a couple of times and then not at all. It was dead, and so I scooped it up with shovel to take care of it.

All the while, there were several disturbing reports from the birds as I could see a couple of them sitting in the trees watching me.

Natalie and Matthew (and the birddog Elsa) returned to play outside again, and as I passed out juice boxes for all, Natalie asked about the bird. “Where did the bird go?” she asked. I didn’t feel bad about lying to her this time.

“He flew away,” I told her.

“Why did he do that?” she asked. She’s forever asking questions, so I knew more was to come.

“Because he didn’t like being around Elsa.”


“Well, if Elsa bit you, would you want to be around her either?”

“Oh.” I love her “ohs,” those deep exclamations of understanding, even if she doesn’t.

A few minutes later, Natalie’s looking down at the grass when she says, “Daddy, the bird didn’t fly away.”


She points to something on the lawn. “The bird didn’t fly away.”

When I arrived to investigate there as another dead bird on the grass, a baby bird this time, one exactly like the first one only with less feathers and smaller wings. So, maybe the birds earlier weren’t going after Elsa’s fur but instead were attacking her for killing their young. I don’t know if birds do that, but it does make sense.

What to do about Natalie, though? “Is he going to fly away?” she asked. I couldn’t lie to her this time, as this particularly mangled bird couldn’t have been sleeping or resting or taking a break from flying… and there’s no way this little guy’s going to hop up and take to the skies. He was missing some important pieces in order to do that.

“I’m sorry Natalie. He’s dead.”

“Why is he dead?”

“Well, Elsa bit him and he died.” I shoveled him up and put him with the other one, shaking my head the whole time. The interesting part of this is that Natalie laughed when I told her. It wasn’t one of those malicious laughs of evil geniuses just before they blow up the world; it was more of a nervous laugh, as if she really didn’t know what to say or how to act… or what it really meant. I don’t think Natalie understands, and I didn’t know how to explain it to her. Perhaps she’s too young and laughing is her defense mechanism to keep from thinking too much about it. I’m sure she’ll talk to Kara about it later.

All I wanted to do was put up a bird feeder to watch the birds in our backyard, maybe a little educational experience for Natalie… I didn’t think she learn this much.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Happy Meal Ban

Every now and again, I pretend that this is 1950 and that I’m the only bread winner in this household, when I put my foot down on an issue. It makes me feel better that a grievance was lodged, at least, but whatever I demand be changed or instituted or halted immediately—be it the pile of Kara’s shoes that accumulates around the house, the mandatory no-spending months I enact or the Family Weekend House Cleaning Extravaganzas I host from time to time (where nobody shows)—doesn’t stay on the law books for very long. They die in committee or are vetoed by the rest of the family…how the kids earned a vote is beyond me. When I was a kid, my brother and I got only honorary votes while my parents both had two each, but it really didn’t matter as my dad was famous for pulling out the “top of the pyramid” pocket veto, for which what he says, goes.

Chalk it up to changing times, two-income family or a insurmountably stubborn wife, but I don’t get to invoke “top of the pyramid” rights and any of my more controversial amendments to the family constitution are all but ignored (at least until I forget about them). I enjoy mixed feelings. For one, it would be nice to have every word I speak instantly become law obeyed by all; but on the other, I don’t like to make all of the decisions concerning the family. It makes me feel selfish and frankly, it’s a lot of pressure, under which I don’t care to be.

I’ll decide when the lawn needs to be mowed, the cars need a change of oil (which reminds me) and when the dog should stop barking. All matters pertaining to the kids’ civil rights and liberties I’ll gladly leave up to Kara, and on my daddy days, I do my best to make sure they stay in one piece until she returns. Never mind the header Matthew took off the sidewalk and into the planters at the mall the other day—nothing but a pair of legs dangling in the air. It was funny until he started bleeding. But then it was funny again.

Today’s mandatory law is brought to you by the not so good folks at McDonalds and their attempt to poison the world with tiny chunks of “chicken” and to fill up our houses with made-in-China plastic, useless crap that will either stop working after about eight minutes or never work at all.

After dance class, I took the brood to Sam’s Club to buy some giant food, and on the way home I suggested that we stop at Wendy’s for some chicken nuggets, because I’m convinced that, somehow improbable, Wendy’s is healthier than McDonalds… I doubt it but sometimes the wool looks nice over my eyes. Instantly, Natalie pipes up, “Let’s go to Old McDonalds,” and I’m not sure if she heard my groan of disapproval, but then she added, “C’mon Daddy, it’ll be fun.”

Fun indeed. Did you know that in a four-piece chicken nugget Happy Meal, there is 370 calories and 13 grams of fat? And that’s the healthy one with the apples substituted for the fries (get the cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milk it jumps to 720). Not to mention that it cost around $4.00, more than likely because of the inclusion of the $0.23 Happy Meal prize.

Well, if we’re going to go to Old McDonald’s on Daddy’s dime, we’re going to do things a little differently. We’ve got milk at home, two gallons of it because Natalie drinks two percent and Matthew is still cutting his teeth on whole milk, and we’ve got applies, dozens of little cups of them in a variety of forms. She never eats them from McDonald’s anyways, so why buy them? I know they both like the mixed fruit.

And there’s two of them, as Matthew’s started to eat regular food now. That means four bucks each, in addition to what I would normally get, we’re looking at blowing through the better part of a twenty…especially when I come from a time and upbringing when McDonald’s was cheap food, a quick alternate to cooking dinner, a special treat. Plus, this is a non-spending month… at least I’m trying not to spend any money. Tell that to the tax collector, those robbers.

So, I declared that no longer will I buy a Happy Meal for the kids. First of all, they’re not especially happy, merely a vehicle to promote whatever dumb kid’s movie is currently in the theaters; and secondly, they’re hardly a meal. Four little pieces of “chicken,” six tiny slices of apples and a pint of milk… oh, not to mention the toy. But the toy is usually related to the movie promotion and consists of one of two things: A) It does nothing, like a figurine or a cheap stuffed toy; or B) It is indescribable. There have been some toys that defy all logic and explanation. I don’t know what it is, where it came from, what it’s for and what it is supposed to do, not to mention, how to put it together. In about a week, I finally figure out what it is: trash. I don’t even want to recycle it in the fear that it may be turned back into another toy to disappoint another kid in some distant land. And don’t even get me started on the fact that Happy Meals don’t come in the boxes like they used to. Now, they’re just in thin paper bags… and that’s not very happy.

For them, I ordered a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets for $3.49. Net savings for me: I don’t know, but I felt better about it, and I wasn’t playing into the McDonald’s marketing ploy. Plus, the calories for a 10-piece are 420; half that for each (and they certainly didn’t eat five each) and it is a healthier choice all around.

Oh, but get this. You want to know what’s the largest ingredient in a Chicken McNugget? If you answered chicken, you may be surprised. Go here and take a look. Make sure you read down to the bottom to learn how to squeeze a nugget and refill your lighter.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Easter Dancing Fool

As Kara stated in her blog just a few minutes ago, the Easter Bunny made a surprise early visit to our house this year. On the doorstep, he dropped off a bunch of fun Easter-related things for the kids, including the singing bunny that Matthew instantly loved. Since Kara posted some pictures, I'll follow up with a little video clip.

Check him out:

Happy Birthday to Kara

For those of you who missed it, yesterday was Kara's birthday. She celebrated her... well, let's just say that she's done this a couple of times before. We went to T.G.I.Friday's for dinner, where our crazy children weren't hungry for some reason, like they ate before we left. Matthew spent the whole time sweeping his food onto the floor, and this time, I didn't feel too bad about it because I told them it was Kara's birthday, and the waiter gave me a nod that said, "Don't worry about it, it's under control. You're at Friday's. We'll birthday her up real good." In reality, they never returned with a group of dis-interested servers and non-English-speaking bus boys to sing an annoying, but royalty-free version of "Happy Birthday." I find it embarrassing anyway, so I guess it was for the best. Plus, we wanted to leave as quick as possible.

After that, it was cake and ice cream at our house. My cake didn't come out too good. The icing kept lifting the top layer of the cake as I spread it (and Natalie kept eating it off of the cake), so the frosting was speckled with bits of cake. I doused it with some sprinkles and added candles... I used Roman numerals for her birthday instead of one candle per year, otherwise she would have had to blow out the candles outside with a fire extinguisher handy, probably. Teehee.

Here's us singing "Happy Birthday." Well, mostly just me, I guess.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Matthew the Marvelous Word-Making Machine

As Kara stated in her blog yesterday, Matthew's got quite a mouthful of words all itching to come out. We figured you'd like to see for yourself. Of course, he doesn't say a whole lot here, but you get the idea.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Natalie the Brave

Either Natalie has yet to get hurt so she knows what it is like to be wary of something, or she is just a gutsy little girl underneath it all. We went to the park on Sunday, to visit the Easter Bunny, take a couple of pictures and do some Easter related crafts. Our realtor who sold our house for us and helped us buy this one, puts on little holiday-related promotional events in the park every couple of months, and they usually have an inflatable jumper of some sort. Normally, Natalie is a timid girl when it comes to crowds of kids, but just within the last few months, I have noticed that if she wants something bad enough, she just pushes her way through to get it. At the park, she saw the jumper and had kicked off her shoes soon as we got near enough. And she was inside, keeping up with the best of them.

But the jumper was just the teaser. The real test of agility and bravery was the wall and slide. To get to the slide, you have to climb up a rope ladder, similar to one Marines climb down on into the landing craft. The first time I saw her do it, I was quite amazed becuase it is about 20 feet high, and one wrong step would amount to quite a fall.

But the payoff is the swooshing slide on the other side:

Best Git to Church, Ya Heathen

I decided to go to church today. Yes, I know it’s Monday. Yes, I know I haven’t been to church in years. And yes, I know that I’m not baptized (they still let you in—just don’t touch anything with your unclean soul is all they ask). My alarm went off at precisely 5am this morning. I dragged myself out from under the warm covers, fumbled for my jeans, a heavy jacket, a warm hat and a folding chair, got in my truck and pointed it toward the nearest cross in town. It was only a half-mile away… nearer my God to thee.

Strange you may say? Well, you’re onto something there, because I found the behavior just as peculiar; that is, until I saw a dozen other people doing the exact same thing.

For those of you that don’t get up at that time of morning, the sun isn’t up at 5:10. When I pulled into the dark parking lot, the moon still hung in the murky western sky. It was peacefully quiet, as this particular church is surrounded on three sides by ancient orange groves, throwbacks from the long-gone citrus industry this city used to be so proud of. I spied a ghost white owl swoop across the sky, which always makes my heart race a little at seeing such a rare sight, and there was that chilled breeze that accompanies cold mornings, enough to scatter your hair and make you clench your teeth.

I was the first one there, and I had felt as if I had won something, an invisible little prize of punctuality, the Golden Early Bird and a bronzed statuesque worm. I left the radio on in the truck for company and settled in for the three hour wait until the church opened for business at 8am. A few minutes later, my solitude was shattered as two cars pull into the parking lot, their headlights piercing the still of the night. Competitors, bent on taking my spot at the top. Not this morning; I didn’t get up two hours early (after going to sleep only three hours before) for nothing. I’m in it to win it…thank you very much Corbin Bleu.

One of the cars pulled up next to me and parked, and a lady hopped out, a morning person. Let’s call her Chatty Cathy, as she has one of those internal neuroses that forbids her from not talking. Silence is death to her and a break in the conversation means a deafening crack in the communication system that could very well bring down society as we all know it. She made three phone calls in nearly as many seconds, each time, talking like John Moschitta (remember those FedEx commercials? Nah, me neither. I had to look it up.), and I wondered who she could be possibly calling at 5:20 in the morning. I didn’t even bother to wake up my cell phone; let it sleep in. I’ve nobody to call.

We got the “we’re no longer strangers because we’re in a similarly strange situation” chat out of the way, deciding that either of us would make for a good candidate for extreme behavior from a parent. I asked myself why I was here so early any number of times, especially since it was just the two of us for nearly 20 minutes. I expected throngs standing shoulder to shoulder, coffee-clutching helicopter moms bent on getting the first pick, doughnut-scarfing coach/dads who will not settle for second place, not for their boy, no. But instead, Chatty Cathy and I were, so far, the soul survivors of a situation we both expected would be a zoo of humanity.

Were we misinformed? Perhaps, but I wasn’t about to waste a precious opportunity for a couple more hours of sleep.

The second car was back. It had circled around to the other side of the church and snuck into a parking spot at the other end. Two darkened figures appeared at the far side of the building, lurking, scoping out the situation before coming in for a closer look. Chatty Cathy and I agreed that if we were to maintain our one-two spot, we’d better take roost in a closer proximity to the administration door and stake out a claim. Squatters be damned.

I brought my folding chair, and if you were to open that administration door suddenly from the inside, you would have knocked me down. I was number one, first in line, numero uno… but for what, you’re asking?

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. What would make me get up at five in the morning and sit in the cold outside the front door of a church on a Monday? Were they giving away Cadillacs to the first five souls saved this week? Did they find Jesus’s image in a toasted bagel and I wanted to be the first to witness it weep tears of blood? Was there free concert tickets to the Stryper revival tour?

Sadly, none of these. I was giving up on precious sleep for little Natalie’s future. You see, this church became our preschool of choice, and we were informed that people come far and wide to camp out on the doorstep like abandoned orphans in order to have the chance, nay, the privilege, to enroll there for the ever-important year before Kindergarten. At a tour of the facility last Tuesday (where they actually corralled me and put me to work helping with the See’s Candy fundraiser), I was told that they had only 12 spots available in Natalie’s class and that we’d better get there early if we wanted to ensure a spot on the rolls.

Chatty Cathy and I were soon joined by people I’m going to call The River Rats, two nice enough folks who share a typical motif with a lot of other people in this city. They have a boat, a pontoon boat, and they go to the river... a lot. She was as tan as a leather shoe, so much so, that her skin seemed to be completely impervious to cold temperature. I was bundled up in a jacket wishing I had brought a pair of gloves, and she only had a sweatshirt… well, silicon doesn’t get cold, I guess. Stereotypically, he was in construction, complete with a logo hat, jacket, jeans and work boots. All that was missing was the pack of Skoal in his pocket and a Budweiser in his hand, arm cocked slightly from resting on the throttle of his boat on the mighty Colorado River, eyes squinting Eastwood-style from the sun. They spoke a lot about blue-collar work, travel trailers and coolers full of Bud.

Then, something happened that really chaffed me, and it goes on my list of pet peeves. Two Asian women showed up and didn’t get in line behind everyone else. The line was forming to my right, away from the door, and they stood next to me on my left, as if they didn't even see the line. So now I’m fretting over two things: 1) Do they think all of these people are standing in this order by sheer coincidence and the natural progression of lines don’t apply to them? or 2) Did they just feel that they don’t need to conform to the structure of the line, knowing that they arrived after the Suit Guy but before the Fat Heavy-Breather Guy, and we all have to make a mental note to allow for the extra space? It just bugged me that they won't get in line. Were they going to try to overthrow my first place spot? Did they think "first come-first served" means that whoever is first in the door, by whatever means, is first. By the end of my internal rant, I had decided that they were elitist bastards who lack any common courtesies normally shown in polite and civilized society.

In their defense, they spoke very little English (the older one tried to convince us that the line formed on the other side of the building under the canopy—which she pronounced kun-OAP-ee—Yeah, right. I’m not falling for that lady…line forms here), and maybe waiting in line is a western thing, like rock and roll and liberal fascism. All I knew, after waiting in the cold for three hours, if they had plans to cut in front of me, they were going to see nothing but elbows.

During this, the preschool had opened for business, and between 7:00 and 7:30, parents came to drop off their children, and not a single one of them looked surprised or puzzled by the sight before them...they had all done it, I surmised. One of the women who worked there, felt bad that everyone was standing or sitting on the concrete (except for the one who was prepared with a chair of his own, of course), so she hoofed out tiny pint-sized plastic chairs for the first half-dozen or so. One lady sat down on it and the chair disappeared; it looked as though she was sitting on four chrome sticks.

Surprisingly, all the people in line that I spoke with had one thing in common: Every one of us knew by heart the schedules of enrollments for the four major preschools in the city, and we weren't shy on sharing that knowledge to anyone who was slightly confused. One was today, another tomorrow, and the other two were in May. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” became a running gag, and we discussed schedules and ages and classes. We reassured each other that we all will have no trouble getting our children enrolled, never mind the poor suckers further down the line… as long as you have their birth certificate, immunization records and a fat $110 check (non-refundable, of course). The Suit Guy didn’t have the birth certificate, so he left a copy of Golf Digest magazine to hold his place, and it worked! Thirty minutes later, he returned, the place holder was honored and he jumped back in.

The line began to fill. The sun finally chased the chill away (I could even take my hands out of my pockets and stretch out my fingers again), and Chatty Cathy had to go to work. So she passed the baton to her husband, a man that I will refer to as Art Linkletter. All his words came out slow and rolling, highs and lows, and his emphasis was so scattered, I wasn’t sure what he was saying. His wife made him out to be an idiot, and maybe he was, who knows what people do in their own time, but we assured her that he was quite capable of dressing their two kids and making sure they were decent before taking them to school, something he apparently doesn’t do (she called him four times with detailed directions...once to find the church, even though he had been there twice before). But, when he arrived, her reservations weren’t completely unfounded I guess. He did have a bumbling buffoonism about him, kind of a scattered and misdirected gangly loon quality, like he has a lot to think about an no real place to do it. He made eight phone calls in the hour that he was there, and told me he works in inventory… that’s it. No further explanation. “What kind of inventory?” I prodded. “The usual stuff… materials.” I’m sure my disgusted sigh was heard half way down the line. Stuff, materials, things. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he claimed he inventoried ideas. I’ve got one for you.

Then the excitement built to a stupefying crescendo! The director arrived. The eagle had landed! I announced it to the rest of the line because I was the only one in earshot that had met her before. Art Linkletter exclaimed that she looked like a director--whatever that meant--and everyone in line followed her every move like she was going to start shooting free enrollments from her fingertips. From her car, down the steps, through the gate, around the dew-wet grass and up the side of the line, all eyes were on her in a reverent silence, waiting for her to speak. Hellos were doled out, and since I was at the head of the line, I deemed it my responsibility to find out what we needed to do, so I can pass along the instructions to my fellow line mates. After all, it is the primary duty of he who is first.

The word was official: We were to wait. Ten more minutes, maybe 15. Art Linkletter pointed out that it was already three minutes past eight, and I feigned astonishment.

So, after three frosty hours of waiting, many repetitive and useless interactions with strangers in a strange situation, the door opened—I gave the Asian ladies that “don’t even try it” look—and I walked in as the first person to enroll their child for the Fall 2007 school year at our first-choice school.

Well, after all that, did she get in?

They’ll let us know by the end of the week.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Target

Well, it wasn’t funny and it wasn’t on the way to Target, so besides the words “Happened” and “Target,” the above sentence is entirely misleading. Sure, Target was involved and an incident happened, but we were already inside and it was entirely an oddity. It’s what I get for trying to play off of Sondheim; you just can’t force Stephen.

So, Kara’s birthday is in a couple of days, and it was decided that I should take the tykes to the the Big Red Homeland in search for items from a specific list of pre-approved gifts. The only thing that I needed to make the outing a complete success was a note pinned to my shirt in case I got lost on the way.

Of course, as soon as we get inside, both kids want to go two separate directions: Natalie wants to look at everything that’s pink or purple and Matthew wants to see anything with wheels or round and bouncy. I just wanted to fill out the wish list of my loving wife and do so in a competent, caring manner so that both of the children are involved.

That’s where the problem started. Before we left the house, Natalie threw a mini fit because I insisted that she brush her teeth before we leave. She didn’t want to go to Target and she didn’t care that this was the only day we could all go out and get something nice for Mommy. She wanted to finish her movie. She wanted to have a drink of juice. She wanted to work on her sticker book. She wanted to play a game on the computer. She wanted to do everything but put her shoes on, brush her teeth and go to the bathroom. I had to pull out my most devastating weapon in the arsenal, the “I’m going to leave without you” trick, a bluff that, so far, hasn’t been tested to its breaking point. She hears my car keys and scrambles. I hear the water going and the immediate scouring of teeth. Satisfaction. Not 40 seconds later, she’s at the top of the stairs pleading that I don’t leave without her.

I win again.

Back to Target. This is one of those stories that proves the most unexpected thing you could possibly think of is bound to happen sooner or later. Take a few moments and think of a couple of occurrences that you might imagine could happen at Target on a very typical afternoon. Go on; I’ll wait.

Ready? What did you come up with? Probably some normal things, right? Old lady falls down and breaks a hip. Someone stumbles into dishes and they crash to the ground. A robbery perhaps.

You’re not thinking improbable enough. Stampeding merekats. Alien abduction. Naked nuns (Hey, if they’re naked, how do you know their nuns? Callused knees). Okay, now you’re too off the wall.

I’ll just tell you.

The three of us were looking at the kids’ books—Matthew in the cart and Natalie by the books—and suddenly, without any warning what so ever, the power went out. Everything goes pitch black, cave black, hand-in-front-of-your-face black.

I expected much more chaos. I reached down for Natalie and fumbled around until I had her in the cart so she wouldn’t get trampled by the hoards of panicked-stricken cattle streaking for the light-bathed exits. Nothing. Immediately, I expected terror-laced screams from the masses, and I was surprised to only hear a few gasps of air, but then again, the only time I been in power failures in public was in grade school. The anonymity of the pitch black is license for kids to start screaming—like in the Haunted Mansion when they show the hanging guy. It’s not scary, but screaming makes it more so; plus, when do grown ups ever get to let out a good scream.

Certainly not in Target.

I figured the best thing for us is to stay put, at least until the emergency lights came on, and they didn’t for about 30 seconds, which is a long time to wait in the dark, in a store, in 2007. In the meantime, it was completely silent. Nobody around me spoke. No whirling noise of the A/C. No piped music. No cart wheels clattering on the tile. Nothing, and that was the creepy part, like I was the only one affected by this, as if I had slipped into some kind of sensory-deprivation chamber and everyone else went about their business.

I heard the insistent chatter of the store managers on the radio as one of the red shirts stumbled by, and it was interesting to note that they reacted quickly to the crisis… “Get the doors covered…” “Find the flashlights and post them at the stations.”

Then, after what I considered an inordinate amount of time, the emergency lights came back on. Everything else was still dark except for a bank of lights illuminated for every five or six dark ones.

This was the strange part: When the emergency lights flickered on, it was as if the curtain went up on a play, and everyone started moving at the same time, busy at the start of a scene. And then they continued shopping as if nothing had occurred. I saw someone hold up a DVD into the scarce light to read the back of it, and another lady referred to her shopping list and gave herself one of those “Where was I? Oh yes, and I need some conditioner” nods and shoved her cart down the aisle.

What were these people thinking? Did they think they were actually going to be able to wheel up to the checkout stand with a cart full of stuff and pay for anything? The Red Shirted yokels barely know how to push the buttons on the computer when the power is on, much less make a transaction without one, and if you’ve got a credit card, forget it. The days of the carbon paper and the slider thingy are long gone, and I doubt they even have one on the property.

But, it was business as usual… only this time, it was dead quiet, and you don’t realize how loud a big store is—what with the displays, the A/C, the music, the people, the carts, and the loudspeaker announcing blue light specials in five languages every 35 seconds—until all of those things are gone.

About 15 minutes later, we were still milling around the store, as half of me was hoping for some kind of terrific calamity to witness… so I could be that guy on the news that makes some ridiculous assertation as to what actually happened: “It was the Doberman Gang with a satchel full of diamonds from the Target jewelry department and one of them pushed a guard onto a transformer and I swear I saw Elvis. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.” Why do they always interview the stupidest, most ignorant and least mentally capable person at the scene of an incident? Maybe it isn’t just dumb luck that they find them. Maybe everyone’s that way.

It’s funny because it’s true.

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