Saturday, November 29, 2008

Movie Night

Car Trouble

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Poker Party

Me, Myself and I

Monday, November 24, 2008

Self Portrait

Does the drawing on the left look anything like the picture on the right? No? It should. No, I'm serious. It's supposed to be me, but I don't believe it either. There's no way that's me, and what scares me is that I don't know who it is. If anyone recognizes the man in this picture, please let me know so I can give credit where credit is due.

Besides the April 1, 1943, cover of the Saturday Evening Post (the April Fools cover), one of my favorite Norman Rockwell paintings is "Triple Self-Portrait," showing him painting himself as a dashing man with a pipe, when in reality, the mirror next to his easel shows an aging man with glasses. It comments on how we as people fool ourselves into believing we are more than we really are and that we always try to put a pretty face on reality.

Well, that’s the motive I was going for too when I worked on my self portrait tonight. I wanted to draw a picture that actually looked better than I think I do, but the whole thing backfired on me. I don’t know who I drew, but whoever it is, he looks nothing like me. Like Rockwell, I even used a mirror, but translating what I saw in the mirror to my hand and the pencil is a talent that is best left to the professional artists and those caricature drawers at the county fair.

You may begin laughing directly at my lack of talent and the fact that I have to hang this up on the wall in front of the whole class and try to convince them all that I was actually looking at myself when I drew it and not some raving lunatic in an asylum.

For starters, my beady eyes are too close together and have that all-too-familiar look of evil in them, especially that squinty left one. Am I wearing eye liner? The grin looks remorseless, like I just ran over your dog in the street and I aimed for it, and there’s a canyon-sized crease on the cheek that must be the result of getting kicked in the face by a mule. My nose is too small and pointy, crooked toward the top, and my right ear looks like I’ve had a long career boxing and I wasn’t much good at it. My face has marks on it like I’ve been wearing a particle mask for too long, and look at the double chin…nice. Let’s not forget to mention that I’m wearing a giant shirt that’s all stretched out in the collar, which is rock solid stiff from starch and makes me look as though I’m poking my head up through a hole in a fallen tree.

The only thing I think I accurately depicted was the hints of a receding hairline, my ever deepening wrinkles around my eyes and the dark circles from lack of sleep. The white glow around my head, like I’m the messiah, gives it a nice touch, don’t you think?

File this under: Keep Your Day Job, Ryan

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Serenity and Sunshine

We lock ourselves away in our castles, pull up the drawbridges and man the ramparts against the unusual, the unforeseen and the unexpected. We’re clouded by the norm, that safe feeling of status quo we all feel so comfortable having weighted down on our shoulders. I don’t even think about it anymore, until today at least, that we mire in a routine of activities only because they achieve a desired and predictable result; what worked for us yesterday is bound to do the same today and probably will tomorrow. In expected events there’s shelter from the storms of capriciousness, what strange things may come if we no long follow our own footprints down a familiar path?

The average weekday goes like this: I wake up, spend the morning in the house with Matthew, pick up Natalie from school, eat lunch, wile away the afternoon until Kara comes home. Then dinner, baths, work, Internet wastefulness, TV, sleep… sleep that merely acts as a buffer, a bookend, to the infinity of stagnation. It’s comfortable, safe, well rehearsed, practiced and unsurprising.

Today would have been no different, except that it started with me waking up on the couch with the blue glow of the TV filling the living room. I wasn’t sure where I was for a moment, and the clock was in those single-digit numbers that is almost too late to go back to sleep but too early to get up for the day. Much like most nights, I have trouble sleeping. My mind races, cluttered with the what ifs and the could haves, what haves, and what might be. I run through the events of my day and what might be expected of me in the next. I plan. I debate. I’ve even tested myself with complex math problems. I think about songs I like, movies I’ve watched and books I’ve read. Everyone’s asleep, so I share these things with myself. I stare at the ceiling fan whirling in the darkness, glancing over periodically to watch my alarm clock march up towards midnight only to fall down the other side towards sunrise.

Finally, I sleep. Morning comes and I drag myself out of bed, regretting my conscious, cursing my own brain for not doing what’s best for my body. I’m a zombie, the walking dead expected to function responsibly, rationally. Sometime between “Higglytown Heroes” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” I nap with Matthew usually sitting in what he calls “the triangle,” that space on the couch my bent legs make when I’m laying on my side.

Today was different. Though I didn’t get up until 10am, my head rang and rattled like marbles in a jar and everything was bright, crisp, the kind of sharpness found in Autumn. Kara suggested, while she was at the movies, that I take the kids out so they could ride their bikes for an hour or so, to get a little more exercise and some fresh air.

I didn’t want to. I never want to. I don’t like the outside, and the older I get, the more agoraphobic I feel, the more of a challenge it is for me to step outside and do things I wouldn’t normally do. Why? I don’t know. A fear of the unknown, change, the environment, placing myself and my kids in possible harm’s way… the noise, the constant confrontations with strangers and the asinine things I always see them do.

Mostly, I fear for the safety of my children. It sounds foolish, I know, especially since it is my front yard, my street, my driveway, but as a pessimist, I’ve taught myself to think about the worst case scenario and how likely it will happen. Bad things happen everywhere, and I think that I am always on the verge of stepping on a land mine at any moment. Because of this, I create boundaries, solid structural boundaries the help maintain order for me, help define the rules. They can’t go in the street. They can’t go past the neighbors’ walls on either side of our house. But why? When I was that age, I’m sure my parents were perfectly fine with us running around the street with little to no supervision, and there is a girl Natalie’s age that lives five houses down the street who is always trolling the neighborhood… I don’t think anyone knows where she is on most afternoons, but I won’t let the kids out of my site when they’re playing in the front yard.

Is this my fault? Am I being a good parent? Maybe too good of a parent that I’ve circled around to an overbearing parent? Matthew’s nearly three, so he really doesn’t count in this discussion—as I’d still watch him like a hawk—but the little girl from down the street asked if Natalie could play in front of her house and I said no. Natalie didn’t debate the matter, she didn’t say anything, and I don’t think Natalie even wanted to, as she likes to be home (she even likes to play inside more so).

Did I create that?

While they were riding their bikes back and forth from the driveway of one neighbor’s house, past ours to the driveway of the other, I dragged one of the chairs off of the porch and set it up at the edge of the grass so I could clearly see down both ways of the street. I brought a book with me, thinking it would be a nice time to get a little reading done, but I could hardly read a paragraph without glancing up to make sure everything was clear, that no child abductors were prowling around, that no stray dogs were tugging on Matthew’s legs or that they minded the limits of the boundaries.

When they got tired of riding, both Natalie and Matthew got baskets and began to collect the falling leaves from the trees in our front yard. It being Autumn, they are all aglow with reds, oranges and purples. Since I was still sitting by the sidewalk, they were playing on the grass and porch behind me. I couldn’t stand not seeing what they were doing, not being able to observe their activities, lord over their well being. Not because I enjoy the laughter of my children and I’m delighted to see them have so much fun doing something as simple as collecting a basket full of leaves, but I wanted to make sure nobody was jumping off of the wall or getting to close to the spike-bristled palm trees or climbing on the several boulders in the yard.

I try everything in my power to keep them from getting hurt that I almost see myself as stifling their fun day even when the possibility of injury is so far removed from actuality that it only resides in my negative and distrustful mind.

That is what I stay up late brooding about. There’s a book for people like me and here it is. I’ve read it so many times over the years, ever since I was a kid (it came out in 1976). A lot of it I can relate to, and a lot of it haunts me; either I'm the way I am because of the book or I like the book because of the way I am.

However, as you can see, the kids had a blast outside today. We stayed out there for about four hours, until the sky grew purple and the air cold.

So, why don’t we do it more often?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Black Weirdos

Oh yes, as Kara mentions in a comment to my Halloween post, I forgot to mention Matthew's run-in with the black weirdos.

I think he tries to be as verbose and garrulous as Natalie, but some times, when he can't quite think of the phrase he wants to say or something he may have just heard, he'll either make up something pretty close or just completely coin a new phrase altogether.

While making our short route around the immediate vicinity of our neighborhood, we stopped at one house just around the corner from ours. It was nicely decorated for the holiday. Matthew and Natalie go up to the door by themselves, as Kara and I wait at the curb, and while Natalie is ringing the bell, Matthew suddenly shouts out, "There's black weridos!" or "I see a black weirdo," something to that effect. He bolts around and quickly makes his way back to us. You see, a "black weirdo" to him is a Black Widow spider to the rest of us, one of those unfortunately side effects to living in a semi-desert climate. Whether or not there was actually a Black Widow spider--a real one--on the porch is unknown, but it was probably a decoration of some sort.

However, the door opens to the house, and Natalie, by herself, is greated by African Americans. Of course, I had to bite my cheek to keep me from laughing too hard.

I can only hope they didn't hear what Matthew had said. Because really, black weirdos are just Black Widows to our little two-year-old!

**The picture above is Matthew taking a rest. He was waiting for Natalie and said, "I'm just going to sit down here," on someone's driveway.

Chasing Boys

Natalie has discovered a new game at school, a very simple concept that has probably been around for generations: chasing boys. It’s the two words a dad doesn’t want to hear, but since I remembered being chased by girls in elementary school—and seriously not wanting them to catch me—it doesn’t concern me too much.

I suppose activity such as this was bound to start happening, but it is all innocent and fun.

This is really the first time in her life that she has spent any lengthy amount of time with boys and perhaps their novelty is interesting, but it is fascinating to watch her perception of the world develop and she starts to understand more and more about how to interact with other people and what is expected of her. How exactly she came to start this game is unknown but I suspect it originated with a new friend she meet a couple of weeks ago, Annette or Analese or something, because soon after she announced her new friendship, boy chasing became all the rage.

When Matthew and I pick up Natalie from school, there is that idle 10 minutes I have to wait until the teachers let out the kids, and during that time the other moms and I exchange passing pleasantries about our kids and school life. A couple of weeks into the school year, one of the moms told me that her son thought Natalie was “hot” and I noticed that he would always say good bye to her after school. Lately, another little boy has been yelling good bye to Natalie from across the front yard of the school, and when he can, he’ll run on ahead of his mom to give Natalie hug. Today, he must have noticed Natalie collecting leaves—as both Matthew and Natalie find some interesting leaf to take home with us most every day—and he ran up behind her and presented her with a nicely colored plum leaf. It we were in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and there was snow on the ground…and it was 1910, it would have been a Norman Rockwell painting.

It was pretty cute. She said thank you rather nonchalantly and elusively went about her way.

But chasing boys, that’s where the excitement is. Once in the truck and on our way home, I asked her how her day was, and she never tells me anything academic, unless it is a new library book or if they went to the computer lab. Instead, she exalts upon me her exploits on the playground and her new favorite pastime.

“What did you do today?” I asked, expecting to hear that she learned about a president or that she wrote a letter to Santa (in public school?) or that she can now properly use the quadratic equation. Instead, I hear this:

“Chased boys!” she exclaims with a gleam in her eye!

“What did the boys do?” I asked.

“Oh, they ran.”

Up until today, she hadn’t caught any, as she says they’re very fast and “tricky,” but I still ask her every day what she’ll do if she catches one. Today was that day.

“Today I caught one!” Natalie announced excitedly.

“What did you do with him?”

“Let him go.”

So, it appears the thrill is in the hunt, which is good to hear, but it is also fun and exciting to hear that she is having such a good time at school, that she is well adjusted to the schedule, that she has many friends and appears to be well liked by everyone. The social aspect of Kindergarten was my biggest worry, as I knew that she could handle the work with no problem.

Because let’s not forget that she’s at the top of her class. I mean that literally. She’s in a reading group all by herself because nobody can read as well as she can. It’s her and the teacher reading books for second graders.

On the playground, it’s every boy for himself, so I’ll pick up worrying again when the boys start to chase her.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It Was Halloween!

I know, I know. Halloween was, like, so two weeks ago. I’m sorry for the delay, but as you may remember, Halloween is my least favorite “holiday” on the calendar. Sure, you get to dress up like someone else and you get to act like an idiot, and sure, strangers come to your door begging for food (and we allow it) and the whole thing is sponsored and endorsed by the Devil, et al…. but I’m just not a fan of the pomp and spectacle of the night, the bravado entitled to those that dress up a super heroes and the fact that my neighborhood gets overrun with minivans hauling kids from the other neighborhoods. If there’s a bah humbug for October 31, then I’ll happily accept the title and wear a little badge, ensuring others that they shouldn’t wish me a happy Halloween.

The kids like it, however, which makes it fun for me, but I think they could even do with out it. For starters, Natalie doesn’t like chocolate which immediately cuts out about 90 percent of the possible loot, and Matthew still doesn’t get the concept. The first couple of houses, he didn’t say much, perhaps not convinced that he would get free candy by only saying “trick or treat.”

After only a few houses, they were ready to come home and greet people at the door.

For the house, I usually don’t do anything. Yes, we have a carved pumpkin sitting out…three actually, but that is usually it. For some reason, on Halloween (before I hurt my leg), I got it in me that our house needed a fog machine. Before picking up Natalie from school, Matthew and I went down to the “Party Store” to see about buying one. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I was going to settle for the cheapest one they had. But once I got in there, they were having a 50 percent off everything sale, so the most expensive fog machine was selling for what I would have paid for the least expense one on a regular day. Win-win! Even the manager was surprised that HQ put everything on sale, as he told me they usually just store until next year what doesn’t sell.

I plugged a green light bulb into the porch light and fired up the fog machine. It didn’t really roll fog out on the ground like I wanted to, like dry ice would have done, but it still had for an interesting effect: a green haze permeating the whole front yard.

We spent a considerable amount of the evening carving our pumpkins, even though we already had two of them rotting on the porch from our camping trip early in the month. The kids brought out every pumpkin they could find, from the ones that Grandma and Grandpa had planted and harvested for them all the way down to the decorative squashes we bought at the pumpkin patch. We convinced them to only carve the big one and draw faces on the little green ones and spare the others so we can keep them for Thanksgiving.

They got their costumes on and we hit the streets in search of candy!

Above are some pictures of All Hallow's Even (and no, that’s not a typo).

How long do you think these two pumpkins will last? Some would say the answer to that question is that they've already passed their expiration date, but I say if you can still tell they're pumpkins, they're still good.

Look foward to seeing them on Christmas!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lincoln Makes the Grade

So, we’ve established that all you have to do to get an A in an art class is to try as best as you can. Even if you completely screw up the assignment, not pay attention to the directions and turn it in weeks later than you should, you will still get an A. If so, if that’s true, how is it that several people in my class are failing? Honest-to-God F grades in the grade book. I saw them myself, written in pen and snarling on the page next to people’s names.

We had a mid-term review, where we discussed our progress in the class and went over our grades. I’ve received an A on every project I turned in, which is all of them to date. I’m not sure why I’ve always earned an A, but I have, even though sometimes I don’t think I should have. The guy sitting next to me that I’ve befriended (he’s the one that text messages his girlfriend in Hawaii every 30 seconds) was surprised that I had received only As, whereas he had earned a couple of Bs and has, in my opinion, done comparable work. Then again, I’m no art instructor, so maybe not. While I was being shown my grade, I scanned down the list and noticed all of the other grades of my fellow classmates. There was only a handful of As (my text friend was one of them still) and the rest were grades lower than that, including the big F.

I don’t know who the F-earners were by name, but I could pick out the recipients in the room just by looking around. There’s a guy that sits near me that does near nothing the whole time; sure, he has his pad of paper out and his materials, but it sits and stares into the middle of the room for long periods of time. He’s failing. No question about it. That loud girl that talks too much and bugs most people (including the instructor she admitted last Wednesday) dropped the class because she was failing. It helps if you actually attend the class. I didn’t know you could drop this late in the semester, but the instructor was glad to get rid of her… and her five email-a-day habit. That’s too much time to spend on a student with too much emotional issues, the instructor told me before class and I’d have to agree. When I was in college the first time, we didn’t use email as a reliable source of communication, but I’m sure there should be some sort of rule that you don’t email the instructor any more that three times the whole semester…and don’t write a book. Make is short and sweet.

We had a few assignments in the past week that I would like to share, as I have done in the past. As well, please feel free to make as much fun of them as possible. I’m not an artist and I don’t plan to be; therefore, you are not obliged to compliment me in a ruse to encourage my education and career choice. However, of the whole group of all of my assignments, I’m fairly happy with most of these.

This first picture is just a run-of-the-mill flowers in a vase done with pencil. Nothing special. We were supposed to have four flowers in a vase, so I went to Albertson’s and bought a bouquet for the house, stole this collection of flowers and penciled them up in about a half-hour. It was done on the day it was due, as that was the only time I could allow to work on it, so the kids got out some paper too and gave it their best shot too. I’m not to thrilled with it, and I expected to get a lower grade, as it was quite clear to even me that I did a half-assed job on the assignment.

I walked around the room and looked at some others on the day it was due, and the resident Picasso in the room, the one that sets the artistic creative bar for all of us to try and reach drew a picture of dead flowers in a Starbucks cup. Not only did it have a poignant message that Starbucks coffee will kill you, but it looked like a black and white picture of actual flowers in an actual Starbucks cup, like you could reach out and take a drink of the flowery coffee-water. It was disgusting, and then put mine next to it, it looked like doodlings from the Ward E in the mental hospital. All of us psychos and schizos were glad she doesn’t grade on the curve.

On the other hand, total cost of this A was around nine dollars, but we got to enjoy the flowers all that week.

This next assignment was probably the most time consuming of them all so far. It was a multi-stage project that took me a couple of weeks to pull together, on top of which I was absent from class due to the hunting trip in early October, so I got a late start. We each had to take six pictures of six different items in a pile. I used Crayons, saw blades, bolts, wine corks, building blocks and Legos for the subjects of my pictures, and the instructor picked one of them for me to use (see below right). She picked the Crayons, the one I was hoping she wouldn’t have picked.

We were then supposed to paint three sheets of paper with different values of ink, going from stripes of light to dark, much like a graduated shade from one side of the paper to the other. Then, we each had to draw out our picture, increasing the scale from one inch on the photo to two-and-a-half inches on the paper. After drawing it out, I had to collage the Crayons using the inked paper. But that wasn’t so easy either, because I had to trace each section of the different shades on the Crayons on tracing paper first, cut that shape out, transfer the shape to the inked paper and then cut out that, finally gluing it to the main drawing. I’m tired just writing all of this.

Needless to say, I was two weeks late on the assignment, mostly because I dreaded to do it, but I still managed to pull out an A, despite the blatant violation of the syllabus that states a project will lose one grade for every day that it is late. I’m not sure why I was cut a break, but it probably has to do with the fact that I’m the same age as the instructor and she likes to commiserate with me before class (for all of you people out there who just raised a disapproving eyebrow, commiserate means to empathize). So, is it very good? No, it isn’t. I’m not pleased with the outcome of this project, and Kara put it best: “It sort of looks like Crayons.” Emphasis on the “sort of.”

The class before Halloween was rather a free-for-all. We were allowed to use any medium we wanted (even mixed, which is what I did), as long as we stayed as true to the subject as possible; meaning, she wanted it to be spooky, as Halloween appeared to be her favorite holiday, something that probably holds true for most artists. The instructor brought out a bunch of various items that were Halloween related (and some of us in the class brought some thing as well) and we were supposed to put them together in an interesting way. Some of the items were a full-sized medical-grade skeleton, some severed fingers, various pumpkins, some sort of witch, a bunch of maze (those were mine) and some Halloween knick-knacks. My first idea was to have the skeleton holding its own head in a very Hamlet-esque “Yorick, I knew him well” sort of way, but I thought I’d get dinged points if my drawing was too sparse with not enough on the page. After I abandoned the idea early on in the project, I shared it out loud when the instructor was asking people what ideas they had…and by the end of the class, someone had drawn that very thing. She liked it, of course, because it was minimalistic, which is being sparse and not having much on the page, but in an artistic way.

So instead, I cobbled various items on the table together to form this ghoulish mosaic of morbidity. Frankly, I was surprised that the skull came out so nice, and not to pat myself on the back too much, but I didn’t think I could do a face; albeit without skin, but it is still a face. I know, you’re asking yourself, “What’s with the giant eye?” Believe it or not, that’s a giant eye the instructor uses as an end table lamp in her house! That’s all year long, mind you. Above it is the shuck from one of my mazes I brought, and the skeleton’s arm and hand is resting on the eye. The pool of blood dripping off of the table ruined the drawing for me, and I knew it moments after I added the red, as it isn’t realistic looking at all. As long as you only look at the skull, you may like this one.

This next drawing was my favorite one to do. Again we were given free-reign to do whatever we wanted to do as long as our drawing showed some sort of perspective, depth to the picture, that the objects are coming from or going off into the distance. I remembered doing these sorts of drawings when I took an art class in the Sixth Grade, and I also remembered them being particularly fun. I chose a city view because I want to be an architect and I knew that I could do a good job with it as long as I could keep all of the lines straight. I especially enjoyed adding all of the details, the signs, little dumpsters behind the liquor store, the park on the corner. I got ridiculously tired of drawing windows so I wiped out a few city blocks and added the ocean on the left and the mountains on the right. The affect made for a nice little sea-side city and also forces your eye to follow the perspective to the end of the street in the distance. Notice I spelled “Bancroft” wrong. Silly me.

I was really worried about this next project. It was done in unforgivable ink and we could only use our fingers. Chuck Close pioneered this type of art back in the 70s, and you can Google him to get his story, which is quite remarkable…and I won’t show you any of his stuff here because it will make mine look like it was done by a third grader in detention. The idea is to use dabs of ink in different shades to produce a portrait. Like an ink-jet printer, the farther back you get, the better the image looks.

We were asked to bring in a portrait of someone, and I didn’t want to bring in one of my family for fear of butchering them so badly that they would be unrecognizable when I returned home, so instead I decided to bring in a picture of my favorite President (below right). Also, since class was on Election Day and I was pretty sure of who was going to win, I thought I’d paint a picture of the man that made it possible for Obama to even run for the office.

Don’t look too closely however, otherwise you may see my finger prints, but I was surprised that it turned out as good as it did, especially considering that once you put down ink on a page, that’s it, there’s no second chance to get it right. Note how nicely I was able to get the lapels of his coat to stand out, but see that I set his eyes too close together. For best results, get up and stand on the other side of the room, and it may start to look more like Lincoln and ironically less like abolitionist John Brown.

The end of the story is that I got an A, but all the while I was doing it, I was thinking of a quote that Lincoln said that seemed so appropriate: “If I were two-faced, why would I wear this one?” Abe, you card.

Dance With Me, Daddy

Admittedly, when news first came home of a father-daughter dance at Natalie’s school, I was a little apprehensive about going. Last time I checked, I wasn’t big on dancing, at least not without a couple of drinks in me already, and I doubt there’d be a bar at an elementary school. And as much as I don’t enjoy the company of strangers, I was a little nervous about what would happen. Would they call all of the first-time dads to the stage and make us try to hula-hoop, or would we all just get pointed and laughed at?

But boy oh boy was Natalie excited about it, so I became excited for her and readily signed up to go. I chalked it up to just one of those things you do for your daughter, and the closer the date came, the more I was looking forward to going. After all, it isn’t ever day that a daddy and his daughter get to spend some good quality time together, especially when we’re all so dressed up.

As it turns out, I learned something on the night of the dance. I thought I knew Natalie pretty well, but apparently I didn’t.

About a week before the dance, Natalie had to find the perfect dress, which she did, and she needed the perfect shoes to go with the perfect dress, which we found…and her hair had to be done up just perfect, which it was… and she needed flowers in her hair, which there were.

And I needed to wear a tie, of course, Natalie told me. I don’t wear a suit all too often anymore. Well, make that: I’ve never had to wear a suit too often in my life. I’ve always had casual jobs, which keeps my suit collection at a minimum. I have a couple of them, but my suit of choice is my black, all-purpose single-breasted one. I can laugh at a wedding, reminisce at a reunion, be confident at an interview and cry at a funeral, all in one outfit that will never go out of fashion. It’s perfect, a man’s equivalent to the little black dress; just change your tie, and since I was getting tired of my tie selection, I decided that a new shirt-tie combo added to my wardrobe would only expand the possibilities.

It took me a considerable amount of time to find a tie and a shirt that I liked and that matched. I had a fool-proof system for buying a new shirt and tie, but I was foiled by the disorganization of Kohl’s, those bums. They have a pretty decent array of shirts and ties and their prices are reasonable, but the thing that really draws me there is that some thoughtful employee always arranges the shirts with ties that match that particular shirt. So, if I need a green shirt—which I did—on top of it would invariably be a greenish tie that would match. Whoever’s job that was, I was always quite pleased with their selections, making the shirt/tie buying experience that much easier and quicker for me.

This time, not so much. For starters, I like a certain brand of shirts. I know they fit well, hold up in the washer and keep their original color, but they had all of the sizes mixed together…and what the hell would I want with a fitted dress shirt? If my clothes are remotely tight or even mildly snug, it feels like someone’s strangling me to death. I found the color I wanted, the brand I liked, but it had button-down collars. The fitted version of the same size/color/brand didn’t. And I didn’t like anything else, so I had to settle with, in my opinion, not very fashionable button-down collars…so don’t laugh.

When Natalie came home from school on Friday afternoon, she immediately wanted to get ready, even though we wouldn’t be leaving for six hours. She spent the afternoon on pins and needles waiting until it was time to get ready, and when Kara came home, the house was all a flurry with activity, like we were going to the prom… and I guess to a five-year-old, we were.

Of course, she looked beautiful (nobody commented on how I looked!), and when we got to the dance, she held my hand all the way into the auditorium. We talked about some of her friends that would be there and how we were going to dance to the music. Natalie said, “This is going to be the best night ever!” and I couldn’t agree more.

Once inside, we got something to eat (a local taco place catered), sat down and watched the room slowly fill up while I ate (Gnat didn’t want anything). Natalie was impatient for me to hurry up and finish my tacos, so I wolfed them down as quickly as I could so we could get out on the dance floor and get started. We spotted one of Natalie’s friends, and since I knew her dad causally from picking up the kids after school, I had someone to talk with while the girls chased each other around the dance floor with big red and silver balloons they had found. Natalie was having a great time.

Natalie lost the flowers in her hair, but it was okay as I carried with me spares to put in before the pictures. The lights in the room were partially on still, and the music wasn’t that loud. Most of the other daughters/dads milled around, eating, talking with each other, and some of the girls were running around the floor too.

The evening began to ramp up. The lights dimmed more and the room filled with people, a lot more than I expected. Our time came to take pictures so we got in the long line. Natalie leaned against me and had a sad look on her face. I asked her what was wrong, and she replied that she was tired. Tired? We had only been there for 40 minutes! Meanwhile, she still had the two balloons she found, the red one and the silver one, and she seemed very attached to them.

While we were in line, they played the first slow song of the night, and I was wishing that we weren’t in line, that we were out there dancing…because that was the purpose, and I figured the slow songs to Natalie would be more meaningful to her, as it would have been to me.

After pictures, she wanted to get a bottle of water and sit down for a while, take a rest and enjoy a cool refreshment. She didn’t seem to enthused to be at the dance any longer, as if it was over to her. She kept asking me what time it was, saying that it was a “sleepover” night, the one night a week when the kids gets to sleep in our room on the pull-out couch. I was rather disappointed, and my feelings felt a little trampled, as if she wasn’t having fun and it was somehow my fault.

We sat at a tables while she drank her water, and then “The Chicken Dance” came on. Now, let’s get something straight right from the beginning: I hate “The Chicken Dance.” I hate it with a passion, so much so that I forbid the DJ at our wedding to play that song no matter how much money he was offered. It’s just plain stupid, and it makes everyone doing it look like a complete idiot… but Natalie likes it (Matthew too). The song is on a mixed CD I made for the kids when we went to Yellowstone last year, and so I’m forced to hear that song probably two or three times a week—more than any one person should have to. But I knew I could get Natalie out on the dance floor and dance with me, if I started doing “The Chicken Dance.”

So I did. And she was surprised, because she knows that I won’t do “The Chicken Dance.” I’ve been asked countless times while the CD is playing. No chicken dance for me. But on Friday I did, partly to get Natalie out what I thought was a little shell of shyness and partly because I knew she’d get a kick out of me looking like a complete idiot.

But there, that night, I looked like everyone else. Picture 300 dads mostly all dressed in suits, standing around, doing “The Chicken Dance,” and since all of the daughters were overshadowed by their taller dads, it looked like a room full of dressed up dudes clapping their fingers together, wagging their arms and wiggling their tails. Utter stupidity, but it worked. Natalie was tickled pink.

After that song ended, another one came on that neither of us knew (some High School Musical song no doubt), so Natalie said she wanted to finish her water and take a rest. We returned to the table, sat down and looked like a few other forlorn dads/daughters who don’t like to dance and who aren’t really having a good time.

I was getting slightly tired of carrying the balloons around all night. Why did we need them? Why can’t we get rid of them? Tears came to Natalie’s eyes when I suggested that we leave them somewhere and go dance. No, we were keeping the balloons, but I did suggest that we get rid of one and keep her favorite, the red one. She agreed, but I couldn’t get her back out on the dance floor, and she told me she was ready to go home. It was 7:15. I didn’t understand. Wasn’t she having fun? Yes, she was having fun, she said, but she was tired.

The DJ made a call to have all of the fathers and daughters come out to the middle of the dance floor for an air guitar contest, and that most certainly isn’t my cup of tea, but I convinced Natalie to go out there with me. At that point, I could have given a crap what anyone thought. I knew exactly two people in the whole room, and Natalie was one of them, so if there was an air guitar contest, I was going to win it.

They played “Don't Stop Believing,” by Journey, which is on my Top 100 songs of all time (again, don’t laugh), so I sang along with it while I danced with Natalie. All of the fathers sang the song to their daughters, per orders from the DJ, and when the guitar parts came, we rocked! Natalie thought it was hilarious, but I could see that little spark of “Daddy, you’re embarrassing me” in the corner of her eye.

After that, all of the daughters were called to the front of the dance floor while the dads were “given a break.” Natalie wouldn’t leave my side, and I didn’t want her to. There were only two other girls from her class at the dance, and although a dozen older girls came up to her to say hello (no doubt girls from Kara’s class), I wouldn’t feel comfortable with Natalie lost in a mosh pit of satin and lace. They played a song from “Camp Rock,” arguably Natalie’s favorite music right now, and we danced to it. Natalie was all smiles, but when it was over, she wanted to leave. That was it, she was done. I was hoping for a slow song. I actually wanted to dance more—which is rare for me—but she wanted to go home.

I knelt down and asked her if she wanted to go get some ice cream. Her eyes lit up and we turned to leave.

We were the first people out the door. One of the PTA ladies asked us, “You’re not leaving yet, are you?” I said yes, and she ran back inside to get our party favor, a nicely themed frame to hold our picture that we took. The parking lot was full of cars, and there was only one other couple leaving after us, so I didn’t feel too bad.

At the time, I didn’t understand why Natalie wanted to leave. I couldn’t possibly imagine that she had fun. We went to Golden Spoon and she was cheery and happy, which didn’t make any sense; we could have saved all the time and trouble and just gone out to get ice cream in a suit and nice dress.

But then the more I thought of it and the more Kara and I discussed it later that night, the more it occurred to me. She’s only five years old, something I tend to often forget, especially since she is so talkative and mature in her conversations. She’s not interested in dances and loud music and the commotion of 600 people packed into a school gymnasium. Like her father, she’s rather introverted, happy to stay out of the limelight and on the fringes of the pandemonium, and I thought the whole evening was a wash, a waste of time and money because there was no way she had a good time.

When we made it home, she had nothing but good times to share with Kara. How we danced and ate food and played with balloons and saw her friends… It took me longer to find the tie than the length of time I wore it (truth be told, I couldn’t tie it right so I just wore another one), but she said on the way in the house, “It was wonderful!”

I just didn’t get it. We danced to two and half songs, stood in line for 20 minutes to take pictures, sat and watched the limbo contest for 10 minutes while she drank her water, and were home 90 minutes after we left…and that included the stop for ice cream! How could she have had fun?

And that’s what I didn’t understand. The fun part was dressing up, getting ready, and the anticipation of going to the dance. It was the journey, not the destination. Fun to her was running around the dance floor with the balloons, chasing her friends, and when I looked back on the evening, that was when she had the most fun. That was the dance to her, that was what made it special to a five-year-old, dressing up and feeling special, holding your father’s hand and going out to a special event for just the two of us…and I guess that’s what made it special to me.

The fact that I learned about another facet of Natalie’s personality is just icing on the cake…which I was hoping they would have had at the dance.

I only have five more father-daughter dances to go while she’s in elementary school, and after that, I probably won’t be cool enough to dance with until her wedding day.

Maybe we’ll stay longer next year.

God Will Give Me a Pogo Stick

It seems that Christmas is coming early this year, as it seems it arrives earlier than it did the year before. Soon enough, we’ll only have to cook one turkey on Thanksgiving and there’ll be leftovers for Christmas. We went down to Dos Lagos last night and witnessed the longest, most drawn-out tree lighting ceremony ever…and all they did was flip a switch, but we had to wait for the emcee, Santa himself, to give his approval. Apparently he was stuck on the freeway, and when they announced that, I wondered how many kids looked up at their parents, and through innocent eyes, asked, “Why doesn’t he just fly here with his reindeer?” And since it was only 80 degrees out, which puts only a few people in the mood for Christmas, I’m surprised Santa didn’t collapse from heat stroke in his giant suit… and it explains why he was walking so slowly.

But then after they flipped the switch on the giant tree and all the twinkley lights made the crowd go “ahhhh,” he was taking Christmas wishes from kids in front of Victoria’s Secret, which would be the first place I would have thought to mix Santa and children on a warm Friday night.

All of the stores are decked out with that one sections that smacks Old Saint Nick right in your face without actually saying Christmas; it’s all “Happy Holidays,” a well-dissolved blanket greeting that will certainly not upset anyone who celebrates one of the non-holidays this time of year. Do you know anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas? And if you do, are they frequently offended by seeing the word Christmas? Odds are good they aren’t. Anyways, as my frustration with PCC (Politically Correct Consumerism) rises as we get closer to Christmas, I’m sure I’ll have more to add on this topic.

A couple of years ago, Natalie’s Christmas wish list resembled a phone book, and I don’t know how many times I answered “Put it on your Christmas List” when she saw something she wanted, knowing full well that she would soon forget about it by the time the next commercial started. And that’s okay. I was good with it, because I remembered as a kid getting the Winter JCPennys catalog and pouring through the toy sections creating the perfect playroom amassed with piles of Christmas loot. Today, as it was back then, that will not happen. Natalie and Matthew know nothing of prices and economies and bills and all of the joyous taxes our new exalted leader will bring us next year…and I’m a little sad that I know all too much about those things and have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Natalie slowly slipped out of that phase, and now she just circles stuff in the myriad catalogs that flood our mailbox this time a year. Really, how many American Girl doll catalogs do we actually need? The one last week was good enough, and Natalie’s getting carpel-tunnel syndrome circling all of the dolls she wants…but I don’t see her as the greedy type. On Halloween, she had more fun giving out candy at the door than she did getting it; perhaps it is because she doesn’t much like chocolate and that’s all that is really out there (we gave out pencils one year…I’m surprised we didn’t get egged).

And just when Natalie is out of that greedy Christmas-is-for-getting stage, Matthew is easing on into it. There isn’t a commercial that goes by his view that doesn’t contain something he doesn’t want, and watch out if get between the two of them when the Mattel, Hasbro or any number of toy catalogs come into the house.

So, recently, Matthew has been saying “I want that” to everything he sees. My answer? It’s the same as it has always been: “Put it on your Christmas List,” and since his birthday is 10 days before Christmas, I get to change it up a bit by alternating to “Put it on your Birthday List.”

The other night while we were all in the car heading somewhere, Matthew, perhaps tired of hearing the same answers over and over, says to himself, “God will give me a pogo stick.”

I didn't know he knew what a pogo stick even was, much less God's ability to give him stuff. I hope he's not too disappointed when that doesn't show up.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I am Icarus

A handful of years ago, during Easter dinner, I had to sneeze. It’s not unusual since a lot of pepper gets thrown around at our family dinners, but since I was being polite and didn’t want to sneeze straight forward, hence towards everyone else, I turned my head and sneezed away from the table. I’ve never felt such pain, as it was the first time I had ever wrenched my back, and it was like someone had gouged me with a dull spoon; it was so bad that tears came to my eyes instantly and Kara had to drive us home later that night because I could barely sit up straight without wincing. I hobbled around for a solid week, hardly able to get up off the couch without blinding pain, and it was nearly impossible to stand up completely straight.

Since then, I have done that again on two separate occasions, each time, I’m reminded that the flexibility and elasticity of my youth is a thing of the past.

On Halloween, I was reminded of the fleeting mistress of youth yet again.

Sometimes Elsa gets out, and though she usually listens to what I say, the siren song of freedom and liberty is too much an elixir to quell in her canine brain. I’ve mentioned it before and it is usually no big deal when she does get out. She roots around the neighborhood for about 10 minutes, visits a few penned-in neighborhood dogs (avoiding the really barky ones), realizes that there are far more interesting things going on in the house and comes back. No problem. This time, it was Halloween and it was nearing dusk, about the time spooky kids and ghoulish beings inhabit the streets, along with parents not paying attention while they drive and not to mention lots of chocolate.

To avoid any problems this time, I decided to go after her, not that it would do any good, as “the chase” to her is all part of the game and it makes her go farther. What I wanted to do was to get in front of her and steer her back towards the house, kind of corralling the doggies, if you will, while avoiding any implication that this is a game and we’re having fun. I had a fog machine to figure out and fake spider webs to add to the porch.

I knew she would run across the street and pay a visit to Traveler, a little Corgi…or some similar ilk of smaller dog that barks constantly when his “parents” aren’t home. While she was doing this, I kept on down the sidewalk, walking past her, hoping to cut her off and convince her that she belongs inside… plus, on Halloween, she gets to go with us trick or treating, so I don’t know what she is complaining about.

Anyway, she saw me…and the game was on! She took off running and for some reason, so did I, even though I knew it was the worst thing I could do to convince her to return to the house. I didn’t have shoes on and the asphalt was rather rough, but my feet are pretty tough too and I didn’t notice that I was scratching up my feet in the process. As soon as I hopped the grassy parkway onto the sidewalk, Elsa and I were right next to each other, and she looked over at me with a playful look in her eyes, tongue hanging out of her mouth. Then she started to really run—tail straight out, ears back, mouth now clamped shut in concentration—with long strides and her head down.

For whatever reason, I poured on the coals and tried in vain to keep up with her, knowing full well that was impossible and she started to slip away.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy running, always have, ever since I ran cross country and track in high school, all of the competitions and the accolades therein. When you get good at it, which means you’ve passed the “I’m out of shape” phase, it becomes easier, something that’s almost relaxing and fulfilling. Rhythm and strides, breathing and hearing your heartbeat in your head and the pounding of your feet on the pavement, one foot after the other. You fill your lungs with more air than you ever thought possible and your brain begins to feel the extra oxygen stimulating it into a semi-euphoric state.

Again, I’m not sure what brought this on, but I started to run as fast as I possibly could, as fast as I knew how to make my legs work, which over short distances used to be about 15mph when I was in excellent shape (back when my quarter-mile time was always sub-60 seconds). However, who knows what an extra 50 pounds of fat has cost me over the years, but I was running pretty fast; I knew I couldn’t do it for very much longer, so I savored the moment. My arms were pumping high up into the air and my legs seemed to work on their own with long, quick strides; everything was quiet around me except for the slight whistling of the air rushing past my ears and the clapping of my bare feet on the sidewalk. Since I was concentrating on catching Elsa, who was continuing to pull steadily ahead, everything around me became a fast moving blur like looking out the window during a car ride.

For a few moments, I felt good, really good. I could start to feel a small burn in the backs of my arms and my calf muscles began to stiffen because, of course, I didn’t stretch before this impromptu sprint. But over all of that, above the physical strain of sprinting, of pushing your body a lot farther than it has been pushed in a great while, my mind felt good like I had suddenly escaped the daily pressures of life, the stress of the days and the worries of the nights. I had been liberated, not as if I was running from something but because I had something to run towards, like in those spiritually enlightened movies with the message that you can overcome any obstacle: There’s always a scene that has the main character running at top speed, with abandon, for no reason, and as he does so a brilliant white light showers down around him and the movie transitions into a new direction. That was me, surrounded by the brilliant white light of redemption, saved from the recidivism of old age and its inevitable doom.

Maybe I felt young again. Beyond all the gray hair and those love handles that came out of nowhere or the soreness in my back when I wake up or the fact that I can’t stay up all night, the morning be damned…I had become Icarus, donning my wings made of wax to escape the labyrinth. As we get older, our fathers don’t exactly tell us not to fly too close to the sun, but let’s just say that I don’t ever recall a time seeing my dad sprint at top speed, which should have told me something about becoming older.

Thirty-five is a magical age: I’m young enough to be guiled into thinking I can do anything, but old enough to realize I shouldn’t. It was right then, right in the middle of feeling invulnerable and untouchable, right before I could just reach out and grab my share of the white brilliant light of the sun, there was this popping sound that came from my right leg.

I felt it; I even heard it. It sounded similar to someone opening a bag of chips with their fist, ironically like the breaking of the sound barrier. I couldn’t stop fast enough, and with every decelerating step on that leg, the pain grew more intensely until I was hopping on my left foot and using my right toes only for balance. To hell with the dog. Let her eat some hapless trick-or-treater and end up in the pound. See if I care now. I started limping back towards the house, letting the dog figure it out on her own.

But then Elsa got into a fight with a Boxer she met a few weeks ago. I heard the snarls and the Boxer’s owner demanding that it heel. If there’s two things I’ve tried to teach her, it’s never to play cards with a Cheetah and never get in a fight with a Boxer. Damnit. I hobbled to the last house on the street and grabbed Elsa by the scruff of the neck while she was occupied with trying to get her jaws around the jugular of this dog, who was half her size I might add. It wasn’t serious fighting and I could tell the two dogs were just sparring, like puppies do. But still, I was pretty pissed off that I had hurt my leg, and not because I was doing something I probably shouldn’t have done, but because I was doing something I’ve done a thousand times without incident. That, and at this stage in my life, I’m beginning to feel mortal, far and removed from that immortality you feel when you’re 19 and that feeling that time will never take you, things will always remain the same and life will be full of the kind of adventure you’ve been preparing yourself for since you were 10.

Elsa had had enough too. I yanked all 90 pounds of her off of the ground by the back of her neck and she got the message and trotted home, maybe content that her adventure was so exciting. She saw some old friends on the street, got to go farther than usual, and got to see her master run like one of her kind… except he doesn't run very far, or very fast, or very good for that matter.

For the past couple of days, walking has been a chore. I can take a step as long as I don’t extend it too far forward or too far backwards. Forget about touching my toes, which makes it difficult to dry my feet after a shower, and there’s no way I can give the dog a swift kick for making me run after her.

Actually, it is feeling better today, despite the fact that it is physically sore to the touch, the whole area about the size of an open hand halfway up the back of my thigh. I tore it, ripped it, sprained it, pulled it, or strained it…I don’t know; I barely passed biology in college, but I do know this:

If you’re going to fly too close to the sun, at least wear sunscreen.

*The picture at the beginning of this page is me (surprise). It was part of the team picture for the Glendora High School Cross Country team in the Fall of 1988. I was 15 years old.

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