Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Appetites of Destruction

When our two sons get home from school each day, the first thing on their minds is food. With their ravenous appetites, one might think the boys attend a school with Ghandi as their principal. At any rate, the moment they walk in the door they make a beeline to the kitchen to rummage through the pantry and sack the refrigerator. And if something doesn’t tickle their fancy immediately, they turn to my wife with a look in their eyes that I could only describe as “wild”. They’re still young and considerably smaller than my wife, so she can handle them on her own at present. But in the back of her mind there’s a little voice saying, “Someday, they’re going to be bigger and taller than you – and there are two of them.” (At this point one might argue that we have bigger problems if my wife is hearing voices, but that’s another issue for another day.) At that very moment, she must find something that will satisfy them until their next feeding – because if she doesn’t act quickly, she’ll have to pick up a kitchen chair and keep them back with a whip while she finds large sides of beef to throw to them.
Quite often you see a story on the six o’clock news about a mountain lion taking a dip in someone’s pool and then walking off with some of the neighborhood pets (between its teeth or in its stomach). And every story seems to end the same way: “Well, Bob, Animal Control naturally had to put the creature down.” It had always seemed strange to me that this was the “natural” solution to the problem. That’s a bit of an extreme punishment for “trespassing” and “theft”, isn’t it?
Then, looking at my boys one afternoon as they were licking the chocolate frosting off their lips from an after-school snack, it dawned on me: Animal Control’s trying to “send a message” to the other animals out in the wild – you know, make an example out of these feral felons and put the fear of God in them. And if we don’t find a way to control our children’s appetites, we could be running into the same problem in our own homes.
I can see it now: a news story about a standoff in a quaint suburban town with helicopters buzzing overhead and police cars surrounding a modest three-bedroom house. With a very concerned look painted on her face (looking as though she’s either very serious or seriously constipated), the reporter will say, “The details are still coming in, but here’s what I’ve been able to piece together so far: an eight-year-old boy – who we believe lives three doors down – came home from school today to find his own pantry completely free of Twinkies, cup cakes, or any other snack food. It appears he eluded his mother who was trying to get him to eat a carrot and made his way into the home we’re standing in front of now. Preliminary reports have come in that the boy is currently into his second box of Pop Tarts, and he’s halfway through a two-liter bottle of soda – Mountain Dew, I believe. If the police can’t talk him out, we could be in for a long night – that sugar rush isn’t wearing off any time soon.”
I think we’re all beginning to see the enormity of the problem here: if this happens, we’ll have more than seemingly endless slow-motion car chases to interrupt our favorite television programs.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Race With the Devil

The first time I ever saw a Rubik’s cube, I wasn’t that impressed. Somebody had slapped six distinct colors on as many sides of the cube – nothing a sixth-grade art student couldn’t accomplish. But when I saw someone mix up the colors and then put them back in order (without taking a hammer to it and reassembling it), I was convinced I was witness to the introduction of something so dark and evil, the Ouija board had nothing on it. Then, someone taught me how to solve the cube, and I saw it for what it was: a toy.

Sudoku, the number game from Japan, had the same effect on me. And when I learned how to play the game and solve the puzzles, I stopped cursing it and wishing it would return to the inner circle of Hell. I’m sure many of you out there could name similar experiences.

At this point, I’m going to recommend that the children leave the room because I’m going to tell you about something that seems, at first, innocent but quickly reveals its diabolical nature: pinewood derby. For the uninitiated, this is an annual activity in which Cub Scouts participate by taking a chunk of wood, four nails, and four plastic wheels and carve out a car to be raced down a track. I was involved in a handful of these “derbies” as a young boy, but my naiveté protected me from being sucked in by this ugly monster. Now, in my adult years, I have been subjected to two of these events, and I am prepared to expose its black underbelly.

As background, we blithely and innocently took on the task last year of building a car and preparing for the race. My son’s car came in dead last in every heat. He was awarded the “Sportsmanship” medal, and I was more than happy with that. My wife, however, apparently took a solemn oath at that moment that this would not happen again. So, in preparation for this year’s event, my wife insisted that we get some expert help. While I can’t tell you what advice/guidance we were given in the “building” of our son’s car, I will reveal that we consulted with an engineer from General Dynamics and a pharmacist. Our son’s car (which he named “Red Hot & Blue”) came in fourth this year – I tremble to learn who my wife will have us seek out next year: perhaps a ninja.

In the months leading up to this annual race, you interact with the parents and various adults associated with the Cub Scout program, and they all seem to be normal and sane. Not a single one of them, in my experience, has been featured in an episode of “Cops” or turned up on the evening news driving a white Ford Bronco. However, on derby night, you don’t want to get in their way or you might risk losing a limb.

As I entered the hall where the race was to be held, I noticed that each car but my son’s was being carried and cared for by an adult – an adult with a very determined and driven look etched on his/her face. Some were wiping down the bodies of the cars (no doubt to improve the aerodynamics) and others had a pocketful of assorted tools to make the necessary last-minute tweaks and adjustments to assure maximum performance. One father brought his laptop to enter every car into a spreadsheet and track the results of each heat!

As we awaited the start of the race, I couldn’t help hearing snippets of conversation buzzing around me like mosquitoes. One mother had admitted to her friend that she spent twelve hours on the internet searching for the perfect car design. Someone else rattled off the name of some place in Cuba where you could get a guaranteed winning car for only $500.00. The one item I overheard that keeps me awake at night was a man claiming he had to bite off another man’s ear to get the last “piece” for his son’s car.

Clearly, this would make for a far more simple psychiatric test than ink blots or word association. If you want to gauge a person’s mental stability, hand him a chunk of wood, a handful of nails, and some plastic wheels, and tell him he has three days to prepare for a pinewood derby – then cover your ears and run!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Season's Readings

By a show of hands, how many of you send out a family holiday letter? Okay, put your hands down. By a show of groans, how many of you have been the recipients of those letters? That’s what I thought.

Not a year goes by that we don’t receive at least a dozen of these merry little missives, and about 90% of them are either outright lies (which isn’t all that bad – we’ll get to that later) or they make you want to curse your elementary school teachers for having taught you how to read. The end to this insanity begins with you.

I’m not against sending out the family letter. It’s great to keep in touch with those friends and family members you may have not heard from or spoken with over the year. And with that being the case, this is your one and only chance to reconnect with them. Do you want this little “reunion” to induce sleep or cause nausea?

For the sake of all your involuntary recipients out there, I’ve compiled a few guidelines for you to follow when you sit down to pen the family epistle:

1. Comedy is best employed by professionals. If you’re not getting regular gigs at The Improv, don’t take this moment to try out your material. This doesn’t mean you can’t employ some humor at your own expense – poke some fun at yourself. For example, if you bear a striking resemblance to Condoleezza Rice, you might want to open the letter with, “I tried to become a body double this year for the Secretary of State, but they thought it would be unwise to employ a man in that role.”

2. A little white lie can be very effective. One year, when our oldest son was about three, I wrote that he had found one of those hairless cats in the neighborhood and thought it looked cold. So, he took some shag carpet remnants and glued them all over the feline’s physique. I went on to finish the story by saying that sealing the pores on the hapless cat caused an unforeseen side effect: death. We received calls and letters from people we hadn’t heard from for years!

3. Save a tree. By all means, keep the family letter to one side of one page – 8 ½” X 11”. (If you have more than twelve children, then you may employ the back of the single page.) Even the Declaration of Independence was limited to one page – granted, it was slightly larger than letter-size, but it was written by hand in a really huge font, and John Hancock took up some major real estate with just his signature.

4. Don’t brag! One year, some friends of ours sent us their letter highlighting all of the wonderfully expensive items they were able to buy and exotic trips they took. Upping the gag factor by about three hundred points was the fact they tried to do this through rhymes. I didn’t think it was possible, but they found words to rhyme with Chevy Suburban and pearl necklace. These are the same folks who subsequently reported that their children were brainiacs – and yet those same tots sat next to mine in preschool eating paste and running into doors with their heads.

Please bear in mind that there’s only one person who’s qualified to call himself the Leader of the Western World, and best-selling authors make a lot of money because they do really well what we can’t. Have a safe and happy holiday, and keep the home fires burning – with all those family letters that really blow!

Political Cleansing

Back in college I was required to take a couple of political science classes. Being the masochist that I am, I took them both from the same teacher (over two different semesters, mind you) – better the devil you know than the one you don’t was my thought process. At any rate, I remember two main things from this cat’s classes: (1) he liked to ramble on about the great price he got on some large ceramic pots at a flea market, and (2) he was always talking about how things affected the body politic. Now, allow me to digress for a moment.

I grew up with a guy named Dave who would move heaven and earth to make sure he didn’t throw up. He’s now 36 years old, and I believe he has only tossed his cookies once in that entire time. To make matters worse, whenever he hears someone talking about throwing up, he gets physically ill – but he won’t let himself do it. I remember a night when we all sat around taking turns peppering the conversation with one reference or another to the act of vacating one’s stomach just to watch him turn green. Truth be told, we were waiting for him to explode.

Personally, when I’m sick to my stomach, I welcome the opportunity to heave. The moments leading up to the act are not pleasant, and they seem to take an eternity, but once I’m through with it I feel one hundred percent better. It doesn’t mean that I’m no longer sick, but I’m feeling good at the moment.

I bring this up as a means of gaining some perspective on what happened here in our country this past Tuesday. The body politic felt sick so it decided to stick its finger down its throat and let lunch fly. The problems they perceive still exist, and the possibility that they could get sick again or sicker is very strong, but they’re feeling settled at the moment.

It will be interesting to see what will happen in the coming days and months. Will we seek out proper “medical” advice, or will we continue to “self diagnose” and become political bulimics?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Fate Takes a Holiday

I’ve never been a huge fan of turkey – the food, that is (I can honestly say I’m pretty ambivalent on the country, but that’s neither here nor there). Whenever possible, we have a ham at our get-togethers with family and friends. However, for some strange reason, there’s a ginormous segment of the population that is either gaga over the almost taste-free fowl or feels it their patriotic duty to serve the bird on Thanksgiving Day.

One might ask how turkey came to be the centerpiece of the holiday meal, and that question bears one simple answer: the Pilgrims were from England. English cuisine has never been known for overwhelming the palette. When was the last time you watched Emeril and heard him say he was going to kick it up a notch by going British? Our English cousins may be known for their spicy wit and their saucy comebacks but not for culinary wonders. Also, why do you think it’s served with mashed potatoes, gravy, and yams? Very few people I know are clawing their way into the kitchen to get a mouthful of the naked bird. It’s very likely that the Native Americans who were invited to the first Thanksgiving feast could smell the turkey smell wafting through the air long before their arrival at the party – that’s why they brought some of their own food.

As many of you know, Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the turkey our national symbol rather than using the bald eagle. In denying Mr. Franklin his wish for a federal emblem, fate dealt us a mixed hand: had he succeeded, we would most assuredly be free from having to eat turkey on Thanksgiving; however, with that success would have come the embarrassing specter of standing before the world with a turkey, perhaps one of the dumbest birds to walk the earth, as the face of our nation. Nothing says “tough” like a turkey.

Along with the culinary challenges presented by Thanksgiving, this holiday carries with it many different meanings and memories. And they usually depend on the age of the person. Generally speaking, when one is young, the holiday means the sheer exhilaration of seeing cousins and other relatives. For the teens, it means having to face all those same relatives who pepper you with about a thousand questions about your latest choice of hairstyle or clothing; this grilling continues on through the end of puberty and into young adulthood, but the questions turn on college choice, career path, marriage, etc. And then once you’re married and have children of your own, Thanksgiving means traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to visit those same relatives you moved so far away to avoid – I mean, come on, it wouldn’t be fair (to you) for your kids to miss out on all the fun you had when you were their age.

It’s also odd that Thanksgiving conjures up so many memories – more so than many other holidays. For example, at the mere mention of the Thanksgiving holiday, someone in your immediate vicinity will suddenly break into a “I remember one year when . . .” story. However, you don’t get that same waxing of nostalgia for other holidays with statements like, “Hey, Phil, remember that wild Arbor Day back in 1986? Wow, the mayor’s cat was never the same since.”

Regardless of your memories of or feelings for the Thanksgiving holiday, I would recommend you reflect on one thing for which we should all feel grateful: Ben Franklin’s discovery of electricity – because without electricity, there would be no way to watch the football game from the comfort of your family room. And without the football game, you might be forced to make small talk with Aunt Fern about the removal of that hideous mole below her lip. Happy Thanksgiving!