Saturday, December 31, 2011

Silence Speaking Volumes

Elizabeth and I got a babysitter, drove to Scottsdale, and saw The Artist at Harkins Camelview today.  The Artist is one of those movies that’s on every critic’s top 10 list of the year’s best.  Based on the effusive praise, I sweet-talked Elizabeth into seeing it instead of the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes sequel.

I don’t know if it was a great movie; in other words, I question how much I was affected by the story the movie told, but one thing is for certain:  it was definitely an experience, and we were both glad we went. 

The thing about The Artist that you need to know going in is that it is a silent movie.  A real silent movie.  I guess I didn’t read the reviews carefully enough, or maybe the surprise is supposed to be part of the film’s charm, and so the critics purposely are concealing the fact, but neither of us knew this at the outset.  I did know that The Artist is a movie about silent movies; I just sort of assumed it would take the Singin’ in the Rain approach and be a movie about silent movies without being silent itself.  Perhaps the studio and critics alike were afraid that being straightforward on this count would only scare audiences away.  However, we both felt that knowing this up front might have saved us a great deal of needless distraction (and honestly, impatience bordering on irritation) early in the film while we were sitting there wondering how long things are going to go along in silent movie mode before they inevitably went back to normal.  

Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.    

Besides, the fact that this truly is a silent movie is exactly the reason why I want to encourage people to see this film, and to see it in a theater with an audience, and not to wait for it on DVD.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Serendipity, thy name is Jimmy Fallon

Serendipity:  Miriam-Webster defines it as “the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” defines it as “good fortune; luck.”  To me, when something serendipitous happens, it’s more than dumb luck or pure chance; there’s a reason for it.  It may or may not be immediately obvious, but there’s a reason.  Serendipity, when it happens, always makes you feel good, as though there’s someone out there looking out for you, giving you the thumbs-up.  I think that’s really what it is.  Serendipity is a little thumbs-up sign from the universe, or God, or whomever you choose to attribute it. 

Elizabeth and I experienced what I can only label as a serendipitous moment on the Friday before Christmas.  It wasn’t anything huge, just a little thumbs-up sign from the cosmos, or maybe it was just the spirit of John Denver and Jim Henson messing with our minds for kicks.

It was after midnight on Friday night, and Elizabeth and I were both awake, which is highly unusual in itself.  Normally, we’d both have been asleep for an hour or two by then, being the typically middle-aged people we are.  But this was the night before Christmas Eve, and Elizabeth was smack in the middle of what I like to call “Christmas Crazy.”   At midnight on Friday, this meant baking about sixteen different kinds of Christmas cookies, cupcakes, and various goodies, in preparation for the big Christmas Eve party that we host every year.  Generally, this is the biggest event of the year at our home, although birthdays, graduations, and a couple of funerals have sometimes rivaled it in size.  It’s generally in the range of forty to fifty people, and Elizabeth feels underprepared unless each guest can have a platter’s worth of baked treats to themselves.

I, on the other hand, was up because I was running a fever, and feeling generally lousy.  I had been fine all day, but around eight that evening I felt like I had been buried under a load of bricks.  Not a good way to feel when your Christmas Eve party is less than twenty-four hours away.  After dozing for a few hours, I had woken up with a fever and chills, and although I was miserable, I was mostly awake. 

Doesn’t sound much like the makings of a serendipitous moment, does it?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Angels and stars

Part I – The Conversations (a fictionalized account of two families and their tree-toppers)

Angel or star.  There are really only two options when it comes to what goes at the top of the Christmas tree.  Many of us don’t take a strict position on which one is better.  However, there are some out there that swear an angel is the only way to go, while others say that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without that star atop the yuletide tree.  I grew up with angels on our trees.  I can’t remember a year when we didn't have one.  

When Elizabeth and I first married, we were very young and without the kind of money that today would be labeled “discretionary income.”  We barely had indiscretionary income, although anyone who happened to see our W-2’s would surely consider our combined income an indiscretion.  As a result, we started our married life with some surplus Christmas ornaments donated from both families, and an old fake tree.  From this motley assortment of hand-me-down decorations, we pieced together our first Christmas.  One thing we got from Elizabeth’s parents was the frail, tinseled, silver star they used to use on their tree when Elizabeth was growing up.  Even though the plastic back was cracking, and the whole thing felt as though it were about to collapse from exhaustion, Elizabeth’s mom had had the foresight to see this day coming, and held on to it.  We gratefully accepted it from her as a gift, and placed it oh-so-delicately at the top of our Christmas tree.  That’s when the trouble started.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Musical Christmas stockings

Music is as integral to the Christmas holiday as a tree, or lights, or elbowing the poor sap next to you in order to grab the last carton of eggnog.  It’s a vast subcategory of popular music, one that continues to grow with each passing year.  It seems like every recording artist since the invention of the victrola feels compelled to offer us their unique interpretation of “Jingle Bells.”   Seriously, how many varieties of “Frosty the Snowman” does one nation under God really need?  But these are smart people; they realize that if they can somehow wedge their version of even one song into the popular memory, their fame will be eternal, or at least last long enough to give them a convenient way to introduce themselves in the afterlife.  Take Bobby Helms and Brenda Lee, for instance.  If it weren’t for “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” respectively, we wouldn’t know that these people ever existed.  Even singers like Perry Como and Andy Williams, who were great stars of their day, are identifiable to today’s  generations only for their unsurpassed renditions of “Home for the Holidays” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (again respectively).   

We’ve now had 70-some Christmases since records and radio entered the cultural mainstream, and that means many thousands of Christmas songs and Christmas albums have been recorded.  A great number of these have survived right down to the present day, thanks to the natural human proclivity to hold on to every piece of circular black vinyl ever printed.  I myself have a box of LP’s sitting in my closet, even though I haven’t had a working turntable since 1992.  That means there’s an awful lot of Christmas music floating around, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why I have to listen to Wham! singing “Last Christmas” at least once an hour whenever I have the Christmas music station on. 

No matter what your musical tastes are, when it comes to Christmas music, there’s an absolute surfeit of choices.  Even if you have no taste at all, you can still enjoy songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” a barking dog version of “Jingle Bells,” or that absurd “Christmas Shoes” song, which I understand now comes with its own EpiPen for people who are allergic to treacle, which is most of us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Muppets

Elizabeth and I took the girls to see the new movie The Muppets recently.

It’s only fair to tell you up front that I am a huge fan of the Muppets, and of Jim Henson.  The original Muppet Movie is still one of my favorite movies, and as a kid I was a big fan of The Muppet Show TV series. 

I also have to admit that, after Jim Henson’s passing, I noticed differences in the characters, the kind of humor, the voices themselves, that made me care less about the Muppets than I used to.  So, when I heard they were making this new movie, I was not very optimistic.  When the trailer came out, followed by the TV commercials, I saw very little in any of it to change my mind, or to convince me that this new film would do much to reverse the Muppets’ flagging fortunes.  I didn’t know if was even possible to recapture the magical spark that the best of the Muppets had in it, and I wasn’t interested in anything less.  Truthfully, I half-expected that the movie would turn out to be an empty, contrived, disingenuous mess. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Morning Hawk

It’s Monday morning, around seven-thirty.  Our black Lab, Chubby, has just finished eating, and now she wants to go outside.  I open the door to the back yard, and as the dog and I step out into a frigid pre-dawn gray, we are greeted by a beautiful, dark-brown Harris hawk swooping beneath the telephone wires and directly above our heads, screeching hoarsely as it passes over the house. 

I think I’ve seen this hawk before.  There have been several times over the past month when I’ve seen a Harris hawk prowling the afternoon skies of our neighborhood, strategically maneuvering from one palm tree to another.  Harris hawks are distinctively colored compared to other types of desert hawks:  their bodies range from rich red-brown to chocolate, darkening almost to black.  They are white at the base of their tails, but the tail feathers themselves are black, or nearly so, with a thin white fringe at the end.  Their bare legs, talons, and beak are a buttery yellow-gold.

Seeing a hawk this early in the morning was unexpected enough. To hear its shrill cry at close range, though, was enough to make the blood jump inside my body.  Maybe it was as surprised to see us as we were to see it.  Whatever the reason, the screech had in it that compelling, primal quality that startles even as it unlocks your memory.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Forward Path - 7 December 2011

I’ve fallen behind a little bit when it comes to reporting what’s going on with the professional side of this crazy little adventure, so let me bring you up to date.

On Friday, November 25th (Black Friday – coincidentally, I hope), my third guest column ran in the West Valley sections of the Arizona Republic.  It was a highly truncated version of the “Veteran’s Day 2011” essay that I posted to the blog on Nov. 18th.  If you want to see just how truncated it was, here’s the link to the column as it appeared in the paper.  That, plus the 9/11 reflections editorial means that I’ve had a piece published in the paper in four consecutive months.   I guess I’ve got a streak on my hands, right? 

A nice surprise this time came on Saturday, Nov. 26th, when we discovered that the column also ran in the Phoenix editions of the Republic (which makes sense, because the Veteran’s Day parade I wrote about occurred in central Phoenix).  That’s also a first. 

It’s an exciting time, but also one in which I’m trying really hard not to be impatient. 

Baby steps, Kev…baby steps.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

the butterfly hole

There are many connections between this and the last post, "a funny thing happened on the way to a life."  They are companions in a way, but I imagine the differences between them will stand out more than the similarities.  

If Shel Silverstein wrote about the topic of discovering yourself (and it's entirely possible he did), it might have sounded something like this... 

the butterfly hole

For years I would watch the butterflies
that randomly flitted by
never really knowing what they were
bits of magic in the sky.

Where do butterflies come from?
As a question I thought it quite fair
until I discovered a hole in my head
hiding right beneath my own hair!

Now a hole, people say, is a bad thing,
something that ought to be fixed.
Walking 'round town
with a hole in your crown
is just no way to go
(this we all know)
unless you’re a whale
or an ‘o.’

Saturday, December 3, 2011

a funny thing happened on the way to a life

I want to dedicate today’s post to two people: one I know well, and the other is someone I feel like I know, but have never met, and couldn’t tell you his name. 

I’ve never dedicated anything before, but if a disc-jockey can do it, why not?

This post is dedicated first to Elizabeth, for always seeing through the fraud I was trying so hard to be.  Nothing that is happening now could have happened without your faith. (And don’t worry; you still get the dedication in the first book).

I also want to dedicate this particular post to a guy who goes only by the name “Kid,”  and writes a blog by the name “The Kid in the Front Row,” which TBF’s* of my blog have probably noticed appearing under “My Blogs List” for several months now.  Kid writes mostly about movies, but he also writes about writing.  His gift is the ability to think clearly about the truth, and transmit that honesty in a way that I find thrilling and a little shocking.  His writing resonates with me both as a writer, and a human.  Because of his work, I am inspired to continue drilling down in my writing through my own personal BS until I get to the bedrock of truth.  The following post is one such effort. 

*TBF = true blue friend 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 8

My prolonged absence from the blog has been due mostly to my determination to finish this story once and for all.  I have been working on it non-stop for two weeks, and while the result is far from perfect, I am thoroughly ready to call 'uncle' on Uncle Day Weekend...

For readers who can remember that far back, Part 7 detailed the majority of our visit to a little-known place called Bearizona. This visit occurred within the larger context of our Labor Day weekend trip, which we rechristened 'Uncle' Day weekend because we couldn’t take the summer heat in Phoenix anymore, and so sought refuge in the high country around Flagstaff.  Another goal was to get there and back without using the I-17 at any time, and to not travel the same road twice.  Part 8 carries us all the way to the conclusion of this story. 

Bearizona’s black bear exhibit was large in size and impressive in the number of bears it contained.  The dirt road through the enclosure was probably close to a half-mile long, if you straightened out the two large loops designed to give the visitor more viewing opportunities.  Once we entered, we saw almost immediately that the bears were active.  The staff must have just fed them, because a substantial number of bears were just off the edge of the trail, eating breakfast.  For some reason, they reminded me of old pictures of Dust-Bowl-era migrants pulled over informally along the shoulders of the Mother Road to eat, picnicking on their way to the Promised Land.  I must have seen a picture like that once upon a time; otherwise, I have no idea why that thought would even come to me.  Some of the bears were on all fours, and some were sitting straight up on their haunches, but all were doing the same thing:  eating slices of white bread.  Each one had a slice of the stuff already in its mouth, or was holding it with a paw.  We noticed one bear was holding his piece up to the sun as though he were appreciating its form, the way I might hold up a plump chunk of king crab leg glistening with clarified butter.  Some had piles of slices next to them.  

Black bears and white bread.
Sounds like a country song...
Who knew bears had a thing for Wonder Bread?  And they ate it with such apparent relish, too; it seemed to be a delicacy to them, like eating dessert first.  I’m sure they had been given other food as well; good food, healthy food, food with actual flavor.  All they seemed interested in was the Wonder Bread.  It was funny, but on some level, also a little disturbing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Veteran's Day 2011

Reflections on Veteran’s Day, 2011
 Phoenix Veterans Day Parade - 11/11/11.
Although it got off to a shaky start (notice the misspelling, twice, of the word 'Hero's' on the banner), the parade immediately recovered its dignity and continued from there with great aplomb.  

I’m not sure I could tell you the last time I went to a big parade, but I’m sure it’s been ten years at least, maybe fifteen.  Parades are not really my thing, for two primary reasons.  For one thing, I don’t like crowds.  I don’t know what it is, but parades just seem to attract them.  Whenever I’m in a crowd, I quickly get very uptight and anxious.  It’s nothing personal against the rest of humanity; it’s just that so many things can go wrong when you have to stand next to folks you don’t know for longer than a standard elevator ride or forty-two seconds, whichever comes first.  Whenever I find myself in that kind of situation, I focus on all the mishaps that could occur, ranging from personal embarrassment to outright calamity, and then spend whatever time remains combining them in imaginative and unusual ways. 

The other reason is that parades are usually connected to a holiday, and I have always looked at holidays as precious and fleeting gifts of freedom from the rat race.  Thus, I tend to jealously guard these days much the way a dragon guards its treasure, specifically a dragon that’s down to its last few pieces of gold because some thief has absconded with the rest.  Holidays, especially the paid ones, engender a feeling similar to the one you get when the tax refund finally shows up in your bank account: even though you knew it was coming, you can’t help but get a little giddy anyway.  Putting myself in a situation where I would feel uncomfortable, such as a parade, for instance, has always struck me as an extremely non-giddy way to spend a holiday. 

However, things have changed drastically for me this year.  I’m a newly-minted freelance writer, which means I’m out of the rat race, because let’s face it, even rats don’t race for free, like I happen to be doing now.  One of the positive side effects, however, has been that I no longer feel a need to protect every spare moment that comes my way as though it were the last remaining seat in a death-match version of musical chairs.

The parade was preceded by a B-25(?) bomber
making several passes overhead.
So, on November 11th, 2011, we took the plunge.  We gathered up the kids, and went downtown to watch the VA Veterans Day Parade.  Many people don’t realize this, but Phoenix’s Veterans Day parade is one of the largest in the country.  I know we were surprised by how big a parade it actually is.  Looking at the program, handed out by scurrying troops of freshly-scrubbed Scouts before the start, we saw that there were a total of 49 groups participating.  We were duly impressed by that, until our daughter alerted us to the fact that there were another two pages of entrants, bringing the total to 105. 

The parade itself ran a very solid two hours.  Before we left the house, I heard the local news estimate thirty to forty thousand spectators would attend this year’s event.  Two hours in, I thought that was the number of people in the parade.  It’s a long parade, and it feels even longer when you spend the majority of the time preventing a frisky two-year-old from running into the tangle of marching legs, especially when the pretty horseys and the friendly doggies are passing by.  Fortunately for us, my daughter was eventually overwhelmed by all the excitement and fell asleep.  For the last half-hour, my wife and I alternated holding her slag-like body in our arms while doing our best to continue waving and clapping and cheering.    

The VA Veterans parade had all the things that make parades the joyous and nerve-wracking (maybe that’s just me) experiences they are: bands, floats, giant balloons, dignitaries, celebrities, great old restored cars like Ford Model T’s and convertible Caddies, big trucks and military vehicles of all shapes and sizes, really loud motorcycles, music, flags, baton twirlers, and, of course, crowds. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What themes may come...

As friends of the blog know, my older daughter Jessica and I have recently begun to read the Harry Potter series.  Yes, I know, as impossible as it sounds, we hadn’t read any of the books or seen any of the movies until the last few months.  The main reason is that my daughter is easily frightened, which is both blessing and curse.  So far, it’s been mostly curse, because it’s severely limited the rides she’s willing to go on at Disneyland, in addition to the movies she’s willing to see with me, but I fully expect it to become a blessing once boys start entering the equation.  In anticipation of that day, I’ve done my best to make dating sound really scary so far:

Jessica:  So, Dad, is going on a date really scary?
Me:  Horribly, terribly, ginormously scary.
Jessica: Boys are that bad?
Me:  Rotten, evil, scary, stinky monsters.
Jessica:  Is going on a date scarier than Splash Mountain?
Me:  Way scarier.
Jessica:  Is it worse than Thunder Mountain Railroad?
Me:  I don’t even have words to describe how much scarier dating is than Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Jessica: Worse even than Space MountainSpace Mountain is that one that goes in the dark, right, Dad?
Me:  Yes.  Listen to me.  Going on a date with a boy is scarier than all the mountains in Disneyland put together, even if you had Freddy Krueger sitting next to you, and Leatherface and Jason behind you, and the ride broke down, and you were all alone, stuck there for hours; well, it wouldn’t be for hours…

Jessica:  Who are they, Dad?
Me:  Who?
Jessica:  Freddy Krueger, and Jason, and the other one you said. 
Me:  They’re all boys, sweetie.  Exactly the kind of people you don’t want to know.

Hello Freddy!
Well, I didn't want to scare her too much! 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mental Splinters - Rick Perry

I’ve decided I need to create a new section of the blog. 

I’m not the world’s most observant person, but even I notice things from time to time.  Once I notice something, it won’t stop bothering me.  It’s like getting a splinter in your finger that irritates the crap out of you, until you finally go dig the tweezers out of the drawer in the bathroom and pull it out.  For some reason, writing these annoying things down has always served as the tweezers to my mental splinters.  I write it down, and it’s gone, and I don’t have to think about it anymore.  What happens after that doesn’t matter; it could get lost, tossed out, ripped up, or thrown in the fireplace.  I just needed to get it out.  It’s such a nice feeling, once it’s out. 

Unfortunately for you, dear reader, now I have a blog, which means that many of these splinters are likely to be deposited right here.  From my perspective, it’s vastly preferable to physically writing them down, prone as I am both to cramps in my writing hand and paper cuts.  In fact, I’ve already left many of these mental splinters all over the place; they just haven’t necessarily been identified as such. 

So, I apologize to you in advance for any inconvenience these splinters may cause.  At a minimum, you are stuck with having to look at them, and I suppose it’s even possible that you may yourself pick one up if you’re not suitably cautious.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Close Call

My two-year-old daughter Maria and I had a scary moment last week. 

It was a perfectly average Tuesday morning, although I don’t remember exactly how we spent the time.  I do remember lunch.  Maria wanted chicken nuggets, so I heated some up in the microwave, along with some peas, which these days is about the only vegetable I can sometimes cajole, plead, beg, threaten, browbeat, exhort and/or extort her into eating.  As had become usual, I let her eat in the back room where she liked to watch Caillou.  Statistically speaking, that was most likely what she watched; I honestly don’t remember now.  She ate contentedly for fifteen minutes or so.   

“Daddeeeeee, more chicken nuuuuuuuggets,” she called out from the back room.  She hadn’t touched her peas on this particular day, so we bickered about that for a minute or so, and then I took her plate to the kitchen and served up two more chicken nuggets.  I set her plate down on the coffee table in the back room, and went to the living room to check email or something equally irrelevant. 

Five, maybe ten, minutes later, I heard a faint gurgling sound behind me.  I figured it was Chubby, our dog, who sometimes makes sounds like that when she’s about to throw up.  I spun around in the chair, ready to grab her by the collar and hustle her to the door, and instead saw Maria standing at the intersection of the kitchen and the living room.  She had her hands up by her face.  She made another gurgling sound.  She was choking. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 7

Uncle Day Weekend is the continuing saga of an overnight road trip we took over Labor Day Weekend.  Wondering why it’s called ‘Uncle Day?’  Check this out.  In part 6, we made it just inside the gates of Bearizona, a relatively new attraction near Williams, Arizona.  Part 7 is all about what we saw inside…

The first area of the park after the munched motorhome display (check out part 6 if you want to see a picture) is the donkey exhibit.  The map calls them American Burros.  This, I suppose, is in contrast to Mexican burros, which I love, especially with shredded beef and red chile sauce, but American burros are just donkeys.  It’s a strange way to start, although I suppose if you’re going to show donkeys at a wild animal park, the best place to put them is at the beginning.  They’re certainly not going to provide the big finish.  At Bearizona, there were maybe ten of them spread around randomly over the wide, bare ground of their enclosure, standing under pine trees or just out in the open.  Even they seemed confused as to why they were there.  We drove slowly through the large pen, searching for any sign of interesting behavior, or even movement.  One kind of twitched his ear, and then another lazily bent his neck to look in our direction.  He began to saunter towards us, and I got the feeling he might be coming over to bum a cigarette.  Sensing our non-smoker aura, he changed direction at the last moment and shuffled past us, meandering slowly along the road, eventually stopping and standing in another part of the pen.  That was exciting.  We moved on.

Donkeys in their natural habitat. I think there are four of them in this picture.

So cool.
The next exhibit was bison.  I love bison.  They are unequivocally my favorite North American mammal.  I love their massive, shaggy, triangular heads with their scraggly goatees, and thick, stubby horns.  Above the hips, they look like furry Marines, with thick necks, immense chests, enormous shoulders, and torsos which narrow sharply to a trim, dare I say positively svelte, waist.   Yet from the waist back, it’s as though God slapped an average cow’s rear end onto this monumental beast.  Granted, a cow that spends a lot of time at the gym doing squats, but a cow nonetheless.  This almost comical combination makes them look as though they’re always on the verge of tipping forward onto their broad, flat heads, leaving their little back legs wiggling helplessly in the air.  It’s an image that makes you want to laugh, but you quickly suppress the urge, because bison look as though they’re just waiting for you to give them a reason to turn you into mulch.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leftover Halloween Treats


A sampling of tidbits from this year’s Halloween festivities that I want to get rid of before they go stale…

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was in heavy DVR rotation at our house over the last week or so.  It turned out that there were several other ways it connected to our Halloween this year:  

Inspired by the TV special, my ten-year-old daughter Jessica decided to be a “Charlie Brown ghost” for Halloween this year.  We bought a white sheet and a yard of black fabric.  With some scissors and a glue gun, we did our best to recreate poor old Charlie Brown’s infamous costume. It cost a total of $16 bucks to make, and that’s only because we didn’t have a white bedsheet lying around the house.  Here is how it turned out:

Charlie Brown

Not bad, right?  By the way, all modesty aside, I have the coolest daughter in the world.

I have to admit I’m more than a little proud that my daughter chose to be a Charlie Brown ghost.  She could have opted to be a vampire stewardess, or a zombie cheerleader, or Lindsay Lohan. It gives me a modicum of hope for the future.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Tale of Two Concerts

Elizabeth and I don’t go to a lot of concerts.  Or, Elizabeth and I go to a bunch of concerts.  I don’t know which of those two statements is more true; it probably depends more on the perspective of the other person involved in the conversation, in this case, you.  I’d say we average about 3 concerts a year, which has been pretty consistent over the 22 years we’ve been married.  3 concerts a year doesn’t seem like a lot, thus validating the first statement; but if you add up all those shows over the years, we’ve seen somewhere between 60-70, which I think fits the technical definition of a bunch.

Foo Fighters
Paul Simon
In all that time, I don’t think we had ever attempted the formidable feat of back-to-back concerts.  But that’s just the position we found ourselves in when the Foo Fighters decided to put on a show Sunday night, and then Paul Simon came along and scheduled his concert for the next night.  Two shows in two nights is not a challenge we intentionally set out for ourselves, like hiking the Grand Canyon, for instance, or reading Sarah Palin’s biography.  It just kind of happened that way. 

It’s important to understand that Elizabeth and I aren’t extreme personalities; as a rule, we don’t like extreme sports, we don’t watch extreme television, and we don’t do extreme things.  We’re big fans of the golden mean, of stability, of routine.  To us, extreme is putting the kids to bed and then…watching a movie, or if we’re really out of our minds, having sex.  The fact that both of us will be asleep before it’s over tells you just how horribly pathetic we are, both at determining what qualifies as extreme behavior, and also in carrying it out.  Perhaps you can imagine just how daunting the prospect of back-to-back concerts appeared to two such small, hum-drum individuals.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Candy Smackdown 2011 - Results

For those of you who have gotten caught up in the Arizona Republic’s Candy Smackdown Madness (and from the looks of it, that’s about 5 of you), I just wanted to post the final results, and see how my skills as a candy competition prognosticator stack up.  I will tell you that things did not go according to plan.  My plan, anyway. 


In the Vampire regional, I had Peanut M&M’s advancing over Nestle Crunch.

Actual voting result:  Nestle Crunch over Peanut M&M’s

In the Mummy regional, I had Butterfinger giving ‘the finger’ (couldn’t resist) to the Heath Bar.

Actual voting result:  Butterfinger over Starburst

In the Ghost regional, I had Twix beating Take 5.

Actual voting result:  Hershey chocolate bar over Kit Kat*
*Twix lost to Kit Kat in the first round. Anyone who read my initial bracketology report knows how strongly I feel about that match-up in the first round.  Kit Kat derailed Twix, and from that point on, this bracket was a complete disaster for me.

In the Witch regional, I had Milky Way advancing over Hershey’s Kisses.

Actual voting result:  Hershey Bar beat Milky Way*
* Hershey Bar and Hershey’s Kisses were also matched up in the first round, and I went with the Kisses, because as everyone knows, Kisses are cuter.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Night of Terror in Zanesville – or, Lions and tigers and bears, O hi (o)!

October 18th, 2011
Somewhere near Zanesville, Ohio

911. What’s your emergency?
I just saw a lion crossing the highway!
Excuse me sir, did you say a lion?
Yes, a lion.  Crossing highway 75. You need to get somebody out here, and I mean pronto!
Sir, can you describe the lion?
Describe the lion? Uh, well, he was big and brown…and he had a black mane, and I just saw him cross south of milepost 129.  I’m not kidding, someone’s gonna have a serious problem soon if they don’t get that animal.
Sir, are you sure it was a lion?
Trust me, I know it sounds weird, but it was definitely a lion.  We need the police, or game and fish, or Barnum and Bailey's, or somebody, quick.
Sir, how do you know it was a lion?
How do I know it was a lion?! Because I saw The Lion King, and @#%*&$! Mufasa just ran in front of my car!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Forward Path - 14 October 2011

I had another guest column published in the West Valley editions of the Arizona Republic on Wednesday.  This one focuses on the centennial of Glendale High School, which is the school where I spent my short-lived teaching career.  I wanted to do something to bring some attention to the school’s historical importance and vital role in the community, and so this seemed like a natural fit. 

This piece marks the first time I’ve actually written something expressly for the purpose of publication in a newspaper, and not for the blog.  As a result, you may notice that the voice is a little more restrained, and my naturally sarcastic tone is muted.  But I feel the tone suits the article, which really is a kind of letter of appreciation, as I find myself, more and more, admiring and celebrating the old, the weatherbeaten, the survivors.  Since I’m heading in that direction myself, I suppose you could look at it as an act of self-defense. 

Anyway, what follows is the original version of the column.  There’s a link after that to the version which appeared in the paper on Wednesday.  If you read them both, you will see that they are very similar.  The paper’s editors trimmed a few things here and there, either for space or because they figured out that I don’t always know what I’m talking about.  Either way, the paper’s version reads a little tighter, which apparently makes me sound better. 

By the way, the festivities continue today with the homecoming parade at 1 p.m., the time capsule deployment at four, tailgate party after that, and the homecoming game (vs. Flagstaff) at 6:30.  If you have the opportunity, come check it out.  Tell ‘em thunderstrokes sent you.  Go Cardinals!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 6

In part 5, I’m sure you remember, we spent an evening at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ.  We slumbered the night away peacefully, and the next morning it was waffles, brochure rack, and Bearizona. I also rhapsodized about the many fine qualities of Super 8 motels. Now it is Monday, Labor (Uncle) Day, and we are ready to set off on the return trip home.  Remember, the goal was to go from Phoenix to Flagstaff and back without using Interstate 17, and without retracing our steps…

Back at the car, I called the number on the Bearizona brochure to verify the hours and admission price.  The person I spoke with told me they were already open for the day, would stay open until 7 p.m., and the cost to get in was $16 per adult, $8 for kids, with free admission for children two-and-under.  Although I grumbled about the cost of admission, we decided to take a chance and check it out.  We would be driving through Williams anyway, so we always had the option of skipping it if the bear place turned out to be three bear cubs in a playpen, or something like that.    

We gassed up the Sportage and rolled onto the westbound I-40 shortly after eight for the 30-mile drive to Williams.  The I-40 west of Flagstaff is one of the stretches of interstate that many people who live in the Phoenix metropolitan area just don’t use.  Williams does provide a way to get to the Grand Canyon, via Highway 64, but most people, me included, prefer the much more scenic Highway 180 which winds north and west from Santa Fe Drive in Flagstaff, skirting the voluminous San Francisco Peaks through stands of aspen, fir and spruce, mixed in with the pine and juniper.  Once you get past Williams, I-40 is a hundred miles of terra incognita to most people from the Valley.  If it weren’t for the fact that a small stretch of I-40 serves as a critical link for people traveling between Phoenix and Las Vegas, its existence west of Flagstaff would be probably be doubted by even the more religious members of our community. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Halloween Candy Smackdown 2011

The Arizona Republic just started a great contest called “Candy Smackdown 2011.”  If you’ve ever played, or seen, a March Madness bracket, this is set up exactly the same way, except instead of college basketball teams, it’s got a 64 different brand names of candy.  The slots aren’t seeded, but each candy faces off against one other candy in the first round, with the winner advancing to round 2.  There are four rounds, with the final two candies advancing to the “Candy Smackdown Championship” to decide the winner.

Voting for Round 1 has already started, and continues until Round 2 begins on October 10th.  The Scary Sixteen voting starts on 10/14, the Eerie Eight on 10/17, the Freaky Four on 10/19, and Championship Round voting begins on 10/21.

Check it out, and make your first round selections:  AZ Republic’s Candy Smackdown 2011.

Being the astute candy bracketologist that I am, I went ahead and completed my brackets in advance, all the way through the finals.  I’ll share the results of the final three rounds with you here.

We’ll see how I do against the voting public. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ten Signs Your Kids Are Addicted to Pixar Movies

As I was reading up on ways to attract new readers to the blog, I learned that people love Top Ten lists.  In fact, many successful bloggers say that Top Ten lists are one of the best ways to help increase the popularity of your blog.  Normally, I would disdain such heavy-handed and blatantly manipulative tactics as beneath me.  However, I also felt like I shouldn’t rule anything out until I tried it.  So, I thought for a while about the kind of Top Ten list I would write.  A few years back, “You might be a redneck” jokes were very popular, thanks to Jeff Foxworthy.  I thought I might try to bring them back, so I started a Top Ten list of “Ways to Know You’re a Redneck.”  This is what I came up with:

10  Your driveway has more grass growing in it than your yard.

That’s as far as I got. 

Then I remembered the old advice that says you should write about what you know.
Well, when you put it that way…

Friday, September 30, 2011

Goodbye, Vi

I wanted to note the passing of a person who was very special to our family, Viola Bye.  She died several weeks ago after a massive heart attack.  Today, September 30th, she would have reached 90 years old.  In fact, we were supposed to attend a very small party this evening at her daughter Yvonne’s house, who is our neighbor.

Vi lived for several years in the house next door with Yvonne and Peter, Yvonne’s brother and Vi’s son.  That’s how we became acquainted.  She was a wonderful person to know.  She walked very slowly, slightly stooped, and used a cane to help her around, but the brightness of her attitude, and the energy she radiated from within, made these physical impairments seem more like adopted mannerisms, like a disguise that she could throw off whenever she wanted.  She reminded me of a cross between Yoda and a hobbit, and I say that with pure respect and admiration.  Her wise eyes, curled body, and cane conjured up a visual similarity to Yoda, while her gentle, friendly, unassuming nature, and the absolutely most delightful British accent ever to tickle an American ear, would have put her right at home with Frodo, Sam and the rest in middle-earth.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 5

Part 4 primarily concerned itself with finding a place to eat dinner while in Flagstaff over Labor Day weekend.  I still don’t know how I got 5 pages out of that one part of the story.  Part 5 picks up as we leave the restaurant on Sunday evening. 

Uncle’s Day Weekend – Part 5

Dusk was creeping overhead as we left Ni Marco’s Pizza.  “How about we drive up to the Lowell Observatory?”  I suggested once we were back on the road.  There were no objections, so instead of following the curve of Milton/Santa Fe avenues, we turned left and headed up Mars Hill Road.  What a great name:  Mars Hill Road.  I don’t know if it was through pure serendipity, or was something less than a coincidence that an observatory came to be located on Mars Hill, but it is perfectly fitting.  We wound our way up in the strengthening darkness, and parked in the lot at the top.  Being a Sunday night, we weren’t sure if they would even be open, but it turned out that they had a special event as part of the holiday weekend, and were open until eleven.

We wandered around the visitor’s center, looking at the exhibits, and just giving Maria a chance to exhaust herself.  It was now around seven, and as I recall, she had napped for literally no more than ten minutes that afternoon.  But she was showing no ill effects, and seemed to be in no imminent danger of pooping out.  We waited around for some video presentation to start, but Maria wouldn’t stay, pronouncing the dimly-lit hall and spacey interlude music “too scary,” so Elizabeth took her back to the exhibit hall where she could continue trying to pull the display meteors off their stands.  I’m a sucker for anything scientific, or that deals with nature, so I was even able to stomach the Mannheim Steamroller music that introduced the video.  Jessica, however, took all of two minutes to become hopelessly bored and annoyed.  I looked at her several times, vacillating between telling her to suck it up, and giving in to her unspoken request to go.  I flashed forward in my imagination to our retirement days.  Elizabeth and I would do nothing but travel, happily watching long, badly scored nature videos in places just like the Lowell Observatory, and we would have the best time of our lives.  I nudged Jessica, jerked my head slightly towards the exit, and we left quietly.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 4

In Part 3, we finally made it to Flagstaff after a full day of high country entertainment, including but not limited to, a dangerous lake, phantom meteors and motorcycles, and porta-potties.  Part 4 picks up after our arrival at the motel late Sunday afternoon. 

After a brief rest, we left our room in Flagstaff and got back in the car in search of a restaurant for dinner.  Our motel was to the east of downtown, part of a row of motels that parallels Interstate 40. We had no idea what we wanted to eat, so we figured we would drive through the heart of town looking for something suitable.  Crossing the railroad tracks, we turned left onto Flagstaff’s main drag, Santa Fe Ave, also known as the I-40 Business Loop, or more romantically, Route 66.  We called out the names of restaurants familiar and unknown as we passed them by, hoping something would spontaneously emerge, like a star in the east, that we all could agree on.  We reached the big curve that bent our line of travel from west to south, and the road changed names from Santa Fe to Milton Ave.  A mile or so ahead, the dreaded I-17 now loomed before us, and still no dining revelation had occurred.  Flagstaff is not a city we know particularly well, but this indecision over where to eat was definitely familiar territory.  I reproached myself silently for not anticipating this problem, for allowing myself to be lulled into complacency.  When it comes to eating out, anytime you set off without a clear destination in mind, you must accept the high probability of serious complications.   Now we found ourselves sliding towards the precipice of possible disaster.  “Well, what are you hungry for?” I finally had to ask.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letting go or losing control?

I’ve spent some time on this blog ruminating over the concept of “letting go,” what it means, and its implications on how to live.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where the line is between letting go and losing control.  This is because one, they are two very different things, and two, I feel like I’m having trouble telling the difference.

As I see it, letting go is all about realizing that the control we instinctively want to exert over our lives and fortunes is largely an illusion.  Ask anyone who’s been through Hurricane Katrina, or in a severe car accident, or is living with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, how much control we really have over the things that happen to us in our own lives.  And, in a way, it’s a misguided notion anyway, because I don’t think the goal of the game we’re playing is “the person who most successfully controls their own life wins.” That kind of implies that the person who is able to live under a rock the longest without being found would have the best life.  I hope that’s not the case, because if it is I just threw away my shot at the title.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 3

Alright, I know this is late, and I apologize profusely to those of you who waited with (was that baited, SB?) breath for this installment, and were disappointed when it didn't appear on Sunday as promised.  As I mentioned in replying to some of you individually, life sometimes intrudes on our plans, and this weekend was a great example of that.  Jessica had her 10th birthday on Saturday, and our weekend was booked with a sleepover Friday night, and then a family party on Saturday.  Now, I'm not using that as an excuse, since I had known that Jessica was turning 10 on Saturday for awhile now, maybe even weeks.  I still thought I had everything under control, but then there are the unaccounted things that happen, and we had one of those on Sunday.  So, with final apologies for the delay, let's get right back to the action, shall we?  I hope it proves worth the extra wait.  

The story left off with us trying to find a place in or around Strawberry, AZ, to have our picnic lunch on the way to Flagstaff.  We pick things up around noon on Sunday of Labor (Uncle) Day weekend . . .

 Uncle Day Weekend – Part 3

We scoured the roadside for picnic areas, but saw nothing more than a few areas where the trees pulled back from the road to create a rocky, semi-grassy opening.  My internal stressometer was starting to pick up signals.  “We’re going to need a place that has a bathroom,” Elizabeth reminded me as our heads pivoted swiftly from side to side.  I gestured with one arm to the acres of open land around us.
“We’re in one,” I said.
“We’re going to need a real bathroom,” she said, forcing me to meet her eyes. End of discussion on that point.  The pressure was definitely building inside the car.  This little snafu had the potential to become a major negative check mark in the mental tally I was keeping.  The kids had been great so far; they were watching Beauty and the Beast on the portable DVD player.  But how much longer?  Eight miles passed, then nine.  I wasn’t enjoying the pine trees and the thick white clouds in the sky anymore.  We drove past a filling station with a diner next to it.  “There,” Elizabeth said, pointing. 
“I thought we brought our lunch.  If we eat there, it’s going to seriously impact our budget,” I insisted. Some people spend their lives defending their country, others their honor.  I am the great defender of the budget.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Unscrewed T-shirts are here!!!

Based on the enthusiastic response to the sentiments contained in the “Unscrewed” post from 8/13, we had a small batch of “Unscrew yourself” T-shirts made up.  They are now available to order for near-immediate delivery (depending on where you live and how fast I can drive).  Click on 'read more' to see the back side of the shirt and get the rest of the details.

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 2

This is part 2 in the saga of Uncle Day Weekend, a recounting of  our trip up north over part of Labor Day weekend just to get away from the heat.  Part 1, if you remember, focused on the events leading up to the trip itself.

Sunday morning arrived to find us engaged in our usual harried efforts to throw everything together at the last minute before a road trip.   Typically, we start off at harried, progress to flustered, and usually come within sight of completely unhinged, a pattern which normally includes a fair amount of ugliness and some bitter recriminations between Elizabeth and me.  It’s funny; people tell us all the time that we are so good to each other, so kind and respectful.  HA!  That’s just the show we put on for mass consumption; the truth is, we fight like hell.  We rip each other apart at times, and have no compunction about going for the other’s throat (remember the open door, anyone?).  The secret to our success, I suppose, is that as nasty as our confrontations can be in the moment, we get over them quickly, and accept them for what they are: clashes between two people who agree on where we want to go, but almost always disagree about how to get there.  Which is exactly why I didn’t tell her about taking a different way to Flagstaff.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Forward Path 11 September 2011

Just a notation here to let readers know that an extremely brief commentary I wrote about the Flight 93 Memorial was published by the Arizona Republic today.  It appears in the Letters to the Editor under the title "A ray of sunshine in the dark."   It can be seen online here.

It is noteworthy primarily because it marks the second time anything I've written has been published in print, and the first time something I've written appears in the full circulation of the newspaper.    

Have a great day, and a reflective 9/11.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 1

“UNCLE!”   You might have heard this being screamed last week around seven-thirty on Tuesday morning.  That was me.   Sorry if I disturbed you.  That was officially the moment I finally cracked under the heat.  We had been hanging in there pretty well, but August, with its near-constant 110 degree days, aggravating humidity and complete lack of rain did me in.  We spent every single scorching second of the summer in the Valley this year.  Well, technically that’s not true.  Elizabeth’s cousin scored us free comp vouchers to stay for two nights at the Harrah’s in Laughlin, Nevada, so in June we took a trip to one of the few places on Earth that regularly beats our heat island inferno in the daily mercury velocity competition.  But it was a change of scenery, sort of, and the Colorado River was cool, even if the hotel pool wasn’t, and besides, did I mention it didn’t cost anything to stay there?  That’s an important consideration when your family’s income has taken a substantial hit, thanks to a certain freelance writer, who’s great at the free department, but not so good at lancing yet.  

We finally decided we had to get out of town, and restore our faith in the existence of weather where you don’t have to check the labels of your clothes to make sure they’re flame-retardant before you step outside.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tillman's Legacy

I ran across a few recent stories related to Pat Tillman I wanted to share.  Fox Sports Arizona's website posted an article from Craig Morgan about Tillman's legacy, especially in light of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  I found a few new things in it, including quotes from Adrian Wilson, who was a rookie safety during Tillman's last year with the Cardinals, and the amazing story of a man from Mesa named Jeff Lewis.  You have to read it to believe it.  Read the article "Tillman's legacy an inspiration to all."

The Arizona Republic covered the opening of the Pat Tillman Veterans Center at ASU last month.  The Veterans Center was established to provide a range of services for veterans, including military benefits, career counseling, and transitioning to civilian life.  Read the article "Pat Tillman Center will help those who served transition to college life."  

It's reassuring to see the ripples of a brave and unconventional life continuing to cause good things to happen.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Introducing Globlogs

Some of you may have noticed that there’s been a new addition to the blog over the last couple of weeks.  You have to look to notice it, but it’s there, down at the bottom of the column on the right side of the page.  Did you find it?  It’s called Globlogs.   Globlogs (global + blogs) is an effort to bring you great blogs from other people, countries, and cultures all over the world. 

The idea behind globlogs is simple:  I wanted to find people with interesting voices who live in interesting places and who blog about what interests them.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

9/11 - 10th Anniversary

Ten years. So hard to believe. On September 11, 2001, Elizabeth was just six days from delivering our first child.  On the morning of 9/11, we knew our personal lives were about to change forever, but we didn’t know the world around us was going to change forever that day.  That morning, as I got ready for work, we were watching The Today Show’s coverage of a plane that had apparently flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.  They were describing it as an accident, and it was clear that they were scrambling for any kind of information they could find.  They didn't yet know what kind of plane was involved, or how big it was.  In the jostling commotion of the moment, in one random camera shot, we saw another plane dart across the background and disappear from the screen.  A few seconds later, all hell broke loose. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Potty Training - Part 1

It even has a place to hang the toilet paper!
Our youngest daughter Maria is about four months away from her third birthday.  According to the literature on the subject, this means she’s well within prime-time potty training territory.  As the baby of the family, we’ve had a much more laissez-faire attitude with schedules and benchmarks and developmental milestones with Maria than we did with Jessica.  We haven’t done much to initiate the potty training process, except Elizabeth did bring home a cute little kid’s potty, which we quietly placed in the bathroom, just allowing subconscious acceptance of its presence there to build.  Maria's or ours, I’m not sure whose.  It’s languished there almost unnoticed by all of us for several months.  As parents, it can be a difficult and emotional line to walk, torn between the desire to cling to the last remnants of infancy and the desire to save forty bucks a month on diapers and diaper-related expenses.  Saving money happens to be a very emotional issue for me.  Even without that, however, it can be a bit of a struggle for many parents, especially when it comes to their last child. 

But the delicate equilibrium we had semi-consciously sustained has now been thrown into tumult.  Last weekend we were visiting at a friend’s house, and at one point early in the evening, this very beautiful little girl, who’s about four months younger than Maria, approached our friend, who was babysitting her and her brother.  We noticed she said something to our friend, who then started to excuse herself.  “What’d she say?” Elizabeth asked. 

“Oh,” our friend replied, “she was just telling me that it’s time to use the potty.”  She took the little girl by her outstretched little hand, and together they walked to the bathroom.  I saw Elizabeth’s head start to rotate towards me, and I felt an arrow of fear plunge into my heart.  Her raised eyebrow, coupled with the fixed gaze confirmed it:  Houston, we have a problem.