Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In this dust that was a city

I like to think that Generation X -- my generation -- was the last to grow up fearing the nations of the world would blow each other up in a nuclear inferno. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s/early '90s, that scary prospect became greatly diminished. For the generations of kids who have followed, the world can still be a scary place, but I hope less on a global, finger-on-the-trigger, Armageddon-esque scale.

By the early 1980s, the nuclear hysteria had shifted. With Ronald Reagan as president, the specter of nuclear war seemed to become inevitable again, possibly how it was in the 1960s. But while the '60s at least thought there was a way to survive a war, '80s pop culture simply accepted an attitude of "when it happens, we're all screwed." The movie "War Games" was a classic example of this: Computers would start World War III and nothing could prevent that. Take the video game Missile Command -- no matter how many missiles you stopped, eventually, all your cities would be destroyed.

I was about 11 or 12 when I realized that all those nukes could mean no more world. I'm not sure how I quite came to that realization. I had an Atari 400 game called Nukewar that put you in command of a nuclear arsenal. Maybe that was the start. I watched "Special Bulletin" on TV and was freaked out by that (a radical American anti-nuke detonates a bomb in South Carolina). I remember going to Washington D.C. in March 1983 and thinking how quick I'd be dead if war started and I was in our capital. "War Games" was released, and though I loved the movie, its message was daunting (and this was great -- during the movie, when nuclear blasts are lighting up NORAD's computer screens, real thunder rumbled outside, making the audience nervously chuckle). Duran Duran's "Is There Something I Should Know" included the line: "You're about as easy as a nuclear war."

Later in 1983, ABC aired "The Day After," and though I did everything I could to avoid watching it (and did -- I wouldn't see it until years later) and be scared out of my mind, I was in a quiet, early teenage panic mode that we were all going to be vaporized. But nothing freaked me out more than one song I heard in the middle of a dark, cold, lonely Tuesday night in January.

I had fallen asleep with my boombox on -- I didn't have a clock radio with a timer. Past 1 a.m., I woke up to hear "99 Red Balloons," which was just becoming popular. The closing lines of the song, in which the singer is haunted by her blasted out world, haunted me as well. In fact, it thoroughly scared the hell out of me. The next song WLS played was Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," and I tried to focus on that instead of dwelling on the lyrics of "99 Red Balloons." That didn't work (and in subsequent years, "Sweet Emotion" also reminded me of that night). I turned the radio off and tried to fall back I asleep. I couldn't. I stayed awake and thought of the doom that awaited all of us, especially me. I thought about how we lived just a few miles from O'Hare, which would be a primary target, but we were far enough away that maybe we'd survive (little did I realize our house would probably be part of the crater ...). I fixated on the T that was now apparent on my wall -- a giant T formed by the strip of wall in between and above the bedroom door and the closet door. I stared at that T in the dark and anxiously wondered when I'd stop worrying and start sleeping. And I didn't dare turn the radio back on.

After an hour, I had to get out of the room. I don't know why I didn't just go downstairs and turn the TV on; instead, I took a Dungeons & Dragons module (D1-D2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth) into the bathroom and read there for an hour. I finally went back to bed and fell asleep. The next day at school, I was a zombie, partly from being tired, and partly because my ordeal was still in my mind. This would be the first major funk I'd ever felt in my life, and it would last a few months. That Friday night, while being driven home from basketball practice. I couldn't help but notice the leafless trees standing stark against the cold night.

The next Tuesday night, I went to bed realizing a week had passed already since my harrowing night. Eventually, I was able to turn the radio on again (though for months, I'd listen to soft rock or a tape -- I didn't want to risk trying to fall asleep to "99 Red Balloons" again). I worked up the courage to listen to the song again -- I had to face that fear. Oddly, the German version of the song helped me ease into the English version. And eventually, I wasn't as afraid of man-made Armageddon as I was when I was 13. Sure, sometimes the prospect of a comet or a Art Bell winter storm would get me a little unnerved, but it never kept me up for hours picking out imagined letters off the wall. I hope my sons never feel the fear, the hopelessness I felt that night, but I'm guessing they will -- maybe not over something apocalyptic, but something that will cause them anxiety nonetheless. I'm sure they will learn to deal with whatever scares them as part of growing up.

For weeks, I kept thinking "It's Tuesday night; it's been X weeks since that night." The weeks piled up until eventually I stopped keeping track. This month, while thinking about that night, I found a 1984 calendar on the Internet and found what I think was the exact night: Jan. 17. In 2012, Jan. 17 was again a Tuesday night.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Cards and dice

When I was 9 years old, my dad introduced me to Strat-O-Matic baseball, a cards-and-dice baseball game. I've been hooked ever since.

Tonight, I introduced Michael to Strat-O-Matic. He's 8.

Admittedly, I would have been hooked on Strat if I started playing at age 6. I was adequately understanding baseball and reading well enough that I would have picked up the rules of the game right away. (I was playing All-Star Baseball instead, which in retrospect, was a natural segue to Strat-O-Matic.) Considering that, I figured Michael might enjoy Strat now. I'm also hoping he learns baseball a little more than he knows now, as well as giving him more opportunities to read (especially names, which he won't find in his literacy class in school). But who am I kidding -- I'm hoping he loves the game as much as I do.

We used the 2009 cards (the last new set I own -- I'm pondering getting last year just to stay current), with Michael picking the Blue Jays and me playing the Cubs. After three innings, Roy Halladay was pitched nine outs, and though I was sure it wouldn't last, I wondered if Michael's first SOM game would be a perfect game. The Blue Jays won 7-6 on a walk-off homer by Aaron Hill (which I fudged a little, distracting the boys and adjusting a die; it was getting late). Michael said he had fun. He did a good job reading results off the cards and learning the abbreviations (e.g., "ss" means shortstop).

Ben, who loves board games more than his brother, helped me roll dice. Maybe this was a start of getting both boys enjoying a game that I enjoyed so much when I was a kid (and still do). Maybe one of them will be smart enough not to automatically take the Cubs.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


I'm in the midst of my third cold in the past three months, and I'm not too thrilled about it.

None of the colds has been too bad -- none has put me completely out of commission. In recent years, I have developed a plan on how to attack a cold so it doesn't affect me as much (Chlor-Trimeton, Advil, Cold-Eze, Afrin, and so on). But the colds have still been annoying. And tiring -- the Chlor-Trimetons, effective in dealing with the gross stuff being created in my nose, causes drowsiness.

This cold has been entirely in my nose, and though I've been tired, I haven't felt terrible the last two days. I haven't been that productive (and I'm working tonight, so that will change whether or like it or not), but I was OK for Mass today, with the only side effect being I avoided shaking hands during the Sign of Peace. I'm hoping that when I wake up in the morning, the worst of this mild cold will be behind me. I already was too tired last week without the cold; I don't want to start the new week in zombie mode.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Racking my brains

A couple months ago, Lori bought some small metal towel racks to hang in the bathroom. I installed them somewhat easily, though I was lucky that one simply fit into the old bracket. With the boys back in swimming, she wanted a couple more of the small towel pegs in our bathroom to hang wet suits and towels from. I found the same racks at Home Depot, bought four of them, and planned to add them to the wall last Saturday. Easy, right?

Wrong. What followed were of the most frustrating, wasted hours of my life. And at the end of it, just one peg was added to the wall.

The racks are simple to install. Bore the plastic brackets (already equipped with a spiky tip for easy boring) into the dry wall, insert the screws through the metal mounting bracket that hold the towel rack, screw in the screws to secure the bracket, add the rack, tighten that up with the included Allen wrench and your done. I did this a couple months ago, so my biggest concern was just keeping them even on the wall.

After measuring and hopefully getting my marks even I bore the plastic wall brackets in for the first rack. But as I was tightening the metal screws, I ran into a problem: The screws stopped turning. Or, they turned the plastic brackets along for the ride, thus boring the brackets further (and wider) into the dry wall. For some reason, the screws that accompanied the towel rack were too big/wide for the brackets. Thus, they wouldn't keep the wall bracket tight with the wall. My frustration was mounting at the same time the towel rack wasn't mounting.

I managed to jury-rig the first rack by placing a small piece of cardboard behind the wall bracket, then getting the screws to tighten to at least there. The rack wasn't on as tight as I wanted, but it was functional. I moved to the second rack, thinking maybe the first one simply came with the wrong parts. Unfortunately, I was wrong, resulting in another hour of torturous, non-productive home improvement. This time, the rack wouldn't stay on the bracket. I thought I had it, but eventually, the rack fell off the wall; the holes the plastic brackets bored were now too wide. Lori found it and didn't even tell me what happened, possibly thinking I might take a hammer to the whole dry wall.

I waited until today to tackle the towel racks again. I had an extra parts set from last time (remember, I previously used an old wall mount for one of the new racks) and thought that this couldn't be defective, too. I turned the wall bracket at a 90-degree angle to get two new holes but cover up the old ones. With optimism, the work began. Ten minutes later, pessimism set in. The screws weren't going into the plastic brackets again. I resorted to pliers to try to turn these pesky screws, only to have one break. After opening one of the remaining towel racks and seeing the same size screws and brackets, I threw everything into the Home Depot plastic bag and returned to the store.

Thankfully, Home Depot took pity on me. Perhaps I wasn't the first frustrated customer who dealt with this problem on this particular brand of towel rack. Free of charge, the store gave me new, much better designed wall brackets that would fit the existing holes and not turn when I turned the screw. Not wanting to push my luck, I got a refund for the remaining towel racks, then went home to finish the job I started last week.

Much to my happiness, the new brackets worked perfectly. I even took the shaky brackets off the first towel rack (the one I managed to keep on the wall) and replaced them with the better designed parts. Two new towel racks adorn our bathroom wall, ready for wet swim trunks and drying beach towels.

I suck at home projects, but I figured I could handle a simple towel rack. After getting the job done today, I don't feel as stupid as I felt last week. It wasn't anything I did wrong, just a poorly designed rack. I'm not sure if we'll add two more racks as planned, but if we do, I may pre-emptively by better wall brackets. But in the meantime, I can't get over one detail: How did I ever get the last towel racks -- same brand and parts -- to stay in the wall so expertly last time when this time was such a debacle? I'm not about to take apart those racks to find out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Darkness on the edge of town

I took Popcorn for a walk a few nights ago underneath a really dark sky. The darkness was the kind you don't see in the city often, especially in Salt Lake City, and especially in the winter.

I was walking north on 1700 East, passed 1700 South (sorry to burden you with street names, or in this case, numbers) and approached the edge of Wasatch Hollow Park. The park follows a creek with some hiking trails along it. No, I didn't go into the woods, but at the angle I was walking, it was dark enough. If I had looked to the west, I would have seen the lights of the Salt Lake Valley (we're a few hundred feet higher than most of the valley, so from the benches, you get a cool view of the city lights). Had I looked east, I would have seen the Wasatch Mountains about two miles away. Turning around south, I would have seen the lit intersection I just passed, including a Presbyterian church and a Chevron. But to the north, over the park and a few houses, on a street without lights, it was dark. With the clouds hanging low and no snow on the ground (it was warm in Salt Lake last week, and this evening, it was still about 50 degrees), there were no stars or moon to be seen (or even mountains to the north of SLC) and no light to be reflected off the ground. It was ... dark.

The sky was almost suburban dark. You don't see suburban dark too often any more -- there's just too many lights every place. Growing up in Chicago, an orange street light illuminated streets every 100 feet or so. But if you got into some suburbs, the sky darkened. If you got to a suburb on the fringes (Schaumburg 30 years ago, for example), you could look out over a farm on a cloudy night and see nothing. Maybe it was rural dark, where you see nothing because there's nothing to see and cloudy nights.

I don't want the call the dark forest dark, because that dark is right in front of you more than above you. But the other thing it reminded of was the dark you see (again, on non-clear nights -- stars, which normally I love, spoil this dark) looking out over a lake or ocean. Past a certain point away from the shore, nothing is there.

I wasn't as much spooked by the sky as awestruck. As a city-dweller, you don't see this sort of sky often, and Salt Lake City doesn't get too many cloudy nights. The spookiness came on a better-lit block later in the walk. The wind was beginning to pick up with a front coming in that would dump rain and snow on us the next day. I stopped to give Popcorn a treat and saw a tall tree with a shorter main trunk and several long (maybe 30-feet long), thick limbs move in the wind. And a couple of these mega-limbs looked like arms moving. It was so cool and freaky -- I should have taken video.

Say hey

Last week, I got a call from a friend who remembered Lori and I, especially Lori, like Michael Franti. The Outdoor Retailers Show was in Salt Lake City last week, and a boot company was throwing a private concert that our friend was doing the sound for. Michael Franti was performing at this concert, and our friend called to see if we wanted to get put on the list to get in. I called Lori, whose amazed response to this news was "No f---ing way!" We asked a neighbor to watch the boys, and before we knew it, we were seeing Michael Franti in concert.

We had seen Michael Franti last summer at Red Butte Garden -- an outdoor amphitheater in SLC. We were about 25 yards from the stage on the lawn (it's all lawn seating at Red Butte) and danced all night to the awesome show being performed. Our concert last week topped that. The venue is small -- if you were at the back of the room, you'd only be about 40 feet from the stage. We got there early enough that we were practically on the rail (in fact, halfway during the show, Lori was on the the rail). The show was amazing, full of energy, dancing and singing. Since we saw him last summer, I actually know more of his songs, which allowed me to sing along more. I'm guessing not many of the audience members knew that many of his songs (aside for "Say Hey (I Love You)"), but it didn't take long before everybody was swept up in the energy of the show.

The only down side of the night was a drunken guy who was pushing against a bunch of us in front. If you get into a fight at a Metallica show, it's not extraordinary. If you do at a party band by a singer whose songs stress peace, love and harmony, it's just bad karma. A guy next to us looked ready to take a swing at the drunk, and I was in perfect position (and height) to throw an elbow into this guys throat. Seriously, I wanted to tell him that if your drunk and people are telling you that you are acting like a dick, odds are, you are acting like a dick. The jerk left before the encore, at which time the other guy high-fived me and joked "You had my back, right!"

The only other glitch was the taking of this picture on Lori's phone. That's Lori on the right, and woman who was near us on the left, and Michael Franti in the middle. Alas, I didn't turn the flash back on Lori's phone, so he's hard to see. In the spirit of the night, Lori immediately emailed the photo to the other woman. I got to shake his hand after the show and thanked him. This might have been the most fun I have ever had at a concert. I'm almost sure it was Lori's favorite concert ever. I've been humming his songs all week since the concert, and Ben, who loves "Say Hey" and "I Got Love for You" by him, has been singing them as well. If Michael Franti returns to Red Butte Garden next summer, we're going ... and definitely taking the boys. Our Michael will have fun (no matter how much he protests before we go) and Ben will go just crazy -- just like we did last week.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Where did the time go?

Upon opening my blog tonight, I discovered something that surprised me a little: I haven't posted since Jan. 13. It's been a busy 10 days, but seriously, I had no idea I haven't blogged in that long. Every night last week, I was thinking about writing something, then decided to wait until the next morning or afternoon. Then something came up and I pushed it back another day, then another day, and here we are: Jan. 23, 10 days since my last post.


So tonight, I'm going to try catching up with a few posts I can stagger and intermittently post when I'm not otherwise able to write. This post will focus on the boys' basketball seasons, which has begun and is two games in. I'm coaching both teams.

Ben's kindergarten team has been fun to coach. I brought somewhat low expectations to the games because, after all, the kids are just kindergartners. Some of them can't shoot the ball high enough to get over the lowered rim; others such as Ben can't dribble very well. Essentially, I'm just happy when they take the ball toward their own basket. But the Sharks have surprised me. Scores aren't kept, but it's tough not to unintentionally keep track of how many baskets we are making. In our first game, we got six, and last game, we got just two despite taking far more shots than the other team. Sometimes the shots don't fall, even for kindergartners. Ben is having fun, but similar to when he started playing soccer, he doesn't always stay focused. It's not distraction so much as it is he just wants to run around and, occasionally, runs all over the court.

Michael's team lost its first game and won its second. In this first/second grade league, the Stingers have nine players, with only two being first graders. The teams in the league seem evenly split with squads of mostly second graders and ones with mostly first graders. In our first game, we played all second graders, and their starting five were all at least Michael's height (making me wonder if it was a third-grade team playing down). I resisted playing our tallest five, but for three of the four quarters, the Stingers held even with this bigger team, even though we lost 22-12.

We won our second game 18-8, against a second-grade team with players who were generally shorter and not as good. We must have taken three times as many shots as the other team but just couldn't get anything to fall. Defensively, we played great; we rebounded; and we even started passing more. Michael led the way with eight points, but, oh, was he testing me. In the second quarter, he took a shot without setting up from way too far out (almost a 3-pointer), and when I asked him if he was trying to pass or shoot, he smiled and said "Shoot!" In something as a coach I would never normally say, I told him "That was terrible." I apologized after, and then reassured any parents that might have heard me that I would never say something like that to their kids, only mine. They understood, with one mom saying that if her son did something stupid, I can tell him so (I wouldn't).

Michael then tested me in the second half. He was playing good defense guarding his player, then for some reason, stopped playing defense in the middle of the play and looked off the court. His man went to the basket and scored. I just glared at him, and he looked at me all apologetic and distressed and said "Sorrryyyy!" My evil eye must have had an effect, because he scored the six points in the next minute, including a nice 10-foot jumper from the baseline.

Six games left for both boys. My goal is to get everybody on both teams a basket before the season ends -- especially Ben.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The search is over

Today, Ben and I went to the DI -- Deseret Industries, the Utah/Mormon equivalent of Goodwill. We were donating some clothes at the store, which is brand new inside a remodeled Circuit City. After dropping off the clothes at the donation drive-thru (I kid you not), we parked and went in. I love going to resale stores and yard sales and looking for old board games/video games. I've picked up Bonkers, Gambler and Triple Yahtzee in the last year, and I was hoping for similar success at the DI.

Though we bought two games (a infernally difficult puzzle game with blocks that Ben likes, and Spy Alley, which is recent) for a dollar each, no classic games jumped out at me. The new store is infinitely nicer than the old one (which I rarely went to): brighter, more spaced out, cleaner. In the back was a rack with used bowling balls, and I so wanted to test one by rolling it down the aisle of the new store. Fortunately, I resisted.

As we walked through the new DI, I couldn't help but think of the Circuit City that dwelled in the building previously. Circuit City was a less frenetic version of Best Buy that, ultimately, went bankrupt. I never went to Circuit City much here in Utah, but in Madison, it was a favorite and a nice alternative to Best Buy.

Back in the late '90s, I used to love to search for music to pad my CD collection. And not so much new music, but classic songs (mostly '80s) that I didn't own, wouldn't buy an entire album for, and wanted to make killer mix tapes with. Back when I made mix tapes, I would often group them into specific time periods (e.g., "Summer 1984"). I got many of these songs from compilations. And Circuit City often had quite a collection of compilations for sale. Cheesy compilations that might include songs by Men Without Hats, Split Enz, Nik Kershaw and Donnie Iris. For single-band CDs, I'd go to Exclusive Company or maybe even Best Buy, or find it used. If I got the itch to buy a compilation, I spend a half-hour at Circuit City.

MP3s made my CD quests obsolete. First, in the early 2000s, I used Napster to fill in a lot of the gaps -- mostly songs never released on CD -- in my collection. Then iTunes came along and I was able to buy single songs quite easily, thus filling in more gaps. iTunes has become more and more complete over the years, and eMusic has gotten much better as well. As a result, I went from buying a couple dozen physical CDs a year a decade ago to barely five a year now. There aren't many gaps left in my '80s collection either. Sure, I discover some new songs once in awhile (classic "American Top 40" episodes always produce a few), but usually, those new songs are easy to find and buy online.

Oh, along the way, Circuit City went out of business. But it wasn't like I was buying new music there anyway. Though I was never too much the type of music consumer to go into a record store, see a album and think "Hey, I'll give this a try," I never went to Circuit City to discover something new. I was always looking for something old. In our advanced digital age, I can decide whether I like something without leaving my computer, thanks to Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, iTunes and my smartphone. And, if I like something new, I don't have to actually go to a store to buy the record, either.

Still, I miss the search. Searching for a song on iTunes or eMusic just isn't the same, perhaps because now, I know what I'm looking for. I never knew what I'd find on a compilation CD at Circuit City when I walked in the doors into the red interior. Perhaps that's why I like searching for classic board games. Maybe my music collection is complete, but a gaping hole remains in my game collection where Star Wars: Escape from the Death Star should be.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

This is January

Another January ...

It's dark outside. Dark and cold.

We walk back to our Century after Dad's basketball game. The parking lot doesn't have too much snow on it, but the snow it does have is grayish black. Dirty snow. There's enough snow still on the ground in places, and it's still cold enough, that I wear my boots. I wear my boots everywhere this winter. I'll change into my gym shoes -- Peanuts gym shoes without any shoelaces, because I can't tie my own shoes yet -- at school for gym class, but that's only once a week.

Dad won his basketball game because he always wins his basketball games. Sometimes, he will meet his teammates for a beer after the game and take me with. He will usually get me a soda and let sit in on his conversations with his friends or give me quarters to play pinball. Sometimes, we go to McDonald's after his games. Tonight, we are just going home.

The green Century is cold when we get in. I'm sitting in the back seat because I can't close the giant door by myself. On cars with only two doors, I see grownups pull the door close while bringing their foot in all at the same time. I'm afraid I'm going to close the door on my leg. Besides, Dad usually makes me sit in back, even when Mommy isn't in the car with us.

He starts the car as the windows begin to fog up. I start drawing with my finger on the little window on the side in the back. This car doesn't have back windows we can roll down. That doesn't matter when it's cold, but during the summer, we need Dad or Mommy to roll down their windows if we want to get any air in back. The radio is playing a song I like, "Keep on Rocking Me." We leave the Olympia Park parking lot and start heading home.

I sit in the back seat and listen to music. Here's another song: "Blinded by the Light." I try singing along with it, but I don't know what he's saying after singing "Blinded by the Light." I think it's "It's a revolution of the roller in the night," so that's what I sing. I stare out the window into the cold night. The orange street lights keep passing us by. My side of the car is dark, then we pass a street light, and the orange gently rolls through the car, and then it's dark again. Then we pass another light, and another, and another. With each streetlight, we are closer to home.

Dad just turned down Austin Avenue and is headed toward our house. Austin is my whole world. Grandma Elsie works at a restaurant on Austin and Irving Park. Auntie Nancy and Uncle Howard live a block off Austin on Berniece Street. We take Austin to Belmont and turn on that street to go shopping at Wieboldt's or see movies at the Will Rogers theater. Dad will drive down Austin, pass Diversey and turn on Wrightwood to get to our street. Anyplace away from our house, we take Austin and then turn to get there.

We pass familiar places on Austin: Mommy and Dad's bank, the 7-11, that big college, the school with the humongous smokestack. I look at them through the foggy window that I've written my name on, and I look at them as the back seat becomes dark and then becomes light again every time we pass under another street lamp.

We're getting close to the house. I still wish we went to McDonald's. Dad parks next to the curb in front of the house, the house with the wagon wheel in the front corner of the lawn. I press the button that pushes the front seat open so I can get out of the car. It's dark outside. Dark and cold.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bad dog

Our lab/pointer puppy, Popcorn, is just past 7 months old now. As far as puppies go, she's been pretty good. She hasn't had an accident in the house in three months, she hasn't eaten the cat yet, and she's not chewing on everything in sight like some puppies do. She a friendly pup that still jumps up on people to say hi. We're trying to train that out of her, but at least she loves meeting new people so much that she wants to say hi. We are lucky and feel blessed to have found and adopted her last summer. But ...

Popcorn is quite the chewer when she gets going. She's gone through a computer cord, some headphones, the protective case on my smartphone (that was months ago, though, and I'm happy to say, the case sacrificed itself and protected the phone), a couple puppy blankets, numerous puppy toys and one puppy bed for her crate. After she tore apart the first bed, we splurged and bought her a supposedly indestructible Kong bed. She loved it, until yesterday, when she chewed threw the end of it (there are three sections to the bed -- a long square and two encased pillows on the ends) and tore out all the stuffing.

Needless to say, we weren't happy. She knew she did something bad, too, and sulked, but didn't quite apologize to Lori like I thought she would. To non-dog owners, dogs will apologize when they know they did something bad. Lori sewed up the empty end, and after debating whether we should just let her sleep in the empty crate, we put the bed back in.

Tonight, when Michael left his dinner in too accessible a place for a puppy, Popcorn ate the food. That earned a trip to the crate. And what does she do while she's there? Attack the side she tore up before. There's nothing left for her to pull out of the pillow, but she went at it again. We've tried the bitter apple spray, which she seems to ignore. She's back on her bed tonight, but I'm wondering if we need to let her go a few days sleeping on the hard crate floor. Maybe then she'll figure out not to destroy the things that are meant for her comfort.

Maggie, our cat, got the last laugh. After putting Popcorn in her crate sans bed after we noticed her trying to chew it again, the bed was outside her crate, and Maggie made herself cozy on it, right in front of the dog. Maggie has been kind of a brat lately too, purposely knocking down anything up high just because she can. I think the two animals are conspiring against us.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pool and court

The boys' basketball seasons resume this week. They had practices last month, and the games start Tuesday for Ben and Wednesday for Michael. I am coaching both teams, though I don't think it will be as crazy as coaching two soccer teams like I did in 2010-11. At least with basketball, I kind of know what I'm doing, and because they play on different nights and the league doesn't provide any additional practices, it's only two evenings a week for an hour. Piece of cake, right?

Well, perhaps because we didn't feel we weren't schedule-challenged enough, we signed the boys up for swimming, which also starts this week. Ben is doing lessons, which started today. We are hoping he progresses enough in the next three months that if he wanted to join swim team with his brother for the summer, he will be skilled enough to do so. Michael is signed up for swim workout -- offseason swim practices (his swim team only competes during the summer) twice a week. Conveniently, neither child swims on a day he plays basketball.

In the meantime, I ran today for the first time in months. Not very far -- just a 20-minute run/walk on the indoor track while Ben was swimming. This is how my year goes from September when it comes to me working out: I almost stop in September as I try to adjust to the new schedule for the boys (this year, this was compounded by the new puppy), I gain 10 pounds before the year ends, I start running (with an eye on the Wasatch Back rely in June) and working out again in January, I lose the 10 pounds by summer, I get back from vacation in August and stop running, and the whole process starts over. This year, I'd love to get a race or two in this spring, lose at least 20 pounds instead of 10, and not fall off the running wagon come September. Today was the first of many, many steps.

Chaotic, right? In other words, back to normal.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The 70 blues

I finished kindergarten in 1976. I started up again in 2009.

When Michael started kindergarten in a co-op school -- where parents help out in class once a week -- it did feel a little like I was back in kindergarten too. This was almost better because I could actually enjoy it as was happening, as opposed to my real kindergarten year, when I didn't understand how great I had it. No, I didn't actually play during Michael's kindergarten year, but I got to see him grow and learn and have fun. Kindergarten is wonderful -- there's learning, and there's play time. This will be the only year in their school career where they will have both. Preschool was mostly play and social skills. First grade was a little play and mostly educational skills. Kindergarten is the perfect balance of both.

Michael had a blast in kindergarten, then moved on to first grade. Ben started kindergarten last fall, with the same great teacher Michael had. It was like walking into a time capsule. All the same things I loved about Michael's experience were here for Ben as well. Sitting in circle. The morning message (the picture above shows the message from the first day of class: "Dear class, Today is the first day of kindergarten. Love, Jamie"). Browsing (what's called play time in his class). Snack. Running around at recess. Checking in, which entails the kids writing their names at the beginning of the day so that they learn how to write their names really well. The subtle ways the teacher mixes in learning into the kids' day.

One of those subtle ways is the calendar. Jamie, the teacher, gets the class to say the month, day of the week and day number every morning, then adds a straw a bundle of straws (divided into ones, tens and hundreds) for the number of class days so far. On my co-op day Wednesday -- in our first week back since winter break ended -- the number of straws reached 70. And that's when it hit me: The kindergarten experience, the wonderful time Ben is enjoying and Michael enjoyed, the wonderful time I get to observe them at this age, is almost done.

Granted, we got about five months to go still, but that 70 was sobering that Ben is a kindergarten veteran, and in less than a year, he's going to be a first-grader. Our focus the last two years was to get him ready for kindergarten, and it's just about halfway done. He's doing so well, and we are so proud of him.

The boys will reach milestones in their young lives, and some will be bittersweet. Michael emerged from kindergarten smarter, more confident, and even happier than he was, and is now the grand poobah of second-graders. When Ben finishes kindergarten -- smarter, more confident, even happier than he is now -- I will be thrilled, and I know he will rock first grade. But it will be bittersweet. He won't realize for years how great kindergarten was. At least after my third trip through kindergarten, I'll know how great it was.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A long long time ago

After writing last week about Walter Payton's incredible 1977 season, I started reminiscing more about that winter. I picture it very dark and cold -- perhaps the first time in my seven years I had noticed what winter in Chicago was all about (basically, cold, dark and snowy). I guess we were driving more places in the evening (which, in Chicago December, starts about 4:30 p.m.), because I remember the music from this winter rather vividly (and I wasn't listening to too much radio outside of the car). "Saturday Night Fever" was huge this winter as disco was exploding. And in the winter of 1977-78, I saw "Star Wars" for the first time.

"Star Wars" was released in May 1977, but I didn't see it until several months later. We moved houses in 1977; my mother, who wouldn't get her license until the next year still wasn't driving yet; I had two little sisters that wouldn't have made it through a sci-fi movie; and my dad worked a lot of nights. It's not blame, just circumstances -- we didn't see the biggest movie sensation (at that time) simply because we probably never got around to it. But I was a "Star Wars" fan nonetheless. My friends had seen the movie and had loved it, the theme song was all over the radio, and I collected Star Wars trading cards and stickers.

Finally that winter, I got to see the movie that had become my favorite without even seeing it. The dad of two of my friends took us (remember, seeing "Star Wars" more than once was pretty normal) to the Norridge Theater to see it. The old Norridge used to house four giant theaters -- and by giant, there were three aisles intersecting the seats, not three, and the screens were so wide, so much wider than you would find today (alas, the Norridge is now 10 screens in the same building). I can picture the seats we sat in as we waited for the movie to begin. Mr. Schellhorn (my friends' dad) asked me if I was familiar with the characters of the movie. Of course I was familiar with them! I had collected all the trading cards. In fact, I had an idea of what the plot of the movie would be simply from the Star Wars cards.

Well, I found out the plot was different than what I gathered from the cards, which could only capture one image at a time. That didn't matter, the plot was even better than I could have imagined. "Star Wars" exceeded my 7-year-old brain's expectations. If you love "Star Wars" (and I understand, there are people, possibly misguided, who don't), remember how blown away you were the first time you saw it. Multiply that if you were a child. Michael loved "Star Wars" the first time he saw it, and even though 30 years have passed its initial release, it still affected him like it did me -- like no other movie has sucked him into fandom so far (though "Cars" came close).

I can't even figure out how many times I've seen "Star Wars" since that first viewing 34 years ago. It's been at least five times at the theater, dozens of time on TV and video. I collected the trading cards. I collected a few action figures (I was more into Micronauts starting around this time). I played the board game. I got a Star Wars watch for my first Communion. I read books and comic books. I watched the "Star Wars" holiday special and recognized it as crap, even as an 8-year-old. Eventually, I saw all the sequels (and I can remember where and with whom I saw all the sequels), played many of the video games, and remained a fan.

Is it possible as an adult to feel the sense of wonder toward something new, exciting and amazing the same way you do as a kid? I suppose we do, but we've learned to temper our expectation, to tamp down our enthusiasm. I want to re-collect the Star Wars cards from my youth, find the same watch I owned in 1978, and play the board game. I already own the two giant "Star Wars" comic books again via eBay.

We were in the movie theater the other day and saw a poster for "The Phantom Menace," which is being re-released in 3-D. Michael immediately noticed the poster and seemed excited at the prospect. Episode I (that's one, not "I") wasn't that good, and yes, George Lucas is releasing it again just to make more money and to screw with the original Star Wars legacy -- the legacy the original legion of fans wish wouldn't get tinkered with any more -- but I might take him to see it. He's still early in his Star Wars fandom, and I'm sure he will love it. I will probably like it, too.

Here's one other sure consequence of that first time I saw "Star Wars" at the Norridge when I was 7: When we get a blu-ray player, I know the first discs we are going to buy -- the special edition "Star Wars" set with all six movies, documentaries and deleted scenes. Those discs will replace the DVDs of the movies I already own.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hello 2012

For the first of my goal of 200 posts for 2012, I'm merely going to summarize the first days of the year (and the last day of the last).

We had an enjoyable New Year's Eve as a family. We saw "The Adventures of Tintin," came home and made pizza for dinner, Michael and I watched "Fellowship of the Ring," and we set our sights on midnight. The boys wanted to stay up, and amazingly, they made it, helped by a long session of Lego Harry Potter (Years 1-4) on the Wii. Midnight came, we made some noise, and then we got them to bed.

Unfortunately, they woke up early the next morning, though I got to sleep in. We weren't too active on Sunday/New Year's Day. The highlights: watching NFL games, doing laundry and taking the dog to the park. I worked last night, the last NFL Sunday of the regular season. Out of six fantasy football leagues, I'm happy to say I finished in the top four in five of them and won two.

Today, the last day before the boys start school, was equally as uneventful. Lori had to work for a few hours, and I took the boys to get haircuts and then lunch at Costa Vida. Lori made a spoon roast for dinner and watched Wisconsin lose the Rose Bowl. I'm typing right now but am going to go to bed soon so I'm rested for tomorrow -- I'm co-oping at school. The chaotic fun that is life amps up again tomorrow. Welcome, 2012. It's been fun so far.