Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The long ride home (1982 Florida vacation, part 7)

(This is the last in the series. Click here for parts one, two, three, four, five and six of my series reminiscing about our trip to Florida 30 years ago.)

Our week in the sun wasn't couldn't last. The Florida fun was ending. It was time to drive home to Chicago.

From Tampa, we piled back into our Chevy Citation and began the two-day trip back. This was my first experience that the ride home from vacation is never quick and rarely fun -- a stark reminder that the good times can't last, that everyday life must be resumed.

But we did have a little fun going home. We stopped in Dalton, Georgia, and stayed at the same hotel as we did on the trip down. I think we went to Pizza Hut for dinner, then I remember watching "Best of the West" on ABC. The next morning, I ordered French toast and was surprised and dismayed at how much cinnamon was put on it (I'm guessing it's a Southern thing).

When we drove into Chattanooga, we stopped and took the Incline -- a sort of vertical train -- up Lookout Mountain. There wasn't too much to see at the top -- I don't think the Civil War attractions I found on the website were there in 1982, and most of the mountain is simply residential -- but the ride was fun nonetheless.

After Lookout Mountain, Dad pushed the miles to get us home that night. We listened to a Beatles tape I mentioned in another post. In Indiana, we were getting hungry, but Dad really wanted to get home, so he just went through a Burger Chef drive-thru to get us dinner. Finally, we made it to Chicago. We picked up our dog (Pepper, who we had only had for about six weeks) from Grandma Elsie's house the next day. We unpacked. We returned to school. Our wonderful and warm vacation was over.

My mother has said that our two big vacations (we drove back to Florida in 1984) provided some of her happiest memories from when we were kids. We only did two of these big trips -- my sons have already experienced at least five of them. Part of that surely is because we live so far away from our families, but I think part of it, too, is that we know how fast these years will go by and are creating as many happy times, as many memories as possible. I'm not begrudging my parents for not taking us on more trips -- time off was hard to come by for my dad, money was tight, they never went on many vacations when they were young kids, and they were young parents who may not have realized how fast things were going to zip by with us. But even our little trips -- to Milwaukee a few times or the Dells, for example -- were great. The commercials trying to get families to come to Disney World or on cruises or wherever, however exploitive they might seem have one thing right: These are the experiences that families will never forget. I will never forget driving through Indiana, or Space Mountain, or Paul Davis' "Cool Night," or Shamu, or free orange juice, or Lookout Mountain. And I'll definitely never forget the smell of spoiled milk.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The little things remembered (1982 vacation, part 6)

(Click here for parts one, two, three, four and five of my series reminiscing about our trip to Florida 30 years ago.)

Before wrapping up this series of posts (and I better wrap it up before February ends) with our return trip home, here's all the little memories I either forgot while writing or didn't have a spot for in a previous post:

-- As city dwellers in a flat state, our family hadn't experienced mountain driving until we got to Tennessee, when my mom was seriously freaked out by a runaway truck ramp. Even though she wasn't driving, she was thoroughly scared as we whooshed down the mountain. Today, I live 10 minutes away from a runaway truck ramp and wonder if it would be fun to take my Outback up it (no, I won't actually try that, it's probably not good for the car).

-- I played a lot of video games on this trip. The hotel we stayed at in Orlando had an arcade where I played Space Odyssey (like Scramble). The convenient store across the street had Space Wipeout, a Space Invaders knockoff. We went to Showbiz Pizza one night, where I played Donkey Kong (which was just becoming a monster success). At SeaWorld, I saw Haunted House, the first triple-level pinball machine.

-- We never quite got the smell of spoiled milk, spilled in Indiana on the trip down, out of the car the entire trip. Today, whenever I catch a whiff of milk-mildewed carpeting, it sparks happy memories of this trip.

-- I watched my first episode of "Entertainment Tonight" at the Rodeway Inn in Tampa, and I remember a segment on Quarterflash, who were hitting the big time with the song "Harden My Heart."

-- We went to a buffet restaurant called Duff's Smorgasbord in Tampa. The food was not good (the corn was pink), but that wasn't the worst of it. I saw a kid I swear looked like me, even pointing it out to my parents. Then, I realized, the kid was wearing earrings. Yes, it was a girl I had just self-identified with. My 11-year-old ego was quite embarrassed.

That's about it. All that's left is the ride home -- the very long ride back to Chicago.

Click here for the conclusion of this series of posts.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Out of Africa (1982 Florida vacation, part 5)

(Click here for parts one, two, three and four of my series reminiscing about our trip to Florida 30 years ago.)

After Disney World and Sea World, we had one more amusement park to visit in Florida in 1982: Busch Gardens. With central Florida booming as a tourist attraction, Busch Gardens was beginning to be heavily advertised nationally, with an impressive African-American voice-over (could it have been James Earl Jones) distinctly finishing off a commercial with "Busch Gardens, Tampa." We had already worked our way over to the coast, found a Ramada Inn to stay at after our visit to Treasure Island, and had one more day of amusement park fun planned.

I don't remember too many specifics about Busch Gardens. Whereas Disney World was a little crowded for February, Busch Gardens was almost empty on the weekday we went. The park had two rollercoasters then: Python and Scorpion. We got to go on the Python (reminiscent of Great America's Turn of the Century) three times in a row -- without ever getting off the train -- but I think we only went on the Scorpion once (and I'm pleased to discover after visiting Busch Gardens' website that Scorpion is still in operation 30 years later).

We went on one of the safari rides and saw the wild animals featured at the park. We visited Timbuktu -- not the real one, but the section of the park named Timbuktu, which had a mild German theme (yes, I remember dancers in lederhosen). There was an arcade with some classic old games (at that time, old was 1978 for me) including Atari's Fire Truck. We actually went on a brewery tour (Busch Gardens was owned by Anhueser-Busch, after all), after which Dad got a free beer and we witnessed some aggressive seagulls steal food away from guests near a snack stand.

But what I took away most from Busch Gardens was how sick we got on a spinning ride: Sandstorm. Somewhat like Great America's Triple play, the Sandstorm (still in operation last year) spun riders three different ways. Normally, this wouldn't have made us queasy, but because the park was so empty, the ride operator kept the ride going extra long. Afterwards, I was dizzy, but my father was green. No one threw up, but Dad hasn't been able to quite stomach spinning rides since (I lost my ability to do spinning rides in 1991, for another blog post).

And that was it. Looking at Busch Gardens' current website, the park is far more impressive, with more rollercoasters and wildlife. But we still had fun, though I don't know how bittersweet that day felt because our vacation was nearing its conclusion. Soon enough, we'd be headed back north.

Click here for Part 6.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Olympic experience, 2002

In February 2002, Lori and I lived in an apartment in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, on a ridge with a balcony that overlooked most of the Salt Lake Valley. From our bedroom window, on the opposite side of the apartment from the balcony, we could see some of Salt Lake City proper. From that window, for two weeks, we could see a little orange light glowing approximately 12 miles away.

What we were seeing was the Olympic cauldron. The flame was visible that far away.

We moved to Utah in 2000 with the Olympics in mind. We had been growing restless in Madison and were ready to leave Wisconsin. Admittedly, Utah with all the preconceptions attached to it, was someplace I would have normally sent a resume, too. But the 2002 Olympics were imminent, and the chance to work as a sports journalist in Salt Lake City during the Games was so alluring. Lori was excited at the prospect as well, figuring we could always reassess or situation after the Olympics were over.

February 2002 didn't disappoint. Aside from the experience of working at The Salt Lake Tribune helping produce daily Olympic sections, being here during the Games was, simply, so much fun. We saw several events live -- nothing too marquee (or expensive) and always during the day because I worked every night, but fun nonetheless (I'll admit it -- curling was my favorite). We had friends stay with us during the first week of the Games, and though I didn't get to see them that much, having them here was great. The atmosphere in SLC was so festive and vibrant -- there's never been a party in this city quite like the 2002 Olympics.

Yes, the Games were tiring. Not including the last day of the Games, I had one day off in 15 (and the last day, I went into work anyway for the beginning of the post-Olympics staff party that started at the office, migrated to someone's house, and lasted well into the night). The first week of the Games were actually chilly for Utah in February (but by the last weekend, temperatures climbed into the 50s). We walked up the hill to the ski jumping venue in Park City and got a pin for our efforts, but damn, that was uphill for a mile (and we saw a female moose on the way -- I am convinced Olympics officials planted it, a la "Funny Farm"). We got stuck in traffic trying to leave the biathlon venue.

But I would drive home every night and pass the Olympic cauldron, then see the Olympic rings lit up on the mountainside, and forget how tired I was.

As I said, I didn't work the last day of the Games. Lori and I watched the closing ceremonies from our apartment and actually saw the cauldron go out. The next day, the hangover began, and I don't mean from the party the night before. The whole city felt the hangover, a sense of "now what?". Ten years later, there's talk of bringing the Games back to SLC. Too many of us remember how great the Olympics were that we want them back.

Lori and I got through the Olympics and took several months deciding what to do next. In two years, we realized how much we liked Utah and how our lives were in a good place. Though we occasionally flirted with the idea of leaving, we stayed, got pregnant, bought a house and settled in.

Reminders of the Olympics pepper Salt Lake City -- monuments, the cauldron (which got turned on a couple weeks ago, but we didn't get a chance to see it), the Olympic fountain and the snowflake logo of the 2002 Games, to name a few. The Games left their own legacy with us, as well. The Olympics brought us here, and this is where we stayed after they were done. I have written before on how one can go crazy by playing the "what if" game, and it's sometimes unintentionally tempting to think how are lives would be different if I never sent my resume here. But I did, and the rest is history. The 2002 Olympics will forever live in our memories. The 10 years since have been even more spectacular.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Olympic experience, 1980

I know I'm not done blogging about our vacation to Florida when I was 11, but I wanted to write about two Winter Olympics before February ended.

In 1980, the Winter Olympics were coming to the United States. In 1976, I was too young to remember the Innsbruck Winter Games, and I only vaguely remembered watching the Montreal Summer Games. So the Lake Placed Games were really my first Olympics. My mother bought the book I have pictured here (no, it's not my original; this one I found on eBay, hence the library sticker across it that I can't tear off without ripping the cover). This guide provided a history of each event and the Winter Games themselves, a preview of that year's Olympics, and spaces to write in the medal winners from that February. For a few weeks, this might have been the only book I read, and it instantly hooked me into watching the Winter Olympics.

Up until the final weekend of the Olympics, the big story of Lake Placid was Eric Heiden and his insanely wide thighs winning five gold medals in speedskating. But I enjoyed watching other events as well, including ski jumping, luge, bobsled and Alpine skiing. Amazingly, I even watched figure skating and didn't think it sucked. Perhaps because there weren't as many events then as there are now (snowboarding, moguls, super combined and women's hockey), watching the Winter Olympics was manageable, especially for a 9-year-old.

On the last Friday of the Games, the U.S. played Russia in one of the semifinals in men's hockey. I don't think I had been following hockey as much as the other sports, so I didn't realize how big a deal this game was. I had gone to Pals (an AWANA club a little like Boy Scouts ... a topic for another nostalgic post) that night and got back to discover the game was on TV, the U.S. was beating Russia, and that history was about to be made. I watched the rest of the game (unbeknownst to me at the time, tape-delayed), witnessed Al Michaels' famous "Do you believe in miracles?" exclamation, and hopefully, went crazy along with the rest of America.

Two days later, I watched what might have been my first complete hockey game as the U.S. defeated Finland to clinch the gold medal. It was a perfect ending to two weeks of being glued to the Olympics.

I stayed hooked on the Olympics, especially captivated by the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, the 1992 Games in Barcelona (no, I didn't order the Olympic Triple Cast), Dan Jansen in 1994, and Michael Johnson in 1996. I wonder if my 1980 self so enamored with the Olympics would think if he knew that 22 years later, I'd be in an Olympic city as a journalist producing Olympic newspaper sections.

One other thing: I'm so grateful to my mother for buying me the Winter Olympics guide in the winter of 1980. I'm sure she was at Jewel or Dominick's, saw the book next to the magazines in a checkout aisle, and thought I'd like it. Looking back through the years, I see little bits and pieces of my life that gradually sent me into a career as a sports journalist. The book Mom bought me surely was one of them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The belt of Orion's belt

Lately, I've been walking Popcorn at night often. And in what is a reminder that winter is winding down, Orion is directly overhead in the night sky.

I can only pick out a few constellations, and Orion is one of them. And it's one that easily defines the seasons. Back in October, Popcorn was whining in the middle of the night, so I took her out, and there it was: Orion, making an early appearance over the Wasatch mountains in the eastern sky. As the days and weeks passed, Orion appeared in the east earlier and earlier, to the point now that it's visible over the mountains (and now, farther west) as soon as night falls. Now in mid-February, at about 10 p.m. when I walk the dog, it's even shading to the west and is slipping from being directly overhead.

In about a month, I bet we won't see Orion at all. The constellation will fade to the west, first getting lost in the sunset, then disappearing behind the mountains as Earth continues its orbit around the Sun. Orion will be gone, then I'll be looking for Scorpius, which is as unique a summer constellation in the Northern Hemisphere as Orion is a winter constellation. To quote Leonard Nimoy on the monorail episode of "The Simpsons": "The cosmic ballet goes on."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What is lost and what is found

One of my favorite blogs I often read is Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods. Josh is a little older than me, and he writes about life and memories in the context of baseball cards. His blog is often an inspiration for me, not just because of what he writes strikes a chord, but also because of the mere fact he started blogging all these memories and was successful doing so, to the point where he wrote a book based on the blog.

Josh, who is a new father, wrote a post a couple weeks ago that resonated with me. The baseball card he references is a 1978 Jim Todd, but the post streams from Jim Todd to, amazingly and fluidly, "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)"

Soon enough it disappeared and became dated almost instantly but then eventually came back to life as an oldie. I heard it the other day on a station that uses the word “remember” in its promotional jingles. You hear that word a lot on oldies stations, but the songs on oldies stations have been played so often that there is no way anyone could ever connect them anymore to authentic moments from the past. There is some kind of insidious anaesthetization of the masses through the numbing effects of corporatized non-specific nostalgia. Are you remembering anything when you hear an old hit song, or are you covering yourself up and hiding in a warm blanket of the familiar? I want that blanket; I hate that blanket.

I love my present life and would never trade it for anything. But I'm always drawn to my past, especially my childhood. Josh's words resonate with me because a part of me wants to recapture that past in some way, shape or form. I sometimes believe that something from my history can make me complete, make me more successful or content, make me see the world the way I did when I was 9 and come up with some eureka moment so that everything will make more sense.

I do what I can to achieve this goal that is probably unachievable. I collect old baseball cards. I watch YouTube and other Web videos of classic TV. I listen to playlists of music that remind me of sunny spring days and cool fall afternoons. I play old-school video games and seek out old board games at resale stores. When I am in Chicago, I visit the places I used to frequent, from schools to parks to forest preserves. I reminisce with friends. Oh, and I write and write and write about the past, to the point that I'm about to start another blog dedicated to growing up Generation X.

I want the blanket Josh talks about. I just am not sure it will keep me covered. Am I restless for my past, or is my past making me restless? Is this a sense of loss I'm feeling, or am I just nostalgic to a fault? Is there something to recapture, something that can be recaptured, or is it so ethereal that no matter how hard I try or how real it seems, it can't be grasped?

In a way, I wonder if I'm pissed at myself for forgetting so much of my childhood. I didn't repress any of these memories -- they just weren't important enough to keep in my brain. We never remember the minutiae of our lives. As adults, that's no big deal: As long as I remember the important parts, especially with my sons, who cares about the rest. But hell, I wish I could recall every minor moment from 30 years ago (or at least the happy ones). Maybe, by embracing the nostalgia, I'm hoping to break the dam in brain holding back everything I can't immediately recall. Wouldn't that be something, if you could turn on a switch and get everything back? With technology today, if you put in the time, you can record everything, via pictures, social networking, blogging, video and smartphones. But I could have approached that as a kid by journaling and getting my own camera. I just didn't know better to do so.

I find myself experiencing the past with my own sons. Some of it I try manufacturing -- for example, taking them for a drive on a warm summer night, playing music for them that they will remember fondly in 30 years. Some of it is naturally occurring, like the feeling I felt last spring on a baseball diamond while helping coach Michael's team. But I'm also experiencing the past with them. I'm starting to miss size 2T, car rides that turned into naps, sippee cups and "Little Bear."

I live in the present, know the future is coming, and want the past not to be so past. In the meantime, I try to reconcile all three. And importantly, I'll keep writing about it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Skylanders' the limit

We bought Michael the video game Skylanders as a gift after he got the palatal expander put on his teeth (instead of getting a series of much, much more expensive retainers). It instantly became his favorite game. Skylanders is basically a combination of Pokemon, the Lego adventure games and Gauntlet. The game is somewhat geared toward grade-schoolers and comes with a special controller: a platform on which you put action figures, which then appear in your game. The more varied action figures you possess, the more gameplay options you have. The concept is ingenious, guaranteeing kids will want more action figures. Since it was released last year, Activision has sold 20 million Skylander figures. The game is fun, and Ben now loves it too -- not just the video game, but also playing with the action figures by themselves.

Not surprisingly, finding the Skylander figures since Christmas has been difficult. Fortunately, I found a few extra figures when I bought the game a couple weeks ago. The boys got a little bit of Valentine's Day money from relatives, so I proposed we go on a search for Skylanders. I wasn't optimistic, but thought the quest might be fun for a Saturday afternoon.

We went to Sears first. I thought Sears was a good possible choice for Skylanders because it isn't really a destination for video game purchases (unless it's 1980 and are buying Sears Tele-Games -- basically, an Atari 2600 under a different name). Alas, Sears was a bust. We walked into the mall to try GameStop, only to discover that GameStop had closed up shop in this location. Our next destination was another GameStop right near a Target, with the plan we would go to both stores. We struck out in both stores, though in between, the boys got new shoes way on sale at a Skechers outlet.

Michael had a gift card from McDonald's and offered to buy lunch if he got to go to McDonald's. After lunch, we headed for 900 East, on which is a Kmart and Walmart across the street from each other. Kmart seemed like a likely choice because, well, no one shops at Kmart anymore. No dice, so we drove across to Walmart. A couple days ago at a different Walmart, I found no Skylanders, so I wasn't optimistic, but then to my surprise, this Walmart had three packages of one figure left in stock. Excitedly, we bought Double Trouble (the name of the Skylander) and departed, feeling embiggined enough to try another store.

Unfortunately, Toys 'r' Us was a dead end. Leaving the parking lot, I couldn't make a left turn because of a median. I turned right, and instead of making a U-turn, I pulled into a Shopko parking lot. I knew that the last time I was at the Shopko near our house, it didn't have any Skylanders in stock, so again, I wasn't optimistic. I told the boys to think positive thoughts as we walked inside. The positive thoughts worked -- we found two Skylanders we didn't have, including a fire element Skylander (the game features eight elements, but we were missing figures from two of the elements, fire and undead)! When a Shopko employee asked if he could help us out, I asked if he had any more figures. He said no but said to try another Shopko because they might have got some in stock, too (adding that his store just got a shipment yesterday and was almost sold out again). We giddily bought Boomer and Eruptor, and I proposed we hit the Shopko near our house to see if we could find an undead Skylander.

We hit the mother lode. The run on figures we saw at the other store hadn't reached this Shopko. The boys couldn't believe their luck. I couldn't believe our luck. Thinking we might not see this many figures in one place again, I let the boys use up all their Valentine's money and chipped in a little too, and we left with four more figures -- Zap, Whirlwind, Drill Sargent and the undead Chop Chop -- to give us seven on the day.

If only we had gone to Shopko first, our three-hour quest would have taken just 10 minutes. But then it wouldn't have been the fun adventure it was. We got to spend an afternoon together, than a little extra time later trying out the new Skylanders (Eruptor is my favorite one we bought today -- as Michael so eloquently put it, "You press B and he barfs lava!). There's the adage that it's the journey, not the destination. In our quest, the journey and the destination were equally as important.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

We're getting WLS in Georgia! (1982 vacation, part 4)

(Click here for parts one, two and three of my series.)

On our vacation to Florida in February 1982, we had two sources of music: Our Chevy Citation's AM radio and a non-stereo cassette player that ran on C batteries. The trip from Chicago to Florida was almost all top-40. The trip back was almost all Beatles.

Though we did listen to a couple cassettes my sister and If brought along (primarily, "Hi Infidelity," "4" and "Paradise Theater"), we listened to the radio for most of our vacation. Yes, I was so stunned that at night, we could pick up WLS-AM, as well as WCFL (an oldies station at the time, liked by my parents but despised by me), on the AM radio in Georgia. Among the songs I remember that night were "Workin' for the Weekend," "Love Is Like a Rock" and "Pac-Man Fever."

In Florida, we seemed to hear a lot of soft rock on the radio, such as Sheena Easton's "You Could Have Been With Me," Air Supply's "Sweet Dreams" and Bertie Higgins' "Key Largo."

My parents ditched the radio on the return trip when they bought a Beatles tape at a gas station. "Love Songs" was a compilation of Beatles songs and not a true studio album, which might have been the appeal for my parents -- it was a greatest hits of sorts. We played that tape over and over through Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky -- until we were close enough (and it was night, when AM signals could be picked up farther away) to get the Chicago stations again. I didn't mind the Beatles, and I probably know many of their lesser hits because of that one day of traveling.

It's so easy to connect music with a time in your life, particularly a memorable time of your life. And because this vacation was so memorable, I fondly remember the songs we heard in our little Citation. last year, I even made a CD for my sisters with many of the songs from that trip. If you want to put yourself in our car 30 years ago, pull these songs up on iTunes or Spotify (though I don't think the Beatles are on Spotify). Some of the soft rock is cheesy but is, nonetheless, memorable.

Harden My Heart
Workin' for the Weekend/Loverboy
Pac-Man Fever/Buckner and Garcia
Juke Box Hero/Foreigner
Cool Night/Paul Davis
Leader of the Band/Dan Fogelberg
Through the Years/Kenny Rogers
Love Is Like a Rock/Donnie Iris
Love in the First Degree/Alabama
You Could Have Been With Me/Sheena Easton
Open Arms/Journey
Key Largo/Bertie Higgins
Turn Your Love Around/George Benson
Sweet Dreams/Air Supply
I Can't Go for That/Hall and Oates

And the following Beatles songs:
I'll Follow the Sun
P.S. I Love You
Norwegian Wood
In My Life
Here, There, Everywhere
And I Love Her
If I Fell
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away

(Click here for part 5 of this series: our day at Busch Gardens.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy St. Valentine's Day

Lori and I, since early in our relationship have always downplayed Valentine's Day. Neither of us wanted to put too much pressure one each other for what is essentially a commercially driven holiday, and well, shouldn't you treat each other like it's Valentine's Day every day? For years now, we plan the anti-Valentine's Day meal: macaroni and cheese and fish sticks.

The boys were all sugared up from Valentine's Day parties at their school today. And yes, they did make their mom Valentine's Day cards. Those will always be more special to Lori than anything I could come up with for this day. We enjoyed our fish sticks and mac and cheese after Ben's basketball game today, then played a board game. Afterward, I got Popcorn out for a very long walk. Another busy day, but it was all heart.

Central Florida, here we are! (vacation 1982, part 3)

(Click here for parts one and two of these posts.)

In 1982, Orlando wasn't quite the vacation bonanza it is today. Albeit, it was still a tourist trap then as it is now, but it featured several fewer amusement parks then. On our second vacation to Florida, we stayed in Orlando almost the whole time. But on this first trip, we worked our way west, toward the ocean.

We did visit one other big Orlando attraction: Sea World. We saw Shamu, took the conveyor belt through the giant shark tank, and saw a waterskiing show, among other things. Eventually, we drove to Tampa Bay.

My sisters were so excited to see the ocean, but I wasn't. I dislike the beach, even more then than I do now. My dad stopped the car next to ocean so the girls could get out and collect some seashells. I stayed in the car.

We stayed that night in Clearwater, which is suburban Tampa. We were looking for a hotel, and the girls really wanted one with a pool with a slide. I just happened to notice one, a Rodeway Inn. Near our house in Chicago was a Rodeway Inn on Cumberland Avenue, and though we had never stayed there, it always seemed nice. This Rodeway Inn was more of a motel than the high-rise hotel (which, in 1994 and under a different brand name, was the hotel O.J. Simpson stayed after his ex-wife was found murdered) by our house. Unfortunately, this Rodeway Inn wasn't very nice. It wasn't terrible, it was just, well, plain, to the point of cheap. I remember us finding a restaurant that night and me getting a grilled ham and cheese for dinner.

The next day, we went to Treasure Island, another Tampa Bay town right on the ocean. This time, we found a nicer hotel, a high-rise right on the beach. In the haze of our vacation, I can't remember if we stayed one or two nights in Treasure Island. And we saw some sort of attraction in Treasure Island that I can't remember, either. I need to check with my parents to see if they remember more of what we did (and this is why I aim to blog more on vacation -- so stuff such as this isn't forgotten). But I do remember some things:

-- No one swam in the ocean, but we did in the hotel pool that was a little chilly. I actually went in this pool -- likely, I was bribed into doing so -- but just hung on to the side on the shallow end while wearing my Blues Brothers t-shirt in an effort to stay warm.

-- An older couple sitting by the pool told us of a few great restaurants to visit. One was barely a coffee shop at which we didn't stay, and another was a mom-and-pop restaurant probably not visited often by tourists. I think the food was OK, though.

-- We were convinced to hear a time-share pitch for a free $20. The pitch included a short video with George Kennedy in it. At some point, when the hard sell got turned on, my dad got defensive and angry. We took our $20 and got lunch at a restaurant next to the ocean.

-- We went miniature golfing and had a lot of fun.

-- One night in the hotel room, after a long day, we all started dozing off with the Bulls game on TV. The hotel got WGN on cable, and I was able to watch the Bulls in Florida. I eventually fell asleep watching the game. (Looking this up, and I'm just guessing on the date, I think the Bulls won 91-73 over the Hawks.)

-- Seagulls were all over the place, and before we left, Dad went out on the balcony with a danish, put it on the railing, and watched as a swarm of gulls descended on the balcony while we took pictures.

Vacation wasn't done yet, however. We came to this side of Florida to visit another amusement park. Busch Gardens awaited.

(Click here for part four.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Start the week

Monday always seems like a transitional day for me -- the weekend is over, I work late on Sunday night, and the new week begins. Mondays never seem that productive, but I just want to get enough done to be rested and prepared for the rest of the week.

My Monday started with a dentist's appointment. Ben got home from school about noon, and I kind of lounged for an hour and started folding some laundry. We picked up Michael from school, then raced over to Cookie Cutters for the boys' haircuts. The nice thing about boys haircuts: They don't take long. We had plenty of time to get Ben to his swim lesson. Michael and I played a little basketball, then came home, at which time I got Popcorn out for a walk and finished loading the laundry. After dinner, I watched the second half of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II" (Michael has been watching all the Harry Potter movies in order and just finished up tonight), then took Popcorn for a long walk. I watched a little TV, then came down here to blog.

If I can get to bed soon, I will be ready for the week. I better be, because it just gets busier from here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Doctor my eyes

Michael got a put in his mouth last week to correct a crossbite he has. He's not too happy about the orthodontics, but ithttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif's only for 6-9 months, and hopefully, this will go a long way for him not needing braces later. Basically, the palatal expander gradually expands his upper jaw. The device comes with a key (it looks like a lock pick attached to a plastic tongue depressor) that, when inserted into the expander, turns a wheel (almost an axle) that widens the expander ever so slightly. We are supposed make to turns a day in his mouth.

But this post isn't about Michael's teeth. It's about mine and Lori's eyes.

On the first night we supposed to use the key, we encountered some difficulty. Lori saw how to do it at the orthodontist, even turning it once. But at home, she couldn't duplicate the success. Neither could eye. Even after shining a light into Michael's mouth, we couldn't tell if we were turning the wheel or not. We knew we did it once, so we decided to wait until the next day to try again.

Unfortunately, we didn't have any better luck the next day. Our problem was getting the key into the hole to turn the wheel. It was so small that we couldn't tell if we were successful or not. After a few frustrating minutes for all three of us (Michael was a trooper through this, but he reached his limit), I came up with the unlikely solution: I took my contact lenses out.

I am near-sighted, with about 20/100 vision. Lori is near-sighted as well. Both of us wear contact lenses or glasses to see. At my first visit to the optometrist after I turned 40, I asked him if there was anything I should be looking (no pun intended) out for. He said gradually, my close-up vision would start declining and I might eventually need reading glasses. I'm nowhere near that point yet, but in the months following, I began to notice that when I was wearing my corrective lenses, reading or viewing small things at very close range had become trickier. I also noticed that if I was reading in bed or using my smart phone, I could do so better without my glasses on.

Essentially, we were having so much trouble expanding the expander because we couldn't see it. When I took my contact lenses out and left my glasses off, I could see inside Michael's mouth much more clearly. In fact, I now completely understood what Lori was trying to explain to me when describing the expander. Five seconds later, I had turned the wheel once (we only turned it once, worried we had turned it once already and not realized) and was done.

I'm not giving up my contact lenses anytime soon, and standard reading glasses are too powerful for our relatively youthful eyes. So occasionally, I'm going to be squinting at things close up. At least now, when I know when the situation is really important, I know the solution is as easy as removing any lenses from my eyes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

We're going to Disney World (Vacation 1982, part 2)

(Click here for the Part One of our trip to Florida 30 years ago.)

The centerpiece of our first vacation was obviously Disney World. In 1982, Epcot hadn't open, the Disney World was still big enough, with the Magic Kingdom, the monorail and a few resorts. Though we were staying in Orlando, we still explored Disney World a little. I remember visiting the Contemporary Hotel, through which the monorail intersected. I know we visited one other resort because I remember the arcade there (first time I ever saw Sky Raider). But who are we kidding: The Magic Kingdom was the highlight of our trip to Disney World. And it was as good as advertised.

I don't remember too many specifics from that trip to the Magic Kingdom (we would go again in 1984). We hit all the major rides: Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, It's a Small World, the teacups. We enjoyed attractions such as Bear Country Jamboree and the World of Tomorrow (and I remember thinking to myself that nobody aged very much, including the dog, in 80 animatronic years). We at dinner in Cinderella's castle.

We had so much fun.

But the one story from the Magic Kingdom I tell over and over through the years is Space Mountain.

I'm not sure if this is the case now (and it wasn't at Disneyland's Space Mountain two years ago when we took the boys), but 30 years ago, you could walk through the entire line for the ride and not actually get on the roller coaster -- thus, you could enjoy the pre-ride spectacle and duck out before you got in. My mother, who can't handle a merry-go-round, walked through with us until we were ready to board. This may have changed too (again, it did at Disneyland, thought Disney World's Space Mountain was much more intense and visually appealing than Disneyland's), but Space Mountain sent you off in cars in which one person sat in front of the other (kind of like the Whizzer at Great America, as well as JetStar II at Lagoon, on which I think I cracked a rib last summer) with no seat belts. My mom, who never got to the station of any other roller coaster when the rest of us when on, saw this and had her maternal instincts kick in. She didn't think I could hold Julie in the car well enough, so she decided she would go with Julie and I would ride by myself (Dad was with Jenny as usual).

The cars left the station. "60 seconds to takeoff" a light flashed as we climbed the lift hill. The whole beginning of the indoor ride was strobe lights and special effects. But once you were done with the hill and started swerving through the roller coaster, you were in total darkness, save for artificial stars. Essentially, you didn't know where you would suddenly turn, go sideways or drop. It was awesome! Near the end, you take a really big drop that you never see coming, subsequently surprising the rider who was used to small drops. I'm not sure after coming out of that drop if I thought that Mom was might be head for Barfsville. I think I liked the ride so much that I selfishly didn't think of how it affected others.

Needless to say, Mom was not well after the ride was ovehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifr. She never threw up, but I never had seen her so disoriented. The other thing about Space Mountain: Once you get off the roller coaster, it's still about 10 minutes before you get outside. Luckily (or maybe not, I hope this didn't make her feel worse), conveyor belts carried people out, so Mom didn't have to walk much. We got outside, and she had to sit down -- for a while. I doubt Mom has gone on any carnival, amusement park or swervy ride since. I would honestly be surprised if she could handle a playground swing since that day.

One thing I don't remember from our Magic Kingdome trip -- did we get Mickey ears? I probably was too old to want them, and that's too bad. That would have made the day all the more memorable.

(Click here for part three.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hoop dreams

Halfway through the boys' basketball seasons -- I coach both teams -- and it's been fun. Crazy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes awesome, and fun.

Ben plays on a kindergarten team in a league in which no scores are kept. In our previous game, we played a team that was shooting the lights out (for kindergartners at least -- I swear, their players made perhaps their first seven shots), but we kept up and scored about seven baskets, which was our season high. We got to this week and put up more shots then we had all season, but nothing fell. So many shots rimmed out. But we played good defense and were passing the ball better than we have all season (and better than an average kindergarten team does, I bet). It was just bad luck. We weren't shut out, though, and we were complimented by the other coach how well we played. I was proud of them.

Ben is having fun, too, though this first season of hoops reminds me of his first season of soccer, in which he was sometimes not lost, but not fully engaged. He made it to his second soccer season and got a lot better. I'm hoping for the same improvement next year. I both proud and annoyed with him the previous game. He got the ball close to the basket ... and passed to an open teammate. It was a great play, but his best chance to score all season. I'm keeping my fingers crossed he gets a basket by the end of the season.

I was keeping my fingers crossed some of the players on Michael's first/second-grade team could get their first basket of the season tonight, and it finally happened. Until tonight, only four of the nine players had scored baskets. Four more did tonight, including at least two kids who had never scored a basket in a game ever. Here's the funny thing: We lost 24-14, but I felt like we played our best game of the season. We had a lot of shots rim out, too; we were missing one of our better scorers; another one of our tall kids had a coughing fit and left after the first quarter (and in retrospect, didn't play well when he played); and our two best players didn't play well (in fact, Michael had a fast break on which he forgot to dribble and got whistled for traveling. We didn't play very good defense the first three minutes or the last three, and I think we panicked a little in the fourth quarter (as evidenced by Michael forgetting to dribble). For the 18 minutes in between, we outscored our opponents 14-10 and rallied back from a 10-2 deficit to almost tie the game at one point. We were passing better, dribbling to the basket well, rebounding and mostly playing good defense. And four kids got their first basket of the season, including the smallest kid on our team.

As a sports journalist, I sometimes can't help to view games in terms of winning and losing. But I know this -- Michael's team may not have won the game, but wow we had so many victories tonight.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

We're going to Florida! (Part 1)

I was awoken at 3 a.m. and told to get dressed. We were going on vacation.

In February 1982, my family drove to Florida for our first real vacation. A snowstorm was pushing through the Midwest, so we weren't exactly sure when we would leave. My father wanted to get an early start to drive through Chicago before rush hour. When I went to bed the night before, with our dog already by Grandma Elsie's house, I didn't know when we would leave. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I knew we were leaving sooner than later.

We all piled into our Chevrolet Citation coupe (yes, we took a compact car to Florida) and left while it was still dark. When we got into Indiana, things got interesting. The storm that had hit left the interstate slick overnight, and my mother was freaked out at the sight of trucks jack-knifed in the wide, grassy (well, snowy) median. But the sun was shining and the roads were clear. We were on our way.

By the time we had reached Kentucky, the temperature had warmed enough that it didn't feel like winter. The winter or 1982 was so incredibly cold, so even 40s seemed like a heat wave. However, the Citation was already becoming cramped, and someone (not me) spilled milk in the back seat. The milk spoiled and left the car with a smell we couldn't get rid of the whole trip. Jenny, age 6 at the time, kept asking if we were in Georgia yet. We did get to Georgia after dark, and even pushed past Atlanta that first day. I was amazed that our AM radio was still picking up WLS hundreds of miles away from Chicago. We found a hotel to stay the night. My parents turned on the TV to find "South Pacific" was on; they werhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gife almost tempted to stay up and watch it, but they were just too tired. Our first vacation day had come to an end.

If cool spring weather the day before in Kentucky was welcome, the warm weather in southern Georgia the next day was heavenly. It now really felt like we were on vacation, a feeling punctuated even more when we arrived at the Florida visitor's center and were given free orange juice. It took a few more hours to get to Orlando, and it was raining when we got there. We checked into a hotel on International Drive (Orlando's strip -- we didn't stay at Disney World). Our vacation was in full swing, and though we hadn't done anything really fun yet, I already was having the time of my life.

Click here for part two of this vacation.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Randomness for a Monday

I'm looking at the basketball hoop calendar (yes, it's a calendar that came with a Nerf hoop) and discovered that today, Feb. 6, is Waitangi Day in New Zealand. An Internet search revealed that Waitangi Day is somewhat our country's Fourth of July. The basketball calendar also said that Eric Money was born this day in 1955. Funny, I don't remember the playing exploits of Eric Money at all. His Wikipedia page said he did appear in "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," so he must not have been that bad.

-- Both boys have the cold bug I had last week, but not as bad. However, Ben is losing his voice a little and sounds like Froggy from "The Little Rascals." Too bad he didn't have this voice at Halloween; we could have found him wire-rimmed glasses and overalls and had almost nobody under age 50 recognize who he was.

-- Popcorn is in an odd mood tonight. After taking her for a long walk tonight, she came inside and didn't want to lay down in her crate to go to sleep like she normally does when she's tired this late. She's downstairs with me, reclined on a couch ... sleeping.

-- The oddly not-cold winter continues. The past few days have been breezy, resulting in a wind chill, but still no snow lately. I'm worried that the weather in March is going to be horrendous.

That's all the randomness I have for a Monday. No more writing until tomorrow, when my calendar says that Steve Nash turns 38 ...

Two innocent boys

Well, I'm a-thinkin' and a-thinkin', till there's nothin' I ain't thunk.
Breathing in the stink, till finally I stunk.
It was at that time, I swear I lost my mind.
I started making plans to kill my own kind.
- "Country Death Song" by the Violent Femmes

For those of you not familiar with the Josh Powell case, he was a Utah dad and husband whose wife suspiciously disappeared in 2009. Police suspected him of murdering her but never had enough evidence to arrest him. He lost custody of his kids after police found naughty photos on his father's computer. Powell, now living in Washington was allowed supervised visits with his sons, and on Sunday, the social worker brought the boys over to his house, where he pulled them in, locked the front door on the social worker, and ignited the house. To the horror of the social worker, the house was engulfed in flames quickly, killing Josh Powell and his sons.

When I heard this news yesterday, I wanted to throw up. With more news emerging from this tragedy, it sounds like the case against Powell was getting stronger. But then why kill your sons, too? This is the part many people, myself included, can't fathom.

Did Powell simply not want his in-laws to retain custody of the boys, thus the murder-suicide? Was his plan in 2009 was a whole-family murder-suicide and he just didn't have the guts then do the job beyond his wife? Was he upset with his sons, who reportedly were starting to offer details on the morning their mother went missing? Was he a selfish coward? Was he just unstable?

I can't help but believe it was a combination of more than one of these things. He must have been unstable to do this. At some point, killing his sons along with him became a good idea. That's either evil or mentally deranged. Or both. He doesn't deserve excuses. At some point while he lined his house with an accelerant, he must have realized he would be killing his sons rather soon. Killing his wife is one thing -- horrific, surely, but explainable. Killing your children is another. At some point, dead children was preferable to letting them live with someone else. That, even for a mentally unstable person, is unfathomable.

Gather 'round, boys, to the tale that I tell.
You wanna know how to take a short trip to hell?
It's guaranteed to get your own place in hell.
- "Country Death Song" by the Violent Femmes

Before Sunday, a little part of me wanted to believe that Josh Powell didn't kill his wife, that no father would be so despicable to take their mother away from her sons. After yesterday, no one doubts he killed his wife. Then, he killed his sons. I'm sure the boys suffered in that fire, but I hope their last dying thoughts weren't "Daddy did this to me." I hope that Josh Powell somehow started that fire without them knowing and died with the last (maybe only) shred of love he had left for them, hugging them, making them feel safe (even while they killed them). Somehow, I doubt that happened, and this is what makes me want to puke: Those boys died knowing their father killed them.

I worked last night laying out the sports section. The night was busy for us because of the Super Bowl, but also for the rest of the newsroom because of this tragedy. Reporters and editors came in to the office to report the story. For a Super Bowl shift, I surprisingly didn't watch as much of the game as I would. Part of it was just being busy (we didn't get much help with the section), and part of it was it just seemed almost trivial. I got home from work and was drained, from the busy push to get the sports section out and the tragic events of the day. I kissed my boys, about the same ages as the deceased Powell boys, goodnight and went to bed, trying not to think about the previous 12 hours, or the evil people do.

UPDATE: If I wasn't physically ill about all this before, the news that Josh Powell's sons' bodies were found with hatchet wounds to the head and neck may be the most disturbing thing I've ever read. My wondering about what the boys thought as the flames were spreading around them is moot. Their last thoughts likely were that their daddy was swinging an axe at them. Horrendous.

I'm going to hug my son now.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Almanac in the family

I tried digging through old posts to see if I wrote about my October tradition of buying/receiving a Farmer's Almanac. As much as I thought I did, it appears I never have. Expect that post next October. This post is about almanacs, but not the kind with weather predictions and planting tables. My other favorite almanac are the newsy kind, loaded with all manner of useful, trivial and historical information.

For several years in my youth, my grandfather always gave me the Reader's Digest Almanac and Yearbook he would get for free for subscribing to Reader's Digest. (I apologize for the choppy scan; this is hardcover and not easy to get on the scanner.) As an 8-year-old and beyond, I was interested in the news and was a sponge when it came to information. The almanac was the perfect source to soak my brain with facts. After the "World in Review" section was "Accidents and Disasters" -- because I often started at the beginning, I became an expert on catastrophes. I learned all about former presidents, nations of the world, U.S. crime rates and Academy Award winners. I would peruse the entertainers section to see how old celebrities were (did you know Dan Fogelberg was born in 1951?). I read all about the states of the union. But the section that captivated me the most was, not surprisingly, the "Sports" chapter. Not knowing what the Baseball Encyclopaedia was yet, the almanac had the most available information about baseball outside of my baseball cards. Looking at the almanac I scanned, I turned to the baseball standings for 1981 and discovered pen marks and some numbers. Thirty years ago, I wonder what I was trying to figure out from those standings. My almanac fascination was probably one of my first steps on my road to becoming a journalist.

Today, the idea of an almanac almost seems quaint. Every conceivable bit of trivia in that book from 30 years ago likely can be found online. Almanacs are still being produced (and I know I bought a World Almanac in the 1990s; doing a search revealed there is one for 2012), but I am past the point where I will sit down and peruse one out of curiosity. If I need a fact, I will find it on the Internet. Then, this happened ...

Ben has a school library day every week in which he gets to take a new book home. Usually, he brings home a Magic Treehouse book or something else aimed at kids his age. But this week, my kindergartner brought home "Scholastic Almanac 2011: Facts and Figures." (Pardon this photo as well.) Yes, the almanac allure still exists. I'm sure kid-tailored almanacs have been published for some time, but likely after I was a kid. There are a lot more pictures and kid-friendly features in this almanac compared with my old ones, but it was a wealth of information nonetheless. I wonder what was going through Ben's mind when he saw this book at the school library. Was it just the Harry Potter actors on the cover that enticed him to check it out? Did he look inside and think it was cool? Tonight, we browsed through the pages a little, and he was pointing out states on a U.S. map and planets of the solar system. He wanted to look at the football section. And thankfully, he didn't recognize a picture of Justin Bieber.

So, I'm thinking we need to buy a new kids almanac for both boys. When Lori found out what book Ben checked out, her response was "He is so your son!" I must admit, I liked how that sounded.