Saturday, January 30, 2010

Another installment of the Minivan Chronicles

Nothing beats a good birthday party—especially when you're nine years old.

This morning I drove my daughter and two of her friends out to Bellevue, Washington, an approximately  45-minute drive from West Seattle, to a place called "Sky High Sports." Whoever cooked up the idea behind this business is brilliant. It's a huge, converted warehouse, filled with different trampoline activities, like dodgeball and foam-rubber-pit-leaping (which appeared to be a cousin of the oh-so-sanitary IKEA ball pit.). They also provide pizza and the trimmings for birthday parties.

The unexpected bonus, at least from my perspective, of this morning's trek, was the opportunity to listen to three fourth-grade-age girls talk and play in the back of our (also oh-so-sanitary) Kia van. As they discussed the party ahead, the topic turned to trampolines.

Katie chimed in."So my cousin, Annie... she's eight. She can do a backflip. On a trampoline. My cousin, Justin...he's ten. He can do a backflip. On a trampoline. My cousin Emily...she's thirteen. She can do a backflip. On a trampoline."
"Nuh-uh," said one of the other two.
"Yeah-huh," fired back Katie.

Time for the next topic. It's interesting to me how kids bounce back and forth between actual and virtual activities.
"Do you guys have a Wii?" inquired Lauryn.
"I do," said someone.
"I'm really good at ski jumping and tennis and boxing," Lauryn offered. "Really good."
I wanted to say, "Lauryn, let's rephrase that. You're really good at manipulating the Wii remote," but I abstained from being a grumpy naysayer.

Actually, the Wii really is an amazing device. Everything is so pseudo-realistic. The boxers can do everything shy of biting each other's ears off, and the tennis players come just short of screaming and threatening the line judge's life. And I kind of wish that the ski jumper would possess the potential to fall off the side of the ramp and stumble down the hill like the "agony of defeat" guy from the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports.

The three girls then began looking outward and greeting everything they spotted along the road: "Hi, sign. Hi, dirty truck. Hi, lines on the freeway." I had to halt that activity after about thirty seconds. The old man in me tries to be patient, but has a short fuse when is comes to squeaky, little female voices shouting over each other.

We arrived at the facility and I dropped the girls off inside. As I drove back alone, I reflected upon how refreshing it is to listen to nine-year-olds laughing, talking and making up games and tall tales. I'm usually ferrying my teenaged daughter and her cronies back and forth, and however enjoyable their repartee may be, it's usually confined to talk of other kids, and it's not always warm and fuzzy. Teenagers tend to forget that their chauffeur actually is a living, breathing carbon-based organism, equipped with a listening apparatus and the capacity for higher thought and analysis.

For whatever reason, the nine-year-olds are aware of these truths. What a difference five years makes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Miss you, Mom

It's been twelve years—twelve years this week—since she left. Her name was Peggy Haywood, and she was my mom.

The phone rang early that morning; it was a Saturday. I could immediately sense the alarm in my dad's voice, as he explained that my mom was extremely lethargic and even a bit delirious. She'd had a cold all week, but it had worsened to the point that he asked me to meet him at the emergency room.

My mind raced, but time slowed as I drove that thirty miles to the hospital. Surely things couldn't be that bad, but why did he feel the need to call me? Oh, well. I'm sure she's just worn down, and she'll get some good medication and be as good as new.

My dad met me as I entered the E.R., and we quickly walked back to where she lay on a gurney. I had expected to be able to talk to her, to reassure her, but that wasn't what I encountered. Her eyes were wide open, but she didn't speak. I've never witnessed eternity reflected in a person's eyes; they seemed focused, literally, on everything. She didn't look at me; she looked far beyond me, and at that point I knew... I knew she was dying.

All I could do was choke out a few words, telling her she'd be okay, as they wheeled my mom into the Intensive Care Unit. Please mom, just hang in there. I'm not ready for this. After the gurney disappeared around the corner, the doctor approached my dad and me. My knees nearly buckled as she verbalized my fear; my mother's body was battling profound sepsis and her chances of survival were extremely slim.

She passed away a few hours later.

I don't remember why, but I returned to my parents' house later on, alone. As I entered my childhood home, my mom was everywhere. Her partially opened purse sat next to her favorite recliner, her People magazines stacked neatly beside it. I collapsed into her chair and sobbed emphatically, just saying her name over and over and over again. I may have stayed in that chair for thirty seconds, or an hour or four hours; I have no idea.

At that point, things moved very quickly. Everyone was still in severe shock, but so many arrangements had to be made. The minister at her church asked if any of us wanted to say any words about her at the funeral. Really? You're asking me to sum up the person who shaped me into who I am, who devoted her very existence to her children, into a few words? My anger, of course was completely displaced, but it burned nonetheless.

A few days passed, and through the overwhelming sadness, I sat at my computer to compose something for the pastor to read. I knew I couldn't read it myself, no matter how brief it was. Her traumatic death still lingered heavily with everyone, but I felt compelled to write a simple poem to describe this remarkable woman:

You taught me what a friend is.
Then you were my first friend.
Crayons, open faced jelly sandwiches.
I insisted on planting a garden on the side of the house.
You painted a sign that said "Tim's Garden."
We played catch.
You got me that Daniel Boone hat that I had to have.
I wore it twice.
We talked.
You usually talked more.
I'm still not sure if you really were asked to sing in the Metropolitan Opera.
And that you had to refuse, saying, "No, my family comes first."
Your orange wedges always tasted best at my soccer games.
I wish I could have one more hug.
One more Christmas Eve.
One more People Magazine with the crossword puzzle already done.
One more time to tell you how much I love you.

I miss you, Mom.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stop your clowning

What is it about clowns?

Why have I always feared and disliked them? Their red noses, their exaggerated, arching eyebrows, their permanent, upturned splotchy grins, their huge clown shoes. Maybe it's because they're kissing cousins of mimes, who are also very scary because they don't speak.

Whatever the reason, my clown phobia can be traced back to the 1960s, when my family faithfully stood curbside for the annual Auburn, Washington, Memorial Day Parade. The clown cabal stealthily slithered down Main Street, invading on little bikes, in little cars and on foot. They angled toward us with an awkward gait only clowns can pull off. One of them approached me and thrust his massive face within millimeters of mine, his whiskey-soaked breath curling my eyebrows unnaturally. He pulled a sticky, slightly-melted hard candy from somewhere in his techno color clownness and pushed it into my palm, accompanied by a distorted, "Hyuhh hoo!"

I'm not sure, but I may have wet myself.

From that point on, I've loathed the clown. It doesn't help that he's often portrayed as an evil, twisted psychopath in the movies, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, or Stephen King's It, or a real-life psycho, committing actual deviant crimes, like John Wayne Gacy.

I had one other clown encounter, this time as an adult. My wife and I, on a flight from Phoenix to Seattle, struck up a conversion with a friendly, middle-aged man sitting next to us. He seemed hesitant to tell us his occupation, but suddenly decided he could trust us enough to let us know he was Bozo the Clown. He then produced a couple of color postcards of himself in full Bozo regalia and asked if we wanted an autographed copy for each of us.

"Uh, sure." What else can you say?

He held up his plastic cup of orange juice, and informed us that it was mixed with white wine, so that any kids on the plane wouldn't be able to tell he was consuming alcohol. I wanted to say, "Mr. Bozo, you look like any other paunchy guy sitting on a jet. How could anyone possibly know who you are?"
I guessed that he wasn't called "Bozo" for nothing.

I later learned that a large number of Bozos have existed throughout the past sixty years, and maybe
this guy held exclusive clown rights to the eastern half of Iowa, or something.

I know I'm not the lone inhabitant of Clown Angst Island. In fact, I think it hits a chord with so many of us that it found its way into advertising for a multi-national corporation. Just your back. Those floppy shoes may be gaining on you.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Are women really the fairer sex? You decide.

I'm surrounded. By females. This isn't  completely by design, as I have two daughters, but on the voluntary side, I've worked in the retail fashion industry for 19 years, which is heavily inhabited by women (see The Devil Wears Prada.). With this type of long-term cred, I feel I'm qualified to offer some observations about the gender which supposedly sprung forth from Adam's rib.

I read an article this morning in The Seattle Times, illustrating the contributions made during World War II by the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or "WASPs." A lot of these women are now deceased or in their 80s or 90s, but they're finally being recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal. This award encompasses Congress' "highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions." Previous recipients include Dr. Jonas Salk, the Navajo Marine Corps Radio Operators, or "Code Talkers," and the poet, Robert Frost.

These women pilots were forbidden from engaging in combat operations, but they did just about everything else—they ferried planes across the country, hauled targets for shooting practice and trained scores of male combat aviators. They encountered intense prejudice from the male military establishment, and were paid a fraction of what the guys received. In addition, the WASPs were actually  denied veteran status until 1977.

I'm going to insist that my daughters read this piece. Today's girls still don't experience a completely level playing field visa vie our society's deference to male leadership, but things have improved substantially. My mom used to tell me about girls' high school basketball in the 1950s, where no one was allowed to dribble the ball more than three times, and the team was divided into front court players and back court players. I imagine sweating was just a little too unsightly and unfeminine when one is wearing her basketball skirt.

Well, here's the deal. We all need to come to grips with this tenet:
Women are tough. Come on...say it.

I've borne witness to two child births. It's not pleasant. Oh, sure, we guys experience pain and discomfort, especially as we age. It might take us three installments to pee every morning, or the old football knee may flare up when the weather turns cold. But I've seen my wife spring out of bed at three the morning, the barf bowl positioned under my kid's chin, long before I woke up and realized I hadn't actually attended that final exam naked.

Amelia Earhart—tough, Sacagawea—tough, Wilma Rudolph—tough, mothers across the globe—tough.

And the Women Airforce Service Pilots—toughness recognized at long last.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do you believe in miracles?

Everybody loves an underdog.

Ever since the moment David's haymaker landed squarely to the temple of Goliath, the public has thirsted for any kind of contest where the little guy prevails against all odds. Our history is littered with examples: the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Apollo 13, the 1968 New York Jets, Susan Boyle.

I have one more name to add to this illustrative club, even though my choice is beyond esoteric, and most people have never, nor will never, feel its inclusion is justified. I'm speaking of the 2009-2010 Chief Sealth High School Lady Hawks basketball team, of which my daughter is a member.

Sealth High School, located in West Seattle, Washington, is not a school rich in resources or athletic tradition. Student participation has not always been exceptional, or even moderate, when compared with the other schools in Seattle's Metro League.

A few years ago, in a short-sighted attempt to bring the girls' basketball program to state prominence, the school hired a new head coach, who arrived with a reputation, albeit controversial, for turning teams around. In the short term, he accomplished the goal, winning two straight state titles, and sending three of his players to Division I schools with full-ride scholarships.

His mercenary, win-at-all-costs tactics quickly caught up with him, however, and both championships were stripped from the school. A Seattle Times investigation revealed that the coach, who was also a school counselor, falsified residence documents, promised college scholarships, and committed a plethora of other infractions. He and his entire staff were subsequently fired, many players transferred out of school, and the girls' program was reduced to a burned out husk of its former glory.

Last year, the inaugural attempt at running a "clean" operation, the school wasn't even able to field enough players to finish the season, and the plug was pulled roughly half way through. The principal resolved to return the program to respectability, and hired yet another new coaching staff.

This year's edition of the Lady Hawks is an assembly of gritty overachievers, who play not for the promise of college glory, but for the love of the hoop game. They are fairly skilled, but highly undersized. They play with relentless determination every game, diving for loose balls and throwing their bodies around, but their opponent needs only feed the ball to one of its taller players for an easy hoop under the basket.

The Lady Hawks have yet to win a game, but they inch ever closer to victory.

Last night, the team played their arch rivals from the "nicer" part of West Seattle, West Seattle High School. The two squads battled fiercely, trading baskets, fouls and turnovers the entire contest. Parents of players were sprinkled throughout the spacious, newly remodeled gym, loudly encouraging their daughters. I always try to keep the tone of my cheering positive, never harassing the referees, never celebrating a mistake by the opponent.

One small group of parents on the West Seattle side did not embrace this philosophy. They constantly barked at the refs. They boisterously rejoiced when a Sealth player screwed up. And the poster child of all ugly fans sat just down the row from me. I'm not sure if the guy was someone's dad or not, but he relentlessly strove to distract the players who stood at the free throw line. He whistled. He screamed. He banged his boot on the bleachers so loudly that both teams' benches turned to see who was creating such a ruckus.

After the Chief Sealth player missed her free throw, I glanced over at his huge, satisfied grin...which was short one front tooth. He had been so obnoxious for so long I wanted approach him and ask how he would feel if someone tried to distract him while he tried to cook up a batch of meth. I fantasized about extracting his remaining tooth with my heel while mocking his Mr. Ed-like bleacher stomping.

The game went down to the wire, but West Seattle eventually prevailed. The Lady Hawks almost closed the deal and came up a couple of missed free throws short. I don't think they realize how far they have come, bringing a program back from the dead and playing competitively game in and game out, always the underdog.

I can only harken back to one of history's most famous rhetorical questions. With only seconds left in the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the heavily favored U.S.S.R. and the upstart American team, broadcaster Al Michaels euphorically asked, "Do you believe in miracles?"

Yes, I do. But it won't take a miracle for the Chief Sealth Lady Hawks to win their first game.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coffee: A love story

I still can't decide. Is it ambrosia, passed down by God himself? Or is it Satan's toxin, messengered to Earth by one  of his minions? We may never know, but either way, this enchanting beverage will remain forever attached to my life, like a tongue on a frozen tether ball pole.

I love coffee. Love, love, love coffee. Did I say I love coffee? A rich, bold, naked cup of black java is my drink of choice, but you can pour me a latte, a cappuccino, a macchiato, an Americano, a frappuccino or a mocha. Some coffee ice cream topped with chocolate-covered espresso beans? Keep sprinkling them on; I'll say when.

I'll pick some up at Starbucks, Tully's, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's or 7-11. It can be Maxwell House, Folgers, Nescafé, Sanka or Taster's Choice (Please, not the decaf, though. That's like going to a formal event with a tuxedo t-shirt). My coffee maker is the true Iron Man, having played far more consecutive dates than Cal Ripken, and I'm quite certain that it's got a few more brews left in it.

I can remember wondering, as a kid, what the allure of coffee was for adults. It smelled good, especially when it was freshly ground, but that didn't translate into flavor. And it wasn't until college, when my friends and I would sit around our dining room, putting off studying and drinking a few cups, that my dark master finally took hold upon my soul. I discovered that magical first sip of the morning, as the hot elixir seeps down the esophagus, spreading its warming tentacles throughout the torso. More cups soon followed, and eventually, I was drinking coffee all the time.

One night, facing a heavy night of final exam cramming, I decided to try a little experiment. I prepared cups of coffee with tea bags submerged in them. Rationalizing that this method of caffeine infusion could be quite efficient and effective for pulling an all-nighter, I ingested a few cups before the chemicals had the opportunity to embed their talons into my central nervous system.

This was a really bad idea. Within short order, I couldn't stop shaking, my stomach cramped up, and my mind couldn't calm itself enough to actually concentrate on anything. I thought about the phone call my parents might be receiving from the university in a few hours. No, your son didn't die from falling off a balcony or some sort of alcohol-related accident. Actually, he drank too much coffee. We're very sorry, but at least we can give his roommate a 4.0 for the quarter.

I toned down my coffee consumption quite a bit after that, but it didn't take long to get back onto that horse named Joe. Living in Seattle, I was even more rapidly enabled, with Starbucks being the most dominant force on our landscape beside doggie bakeries.

It's not a Tiger-Woods-level addiction, but it's nice to know I also have options in every city.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A man has his needs

Lately, I've been trying to pay better everything. I don't always listen to what my wife or kids or coworkers are saying to me, and I tend to not notice important details. Therefore, in an effort to hone my observation skills, I've begun studying my culture and environment, and I'm trying to pare down the goods and services which I feel we don't need.

I've compiled a list. It's actually a list of questions, with my suggested answers following behind. You may disagree, and that's fine. I hear you. So here we go.

Do we really need:
1) the chest bump?
2) leg warmers?
3) fat-free cheese?
4) shag carpet on our toilets?
5) pennies?
6) local news?
7) PowerPoint presentations, where the presenter just reads the handouts, which also match what's on the screen?
8) clowns?
9) earlobes?
10) another basket of chips?
11) televisions the size of bed sheets?
12) razors with four rows of blades?
13) Ryan Seacrest?
14) a weekend off before the Superbowl?
15) yellow Oreos®?

Here are the answers:
1) Yes, especially when I'm not wearing a shirt.
2) Only if 1982 Olivia Newton John is wearing them.
3) No. Seems like an oxymoron.
4) No, because I miss too much.
5) Not really. They just accumulate.
6) If someone told me that I could give up my pinky in exchange for the elimination of local news, I'd say, "Where's the meat cleaver?"
7) Absolutely not, unless you're suffering from insomnia. This is a fabulous non-pharmaceutical substitute for Lunestra.
8) No, we don't. In fact, it's time for some new legislation.
9) I'm not sure, but let's say yes.
10) Yes, please, and more salsa.
11) Yes.
12) No, but I like the ads showing the whisker snapping back and being cut off by the next row.
13) One word: hellno.
14) No way. Football withdrawal is very unpleasant.
15) Yes. Any Oreo is a good Oreo.

I'm sure there are many others, but my attention span has expired.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I miss my mullet

The other day, my wife and I engaged in a heated argument with my fourteen-year-old daughter, which is not at all unusual. This time, however, we each noticed simultaneously that she was looking at her hair in the mirror as she fought with us, turning her head to left profile, right profile, left, right, etc. Naturally, this infuriated the two of us even more.

Later, after calming down, I realized that most people spend a lot of time looking at, and thinking about, their hair. As with most of us, I didn't really care much at first. Back in the Sixties, the short, boy hair was my only option, with the occasional application of some Aqua Net from Mom, or Brill Cream from Dad, before heading out to Sunday school. Every summer necessitated what my dad referred to as an "athlete's haircut," which was really just spin lingo for, "Let's just shave it all off, so we won't have to worry about it, and the lice will slide right off if they happen to move in."

I'll never forget, around 1972, longer male hair styles became more widely accepted, even by the conservative establishment. Finally, I could rock some longer hair. Little did I know that my head was beginning to produce as much oil as the North Slope of Alaska. By the time my bangs grew down over my forehead, they had soaked up most of the greasy T-zone deposits and clumped into arrowheads, pointing down at my eyebrows and face.

Later in adolescence, after embracing the magic of Clearasil pads, my hair style evolved into what we now refer to as a "butt cut"— parted in the center and feathered on the sides and around to the back. This look was extremely utilitarian, and if you examine any high school yearbook between 1976 and 1980, you'll notice that guys and girls alike embraced this wonderful coif.

The Eighties witnessed one of my darkest hair periods, not in color, but in sheer historic ugliness. Some called it the "soccer cut." Some referred to it as the "Shlong," (for the combination of "short" and "long"). Others have coined it "business in front, party in the back," but the best and simplest term I can use is "mullet."  The whole idea was to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and see a well groomed top and sides, while at the same time, you could admire a cascading waterfall of brown wonder down below your ears in the back. I've got a driver's license that I keep around just to show people how stellar I looked when my mullet was in its full-on, obnoxious glory.

When the grunge era erupted upon the Seattle scene, I embraced that as well, and did not cut my hair between July, 1992 and May, 1996. Let's just say I've checked the "sensitive-ponytail-man" box off my list of things to do.

From then on, it's really been a challenge just to maintain what I've still got up there. I don't really concern myself with the latest looks and products. Some days the hair looks okay, other days it looks like it's time to shop for some of those old, Elton John hair plugs on Craigslist.

And in terms of my teenage daughter, maybe we'll both stand in front of the mirror next time we have an argument. Eye contact is important.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Testosterone: you're soaking in it

For whatever reason, in this small world I inhabit, today will forever be known as "Testosterone Tuesday." A couple of things happened overnight in the arena of sporting news, which have contributed to this aura of intense, male energy.

First of all, in the world of football, which is already dripping with machismo, our local Seattle Seahawks fired their coach, and in the span of a few hours, replaced him with the former head of the highly successful Trojans of the University of Southern California, Pete Carroll.

I listened to a bit of his introductory press conference. According to Mr. Carroll, "If you know anything about me, you know I can't pass up this challenge. If someone challenged me to something, even right now, I'd probably take it on." Okay, here's a guy who will be collecting roughly $6 million per year, and he sounds like he's ready to choose up dodgeball teams at recess. I was expecting the his next utterance to be something like, "Who wants a piece of me?"

The other overnight development concerned Mark McGwire, former all-star baseball slugger and one of the all-time home run leaders. He's been retired for a few years, but back during his playing days, he resembled The Incredible Hulk. His body was so ribboned with muscle that his biceps had their own triceps; his forearms were five-arms.

Mr. McGwire had always been rumored to indulge in anabolic steroids, an allegation which he either steadfastly denied, or simply refused to comment upon. Well, he finally decided to fess up yesterday, that yes, he had, in fact, dabbled with performance-enhancing drugs during his tenure with the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals. To me, this admission was similar to Burt Reynolds or Bill Shatner admitting that they've been wearing toupees all these years. Seriously, all a person needed to do was look at the guy. It would have been a difficult choice between El Capitan or Mark McGwire's chin as the most difficult sheer surface to scale without the aid of safety lines.

I understand that the public, especially the male public, yearns for all which is exceedingly manly. Why else would products exist like Speedstick, Powerade, or the Five-Dollar Footlong? Why else would we spend so much money on suped-up cars and stereos and super-caffeinated beverages?

One of my favorite movie lines was uttered by Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. He constantly pined for his former high school athletic grandeur, and as his eyes focused off in the distance, he blurted out, "See those mountains over there. I'll bet I could throw a football over them."

I seriously doubt that he could. But I totally could.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Breakfast—America's underrated treasure

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, "Mmmmm....breakfast."

Our diets have certainly evolved over time. Who among us remembers sitting down to a dinner table consisting of, maybe, some sort of cream-of-mushroom-based casserole, a nice fruit salad made up of Mandarin oranges, coconut, mini marshmallows and whipped cream, and a big, old stack of buttered white toast? Top it off with some apple pie constructed with real lard, and our young arteries cried out, "Enough, already! We will not be your body's Stepford wives!"

Our lunches weren't much better. We might open up that Six Million Dollar Man lunch box in the cafeteria to reveal a bologna sandwich garnished with some Miracle Whip and a Kraft Single, nestled between two slices of that same white bread that constituted last night's toast pile. Throw in a Twinkie or Hunt's Snackpack pudding can, and we were preserved through that third, two-o'clock recess.

Going further back in the same day, breakfast was the overlord of all things boxed and sugary. I usually started my day with Cocoa Puffs, Froot Loops, Pop Tarts, Trix, Kix, Chex, Sugar Pops or Super Sugar Crisp. Too bad my mom wasn't willing to pour me a little mug o' Maxwell House to really start the day off right. On weekends, she might whip up some bacon, eggs and, of course, the toast pile.

Since those days, we've all come to our senses, and embraced the oat bran craze, the low carb craze and the anti-oxidant-fit-for-life, don't-eat-it-if-it's-beige craze. But throughout all of the madness, nothing compares to the Classic American Breakfast, served up cafe style. Sure, I'll stay the course with the Grape Nuts or any other colon-friendly cereal during the week, but on Saturday or Sunday morning, bring on the greasy spoon.

Bring on the elderly waitresses who refer to me as "honey," "sweetie," or "dear." Bring on the bottomless cups of Sanka and the plastic "glasses" of ice water. I'll wait in the lobby for a table to open up, even if the door hits me in the butt occasionally, and my unshowered body calls for sweats and a baseball cap in order to get there before they stop serving breakfast.

Because it's all worth it, the moment that seemingly frail, little waitress strolls over with four satellite-dish-sized plates on her forearms. Yes, that one's mine—the eggs benedict with the mountain of hash browns.

And, naturally, the toast pile.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A kid named Dennis got spanked in the hallway once

As I stood in our kitchen yesterday evening, assembling awesome sack lunches for my lucky offspring, my nine-year-old daughter burst through the front door, my wife in tow.

"Dad, guess what?" Too urgent, I supposed, for a standard greeting.
"I cried at school today."
"Really? Why?"
"My substitute teacher yelled at me. She said I gave her a 'middle school eye roll'. It was really embarrassing, because it was in front of the whole class. Then, later on, she told our class she was tired of our bullshit."
"She said that?"
"Yep," replied Lauryn, with an air of righteous indignation.
"Did you cry right there in the classroom?"
"Nope. I stuck my head in my locker later on and got teary in there."
"Wow, Laur," I exclaimed. "It really sounds like your sub handled things poorly."
"Dad, come on. Just say it—she sucks in the classroom management department," Lauryn clarified.

Sadly, it appears that, even now, a few teachers continue to employ verbal berating as a primary tool of control. Fortunately, physical intimidation is no longer tolerated as it was back in the 60s and 70s, when I was a young lad in need of a little discipline. Back then, verbal assaults merely served as the side salad to the hot dish that was academic corporal punishment.

My initial encounter with "the rod" occurred during that first year of school—kindergarten, 1968. Remember how teachers would pin notes to your shirt for your parents to remove, much like carrier pigeons were utilized during World War I? My friends and I decided it would be a great idea to remove the pins and run around trying to stick each other with them. This spontaneous act resulted in a swift banishment to the principal, Mr. Terrell. We walked slowly to his office, as if we had just finished our last meal, and it was now time to meet the business end of the dangling noose.

He lectured us sternly, informing us of the risks and dangers of pin warfare, especially to the eyes. Mr. Terrell then arose from behind his desk, walked to his closet and slowly removed it—the instrument of unbridled sadism—the paddle. It was riddled with orderly columns of holes, much like a large cribbage board attached to a handle. I could have sworn it bore some kind of logo, like Black and Decker Whoop-Ass 3000, but I wasn't certain. He informed us that the next time he saw any of us in his office, he'd use it on us, with pleasure.

After this episode of Scared Straight: The Kindergarten Edition, I never gazed upon the inside of Mr. Terrell's office again. I still experienced more minor punishments meted out by my teachers, like neck squeezes or ear lobe gouges, but the Swiss cheese paddle didn't get the opportunity to introduce itself to my pre-teen bottom.

From a teacher's point of view, I can completely understand the frustration in dealing with an unruly class, day in and day out. And back in those days, I'm sure that, after administering a good throttling to a deserving student, it was nice to retreat to the teachers' lounge for a satisfying, non-filtered Camel.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Corporate sponsorships and the end of days

"Dad, I need some black socks to go with these shoes."
"Okay, we'll get you some at Target," I replied.
"Do they have mid-calf, black Nike socks at Target?"
"No. Why do you need Nike socks? Can't you just get some black athletic socks?"
"No way. They have to be, midcalf, with the logo showing."

I suppose I didn't mind spending $100 for her shoes; each member of her high school basketball team decided to purchase Nike "Hyperizes." Kind of expensive, but, whatever. I understand the need for kids to accessorize themselves into anonymity.

What drove my attitude off a cliff faster than both Thelma and Louise, however, was my prolonged pursuit of those damned socks. It only consumed one lunch hour and three stores, but during that time, I obsessed over the true saturation of corporate America in our culture, especially visa vie sports.

It hasn't always been like this. Corporate sponsorships used to be confined to maybe some signage along the outfield wall of a baseball field, or the Goodyear Blimp circling high above the Superbowl. Player uniforms sported only the team logo, and only if those bikini-sized basketball shorts allowed for it. The stadiums were namesakes of either the teams who occupied them, such as Yankee, Tiger and Dodger stadiums, or a late, great, local icons, like Fenway Park, Jacobs Field or Shea Stadium.

Suddenly, as if directly ripping off the Book of Revelation, the branding beast swooped (or swooshed) in, marking everything in its destructive path. A fan sitting in the nosebleed section could easily spot the "Amway" logo across the chests of the San Jose Earthquakes of the Major Soccer League (Hopefully, fans aren't required to attend "meetings" after the games.). There's the "Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year", the "FedEx Orange Bowl", and the "Chevrolet Player of the Game." And, after the Astro franchise in Houston experienced a slight, multi-million-dollar public relations snafu, "Enron Field" reincarnated as "Minute Maid Park."

It's only going to get worse. Soon we'll see sluggers belt out "Home Depot Runs," or "Wendy's Triples." NFL playoff games in January will become "DQ Blizzards." I can already hear the play-by-play announcers:
"That linebacker knocked the snot out of that tight end, but not as effectively as Musinex does."
"Kobe threw that one down like a delicious Dunkin' Donut."
"Don't miss our half-time show. In fact, if you were wearing Depends right now, you'd catch every minute of it."

I realize I'm barking at the moon here, but let's just hope things don't deteriorate further. None of us need to hear that the massive skyscraper in Dubai has secured a corporate benefactor, and is now the "Viagra Tower."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I was a game show junkie.

I've been spending a lot of time with my kids lately, as many of us have over this winter break. The more opportunities I'm given to observe their behaviors, the more I compare their culture to my kid world of thirty-five years ago.

They don't wake up on Saturday mornings and watch Aquaman or Roadrunner or Johnny Quest. They don't arrive home from school to flip on J.P. Patches, or Brakeman Bill, two local Seattle kids' shows back in the day. And for the sake of all that is good and pure, they don't watch game shows anymore.

I was a game show junkie, a fact which was displayed to all the world through my copious circumference. Thank God for Sears Toughskins in boys' size husky (30" waist, 27" inseam). During summers and school breaks, I would schedule out the entire day's game show viewings. Just as an example, let's say it's 1971, and I've got all day ahead of me to watch Joe or Joanne Average American try to win cash and prizes, and hopefully not parting gifts, like cases of Turtle Wax.

I'd start around 11:00, with The Joker's Wild starring Jack Berry, followed by Hollywood Squares with Peter Marshall. Hollywood Squares made its name as a vehicle for celebrity promotion, rather than a straight-up game show. Paul Lynde repeatedly brought the house down with his snarky one-liners, which were surely fed to him in the green room prior to the show. Usually, after Paul rattled off a zinger, the camera would pan over to some other celebrity, maybe Sally Struthers, absolutely convulsing in throes of spasmic laughter. I usually didn't understand the joke.

The noon hour called for ABC's Let's Make a Deal, hosted by Monty Hall. Contestants dressed up in outlandish costumes to vie for Monty's attention, hoping to be singled out to try their luck on a deal. In today's age of shock television, I can only imagine how this show would play out if it were to make a current-day comeback. Monty might be shown a Full Monty or two.

Time to switch from ABC to CBS for Match Game, with Gene Rayburn. This program placed all of its eggs in the double entendre basket, and my pre-adolescent brain loved it. First of all, the host, Mr. Rayburn, held the largest microphone in the game show universe. This thing was about two feet long and he held it down by his belt line. The premise of the show was to listen to a sentence with one word missing, and each member of the celebrity panel would fill in the blank. The contestant received points for each matching answer. For example, Gene might say, "Ella was very upset when she got her 'blanks' caught in the grocer's freezer." The audience would guffaw uproariously, because they knew that Charles Nelson Reilly had something very naughty in mind.

Usually at this point, my mom or dad would make me go outside and ride my sting ray.

Oh sure, they're were so many other shows, like The Price Is Right, The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game, Tattletales, Wizard of Odds, $10,000 Pyramid, Password and Concentration. And, there were other hosts, like Chuck Barris and Chuck Woolery and Bob Ewbanks and Wink Martindale and Burt Convy.

But my informed opinion allows me to draw only one four-word conclusion as to the talent I've witnessed:

Bob Barker is king.