Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Elusive Arctic Turd

My 9-year-old son is an endless font of knowledge. He loves soaking up information and spitting it back out randomly throughout the day. You just never know when you’re going to hear about the world’s longest worm, or how many pyramids there are in Egypt, or the hottest recorded temperatures on earth.

You also never know when you’re going to be corrected by the boy due to your own incorrect information. Last week, on May 5th, I boldly declared, “Cinco de Mayo isn’t actually a holiday that celebrates anything specific. It’s just a cool reason to party at Mexican restaurants.”

My son promptly looked up from his plate and said, “Actually it celebrates Mexico winning its first battle against France.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said, much less confident in the face of my son’s assuredness. I quickly whipped out my phone and looked up the origins of the holiday, only to find that the boy was, more or less, correct.

“Guess you’re right. I must have heard my information from a bad source,” I said, meekly going back to my French fries.

But while I have come to accept the fact that the boy is infinitely smarter than me, I have to keep in mind that he’s still a 9-year-old boy and there are times that he gets one of his unique factoids a bit jumbled. This morning, for example, he made a declaration that caused his 11-year-old brother to laugh out loud and gave me a moment of pause.

“Did you know there’s a bird called an Arctic turd,” he said, confidently.

“What is it called?” I asked, not quite sure if I heard him correctly.

“It’s called an Arctic turd,” he said chuckling. “It’s true. It flies back and forth from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s called an Arctic tern,” I said.

“No, really—it’s a turd,” he said.

“Did you read this or hear someone say it?” I asked.

“My teacher said it, yesterday,” he said.

I immediately realized what was going on here. Perhaps the only thing my son loves more than soaking up knowledge is talking about bodily waste in crude terms. I’m sure that as soon as his teacher said the word “tern,” his 9-year-old boy ears registered the word “turd,” because deep, deep down he wants to believe that there is a creature out there called an Arctic turd. Amusing though this was, I felt compelled to correct him on this point.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, son, but the word you’re looking for here is definitely ‘tern,’ which is a type of bird. The only Arctic turds are the ones that come out of polar bears.”

My sons got a big kick out of my last statement, and proceeded to discuss what that would look like, with the phrase “corroded snowball” making an appearance. While my boys got a good laugh, I got a minor boost in confidence, knowing that there are still times when I don’t get outsmarted by a 3rd grader. I felt pretty good about that, but suddenly got nervous about what would happen if someone teaching him about breeds of dogs mentioned the Shih Tzu.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tomb With a View

This past Monday I took the day off from work to do something fun with my boys who were on Spring Break. But what to do? Given that we live in a suburb of Phoenix, which is the fifth largest city in the United States, the possibilities were endless. Amusement park? Zoo? Museum? Movies? Bowling? You name the activity and we could have done it. We ended up settling on doing an hour’s worth of strenuous physical activity culminating in visiting a tomb in the middle of nowhere. Trust me, it’s more fun than it sounds.

The tomb in question was that of George W.P. Hunt, Arizona’s first governor, and six other members of his family; and when I piled the kids in the car on Monday morning, visiting this relatively obscure landmark was the furthest thing from my mind—largely because I did not know it existed. Our goal was to hike in Papago Park, which we did—the tomb was an unexpected bonus.

Papago Park is a hilly desert park with lots of hiking trails. The most popular trail by far, though, is the one that leads up to Hole in the Rock, a local Phoenix landmark that is…well…basically a giant hole in a giant rock. It is distinct for two reasons: 1) when you stand in the giant whole and look west, you have an amazing view of the city; and 2) it holds the Guinness World Record for least creatively named landmark. (I’m guessing if The Grand Canyon was named Hole in the Ground, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular.)

When we got to the Papago Park area and I looked up at Hole in the Rock, I realized that we were not the only ones who had this idea on the first day of Spring Break. Dozens of people were standing in the hole, so I knew this would not be a very solitary hike for three of us. I parked and we hiked up to the giant hole, dodging a plethora of other hikers along the way. It felt less like communing with nature than it did going to the mall on Black Friday.

After spending ten minutes in the hole taking pictures from various angles, we started to trek back down, at which point my nine-year-old son asked a question that was seemingly out of left field.

“Can we go see the illuminati?”

Now I should mention here that this particular son is obsessed with the illuminati symbol—that bizarre pyramid-shaped eye on the back left side of a dollar bill. He thinks the symbol is the funniest thing ever and he will often position his fingers in the shape of a pyramid, hold it in front of his navel, say “the illuminati,” and laugh hysterically. So when he asked if we could go see the illuminati, my first reaction was to look down at this belly, as I fully expected him to be making the symbol. But instead of making the symbol, he was pointing in a southward direction.

I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw, off in the distance, a white pyramid on the top of a hill. I had certainly seen this structure from a distance before, having hiked in Papago Park many times, but I never had any idea what it was and never ventured in that direction to find out.

“Well, it’s not the illuminati, but I don’t know what it is or if we’re allowed to go over there,” I said.

“There are dead bodies in there,” my eleven-year-old said ominously.

“What? Give me a break, there are not. Don’t try to scare your brother,” I said.

“No, really, there are. I saw it at Boy Scout Day Camp last week.”

It was true that my older son had gone to Papago Park for Boy Scout Day Camp the previous week, but the only activities he mentioned were cooking, whittling, and learning how to use a compass; he said nothing about seeing dead bodies. Frankly, I’m not sure that the Boy Scouts offers a merit badge for that.

“So what—are you telling me there are zombies in that thing?” I asked.

“I didn’t say anything about zombies. It’s a tomb. People are buried in it,” my son said, soberly.

“Oh, that makes much more sense. Should we go check it out?”

Both boys were gung-ho to make the trek to the tomb, and now that I knew we wouldn’t be greeted by the undead, I was happy to hike over there, as well. The good part about this unplanned excursion is that we were now putting Hole in the Rock—and by extension, the crowds—behind us. The bad part was that the extra uphill climb made me realize how horribly out of shape I am. I huffed and puffed the entire way up there, while my sons steadily marched away. Fortunately, they were nice enough to wait for me whenever I lagged behind, and eventually the three of us made it to our destination without having to dodge one person along the way.

Once I caught my breath and took a couple of pictures of the boys in front of the illuminati, I started reading the plaques, which is when I discovered this was Hunt’s Tomb, honoring Arizona’s first governor. But I also learned by reading the plaques that Hunt was also our state’s second, third, sixth, seventh, eighth, and tenth governor! This guy was clearly dedicated to public service. (Either that or he really liked the free mustache waxings the governor’s office afforded him.) He was also really dedicated to sharing his tomb, as his wife, sister, daughter, son-in-law, father-in-law, and mother-in-law are all buried in there with him. Yes, the illuminati is spacious.

Our quest complete, we started heading back toward the car, which although a good distance away, was mercifully mostly downhill. Although I was exhausted by the time I sat in the driver’s seat taking a long swig from my bottle of water, I was pleased with how our morning went. We got to see Hole in the Rock with a throng of fellow Phoenicians and Hunt’s Tomb, totally by ourselves. It was only an hour-long adventure, but it was a memorable one and was thankfully not marred once by any encounters with the undead.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

To Watch Or Not To Watch...

A week from today I have a very important life decision to make. Do I miss the “Big Game” for the first time in my entire life because it features two teams that I do NOT want to win, or do I watch it anyway, simply for the cultural significance? (Note: By “Big Game” I actually mean “Super Bowl,” but I’ve noticed that apparently nobody is legally allowed to refer to it as the Super Bowl except for the NFL, so every advertiser, radio station, supermarket, and car wash refers to it as the “Big Game,” so as not to risk the wrath of Roger Goodell and his legal hounds of hell. Of course, I already mentioned the phrase “Super Bowl” twice in the last sentence, so I guess the cat’s out of the bag and I’ll keep on referring to it that way for the rest of this blog post, despite the fact that my arrest is now imminent.)

There have been occasions when I have rooted for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the past, but those days are long gone. At this point I have grown sick of him and his winning ways, and his smug smile, and his Hollywood good looks, and his avocado ice cream. Fine, I’ll admit that he’s the GOAT, but I want that GOAT sacrificed already! I have no interest in seeing him and his merry band of Patriots win yet another Super Bowl.

Then there’s their opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, who at first glance might seem like the obvious choice to root for, as they are big underdogs with their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, having to make the start for the injured Carson Wentz. But here’s the problem—I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan and thus the sworn enemy of the Philadelphia Eagles and the other teams in the NFC East Division that do not have a star on their helmets. I have been conditioned since birth to despise the Eagles with every fiber of my being, and at times have even borrowed fibers from other people’s beings so I can hate them some more. There is simply no way I can root for them to win.

Yet watching the Super Bowl is a tradition for me and the idea of completely missing it for the first time feels just plain wrong.  So what am I to do? Do I just watch the commercials and turn it off during the actual game? Do I slide in a video of Super Bowl XXX, when the Cowboys gloriously beat the Steelers 27-17 and watch that instead? Do I watch the game anyway, despite despising both teams, and root for the Goodyear Blimp to crash onto the field and end the game early? Or do I just watch a Three Stooges marathon instead, so I get to see an entirely different brand of violence for four straight hours?

These are the options I will be pondering for the next seven days. In the meantime, I’ll start stocking up on junk food just to play it safe.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Cool MAD Moment

Like most dads, I want my sons to think I’m cool. And like most dads, my sons think I’m about as cool as a convection oven. When I try to act cool in their presence, they mostly think I’m goofy and embarrassing. But I’ve never minded this, because I have always had an ace up my sleeve that I was waiting to play. Finally, after eleven years of fatherhood, I was able to play that ace.

From age 20 to 25, I worked on the editorial staff at MAD Magazine, and for about fifteen years after that, I continued to write for them on a freelance basis. (To read a previous blog entry about the incredibly true tales of my time at MAD, click this link here: this link here.) Very few people are impressed by this information—nor do I try to use it to impress folks—but the majority of those who are impressed are the ones who read the magazine faithfully many years ago and have fond memories of secretly flipping through its pages under their bed covers when they were supposed to be asleep. These folks usually ask me if I ever met Al Jaffee (yes) or Don Martin (no) and wax nostalgic about the magazine.

But every once in a while I have had occasion to meet a preteen who is an active reader of the magazine. These are generally children of friends who I meet at a social gathering. The parent usually introduces me to their child with this line: “This is my friend, Andrew. He used to write for MAD Magazine.” The kid inevitably reacts like they were just introduced to a rock star—their jaw drops, they swoon, and they get tongue-tied. The parent then bales them out and tells them to go play in their room. These brief episodes, awkward as they are, inevitably give me an ego boost. Being reacted to like you’re a rock star (even when you’re the furthest thing from one) tends to do that.

My association with MAD is something that I have never gone out of my way to mention to my own kids. It is not exactly something that they would have cared about when they were younger, and with all of the MAD books and magazines on our shelves, I figured they would eventually discover this information on their own, anyway. Secretly, I looked forward to the day that my kids would look at me the same way that my friends’ kids did, and for a brief moment they might think, “Holy cow, dad is a rock star!”

About a month ago, my long range plan finally came to fruition.

My sons, who are now 11 and 8, are both voracious readers. Chapter books, graphic novels, young adult fiction, and the occasional non-fiction books on topics of interest are all in their wheelhouse. The challenge is, our house can only fit so many books. They have hundreds of paperbacks on their shelves and are often in possession of library books, but even so, there are times when they have simply run out of reading material and start wandering around the house looking for new words to read. On one such occasion my 11-year-old found himself looking up at a high shelf on our bookcase in the den that was loaded with MAD paperbacks.

“Could I read one of those?” he asked, pointing to the MADs.

“Hmmm. I guess so,” I said, looking at the titles.

I wondered how to start him off on this journey. The books he was pointing to were mostly from the 60s and 70s and I knew that the vast majority of references, to things like Watergate and flower power, would go completely over his head. I saw a “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” book and figured those gags were pretty timeless. I pulled it off the shelf and handed it to him. Back he went to his room.

A couple of hours later he came out and asked if he could have another one.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was pretty funny,” he said; so I grabbed another off the shelf and away he went.

In short order my older son was devouring the MAD paperbacks and sharing them with his younger brother. Soon, they had gone through all of the paperbacks (Nixon references and all) and asked about the magazines. Again, I decided to be strategic about how to start them out.

For a short period of time (2005 – 2009) MAD produced another magazine called MAD Kids, which was geared toward a slightly younger audience. I figured that showing them those magazines first would be a good way to segue them into the parent publication. I gave them each an issue of the mag and sent them on their way. They read them. They exchanged them. They enjoyed them.

What they didn’t know about the magazines I had handed them was that they each contained an article I had written. I was waiting to see if either of them would stumble across this fact on their own, but alas, they never seemed to pay attention to the bylines. Apparently I would have to nudge them in the right direction.

I sat myself down near my younger son as he read one of the magazines. After a few minutes he got to the article I had written in that issue. He read through it (sadly, with no particular reaction) and was about to turn the page when I asked, “Did you notice who wrote that article?”

He started looking around for the byline (they put it in really tiny print) and eventually said, “Bob Staake.”

“Well, that’s the artist,” I said. “The writer’s name is next to it.”

My son looked at the name next to it and his eyes practically bulged out of his head. He looked up at me with a gigantic grin plastered on his face, then looked back down at the mag and proceeded to reread the article—this time laughing at all the gags. When his older brother walked into the room moments later he ran over to him and said, “Look, look! Dad wrote this!” pointing frantically to the byline.

My older son looked quizzically at the magazine for a moment before he could focus on what his little brother was showing him. Once he focused on the byline his reaction was almost identical to that of his brother’s—eyes bulging, grin taking over his face and a quick double take, as he looked from the magazine, to me, and back at the magazine. He also reread the article, but then went on to something else.

And that was pretty much it. There was no extended adulation, no makeshift parades and no asking for my autograph. But what there was, were a few moments when both my sons thought I was cool. Fleeting, yes—but worth the eleven year wait.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Why Did The Chicken Crossy The Road?

While proofreaders everywhere are cringing at the title of this month’s blog post, the truth is that seemingly erroneous letter “y” was quite intentional. In recent weeks my boys and I have begun playing a video game called Crossy Road, and it may mark a seminal moment in my relationship with my sons.

As reported in this blog back in April, the video games that my two sons play are not ones that I am very good at, or particularly enjoy. (Click here if you’re interested in reading that blog post.) (Click here if you would rather see an image of a chimpanzee holding three balloons.) I will play their PS4 games every once in a rare while, but it usually doesn’t take very long before my ineptitude frustrates both me and them and I abandon the game to instead play a rowdy Scrabble match against my computer. When it comes to the gaming world, my sons and I have not found common ground.

But then, a little over a week ago, Crossy Road entered our lives. I came home from work one night to my sons excitedly wanting to tell me about a game they both downloaded to their Kindles. This game, they told me, featured a chicken trying to cross a road without getting hit by cars and leaping over logs to cross a river without drowning.

“Oh. So it’s basically Frogger with a chicken instead of a frog,” I said.

“I guess,” my older son said.

“Show me the game,” I said, quite intrigued, since I was a huge Frogger enthusiast as a youth.

So my son started playing the game and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Everything old does become new again. This was, indeed, Frogger with a chicken; but whereas the frog in Frogger had to cross 12 lanes of road and river before landing in a box, the road in Crossy Road goes on forever. There is no box at the end of the road—you just keep on traveling until you get squashed. Also, while the main character is a chicken, you can accrue points to earn new characters like a fox, a cat, a penguin, or dozens more. My favorite is a character named Crazy ‘Ol Ben, which is a guy with a white beard and a cane, who makes “old codger” type sounds as he crosses the road. But, all those features aside, the game is essentially Frogger.

I wanted in.

I quickly went into my room and grabbed my Kindle. I have had this device for about two years, but really only use it for Scrabble and Wikipedia. Indeed, I download apps onto it so infrequently that it took me a few minutes to remember how to do it; but after fumbling around for a bit, I was the proud new owner of Crossy Road.

I walked into my older son’s room, where both he and his younger brother were playing the new game. I sat down with them and started playing, as well—each of us on our own device. Even though it was a totally different interface and I hadn’t played Frogger in decades, the skills I had acquired all those years ago quickly came back to me and I was soon dodging traffic like a champ. Stunningly, in less than 30 minutes I had surpassed both my kids’ high scores. Equally as stunning was the fact that neither of them seemed to mind that I bested them—they just seemed stoked that I was eagerly playing a video game with them. And I was equally as stoked that we finally found common video game ground.

So, to answer the original question…

Why did the chicken crossy the road? To help a dad bondy with his sons.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

One Single Bill

I am writing this blog entry after having what I consider to be the oddest interaction with a cashier that I can ever remember. And I’ve been interacting with cashiers for the better part of 40 years, so that’s saying something.

I went to my local Fry’s to purchase two staples of the Schwartzberg household—ranch dressing and waffles. And no, we don’t use them in the same meal…usually. In any event, with my two items in hand I went to the express checkout line and waited behind a guy buying hot dogs and chili, thankful that I wouldn’t be having dinner with him tonight.

When it was my turn in line I swiped my debit card and requested $40 cash back. I said to the guy behind the counter—a young man in his early twenties—“Could I get 20 of the 40 back in smaller bills—like a ten, a five and five singles?”

“Okay,” he said. Then he looked into his cash drawer and seemed flummoxed. Apparently he was out of twenties, so he slowly gave me two tens, but then he didn’t seem sure what to do next.

“Just a ten, a five and five singles is fine,” I said, hoping this would spur him into action. He then counted out four fives and put them on top of the two tens. I could see in his cash drawer he had plenty of singles, so I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

“Could I get five singles as part of this?” I asked. He then took two of the fives, put them next to him and looked sort of helplessly into his drawer. I reached over the counter, took one of the fives back and said, “Can I get five singles now?”

“What are singles?” He asked. Now I was the one who was flummoxed.

“Singles…um, you know…ones,” I said. I spoke these words slowly and haltingly, and looked around as I did so, because I wasn’t sure if I was perhaps on some sort of hidden camera show that would end up on YouTube later on today.

“Oh, okay,” the guy said and started counting out five ones.

“Have you not heard the term ‘singles’ before?” I asked him, because I just had to know.

“No, I never have. Next time call them ones,” he said.

“Uh, okay. I sure will,” I said taking my money and my grocery bag and walking away.

I wasn’t sure what had just transpired. My first thought was, how can a guy working as a cashier in a grocery store not know that singles are ones? (Let’s forget for a second the fact that even if he had never heard the term before, you would think given the context and the fact that I was asking for five of them, he could have figured it out on his own.) My next thought was that maybe this is one of those regional things and is only common on the East Coast. Sort of like how I refer to soda as soda, but people from other parts of the country ridiculously refer to it as pop.

But the truth is, I’ve lived in Arizona for 22 years and have always said, “Can I have a ten, a five, and five singles,” when getting cash back and not once has it stopped any cashier at any store from giving me the correct breakdown of bills.

Perhaps “singles” is an antiquated term. I’m easily more than twice the age of the cashier and maybe the term “singles” referring to one dollar bills is simply not one his generation uses. Sort of like when I told one of the Millennials I work with, “I thrice tried on the dungarees, but it made me look like a nincompoop, so I told the shopkeep I’d return in a fortnight,” and they looked at me with a blank expression.

So now I appeal to the people of the internet to explain what happened to me this afternoon. Do YOU use the word “singles” when referring to one dollar bills? Am I crazy? Was the cashier? Or was this simply a YouTube prank that’s going to go viral in the next 48 hours?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Streaming Leave: A Benefit for All

I am not quite sure if this is a thing yet, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before HR departments at major companies across the nation start offering Streaming Leave. Even better, perhaps the government can require that companies offer it; as long as you fill out the proper paperwork you can qualify for the Streaming Television Leave Act, or STLA. This would allow for up to 12 weeks of paid leave, so you can catch up on the television series you are woefully behind on.

I would be the poster child for this benefit. Currently I am a season behind on Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, as well as Sneaky Pete, three seasons behind on Parks and Recreation, five seasons behind on Veep and Portlandia, and, since I finally got around to watching it and am only a few episodes in, essentially six seasons behind on The Sopranos.

And then, of course, there is the frightful dilemma that I have gotten myself into with the Marvel series that are only available on Netflix streaming. About a year ago I stumbled across the fact Krysten Ritter, who I liked so much on Breaking Bad, had her own series on Netflix called Jessica Jones. I watched an episode and got hooked, so I watched the rest of the series, which was relatively easy since there were only 13 episodes. Not long after I finished, a spinoff series called Luke Cage cropped up, so I watched that, too.

For a long time I forgot about the Marvel Universe, but recently a new show called The Defenders cropped up featuring both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, so I decided to start watching that. But wait, this show featured two other characters, as well—Daredevil and Iron Fist—and I never watched those series at all. Crap! I was WAY behind! So I decided not to watch The Defenders until I watched all of Daredevil (two seasons) and Iron Fist (one season), which is no small task.

Using basic math (with the aid of a small calculator) I figured out that if I just watched the shows I still need to see to complete the series mentioned above (and factoring in no new episodes of any of the shows listed that are still current, or any other shows that I currently watch, like The Walking Dead or Brooklyn 99) it would take me 171 hours and 40 minutes to get caught up. At eight hours per work day, that is over 21 solid days of television viewing.

Clearly, the STLA is something I (and I would imagine many others, in this golden age of television) would greatly benefit from. Of course an easier solution would just be to install Netflix and Amazon Prime on all work computers, but I think that’s probably asking for a bit too much. I’ll see if I can get something started on—but first I have to watch an episode of The Sopranos.