Thursday, December 26, 2013

Santa Doesn't Hate You After All

Well, it finally happened. After eight Hanukkah/Christmas seasons with children in our lives, we finally found ourselves having to hunt down one of the “it” toys. You know what I’m talking about—a toy so popular it flies off the store shelves quicker than a starving monkey unpeels an overripe banana.

The funny thing is that going into the hunt we didn’t even realize we were going to have a hunt on our hands. When our four-year-old son told us he wanted Zoomer the Robot Dog for Christmas, we had no way of knowing that every kid within a 340,000-mile radius would be making a similar request this season.

The truth is that our whole family is generally out of the loop when it comes to the hot new products of the season. Our television viewing is confined solely to PBS and Netflix, so our kids have zero exposure to commercials. Of course, the way that advertising permeates our society, it’s impossible to shield them from all forms of ads (short of keeping them in tightly regulated padded cells, which is an option we’re currently mulling over).

It turns out my four-year-old son found out about Zoomer from what I would have considered an unlikely source—“National Geographic KIDS” magazine. For the most part the magazine features a series of goofy yet educational articles about animals, but a recent issue had a story on cool new toys coming out this year…and Zoomer was the headliner.

We were initially casual about purchasing Zoomer, because we had no way of knowing we needed to be aggressive. We didn’t start our search until the evening of December 13th—just twelve days before D-Day. That night, well after our sons went to bed, we looked Zoomer up on the Target website to see what it was our son was pining after. We watched the demo video, determined its purchase would likely not be detrimental to our son’s physical or mental well-being, and decided this would be his big gift from Santa. At that point my wife suggested I click on the “Find in Store” link just to make sure that our local Target carried the thing. I did so and to my utter dismay found that of the 20 Targets that came up in my search, it was out of stock in 18 of them. The only two stores it was still available in were 30-minute and 40-minute drives away from us—and both were closed at that late hour. I became vaguely nervous.

“Maybe they have them at Toys-R-Us,” I opined. The Toys-R-Us closest to us happened to still be open at the time (holiday hours and all) so I gave them a jingle (holiday terminology and all).

“Toys-R-Us, how can I assist you?”

“Hi, I wanted to see if you have Zoomer the Robot Dog.”

“Zoomer the Robot Dog? Let me put you on hold while I check.”

Ten minutes (not exaggerating) of being on hold later…

“Toys-R-Us, how can I assist you?” (I can tell this is clearly the same woman I spoke to originally).

“Um…you had me on hold for a while. You were going to check to see if you have Zoomer the Robot Dog.”

“Oh yeah, the other associate was on the computer. She’s off now. Let me put you on hold while I check.”

Ten minutes (still not exaggerating) of being on hold later…

“Toys-R-Us, how can I assist you?” (This time it’s clearly a different woman).

“Somebody else had put me on hold. She was going to check to see if you have Zoomer the Robot Dog.”

(Shouting) “Hey, Mike. Can you check the endcap to see if we have any Zoomers left?”

(Three second pause.) “No, sorry. We’re all out. Those things get snatched up as soon as we put them on display.”

And so it was that the next day—a Saturday—I woke up at 7:00 a.m. so I could drive 30 minutes due north to be at one of the two Targets in the Phoenix metropolitan area that the internet claimed would have Zoomer in stock. I arrived ten minutes before its doors opened up at 8:00 a.m. While I waited another man of about my age showed up and waited too. I wondered if he was also there for Zoomer and that terrifying thought led to the more sinister thought that as the doors of Target opened it might behoove me to kick the man in the shin with every ounce of strength I could muster and then take off running down the main aisle in search of the blasted robot dog.  Luckily that thought was a fleeting one and never came to fruition, so I avoided potential assault charges. When the doors opened up I did speed walk to the toy section though, but could not locate Zoomer. I flagged down a young associate.

“Excuse me, do you know where Zoomer the Robot Dog is?”

“I’m pretty sure we’re sold out,” he said.

“But I went online last night and it said that your store still had it.”

“Well, we can check, but that information is usually about 24 hours old.”

We checked and where Zoomer should have been we found nothing but a gaping hole.

I left, dejectedly, and decided to check out the Toys-R-Us across the street from that Target, since it was not the same one I called the previous evening. There I was told that not only was it sold out at that location, but they would not be getting anymore in this year.

Suddenly it seemed like Santa might not be bringing our son what he wanted for Christmas. I found myself trying to come up with elegant ways to tell my four-year-old that Santa didn’t like him as much as his older brother (who would be getting the new bike that he asked for).

A few days later my wife and I went to the Toys-R-Us nearest to us (the one that fruitlessly put me on hold for 20 minutes) for some lower end gifts. On a whim I decided to ask the person at the customer service station if they had Zoomer.

“We only have one. It just got returned today,” she said, producing one from behind the counter to my utter amazement. The one catch was that it was purple—in other words it was a “girl” Zoomer.

It turns out that the company that makes this highly coveted robot dog has produced two versions. One is white with black spots—which is what my son had seen in the magazine—and the other is purple with no spots and a very feminine looking dog collar. My wife and I quickly assessed the situation and determined that it was better to get our son the purple Zoomer (and have him think that Santa believes him to be metro) than no Zoomer at all (and have him think that Santa had him on the naughty list). The robot dog was purchased.

A few days later my wife was out shopping with her BFF (I’m not quite sure what that means, but I’m too embarrassed to ask) and the topic of robot dogs surfaced.  As it turns out her friend had purchased the standard white and black Zoomer for her daughter a month earlier at Walmart. (Ah, Walmart! We never thought to look there since we don’t actually shop there.) When my wife told her we had to get a purple Zoomer for our son, her friend offered to trade, since she thought her daughter might prefer the purple dog anyway. Unbelievable!

So our four-year-old got exactly what he wanted for Christmas and doesn't think that Santa hates his guts— at least not this year. Who knows what he might ask for next year. Maybe it's time we cancel our subscription to "National Geographic KIDS."

Proud Owner of a Robot Dog

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Research Says...Blame Netflix

Way back on May 26, 2013, I blogged about the fact that I just signed up for Netflix Streaming and that it would kill my productivity. I made a big joke about it at the time. “Ha, ha! I’m not going to write as much as I used to,” I said. What a knee-slapper!

Well now, not quite six months later, it turns out that big joke has become reality. I’m spending all my spare time on Netflix instead of on writing and I have the research to back it up!

Between May 26th and today I’ve written twelve blog entries—including the one you are currently reading.  Each blog entry takes about 2 hours and 23 minutes for me to write. Using basic mathematics and a handheld calculator, I figured out that over the past six months I’ve spent about 28 hours and 36 minutes writing my blog. 

By contrast, during the same timeframe I used Netflix Streaming to watch 35 episodes of The Walking Dead, 28 episodes of Breaking Bad, 25 episodes of The IT Crowd, 15 episodes of Arrested Development, and 12 episodes of Psych. At 43 minutes, 47 minutes, 33 minutes, 24 minutes, and 43 minutes per episode respectively, that comes to a grand total of 73 hours and 52 minutes spent on Netflix. But that’s only the shows I watch regularly. If one were to factor in random episodes of The Twilight Zone, Family Guy, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (specifically the episode “Tapestry,” which I love, because we get to see what Jean-Luc Picard’s life would have been life if he were a nerdy scientist instead of a swashbuckling starship captain), as well as about 1.5 feature length movies per month, we can tack on approximately 20 more hours to my viewing total. That brings my grand total up to 93 hours and 52 minutes. This means I spend more than three times as much of my spare time streaming as I do writing. The bar graph below wonderfully illustrates this concept.

So what does all this mean?  Does it mean that I’m inherently lazy and/or easily distracted?  Does it mean that my creative muse has been hijacked by a technology company in Los Gatos, California?  Does it mean that I need to throw my laptop into the nearest ravine and start writing with pad and paper? No, no, no. I think it means I need to end this blog now so I can watch Season 3, Episode 9 of Breaking Bad so I could find out if Hank survives his gunshot wounds.

Monday, October 28, 2013

BOO! The Scariest Movie of Each Decade

About nine months ago I blogged about the funniest movie of each decade. (If you missed it and are curious, click here.) With Halloween fast approaching, I thought I would revisit that format and write about the scariest movie of each decade. But first I’m going to continue my endless preamble.

In general, people seem to either love or hate the horror movie genre. My theory is that this is a genetic trait like eye color or kneecap shape. Not sure if this gene is dominant or recessive, but certainly my dad passed this trait down to me. (My mom hates horror movies, but interestingly, her sister—a.k.a. my aunt—loves them; so geneticists need to mull that over when assessing the heritability of this trait.) In any event, I grew up loving horror movies and watching as many as I could. Every Saturday as a kid I was glued to my television to watch Chiller Theatre on New York’s Channel 11. They showed a wide array of classic horror films from the icons of the genre like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” to the low-budget schlock flicks like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Attack of the Crab Monsters.” While I recognized that some movies were clearly better than others, the truth is, I loved them all.

These days, I rarely get to see horror movies. My wife does not share my love for the genre, so for the most part, if I’m seeing a horror flick, I’m doing it on my own. And frankly, I don’t get to the movies on my own all that often. (I do have two sons who I hope have inherited this trait, but they’re only seven and four so I can’t quite test this theory yet, lest I cause them nightmares and years of expensive psychotherapy.)
So, onto the list. What follows is what I consider the scariest (not necessarily the best) horror movie of each decade. Unfortunately, because I haven’t seen many of the older films in 30-plus years, some of these decisions are based on hazy recollections. Feel free to let me know if you think I’m making some obvious omissions.


“Nosferatu” (Directed by F.W. Murnau) -1922: For whatever reason (certainly cinematic scholars must have theories that I’m too lazy to research) the horror films of the silent era were ruled by the Germans. Perhaps it was some sort of artistic omen of the horror that was to come in Germany in the next couple of decades. In any event, horror films in this era were slow-paced and atmospheric. Without sound, filmmakers relied on imagery to create their scares. And “Nosferatu” has its share of creepy images. A vampire film that predates the classic “Dracula” by nine years, the title character, played by Max Schreck, is a horrifying figure to behold, and the antithesis of the suave persona immortalized by Bela Lugosi.

“Freaks” (Directed by Tod Browning) -1932: The 1930s was the golden era of movie monsters. “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and my personal favorite, “The Invisible Man,” all had their most famous incarnations in this decade.  Yet from a scare standpoint, I have to put the lesser known “Freaks” ahead of them all. The film, which Tod Browning made a year after he directed “Dracula,” revolves around the trials and tribulations of a circus sideshow. While not particularly frightening by today’s standards, the film had a creepy vibe and an excellent payoff scene at the end.
“Phantom of the Opera” (Directed by Arthur Lubin) -1943: As I did my research for this piece, I quickly recognized that the 1940s was probably the weakest decade for horror movies. Mostly there were endless sequels of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Mummy;” as well as endless meetings between those and other classic monsters with Abbott and Costello. As I scrolled through the titles of the horror flicks of the 40s I came across “Phantom of the Opera” and jumped in my seat just a little. As I mentioned earlier, my recollections of some of the older classics are a bit hazy and this one falls into that category. But what I do remember is that as a boy I was terrified of this movie. And I’m pretty sure that Abbott and Costello must have been too, because the Phantom of the Opera is one of the few movie monsters from this timeframe that they didn’t meet.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (Directed by Don Siegel) -1956: This is the decade in which sci-fi and horror met head on with glorious results. Whether it was science experiments gone awry (“The Fly”) or exposure to radiation (“Them!”) or unwelcome visitors from another planet (“The Thing from Another World”) the things that would scare moviegoers in this decade generally had some sort of preposterous scientific explanation. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was no exception in this regard, but what did make it different is that the monsters looked like everyone else, instead of like, say, a 50-foot, fire breathing lizard. In most horror movies you could tell who the evil ones are, but not in this one, which is what made it so intense.
“Carnival of Souls” (Directed by Herk Harvey) -1962: Creeeeeeepy! This is sort of an obscure cult classic, but I have to say that few horror movies set a mood as well as this one. The plot: A young woman gets into a horrific car accident with two friends and is the sole survivor of the crash. Soon after, in order to escape the bad memories, she moves to a small town where she accepts a job as a church organist. But things do not go well as she begins to see visions of an otherworldly man who seems to be drawing her to a nearby abandoned carnival site.  I can’t really say much else, because the hair on the back of my neck is standing up, so I’d like to move on if you don’t mind.  (And yes, while “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Night of the Living Dead” are all great movies in their own right, I find this one scarier.)
“The Exorcist” (Directed by William Friedkin) – 1973: I’m not really sure what to say about what is arguably the most iconic horror movie of all time that has not already been said. It broke a variety of cinematic taboos and was, at the same time, an amazingly well made film, garnering ten Oscar nominations and winning two of them. (Best Screenplay and Best Sound.) But what makes this movie so very effective in the scare department is that some of the most frightening moments come not from the over-the-top sequences, but the quieter moments. For example, when Father Karras is summoned to the house while Regan MacNeil is asleep and sees that the words “help me” have raised up on the flesh of her abdomen. It’s one of many chilling sequences that help make this not only the scariest movie of the decade, but in my opinion, the scariest movie of all time.
“The Changeling” (Directed by Peter Medak) – 1980: The 1980s had several very scary blockbuster horror flicks that I thoroughly enjoyed, like “The Shining,” “Poltergeist,” and “An American Werewolf in London,” but none of those films—or any others from this decade—scared me as much as the lesser known “The Changeling.” George C. Scott plays a composer who moves into a large mansion soon after  his wife and child are killed in a car crash. (Why he would need a 30,000 square foot house when he’s living by himself isn’t entirely clear.) As you might guess with this kind of set up, the mansion has some issues.  Far and away the most effective haunted house film I have ever seen, there is a scene with an empty wheelchair that will make your hair stand straight up when you see it.
“The Blair Witch Project” (Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) – 1999: I know this movie leaves a lot of people scratching their heads, but it left me shaking in my boots. Its effectiveness for me is a direct result of the fact that I did a lot of backwoods hiking in the early to mid-90s and the film played upon my fear of getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness and not knowing what evil might lurk in the darkness. The first 70 minutes of this film slowly filled me with a feeling of dread, and the last ten minutes flat out terrified me.
Tie: “The Others” (Directed by Alejandro Amenabar) – 2001 and “Let the Right One In” (Directed by Tomas Alfredson) – 2008: I really did not want to have any ties, because it feels like a cop out, but I simply could not choose between these two films. (And yes, these are both clearly horror films, rather than horror movies, if you get my drift.) “The Others” is an extremely effective gothic horror story about a mother who lives in a mansion (of course) with her two children who have a rare condition that prevents them from being exposed to light. So, the already gloomy mansion must be kept even darker for the kids’ sake. Throw some very creepy servants into the mix and you have the groundwork for a very scary movie. “Let the Right One In” is about a pre-teen vampire, but is as far removed from the “Twilight” series as you can possibly imagine. The film was made in Sweden (it’s subtitled) and takes place there in the winter. The director takes full advantage of the dreariness and desolation of a Swedish winter to create a very atmospheric, very creepy film that really gets inside your head. (At least it got inside my head.)

“World War Z” (Directed by Marc Forster) – 2013: Sadly, I have only seen two horror movies in our current decade. The one I picked and “Cabin in the Woods.” I thought they were both pretty good (certainly not great) but I give WWZ the edge in the scare department. Fast moving hordes of zombies can be pretty freaky. The film was not so much spooky, as panic-inducing. It made me want to take up running just in case.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I AM The Tooth Fairy

About two months ago my six-year-old son lost his first tooth.  In fact, faithful readers of this blog may recall that I described the loss of this body part in gory detail.  That initial tooth loss was a bit traumatic for my son, but since then he has lost three more and has become quite comfortable with the event. Indeed, the third time around he physically pulled out his own tooth at the dinner table, much to the amazement of the rest of us sitting there munching on our taco salad.

With the loss of teeth comes the inevitable visit from the Tooth Fairy. That would be me.  I am the Tooth Fairy.  I am the living embodiment of that mythical creature and I take my role seriously.  Each time a tooth comes out I lay in wait for two hours after my son goes to bed.  If I go in too early I risk being seen by my son and destroying his childhood innocence.  (My intent is for him to believe in the Tooth Fairy until he’s at least 18.)  When the time is right and I can detect slow, rhythmic breathing coming from his bedroom, I slowly turn his doorknob and gingerly step in on slippered-feet. 

The distance from my son’s door to his bed is probably about eight feet.  Moving ever so slowly so as not to produce even the faintest of noises, I traverse those eight feet in about 90 seconds.  Once at his bedside the operation becomes significantly trickier.  The tooth is centered directly underneath the pillow.  How my son’s head is positioned on the pillow will determine the angle my hand takes to get at the tooth and replace it with a dollar. In three of four instances so far this maneuver, although tense, was relatively easy to pull off.  In those cases his head was positioned on the side or bottom of the pillow and my hand was able to quickly and efficiently get in and out without ever coming into contact with his head. 

The last time around was not so easy.   When I opened my son’s door I saw that he was sleeping on his left side with his shoulder touching the bottom of the pillow and his head firmly resting dead center on the pillow.  The scene looked too risky so I decided not to chance it and figured if I came back in 30 minutes he may have changed to a more favorable position.

Thirty minutes later when I returned, my son’s position had not changed very much. If anything, his head had sunk deeper into the center of the pillow.  Yet something had to be done.  It was nearing midnight and I had work the next day.  I moved toward his bed with a level of stealth that would make a ninja salivate.  Slowly I knelt down next to his bed until I was eye level with the seam between his mattress and pillow.  I pressed my right hand firmly down on the mattress and began to gradually slide it beneath the pillow.  Millimeter by millimeter my fingers crept forward until it became apparent that the full weight of my son’s skull was bearing down exactly where his tooth resided.  Beads of sweat trickled down my forehead as I sensed that at any moment the boy might awaken and let out a scream that would set off car alarms.  Yet my son did not budge and soon my fingertips felt his tiny central incisor.  Ever so gently I pulled the tooth out with my right hand while my left hand began the laborious task of putting the dollar in the tooth’s place.  Something on the order of 47 minutes later my task was accomplished and I backed out of my son’s room secure in the knowledge that my secret identity was still safe.

I am the Tooth Fairy.  And I am exhausted.   

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Airplane! Still Funny After All These Years

When the movie Airplane! came out in the summer of 1980, I was just shy of eleven years old. My whole family went to see it in the theater and by the end I was certain it was the funniest movie I had ever seen, despite the fact that I laughed at some of the jokes for the wrong reason. (For example, when the little boy asks the little girl if she wants cream in her coffee and she says, “No thank you; I take it black, like my men,” I laughed heartily, because I thought it was hysterical that a little girl would like black coffee.)

About two years after the release of Airplane! my family became the first on our block to get a VCR. The $900 machine, that was only slightly smaller than a Volkswagen, quickly became the focal point of my existence. To get our video library started we purchased two movies—The Graduate and Airplane! While I cited The Graduate as my favorite movie, it was Airplane! that I kept on watching over and over again. Airplane! to me was what Star Wars was to most kids of my generation. I was obsessed.

Before I knew what a spreadsheet was, I created a spreadsheet to keep track of how many times I watched each of the VHS tapes that we owned. Within a year I would see Airplane! 23 times, according to the penciled hash marks on my loose-leaf paper. I knew the movie by heart and quoted it ad nauseum. While I struggled in my junior high school Spanish class, I was fluent in jive.

As my teen years progressed, the frequency of my Airplane! viewings gradually declined. I moved on to other obsessions like classic rock bands, reruns of Taxi, and the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I would guess that sometime in my early-20s was the last time I watched the film…until yesterday.

My wife got me the DVD of Airplane! as one of my birthday gifts. (I had never bothered replacing the VHS tape when I switched to DVDs long ago.) So last night, after our kids went down to bed, we watched it—my first time in over 20 years. It was almost a surreal experience watching a film I know by heart after such a long hiatus.

One interesting phenomenon was that I kept on laughing ahead of the punch lines, since I knew exactly what was coming. (This behavior must have seemed strange to my wife who had only seen the film two times previously.) For instance, when Julie Haggerty is walking around in the plane asking if anyone is a doctor and one woman says, “Stewardess, I think the man sitting next to me is a doctor,” I already burst out laughing before they panned over to Leslie Nielsen sitting there wearing a stethoscope in his ears.

Another interesting phenomenon was that it took about 5 or 10 minutes for the movie to grow on me again. I wasn’t laughing that much in the beginning and for a brief time I was very nervous that maybe the movie wasn’t as funny as I remembered. But soon the laughter took hold and I couldn’t stop. I think the slow start wasn’t the movie’s fault, though. I think it was more akin to meeting up with an old friend after 20 years. There might be an initial period of awkwardness, but eventually you feel like everything is just like it was when you last talked.

And so I laughed. I laughed every time Robert Hays missed his mouth because of his drinking problem, and when Peter Graves asks the boy visiting the cockpit if he likes gladiator movies, and when Leslie Nielsen assures the passengers that everything is going to be fine and his nose keeps on growing a-la Pinocchio. And pretty much at everything in between.

At this point I have no idea how many times I’ve seen Airplane! I lost my loose-leaf spreadsheet decades ago. But the movie is still hysterical and now that I’ve got it on DVD I can watch it as many times as I want. And this time I can keep track in Excel.

Monday, September 2, 2013

My Labor-Intensive Labor Day Weekend

Did you know that Labor Day was established as an official holiday in 1887? I just found that out today from Wikipedia. Other facts I learned today from Wikipedia are that “Marmotinto” is the art of creating pictures using colored sand or marble dust; the Hammerheads were the champions of the Qatar International Ice Hockey League in 2008; and the motto of Yuhan College in South Korea is “Be a freeman who dedicates himself to the peace of mankind. “ But none of those last three facts are relevant to this essay.

The point of Labor Day, of course, is to celebrate the American worker, and the main mode of celebration is to not work. There may be Labor Day parades or celebrations, but they certainly don’t get the same level of attention as the festivities of other holidays. And this is at should be. The best way to say “thank you” to the American workforce is by letting them take a rest from their backbreaking work.

My work is not backbreaking; far from it. I sit and write and look stuff up and sometimes I go to meetings. The most strenuous part of my day is when I go into the office break room and have to reach up really high to get a plastic cup for my water. Sometimes I have to really stretch because the only cups left are in the very back of the cabinet. I think I once tweaked a muscle in my side doing this.

So, while I’m happy to get a three day weekend out of Labor Day, the truth is that what I do could hardly be called “labor” in the traditional sense of the word. This is why I always feel a little bit guilty on Labor Day. To compensate for this guilt I always try to do a little bit of hard labor during Labor Day weekend.

Of course, everything is relative. What I consider hard labor is likely somewhat different than what someone who works in a mineshaft would consider hard labor. Nonetheless I made sure to do some “hard” labor on each day of my three day weekend.

On Saturday we got our raw materials. Our first stop was Home Depot to buy gardening gloves for myself and my two sons. Perhaps it’s a sign that we don’t do a lot of hard labor at the Schwartzberg house when my six-year-old asked, “What is this place?” as we pulled up to the store with the distinctive orange sign. Then we went to Staples (unrelated to the hard labor) and then to Target where we purchased two shelving units—assembly required.

The identical shelving units were for my sons’ rooms. The instructions said all I needed was a Phillips-head screwdriver and a hammer. Easy! We actually own those things! I took them out and got started.

It was a slow start. I’m the kind of guy who likes to know the entire project plan before I begin my work and the instructions were not particularly detailed. There were only eight steps and it was clear that whoever wrote the instructions was from the “less is more” school of writing. A couple of words here and a lot of ambiguous diagrams with random arrows there resulted in a lot of head scratching on my part. My kids watched with bated breath as I flipped back and forth throughout the instruction manual waiting for inspiration to grab hold of me. Finally, after about ten minutes of hemming and hawing, I took the plunge and began to connect side panel “A” to top panel “B” with screw “AA”. To my utter joy they connected relatively easily.

The rest of the process was much of the same. Long periods of time spent staring at the instructions punctuated by brief periods of time screwing together various sized panels. The highlight for me was the dowels. For some reason I really like dowels and I got to use six of them. There was also some hammering of nails involved, but I let my wife pinch hit on that part, so she wouldn’t feel left out. (Okay, the real reason was that I was exhausted at that point, since the project that should have taken 30 minutes was now pushing up on two hours.)

That was Saturday. On Sunday I put together my other son’s shelving unit. That went a lot smoother, having put together the first unit the night before. The one hiccup on Sunday was that the screwdriver stopped working two screws into the process. I looked at the head of the screwdriver and it looked like mush—the head was stripped. So I scoured the house for another Phillips-head screwdriver. In my garage I found a small toolkit that contained a screwdriver that you assemble yourself. You put the correct head into a hollow socket to make the type of screwdriver you need. I did it, but the head kept on falling out. I’m sure there was a way to get it to stay in the socket, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. My wife offered to run to the hardware store to get me a real screwdriver, which she did, and about 30 minutes later the shelving unit was up and running.

That brings us to Monday and the gardening gloves. We had an unusually wet two-week stretch here in Arizona—it rained on three or maybe even four days during that stretch!—so the front yard was filled with weeds. At 7:45 A.M, before it got too brutally hot, me and my boys donned our gloves and went out to pull the weeds. We spent a good 15 to 20 minutes pulling weeds and then we saw a bee, so we stopped and went back inside the house to watch cartoons.

And that was my laborious Labor Day weekend. It was backbreaking, it was grueling, and it made me feel alive. It also gave me the confidence to reach even the highest cup at my office tomorrow…well, maybe with a stepstool. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Tooth is Out There

My six-year-old son lost his first tooth the other day. Well, maybe “lost” isn’t quite the right word. The tooth was yanked out with a string by his mom (a.k.a. my wife) after it had been precariously dangling in the front of his mouth for the better part of two months. Fed up with the tooth’s stubbornness in not coming out via natural causes, we decided it was high time we took action—hence the yanking.

My son was compliant with the forcible removal of his tooth, as he too was anxious to finally join the ranks of his many friends at school and have a gap-toothed smile. So when the moment of truth came, he braced himself and took the yanking like a man. He did not cry out, yelp, or even whimper during the procedure, for which we gave him no anesthetic.

I asked him if it hurt and he proudly said, “No.” Then he looked at the tooth that my wife put in a small plastic cup and noticed there was some blood on it. He looked up at me and asked, shakily, if there was blood in his mouth. I looked in his mouth and said, “Yes, there’s a little bit of blood. But that’s natural.”

Clearly this was not the response he was hoping for. He ran to the bathroom to look at his mouth in the mirror and as soon as he saw the bloody spot where his tooth used to be his eyes welled up with tears. I assured him that it was no big deal, pointed out that he told me it didn’t even hurt, and instructed him to rinse his mouth out with water.

He vigorously rinsed his mouth out with water, shaking and trying to hold back his tears. In between spits there were dramatic statements like: “I never want you to do that to me again!” and “I never want to see that much blood coming out of my body again!” Then his four-year-old brother came into the bathroom and took the hyperbole up a notch when he said, with heartfelt sorrow, “I don’t want him to die!” (Cue the violins.)

After the rinsing and spitting we moved on to the ice. We had him stick an ice cube in the space where the tooth used to be and the bleeding was considerably staunched. Still, his brow was furrowed and he looked generally ill at ease. That’s when I whipped out the Twinkies.

My kids had never had Twinkies before and for some reason, on my way home from work earlier that evening, I decided to pick some up. The effect of the Twinkies was instantaneous. As soon as I produced them and said, “Who wants dessert?” my son’s anxiety was replaced by gleeful fascination. Moments later he was biting into a piece of cream-filled sponge cake heaven, and all thoughts of his own mortality were forgotten.

That night, as my son slept, I snuck into his room, removed the tooth from under his pillow, and put a dollar in its place.  I would have put a Twinkie there, but we ate them all.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Let's Help August Live Up To Its Name

Welcome to August—the only month of the year without a major holiday. This is somewhat ironic given that the dictionary definition of the word august is “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic.” And yet without the ability to boast a major holiday, I say that August is the least majestic of all the months.

Of course, you’ll notice that I have to keep on modifying the word “holiday” with the word “major.” That’s because if you dig deep enough you’ll find that there are indeed some minor holiday’s in August. A quick Google search has revealed that August 19th is National Aviation Day and a scant two days later on August 21st it’s Senior Citizen’s Day. And if you live in Texas, you may be well aware of the fact that on August 27th your state observes Lyndon Baines Johnson Day. (Then again you may not be well aware of that fact. Since I don’t know you personally, I really couldn’t say, could I?)

Point is it’s high time that August got a real holiday—a major one—one that will allow it to live up to its name. Nothing against senior citizens or aviators (or especially senior citizen aviators) but we need a more universal holiday in August, so that everyone has a reason to celebrate.

I have tried to come up with a few ideas. My first thought was how about a National Food Day, since everybody eats? Turns out there already is one on October 24th. Then I thought, “What about National Pet Day?” I know not everyone has a pet, but a large percentage of people do, and even those who don’t may have interacted with a friend’s pet, seen one on television, or been viciously attacked by one on the street. Seems pretty universal to me.  Well that’s already taken, as well—April 11th is National Pet Day. Finally I came up with National Blood Vessel Day, because you can’t deny that every single one of us has blood vessels—lots of them, in fact. And it turns out that there is no National Blood Vessel Day. (Well, there was one in Berlin in 2006, but never here in the States.)

So, what do you think? Does National Blood Vessel Day have the potential to become a major holiday in August? If not, don’t be shy about posting your ideas for a major holiday in our sad holiday-less month. Perhaps if one of these ideas garners enough interest we can start a petition on the White House website. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a catchy song for my holiday. I’ve already got the first two lines:

It’s time to snuggle; it’s time to nestle,
Let’s love each other and each blood vessel!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Organ Stop Pizza: Come for the Organ, Stay for

Many readers of this blog are likely aware of the fact that I am a pizza snob. It’s a hat I wear proudly, hailing as I do from Brooklyn, the pizza capital of the world. Fortunately, in my 18 years living in the desert I’ve managed to locate a few pizzerias that pass the Brooklyn sniff test, but they are clearly the exception. The average slice of pizza in Arizona is…well…average at best.

There are times, however, when I will get pizza at a place whose quality I know going in will not be up to snuff. Generally I end up at a place like this for a reason other than the pizza. Peter Piper Pizza is the perfect example. No person with functioning taste buds would ever go to PPP for the high quality eats. No sane person, at least. Indeed the only reason to go is because you have children between the ages of two and twelve, who want to play games, win prizes and generally wreak havoc in a place that happens to sell pizza. 

All of this is preamble to the rather unique pizza place I found myself in on Saturday night—Organ Stop Pizza in sunny Mesa, Arizona. I went with my four-year-old son after I took him bowling. Earlier that day I asked him if he wanted to go to La Famiglia (our Brooklyn-approved pizzeria of choice) or a pizza place we had never been to before that plays music. To his credit he went with the new option, which was a step forward since he is very much a creature of habit when it comes to food.

What makes Organ Stop Pizza unique is not the pizza—indeed, the pizza’s taste is subpar even for the frozen section of your local supermarket—but rather, the fact that it is home to the world’s largest Wurlitzer pipe organ. This gargantuan instrument is played nightly by one of the restaurant’s three resident organists. On Saturday, Charlie Balogh (no clue how you would pronounce that) was at the helm. According to Mr. Balogh’s online bio he was named “Organist of the Year” by the American Theatre Organ Society in 2000. (Yet another society to which I will never belong.)

When we first arrived at Organ Stop I noticed a man dressed as Santa sitting in the lobby. I then quickly noticed signage indicating they were having a “Christmas in July” celebration/fundraiser. I became alarmed that my son would notice and either start battering me with questions about why Santa would be this far south this time of year or, even worse, become deluded into thinking that he would be showered with gifts sometime in the next few weeks. Fortunately, he never seemed to notice Old Saint Nick, so I managed to dodge that bullet.

What my son did notice, however, was that the music was loud—too loud apparently for his taste. The restaurant has a unique set up in which you order at a counter when you first come in and then seat yourself in the auditorium, which has cafeteria style seating. When we entered, right around 6PM, the place was jam-packed and the only seats I saw open were two rows away from the pipe organ. As we came in, Mr. Balogh was playing a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” and as soon as we sat I saw that my son had his hands over his ears. I asked him what was wrong and he said that the music was too loud. I reminded him that he had said that he wanted to go to the place with the music and he said, “But I didn’t know it was going to be so noisy.”

While we waited for our food to be ready, we heard the theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Sleigh Ride” (remember, it was Christmas in July.) As we sat there I noticed that there was a second floor balcony looking down on the stage. I asked my son if he wanted to move up there once we got our food, to see if it was less noisy. He did. So, while listening to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” we picked up our food from the counter and went upstairs.

Once on the second floor we sat down in a spot that my son agreed was slightly less noisy, but was instead too dark. So we got up and moved again, this time to a spot that was better lit, but still noisy, although not quite as noisy as it was downstairs. Less than a minute later Mr. Balogh signed off for intermission and the house lights were turned on. This was by far my son’s favorite part of the show.

During intermission we ate our pizza, which I noticed was strangely cut into ten slices. In an effort to make the pizza vaguely edible I looked around the table for parmesan cheese or garlic powder, but only saw salt and pepper. If I ever go back again I’ll make sure to wear a jacket with lots of pockets so I can bring my own seasonings.

My son was halfway through his second slice when the lights went down and the music started back up. This prompted my son to immediately put down his pizza and announce, “I’m done!” And with that, we abruptly left. As we walked back to the car my son said, “I knew I should have picked La Famiglia.” It was as though he was reading my mind.

And yet, I can’t say I regret having gone there. The whole thing was pleasantly surreal—akin to driving 70 miles out of your way to see the world’s largest ball of twine, or watching an early John Waters movie. Indeed, under the right circumstances I could even see myself going there again…the right circumstances would be that I wasn’t with my kids and I had already eaten a full meal.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Meet the Creatures...At Your Own Risk

A guinea pig urinated on my hand yesterday. Well, not directly on my hand. I was holding it inside a cloth sack to avoid the possibility of getting scratched or bitten and it urinated inside the sack. Since the sack was about the thickness of a pillow case, this was tantamount to getting urinated on directly.

No, we did not purchase a guinea pig as a pet. (We have a large, marginally unhinged cat in our house, which would probably try to swallow a guinea pig whole and end up hacking up the world’s largest hairball.) I took my six-year-old and four-year-old sons to a “Meet the Creatures” class offered by the City of Chandler at their Environmental Education Center at Veteran’s Oasis Park. And by “meet” I mean hold and possibly get urinated upon.

The class, offered weekly throughout the summer, is run by a couple who are animal rescue experts. During the first five to ten minutes of the class participants learn about the various animals in the room and how to handle them. The “how to handle them” portion of the lecture is of particular importance, so that one might learn which pets are okay with being picked up (like the urinating guinea pig) and which ones can be petted but not picked up (like the bunny the size of a warthog, which we were told would kick you in the chest with the force of an MMA contestant if you tried to lift if off the ground.)

The animals featured at the class ran the gamut from common things such as the aforementioned guinea pig and rabbit, to more exotic animals like a wallaby and a paca. I got to hold the wallaby (also in a sack, but thankfully non-urinating) which was kind of cool. I mean, short of hopping a quick 20-hour flight to Australia and bushwhacking my way into the outback, when else will I get a chance to get up close and personal with a wallaby?

While I had the pleasure of holding the urinating guinea pig and the dry wallaby, my sons were a bit more skittish about handling the animals. They seemed much more content letting me hold the animals while they gingerly pet or brushed them. My six-year-old did, however, hold a small turtle about the size of a drink coaster. When the turtle tucked its head into the shell my son commented that it looked like a sandwich, but he passed on my suggestion that he take a bite out of it.

One animal that both I, and my sons, kept at a healthy distance was the flying gecko. I don’t know if “flying gecko” is what it’s actually called—it probably has a slightly fancier name that I didn’t quite catch—but the point is that it was a gecko much larger and more exotic than your garden variety gecko, and more importantly, we were told during the orientation that it sometimes jumps on people’s faces. Yup, we were told by the woman running the class that we could hold the gecko, but it may—without any provocation—jump on your face. She said—and I quote—“if you’re not comfortable with it jumping on your face, you may not want to hold it.” I would have thought that the majority of people (at least sane people) would not have been comfortable with an eight-inch lizard launching itself toward their eyes/nose/mouth, but apparently I was mistaken on that count. Most of the people in the class—both children and adults—seemed perfectly fine handling the kamikaze reptile (and interestingly, it didn’t face-plant anyone the entire time) but the Schwartzberg men kept a safe distance at all times.

At the end of the class we thanked the instructors, lathered ourselves in several quarts worth of hand sanitizer, and went on our merry way. The memories of this class may last a lifetime, but, thankfully, the scent of guinea pig piss goes away in a couple of hours.

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Undying Love (And Sometimes Hatred) For Baseball Stats

There is a website called, which is to baseball statistics what the Sahara Desert is to sand. The information contained on this site is pretty much endless. Want to find out who led the American League in triples in 1958? No problem. Who came in fifth place in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 1993? Easy.  What was Rickey Henderson’s career batting average with one out and runners on first and third? It’s a cinch. (Oh, and for those interested, the answers to those questions are Richie Ashburn, Jose Rijo, and .319, respectively.)

When I first stumbled across this site six or seven years ago, I had to throw my shirt into the dryer about ten minutes later due to the several pints of drool that poured out of my mouth like a mini Niagara Falls. For baseball stat geeks like me, there can be no bigger time suck. In a world without adult responsibilities I can see myself looking at this site for 18 hours at a stretch. (If such a thing existed when I was in high school, I would surely not have a diploma today.)

In general I try to keep this addiction in check. For the most part I don’t look at this website more than once or twice a week, or as current baseball events necessitate. For example, when Torii Hunter hit his 300th career home run a couple of weeks ago, I felt compelled to race over to to find out how many current major leaguers have 300 or more homers. (FYI—17.)

But as much as I love combing through the statistical minutiae on this website, there is one factoid kept on this site that as of this year, I no longer enjoy looking at. That would be the yearly list of the oldest player in each league. This year the oldest player in baseball is Mariano Rivera, who will turn 44 on November 29, 2013…a little more than two months after I turn 44. Yup, that means for the first time in my life I’m older than every single player in major league baseball. How’s that for freakin’ sobering?

Yeah, I get it—it’s not that big of a deal. People age. Big whoop. But somehow, even though I never played baseball competitively, have absolutely no athletic ability, and haven’t swung a wooden bat in more than a decade, in the back of my mind I always thought that maybe one day I could be a professional baseball player.

Was I being overly optimistic? Perhaps. Delusional? No question. But now that toxic combination of optimism and delusions has been dashed away forever by raw statistics. I have to face reality—if Mariano Rivera, the oldest player in baseball and two months my junior, is retiring at the end of this season, it’s probably unlikely that my baseball career will ever begin.

And so, nobody will ever find information about me on; but whatever information they do find on that website, there is an excellent chance that I will have looked at it first.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Trip of Sand and Legos

One of the many advantages of living in Arizona is that the school year ends in late May, which allows those of us with school-aged children to go on vacation prior to a vast portion of the country, for which the school year does not end until late June. (Of course, one of the many disadvantages of living in Arizona is that unlike most of the country, the school year starts up again in early August, leaving the youth of our state to sit at their desks in vast pools of their own sweat as the temperatures outside soar to 115-degrees. So maybe it’s a wash.)

In any event, we took advantage of our early vacation last week by going to San Diego. (Okay, technically we went to Carlsbad, which is about 20 miles north of San Diego, but unless you happen to be familiar with that portion of California, you would be confused if I said we went to Carlsbad, and might think I meant that we went to Carlsbad, New Mexico, which would be plausible since we live in Arizona, which is obviously adjacent to New Mexico, and Carlsbad Caverns is indeed a popular tourist site, but that’s not where we went and I didn’t want to confuse you, which is why I said we went to San Diego, even though we never really set foot in San Diego itself. Whew—I’m glad I got that off my chest.)

Clearly this travelogue is off to a terribly wordy start so from here on out I’m just going to give you pictures and captions.

I call this photo “Grapes and Croutons” because that’s what my four-year-old son decided to have for dinner on the night we arrived in Carlsbad. It was a very long day of driving to get from our house to the Motel 6 we stayed at on our first night, so we really weren’t going to make a big to-do about our son’s dinner choice. Besides, we were eating at Denny’s, so it’s not like we were offending the chef.


The following day, at The Armenian Café in downtown Carlsbad, the food choices were a bit saner. For lunch the boys dined on an open-faced grilled cheese on pita bread and seasoned French fries. As you can see from the euphoric looks on their faces they very much enjoyed their meals, despite the fact that they would both be hard-pressed to locate Armenia on a map.


After lunch we went to the beach. In the picture above we had just arrived at the beach and look happy and fresh-faced. About an hour later, after several encounters with unexpectedly aggressive waves, we looked more like extras from The Poseidon Adventure. No photos exist from that portion of the trip.


This is the lobby of the LEGOLAND Hotel, which opened for business about three months ago. For my sons of four and six, this place was more or less paradise. The Lego pit shown above was just one of the many things that made this place a walking fun machine. Get a load of the bathroom below…


And the super fantastic bunk beds…


And the overtly silly Lego-headed ice bucket…


And the snarky signage in the kids’ portion of the hotel suite.


Honestly, it was a blast, and was worth every penny of the relatively absurd asking price for a one night’s stay. Also there is no better place to prepare you for LEGOLAND itself, which is where we spent the next day.


Yes, we went to LEGOLAND, not Mount Rushmore. But we still got to see Mount Rushmore, albeit a version made out of something on the order of 180,000 Legos. “No way!” you say? Don’t believe that’s really made out of Legos? Well, take a gander at the more detailed close-up below and you will see that I josh you not.


Pretty impressive, huh? There are hundreds of these intricate sculptures throughout LEGOLAND. They are made by “Lego Master Builders,” which is a job title that I think would be way more entertaining to have on my business cards than “Director of Grants.” I’ll have to speak with my supervisor to see if she’s okay with me making that change.


The cool Lego creations only comprise a small portion of LEGOLAND. Most of the park consists of rides—lots and lots of rides. Pictured above are my wife and older son about to take off in a helicopter ride. If I wanted to be mean, I could have also included the picture I took about sixty seconds later when the helicopter was up in the air. In that picture my son still looks just as happy as in the first photo, but my wife looks like she just ate same very bad sushi. Clearly helicopter rides are not her thing.


A few hours later I took to the skies with my sons in this nifty little airplane ride. While I did not have the same visceral reaction that my wife did in her earlier copter jaunt, I’m pretty sure that it was during this ride that the sunburn on the back of my neck went from mild to crispy.


In between flights the kids took to the ground as they got to drive Lego cars on Lego racetracks. And yes, indeed, those are Lego pedestrians that my older son is driving by. Fortunately, he didn’t accidentally hit one of them and get slapped with a Lego lawsuit.

Of course we have hundreds of additional photos of this trip, but I don’t want this blog to turn into one of those painfully long slideshows of yesteryear, in which trapped guests would keep a fake smile affixed to their faces while all the while secretly wishing that someone would hit them over the head with a two by four and render them unconscious so they would no longer have to endure the incessant droning of their host. Suffice it to say it was a fun trip—one I’m sure my kids will be wishing they were back on when they’re sitting in a pool of their own sweat in August.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Hello Netflix Streaming and Goodbye Productivity!

I’m using this blog entry as a head’s up to regular readers of this blog (yes, all eight of you) that my already infrequent output is likely going to become much more infrequenter. (As is my caring about the English language, as evidenced by that last sentence.)

As astute observers of headlines have clearly figured out, I recently subscribed to Netflix Streaming. Yes, my wife and I are among the millions of Arrested Development fans who could not live with the thought of missing new episodes and were forced to sign up for this service. We already had a subscription to their DVD service, but since the brand new escapades of the Bluth family are only available via streaming, we had no choice but to bite that $7.99 per month bullet.

Originally our plan was to subscribe to the service, watch the 14 new episodes of what is arguably the funniest show of this millennium, and then cancel the service. But, of course, plans are like ice sculptures—they look fantastic the moment after they’re made, but after a few hours in the hot sun they’re nothing more than a giant puddle soaking through your sneakers.

The moment that I logged into my new Netflix streaming account I realized that I was a dead man. As I scrolled through the plethora of movies and television shows that I can now watch anywhere, anytime from my laptop, I knew that there was no way that I would be cancelling this service. And I’m sure this was Netfilix CEO, Reed Hastings’ evil little plan along. Force legions of rabid Arrested Development fans to subscribe to their streaming service and then see how many of them get reeled in hook, line and sinker. I’ll admit that they caught this fish.

And now I sense that the vast majority of my spare time will be spent staring at my laptop watching all those television series I’ve wanted to see that I’ve just been too busy to check out—The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, American Horror Story…the lists goes on and on. Because now I can watch these instantly! (I know, I know—the ability to watch things instantly is nothing new. No, I’ve not been locked in a cryogenic chamber; I’m just a late bloomer on the technology front.)

So certain things will surely fall by the wayside—writing this blog, balancing my checkbook, and basic hygiene, just to name a few. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing altogether, just that I’ll be writing less frequently. Instead of seeing something from me every two weeks you might see something every two months…or quarters…or perhaps, years. Only time will tell. But if you want to lodge a complaint about my reduced output, don’t bother sending it to me, because I’ll be too busy watching something that everyone else already saw three years ago; instead send your missive directly to Reed Hastings. As if he cares!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

F-A-R-M! Farm! Farm! Farm!

Growing up on the hard concrete streets of Brooklyn, farm life was as alien to me and my family as winning football is to the New York Jets. (Ooh, ouch. Sorry Jets fans.) I do have some hazy recollections of having visited a farm on some long ago family trips, but I could be confusing that with assorted episodes of “Little House on the Prairie.” Tough to say.

The point is that the Schwartzbergs, as a group, are not a farming people. And while it is true that I moved from New York to Arizona about 18 years ago, this geographic shift did not put me any closer to a farming lifestyle than releasing Tim Tebow puts the Jets to fielding a winning football team. (Ouch again! Why am I doing this? I have no ill will toward the Jets.)

And so it is that living in a suburb of Phoenix, my two young sons have continued the Schwartzberg tradition of non-farm living. Although my sons do have rocking horses, so I suppose they’re slightly closer to farm living than I ever was.

But this past weekend we decided to give the boys just a smidgeon of a taste of farm life. So we piled the family into the minivan and made the arduous 25-minute journey to Superstition Farm in far, far, far (okay, maybe not that far) east Mesa.

Superstition Farm is a dairy farm with over 2,000 head of cattle. They also have a small selection of other farm animals like sheep, goats, turkeys, roosters, bunnies (are they technically farm animals?) and one donkey with an enormously large head. Our boys were eager to pet the bunnies, brush the goats, and throw feed at the sheep.

FYI—the throwing of the feed was not out of malicious intent, but out of squeamishness. The workers instructed us to hold the feed and have the animals eat right out of our hands. My wife and I did this and quickly had a handful of saliva courtesy of the gigantic tongues and lips slobbering all over us to get at the food. Our sons, with their distinctly non-farm blood, would have no part of this activity. Try as we might to convince them to let the animals eat out of their hands, they would not go near those enormous ungulate mouths. (And really, who could blame them?) So instead, they stood back about ten inches and pelted them with feed.

In addition to getting to interact with some of the animals, we got to hear all about life on the dairy farm from Farmer Larry. For me, this was the highlight, because Farmer Larry was a really nice guy who peppered us with a plethora of interesting facts about cows. For example, did you know that dairy cows eat 50 to 70 pounds of food per day? Or that milk from a Jersey cow is creamier than milk from a Holstein cow? Or that all cows are made to swallow magnets?

Ah-ha! I bet it’s that last fact that made you raise an eyebrow. When Farmer Larry told us this it made me raise an eyebrow too. It also made my jaw go a bit slack. Although what made my jaw go even slacker was the exchange that immediately followed.

Farmer Larry: Does anyone know why we make the cows swallow magnets? (My six-year-old son then raised his hand making me arch my eyebrow slightly higher.) Yes, you?

Son: In case there are any nails or metal on the ground.

Farmer Larry: (Seeming slightly surprised.) Yes, that’s exactly right. With all the hay that they eat sometimes nails and other metal can accidentally get mixed in and the magnet catches these things so they don’t rip holes in the cow’s stomach and cause infection.

Hours later when we were back home and I was able to successfully unslacken my jaw, I asked my son (he of the non-farm blood) how he possibly knew the answer to Farmer Larry’s question. “I don’t know. I just knew,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Hmmm…if a son of mine can conjure up arcane farm knowledge out of nowhere maybe there is hope for the Jets after all.

                                          My boys brushing a goat...cautiously.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Fine Art of Dejunking

I need to start off this essay with a disclaimer: You will NOT be learning the fine art of dejunking by reading this. So if you clicked on this link thinking you would learn how to dejunk like a pro, I apologize for misleading you. Indeed, you would be more likely to learn about particle physics from Paris Hilton than you would to learn about effective dejunking techniques from me.

So why bring this up? Well, yesterday I had one of those moments when you truly see something for the very first time. What I saw was my desk-- and really, I didn't see much of it. The truth is that it is awash in ten years’ worth of detritus. Really, the only visible parts of my desk are the top shelf, where our cat often sleeps, and a 15-inch by 10-inch spot where I place my laptop. The rest of my desk (and it's a decent-sized desk) is overrun by papers, notebooks, magazines, software, index cards, calculators, and the occasional dust bunny.

As I gazed on the monstrosity in my den, I suddenly flashed back about 20 years to my time on the editorial staff of MAD Magazine. At the time that I worked there Nick Meglin was one of the editors. Nick had been working at MAD since the mid-1950s and I'm relatively certain that over the ensuing four decades he never removed one item from his office, which contained six-foot high stacks of paper that were arranged in a way not at all dissimilar to the hedge maze in "The Shining." Of course, given where we worked, the chaos that was Nick's office was often the target of well-crafted mocking and ridicule. I'm sure I threw a zinger or two his way about his office decor during my time on staff. (Although the zingers were often blocked by the gargantuan mass of artwork and 30-year-old contracts that engulfed his workspace.)

And now here I was, looking at my own desk, which was essentially a mini-version of Nick's office. I decided that something must be done and so my dejunking project began. I sat down at my desk and turned my attention to the mess before me. Then I got overwhelmed, so I went into the kitchen and ate a Reese's Klondike Bar. Fortified by the sugar and cocoa rush, I went back to my desk and this time really dug in.

The top layer of junk yielded expected results-- recent bills and receipts that either needed to be paid or thrown out; drawings of Iron Man and flowers from my kids; and random movie ticket stubs. But as I dug deeper I began to surface more unusual items. A map I printed from Mapquest in 2009 to an address in Scottsdale, Arizona that has no meaning to me now. (I'm tempted to drive to it just to see what's there.) Jiffy Lube paperwork for an oil change I got in 2005 for a car I no longer own. (Ironic, since I have no idea where the paperwork is for the oil change I got last month.) A piece of loose-leaf paper on which I scrawled an idea for a children's book about an old codger named "Jimothy." (I didn't write down anything beyond that, so I don't recollect what the idea actually was.) A receipt for a Sonic milkshake purchased in 2003. (Glad I didn't throw that one out!)

While one might think the best method for dejunking my desk might be to simply take a blowtorch to the entire pile, the problem is that tucked in among the thousands of pointless items that I've been saving since the Bush administration (um...yeah...the older Bush) are things that I actually should keep. Instructions on how to change the filter on our humidifier. (Our kids get colds a lot.) The phone number for poison control. (Just in case someone in the house has a run in with a scorpion like my wife did in 2006.) A list of my 500 favorite movies circa 1998. (Hey, I like to see how my tastes evolve over time.)

For each item that one comes across in the dejunking process a choice must be made-- throw out or keep. Throwing out is easy, but what do you do with something that you keep? It can't go back on the pile, because clearly that defeats the purpose. We do have a filing cabinet and some items can go there, but the cabinet is only so large and could not possibly contain everything from the desk. I thought about the garage, but that's a hellish clutter fifty times the size of my desk. (Someday, when I have eight or nine months to spare I'll dejunk the garage.) I contemplated stuffing some papers under my sons' mattresses while they slept, but that doesn't seem like a very fatherly thing to do. So what then? Short of purchasing a larger house I'm at a loss.

And this gets me back to the title of this tome. I know that there are people out there (perhaps even you, dear reader) who are skilled at the fine art of dejunking. I need your help. Maybe you have a pamphlet or a manual that teaches the mysterious ways of this art. If so, please send it my way as I am in desperate need of this vital information. Well, on second thought you better not. It would probably just end up somewhere on my desk not to surface for another ten years.

Maybe just send me a blowtorch instead.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Random Observations From A Random Saturday

On Saturday, April 13, 2013…

The Carwash

I took my sons with me to the carwash. This was pretty exciting for my boys since it is an occurrence that happens only slightly more frequently than a solar eclipse. (My gray Saturn tends to look much more brown than gray.)

My boys loved watching the cars go through the wash on the conveyor belt. They thought it would be fun to walk through the wash themselves. Luckily that idea never got past the theoretical stage.  Of course, had I let them go through we would have been able to skip baths later that night. Maybe next time.

While we were there I noticed a mom with three kids—two boys of about ten and six and a girl of about four. They were all sitting next to each other on a bench looking at electronic devices. The older boy had an i-Pad and the mom and two younger kids had phones.  They didn’t communicate with each other the entire time that we were there. They were just transfixed on their screens. I thought it was pretty sad. In the meantime, my boys (the same age as the younger kids on the bench) were looking at the cars, the plants, the concrete, and asking me tons of questions about all of them. I was very grateful at that moment that they have not been electronic-fied. At one point the four-year-old girl looked up from her phone at my two sons and I can only assume that when she saw that they were talking to me instead of looking at a screen, she thought that was pretty sad.


At the carwash there was a woman eating Wendy’s french-fries .  I noticed their heavenly aroma about a nanosecond before my younger son said, “I want some french-fries.” Gee, I wonder what gave him that idea. The Wendy’s is adjacent to the carwash, so as soon as our car was ready we made the 50-yard drive over there.

This was the first time my boys ever set foot in a Wendy’s. As vegetarians we’re not exactly frequent flyers at fast food burger joints. The only one we go to with any kind of regularity is McDonalds, because of the play area. At Wendy’s we got french-fries and lemonade, and this is the conversation that ensued once we took our seats…

Older Son: (Looking all around.) Is this like McDonald’s?

Me: Yeah, sort of.

Older Son: Only it smells better.

Younger Son: And the food is yummier.

Older Son: And it looks cleaner.

Me: Yeah, that’s pretty much the difference.


A few hours after Wendy’s the whole family went bowling. During the third frame our lane would not reset despite our frantic button pressing on the computerized control panel. This forced me to take the bold step of notifying one of the workers that we needed help. (Asking for help at a bowling alley is only one notch below having to ask for directions at a gas station in my book.) The worker I spoke to then called over a much larger worker and told him that lane 14 would not reset. The large man breathed an exasperated sigh then went to the far end of the lanes opened a door and went behind the lanes to reset our pins. I was stunned. All my life I thought that a family of elves lived behind each bowling alley and reset pins as needed. Yet here was a man of about 6’2” and 240-pounds resetting our pins. Hmmm…perhaps he was the elves’ evil overlord and his exasperated sigh was because they were slacking off. That must be the case.

Garlic Bread

We had pasta primavera and garlic bread for dinner. I think garlic bread may be the tastiest food on the planet. I really have nothing more to say about that.