Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Stress of Chess

I have been a competitive Scrabble player for the past 14 years and have 177 official tournament games under my belt. Many of these games were extremely close nail-biters that went down to the last play and quite a few of them had money on the line. The difference between coming in first or second, second or third, Scrabble glory or Scrabble goatdom, often came down to a last second decision on how I placed my tiles. Sometimes I’d win some money because I bingoed out (Scrabble speak for using all seven tiles on your last play) and sometimes I’d finish just out of the money because I got stuck with a Q at the very end. It’s often a rollercoaster ride and as you might imagine, it can be quite nerve-wracking.

This past Friday night, however, I found myself in a tournament environment 50 times more stressful than any I have ever been in before…and I wasn’t even playing. I was observing as my 8-year-old son participated in his very first chess tournament, and at times my heart was beating so fast I thought it might explode.

That my son has little to no interest in Scrabble, but has developed a love for chess, is perhaps ironic, but I’m okay with it. I don’t want to be the dad that maniacally pushes his kids to do exactly what he wants them to do, so he could sculpt them in his image. I’m more of the “let them try different stuff until they find what they like” sort of dad. So when my son stumbled across chess while at school and displayed an interest, we signed him up for the school’s 12-week chess class. Lo and behold it turned out he had a bit of a knack for the game (he can already beat me without my letting him…not that that says much) so we decided to let him try a kid’s tournament.

So there I was on Friday night, looking through glass as my son and 17 other kids played in a two-hour tournament. Most of the parents just dropped off their kids and came back later, but I wanted to stick around to see how my son did. In retrospect that may have been a mistake, because had someone taken my blood pressure during this two-hour span, I’m certain I would have immediately been sent to the E.R.

I watched as my son got his opponent in check and didn’t notice; I watched as his opponent made an illegal move that my son tried to explain to the kid you can’t do, only to be ignored; and I watched as my son clearly lost interest in his third game and started making any random move just to get it over with. It took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to pound on the glass or go barging through the door to get my son’s attention and correct whatever odd injustice was taking place on the chess board. If your kid’s in a soccer match you can scream stuff from the stands, but if he’s in a chess match you have to bite your lip bloody and let the pieces fall where they may. My lips were a bloody mess by 8:30.

As it turns out, my son ended up winning two games and losing one (with two others called on account of taking too long). I was very proud of him (despite the fact that watching him almost gave me a massive coronary) and he seemed to enjoy the experience and indicated that he wanted to do it again.

A couple of hours later I spoke to my brother, whose 17-year-old son is a very high-ranked chess player and was the 10th-grade New Jersey state chess champion last year. I told him how stressful it was watching my kid play and being powerless to help, and he chuckled knowingly and said, “You just described the last decade of my life.”

The thought of having to deal with an entire decade of watching my kid play chess terrified me at first, but then I realized it could be worse. How much more stress would it be on me if I had to sit by quietly while I watched my kid play competitive Scrabble?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Top 10 Things I'm Thankful For

I’ve realized that my blog entries have become ridiculously long of late—less blog, than novella. So, since I’m sure you have lots of cooking, eating, and groaning to do this Thanksgiving, I’m going to try to make this one relatively short. (I put the caveat “relatively” in there, because, let’s be honest, I’m incapable of writing a truly short blog entry.) Behold, here are the top ten things I am thankful for this Thanksgiving:

1) My Wife…who somehow still loves me despite my constant barrage of horrible puns, bizarre non-sequitors, and weird facial expressions. She is well within her rights to slap me upside the head for any of these things, yet she does not.

2) My kids…who are smart, funny, and still both young enough to be considered cute. While they try my patience at times, they are an endless source of entertainment, and I don’t think it’s scientifically possible to love them more than I do.

3) The rest of my family…who, although I see in person only rarely, I see in framed pictures on my walls every day. I would not be who I am today without my family. (Don’t roll your eyes, I mean that in a positive way.)

4) My friends…who I don’t see as much as I used to, but know much more about than I ever have, due to the miracle of Facebook. I would not be who I am today without my friends. (Hey, wait…that sounds familiar.)

5) My job…which is just the right combination of rewarding and challenging. Working for a nonprofit, I won’t become a millionaire, but at least I wake up every morning knowing I’m helping make the world a better place. That’s more than the inventor of the vuvuzela can say. (Sorry for the four year old pop culture reference.)

6) Pizza…which, when done correctly, is the most perfect food on the planet. Unfortunately, most places do not do it correctly. Fortunately, I know the exact address and operating hours of every place that does it correctly within a 20 mile radius.

7) Instant streaming video…which brings my ADD-addled brain endless entertainment…instantly.

8) Dark chocolate…which, through a variety of pseudo-scientific articles that have come out over the past decade, I can now construe as a health food.

9) Hammers…which are the perfect tools for killing scorpions. (And when I hold one and tape the cover of last week’s People magazine to my face, my wife can make believe I’m Thor.)

10) This blog…which gives me an outlet for my stupidity and allows me to make believe I’m a writer again.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Have I Accidentally Become an Arizona Cardinals Fan?

I have been a fan of the Dallas Cowboys since birth. Indeed, I think my first words were “Tom” and “Landry” in that order. Growing up in New York in the 1970s, being a Dallas Cowboys fan was not that uncommon. They were known as “America’s Team” and went to five Super Bowls during that decade, winning two of them. In fact, in those ten years they amassed more regular season wins than any other team – 105. By contrast the two New York teams—the Giants and the Jets—combined for 103 wins during the same span. So it’s easy to see how a young, impressionable lad, just learning about football, would cast off the hometown teams in favor of a more winning prospect. The “America’s Team” tag even let you rationalize that you really were rooting for the home team—just one that was national in scope.

The 1980s were not as kind to Cowboys fans. They saw their team have a few good seasons early in the decade, but never make it to a Super Bowl. Then, in 1989, the unthinkable happened—a 1-15 season. America’s Team had hit rock bottom. While I was still loyal to my team, I was also disgusted. I was in my junior year of college, so I stopped paying so much attention to football and turned my attention to what was really important to me at the time—rock music and beer.

Somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, the Cowboys got good again. They were dominant in the mid-90s and it was in the midst of their dominance that I moved from New York to Arizona. (My move had nothing to do with the Dallas Cowboys’ dominance, so hopefully you didn’t accidentally infer that from the preceding sentence. If so, I apologize for any confusion or mental distress this may have caused.)

I moved to Arizona in July of 1995, and on Christmas night of that year I had a “bucket list” type of experience. I got to go to a Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals. It was the last game of the regular season and not only did I get to see the Cowboys win 37 – 13, but I also got to see Emmitt Smith break the record for rushing touchdowns in a single season, when he scored his 25th of the year in the fourth quarter. (FYI- his record has since been broken.)

That night was a Cowboys fan’s dream. And I was certainly not the only Cowboys fan who got to experience that live at Sun Devil Stadium. I would estimate that Cowboys fans outnumbered Cardinals fans on a scale of 8 to 1 at that game. My section was particularly blue. In fact there was only one (not exaggerating) person in the entire section wearing Cardinals red. He was sitting about ten rows in front of me and after the Cowboys scored their first touchdown and the crowd erupted, he turned around and looked at the sea of blue behind him and sadly shook his head like a little boy who lost his puppy. It wasn’t a Cowboys home game, but it sure felt that way.

About a month later the Cowboys were back at Sun Devil Stadium where they won their third Super Bowl in a span of four years. That 27 – 17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was the last great moment for the Cowboys, with lots of mediocrity and occasional okay-ness ever since.


When I first moved to Arizona, I hated the Cardinals. I didn’t hate them as much as I hated the Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Steelers, or 49ers, but I hated them nonetheless. This irrational animosity was borne of the fact that at that time, in 1995, the Cardinals and the Cowboys were in the same division, and diehard football fans are conditioned to hate their team’s division rivals. (Side note: Whenever I say I hate a particular sports team, my eight-year-old son says, “Dad, you shouldn’t hate them. They’re just doing their job.” Rational little bugger.)

Then, in 2002, the NFL realigned the league and the Cardinals and the Cowboys were no longer in the same division. I didn’t have a specific reason to hate the Cardinals anymore, but I still did so out of habit. Mostly I just ignored them, though, since they were just as irrelevant as the Cowboys during that timeframe.

Four years later a sequence of events began that would cause my fan loyalties to evolve in unexpected and unsettling ways. Late in 2006 my wife and I became parents. While the arrival of a child is a major life change, it brings with it a thousand different smaller life changes. One seemingly innocuous, but ultimately crucial, thing that changed was how I occupied my time during my daily commute.

For several years prior to the birth of our son, my wife and I carpooled to work every day. While driving we would either talk or listen to music on the radio. But a few months after our son was born, my wife and I figured out a way to work it out so she could be a stay-at-home mom and I was now driving to work alone. This meant: 1) I could no longer use the carpool lane, which practically drove me to tears as I watched the carpoolers whizzing past in the diamond lane while I sat in gridlock traffic; and 2) I could listen to whatever ever I wanted to on the radio.

After years of listening to the same two or three music stations, I started to turn the dial. I still listened to music, but sometimes I would listen to NPR instead. Soon enough, I started to prefer listening to talk radio instead of music in the mornings. Then one day NPR had a pledge drive. As those of you who listen to NPR know, their pledge drives, while well-intentioned, are about as exciting as listening to paint dry. And listening to paint dry is infinitely less exciting than watching paint dry. So I started to turn the dial again and I soon stumbled upon a sports show called the Doug & Wolf show.

Up until that moment I had never listened to sports radio. Even though I am an avid sports fan, I always wrote off sports radio as nothing more than mindless jocks shilling for the hometown teams. But somehow the gravelly voice of Ron Wolfley (a former Pro Bowl fullback for the Cardinals) quickly wormed its way into my consciousness and I couldn’t seem to turn the dial. The banter seemed more intelligent than I would have expected and they were talking about a topic I enjoyed, so I kept on listening. The only problem was 90% of their chatter was about Arizona sports teams, which I didn’t have a specific interest in at the time.

Once I stumbled across Doug & Wolf I began to listen to them occasionally, when I had my fill of NPR in the morning. During football season I would chuckle to myself while they talked about the woes of the Cardinals and hope they would mention the Cowboys, which they would from time to time. Then, in 2008, the Cardinals got good enough to win their division and shockingly, win all their playoff games to make it to the Super Bowl. I started to listen to Doug & Wolf much more frequently during that season and soon knew way more about the Cardinals than I did about the Cowboys. When the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl I didn’t know how to feel or who to root for. I intrinsically hated them, but they were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers who I intrinsically hated even more. So I ended up rooting for the Cardinals, and was genuinely upset when the Steelers took the lead and won in the final minute of the game.

With that Super Bowl I let my hatred for the Cardinals fade away. I found it easier than I imagined to root for them, especially with the exceedingly likeable Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner leading the way. I was still a Cowboys fan first and foremost, but I didn’t mind if the Cardinals did well. And I started listening to Doug & Wolf more regularly and learned more and more about the hometown football team.

In the meantime, the Cowboys have been mediocrity personified. Prior to this year they went 8 – 8 for three straight seasons and bungled their chances to make the playoffs in the final game of the season each of those years. I’ve still rooted for them, but they certainly haven’t made it easy or particularly fun. That is until this year.

This year has seriously tested my loyalties. Both the Cowboys and Cardinals have been very good and in Week 9, they faced off. My son asked me who I was rooting for and I said the Cowboys, but as I watched the game I wasn’t even sure myself. Instead of cheering for either team, I found myself staring at the screen blankly, feeling lost and confused. Who did I really want to win? It was tough to say. But at the end of the game I found myself both upset that the Cowboys lost and pleased that the Cardinals won. That sort of made my head hurt.

A few days later my friend Mike contacted me and said he had an extra ticket to the Cardinals – Rams game if I wanted to go with him. I gladly took him up on it. So last Sunday I found myself at the first regular season football game I’ve been to since Christmas Night 1995. And things had changed a bit over the course of 19 years. No longer were Cardinals fans in the minority. Indeed, the place was a sea of red. Every time the Cardinals scored, the place exploded, and I was right in the thick of it, screaming myself hoarse by the end of the game.

As we left the stadium, with the Cardinals victorious and in possession of the best record in football, I felt something that I hadn’t felt for a football team in a very long time—proud. And then I suddenly got scared, because I realized I may have become an Arizona Cardinals fan when I wasn’t looking. Sorry, Tom Landry.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pieces Of My Past

A couple of weeks after my mom passed away three large boxes arrived at my front door. I had been expecting these boxes—two of them I’d packed myself while I was back in New York and the third was packed by my brother and sister-in-law after I’d left. When my sons saw the large boxes they thought that Chanukah and Christmas had miraculously conspired to arrive three months early, but I knew the truth—these boxes were really time capsules; windows into my former life.

In the days following my mom’s passing I spent a great deal of time cleaning out her apartment with my two brothers. Somehow it seemed her three-bedroom apartment contained six bedrooms worth of stuff. A lot of things got thrown out, a lot of things got boxed up, and a lot of things simply went untouched. Although I never lived in this particular apartment, it was on the same block as the apartment that I occupied from about ages seven through 22 in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. About a year after I moved out on my own, my mom moved two doors down and all the stuff I’d left behind moved with her. Now, two decades and 2,500 miles removed from my childhood haunts, I found myself sifting through the minutia that made me “me.”

After opening up all the boxes, my Chandler, Arizona living room was awash with paraphernalia from Brooklyn, New York. As I surveyed the items before me, I noticed that one section of the living room happened to have a particularly interesting assortment of nostalgia, which prompted me to snap the photo that you see above. Shall we take a walk down memory lane?

The oldest item in the photo is my bronzed baby shoe (circa 1969-1970). You don’t really hear about people bronzing baby shoes anymore—at least it’s not something we ever did with our kids’ shoes. In fact, when I showed the shoe to my boys and told them it was by first baby shoe, they were equal parts amused and perplexed. “How did you get it on?” “It seems like it would be really heavy for a baby to walk around in.” “That’s an ugly color for a shoe.” I had to explain the concept of bronzing to them.  Personally, I think there’s something vaguely creepy about bronzing a shoe. I grew up with the shoe in my room and while I wasn’t actively scared of it, I always looked at it a bit askance. I think in my mind shoe-bronzing is not that far removed from taxidermy, which is not one of my favorite arts.

The next oldest item in the photo is the blue baseball card album. While there are certainly cards within the album that are actually older than my bronzed baby shoe, I was actively collecting cards from about 1980 to 1986. Indeed, the vast majority of my allowance during my junior high and early high school years went to the purchase of baseball cards. The album in this photo is only one of many I used to neatly store the hundreds of 2-1/2” by 3-1/2” pieces of cardboard that I coveted. The very first card in this particular album is a 1978 Don Sutton Topps card. I was curious about how much it might be worth, so I looked it up on eBay and saw that sellers were generally asking anywhere between $1 and $20. I noticed that one seller was asking $154.99. Why the huge difference? Perhaps it was autographed (or maybe even bronzed!), but it just turns out that the seller is insane.

The next item chronologically is my Bar Mitzvah portrait from 1982. While I wasn’t raised in the most religious of families, my Bar Mitzvah was something I’d been looking forward to pretty much my whole life. It was a lavish affair with hundreds of guests all there to celebrate my becoming a man in the eyes of Judaism (although in the eyes of biology it would be almost another year before I technically became a man). The framed portrait of me that you see above is probably the most serious, somber photo of me that exists. This is quite a juxtaposition from the rest of the pictures in my Bar Mitzvah photo album, which includes shots of me dancing like Robert Hayes in Airplane!, lying across the laps of my female guests, and using a fake cigar handed to me by the photographer to strike a Groucho Marx pose. Yes, I remember my Bar Mitzvah fondly.

Moving forward two years to 1984, we have my Lafayette H.S. v-neck sweater. I was given the sweater because I was a member of my high school’s Academic Olympics team. It was the only team I ever belonged to throughout my entire scholastic career, so that sweater was the closest thing I ever had to a uniform. It made me feel like hot stuff. I thought if the school’s jocks could impress girls by scoring touchdowns and hitting homeruns, maybe I could impress girls by saying, “James Joyce” when someone asked, “Who wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?” I thought wrong.

The next item in the nostalgia parade is the Dallas Cowboys jacket (circa 1986) at the top of the photo, which I got as a present from my parents on my 17th birthday. While the Cowboys are my favorite football team (and I can finally admit that again this year), the jacket’s real value to me is that it’s the last present my dad got me before he passed away. He actually passed away a little over a month before my birthday, but my mom had told me they had already picked it out together prior to that.  Okay, take a deep breath, wipe your eyes, and let’s move on.

Do you see the gold pouch leaning against the MAD Magazine? (Don’t worry we’ll get to the MAD stuff in a minute.) That gold pouch was a souvenir purchased in Alaska in the summer of 1987. You probably can’t see it, but the writing says “I Struck Gold in Alaska.” Inside the pouch were a few rocks painted gold, to appear like gold nuggets. I went to Alaska with my mom, “Uncle” Murray and “Aunt” Sally. They weren’t actually my uncle and aunt, but they were my parents’ best friends so I often referred to them as such. The trip was a high school graduation gift from my mom. She had told me six months earlier that she would take me anywhere I wanted to go for my graduation. At 17 years old the prospect of traveling with my middle-aged mom and her middle-aged friends was not high on my wish list, so I told her I wanted to go to Alaska, because, although I really did want to go there, I assumed she’d have no interest and the trip wouldn’t actually happen. Well the trip did happen. The majority of the pictures from that trip show me as the quintessential brooding, dissatisfied teen, but the truth is I really did have a good time.

Okay, now to the MAD stuff. As a kid, I was an avid collector of MAD magazines, as were my brothers before me, but the two items here are from my work life at MAD. At some point I’ll write a separate piece about my time as a MAD staffer from 1990 to 1995, but for now I’ll just point out that one of the great perks of working there was all the free magazines and paraphernalia I got. (I gave my kids a couple of Spy vs. Spy pens out of one of the boxes, which they seemed to enjoy even though they were no longer working.) Not sure what year the watch is from, but it’s fun because Alfred E. Neuman is wearing a straightjacket and the hands of the watch go backwards. As for the magazine, it’s from January 1996, which was about six months after I moved to Arizona. My guess is I mailed a copy to my mom, because I had an article in there (“You Know America’s Been Nuked When…”) and I always sent her my published works. (Like how I use the phrase “my published works” as though I’m Ernest Hemingway? The most literary line I had in the aforementioned article was “You know America’s been nuked when the weatherman is drawing little cartoon mushroom clouds on the weather map.” Send me a freaking Pulitzer!)

Well, that’s pretty much it for the nostalgia tour. Although if I start taking pictures of the thousands of old photos I took from my mom’s apartment and blogging about them, the Nostalgia Tour Part 2 might be coming to a blog near you. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

My Mom: 1936 - 2014

My mom passed away last week at the age of 78. She was in the hospital at the time, but not for anything seemingly life-threatening, so her death came as a shock to all of us. My brothers asked me to do my mother’s eulogy, which I wrote while flying from Phoenix to New York. I was in a middle seat on the flight and I’m sure the people sitting on either side of me wanted nothing to do with the small, middle-aged man getting choked up while writing intensely in a spiral-bound notebook. Fortunately, my seatmates kept to themselves, giving me the privacy I needed to write without having to explain why I was getting emotional.

I’ve debated what to do about my blog over the past few days. As my readers know, the majority of my blog entries are of a personal nature. Given that fact, it seemed ludicrous to me for the first blog entry after my mother’s death to be about anything other than her. For that reason I have decided to reproduce the eulogy I gave. I’m hoping this doesn’t come across as tacky or gauche, but in my mind it would have been even tackier to ignore an event of this significance in my life and instead write about some trivial topic like pizza or Legos. So with that as preface, here is the eulogy:

I apologize if what I’m about to say seems long and rambling, but I wrote this on two hours of sleep while on a five-hour plane ride.
When I was trying to come up with what to say about my mom I just started jotting down a bunch of notes about the things that stood out for me about her. And I ended up taking a lot more notes than I thought I was going to.

One of the first things I thought of was her love for reading. She read pretty much everything. When I was a kid she would take me with her to the library every three weeks. I would get a Curious George book, a Dr. Seuss book, maybe a Maurice Sendak book if I was feeling ambitious. My mom would get a dozen books—each one bigger than the next:  400-page novels, 600-page biographies. We're talking large tomes. And she would read them all…in three weeks…a dozen books. And she never had to renew—not once. And this was on top of reading National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, the newspaper every day, and, of course, TV Guide. The amount of words she would digest on a daily basis was truly amazing. When I think about it now, it's sort of mind-boggling.

These days I also take my kids to the library every three weeks. They each get a few books and I get one book. Maybe two. But if I do get two books I always have to renew the second one. My mom was getting a dozen books…every three weeks.

One last thought on this topic and then I'll move on. About three years ago I joined a book club at my office—it was basically me and a few co-workers. The first book we read was a novel called "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." It was a great book. It takes place in California during World War II. And the entire time I was reading it I kept on thinking, "My mom would love this book. My mom would love this book." So when I finished the book I spoke to my mom and I told her about it, half expecting she'd already read it since she was such a voracious reader, but to my surprise, she hadn't. But she was so intrigued by the plot that she said as soon as we got off the phone she was going to order it on Of course, what she really meant was as soon as we got off the phone she was going to call up her friend Grace and have her order the book for her on, because my mom had no idea how to order anything online. So, thank you, Grace, for doing that. Anyway, about a week later she calls me up to tell me that she read the book and she absolutely loved it, and it was one of the best books she'd ever read. My first thought was, "Amazon standard shipping takes 5 to 7 business days…I spoke to my mom a week ago, so she probably got the book and read it in the same day.” That seemed about right. But my second thought was…well, frankly, I was proud of myself. My mom has read literally thousands of books—she's the world's most voracious reader—and somehow I managed to find a book for her that was now one of her favorites. It just made me happy.

My mom had a very good sense of humor. Everyone who knew my dad knows how funny he was. He was overtly funny; spontaneously funny. But my mom was creatively funny. She would come up with funny ideas and set about implementing them. The best example I can give of this was one year on January, 7th—not quite sure of the year, but I would guess late 70s or early 80s—my mom made a very fancy dinner. She used a table cloth, our best silverware and dishes, lit candles. And when my dad got home and saw all of this he said, "What's going on? What's the occasion?" And my mom, totally deadpan, said, "Don't you know? It's January, 7th." My dad was at a loss and said, "So? What's so special about January, 7th?" And my mom said, "It's Millard Fillmore's birthday." That's right—it was the birthday of the most insignificant president in the history of the United States and my mom decided to have a dinner party in his honor. So that was my mom's unique sense of humor.

So what was my mom like as a mom? Well, let's be honest—she was overprotective. Very overprotective. And of course, as a kid, this bothered me no end. “Why can't I do this?” “Why can't I do that?” “All the other kids are doing it, why can't I?” And I swore I would never be like that when I became a parent. Well…guess what? These days they have a term for parents like me—we're called “Helicopter Parents.” We’re constantly hovering. And I try to make a conscious effort to land that helicopter on the pad. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. But my mom…well, I'm pretty sure her helicopter didn't even have landing gear.

Sometime in junior high, I think between 7th and 8th grade, some of my friends were going to the beach. I asked my mom if I could go with them and she said, "No." I asked her why not and she said, "Because there's gangs and broken glass." That's right. "Gangs and broken glass." This became a bit of a running joke with me and my brothers. "Gangs and broken glass" became a code phrase to signify extreme overprotectiveness.

As I think most of you know, I live in Arizona. There aren't any beaches there, but we live about a 5-hour drive from San Diego, so Nicole and I have taken the boys there a couple of times. The first time we took our kids to the beach, we parked the car and walked across the parking lot, and the moment we hit the sand, I paused for a split second and did a quick scan—no gangs…no broken glass…okay , let's go.

But my mom's overprotectiveness, her over concern, not only for me and my brothers and our wives and her grandkids—but really for all of her family and friends—just stemmed from the fact that she loved all of the people in her life and wanted them to be safe. It's as simple as that.

And I can tell you this because for the past eight years or so I spoke to my mom at least twice a week. When she called I would give her a quick synopsis of what was going on with us and then she would ask to speak to the boys—first AJ and then James. I'd put it on speaker phone just in case the kids didn't understand what my mom was saying or she didn't understand what they were saying, so I could interpret. And my mom was great about asking the boys questions to get them to talk. It was never just, "How was school today?" It was "What's your favorite subject?" "Did you sing any songs?" "What are your friend's names?" She genuinely wanted to know. More than once I found out something about my kids' day that I didn't even know until they told my mom about it. She was good like that.

Then, when I'd get back on the phone, my mom would give me the rundown on how all of my nephews and nieces were doing. She would go oldest to youngest in each of my brothers' families. First Steve's family—she'd tell me about Michael, then David, then John, then Robert, then Lauren. Then she'd move over to Mark's family and tell me about Alyssa and Alex. She'd tell me about all the important things going on in their lives. And it was clear how very proud she was of all of them and how much she loved them. Then she would tell me about the other family and friends who had things going on in their lives, so I would be up to speed with everything going on back on the East Coast. And it was clear that she cared about everyone she told me about.

I jotted down a lot more notes on my plane trip—about her involvement with the Cooley's Anemia Foundation, about her annual Hanukkah parties, about her love of travel—but really, the last point I made about how much she loved and cared for all of the people in her life, seems like the right place to end.

Thank you for coming out to support our family. It's much appreciated.

(Note: The photo at the top is my mom on her wedding day in 1956. The photo at the bottom is my mom on my wedding day in 2000.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Lego Movie: Now Playing at a Living Room Near Me

Both of my sons are obsessed with Legos—they have been for the past three years or so. Whatever time they’re not spending in school, eating, sleeping, or pummeling each other with sofa cushions, is generally spent playing with the colorful interlocking blocks. On a typical Saturday they will spend several hours building elaborate ships and/or structures, and then several more hours having their Lego Minifigures interact among the various ships and/or structures they just built. Usually the many hours of Lego play ends when one of the boys whips a sofa cushion out of nowhere and starts pummeling his brother. Welcome to my weekend.

Given my kids’ love of everything Lego it was no surprise that when The Lego Movie came out last February they were extremely anxious to see it. As soon as we saw it, it became their favorite movie. They talked about it constantly in the weeks after seeing it, so I took them to see it in the theater a second time, which is something I’d never done with them before.

In the months following our second viewing of the movie, my boys intermittently reminded me that as soon as The Lego Movie was available on DVD, we needed to purchase it. I assured them that we would. As it turns out, the movie was released on DVD while we were away on vacation in Utah in June. Strategically, my wife and I decided that we would purchase the DVD the day we were driving back to Arizona so the boys could watch it on the car DVD player during the long ride home. This proved to be a sage decision. The movie kept them occupied on the entire drive as they watched it three times back to back. They thought they were getting away with something every time they pressed play again when the movie ended, but the truth is my wife and I were basking in the glorious silence coming from the back of the minivan as the boys watched the movie with their headphones on for six straight hours.

When we got back from our Utah trip the boys had a month-and-a-half before school would start up again. That means they had lots of free time on their hands. Yes, they played, but they also watched The Lego Movie…a lot. But as the summer wore on an interesting dynamic evolved—my 7-year-old began to grow a bit weary of The Lego Movie and my 5-year-old couldn’t get enough of it. On Saturdays my younger son would bounce out of bed and immediately ask, “Can we watch The Lego Movie?” This would cause my older son to roll his eyes and counter with, “Can’t we watch something else already?”

I was definitely on my older son’s side on this one. Although The Lego Movie is very entertaining, and I certainly didn’t watch it with my kids every time it was playing, it was clearly becoming a bit too pervasive in our lives. I found myself driving home from work humming the song “Everything is Awesome” a bit too frequently. Something had to give, so about two weeks ago I put my foot down.

“Can we watch The Lego Movie?” my little one asked within minutes of getting out of bed.

“No, we watch it all the time. Let’s watch something else,” I said.

“You mean we can never watch it again?” he cried, his eyes filling up with tears.

“No, I didn’t say that. We’re just not going to watch it today. We’ll watch it again some other time.”

“When?” he asked, with a desperation usually only heard from addicts going through withdrawal symptoms.

“Um, I don’t know,” I said, which prompted my son to have an uncontrollable sobbing fit.

With my younger son reduced to tears and my older son nonchalantly browsing through our DVD collection, I contemplated my next move. Suddenly I had one of those rare parental eureka moments.

“What if I wrote on the calendar the days we’ll watch The Lego Movie?” I said.

“What?” my son asked, looking up with wet cheeks.

“Well if I write on the calendar the days that we’ll watch The Lego Movie, you’ll know for sure when you’re going to see it next,” I said. He seemed cautiously intrigued.

I walked over to the family calendar where we mark down the various important things going on in our lives—karate classes, birthday parties, date nights, etc.—and wrote The Lego Movie in at approximately two week intervals over the next two months. My son watched as his sobs slowly subsided.

“Is that okay?” I asked. He nodded hesitantly, as he closely eyeballed the calendar.

That day we watched something else—probably Curious George or Clifford, although I would have personally preferred The Godfather or The Shining. But happily, my youngest never once asked about The Lego Movie the rest of the day.

The following Saturday, after not having put on The Lego Movie for the longest period of time since we purchased it two months earlier, I pointed to the writing on the calendar and my son practically jumped out of his pajamas with excitement as he shouted, “Yes!” loud enough to register on the Richter scale. I watched the movie with my two sons and thoroughly enjoyed it—in large part because I knew it would be a couple of weeks before I’d have to watch it again.

And now we’re on a regular schedule and everybody’s happy. Indeed, when I flipped the calendar page from August to September, the first thing my youngest did was review it for showings of The Lego Movie. The family wall calendar has become his personal Moviefone and he can tell you without even looking that showings of his favorite film will be held on the morning of September 13th and the evening of September 25th. So for now, at least, our family can avoid The Lego Movie overload…until May 26, 2017 when The Lego Movie 2 comes out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

This Cookie Happened

On a recent trip to the grocery store I was pushing my shopping cart about when I noticed a woman handing out cookie samples on the far end of the produce aisle.  Ignoring the bananas, apples, broccoli, carrots, and other various forms of healthy fare, I made a beeline for the processed sweets.  When I got to the sample table I saw what, at first glance, looked like a bunch of ordinary Chips Ahoy! cookies.  I don’t mean to disparage Chips Ahoy!—quite the contrary, those and Oreos were my main source of sustenance throughout my grade school years—but when I see samples, I generally expect that it will be something a bit out of the ordinary.

Upon noticing me looking at the cookies the woman behind the table asked if I wanted to try one and pointed out that they were different flavors.  Ahhhh…these weren’t just ordinary Chips Ahoy! cookies after all.

“What flavors are there?” I asked, thinking there’s not really any way to improve upon Chips Ahoy! anyway.

“Well, the first one is birthday cake flavored, the next one is Oreo cream filled, the next one is…”  And honestly, I have no idea what the next one was; it could have contained jalapenos and nacho cheese for all I knew, because the moment she said that somewhere on our planet—indeed, directly in front of me—there existed a Chips Ahoy! cookie with Oreo cream filling, time stood still.  I stood transfixed, looking at the second cookie in the line.  At some point she stopped talking.

“I’m sorry, did you say that Chips Ahoy! cookie has Oreo cream inside it?” I asked, pointing incredulously at the cookie in question.

“Yes, would you like to try it?” she asked.

“Yes I would!” I said in a voice that was probably way too loud for that particular social interaction.

I picked up the cookie and took a bite.  When the morsels hit my taste buds the whole of the universe flashed before my eyes in an instant, as though I were Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “My god, it’s full of cream!” I thought to myself.

“Would you like to try another sample?” the saleslady asked, rousing me from my euphoric trance.

“No thanks, but can you tell me where I can find a box of those?” I asked, trying not to go into a frenzy in front of the onion bin.

“It’s in the regular cookie aisle,” she said; and as soon as the words were out of her mouth I screamed, “Thank you!” and set off in that direction.

As I sped past the other shoppers on my way to meet my sweet-toothed destiny, I wondered what mad genius had come up with this idea.  Somewhere at Nabisco’s headquarters in East Hanover, New Jersey there must be an employee who makes Albert Einstein look like Curly Howard.  I wish I were a fly on the wall when this idea was first pitched at a product development meeting.

Head of Product Development: Okay everyone, Oreos and Chips Ahoy! are our two top sellers, but we need to come up with some new flavors to keep it interesting.

Worker #1: What about birthday cake flavored Chips Ahoy!?

Head of Product Development: Good one. Everything’s birthday cake flavored these days; might as well add one of our cookies to the mix.

Worker #2: What about watermelon Oreos?

Head of Product Development: Sounds disgusting, but hey, people try all kinds of weird stuff once, right? Let’s give it a go. What else we got?

Worker #3: What if we combine our two top sellers?

Head of Product Development: Huh? What?

Worker #3: What if we made a Chips Ahoy! cookie with Oreo cream filling on the inside?

POP!  BAM!  THWAP!  Three people sitting around the conference table have their heads simultaneously explode.  Two more have massive coronaries. The other six fall to the ground and genuflect.  Moments later the Head of Product Development resigns and gives Worker #3 his job. 

At least this is how I assume it all went down given the enormity of this invention, which in my mind rivals the light bulb, the airplane, and indoor plumbing. Certainly this invention is better than the cellphone. Think about it—what would you rather have in your hand right now, a cellphone or a Chips Ahoreo! cookie? (Note: The product is not actually called Chips Ahoreo! It’s called “Chips Ahoy! Oreo Crème filled.” I just came up with Chips Ahoreo! and it’s clearly a much better name. Nabisco, you can make the royalty checks out to “Andrew J. Schwartzberg.”)

In the days since purchasing this miracle of modern food science I’ve only eaten three of them. I know that’s hard to believe, but I’m pacing myself. You don’t climb Mt. Everest in one day and you don’t eat an entire box of the world’s most incredible cookie in one sitting. I am savoring them, delighting in them, and getting to know each cookie on an individual basis. I highly recommend that you do the same. But whatever you do, don’t purchase them from the Fry’s on the corner of Dobson and Ray. Those boxes are all mine.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Middle-aged Man vs. the Water Slide

This past weekend some good friends from California unexpectedly came to Arizona for a visit.  They gave us a call and invited us and our two boys to the swanky resort they were staying at to hang out at the pool. 

The pool was quite impressive—one of those large, meandering pools with different sections, structured in such a way as to make it impossible to see the whole pool from any one vantage point.  For the first 20 minutes or so we all just splashed about in the shallow end of one of the larger sections of the pool, and then my friend suggested we try out the water slide.  I was initially dubious, but my two boys were champing at the bit to try it out, so in an effort not to suck the fun out of the day, I relented.

The water slide was not connected to the larger pool structure, but was rather adjacent to its east end.  From the top of the slide you could not see the bottom of the slide or, for that matter, what it emptied into.  The slide was serpentine, and there was no way to know before the first time you went down what kind of twists and turns awaited you, or for that matter, if you would end up landing in a large, lush pool or a two-foot wide bucket meant for circus monkeys.   Frankly, it was a thing of mystery and I was more than a little surprised that my boys were willing to try it out, because they are usually skittish on anything but the most mundane of playground slides.  But hey, if they were suddenly feeling adventurous, I was willing to come along for the ride.

My Californian friend went first—a rock climber, snowboarder and general seeker of thrills, I’m sure the waterslide had a fear factor for him akin to my fear of getting a haircut—that is to say, pretty minimal.  My friend sat down and pushed himself forward at the top of the slide and didn’t go very far, so he did it again…and still didn’t go very far.  By the time he pushed himself a third time he was out of view due to the curvature of the slide. 

Waiting at the top, my boys and I expected to hear some sort of splash indicating that our friend had reached the bottom, but it never came.  Eventually, a hotel worker who was seated high enough above the slide to have a view of the bottom gave us the okay for the next person to go.  My five-year-old was next and he went through the same slow mechanics of pushing himself down the slide.  I was nervous for him, because I assumed at some point the slide would get steep enough to take him down quickly.  I dreaded hearing his tortured screams as he succumbed to gravity, but they never came.  Soon the hotel worker gave us the signal and my seven-year-old went next.  Starting from a sitting position he did the same slow push-crawl until he was out of view. 

No screams.  No splash.  No ominous music.  The only sound was the cascading water rushing down the labyrinthine slide.  I wondered if when I got to the bottom I would see three mangled bodies adrift in the water.

The hotel worker gave me the thumbs up and I sat down at the top of the slide.  I was anxious and sweating.  (Of course it was well over 100-degrees outside, so I would have been sweating regardless of the anxiousness.)  I started to push myself in the same manner as the three brave men who went before me.  I went around that first curve not sure of what I would see and what I saw was simply more of the curving slide.  So I kept on pushing myself expecting that at any moment the rushing water would take control of my body and propel me forward.  It did not.  I kept on sitting and pushing myself down the curving slide as water rushed under my body.  Eventually I reached the bottom and saw my predecessors calmly waiting for me (and not in the least bit mangled) in a medium-sized round pool about three feet deep.  It was anticlimactic…and everyone wanted to do it again.  We all felt we must have been doing something wrong and that there must be a way to go faster.

When it was next my turn I wondered if it would make a difference if I put myself in a lying rather than sitting position.  I asked the hotel worker about this and he just shrugged.  “Everybody does it different,” he said.

Determined to go a touch faster than a common garden snail, I put myself flat on my back and started scooting myself to see if the rushing water would whisk me away.  For the first five feet or so nothing happened and I was just about to give up hope, when suddenly I hit the first turn and my body was jettisoned forward by the cascading stream.  Like a dead pet hamster flushed down the toilet and torpedoing its way through the pipes, I was flung mercilessly down the winding slide and hurtled into the pool below.  Wow what an adrenaline rush! And wow did my spine connect with the slide hard!

Everyone wanted to do it again…and again…and again.  By the time we were done we all went down five or six times.  Each time was equal parts excitement, terror, joy, and pain.  My kids wanted to keep on going, but a little voice in the back of my head was quickly computing chiropractic and orthopedic bills, and the numbers had too many digits, so I directed us all back to the main pool.  Once there I noticed two large abrasions on my right arm from where I had apparently been strafed by the slide.  A few minutes later my wife said, “Whoa, you’ve got a big red mark on your back.”  This did not surprise me, seeing as how my back and the slide had become sparring partners for a good 15 minutes.

“Yeah, I’m going to feel this tomorrow morning,“ I said.  And as it turns out, I was wrong.  It did not take until the next morning for me to feel it.  About 10:30 that night I suddenly started to become aware of a dull ache in every muscle in my back (as well as several in my arms, legs, and chest).  By the next morning the ache was anything but dull.  Today, two days later, I’m still popping Tylenol like Tic-Tacs. 

I imagine I’ll still be feeling the pain for a few more days, but that’s okay.  Despite the beating my 44-year-old body took, going down that water slide was the most exhilarating experience I’ve had in decades.  For now though, I’ll stick to the excitement I get from playing Scrabble and watching reruns of “Taxi.”  Maybe when I’m 64 I’ll try bungee jumping.

Friday, August 1, 2014

An Open Letter to Doug Franz

(Note: For those readers not in the know, Doug Franz is the co-host of the Doug & Wolf Show-- a sports talk show on 98.7 FM on weekday mornings in the Phoenix-metro area.)
Dear Doug,

I am a longtime listener of the Doug & Wolf show and tune in faithfully every morning during my work commute from about 7:30 to 8:10.  I am also a diehard baseball fan and stats geek.  While I am also a big football fan, baseball is my first love.   During the summer months I often get frustrated at the disproportionate amount of football talk compared to baseball talk.  On some mornings I hear about nothing but football (other than Paul’s Arizona sport’s desk updates) for my entire commute.  Indeed, I often chuckle to myself around 7:50 or so when you say, “Coming up at 8:00, the mandatory football fix,” as though you hadn’t already been talking about football for the previous 20 minutes.

It is for this reason that I am compelled to present a counterargument to the thesis you presented this morning that listeners want to hear you guys talk about football more than baseball.  (I know that oversimplifies what you were saying, but that was the gist of it.)

First off, I should point out that I understand that when you say, “you” want to hear about football, you mean the collective “you,” as opposed to me, specifically.  (I’m not a psychopath.)  Given the nature of your job I get that the radio station has a responsibility to cater programming to the majority of listeners.  And perhaps it is true that overall more listeners want to hear about football than baseball, but I would conjecture that people who are sports fans generally would love to hear more about baseball during baseball season.

The argument you gave for people not caring about baseball as much as football seemed faulty.  As proof of this disinterest in baseball you pointed out that only 20,000 people attended last night’s Diamondbacks – Pirates game.  The implication here was that since the Cardinals sell out the 63,400-seat University of Phoenix Stadium for every game, but only 20,000 chose to go to this particular Dbacks game, people in this town are more interested in football. 

But let’s think about the mathematics of this premise.  Cardinals fans have only eight opportunities to see their team at home during the regular season every year; if they sell out every game, that adds up to an annual attendance of 507,200.  Diamondbacks fans have 81 opportunities to see their team at home during the regular season every year.  Even if they only brought in 20,000 fans per game (and that’s a very low estimate) that still adds up to 1,620,000 seats filled for the season—or more than three times as many as will have attended Cardinals games.  (And obviously, in both cases, a large amount of this number is repeat fans.)

The other point that should not be lost here is that since the Cardinals only have eight home games, each game takes on the quality of being a special event much more so than a random Diamondbacks game among 81 home games.  And let’s keep in mind that seven of the Cardinals’ eight games last year were played on a Sunday, making it much easier for people to attend.  The fact that only 20,000 people attended a Diamondbacks game on a weekday night, two-thirds of the way through a season in which they are currently 13 games below .500, when most people have work the next morning, and many kids are already back in school,  does not somehow prove that people have no interest in baseball—it proves that people have lives that need attention and perhaps they’ve already been to five Diamondbacks games this season (which quickly gets expensive for a middle class family of four) so it didn’t seem like the best idea to go to this particular one.  (Okay, it doesn’t actually prove that last part, but you get my point.)

Another argument you gave to prove your point, which seemed riddled with illogic was (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Would more people watch a World Series between the Pirates and Brewers (as though it were 1997—and yes, I know you noted the fallacy of that pairing) or a Super Bowl between the Steelers and Packers?”  First off, the Steelers and Packers are two of the most storied franchises in the history of football and the Brewers and Pirates are, well…not their baseball equivalents.  Secondly, the Super Bowl is an event that has become an annual cultural touchstone, for which the entire country practically shuts down for that one day.  The World Series takes place over the course of a week or two, and again, the final game could be played on a random weekday night, so there would be no way it could garner the type of ratings that the Super Bowl could. 

Having said all this—and man, I said way more than I set out to—I have no idea if people would switch the channel more so if you were talking about Andrew McCutchen than if you were talking about Ben Roethlisberger.  My hunch is you may already have some folks switching the channel because of football talk overload, but hey, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Personally, I won’t switch despite not getting the level of baseball talk I desire, because I enjoy the witty repartee between you and Wolf and you never know when your partner is going to go rogue, which is always amusing.  Of course, the second you guys start talking about hockey the radio gets turned off, so thanks for doing that only four times per year.

Respectfully yours,


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Twitter Me This, Batman

I hate Twitter.  I love Twitter.  I want Twitter to die and go away.  I can’t live without Twitter.  Clearly, my relationship with this popular social networking site is giving me a touch of cyber schizophrenia.

When I first heard about Twitter I had already been using Facebook for about a year.  I heard about it (like I hear about pretty much everything happening on this planet—and beyond) on NPR while I was driving home from work one day about five years ago.  I remember thinking, “This is the most moronic idea for a website that I’ve ever heard.”  And I’ve heard plenty of moronic ideas for websites—many of which I came up with myself.

Facebook was a revelation; an idea at once so simple, yet genius.  Here was a way to reconnect with old friends, stay abreast of what’s going on in the lives of current friends, invite people to things without going through the disgusting routine of licking envelopes, and see pictures of cats grooming themselves in awkward positions.  What more could one want in a website?

But where Facebook seemed like a feel good love fest shared with all the people who have ever touched your lives, Twitter seemed like a narcissistic, ADD-inspired frivolity, hastily shared with strangers.  What could you possibly say of any importance in 140 characters or less?  And why would people who you’ve never met give a crap about what you have to say, anyway?

I ignored and/or mocked Twitter for a couple of years.  Then, sometime in 2010, I discovered that many people I knew and respected where not only using Twitter, but singing its praises.  “You can get breaking news instantly.”  “You can read witticisms from your favorite authors and actors.”  “You can share your ideas with the world.”  “You can see pictures of cats grooming themselves in awkward positions.”  Hmmm…eyebrow still raised, I decided to create a Twitter account in August 2010, just to see what all the fuss was about.

I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.  I followed some friends.  I followed some news outlets.  I read the innocuous tweets and didn’t really care.  Finally, on August 13, 2010, I decided to send my first tweet, which proved to be rather prophetic:

And Ironically, I did forget that one—until today when I decided to look at my first tweet for the purpose of this blog.  

I really wasn’t sure what I should make of Twitter, or how I should utilize it.  My first few tweets were all about tweeting, since the concept was new to me and I didn’t know what I was doing.  By my fifth tweet, on August 24, 2010, I decided to take the plunge and tweet about something other than Twitter:

This tweet—like my four other tweets before it—got no reaction from my 20 or so followers.  Had anyone seen it?  Did anyone care?  I had no idea. 

I was totally unenthused by the whole Twitter concept, and by the end of 2010 I tweeted all of eleven times.  In 2011, I tweeted just once:

I got no response.

I tweeted:

Silence ensued.

I tweeted:


I realized that part of the problem was that I didn’t have very many followers, so not many people were seeing my tweets in the first place.  But I had no idea how to get more followers.  Every once in a while someone I didn’t know would suddenly seem to follow me.  How did they come across me?  Was it something I did?  Was it totally random?  Was this an actual person or some sort of sentient machine?  I had no clue.

Eventually, the general lack of response from the Twiiterverse became dispiriting and I stopped tweeting.  A few months later I started again.  Then I stopped.  Then I started.  And on and on.  But lately, I’ve become much more active on Twitter because I discovered the power of the hashtag.  (Another earth-shattering discovery, I know.)  While I knew about hashtags for years, I had no concept of how to use them.  Who creates the hashtags?  How does one hashtag become more popular than another?  Am I allowed to create a hashtag, or do I need to get permission from some sort of tribunal?  My attitude toward hashtags are best summed up by this recent tweet:

And yet, as I stumble across hashtags and start using them, I notice that more people have started “favoriting” my tweets and following me.  How or why these hashtags come to be I have no idea.  I came across one that was #HappyBatmanDay.  Was it Batman Day anywhere else in the world other than Twitter?  Who knows.  But I tweeted:

And somebody who I don’t know “favorited” my tweet and started following me.  It was a Twitter miracle!

I still think that the whole concept of tweeting is frivolous and narcissistic, but suddenly, over the past few weeks, I can’t stop doing it.  A couple of years ago I started using my Twitter account to promote my blog.  Now I find myself in the odd position of using my blog to promote my Twitter account.

Follow me at @AndrewofAZ.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Give Me A Side of Toast With That Toast

Through the years I’ve come up with lots of ideas for new restaurants.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.  (In fact, I’m positive I’m not the only one, because if nobody else besides me ever came up with ideas for new restaurants, and I’ve never opened up a restaurant, we’d literally have NO restaurants. And how sad would that be?)

As I mentioned in a previous blog post (click here for said post) I come up with lots of million-dollar ideas, but am just too lazy and unmotivated to actually execute them.  My restaurant ideas are no exception.  For example, a good 20 years ago I came up with an idea for a vegetarian fast food chain restaurant called Very Veggie.  As a vegetarian who’s just too lazy and unmotivated to cook (are you noticing a pattern here?) I thought it would be horribly convenient to roll into a drive through where I can say, “Give me a tofu burger on a whole wheat bun—hold the kale,” without getting nasty looks.  But two decades after the original idea occurred to me, I have not lifted one pinky to get my Very Veggie idea off the ground. (And that includes both my own pinkies and those belonging to others.)

The Very Veggie idea is so 1994, though, that I’m completely over it.  Now it’s time to move on to some other great restaurant ideas that could potentially make me a fortune, but I’ll never actually do anything about.  Recently, my wife and I had brunch at The Good Egg, an Arizona chain restaurant that specializes in breakfast items, specifically—as you’ve probably guessed—eggs.  They have many other items on their menu and, in fact, neither my wife nor I ordered eggs on this particular visit, but eggs are their main area of eggspertise.  Ha, ha!  (Don’t worry, I’ll turn myself in to the pun police as soon as I’m done writing this.)

As we ate our meal it occurred to me that there are chain restaurants devoted to most of the major breakfast foods.  In addition to The Good Egg, there’s IHOP for pancakes and Waffle House for waffles.  But as I pondered this phenomenon, I suddenly realized that there is no chain restaurant devoted to toast.  This is a market that must be tapped!

I would call this restaurant America’s Toast Wanted, and at this glorious eatery you would be able to get toast of any kind with any spread upon it that you could imagine. If a customer tells their waiter, “I’d like two pieces of wheat toast with cream cheese and a side of rye toast with margarine,” the waiter would not blink; he would simply take the order and deliver it promptly to the kitchen, where the chef would place the requested breads in some of the 300 toasters lining the walls.

You want a toasted sesame bagel with peanut butter on it?  We got it covered.  Pumpernickel toast with a schmear of orange marmalade?  Not a problem.  Cinnamon Toast Crunch?  Ah-ha!  You almost got us with that one, by trying to order cereal instead of toast.  Fortunately for you, it also occurred to me that there are no chain restaurants specifically devoted to cereals, so that’s on my radar, too.  It would be called Cereal Killers (have to credit my wife for that one) and at this establishment you could get every commercially available cereal known to man, as well as one known only to chimps.  (Don’t ask.)  You can also pour upon your cereal any milk that you desire—cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk.  If it exists in milk form we will have it in our kitchen. 

I’m sure by now everyone’s stomachs are rumbling as they consider the endless possibilities that toast and cereal restaurants have to offer.  Unfortunately, as I hope I’ve made crystal clear by now, I won’t be breaking ground on either of these restaurants any time soon.  So, if you want a slice of dinkelbrot toast with herb-lemon zest butter, or a bowl of Count Chocula with hemp milk, you’ll have to make it yourself.

Bon appetit! 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Utah Movie-Going Experience: Pleasantly Orderly or Strangely Authoritarian?

Last week the family went on our annual summer vacation. We went to Utah, which served a dual purpose— 1) my wife was going to a work conference in Salt Lake City, and 2) much of my wife’s family lives there, so we got to see many of her kinfolk who we haven’t seen in a few years. (I know I could have said “relatives,” but “kinfolk” is one of those rare words that both starts and ends with a “K,” making it particularly fun to say and write.)

While my wife attended her three-day conference, I took my two sons on a variety of outings. We went to the aquarium (for some reason my older son seemed to find the shrimp brine more interesting than the penguins); we went on a hike (which lasted all of about 10 minutes before my younger son got sight of a very tiny red beetle, jumped into my arms and wouldn’t stop screaming); and we went to the planetarium (where we found out that collectively, the thee of us would weigh 6,037 pounds on the sun.)

But of the various outings that we went on, the one that has lingered with me the most since returning to Arizona was our excursion to the movies. On the evening of Thursday, June 19, 2014, I took my boys to see “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The movie itself was good to very good (I laughed, I cried, I wondered why all the adults in the film had various European accents, but all the youth had standard American accents) but that is not what has been lingering in my mind for the past week. No, the thing that I simply can’t get out of my mind about my movie-going experience that night was that we had assigned seating. The concept has been swirling around in my brain ever since and I’m torn between loving and hating it.

That’s right, when we went to the Megaplex (and that was the actual name of the theater, not a generic term I’m applying here) and asked for one adult and two kids for the movie, the cashier turned her computer screen toward me and said, “Pick your seats.” My eloquent response was, “Uhhhhh…what?” She showed me a seating chart of the movie theater and told me to touch the screen to indicate the three seats that I wanted. I started nervously laughing and looking around, thinking that I might be on an episode of Candid Camera. (I know I just dated myself horribly with that reference.) I stared at the screen dumbly and said, “Sorry, I’m from Arizona. I’m not used to this.” I sensed the people in line behind me getting restless, so I finally took a shaky index finger to the screen and picked seats F5, F6, and F7.

We went inside and found our seats. The theater was relatively empty—maybe 40 people in an auditorium that looked like it could comfortably fit 250; and it remained that way throughout the entire film. As the movie played I wondered what would happen if I took my boys and sat in three different seats. Would an alarm sound? Would we be forcibly ejected from the theater? I decided not to risk it.

After the movie ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about the assigned seats. On the one hand it appealed to my sense of order. It really made no difference in a relatively empty theater, but if one were to go on a night that is almost sold out, how nice it would be to know you have definite seats waiting for you. On the other hand, I bristled at this authoritarian approach to movie seating, in which you can’t just walk into the theater and decide where to sit at the spur of the moment, based upon the cell phone usage and/or odor of the other patrons in the theater. I was torn.

I also wondered if the theater we went to was an anomaly in assigning seats, or if this was standard practice in Utah. The next night I got my answer. After my wife’s conference sessions were over we went out to dessert with my brother-in-law and his wife. I told them about our movie-going experience and asked if picking seats ahead of time was normal. My brother-in-law looked at me like I was some sort of barbarian.

“You mean they don’t have assigned seats in Arizona?” he asked, incredulously. He seemed somewhere between bemused and disgusted that we would just walk into a theater and have to find our own seats, and implied that Arizona was living in the stone age.

For days afterward I wondered if he was right about our state being woefully behind the times. I decided to do some research (that’s right, this blog contains real research!) and sent messages to friends from 20 different states asking if they have assigned seating in movie theaters, and got responses from 18 of them. As it turns out, if Arizona is behind the times in assigning seats, so is almost every other state in the union.

Most of the responses I got were along the lines of, “Assigned seats? That’s just weird. We sit wherever we want.” The best response I got was from a friend in Massachusetts, who said, “It’s open seating here. This being the birthplace of freedom, and all that.”

Indeed, of the 18 responses I got, 13 were definitive in that there was no assigned seating in the movie theaters where they lived. Those responses were from Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and Tennessee. My sources in Ohio and Texas both told me the answer was “No” accept for some “dine-in” movie theaters, which were the exception. My source in New York said, “No” accept for home high-end theaters, which she doesn’t frequent. (Being from New York myself, I certainly never came across assigned seating, but then again, I haven’t seen a movie there since 1998, so I was thankful to get current information.)

The information I got from New Jersey was a tad ambiguous. My source there said, “I like to purchase my tickets in advance and pick the seats ... however, it doesn't always work out that way. Inevitably someone is ALWAYS sitting in our seats.” So it seems that there they have assigned seating, but people don’t actually pay attention to the seat numbers. (Is it coming as a shock to anyone that in Utah the movie patrons are following the rules, but in New Jersey they’re not?)

And finally, there’s California. I actually asked three different people from “The Golden State” about this and got the same response from all of them—basically, “It depends.” The nicer theaters seem to have assigned seating and the crappier ones, not so much.

So what does all this in-depth journalism tell us? Well, it seems that Utah is on the cutting edge of the movie-going experience…or perhaps, they’re just WAY too organized compared to other states. In either case, I’m just going to stick to Netflix for a while, as I’m still not sure now how I fell about my state’s ancient movie seating methods.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father's Day Blog

My dad passed away in 1986, a little over a month before I turned 17.  It was sudden—no long illness—just a massive heart attack in his sleep and he was gone.  We were all shocked and devastated.  But it’s not my intent to write a depressing blog about that time in my life; it’s my intent to write about what came before.

The two words that always come to mind when I think of my dad are intelligent and funny.  Just saying those words on their own, though, doesn’t seem to do him justice.  It’s more like “fiercely intelligent” and “ridiculously funny”.

It seemed like my dad had an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything.  He was an optometrist, so, as one might expect, he knew a lot about the sciences, but his knowledge of science went way beyond the biology and physics that were necessary for his career.  He had a deep love for meteorology and it was clear from the conversations he often had with the television screen that he knew significantly more about the topic than the weather guy on the local news.

But my dad’s knowledge was not limited to science; he seemed equally comfortable discussing history, geography, politics, and literature.  He would freely quote the works of William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe.  There were times when we thought that he was randomly spouting gibberish, but we figured out years later that he was reciting passages from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Cantebury Tales off the top of his head.  This sort of amazes me to this day, because I was an English Literature major in college, and even when I was actively studying The Cantebury Tales I couldn’t quote it off the top of my head.

My dad did “voices.”  When he told a story about real events from his past he gave every character a unique voice.  But the interesting part is that rather than attempt to imitate the person’s actual voice, he would give them a voice that better fit their personality and/or the circumstances within the story.  This made for much more entertaining reminiscences, as his friends often sounded like Peter Lorre and Cary Grant.  (For more thoughts on my dad’s story telling skills click here.)

Another frequent source of amusement from my dad was his spontaneous, topical song parodies.  For example, during the 1976 presidential election cycle my dad was depressed by the choice between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, as he thought they were both clueless.  One night (possibly after a televised debate—but I can’t swear to that) he started singing his own version of the Fiddler on the Roof song “Far From the Home I Love.”  He changed the lyric that was originally “Oh, what a melancholy choice this is/Wanting home, wanting him,” to “Oh, what a melancholy choice this is/An idiot, an imbecile.”  It was moments like these peppered throughout my childhood, that likely prepared me to work at MAD magazine when I graduated from college.

These days I think of my dad most often when I attempt to wake up my oldest son in the mornings.  My son does not wake up easily and when I was a young boy, neither did I.  This was a major source of contention between my dad and I, and it used to enrage me that he was so perky in the mornings while I desperately wanted to stay in bed.  He used a variety of techniques to wake me up—which I now employ on my own son—including singing, tickling, and anthropomorphizing stuffed animals.  The method that used to irritate me the most was when he flicked my earlobes.  Because I remember despising that technique so much, I almost never employ it myself.  But this morning, in honor of Father’s Day, I decided to try it myself.  I went into my son’s room, told him to wake up, and when he didn’t respond, I flicked his right earlobe.  He swatted me away and turned over, so I flicked his left earlobe.  He swatted me away and turned over again.  I chuckled to myself and walked out of the room.  I didn’t actually need to wake my son up—I just wanted to honor my dad.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Feeding Ducks in Heat

A little over a mile from our house is a man-made lake…or pond…or moat. Really, I’m not quite sure what the body of water is considered to be, but I am relatively certain it is man-made.  Every few months we take the kids to this watery spot—a bag of old bread in hand—to feed the ducks that reside there.  It’s a cheap, fun activity to do with our boys and the ducks can’t seem to get enough of our stale bread and crackers.

This past weekend, after noticing that half a baguette that had been purchased earlier in the week had gone uneaten, I decided it was high time to pay the local water fowl a visit. I mentioned the idea to my boys on Friday night and they were quite excited, but the next day my 7-year-old had lost interest.

“It’s too hot out to feed the ducks,” he said, even though he hadn’t been outside or heard a weather report.  Of course, we live in Chandler, Arizona and it was May 31st, so I suppose he took an educated guess that the heat would be oppressive.  Turns out he was right.

Leaving my older son behind to construct functional aircrafts out of Legos under his mother’s watchful eye, I took my 5-year-old to the lake-pond-moat. As we walked along the banks there was nary a duck to be found. Clearly, the 104-degree heat was not something they wanted to be swimming about in.  Perhaps they had more sense than us.

Eventually, as we walked I spotted a lone duck on the opposite shore about 80 yards away.  I pointed it out to my son.

“That duck is just taunting us,” he said.

(I’m going to pause here to point out that when it comes to my son’s vocabulary I am a boorish, braggart dad.  Some dads are this way about their kids’ athletic abilities or artistic skills, but for me it’s all about the ease with which my boy—who is first entering kindergarten in two months—navigates the English language. All of the quotes I’ve attributed to him in this article are verbatim and none were the result of paternal prodding.)

I suggested that we just start throwing bread in the general direction of the duck to see if he would take notice.  My son surveyed the situation and his brow furrowed.

“I think those rocks are too close to the surface,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He went on to explain that he thought the water was too shallow where we were standing and the duck what have a tough time getting around the rocks to get to the food.  He was genuinely concerned, so we walked about 25 feet due north to a spot where the water was deeper.  As we walked, the duck started swimming toward us even though we hadn’t thrown any bread yet.

Once we stopped and started hurling bits of baguette into the water the duck picked up his pace and began eating our feast.  The fact that this duck was all by his lonesome, without any of his brethren in sight, was pretty unique.  Usually we feed dozens at a time.

“This duck must be pretty happy he gets all of this bread to himself,” I said.

“Yeah, maybe he’s thinking ‘this is my lifelong dream,’” my son laughed.

After a few minutes the duck’s lifelong dream ended, however, when two other ducks took notice and swam over.  A minute or so later a couple more came over. And then…

“Look, a whole swarm is coming,” my son said, pointing.

Soon about 15 ducks were nibbling on the bread that was originally meant to go with our pasta dinner the previous Tuesday.  Considering the small amount of bread and large amount of ducks, the competition to get the eats was pretty fierce.

“I’m voting for the mallard team,” my son said.

“Uh…what?” I asked.

“I’m voting for the mallard team,” he repeated.  After staring at my son dumbly for several seconds, he said, “The ones with the green heads.”

“Ohhhh. I see. You think the mallards will get most of the bread,” I said, feeling a bit out of my depth talking about specific duck species.

“Yeah,” he laughed, tossing some more bread into the water.

It was only then, while proudly looking at my ridiculously well-spoken son, that I noticed the amount of sweat pouring down his face could best be measured in liters.

“Hey, you look really hot. What do you say we stop feeding the ducks and go get a drink?” I offered.

“Okay,” he said. And just like that it was bye-bye mallards and hello orange juice.

I’ll probably wait until October to take my son to feed the ducks again.  Not only will it cool off by then, but it will also give me time to study up on water fowl taxonomy. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Past and Present Tense

I’m writing this blog by hand! Okay, well, this is the version typed into my computer after having written it by hand, so you’re losing the spontaneity, but the point is that these words were originally written with a Uniball Vision fine-tipped pen (black ink) in a spiral notebook (wide-ruled).

And it was kind of weird writing in the past tense—as though I’d already written this thing I was writing at the time—but it seemed the thing to do, since I knew that later I’d have to type it anyway, so if I used the present tense while typing up something I’d already written, it would seem disingenuous.

I suppose I could have written this whole thing in the present tense when handwriting it in the notebook originally, and then just scanned in the original pages and posted that version to my blog, but honestly, my handwriting isn’t very legible to begin with, and I happen to be writing this while on an airplane experiencing turbulence, so the likelihood of you being able to make out much of what I wrote would be slim to none. (Although, ironically, while I was writing that last sentence, the turbulence calmed down considerably, so the writing wasn’t that bad.)

And I now realize that with all this self-reflection—and moving back and forth between present and past tenses, as though I were an extra in the film “Memento”—I’ve strayed horribly far from the point I was trying to make in the very first sentence of this blog. I’m writing this by hand!

I have my laptop with me, but the battery is running low after playing three games of Scrabble in which I was humiliated by the computer; so I decided to power down and put away the laptop so I didn’t have to look at his smug little screen anymore.

Now I’ve whipped out the notebook and am writing hand to paper. I’m making a big deal about this, because these days, who writes this way anymore? Seriously, I’m having a hard time remembering the last time I sat down and wrote by hand for as long as I’ve been doing since I started writing this entry. And that’s probably another reason that my handwriting is so lousy. I’m out of practice. And I bet you are too. And you. And you. And especially you.

Writing by hand is a lost art, like metallurgy and phrenology. Computers may be convenient and efficient, but if by using them we sacrifice our penmanship, are we not eroding our very humanity? Give a man a pen and he can write for a day; teach a man to pen and he can write for a lifetime. Okay, I’ll admit I’m going off the rails a bit here, but I’ve been in the air for the past three hours and I’m starting to go a little stir crazy.

Anyway the point is/was…um…not really sure anymore. I’m fairly certain there was a point at one time, but I think I’ve become so distracted by the process of writing by hand that whatever the point was is lost somewhere in the ink.

And if you’ve read this far, I apologize. Nobody should be subjected to the hopeless ramblings of a man using a tool as antiquated as a pen. I assure you that my next blog entry will be written on a computer. (I mean, the original blog will be written on a computer. Obviously this blog was written—in the sense of typed—on a computer, but that was only after this blog was first written—in the sense of created—with pen and paper. But I think you got all that.)

I’ll be quiet now.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ten Solid Predictions for the 2014 Major League Baseball Season

With the start of the MLB regular season coming tomorrow and the scent of peanuts, crackerjacks, and outrageously-priced stale beer invading our nostrils, it is time to turn our attention to America’s favorite pastime. (And no, I don’t acknowledge the two games played between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in Australia as the start of the regular season. If baseball isn’t played in the good ole US of A it ain’t baseball. That’s right, in my eyes the Toronto Blue Jays only have an 81 game season.) In any event, below are ten ironclad, foolproof, take ‘em to the bank predictions for the 2014 baseball season…

1. After the revelation that Alex Rodriguez was taking illegal gummies, MLB will institute new urine testing procedures that can detect the presence of Twizzlers, Kit Kats, Starburst and Butterfingers, just to be safe.

2. Suddenly realizing there’s still one good player left on his team, Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria trades 2013 Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez to the Atlanta Braves for a bottle of Jim Beam and three restaurant gift cards to be named later.

3. In an effort to outdo last year’s beard growing antics, Red Sox team members will instead see who can sport the most outrageous facial piercings.

4. A scant 45 minutes after getting hit in the head by a meteorite, Miguel Cabrera still goes three for five with two homeruns and four RBI.

5. In an unprecedented move during a Rangers-Mariners game, umpire Joe West suddenly ejects all of the other umpires because they told a joke during the 7th inning stretch and he didn’t get the punch line.

6. Rookie base-stealing sensation Billy Hamilton gets overzealous after drawing a walk and proceeds to steal second, third, home and the batter’s box while Kyle Lohse is still in the stretch position.

7.  Halfway through the season Cal Ripken makes a surprise comeback and ends up playing more games than Jacoby Ellsbury.

8. During a meaningless September snooze-fest between the Twins and the White Sox, the game is delayed by 23 minutes when the umpires huddle around a monitor to review a contested homerun ball, but instead get caught up in a rerun of “How I Met Your Mother.”

9. After running out of his own teammates and opposing players to antagonize, Yasiel Puig becomes the first player in baseball history to get ejected for getting into a fight with himself.

10. In an unprecedented move after the All-Star break, the Houston Astros decide to swap out their entire major league roster for their entire Triple A roster and end up going on a two game winning streak—their longest of the season.