Thursday, September 25, 2008

Like a deer in headlights.

Well that was an experience straight out of a Revenge Of The Nerds script.

A friend invited me to play on a community volleyball league. I knew very little details about this league, except that the friend is a former collegiate volleyball player and in fact played against that player from the Olympics with the tape on her shoulder. So I figured it had to be a reasonable league.

There was an intro clinic last night. I invited my neighbor Jim along.

We got there a bit early, so there was only one other person in the room. Jim and I are standing there talking, my back to the door. Suddenly Jim has this stare on him like a deer in headlights. I turn around to see the North Allegheny High school girls vBall team walk in, in uniform. All 6-feet and taller, with legs up to their necks. Some of them extremely intimidating. Jim leans over and asks, "what the f** did you get me into?" I believe I replied with some sort of blubbering sound.

Turns out they had just finished a game, so their coach (the neighbor of mine) asked them to come and help with the clinic. All in all really fun night. The girls mostly kicked our asses but we managed not to injure ourselves. And I actually learned a few things. Like how I completely wasted my high school years. Again.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Don't try to talk me out of it.

Well, that was quick. Last week I was debating whether or not all the repairs I've been putting into our cars lately still make it cheaper than having a car payment. This week we're unloading the old blue mare for a new Subaru. There we go doing something impractical again. Well, SOMEONE has to fund the economy, I guess.

I was asked how it would feel getting rid of my ten-year-old Mazda 626, given we have had it longer than we've had our children. Sure, it's like selling a child, but in return we get a new one that is quieter, behaves better, and doesn't make a mess on the floor. If I could do that with my kids I would replace them too. And when my wife asks me if I would trade her in for a younger, faster model, I tell her yes and to leave me alone. Ah, "me" time!

This was a week of endless moral struggle. Do we do the theoretically-environmental thing and buy a hybrid? Do we go for gas mileage over comfort? Do we finance? Do we sell or trade in? Do we go with Obsidian Black, Spark Silver Metallic, or Satin White Pearl? Are we stupid for not waiting? Are we helping the terrorists? Does the fact that some guy on the internet called our new car's interior "craptastic" have any bearing? And is he comparing that to, say, a Yugo, or an Aston-Martin DB9? Man, what a stressful and unproductive week.

Truth is, we are only looking for a few things in a new car. Safety is #1 on my wife's list (I haven't told her yet that what I REALLY want is a motorcycle...or a jetpack...but that's a whole other issue). #2 is an Auto-stick. Actually I want a standard transmission, but she can't drive a standard, so an Auto-stick is the next best thing and will probably keep me from trashing my clutch in the end. #3 is an iPod connector. And I'm not talking some flimsy AUX port, but a real iPod dock connection so I can blast Depeche Mode with full digital clarity. And lastly, I want a solution for staving off a midlife crisis. I need to buy a car that, in eight short years, I could foresee handing down to my daughter once she starts driving, and sneaking out the back door one day to come home with a Boxter (or, by then, a jetpack).

In the end it came down to a Subaru Impreza (no, not the WRX...I really don't need to wrap myself around a Jersey barrier) or a Honda Fit. On paper and in my brain the Fit makes so much more sense. It's cheaper, much better on gas, more practical, more spacious. But when it came right down to it, I liked the Suby better. And in the end I found three winning justifications. First, which car could I see handing down to my daughter? Second, which car would get my wife to stop chickening out every time we wanted to drive a long distance in winter time when there might be a threat of snow? And third, do we really need another minivan (we have an Odyssey already)? So the Subaru (or as it's already been nicknamed, the Scoobydoo) comes out victorious. This damned thing better last for 300,000 miles like people say they do, or I'm never going to hear the end of it.

Now the question has come of what to do with the Mazda. I was planning on trading it in, but then my coworker expressed some interest in taking it off my hands. Knowing that my coworker's car, a Buick he picked up for $6k a year ago and has since spent an equal amount repairing, had a far worse record than mine, I didn't really feel uncomfortable selling my car to someone I knew. Plus I gave him full disclosure that included a complete maintenance log along with a detailed account of every gripe I ever had with the car. This included the possessed radio volume knob, the broken electric antenna, and the mystery rattle coming from somewhere around the catalytic converter. Despite that, it will likely be a done deal once my coworker gets the required SSA (second-spouse approval).

But to make things a bit more interesting, it turns out that this car would be for my coworker's son. And the son got money to buy the car from his grandfather. And the grandfather was my main professor in college. How's that for cosmic lattice of coincidence? So I'm thinking this car had better work out for him or else I risk having my Bachelor of Science revoked.

BTW many thanks to Dave in Texas who gave me perhaps the most detailed honest opinions on everything car-related I could have imagined, from tips on color selection to match my eyes to interest-bearing savings accounts from ING Direct. If I could have flown him up here to go shop for a car for me, I would have. Kudos as well to my friend Howard for introducing me to this OCD-riddled gearhead.

Pictures of my new child will be forthcoming once I actually buy the thing and get the roof rack installed. Hmm...if only one of my daughters came with a roof rack.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Look! Same Great Taste!

My mama brought me up right. And by "right" I mean "as a cheap bastard". Despite not being the primary grocery shopper in the household (except when I get those 4:30pm calls to pick up sour cream on the way home from work), I regularly clip coupons, scour the local ads, and watch for sales on canned pineapple. Yes, it's a sad life really. If only my mom had let me play sports in school.

It appears that society has invented all the food products that need to be invented. All the vegetables have been discovered. We've killed every animal that looks like it might be tasty with BBQ sauce slathered on its hindquarters. So what's a manufacturer to do in order to keep our interests? Well, it seems that for quite some time now, selling the simple Oreo is no longer enough. Today, Oreos must be double-stuffed. And Chocolate coated. And inside out. And pink. And dare I say it, fried. Manufacturers are continually putting new spins on old products that are really nothing more than new packaging. How often have you seen a label on a box that says, "New Look! Same Great Taste!" Look honey! Our favorite Ritz Crackers now come in a big zipper pack, pre-crushed!

Recently my wife reported that Keebler now has a new Graham Cracker offering. It seems that the Keebler Elves held a focus group and determined that the average American was struggling with the task of breaking those rectangular crackers in half in order to construct a S'more. Oh, those jagged edges. Those accidental trapezoidal crackers. At last Keebler answered our call by producing a square graham cracker. Brilliant. Now if they would just get rid of the danged plastic wrap that you can't re-seal, so that after eating one cracker the rest don't go stale resting on the kitchen counter overnight.

Our local supermarket is considering building an entire wing on the store, solely dedicated to the sale of "100 Calorie Packs". Who decided 100 was the right number of calories? Is 100 calories worth of hostess cupcakes somehow better than, oh say, NO cupcakes? Or a pear? And why the hell does a potato chip that previously came in a large bag now have to be supplied in eighteen tiny bags, all packaged inside a box? Did someone recently decide there wasn't enough trash being thrown out in America? Are Americans not smart enough to control their own portion sizes? Okay, you got me on that one.

And then there's the ice cream I bought recently. Edy's "American Idol" flavors. Mint chocolate chip ice cream with special, more colorful packaging, and chopped up pieces of David Archuleta's dulcet tones mixed in. Fact is, it's still mint chip ice cream, but they charge extra for the swell hairdo on the container.

I am constantly astounded by the seemingly annual innovations released by the Kraft company to make Mac 'n Cheese that much more mindless to make. First, there was a box of noodles with a packet of powdered cheese dust. But Kraft realized the hardship of having to boil water in the old fashioned "heat it with fire" way. So they changed it up so you could quickly radiate the noodle water with but a modicum of effort. But then they realized what a hassle it was to actually was use a bowl. So not the noodles and cheese come pre-bowled. Just pour water in and nuke. Brilliant. I can't wait for the pre-chewed noodles to come out.

Alright, back to my coupon clipping. Oh look! Lego-shaped Eggos are on sale. Nifty. And part of this nutritious breakfast (of eggs, milk, Flinstones Chewable Vitamins, antioxidant-laced chai tea, and persimmons)!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Still cheaper than a car payment, or is it?

My wife and I haven't had to make a car payment in about 5 years. And its been swell. Her Odyssey has always been dependable, as has my Mazda 626. In the 9 years I've had it, I replaced a leaky coolant overflow tank and unplugged the electric radio antenna when it broke. Otherwise, no problems that a brake job or new tires couldn't resolve.

But then I did something stupid. I read the direction book.

Any car guy knows (not that I am one myself, I'm just sayin') that somewhere after a car hits 100k it's time to get the timing belt replaced. So at 107k, I decided to tighten the belt, so to speak, and cough up the 800 bucks to get it done. Unfortunately that $800 bill quickly doubled when the mechanic discovered that not only was the belt completely shot, but so were the pulleys it was riding on. All that and a couple other odds and ends brought forth a $1600 charge on my visa. Oh well, at least this means my baby's good for another 100k, right?


Since that visit to the shop a month ago, the muffler pipe rusted off, costing me another $350. Well, that was last week. Today I pulled into my driveway and noticed steam coming from the hood. It appears the radiator decided to suddenly empty itself. Through a hole in its side.

Okay, so let's say that radiator costs $300 to fix. Still, you say, that means I've only put $2250 into a car to give it some needed updating, right? Well sure. HOWEVER, the week after the ordeal with the timing belt, the Odyssey decided to develop an evil shudder that lead to $800 in brake work. And last Sunday, I blew out a tire - of course, not the tire that had the warranty or road hazard protection, but one of the older tires that would have just squeaked by inspection, which lead to another $350 for two new tires. So in the past month we're surpassing $3k in car repairs. And neither car has actually had its annual inspection yet.

Today, we realized something. If we hold onto both cars as long as we can, chances are good that both cars will need to be replaced at the same time. I'm not ready for two car payments. A friend of mine went through that. He took his wife shopping for a new car and, as he pulled into a dealer lot, his current car did an imitation of the Bluesmobile after the final chase scene of Blues Brothers ended. The next day he was the proud owner of a Prius AND a Highlander with two nice shiny car payments to boot.

I'm starting to think my Zoom Zoom's gotta go out back for a talkin' to Old Yeller style.

There are two things that suck most about this:

1. It would mean basically throwing away two grand worth of car repairs
2. Given the state of gas prices, the economy, and the dearth of cars that get good mileage, I have absolutely no idea what to buy right now, nor do I want to buy right now.

Ironically if it does go, I won't miss this car too much. It's been good to me, but it's just a car. Before that I had a Wrangler. I miss my Wrangler. And before that, I had a Ford Probe. I miss that too.

Well, tune in tomorrow when our hero says, "you want how much???"

Friday, September 12, 2008

Oh, if we could do it all over again

This just reeks of class, I'll tell you what. Click here to feel good about yourself again.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Peanut butter and Jewry

A friend forwarded me this link to a story about a town in Alabama, known as the Peanut Capital of the World, that is offering financial aid upwards of $50,000 to Jewish families willing to relocate there in hopes of increasing its Jewish population. The town is just minutes from the Florida border (I hear there's Jews there!) and is "dotted with big fiberglass peanuts painted to resemble characters and people — there's even an Elvis peanut."

Someone needs to tell these good folks that peanuts ain't kosher for Passover.

Par-Tay for whom, exactly?

Okay, someone obviously ain't reading my blog. If they did, they'd know that I ain't no fan of playsets.

My daughter's 8th birthday party was this past weekend, which means there's a new pile of crap (and I mean that in the nicest way) to unleash on the playroom. There's the set of High School Musical bedsheets, the Paint-Your-own Wall clock, and the Smoothie Maker. And hidden away amongst the rubble, unfortunately, are a couple of playsets.

Okay, the Barbie The Baker set was bad enough, but I have to wonder what the product designers were thinking when they came up with the Polly Pockets Club Groove Par-Tay Bus.

The concept seemed simple enough. It's the ultimate ride with a dance club inside! Take two vapid blonde bimbo girl dolls with microphones, and package them up in a rock-themed party van that blatantly rips off the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine. Make the van magically transform into a sound stage complete with disco ball, turntables, velvet ropes, and elevator. And if that didn't make enough sense for you, make the conversion from van to sound stage so complex that a parent is required to read eight pages of instructions and review a detailed schematic designed on a CAD program in order to figure out how to convert the exhaust manifold of the minivan into a dressing room. You read that right.

Transformers have always been amazing feats of engineering. This thing is not. To convert from a van to a stage, you must disassemble all the pieces, and then attach them in completely non-logical ways. The roof of the van becomes an elevator. The rear bumper, a bench seat. The front windshield, a second-story balcony. The disco ball, well, that is just a disco ball. There are 48 pieces smaller than a thimble. There is also no way of storing these pieces when not in use. After thirty minutes of trying to make sense of the directions, my daughter looked at me and said, "dad, wanna go play with the Wii?"

The pile of pieces have been sitting in the corner of the living room since yesterday afternoon, untouched.

So people, remember...playsets look great in the box, and that's where they should stay. Save the planet, save the landfills, and most importantly keep the dad from having a stress-induced coronary.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Father of the year nomination

Every once in a while I manage to get up off my butt and transform myself into what would appear to be a reasonably cool dad. I should do that more often, because soon enough no matter how hard I try my daughters will eventually see me as the dork that I truly am and not want to be found anywhere near me. Yesterday was one of these special occasions, being the date of Natalie's 8th birthday party. Remember that scene in the movie "Parenthood" when Steve Martin dresses up as a cowboy and appears at his son's birthday party on a real horse? I was shooting for that level of amazement, though I think I managed somewhere on the safe end of the range between Steve Martin and that guy who tried to sell his kids to a Phillipino sweatshop.

It appears that birthday #8 is one of the last hurrahs, the last time parents seem to be required to go all out and spend hundreds of dollars on pony rides, Build-A-Bear reservations, or moon bounces before the next year when sleepovers become the norm. However, being the cheap scrooge that I am, I was determined to resurrect the idea of a good ol' backyard barbecue rather than feeding the consumerism machine. Lucky for me, those fine folks in Beijing gave me an idea. I sold Natalie on the idea of a Backyard Olympics, complete with opening ceremonies, team competition and gold medals.

The night before the big event, I spent hours hot-gluing chocolate coins to ribbons and coming up with goofy names for picnic games like the Hangin' On By A Thread Tug-O-War and the Hanna Montana Banana Bonanza, while the wife dutifully gathered plasticware and drink boxes.

Somewhat unexpectedly, every girl that Natalie invited to the party accepted the invitation, meaning we were host to 23 screaming little girls, a number that even in their heyday was probably daunting to folks like The Beatles and Vanilla Ice.

My evil plan for the day included a number of backyard games involving potato sacks, water balloons, and blindfolds. The girls were divided into two teams (the Pink Cyclones and Purple Infernos). The opening ceremonies began to the Olympic Fanfare playing on the outdoor speakers (thank you peer-to-peer sharing sites) and, while I decided to forgo the two thousand and eight synchronized drummers for budget purposes, I even had the birthday girl ascend the steps of the deck to light the Olympic Tiki Torch and announce the start of the games.

Overall the competition was quite a success and conveniently ended with a tie between the two teams. The injury list was low, with only one skinned knee, a bee sting, and some rope burn. The highlight of the games came at the end of the water balloons, when one of the more astute (read: evil) children discovered the stash of extra water ballons and gathered her fellow Olympiads together in a terrorist plot to turn the World's Coolest Dad into the World's Wettest Dad. The plan worked, especially when the hired help (our babysitter) assisted by grabbing a handy five-gallon bucket of water and dumping it on my head (she's like totally fired, by the way). I also found that I am no match for 23 little girls in a tug-o-war.

At the end of the day, when the girls dragged their exhausted limbs home coming down from highs of frosting, chips, and adrenaline, as if being one heck of a party host wasn't enough the birthday girl insisted that I join her on a test run of one her new gifts, the Hannah Montana Wii game. It was then that she learned that her World's Coolest Dad has the musical rhythm of your average bowl of Oatmeal. Well, you win some, you lose some.