Monday, November 10, 2014

When Black Friday Comes...

So, Black Friday is almost upon us once more. I remember, back in my younger days, I once partook in the Black Friday cluster bomb, getting up at five in the morning and venturing out alone (my family had no interest in such madness) in search of the great white deal. There, in the darkness of the outside world, I encountered a zombie-like horde of un-showered, over-caffeinated zealots waiting in long lines with their newspaper circulars rolled into saber-like tubes, ready to fend off evildoers and line skippers. That year, I had planned to go to Best Buy and Home Depot, but ended up only at OfficeMax (or maybe it was Staples, or Office Depot....All I remember was it was an office supply store with red and white signage) due to the lines around the block at the other two locations. I was looking to pick up a dirt-cheap computer monitor, but once I got into the store there were none to be had. That's when I learned the first trick of Black Friday...the Unrealistically Low Supply of Doorbuster Items.

I didn't leave empty-handed, however. Instead, I ended up with the following items. 

1. An office chair. We still use it, but we never really liked it. It's uncomfortable and crappy. And it isn't like you can toss it in the closet  to get it out of the way. So until the dog successfully rips the fake leather to shreds with her untrimmed claws, it's ours, and it's a constant reminder of my previous folly.

2. A laminator. Why? Because it was free. I didn't have any NEED for a laminator. I had nothing to laminate. And I soon discovered that a package of lamination sheets cost the same as your average above-ground swimming pool. The laminator is still in the original, sealed box somewhere in my attic. 

3. A spindle of CDs. Remember CD's? I still have about 75% of them left. I will probably never use them. 

I mean really...were any of these items worth waking up for? I love a good deal as much as the next cheap bastard. I drive my family nuts by refusing to go out to a restaurant without a coupon. Ask either of my children what daddy says when they ask to buy a bag of chips at a Turnpike rest stop for $1.25 when there are perfectly good snacks in the car, and they will respond by explaining that they aren't allowed to talk about the days when Angry Dad comes to visit.

The more I read about Black Friday hysteria, the more I think it is a conspiracy hatched by the media in conjunction with the government and retailers to suck every last ounce of soul out of every last American. I mean seriously, what idiot sets up a tent outside an electronics store, skips three days of work and Thanksgiving dinner with their family, with the end goal of picking up a $250 laptop that will likely catch fire the first time it has to save a file to PDF format?

I think it's a fine time to modify a classic cliche. You will never regret buying the best. You will, however, regret buying the cheap crap you find searching out the best Black Friday deals. 

This Friday after Thanksgiving, I'm sleeping in.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Apple Versus Android and the Gridiron of Life

Recently, over the dinner table, Thing #1 filled me in on a schoolyard conversation she had with a friend about smartphones. It went something like this:

Thing#1: Hey, what kind of phone is that?

Mean little boy who doesn't worship my daughter like he should: It's a Samsung running Android. Something you wouldn't know anything about, Apple Fangirl.

This left my daughter flustered and confused. Did she do something wrong? Did she somehow show off a lack of basic human knowledge? Did she just get bullied and not even realize it?

As she told me about this, I realized that she'd fallen into the same trap that I, as a kid, constantly fell into - just a trap with different subject matter. Stay with me here.

In my humble opinion, young sports fans are made, not born. And they are made through the careful cultivation, marination, and indoctrination by adult sports fans bringing their offspring into the fold. A kid is introduced to the Red Sox because his dad is a Sox fan, as was his dad before him. It's a rare occurrence that a kid will be born into a Sox family and have a thing for the Mariners. I suppose it
happens, but it's rare. It's really all about the parents' influence. A non-sports fan myself, I often found myself, as a kid, being somewhat picked on for my lack of sports-related current events. "Dude, did you see Dwight Evans last night? Oh wait, I forgot, you were probably working on some science project last night while the rest of us were watching the game. Too bad, so sad." (books promptly thrown into mud).

Well, times have changed. Apple, Google, and the like have created armies of fans and scores of opposing forces. Do a web search for "Apple versus Android" and get over 5.4 million hits. Look at the comments of any tech site, and trolls will be everywhere, inciting verbal violence between like-minded individuals.

So perhaps I'm making an assumption here, but I picture that this kid who confronted my daughter on her poor lack of smartphone knowledge at one time or another had "the talk" with his dad, which went something like this:

Kid: Dad, can I get an iphone?

Dad: Son, you can have any phone you want. But if you're going to live in this house, it's gotta be Android. In this house, we're all about the Green and White.

Kid: Dad, what's Android?

Dad: Only the best freaking OS in the big leagues.

Kid: Why? What makes it better than Apple?

Dad: Cuz Android's got the experience and the power to get things done. It's got the best development team in the industry, and they move the goal line forward constantly. Oh sure, Apple makes a pretty phone. but you don't win games by being pretty. You want your phone to look pretty and have a pretty little case with sparkles on it, get yourself a girly little iPhone. But if you wanna be a real man, you have to get Android.

Kid: Why?

Dad: Cuz you can do whatever you want with it. Root the OS. multitask. Download stuff from wherever you want.

Kid: I like the iPhone. It's got cool black and gray colors.

Dad: Son, I don't even know who you are anymore. Listen kid....if you want to be a sheep like the rest of them, get yourself an iPhone, but no son of MINE will be doing that.

Kid: Dad, it's just a phone. I just need it to text.

Dad: JUST A PHONE? Is Google Maps just a map? Is HTTPS just a protocol? The Android team has sweated their life away to bring you this thing of beauty. Come on son...get your game face on, we're headed to the store. Time for you to be indoctrinated.

So, apparently some of this rubbed off on the kid. Once happy with whatever shiny object was put in front of him, he now developed a finely tuned opinion, forced upon him by the intense pressure and fandom of his forefathers.

So, this is where we are as a society. Ebola is spreading. ISIS is attacking. The weather is getting more and more freakish on a daily basis. But at least we have our beloved teams to worship, every first Tuesday of the third month before the next tech industry financial results announcements come out, that time when new products are released. We can grab a beer, sit back in our easy chair, and watch the latest keynote presentation by an ubernerd who was never really trained to perform in from of a live audience as he demonstrates the latest in tech positioned to save the world from real productivity. And somewhere, out there, like-minded fans are rejoicing, because the latest Samsung now has a curved screen.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Does this make me a FitWit?

I'd like to take a moment and wax technological about the new trend in fitness technology. I know very little about this subject, and therefore feel fully qualified to write a blog post about it.

My company's health plan has a fitness program wrapped around it and, as part of the deal, I was provided with a shiny new FitBit Flex. Well, not shiny - actually more of a pale blue rubber thing. The idea is that I would use it to track my daily activity, sync that activity with my health plan website along with my thousands of coworkers, and somehow magically keep the planet in its proper rotation just by all of us walking a few extra steps each day.

So far, I've been less than impressed by this gadget, the technology, and the purpose behind it.

Let's start with the "fit" of this FitBit Flex. Take your favorite wristwatch, the one with the nicely worn-in leather band, the one that fits so perfectly that you never even notice it's there. Now, remove the leather band, and replace it with a non-slip rubber strip. and replace the watch face with a solid rectangle that, while thin, is about the size of one square from a Hershey bar and twice as thick, thus making the gadget stick out from your wrist like a pale blue tumor. Now, replace than nice buckle from your wristwatch band with this odd fastener that you must squeeze with all of your might in order to get one end of the band to attach to the other side and stay on your wrist. but make sure the doohicky is loose enough that the whole thing pops off your wrist the first time you accidentally brush your arm against a countertop. Yeah, they aren't winning any fans with the physical design of this thing. It took me only an hour to temporarily lose it when it popped off without me noticing, and another 45 minutes until I took it off and vowed never to wear it on my wrist again. For one thing, it makes using a computer mouse impossible, because it fails to slide across the desk as you move your mousing hand. Try putting a bunch of elastic bands around your wrist, and then try using the mouse for a little while. Annoying, ain't it? Luckily the thing works just was well if kept in your pants pocket.

Now for the tech. It's sole purpose in life is to track the steps you take. Big f'ing deal. I rarely sit still. I'm four paragraphs into this blog post and I already got up from my desk three times. If I'm going to increase my exercise level I'm not going to do it by taking an additional walk around the block. I'm going to do it by going to a fitness club. Or by taking a bike ride. Or by running. Or rowing. Or playing volleyball. But, with the exception of running, the FitBit doesn't take any of those aforementioned items into account when calculating your risk of death from a heart valve blockage next Thursday after dinner.

Yesterday my FitBit app on my iPhone informed me that I "blew past today's goal", with 1032 extra steps taken. That's nice, since a)I have no idea what my "goal" is, and b)I apparently blew past the goal as a result of mowing the lawn last night. Whoop Dee Do. My FitBit didn't care about the spinning class I went to early yesterday morning, or the hour of stretching and weight lifting I did after spinning. It congratulated me for mowing the lawn.

I'm on a crew team that rows Tuesday nights on the Allegheny river. My team and I rowed a solid five miles at race-level intensity for much of it, but my Fitbit didn't care. However, during the post-row barbecue, it made sure to measure every step I took as I walked around the boathouse wolfing down two hamburgers and a couple bottles of Corona.

I suppose I'm being a bit of a negative nelly here. The whole industry of fitness tracking is still in its infancy. Some day we will have a gadget that will warn us in advance when we're going to have a case of the hiccups, or remind us that the extra bag of peanut butter M&M's you're about to eat is going to get you .08% closer to becoming a diabetic. So until that time comes I will dutifully track my steps as I walk from my parked car to the office, as I wander through Costco in search of a great deal on thiry-eight pounds of muenster cheese, or as I mow the lawn. And in this way, perhaps I'll get us all .08% closer to saving the world.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Wolverines are dangerous creatures, after all.

As the token male of the family, It would appear that I am responsible for a number of key tasks around the house. One might say too many tasks. I'm sure that my fellow dads have the same issue in their own household. Here, I'm the grill master. The bug squasher. The closet purger. The handyman. The only one who will go within ten feet of a drain so clogged by toothpaste and hair gunk that it actually laughs at you if you dare threaten it with a dose of Draino and a drain snake.

We've gotten into a pattern around this house. It sounds something like this. Note that "her" pretty much refers to any member of the family that isn't me:

Her: Dad! Spider!
Me: Yeah? So?
Her: Kill it!
Me: You kill it!
Her: Uh uh. That's your job. I'm not going near no scary spider nuh uh.
(dad begrudgingly gets up from couch, squishes spider, and returns to couch)
Her: Did you wash your hands?
Me: Why would I do that? I used a tissue to squish it.
Her: You HAVE to wash your hands! Please dad, for god's sake, you're touching the couch after squishing an ooky spider!
Me: You don't seem to have a problem lying right where Daisy spent the last hour licking her own crotch.
Her: DAD!!!!!!
Me: Sigh...fine....if it will make you go away....

Basically, any time I hear someone in the house yell something that starts with "Dad!", I immediately cringe, realizing it means more work for me.

I started giving this a little thought and, frankly, I'm doing my children a great disservice by taking care of many of the tasks around the house that they could should be doing themselves. Tasks that they will need to know how to do in their later years if only to avoid blowing up the house or getting attacked by hungry wolverines. I mean, when will my kids learn to change their own batteries, for goodness sake?

So, I've decided it's time for a little survival boot camp.

After a modicum of consideration and perhaps a Sam Adams or two, I've come up with a list of practical, everyday tasks that Things #1 and #2 need to learn if they are ever to avoid that wolverine attack. Here's what I've come up with so far. Please feel free to suggest others.

  • How to run the lawn mower without losing a toe
  • How to use the leaf blower AND get the leaves to successfully form a pile
  • How to run the dishwasher. Wait - how to LOAD and run the dishwasher. There's an art to it properly, so you don't end up with bowls full of water and that one fork with the rice stuck in it, after all.
  • How to push that little red button on the GFCI outlet after attempting to run the hair dryer at the same time as the hair straightener and tripping the breaker.
  • How to stop the toilet from overflowing
  • How to use the plunger on a clogged toilet
  • How to clean the plunger after use
  • How to use a shovel
  • How to sweep the floor and not make it look worse than when you started
  • How to get dad another Sam Adams. Wait - how to get a Sam Adams AND pop the top
  • How to light the gas stove without blowing up the house.
  • How to turn off the gas stove so as not to blow up the house
  • How to call the fire department after you've blown up the house
  • How to use the vacuum cleaner
  • How to unclog the hair from the vacuum cleaner
  • How to unclog the hair from the drain
  • How to untangle the hair from the ceiling fan (don't's a thing)
  • How to clean that backside of the hairdryer, where all the dust collects
  • Yeah, there's issues with hair around this place.
  • How hanging a 5 lb. picture on a wall should involve a nail, not an entire roll of scotch tape.
  • How to hammer a nail
  • How to change a light bulb
  • How to close the freaking door behind you, what do you live in a barn?
  • How to put the vegetable drawer back on it's track in the fridge after you've pulled it out too far, rather than just jamming it in there with the refrigerator door half closed.
  • How to read an error message on the computer screen and remember what it said just before the computer ignited, rather than just telling me, "dad, something's wrong with the computer".
  • How to squish your own damned spider.
It seems I have a lot of work ahead of me. I'd better get another beer first.

I've made a huge mistake.

Back in my formative years, back before pudding was handed to you in a disposal plastic cup and its only protection from the elements was that deliciously rubbery skin, I had a bike.

This bike had a banana seat, sparkly green paint (it was a MANLY sparkly green), and a three-speed shifter on the down-tube that looked like it was cribbed from an Iroc-Z.

Back in those days, bikes were tough and made for abuse.  Like the other boys in my neighborhood with their banana-seat bikes, I would grab a scrap of plywood from dad's workshop to use as a makeshift ramp for jumping curbs. No helmets. No parents following closely behind. This led to my eventual enjoyment of single-track mountain biking as a young adult, something I still like to do when I'm not at the chiropractors office nursing a slipped disk. But rarely was there a day during the summer where I didn't just take the bike out on the street and ride back and forth for hours with little supervision and dreams that the banana seat was actually the driver's seat of that Iroc-Z, and Iroc-Z with one badass suspension made for jumping over curbs.

The mistake I've made is to teach my children how to ride a bike using current 21st century methods.

I remember getting them started on their little "Foxy" bike. 

Things #1 and #2 were taught how to coast and pedal carefully back and forth in the cul de sac. When a daughter fell off, dad was there to give her moral support and nurse the bleeding. They were taught to be so paranoid about helmets that they would refuse to be within ten feet of the bike without one. They were never taught what it was like to jump a curb. To build a ramp. To even stand up on the pedals. 

Now that the kids are 10 and 13, they should just want to pull their bikes out and disappear down the street, enjoying the sunshine. Instead a typical bike ride involves dad getting up early to strap everything to the car, fill water bottles, and pump up tires, then driving to the nearest rail trail, unstrapping everything, and leading the family in a ride. A STRAIGHT ride. No hills, no curbs, no crazy flying down a grassy hill only to flip over the handlebars, suck up the pain, and try it again. That's not biking. That's riding a monorail. 

I sense now that the kids view biking as a means to an end - dad means to get everyone outdoors and away from screens, and the kids mean to ride just long enough to make it to the nearest lunch place halfway down the rail trail. And in the end, dad drives home, the kids disappear into the house, and dad's stuck unstrapping those bikes again and storing them in the garage, to remain there until he, and only he, demands the next family bike ride.

I've made a huge mistake.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Child De-griming process

I recall one morning, a few years ago, when thing #1 woke up and announced that she still had shampoo in her hair, left over from the previous night's shower. She also announced that this was entirely her father's fault, because said father should have checked her hair before she got out of the shower.

Okay, let's back up a moment.

Thing #1 is ten years old at the time. For the previous three years before that, kid-degriming process in this household was as follows:

1. Parent tells child to get undressed for shower.
2. Parent turns on water and adjusts temperature.
3. Child takes off socks, but gets distracted by dog/ipod/dust bunny during undressing period.
4. Parents investigates whereabouts of child, and finds child mostly dressed, on floor playing with dog/ipod/dust bunny.
5. Parent announces child is wasting water, and to get butt undressed and into the bathroom.
6. Child finishes undressing, runs into bathroom, and decides she needs to pee.
7. Child accidentally flushes, causing shower to be too hot to use for next two minutes.
8. Parent adjusts water again.
9. Child enters shower, proceeds to slowly and gently soap various areas of body for next 18 minutes, eventually entering a hot-water induced zombie-like trance.
10. Parent asks, "Are you done yet?"
11. Child returns to reality, announces, "not yet!" and puts head partially under water.
12. Child shampoos partially wet hair, missing three quarters of it.
13. Child moves head partially under water again, re-entering trance and failing to remove 90% of shampoo, standing there for another 18 minutes. Front of hair remains dry.
14. Parent asks, "what in gods name is taking so long," opens curtain, grabs shower nozzle, and hoses off child's head while child ducks for cover and screams due to the possible risk of getting water in her ear or eyes. Parent switches shower massage output to "shotgun mode" in hopes of getting more shampoo out and distracting child from her fears through silliness of water spray. Water collects on floor and leaks to ceiling below, causing stain on kitchen ceiling to become ever-larger.
15. Parent shuts water, removes child from shower, and dries floor with available hand towels.
16. Parent complains to spouse, asking why, in ten years, child hasn't figured out how to shower herself yet.
17. Spouse says "see above."

Now let's fast-forward three years. Thing #1 is well entrenched in her early teen years, and as a result of a home renovation now has her own shower. At this age and in this situation, the kid-degriming process seems to be as follows:

1. Child announces she's going up for a shower.
2. Parents see child disappear upstairs, and hear shower turn on
3. A half hour elapses, and sound of shower is still heard. Parent trudges up the steps and opens bathroom door, hearing the distinctive sound of a child sitting in a tub filled several inches with water, swishing her body back and forth to create a small wave pool.
4. Parent startles the bejeebers out of kid by exclaiming, "why the heck are you still in the shower???"
5. Child finishes shower, then spends next half hour in parents' bathroom with the flatiron, getting her hair as Marcia Brady-flat as possible.
6. A few hours elapse, and parent enters master bathroom as part of bedtime ritual, promptly burning his or her hand upon discovery that child never unplugged the flatiron.
7. Repeat daily.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Many thanks to those of you who were able to come to the funeral and shiva for my mother this week, and thanks as well to those who could support and help us out in other ways during this difficult time. The outpouring of help, emotion and good wishes has been tremendous.

For those of you unable to make it to the funeral, I thought I would share the eulogy I gave, as well as the one from my dad. Grab a tissue for his.....

Life does not cease to be funny when people die, any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh. A quote by George Bernard Shaw, I feel that this is our family's credo

When I form a picture of my mom in my head from when I was growing up. I see her in the kitchen. Around her she has a stack of newspapers, three handwritten lists containing the phone numbers of people she needs to call every day, a checkbook-sized calendar, and a carefully organized box of coupons. 

The kitchen was mom's control center, her bridge. From there she managed the family, stayed in touch with her world around her, planned her grocery lists and told people what to do. She was always cooking, usually something for the next visit from a large crew of relatives, or the "Mongolian hoard" as she like to call them. A couple of weeks ago, I found a mysterious container of Tupperware in my freezer in Pittsburgh. I took it out and let it thaw, and discovered it was left over stuffed cabbage she brought on a previous trip out to visit. Even as six-month old leftovers, they tasted so good. I will miss that stuffed cabbage. 

As the strong and all-knowing matriarch of the family, mom served as the central processor for all information. She was Facebook, Google, WebMd, and the Hartford Courant all rolled into one, despite stubbornly refusing to even be in the same room as a computer. I will miss getting those cut outs from the Bristol Press with news about childhood teachers and friends whom I barely remember and could have looked up on the internet. 

Mom was always the martyr. When my wife and kids and I would come to visit, she would send dad out to join us to do whatever we had planned for the day, but would stay home herself so she could continue the cooking process and to be sure she wouldn't miss an important phone call.

Mom taught me many things growing up, and shaped me into who I am today. She taught me to be grounded. To feel empathy. To volunteer my time. To show pride on the world around me. She taught me to think for myself and to form my own opinions. 

I think my wife will agree that she also taught me to be frugal. Like mom, I'm never without a coupon. As a kid being dragged to Shop Rite for groceries, whenever I wanted a box of Frosted Flakes she would tell me they were on sale at "the other store". To this day I don't know where "the other store' is, but I use the same tactic on my own children today. 

Mom, and dad also taught me to care for my world around me. To care for others. To help in any way I can. To tirelessly volunteer. In many ways mom and dad have been LIONS first, parents second. But I mean this as a good thing, because the core values that they've learned and displayed throughout their many years as active Lions became their guiding principles when it came to raising kids.

With that, I want to read a portion of a get-well card that mom received in the mail the day she died. It's from Steve, a Lion and former general in the US Army Reserve, now retired to Arizona...
"You have always served as a shining example to me of what "WE SERVE" really means. I can think of no one I've known who so generously gives of themselves as you and Alan.

You and Alan have a depth of character and a strength of spirit that I know sustains you in difficult times. I hope it is of some comfort that you know that you are in the thoughts and prayers of so many people who regard you as very special. True Lions in every sense of the word. And the kind of people we would all do well to emulate."

There are no words that I can say
To tell you of my grief today
And so I write this simple poem
For I cannot take my Judy home
For 50 years we shared a life
For 50 years she was my wife
Together we have traveled wide
Hand in hand, she was my guide
She was my sail for every trip
She was the rudder of my ship
She was my compass and my friend
She lit the way at every bend
We danced, we sang, we laughed, we cried
Together always, side by side
We raised a family, built a home,
And navigated life's unknowns
And always, always she was there
To love, inspire, help and care
Opinions, yes, she had a few
And made them known to me and you,
But I found out more times than not
That she was right and I was not.
And so my friends I will not weep
For I have memories to keep
Memories of 50 years
Memories that need no tears
Sure, there are things we left undone
Things we two would have found fun
But I will do them all alone
While God's hand takes our Judy home.