December 2001


We have two dogs now, as you probably remember. It’s been interesting.

Before, the golden retriever (Dixie) was a bit too boisterous for me. She has been trained over time not to jump up on us and not to do other annoying things but she still bolted into the house too fast, sniffed things too much, licked hands too often and generally made you wish you had taken her to obedience school long ago.

Not any more. Now she is exhausted by Benji the ragamuffin. Either that or, next to Benji, she just seems the calmer of the two. Either way, now that they have each other to play with, life is better. They spend a lot of time rough-housing and by the end of the day they both just collapse on the floor and sleep the night away.

They’re each so different that you’d think that we would just double our trouble but I guess we got lucky. Dixie is 50 pounds, Benji only 15. Dixie has long silky gold hair; Benji has short course wiry hair. Dixie is slow to accelerate but has a top speed of at least 30 miles an hour. Benji can’t go too fast but he’s as quick as a snake and can change direction instantaneously. It’s funny to watch them wrestling. Dixie is one color. Benji is several colors right down to his claws: black on the right, blonde on the left. Except for the back feet where it’s reversed.

You can almost imagine what they’re thinking as they wrestle:

Benji: “Hey, look! I can hide under this table and dart out and bite your feet! HAH!”

Dixie: “Yeah well, that’s gonna be hard when I hold you down with one paw – Gotcha!”

SPLAT!

Benji: “Oof! Grunt! Grunt! Hey, get off!”

Dixie: “Ho Hum… OH… look! A little dog under my feet! How did you get there? I’ll bet I can get your entire head into my mouth at once – let’s see…. AAAHHHHH”

Benji: (wiggle wiggle) “OK, I’ve got you now! GRRRRRR GRRRRR GRRRRR”

Dixie: “Ouch! Hey you little piss ant! I’ll get you now; how’s about I go low and grab you where the sun don’t shine! HAH!”

Benji: “Whoa! HEY! That’s not fair you can’t bite me there!”

Dixie: “Oh yeah? Why? You don’t need that thing any more anyway! I’ve been to the vet; I know what they do to you there!”

Benji: “OK, under your legs I go…WHEEE!”

Dixie: “Come back here! Come out from under that table where I can get you!”

Benji: “Sorry, nobody home now. Come back later.”

Dixie: “Ok, I’ll just lay down here and roll over to expose my neck and tender regions as bait.”

Benji: “Surprise! GOTCHA!”

Dixie: “Who’s got who runt? GGRRRRR”

And on it goes, for many minutes at a time. Benji’s big problem is that he has such a short attention span. As soon as anyone stops paying attention to him, he goes in search of more entertainment usually in the form of shoes or stuffed animals – something that is found all over our house since nobody ever puts those things away. He’ll come in dragging one or the other with him with a purposeful manner. Once, he came in dragging a huge laundry bag that Evan and I brought back from a campout. He was determined to take the whole thing somewhere and do who knows what with the contents. He’s hard to punish since he immediately forgets what he was doing and there’s almost no time to scold him. He also thinks it’s cool to get up under the Christmas tree and hide amongst the presents until Dixie tries to follow and thus getting her in trouble.

Dixie is on to him though. When she wants to get rid of him, she will go get one of his chew bones. As soon as he expresses enough outrage to chase her, she’ll lead him away and “accidently” drop it. He will grab it and run away from her; she will watch him go and then casually stroll back to where she was and carry on without him. I didn’t think that dogs were supposed to be able to string those kinds of thoughts together but there you have it. She will also occasionally stand by the door as if she wants out. Benji goes everywhere she goes so when he hears the door open and dashes out, Dixie will just back up inside and walk away and look at you in the hopes you’ll shut the door and leave Benji out. Sometimes she’ll do the opposite; she will ask to be let in and when Benji dashes back into the house, she will just walk away and lay down on the porch as if to say “Whew! Glad he’s gone!”

They’re almost entertaining enough to justify the trouble they cause.

Well, it’s the height of the Christmas season and the campouts just don’t stop. Although they do move inside: The new year is just around the corner and the next year’s outings must be planned. The scoutmaster coerced the boys into chairs in front of a whiteboard and made them participate. Plan or else. They did pretty well.

We stayed in a most interesting place this past weekend: the weekend getaway of one of Tulsa’s oil barons from long ago – “Old Man Skelly”. I don’t know anything about him other than what I’ve seen which is that he had the same taste in weekend getaways as most other oilmen. The similar home of the elder of the Phillips oil family is now a museum and wildlife preserve. This one was very much like it: huge, stone, and remote. Not too shabby. It is now privately owned and we got a special chance to stay there. There were quite a few owners in between the Skelly family and now; one of which included conversion into a brothel. Try explaining that one to some of the younger boys.

One of the moms was trying to quietly share the history of the home with me and got to the brothel part and paused. She cleared her throat and tried to find the right word to describe the property’s usage when one of the boys jumped in and said “LOVE SHACK!” Problem solved – in a way.

There are said to be ghosts there. The former housekeeper is said to have quit because of supernatural harassment but to me it sounds more like a reason to quit and not have to commute out to the boonies. The younger boys were way too busy to give any thought to ghosts; why worry about that when the house is built on the edge of a cliff that just begs to be peed off of? Plus, someone had killed a deer and was in the process of cutting it up down the road so the boys had to go gross themselves out by the spectacle of all the blood and guts. Boys are boisterous – hence the word ‘boy’-strous. In Erin’s brownie troop, the little girls sit cross-legged in a circle without being told, put their hands in the laps and wait to be told what to do. What a difference!

No, it was the older young men who began to feel vaguely creepy when certain pieces of furniture began to be noticed to have moved in their absence. They really started to pack up their resolve when the TV began to turn on by itself. (Not entirely by itself: they didn’t notice the innocent looking rocket scientist in the corner making excellent use of his knowledge of physics with the remote control and mirror. People are so gullible.) Alas, my cover was blown when I was caught climbing into the attic to locate some suitably squeaky ceiling joists. If I had been more careful, I would have had them staying up all night protecting each other with big sticks.

The boys were also set to attend the “university” of dutch-oven cooking. Scouts are big believers in cast iron cookery, probably because it involves taking the pot and just laying it on top of the fire and then shoveling a bunch of hot coals onto the lid. The results are pretty amazing. It’s difficult to claim that I have ever eaten any better even in the finest restaurants. One of my personal favorite meals is chili. The scout way is to open a lunch-sized bag of Fritos and just shovel the chili in thus avoiding having to clean a bowl. If you’re good, you can squeeze the bag in the right place and avoid having to clean a spoon too. There’s where the restaurants begin to offer something over and above simply serving food. They have dishes and somebody else to clean them. All in all, this is very similar to the way I eat when Mel and the kids are at grandmas. In the past, I’ve had some female co-workers look aghast when I say that sometimes, I just put a can by itself on the burners and eat over the sink. In the Boy Scouts, I’m among my own kind.

We also tried to make fires without the use of matches. That was, sadly, a dismal failure but not like you might think. I had brought along one of those sparking things (I’m tempted to call it flint and steel but it wasn’t flint – it was some sort of metal but it sure sparked a lot) and a ziplock baggie of dryer lint. Everybody was able to light the lint with the spark but nobody was able to construct a pile of sticks that would take off from there. Perhaps next time. They were all able; however, to make a campfire with only about four matches. That’s not too bad.

When a cold front moved through and the rain started we were certainly glad we were indoors. The next year was planned and dates were settled upon. The ghosts were put to rest (drat the luck! Who would have thought those guys would go upstairs right then?) and a good time was had by all.

Every kid says funny and/or clever things sometimes. But that doesn’t stop me from assuming that my kids are the cleverest on earth. I’ve tried to keep track of some of the things they’ve said in the past and here is my attempt at rounding them all up and putting them in the same place. I’m so absent minded, this is the only way I can assure they aren’t forgotten forever.

Don’t you just hate it when parents subject you to stories about how cute their kids are? Don’t they just make you sick? Well, get ready and let the retching commence.

Evan has come out with some great one-liners. Here they are:

Evanisms: (spoken between ages 5 and 7)

Know who wrote The Nutcracker? Tchiakovsky! I guess he coughed and liked to ski.

Why is it called Pennsylvania? It doesn’t look like a pencil.

Why is it called a toilet? You don’t put toys in them.

You know those rocks in caves that hang down like icicles: those dirt-cicles?

Me: “Why don’t you like water in your eyes in the bathtub? You don’t mind it when you’re in the pool.”
Him: “There’s no shampoo in the pool.”

Daddy, why are they called lions? They don’t lie – they can’t even talk!

Daddy, I know why these are called scissors – because they have two halves. I guess each half is a scissor.

Daddy, I like making up silly words that don’t make any sense. I should be a newspaper writer!

Erinisms

Erin is less known for the one liner as the clever conversation. What follows are some examples.

Daddy, this is a magic teaching Teddy Bear. Put it under your pillow at night and it will teach you to sing opera. Like this:

She then proceeded to throw her head back, open her mouth as wide as it would go and sing Jingle Bells in an exaggerated vibrato. It’s difficult to describe; I’ve got some video tape of it somewhere though.

Me: “What did you say you were watching? SpongePop Scorpions?”

Erin: “Dad, I said “Sponge Bob SquarePants. See, he lives in the ocean and he’s a sponge. And his name is Bob. He’s square like a kitchen sponge so his pants are square. So, it’s called Sponge-Bob-Square-Pants. See? That makes sense. ‘Sponge Pop Scorpions’ is just silly.”

On the subject of birthdays:

Evan (age 11): “So, how old are you Dad? It’s like 50 or something right? Like, totally old.”

Erin (age 8): “Evan, he’s 41 and his birthday is December 18. Mom is 40 and her birthday is October first. You should know your own parents’ birthdays.”

Creativity:

“Look Dad, I made some dolls out of these rocks. See I drew faces on them and made little dresses. Their names are Roxanne and Crystal.”

Nostalgia: (Age 8, when visiting the church where she used to go to preschool)

“I remember back when I used to go to pre-school here. Everything was simpler then. Why is life so complicated now?”

And finally, some wordplay:

Why is reckless driving bad? If you drive and don’t have any wrecks isn’t that a good thing?

OK kids, gather around the tree. You’ve asked if Santa Claus is real and so I’m going to answer the question. Now, I want you to keep this to yourselves because some other kids’ parents either don’t want their kids to know the truth or they want to be the ones to tell their own kids but one way or the other, just keep this between us.

Life is complicated and there are not often simple answers. This is one of those times because there is a long answer and a short answer to your question. I’m going to give you both and you’re just going to have to be big kids and listen to the whole thing because the truth is like that; you have to know all of it, not just a part.

The short answer is: NO. There is not a fat man who sneaks into our house on Christmas Eve night and leaves presents. It’s really just Mom and I. But there is another longer answer. Listen to it and see if you don’t agree that YES, Santa Claus is really real.

Think back to a time long ago; longer than most of us can even understand – back to about the year 325. Think about how long ago that was and what was going on back then. Jesus had only died a few hundred years before, the Roman Empire was still around and there wasn’t even a “church” like we think of. Christians had organized themselves but there wasn’t a Roman Catholic church around yet like we think of today. A man lived then named Nicholas who had been born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara. That’s in a part of the world that is now Turkey but back then, it was a country by itself and was pretty well known: the apostle Paul had visited there. He was born into a wealthy family but both parents died and he was raised by a group of early Christians in a monastery. The church was beginning to organize itself and there were leaders called Bishops. Nicholas became one of these as an adult after traveling in Egypt and Palestine. He became the Bishop in the city of Myra.

He was put into prison by the Roman emperor Diocletian for being a Christian leader but was later released under the reign of the emperor Constantine. Constantine was the one who became a Christian himself and who laid the groundwork for the formation of the Catholic Church later on. This is how Nicholas got to be Bishop of Myra. He was a pretty important person; he actually was at the council of Nicaea which is where the Bible was first put together in the form we have it now. Imagine! A time before there was a Bible! And Nicholas was one of the ones who helped put it together. For this and other things, he was later made into a saint and so we now call him Saint Nicholas.

Many stories are told about him that tell of how generous he was with the money that he inherited from his parents when they died. The most famous story is one in which there were three young girls in Myra whose father had borrowed money from someone and was having trouble paying it back. Remember how long ago that was and how there weren’t the same kinds of laws then that we have now. It was a much meaner time to live in. Usually, whoever had money made up his own rules and if anybody didn’t like what they did, too bad. Kids weren’t treated very well; sometimes they were sold and treated like slaves. These three girls were about to have that happen to them because that’s the deal their father made in order to borrow money. They would probably have been sent to work as servants in the rich man’s house (sort of like Cinderella was) but back then, even worse things could have happened to them.

Nicholas knew of this since he was an important person in the town and on the night before the money was due, he snuck into their house and put the money into their stockings that were drying over the fireplace. It was enough to cover the loan their father owed and they were able to stay with their family. I’m not sure why Nicholas didn’t just knock on the door during the day and give the father the money. Maybe he didn’t want to embarrass the family. Maybe he thought the father wasn’t all that honest and couldn’t be trusted with the money – after all he had just arranged to sell his daughters into slavery for money. Who knows? Somehow, they found out because we have the story today but, at the time, Nicholas kept things secret.

As the Bishop, he would have worn red robes. He was made into a saint after he died and was remembered every year until a time came when most people wanted to forget about the Catholic Church. That’s another story. But, the name Saint Nicholas was always remembered in Holland where the name (in the Dutch language) was Sinterklass. Some of those people who came to America changed it into English as Santa Claus. It’s the same person though. Now why we do all this at Christmas time is another story. Plus, this isn’t all that historically accurate but it’s kind of all connected in a realistic way.

Now, how about now? Saint Nicholas died and he doesn’t live at the North Pole and he doesn’t fly a sleigh around and sneak into our houses each year. But there is a miracle that lives on. Every year, all us parents get the urge to surprise our kids with presents. Think about it: it would be so much easier to just buy kids toys all through the year. We would be able to spread out the cost and we wouldn’t have to hide them and sneak around and go to all that extra trouble. Why do we do it? Because that’s the spirit of Saint Nicholas at work almost 2000 years later! We can’t help ourselves; we deck out our houses with lights and trees and we do all sorts of other fun stuff and we top it all off with giving gifts and giving all the credit to 2000 year old Bishop.

And that’s why there really is a Santa Claus. It’s not a real man but instead a real feeling; something magical or miraculous that makes us want to make kids happy.

There aren’t many traditions that have stayed the same since the time of Jesus. All the laws people live under have changed many times. The things we believe in have changed. For example, people used to believe you got malaria by breathing stinky air; now we know it’s caused by mosquitoes. Life is totally different except for a few things. One of those is our belief in Jesus. Another is Bible; it hasn’t changed. And another is our belief in the tradition of Saint Nicholas – giving gifts. That’s why we celebrate these things together. That’s the miracle – that these things haven’t changed in 2000 years.

The other day while I was pretending to work, I came across an article by my hero Dave Barry in which the following passage appeared:

Can carrots burn down your house?

This urgent question comes up thanks to reader Doug Forand, who writes to describe an alarming discovery he made recently while experimenting with carrots in his microwave oven.

(You may be wondering why he was experimenting with carrots in his microwave oven. He had a solid scientific reason: His wife was not home.)

Doug claims that if you break a carrot into two pieces, then place the pieces on a plate so they’re just touching, then cook them in the microwave, “intense flames will start to shoot out of the carrot at the contact point.”

As a journalism professional, I am always interested in new ways to make things burst into flame. (All guys are. That’s why we have a Defense Department.) So I decided to try to reproduce Doug Forand’s experiment. Because of the potential danger that I would turn my house into a raging inferno, I took the safety precaution — originally developed by scientists conducting nuclear tests — of placing the beer outside.

Well, imagine my delight. I haven’t tried this bold experiment yet but it’s on my list. I have previously been made aware of a similar experiment involving grapes. The experiment goes exactly the same except with ordinary seedless grapes. That particular experiment I have attempted to replicate. As Dave points out above, I observed the first rule of safety: my wife was not at home.

As soon as the family made a weekend foray to Grandma’s, I made my way to the Westbrook Microwave Oven of Science and began my research. Sadly, nothing happened. Now, in a former life, I did REAL experiments in a REAL laboratory and often had the same results. (Side note: this does not necessarily translate to a REAL job in the REAL world. I was lucky – I went to work for a defense contractor during a time in our history when they were hiring anything that moved. I was proud of myself until I realized that I was hired in the same group as a woman whom I never saw do anything except hang around outside smoking cigarettes.) Back then, I had a professorial advisor I could run to for sympathy but there is no such safety net now. There’s just me and my brain. As a result, I pitched the stubborn grapes and went and did something else. No college degree was at stake so why bother? (Update:  got them to work.  Very cool.)

There’s a parallel here. As the dad, you are the final stop – the last hope. When toys break, dogs tunnel under fences and go on a merry escapade, fish go belly up, water heaters fail, cars leak oil, Christmas lights don’t light, model cars don’t fit right, chairs fall apart, and any of a number of other domestic disasters strike, You, The Dad, are the one they run to. There’s nobody else. Now that my own Dad is no longer with us, there’s nobody for me to call any more so I have to succeed or fail on my own and the pressure can be intense. That’s why it’s so easy to just walk away from the non-sparking grapes; because I had the luxury of having “walk away” as an option. You don’t often have that option as the Dad.

There have been other failed or incomplete experiments. There was my idea for a gatling-style rubberband machine gun. I had the thing drawn out but it was never built after a certain someone caught wind of it and nixed the project. (The building materials were recycled however when we made a rocket out of a plastic soda bottle and the bicycle pump). Then there was the simulated grain-elevator explosion that I saw Mr. Wizard do years ago on the Letterman show. That would have been glorious but apparently, the manufacturers of common flour have figured out some way of making it so that it doesn’t form an explosive dust. DARN! One day, I’ll find a supplier of the real dust-forming variety and then watch out! Maybe I could make a rocket motor out of that stuff and an old paint can.

But it does bother me; I intend to make this grape thing work someday and when the sparks begin to fly, I intend to laugh maniacally and shout “IT’S ALIVE!” like Dr. Frankenstein. Think of what Frankenstein would have been able to accomplish with a microwave! At the very least, he would have had his own TV show.

I learned a new word while I was living in California. Actually, I learned many things that you don’t typically learn while growing up in the Bible Belt but in this particular case, I’m referring to the word “putz”. It was used in its verb form to describe some work I was doing which I had previously been thinking of as “high level analysis”. We’ll just ignore the implicit condemnation of my efforts and take off on another stream of consciousness; that being the word itself.

According to the dictionary, it is slang for a fool. There is also a “vulgar slang” definition which we won’t go into here. The verb form indicates “To behave in an idle manner; putter.” hence the evaluation of my analysis efforts.

I had never heard that word before. I have heard it since in movies, usually applied in its “vulgar slang” form. OK, so be it. That’s why I found it so amusing to see a big truck on the freeway the other day with the manufacture’s name on it in huge letters: “Putzmeister.” Ah! The master of behaving in an idle manner! But no, it was a truck made to pump concrete from here to there.

That’s when it hit me: while I was laughing at the name, the truck was off to make some serious money by pumping mud from point A to point B. Admittedly, concrete is a very special form of mud with some desirable properties but at its basic level, it’s just mud. The truck accomplishes a trivial task that one normally associates with illegal aliens with shovels. Somebody had taken a task that most of us prefer not to think about and had turned it into a moneymaker. Not only that, but had done so back in 1958. Yes! I looked it up on their web site. I had imagined some poor kid back in Germany with the name of Putzmeister that had been cruelly chided about his name as a young teen by his classmates and who had become fabulously wealthy as a way of getting even. I had even imagined the medieval origins of the name in which the village bum was eventually given a name in accordance with his social position. Alas, the word refers to the company’s first machine: the “Master Plasterer”. Still, one has to think of the implications.

While we were in college studying physics, we would laugh – laugh – at the engineers and business majors who were studying things like concrete and the selling of concrete. While we were thinking deep thoughts about the origins of the universe and practicing our snotty intellectual attitudes, they were preparing to sell us all concrete when we grew up and bought our first homes (and small ones at that considering what physicists were making both then and now). Well, who’s laughing now? What putzes we were!

The biggest home I was ever in (in California) was owned by a man whose family operated a gravel pit. Actually, it was a “construction materials supplier” but, basically, he sold rocks and dirt. Now, when I dig a hole in my back yard and there is a bunch of rocks and dirt left over, I have a problem. Where to put it? To me, it’s worse than worthless. That man, however will see an opportunity and charge me money to come haul it away and then turn around and charge somebody else who happens to want it. All he has to do is come with a truck and move it around. That, and classify it according to whether it’s “loamy sand, sandy loam, clay, gravel, or whatever.

And I thought I was smart!

Around here, the wealthiest guy (out of all the Dads in my former Cub Scout pack) is the guy who owns his own business. You guessed it: he sells “construction materials.” A sophisticated “high-tech” blend of minerals used for surfacing the walls of new commercial construction. In other words: more mud. It seems I was wrong about the meaning of the word Putzmeister; it isn’t “Master Putz”, apparently it means “Master OF Putzes”.

So, the education, the Ph.D., the years of deep thoughts; is it all a big cosmic joke? I think so; look at the richest man in the world – Bill Gates. He has created several versions of Windows. There is WindowsCE, WindowsME, and WindowsNT. Put them together and what do you get? Windows CEMENT!

Look at the creator of the universe. What did he do? He created the heavens and the earth which is, of course, mostly rocks and dirt.

And thus, we have a situation in which the wealthiest people in the world are those who sell us all rocks, dirt, and/or mud. Just when you think that you’ve seen the most outlandish idea in the world, something comes along to challenge that. I saw candy at Walgreen’s the other day called “Worms and Dirt”. It’s basically gummy worms submerged in crunched-up Oreos. Simple yet disgusting. The label featured a cartoon parent reacting in horror to his cartoon child eating a worm. Disgusting? Yes! And somebody is now relaxing in a very large house as a result of it. I also saw something called a “Scumball” which was gum that first produces a black foam in a kids mouth, dying his teeth and tongue a disgusting black.

And so, the seeds of an idea were born. I can out-disgust that idea. I came up with the idea of some candy called “The Catbox”. It is a small plastic dish shaped and colored like a cat’s litter box filled with rice crispies into which is submerged a few tootsie rolls. It would have a little scoop to fish for the tootsie rolls. I’ll bet I could retire! (And think all the deep thoughts I wanted to after laughing at my old physicist buddies who are still in their offices in the basements of science buildings all over the world.)

The idea has all it needs: something dirty and a shovel. Enough “high level analysis”. Look back to the beginning paragraph to discover another word for that! UPDATE:  It’s been done.  I saw something very similar on the internet.  *sigh*