March 2002


It’s springtime; always a favorite time of year. Flowers, green leaves, and birds building nests – on our porch. You know, the first time birds build a nest in one of your hanging baskets, you feel honored that they would want to live so close to you and give you a little glimpse into their lives. The second time they do it, you are surprised that they would raise two families in a season. The third time, you begin to worry about the plant that you haven’t watered in six weeks due to the presence of chicks so you water it anyway and think “screw the birds”.

After about two seasons of this, you begin to think of the birds as pests of the first order and you try to catch them in the act of nest-building and rip out their efforts before they get too far along. This year, they’re trying to build in Mel’s decorative wreath that’s actually hanging on the front door. This door has a window which the birds can see through; it seems unlikely that any animal would decide to build a nest right where they’re in full view of us but I guess there’s a reason for the phrase “bird-brain”.

It’s become a ritual of the season: mow the grass, plant petunias, and rip the nest off the front porch.

Anyway, on to the the main subject matter. After years of waiting impatiently, we finally got high speed internet access in our neighborhood through the cable company. This was about two years late in my mind but I must bear in mind that this is a town whose local paper had the following headline yesterday:

Rooster Egg Hunt Plans Scrambled

You must admit, that’s a pretty good headline. (Just so you don’t lose any sleep, it’s about one of the upcoming Rooster Day events).

But the cable modem installation was a typical one for me. I am pretty good with software. It’s a good thing too since that’s what I do for a living (although Windows with its DLLs and conflicts gives even us seasoned professionals a run for our money). But when it comes to hardware, I have had a remarkable run of bad luck. This really annoys me since I am actually quite good with my hands – I’ve been an experimental physicist before and made things work. I build things out of wood for fun. So, it really annoys me when I get my hands on computer hardware and it doesn’t work. It’s not so much an issue of incompetence as it is simply bad luck. I’ve bought various pieces of hardware in the past: modems, graphics cards, ethernet cards, and in each case, I asked around to find out which one to buy to minimize the chances of any problems. And in each case, I managed to get my hands on a slight variant of the usual models which caused problems. The latest case in point: an ethernet card which was made by a so-called reputable manufacturer. It even had a reputable model number: D530-TX+. Note the “+” character. That was different from anything anybody else had seen and is not the sort of thing that one notices while shopping in the noisy computer store. It didn’t work. I’ll spare you the details.

It was therefore with much trepidation that I awaited the cable guy. He brought his own hardware thank goodness but I was still nervous. Sure enough, he hit a snag.

“Gee, I’ve never had this much trouble before.”

Great.

Still, he eventually replaced everything between my computer and the underground access point and now the cable modem works and our reception is about 10 times better. Now, with both high speed internet access and the Cartoon Network, we can waste twice as much time and do so much more efficiently than ever before. Right away, I placed an online order for a couple of tools so now I can also spend money twice as fast.

For those of you who are thinking “collision course with reality” well, not to worry. There is one in the house (Mel) who still maintains her grip on reality. Her head is not turned by simple whiz-bang technology although with the improved TV picture, she’s been catching up on some HGTV so she may not be aware of my time-wasting quite yet.

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Things are hopping at the old middle school these days. For two consecutive days, we’ve been invited (us parents that is) up to the school at 7:15 am for breakfast (stale danish) and to see some cool stuff. No, it wasn’t anything that had been dissected.

The first was to honor all the straight-A kids. That was nice but very much like a graduation ceremony. They should have served coffee.

Our illustrious Evan has made the straight-A honor roll. All those painful hours of us making him do his homework has obviously paid off. This morning, they had an early breakfast ceremony for all the kids so honored. Mel and I went although we passed on the stale cinnamon rolls.

We got one of those “My child is an honor student at __________ school” bumper stickers. I was reminded of those bumper stickers that read “My kid just beat up your honor student” followed by my favorite “comeback” bumper sticker: “My honor student will end up defending your kid who just beat up an honor student.”

The other event was a display of the “book projects”. All the kids were required to write a short book, illustrate it, bind it, put on cover art, make a dust jacket, and write fake reviews and summaries to adorn the inside of the dust jacket with. And there was no masters degree awarded for this either – only a display and some of the aforementioned stale pastries. They were really entertaining.

The teachers had purposely mixed them all up so that you had to look through them all instead of heading straight to your own child’s and then leaving. I don’t know what I expected but I was pleasantly surprised. Evan’s was a classic in the same vein as “Captain Underpants” (from which he took his inspiration). It’s about Bob, the flying pig. One day, I’ll scan it and put it up on my site because it’s a real knee slapper.

There was a predictable smattering of the sort of cute stories you might expect: Abner’s Big Adventure about a dog that escaped from the back yard for a day (Our two dogs could relate to that), Dead and Gone about a late lamented goldfish, and so on. I’ll bet the teachers really go for that sort of schmaltz. But nothing could have prepared me for:

My Life as a Male Model

I picked it up and began to read thinking “What could bring a middle schooler to come up with such a concept?” The first line read:

I was born in San Francisco, California…”

I had my answer.

There was a uniquely Oklahoman title: The Duck Hunting Trip which featured a nicely rendered illustration of a box of Winchester shotgun shells.

My favorite cover was from a book about a goldfish which featured the following review: “Two Fins Up!” It had an interesting dedication:

“This book is dedicated to my dog and cat for keeping my nephews busy.”

I sense some privacy issues at home, don’t you?

The award for blatant honesty goes to the following title:

Can’t Think of an Idea

It was (predictably) about a kid who was given a big assignment to write a book but which had no guidance as to what the book should be about. The main character searched her imagination for an idea but, sadly, none was forthcoming. I wonder what grade she got for that “In Yo’ Face Teacher!” project?

One kid had the beginnings of a story of epic proportions. Unfortunately, the title escapes me since it was pretty esoteric but the plot was pretty good: a boy’s parents are killed while on an interstellar adventure and the boy then had to fend for himself and in the process, discovers some things about his family that leads him to realize that he can eventually control the galaxy. Coooolll!

There was also a book about a paintball tournament. My review would be:

Can’t spell, can’t draw, thumbs down!”

I sure hope his parents don’t ever check out my web site and see this.

It was a real hoot; I was sad to have to go to work. Evan said good-bye to me in traditional middle school fashion: barely looking at me and wearing that body language that said “God, please don’t hug me!” Not to worry, I’ve been there myself. But one girl actually reached up and kissed her mother before the mom went off to work. What’s up with that? That mom must have some true brainwashing talents.

I think I’ll call her up and ask her how she does that.

Heavens! The little girl is nine years old now! How time flies. Last year she invited her friends to go swimming, this year we tried roller-skating. As parents, we aim to please everybody – this year we aimed to please the parents by physically wearing their children out. That usually buys you a few points with the other parents. If not that, then at least we took the other kids off their hands for a couple of hours. The skating rink is a noisy place situated amongst several car lots so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thumping disco music, you can always go shop for a new car. Talk about a win-win situation! I, of course, had to stay and operate the cameras but our visiting relatives and some other parents went out and checked prices on the new Chevys.

You can never tell in advance what Erin will do or what sorts of things she will take an interest in. Last year, she wanted a cake in the shape of a mermaid. This year, she dispensed with the girly stuff and asked for a “dirt” cake. She wanted chocolate cake, chocolate icing, and crumbled oreos on top. It really does look a lot like fill dirt. We should have parked a toy tractor on it. I’ve given up trying to anticipate her; I just have to ask.

I suspect that in this case, she just liked the idea of whacking cookies with a hammer. My idea (which was rudely rejected) was to back the car over the cookie package. Then, all we would have had to do is pick it up, open it and pour. But no. Wiser ones than I tell me you’re supposed to use a blender but our blender is long gone; I can’t even remember what happened to it. Furthermore, it’s obvious by now that when opinions are solicited in the kitchen, they don’t really mean to include me. I can’t remember when one of my ideas was listened to but I’m prepared to admit that some (well, most) are a little unconventional. But, you see, I’m “thinking outside the box.” I guess that in the kitchen you’re supposed to stay inside the box when it comes to thinking. Perhaps that’s why ovens are box-shaped.

Erin seemed to rake in quite a bit of cash this time around. That’s fine by her; she usually has a mental shopping list in the back of her mind. Being the birthday girl has unfortunately gone to her head. She’s been pretty cocky so we’ve switched the birthday mode off. The last thing we did was to let her pick a movie and sit in the recliner to watch it. Her choice? Sleeping Beauty.

To me, Sleeping Beauty has always been one of the “Disney Classics” that wasn’t so classic – quite forgettable in fact (at least to me). It’s just like Cinderella except it has three fat fairies instead of just one. Other than that, it’s the same Ken and Barbie cast. I keep wondering, if those fairies were so magical as to be able to fly and automatically wash dishes and whatnot, why didn’t they magic some of that fat off their wastelines? Further, how did the bad lady ever build such power just over the hill in the next county like that? In the 14th century, I expect she would have been burned at the stake as a young woman after she uttered her first ‘abracadabra’.

Anyway, Erin probably felt all the more special due to the presence of the visiting aunt Linda and uncles Andy and Tom. You have to feel special when folks come in from out of town. The gift-giving even rubbed off on me as I gave away a handful of wooden writing pens.

Of course, my motives were not entirely unselfish. When you have a hobby that involves making something permanent like pens, you occasionally have a problem as you build up an inventory. It would probably be better to have cooking as a hobby; that way you always eat up what you create and nothing piles up in the house (unless you’re a bad cook I guess.) If you’re a gardener, then your creations fade away once a year and you get a chance to re-create them in the spring. But when you make things like pens, you find yourself with a growing pile of things that must be either sold or given away. “Sold” would be nice but that would require selling which would make it too much like work.

The trouble is that it’s so rewarding. They are typically made from scraps that aren’t suitable for most other projects. If you encounter a piece of wood that is knotty or has some swirly pattern in it, you usually shy away from including that in other projects due to the unfortunate fact that the table saw frequently grabs those knots, loosens them, and launches them at you with the speed of an anti-tank missile. This is a bad thing. But such chunks make spiffy-looking pens. Further, you can finish one in about an hour and thus feel like you’ve accomplished something. So, if anyone needs a classy-looking writing implement, let me know.

So, the birthday came and went with much celebration and fanfare. Now on to the next big event: Evan’s birthday. And after that, our (a drum roll please…….) 20th anniversary! Any ideas for how best to mark that occasion may be forwarded to me as soon as possible.

I’m not quite sure how to word this one. It’s going to be hard to avoid being really sickening but I suppose the most direct way is the best: Erin wrote a song.

They were trying to decide on how best to handle a ceremony for when the little Brownies graduate to Girl Scouts. Erin piped up that she wanted to write a song and by golly, she did just that. She did the piano part and then, along with some of her friends, wrote the words.

I’m finding this pretty hard to believe even now that I’ve heard it performed. I’m not sure what to do with her now: carry on as before or get her an agent. Needless to say, we’re pretty impressed. We haven’t even told her piano teacher; I’m sure she would flip and we’d never be able to take her out of lessons for the summer.

Boy was it cold this weekend! It was bright and sunny so you might have been forgiven for heading outside with no jacket but 30 seconds in the wind would have had you digging out the long johns. Remember that song?

OKLAHOMA! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…”

or something like that. If the temperature is in the mid 30’s and the wind comes a-sweeping, it will sweep the heat right out of your body through your hands and nose. A few minutes at the soccer fields proved that.

Erin had her first game of the season and the wind was so brutal that one mom could only moan

“This is just WRONG!”

Several of the rest of us just went to the cars and watched from the warmth of our little greenhouse-like vans. The poor kids had to endure it alone, although they were bundled up and running the entire time so none of them ever complained.

Evan was not present; he was off at the famous shoot-out campout which we first attended last year. As much as I enjoy shooting, I couldn’t attend but off he went to shiver in the woods. Just like last year, the temperature dropped into the mid 30’s and stayed there. He was amused to find their wash-water frozen solid in the morning with the cleaning sponges floating in the frozen slab.

Kids are funny things. As adults we are careful to pack our gear and unpack it so that…well, now that I think about it, I’m not so sure why we’re so anal about it. Anyway, if you look into the tent of the boys (who usually sleep three to a tent), you would swear that a backpack exploded. I honestly don’t know how they ever sort out the stuff and find their own socks again but at the end of every campout, the tents are stowed and everybody has their own stuff. Plus, with all that gear strewn over the tops of them, they sleep pretty warmly.

I did not go because I was needed back home to help out with a PTA fundraiser at the elementary school: karaoke night. You may now roll your eyes. Most school dances these days wind up being things where kids just mill about on the gym or cafeteria floor rather than dancing and this one at the elementary level was no different although things heated up a bit when someone brought out the hula hoops. Further, somebody thought it would be cool to have video cameras placed about showing the karaoke on some video monitors. Well, that’s fine but I didn’t really want it to be my camera due to the very real possibility that somebody would trip over it and knock it down. I lost that debate and would up worrying about it the entire time. It’s amazing how much entertainment value you can get out of a karaoke machine and some hula hoops while showing it on video. The event was a massive hit; netting about twice the projected revenue. Melissa is destined to go down in PTA history as the one who could rake in the bucks. She should go into business.

There was a cotton candy machine too. I guess you can rent anything. That also had a very long line; the dad who was running it had it all over him. The real crowd pleaser though was the guy making balloon animals. This guy was a cut above; we’re not talking about elementary poodle dogs here like you learn about in those little books from the library. I’m talking about huge detailed models of Goofy, Tasmanian Devil, and so on. He was a monster hit.

And during it all, Melissa sat there in the principal’s office with fistfulls of money in her hands counting as fast as she could.

Even though it was so cold, we still had to get out and deliver those Girl Scout cookies. The kids survived this refrigeration remarkably well, perhaps they were hardened to it after playing in the snow so much last week.

Erin surprised us all recently. She’s been going to the kids choir practice at church for some time and came home from practice one night with the announcement that she had volunteered for a solo.

“WHAT?” we replied.

When I was a kid (and now too), I would have faced a firing squad before I would have volunteered to sing a solo. Erin obviously takes after her mother; although Melissa was pretty surprised too. Proud, mind you but surprised nevertheless.

Well, she was excited and practiced around the house often. When the time came for the performance, she added the news of a further challenge: they would also be playing the chimes (which are like handbells but not bell-shaped – they look more like square tubes and sound different than the bells). To me, this sounded like so much complexity that it was guaranteed to produce foul-ups.

I was nervous.

When performance time came, everything went off without a hitch. Erin sang, the other kids sang, there were several more solos, and the hand-chimes were played without mistake.

It was a miracle; at least to us parents. And of course, to me, Erin sang much better than the rest of those no-talent hacks but I can’t be trusted to give an honest opinion on this matter. The ultimate review actually came from the most unlikely source: big brother Evan. He offered an unsolicited opinion that Erin did really good, adding that most of the other kids hit a flat note at least once. I figure that if the big brother thinks it was good, than it was indeed good. Melissa expects great things from our kids and when she gets great things she smiles with satisfaction. Me, I smile with relief but the end result is the same.

Many parents try to live vicariously through their kids; usually by putting them into some sort of sport and pushing them psychotically or subjecting them to the worst evil in our society: cheerleading. I’m more of the kind of guy that tries to appreciate them for what they are rather than what I would like them to be. During that performance, Erin made it a little easier to do that.

Erin herself took it all in stride as if it were no big deal. Then she went home and made the usual big mess by not hanging up her clothes and strewing stuff all over the house and the magical moment was officially over.

Back to the real world.

This was an interesting weekend; we were hit with an unexpected snowfall that pretty much shut the place down. Sure, the weather guys said it was going to get really cold and that there was a chance of snow but we know what “chance” means, especially in March. But sure enough, they predicted 3 inches and we got anywhere between 6 and 9 inches. Plus, the wind was blowing really hard on Saturday morning so that you could barely see. They closed the airport and freeways because of it. At last, the wind died down and the kids hit the slopes.

We have a hill across the street from our house and there is a space between two houses that appears not to belong to either of them. The public can go through there if they want to but nobody wants to until it snows. Then, it becomes a mecca for every kid in the neighborhood. Sometime last year, Mel picked up some cheap plastic sleds and stowed them away for the summer and this year, we dragged them out and the kids had the time of their lives. All day Saturday and part of the day Sunday, they were out there sledding down the hill. When you have a sled and the other kids don’t, you quickly become popular.

As a parent, I don’t get so excited about the snow any more. I still have to go to work since my employer is one of those places that stay open 24×7. Plus, the kids come in periodically with cold wet clothes on and have to change which leaves a huge mess to be cleaned up. This is the new millennium so you can’t just watch the wife clean that stuff up anymore. The dryer was going continuously all day long. More often than not they leave the door open too.

After a few hours, they said

“Dad, will you come out and play with us?”

They were having a shrieking good time by themselves so I didn’t feel that my presence was necessary but the alternative was to stay inside and dry their wet clothing so I went on out. I then saw that the hill had become a lawless place where nobody would take turns and frequently sleds were borrowed, ridden to the bottom, and left there. The guilty parties would say

“It’s your sled, you go get it.”

The situation was ripe for an adult to come in and clean the place up. Plus, I had forgotten how much fun sledding can be. In fact, after a while, I happened to notice that my kids weren’t even there anymore; they were in our front yard making a fort and arming it with snowballs.

The neighborhood kids had built a ramp out of plywood that they packed snow under in order to strengthen it. They managed to locate it at the spot where most sleds just naturally go so there was little way of avoiding it even if you wanted to. My weight is much greater than any kid’s so I naturally went a lot further than most of them which meant blazing a trail through un-sledded powdery snow that flew up in my face thus obscuring the fence that I was fast approaching. Fences stop you pretty well. It was after several trips over the ramp that I finally felt that jolt in the tailbone that means your body is saying:

“OK, you should stop now. You’re getting too old for this sort of thing.”

I therefore switched to giving the kids pushes to get them going faster. Faster is better to a kid. I eventually decided that they could do without adult supervision and went in to warm up. Evan came in much later describing the direction the fun had taken. Apparently, they began having sled races and, not much later, switched to a game they called “sled rash” but which Evan gave the more imaginative name of “Circus Maximus”. Think about the chariot race in Ben Hur and you’ve got it. They would head off down the hill and try to pull, push, or knock off their opponents. Or run them into a fencepost. Either way, it sounded like a lot of fun to me and he said that it was indeed. Dangerous? Well…maybe.

It was a glorious weekend where all soccer games were cancelled and we could sit in the recliners by the window and read, nap, and watch the snow outside. Or I could have if I hadn’t either been out in it with the kids or cleaning up after them. I also had to make my way out to the patio to repair a screen door latch so that the door wouldn’t keep getting blown open by the wind and then slapping shut again. Melissa spent all her energies just cleaning up the wet clothes. I tried to spend a little tool-time out in the garage but it was almost too cold to do anything.

Erin had invited a friend over Friday night so in order to allow her to play outside with everybody else, Melissa dressed her up in some of her (Melissa’s) warm things so that this little kid looked like a big brown puffball with eyes. No worries about her hitting a fencepost and getting hurt. She looked like the Michelin man and was completely unrecognizable by her parents.

So, a good time was had by all. Although, Melissa has stated that she has dried her last wet sock.