Thursday, December 09, 2010

Thinking is a Good Thing, Usually

There are times things just do not make sense to me. I was blithely wandering through my usual World Wide Web stops when off to the side an advertisement caught my eye (actually both eyes). Since we are officially in the Christmas shopping season there are lots of ads with a Kris Kringle theme to them. This was no exception. There was a rather wide-eyed Santa looking out at me and he had a hand extended offering a festively wrapped package. Was this an ad for a toy company aimed at parents of those most excited sugar plum visionaries? Nope. Was it an ad for a jewelry store aimed at those mostly clueless men in need of gift ideas for the lovely ladies in their lives? Sorry, wrong again. The words next to the Father Christmas image read: U.S. Weapons Collectors, Big Gun and Knife Show and Sale. Yeah, of course it did.

Nothing says peace on earth and good will towards men like packing the kind of firepower making it impossible for anyone short of an entire platoon of Navy Seals to show you anything remotely different than good will, safely. I should look on the bright side. At least the picture of Santa had him holding a colorful box and not Rambo’s belt-loading machine gun as he happily used his eight tiny reindeer as his eight tiny reinskeet.

If the previous paragraphs indicated I am a pacifist you would be right, but more than that I am a scaredy cat. Some people stand at the top of a giant hill covered with snow holding a sled imagining the wind in their hair and the exhilaration associated with picking up speed as they hurtle down the slope. I use my rather prodigious prediction powers to envision the compound fracture of my tibia when I strike the lone oak tree at the bottom of this track of death.

I was even like that as a child (just ask Rob, my best friend, it made him crazy). This character trait actually comes in handy in my grown up job, principal at an elementary school. It helps to jump to worst case scenarios to head off possible injury and mayhem and three hundred kids under the age of 11 are rife with injury and mayhem potential.
A couple of days ago it was downright cold as kids were arriving at school. There was easily twenty yards of sidewalk between the bus drop off point and the front doors. Within that space there were two patches of ice about four inches by four inches. As soon as one person spotted these tiny areas of danger dozens of them headed straight for them. Not to worry gentle reader, Worst Case Scenario Principal Guy was on the job. I had already positioned myself to block the students from the sure pain and suffering if they had been allowed to do their less than able Brian Boitano impressions on these insidious frozen spots.

It seems to me more people are like the kids who sought out the ice than are like me and imagine lacerations and ER visits. Really, I think if I had strategically placed multiple razor sharp machetes in the hallway a number of kids would have immediately started juggling them.

On the other hand, it is quite possible I over think things and not just about danger. This was shown to me the other day in a conversation I had with a kindergarten student. She flagged me down in the cafeteria and beckoned me to lean closer. Often this means I will be listening to either a long explanation of what her cat did last night or an equally long description of how another student in her class was guilty of some minor transgression that she felt merited retribution from the big mean principal. Not this time.

She asked a simple question. “Why do we put up Christmas trees?” Then I responded in my own inimitable manner with a long-winded response designed to give her the full edifying experience available to her. “The full origin of the Christmas tree is not really known but it probably started in Germany from a story about St. Boniface. It really became a Christmas tradition starting in the 18th century.”

After she blinked away the glaze from her eyes she responded to my lecture. “You put up Christmas trees because it’s almost Christmas.” The next words were left unspoken but her expression made them awfully clear: “you silly old man.”

Christopher Pyle finds his imagination is a double edged sword and both sides are really really sharp and he is afraid to touch it because he is sure he will lose a finger. He can be contacted at

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Some Holidays are More Powerful than Others

Yesterday was a day many people spent time evaluating their lives and looking at what they were thankful for. I realize I will be far from the first person to say this but I’ll say it anyway. People ought to spend more time being grateful for the smaller things in life. I remember back to a performance on David Letterman’s show by a comedy writer, Andy Breckman. He sang a song in which he told us he had a pretty good day because he didn’t throw up. Think about his thesis. You get up in the morning and you take your shower and then you don’t throw up. Life is pretty good. You have your breakfast and you drive to work and then you don’t throw up. Things are still looking good.

I can relate to this more strongly because last week I was rather sick. I do not get sick often and I am not a big whiner when I have regular aches and pains but last week was rough. On Wednesday I woke up, for the third day in a row, with a headache measurable on the Fujita scale. I threw in the towel, called in sick to work and made an appointment with the doctor. Typically it takes a concerted effort by my wife (or an arterial laceration) to get me to go to the doctor but I was not going to live with this level of discomfort if I could help it.

It turned out I was going to live with this level of discomfort. The doctor visit resulted in him telling me I was sick (I knew this already), I should push fluids (I was already doing this), I should take ibuprofen for the pain (I was already doing this), I should get plenty of rest (that was my plan all along) and I should take this paper to the front desk and write them a check for the great service he had done for me.

So this Thanksgiving I was thankful I did not have a splitting headache and the office visit co-pay was nestled securely in my wallet, at least until the pre-dawn foray into the world of blatant retail.

It is possible people forego being thankful for things because Thanksgiving has been almost completely swallowed by the commerce of Christmas. Before the last trick-or-treater rings your doorbell asking for a handout the different retail establishments have started playing reindeer songs over their loudspeakers and plastic evergreen trees pop up faster than paparazzi at the Betty Ford Clinic. So instead of spending a portion of November contemplating the joys of seeing your children laugh at the dinner table or gratefully sinking into a comfy chair to talk to your spouse about the hilarious thing which happened at work people start their elaborate, something MacArthur would have envied during WWII, plans for Black Friday reconnaissance in order to procure that HD television the size of Paul Bunyan’s underpants with the surround sound stereo so they can immerse themselves in the happy-go-lucky world of Call of Duty: Black Ops as opposed to the dour existence of a regular guy taking care of his family.

Personally, I do not want much for Christmas. I enjoy being surprised. I really like it when it is obvious someone put some real thought into the selection of my present. Also, there is enough of the eight-year-old still living in this 48 year old body that I really like having something to play with on the morning of December 25th. For this I am thankful.

My children are not asking for bank account breaking things for Christmas either. We are truly lucky in that we have most everything we need and many things we simply want are also at our disposal. The kids are grateful for what they receive and they get a lot of pleasure out of the giving process as well. For this I am thankful.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I am not some fully evolved mystic sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop. I complain about things which are not that horrible in the grand scheme of things. I let things bother me which should just roll off my back. I also get really exasperated when I do complain and my wife offers the “it-could-be-worse” defense. Of course it could be worse. I could have a family of voles living in my sinuses but that doesn’t mean I have to like the fact that somebody at work showed the cognitive ability of a spoon and blew up my day.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Let Your Computer Be Your Guide

In all sorts of science fiction movies the machines are the bad guys. In 2001: A Space Odyssey the HAL 9000 computer caused one astronaut to spin off into the ultimate void (Really has anyone found Gary Lockwood’s career since then? Guest shots on T.J. Hooker and Scarecrow and Mrs. King don’t count.) and totally butchered the 1892 classic song by Harry Dacre, Daisy Bell. In The Terminator robot Arnold Schwarzenegger kills dozens of people and eventually ruins the California economy. In Short Circuit another robot, Number 5, is so intensely cute he helped extend Ally Sheedy’s career which resulted in a true pox upon humanity, St. Elmo’s Fire.

Personally, I don’t think the future will play out that way. Machines will not be evil doers enslaving mankind for their own emotionless goals. Instead they will become our keepers, our babysitters. They will not be despotic rulers of the human race but rather despotic Jiminy Crickets.

Think about it. We have Net Nanny programs to make sure people do not visit inappropriate websites which show images of a more objectionable nature than Ward would allow Wally to see. Our various handheld devices politely suggest what word we intend to type even before we finish spelling it out and they never suggest any word which would move the movie rating from a G to a PG. I have been told when a person attempts to type a word (and I do mean almost any word) from a Quentin Tarantino film the auto-correct tries valiantly to substitute something more palatable for more delicate readers. (This begs the joke for all fans of the film A Christmas Story… “only I didn’t text fudge.”) The next natural step for computers and communication devices is to have software which at least attempts to keep its owner from doing or saying stupid things.

For example, you are really steamed at your boss. You write a fiery e-mail outlining every professional mistake he has made in the five years he has been boss from giving the copy machine service contract to his cousin who never actually graduated from junior high but did get a very high B in metal shop to substituting the company’s sexual harassment policy video with a copy of Porky’s. Then you describe as many character flaws as you can fit on the screen even with a size 6 font including how sick and tired everyone is that he insists on showing off his one and only party trick at each and every staff meeting. That trick being his ability to recite all the dialogue from the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek, in Klingon. The computer takes care of you and when you hit send it simple puts it in the You-Might-Really-Want-To-Think-About-This-Before-You-Proceed File. It is displayed between the Sent and the Spam files on your e-mail program and disappears and re-appears like Brigadoon so the bile and adrenaline can subside keeping you from getting fired and beaten to a pulp by a mass of Trekkies calling you every name in the English – Romulan translation dictionary.

If I had the time and the computer savvy (both of which are about as likely as President Obama and John Boehner hanging out together to watch Jay Leno on Conan’s new show) I would love to create a program for people of the male gender to use to translate their lunk-headed inarticulate thoughts into lyrically romantic prose to woo the women in their lives. One reason would be there just plain is not enough wooing going on in the world and another reason is it is just plain to fun to say, and even type, the word woo as often as one can. This is one of those endeavors which won’t even require a business plan to make me stinking rich. The teenage boy market alone would keep me in courtside Celtics tickets and Lear jets to take me there for an entire epoch.

How many gangly adolescents have tried to gain the favor of their object of affection by misquoting some song they heard on the radio last week or by re-writing the Roses are red poem with a special personal touch: Roses are red, some bears are black, I like your hair and you’ve got a great rack.

Christopher Pyle would be glad to talk to the guys at Microsoft or Google about his plans for the “Cyrano” program to turn every Neanderthal knuckle dragger who thinks grabbing a girl by her hair and dragging her back to his cave is romantic into a totally in touch with his feelings Shakespearian Sonnet wielder of love. He can be reached at

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Rally to Restore

Well, I did something crazy and went to the Rally to Restore Sanity. How's that for irony?

When it was first announced my reaction was "I really want to go!" Then I tempered that thought with all the responsibilities I have and that spending the money was not a reasonable thing to do. Then my sister contacted me and said she really wanted to go but none of her family could go. Okay, that is fate. I have to go.

The day offered perfect weather. We got the the National Mall before 8:00 AM with the official start slated for noon. This was a very good idea because we were amongst the first few hundred to get there and before all was said and done there would be over 200,000 people in attendance.

I heard no harsh words. I saw no aggressive acts. I witnessed no attempts to hijack the day and make it into a true political food fight. (I did see one guy run very quickly which made me think he was getting away from something so it may not have all been unicorns and rainbows.)

The event was what I expected and also more than I expected. The funny was excellent. Messrs. Stewart and Colbert are two of the most adept comedians working today and they did not fail. I laughed often. The musicians were fun (sometimes I forget just how much fun live music is since I live in a place with a dearth of it and a rock sousaphone player is just cool). The surprise was just how often I choked up. Now I am a card carrying wuss and I will get teary-eyed during Hallmark commercials but this was different. I was moved because I re-attached myself to the feelings of patriotism. It is VERY easy to see only the less than positive aspects of this country, there are many. On the other hand this country when it is at its best is pretty damn amazing. The great variety of people in attendance (all colors, all age groups, very likely all religions - major and minor - and every possible mix of gender) all sharing in an afternoon of entertainment with more than just a nod towards a message as well. A message meant to show not the people standing on the nation's front lawn, but rather the people who truly wield power and influence, the people who live in the nation's house that we are Americans and we love our country and we would really like it if they would stop acting like the nation's pissed off retired man who constantly yells at us to get the hell off his lawn. Just because you love America and we are different than you doesn't mean whe don't love it as much as you do.

Thank you to all who made it happen.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Not Mad about all the Anger

I don’t have the anger which seems to be rampant in the world. Maybe I am not paying close enough attention. Maybe I am not smart enough to recognize so many different forces in the world wish to squash me like a bug. Maybe I am just too tired to work into the frenzy of Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” mentality which seems to be typical of many, if not most, media figures today. If Paddy Chayefsky were alive he could sue all sorts of people for copyright infringement. (If you haven’t seen the movie Network I highly recommend it.) That doesn’t mean I think life is all rainbows and unicorns. How about this for a catch phrase? I’m mildly miffed and would really prefer if many things were different.

I am not a social scientist with years of experience studying the human condition so my ideas are nothing but my ideas, but I think one of the reasons so many people are ticked off is there are fewer and fewer times people who do the right thing get rewarded. Here is a tiny example of what I mean.

Every day at the school where I work students are dropped off by their parents. We have a system in place to make this safe and somewhat efficient. The cars are supposed to pull up to the curb in front of the building all going the same direction and as the front few cars release their kids they move on and the next few cars move up and do the same. Those are the people doing the right thing who should get rewarded with being able to move on smoothly with their lives. Not so much. Not when the person who doesn’t feel the need to do the polite, thinking about the concerns of others sort of thing comes swinging into the picture. This person, driving a vehicle larger than many two bedroom homes, pulls up and double parks at the front of the line. He has now blocked the car flow like the biggest blob of cholesterol in Henry Heartattack’s thoracic cavity and like the arterial plaque he is, he doesn’t care a fig for the stress put on the body as a whole. This yutz gets to go on with his “do as I please” day while the “do the right thing” guy at the end of the line reaches for his blood pressure medicine.

I realize there was public uproar when communities added fluoride to the water supply and I am not a big advocate for a “nanny” state which has the government taking care of us when we can’t do it for ourselves. (They have already reached into the snack machine at work and required granola bars take the place of a certain percentage of real snacks – mini-doughnuts and chocolate covered anythings.) That being said, I would be in favor of certain mood altering chemicals being introduced into different environments.

The main thing which would help us is if television news organizations of every stripe had a very low concentration of valium pumped in to help them bring it down a couple of notches. I mean do we really need well-dressed men and woman reading off teleprompters such fear-mongering copy as “Your very own cat may be trying to kill you in your sleep. Tune in tonight at ten.” Not to mention those proselytizing hosts of shows making it appear that we are on the path to some sort of Caligula-esque debacle of debauchery if the guys who do not believe what we believe get to be in charge of anything, and I do mean anything, even the panel of judges on Dancing with the Stars.

Truly, I think one of the first things which can get rid of the aforementioned ubiquitous anger is just looking around and realizing people are not out to get us. Whatever happened to thinking the other guy was simply wrong in his political views, not a fascist megalomaniac bent on turning the United States of America into a post-apocalyptic wasteland where there is government run healthcare, privatized Social Security and all kittens are outlawed. I would prefer the political arguments from the people sent to the various seats of government were simply between opponents with different paths to the same end (the betterment of the lives of their constituents) not enemies locked in a mortal struggle for the soul of the nation. I want Adlai Stevenson versus Dwight Eisenhower not He-Man versus Skeletor.

Christopher Pyle advocates for calmness and if you don’t agree he hopes your cat kills you in your sleep. He can be reached at

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Books ARE Judged by Their Covers

When a person is running for President of the United States the press always says the first decision he makes that is truly presidential is choosing his vice presidential running mate. It is used to show what he sees as important and how well he can play the political game. Not many people run for president and even fewer of them get to select a running mate but there is one decision made by thousands and thousands of people which can be used as a yardstick for judging how they will do at a job they are embarking upon. I am referring to judging parents by what they name their child.

Just this past week I came across two different news clips about how names can affect the way people are viewed and therefore have significant impact on their quality of life. The first one talked about how people with surnames carrying negative connotations can be adversely affected. Names like Short, Little, Bent, Worthless-Twerp (okay, I made up that last one) can lead to feelings of inferiority. This was reported by psychology Professor Richard Wiseman (I did not make up that last bit).

The second one described a study which showed resumes, identical in every facet save the name of the applicant, did not receive the same responses. If the name was “usual” the number of call backs was significantly higher than if the name was odd – not crazy, just different. As a person who has done some hiring in my day I can say the name can make a difference. One applicant listed his name as Brain. I did not call this person for an interview. It was not because I was intimidated by a person with a name implying great cerebral power or bothered that the person may have been named after a cartoon mouse set on world domination. It was simpler than that. He had misspelled Brian. Someone who will not proofread his application well enough to see that his name is correct may not be the person to take care of sensitive work related activities like, oh, say, unlocking the door before trying to walk inside the building.

There is tons of information out there to help select your child’s name. Bookstores have entire shelves of “baby name” books, which I always found odd. They are not just baby names. The cute little blobs of protoplasm are the first to have the monikers attached to their wrists but the name stays with them beyond diapers and diets of puréed peas. Maybe it would be better if names had shelf lives like milk. An adorable toddler should have a name like Mitzi or Lulu or Bambi but none of those stand the smell test when applied to many grown up endeavors. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Bambi Rabinowitz.” The converse is also true. A four year old boy scurrying across the playground chasing a puppy should not be called to by his parent with a handle like Bertrand. A Nobel Prize for physics might be in his future, but so are multitudes of football player administered wedgies.

I used to think the pressure to select a name for your child was over the top. Every friend, relation, and co-worker asks what names you’re considering and every one of them has an opinion which they are quite happy to share, bidden or not. I have adjusted my attitude and think there isn’t enough oversight of this choice. As a person working in the world of education I am exposed to a large roll call of names and I have to say there are instances the government should have intervened. There are other times it steps in for children in need of care. Children ought to have some protection from names created by random arrangements of letters or being named after a parent’s favorite car or city or Stephen King novel. (“Little Cujo just learned how to crawl and foam at the mouth, it is so cute.”)

One hint I have for expecting parents is to go to one of those racks that have pencils or mini license plates with names printed on them. Then make sure you chose a name not represented on any of the merchandise. This serves two purposes. One, your child will not have an overly common name and two, you save a bundle when you take your offspring to these shops because they will have no desire for any of the over-priced plastic junk.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Your Brain as Ventriloquist Means You're the Dummy

I recently heard a story about a woman who suffered a stroke and, for a time, lost all ability to deal with language. Not just the power of speech but language as a whole. She said the voice in her head went silent. She also reported she liked it more than just a little bit.

We all have that voice in our heads. I’m not just talking about the Jiminy Cricket voice reminding us to listen to our parents and tell the truth. Or the voice in our heads which consistently remarks how wonderful it would be to pull up stakes, move to some remote part of a Canadian forest so you can finally completely focus and write the definitive work on the genius found within the collected works of Gallagher. Or is that just me?

I am referring to the voice in our heads which is simply the way we think. Most of our thought processes are simply interior monologues. As in the three o’clock in the morning voice which says, “Did I finish that report I have to hand in to the boss first thing in the morning? Uhh, that would be no.” As well as the three o’clock in the afternoon voice which says, “I really wish I had chosen a different major in college because it might have led to true fulfillment and a sense of completion in my life. Then again, how would a philosophy major have led to that? I couldn’t just open up an ethics repair shop, even though there is a screaming need for one in as many locations as Starbucks.”

Thinking is just talking. Some of the easy thoughts occur with very little discussion or words of any kind. Thoughts like “doughnuts good” require no polysyllabic treatises to get the crux of the issue across to all portions of the brain making it possible to coordinate the motor center to walk to the car, drive to the store and reach into the display case and the number sense center of the brain to calculate that the amount of money in your wallet will allow no more than five doughnuts and the spatial relationship portion of your brain to figure out that the doughnuts with the greatest surface area give the greatest enjoyment and all the while not only shouting down the super ego trying valiantly to remind the rest of the brain that the excess weight already being carried by the body is not healthy and the addition of five doughnuts to the spare tire residing just above the belt is not a choice recommended by the surgeon general but also pushing the super ego’s head into the toilet and giving it the king of all swirlies.

Other thoughts and concepts require additional methods beyond a mere string of words to enable the brain to process them to the point of successful understanding. Theories of English composition are often beyond the realm of most people and simply having one of the aforementioned interior monologues will not get a thinker to the desired outcome. For that we must step beyond mere words and add a catchy tune.

“Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” I rest my case.

Really, when was the last time you went about looking up something in a phone book and didn’t sing the alphabet song? Admitting it is the first step to acceptance.

Of course, I have absolutely no desire for a stroke, but being able to turn off the voice in my head from time to time would really be a good thing. Can you imagine how much easier it would be to sleep? How much easier it would be to watch an entire episode of “The World According to Jim” without the continual interruption from your brain voice saying “Can you believe someone actually sat down at a keyboard and wrote this, for money?!” How much easier it would be to endure that committee meeting without your brain voice repeating over and over “kill me now, kill me now, kill me now”.

If we were able to develop a switch to turn off the interior dialogue the health of many a person would be improved. But until then mankind will just have to rely on artificial ways to mute the voice. Ways which are very unhealthy like alcohol. Ways which are more benign like watching three hour long baseball games thus deadening many parts of the brain. As well as my personal favorite – playing songs from the hit television series “Glee” at a volume which can be heard in neighboring states.

Shhh, Christopher Pyle’s inner voice is finally asleep. You can contact him later at

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Secret to Success...Speedy Internet

I finally found out how to make all my dreams come true. I just need a cell phone which loads the internet really really fast.

There is a commercial for some cell phone company which has a split screen showing the different ways a young woman’s life would go depending on just how quickly her phone loads. On the everything-is hunky-dory left side of the screen the internet page loads three seconds faster than on the stuck-in-a dead-end-life right side of the screen (I actually counted). Because her phone is faster on the left side she happens to meet a person who has great influence in her world of endeavor (believe it or not, ballet dancing) and because she happens to meet this person she is wined and dined and given the lead in a fabulous production of Swan Lake wearing distinctly scary make-up. The poor right-side woman is stuck rehearsing her talent all alone, waiting tables while other people wine and dine and simply sitting in the audience of Swan Lake, but at least she is wearing decidedly less scary make-up.

So, if I want to have my novel published and get on bestseller lists throughout the world I need to get this particular cell phone service and constantly load pages quickly so I can be standing in front of my big city brownstone apartment building and, through sheer happenstance, meet J.K. Rowling who absolutely falls in love with my wit and way with words and she introduces me to her publisher who immediately sees my brilliance and offers me a lifetime contract and a seven figure advance on my first book for which I don’t even have an outline. The fact that I currently live in a single story ranch style home in a small town in western Kansas won’t stop this from happening if I just shell out the money and sign on the bottom line for the two year contract with the cell phone guys who are all sweetness and light when I sign on but when I want out of the contract it turns out they subscribe to the Shylock school of debt and I will have to give them a pound of flesh to become free to cell phone elsewhere. Even though I have a few extra lbs I do not wish to have any of them forcibly removed by AT&T.

Another way to interpret the aforementioned commercial is to say if you cannot wait three seconds for the internet page to show up on your handheld phone device you may actually need to seek professional help. I mean really, we are talking about three seconds here people. Think about it. It was less than the gestation period of your average African Elephant ago that it was not possible for a person to use a five ounce bit of electronic circuitry to connect to a magical ether full of reference materials, breaking news and videos of really cute kitties playing the piano. Now that we have access to all this stuff we need to have it happen faster and faster for it to be truly worthwhile.

Have you noticed whenever you google something on Google (the lowercase google means the process of casting a question into the internet like a net into shrimp rich seas and the uppercase Google means the actually uber-search engine created by uber-rich people who live on a compound in California like a cult without the matching sweat suits or fascination with comets) they not only tell you how many results they offer but the time it took to offer them?

I just googled “meaning of life” and was gratified to get the answer in 0.29 seconds. The problem was there were about 81,900,000 results.

If a cell phone company really wants to have the world beat a path to its door they need to invent something other than a phone which downloads internet information quickly. The next tool all consumers truly need is a junk filter. Just think how much more useful and enjoyable so many aspects of the internet would be if you had something like that. You go to YouTube and type in “funny videos” and engage the junk filter thus making all the videos by teenagers who think Carrot Top is too sophisticated for their tastes disappear. Think about all the benefits of such an internet surfing tool. If you searched “brilliant plans by government officials” or “reasons to see the most recent Jim Carrey movie” the screen would simply go blank.

Christopher Pyle is proud that if you google “occasionally keen” his blog is the top result of over three million results in 0.14 seconds. He can be reached at

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

All Dressed Up with No Time to Go

You remember those old-fashioned family vacations? Each family member had their pre-determined location in the station wagon, a station wagon with fake wood paneling on it sides making it look like it belonged in Robert Young’s den. In my family growing up Dad drove, I sat next to him and the oldest brother sat next to me on the front seat. Mom sat behind my father in order to reach each family member to hand them supplies: cups of water from the thermos, snack foods – including Space Food Sticks (I did not make those up, they were, and I quote from Wikipeida, a “non-frozen balance energy snack in rod form containing nutritionally balanced amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein) and the occasional comic book. My kid sister sat in the back seat with Mom and the second oldest son had the run of the back of the station wagon. This was before car seats and seat belt laws so he lived back there with pillows and the luggage.

The biggest versions of these trips meant you were on the road visiting tourist traps, museums, malls, crummy roadside restaurants featuring gift shops with more things made in China than Beijing itself and, if your little sister was like mine, every gas station restroom between here and Galveston. The smaller ones had you visiting family members and bunking on a sleeper sofa with a mattress actually harder than the petrified sandwich crusts found when it was pulled open for the first time since the Eisenhower administration.

You remember those? So do I. That is exactly why my family did nothing like that this past summer.

I exaggerate. The main reason we did not go anywhere was finding free time was impossible. I’m not talking about the 47 year-old chief breadwinner for the family. I had vacation days aplenty. Everybody else was too busy. Between the orchestra camp at KU (kid #3), the drum major camp in Illinois (kid #2), the summer community theater production (kid #1), the lifeguard job (kid #2), the babysitting jobs (kid #1), the petsitting jobs (kid #3), and the summer part-time job (wife #1 and only) we couldn’t figure out three days in a row when everyone was available.

Fortunately, my family is easy to please. Even though there was no Grand Canyon adventure or Hawaiian escapades (look no further than the Brady Bunch to see those aren’t all they are cracked up to be) there was no complaining. While they are open to greater adventures they are content with simpler pleasures.

You hear the term “destination” used to describe places tourists desire to visit. The marketing people like to use it. “Make Disney Land your destination vacation!” Truthfully, I find it a little odd to use such a generic word for something which is supposed to be special. Wherever you’re headed is technically a destination. “Make Kwik Shop your 1:00 AM insatiable craving for microwave burritos destination!”
Everyone in my family is perfectly happy if our “destination vacation” is simply a big book store. We can spend the better part of a long weekend in Barnes and Noble. I say that both because it is true and because I hold out hope a Barnes and Noble executive will stumble across this column and feel I have earned a sizable gift certificate for the shameless plug I just handed to his company.

We all like books. Even the youngsters like the feel, the smell and the sensation of holding the book and turning the pages. Technology is working on making that a thing of the past. The aforementioned Barnes and Noble is for sale (which may mean the gift certificate proposition is more time sensitive than originally thought). Bookstores are inching their way onto the endangered species list. With the ease of shopping on-line brick and mortar locations are not truly necessary and more and more people don’t bother to use them. Also, e-books have made a huge jump in the market.

E-books are downloads of the text of an entire book onto your computer or some such device. All the words are there with none of the pages, covers or dust jackets. Storage is in bytes not linear inches of bookshelves. I have a few on my laptop but I have to say I like pages better than pixels.

I will probably migrate over to e-books eventually, but if the bookstores disappear my family may be relegated to the microwave burritos for our vacation destinations.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not All Reality is Exciting

I have probably mentioned this before. We do not have television at our house. I do not mean that as some sort of mating call for the pseudo-intellectual. We are not sitting around the living room reading aloud to each other from Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu in the original French. I spend more time than I ought watching internet “broadcasts” of Chuck, Psych, and The Human Target so I am not above watching TV. I simply tell you we have no television at our house to show I do not have all the conduits of information many people have. Yet, somehow I have lots of information.

Not long ago President Obama was on The View and when asked about Snooki, he didn’t know who she was. That was very reassuring to me. He has much more important things to pay attention to than a personage known throughout much of the free world for, umm, shall we say, somewhat hedonistic behaviors. He should be spending his time on things like the economy, oil spills and who will replace Ellen DeGeneres on American Idol. (Maybe Elena Kagan if the Supreme Court gig doesn't work out.)

I have never seen an episode of Jersey Shore or American Idol yet I know many things about both of them. I do not know them purposefully. The information seems to be in the air supply. Just another example of why the EPA needs to be more vigilant.
In the case of American Idol people who I enjoy have spent loads of time telling me what is happening on the show. Tony Kornheiser’s radio show dedicated so much time to it I stopped listening and a blog I read written by long-time television comedy writer Ken Levine does blow-by-blow accounts of each episode. I skip those entries. But still, I know a person named Crystal Bowersox was the runner-up last year. Crystal Bowersox…sounds like a special additive for laundry detergent to combat stains and unpleasant odor. (Tide - now with crystal bowersox for improved cleaning!)

Television people categorize these shows as unscripted. What? It really doesn’t take a group of erudite practiced crafters of the English language hours of intense effort to come up with such riveting storytelling as the account of Danielle from The Real Housewives of New Jersey as she tries to recapture the romance of dating by enrolling in a pole-dancing class? Are you sure Shakespeare didn’t come up with that first? There was a little known hand-written note in the first folio of Romeo and Juliet indicating the Bard considered a scene with Juliet and Lady Capulet discussing breast augmentation surgery to attract a husband. (This could have led to a very famous line: Two Bs or double Ds that is the question.)

The people in many of these shows get very rich and incredibly famous. Many things I do I do in hopes of becoming richer and a little famous. Maybe the path to getting my work as a writer known to the world is to have a reality show revolving around my life. The biggest hurdle to this is the fact my life would be considered truly boring by most of, who am I kidding, all of the viewing public.

It is often a topic of conversation in my house just how boring we are. My wife and I love each other and have had maybe two disagreements in almost 20 years of marriage and neither incident had us throwing living room décor or even epithets at each other. Our children don’t seem to dislike us and we think they are pretty cool. We don’t even have to yell at them to turn their music down. When the oldest kid is in the living room with her internet radio turned up you hear Julie Andrews or Rosemary Clooney, not rap artists or pop divas spouting unapproved by old people lyrics. When the youngest one is closeted in his room roaming the internet it turns out he is watching YouTube, not videos on how to make basement explosives but old episodes of The Addams Family.

The final nail in the excitement coffin has to be what happened the other night. I have two, count ‘em, two teenage daughters. They got together with a bunch of their peers and went over to a house with no adults in sight. They went into the basement theater. They fired up the projector and the DVD player and proceeded to watch… wait for it… Lion King One and Half. A cartoon! A direct-to-video Disney cartoon!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Things don't HAVE to be so complicated

It is a common theme in many conversations and media reports that the world is getting too complicated and the sheer volume of discrete bits of information is so huge it is impossible to keep up. I agree, to an extent. The issue is a lot of this confusion and blitzkrieg of factoids could be simplified but we choose to make it more complex.

Just because there is information available doesn’t mean it is important. For example, I just spent five minutes of my life watching a portion of Lindsey Lohan’s probation hearing. I don’t know. I have also spent an amount of time I do not want to add up and state for the public record (the Lohan thing was embarrassing enough) reading and listening to people trying to guess where LeBron James is going to play basketball next season. The media can’t just report what has happened. It must also spend great amounts of time talking about what might happen. Maybe we should just have Paul the Prognosticating Cephalopod tell us if Mr. James will be a Cavalier, a Knick, a Bull or a Heat (I still think teams should have nicknames which can be parsed into individual units – maybe Miami should have called themselves the BTUs). Why do I know there is an octopus in Oberhausen, Germany who has predicted the winner of several soccer matches? I don’t know. I didn’t want or need to know. I just do. Now you do, too (sneaky of me, wasn’t it?).

Part of this self-inflicted over-complication of life was made obvious to me when I went to the grocery store one summer evening. I was simply going to run in and get some ice cream. I wanted something simple. I was going to get vanilla or maybe chocolate. I couldn’t find either one. Oh, there was Double Vanilla, Homemade Vanilla (but it was in a mass produced carton meaning the “truth in advertising” police should be notified), Vividly Vanilla, and Artisan Vanilla Bean. Chocolate was even more confusing. Classic Chocolate may have been what I wanted, but I remember the whole New Coke/Classic Coke fiasco so maybe that wasn’t the best choice. There was German Chocolate Cake ice cream. If I wanted cake I’d have gone to the bakery section. There was Chocolate Almond Indulgence but I wasn’t in that hedonistic of a mood. There was Double Chocolate Cookie Crumble which didn’t sound like it was actually ice cream. Also, the ultimate, and I mean ultimate in the sense of final, end of the line, all she wrote, the ultimate flavor – Death by Chocolate. What is the advertising catch line for that flavor? “The last thing you’ll ever taste, but soooo worth it.”

The myriad of ice cream flavors brought to mind the fact that paint is never just a color. The last couple of times my wife selected paint for rooms in our house she would tell me the name of the paint and I would still have to ask what color it was. So I went to the Sherwin-Williams website to investigate. Just call me Bob Woodward.

On the first page of color palettes I found “Nomadic Desert”, “Foothills”, “Summer Day”, and “Enigma”. Is there even an indication what your bedroom would look like if you painted it any of those colors? My personal favorites had to be “Knitting Needles” and “Wool Skein”. Truthfully, I do not remember what those two looked like, but they had to be complementary colors.

Okay, what is the most non-descript color out there? How about gray? On that same website there are 61 different hues with the word gray in their name. 61 different grays! 63 if you throw in the color squares labeled with the term Greige, which I am guessing is some unnatural hybrid of gray and beige, the ultimate in boring. I do not have enough space in this column to list all the different grays, but here are some of my favorites: “Agreeable Gray”, for the décor of union negotiation conference rooms, “Escape Gray” would be a truly mean color for prison cells, and “Dorian Gray” for painting portraits of ageless beauty.

There were 1,479 different colors represented on the Sherwin-Williams website and naming each and every one of them would be a gargantuan task, but “Stolen Kiss” and “Notable Hue”. Really? There was a color titled “Loren’s Surprise”. That had to be an incredibly cheap birthday present.

“Honey, I didn’t get you that diamond necklace you wanted, but I did get the fellows over in the nomenclature department to name a color after you.”

Christopher Pyle’s favorite color is red, just red, not “Showstopper” or “Heartthrob”, just red. You can contact him at

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Kinder, Gentler Space Man

It was brought to my attention Tom Leahy, Jr. died recently. I am sure a lot of people reading that sentence are not sure who Mr. Leahy was, but if you were a child living in central or western Kansas (or southwestern Nebraska) during the 1960s you would recognize his face immediately. Tom Leahy, Jr. was Major Astro.

Major Astro hosted an afterschool cartoon show on what was at the time KARD television. He introduced Yakky Doodle Duck, Snagglepuss and Astro Boy (no relation) from a set designed to look like a space station. Astronauts were the ultimate in cool during the Major’s heyday, the sixties into the early seventies. My memory isn’t what it used to be but I really think he also showed that truly odd marionette adventure series Thunderbirds. Now there was a meeting I wish I could have attended.

“Hello, Mr. Producer, we would like to have you bankroll a new show we are developing. It features a family, a former astronaut and his five sons, who are super smart scientists and adventurers. These guys have space ships and submarines to fight evil all over the planet and even beyond our atmosphere.”

“That sounds marvelous, but it also sounds very expensive. I mean six adventurous male leads and all the hardware you describe would require a lot of money.”

“Ahhh, but there is the brilliance of our plan. We don’t use people.”

“What do you use?”


“I get it! James Bond meets Pinocchio.”

I loved watching Major Astro’s show. I remember one of the few times I got in big trouble and was sent to my room I was OK with the punishment until I realized Major Astro was going to be on. I used every stealth tactic I knew (which at the age of seven probably was comprised entirely of being quiet and crawling on the floor) to position myself just outside of my room behind a living room chair so I had a mostly unobstructed view of the television. This is a testament to my love for cheesy cartoon TV anthologies and to the truly uncontentious childhood I led as this was probably the biggest act of rebellion I ever displayed toward my parents.

My family had a brush with Astro greatness. My dad was the city manager in McCook, Nebraska before moving to Hutchinson. We got Major Astro from the Oberlin, Kansas station. Well, the Major was coming to McCook as part of a promotion for the opening of a department store or some such festivity and for some reason passing understanding my dad was the guy picking him up at the airport. I was not very old so I have no memory of this, but my oldest brother was allowed to accompany my dad and even got to hold Major Astro’s space helmet, an unparalleled thrill for a pre-teenager during the height of the Space Age.

Really, think about it. A kid from a small town in Nebraska gets not only to meet a guy who is on television five days a week, making him a star of greater magnitude than even Adam West who only managed to be on two nights a week, but also gets to share a car ride and HOLD HIS SPACE HELMET! Talk about everything being “All systems go”! That had to totally rock.

Here is the real kicker to this whole story. While McCook was getting all stirred up because Major Astro was visiting, all its children abuzz with excitement and all sorts of pomp and circumstance planned for the day somebody else was arriving in that sleepy Nebraska town. Somebody who would go virtually unnoticed. Somebody who was just there to go pheasant hunting. Somebody whose name would go unrecognized by nearly the entire 4 to 12 year old demographic being catered to with the visit from the 40-something-year-old announcer turned kiddie show host.

Who was this stranger you ask? Only a real freaking astronaut. Only the first American to go into space. Only one of the original Mecury 7 astronauts. Only a man who would soon walk on the moon, actually walk on the moon, and return to Earth. Alan Shepard was in McCook and nobody paid any attention to him. We were all too busy with Major Astro.

I do not tell that story to denigrate Major Astro. He really was more important in the lives of thousands of children. His show was something we don’t see anymore. He was calm, polite and fatherly. Kids programming today seldom values such attributes. Thanks, Mr. Leahy.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Maybe not what, but rather who

There are days I am not terribly happy with all the circumstances of my existence. It’s human nature to look out into the world and think others have it better than I do. The conundrum is just who would l want to be.

People think being stinking rich would make life as good as it gets. If that’s the case I guess I want to be Bill Gates. It would mean I would never have to worry about anything, and I do mean anything, breaking ever again. You can accuse me of an epic lack of imagination but really that is all I wish for in regards to monetary wealth. I want everything I own to work and if it breaks I just want to be able to call “the guy” to fix it. Better yet, I could buy a new what ever it was without having to worry about getting to the end of the month and realizing fixing the air conditioner meant having Ramen noodles for breakfast and lunch and dinner. I make a decent living but I also have three children so poverty at a moment’s notice is not out of the question. Tapping into Mr. Gates’ savings account means if the power steering goes out I buy a new car. The computer the kids use goes belly up I buy them each iPads (which is rather sacrilegious if I am using Microsoft money to buy them). My refrigerator goes on the fritz I fly ice in from Finnish glaciers. Both legs break I just hire guys to carry me places.

I don’t think I want to be Bill Gates. Too much pressure having all that money. You’re always expected to do things with it…finance the solution to global warming…finance the re-design of the American education system…finance a series of plastic surgery improvements for our 45-year-old third cousin, Myrtle, who is convinced she could be a movie star if she looked a little more like Sandra Bullock as opposed to the movie star she is more frequently mistaken for, Ernest Borgnine.

Maybe I should take my cue from good old Myrtle. I’ll trade places with a big time movie star. Who? I could go young and heartthrob-like and be Ashton Kutcher. He is popular across multiple generations and that is just in his own bedroom. I am about the same age as George Clooney. He seems smart and comfortable in his own skin. I don’t think I’d be as comfortable. I’d spend all day looking in the mirror thinking, “dang, I’m good looking.” Why not make a much bigger leap and be a famous actress? I could be Julia Roberts. That wouldn’t work (see the statement about Mr. Clooney and multiple a hundred fold). How about Charlie Sheen? Excuse me, I think I need to go take about seven showers..ugh..icky.

I am not flamboyant enough to be an above-the-title movie star, but making a living working in the creative arts is attractive. Rather than aim into the Brad Pitt stratosphere I think I’ll trade places with Kevin Pollak.

I am sure there are many of you out there thinking, “Who is Kevin Pollak?” Mr. Pollak started his career as a stand-up comic which has always been a profession I admired. (I tried it once and since I stopped there you can make an assumption how it went.) He became an actor and was in some pretty big movies (Willow, A Few Good Men, The Usual Suspects). I recently rediscovered him on the internet. He hosts an interview show which is streamed live on the web and later available on iTunes. He interviews creative, funny people and he does so for well over an hour. These interviews are interesting and cause more than their fair share of giggles and laughs, but best of all they are not the four and half minutes of fluff we see on most every talk show. They are opportunities to understand how talented people became talented people and how talented people got others to see they had talent and get into the show biz world.

So, if I were am asked what I want to be when I grow up the answer would change from when I was nine-years-old (starting running back for the Kansas City Chiefs) to a mid-level actor, extremely able comedian, with his own talk show on the interweb (his phrase) who seems to be playing as much as working.

Christopher Pyle would like to say to Mr. Pollak if he happens to see this: If I cannot be you I am willing to work with you. Maybe if your legs break I can help carry you places. Kevin can contact him at

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Kids to Adults...Lost in Translation

A very random and somewhat classless thought occurred to me when I got home from work today. I was the first person home, well that’s not true, my oldest daughter had been home a great part of the day so let’s just say I was the first person home who thought the dogs would need to go outside since they hadn’t been out for several hours. I took them outside and the older, larger, smarter (but only because the younger, smaller, dumber dog has the IQ of a jar of paste) dog took about three steps to get all four legs in the grass and then proceeded to undertake the task for which I brought him outside in the first place. That is when two thoughts went through my mind. The first thought was I had been correct in my assumption that the eldest child had not taken the dogs out for quite a while as the number one undertaking (pun intended) proved a certain amount of canine leg crossing and dancing about had been taking place prior to my return home. The second thought and this is the not-so-classy bit I referred to earlier, is I should have been a tad more selfish and made absolutely sure I did not have to go myself before heading out into the back yard with the dogs as witnessing this process suddenly added a certain amount of urgency to my own world. Lesson learned.

Now on to our regularly scheduled column…

Last weekend I was an audience member for a dance recital. This featured dozens of children ranging from seventeen-years-old on down to learned-to-walk-about-twenty-minutes-before-curtain. Even though the older kids were much more adept at the actual dancing the tiny kids were my favorite. Most of them made it appear finding the beat of the songs to which they were dancing was harder to find than a shred of decency in a Goldman Sachs executive. They stood there watching the teacher go through the choreography. Some of them realized their task was to ape the movements of the bigger person, others randomly moved various body parts in an asynchronous manner and still others stood there transfixed, like a Precious Moments doll in headlights. It didn’t really matter though. Each and every one of them exuded a preternatural level of cuteness.

The auditorium had to have over three hundred people in it for what had been billed as a three hour dance recital. I am sure there were many people who remembered Gilligan’s group was just going on a three hour tour and ended up stuck for 98 episodes. I have to admit I snuck in my iPod in case the afternoon drug on just a bit too much because my own personal kid was part of the very first dance and then would not be on stage again until the second to last routine. I never resorted to my contraband entertainment because the kids had obviously worked very hard in preparation and they were truly fun to watch.

We are often told our most precious natural resource is our children and afternoons like this one bring that idea home to me. I like children, most days. The wonder the younger ones possess is so much fun to observe. They think things are cool. Why else would they constantly demand you look at each and everything they notice or do? “Daddy, look at me riding my tricycle!” “Daddy, look at that rainbow!” “Daddy, look at me smearing peanut butter all over the computer keyboard!” “Mommy, look at Daddy crying in the corner!”

Let’s look at other natural resources. Water is the very life of the planet and if you mix it with a certain granulated powder you have Surfin’ Berry Punch Kool-Aid. Gold is a shiny rock that by itself is somewhat pleasing to the eye but mine it, melt it and shape it and it becomes jewelry which has ruined many a young man’s bank account.

This ruining of natural resources is what I fear we do entirely too often with children. We have such a large supply of them in their raw state but then we don’t seem to know how to process them properly. Like oil there is great potential for usefulness in the world but then instead of carefully collecting and refining them we willy-nilly go about the process and then we’re surprised when there are suddenly hundreds of thousands of adults spewing all over the planet making a frightful mess of things.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

That's Gonna Sting for A While

A Cleveland man complaining of tightness in his chest was found to have an elephant standing on him. The man said he had experienced some discomfort, but had no idea there was a pachyderm perched on his pectoral muscles. Okay, I made that up. It is pretty preposterous, but is it any more outlandish than the man who had to go to the dentist to find out he had shot a four inch nail into his jaw? It was there for six days before he sought help. Not only should this guy never be handed a nail gun again but the most dangerous object he should ever be in control of is one of those Kentucky Fried Chicken sporks.

Most everyone has had an accident which resulted in an embarrassing injury. I broke my collarbone when I was in fifth grade. I told everyone I broke it high jumping, which was true. What I failed to tell them was the bar had been set about 15 inches above the ground when my Fosbury truly flopped and resulted in a clavicular fracture. At least I didn’t wait six days to seek medical attention. Actually, my mom made me go. Even at the age of eleven I had the male predisposition to “tough it out.”

Men don’t like going to the doctor. Many psychologists think it stems from a deep seated dislike for giving up control by admitting one needs help. Others think it grows out of a sense one is not a real man if he admits to pain. All men know it isn’t either of those reasons. It actually boils down to one thing – doctors are creepy. They use small metal implements which remind us all of that scene in Marathon Man when Laurence Olivier is asking Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?” (man, that still causes ever sphincter muscle in my body to squeeze tighter than then skin on Joan Rivers’ face). It is not unreasonable for men to do all they can to avoid medical attention. If a person told you he was going to make you wear a big paper towel, sit in a tiny cubicle for forty minutes with nothing to do but skim seven year old copies of Brides magazine, then tell you you’re overweight and to stop doing and eating everything you truly enjoy doing and eating, all for the low, low price of 100 dollars you’d tell him there was no way you would do that. The real miracle of modern medicine is not the advancement in technology or pharmaceuticals. It is the fact that whole cubicle scenario is something people do, frequently.

Early man survived without modern medicine. The fact the life expectancy of early man was just slightly longer than the number of weeks the Kansas City Royals can even pretend they are contenders in the division shouldn’t worry us. Can you blame men for having the somewhat Cro-Magnon mentality to just rub some dirt in it and walk it off? It is much simpler. Men like simple. Women like complicated. Whereas men look for the most direct solution to any problem, which is often ignoring the existence of a problem, women enjoy the twelve step programs. If admitting it is the first step, than men are definitely using the elevator.

The life expectancy of a man born in 1960 is just over 66 years, and the life expectancy of a woman born in 1960 is nearly 73 years. That seven year discrepancy might just be attributable to a woman’s willingness to go to the doctor and actually try to take care of herself. I suppose it might also have something to do with the fact that many men enjoy doing things like lighting fireworks with the cigar they have clamped between their teeth after having sucked down enough beer to founder Secretariat. Self-preservation is not the top characteristic for the average American male. Guys do not tend to think, “If I get the speedometer up to 110 M.P.H. and try to jump over that train blocking the street I might just die.” More likely they think things like: “It would be soooo cool if I could get my Festiva over the top of that Burlington Northern.”

I suppose it will take quite a bit to make men change their attitudes towards healthy living habits. Until then, guys, remember, “turn your head and cough” is better to hear than “it will cost $55,000 to remove that rearview mirror from your forehead.”

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Is "Paternal" Latin for Clueless

This weekend my youngest child will turn twelve years old. I will not annoy everyone by typing in the full lyrics for the song “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, but holy Tevye, Batman! Where did the time go?

Even though the term father could be used to describe me for 17 years now I make no claims that I know how to do this job. There have been fathers for generations. Actually, there have been fathers for as long as there have been generations. Even though people have been practicing the art and science of parenthood for ages nobody has all the answers. Oh, sure, Dr. Spock tried to write the owner’s manual for the little beggars but after a while even that book is more useful as a device to measure if the bars on the crib are close enough together to avoid injury than anything else. (Warning long-winded non sequitur may be closer than it appears: It is amazing I lived through my childhood. I had a crib with bars I could fit my head between. There where wall sockets in my house without little plastic prong thingees shoved into them. I played with an Erector Set which was totally comprised of sharp-edged metal bars. My Major Matt Mason action figures had accessories sold separately which could just as easily have been labeled choking hazards sold separately. And my favorite breakfast cereal was Lead Paint Flakes with its lovable cartoon mascot Brain Damaged Idiot depicted in bright colors on every box.)

I have been forced to look for guidance where the majority of people seek their role models for everything in life: television. I tried to be Ward Cleaver but the cardigan sweaters were too itchy. I thought about emulating Cliff Huxtable but those sweaters were itchy and ugly. Charles Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie seemed to be capable and had really great hair. That and the fact that he was light years more intelligent than the Pa in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (“There’s a blizzard a comin’ I guess I better go to town and leave my young children and wife to deal with it on their own.”) made him a good candidate until I found out I was going to have to follow that up with being in Highway to Heaven.
This was going to be harder than I thought. Full House Dad? Too wimpy. Family Ties Dad? Too in-touch-with-your-feelings-y? Eight is Enough Dad? Too oblivious of the real world? My Two Dads Dads? Too many of them in one house.

That’s the thing about being a parent; you can’t really use anyone else’s experiences to guide you. This is probably due to the fact no two children, fathers, or situations (even similar situations hours apart) are ever truly the same. That fact is really starting to tick me off.

I have to adjust to the fact that my children are starting to leave the truly childish existence I am used to, not good at, just used to, behind. This is just one of the myriad of things my wife is better at than I am. A while back I had between 7 and 249 teenagers in my basement. Okay, it was twelve, but that’s within the range I mentioned. (Hyperbole, a perfectly acceptable writer’s tool.) Anyway, my wife came into the room I was hiding, uh, working in. She was excited our house was the “go to” house for my daughters and their friends. She was focused on the facts that our kids were in our house, they had friends who were good kids, their friends saw our house as an acceptable place to be, and we knew they were all safe. I was focused on the facts that there were several hairy legged boys near my girls, I was paying for the snacks and soda pop they were drinking, and since I am an old man with a job I would be trying to sleep as they were raucously laughing below me.

I need to stop worrying and enjoy the ride. I am very lucky because I genuinely like my children. The more time I spend out in the world the more often I find there is a smaller and smaller percentage of people I really want to spend time with. Maybe that is why people have children. It is not some primordial urge to keep the species from extinction but rather a selfish desire to create people we don’t immediately want to smack across the cheek with a sock full of lard.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Does He Play Well with Others?

The longest gestation period for a land mammal is 22 months. That is how long it takes before Mama Elephant finally gets to met little Dumbo. (Little Know Fact #1: It isn’t until the 21st month that a pregnant elephant will say, “Do these ears make me look fat?”) That is in the world of natural sciences. In the world of artistic creation the gestation periods are often much longer.

It was April 17th, 2008 when I typed the first sentence of a stage play. Two years and one week later that play will make its debut on the stage of the Depot Theater in Dodge City, Kansas. (Little Known Fact #2: I also gained weight through this gestation process. It wasn’t from the retention of water but more from the soda pop and junk food which is a required part of a writer’s regimen.)

The actual writing is a lonely pursuit. You sit in a room all by yourself doing the work. In my case this usually consists of short bursts of typing punctuating longer periods of staring at the computer screen, reaching for snacks (see Little Known Fact #2), reaching for the keyboard and then not typing anything having though better of it, allowing myself one quick internet surf to see the score of the ballgame, bringing up iTunes and selecting a different playlist which might very well prove to be just the creative stimulus needed to start writing again and the occasional giggle when I actually think of something I think is funny. Hard to believe it took two whole years to finish the play isn’t it?

I used the word lonely to describe the writing process. That word has a negative connotation which doesn’t fit how I feel about it. I truly like being alone. I like being alone for prolonged periods of time. I spent a great deal of my young adulthood alone. Not in a pathetic lonely guy way or a creepy Ted Kaczynski treatise writing bomb construction way but mostly because there were not a great many people I wanted to spend time with. In the interest of full disclosure there was no line forming at my door of people wanting to spend time with me either.
This is a conundrum I would think many writers face. They like being alone and anonymous but they want their work to be out amongst large numbers of people. I do not want to be famous but I would love the stuff I write to be well known, and I would even hope that it would be admired. There is no pipeline I can tap into to make that happen. I have to engage in interpersonal activity to get what I write beyond the “documents” file of my computer.

The positive side of trying to work in a creative, or some might even say, artistic world is you often deal with people possessing a great generosity of spirit. The play being mounted at the Depot has given me an opportunity to get together a talented, giving, creative and guaranteed not to cause any nasty side effects group of people. The early rehearsals ran beyond the expected end time, not because we weren’t working on our common goal or because there was contention and argument but rather because we found ourselves giggling so much.

As much as I like to work alone when an endeavor so completely dependent upon effective collaboration is populated by people willing to pull their own weight, people who are dedicated to fully employing all their skills, people who value the other people they are working with, and people who can quote Young Frankenstein as easily as they can recite their own address the very oxygen in the room is enriched and all the positive endorphins go screaming through my bloodstream as if they are powered by rocket engines revving up to escape velocity. To put it in simpler terms: It is so cool!

At the end of the run I will return to my cave and hunker down with my computer, root beer and vanilla sandwich cookies to arrange and re-arrange words in hopes of making myself laugh. If I am truly lucky I will be allowed to share those words with others and give them a smile or a giggle and if the creative gods wish to bless me beyond what I deserve I will get another chance to experience a project like this with the caliber of people I am sharing my evenings with right now.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Not all scales stand for justice

I think I might have made a fatal error. Now that I am well on the “closer to fifty than to forty” side of the demographic charts there are things I am supposed to do in order to be sure I stay in good health. The fatal error I refer to is I have started to do those things. I now hurt.

I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started soon after the New Year. No, I did not make a resolution to be healthier but it seemed like everyone one around me at work had. They were all discussing diets and exercise plans and a bunch of people threw some money into a pot to see who could lose the most weight over a period of time. I stayed strictly on the periphery of these activities. Until one day, out of a curiosity born of hearing all the healthy talk, I decided to actually get on a scale.

Now, I am sure I am not alone when I say I prefer my weight to be some sort of theoretical number like something Fibonacci would work with or Euclidean algorithms or the number of fully rational, well-read individuals sitting ringside at a professional wrestling event. I harken back to a time when I was getting a new driver’s license. The DMV lady asked for my weight and when I paused, not so much out of embarrassment but more from genuine ignorance, she smiled and said the blank on the form did not, in fact, say actual weight. So I made up a semi-reasonable amount and that is the number on my license to this day. It was closer to being “actual” at that time, but today, not so much.

Anyway, I got on the scale and was surprised. I mean this was a number I won’t even represent in print using Roman numerals. It was a number larger than I had ever seen before in these circumstances. Don’t get me wrong. Richard Simmons was not going to show up on my doorstep with a work crew dedicated to cutting a hole in the wall big enough to winch me out of in order to get me to a clinic.

The charts for a person my height indicate my weight put me into the overweight category, not the “obese” category nor the “apply for your own zip code” category. However, when I looked at the optimum weight category for a man of my age and height it made me downright nostalgic. I remember being that weight. I was that weight when Bush was President. OK, it was the first George Bush. OK, it was when he was Vice President, but I can still remember it. So back off Jack Lalanne.

While I realize it is quite likely true that a much higher proportion of the general population of the United States is overweight there seems to be too much of an obsession with it. There is a blitzkrieg of marketing aimed at losing weight. There are exercise gurus, diet foods, diet programs, diet supplements, healthy foods, pharmaceuticals, and even a reality television show all revolving around going from bigger to smaller. Doctors have also gotten into the mix. Personally I am convinced they all got together a few years back and added a new sentence to the Hippocratic Oath. After all the “I swears” and “I wills” they stuck in the following: “and, oh, by the way, tell them they’re fat.”

After I saw my weight I decided I needed to just be smarter about things. I drink way too much soda pop. Yes, I know it is bad for you. Both of my daughters have done the science fair project where you put nails in dishes of pop and watch them get eaten away by the corrosive materials. Usually, I just told my kids I wasn’t held together with nine penny nails so I was fine. So the first step was to cut down on consuming the fizzy drinks.

Next I decided to get some purposeful exercise. I am bored with exercise machines and walking miles a day is not easy in Kansas weather so I started playing basketball. I do it by myself but since I am such a crummy shot it is very aerobic because I spend the majority of time running, chasing the ball after it caroms off the backboard at odd angles.

Now that I am so healthy can someone explain why my legs hurt and why I am always hungry. It might just be easier to be fat.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Self-Centered Doesn't Mean Properly Balanced

There are times when a person has to face harsh realities. This is one of those times. I did some soul searching recently and came to a conclusion which does not put me in a good light. I’m selfish. Truly, there are times I am a real clam and just last Wednesday I was a full-fledged mollusk. Wait a minute. I think I got that mixed up. Those things wouldn’t make me a selfish person. Those things would make me a shellfish person. Anyway, I realized I have stronger selfish impulses than I thought. The issue is not that these impulses exist or that I too frequently follow through with them. The friction in my emotional life is I hardly ever allow myself to act on them.

There are the selfish impulses that no member of a civilized society should act upon. Like the ones which occur when the person talking to you is blathering on about some molehill they have morphed into something of Everestian proportions. You know the selfish impulse I mean. The one which plays out in your mind like this: you take a sock full of lime Jell-O and give the person a solid clout across the chops. I would never behave in such a violent manner. (Well, other than that one time I socked a man in Reno just to watch him cry.)

The problem is I am a fully grown responsible upstanding member of society and we all know how much that stinks. There is just enough of the old puritanical work ethic existing in me to cause me to deny myself the base pleasures of life. This means I can’t buy the latest sports car to satisfy my desire to be genuinely cool (people who know me just giggled because the sports car wouldn’t do it). Instead I have to make sure my children have food, shelter and proper medical care. What a bummer.

All whining aside, I have to say I will never be in the major leagues of selfish behavior. I would have to go a long way to rival such top tier selfish people as the stars of reality television shows, your average toddler and what now seems to be the most myopic group of ego-centric folks moving amongst us, politicians.

(There will now be a slight pause as I climb onto my soapbox.)

My father had a way of describing certain folks. “They know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” This describes the Kansas legislature. They are consistently all excited about cutting taxes so they can appear heroic to the people who will vote them back into office. However they fail to realize government needs money in order to do the things which are of genuine value for the greater good of the state.

Case in point: education. The state has cut funding to education. Let me rephrase that. They have cut funding to children. The amount promised to each Kansas student was cut almost 13% and this was after districts made their budgets. (I don’t know about you but if my paycheck was cut 13% I’d have to re-do my budget quite a bit and we’re not just talking about eating out less often.)

The Kansas 2010 Commission was created a few years back, when the Supreme Court called the legislature on the carpet for shirking its Constitutional requirement of adequately funding schools. Its job was to investigate education in Kansas and describe its needs. The legislature authorized the commission and then promptly ignored everything it said. They ignored it because it stated in no uncertain terms that the legislature was derelict in its mandate to properly fund students in this state.

This brings me back to the selfish theme. The people we elect to do the unpleasant things and be the grownups are not squashing their selfish impulses. They want the sports car. They have created over a billion dollars in tax breaks over the last few years (according to the 2010 commission) which would have paid for much of the education budget promised but then reneged upon. I venture to bet that they did so to get re-elected not because it was the responsible thing to do.

My suggestion is if the people in Topeka decide to cut funding to children yet again (which is quite probable) we all get our Jell-O socks and knock some sense into them. I know this is a humor column but this time I’m not kidding.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Scare up some ideas

I have been thinking recently about combining the works of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Navin R. Johnson.

I have probably confused some of my readers with an unfamiliar name. One man is known as a brilliant speaker, a man of conviction dedicated to enhancing of the lives of millions of people, a man ahead of his time who brought the rest of the world forward with his sheer force of will and the other is Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Joke writing 101: the unexpected turnaround.)

For those of you who spent too much time in movie theaters in the late seventies you will recognize the name Navin R. Johnson as the character played by Steve Martin in “The Jerk”. There were dozens of fabulous quotes from that movie: “The new phone books are here!” and “He hates these cans. Stay away from the cans.” But my personal favorite soliloquy of silliness has to be when his life goes to pot and as he leaves his mansion he claims he doesn’t need anything from his former life and then proceeds to pick an odd variety of things that he really does need. It goes something like this:

Well I'm gonna go then. And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this. [picks up an ashtray] And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.

This brings me to my idea of combining the philosophical musings of Navin and one of the most famous quotes from the 32nd President of the United States: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

If President Roosevelt were a practicing politician today he would have pulled a Navin and kept talking. I am guessing it would have gone something like this.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Well, and we should also be more than a little worried about global warming. Oh, and the health care system is in a right awful state. There are terrorists all over the place with dynamite sewn into their Fruit of the Looms. The stimulus package is full of pork barrel spending and none of it came to our state. We are inexorably changing into a socialist, communist, fascist, alarmist, anesthesiologist, chauvinist, contortionist, cubist, elitist, empiricist, escapist, existentialist, exorcist, hedonist, ichthyologist, imperialist, misogynist, narcissist, neoclassicist, nephrologist, nihilist, nonconformist, nudist, opportunist, orthodontist, pessimist, philatelist, plagiarist, pointillist, projectionist, propagandist, pugilist, recidivist, repudiationist, sadomasochist, secessionist, solipsist, surrealist, ventriloquist, nation. The government is out to take all your money with unreasonable taxes and then they are going to spend it all on ashtrays and remote controls and paddle games.

That was only slightly exaggerating things. It seems fear is the most important thing to invoke when talking to groups of more than six people. In the old days people subscribed to the “hope for the best expect the worst” methodology of planning ahead. We have now removed the “hope for the best” part and added to the “expect the worst” part with a side order of “and it probably causes cancer”. On top of that we feel compelled to make a seven step plan of action to deal with the inevitable doom coming our way complete with designing a staging area to coordinate all emergency first responders (firemen, paramedics, police officers, CNN reporters and psychologists to help us cope), drawing up escape routes to Canada and assembling public relations departments charged with spinning the apocalypse in a more positive light (each and every child can have his or her own pet frog since they are raining from the sky).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wheeere's Johnny?

Jeff Zucker has been getting the stuffing beaten out of him by dozens and dozens of people in the press. “Who is Jeff Zucker?” you ask. Mr. Zucker is the president and chief executive officer of NBC, and he is the person who created quite a storm in the world of television.

Remember a few months ago when it was decided Jay Leno would host a Tonight Show-esque program five nights a week at 10/9 central on NBC? Remember a few months ago when 94% of the rational beings in the United States (which included most toddlers and a few really alert gerbils) decided Jay Leno hosting a Tonight Show-esque program five nights a week at 10/9 central on NBC was an idea so bone-headed it must have been created by a not so alert gerbil? Well, that not so alert gerbil was Harvard graduate Jeff Zucker.

Now there is another painful divide in a nation already torn asunder by liberal versus conservative, Chevy versus Ford, PC versus Mac, alive Elvis versus dead Elvis, and tastes great versus less filling. Are you a Jay supporter or a Conan man?

I don’t have an opinion. I liked Jay in his stand-up comic days but never watched his version of The Tonight Show. Conan is really unknown to me for anything other than his hair.

As of the writing of this column it looks like Jay will get the Tonight Show back and Conan will get 40 million smackers to stay home and perform for his wife and kids at the dinner table. I don’t care who hosts the Tonight Show for two reasons. The first reason is as I get older my bedtime keeps creeping farther and farther from midnight and closer and closer to dinner time. The second reason is I miss Johnny Carson.

I always felt a certain connection to Johnny Carson. He was from Nebraska. I am from Nebraska. He started on the Tonight Show in 1962. I started on this planet in 1962. Every anniversary show for Johnny had the same number as the number of candles on my birthday cake. He was funny. I always wanted to be funny. He seemed to have a kind soul. I strive for kindness. Humor for him was never mean-spirited. I find it difficult to make jokes that might be hurtful to anyone (even thought there are times I fight through that). He was a private man. I am naturally shy.

Holy cow! That’s it! I have the solution to Mr. Zucker’s predicament. Fire both Leno and O’Brien and hire me to host The Tonight Show. I always wanted to be Johnny Carson, I can have clever conversation with Hollywood stars and, if you hire enough writers, I can be funny five nights a week. And the best part for the embattled NBC CEO and all the shareholders of NBC stock (those who have not already sold it because it has become as attractive as dirigible stock after the Hindenburg), I will do all of that for one fortieth of what you are paying Mr. O’Brien to go away.

How’s this for my first monologue:

Well, Massachusetts has a Republican taking Ted Kennedy’s senate seat and the number of people in Hades looking for their mukluks just went through the roof. Really, the odds against that just a few months ago had to be longer than the New York Jets playing in the AFC championship game. What’s that? The Jets are what? I guess that means the snowball fight at Beelzebub’s house is definitely on for tonight.

James Cameron has another gigantic hit movie on his hands. First he makes a movie where everyone knows the ship sinks but we all go anyway. Now he has a movie which has everyone from the Vatican to the People’s Republic of China complaining about the subversive message he is trying to foist upon us. The only message I took from it was it takes $280 million of technological wizardry to make skinny smurfs.

I know NBC was in deep trouble. I mean they were getting beat in the ratings by cable networks that specialized in reality shows showing paint dry but did they really have to go for such a gimmick and hire some 47 year old nobody to host their flagship show? What could they have been thinking when they decided to put this overweight, gray-haired, talentless…uh, who wrote this joke?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Getting the cold shoulder...and everyplace else...

As I write this I am in my home office, sitting in my recliner, wearing a sweatshirt, sweatpants and my slippers all toasty warm while outside the mercury in my thermometer is doing some sort of Cirque du Soleil contortionist version of the Limbo. How low can you go?

I have always said I prefer cold weather to hot weather. One reason being when it gets cold I can simply put on another layer of something to warm up, but when it is hot there is a finite number of things I can take off before anyone in the vicinity starts shrieking and running like citizens of 1950’s Tokyo escaping Godzilla. (I suppose you could say the poor people of Japan being menaced by the giant lizard were suffering from reptile dysfunction.)

I do still prefer cold weather to hot, but this is ridiculous. When the high temperature for the day equals Billy Barty’s inseam and the overnight low is a darn good golf score there is something horribly wrong. (For those readers too young to get the reference, replace the name Billy Barty with Mini Me. It will make more sense.)

Weather like this requires new terminology. I’m sorry but “wind chill” just doesn’t cut it. A chill is something you get when the air conditioner kicks on and you’re standing over the vent. When the anemometer starts spinning in Kansas and the air temperature is already a pre-adolescent number calling it a “wind chill” is like calling Sean Hannity a little conservative or saying Tiger Woods plays a little golf. (I’m not going to make another joke here about other ways to describe Tiger Woods, but feel free to do so yourself before reading on. I’ll wait.)

What should television meteorologists call it? Tonight the “wind blast” will reach seven below. Or how about, with near record lows the “wind brrrrrrrr” will drop well below zero. Let’s make it rhyme. The “wind kill” may reach dangerous levels. Actually, when it is so cold that just peering out the window and contemplating going outside causes frostbite we should simply call it the “wind forget about it”.
Due to some quirk of thermodynamics my daughter Alice’s bedroom is not affected in the slightest no matter how hard the furnace works. I am not kidding when I say we could make a few extra bucks in the winter renting out her closet as a meat locker. Needless to say this winter she has been sleeping in her sister’s room quite regularly. Who knew the secret to getting teenage sisters to get along is making one of them live in a room which makes Lambeau Field in January look like Waikiki Beach in August.

“Hey, Alice, does your bedroom have wood floors or carpet?”
“Neither, it has tundra.”

Kindergarten teachers already have many tricky and time consuming aspects to their job but weather like this means there is just enough time after the morning bell to help the munchkins out of their various coats, boots, mittens, scarves and hats to send them to lunch and then the process of getting all the stuff back on must commence in order to assure nobody misses the bus.

On a side note: There is nothing quite like the experience of spending time in a room containing 60 kindergarteners because it is too cold to go out for recess. The fire marshal would re-think his maximum occupancy rules if he had to be in a room with 60 six-year-olds. There may not be a room big enough for a high concentration of these creatures of pure impulse and action.

“OK, kids, we’re going to all go in to room 196 and sit down. Then I’ll give you the instructions on what to do next. Wait, David, don’t climb on the table…no, Tina, I didn’t know your brother’s dog could open the refrigerator door all by himself…please let go of my tie…but we just took a bathroom break…Susie, give Joe his book back…no, no, no, just hand it to…Joe, go see the nurse…”

I guess I really should look on the bright side. At least when it is this cold outside I don’t have to worry about the ice cream melting while I’m driving home from the store, even if I take a route which includes a quick stop at Bismarck, North Dakota between Dillon’s and my house.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

An Aught Time in the Old Town Tonight

The days of 2009 are dwindling down to a precious few. At first glance moving into 2010 means at least one truly excellent thing. Those novelty eyeglasses sold each New Year’s Eve with the double zeros acting as the lenses will no longer be around. Another good thing is there was no Prince (or The Artist Formerly Known as Relevant to the Pop Music Scene) song asking us to party like it was 2009.

Remember back ten years ago when we were waiting for all the computers to go haywire, the phone systems to stop working, the internet to stop in its tracks, and nuclear power plants to meltdown. Then as the clock ticked past midnight we all held our collective breath as absolutely nothing remarkable happened. That is pretty much how I see New Year’s Eve every year. Millions of people gather for parties and hoopla whether it be in homes throughout the world, hotels and nightclubs with music and dancing, or in Times Square with public drunkenness and the ensuing public “becoming unwell” on other people’s shoes in order to watch the clock go from 11:59 to 12:00. Since my clocks do that a lot I fail to see the reason for all that effort. I will most likely be in bed before the clock goes from 9:59 to 10:00.

I am not entirely unsentimental about the ending of the calendar year. I don’t mind waxing a bit nostalgic and taking a look back at the year that was 2009.

January saw the United States of America make history on inauguration day. No it wasn’t the obvious thing – having the first African-American sworn in as President. We officially started a new political era. One in which the Republicans and the Democrats behave in such a manner they make the Hatfields and the McCoys appear circumspect and reasonable, the Montagues and the Capulets seem positively chummy, and Red Sox and Yankee fans give the impression of being blood brothers to the very end. The two political parties have never seen eye-to-eye on all things, but they now seem to base their decisions on what would annoy the other side more than what makes sense for the electorate. Why don’t we just have Pelosi & Reid and Boehner & McConnell suit up for a rousing match of Rollerball to determine health care plans for the nation? (Admit it. You’d love to see old, rich, white people strap on roller skates and leather gloves adorned with flesh ripping spikes duke it out for political supremacy.) The ticket of Jett Li and Ray Lewis would win in a landslide if Rollerball became the way disputes were settled politically.

Stepping away from the world of politics (mainly because it is too depressing to keep thinking about) we look back on the year in pop culture. A forty-eight year old nobody from Scotland captured the world’s heart and became an internet sensation. Susan Boyle is now world famous and probably quite rich. It just goes to show you you don’t have to have the looks of a Britney Spears to become a recording star. It also shows you that Simon Cowell has more power than any one man should have, especially a grumpy man who seems to be devoid of talent himself.

The top grossing movies of 2009 show commerce and art can go hand in hand. The commerce of teenage boys buying movies tickets and the art of keeping just enough clothing on Megan Fox to avoid getting a rating which would keep teenage boys from getting into the theater worked very well this year. It was also proven once again the movie going public wants films which ennoble mankind and show the high moral ground people of the 21st century so frequently aim towards. This was shown by the high income for a film portraying how men bonding together in ritualistic manners are men to be revered, men to emulated, and men to be signed for a sequel because The Hangover made boatloads of money and that really is all they care about in Hollywood after all.

In 2009 the Pittsburgh Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl and the New York Yankees won their twenty-seventh World Series. In the year 2009 fans of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals surprised many in the sporting world by admitting they were fans of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals…in public…without shame.