Sunday, June 27, 2010

Diary of a Suburban Weekend

I am endlessly fascinated with the minutiae of other people’s lives. Not the big picture stuff, but the day-to-day stuff. I want to know what you had for dinner last night. Did you cook? Did you order in? What time did you wake up this morning? Because I happen to have kids, I am particularly nosy about households with little ones, but I am an equal opportunity imaginer of what, precisely is going on at your house, regardless of how many people live there.

I become especially curious when things at the homestead are particularly dark, like when the kids are sick, or it seems like it will require a military intervention to get dinner on the table, and I have this image all of you are sharing a plate of cheese fries at Sidewalk Café and your kids are all having this awesome time at the pool.

That gets me thinking about the minutiae of my own life, and I’ve realized that when you reach a certain point in your life, especially when you have kids, we all pretty much go through the same thing.

And even if you don’t have kids, we all still have the same wish – to sit on the couch, eat a f-----g bowl of Lucky Charms and watch the Hills with no one bothering us. But like Moonlight Graham said in Field of Dreams, my wish will have to remain a wish. Instead, I can give you a look at one of our recent weekends and put your mind at ease: You are not alone.

NOTE: This is a bit longer than I originally planned. What can I say? Print it out and take it to the bathroom.

FRIDAY
5:18 p.m.

It's go time! Another workweek has come to an end, and we're on our way to the preschool to collect our beloved offspring, who will undoubtedly carry with them the stink of daycare. It's that weird combination of preschool funk and the stench of guilt of having them there in the first place. My wife scampers off to gather our daughter, and I make my way for the boy. His class is outside on the playground. One of my favorite things to do is watch him playing on the playground before he sees me so I can see what he’s really like when we’re not around.

In a strange statistical quirk, my son’s class is comprised of 15 girls and 5 boys. Needless to say, the boys are a tight group, bonded the way a group of survivors might after a zombie apocalypse. As they always are, the boys are involved in some game that looks suspiciously like Calvinball, for those of you who remember the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. My son calls out something to the effect of: "the sun went behind that cloud. Your touchdown doesn't count!" His buddy briefly considers my son’s official protest and then runs off to the monkeybars.

6:32 p.m.

Friday is the one day when the sticker shock of taking the kids out to dinner is outweighed by that sense of relief you get when you settle into the booth and realize someone else is doing the cooking. Forty-six bucks for two cheeseburger dinners and two kids’ mac-and-cheeses? Awesome!

That being said, you had damn well better include milk with the kids’ meal. All local restaurants that do so, take one step forward – NOT SO FAST, Glory Days on Ridgefield Parkway! Seriously? Four bucks for two milks? Yeah, we’re done. It's not me, it's YOU.

7:44 p.m.

Home. When our ten-year-old dog sees us, she starts jumping up and down as if she’d been wrongly informed that we’d all perished in a car crash. A sense of relief washes over me in that we've made it through another week and nothing disastrous happened. I think that’s a controlling theme in our lives, especially while the kids are so young. Just get them through the week. I’m a worrier by nature, and it always seems like an accomplishment when you pull up the drawbridge on Friday night and release the crocs into the moat.

8:06 p.m.

For the eleventy-billionth time, I ask my son to go change into his pajamas. He interprets my request as follows: "Daddy really wants me to get my Millennium Falcon and see if, in fact, it can make the Kessel run in twelve parsecs."

8:13 p.m.

Son (internal monologue): Suck it, Han. I made it in 10 parsecs.

8:31 p.m.

Lights out. The kids are down! The kids are down!

8:31:01 p.m.

Daughter: Mommy, mommy!

Son: My bug bite itches! I’m scared.

As a side note, I love monster movies like Dawn of the Dead and Cloverfield, but it has occurred to me that if we ever did face a zombie apocalypse, my son would literally never sleep again. We’d be traipsing across the post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to make a can of black beans last a month, and he’d keep reminding me that he was right, there are such things as monsters, Daddy.

“You told a lie, Daddy, and that wasn’t a good choice. Now hand me the shoulder-launched RPG.”

9:15 p.m.

The kids are finally asleep. Finally, some grownup time. Maybe some wine, a late snack, a movie.

9:20 p.m.

My wife is asleep on the couch. I fire up the laptop and stare at a blank screen. Someday, I may come up with an idea for a best-selling novel. It won’t be tonight.

SATURDAY
2:56 a.m.

My daughter cries out so hysterically that I think the smoke monster from Lost has slipped into her bedroom. Naturally, the moment my wife steps out of bed to check on her, she quiets back down and doesn’t make a peep the rest of the night. At this point, I’m tachycardic, and it takes me an hour to fall asleep again.

6:50 a.m.

I briefly wonder whether there’s time for--

6:50:01 a.m.

“Daddy, can I watch a show? I'm hungry. I need to go potty.”

6:50:02 a.m.

I guess not.

7:02 a.m.

I have an incredibly romanticized view of coffee. For some reason, it feels like people running around with to-go coffee cups, all cozy in their little Java Jackets, just have their sh*t together. I’m not sure why this is – perhaps it relates to my assumption that this person actually had time to stop for coffee. I barely have time to get my own jacket on.

I once heard a comedian say that the best part of waking up isn’t Folgers in your cup – it’s realizing you didn’t die in your sleep. Man, I wish I had thought of that one.

Either way, the acid in coffee hurts my stomach, so I drink tea in the morning. Tea. Whatever. I don’t care how many antioxidants or flavonoids tea has, it’s never going to be as cool as coffee.

9:52 a.m.

Out the door to my son’s co-ed soccer game. He plays in one of the area’s large recreational soccer leagues. I think there are approximately half a million teams in the Under-5 division. At this age level, there are no goalies, and they don't keep score. And when I say “they” don't keep score, I mean that every parent is totally keeping score while pretending to not keep score.

Keep in mind that we’re worrying about a game involving a bunch of kids who occasionally forget what sport they’re playing. And yet, I won’t lie to you -- watching my son score (on an undefended goal, mind you) is akin to what I imagine one’s first line of cocaine is like. A spectacular high, quick crash, and then an overwhelming desire to watch it happen again.

He scores twice. They won, 8-3. Or they didn’t.

12:15 p.m.

You ever notice how relentless mealtime is? Let’s assume for the moment that you’ve gone to the trouble of making a healthy breakfast. Suddenly, it’s four hours later, and you’ve got to come up with something for lunch. And if you’ve got kids – well, they couldn’t give a crap that you haven’t thought of something.

This might be the aspect of other people’s lives I wonder about the most. I really like to cook, but the fact that we slurp down in ten minutes a meal that took an hour to make is never far from my mind. It's reassuring to know that across this great country of ours, families are panicking every four to six hours.

Strange quirk of the week – my son turned down an offer of Chick-Fil-A for dinner one night. That was just weird.

5:30 p.m.

We’re 30 minutes late to a cookout, and I can’t remember if we were supposed to bring something. Better take a bottle of wine and pray the couple that gave it to us isn’t the one hosting the cookout. Then again, if someone brought us a bottle of wine that we’d given them a year ago, would I notice?

Let me shake my Magic 8-Ball. VERY DOUTBFUL. Besides, we’re all in this together. We’re all thirty minutes late, and none of us have had a chance to get to the store.

9:00 p.m.

Damn the torpedoes, we are watching a movie tonight. Thank you, inventor of the flat-screen television!

SUNDAY
10:05 a.m.

Quick dip in the pool. Since moving to our house a year ago, I’ve discovered there’s something strangely unifying about a neighborhood pool. I can’t quite put my finger on it. The cynical part of me suspects there’s something slightly elitist about it. We live in Richmond, after all, where elitism is like a national sport. My own kids look down on me because I wasn’t born here and they were. Then again, me without my shirt on is just about the least elitist thing you will ever see.

11:17 a.m.

The cavalry has arrived. My parents have driven up for the day to see their beloved grandchildren. I don’t remember my parents ever being this excited to see me, so I can safely say that being a grandparent looks awesome. It’s probably pushing it to suggest I support teenage pregnancy.

Either way, my wife and I are out of the house so fast, my chair is spinning. The quiet in the car is unnerving.

9:53 p.m.

The weekend is dying, and there isn’t much else to say.

Remember that show Our House with Wilford Brimley? I recall it aired at 7:00 on Sunday nights. I don’t know exactly what made me think of that, but I am confident that casting Brimley as DeVasher in the movie version of John Grisham’s novel, The Firm, is the single greatest casting decision of the last twenty years.

It simply doesn't get any better than this quote: “What do I look like, the f-----' night watchman?”

Anyway, Sunday evening means totally blowing off preparing our lunches in advance or really doing anything that would make Monday mornings go a little more smoothly.

Screw it.

Mad Men is on.

Next week’s Column: Germophobia

Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Need a Hobby. Your Life May Depend on It.

A few housekeeping items before we get started. First, thanks for reading. It thrills me to no end to have people unrelated to me read and hopefully enjoy what I write. Second, please feel free to share the blog address with anyone. We're all friends here. And third, although I announce new blog posts on Facebook, I realize not everyone is on The Giant Timesuck, so you can add my blog to Google Reader, which will notify you of new postings. You need a Google account for the Reader, but signing up for one is simple, and it's a really useful Google feature. I think you can add the blog to your RSS feed, too, but I'm not entirely sure how all that works, so I will just leave it at that.

Away we go.

A few years ago, I got tired of writing. The whole process of finding the time to write, eking out rehashed story ideas from thin air (what if a guy discovers a conspiracy at the highest levels of government? What if a guy sat around coming up with novel ideas and then goes postal?), and the idea of spending months and months on a manuscript with only the faintest hopes of ever seeing publication had started to wear on me.

I was even fed up with the process of naming my characters -- I'd write down something like 'BEN FOSTER' and then immediately think: 'Christ, what a stupid name for a character. It sounds made up. No one will think this is a real person. Scratch it out."

Then: 'JOHN McCOY'.

That would lead to this internal monologue: 'You moron, that's even worse than Ben Foster! How about you have them face off in a story for the title of Fakest Name Ever! You suck.'

You get the idea. So, sometime in late 2005, I decided to chuck writing. I gave away my writing books, packed away my notepads, and suddenly, I was free of scratching down story ideas, sketching out plotlines, dreaming up character histories, the whole thing.

So now what? I didn't really do much else because I'd spent most of my free time since finishing law school working on novels, and now I had this void in my life that seemed like it needed to be filled. [I know. You're just dying to make a dirty joke here. Me too. Quick break to make said dirty joke.]

...

Giggle.

Obviously, I needed a hobby (this happened when we still only had one kid, who slept through the night like it was his job). While considering which one to take up, sorting through various ideas like they were tomatoes in the grocer's bin, I got to thinking about the whole concept of hobbies and what role they play in people's lives.

The dictionary defines hobby as: An activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.

Now, I am not the sunniest person in the world. I remember a scene from Married … with Children where Al Bundy's neighbor, Jefferson D'Arcy, swings by and tells Al something to the effect of "Hey did you know there's a rain cloud that's only on top of your house?", and I think, "yeah, that sounds about right."

So that delightful side of me defines hobby as: Something to fill the emptiness until you die. Incidentally, I try to keep that side of me locked away. What can I say -- sometimes he gets out.

I thought about the point of a hobby. Do you actively seek one out in the hopes of distinguishing your life from someone else's? Something to make you more you? Or will you simply do whatever it is you're supposed to do because you have no choice in the matter? For example, I don't remember ever actively deciding that I wanted to be a writer. I remember writing my first short story at the age of 8 because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I also thought about the nuts and bolts of actually pursuing your hobby. Is it the end result that you enjoy, is it the actual process, regardless of outcome, or is it some combination of both? Because I'll be honest: writing sucks. It's the finishing of the writing that I like (in my mind, that makes total sense). What even constitutes a hobby? Watching The Hills? Scrapbooking? Does it require some intrinsic value? Can napping constitute a hobby? And the dark side of me wonders: "isn't it just something to distract you from the end, which is sneaking up on you one day at a time?"

I never really had any hobbies as a kid, unless you count being chubby and girlfriend-less hobbies. Too bad the Boy Scouts don't make a patch for those. I'd have made Eagle Scout for sure. I'd also have liked a patch for Nintendo's original Ice Hockey game. I haven't mastered many things in my life, but in 1988 and 1989, you were not going to beat me in that game. I once scored 72 goals using 4 skinny guys against TCH (that's right, Czechoslovakia, the Ivan Drago of Nintendo Ice Hockey).

Anyway, I was determined to find my new hobby. I toddled off into my writing-free world, armed with a few hours of free time each week, looking around for a place to drop my stuff.

For much of my post-school life, my free time has been spent writing, reading, watching movies and sports, cooking or running. I felt like I already did plenty of each of those things (especially the running), so I wasn't especially keen on doing more of any of those things (particularly the running). And none of them really felt like hobbies (although, looking back, I'm not really sure why). I wasn't even sure whether writing constituted a hobby, or whether it was better described as a failed business venture. Still, I felt like I needed something else to make me more me. I've got friends who scuba dive, snowboard, mountain bike, all interesting-sounding activities that mute the Grim Reaper's footsteps, tip-toeing ever closer.

Here's how my HobbyQuest went.

Hobby Idea No. 1: Salsa

I want to say that it wasn't as stupid as it sounds, but it really was. During my first writing-free holiday season, I stopped in at a seasonal gift shop at one of the local malls and stumbled across a jar of Old Bay seasoned salsa. I remember thinking very distinctly that there were a hell of a lot of different kinds of salsa. Mango salsa. Peach salsa. Tomatillo salsa. Maybe salsa could be my hobby. I could become a salsa expert. I could make my own salsa.

It took me a little while, but it did eventually occur to me that salsa already falls into another category of activities of daily living -- it's called eating. It's like calling pooping a hobby. As it turns out, the Old Bay salsa sucked, and I quickly lost interest in making salsa.

Lesson learned: When Sam's Club makes a gigantic and delicious tub of your hobby and sells it for like four bucks, it's probably a stupid hobby.

Hobby Idea No. 2: Chess


When I was about nine years old, I got interested in chess. (Look, it was no accident that I didn't kiss a girl until I was 19). Someone even geekier than me at school had started a chess club, and I wanted to join. I really have no explanation for my fascination with chess. About a week or two before our first scheduled tournament, I discovered Little League, and being nine, it sounded like the coolest thing ever. My parents gave me the option -- chess or baseball. The scary thing is that I remember being relatively torn. In the end, I chose baseball and never thought about chess again. Until now.

As a hobby for a grownup … chess didn’t seem so geeky. The game of kings! How could I go wrong? I could learn about strategy, thinking two and three moves ahead, and even feed the competitive fire a little. I thought it might even help me in my career as a lawyer. I got myself a beginner's chess book and started studying. Did the exercises in the workbook. I was a diligent little student. For about four days. Then I got bored and started looking around for something else to do.

Lesson learned: Baseball was cooler than chess in 1982, and it remains cooler than chess now. You're not slaying too many ladies playing chess, either.

Hobby Idea No. 3: No hobby at all

For the following year, we watched a lot of Netflix movies.

Lesson learned: If you find yourself in the year 1999, don't make statements like "Who wants to order movies by mail? Blockbuster's got NOTHING to worry about."

Hobby Idea No. 4: Writing

By mid-2007, I started to feel the pull of writing again, and I realized that you don't pick the hobby, the hobby picks you. It's sort of like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter books, but not nearly as cool. I suppose that's a good thing. You'll do whatever it is you're drawn to. If you feel like fly fishing, then you'll go fly fishing. If you feel like chasing a pipe dream like writing a New York Times bestseller, well, then that's what you'll do. And if you don't have a hobby, well, the Grim Reaper will track you down soon enough.

Lesson Learned: I spend way too much time thinking about inane crap like the philosophy of hobbies.

Next Week's Column: Diary of a Suburban Weekend

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mommy and Daddy Don't Negotiate with Terrorists.

Welcome back everyone. Mad props to my 13 followers! Off to this week's topic.

Back in the 1990s, Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a comedy called True Lies.
[Phone rings]
Excuse me for a moment.
Can I call you back? I'm writing a column. Oh? An action movie? Really? OK, good to know.
Sorry about that. Anyway, in this "action" movie, there was an amorphous Middle Eastern terrorist group called the Crimson Jihad, and at one point in the narrative, its leader, its Osama bin Laden, if you will, threatened, in his most awesome terrorist voice, that he would would destroy one American city every hour until his demands were met.

What does this have to do with anything? I'm getting there. As a side note, I love the Middle Eastern terrorist accent because I hail from a large family of Middle Easterners (although they're better described as Middle Eastern hummus-makers), and when they get all hot and bothered about something while speaking English, they sound like members of the Crimson Jihad. "No, I said TWO tablespoons of olive oil!"

Anyway, shortly after my son was born in 2005, my wife and I decided that we had to win the sleep battle. I attribute this decision to the fact that during that terrible first night home from the hospital, which was the first time I'd ever been responsible for a child, I prayed for a meteor to hit our house and put me out of my misery. That was when I realized that the entire galaxy of parenting orbits around the sun of a good night's sleep. Not the baby's sleep, because baby's gonna get his sleep whether you like it or not. I'm talking about the parents' sleep. Because if the parents are stumbling around blind and incapable of rational thought for the first two years of the kid's life, things just aren't going to end well.

And that's why, once we were able to identify his various cries (hunger, dirty diaper, etc.), and isolate the one that simply meant, "I'm gonna cry because I want you to come pay more attention to me because I am the freaking center of the universe," we adopted our parenting manifesto:

Mommy and Daddy Don't Negotiate With Terrorists.

Holy crap, what a terrible thing to say about children!

But before you judge me for thinking such a thing, let's look at what children and terrorists have in common.

1. Terrorists seek to disrupt your way of life.
Before my kids were born, I went running in the evenings, we leisurely cooked dinners, we ate outside on the deck, we watched Seinfeld reruns, and we took trips. Currently, there is a Netflix movie on our kitchen counter that arrived about 2 months ago. I don’t even remember what movie it is. In the last two weeks, my son has asked me 2.3 million questions, including my personal favorite -- "Why does he want his friends to stay thirsty?" -- which he asked after he saw the Dos Equis commercial with the Most Interesting Man in the World. I think he asked me this immediately after I'd cut my finger working in the yard and I was bleeding all over the place.

2. Terrorists cling to irrational belief systems.
Two years ago, my son saw Toy Story for the first time, and he concluded that Buzz Lightyear hung the moon. I mean, the kid was obsessed. In October, I took him to see the double-feature re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, including the preview for Toy Story 3, and he was so happy his head almost exploded. About a month ago, when I asked him if he was ready to see Toy Story 3 (in theaters this Friday), he said "No." He doesn't want to see the movie, he wants nothing to do with any of the characters in the Toy Storyverse, and, quite frankly, if I informed him that Emperor Zurg had detonated a dirty bomb in Andy's room, he'd probably say something like, "those jokers at Star Command should get their act together." I have no idea why this is.

3. Terrorists don't care what they destroy to get their way.
Your sleep. Your hobbies. Your relationship with your spouse. A single coherent thought in your head. Your ability to use the bathroom uninterrupted. Dinnertime. Your dignity. Mushroom clouds over all these things.

4. Terrorists use propaganda to win the hearts and minds of the public.
When she gets tired, my daughter grabs the closest item that resembles a blanket with her right hand and sucks her left thumb. I've seen her grab bath mats, oversized couch pillows, jackets, and even my necktie as blanket substitutes. It is undoubtedly the cutest thing I have ever seen. I'm becoming increasingly concerned about her rapidly expanding vocabulary because I'm prepared to clear out the nearest Build-a-Bear Workshop for her if she asks.

5. Terrorists are willing to acquire and use biological weapons.
In the last five years, I've been puked on, peed on, bled on, and pooped on. I once had four colds in six weeks. Two weeks ago, one of my kids sneezed into my mouth during an ill-timed yawn. My friends, I've been the victim of biological terrorism.

My point is this. You're not just a parent. You're a soldier in a war. And you have to win the war, lest your kid end up in juvenile court, where I spent some time representing Social Services in a previous job. Trust me, you do not want to see your kid strolling up the hallways of the J&DR court. This is why you must fight dirty. You must use star stickers on charts to reward good behavior! You must count "1, 2, 3" to get them to get their PJs on and then take away Darth Vader Bear if they don't comply! You must let them think they've won battles that you weren't going to fight anyway! You must let them think it was their idea to start doing chores! You must remind them that they live in occupied territory, where government troops can come in and conduct warrantless searches in the interests of state security!

Remember: Mommy and Daddy don't negotiate with terrorists.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this week's column. Because if you're not with us, then you're with them.

Next Week's Column: You Need a Hobby

Monday, June 7, 2010

Welcome to The Corner.

Fact No. 1: I recently read that there are approximately 200 million blogs. That's like one for every 30 people on the planet.

Fact No. 2: I just got back from my 15-year college reunion, which included a bunch of Bud Lights and a 10:00 p.m. Gusburger -- a greasy hamburger topped with a fried egg.

Safe to say that Bud Light hadn't tasted that delicious since 1994.

How are these two seemingly disparate facts related? See, it's like this. Reunions, especially my college's, which goes nutso for reunions, even capitalizing the "r" so it's Reunions, have a way of making you take stock of how things have gone since you've left the warm coziness of college. So let's take a quick pulse.

I have a great family, I have a law degree, I have a job I like, and I have an iPhone. Seriously, how much more complete could my life be? (Although with word of a new iPhone coming out soon, maybe not as complete as it could be).

But here's the thing. I like writing and telling people what I think, hopefully in a way that lets me reference a movie or TV show. In college, I wrote for our newspaper, mostly as a sportswriter. In law school, I had a monthly column, which people seemed to like (or pretended to like all the while giggling behind my back about my narrative incompetence).

In addition to this, I carry a pipe dream of becoming a published novelist. Tangible proof of this dream exists in the form of three unpublished manuscripts, but I like to think I'm getting better with each one. The first novel was ... well, let's just say that if your villain is a corrupt U.S. Senator, you probably haven't written a very good book. I love my most recent manuscript, and it got a fair amount of interest from agents, enough to get my hopes up (and maybe even break my heart a little when nothing happened), but not enough interest to get me, say, John Grisham's cell phone number. I’m currently working on my fourth manuscript, which I'm sure will also cause me to get unduly excited about a future in print.

So, my goal for this, the 200,000,001st blog in the world, is to post once a week and write about whatever comes to mind in a way that makes you, Awesome Reader, want to come back and see what I have to say next week -- and perhaps entertain you. It will be long enough to hopefully be worth your time, but not so long that I'm wasting your time. I hope you enjoy reading it. Scratch that. I just hope you read it.

Some rules for myself:

1. I won't talk badly about anyone. Unless her name is Sarah Palin. God, I love her.
2. I won't talk badly about work. Except for that yahoo in Accounting. I'm joking. I don't know anyone in Accounting. It just seemed like a good workplace-related joke to make.
3. Other than that, I'll just try to be as entertaining as I can.

Mostly, I'll make fun of things, including myself, because, as those of you who know me are aware, I've got issues. These issues stem largely from my failing to fulfill my parents' dream for me to become a doctor. This is complicated by the fact that my parents think I really am a doctor (since my law school diploma says 'Juris Doctor'), and so when I go visit them, I say things like "intubated", and I carry a pager.

Standout memory from Reunions -- at the class dinner Saturday night, debating faith vs. science with a good friend of mine, the two of us seated alone around an eight-person table in the middle of the Lawn during a driving rainstorm. It was like Shepherd vs. Locke on Lost if they had been drinking Bud Light all day. I loved that show from start to finish, but I'm sort of glad it's over. It made my head hurt. (See how I snuck in the TV reference there?)

Last but not least, if you think I'm doing this in the hope of building an audience, and then having some publishing company swoop in and offer me a ton of money to write for them, well, you would be totally right. To quote Jay Mohr's character from Jerry Maguire -- it's not Show Friends, it's Show Business.

Next Week's Column: Mommy and Daddy Don't Negotiate with Terrorists