Saturday, March 18, 2017

Brain Wanderings

There are times when I just let my mind wander, when I have nowhere to be and nothing pressing to do. I’ve gotten better at writing down some of these random thoughts, these jaunts through my mind, wanderings of the brain. I’ve collected some  here. After I reveal these, I hope you won’t think any less of me than you already do.

Sometimes when my daughter drops food on the floor then picks up and shoves it in her mouth, I tell her “Gross, honey. Once if falls on the floor it’s dirty, throw it away.” Then I watch the dog eat everything and anything that falls on the floor, which happens a lot in a house with three kids.  The dog never gets sick, not even after eating a pound of bacon.  Raw bacon. Seriously, she swiped it off the kitchen counter, ruined BLT night and she didn't get sick. The other morning while cooking breakfast, I dropped a sausage link on the floor.  I picked it up, rinsed it off in the sink then put it back in the frying pan.  A dropped grape I will throw away. A sausage link? I can’t lose that.

Heh, heh, you said "butt."
When I ask my kids what they want to eat and they don’t answer, I tell them I’m going to make them butt sandwiches.  Sometimes they shout “No,” and “Dad, that’s gross,” and then quickly they tell me what they really want. One day I’m going to make them a butt roast (look it up, it is a real thing) and I’m not sure they will believe me when I tell them we are eating butt roast.

On Sundays, I just want one hour of solitude to read the newspaper and drink my coffee without having to help children get juice, or turn on the TV, or find their blankets or let the dog in and out out or whatever else needs to be done in the morning.  Some Sundays, I set my alarm for 6:30am, so I can have that time to myself and every time I do that, the kids wake me up before the alarm goes off.  On the other Sundays, where I’m the first awake and everyone else is still sleeping, the newspaper never shows up until 8am.  I know I can read it online, but then how am I going to get newsprint all over my hands, my face, my coffee cup and the kitchen table?  The smell of the newspaper ink is part of the ritual.

Our Super Bowl party now has more kids than adults and no one stays until the end of the game. So, it's really just a different way of us not watching the game at all, but now there is a lot more beer leftover.

Some days I wake up and I’m like “I’m the boss,” and I’ve got these people working for me and I’m in charge and I totally know what I’m doing.

Some days I wake up and wonder when they are going to figure out that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing and how did I end up in charge of people at all, am I as bad as Michael Scott, and remember when the only responsibility I had was getting my homework done and my god, I’m so old what the hell happened, how did I get to my forties so fast?

Looking back at my parents, they are a lot like I am as a parent: they had no idea what they were doing, they were totally winging it.  I mean, at the time it seemed like they knew everything but maybe that’s because we are trained to believe everything our parents tell us. Well, until we are teenagers and then we roll our eyes at everything they tell us and we go and learn things the hard way. I can already see the conversation I’m going to have with my children when they have their own children, and they are going through the same things all new parents go through and they ask me how we did it.  And I’m not going to lie and tell them we knew what we were doing.  I’ll tell them we just made it up.  Sometimes you went to bed early because mommy and daddy were tired.  Sometimes the TV got turned off because mommy and daddy didn’t want to hear it.  And when you have your own kids, you get to make up arbitrary rules for them to live by, too.  Seriously, I had more training in driver's ed than I did on how to be a parent.  I also got into two car accidents in six months after getting my license and I didn’t drive for a year and half after that, so, uh, maybe that isn't such a great comparision.But I haven’t screwed up the kids too much.  Yet. There’s still time.
Thanks for reading.




Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Notebook

As 2017 rolled around, putting the final nail in the coffin of the turd of a year 2016 was (with the obvious exception of the Chicago Cubs breaking their one hundred eight-year World Series drought), I sat down to write my thoughts on the year past and the year upcoming. But after thinking for a while, staring at a blank screen, then a blank piece of paper (I thought a change of venue might help) then back at a blank screen (the change of venue did NOT help), I couldn’t come up with something worth saying that hadn’t already been said, or written, or tweeted, or shared on Facebook a hundred thousand times. Instead I went to find an old notebook to see if I had started something in there that jump off from now.  And while trying to find a recent notebook, I found a twenty-five-year-old notebook (the fact that I have something that is twenty-five years old is frightening to me). It was a notebook from my senior year of high school.  It was called ‘The Notebook,’ well before the Nicholas Sparks book of the same title, which led to the movie of the same title.

Our Notebooks, dog eared and everything
‘The Notebook’ started in my freshman English Comp class and was shared between myself and my friend Rachel (I changed her name in case she doesn’t want to shared just because I am sharing). I’d write a few pages over the course of a few days, then pass the notebook to Rachel and she would do the same. Sometimes, we’d have other people write a page or two, but for the most part, Rachel and I did the bulk of the writing. I’m not sure why we started it, but we kept it up the rest of high school, and even into college. After college, when she moved away from Chicago, we kept it up by writing letters to each other.  She wrote a lot more than I did.  And of course, because I’m sort of a pack rat, but not in a creepy hoarding kind of way, I saved them all.

Our Notebook predates this one
Our communications in ‘The Notebook’ were pretty typical for high school kids: complaints about parents, friends, boy problems, girl problems, what were we doing that weekend, why Suzy is a jerk, why Jane shouldn’t like Ricky, the joy I had after I quit my job at the pizza place, Rachels’ frustration with her new manager at her job.  The notebook I found started in October of my senior year, right before Homecoming. As I flipped through the pages filled with my hardly legible chicken scratch, every one of them started with me fawning over a girl, let’s call her Leslie, and my disappointment at her not returning my fawning.  I was quickly taken back to that time, the nervous pains I felt in my stomach each time I called her to find out she wasn’t home returned to me. I was a miserable, lost, surly, whiny, complaining (and occasionally funny) brooding seventeen-year old again.
In between descriptions of what I did over the weekend, Rachel’s notes on the fights she had with her parents, the song lyric game where we would each write two lines from a song and the other one would try guess the song and artist, I whined about Leslie for months. While reading it, I remembered that it all came to a head after the Turnabout dance in February. Leslie and I had gone to the dance together but as soon as we were back at school on Monday, she no longer had time for me. Spurred on by several friends I did something bold, something I never had done before and haven’t done much since. I brought a rose to school and gave it to at her locker, hoping that this display of affection in front of dozens of other teenagers would make her understand my true affections for her.  Clearly, what I said when I handed her the rose didn’t work. She said, “You shouldn’t have.” And she meant it. Literally. Lucky for me, we both wanted to avoid a scene at school, so she told me to call her that night.
Totally on my bedroom wall
After putting it off as long as I could without calling so late Leslie’s parents wouldn’t let her talk, I called. Leslie told me she wasn’t ready to be in a serious relationship. She had been in a long one prior to senior year but when her boyfriend went off to college, they broke up. I’m not sure if I was looking for a serious relationship either, but I was looking for at least a relationship. The bad news is that Leslie and I weren’t going to be anything. The good news is that after months of pining and whining and brooding and stewing and not being able to fall asleep at night, and my stomach feeling like crap and ignoring the dozens of girls who were interested in me (okay, there was probably at least one), at least now I knew.  Reading about it even twenty-five years later brings me right back into my bedroom, my plastic blue phone with the super long headset chord on the floor, Michael Jordan poster alongside a Rush poster on the paneled wall, just the lamp light from my desk illuminating my room (plus the dirty laundry that was all over the floor).
I kept reading ‘The Notebook’ to see how I managed to survive getting my heart ripped out and stomped on by a girl. Just a week later, I wrote in ‘The Notebook’ that my cat, Deacon, died. She had been sick on and off for the last few weeks. At first the vet thought it was a thyroid problem, but then quickly determined it was heart related. I wrote in the notebook “I’m going to get her from the vet after school to take her home then she goes to a specialist tomorrow.”
She never made it to the specialist. She died that night howling in pain while in my lap. I cried a lot. She was still in my lap, tears running down my face when my brother came home from work and knocked on my door.
Prior to re-reading ‘The Notebook’ I remembered these two events as wholly separate. I didn’t remember that they happened the same week. My heart got crushed and my cat’s heart gave out. I know, I’m digging deep there for a connection, but come on, I was seventeen. That’s the kind of shit we do when we are seventeen and any little thing makes us think that our lives are over, or we are going to end up alone, or the world is dark and miserable place, or our parents are just trying to keep us from having fun.
I closed ‘The Notebook’ and slid it back on the shelf among its other dozen or so volumes. It was refreshing to see that in high school, at my most miserable, I was upset about a girl who didn’t like me and sad that I had lost my first pet, my cat.  At the time, it was devastating. But now, looking back at high school in comparison to what has happened in 2016, things weren’t so bad for me back then.   I was just a few months away from heading off to college, the track season was going well, I had my weekends free since I wasn't slinging pizza anymore. And I even went to Prom that year, with different girl (who after Prom, wait, that's another story altogether). And while there were terrible things in 2016 and a lot of things didn't got as hoped, my personal life wasn’t terrible.  It was a hard year at work, but 2016 doesn’t hold a candle to the two personal worst years of my life, 1983 and 1990.

So, no, I’m not here to wrap up 2016 in a few sentences or to offer bold predictions of doom and gloom for 2017.  But, shit, it could be a lot worse, right?  At least I’m not pining over some girl who doesn’t like me. I've a wife who I love (and I'm pretty sure she likes me too) and three kids who drive me crazy but make me smile at the same time, and two of them are even excited to see me when I get home from work. So good riddance to 2016 and bring it on, 2017. I’m ready for you. And in twenty-five years when I’m reading through the digital detritus of my life, the angst I displayed in my early forties, I expect that I will look back and realize that maybe it wasn’t all as bad as it seems right now.


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Things overhead on the LA Metro to and from LAX during AWP 2016

I know this is a bit late, seeing how we are much closer to AWP 2017 than 2106, but anytime I can share the joys of public transportation with my rabid blog fan base, I should, right? So here are things overheard on the LA Metro to and from LAX during AWP 2016.

Guy, wearing knit hat and sunglasses steps onto train at (name station), to the entire train car:

“I’m not going to watch Godzilla tonight. I’m not going to watch it. I woke up this morning, ate breakfast and, uh, maybe got high and I’m not going to watch Godzilla tonight.”

Guy in dreads with headphones on to cute girl with dark red streaks in her otherwise black hair:
“Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you tell your parents thank you from me?”

Me to that guy after the girl walked away from us very quickly when we got off the train.

“I think you scared her.”

“It’s alright. She got her own,” he replied.

Guy playing Three Card Monte to the group of three men holding their bikes gathered around him:
“You think it’s there? I bet it’s not. I bet it’s not. A dollar? Five dollars? Man, I’m glad I didn’t bet, you would have won.”

The same Three Card Monte guy to the same three guys and their bikes:
“Keno’s my game.  Keno’s my game.  Learned it in prison.  Do you Keno? No? You ain’t ever been in prison? You didn’t learn Keno in prison?”

Guy who brought his bike onto the train, put it in the articulated section, then walked to the complete other end of the train car, to the entire car, shouting:
“I might need bike. I might need my bike. I might go for a bike ride, alright? Alright? You, (pointing at random person who luckily was not me) is that alright?”

No one responds.

The former army guy, retired, to the woman who ask him for directions, after he had given her the directions:
“Man, I love the train. I mean used to drive, but it takes like two hours in traffic for me to get up there. Just bought a house. Man, I need to get to work so I can pay the mortgage.  We just put down this new tile floor, it’s this Mexican tile, I can’t remember the name. But we did the tile, my cousin, he did it, he does tile.  We used the tile and you use black grout and it looks cool.  And then, you put down a layer of glaze on top. It’s beautiful, man.”

The guy in the Angels hat, to me, as a green line eastbound train comes into the station on the westbound side of the tracks:
“Is that to Redondo beach? Is that Redondo.”

“No, it’s on the wrong tracks.” I said. “They are doing track work today. You want to go west.”

“Yeah, west,” he said. “Thanks, amigo.”

The same Angels hat guy, when he got off one stop before me:
“You take care, sir,” he said. I went from Amigo to sir. Fuck am I old.

The guy on his cellphone sitting across from me wearing pants with lots of zippers on them:
“No, man, that’s done. Tweety bird finished that yesterday. I told you that. Tweety bird finished the toilet yesterday. Yes, I did. You never listen. You never listen.”

The same guy, second phone call:
“Yo. I’m on the train. I’m on the train. That’s why I can’t hear you. I was going to Uber to you. I was going to Uber to you but I’m on the train. I’ll get off at Avalon. Come get me. You be my Uber now.”

The same guy, third phone call:
“I’m checking to see what you got right now. I got maybe two, two and a half. I’m seeing what you got right now. No, man two grand, twenty-five hundred.  What you got now?”

To Laurie Lindeen, author Petal Pusher,  and guitarist and singer of famed indie rock band Zuzu’s Petals, of who I saw on the bus and who I saw during a panel the day before:
Well, we didn’t say anything. I was too chicken shit to talk to her.

The woman with the matted down hat at LA Kings t-shirt, to the guy in the dirty green hat who got on the train with her and who was reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo.”
“Sit next to me. Sit next to me. I want you to sit next to me.”

He looked at her. “I don’t know you,” he said.
“Sit next to me, you ass.”
He did. She hugged him.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Quiet Car: A Commuter Train Drama

Imagine you are on the train, a commuter train.  It’s the end of a long, stressful day of meetings and crises with no break for lunch and you leave late and rush to the train station only to see your train pull away.  Then, waiting, waiting, waiting for the next train and when it finally comes you get on.  You pick the quiet car and find a seat on the upper level so you can sit alone.  You need the quiet to unwind from work before getting home to the franticness of home life, children, homework, a wife who exhausted from dealing with children.  The car fills up quickly. A large man carrying a case Miller Lite cans  says, “Excuse me,” as he squeezes past you, but in more of a “Get out of my way,” tone. He sets the case of beer down, then moves back past you abandoning the beer. By the time he returns a few minutes later, every seat is filled except the one behind you. As the automated message announcing the train number and the stops comes on, an older man, after looking around for an open seat, and clearly flustered that the only one he can find is up by you, sits down behind you.  He has wild, white, pointy hair.

You will be shushed!
The train pulls away from the station and at first the car stays quiet as the darkness of the station gives way to the fading twilight of the late winter evening. Everyone has their head down in a book, or a magazine, or their phones.  One guy even has a newspaper. (It’s you. You are the dinosaur reading the newspaper).

The large man with the case of beer is starting at his phone. You can see that because your seat faces him. Then his phone rings.  Loudly. A train car full of eyes looks up at him.  He answers. Loudly.

“Hey,” he says.  Loudly.

“I’m good,” he continues. Loudly. “I’m on the train. Yeah, yeah.”

The words echo throughout the silent car.  Most of the eyes that glanced up when the phone rang remain glued the man. A few riders mutter under their breath. You try to refocus on your newspaper, hoping to block out the talking. You hope he realizes he is on a quiet car, but you’ve never seen him before. He’s not a regular. Regulars know the rules of the quiet car.

“No, I’m gonna get in at like six-thirty. Miranda? No, man, she’s crazy.” He continues his conversation, unaware of the tension building in the car. The guy behind you, you can feel his teeth grinding. It’s hard to focus on the words as he fidgets behind you, muttering, “It’s the quiet car,” loud enough for you and the others near you to hear it.  Maybe he thinks you will play a game of telephone and the message will get passed on down to the large man at the other end of the car.  Finally, the man behind you gets up his courage.

“Hey, this is the quiet car!” he shouts, his face red

The entire car looks up at him, all except the large man on the phone. He keeps talking. The guy shouts at him again.

“Hey, buddy, it’s the quiet car!” This time he stands up and starts walking toward the large man.

“Hey, asshole!” he shouts.  “This is a quiet car. No talking on the phone.” He bumps you as he moves past you and you drop your newspaper.

The large man on the phone looks up.

“What?” he says calmly.

“Get off the phone, this is the quiet car,” the man shouts again.

The large man ignores him.

“Get off the phone,” he shouts again.

“Shut up, man,” the large man says.

“This is the goddam quiet car,” the old man shouts. You can see the back of his neck reddening. The hair on your arms stands up. Your body senses something is about to go down.

The old guy goes back to his seat behind you, still shouting. The large man says, “Hold on,” into his phone. The he looks at the old man, who is now right behind you. He’s looking through you, to get to him.

“Shut the fuck up!” he bellows.  He is louder than the old guy. “Or I’ll come over there and make you.”

You slump down in your seat. There is going to be a fight. On the train. On the quiet car. After remaining silent during the entire incident so far, the guy in front of you, a guy maybe a little bit younger than you who has been buried in his headphones speaks up.

“Hey, it is the quiet car, man,” he says. His voice is calm. It is the voice of reason, at least for a moment.  

“You want to go, too?” the large man shouts. “I can take you both.”

The voice of reason is shouted down by the large man.

“I’m getting the conductor,” the old man behind you says. He jumps up from his seat and hustles down the narrow stairs and slides open the door.

The guy in front of you, once the voice of reason, is now shouting at the large man to just be quiet. The large man is having none of it.  “Just stop, man. It’s the quiet car,” shouts the voice of reason. He points at the sign above the door leading out of the car.

Now the story turns ugly.

“Shut your white privileged ass up,” says the big guy.

“Shut your dumb black ass up,” says the old man behind you. They both stand up and step towards each other. You are in between them. You think you are going to get punched because that’s what happens when amateurs fight.  They miss and hit the poor bastard who was just trying to read his newspaper. You put your hands up, ready to block. You cover your eyes a bit, cringe and wait for the blow.

The door to the train car vestibule slides open and the conductor steps in. All eyes turn to him. He looks like a kid fresh out of college.

“Tell this asshole he’s on a quiet car,” the older man shouts. The voice of reason in front of you is still trying to explain to the large man that he is on a quiet car.  All three men are shouting at each other, every other word asshole, with the occasional motherfucker dropped in to spice it up.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,” the conductor shouts.  The men don’t stop.

“Hey, hey, hey. EVERYONE STOP!” he shouts as he moves down the aisle, his eyes fixed on the upper level.  “Knock it off.”

The men stop for a second.

“You,” the conductor shouts as he points to the man sitting in front you.  “You move down there.” He points to the car behind you.

“You,” the conductor says as he points to the large man. “This is the quiet car.  If you want to talk, move to a different car.”

The large man says, “I gotta go,” into his phone and clicks it off. The old man gets up, tramples down the narrow stairs and through the doorway to the other car. The young man in front of you slips his headphones back over his ears,

“People, this is the quiet car, not the asshole car.  If you want to be an asshole, please get off at the next station and wait for the next train. There are no assholes allowed on my train.”

There is a murmur in the train car as everyone settles. For the first time in a long time, the car is quiet.

The large man sits down.  The old guy behind you gets up and moves down the stairs and out to the next car.  The rest of the passengers return their eyes to their phones and books and magazines.  The hair on your arms lays down flat.

“Tickets please,” the conductor says. “This is the quiet car.”

You wish you could say that you learned something from this, but did anyone learn anything? At least it didn't go this far.

Friday, April 15, 2016

NHL Playoffs 2016 Round 1

Listen, I understand the Chicago Cubs are going to be good this year. And the way they won the home opener on Addison Russell’s three run bomb after being no-hit for the first six plus innings was cool. But April also brings us playoff hockey. Sadly, no Canadian team make it this year after five did last year.  Go America!  As always, I have assembled my panel of hockey experts to weigh in. So here we go.

Eastern Conference

Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
Remember that time the Panthers and the Islanders played each other in the playoffs?  No? Or that time they both made the playoffs? Me neither.  The Panthers got off to a slow start but reeled off a long streak of wins in late November and early December then held off the Lightning to win the Atlantic Division.  The have some young stars like Aleksander Barkow, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad.  They have Roberto Luongo in net. And the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr as well.  The Islanders have a backup goaltender in Thomas Greiss starting for them this series.  The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since the year of the rat in 1996.  They get it done this year.
Panthers in 6

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings kept their playoff streak alive only to be rewarded by getting the Lightning in the first round. The good news for them is Steve Stamkos is injured. The bad news is Ben Bishop has been great for the Lightning in goal all season and the Wings already struggle to score goals.  The Lightning are banged up a bit, so if the Wings can steal a game early, they might have a chance. Might, but not likely
Lightning in 7

Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Rangers
This is the third year in a row these two teams will play each other in the playoffs. Pittsburgh is hot, finishing the season 14-2 with Evgeni Malkin b goalie Marc-Andre Fleury both missing a bunch of games due to injury. The Rangers have their own injury problems to deal with including captain Ryan McDonagh’s hand.  Last year’s series featured one goal wins in all five games. This year’s might as well. 
Penguins in 6

Washington Capitals vs Philadelphia Flyers
The Caps won the President’s trophy by amassing 120 points during the regular season.  Ovie hit the 50 goal mark again. They were good all year, with no long slumps. They are the team to beat in the East. The Flyers somehow managed to make the playoffs, but have a tendency to play dumb and take needless penalties. 
Caps in 5

Western Conference (aka The Good Conference)

The Ducks of Anaheim formerly known as Mighty vs Nashville Predators
Remember in December when the Ducks were in last place in the West and couldn’t score? They won the Pacific division by beating the Capitals the final day of the season, getting them a matchup with the Preds instead of San Jose. They were tops in the league on the power play and the penalty kill, and those are pretty important in the playoffs.  And they didn’t give up many goals. Ryan Kesler poured it on the second half of the season. The Preds are deep on the d-line and have Pekka Rinne.  But that’s it for them.
Ducks in 5

Los Angeles Kings vs San Jose Sharks

It seems these teams meet every year. Well, except last year when they both failed to qualify for the postseason. Are the Sharks still reeling from losing to the Kings 2 years ago in round one after they lead 3 games to 0? Are the Kings back and is their every other year Cup party going to happen? Will Joe Thornton ever slow down? While Martin Jones backstop his team to victory against his former team? Will any of these games end before midnight central time? This one will be fun to watch.
Kings in 7

Dallas Stars vs Minnesota Wild
The Stars skate fast, score a lot and are fun to watch. They’ve got a ton of talent on their top line with Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza and former Hawk Patrick Sharp. Minnesota can steal this series if Devan Dubnyk plays as well as he did during the last half of 2015.  The Wild will be without Zach Parise, which will hurt.
Stars in 5

Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues
The defending Cup champs struggled the last month of the season and dealt with some injury issues. They are not nearly as deep a team as last year, especially on defense. Corey Crawford needs to be as good in the post season as he was during the regular season, and he looked rusty in the regular season finale. Duncan Keith will miss game 1 sitting out the last game of his 6 game suspension. The Blues were consistent all season.  Brian Elliot was fantastic and will get the starts with Jake Allen injured.  Vladimir Tarasanko seems to feast on the Hawks wheneverthe play and the Blues are good at agitating the Hawks. Will this be the year the Blues knock off the Hawks? Sadly, Chicago fans, it is.
Blues in 7

 Our Panel’s picks
Series Mike Jax Jarrett Bob
Panthers vs Islanders Panthers in 6 Panthers in 6 Panthers in 6 Panthers in 4
Lightning vs Red Wings Lightning in 7 Lightning in 6 Lightning in 6 Lightning in 5
Capitals vs Flyers Capitals in 5 Capitals in 6 Capitals in 5 Capitals in 5
Penguins vs Rangers Penguins in 7 Rangers in 7 Penguins in 6 Penguins in 7
Ducks vs Predators Ducks in 5 Ducks in 5 Ducks in 5 Ducks in 5
Kings vs Sharks Kings in 7 Sharks in 7 Sharks in 7 Kings in 6
Stars vs Wild Stars in 5 Stars in 6 Stars in 6 Stars in 4
Blues vs Hawks Blues in 7 Hawks in 6 Hawks in 6 Blues in 7

Last year Bob took the top honors correctly selecting the winner in 13 of the 15 series throughout the playoffs.
Here’s what the ESPN “experts” say.

Good luck to your team, and thanks for reading


Saturday, March 26, 2016

The "Real" Smo

So there it was, staring me in the face as I entered the bathroom of a non-descript office building in Irvine, California.
No Smo ing.
The K in the no smoking sign was gone.  Not an issue for most people as there isn’t anywhere to smoke in California anyway and people don’t sneak into the boy’s room to smoke anymore either.  But this sign now meant something deeper. To me. Specifically me.
You see, I’m Smo.
No Smoing?  Does that mean I can’t go in there?  Or maybe I can’t be myself when I am in there?  Or people have to call me by my given name while I am in the bathroom?  What a conundrum.  More importantly, at forty, how is it possible that the nickname ‘Smo’ is still following me wherever I go, even to a bathroom thousands of miles away from my hometown.

The Horribly Uninteresting Origin of a Nickname

Like millions of other boys over the last seventy years, I was given the first name Michael at birth.  How popular of a name is Michael?  Well, from 1954 to 1998, Michael was the most popular name given to boys with the exception of 1960.  And that year it came in a close second to David.  Jacob replaced it as the top name in 1998, but Michael remained number two through 2008, then fell to 3 for 2009-2010 before falling out of the top five.   It remains among the top ten, although Jayden, Liam, Noah, and Ethan have replaced Matthew, Christopher, James and David.  In its peak years, 2 percent of all babies born were name Michael (some, but very few, girls were named Michael as well), making it so roughly 1 out of every 25 boys was named Michael.    That is what my parents called me.
In first grade, there were eighteen kids in my class.  Three of us we named Michael.  The other two generally went by Mike and I was called Michael, but at some point our teacher, the fabulous Miss Quinn, was tired of the confusion.  She started calling me ‘Smo.’  Yes, my first grade teacher gets all the credit.  Soon, everyone in school started to call me that.
Simple.  Short, succinct. Easy to pronounce. Notice there is no CH in it.  It is not Schmoe, like the infamous, yet hardly ever seen, Joe Schmoe we all hear so much about.  It’s much easier to pronounce than Smolarek. I’ve learned that when in a crowd and a name is called and the person starts by saying Michael, then starts with the S sound but stops while trying to figure out the name, they are generally talking about me, so I save them the embarrassment of trying to say it correctly and just volunteer myself.  I think I’ve won some raffle prizes intended for other Michaels who have unpronounceable last names that start with S. 
By the end of first grade, everyone called me Smo and I was alright with it.  Now, I didn’t go around introducing myself that way, but the name itself didn’t bother me.  Everyone wants a good nickname.  It’s not like they were calling me Chunk, or, Boner, or Tiny or Dipshit.
After first grade, our school closed due to declining enrollment and we merged with a neighboring school.  Second grade with forty new kids along with the thirty six from my original school.  By some miracle, no new Michaels. But all of the kids from my old school called me Smo, so even at James Whitcomb Riley Elementary, I was known as Smo.
Four elementary schools into my junior high school, Cooper Junior High.  Lots of Michaels.  Smo followed me there as well.  Coupled with my record setting cross country times, I came up with a brilliant campaign slogan for my run for school council representative. Are you ready for this? Hold on to your hats. It is some witty shit.

               “Vote for Smo, he’s not slow.”
You see, it has all the hallmarks of brilliant campaign slogans.  It is short, it rhymes, and it takes into account what I was most known for at the time.  Sadly, the slogan was dog-eared and tired when I tried it again in eighth grade while running for Vice-President.  The voters rejected me as a career politician who had no new ideas (now I know how Jeb feels).
High school.  More new kids.  More Michaels.  I remained Smo.  Most of my teachers called me that.  All of my coaches did.  Every year as part of the senior issue of the highs school newspaper, we voted for students for “most likely to succeed,” and “best hair,” “most into music” and “best athlete.”  I figured I was a shoe in for best nickname, but not only did I not win, I didn’t even make the top three.  The top spot went to Tippy Taplin, if I remember correctly.
By this point I was ready to NOT be called Smo.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the name.  It was kind of cool having a nickname, a very simple nickname that has no great amazing story behind like some of my other friends, like Donk, Chickenhead, Parm and Whitey. I had finally gotten people who didn’t use Smo to call me Mike instead of Michael not matter how many other Mikes were around. So maybe at college I’d get to be called Mike.  Only two people from my highs school went to college with me and neither of them called me Smo.  So, for a short while, I was just a regular Mike among the many Mikes on my floor. Then one of my close friends from high school visited for a weekend.  While a group of my floor mates were around, he called me Smo.
               “Schmo, I love it,” said Rob, who lived across the hall.
               “Not Schmo, just Smo,” corrected my high school friend.
The name spread like fire through the 3rd floor of Seton Hall, then to the rest of the building.  By the end of freshman year, some people had forgotten my first name and the RA on my floor had given me his old monogrammed day planner because his initials were S.M.O.  The name stuck with me the rest of college.  To this day, there are people from DePaul University who do not know my first name.
Then I graduated college.  Got my first real job.  Professional.  I wore dress pants and the occasional tie.  Lots of people around me in suits.  Fancy offices.  Surely here everyone would call me Mike, right?  Nope.  A college friend who had gotten me the interview also worked there.  He called me Smo on day one.  Our boss picked up on it and nineteen years later, I am still Smo. Even my boss’s kids call me that.
I was at a wedding for a high school friend.  I introduced myself to one of his friends I had never met as Mike.  He looked at me sideways like he’d never heard of me before.  “You may know me as Smo.” I said.  “Oh, Smo! Matt talks about you all the time! It’s awesome to finally meet you!”  Smo followed me to Texas, where I have never lived.  People who I don’t know at all know Smo.
Smolarek is a difficult name to pronounce.  I get that.  My children have a hard time pronouncing it (they have trouble saying animals instead of aminal, too).  Checkers at grocery stores try to read the name off the receipt, then just mumble something that sounds like it starts with an S.  My childhood doctor pronounced it incorrectly for so long my mother finally gave up trying to correct him.  My sixth grade basketball coach couldn’t pronounce it either.  Well, he couldn’t remember it either.  He called me Polack at first.  Then he remembered part of it and called me Smolack.  Thankfully, that one ended when the basketball season did.
Who is the REAL Smo
Not the real Smo.
And finally, this is not the real Smo.  Don’t fall for it. Seriously, his last name is Smith, so he can be Big Smi, but not Big Smo. He’s half right. He’s real big, but he’s not real Smo, although he did get a TV show on A&E.
Ultimately, I am the Smo. The REAL Smo.  And I’m okay with that.  No sign on a door is going to stop me.  I pushed hard on the door, and tried to enter, but the door wouldn’t budge.  I pushed again.  Still nothing.  Then I looked at another sign, the sign near the handle that said ‘Pull.’  Then I pulled it and went in.
Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: Fake Fruit Factory by Patrick Wensink

The best way to sum up Fake Fruit Factory by Patrick Wensink is that it is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Ludacris, even. And that’s a good thing. It’s the story of the Ohio town, Dyson, which is fighting for its survival against the decline and decay that has happened to small towns through America over the last fifty years. Lead by Mayor Bo Rutili, (the fourth youngest mayor in America we are told multiple times), Dyson and its impassioned citizens hatch a plan to revive their sagging town, only to learn that NASA is expecting a falling satellite to crash land into Dyson, obliterating the “speck of pepper” from the map.


Desperate times call for desperate actions and Dyson’s citizens are desperate to save their town. The Mayor’s girlfriend, Marci, often ignored by the Mayor himself, dreams of the most famous person in Dyson’s history, who ran the Fake Fruit Factory. Her sister, the failed actress, desperate to escape Dyson, clinging to anyone who smells like they might be famous. The former big city DJ, Cody Kellogg, Mr. Razzle Dazzle, now stuck at a small station in Dyson where no one can hear him. The police chief, a former opera star, desperate to win back the love of his former opera partner and ex-wife. The proprietor of the local tavern, who keeps his shit list tattooed on his hand. the former basketball star, still stung by the death of his wife fifteen years ago, on his own crusade to save the town’s history. The current owner of the factory, intend on having a parade. The rich lottery winner, Donna Queen, intend on saving the town by force if she has to, but lost for the right words and the right actions, who opens a casino. The former Mayor, Old Man Packwicz, down on his luck after missing out on the lottery prize and ousted from office, who tries multiple times to end his own life. The town’s only attorney, who thinks he is smarter than the rest of the town but lives in fear that his wife is going to leave him. The government agent, Eggelston, who seems to turn up everywhere. The First Lady, who seems to be a roulette junkie and who also loves a good mudslide. Throw in a map to a long lost treasure for these people to hunt down. Oh, and a mummy who drops off gifts to the citizens of Dyson, including foie gras and opera music.  There are a lot of characters.

These characters all have feelings and wants and needs and things from their past they cannot escape. Although they try, they can’t to do the right thing to help each other or Dyson. Even though they keeping making the same mistakes, by the end of the book, you’ll be rooting for them to succeed.

So yes, this book is ridiculous. It’s also hilarious. Wensink words made me laugh out loud. When you think things can’t take another turn for the worse, or the more ridiculous, they do. And how does it end for the citizens of Dyson? Who is the hero? Who saves the town? Does anyone outside of Dyson itself even care? Well, that I can’t tell you.
Fake Fruit Factory
by Patrick Wensink
Curbside Splendor
350 Pages
Publication Date: Sept, 2015

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

2015 All Counted Up

Lead the NL in batting in 1981 with a .311 average
I like lists and numbers and statistics, and keeping track of things. I was a baseball stats junkie as a kid and it followed me into adulthood, in an expanded way. I keep a spreadsheet file every year where I track things, concerts, what I’ve read, and sporting events among other things. I don’t talk much about it though, until now. So, here’s some stuff from 2015, some things I kept track of, and some things  I want to talk about.

In 2015, I read 354 short stories.  I was aiming for 365, one a day. I almost made it, .9698 stories a day.  I read them in books, mass market magazines, lit mags, weekly newspapers, from websites, on my Kindle, from the Best American Short Stories, on my iPhone. I read stories from writers who were dead, who I’ve never heard of, some who I knew, and I met writers is 2015 who stories I had read before I met them.  I read a lot.

In 2015, I went to seven concerts, which seems low.  I do have three kids, so it is hard.  Three of the concerts were Rush, in three different states. I already have tickets to four concerts for 2016.

In 2015, I went to five hockey games, three in Chicago and two in Florida. The Chicago Blackhawks won their sixth Stanley Cup, their third since 2010.  I’ve been to 400 or so Blackhawks games in my life, most of them prior to their recent success, during a ten year period when I had season tickets and the Hawks made the playoffs once. When I go to a game, I look in my old seats to see if I recognize anyone who sat near me. Then I remember that the Blackhawks were so bad for so long that no one sat near me. There were nights we had our entire section, 332, to ourselves. I made Steve Thomas cry once by booing him. The United Center was that empty and quit that he could hear me from 332 all the way down on the ice (note: I can’t confirm that he actually cried). For those of you newer Blackhawk fans, here’s some info on Steve Thomas.

In 2015, I saw all four major sports teams in Chicago at least once: one Bulls game, two Bears games, the three Hawks games from above, a Cubs game and two White Sox games. The team I cheered for only one three times. Once I had a streak where the Cubs lost 12 straight games that I went to. I think I’m on an eight game losing streak with them right now.

In 2015, I visit 14 states, which is pretty low compared to the last few years. I spend 44 nights away from home.  California was the place I visited the most. I did not make ‘A list’ again on Southwest, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. I have at least a dozen leftover free drink coupons. I did make my required three visits to Wisconsin as all people who live in northern Illinois are required to do each year.

In 2015, I ran 420 miles, which is really only a mile and a quarter a day. I took the dog for 110 walks, which isn’t very many. I lost track of how many times I threw her a ball.  Let’s say it was a couple thousand.

In 2015, I turned 40. I am older than my father when he died. This sometimes keeps me awake at night, more than I thought it would. Sometimes I look at my oldest son, who is at the age I was when my father died and I wonder if we are on borrow time. He usually just smiles back at me and says, “What?” I usually don’t tell him what I am thinking.

In 2015, my wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. It still feels like the wedding was a short time ago. Where did the time go? On her dresser in our bedroom is the certificate of achievement I gave her on our first anniversary (paper) for surviving one year of marriage to me.

In 2015, we didn’t elect a new president.  I don’t think anyone even voted for one, not even in a primary. But it’s seemed to eat up a lot of news coverage. People have been dropping out of the race before a single vote has been cast. Do I need to start paying close attention yet? How much money has been spent on the election? What if, instead of using all of that money on a really long election cycle, we shorten the election to, oh, five months, and we use all of that money spent on polling and travelling, and straw polls, and caucuses and signs and bumper stickers that no one seems to clean up after the election, what if we use that money to fix the problems these people who are running for present think need to be fixed. Or, we just give it to good charities who could probably do a lot more good with that money.

In 2016 many similar things will happen.  Some planned, some not. There will be good things, there will be bad things. We will smile, laugh, cry, hurt, sleep, be restless, and grow a bit older. Friends will move away, new friends will come into our lives, our children will both drive us crazy and make us proud. The things in our past will continue to move into our past, our futures will be one day closer each and every day. The winter will come, the go away, then come back, spring will show up for a few days, then summer, then fall, then the next thing you know, it will be December again. If you blink, you will miss it.

Thanks for reading.





Monday, September 14, 2015

You Just Have To Keep Going

August 21st.

This year I wasn’t thinking about it. Some years, I can’t think of anything but it, but other years the date just slips past me among the business of late August. I thought about it earlier in the week, when we were in Wisconsin Dells. It was hard not to think of it up there, after years of family vacations, riding the Ducks, camping, Circus world, go-karts and mini golf. I spend most of the trip trying to remember what we did as family up there when I was a kid, trying to picture what it looked like then. It’s coming up soon, I said to myself. But then vacation ended, and it was back to work, trying to catch up, and I forgot about it.
Then my sister posted this on Facebook:
“I don’t really believe it ever gets easier. You just have to keep going.”
She tagged my brother and me in the post. Most people didn’t understand the cryptic post. I did. My brother did. A few others did.
The ‘It’ in my sister’s post happened on August 21, 1983.  I’ve written about it before, but thirty two years later maybe it doesn’t get easier. Do you ever truly get over the death of a parent, especially if you were only a kid when it happened?
Because of my sister’s post multiple people asked me if I was okay that day. I didn’t understand their concern until they reminded me about the post. And I was okay that day. Really, I was. In fact it was a little jarring to hear people be concerned for me, maybe they didn’t know why.
When someone brings something up, though, maybe you’re not okay anymore.
I’m forty now. I’ve outlived my father, who did at thirty-nine when I was eight years old. For six weeks this year, I was thirty-nine while my son was eight. They are just numbers. People look for meaning in numbers, sometimes even when there is no meaning behind them. I was nervous those six weeks, hoping history wouldn’t repeat itself.  Hell, I even look more like him now than I ever did.  Just look at the picture.-
May 8th, 1980. My fifth birthday. One of the few pictures with both my father and me; he was always taking them. Thanks goes to my brother for taking this one.
Earlier this year my two older children watch Field of Dreams with me. While these days there are plenty of movies that make me cry, there isn’t one that makes me cry harder than at the end of Field of Dreams when Ray Kinsella asks his father, a ghost who has appeared out of an Iowa cornfield to play baseball, for a game of catch. Waterfall. Hell, I start crying the second Ray realizes that the man playing ball is his father.
My oldest has played baseball the last couple of years, but he isn’t into nearly as much as I was when I was a kid. There is nothing I loved more than baseball when I was younger. I would spend hours in the backyard throwing the ball of the fence in our backyard, or hitting balls off a tee. Most fathers want their kids to love the things they themselves loved as kids. I’ve tried my best not to push them into things. After a season that included more rainouts then games played and my son getting hit by pitches about six times, he was ready to be done with baseball for a while and enjoy his summer. Then one night, a night I had worked late and had a million things to do around the house he asked me, “Dad can we go play baseball?”
I’d been waiting for him to ask me that forever. I dropped whatever meaningless task I was working on that could be completed later and we went down the street to the park, my son and daughter and I, and we played baseball. We threw the ball around, took turns batting and pitching and made every hit a homerun. It lasted maybe twenty minutes before they tired of it, but for me it was the best twenty minutes of the summer.
Those are the days I think about it. The days I wish I could play catch with my dad, even though he was the one who wasn’t as interested in it as I was as a kid. The days I’m glad I’m still around. I plan on staying around, too, for a long time. So they won’t have to go through it all like I did, like my brother and sister did.  Because my sister was right: it doesn’t get easier. But you just keep going.
We've kept going for 32 years now.  It wasn't easy but we are better people for it. My mom, my sister, my brother, we are still here. So, not matter what it is, keep going.
Thanks for reading.