Know When to Fold ‘Em


I’ve always wrestled with fractions.  For as long as I can remember.  You see, I missed a single day of elementary school in the 4th grade.  And I am convinced that the entirety of human knowledge regarding fractions was conveyed to my John T. Roberts classmates in the course of that single, fateful day.  When I returned to school the following morning, my health apparently restored, the Good Ship Fractions had long since left port. Off in the distance, eight of the three topsails dipped low on the horizon.  Then she disappeared completely into the water, which covers 12/7ths of the earth’s surface, as I understand it.

Clearly, I picked exactly the wrong day for a stomach bug.  

A similar phenomenon transpired on a handful of other occasions, whereby I would somehow completely miss out on something that at one time seemed — and on occasion still seems — important.  Video games. I missed that boat, too.  Zero interest.  Maybe I had the flu or just overslept on the morning my neighborhood buddies gathered around a big Zenith TV and lost themselves in the novelty of “Asteroids.” And it’s too late for me now to develop an affinity. Both of my sons would spend way too many hours glued to one violent video game or another if given free reign.  But we don’t give them free reign.  We frequently hide the game controllers in anger. And more often than not (equating to 13/101th of the time, by my calculations), we cannot find the controllers ourselves after our anger has dissipated.

Same deal with playing cards. If I catch a whiff of an imminent rainy day suggestion of a game of “Bob’s Hat,” I experience a visceral, Pavlovian reaction. I slink off in the opposite direction, avoiding eye contact or feigning sudden interest in a television show in another room.  I can’t imagine that my 4th grade teacher revealed the wonders of Texas Holdem to my wide-eyed schoolmates during his “Fractions 101” lesson while I wiped my nose raw at home. But he might have.   That possibility could indeed explain why I have such a deep aversion to playing cards.  Even now, I feel mildly nauseated upon spying an errant card lying at the bottom of our kitchen junk drawer.  My knees buckle as I reflexively clutch the counter to avoid losing consciousness.  

On the plus side, that stomach bug during the winter of 1977 likely spared me from a life of compulsive gambling.  Note to readers: I am in no way implying or suggesting that the lads with which I just spent 3 days in Vegas are compulsive gamblers.  On the contrary, they appear remarkably well-adjusted and properly-perspectived. To my knowledge, for example, none of my college buddies hocked gold-capped molars for one last hand of Pai Gow. Nor am I suggesting anybody had gold teeth, by the way.  I don’t really know, but I don’t think so.  Rather, I am merely reporting that I would definitely be a compulsive gambler but for my complete ignorance regarding how fractions work.  I have a feeling I would gladly pawn 39/32 of my dental fillings for just one more throw of the die.  Crazed look in my eyes and a huge smile with no teeth. 

Here I was, completely surrounded by a sea of legal wagering.  On college basketball games.  Spreads and over unders or under overs. On the pull of a one armed bandit’s lever. On which of us would next disappear, surreptitiously sneaking off to our hotel room for a much-needed midday nap. And I abstained.  Not from the napping part.  I am a gifted napper.  From the gambling part.  I literally wagered nothing.  Not because I am too good for it.  Because I am not good enough for it.  And for me, that is a good thing. 

Thanks for reading. 

Viva Las Vegans (REDRUM)

I’m not a Vegan. Nor a long-winded blogger, at least not this morning. But I am a sucker for plays on words. Hence the title. 

I’m also a sucker for opportunities to congregate with friends I’ve known since I was a jelly-headed 18 year-old. 

Even if said opportunities require a flight to the second-hand smoke capital of the world. Does anyone not have a cigarette or cigar dangling precariously from their lips or pinched between first and second fingers here? I’m an annoyingly militant anti-smoker, but I’m admittedly overrrun. So far outnumbered that I may scavenge a pack of Marlboros on the way to the hotel gym. Don’t want to stick out. And maybe the nicotine will take the edge off of my slightly hungover stair master session. This could be the beginning of a wonderful, new addiction! 

Even if said opportunities require skipping one afternoon of my beloved perch on a bucket of baseballs, flashing pitch calls between my knees to my Little League team’s catcher. Our catchers for tomorrow’s game are on their own, fastball and knuckle curve-wise. Still, I find myself sitting on the edge of my hotel room’s pull-out couch, gazing out the window over the expanse of The Strip, throwing 1 and 2 fingers and wiggling all three. Jonesing to call an outside fastball and revel in my battery’s imminent strikeout. High fives all around. 

Even if said opportunities require stifling my fear of long hotel corridors reminiscent of The Shining. Danny in a slobbering epileptic fit will come peeling around the corner on a Big Wheel any moment now. Those creepy twin girls in powder blue dresses will pop up and block me from my door, droning something in monotone. I’ve seen that movie waaay too many times to be cool with navigating this hotel corridor for the next couple nights. 

All of this I am happy to kick aside for a couple days in order to relive and rehash shared memories from three decades past. And just to tidy up this post, if I were a Vegan, I’d gladly eat and drink whatever Vegans are not supposed to eat and drink. Viva! Bring it on. 

Thanks for reading. 

Side Effects

screenshot-2017-02-23-09-09-08I’ve long since grown accustomed to the mumbly, speed-spoken list of potential side effects rattled off at the tail end of Cialis TV commercials.  I find the droning words calming.  Hypnotic, even.  I stare numbly at the middle-aged virile man’s blue v-neck sweater fibers glowing in the sunlight. Find myself wondering why people have single-sized bathtubs.  With clawfeet.  On their front lawns. Overlooking a lake.  Holding hands.

In a dreamlike state, I wonder: “Am I missing out on something?  Do we need a couple skinny tubs?  Am I showering too much? Should I be able to see a body of freshwater from my bathroom? Where are their towels? Won’t they be chilled by the early evening air?” When I snap out of my gauzy reflections, I have a vague sense that those pills deliver up some truly unpleasant potential side effects.  But I can’t…seem…to…remember…any…details.  It’s as if those twin porcelain tubs at the water’s edge wiped my memory clean like Albert Finney’s Looker movie sunglasses. 

But a new medication from Walgreens yesterday commanded my full attention. The parade of horribles printed in the accompanying literature featured one malady new to me: Seeing or hearing things that are not there.

Say what? 

The linoleum floor at the end of Aisle 1 may as well have fallen completely away under my boots. I rushed towards the front door, squinting my eyes and cupping my ears.  Desperate to avoid imagined stimulus posed by the racks of chocolate Easter eggs and related Holiday paraphernalia.  Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a single Peep mustering a charge.  Attempting to break through its cellophane prison. Straining against its Peep brothers’ little shoulders. Grimacing from the effort, its tiny Peep brows furrowed.  The cardboard box rattled violently. I quickened my pace before all hell broke loose in there.

Stepping outside into the open air, I held my breath and waited for the Chestnut Street storefronts to fold in on themselves like the psychedelic Dr. Strange cityscapes. For a fleeting moment, it occurred to me that the Dr. Strange movie may have actually been just one long prescription drug warning. A cautionary tale, if you will. Approximately two-thirds of the potential side effects posed by the contents of my new pill bottle, I suddenly realized, had been represented in the film.  

I staggered to the Prius, coming to grips with my parental burden to drive home safely with my oblivious 5th grader reading “Big Nate” in the backseat.  At least I think it was my Prius.  At least I think it was my 5th grader.  At least I think he is in 5th grade.  And as for “Nate,” is that even his real name?  He doesn’t look all that big, after all, if you really think about it. 

Strapping myself in, I thought I heard some complaining from the backseat of my purported car, coming from the mouth of my purported 5th grader. Something about “What took so long in Walgreens?!” and “Where are my Peeps?!” and “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO TODAY?!” “These damned pills pack a punch,” I thought, since no actual child of mine would ever utter such words, or crave high fructose corn syrup, or speak to me that way.  “Has to be these meds,” I reassured myself.

Somehow, against all the odds, within a few minutes, I managed to arrive safely in our driveway.  At least I think this is our driveway.  “Everett” rolled out of the Prius nonchalantly, with “Big Nate” in-tow, and punched in the garage door code without hesitation.  So at least for now, it appears that I am safe.  Still operating within the constraints of reality.  But I have a bottle full of mind-bending pills, apparently, and the day has only just begun.  Wish me luck.

And thanks for reading. (Is anybody really out there, though??) 

This Is Major Tom to Ground Control….


The Russians are among us.  I’m sure of it.  We are overrun.  It’s too late.  That Russian spy ship lurking off the East Coast? A harbinger of things to come.  Things that already have come, actually.  Because like I say, comrade, they are everywhere. How do I know this to be true?

Last night before dinner, I had some time to kill during my 5th grader’s piano lesson.  I walked across the busy parking lot to a nearby bar.  Figured I’d enjoy a nice hoppy beer while Everett was honing his “Old MacDonald.” Instead, I unwittingly stumbled into a clandestine meeting of the Soviet Union Cold War Cosmonauts.

There is no other logical explanation as to the identity of this gathering.  The non-human cosmonaut was a dead giveaway.  And by that I don’t mean a door prize that was once living and now expired.  (Though I can see how one might jump to that particular interpretation.)  The photographed cosmonaut ensconced in his space capsule does not give off much vibrancy, that’s true.  More taxidermy, to be sure.  Nevertheless, I can testify that the spaceman was, in point of fact, very much alive.  

This is an amazing revelation, admittedly.  The spaceship does not look, ehm, space-worthy.  How the USSR could launch this pioneering pooch more than 1,200 miles into orbit at 17,600 miles per hour is beyond me. Could this vessel possibly have withstood the furious 5200-degrees fahrenheit heat blast upon reentering earth’s orbit?  And how has this furry cosmonaut managed to look so good, despite the fact that his space mission took place in the 1950s?  The eyes were a bit clouded by cataracts, but not even a hint of mange. Remarkable.

Alas, I have no answers to these questions. Rather, I sat eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy for 20 terrifying, unblinking minutes. I finished my IPA in silence, then casually signed the bill (though not using my real signature).  And deftly clambered out the bathroom window to escape a lengthy stint at Camp Gulag.

I am lucky to have survived the encounter.  The next time may not end so well. The Russians are among us, my friends.  Consider yourselves warned.  

Thanks for reading. 

Under My Skin

I’ve been awake for fewer than 90 minutes, but I’ve already managed to accomplish a ton, running at a fever pitch. And this is probably not a good thing. 

My wife is back east with her family for a few days. So the dog’s 645am whines are directed at my side of the bed. She pulls my arm out of its socket while circling the block, clearly unclear as to who is walking whom. My younger son recognizes my frenzied state, and I find him helpfully “doing his laundry” in the garage. Frankly I’m relieved not to wade across a foot of frothy bubbles on the concrete floor. 

I feed the dog. But even the 5 steps across the kitchen floor between her bowl and the 5-gallon food stash requires rigid choreography. En route, with empty food bowl in my hand, Alexa fires up KQED and I fire up the coffee maker. Four heaping scoops of bison meat later, and Wailea takes up her standard position: Hunched over her food with prickly hackles, salivating, and growling at anyone who she suspects has designs on her kibble. This morning, that evidently would be me. 

Alas, I don’t have two minutes of “anti-resource-guarding” training to dole out. It’s not in the strapped time budget. So her low growl persists until I burst through my older son’s bedroom door and loudly malign his inability to awaken on a timely basis. He loudly maligns his busted alarm clock. The clock is not busted. It’s actually a feat of modern engineering, more powerful than the NASA IBM computers supporting the lunar landing missions. But I haven’t the time to deliver my “Wow, are you spoiled!” lecture. 

My younger son is fully and properly dressed by now, thereby deftly avoiding the “Why the hell are you wearing shorts, it’s winter?!” lecture. But my time-pressured psyche is still jonesing for an outlet. Any opportunity for bombast will do. I find it in Everett’s failure to sprinkle organic blueberries over his bowl of gluten free cereal and organic milk. (I would have settled for any blueberries, organic or no.) I lambast him for his negligence, and point out that he is now inexorably pointed down the path of malnutrition. Feeding tubes are unavoidable. His brittle bones will shatter all over the place. Unphased, Everett responds, “Well, by eating this cereal, I am saving the gorillas. Maybe you’d like to eat a bowl too?” I don’t have time to weigh the relative societal impacts of emaciated 11 year-olds against extinct mountain gorillas. So I back out of the kitchen with pursed lips and a curt nod. Momentarily defeated, but alive to fight another day. 

On to the next thing: Locating the mug of coffee I strategically placed…somewhere. I find and grab a half-dozen other ceramic cups scattered all over the house. They are wonderful reminders of little league seasons past, former employers, favorite restaurants, and summer camps. But none of them hold anything close to the drinkable coffee I brewed maybe 5 minutes ago. Normally that would be fine; I’m OK with day old coffee. But I draw the line at the Petri dish state. I find the missing mug minutes later, as I close the garage door. It is hidden in a coiled snake of dog leashes on the work bench where I have never actually done any “work.”

I march Everett — still a little smug in his newfound role as a Jane Goodall disciple — up the block to his bus stop. As I spy Ev stretch for the bus’ first step, I spin on my heels and racewalk back home. On to the next thing. 

Minutes later, somehow, I manage to deliver my eldest to his school’s front door without triggering another check in the shameful “tardy” box. Nevermind that he jumps into his chariot barefoot, subjecting his irritated driver to the spectacle of putting his socks and shoes on during the trip. Don’t ask me why, but this routine drives me mad. I think Max is well aware. Everett has Harambe. Max’s show of civil disobedience involves counterfeit Yeezies and mismatched stockings. 

In any event, and already feeling exhausted by 8am, I plop down in my favorite stained Starbucks chair. While considering which verboten household items my dog is currently chewing to bits at home, I begin a mad dash through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Flying through The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle apps. Breathless and cotton-mouthed now, in my bubbling outrage at overnight events. My Fitbit disapprovingly points out that my heart rate is in the “fat burning range,” as if I were exercising somewhat strenuously. But since I’m merely sitting here cross-legged, contemplating another Cuban Missile Crisis, this data suggests instead that my aorta will shred and explode in my chest at any moment.  

And this is when Frank Sinatra steps to the mic, clears his throat, and grabs my attention. Fortunately for me, someone at Starbucks HQ added “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to this morning’s in-store playlist. My rapid breathing slows immediately. I feel a wave of welcome calm wash over me. I slow down. And I write. 

Thanks for reading. 

Errata Mondata (More Than We Can Chew)

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. I have a theory. His was and is way more important, obviously. Mine doesn’t even merit being mentioned in a sentence immediately following a sentence in which his dream is referenced. Nevertheless…

My theory goes like this: We’ve all bitten off waaaaaay more than we can chew. Why do I say this?

I see it at home. My wife and I totally forgot about a school project until very nearly the last moment. Pulling it off only from an 11th hour scamper to Target, and the coordinated (though also half-panicked) efforts of similarly situated parents whose sons’ imminent deadline snuck up on them too. 

I have narrowly avoided smashing my garage door to smithereens on numerous occasions, of late. Lost in an NPR update on my Prius’ radio. Forgetting the rote step of clicking the opener before shifting into reverse. And keeping track of car key fobs? Fuggetaboutit. It’s a near-constant Easter egg hunt. Somehow always resulting in fingernails full of popcorn pieces, scraped from the underside of couch cushions. I should just cut to the chase, and get in the habit of actually putting the car keys under those cushions on purpose. 

And I have no idea how our children have managed to consume proper nutrition in our household over the last few weeks. Frequent, intentional trips to the grocery store for fresh food are a thing of the past. Last night I whipped up some pasta dish, knowing full well that some of the veggies were way past their expiration dates. I’m not really certain those were actually veggies at all. Could have been anything, hastily grabbed and chopped because they were green (or had turned green). This may explain why I awoke this morning with a lower lip swollen to twice its normal size. Some well-deserved allergic reaction to something I absentmindedly threw into that meal. Fortunately, no one else in my family ate what I ate. So I alone will suffer through duck lips today. 

This same level of constant distraction is, I think, at work in otherwise laudable newsrooms across the country. Seems to me that reporters and editors are just like the rest of us when it comes to trying to keep it together while under constant stress. Pick up and read a newspaper. Not for the substance, but for the words used. Yesterday I caught an egregious typo in The New York Times. This morning, another, in The New Yorker. I know these sorts of events to be less frequent than Haley’s Comet sightings. I know that reporters and editors have been outright dismissed for such oversights in the past. Their journalistic shortcoming — “Oh, he’s the guy who had those consecutive ‘and’s’ in that front page Times piece. The poor guy. He’ll never work again. Here he comes, whatever you do, avoid eye contact!”

My point: These mistakes are as revealing as splintered garage doors, hastily thrown-together school projects, and fat lower lips. It seems we are all bursting at the seams. 

I don’t often feel compelled to explain blog post titles, but I do in this case. I’m referencing The Police’s third studio album, “Zenyatta Mondata.” Seems apt, as the band created the album under some duress and purportedly hated the result. From Wikipedia: “Drummer Stewart Copeland said about the time pressures: ‘We had bitten off more than we could chew. … we finished the album at 4 a.m. on the day we were starting our next world tour. We went to bed for a few hours and then traveled down to Belgium for the first gig. It was cutting it very fine.'”

Big bites, and we are all chewing like mad. Wild-eyed. Mistakes a’plenty. Maybe there is some comfort in that. Solidarity. I tell you what: I’ll wear my Julia Roberts lip today as a badge of honor. That New Yorker journalist should print out a couple thousand t-shirts with the offending typo pasted across the chest. I’d buy won. 


Thanks for reading. 

The 600 Club. 

What do you get by combining a glass vase packed with 600 jelly beans, a folding card table, and three 5th graders posted on a busy street corner? A heavy — and maybe healthy — dose of city living. 

The boys arrived at the appointed hour yesterday morning. Descended upon the preagreed Chestnut Street staging point. Pumped and ready to cajole unwitting passersby into gobbling (collectively) 50 gooey chocolate chip cookies, washed down (collectively) with five gallons of lemonade. In this induced hypoglycemic state, folks were then brow-beaten and propagandized (in a good way) about the merits of micro-finance. Bellies distended and brains overwhelmed, they were then forced to perform mind-bending mathematical calculations in a pressured attempt to surmise how many jelly beans sat encased in glass before them. 

These dynamics produced an interesting array of outcomes. There was the red-faced homeless gent, apparently attracted by all the hubbub, who elected to sit cross-legged a few feet from where I sat. A little too close for comfort, I supposed, given the Norman Rockwellian lemonade stand scene we were working to curate. The boys’ well-rehearsed “would you like to donate” pitches intermingled with some barely coherent mumblings from my new sidewalk buddy.  Upon closer aural inspection, I realized the fellow wasn’t talking to or about the boys, wasn’t referencing the fact that he and I were seated close enough to hold hands, and probably remained more or less unaware of his surroundings. I even came to appreciate his stream-of-consciousness ramblings. 

There were the obligatory gaggles of painstakingly coiffed and costumed Millenials, prepared for a very meaningful “Sunday Funday.” In truth, a depressingly large percentage of these people literally ignored the earnest inquiries from my son and his little buddies. Speed-walked right past, eager to get to their waiting pitchers of mimosas or whatever, I guess. Maybe I did the same at their age, but still. You don’t need to donate, people, but you might want to consider upholding your end of the social compact with an 11 year-old. If he is polite and thoughtful in his question, return his eye contact and appreciate for a moment or two what he is up to. He’s cool with a simple “no, thank you” with a smile. And ultimately, his dad is cool, too: with your giving me an excellent example to share with my son about how not to behave in these sorts of circumstances. Harumph. 

Fortunately, there were also tons of families. Plenty of couples and groups of people who were not in a rush to get somewhere. An older homeless woman whom I have seen asleep in various store entryways over the years but never heard speak. She, as much as these many others, represented the overwhelming majority of smile-inducing, faith-in-humanity-restoring people. Who listened intently to the boys. Read their handmade poster (which, admittedly, was not easy to read). Did not remark on the boys’ unintentionally funny use of exclamation points (Donate!). Asked thoughtful, substantive questions which were (amazingly) met with thoughtful and substantive answers. And for the most part, totally ignored us parents standing or sitting on the periphery — a much-appreciated show of respect for these kids and their serious school project. 

How the boys managed to fit 600 multi-colored and different-looking jelly beans into that corked jar, I’ll never know. But perhaps more impressive was the way they chatted up, mixed with, and maybe even inspired, a couple hundred different-looking people on a busy street corner one Sunday afternoon in 5th grade. 

Thanks for reading. 

How do we sleep while our benches are burning?

Happy Friday, good people. Despite the headline, this blog post will be bereft of current events of the political variety. Or at least I plan to write this post with the clear intention of steering clear of that high glycemic index stuff. Or try to. 

Instead, I want to talk about burning furniture. 

The above image was captured last night on Duke’s West Campus and published in this morning’s Chronicle. In light of news reports of late, one would be forgiven for presuming the photo reflects some sort of violent protest. College kids losing their minds over what’s going on in DC. And recklessly, dangerously lighting ablaze anything that could be lit ablaze. And stoking the fire with piles of more unlikely fuel until the flames practically lick the brooding gargoyles standing sentry in the Gothic towers overhead. 

What is the world coming to?!

In truth, this photo gave me a sense of relief. A brief respite. A breather. Although I had watched the game myself last night with an old friend, I forgot to savor it. I neglected to bask in it for a bit, allow myself to enjoy something simple, primal, and longstanding. But the kids didn’t forget. They do what Duke students have done for decades after a big win — particularly over Carolina — they burn shit. Typically, oversized wooden benches constructed by fraternities and other living groups and such. Ostensibly for sitting; in actuality, fodder for hoped-for celebratory bonfires. 

So given the state of the world, how great is it to see people experiencing genuine joy? Stretching out a moment. Following a long tradition involving building a huge bonfire because they are happy about something. And although it was the kids who lit the fire, I imagine there are some adults smiling this morning. As they meander past the charred embers on campus. As they catch the scent of burnt hardware store pine from a mile away. And as their Facebook feed conjures up visceral memories of better days. Ones from long ago and ones yet to come. 

Thanks for reading. 

I see the photo, and the driver is admirable (Red Dye #5)

“Food coloring’ll kill ya.” This would have been my immediate conclusion had I studied Mandarin at any point. A man or woman posted a comment overnight on a recent blog entry of mine. In Mandarin. So I turned to an “expert” — my earnest 15 year-old who has studied the language for several years and spent a month in China this past summer. He both solved the mystery and inspired today’s blog post. Alas, no good deed goes unpunished. Oh, and he will likely demand that I delete this post in its entirety. But I shall persist. 🙂

So to summarize —

  1. I need better code names for my confidential informants. 
  2. Resist the urge to be helpful to your Luddite dad when he texts you a Mandarin translation request during school hours. A lose-lose situation. 
  3. Lay off the midnight eating of the bright red, cancer-causing, braces-gumming candy. The authorities are not above rifling through recycling bins in search of contraband. 
  4. Digging is admirable, even in Mandarin! 

Thanks for reading.