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Friday, July 31, 2009

Ballad of the Bud Under the Bed

The house as it looked in 1987

Somewhere outside of Virginia Beach, in the community of Sandbridge, located in a house on Bluebill Dr, sits a can of Budweiser, 22 years past its expiration date, underneath a sofa bed. It sounds unlikely, but I’d like to think that it is still there waiting for me to return one day to drink it. I know the truth of the matter is that the can was probably discarded not long after that fateful week in 1987 when my friend and I stole it.

I was just 12 years old and the both of us were determined to get wasted. Our families had rented this house for the week and my friend and I shared the bottom floor bedroom that consisted of a bathroom and a sofa bed. We were no stranger to sharing living quarters as we had both spent a week, the previous year, in another house in the same community.

The seeds of anarchy and delinquency may have been planted the previous summer, over quiet discussions in our room. I remember a blaring radio playing the Beatles cover of "Twist and Shout", which had become popular again thanks to Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and Back to School. We may have used the noise from the radio to mask our strategic plotting, though I don’t remember the specifics. In any case, we were ready to spring our plan into action this year as we had the bottom floor all to ourselves. We could come and go as we pleased, just by sneaking out the front door. We could escape into the night and do the things that kids our age do out and about in the summertime night like walk around and wonder, “Okay, now what?”

But we didn’t. We were committed to the task. Our plan was simple and only had four goals.

  1. Steal a beer from our parents’ stash in the upstairs fridge.

  2. Hide it in our room until we were able to consume it without getting caught.

  3. Get drunk like adults did.

  4. Gain some insight into adulthood, letting the mysteries of the universe reveal themselves.
That’s what we thought would happen. At our age, we figured that there had to be some all important reason to consume alcoholic beverages. We were warned against it as children, yet I can remember on occasion my Father would sit me on his lap and let me sip small quantities from his can, much to my Mother’s dismay. In fact, there is a much recalled incident at family gatherings about a time when my whole family was kicked out of a Lum’s restaurant, because my Father gave my brother a tiny sip of beer. Surely, there was some cosmic conspiracy over this act and we were about to find out why.

First we had to take a look at our surroundings. The house provided just the right amount of concealment for our plan to go off without a hitch. Coming through the front door you could turn right into the garage or turn left up a spiral staircase to the main floor. Going straight would lead you into our room. Actually, the house was quite nice. From what I remember it was a house that might have belonged to the realtor and had just been put on the market as a rental. It wasn’t on the ocean and in fact it was on the opposite side of a canal that fed into Shipps Bay. We had a paddle boat docked at the back and an in ground pool, complete with deep end and diving board to entertain us. Now we had an additional part to our plan. Get drunk and go swimming. The reckless abandon, by which we had conspired to be bad, was astounding.

Early into the week we managed to complete step one of our dastardly deed. It was a quiet evening and while our families were swimming or otherwise distracted, we snuck a can of Budweiser from the fridge. Racing back down to our room, we needed to conceal the contraband. We couldn’t proceed to step three since it was still early in the evening, so we halted at step two by placing the can underneath the sofa bed. It was easily accessible, yet undetectable to the naked eye. When the time was right we would continue with Operation Inebriation.

During the rest of the week we continued to enjoy our time at the beach, always keeping a thought towards our plan. There were two instances when we almost cracked open that can, prematurely. “No,” we thought. We had to wait for the right moment. It was like one of those 80s adventure computer games. We were given an object that could only be used once and at the appropriate time. When the time was right, we would know it. Until then, maintain appearances, don’t let on what we had done and don’t tell anyone else. That meant keeping secrets from the other kids in our group that were also vacationing at the beach but at different houses. Holding onto that secret was at times exhilarating and also excruciating. We had this forbidden object just inches from where we slept at night that could elevate our cool factor into the stratosphere and yet we feared telling them because they might inadvertently blab to an adult. That would have been instant death to our plan and us, for that matter. Still, we kept visible within the circle of friends and went about our week.

Our friends were staying in houses right on the beach and even though we had the pool, they had the view. Actually, the one had a great view of the house directly across the street. The only other guy friend our age was staying at this huge house directly across the street from a place with two girls. We had come over for the last night of our vacation for a group dinner. We found our friend hanging out on the topmost deck, plugged into his walkman, blasting Def Leppard’s "Hysteria." It had just been released that month and he was already wearing it out something fierce. He didn’t even notice us sneaking up on him. When he did acknowledge us we asked him what he had been up to and his response was, “Watching some girl show me her underwear.” We both did a double take and then looked across the street at the house facing us. There, in front bedroom, were two girls waving at us and making silly body movements.

My partner in crime and I looked at each other in agreement. Those girls could share in our plan. We could have a party. We didn’t exactly know what we could do. I mean I had grown up watching stolen HBO, so I kind of knew what this all meant. I never actually imagined being in a position that resembled it, though. I began to think this could actually be the best vacation ever. We had an in with the girls. Just get them to come down and talk with us and we could let them in on our plan to get drunk. The beer was still sitting, hidden, in our room at the house. We could all sneak away and hang out at our place and go night swimming. It had to have been the best plan ever thought of by a 12 year old in the history of adolescence.

We quickly started making the universal sign for hello by flailing our hands around like we had no bones in our arms. They continued to duck down behind the balcony wall, holding up an errant bra that they had brought with them from their room. A bra, regardless of being removed from the person twirling around, was still like catnip to a teenager. We continued to use semaphore like movements to try and signal them down to the beach. Eventually, they got the hint when they saw us descend the staircase from our balcony and sneak across the street to their side. Not wanting to alert the adults, we snuck around the outside of their house in a wide circle. We ended up on the beach about a hundred feet from the steps up to their house and then ran all the way to meet them.

“Hey.” We said, out of breath.

“Hey,” They said, not knowing what to make of this rag tag bunch of misfits before them.

“So, like how old are you?” Good. Good. Establish a baseline. We don’t want to give alcohol to them if they are too young to handle it. Of course, everyone knows that the constitution of a 12 year old far outweighs one of a ten year old.

“I’m twelve and she’s thirteen” One of them said.

Excellent,” I thought. Being the youngest of the three guys, I felt a sort of inclusion into the group with the confirmation of one of the girls being the same age as myself. I was worried that, if they were older than me, I would not stand a chance competing with my older, wiser friends. Yet, I still held the ace in my pocket…or more to the point; underneath the sofa bed at our house, a couple miles away.

We conversed for a little while longer, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves from inside the house. I feverishly searched for a way to introduce the idea of going back to our place for a late night swim and beer bash. However, they admitted that it was time for them to go. Alas, the opportunity never presented itself to include them in our scheme and they disappeared forever, another footnote in the annuals of summer flings that almost were. But we didn’t dwell on the matter. We had bigger fish to fry.

After dinner, my friend and I returned to our house and began to pack up our things. We knew what lay in store for us and didn’t want to have to try packing after our long night of consumption. We thought it best to get everything out of the way, freeing us from performing tasks that required dexterity and balance the next morning.

Being the last night in the house, we thought it appropriate to give the pool one last swim and spent a couple hours that the night contemplating our place in the universe while doing cannonballs off the diving board.

The eleventh hour had drawn on and we retired to our room. We decided to try and stay up as late as possible, outlasting our parents. We didn’t want them to come down and check on us in our drunken state. We took turns manning the staircase outside our room, keeping watch for adults or nosy siblings. Soon, the house went quiet and we too had ultimately just collapsed from sheer exhaustion. The heavy meal, the late night rendezvous and jog up the beach, as well as the swim was the final nail in our coffin, taking every last ounce of energy we had left.

The next morning brought on the hustle and bustle of packing up cars and checking on rooms to make sure nothing remained. We insisted to our parents that we had checked our room completely and that nothing was left behind. Neither one of us had a moment to snag the beer from under the sofa and stick it in our bags. We figured, if anything, we could transport it home and then sneak out to the park one night and finish what we had started. Unfortunately, we had no chance to stealthily slip the suds into our sacks and it remained behind like a fallen soldier in combat. The battle was lost. The opportunity missed. The beer left under the sofa bed, in the house on Bluebill Dr., in the community of Sandbridge, just outside of Virginia Beach, sat like a testament to what might have been.

While we may have only met two of our goals that summer, we took that first step towards being initiated into adulthood. As teens, a stolen beer is a rite of passage. It's intoxicating just to take it, undetected, not knowing that first stolen beers are usually nasty and warm and really don't do much for you other than make you sick. Those last two goals were a fictional representation of what we held in our minds as absolute truths in life.

It wasn’t until 22 years later that I finally understood the fourth goal. Yet, I confess, I never completed it. The mysteries of the universe were still that to me, a mystery. I still don’t understand why we thought that one beer would be enough to get us both drunk. I still don’t understand how we were going to travel, on foot, to a house somewhere in a two mile radius from our position that night. Neither of us bothered to pay attention to directions. Perhaps those are mysteries that only a kid can understand. Kids still believe in their immortality and the awesome power of a summer vacation giving them wisdom. Kids are kings among pessimists, always thinking that the future is bright and go on forever, like a sandy beach in summer.

The house as it looks today, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chase-ing Your Own Tail

In the ongoing battle between debt and myself, the tide is ever turning. One day I’m the dog and the next day the fire hydrant. I have managed to control costs by eliminating a lot of personal debt leaving only a car payment, a mortgage, and two credit cards to finish before I can feel accomplished. While one card has a small amount that is usually paid off before the bill is due, the other is the sum of my life’s work. Its balance carries with it the various threads of idiocy over the years as I opened one card, transferred a previous balance and attempted to pay it off before the year of 0% interest could expire. Then, my wife tagged along, and soon we had three cards going at once, all carrying a balance that finally became aggregated into one card through Chase Card Services.

Of those three credit cards I’ve carried, I will say that the GM Master Card has been the kindest of creditors. My National City Visa is sitting there waiting for me to use it, and my wife’s Discover Cards are collecting cobwebs, which is how I like it. Quite frankly, I would have never even opened a credit card if I hadn’t decided to buy a house in 2004. I opened a Visa card, bought something and paid the balance when it was due. I started to establish credit with that single purchase and since then everything has gone downhill. We’ve moved from one card to another carrying a portion of a balance that started three cards prior. I slowly began to whittle down my debt.

First off was my GM card which I could use to get cash towards a car purchase. Once I finished off the major balance on that card from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, I decided to help my wife pay down the Chase card. It contained the remainder of our credit card debt attributed to her previous cards and I thought I’d be a good husband and help pay it down. What started out as progress turned into a dance with the devil, and I was leading.

Now, my wife and I are two different types of payers. She likes to physically mail a check each month to Card Services, while I like to use the online services to schedule payments directly from my checking account. I can set it and forget months at a time. Also my wife likes to pay things over time, disregarding the huge finance charges on our existing balance, whereas I like to take every extra cent I can allocate away from other things and throw it at the principal along with monthly payments. To tell the truth, I spent the last four months sending GM a payment of about $20 a week just to keep from having a bigger payment at one time. They (HSBC Card Services) might have hated seeing those transactions once a week, nibbling away at my balance, but I was able to free up my thoughts towards other issues and not take a huge hit in the wallet while doing it.

I know a lot of people who will side with my wife when it comes to seeing a physical bill, sending a physical check, and knowing that you took care of it instead of setting up complex payment schedules based on the tides and phases of the moon. Yet, I can take off my shoes and count up all the times she has come to me and said, “Oh, crap! I forgot to send the check. Can you pay it online tonight?” “Yes, dear.” I would say and two minutes later I had an email thanking me for my payment.

However, my lifestyle did not allow for one thing, a single digit, left off the end of my checking account. My wife paid a little more than the minimum payment each month and in the middle of the month, I would send in an additional payment online. I thought everything was fine until I noticed that the balance of the card was climbing and my checking account statements weren’t showing debits toward the card. I logged into Chase’s online service and saw that each month there was two line items from my account. One was asking for a payment. The other was returning the payment. Additionally, there was a $39 returned payment fee showing up alongside the reversals. After two months, I had accrued $117 in charges to the account.

For the most part, I regard mail as a privilege. When I open the mailbox and see a stack of envelopes I get a little excited. Once I get inside, however, I lose more and more of that excitement as I sift through garbage and junk mail. A lot comes from credit card companies looking to snag you into their web of deceit. Even some of the mail comes from your own credit card companies touting a low interest rate for transfer of balances or other services. These usually get shredded or thrown into the fireplace for kindling. So, it came to pass that I disregarded two small perforated card stock letters informing me that my account had returned a payment because there was a problem with the account. When I did notice them, I took it as an error on their part, not mine. After all, I’d been using that checking account for almost 20 years. I’ve never had problems with them before. In fact, last year, Comcast…another good honest friend of mine…*cough* rip off *cough* decided to not draft a payment from my checking account, one month, and then drafted $300 the next month. The reason they cited was that there was a problem with my checking account. Further investigation revealed the error on Comcast’s side of the board. I called my financial institution and they had no record of an attempt to draft off my account. Apparently, Comcast has technical glitches between the keyboard and the seat all the time and I had to suffer for it. I treated this issue with Chase as the same problem, they screwed up.

Another month went by and another letter came. It happened again. My wife decided to call Chase for some answers and after going round and round over the matter, she handed me the phone. When I spoke to the customer service agent he told me that the account in question could not be found. Now that was a different story than problem with the account. Problem with the account infers that the account is there. You can see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, but it has a weird flavor and looks to have gone bad, recently. The account not being found means that you’ve walked to the fridge, opened it up and asked “Where’s the Sunny D?” After hearing, “Did you check behind the milk?” and “Well, is it behind the soda?” you realize that you’re all out. It wasn’t until the agent had me read my checking account number to him that the problem became clear. They were looking in the fridge of my life for Sunny D and found Tang. In other words, when I entered in the account information to set up the payments, I dropped off the last digit on the end of the account number.

Playing on the sympathy of the economy I pleaded with the agent to forgive the charges as it was apparent that we were trying to pay the card, but the account number was too short. He said that due to a policy change he couldn’t forgive the charges but gave me the name and address of the VP of card services at Chase in Ohio. He told me to write a letter asking for the charges to be dropped and said that only he could do it.

So, we’re off to see the wizard and I’ve even brought along the witches broom in the form of statements showing the payments and reversals as well as the payment schedule proving a difference in account number from the payment account for the problem payments as well as the corrected account number at the top. We’ll just have to wait and see if the wizard is nothing more than a humbug.

To top things off, I just checked the account and a message had shown up in my inbox. Back at the beginning of the month, I sent them a message asking about the charges. They finally replied, deducting one of the charges from my account. Well, apparently, the guy manning the online stuff has a little more power than the guy on the phone. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.

What a world. What a world.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I've Reached a New Earning Level

Oh goodie. I’m so excited. I got a message from my bank that I had reached a new level of earning on my National City Visa rewards program. That would be the utmost awesomest kick ass w00t* thing ever. Let’s open the message together, so you can share in my good fortune. Just give me a second to log into my National City account. While I’m doing that, I will share with you why this means so much to me. You see, back when I first started earning rewards I envisioned my wife and I going on a cruise or flying to Hawaii on our second honeymoon. All I needed to do was keep using my card for everyday things and the rewards would add up. After earning enough points, I could redeem them for airline or cruise tickets saving me on cash. But, it seemed like that would take forever.

Then, I decided that as much as I would love to do this, I didn’t want to wait that long. I redeemed my points for cash and bought myself a Nintendo Wii. Almost there... the anticipation is excruciating. Anyway, after redeeming my points for cash, I thought, “Just keep doing that.” Every time I earned enough points to redeem for cash I did. 2000 points = $4.00. Now, that doesn’t seem like a lot but over time I would see the benefit. I do all of my grocery shopping, bill paying, buying of gas, and practically everything else with my check card. It’s not hard to rack up the points… Hold on….what’s my password? Oh, yeah.

Where was I? So every couple of weeks I redeemed my points and got cash directly into my account. It was great. Okay, here we go. Open messages. Click on unread. I can’t wait. This is going to be so…

You have reached a new earning level

As of 07/20/2009, your earn rate of 2 points for $1 has ended and you will now receive 1 points for $1. Refer to your points from National City Terms & Conditions for details.

good… I’m sorry, let me read that again. My earn rate of 2 points for $1 has ended and I will now receive 1 point for $1.

I don’t know about this being positive. Usually, when I see something that says you’ve reached a new level of earning, I would think it means it would go up. I mean, this looks like I went down. It's like being told you won a million dollars and the tax on it is 105%. It’s like beating a level in a video game only to find out your princess is in another castle, oh and by the way, we’re taking one of your lives and half your score to boot. Well, let’s not get ourselves down over this. Let's go and redeem some points. That will make me feel better.

I have 2500 points, so I can redeem 2000 of them for $4.00. Go to catalog. Pick point levels 2000-4000. Click on $4.00 reward. Add to cart and order…huh? Insufficient points? What’s that about? Let’s go back and take a look at the number of points needed. OK, click on $4.00, again. 3000 points needed! Wait, so that means that not only did I cut my earnings in half, they’ve now raised the amount for redemption, too?

Well, doesn’t that suck?

*quota of contractually obliged use of internet slang reached for this post.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Boy Who Read: Part Three

The Boy Who Read Part Three… I promise this is the last one…maybe.

In Parts One and Two I went on at length about my dislike of reading as a child and my newfound addiction in the form of the Harry Potter novels. While I might have made it clear as to why I decided to read the sixth and seventh novels before seeing Half Blood Prince on film. I never really revisited the entire series as subject of debate. I will say that I have spanked that 24 year old that treated the novels and the overall series as childish and unnerving. If anything, J.K. Rowling has relit the pilot light of inspiration in me to continue writing and perhaps make a more concerted effort to finish a piece of work. Of course, commitment to a diet holds about as much weight. With this I offer five things I love about the Harry Potter series and two things I dislike. I won’t go so far as say hate because I went into the books knowing how it ended so a lot of guesswork was taken out of one of the ‘dislikes.’

  1. My first ‘love’ associated with the books comes from a background of loving language. I never met a pun or rhyme I didn’t like. Rowling has a firm grasp of etymology and linguistics which really delighted me in her usage throughout the series. The names of characters, locations, and objects such spells have this very soothing shape to them. Whether this can be attributed to her being English or just a lover of good study is beyond me. Looking at Tolkien or Lewis as standards in British Popular Literature, Rowling has earned her spot alongside some of the better writers in her use of language. I always looked at George Lucas’ use of language to create names for characters in the Star Wars universe as my own personal standard of yumminess, being primarily a fan of film and visual media, but Rowling now takes that mantle.
  2. My second ‘love’ of the books is the way in which she treats the reader. While the books are written in the third person perspective primarily associated with what is happening to Harry, it kind of invites the reader into the story as a first person narrative. I attribute this to an understanding her audience, a kid who can identify with the main characters and the adults who live vicariously through their children or their own childhood. I also believe this to be attributed to her style of writing, specifically her descriptiveness of the action and environment. It is very to imagine the locations and looks of the characters through her descriptions. My biggest hang up with reading is my imagination, which oddly enough is probably more refined than any other trait I possess. I can think of something ten times more horrible under my bed than what could actually be there when I was a kid. Jaws and The Blair Witch Project are favorites because of this acuity of my mind’s eye. Another great thing about how Rowling treats the audience is that she is great at tying things together without letting the reader feel like they’ve tread upon old ground. There are paragraphs and passages in the last books that reference action that took place in the first or second book and it felt like new information when I read it.
  3. Love number three is the story which is accessible to everyone. Remember, I was a skeptic. I admit, when the books first came out, I was totally against the idea of this school for wizards and witches setting. My gold standard for fantasy or science fiction has been either been based on Star Wars or JRR Tolkien. The idea of trying to fit a story about school and childhood into a medieval style or modern British world made me want to hear nails on chalkboards nonstop as an alternative. The fact that adults were gobbling up the books as much, if not more than, kids was disconcerting to me. Then, as time went by I started to soften a little. I had to admit from a cultural standpoint that this was a positive thing for kids. We were at a point where there was a definite shift from books to more visual media had occurred and then along comes these books that gets kids reading again. Not to mention, families are spending time together reading and discussing the books. It was a small check in the win column for family values. Of course, then the fundamentalist groups get in the way and start shouting “Satanic” and “Occult” and it sours the experience.

    As I let the fad, which by now had become a pop culture juggernaut, start to play out and plateau, I picked up the first book and was immediately sucked into it. A friend recently quoted C.S. Lewis to me regarding my change of heart. “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” I never realized that I had already boiled down that beautiful quote years ago into, “I may get older, but I’ll never grow up.” I forgot that somewhere along the way. Once I allowed myself to accept the story for what it was, I was able to enjoy it. As the books progressed, the story matured as did the writer, I believe.
  4. My fourth love of the series is its hero structure and quest motifs. The story plays on the levels of the hero’s quest without relying on the standard convention of allegory on the surface. Yes, there are definite overtones of love vs. hate, family vs. solidarity, and good vs. evil, but it’s the subtext that really drives the action. By all accounts Harry Potter should not have lived until the age of two. Every step of the way he has someone there to help him. His mother’s love shields him and saves him as a baby. Dumbledore provides him with the tools to solve a lot of his problems. His friends sacrifice themselves time and time again for him to succeed.

    In all seriousness, Harry Potter hardly takes a stand and fights back until the end of book two and that was after he was given help in the form of the Sorting Hat from which he pulled Gryffindor’s sword. From then on he still has other people doing things to advance his march towards victory until well into the last two books. But what is really going on here, besides the Christ like referencing is that Harry isn’t alone in his quest even though he is pretty much an orphan. Yes, the Dursley’s provide basic food and shelter but he is emotionally on his own for a decade. It’s not only the prophecy, but the willingness by nearly everyone to believe in him that gives him the strength to be victorious. There comes a point in Deathly Hallows when it finally clicks for Harry. Until this point, he’s never asked to be a hero. He’s a mediocre student but he has the potential to be much more, a leader. A great leader is someone who does the job without asking for it. The first hints to this are in Order of the Phoenix when he forms Dumbledore’s Army. But the realization to Harry’s need to be a leader happens when he buries Dobby.

    Get Not a Horcrux on various items
    From Mongo Angry! Mongo Smash! the store.

    You can say that it happens when Dumbledore entrusts Harry with the task of finding and destroying Horcruxes, but Harry still hasn’t taken on the position of leader. He knows what needs to be done, but he doesn’t understand how to do it. He’s just following orders. You could also point out that when Harry continues to force Dumbledore to drink the potion in the cave to retrieve the locket has taken on the role of leader, but at that point he is still following orders as well. But after he buries Dobby he sees the power of sacrifice in the name of the cause. So much so that he himself has to do it as well in order to save himself and everyone around him. As he stands in the great hall overlooking the dead and wounded, he sees his friends lying there. In his mind, he struggles with the thought that they are there because of him and he accepts his fate and is prepared to die. It’s a leap of faith and he takes it. Yet, he still does not face death alone. He surrounds himself with fallen loved ones and accepts that he needs help from others, especially adults.

    The greatest lesson to be taught isn’t just the nature of love and good conquers hate and evil. It’s all about the journey. Voldemort is so obsessed with making things happen in order to become the most powerful, the he neglects to see the fine print. He rushes off into battle without first looking at the playing field. That’s why he loses. Harry only acts once he has enough information to secure his upper hand. This is another milestone for the boy who was willing to go off after Sirius when he thought him a killer and Voldemort when he returned. Over the course of the series, Harry follows in his father’s footsteps of arrogance and entitlement but learns to curb his temper and allow things to take their course. Thus, knowledge and defense become Harry’s greatest weapons over Voldemort. Yes, he was recognized as the master of the Elder Wand but if Voldemort had known that, he would have chose to dispose of Potter in some other fashion. Harry lets Voldemort destroy himself.
  5. Love Number Five is Rowling’s decision to not play it safe. In children’s literature, much like the upbringing of children these days there has been an inherent decision to not let kids fail. This is my biggest pet peeve against our society as it stands today. My kid falls down a lot and I tell her to get back up. Now, if she’s really hurt, I go get her, but she fails at the age of two. She doesn’t like it but she is starting to understand it. For a story aimed at kids, there is a reluctance to take a chance and push the boundaries in regards to the safety of your characters. Happy endings come with little sacrifice in some stories. But Rowling isn’t afraid to kill her characters, regardless of their popularity or overall goodness. Apart from the killing of Harry’s parents, no other major character shockingly dies until Cedric Diggory in the fourth book. I don’t count the other deaths in between because they are either peripheral or not as intricately tied to an emotional attachment. Having Wormtail kill Cedric, a teenager proves that this is no longer just a children’s story. People die in violent and tragic ways and by the time we reach book seven, the gloves are off in terms of who is safe and who is cursed.

Now, unfortunately, my two dislikes.

  1. Number one is Rowling’s use of Deus ex Machina. In the first book, Harry survives the Quirrell’s assault because he was protected by his Mother’s love. Albeit a stylized salvation, to simply end a climax by saying he was burned by love is pretty much phoning it in by my thoughts. In book two, Harry is first saved by Fawkes the phoenix when he blinds the basilisk and delivers the sorting hat which produces Gryffindor’s sword. Then he saves a dying Harry by producing tears that have healing abilities. Here Rowling has built into the early part of the story the significance of Fawkes and his abilities but even so, it still stands to serve as a “Just in time” salvation. As the books progress, the usage lessens or at least is subtle in its application which could account for the maturing tone of the novels over time.
  2. My other dislike is Rowling’s attention to detail. To say that she is overly descriptive sounds wrong. Her world is fully realized and her intention in moving the story from point A to point B is sound. However, over time you begin to build up an attachment with certain characters who either become important in terms of development of story or just because they accentuate the action in the right spot.

    Case in point, Lupin and Tonks. Remus was a childhood friend of James and Sirius. He is an important part of Harry’s life in the third book but he stays out of Goblet of Fire. He comes back as part of books five and six but then only pops in and out of the story at certain moments in book seven to either deliver news or be sent away as a coward by Harry. He is regarded as a master duelist, yet he is hardly referenced at all in the Battle of Hogwarts except for whom he was fighting and that he died. The same goes for Tonks who has the same amount of action and is ultimately killed. Preference over character appearances aside, it’s the assumption of how both characters died that gets me. Both of them are seen sparsely during the battle and they are both killed off page. He get no real explanation other than the assumption that they were killed by their duelers. We get this passage about Fred dying and being placed in an alcove away from battle, but nothing about Lupin or Tonks. And what about Cho Chang and Lavendar Brown, did they survive? Accoding to the book, it's unclear, although Rowling states in an interview that Cho married a muggle. But what about Lavender? She was being attacked by Greyback and then Trewlaney smacked him in the head with a crystal ball. Did she survive? It seemed as if Rowling had too much going on and some to a footnote or explained afterwards. You see a lot of this over saturation of characters in television shows when cast members are continually added to an ensemble, creating a traffic jam of plotlines.

    Also, right after they escape the Ministry, there is a lot of story downtime during the search for Horcruxes in book seven. It especially drags after Ron leaves. Now, the one great thing about books over movies is the ability to take a story and shape and progress it without rushing towards the end. Look at Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. He builds and builds up action from the beginning to the end of book three. Then in book four, he stops it all to tell you another story from the past. It’s a kind of bait and switch tactic that works on paper but can drive someone mad if they’ve built up momentum in their reading. You hit that wall and your eyes nearly fly right off the page.

    Additionally, her ability to create a romantic development between characters seems to be a weak point. For the life of me I couldn’t resolve Harry’s affection for Ginny. It just seemed forced. Hermione and Ron’s affections are easy because they are rooted in conflict and that is a natural attraction but the payoff happens abruptly in the last chapters of book seven. I guess you can deduce that Ron’s compassion for the House Elves working in the kitchen is what spark the move for Hermione to eat his face off, but it didn’t read very well and it kind of broke my reading momentum. I hate having to go back and reread something once I've got a steady pace going.

For now, though, my head is not burning any longer. I have decided to take a small break in order to attend to other things that have been put on hold while I dive head first into the world of reading. I don’t think I will abandon it all together like I have in the past. I will probably make a more concerted effort to read something other than a magazine article. Just for a little while though, I need to enter a 12 step program and get myself clean. My wife is into book four of the Twilight series and even though she’s clipping along at a good pace, she seems perturbed at things that have happened in the fourth book. She has described in great detail the chemistry between these two characters and it really moves her. However, she is pissed. There is all this build up towards a payoff only to have the consummation of those desires be relegated to being alluded to and mentioned afterwards. It sounds as the author is great at setting the scene but can’t actually commit to writing about the icky stuff. I have my own thoughts on why, but I won’t get into a discussion about it here. I watched the movie and I feel as if I just watched a bad high school production of Into the Woods. My wife says the movie didn’t do the book justice. I think the producers and director went for marketing the film towards the OC and The Hills demographic and disregarded a lot of the text because they couldn’t keep the attention of the audience, otherwise.So, there you have it. I’m done. There is no more left to write. The Boy Who Read has grown up and is looking forward to the next good book. I’ve been given some suggestions and I will take them to heart. For now, the book is closed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Boy Who Read Part Two

Part Two
In part one I gave you a preface to my disdain of reading. Part Two specifically tackles a renewed interest thanks to a phenomenon in the popular fiction realm of literature.

In 1999, I worked as a Banquet Captain for a hotel. I worked with a variety of people ranging from high school seniors to senior citizens. It was at this time that I really took notice of the Harry Potter phenomenon. The book series was already a critical success and the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban had been released with much fanfare. By this time in my life, I had already felt the grumpiness of adulthood settling into my soul. I was living on my own after graduating college. I was in the infancy of a new relationship after suffering an emotional setback in another, the previous August. I was working a job that found me gravitating towards the AARP group of coworkers instead of TRL generation and I generally hated people, especially teens, at this point.

My usual shift saw me working the mornings to mid afternoon. I would usually get to leave and hour or so after the changing of shifts. At that time teeny boppers came flooding in with their bags and belongings cluttering up the department office which had become my imaginary base of operations. Usually, I would get there, set up the morning meetings, making coffee, putting out beverages, and then I would relax behind the big wooden desk for a half hour filling in the USA Today crossword puzzle and reading the Life section. When the afternoon crew had come in, they overtook my serenity along with the available desk space in the office. Between the two, a link was found, Harry Potter. In the mornings as I read the paper, stories, reviews, and graphs charting millions of money made by the books bombarded me as I sifted through the entertainment section of the paper. By the afternoon, the conversations among the kids were about the newest book and even a few copies littered the area.

Within here lies the problem. Was I grumpy because I felt some sort of social detachment from everyone else that shared in this pop cultural saturation or because I inherently felt that this kids book was just that, silly children’s literature? It’s not that I was some kind of literary snob, far from it. It’s just that I couldn’t understand how a fantasy novel about a school for witches and wizards could capture an entire world’s attention. I pushed the thoughts of even becoming slightly intrigued out of my head and went back to my, “Get off my lawn” attitude.

Moving along to 2001. I had changed jobs and was now working with adults my age or older. I was further into my relationship which had progressed towards my engagement in 2003. Also, the first Harry Potter novel, The Philosopher’s Stone just debuted as a movie, directed by Christopher Columbus. My girlfriend had a job that kept her busy on the weekends leaving me with some free time to go to the theater. Having absolutely nothing better to do, I decided to take in a matinee performance of The Sorcerer’s Stone, as it was now called, and had mixed feelings about it.

Ok, I admit, I allowed myself to get caught up in the magic and grandeur of this medieval looking modern day world of wizards and dragons and giants. The acting was pretty good and I was delighted if not surprised at the number of established and well regarded cast members, which for the most part are all British, mind you. What I found a little hard to swallow was the circumstances by which the characters resolve their problems. It’s a sort of convention by which in a novel or story, with children as protagonists, the adults play the fool or refuse to believe the impending danger that is set to besiege them. The kids, feeling abandoned or rebuffed, decide to take on the conflict themselves because only they can complete the task leaving the adults to either still not believe them or feel bewilderment as to how they could have beaten such a foe being only children. I found it a little contrived that all the time the answers would magically appear and only Harry and his friends were able to see the truth and tackle it. In the real world, these dangers would have been near fatal for kids their age, magical or not.

Still, I praised the film for its delivery, not knowing that it had taken some liberties with the arrangement of action in the book as well as some geography of Hogwarts landmarks. However, I wasn’t about to give the series my full attention and relied on letting the films serve as an acceptable version of the novels. While I allowed myself to see the first movie in the theater, I waited until they came to DVD or even cable to watch them.

By 2007 I was married, had a child, and had seen each of the Harry Potter films numerous times on television. ABC Family’s continual airing of all the films over weekends detracts from my getting anything else done around the house. Even worse was when I had HBO for a year and The Order of the Phoenix aired every other day. It had become my favorite, to date, although I did hold a spot for Azkaban in my heart because of the cooler color palate used in the cinematography and the antique style of fade outs used in Harry’s Dementor attacks. My only sticking point with the film was that I had already established a connection with Richard Harris playing the role of Dumbledore. With his passing and the role being recast with Michael Gambon, I initially found it hard to accept him in my mind as the character but I think it plays a lot better as Dumbledore’s role increased with the later books. Not every wise old character can fight like Yoda, CGI or not.

It was at this time I made a conscious decision to try and read the books. Another reason became the ability to read them as pdf versions instead of reading the actual book. Finding some websites that offered them as free downloads; I pilfered the first few books and began reading in what spare time I had. Like The Da Vinci Code the year before, I breezed through the first book and actually enjoyed it. Once again, I already had the voices, looks, and environment added from the films so it was easy to read. When I would sit at night in my room and read, I tried to read at least 20 pages and that was pushing it as far as my attention span was concerned. Now, I could churn through a hundred pages in my lunch hour. Yes, the conversion from book to electronic copy left me with a few misspelled words and head scratching. Was that word supposed to be like that because of the writer or was it a bad translation? After finishing the first book, I allowed myself to realize that reading wasn’t so bad.

I was still a long way from ever picking up Moby Dick or War and Peace, though. Over the next year I read another book, The Zombie Survival Guide. This was actually a really good book and I highly suggest reading it. It's a sort of metaphor for post 9/11 survival tactics during a breakdown of society from zombie outbreaks. I am just about ready to get eyeballs deep into World War Z because the movie is about to be made. However, reading once more took a back seat to other distractions. Playstation 3 and Wii gaming along with creating designs for my CafePress store occupied my free time and I couldn’t push myself to read more books. That was until the release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince movie.

Now, remember in the last post how I mentioned that my love of films prompted me to read both this book and the last one before seeing The Half Blood Prince film? Really, you don’t? Well, click here…I’ll wait. Finished? OK, moving on. I made the decision to read the last two books because I felt I owed it to myself to at least see what I was missing from watching just the films, especially now that the stakes had been raised. I knew that this penultimate Potter book was going to be important to the overall series. It sort of jumps the shark…but in a good way. Until this book, primarily all of the action either happens at Hogwarts, or The Dursley's. In Half Blood Prince we see more of the "muggle" world and a few new locations. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but unless you live in a Utah religious compound, you probably know how it ends. Someone important dies. Someone betrays Hogwarts. This is why I felt the need to read the book first. Now, it is probably a fact that I will be disappointed in the movie. After all, I’ve seen all of the previous films before I read the books. The extra scenes and dialogue, that were left out of the films serve as a sort of director’s cut with deleted scenes for me. I even know how the last book ends, but I didn’t care. I wanted to read this book before the movie came out, even though it was already over two years old. I just didn't look forward to reading over 600 pages.

I read it in two days. Between lunches, and every spare moment I could muster, I read 652 pages in two days. I have never read that many pages in that little time. I immediately downloaded a faithfully converted copy of Deathly Hallows and read that in three. That’s how addictive it became to me. Now, my wife has eclipsed me by reading three of the four Twilight books in less time. She has probably read three books in her life and they were all pregnancy related while she carried our daughter. One of her piano students recommended reading Twilight and she is hooked. She keeps trying to sway me, but I still won’t touch that series. We even borrowed the film to watch it and I protested over watching it Sunday night. We had taken our daughter to the zoo and she was hell bent on wanting to watch it. I told her I would not stay up until 2:00 AM watching that film on a Sunday night.* She agreed to wait.

Reading popular fiction has become a sort of heroin to us this last week. We’ve certainly neglected our daughter’s needs. Even though we are in the same room with her, we have our noses buried in these books as she is left to fend for herself. Although, I will say the effect has rubbed off on her. She has brought me the same ten books every day, asking me to read them to her. Sometimes, we read them twice in one day. We’ve gotten to the point where we have become so engrossed in our own reading that we told her to read her books herself. She’s only two and the other day she sat on the couch, reciting almost word for word, Goodnight Moon. As she turned the pages, she recited the words on them. While it is probable that she has memorized the story, it was still a sight to behold. Perhaps she will be a reader early on and make her old man proud.

*By the way, I stayed up until 1:30 AM Monday morning to finish it, getting only four hours of sleep before work. Hey, a half hour is a half hour.

Next up Part Three.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Boy Who Read


I hate to read. Let me rephrase that, I loathe reading. This is quite an odd statement from someone who had an insane desire to be a great writer, huh? That being said, I just finished books six and seven in the Harry Potter series in just under a week. Why? Because I love movies.

Now, before your head explodes trying to analyze that statement, let me take you back to the end of the 70s. It’s 1978 and I am only three years old. I cannot recall myself the events that took place in this recount, but I can relay what I have been told by family members. The tale itself has become the stuff of table talk during holiday gatherings among my family. By this time, my brother was at the age of ten and my sister was 13. By requirement, reading literary works was thrust upon us in certain classes by some teachers who were of age during the 60s. One of which made it a point to have his class read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series as well as The Hobbit.

Now, it was at this time that Ralph Bakshi released an animated version of the first two books in the trilogy under the name of The Lord of the Rings. It was memorable because of its style of using live action battle scenes rotoscoped to produce an animated look. It was also remembered as being only half a film because there was no mention of a Part One anywhere indicating that the movie would be continued later. I remember it…yes I said I remember it…because it was the first movie I ever saw. Let me clarify previous statements made by me saying that Star Wars: A New Hope was the first movie I ever saw. I should say that it was the first movie I ever remembered seeing. Lord of the Rings came out a year before I saw Star Wars in the theater when it was rereleased a second time in 1979. I remembered seeing Lord of the Rings, but did not realize that it had occurred before Star Wars because I did not realize that I saw the later version. Make sense? No? Good, moving on.

Anyway, the reason why this is a story told around the dinner table at Thanksgiving and Christmas is because apparently I explained it to my parents. That’s right; a three year old explained the plot of Tolkien’s story to his parents. Like I said, this is what I have been told by my family. I don’t remember adding commentary to the film. I’ll take their word on it.

Recollections aside, this began a pattern in my upbringing. “Why read the book, when you can watch the film?” I thought. So much time could be saved by spending two hours in front of the television instead of reading hundreds of pages over the course of days. Well, as you all are aware, part of the argument is that filmmakers get it wrong nine times out of ten when it comes to adapting a literary piece of work. They also get it wrong when adapting a video game but that is a tale for another time. The other, more important, half of that argument is that reading taps into that one thing that drives the five senses, the mind. When you read something, your imagination has to fill in the gaps on the page. What does the character and his/her surrounds look like? How does their voice sound? What does the world smell like? Feel like? Taste like? These are things that the reader supplies on the journey from Chapter One to The End and it makes for a much more enriched experience. I never got that at a young age. I was all about, somebody else can do the work of filling up the canvas, I just want the end product. Regardless of what television characters like Jeffrey from Voyagers or Cap’n O.G. Readmore had tried to pound into my brain about going to my local library, I would rather watch the film than read the book. Imagine the scene in Back to School where Sally Kellerman tells Rodney Dangerfield about several books to which he replies, “great film.”

Still, I read for class but never for fun. It was hard to cheat and watch the film in those days because home video was still in its adolescence and not every classic that had been adapted into a film was available as a rental. Sometimes, I just faked it and it showed in my papers for school. I can probably count on one hand how many books I actually read for assignments and how many I bullshitted my way through explaining in a book report. There was a Hardy Boys book that I butchered, piecing together bits of plot and making up the rest. I was supposed to read Brave New World for an Eighth Grade English assignment and instead read parts of Stranger in a Strange Land because I just couldn’t get into the other book. I also figured that perhaps the teacher would know I was lying because she would have boned up on my original title in order to grade my paper. Switching at the last second might have thrown her off her guard. It was still on the reading list but she seemed very perturbed that I shifted gears and didn’t tell her. Of the books I actually read in their entirety, I can list Animal Farm, Johnny Tremain, Call of the Wild and White Fang as the only ones that stuck out.

Sometime in my mid teens I had a slight change of heart. It was around 1988 and Stephen King had come into my world. I had seen Firestarter, Christine, The Running Man, The Shining, Creepshow 1 and 2, Cujo, Children of the Corn, Cat’s Eye, Maximum Overdrive, and Stand By Me by this time and thought…maybe I should try reading one of his books. That book was The Gunslinger. The first part of the Dark Tower series. It had been released six years earlier in print, but this was the first time I had ever seen it when it in paperback. I snatched up a copy and spent my evenings just prior to falling asleep going through this book with as much fervor as I had watching Star Wars growing up. I was sucked into the world King created without even realizing that it was interwoven with all his other stories. In essence, The Dark Tower was the source from which all his material sprang forth into the ‘real world’ if you could it that. I was like a child who had grown up inside a house, content in my surroundings, not realizing that an even bigger space waited on the other side of the door. I soon found myself reading the second and third book as well as Christine, It, The Body, The Running Man, and The Tommyknockers. Then I branched out into other popular fiction writers like Dean R. Koontz and read Phantoms and Watchers.

In high school I hit that same wall I hit before; reading classics for class was boring. The Red Badge of Courage, the Last of the Mohicans, and other required reading was given a cursory glance instead of my full attention causing me to try and pass tests and write papers with minimal knowledge of the subject. It seemed as though I was only interested in 80s and 90s popular fiction, but not classics. After high school, that suffered as I only picked up a few books from which I had already seen the film like Jurassic Park and The Silence of the Lambs. I had even picked up the fourth Dark Tower novel, Wizard and Glass, but to date, have not finished it. Though, I have it and Wolves of the Calla in audio format and have heard most of book four. Required reading in college had put an overall end to my leisurely reading and I had not read another book until 2006.

For someone who prides himself on being a historian on pop culture, full of useless trivia and quotes from film and television, I found myself not jumping on the bandwagon of fads at their onset. Like I had mentioned, The Silence of the Lambs and Jurassic Park were bestsellers when they were released but I didn’t bother to pick them up until years after I had watched the film versions, using them as a primer for envisioning the voices of the characters and their surroundings making for a much quicker read. That was the pseudo basis for my reintroduction to the printed word in 2006 when I began to read The Da Vinci Code. Once again, we are talking popular fiction, not classics. But this time around, I read the book before I saw the movie. Still, I had cheated a little because I could see and hear in my mind the voices and likenesses of Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, and Alfred Molina. I’d say I came a long way in terms of accepting books again into my life. The next year, I found myself revisiting a phenomenon that had began 10 years prior of which I swore I would not belittle myself to reading. And that my dear readers is where Part Two picks up and the aforementioned puzzling statement about reading books because of a love of film will make more sense. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Killer Calamari Conquer California Coast

It's like something out of a disaster movie, or a bad Roland Emmerich one. Nature gone awry. The coast along California, specifically San Diego, became littered with hordes of humboldt squid, also known as red devils. These squids, who live roughly one year, can grow to around seven feet long and weigh over 100 pounds. Not bad if you like sushi, but pretty horrible if you are a diver in the region as there have been accounts of the squid attacking divers. Make no mistake, these squid are carnivorous and have sharp teeth. But what has caused this beaching of the diablo rojo?

Get a
San Diego Red Devils team shirt
Mongo Angry! Mongo Smash! the store

Consider this. There was a similar occurrence of the humboldt squid in the Monterey Bay in 1997. Granted, the impact wasn't nearly as huge as the squid sunning themselves on the San Diego sand, but there was also something else happening at the time. The Atlantic had seen a fairly mild hurricane season with only eight total storms, three hurricanes of which one reached category three. The Pacific saw nine with seven category three or better. Evidence of this lessened Atlantic hurricane activity points towards El Nino as the cause. This year, the Pacific has already seen four storms, one being a category two hurricane. 2009 looks to be a repeat for El Nino which hasn't been confirmed as the reason for the squid sightings but suggests as such.

GetEl Nino Gets Me Wet
Mongo Angry! Mongo Smash! the store

So, batten down the hatches, get out the hibachi and let's fry us up some red devils.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

RIP Mongo

Shhh! I’m thinking.

What? Oh, that title…no, nothing bad has happened, not yet. I was just thinking about my inevitable death. Someday, I shall be no more and my four readers will finally get their lives back, minus a few years of inane blog posts they’ve sorted through here at M.A.M.S. I just figured it would be interesting to plan out what my obituary would say. I know what it should say. But, perhaps we could take a look at what it could say. I was recently discussing the deaths of some famous people with family and friends and had decided that I did not want my obituary to read, “Died from anal cancer” like some of Farrah Fawcett’s online obituaries had read if I were to ever die from anything remotely connected to my ass or other parts used for disposal of waste. Now, a publicist for David Carradine said that the Kung Fu star died fighting ninjas, which I thought was far more appropriate than the dreaded Michael Hutchence’s syndrome. My good friend asked if there was ever an obituary that made it past the editors and contained various references to either false accomplishments or hysterical hyperbole. The winner might just be Michael Jackson when all is said and done, but I thought I’d give it a go.

Mongo died, today, at the age of 115. He was killed while fighting a zombie horde that had invaded his hometown. Mongo managed to dispatch several zombies, with only a crowbar, while simultaneously rescuing a family trapped in their poorly protected home. He was bitten on the arm by one of the undead and proceeded to detonate a propane tank killing him as well as the remaining attackers. This was considered the only outbreak of undead nature and the disaster has been averted thanks to the Supercentarian.

Mongo had accomplished quite a lot in his 115 years on this Earth. He was raised in the desert by his Uncle and Aunt on a moisture farm near the Jundland Wastes. His childhood was typical. Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons, in the winter he was known to play in his most prized possession, an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. A tragic gun accident cost him the life of a childhood friend and nearly his own eyesight forcing Mongo to never use another gun, relying only on his own ingenuity, a Swiss army knife, and what was available to him for escaping tight situations.

As he entered into high school Mongo had scored many milestones. Among his achievements, he successfully became a surgeon at the age of 14, though some dispute the age to be 16. An old computerized journal written by Mongo was discovered and converted into existing readable document format by MIT grad students and supported the claim of 14 years. He gave it up though to lead a normal life with his peers. He went back to high school to in order to graduate with his friends.

During his second high school career, he successfully helped his basketball team defeat their rival high school’s Dragons. In that same year it was discovered that a similar looking and possible relative, unconfirmed, played guitar at a high school dance in California, 30 years earlier, prompting speculation that Mongo had indeed gone back in time and performed a yet unreleased version of Johnny B. Goode. The principal of that school has declined comment, only recalling that he was a slacker.

During his senior year, it was rumored that Mongo became embroiled in an international incident between the Soviet Union and the United States military when he unknowingly hacked into the military’s supercomputer used to predict possible outcomes from nuclear war. He just wanted to play games. This incident has been denied by both the U.S. and Soviet Republic’s Government as something you could only find in a movie. One last highlight occurred in Mongo’s adolescence when he successfully skied the K-12 slope, beating the captain of his high school ski team, Roy Stalin.

After graduating he spent the summer as a caddy at Bushwood Country Club where he competed for a college scholarship against other Caddies. Winning the Caddy Day golf tournament proved him a worthy recipient but some unconfirmed discretion with a club cofounder’s niece forced his disqualification. Undeterred, he somehow obtained enough funds for his college career from local businessman, Al Czervik. As the summer wound down he spent a few weeks in Nantucket, single handedly winning the Nantucket Regatta with a makeshift boat and crew assembled from various locals and the engine of a sports car. Before entering college, he had another brush with luck as he was responsible for saving actress Brooke Shields from drowning. He was offered a large sum of money and subsequently blew it all hiring, musical group, Van Halen to play at his birthday. What money he had left was used to attend college.

Over the next few years, Mongo attended a variety of schools, earning him degrees in all manner of study. As an undergrad, he studied astronomy at Grand Lakes University and competed on the dive team. He performed a nearly impossible dive dubbed the Triple Lindy which earned him the only perfect 10 from judges. The dive has since been banned from collegiate diving due to its inherent danger. Afterwards, he transferred to Adams College where he successfully defeated the Alpha Beta fraternity employing a high tech laser light and sound show in the talent portion of the annual Greek Games. This victory led to his own fraternity's wresting of power, over the Greek Council, from the Alpha Betas and an end to nerd persecution at Adams.

Tapping into that associated brain power he felt within the Tri Lambda fraternity at Adams, he decided to leave and attend Pacific Tech to complete a physics degree and worked on a research team consisting of fellow students tasked with designing a chemical laser and tracking device for the military. No such device has ever been claimed to be in existence or contracted by the military and, as such, any information would be deemed classified. His final few years in college were spent in business school while he moonlighted as a hot shot bartender.

After graduating college a second time, Mongo entered into the world of business as a mail room clerk while secretly becoming a high powered executive simply by occupying an empty office. He kept the company from being acquired in a hostile takeover by influencing a number of high rollers in the business world to bank roll his bid to take over the Davenport Enterprises in a proxy fight for the Pemrose Corporation.

Not satisfied with big business or medicine as a career, Mongo moved into the realm of archaeology and retrieved several priceless artifacts such as the Cross of Coronado, the Lost Ark of the Covenant, and it is rumored that he found the stones of Sankara, and the Holy Grail, though evidence is there to support it. There was an additional report that Mongo found the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but this was deemed too silly even for the most diehard fan of his exploits.

It has been rumored that Mongo is simply a pseudonym, an alter ego for various identities associated with Batman, Superman, James Bond, and even the most outrageous, that he is, indeed, Hannah Montana. As incredulous as it sounds, neither him nor Montana have been seen together at the same time. Further reports that he is the Lindbergh baby have been seen as either ridiculous or intriguing from various points of view.

Other identities connected to Mongo that have either been proven false or are undetermined have been:

Keyser Soze
Client # 8
Tyler Durden
Grand Priory of the Sion
Jason Bourne
General Maximus Decimus Meridius
The guy in the creepy Burger King Costume

While none of these have ever been confirmed it is worth noting that no one has disputed these claims.

Mongo is survived by his wife and daughter as well as the rest of his extended family which include, Jan, Peter, Bobby, Greg, Marcia, Cindy, but not Oliver; Alex P., Mallory, Jennifer, but not Andrew; Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper, and Snorky; various Happy Tree Friends, Bucky T. Katt, Satchel Pooch, and Rob; Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy DuChamp, and Vern Tessio, even though he was the fat kid that grew up to marry Rebecca Romijn, the bastard; Stewie, Chris, Brian, Peter, Lois, and the other one; the fourth member of Destiny’s Child, Lisa Lopes’ right eye, Randall Flagg, The Dread Pirate Roberts, Ante Meridian, Uncle Meridian, and all the Little Meridians, The Noid, and various members of Menudo.

Guests will be received at The Brickyard citing that Chuck Norris’ beard could not hold his awesomeness, Circus Maximus could not be booked, and Michael Jackson’s memorial in the Staples Center was like seeing Quiet Riot at the County Fair. He will be interred at Machine City until a more suitable venue can be entered into the Pop Culture World for his eternal rest.

Hail to the King, baby.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Six Million Dollar Miracle

We can rebuild her – We have the technology.

That title is a bit of a misnomer. Not the miracle part, but the price tag associated with it. After all, in the 1970s, the operations that gave Steve Austin his bionic abilities may have cost around six million dollars, but in today’s terms, the actual cost attached to all of that hardware may put it closer to what the government gave AIG in TARP funds. However, to say that my Mother-in-Law was given, not only bionic parts, but a six million dollar cumulative price tag for all her surgeries is probably incorrect. In fact, they didn’t exactly add anything, more like they took pieces out. OK, I should have titled this “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” Are these 70s and early 80s pop culture references doing anything for ya? Thought not. Well, then let’s just find the chase and cut to it.

I spoke before about my unwillingness to understand how someone can have faith in a higher power when all they’ve done is fight to keep death at bay. This time around, I think I’ll look a little more positive on the subject but I won’t give into too much praise of a higher being keeping her around. Here’s a quick rundown on what we’ve had so far.

In 1997 after a bout with a tricky case of pneumonia, she found out that she had a football sized tumor on her kidney. When they opened her up on the table, they wished that they hadn’t. RCC (Renal Cell Carcinoma) had metastasized into her lungs. They put her at stage IV and removed the tumor, along with the kidney, and an ovary. When I say “They wished they hadn’t” I mean that had they known what was going on inside her, they wouldn’t have bothered and told her to go home and be comfortable. But they didn’t. Instead, they put her into a study for an experimental treatment that would quite literally take her to death’s door in order to reboot her immune system. Consider it the Jurassic Park computer system method.

When I met her daughter, my future wife, she had already been through the treatments and come out with a clean bill of health, for now. All of the spots on her lungs had disappeared and she had been cancer free for a year. I have since learned that you are never really free from it, regardless of how well scans look.

Jump forward to 2006. For nearly 10 years, my M-I-L has had clean scans but a new spot showed up on her pancreas. Soon, the doom and gloom crept back into the thoughts of her family. Statistically speaking, for her to live past five years would have put her into a bracket of about 5%. I’m not exactly sure but I’ve heard various differences pushing her closer to a 1% bracket. But, now she had to endure more surgery.

After 12 hours on the table, the doctors in Pittsburgh removed part of her pancreas, and her spleen, making recovery a difficult process. She spent five days in recovery, more because of the lack of empty rooms than anything else, but she really didn’t look that good and being lumped together in that bullpen of other surgical patients didn’t do much for her recovery process. Still, she came out on the other side with no apparent tumors or other spots in her system. The pathology came back as renal cell cancer; her old nemesis had shot seeds into her system and found a new place to sleep.

The three years that followed gave her an opportunity to see the birth of another grandchild, my daughter. “Gammy,” as my little one refers to her, is pretty much an everyday fixture in her life as we only live a few minutes away and because of the renewed bond between mother and daughter, we see them often, if not every night. We even share the stomach flu as we all got hit with it on Valentine’s Day, providing more evidence that I should just skip holidays all together.

But then something happened. Gammy wasn’t bouncing back from the stomach flu like the rest of us. That missing spleen might have something to do with it, or it could be that something more sinister was going on in there. She began to have problems focusing. Headaches became an everyday occurrence. She started to seem confused and even stopped at a mailbox and drove through a red light. Something wasn’t right. My wife, ever the enforcer when it comes to medical issues started to harp on her about seeing a doctor and her coworkers even forced her to keep an appointment for an MRI in March of 2009. Before she made it back to her desk after the scan, the hospital had called her. She needed to go directly to the ER and consult with an oncologist and neurologist. She had a brain tumor. After the diagnosis, we all realized that these symptoms were noticed long before the stomach flu incident. At New Year’s she seemed distant.

On March 18th, she went in for surgery to remove the tumor. Considering her last surgery lasted 12 hours, we expected a long day ahead of us, but the doctors came out to see my wife and her dad after an hour and a half. What had gone wrong? Could they not operate? Was it really bad? After losing all color in the face, they were given the news. She’s out of surgery and they had already removed the entire tumor. The surgery was quick and she was out of the hospital in two days. A follow up treatment, of radiation to the area, provided extra defense in case they had missed something.

During her stay in the hospital, the announcement of her other daughter’s impeding nuptials provided a method for getting my in laws to go on vacation. In their 43 years of marriage, they had never taken one. So, in we decided to tag along with the newlyweds and get a house at the beach. It would be the first time my daughter and her Gammy would see the beach.

The trip almost got cancelled. My M-I-L started to feel shortness of breath and would get tired walking a small distance. She also developed a lump on her arm. While in the hospital to do additional scans of her abdomen, everything came together. Another mass was found and she was suffering from blood clots in her arm, legs, and lungs. She ended up back in the hospital over Mother’s Day weekend for treatment. An EKG showed a weakened heart and surgery was almost scrubbed because of her condition. If anything, vacation would be cut because of surgery to remove the mass that had now been found in her remaining ovary. Why she did not have a hysterectomy back in 1997 is beyond any of us. Soon, we had a new list of problems to address. Would she be strong enough for surgery? Is this renal cell or ovarian? Can her remaining kidney handle continued stress from the dye used in scans and another surgery?

Due to the EKG results, her surgery was being postponed for a month. The doctors did not feel that the tumor was dangerous enough to operate right now, so they felt they could wait. The blood clots were treated but they waffled on clearance for the trip. It was a 12 hour drive to the beach and she would have to keep her legs elevated and couldn’t sit for long periods of time. Having a two year old daughter would mean numerous stops along the way, so that wasn’t a problem. Also, thanks to my daughter, we needed to have a vehicle that could handle all of her things as well as ours, so we rented a Dodge Grand Caravan to make the trip. In a twist of fate, the blood clots nearly hampered but ultimately allowed for her to go on vacation. A trip, I feel, did wonders for her outlook and health. We had a three story house with lots of steps to climb, and a pool for her to exercise and relax in during the week. After we returned home, her multiple doctors all gave her a clean bill of health for surgery, citing that she was in better condition than she had been in months, perhaps years.

Skipping the Fourth of July was not an option my daughter shares a birthday with the adjoining day. A cookout/birthday party served as a celebration and feast before surgery. The following Thursday would be her latest date with the surgical blade. Because of the volatile nature of ovarian cancer, she could not be biopsied until after surgery. Running the risk of rupturing the tumor could escalate her into a higher stage. I had just learned that once you get classified as stage IV RCC, you keep that no matter how clean your scans are there was no sense in adding a high stage of ovarian cancer if it was possible.

After an hour and a half or surgery, she had been put into recovery. The gynecological oncologist sat with us in a room and discussed the procedure. He was used to see ovarian cancer on a regular basis and from what he saw, this was not it. There was a very condensed and compact area that was affected. There were no nodules or other infected tissue which suggested to him that this was indeed, renal cell cancer. Pathology could reverse that opinion but for now, we breathed a sigh of relief. When you have to root for one kind of cancer over another you start to feel like your rooting for one political candidate who is not as despicable as the other while still maintaining that they are both evil. When asked about the short length of surgery he said that it would have gone quicker, but they spent an hour cutting through a lot of scar tissue from previous surgeries in 1997 and 2006. At one point before surgery, my M-I-L wondered if they could just put a zipper in place instead of having to constantly cut her open since she’s becoming an old pro at this. I told her in recovery that the next time they ought to have it down to fifteen minutes. It could be like ordering a pizza. It’ll be done in 30 minutes or it’s free. Maybe you could start using a drive through for this. While trying not to pop a stitch from laughing at the lameness of my jokes, she said, “There won’t be another one.” I’m not sure if that means she hopes that this is the last time she’ll have to do this or that she feels that her luck has just about run out.

Think about it, while simultaneously keeping the Pittsburgh medical profession in business, she’s pared away about ever spare part you can imagine. How long before it’s something she can’t live without? She’s already a diabetic; she has OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea), hypertension, high blood pressure, and is prone to pulmonary emboli. She takes more drugs than the ballplayers listed on the Mitchell Report and the bands on Ozzfest. Sooner or later, she won’t be treatable. It’s not like she can take that amazing cocktail of drugs like she did in 1997. She was in perfect health back then. Now, she wouldn’t survive the extreme dosage needed when she first got diagnosed. Lesser doses may not be sufficient to rid her of more tumors.

Through all this, we have maintained that this is a chronic condition instead of a terminal one. Cancer has taken a heck of a lot of her body, but not her spirit. Approaching the back nine of her 60s has given her the frame of mind that she’s just playing with the house money and the deck has been getting colder as the time marches on. The Sword of Damocles is constantly hanging overhead waiting for her to exhale. One day, luck will run out and I hope that is well into her 90s or more as long as she can maintain a good quality of life. I know my wife will be devastated when the day comes and she wants every day she can get but she has to know that it’s not her choice and ultimately, there may come a time when she can’t fight. I’m just hoping that she goes twelve rounds with death before losing at Battleship, Clue, Electric Football, or Twister. Be that as it may, the fight rages on and she does not go gently into that good night. If there is a higher power, I think he’s just not ready for her. She is a force to be reckoned with say what you will about Mother-in-Laws; I think I’d like to keep her around.

Frankly, I think the medical profession ought to be asking her to do speaking tours. She’s beaten the odds so many times; I’m beginning to she’s unable to be killed. After all, her mother is in the upper half of the 80s and is still kicking it in an assisted living facility with an artificial hip, bouts with congestive heart failure, and some dementia. My wife also has a resilient nature as she’s come back from thyroid disease and MS to lead a normal life. So, to adjust for inflation, maybe my Mother-in-Law is the $30 million dollar woman, or perhaps just priceless.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Work In Progress

I’m sending this one out to all the young people in the world.

It’s no secret that I’ve become a little crusty in my 30’s. I didn’t want to be like this. I remember being very positive about the future. By the age of 30 I was going to be living the high life as an actor in Hollywood. There I would be, sitting by the pool of my palatial estate, while Susanna Hoffs brings me another mojito. Hey, it was 1989 and I was only 14. Give me a break. Apart from the fact that we didn’t get any flying cars, this was going to be a reality by now.

But somewhere along the way, I lost the mission. I don’t know if it was when I graduated high school and started being assaulted with all the crap that is the superficiality of college freshmen, but it seems to be a place to look more closely at. Seriously, after surviving the culture shock that is your first year of college, you look back at the next group of rookies to join the ranks of higher learning and you just want to vomit. Maybe we were all like that and didn’t notice it. I always felt that people, who were younger than me, didn’t handle things better than we did at that age. It always seemed like they looked smaller or acted less mature. Apparently, I wasn’t seeing the trees for the forest like I did back then.

Inverted, agricultural idioms, aside, this newly self proclaimed age of wisdom, that was my sophomore year, took place in 1994. Kurt Cobain was already dead from self inflicted lead poisoning and grunge was on life support. Being from the subural (part suburb/part rural) part of Western Pennsylvania, we were often considered hillbillies and red necks, but we were proud of it. There was a joke that the Mason Dixon line took a detour and ran through my hometown separating the city from the farm communities. In any case, usual attire of the denizens of my hometown did consist of at least two to three flannel shirts. That being said, I had a moment, one day, where I just snapped. I was walking back from the Student Union and I saw freshmen congregating outside the dormitory lobby wearing flannel shirts tied around their waist. I was appalled at this desecration. How could they be so…impractical?

Soon, however, the look was replaced by a retrospective musical trip down through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, over the next two years, leading to a vintage look manufactured in present time. Peasant blouses and flared jeans were sold in these little boutiques that pretended to be vintage but were just made a year before in some sweat shop overseas. Superficial fashion and musicality took on a whole new distressed look and it just made my blood boil. It was like we were all afraid to be original. The music industry and clothing designers phoned it in, and we began to cling to our previous roots to try and find something that could identify our generation’s entrance into adult hood. We were just shy of being in the age of the Reality Bites and Singles characters and too old for the Mickey Mouse Pop Tart Boy Band Brigade. We were lost and this schizophrenic soundtrack we had going on didn’t help much.

What didn’t change was the influx of college students that brought their high school hang-ups into the social culture. High school was a fashion show and popularity contest. Every day was American Idol results and elimination day. However, college was all about being comfortable. Granted, on Thursday nights, when girls would go out to the bars and meat markets, they glammed it up, but it was nothing to see the same coed sitting in Intro to Anthropology in a sweatshirt, pajama bottoms, slippers, and pony tail pulled through the back of a ball cap. As soon as kids shed that last bastion of peer pressure to fit into a clique in their high school microcosm, they finally began to transition into the real world and their ambivalence towards society was near complete.

Now, I’m going to pull out a pop culture guilty pleasure reference here, and believe me it took two years for me to even dare to watch this show, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a perfect encapsulation of what real life was like for young adults. And before all you Twilight geeks start saying, “Oh Buffy was the Twilight/True Blood of your generation” I’m already giving you the middle finger from my childhood. Buffy was not the (insert knock off Vampire franchise of 2008/2009 here) of my generation. The Lost Boys was. Near Dark was. Twilight and True Blood are the 90210 and Melrose Place of your generation. Twilight is the kids in high school. True Blood is the adults living in an apartment complex, sleeping with, and trying to kill each other. Granted, I will give True Blood more credit than Melrose Place. It’s still a popcorn confection, though. Yeah, I know Buffy was trendy and hip, but it wasn’t as mainstream and it didn’t get the attention that it deserved. That was probably for the better.

Now, I had a point here…

Oh yeah.

Go back and watch Buffy’s fourth season, paying close attention to episodes entitled "The Freshman" and "Harsh Light of Day", then go out and buy the series box set and realize that Twilight is crap.

Here you have a female lead who is the chosen one to fight the forces of evil in the world. In high school she wasn’t the most popular girl, but she was the strongest person in her peer group. OK, go with me on this. It’s a metaphor for being at the top of the high school food chain.

Then when she starts college, she meets a group of college campus vampires that basically stomp her into the ground. This is what happens to you when you bring that social inflexibility into a bigger pond. The small fish will get devoured. She finally makes that transition and defeats the group. In "Harsh Light of Day", the parallel of her emotional being gets destroyed after investing more heart and soul into a one night stand, only to find that she’s just a notch on a guy’s bed post. This is college in a nutshell. You come in like a glass tiger and end up being shattered by a well thrown grain of sand.

By the time I graduated I was about to be in pieces. I was still convinced my future was paved in red carpet and Oscar gold, but afterwards, I had lost some of my hopeful spark. I joined the ranks of the temporarily employed, then unemployed, then near homeless, and finally started over again at the bottom. 12 years later, I have attained some delusions of mediocrity but the engine is running and I am moving forward, somewhat. Perhaps somewhere along the way from graduation to working class, I lost the rest of my goodwill. I just started to feel some of it come back but that changes with the weather a lot of times and I find myself spending more time climbing the hills then coasting along the tops of them.

But it was after college that something happened to the average coed. There was a massive swing in genetics and attitude. Kids that were two to three years younger than me looked and acted five years older. I remember being very drunk and very inappropriate at a college campus, right after I graduated, and at some point in the darkness there was this realization that I can’t be that guy. I can’t be the guy that pretends to be worldly and wise. I can’t pretend to be cool and the older tougher man, when I was still immature and broken. It wasn’t fair to other people and I didn’t want to hurt anyone in my suicide bombing of the relationship marketplace. It was like a midlife crisis where the balding 50 something guy starts dating girls in their 20s. Here I was trolling college campuses, still smarting from a college relationship gone sour, and I really needed time to work on me before I could work on a “we.”

Now, I am grizzled and jaded and scoff at the youth of the world. “Damn kids, get off my lawn.” “Pull up your pants. “ “Put your hat on, facing the front or the back, not off to the side.” But what I really want to do is sit some kid down and give them reassurance that things will change for the better if they just keep moving. Kids are swirling around a turbulent nexus nowadays. The economy, wars in multiple countries, health care, the job market, and social security all threaten to prevent them from succeeding in the world. Add to that the reports, lately, of teen relationships turning violent and murderous and you have a generation in crisis. Now, these relationship issues are not a new thing. Go read some Shakespeare. There was all kind of angst and family disapproval and extremes in terms of devotion to significant others all while the characters were younger than 18. Take Romeo and Juliet, for instance….no, not the Leo DiCaprio version. Pick up a damn book. Crack open that musty goodness for once. Don’t YouTube it.

Everything is magnified tenfold to a younger person. I see the inability to understand this concept of time in my two year old daughter and it just resonates adolescence to me. If you tell her that we are going to go “bye byes” she is at the steps, with blanket and bottle in hand, ready to go. You may have another five minutes worth of trip prep in store, but she wants to go, now. In essence, we were the same way as teenagers and even into our early 20s. We thought that the present state of things was going to last forever. My two longest relationships before meeting my wife lasted just shy of two years apiece but I thought each one was going to be forever. I was going to marry and raise a family with them both during our respective times together. I never allowed for flexibility in personality or environment and they both ultimately failed.

When I met my wife, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I just didn’t have it in me to get heavily invested in something that had hit the wall previously after two years, especially with the gap in age between us. I was 23 and she was 19. She had a lot more growing to do and basically, so did I. I had to step back and realize that the behavior and personality traits that she is exhibiting now will change and I need to recognize that she will eventually meet and surpass my level of maturity and that’s when I’ll know that we are ready to move to the next level.

Now, it sounds as if I was testing her and putting her through some kind of probationary period before I would commit to a life with her. It was quite the opposite. I was the one under the microscope. I had everything to lose. She had to wait for me to learn to walk. I considered myself damaged goods and she was the one test driving me to see if I could earn her love and that was the best thing. I learned a lot about patience and communication. I learned how to grow with someone instead of dragging them down. She taught me more about being an adult then I learned on my own.

The culmination of all this occurred when she was diagnosed with MS in 2001. After the initial diagnosis she told me to break up with her. She didn’t want me to put my life on hold because she was broken. She thought it wasn’t fair to me that she was diseased (her words), and I shouldn’t have to devote the next 30 years of my life to pushing her in a wheelchair. Was it a little dramatic, yes, but not far from the real fear a lot of people experience in a similar situation. But, it was that moment when I knew it was time to put up or shut up. She was willing to resign herself to a life of solitude, thinking she’d never find anyone willing to take a chance on someone with an expiration date. And I realized that perhaps my biggest problem with commitment was actually having something to commit to. Maybe my purpose in life was to be with her. We were kind of like a lava lamp. She kept me tethered to the ground, never letting me float away and I kept her from falling down completely. For the record, she’s fine. She’s had two real flare ups in eight years and has a lot of her Mother’s spirit in her to fight.

This is one of the main problems I have with organized sporting activities for children. I’ve seen some soccer groups where they don’t keep score. T-Ball is not challenging to kids. We’ve taken the pass/fail option away from the children and when they grow into an environment, such as a middle school or junior high, that pressure to do well is not ingrained in them because as a child, everyone played and no one lost. If you can get past the tangents and exposition maybe you can find that real nugget of wisdom in all this. “Kids, it’s ok to fail.” In fact, I think everyone has to fail to understand how to deal with success. Whatever is bothering you now will make you laugh later. So, I say to the youth of today the following truths. WORD OF NOTE: These are by no means personal experiences. However, you should be able to identify with each one.

  1. That guy who shit all over you at the prom by going off to some dark corner with his ex, you will love someone who is ten times the man this jerk could ever hope to be. He will worship you. And you will lose him too. A few years later you will find someone else. It will probably happen by accident and all the crap you put up with and dished out over the years in previous relationships will only serve to make you ready to deal with the reality of love.
  2. Remember that popular girl you fawned all over in English? You know the one who smiled at you, instantly sending out that misunderstood subliminal message that she was ready to stop dating assholes on the football team, and be with someone who would treat her like a princess. She would confide in you how her boyfriend is cheating on her and that you are such a nice guy and a good friend. No lie, she’s going to write that in your yearbook as well as every other guy she’s not interested in, too. Guess what? She’s going to continue to date stupid assholes and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re going to meet someone who has a heart and soul a hundred times more powerful than this person and she will call you to the floor on every little bullshit thing you do for your own good.
  3. You there with the sad sack look and emo fashion sense. Did you just break up with your girlfriend? That’s ok. Yeah, I know you both said you would be together forever. You had baby names already picked out and knew exactly what your house would look like when you got married in a big old church with a string orchestra playing the wedding march. It doesn’t matter. She’s going to finish college, get a job at an investment firm and meet this other guy. They are going to get married and move to some other state, far away. She’ll quit her job to have three gorgeous kids. He’s going to become a top account manager at his firm and she will start on online business at home, doing consulting work. Where’s the silver lining? She’s going to find you on Facebook one day and though you won’t ever know it, she became the person she is because of you and she still thinks about you from time to time. If she would have stayed with you, you both would have ended up working two jobs to make ends meet. Besides, you weren’t really ready for a heavy relationship and you’re only a few years away from that CD release party for that album you put together because of the experience. In fact, there’s a track on it named after her. Just keep plugging away. It’s going to happen.
  4. And you, yes you there with these grand plans to be a world famous chef. No one can tell you otherwise, I know. You are so sure that you are going to succeed that you decline all advice to take business courses or any other well rounding subjects into consideration. You are going to drop out of culinary school and get a job working in a restaurant as a Sous Chef. You’re never going to be appreciated and you will always get shit on at work regardless of that talent you know you have. So, instead of waiting for that casino or resort to open near you, solving all your problems, take some business courses or something else and give yourself an edge when it comes to your career. You’ll open that restaurant and do quite well. But you have to be patient and allow for some detours in life. Be flexible and not so headstrong. Learn to sail into the wind as well as running.

Now, all of you go out there and make the world a better place…and pull up your pants and stop listening to that God awful music.

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