Sunday, December 20, 2009

One Manic Christmas

Christmas Eve 2006, for our family of seven, was spent fumbling through the all-hours cafeteria in the most distant corner of the Twilight Zone.


Our family drives home from a huge feast with my wife Patty’s extended family. Each of us, in turn, complains about how stuffed we are. We're a groaning contest on wheels. When we arrive home, the kids, still holding their stomachs, retire to one of the upstairs bedrooms to watch a movie.


Connor, our youngest, calls downstairs—he’s famished. It’s Christmas, a time for giving rather than sudden violence, so we relent and let him poke around our fridge. When he arrives on the main floor, he insists he will settle only for food that is “hard” (and adds, “And NOT candy.”) We suggest apples. “Not hard enough.” Celery? “Nope. Too soft.” He throws up his arms and, in a huff, ascends the stairs. Moments later, our daughter Kelly appears to let us know Connor has had an epiphany—the “hard food” he’s been chicken.


All the discussion of food reminds our oldest sons—Devin and PJ—that there’s food in the house yet to be eaten. PJ heats up enough pasta to feed Chicago and most of the suburbs. Devin settles for a large tub of hummus and a jumbo bag of pita chips. While noshing, he expounds upon how exciting it would be to “comparison eat” several different types of hummus. We have only one variety, and it's disappointingly generic. He grumbles, but finishes it all.


Kelly remembers that Connor had been offered an apple, so she reappears to collect apples for herself and the other kids. A year before, she would have balked at an apple, because she had decided she was allergic to them (as had her favorite cousin…go figure). When she discovers that, unlike our hummus, we have more than one variety of apple, she yells, “Well, then just forget it! This is too confusing. I’ll just get one for myself. They can get their own.”


The remaining apples disappear.


One of the kids calls down—they're still hungry. Patty considers their request, then yells for the lot of them to shut up, settle down and go to sleep. She’s not frustrated because it’s late, nor because they are relentless eating machines. She’s agitated that the constant interruptions are preventing the grown-ups from concentrating on the program we've settled upon: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.


Patty and I call it a night. Down the hall, Connor dozes with a smile, with visions not of sugar plums but of rotisserie chickens dancing in his head.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Twas the week before Christmas

'Twas the week before Christmas, and in our account
The dollars I found were a paltry amount
One kid wants a camera, another a phone
Come Christmas morning, they’re all sure to moan
A magazine subscription? What fun is that?
Hey Dad, hey Mom, what’s with this hat?
Soon I will tire of their incessant mocking
That started just after they opened their stocking
No DVDs there, no gift cards, no PS3 stuff
I sprang for an orange…is that not enough?
And under the tree, the offerings seem sparse
Because I can’t pull money right out of my arse
The economy’s struggling, times they are lean
So from high hopes our children we wean
At least they’ll get turkey, and taters and stuffing
Ha! They’ll get leftovers—I was just bluffing
Oh the sad looks we’ll see on all of their faces
That are slightly askew—no money for braces
I’d offer a drink, some cider or nog
Won’t that make up for not getting a dog?
The five frowning faces will be a horrible sight
Enough of this Christmas—let's call it a night


Friday, December 11, 2009

Don't try this at home

A long, long time ago, after the dinosaurs but before the gods of first-person shooters and massively multiplayer online games smiled upon a technology-sparse earth, the young and impressionable of our world trudged through long and tedious summer days with nothing but authentic human beings, sunshine and imagination to see them through.

Mothers would send kids out the door in the morning, with some vague instruction like, “Get out, and don’t come back until lunch. And then get out again until dinner.”

Pedophiles weren’t the media's darlings they are today, so my mother sent us packing with confidence, giving nary a thought to the remote possibility I’d come home with hair in my mouth and a railway spike entrenched in my anus. Oh, those were the days.

In reality, the most dangerous people I encountered on a day-to-day basis were my older brother (who, even then, wanted me out of the will) and those friends who were willing to engage in behavior that is at best risky, and at worst downright stupid. Too often, I was their ringleader. That's why, when most people compare scars and stitches from their childhood, I'm part of the story.

Without further ado, here are the rules to a handful of games we engaged in when our parents weren’t looking—which was, in our day, much of the time.

The Spit Toss
First, pull out bed on standard sleeper sofa; the smaller the mattress, the better, so challenger and opponent are in close proximity. Challenger and opponent lay under a comforter or blanket, faces exposed. Both participants talk about weather, girls, music or any other desired subject. Mid-sentence, challenger fires a loogie directly up in the air. Challenger quickly covers self with his section of blanket while simultaneously yanking down section covering opponent. If challenger scores a direct body hit, one point. If challenger hits opponent in face, game is won, because opponent won’t want to play anymore. Challenger laughs, and then runs away, very quickly. Key to winning: don’t tell opponent you’re playing the game; surprise him.

The Prune Juice Challenge
Plan sleepover with friend. Eat chili dinner, with beans, and follow with bran muffin for dessert. Set up standard two- or three-person tent. Equip with sleeping bags, pillows and flashlight. Walk to local convenience store. Each contestant selects a four-pack of prune juice. Return to tent. After mindless childhood conversation, extinguish flashlight. Wait. Last person to leave tent wins.

Tomato Dodgeball
Select appropriate evening when parents are out of town. Raid garden of most available tomatoes (ripeness and/or color doesn’t matter). Distribute tomatoes equally among opponents. Run around yard, pelting opponents with tomatoes. When bored, choose unsuspecting neighbor girl and fire rock-hard green tomato into forehead. Run into house. Hide in closet. When neighbor girl’s mother storms into house, stay in closet. Stop speaking. Stop breathing. Think of clever excuse for ketchup-stained property.

Pin opponent to floor, with knees on shoulders and legs restraining all movement of arms. Move ear close to opponent’s mouth, just beyond biting range. Listen. For each sound heard, deliver smack to opponent’s face commensurate with volume of sound. Smack once, fairly hard, when no sound is made. When opponent protests with yell, unleash flurry of brutal smacks. Run.

Syringe Cannons
Go to bi-monthly doctor’s visit for allergy shot. Ask doctor for syringe, without needle, and cap for said syringe. Fill syringe with water. Replace cap. Choose opponent. Aim. Slam hand against bottom of syringe plunger, launching cap at incredible speed. Take friend to doctor. Be sure to ask for extra syringes.

Rubber Band Hide-and-Seek
Hand-select six to eight rubber bands of appropriate thickness and strength. Stretch along surface of wooden ruler until attached at both ends. Encourage opponents to hide in dark basement. Turn on flashlight and begin hunt. As each opponent found, allow three-second escape period and then open fire. When opponent found hiding beside refrigerator in bar area, block all means of escape. Count to three. Launch all remaining rubber bands from three-inch distance into opponent’s bare back. Run for bandages.

Sounder (my brother’s favorite)
One contestant (younger brother) plays neglected puppy in store window. Other contestant (older brother) assumes role of lonely, benevolent bachelor. Bachelor purchases dog (always named Sounder, for some reason) and brings him home (the basement floor). Bachelor nurtures dog’s playful side by dragging long string around floor, which dog is obliged to chase. Hunt continues for 20 minutes or exhaustion, whichever comes first. As reward for “winning”, dog is treated to full bowl of shredded paper, or food. Dog eats “food”, leaves game with stomach ache. Game is repeated throughout childhood; players keep same roles.

If you like these, I'll share the better ones ... after all, what boy doesn't have at least a dozen childhood memories involving incendiary materials?


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Something (or Someone) in the Water

It’s deliciously invigorating to discover a fictionalized representation of yourself in someone else’s novel—that is, until the author tucks your lifeless body on the bottom of an ice-covered pond.

This past weekend, my father called to let me know that Albert Dell’apa, a childhood friend, had been written up in the local newspaper from the area in which we both grew up (and where my parents still reside). Albert, who lived about six houses up the street from me, penned a novel called How to Win a Chestnut Fight, based loosely on his experiences growing up in a village about an hour east of Toronto.

While my father read me the article, questions flooded my brain. First was, “What the FUCK? How is my upcoming book going to stand out in a smaller market if another guy from the same street beat me to the punch? And what was in that water?” Second was, “How could he write a book? He’s only 12!” It took a minute or two to remember twenty-eight years have passed since I saw him last—these years have been mostly a blur. I blame the magic mushrooms.

Once my original pangs of jealousy settled, my next and most pressing question was, “Am I in the book?” Actually, my question was, “Oh no…what if I’m in it?”

And I was … sort of.

In the novel, Albert (Andy) and his brother Rocco (Rick) play their one-and-only pond hockey game against two boys from the neighborhood (me and my friend John). Despite the preparations of the two brothers of Italian descent, the game ends with a 30-goal differential between the two teams. This really happened. When so few things of athletic consequence happen in one's life (my life, for example), these moments stand out.

The author did, however, leave out the main reason his team was trounced. As I faux-announced the game (no small feat when you’re breathless), I referred to the famous goalie Jacques Plante as “Jack-Ass Plant”, which caused Albert/Andy to roll on the ice laughing for the remaining game time. It may not seem so funny now, but to a pre-teen, anything with the word "ass" is pure comic gold. Albert's brother played most of the game alone.

Albert also neglected to share that, during another game (this time on the street), he took exception to my calling him a “wop” (we were less evolved in those days) by winding up and slashing me seven times across the shins with a hockey stick. Funny how the little things can break down foolish prejudices.

So he didn’t mention his bout of hysteria, nor did he mention his attempts to sever my legs just below the knees. He did, however, cause me to break through the ice and drown. Was that poetic justice?

When I write my tell-all about my childhood, I may recall a certain “Andy” who, while playing an especially hard-fought game of street hockey, is tragically felled by a chunk of space debris, or perhaps by a moose falling from a plane. There’s your poetic justice, my friend.

How to Win a Chestnut Fight is great fun, and is available from and

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