Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The nightmare of '80s Christmas decorating: One light goes out, they all go out

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. Please check out the site.
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The most elaborate Christmas displays, with their lights dancing in a retina-burning yuletide tribute, are dazzling. Some houses are so intricately synchronized and professional-looking that I expect to open the front door and find slot machines, poker tables and David Copperfield.

Vegas, baby!

Even if a display’s vibe is more Sin City than Feliz Navidad, I enjoy the results of the Christmas can-you-top-this. I even watched a little of “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” the ABC reality show that debuted this month.  The show follows decorating gurus (or gluttons) as they search for the true meaning of Christmas -- and heavy-duty extension cords.

As I put up my own decorations, which offer the dazzle factor of a new pair of Christmas socks, I admire the commitment of the over-the-top decorators.I also think back to the Christmas lights of my youth and perhaps the most scarring element of ’80s holiday decorating:

One light goes out, they all go out.

Yes, any light on the string. One went out, all the lights went out, and then you went out of your mind trying to find the culprit on the string of 35, 50 or 100 lights.

“Twinkle lights” they were called, but they were more like torment lights. Putting them up with my dad, I learned some impressively inappropriate words to share with my fellow fifth graders.

*

Not surprisingly, the one-and-done era of lights didn’t produce the magic of today’s displays with thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of mini lights. There weren’t the reliable, energy-saving LED lights of today or color-changing sets with remote controls. We didn’t have computer software that synchronized lights to music.

The great customization of mini lights 30 years ago?

The one bulb that made the whole set blink. When the lights blinked off, unfortunately, they didn’t always come back on. Sometimes you could shake the lights and make them work, and other times you would shake the lights and a string next to it would turn off. It was not the brightest of times for Christmas lights.

And yet I look back on those days fondly, realizing that, yes, my memories are severely warped by nostalgia. Lights were more expensive and less reliable back then. They were also more dangerous, since some of the larger bulbs got hot enough to burn your fingers. Deck the halls with boughs of holly, f-f-f-f-find a fire extinguisher.

But what I remember, hopefully accurately, is that we tried really hard.

To compensate for less lights, including the agonizing unlit strings, we added wooden cutouts and lit-up plastic figurines and awkwardly moving, unintentionally spooky, animatronic Santas that appeared to have the drug-withdrawal shakes. Front yards were crowded with the intermingled joy of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Snoopy and Charlie Brown and Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. The characters might’ve been close enough to a nativity setup to create confusion about the first Christmas, but the scene was clearly merry.

Sometimes it looked like we had drank a little too much eggnog while decorating. Rudolph's red nose sometimes looked like it was lighting the way for the three wise men to find the baby Jesus, who was in a nativity scene that included Elmer Fudd in full hunting gear.

But again, it was a merry scene. And garish, I suppose. In poor taste, some would say.

But I kind of miss that about today’s Christmas lights. Much of it now is so well done, so polished, so sophisticated, so professional.  I miss seeing some of the amateurish-but-exuberant elements of Christmas displays. They made me feel better about my displays, especially when my enthusiasm can't mask my lack of style.

I think the creations of the Christmas-light gurus might even discourage some people from putting up their own lights. You know, how can I compete with that?

But unless you’re on “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” it’s not a competition. It’s about expressing your feelings during the holiday season. That could mean a few clear lights and a beautifully serene nativity scene. Or it could be a spinning inflatable snow globe that looks like a mirror ball for a Christmas disco mash-up of Frosty the Snowman, Santa and eight not-so-tiny reindeer.

Just like when giving gifts, it’s the thought that counts. And if your Christmas lights make the season brighter for you, they’ll do the same for someone else.

*** 
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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Black Friday scavenger hunt: Score points amid the lunacy

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. Please check out the site.
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After years as the recognized start of holiday shopping, Black Friday has been victimized by a line-jumper. Thanksgiving night is now the starting point for many bargain hunters worried that a second helping of turkey could leave them stuck with the door-buster leftovers.

“Gray Thursday,” some people are calling it. Combine it with Black Friday and we get a 30-hour shopping frenzy that can be described as thrilling (or depressing), exciting (or torturous) and a must-see (or must avoid).

Single file, everyone, single file ... oh never mind.
Sometimes I need to – ahem – help Santa with gifts for my kids, so the Black Friday crush isn’t new to me. For others braving the crowds later this week, I offer a sort of scavenger hunt to help keep you focused during the first 30 hours of “yeah, it’s the thought that counts, but I really wanted this.”

Keep track of your points as you cross names off your Christmas list:

* One point if you see a person who finishes shopping, then discovers the checkout line and decides the item isn’t worth the wait. Two points for multiple items, three points if a full cart is abandoned.

* One point for a person asleep in the car in a parking lot. Two points if the car is running.

* One point for a shopping cart rolling across the parking as if being pushed by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Two points for an overflowing cart with expensive, awkwardly balanced items on top. Three points if you hear the scraping of metal as dueling shoppers trade paint – a la NASCAR – in the Bargain Hunter 500.

* One point for a person running awkwardly through a parking lot as if he or she has been told to “Come on Down!” on The Price is Right. Two points if the awkward run includes two or more bags that nearly trip the shopper. (If the person falls, then by all means, show you holiday spirit and help him or her up. And then add three points to your score).

* One point for a person using a cell phone to talk to another person in the same store. Two points if one of the talkers is obliviously blocking the aisle while looking at a shopping list. Three points if the person is sobbing because of exhaustion or the sight of an empty shelf where Big Hugs Elmo was supposed to be.

* One point for a person walking zombie-like through a store sipping coffee or soda. Two points for a person standing in line who cracks open an energy drink before paying for it.

* One point for an infant that is part of a pre-dawn shopping trip. You might expect more points for this, but sadly, it’s pretty common. Two points if the infant is accompanied by a toddler sitting in a nest of gifts in the cart.

* One point for a person climbing a shelving unit to get to an item. Two points if the person is wearing heels. Three points if you can resist laughing.

* One point if a car follows as you walk to your parking spot. Two points if you’re willing to walk around the parking lot aimlessly until the parking-space stalker rolls down the window and asks to help you find your car.

* One point for a person wearing slippers. Two points for a person wearing pajamas. Three points for a robe or hair curlers.

* One point for hearing a person say “I can’t believe I’m shopping today.” Two points for hearing a person say “I’m never going to do this again.” Three points for hearing “I always say I’m never going to do this again.” (So if you’re near me in a line, expect to get six points).

Scoring totals
0-8: You probably didn’t get a smokin’ deal on a big-ticket item, but you got your rest
9-16: You found some deals without losing your sanity
17 or more: Was that you pounding on the store window at 4 a.m.?

*** 
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I'm an adult, you can't scare me on Halloween

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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For a month now, I’ve been driving by billboards for haunted-house theme parks. They’re not very subtle, of course, but they are very effective.

The billboard for Dollz Haunted House, featuring a doll with piranha teeth, grabs your attention. And the sign for Dark Hour, with a Freddy Krueger-like guy experiencing serious dental issues, gets in your head. I also thought WinStar Casino had a haunted house until I realized the creepy-looking guy on its billboard is singer Robin Thicke.

(The look on his face is ridiculous. But, then again, he is pretty ridiculous. He's certainly creepier than his Beetlejuice lookalike.)

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has nearly two dozen haunted attractions, and these places go way beyond someone jumping out and yelling “Boo!” The elaborate sets, high-tech special effects and animatronics are perfect for people who like a really good fright.

That used to be me.

Oh Freddy, you were once so scary.
When I was in high school, my friends and I watched all the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies. We also saw Child’s Play, which had the original evil doll, Chucky. I wasn’t old enough to rent horror movies because they were almost all R-rated, so my mom got them for me. (Relax, mom, it’s too late for child protective services to intervene).

It was so much fun to be scared back then. If I had seen the Dollz billboard screaming “Wanna Play?” in big letters, I would’ve enthusiastically accepted.

But now?

No thanks, evil-spirited doll, I’ve got other things to frighten me. Such as how ridiculous I’m going to look on Halloween night, when I’m dressed up as Gru, a character from the Despicable Me movies. My three sons are going to be Despicable Me minions, and apparently it’s unacceptable for me to dress normally while taking them trick-or-treating.

Back when my friends and I were visiting haunted houses, I never envisioned a Halloween that included leading around kids wearing blue overalls and helmets that were formerly large barrels of Cheese Balls. On our Halloween night, there will be no terror beyond a spilled treat bucket. If a house looks at all spooky, I’m not sure anything -- including the lure of a full-size Kit Kat -- will get my 5-year-old to the door.

And so it will be a very sedate, sugary night.

But I still remember that tingly mixture of terror and excitement as I walked through haunted houses years ago. I loved it. What was the next big surprise? What was around the corner?

The fear of what came next made my heart race.

Now I’ll be dawdling around the neighborhood with my kids, telling them to watch for cars and searching their candy for items that I should sample (for quality-assurance purposes). It will be a very mellow night.

But that’s okay. There are plenty of things in this world that are actually scary, such as the fear of anything happening to my wife and kids.

It doesn’t even have to be that dramatic. You could give me a first-rate scare with a haunted house decorated like my living room, with the simple addition of a huge crack on the wall that indicates a foundation problem. That would be the perfect suburban haunted house. It would horrify me far more than an actor with a chainsaw.

Sorry, evil-spirited doll, I don’t want to play. The game has changed for me, and I now prefer to know what’s around the corner. No tricks, please. Just treats.

That’s what my minions will want on Halloween night, and I’ll be trick-or-treating with them. Hopefully it will be years before they give me a really big scare:

Telling me they want to go it alone.

*** 
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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pepsi-flavored Cheetos? The chocolate éclair hot dog? Yes, yes, wow

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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Once upon a time, in a land where people walked down busy sidewalks with large unwrapped chocolate bars and lidless jars of peanut butter, collisions created deliciousness.

You got your chocolate in my peanut butter! You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!

It was a happy-go-lucky world in the commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Everyone was smiling, everyone was thrilled, and nobody seemed concerned about the wellness of a woman publicly eating peanut butter with her fingers.

A little crazy. But perhaps not any crazier than the current trend of food hybrids, which can be far more bizarre than any of the fried heart-stoppers you’ll find at the ongoing State Fair of Texas.

(This year’s winner for most creative in the Big Tex Awards was Fried Thanksgiving Dinner. If you want to try it, I think you can find it near a booth that serves something on a stick. I hope that helps.)

The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup combination seemed like a natural. But that’s too basic these days. Too sensible.

And so good for you, too! (Maple Lodge Farms)
Not like the éclair hot dog, which drops a grilled hot dog into a sliced chocolate éclair and then tops it with whipped cream and sprinkles. That concoction was unveiled last year at the Canadian National Exhibition, a celebration that’s a lot like our fair, but with fewer cowboy hats and more hockey jerseys.

The Texas State Fair fair is known for fried foods, of course. So are all fairs, where everything from banana splits to pig ears gets doused in a fryer basket. That’s part of the live-in-the-now attitude at an event that comes just once a year. And, for some, you just haven’t lived until you experience intestinal distress miles away from home.

But every day, more odd-combination recipes pop up on the Internet. Who’s up for some Velveeta fudge squares? How about some Twinkie sushi? A slice of tater-tot pizza?

When you’re done, you can wash it down with a Bacon Soda. One customer on Amazon.com said the soda “does not have any of the qualities that make a good beverage other than it is wet.”

Big surprise there. A bacon-flavored soda seems nearly as ridiculous as the pairing of Kim Kardashian and “hardest-working young lady in the world.”

It's a doughnut, it's a burger, it's delicious? (Jellorama)
*
Here’s another stomach-churner:

A grilled-cheese sandwich with the bread replaced by two chocolate-chip cookies.

That seems like a toxic challenger to the doughnut hamburger, which has become popular over the last decade. In another slap in the face of standard bread, Kentucky Fried Chicken nixed the bun for two fried fillets on its Double Down sandwich.

Maybe bread is becoming passé. In a few years, a sub shop will ask if you want your sandwich on white, wheat, cookie, doughnut or Pop Tart.

I think I know what spawns this wonderful and/or nauseating creativity. During the last two decades, we’ve been peppered with guilt-inducing dietary tips. We’ve been told to cut calories and fat, add protein and fiber, and avoid anything with the word “baconator.”

We’ve also been aging, and Krispy Kreme sloppy joes and pizza fries are like rebellious grasps at our youth. It’s a brief return to childhood, when we liked to fill up our cups at the fountain-drink station with a little bit of everything. It was probably the same day when we emptied Pixie Stix into a bowl of cereal to make breakfast even sugary-er.

Fast-food restaurants are jumping on the combination trend. Taco Bell, which already found big success with a Doritos taco shell, is now selling a waffle taco in selected restaurants. Pizza Hut locations in the Middle East offer pizza crusts stuffed with cheeseburgers or chicken fillets, and Domino’s in Japan will deliver a mayonnaise-covered pizza. I would add that it’s shaped like Godzilla, but that’s both untrue and an unfair stab at Japanese culture, so I’ll avoid that lame joke.

*

Here’s something else about Japan:

It’s the exclusive home to Pepsi-flavored Cheetos. Yes, Pepsi-flavored Cheetos. Because you asked.

Somebody did, I guess.

There are no plans for the Pepsi-flavored Cheetos to be available in America, so for now, we’re stuck with the two-part task of eating a Cheeto and then taking a swig of Pepsi. Who has time for that?

Wait a second. How about you take the Cheetos and walk this direction, and I take the Pepsi and walk this direction …

Sadly, I don’t think it will go as well as with the peanut butter cups.

Follow Humor Me on Twitter @humorcolumn.

*** 
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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Throwing away the kids' crafts can feel like trashing memories

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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(Note: Some kids returned to school earlier this month, but in Texas, most of them return next week. That includes my youngest son, Nathan, who will be making his kindergarten debut.)

The kindergartners starting school next week, with their anxious smiles and double-knotted shoelaces, will make any size backpack seem big. They’ll spill into classrooms looking like snails hunched under colorful shells.

Cooper, then in first grade, educated us about penguins
But the backpacks are a must, of course. They’ll be needed to carry home the precious mementos of a kindergartner’s life that parents will want to hold on to forever.

Or, uh, throw away after a few days.

I feel bad saying that as my 5-year-old starts kindergarten. But Nathan has already produced a plethora of preschool keepsakes. He also has two older brothers, so our family needs occasional memorabilia purges to avoid getting buried by posterboard projects, shoebox dioramas and Styrofoam-ball solar systems.

But throwing away stuff can be tough.

Parents want to hold on to every memory. The digital photos can be preserved forever, or so we hope, but the objects are the physical snapshots of a time in a child’s life. That’s why parents can get emotionally attached to the toys, books and clothes that their kids outgrow.

If we hang on to those objects, you know … maybe we can extend our kids’ youth. Or hang on to our own youth, I guess. It’s like a futile attempt to freeze time as the kids move from grade to grade, pick out new backpacks and whip past milestone flags like downhill skiers. (To battle the dog days of summer, I went with a frosty metaphor.)

After the first day next week, when the double-knotted shoelaces are dragging and the anxious smiles have become tired ones, the kindergartners will return home. Parents will unzip the backpacks and unveil the school year’s first souvenirs.

They might find an “All about Me” page or a craft that incorporates cotton balls, toothpicks, buttons and bendy straws. There might be a funny drawing, an interesting attempt at spelling, or perhaps a souvenir combination of a colorful, oversized Band-Aid and an injury report. That would certainly tell a story of the first day.

In the weeks that follow, the backpacks will tote home artistry in mediums such as crayon, chalk, paint, clay, papier-mâché and macaroni. Parents will discover “Star of the Week” projects, magazine-photo collages and construction paper overwhelmed with glue and glitter. We’ll find unidentifiable drawings with descriptions such as “I lik my dog,” and then hope that “lik” means like, and not that we need to have a family talk about germs.

*

My wife, the chief curator of our kids’ artifacts, has a collection for each of our sons. If a craft or assignment shows creativity, or is an example of development (such as writing), it’s a keeper. Anything that takes some imagination will probably make the cut. Creations that the boys seem especially proud of, and therefore don’t let get crumpled underneath a lunchbox in a backpack, will be added to the collection.

Homework drills are out. Classroom busy work is out. Pieces of paper that were decorated with foam stickers in less than five minutes are out. Just about anything with glitter, which I began hating when I was a YMCA camp counselor years ago, is out. Anything that uses food as art gets sent to the round file before our dog, if he’s not being licked by our son, attacks it.

Sometimes I think we should just keep everything. I feel a little guilty as I throw something out, thinking of what parents are always told:

Cherish these moments. Kids grow up too fast.

And there I am, throwing away a keepsake of a time I should embrace. Just tossing away a memory of a time I’ll want to remember.

*

But the best memories are those that stay with you without a gluey, glittery reminder.

The double-knotted shoes, the anxious smile, and the neatly combed hair -- at least for a minute or two – on the first day of school. The wave goodbye as he takes his seat next to the other kindergarten snails.

I’ll carry that one for a lifetime. No backpack required.

*** 
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My aging dad's unintentionally alarming voice mails
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Friday, August 16, 2013

Life before the Internet: The '80s are now the 'olden days'

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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My 5-year-old son, who always seems to be collecting data on my life, wanted to know if I played games on my phone when I was a kid.

“We didn’t have phones with games on them,” I told him. “Our phones only made calls.”

“But … you did have phones?” he said.

I was a little offended by the doubt in Nathan’s voice. Yes, we had phones. By the middle of the ’80s, we could even dial by touch-tone instead of that primitive rotary style. We also had cell phones that were large enough to be used as a weapon when attacked by a Tyrannosaurus.

What we didn’t have, and this is amazing to all my kids, is the Internet as we know it. No online videos. No online shopping. No online updates about someone’s lunch (with photos). We had no idea, or little idea, of what was to come.

Doc, we need to get back to 1985!
What we did have in 1989 was the movie Back to the Future II, which gave us a prediction of life in 2015. Shoes tied themselves, kids whipped around on hoverboards and flying cars filled the sky. It was incredible, and unless we’re at the dawning of a staggering two-year run of innovation, incredibly off the mark. (Maybe the soon-to-be-released iPhone 6 will be able to be used as a tiny hoverboard.)

We won’t have sky freeways in 2015, sadly, but they wouldn’t change our lives more than the information superhighway. It’s hard to even remember life before the Internet. Remember those large gas-station maps that were tough to refold? Leafing through those enormous Yellow Pages books? The card catalogs at the library?

I remember in second or third grade when we learned to use the card catalog at Horizon Elementary, home of the Fightin’ Panthers and the illuminated sign out front with the hole in it from a thrown rock. The card catalog and Dewey Decimal System seemed so complicated at first – subject, title, author, category. But then again, just about everything was complicated to me back then. I was stumped by the Scooby Doo mysteries.

Now, we’re all about the Internet. Life kind of revolves around it. But the change, although drastic, happened very quickly. (Here's a funny video about life before the Internet).

In 1995, only about 1 in 10 U.S. adults used the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were still 10 years or more away. There was no Wikipedia or Google, and Amazon.com was just launching online. Amazon only sold books then, and its original design looked like something my 5-year-old could put together today with some spelling help.

The simple design was needed in 1995 because most people accessed the Internet through painfully slow dial-up modems. You could click on a website, go fix a sandwich, and then return to see the page still loading. Dial-up connections were so frustrating that, probably appropriately, they started with a combination of screeching, wheezing and boinging that sounded like a major malfunction.

And yet it was all so amazing. We had e-mail accounts, visited chat rooms, and could download a song in about 20 minutes. We were thoroughly modern.

Of course, we also felt thoroughly modern in 2005, when iPhones were still two years away and high-definition televisions were too expensive for most people. People felt state of the art in 1985, when Microsoft launched Windows, and in 1975, when pocket calculators gained mass appeal.

The present is always cutting edge. That’s obvious, but it’s also funny as the past shrinks in our rear-view mirrors.

A few weeks ago, my kids were in the car when I flipped to the ’80s station on my satellite radio. The wanted to know what older music sounded like, so I put on the ’40s station, and they laughed as they listened.

The Big Band and swing music was so different than what’s heard on the radio today. I’m sure my kids thought it was played by artistically gifted cavemen. And yes, the music sounds old to me too.

But then I thought about how the ’80s are three decades behind us. Another few years and the early ’80s will be as distant as the ’40s were to me.

How is that possible?

The ’40s were the old days, and I could’ve sworn the ’80s were cutting edge.

We were modern. We didn’t have the Internet, but yes Nathan, we had phones. Decent music, too. Fortunately, my kids aren't old enough yet to connect the Beach Boys' "Kokomo" to the decade of my youth.

Back in the car, we needed a station change.


“Can you put on the normal music now?” I was asked by Cooper, Nathan’s cohort in the back seat. They had heard enough of the ’40s.

“Sure,” I said. “Do you want me to put the ’80s back on?”

“No,” Cooper said. “Normal music.”

Ouch.

*** 
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Monday, July 22, 2013

The station wagon's Very Back was very dangerous, very awesome

This column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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In a time when cars can be equipped with satellite radio, Internet access and DVD systems, I know this is going to be a tough sell. But as the ultimate family road-trip vehicle, I’m going with a 1978 banana-yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon that guzzled gas, dripped oil and smelled like french fries and Amway cleaner.

Nostalgia is distorting my logic, of course. The Fairmont, although often described with expletives by my father, was the main vehicle of my childhood.

But there’s more to it than that. And as thousands of families head out on road trips this summer, I think the new generation of parents in the front will understand why I have such fond memories of the back.

Maybe they even took trips in a car like the Fairmont, which had a feature you can no longer find on any vehicle:

My family's wagon was yellow, so not nearly this retro cool.
Blissful ignorance.

When my family would go on road trips, my dad would fold down the back seat, creating a large, carpeted space that stretched to the back window. His kids called it the “Very Back,” a special area where we could travel as cargo unencumbered by safety considerations.

My brother, sister and I took blankets and pillows back there. We brought books, magazines, and games to pass the time in our mobile play room. We lied on our backs and looked out the windows at street signs, stoplights and splattering raindrops. It was awesome.

“No seat belts, nothing,” my dad said with a laugh when I asked about it recently. “You were just rolling around back there.”

Especially on sharp turns. The kid cargo sometimes added to the drama by yelling “whoa!” while exaggerating the roll to one side of the Very Back.

Thirty years later, I’m stunned that my parents let us ride back there.

“But you all wanted to be in the very back,” my mom said.

Yeah, but we also wanted to eat ice cream every day, and my parents wouldn’t let that happen. They also told us we couldn’t have cereals like Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles because the sugar was a risk to our health, unlike free-floating in the back of a wagon squeaking and rattling at 60 miles per hour.

It was a very different time, obviously. Our other family car didn’t even have seat belts in the back, and it was a convertible. There was no gate around our backyard pool, the monkey bars at my elementary school were built over cement, and there was nothing strange about riding to baseball practice in the back of a pickup truck. I’m sure I also ran with scissors, probably as I was hurrying to open a model-car kit with that great-smelling glue.

Seat belts are now mandatory, and even if they weren’t, I couldn’t imagine driving my kids around without them. Our minivan isn’t much to look at, but it’s got working seat belts and air bags ready to deploy from all directions. If it didn’t, I might consider bubble-wrapping my kids before long trips.

Like many parents of today, I tend to be overprotective. I know I’ve got to give my sons some freedom and some room to explore, but even if the law allowed it, I couldn’t give them that freedom while cruising along the freeway.

I do wish, however, that I could give them the feeling I had in the Very Back. The Fairmont was already a hunk of junk by the time I was 9 years old, but there was something magical about stretching out under a blanket, letting the bumps in the road put you in a relaxed trance, and then falling asleep under a smear of night sky.

It was too perfect to be dangerous.

*** 
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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fathers believe in your dreams -- even the crazy dreams

This column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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My son Cooper announced recently, in a sort of informal kitchen-table press conference, that he is going to be a professional baseball player. I figured a dose of reality was in order, but with Father’s Day approaching, I didn’t want my latest parenting achievement to be the destruction of a 7-year-old’s dream.

So I tried to be gentle.

Keep practicing your baseball, I told him. But remember that even some really, really good players don’t get to be pros.

“Well, if I’m not a pro baseball player,” Cooper said, “I could be in Star Wars movies.”

Smart boy. He’s got a backup plan.

My other sons are also making contingency plans. Ryan, 10, wants to be a famous artist but will settle for testing video games. Nathan, 5, has his heart set on being a professional backyard trampolinist, but given the complication that there really is no such thing, he’s open to becoming a race-car driver. Or maybe a guy who does back flips on dance shows.

Hearing those rock-solid plans, I’m preparing for a future that includes picking up the pieces of shattered dreams. And by that I mean my shattered dreams, because I’d really like to have a pro baseball player and famous artist in the family. It would mean a lot less worrying about my retirement accounts, as well as the lack of medical benefits for competitive trampolining.

Once upon a time I was just as innocently, blissfully unaware of what was to come. I thought I would be a pro basketball player and never lose my hair. But as a parent, I need to be realistic. I can’t leap into delusion when my child brings home an art project or makes a diving catch.

The logical part of my brain tells me that, but parents have a portion of brain that is routinely short-circuited by love. That’s how a third grader’s report card can indicate genius and a swimming ribbon can be compared to Olympic gold. Maybe you’ve seen some of those parents’ posts on Facebook, scattered among the befuddling photos of what people are having for lunch. (Hey, thanks for the update!)

Parents want the best for their kids, and it’s natural that we see the best in our children. But our glasses can be blindingly rose-colored, and I think of that when I think of Father’s Day – and my father.

My dad was, and is, a great role model in many ways. But he was a borderline Hall of Famer as an over-the-top sports dad.

He yelled encouragement to me, and that was fine. But he also yelled at the officials and the coaches. During one basketball game, I turned around and found him being escorted out of the gym. My dad got into such a heated argument with one of my coaches that he quit.

All this came from a pretty laid-back guy. My dad listened to Gordon Lightfoot and George Burns albums and fell asleep in recliners.

So what made him snap?

It was the part of the parent’s brain that views the offspring in a skewed, ultra-flattering way – like a reflection in a “skinny mirror” at a department store. My dad thought I could be a pro athlete, which was about as likely as Kermit the Frog being elected President, and without an unbiased perspective, my dad supported and defended me in ridiculous ways.

All parents are susceptible to that.

As I watch Cooper snag a hard-hit ground ball, and then turn and throw it to first base, I know I need to take a deep breath. He might never even play high school baseball. He might not want to. Ryan might not want to be an artist, either, and Nathan might find something more exciting than a career in backyard trampolining.

Whatever my sons want to do, I’ll support them. And hopefully I won’t do it in ridiculous ways. I just need to remember to add a few pounds when watching them grow up in the skinny mirrors.

*** 
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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Texas High School Football: Friday Night Flashback

Over the last decade, I've had the chance to cover Texas high school football for The Dallas Morning News. I've met a lot of great people, seen a lot of fantastic games and experienced high school football in a state that does it bigger than anywhere else.


As a side project to what I do at The Dallas Morning News, I decided to put together a book that revisits some of the classic matchups of Texas high school football and shares the memories of players and coaches who were part of the games. Some of the players and coaches reveal stories behind the unforgettable plays. Others give a glimpse at what the amazing moments mean to them years later.

Friday Night Flashback is now available on Amazon.com. It can also be viewed on a Kindle device or on free apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets.

Here's the link to the book:

Friday Night Flashback

Here are the links to free apps for iPhone, iPad and Android

 iPhone, iPad app
Android app

Games included:

Cedar Hill vs. Garland: 2006 5A Division II semifinal
"William Cole and just one more play"

Converse Judson vs. Midland: 2002 5A Division I championship
"A dream, a pass and one of the greatest finishes ever"

Euless Trinity vs. Plano: 2007 5A Division I state semifinal
"Superman Rex Burkhead vs. The Dynasty"

Houston Madison vs. GP North Shore: 2001 5A Division II regional semifinal
"Vince Young and the Astrodome shootout"

Denton Ryan vs. Ennis: 2002 4A Division II semifinal
"Philip Jones and 15 points in 45 seconds"

Lufkin vs. Austin Westlake: 2001 5A Division II championship
"Reggie McNeal, a gutsy fake and a spectacular welcome home"

Southlake Carroll vs. Euless Trinity: 2006 5A Division I area round
"Fifty thousand fans, a traffic jam and the fake punt"

Highland Park vs. Stephenville: 2005 4A Division I semifinal
"Matthew Stafford, Jevan Snead and a receiver’s one chance"

Odessa Permian vs. Arlington: 1987 5A quarterfinals
"Mojo’s comeback and the old-school tiebreaker"

Allen vs. Round Rock Stony Point: 2008 5A Division I semifinal
"The 90-yard return, the backup QB and a pass in slow motion"

Katy vs. Southlake Carroll: 2003 5A Division II championship
"Ball control, a young cornerback and the team that couldn't be stopped"

Tyler John Tyler vs. Plano East: 1994 5A Division II third round
"The most amazing high school football game ever?"

Thursday, May 23, 2013

From the Class of 1989 to the Class of 2013, #congratulations and LOL

This column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. You can find more interesting stuff on the Lifestyle/Entertainment section's Whatever blog.
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Congratulations, High School Class of 2013. As I look out at your faces beaming in achievement, or perhaps that’s from the glow of your smartphones, it’s time to discuss the future.

Which I’ll do by starting with the past.

I, too, once sat proudly with my graduating class while draped in a shower-curtain gown and wearing a cap that looked like something from the Disneyland gift shop. The members of the Class of 1989 were just like you. Heads full of hair, minds filled with big dreams, and absolutely no clue whether the cap tassel should hang on the right or the left.

Unlike you, however, we couldn’t look up the answer on our phone.
Not long ago, phones were just phones. (Photo: Irfan Nasir)

Mobile phones were around in 1989, but they weren’t very smart. They were bulky, cost thousands of dollars and featured designs with less style than a neck brace. Air time was also a major hit to your Velcro, potentially neon-colored, wallet. You had to burn a dollar a minute to call someone to brag that you just saw Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout or that you were headed to a Milli Vanilli concert.

And text messages? LOL.

Mobile phones in the late
Eighties only made phone calls. They had the versatility of Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor and were only slightly more cutting edge than calculator watches and The Clapper. (Everyone over age 30, join in: Clap on! Clap off! The Clapper!)

But what does this have to do with us? Weren’t you going to talk about the future?

Sorry, I’m getting there. It just seemed like the progression of mobile phones, now a staple of our lives the way a wristwatch once was, would be a perfect way to show how much, and how quickly, the world has changed.

And now, proud members of the Class of 2013, think of what lies ahead. Push forward two decades and the LCD displays and ultrafast processors of today’s phones might seem as quaint as dropping a coin in a payphone.

What? A payphone?

Immune system: Prepare for attack!
Oh yeah, some of you might not be familiar with payphones. They used to be found in most public places, and for a mere 25 or 50 cents, you could talk for a few minutes while challenging your immune system with an infantry of germs. Sometimes there was a Yellow Pages dangling below the phone, generally with the page you needed ripped out.

That doesn’t seem long ago, but things change quickly. The present becomes the past, the future becomes the present and years seem to zip by in the time it takes to import contacts into a new phone. You might feel the same someday as you unpack a phone that charges itself wirelessly, projects holograms and provides counseling when your Facebook status update doesn’t get enough likes.

Crazy, right? But who knows what the future holds?

Tonight, as you sit in your fashionable graduation garb, it might be hard to think about your future. Understandably, this is a time when you want to enjoy the moment, be proud of your achievement and take camera-phone shots of your friends turning their caps into Frisbees.

But as you receive your diploma and move your tassel to the left (yes, to the left), remember that graduation isn’t a finish line. It’s like another starting line, which makes it appropriate that those graduation caps look like unfinished art projects.

You’re still a work in progress, just as we all are, really. And no matter how much the world changes, and how much smarter your phone gets, you’re in control of your future.

Welcome to adulthood. The next move is your call.

*** 
You can use the buttons below to share the column on Facebook or Twitter. Click "Follow @humorcolumn" to get a Twitter update for new columns. To get columns by e-mail, type your address in the box under "Receive columns by e-mail" near the top right of this page. Thanks!



Most-read columns:
Yes, my 4-year-old fainted when he thought his mom had been turned into a robot
In praise of dogs, in memory of Maggie 
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A questionnaire for your crazy roommate