Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A grown-up Christmas magic

I remember little from age 5, but I can still see the basketball hoop waiting for me under the Christmas tree. It was a real basketball hoop, with a regulation rim, a shiny white net and a wooden backboard that my grandpa had made.

Clearly, Santa had looked past the “X” marks in my column on our family’s Santa Claus Behavior Chart. Sure, I had some gold stars on that poster board, but there were a lot of black marks under “getting along with brother and sister.” I think that was the year I tried to flush my sister’s Winnie the Pooh shirt down the toilet.

Accidentally, of course. Right, Santa?

Anyway, the image of that basketball hoop stays with me. Strangely, it’s one of the few Christmas gifts I still remember from my Santa years. What I do remember, vividly, is how I felt on Christmas Eve.

Lying in bed, my heart raced as I struggled to keep my legs still under the covers. My brother and I shared a room, and in a powerful display of Christmas spirit, we didn’t fight. Well, not much.

The feeling was magical that night. It was almost overwhelming, which is probably why my brother and I each got sick occasionally on Christmas. Our huge imaginations flooded our small bodies with an overdose of exhilaration.

Now, decades later, I have three sons, including one who is about to turn 5. His visions of sugar plums don’t include a regulation basketball hoop, but he’s in his Christmas-magic prime. As for me, I’m in the attic, attaching a kickstand to one of three bikes that will be hauled down the stairs as my wife stands guard by the boys’ bedrooms.

Attention, all kids out there! After reading the previous paragraph, you are now privy to some secret information about Santa. Because the world’s increasing population makes each Christmas trip more difficult, Santa sometimes sends a few large gifts ahead of time and asks parents to put them around the tree. So if you heard something on Christmas Eve that didn’t really sound like reindeer hooves, but did kind of sound like a socket wrench turning, then there’s no reason to ask your parents about it.

Up in the cold attic, hearing the furnace hum and hoping that any critter residents will keep their distance, the Christmas magic I felt as a child is far away. It’s a fuzzy fairytale that has given way to chapters of adult reality, as exemplified by my top Christmas wishes for 2012:

Peace on Earth. A happier 2013 for everyone. And a belt-drive garage door opener that includes one of Santa’s handiest elves for expert installation.

I’m sure my 5-year-old self, who dreamed of Santa’s arrival and expected to someday play professional basketball, would be appalled. I don’t have video games on my list, or a bike, or baseball cards, or an Evel Knievel Stunt Set.

Anyone remember the Evel Knievel Stunt Set?

It had a motorcycle, a ramp and an energizer motor for launching a 7-inch pose-able Knievel to amazing heights. One of Knievel’s greatest stunts was when he bravely soared off the ramp and cleared my sister’s Barbie Dream House.

Oh yeah, and there was that Christmas when I received Stretch Armstrong, a superhero made out of rubber and filled with corn syrup. He was cool. You could stretch his arms and legs way out, twist him into crazy positions and tie him in knots. I don’t know the details of his demise, but I remember one day there was a jelly coating on everything in the toy box.

The memories of Christmas gifts are coming back to me now. As my kids stomp down the stairs, talking, laughing, arguing, sounding just like my brother, sister and I, some of that Christmas magic will return.

It will never again be like waking up to a jaw-dropping, partially homemade, regulation-size basketball hoop (with ball included!). But the Christmas magic really hasn’t faded. It has only changed.

Knowing that my kids, as well as kids around the world, are getting their chance to experience the euphoria is magical to me. I only wish that every child — rich, poor or somewhere in between, of every religion and of every place in this world — could experience something like the wondrous delight of Christmas morning.

That would be truly magical.

Merry Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Humor Me: The worst holiday brag letters ever

This column, like many others, first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. I usually let some time pass before posting them here. 


The holidays are here, and you can see the magic in the Christmas lights, the family reunions and the excitement on a child’s face.  You can also feel the magic with a simple act of goodwill, such as helping a stranger, making a charitable contribution or by turning off Madonna’s spirit-crushing rendition of “Santa Baby.”

But some of the best examples of holiday magic, I mean really wondrous stuff, arrives in our mailboxes. It’s the magic that turns a 30-year-old living with his parents into a misunderstood genius who is preparing to launch his own company and is – putting your thumb next to your index finger – this close to finding a cure for cancer.

That’s right, I’m talking about the holiday brag letter! If you guessed it by the time you read “misunderstood genius” above, then, like me, you probably get a few holiday brag letters. Or perhaps it’s that you’re almost as smart as my 10-year-old, who I’ll have you know is a genius – everyone says so! -- and is already being recruited by Harvard and enjoys studying quantum physics when he’s not working on his novel!

Sorry, just throwing out a few ideas for my own letter. It probably needs a few more exclamation points, because holiday brag letters are rife with those. And capital letters, too. Brag-letter writers LOVE those. REALLY!

Most of the letters my wife and I receive, including those from people who I barely remember or are apparently friends of my parents, are short and pleasant. They give a quick update on the family and then end with “Merry Christmas! or “Happy Holidays!”

They’re short, sweet and genuine. I enjoy reading those.

But we also get an assortment of letters loaded with gratuitous grandstanding. It’s amazing the year that these people have had. Every jealousy-inducing detail has a golden sheen spray painted over the graffiti of reality.

And I’ve got to admit it. I enjoy reading those letters most of all. I guess it’s because they can be so desperate to impress.

Sometimes there are details about exotic trips. Other times you get to find out that someone got a big raise. You might also get info about the family buying a boat, or a car, or maybe a billiards table, and the best ones can even throw in a little backstory braggadocio. You know, they weren’t sure if they should spend an extra thousand for the upgraded tournament-edition billiards table, but then decided, what the heck, because so-and-so got a big promotion at work and that means more money. A LOT!

Some letters brag less but share way too much. There might be a rant about an ungrateful daughter-in-law, a description of how a couple has been trying to get pregnant for nearly a year, or details about the size of a kidney stone, possibly with a photo. A few years ago, I received a letter that talked about how a woman’s commitment to fitness had her looking great. Her husband, who wrote the letter, mentioned how it was now hard to keep his hands off his “va-va-voom” wife. And Merry Christmas, everyone!

Of course, the true cornerstones of the holiday brag letter are the over-the-top descriptions of the kids:

Our daughter is so beautiful now, and people have started asking if she’s modeling! Our son is only 7, but he’s already mastered Tae Kwon Do and is such a good swimmer that we call him our LITTLE MICHAEL PHELPS!

I won’t even try to compete with that. My three sons this year have, uh … well, they’ve shown great ability at playing Angry Birds and drawing horns, glasses and fangs on my pictures in the newspaper.

I’m very proud of them, but they seem to be normal kids.

That means there’s no place for them in the holiday brag letter.


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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to avoid Thanksgiving disaster (not including awkward hugs with distant relatives)

This column, like many others, first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. I usually let some time pass before posting them here.


Every year, millions of Americans sit around the table at Thanksgiving and enjoy a delicious meal with family and friends. And every year, someone is cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.

So much pressure. So much to do. So much to mess up, even if you’re not trying to create the Martha Stewart-suggested spread that includes chilled oysters with apple-ginger mignonette and dumpling squash served with cream, sage and a condescending attitude.

But relax, first-time Thanksgiving cooks. While it’s true that my only experience preparing turkey dinner involves poking the plastic-wrap covering with a fork and heating it in a microwave, I know the biggest key to getting the Thanksgiving turkey right:

One hundred and sixty-five.

One hundred and sixty-five degrees, that is. The turkey’s internal temperature needs to reach that mark for it to be safe to eat. Come up a little short of that number and the strange feeling in your gut might not be from hearing Grandpa’s dreaded stories of bachelorhood in the ’60s.

It could be from Salmonella enteritidis, Staphylococcus aureus or other bacterias that sound like Greek basketball players or the ingredients in Twinkies. Unfortunately, food-borne illnesses are a part of Thanksgiving, just like showings of It’s A Wonderful Life, awkward hugs with distant relatives and unwanted advice from the in-laws.

One of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s goals is to educate people about food-preparation safety, so on its Food Safety and Inspection Service website, it offers a fact sheet for poultry preparation. There are lots of tips for chicken, duck and of course turkey, a widely domesticated bird that is found throughout North America, often between two slices of bread.

(The website also has tips for cooking ostrich, if you want to get wild on Thanksgiving. Sadly, I couldn’t find any Martha Stewart ostrich recipes to pass along.)

It can take a while to get a turkey fully cooked. For example, even a small, thawed eight-pound turkey that’s stuffed will need to cook at 365 degrees for three hours. For a 20-pounder, the USDA recommends cooking for five hours, or at least until the Cowboys have committed three turnovers in their annual Thanksgiving game.

The best way to be safe?

Cook the turkey until it looks like it has an unlimited-use pass at Planet Tan. Sure, the turkey will be a little dry, but no amount of Salmonella can survive in a bird that looks like it’s a cast member of Jersey Shore.

Actually, the safest way to cook a turkey is with a meat thermometer. A basic one costs only a few bucks. But if you’re confident that this first turkey will be the start of an explosion of cooking confidence, you can splurge for a fancier digital model. There are even several types of talking thermometers, all of which are ostrich compatible.

Above all, don’t worry about making a mistake. With so much to prepare and so much going on, something is bound to happen. Your in-laws might point out your cooking shortcomings in between lectures on how to be a better parent, but your Thanksgiving debacle won’t be the worst thing ever. Several people have burned down their houses by trying to fry turkeys in the their kitchens, and you’re not going to top that.

Hopefully. We do, after all, live in a state that has set the bar high for kitchen flamb├ęs. According to State Farm Insurance, Texas leads the nation in turkey-fryer fires.

No matter what you do, remember that everyone appreciates the person who takes on the responsibility of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. That’s right, all of us inept cooks – those of us whose typical turkey dinners include opening a cardboard box and punching numbers on a microwave – count you among our blessings.

We’re giving thanks for you, even if the turkey is a little dry, the gravy is lumpy and the Martha Stewart-inspired quince-ginger compote didn’t quite work out. And yes, even if we’re clutching our stomachs because a food-borne illness is knotting our intestines.

You make Thanksgiving memorable.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Humor Me: Another lavishly weird Neiman Marcus Christmas Book

This column, like many others, first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. I let some time pass before posting them here.


Even when the economy is sputtering, we can count on the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book to maintain its over-the-top, absurdly extravagant, “one percent and loving it!” mojo. Or at least I thought so.

Then I heard that this year’s book, which was unveiled last week, features a new house for only $100,000. That sounds utterly practical to me.

Oh wait, it’s actually a hen house. Never mind, Rich Uncle Pennybags, the Christmas Book is still worth your time.

The Versailles-inspired Le Petit Trianon house, described as “the poshest hen house ever imagined,” is one of hundreds of items in this year’s Christmas Book. Quite a few of those items will produce more snickers than well-heeled buyers.

After all, the hen house has a chandelier.

That does add a touch of class for your upscale hens, who might appreciate your Fendi 2Jours Stingray Tote Bag ($7,050). But don’t go into the hen house with your Jimmy Choo Hobo ($5,595), the bag that has tie-dyed fox fur and looks like a purse with a rainbow mullet. The fox is a hen predator, and you don’t want your socialite egg-producers to turn on you.

Other big-ticket items include a walk-on role in the Broadway production of “Annie,” which is $30,000. Dinner for 10 created by four famous chefs will set you back $250,000, plus whatever you stuff into the tip jar. There’s also a video portrait by artist Robert Wilson, called “Snowy Owl,” which shows a stoic owl sitting on a branch.

But the owl does more than only look straight ahead. It stares down, and then suddenly, it moves its head left and right. If that sounds pretty coo, but also a little creepy, you’re close to correct. It’s actually pretty cool and really creepy. It’s also $70,000, and that doesn’t include the cost of installation and the potential emotional scars to hens that think they are being stalked by an owl.

The Christmas Book does have some more affordable items. More than half the gifts are less than $500, including a monogrammed coffee mug. That’s only 10 bucks, although the flashiest feature is that it’s dishwasher safe. Still, it could be a nice complement to a Neiman Marcus exclusive robe ($197) or rabbit-fur trimmed slippers ($188). The Christmas Book also offers a toiletry case – and let’s be honest guys, who among us hasn’t longed for a toiletry case made of woven calfskin? – for $325.

But the fantasy gifts are the Christmas Book’s calling card. The most expensive this year is the set of his and hers Van Cleef & Arpels “Poetic Wish” watches. If you’ve got a million bucks, you’re almost there. These are $1.09 million, but expertly crafted over three years by five engineers and watchmakers, they’re the watches of a lifetime. And if you can stretch your lifetime another 50 years, you’ll only be paying about $60 a day for the pair.

There’s also the 2013 McLaren 12C Spider ($354,000), a convertible that has 616 horsepower, can hit 200 miles per hour and is roomy enough for you and your midlife crisis. Sure, it’s a little ostentatious, but at least you can drive it. That makes it much more practical than some of the items from recent years.

Back in 2003, the Christmas Book offered a $555,000 motorcycle was that so powerful it was never intended to be driven. At least you could save money on a helmet.

The 2005 book had a $3.5 million skycar that was a prototype and had never completed an untethered flight. Hopefully the operator’s manual wasn’t written by the people who do the IKEA furniture instructions.

Now those gifts are crazy. This year’s water-propelled jet pack, on the other hand, is just awesome. It can send you up three stories into the air, and you can zip around at 30 miles per hour as you become the star of a viral video (or perhaps just severely disoriented).

The jet pack has a price tag of $99,500, and that’s a little steep. But wait until Thanksgiving and you can get the jet pack, as well as anything else from the Christmas Book, wrapped and shipped for free.

As for returns, those are free, too. But with gifts as magnificent as a jet pack or a hen house with a chandelier, I doubt anyone ever has second thoughts.

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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Humor Me: How bumper stickers could decide the Presidential election

At this point, I’m sure everyone has seen a poll that shows the presidential election will be tighter than spandex. Even a Facebook poll I saw predicts the race as a dead heat, while also reporting that nearly 100 percent of those surveyed are tired of people posting photos of what they’re having for lunch.

Obama or Romney, Romney or Obama – it’s down to the wire. And it’s so close that the election could be decided by a single hot-button issue such as same-sex marriage, birth control or immigration regulation. It all depends on the swing voters, the political experts agree.

But it might also depend on bumper stickers, according to one person who has zero expertise but was recently cut off by a car displaying an “I love my French Bulldog” sticker.

It might seem weird, but at that moment, I didn’t care much for French Bulldogs. I might’ve even had some unpleasant thoughts about France. Now imagine if it was an Obama or Romney bumper sticker.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Makes you think I’m crazy, perhaps. But with this race being so tight, the candidate with the least amount of bumper stickers might have the inside track to the White House.

After all, bumper stickers are not an effective way to spread a message. Not a positive one, anyway, because America’s roadways are not a place of positivity.

When was the last time you felt warm feelings for a driver ahead of you? When was the last time you weren’t upset when someone cut you off? I can’t imagine a driver looking at another and thinking, “Wow, that person in the other lane is a fantastic driver. So safe! So courteous! Truly a joy to share the road with!”

Maybe that does happen occasionally, but probably not without medication. That’s why we hear about road rage and not road rapture. That’s why even the most conscientious drivers are vilified if they are one car ahead of you.

At that frequently repeated moment in our lives, when we are one car behind in the unofficial race to who-knows-where, we are not a receptive audience for the tailgate talk of Mr. or Ms. One Car Ahead.

Your daughter is an honor student at Jones Elementary? Well, I hope she learns to drive better than you!

If you can read this, thank a teacher? Well, I can read your bumper sticker, and it’s because you won’t hit the gas!

Visualize world peace? Here’s a great visual: you getting out of my way!

It’s hard to escape these negative thoughts. We may be civilized; we may be reasonable; we may provide homes for stray animals (even French Bulldogs) and work the line at a soup kitchen. But behind the wheel, we’re stovetop tea kettles ready to scream.

And vote, too.

So listen up, proud endorsers of a particular candidate. No undecided voter will ever be swayed by your bumper sticker if you’re Mr. or Ms. One Car Ahead. They’re more likely to be annoyed by it. They might even sneer at your bumper sticker that says your son or daughter is on the honor roll at some school.

(As a side note, has anyone seen the bumper stickers that say my son or daughter is a “Self Manager” at some school? I guess that’s an honor, but I’ve seen a lot of kids self-manage themselves into some really dumb situations. I think I prefer to have my kids managed by someone with a fully-mature prefrontal cortex.)

Anyway, Mr. or Ms. One Car Ahead is no good for a campaign. Mr. or Ms. One Car Behind, on the other hand, could be a campaign’s secret weapon. So here’s a winning strategy for each campaign as Election Day approaches:

Take your best bumper stickers -- the ones with the catchiest slogans, the most stars and stripes and the boldest red, white and blue -- and stick those on the front bumper of an American-made car. Then hit the streets during peak traffic times and instruct the driver to let everyone merge in front of him or her.

That should get some undecided voters into gear.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Humor Me: When are you too old to trick or treat?

As another Halloween approaches, it's time to address a common question surrounding trick-or-treating:

"Does anyone really eat candy corn, or is it like a Christmas fruitcake that gets re-gifted each year?"

Actually, I don't have an answer for that. So let's move on to another common question, which is being asked this week by a large crop of potential trick-or-treaters who no longer fit into a Dora the Explorer costume.

"Am I too old to trick-or-treat?"

Relax, spooky mooches. You can never be too old.

You just need to be a kid at heart, have the right Halloween spirit and find a costume that completely covers you as you crouch down and say "trick or treat!" in a high voice. And, oh yeah, remember to take off your wedding ring. That's a dead giveaway.

Honestly, I don't know when a person is too old to trick-or-treat. And I would never turn away anyone willing to dress up and ring doorbells on the annual night of permissible panhandling. Well, almost anyone. I don't want to be issuing a challenge.

But I'm open to all trick-or-treaters. Still, when I open the door to someone nearly as tall as I am, it does feel a little awkward. And it seems like the teenage trick-or-treater feels the same way. He stands there, holding a pillowcase open, trying not to look me in the eye.

"Trick or treat," he says, with little enthusiasm. His voice cracks, a sign of the puberty that's robbing him of his trick-or-treating innocence. For Brady Bunch in-the-knows, imagine Peter saying "trick or treat" in the episode where his voice changes and he nearly ruins the Brady kids' surefire hit record. For those who have no idea what that previous sentence meant, I promise the next one will be better.

So the teenage trick-or-treater is at my door. His costume?

A dark coat. That's pretty much it. And some stage blood thrown on his face, which draws more attention to the wispy mustache that teenage boys refuse to shave because it makes them feel older. Some teenage trick-or-treaters are more elaborate with their costumes, but I always get the same feeling. The feeling that "trick or treat" is more of a threat than a plea:

Look, sir, I know I'm like 15 years old and I'm not as cute as the Bob the Builder or the adorable witch walking behind me. But what I lack in cuteness I make up for in ability to accidentally trip over one of your sprinkler heads and break it. Or snap some branches off your tree. Accidentally.

So I hand over a candy bar. I give him a few, actually, because they are "fun size" -- the name for tiny, one-bite candy bars. (An inappropriate name unless the regular bars are called mind-blowing euphoria size.)

The teenage trick-or-treater smiles weakly and says "thanks." Then he's off to the next house, brushing past a Winnie the Pooh and a 3-foot dinosaur that keeps tripping on its tail.

I can't remember if I was a teenage trick-or-treater. But I probably was, especially considering how much I liked candy as a kid. I ate chocolate until my stomach hurt and Pixy Stix until the dust came out of my nose. I also once got sick after eating Dots, and I still feel nauseous whenever I see a box of them.

And I remember it was hard to give up trick-or-treating. There was no more free candy, for one thing, but it was also like giving up a part of my childhood. Admitting that I was no longer fun size.

Yes, it's tough being a teenager. You're in the most awkward stage of your life, caught between childhood and adulthood, and you're not really accepted in either category. And here comes Halloween, your chance to redirect some candy money toward a larger-size tube of extra-strength Clearasil.

It's a tough decision.

But teenagers, I'll have an open heart -- and door -- for you on Halloween night. Come on by, ring the doorbell, and I promise that I won't ask for an explanation of your costume.

Just mumble "trick or treat," hold out your pillowcase and you'll get the goods.

I have plenty of candy corn to go around.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Humor Me: At restaurants, self-serve soft-serve is quite a show

I’ve always known that my technique at the soft-serve ice cream dispenser could use improvement. Sometimes the ice cream swirls into the cone just right, but other times I end up with a lopsided blob that looks more amateurish than my childhood creations with the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine.

Still, I never thought my sketchy soft-serve skills would get me fired. And, even worse, by my own kids.

I was once a giant in their eyes, depicted in stick-figure drawings featuring stilt-like legs, arms protruding from my neck and a big head with one strand of hair on top. Sometimes they added a line like “I luv you bab,” showing their love and inability to differentiate the letters b and d.

I might still be a giant to my three sons in some ways, but they’re now old enough to identify sizable problems with my work at the soft-serve machine. They rarely agree on anything, but when it’s time to get the free dessert at restaurants such as Jason’s Deli or Souper Salad or some buffet, they’re unanimous:

They want Mom to do it.

I can understand why. My wife twirls the cone and the ice cream swirls in gracefully, creating a stable foundation so she can pile on more. The boys end up with what I would describe as “a tower of dessert” and they would describe as “not nearly as much as the other people.”

We’re both right.

If you’ve never been to a restaurant with free do-it-yourself soft-serve, you’re missing a pretty good show. Most people just put a small amount into a bowl or cone, but when others try to max it out, it’s really entertaining.

SofteiszapfenThey swirl the ice cream round and round until it rises six inches or more above the cone, pushing the limits of how much ice cream can balance on a wafer foundation. Most of the time, they pull off an impressive display of dessert engineering. Other times, the ice cream starts falling, and although they try to quickly adjust, they end up with ice cream on their hands or the floor.

They give this disgusted look like, “What is wrong with this machine?”

The restaurant’s management probably hoped that small cones would keep people in check, but consumers are an ingenious bunch. Some people skip the small cones and bowls and go right for the drink cups, which they use for milkshakes or root-beer floats. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are bringing in their own chocolate syrup and candy sprinkles.

Overindulgence, perhaps?

Well, I’m in no position to judge. I’m a refill-for-the-road kind of guy at the soda station, and when eating pizza, I have no control. I’m surprised my kids’ stick-figure drawings have never featured me holding a slice of pizza in each hand. It’s probably because hands are more difficult to draw than arms protruding from a neck.

What surprises me at the ice cream machine is that the engineers of the soft-serve skyscrapers don’t feel self-conscious. They’ve got to know people are watching as they walk back to their seats. When someone is carrying a load of ice cream that makes him look like Luke Skywalker wielding a light saber, it’s hard not to notice.

My kids certainly notice. They watch in admiration, mesmerized by the tower of ice cream, until I tell them to stop.

It’s not polite to stare, I tell them. Even if you’re staring at your new hero.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Humor Me: My aging dad's unintentionally alarming voice mails

I don’t like to think about how my dad is getting old. He’s 76 now, or in his words, “getting up there,” and it reminds me that I’m also getting older. I prefer to picture us years ago, when I still had my hair and I still had hope that my dad would figure out e-mail.

I’m still waiting for my first e-mail from him. My dad sends me lots of snail mail, often with articles clipped from the newspaper, but never an e-mail. I once e-mailed him photos of the grandkids, to the one e-mail address my parents share, and my dad’s head nearly exploded.

“The photos are attached,” I told him.


Fortunately, my mom is better at that high-tech stuff, although she probably won’t open any e-mail with an attachment. Viruses, you know. But she has now branched out into text messaging, which I discovered a couple months ago when she sent a message that said “test message, please let me know if you get this.”

I responded that, yes, I did receive it. I haven’t heard from her since.

At least not by text message. We’ve received lots of phone calls, and those are always welcomed. But we’ve also received a lot of voice mails, and they can be weirdly alarming.

I’m going to specifically call out my dad on this one. He’s always been my role model, and he’s a full-blown hero to my three young sons, but his voice mails have grown from comically confusing to downright stress-inducing.

Here’s a voice mail I received recently:

“Matt and Janell. Hello, it’s your Dad.”

Long pause.


You might see what’s happening here. My wife has her own dad, and she has never referred to my dad as “Dad.” I think my dad was realizing this as he left the message and he got a little flustered, which is understandable. Except that he does this pretty much every time he leaves a message.

Still, not a big deal. That’s my dad. When he’s forced to be a conversationalist, it sometimes sounds like he’s reading cue cards. I once found a cassette tape of him and an insurance colleague practicing a sales pitch that was possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.

Most of his voice mails are pretty funny, too. But sometimes, well, let’s get back to that voice mail. After my dad established who he was, he moved on to the message.

“Matt, I just wanted to tell you that …”

Then another long pause. I don’t know if my dad forgot what he was going to say or if my mom was distracting him with some kind of directions, but the silence really stretched out. It was like he was struggling to break some bad news, and I felt true anxiety for a moment.

My parents are in pretty good health, or I think so, anyway. But as they get older, I think more about the day when there will be bad news. Maybe it’s because my wife’s mom passed away at a young age.

My dad’s hesitant voice, followed by the long pause, worried me. Seriously, the pause was like three or four seconds. I should’ve timed it. I should’ve saved the voice mail, in fact, because my dad would laugh if he heard it.

“Matt, I just wanted to tell you that …”

One Mississippi (is something wrong with Mom?), two Mississippi (bad news from the doctor?), three Mississippi (oh no, does the computer have a virus?), four Mississippi (please Dad, would you begin speaking again?).

“… I saw that game the other night. What did you think? Give me a call when you get a chance.”

That’s it? That long, dramatic pause was to rev up for a question about a baseball game?

Yes, that was it. I did call my dad back, and we had a nice conversation about the weather, the grandkids and politics (his favorite). We also got around to the baseball game, although I never did get around to telling him that his voice mail almost gave me a heart attack.

Maybe I’ll tell him in an e-mail.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Humor Me: Getting to know your crazy roommate

I’m sure that more than one person reading is having a roommate crisis. After all, just about everyone has to share a living space at some point, and it can be pretty difficult.

Just ask the poor saps who had to live with me before I got married. They had a roommate who thought he knew everything about sports, was way too into ’80s music and liked to make sarcastic comments about commercials. What a nightmare.

Living with a roommate can be tough, which is what a lot of college freshmen are learning right now. But having a roommate teaches you a lot about life.

It starts with the importance of compromise and respecting different points of view. Having a roommate also helps you find creative ways to solve problems, such as how to convince your roommate that a burglar broke in and stole nothing but his “Exotic Rhythms of the Himalayas” CD.

“And they also stole your beginner’s guide to playing the sitar. I can’t believe it!”

One key to compatibility is getting to know your roommate. That’s why, when I moved into my first college dorm, my roommate and I were handed a questionnaire to fill out. I don’t remember any of the questions, but it was probably a good way to open the lines of communication.

Here’s an updated questionnaire for anyone currently experiencing a challenging roommate environment. Fill it out with your roommate and decide where you’re similar, where you’re different and how many locks you’ll need on your bedroom door: 

My favorite hobbies include _____.
A. playing sports
B. listening to music
C. art and photography of nude models in our living room, or perhaps in your bedroom because the light is better there

I like to have friends visit _____.
A. only occasionally
B. frequently
C. because it helps them picture you when I talk behind your back 

Overnight guests _____.
A. are fine with me, especially if they bring food
B. must sign a liability waiver
C. are expected to kindly direct me back to my room if I end up in their bed during one of my sleepwalking episodes 

My pet peeves include _____.
A. people who don’t do their share of household chores
B. people who laugh loudly for the sole purpose of getting me to say, “What’s so funny?”
C. all the people who tell me that I’m “uppity” and “condescending” just because they are stupid and jealous and beneath me 

My belongings can be borrowed _____.
A. anytime
B. in most cases, as long as you ask me first
C. at your own risk, because I am watching and I will get you 

To avoid potential problems, roommates should discuss _____.
A. what bothers them and why
B. painting a line in the middle of the room and picking a side
C. abortion, capital punishment, gun control and the JFK assassination 

When I have a problem with you, I expect you to _____.
A. listen to why I think it’s a problem
B. discuss the situation with me without being offended
C. dodge household objects as I throw them 

When you have a problem with me, I expect you to _____.
A. let me know quickly so our relationship doesn’t suffer
B. be open to different ways to resolve it
C. deal with it on your own time, like after you finish cleaning my bathroom 

Indicate which of the following activities might occupy your time in the residence:

A. Repeatedly encouraging a roommate to sign up for an exciting financial opportunity that is absolutely, positively, probably not a pyramid scheme.

B. Breaking down and crying for no apparent reason, screaming “Why God why?” and running into the bathroom with the remote.

C. Telling a roommate “Don’t make me angry … you wouldn’t want to see me when I’m angry.”

D. Ordering a pizza to share and then suddenly not having any money because of the exciting financial opportunity, which should not be discussed because it’s a sensitive topic
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