Monday, January 24, 2011

An Unpopular View

I'm depressed.

I have no friends.

It used to be that when someone said that they had no friends, they meant it. Twenty years ago, if you had no friends, you either were really, really mean, or you lived in the cabin next to Ted Kaczynski, and you literally had no friends. Today, having no friends means you have only 342 friends, like I do.

The problem is, I don't have 342 real friends, I have 342 Facebook friends, only 42 of whom I would actually recognize if I saw them out in public. About half of that number would actually recognize me, partly due to the fact that my Facebook profile photo is not of me, but of George Costanza from Seinfeld. I wonder if any of those 321 friends who wouldn't recognize me have ever come across Jason Alexander, the actor who played George, and called out my name. Jason hasn't called to complain about this problem, so I'll assume it's a non-issue.

My 21-year-old niece has almost 1,800 friends. That's what got me so upset. I'm more than twice her age, yet she has six times the number of friends that I do. She's nice and all, but is she really six times nicer than I am? At this rate, she'll have almost 4,000 friends by the time she's my age. I'm going to have to "friend" everyone I meet for the next ten years just to keep her from widening the gap.

My thirteen-year-old daughter has begged and pleaded for my wife and I to allow her to have her own Facebook page. Initially we held strong in denying our child her placemarker in social cyberspace. My wife and I cave to just about everything else our children badger us about. Why have we been so unified on the subject? It probably has something to do with keeping our kid on the straight and narrow, not giving in to outside forces that could potentially distract her from keeping her straight A's or other important seventh grade things.

But now I wonder if the message isn't "Honey, we're doing this because we love you," but "Sorry honey, we're not allowing you to have friends." That's probably what she thinks I'm saying. Afterall, kids these days don't talk to each other, they text and Facebook and, well, that's about it. The only real personal interaction that ever happens between these kids is when they ask each other for their phone numbers -- a phone number that is only ever needed for, you guessed it, texting. I wonder how many generations it will take for our hands to evolve to about a quarter of their current size to be more compatible with small phone keyboards for texting. The same way I've been curious about how Neandrathals were able to wear baseball caps with those huge foreheads, centuries from now, children will wonder how those "giant-fingered" people were even able to text on a cell phone. I'm sure some 24th-century science center will offer an attraction allowing people to put their small hands into specially-designed 21st-century gloves that will give you the feeling of having the same size hands my daughter had back in 2011. With the gloves on, you could try to use a cell phone or tie your shoes or thread a needle. It'll be a regular laugh-riot I'm sure.

Maybe my daughter and I really don't need friends. I only had a couple of really close friends until I got married. Then, my friends were the husbands of my wife's friends. That changed again when we had kids. Now all my friends are the fathers of the kids my kids play sports with. So, it really all takes care of itself. Right?

My wife thinks that Facebook is the devil. We used to make fun of people who had Facebook pages. She and I would see people profiled on the local news who were so consumed with social networking that they'd lost their job, their spouse, their house and were currently spending upwards of twenty hours a day playing Farmville and Mafia Wars in a little efficiency apartment with no hot water and a freezer full of pepperoni Hot Pockets. All we could do was shake our heads.

One day I got curious about how this whole social networking thing worked. It might be fun to see what old friends were doing these days. I made a game of finding people I hadn't seen in thirty years. That game stopped being fun almost immediately. A friend (a father of one of kids my son played soccer and baseball with) invited me to join his mafia on Mafia Wars. I reached level 21 in no time and was starting to build my own mafia when I realized where this was leading -- a social networking rabbit hole. I splashed a big glass of cold water on my face to help me snap out of it. My mafia has been neglected for almost two years now. I'm sure they miss their godfather, but I needed to remove myself from the world of online organized crime before it consumed me too. I could handle sleeping in my kitchen. I just don't like Hot Pockets.

After my self-induced intervention, I use Facebook as I'm sure it was intended, to play online poker and promote my blog. It's harmless really.

So, I made the decision to allow my daughter to have her Facebook page. My wife is not really happy with the idea, but I explained about all the security options she'll have so only her friends can access her information.

Upon hearing the news, my daughter sprang from her chair and gave me a big hug.

"Now I won't have to end up being a friendless loser like you! Thanks Dad."

I'm sure she meant to say something else. I'm also sure she forgot that I have a 342-friend head-start.

That's all the motivation I need. Look out world, I'm about to become popular.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Good Fight

This past weekend my son's basketball coach came out of the closet. That's right, he admitted that he was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Being from Cleveland, I'm a hardcore Browns fan. If you know anything about pro football, you'll know that the Cleveland/Pittsburgh rivalry is like the NFL's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

So, as you can imagine, I took his revelation hard. There was something always not right about the guy, but I could never put my finger on it. Now that I know, I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to figure it out on my own. Dammit. I'm usually really good at sniffing out the enemy. It's like I have "Sports Fan Gaydar." Somehow this time I missed it. He must have been using some sort of elaborate cloaking device to keep me from knowing the truth.

But now I don't know what to do. Do I let my kid continue to play on the team and be coached by him? How could I allow this guy, a fan of the team I grew up hating more than my mother's green been caserole, to hold such a meaningful role in my son's life? If I found out our church pastor was a child molestor, would I allow my kid to continue to be an alter boy? Hell no. So how is this any different?

As any god-fearing Browns fan would do, I prayed about what action I should take while watching Biggest Loser. Then God spoke to me. Or maybe it was Jillian Michaels. Whoever said it, I knew that I needed to confront the coach -- immediately.

Since I'm not big on confrontations, I made use of modern technology to get the answers to my questions. I decided to text him.


He texted: "Who is this?"

Apparantly, he did not have me saved into his phone's address book. Simpleton.


He texted: "Steve Nash?"

Now he was just trying to be a wise guy.


Then he hit me right between the eyes with something I hadn't expected. "I grew up in western Pennsylvania. Sorry."

My balloon was losing air and fast.

There are so many Clevelanders out there who become Steelers fans just because they win more than the Browns -- they are referred to as "frontrunners." I assumed my son's coach was like the others. To find out that he was rooting for his hometown team, I softened up a bit.

I texted: "DAMMIT!"

There was really nothing I could say. When I was younger and the Browns were competitive, I used to punctuate everything I said, no matter who I was talking to, with a hearty "Steelers suck!" Unfortunately, the Steelers don't suck now. They are actually pretty darned good. Pittsburgh was playing Baltimore for the right to go to the AFC Chamionship Game later on. I decided to be the better man.


Baltimore is actually pretty good though too, but I was finally speaking a language the coach and I could both understand.

So, how does it all happen? How do people become fans of certain teams? To me it's pretty much black and white. You live in Cleveland, you're a Browns fan. You live in Pittsburgh, you're a Steelers fan. You live in Bagdad, you're a car bomb fan. You have no choice -- it's pretermined. I actually respect my son's coach for continuing to follow the team he grew up watching, despite moving to Cleveland. So many people seem to come here from Pittsburgh. Funny that I never hear of anyone moving from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. I've been to Pittsburgh, so I think I know why. Let's just leave it at that.

My kids, all three, are Cleveland fans. And, despite a lot of losing over the last decade, they are all Browns fans. It hasn't been easy. I've worked hard to make that happen. Several times during my career I've had opportunities to move elsewhere -- Syracuse, St. Louis and Dallas to name a few. Each time I turned down the chance to move. Sometimes the money was better. Sometimes the climate was better. But, none of them could offer me the security of knowing that when my kids got older they'd all be just like me -- a fat guy who roots for losers. My teams might not always win, in fact they mostly lose, but by keeping my kids on the same path, I've won the most important game of all.

The best man at my wedding, a native Clevelander, married a Pittsburgh girl. They now live in Connecticut and have two twin boys. On a regular basis, my friend tells me stories of how difficult trying to raise his boys to be Cleveland fans can be. First of all, his wife's side of the family poisons the twins with Pittsburgh crap -- t-shirts and jerseys and coat and hats. My friend's side of the family all moved to Baltimore more than twenty-five years ago, so they're now Ravens fans. This leaves my buddy to do it all on his own. And, by all accounts, Connecticut is one of the strangest areas to raise a sports fan. They are right in the middle of a tug-of-war between the New England Patriots, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles -- that's what the choices are where my friend and his family live. Now add the Cleveland Browns to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster, if not complete sports affiliation confusion. I try to think about my state of mind if I'm a kid living there. I couldn't blame them for taking up with one of the three local teams -- hell, they've been scads more successful than the Browns. But, it looks like one of the boys is turning into a Steelers fan. The other is still up in the air according to my friend. It's a fight I doubt he'll win in the end, but I respect him for even taking the fight up in the first place.

I'm sure to some extent my son's coach is living a little of the same nightmare, though it couldn't be nearly as bad for him, afterall the Browns rarely win and the Steelers rarely lose. There's a good chance they all move to Cleveland just to rub our noses in it.

So, what do I do with the whole coaching thing.

I picked up my phone.


What the hell was I doing. You know what happened to the indians when they started to trust the white man? No way. Not now.

Before he could respond, I texted a follow-up message.


I love technology.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Snow Balls

When it comes to snow, I'm conflicted.

If you grew up in Cleveland like I did, snow means something to you. Like "snow days" -- days when inclement winter weather would force the schools to close. The smart kids would relish in the reality of having another day to study for the big test or put the finishing touches on a class project. To the rest of us, school didn't exist, at least for a day. The test would have to be taken based on what I knew the night before. Having an extra day to study or work on a project would be tantamount to cheating. Deadlines are deadlines, right? Parents never understood the logic of a kid who just won the free day lottery.

As kids, we'd spend our unscheduled mini-vacation building snowmen, going sled riding, constructing snow forts and having snowball fights. In those days, the snow seemed deeper and the drifts higher, and not just because I was shorter back then. Yet, I don't once remember ever being cold, even after eight hours in freezing temperatures, with only a short lunch to break up the day. By the end of the day, we'd start praying hard for another day off, though we mostly be disappointed.

Heading to school the next day, we'd regret the time not spent on schoolwork. Funny thing, I remember the snowball fights in high definition detail, yet I have no idea what grades I ever received on the tests or assignments.

I guess my priorities were all in the right place back then.

As one ages, the thrill of snow diminishes. I've managed to hold out longer than most full grown adults. My wife being a school teacher actually helps. She has the ongoing thrill of seeing her school listed as "closed" on local network television. Even though I haven't had a "snow day" in over twenty-five years, dating back to my senior year in high school, I still check that same list of closings with irrelevant hope. Some day I'm going to see that St. Rita's school in Solon, Ohio is closed, put on my snowsuit, then run outside and pound out three or four picture perfect snow angles in the front yard. I'd then pack a few dozen snow balls and pelt a few of my sad-sack neighbors on their way to work in their cars while hiding behind my hastily-made treelawn snow fort. I haven't done it yet, but someday I will, hopefully before it's too hard too get back up after falling backwards four times.

Despite all of this, snow has become less pleasurable to me, which makes me sad. Before, when I was a child, my father was in charge of all snow-related chores. Now it's my turn. The torch has been passed. So, I'm the one who shovels the drive and the sidewalk and the walk leading to our front door. I'm the nice neighbor who helps the Indian family next door when they get snowed in. I curse at the city for forgetting to plow our dead-end street. And, when the city plows finally get around to it, they pile all the hard icy stuff in a big mound right at the end of my driveway. So, I curse some more.

But here's the worst part. Now I get cold in the wintertime. And that sucks.

When my kids want to go sled riding, lately I've started to cringe. It's gotten to the point that I'm just flat-out uncomfortable in the snow. Last year, my wife bought me a new snowsuit from Walmart. It was an end-of-the-season special and she purchased it without having me there to try it on first. It's well documented that I am proportionally a mess. Five foot eight and half and two hundred and something pounds. That's a lot to admit to, I know, but when trying on snowsuits, the humiliation is taken to an entirely different level. My new Walmart snowsuit fits me perfectly in a grand total of zero of the most important places. The legs are too long. The belly is too tight. And, the inseam -- well, each time I put the damned thing on my voice goes up three octaves -- in other words, it's uber-tight in the groinal region. Normally I'd be happy as hell to have my junk secure during physical activity. I'm less thrilled when that same security requires an ice pack after I'm done.

But who needs balls anyway? Hell, my wife has accused me of not having them for more than a decade. I've tried to envision the person who would fit perfectly into this winter torture suit. My best guess is that he's six foot eight with most of his body being leg, a mid-section the circumference of coaxial cable, and a very small vagina.

So the other day the kids finally got their way. At some point I actually felt like it was a good idea to go sledding. There's a great hill that's part of the Metroparks within a few minutes drive. The older two could fend for themselves, but the five-year-old still needs assistance. Parental assistance on a sledding hill equates to walking up the hill with the sled in one hand and my child's hand in the other. Not such a bad deal, right? How Normal Rockwellesque. Now, think about it thirty-three times, because that's the number of trips up the hill we made, each time more grueling than the last.

There are two jobs that parents have when taking the kids sledding. Hill duty, as noted above, was mine. My wife? Well, as I was trying to self-induce cardiac arrest with my upteen trips up the giant hill, she was...taking pictures. Being the sledding photographer is important. Having a pictoral record of the day of fun so that scrapbooks can be filled is a worthwhile endeavor. My only hope is that years from now the photo album won't be filled with pictures labeled "When Daddy's Heart Gave Out."

The good news is that I survived. But, what truly bothered me about taking my kids sledding had nothing to do with the inequity of the jobs my wife and I had to perform. Instead, it was the lack of etiquette that this new generation of sledders were putting on display. In my day, we found a spot at the top of the hill, waited until nothing was in our way, pushed off, then steered clear of things that would pop into our path on the way down. Back then, when we reached the end of our ride, we carefully walked to the side of the hill, out of the way of the next set of hill riders and walked back up to the top. Safety was always first -- that's the way I remember it anyway.

Apparantly, 2011 is a new day in sledding.

The kids and adults on the hill this day seemed to have only one thing in mind -- mame as many people as possible on their way down. My five-year-old was assaulted on three of her first four trips down. It's like watching a car crash from the sidewalk. You can see it coming, but are helpless to do anything about it. Fortunately, like her father, she survived each of the near-death experiences -- God bless innertube sleds.

The fun didn't stop there for these etiquette-challenged sledders. Once they get to the bottom, they get up, grab their slid and head straight back up the hill. Not out of the way of other sledders. Not over to the side of the hill. They go right back up the way they came. Right into the freaking path of oncoming traffic. The me-first generation is now affecting classic snow sports

Even though we had these inbreds to deal with, we did our sledding thing for almost an hour and a half. Good times and even better memories. I'm hoping that my kids will never stop loving snow. And, I hope that my five-year-old remembers the guy who schlepped her sled up that hill without complaining (at least to her). I know they'll have pictures to look back on this day thanks to the family photographer, their mom.

As for the idiots who chose to not sled the right way, I was going to say something to all of them before we left, but I didn't have the balls.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who Stole My Meal Ticket?

My parents are snowbirds. They live in Cleveland from mid-May to mid-October. In mid-October, they zip down to their second home just outside of Orlando, Florida, spend about a month there, then back up to Cleveland for Thanksgiving and the December holidays. A day or two after the new year they're back on their way to Florida until mid-May, when the cycle begins anew.

Having grown up with them, I could never in a million years picture my parents making this sort of move. During my entire time living amongst them, we took exactly one vacation as a family. So you can understand my surprise that they moved a gallon of gas away from Disney World. I'm assuming they did it to torture me and my younger brother, overtly rubbing our noses in it and defiantly calling out, "Hey kids, look what we can do with our money. See what you're missing? You had to go off, find jobs, get married and have kids, didn't you? Don't worry, we'll tell Mickey you said 'hi'."

They have a nice comfortable life now and they've earned it. I'm not going to take any of that satisfaction away from them. But they do have a track record of selfish behavior -- it's not just the purchase of the winter home.

It started when they decided to add central air to their house in Cleveland several years after both my brother and I were out of their hair permanently. I suffered through so many sickeningly-humid summers during my youth. Night after night I would lose half my body weight in sweat. They weren't completely oblivious to my plight -- Mom and dad once gave me a box fan to use in my room so that the hot air could be blown at me all night long -- like sitting in front of a hair dryer for eight hours while I struggled to sleep. I remember complaining about not having air conditioning like some of my friends had at their houses. They responded with a twist to the all-time classic parental comeback, "I suppose if your friends' families wanted to all jump off the bridge together, you'd want to do that too?"

"Yes, yes I would. I'd jump right off the bridge with them if that's what it took! For the love of God, just make it cool in here!"

But their me-first ways didn't stop there. A few years later, right around the time I turned 30, they bought a boat. A boat? My father was going through a mid-life crisis in his sixties. All he needed to make the picture complete was a 27-year-old girlfriend and an ascot. The purchase of the boat hit me hard. It was actually my parents' second boat. The first, "the jet boat", was sold not long after I was born. Want to know why they got rid of the boat? Because of me. Apparently, having a baby really cramped their style, not allowing them to hit the lake on a moments notice like they were used to doing. Yes, that's right, I was blamed for sucking all the fun out of their lives. And, I heard about it constantly during my younger years. Like when my father would stop off at the marina to watch people back their trailered boats into the water and launch them into the lake for an evening of fun and frivolity. He'd then come home and do a recap for us. Always, the story would end with, "Yeah, we used to have a boat. She was a great boat. But then you came and ruined everything. Your mother and I couldn't just pack up and head to the lake after work anymore. No. Nope. I had to come home and change diapers and cook dinner and give you a bath and read you stories."

Comments like these were always followed with long, deep sighs from both of my parents. A silver lining to the new boat is that I haven't heard those complaints and I haven't felt the guilt since they brought it home.

The winter home in Florida was the last major retirement purchase. I think they've had it now for about six years. It's very nice and very well decorated. In Cleveland, the house I grew up in is still decorated in early-German beer stein. That's about all the interior design my mother ever did was to throw up a few collectible mugs on a wall shelf -- the rest of the room just seemed to settle in around them. But, in Florida, my parents turned into Vern Yip from Trading Spaces. They went with an African motif throughout their main living area and it really works. I'm actually very proud. Plus, it makes buying Christmas gifts for them so much easier -- any zoo animal made from some sort of metal will do.

I have to believe this occasional splurging on things they never would have purchased when my brother and I were around has led to an occasional guilt trip or two. I'm sure I'm the one mostly responsible for them, but I don't care. Any chance I get to point out how their free-spending ways have negatively impacted my fragile emotional state, I go for it. Sometimes I think it makes them feel bad, which is good.

One way they try to make it up to me is in paying for meals. Anytime we go out to dinner with them, they have to pay. My father is 73-years old. He doesn't hear as well as he used to and his reflexes are a tad slower than when he was younger, but at a restaurant he pounces like a female lion on a baby antelope when the check comes. There's no escape. I've tried to outwit him. Once I tried cutting off the waitress on her way to the table with the bill. My father, seeing what I was doing, leapt from his seat, ripped the check from my hands and then pushed me into the table of six seated next to us. I should have made him pay the dry cleaning bill too that day.

Now I just basically accept that when we go out with my parents, dinner is on them. Though I've never discussed this with them, it's my way of letting go of my resentment for buying all those cools things after I left home. If it helps them deal with it too, all the better.

So, when I noticed their 24-inch picture tube television had been replaced by a 60-inch plasma at their Cleveland house at Christmas this year, I nearly fell out of my seat. Fortunately, I was standing.

"What the hell is that?" The word "hell" is as close to a swear word that I've ever used in the presence of my parents. After our family left to head home the language was much stronger. "They think they can get away with this? Sonofabitch. They're leaving in a week. What do they need a TV that size for?" My wife tried to calm me, but I kept going. "I suppose buying us a meal or two is supposed to make me feel better? No freakin' way. Not this time."

On January 1st, I let them take the family out to brunch. It was our last hurrah with them until they returned in May. The kids got to say goodbye to grammy and grandpa, and I got to get one last free meal in before spring. On January 2nd, they'd be on their way to Florida and I'd be responsible for the tab if we decided to dine out as a family until at least May. Back to reality.

Or maybe not.

Last night I decided to take the kids to a great little place called the Brew Kettle for dinner. You can make your own beer in the back of this place (which I've never done), so they have some great hand-crafted beers on tap. We got appetizers. We got desserts. I drank good expensive beer.

My wife noticed a crazed look on my face at some point during dinner. "Uh, honey, don't you think this is a bit much?"

"Give me your phone," I said.


"Just give me your phone," I begged. She gave me her phone, a puzzled, possibly frightened look glossed her face.

I dialed, then waited.

"Mom. Hey, it's me. Can you do me a favor? I need your credit card number."
My mother asked why.

"You wanna know why? Really? Because I don't think you're finished paying for your television, that's why."

She then gave me the number, probably with the thought that I was being held at gunpoint, forced to make this call. If she gave me the number, they would surely let me go and wouldn't harm me.

"Okay. Got it. Well, I have to go now. By the way, thanks for dinner."

A smile crossed my face as I ended the call.

"Did they bring the desserts yet?"

Now I feel fine.