Friday, August 26, 2005

Everybody do the water slide

Summer is ending…and my back is eternally grateful.

Normally the changing of seasons and my body parts don’t have any correlation. That is, until this summer when my wife came home from Sam’s Club with the toy du summer for my kids – THE WATER SLIDE.

My wife, bless her heart, seems to make these purchases when I am traveling. It never fails. I’ll be calling from an airport in Portland just to “make sure everybody is okay before the flight leaves” and she will casually mention, in between updates on disciplinary measures, (Do you know what your daughter did today?) that she has purchased something that is a) inordinately expensive and b) requires assembly on my part. The farther away I go, the more expensive and technically complex the purchase. A talent buyer called me the other day and wondered if I was interested in performing in France this December. I hesitated only out of fear my wife will buy a “do it yourself” jet in my absence.

The WATER SLIDE was not a spontaneous purchase. She had actually researched it, meaning she saw one in a neighbor’s backyard and said, “where did you get that?” I’ve noticed that, in the land of suburbia, there’s no longer one kid on the block with the cool thing that every other kid wants and therefore, tries to befriend. That’s how it worked where I grew up. Mark lived four houses away. I always thought he was a weird kid; the kind who would just stare into space in the middle of a conversation, returning to Planet Earth a short time later with no explanation. But he had all the cool toys including a BB gun, Monday Night Football and an honest to goodness “fort.” Not a fort constructed from couch cushions or empty moving cartons. No, this was a fort built atop the rafters of his garage, complete with electricity. Yes, the average summer temperature above Mark’s garage was 182, but that didn’t stop me from asking him to “play” in hopes he would invite me to his house and eventually, the fort. The best I could offer at my house was a ping-pong table, a sport that didn’t agree with Mark.

Today, I live in a neighborhood where, if one kid gets a toy, everybody else eventually ends up with the same thing, albeit bigger and more ghastly looking. When my wife saw a slide go up in the backyard three houses down, naturally she decided we should own one as well. So while I earned a living 1,500 miles away, she popped by Sam’s Club and came home with the Bounce Around WATER SLIDE, which required two fully grown men to lift into her car. When I returned my first job was to move the box from the garage to my backyard and assemble it for word was out that the Schwems now owned the biggest WATER SLIDE on the planet.

Notice my infatuation with capitalizing WATER SLIDE. Trust me, if you see this behemoth, you’d do the same thing After hearing my hernia pop while lifting the box, I made it to the backyard and opened it. The first thing I saw was an installation CD. Bad sign, I thought. Most kids’ toys come with instructions. This one comes with video. I guess the manufacturers assume everybody has a computer in their backyard and can easily follow along while navigating the plethora of WATER SLIDE parts in the box. . This was not the type of slide that blew up in a couple of good sturdy breaths. On the contrary, when deflated, this slide resembled a tent that could hold Boy Scout Troop 344, all the Scout leaders (gay and straight) and any Grizzly bear wandering by the campsite in search of a dry bed. Add to this, a 15 foot “slip and slide” that attached to the slide’s base, eight plastic yellow stakes, and a motorized air pump that could, according to the CD, inflate the slide in under two minutes. All I could think was, “my lawn is gone forever.”

Now I don’t mean to sound like Grandpa growing up in the Depression but when I was a kid, we set up a sprinkler in the backyard and jumped through the stream. For hours, I might add. My friends who grew up in the city spoke fondly of the open fire hydrant. If I set up a sprinkler in the backyard today and told my kids, “go ahead,” they’d reply, “go ahead and do what exactly?” In just 25 years, backyard water fun has evolved from lawn sprinklers to 15-foot high slides that require a steady stream of water AND electricity, a combination that seemed like a bad idea.

Nevertheless, I soldiered on, pounding the stakes into drought-hardened soil, filling three plastic bags with water to anchor the slide, snaking a hose through the yard, coupling it to the slide and running an extension cord to the outlet in our porch. With much trepidation, I flipped the switch and the motor began to hum. True to the manufacturer’s word, the slide quickly rose from the grass higher and higher until it resembled a Macy’s Parade balloon. I turned on the hose and fountains of water cascaded over the roof, soaking the slide itself and the slip and slide. Within seconds my children scrambled up and hurtled themselves down face first, stopping at the yard’s end. Other children followed their “fun” radars and showed up in minutes, turning the backyard into the most popular daycare facility in suburban Chicago. It’s been that way for the entire summer, with the WATER SLIDE playing host to entire Little League teams, second grade reunions and numerous picnics. A neighbor has even borrowed it twice, showing up with a U-Haul to move it three doors down.

As I watched the backyard chaos, I could only wonder what kids will be playing with when my daughters have houses and children of their own. I wonder what it will cost to install a roller coaster that starts at the bedroom and ends in the pool’s deep end? The folks at Wal Mart probably have it on the drawing board now.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The iPod police have arrived

I've noticed cities all around the country are cracking down on cell phones use. For example, it's now illegal to talk on your phone while driving unless you have a hands free device like one of those pointy ear pieces that makes the user look like Yoda in the 21st century.

Personally, I think it's a good idea. Now if lawmakers would only start cracking down on iPod use.

I can't remember an invention that caused this big a commotion since Pac-Man. Now THAT was hysteria. I remember saving up quarters and running to the local arcade where I joined an ever growing line of kids who eagerly pumped them into the machine, hoping to beat the big yellow mouth, or whatever it was. Eventually I figured out the maze pattern (something that didn't exist when Ms. Pac-Man was invented. ) Yet it was still fun to know that I had outsmarted the game makers. Yes, Pac-Man was great. But eventually it had to end. I had to go home, I ran out of quarters or both.

Nowadays you don't ever have to LEAVE anything; you just take it with you. Our cell phones have become permanent appendages. Ditto for our organizers. Heck, I can even play Pac-Man on my handheld.

And now, thanks to the iPod, we don't have go home to flip on the stereo. We just take our entire music collection with us.

My wife recently bought me an iPod. It's a 20 GB model, meaning it can hold (DRUMROLL PLEASE) 10,000 songs. "That's good," I told my wife. "The next time I take a trip to, I dunno, the sun, God forbid I should hear the same song twice."

I quickly learned the iPod comes in handy when you don't want to communicate with anybody. When I'm seated on the plane next to the chatty insurance salesman, I put the little white buds in my ears and immediately send a message that NOTHING he can say will interest me. When the Hare Krishnas are heading toward me on a busy Chicago street, I stick in the buds and they walk right by. What a concept.

But there's a time and place for everthing. Hence, the idea of the iPod police. I was recently in Washington DC and decided to take a tour of the Holocaust Museum. Not a real cheerful way to spend the day but something I wanted to experience, nonetheless. As I roamed the exhibits I noticed a man in his early 20s taking in the sights as well. But he was doing it while wearing an iPod. At times, I even saw him bobbing his head to the music.

"iPod police, " I wanted to yell. "Confiscate this man's iPod at once." Seriously, does the Holocaust museum require a soundtrack? I think not.

So, if any lawmakers are reading this, here are a few suggestions:

No iPods allowed when you could be learning something. That means they're off limits in schools, museums and libraries. I was shocked to see Duke University provides every incoming freshman with an iPod. Might as well give them bongs while you're at it.

No iPods while driving. That's what radios are for. Remember them?

No iPods in restaurants. Of course, Starbucks is an exception because most people who listen to music at Starbucks are usually hanging out there for upwards of eight hours because they have no place else to go.

And finally, no iPods in Blockbuster. I saw that the other day. Make up your mind. Music or movie? Not both.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Head down, knees bent, screw you!

WARNING! The seven words that appear below this paragraph may cause men to shudder, to hyperventilate, to feel physically ill. Still want to read on? Okay, here goes.

I’m teaching my wife to play golf.

I warned you, gentlemen. You may now begin circulating the petition that effectively bans me from The Official Guy Club forever.
Golf, you see, is not a game most guys feel should be played by women. Oh sure, there are a lot of great women players out there. Annika Sorenstram, Michelle Wie and, closer to home, my sister, who regularly outdrives me even though I am a consistent mid-80s player. Go to a golf course on a typical summer weekend and seek out the first female golfer. I’d be willing to bet a round at Pebble Beach she could beat half the cigar-chomping, cell phone toting ogres who slog their way around the course on their way to 110s that included five mulligans and 11 “gimmees”, all the while insisting that, “last week, I was really hitting the crap out of it.”

These are the guys who feel golf is like hunting, but with Callaways instead of Berengers.

Women, men and golf just don't mix that well. How many men have entered the office on Monday morning and, when asked what they did that weekend, replied, “The missus and I played 36. Oh, we laughed, we talked, we chipped. I fell in love with her all over again.”
Heck, there aren’t even any golf JOKES that involve a wife. I’ve heard, “Two guys are playing golf…”, “A guy and Tiger Woods are playing golf…”, even “A guy and the Pope are playing golf.” I’ve never heard, “A guy and his wife are playing golf.” Wait a minute, I think I have heard a couple but the punch lines always involve the wife doing something sexual on the golf course or with the golf club. The 110 shooters no doubt authored these jokes.
Before deciding to take up the game, Sue had made one previous attempt to join me on the golf course. For my 35th birthday, I opened a box of Spalding Top-Flite balls, each containing the Spalding logo on one side and her PICTURE on the other. She had sent it to one of those companies that places photos on any object including mousepads, coffee mugs, shotglasses, lawn mowers and gun butts. “Now when you play golf, you can take me with you,” she said cheerfully as I held up a ball and tried to keep from laughing.
“Great idea, “I replied. “As long as you don’t mind being hit in the face with a driver, getting bounced off a tree, buried in sand or sunk in a lake.” Several years later I performed for the Spalding Corporation at an awards function and recounted my wife’s purchase to the head of product development.
“Oh so that was YOUR wife,” he replied. “We always wondered who fell for that idea.”
So I was taken slightly aback when my wife announced that she wanted to learn the game. “It would be a chance to spend more time with you,” she bravely said. I admired her will even if her reasoning puzzled me. After all, I have never said, “Honey, we need more quality time together. Please teach me to shop. I want to learn the intricacies of Lord and Taylor “
Of course the first thing you need to play golf is a set of clubs. Luckily my wife had some, handed down from her mother who has a bad back and no longer plays the game. “There’s a grand I can spend on lessons if she really likes the sport,” I thought. Golf and skiing are the two worst sports to “take up” because you have to spend about $1,500 on equipment before deciding whether you like them. That’s why bowling should be so appealing to the athletic novice. You only need to spend about 10 bucks before rendering an opinion. Okay, 15 if you spring for a pitcher during a beer frame.
Our first stop? The local driving range. Driving ranges serve two functions: learn to hit the ball AND put your newfound skills to use by trying to hit the guy driving the gadget that picks up balls. Other than watching NASCAR and hoping for a crash, this is the world’s sickest sports passion. I’ve seen five-year-olds turn into covert CIA assassins as they try and plunk these guys. But then again, you have to be pretty nuts to take that job in the first place.
BOSS: Okay, Bill you’re hired. All you have to do is drive this machine back and forth and the golf balls will pick themselves up and land in this basket. It’s really quite simple.
BILL: Anything else I should know?
BOSS: Not really. If you need pointers, you can call Dave, the guy who works the 8-12 shift. He’s in the County General neurosurgery unit, room 226.

So off we went. I bought a large bucket of balls for seven dollars and proceeded to try and teach my wife how to hit a 9 iron off a plastic mat. Those little squares of AstroTurf are where driving ranges blur the line between golf and an arcade game. I’ve played lots of golf courses but never one where you hit your teeshot down the middle and it’s sitting up perfectly on a blade of “grass,” made from the same material used to slipcover a couch.
Sue does have some natural athletic ability so her first few swings of the club were not bad. I contributed nothing to her humble beginnings. Although I am a decent player, I have never had a professional lesson so I am hardly qualified to give advice. I find it hard to preach about something when I don’t have all the facts. The only person who excels at this is the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
I learned the game from my Dad, who possessed the brilliant skill of dropping his cigarette on the teebox, hitting his drive and returning the smoke to his mouth all in one fluid motion. To this day, I don’t know how he does it. Golf is a difficult game to teach because there are so many body parts moving – and that’s before the beer cart comes around. I have played with guys who, after hitting a poor shot, lamented on their poor “thumb position.”
In reality there are two golf instructions: “Keep your head down” and “keep your knees bent.” That’s the advice given by most people who don’t know the intricacies of golf mechanics. A crazed gunman could walk into a country club and begin mowing down members and I’m sure that at least two of them, while diving behind tables, would tell him to keep his head down and his knees bent.
Therefore, as my wife flailed away on the mat, her teacher sounded like a skipping CD.
ME: Okay, head down!
HER: That felt weird.
ME: You’re doing great. Now bend your knees!
HER: Don’t laugh at me!
ME: I wasn’t laughing. And you shouldn’t be looking at me anyway. You should be keeping your head down.
HER: Why did it go over there?
ME: Probably because you didn’t bend you knees.
HER: This game is stupid.
ME: It just takes patience honey. Did I ever tell you about the time the Pope and Tiger Woods were playing golf…?
After a few buckets, some glares in my general direction and a promise that, following the lesson, we would go to dinner at a restaurant of her choice, I decided we were ready to move to the next step…THE GOLF COURSE. I’ve always thought more people would take up golf if the sport never progressed further than the range. No tee times, no six-hour rounds, no exorbitant greens fees. You just drive to the range at your leisure, hit a few buckets of balls, and shoot “four under,” meaning that you nailed the golf ball retriever guy four times.
The problem is that you eventually have to play golf in a public forum, with people in front of you, people behind you and a golf course “starter” in his mid –to late-100s, whose soul responsibility is to sit in a shack and embarrass you with a microphone. Most public golf courses employ the course starter. To say that these guys are mean would be paying them an extreme compliment. They ‘re the sons of prison guards who married cafeteria lunchroom monitors. Their voices sound like they’re in the final stages of lung cancer yet they still arrive at 6 a.m., take their place behind the mike, and proceed to humiliate every member of every foursome who dares tee it up.
“NO SWINGIN’ ON THE PRACTICE TEE!…NO MULLIGANS…NO HAVING FUN OUT THERE” are just a few of the nicer things that come out of their mouths. It’s like playing golf with that little kid from The Exorcist.
Luckily the course I chose did not have a starter simply because there was no room for the microphone-equipped shack. The course I chose was one of those “executive” courses that pop up after greedy developers erect a huge town home development and an acre of land is inexplicably left over. “Hey Ted, I think we can squeeze 18 holes on this patch. Okay, let me mow it first and then we’ll start building. Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
Executive courses usually consist of a bunch of par 3s with an occasional 300 yard par 4 thrown in so you don’t miss out on an opportunity to hit directly into the group in front of you. These courses are great for beginners because, as I told my wife, serious golfers don’t play them. Serious golfers feel a true test of golf requires par 5s, sand traps, lakes inhabited by hungry alligators, a locker room, seven dollar beers and a starter who yells at you in person instead of from inside a shack. “We’ll probably have the place to ourselves,” I assured her.
Naturally, when we arrived, there were two foursomes ahead of us and one behind us. Guess how many women? The answer rhymes with “hero.”
My wife looked as if she had just stepped out of the subway in Times Square and realized she was naked. Even worse, we were paired with two total strangers, a concept that still puzzles me about the sport. Golf is the only game where you can arrive alone and end up playing with people you don’t know. This is a great concept if you have no friends or your name is O.J. Simpson. But for most people it can be more intimidating than the sommelier at your average Ritz Carlton dining room. Personally, I’ve never minded being paired up, as I play a pretty decent game. But what if I generally don’t like my new partners? What if they’re the kinds who feel a lost ball requires at least 45 minutes of looking? What if they insist on telling me “the Pope playing golf” joke? You can’t discreetly abandon somebody on a golf course. All you can do is pray for a lightning storm.
At last it was our turn. I introduced us to our partners, Stan and Jack, two middle-aged guys from the next town over. I got the feeling they played here often and, while used to the pairing system, weren’t particularly fond of it either. I caught Stan eyeing my wife as if he had just found a hair in his soup. I didn’t improve matters when I said, “Hope we don’t slow you down. My wife is just learning the game.” Sue shot me a look that would have cut diamonds. I explained that I did that solely for her. “I just gave these guys an out,” I said. If they want to go ahead of us and play as a twosome, now is their chance.”
Alas, they didn’t take the bait and off we went to the first tee. Because the ladies tees are typically about 30 yards ahead of the men’s, Sue would hit last, thereby ensuring that all eyes would be on her. I’ve always thought that the weakest player should hit first, no matter where the tees are. That way there’s still a chance that the other members of the foursome might be doing something else - like washing their balls, yakking on their cell phones or relieving themselves. But ladies ALWAYS hit last. If you don’t follow this rule, most golf course starters will remind you by firing a 38-caliber bullet just over your head.
So after all three of us hit our drives, my wife strode hesitatingly to the tee, teed up her ball and tried to remember everything I had taught her - in other words, head down and knees bent.
For what seemed an eternity Sue stared at the ball. I stared at her. Stan and Jack stared at her. She drew the club back, swung mightily…and WHIFFED.
It was the first time I actually HEARD an eyeball roll. Suddenly Stan realized he had forgotten about the chemotherapy he was supposed to start today. Could he and Jack play as a twosome, he asked, so he could get done with his round, get checked into the hospital faster and begin losing his hair and vomiting? Sure, I replied.
So we lagged back as our former friends gunned their golf cart and tore ahead of us like the field at Indy after the pace car has exited the track. Sue was inconsolable. At this point she would have preferred building a tower out of live dynamite sticks rather than learn anything more about this dreadful game that we men so cherish. “Come on,” I said. “It can’t get any worse. It’s just the two of us now. Let’s pretend we’re on our first date.”
“Okay,” she replied. “Now let’s pretend that I demand to be taken home because I’m not the kind of girl who plays golf on a first date.”
I convinced her to give it another try. With a brave face she re-teed, bent her knees, kept her head down and corked one right down the middle. The ball traveled far, straight and right past the legs of Stan and Jack, who were attempting their second shots. They looked back in sheer amazement. Was that a WOMAN who had done that? A WOMAN who had driven the ball farther than they had? It was as if a woman had pranced onto the field during the Super Bowl and sacked Joe Montana.
Their amazement then turned to anger as they realized that somebody had dared hit into them. “What’s your hurry?” yelled Jack.
“Sorry,” Sue yelled back. “That one just got away from me.” I marveled at her quick response.
Flustered, the two hurriedly hit their second shots, which went a combined ten yards. They hit their third shots, then their fourth shots. Sue still waited in the fairway, too polite to nail them again.
Finally they reached the green, putted out and roared off to the next tee. But not before Sue hit her approach shot to within ten feet of the hole. This time, I HEARD an eyeball pop out of its skull. After we had completed the hole, we drove to the next teebox to find Stan and Jack still there.
“Why don’t you guys play through?” Stan said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “We’d be happy to play with you.”
“Nah,” Jack replied. “We’d probably slow down the missus.”
Sue beamed with pride as she headed to the teebox. With supreme confidence she teed up, took a few practice swings, addressed the ball, swung mightily…and whiffed. Undaunted, she swung again…and whiffed. She whiffed a third time.
“Keep your head down,” said Jack as Stan swore under his breath.
Finally Sue topped one that just cleared the teebox. “Have a nice game gentlemen,” I said as we made our way down the fairway, leaving our two former partners to wonder what the hell they had just done.
Since that day we have played golf together on numerous occasions. Sue even retired her old clubs for a new set of Spaldings although without my picture on the clubfaces. I’m almost ready to suggest we go on a golf vacation. Just think…four glorious days of me yelling, “head down, knees bent.”