Monday, January 30, 2012

How To Annoy Your Parents In Any Language


We are driving. In a rental car. In San Juan. Without a GPS. We have exactly one hour to make it to some place called Campo Rico, whose website promises "a variety of adventure and tour options to fulfill everyone's desire, from an impressive zip-lining experience crossing a canyon with waterfalls to a nice and easy hike through a natural coastal dry forest."

We are hoping to experience zip lining for the first time. At this moment, however, there is nothing nice and easy about our excursion. At this moment, I fear our adventure will consist of merely trying to survive at least one night in a snake-infested Puerto Rican jungle after we make a wrong turn. We will be spotted only when some tourist who knew where he was going casually zip lines over a waterfall and says, "Is that a rental car down there?"

My wife has the steering wheel in a death grip while I desperately try to read the directions from our hotel concierge. I would feel more confident if those directions didn't include sentences such as "go through the Minillas Tunnel to Plaza Las Americas Mall" and "you're looking for an unmarked exit." Compounding our troubles is that all the road signs are in Spanish.

I turn to my daughters in the back seat, both of whom are tormented by the idea that, if we do find our destination, they will be forced to relinquish their iPods for a few hours. For that reason, they have their earbuds firmly affixed to their temples, oblivious to our predicament.

"Natalie, you speak Spanish. Help us out here."



"What's your prob, Dad?"

My "prob" was incorrectly assuming my high school freshman daughter could help guide us to Campo Wherever thanks to the recent 'A' she received in her introductory Spanish class. I didn't expect her to carry on lengthy conversations with locals, but she should have at least mastered directional words by now, right?

"The sign says 'oeste.' Is that east or west?"

"I have no idea."

That answers that question.

"What have you learned?" I asked incredulously.

"Cuidar el pez."

"And that means..."

"To take care of your fish."

I feel much better.

When my daughter chose Spanish as one of her school subjects, we were overjoyed. My wife took several years of Spanish in high school, yet, like most Americans, promptly forgot most of it before the ink on her diploma was dry. I opted for German, a language that is useful only if one gets transferred to Munich following college. We vowed not to let our daughter succumb to laziness. We would make sure she retained that second language and spoke it at will, just as seemingly every Latin American citizen can do with English

Now I realize that learning a second language is simply too taxing on an American teenager's brain. What we should have done is re-enrolled her in English, a dialect that is disappearing in U.S. public high schools, replaced by something unknown to me. I do know that high school English is much shorter. Just as my daughter abbreviates nearly every word in every sentence she taps out on her cell phone, so does she compress words when speaking to anyone within earshot. "Problem" becomes "prob," pizza is "peez" and, well, you get the idea. Occasionally I will give her a sentence and ask her to translate it.

"Natalie, say 'The President will be elected in November' in whatever language you speak."

"The prez will be elec in Nove."

Makes a big diff, doesn't it?

I'm hoping this is a phase and that eventually she will retreat to using words that can be found in a standard dictionary. Then she can direct her attention to learning Spanish phrases that don't involve the nurturing of marine life. Until then, I'm resigned to wearing the navigator hat on family excursions.

Suddenly I hear a voice from the back seat, a voice screaming to be heard over her own iPod.

"Te acabas de perder su salida!"

"What does that mean?"

"You just missed your exit."

Now I know why she got an 'A.'

Monday, January 23, 2012

Running the country from the three-point arc


Like most of the country, I spent the past week reading Jodi Kantor's revealing portrayal of our nation's first couple. By "reading," I mean I skimmed "The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage" in my local bookstore, searching for any sentence that contained "Kardashian" or some form thereof.

Isn't that how most of the country reads today?

While I wasn't interested in the first lady's spats with former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel or press secretary Robert Gibbs, I was looking for tidbits that made the president seem. well, human as opposed to presidential.

I found it when Kantor detailed how Obama often helped coach daughter Sasha's basketball team. While I don't always agree with the president's politics, I thought it amazingly cool that he could free himself from the rigors of running our country long enough to instruct a bunch of grade schoolers in the finer points of hoop x's and o's.

Unfortunately, nobody knows whether Obama is still coaching. With the kind of year he had, my guess is that he was forced to give it up. As a veteran volunteer coach myself, I know the rigors of trying to balance work with youth sports. During the season, I pride myself on constant communication with parents, mostly via email. I can only imagine some of the emails the president sent to parents as he juggled coaching duties with his other job. . .

Subject: Practice canceled

Practice on May 2, 2011, is canceled, as I will be dealing with the capture of the world's No. 1 terrorist. Please keep that quiet.

Subject: Equipment suggestion

Please put your child's name on ALL water bottles, jerseys, knee pads, etc. Somebody left a light blue backpack at practice tonight. We didn't know who it belonged to so security blew it up. Sorry.

Subject: Injuries during season

If your daughter suffers an injury during practice or games, please seek medical attention immediately. Also, please remember that the recently passed health-care bill makes it easier for middle-income families to afford insurance. You're welcome.

Subject: Scouting report on next opponent

Girls, you are going to have to bring your "A" game this weekend. I just found out that the opposing team has a 5-foot-10 center! I will have more information once I finish analyzing images from the drone aircraft that flew over her house last night.

Subject: Snack schedule

Effective immediately, Twinkies, chips, juice boxes and candy bars will no longer be part of the official team snack list. Only water, fresh fruit and nuts high in unsaturated fatty acids are allowed. Please email the coach's wife if you need suggestions.

Subject: Car pools

Parents, please consider car-pooling your children to practice at the White House. The Russian ambassador got stuck behind a line of minivans at the front gate last Thursday.

Subject: Playing time

It has come to my attention that some parents are complaining about what they perceive to be favoritism toward the coach's children when it comes to playing time. Please direct all questions and complaints to my Secret Service detail. Approach with caution.

Subject: Team name

Thanks to all the girls who submitted suggestions for our team name. I'm happy to announce that from here on out, we will be called "The Commander in Chiefs." "Chiefs" for short.

Subject: Orlando tournament

We will be competing in a two-day tournament at Disney World in March. I realize that the economy has put a strain on family finances, even with the payroll tax cut extension. Therefore, I have secured a block of very affordable rooms at the Super 8 Kissimmee Suites. The hotel contains a pool, laundry facilities and ample limousine parking. Complimentary transportation will be provided via Air Force One.

Subject: Alternative practice facility?

Does anybody know of a court somewhere near Pennsylvania Avenue that we could use for practice? I have recently been notified that our dribbling exercises on the White House court are annoying nearby office workers. We will continue practicing at the White House until Vice President Biden returns from vacation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Perfect Snowball Only Costs Ten Bucks


Sometimes I wonder how I reached nearly the half-century mark of life, particularly when my kids seem just inches from serious bodily injury or worse on a daily basis.

How, for example, did I survive, unbuckled, in our car's back seat when my children are strapped in tighter than shuttle astronauts? How did I endure daily mile walks to school when the bus pulls up just feet from my house to transport my kids half that distance?

And how in the world did I manage to make a snowball with my bare hands?

I asked this question while Christmas shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond, a store where few items have anything to do with sleeping or bathing. In between the bins containing holiday butter cookies and LED digital alcohol breath checkers, lay the Arctic Gear Snowball Maker. At first glance, it looked like a pair of scissors, until I noticed the plastic half-spheres where the blades should have been. Then I began thinking it was something the CIA might use to help "interrogate" terrorism suspects now that waterboarding is frowned upon.

Finally, I saw the title and read the description: "Makes perfect snowballs every time." Accompanying the verbiage was a photo of a smiling young boy, about to throw a perfectly round snowball that he had formed by scooping snow into the spheres and squeezing them together.

I nearly threw up into the bin holding scented pine cones.

Apparently I have been living under a giant snow boulder because snowball makers have been around in one form or another since 1989. The original was invented by David Sage, a South Carolina homebuilder now retired and living in Missouri. His creation, dubbed the Sno-Baller, retails for between seven and 10 dollars. Sage has sold more than 1 million units.

"Kids will stay outside all day long if their hands don't get cold," Sage said.

Still not convinced this product could actually do the job I thought it was designed to do - make snowballs while promoting laziness - I searched "Sno-Baller" on YouTube and discovered not one, but two videos demonstrating its capabilities. The first starred a small boy with a British accent so thick his narration was unintelligible. However, he did succeed at making a single snowball, which he then launched at the camera. How cute!

The second featured an older boy scooping snow from the top of a barbecue grill and forming snowballs, which appeared to quickly fall apart once removed from the Sno-Baller. He also reminded the YouTube community that "you have to be living in some kind of city that's very, very snowy."

All you Floridians who purchased Sno-Ballers, I hope you saved your gift receipts.

Sage assured me his invention "will work in any snow you can compress with your hands." Then the conversation got technical.

"The compaction is all around the perimeter. The center is soft. When you make it with your hands, it goes 'thud' when it hits."

That was Sage's way of saying his snowballs are safer than ordinary snowballs. And easier to form. "There are a lot of kids who just can't make a snowball," he said.

Like who? The same kids who need a ride to their friend's house down the block and can't play a non-contact sport without a facemask?

"Kids with withered hands," said Sage, only slightly annoyed with my sarcasm. "And we sell them year round as motor therapy for stroke victims."

OK, so snowball makers serve a purpose. But that doesn't mean I'm buying one. All this technology, I fear, is making my kids soft. I want them to be self-sufficient. That means being one with the snow, just as I was when my parents sent me out to play in the dead of winter. I want them to form snowballs using only their hands and their brains; I want them to dive headfirst into snowdrifts and make angels, never mind that ice-cold, wet snow is creeping into every orifice. Then I want them to come inside, toss their wet gloves on the radiator and sip steaming mugs of hot cocoa.

Gosh, I hope they don't burn their sensitive hands.

Monday, January 09, 2012

A Super Dilemma only the President Can Solve


Dear Mr. President:

I hope this letter reaches you before Feb. 5; if not, simply stick it in the official White House shredder alongside all those memos and suggestions from John Boehner.

I don't need to remind you that Feb. 5 is Super Bowl Sunday. You usually host a viewing party, right? Does Joe Biden get an automatic invitation? Does the first lady only allow healthy snacks or do Hooters wings make a yearly appearance?

It's going to be a great game, sir. Think the commercials will feature talking animals? Football-playing Clydesdales? Sens. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid standing arm in arm, shilling for Pepsi? Hey, you never know. Remember that Leno/Letterman/Oprah ad?

OK, now let me throw a hypothetical your way. I know your daughters play soccer. Suppose that, a few weeks before kickoff, you received an email stating that one of your kids had a soccer game DURING the Super Bowl? What would you do? And "nuke the coach" is not an answer.

I'm asking because that is the dilemma I'm facing. My 14-year-old daughter plays on a club volleyball team. I'm sure you know these private clubs are big business and require an extensive commitment - from kids and their parents. Her team practices three times a week and plays tournaments nearly every weekend during the winter. Note the nearly part. Some weekends she is free. But on weekends that she does play, her mother and I load her in the SUV and drive her somewhere within a 50-mile radius of our house. Then we pay to get in the door. Now I'm discovering that, on Feb. 5, I will not only pay an admission charge to watch my daughter play volleyball, but miss the year's biggest sporting event in the process.

Mr. President, I have been watching your falling poll numbers and feel you need to do something quick. You need to put health care, the economy, Afghanistan and your reelection campaign on the back burner for one weekend. You need to come out in favor of an issue that everybody - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Michele Bachmann - will stand behind. In short, you need to declare a kids sports moratorium on Super Bowl Sunday!

It would be so easy. Just send a letter to all sports club directors, on official White House stationary, sternly reminding them that the Super Bowl ALWAYS occurs on the first Sunday in February. For emphasis, write "DUH" in the next sentence. Everyone should get the message.

Think about it sir, who wouldn't approve of that? Congressional members seem like football fans, Nancy Pelosi notwithstanding. And most have kids, right? Even your worst political enemies could find themselves in a similar Super Bowl predicament. So could you if your children continue to pursue sports. That's why you need to step in. Sure, there would be some grumblings from out-of-control parents who are living in Dreamland and feel that missing a single tournament will prevent their son or daughter from getting that college scholarship or Olympic gold medal. That's why you need the moratorium. If you close all gymnasiums, private sports clubs, training facilities, aquatic centers and every other establishment that sucks money out of parents, then the playing field is level, correct? If the whole country takes a day off, nobody gets the upper hand.

This little experiment, if successful, might lead to an expansion of the law. Why not just make organized youth sports illegal on Sundays, period? Instead of mom pulling out at 7 a.m. with one kid and Dad leaving five minutes later with another, everybody just sleeps in. Maybe church becomes a bigger priority. Maybe family members could reintroduce themselves to one another while they eat dinner together. Is that so bad?

Please think about it, sir. Time is of the essence. Kickoff will be here before we know it and I just received another email from the volleyball club president.

She's looking for volunteers to set up and take down the nets. On Feb. 5.

The Rise of the Middle-Aged Protester


'Tis the season to look back on the previous 12 months, identify regrets and vow to try something completely different in the coming year.

For me, that means protesting.

I feel I missed a huge opportunity by not once taking to the streets and voicing my frustrations at some injustice that I feel should be corrected. Protesters received all the ink in 2011; "The Protester" was even voted Time Magazine's Person of the Year. In Egypt, protesters toppled a government; at Penn State, they merely toppled a news van.

Still, these protesters caused the world to take notice. They were splashed across magazine covers, appeared on national news shows and became YouTube celebrities. Occasionally they knocked the Kardashians off the front pages, no small feat. Occupy Wall Street protester Tracy Postert even landed a job as a result of her rabble-rousing. True, it was for a financial investment firm, but sometimes protests come with a large dose of irony.

If protesting continues to be chic, I want to be part of it. I could always use the publicity and, if nothing else, it looks like protesting could toughen me up. In New York and Boston, protesters braved freezing temperatures to state their cases. I would have left briefly to purchase a space heater at a nearby Home Depot. If the price were too high, I would have camped out in the parking lot and protested the lack of sale items at this home-improvement retailer.

Here's my dilemma: What to protest? Unlike so many of this earth's inhabitants, 2011 was a fairly uneventful and angst-free year for me. I remained employed, had no major medical issues, invested a little money in the stock market and quickly realized burying it in the backyard would have netted more interest. Nothing made my blood boil enough to set up a tent in a public location and tweet incessantly.

Wait a minute, I take that back. I'm forgetting about my community pool, which closed at 7 every weeknight. 7 p.m.! It used to close at 8. Temperatures around Chicago in July often hover in the 90s at 7 p.m. It's still perfectly light at that time. Whoever made the decision to pull the pool's plug an hour earlier had better be prepared because Occupy Water Park is taking shape, beginning today.

I will contact all the disgruntled soccer moms I met last summer who bemoaned the earlier closing time. I'll also email every haggard dad who just wanted to cool off after a long day at the office, yet had to catch an earlier train to make that possible. On Memorial Day weekend 2012, when the pool officially opens, we will link arms and form an impenetrable fortress that extends the entire width of the shallow end. (The deep end is off limits because nobody wants to tread water while protesting.)

As shocked lifeguards and toddlers look on, we will chant, "WE'RE NOT JOKIN'. KEEP THE POOL OPEN!" When we tire of that, we will switch to "WE HAVE THE POWER TO EXTEND POOL HOURS!" We will tweet about our cause as soon as we find somebody who actually knows what Twitter is.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was criticized for not anointing a spokesman. We will not make that mistake. When the media converge, I will face the cameras and calmly list our demands: 9 o'clock closing and 10 on the weekends; more lounge chairs and at least one additional adult swim. Also, the senior citizen who lounges under the big umbrella every day can no longer wear a Speedo.

We will demand a full accountability of snack-bar monies. Two dollars for a snow cone? It's juice and ice for Pete's sake! We want a freeze on all snack prices until 2013.

Finally, I will announce that we are willing to stay as long as it takes until pool officials come to their senses. Even if we have to stay through Labor Day, we will prevail.

Our kids will just have to live on snow cones until then.