Monthly Archives: December 2013

Thy Leaves Are So Unchanging

One of my family’s rather unique traditions is that we have always put our Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve.  This may not be all that unique – to hear my mother tell it, back in the old days everyone used to do it – but I also don’t know anyone else who does it.  The whole Christmas tree thing is really important to my mom, so I don’t question it.

Doing it so late allows us to wait to pick out a tree in the first place.  This is not conducive to having a wide selection of trees, but hey, it was nice back when I was in college because I could still go with the family to pick it out.  My sister lives in Boston, so the trip now gets put on hold until she gets home.

The three of us usually go out without my dad, because it’s not something he ever really concerned himself with; his family always had an artificial tree and put it up much earlier, so it wasn’t a big deal to him.  However, with him being in and out of the hospital three times in the last two-plus months, and twice in December, he’s been doing a whole lot of nothing all day, and I told him he was coming this year.

My sister arrived the other morning, as I already wrote about.  We had planned to go tree shopping yesterday, but I refused to do so when it was 68 degrees and raining.  There was literally no way I was going to buy a Christmas tree in early May-type weather.

It was a little colder today, but still raining, so we pushed the trip back as long as we could.  We finally had to bite the bullet and go; my mom had to be at work at 4:00, so it was now or never, raining or not.

Now, lots of families have hot-button topics or sore subjects that always lead to screaming and yelling.  Sometimes it’s that someone doesn’t like someone else’s spouse.  Sometimes there’s a relative’s arrest or a history of alcohol and drug abuse that ruins the atmosphere as soon as it comes up.  For my family, it’s Christmas tree shopping.

It boils down to a simple fact: every year, I walk around the lot(s) and identify suitable Christmas trees.  My sister, on the other hand, identifies Christmas bushes.  I’m right around six feet tall, and I always pick trees taller than me.  She has never once in her life picked out a tree taller than her; considering she currently stands at a little over five feet tall and stopped growing like 12 years ago, this is a problem.

A Christmas tree is supposed to be, among other things, majestic.  In your entire life, have you ever walked around a garden and thought, “my, what a majestic shrub?”  No, you haven’t.  My sister sucks at picking out trees.

I think it stretches back to when we were super young and the biggest fight was over who got to put the star on top of the tree.  I don’t ever recall doing it, and I feel like my mother always did it, but I do know it used to make my sister upset when she didn’t do it.  My best guess is that she got it into her head that if the tree was small, like her, she could put the star on it and reach the upper branches when hanging lights and ornaments on it.  Ever since the invention of the step-stool back in like 1594 (don’t quote me on that), however, this has been a stupid reason to pick a tree.

Every year she goes right to a four-foot high shrub, and immediately I begin mocking both her and the “tree.”  You’d think she would know by now, but she never learns.  She also never gets her tree picked, but at the same time, neither do I.  I’m always told that my choices are too tall, or the wrong kind, or some other nonsense my mother makes up to keep me from being able to gloat.

Well, this year, I came prepared.  I found a good tree that I liked, and presented it to the family.  I immediately pointed out that while it looked too tall now, we could cut six inches off the bottom, where there were no branches anyway, and maybe pare down a couple of the branches at the top to make sure they didn’t scrap the ceiling and left room for the star.

Maybe it was the quality of the tree.  Maybe it was the unassailable logic.  Maybe it was the rain.  Regardless, we drove away not long after with the tree tied to the roof of my car.  I won.

It might seem like small potatoes, and it might sound incredibly stupid.  It is, and it is.  But at the same time, we’ll actually have a Christmas tree, with actual room underneath for gifts and decorations.  You just don’t have that with a Christmas bush.

That makes us all winners, really.

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The Harder They Fall

The big thing on the internet and social media over the last few days was the story of Justine Sacco, a public relations director who posted a tweet that got her into a little bit of hot water.  Okay, a lot of hot water.  She was getting on a flight from London to South Africa, and she tweeted the following:

“Going to Africa.  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding. I’m white!”

Oh boy.

The tweet caught the attention of, well, everyone, and Sacco was bombarded with angry responses.  Unfortunately for the virtual lynch mob, Sacco was on a plane and couldn’t see the tweets.  This fact spawned the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, which is how I caught wind of the whole thing.

Needless to say, Sacco was fired by her employers.  Whether her account has that infamous “these are my thoughts, not those of So-and-So, Inc.” disclaimer or not, there is almost certainly language in her contract that allows her to be terminated for making the company look stupid.  And any company with someone on the payroll who says something like that publicly looks pretty stupid.

At its core, I don’t have a problem with her losing her job; she said something horrifically offensive and her employers didn’t like it.  My issue is with the aforementioned virtual lynch mob; as bad as racism is, I think mob rule is pretty awful, too.

(This is where I might venture into “Unpopular Opinion” territory.)

Why is it that everyone with a Twitter or Facebook account is suddenly a judge, jury, and executioner?  Who are we to impose our moral code in the most impersonal manner possible on people we don’t even know?  As terrible as her comment may have been, isn’t it also a bad sign that a collection of random people – however right they might be – can get someone fired, humiliated, and possibly eternally ruined simply because they made a mistake?

Bullying is a topic du jour, especially with the anonymity and distance that the internet and social media can provide…well, isn’t this kind of like bullying?  Aren’t these people ganging up on someone for their own enjoyment?  Don’t tell me it’s to effect change in the world; AIDS and racism aren’t going to disappear just because one woman got fired, and if you honestly believe they might, shut off your computer or your phone and spend a couple days in the real world.

No, the folks that created this firestorm did it to punish someone whose actions they disagreed with.  Except, as far as I can tell, no crime was committed, and the Twitter Police aren’t an actual law enforcement agency.  This was vigilante justice, plain and simple.  I thought we’re supposed to be better than that.

Surely Sacco will pawn her comment off as a very poor joke, or maybe some sort of social commentary.  And maybe it actually was; she wasn’t able to defend or explain herself at 30,000 feet in the air, and by the time #JustineLanded, it was too late for it to make a difference.

And that’s my problem with the mob mentality.  Let those among us who have never said anything they regret to pick up the first stones, and let those who never had a chance to defend or redeem themselves be the first to throw them.

But then people like Justine Sacco would be able to get a second chance and wouldn’t have one public mistake dictate the course of the rest of their lives.

And that’s no fun, now is it?

Here Comes Santa Claus

I think we should move Christmas back a month, to January 25.

I know, I know.  Hear me out.

I already told you that snow makes me feel the Christmas spirit a little more than, I don’t know, RAIN AND TEMPERATURES IN THE 60s JUST A FEW DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS.  Who doesn’t like snowflakes on Christmas?  Al Qaeda, that’s who.

Where I live (and really, that’s all that matters to me in this case), we get more snow in January than in December.  Ergo, January is more suited to Christmas than December.

Holiday timing as it stands now is too bunched together.  This year, Thanksgiving and Christmas are less than four weeks apart; granted, that 27 days is the shortest time possible, but even when Thanksgiving is as early as it can be, it’s only 34 days between big, heavy-preparation-required meals and traveling headaches and oh, man, my family?  Again?

Push it back a month and you get some space.  Wouldn’t you rather have two months between major holidays?  More time to recover from all that turkey you ate!  More time to (legally*) listen to Christmas music!  More time to shop for presents!  Of course you would!  This is a fantastic idea.

*I firmly believe that anyone guilty of playing a Christmas song before Thanksgiving should be shot.

The biggest hurdle would be the religious one: if December 25 marks the birth of Christ, you can’t celebrate Christmas a month later.  True.  BUT, if you want to break up the two parts of the holiday – the religious observance of the birth of Jesus and the commercial observance of “holy crap, gifts!” – you can celebrate them separately.  The line is blurred as it is; let’s just make a clean break.  Failing that, the Catholic Church could (be financially enticed to) claim that we’ve been looking at our calendars all wrong, and we’ve been off by a month for two thousand years.

Then, of course, you have the school schedule.  Well, I’m 30, so I don’t really care about the school schedule anymore.  Start and end the school year a little later – say, the end and beginning of summer – and you can fudge it however you like to allow the new Christmas break to be roughly the middle of the school year.  Who would be opposed to that?  Put your hands down, Al Qaeda!  Yeesh.

Look, it’s far-fetched, but couldn’t you use a little more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas?  Don’t you want snow on the ground on Christmas morning?

January.  It’s the way to go.

Almost Perfect

Despite the specter of little sleep staring me in the face, I went to the bowling alley last night and had a pretty good evening.

I missed a spare in the first frame, but had four strikes in a row to get back on the horse.  I closed the first game with a spare and a strike in the 10th frame for a 204, and we won the game by 17 pins.

In the second game, I started out with a few strikes in what was shaping up to be a close battle.  I kept striking, although not all of them were of the highest quality.  I had one where a couple pins were taken down from behind, and another where the 5-pin remained standing for a couple seconds before another pin rolled into it.

In the ninth frame, I threw a pretty good ball, and all the pins fell.  I had never gotten the first eight in a row in a game; now I was sitting on nine.  I did a little math after the fact: since graduating college, I have bowled the rough equivalent 19 and a half bowling seasons.  My best-ever game was 279, which didn’t even come in a league setting, but in a tournament.  This, obviously, was uncharted territory for me.

Normally when someone is putting together a long string of strikes, people start to notice.  Lots of guys get into the side pots throughout the night, so other peoples’ results affect them; as such, they often cruise up and down the house checking scores.  When someone gets to nine in a row, guys will often stop bowling and watch.  It’s odd, though, because while they’re essentially offering a setting without distraction, the lack of distraction becomes a distraction in and of itself.

There are a number of great bowlers in the league, and when they are on the brink of a perfect game, they usually only get a handful of guys watching.  Someone like me, however, a middle of the road bowler (at least as far as this league is concerned), will draw a crowd.  I picked up my ball, toweled off the oil, and made sure not to turn around.  All I could think was, “jeez, it took you long enough to get here, didn’t it?”

You would think I’d feel some nerves, but I didn’t.  No breathing issues, no noticeably elevated heart rate, no rise in temperature.  I’ve been up there with games on the line before – including a championship or three – and I’ve learned to embrace the pressure, at least to the point where it doesn’t affect the result of the shot.  If I throw a bad ball, it’s not because I wilted in the moment; it’s because I’m a good bowler but not elite, and the difference is the ability to drop the ball in the same place 100 out of 100 times instead of 85.

I began my approach and quickly discovered that my legs were not on the same page as the rest of my body.  I wouldn’t say they felt like jelly, but they certainly weren’t completely solid.  I got to the line, and my delivery felt a little off.  The ball was decent, though, and rolled right into the pocket.  Ten in a row.

I walked back to the ball return and saw that pretty much the entire league was watching.  I looked up in mock surprise and asked, “Hey, wait, what’s going on?  Something happen?”  I got a few laughs, which was the point, but I think the main goal was really to make sure I was keeping an even keel myself.

A big part of bowling is routine.  When you begin your approach, you take the same number of steps every time, you (try to) put the ball in the same place every time, and you follow through with the same arm motion in the same arm slot every time.  But even more than that, you want to make sure you do the same things leading up to a shot as well; whether it’s cleaning your ball off before every shot, using a rosin bag, or taking a breath before stepping out with one particular foot first, you want to keep your routine.

My routine has me wipe the oil off of my ball, even when there’s none clearly visible.  Then I put my ring and middle fingers into the ball while I step up to the approach, and use my right foot to sort of step into my starting stance.  I put my thumb in last, and try to remember to take a deep breath; once I exhale, it’s off to the proverbial races.  I don’t take a lot of time; once my ball comes off the ball return, if there’s no one on either side of me, it’s usually out of my hand within 20 seconds.  I don’t rush, but I also don’t waste time.

Part of what makes a routine so routine is that eventually you get to a point where it becomes second nature and you don’t even think about it.  But in that moment, I thought about it.  Not to make sure I did it, or was doing it right; I thought about it because it was simple, and it was right there, and if I was thinking about that, then I wouldn’t be worried about what was possibly about to happen.

I stepped up, took my deep breath, and then told myself something that I usually don’t have to: “just don’t fall down.”  The legs were a little shakier this time, and as I approached the line I remember thinking that there was a distinct possibility of me ending up on the ground before I released the ball.

It didn’t happen.  No, despite all that was going on, despite all the pitfalls that could have stood between me and 11 strikes in a row, I reached the line on my feet and released the best ball I threw all game.  As it rolled down the lane, I even started to back away, the way guys do when they know they’ve converted a spare.

It was about as pure a hit as I could have asked for.  Ten pins down.  Eleven strikes down.

As I turned to walk back, I thought to myself, “well, 290-something is a score, huh?”  No matter what, I had come further than I ever had before, and I was going to have one of the best possible scores in the game to my credit.

I’ve often said that once I let go of a ball, I have no control over what happens.  It’s not completely true, but it’s not a lie, either.  As my teammates and I saw throughout the game, I can throw an iffy ball and get a strike, while someone else could absolutely bury a ball right in the perfect spot and leave a split.  All we can do is try to stack the odds in our favor by throwing the ball in the right spot, at the right speed, and on the right path towards the pins.

It’s 60 feet from the foul line to the head pin; a lot can happen in that stretch, and if you get too bogged down with what happens there, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Control what you can control, and let the pins fall where they may.

You could make the argument, then, that every strike is lucky; either you benefited from something out of the ordinary, or you were fortunate that something out of the ordinary didn’t happen on that particular shot.

So here I was, needing one more strike, and the reality is that it was, for the most part, out of my hands.  All I could do was lead the horse to water; whether or not he chose to drink, I was at peace with the result.

The precipice of perfection is quiet, as you might expect.  By that point, everyone is crowded behind the lane in question, and they’ve been there long enough that you don’t even hear the sounds of the other lanes resetting pins or returning balls.  The silence is deafening, and it is heavy.

I took my steps toward the foul line.  In my head, my legs looked like a newborn foal trying to stand up.

I released the ball.  At that point, it was just the ball, but in a few seconds, it might be the ball.

As soon as it left my hand, the noise came back.  You know those scenes in action movies, where everything slows down while the hero fights off two, three, four attackers at once?  And how, once that last guy is beaten, everything zips back to normal speed?  That’s exactly what throwing a ball after opening with 11 strikes sounds like; as if the entire room, except for me, was in slow motion, and now everyone else was catching up.

The whole game – the whole night, really – I had been throwing the ball towards the outside part of the lane.  I had a good, consistent motion that allowed the ball to hook back towards the pins at the right angle.  I had a margin for error; so long as I got the ball within a board or two of where I was aiming, I had had success throughout the first 19 frames of the night.

I missed by about five this time.

Despite that, the ball didn’t hook like it had done all night.  It held on a little bit, and for 45 feet, it had a real chance.  And had I thrown the ball in that exact place, but about five miles per hour faster, this story might have a different ending.

But I didn’t.  I threw it at the right speed, with the right motion, from the right starting point; I just released my thumb a half second later than I should have.  Was it the pressure?  It might have been.  But it also might just have been a shot that was poorly executed, and even more poorly timed.

I left two pins for a 298, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which ones they were.  There was a groan of disappointment from the crowd: not in me, but for me.  There is a difference, and you could tell it was the latter.

I like to think that part of it is because I try to carry myself with as much class as possible on the lanes.  It may sound ridiculous, but it’s just like any other competitive activity: respect the game and your opponents.  I do my best to avoid wild shows of emotion, both positive and negative.  After a shot, you often can’t tell if I just struck for the fourth (or 11th) straight frame, or if I’ve missed my third straight spare.  There’s just no reason to show up your opponent or draw attention to yourself.  It’s a team game.

But in this instance, the team aspect was over: I could have dumped a pair of balls in the gutter and we would have won by 60-plus pins.  This was all about me, and I reacted like I almost always do when I miss: a slight grimace and a walk back to the ball return.  I have no idea what I would have done if I’d made the shot, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been loud or very demonstrative.

Anyway, I think it’s partially because of that even-keelness that the guys were really, truly happy for me that I got that far, and that I was able to appreciate what I’d done as opposed to what I hadn’t done.  There were a lot of high fives and handshakes, and even a few bro-hugs.  Unfortunately, since he’s been in and out of the hospital, my dad wasn’t there to see it, but on the flip side, the anticipation and nerves might have sent him right back to the emergency room.  Despite the old man not being there, I felt the love, and was flattered and humbled by everyone’s reaction.  It reminded me why I keep showing up every week, no matter how terrible I might feel.

It took me a while to calm down internally, and it might have shown on the scoreboard.  But by the end of the third game, I got it together.  So did my teammates, and we pulled out a win for a clean sweep of our opponents.  I ended the night with four consecutive strikes for a 203 game and a 705 series.

As today has gone on, and I shared the story with a coworker, I’ve actually gotten more disappointed that I didn’t finish the job.  What if I don’t ever get another crack at it?  What if that was my peak?  It’s entirely possible that I won’t ever be in that position again.

But whereas yesterday I might have said that I didn’t know if I’d ever get there, now I know that I can, because I did.  Confidence isn’t often in abundant supply with me, but for some reason, coming so close to a perfect game has already changed how I look at myself as a bowler.  As I sit here writing about it, I actually feel like I’m a better bowler than I was yesterday.  I’m not, but at the very least, I stood there in front of the entire league in the most pressure-packed individual situation in the game, and I didn’t back down.  I didn’t wilt.  And, results aside, just knowing that means a world of difference.

I’ll get there again someday.  I promise.

(I just hope I don’t have to wait another 20 seasons for a second chance.)

In the Middle of the Night

I love my little sister, but sometimes, I don’t particularly like her.

Today is one of those days.

She’s coming home from Boston tonight for the holidays.  Well, I mean, she’s arriving tomorrow, except to me, it might as well still be tonight.

My rule is that if I haven’t gone to bed yet, then it’s still whatever day it was when I woke up.  Her train arrives at 4:30 in the morning, which means that by the time I get in from the bowling alley, wash up a little, and fall asleep, it’ll be between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m.  Having to get up at 4:00, that doesn’t count as going to bed; that is what I call “a nap.”

She does this all the time.  She spends the entire day at work or in school, and then takes a 9:30 or 10:00 train and arrives here in the middle of the night.  This seems like a fairly ungrateful trend.  My mother always defends her, too: “she’ll take the bus,” she claims.  No she won’t!  Not at 4:30!

Of course, this isn’t usually a problem for me, but with my dad’s recent hospital stay, he’s not supposed to be driving yet.  My mom doesn’t drive, so it looks like I’m heading down to the station to pick her up.  And inevitably, her train will arrive a few minutes early, and I will arrive a few minutes late, and she’ll be upset that she had to wait.  She’ll also be tired, which she will remind me of within five minutes of getting into the car.  Right, because I’m just a perky ball of perk after an hour and a half of sleep.

Maybe the worst part is that I know it’s coming, and it kind of ruins the whole day.  Like, I’ll be on the way to bowling tonight thinking about how I’ll have to rush home just to get a little bit of sleep, and how after I pick her up, I might be able to fall asleep for another couple hours before I have to get up for work.  That’s a real quick and easy way to ruin two days right there.

So yeah.  Sleep well tonight, because at least someone should.

From Me to You

Many people engage in a “Yankee Swap” gift exchange with their friends around the holidays.  My family does something in that vein, but I had a new idea for what to do this year, and I’ll share it with you as well.  Consider it my gift.  It’s probably not original, but then again, most gifts you’ll get at Christmas aren’t unique anyway.

First, make sure everyone who attends the party brings a wrapped gift that has a predetermined cost.  You can make it $10 or $20 or whatever seems appropriate for your group.  For the sake of this example, we’ll say there are eight people in the game, which means there will be eight gifts available.  You’ll also need a pair of dice.

Everyone sits or stands around a table with the gifts piled up in the center.  Someone starts with the dice – pick this person however you like – and rolls.  The dice will move clockwise around the circle.  When a player rolls doubles, they select a gift from the center of the table.  Their participation in this round is now over.  Make a note of what order the players draw gifts in; you could make a note of the order on a sheet of paper, or you can all shift your places around the table.

Once all the gifts are claimed (the last person to roll doubles will be left without a choice of gift), the swapping and stealing round begins.  The person who claimed their gift first opens it.  The person to their left then rolls the dice, again moving clockwise around the table, ending with the person who just opened a gift.  If a player rolls doubles, they may swap their gift – depending on how many times you’ve gone around the table, it could be opened or unopened – with any other gift on the table.  Once the person who just opened their gift has rolled, the round is over.

Then, the next person in line – the second person to claim a gift in the opening round – opens their gift, and you repeat the process.  In the final round, the last player to claim a gift will open their gift last, and be the last to roll for a final swap.  This allows that player to have the advantage of having the most information when making their final choice; a small consolation for being the last person left in the opening round.

Once all the gifts are opened and everyone has rolled the dice, the game is over and everyone either enjoys their gifts or rues the day they agreed to this stupid game.

You can make some easy modifications to the game if you’d like.  One change would be to allow players in the swapping rounds to only swap their gift for the one specific gift that was opened that round, i.e. each gift in the example would be at risk just eight times, and once that round is over, the person who holds it can’t have it taken from them.  A follow-up to this variation would also be to force a player who rolls doubles to swap the gift whether they want to or not; this is for the particularly spiteful among you.

I would also throw in the wrinkle of adding an extra gift to the pot, provided by the host or the person who suggested playing the game.  That way, even the last person has a choice of gifts, and then during the later swap rounds, if there’s nothing open that you like, you can still swap an unopened gift and add some mystery and intrigue.

I haven’t tries this yet, so I have no idea how it would go, but the element of chance certainly mitigates (somewhat) the inevitable occurrence of one gift being passed around the entire table and everyone fighting over it.

Then again, it’s not the holidays without a fight or two, so hey, whatever floats your boat.

It Was a Very Good Year

Have you checked out your Facebook “Year in Review” yet?  That’s right, Facebook has arbitrarily picked the top 20 posts from the year to sum up your life for you.

I looked at mine, and it was stupid.

Among other things, there are a couple work-related posts, a couple photos from Phillies games, and a photo I took of a lunch receipt.  That’s right; when I went to a place I hadn’t been in years and took a photo that one person liked, that was apparently one of the top moments of my year.

Who decided this?  What algorithm is involved?  Why does this even exist?

Hey, Facebook.  Here’s an idea for you, you creepy creeps: how about you set up a widget or something for users to pick their OWN “Year in Review?”  Anyone who does it – and while I wouldn’t do it, millions certainly would – would be spending even more time on your site combing through old posts.  They would be logged in even longer, driving up your traffic even higher, allowing you to sell even more ads for even more money.

Now, I just gave a multi-gazillion dollar corporation an idea to make even more money.  That’s how stupid, annoying, and creepy this is.

Social media is starting to become a little less social and a little more all-consuming.  I don’t like it.  But I’m just one old man.