Friday, June 29, 2012

The Goal

I doubt it can be achieved, and that fact breaks my heart, but one can dream . . . 

Little Einstein - an unpublished column

I wrote this in 2009, and I can't remember if I ever submitted for publication, or if it was just rejected for one reason or another. I also can't remember if I've ever published here. If I did, I apologize for wasting your time. :)

When my nephew was born fifteen years ago I wasted no time in trying to secure his future. No, I didn't run out and buy stocks or bonds  in his name, none of which I could afford as a college student. Instead I drove to the bookstore and scooped up anything with titles like "Your Baby Can Read!" and "Teach Math to your Infant!".

I remember knowing, with a faith bordering on the religious, that these tomes would give my nephew the head start he'd need to succeed in life.

Did it work? Well, no actually.  He didn't read a book or do long division  until elementary school (gasp!). While  he's a bright kid, I'm afraid  the only way he'll qualify as the next  Edison is if the definition of 'genius' expands  to include  World of Warcraft acumen.

I thought of those books when I read that the Disney corporation was offering rebates to customers who purchased their popular Little Einstein videos between 2004 and 2009.  The videos feature simple images of toys, colors and shapes accompanied by music, and Disney shrewdly chose to market the product as educational for infants. That led to a a group called the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood filling a complaint with the FCC in 2006.  As a result, Disney complied with their demand and dropped the claim about its educational value.

According to the CCFC's own website, it wasn't enough. “We thought parents deserved better, “ the website said. And so, under pressure  Disney agreed to a rebate for customers who bought the films “mistakenly believing the videos would make their baby smarter.”

Let's gloss over the fact that the 'rebate' only seems to encourage an investment in the product line, seeing as it primarily comes in the form of coupons or exchanges. What bothers me is the fact that this argument got any traction at all.

By the era of Little Einstein I was a parent myself, and yes, I bought a few of the tapes. I no longer had any illusions about tweaking IQ's, but my daughters found it fascinating and , if nothing else, it exposed them to classical music at an early age. Or so I said at the time. If I'm honest, it also kept them out of my hair for a few minutes, which made the videoes worth every penny. If most parents were as blunt, I'd think they'd concede the same thing.

 As for the 'rebates', argue an objection to “screen time” for infants, and I might concede your point. But to base the objection on a failure to make a baby  “smarter” strikes me as ridiculous. More so than even my thoughts that day at the bookstore. My goal wasn't to raise his intelligence, it was to jumpstart his education. Tomatoes/tomatoes? I disagree.

How do you define “smarter” in an infant? What standards constitute success or failure? And smarter than whom? Mom? Dad? The neighbor's cat? Remember, these are babies we're talking about. If you express  disappointment that they 'only' possess their native intelligence – to the extent you ask a corporation for a refund based on that fact -what kind of message are you establishing for the next eighteen years?

There will always be products that cash in on our desire to help our children. Some will be sincere, some will be nothing more than patent medicine. Shut them down when they encourage harm, but I'd  be careful about being smug when you do. Remember: in the end, they do nothing more than fill the need our own egos demand. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Empire of the Eagle

Around six years ago Lisa and I stayed at a bed and breakfast a few hours outside of Milwaukee, and on the morning of our departure we wandered the streets of the town and, being me, we would up inside a bookstore. While I was there I bought "Empire of the Eagle" by Andre Norton and Susan Schwartz. I am happy to report I finally crossed it off my TBR (to be read) list. 

I loved it. 

The novel traces the fate of Quintus, a Roman tribune whose family was evicted from their estate in disgrace, a man who still seeks to regain the family honor and reclaim their land. It is not to be. The Romans are horribly defeated at the battle of Carrhae,  and their Eagle standards taken as trophies for their enemies. Quintus and his men are purchased as slaves to be given to the Chinese emperor thousands of miles to the East. Along the way disaster and misfortune strike the group, and in those dark hours the survivors learn what it means to be Roman - and what it means to follow the Eagle. 

That's the 'straight' part of the novel. There's also a significant supernatural element, involving Roman and Hindu lore. At first that turned me off, and led me to put the book aside a few years ago. This time I felt  the realistic and fantastical plots melded perfectly, with neither overshadowing the other. It works. 

I really enjoyed this book. I grade it an A. 

Book #47 of the year

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Funhouse Stairs No More

You saw the before pictures of the back porch. Howsabout some 'after'? Our contractor came over on the 18th and began the work on one of the hottest days of the year to date. That sucked - for him. Me? All I had to do was sit back, enjoy the A/C and write out a check.

(note my bike in the background. Sniff.)


Here's the old porch post-demolition. I should have painted the side of the shed before the new porch went up to block it, dang nabbit.


Here's the new porch. Nothing fancy, but we didn't want it to be. If we're going to spend money on a porch, it'll be on the front version, not this one. If the shed didn't hug the lot line to the north we might have expanded it in that direction, but practicality dictated it fit the space allotted.






The porch was functional and basic, as requested, but I was very happy with his work on the bilco/cellar door.



He leveled off the sides with concrete, put on seals, caulking, and whatnot, and made a solid, pretty darn snug entrance.



There's still work to be done. In part because of the bike theft I've decided to bite the bullet and replace the rear entry door with something newer and more substantial, although still bright and fitting in with the rest of the home.

 Not that it *doesn't* need replacing anyway, as it is old as sin and so worn that I actually saw light coming through the wood the other day. Still, the porch replacement took up a good chunk of my - well I was about to say spending money, but frankly, it took a lot of my anything money. I would have preferred to wait a month or two, but away we go.

Remember, this may be the Year of the Comeback, but I've only been 'fully' employed now for 5 months.  I'm still playing catch-up.

So there ya have it. Funhouse stairs no more. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

RIP Dear Schwinn - You served me well

Last night, strangely sans kids for the first night in just under two years, Lisa and went out to dinner and drinks. We got home late, and I thought about putting my beloved  Schwinn Moon Dog Cruiser bike in the shed, but exhaustion and the idea of some ahem, alone time, ahem, got the better of me. 

The bike was stolen overnight. 

I do not live in a bad neighborhood; quite the contrary. It isn't 90210, but it isn't Times Square circa 1978 either. My thoughts immediately jumped to the scrap metal 'collectors' who prowl the alleys. My thought process and emotions spilled out on Facebook: 

My bike was stolen from my yard overnight, in what appears to be the work of the scrappers who drive through the alley, grab what they can from nearby yards, and take off. This is the first time in 5 years that I've been a victim, but neighbors have had run-ins with them before. Next time I see them, [redatcted]

Just off the phone with[my friend The] Socialist, who scraps part-time. He said he'll keep an eye out for the bike and the suspected crew in question. Nothings gonna come of it, but wth, the one chance in a thousand . . .

 I am beyond angry and at Lisa's urging I have temporarily forced myself to stay in the house. Earlier, seeing a man on a bike, I slammed on my brakes - at a green light - with the intention of kicking his ass and getting my property, but of course it was just some dude wondering what idiot stops at a green light.

Just looking at all the posts on Slapinions labeled 'bike'. So many good times with that bike. Road trips with the kids one-on-one, and they all look so young in the pictures . . .

Talked to my neighbor across the alley. I asked him if he thought it was someone after my bike or the scrappers, and he said there's no question it was the latter. He said he now keeps a padlock on his gate at night to keep them out (they once stole the aluminum awning from above his back door!). Unfortunately, that didn't prevent them from stealing a strut from his garage door when he left it open to go inside for a leak.

So, my beloved black  Schwinn Moon Dog Cruiser I hope you are sold for scap, only so that you are recycled and come back into the care of a rider who deserves you. But, if said thief chooses to ride you - kindly lock your brakes and send him spiraling headfirst into traffic. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Rent these - or not?

Smile is an English language foreign film set in Morocco. A group of multi-national college students set out on a camping trip in the 'haunted' Atlas mountains. Among them is a journalism student whose camera is stolen; luckily she's able to replace it with an instant camera she buys at a creepy antique shop. 

Why a serious photographer would be content to replace an expensive professional camera with a cheap instant version is never explained. 

Alas, there's something funky about said camera, and one by one the people it photographs meet gruesome deaths. 

Is it a good film? No. Is it awful? No. It's pretty much stuck in 'neutral'. 

I grade it a C-

Rango is a cowboy-lizard cartoon featuring the voice of Johnny Depp. It was predictable but entertaining. The best part? The evil snake. *That* was some wicked animation. 

Grade: B

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a documentary that follows a West Virginia family of misfits and criminals for a year. I've heard a lot of great things about it, but I wasn't impressed. Heck, I was a little bored. Heavy drinking recreational drug users with a flair for occasional violence and a criminal record? Big deal.  I've known plenty of 'em myself. 

Grade: C

I was never a fan of Arnie's Conan, so I was expecting less than nothing from the new Conan The Barbarian

Well, shiver me timbers, I was wrong. Color me impressed. Oh, it's a popcorn flick of no value to society. But it's a fun waste of 'time better spent helping your fellow man'. 

One thing I still don't understand about this genre. You say there's a magic mask that brings evil into the world? Yikes. Oh, but the bad guy was killed eons ago and the mask was shattered. Whew. Wait, you saved the pieces of the mask? Why? You scattered them around the world? Ooookkkkaaay. I guess that sort of makes sense. Sorta. Kinda. Hold on, there's a prophesy saying someday the pieces will be reunited and evil will reign supreme? Ah, well in that case DESTROY THE BLEEPING PIECES. 

Still, a fun romp. 

Grade: B+

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Redshirts and Half Moon Investigations

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a science fiction novel that starts out with a fun take on the old Star Trek cliche that 'extras' on the show - often garbed in security red - were doomed to die. What if these low ranking folks began to take notes, calculate the odds, and decide things needed to change?

Unfortunately, at that point Scalzi decides to go all 'meta' and have the cast become part of a fractured universe where they are mere characters in a TV show. With no alternative, they decide to venture to 'our' world to speak with the shows creators.

I'm sure it's that last bit that some people will argue 'makes' the book, but it was the opposite for me, and from that point on I was less than enamoured with the novel.

As for the three codas, the third was moving, the second moderately so, the first a ridiculous waste of time, and the whole a needless exercise.

I grade this is a B-

Book #45 of 2012

I picked up Eoin Colfer's Half Moon Investigations because YaYa left it in the van one day and I thought it looked interesting. I was right.

It's rather like Encyclopedia Brown meets The Three Investigators meets The Bloodhound Gang, and although I'm sick of pint sized protagonist (what, no chunky or tall kid can play a hero?)  I thought it was a hoot. As the highest praise of all, may I just say that I would have tore this s**t up as a kid.

Grade: A+

Book #46 on the year

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

LuLu and Ginger's Room Re-Do pt 2

Early on Father's Day Lisa disappeared upstairs, and when I went to track her down I found her applying decals to the newly painted walls in LuLu and Ginger's room. That was bad timing on my part. They weren't sticking on the textured walls, so Lisa sent me back downstairs to find a paint brush, and to mix a water and glue solution to essentially decoupage the decals to the wall.

Guess who got stuck decoupaging? Grrr. :)

The results were pretty darn good. The decals were high quality sets produced by IKEA that my lady had bought for a $1/sealed pack at a local second hand store, but Lisa theorized that their age (six years since manufacture) had diminished the adhesion.

Oh, we also got around to replacing the closet light and buying the bolts to secure the bed rail on the bunk bed, but the bolts were the wrong size so I'm afraid I can't take much credit for that purchase.

What do you think of the work?



Monday, June 18, 2012

Funhouse Stairs No More

Today we had our back porch redone.

Oh, it needed it. Five years ago we were almost denied homeowners insurance when we bought the house because the porch was in such disrepair; a last minute band-aid repair was needed before the insurer would complete the process and clear the way for the purchase. 

By the time we were done renovating the interior, there was no money left to do the porch. Which was fine, as the repair held up. Besides, it was only a matter of time before we replaced it. And . . . then I lost Job Prior, and for a few years it continued to rot away as it was the least of our worries. 

Heck, we almost canceled LuLu's 8th birthday party because one of the stairs collapsed an hour before it began. This past winter I had to brace the stairs with scrap wood to keep them upright until spring, and . . .  then in spring our intended contractor did a vanishing act and somehow, someway, it wound up being the middle of June. 

But as of this morning the "funhouse stairs" are no more. I don't have the new porch pics to show you quite yet, as the work continues, but I'll whet your appetite with the horrific 'before' pictures. 





The 'landing' was warping and rotting.


the railings were held in with jerry-rigged solutions of spare screws and nails


The steps, as I alluded to before, were akin to walking a teeter-totter





In just as bad a shape was the bilco door (the exterior access to the basement). It had literally rotted clean through and been patched up with scrap during the quote process


I tried opening the door for a better look but the entire handle and board came off in my hand


Once it was removed today by the contractor the damage was even more apparent




Lovely ain't it?

Well, it's now in porch heaven, and by this time tomorrow I should have some pictures of the finished new porch for you.

The Year of the Comeback continues . . . 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Father's Day 2012


It's been a pretty darn good day.

For starters, late the night before I stopped by my parent's place and dropped off a gift for my Dad. I gave him my copy of Jeff Shaara's A Blaze of Glory and two catcus plants that Lisa put in a wicker gift basket and packaged beautifully, finishing it off with a bow. Naturally, the first thing my Dad did was stumble and overturn the plants, ruining the effect! LOL (no matter; he loved them).

(Lisa bought me a 14" cookie to celebrate the day, and I'm proud to say I only enjoyed two pieces and left the rest for the kids.)

For much of the day the holiday was spent as it should be, sans kids. As I wrote on Facebook:

I have successfully rid myself of all but one kid and I aim to keep it that way as long as I can. The best Father's Day gift you can give a father of four young'ins? Keeping them the bleep outta my hair before I lose what little is left of it. :)

For lunch Lis and I went alone to La Salsa, a restaurant that opened for business only the night before, although another location has been in business for years.


 The food was cheap, great tasting, and plentiful. The fajitas I ordered filled me up halfway into the order, and wound up being my dinner too.  It's within walking distance of our home, which is another plus.

Then it was time for a true rarity, a short but wonderful nap.

I ran to Home Depot for some items for LuLu's room re-do, then spent much of the next three hours enjoying my long-awaited gift, a brand new lawnmower Lisa had had on lawaway since April! Whoo-hoo!


What the hey - a beauty like this deserves two pics!


Or even three!


As I was putting the mower together LuLu returned home, which was a bit annoying (see the FB post above), but turned out to to be a blessing as she was pretty darn adapt at helping me assemble it. We then walked to the gas station while YaYa prepped the yard, but as we were filling the gas can we noticed a big crack on the bottom. Luckily the attendant loaned me a spare can and so the mowing commenced . .


'Twas a thing of beauty, it was. While I was cutting the lawn YaYa commenced to trimming with our brand-new trimmer


but sadly, that didn't go as well. Oh, the trimming got done, but the shield you see attached in the picture broke off a few minutes later, 20 minutes after being unboxed. Back to the store tomorrow!

So the lawn got mowed and trimmed, I took out the edger and did the backyard, and then pruned the so-called "Bonsai" bushes in front of the house. At about that time my neighbor Glen came home and asked if he could see "the new baby".

Basking in my manhood I showed him the new beauty. He marveled at it, and I offered to let him borrow it (he had loaned me his while we were waiting for the lawaway). "No, I couldn't, " he said. "Using this and then going back to mine, man, it would only make me cry."

Darn tootin'

After all that I was exhausted but rounded up the family, got them off to bed, then showered and hunkered down for a night with Lisa only to discover she wasn't feeling well and went to bed by 8:30. So it was on to Blogger, and, shortly, either a good book or a cheesy movie.

Best. Fathers Day. To. Date.

I hope all the Father's out there can say the same! We deserve it!

Friday, June 15, 2012

When FDR Died

When FDR Died is a 1961 book by Bernard Asbell that chronicles the events of April 12, 1945, the day FDR died while vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia.

I've owned the book for close to 20 years now, so I'm happy I finally got off my duff and crossed this off my 'to be read' list. It's a very readable, very informal account of the day and the events culminating in his funeral, and I certainly learned a lot. For starters, I always assumed he died in the White House, and I never could have guessed at the extent of the public mourning for the man.

Regarding that mourning . . . well it strikes me as over the top, even creepy. Sharecroppers literally prostrating themselves before his funeral train. A Madison factory going on strike because the owner wouldn't fly a US flag in mourning during a rainstorm. Newspapers refusing all commercial advertising. Stores closed. Concerts cancelled. The public warned that the expected run on mourning clothes could cripple the wartime cotton industry. People of all ages falling to their knees and weeping to the heavens.

I was born 29 years after his death, so I can't begin to put myself in the shoes of your Average Joe of the day, but it seems so excessive. I can understand it for Lincoln, a man murdered by a vengeful enemy in the hour of his triumph, or Kennedy, a young icon struck down in his prime. But for a frail, sickly man who had propped himself up as President for Life? No. It's very nearly blasphemous.  He was a man, not a diety.

I'm sure it's a generational gap. But I'm equally certain my opinion was shared by contemporaries of the event, and that the love affair was not quite so universal as advertised. Said William C Murphy, Jr, later an RNC publicity director but at the time a beat reporter on the funeral train "You guys will be coming back as soon as the old man is buried, but not me. I'm going to sit by his grave for three days and see if he . . . rises."

A worthwhile, detailed look at a watershed moment for the Greatest Generation.

Grade: A -

Boook #44 of the year

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Maybe you can provide the answer . . .

Ok, World Wide Web, I need your help.

As a youngster I watched a WWII movie that's stuck in my head for thirty years. Unfortunately, the title was less memorable, and I've been unable to ID the movie to this day. Maybe you can help change that.

Here's what I know:

1. I watched it with my Grandpa, who died in 1983. I would place the viewing as somewhere between 1981 and '83. 

2. We watched it on the "Late Late Show" on CBS (6) in Milwaukee late one Saturday evening.

3. If it was on broadcast TV then, I can't imagine it being made any earlier than 1980 (and that's a stretch). 

4. I remember it being in color. For a second tier WWII flick, I'd say that dates it to no earlier than 1960. 

So we have a twenty year window, 1960-'80.

The plot:

a. A U.S. Army company is ambushed and destroyed in Europe by a German armoured force. I remember the German's broadcasting "Is anyone alive?" to the shattered group, searching for prisoners. 

b. a small number of Americans (seven?) escape and try to return to their own lines. 

c. one by one, over the course of the film, they are separated and picked off

d. one GI is captured. When the Germans take the pic of his wife from his wallet and toss it in the mud her frantically dives to the ground to retrieve it, ignoring their screams to stop. They shoot him dead on the spot. 

e. one of the last remaining characters is killed at the conclusion of the movie with a shot to the throat.

Any ideas folks?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The newly renovated LuLu and Ginger Room (in progress)

Well, that's a cruddy shot, complete with smudge on the lens and a mess on the dresser. Oh well. My nine year old (LuLu) took it, and I doubt I could have done better at her age. I'll get better pics in the near future.

 What you're looking at is the 1st concrete step towards reclaiming our home and our lives in this, The Year of The Comeback.

With a new full time job lining my pockets with an extra $5 to spare at the end of the week, we've decided to redo the house, one bedroom at a time. First up is LuLu and Ginger's room, seen above. Last month we spray painted their old red metal bunk bed black, and a few paychecks later picked up zebra print bed sets for the girls.Yesterday, the big plunge, using the remnants of last week's check: two gallons of  paint in LuLu's favorite color of lime green (officially, Harvest Plantain), a half gallon of black to touch up the bed and for the insets on the door, a desk lamp, and light dampening, insulating widow curtains.

While I was at work today Lisa emptied the room and painted it, and when I got home we put the bed back together. There are still touch ups to be done, and the door insets. I also need to replace the closet light, better insulate the window A/C, and buy a new bolt for the bed guard on the top bunk.

Plus it wouldn't hurt for the kids to clean the room either.

Once their room is done its on to Smiley's, then YaYa's, then our own and the entryway. But before any of those, a huge expense: the replacement of our back porch, which is quite literally a safety hazard. It's falling apart, and some steps are supported solely by scrap pieces of wood anchored to the side. I'll take pics of that mess in the next few days, but the contractor has already been hired to replace it.

Progress . . . it makes you feel, what's the word? Oh yeah. Proud. 

Daughters of Satan

Daughters of Satan is a 1972 horror film starring a young Tom Selleck, here proving he could rock a mustache in every era. He plays an art buyer stationed in Manilla who finds a 450 year old painting of 3 witches being burned at the stake. The one in the middle? Well, she just happens to be a dead ringer for his lovely young wife. 

Believe it or not, strange things happen once his wife is exposed to the painting, and before long a four century old plan for revenge is put into motion - complete with bare breasts, bondage, and a smidge of torture in the buff. 

What can I say? When the daughters of Satan make a plan, they make it easy to watch. 

It's a crud film, but not as bad as you think. The script makes an effort to be coherent, and Selleck does all he can to hold this one together. Unfortunately it is what it is, and his cast mates have presumably been paid *not* to act for the last 40 years. 

Grade: C/C-

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Joan Rivers and Shiloh

Shiloh 1862 by Winston Goom (yes, the same guy who wrote Forrest Gump) is a work of popular history about the epic Civil War battle that nearly ended the Union's thrust into the west (and with it U.S. Grant's career). Groom has become a prolific author of military history in recent years but this was the first time I've read his non-fiction. The verdict? 



 Shelby Foote good, as the blurb on the cover indicates?


This is a work of history meant for the masses, more of a detailed introduction to the battle than an in-depth historical work. You'll learn a lot about the battle if this is your first exposure to it, but I can't say I walked away with any more information than I knew going in, aside from some accounts taken from civilian diaries that help make the narrative more accessible.

Groom writes smoothly, and you'll find he delivers the information with ease, so no problems on that score. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I thought I detected a hint of southern bias at some points in the book, especially in the  'wrap-up' sections after the battle concludes on the field. And, as usual, too little emphasis is given to the monumental second day, when the Union not only rallied but mauled the Confederate Army to retake the field. 

Grade: B/B+

Book #42 of the year

And now for something completely different . . . 

Joan Rivers' new book, I Hate Everyone . . . Starting with Me is vulgar, occasionally repetitive, and laugh out loud funny. It's not for the faint of heart, but those with heart problems  probably won't survive the $26 price tag anyway. 

My only complaint is that it's obvious Rivers hasn't been slumming in awhile. If you're going to joke about McDonald's or other fast food places, it might be a good idea to check out a recent (post-1985 menu);. McDonald's does offer healthy options, and it doesn't serve onion rings (at least not in any of the franchises  where I've eaten. 

Anywho, damn funny. 

Grade: A 

Book #43 of the year