Back in my younger and more foolish days, I was briefly engaged to a woman we’ll call Clarisse.  I thought I’d hit the girlfriend jackpot when we started dating.  She was smart, funny, sexy, and independent. We moved in together within weeks.  It was great … at first.

Over the next several months, I noticed a pattern: in every social situation – jobs, classes, etc. – Clarisse would make a new friend.  She’d go on and on about how awesome the new friend was. But time after time, the awesome friend became an enemy practically overnight.  It was like someone flipped a switch.

It was, of course, always the former friend’s fault.  To hear Clarisse tell it, the once-awesome person had become mean.  (She was fond of using the word “hateful.”)  And it wasn’t just about actual behavior.  Clarisse seemed to believe she had some kind of magical mind-reading powers.  She would decide she knew what the former friend was thinking or intending — and then she’d get angry about it.  In fact, after Clarisse decided a former friend was now a Very Bad Person, she assigned ignoble intentions to anything that person did.  If one of her former friends ever ran into a burning building to save a baby, I’m pretty sure Clarisse would have explained it was just a P.R. stunt.

More than once, I pointed out that these were people who seemed to get along just fine with everyone else, so perhaps Clarisse should ask herself if she was the instigator of the conflicts.

No, no, no, that couldn’t be it.  She was a good person, a fun person, a highly perceptive person.  In fact, she was such a good person, she was always trying to help her friends and co-workers by offering advice on what they ought to do, how they ought to live, etc.  If they ignored the advice, she became ever more insistent on offering it.  And then, wouldn’t you know it, these people she was merely trying to help became mean and nasty.

She couldn’t seem to grasp a simple concept: if you don’t allow people to say No to you nicely, you’ll eventually get a NO! that’s not very nice at all.  Most of us learn this in childhood.  But some people never learn it.  So throughout life, they are shocked – SHOCKED! – when their non-stop efforts to improve someone else’s life ends with that someone telling them to f@#$ off.

Naturally, our relationship didn’t last.  Seeing what happened with her friends, I used to wonder when Clarisse would finally turn on me.  It took just over a year.  She became increasingly persistent in telling me how to live, how to dress, how to eat, etc. — and she never let me say No nicely.  So eventually I wasn’t nice.  She then informed me that I was a cold, rigid, inflexible person.

I was reasonably sure Clarisse’s definition of rigid and inflexible was refuses to give in and do exactly what I demand.  I was also reasonably sure she was in need of therapy.  But just in case I was the crazy one and unaware of it, I called a long-time friend I could trust to be honest.

“Am I rigid and inflexible?”

“What?”

“It’s okay to tell me if I am.  Am I rigid and inflexible?”

“I can’t imagine anyone applying those words to you, no.”

After concluding that a life with Clarisse wouldn’t be pleasant, I moved out.  At that point, the same long-time friend (who’d wisely kept his mouth shut before the breakup, but admitted he was glad to see it happen) suggested I read a book titled Control Freaks to arm myself against ever choosing the same kind of partner again.

I won’t try to recount the whole book.  After all, I read it more than 20 years ago.  But here are some descriptions of the Control Freak personality I cribbed and condensed from articles online:

They invest a lot of time and energy trying to convince other people to change.

Control freaks believe they know what is best for everyone and try to convince other people to do things differently. Whether they lecture, become aggressive, or manipulate things behind the scenes, they want to make other people act a certain way. When you do not submit to what they are “encouraging” you to do, there is often a display of emotional behavior.

They’re judgmental and lack compassion.

Control freaks hold opinions on everything from how other people should hold their forks to how they should live their entire lives.  They believe they have the correct answer for everything, and often come across as sanctimonious. Since control freaks believe their own success stems solely from their own efforts, they also lack compassion for those who struggle. They view any failures by others as a sign of laziness or stupidity.

They’re uncomfortable with ambiguity.

Control freaks often see things in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms.  Their way is the correct way, period.  Their ideas are the best ideas, period.  Other people are either good or bad, either with them or against them.

They have trouble maintaining relationships because they don’t respect boundaries.

Control freaks repel people with their demands and unsolicited advice. They offer “constructive criticism” as a veiled attempt to advance their own agendas. They will not take “no” for an answer.  Consequently, they struggle to maintain healthy personal and professional relationships.

The book, of course, went into much more detail, but you get the idea: the only way to avoid conflict with a control freak is to say, in effect, “Yes, I can see that you are a vastly superior person who has the correct answer for everything, so I will agree to adopt all your beliefs, to like whomever and whatever you like, to dislike whomever and whatever you dislike, and to do everything you believe I should do.  Thank you so very much for making me the beneficiary of your awesome insights on how I should go about my life.”

The book described Clarisse to a T.  Unfortunately, it also describes millions of other people in the world. You can’t go through life without bumping into your share of control freaks.  The collisions won’t be pleasant.  But if you learn to spot the control-freak personality, at least you’ll understand what happened when someone who seemed to like and respect you (or perhaps even love you) suddenly decides you’re a Very Bad Person the first time you disagree or don’t go along with his plan.  You’ll also understand behavior that appears to be inconsistent and illogical.

For example, many control freaks consider themselves freedom-loving libertarians.  They certainly don’t want people in a position of authority telling them how to live.  (Neither do I, by the way).  But while true libertarians are content with minding their own business, control freaks believe it’s their job to mind your business as well – for your own good, of course.  A quote from Oscar Wilde sums up the attitude nicely:

Selfishness is not living your life as you wish to live it.  Selfishness is wanting others to live their lives as you wish them to.

Control freaks are the embodiment of that quote.  Some years after my Clarisse experience, a woman I knew through work told me she and her father hadn’t talked in years.  Dear ol’ dad was a fiercely independent guy, she explained.  He came from a long line of doctors, and his parents had made it clear he was going to become a doctor as well.  He refused.  They disowned him.  He worked odd jobs and saved his money.  He used the money to start his own business, worked like a dog, and became a financial success.

When my co-worker friend was planning her own future, dear ol’ dad told her she was going to get a business degree, then run his business with him, then take over when he retired.  She tried majoring in business and hated it.  She changed her major to art, her true passion.  So guess what?  Dear ol’ dad cut her off financially and stopped talking to her.

She worked menial jobs and finished putting herself through college.  She got her art degree.  She got a job.  She traveled.  She and a friend hiked the Appalachian Trail.  She lived the life she wanted to live.  She assumed her father was secretly proud of her – after all, she’d asserted her independence and gone her own way, followed her own dreams, just like him.

But nope.  The old man still wouldn’t talk to her.  She didn’t understand.  She thought she’d earned the respect of an independent soul like himself.

“Your father’s not an independent soul,” I replied.  “He’s a control freak.”

“A what?”

I gave a brief description of the type.  I recounted a typical story from the book: a guy with a reputation for being a maverick who doesn’t follow the rules and doesn’t kowtow to authority is promoted to management in a large company.  His fellow employees rejoice.  With his independent spirit, he’s going to be an awesome boss!  He’s going to listen to their ideas.  Things are finally going to change around here.

Then it turns out he’s the most authoritarian boss they’ve ever had.  It’s his way or the highway.  They don’t understand what the hell happened to him.

Nothing happened to him.  He’s still the same guy.  He was a maverick who defied authority because, as a control freak, he hates living by other people’s rules – after all, they’re idiots who (unlike him) don’t understand how everything should be done.  But once he’s in a position of authority, he tolerates no dissent – after all, he’s the only guy who understands how everything should be done.

Her father didn’t follow the path his parents planned for him because control freaks don’t let other people tell them what to do, and that’s fine.  But then they absolutely, positively expect everyone else to follow their plans and give in to their demands.  That’s not fine.  The behavior seems illogical and inconsistent, but it isn’t.  The control freak has a very consistent need for control … over his own decisions, and also over yours.

She was nodding in agreement as I explained.  Now it all made sense.

When you defy the control freak (which you will eventually do, unless you have no spine), there will be hell to pay.  Enraged that he can’t control you, the control freak will become obsessed with controlling how others see you.  Turning others against you is, after all, the punishment you deserve for refusing to bend to his will.  You can expect the control freak to put a lot of effort into trashing you.

In the era of social media, the trashing may even be public.  In fact, there’s nothing the control freak enjoys more than manipulating you into spending half your life defending yourself against his public attacks – thus proving he still exerts some control over you.  Once you understand the game, you’ll also understand that the smart move is to simply laugh at the ham-handed tactics and move on.

When my wife and I first moved to Los Angeles, we joined a local theater group.  The owner, a wannabee screenwriter named Chris, seemed like a great guy, encouraging members of the group to put on original plays and comedy sketches.

But the “great guy,” while highly intelligent and creative, had a screw loose.  He was like a male version of Clarisse.  For reasons nobody could grasp, he’d suddenly decide a certain actor or actress was a Very Bad Person. Then he’d kick the actor out of the theater group – sometimes within days of the premiere of a play in which the actor had a major role.  Then he’d tell the rest of us, “I don’t want to see any of you hanging around with the Very Bad Person.  He is not allowed to attend any shows here, either.”

The Control Freaks book and various articles on dealing with control freaks all offer pretty much the same basic advice:  maintain your boundaries and your right to say No. If at all possible, get away from the control freak and keep your distance.

So after we grew tired of dealing with the never-ending series of dramas created by Chris (who we now called The Drama Queen), a bunch of us got together and formed our own theater group.  We set up a web site that included a message-board plugin so we could share announcements and keep in touch.

This was before Facebook, and the message board had no logins and no security.  The admin could delete a message after the fact, but there was no way to hold messages for approval and no way to identify who actually left the message.  Anyone who found the message board online could leave an anonymous post.

Sure enough, The Drama Queen found the message board and started leaving insulting messages.  (In one message, he informed us he’d placed spies within our group – a sure indicator of a control freak with an unhealthy obsession.)  One of our members, an actor named James, kept replying to his taunts.  The message board became polluted with their mutual hatred.

I called James and read him the riot act.  He started out attempting to justify his replies.  Why, we can’t just let Chris get away with these insults, someone needs to stand up to him, what if other people are reading what he writes and we don’t respond, blah-blah-blah.

“Let me explain it to you this way,” I said.  “We left Chris to get away from his bat-shit-crazy behavior and all the emotional drama he likes to create.  Now you’re letting him recreate that emotional drama in our own space.  Every time Chris wants to start a fight and you jump in to fight with him, you’re proving to him that he still has the power to control your emotions and your behavior.  That’s exactly what he wants.  Since you can’t stand the guy, why the hell would give exactly him what he wants?”

After a moment of silence, James replied, “Wow.  You’re right.  I’m sorry.”

“Good.  If you really want to get back at Chris, wait for him to put up another insulting message, and then ignore it. Prove to him you don’t give a rat’s ass what he says about us or what he thinks of us.  Prove to him that you don’t consider him important enough to be bothered with a reply.  That will really drive him nuts.”

That’s how you have to handle control freaks.  Maintain your boundaries.  Don’t give in just because the control freak tries over and over to wear you down.  You can explain why you’re not giving in, but don’t expect the control freak to take No for an answer.  They almost never do.

And when your failure to give in prompts the control freak to decide you’re a Very Bad Person and begin trashing you publicly, don’t get sucked into the battle.  Goading you into a battle is just another attempt to control you.

Smile, walk away from The Drama Queen, keep your distance, refuse to engage, and spend your time on what actually matters.  Yes, refusing to engage will probably cause the control freak to become even nuttier.  But that’s his problem, not yours.

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Dear Microsoft –

Well, my old ThinkPad laptop finally got too long in the tooth to be useful, so I bought my first PC with Windows 7 installed.  Wow, what a difference.  Now I finally understand those “Windows 7 – it was my idea!” ads you were running awhile back.

I sell a software system I designed to law firms, so I was already aware of some of the fabulous Windows 7 features.  I want to thank you for those, because they keep me busy.  Once my clients started switching to Windows 7, I went from almost never receiving tech-support calls to receiving them on a regular basis.  That’s when first discovered that you had incorporated one of my favorite ideas:

When an installation program creates a new folder and writes files to that folder, the files should all default to being read-only with permissions denied to everyone.

“This is Tom Naughton, may I help you?”

“Yes, I’m trying to attach the database, and I know I’m doing it exactly like you showed in the tutorial, but I keep getting an access-denied message.”

“Hmm, let’s fire up TeamViewer so I can see your system.  Okay, the database files are in the correct folder … the script is pointing to that folder … what the? … Let me look at the permissions … Oh, boy, everything is set to read-only and permissions are denied to everybody.  You have to manually grant yourself permissions on the database files.”

“I have to give myself permission to use the database files I installed on my own PC?”

“Yes.”

“I have no idea how to do that.”

“Well, you right-click the files, then choose Properties, then Security, then you have to click the Continue button, then … ah, never mind, I’ll do it for you.  Let me take control for a few minutes.”

I never got that call when my clients were using Windows XP, and I have to tell you, it’s great to get to actually talk to so many of them on the phone.  With email and Facebook and Twitter and all that, people just don’t spend enough time actually talking.

Here’s another one of my ideas I already knew you had incorporated:

Some common folders should be automatically marked read-only, and when users de-select the read-only option, the folder should remain read-only even after they click the Apply button — with no warning that the read-only setting wasn’t removed, of course.

I learned about that terrific feature when I started hearing from clients that they could no longer use the mail-merge feature of my software.  As per your instructions, my software installs itself in the Program Files directory.  It’s been doing that for several years without creating any problems.

So you can imagine my surprise when (after several hours of detective work) I realized the mail-merges were failing because sub-folders created within the Program Files directory are read-only and – this is the fun part – that setting can’t be changed by anyone!  Since my software could no longer create a mail-merge data file in a permanently read-only folder, the merges failed.

Brilliant!  What kind of crazy software program would ever need to write a data file inside one of its own folders?  You must have had countless software vendors beg for that read-only feature – because again, that gives us the opportunity to spend time on the phone with our clients as we walk them through moving a program out of the Program Files folder.

But I didn’t realize just how many great ideas you incorporated into Windows 7 until I bought my own Windows 7 PC and started trying to install software.  I know from working in corporate environments that the corporate IT people in charge of PC security believe the ideal computer is one that doesn’t allow anyone to actually do anything (we all stay out of trouble that way), but I didn’t expect you’d apply that philosophy to an operating system with “HOME” in the version name.  Pure genius.

I really appreciate the multiple warnings whenever I try to do something that would make the computer useful.  For example, I double-click an installation program, select “I agree” on the license-agreement screen, enter my serial number, and then – BANG! – up pops a dialog box:

A program is attempting to make changes to your computer.  Do you want to allow this?

Thank goodness for that feature.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally double-clicked an installation file, agreed to a license and entered a serial number, only to discover to my great horror that this series of inadvertent mouse-clicks and keystrokes was about to make changes to my computer.  Always being given another chance to correct this situation was my idea.

And I especially appreciate the constant warnings that only an Administrator can do whatever it is I’m about to do.  Sure, I made myself an all-powerful Administrator on the PC immediately, but the ego-boost was disappointly brief.  So I enjoy being reminded of my lofty position when I’m presented with frequent dialog boxes that say, in effect:

Only someone in the powerful role you already occupy can do this.  Click OK to continue, Oh Mighty One.

That was definitely my idea … as was this one:

When people logged into the PC as an Administrator copy files from a backup drive, they should have to go through several steps to grant themselves permission to use the files before actually using them.

Again, even with an operating system clearly named as the “HOME” version, you can’t be too cautious about security.  Just because you’re an all-powerful Administrator, that doesn’t mean you should start accessing files willy-nilly without having to take a moment and reconsider whether or not you want to give yourself permission to do so.  You may just decide you’re not trustworthy and refuse to grant yourself access.

It was also my idea to keep Administrators on their toes by making them consciously run installation programs as an Administrator even though they’re already logged in as an Administrator.  You’d be surprised how often Administrators get lackadaisical about this.

Just today, for example, I was attempting to install a package of programming tools, only to see the installation roll back time after time after the progress bar had reached 90%.  So I had to get on the phone and call a tech-support person (who no doubt appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone for a change).

“Oh, in Windows 7 you have to install that package using Administrator privileges, or it will fail.”

“But I am an Administrator.”

“Yes, but if you just double-click the .exe, you’re not installing it with Administrator privileges.”

“Say what?  I am the Administrator.”

“I know, but instead of double-clicking the .exe you have to right-click it and choose Run As Administrator.”

“So I’m the Administrator, I’m logged in as the Administrator, but if I just run the installation program, I’m not installing it as an Administrator?”

“That’s right.  You have to choose to do that by right-clicking and then clicking Run As Administrator.  Otherwise you’re not installing as an Administrator.”

“Even though I am the Administrator?”

“That’s right.”

“Who the @#$% thought that was a good idea?”

Then I remembered:  I did.

Windows 7 … it was my idea.

Thank you, Microsoft.

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It was a mid-week standup show on the Norwegian Dream, and the small auditorium was rocking.  Cruise-ship audiences are a comedian’s dream — they’re on vacation, they’re relaxed, they’re ready to have fun.  Some of them started laughing at my first setup, before I even got to the punchline.  It was one of those “I can’t believe I get paid for doing this” shows.

Partway into my set, I noticed a big man with graying hair sitting in the front row.  He was laughing as much as anyone, but also writing on a yellow pad.  A reviewer? I wondered.  Someone the cruise line sent to get feedback on my act?

An hour later, after changing into jeans and a t-shirt and then grabbing a late supper at a buffet, I was walking past one of the many bars on the ship when I heard someone call my name.  It was the note-taking man, sitting at the bar and waving me over.  A muscular young guy sporting a crew-cut was sitting with him.

“Can I buy you a beer?”

“Sure, that would be great.  Guinness.”

“Good man.  That’s my beer too.”

He shook my hand and told me his first name, then introduced me to the crew-cut.  They told me how much they enjoyed my act.  They appreciated that I kept it family-friendly and clean.  I told them that’s what the cruise ships require, but it’s also my style in the comedy clubs.

The crew-cut saw a friend making time with some attractive young women at a nearby table and went to join them.  The older man pointed to his yellow pad, which was sitting on the bar.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I took some notes during your act.  I’m not stealing your material or anything, but … well, I hope this doesn’t sound too strange for a guy my age, but now that I’m retired, I’ve been going to some amateur nights at a comedy club.”

“No kidding?  How’s it going?”

He gave a dismissive wave.  “I’m no good yet.  I see someone like you, getting all those laughs without having to do dirty material, and I just don’t know how you do it.   So I take notes, trying to figure out what makes your stuff so funny.  I hope you don’t mind.”

Over another Guinness, I gave him my quick seminar on humor, the various forms a standup bit can take, how to create the surprise that gets the laugh.  He jotted down more notes as we were talking.

“I really appreciate you taking the time to help.  I tell you, I just admire the heck out of what you people do up there.  You’re spreading joy, you know?  It’s a great thing.  If I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d want to do, spread some joy, make people feel good.  I’m hoping I can still do that now.”

“You said you’re retired.  What did you do?

“I was in the Marine Corps pretty much my whole adult life.”

“No kidding?  Doing what?”

“Ahhh …”  He took a sip of Guinness.  “Well, I hope you don’t think any less of me, but I was a sniper.  Then when I got too old for that, I trained snipers.”

“Why on earth would I think of less of you for that?”

“Sorry.  I guess it’s just my stereotype of Hollywood and show-biz types.  You know:  anti-military, thinking snipers are all bloodthirsty killers, that kind of @#$%.

“Yeah, that is a pretty common attitude in Hollywood.  But between you and me, I can’t stand Hollywood.”

That seemed to perk him up.  “Let me buy you another Guinness.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you.  I really appreciate you letting me pick your brain.”

I told him he could return the favor by telling me a bit about his life as a sniper, since I’d never met one before and probably never would again.  So, somewhat hesitantly at first, he did:  being in the field alone, disguised as foliage, crawling toward a target at a rate of maybe a couple of feet per hour to avoid detection.  No meal breaks, no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, bugs crawling up in your clothes and biting at you, all the while knowing one sudden movement or one sneeze would get you killed.  Finally, you’re in range, and then …

“It’s not like being on the line,” he said.  “You don’t fire at enemy soldiers a couple hundreds yards away and watch them drop.  It’s one man in your sights, you’re looking at his face, probably looking into his eyes.  Then you pull the trigger.  It’s personal.  It can get to you.”

“Wow.  I guess it could.”

“Well, I did what had to be done, you know?  But that’s what I mean about if I had a chance to do it over.  You get to a certain point in your life, you want to do something meaningful, something that makes people happy.”

It was only because of the Guinness that I was willing to disagree with a rather large retired Marine who’d been drinking.

“Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“I’m flattered that you like my act and admire what I do.  But in the scheme of history, guys like me aren’t worth a @#$% compared to guys like you.”

“What?  How the @#$% do you figure that?”

“How many standup comedians you figure they’ve got in North Korea?”

He smiled.  “Never thought about it.  Probably none.”

“Right.  And there probably aren’t any standup comedians in Iran either, and if there are, they sure as hell have to watch what they say if they want to keep on living.”

A chuckle.  “I guess they would, yeah.”

“I can be a standup comedian because I live in a free country.  And the only reason I live in a free country is that at certain times in our history, starting with the Revolutionary War, some really tough mother@#$%ers like you stood up and did what had to be done.  I read a lot of history, and I don’t remember any of our presidents ever responding to a national emergency by yelling, Holy crap! Get the Secretary of War on the phone and tell him to send in the standup comedians!

He laughed and slapped the bar.  Whew.

“I think it’s great you want to try being a comedian.  I hope you do.  But even if it doesn’t work out, I hope you remember guys like me get to do what we do because of guys like you.  So let me buy you a Guinness now.”

“No, I’m buying you a Guinness.  But I appreciate what you said.”

The crew-cut eventually rejoined us, and over the next few hours I learned it’s not a good idea for a middle-aged comedian to go drink-for-drink with a couple of Marines.  When my head started spinning, I stood up and announced I should get myself to bed.

The retired Marine stood up and said he should do the same.  He reached out and shook my hand, slipping something into it, then walked away.  The other Marine noticed what I was holding.

“You know what that is?”

“Some kind of coin.”

“That’s a Scout-Sniper’s coin.  It’s an honor.”

“Cool.”

“Seriously, don’t lose that, and don’t sell it on eBay, okay?  The man just let you know he considers you a brother.  It’s an honor.  I don’t even have one of those yet.”

“I won’t lose it.  I promise.”

Five years later, I still have the coin.  I’m looking at it right now, remembering my Marine buddy from the cruise.  Tomorrow night, as I enjoy the Independence Day fireworks with my wife and my girls, sitting on a blanket in a public park and feeling happy and safe and free, I will remember him again.

I hope you’re well, my friend.  I hope you made it onto a comedy stage somewhere and spread a little joy.  But even if you didn’t, I hope you understand that men like you have been spreading joy for 235 years now.  The joy is called freedom.

Happy Fourth of July.

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Ever since we moved to Tennessee, my wife has been dreaming of buying a big plot of land somewhere and becoming more self-sustaining, raising chickens and goats, growing our own vegetables, and fishing in the many nearby waterways. We currently live in a subdivision and will for at least another year, but when school let out for the summer, she reminded me we don’t need our own mini-farm to go fishing.

My girls are huge fans of Man Vs. Wild, Survivorman, Dual Survival, The Alaska Experiment, and pretty much any show where people have to kill their own food, so as soon as they heard my wife mention fishing, they began begging me to take them shopping for fishing rods. So I did, figuring two fishing rods would be enough for the family. Then both girls selected pinks ones. Frankly, I’m not secure enough to stand around in public waving a long pink stick, so I chose a third fishing rod in a manly shade of deep green.

The trouble with owning fishing rods is that after a couple of days of using them for make-believe fencing matches, the kids actually demand to go fishing. Since there’s a public fishing area on the Harpeth River less than three minutes away, I quickly ran out of excuses. We went fishing on Monday.

I’ve held a fishing rod in my hands maybe three times in my entire life. My dad’s interest in lakes and rivers was limited to figuring out how to retrieve his golf balls from them, and when I once asked about perhaps taking my brother and me fishing someday, he patiently explained that fishing is just an excuse to sit in a boat and drink beer, which we could do in our own back yard.

So even though I’m 52 years old, this whole fishing business was all new to me … which became painfully evident when we climbed down the steep banks of the Harpeth River and opened our little plastic boxes of tackle.

“What’s that for?” my wife asked as I stood there flipping a wire semi-circle back and forth over some spool-thing attached to the rod.  (This was after I’d spent ten minutes figuring out how to keep the spool-thing from falling off the rod.)

“Uh … I think the line goes around it. Or over it. Or under it. I don’t know.” We took turns seeing who could spend the most time fussing with the spool-thing without accidentally accomplishing anything useful.

Fortunately, two teenage girls who were fishing a bit downstream recognized that when a grown man stares at a fishing pole for more than two minutes without moving, it’s a subtle cry for help. With the born-and-bred southern hospitality that makes this area such a pleasant place to live, they set down their poles and came over to serve as instructors. After feeding the line through some ring-things on the pole (which, as it turns out, you have to screw together first) and demonstrating how a reel works, one of them even tied a hook onto my line for me. Then they both moved a safe distance away.

Much as I adore my wife, she has a couple of annoying habits … one of which is being good at things she’s never tried before. On my birthday several years ago, she joined me for a round of golf on a par-three course. Since she’d never so much as taken a practice swing at the range, I gave her a two-minute lesson while we waiting on the first tee. Apparently wanting to flatter me as an instructor, she responded by landing five of her nine tee shots on the green. If she could putt a little better, we’d be divorced by now.

So I wasn’t surprised when she pulled a decent-sized fish from the river about thirty seconds after casting her first line. She held up the fish for the obligatory picture, then dropped it into a cooler filled with ice.

I spent the next three hours proving that if water-logged sticks provided complete protein, I could feed my family with nothing more than a fishing pole. I also caught several large rocks. Unable to reel in the rocks, I kept having to cut my line and start over. That’s how I discovered that fishing line is specially formulated to tangle itself into impossible knots no matter how carefully you try to unwind it. I also discovered that with the proper flick of the wrist, it’s surprisingly easy to toss a hook into the highest branches of a tree. (Since I was facing the river, the tree limbs I hooked were of course above and behind me.)

My six-year-old caught a fish that was too small to consider eating, so she threw it back. By the end of the expedition, my wife’s fish was the only one in the cooler.  But it was big enough for a meal, so we drove home feeling victorious. We came. We saw. We caught our own wild food.

After thumbing through some recipes for fish, my wife set the cooler on the kitchen counter and reached in to retrieve the main course. At that point, she turned to the rest of us with an excited expression and said, “BWAAAAAAHHH!!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “I know I’ve been expressing a lot of enthusiasm lately for getting back to nature and sourcing more of our food by raising chickens and goats on our own mini-farm someday and learning to fish in the local waters in the meantime, but up to this point in my life the only fish I’ve cooked came from grocery stores and fish markets where you know for a fact the fish are really and truly dead when you pick them up, and while I assumed putting a fish on ice for four hours was 100 percent fatal, it turns out this fish is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I found somewhat surprising.”

After dropping the wriggling fish back into the ice chest, she ran to her computer to read up on how to humanely kill it. Then she went to the toolbox to retrieve a flat-head screwdriver. I was beginning to wonder if she’d just learned how to disassemble the fish and remove the spark plugs, but then she grabbed it, set it on a cutting board, and jammed the screwdriver into its head behind the right eye.

“Uh, honey … are you sure you didn’t get your instructions from an online guide for mob enforcers?”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do with a fish. That’s where the brain is.”

Confident she’d dispatched the fish once and for all, she grabbed a knife and made an incision in the belly. Then she stopped cutting to remark, “BWAAAAAHHHH!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “It turns out I missed the brain and jammed the screwdriver into whatever you’d call the fish version of a neck, which you would think would be enough to kill a fish even if you do miss the brain, but it turns out they’re tough little creatures, and this one is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I find somewhat surprising.”

The fish — which by this point had been frozen, stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver and partially gutted with a knife — was looking at her with a fish-eyed expression I interpreted as “For the love of God, lady, just @#$%ing kill me already!” I suggested she might also want to water-board the fish for good measure, but she explained that fish don’t mind water-boarding and I should really shut the @#$% up now. Then she grabbed a cleaver and did a Marie Antoinette number on the thing.

To her credit, she calmly finished cleaning the fish and cooked up a tasty fish-and-tomato stew. When I asked later if this experience had dampened her enthusiasm for becoming a latter-day pioneer woman, raising and catching and killing her own food, she said no.

Good. I’m looking forward to the first time she goes after a live chicken.

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I finally beat Sara, my seven-year-old, in a game of Wii baseball today. It was a pitcher’s duel, still 0-0 in the bottom of the last inning, when I managed to swat a homer that barely cleared the outfield wall. I’ve got ice on my elbow right now to reduce the swelling from swinging out of my shoes, but the victory is worth the pain. 

There are two reasons I won the game. First, Sara had a lousy day at the plate. She swatted a lot of long fly balls, but they fell just short of the fences — and for once, my Wii players didn’t drop any. Second, I spent hours taking batting practice this week while the girls were in school, all in hopes of figuring out the difference between YOU SWUNG TOO EARLY and YOU SWUNG TOO LATE. The result of all that practice was announced by Wii during today’s contest:

You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You swung too late!
Strikeout!
Foul Ball!
You swung too early!
Foul Ball!
You swung too late!
Strikeout!
You swung too late!
You swung too late!
You swung too early!
Strikeout!

And so forth, until the last inning, when HOME RUN appeared on the screen. Exactly one hit, probably nothing more than the laws of randomness catching up with me, but it was a game-winner.

Yes, I practiced my Wii batting so I could stop getting shellacked by my daughter. This no doubt says something about me as a father, and whatever it says, it’s not a compliment. My rationalization was that someday she’ll be a teenager and I’ll have to discipline her for various infractions … staying out past curfew, drinking underage, lying about where and when she got that tattoo, etc. It’s not going to do much for my father-intimidation mojo if her nickname for me is “Whiff Boy.” I also want any pimply, hormone-addled teenage boys she dates to be afraid of me. That’s not going to happen if she introduces me as, “This is my dad. He swings like a girl.”

After my last post, a reader left a comment suggesting that Wii is equipped with a dad-detector, the purpose of which is to make sure the dad always loses. I’m beginning to think the reader is correct. During today’s baseball game, Sara was throwing 94 mph fastballs. I couldn’t bring anything close to that kind of heat. By putting my entire body into it and risking a rotator-cuff injury, I managed to throw a 71 mph fastball once — which she promptly swatted for a double. The rest of my “fastballs” were in the 60s. If our playroom were bigger, I’d put a pitcher’s mound in there and let my weight generate something resembling momentum. On the other hand, the dad-detector may just limit a dad’s pitches to 71 mph, period.

I also practiced my bowling this week, once again in hopes of figuring out how to overcome the dad-detector. Two nights ago, Sara and I played a round of 100-pin bowling. It’s a way-cool game. Nothing like watching 100 pins go flying and scoring a strike … well, if Sara’s the one bowling, that is. During this particular game, she rolled nine strikes in 10 frames. She began the game with seven straight. No, I’m not making that up.

I was so happy for her, I stood behind her and took mental notes, trying to steal her technique. I watched where she lined up her Wii bowler (pretty far to the left), how hard she threw, and how she turned her wrist to generate that wicked curve to the right. Then I mimicked her throw exactly. I swear I did. But while her version of the throw sent all 100 pins flying, mine always left one or two pins standing. If it was two pins, they’d be as far apart as two pins can be. It had to be the dad-detector at work.

The only game Sara’s no good at is Frisbee golf. She throws a Frisbee just fine, but she’s never played real golf and doesn’t think like a golfer. She doesn’t yet grasp, for example, that it’s not a good idea to go for a green that’s 200 yards away with water in front of it. During my 20 years of playing actual golf, I’ve put enough balls in the water to cause a slight rise in worldwide sea-levels, so I know when to lay up.

Alana, my five-year-old, can beat me fair and square at Wii bowling now and then, but that’s it. I let her win most of the time at tennis and ping-pong, two of her favorite games. It’s easy to let her win. I just play left-handed. Instant incompetence.

However, her newest favorite is Wii boxing, which she can play by herself. She’s such an enthusiastic boxer, my wife had to put a big strip of blue tape on the carpet as a DO NOT CROSS line. Otherwise, Alana keeps dancing in to deliver body-blows and ends up smacking the TV.

I was pleased she was enjoying the boxing until I noticed the Wii character she chooses to box is named Tom — the character I created for myself, glasses and all. Now I wonder what she’s thinking when she’s in there punching away.

No cookies after school? Is that what you said, big guy? (WHAM!) I’ll decide when I get cookies from now on, got it? (WHAM!) Next time you say “No cookies,” you’re getting one of these. (WHAM!)

Two players can also box against each other, and both girls have asked me to play. I’ve refused so far, telling them I don’t like boxing. The truth is, I’m not going to risk getting punched out by my daughters. Their teenage years will be challenging enough as it is.

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Well, I knew it had to happen eventually. Sara, my seven-year-old, is beginning to figure out that her daddy was born with little (if any) natural athletic ability.

Without really intending to, I’d managed to keep my ineptitude at sports hidden from her by virtue of being several times her size. Whenever I kicked a ball 20 yards, it probably looked like a half-mile to her. Whenever I launched a wiffle golf-ball over the garage with a nine-iron, I probably looked like Tiger Woods to her young, innocent, admiring eyes.

It began to dawn on me just how badly she’d been misled when we were watching a Titans game early in the season:

“Daddy, you really like professional football, don’t you?”

“Yes, sweetie, I do. I’m glad you like watching with me.”

“Well … if you like it so much, why don’t you play professional football?”

Apparently she assumed it was just a vocational choice.  Let’s see … computer programmer, or linebacker for the Bears? I dunno, I’m not sure I want to put up with the millions of dollars and the adoring fans.

I was flattered, but figured it would be better in the long run if I began to disabuse her of the notion that Daddy is the strongest man in the world.

“Sara, these are professional athletes. They train their whole lives to be this good. And they’re way bigger and way faster than I am.”

“Oh. So did you play college football?”

“No. College football players are pretty big and pretty fast too.”

“Oh. Did you play high school football?”

“Uh … no.”

After a thoughtful glance towards the TV, she attempted to offer me a graceful exit.

“Is it because you don’t have dark skin?”

“What?”

“The football players all have dark skin.”

“That’s just the defense. I mean, no, they don’t all have dark skin.”

“Well, most of them do.”

Time to fess up.

“Sara, I went to a Catholic high school with a very good football team, and only a couple of the players had dark skin. I didn’t play football because I wasn’t strong enough or fast enough.”

“Because you ate a lot of sugar when you were a kid and you weren’t healthy?”

“I’m sure that was part of it, yes.”

So she accepted that her daddy wasn’t a good athlete. But at the time, I don’t think she fully gasped that her daddy is, in fact, a bad athlete. For that to sink in, Santa Claus had to give her an evil, despicable, klutz-exposing contraption known as “a Wii.”

The hugeness of my physique relative to Sara’s provides no advantage whatsoever in Wii games, because everything — golf, baseball, sword-fighting, bowling, tennis, archery and Frisbee — is played with a small electronic paddle. Strength is meaningless, and hand-eye coordination is everything. Consequently, she regularly beats me in golf, baseball, sword-fighting, bowling, tennis, archery and Frisbee. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, I still win in ping-pong and basketball.

Pretty much every day now, she lays down the challenge.

“Daddy, can we play Wii?”

“Uh … okay.”

“What do you want to play?”

“How about ping-pong?”

“Naw.”

“Basketball?”

“Maybe when I get a little better. Let’s play baseball.”

In my defense, I think our Wii paddles may be equipped with a klutz-detector installed by some aging jock at the Wii factory who misses his carefree, youthful days of picking on weaklings. I say this because during several of our baseball games, Sara hit a fly ball to the outfield and my Wii character — I’m not kidding — dropped the ball.

If you’re not familiar with Wii baseball, all you do when the other player is batting is throw a pitch. There’s no fielding. Your Wii characters play defense automatically. And mine automatically drop fly balls now and then … just to make sure I never forget why I hated recess and gym class.

My lack of hand-eye coordination might not be so embarrassing if not for the fact that Sara is turning out to be a natural jock. Even though she quite obviously inherited my frame — all the way down to the almost-freakishly-long thumbs — Mother Nature somehow managed to infuse her copy of the frame with a large dose of jock-DNA from her mother’s side. (My father-in-law was an all-conference halfback in his youth and is still built like one at age 67.)

The signs were there from birth. When Sara first popped out, she held her head up and looked around as if demanding to know who turned on the lights. By the time she was six months old, if she decided she’d just as soon wear that poopy diaper for awhile longer thank-you very much, it was a battle to hold her still and change her. More than once, my wife and I looked at each other and said, “Man … how can something so little be so strong?”

Now that she’s seven, she’s still strong, and she’s turning out to be athletic as well. I already suspected she was blessed with good hand-eye coordination, because when we toss a football around in the back yard, she throws spirals into my chest. I just didn’t suspect her hand-eye coordination would exceed mine quite so vastly, quite so soon.

Last night, we played Wii baseball. When I was batting, Wii responsed with a more or less continuous string of helpful on-screen tips:

You swung too early!
You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You swung too late!
You swung too early!
You swung too late!
You seriously suck at this!
You swung too early!
You swung too early!

Sara’s on-screen messages were more along the lines of:

Double!
Single!
Double!
Double!
Home Run!

This was in spite of the fact that I’d discovered if you press the “A” button before pitching, you toss a fairly wicked screwball.

When she hit a grand slam and pulled ahead by something like 20 runs, Wii produced a message I didn’t know was even in the programming:

Mercy Rule. Game Over.

Well, okay, she’s having fun and all that. I mean, she loves me, she admires me … it’s not as if she’ll stop respecting me just because You swung too early! and You swung too late! feel like exactly the same swing to me. Right?

It snowed nearly five millimeters in Middle Tennessee last night, so the schools were closed today. After I woke up and drank some coffee, Sara asked if I’d play Wii with her. I said sure, but I need to check my email first. A few minutes later, she poked her head in my office.

“Let’s play Wii now, Daddy!”

“One more minute, Sara.”

“Awww!”

“Just one more minute.”

She left for the kitchen. A moment later, she yelled for me.

“It’s been another minute already! Come on, old man, I’m going to kick your butt!”

I guess that pretty much answers my question.

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As I described a couple of days ago on the Fat Head blog, I recently started experimenting with intermittent fasting and found it surprisingly painless. The purpose of fasting in this case is to induce hormonal changes that lead to weight loss and better health.

My first attempt at fasting took place when I was 10 years old, and weight loss had nothing to do with it — the last thing I needed at that age was to become any skinnier. However, like most adolescent boys, I felt a deep need to go on a vision quest so I could meet my animal protector and be shown my purpose in life.

I knew all about vision quests because I’d become utterly fascinated with American Indians in third grade. By fourth grade, I’d ploughed through every book on Indians that could be borrowed from the Bettendorf public library. While some boys decorated their bedrooms with posters of quarterbacks and home-run sluggers, mine featured posters of famous Indians: Tecumseh, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and a few others. I was, as far as I knew, the only kid in town who watched westerns and secretly hoped John Wayne would take an arrow.

Of all my Indian heroes, I liked Crazy Horse the best. He was a brilliant strategist in battle and almost unbelievably brave, riding straight into his enemies without hesitation. But there was a good reason for the bravery: his vision. During a vision quest, a white owl showed Crazy Horse how to paint his face for battle and promised he wouldn’t be killed. Most importantly, Crazy Horse learned during his vision that he was destined to lead his people.

(Just for the record, if a politician in modern times shared a similar story, I’d vote for somebody else, no matter what the owl predicted.)

I’m blessed with a pretty good memory, but 42 years after the fact, I have no idea what personal destiny I expected to be revealed in my vision. If I’d met, say, a golden hawk, and the golden hawk happened to be honest, the message he delivered would’ve been similar to a fortune I once pulled from humorous fortune-cookie:

Your life will be far more ordinary than you ever thought possible.

Perhaps I was merely hoping for some useful tips in my vision, such as: If you wear red boxer shorts every day, you’ll no longer strike out in kickball. Whatever I was expecting, during the summer we lived in Carbondale, Illinois, I grew increasingly determined to have my vision.

Unfortunately, the lifestyle of a white, suburban 10-year-old includes several barriers to a vision quest.  The two biggest are called “parents.”  Mine weren’t very open-minded about me wandering off into the wilderness for a few weeks. They reminded me that when I actually wandered in the woods for a few hours during summer day-camp, I came home with a tick lodged in my scalp and spent the next week worrying that I’d contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They also couldn’t appreciate the advantages of building a sweat lodge in the back yard — although my mom convinced me that a really hot bath would provide similar purification.

Luckily, after I made a strong case for the necessity of a vision quest, they agreed I could try fasting — a crucial component for achieving a trance state. In retrospect, they probably agreed only because they figured I’d never go through with it. But I did.

At several points throughout the Day of the Vision Quest, my mom attempted to undermine my discipline by preparing some of her most awesome meals: cinnamon toast with hot milk poured on top, Campbell’s tomato soup with American cheese and saltine crackers mixed in, and hamburgers prepped with Lipton Onion Soup mix. Despite the temptation and the recurring light-headedness, I remained strong and went to bed without eating a morsel all day. I was ready for my vision.

When the vision came, there were no white owls or golden hawks. There were no animal protectors at all. My vision was of three men wearing black body-suits and black masks, sneaking into our house through my bedroom window. They were, as any kid could tell you, “Bad Guys.” One of them tiptoed close to my bed and spoke to me. I don’t remember what he said, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t explaining my purpose in life.

I snapped awake, shaking. I knew it was only a nightmare. I knew there were no Bad Guys climbing through my bedroom window. However, the nightmare alerted me to a danger I’d previously overlooked: In this house, unlike in our house in Iowa, my bedroom was on the ground floor … which meant Bad Guys could, in fact, climb through my bedroom window any time the thought occurred to them.

Psychologists tell us the only inborn fears are of heights and loud noises. The psychologists are full of it. Fear of Bedroom Invasion by Bad Guys may not afflict babies, but it develops during childhood as predictably and as naturally as teeth. Parents certainly don’t cause it. We’ve never hinted to our daughters that Bad Guys might show up in the middle of the night. They don’t read books or watch TV shows featuring Bad Guys. And yet soon after we moved to Tennessee, I had the following conversation with my daughter Alana, who was four at the time:

“Do you and Sara like your new bedroom, Alana?”

“Yeah! I really like my tent-bed.”

(Her “tent-bed” is a sleeping nook built into the wall. )

“I really like your tent-bed, too. It’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, and if a Bad Guy comes into the room, he’ll probably kill Sara first because she’s closer to the door, and then I’ll get away.”

This is from the daughter people refer to as “the sweet one.”

When I was her age, my older brother Jerry performed similar calculations, but his intentions were a bit more heroic. He figured since I slept in the bottom bunk, the Bad Guy would bend down and grab me first. So he kept a butter knife under his pillow and assured me he would plunge it into the Bad Guy’s back.

I found this battle plan comforting. I imagined the Bad Guy staggering wide-eyed around our bedroom, trying desperately to reach over his shoulder and extract the weapon, then finally crumpling to the floor, cursing himself with his last breath for being taken out by a six-year-old wielding a butter knife … or perhaps mumbling, “I @#$%ing hate margarine!”

That image was no comfort now, however, because my brother and his butter knife were sleeping in another room, and there was no top bunk from which to launch a successful ambush.  After fasting all day, I was obviously too weak to take on one Bad Guy, never mind three. And for all I knew, the nightmare was a premonition. The only smart move was to get myself as close as possible to the one person I knew who could kill three Bad Guys: my dad.

When the fear subsided to the point that I was no longer catatonic, I slid out of bed and tiptoed to my parents’ room. Unlike my daughters, I never developed the stealth required to crawl into an adult’s bed without being detected, so my mom woke up immediately.

“What are you doing?”

“I had a nightmare. There were these three Bad Guys–”

“Okay. Shhh. Go to sleep. Tell me about it tomorrow.”

When tomorrow finally came, I ate a hearty breakfast. The vision would have to wait.

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Snow in Chicago on Christmas Day

Snow in Chicago on Christmas Day

Almost Ready to Go

Before we even left Tennessee, we had to perform some Santa Claus tricks. Alana, my five-year-old, began asking for an electric car months ago, and we decided we were okay with getting ripped off and bought it for her. No, it’s not a Smart Car … but the pink Barbie Camaro we ordered from Wal-Mart is approximately the same size, only with more leg room.

We managed to keep the big box hidden in the garage — one of the many advantages of having a garage full of large, useless items — and informed Alana that even though we’d be in Chicago on Christmas morning, we’d asked Santa Clause to leave the car under the tree at our house. (Fortunately, Santa doesn’t charge extra for multiple deliveries.)

We’d also picked up a Wii for Sara, my seven-year-old. She didn’t ask Santa for a Wii, but after playing with one at a friend’s house some weeks ago, she came home and declared it “totally cool.” We decided to leave that under our own tree as well, if only to maintain a state of sibling equilibrium when we returned.

So after loading up the car and getting the girls strapped in, I had to make an excuse to go back inside and move the car from the garage to the living room. I was worried the girls might become suspicious. They’re used to seeing their mommy run back inside. In fact, my wife likes to play a travel game called Is The Coffee Pot Off?!  The object of the game is see how far from home she can get to me to drive before turning around so she can run in and check the coffee pot. But that’s her role in the game.  Once I leave the house to take a trip, I don’t go back inside unless I see flames in my rearview mirror.

I announced that I may have forgotten a suitcase and went inside. The girls never wondered why it took Daddy 10 minutes to determine if a packed suitcase was sitting inside the front door. During those 10 minutes, Daddy — who has a bad shoulder that will probably require surgical repair soon — was trying to lug a big box up a short flight of stairs while mostly using one arm to do it. Daddy was also saying lots of words that weren’t very Christmas-like.

Off We Go

With Santa’s extra deliveries in place near the tree, we took off for Springfield, Illinois. On most car trips, my daughters counter-synchronize their bladders to make sure I’ll be exiting the highway in search of a bathroom at least every 45 minutes. For some reason, they forgot this time. I was impressed with myself for making good time until I saw a sign announcing the distance to Louisville, Kentucky. I experienced a strange mental discomfort … something didn’t feel quite right. Then it hit me: we pass through Louisville on the way to Chicago, not Springfield. I’d been driving on auto-pilot. So we got to see far more of the Kentucky countryside than I’d planned as we spent two hours working our way west on two-lane highways.

Springfield

It was while we were staying at my mom’s house in Springfield that I began to suspect my daughters might be on their way to having a perfect Christmas. (It seems to me we get perhaps one or two perfect Christmases during childhood — I remember two.)  They built a snowman in my mom’s front yard. They charmed my mom with compliments such as “Grandma, I just love the floppy skin on your neck!” They loved the presents they opened after our big family dinner on December 23rd. They were delighted to see their cousins (my brother’s three sons), who are all old enough to be their uncles but also young enough to get down on the floor for piggy-back rides and wrestling matches.

Sara was also delighted to discover that my sister owns a Wii, which is attached to my mom’s big-screen TV. I was somewhat less than delighted (late at night, when no one was watching) to discover that my ineptitude at real sports is exceeded only by my ineptitude at Wii sports. Wii not only kicks my butt at tennis (on the beginner setting), it then insists on replaying each of my bad shots in slow motion. All that’s missing is an audio track recorded by one of the playground bullies from my childhood, saying, “You call that a backhand, weenie-boy? Man, you really suck!” But that would be cruel, so Wii settles for finishing each round by showing my Wii character bowing its head in shame as YOU LOSE appears on screen.

After trouncing my sister at tennis, golf and bowling, Sara again declared Wii “totally cool” and told me, “I wish I would’ve asked Santa Claus for one of these!” I reminded her that Santa wouldn’t be leaving the North Pole for another day and promised I’d try to get a message to him. She said to tell Santa it was okay if he left a Wii at our house, along with Alana’s electric car.

Perfect.

Off We Go Again

Word of advice to people still out there looking for love: forget about looks, personality, and other inconsequential traits. Marry someone whose parents live within driving distance of yours. That way you don’t risk winding up in divorce court after one too many debates about which family to visit each Christmas.

Springfield to Chicago is less than four hours in the car — unless it’s snowing, which it was when we left for Chicago on the morning of Christmas Eve. Eventually the snow was blowing more or less sideways, so the wipers on our van stepped up and responded by efficiently clearing the splatters from the entire windshield, except for a large area at eye level on the driver’s side. I alternated between making myself artificially tall and artificially short to see where the heck we were going.

After spending winters in both Illinois and Tennessee, I realize there’s a difference in how southern bad drivers and northern bad drivers respond to snowy roads. The southern bad drivers assume any amount of snow makes driving impossible and stay home, living off the canned goods they ran out to buy when they first heard snow was in the forecast. The northern bad drivers assume traction on a snowy road is exactly the same as traction on a clear road and continue zipping along at 75 miles per hour. Both sets of bad drivers end up ceding the roads to us cautious-but-willing drivers … but the southerners are sitting at home, while the northerners are sitting in their cars, hoping their cell phones can find a signal down there in the ditch. In a 100-mile stretch on Interstate 55, I saw nearly a dozen vehicles that made unplanned exits.

Chicago

My girls and their six-year-old cousin Marzhan all know that Santa won’t slide down the chimney into a house where any kids are still awake. We emphasized the urgency of the situation by browsing to NORAD’s Santa Tracker on a computer and showing them that Santa was already in South America and could turn north at any minute. They understood. They wanted to go to sleep. They just couldn’t.

Every 90 seconds or so, one of them would appear at the top of the stairs and announce, “I can’t sleep!” They said this as if we were refusing to hand over the magic sleeping potion and were perhaps conspiring to deprive them of gifts from Santa. I finally informed them that if they crawled in bed and didn’t make a sound, Santa would probably be fooled into thinking they were sleeping and leave them their presents anyway. Once they were persuaded to stop jumping out of bed to tell us they couldn’t sleep, they fell asleep.

I’m a natural night-owl and didn’t bother crawling into bed until 2:00 AM. My girls bounced on the bed roughly 47 minutes later and announced that the sun was coming up and therefore it was clearly time to go downstairs. It’s only after becoming a parent myself that I finally understand why my dad always looked so exhausted on Christmas. (Given my dad’s famous lack of ability to use simple tools, I suspect he was often up until nearly daybreak, cussing about labels that read: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.)

Once again, the girls were delighted with their gifts — then delighted all over again when they found notes from Santa in their stockings, informing them that the electric car and the Wii would be waiting for them at home.

They ate several pounds of treats constructed entirely from high fructose corn syrup and/or white flour, then burned off the excess fuel by engaging in an all-day snowball fight with a gang of cousins. The snow was deep enough to look like Christmas, but not enough to shut down the city.

Perfect.

And Back Again …

After a few more days of visits with aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and relatives I can’t quite identify, we drove home. Sara spent much of the trip listening to her new MP3 player. We figured it must’ve come with a few songs pre-loaded, which it did, but it turned out she was mostly listening a Suze Orman audiobook titled Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny. I suspect she’ll be asking for a bigger allowance soon, and perhaps a 401k.

The closer we got to home, the more often Alana reminded us that she was soon to be the owner of an electric car, courtesy of Santa Claus. She didn’t see any good reason she shouldn’t take it for a test drive in the dark after we got home. Fortunately, it was raining when we pulled into the driveway, so she decided the test drive could wait. My wife hurried inside to turn the big box so the Wal-Mart delivery sticker wouldn’t be facing forward (something Daddy forgot to check while lugging the box upstairs and muttering bad words).

The girls bounded inside after her. As my wife and I carried in the luggage and the gifts, the girls were practically bouncing around the living room.

“Look! That’s my caaaaaaar!”

“Santa got me the Wii! Look, Alana, I got a Wii!”

“This is the best Christmas present EVER!”

“This is the best Christmas present ever, too!”

Yes, they’re just toys. Yes, Christmas is too commercial, Christmas shopping can be a hassle, and Christmas travel can be tiring. But kids don’t know that, and they shouldn’t. For them, Christmas can still be perfect. And when it’s perfect for them, it’s pretty darned good for us too.

Snowball warriors taking cover during battle

Snowball warriors taking cover during battle

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For the first time in three years, we’ll be spending Christmas in Illinois, visiting both sets of grandparents. Last year, we were still newcomers to Tennessee, and I wanted the girls to experience Christmas in their new home. The year before, we elected to stay in Burbank — mostly because the year before that, we made the mistake of flying during Christmas week.

The trip to Illinois was merely a hassle … up at 4:00 a.m., carrying kids and luggage and car seats to a taxi, then into the airport, then through the terminal and onto the plane, then through another terminal and onto another plane, then to a shuttle for a two-hour ride from St. Louis to Springfield.

The trip back from Chicago, however, was a nightmare. The first sign of trouble came in the form of snowflakes as my father-in-law was driving us to O’Hare. They weren’t big snowflakes, mind you, and there weren’t many of them yet. But I’d spent most of my adult life in Chicago and knew a blizzard could be following those little snowflakes into town.

Yup. By the time we boarded the plane two hours later, snow was piling up on the runways, and delay notices were piling up on the departure and arrival boards. I tried to remain very calm and zen about it all, just accept that we were going to miss our connecting flight in Dallas, but the pilot suckered me into optimism by backing away from the gate a mere 20 minutes after our scheduled departure. Well, how about that … our layover in Dallas is nearly two hours, so we’ll even have a time to spare.

As it turned out, we’d backed away from the gate just in time to be approximately the 100th airliner in line for takeoff. An hour or so later, when we were perhaps third in line for takeoff, the pilot announced that the wings were covered with ice and he couldn’t risk flying. I was hoping a platoon of mechanics would drive out to the runway and jump on the wings armed with little plastic ice-scrapers, but the pilot taxied to the terminal, where greenish liquid sprayed from a huge nozzle removed the ice.

Still feeling cautiously optimistic, I convinced myself we might just make that connecting flight … after all, when O’Hare slows down, the whole system slows down, so the connecting flight could be delayed somewhere as well.

An hour later, after our second long stretch sitting in line to take off, the pilot announced that we needed another de-icing and taxied to the terminal again. I checked my watch. Without the snow, we would be landing in Dallas right about now. I become psychologically disjointed in these situations because while my body is where it is, my soul moves on to where it’s supposed to be — in this case, walking through a terminal in Dallas. The two would have to get along without each other until we arrived home in Burbank.

We finally landed in Dallas hours after our connecting flight had taken off. The airport was so over-crowded, I expected to see hordes of people bathing in a river somewhere in the middle of the terminal. I walked to the American Airlines desk at what was supposed to be our connecting gate and asked the uniformed, perky blonde if there was a later flight to Burbank.

“There’s one more flight leaving in three hours, but it’s sold out.”

“So what can you do to get us home?”

“Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going smile sincerely and suggest we put you on the stand-by list for that flight, then overcome your doubts by reminding you that since you have small children, you’ll receive priority stand-by status. Now of course, you don’t actually stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting on the plane since we overbook our flights even when it’s not a jam-packed holiday week, but this way I appear to doing something to help, when in fact I’m really just looking forward to watching you, your wife, and your two little girls spend three hours trying to avoid cramping up while sitting on the hard floor since, as you’ve noticed, there isn’t an empty chair anywhere within 10 square miles of the airport. The good news is that you’ll get some much-needed exercise every time one of the girls has to pee, because we broke the plumbing in all the nearby bathrooms.”

That isn’t exactly what she said, but it’s what she meant.

Three hours later — after the uniformed, perky blonde had herded all the passengers onto the plane and bribed some overbooked ticket-holders into surrendering their seats — I asked her what we should do now, seeing as how the priority stand-by status didn’t work out. She told me I’d need to go ask someone at the American Airlines ticket counter and pointed towards a security exit.

My wife stayed with the girls, who’d long since dozed off, and I walked the five or six miles to the American ticket counter. The line was only half as long as I’d expect if John and George came back from the dead and announced that the Beatles would perform exactly one reunion concert, tickets on sale tomorrow exclusively at Yankee Stadium window #23.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, we missed our connecting flight. When’s the next flight to Burbank?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Fine. I need four –”

“It’s sold out. They’re all sold out tomorrow.”

“What?”

“Everyone’s trying to fly to the Burbank-Pasadena airport for the Rose Bowl.”

“So when’s the next flight with open seats?”

“Sunday.”

“This is Friday.”

“I know that, sir. Would you like to book a flight on Sunday?”

“No. Put us on another airline, fly us into LAX, just get us home tomorrow. I’m not spending two days in Dallas.”

“Let’s see … here’s the best I can do. You can fly to Seattle tomorrow morning, then take an Alaskan Airlines flight from there to Burbank in the afternoon.”

“Dallas to Seattle to Burbank.”

“That’s right.”

“How long is the layover in Seattle?”

“Four hours.”

“I’ll take it.”

So I bought the tickets and stood in yet another line to get through security. The crack TSA agent examined my tickets then held up a hand.

“You can’t come in here, sir.”

“Why not?”

“These tickets aren’t for today.”

“Yes, I know that. They’re for tomorrow. These are the earliest flights I could get. But my wife and girls are inside waiting for me because I hoped I’d find a flight for tonight.”

“Well, you can’t go inside with these tickets.”

“Okay, then, now what? Is someone going to make an announcement so my wife knows I’m stuck out here and can’t get back in?”

“We don’t do that.”

“Uh-huh. So … I guess I’m supposed to stand here for, say, an hour or two until she finally comes looking for me?”

“Can you call her on a cell phone?”

“If she had a cell phone I could call, why would I be talking to you right now?”

“I don’t know. She ought to have a cell phone.”

“Look, you can have somebody follow me in there if you think I’m security risk, but I need to let my wife know I’m out here and we’re stuck in Dallas until tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That is of course a logical and reasonable request, but I work for the federal government and was therefore specially trained to follow rules for the sake of following rules, even when they make no sense whatsoever. In fact, if I demonstrated any initiative or capacity for independent thinking, I’d be sent to Guantanamo and forced to eat fattening foods while undergoing re-education.”

That’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.

As I was wondering exactly much jail time I’d pull for punching the crack TSA agent in the nose, an older African-American woman whose badge identified her as being on the janitorial staff heard part of our conversation and took pity on me. She volunteered to find my wife inside and asked for a description and gate number. Fortunately, the crack TSA agent didn’t consider this bit of kindness to be a terrorism threat and let her through.

So we caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel and spent $95 for a room — that was the stranded-passenger discounted rate — and another $50 or so for room-service sandwiches. The girls, whose bodies and souls were still together, considered a night in a hotel a grand adventure and spent much of the time chasing each other around the room and jumping on the beds. By the time we all fell asleep, it was after midnight.

Our flight to Seattle was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday. Not wanting to risk being stuck in Dallas another day, we arrived at the terminal at 6:30 a.m. The line to get through security was only half as long as if Jesus had announced he’d make an appearance on earth for exactly one day to heal the sick and answer all metaphysical questions, tickets on sale tomorrow exclusively at Yankee Stadium window #23.

As we eventually discovered while moving forward at the rate of three millimeters per minute, the crack TSA team only had one scanner working. Waves of college kids heading to the Rose Bowl entered the terminal, spotted friends far ahead of us in line and nonchalantly cut in to join them. The crack TSA team did nothing about it.

We finally made it through the one working scanner at 8:02 a.m. — two minutes after our flight was supposed to leave. I was just pulling our bags off the conveyor when a crack TSA agent approached me.

“Excuse me, sir, you and your family need to step over here with me.”

“What?! Our flight is leaving!”

“Random security check, sir. We have to search your bags.”

“Did you hear me? Our flight is about to take off!”

“Sorry, sir. If your number comes up, we have to search your bags.”

“You’re kidding, right? In all of aviation history, has an airplane ever been hijacked by parents traveling with their little kids? Just write down that the bags were fine and let us go.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That is of course a reasonable and logical request, especially since there’s a very good chance I’m about to make you miss your flight after you just spent 90 minutes standing in line because most of our security equipment isn’t working. But I work for the federal government and am therefore allowed to draw a paycheck without any concern whatsoever for pleasing the public I’m supposed to serve. In fact, unlike someone with a real job in the private sector, I can regularly annoy the hell out of the public and still remain employed, which is great, because I happen to be an incredibly stupid and annoying person. And even if I weren’t naturally stupid, I’d still have to pretend to be stupid, because if I demonstrated any initiative or capacity for independent thinking, I’d be sent to Guantanamo and forced to eat fattening foods while undergoing re-education.”

That isn’t exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.

So the crack TSA agent ambled over to a table, took my tickets and examined them as if they might contain secret go-codes for an Al Qaeda operation, then opened our bags and examined the contents as if I’d bet him $500 he couldn’t guess the thread count on the girls’ t-shirts. When he finished with their bags and moved on to mine, I told my wife, “Go! Go to the gate and tell them I’m on my way.”

When the crack TSA agent finally closed my bag, I yanked it off the table and ran. Halfway to the gate, I reached into the coat pocket where I’d been carrying our tickets. Nothing. Empty. Then it hit me: the crack TSA agent had taken them before beginning his bag-search.

I ran back to the security station and saw the tickets sitting on a counter, unattended. Anyone could’ve taken them. The crack TSA agent looked over just as I snatched the tickets. I held them up and hissed, “Nice job, genius. Very secure.” Then I ran faster than a 49-year-old with a bum knee is supposed to run. A flight attendant was waiting at the gate, ready to close the door behind me.

In the Seattle airport, we found a play area for kids. The girls played, my wife read a book, and I drank coffee. Lots of coffee. We ate lunch in a food court, walked around the airport, went back to the play area.

We boarded the Alaskan Airlines flight for Burbank, and the plane pulled away from the gate on schedule. As we were in line for takeoff, the pilot clicked on the intercom:

“Uhhhhhhhhh …. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been informed that the Naughton family is on board today, so we’re going to pretend we have an electrical problem and go back to the terminal and have our mechanics spend an hour and a half pretending to fix it.”

That’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.

So an hour and a half later, we were in air. When we landed in Burbank, I went to the baggage claim and watched one person after another pluck bags from a dwindling collection on the conveyor until I realized ours weren’t going to show up. I walked to the Alaskan Airlines counter.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, we just landed and our bags aren’t here.”

“Can I see your ticket?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s see … oh, you were originally supposed to come in on American. Your bags got here yesterday. American has them.”

“They didn’t put us on a plane, but they put our bags on the plane?”

“Yes. You’ll need to get your bags from them. Unfortunately, they’re gone for the day.”

“Say what?”

“They don’t have any more flights coming or going today, so their people are all gone.”

“So they have my bags locked up somewhere and I can’t get them.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

“They also have the car seats for my girls.”

“Oh. Oh, yes, that is a problem. I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.”

We hailed a cab outside and hoped the cabbie wouldn’t notice that two of the passengers were very much on the short side.

“Where you going?”

“San Jose Avenue in Burbank. Near Magnolia and Glenoaks.”

“Okay, let me … wait, where are your car seats?”

“Locked up in an American Airlines closet somewhere. We can’t get them until tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t take the kids without car seats. I could lose my license.”

My wife tried calling some friends who drove mommy vans with car seats. Nobody was home. I spotted a starter for the taxis and asked him if he had any suggestions.

“Some of the taxi vans have flip-down car seats. Let me get on the radio and try to find one. It could be awhile.”

It was awhile, but a van finally came to rescue us. We walked through the door of our townhouse a mere 28 hours later than we’d originally planned. We put the girls to bed and ordered a pizza. I watched TV, drank Guinness, and waited for my body and soul to merge.

This year, we’ll wake up when we feel like it, toss the suitcases in our van and drive home for the holidays. No security checks, no naked-image scanners, no TSA groping, no missed connections, no sitting on the floor in an airport. Yes, it’s a day-long drive, but I don’t mind driving. Compared to what the airlines and the TSA put us through these days, eight hours on the road is a walk in the park.

Just one more reason I’m glad I left California.

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A few nights ago, I was working in my home office when I heard my seven-year-old daughter scream bloody murder from the kitchen. As you might imagine, nothing propels a father from his chair as quickly as his child’s scream. My daughters’ screams have alerted me to fingers pinched in doors, fingers crushed by toilet seats, fingers stung by bees, heads banged against granite counters, heads banged against wooden bookcases, heads banged against other heads, heads stuck in railings, knees scraped by sidewalks, knees punctured by wooden splinters, and toes injured by butter knives, mixing bowls, pantry doors, kitchen chairs, and a Lazy-Boy rocker-recliner.

When I bounded into the kitchen, my daughter Sara was sitting in a chair, crying. My wife was standing behind her, holding a pair scissors and looking stunned. Sara can be quite be a handful, but my wife isn’t the type to resort to stabbing as a form of discipline, so I concluded that both the scissors and the screams probably had something to do with the piles of hair settling beneath Sara’s chair.

As it turned out, Sara had announced she was tired of her long, beautiful hair and asked my wife to cut it short, like her little sister’s. Then, partway into the operation, she had a change of heart — which she explained by screaming. It may be a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, but not halfway through a haircut. So there she sat, sobbing violently, still wearing long hair all around except for a newly-mowed row in the back. That row was roughly two feet shorter.

When we decided to start a family, I wanted daughters. I love having daughters. But as a man, I’m not equipped to handle hair disasters and other female emotional traumas. I literally have no idea what to say. If my daughter was being harassed by a bully or just lost the big game, I could probably offer sage advice, or at least some comforting words. But a hair-disaster meltdown freezes my male brain.

It’s not that I’m clueless about the importance of fine-looking hair. As a balding man, I’ve had an unbroken string of bad hair days dating back to the early 1990s. I don’t like it much, but I’ve never cried about it … even though I didn’t ask anyone to give me the balding look and can’t get my hair back simply by avoiding scissors for a few months. 

Even as a kid, I never had a meltdown over a hair disaster. One Saturday when I was 8 or 9 years old, my dad took me to a old barber near his office for the sake of convenience. Dad had work to do, I’d tagged along, and I needed a haircut. The old barber asked what kind of style I wanted, so I described in great detail how long to leave the bangs, how high to trim around the ears, and how to shape the back. The old man nodded, then pressed his electric clippers against my head and gave me a buzz cut — apparently the only style in his repertoire, and not a popular style during the era of The Beatles.

Did I scream? Have a meltdown? Stay indoors for a month? Nope. I just went home and held my head under a running faucet. Then my older brother informed me that watering your hair doesn’t make it grow any faster, so I put on a baseball cap and got on with my life.

Sara’s hair-disaster meltdown wasn’t even the first I’ve experienced. Several months ago my wife took Alana, our five-year-old, to a stylist for a trim. Alana seemed quite happy with it. We all thought the short hair looked cute on her. Three days later, as we were driving to Chicago, she suddenly burst out crying.

“Honey, what’s wrong?! Are you okay? Alana, what happened?!”

“I …(sob) … I … (sob) … I HATE MY HAAAAAAIR!!”

Just like that, out of nowhere. Times like these, I realize as much as I adore my daughters, I’ll never fully comprehend their little female minds. I tried to imagine what Alana was thinking just before the meltdown.

I’m tired of sitting in this car seat. Mommy says when I’m older I won’t need the car seat. That will be nice. Geez, look at all that corn. There sure is a lot of corn in Indiana. I’ve been staring at corn for hours now. It must’ve been a thousand-hundred minutes since we stopped. I hope we stop soon, because I think I might have to pee-pee. Maybe if we stop soon, Dad will let us have ice cream. We almost never get ice cream. Grandma gives us ice cream, though. I love Grandma. She’s going to be so happy to see us. She’ll probably hug me and say, “Alana, what happened to your hair? It’s so short!” You know, Grandma’s right. My hair is short. It’s too short. It’s way, way, way, too short. It looks awful … I HATE MY HAAAAAAIR!!”

Now it was Sara’s turn to hate her hair. When the sobs subsided enough to allow for coherent speech, she insisted my wife should just back away and leave the disaster as it was. My wife explained that long hair in the front and short hair in the back isn’t a flattering style. So they negotiated and settled for short in the back and somewhat longer in the front. I’ve seen women choose that style on purpose and could never figure out why. It ends up looking like some kind of hair-helmet. I sneaked back to my office to avoid being asked an opinion.

Unfortunately, my wife decided Sara needed reassurance that disaster had been avoided and brought her back for a visit.

“Daddy, look at Sara’s new hair style. Doesn’t she look cute?”

Uh … uh …

The thing is, I’m a terrible liar. The upside is that if I pay you a compliment, you can be sure I mean it. The downside is that people sometimes regret asking for my opinion. It’s not that I’m incapable of lying, but I really hate doing it. It’s a pride thing; my word matters to me.

Years ago, a girlfriend tried a new hairstyle best described as “experimental” — at least three inches longer on one side than on the other (among other horrors), so she appeared to be on the verge of tipping over. I literally said nothing about it, because I couldn’t think of anything nice to say. I simply pretended I hadn’t noticed. But of course, being a woman, she was required by law to drag an opinion out of me soon after I picked her up.

“You didn’t say anything about my hair.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Oh. Sorry. So, you in the mood for Thai food, or maybe Mexican, or -”

“Well?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you like my new haircut or not?”

“Uh … you know … I’d have to say … I like pretty much everything about you. And of course, on top of it all is your hair.”

When my daughter reaches her teens, it’s a given that I’ll become the stupidest man on earth for a few years, and during that time my opinion probably won’t matter much. But for now, I’m still the smartest man on earth and also the man she most loves and admires. And there she was, standing in front of my desk, her eyes pleading for a compliment.

“Daddy, look at Sara’s new hair style. Doesn’t she look cute?”

Uh … uh … oh, just get over it.  It’s her pride that matters, not yours.

“Yes, she does. That’s really cute, Sara.”

“Do you like it, Daddy?”

“Yes, I do. It’s very cute.”

I’m a middle-aged man with two young daughters. Over the years, there will be hair disasters, makeup disasters, clothing disasters, and other disasters I can’t even anticipate, some of which may involve piercings. I don’t like saying nice words I don’t actually mean. But for them, I will.

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