Thursday, April 28, 2011


I'm the proud father of two sets of twins: 6-yr-old son and daughter, and two 3-yr-old daughters.  Most days, my wife and I would readily agree that we're done having kids.  In fact, the day we found out we were having another set of twins, I was ready to schedule a vasectomy then and there (okay... I was half-joking.  Half.)  Four seems like enough -- and on most days, far more than enough.  We love them, and they are, of course the light and joy of our lives, but you know; turns out, kids are a lot of work.

So, yeah... in our heads, we've known for quite some time that we wouldn't be having any more children -- at least naturally.  In the last few days, however, in part because of my wife's health, this intellectual understanding has been solidified into hard, permanent fact of the surgical variety.

When I was young, I was always very indecisive (okay... I still am.  Sue me).  After multiple frustrating conversations in which I wound up trying to figure out why friends or family were so annoyed with me, I figured out a way to solve this.  A way to trick myself into making a decision.

Oh, yeah?  Well, mine's invisible, Harvey.
How ya like that?
The trick: Flipping an imaginary coin.  The idea was that, by mentally "flipping" my coin, I would bypass whatever thought process was keeping me from making my decision, and go straight to what I actually wanted.  Believe it or not, it worked. 

The problem with decision making is that, often, the head and the heart fail to agree, and as fallible humans, we sometimes don't know to which one we should listen.  Or even want to listen.  My little trick forces a choice.  It actually evolved from using a real coin, and then deciding whether or not I liked the outcome of the toss.  Again, it was that task of coming up with a permanent decision and forcing myself to decide whether I could live with it.  Sometimes, I went with the toss.  Sometimes, not.  It wasn't long before I figured out I didn't need the actual coin.

Of course, life doesn't always let you take back your coin toss. 

Mentally, my wife and I knew we probably weren't going to conceive any more children.  In our hearts... well, it was nice to have the option.  It's not that I have regrets, all things considered.  We made the right decision -- and more importantly, it was the decision we had to make.  But this is the part of decision-making with which I've always struggled: permanence.  This was the idea with which I played when I flipped my imaginary coin.

It turns out, the real world is full of permanent decisions.  Things we simply can't take back.  Words we say.  Actions we're too drunk, or angry, or frightened to realize we'll regret later.  Whether it's getting into that car when we know, in the back of our minds, that we shouldn't, or walking into that clinic, or walking away from that loved one... sometimes we only realize much later that, perhaps, we should have re-flipped that coin after all.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Imagine my surprise when violence turned to to be, occasionally, the answer

I believe I indicated in an earlier post that, while my sharp tongue often got me into trouble, it only sometimes got me out again.  Honestly, I can only think of two times in my life where I was subjected to what I would consider real bullying, which happened during my 5th year.  And honestly, even these incidents, as you'll see, were pretty tame by comparison to what many kids go through.  This lack of antagonists -- at least, in the physical sense -- wasn't due to any innate coolness on my own part.

To the Victor, Baby!
By all accounts (and I know you'll find this hard to believe), I was a bit of a dork.  Really.  If I had pics online, I'd prove it.  I walked funny, my head bobbing up and down like a freakishly tall duck.  I was always a little tall for my age, but really, though broad-shouldered, I was also pretty lanky.  In short, nobody's idea of a tough guy.  To add insult to injury, I was smart, and with a tendency to prove it every chance I got.  Looking back, winning the Spelling Bee may not have been the best move as far as self-preservation was concerned.  On the other hand, I won a Brand Spanking New college dictionary, with my name engraved on the cover (seriously, and people thought I was a dork!  I know, right?)!

You'd think having the biggest dictionary in class would earn a guy some respect.  Not so much.  The first of my run-ins -- and honestly, the one that hurt the most, emotionally, happened in the 5th grade.

I've always been a pacifist of sorts.  It wasn't as though I had anything in particular against violence, per se, I just thought fighting over the things kids were fighting over in those days was kind of stupid.  I never liked fighting, and in fact, when the other kids would circle around a pair of dust-raising boys in the midst of battle (consisting mostly of rolling around on the ground together and not landing any hits that I ever saw), I was the kid trying to break it up and get them to shake hands.

Still can't believe people thought I was a dork.

So the first incident of bullying I can really recall happened after I stood up to a friend of mine. Or, somebody I had thought of as a friend before the incident, and later befriended again.  Neither here nor there. What happened was this:

Not Zach.
This "friend" of mine, Kevin, was belittling a classmate during one recess.   I can't remember all the details.  Zach (who, yes, we called "Lego Maniac") wanted to play with us, and Kevin didn't want him to.  The dialogue ratcheted up at some point, at which time I told Kevin to leave him alone, and then walked away.  As I walked Kevin followed behind, kicking me.  It wasn't a major event, bullying-wise, except for two things.  One, as a friend, I was deeply hurt by his behavior (most people, I didn't care about one way or the other, but I've always revered my friends).  And second, this was the first time I remember ever hitting back.

Actually, I turned around and backhanded him, knocking him flat on his rear -- and to this day, I'm unsure about whether or not I meant to do it.  Either way, he got in trouble -- he was used to it.  I got a slap on the wrist -- more discipline from school than I was ever used to.  And by the next week, we were friends again, and Zach was more or less permanently a part of our group.

The second incident I remember had to do with a more ongoing issue with, oddly, another Kevin. This Kevin had been held back at least once (I still suspect twice -- he was that big, and that dumb).  So we don't get confused, we'll call him K2.  This guy was your classic small-time bully, not particularly to me, but to pretty much anyone who wasn't a close, personal friend.  He wasn't often violent, and when he was, it was mostly shoves or trips.  Mostly, he liked to point and laugh at people, steal their sandwiches, and generally make a nuisance of himself.  I don't remember him ever blacking anyone's eye or giving too many wedgies, but it was mostly because he outweighed most of us by about 40 lbs and when he said "Jump," you apologized for not reading his mind and jumping sooner.

Until the Speed Ball incident.

Also, the torture device of choice
for a certain 5th-grade bully.
If you remember anything about elementary school, you probably remember a lot about recess.  Like the fact that, when it rained, "recess" consisted of the kids finding things to do in the classroom while the teacher more or less ignored them.  One of the most popular indoor activities was the Speed Ball: a projectile on a two strings that would rocket toward the opposite player when you tugged your ropes outward.  It was like catch, but without skill, or the tendency to break things.

The toy was so popular that a good portion of indoor recess was spent waiting for your turn with it.  Really, it was that spinning the globe around for an endless 15 minutes.  So, like most of my classmates, I waited in line.  On this day -- a day when the teacher happened to have things to do outside of the classroom -- K2 was in line behind me, and I had not yet taken my turn.  I was, however, next.  So K2 decided he was done waiting.

"I'm next," he said.

"I've been waiting," I said.  "You're after me."

K2 didn't like being told no.  The conversation broke down from there.  He said things.  I'm fairly certain I said less-than-complimentary things about him.  He responded by pushing my face into the oncoming Speed Ball.

I haven't really explained everything about this toy.  Not only was it propelled by one kid pulling two ropes in opposite directions, it was also made of plastic and, depending on who was doing the pulling, also pretty doggone fast.  In this case, fast enough to tear a small strip of skin off my cheek.  Really.  I still have a small scar.

My own response to this incident was... less than pacifist.  And this time, definitely on purpose.  I grabbed him by the shirt, lifted up and out with every ounce of strength I had, and threw him over a desk.

Okay, I'm probably romanticizing that a bit.  More likely, I pushed him very, very hard, and he simply fell over a desk.  But hey, it's my childhood, and I'll remember it how I want.

I didn't get a standing ovation from my classmates.  K2 and I didn't become the best of friends, nor did he develop a new respect for me.  But he never bothered me again.

Of course, the real question remained: was I left alone because I had proven I could stand up for myself, or simply because I wasn't worth the effort.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Honestly, I Kinda Think Ferb is a Little Evil

Okay, yeah.  I love Phineas and Ferb.  Sometimes, I even watch it if my kids aren't around.  What can I say?  It's just a darned enjoyable little show.  Sure, it's pure escapist fun, but I think I really just like the characters.

Phineas, in particular, has always been a big reason behind my enjoyment of the show.  I just love that the kid is completely without guile.  All his adventures are completely in the spirit of fun and, occasionally, for no other reason than to help his friends and family.

Enter Ferb.  Ostensibly Phineas' partner-in-fun and devoted brother.  He silently helps Phineas in whatever scheme, doing what he must to Make It Work.  His brevity of speech, his careful choice of words, are evidence enough of his intelligence.  But, for me, it's always seemed like there's something more.  Wheels turning in different directions, perhaps.  While I believe Phineas really is just as innocent as he's made out to be, Ferb has a sarcastic streak that belies his friendly stoicism.

Take, for instance, this episode:

Pay special attention to the segment between 9:23 and 9:44.

This scene, for me, best illustrates the fundamental difference between the two boys.  Ferb, with his subtle barb and Phineas, with his heartfelt congratulations. 

Then there's the episode in which Ferb leaves his brother to help Dr. Doofenshmirtz get his hands on a volatile and dangerous chemical just because he thinks his daughter is hot.

Ultimately, I think, Ferb loves his brother, and enjoys their time together.  But something tells me that he's also in it for other reasons.  That there's something else happening in that F-shaped cranium of his.  To be honest, I'm not 100% sure he'd be adverse to becoming Doof's son-in-law and taking over the family business.  Just sayin'.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hi, I'm Randy, and I read Stephen King

Pulp Fiction? At over 1100 pages?
It's weird, but whenever I tell somebody I'm reading a Stephen King novel, I always sort of feel like I need to apologize.  As though "Carrie" or "It" or "The Stand" were somehow beneath me as a reader, and that I should be aspiring for more.  

I think college is partially to blame, along with some kind of innate snobbishness on my own part.  I can't really remember where I got it, but somewhere along the way, I picked up the impression that King was for "them."  The unintellectual masses.  The proletariat.  And that, somehow, that was a bad thing.

But you know, there's a lot to be said for an author as prolific as King is, who delivers a new Best Seller time after time after time.  Maybe there's something to this "writing for the masses" thing, after all.

The fact is, Stephen King manages to to entice his "Constant Reader" time and time again because, frankly, he knows him so darn well.  He knows what his reader hates and fears; what turns him on and makes him mad.  He knows how to get under the reader's skin, to try on his bones and take his flesh for a ride.  I think King appeals to so many people because he not only writes situations that excite them, but fills his worlds with people they know.

I heard a critic say once that Stephen King writes like a layman -- as if that were a negative.  Actually, he doesn't.  King's work is deeply evocative and interesting.  He weaves multiple layers of realism, fantasy and menace, developing rich back stories for each of his characters.  He doesn't write like an every day guy, but he writes about them, and does it well.  King's characters aren't Shakespearesque archetypes.  They shave, scratch, fart and cuss -- and darned if they don't just make the stories that much richer and more harrowing because of it.

I know what people say I should like.  That there are award-winners and people on Oprah's list, and required reading in the Great Halls Of Learning.  But the truth is, I read Stephen King because I like his stories.  He doesn't bore me.  And more than that, because King writes his characters -- and their stories -- in a way to which many writers could only aspire.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I came by it honestly.

That's me, in the sweater.  Years later, this photo was fodder
for all manner of family ribbing.  At least I was able to blame
my mother.

 I grew up in a house filled with laughter.  My father has always been quick-witted, and has a terrific sense of humor.  Though my mom would often frown in mock chagrin at some of the racier jokes and puns he would run by my younger brother and I, it was always with an air of joyful exasperation. 

It wasn't Leave It To Beaver by any stretch: my dad has always been just as ready with the advice as Ward Cleaver, but I don't think you'd ever see ol' Ward flash a mischievous grin at The Beav before playfully flipping June the bird.  It wasn't that my parents weren't careful to make sure my sister, brother and I were properly trained and disciplined; I think it's more that they recognized us as smart kids with enough intelligence and social acumen to understand such "adult" kidding in context.

You had to have thick skin to grow up in my house.  Life was hard, and we survived it through our collective ability to laugh at ourselves -- or, to be more accurate, each other.  Through joblessness and varying degrees of poverty, right on through to the better days, we had our Faith, each other, and our laughter.  My dad, who, as long as I can remember, was a touch overweight (and, it's time to be honest, that's how my kids will remember ME as well), had long since elevated self-deprecation to an art form on the level of Michaelangelo.  But when that sharp tongue turned outward, man, you had to be ready.  In my early teenage years, my Dad and I would literally spend up to an hour every day just trading good-natured insults.  From the outside looking in, it must have seemed very dysfunctional -- but nothing made my day like hearing Dad just busting up at some quick jab I'd gotten over on him.  And really, nobody ever got hurt.  It's hard to take something personally when you're crying with laughter.


More than mere fun, these little sessions were lessons, too -- though I'm not sure my Dad quite intended for us to use them the ways we often did.  My mouth often got me into -- and back out of -- trouble, particularly with older peers.  I wasn't taught how to back down; if I believed I was right, I simply went for it, and damn the consequences.  Off-hand, I can think of at least one situation where I was spared a backyard beating purely on the merit of sheer nerve.  I was, I think, 14 or so, and our 17-year-old neighbor had caught a frog (it's amazing the circumstances you CAN recall, versus those you can't), and this had somehow led to an argument.  He asserted his superiority as small-town 17-year-old boys do, and I responded by insulting his intelligence, his masculinity, and, if I remember correctly, his mother.  He clenched his fist, and I discovered new and clever ways of calling him a girl.  He laughed, dropped his hands, and said, "You got guts, kid."  I never had a problem with him again.

I wasn't always so lucky.

(note: this is part one of an ongoing - and occasional - series of stories and anecdotes about my life: who I was, and what made me who I am.  For anyone that cares.  Or, hopefully, just enjoys reading it.)