Friday, December 31, 2010

You say you want a resolution...

Whenever I see a cartoon representing 2010 as an old, bearded man, I can relate — this year aged us all. Even more so than years traditionally do. A word of advice for Baby 2011: exercise. Come to think of it, why do we always turn the new year over to a baby anyway? Especially ones with that Jack disease? Maybe that’s been our problem.

So, yeah, 2010 was a stinker for a lot of us. Economic hardship, unemployment, childish political posturing, the rise of the New England Patriots from its lovely, lovely ashes — all that and more made the future more uncertain than ever before.

I blame myself.

There’s no question that, for me at least, 2011 is going to be a much different year than 2010. In what way? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll become a world famous, well-respected and financially sound somebody. Now that would be different!

But enough about the things I can’t control. How about some changes that are actually up to me? My problem is, I tend to make and follow resolutions whenever they strike, rather than putting them off en masse for when January rolls around. Also, I tend to eschew the ridiculously lofty goals (like fame, respect and financial soundness) in favor of realistic goals (like being a better dude, which is never that difficult). That might make me better at keeping my resolutions in the long term, but it also means my New Year’s list tends to suck. Anyway, here they are, by category:

Health nut

Continue improving my diet by being even more relentlessly nitpicky than I already am. In 2010, I cemented a major milestone by eliminating trans fats from my diet. Prior to this past summer, I generally sought to avoid trans fats, but turned the other way in many cases. I no longer do this, always researching nutrition information beforehand and exclusively buying and eating food with a stated 0g of trans fats.

However, I’ve come to learn that the FDA allows food products with up to 0.4g of trans fats per serving to be listed as having none. That’s kind of crappy, I think, considering that the FDA considers these fats to have no safe consumption level. I now know the trick is to look for the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients. 

This means I’ll have to give up some of my favorite foods, but eh, I already did that the first time with Totino’s Pizza and White Castle hamburgers. I don’t miss either.

I’m glad the FDA at least began requiring trans fat disclosures back in 2006. Before that, I had no idea what trans fats even were. And a lot of people I talk to still aren’t aware that they spike bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol, or that 2g a day is the FDA recommended limit, or that some cities have banned them in food outright. I’m grateful that I’m aware of this and can now take steps to correct years of ignorant dietary decisions.

This won’t mean that I’ll refuse your home cooking (for that reason, anyway) or snuff out restaurant visits; I figure with my efforts, I can afford not to be super-anal in that regard. Anyway, the general shift in restaurants and cooking oils is away from trans fats. Still, my dining decisions are and will continue to be driven by goodness. 

And chips. I love me some chips.

• Stop using cotton swabs in my ears. Actually, this one is a few months old. But after my epic ear-clogging experience, I’ve learned that drops are the way to go. Yeah, they feel gross, but so does wax jammed up in your canals.

Exercise daily, but smartly. My problem these past few years has been to do too much and go too long without resting. The result of this is that, yeah, I’m in shape, but my back/head/ankle hurts like hell sometimes. And I don’t care how confident I feel — limping around like you’re a 60-year-old ex-athlete isn’t going to break any hearts. Rest is just as an important part of the regimen as hitting the road. Just remember that, me.

Eat breakfast...ever. Experts say the best thing you can do is eat a healthy meal to start your day. For someone who wakes up early in the morning and works the night shift, my balance is harder to attain. I vow to rectify that this year.

Sleep more. Eight hours? Hey, if it prevents me from crashing in my bed with the laptop in the middle of the afternoon, only to wake up with a start and chip my tooth on the laptop, I’m all for it. And yes, that happened just now.

Ease off some of my self-imposed stress. Hah! That brings me to my next category:

Resolutions I had in the womb

Stop taking things personally that I shouldn’t. Probably won’t happen. This was my first-ever New Year’s resolution, back in 1979-80, when I was still gestating. I let myself feel cruddy for a lot of things that aren’t justified. It’s not fun or healthy. So, boom, that neurosis is gone. That was easy! I hope.

Get over my irrational fears. I’m afraid of a lot of things. Success, for one. But if 2011 is going to be the year I make it big, I’ll have to get over that. Shucks.

Leave painful memories in the past. Most of things that I remember are things that others don't. So, eff it. Clean up the mess, if necessary, and look forward.

Go somewhere I've never been. Hell, I'd make that a daily resolution if I could. Road trip!

Do something bad that I’ll have to rectify with a resolution later. Like taking up smoking or armed robbery. Or voting Republican.

Retire the above joke. I make it every year. It’s as old and creaky as 2010 itself.

But most of all...

Leave this year — and my environment — better than I found it. And do whatever it takes to make a difference and find the satisfaction that I've sought for years. Yeah, I know, that's what she said.

So thanks for reading. Here’s to a well-polished 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1991 edition

Christmas 1991 was one of those years I really got into the holiday spirit. It was also a year of last times.

I remember our family shopping trip in which we bought a magnificently plump Christmas tree in a lot that would later turn into a branch of my mom’s bank, and we ate at Sonic afterwards. It would be the last time we ever bought a live tree.

It would also be the last Christmas for my great aunt Boo, as what had been a bout of pneumonia turned into a diagnosis of lung cancer in November. I remember the day I found out, which was the same day the Dallas Cowboys snapped the Washington Redskins’ undefeated streak with a field goal. I watched the highlights in the hospital room with her that afternoon. Yes, football is my frame of reference for pretty much everything. Boo braved chemotherapy and various stays in the oncology ward in the months that followed, eventually staying with my grandparents until her death on April 18, 1992. Nevertheless, throughout Christmas and New Year’s Day, she remained an active participant in our festivities.

At my mom’s office Christmas party, the last one where I got a present (my sister, then 1, would later become the primary focus), I got a baseball sticker scrapbook, complete with all of the 100-plus stickers in a pack. I think I placed them all that night. When I finished, I noticed I was missing two stickers. Instead, I had two duplicates. Packaging glitch! NOOOOOOO!!!! This was not going to help my collector’s OCD.

Finally, Christmas 1991 would be the last for two years in which Santa came. In yet another departure from tradition, and perhaps as a way to keep Santa alive for Keely as his believability slid out of my and Colin’s minds, Mom and Dad wrapped all of our presents (for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) and put them under the tree. They were there when we arrived home from school one day, and it was a lot of fun seeing these larger-than-usual giftwrapping jobs and wondering what lied beneath.

From that summer forward, when a display had caught my eye at our local Kmart, I had coveted the Sportcraft ice hockey table game. I envisioned it as the centerpiece of my bedroom, and any future gameroom I would have. Decals along the side sported the names of major American cities, and by the time Christmas rolled around, I had already created teams, lineup and backstories for each city, calling it the SHL (Sportcraft Hockey League). I wrote a story about the league in my English-class journal. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a game and get the real league rolling!

My hockey game. SPOILER ALERT: I got it.
On Christmas Eve, our cousin Mitch came to visit us on leave from the Navy. He had been a fixture at my grandparents’ house from childhood up until he moved to Houston when he was about 17. By this point, he’d been to Africa and several other countries overseas, and had grown a mustache. The mustache scared me a little bit, as they often do, but otherwise I was ecstatic to see him. Even though he was 10 years older than me, we had a lot of good times together when we were young. I believe this was the first time he’d ever seen my sister, and I remember him saying, “I don’t even know YOU!” Dad, Colin and I had recently seen “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” and I remember my Dad talking to Mitch and Pop about the flick and laughing about it as if Dad had been the target audience. I loved it.

My cousin Mitch meets Keely, while Boo watches. Mom Mom, meanwhile, is cringing over my resemblance to a young Jeffrey Dahmer.
The party spilled over to our house, where Dad cranked up a Nintendo bowling game he’d rented and had been playing incessantly. We exchanged presents — all of mine being sports-related, of course. But I think what I remember most about Christmas Eve is that I sat around contentedly devouring off-brand nacho chips and Zapp’s barbecue chips while reading TV Guide and Tuff Stuff Magazine.

Two out of three McGibboney children agree: Christmas is awesome!
We all knew what Colin’s present was going to be well before Christmas Eve. In what had to be the most hilariously inept attempt ever to disguise a gift, Dad had purchased a Patsy Cline CD for Mom, and wrapped it with one of my sister’s rectangular puzzles to throw off the shape. This would have been brilliant, except that two days before Christmas (or thereabouts), everybody got to unwrap a gift. My mom opened the CD, and as we all laughed at Dad’s cleverness, my mom expressed her desire to put it in constant rotation.

But we couldn’t, just yet. Because we didn’t have a CD player. Oops!

At this point, Dad no longer worked in radio. But just prior to leaving his last radio job, he had brought home about 12 CDs, which he kept in a chest (mostly playlists designed for radio use only, but also a couple of albums from Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Cockburn and Paul Carrack, as well as TV themes and commercials). Us kids would occasionally (and secretly) break them out just to gawk at them. We handled them like plutonium. “Compact discs! Wow!”

A few months prior, Coca-Cola had a promotion where they hid four mini-CDs, each featuring four or five songs from then-contemporary Epic and Columbia artists, in Coke cases. Boo, who was an avid Coke drinker, managed to land two of them, and gave them to us. We gawked at those as well. In retrospect, it seemed like destiny.

It seemed even more like destiny on Christmas Eve when Colin got CDs from Garth Brooks (Ropin’ the Wind), Michael Jackson (Dangerous), C&C Music Factory (Gonna Make You Sweat - which became Mom's soundtrack) and, as a final gift from Boo the CD queen, “Rapmasters 2.”

I didn’t get any CDs, but I did get the Simpsons Scrapbook and Tuff Stuff magazine — two very divergent publications that would both have profound effects on my life. The Simpsons Scrapbook (which, last I checked, is still available) was a fully immersive look into what Marge had to work with from America’s favorite cartoon dysfunctional family. I’m not sure I can describe what it is about this book that redefined how I saw comedy and storytelling, but I liked how every page was densely layered (you’d never get it it all even with a dozen readings), and how it used actual print fonts to make packages and cards look real. Even amid scads of throwaway jokes, it told a story without any kind of narrative structure. Oh, and it was funny. Tremendously funny.

Tuff Stuff was one of many, many sports-card magazines I was eating up at the time. But this one was thicker and even involved cards outside of sports (the most striking was an ad for missing-kids cards that featured Jaycee Lee Dugard, a girl my age who had just disappeared and was only recently found alive). Tuff Stuff also had in-depth sports stories (the cover touting the biggest story of the day, Magic Johnson’s recent HIV disclosure). It got me interested in sports journalism. I still have both books.

Keely got a Mickey Mouse doll. It was so upscale, even I wanted it.

Not pictured: Team loyalty.
Colin and I went to bed that night as Christmas music continued to blare around the house. When I woke up about two hours later, everyone (except for Keely) was already up. I walked into the den to the sweet opening strains of C&C Music Factory’s “Let’s Get Funkee.” Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-do-DA-do-doot-da-DA-do....

Colin had gotten his stereo. A Sharp CD player with X-Bass, an equalizer and a dual cassette deck so that we could make high-speed copies of Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit.” Sweet! As we swapped CDs, Dad continually marveled at the sound quality, falling into expert mode when he thought he was getting too giddy. “Wow, that knock in the intro of ‘Black or White’ sounds like it’s right here! [Voice drops] So, uh, yeah, CDs reproduce crystal clear because they’re digital.”

I got a Magna-Doodle, a toy best described as a white Etch-Sketch that’s way easier to manipulate. My wide-eyed parents kept going, “How does it work?”

In that case, they were trying to lift my spirits. Because I did get the hockey game I so desperately wanted. But it was broken. Broken! Not fair, Jesus! Did Ralphie’s air rifle jam? Hell no! This is not how the story’s supposed to go! Months of anticipation! Agggh!!!!

Specifically, one of the spinning players was not on track, and sagged underneath the rink. We weren’t able it to snap it into place, and Dad countered my repeated pleas to let us play anyway, saying we’d simply exchange it at Kmart the next day. In the meantime, we couldn’t play it so they wouldn’t pin the defect on us. Well, that’s one way to make Christmas last forever.

He stashed it in the dining room. Later that day, I would sit by my defective game, caressing it to the sounds of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” as family revelry continued in the other room. Wonderful Christmastime, indeed.

But aside from that short emo period, I managed to have a lot of fun. Of course, Colin and I never went to back to bed, though my parents did. As Colin repeated Garth Brooks ad nauseum, I alternated between drawing up sports-themed logos on my Magna-Doodle and absorbing myself in the music-themed issues of Disney Adventures and Request that Colin had gotten in his stocking, while making very short work of the Life Saver storybooks I’d gotten in my own stocking. To this day, when I taste cherry Life Savers, I taste the early morning hours of Dec. 25, 1991.

Other cool stuff also kept my tears from melting the ice. I got a tabletop basketball hoop, with a tiny plastic basketball that you could bounce and try to make the basket. I also got a Classic baseball game with a diamond spin dial, complete with a set of baseball cards with trivia questions on the back. The pieces were even smaller versions of the cards, featuring Todd Van Poppel and other apparent future stars of the age. I lost a couple of the plastic stands for the pieces, but didn’t realize it until after I’d chucked the strange pieces of plastic that were randomly turning up in my other toys. Oops. Other than that, I still have this game completely intact to this day.

And this being the peak of my baseball fanaticism, I also received the complete set of 1991 Topps cards. “40 years of baseball,” the box and every card screamed. Not only did I enjoy this set as much as the previous year’s, but I also (mostly) managed to keep Keely from jabbing the box with darts. Speaking of darts, my grandparents got me a Sportcraft dartboard. One of the first things I did with it was tape a picture of Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville over the bull’s-eye and use it for target practice. Peace on Earth and good will toward men.

My last three sports-themed gifts were an NFL welcome mat, another basketball game, where you pressed numbered buttons to rocket the ball in the air (I had been playing with it relentlessly every time we went to the Real Superstore) and a USA Olympic bag (a timely gift, given that the 1992 Olympics were imminent).

The zipper on the Olympic bag broke that very morning, the very first time I zipped it. Before I had a chance ask God why he was trampling on my otherwise wonderful day, my grandmother, a seamstress, took the bag to her house next door and fixed it with a single piece of thread in about three minutes. “There you go,” she said. The zipper never broke again, and it still works perfectly. Thanks, Mom Mom!

Oh and I also got an ant farm. I’d always wanted one. I got the ants in a tube through the mail a few days later. How about that? They ultimately died of starvation, though I did keep them alive long enough to do a really poor-quality science fair project that almost won anyway.

Later that day, I sat on Boo’s porch two houses down, with my Olympic bag full of goodies, and enjoyed a clear, sunny day. Across the street, two young girls enjoyed their new bikes. Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.

The next day, Dad, Colin and I went to Kmart. It was a different location than the one we usually went to (exotic!) and its shelves were bare from all of the shoppers swiping up deals. We brought the hockey game to the return desk, my first-ever experience with customer service. My dad explained the defect, which I reiterated by saying, “The little men don’t work.” The woman behind the desk wrote on a Post-It note, “Little men don’t work.” Then we were allowed to grab another game. Dad asked if we could open this one in the store, just to make sure it was not also broken. The clerk agreed. Good call. The second game had the same problem. Phew! Good thinking, Dad. You know me well. The third game had no issues, and that’s the one that has endured to this day.

Soon after, in English class, we had an assignment to write a letter of complaint to a company. Some were allowed to write letters of praise instead, but I had no trouble complaining. I mailed my letter to the company that made my hockey game for Sportcraft, Bock-Plast of Finland, and urged them to exercise better quality control in their products. It came back insufficient postage. Oh well. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Back at Kmart, Colin and I had $20 each in cash to buy whatever we wanted. I took the opportunity to purchase my first-ever CD, the “Cool as Ice” soundtrack. It cost $19.95. Worth. Every. Penny. This was when CDs still came in those long rectangular boxes, which I always thought were neat (if wasteful). Colin was more economical, buying discounted old discs from MC Hammer (“Let’s Get It Started,” which we didn’t know existed) and Garth Brooks (“No Fences”).

As for Keely, I have no idea what she got from Santa.

Guidance, maybe?
That night, as Colin and I went to bed, I realized an unfortunate side effect of his new stereo: that he would play it at night, without headphones. Five days later, I’d commandeer another room in the house as my bedroom. In a Christmas season of last times, a whole new era was about to be born.

I’ll always remember 1991 as the last truly epic Christmas, the end of an innocent era. But it was also stoked a lot of interests that keep me going today — sports writing, comedy writing, music and complaining. It also instilled in me the sort of happiness that comes not only from having cool stuff, but also from being with your family through thick and thin, and with the understanding that life is ultimately fleeting. So be grateful, have a good time and love.

Happy New Year!

Next time in the Crapbook: Assorted snapshots from 1992-2006!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If you Google 'NFL Power Rankings Week 17'...

What you get is the dictionary definition of disrespect.

I'm surprised the Carolina Panthers aren't topping everyone's list. The Saints beat them twice, doubling the apparent criteria for inclusion.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Another white trash, another white trash...

So I was at a stoplight in my neighborhood on my way to work yesterday afternoon when I noticed that the car in front of me — the first in the intersection — had its hazard lights flashing. "Nuts," I thought. "This car's probably stalled." I stopped far enough behind it, but knew I would have a hard time getting around it, because my lane was left-turn-only and the other was right-turn-only. The fact that three or four cars had already congregated behind me was only going to complicate things.

The car had a handicapped license plate. I couldn't see any heads. After a minute or so of trying to squeeze through, I saw a backwards cap bobbing up and down across the front. I suddenly pictured a guy possibly giving CPR to what I assumed might be an elderly driver. When the light turned green and the car didn't move, I (being startled) got out of mine and strode to the front window.

There was no driver. A man about my age with a red beard and alligator skin rolled down the window before I even reached it.

"Is everything OK?" I asked, cautiously.

"Yeah, my mom had to get out and get something. She'll be right back," he said calmly. Oh, OK then. (By the way, I didn't see her.)

"Well," I said, gesturing to what was now six or seven cars, "She's blocking a lot of traffic, so —"

It was as if I flicked a switch. "What, you got a problem with it?" he shouted angrily, yanking off his seat belt and opening his door.

"Nooo," I said as I reflexively jumped back into my car. He had gotten out and taken a couple of steps toward me, but apparently thought better of it, opting to stare at me for a couple of seconds with glowing-red eyes before getting back in his car. Even more cars were backed up behind me now, and the traffic in the right lane had been consistently (and unusually) strong. I was pretty much stuck here, mere feet away from a pissed-off redneck who, for all I knew, had a gun or several.

So I dialed 911 on my cell phone and reported a stalled vehicle, making note of the fact that no one was hurt but that the passenger nearly accosted me when I checked on him.

"What kind of car is it?" the dispatcher asked.

"A Plymouth Neon," I said.

Pause. "Don't you mean a Dodge Neon?"

"No, it's Plymouth."

"Are you sure?"

Yes. The car says both Plymouth and Neon on the trunk. "Plymouth made it before Dodge, I think." Sigh. Every time I call 911...

Right as the call concluded, a woman carrying a gas can walked past me and up to the car. (God only knows where she got gas. Not within two miles, that's for damn sure.) I make note of this to the dispatcher.

"She's going to put gas in the car, I guess. Wait, she's not filling up the tank. She's putting it in the backseat and getting in the car. What?"

"We'll send a police car."

"OK, thanks."

Another green light passes. The two sit motionless in their seats, aside from the occasional hostile gesture in my general direction. Finally, after several cars behind me turn left from the right-turn lane, I manage to negotiate a swerve around the offenders, who shoot me dirty looks as I make my turn. Yeah, I'M the jerk.

How foolish of me to assume that someone was in pain, or that my attempt to find out would result in no explanation and a lot of hostility. Or that, once these trashlings finally got some gas, they'd BOTHER TO PUT IT IN THEIR CAR.

(To be fair, maybe the driver realized there was no gas station and doubled back. But if there's one thing I've noticed in Missouri, it's that people can be literally slack-jawed and completely unaware of their surroundings. So it wouldn't shock me if there actually was gas in the can, or even in the tank, and they just got in their car hoping God would take care of it.)

I'm only glad these people didn't pack heat, because that's one hell of an embarrassing way to die. It's gotta be an even worse way to live.

I used to believe this as a kid

My kindergarten teacher placed a paper worm across the classroom wall, with each of its segments representing one month of the year. If one of us had a birthday in that month, the teacher placed a brown foot under that segment to mark the date. Our birthdays spanned every month except December.

Therefore, I assumed that no one ever had a birthday in December. Because that month was reserved for Jesus.

Did I mention I went to public school?

Second chancers

The whole firestorm over President Obama praising the Philadelphia Eagles for hiring Michael Vick is kind of stupid. Deliberately so, I think.

Some people feel he shouldn't have said it, being the president and all. Fair enough. Others say his intent was positive, but perhaps he could have picked a different situation. OK. Those are legit arguments, and don't fuel outrage so much as a collective facepalm.

What's stupid is for anyone to argue that, by association, Obama condones dogfighting.

Obama credited the Eagles organization with giving a man a second chance at his career after quietly serving his time for his offenses. NFL felons generally don't serve 18-month sentences in the prime of their careers, when some of them absolutely should have. But Vick did. You can argue he deserved a longer sentence, but he did and continues to fulfill the terms of the conviction meted out to him. He cannot own a dog. He is a felon, with all the legal baggage that comes with it. He declared bankruptcy. 

In the South, animal fighting is often taught and defended as a tradition. That doesn't mitigate Vick's crimes, of course, but that's something that deserves equal scrutiny. Vick became the high-profile face of something that's more than likely still going on all over the region.

I've never been a big fan of Michael Vick, even before the blood hit the fan. After all, I'm a Saints fan, and he was the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback. I didn't like his tendency to scramble with the ball as a first resort, and I also didn't like that it usually worked. Though I was more than happy to brag that my university had hired Vick's former quarterback coach at Virginia Tech as its head coach.

And, I hope I don't need to make clear, I detest any form of animal cruelty. 

Because of Vick's actions, punishment and the resultant public fallout, I never expected to see him take the football field again. So, like most other fans, I was amazed that the Eagles gave him a second chance in 2009. And I was impressed that, in 2010, he entered the realm of elite quarterbacks. For all of his many issues off the field, Vick is spectacular to watch on the field, and he seems to be getting even better with time. And I think that's deliberate on Vick's part. He knows he's incredibly lucky and that his reputation is screwed for life, so he might as well thrive on the field. 

I realize a lot of people are going to read this and tsk-tsk me for suggesting that Vick harbors any good intentions, should be playing pro football or that he should otherwise be in any situation other than having the tables turned on him by all the dogs he mauled. But what do we gain by wishing ill on Vick? Does it bring the dogs back? Would it bring him a true change of heart to have his opportunities severely diminished even as a free man? Does it reflect well on society to bar a man from making a living in an unrelated field after he's fulfilled his sentence and continues to live under intense public and legal scrutiny?

The way I see it, Vick's best course of action is to continue with what's possibly the only thing he's ever done right — play football. No one has to cheer for him. No one who does cheer for him deserves to be accused of condoning his heinous crimes. 

As Americans, we pride ourselves on offering second chances to those who promise to set themselves straight. Vick's second chance proves that our principles are difficult, even painful, to follow at times. But that's the price of living in a society that places its trust in the viability of our legal system (an endangered concept in the age of terrorism). It's a good principle that exists precisely to thwart the primal urges that sometimes infect even the most humane and progressive among us. 

In praising the Eagles, Obama essentially played the role of referee: the crowd may have booed the call, but integrity demanded it. And the least we can do is learn from it and get the ball rolling again.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A toast

That was a hell of a belated Christmas present, Saints. Thank you, and here's to January!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1990 edition

For me, 1990 was the year of baseball, bikes and big brotherhood. I’d give it a B. Ha ha, right?

Early in the year, I began collecting baseball cards. From then on, my interest in baseball blossomed well past the stat sheet to the field. When we weren’t riding our bikes all over the neighborhood (I got my first bike for my 10th birthday), Colin and I were out in the front yard playing Home Run Derby. That year, I made a commitment to become a professional baseball player. It wasn’t my first ambition in life, but it was the first one that I tried to seriously cultivate. And when your past goals in life were things like making license plates, there isn’t too much serious competition.

This was me in early 1991. I wore the same shirt on Christmas Eve that year,  so close enough.
Come Christmas time, my interest in baseball had led to such single-mindedness that Pop didn’t even bother to bring an element surprise to his gift. Instead, he drove me to Bell’s Sporting Goods, the mom-and-pop shop in my neighborhood, and let me pick out whatever I wanted. I chose a regulation-size Diamond hardball. Even now, I can channel the excitement I felt from my first-ever bona fide baseball. And in a one-time departure from Christmas tradition, Pop even let me cradle the ball for awhile, as we sat outside on Boo’s porch swing watching little Keely (my sister, who was born that February, by the way) waddle around the porch. He knew, as I did, that my excitement over my new ball would hardly diminish with a little sneak peek. Afterward, we wrapped the ball by sticking it in wrapping paper and twisting it closed at the top, to where it resembled a miniature pineapple.

And while our longstanding tradition was to open wrapped presents from each other at night and then get unwrapped presents from Santa in the morning, we breached this for my baseball. Without any direct prompting from myself (though it may have been because I was ogling it constantly and everyone knew I knew what it was), Mom let me open the baseball much earlier than usual. At the time, several of my older cousins were visiting. When I dramatically tore a ring around the ball, causing it to fall from the paper, one of the cousins said with sarcastic surprise, “It’s a baseball!”

At what turned out to be the final YMBC Christmas party, I received a pink, taco-shaped plaque with drawings of various sports balls and helmets with the adage, "Be the best that you can be." Good advice that I occasionally follow to this day.

Sports also ruled the day at my mom's office's kids party, where I got the Mel Appel All-Sports figurine stand. Like with many of my most memorable toys, I can't prove it exists. It resembled a stadium scoreboard with a blue base and slots for five cards. The idea was that you could display Starting Lineup figurines along with their respective cards. The makers weren't affiliated with Starting Lineup, though, so the figurines shown on the box were literally cutouts from the same cards displayed. Creative!

This year was most likely the first of what would become a brief yearly tradition, as well as a not-so-brief annual joke: “We’re getting your big gift at the Dollar Store.” At the time, the Acadiana Mall had a store called Everything’s $1. I think you get the idea. It was the only store I ever saw where the shelf price tags had the price printed and the item names written in, instead of vice versa. For a store of its type, it had a surprisingly high quality of items. I bought the Ghostbusters II soundtrack on CD there, as well as Warlords for Atari. And lots and lots of toys and books. I still have lots of these items.

In 1990, the four non-infants in our family headed to the mall for our Dollar Shopping Trip. All four of us had a budget of $5 to buy gifts for the other four. I remember buying my mom the Reader’s Digest Guide to Safety and my dad (a puzzle fanatic) an answer key to common crossword clues. I don’t remember what I got Colin and Keely, but it may have been Sliders. Sliders were foreign toys in a variety of colors that looked like miniature curling stones with ball-bearing wheels at the bottom. They didn’t come with rules, so we bought a bunch and made up our own game where we scored points based on where they slid on our wooden den table. It had a good run of about two years, and visitors often enjoyed playing as well. My dollar haul that year included a paperback dictionary and thesaurus. The first time I opened it, I saw “idiot” as a guide word. I remember being surprised that that was actually a real word, as opposed to a schoolyard insult. A nice lesson to learn, and an inexpensive one at that!

One night after we set up our tree, Keely and I were sitting in the den, watching TV. We kept the Nintendo on the carpet underneath the TV chest, and Keely, being the natural explorer and trouble-causer that she was/is, reached under the chest and turned on the NES. To my surprise, the title screen for some game called Vegas Dream popped on. knowing Christmastime was near (and that Dad liked to play games before he gave them to us), I immediately clicked it off. Sure, no parental units were around at the time and I could have satiated my curiousity with ease. But my fear of Jesus/Santa reprisal, combined with my ignorance of the fact that I was 10 and this would have been Dad’s fault anyway, kept me from so much as even glancing at the cartridge within.

On Christmas Eve, my grandparents and great aunt Boo congregated at our house for the gift exchange. Photos abound, somewhere. Here's one of the goofier ones:

Again with that shirt!
After about 12 minutes of sleep, Colin and I got up to see what Santa Claus had left us. We got up so early, in fact, that I don’t believe my parents even went to bed. When it came time to marvel at our latest haul, Dad was in the den playing Tecmo Bowl. I wonder if Santa, like me, had to duck in front of the TV repeatedly when crossing the room. I’ll bet that got annoying for both of them.

Our swag in 1990 was as close as we ever came to a themed Christmas. If there was ever such a thing as the sporting-goods store equivalent of Sports Illustrated for Kids, this is what it would have looked like.

Colin got a replica Saints football helmet made by Riddell. And by replica, I mean, it was actually a helmet with a real facemask, real dimensions and genuine decals. Only the superficial padding and a small decal warning of the helmet’s replica status tipped it off as anything other than game-worthy. It fit my head perfectly, and I would often wear it just because I could. For years, it sat on my sports shelf in my teenage bedroom, propping up a wall light that ripped off its foundation on Christmas Day 1993 (seriously). Today, it sits on the video shelf in the den of my parents’ current house.

My biggest gift was a blue pitchback net. I figured using this every single day with my new baseball would set me on the road to pitching stardom. And, as you can tell, it totally worked. It did last three or four years before being chucked for space, though the strike zone tape (which I rarely hit anyway) lasted probably a few seconds into 1991.

Along with that, I got my first-ever baseball glove, a Rickey Henderson Rawlings model. Or, more accurately, it was the first glove I had that was actually useful for me as a left-hander. When I played tee-ball in kindergarten and first grade, Mom had been unable to find a left-hander’s mitt, and I was ignorant anyway, so she got me a George Brett glove that covered my dominant hand. Made for some awkward throws. Anyway, the new Rickey glove was so big at the time that I can still wear it today. During a grad school softball game, I let a professor borrow it. After the inning was over, he asked me, “Is this made with any material known to humans?” Indeed. My grandfather wrote my name and then-phone number on it, which are still visible.

I also got a water bottle for my bike that probably cost $2, but I cherished because it made my $80 Huffy Bandit bike look more Tour de France-ready.

Other highlights included a VTech talking baseball video game (got it), a Robin Yount T-shirt (need it) and the Planes, Trains & Automobiles soundtrack on vinyl (got it). The latter isn’t as random as it sounds; the film was the movie I watched most in 1990. I had a partial video of the movie, beginning with the scene where Steve Martin gets dragged by the testicles. For Thanksgiving, CBS aired a censored version, so I taped the part I didn’t have. When I wanted to watch the movie, I’d pop in the CBS videotape and then put in the other, uncensored tape for the rest of it. I’d finally get an official VHS copy for Christmas 1994 (got it).

Every year since getting into “A Christmas Story,” Colin and I would ask each other, “What is your Holy Grail of Christmas presents this year?” For me in 1990, there was no contest, not by a mile.

The complete set of 1990 Topps baseball cards.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had begun collecting baseball cards in earnest earlier in the year. It became an all-consuming obsession. In a scant few months, I became an expert on every card line, and could recite them robotically. Topps. Donruss. Fleer. Score. Sportflics. Upper Deck. Bowman. Classic. Always in that order. And for whatever reason, the 1990 Topps series was my benchmark. I’ve been meaning to write a blog just about these cards for a while now. While they were ultimately forgettable design-wise, for me they’ll always be a snapshot of a time when I had a fleeting, albeit intense, obsession. To this day, I can recite lots of sports stats from 1990.

I sorted those cards by team every chance I got, because that’s mainly what I did with them. There was a coupon inside for a subscription to the then-new Topps magazine, which I begged my mom to let me fill out. Instead, she promised to let me buy the issues whenever they hit the Piggly Wiggly newsstand. To her credit, she did for the next three years. But at $3 an issue, a $9 annual subscription would have been a steal. In any case, I considered the coupon a sacred part of the set and always rested it in its spot above the cards before closing the box.

Eventually Keely would take a dart and punch numerous giant holes in the box. Still, the cards endure to this day and they’re sitting in my closet in Lafayette. I wish I had them right now.

Colin got the 1990 Topps football card set, which was smaller and just as intriguing. The set lists Steve Walsh, then the starting quarterback for the Saints in Bobby Hebert’s absence, as a Dallas Cowboy. Blasphemy!

Packed in our stockings along with our Life Savers storybooks were blister packs of 1990 Topps cards. Ridiculously redundant at that point, though they did each had one or two special cards, so that was worth it, I guess.

Oh, and don’t forget Vegas Dream, the Nintendo game. A full gambling experience for up to four players. A blast! I would later write a story based on it for my English class, resulting in a really bad grade and a talking-to from my teacher.

Keely got a secondhand toy kitchenette that was donated from one of Mom’s co-workers. But hey, infant. She enjoyed it.

A few days after Christmas, Dad, Colin and I went to see “Home Alone.” Then we went to my grandparents’ house and broke out our cards while watching TV. This was in between throwing my baseball to my net outside. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the life.” And it truly was.

Closing up the Crapbook: The hockey and Vanilla Ice-laden Christmas of 1991!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1989 edition

For me, Christmas 1989 has a distinct smell. Burnt, with accents of Play-Doh.

A couple of months prior, a momentous event shifted how I spent my nights: Colin and I got twin beds (and I would sleep alone forevermore). Before that, we had shared a mattress and box spring. Theoretically, we each had a half of that mattress (with mine on the right), but Colin seemed to think mine was his. He always put his right arm under my pillow and slept diagonally. On more than one occasion, this caused me to roll off the bed in my sleep. Fortunately, we didn’t have a bed frame, so I only had about a foot to fall. Barely enough to rouse me. But that arm...arrggh...

So we were both pretty jazzed to come home one day to see new twin beds set up in our bedroom. Well, new isn’t quite the word; in fact, they were quite old. They had been in my grandparent’s “back back” room, but they decided they didn’t need four beds back there anymore. Hence, bliss. Aside from the fact that my bed’s wheels had unusually protrusive locks, which my dad constantly stubbed with his toes, the beds led to a new era of independence and excitement. We decorated our halves of the walls with our favorite posters, signs and pennants. We even had a cable TV hookup and would later inherit the VCR in my mom’s room that I was constantly head-cleaning. We tended to leave the room a mess, but it was OUR mess! It was as close to dorm-room living as I ever got.

Once again, we bought a real Christmas tree. I believe this was the year we bought it at Winn Dixie. While Mom and Dad set it up, I decided to check out our copy of the Children’s Bible. This was the book that, many years before, had dispelled me of the notion that the Good Book was called the “Vivle.” I always preferred it to the real one, because of its colorful, dramatic illustrations and its modern narrative structure. As a kid hopped up on Hardy Boys and Nintendo, how could I not?

Yeah, the Hardy Boys. That’s important. That spring, I had gotten really, really, really into the Hardy Boys. It happened at school, when I was required to check out a book at the library, but I couldn’t decide on one I wanted. So I followed the lead of the other guys and checked out a volume, #37, “The Ghost at Skeleton Rock.” I was hooked. Not only did I read most of the library’s selection, I got into a ritual of buying a new book every week at B. Dalton, and hit the motherlode that summer when a friend of my grandmother’s was happy to donate all of her son’s old books to my collection. I even started writing my own series of police-mystery novels, which I envisioned as a TV series starring John Stamos. You know you would have watched it.

Oh, and my mom was pregnant with my future sister, who was due in February. And when I eventually have access to the many photos and the home video of the holiday, she will want that fact abundantly clear.

In the weeks before Christmas, a deep freeze hit Lafayette. It led to episodic snow flurries, which you’d sometime see collect in the middle of the street and got everyone hot with excitement. Believe it or not, though, there was a downside to this cold snap: our largely uninsulated house became butt-numbingly frigid and our pipes froze (including those of my favorite miniature bar sink, which we never used again). My parents declared our house too cold to stay in (good call, considering we could see our breath in the house), so Colin and I spent a few days at my grandparents’ insulated oasis. They stopped setting out their miniature tree after 1987, but it still looked and felt very much like a winter wonderland.

At the YMBC Christmas party, I got a toy gun that fired hollow plastic balls at stand-up targets. It was one of those cheap toys that nevertheless provided hours of fun while holed up away from home.

Incensed by the great tear-up row of 1988, my parents absolutely banned us from handling any wrapped presents. If they found one hole, Mom said, the presents would be given to someone else. That threatened act of charity ensured we never tore until told to ever again.

On Christmas Eve, Colin and I received new sheets for our twin beds. His had a California Raisins motif. Mine had Nintendo patterns, alternating between Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda. AWESOME! I never needed motivation to make my bed after that. Each side of the pillowcase had a cartoon mural of one of the games. I went to bed that night — early, of course — and kept flipping the pillow every few minutes, because I couldn’t decide whether Mario or Link was the best bedfellow.

(And how's this for a cheap laugh at my expense: I used these sheets until my teens, until I got new ones for Christmas somewhere between 13 and 15.)

I also got an Opus 1990 calendar, which reprinted classic strips of "Bloom County" by Berke Breathed. One of my favorite characters (and strips) of all time.

As Colin and I lay restlessly in our beds in the dark bedroom, we could hear my parents watching TV in the next room. I could also hear a vague rustle of things being taken out of paper bags. Santa Claus, I thought, or maybe Mom. Yeah, more likely Mom. No, can’t be. Gotta be Santa, right?

The rustling stopped. Mom walked through our bedroom to go the bathroom. She was humming the theme to “Doogie Howser, M.D.” I kid you not. On her way back through, she told us not to go in the den and if we needed water or anything, call for her. Worked for us! And scene.

The next morning, technically speaking, Colin and I were allowed to make our way to the back. I say technically, because I believe it was about 4:30 a.m. Unlike most years, we didn’t have any immediately identifiable favorites, because what we wanted were small items. For Colin, it was a remote-control car. For me, Super Mario 2. We both got what we wanted.

Among numerous items spread out on the couch for me were Super Mario 2, a Hardy Boys paperback book, Spirograph (I had moved up from Spirotot!) a Play-Doh Fun Factory. Colin’s presents, placed under the tree like the Good Lord intended, included the RC car, a Bobby Hebert jersey T-shirt and a complete microscope set. Yes, Christmas 1989 is the day I saw a petri dish for the first time. After Mom and Dad went back to bed, I played Super Mario 2 while Colin had his car do donuts on the kitchen floor. In between games, I would break out the Play-Doh and manufacture fun. Later, I would jump into the kitchen and dare Colin to mow me down with his car.

This Christmas was particularly notable for its stocking stuffers. Each stocking came with a note, handwritten from Santa. Mine said, “From that jolly old elf Santa Claus.” Colin’s said, “From ‘Saint’ Nicholas.” That year, Santa wrote a lot like my dad. 1989 began a tradition that continues to this day in our family: Life Savers storybooks. I’m not a big fan of cherry as a flavor additive (though I love cherries), but I make an exception for cherry-flavored Life Savers. To me, they are Christmas. That year, they came with fancy ornaments. Ah, the go-go ’80s.

Another small toy I’m sure my parents regretted giving us were these balls that you could rub together and generate a spark. We weren’t necessarily so good at sparking, but either way, the balls gave off a burnt odor similar to that of a cap gun. Ah, the aroma of fun!

By the time the actual day part of the day rolled around, Colin and I felt like we’d already had a whole day of fun. But hopped up on Life Savers as we were, we still had plenty of fuel in the tank for Aunt Nona’s party. As was the custom, we each brought our favorite toy. This was the year that officially got stupid, as I brought Super Mario 2. To read the instructions, I guess. I remember the box fading in the sun, and thinking, that was fast. Colin brought his remote-controlled car, which made a lot more sense. The car operated on the same frequency as Nona’s phone, causing an irritating buzz every time he manned the remote. I’m sure they loved that.

(Colin always blamed me for breaking the car. During a holiday get-together in 1990 — I think on Father's Day, or maybe even New Year's Day — we were taking turns commanding the car while the other brother and assorted cousins tried to pick it up, and I was doing a particularly deft job of avoiding their hands. So when the steering later began to feel floaty, Colin said it was my fault. But I think he was just being a sore loser. I'm not even sure the car ever actually broke.)

The weather had warmed up considerably by Christmas Day, so the party spilled outside — though the way that phone was buzzing, that probably would have happened regardless. Colin, Dad and I played football in the front yard, where I learned for the first time how to call plays like a quarterback. “On two, ready, BREAK!”

Over the next four nights, relatives from both sides of the family came together. My dad’s brother, Uncle Bill, and his son Conor visited, with Bill filming video. That will make its way here, because it’s hilarious, especially if you like to see me trying to be smooth but then tripping and falling, and also losing angrily in Super Mario 2. Colin also gets in his licks, flicking my ear like he so often did at the time. He makes goofy faces and gets burned by dad’s cigarette ash while showing off his Bobby Hebert shirt. Later, my New Orleans cousins Amanda and Shawn stopped by as well. As for the family card game of Cadillac, well, that could be a study in Cajun good times.

Conor brought a Game Boy, which we all tried to make him forget at our house.

Some of the relatives also bought presents. Mine included a "rock" from which you could excavate real fossils, and a fingerprinting kit that I used two months later as part of my Hardy Boys social studies fair project. That was back when you could bring vials of white dust to school without submitting to a body-cavity search and a review of your credit report.

Colin got a woodburning set from my parents...AND my uncle. What are the odds? After all, it's not as if Colin had expressed an interest in burning stuff. It did smell great, though. A sweeter burn than the spark balls.

All in all, a wonderful Christmas for the family. And the last one before our gift pool was diluted for good. Thanks a lot, Keely.

Next time in the Crapbook: My sister Keely dilutes the gift pool in 1990!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1988 edition

Christmas 1988 began a new tradition for me: It was the first time I recall seeing “A Christmas Story.” My dad told me it was the hilarious story of a little boy who looked a lot (hell, exactly) like me who wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. And not a football. To backtrack a tad, here’s what one of those often-annoying Christmas newsletters would have mentioned if we’d done one:

• In April, a month after a visit from my dad and his relatives from Texas, my brother Colin suffered appendicitis while he and I were doing homework. He had his appendix removed. “It was green and had a hole in it,” he told me. Ewwwww. In the months that followed, I would ask him repeatedly if he had an appendix. He would tell me no. I got a kick out of that, because I had never known anyone who was missing a body part. Dentures aside. It was during this hospital stay that someone bought Colin the current issue of Cracked magazine. It was the first time I ever saw it and the last time I didn’t see it. I then got into MAD magazine as well, and I was officially on the road to abnormal aspirations.

• On her way to visit my brother in the hospital, my great aunt Boo got in a car accident and was herself sent to the hospital with eye injuries. According to the accident report, a silver 1984 Reliant K-car crashed into her blue 1985 Reliant at a stop sign, taking out the stop sign with it. The other driver was not seriously injured, but by Boo’s account suffered from being an ass. Boo’s eye healed, but she never had a car after that.

• I got absolutely and autistically obsessed with VCRs. I found every owner’s manual to every VCR my mom, dad and grandfather had and memorized every function and connection. I taped literally everything I watched, even if I was just going to tape over it with the next program. Once I taped something called the Konica Cup, which was some kind of ice competition involving streamers, over part of a crime show my dad had asked to tape for him, and he threatened to blow up the machine. “Why would you tape this?” he asked half-angrily, half-perplexed. I didn’t have an answer.

• Speaking of Dad, he moved back in with us in either May or June. This marked the first time that I could recall that he lived with us full-time. We were very excited about this. Even after one of the first rules he laid down was that us kids couldn’t curse with abandon anymore and we had to stop eating the entire bag of chips every time we got back from the grocery store. A ball-buster!

• Oh, and Mom dyed her hair blonde. It made me cry at the time and laugh hysterically later.

So anyway, one afternoon Dad told me “A Christmas Story” was coming on TBS and I should tape it. You know I did. I even paused out the commercials and everything. The right way. My grandfather would stop his tape when he wanted to block out commercials (his favorite things to tape were James Bond films and Miss America pageants). He said pausing the tape strained the VCR. I think this was the only disagreement he and I ever had.

We probably watched “A Christmas Story” 36 times between then and Christmas Day. I’m probably really lowballing that number. I wanted to meet Ralphie! I figured he was a very old man by then, because the movie was set in 1940 and looked like it been shot then. But when I learned that it had actually hit theaters in 1983, I wanted to send Peter Billingsley a fan letter. But if he was really “a kid of nine” in the film, then he had to be at least 15 now. Eh, he’s too old to play with now, I figured. Years later, I would repeat this thought process with Saved By the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley.

“A Christmas Story” vs. “The Christmas Story”

My third grade class at Woodvale Elementary, 1988-89. I am one of the tall, dashing fellows at the top. No I'm not.
At school, my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Kees, went all-out for Christmas. We all made scrolling TV-like things out of tissue boxes, a loop of paper and wooden sticks. She told us “The Christmas Story” and had us write and draw, panel by panel, what she put on the board. We did this a little each day until it was finished just in time for the holidays. The story was the biblical one, with Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men, the star and the baby Jesus. George Bush had just been elected president.

I didn’t even get to draw the north star, which I had looked most forward to doing, because I fell behind in my classwork that day. Some girl had to draw it and write the text for me. Then she wound it up too much, so there was a blank panel in the middle of the strip. That always bugged me. Otherwise, it turned out perfectly. Oh, except for the title card, which was supposed to be “The Christmas Story.” I had written, “A Christmas Story.” Gee, I wonder why?

On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Mrs. Kees threw us an all-out party, with treats and stories and relay races and everything. Oh, and presents! In addition to our newly completed TV-scroll thingys, she gave the boys small plastic boxes marked “Ian’s allowance” (you get the idea) and the girls what I presume was some icky, germy, girly thing. She also gave us cards and those plastic #1 key rings that said, “You’re No. 1 with us!” Mrs. Kees told us to explain to our parents that the key-ring message referred to them (the parents) being No. 1 with the school. I made sure to diligently lay out this distinction on Christmas Eve.

Gold, frankincense and mirth

At the YMBC party, I got a toy airplane. A cheap plastic one, not a Transformer. Hey, free toy!

All Colin wanted was a playoff berth. We all did. Thanks, Joe Montana!
On the home front, Mom and Dad went all-out, decorating our dining-room windows with lights, which I said made it look like a game show. They bought a fresh tree and, instead of putting it in the back den as they had done for the past two years, they placed it in the front room next to the main door. Why? Because we were going to have company. Griswold-level company.

In the meantime, the parental units had shopping to do. Colin and I were long past the point where they could slip presents by us (though Santa remained real), so they just straight up told us when they were bringing them into the house. So that’s when we took our baths. We could hear them carrying heavy stuff upstairs into the attic. “Do you think that was the Nintendo?" "No, THAT was!”

I was particularly excited, because my Uncle Mike’s family was coming in from Arkansas. I hadn’t seen his son Damon since we visited them in 1982, when I was two years old (and he was five). I had a vague idea of what he looked like, and assumed he’d look and act the same at 11. Hey, why not? Along for the ride would be Uncle Mike, Aunt Joanne, daughter Dana (about 20), her boyfriend and future husband and Damon.

I don't have any pictures from 1988, so here's pretty much all the same people in 2005, plus some wives, fiances and other freeloaders who weren't even born yet in 1988. Also, this is a different house.
When they called our house to tell us they were lost about a half-mile away, I could barely contain my excitement. I waited eagerly at home as my dad drove over to guide them, occupying my time by rapping Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fat” (as I often did). When they showed up, it was like vaguely remembered good times again. Damon looked a lot older. In fact, I thought he sort of resembled Skut Farkus, the villain from “A Christmas Story.” Still, the three of us instantly launched into unceasing fun and horseplay.

My Uncle Mike was and is known for some of the driest, funniest wit in my family. He asked me what I wanted for Christmas. After I told him, he said in his monotone drawl, “Damon tells us what he doesn’t want.” And that was it. With my sister Keely yet to be born, I was too young to understand the joke. But I laughed anyway, because it was just the kind of nonsensical, absurd thing he was always saying. It wasn’t the last time he’d do it here.

All About Eve

On Christmas Eve, my mom had to work. Bummer. But with a full house, there was lots of fun ripe for having. The adults declared that we could open presents at 5:30 p.m. By 4 p.m., there was unbearable agony among us kids. We predicted, accurately, that the next hour and a half would be the longest of our lives. But a light bulb went off over Colin’s head. “Check this out!” he said excitedly, pulling out a videotape. “Geraldo gets his nose broken!”

Yes, we had taped the infamous episode of “Geraldo!” titled “Young Hate-Mongers,” where a massive brawl had ensued, resulting in a chair to Geraldo Rivera’s face. Instead of bleeping all the cursing, the censors simply dubbed out the offending words. Which gave the brawl an oddly proto-techno soundtrack. None of the adults in the house found it even slightly odd that an 8-year-old, 10-year-old and 11-year-old were whiling away their time on Christmas Eve by watching the trashiest race battle in modern memory. Neither did we.

In retrospect, it seems stupid that we were so eager to see what our parents had bought us for Christmas, when we already knew. You see, 1988 was the year that our proclivity for tearing tiny holes in our presents completely jumped the shark into extreme overdrive. Colin and I had lasered our focus on Transformer-shaped presents, tearing away, seeing what we could get away with. With our parents’ hands full with party preparations, we were getting away with a lot. By Christmas Eve, we knew not only that our gifts were Transformers, but that they were Pretender Transformers. And that mine was Landmine and Colin’s was Sky High. And that mine had the shell of a dark-haired man and his had blond hair. Because we pretty much ripped the wrapping paper wide open. Make no mistake — it was all still there, able to flap over and cover the surprise within. Give us some credit. But yeah, we knew exactly what we were getting. After Mom got home and before present time, I saw her and Dad examining my clever damage, talking to each other about what I assumed would be consequences. But I guess they figured my lack of surprise was punishment enough in itself, because I don’t recall any punishment coming out of it. That could have turned out badly in life, but it didn’t. My parents are awesome.

Uncle Mike’s family gave us dinosaur T-shirts that had glow-in-the-dark skeletons, as well as cartoon videotapes. My grandparents gave me three blank videotapes and a head cleaner. I don’t think I have to qualify at this point how geeked out I was over that. Let’s just say I immediately went and cleaned the heads of my favorite VCR, notching a check on the checklist and taking mental note of when I had to do it again. Had to? More like, get to!

Then we read the “Cajun Night Before Christmas,” which had become a holiday tradition, in our lit-up dining room. It starts thus: “‘Twas the night before Christmas / And all t’ru de house / Dey don’t a t’ing pass / Not even a mouse." Good times, yeah.

With the party in full swing, with wine and Pictionary flowing, I made a decision to go to bed early. For most of my childhood, our bedtime was at 9 p.m. At the time, Colin and I shared a box spring and a mattress that were situated on the floor. My mom blamed me for breaking the bedframe by jumping on it so much. She was right, too. Anyway, I called it a night at 8 p.m. Everyone said, “Good night,” but there wasn’t a chance in hell I was about to nod off at 8, or 9, or 10...

At one point, my cousin Dana passed by in the hallway and asked, “So, Ian, how’s that early bedtime going?” Well, between the Pictionary chatter going on in the dining room and the fact that the overhead light still blared in my bedroom because Colin and Damon were running around squealing, eh, pretty good. I’m pretty sure I heard the theme to that new show, “COPS,” at some point. Bad boys, bad boys. Whatcha gonna do?

And did I mention my house had no doors between virtually any of the rooms?

But at some point, as it always does, the party died down and we all crashed. Colin would tell me later that he snuck into the front room and saw all of the adults taking out and arranging Santa’s presents. I didn’t believe him. And not just because he sucks at both lying and being sneaky, but because Santa Claus is real.

Now We’re Playing with Power

Come morning, I was the very first person to wake up. I tiptoed to the tree and freaked out. There, laid out of its box like a store display, was a Nintendo Power Set, with Nintendo, Zapper gun and Power Pad.

I immediately bolted back into the bedroom and wrested Colin and Damon awake. They seemed hung over.

“COLIN!!” I screamed, waking up the entire house. “YOU GOT THE NINTENDO POWER SET!!” It sat in the middle of the room, between our respective toys, but of course I figured it was his. I knew the self-imposed pecking order.

The rest of the morning centered around the Nintendo, with my dad struggling to hook it up and refusing my repeated offers to help him (did I mention VCR manuals were my porn at the time?). His struggle is especially funny because he told me later that he’d been hooking it up and playing it every night for two weeks prior to giving it to us.

We discovered, to our chagrin, that Duck Hunt didn’t work on our TV. The Sony Linytron that we had at the time had lots of glitches that would eventually fry it the following summer. But despite the fact that the screen hiccuped every time we shot the Zapper, making it virtually impossible to shoot a duck on purpose, we still played a lot of Duck Hunt that day. Super Mario Bros. also got a ton of airplay.

But the Power Pad and World Class Track Meet were the stories of the day. This was the genesis of my obsession with sports. I ran track for seven years (and managed for seven more in college) because of this game. The Power Pad, for the unfortunately uninformed, was a proto-Dance Dance Revolution attachment for the NES. Here’s the commercial that BLEW OUR FREAKING MINDS:

The commercial sort of misleads you into thinking four people can play at once. Not really. But when more of my dad’s brothers and their families showed up at our house later that day, all of us kids tried.

The Power Pad as of Dec. 23, 2010. Still works great. The warning decal flaked off long ago, so pregnant women are free to use it now.
The Power Pad said in large letters at the top, “Do not wear shoes.” This led my Uncle Mike to warn me, as dry and mock-stern as ever, “Do not wear pajamas.”

Pop called it "Intendo." So when he said, "You got an Intendo," he was technically correct.

My cousin Joey (also 11) from Baton Rouge came with his family and brought me and Colin some toy guns with rubber-nub ammo. He brought enough for several people, including my cousin Conor (7), allowing us to play a giant, sweeping game of war in the front and back yards with all of our parents’ and grandparents’ cars as cover. I recall we were one gun short, so somebody (probably Colin) stuffed a sock with something that gave him a decided advantage. I remember somebody getting hit in the eye. But then, that’s always a safe assumption with us.

At some point, four of my dad’s five siblings and their families were at our house, having fun while Mom Mom and Pop barbecued in the driveway between their and our house. Boo, who lived next door on the other side of them, also joined in, fully healed from both her accident and from cataract surgery. My dad’s side of the family was spread out geographically and had its share of dysfunction, so having almost everyone together was a rare and happy treat, especially when my mom and her parents were doing the entertaining. It went on long into the night, with more Nintendo and more Pictionary. It was certainly a Christmas to remember.

In the interest of padding this out a little more, here are some additional toy highlights:

• Emerson AM/FM cassette recorder. It replaced my Fisher-Price mic radio from ’85 as my one-speakered radio of choice. I could record my voice on it. You know I did! I used it all the way up until 1992, when I loaned it to Colin’s best friend Michael for the weekend. When I got it back three months later, it was completely destroyed. The battery door was missing, the shell was cracked, the innards didn’t work and the cassette door was completely gone. I didn’t bother to ask.

• I also got a Pound Puppy that, when you clapped at or called it, barked. I named him Clarence, after the villain in Robocop. Cheery!

• Colin got a Larry Bird portable basketball hoop and a pair of Saints sweatpants. He broke the hoop trying to slam dunk, which later compelled my parents to get him a real hoop with a spring designed for slam dunks. He eventually broke that too. As for the sweatpants, I don’t think I need to tell you he eventually ripped a hole in the crotch.

• At some point, I asked somebody why Damon didn't get anything from Santa, and I was told Santa had already visited his home already, because he knew Damon would be here with us on Christmas. Man, that dude's sophisticated!

Next time in the Crapbook: 1989! The historic end to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s tyrannical reign and life; the death of Yankees legend Billy Martin; and I learn how to play quarterback!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Crapbook: 1987 edition

The Christmas season of 1987 was the year that a sneaky trend of ours went into overdrive: tearing holes in our presents’ wrapping paper. I remember first doing it the year before, at my grandmother’s house, to a toy that wasn’t even mine. It was an off-brand remote-control car for my cousin Shawn, and the sheer genericism of the toy made me more and more curious, so I kept stripping away. Subtly. In my eyes, anyway. You know how a small group of presents seems huge when you’re a kid? Well, the inverse is true for holes in giftwrap. What children process as being tiny nicks in the corners, parents and grandparents see as nothing left but the ribbon.

In 1987, Colin and I finally thought to apply this sneaky move to our own presents. At our house, Mom had wrapped our Christmas Eve presents well ahead of time, and Colin and I would steal wayward glances during commercial breaks on “You Can’t Do That on Television” and “Nick Rocks.”

Guessing the contents of a present was a lot like playing Pictionary (there’s some foreshadowing for you) in terms of how your guesses get more and more specific as time passes and shapes get bigger and more defined.

The first thing you’d see was the color of the box. “It’’s blue! It’s a blue thing!” Of course, if the gift was in a cardboard or gift box, or was packed in a box for another item (as it sometimes was), that could totally throw you off the scent. (This would later happen on my ninth birthday, when I got a bunch of gifts that were obviously Hardy Boys books, then a shoebox that turned out to be another Hardy Boys book. Nice.)

After a few afternoons of ever-so-slight chipping (at the rate of one or two pinches a day), you might see a letter or two on the package. This, for me, was always the most exciting discovery, because even if you couldn’t read enough letters to comprehend any words, you could hazard a guess by the font. “Hmmm...this letter looks robotic! Eh, this one’s Helvetica. It’s probably socks.”

Leave it to one particular gift in 1987 to throw me off the trail entirely. After enough afternoons of Swing Out Sister and Belinda Carlisle videos on “Nick Rocks” (and probably about the time they began showing Run-DMC’s clever “Christmas in Hollis” video), I had made letter-level headway into a blue, rectangular gift (and decided to go no further, lest Mom catch on). The letters I could see across the side of the box were, “LDS.” It never occurred to me that this could be a Mormon toy, so I spent the rest of the season trying to think of words that ended in “LDS.” Golds? Welds? Gelds? Felds? Helds? Olds? Guilds? Uncle Geralds? That piqued a curiosity that would last for weeks.

At the YMBC Christmas party, Santa came out with a huge stack of presents assembled in order of size. He gave them out in order from smallest to largest. Colin's G.I. Joe car and bad-guy action figure was one of the first. Mine, to my complete surprise, was the biggest! A toy parking garage for Hot Wheels cars, complete with working elevator and free-standing signs. Holy cow! I faked at least one illness just to say home from school to play with this thing. I loved it so much that, when I saw the exact same toy at Eckerd sometime when I was in college, I almost bought it out of nostalgia.

(Update 2011: I'm still looking for these pictures. They're good.)

On Christmas Eve, we huddled at my grandparents’ house as always. I recall the house (which had brown wooden walls and no overhead light to begin with) being dimmer than usual. But the good kind of dim, like you see at a fine restaurant. Mom, Dad, Colin and I were there, along with my grandparents Mom Mom and Pop and great aunt Boo. Boo had become obsessed with walking and had bought a digi-pedometer, and she got an upgrade and a blood-pressure cuff as presents. She was geeking out.

I received the Transformer Blurr. On the cartoon show, he was voiced by John Moschitta, the legendary fast-talking pitchman my generation also knew as the Micro-Machine man. Likewise, I always talked very fast when playing with Blurr. When my 5-year-old cousin Brandon later had him say, “Robot,” slowly, I got mad at him. He really should have known better. Blurrblurrblurrblurrblurr!

But the gift that had the most impact on me that night may be the one that most explains who I am today. A $5 bill from Mom Mom. Or, as I put it while leaping up and down, “A FIVE-DOLLAR BILL!!!!!!!!!”

Two things you should know about this transaction: 1) The month before, my cousin Micah had had a birthday party at Wendy’s. Free Frosties, oh yeah! She got a $5 bill in a card as a gift. I remember feeling very jealous, because 2) I had never so much as touched a $5 bill at that point.

Technically not true, as it turns out. But it was Colin's birthday, so it doesn't count.
I had seen fives, tens, twenties and even $100 bills, but those were for grown-ups. The only money I’d ever been given to handle was change and $1 bills that I’d get to spend on potato chips and/or candy whenever we went to our camp in Butte La Rose. Back when $1 bought that stuff. Heh. So seeing my cousin — who was 6 months younger than me, or 12 adult years — get a $5 bill was, in my mind, a sign that I was fiscally irresponsible.

This was me in 1987.
So getting a $5 bill on Christmas Eve, man, that was a stunner! Validation City! I couldn’t wait to stick it in my vintage cash register, which I had commandeered from my grandparents that summer (they’d used it their restaurant, the Coney Island, in the 1950s). I kept all my money there, which probably wasn’t the most stealth thing to do. By New Year’s Day, I amassed $15 in bills and change, which I was so proud of that I played with the wad of cash like it was a toy.

Pop took a picture of our family, in which everyone’s looking good and I look like four toothpicks jabbed into a Star Crunch. That picture now sits in a frame in my mom’s living room:

Afterward, the four of us went to our house, where we opened our entirely undisturbed presents (cough). The tree was along a wall in the middle of the den, the same place it was in 1986. This made the room, already pretty long, seem even larger than it was normally for a tiny stick of a child.

Remember that “LDS” present? It was a space-explorer set, with astronaut action figures, moon rovers and a plastic mat of the moon. What I had read as “LDS” or, more accurately, “lds,” actually said something like, “SPACE PLAYSET” in a robotic font. I had been reading it upside-down. No wonder my reading teacher at the time said I had comprehension issues.

The next morning, I awoke to a Fisher-Price Magic Vac, a police-car playset, the board game Go to the Head of the Class (which I at first thought was a TV tie-in but wasn’t), a huggable Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man doll and — holy Melmac — a full-size official ALF doll!

This was before I stopped wanting things.
They really made me vacuum.
Colin received several presumably expensive toys from pretty much the entire Thundercats universe, including villain action figures (but no good guys) and the big bad-guy claw car, which was about half the size of my body. Oh, and Pictionary. Yay! He also received a Laser Tag set, which...well...

Earlier, Colin and I had asked Dad how Santa Claus gets all of his toys. Does he really make Transformers and Fisher-Price toys on a workbench? No, Dad said, he buys some of the items. So how does he pay for them? “He doesn’t need money! He just goes in and they let him have what he wants.” Man, that sounded cool!

Well, the Laser Tag set was an off-brand, so Dad’s explanation led to the possibility that it was one of toys that had had its genesis in Santa’s workshop. And he certainly reinforced that impression when he had trouble breaking open the plastic blister pack holding in the laser guns. “Damn elves pack it tight,” I remember him saying.

(One of the guns still resides in my parents’ garage. It still has the original 9-volt Duracell battery attached.)

After a while, Dad walks into the kitchen and goes, “What’s this?” Sure enough, it’s another present! We’re veering into climactic “A Christmas Story” material here. Alas, it was just another Thundercats bad guy, and it appeared to have fallen under the table by accident. And, of course, it was for Colin. It had his name on it in Santa’s handwriting. Which looked a lot like my grandmother’s.

I have lots of pictures of that morning, including one where I’m showing off my toys to my grandparents as my dad watches, and one where I’m “vacuuming” the floor while Colin hovers several feet above me with one of his toys. In all of them, my dad’s wearing a white “Reebok” T-shirt, and I’m wearing a cowboy hat T-shirt from his 1970s radio days. On me, it looks like a dress. Someday, you’ll see them. I promise.

A Christmas Day trip to Nona’s was a must. I brought my ALF doll, and my older cousin Donna had also brought hers! Great minds. I made sure to write my name on my ALF’s tag, lest there be any confusion. For all I know, though, I wrote it on hers. Later, I suddenly got bored and wanted to go home. Hey, at least it was for an understandable reason:

“I want to go play with my Magic Vac!!”

It was about this time that I had hung up a giant Budweiser bar clock with digital numbers and a neon bar light in our bedroom. My mom hated it, mostly for its perceived impact on her electric bill. But it conjures up fond memories of me playing with my new toys and hearing George Michael’s “Faith” for the first time.

In the days that followed, two of my dad’s brothers came to visit, along with my cousin Conor, who was then 6 years old. While the adults (and sometimes us as well) played Pictionary, Conor played an endless loop of his new Michael Jackson “Bad” cassette. He tried to convince me Michael was 40 years old. His evidence? The two numbers in the middle of the cassette’s barcode were 4 and 0. I disagreed at the time, but I would learn in 1998 that Conor was right! That’s Dan Brown material right there.

Got a picture of the three of us kids on the couch from that time as well. Well worth the laffs.

Next time in the Crapbook: 1988, one of the best times ever. And not just because of the Nintendo.