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Nintendo and the Wheel of God (1 of 2)

We have a local theme park curiously gifted at overpricing concessions and keeping rides from the 70’s on eternal life support. As a child, I remember when this park obtained the Cherry Blossom Special, a rusty metal roller coaster reaching a dizzying twenty feet high. A fresh coat of paint, some axle grease and WD-40, and it was as good as new. Better, even. I also remember when, in my teens, the Cherry Blossom Special, faded and falling into squeaky disrepair, was re-christened as the Orange Blossom Special. (True story.) Finally, when it seemed its dilapidated condition could seemingly no longer be hidden, it was moved inside a building that was pitch black inside and rebranded as a runaway mine train. (Also true.)

But all of that only sets the scene for our story. The real action takes place at LifeStock, an annual event hosted by our church. (Many people—most of whom have never attended our church—brand it a “megachurch.” Our church leaders, however, prefer to call us a “micro” church with a “mega” mission.) Every summer at LifeStock, literally thousands of people from all over the city show up to enjoy discounted tickets, lines stretching halfway to the moon, and dementia-inducing heat. (That’s just one of the myriad ways that we Christians express our devotion to God’s only Son and our Dear Savior.)

One major draw of these events—besides sweaty hordes of believers, of course—is always the worship music. Extraordinary musicians from literally all over the country swarm a huge stage facing a large hillside. In 2006, before the music started, our (quite literally) world-famous kids’ program would stage a fun show. In 2006, they had a gaming portion of the show where they brought kids up on stage and let them do different things to win prizes.

The capstone event was a Wheel of Fortune-type upright roulette wheel with prizes listed on it. They call your ticket number, you come up and spin the wheel. Whatever it lands on, you win. While it was our good friend JT who actually engineered and built this spectacular wheel, my magnificent wife was one of the key coordinators of the actual program in progress. Our kids pastor was the emcee and stage presence, and Kendra served double-duty as Vanna White and chief kid wrangler of the mouth-breathers once they were on stage.

The prizes were all sorts of the things kids drool over: Dolls and stickers, candy and water pistols. But everybody there knew the pièce de résistance was the Nintendo GameCube. Kendra knew that’s what every kid wanted, although she herself despises anything to do with video games. I myself had years earlier been coerced to surrender my Nintendo Entertainment System and staggering two games to a raffle held at the school where she taught. This was not because I was such a generous person eager to see youngsters strive to better themselves, but because she wanted it out of our house. (Fortunately, I’m not bitter.) But every kid at LifeStock knew that was the brass ring they were grasping for.

Kendra was on stage, and I was in the audience with our two boys, suffocating in the sweltering heat. Pastor Scott called the next number. Every little head in the massive crowd drooped simultaneously, frantically checking it against their tickets. Kenny, our oldest, was the first head to pop up. He held his ticket out to me, trembling. It was his number. I double-checked… Sure enough. “Go on!” I told him cheerfully. “Get up there!”

Has your number ever been called? What did you do? What do you think is gonna happen? Plot twists and an unexpected outcome. Come back for our conclusion this Friday.

The Dander Chronicles

All my life I’ve suffered with dry skin. When it comes up, people always want to sort of compare notes. “Yeah, my skin gets real dry, too.” They simply don’t understand. They couldn’t. My knuckles will crack, split, and literally bleed. In the wintertime, when it’s worst because moisture is scarce, my vampire threat level climbs to DracCon 8. I guess it’s because the vampires can smell my blood practically bubbling to the surface. One even once told me it tasted like Strawberry Tootsie Pops—right before I staked her through the heart. (The spike notwithstanding, it was a precious thing for her to say, and it meant a lot to me.)

When I was a kid, probably in the second or third grade, my mom took me to a dermatologist. He had a big office in a tall, scary, shiny building. (The same building where years later my wisdom teeth would meet their end and a few years after that, I would attempt the GRE.) He checked me over thoroughly and pronounced his grim diagnosis: ichthyosis vulgaris. It’s a real thing. You can google it. It would be cooler if it had something to do with Jesus, like those little Jesus fish on the backs of people’s cars. Sadly, it does not. Loosely translated, it means simply “common fishy skin.”

When I was little, my calves used to build up what looked like scales—that’s the “fishy” part. I also have ichthyosis’s sister condition, keratosis pilaris, which manifests as little bumps on the backs of my upper arms. During the dry season, my feet used to shrivel up like feminine Chinese royalty of the Tang Dynasty (the historical empire, and not the Chinese heavy metal band). Had I desired to procure a fine young prince, this would have been ideal. Unfortunately, the pom girls were far less impressed. (One might actually say “appalled.”)

Over the years, my patient mother procured for me every type of remedy she could discover, from greasy slather-ons to all-natural herbs I had to pop daily like vitamin candy. (In case you’ve ever wondered, apparently cod liver oil pellets cure everything.) Counterintuitively, the most common ingredient in the prescription-only lotions we tried was…salt. I have no explanation for why. One of my least favorite was an unholy mixture of Aristocort and Aquaphor that our pharmacist blended together in his secret lair behind the counter, like some kind of metaphysical alchemist. It cost as much as a car payment, and was about equally as effective at helping my skin. (As the car payment.) The best solution we ever found was simple Lubriderm (which is also sort of Latin, meaning “lube for your skin”—ew). It was effective because it was cheap enough that I could keep it basting on me 24/7 like butter on a turkey.

When I was young, I was afraid that no one would ever love me because I had shriveled old man hands. (It honestly never occurred to me that my forearms also looked like a chimp’s, which would more likely be a turnoff to most chicks. I never had that condition diagnosed: Pilosus monachus telum? Pan troglodytus keratinis Popeyetis?) No matter. I got lucky. In the years that I met and courted Kendra, we enjoyed more than average moisture in the air. Plus, it seemed darker outside than usual. Both were factors which contributed to me reeling her in. (I used to tell people we had to get married because she “got me in trouble”—until she made me stop.)

Then after we were married, because ichthyosis vulgaris is hereditary (Thanks, Mom!), I was afraid of having children for a while. I didn’t want to risk making my kids suffer with it as I had. Sadly, my progeny have a host of other hereditary dysfunctions to worry about, such as a predilection to wear pants too short for them and extreme dislike of vegetables, which often expresses itself as outbursts riddled with violent language. (Only the dislike of vegetables part comes from my side of the family. The profanity-laden tirades are second-generation, passed down from their mother.)

These days I’m fine. According to reliable sources (like the Internet), ichthyosis vulgaris wanes during mid-life, storming back with a vengeance in old age. So I’ve got that crescendo of life suffering to look forward to. I lotion after every shower in the winter, using modestly priced off-the-rack lotion. I use a file to sand down my fingertips and any dry nubs trying to sprout crystalline structures on my skin’s surfaces. If not for my OCD-like hand washing tendencies, one might never be aware of my condition. Fortunately, perhaps for us all, my strikingly handsome face continues to distract onlookers from all my other shortcomings.

What about you? What sort of medical curiosities do YOU have? What’s your favorite flavor of Tootsie Pop?

Euclid in the Dishwasher

You really should see me load a dishwasher. Certainly it is a thing of beauty. Not unlike a carefully choreographed piece of modern performance art. I can fit a remarkable amount of dishes into a standard-issue dishwasher. I can feel my connection to the ancient Greeks with their mastery of mathematics and engineering, as I configure just one more plate, just one more spoon, with precision, cunning, craft, and (dare I say it?) yes, even creative expression.

I’m convinced that my skill was borne not as a clear symptom of clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder, as you might suggest, rather from a childhood of hearing, “You’ve gotta get that in there. We’re not gonna run that thing more than once. Do you have any idea how much water costs?”

The very existence of the question implies that it must have been some fabulous amount. As a child, I pictured water sheiks rolling around in their extravagant palaces made of ice, sloshing ankle deep with water throughout. Sleeping on waterbeds the size of a moonbounce, enough for their entire harem to lounge about lazily. (No doubt that would explain the bikinis which also occur within my imagination.)

Nevertheless, it’s like a complicated puzzle. I’ve had friends tell me, “You know, that stuff’s not really getting clean when you pack so much in.” Huns. Savages. Heathens. It’s already clean when I put it into my fantastical splash-on-hot-soapy-water machine. Besides, you simply don’t get it. I’m not just piling it in there willy-nilly. Each placement is carefully considered and calculated, positioning each unique piece with an eye for turning its “dirty” surface in a direction where optimal splashage can occur. Neanderthals.

Ironically, the same discipline of parenting that made me into this monster will not pass into the next generation. Trust my kids with loading the dishwasher? Even if they could understand why I do it the way I do, there’s no way I could sufficiently explain it to them. Are you crazy? Nobody is even allowed to touch this dishwasher except Daddy. And everybody in our house knows it.

What’s your relationship with YOUR dishwasher like? What about your other appliances? What’s a radical skill you’ve cultivated over time that no one else seems to appreciate?

We Got Guns

My father-in-law has guns all over his house. He’s never more than two steps from a firearm. They’re on top of shelves, in drawers, in air ducts, tucked inside bags of chips, inside secret wall compartments, taped to the bottoms of chairs, suspended by wire in the light fixtures. Were you ever so foolish as to break into his house, God help you. (More accurately, “May God have mercy on your soul.”) Not only will the police not be able to identify you from your dental records, but they’ll never even know you were there. And even if they suspected, there wouldn’t be enough of you left to identify.

He used to have a shotgun sawed off so short it was smaller than that baby gun James Bond carries. (Yes, I do know that was a Walther PPK.) About that shotgun, he once told me, “When you shoot it, you have to hold it way out to your side like this, and let go as you’re squeezing the trigger. Otherwise, the kick will rip your arm off.”

I asked (rather foolishly), “How can you aim it accurately like that?”

He said, “Aim?! What are you talking about, aim? It’s a shotgun, genius. The only downside to using this is the mess it makes. You ever see that movie where that alien pops out of that guy’s chest?”

“You mean Alien?”

“That looked like squeezing a pimple compared to what this does. You use this, and your next door neighbors will have to have Service Master come out to scrub their carpets and ceilings.”

(Generally speaking, I try to remain on better terms with my neighbors than that.)

When my wife and I got married, he gave me a little .22 pistol.

“You know how to use this?” he asked.

“Pretty much, I guess,” I lied. (I’ve already told you about my history with weapons.)

He ignored my answer about the toddler sidearm he was presenting me with and continued… “Here, let me show you.” He then patiently demonstrated how to load the magazine with bullets, how to insert the magazine, and even how to get an extra shot out of it by placing another bullet directly into the chamber through the top.

Then he clarified: “Now, this isn’t a stopping weapon. It’s only to buy you some time to get out. It’s probably just gonna make them mad. Really mad. It’ll sting, but it would never kill anybody—probably not even if you threw it off the top of a skyscraper onto them. If anybody ever breaks into your house and you have to use it, just point it at them, empty it, and throw it at them as hard as you can. Then jump out a window and run away.”

I have lived by that same advice ever since. Turns out it applies in pretty much every awkward, uncomfortable situation, whether a home invasion, little league T-ball game, or invitation to volunteer at church.

What about you? Do you like guns? Do you have any? What would you have James Bond carry?

McHookups 2 (of 2)

Continued from yesterday…

Once Mom and I formulated our hypothesis, we continued to observe. We were in the ideal research vehicle to avoid contaminating our subjects. It was like we were invisible—you know, in our 59-foot long, 18-foot tall Road Warrior monster pulling what was essentially a Toyota Corolla. Rarely did any cars pull up next to us. (And if they did, I avoided eye contact. Mom, on the other hand, waved. She was not educated in the finer points of scientific observation, as I was.)

Eventually, our hypothesis became a full-fledged proof. There could be no doubt. We continued to watch, fascinated.

After a little while, we observed one young man whose behavior was slightly different, though no less odd. This guy, probably 19 or 20, parked his hatchback, got out, walked around to the back, opened his hatch, and rooted around in the back of his car. The hatch was full of trash bags, each of which contained various clothing items. And he changed clothes. There behind his car. Outside of a McDonald’s. In the middle of the night. You know, like everybody does.

I don’t know how you were raised, but that’s not “normal.” He’d put on some outfit, go into the restaurant, and come back after around 15 minutes or so. He’d open his hatch, jumble around in the bags, select some other set of clothes, and change again. There behind his car. Outside of a McDonald’s. In the middle of the night. We observed him perform this ritual at least five times.

My best guess is he was either participating in some kind of fashion show I’ve never heard of before—you know, like the kind they have in McDonald’s restaurants along the Connecticut Turnpike in the middle of the night in summer—or, he was turning tricks in the McDonald’s restroom. :( Neither scenario seems to have much of a bright future.

And then suddenly, right in the middle of our naïve schooling, a shimmering light. A brilliant beacon of happiness that still spreads a smile across my face to this very day. A red convertible Ford Mustang (with the top closed) pulled up. It broke the monotony, in that this particular car contained two guys. They were young-ish, college-aged, early 20’s, I’d estimate. They pulled in, quite literally, right into the middle of this hip scene, and parked. The driver turned off the headlights. They didn’t get out. They didn’t go into the restaurant. They didn’t look around at the other cars. Instead, they reached into the back seat and produced two pillows. Each guy tilted his respective seat back, leaned as distantly far away from the other guy as was possible, leaned against his own door, and attempted to get some sleep. My mom and I looked at each other and smirked knowingly. This was gonna be fun to watch.

They were there for probably 15-20 minutes, trying in vain to sleep. I don’t know if you know this, but the thing about sleeping in your car in a parking lot is, it’s a serious hassle when every 2-3 minutes, another car pulls up alongside you and turns off, and its driver sits and stares at you for several minutes. Then, once it becomes obvious to that driver that you’re not going to return his gaze, he starts his car, turns his headlights on, and moves on to another space. This cycle repeated itself for our Mustang honeys several times.

The passenger, now visibly irritated, looked up and rubbed his eyes. He sat there blearily, looking all around, watching the cars moving around. After several minutes of watching, he reached over and grabbed the shoulder of his buddy the driver, shaking him awake. A heated argument ensued, with lots of hand gesturing, the kind borne out of that frustration that you can really only experience when you are truly, completely, utterly exhausted.

The passenger convinced the driver to see for himself, so they both sat there, looking around for several minutes, while the meat market ritual continued all around them. They spoke some more, far less angrily—more bewildered, really. The pillows were jettisoned into the back seat. Both seatbacks flipped suddenly upright, like catapults. Seatbelts were whipped around and fastened. The engine was gunned. Tires screeched. As quickly as they had arrived—actually, much more quickly—they were gone.

Sadly, they still had only each other. And the rest of us missed them terribly.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever observed on the Connecticut Turnpike? What about elsewhere? Did you ever have a crazy awakening to a completely different lifestyle?

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