Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We're Getting a New Year

Everyone’s talking about the brand-new year that just came out. And most everyone I know lined up for weeks to get it upon arrival on Jan. 1.

I love getting something new as much as the next person, but getting something new is a big deal to me, and it requires lots of thought and consideration.

Last week, my wife came to me and said she wanted a new year, saying 2008 was full of disappointments and setbacks.

“Can we afford it?” I asked.

“Please,” begged my 5-year-old son who’d overheard my wife. “Can we please get a new year?”

I packed my family into the car, and we drove down to our neighborhood shopping center to take a look at the year 2009.

Yes, we stopped by Panda Express to get some fortune cookies.

My wife’s fortune told her that a pleasant surprise was in store for her for the New Year, something that could change her life forever.

My son’s fortune dared him to dream, hope, believe, seek, feel, find and love in the coming year.

These fortunes were positive signs that 2009 would be a good year.

My fortune, on the other hand, warned me to be extra cautious of new things.

“Why is my fortune the only negative one?” I asked.

“It’s not negative,” my wife said. “It just tells you be cautious.”

“Yeah, because next year is basically going to be a horrible year for me,” I said.

“How can 2009 be any worse than 2008?” my wife asked me.

“It can always get worse,” I said. “And as a family man, it’s my duty to ‘kick the tires’ on 2009 so we know exactly what we’ll be driving off the lot come the turn of the year.”

And that’s just what I did.

I first took a look at my family’s finances to see what kind of 2009 we would be able to get.

It was immediately clear that we’d have to get the stripped-down model. No bells and whistles in 2009 for us.

With a stripped-down model, you’ve got to know what kind of maintenance plan is going to be required. I took the year 2009 for a test drive around the block to see what was in store for my family.

I foresaw all sorts of problems. I knew then that we’d need some insurance.

So where do you go for insurance on a year? I looked to extended family and friends who might be able to offer assistance in the event my family gets stuck on the side of the road in financial hardship.

Basically, there is no insurance for us. I found that most people we know are also getting stripped-down 2009s, and so we’ll all most likely break down next to each other.

Going into 2008, I felt I had plenty of room to accomplish some big goals.

This new 2009 model has no room whatsoever. In June, I’ll have another birthday, and as I continue to get older, the cap on some of my dreams gets nearer. Pretty soon, these years are gonna start feeling like coach class on most airlines.

Good fortune or bad, I’m guaranteed that 2009 is going to last my family 365 days . . . or our money back. And while it’s nice to have a guarantee, I don’t know if I really want 2009 to last that long. But I guess none of us have a choice in the matter.

This year certainly looks to be one of the toughest years in recent times for my family. I suppose if we’re cautious, and if we dream, hope, believe, seek, feel, find and love, we may find that a pleasant surprise is in store for us, one that could change our lives forever.

And I’m gonna hold Panda Express to that.

-January 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Common 'Cents' Needed This Holiday Season

I’m greedy when it comes to Christmas presents. And this year, I wanna give more presents than anyone else gives.

That’s right, I’m a greedy giver. After all, giving is better than receiving.

But every year I say I want to give more presents than everyone else gives, and every year I end up giving less than others. And I always feel guilty about it.

Last Christmas, my wife and I attended a holiday gathering with some “couples” friends. We all agreed not to give any gifts to each other so everyone could save some money. Instead, we’d just enjoy each other’s company for the holidays.

My wife and I honored the agreement. We showed up empty-handed and made our presence known, ready to enjoy each other’s company as planned.

Our company showed up with gifts in hand and made it known that my wife and I were the only people without presents to give.

Our friends were more than generous.

I was furious. After all, giving is better than receiving.

Many years back, my extended family decided to put together a big ol’ fun-filled family-style Christmas Eve gathering. Someone in the family (who has yet to reveal his or her identity) created a gift exchange as a means to save money, where each member of the family was designated to buy for just one other person, an individual assigned to each person through word of mouth.

As it turned out, the younger kids somehow got double the gifts, and the older kids didn’t get any gifts at all. My sister and I were among the kids who didn’t get gifts. Unbeknownst to the two of us, she and I were supposed to exchange gifts, which was bizarre since we usually exchanged gifts on Christmas Day anyway.

The family elders clashed over who was supposed to give who a gift, who spent more money, who didn’t spend enough, etc. These grown adults in conflict made the Cuban Missile Crisis look like a mere tussle between snails.

I told everyone not to fuss on my behalf, that I wasn’t upset I didn’t receive a gift.

I was instructed to mind my own business while the adults argued about my missing present.

And just before my elders stormed out the door, wishing each other a merry life, some of them handed out cash to those of us who didn’t receive gifts, vying to be named the biggest giver.

Yes, that was the Christmas I learned that he who gives most wins. That’s when I learned giving is much better than receiving.

This Christmas season marks an all-time low in personal finances for nearly everyone I know. I heard through word of mouth among family members that we’re to get creative with gift-giving this year.

Some of my relatives are planning to make gifts for each other instead of buying them. Friends laid firm ground rules that there will be absolutely no gift exchange. Even some of the die-hard gift-givers I know will be settling for pulling names from a hat to cut down on the number of gifts they have to buy. I’ve already received the name of the person I’m to treat with a present.

I’m glad my family and friends aren’t going to break the bank trying to give gifts they can’t afford. I really don’t need anything. And I certainly can’t fund a ton of stuff for others.

But that’s not gonna stop me from being the biggest giver this year.

I want to be the one who shows up at a gift-less gathering with a Santa Claus bag of joy. I want to be the one who buys for everyone in the group instead of for the one person assigned to me in the gift exchange.

I don’t care how much money I have to spend. I’m going to be the biggest giver this year. I’ll go as far as pull my wife and kid down into miserable debt with me.

After all, giving is much better than thinking.

-December 2008

O Christmas Tree

Real Christmas trees offer so much more than artificial trees.

Real Christmas trees come with an aroma that sets the mood for the holiday season. Artificial trees smell like packing tape.

A real Christmas tree comes with the experience of picking one out. Choosing a fake plastic tree off the shelf on aisle five next to the end cap of fake tan spray is no experience at all.

Yes, there’s great joy in picking a real tree from a lot, roaming through the lines of firs and pines, sipping a warm cup of complimentary apple cider or cocoa on a cool winter night. Some lots even have Christmas carolers, Santa Claus and Santa’s reindeer to brighten your holiday spirit. Finding an artificial tree is like going grocery shopping.

Real adventure awaits those who travel out to majestic forests in search of the perfect tree to cut down the way our forefathers might’ve done. It’s like peace on Earth out there. With fake trees, the only peace you’ll get is the piece you need for your tree that’s on back order, to arrive at the store in five to 10 working days.

A real tree is a one-of-a-kind. You can get a tall, thin, flocked tree one year, and a short, fat, non-flocked tree the next year. Once you purchase a fake tree, whether it’s the “M10” model or “T27” model (the equivalents to 300 million other trees just like them all across the country), you’re stuck with it for years to come.

But let’s get down to some basic facts.

A real Christmas tree can be discarded when the holiday season is over. You don’t have to store it in your garage, taking up precious room that could otherwise be used to house a pool table.

A real Christmas tree is a living thing. You wouldn’t walk a fake dog around the block, would you?

A real Christmas tree is authentic. A fake tree is like a fake parachute. Can you really trust it?

Finally, I promise that no real Christmas tree will ever come with instructions, with an aluminum tree trunk and plastic branches that have labels, “A” goes to “A,” and “B” goes to “B.”

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine said he bought an artificial Christmas tree to save on future expenses. His tree is the perfect shape and size, he said, it makes no mess, it has no sap that would otherwise get stuck on his hands and on everything he touches afterward, it doesn’t cause blisters, it doesn’t need water, it doesn’t need to be cut into pieces so tree recyclers can haul it away after the holidays, it keeps artificial tree makers employed (more jobs), it doesn’t cause anyone’s allergies to flare up, it folds up into a small box for easy storing, it saves the hassle (what some people call adventure) in hunting down a tree year after year . . . And who cares if it’s not a living thing? It’s not supposed to be walked around the block or used as a parachute.

I bought a fake tree yesterday.

-December 2008

Wish Doctor at Your Service

My wife, 5-year-old son and I passed a water fountain, and sure enough my boy wanted a coin so he could make a wish. This wasn’t your typical fountain for wishing. It was a drinking fountain.

“I wish I love my family,” my son said as he tossed the penny into the basin.

My son makes the same wish every time.

“If you wish to love your family,” I tell my son, “that means you don’t love us, and you’re really asking the Wishing Fairy to grant you the ability to love us.”

“Ohhhhhhhh,” my son says. “Then I wish I do love my family.”

“But that’s a statement, not a wish,” I tell him.

I don’t exaggerate when I say this conversation has taken place over 100 million times, and my wife and I have made no progress. So last week I decided to cure my son of “poor wishing.”

I asked the boy (hereinafter referred to as “The Patient”) to come see me in the den after school. I made him sign in for his appointment at the kitchen. My wife collected his co-pay from his piggy bank.

“Please be seated,” I said to The Patient. “It seems you have a wishing problem.”

“I just wished I love my family,” he said.

“Uh huh,” I said. I took out a notepad, the kind you find in your mailbox with a realtor’s name on it. I scribbled some notes. “How long has this been going on?”

The Patient didn’t speak.

“Interesting,” I said.

My response to his response meant only one thing: for the first time in my one-day medical career as a Wish Doctor, I was able to use the word “interesting” in my line of questioning.

I pondered a cure. The Patient didn’t have a simple case of Erroneous Wishtrophy or Palpable Wish Dimorphism where medication or surgery of the rear outer/frontal lobe of the brain (which houses the X and Y stimuli used for the formation of a wish) leads to a cure. No, this was something foreign.

The Patient was looking at a gloomy prognosis for recovery. For another first time in my medical career, I was flummoxed. I had to give up or forever lose my dignity in the medical profession.

Instead I referred to my Encyclopedia Britannica for answers.

My search came up negative. I found myself facing a block wall, but one with an exit door if I so chose to take it.

Instead I took out my scalpel, some construction paper and a few magic markers. I constructed a wishing fountain fa├žade, gave The Patient a roll of pennies, and asked him to wish until he got it right. Yes, success was in my future, maybe even the Nobel Prize.

Wish by wish, my short-lived medical career went down the fake fountain drain. The Patient only wished to love his family. I tried feeding him real wishes like, “I wish for a bike . . . I wish for a G.I. Joe with the kung fu grip . . . I wish for a bad crop report so my stock in frozen concentrated orange juice will flourish,” but that didn’t help.

I threw in the proverbial towel and resigned as lead doctor in my home.

The next day, my son and I ended up in a public restroom. He spotted the urinals and asked for a coin to make a wish. I gave him a penny and didn’t try to correct him when he said, “I wish I love my family” while throwing the coin and his wish into the toilet.

Then it hit me -- not the coin, but the meaning of the wish, “I wish I love my family.” My son is basically guaranteeing via the Wishing Universe that he’ll love his mom and dad forever. Even when he becomes 13, when kids become teenagers and learn to hate their parents to be socially cool, our son will be stuck loving us as a result of the wishes he made throughout childhood.

And Mommy and Daddy will live happily ever after.

-December 2008

Here Come the Weddings

There was a time when my wife and I were invited to weddings quite frequently. In September, we were finally given a break. We didn’t have any wedding plans for at least a month. I was happy.

And then in October we got word of some winter ceremonies.

I used to enjoy weddings. I was, and still am, honored to attend. But, oh how I’ve grown tired of the wedding routine.

People say, “Your wedding is a once in a lifetime occasion.” Yes, maybe that’s true, but I’ve attended more weddings than I’ve washed my car. I’ve been to so many weddings that my memories of the events are like the ingredients in a Jamba Juice drink: all mixed up.

They all have the same rituals, the same flowers, the same 4- to 8-year-old ring bearer borrowed from a friend, the same speeches downloaded from, the same music—now conveniently found in an iTunes Wedding Reception Essentials playlist, and the same drunk people doing the same drunk dances on the dance floor.

Despite my ill feelings of grief for having to go to another group of weddings, I always find myself happily marking “Yes, I’ll be attending” on the wedding invitation. Either that or my significant other will think I’m rude, and maybe rightfully so.

With the big dates coming upon us quickly, my wife and I decided to go shopping for wedding gifts. My wife bought a new dress (because she has to get one every time we go to a wedding), and I sent my “wedding suit” to the dry cleaners (it still had cake frosting on it from the last wedding).

“Are you gonna wear your regular dress shoes?” my wife asked.

“Those are my only dress shoes,” I said. “Why?”

“I was just wondering.”

I pulled out my shoes and realized they needed to be polished.

“Are you sure you don’t wanna call the Salvation Army?” my wife asked.

“For what?”

“It starts with a ‘Th’ and ends with ‘ose shoes are old and beat up,’” she said.

After I polished my shoes, they looked as good as new. My wife wholeheartedly agreed.

She picked out some new dress shoes for me anyway.

“They’re kinda expensive,” I said when I saw the price tag.

“You’re worth it,” she said. How sweet. We bought the shoes.

Between the shoes, the new dress, dry cleaning and the wedding gifts, my wife and I spent a lot more money than I anticipated . . . and more than we had in our checking account.

And no matter how guilty I felt for wanting to check the box on the invitation that reads, “Sorry, we can’t attend” and, for the first time, be able to leave the box next to “steak dinner” unmarked, I knew I’d have to watch another bride walk down the aisle, follow another train around the dance floor, pretend to enjoy dancing to “Play That Funky Music” and “We Are Family” for the thousandth time, lose another bet for choosing the incorrect outcome when it comes time for the bride and groom to feed each other cake -- either cleanly or in the face, and listen to another speech about how the newlyweds are the perfect couple, and how they’re marriage was destiny.

But I can’t complain. In fact, I feel honored because, of all the people who could’ve been invited to these special occasions, I was included.

Last weekend, I asked my wife if she saw any of the wedding invitations yet. She said we hadn’t received one, which seemed weird because two of the weddings are this month. When we called friends of the folks planning to marry, we learned that each person had already received an invitation over a month ago. That meant my wife and I weren’t invited.

I can’t believe it. In fact, I’m hurt because, of all the people who were invited to these special occasions, we weren’t included. My wife and I now know whom to exclude from our “renewal of our vows” ceremony. And that’s a once in a lifetime occasion.

-December 2008

Family News in Brief -- November ‘08

Studies show that most people would like to own their own genie in a lamp. A new invention from my 5-year-old son offers a similar magic. Earlier this month, my boy showed off his Zapper 3000, a machine that grants your wishes. “If you say, ‘Zapper, turn off the lights,’ the Zapper 3000 will shut off the lights,” my son said during a recent demonstration. He asked the machine to turn off the lights, and sure enough, the lights went off. “I watched my son run over to the switch and turn off the lights,” said my wife in a statement following the demo, “but he told me that he didn’t move. So I guess the Zapper 3000 really made the lights turn off.” And while the invention hasn’t been used for anything other than the on/off of lights, the opening of doors, and fruit snack delivery from the kitchen pantry to the living room, The Zapper 3000 creator says the machine can do much more. The innovation is still being beta tested, so time will tell if it’s a success or not.

Some doctors today are attempting delicate surgeries with the assistance of robotic arms. Last weekend, my 5-year-old son conducted two delicate surgeries at the same time with no assistance whatsoever. “Both my mommy and my daddy got hurt,” my son said yesterday, “so I had to give them shots and cut them open and work on them.” Even though Mommy and Daddy weren’t really hurt, both had to lie down on the living room floor while “the doctor” used his Bob the Builder tool set to operate on the two of us simultaneously. “I felt more like a custom hot rod under construction than a patient,” I reported after I was released from the “hospital.” Asked why he opted for surgery instead of using his newly invented Zapper 3000, which is like a genie in a lamp that can do anything, the doctor claimed that the machine runs on solar power only, and that the nighttime conditions forced him to operate.

Trips to the Moon are now being offered in my home. My 5-year-old boy built the first passenger space ship, and he’s flying passengers to the Moon four times a day. Tickets aren’t available at the usual travel outlets like your local travel agency or on websites like Expedia and CheapTickets, but rather my son is offering first come first serve plans. Just come on by and take a seat on the couch cushions arranged like rows of seats on the floor in my son’s room, and then, with the touch of a few buttons on the boy’s toy laptop computer in the cockpit of the ship, he’ll have you off the ground and on the Moon in no time. Thrill at the sight of romantic sunsets from the Moon’s surface, and enjoy magnificent panoramic views of cratered terrain on Earth-lit nights. Those planning to visit the Moon should pack for extremely hot days and ridiculously cold nights, and, of course, for “no atmosphere” conditions.

Singer/songwriter/guitar player/harmonica player Little Picarella comes to my living room tonight as part of his “Play, Play, and Keep On Playing” tour. Fans can expect to hear my 5-year-old boy’s hits such as “I Love Fruit Snacks,” “I Love Candy” and “I Love Mac N Cheese,” along with many favorites like “I Love Cake,” “I Love Soda” and “I Love Gummi Bears: Bearway to Heaven.” My Son’s music is a mixture of electronic toy guitar sounds and harmonica (key of C) noise. Once the music starts this evening at 5 p.m., it won’t stop. It usually just keeps on going and going and going . . .

-November 2008

I'm a Junkie

My wife left the house to meet an old friend for coffee, and my 5-year-old son was next door playing with the neighbor.

It was the day after Halloween. I sat on the floor in my living room alone, staring at my boy’s plastic pumpkin bucket of Halloween candy, debating whether or not to eat a piece. My wife and I had previously discussed saving only some of the best treats, and throwing out the rest. None of us needed candy.

Then I made the big mistake. I ate a piece. That one piece led to a second piece, and that second piece led to another 40 pieces. I knew then I had to get rid of the candy.

“Get rid of the candy?” I asked my wife when she said we must. “Why?”

“We already discussed this,” she said.

“What? I never agreed to throwing out perfectly good candy.”

My wife grabbed the bucket and stomped off toward the trash can.

“How can you throw out our boy’s hard work?” I asked my wife as I chased her out the door. “What kind of message are you sending him?”

My wife didn’t flinch. So I snatched the bucket of candy out of her hand.

“I’ll throw it away,” I said. My wife looked at me for telltale signs of sincerity, and, obviously satisfied, she turned and walked back inside.

I didn’t throw out the candy. Instead, I took it to the garage and hid it where nobody but I could ever find it.

“What’s this?” my wife asked the next day, holding the bucket of candy that could never be found.

“What’s what?” I responded.

“This candy,” she said. “I thought you threw it out. Why was it in the garage under the work bench?”

“I -- I -- I dunno,” I said.

My wife marched out to the trash can with the bucket of candy, and just before she could throw it away, I stopped her.

“Listen,” I said. “You’re right. I should’ve thrown out the candy. And you’re right to throw it out now.”

And then I revealed a Rambo-style Army knife and my son’s beloved teddy bear from behind my back, and put the knife against the bear’s throat.

“If you so much as drop a piece of candy into the trash, you can kiss the bear goodbye. And you know what you-know-who will do if he discovers his bear missing.”

My wife froze. She couldn’t believe I could stoop to such a level.

“Set the candy on the ground,” I demanded. “Now slowwww-leeeeeeee step away from the plastic jack-o’-lantern.” My wife did as she was told.

“And now,” I said, “I want you to go inside and pretend this never happened.”

My son didn’t miss the candy. He never really knew how much he had in the first place. My wife told him it was all gone, and it was. I was taking care of that.

By Nov. 19, all the “good” candy seemed to be gone. All that was left was junk: wax lips, those orange peanut-shaped marshmallows and banana-flavored chews -- does anyone really like banana-flavored candy?

While under the Candy God’s spell, even I ate -- and enjoyed -- the banana-flavored sweets.

By that Friday, my wife and kid stopped saying hello to me. I had socially cut them off days ago, too busy digging through the pumpkin bucket for “good” candy. If I couldn’t find anything good after a few digs through the candy, I’d suck down one of those marshmallow peanuts to soothe my sweet tooth.

There were times I ate candy that tasted just awful. But I couldn’t spit it out. Instead, I’d swallow three or 10 pieces of other candy to hide the taste of the bad piece, then chase it down with a banana-flavored chew.

I’ve spent 26 days so far on my steady candy diet, under the spell of the Candy God, but I still have hope.

“Tomorrow is a new day,” I tell myself. “Tomorrow I’ll be victorious.”

Tomorrow I’ll most likely finish off the remains of my son’s trick-or-treating treasures.

But tomorrow I have a new enemy. This enemy comes in the form of turkey dinner, turkey soup, turkey sandwiches and turkey pies.

Thanksgiving Leftovers, I speak to you. Go easy on me.

-November 2008