Archive for the ‘Newspaper columns’ Category

Have a Happy Easter, whether you want to or not

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in April 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Our older girl, 5 1/2, knows Easter is near and she’s excited. She wants to hunt plastic eggs filled with prizes. She wants to dip real, hard-boiled eggs in vinegary cups of coloring at the kitchen table. She wants to wear something pretty.

Go to church? Not so much that, but she’ll do it and resist the urge to fidget. Some weeks, I wish the people running the services appreciated just how strong the urge to fidget grows after an hour for both of my daughters (not to mention me) and cut a song or two short, maybe saved some announcements for the bulletin.

Our oldest doesn’t recall much about past Easter Sundays because she’s too young, but she does remember last year, particularly the office Easter egg hunt, and she knows she had fun.

At 2 1/2, our younger girl hasn’t reached the stage where she gets worked up about much before it actually happens. But come Easter, she’ll throw herself into whatever we do with her usual gusto, having a ball while my wife or I keep watch to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.

All this Easter stuff is old hat to me, of course, the same way all the Valentine’s stuff, the St. Patrick’s Day stuff, even some of the Halloween and Christmas stuff are old hat. First I did all of it year after year during my own childhood, now I’m repeating it with my kids.

For the first three or four years, I was able to get into the spirit of things the way a parent is supposed to, seeing how much fun the girls were having and enjoying that. But the luster has worn off and too much of what the kids consider “fun” I think of as a “parental responsibility.”

If we’re at a store, I glare wearily at the crowded “seasonal” aisles and want to dodge my daughters’ request to travel through them.

“We’re not buying anything today,” I tell them, but that never puts them off. They’re happy just to sightsee, so I start navigating through the people and try not to run over plastic Easter ducks previous visitors dropped and never picked up.

What I try to remind myself when I feel bored with the holidays is that someone in my position – a father – has a lot of power to ruin what should be great occasions for kids.

Want to make sure your kids’ brows furrow at the thought of you when they get older? Then show them your own furrowed brow and make “hurry up” noises while they’re trying to balance an egg on that cheap wire dipper that comes with packages of coloring. Better yet, groan loudly when one of those eggs rolls off the dipper and hits the floor.

Really, it takes only a little effort to make something special for my kids. Not lifelong memories, maybe, but enough to make them happy.

Sometimes, they need us to stay out of the way for a while and let them run and play with the other kids. That’s sometimes hard for me, particularly when I see little bullies or sick, dripping kids whose parents plainly weren’t worried about spreading germs.

If I watch, though, I might be rewarded with a moment in which one of my girls points me out to another Easter egg seeker and says without reservation: “That’s my daddy.”

It’s always a thrill to see my daughters don’t hesitate to tell the world I’m with them. I’ll never be ready for the day when they won’t want me there, but I hear it’s coming.

More importantly, we have to know when our girls need us to pay attention. That means a lot of encouragement, an occasional boost and a little applause.

Throw in a snack and some laughs and pretty soon the holiday’s a success for everyone.

Another kid? What were you thinking?

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in March 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

When you’re in your early 40s and say, “My wife is pregnant,” the first responses you get aren’t the same as the ones you might have heard as recently as your mid-30s.

“Congratulations”? Nope.

“Great news”? Uh-uh.

“About time”? Get outta town.

Instead, the response I heard to the news that Lisa is pregnant – news I started selectively sharing this year around mid-January – usually amounted to, “Is this on purpose?” Which at least wasn’t the snort of laughter I got from one person, or the unabashedly flummoxed/amused wide eyes I saw on another.

Isn’t it interesting that even when dealing with someone as socially withdrawn as me, many people – including some I really don’t know all that well – scarcely think twice about asking such an intensely personal question?

Let’s acknowledge that such responses amount to this: “You’re so freaking old, Todd, and with two kids already, Lisa and you have already made your replacements. What were you thinking?”

Well, to quote some younger fathers-to-be – many of whom were less married to the significant women in their lives than I am – I wasn’t thinking.

At times, I feel like pointing out Tony Randall and James Doohan became fathers when they were twice my age. Then I remember they’re both dead now and hold my tongue.

At least I can look to my favorite literary father figure, Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He’s described in the book as being almost 50, which means I’m in roughly the same ballpark, and unlike Atticus, I get to raise my kids with my wife instead of with a loving maid and opinionated sister.

Heck, just last week I heard someone describe 60 as the “new 40,” which by extension could mean that 40 is the “new 20″ and therefore I’m on the young side of things.

Yeah, I’m just going to keep whispering that to myself over and over. “I’m a young man. I’m a young man.” If I avoid eating pizza after 7 p.m. and make sure to get 10 hours of sleep every night, I even feel young.

Well, maybe not young, but less … mature, maybe?

OK, here’s the simple truth that I know I don’t have to share if I don’t want: This isn’t what we expected. I’m going to be almost 42 when this next little one arrives, which means I’ll be almost 60 when she or he reaches legal adulthood.

So no, we didn’t “plan” it. To be blunt, we didn’t “plan” any of our kids.

When I found out, my own response held considerably more shock than anything I’ve heard from anyone else, and not a whole lot of amusement.

Starting the whole process of raising a third kid – diapers, feedings, bottles, yadda yadda yadda – is intimidating.

For a few days after getting the news, my brain played the opening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” over and over in my head. You know, the part about how he went out for a ride and never went back, Jack.

Having lived more than five years with night lights in every room (so the kids won’t trip if they get up in the night, or so we won’t trip ourselves if we have to rush to them), I keep thinking about how much I miss simple, genuine darkness.

At the same time, the two kids I already have make me so stereotypically happy it’s goofy. People who tell you how great kids are may irritate you by coercing you into looking at endless stacks of boring snapshots of toddlers playing in water, but they’re right about how good it is to be a parent.

God only knows what a third one will bring, but I bet happiness will be a big part of it.

Be grateful it’s only a cold

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in February 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Calling it a “cold” seems wrong considering how much my nose burns. It’s kind of stinging and grooved, too, like it’s been used to strike matches or maybe sharpen pencils.

Kleenexes rub like dollar-store sandpaper, the handkerchiefs Dad long ago badgered me into the habit of carrying gross me out after only four nose blows. Every morning I spend 15 minutes clearing a biohazard out of my head and throat. My eyes water and ears ring.

Last week, my conscience kicked in and wouldn’t allow me to go along on a dinner gathering during a meeting of Cox Newspapers features editors for fear of exposing my peers to germs. I missed out on a meal at the Salt Lick, a barbecue restaurant in Austin, Texas.

Woe is me, right?

Yeah, I know – wah wah, boo hoo, go cry in someone else’s coffee, pal. You got to spend three days in Austin on someone else’s dime and you’re whining about a cold?

No one is better at feeling sorry for me than me, but self-pity has been a particular challenge of late no matter how bad the taste of my Target Cough Formula DM (a buck and a half cheaper than the Robitussin formula it copies), or how embarrassing it is trying discreetly to blow my nose in a crowd.

If recognizing how good is life in general weren’t enough to keep me from griping, all I’ve needed to do is look at the black circles surrounding the blue-green eyes on the ashen face in my home, or the blonde hairs curling out from under the quilt covering that same little face on the living-room couch.

I’ve had a cold and some fluid in my lungs. In the last week and a half, our older daughter, age 5, has experienced: a bad cold, strep throat, infections in both ears and pneumonia in one lung. Some days she slept so much it was almost scary and her waking hours were bleary except for brief stretches of energy that followed battles to get nasty-tasting medicines into her.

My wife, Lisa, and younger daughter, 2, have had the cold; the 2-year-old also had an ear infection, which she endured cheerfully.

Instead of some cleanup and repairs Lisa and I hoped to do the last couple of weekends, we’ve largely stewed in what has become our own little sick house. The basic necessities have gotten done, but more than a few small messes have been left where they fell until we’re ready for a major cleaning when we all come out the other side of this. The only thing that motivates me to pick up dirty tissues around the house isn’t the fact that they’re a mess, but that our dog enjoys eating them, which is disgusting.

Germs always have and always will settle in for visits in our home and I’ll never get used to it. Again, though, all I have to do is pay a little attention to know things in general are going pretty well.

Recently, I listened to a man I respect describe his teenage son’s suicide attempt. Now, the boy’s family watches constantly for signs that he’s planning another attempt. Naturally, the father is deeply concerned, but he also noted the experience has made him closer to his wife than they’ve been in a long time.

Periodically, my family and I cross paths with a mother whose son – about the same age as my older girl – plainly has substantial physical and mental problems. We’ve seen this boy many times since he was an infant and never have we noticed signs from the mother that she’s angry or overwhelmed by her situation. We have, however, seen her kiss and hug the kid plenty of times.

We’ve got colds. Yuck. But we’re getting better.

Young reader creates unexpected moment

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in February 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Thanks to a combination of my wife’s tenacity, a great lesson book and the pupil’s interest, our 5-year-old daughter has a good head start on reading.

She’s even gone beyond the point where she has to sound out every letter; some words are familiar enough that she recognizes them right away, others she’s usually able to figure out pretty quickly – or at least a respectable approximation. Naturally, this delights Lisa and me and we encourage it.

So when she saw a sign as the four of us (two girls, Lisa and me) left a restaurant after lunch recently, she didn’t think twice about trying to read it aloud even though a steady line of strangers was walking past us on the way in.

The first word was familiar: “Happy.” The second wasn’t, but phonetically, she knew it should begin with a “huh” sound, there was an “o” in the middle and an “err” sound at the end.

Speaking loudly and clearly, the way we’ve taught her, she asked, “What’s ‘happy whore’?”

Man, for just a second I was flat shocked. What could inspire my empathetic big girl to use such a harsh word? My eyes jerked around, looking for … something. I wasn’t sure what, but it wouldn’t belong there. What I found was the sign advertising the restaurant’s happy hour, and the most interesting mix of emotions arose.

The strangers filed past, one after the other, on their way inside. Had they heard what had just happened? Did they recognize what an incredible thing it was for a kid not yet in school to get so close to reading something that began with a letter that’s just there for decoration and has that difficult “ou” in the middle?

Of course, what she came up with was kind of a dirty word.

Lisa practically vibrated with suppressed laughter. Chuckles escaped through my nose.

That night we had a brief discussion with our daughter about why she shouldn’t say “whore” even though Mommy and Daddy found it such a funny word.

Really, she can embarrass me like that anytime. I doubt anyone who passed us actually thought I was raising a foul-mouthed 5-year-old and anyone who did can go jump in a lake. It’s nothing like the time I pointed out the great big fat lady who once shared a department store elevator with Mom and me.

Young minds also produce unexpected things when no crowds are around. Sometimes they do it when they’re asleep.

Lisa and I can only guess what was going through our potty-training 2-year-old’s mind when she woke up crying early, early in the morning last week.

As always, Lisa was the one to get our little girl when she woke (no matter how exhausted she is, Lisa can rouse herself at a moment’s notice if the girls need her, while you practically have to pry me off the bed with a spatula). It was obvious right away that this wasn’t a typical discomfort wake-up. Our girl was wailing about something, seriously distressed.

What’s wrong, Lisa asked, what hurts? She kept asking until she figured out the reply mingled with the cries.

“I have to go potty,” our daughter was saying, “and I have a tail!”

Gee, no wonder she was upset.

Funny as it was, it must have been a powerful dream, maybe so strong that she actually still believes she temporarily had a tail. Every night since then, around bedtime, she shakes her head at me and says, “I don’t have a tail.”

No, sweetheart, I say. You don’t have a tail.

Then her big sister reads her a storybook. Sometimes a word comes out wrong, but we don’t worry about that.

Some new things worth remembering

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in January 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

A few new memories:

— Our older girl, age 5, has decided my wife and I need some help raising our 2-year-old, and we’re not embarrassed to admit she’s sometimes better at parenting her sister than we are.

Sometimes our younger girl won’t eat, which can lead to bad moods and delayed or shortened sleep. One night, faced with this situation, Lisa and I resorted to our usual bag of tricks, which involves coercion, threats, deception and begging.

Seeing this wasn’t working, our older girl offered this bit of information to her sister:

“The potatoes hate the meat,” she said, “so put some potato in your mouth and it will chase the meat down your throat.”

I’ve used that line many times since then. I have no idea where my daughter might have heard it, or if she made it up herself.

— Some of my heroes are liars … of a sort.

Harper Lee. Stephen King. J.K. Rowling. Dr. Seuss. These people and others like them make a living making up stories loved by millions.

If you can’t be such a person yourself, wouldn’t it be nice to be the parent of one? And if you are such a lucky parent, how do you learn to recognize when a “lie” is good and when it might be an indicator of something insidious?

For now, I’ve decided a great big smile means something positive is happening. That’s what I saw on our 2-year-old’s face last week when she told me about a death-defying feat.

The story sprung from an everyday event: A trip to a lake with her mother and sister to feed the geese. The girls stood too close to the water for Lisa’s comfort, so she told them to back away or they might fall in. The girls obeyed by backing away, then they got close again. So Lisa made them sit down. Shortly afterward, they walked around the lake.

Our 2-year-old decided to spice up the tale a bit that night at dinner. She told me about being too close to the water and then, in an apparent moment of inspiration, made up something new. “I got too close to the water,” she said (basically), “then I fell IN the water and started swimming all around the water.” Her arms pumped as she mimicked swimming and her smile grew and grew in proportion with the bright pink shade her face turned.

Flabbergasted, all I could think to do was laugh. Mommy’s eyes and mouth were both open wide, in a good way.

Sweetheart, I asked, wasn’t the water cold?

No answer, just a bigger smile. We’re going to be in big trouble when she develops a poker face.

— If there’s a cheesy movie you loved when you were a kid, there’s a good chance your own kids will get a kick out of it. Our daughters have enjoyed “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the campy 1966 big-screen version of the “Batman” TV show with Adam West and, particularly, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Over the weekend, I served up the ultimate cheese: “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” The fuss over the current “Kong” remake has led to older films about the character being re-released to home video, including the two made by Toho, the studio responsible for Godzilla and many other giant rubber-suit monsters, and I rented it.

The movie has a giant, fire-breathing reptile, a giant gorilla and a giant, land-walking octopus. Homes are smashed and tanks are melted. It’s got everything a kid could want.

Well, maybe everything a boy could want, but my girls were less than enthralled. Aside from the 2-year-old slapping her belly while Kong beat his chest on screen, they largely lost interest about halfway through and I suspect they only stuck with it to humor me.

Don’t lie about junk mail

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in January 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Businesses that want to try getting our money have permission to send my family junk mail, as long a they’re honest about it.

This being America and all, I figure people have just as much right to use the nation’s Postal Service to try selling me their product as they do their religion … although some businesses approach selling with more fervor than most missionaries.

However, the sellers have to make it obvious from the get-go that what reaches my home is an ad.

They must put a business name on the envelope’s face, or better yet, a big, colorful logo.

I’d like some indicator of what sales pitch is being thrown. “Big subscriber savings,” perhaps, or “Zero percent interest for one year!” Something to make it crystal clear this is advertising.

That way, we can throw it away without opening it.

It’s called junk mail because it’s garbage. If it comes to us, pretty much all of it is headed to the nearest trash can, preferably before it even makes it into the house. I hate to see the paper go to waste, but I’ve reached the sad conclusion life is too short to recycle everything.

Maybe once a year, we get a piece of junk mail that interests us and accept the offer. That might amount to one-quarter of 1 percent of all junk mail we get. If that’s enough to make it worthwhile for junk mailers, then as I said before, it’s OK with me if they want to keep sending it, as long as they’re honest. I’m not saying I like it because I generally sneer at junk mail, but it won’t get my shorts in a twist the way a telemarketer or spammer will.

Again, as long as they’re honest. What’s aggravating is when they try to disguise themselves.

Anyone with a mailbox knows what a disguised piece of junk mail looks like. It comes with “URGENT!” or “DATED MATERIAL – OPEN IMMEDIATELY” in large letters near your address. On the back flap, in small type, is a return address but no business name. There’s nothing to tell you this is an ad; instead, the envelope subtly screams that its contents are private and important.

Most of us have seen this trick enough that we know it’s junk, but it might not be. So we get a little closer to death opening the envelope. After confirming we’ve been lied to, we’re a touch more desensitized, and soon we’ll start pitching these letters without opening them … which might someday lead to ignoring something truly important.

In the last couple of years, I’ve started doing a small thing to get even with businesses that send me disguised junk mail. See, these letters almost always come with postage-paid return envelopes, so I put those to good use. After removing whatever papers might have our personal info on them, I shred the rest, put the confetti in the return envelope, and send it on its way.

I don’t know what happens after that, but here’s the best I figure I can hope for:

Some low-level cog in the junk mailer’s machine gets my envelope. This person probably knows what’s inside by the feel of it (I’m sure I’m not the first person to try this trick), but on the off chance he’s wrong, he has to open it.

If luck is with me, the envelope tears open sloppily or a stiff breeze hits and the little bits of paper scatter. The junk mailer has to dedicate a fragment of its budget to paying someone to clean up the mess I sent. Maybe some poor envelope-opener even gets sick of dealing with crackpots like me and walks off the job, forcing the hiring and training of a replacement.

Or maybe none of this happens. I don’t know. In the end, it would be nice to waste as much of their time as they did mine.

The stuff that’s finally funny on a golden anniversary

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in December 2005, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

For my parents, these are the years of looking back and laughing.

Sue and Joe Powell have lived under the same roof without strangling each other for 50 years this month. They’ve spent all but 11 months of that time as parents, proof that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.

Between the three of us, my sisters and I put them through plenty they can be happy to remember even though the actual experiences ranged from harrying to unpleasant.

The best of it would make others laugh too … but I can’t have that stuff getting out. In fact, if my folks wanted to, they could probably fund part of their retirement by blackmailing me into paying them “hush” money over some of the stuff I did when I was young.

But to give them some grins and a couple of eye-rolls for their golden anniversary, I’ll throw out some quick reminders of things they can enjoy knowing they survived:

  • Firecrackers – two of them in the same night! – blowing up in the boy’s hand because he took too long to toss them away.
  • Two daughters getting engaged in their late teens.
  • The camper door stuck closed, a son and two friends trapped inside, desperate to get out. Kicking the door fails to open it but does manage to turn a temporary problem into a permanent one.
  • A boy’s broken bedroom window in a practically brand-new house.
  • The saga of the son’s blue Plymouth Duster. First a vandal throws a hammer through a side window. Then the teen driver loses control of it on a steep, icy road and crumples the door on a late-model Thunderbird’s fender. Miraculously, the T-Bird isn’t damaged. Weeks later, a school bus driver loses control on another steep, icy road and crashes into the Duster, which was parked. So much for the Duster.
  • A camping trip, and a little girl who manages to slide from the tent trailer’s bed and land outside.
  • Dealing with some disgusting illness on virtually every family vacation.
  • Discussions about the injustice of requiring wearing T-shirts and carrying hankies.
  • Battles over hair length.
  • Battles over cough syrup.
  • Report-card shame.
  • Weird-looking friends.
  • Countless runny noses.
  • A trip to the emergency room with the boy who busted his chin on the porch step. The scar on his chin where the stitches were sewn.
  • A trip to emergency room with the boy who woke up with stomach cramps.
  • A trip to the emergency room with the girl who crashed a mo-ped.
  • A trip to the emergency room with the boy who shook a glass Pepsi bottle until it exploded in his face. The scar on his forehead where the stitches were sewn.
  • Karate lessons. Piano lessons. Roller-rink excursions.
  • Fights between the boy and younger girl. Fights between the boy and older girl. Fights between the boy and both girls.
  • Bullies.
  • Tattling.
  • These are also the days of Mom and Dad getting last laughs. Particularly, it seems, with me.

    Mom in particular loves it when I tell her about some irritant involving my girls. She greets my complaints with glee and reminds me that what goes around comes around. I can practically hear her sticking her tongue out at me on the other end of the line when I tell her about my 2-year-old’s continuing inability to master this whole “sleep” thing.

    Yuk it up, Mom and Dad, you’ve earned it. Happy anniversary, I love you both.

I think I’m gonna plook…

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Originally published in May 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

“Plook” is a new word in the Powell family vocabulary, one I first heard about a week and a half ago during my family’s latest bout of illness. The word is the creation of my 2-year-old, who made it up while she was the first of us laid low by stomach flu, and I’ll bet you can guess what she meant when she turned purple and announced, “I’m gonna plook.”

Viruses are the inspiration for so many neat verbs.

Before my first daughter was born in late 2000, the only person I worried about being sick was me. Well … that’s probably not altogether true, it did concern me when my wife caught something, but I’m afraid I regarded Lisa’s illnesses as inconveniences and my own as catastrophic. Ain’t that just like a man?

I didn’t know how lucky I was that it didn’t come up often.

Now I’ve got two little girls and a third on the way (presuming the midwife wasn’t pulling our leg at the ultrasound), and these girls, inconveniently, want to get out and be around other people. Particularly children.

Do you have any idea how many of the kids you cross paths with are carrying nasty, plook-boiling viruses? A LOT. If you see a playground with 15 kids, odds are good four of them are carrying something you don’t want, and they’re happy to share it.

I might get annoyed about it if I didn’t know that my own little angels are occasionally the ones spreading germs like Rain Birds. We don’t take them into crowds of kids when we know they’re sick, but do sometimes find out later they had some crud that was simply waiting for a more inconvenient time to make them plooky. To the children who have picked up some nastiness from our kids, and particularly to their parents, I heartily apologize.

The stomach virus of a week and a half ago hit hard, but in a way it was more considerate than most. It struck our 2-year-old first, on a Thursday.

As she usually does, especially on work nights, Lisa took the lead in caring for our plooky little girl. I suppose I helped … well, I hope I did, but I can’t really remember doing much.

Next day, our little one felt better and she looked skinny. Kids that small have so few reserves. So Lisa and I made the big mistake of letting her eat one of her favorite foods at lunch: hot dogs.

That night, Lisa – 5 1/2 months pregnant – got plooky. Not long afterward our younger girl showed us how wrong it was to feed her hot dogs. I figured my priority had to be taking care of our kids so Lisa could at least be left alone, but I was only moderately successful. When she heard me scrambling around in the middle of the night, working on cleaning up our sweet-tempered, plooky daughter, Lisa got up to help, which was a big relief to me and I feel like a heel for that.

On the bright side, it wasn’t a work night, so I didn’t have to worry about how tired I was going to be when the phone at my desk rang the next day.

The last one to suffer a bout of plookiness was our 5-year-old, on Saturday night after her mother and sister were mostly finished. It was a relatively mild bout. She was pretty much out the other side by Sunday morning, by which time I was looking around at a house littered with cracker crumbs, tissue scraps and laundry.

Considering that mess, I spent awhile fantasizing about burning the place down instead of cleaning it up. As usual, though, Lisa did the bulk of the cleaning. Ain’t that just like a man?

The most glorious thing about this round of plookiness: I didn’t catch it. That probably means the next round of yuck will hit me twice as hard.

Familiarity breeds confusion

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Originally published in November 2005, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

How is it possible that knowing someone so well makes it harder to figure out what to get for her birthday?

Household clutter has been driving my wife up the wall lately – possibly because our walls have more open space than our floors.

All the little things we’ve picked up and brought home over the years have grown into a significant pile. Toys and shoes alone create the most amusing obstacle course between our bedroom and our daughters’ and the closets are so stuffed we rarely get the doors closed.

As a healthy, mobile human being, Lisa enjoys being able to move around the house whenever she pleases and she’s disturbed that she can’t do so without tripping over some obstacle … or bumping her head on one.

That’s fine, I understand the claustrophobic feelings our home can inspire. Still, I remain dedicated to not throwing away anything with the slightest potential for future usefulness or sentimental moments, and we both avoid storing things in our shed because the mice will move in and make an awful mess (eight years of battling these nasty invaders has cured me of the notion that mice are cute).

So now, with Lisa’s birthday approaching, I wonder: What does a surface thinker like me get for the wife who can’t use any more trinkets?

The process of figuring this out should probably begin with reminding myself of the many things I’ve learned about this woman in our years together – 16 of them so far – and trying to recognize what has changed.

I don’t have to close my eyes to remember Lisa as she was in 1989; her light blond hair, her walk, even the clothes that are long gone from her (our) closet come to mind easily because I was paying serious attention to them. I’ve mentally memorialized items she probably doesn’t think about much anymore, such as the dark pink dress that looked great when she wore it and the old record player on which we used to stack vinyl by Nanci Griffith, Cat Stevens and the like.

Her apartments – she had three of them before we married – were sparse. She seldom attached herself to material things and places to sit were at a premium.

That young woman, my Lisa, liked her french fries with an unpalatable dusting of pepper and ached to travel the world. Her smile made my heart race.

The smile (and all the teeth that make it) remain and I still like seeing it, especially when it’s directed at our children. Her hair is still blond but darker, while our daughters’ hair is more like hers was back then. The pink dress and the record player are gone; the records are crammed onto a shelf in our bedroom, still played occasionally. She rarely puts pepper on her fries anymore.

And, as I said, instead of her own apartment with few places to sit, she now lives in a crowded little home, with chairs buried in the rejected bits of a hundred daily art and dress-up projects.

Lisa manages this chaos while taking care of the kids, shopping for groceries and paying bills at the same time, but all too often getting one mess under control means letting three others grow.

My gifts to my wife over the years have ranged from mundane to mildly interesting. Videotapes, music, jewelry, books … plenty of stuff. Some of it I look back on and know, “Yep, I did all right that year.” More often I wish I’d put in a little more thought.

So, what kind of present would she truly enjoy for her birthday this year?
Well, we need a new vacuum…

Halloween shouldn’t be in living – or dead – color

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

Originally published in October 2005, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Halloween is best in black and white.

On the screen, the Universal monster movies of the 1920s to 1940s are my favorites; classic creepiness with lots of cobwebs, skulls and shamelessly melodramatic overacting. PG-rated stuff that most kids can share.

The best of these movies include Lon Chaney in the silent “Phantom of the Opera”; Bela Lugosi in “Dracula”; Boris Karloff in “Bride of Frankenstein”; Lon Chaney Jr. in “The Wolf Man”; and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”

Yes, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” One of the most popular comedy duos of the era in a film built around the best-known beasties of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s more slapstick than the other Universal monster movies, but many of those films (particularly “Bride of Frankenstein”) have a healthy dose of comedy.

Want a really good movie scare? Ignore the jangling, stylishly stupid 1999 remake of “The Haunting” and check out the quieter, creepier 1963 original directed by Robert Wise, who died last month. If you have any imagination, the creak of a bulging door in that film – a door subjected to pressure from some stomping entity on the other side – will have your jaw trembling.

Both versions of “The Haunting” are based on the 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” which reminds me that the printed page is another great black-and-white way to enjoy Halloween. The book is spooky, populated by fascinating characters and elegantly written by Shirley Jackson. It inspired other authors to create terrific ghost stories, such as Richard Matheson’s “Hell House” and Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

It’s hard to make real life a black-and-white experience, but it happened for me way, way back in my days at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

That year, Halloween started out as a dud even though I lived in a fraternity house. I was too old to trick or treat, too broke to go out to one of the bars and no parties had materialized by midevening. In short, it was boring, and I blame that in part on the color movies some friends and I had chosen to watch on video: “Day of the Dead” and “Cat’s Eye.” Both are decent 1980s horror flicks, but not classic Halloween fare.

Disappointed, I headed off to my room fairly early, not at all tired. One of the Denver stations had programmed a night of classic Universal monster movies, and sure enough, the fun began while the black-and-white picture flickered on my secondhand TV’s screen.

Because that’s when the power went out and the picture blinked off.

For a couple of minutes, things were as quiet as they ever got in that house full of young people. Sitting in the darkness, I cursed my luck, wondering what to do next since I couldn’t even read. Then I heard the laughter of guys and screaming of girls that indicated the true Halloween celebration was on.

The power stayed off long enough to allow all kinds of stupid games involving males showing off and females allowing themselves to be impressed. It was easy to hide in the dark and shout “boo” at girls passing by, so we did. We went to particularly dark corners and begged for help we didn’t need. We pretended we were corpses in the kitchen.

At one point, I looked out a window at a field across the street from the house, and the pale white glow of the moon on that gray field revealed the black shape of one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen: Someone running with a cow toward the campus. I have no idea where that cow came from, nor where it was being taken.