Book Review: Home Game

Earlier this year, I received a copy of Michael Lewis’s Home Game as a gift. This is definitely the kind of book that I probably would have bought for myself after reading the dust jacket. Here’s an excerpt:

“When he became a father, Michael Lewis found himself expected to feel things that he didn’t feel, and to do things that he couldn’t see the point of doing. At first this made him feel guilty, until he realized that all around him fathers were pretending to do one thing, to feel one way, when in fact they felt and did all sorts of things, then engaged in what amounted to an extended cover-up … The remarkable thing about this story isn’t that Lewis is so unusual. It’s that he is so typical. The only wonder is that his wife has allowed him to publish it.”

Lewis is the author of several sports- and finance-themed books that have been made into movies, which is as much a barometer of success for an author these days as anything (see The Blind Side, Moneyball, and most recently The Big Short). Home Game departs from his most famous subject matter to instead focus on his everyday experiences as a father to three children (his wife, I just learned, is Tabitha Soren, who was on MTV back when MTV mattered).

It’s clear through his anecdotes that no matter where a father falls on the income spectrum, no matter the amount of success, if he cares about and loves his family then chances are he’s going to have some version of the same fatherly experiences. Lewis retells his stories in a way in which, I suspect, any parent could recognize elements of their own lives. Most of them are laugh-out-loud funny, too. Some of the highlights for me: Secret pride as his daughter fends off bullies by warning them that she’s going to pee in the public swimming pool if they don’t leave her brother alone. Camping overnight with his daughter in a theme park in Oakland. The stress and anxiety of caring for his infant son diagnosed with RSV. It’s in this last example that Lewis spells out parenthood in as beautifully blunt a way as I’ve seen:

“If you want to feel the way you’re meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work. It’s only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it.”

I think this is, quite frankly, one of the only ways the human race endures. We build up the bonds to our children through caring for them in those tough early days. That, and because they’re cute. There are other areas in the book where Lewis’s bluntness and candor might not be for everyone, but it is frequently hilarious all the same. And since the source material for the book came from the journals Lewis kept after the birth of all three children, it all rings true, making this book a very real peek into the life of a modern family.

As for me, I enjoyed the book – and it was a quick read – but I don’t think I buy the extended cover-up notion wholesale. I do think it’s true that once a baby arrives, the reality of the experience quickly replaces any preconceived fantasies you may have had about having a child. And it’s definitely true that, at least in our case, it takes time to forge a deep bond that goes beyond the initial just-getting-by days. Lewis also has a point with the idea that many modern dads don’t really know what the job entails these days, and we all sort of have to figure it out for ourselves and make it work for our own families. (As a member of the father club, however, I also want to be careful to not destroy the illusion for any of the other dads out there that are playing the long con.)

One final thing that I took from the book is the idea of doing a journal to capture some of the more fleeting thoughts and memories that come from being a parent. I’ve been trying to share the big highlights about parenthood on this blog when I can, but of course I can’t (and don’t want to) share everything. For one, everything’s moving so fast that I can’t trust myself to remember it all. For two, not everything’s blog material – I don’t have aspirations of posting daily about the peanut butter & jelly sandwich my kid had for lunch. But I want to resolve to write more in 2016, and a journal is one way I just might be able to make it happen, so I’m going to personally give it a shot.

In closing, if you have a dry sense of humor and you find yourself becoming a parent in the coming year (either “again” or for the first time), or if you want to relive some of those early parenting days, then Home Game is definitely worth a read.

A Lone Reminder

In order to make our subscription to HBO more worth it (in addition to the access to the wonderful past programming that HBO Go provides*), over the last few months I’ve occasionally been scanning the program guide and just scheduling movies to record that I figure we’ll get around to watching one of these days. Yes, I know I could do that straight through the HBO Go app anyway, but I don’t have a Chromecast or anything and my DVR is right there, all shiny and inviting.

*No, this post is not sponsored by or affiliated with HBO in any way. "The Wire" is a great show, though.
*No, this post is not sponsored by or affiliated with HBO in any way. The Wire, however, is a fantastic television program.

Last night, Gina and I finally got around to watching Lone Survivor, which I had recorded back in December. I guess choosing it now was a subconscious way to honor Memorial Day weekend.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of Marcus Luttrell and his team of SEALs during Operation Redwing in Afghanistan in 2005. As a movie, Survivor is less celebrated than the more recent depiction of fellow Texan and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in American Sniper. I still haven’t seen Sniper (or any other movie released in the past eight or nine months, really), so I’m going solely off of awards show buzz and box office business. While Survivor wasn’t perfect, it certainly did its job to depict the intensity of training and lifestyle that men like the SEALs endure in service to our country, the horror and gruesome nature of war, the tension of an uneven firefight, and the brotherhood and common decency that, to me, has to underlie everything that’s done for any of it to make any kind of sense. It also shines some light on what it might look like to be an average citizen in Afghanistan. I don’t want to spoil too many details for you, but since the movie is called Lone Survivor, you can guess that the op turned pretty bad and that Luttrell is the lone survivor. The entertainment, gory and hard to watch as it can be, is in seeing how he gets there. (That, as well as the definite “USA! USA!” moments sprinkled in throughout.)

I’ve heard reviews that the book is better than the movie, offering more details and perspective from the man himself, and I do plan and encourage you all to check that out at some point.

I generally try to keep the tone in this blog light. I also try to stay away from politics. That said, no matter your opinions on wars both specific and in general, I’ve always believed that the ultimate heroes are the men and women who step up and join our military, because they are who continue to give you the right to voice your opinion. Seeing movies like this once in a while are a good reminder of that. Honoring our heroes every Memorial Day is another.

Sea power.

So while I prepare to fire up the grill this Monday surrounded by a family that has recently grown by one special person, I will once again tip my hat to those who are out there serving.

This year, I have that much more to thank them for keeping safe.

You Wrote A Good ‘Cyclopedia, Charlie Brown

The other day, I was looking at some books, and all of a sudden memories came flooding back about another relic of my youth: The Charlie Brown ‘Cyclopedia.

For those of you around my age who were into reading as a kid, you surely know what I’m talking about. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m extremely sorry. Instead of a full encyclopedia of Britannica proportions, the ‘Cyclopedias were a fifteen-volume collection of fun articles about topics interesting to kids, illustrated with cartoons of Peanuts characters. Each volume was somewhat randomly tied to a general theme instead of progressively going through the alphabet. So one volume might have been about biology (i.e. Volume 1, “Your Body”), but another could’ve been about dinosaurs, where your grubby elementary-school paws could crack it open and read an article about T. Rex with a picture of Snoopy hanging around in the background. It just doesn’t get any better than that, folks.

This edition is where it's at. Source: amazon.com
This edition is where it’s at.
Source: amazon.com

The holy grail was, of course, the volume about Space Travel. To this day, I have distinct memories of learning my first tidbits about the space program through these books. I remember reading about Apollo 10, the mission where the command module was called Charlie Brown and the lunar module was called Snoopy, and how part of Snoopy was left to fly off into space, forever separated from Charlie Brown. How sad! And it’s still out there, location unknown!  Who knows how many other interests were kindled by thumbing through the ‘Cyclopedia’s pages?

My other distinct memory surrounding these books is that they set up one of my first tastes of competition. I was surprised to read online that they were first published in 1980. When I was in maybe second or third grade, maybe 1988, the ‘Cyclopedias began showing up in our local Foodland grocery store, and as far as I was concerned they were the first edition.

Back then, it was always exciting to go with Mom to the grocery store and help her pick out the best gallon of milk, but one week a giant red cardboard stand in the shape of Snoopy’s doghouse was standing near the entrance to the store. I’m pretty sure my eyes widened. When I saw that they were books, I’m pretty sure my seven-year-old mind was blown. I can’t exactly remember how or when I got my first few volumes, but the fact that I’m writing about them 25 years later should tell you that I was hooked. Interestingly, so was my classmate and friend Mary. And Mary wasn’t too shy about letting me know that she had even more volumes than I did.

From that point forward, I would jump at the chance to go to Foodland to acquire as many volumes as possible. I held my cards close to the vest, though, not wanting to seem too excited about the possibility of a new ‘Cyclopedia volume waiting for me. Somehow – and this carried through with a lot of things in my childhood – I thought that if I seemed too excited about something, it would get ruined or taken away, so I waited patiently until we rolled into the store. Some weeks there would be the same basic three volumes that I already had, but every now and then I would be rewarded with a new one. And so I collected, strategically begging Mom for the next volume at just the right time to convince her to get it for me. I would try to feel out how many volumes Mary had, not wanting to tip my hat in case my own collection had too many holes. I cajoled Mom into buying me the red plastic doghouse book rack for the whole set, too. This went on for weeks and months, I’m sure. But if memory serves, I never was able to complete my collection.

Why? The reason is lost to the fog of time. Maybe I lost interest before getting to #15, or maybe I had a couple of unlucky weeks where I didn’t get to go to the store. Maybe Foodland wasn’t really paying attention and didn’t order all fifteen volumes. Whatever happened, I do seem to remember that Mary did get all the volumes, and I reluctantly had to cede victory to her. I was never much for sports growing up, but with certain things I definitely had a competitive streak in me.

I’m not the only one who remembers these books, apparently. This blogger was able to finish a high school project using a ‘Cyclopedia as a reference. This guy takes the prize for giving the most love to his ‘Cyclopedias, and what’s more, he still has his copies and apparently reads them vigorously. You know what? I don’t think I do, and my family kept most everything from my childhood. Last I remember, my nieces had them when they were kids, and from there they disappeared. I guess if I really want to see what Peppermint Patty has to say about the Mayans, I’ll have to head to eBay. For now, I’m content with my memories.

The Perils of a Music Collection

Back when mp3’s were new, hard disk space was still at a premium, and you were basically limited to listening to music files straight from your computer unless you had an external hard drive (which to me were rare in the early 21st century) or a CD-R drive. When I got my first computer with such a drive back in late 2000, I finally had the capability to make that staple of all music lovers in the early ’00s: the mix CD. My process back then was pretty simple: every time I would buy a bunch of CDs, I would listen to them enough to decide which were my favorite five or six songs on each that would likely make it onto a mix CD at some point, and only rip those to my computer. This practice continued throughout the Napster and post-Napster phases of college (where I still continued to buy CDs while simultaneously discovering whole new worlds of music on Napster and its derivatives). Finally, hard drives got huge enough that space was no longer an issue, so I began ripping whole darn albums.

Fourteen years later (give or take a few months), I’m trying to make sure my entire music collection is ripped to my computer. Now, what seemed like a prudent idea back when I could back up all of “My Documents” on a single CD is causing me a bit of a headache. I may own the full album, but only a few songs of it might actually be on my hard drive. I never even ripped some of my earliest purchases. Not even iTunes Match can help with that, since there’s no record of me buying it through iTunes. What’s more, I ripped songs at a much lower quality back then, and for the obscure stuff, again not even iTunes Match can help upgrade them. Sure, for some of these albums I could buy them again on iTunes and save some hassle, but that would literally cost me hundreds of dollars. I opted for the low-dollar but high-time-consuming route, involving a massive spreadsheet and cross-references with my iTunes library. For those who know me, it isn’t really surprising that I went this way.

As a result, over the last few months, I’ve gradually been taking trips through time with my music collection and filling in the gaps, so to speak. I decided it wasn’t just enough to get the files on my computer. I wanted to listen to each song as I went along, as well.

I’m dusting off long-forgotten albums, and since I usually didn’t listen to the full album much after ripping my top tracks to the computer in those days, I’m basically discovering brand new music that in some cases I’ve owned for nearly twenty years and probably haven’t heard for at least ten. It’s a cool feeling, with some real surprises mixed in. Who remembered that Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving was such a funky album underneath all that electronica? I don’t think I fully appreciated it when I first bought it in high school, but it probably subconsciously affected my bass playing as much as the Red Hot Chili Peppers did. On the flip side, there have been a couple of albums (The New Radicals come to mind) where I began to question my self-worth and entire musical well-being as I struggled to make it through the deep album cuts. They might be candidates for being deleted later on, though I usually try to take the good with the bad.

I guess I’m preparing myself for the eventual complete demise of the CD. I will go down fighting in that war. But in going through this project, I’ve been reminded of two once-common CD features that we will surely lose in the all-digital-music era that awaits us:

  1. The mysterious “hidden track zero,” or a song hidden in the pregap of the CD. Do you remember these? I guess this was more or less a gimmick, but on a few albums, you could rewind “before” the first track and hear something hidden that the band left for the curious fan. I was surprised to see that my CD-ripping program found several of these that I didn’t even know about. Of course Wikipedia has a meticulously compiled list of albums that have them. Most of them appear to be about sex and drugs. There’s no way you can get quite the same sense of discovery and entertainment in iTunes, is there?
  2. Hidden tracks at the end of albums. Most of the time, these end up making the last track of an album twenty minutes long, only to reward those who listen to (or skip through) fifteen minutes of silence to listen to a couple of minutes of random noise with a few instruments. Sometimes, like “#34” on Under The Table And Dreaming, they are placed after several tracks of silence. You can somewhat get away with this in iTunes, but really the jig is up if someone notices the last track is insanely longer than the rest of your album. I think most artists just list these as “bonus tracks” or even “hidden tracks” right up front, which is a nice oxymoron.

Both of these are twists on bands doing the same thing on vinyl albums, rewards for the diligent or for those who forgot the album was over and left their turntables running, only to get scared witless when music started up again out of the blue.

Study it VERY carefully. (Source: ultimateclassicrock.com)

But if I’m not mistaken, if you look close enough at a vinyl record, you can tell where there is music and where there is silence. Not so much with a factory-pressed CD. So, I suppose we’ll have to look back on this as a quirk of a bygone era, until people come up with a way to “attach” a second music file to another music file so that it is invisible but overrides the music player to cause the hidden song to play a specified amount of time after the first song is over.

On second thought, that sounds an awful lot like a virus, but maybe that’s what we need. Get on it, people!

The Pen Being Mightier Than Us

One of Gina’s Christmas presents for me this year was this do-it-yourself pen from a company called Fraser Ross. I had never heard of ol’ FR before this, but apparently they don’t make a lot of forays into the DIY world. From what I could gather from their website, they’re based in Scotland. They do a lot of nature art and some various kinds of interesting public installation art pieces, and so on. They are, and I quote, “Inspired by nature” and “Exploring human interactions.” They’re also an “artelier,” which I must admit I had to look up to find that it’s a fancy name for “artist’s studio.”

At any rate, this is the only DIY project that you can readily buy from them, and Gina got it for me as part of a “DIY Christmas” theme. That’s it for back story.

The pen came in a black plastic bag, with most of its pieces connected by balsa wood to a frame, like the pieces of a model airplane or something similar. In fact, that’s really all there was to it: a bunch of concentric rings of wood, the pre-assembled pen-type ink tube and tip, what I like to call the “springy thing,” and a length of rubber to create the pen’s cover.

After detaching all of the rings from their resting place, I promptly set to work by following the instructions, Gina by my side for assistance and moral support. It all went smoothly enough in the beginning stages. All that was really involved was placing the rings along two spine-like pieces of wood, carefully ensuring that they stayed in place while I slid the springy thing and ink tube inside. Simple!

Then came the finishing touch. The final flair, if you will. According to the instructions, all that was needed was to slide the plastic rubber tube over the pen skeleton, set it on a handy cradle fashioned from two sections of balsa wood cleverly carved for that purpose from the original template of pieces, and apply heat for a few minutes via hair dryer. The only problem was that I mistook the cradle for extra pieces and snapped half of it in two, thereby rendering it completely useless. No problem, we said, we’ll just hold the pen in place with our hands while we use this hair dryer here. It’ll only be a few minutes, how hot could it get?

Either Gina’s hair dryer is particularly weak, or hairdressers use blowtorches in Scotland, because after 15 minutes of constant hair dryer contact, where we essentially touched the pen’s rubber grip to the hair dryer itself, as if that would help, nothing was happening. The instructional video, which was unhelpfully sped up to double speed, seemed to imply that after a minute or two the rubber would give up the ghost and begin to shrink-wrap itself around the pen skeleton. We had no shrinking nor any wrapping. We were a little frustrated.

We’d already broken out some oven mitts to hold the pen, since surprisingly our fingers didn’t enjoy holding molten hot tire rubber and pen metal for minutes on end. Unfortunately, our mitts also succumbed to the heat after just a few minutes of constant hair dryer attention, so we were forced to take frequent breaks and trade off hair dryer / glove duties throughout the evening. However, just when we were about to give up completely, something happened. Like a timid hatchling emerging from its egg for the first time, the rubber began to contort around the edges of the pen. The unshapely mass before us began to vaguely take the form of the pen’s picture on the Internet. Hope was ours at last.

I would say that after about 25-30 minutes of total hair drying time, we had a pen that looked 95% complete. There were still a few areas that didn’t completely shrink, and I’m pretty sure that the spring mechanism got misaligned sometime during the heating process, but the pen was structurally sound.

Careful, it might burn you.
Careful, it might burn you.

Exhausted but victorious, I was able to scrawl a quick message onto the instructions after the pen cooled off. And in the end, isn’t that all you want out of a pen?

It did not defeat us!
In the end, we were stronger.

And out of life?