Monday, October 31, 2011

Third Person Thursday (on Monday): Fear Itself - Part 2

Finally, it's part 2 of our Third Person Thursday story.  Read the first part here and the conclusion later today, hopefully.

David sat hunched at the dinner table, trying to keep his eyes on his plate.  Occasionally he glanced up only with his eyes to check if anyone was staring at him.  He often found that Oliver was, but his parents ate, unsuspecting that anything was wrong.

They don’t think much of you, said a voice in David’s head which David knew was not his own, but could not explain whose it was.  They probably didn’t even want you.  They planned for your younger brother, but you were probably a mistake.  Unconsciously, David scratched at the small welt just above his left elbow.

Oliver watched him do so.  Oliver had been watching David for most of the meal, trying not to let him be aware of it.  He watched as David’s eyes darted about nervously whenever they weren’t in his plate.  He saw him continually scratching the same spot and watched him shift uncomfortably in his seat.  Oliver wondered how his parents weren’t noticing the change in his demeanor.

“David’s basketball try outs are this week,” Oliver said aloud, perhaps a bit too loud, in an effort to get his parents to engage David.

Taken aback momentarily by the volume of Oliver’s statement, his father blinked as his mother turned to David.  “Is that right, sweetie?” she asked of David.

David glared at Oliver.  I warned you about that one, said the voice in David’s head.  That so called brother of yours would see you fail so that he might step into your place.  He wants to be the oldest.  He wants to be the only.  David began sweating.  He turned his gaze away from Oliver and was afraid to look back at him again.  “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” said a panicked voice inside David’s head that was distinctly his own this time.  “We sleep in the same room.  He’s trying to get rid of me.”

“Sweetie?” asked his mother again.

“Um, later this week, yes,” David said, struggling to get his words out.  Meanwhile, he could feel Oliver’s eyes upon him.  He could imagine Oliver searching for an opportunity to make him look bad, to make his parents want him around less, to make them less upset over finding him dead in his own bed tomorrow morning, prepared to blindly accept it as the unfortunate accident Oliver would paint it to be.

“Well that’s exciting,” his mother responded and turned her attention back to her food.  Oliver sighed and determined that he was going to need to get to the bottom of what was going on himself.

Immediately after dinner was over, David ran off and hid somewhere, as their parents washed the dishes together.  Meanwhile, Oliver made his way to the second floor hallway and stared at the fold down hatch in the ceiling.  He dragged the desk chair from his and David’s room beneath it and stood upon it to reach the cord.  Once he had folded out the stairs completely, Oliver stood at their base and gazed up into the darkness.  He gripped his flashlight firmly in his hand and began to ascend the steps into the attic.

Oliver never liked going up there.  His imagination got the best of him in the dark.  It was the reason why he and David continued to share a room despite the extra space in the house.  His parents claimed it would be nice for there to be a spare room for when their grandmother visited, but Oliver knew it was because he couldn’t handle being on his own.  To David’s credit, he had never complained about it the way most older brothers would.

The air was noticeably colder from the moment he poked his head across the threshold of the opening.  Before going all the way in, Oliver turned on the flashlight, which required shaking it a bit to get the batteries to touch, and made a careful 360 degree inspection of his surroundings.

Books were stacked in the middle of the floor, some of them lying on their own off to the side from having been rifled through.  The disassembled crib that David and Oliver had each slept in at one point was propped against the wall.  Clothing lay folded neatly in clear plastic bags and the limbs of their artificial Christmas tree protruded from the open top of its large cardboard.

Oliver told himself it was just another room in the house as he stepped onto the floor of the attic.  He thought that if it were bathed in sunlight, he wouldn’t be the least bit afraid of being there.  “It’s just dark,” he whispered aloud repeatedly.  It didn’t help.

Still, Oliver searched about the attic with his flashlight, hoping to find some sort of answer for his brother’s behavior.  He saw old baby toys gathering dust and a sewing machine that was easily older than Oliver and his brother combined.  His beam of light passed over a folding table and a cobwebbed sign warning that the golf course would close in the event of a hurricane.

Then Oliver noticed something else.  Next to a box overflowing with sporting equipment, sat a large, ornate chest.  It looked to Oliver like the kind that pirate’s treasure might be contained within.  There were elaborate twisting and swirling designs of some sort carved into its wood and the brass hinges were tarnished and darkened.

As Oliver moved closer, he could see the designs in the chest appeared to be snakes, writhing and wrapped around one another.  In the center of the lid was a large lion’s face.  At least that is what Oliver believed it to be at first.  The longer he stared at it, the more he seemed to think it looked like the face of a man.  A man with sharpened teeth and a mane of hair resembling a lion and the hair of the mane being as thick as the snakes that surrounded it.

Oliver stared at the chest for what felt like a great while before deciding he ought to open it. Even after deciding that he ought to, Oliver knelt before it and stared for a while longer at the man-lion head.

“Enough,” he finally said out loud, grasped the locking hinge on the front of the chest and swing it upward.

There was nothing inside.

Oliver shrugged.  He was about to shut the lid again when he noticed he could not see the chest’s bottom.  Even as he shone his flashlight into the gaping opening of the large box, he could not see a distinct floor.  It looked almost as if the box actually contained darkness.

He thought this must have been an optical illusion.  Perhaps it was a black velvet or thick material that lined the box.  His flashlight still shining into the interior, Oliver went to reach his hand into the chest to try and feel its bottom and confirm his suspicions.

Just as he was about to, something gripped him.  Not a physical force, but a feeling, a very urgent, pressing feeling.  Oliver’s flashlight extinguished suddenly and he threw himself backward from the box, landing on his butt on the attic floor.  As he began to scoot himself away, Oliver swore he began to see something rise from the chest.  The darkness it seemed to contain began flowing from it, reaching toward the ceiling like great fingers.  The fingers appeared to break up and reassemble about their edges like a dust cloud.

Oliver scampered backward, lifting his rear end off the planks of the attic floor and crawling backward on his hands and feet as he watched the darkness begin to reach toward him.  Fear washed over him in a cold wave and he froze momentarily.

“Yesssss,” he heard a low, raspy voice whisper.  “Fffff-ear meeeee.”

One of the fingers bent toward Oliver and reached to touch him.  As it came closer and closer, Oliver could see that it was made of many parts that swirled around one another.  As it came closer still, about to touch Oliver, or perhaps lift him from the ground and take him into the chest he thought, it became clear that the large limb was made of insects, thousands and thousands of insects.  They were wasps, in fact and all black as night.

Just before it reached him, Oliver felt a sudden charge enter his legs.  He thrust himself backward as hard as he could.  As the black, spinning finger reached to touch him, he moved from beneath it and the wasps bounced off the wooden floor hundreds at a time before they took flight again and continued after him.

Oliver pushed with his legs again and slid several feet across the floor, this time sliding right into the opening for the stairs.  He dropped like a stone and landed on the carpet of the second floor hallway with a loud thud.

Oliver stared above at the attic entry as the insects swirled and pulsed above it.  The wood beams of the attic ceiling were eclipsed by the black mass of flying insects, but Oliver noted, with no small amount of relief, that it was not advancing after him into the main part of the house.

Oliver became acutely aware that he had not been breathing and gasped like a rescued drowning victim.  As he did so, he heard his father’s heavy footfalls coming up the stairs.

“Ollie!  What the hell happened?”

“Dad, I was in the attic and…” he looked back to the opening in the ceiling, but the darkness was gone.  “And I fell,” Oliver continued.  “I fell on my way back down the stairs but I think I’m okay.”

Oliver convinced his father that nothing hurt, contrary to the truth.  The attic stairs were closed again and Oliver searched the rest of the hose for his brother.  He found David curled up in a ball on the basement floor, next to the couch.

“What did you see in the attic?” Oliver asked David bluntly.

David looked at him in a panic and scratched his elbow.  Don’t answer him, came the other’s voice.  He’s trying to make you look crazy.

“I…” started David.  If you tell, it will come down and get you, interrupted the voice.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Oliver was furious.  He lunged across David and grabbed his arm.  “What have you been picking at,” he shouted.

“Leave me alone,” David yelled and tried to push him away, but Oliver had gotten a solid hold of his left arm and was pulling his face close to it.  “Stop it!”

“Something stung you!” Oliver said before David finally wrestled his arm away.  “You did see it and one of them stung you!”

“Leave me alone,” David said and turned his back on his younger brother.  He’s going to tell somebody and then it will come and get you, said the voice.  “I’m fine.”

Oliver stood up, clenched his teeth and glared at David, then turned and stormed back up the stairs.  In the low light of sunset coming through the basement windows, David sat alone again, his knees pulled to his chest on the floor and he began to cry.

"Anxious Movies" Just Doesn't Have the Same Ring

My wife has Halloween fever and has repeatedly expressed her interest in going to see Paranormal Activity 3 to me.  My response to her has been that she should see the first two movies, which are available at no cost on Netflix prior to viewing the third installment of the series.

Notice I said she should see the first two movies.  I don't know if you noticed that was my pronoun of choice, but my wife certainly didn't.

So, here I am posting at nearly three o'clock in the morning because my wife and I just finished watching the original Paranormal Activity, which, now that it's over, I have to say was a pretty big disappointment. Other than three legitimately creepy scenes, the rest of the movie was mostly suggestive film tactics meant to get you all anxious just to leave you without a scare.  It was an almost mirror image of The Blair Witch Project in that it provided no visual of the scary entity in question, had low production value and starred people whose demise I eventually began to hope for by the end.

These kinds of films, the kind that exist only to provide cheap, jump out of your seat moments, bother me.  I'm all for a good, scary, creepy horror film, but most horror movies are all tension and no substance.  You get yourself all tensed up and ready for a sudden event to take place and something anticlimactic happens instead.  Then, in an attempt to perhaps justify the money you spent on the movie, you end up saying things to your friends afterwards like...

"Oh man, that so freaked me out how she was just standing next to the bed for like two hours staring at him," or...

"When the chandelier was swaying, I almost couldn't watch," or...

"Did you see the sheets move by themselves.  That, my friends, is terror incarnate."

These are all things that, if you taped your conversations regularly, you would, after reviewing said tapes, want to punch your past self in the face for saying out loud.

Basically, you convince yourself that the movie made you more frightened than it did.  What it really did was cause you a great deal of anxiety by taking an overly extended amount of time to deliver the cheap thrills you expected.  If you counted the times you witnessed something actually scary on screen, you would be hard pressed to need a second hand.

I, for one, know my limitations.  I don't enjoy being anxious.  Thus, I don't watch scary movies without a decent story who only seek to make me feel so.  I liken these films to waiting to hear a verdict read against you in criminal court or the brief moment after the doctor says, "I have some very grave news for you," as he looks down at your test results.  I don't think anyone has ever really enjoyed such moments, as they really shouldn't.

But, thanks to my wife (love you, honey), I am now wide awake.  Not because I think somebody is waiting just outside my bedroom door with a sharp cutting instrument, not because I keep thinking I hear scratching noises from under our bed and not because I swear I can feel a nearby demonic presence.  No, I could stride confidently through my darkened house right now and retrieve an item from the darkest recesses of my basement without thinking twice about some monster leaping out to devour me.

I am awake now because I am simply agitated and feeling the physiological effects of prolonged tension.  So, I figured I might as well turn it into a post reflecting upon scary movies and their...

Shhh!  Did you hear that?  Oh, God, it sounds like it's in the hallway.  I'm getting under the covers.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Terrifyingly Lazy Weekly Features

So you need a costume for tomorrow but have yet to get one.  Don't worry.  This week's top five list provides the top five horror movie masks.  Every single one of them have been worn as a solitary costume item by party patrons too lazy to shop earlier than the day of the party for years:

5. Scream - So over done, it's the least impressive on this list.  Still, it's creepy looking and you don't need much more than the mask itself to make a fairly complete costume.  There's something to be said for efficiency.

4. Hannibal Lector's mouth guard - Hannibal "the Cannibal" was fitted with a leather mask to prevent him from trying to take a bite out of any unsuspecting guards.  While Silence of the Lambs was more suspense than horror film, it's still a classic, recognizable mask.  Slick your hair back, especially if your hair is grey and thinning, and you're good.  The big drawback is that enjoying a cocktail because exceedingly difficult while donning the mask.

3. Jason's hockey mask - One of the more iconic masks, but it looks best when accented with the scrapes, blood, and mold and mildew stains.  Don't get one too clean because it makes it hard to believe you are a mass murderer who was left to drown at the bottom of the nearby lake so many years ago.

2. Leatherface - There is only one mask more horrifying than the most memorable slasher from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Perhaps you don't appreciate the gruesomeness inherent in a man wearing the sewn together skin off the faces of people he has already hacked to pieces.  You do?  Never mind, then.  I didn't mean to ruin your appetite.

1. Michael Myers - And I don't mean Austin Powers.  The most horrifying thing about this mask is its emotionless expression.  I mean, if he's stabbing you to death, at least you could see some feeling in his face.  Maybe he's loving it.  Maybe he regrets the tragic turn his life has taken but is to far gone to curb his bloodlust.  You'd never know because he just stares straight ahead with his mouth in a flat line.  There's nothing scarier than complete apathy.

This week's cool-ass thing you will never own is Freddie Krueger's claw glove.  They're no adamantium claws ala Wolverine, but they could definitely do some damage.  You'd never need to look around for a fork, could shave at a moment's notice and those unruly shrubs in your front yard would finally be kept in line...or face the consequences.

This week's sign you are a nerd is that you sleep better at night only after running through the scientific evidence that you've cataloged which shows how highly unlikely it is that there is a monster in your closet.  As far as beneath your bed, that's going to require an entirely different set of principles.  You'd better get started on that research.

This week's nemesis is eggs.  I don't know how it started, but I would like to strangle the little bastard who first decided to throw an egg at someone else in an attempt to create Halloween mischief.  It's a real pain in the butt to wash chicken embryo off just about any surface.  And if it's cold out and you didn't notice the egg until the following morning, you might as well invest in that commercial grade pressure washer you've had your eye on.

This week's lesson learned is to properly layer your child's clothing beneath their costume.  Too may layers results in one sweaty, crabby kid.  Too few layers keeps them from staying out long enough to provide extra candy for you to steal from their bucket.  It's a truly delicate balance.  Check your weather forecast and check the breathability of your kid's costume's fabric.

This week's equation has to do with Halloween songs:

H, subscript s, represents the number of good Halloween songs in existence and s represents the total number of Halloween songs in existence.

This week's Star Wars quote is, "He's quite clever, you know...for a human being."

Thanks for reading.  Hope you all have a great Halloween.

Friday, October 28, 2011

For the Love of Cap

My copy of Captain America: The First Avenger on Blu-Ray arrived at my doorstep yesterday and not an hour passed before it was playing in my basement while the digital copy was being transferred to our iPad.

The only problem was I had stuff to take care of around the house, most of it in places other than the basement.  Still, it made me feel better to know that Steve Rogers was beating the snot out of Nazis somewhere in my home regardless of what I was doing.  Also, my sons were downstairs with some of their friends and putting the film on for them served several purposes.

First, it kept their attention, which in turn kept them from making a complete mess out of the play area in the basement that had just been straightened up.  The friends they had over had yet to see the movie so the running through the house and ambient shouting noise was kept at a minimum.  It was exchanged for the digitally enhanced explosions and clanging of Vibranium against German skulls.

Second, it planted the seed for the love of Captain America in the minds and hearts of their friends.  I cannot account for which superheroes are being promoted by their own parents, if any.  Thus, whenever I get the chance to subliminally or downright obviously force the preference for something that I want them to like into their developing little psyches, I take it.

Finally, it forced my sons to choose their allegiance.  I presented to them the opportunity to watch Captain America with their friends.  Since they want to be cool in front of them, this provided me with a chance to finally see whether or not they really think Cap is cool.

You see, normally, my sons pretend to dislike all things Captain America while under my watchful eye.  If they know I am observing them while playing with their Super Hero Squad figures, Cap will be the first casualty and a sideways glance will be thrown my way, a glance that says, “What of your precious Captain America now, father?”  When we originally saw the movie in the theater, they both protested vehemently.  I settled on telling them they were going with my wife and I to see it and that they didn’t have to like it but they had damn well better not interrupt my viewing pleasure.  That’s what their mother was going for.  It was a stalemate.

Forcing them to tip their hands was a risky move on my part.  Often, my sons suddenly like something they previously hated when they discover their good friend likes it.  This has been particularly frustrating with their choice in food lately.  If Bobby likes pasta, my youngest son suddenly likes it too despite refusing to eat t the last time we made it and will now refuse to eat the stupid chicken nuggets we made him after having pouted and stomped around the grocery store, complaining that we weren’t getting him any of the food that he liked.  Furthermore, he had to have the nuggets shaped like dinosaurs because the shape somehow effects the flavor due to some sort of complex relationship, the science of which my sons would swear is entirely sound despite the fact that I was previously unaware of it.

However, for as often as their friends influence my sons’ behavior, my sons’ influence their friends’ likes and dislikes just as often.  Sometimes they follow.  Sometimes they lead.

I feared that my insistence that they finally make clear their feelings about Cap could have forced them into a corner that they aggressively fought their way out of with my feelings for my favorite super hero left tattered in the melee.  They could have dug their feet in and refused to watch the movie, causing their buddies to want nothing to do with it either.  They could have destroyed their old man’s hopes that he could bond with them over Captain America related trivia.  They could have broken my heart; the heart which pumps blue and red blood through it and I swear has a little white start in the middle of it (I still kick myself for not getting a copy of that x-ray).

Still, much like Steve Rogers’ decision to convince Howard Stark and Peggy Carter to assist in dropping him behind enemy lines, I took the risk.  And you know what?  It paid off.

“Yeah, let’s watch it,” they proclaimed to their friends.  “It’s awesome.”

For as wide as I smiled on the outside, my inner smile put the Marianas Trench to shame.  There my sons sat, mesmerized by Captain America: The First Avenger and, as my household duties took me through the viewing area, I relished every moment.  I even stopped to add some commentary at one point.

“There are guys laying down their lives for their country.  Who am I to do any less,” argued a skinny, weakling Steve Rogers on screen with his pal, Bucky as Dr. Erskine conveniently eavesdropped nearby.

“See, boys,” I stopped to monologue with a pile of folded clothes in my arms, “that’s what makes Captain America so great.  He stands for what he believes in and he…”

“Jeez, Dad!  Alright already,” exclaimed my oldest, having heard this speech before.

It was then that I decided to just let them watch the rest of the movie in peace and quit while I was ahead.

Third Person? There Wasn't Even One Person!

I need to issue the few regular readers that I have an apology.

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is writing our Third Person Thursday posts.  Last week, I began a story about two brothers.  The first portion of it was much shorter than I had initially meant for it to be.  I fully intended to make up for this by having this week's Thursday post contain that content which was originally to appear in part one as well as the second concluding portion of the story.

Alas, I did not do that.

What you were treated to instead was a big fat zero on one of the most important days of the Transformer Generation Dad week.

I'm sorry, loyal readers.  Please don't give up on me now.  I will win back your love and affection.  I will work over the next few days and post the rest of the story before Halloween is over even if I have to do so through extreme discomfort due to a belly full of my sons' bogarted trick-or-treating spoils.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Damn My Lack of an Engineering Degree!

I have spent a great deal of my life, admittedly too much, playing with toys.  Having two sons with similar interests to mine (with no tampering by yours truly) only serves to add to the total hours of play time.

My wife has always been very active in playing with our sons, but said play time did not rely as heavily on the inclusion of their toys as my time with them did. Recently she has become more open to the joy that their toys have to offer.  The glory that is Nerf has opened her eyes.  Despite her new found fervor for foam dart combat, my wife would still need to outlive me by approximately thirty-seven years in order to put in the equivalent amount of time I have playing with toys.

But I must say, what she lacks in time put in, my wife makes up for in creativity.  She approaches our sons' toy collection in a serious manner.  Well, as serious as you can take bright yellow molded plastic guns, Lego bricks and rubber bouncy balls while still having fun with them.  What I mean is, she doesn't roll her eyes and dismiss what my boys classify as their favorite toys.  Rather, she looks for unique ways to enhance their experience with the toys that have lasted the test of their short attention spans.

The most amazing display of this has already been seen by regular readers of this blog.  I speak of the Nerf arsenal on our basement wall.  If you haven't seen it, take a look at it here.

With the amazing success of our Nerf wall fresh in our minds, we saw a commercial for a new product from Hot Wheels called Wall Tracks.  In case the name doesn't paint a clear picture for you, perhaps because your grasp on the English language is less than remedial, allow me to explain.  They are Hot Wheels tracks that attach to the wall.  Got it now?

I think this is an awesome idea with a lot of potential.  The most important aspect of the Wall Tracks system is not the tracks themselves, but the specially fitted wall brackets that allow the tracks to be easily hung on a wall.  But it also kind of upsets me.  Why, you ask?  That is so very thoughtful of you.  I didn't know you cared.

Ahem, anyway, this upsets me because my wife had precisely this idea about two years ago.  She recognized that our sons love Hot Wheels and knew it was a classic toy that would last the test of time.  She then thought it would be awesome to run a Hot Wheels track down the wall of our stairway.  The next logical step was to inform me that there was to be a Hot Wheels track down our stairway and that I was tasked with the construction of it.

I fumbled with various materials for some time and eventually settled on a combination of wine bottle corks, nails and paperclips.  The result was a set of contraptions protruding from our wall that reminded one of Frankenstein and which were probably just as dangerous and unpredictable.

The track lasted for a few days full of test runs, including lots of adjustments.  Eventually, however, it caved beneath the repeated weight of the die cast cars rolling down.  It became abundantly clear that the laws of physics were my better.  No amount of tinkering and redesigning on my part could make the stairway wall track work.

The missing piece was the perfectly molded wall bracket and now, Hot Wheels has beaten me to it.  Sure, they sort of make the product that we were trying to construct something to accessorize, but I'm still a bit disappointed in myself.  I feel like I let my wife and sons down.

You won this round, Hot Wheels.  But I'll be back.  First, however, I ought to try to develop and patent a specific Nerf mounting system.  The first logical step is to open up a metal shop where I can create molds for plastic pieces.  Guess the boys will have to move their beds into the basement.

Good News! I'm Still Alive.

I promised an update on how successful or unsuccessful the results of my fire pit construction project were.  I am happy to announce that I finished its construction and it looks like this:

Lawn maintenance concerns aside, I'm pretty proud of what I created out of a pile of extra retaining wall bricks that have been lying around in my backyard for several years.  Overhead cost for me: $0.

The most exciting news is that my wife and I enjoyed its inaugural late night fire within hours after completing it and there were no exploding rocks as I had previous feared.  My wife and I don't have any holes anywhere about our bodies that we did not have prior to the lighting of the wood placed in the middle.

Hooray for safety!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Caution: Rocks May Explode in Extreme Heat. Wait! What?!

Although I have an intense respect for the scientific community, I am fairly certain that I cannot be considered a part of it.  This is not because I prescribe to the mystical arts.  I don’t spend my evenings chanting over a hastily constructed ragdoll and exacting voodoo justice upon my enemies.

On the contrary, I think the various scientific disciplines are doing a fantastic job of figuring out the world we live in.  When I hear we have new pictures of a distant outer space phenomenon, I immediately consider what they might mean for our species’ long-term goals of self-affirmation.  When I read an article telling me how a mouse in a lab somewhere has successfully grown a fifth limb out of its forehead, I want to go and high five said new little mouse paw.  It gives me hope that if I ever need a new arm, I might be able to grow one out of my own forehead.  Talk about useful.

Forgive my sarcasm.  I don’t know any other way.

But really, I seriously think science kicks major rump.  I often wish I were better at it.  I received decent grades in my high school Physics, Chemistry and Biology classes, but you are not going to see me co-hosting Mythbusters anytime soon.

When I entered college, I chose Psychology as my major.  Trade secret: Psychology, despite what anyone tells you, is not a true science.  Physics developed precise methods to determine the relationships between two things in the real world.  In Psychology, despite experiment after experiment, the best you ever seem to be able to say is, “That thing that I thought was true seems to maybe be true as far as we can tell…so far.”  Frustrating.  I want an equation that will tell me exactly how crazy this guy I am talking to is and I want to be able to give him a PET scan, see a little blue spot on the screen and say, “Oh, that’s why he’s nuts right there.”  Problem solved.

What I am trying to say is, despite my respect for science in general, every now and then I am blindsided by a scientific fact that I cannot believe I didn’t know.  Case in point, yesterday I decided that with a large stack of extra patio and paver bricks I had lying around, I was going to undertake the project of building a fire pit in my backyard.  Yes, the Autumn spirit has its claws in me and on my upcoming nights off I was planning on sitting next to a fire with a (small…ish…case of) beer.  I figured I had the materials, so why not put them to good use?

Still, I’m no dummy and figured, since I’ve never built a fire pit before, I ought to research and make sure there isn’t anything I need to keep in mind.  The obvious things were all there on the various sites I looked up.  Keep fire away from home.  Do not build a fire pit beneath low, overhanging trees.  Do not sit in fire while it is burning.  Do not throw flaming logs at your companions around the fire pit.  All very simple stuff that my scientifically advanced mind already knew.

Then came the surprise warning: Do not use rocks that have been submersed in water in the base of your fire pit as they may explode in extreme heat.

What?!  Exploding rocks?

Here I had been imagining a simple ring of stone around some gravel and sand.  Now, I had to consider my family running for shelter from rock shrapnel.  Perhaps I would need to construct some ballistic shields to keep handy while enjoying out fire pit in case the rocks began spontaneously exploding.  What was I about to put my family through?  Thank God I looked into this.  I was terrified.

After a few minutes of panic, I calmed down and it made sense.  Some rocks are permeable.  Water left within said rocks could turn to gas quickly.  Gas takes up more space than liquid.  Cause the liquid to convert to gas extremely quickly and boom, rock explosion.

I assessed the potential risk of geologic detonation occurring in my yard and realized it was pretty slim.  After all, the bricks I am planning on using have been sitting in my yard and are nice and dry from being in the sun.  I didn’t plan to make an expedition to the bottom of the sea anytime soon to find rocks perfectly suitable for my fire pit on the ocean floor.  I breathed easy once again, the initial shock of the simple scientific fact I had overlooked, gone.  I simply needed to exercise caution and common sense around fire.

It caused me to remember the old fireworks lesson.  A firecracker exploding on your open palm may singe or slightly burn your skin.  The same firecracker exploding in your closed fist will send fragments of your fingers into your nearby friend’s eye.  Lesson: Your friend should wear protective glasses while watching you play with fireworks in order to reduce the risk of eye infection.

I'll let you all know how the fire pit turns out.  Just give me time as I may be typing with one hand.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Weekly Trick-or-Treaters

It's just over a week before Halloween.  Last week's top five list was scary reads for youngsters, and since I'm all about spending Halloween participating in spooky activities with your kids, this week it's the top five family Halloween movies:

5. Coraline - The fact that I actually enjoyed the 3D in the theater a few years back when watching this goes to show it's a decent film.  The level of creepiness is not over the top for young viewers and enough to keep the adults interested.

4. Monster House - Darker in some ways than Coraline (the story behind how the house became a monster is a bit morbid when you really think about it) and simultaneously funnier in an irreverent sort of way to help take the edge off.  A good amount of jump-out-of-your-seat moments as well.  Always a plus.

3. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown - Sure, it's Halloween, but who needs to be scared all the time.  Sometimes some good old fashioned Peanuts jokes are just the thing for a dark, cool, Autumn night.

2. Ghostbusters - Good scares and humor and a great way to keep the whole family interested.  So, just cover your little one's ears when Dr. Venkman says, "Yes, it's true.  This man has no d---."

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas - Tim Burton's classic is probably the best spooky family film of all time.  It has scary monsters, singing, humor, romance and, best of all, it's all clay-mation.

This week's cool-ass thing you will never own is Frankenstein's monster.  Of course it would be called (Your last name here)'s monster, but you get the point.  Regardless of what's called, morgue and cemetery security is much better these days, so getting your hands on a usable stiff, not to mention fresh organs when they are in such high demand seems unlikely.

This week's sign you are a nerd is that your Halloween costume requires batteries.  It doesn't matter whether it's a lightsaber, a repulsor reactor attached to your chest, a phaser with distinct sound effects for stun and kill or the accents on your Tron suit.  The fact that you constructed something that requires you to conceal a battery pack somewhere about your body makes you a geek.  Congratulations.

This week's nemesis is fake spider webs.  The stretchable cottony decorations are a real pain in the ass to work with, especially outdoors.  Good luck keeping them in place in even a mild wind or keeping them from getting caught on every piece of shrubbery within a block radius.  But once they are finally up, they sure make the place look good and scary.  That's why I'll keep going back and that's exactly what makes them so diabolical.

This week's lesson learned is to account for wind direction prior to climbing a ladder to hang decorations on your house.  Once you're up there trying to spread that sheet, giant grim reaper or aforementioned fake spider webs and have them blowing back over your face, you'll see what I mean.

This week's equation is:

The number of trick-or-treater you can expect at your home this year (T) can be projected by taking the population density near your home (in persons per square mile, p) and dividing it by the distance in miles you are from the nearest major thoroughfare (d) then mulitoplying that product by the product of the percentage of your local population that consists of children under the age of thirteen (c) multiplied by the quality of candy being passed out on a 1-10 scale (c) divided by the scariness of your Halloween decorations on a 1-10 scale (s) with 10 being so scary that only the bravest of children will dare set foot on your porch, to the power of whether or not a family member will remain home to pass out candy, 1 if no, 2 if yes (f).

Finally, this week's Star Wars quote is: "A death mark's not an easy thing to live with."

Thanks for reading.  Have a spooky week.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

It's the Most Gruesomely Morbid Time of the Year

Halloween is a special time because the ordinarily terrifying becomes the acceptable.  That which seemed grotesque and horrifying last month becomes fun and wholesome, even campy the next.

Over the past few weeks, my sons have shown me that they are at a prime age for getting involved in the enjoyment of the holiday.  They have begun discussing how best to kill a vampire and what somebody else’s blood might taste like.  My youngest son, two years ago, nearly refused to allow me to drive him home from Six Flags because my aging knees forced me to inadvertently rest in a spot along the scary Halloween parade path and subjected him to seeing a man in a werewolf costume.  Yesterday, the very same boy was advising me on how to make our decorations scarier.

“The skeleton should be sitting on top of the coffin like he died while he was waiting to make sure the guy inside who got buried alive didn’t get out.”  After some reflection, I decided it was a damn fine suggestion and went with it.

Even my sons’ toys have proven a window into the macabre this season.  They and their friends have staged a massive zombie battle with their Lego minifigures over the last several days.  They removed the heads and the occasional arm, equipped them with sticks, knives and swords and lined them up by the dozens to make it look as if they are advancing on the last remaining Lego brick stronghold of non-zombified minifigs.  The still-headed survivors stand atop their base and use whatever firepower they could scrounge up to launch their final defensive.

Were it not for the time of year, I might be looking into psychiatric wards to check them into, not laughingly telling all of you about it.  I would at least be locking my bedroom door while I was asleep and hiding all the kitchen knives.

Instead, I am proud of the horrific places their minds go.  I comment, “Coo-ool,” at their massive Lego zombie army.  I ponder along with them what it must be like to be a vampire and rely on the consumption of blood to live or be a zombie and constantly crave human flesh.

I have no problem with them being a little morbid.  It’s fun for now.  Just as long as they are over it when it comes time to prepare for Christmas, which, by the way, isn’t until the day after Thanksgiving, contrary to recent marketing trends.  They have a solid month left to focus on severed limbs and gushing blood before I look for a good child shrink.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Third Person Thursday: Fear Itself - Part 1

Below, please find the first small portion of a story about two brothers.  One looks to his elder for guidance, the other has been recent affected, gripped by some unseen stranger if you will.  The original portion was meant to be longer, but the existing material will have to suffice until more of the tale can be completed.

Without further ado, the abbreviated part one...

Oliver noted David’s behavior had been different.  Ever since he descended the attic stairs, David had acted less like an older brother.  He didn’t challenge Oliver to contests he knew he would win.  He neglected to tease.  At least three days had passed since David last jumped out from around a corner to scare the living daylights out of him.  To be sure, he was not himself.

During their walk to school, Oliver watched David.  His head hung.  His shoulders sagged to the point that Oliver thought his jacket might slide right off of them.  He shuffled his feet along the nearly covered sidewalk, leaving a path in the fallen leaves behind.

“Don’t you love this weather?” Oliver asked.

“No,” David responded without looking up from his feet.  As a particularly strong gust of cold wind blew, he braced himself against it and winced in discomfort.

“Oh, come on.  Isn’t this your favorite time of year?” Oliver suggested.  He added a bit of spring to his step and tried to walk further ahead of David to attract his eye contact.  It did not work.

“Don’t the leaves look so perfect?” Oliver attempted again.  “They’re like construction paper leaves.  What if it was someone’s job to cut all these leaves out of paper and scatter them on the ground every year?”

David was unfazed.  He looked at the ground so intently it was as if he barely heard a word his younger brother said to him.  Yet Oliver knew David was paying no attention to the leaves.  There was a look of something on his face that Oliver could only interpret as worry.  David looked more worried than Oliver had ever seen him.

“Are you thinking about the basketball tryouts?” Oliver asked.

David stopped and finally looked at him.  “What?  No.  Well…maybe.”

“They’re this week, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” muttered David.  He turned his eyes back to the ground and continued walking.  “So what?  I don’t even think I’m going to try out.”

“But…but…” stammered Oliver.  “But you have to at least try out.  You love basketball.  All your friends are going to try out.”

And speaking of friends, that was when the two boys heard familiar voices up ahead.  The group of other boys, a mixture of friends from David’s sixth grade class, the fifth grade and a few younger brothers that were in Oliver’s fourth grade class were nearing the corner up ahead where David and Oliver would normally fuse into their group and continue on with them.

“C’mon,” David said suddenly and grabbed Oliver by his sleeve.  He pulled him down the gangway of one of the houses that lined the street.

“What are you doing?” Oliver resisted.

“I don’t want to walk with them today,” David said and rushed into the alley where he finally released his grip on his brother’s jacket.

“Why not?” Oliver asked and adjusted his now bunched up jacket.  “We walk with them every day.”

There came no answer from his brother.  Instead, he looked up from straightening his sleeve to find David looking about nervously in the alley.

“Let’s get out of here,” David said.  He began to run down the alley, frantically searching for an open gate they could go through to reach the next street over.

When David rattled the gate to the Harris’ backyard, their cocker spaniel ran down the gangway, wagging its tail.  It let out a yelp and David froze, staring at it.  It wasn’t until Oliver had caught up with his that he let out a muffled cry and backed away.

“David!” Oliver shouted and grabbed his older sibling by his shoulders.  “What are you doing?  What’s wrong with you?”

David fell onto his rear and pulled his knees into his chest.  Oliver noticed tears in his eyes.  He looked about the alley quickly then knelt down at his brother’s side.

After he had helped him wipe the tears from his cheeks and forced him to use a balled up napkin from God knows where to blow his nose, Oliver got David to his feet and walked him out of the alley.  Oliver was practically guiding him blind through the garbage cans as David refused to look up.

When the two had finally reached their school, David refused to go any closer than the opposite side of the parking lot and made Oliver remain by his side.  Once the bell rang, they both rushed to the doors, David waiting behind until all the other kids had gone in before him and he could remain a safe distance behind.

Oliver turned to look at his brother behind the crowd of children.  He was trembling off to the side of the entrance, hugging the brick wall.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Great Opportunity to Read a Great Book...or Rather Have One Read to You

At the personal request of one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman (he requested this of me personally via his Twitter account, which Transformer Generation Dad's Twitter account happens to follow, so everyone else saw it too...if you want to get technical), I wish to pass on an important Halloween-related link.

Click here and you can listen to The Graveyard Book being read by Neil himself (@neilhimself also happens to be his Twitter handle).  He actually is reading the book he authored in the set of videos contained at the site and you can watch/listen to it chapter by chapter...FOR FREE!

So go now and enjoy the book TGD listed as its number one Halloween read in this week's top five list.  I guarantee all will enjoy it, young or old.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Was Your Day?

From the beginning of time, children have been returning home from their day of learning and telling their parents they did nothing.  I did it to my parents.  My brothers did too.  My parents did it to my grandparents.

When the Spartans sent Leonidas out into the wilderness and he returned alive, his parents asked him how it went.  “Meh,” said Leonidas.  “Didn’t you learn anything?” asked his mother.  “Not really,” he replied and went off to his chamber to listen to sullen lute music.  It wasn’t until many years later that they found out he was attacked by and slew a giant wolf.

Thus, I cannot say I am surprised when I ask the same of my sons and I get a limited answer.  I fully anticipate that Darth Vader could enter their classroom, force-choke their teacher and promoted one of my sons to the position of class admiral without them bothering to mention a word of it.

“Anything interesting happen in school today?”

“No.”  This response is given without looking up from the comic book they instantly picked up or the DS.  Sometimes I think I ought to actually check if the DS is on or if they are just holding it in front of their faces in order to avoid talking to me.

While their silence regarding school is mildly frustrating on its own, it is made worse by the fact that they are constantly trying to tell me about something they saw on YouTube or a cartoon they watched the other day.

“Dad!  Want to know what was on this one YouTube video yesterday?”

“Dad!  Can I tell you what Spongebob did in this one episode?”

“Dad!  Want to know what happened on this one Mario video on YouTube?”

My response to these questions usually mirrors their response to mine.  “Hmm,” I say without stopping what I’m doing.  They take this as the affirmative and commence relating the events of the particular video or carton in detail, taking longer than it would have taken to actually watch the video.  It’s great that they want to tell me about something that excites them, but it started to wear on my patience.

So, the other day, when my eight-year-old said, “Dad!  Want to know what happened on…” I interrupted him.

“I don’t want to know what happened on Spongebob or Adventure Time or any stupid YouTube videos,” I yelled.  “I’d like to hear about your day in school!”

“Oh, ok,” he said sheepishly.  “I was going to tell you about an episode of Gumball.”  By this he meant the new cartoon The Amazing World of Gumball.

“Jeez!” I shouted.  “I can’t believe you watched a new episode without me.  Don’t tell me.  I want to watch it myself.”

I was so mad.  It’s a hilarious cartoon.  Especially this one episode where…

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jim Class: A Lesson in Sportsmanship

My sons have just recently begun their journey into the world of organized sports, a journey that I hope will last a long time and result in their signing professional contracts of some sort and buying their old man that fishing boat he has always wanted and a nice lakeside cabin in the North woods, you know, just to have somewhere to keep the boat.  Of course, the fact that I have to fight them to stop playing video games and get their uniforms on makes me doubt the statistical likelihood of this happening, but a dad can dream.

The reason my sons play sports, however, is not so that they can work out the kinks in their throwing mechanics at a young age.  It is not so that they have plenty of film to study and reference when trying to develop new aspects in their game (note to self: start filming more of their games so they have film to study and reference).  It is because sports teach us about life.

When played in a supportive and constructive atmosphere, sports foster valuable life lessons.  They teach kids how to compete in a healthy way.  They encourage teamwork and camaraderie.  They foster leadership skills.  They teach kids how to win and lose graciously.

As I am sure most of you know, yesterday the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions played in a tight game.  After the 49ers pulled out a close victory, the two coaches, Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers and Jim Schwartz of the Lions, ended up in an altercation on the field afterward.  If you haven't seen this already, please take a minute to watch the footage courtesy of Fox Sports and the NFL here.

So Jim Harbaugh, an excitable guy as a player and, apparently, an excitable guy as a coach gets a little too happy over his team's victory.  His handshake of the opposing coach is a little over the top.  He readily admits that in the post game interview.  Then, Jim Schwartz take umbrage to Harbaugh's celebration.

This is where I pick a side.  I don't always rush to do so, but I think it's important sometimes, particularly if you are trying to teach a lesson to your kids.  When one side of a scenario appears to be in the wrong and the other is not, it is fine to say, "Look, kids.  That guy is acting like a jerk.  Don't do that."  In this instance, the advice I would offer my kids would sound something like this:

"Boys, if another person is excited that they won at your expense and they are celebrating too much, just let it go.  Let them celebrate.  Tell them, 'Congratulations,' and walk away and don't look at them a second time.  Don't give them the satisfaction.

"You should definitely not chase them down and shoulder bump them well after the fact.  That's bad sportsmanship.  Furthermore, don't continue to try and chase them and get in their face after the same person is trying to just walk away and numerous people are trying to get between the two of you.  That makes you look psycho.

"You know what else you should keep in mind, kids?  Should you be a little off you game because you lost a close game and should you chase an opposing player or coach down the field and cause yourself to look like a sore loser, at least take a few minutes to decompress by yourself and cool off before you start talking about what happened.  You would look like a real cry baby if you started making accusations that the other guy pushed you out of the way when all he did was pat you on the back after your handshake.  That would be just sad.

"I almost forgot.  Most important of all, you definitely should not start complaining about how other guys celebrate wins and take it personally when you look like this...

and this...

on a regular basis on the sidelines or when you do mundane things like throw out a challenge flag in an overly theatrical manner like this...

"Because then, on top of looking like a sore loser, cry baby psycho, you will also appear to be a hypocrite.

"Now get out there and try to tear the other kids' heads off.  But make sure you offer to help them up afterward."