December 7, 2009

Black Celebration: A Tale of Black Friday

[ed note: The following has little to nothing to do with fatherhood]

"Let's have a black celebration. Black celebration tonight. To celebrate the fact that we've seen the back of another black day." - Depeche Mode

The first snowfall of 2009 in the greater Cleveland area occurred on November 27, at 4:54 a.m., at least that's when the first snowfall occurred approximately 3 miles South of downtown.

I know this, because I was standing outside, in line, right behind my newly made friend Sharon, outside of a Target store, when the first flurries started coming down. In fact, I was about 60th in line, which I was pretty dang happy about. When I first saw the flurries -- first big, dustball-sized, and later wet slushy ones -- I was listening to a man in Target bull's-eye apparel, perched on a stationary Segway, giving a speech, imploring me to "take it easy and be kind to my fellow man. Don't push. Don't run. And don't worry. All side doors will be locked until you are all inside for at least a minute."

This year my alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. in the morning. Years past I had taken shortcuts, set it for 5:30, set it for 4:45, set it for 4:30 but snoozed away an hour.

If I were writing the rules of Black Friday -- and of course we can only be talking about Black Friday -- the first rule would be that, absent a Black Friday veteran (a "BF Vet") to mentor you, you are going to screw up your first several Black Fridays. Mastering Black Friday is like ... it's like figuring out how to cook pork ribs or brisket just right as an adult, or learning to smoke a cigar as a teenager or learning to do nearly anything when you're four. While at first glance the task may appear simple, you only need to try it once to realize how deceptively difficult it is. Trying again and again, you never really know if you are making any progress at all in figuring it out until, well, you one day just understand it and all is well.

And those first years, when I came home with fifteen dollar DVD players, even though a minority of me truly felt "woo-ahh" for scoring not one but two fifteen dollar DVD players (even more sweet because of how Limit-1 policies had forced me to buy the fifteen dollar DVD players at two separate stores), a majority of me knew I was just a pretender. I knew I had dragged my ass out of bed early, had braved the elements, had ruined a decent portion of my day-after-Thanksgiving and, perhaps most importantly, had abstained from alcohol on Thanksgiving, all for the privilege of coming home with fifteen dollar DVD players that Radio Shack had paid nine bucks for and that I could've paid twenty-five or twenty-seven for a week prior. [1] [endnotes are at the bottom]

I mean, my first year, I really didn't get it at all. My first year I had dreams of going to Best Buy, and -- -embarrassingly only waking up after Best Buy had already opened -- had driven for 5 miles to the highway and hopped onto it for the final two mile stretch. As I closed down on the exit ramp I could see the looming blue and yellow logo, not a tenth of a mile off the highway, calling out, but my peripheral vision seized. Snippets all around me made it clear it wasn't quiet -- like it should be in the middle of the night -- but instead gave the unmistakable sense that there are things going on here. A quarter-mile from the exit, peering down, the size of the crowd of people milling about outside that I could see from the highway scared me out of the exit lane and back onto the highway, scurrying a mile ahead to the next exit so I could meekly loop around back to the Radio Shack that opened 90 or so minutes after the real Black Friday Stores had opened.

My second year I was still out of my depth, boggled, arriving at Circuit City at 5 a.m., not comprehending why the parking lot, in the midst of a shopping district, was more crowded at that time than on any Saturday afternoon I had ever been there. And after shuttling the car into a space at the far end of the crowded parking lot, there I stood, hanging on my open car door, looking confusedly at the line of many hundreds of people stretched under every poorly-roofed walkway of the outdoor strip mall. I could do nothing but just confusedly stare and soak it in for a minute until I broke from my trance and shunted myself off to other second-tier Black Friday stores, going aimlessly to the ancient relic of the mall (the indoor kind), ending up at Sears, this time paying $18 for the privilege of owning a crap $30 DVD player. And later on hitting up OfficeMax and buying the doubly crap office chair (that I sit in now) for $50 to make myself feel like I accomplished something. This same chair that I tried to make more impressive by holding it back and making it a Christmas gift to Daddy from Santa, a strategy that never came close to working and just made everyone a little sad, the idea that Santa has all year to plan and all he ends up giving to fathers are crappy office chairs.

This year my Black Friday prep commenced as Black Friday prep can only commence, really: with a stroll down the driveway to claim the Thursday morning paper. Indeed, the penultimate Black Friday experience is the one or two or three hours spent touching newsprint. Spreading out the circulars, accumulating the Kohl's and the Michael's and the Joann Fabrics and the bizarre local photography store into the "don't bother" pile, sticking the Sears and the Walmarts into the "if I'm not inspired" pile and returning again and again to the electronics, the crown jewel of Black Friday, the jungle domains of the HH Greggs, the Circuit Cities (R.I.P.), the COMPUSAs (R.I.P. again), the WIZ's and Fretters (trips R.I.P.), reading some of them a fifth and sixth time to confirm in your turkey+wine-addled brain that "yes, it does have the same amount of RAM and memory but is still $60 cheaper than Office Max."

And OfficeMax can go to hell for that (among other things), by the way.

"And it's OfficeMax's doorbuster deal and Best Buy don't even have it in the paper! Not even a good enough deal for Best Buy to put it in the dang circular!" That's what the guy -- a fellow customer, kind of -- at OfficeMax told me in 2006 (while I was getting my chair). This guy, waking up early on Black Friday, heading off to OfficeMax, apparently did so for the purpose of milling about OfficeMax and standing around, talking shit about the deals OfficeMax was offering. And while Black Friday had impressed me up to this point -- the commercialism, the bit of naughtiness of waking up early, the electronics fetishizing, the fun for the male-non-shoppers-getting-to-shop-hardcore-once-a-year, the rushing around, the father tugging the arm of the 8-year-old son almost out of his socket, imploring "c'mon" racing through the parking lot (but with their racing destined to end in 45 seconds at the end of a hopelessly-long-for-an-8-year-old line) -- this was great. It had all impressed me previously, but I hadn't previously understood that under the surface there was an absolutely immensely beautiful social aspect of Black Friday.

This is the second rule of Black Friday: one-quarter of the people that leave their houses in the wee hours knowing that they aren't going to buy a single thing because they aren't going out for the merch. If you were to view a Black Friday line, seeing the groups of threes and fours chatting, you would assume that these were groups of threes and fours that know one another and had arrived together, and you would be completely wrong. The most sullen withdrawn individual, stuck into a Black Friday line, will suddenly become chatty , befriending everyone five groups to the front and back of him in his line (although this love only extends so far; those far ahead in line are jealously despised and those far behind are mocked or at least pitied).

And certainly, out of the 365 days of the year, this was the only single one of those days -- and these were the only hours --when a man could stroll into a store and reasonably strike up conversations with complete strangers to talk shit about the products they were considering buying. This guy, a left-behind from approximately sixth grade or whenever the social sorting commences, a casualty of that sorting -- probably for not adopting deodorant or toothpaste quickly enough or for not maintaining any pretense of coolness or for just being too poor to be able to not wear vinyl too much -- and now, here he is, and you're chatting and you see he's finally getting comfortable in his 40-maybe-year-old skin (but who knows with these types .. maybe he's 70 or 25 or whatever), and he's just there, having his day, explaining to a guy he might be there with but probably just started talking to randomly (like he did to you) that OfficeMax's Sandisk 1-GB flash drive price even today, Black freakin' Friday, isn't as low as a regular price he could get you on the internet or even down the street at even HAR HAR Radio Shack (!) HAR HAR,[2] and while a part of you is even a touch proud of him for being out of his shell, it only takes about 90 seconds for another part of you to just start to revolt and you find yourself walking away from him, past the long checkout lines and through the exits and ... trying to sneak back in, of course, for your $50 office chair that is actually worth around, well, approximately $50 (the furniture equivalent of the McDouble from a value perspective, which isn't bad, actually). But you didn't have to bother sneaking. You cared way more than he did. He was already on to the next guy, chatting away.

And so, in 2009, the year of doing it right, it's 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and you have done the winnowing and you have the four or five Circulars of Possibility ("C.O.P.") spread about you on Thanksgiving night, and you have choices that are not so different than the choices faced when choosing a mate.

Best Buy is, hands down, the homecoming queen. Maybe an average guy like you could score, but it would be all luck, you stumbling into the party with her drunk and breaking up with her boyfriend and randomly venge-fucking you. Anyone going after Best Buy deals better be finishing their turkey and heading straight to their cars and hitting the Best Buy parking lot with that new-style folding chair with a footrest and with thermoses of coffee, with parkas and sleeping bags and ziplocs of homemade gorp.

In 2009, Wal-Mart is a whore. For BF Vets, however, Wal-Mart was this year a true godsend, a real sucker-magnet, something trashy for the dumb boys to chase to keep them away from the girls we really want. Anyone driving into a shopping complex with a Wal-Mart in it in the wee hours of November 27 got sucked in because it was already open.[3] A Wal-Mart greeter got trampled in a Black Friday store opening in 2008 on Long Island (no, really). Wal-Mart managed to use this as an excuse to ruin their workers' Thanksgivings by opening up all stores late Thursday. Although open late Thursday, the doorbusters still weren't available until 5 a.m., and were apparently shrinkwrapped[4] so many times as to render the transparent plastic nearly opaque from to all the layers, so people had a very hard time figuring out what they were lining up for.

But Wal-Mart was in fact wide open by 12:01 a.m. to accommodate the huddled massed yearning to at least avoid the 4:54 a.m. Cleveland snow, of which there were many, judging by the parking lot. I'm sure it benefited Wal-Mart (and Toys R Us and Old Navy, the two other stores that fucked their workers and likewise opened up at midnight) by being the only store of its kind open on the block. But by lowering the level of pain of standing in line, they simply increased the number of hours people were willing to wait. And so the shoppers got there at midnight and stayed. As the 6'6" guy seven spots behind me in one of my Black Friday lines said to raucous group laughter: "I got there [to Walmart] at 2:30 a.m. and wandered around and there were lines everywhere, so I got in a pretty long line and it was for $3 pajamas. And then I finally thought 'damn, it's just pajamas' and I had to get out of there ... [laughter] ... I'm too old for this shit. [double down laughter]" Despite being the clear crowd favorite and having won the "loudmouth comedy directed to total strangers event" -- an event normally conducted in mens' restrooms at athletic events -- after winning hands down, he still found it necessary, after everyone stopped paying attention, to add a disclaimer: "Of course, I got my electronics last year," not wanting the BF Vets to think less of him, and apparently having participated in Black Friday this year solely to wallow in his purchase echo.

The truth is that -- unless you were willing to drift into the creepy club scene of BJ's, Sam's and Costco [5] -- Best Buy and Wal-Mart dominated the scene in 2009. Everyone after them in 2009, however, just seemed second-rate.

And this is where we smelled our openings.

This year I got up, snoozed once at my 3:30 alarm (but got up before the snooze expired, which never happens), early enough so I could move purposely and deliberately, put on some overly warm clothes, and grabbed some pre-printed disposable reading material, copies of the C.O.P. -- this last decision making me nearly celebrity level popular fellow in my lines later on. And of course my cheat sheet, which I had written out before, distilling onto one page the specific items of C.O.P. important to me.

I got to my car, chose the urban cookie-cutter shopping strip option over the multiple suburban cookie-cutter shopping strip options, and drove toward downtown Cleveland, over the collapsing bridge over the Cuyahoga River, and then down the three mile stretch of highway South of downtown to the Steelyard Commons ramp. Driving down that ramp, like every time I go there, I was struck by the location of the Steelyard Commons shopping center. Looming immediately behind the big box stores is a 60 foot+ towering Home Depot-punifying steel mill. And next to it is a whole damn switchyard full of trains. It's all a little weird.

Steelyard Commons, your basic new-breed outdoor shopping center (with its Applebees, et al), was built on the same land that had once been used by the big Cleveland steel companies, and the shopping center had been comically pitched to the City of Cleveland as an economic replacement for the lost heavy manufacturing, as if buying and selling something could somehow ever be comparable to building it. This is the kind of economic fantasy that those on the coasts might be tricked into believing with fancy studies and words; those of us in the Rust Belt would desperately love to believe this fantasy -- it's the only economy fantasy we're being offered these days -- but we just know too much, know that nothing is better than building something.

When I arrived, I had not yet chosen my particular destination. My plan was to get off the highway, size up the competition and make my decision in real time, which this year was 4:14 a.m. Best Buy and Wal-Mart were plainly a mess. Target was closest and it beckoned. I drove in and got in the line, which started at the Target doors but wrapped away from the Target around the corner, without much thought.

4:17 a.m. About 50 people in line ahead of me. I had poorly chosen a pea coat, and the scent of wet wool was already upon me. But I had my cheatsheet, I had my copies of the C.O.P.s[6]

My mood? I was then and at all times resigned.

A third Black Friday rule: no one without real inside information really knows what to do. The C.O.P.s might say "at least 10 per store" but if the assistant manager wants to let in his family 5 minutes early and sell 6 of them to his brother-in-law, or just never let them out of the backroom, there's no 911 number for that. You get there early, you pick your stop and you just hope.

It was about 36 degrees and it was raining (the snow hadn't started yet). I, along with a handful of others with fortuitous placement in the line, was under the awning of a Jimmy Johns sub store. I began to aloofly read my dampening pre-printed Sports Guy column. About 45 seconds into my reading, I heard Sharon (not that I knew her name was Sharon at that point) whisper, in perhaps the only time she whispered the entire night, to the girl beside her: "I think that guy has a copy of the ad." I pretended to read a few more seconds and then nonchalantly decided to look around and see what I was up against.

I wanted to know who was talking about me, so I started by looking in the opposite direction, behind me. And I apparently had woken up three minutes too early, as, three minutes into my 43 minute wait, there was absolutely no one behind me. People never get in line behind you as quickly as they were getting in line in front of you when you got there.

Nonchalantly swiveling around I immediately met the eyes of Sharon, a late-50-something chain smoker of slims, averagely overweight for her age, white, wrinkled, a bit tan, wearing a red hoodie. Sharon gestured to my Target C.O.P. "Can I see?" I paused but, lacking options, turned it over (this would not be the first time my C.O.P.s would be borrowed that night) and Sharon began to whip through it lightening fast, each page being dotted with raindrops (Sharon was standing slightly outside of the Jimmy Johns awning, not caring for some reason that she could move two feet and be under it with the rest of us).

Looking through the line later that night, I appeared to be the only one with my C.O.P.s at hand, which made little sense to me. Not only was I one of the few with C.O.P.s, I may have been the only person participating in my Black Friday area to have adopted A.D. technology by picking up a writing utensil and using it to assist me in my shopping by taking the extraordinary step of writing an actual list.

Maybe some Black Friday shoppers were trying to recreate the surprise of Christmas morning for themselves, allowing themselves to walk into the store -- "woo hoo, a TV on sale for $399!!" But later it seemed that most simply had no need for lists because they knew exactly and precisely the reason why they were there, were there for something specific, something they had stared at and memorized so that they even knew exactly where it was on the pages of the C.O.P.
After four or five seconds, Sharon had found in my Target C.O.P. what she was there for and was pointing at it. And this white middle-aged (old, really) intense woman was there for ... what's this? It looked like Pokemon card knockoffs? Eh?

"Got kids?" Sharon asked.

"Yes, I do."

"How old?"

" 9, 6 and 3."

"Then you know! They just love that Bakugan, don't they? I got the whole arena. Magnets and everything."

I had no idea what Sharon was talking about. "Oh, really?"

"Do you even know about it? They roll the balls on the cards and they pop when they hit the magnet! Kids just go wild. At Toys R Us, just one of 'em is $7." Sharon moved the relevant C.O.P. passage closer to my face: "Check this out! 6 for $10!" I had not reacted sufficiently. "That's ... $30 I'm saving on this one pack. And maybe I'll get two. You gotta get some. Kids just love these things. Your kids will love them."[7]

My experience in line with Sharon was harmless, which isn't always the case.

Indeed, about an hour later, after exiting Target and realizing it wasn't even 5:30 yet, it struck me that I could attempt the "double opening" on Black Friday, where you wait in line, shop at one store, nab your doorbuster, and then get in line at a different store and get a second doorbuster. The "double opening" is Black Friday mythology, often discussed by the BF vets and often accomplished, but rarely accomplished impressively. You can open a 5 a.m. store, but you normally end up wasting extra time in the store (soaking up as much doorbuster afterglow consumer buzz as you can, just wandering around smiling in the florescent light), and then the checkout lines are often scandalously long, so by the time you're out it's way too late to think about opening another good store. Your double-opening options are then reduced to 8 a.m. bullshit openings, things like The Gap and Marshall's and other worthlessness.

Here, it was actually 5:19 a.m.! I could head over to a store that opened at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m.! The 5:30 lines would be maxed out, but the 6 a.m.'s were ripe. Staples was the pick here. An OK chance at a cheap laptop and a decent chance at a cheap big computer monitor so I could give up the crap 15" screen I had. Realizing the unique nature of the opportunity, speed was of the essence. Staples was only a quarter-mile down the strip, but I had to drive because (aside from the fact that I'm American and that's what we do) I didn't want to risk having new electronics get wet. No time to find the snowbrush, the sleeve of the wet pea coat made quick work of the slushy mess on my windshield and I was off and in the Staples line by 5:24 a.m.

Just 30 seconds after I got there, a 15-year old black kid came running up, who would soon appear to be the stereotypical Hollywood black kid with a heart of gold, polite as hell, who had dragged his saint of a mother out that morning to drive him around so he could shop (she appeared 2 minutes later, having dropped him off and then parked the car to potentially save a place or two in line, classic Black Friday teamwork in action). I listened to them banter for 10 minutes with a respect and a familiarity and a closeness that teenage boys and their mothers aren't supposed to have, a closeness that suggested that maybe they had been through a lot of crap together. If one of them had played a trick on the other, they probably would have called it "joshing."

This kid varied from the Hollywood stereotype of the black kid with a heart of gold, however, by being an enormous nerd.

Eventually, even though I had taken to hiding my C.O.P.s to prevent unnecessary weather damage, it is impossible to hide a C.O.P. from a serious Black Friday shopper. And so Black Teenage Nerd asked to borrow my C.O.P. I acquiesced, happily for the only time that morning.
He muttered to his mother "There it is. Twenty one POINT five inch full HD Monitor. NineTEE dollars. Minimum 10 per store." Over-enunciating words out of sheer hope and joy.

A pit of guilt opened in my stomach.

Now he's up on his tiptoes, neck peering. To his mother: "How many people are in front of us?" There were about 40, I figured. "I think about 60." Maybe there were 60..

Don't ask don't ask don't ask.

Continuing to his mother: "I hope they aren't all here for the monitor." Now to me, handing back the C.O.P.: "Here you go." And then the awful question: "So ... what are you here for?"

I was there for the same monitor he was there for. We were Black Friday competitors, and this immediately changed our relationship, except at this point, only I knew this. What would happen if we got in the store and there was only one left? This was fantastically unlikely, right? I shouldn't worry about that. Still, I needed to be prepared for things like this. What if I got the last one and he was all bummed out and I felt sad for him. Would I give it to him? No, that would be condescending and racist. Best to be non-racist.

"I'm here for ..." maybe I should lie. Just tell him I'm here for something else so he doesn't get all jittery on me. Argh. That won't work. The store isn't that big. He's a nerd, so he's smart so he'll find the monitors fast like me. He'll see me with a monitor and know I duped him.

The truth was the only option. "I'm here for the monitor."

Fear in his eyes. "The Acer Twenty One POINT Five?"

Sheepishly: "Yes." I had just lowered his odds of getting a monitor by 10%, and he would naturally be sad.

But maybe not. 5'11" 225 pound 37-year old males such as myself do not have people's eyes on their bodies very often, but I did now, as Black Teenage Nerd was sizing me up. The phrase "I can take this guy" was very clearly written across his face. I shifted my weight ever so slightly, leaning my shoulder in the direction that made it clear that, yes, I am ahead of you in line, stuffing my C.O.P. back into the pile with my others, finally breaking eye contact.

At around 5:40 a.m., Staples Ticket Guy came out, handing out high-value-item -tickets on four items: "the Garmin," "the HP laptop," the "eMachine laptop" and "the camera." This is how they were referred to, and no one had any problem with this. No one needed clarification. We all knew exactly what he was talking about, and here is where I realized that maybe I was the only one holding my C.O.P.s because I was the only one that hadn't memorized them.

The passing out of the tickets caused an immediate culling of the line, with some of the "winners" heading to their cars to wait the last 20 minutes out of the rain/sleet/snow mix and cold and with some of the "losers" heading off to see if they could steal a 6 a.m. doorbuster at another store. Having convinced myself earlier that scoring the laptop would be too good to be true, I felt no pain even though the laptop tickets ran out only eight or nine ahead of me in line.

Black Teenage Nerd and I both began to smile. We had both realized that whatever the reason for the line culling, it meant that people were not aiming to get their hands on the Twenty-one POINT Five ahead of us, so any line culling could only help us. As Staples Ticket Guy worked his way down the line with the tickets and fielded a few questions, we heard no one even ask about the monitor. Our odds were going up.

And just like that, Black Teenage Nerd and I were friends, able to chat a bit over the next 20 minutes (with Black Teenage Nerd using nerd shorthand, posing one-word questions to me like "Gamer?" to which I responded with hip retorts like "Pardon me?").

And we were right to lose our fear, because we both eventually got our Twenty One POINT Fives once we got into the store. In fact, we were the first and second people to get the Twenty One POINT Fives. This was mainly because, in Staples' attempt to sell overpriced monitor protector screens, they had taped large "Monitor protector screens for only $14.95" flyers on holiday green paper in big letters onto each monitor in the stack at the back of the store.[8] While about 10 people were standing in front of the monitors when Black Teenage Nerd and I got there, they were zombie-like staring at the pile, all trying to figure out if the things in the boxes were the monitors or were the $14.95 protectors, those there with a friend talking animatedly and waving their arms and looking around for Staples customer assistance, no one wanting to be the first idiot to pick up a monitor protection screen thinking it was a real deal Twenty One POINT Five.

Navigating around the pile, Black Teenage Nerd and I were possibly the only people there able to think to actually look at the box and see that yes, these actually were the Twenty One POINT Fives. We apparently were also the only two able to read the giant "21.5 INCH ACER MONITOR ONLY $89.95!" sign above the pile. After Black Teenage Nerd and I each grabbed one, the entire crowd's eyes locked onto us, herd mentality pushing them to grab one, but not strong enough yet.

I had pity. I think I said a quick "yes, these are the monitors," but maybe I just telepathically communicated it. Whatever the communication source, the damn broke and several hands lurched at the pile to claim Twenty One POINT Fives while I walked away (looking closely at the box in hand a third time to make sure I wasn't going to the checkout with a $14.95 monitor protector), managing to be first in line at the Staples checkout.

But back to Sharon and Target.

I had decided, based upon the line, that Lego Troll Warship was an appropriate purchasing goal for this Black Friday. My six-year old son loves complex Lego sets and excels at putting them together (and my wife and I are bizarrely proud of this) and we had struggled a bit with ideas for what to buy him for Christmas and this was right up his alley. Normally retailing for $90, unavailable anywhere on the internet even -- when you search for it, you get the weird result "unavailable in the United States." [9] I mean, with Lego products rarely discounted, grabbing it for $50 felt like a steal and would let me lock in a guaranteed $40 savings.

At the time I decided this, I hadn't realized that this was an utterly ridiculous thing to strive for. It was basically no different than Sharon's Bakugan-based Black Friday strategy. I was setting my sights too low, repeating the error I had made in my Black Friday Cheap DVD Player phase. Managing Black Friday expectations and setting Black Friday goals properly is the largest part of the mental game of Black Friday. Black Friday shopper expectations are all over the board. You have fools that appear five minutes before store openings, thinking they were going to score real merch. Compare those fools to those that are fourth in line at Best Buy and worry that they won't get what they came for. The fifth rule of Black Friday is that you can determine whether you are an optimist or a pessimist in life based upon whether the merch you get on Black Friday is better or worse than what you expected.[10]

I justified my Troll Warship strategy to myself based upon the store map. Did I mention that there were maps? At about 4:30 a.m., a hunchbacked Target employee, whose age I would estimate at 94 years old, could be seen slowly working his way up the line, passing out something. What was it? This was the only topic of conversation in the line for the next five minutes. All the BF Vets were sure that it was high value merch tickets, but some of the signs were off just enough to make them doubt themselves, the fact that the man appeared to be handing the somethings out indiscriminately, that he didn't seem important enough to be entrusted with such a task. When he finally worked his way back to us for our handout, we discovered that it was just a map of the store (identifying where the doorbuster merch was) and a free target bag.

This caused some consternation amongst the BF Vets. Stores that "ticket" for high value items favor the old and infirm (as can be seen at Staples, because you get your ticket, then you can go sit in the car and you can wait until the rush all gets in the front door if you want). Whereas "no ticket" stores will draw the vicious and pushy that can improve their position via nefarious means once in the store. I think most stores that don't use tickets do so because it helps staff morale to see the idiot customers running and tripping through the store. In any event, the lack of tickets was apparently why Target Segway security followed closely behind Map and Bag man, to lecture us (this a guy who probably got into department store security due to his lifelong desire to fire a Taser) about love for our fellow man.

The map only confirmed my inclination to be a conservative pussy about the whole thing. The maps showed that Lego Troll Warship was to be located reasonably near the front of the door, at the Western edge of the Boys' clothes department. I could grab it, lock in my savings, and then turn to the next item. You see, deep down I wanted an HDTV, even a small crappy one, and I figured I was probably the only thirty-something professional male in the United States that enjoyed sports that did not yet have an HDTV, as I had been depriving myself in a puritanical and masochistic fashion, stemming from a retarded impulse to prove to my wife how easy it was not to buy things you want. In any event, the HDTV was not the primary strategy. Lego Troll Warship was the primary strategy.

The next 20 minutes went quickly. My reading material helped; I handed out my C.O.P.s a few times. A drunk man[11] came up and yelled at his wife because he thought she was supposed to be in the Wal-Mart line and he had been looking for her for 30 minutes, "and it was fucking crazy over there, and here you are in line at Target, bitch, without even telling me?!?! Give me the damn keys; I'm going home!" Of course, the most important part of this rant to us in line was how it validated in our Target decision by confirming the insanity of Wal-Mart. But the solidarity of the crowd allowed the wife to roll her eyes and turn her back on her husband. He never got the keys, nor did he get in line with her. As we were all trudging ahead in line, he was standing there, leaning against a trash can in the snow. Good for you Black Friday!

Finally, at 5:00 a.m. on the nose, the line began moving.

As the line of those waiting around the store got sucked inside -- if the a blimp were overhead, this would've looked to it like Lady from Lady & the Tramp (Target) devouring the spaghetti (the line of BF Vets) -- my linemates and I began to reach the mouth of the store. As we did, however, several groups of vicious line-jumper gangs were sprouting from everywhere, running up from their cars (where they had apparently waited in warmth) popping up alongside of us, seeking to join the line wherever they pleased. Despite prior promises of justice, Target Segway Security was standing by blithely, talking to Target Non-Segway Security, discussing Segway performance characteristics in snow.[12] In the snow, with snow falling, lights flashing, pained faces on dirty women, carrying inappropriately dressed children in crappy coats (why are you waking up the kids for this?), I immediately termed the line-jumpers the refugees.

I got into the doors of the store and the natural order of the line began to splinter further into those that wanted carts and those that didn't care. It struck me that if I could just get my hands on Lego Troll Warship quickly, I could probably get to some of the other merch. I was now faced with the choice of my means of getting to the place where Lego Troll Warship was. What I was really asking is: Would I run? Was running OK? A number of people plainly found running to be acceptable; indeed, everyone physically able to run appeared to be running, although this was in fact only about 15% of the crowd. In the course of about 20 feet, I tried out running, dropped it, tried out walking casually -- realized that trying to act cool after waking up at 3:30 a.m. in order to shop at Target for Legos was a touch pointless -- and ultimately settled upon something of a speedwalk with moderate arm action.

Within 45 seconds I was in the western edge of the Boys' clothing section but, looking around, I could see no Lego Troll Warship. It was all Boys' clothing. I spied a bunch of boxes over there on some shelves; but those were Candy Land and other board games (why were these in a clothing section!?). Looking around some more, nothing resembling a box of Legos could be seen.
The map! I knew I hadn't gotten this wrong, but there was nothing else to do but look at the map. Mine, which had gotten wet, had ripped in half in my pocket. After reassembling the puzzle, I confirmed I was in the location where the Lego Troll Warships were supposed to be.
There was singing. An unseen man was freestyle singing "This is a great day. What a lovely glorious day" to a tune he was crafting on the spot. Hearing others' victory cries while my plans were turning to dust doubled the tension level. I must just not be seeing it! I turned around looking, spun some more, looked around again, finally noticing that my arms were flying out from my body from the centripetal force[13] of the spinning, first a 360, then a 720 and more.
The red target carts began appearing the aisle. Were those small sized carts? They looked smaller than normal. No, the carts were normal sized. Those were just large sized HDTVs.
Where is Lego Troll Warship, dammit!?! Maybe there is a Target worker I can talk to. There's no Target worker anywhere near me! Actually, there's no one near me at all!

Indeed, despite the fact that the store was filling up, no one was within 30 or 40 feet of me in any direction. I thought: if any other BF Vet had been looking for Lego Troll Warship, they would have been standing there with me, confused like I was. But there wasn't anyone else there. And it became very clear me to that this was because I was the only idiot that had woken up at 3:30 a.m. for Lego Troll Warship, and that Lego Troll Warship was still going to be available (if it was available at all) in 30 minutes. Lego Troll Warship plans were scrapped. But what to do next?
HDTV? According to the map, the epicenter of HDTV land according to the map was far from the electronics department, wedged in near women's delicates, actually, only adding to the mystical allure of high definition. But the map was unnecessary. The carts full of HDTV's had an almost gravitational power. It was soon apparent where to go through a simple reversal of the vectors of the carts sprouting off in all directions. But I felt I had little hope now. I could see at least a dozen people with televisions and there couldn't be that many more. My Lego Troll Warship escapade had wasted only two minutes or so, but at this point people that weren't even in line at 4:55 a.m. were probably getting into the store.

Approaching HDTV epicenter, it got crowded. I started to use maneuvering skills I hadn't employed since roaming the halls back in junior high and high school,[14] even breaking out a spin move to avoid a cart, a move I had previously only ever employed in jest. The first palate I could see had 2 boxes on it, but they were tiny, not televisions at all. Next to it was a palate stacked with televisions, but they were the 40 inch plasmas that weren't really all that good of a deal. On the other side is where people were coming from with the real bargain: the $246 32" LCD HDTVs.[15]

The cheapest 32" inch in the country on Black Friday.

There was a woman who wasn't quite yelling, but was definitely not using what parents refer to as an "indoor voice" either, attempting to get across the plasma palate to the LCD palate, imploring passersby for help, as if we were to toss her a rope or something. As I ignored her and went around plasma palate I saw five $246 32" LCD HDTVs left.

You have to hand it to Target . The five $246 32" LCD HDTVs were on the palate vertically, standing up on end, as placing them horizontally would have required the person with the $246 32" LCD HDTV above yours to remove it before you could remove your own $246 32" LCD HDTV, which would have been sheer chaos, but these five ... make that four ... now two ... were easily grab-able.

I was twenty or so feet away now, but, adrenalin now coursing, senses sharp, I could see that everyone closer than me already had their prize and was walking away with their $246 32" LCD HDTV in hand. I ducked and weaved, sucking in my gut as much as possible, feeling the rack of women's clothing tilt as I pushed past it, praying it wouldn't topple. About five feet away now. A hand appeared out of nowhere, claiming the second to last $246 32" LCD HDTV (six rule of Black Friday: touching with any part of body = ownership). I was past everyone, through the clothes, my feet were on the palate now and I took one large moon step across the palate and my hand landed on the final $246 32" LCD HDTV. My pinky immediately felt pressure, as another hand hit about a second after mine. I took two steps forward and was now straddling my $246 32" LCD HDTV, riding it like a wild stallion.[16]

Whatever downsides in life I have experienced in recent years from being a large man were rectified, as today it was only upside. Feral, I turned to the scrawny middle-aged line-jumping refugee whose hand was on my pinky, watching her withdraw quickly before even spoke. I got my arms around my $246 32" LCD HDTV and lifted, stepping off the palate and carting my prize off as quickly as possible from the crowds.[17]

Instead of trying to go back the busy way I came, I decided to go deeper into women's clothes and work back to the aisle indirectly. Immediately it was clear that my initial directional choice was a bad one.

"Make her give me one!!" one woman wailed, hands on the arm of the supervising Target employee with responsibility for the palates, the other hand pointing at a woman standing by the wall with four televisions. [18] "It's limit one! how come she has four!"

Hearing "she has four," others began to gather. "Why does she have four?"

The Target employee was aging before our eyes. "The limit will be enforced at the checkout."

"She has to give three of them back."

"The limit will be enforced at the checkout. The 40 inch plasmas are still available, you could get one of those."

"We don't want one of those."

"The limit will be enforced at the checkout."

"Well, what are we supposed to do, follow her around?" This was clearly a threat, and it seemed to me that it could apply to anyone walking around with a fresh, mint condition $246 32" LCD HDTV. I turned around and headed in the opposite direction.

The $246 32" LCD HDTV was heavy, and even when I wrangled a cart -- good job again Target! by sticking carts throughout the store -- the $246 32" LCD HDTV sat in it awkwardly, and you had to keep one hand on it to steady it, at least that's what I assumed because everyone else was doing it, and then I realized that maybe it was a refugee protection trick or the pleasure of just handling the merch.

I basked in the glow for three minutes, wandering around the store with a smile, seeing what the hubbub was here, figuring out what people were rushing to buy there.

I made my way over to the toy section. Sharon, having no idea who I was, came rushing past wild-eyed but smiling with her shopping cart, the cart entirely empty but for a small Bakugan package at the bottom. Wading into the toy section, after much aisle wandering -- a task becoming more and more difficult with a $246 32" LCD HDTV in a cart in a quickly filling store -- I finally located, in the single empty aisle in the entire toy section, a grand total of three Lego Troll Warships. But they were there, and they were priced as advertised at $49.99. Not a single box was missing. No one had touched them before I did.

I checked my cell phone for the time. 5:12 a.m.

In my lifetime, this may have been the earliest time of day at which I could state with certainty that no matter what else happened that day, when it ended, I was going to look back on it as a good day.



[1] Black Friday not only screws up Thanksgiving day to some extent, its effects also ripple through the week. Because Black Friday occurs on a holiday weekend, even a BF Vet may have no reason to wake up on Saturday morning or Sunday morning early. Getting to Sunday night, they mindlessly flick the "ON" switch, with thousands BF Vets across the country finding themselves awakened at 3 a.m. on the Monday following Thanksgiving, having forgotten to reset the time.

[2] At this second HAR HAR, I was laughing too, except I was laughing mostly at the continued and inexplicable financial viability of the business of, and linguistic viability of the words, Radio Shack.

[3] Continuing the whore analogy waaay too far: it was open for all comers; anyone could just come up and walk right in, greeted by something old and wrinkly at the entrance.

[4] This fact about the shrinkwrap I learned in line. Indeed, a large number of the facts in this story have not been directly sourced or substantiated, but are facts I learned in line from BF Vets. And most are from conversations not really directed to me, but which I overheard while pretending to look at my C.O.P.s.

[5] These club stores really do have Black Friday deals, but I keep thinking that there's going to be some kind of nasty or tawdry catch involved, so you'll need to find out about them somewhere else.

[6] A word about Black Friday circulars. A few years ago, I took my Cleveland Plain Dealer out to my folks' house -- which is only 60 miles West of Cleveland -- and compared its circulars with those in the local paper. Many circulars were identical. In others, the pictures and layouts in the circulars were nearly identical, but the prices weren't even close. BluRay players that were $329 in one were $289 in the other. TVs city folk were required to pay $799 for was just $749 for the rural folk, leading me to think that rule number four would have to be: Geography matters! You need to wake up even earlier on Black Friday to drive the 60 miles away from civilization if you really wanted the deals.

I like to think that the pricing has to be adjusted down in rural areas because rural shoppers are savvier, won't be tricked by OfficeMax-style fake-doorbusters where the doorbuster price is worse that someone else's normal price. I like to think of this as a testament to some fundamental deep-seated superiority in those of us raised in small towns and in rural areas. I imagine dark rooms in the bellies of Arkansas (Wal-Mart) and Minneapolis (Target), giant rooms with hundreds of computers, running algorithm after algorithm, and at the end of a room a meeting room full of serious men listening to the presentation being given by the smartest of the smart. One of them points at the midwestern area of the map, stressed to the point of tears. Another unleashes an anguished cry: "we've discovered that if we raise the price by only 2% to get more profit, they just completely stop buying! They're uncannily brilliant! Damn you Huron County!!!!"

On the other hand, with cheap land and cheap labor, maybe it's just cheaper to run a store in the sticks.

[7] Bakugan primer link

[8] Doorbusters are always at the back of the store, as the hope is that whether you nab a doorbuster or not, you will fill your cart on the walk back to the front.

[9] With the Danish Lego corporation apparently afraid of what would happen if their proprietary pirate technology became available to young Americans.

[10] As you shall see, I am apparently a pessimist.

[11] At least I hope he was drunk, because someone that is that much of an asshole whilst sober would have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

[12] I expected some serious reactions to the line-jumpers from those of us in line (my blood began to boil a bit), but the Target crowd -- true to its left-liberal roots -- showed that it doesn't mind cheating, so long as it is done by poor people.

[13] Yes, I know it doesn't exist. But this isn't science class. You know what I mean.

[14] In Junior High, two classmates and I had written a dozens of pages on the "Laws of the Hall" with diagrams showing how to best navigate the crowds, particularly in our school where we shared the halls with the much bigger and scarier high schoolers. At that time, I had no idea that my study and preparation would develop skills that, after 25 years of dormancy, would come alive.

[15] Nevermind about the brand. Why is that important? It's just labels, man. Labels are for phonies is what Holden Caufield would tell you, were he here right now.

[16] But not like a Wyld Stallyn.

[17] Little considered is how Black Friday is a black day for cable companies as well, as the hordes with new HDTV's (including $246 32" LCD HDTVs) descend upon them to exchange cable boxes, doing you the favor of allowing you to stand in line for an extra 30 minutes to remind you of how you got to stand in line earlier that day.

[18] What's the play here? Hang out at the checkout and, like a teenager outside a liquor store, try to get people to buy the $246 32" LCD HDTV for you? Maybe call your family and get them to Target and then, once you have four people, check out? I guess there are options.

March 22, 2009

Pointing Lessons for Fathers

It’s surprising everything that fatherhood changes. Take pointing, for example. You might think that pointing would be the same for men that are fathers as it is for men that aren’t fathers, but this is not the case, at least if you are pointing at something moving.

It takes a 2-6 year old child at least 4 seconds to look at what you are pointing at. So if you have a 2-6 year old child, and you are pointing at a moving object, you need to lead the point, and point in front of the object. Pretend you back in sixth grade, playing backyard football quarterback. If the object is moving fast, point 20-30 degrees in front of it. A fast moving object may require pointing a full 45 degrees in front, however. Just remember to lead the point and you won't go wrong (and your kids won't end up crying because they didn't see the deer/bird/train/airplane/whatever it was you were pointing at).

March 7, 2009

Pitchfork 500

If you like modern music, I am going to try to post about all of the songs in the Pitchfork 500 book that came out in November 2008 (that attempts to identify the top 500 songs of the past 30 years).

The blog for that is here.

February 16, 2009

Flashbacks in Parenting

A weird thing happened to me when I had children that some, but not all of you, might be able to relate to. For me, becoming a father has occasionally caused intense flashbacks to my childhood. No, I don’t live in the house I grew up in or anything like that. For me, it’s the fact that I come from a family of 6 and now have my own family of 5.

I am the oldest of four. After I was born, there came a sister, a brother and another sister. If you look over on the sidebar, you should see where I’m going with this. I’ve got the same thing going on now, two girls and a boy, even in the same order. All (obviously) younger than me (but this time substantially younger). I’ve never called them by my siblings’ names, but I’m sure it’s coming.

Something really bizarro happened nearly two years ago, when my wife and her mother went on their dream vacation to England. Instead of simply staying home, the 4 of us left behind went on our own vacation down to the Great Smoky Mountains with my parents. The bizarre part was that there were 6 of us on vacation, my parents, then me, then three young ones, exactly like it was throughout my childhood.

Having these flashbacks forced into my face has brought home for me one of the downsides of parenting, which is that it contains a lot of the bad elements of being part of a family: the same elements that made most of us want to move out of our parents’ houses the minute we turned 18.

Once I did finally get out of my folks house, I, like most people, did not follow any one single person around obsessively as if I were required to be with them by law. I did not try to take the exact same college classes as any particular person. And, best of all, when someone was pissing me off, I immediately and happily dropped them as a friend. But when you’re a kid, you’re bound to your entire family as a unit on most days in some way, even if it’s in the car to and from school or on other family events. No dropping allowed. By law, even.

But it turns out that the freedom that you yearn for, the freedom you grasp with two hands at age 18, is not freedom at all. It’s only a hiatus.

For me, a 10-year one, because it all comes back.

Once you’re a father, you eventually have to go to restaurants that you don’t like 4 times out of 5 because “it’s someone else’s turn to choose,” just like when you were a kid (a friend that chose poorly would simply have no accompaniment). Someone being annoying in the car? You'll just have to deal with it, not only for that day, but for the next week or month or however long that person decides to be annoying (you can’t just not invite the loser next time around when "the loser" is your 4 year old).

And the feeling that’s most come back is the raw emotion of frustration mixed with resignation that you get when you realize that, just like you were stuck with your brother as he went through his moronic childhood phases, the grating traits of your children are going to be with you. You get to watch your child pick their nose and wipe it on the floor, and you realize that there’s no chance that you’re going to be able to get them to stop doing this (just like with your brother back in the day). But now it’s worse, because you can’t just roll your eyes and walk out of the room. Now you’re actually supposed to do something about it.

If you’re a youngest child, like my wife, then, like my wife, you probably have no earthly idea what I’m talking about in this blog post. Youngests have no recollection of a smaller sibling doing idiot things in their house; they have no experience with it.

They are horribly unprepared for parenthood.

January 18, 2009

Songs That Didn't Make the Top 20

I am hard at work at the “Top 20 Rock/Pop Songs for Kids” list, which involves me locking my children in a room, playing music and saying “Do you like this?” many many times (and saying things like “How the hell can you not like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit?’”). I expect to have that posted soon (I have 20 songs but there are other candidates to try). But I want to flag some songs that are definitively NOT on the top 20 list.

Sympathy for the Devil - Rolling Stones: I thought they’d be into the “woo hoo”’s, but my son informed me that this was “not rock and roll. It is Jungle music.”

Loser – Beck. I tried this one, getting them to put the L symbol with their thumb and forefinger on their foreheads and everything. They just were not into saying “so why don’t you kill me.” Self-preservation instincts apparently out-muscle the ability to enjoy self-expressed irony, at least through age 8.

Anything by 7 Seconds or Fugazi - My kids reject Straight Edge music. No black X's on hands are in their future, apparently.

But the real purpose of this post is:

Puff the Magic Dragon – Various Hippies. Knowing that you’ll have to give up something you love may be something that’s going to happen to you in life. I get that. But that doesn’t mean its fun to sing about, and it certainly isn’t fun for kids. If I released a song titled “Sex might be fun now, but in a few years, when you’re old, sex will become rarer and not nearly as much fun and eventually it will be awful,” then no one would expect a hit. When it wasn’t a hit, I couldn’t say “but it’s about sex!” So why do people think kids will like Puff, which might as well be titled “Kids! You Know How You Like to Imagine Things? Well, When you Get Old, You Will Desert Your Imaginary Friends, Such as Puff the Magic Dragon, and Those Imaginary Friends Will Cry!” What the fuck? Was their next song “Santa Is a Fake! In 4 years you Will Learn This!”

So the entire theme here is ridiculous and inappropriate, but then there are the details. What the fuck is “Honah Lee”? Why is Puff all psyched about being given strings and sealing wax? I know, I know, HAHA the song’s about pot. Puff is apparently building a bong or something. But seriously, this song was not written in 1740 when presents like that might’ve somehow been cool. This is addle-brained hippie nostalgia for something I’m not sure they understand.

Go and read the freakin’ lyrics to this song and tell me that this song has any place on a kids’ album. The claim to this being a kids’ song is that its mellow (which hippies think kids like, but kids don’t actually like… mellow makes kids tired, which their parents like, but kids really don’t) and that there is a dragon in it. But it’s not a very cool dragon. It doesn’t breathe fire or kill or fight anybody, so it might as well be a mule or something (ok, ability to transform into a boat is a little bit cool, but only a very tiny bit). And just because there’s sex in my proposed song above doesn’t make it a Barry White standard.

My kids don’t like this song and I don’t blame them one bit.

January 14, 2009

Top Financial Realization of the New Father

A lot of wives out there do the billpaying in households these days but for the fathers that still have responsibility for making sure everything gets paid, there is one unexpected financial realization that you will have during the first year you have children (it’s not “kids are expensive”: that’s the expected financial realization), and its this:

Holy fucking shit, health insurance actually matters

Guys in their twenties float along blissfully. Those is Washington may be oh-so-concerned about their lack of insurance, but most (like m back them), actually personally go to the Doctor about every 3 years. Why pay several thousands of dollars (or even ten thousand these days) for the privilege. Now it is very clear to me. These little people are going to the Doctor all the fucking time; and that’s to say nothing about wives getting doctoring for their ladyparts.

I used to think that old people were just whining (like they normally do about the weather and shit like that) when they complained about health insurance, but with explanations of benefits, deductibles, co-pays, flexible spending debit cards, prescription coverage, dental vision. I mean, Jesus Christ it’s a pain in the ass to keep track of.

So if you're an expecting father, get ready. You’re going to have to learn about it.

January 10, 2009

Shifts in "Guy Rules" in Fatherhood

It is very well possible that the entire purpose of family life is to destroy male friendships. Male friendships are just too much fun, there’s often very little baggage attached to them. Women are jealous, they’ve conspired over the years to create this value system that causes male friendships to be slowly but surely destroyed between first date and the man’s retirement (at retirement men are allowed to have friends again because their wives are sick of them and want them out of their fucking house).

All men understand as early as high school that their girlfriends are going to nudge out the guyfriends. Women are unfortunately trained by the culture that this is a good and necessary thing. I mean, compare the number of romantic comedies out there that are based upon the premise of the women getting the guy away from his ape-like friends and getting him to grow up to those painting the woman as the bad influence. It’s pretty much all of romantic comedydum vs. Saving Silverman. Of course, girlfriends having to come up with ways to nudge out the guyfriends is 50% of the reason high school boys get laid, so complaining about this impulse, even in retrospect, feels ungrateful. So we live with it.

What many men don’t realize, though, is how their own children will conspire with their wives in this way to destroy their male friendships.

Take sporting events. You may have, like many men before you, had a general rule about getting to sporting events like baseball or football games on time, paying attention to the action while there and staying until their very end, regardless of the score. You may have even actively mocked the “Dodgeresque” fans that arrived in the 3rd inning, or those that never sat back down after the 7th inning stretch in order to “beat traffic.”

When you bring kids to the game, all these, and many other, rules are out the window. Instead, you get there when you can. You must stop watching the game for multiple bathroom breaks and cotton candy breaks. Be ready to pay attention to about a third of the game. Half if you’re lucky. And that’s for the innings that you’re actually there for.

Because at some point in the game, the whining of the kids will commence. The first whine signals the 15-20 minute warning (10 if your child is particularly skillful; 5 for the ADD set). Whining kids effect men’s ears differently. We aren’t attuned to it and it causes immediate pain. Other people’s whining kids are doubly damaging (remember, men are supposed to hate other people’s kids). In this situation, the first thing that will happen is, in an effort to stop the whining, the whinerfather will focus inwardly on his kids for about one minute. This will end the whining temporarily, but one father will inevitably begin telling a story to the other (and 2 ½ hours into a game, it probably isn’t one of the guy’s best stories or it wouldn’t have been saved for the 7th inning, and, really, if it is a story told by a father who has as little of a life as you have, how good can the story really be anyway? (see how I’m rationalizing … my wife has already won ... she won YEARS ago)), and the child will start whining over the story, and the father will realize “I like this guy, but I’m now straining and pretending this squirming creature isn't making these awful noises for the purpose of hearing a barely average story. This just ain’t fun any more.” The first time this happens, you'll stay until the end as a matter of principle anyway. The second time, the "no leaving early" rule goes out the window.

Getting carryout is another area of shifting guy rules. Inevitably you will end up at your new “family friends’ house” (because you were smart enough not to go out for dinner) and you will order pizza or Chinese food or something and a crucial time will arise. It will be the Time To Go Pickup the Carryout Order. You may not have known, but this is a very important time. Indeed, a new guy rule that you have to learn is “all of the fathers go together to pick up the food” (corollary: unless there is a very good sporting event on: then one guy’s job is to prepare a one minute summary of the action on the field that the other guy misses).

This rule has two purposes. The first is that a group of fathers’ goals when at each others houses is to get as far away from the kids as possible. This is why fathers say “come see my new tools in the basement.” They don’t give a damn about the tools. They just know that no wives or children want to hang out in a dark, damp stank basement, so no one will follow them down there.

But the second reason for the “everyone in the car to get carryout” rule is because men in family friend situations know that they have to try to pay more than their fair share of the bill and at minimum must pay their fair share. As a male, once you are married, whether or not you get into heaven mostly depends upon whether you’ve tried to overpay group carryout bills enough. It’s in Corinthians somewhere. And all men know that if one or two guys pick up the food by themselves, you create an unequal bargaining position. It’s like the other guys will have snuck missiles into your personal Cuba. They’ll never let you know how much the tab really was. And then you will have to use non-guy-approved payment methods, like giving the money to the wife, which is pretty much a concession that you're a loser, or, even worse, hiding money under books or napkins or shit nice that. If you’re doing such wimpy things like this, you might as well just stick the cash down the other guy’s pants. And then your wife will want to know why you didn’t pay your fair share, and the next time you see the other guy he’ll give you the “I bought your wife dinner last time” look, which is really kind of like him making out with her if you think about it. So you pretty much have to get into that carryout pickup car
(although for the big sporting event exception, a male truce is implied and cannot be broken; the guy that is the less intense fan has to go get the food; ties mean that the host father gets in the car).

December 13, 2008

Inappropriate Restaurant Games That I May or May Not Play With My Kids At Skyline Chili

I may have previously mentioned the affinity that me and my kids have for Skyline Chili. I know why I like it: Mixing spicy Habenero cheese with chocolate-enfused chili and putting it on a plate of 10-cent-quality spaghetti noodles that were cooked 5 hours before you got to the restaurant: it’s just magic. But what isn’t entirely clear is why the kids like it.

(if you don’t know about Skyline Chili; well, the simple description above does not do it justice; just go here and come back in a minute).

And they like it very much. My daughter insisted on making us go there for her birthday two years ago: including my wife’s parents and my parents, who came in from out of town to be subjected to the Skyline experience.

The reason it makes little sense that my kids like this place is that none of the kids actually eat the chili. My daughter eats the hot dogs (which are mini-hot dogs), my son eats oyster crackers and multiple bowls of shredded cheese and my other daughter east the overly sticky noodles and maybe some cheese. Yet they claim to love it.

I’m sure part of it is them just feeding off me and my enthusiasm, but I suspect a large chunk of it is the familiarity – really, the ritual of the experience.

And there is a ritual for us. In fact, for my family, Skyline Chili is the land where jokes never get old, where things have to go perfectly. And if we skip a step, there is hell to pay from the kids.

For each Skyline experience must proceed as follows:

I’m Lost: First, I am required to pretend like I don’t know where I’m going as we drive there. Normally I’m supposed to say things like “So we’re going to the fish restaurant, right?”

Race: Once the kids direct me in the mini-mall complex, and once we are safety under the mini-mall overhang, we are required to race to the restaurant. Not just running, either. I am required to mark-off appropriate head starts for each of the kids and participate as well. Once in the place, we always sit in a booth.

Worm: Once the drinks come, when you take the straw wrapper (straw sleeve?) off the straw, you crinkle it all up before you take it off the straw. Then you use the straw to get a few drops of coke/sprite/water into your straw and you drop it on the crinkled-up straw wrapper and it starts to expand and wriggle like a worm.

Here’s a video.

Cracker Soccer: Cracker soccer is the bastard cousin of the study hall paper football game When you sit down at skyline chili they give you a bowl of oyster crackers with – I’m not making this up – a fork. I’m not sure I get that one.

Anyway, we sit at a booth and the kids take their straws and I take mine and we put an oyster cracker in the middle and try to blow it off the table on the other person’s side.

This is more fun than it sounds like.

Pass Daddy the Ketchup: This is probably the kids’ favorite and the most ritualized Skyline Chili practice. We get in the both and I tell the kids that I LOVE to eat oyster crackers and ketchup and I ask them to pass me the ketchup. They pass me the hot sauce, watch me put some on an oyster cracker and eat it and then watch me over-act like a Wil E Coyote cartoon, complaining about how hot it is. Then they race to give me water and ask me, as if I might be permanently injured, whether I’m OK.

Nothing in this world is better to them than this. I’m not sure I totally get it, but I absolutely go along.

Competitive Eating: Once the food gets here, the kids start talking about how it is not enough like they are Joey Chestnut or Kobayashi or something. My son gets two bowls of cheese and demands two more. My daughter’s mini-hot dog eating record is, I think, five, but often a far greater record is alleged. Most of the time in life, when it comes to food, they are nibblers. This is the only time in the world that they think eating tons of stuff is cool.

Superballs and Such: A kids’ meal at Skyline Chili ends with a choice of a sucker or oreos (they used to provide both -- when my kids were forced to choose starting about 18 months ago, there was a minor revolt and I was required to let them choose suckers and give them cookies at home). After that, they demand quarters for the superball machine. For some reason, any ball with a design is considered good. A pool ball superball is considered bad, unless it is your current age. Luckily, pool ball superballs can normally be traded to the two year old for her ball, so as long as we only get one pool ball out of three, we’re good). At this point we must have nearly 100 superballs bouncing around our house.

And that’s about it. That’s the Skyline Chili experience every single freakin’ time we go there.

(and I kind of love it all too, so maybe it’s not just the kids that like the ritual)

November 30, 2008

DadBlog Pimps and Crayon Physics

I do no pimping on this site for the most part, other than for people that I’m pretty much required to be nice to as a legal matter.

In fact, I think I’m in a tiny minority when it comes to parent bloggers. Surprisingly, I’ve learned over the past year that many parent bloggers view this whole thing as a networking exercise; that blogging is somehow a career-like activity, where the blogger apparently holds out dreams of becoming a kind of oddball semi-interesting internet sensation and possibly cashing in, likely for something stupid like getting fired for blogging, instead of becoming famous for blogging well (aside: I would question the idea that anyone is good enough to actually get paid for parentblogging; it just seems silly). But the network-bloggers think that the appropriate “ends” that they need to achieve is to get as many hits as possible, and they’ll exercise whatever means are necessary to achieve their goal. Others are lonely and want friends. A few others use it like a personal diary, never expecting anyone to really read it. That’s about the universe.

And a few people like me blog mostly for friends, partially to see if anyone out there might also enjoy what we have to say but don't think of it as a second source of income. But we're the minority.

If you start a daddy or mommy blog, the following things will happen to you: (a) you’ll get people who email you and ask you to link to their site; (b) you’ll get people who visit your site and leave comments with the express goal of getting you to visit their site (or maybe they're just really friendly, I can't tell); (c) you’ll get “best of the web” start-ups that get 20 hits a day telling you that you have the “best post of March 16, 2008” (they figure if they do this 365 times, they’ll get at least that many hits in a year); (d) you’ll get some people that will offer to pay you to review their site; (e) you’ll get some commercial enterprises that will try to convince you to link to their site (see below). All this seems incredibly bizarre to me, kind of like when I learned that the nerds in my high school had a social hierarchy not all that dissimilar to the one that the jocks had. The main difference was that the nerd one was so so much more pathetic, because who wanted to climb to the top to be crowned King of the Nerds?

Maybe I’m na├»ve. I once got a nice email from an outfit called Kobold Toys . It was friendly, they claimed to like my site (not sure if they actually read any of it, but lets give them the benefit of the doubt) and they asked me to link to them and say something nice and, in exchange, they were going to have a portion of their site that linked to blogs. I promptly ignored the email. Looking at other dad blogs a few days later, I stumbled across a dad blogger with a “for sale” sign on his own forehead that, well, decided to play along and actually pretended to have stumbled across this great toy store website and pimped it for them. And then the toy store linked back to his review from their website as if it was all spontaneous instead of orchestrated via email behind the scenes. And then the kobold toys blog stuck his blog on the “blogroll.” It all just struck me as dishonest and sad. People actually taking the time to sell themselves for links. I felt like Jeff Smith learning that Senator Joe Paine is in the party machine’s pocket.

Just looking at the number of google ads out there on blogs that get tiny numbers of hits just kills me; it’s hilarious. It’s the equivalent of someone in your neighborhood putting up a billboard in his front yard, and selling space on his car and on his children’s shirts. I mean, what are you people fucking doing with all this advertising? Why does this seem like a good idea to you, commercializing yourself so you can get $7 checks in the mail each quarter?

This is totally not rock n roll guys.

In any event, I don’t pimp things as a matter of course, but…

… you gotta check out the new game Crayon Physics. WOW this is cool shit.

Although it’s not out yet, I’m quaking with anticipation. My kids and I have spent hours playing the very limited free demo. My son was 4 and had little trouble mastering the concept or the controls (he couldn’t solve it all, but loved creating crap and dropping it on the balls anyway). My 8 year old ran with it.

I'm pre-ordering this thing now. You and your kids gotta try this game. Trust me.

And for the record:


p.s. Thanksgiving was actually still fun. Although my siblings had to tend to their own children, they were now more into children in general, so they still played with mine and let me be a lazy ass. All in all it was a win-win.

November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving May Very Well Suck This Year

Yes, yes, I know; it’s really two days after Thanksgiving, but my family’s get together is today, Saturday.

Going back to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving and Christmas used to be a great joy for me. I’m the oldest of four children and none of my siblings had kids, so the day would be spent (a) with other people watching and playing with my kids, often in cool ways, with me sitting my butt on a couch (sometimes with glass of wine in hand), (b) talking with people that have semblances of real lives (those people being my siblings and their spouses) and actually know some things about the world and stuff, so it was good to get all caught up.

Now a terrible thing has happened. The last 12 months have made me an uncle three times over. All three of my siblings have had their firstborn children.

Now my wife and I will get to (1) hold a lot of babies, (2) watch my siblings worry waaaay too much about their kids (likely chopping turkey into unrecognizably small bites) (3) listen to them discuss the merits of different brands of baby clothes and videos and toys and car seats, things upon which we have all kinds of opinions, but we will have no way of expressing them without seeming like obnoxious know-it-alls, so we’ll have to just shut up, (4) watch the confused look on my children’s face as grammy and grampy aren’t devoting 100% of their time to them, (5) worst of all, I will have to entertain my own children while the tryptophan forces my limbs deeper and deeper into the couch.

To be clear: this isn’t to say that my siblings and their spouses are going about this the wrong way. I love my siblings and spouses quite a bit (and even like them too!). They’re good parents. If anything, we very well may have been more unrealistically anal about our firstborn when she was young than any of them are. But, as my wife says when she hangs out with college friends that just had their first baby: “I’m happy for them, but it’s just hard to get excited about their baby stories after a while. I’m kind of over it all.”

We’re leaving in 45 minutes and I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it this year.

November 16, 2008

Really Being a Father

It may seem from a lot of what I’ve written that a large part of fatherhood involves getting away from your children. And it seems that way because it is true. You have to maintain your individuality. Way too many people, once they have kids, think that their kids are their life. And they sweat and toil and think “I am making my kids’ life better.” And then their kids have the grandkids, and the kids sweat and toil for the grandkids and, down a generation, the grandkids sweat and toil for the great-grandkids. And at some point you realize that people are sacrificing themselves on down the line from generation to generation with no payoff. If every generation is selfless until it isn’t, then you have 6 generations of saints busting their ass down the line until you get unlucky and you reach a generation of jerks and assholes who say “ok; now we’ll just spend the money. Thanks suckers.” (kind of like this generation of the Kennedys, Hiltons, etc.). In any event, that whole generational live-your-life-to-pass-it-all-ondown kind of enterprise never struck me as something that gives purpose to a life.

The trick of fatherhood to me has always been trying to balance my life and my fun with my obligations to the kids and to society (to raise the kids right). I will sacrifice for my kids, but I won’t ruin myself in the process if I can help it.

One way I try to do this is trying to get them into the stuff that I’m into, so we can have fun time for Dad at the same time we’re having fun time for the kids. Getting them into chess, sneaking math lessons in now and again, taking them to Tribe games, etc. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes I have to do my own thing, or something with just my wife, and without them.

But if you’re going to take “alone time” every once in a while, you better be ready to commit yourself to “kid time” every once in a while too.

I think the mistake that many fathers make is that they are afraid to truly and fully commit to children’s play. They won’t give themselves over to it. When your kid wants to play princess and make you a prince, you gotta attack the role like you’re fucking’ De Niro. You are the prince. Do you like your crown? Should you try to get one in a different metal, such as platinum? Do you recall your childhood or do you suspect that you might once have been a frog? Why am I not wearing the royal purple? I should go get a purple shirt on. Why is this princess smaller than me? Lets come up with a logical explanation for that, like you got zapped by a “giant-maker” ray. You gotta feel it, man! Be the ball! And it can’t be a self-conscious wink-wink act where you’re playing cute for your spouse (or the blogging community; I define "not playing cute" as limiting ironic comments to once every five minutes). Leave your shame on the treelawn and keep it out of the house today, my friend, as it has no place in here. It's all about the kiddies.

Here's another experiment, particularly for the young (which I've only successfully been able to pull off twice). If you are walking down the street with a 2 or 3 or 4 year old, forbid yourself from saying “hurry up” or “let’s go” or “this way” or from even touching their hand to guide them. Walk at their pace wherever they take you, even if it takes you 45 minutes to get four houses down the block. When they stop and bend over to look at something, you stop and bend over, or sit on the sidewalk patiently. (once again, leave the shame before you being your trip, as the people in the house whose sidewalk you are in front of will be peering out the windows wondering why you’ve camped out on their sidewalk for 10 minutes).

For 60 minutes you gotta live in their world and ignore the phone and other adults and listen to every word they speak and treat it like it was the most important and serious thing in the world. Two or three of those sessions a week –120-180 minutes -- and you’ll be not telling them but showing them that you respect them and take them seriously, and that’s gonna go a long way in about 20 different ways.

And you won’t feel nearly as guilty when on Tuesday night you decide to read that new book you’re obsessed with instead of playing with them.

November 11, 2008

Christmas Cards

Holiday season is coming. One thing I like about late December / early January is by that time our family accumulated a giant pile of Christmas cards, most of which I haven’t seen because my wife gets the mail in our house. So each year I settle in and go through them before they get thrown out.

Christmas cards are one aspect of life that is totally obscured from the view of single bachelor men. Single men don’t buy Christmas Cards. Single men don’t normally receive more than three or four Christmas Cards, maybe from their sisters and mothers. They really have no idea that after being married five years, they’ll have 75 Christmas cards flowing into their mailbox during the month of Christmas. A cultural surprise it is.

And Christmas Cards are a very good thing. Once you have kids, you have no choice. You gotta do your part and contribute. And the primary reason that you have to contribute is because your Christmas Card is your message to the world about Who You Are. A Christmas Card is to a married couple with kids is what a Halloween costume is to a 22-year old. It is a public form of quasi-art that you know people will see. It is planned and considered in advance. The idea is yours and expresses what you think is funny or interesting, but it’s not just mental; your physical pluses and minuses are part of the package. And your choice will convey a message, whether that message is “I don’t care,” or “We are straight-laced” or whatever. You have an opportunity each year to do the equivalent of blast faxing your friends with something you’ve created (or paid to have someone create). You gotta do it right. [ed note: of course, the primary reason that I now believe in the fundamental importance of Christmas cards is because my wife put together a smashingly funny one last year; two years ago I thought they were crap and a waste of money, but lets just ignore that for now]

The father’s primary purpose, as in countless other aspects of family life, is simply to keep your wife from going horribly wrong. In the picture (and if you have kids and you’re sending a Christmas Card without a picture, you may be beyond help), your pet can be an accessory but can’t be given equal billing with the kids. Matching outfits are only permissible if both adults wear the outfit as well, making it plainly over the top. Boys’ hair must have been cut at least four days prior to the picture and should not be glued to their heads. Parents must be in the pictures at least every 3-4 years so your out of town friends aren’t horribly shocked at how friggin’ old and fat you look after not having seen you for ten years (or to prep them for the plastic surgery and/or Hair Club surprises).

In addition to the Christmas Card being a form of semi-art you circulate around, the other key purpose Christmas Cards serve is to allow those friends that don’t see you very often to see if your kids are uglier or better looking than you. Sometimes you see a Christmas Card with two attractive parents, and you look at the kid and you know with certainty that the parents are thinking to themselves “what the fuck happened here?” as they’ve done the genetic equivalent of mixing Dr. Pepper and Vanilla Almond Special K, managing to create a gross and disgusting thing out of two great ones. Other times the kid is so cute it makes you wonder…

One old tradition that I’m sad that apparently has died is the Christmas letter. The Christmas letter was roundly mocked and derided as shameless self-promotion and prattling on about things that aren’t interesting [ed note: like a blog? Dddyfsto: Shut up]. As a result, at least for my generation and social circuit, the Christmas letter is now extinct (my parents’ friends still occasionally send them, but baby boomers have never been shy when it comes to shameless self-promotion). This is an awful shame. These things were great. At the absolute worst, you got to mock and deride the letter and, at best, they were actually kinda funny and informative. I mean, if your friends are going off the deep end and getting all weird on you, don’t you want to know that before you travel and visit them and find their house postered wall-to-wall with I Can Has Cheezburger kitties? Wouldn’t it have been nice to know that they were going down that path before you agreed to spend the weekend? You can see, we need the Christmas letter!

And who are the people that are complaining? These are people that think Christmas letters are boring, but when they get yours, instead of just not reading it, they read it anyway so they can complain about how boring it is. I can respect people that like X-mas letters; I can respect people that don’t like them and don’t read them. But people who enter into an unpleasant experience so they can mock it later. Who needs those people as friends?

So c’mon, join with me. Let’s bring back the Christmas letter! Who is with me here? [as this is a blog, I am supposed to say something like “let’s see a show of hands in the comments section”]. Time is short, but how long does it really take to write a page of your family’s accomplishments and to figure out a way to portray them in a reasonable/interesting/or funny way?

C'mon people. I’m expecting some letters this year. Let's do it!

November 7, 2008

Science Proves That Your Mother is Better At Watching Your Kids Than You or Is Maybe Just Scared of You

I read an interesting study this week that just came out in Pediatrics magazine . The researchers looked at kids that were 30 to 33 months old and tried to figure out what attributes in the kids’ parents or lifestyles made it more or less likely that the little tots would be injured.

Most shit didn’t matter, even stuff you might think would matter. Income didn’t matter. Child’s birth weight didn’t matter. The mom describing herself as depressed didn’t matter. The mom thinking she was competent didn’t matter. Race didn’t matter. Ethnicity didn’t matter. Of the things they tested, 5 things mattered. Three decreased the chance of injury and two increased it.

The two things that increased the chance of injury are kind of boring. First, if the parents split up, the kid got hurt more. This one’s simple math: one person potentially watching out for you vs. two. The second is whether the kid’s father was identified as the primary caregiver. Then the kid was more than twice as likely to get hurt, which basically proves that when toddlers start trying to climb bookshelves, fathers have an impulse to sit back in their chairs “just to see what happens” that they have to overcome before springing to action. Apaprently this is not an easily overcome impulse. Or dads are pulling a Cosby and trying to prove their incompetence so as to be relieved from their child-watching duties.

The decreases are more interesting, at least to me:

(1) How old your mother was when you were born.

This one is easy. Old moms aren’t gonna play a lot of running around games themselves. And old moms have earned enough money in their lives to have bought actual nice stuff, so they don’t let their kids tear shit up in the house. Kids have to play calmly, thus they don’t get hurt.

(2) Whether you’ve moved recently.

This is the one that shocked the researchers. If you moved recently, kids got hurt a lot less. But this one’s obvious too if you think about it. Anyone that’s ever moved knows that your parents don’t let you do shit, don’t let you even cross the street they’re so overprotective.

(3) Whether your grandparents take care of you during the day

This one is the best, and is news that will surely be greeted smugly by all grandmothers around the globe, who I’m sure suspected this, never doubted it for a second. The conclusion was that if the grandparents take care of the kids during the day, their chances of being hurt are cut in half compared to if someone else or the mother herself watches them. The best part about this one is that it apparently isn’t wisdom or experience that makes grandmothers better at this, because if the mom is out of the picture and the child is watched by the grandmother full-time, the injury rate goes back to normal. So grandmothers aren’t better at parenting. They are only better at watching their grandchildren if the parents are still around.

Best I can tell, this suggests that there are one of two things are going on (or maybe both). First, the grandmothers are keeping the children from being injured simply as a way to look better compared to the mothers. It’s a simple “watch me do this better than you” dynamic, which is really pretty awesome that science has demonstrated this (even though it was obvious, it’s nice to have scientific proof that moms are secretly competing with their mothers and mothers in law despite their denials to the contrary). The other thing that might be going on are grandparents that are deathly afraid of the kid getting hurt and the mother starting to withhold the presence of the grandchildren.

So either your parents think they are better than you at raising kids, or they’re afraid of you. You can decide which one applies to you, but you can’t deny both.

November 4, 2008

Halloween for Dads

I’ve never been all that big on Halloween. We weren’t a big Halloween family when I was growing up. I’m not a big chocolate fan. The insides of pumpkins gross me out. Costumes seem like a pain in the ass.

Sure, I attended a few Halloween parties later in life, in college and thereafter, and made half-assed efforts to wear costumes to some of them. But I can’t say I was ever a big fan.

And so after I got married, the one (bizarre, hilarious and sometimes more) advantage of Halloween – watching women skank it up – didn’t really matter anymore. To the extent we were still going to parties, watching thirty-somethings skank it up had the potential to be less than appealing or disastrous.

So I was content to let Halloween fade away. I figured I’d let my wife run with this holiday with the kids, I’d put in an hour or two of work every year and that would be that.

But taking the kids out trick or treating the past few years, I’ve begun to recognize a glorious thing. A surprising number of dads wandering around carrying red plastic Solo cups filled with unknown liquids. Stopping to sip from their unmarked water bottles an inordinate number of times. People seemed happier and friendlier than usual. One street near our old house essentially created a mini-block party, with most of the adults out on lawn chairs on front porches or in the lawn.

This is great! I mixed myself a special beverage last year and, figuring the cops would have their hands full with pumpkin tossers, I became brazen this year and just carried my Coors Light around with me with another in my jacket pocket. I dropped the empty cans at the houses of neighbor we know. It worked out great.

This Halloween thing might actually have some potential.

November 1, 2008

Halloween Racists

How do you spot a racist?

No one wants to be friends or even friendly with racists. But how do you really know who in your neighborhood is racist? In most cities, you’re left to wonder, but in Cleveland Heights, there’s a way to find out.

Cleveland Heights is a city that’s as racially integrated as any (the trick being that not many cities in the world are very integrated). In any event, Cleveland Heights has about 27,000 white people and about 21,000 black people. Cleveland Heights also borders East Cleveland, one of the most maligned cities in Ohio (and for good reason) and some of the sketchier parts of Cleveland. And while it is numerically racially integrated, in practice the whites and blacks tend to live in different parts of the city. We have about 16-20 houses on our street, only three of which are occupied by black families.

If you want to know who is racist in Cleveland Heights, you wait for Halloween. You wait for what I affectionately call the “visiting trick-or-treaters.” A number of presumably-poor black families that you’ve never seen before in your lives descend upon the mostly white streets of the moderate to upscale streets of Cleveland Heights. Every one of the kids using a pillow case for a candy bag. Not every one in costume; many in poor or barely recognizable costumes.

In Cleveland Heights, if you want to find the racists, look for the residents of the nice neighborhoods that are just put off by this. And they do exist, and it sneaks out of them all night long. The dad who you are chatting with you mentions that “those people that aren’t from this neighborhood are just all over tonight.” Or the woman at the door of her house who, passing out candy, shrieks “my goodness I’ve never seen so many trick or treaters. Where did you all come from? You just take one a piece now!!” My father-in-law speculates that a quarter to a third of the neighborhood turns off their lights because they just “don’t like it.”

(I have to say that I am sometimes myself irked by the annual visit of the 35 or 40 year old woman, who appears to be escorting her kids, who steps up herself to stick her pillowcase in my face. Some version of this woman appears every year. One of them a few years ago was kind enough to lie that the bag was for “her sick son,” which made it easier not to hate her, but screw the rest; I fantasize about not giving them candy, but my sorry, pathetic self gives up the peanut butter cup every time).

It's tough to know what to make of this at first, but the more you think about it, the harder it is to complain about this. The visting trick or treater parents don’t want to expose their kids to the nastiness of their neighborhood after dark. Instead of sitting at home, they want their kids to experience trick-or-treating. They're willing to live with the embarrassment of it all. So they cross the border for goodies, like seniors in the United States used to take the bus to Canada for medicine to pick up their prescriptions on the cheap.

There's no way to really complain about that when you think about it. And that doesn't even take into account the racial gay-dar they bring that lets us know which neighborhood folks need to be skipped over when it comes time to invite people over for a cookout.

The way I see it, they’re really doing me a favor.