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// July 30th, 2009 // No Comments » // Flash, Photoshop, Portfolio, archive, interface design, web design

Cintas Health Care

Front-end design and development of HTML, CSS and javascript templates. I incorporated existing and new Flash content including video. I created a master suite of templates, graphics, library elements and menus working across all major browsers. Lead Designer on this project was Courtney Brengard at Cintas.

Cintas Gaming

The Camper

// July 6th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive

When I was seven or eight years old we had already travelled quite bit around the Chicagoland and Lake Geneva area, camping with a pop-up camper attached to my Dad’s Dodge van. We had such a fun time camping and hiking and have many stories to tell. This is one of the early ones.

It was the end of another happy vacation and we were on our way home. My parents were in front, my Dad driving along the expressway not knowing what I had in store for him. My Mom was sitting next to him in the “co-pilot seat” that we all wanted desperately to claim as the high point of status in our childhood years. The sole higher eschelon of status was to actually sit in our Dad’s lap and steer the vehicle “home”.

We sat in the next two rows of seats, quietly reading comic books or story books. I must have read my Donald Duck comic three or four times over, so I was looking for something exciting to end the trip. And then in the recesses of my prepubescent mind, an idea began to form. I started to chuckle already, thinking that I really had a winner here.

My sister Gina, who was no more than five looked over to see what was so funny. I leaned over and whispered to my co-conspirator. Between giggles, I told her what I was going to do. She giggled with me, however she must have been wiser than I was because she said “Maybe you shouldn’t. You might get in trouble!”

Trouble! What was trouble when the possibility for fun and excitement was at hand? If I pull this off, I’ll get one-up on Dad and maybe even my brother Nick would think it was high comedy. No, I was determined to take hold of the moment and step into the spotlight.

A little nervous, I glanced back to look out of the back windows. Through the double doors of the Dodge van, I could see the pop-up camper trudging behind faithfully as we sped down the highway at 60 miles per hour. The sun glinted off of its fiberglass top. This was the moment. I swallowed carefully and took a deep breath.

I let it out with all the force my body could muster. “DAD! THE CAMPER’S GONE!”

There was a brief moment when all time stopped and I could see my Dad’s terrified grimace as he slowed our van down and pulled over to the side of the road. We were all jostled like astronauts heading for splashdown. I grabbed onto the armrest, my grin plastered to my face, still thinking what a good joke this was. I could hear the squeal of the tires as we came abruptly to a stop.

The whine of the other cars whizzing past us was the only sound we heard for a few moments as my Dad tore his fingers off of the steering wheel. He looked at each one of us to see if we were alright and then he looked at me, still confused but at this moment not realizing the cruel trick I had pulled.

He looked through the windows and saw that the camper was STILL THERE. Astonished, he looked at me and all the panic and fury bore down on me as he asked me and all of the universe “It’s not gone! Why’d you say that, Dan?!”

In that moment, I probably could have said any excuse and made up for it. We were safe, the vehicles were safe and after a short trip home my parents could both change their underwear. I’m sure I could have thought up any number of reasons. The sun was in my eyes. I panicked. I really thought it was gone.

Yet my parents had raised me to tell the truth and that’s just what I did.

“I just wanted to see what you would do.”

My mother saved my life at that point, urging my father not to kill me and instead to get back on the road and start driving home. A soliloquy of swearing followed us home like a demonic soundtrack punctuated by my name at various points. As a harmony, my mother’s soothing voice interjected at times to enable my dad to stay seated and not strap me to the top of the camper for the rest of the journey home.

To be honest, there was so much to do once we got there that all of my father’s anger was directed at unloading the camper and unpacking. By the time he actually got to speaking with me without swearing, telling me how foolish this had been, I had learned the lesson many times over, as well as many other words that I had never heard before.

To this day, I know that curious children are far more dangerous than malicious children, which is why I know that I am doomed. I know that I will not have malicious, cruel children, but rather curious children who will always be wondering “I just wanted to see what you would do.”

The Rosaries

// May 25th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive, writing

While I was in Sunday School one day, a someone in class told us about a Catholic belief that if you went to sleep with a rosary under your pillow, you would go straight to heaven if you died. I don’t know if a student told the class or the teacher himself, but no one could refute this, so I believed it with every ounce of my being. The opposite thought, that if you didn’t do this, even if you had led the most saintly life imaginable but had no access to a rosary, of course meant that you were going straight to hell. This didn’t occur to me until much later after I lay in bed with no rosary in sight.

I lay awake staring at the top bunk, the room mostly dark and the sound of my brother’s breathing. I couldn’t sleep with this going through my head. I don’t have rosary under my pillow, so I must be going straight to hell if I die. Over and over, this went, in my 10 year old mind. I don’t want to go to hell, I thought. Plus it’s just a simple thing to do, right? Just put it under your pillow and you’re fine! I knew that I had one in my dresser, so that’s what I did feeling its reassuring presence under my pillow. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, smiling as I started to nod off.

So even if I die in a fire tonight, I’m set, I thought. No problem! I’ll wake up and be in heaven because I haven’t done anything really wrong and I did remember the rosary. Saint Peter would see me at the gates of heaven, look up and see that I had my rosary and I’d waltz right on in there. Plus the rest of my family will be there and –

Oh NO! I gasped! The rest of my family! If they die, I’ll go to heaven, but they’re going to hell! I’ve got to make sure that they do the same thing. I sat up, narrowly missing my head on the top bunk (but safe because I had my rosary under my pillow). I ran downstairs into the den where my parents were.

Without asking them, I started rummaging through the drawers in the living room. I knew we had a bunch of them in one of these drawers, probably near these bibles, no maybe in this drawer… There’s one, that’s fine, there’s another. I counted two extra. I still needed at least 3 more. I knew we had to have more in the house! Plus I needed one for the dog, too! That’s 4 more rosaries! I wonder if Mom and Dad can share?

Now I did peer wildly in the den. My parents were watching television and I tried to explain to them why I needed 3, no 4 rosaries. My Mom said that we probably had enough for everyone, but that she was sure that we didn’t need to search for them all right now. We could think about it in the morning.

I burst into tears, two rosaries in one hand, one in the other (and one under my pillow) and told her that if the whole family was going to Hell, then I was, too and that I didn’t need one under my pillow!

“Who’s going to Hell?” my father asked, distracted by the news. “What’s the matter?”
My mother held me and in between small giggles explained that she was sure we were good people and that we’d wake up fine in the morning and that no one was going anywhere. (”Except to sleep,” my father grunted).

I did go to sleep, after first putting all of the rosaries away, including the one under my pillow. I felt that rosaries were meant to be prayed over anyway and not to be smushed under your head while you snored! I also felt that it was kind of hard to sleep with it under there because it reminded me that I might not wake up — and who can sleep at all like that?!

Batman Versus Jesus

// May 20th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive, writing

One day in 2nd grade class, we all gathered into groups to put on plays. I forgot what the intended lesson was, but I did learn an important thing that day. Our group performed “The Nativity” scene. I was the infant Jesus, because I was the smallest. Another group performed Batman and Robin. At such a young age, I didn’t have much knowledge of theatre, action or audience appeal. Most of the kids in our class had a quiet respect for our play and we all got high marks. However the Batman play had action, two fight scenes and the Joker and the Riddler. Not only did that group receive high marks but the class cheered and they won best play. Our play didn’t really have action unless you count when Jimmy Autrey knocked over one of the cows (it was really a desk).

I walked home with Ricky, who played Batman in the play. He and I were both proud of our time in the spotlight and Ricky had decided that his play was better. In fact, he told me that Batman was better than Jesus! I was amazed!

“Batman is not better than Jesus!” I scoffed.

“Yes he is,” he declared. “Batman is a crime-fighter. He’s got the Batmobile and a sidekick. Then he countered with his ace in the hole. “Plus he’s got a utility belt!”

A utility belt! I gasped. It was a pretty good argument. It was certainly useful and I tried to come up with a counter argument. I couldn’t think of one. To my knowledge, Jesus didn’t even have a sidekick and I’d never even heard of his fighting abilities. He didn’t fight at all, in fact, and that was one of the things I liked about him. He was always saying “Turn the other cheek” which was something I could relate to.

By this time we had reached Ricky’s house. He said goodbye, confident that he had bested me. I walked on, confused. How could he not believe in Jesus? was the question I was thinking. It was fine to talk about superheroes and sidekicks, but I couldn’t understand the rest of it. It was like he didn’t even believe in God!

By the time I arrived home, I had worked myself into a frenzy. I was convinced that by even comparing Batman and Jesus that I was doomed. I was sweaty, dizzy and I had an upset stomach to boot. It was time to talk to Mom.

When I think about what my mother had to put up with, I can only shake my head. We asked her everything under the sun. My Dad got the mechanical and electrical questions - How things work, How the toilet worked, etc. My Mom got all the tough, philosophical questions. It was just the way that things worked around our house. We all thought that my parents had all the answers.

Today’s question was a doozy and I flat out told her as I barged in the house. “Mom! Ricky says that Batman’s better than Jesus! How can he think that?! I mean even with the utility belt, how can he not believe in Jesus?!”

I’m sure she hid her giggles well, because I don’t remember her laughing. I know that she sat me down and explained that not all the world believed in Jesus or even God and that our country was founded on religious freedom. They were free to believe whatever they wanted.

“Well I still think Jesus is better. Even if He doesn’t have a utility belt!”

As an adult, I can now say with certainty that Jesus must have had a utility belt. He was a carpenter! Plus he didn’t have one sidekick; he had twelve of them. It’s too bad I don’t see Ricky anymore, because I have a good answer!

The Dummy

// February 15th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive, writing

My eyesight at seven was atrocious. I had to wear glasses that were so thick that a good shake would dislodge them. If I looked directly into the sun unprotected, under that magnification my eyes would shrivel up like dried apricots. My eyes shrink underneath the magnification of the lenses and look like they are in somebody else’s head. In short, without my glasses, I can see only blurred images and it is only from a few inches that things become clear.

I am also afraid of the dark, so at seven I had a nightlight. Whether this is because of some fear of the dark itself or of things that hid in the dark is not clear. If asked, I just didn’t like it dark. However I didn’t know what fear was. I was just beginning to learn that it was far better to imagine what lurks in the dark than to have those things displayed.

My dad loved surprising us with special things. If we were under the weather, my Dad would always come home with something fun for us. Other times it was something silly just to make us laugh. This one time he had brought home something truly unique. However this wasn’t meant to amuse or entertain us. I’m sure that he meant only to embarrass us, thinking that we’d understand the joke right away. However, he didn’t count on my poor eyesight combined with my vivid imagination.

In our room was a near full size female mannequin. She was cut off around the waist level but was otherwise completely “life-like”. My father had placed this in our room while we slept and he placed our clothes in her outstretched arms. She was also completely nude and to seven and eight-year old boys, this is not even remotely appealing.

When you are in near darkness and you can’t see very well, though, she looks entirely different. In the dim light and blurred vision, she looked like my mother laying out our clothes for the next day.

Confused, I called out to her. “Mom? Mom, is that you?”

Of course, I had no response and I began to get frightened. I couldn’t tell what time it was, so I didn’t know how long she was there. My imagination started supplying my taxed and tired brain with explanations. What if she had died putting out our clothes? Our selfless mother, slaved to death while we slept. Maybe she had called to us for help and we didn’t hear her. “Come, save your poor mother, boys!” she could have yelled and we just snored away oblivious!

I yelled louder, “MOM!” only to hear silence.

I decided to get up and see if she was all right. Perhaps she was choking and couldn’t talk and could only gesture helplessly while her sons blinked in confusion mere feet away. So I stood up and peered closer until I could see clearly.

Clear, for me, of course, was about three inches away from her face. Close enough to see that the EYES WERE PAINTED ON! Somehow to me, this was the worst. A wooden head would be fine, but those blue eyes painted with only rough detail, looking more dead than alive. I was terrified and I ran back into bed, slamming the covers over my head. Yes, the covers would save me, they always had!

What IS that thing? I thought. Maybe it has taken possession of Mom and that’s because it looks so much like her! Maybe its taken control of both of them and Dad’s somewhere else in the house, a painted-on robot! Oh no! I gasped. Maybe it has taken control of Nick in the next bed and I’m the only one in the house ALIVE!

It was at this moment, possibly due to the excitement, that my bladder took control of the situation and told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to get up immediately. I had to obey because the alternative was too dire and humiliating to speak of. I couldn’t hold out and I had to get up. But the problem was… how did I get up and get past that… that imposter of my mother?!

I decided to just run past it. I figured that maybe it had taken the others in the house unawares but that I might be spared because I was on the alert! I was wise to their game! I peeked out from under the covers and saw that IT hadn’t moved. So maybe it was resting, perhaps even sated from its meal (or meals!) and I could get past. I looked ahead and saw that the door was also open. That was good, too. So far a lot was in my favor. Well, except for my family being turned into monsters, that is!

I whipped up the covers and ran past it hoping that the whipping of the covers might make it think that I was much larger than I actually was. There was, of course, no time to check this as I ran past the thing, straight across the hall and into the bathroom. As I clicked the door shut behind me, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was past it! I hadn’t heard a sound, either, so it seemed to be safe now.

I sat down and attended to business. I decided that flushing was much too risky. I didn’t want to alert anyone that I was on to their game. Still terrified, I ran into my parent’s room. I could hear breathing, so I knew that my Dad was in there. Good. He’s still alive. I called out in a whisper.

“Dad!” There was a tense pause in breathing, then I heard it continue in rhythm. I needed to yell louder if I was going to get his attention. “DAD!”

“Nnngh?! Hgh?”

“Dad! There’s something in my room!”

Then I heard something, which chilled me even further. It froze the blood in my young veins to icewater, nearly stopping my heart. I heard giggling! Actual laughter! I was right! They had taken Dad over, too! I started to panic, thinking that this was it for me. I reached around for something to defend myself with. Bah! Nothing! Defeated, I began a few prayers. At least my soul would be safe before they got me. I only hoped that it would be painless.

Amidst the laughter, I heard spoken words and I heard my Dad regain control and he explained that things were OK. I head my Mom’s resigned sigh. “You started this one, so you can get up and make sure he can sleep.”

My Dad got up and took my hand. We turned on the lights and, with the return of my eyesight, I could see that the mannequin really didn’t look much like Mom at all. Afterwards, Mom was actually dismayed for a while that I had thought it looked like her but I told her that I wasn’t able to see much anyway. Plus she should be flattered that I thought so. I thought that the mannequin was actually kind of pretty (but I didn’t admit this to anyone). The teasing would be murder.

My brother thought it was the funniest thing in the world that I thought this was even real and razzed me about it for weeks afterwards. “You thought that was Mom? Ha!” It was a source of amusement and derision for him and supplied him with many comebacks. However neither one of us were able to take down our clothes off of the mannequin. We dressed ourselves that day and I may have looked silly going to school, but at least I didn’t have to touch a naked dummy!

Breakfast Surprises

// January 15th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive, writing

To many children, breakfast in the morning is filled with anticipation, particularly if it included cereal, and even more if they were the lucky child to find the surprise inside. If you had brothers and sisters, chances are that only one of you would actually play with the surprise; it was nearly unheard of in our house unless you stayed over at a friend’s or relative’s house. My mother also made it a rule that most sugar-coated cereals were not purchased; sugar was bad for our teeth and also revved us up like high-octane fuel. Yet we all managed to find surprises in our breakfast bowls nonetheless.

Let it be said beforehand that my mother is the best cook I have ever known and that most mornings we got a hot breakfast along with a bagged lunch if we weren’t coming home in the daytime. These were also more than just ordinary oatmeal, too: pancakes, eggs, waffles and toast. Sometimes we just wanted cereal, but the hot option was always available.

Having chosen cereal, we then picked which kind to have. There were even more to choose from, but the main staples were always Raisin Bran, Life, Cheerios, Golden Grahams and Rice Krispies. Now and then Captain Crunch might breach the shopping cart, but mostly it was those cereals. My parents also had their favorites, like Bran Flakes, Special K or the ever appetizing Bran Buds, which perplexed us because it didn’t even look appetizing. The makers of Bran Buds somehow stopped in the middle of creating their cereal, neglecting an important step which is to make your cereal look like it was edible. They seemed to begin with natural ingredients, mix them and then stop halfway. The end result looked like you could grow things in it or from it, if conditions were right. We almost always picked one of the other kid friendly cereals and were relatively happy with that decision.

This is where we encountered our first surprise of the day. As we poured the cereal into the bowl, even if the picture on the front claimed Golden Grahams, you might get an entirely different cereal. Perhaps even several. Breakfast became an adventure as we tried to peer into the bowl like prospectors sifting in a stream. Sometimes we had four or five cereal and grain companies represented in our bowl.

My mother, you see, to conserve prescious pantry space mixed the cereals all into one box. It didn’t matter if one was cornflakes and one was bran; if they were more than halfway finished, they were tossed in with the rest and the box was disposed of. Your time in the pantry is done! Sorry, it’s a popular place! My mother was so efficient, that sometimes she could cram a whole cereal aisle into one convenient breakfast experience.

Usually, the dismay we expressed in getting Bran Buds with our Cheerios was enough to stun us for the next surprise. An expert at distraction, our mother would now hover around us with a knife and a piece of fruit and ask us if we wanted any in our cereal. Since this might be the only time of day we encountered anything healthy, it was a good plan. In fact, we were so tired that she could slip in pieces of our shoes and we would eat them. Having asked the question, she usually started slicing the fruit into our breakfast without waiting for us to reply. In fact, this is how she responded to all questions about food. If my mom asks if a guest wants anything and they say “No”, she hears “No, but what else do you have?” and she will offer food options until the guest is overwhelmed and agrees. It’s surprising the number of options that she can come up with if pressed.

So she slices the fruit into our bowls. Most people probably assume bananas and this is always true, but my mom would cut up peaches, pears, apples, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and even kiwis. Many times, this fruit had been passed over for a while, so it would have large wedges hacked off as if it had barely survived a machete attack. The bananas would attain a softness that made them almost fuzzy on the edges, as if out of focus. My Mom also would almost hurriedly slide these off so you’d have large chunks of fruit landing in milk from great distances. It was like being under attack as your cereal exploded, throwing flakes and Bran Buds everywhere, spraying milk around. “Hey!” we’d yell, not just at the splashing, but at the alien presence of fruit. “Hey! I didn’t want any of that in my cereal! What is that bran in there?! Eeew!”

But we ate it anyway, because walking out hungry was not the way to start your day. Mom mom also inadvertently prepared us for later years of California mix and other combinations. We were probably healthier for it, too. I don’t know how much bran I unknowingly ate as a child, but we did go through many boxes of Bran Buds! Not to mention toilet paper!

Sunday Dinner

// January 11th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive, writing

Sunday dinner was usually at my grandfather’s house. We called my grandfather “Pa”. He sat at the head of the dinner table and he commanded absolute respect, not necessarily by any actions or commands. He didn’t have to. We knew that if you called attention to yourself, you made yourself a grand target for his teasing. This would always end in tears, so it was not a good idea to direct any focus to yourself. Like a student trying to evade notice by a strict teacher, it was wise to be as meek as possible around Pa. The best way was to act if your mouth was full. We were rarely encouraged to speak at the table out of turn, but talking with your mouth full was the height of bad manners. It was best to eat, enjoy your food and help clean up, leaving the table as quickly as possible. Even if you planned misdirection and tried to tattle on a sibling, it could easily turn on you. Sitting extremely close to Pa was misguided. Directly to Pa’s left was the hotseat. At an early age, you were spared from this fate, but many an older relative sat in the hotseat and basked in the glory of his teasing, nestled within the quiet wheezing of his ever-increasing laughter.

Pa was a man who enjoyed everything he did, including teasing those around him. He did each action larger than necessary, even yawning. Pa’s yawns started out with a loud cry, increasing in volume until it could be heard from Kansas. My grandmother always said that Pa enjoyed his yawns and I’m sure that was true. He certainly projected this often enough and at full volume.

Dinner didn’t start until everyone was at the table. We would be called to eat a few times before we actually appeared at the table, breathless and red-faced after our play. Even after we were seated, there were a few moments before we could actually be silent enough for things to start. For some reason, sitting down became a game of musical chairs. It would take forever for us to get situated. Some of us would need a phone book or two so that we could reach the height of the table. There was also a bit of organized yelling as we were chastised for not getting to the table sooner while the food was actually hot. Of course my relatives had the oven at such a blaze that even in the height of winter you could stand in the kitchen in your underwear, fanning yourself. The food not only never got cold, but you could probably power a small city off of the heat radiating off of the serving wear. My mother, grandmother and aunts came out serving the food in full asbestos gear with fire extinguishers at the ready, just in case any of the smaller children set fire.

Dinner began with grace. Our family said grace very respectfully. Then the special intentions started. Our family included everyone in these special intentions. Anyone who was sick or in need of prayer or blessings would be mentioned. If someone were to trip on the street in front of the house, they would probably get included as a last minute addition, like a newscaster announcing a just-updated sports score. As a child, I always wondered what God thought about including these prayers while we were thanking the Lord for food. Yes, God, we are very thankful for our food, home and health, but while we have you on the line, can you give a little help to Mrs. Russo who’s back is acting up. I was heartily enthusiastic about praying for those less fortunate than our family. In fact, I was so concerned about remembering the long list of people that we had to pray for that I would use shorthand in my head. A favorite comedian on Electric Company would use sound effects instead of punctuation. I would use quotes and ellipses on
Sunday to make sure that everyone was included and then I’d use this in my head for the whole week. I figured that God would certainly know what I meant and He was a busy deity anyways. This probably saved Him time.

Pa never would wait for the intentions to finish, but instead would start to nod and wave one hand in mock blessing, like the Pope at a benediction. He’d start eating with the other hand. Although my own head was bowed, I’d always peek up and glance at my Mom or Dad to see if there was any reaction. They never would acknowledge this behavior and I slowly learned that only my grandfather could get away with this. It wasn’t that he was being disrespectful to God or anyone we were praying for; it was just that they had their own problems and he was hungry! He also had to finish eating so that the teasing of the family could start.

During dinner, it was best to stare at your plate, eat your food enthusiastically, showing the maximum amount of enjoyment without actually making any sound. You could comment on your food and were encouraged to compliment the cooks, however talking about anything often invited unwanted attention.

When you’re a child, though, it’s very easy to become distracted and the invitation to play with your food, tease younger children or make noises is irresistible. While it was discouraged to giggle at the table, it was impossible not to when an older uncle was tickling us or teasing. We were very young and being forced to sit up straight, be as quiet as possible and be on our best behavior. Anything at all could set us off, giggling. Efforts to shush us only made it funnier.

Now and then, we’d also get a glimpse of Pa eating. When my grandfather ate his meals, he did so with gusto. He would stab a generous portion with a fork and bring it closer to his mouth. We would watch in fascination as his face would undergo an instant transformation. At the moment of consumption, he would get the most astonished and surprised look on his face. As the bit reached closer, it would seem as if time would stop entirely. His whole face would tense up as his mouth and eyes would open wide. He looked as if his food had suddenly changed before his eyes and was about to eat him or as if he were being jolted with a shock of electricity! Forced to be on our best behavior, seeing this wide-eyed astonishment on Pa’s face would always make us giggle!

We’d nudge each other while the adults weren’t looking, perhaps exchanging lotteries about who would sit in the hotseat after dinner, and get our siblings or cousins to look. “Gina,” I’d coax my sister. “Watch Pa take a bite of bread!” As if was safer in conspiracy, it made it even funnier.

We’d giggle even louder, getting the other kids to watch. At the next bite, it would be three, then four of us, staring in rapt attention at the transformation in our normally serious grandfather. He’d take that next bite, again frozen in stunned astonishment and that was it for us. We had lost the battle and one of us started to laugh uncontrollably. We would turn as red as the pasta sauce. Like birds startled into flight, we’d all burst out into laughter.

All of the adults would turn towards us and whisper hurriedly. “Stop that! Stop laughing at the table!” They knew that if they were unable to control their own children, they risked the hotseat. Although it could only conceivably hold one person at a time, the night was young and there was plenty of coffee.

However my grandfather would continue to eat, looking more and more astonished and in our eyes it became funnier and funnier. Eventually one of the adults would catch on at what we were laughing at. It was all over. “Are you laughing at Pa? Don’t laugh at Pa!” When there is something truly hilarious, telling a child not to laugh is going against his nature. It is like getting a cat not to hunt. You can de-claw them, but there is no getting them to stop pouncing.

Pa continued eating, not paying attention to what we were actually laughing at. The adage that “children should be seen and not heard” was modified according to my grandfather. He believed that we were always laughing and playing at something anyway, so as long as one of us wasn’t actually on fire that he could go on eating, napping or watching the TV. Unless one of us obstructed his own activity, we were pretty much invisible to him.

None of the parents were paid this any mind, of course, because any misbehaving that was attributed to them in some way. They continued to reprimand us as we got out of hand. Our parents were noticed more than their children and were generously chastised at the end of the meal during dessert and coffee. Pa loved to berate any misbehaving parents for the foibles of their offspring with the accompaniment of sugar. He would joyously laugh at their discomfort. It was almost as if he enjoyed seeing us act out of line so he could have an excuse to tease their parents. Though Pa loved teasing us as children, unless we broke something valuable, it was always the fault of our parents, at least according to Pa.

I only discovered this when I was much older and saw this first-hand as a young adult. At the time, I only knew that by the time our plates were half-empty, it was time to leave the table. I always thought it was because we were full, but it was really because our grandfather had now gathered enough information to blackmail and berate our parents. I think he lived for the misbehavior of his grandchildren. He even encouraged us to act up, enjoying the way that our parents would get further and further into trouble.

For instance, if he knew that we could only have a few cookies for dessert, he’d egg us on, coaxing us to ask for just one more cookie. He’d play both sides, enjoying the way we salivated over the dessert, then demand to our mothers how we could let our children get out of control like this. Then he’d break up in laughter and watch the results as mother and child went at it like cats. The others might watch this in disguised relief, glad that that they weren’t the target, but knowing that they could be next if they laughed too heartily.

It was only later on that I discovered how much amusement that we provided our grandfather during these dinners. I used to believe that he could only take so much of our company. We thought that spending too much time with Pa was like too much time in the sun; the end result usually left us burnt and sullen, vowing to be more careful next time. In reality, though, we gave him more amusement and entertainment than I had ever dreamed possible. Even though I miss my grandfather now that he’s gone and I miss the Sunday dinners, I have many fond memories of his laughter and teasing. Whenever I think of him, it is with his beaming, proud face, red with laughter, a little too much wine and happy to have someone to tease. I’d easily sit in the hotseat now if I could have another dinner with him again.


// January 11th, 2006 // No Comments » // archive

I was addicted to video games in the 80s and I would play incessantly on summer vacations in the campgrounds that we visited.

I was actually very good and could beat those around me that wanted to play. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many I knew that wanted to compete. Either they thought those particular games were annoying or I had previously bested them.

So when I had the chance to compete against a stranger, I would take the chance. Sometimes these arcades only had a few of these great games that were more of a challenge. It was easier to play against one another.

The game in particular that I loved at this campground was one called Scramble. A company called Stern made it, which gives an idea of the type of their games. All of their products had a harder edge than most other games. There were ten consecutive levels and each one was harder than the next. It consumed a lot of my quarters that summer and beyond.

Very shortly after arriving, I would run through my allotment of funds, at least in quarters. I would linger hungrily at the edge of the arcade, watching others play, my mouth dry and my hands wanting to wrest the controls away from them, but knowing it was impolite. Instead I would stare at their playing, convinced that watching others play worse was as much fun as mastering the game myself.

My grandfather would see this and would secretly slide money to me under the table or into my pocket. He would call me over in his gruff voice, saying “Danny! Here, take this for those games.” Before he even finished, he’d start to giggle hoarsely under his breath at how my eyes lit up at the money and how I couldn’t wait to get out of the room and back to the arcade. He would do this in spite of my parents, especially my Mom. He’d encourage their negative reactions, too, by getting their attention and telling them to notice the change in my mood. “See how happy he is? He’s got money for his games!”

“Where did you get that money?”

“Pa gave it to me.”

Immediately I was told to thank him, which I had done. In our family, it was ingrained to thank your elders, even if you were made to suffer because of their generosity. For instance, in Pa’s case, the teasing would go along with the transaction. If you weren’t getting teased in a conversation with Pa, you can believe that the wheels were turning in his head and he was only warming up. The teasing was also subtly weaved into the reward, like a hook on a tasty-looking lure. By the time you realized what you had done, Pa was reeling you in.

Pa turned to me, tapping me on the shoulder. “Hey, you want to go play those games now?” He knew that lunch hadn’t started yet and that I wanted to eat first, but he was testing me to see how much I’d break the rules for my habit. “Come on, let’s sneak out of here.”

He could see how I was torn between wanting to eat and do the right thing or getting up to spend this money which hadn’t even reached my pocket. I was caressing it in my hands like a gambler fumbling with a chip. I swallowed a few times to ease the dryness and I said that we should probably stay through lunch. I could play games after lunch.

He said, “We just ordered. We’ve got at least five minutes. What do you say? Ask your mother.” The laughter could be heard in his voice now. He got my mother’s attention. “Danny’s got something to ask you.”

“Can Pa and I go and play video games before lunch gets here?”

“Of course not! Pa doesn’t want to play video games. Don’t bother Pa… and stop asking him for money.”

“I didn’t ask him for the money. He gave it to me!”

“Well you’d better thank him. Did you thank him?”

“Of course I thanked him!”

Shortly lunch arrived and soon after, we finished. Pa continued to bait me about sneaking out and playing and I continued to be coaxed by money, early dismissal from lunch and generally being teased about how much I actually wanted to play. We might talk about what I wanted more, a bite from my lunch or another quarter. I’d always choose the lunch, but eventually I really wanted that quarter, even though I had accumulated about 75 cents, a good slice of arcade time, if I could make it last.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was agonizing (though delicious) to wait for lunch to be over as well as to be talking to my grandfather about the very game I wanted to play.

Then came the moment when I plugged the first quarter in the machine. It was pretty warm by now and it felt a little heavy. There’s nothing like that first electronic chunk sound that a quarter makes when it registers in the machine. I’ve heard it thousands of times since then and it’s like a sunrise, like the start of a fresh new day. There are no mistakes and the past is completely erased. All that is in front of you is fresh promise of great things and a tingle of anticipation.

I was doing pretty well and when I started, the arcade wasn’t that crowded. By the time I had gotten to the 2nd level, more kids had arrived and a few had gathered around the game I was playing, Scramble. It was the hardest game in this arcade and gave you the most play for your credit. It was easy to be intimidated by its more vibrant colors and the sounds of destruction emanating from the game.

I wasn’t good at sports as a kid, and was almost always the last picked. But in the arcade, I achieved the notoriety that I couldn’t get playing with other kids in a physical setting. It didn’t matter that I was short or that my bones and my glasses were fragile. In the arcade, I had the faster reflexes, the speed and the control.

Soon after the 6th level, my game ended, but I was pleased. My game had drawn a crowd in the arcade. I had monopolized the machine with one quarter and others were now eager to play. Another player next to me admired my game and offered to play me in the next game. I was on a roll (and had some cash), so I agreed. I had seen him around the arcade and his name was Tony.

We bet a quarter on the game’s outcome. It’s not much, but for a teenager in an arcade, that meant one more game.

He went first and he did OK, but he crashed in the 2nd level, hit by a stray rocket. It was my turn and I started this game off well, getting to the 3rd level. Tony sneered at me as he took his turn. I was confused. I had done better than he had, yet he wasn’t giving me the respect that I deserved. I figured he was a sore loser.

The next round went even better for me and I started to sense Tony’s irritation. He was losing, and I could tell that he didn’t have any more money than that. He’d have to end his time playing if he lost. Or he’d suffer the lowest fate of a broke teen, which was to watch other players play, checking the coin slots in secret, hoping for just one more game.

When Tony lost the game, he didn’t take it well, slamming the controller. “Stupid thing! I know I moved up and it moved the other way!” A likely story, I thought.

“Nice try, Tony.” He just scowled and said that he had to go, mumbling something about not having it now, but paying me later. I really didn’t care about the quarters. I still had some more change.

The next day, I saw Tony in the arcade with another kid I didn’t know. He didn’t say anything about the quarter, even though we said “Hi” to each other. I went up to him and told him to forget about it. I just wanted to play the games.

He kept watching his buddy play. It was like he didn’t hear me. So I repeated it. “Forget about the quarter, Tony.”

Then he started to grin. I thought that he and his buddy were sharing a joke about the game. He turned to me, mocking in a high voice, “Forget about the quarter, Tony! Forget about the quarter, Tony! Give it a rest!”

I was stunned. I get no respect because I was older than he was (I still held onto this idea that because I was older, I deserved to be looked up to. I had a lot of lessons to live through.) I shrugged and just ignored him. I had learned to walk away from trouble, not to seek it out.

Later, I was with my sister, Gina. She was three years younger than me and did treat me with respect. I had told her about what happened, winning the game the day before and we kind of laughed about Tony now. I figured that he was a sore loser and I just wouldn’t play him again. I had convinced myself that he had shamed some kind of arcade honor and that others would see my side of things.

So when we ran into him in the hall, we were in high spirits, giggling about something silly. It was summer and we were on vacation. What did we have to worry about?

Tony and his buddy passed us by, snickering. As they passed, I heard him mocking me again. “Forget about the quarter, Tony!”

I seethed, but did nothing. Gina, however, turned around in anger. “What did you say?”

Tony gulped. Even though Gina was younger, she wasn’t showing her fear and her voice was confident and accusatory. Perhaps, looking back, he had an older sister or cousin that didn’t take his attitude. In any case, he shriveled in front of Gina. I was proud.

“I heard what happened and that you backed down on your bet. You’re not worth talking to, let alone the price of a quarter, so you leave me and my brother alone!”

It was fantastic! Tony couldn’t get away fast enough. I was elated! We laughed at them through the halls, back to our room.

I proudly told the family what had happened, how my sister Gina had stood up for me and told Tony off.

My father’s anger was unexpected. Normally we were able to anticipate this and brace for it. It’s actually a beautiful thing when it is watched from a distance, his anger. Things happen when he gets upset. Messages get received finally, through the thick skulls of his children. It’s not the only way, of course, but it is my father’s way, just as it is our way to provoke and antagonize him.

He wasn’t that angry with me and I could immediately see that. That was very confusing. I finally realized that he felt that he had failed me and not taught me to stand up for myself. But everyone in my life had treated me like the fragile child, short for my age and not good at physical activity. I had a protective older brother and the rest of my family to answer the world for me. No wonder I didn’t know how to respond to Tony!

Even though a lot of this was beyond me at this young age, I knew by my father’s reaction that I should begin speaking up for myself. I said that this had taught me a lesson and that I’d do my own standing up for the future. My father didn’t look very convinced, but he did see that I didn’t want to go through this again. After telling me to thank my sister, the lecture was over. I still had two more quarters in my pocket, but the afternoon was still sunny and hot and we decided to go swimming instead. I knew that later after dinner, when it was dark, I’d want to be back in that arcade.

Plus, I knew that I’d see Pa again at dinner. I figured I might as well benefit in keeping my grandfather amused. I knew that I did it well. I suspected that he enjoyed laughing at his relatives far more than arguing with them, at least while on vacation.

Annual Christmas Breakdown

// December 18th, 2005 // No Comments » // archive

Lisa and I had quite a day yesterday. The day started off quite well, actually. We were able to sit and eat breakfast before church (rare for us). It wasn’t long, but we both laughed about enjoying the 2 minutes of quiet time before church.

Then we got to church early and got to talk with some friends before starting and again afterwards. Usually we are running in with barely enough time.

We were able to have a good lunch and get home to change for the annual party on my Dad’s side. In fact, Lisa took the time to hang our Christmas lights in front of the house. Again, it’s been the best day already.

We left a little late for the party, but we were confident that we’d be OK because nothing ever starts on time with my family. In fact, we’re usually the first ones there.

Before I continue, I should say that we had car problems last year at this same place, at the same time of year going to the same party. Next year we are taking a cab.

It is here that our day starts getting ugly. I’m on the highway going at a good clip when I see the battery light go on and suddenly it’s VERY hard to steer and our heat goes out. I think we had a conversation along the lines of, Lisa: “You were thinking about car trouble weren’t you? You were thinking about last year?!” Dan: “Yes, I was! It’s still not my fault!”

Luckily we were on the tail end of the turn and I was able to get us off the highway and into the parking lot of the party. In fact, the only snag was not being able to steer into the lot right away, getting honked at in the process (but not rear-ended). I even managed to get the car turned into a spot closeby.

My Dad was able to figure out the problem without even looking at the car. He and my uncle came out, looked under the hood and pulled out the broken fan belt.

Now I call for service (we have AAA). I’m distraught, I’m hungry and I’m stressed. After a few calls back and forth, I work out that we can tow it to a place nearby for free or pay extra to get it towed to a place in Riverside, where we live. I opt to pay the difference (not much).

Cheerfully, the AAA rep tells me that I could upgrade to the “plus” package, which allows you a tow within 100 miles for free. That’s even cheaper than paying the difference in the tow. I’m just about to say. “Yes.” When she tells me that if I sign up for this, I wouldn’t be able to use it for 3 days. I tell her, laughing through gritted teeth, that we need the car fixed now. I take a confirmation number (which Lisa writes on her hand) so that I can call back later when we are ready to be picked up.

At that point, it was 5:00. I probably should have called immediately. Instead I thought I’d enjoy the party. Haha. There are more kids running around at this party than I remember and a few of them want my attention immediately. Nicholas, my nephew is finding it hysterical to put his head up the back of my sweater.

In spite of the fact that I’m thinking about the car, I manage to eat something and talk to most of my family. By this time, most of them know that we have car trouble (again). In fact, most of our conversations at this party start with, “So I hear you broke a fan belt.” Since most of my family conversations usually start with, “Are you working yet?” this is actually a more positive spin on things.

Then at around 6:30, I decide to place the call. They tell me that the towing place will be there by 8:00, most likely sooner.

So I spend the next hour with my cell phone clutched in my hand, hoping it will ring. My cell phone is also kind of low on power, so I’m a little anxious. Lisa tells me to stop checking it so that I can conserve the power I have left.

At around 7:45, I get a call from AAA telling me that the towing place has been called and that they are on their way. They tell me that they should be there by 8:45.

We end up saying goodbye to my entire family. We are the last ones in the party room. In fact, we have to wait inside the bar area, where there’s a Bears game on. (If there’s one thing I dislike more than cars and winter, it might be football). Most of my family have left because they have kids. The ones who don’t have kids have left to go home to watch the Bears game. My Dad, in fact, was AT the Bears game. I’m sure that alcohol must be the only thing keeping people in the stands warm, because I’m by the door of a bar watching for a tow truck and I’m freezing.

I get a few calls from my family on my phone asking me if the tow truck has arrived yet. Furthermore, I get a few cell phone numbers from family to call in case we are left here. Luckily we have a piece of paper to write this information on, since we are running out of space on our hands to write any more numbers.

Finally at about 8:50 pm, I get a call. It’s AAA, telling us that the tow truck is there. (He’s in the wrong parking lot and he didn’t have our cell phone numbers).

We finally get things straightened out and the tow truck guy puts our car on his flat bed truck. I am both amazed and fearful of this process. I know that people must do this thing all the time, but I just don’t want to know about it. Our car is secured by some chain (and who knows what else) and we squeeze into the cab of the tow truck. Between us we have a plastic tub of cookies, and a Peanuts coloring book with a bunch of cell phone numbers written on it.

I don’t remember much of the flight home. I was gripping the dashboard in mortal fear. Our driver weaved in and out of traffic with our only car secured to the back of his truck. I knew that we had to make it through this because we had to live to tell others about it. The moments that I had my eyes open, I had my eyes affixed to the road and the rear-view mirror to make sure our car was still there (not that I could have done anything but scream if something had occurred).

Again, I know that people do this sort of thing all the time. But I don’t want to be part of it, nor do I want to be on the road with them while it happens. Had we strapped a rocket to our car, pointed it at Riverside and launched it, I don’t think we could have made it home any faster.

We made it home in one piece, with our car outside of the Riverside Garage. I’m still waiting for a call on my (fully charged) phone to find out when our car will be ready.

I also feel that we are lucky in this situation (again) because it could have been so much worse. We made it off the highway to the party with only one irate driver behind me. I think that’s pretty good odds, especially the way I drive.

So that was our day yesterday. I’m going to spend most of today drinking hot liquids, setting my desk on fire and glancing at my cell phone to see if our garage called. Maybe I’ll even get some work done.

Lucky Me!

// December 15th, 2005 // No Comments » // archive

Yesterday was the office holiday lunch. Well, I say “office” kind of loosely, because it’s an old loft building. It doesn’t feel very officey (can be good) but it also doesn’t feel very functional either. There’s extra computers set up on the conference table. Also there are power cords strewn all across the room. A pool table in the middle of the room, next to a swanky couch are covered in boxes, packaging and designs in the works. My desk is a table made from plywood and duct tape (and the duct tape is winning). The legs are pieced together from plumbing pipe. It looks great and would look even better if I could have better lighting. Ironic because I’m working on the website for a Tech Lighting company. I have a lamp that plugs into the mass of extension cords beneath my desk, but the plug is the size of a coffee mug and keeps falling out of the socket. Also the office chairs are less than perfect and keep switching on me. I had one day where I had the perfect chair. Then when I came back, I had a loose one again. The other day, I distinctly heard a screw or a bolt fall from my chair. There’s been no other sound or movement from that area, so I think I’m OK. I can’t see below my knees anyway.

Aaaaaanyway, yesterday was the office holiday lunch. Well, I say “lunch” kind of loosely because I don’t actually know what went on. We were told to take a 2 hour lunch because their office was closed for 2 hours. No, we couldn’t stay and do work (which there still was a lot of). We had to go outside and walk amidst the unshoveled sidewalks looking for a close place to eat. There’s a Subway and a Starbucks (good for me, but bad because of the piled up snow and slush).

So I walked to the Subway and had a good lunch. I got a wrap and ate well. The restaurant was very brightly lit, a plus for me. I brought my laptop, intending to work for an hour on some other freelance projects. It’s nice to be busy. After eating, I packed up and decided to go to Starbucks and work.

I arrived, asking for my usual (large coffee, sugar-free vanilla). I am so predictable. I’m glad that there’s a Starbucks near this office (I’m glad of anything near this office). As I go to pay, I realize… I don’t have my wallet! I am stricken. The girl tells me not to worry, gives me the coffee and tells me not to worry about it. I’m too stricken to think clearly and I grab the coffee. I don’t even think that I’m going to have to trudge over snowy sidewalks searching. I grab it and go.

All along the way I am searching the ground, the snow, the slush, the gray stuff that could be ground, snow and slush together. I’m looking for a black wallet in a Chicago winter. Good luck!

I make my way to Subway, the coffee in hand, not realizing that I have flown accross this terrain without hurting myself, spilling my coffee or ramming into anyone or anything.

I first go to where I was sitting and ask the woman there if she’s seen a black wallet. Neither of us looks under her chair. I go to the counter and ask 2 people if they saw a black wallet. They haven’t but suggest places where it might have fallen or been kicked under something. Then I go back to where I was sitting and look underneath it. There’s the wallet that neither of us could see before. I’m safe! The entire store is telling me how lucky I am. I agree with them!

I go back to the Starbucks and pay the girl at the counter. I told her I found it. She looks at me briefly as if I have 2 or 3 heads. “You didn’t have to come back!” she cries, admonishing me. I thanked her again.

Then I finally go to a table where I can do one of my favorite things: work in a cafe and drink coffee. Plus I have about 40 minutes left before I have to walk 5 more blocks to work. That’s when I notice Jeff, one of the other freelancers. He’s also here, banished from the office. “Killing time, too, huh?” he laughs. We pick a table to sit at and instead of working, I chat with him for 20 minutes. We work next to each other but not on the same thing, so we barely say two words to each other. So now we’re actually getting to talk. But in the back of my head, I’m thinking about work and how much I need to do.

After 20 minutes, he starts to read and I just set up my laptop to try to get something accomplished at this 2 hour lunch. I manage to answer a few e-mails, open a few files to check them but on the whole, not accomplishing much. Furthermore, I need to walk 5 more blocks back to the office, lugging my laptop.

I start moving, walking behind Jeff. About 2 blocks in, during our daring traverse down 100 N. Morgan, I lag behind severely. Another pedestrian is walking in the other direction. There is not enough room for 2 people on this path. A shovel’s width of cleared snow and slush is between us. I try to step aside, but there is hardly enough footing. She squeezes past. I breathe a sigh. I can continue, though my reserves are nearly out. I debate about setting up camp here, but decide to move on.

Jeff is waiting for me. “I was wondering what happened to you!”

“One man paths. Dangerous!”

We move forward. Without further incident, we reach our goal. Thankfully the door is unlocked, because there’s no one in to buzz us. There’s an elevator, but Jeff climbs the stairs. I do the same and by the end of this, I know why I never take these stairs.

When we finally reach the office door, I’m ready to take my coat off and unpack my bag. I set down my coffee (yes I had it all the time, didn’t you know?) and prepare to open the door.

Unfortunately, it’s locked. There’s another freelancer waiting by the door. I think he’s been here a while. He’s seated on the steps. I at least can take off my coat, which helps.

There we wait for about 10 more minutes for the regular office staff to get back.

I don’t mind that I missed the party/lunch. I’m going to plenty of parties in the next few weeks (and I’m looking forward to them). I would just rather get back to work, not to mention finish the deadlines. Were they afraid that I’d start taking things from the office? How? I couldn’t walk off with equipment. I’d be too concerned of tripping over power cords.

In fact, I was scrambling to finish this example of a work in progress before the weekend, thinking that there was some monstrous deadline. Instead, when I send it off, a co-worker said he wouldn’t get to it until Tuesday. Then it hit me. The last two holidays I wasn’t necessarily working through them. This holiday, I’m busy, following up leads and working on 2, perhaps 3 projects. I’m lucky.

So I put down my coffee and get back to work. There’s stuff to do. And I’m lucky!