Archive for January, 2006

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.