Brinley Cake

My youngest turned four on the 13th of this month, and we had her party yesterday. About sixty people descended on the homestead, we put up a bouncy house, the weather could not have been better and kids sucked down juice boxes like mosquitoes attached to a major artery.

The same cast of characters shows every year, though the guest list has grown steadily. We buy some pizza, Italian beef, my wife whips up a mean coleslaw and we stock up the fridge with drinks (besides juice boxes). My sister-in-law bakes a cake every year for the party. She calls it Brinley cake.

This cake is the the best cake ever made. Can I say that with a straight face? Yes. Because no matter what fine torte Louis the XVI enjoyed or what delightful baked sweet the Queen of England ever let pass beyond her lips, it cannot match this cake.

How am I so sure? There is an extra ingredient (besides the sour cream that makes it so moist you want to cry). The ingredient is Brinley herself.

My sister-in-law made the cake when my daughter was born to be part of the general celebration. But as it happened there was no celebration. The news was not good from the start. And oh, we were not prepared. At all.

My wife, who will willingly say she has the patience of a gnat on methamphetamines, used to joke with a friend that if she ever had a kid with special needs, the friend would have to adopt it, because my wife couldn’t handle it. (The friend is an avid supporter of Special Olympics). Be careful when big ears are listening.

The day after the birth I came home to see my older kids and my wife’s family who had gathered to welcome the new little one. I rose up from the couch in the living room, legs stiff, voice thick, nose plugged, the usual symptoms of grief. I thanked everyone for coming, and I’m sure no one understood the words, but everyone understood the pain. We tried to eat the cake then. It tasted like sand. Because everything tasted wrong that day.

The next year, the first time we had this party, the tradition began. My sister-in-law arrived with the cake in tow. My youngest daughter, who we doubted would even recognize us when she was born, smiled to her friends gathered around her. She did freak out a little when the whole group started singing to her though. Nonetheless, the Brinley cake was passed out and the people ate their pieces and closed their mouths on ecstasy, and weren’t scared to remark on it. The cake melts in your mouth, with chocolate chips strewn throughout like little nuggets of gold. Brinley had defied the doubters (including, at times, her own parents) and the cake’s flavor now had an ingredient no one, not the best European chef, could account for.

And so it was again, yesterday, that the Brinley cake arrived. We sang “Happy Birthday,” but this time remembered to sing it more Norah Jones style rather than Axl Rose, which pleased the girl of honor very much, thank you. She blew out the candles on her namesake cake, along with slightly too much drool, and then the pieces were passed around.

It was delicious. The best ever made.

Voting for Trump

To me, it’s not complex. It’s about voting to maintain my nation, versus ceding total control to a global elite that doesn’t answer to me or any other American.

I hear a lot of people saying that Trump makes them uncomfortable because of the things he says. He’s a loose cannon! Don’t let him near the nukes!

My answer to this, again, is simple. One candidate loves this country and wants to make it great again. The other wants to change it to fit her, and her minions’, view about what is “better.” I am convinced Trump loves this country and his decision making would spring from that.

Let me ask you, if you were thinking about dating someone and considering them for a long term relationship, would you want the one who was going to support you and allow you to spread your wings to be the best that you can be? Or would you rather have a hectoring nanny telling you all the things that are wrong with you, and who plans on instituting rules (down to who goes into your bathroom!) so you are “bettered,” whether you like it or not.

I know who I’d choose.

Favorite Anxiety

My kids love to establish a person’s favorite things. Favorite food, favorite movie, favorite season, favorite pair of socks, favorite window in the house, favorite character in Frozen, etc, ad naseum, ad infinitum. And they’re not alone. Social media is peppered with favorites lists, where you identify your own and then tag other people to have a Favorites Festival.

I confess to having a hard time with determining my favorites. Ask me about books, movies, or TV shows, and I’ll start massaging the question. “Do you mean movies before 1950s? How about favorite classic book? Do you mean animated TV shows?”

And of course, there’s the pressure to choose a movie/book/TV show you’re supposed to like versus one you’d actually pick up and read again. You might have a hard time admitting to the one you’d pick up again, because people might judge your tastes as being “problematic.”

For example: are you allowed to identify “The Honeymooners” as your favorite TV show anymore, if the main character is always threatening domestic violence? “One of these days…” Maybe that show will one day be sent down the memory hole into nonexistence. “There were never Honeymooners. In fact, there are no honeymoons. And if you had to define honeymoons, they would be considered a remnant of a past patriarchal society where there was this thing called marriage, and a honeymoon followed that archaic ceremony. Thankfully, we’re past all that.”

Look at me, going all 1984. But back to the main point, I deal with Favorite Anxiety. I get asked the question (even by my kids) and my mind begins to race. “I could say X, but I’m probably forgetting the Y that I can’t think of at the moment. Argh! Ten minutes from now I’ll remember Y and I’ll want to amend my statement.” No one wants to hear a revision to your identified favorite later in the conversation. Learn to commit, man!

Let’s take a for instance. I have said in the past (but not always because I probably forgot it!) that my favorite movie is The 400 Blows. What? A French black and white film about a boy on the lam from school? So pretentious, Chad. Did you take a film class in college and you gotta throw that movie out there to show your cred? Full disclosure: I did watch this for a film class in college.

Ok, deep breath. I just have to own my favorites, and let them stand up on their own terms. Yes, I like, nay love, that French flick, but I have watched an American Werewolf in London more times than any other movie. I watch it every Halloween. Perhaps I’ll peg that as a strong second.

What I need to do is get a list going on my mobile phone. That’ll relieve my anxiety. I’ll just reference the list whenever I face a question. Next time my eldest asks me what my favorite vegetable is, I’ll go right to the list. “Oh, right, it’s avocado.”

“That’s not technically a vegetable, Dad.” Favorite Anxiety strikes again!

I Want a Reason!

Those with kids out there – has this ever happened to you? You’ve prepared a little something for yourself and children magically appear around you for a handout. It’s like they’ve been beamed down to join you, Star Trek style, their little chins are suddenly resting on your shoulders, their eyes pleading and their tummies empty. So, so empty.

My youngest daughter can hear the slightest crinkle caused by opening a bag of tortilla chips within a half mile radius. She’s like a shark sensing one part per billion of blood in the water. If a bag opens in her vicinity, she drops whatever Little Critter book is occupying her at the moment and begins to circle.

Last night, I had just microwaved myself some nachos when my son and daughter appeared at my elbows, little fingers reaching, mouths watering. Now, I have let them have the occasional bite in the past, but on this night, I wasn’t interested in sharing. I told them both, “no.” I’d made myself a dish I wanted to enjoy on my own.

My son said, “Ok, then make me a plate of my own.”

I again told him no. He asked me his favorite question, with just a dash of accusation to spice it up. “Why?”

“Because the answer is ‘no'” was my response.

He flung himself onto a couch in the living room, which shares space with the dining room in our home. “But,” he informed me, “I want a reason!”

“No reason,” I said. “Just ‘no.'” This flummoxed his seven year old mind. Wasn’t I supposed to give him something? Wasn’t that my duty as a caring loving father ready to talk out why he’d already eaten all the food he needed for the day?

Nope. It was that day’s lesson in “life’s not fair, buckaroo.”

Maybe a little cruel. But my nachos, all to myself, were delicious. It’s the little victories, really, that make parenting worthwhile.


Soccer and Cross-country: ‘burb Living Edition

Two Saturday’s ago, I debuted as a soccer coach for my son’s team. I haven’t played soccer in any official capacity since seventh grade, where I was lucky enough to be a starting defender on the Stallions. Most of the members of the Stallions had been harnessed together since they could strap on shin guards, so I was lucky to join them for the ride. We walloped the teams we faced due to our great chemistry and forwards that could fly up the field. We ended up winning the Saguaro league championship (very AZ name, eh?) at the end of the season. My assignment as a defender was to not let the ball get past me, and in the rare event a player managed to accomplish this feat, run him down.

I even picked up a few yellow cards for tackling a player from behind. This always stunned my teammates, who had me pegged as a squeaky clean, decent sort of chap. I didn’t like people getting by me, though. Held a bit of a grudge about it.

Flash forward thirty some odd years and I’m coaching my son’s team. Thankfully, I’ve got “assistant” in front of my title, because otherwise I don’t think I’d be doing the position justice. The head coach and I have players with a range of skill levels from: “Can kick soccer ball in general direction intended,” to “Can frantically dance around soccer ball in semblance of strange magic ritual without ever actually touching it.”

During our first game, we were surprisingly competitive. The most amusing moments occurred when I was walking the players who had volunteered to serve as goalie for the quarter out onto the field. I asked each one: “Do you know the rules for being a goalie?” One kid gave me the classic blank stare. The next said, “Oh yeah” like the guy with the deep voice in the Ferris Bueller song. He had so much confidence oozing off of him you could have bottled it. But I wasn’t the assistant coach for nothing. I said to him, “So, tell me what the rules are.” Blank stare. I explained how he could use his hands within the defined box laid out on the field in chalk. He gave me a squint, trying to discern why I was bothering him with these petty details, and noted, so as to alleviate any confusion I might have about the matter, “I am an excellent soccer player.”

We won the game 2-1. I can’t say that it was our excellent goalie play that made the difference. Perhaps our confidence put us over the edge.

Flash forward a week and my ten year old daughter participated in her first cross country meet. I have no hidden cross country past to report, so it was as new for me as it was for her. I joined the throng gathered at the starting line. The cheering there was fairly muted, because the weather was soggy and the female runners from our team had inexplicably taken off prior to the starting whistle. I asked a parent close by: were the teams supposed to start at different times? No. They all start together. Well, where were our girls? Apparently, our coach had sent our squad off to “run the course.” More confusion on my part. Isn’t that something they should do, say, a half hour before, not right before the race is to begin?

After a few more confused and anxious moments, the girls from our squad poured back to the line, out of breath, red-cheeked, shrugging shoulders, looking at each other with some embarassment, apparently as confused as I was. Turns out the coach had not asked them to run the course. He’d asked them to “run to the pavement.” By this, he’d meant the sidewalk about 40 feet away to get a feel for starting out, but the girls had taken him to mean the street, which was a half mile distant. They hadn’t known which pavement he meant and had been too scared to ask. Lesson for my daughter: don’t fear the coach. Ask!

I moved to the finish line to see her return. I learned that day that the finish is nearly always painful for the runner and celebratory for everyone else. Shouts of encouragement echoed around the park as the runners came in. That same anguish you see on elite marthoners’ faces as they struggle for the finish line was written all over the faces of these kids trying to finish a mile or two. My daughter cruised in with a time that was better than any she’d done in the past for the distance. Like the other parents, I went to full-throated cheering section as her face flickered between anguish and determination with the finish line in sight. She placed 11th out of 57 girls.

Afterward, we stood together by a tree. She was crying because she felt like she was going to puke. I wondered then if she’d ever do this again. She seemed stripped down by the whole experience. Then, the congratulations from her teammates and other parents began to roll in. “11th out of 57 – at your first race? Wow!” Interest flickered in her eyes. I don’t think we’ve seen our last cross country meet.

I often talk with other suburban parents about how many sports they have their kids in, and am usually shocked at the schedules they keep. Don’t get me started on baseball. Those parents are saints. My wife and I are in total agreement that we don’t want our lives consumed by our kids’ activities. But, so far, the schedule isn’t too bad, and between the comedy on the soccer field and the exalted anguish at the cross country meet, sporting events in the ‘burbs appear to be worth it.

Goodreads Reviews on Stung

Check out some reviews of Stung here.

Stung is my first book and it is amazing how much of a charge a positive review can give you. I read any review, whether it is negative or positive, with a feverish intensity, gleaning the salient points, and then it’s over so quickly. Did I take anything in really? Well. I must reread it. What did this word mean? Do I know this person? What can I learn from this? More!

I’m slightly addicted, but I think it’s good to use the positive feedback to push you to write, write, write some more.

You can get that charge again, Chad-the-writer, but only if you do the work!

Advice at the Gym

An interesting psychological game plays out on occasion at the gym between guys. This might go on between girls, too, but I’ve never been involved in it. It involves unsolicited advice and action.

You’re there, you have your program, and you see someone doing something so wrong, it can’t possibly be benefiting them, and might actually be hurting them. Or, conversely, you have your plan and it only looks like you’re doing something wrong, that actually does benefit you, even though it appears you might be in extreme jeopardy of injuring yourself.

What to do if you’re either one of those two? My general rule is to never comment on someone else’s routine. I live in my cone at the gym, and I’m there doing what works for me, and I expect others to live by the same guideline.

But doing something different from the norm – say for example, following the Mark Rippetoe system of training which involves heavy lifting and pushing yourself to add slightly more each week – can elicit the odd comment now and again, and the odd action. Here are some of the usual suspects and how they behave:

  • The Questioner – This guy asks you about your routine, but not with real curiosity. He’s asking because he wants to tell you what you’re doing wrong. An example of this: “Hey, man, I noticed you’re looking at the floor on your squats. Why man? Throws your back out of alignment. Now, if you want to do a real squat, etc.” I usually cite Rippetoe’s method, and leave it at that. I’m not trying to make a convert.
  • The Recommender – Your set is done, you’re feeling good, if a little spent, you’re ready for a nice long sit. Old dude with a bandanna circling his head, either wearing jogging pants that hit him too high at the ankles or possibly jeans, says, “You know what works for me…” And I’m sure it does work for him. But if I’ve got something working for me, why would I switch to his routine? Because I aspire to his reach his sartorial levels?
  • The Hoverer – This is the guy who thinks you might need a spot, even though you know you don’t. I’m not afraid to ask for someone to spot me, but if I know I’m fine on the weight, I don’t. This happened to me with a young kid a few weeks ago. He would just linger during the entire set, a shadow that I found distracting. I didn’t end up saying something to him, but I was sorely tempted.

Here’s why: I don’t mind the Hoverer so much. I think the inclination to save the life of your fellow gym member is a good one. It’s like when my wife warns me about something while driving. My inclination is to say, “Yeah, I see it,” with some reprimand in my tone to send the message  “hello, I’ve got this driving thing, you don’t need to give me the extra pair of eyes routine.” But I try to keep that biting tone in check, and say thanks. An extra pair of eyes could save your life, and a hoverer could save your neck.

In general, I don’t fall into any of the three roles I mention above. But who knows? As my pants get shorter and my inclination to give people personal space erodes (does that happen to everyone past a certain age?), maybe I’ll start advising the heck out of the whippersnappers at the local Y. “I’ve got some questions and recommendations while I hover, and don’t you forget it!”

Supper Club

Here’s some original writing. A little vignette:

“Supper Club”

We ate the Artist.

He came so highly recommended. When he first showed up on the scene, we had our doubts, even though his handlers entered with ribbons in their hair and trumpets on their lips. He was something to behold: skin like milk and eyes flashing furious scorn. A god enraged. He was young and we panted at his prospect, but we noted he was worryingly tough. Who wants to chew on iron? Could he escape us?

His handlers reassured us. They patted us on our hairy arms. In the end, we did not dismiss him, though we doubted any salt would season him properly. He delighted in exposing our wickedness. He rubbed our pretenses in our faces and this stung. It could have fouled the meal. Time and again, he found the mediums (he even blogged and tweeted) and insisted he was an “Artist” and, gesturing in our general direction, claimed he was “above all that.” This kept us interested. We knew the signs. He could not tear himself away.

Nothing tenderizes like fame.

And we are patient. He had all the basic ingredients and time is on our side. He flung himself out and about and, like Ruth in Boaz’s fields, we plucked up his offerings eagerly with only a hint of shame. (Yes, we have read the Good Book, though we are pleased to forget the point).

We remember well the film he directed and starred in, with its pleasing lack of both a point and clothing. It was consumed like his TV Guide channel interviews and his rancid college short story collection and his unauthorized biography. We recognized these as signs of more to come, more of his essential self, and we gobbled them all, his leavings, their juices dribbling down our necks. Yes, they were tart and rude and objectionable. We admit to struggling to swallow some of it. His nascent and pungent political stylings in particular caused some heartburn, but the antacid slew of light romantic comedies he condescended to perform in with the “It Girls” of the moment helped keep the rest of it down. It boiled in our stomach and we craved ever more.

The halcyon days came. The big budget films and the adulation. He willed himself to power and we loved it. More and more he let slip out and we scarfed it all down.

Finally, he was forty-two and fading and for us he had reached his most delectable state. We gathered round tables and winked our knowing eyes and tucked napkins under our chins.

The Artist peered at himself in the mirror, a wasted cliché, empty, like the bottle of pills lying there next to his shaking hands.

One last performance. One final meal.

Anti-fragile Christianity

Just a little follow-up on yesterday’s post on anti-fragility. Taleb’s book hasn’t gotten to this issue yet, and maybe it won’t, but it occurred to me how this concept could be applied to our own spiritual lives.

The classic question – why does God let bad things happen to good people? To take a specific, famous example from the Bible itself – why does God take the devil’s challenge and allow Job to be tested even if he is a godly man?

The answer isn’t that God is a closet sadist, eager to let his people suffer. Instead, I think it’s tied up in anti-fragility. God knows you need to grow spiritually, and suffering makes you stronger. That, in effect, we need it to be better.

Check out the end of Job, Chapter 42:

Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.

Are You Anti-Fragile or Fragile?

Have you ever had a book blow your mind in the first ten pages? Well, I’m seventy or so pages into Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder and my mind’s been blowing up like the last thirty seconds of a fourth of July fireworks show.

Taleb talks about how Antifragility is the one central idea of his life. It is the opposite of fragile, which most people improperly define as “stable, resistant, long-lasting, unbreakable, etc.” Instead, anti-fragile things, such as our bodies, naturally become stronger when they are stressed. Think about our immune systems. They do not break under stress, they improve.

One interesting note, for the Russian language major in me, is that Taleb scans all the major languages and none of them have a word like “antifragile” to capture this concept. It’s a literal linguistic blind spot. (Did I make a half pun there?) And as we’ve sought to lower the stress we experience in modern society, we’ve protected ourselves and become, ironically, more fragile in the process. We have put our happiness and health at risk.

We know about antifragility intuitively. We have the old adage: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it’s more nuanced than that. Sometimes a stress will indeed kill you (see knife, directed toward chest). But totally eliminating stress from your life? Extremely bad.

How does this apply to you? How it applies to me is what’s making my brain go kaboom. How often do I avoid risks because I fear pain/loss/backlash/stress? How much more full would my life be if I risked more and received the necessary feedback stress incurs?

Taleb talks about how the antifragile person/system/thing makes many small recoverable errors, is stressed by them, recovers and becomes stronger because of them. So, it’s time to stretch and “stress” myself out.