Hungry Bears Drop By For A Backyard Picnic

bear in trash
Un-bear-able behavior —One man’s trash is another bear’s lunch!

I took our dogs out around 10 pm recently when our Chihuahua started barking her head off. She stared at a spot beyond our fence, near the garage cans. I couldn’t see anything…just shifting black shadows against a black background.

And then I saw a dim patch of tan fur.

I grabbed the Chihuahua under one arm, and our Jack Russell/dachshund mix under the other (no easy feat since she’s rather rotund).

“Let’s get inside,” I said to my wife. “I think we’ve got a bear.”

Bear With It

This wasn’t the first time bears have visited. Two years ago I put my garbage out on a Monday night and awoke Tuesday morning to overturned cans and trash strewn all over the street. Last year, they went after our bird feeders, crushing one, and swatting another from its hook. I found it 20 feet away in the middle of our yard.

But this was the first time we’d actually seen bear in action. I got my flashlight and shined it out the window. There was a bear roughly the size of a Rottweiler climbing over our fence. Momma was already in our back yard, standing next to an overturned garbage can. She was huge, 600 pounds at least. She looked at my flashlight beam, but wasn’t the least intimidated. She calmly went back to eating our Chinese leftovers; tan snout poking around in a square white container of fried rice.

We’d never had bears inside our fence before (as far as we knew), and it was a bit unsettling. Momma was big.

“They must be starving,” my wife noted.

“Should I chase them away?” I asked. It seemed a little late to be banging pots and pans. Plus, I had a feeling these bears wouldn’t scare easily (not as easily as I would, at least).

“Let them eat,” my wife said. “They’ll go away when they’re finished.”

“Should I call the police?” I asked.

My wife looked at me like I should be wearing a pink muumuu and bunny slippers.

“Let them eat.”

Grin And Bear It

So for the next hour the bears had a leisurely picnic in our back yard. They tore open another bag and started in on my wife’s ziti. It was awesome the week before, and apparently the bears found it still pretty tasty. Junior sprawled out on its belly, head inside our garbage can, while Big Momma stood a few feet away.

Eventually I looked out and saw that Junior was gone. Momma was still there, but after a few minutes she stood, put her paws against the trunk of a tree, and started climbing up. I could only imagine the strength it took to haul her big butt up that tree. It was an amazing sight, breathtakingly beautiful and pee-your-pants scary all at once.

bear trash
Yeah, that’s gonna be a fun clean-up.

Insert Stupid Bear Pun Here

I checked back an hour later and didn’t see any sign of bears, other than a bunch of torn trash bags and several broken fence pickets.

I was about to go get the dogs when I heard a growl come from the dark tree branches above me. It was deep, resonant, and somewhat metallic, like a corrugated garage door being thrown open, or an engine block dragged across a concrete floor. I ran back inside.

“I think they’re still out there! Up in the tree!” I said to my wife.

“So we’ll put the dogs on leashes and take them in the front yard,” she said.

“Should I, like…bring a baseball bat?”

“Don’t be scared,” my wife said. “Our Chihuahua will protect you.”

She’s funny, my wife.

Hope she keeps her sense of humor when she’s cleaning up the yard tomorrow.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, November 2011

What’s For Dinner? Baked Cell Phone and Steamed Dad

My son’s name is Rocco, but Conan the Destroyer would be more apt. The boy has an appetite for destruction, and he’s always hungry.

Rocco’s autism is a factor in his destructive behavior. He often uses items in inappropriate ways, like raiding my wallet and using the credit cards in an origami display (the plastic card in the cable box folds nicely, too!) or making a concoction of cinnamon and onion powder over the toaster (which makes for funky waffles.) Autism accounts for some of these behaviors, but I think even if Rocco were a typical kid he’d have a destructive streak. He likes to see how things are put together…and how they come apart.

Demolition Man

Electronics are a Rocco favorite. He toasted a not-so-Toughbook and destroyed several iPods. Wireless phones are a constant terror target. I knew trouble was brewing the afternoon I called my wife’s phone and Rocco answered. He was laughing wildly and I heard water running in the background.

GuyInShowerOnPhone1
My son thought it was funny bringing Mommy’s cell phone in the shower. What a sense of humor on that kid!

“Buddy?” I said. “Hey, Roc! Give Mommy the phone.”

He laughed and hung up. I called back but got no answer. I sent a text.

‘Roc’s got your phone. Not a toy!’

No reply…until I got home that night.

“Bad news,” my wife said, shortly after I walked through the front door. “Want it now?”

I didn’t, but my six-year-old daughter spilled the beans anyway.

“Rocco took Mommy’s phone in the shower,” she said. “Now it doesn’t work.”

This was bad news. Mom’s phone was a re-activated older model, because her new phone broke under “unknown circumstances.” The old flip phone had a cracked front screen, surrounded by mysterious teeth marks, but otherwise worked fine.

Until today.

Soggy, No Service

Now the phone was a soggy mess, the tiny space behind the screen filled with water, a lifeless aquarium.

“Did you put it in rice?” I asked. This wasn’t our first wireless phone to take a swim. We’d rescued submersed phones before by tossing them in a bag of rice, which absorbs the moisture.

“We don’t have any rice.”

What now? A hair dryer? That would be loud, tedious work. I am a self-proclaimed “Daddy Who Fixes Things,” and I try hard to live up to the title. But this was a tough fix.

phone in oven
Baked phones — call it delish!

“Maybe we could put it in the oven, bake it at, say, 100 degrees?” I suggested.

It was worth a try. We removed the battery and baked the phone for a few hours. We tried the phone later and the screen powered up, misted with internal condensation. The buttons still weren’t working, so we turned off the oven and left the phone in there overnight.

My wife tried it the next morning. The phone powered up and she ran through the menus, gave it a test run.

“Wow. Everything works,” she smiled. “You’re my hero.”

I felt like one, too. It’s not every man who can resurrect a drowned cell phone from a watery grave. Only a Daddy Who Fixes Things.

“There’s a new text message,” my wife said, clicking it open. “Yes, Rocco’s got my phone…no, it’s not a toy…”

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Originally published in  Wayne TODAY Newspapers, September 2010.

Oven_on_fire
Not all cell phone baking projects turn out well.

Nancy Grace. Ghoul. Monster. Homewrecker.

nancy_grace
This helmet-haired monster is destroying my marriage, the same way she ruins the lives of so many of her “guests.

There are lots of things that can hurt a marriage; financial problems, infidelity, differences in religion, differences in parenting, differences of opinion.

In our house one of the biggest marital strains is another woman; a woman who comes into our home every night at ten o’clock.

Her name is Nancy Grace.

Nancy Grace has a “true crime show” on CNN / Headline News. My wife loves the Nancy Grace show and watches her most every night.

I feel physically ill whenever I see Nancy Grace. I have a similar reaction to Sarah Jessica Parker and Hillary Clinton. There’s something about the look, sound, and mannerisms of these women that makes me twitch.

But Nancy Grace holds a special place of disgust in my heart because she passes her show off as “journalism” when it’s really “info-tainment” at best, in same league as Maury Pauvich. Her show is loud; there are usually three to five “info boxes” and text crawls on screen at any given time, filled with lurid lines like, “Husband Murders Pregnant Wife?” “Child Buried Alive” and “Tot Mom Posts Racy Web Photos.”

Nancy Grace loves the gory details of crimes; she seems to revel in them, even though she’ll act indignant and shocked as she repeats them over and over again. I flipped out one night last summer as she was reviewing the details of the Caylee Anthony murder case. She must have asked the question, “Is there soft tissue on the duct tape? Is there soft tissue on the duct tape?” fifty times, in that sharp Southern twang of hers. Doesn’t she realize that “soft tissue” she keeps harping about were once the lips of a little girl? Can’t she just chill out about it?

“She’s a ghoul,” I tell my wife. “All she does is talk about dead kids, dwelling on the details of their murders. It’s sick.”

“She’s a champion for victims’ rights,” my wife disagrees. “Her fiancé was murdered when she was young and that drove her to become a prosecutor. She’s worked extensively with abused women and children.”

“Didn’t she badger a guest into killing herself?” I ask.

“That woman killed herself because she was guilty!” my wife screams. “That (expletive) killed her own kid and Nancy Grace called her on it!”

In 2006, Grace interviewed 21 year-old Melinda Duckett; Duckett’s two-year-old son had gone missing two weeks prior. Grace hammered Duckett with questions about her son’s disappearance and Duckett gave vague, confused, and elusive answers. The next day Melinda Duckett killed herself. That didn’t stop Nancy Grace from airing her interview with Duckett that evening. During the interview one of those ever-present info boxes appeared on screen; “SINCE SHOW TAPING BODY OF MELINDA DUCKETT FOUND AT GRANDPARENTS’ HOME.”

Nancy nip slip
Nancy Grace’s finest TV moment — accidentally exposing her saucer-sized areola on “Dancing With The Stars.

If Nancy Grace was searching for a murder suspect that night she didn’t have to look any further than her own dressing room mirror. (Grace has since settled with the Duckett family over Melinda’s death.)

“Nancy Grace is a (expletive)!” I shout, pointing out how she portrayed the Duke Lacrosse players as rapists for weeks on her show (they were later cleared of all charges) and the way she callously prodded kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart for details of her harrowing encounter.

“No she’s not!” my wife counters, pointing out the number of child abusers she’s exposed on her show and helped put behind bars as a prosecutor. “Maybe you’re a (expletive)!”

It gets pretty ugly sometimes. I know that my wife is probably right; both about Nancy Grace being a champion for victims rights and about me being a (expletive).  Even though Nancy Grace likes to glorify the gory details of tragedy maybe she has an overall positive effect on society by shining a spotlight on heinous crimes and keeping it there.

It’s her delivery that rubs me the wrong way. It’s funny, when I hear Howard Stern or Larry David yelling and screaming about something it usually makes me laugh. But when I hear Nancy Grace (and Hillary Clinton) ranting it gives me a headache.  To me, all four people are part of the entertainment industry. It’s when you start thinking of these people as something other than performers that you run into problems, like considering Nancy Grace a reliable news source, or thinking that Hillary Clinton is actually representing your interests in government.

Evidently I’m not alone in my distaste for Ms. Grace; do an Internet search and along with Nancy Grace’s CNN profile page you’ll find links to web sites like nancygracemustdie.com and a Facebook page for Nancy Grace Sucks Fat Balls. Sometimes when I’m at work I’ll surf over to these sites and giggle, file away a laugh for later that night. I’ll need it when the beast is loose in my home again, with her helmet hair and Southern drawl and endless drone, “Is there soft tissue on the duct tape? Is there soft tissue on the duct tape?”

Sometimes you have to work to keep a marriage happy. Other times you just have to laugh it off.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, November 2009

Reflecting on a Dumpy House, and A Wonderful Home

our old house
Our house was a total crap-shack when we bought it. (Speaking of which, this photo shows part of a new septic installation.)

 I play a goofy game with my kids when we’re out. If we pass a mirror, I’ll pause and say, “Hey, check out those good lookin’ kids!” The kids turn, look, and see that the “good lookin’ kids” I’m referring to are them.

I’ve played this game with my kids for years, since they were infants, really. It used to illicit smiles and laughs, but now it usually only gets me an eye-roll and/or an exasperated sigh. Sometimes my kids ignore me completely. It might be time to retire the “good lookin’ kid” game.

But my daughter recently flipped the script on me.

house refurb
Our house finally got a much needed facelift in 2010, thanks to my son (allegedly) eating lead paint chips in the old porch … but that’s another story.

My kids splashed around in the kiddie pool. I kept one eye on them, and looked over our property with the other. Our lawn was a mix of brown patches (courtesy of our dogs) and crabgrass. The flowerbeds needed weeding, Preening, and mulching.

The inside of the house wasn’t much better — baseboards missing from renovations begun a decade ago, hardwood floors gouged and pitted (again, courtesy of our dogs). Every room needed a fresh coat of paint. The basement needed waterproofing, and a sump pump.

Homeownership is an ongoing battle, one I often feel I’m losing. When do you find the time and energy to keep up with all the work that needs to be done? How do you afford to improve, or even maintain, your home when it’s a struggle to keep up with the monthly bills? And what am I trying to pay off? A dumpy yellow shack that’s small and cramped.

Sometimes I look at our place, and I don’t see a house. I see an albatross around my neck, a lightening rod strapped to my back, a stone tied to my ankle as I try to keep afloat in deep water.

“Hey, Dad!” my daughter yelled. “I see a beautiful yellow house over there!”

“Where?” I tried to see where she was looking. Was there new construction in our neighborhood?

“There!” She pointed to our neighbor’s windows.

New front steps
Homegrown pumpkins line our new front steps, fall of 2012.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“It’s our house, Dad!” she said. “In the glass. See it? It’s our beautiful yellow house!”

I saw it then, a wavy reflection in the neighbor’s glass windows.

Our house.

Perspective is everything. If you don’t like the way something looks, walk around and look at it from a different angle. Viewed through my daughter’s eyes, our house never looked better, not a shabby shack at all, but a love shack.

“I see it now,” I told her. “And it’s the most beautiful house in town.”

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, June 2010.

Homegrown Puppies or How We Fostered A Pregnant Stray Dog

Back in January 2013, my wife and I fostered a pregnant dog named Buttons.

buttons head
Meet Buttons!

Buttons was on the “kill list” at a shelter in West Virginia, but some kindly animal rescuers transported her to the Bloomingdale Animal Shelter Society in Bloomingdale, NJ. We agreed to foster Buttons, and find homes for her and her puppies. It was one of the most reward things my wife and I have ever done. Read all about it below, and check out our Buttons Had Puppies Blog.

Meanwhile, we’re keeping tabs on all the puppies in their new homes (including Momma Buttons, who was adopted by my brother’s family in Massachusetts.) We got to puppy-sit June Carter Cash recently, and Jimi Hendrix is coming for a week later this month. (Check out some great video of Jimi swimming here!) It’s awesome watching “the kids” growing up!

Here’s the full story (well, the full backstory, anyway. The story of Buttons and her puppies continues to be written!)

Homeless, Pregnant, and Alone

Shortly after New Years, my wife and I learned the Bloomingdale Animal Shelter Society (BASS) took in a pregnant dog, named Buttons. My wife and I hadn’t actively volunteered at BASS in many years, but we told the group we could foster Buttons if  “you’re really desperate and can’t find anyone else.”

The shelter called us two weeks later.

Buttons wass 25-pound Corgi/Beagle/Something mix that had the misfortune of finding herself in a high-kill animal shelter in West Virginia. Buttons arrived at our house January 22.  She was very sweet, very pregnant, and barely more than a baby herself – she appeared to be a little over a year old.

A few days later, we took Buttons to Dr. Dawn Garro in Butler, NJ. She did an X-ray and predicted Buttons would have between eight and ten puppies. Whoa!

Eight Is Enough!

Buttons gave birth to eight puppies in the wee hours of Monday, February 4. My wife and I had a feeling the puppies were coming that night. Buttons seemed particularly tired and uncomfortable, and was spending a lot of time in her crate (which my daughter christened, “Button’s Place.”)

My wife and I bickered about something stupid that night because we were both nervous about the impending birth. It was the middle of night — what if something went wrong? Neither of us had any experience birthing puppies. We didn’t have any experience birthing anything except for our two kids, and then we were in a hospital with doctors and nurses around. We didn’t give birth on a blanket in the living room.

MomBabiesDay1
Buttons and her babies.

Fortunately, Buttons knew what to do. We heard a tiny yelp around 2 a.m., and when we checked the crate, Buttons was no longer alone. It looked like there was a tiny white mouse in there with her. The first pup was born.

It was almost 40 minutes before the next puppy arrived, but they came more frequently after that. The last puppy was born around 6 a.m. Buttons licked her pups clean, and got them each latched on and nursing. Sure, the birth experience was a bit messy and gross, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.

In fact, it was amazing. The way Buttons instinctively cared for her tiny, squeaky puppies was both feral and beautiful. Except for the birth of my own children, it was one of the most powerful and moving things I’d ever seen, and my wife seemed equally affected. This was life in its purest, most basic form.

Musical Mutts

We named the puppies after musical legends: Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, June and Johnny Cash, Elvis, Pearl, Adele, and Jimi Hendrix.

buttons babies
Buttons’ babies get a rock star welcome!

A few days after the puppies were born, we noticed Buttons hiding something under our daughter’s bed. It was Bob Dylan! We put Bob back with the litter, but Buttons moved him again! Bob was the first puppy born, and the smallest of the litter, (Adele was the last and the biggest). Was Buttons kicking him out of the pack because he was the runt?

Later, Buttons carried Jimi Hendrix upstairs, and stashed him under my daughter’s bed! Dr. Garro said Buttons might be looking for a new nest for her pups, one that offered more privacy or warmth. We covered the crate with a blanket like a giant birdcage, and put a space heater nearby. Buttons seemed to like this. She didn’t try to move her babies again after that.

The puppies are flourishing. We recently took the whole litter (and Momma) for a vet visit, and Dr. Garro thought all the pups looked healthy, and were developing nicely.

“Buttons is doing a great job. So are the two of you,” Dr. Garro told my wife and I. ”The hard part is over.”

But I think the hardest part is yet to come. Four weeks from now the puppies will be old enough to leave our home, and move on to “forever homes.”

buttons place
Buttons Place … always!

My wife and I have fostered and re-homed many dogs over the years, and it’s always hard saying goodbye. But these puppies have earned a special place in our hearts. How are we ever going to say goodbye? We love them!

Visit buttonshadpuppies.wordpress.com to learn more about Buttons and her puppies, and keep up on the continuing adventures of Buttons and canine kids!

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, March 2013

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Zumba Class Transforms From The Inside Out

Yeah, I Zumba. No, it's not pretty.
Yeah, I Zumba. No, it’s not pretty.

When my wife gets into something, she really gets into it.

Sometimes she immerses herself in a new writer, or a musical artist, or a television show. I was thrilled when she got into Breaking Bad and crock-pot cooking. Her love of Carol King, Nancy Grace, and Auntie Mame…not so much.

My wife’s latest obsession is Zumba, and this dance fitness class is changing her, both inside and out.

And—by the power of holy matrimony—it’s changing me, too.

Zumba Love

Ever since my wife suffered a stroke nearly two years ago, we’ve been trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I joined a gym. My wife cut out sweets, and dropped 25 pounds. We recently quit smoking.

Still, I was surprised when my wife said she wanted to give Zumba a try. Her post-stroke recovery has been amazing, but she’s still unsteady on her feet sometimes. I was worried a fast-paced workout might overwhelm her.

Zumba is essentially aerobics class with loud Latin music. In fact, Zumba was created in the mid-’90s when aerobics instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez forget his standard music, and had to improvise a workout class on the fly using the salsa and merengue tapes he had in his backpack. His students loved moving to the high-energy Latin beats, and the “Zumba Fitness Party” was born.

My wife went to a local Zumba class “just to observe,” and was immediately hooked. She joined the fitness party that night, and came home smiling, breathless, and sweaty.

“It was so much fun!” she said. “It wasn’t like exercise. It was like dancing!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious, so I agreed to go to a Zumba class with her.

One class.

Geezers Laugh At Me

My wife’s Zumba instructor, the amazing Mindy Gansley, teaches a Zumba Gold class on weekday mornings. Zumba Gold is a milder version of Zumba, geared toward seniors and others who might have mobility issues.

This will be a breeze, I thought. I do 45 minutes on the elliptical at the gym. I can shuffle around with a bunch of geezers for an hour. No problem.

Yes problem. I’m sure this won’t shock anyone, but I was wrong.

Zumba kicked my ass. I was a huffing, puffing, sweaty mess after two songs. I flailed about, trying to “keep my core tight,” but feeling very jiggly. I’m a musician—why couldn’t I keep the beat or find the rhythm? I spent the whole class trying to mimic Mindy, and failing to catch up. I felt like an uncoordinated dork, and I’m sure I looked like one, too. I got the feeling the senior citizens in class were laughing behind my back

“I should’ve brought my sweat towel,” I told my wife after class. I always brought one to the gym, but didn’t think I’d need it for Zumba. Silly me. I was drippy and gross.

“Next time?” She asked, a bit of hope creeping into her voice.

I’m a lousy dancer. There’s a big difference between playing music and moving to it. And salsa and merengue isn’t my favorite style either. (How about Heavy Metal Zumba? Anybody with me?)

Let’s Dance

But I knew I’d be back at Zumba again. Why?

Because watching my wife move to the music, smiling from ear to ear, and beaming like a schoolgirl, was a sight to behold. It was like traveling back to a less troubled time, before she started dating a pudgy musician with two left feet, back when she would cut loose and really dance.

She looked as graceful as before her stroke, as carefree as before we had kids, happy in a way I hadn’t seen her look in far too long. Her beauty stole my breath and got my heart racing more completely than any cardio workout ever could.

I don’t really care what effect Zumba has on my wife’s body. I thought she looked great when she was 25 pounds heavier (the weight went to all the right places, and her curves were kickin’!)

But I like the effect Zumba has on my wife’s inner self, like it’s reawakening some dormant spirit, re-nourishing her soul. Damn, I’m a fool. Why didn’t I take her dancing more often? Maybe there’s still time.

“Absolutely! I’ll Zumba with you again,” I said. “I’ll dance with you anytime, my love. Always. Forever.”

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 2013

Holiday Home Decorating: Say No To Pros

This column was published in December 2006, but my feelings haven’t changed —you gotta hang your own Christmas lights.

May your days be merry and bright!
May your days be merry and bright!

What is it about holiday home decorations that I find so appealing? Maybe it’s that for a month or so out of every year, a month when trees and foliage are at their most dull, a string of cheap lights can turn the ordinary into something shimmering and magical, the drab into the dazzling. Christmas lights remind us that the ordinary is extraordinary if viewed in the right light.

My attraction to holiday decorations is something that has grown subtly over the years. Invariably around this time of year I find myself seeking out homes that are colorfully decked out for the holidays. Sometimes I’ll even change my travel route so that I can pass through a neighborhood packed with nicely decorated homes. Weird? Maybe, but it gives me a vague sense of “holiday cheer,” so I do it anyway.

This habit of scoping out homes for the holidays stems from childhood, when my family would drive around, usually on the way home from church on Christmas Eve, and look at the holiday lights around town. I realized years later that the reason my Dad would take these extended drives was to give my Mom time to get home and put presents from Santa under the tree. It never occurred to me to ask why Santa stopped at our house early Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning. I just figured we were his first stop on the busy night ahead.

During these Christmas Eve drives we’d find that homes on the swanky end of town always had the best decorations. It made sense to my eight-year-old mind; a higher household income meant more money to spend on holiday decorations. This concept hasn’t changed much over the years. But what has changed are the materials and the effort.

Two Rules, One Cup

There are two cardinal rules to decorating your home for the holidays:

1) You have to do it yourself.

2) You’ve got to be creative.

Current holiday decorating trends ignore both of these rules.

Drive through any new development of McMansions, and you’ll see plenty of dazzling displays of holiday decorations. But most of these were put up by hired contractors; professional holiday home decorators who have carved themselves a nice cottage industry in recent years.

This breaks the two main rules of holiday home decorating. Where’s the personal touch, where’s the pride, in paying someone else to hang your Christmas lights for you? And what’s creative about tossing a “light net” over an evergreen tree?

Wrapping a string of lights around the bare upper branches of an oak or a maple tree, or decorating your mailbox with glowing icicles…now that’s creative!

Estate Homes, Stodgy Owners

Owners of modern “estate homes” don’t climb ladders to hang lights on gutters or position a plastic Santa and reindeer on the roof. The only time they (maybe) break a sweat is when they have to write a check to pay for it all.

That’s not cool. It’s cold.

So get out that ladder and extension cord and get busy. Don’t worry if your “artistic vision” doesn’t quite turn out like you planned—there’s really no wrong way to decorate your home for the holidays. Just let the spirit of the season move you, and you’ll be fine.

And try not to think about climbing back up on that roof in a few weeks—when it’s covered with snow and ice—in order to take everything down…

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, December 2006

Dirty Dancing Ghost Makes For a Truly Scary Halloween

Boo, bitches!

The Grave Raver is our scariest Halloween decoration. After this column was published in October 2010, I received an email from the president of Gemmy Industries Corp. Even though I crapped on his products a bit, he said he “liked my style,” and offered to send me a free inflatable Christmas decoration. Damn my journalistic integrity — free stuff is cool! He hooked us up with a nice Peanuts inflatable; Charlie Brown and Snoopy decorating a tree. Unfortunately the boys perished in a blizzard the day after Christmas. Anyway, back to the Grave Raver…

My daughter had big ideas about the Halloween decorations she wanted this year.

We need a giant inflatable!” she suggested. “A giant pumpkin snow globe, or maybe Snoopy and Woodstock decorating their doghouse. Maybe a big witch, or Frankenstein. Maybe we should get two?”

She was vague on the specifics but knew she wanted something. And she had expensive tastes.

So when we saw the Grave Raver it seemed like a good compromise. It was a little tabletop ghost in a bowler hat and shoes that lit up and danced to a goofy tune. It was cute and within our budget.

My daughter loved it, kept our Grave Raver boogying until his batteries needed to be replaced. She showed the dancing ghost to everyone, including my twentysomething niece.

“I wonder who picks the music for these things?” my niece pondered. “This song has nothing to do with Halloween…and it isn’t really for kids either.”

“There’s a tag on the decoration that says it’s appropriate for ages three and up,” I said. “Uh…what song is this, anyway?”

It was a silly-but-catchy R&B tune with hip-hop drums. Being tragically unhip, I was unfamiliar with it.

“It’s a Timbaland song from a few years ago called ‘The Way I Are‘.”

The Way I Is, Is The Way I Be

My first thoughts were 1) Timbaland named himself after hiking boots but spelled his name wrong, and 2) the title of his self-affirming anthem was grammatically incorrect. Both mistakes are intentional (I guess) in the world of hip-hop. (In fairness, and as a Led Zeppelin/Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, intentional misspellings happen in the world of rock music, too.)

Then I Googled “The Way I Are” lyrics to see what our dancing ghost was singing about.

Baby if you strip, you could get a tip

‘Cause I like you just the way you are

I’m about to strip and I want it quick

Can you handle me the way I are?

I don’t need the cheese or the car keys

Boy I like you just the way you are

And let me see ya strip, you could get a tip

‘Cause I like you just the way you are

Yeah, strip club fun and bad grammar for the whole family! Maybe next year we’ll find a jack-o-lantern that sings about poppin’ a cap in the pole-lease and pistol-whippin’ his bee-yatches!

Yo fault, Big Poppa

There’s no one to blame but myself. I bought the dopey dancing ghost. But there were a lot of decisions made prior to my purchase that I have to question. For starters, why did the manufacturer, Gemmy Industries Corp. (“the world’s largest provider of all your favorite seasonal decor, animation entertainment and lighting products”) decide to make a “family friendly” Halloween decoration (“appropriate for ages three and up”) that plays a nonsensical, sexually charged hip-hop tune? Why not “The Monster Mash,” “Flying Purple People Eater,” or even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? Why did the local CVS have dozens of Grave Ravers on its Halloween shelf alongside plastic skulls and rubber bats?

Why would Timbaland allow his song to be used for such a product? In truth, it may not have been his decision alone. According to the label on our Grave Raver, it took no less than seven people to compose the profound musical opus that is “The Way I Are,” including Tim Mosley, which is Timbaland’s real name. (So why not call yourself ‘Tim Mosley’, which is a fine name, and much more pleasing to the ear than “Timbaland”?)

I Didn’t Know, Yo!

Because I’m a pop culture ignoramus, I didn’t know “The Way I Are” had already spread to other areas of entertainment. Timbaland licensed the song for use in a 2007 McDonald’s commercial (though the thought of Timbaland stripped naked seems a natural appetite suppressant) and for the NBA Live 2008 video game. The song also appeared in the movie Step Up 2, in the pilot for CW’s Gossip Girl, and former Spice Girl Mel B. danced to it on Dancing With The Stars. “They Way I Are” has been marketed and shopped around so much, it’s finally “trickled down” to a budget Halloween decoration the whole family can enjoy. On some level this “gangsta ghost” is the most frighten Halloween decoration we own.

Fortunately the audio quality on our ghostly dancer isn’t the greatest, so my six-year-old daughter hasn’t figured out the lyrics and asked me to explain. By next year she might…which is why I’m saving up for the Snoopy and Woodstock inflatable now.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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UPDATE September 2012: I saw the 2012 model of Gemmy’s Grave Raver in the CVS the other day. It’s a mummy dancing to “Thriller.” Another brilliant idea comes to fruition! I didn’t buy one, though. My daughter decided on this witchy puppy that sings the theme song to “The Addams Family” instead.

addams family pup
“They’re creepy and they’re kooky…”

Along Came A (Really, Really Big) Spider

I originally published this column back in October 2010, but I was inspired to post it today by my friend’s Carmen Bastante’s creepy spider encounter.

Carmen Bastante’s big, creepy spider.

His body is the size of a quarter, fatter than a Concord grape, and with his legs extended he’s almost as big as a silver dollar. He’s unquestionably one of the scariest spiders I ever saw.

And he’s living right outside my kids’ bedroom window.

We’re currently staying at my in-laws house while renovation work is being done on our home (more on that in future columns) and the spider was here when we moved in. Judging from the massive, intricate web outside the bedroom window, he’d been here for a while.

Death Sentence

My six-year-old daughter immediately sentenced him to death. (I read an article recently that implied girls are born with an innate fear of spiders and snakes, and my daughter bears this theory out.) Even my wife wanted to see him go, and she doesn’t normally “scheeve bugs” (mice are another story).

“He’s scary and looks like the kind that bites,” was her entomological observation. “And he’s the size of a dinner plate!”

How to dispose of such a creature? This called for more than a fly swatter and paper towel. My wife suggested we suck him up with the vacuum but it seemed cruel.

“I’d rather blow him out into the yard,” I suggested. “Give him a chance to build a new web elsewhere.”

I didn’t want to kill the spider. Sure, he was scary-looking, but anything that built a web so beautiful and complex couldn’t be all bad.

Six-Legged Showtime!

“Boris The Spider” became a kind of showpiece at the house. My daughter would drag anyone who visited up to her bedroom to look at the spider living outside her window. Sometimes the show could get graphic.

“The spider was sucking the blood out of a dragonfly!” My daughter announced happily after dragging a family friend up to look at Boris. Our friend looked pale.

“That was disgusting,” she said. “You should really get rid of that thing.” The opinion seemed unanimous.

Still I resisted. There was something about the spider I respected. Plus, he was here first. My family and I understood the feeling of being displaced all too well. I didn’t want to do that to another living creature if I didn’t have to.

In Douglas Coupland’s novel about slackers in the 1990s, Generation X, there’s a character who refuses to bathe because a spider had built an intricate web in his bathtub (yet he had no problem smashing the windshields of rich Yuppies’ expensive cars). I could relate. I used to be part of “Generation X,” people who reached adulthood in the 1980s. Now I’m “Generation PG-13” at best.

There are many superstitions about killing spiders. An old English nursery rhymes has it, “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.” Other legends tell of financial ruin that has befallen people who killed spiders. We were already living in financial ruin…how much worse would it be if we squashed Boris?

Common, But Cool

I did some spider research, figuring we had something exotic like a brown widow or a goliath birdeater. But it appeared Boris was a parasteatoda tepidariorum, a common house spider. And, judging from the yellow-banned legs, Boris was probably a girl.

At night my wife and I would take our dogs out before bed and we’d look up at the kids’ window. Boris would be there, a plump, silent sentinel in the middle of her web.

“What if the spider isn’t here to scare or harm us, but to protect us?” I asked my wife. Maybe Boris was warding evil spirits away from the children’s window. She certainly looked intimidating up there. I didn’t want to mess with her.

Seeing Boris as a protector instead of predator struck a chord with my wife. It also bought Boris a stay of execution…at least until her next dragonfly meal.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, October 2010.

Comedy means never having to say you’re sorry!

In light of my insensitive comments about Lou Ferrigno‘s disabilities, I’ve decided to run this article which shows how my opinions (and sense of humor) have changed.  Oh, and if parents and educators are looking for guidance on preventing LGBTQ cyberbullying, here is a guide

 Tracy Morgan is a professional comedian. He’s one of the stars of NBC’s “30 Rock,” and did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live. He says funny things, and, like any professional comic, sometimes he offends people with his humor.

Tracy Morgan—kidnapped and forced into Apology Tour.

But did Tracy Morgan go too far last month when he targeted homosexuals during his act at a comedy club in Nashville?

I don’t know, because I haven’t seen or heard Tracy Morgan’s act, nor have I read a transcript.

And neither have you.

No recording of Morgan’s act exists. The outrage over his act is based on one gay blogger, Kevin Rogers, who wrote about Morgan’s act on his Facebook page, and the story spread from there. Since Morgan issued a quick apology, you assume he’s guilty as charged.

“Say you’re really, really, really sorry!”

But Morgan’s apology wasn’t good enough. His fellow co-stars, Tina Fey and Chris Rock tossed him under the homophobic bus, and now Tracy Morgan has become a poster boy for homosexual tolerance. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has taken Tracy Morgan hostage, and now he’s on an “apology tour,” meeting with leaders of the gay/lesbian/transgendered community for more public mea culpas and photo ops.

[Speaking of which, is it off limits to poke fun at the transgendered community, too? Better outlaw all those classic comedy clips of men in drag, everyone from Milton Berle to Benny Hill to Eddie Murphy.]

The trouble here is one of sincerity. Tracy Morgan doesn’t sound sincerely sorry. I’m sure Tracy Morgan doesn’t actually endorse violence against homosexuals, and he’s sorry for implying so. But I think his bigger concern is losing his “30 Rock” paycheck. He’s a comedian telling jokes on a comedy club stage…he shouldn’t have to worry about offending anyone.

I question the sincerity of GLAAD, too. I don’t know how much the leaders of the organization are genuinely upset by Morgan’s comments (which, again, were actually heard by very few people) and how much GLAAD chose to seize this opportunity as a “teaching moment,” making Morgan an ersatz spokesman for homosexual tolerance and understanding. It’s a noble cause, but I’m not sure making Tracy Morgan walk the plank over a dumb joke is the right way to promote it.

Comedy 101 — Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt

The first rule of comedy — of life, really — is keep your sense of humor, and don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re going to laugh at others, you’d better learn to laugh at yourself first. All jokes are funny, until they hit close to home. If gay humor doesn’t offend you, surely another joke will: ethnic humor, jokes about the elderly, or maybe a gag about a “dumb blonde”.

If you want to ban offensive humor, let’s start with two of the oldest gags in the book: the fat joke and the retard joke.

As the father of an autistic son, I no longer find humor in goofing on developmentally disabled individuals (“Timmy!”). I cringe every time I hear someone describe a frustrating or ridiculous situation as “retarded.” (Probably the same way a homosexual feels when they hear something wimpy or ineffectual described as “gay.”) If the person you’re joking with doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand your humor, then you’re not being funny. You’re being cruel.

Chris Christie
NJ Governor Chris Christie isn’t fat! He’s just big boned!

And, as a guy who has struggled with “weight issues” since childhood, enough already with the fat jokes! We’re not all lazy slobs! Some of us are well-groomed and hard workers! Look at Governor Chris Christie! We’re big boned! We have slow metabolisms!

Ah, it’s a losing battle, and maybe that’s for the best in the long run. Comedy demands basic building blocks, seeds sown early in life, and when I see my kids enjoying the rotund hero of Kung Fu Panda or dumb-but-lovable Patrick on Spongebob Squarepants, I accept that jokes about the obese and the addle-brained will survive another generation.

The homosexual community has made great strides toward equality – just last week the New York State legislature legalized gay marriage.

But gay jokes will still be around, too…for better or for worse.

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, July 2011.