Category Archives: Toys

Dig it


“Can you dig it? Yes, I can. And I’ve been waiting such a long time….”
— Chicago

It doesn’t look like much yet, but the picture you see above is the beginning of a project I’ve wanted to do since we moved: I’m excavating part of the backyard for a new pond. Eep!

I couldn’t put in a new pond when we first moved, because the yard wasn’t fenced, and I was afraid a curious munchkin would fall in and drown while trying to catch a toad or inspect a goldfish or something. We finally got our fence recently, so in the interest of taking advantage of end-of-season sales (and making sure all the equipment I buy works while it’s still new enough to return), I spent part of today digging out the spot where I want to put the pond.


My beloved mermaid moved with us, of course. (Excuse the terrible, fuzzy cellphone photo; it was nearly dark when I got done.)

In other news, my trifocals finally came in today. I’m still breaking them in, but I think I’ll like them.


Just for the hell of it, I got a contact prescription this time around, too. I got caught having to come up with a Halloween costume on the spur of the moment last year, and it was a giant pain in the arse to find something that wouldn’t look too stupid with my glasses.


God willing, I won’t have to dress up for anything this year, but if I do, I’ve got about three options I can throw together in a pinch: Merida from Brave, Magenta from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Bonnie Raitt.

Speaking of Bonnie Raitt, have we talked about the progress of my gray streak lately?


And speaking of progress, I cut back my carbs, upped my protein and reduced my junk food intake a couple of weeks ago. Last night, I jogged four miles on the track and did 10 miles’ worth of intervals on a stationary bike and felt good enough today to go out and dig a pond, so apparently I’m doing something right.

Last, but certainly not least, here is my new baby:


This was another of the big things I wanted to do after we sold the house in Tulsa. I went to Baldwin Piano and Organ in Herrin, Ill., last weekend and bought a digital piano. I haven’t had one in 10 years, and I finally started to miss it last winter. I’m terribly rusty, but it feels so good to have piano keys under my fingers again.

Life is good.


Death of a Rebel

After eight years of faithful service, my beloved Canon EOS Rebel 300D abruptly lost its memory while I was trying to shoot a Special Olympics softball practice this evening.

It was a sad moment, made sadder because A.) the players really would have enjoyed seeing themselves in the paper, and B.) I didn’t have a spare CF card, so I lost everything I’d already shot when I reformatted the card in the mistaken belief that it had corrupted.

Bad timing, but I don’t suppose the Rebel owed me anything. I bought it in 2005 and used it on a near-constant basis for most of the next eight years. It’s been to 21 states; met a Hall of Fame baseball player, a Grammy-winning folksinger, the First Lady of Country Fiddle, and the inspirations for at least three characters from the movie Cars; documented my visits with my niece and nephews; boosted my career in various directions; captured the happiest moments of several people’s lives; served a variety of charitable organizations; taken road trips on the Mother Road, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Father Road, the Loneliest Road, the Devil’s Highway and the Blues Highway; and provided literally hundreds of images to illustrate this blog.

The 300D will be missed. I intend to donate its body to science, by which I mean that sometime in the not-too-distant future, I will invite Jamie — who shares my fondness for photography and already has a better eye for composition than I do — to help me disassemble it and see how it works.

I didn’t really have the luxury of taking a few days to grieve before jumping into a relationship with a new camera, so after I filed my story tonight, I dashed out to Target and picked up a Canon EOS Rebel T3. It gets stellar reviews and cost less than half of what I paid for its predecessor. It also weighs quite a bit less, has video capabilities, and doesn’t have that excessively-hot-internal-strobe problem that the 300D had. (That last bit is a huge improvement. The flash on the 300D was so intense that it blew out everything.)

I’ve got the next two days off, so I should be able to road-test it pretty thoroughly once the battery charges. We’ll see how it does. Stay tuned….


Munchkin Tuesday: Monchhichi

I wanted one of these when I was little. I never got a real Monchhichi, but when I was about 7, I used my allowance to buy a knockoff that was designed to cling to things. I loved that ridiculous toy right up until one of its hands came loose from the curved metal strap that kept its arms perpetually curved in a “hugging” position, allowing the metal to poke through the fabric. I tried to fix it, but it wouldn’t stay together, and Mom finally made me throw it away because she was afraid one of us kids would get cut on the metal, which had pretty sharp edges.

If I remember right, the hand came loose when I tried to make it stick its thumb in its mouth like a real Monchhichi. Stupid poorly constructed Monchhichi impostor. 😡

Too bad I didn’t own any Star Wars action figures. If I had, Fake Monchhichi could have gone down in a blaze of glory by losing its hand in an epic lightsaber battle before falling into the chasm of my bedroom wastebasket and being carted away to the curb to meet its ultimate doom in a trash compactor. Sadly, instead of meeting a dramatic and noble end, the poor thing had to endure the ignominy of sustaining a compound fracture while attempting to suck its thumb, which sounds more Kevin Smith than George Lucas….


Munchkin Tuesday: Strawberry Shortcake

So I was in Tucumcari this weekend, on my way to lunch at Watson’s BBQ with the owners of the Blue Swallow, when I found myself at a barn sale on the edge of town.

I didn’t find anything I wanted to buy at the barn sale, but somewhere in an alternate universe where it is still 1981, my 6-year-old self threw a tantrum when I passed a complete set of Strawberry Shortcake dolls without even bothering to ask how much they were.

I wanted a Strawberry Shortcake doll when I was little, but she was expensive, and Dad objected to the fake strawberry scent of the two-inch-high plastic figurine I got in my Christmas stocking, so I had to settle for a Huckleberry Pie pillow doll instead.

Poop. 😦

American Greetings came up with the original Strawberry Shortcake dolls, which Kenner then manufactured. Apparently the greeting-card-to-toy-to-cartoon trajectory was a thing back then, because I seem to remember the Care Bears and Rainbow Brite following similar paths to fame. These days, Hasbro is making new Strawberry Shortcake dolls, but they look more like what you’d get if that big-headed kid from Deliverance knocked up the Little Mermaid, and apparently Simon Bond invaded Strawberryland at some point, because Custard is nowhere to be seen.

(On a related note, I could probably do a whole Munchkin Tuesday entry on the work of Simon Bond, because I spent a LOT of time giggling over 101 Uses for a Dead Cat when I was a kid. I’m not sure what that says about me.)


P.S.: I’d almost forgotten about this, but in 1983, General Mills made a cereal based on the Strawberry Shortcake franchise. Because I was in second grade and didn’t have any better sense, I set up an inconsolable howl for it until Mom bought me a box. As usual, I was required to eat the entire box. If I remember right, it tasted like Frankenberry mixed with runoff from a Monsanto factory. Ghastly stuff. Here’s the commercial that suckered me into asking for it:

The best-laid plans

Here is a thing I know about teaching: If I am having fun, odds are 99 to 1 the kids are going to learn something.

Here is another thing I know about teaching: You are never too old to have fun playing with toys.

The more I teach, the more I prove these truths to myself and my students. Some of my most successful English lessons have stemmed from the fact that I was in the mood to relive some favorite childhood memory or other.

Pronoun Twister, for instance, was a thinly veiled excuse to watch my kids laugh themselves silly while keeping track of which pronouns are singular and which ones are plural.

A hilarious, hands-on lesson in literary conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. society, etc.) sprang from the moment when a can of Play-Doh caught my eye as I was walking through the toy aisle at Target. I’ve gotta think up an excuse to play with Play-Doh in class, I thought, throwing several multi-packs of the stuff into my cart.

Math, I’ve found, lends itself even better to childlike diversions. There’s a colossal amount of algebra on the back of a baseball card. We’ve also used tiny colored blocks to learn cubes, squares, and roots; set up ratios involving Starburst candy; practiced set notation with a bucket of Legos; and worked equations with the help of magnetic letters and numbers like the ones my mom used to keep on the refrigerator when I was little.

Next week, we’ll be starting linear equations for the first time this semester. I’ve enlisted some special helpers for this lesson:

Monkeys will represent variables. Plastic counting blocks will represent constants. We’ll set up problems by playing the Barrel of Monkeys game to determine the value of the variable (2m, 5m, whatever) and then rolling a set of dice to determine the constants, which we’ll represent with colored blocks.

Five bucks says this will be the best lesson I’ve ever taught … because, really, how can you go wrong with a Barrel of Monkeys?

who finds her tendency to behave like an overgrown 5-year-old oddly useful in a classroom full of jaded teenagers

Dashboard decor

For your viewing pleasure, here are a few photos of my ever-expanding collection of dashboard tchotchkes:

A chimaera now guards the roadrunner, who is hanging out with a phoenix, while Poseidon menaces a Care Bear and a stuffed gecko …

… and a sea serpent hitches a ride next to the steering wheel.

A minotaur and a unicorn join the usual suspects for sushi, ignoring the disapproval of a nearby mermaid.

Meanwhile, glow-in-the-dark lizards adorn everything from the armrests …

… to the panels above the seatbelts …

… cling to the ceiling …

… watch over the speedometer …

… and hang out with mythical beings such as this gryphon …

… and Adonis a certain Hall of Fame second baseman. And just in case I need to keep track of something …

… I’ve installed a convenient bulletin board, complete with peace-symbol thumbtacks, next to the steering wheel.

Loctite gel is my friend.


Paradise by the dashboard lights

<Don LaFontaine voice>

“In a world populated by glow-in-the-dark lizards, sushi-eating rattlesnakes and robots, and chopstick-wielding aliens, the gods have gone mad. Poseidon menaces a Care Bear with his trident, Crete’s mythical Minotaur threatens to steal sake from a drunken flamingo, and a fearsome chimaera fixes its frightening gaze on all who dare to look upon it. Only one man has the range, the batting average, and the speed on the basepaths to restore order to this debauched land of plasticine mayhem….”

</Don LaFontaine voice>

<Harry Caray voice>

“It might be … it could be … IT IS!

Holy cow! Ryne Sandberg has come to the Friendly Confines of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcar!”

</Harry Caray voice>

Or will as soon as this sucktacular weather gets above freezing long enough for the superglue to work, anyway.

For those of you who are interested in such things: This is a 1989 Starting Lineup action figure. I got it in its original packaging, but the blister pack was partially crushed, and the accompanying baseball card was poorly printed and appeared to have sustained some sun damage, destroying its value as a collectible. As dashboard garnish, however, it’s worth the whole penny I paid for it.

Yeah, you read that right. I got a 22-year-old action figure, still in its original (albeit severely damaged) packaging, for a penny. A Ryne Sandberg figure would have set me back somewhere between $5 and $40, + Ivan DeJesus … but thanks to the magic of functionally illiterate eBay sellers, his little-known identical twin “Ryan” was going for a mere penny.

My dashboard is about to get a little bit hotter….


A little story

Yesterday, I found out that there is a giant slide rule mounted to the wall in an unused classroom at school. This thing is a foot and a half high and probably five or six feet long. Enormous. Kind of like this one.

As you might expect, I think it is totally bitchin’.

I had kind of a crappy day today.

At the end of my crappy day, I asked Swayze if I could have the giant slide rule for my classroom.

He said yes.

My day stopped being crappy.

The end.


Time in a demitasse cup

In 1992, I spent a great deal of time cutting class and hanging out at Longbranch Coffeehouse and the late, great On the Edge Cafe in Carbondale, Ill.

My favorite pastime at Longbranch was to sit around drinking heavenly cappuccinos and shooting the bull about politics and espresso machines with a transplanted Seattle native named Tom Carpenter.

Nobody on earth can froth a cappuccino like Tom. No. Frickin’. Body. But thanks to his tutelage, I can come pretty close when the mood strikes me.

Tom eventually opened his own coffee kiosk in the food court at University Mall, back in the days when the mall didn’t suck. The mall management kicked him out when the unconscionably mediocre Gloria Jean’s came in, but before he packed up his wife and his espresso machine and headed back to Washington, he took the time to teach a 17-year-old would-be barista how to froth a cappuccino.

I thought of Tom tonight as I was breaking in a new espresso machine. It’s been at least two years since I made a cappuccino, and it’s been a good 15 years since I made coffee on anything like a regular basis, but some things never leave you, and after one test run to sort out the quirks of the machine, I turned out a decaf cappuccino with froth so dense “you could mortar a house with it,” as Tom once put it.

I have no idea where Tom is these days, but wherever he ended up, I hope he could feel the hug that went traveling across time and space tonight from the little redheaded Democrat who never forgot the man who listened to her ideas and helped her find her way around her first espresso machine.

God bless you, Tom … and thanks for being part of my memories.