Tuesday, January 17, 2012

There's No PlayPlace Like Home


Being a parent can be tough, especially when you're weird and your kid is weird. Odin, an ideally-named small blonde child of whom I am very fond of, is 2-and-a-half. He has been going through a phase lately where he has been turning down all overtures that I have been making towards him, wanting only his Mom to handle him. (You know you are either taking your parenting seriously or else you are a social deviant when you start talking about making "overtures" towards young dudes.)

Nonetheless, I was worried that perhaps he was starting to associate me with joylessness (hell, he wouldn't be the first). People don't like their behavior corrected, and toddlers are no exception - regardless of the fact that most people don't need to be corrected from defecating on their floor then parading it around the room. So I decided we needed some bro-time to counteract all the bad-cop stuff. A one-on-one, mommy-less festival of physical activity and high fives. This, of course, meant a visit to that preserve of nastiness that is a McDonald's PlayPlace.

When we arrived, we were the only ones in the entire store (I refuse to call McDonald's a restaurant, but that's a topic for another day). I bought a white milk and we made our way back to the citadel of fun. After the shoes came off and he free to play, Odin slowly wondered in towards the hulking, gauche, pastel-colored leviathan of tubes and pods. He turned back and looked at me apprehensively.

"Go on in," I assured him, although I wasn't so convinced myself.

He took a few steps and climbed up some steps. Slowly, he eased his way into the entryway of the structure. Odin wasn't a shy kid who needed to have his hand held at every task - far from it. I put myself in his shoes (socks - CARS socks) and tried to imagine where his trepidation was coming from. I recalled stepping up to enter into similar structures when I was little and remembered how each PlayPlace emanated its own foreboding tincture that you just had to push pass and ignore. He again looked back at me, uncertainly.

"Go in - play with the car!" I said, motioning him to a car-like object a few tubes away. Just then, I saw some figures outside the store approaching with children in tow. I was both annoyed and grateful - we would not have the PlayPlace to ourselves, but then again, we would not be alone with this thing either.

Soon, a throng of kids rushed in, surprising us both. I counted them... nine! Nine little, weird looking boys and girls, ranging in age from newly-born to prepubescent. The father was a nerdy-looking guy with a moose shirt, but he was definitely not a hunter. The mother wore a long denim skirt with long, natural hair cascading down her back. I don't think it was the taciturn baby in the woman's arms, but just looking at her reminded me of the phrases "religious sect" and "home-schooled" (and not in a good way, if there could be a "good way" that these things remind someone of something).

Meanwhile, Odin was watching as his garish castle was besieged by other kids. After observing the chaos for a few minutes, he slowly warmed to the idea of the PlayPlace. But just then, their parents must have blew some hidden Mormon dog whistle or something, because all the kids came rushing back down to the table area. Odin watched them evacuate. I hung back and watched as he slowly walked through a couple of tubes to the car contraption I had pointed out earlier.

He sat down at the steering wheel and began "driving". The other children, oddly silent aside from one girl's "thank you Mommy and Daddy, this burger is great", watched Odin. He was moving back and forth, "honking" and getting expressive. Then he shouted in words clearer than he ever speaks, "MOVE IT, YOU F%*#@*@ A&#*@!" I could feel all eyes on me as I blushed (good thing I have a beard, right!?) and grinned sheepishly. How could I blame him? He was just imitating his mother and I. Plus, he was really getting under the skin of these religious weirdos - attaboy! I wanted to high-five him through the vulcanized rubber that separated us.

Eventually, after a plain, unappetizing-looking burger, it was time to go. And although there were temper tantrums, tears, and more awkward stares from the Addams Family, I knew one thing was true: we bonded that day.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Do It Yourself

DIY. For years, I thought it was about festooning your leather jacket with studs and patches, instead of buying something at Hot Topic. As I got older, I heard the term in regards to people like Bob Villa, the build-your-own house guy. Talk about lame; the guy had worse jokes on his show than Tim "the Tool Man" Taylor.

As I got out onto my own and started buying my own groceries and preparing my own meals, I realized something important. You can stuff yourself with all of the Ramen, Hamburger Helper, or Lean Cuisines that you want, for convenience's sake. But pretty soon, I realized that all of those trips to the corner store were bad for my pocketbook and my health, just like my lifestyle at the time. When you binge drink your youth away, it's easy to settle for a microwavable pizza (and being content at not burning down the house cooking one).

When I started to think more in-depth about my lifestyle and its effect on my future health, it scared me. I didn't want to end up like most men from my family, slowly being taken down by diabetes and heart problems. I wasn't the most athletic person in the world, but I knew there was a lot of what went into my diet that would probably cause me to turn into a piece of plastic by the time I was 50, since you are what you eat.

I started analyzing receipts. Pretty soon, I realized that vegetables were the cheapest thing at the grocery store! Who knew? When I figured out that home-cooked meals were not only more nutritious, but also fun, I was done with disposable, plastic food.

So what does this have to do with DIY, the punk rock aesthetic? Well, if you buy and consume Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on a regular basis, how can you possibly believe yourself as anything but part of the capitalist system? A system that puts a price on the box, but not one on each human's well being? Buying from chain stores is not only unsustainable on an economic level, but it is not good for the planet nor is it good for our bodies. I've also come to believe it is bad for our souls as well. I firmly believe it is time to take back our food from them and make it ourselves.

After watching many of my peers successfully homebrew good beer, one day I decided to take the small, yet cautious foray into baking bread. With my block of yeast and my YouTube instructional videos, I set to work. And by the end of a couple hours, I had homemade delicious bread! For the $.47 the yeast cost, plus a couple of eggs and odds and ends from the kitchen, I had created two wonderfully pure, unadulterated loaves of bread.

I remember thinking the whole time just how strange bread really is. When you look at bread on the shelf, it appears as whole object, sliced for our convenience. But when you get right down to it, it's a weird doughy concoction that's got a lot more personality than the stuff that comes in the white and red plastic wrap from the store.

Soon, I pondered other choices. Vegetables? Check. Bread? Check. Beer? Check. Cheese? Hmm... what about cheese?

I poured for hours over websites that listed the composition of cheese. Since I had heard that there was a bacterial component involved, I assumed that it involved scientists and Petri dishes. But soon I realized that cheese is not much more than milk, with a few chemical reactions that happen to it. Simple? Well, it wasn't to me.

My first cheese, which I will publish pictures of in this post, will be Ricotta (literally "recooked" in Italian).

The ingredients are as follows:

1 half gallon of whole milk

2 cups of buttermilk

1 cup of heavy whipping cream

Since this cheese is fairly easy as cheeses go, you can find all of the above at the supermarket. Cultures/starters, rennet, or calcium chloride are for more advanced cheeses.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

My Dad Told Me So


Growing up a punk rock nerd in a mid-sized city with no sports team of its own, my friends and I openly mocked the jocks in high school and their silly obsessions with all things athletic. It wasn't always that way.

My dad, never a jock himself, grew up in love with baseball. His stories of rookie cards of Carl "Yaz" Yastrzemski, Don Drysdale, and his heroes, Roger Marris and Mickey Mantle, made my young baseball-plagued mind race. The worst part was always the part where his mother threw them away, not realizing she could have probably paid for a year of college by packing up that box and sending it our way.

Dad, a quintessential baby-boomer, is old enough to remember the glory days for children in the United States: the 1950s. Sandlot baseball, little brothers struggling to keep up, putting pennies on the train tracks, hiding under train trestles until the big freighters roared by, and swimming in the rivers only to come out with "bloodsuckers" up and down your legs. Even then, I longed for such an era. (Kids that have streaks of melancholy at the ripe old age of 8 for times they never even knew is a another issue, but let's not even get into that.)

With the help of my old man, I got to attend games at old Comiskey, new Comiskey, Wrigley, and of course, Tiger Stadium. I remember being allowed onto the field of old Tiger Stadium, with my mom, of all people, to meet the team in an exhibition event. Cecil Fielder was one of my heroes; he still remains one of the only human beings to ever hit a ball on the rooftop of that great old ballpark. Travis Fryman, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammel. I loved them all.

Most of all, I loved a man named Nolan Ryan. I'm not sure if it was his ironman reputation or the fact that he could pitch a ball over 100 mph without flinching, but he was my God. He, like other sports heroes in my life (see Brett Favre), was a normal guy, a family man who was revered and feared by his opponents. Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, once said that hitting a Nolan Ryan fastball was like drinking coffee with a fork. Plus, this guy had played in the league since 1967 and fought White Sox catcher Cartlon Fisk when he was in his 40s. It might have helped that I grew up on the street bearing his name, Nolan.

Regardless, I'll always remember seeing Ryne Sandburg at Wrigley; cheering on Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas at the newly built White Sox ballpark from the nosebleeds; and most of all, our trip to Nolan Ryan's house. Yes, his house. My dad had a business trip to Houston, which I begged him to take me on. Him being the awesome dad that remembered his own baseball heroes, obliged. We went about his business in Houston, where we also stopped by in Arlington to visit Rangers Stadium. I still have the warning track red dirt. Then it was off to Alvin, Texas we went. We stopped at a yard sale and asked a woman.

"Oh, Nolan? Oh yeah, that's his ranch right there. Wonderful guy. You're so cute!" she said as she tousled my hair. I was wearing a full on homemade Nolan Ryan jersey, stirrups, cleats and all. Dad boldly drove through the open gate and parked on the long driveway. We rang the bell. A few seconds later, a sweaty teenager answered the door. He had knee pads on and a ping pong paddle in his hand. While my Dad tried to explain what we were doing there, I believe Reece, Nolan's son, thought I was a pretty dapper young man in my uniform. He told us Nolan was in Houston shooting an Advil commercial (of course!). So we left with Reece's autograph on one of my precious Nolan Ryan collectors' edition baseball cards.

Baseball wasn't my only love. Our family, being from the Upper Peninsula and Green Bay, Wisconsin area, were -- no surprise here -- huge Packers fans. Even the plastic covering the furniture at my grandparents' house had a Green Bay Packers insignia on it (how I'd love to get my hands on that thing now). In Green Bay, my cousin and her family lived a few blocks from Lambeau; my other relatives lived down the street. We used to walk to Lambeau as kids, before the renovation and play in the stands, having huge snowball fights. I don't even know how the hell we got in there. Walking to the Pack practices at the Don Hutson Center and seeing the odd sight of 350 pound offensive linemen riding little girls' bikes with streamers and all will always stick with me.

But things change, they always do. If the baseball strike mortally wounded my interest in baseball, picking up a guitar for the first time buried it. How could I be a cool rock fan and like dorky sports teams? Instead of Packers Starter jackets and Greg "The Shark" Norman hats (yes, I golfed, too), I wore the alternative look: my prized possession was a Smashing Pumpkins ZERO shirt that I bought at a concert in 1996. As the years went by, punk rock beckoned. How could you possibly like watching muscle-headed jocks beat each other up on the football field when they wanted to beat you up after gym class? I wore my studded jean jacket and spikes with defiance.

Moving to Chicago sure helped jump-start my interest in these overpaid athletes once again. Once I realized that simply saying that you grew up a Packers fan is enough to get a beer dumped on your head, I started to rethink my philosophies. After all, all my Chicago friends got together on Sundays to drink, grill, cheer the Bears on, and make fun of Green Bay fans. Why couldn't I have the same thing?

And it brings us full circle. All of the rich traditions of our teams, whether they be from the South Side, the North Side, or the Michigan or Wisconsin sides, help us learn more about ourselves. After all, I didn't grow up driving 10 hours to visit my family up north every summer for nothing. And it all started to make sense.

Just last week, at a Cubs game, I started to feel nostalgic again. This time, it wasn't just an 8-year-old's understanding of the world through his Dad's eyes. This was real. All of those sunny days we sat in the box seats, all of those family get-togethers cheering on our boys, and all of those satisfied sunburns I proudly sported as I got back to school the next day with a brand new hat. I wish Tiger Stadium wasn't getting torn down. I wish two of Michigan's main employers hadn't just kicked the bucket. And for the record, I hope Brett Favre doesn't plan on joining the Vikings -- I'll be one of the many Green Bay fans cheering for his head on a platter.

So, yeah, I like sports. Even if that one time we walked into our neighborhood bar in Grand Rapids to see jocks doing pushups on the ground while people cheered, "SPORTS! SPORTS! SPORTS!" It's OK to be excited about the Red Wings in the playoffs.

And it's even OK to get into trash-talking contests with Sox and Bears fans in their own neighborhoods. Know how I know? My Dad told me so.