Monday, December 27, 2010

a raisin in the sun

As I've gotten older and hit various milestones in life, I've had to say farewell to a progression of childhood ambitions. When you're younger, it's not the toughest thing in the world. For instance, when I was 14, I gave up on my dream of being the youngest boy in history to qualify for the US Olympic team in a non-shooting sport (I thought I had a chance in bobsledding). And when I turned 21, I could no longer take out a bunch of cops in a drunken brawl instigated by my arrest for underage drinking.

But as you get older, the loss of these grandiose dreams begins to sting a little more. I started to lose my hair in my late 20's, and within a few years I realized I was never going to tag a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. A few years after that, I had to admit it was really unlikely I'd make it to the baseball major leagues, or in fact, turn pro in any sport. And then I went to medical school, and said goodbye to a promising career in sculpting (well ... I'd thought about it).

But I still held out hope for a few things, even as I turned 40 and witnessed all my peers developing into sad, withered facsimiles of their former selves. The biggest one for me was always the English country gentleman scenario. I figured that once I'd put away a little legal tender, I'd retire to the English countryside and take up the ways and dress of a fancy chap. Wear lots of tweed, and subsist on a variety of savory puddings and trifles, and carry an uncocked shotgun across my forearm to blast away at any game birds I chanced across on my property, and merrily chase scantily-clad serving wenches across the moors.

Yesterday, however, on my way back to Mad City from a holiday vacation back east, I had a layover in Cleveland. There I was, eating a slice of Sbarro's pizza, checking fantasy football scores, and idly scratching at my groin when I suddenly saw myself as others do: loud, coarse, smelly, uncouth. And at that moment, I knew I was never going to be an English country gentleman. Not even close. Pfffffft! Another balloon deflated ...

Friday, December 24, 2010

mad kitchen

Today brings a new feature here at Mad City, called Mad Kitchen. People often notice that I can do a thing or two in the kitchen, if you know what I mean, and there's been some pressure on me to share some of my better cooking and baking tips. So, there you go. The name of the new column is a play on "Hell's Kitchen," ha ha. Though in thinking about it, that also was a kind of play on something else. I guess that makes Mad Kitchen twice as interesting ...

Anyhow, here's my piece for the day: you know those special, flexible little serrated knives that you use to loosen the sections in grapefruit halves? You know, before eating the grapefruit with a spoon? Well, those knives are also handy for getting the seeds out of acorn squash.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

tricks are for kids

One thing people notice right away about me is that for someone who doesn't have kids of his own, I'm pretty damn good with kids. People often ask me, "Hey Mad City! How'd you get to be so good with kids?" And I'll usually just chuckle and swat at the air, like I don't know what they're talking about.

But for the longest time, I wasn't so good with kids. They would see me and either be indifferent, or go in another room and play with one of their electronic contraptions. But one day I discovered the secret of dealing with other people's kids: don't be yourself. Because children just find that boring and gauche. No, you need to pretend that you're someone or something that you're not, really. Here's a sampler of some of my most successful ruses:

1. Pretend you're a long-lost relative. Kids are often dumbfounded when you introduce yourself as Uncle Mad City, just returned home after 5 years exploring in the Antarctic. Then, when they've reached the maximum level of amazement and wonder, you yell out, "Ha, just kidding!" Then everyone has a good laugh, usually.

2. Pretend you're an animal. This tends to work better with younger kids, who are sometimes unsure of the difference between an adult human and other mammals. With my long neck and willingness to strip and chew low-hanging leaves from nearby trees, I've convinced more than a few kids that I'm a reticulated giraffe. But you need to be honest with yourself, and consider whether you can pull off giraffe, or if you'd be a more plausible baboon.

3. Pretend you're Richard Nixon. All you have to do is extend your arms upward, make V's with your fingers, tilt your head forward, let your jowls droop, and scowl. Voila! You're Richard Nixon, the late disgraced 37th president of the United States. Kids love it, even if they've never heard of Watergate or Spiro Agnew.

4. Pretend you're hungry. "Oliver, I see you've got some tasty pureed pears and sweet potatoes there. And I'm so hungry! Can't I have just a little bit? Num num num! No? No??? You want me to starve to death? Geez, Oliver!" Repeat several times for enhanced effect.

5. Pretend that you're very, very sad. Kids tend to be more empathetic than adults; and if you act as though you're extremely disconsolate, they'll usually want to know what's wrong. That's when you brighten and say," Well, I was feeling sad, but you just cheered me up!" Because who doesn't like to be the one to cheer somebody up?

6. Pretend there's no oxygen in the room. Even younger children who haven't received a basic scientific education yet know that fish can't survive out of water too long. Try gasping and rolling on the floor in mock agony, like a fish out of water, and screech, "No oxygen! No oxygen!" But if you pretend to be dead for more than 3-4 minutes, kids will usually get bored and look for something else to do.

7. Pretend that you're very angry. This is the one I usually use after a child refuses to share their food with me (see #4). For some reason, kids are totally amused by helpless rage. Just be careful not to make it too convincing.

If none of these work for you, don't give up. There are many other impersonations that have worked for me in the past: Dora the Explorer, bewilderment, ennui, Inspector Javert from "Les Miserables," a California roll. And if all else fails, there's nothing wrong with pulling out your wallet and giving the kid a couple bucks. Everyone likes money, even kids, and if a kid can witness all that without even cracking a smile ... well, maybe they've earned it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

babies on board

It seems like I'm spending more and more time around infants these days, maybe because a lot of my friends and siblings have been having children lately. Anyhow, one thing I've noticed is that these little tykes can be a lot of fun. Another new revelation for me: they don't scream and carry on all the time! In fact, it seems that kind of behavior is usually the exception, rather than the rule.

This discovery has changed my perspective on noisy kids on planes. It used to be that when a kid was crying or fussing, I would just chalk it up to being in an strange, possibly uncomfortable environment. Heck, there've been times I wanted to behave that way myself on a flight! Maybe just hunger, or a wet diaper, or missing one's crib and toys. But now, I realize the root cause of those tantrums is just bad parenting. And that in turn has changed the way I respond.

Right now, for instance, I'm flying back to Mad City. There are a couple of youngsters in the row across from me, sitting with their father, and they're making a lot of noise. Spouting a bunch of jibber-jabber, asking for juice, giggling, singing some toddler songs, telling various people that they love them, etc. I've already asked the father several times if he could PLEASE get them to simmer down. I mean, I've got things to do over here: I'm blogging, and I'm eating my pretzels. It looks like he's doing his best, in a semi-frantic kind of way, but I suspect he just doesn't have the parenting skills to handle the situation. And the really sad part is that the mother, a capable-appearing woman, is in the row behind them with another small child. No problems coming from that area ...

I think what I'll try next is groaning or gasping every time one of those kids acts up again. Or maybe some silent glaring and eye-rolling, since I don't want to personally encroach on another passenger's Zone of Seclusion. It's amazing what the stink eye can accomplish, when the recipient is strapped in and helpless just a few feet away from you. And to all those parents out there whose kids actually behave well - and you know who you are! - a silent salute ...