One reason to live in Los Angeles: Sunsets

It’s the last day of the year. Another one in the books. Yeah, baby.

To all of my friends and readers, thank you for reading my warped thoughts, and for your support and comments this year.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year. And may you achieve all of your goals this year and do it in the best of health.

I took these Los Angeles sunset photos this week. They seem appropriate for an end-of-year post. I know the sunsets here are influenced by the air pollution, but at least there is a visual feast in return.

Here’s to a great 2012.

This was my favorite of the dozen I took on my cheapo iPod camera. It says "L.A." to me with the two palm trees in the distance.

Hello, Moon.

My wife didn't like this one because of the trees, but I did for exactly that reason.

Christmas doesn’t go as planned (or failing at parenting in the golden age of consumerism)

Years ago, when our daughter first “got” Christmas, Santa, and receiving presents just for being her – I think she was 3, almost 4 – she ran to the tree like a mad wind-up toy, her little legs pumping to get to “the goods.” If it had been a cartoon, a trail of dust would have followed her, along with a scorched wood floor revealing her path to the tree.

What an amazing Christmas it was as she played with her dolls and modeled a Snow White dress in the mirror, admiring her perfectness. As a parent, it was the winningest Christmas of all and the one we dreamed of, complete with big smiles and happiness in abundance.

That Christmas was not this Christmas.

Our daughter, now nine, had her list for Santa: Let’s Dance 3 for Xbox, a Fushigi glow ball (not sure where this request came from), and a soccer ball trainer.

And she had her “parent list”: Disneyland Xbox game and a piano keyboard.

Pretty simple requests, especially compared to the ones she created when younger. We talked to her about asking for fewer gifts. And to her credit, she listened. No long lists this year.

We also discussed the desire for “stuff” and consumerism with her. We watched “Story of Stuff” together. But as you’re about to read, we failed in our mission to teach her not want stuff too deeply. Or the forces of consumerism overwhelmed her. Or both.

Looking at her list, we crossed out one item, the piano keyboard. She’s taking guitar and voice lessons and doesn’t like to practice. How much would she use a keyboard? We figured it would collect dust after a couple of weeks of play.

It had to be pink.

We changed her request to a new bicycle, which she needs since she looks like a circus performer on her small bike with her knees sticking out on its undersized frame.

I spent a few hours shopping at local stores and looking online and found a pink and silver bike for her at a neighborhood bike store, not a chain store, which made me happy. I added a kickstand and silver water bottle holder to match the silver trim.

After she opened her presents, I told her we had one more gift for her and went to the garage to get the bike. She said to my wife, “Is he going to get my keyboard?”

Wow, she really wanted a keyboard, I thought.

When I was a kid, I loved having a bike. I remember all of them. And it was a big deal getting a new bike. So, I expected she would love it and gush with mad excitement.

But what is life if not the crusher of hope and expectations?

I wheeled the bike into the living room. Nothing. No response. Disappointment showed on her face. I wasn’t holding a keyboard in my hands.

I didn’t hear, “oh, Daddy, what a cool bike!” Or, “oh, my gosh, that’s the best present ever.”

I received the same reaction as if I had wheeled a giant load of coal into the room.

Our kids grow up, so do their bikes. The small bike is Cotton Candy and it served us well. I remember my daughter falling off it at the park where she learned to ride. We figured the grass would soften the fall. And it did.

Then came stunned responses from me: You don’t like it? I thought you’d love this. You need a new bike. Look it’s pink. 21 speeds. I don’t know if it can be returned or not.

My wife was stunned too as my daughter clung to her. Then, as I was speaking, trying to get my bearings in the situation, my daughter made a remark that made me feel like a servant when she said something like: “Why is he speaking right now?”

At this point, my friends, you should know to never visit this site for parental advice. Or you can visit it to learn what not to do as a parent. For in that moment, I felt like a failure. Not for choosing the wrong gift so much as for hearing such a queen-like remark from my daughter.

Was this my daughter speaking in that tone? That’s what hurt most – we had spent nine years raising her not to act like this.

When my wife told her how upset she was by the remark, tears followed and she ran to her room. We sat there stunned, our Christmas happiness taking a 180-degree turn to something unexpected.

When the three of us came back together, my wife and I chose not to pounce on my daughter, which at times wasn’t easy. We told her why we weren’t happy with her attitude and reaction to the bike, and used the situation as a learning experience to discuss the pressure she, as a nine-year-old, is under to “want stuff” and base her happiness on “getting stuff” like a keyboard.

We discussed basic manners when receiving a gift, but focused on personal happiness and how companies want us to connect our happiness with products and the newest versions of products. And to her credit she seemed to get it and respond with understanding comments, questions, and apologies.

Soon, her extreme desire for the keyboard faded and she realized how cool the bike was. As winners of the Christmas weather lottery and a 74-degree day in Los Angeles, all of us went for a test ride.

And while riding her first bike with hand brakes for skidding, gears for climbing hills and going faster than she had ever ridden before, she smiled like she did years ago when she rode her first pink bike with training wheels. Christmas joy returned to her face and ours. She looked so happy and proud and joyful in a way I think most parents know only a child can muster. It’s happiness in its purest form, unstrained and untainted by complex thought and hidden motives.

If I think of my memories of childhood, a lot of them include a bike. Now I wonder if my daughter will remember this Christmas and the bike years from now. It’s the most important Christmas for her to date and about more than the bike. It’s about her future happiness. It’s also a warning to us as parents that our child is under constant pressure to consume, to own stuff and shop.

My wife and I have quite the challenge ahead of us. We lost this battle, but we don’t plan on losing the war. “Owning stuff” will be a conversation in our house for a very long time. Just as this Christmas will be a memory in my mind for a long time. Because despite its sharp right turn to the unexpected, it was still one of the best – they’re all good when they could be your last – and I will never forget it.

Memorable Christmases are the best Christmases, even when they don’t go as planned.

Happy Holidays.

“What if we skipped the gifts at Christmas?”

I miss the days when I believed in the big guy. Creative Commons: Brokenarts

When I suggested “no gifts” at dinner last night, my nine-year old daughter attempted to summon superpowers she doesn’t have to shoot laser beams from her eyes to take my head off at the neck.

“Bad idea, Daddy.”

Yeah, I guess if you’re nine it’s a bad idea, but what if you’re an adult and know the man in red and white is a pretender?

As an adult in age, not mental capacity, I like the idea. I’d still have the time off from work, holiday music, the tree, peppermint ice cream, and lights on houses, but not the gifts.

I asked the question because I have this theory that the gift-buying process has evolved to its most stressful and consumer-centric level yet and is making a large percentage of Americans unhappy.

And what made me think of this was an article about Best Buy canceling Christmas orders and leaving people out in the cold for presents.

Best Buy cancels orders

What's in the box? Is that the pair of flannel-lined pants I wanted? Creative Commons: Brokenarts

It made me wonder how much time these customers were going to spend contacting Best Buy, complaining during what is supposed to be a happy time of the year, writing a negative online comment about Best Buy, and how their holidays may have been derailed by the process involved in buying a holiday gift.

Is there a happy step in this process?

  1. Spend hours searching for a gift, online or in the mall.
  2. Go to really crowded places and look for parking spaces while avoiding speeding drivers who flip you the bird when they cut you off because they never bothered to crack open the DMV’s Rules of Driving booklet.
  3. Spend time looking for the best price, which might mean a late night after Thanksgiving when you stand in line to save money.
  4. Wait in line to give your hard-earned money to someone who won’t say “thank you” because they don’t like working in retail and are only doing it because all of the good jobs are in China and India now.
  5.  Put yourself in confined spaces with people who are tired and pissed off about the whole buying experience.
  6. Stress over getting the right present.
  7. Experience guilt, especially if you don’t get a gift for someone and they do for you. Or don’t spend as much as they did.
  8. Open January credit card bills. Experience overspending nausea.

The list goes on.

So, I dig the Christmas experience, a lot. But the buying presents part, no so much.

The Lost Week

I’m not sure what happened to last week. I lost it. I know I lived it. It existed. It took place. But it was a wisp – gossamer – ethereal.

Even my calendar forgot about last week

I wasn’t drunk and partying with Harry Nilsson in Los Angeles like John Lennon once did. No, I was at home on vacation and the week disappeared as if a magician borrowed my watch and didn’t return it.

What time is it? What day? Where am I?

I had plans for the seven days – a big to-do list – but have nothing much to show for the time.

I bought my daughter a new bike for Christmas, which didn’t take long. I ordered my wife some presents. Just some clicks at Zappos and L.L. Bean. Not very time-consuming and she’ll probably send everything back anyway. I worked a little bit each day, as mentioned in my previous post. But not that much.

Other actions completed: My daughter’s Christmas show at school one night (one song and we sat far away). Bought a new electric guitar and played Rocksmith a couple of times. Installed a wall mount for a TV. Watched a couple of movies. Switched alarm companies. Spent an afternoon on refinancing paperwork so I can build a compound wall high and strong enough to keep vermin out and our dogs in.

With the exception of Skyping with my friend @seanset of Englandshire, I have nothing valuable to show for my time. I didn’t read or write a book. I didn’t write five or six blog posts. I created very little.

I managed the mundane.

Some scientific minds theorize Time feels like it moves more slowly when we’re young because we constantly experience new situations and thus make boatloads of new memories. When we’re older, we don’t make as many and time feels like it moves faster.

I’m not sure if they’re correct, or if I’ve accurately described the therory in two sentences, but it will make do for my purposes because I believe I lived a week without memories. A week without anything worth remembering beyond tasks on a to-do list. A week without surprise.

I’m hoping to change that this week and slow down time by creating new memories. I need to explore new places, plan the days, and make the most of the two weeks I have left in my vacation. I don’t want to repeat this post on January 3rd. I want the first post of 2012 to be titled, “Two weeks I’ll never forget.”

An American Work Vacation for Me

I have three weeks off. It’s because I didn’t take much vacation this year and I can’t roll over the days to next year.

Here's where I want to be on my vacation. I'm pretty sure this island lacks cellular coverage

So, I’m catching up on projects around the house and working, as in “work work.”

Yes, the work I’m supposed to be off from right now.

Last week, just before we were about to launch a new video – 5 ,4, 3, 2, abort, ABORT – my manager asked for a major change  – one he and others could have caught early in the review process.

This led to a week of my time tweaking it and the programmers devoting another week to the changes. I like my manager, great guy, but the bummer of this change is that it won’t make much of a difference for the end user, and I now have to shepherd and review the project during my vacation.

Part of this is my fault. I have a hard time making a clean break from work. I have to come down slowly and wean myself off it like a junkie breaking a habit. But technology, limited resources in our department, and the economy are the pushers.

And one device stands out as the villain of my story.

Blackberry, oh Blackberry, the enemy and destroyer of vacations. Blackberry, oh Blackberry.

What a turd of a device at times and savior when I need it. I want to fling it like a rock across a glassy pond. Watch it bounce off the payment and explode into a thousand shards of plastic. But then there are days I want to marry it, be its mate. I love you, little BB.

Future generations will discover piles of these buried in landfills, plastic dinosaur bones

Blackberry, oh Blackberry, you tease. I try not to look at my email, but I can’t help it. I’m Pavlov’s dog and run when the ringer sounds or red light flashes. Email, must read now. Bark. Bark. Must read now. [Drool everywhere.] Why did I read that now? I’m such a stupid f**K. It could have waited. Where’s my bowl of food?

Now I imagine you reading this and thinking, “Why doesn’t someone else do the work while you’re gone?”

Good question, O Wise Reader. I have several answers for you.

First, no one knows the content like I do and they’re buried with their own work and planning for their own vacations. Second, we have limited resources. Over the years, we’ve been told “do more with less.” It’s all about maximizing production and working ourselves to the bone, which ties into my third answer to your question, the economy. Yes, if you don’t do more with less and work every minute of the day and beyond, there is someone unemployed who will. And if you’re thinking of getting another job, don’t.

“There ain’t none to be had, Mister,” said the imaginary hobo by the bus stop.

I guess I shouldn’t feel too sorry for myself. I have a very good job and according to this Yahoo!/CNNMoney article, $34.3 billion in vacation days to go unused this year, a good percentage of Americans don’t use many of the vacation days they earn. At least I get to take my days with some work sprinkled in.

So, bring on the holidays, Xbox madness, and day trips with my daughter to places unknown, like a lake with a smooth surface, perfect for skipping stones.

I experience a perfect day

Saturday night, at 1:30 in the morning, as I wedged myself onto the dog couch with a yellow lab at my feet and a black lab on an adjoining ottoman, I realized I had experienced a perfect day.

Yes, with who knows how many days left to go in my life, I did it.

Jackpot. Hole in one. Full-court basket. An elusive occurrence indeed.

It started Saturday with the first day of my three-week vacation from work (future blog post). I woke up with relief that I didn’t have to think about email and projects for Monday. And what a difference that makes in enjoying a weekend.

Great game and the Xbox equivalent of Wii's Mario and Luigi.

I took the dogs on a long walk in 70-degree weather. Other than making the mistake of wearing my flannel-lined pants and having to strip off a couple of t-shirts during the walk, it was April in December, with the sun’s low angle the only difference. And maybe the brown lawns. An no flowers. Nevermind.

I returned and played “Rayman Origins” with my daughter on our new Xbox. The 9-year-old monkey is testing me on video games now. I’m the king of video games but she’s playing with a faster network of nerve impulses from her brain to her hands than I am and it’s everything I can do to keep up with her.

Later that afternoon, we did a parent doubleheader when our daughter played guitar at a recital, followed by a soccer game.

She strummed Silent Night and some other Christmas song I can’t remember because I was doing my best to keep tears from spraying from my eyes like a broken fire hydrant. Something about the experience knocked up my emotional cortex, and watching her up there, dressed up and concentrating, made me feel so lucky to experience the moment it was hard to maintain my composure.

At the end of last year’s soccer season when my daughter’s opinion of her effort didn’t match reality or our opinion, my wife and I had what was one of the hardest conversations we’ve ever had with her. We’re not of the school that we tell our child she’s great at everything-but we’re not about destroying her self-esteem either. However, we gently told her we didn’t think she gave the season very much effort.

And boy did she grumble. And she may have cried a bit. But to her credit, she came back this season and played with more effort and skill than ever before. And it culminated in the last game of the season where she played a great game. She’s not the best player on the team, but it’s about being engaged and trying hard. And she did that. So, we celebrated by going out to dinner and letting her pick the location.

I am a sherbet freak. This is one of my all-time favorite flavors

At the Argentinian restaurant she chose – she likes steak – I stole some of her rib eye and ordered a black and white lobster ravioli in a pink sauce that was mind-blowingly good. I followed it up with a dessert at home of Tropical Rainbow sherbet and Oreos. Perfect finish, a foodie touchdown.

After more Rayman where my daughter and I ran circles around my wife, who spent her youth studying and listening to Tom Petty and Bee Gee records and not hanging around 7-11 stores playing video games, we put our little superstar to bed and watched Friends with Benefits. It was the perfect “I don’t have to think hard to watch this movie” movie, and got me out of the doghouse for choosing Melancholia a few weeks ago.

Then came SNL with Katy Perry hosting and more laughs. And at 1:30, when I went to bed, I realized I had achieved an elusive goal – make each day great.

Saturday, December 10. Check.

Bloggers on milk cartons

Where have some of my blogging friends gone?

I check my blogroll every few days and many of my friends are no longer posting, or post once every few months. It’s a bummer. And it creates a few challenges for me.

Your picture here

First, I miss reading their posts and hearing about their lives. With some of them it feels like I was reading a book and the last chapters are missing. I learned about their likes and dislikes, the life challenges they had to overcome, and their families and jobs. And with some, a personal connection developed.

Then nothing. Gone, which reminds me this medium allows quick exits. I’ve thought about it myself a few times with this blog.

Second, at what point do I remove a blogger from my blogroll? I like all of these people but if there is no new content, why keep the link? I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. However, this is fair warning to anyone who has stopped blogging that next week while I’m on vacation, I’m cleaning house and my blog.

So, all of this made me think of blogging and how difficult it is to maintain it. I know I have a hard time staying up with my own blog sometimes. Example: Work wiped me out this week and each night I downloaded a movie instead of blogging because I didn’t have the mental energy to write anything.

It’s create or consume most nights for me. And consume is the winner when I’m tired.

Blogging reminds me of working out. Once I get going with a post, it’s off to the finish line. With working out, once I get to the machine, I’m good to go. But getting to that point is the great struggle. And high expectations can be the killer of both blogging and working out.

I’m going with a Facebook rip-off mantra tonight: Attempted is better than a blank page.

To all my blogging friends not blogging anymore, I miss you and hope you’re not posting because you’re having a great time in life and you’re too busy to write.

Consider this post the milk carton with your photo on it.