The Hess Report


Monday, August 21, 2006

A Long Weekend At The End Of Summer 

* Giant Post Warning -- Carve Out Twenty Minutes To Read This *

The girls go back to school this week, so despite what the calendographers and astronomers say, it really is the end of summer.

Camping

Adventure!Joy likes camping. I'm not saying that I don't like it, but I find it odd that people like to pay money to do extra work. I've found that men who like to camp fall into one of a few categories: 1. don't get enough "nature" in their day-to-day life, feel the need to get back to The Earth; 2. like to get away from the old lady and drink beers without being bitched at; 3. retired/out-of-work and this is their best/most attractive option for permanent/ongoing leisure community. Now, there are some guys who are just really into camping, and that's a whole different thing. But I fall into none of those categories. I'm plenty close to The Earth, oldLady!Joy doesn't give me nearly a hard enough to want to flee to the hills, and I show a distinct lack of idle time. Neither am I one of these great camping He-Men. I prefer to derive my own personal awesomeness from things like fighting off ninjas and building thermonuclear warheads from household products and discarded lawn gnomes.

However, the one argument for camping that I find persuasive is that it exposes the kids to an entirely different batch of circumstances and people than those that they're used to, and scores us a few extra tickets in the "Preparing Kids for a Viable Adulthood" club raffle.

For a variety of reason, it was up to googly!Joy to find a campground, and she chose "Shangri-La By The Lake" near Pymatuning on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. The camp had new owners and looked promising. Quick campground rating (1-10): facilities: 3; camp sites: 8; friendliness of staff: 10; behavior of other campers: 6. The owners, however, have plans to renovate in the off season, which will probably raise the facilities score quite a bit. Good luck to them.

The forecast for the weekend was spotty showers on Saturday, then rain Sunday morning and clearing off toward noon. The people we spoke to, both at the campground and the lake told us that usually, forecasts of light rain up there result in no rain whatsoever. Of course, it didn't turn out that way, or I wouldn't have bothered to mention it. Rain, pretty much all day Saturday. In fact, a couple of torrential storms blew through, including a microburst (a "sort-of" tornado) which hit just a few minutes north of the campground. Our trusty Apache hard shell pop-up camper survived without a drip. The quick-collapsible pavilion (w/bug screen enclosure) held up in similar fashion. Yippee! Everything stayed dry.

The girls had a good time, and Piper was a model camper. Well, almost.

As you may or may not know, Piper doesn't like other dogs. And, unlike most dogs, she doesn't bother with any of that barking/warning/bluffing crap. She'll trot right up to another dog as though to make friends, then just attack. One of the seasonal campers had a little bulldog statue with a sign hanging around its neck that read "What part of WOOF don't you understand?" I know, typical Lillian Vernon material, but they get something like 93% of their business from seasonal campsite renters, so you have to take that sort of thing with the territory.

Anyway, I figured I would see what Piper would do with a completely non-threatening dog presence, i.e. one that neither moved nor even smelled like a dog. We approached the statue. When she was about a foot away, she lunged for it. She attacked a freaking statue. Brilliant, dog. Brilliant. An old fellow across the lane said "Everyone thinks that's a real dog."

Well, I didn't. But at least I can now contribute in social situations when people are telling "My Dog Is So Dumb..." stories.

In other weird animal news, we visited a section of Pymatuning Lake where the carp were so huge and densely packed that the ducks were able to actually walk around on the shifting carpet of fish instead of having to swim. Gross and amazing at the same time. People would toss whole slices of bread into the swarming mass of carp, and they would fight for it. In between feedings, the carp would wrestle around for good position or hover with their wide open mouths just above the water line. Lucy said that they were singing opera, and her and I devised a whole music video concept of opera music played over close-up video of various carp waiting to eat.

There were a few carp that had messed up eyes. For some reason, when you lose a carp-fight, your eye ends up looking like one of those glue-on googley eyes that kids and scary home-craft people put on things. Lucy felt bad for the googley-eyed carp, and said they were pathetic and really cute. I thought they looked silly. Maddie didn't care. IntestinalFortitude!Joy thought they were gross enough that she had to stop eating her lunch the next day when the subject of googley-eyed carp came up.

Cards

Several months ago, I played some Texas Hold 'Em at a friend's bachelor weekend in Philadelphia. It was okay, but I didn't really see the big allure that the game seems to hold for so many people these days. It was interesting enough, though, that I downloaded a Mac widget that lets you play Limit Texas Hold 'Em against a range of computer-controlled opponents. I had also done some reading on poker theory and on Texas Hold 'Em strategy in particular, in case I was ever called upon to play again. Well, I got to the point where I was pretty sure I could do significantly better than my initial foray, and changed from just being prepared to play to actively wanting to see if my practice and study had made a difference.

When we got to the campground Friday night, the owners told us there would be a Hold 'Em tournament the next day at four o'clock. It was only $10 to play (all money goes into a pot, players receive equal numbers of chips, play proceeds until all but two are eliminated, first and second place split the pot 80/20).

I'm not going to bore you with a text-based recap of a two-table poker "tournament". Instead, I'll say that all of the things I read about, the novice mistakes, the mid-level mistakes, how to figure out how different people play and how that can help you, how people's bets across different rounds can tell you what they have in their hand... it became instantly apparent as I played this time. The guys who were pounding beers were the first to drop out. I saw people lose their will to live as their chip stacks shrunk, then throw the rest away on dumb bets because they wanted out of the game. People threw their money away on "what the hell, I'll give it a shot" situations. Maybe that was fun for them. But I played almost textbook Hold 'Em and ended up coming in second place. Now, it's not like I was playing against the Sharks of the Universe or anything, but still it was only my second time playing against human beings, and I think I did pretty well. And it always feels good to win some money.

I do see why people get into poker so heavily now. It, like football, is a well-balanced blend of skill and chance. A skilled player can usually outlast the unskilled even if he's having mediocre luck, giving him a chance to capitalize when he gets a break or two. On the other side, skill can only take you so far. When it's down to two or three players, and you have a shorter stack than your opponents, the cards have to turn up right for you or it just isn't going to happen.

Of course, the best part was coming back to the camp site, where Lucy kept calling me "Poker Champ" and giving me hug after hug. Does this portend a future attraction on her part to high-rolling mobsters? I hope not. Also, it's not like she knows anything about anything when it comes to cards or competitions of any type or scale. But it's a good thing in life to be hugged and adored by your kids, even if it's for something nearly insignificant.

Carousels

So Sunday, we break down the camp site and zoomed back home to Wexford. We had been home for less than an hour when maniac!Joy made the point that that very evening would probably be the best opportunity to take the girls to Kennywood Park. We're bad Pittsburgh parents, as we've never taken the kids to Kennywood, and chances to do so before things went nuts with the beginning of school were quickly diminishing. Now, the last thing I wanted to do after being wet and tired for two days was to turn around and truck to a crowded amusement park for the remainder of the weekend. But the infallible logic of SupremeCourtJustice!Joy prevailed, and we wolfed down tacos and hit the road.

The girls were nearly in a state of panic, they were so excited. We hit the park, and did the normal park stuff: rides, waiting in line, etc. Maddie and Lucy were just happy to be there and kept saying things like "Thanks so much for bringing us here!" Typically, Lucy poops out around 8:30 p.m., and made no exception for being at the park. While Joy and Maddie waited in line for the Pitt Fall (a giant town-drop ride), Lucy and I made our way to the arcade to play Skee Ball and Whack-a-Mole. Going against her recent trend of insanely good luck at carnival games, Lucy didn't win a single thing. Add that to being six years old and to being ready to cash it in for the day and you get a red face and tears.

I did the standard parental thing about "we're not here to win stuffed animals, etc" and told her that she was at Kennywood and could either enjoy what was here or spend her time whining about the one thing she didn't have. I think I concluded by saying "I'm looking around at all of this cool stuff to see and do, and if you continue to cry about not winning an animal, I'll have no sympathy for you." Then I changed the subject.

Within a few seconds, she was dry and happy again, though still tired. As we walked back to wait for the Pitt Fall two, two teenage girls with arms full of little stuffed animals came up to us.

"Little girl, would you like one of these?" said the one. She held out a cute, plush purple fish. Lucy looked at me. People just giving stuffed animals away? Insanity!

I nodded. "You can have it," I said. Had she still been putting up a fuss, there's no way I would have let her, but she'd pulled it together on her own.

"Thank you," she said, and took the fish. I thought she should name it "Karma" or "Google-Eyed Carp", but she opted for "Purply" instead.

Back at the Pitt Fall, we waited for Joy and Maddie near their exit gate. The park had shut down one of the banks of seats on the ride due to "wind" (huh?), so the line had gone a little slower than usual. As they got off the ride and made their way toward the gate, I expected to see big smiles and Maddie bouncing around like usual, but that was not to be. Joy looked worried, and Maddie was stone-faced. Not good.

Apparently, the reason they close different faces of the ride for "wind", is that the combination of high shearing winds and the extremely rapid descent of the seats can make it so riders can't breath during the ride. That's what had happened to them. While a little freaky for experienced!Joy, it was terrifying for Maddie. There were many tears, but positive acknowledgment and much distraction worked her out of it. Joy later told me that all she could think of at the end of the ride, seeing Maddie in real distress like that, were the kids who have died on thrill rides in the last couple of years due to previously unknown cardiovascular defects. Usually, I mock the my-kid-must-have-leukemia-because-she's-been-extra-tired-for-three-days paranoia that seems so prevent among middle class moms these days, but this was not one of those times. Scary. We should probably let Kennywood's safety department know that they may need to adjust their open/close wind metrics for the ride.

After all of that action, we went for snacks. lowSugar!Joy had very yummy fries. At the hard dip stand, I got a cone of chocolate chip cookie dough, and Lucy opted for a root beer float. Maddie wanted an Icee, so Joy and Lucy found a place to sit and eat while Maddie and I found the Icee/soft ice cream pavilion. As we got closer to the ordering window, I saw Maddie eying up the hot fudge/peanut parfaits.

"Would you rather have one of those?" I asked.

I saw her eyes dart to the menu board, then saw her silently mouth the (higher) price of the parfaits.

"No," she said. Good girl! Well-trained self-denial will make you a strong cave woman!

I leaned over and whispered to her: "I have extra money from the poker game. You can get whatever you like. Don't worry about the cost."

She looked up with wide eyes, because that phrase about cost and no worries is rarely spoken around our house.

"Really?" she said.

I nodded.

"Okay," she said. "I want the hot fudge one."

So, I ate my own ice cream, plus some of Joy's fries (with bacon and cheese!), and helped the girls each finish their dessert.

It was close to eleven o'clock when we drove through the city on our way home. The girls eventually fell asleep, and we carried them from the car, into the house and up to their beds. Believe me when I say that there is no better way to end a weekend, and a summer, for any of us.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lock Out 

Last Saturday morning, the kids woke up around 7:30 as is their custom. And, since it was, well, Saturday morning, they wanted to watch cartoons. Fair enough.

But, ailing!Joy hadn't been feeling the best, so instead of flipping on the TV in our room or sending the kids off to fend for themselves, I went downstairs with them. We turned on the Jimmy Newtron/Spongebob Channel (otherwise known as Nickelodeon), and I settled into to the couch with the goal of going immediately back to sleep. We'd let Joy snooze her way back to feeling good as long as she needed to today.

Around 8:30, I got the bright idea that I would run to the store whilst the girls vegged, pick up bacon, eggs and donuts, zip home and have coffee and everything nice ready for Joy when she woke. Maddie and Lucy agreed that it was an absolutely spectacular idea. Another half hour of TV followed by donuts!

So, I zoomed to the grocery store (7 minutes away) only to scrape the door of my car on the stoopidly slanted curb in the parking lot. Argh. Oh well, it didn't show, and I noticed that the entire section of curb there looked like a well-used whet stone from years of similar scrapes. Eh. Into the store, get the loot and out.

Reach for my keys.

Hmmmm. Where are those suckers?

Oh. There they are. In the passenger seat. Inside my locked car.

I realized that the door scraping, though brief, had brought with it a devestating effect. I won't go into the details or make excuses about usually having my cell phone in my pocket and my keys in my hand but instead having my phone in my hand because my shorts didn't have pockets and... well, I said I wasn't going to into that. Long story short is that I may quite possibly be mentally handicapped.

At least I still had my cell phone, which I used to wake tolerant!Joy.

It's good to begin those kinds of conversations with "You're not going believe how much of an idiot I am..."

She was a sport about it, and brought the dog along too on her rescue mission.

Maddie and Lucy couldn't have cared less, as it meant more TV and, well, the donuts were still in play, right?

And of course, I got to feel like a TV sitcom Dad, which just sucked. I hate TV sitcom Dads. Except Mike Brady. He's the best.

Seriously. Watch the first season of Brady Bunch again. He's a great Dad.