My Christmas List

Christmas came and went in such a blur that perhaps a list is needed, marked by increasing levels of awesomeness:

First, we begin with the best gag gift of the year. It’s a little complicated, but for awhile in early December it seemed as if the family might be part owner of a tract of farm land in Nebraska. The jokes flew and debate ensued over whether we city folks should plant corn or soybeans come spring. As things turned out, we weren’t land barons after all. But my in-laws from back east made the best of it, and we all ended up with the gift of green John Deere hats. I’ll gladly wear mine the next time I mow the latest crop of crabgrass on my Greenhaven lawn.

Then comes the arrival and too-short visit of my brother-in-law, who escaped the cold of Baltimore to share the holiday with us. He joined A. and I on a walk to the park on Christmas Eve, where we played catch with a Nerf football. Uncle Riney Piney Poo Poo, as he is affectionately called by the kids, brought us a copy of Wii Sports Resort. The last time I had this much fun playing a video game was when I discovered Centipede in middle school.

Next on the list is Christmas Eve, when A. and little C. took part in the Christmas Eve service in the procession of friendly beasts arriving to see baby Jesus. A. was a shepherd, while C. was the cutest little mouse I ever saw. They held hands as they patiently posed for me to take a photo. They were good sports, and I took a second to appreciate the moment.

Even more excellent was Christmas morning, when A. and C. hopped out of bed to see if Santa came. The mood was electric, and they could barely contain themselves as they surveyed a mountain of presents around the tree. Snug in their Christmas pajamas, they paused for a moment and then dove in, shredding open gifts and having a great time. The front room was strewn with ripped paper when they were done, and they immediately set about trying each newly opened toy. Watching them made my day.

The best part of the holiday came a day later, when A. remembered gifts he made for us in his fourth-grade class. He opened a bag and pulled out a glass candle holder, covered in red, green and white paper. He gave me a Christmas card, with “Dad” on the front and “Seasons Geetings” written on the inside. It includes a picture of Santa’s sleigh sitting on the roof of a snow-covered house, with the big man seen peeking out of window. Perfect, typo and all.

Now we’re ready to take the tree down and put the lights away. The holiday is finally over. Long after the last tree needle is vacuumed up and Christmas is gone, these are the gifts I’ll remember.

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When Time Stands Still

For kids, the last few days before Christmas feel like an eternity.

For adults, it’s time to panic as the holiday comes bearing down on us like a UPS truck loaded with presents.

“Is Christmas here yet?” little C. asked as soon as she woke up the other day. Sorry, not yet.

“My prediction is that this week is going to feel like the slowest on earth,” A. added. “Everyone is so excited.”

It’s funny how our perception of the holiday changes as we get older. We go from carefree anticipation to the weight of responsibility and more than a little dread.

The little ones can’t wait until Christmas morning. Adults are meanwhile doing the calculus to figure out how we’re going to cram last-minute shopping, present wrapping, house cleaning, cooking and all the other stuff into the coming days.

If I squint and look back, I can remember my own long waits for Christmas Eve and Christmas itself. I could hardly stand it. I knew that my grandma hid unwrapped presents under her bed, and even though I tried to be good, I couldn’t resist peeking. I was about 8 years old. I looked and found the box of Legos that would soon be mine. It didn’t ruin the holiday, but just gave me a little fix to help me make it through to the big day.

I watch the kids now and I can tell they feel the same way. When we arrive home in the evening, we often have a box or two from Amazon waiting. Each contains a Christmas present. I can tell it takes all of their self control to keep from tearing open the boxes right on the spot.

Just a little while longer, I tell them. Soon they’ll get their holiday goodies, and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

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Elvis Vs. Hemi

There’s a serious food-truck showdown happening on the streets of downtown, with two of my favorites — Drewski’s and Wicked Wich — vying to see who can make the best mac ‘n’ cheese sandwich creation.

Elvis sandwich

I’m the first in line when it comes to enjoying the whole recent food truck surge in our fair city. I track ’em, and when they park near my Capitol Mall office and I have a few extra bucks, I’m there. It’s an idea whose time has come, independent of the whole political debate over how long trucks can park in the same spot. It’s just plan good comfort food, and I’m a fan.

My first taste of Drewski’s happened earlier this year when the flame-covered rig pulled up in front of KCRA for a live shot. I sampled a pulled pork sammy embedded with mac, aka the Hemi. It’s heavy as a brick and sooooo good. These guys also know how to make great sides, with tots standing out as some of the best in town.

Wicked Wich has game as well, with a creation call the Elvis. The slaw has a nice zing, while the mac is supple and sublime. The best part is the chipped ham, slathered in a smoky sauce that ties the whole thing together. The only drawback is the bread, which was a little soggy when I had it. Ciabatta would work better in this case. Still, I’d order it again.

I know this whole concept is nothing new. I remember discovering these kind of trucks years ago in downtown Modesto, where a fleet of plain, no-nonsense operations serve of delicious burritos and tacos along the railroad tracks near Eighth and H streets. They’re still there, and I try to stop by whenever I’m visiting.

I was in heaven earlier this year when the MoFo took place in Fremont Park. (And I’m willing to forgive organizers for failing to prepare for the hordes of ravenous food truck diners who showed up.) A. and I showed up early, but we still only managed to hit two trucks before the lines got too long.

I’m just happy to see this whole thing go mainstream and thrive. And if they serve it and tweet about it, I’ll show up.

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Trout Makes Boy Happy, Saves Dad’s Reputation

I’ve never been so happy to see a rainbow trout in my life.

First fish!

It was the first-ever fish for A., caught at the tail end of an excellent camping trip at Silver Lake.

It was also very welcome proof to my 8-year-old son that his old man knows a little about fishing after all.

We were only there for a night, camping just a cast away from the deep, cool water. We fished a little the day we arrived, but caught nothing.

The next morning, I woke the boy up before sunrise, and as mist hugged the lake, we cast big gobs of yellow sparkle and rainbow PowerBait into the water and waited. We sat and sat, but no luck.

It was chilly as the sun rose over nearby Sierra peaks, and I could tell that shivering A. had his doubts about whether I knew what I was doing. I admit that I’ve laid it on pretty thick when it comes to fish stories, going on and on about days near Mammoth where I used to catch so many fish that my arm got tired from reeling them in.

A. was pretty quiet as we made our way back to camp, where we ate cereal bars instead of fresh trout for breakfast around the campfire.

Later that morning, we went kayaking on the lake, which I figured would be a pretty good diversion from fishing. But as we paddled not far from our fishing spot, we watched as a dad helped his daughter reel a fish to the shore. The girl couldn’t have been more than 4.

A. watched the scene unfold from his kayak, and then shot a look at me that could have frozen that fish on the spot.

I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Pretty soon it was time to break camp and head home. I figured we had one last chance. Getting A. back to the lake to go fishing again took a lot of convincing, but he reluctantly toted his gear back to the shore.

I baited his hook and handed him the pole. He splashed his way out to a big granite rock just off shore and cast his line. The waiting began.

In the meantime, I set up my own pole and cast my line. We sat quietly. I knew this was it. As I looked away and tried to think good thoughts, the fishing gods smiled upon us.

A. shouted, “I got a fish!”

At first I thought he was pulling a fast one, but before I could get out to the big rock where he was standing, he had already reeled the beast in. The trout flopped around on the line. Determined not to let this one get away, I grabbed the fish around the middle. It was the most beautiful trout I’d ever seen. We measured it: 10 ½ inches.

A.’s grin was just as wide, and he immediately recounted every detail of the catch. In his eyes, he’d caught a whale.

We made our way back to camp, with me carrying the fishing gear and A. holding up the stringer, proudly showing the fish to folks we met.

He was elated, and I was just plain relieved. He finally caught a trout, and I managed, just barely, to maintain a little bit of dad cred.

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Now That’s Some Really Cold Water

I’ve been humbled by a swim test.

It was one of the first rites of passage at Camp Lassen, a gathering for Cub Scouts way out in the boonies near Butte Meadows.

Scouts and their parents arrive and immediately go down to the ice-cold lake, hop in and attempt to swim two laps between the dock and the shore.

Seems easy, right? I thought it would be a breeze. I love to swim in Lake Tahoe, even earlier this summer when it seemed colder than usual. I used to sit in the hot springs near Mammoth, and then roll in the nearby snow just for fun.

I thought I was pretty tough. Until now.

A., who is now in the webelos, and I were at camp with his pack – 26 Scouts and 24 parents. Most of us were game to at least give the water a try on this sunny afternoon.

But it soon became clear this was no ordinary test.

Kids and adults alike were jumping in the water and immediately hopping out. They hit the lake and in a flash they were back on the dock. Some kids even cried. The adults looked stunned, and perhaps cried on the inside. Only a handful of swimmers did the whole test.

That’s when I got nervous.

A. and I hit the water at about the same time.

He swam like a maniac down to the turnaround point, and then made a smart move and got out of the water. No mas.

I was following him, and at the turnaround point, I was already struggling. The water was the coldest I’ve ever dealt with, and felt like a thousand needles on my back. I quickly turned around and set my sights on the dock. About half way there, I was having trouble breathing. It was as if my lungs had shriveled up. It was starting to feel numb. I made it to the dock, but just barely. I crawled out and stopped for a moment, hoping the sun would thaw me out.

There was no way I was going to do another lap to pass the test, and I was gladly classified as a beginning swimmer. I knew when I was licked.

A. and I met up afterward near the dock, reunited like long-lost buddies. We shivered and were glad to be on dry, warm ground.

There was no shame. As father and son, we gave it a shot. But this time, the lake got the best of us.

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It’s hard to believe I’m the dad of an (almost) fourth grader.

And a little rhyme A. came up with made me realize that yes, this is probably the last of the little-kid grades for him:

First grade, babies

Second grade, cats

Third grade, angels

Fourth grade, rats!

I’ve got strong memories of fourth grade at Clifford Elementary School in Redwood City, and my great and wise teacher, Mrs. Madigan, who told me not to get married until I was at least 30. As it turned out, that’s what I did.

She was the kind of teacher who was nuts for tennis (it was the 70s), drove a station wagon with cool fake wooden paneling on the side and took the whole class to visit Stanford on a field trip.

Fourth grade felt like the last kiddie grade for me. After that, we moved to Oakdale, and things just felt different. It wasn’t until high school, when I had the erudite and compassionate Mr. Conrotto for English, that I had a teacher quite as good.

A. insists he’s already moving on to the big-kid grades, mainly because the fourth-graders go to class in a different wing than kindergarten through third grades.

In the past year, he seems to have grown at least four inches, and seeing him with his friends, I can almost imagine him as a middle-schooler. It’s a little scary how fast time passes, and in a couple years it will be little C.’s turn to enter kindergarten.

C. has already told me she wants a Hello Kitty rock guitar for her fourth birthday. She’s growing up so quickly I can almost see changes by the day.

But for now we’re just enjoying the summer, and playing outside in the warm evenings. When I’m not exhausted and getting after them to pick up their toys, I try to soak in these fleeting moments.

I watch them wrestle and fight one moment, and see them giving one another a hug the next. They won’t be little forever.


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My Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy

I finally got to live out one of my biggest fourth-grade fantasies.

No, not the one about racing a black Trans Am across the country like in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

And not the one about flying an X-wing like in “Star Wars.”

At last, I got to see KISS. And not only as a spectator, but as a photographer backstage and in the photo pit during the show.

The band was in town for a benefit concert at Raley Field, and I was there for work.

The biggest surprises?

First, Gene Simmons is a huge dude. When I ran into him backstage, he was in all his KISS gear. His tall boots, makeup, huge hair and spiked shoulder pads made him seem larger than life.

Second, the band can still really play.

Before the show, photographers took their places, and I staked out my spot right below the metal lip of the huge stage. I fiddled with my gear, and made sure my earplugs were in. (I’m too much of an old geezer to go to shows without them anymore.)

When the lights came up and the band strode on stage, there was Simmons right in front of me, wielding his axe and sticking his tongue out. It was catnip for photographers, and the crowd went insane.

I had the best seat in the house for three songs (that’s how long photogs got to stay in the pit).

It was a surreal experience, standing there taking photos of legends, all while a wall of sound shook my bones. I was grateful of have my earplugs, but I’m pretty sure the beat may have loosened a couple fillings.

I loved these guys to start with, but there’s nothing like seeing them up close. They’re masters of putting on a great show.

Earlier this month, I took photos from the stage of the Nelly and Flo Rida show on Capitol Mall. It was fun, but the whole production was pretty basic.

KISS, on the other hand, is an experience that rocks you to the core. The costumes. The guitars that shoot fireworks. The pyrotechnics behind the stage. Every rock ‘n’ roll element is there, and nothing beats it.

The guys of KISS might be getting older, but they just don’t make bands like this anymore.

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Candy-Fueled Madness

I knew it was time to cut off the Easter candy today when I caught little C. drawing whiskers on her face with an ink pen.

She also penned some round spots on her legs.

“I’m a cat!” the sugar-addled 3-year-old said.

She had sort of nutty look in her eye, like a kid who had just wrapped up a serious sweets bender. I blame the sleeve of mini Reese’s cups she managed to scarf from her Easter basket, despite my attempts to keep consumption to a moderate level. She’s a sneaky one, and it’s hard to keep her away from candy at a time like this.

The whole weekend has been filled with Easter, with two egg hunts (both with lots of candy), a neighborhood party (carne aside and sangria should be part of every holiday get-together) and church this morning (both kids were actually pretty well-behaved this year).

Amid all the food and treats, the kids had a blast with their little buddies.

A. had an epic Nerf battle with his amigos yesterday. At one point, he said, the sky was filled with Nerf bullets. Nothing says Easter like a Nerf war among the neighborhood kids.

And C. worked the church dining hall this morning like the little social butterfly that she is. She loves a party, and the Easter breakfast at Trinity Cathedral was just her thing.

Now it’s time to get things back to normal. Lent is over, and I can finally start eating Cheetos again. (Giving them up was much harder than I originally anticipated.)

School starts again tomorrow for A., and I think he’s ready to go back.

We’re getting organized, rested and cleaned up. In C.’s case, that involved a good soaking in the tub. Luckily, the ink came off with a little scrubbing. At least she didn’t use a Sharpie.

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Second Time Around

Our metallic green Pinewood Derby racer didn’t win any races –- in fact, it came in last place in all four heats –- but it really doesn’t matter.

One of the great joys of being a dad is that you get to do kid stuff all over again, and A. and I sure had fun transforming a plain block of wood into a tricked-out sprint car.

As we built our ride together over the course of a few weeks –- planning, picking a style, using dangerous-looking woodworking tools, picking a paint color and then changing our minds –- I couldn’t help but remember a similar experience I had making a car with my stepdad decades ago.

I was in Cub Scouts somewhere around the fourth grade, and he took the lead in making a beautiful metallic purple car. I remember he did most of the building, but I did a lot of sanding. A lot of sanding. He added a motor from a plastic car model kit, and it was full of great details.

On race day, the other scouts marveled at the car and I was very proud. The only problem was that a little bit of the lead we used to weight the car properly was hanging off the bottom, which caused it to drag on the track. While we didn’t win for speed, I remember winning an award for design, and I couldn’t have been happier. It’s one of the best memories I have of my stepdad, spending time with him crafting something important.

I kept that car in mind as A. and I teamed up to build our own entry. We’re new to Cub Scouts this year, and the derby is one of the biggest events of the year.

We gathered with other scouts at a leader’s house weeks before the race, and he bravely let us loose with his tools to shape our cars. A. picked out the design, and I cut out the rough shape. We then used a belt sander to smooth the edges, and A., like me years before, started sanding.

We talked about our plans again and again, and dropped by the scout store to buy a plastic driver (complete with steering wheel), a plastic motor and some cool decals. We also went across town to the hobby shop to get more decals.

The original plan was to paint it metallic blue. But when that paint failed to look good on the primered wood body, we changed our mind and went for green.

The anticipation built up until last Saturday, when we had to turn in our car during the weigh-in at the Elks’ Lodge. We were about 2 grams over the 5-ounce weight limit, which didn’t surprise me given the several layers of paint on the car. I had to drill some holes in the bottom of lighten it up, and soon we were good to go.

When Sunday afternoon’s race finally arrived, we went back to the lodge to find a beautiful aluminum track set up, complete with an electronic timing system. Pack 259 takes the derby seriously, and we couldn’t wait.

I knew we might be in trouble when I saw the other 30 or so cars, many of which were simple, aerodynamic wedges. Our car had a big plastic motor on the top, like my car from years ago, which was sure to create a drag during races.

Sure enough, our car was pretty slow. But unlike some of the other cars, at least it rolled to the finish line on its own.

A. was a little discouraged at first by his finishes. But I told him to wait until the other special awards were given out. Prior to the race, everyone was given a sheet to rank the cars in different categories.

When awards were handed out at Wednesday’s pack meeting, we went home as winners in the categories of best design and most decals. A. had a big grin on his face, much like I must have had during my big race years ago. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.

A. is already planning this next car, this time with a sleek, speedy design. We have plenty of time to mull it over, think about paint and get ready.

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Moving Slowly

Two busted sleds, two seriously bruised rear ends, and two very satisfied sledders.

That pretty much sums up our trip up to Cisco Grove on Saturday, where A. and I basked in the sun, ate lots of Fritos and had one of our best snow-play missions ever.

Today I feel like I was on the losing end of a SmackDown match, with bumps and aches all over. Since I passed 40, it seems like I pay a little more after spending a day riding the chutes behind the Valero gas station. Even A., who is usually pretty resilient, is moving a little slower.

We try to hit the slopes behind the station at least once a year. We, like tons of other visitors who flock there on weekends, tend to ignore the signs that tell us we’re sledding there at out own risk. It is, after all, a sort of unofficial sled spot.

On Saturday, we arrived to find some of the smaller hills near the station pretty bare, with dirt showing in many areas. It’s been sunny and warm up there in recent weeks, and they haven’t had any serious snow for awhile. But a short walk into the woods revealed a motherlode of great sledding tracks, well worn by previous visitors and lined with slick, fast ice.

We attacked the hill shortly before 10 a.m., when the surface was like concrete. A. had his Wham-O Snow Boogie, a soft sled that absorbs the bumps well. I rode our old faithful Torpedo, a red ride made of thin plastic and lacking any cushioning at all. Getting there early paid off, allowing us to have one hill to ourselves for about an hour. We rode again and again, catching what seemed like massive air on bumps built up along the course.

After a cocoa break at the station, we really ramped things up by moving to a nearby ravine that has the best vertical of any of the runs. The top was shaded by tall pines, making it incredibly icy and fast, more like an Olympic bobsled run than a mere sled trail. This is where our sleds met their demise. While other smarter folks were riding from about midway up the hill, we headed close to the top against better judgment.

I stood partway down the hill to help clear the track and issue warnings to others as A. came whizzing down the hill. He hit bumps at full speed, launching him and his sled into the air. The little guy hung on well, whooping it up along the way. I tried it myself, and it felt like I jarred a couple fillings loose in the process.

After a few runs, A. had broken a handle off his sled, and I had snapped the Torpedo in half, turning one big sled into two smaller ones that we attempted to use through the day.

Luckily, the snow softened up as the sun rose higher in the sky. A. and I soon retired to smaller hills, resting more between runs. We met the mountain, and as usual, the mountain won.

Now that we’re back home, we’re resting our sore selves and reliving our rides. Of course, the amount of air we caught increases with each retelling of the tale.

We’re now also in the market for some new sleds. We need models that can take extreme punishment. I’m also thinking about adding some extra padding to my snow pants. We’ll need both for next time.

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