Up All Night

Sometimes, life gets in the way of some pretty important experiences. Take the recent television marathon of every episode of “The Simpsons” ever produced.

I admit that I don’t have the same affinity for the legendary cartoon that some people do, but this event really caught my attention. Just because I can’t remember which season was the best of pull out obscure quotes doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled by the idea of showing a couple decades worth of a TV show in order.

The problem is that I have a job and a family and a life. All three of these things are completely incompatible with seeing how far I could push my body before I collapsed out of exhaustion.

For the record, I probably wouldn’t have made it more than 20-some hours. I don’t have the stamina that I did when I was a kid, but it would have been fun trying.

OK, that’s not completely true. I probably wouldn’t have lasted much more than 20-some hours as a kid either. As much as I wanted to stay up for ungodly amounts of time watching TV, I could never do it.

The task had greater obstacles back in the day. I remember looking through the TV Guide – yes, kids, we actually had to look through a printed publication to see what shows would be on TV when I was young – to plot out marathon viewing sessions.

These sessions only existed in my mind. First of all, I would always find gaps in the schedule where nothing good was playing, even in the early days of cable TV. Second, the presence of my parents and siblings never guaranteed me unfettered access to the TV. Lastly, I’m a wimp and would conk out in the middle of the night regardless of how much soda I drank.

I can only think of a few times when I overcame this inability to satisfy my urge to stay up for long hours simply so I could tell people I stayed up for long hours. None of them involved television.

I managed long spells awake two of the times I flew overseas. The first time, when I was on a high school trip to England, I stupidly took some generic caffeine pills because I heard that’s how kids in college pulled all nighters. I didn’t feel so good afterwards.

One time in college, I stayed up all night to write an important paper, turned the paper in, went to my classes and worked the entire next night at the campus newspaper. I may have napped a little, but I was probably up for close to 48 hours.

When I finally got to my fraternity house, I went to our TV room to wind down before sleeping. I threw a quarter in the soda machine – which also had beer interspersed in it because we ran the thing ourselves as a cruel game of Russian roulette – and promptly got a Milwaukee’s Best.

I sighed, dropped another quarter in the machine, hit the same button and received another beer. My friends celebrated because that was the lone double whammy they had put in the machine.

Chagrined, I sat down, drank both beers and slept for an eternity. I guess I will never find out if 48 hours of Bart Simpson could replicate that slumber.

Generic Issues

More than a decade ago, one of the regional grocery stores called their generic brand “Finast.” Around that time, I secured a new job which included a nice bump in salary.

As Maria and I celebrated, I told her we could now buy “the finest meats and cheeses.” She replied, “Instead of Finast meats and cheeses.”

The joke has hung around our house all this time. I really have nothing against generic brands and often buy them myself. The markup for the name on the box isn’t always worth it.

My wife, however, made a grave miscalculation about that last week. She bought generic Cheez-Its.

To say this caused controversy at home would not accurately capture the situation. There were text messages followed by a long discussion at dinner followed by Facebook posts that allowed friends and family to weigh in on the matter.  One of my older sisters taunted us with a picture of a bag of Cheez-Its with the caption “looks like we made it.”

That kind of hurt. I have turned into a little bit of a cheapskate as I have gotten older. I don’t make impulse buys like I used to. When I do, I make sure I am getting a really good discount.

But some things shouldn’t even enter into the conversation when it comes to cutting corners. I mean, if you really have money problems there is absolutely no shame in getting generic cheesy snack crackers.

Thankfully, we don’t have that kind of issue right now. We’re not diving into swimming pools filled with money (well, not yet because I am writing this before Friday’s lottery drawing) like Scrooge McDuck, but we can easily afford the 50-cent difference between the generic and name brand on this item.

When we took this topic to social media, some folks suggested a blind taste test to see if the hubbub about this purchase really mattered. I would have no problem with that. In fact, I bet I would enjoy the generic brand just fine.

Some products transcend the whole name brand vs. generic debate, however. The name defines them.

Cheez-Its falls into this category. So do Oreos. I would argue that Fritos do, but the price difference between the two is pretty stark so I supported my wife buying the generic ones as long as she put them into the name-brand bag to quell any potential uprising.

I also have no problem with generic salsa or salad dressing or other condiments. We eat generic yogurt sometimes, and I regularly eat generic granola bars in the morning at work.

This is a pretty fine line in my mind. While we never reached a consensus on this issue, people pretty much agreed that generics as a whole aren’t bad. It all depends on the product.

For instance, I have no problem with generic soda. When I see a sale on the off-brand stuff, I will sometimes grab a 12-pack or two.

One of my wife’s guilty pleasures is a diet soda in the afternoon. I wonder what would happen if I bought her a generic brand?

On second thought, I don’t know if I want to go down that road. She could retaliate with generic beer.

In Defense of ‘The Big Bang Theory’

Sometimes, I feel like I should address this subject as if I am attending a recovery meeting.

“Hi, my name is Brian.”

“Hi, Brian.”

“I think The Big Bang Theory is a quality television show.”

Actually, that kind of meeting wouldn’t require the anonymity and potential shame that can come with a gathering of folks in recovery. The show has a massive following.

That speech is probably better suited for some special group of folks who like the top-rated CBS comedy, doesn’t consider it pandering and also enjoys “smart” comedies like Parks and Recreation and critical darlings who did not attract enough viewers to get a chance at a sustained run like TBBT.

I point this out only because some of the most virulent criticism of the Chuck Lorre show, especially in the wake of Jim Parson taking home another Emmy last night, comes from places like Warming Glow, a pop culture site which I enjoy except for its slavish devotion to Community creator Dan Harmon. (I like his show, but the fanboy following is over the top).

My big mistake came when I waded into the comments there and said some things and some other people said some things and I went and clicked the check box which stopped sending me e-mails whenever people replied to my comments because, well, the Internet.

I don’t know why I feel compelled to try and defend a show which does so well that it’s top actors will earn $1 million per episode this year. They don’t need my help. Plus, I really don’t care if other people like TBBT or any other show I like. My God, I watched Raising Hope to the bitter and can’t wait for the final season of Cougar Town. I’m not making my choices based on popularity.

I guess I just take offense at the criticism (from places like Warming Glow) that if you like TBBT, you have no taste and only watch TV to not think and don’t understand comedy. I think I understand comedy pretty well. I watch a lot of shows that critics love. I cut my teeth on M*A*S*H*. My family watched Cheers before it became a national hit.

Sure, Chuck Lorre brought us Two and a Half Men before TBBT, and that brought us Charlie Sheen’s antics and a shocking Emmy for Jon Cryer and the whiny guy who played the kid and then railed against the show. But should the scientists from California pay for the sins of that show just because they share a creator?

I love Parks and Recreation, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find fault with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, also from the brain of Mike Schur. But the mob mentality against TBBT seems to have to more with reputation than people having actually watched many episodes of the show.

First of all, the cast is pretty damned good. Many wring their hands over Parsons winning another Emmy, but I think the bigger problem with the award system is the lack of recognition for Kaley Cuoco for her performance as Penny. I don’t think she should win, but a nomination would go a long way toward rewarding her for what I feel is the role that makes the show work.

Secondly, the show hardly relies on one simple premise. It’s not just making fun of nerds. For instance, the Leonard-Penny relationship has, in my estimation, handled the “will they or won’t they” with more alacrity than most TV shows with the same dilemma. The ways they have each tried to expose the other to things outside their comfort zone really strengthens the relationship. I doubt the critics could actually discuss those in depth because they haven’t watched enough to see the

Thirdly, who cares what nerds think about it? Community isn’t judged by what people at two-year schools think. Parks and Rec fans don’t worry about the thoughts from municipal leaders. So why do the people who criticize the show often say, “look, even nerds hate it!” It’s a TV show, not a referendum.

Lastly, the way the writers have made adjustments over the years, adding characters to the universe while showing how that affects the other characters and giving them all some sort of social tic to throw something else into the mix has helped keep the show fresh (and let those who discovered it in reruns come into the new shows with a sense of discovery).

I don’t expect the people who hate the show to change their mind, but I selfishly wanted to go over this because it seems like the debate has devolved into nothing but “it sucks” vs. “big ratings.” The reality lies somewhere in the middle. Let’s hope the discussion can get there at some point as well.

Car Coveting

Back when the nuns taught me the Bible in grade school, I think I had trouble understanding some of the ideas.

I completely got don’t kill, love your parents (even if that can be tough for a kid sometimes) and don’t steal, but the whole “do not covet” thing might have gone over my head a little bit.

That’s tough for a kid. Who doesn’t want the kinds of things that their friends have, but their parents won’t buy for them? Especially in an era where video game systems were just starting to pop up everywhere.

This whole concept, however, has started to become more clear over the past year or year and a half.

I have not undergone some religious conversion. My clarity comes from my car, which I purchased last winter.

However, the vehicle purchase didn’t eliminate any potential coveting because I enjoyed peace with my decision. Oh, no, the new car made me covet things even more.

I love my car. It handles great and gets great gas mileage and has some bells and whistles which make my daily commute much more tolerable. But the absence of one item which I had on my previous car has ramped up the coveting to an all-time high.

My car does not have a sunroof. With the kind of weather we have had recently, I have a feeling I might break a few commandments other than the whole coveting thing if it meant getting a sunroof on my car.

The blame for this situation falls squarely on my own head. When I realized that my old car was headed for the junkyard, I had to develop priorities for its replacement. The purchase came a year or so earlier than I anticipated, making me focus on finances kind of closely.

That meant a sunroof fell into the category of “would be nice’ instead of “must have.” I distinctly remember looking at the options for the car I wanted and knowing I would regret going with a model without a sunroof no matter how much sense it made for my bank account.

For a while, I didn’t have too many regrets. The heat of last summer made the point moot. I didn’t see myself driving with the sunroof open when I felt like I was traveling through a furnace. For a while, I thought I had made the right decision.

Then we got into this mild summer, and all that went in the trash. I used to enjoy few things more than my early morning commute down back roads to Baltimore with the sunroof open. Now when I leave in the morning, I crack a few windows to enjoy the fresh air, but it’s just not the same.

I understand that we can file this whole thing under “First World Problems,” but that doesn’t stop the coveting. Life throws a bunch of decisions at us and buying a car without a sunroof so we can continue to pay our mortgage is just one of the ones I don’t like.

Because if I had to sleep in my car because I bought one with a sunroof when I couldn’t afford it, I don’t think I’d care what kind of features it had.

Farewell, Robin Williams

I don’t think I have ever seen the unanimity of shock like I saw on social media last night when the news of Robin Williams’ death his the news. When a celebrity dies, you can count on some people in your network to take it hard, but many others don’t even notice. Not so with the man who brought us Mork.

In the end, I did not post anything because I didn’t know what I could add to the conversation. It’s not like I think I have an important voice, but what does another post really matter. I wanted to think of something useful to say, if only to show how much Williams’ career meant to me as someone who tries to make people laugh and occasionally think.

The outpouring that hit the Internet last night took on many forms. Some people posted their favorite sayings from “Mork & Mindy,” the show that introduced us to Williams and showed that a sitcom can survive a thin premise when in the hands of an extraordinary talent. Others focused on his dramatic work, especially “Good Will Hunting.” Another line of tribute took us to “Mrs. Doubtfire,” where he perfectly mixed the silly and serious.

The fact that we had so many examples explains why this has hit such a wide swath of regular people. That and the fact that one of the target markets for social media literally grew up watching his career unfold. But the real evidence lies in the reality that Robin Williams wasn’t a comedian or an actor.

He was an experience. From his comedy specials to his movie performances to his talk show appearances to his sitcom characters, he let you live inside his manic mind. We all probably knew, in some way, that he had a screw loose, but let that open a door to experience joy and pathos. We all benefitted from that, which makes this tough to take for so many people.

He also didn’t sully it with an outward dark side. He had some problems with fidelity and struggled with drugs and alcohol, but he didn’t hit or hurt or any of those other things that can sully the memory of someone so talented. Williams merely fought demons that so many other people do, but he couldn’t ultimately win the battle.

That’s what brings so many people together. I don’t profess to know what Robin Williams would want, but remembering those amazing performances and his energy while letting people know that they can find a way out of the darkness regardless of how many awards they have won is probably the best thing we can do.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Looking Over My Shoulder

A few recent news stories have uncovered behavior by websites that shock and worry some people.

First of all, we all learned that Facebook allowed researchers to mess with people, I mean “tweak the algorithm,” to learn how people reacted when they saw predominantly happy or sad news in their news feed.

Then I heard about the dating website OkCupid, which matched up people for dates even though the pairs were incompatible. Once again, they said they just wanted to mess with people for fun, I mean they said they wanted to see if the expectation of a good match outweighed the reality of the situation.

I wish I could tell you the results, but I really didn’t care enough to do more than pay attention to the story on a surface level.

It’s not that I’m an advocate for websites doing bizarre social experiments on people. I just don’t see what all the big fuss is about.

You see, I grew up with seven older siblings, including four older brothers. My whole life has been a social experiment.

I had to explain this to someone at work recently. I had trouble opening one of the doors leading into our office area. My key went in, but I needed to jiggle the handle to get the thing to properly open.

One day, I struggled with this as someone walked past the door. I asked if he had experienced the same thing. Thankfully, he had because I sometimes fall into a default mode of assuming that my brothers worked together with the people who run our building to mess with my key while setting up a webcam to enjoy my struggles.

I don’t like walking around this way. I have learned how to eliminate flinching from my life, but I have a nagging feeling in the back of my head much of the time that someone is just toying with me.

This doesn’t usually manifest itself in imagining elaborate plots involving my workplace, but it does mean I can jump a little higher than the average person when I get engrossed in a task and someone comes up behind me.

In essence, I sometimes live with the specter of a Wet Willie hovering over my head.

That’s why I can’t get too worried if Facebook makes it so some people see a preponderance of bad news in their news feed just to see if that person posts negative items or positive items as a result.

That’s why I don’t feel a ton of sympathy for an OkCupid user who hates sports, but accepted a date from someone who plans their entire social calendar around ESPN’s broadcast schedule.

Those folks can probably move on with their life. They don’t have to scramble for the furthest back seat in any vehicle because that guarantees that they won’t get fish-hooked.

That’s the kind of invasion of privacy that really impacts your life.

Wrestling with Pain

As I hobbled around last week because of a sore knee, I realized that this summer marked a pretty important anniversary.

I thought about this because I tried to trace the root cause of my pain. I hadn’t taken a fall or had anything else serious happen. I had been exercising, but didn’t think overuse was a concern since I just came off a week without exercising while on vacation.

A few theories popped into my head, but one thought lingered in my head. I can always blame a lifetime of wrestling when something like this happens.

My career on the mats started about 35 years ago. That’s when I began competing for the first time, but I had goofed off with my older brothers before that.

Since that time, I have had some consistent connection with the sport. I coached for 11 years after finishing my college career (including a couple of years where I still competed) and have officiated for the past four or five.

The few years between those stints mainly consisted of covering the sport for the paper, my non-contact phase. But the injuries still lingered, including my latest issue.

I can’t directly connect my sore knee to what happened 30 years ago this summer, but it does count as part of the cumulative problem. In 1984, I made a long car trip to wrestle in my first national tournament.

The Junior National wrestling tournament pits the nation’s top wrestlers (plus guys like me) in Greco-Roman and freestyle, the two international styles. I never wrestled in the Greco tournament, but competed in freestyle three times.

When I headed to Cedar Falls, Iowa to compete at the huge domed arena on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa, i had no idea what to expect. That winter, I had my first strong season as a high school sophomore and hit the summer wrestling circuit to get even better.

The Maryland contingent at that time defined the term “rag tag.” I made the drive with two wrestlers and two coaches in a Dodge Colt. I sat on the back seat hump. For 24 hours. Next to a guy who never stopped rocking from side-to-side.

I ended up on the hump because both the other guys in the back had won state championships, but I hadn’t. The picture they took for my ID badge when we registered was frightening.

But we got to meet world champion Greco wrestler Steve Fraser there when he showed up to register at the same time. Then I went out and won my first match, beating a guy from New Mexico. At least I think he was from there.

I lost my next two matches and was eliminated. I went 2-2 the next year and 0-2 after my senior year, losing only to guys who were among the top wrestlers in the country. Three of the four guys who beat me in my final two visits ended up winning some sort of national title in their career.

So I can at least say some pretty talented people rubbed my face in the mat. And it all started with that long car ride 30 years ago.

I wonder if my knee hurt as bad after that ride as it did last week. I know I probably recovered quicker than I do these days.

Happy Birthday, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’

On this day in 1986, something very special happened. I had no idea at the time.

R.E.M. released Life’s Rich Pageant on this day 28 years ago, the band’s fourth album. I had yet to discover the Athens (Ga.) quartet at the time even though I saw them open for The Police a few years earlier. I paid no attention to them.

Pageant came out right before I went to college, and it didn’t take long for me to discover “Superman,” the hidden 12th track on the album. The song – a cover of the 1960s group The Clique – was a popular party song during my freshman year at college. I didn’t need long to find a used cassette of Pageant from Record and Tape Traders the following summer and begin my obsession with the band.

I don’t know if I would have had the same reaction if I hadn’t immersed myself in this album from the beginning. Reckoning may have done the same thing, but that’s about it at that point. I love Murmur and think Fables is underrated, but my favorite songs come from Pageant. I remember the moment at the final R.E.M. show I saw in 2008 when the guy in front of me turned around and high fived me because I knew every word to the “I had a hat …” segment of “These Days.”

Yeah, I can be that guy at an R.E.M. show.

I went full-long into the band when I saw them play on the Green tour in 1989, the first album I bought right after it came out. I don’t recall a ton from that show in Cleveland, but I remember how mesmerized I was at their performance of “I Believe.” They always took it up a notch live. So, I’m celebrating the birthday of Pageant with one of my favorite songs from the album.

No Common Cents

A Pennsylvania bank made a critical error 25 years ago this summer. I want to peg Mellon Bank as the culprit since I lived in Western PA at the time, but I can’t be 100 percent sure.

Whoever it was, they screwed up big time by giving me a credit card.

I can remember getting the unsolicited offer in my college mailbox. Remember, this was 1989, about the time these companies realized they could mine a whole new set of customers by sending them cards out of the blue.

At least I think it was out of the blue. I didn’t remember signing up for a credit card offer, but who knows at this point?

The card came around the end of my junior year in college. I had a trip to Ireland with my sister set up for the very end of the summer. I really needed to work so I could make money to pay for the trip.

But I really didn’t want to go home and shake lemonades at my regular job in Baltimore’s Harborplace. I had worked at the same place for five years, starting there in high school and returning every time I came home on break. I liked the place, but just needed something different.

With no plan to go home and find a different job, I ended up deciding to stay in my college town for as long as I could. A handful of friends were taking summer classes or doing something to prepare for our senior year so I would have company.

The people at the bank had no idea that they sent me a credit card right before my first summer without a plan for making money since I was 16, but they should have a way of figuring these things out. They should also know that I was going to live in my fraternity house right across the street from a grocery store with an ATM that could give cash advances on the card.

Thankfully, I had not yet turned 21 so I didn’t really have the ability to go into a bar and buy everyone drinks using the card. Some places in town turned a blind eye to underage students during the school year, but they were more wary of us during the summer.

If this had been some sort of experiment, I would have proved that the average 20-year-old college student without a job needed somewhere around 45 days to max out a credit card with a fairly small limit. My brother-in-law drew the short straw to come and get me right around the time Wimbledon concluded – I remember watching the men’s final as I waited for him to get me.

I had fallen into a routine of getting cash from the grocery store ATM for food and to pitch in for parties while I spent much of my time reading and watching TV since I didn’t have a car to go anywhere.

I loved every second of it. The reading I started that summer led to the topic I researched for my senior thesis. Plus, I ate a ton of chicken wings.

Maybe the bank didn’t make a mistake after all. I should probably look into thanking them at some point.

Another Bethany Success

The signs that we would have a fantastic beach week with my family started early.

First of all, we saw something we have not seen in ages on our ride down to the Delaware shore – the absence of lines at the Bay Bridge toll plaza. I almost didn’t know what to do when I had the opportunity to drive right up and pay my toll.

We have tried a number of different strategies to try and beat the bridge traffic, all of them abject failures. We just had an abundance of good fortune this time.

Then, we had very few delays along the way. We had a little stop-and-go in a few familiar places, but nothing that really put us behind schedule.

Finally, we had smooth sailing on an alternate route laid out by my brother-in-law to help us avoid construction on the main road leading to our destination.

Since any week at the beach with my family ranks as a good beach week, I saw all these small moments as evidence that we might write a few pages in the family history this time around.

We had much of the same fun as we have had other years. We played the family cornhole tournament, albeit with a smaller field due to some scheduling conflicts. We sat around and talked as long as we could on the beach. We ate a whole mess of crabs one night, so many that the place where my sister buys them informed her that we are the largest order they have to fill all summer.

And all of this on a somewhat down year since some folks could not come down due to my niece’s wedding, which took place on the final day of our vacation. We stayed the whole time at our rental and changed at my sister’s before heading to the ceremony. That’s beach week dedication.

While we did all of those usual things, we also created some new memories.

For the second straight year, a heavy rainstorm flooded the street in front of one of the houses where my sister and her family were staying. That meant we had another opportunity to get the kayaks out from her rental house and patrol the flooded street.

I didn’t take part this year, but to see my nieces and nephews paddling down a residential street once again made me pretty happy.

We also got a chance to mess with one of the lifeguards on the beach, a new family activity. After we saw him input his phone number into the cell phones of multiple attractive young ladies, we sent two of my elementary-school age great nieces to see if they could get his digits. He liked knowing that he was playing to an appreciative crowd.

In the end, however, it’s not about those momentary jokes or how to deal with a quick rainstorm. Beach week means hours sitting on a beach chair with the people who know you best, sharing stories, trading gossip or putting food and other assorted items on the heads of those who fall asleep on their beach towel so someone else can take a picture and put it on Facebook for all the world to see.

That’s what makes vacation with family so special.

Up All Night

Sometimes, life gets in the way of some pretty important experiences. Take the recent television marathon of every episode of “The Simpsons” ever produced. I admit that I don’t have the same affinity for the legendary cartoon that some people do, but this event really caught my attention. Just because I can’t remember which season […]

Happy Birthday, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’

On this day in 1986, something very special happened. I had no idea at the time. R.E.M. released Life’s Rich Pageant on this day 28 years ago, the band’s fourth album. I had yet to discover the Athens (Ga.) quartet at the time even though I saw them open for The Police a few years earlier. […]

Up All Night

Sometimes, life gets in the way of some pretty important experiences. Take the recent television marathon of every episode of “The Simpsons” ever produced. I admit that I don’t have the same affinity for the legendary cartoon that some people do, but this event really caught my attention. Just because I can’t remember which season […]

Up All Night

Sometimes, life gets in the way of some pretty important experiences. Take the recent television marathon of every episode of “The Simpsons” ever produced. I admit that I don’t have the same affinity for the legendary cartoon that some people do, but this event really caught my attention. Just because I can’t remember which season […]