Word from Bird March 2016

Playground games

Most of my school-related memories from my grade school years really center on my experiences on the playground.

We had twice a day recesses, a short 20 minute romp in the morning, then an hour and a half during lunch.

The lunchtime recesses were either a blessing or a curse, depending on what grade you were in. First through third graders got to eat first, and depending on how quick you could wolf down your fish sticks or chicken strips, you had the rest of the recess ahead of you. Seventh and eighth grades ate last, so you had plenty of time to get in a game of dodgeball before heading to the cafeteria. Fourth and fifth graders had it worse, their lunch came in the middle of the recess, so you had to suspend whatever game you were playing to eat, then wait until everyone finished to resume the kickball match. Lord help you if you dallied over lunch and held up a game because you couldn’t finish your vegetables.

(The nuns that patrolled the cafeteria in my school were very draconian when it came to cleaning your plate. We heard the “Children are starving in Africa” mantra for eight years.)

Back then we weren’t like kids today. We didn’t stand around and argue about vampires, and we didn’t care about social standings. There were only 22 kids in my grade and we all grew up together, so even the misfits had a sense of belonging.

We all stuck together, and any games we played had to involve everyone in the class.

My last year at that school really stands out for memorable recess periods.

We started out with the traditional kickball games. But we were quickly banned from playing that when we started launching the infamous red rubber balls into traffic every afternoon.

So we moved on to dodgeball, but that had its fair share of controversies. Primarily, our playground area was right where the little kids would have to line up for lunch. It only took a few first graders hitting the ground from errant throws for the powers that be to put an end to that particular game.

For a few weeks we were forced to improvise, playing tag or other boring games like that, until my friend Mike came up with a brilliant idea.

We would have Sumo Wrestling matches. A circular patch of tarmac served as the ring and we spent a few weeks bumping and knocking each other around until, that too, was stopped by the principal for being too violent.

Of course, it all came to an end anyway when the Wisconsin winter rolled around and we spent the frigid days roughhousing in the snow.

Of course, there was the time we buried John Peters up to his knees in the snow. When the recess bell rang, calling us back to class, we left him there, unable to get out. When our teacher noticed his absence, and looked out the window to see him struggling to extricate himself, she send two janitors to dig him out…and the rest of us to the front office for a reprimand.

Good times I tell you.

Spring Ding

I’m glad spring has sprung. After growing up in Wisconsin, I should be used to sub-freezing temperatures, but I miss being able to step outside without iceburgs forming on the inside of my nose.

The designation of the seasons is an arbitrary thing. Long ago it was decided the year should be divided into four seasons of equal length. Deciding where one season ended and another began was just a matter of figuring out what season goes where.

Since snow is usually on the ground in December, it was decided long ago to call that season winter. Everyone knows winter is an old Roman term for “It’s cold outside, better put on your long toga.” And since August is so hot, they called that season summer. Summer was the term the ancient Greeks used to use to describe the heat, as in “It’s so hot, summer us are going to the beach.”

Unfortunately that left six months and two seasons unaccounted for. They decided to call the time between winter and summer – spring: a nonsense word that has no meaning whatsoever. A special meeting was held to come up with the name for the third and final season. After sorting through several suggestions, it was decided to call it “Frank.” That name lasted for two weeks until the National Federation of people named Frank lodged a protest claiming they did not want to be associated with that time of year. After another conference, they settled on autumn. Flavious Herapole, the citizen who submitted the name for consideration, won a three-week vacation to Rome. We all know about the fall of Rome, which just so happened to occur on Flavious’ trip, so that is why we also call that particular season…“fall.”

Not all parts of the world experience the seasons in the same way. Winter in Australia is their hottest season of the year. In Hawaii, there is no appreciable difference in the climate from day-to-day, it is always hot and wet. Summer for an Eskimo only means putting away the winter parka and wearing the one with less seal fur on it.

It may be time to throw away the old conventions and come up with better ways of differentiating one time of year. Every one has different ideas on what seasons are.

A sports fan knows there are only three seasons. Baseball season begins in March and ends in November. From there we spring right into football season, which ends in January. The time between is known as college basketball season.

Kids only know two seasons: School and Summer Vacation. Even that is misleading. Summer vacation only lasts two weeks (in the opinion of kids everywhere), while School goes on forever.

Farmers know planting season, growing season, harvest season, grumbling about bills season, and seed buying season.

Hollywood executives know sweeps season, rerun season and “What new reality show can we put on the air this week?” season.

I’m open to suggestions. If anyone has a better idea, let me know. If we get enough people behind us we could start a ground floor movement that will change the world. Or we could just get looked at funny, but I’m used to that.

Too good to eat

I don’t want to get off on a rant here (sorry Dennis Miller), but it is really starting to annoy me when I see a food product advertised on television or on a menu that looks terrific, but when you get it, it looks totally different.

How many times do you see a commercial for a fast-food hamburger that makes the burger look absolutely delicious? If you actually break down and buy the artery-clogging sandwich, you are disappointed because it never looks as good as it did in the commercial.

I know there are marketing agencies that specialize in photographing food so it is appealing. If you were to take a food product and put it under bright lights to capture it on film, it would melt or spoil after a short while, so they often use fake studio props to stand in for the real food.

On the commercials where you see someone actually eating the product, they always manage to take a clean bite and none of the messy guts of the sandwich drips down on their shirt. Most people I know can’t eat a hamburger without some remnant of the food ending up on their clothes or all over the table.

When I was in high school, I worked at a fast-food restaurant. I don’t want to name it here, but I can say I worked under a pair of golden arches.

When training for the arduous task of flipping burgers and boiling fries in hot grease, I had to watch several videos of the “proper way” to prepare each sandwich.

These videos were produced in a special studio designed to resemble a burger joint. The actors happily administered the exact doses of condiments and assembled each burger with precision and style. The end result was a picture-perfect hamburger.

In the real world behind the counter, that same precision was hard to duplicate. The catsup would never come out of the dispenser the same way twice, the onions would scatter randomly and the buns would shift when placed on the slightly melted cheese.

Plus, when you are trying to get 24 burgers cooked and dressed as fast as you can because you have a lobby full of hungry customers, aesthetics was never as important as speed.

To be perfectly fair, the company I worked for wanted us to make as quality food as possible, and we (the cooks) actually tried our best, but the end product didn’t look like the same thing as on the menu.

The company even hosted an annual, nationwide competition where you would be judged on how well you followed the procedures. I won the district and advanced to regional competition twice. But the problem was when you were being judged you did everything by the book. They didn’t allow you to use one of the shortcuts you had to learn if you wanted to keep the managers happy.

So when dining out at a fast-food restaurant; don’t be disappointed when the burger you order doesn’t look like the one on the menu. It probably doesn’t taste as good either.

Super me

I admit I am a comic book geek.

I love to read about super heroes and all their fantastic exploits.

But I am also an ex-physics major and somewhat of a skeptic.

Sometimes I find it hard to reconcile those aspects of my personality.

Like most children, I sometimes imagined what it would be like to have super powers. But, as I got older, I began to see some problems with some of the more popular powers.

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment and create a new hero, a blank tablet that can have any power we wish.

Let’s call him Super Me.

How would having powers like comic book characters react in real life?

Take super strength for instance. How many times in movies or comic books do you see the super hero pick up a bus, building or other incredibly large object? The truth is, if Super Me tried to lift a bus, all the force would be concentrated on my hands. Unless I grab it at exactly the perfect spot, my hands would rip through the metal and the bus would rip apart.

Let’s look at the ability to fly. Zooming through the air at super speed, master of all I survey.

That would be neat. Until, at least, a bird hit me in the face. You have seen what birds do to airplane engines haven’t you? Then, there’s the added question of knowing where you are going. Unless you carry a satellite navigation system at all times, it would be pretty hard to figure out where you are.

Super Me could be headed to San Francisco to stop a robbery, but I get off course somewhere in Nevada and end up in Oregon.

So let’s keep it on the ground. Imagine Super Me has super speed, like the Flash.

Physics will mess with you there too.

First off, friction would probably cause you to burst into flames moving that fast. And, even if Super Me had a special fire-proof suit, the force of inertia would cause serious issues as well.

The law of inertia states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest. That means my liver, lungs, spleen and other important vital organs are sitting placidly at rest inside me. If I were to suddenly accelerate at near the speed of light, those organs are going to want to stay behind. Not healthy. Concussion would be the least of my concerns, if I had any after my brain tired to jump out the back of my skull.

But, let’s say my special suit also counteracts the inertia. Unless my perceptions are sped up to hyper speed as well, the first time I come across something in my path, I will probably end up a smear on the wall.

There are other powers that present similar problems as well: invisibility, telepathy, invulnerability. Each of them creates their own unique issues in the real world.

Perhaps I am taking things a bit too literally, and I should just enjoy these little escapes into fantasy land.

But I have always preferred Batman to all other heroes, and I think I know why.

A quarter at a time

I remember playing my first video game back in the late 70’s. My family and I were at a restaurant and in the corner stood a Space Invaders machine. After watching some older kids play on it for a while, I begged my mom for a quarter so I could try it out. She fished in the bottom of her purse for a coin or two and gave them to me. I walked up to the machine and tried to figure it out. Remember, this was during the infancy of video games, other than pinball games, we kids had no idea what to expect. If you took a kid of today and introduced him to a strange video game, chances are he could figure it out pretty quick. But back in the day it was new for everyone.

The controls were basic. Moving the joystick left or right allowed your “ship” to move in the same direction and the “fire” button shot a little missile up at the aliens. Not exactly rocket science, but in 1978 we had never seen anything like it.

After going through two quarters in about five minutes, I was addicted. The impulse to play video games has been a thorn in my side for over 25 years now. Most of my time and allowance in the 1980’s were spent in arcades, the place to be during that time.

Arcades in the 80’s were the place to be, anyone who was anyone was seen at least two hours a day in the neighborhood arcade. They were spacious, bright and noisy. Hundreds of machines were competing for your quarters by beeping, singing, and even talking to you. The most popular machines were lined up at the main entrance so you’d have to elbow your way past throngs of onlookers just to get to the change machine.

In the heyday of the arcade five dollars could last you all afternoon. As you got better you could spend more time playing for fewer dollars, and if you did “die” most of the games had a continue option so you could keep playing and the machine could keep sucking the change from your pockets.

Some of the games and those who played them achieved legend status. Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Contra, Centipede, Galaxian, just to name a few, were the Holy Grail games. Every kid dreamed of having his initials listed as the “Top Score”. For every game there were hundreds of contenders to the throne. Every kid also had a favorite back-up game or two. These were usually the less popular games that were not besieged with a throng of people waiting to play.

Today, the video-game arcade is just a mere shadow of what it once was. The price of games has risen astronomically. I have seen one that costs $5 to play! Video game consoles have taken the kids from the arcades and put them in their living rooms. The arcades are dying out. They occupy small corners in malls and theaters, where they once featured predominately.

To this day I have difficulty resisting the temptation to plunk down a few quarters when I see a dusty game in the corner of a convenience store or theater. It may take a few minutes but my memory always seems to come back and the patterns float right back to the surface of my mind. For a few minutes, I am ten years old again. Hanging out with my friends on a Saturday afternoon with not a single care in the world. Then as the last ghost chomps on my butt, I am cruelly thrown back into the real world…until I find another quarter.