Archive for October, 2012

Backyard Birthdays Hits the Road: Gunnar Golf!

October 11, 2012

Heaven lies on a paper plate

Okay, I admit it, I’m firmly planted in the OCD department about a few things.  Pizza, for example, is a bit of an obsession.  To me, only New York Pizza is pizza. When we went up to Citi Field to see the Mets as part of our follow the Mets on July 4th tradition, I discovered my kindred (though somewhat more potty-mouthed) spirit, Collin Hagendorf of the Slice Harvester blog.  He led us to New York Pizza Suprema right across the street from MSG.  And to quote one of my pop-icon heroes, Special Agent Dale Cooper, New York Pizza Suprema must be where pies go when they die.

I guess I love good pizza so much because, for me, a real slice is a Ratatouille moment.  When the crust has that soft, almost melty (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the best way of describing the sensation) inner layer, but that crisp snap at the bottom; when the cheese has that perfect light sheen of oil, and the cheese achieves that impossible balance between melting in your mouth yet still providing a springy chew; when the sauce is perfectly wed with a hint of sweetness and garlic—I’m instantly eight years old again, sitting at Angelo’s pizza in Queens, with my father, step-mother, sister, and step sisters, my Batman sneaker-clad feet dangling from my chair above the floor, melting in my chair as the pizza melts in my mouth.

Washington Deli’s selection. Highly recommend the basil slice, and they even have a solid Vegan slice!

So when pretender pizza comes rolling around, not only the taste, but even the look…even the smell just feels like an insult to what pizza is supposed to be.  It’s why I was so delighted that Nationals Park decided last year to bring in Flippin’ Pizza, a reasonable approximation to a New York slice—the perfect ballpark food for this vegetarian.  And, other than saying goodbye to the amazing people I worked with at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hardest thing about leaving was that I would no longer be just two blocks away from Washington Deli, the best New York slice I’ve had outside of NYC itself (the only ones who really get the crust right!).

I know what you’re saying.  “Uh, Scott?  Wasn’t this post supposed to be about something called Gunnar Golf?”  Well, like I said, OCD.  But I’m getting there.

Like pizza, one of my most keen early childhood memories is of golf.  But not just any golf.  About a half-hour’s drive away from my first Atlanta home was a miniature golf course called Sir Goony Golf.  Now long gone (though it looks like there’s one still standing in Lake George, NY), I remember driving down Roswell Road, seeing the trademark red roof of Pizza Hut (blech!) on the left, and knowing that just one light later, over the horizon, would pop the massive yellow Tyrannosaurus Rex using its stubby little arm to bounce a plywood caveman up and down like a yo-yo.

Iconic

From hole number one, when you faced down Humpty Dumpty sitting on that big ole’ wall, you knew you were in for a challenge.  An ostrich dipped its beak into a hole.  An alligator with glowing eyes peeped its fanged mouth open just long enough to allow a ball to pass.  A castle’s door teased and blocked.  And, of course, there was that T-Rex.  Challenging?  Yes.  But, because it was “Goony” there was that sense of imagination, of silliness, of plain, simple, fun that couldn’t be beat.  Seeing grown ups, from my Mom and Step-Dad, to my Grandma and Grandpa who were real golfers hem-and-haw over just missing the Kangaroo’s pouch made the whole experience truly fantastic, with the emphasis on “fantasy.”  And when we went to visit Grandma Helen and Grandpa Nat down in Florida, and learned that there was a Goony Golf with three different courses, including a massive Purple People Eater whose black, bumpy tongue revolved around to tip balls in or drive them out?  Let’s just say that I was eying the haunted house hole to see if it had indoor plumbing.

Oooh, on this hole, they have TWO sticks! How wildly creative!

In some sense, I think this is why I really don’t like normal golf.  But I do understand its appeal–nice walk, fun cars, and cocktails while “sporting.”  What I really, really cannot stand is that miniature golf impostor…putt-putt.  Yes, some of you may think that putt-putt and miniature golf are the same thing.  Indeed, many putt-putt courses mask themselves in the name miniature golf the same way Pizza Hut uses the word “pizza.”  But while miniature golf is an invitation to a world where creatures monstrous and mythic work to block your every path, putt-putt puts a stick in the way of the hole.

So, much as my excess of snobbery runs toward poor pizza, so too does my nose lift upward at putt-putt courses.  To me, they symbolize the laziness that beset family entertainment when video games first really hit in the 1980s.  My beloved Goony Golf and its T-Rex became extinct, and instead my friends were having their birthday parties at Putt-Putt Palace, a large arcade with a flat, listless, lazily constructed course attached as an afterthought.  I mean, if you can play pretend inside a TV screen, why bother with the real thing, right?

Camelot Mini-Golf instead of Disneyland? Oh yes, we did.

Fortunately, real miniature golf is not dead.  Indeed, Kir, the boys, and I have been from Stony Brook, NY to Anaheim CA and many points in-between in the hunt for the most challenging, most goony golfing in the land.  Unfortunately, however, none of those courses are in the Washington, DC area.  Closest to us is the county-run Upton Hill Park, a pretty-decent putt-putt course as the well-manicured grounds do have some passably clever holes, including one huge hill the kids love to run down (and all parents therefore fear).  And when Gunnar, who has started doing real mother/son golf lessons (which is awesome) absolutely begged me to have a mini-golf party, Upton Hill was really the only option that we could reasonably ask guests to come to.

This, of course, brings me to OCD, Mk. 3—the birthday party.  I won’t go into details here, but for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I hold a very special place for the birthday party as a cornerstone of childhood memory.  It is a wonderful opportunity to make kids feel special and also, in my typical SHYB fashion, provide opportunities to teach fundamental teamwork and conflict partnership skills.  Just use the search function on my home page and type in the word “birthday” and you’ll get a flavor about how I’ve tackled everything from Middle Earth to the Olympiad in our back yard.

So I was, of course (no pun intended) unwilling to simply sit back and allow Gunnar’s party to simply be a walk around some passable putt-putt holes.  At first, I envisioned bringing Halloween props and doctoring up each hole so it more closely resembled a real mini-golf course.  But as obsessive as I am about these things, that seemed a bit too high maintenance even for me.

Now THAT’S a Clown’s Mouth!

Then, I remembered my experience at a very clever indoor mini-golf course in Atlanta, Monster Mini Golf.  In one particular hole, at the beginning, there was a spinner.  When you spun, whatever you landed on, you had to putt that way.  Among the options were putting with your eyes closed, and having someone lie down on the course to make themselves an obstacle.  And then it dawned on me—if you can’t make the course itself goony, change they way you play the course so it’s creative and silly.  And so, Gunnar Golf! (patent pending) was born.

The Gunnar Golf Cup!

You’ll find here the Gunnar Golf! setup, and the many games I came up with, from blindfold putting to using your club like a pool cue to the player favorite, using the “crazy ball” which was an Unputtaball, a weighted golf ball that would turn in random directions upon hitting it.  One thing I did which really helped keep things competitive, but friendly was have two tiers of competition.  The 5 lowest individual scores would qualify for a chance to go to an individual playoff to win the Gunnar Golf! Cup, each group was also a team.  The top team would get a chance to pick their prizes first at the end, so the members of each group were actually rooting for each other and helping each other out.  It really helped keep the teasing and bragging to a minimum, which I think helped provide a nice balance between individual achievement and teamwork that I always like to have as a party base.

Upon seeing the list, both my wife and my Mother-in-Law felt that playing Gunnar Golf! every hole would take too long.  I agreed, and we did it every third hole.  That allowed us to stagger our starting hole (Group 1 started at hole 1, Group 2 at hole 2, etc.) and keep the action going.  Even then, we didn’t get through a full 18 holes within our two hour play/eat cake window.  So if something like this seems interesting to you, think to either simplify the game play, or allow yourself a little extra time.

The kids’ reactions to Gunnar Golf! were very interesting.  Most really enjoyed it, but some said they like regular golf better.  When I asked why, it wasn’t that the challenges weren’t fun, but that playing the regular way was easier.  Unlike when you are creating a world (and rules) from scratch in your backyard, when you do an on-site party like this and twist conventional rules, the kids know that there is another way to play it, so that all-important suspension of disbelief is a bit harder to accomplish for some.

$4 of fun

That said, the kids thought the Unputtaball was extremely cool.  Frankly, you could just bring one of those and have a random draw on who has to play with that, and I think you’d have a hit.  But what I also found interesting is that the kids really gravitated to the mathematics aspects of the game.  Just the concept that you could do better than a hole in one, and the concept of that mathematical impossibility, that you could get a hole in negative numbers, was very intriguing to them.  And that really helped in one case, when one player who had one of the higher scores was the first to get a hole in -2.  Even though he struggled elsewhere, he had bragging rights over that (and used it!).

The other popular mathematical concept was the Math Ball holes.  Not only did the kids enjoy using their noodle trying to figure out the math problem, but because they got to do it before or after the hole, they knew that it was separate from playing the hole itself.  It combined the mental and physical by keeping them separate.  It really intrigues me to think about the possibilities of combining physical activities with mental exercises to help make learning more fun and fun activities more educational.  So, in that alone, this was a very worthwhile experiment.  And, of course, for the Mr. Numbers Birthday Boy, Math Ball was, slightly inaccurately, a no-brainer.

And so another birthday passes, and thanks to the “Caddy Crew” of Kirsten, Mor-Mor, and Gus, we were able to take the backyard birthday on the road and show that you don’t need a giant yellow T-Rex to make golf some goony, creative, and even educational fun.

And the pizza after the golf wasn’t half-bad either.

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Somebody’s Hero

October 3, 2012

I’ve been in a little funk, lately.  Been having a few health issues, and sleep has been more akin to a wrestling match.  But my issues have been as much existential as physical.  Since I left my regular day job to pursue writing and spend more time with the boys, I must admit I’ve struggled a bit with that most thorny of grown-up questions for people in my position, “So, what do you do?”

The Adventures of MightyDove. Coming soon. Or sooner or later.

“I’m a writer,” I normally say, but, at the moment, that feels a bit dishonest.  Yes, I write, but that’s like saying that because I just finished my workout on EA Active that I’m a fitness expert.  Yes, I am trying.  Lord knows how many times Kir and the kids have heard me bemoaning another agent rejection or answering “How’s the book going?” with “Slowly.”  But between baseball practices, PTA meetings, planning birthday parties (my Gunnar Golf! post coming soon), advocating for my kids and helping them with homework, I feel like I do everything…and nothing.

Everything because I can tick off the multitudinous things I do during the day and how I struggle to fit in the time I need to feel like a writer.  For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately working with Gunnar’s teachers and school on the prospect of getting him identified as gifted in math.  While I chafe a the “gifted” designation and I really have no idea if Gunnar is truly a future elite mathematician, I do know that the loves numbers and statistics.  As the summer drew to a close and I asked him what some of his favorite vacation memories were, the very first thing out of his mouth was, “I learned how to compute a pitcher’s ERA!”

Me and math, in pigtails.

Both Kirsten and I felt our best bet for this kid who did the next grade’s summer math packet “because it looks fun” would be to get him as much attention as possible from someone(s) less arithmophobic than I.  And here in Arlington County, a resource to that end is the schools’ Gifted Services program.  And so Daddy Squeaky Wheel was on the case, meeting with his First Grade teacher (as while Gunnar’s in 2nd Grade now, we’re just at the start, so his First Grade Teacher knows him best) and asking him whether he felt Gunnar was a candidate for assessment, then following up with the Gifted Services representative for the school.  Gunnar is “in the system” now, and my Mr. Numbers is due for assessment in January.

But all that still feels in some ways like nothing.  Because, in all honestly, wouldn’t I have done the same thing even if I were still in an office?  Somehow, I made it work before, right?  A few years back, I went part-time in order to write a screenplay, and that was with even younger children, who, according to the ancient laws of parenting, are even more work.

So, really, what do I do?

Then, early last week, my big guy brought home an assignment from his Social Studies class.  I assume this had something to do with looking at changes through time using primary source information, but he had to interview me, Kirsten, and Gunnar with questions like “What was your favorite candy when you were young?” and, of course, “What did you want to be when you grow up?”

When asked that question, I vacillated between starship captain and professional baseball player, but finally chose the latter (though the former was probably more realistic).  But, as Gunnar munched slowly on his celery sticks and mulled the question in the future tense, he turned to Gus and exclaimed, “A writer!”

I grinned.  It was a lovely gesture to his old man—imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.  But Gunnar isn’t a writer—he’s Mr. Numbers.  I didn’t spend the last few weeks making a general nuisance out of myself at his school for nothing.  I thought it was a very sweet moment, and then thought little more of it.

That is, until two days later, when I picked him up from school.  He was at the table, pencil a blur scribbling diligently on a lengthwise folded piece of paper.

“Whacha Doin’, sport?” I asked.

“I’m writing my book, Dad!  It’s the first in a series of six, no, seven books.”

I looked down, and here’s what I saw:

For the remainder of the weekend, he told me, and just about everyone else in earshot about his plans to “FIRST…get and agent.  THEN…get a publisher.  THEN…get people to buy lots of my books!”  He asked me whether any eight-year-old had ever gotten a publisher, or whether he would be the first.  His pencil furiously scribbled at the activity table, at the dinner table, even at the restaurant.  He was in a hurry, you see, as he expects his books to get longer and longer as he wrote them, so he really needs to get the first one done quickly.

After one particularly fruitful session, he turned to me and asked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I got an agent before you, Dad?”

I grinned. “Nothing would make me more proud, kiddo.”  Okay, maybe there was just a glint of an ego-bruised grimace buried within that grin.

That night as I was getting ready for bed, Kir and I were in the bathroom decompressing from that day of non-stop swim lessons, baseball practices, and Gunnar Golf! birthday parties also known as Sunday.  “A writer?” I said in a mildly sarcastic tone.  “After all the crap I just went through with math?  It’s sweet and all, I just don’t get what Mr. Numbers is doing here.”

Kir looked at me with a slightly incredulous look.

“Don’t you get it, Scotty?  You’re his hero.”

Hero.

The word absolutely slapped me across the face.  Hero is reserved for baseball players and Batman.  Soldiers and sluggers.  Presidents and pop stars.  Not for a middle-aged guy at home pecking away at a keyboard.

A rush of memories spilled over me.  The hands held on the walk to school, concluded with a fist-bump and a kiss.  The car rides to and from practice with “Coach” talking about his batting stance and his fielding.  The trips to Elevation Burger for a quick bite before heading to his math assessment.  The goofy voices and the borderline creepy costumes while leading the birthday band from Super Mario World to Gunnar Golf.  It hit me there, for the first time, that I was something more than just the Dad who protects, helps, tickles, occasionally yells, and, at all times, dearly loves this quirky and incredible little boy.

I’m his hero.

And I even managed the feat without being bitten by a radioactive spider.

So while my personal future is still a bit cloudy, the love of my son and the wisdom of my amazing wife has cleared a bit of the brush surrounding my present.  I may still not quite know what I do, but I feel a hell of a lot better about who I am.

And for the many of you who can easily slip into my shoes, think about adding “Hero” to your job description.  It sounds egotistical.  Okay, let’s face it, it is a bit egotistical.  But if the tights fit, wear them with pride (even if they are a bit too form-fitting—gotta hit the EA Active).