Category Archives: Stories

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The Advent Calendar

This post is another in my series of personal anecdotes and reflections from my childhood. If you read my blog for my posts about Software development, you can safely disregard this 😉

Christmas is one of the most memorable parts of childhood. There is a sort of lifecycle and growth pattern to the child Christmas experience. The first 3 Christmases you don’t really know what’s going on. You don’t really think about it, or plan for it.. You just wake up one day and find that there are a whole bunch of presents for you. For the fourth Christmas, you’re more aware. At least, I was more aware. That was the year that I started snipping the toys that I wanted out of the Sears Catalog, and started to look forward to the traditions, like watching Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer when it aired in early December.

The 10 years that seemed to pass between my fourth and fifth Christmas gave me plenty of time to prepare. I decided, this time, not to cut anything out of the Sears catalog so as to preserve its integrity. The snippets I had cut out the year before (of He-man figures, race car track sets, and the C.H.I.P.S. ride-on motorcycle) didn’t fare well, and likely found their way to the garbage prematurely, leaving a completely dysfunctional catalog with everything except the stuff I liked. I would continue this discipline (of NOT cutting up the catalog) for every Christmas thereafter.

In my sixth and seventh Christmases, I began to grasp just how much time elapsed between them. While it still felt like the sixth would never come, when it finally did come I decided that the wait was objectively shorter than it had been for the fifth. And the wait for the seventh, shorter still.

Still, time would seem to seem to stop on Christmas eve. I recall lying in bed, looking out the window at the snow falling through the street lights and trying so hard to to fall asleep because I just wanted Christmas Day to arrive. I imagined that falling asleep was like entering a time machine that would beam me directly to Christmas morning. In entertaining these thoughts, I stumbled into my first ominous glimpse of mortality. if only for a brief moment, I was keenly aware that all would come to pass if I wait. Christmas day would come soon enough, and so too would the next Christmas, and, in fact, all the moments of our lives would surely come and go – both the things we dream, and the things that we dread. It was lying here in bed on Christmas eve, that I first imagined, deep in my mind’s eye, the day that my dad died.
But that wouldn’t happen for a long time. For all intents and purposes, an eternity would pass before I saw that day come. Although these thoughts feel like the distant past to me now, it does not feel like an eternity has passed. But I guess that is the enigma of time. A single moment can last forever, while a lifetime can pass by in what seems like an instant.

Fast forward to 1987. By this time I was a pro at Christmas. I knew exactly when the Sears catalog was expected to arrive in the mail, and when the TV Times came out in the first week of December, I would highlight all of the christmas specials that I didn’t want to miss. I was among the seven grade threes in Mrs. Toth’s three/four split class that year. For those familiar with Peterson Road, our classroom was the end room of the east wing of the school with windows facing north toward the tetherball poles and intermediate playground. The back corner of the classroom was the reading area where we would gather for group activities such as non-silent reading and interactive lessons. In December, this was also the location of a daily ritual where a student would be chosen to open a door in the Advent calendar. This lucky student would get to keep whatever was hidden behind the door. For a grade three, this was a lot of fun. With each door opening, we were a day closer to Christmas. Translating time into this visual format makes it more tractable somehow. I mean to an eight year old, it can be hard to quantify how long 3 weeks is, but it was easy to see that, when only 3 doors remain in the advent calendar, we’re getting really close to Christmas.

Mondays were extra special because the doors for Saturday and Sunday would be opened as well – meaning there were three lucky student helpers on those days; but more importantly, we were three days closer to the big event.

When my turn came, I was hoping secretly that the prize behind my door would be some candy other than chocolate as I was allergic to chocolate. Unfortunately that was not to be. I got a chocolate just like everyone else. I didn’t mention that I couldn’t have it. I just put it in my pocket, and sat back down. I didn’t really mind. I was just happy to have a turn.

I’m sure I’ve participated in the opening of many advent calendars since this one, but none are so memorable for some reason. I’m not sure why that is. It could be because this was my first exposure to the Advent calendar (as far as I recall we didn’t do them in my family). It could be because I was at the peak age for appreciation of such things. The spirit of Christmas is palpable at that age. And I would bask in anticipation for the entire month of December, so anything that fueled that build-up would make an appreciable impression on me. The secret may also lie in aspects that escape my conscious memory, but have embedded themselves into my emotional memory. For example, I think this ritual was combined with other Christmas activities such as reading Christmas stories and poems, like “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. Whatever the contributing factors, they have congealed into a perfect snow-globe memory for me.

Thank you, Mrs. Toth for making that Christmas season just a little bit more magical.


The Hustler

I was never much for gambling, but there were times when I wanted to be. The movies made it look like so much fun. A popular plot device in 80’s film and television was for the protagonist to win an improbable jackpot on a horse race or card game to usher in a happy ending, against all odds. Maverick comes to mind but there are countless other examples. I even watched a Highway to Heaven episode that featured this device – though it was framed as the power of God putting his thumb on the scales of probability.

As a child, I understood that television wasn’t real, but I still believed that it was a relatively accurate reflection of reality. I understood that there was no actual person named Brett Maverick who won a poker tournament by wishing real hard for an Ace of Spades. But I believed that there were people like Brett Maverick, and that, while pulling the exact card he needed at the climax of the final poker game was improbable, it was still possible.

With this as a backdrop I’d like to share a short story about the time I got hustled by my sister. I was probably 11 years old, which would make her 13. We weren’t avid card players. We would play games like 31 and crazy eights during camping trips, but we didn’t often play at home. And we didn’t often gamble. We were kids, after all, and didn’t have any money of our own to speak of. The few times that we did incorporate gambling into our card play, it would be in the form of buttons from our mom’s spare buttons bag. (E.g. I’ll see your button, and I’ll raise you two buttons).

For whatever reason, this one time, we started playing card games for real money. I must have had a few dollars that I earned from allowance or doing chores. I don’t remember exactly what the game was. It wasn’t poker. It was probably 31. We started out betting for small change. I lost. She offered “double or nothing”, and I agreed.

As the losses mounted, I started to feel the temperature in my ears and head rising, and I began to worry that I had lost more money than I could comfortably afford.

“Do you want me to loan you more money to bet?”, she asked, after I was out of money.

Of course! I needed to win my money back. So she loaned me more money. And I lost again.

At this point I was in way over my head. Not only had I lost all of my money, but I now was in dept to her for substantial amounts of money. I don’t recall dollar amounts, but I remember thinking that it was so much money that I would never be able to pay off the debt.

There had to be a way out. I wished I had never started this foolish game. If only I could return to the moment just before we started betting. I decided to take my case before the court of “Mom”.

“Mom”, I said, “We’re not supposed to be gambling at all. So Erin should have to give me my money back, right?”

“No”, she said. “If you agreed to it, you have to pay it. This will be a good lesson to you about gambling.”

I’m sure there was some back and forth on this – as I surely would have attempted all angles to get this debt cancelled. But effectively, my appeal was denied. My debts would not be cancelled – at least not by this judge.

It all seemed hopeless, until my merciful sister offered me a way out.

“Steven, I’ll give you another chance to win your money back, with one more bet”, she offered.

“What’s the bet”?, I asked, skeptical – but frankly full of naive hope that this could be the stroke of luck that changed my fortunes.

“I’ll bet you that Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez are brothers”, she replied.

Now, before I go on, please understand that in 1989/1990, Wikipedia wasn’t a thing. Also understand, that in my world, brothers always had the same last name. I mean, do the math. Brothers with the same dad (I clarified that they had the same dad before proceeding into the bet) should have the same last name, right? Right??

Having done the math in my head, I said “You’re on!”

And for about 2 seconds, I was sure that I had managed to climb out from under this mountain of debt. Then:

“You’re wrong. They’re brothers.”, she said.

“No they’re not!”, I said.

Eventually this went to the panel (my Dad), who confirmed that Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen were, in fact, brothers.

I’m sure that I accepted this decision with a Trumpian display of grace and class.

There’s a silver lining to this tragedy, however. The following year, “Men at Work”, starring Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, was released, which gave me ample opportunity to share this fun piece of movie trivia.

“They’re brothers, you know”, I would say to anyone who would listen.

The Fight

Normally I use my blog to write about software development, but I’ve decided to branch out a bit with this entry. In order to help my fading memory, I’ve decided to try write about small episodes that I can still remember from my life so that I can “record” them for later.

The ones that are suitable for public consumption, I may post on my blog.

So the first instalment of this follows:

The Fight

Everyone loves a good fight. Or at least all men enjoy a good fight. Or, at the very least, all boys love a good fight. So when word spreads that two boys are going to get into a fight at lunch time in grade 7, everyone marks it on the calendar.
I don’t recall the reason for the fight, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that Trevor and Kris were going to have a fight at lunch time. Real fights were a very rare and precious thing. Of course, we were all experienced “play” fighters, but that was different than a real fight. The fact that we had never had a “real” fight at school didn’t didn’t feel like a fact at all. Television had provided us with vicarious memories of countless “real” fights, so I felt like I was a veteran at this fight-watching game.

At 5 foot 10, Kris was the tallest boy in my grade, but not particularly stocky. Trevor was more typical in height. Frankly I don’t remember what a typical height was for a boy in grade 7. I know Kris’ height because he was the tallest. I was 4’11”, which I remember because I was, well, me. And because I was one of the shortest boys in my grade consistently up to that point. I even had the honor of holding the class placard during class photos a few times. So when I say that Trevor was a typical height for a boy that age, I would guess he must have been between 5’2” and 5’6”.

Given the height difference, the smart money was on Kris winning the fight. There was no talk about what the rules were. At least that I can remember. Fight rules were considered self-evident to a 12 year old boy. We imagined that the fight would be over when one of the boys was knocked down or started crying, or “tapped” out. Having grown up with a steady diet of Rocky, I didn’t imagine a “knock-out” was a real possibility. Despite my Dad’s insistence that no human being could withstand the kind of punches that Rocky took by the dozen – I preferred to believe the humans could take 15 rounds of heavy-weight level punches to the face and walk away with only a few bruises.

The morning of the fight, every boy in Ms. Rempel’s grade 7 class was looking up at the clock more frequently than usual. We were counting down the seconds to the 12 o’clock lunch bell so that we could attend the highly anticipated “fight”. Finally, the bell rang so we could get our lunches from the cloak room. Only 15 more minutes… we had to eat our lunches inside the classroom. The 12:15 bell signaled that it was time to go outside to fight… er.. play.

As I mentioned before, this was the first scheduled fight that had ever happened at Peterson Road, so there was no protocol in place. No agreed upon time or place. Only an agreement that it would happen. The first 10 minutes of lunch were spent wandering around the field with everyone asking each other if they knew when or where it was happening. Pairs of us roamed the field, then merged with other pairs and continued roaming as a group until most of the grade 7 (male) student body was roaming the field together. We settled on a venue near the back of the field. Somewhere sufficiently remote that the school supervisors wouldn’t notice what was going down. At some point the group fanned out into a circle to give the combatants a makeshift ring inside which they could safely “fight”. For a good long while, though, Trevor and Kris just stood there at the perimeter of the ring, both acting shy, as if this were an elementary school dance where the boys and girls just stood on opposite sides of the gym – too shy to ask anyone on the other side to dance. At least that’s what our elementary school dances looked like, but I digress..

At some point someone, probably John, said “so is there gonna be a fight or what?”. John was always good at frank ice-breakers. Trevor slowly approached his taller opponent and wound up with a punch

Truth be told, this happened nearly 30 years ago, so I can’t provide an accurate blow by blow. I do remember that each boy landed at least one punch, and the consensus was that Trevor had fared much better than we expected – and in fact may have even won the fight. It was not a stellar display of martial arts skills. It resembled a hockey fight, where both players spend most of the fight all tied up in their own jerseys. Neither fighter had any ground game, which would have come in handy once it morphed into a wrestling match with Trevor and Kris rolling around on the grass.

Unfortunately, our fighting circle was not as inconspicuous as we had hoped. It only took a minute or two for the noon hour supervisors to descend on us and stop it. Trevor and Kris were pried apart. No big bruises. No blood. Both had red faces partly from the exertion, and partly from having taken a blow or two to the face.

After Kris and Trevor were led on a perp walk to the office, some of the rest of us were summoned to principal Swoboda’s office as well.

Now, in my recollection, there were between 5 and 10 of us in the principal’s office, waiting for him. In retrospect, that number doesn’t jive with my earlier image that the “entire male grade 7 student body” was attending the fight, as there were about 30 boys in my grade. I can think of a few explanations for this discrepancy, but in any case, there were 5 or 10 of us in the principal’s office. I remember specifically Steve (the other Steve), John, Ezra ,and Quinn, but there were others.

Mr. Swoboda, always a busy guy, burst through the door and sat down at his desk.

“Do you know why you’re here?”, he asked, rhetorically.

We all looked around at each other – knowing that it wasn’t wise to volunteer to become the spokesperson for this group. “You’re here because, if not for you, this fight would never have happened. The people who watch a fight are just as much, or more, of a problem than the fighters themselves.”

He then began to address each of us individually. Asking questions like “do you think it’s smart to be encouraging your friends to fight” etc…

When he came to me, he asked. “And you! I’m surprised to see you here. What do you have to say for yourself?”

My response: “I guess I fell into peer pressure”.