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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.

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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.

Things I Like #1: The Retroist

For 2019, I’ve decided to start blogging about things I like. For my first entry, I’d like to share “The Retroist Podcast”, and associated media. The Retroist podcast is devoted to pop-culture from the late 70’s to early 90’s mostly. Each episode is about 20 minutes long, and covers a single topic, such as a TV series, a movie, a video game, a fad, or some other relevant bit of culture from yesteryear. The episode archive goes back as far as 2009 and is quite comprehensive. At this point, he’s already covered just about every prominent (and obscure) TV series, movie, and video game from 1980 to 2000.

When I first discovered this series, about 6 months ago, I binged on it, listening the the ones that covered all of my favourite TV shows. I started with the Night Court episode because it was the one that I happened to stumble upon first. The episode was full of interesting facts about the series, but it was the introduction/opening anecdote that made me take notice. He connected Night Court to his own personal memories of the time, sharing anecdotes about how Harry Anderson’s comedic brand of magic sparked his imagination as a child. While it only lasted a few minutes, it briefly transported me back to my childhood when I would sometimes tune into Night Court late at night (when I was watching TV after my bed time). His story-telling style is calm, fluent and descriptive.

I went on to binge on the extensive library of past episodes, listening to all of my favourites. Another “thing I like” is going for walks around town while listening to podcasts, so this podcast fit right in with my schedule.

Every episode follows the same structure. He opens with a short introduction and anecdote with a personal connection to the topic. These are always my favourite parts. He follows this with an “info-packed episode” full of facts and trivia bits. Most of the episode just the Retroist talking, but most episodes include a segment by another contributor (e.g. Vic Sage’s “Also-ran” segment that lists the ‘other’ movies or TV shows that were running at the same time as the episode’s subject), and some even include an interview with someone affiliated with the subject.

I’m fairly well versed in 80’s and 90’s pop culture – especially TV and Movies of that era; but I’m not in the same league as the Retroist. This guy is uniquely qualified to run a podcast like this, as his commitment (particularly to TV) is truly next level. He has a personal library of old TV recordings on VHS, that must take up a room or 5 in his house. His episodes’ commercial breaks are used for airing old toy commercials and the like. In one of his episodes he shares that he once informed his coach that he wouldn’t be able to attend Saturday morning practices because he had to watch Saturday morning cartoons. He also likes to watch edited-for-TV versions of some movies (e.g. Halloween), even preferring them to their theatrical release. I had never heard of this before, but apparently this is a thing.

He typically releases one new episode per month. I’m sure he must be running into some difficulty thinking of topics by now since he’s covered just about everything I can think of already. Browse the archive – it’s all there.

When I was a kid, I used to listen to Jack Cullen’s “Network Replay” late at night on CKNW. It used to play old radio shows from before the TV era. I think it would be really cool if some network would pick up the Retroist and let him host a similar thing with his extensive library – providing some context and background for each movie or TV show that he airs. He really has a knack for painting a dreamy, nostalgic picture of the context surrounding all things retro.

It is worth noting that the Retroist also has a website where he and contributors post stories about 80’s and 90’s pop-culture. It is pretty active, with a new post every few days. He is also on Facebook and Twitter.