On toddlers and television.

The other day at work, I was talking to our fiction buyer about something when I got distracted by a box full of plush Sesame Street toys sitting on her counter. Our conversation turned toward Sesame Street and it’s value as a teaching tool for young children. My coworker reminisced about an experience at a parade where she was able to recognize many of the character (both Muppet and Human) who passed by on the Sesame Street float. I mentioned that my girls have yet to be introduced to Sesame Street as we never converted over to digital television when the switch happened a few years back.

Now, I don’t have anything against television, per se. I grew up as a couch potato and I credit my television viewing as a major factor in understanding pop culture references not only from my generation, but from my parents’ and grandparents’ as well. But shortly before the birth of our oldest daughter, I saw a report that compared the brain activity to a baby watching television to the brain activity of a person under the influence of crack cocaine and found startling similarities. It didn’t make a big difference for us, since the only thing that our television plays is fuzz, but it did start us thinking about how, when, and if we should introduce our kids to the miracle of television.

I really believe that there are quality programs out there. Shows that are educational and imaginative. Shows that allow the viewers to see sights that normal life would never reveal. I’m all about these shows. And while our television only picks up fuzz, our computer does not, and most of these shows are available free of charge from places like hulu.com anyway.

And so we haven’t made any decisions yet regarding television for our daughters. I believe we still have time before they’ll start asking us why we won’t let them watch. After all, our oldest is still working on complete sentences.

In the meantime, we have books. And our daughters love books! And my wife and I love that our daughters love books! And if in the end, they don’t have any great love for television because we did not introduce it early enough for them to be truly addicted, oh well. I would rather have them with their noses in books anyway.

If any of you reading this have successfully navigated the treacherous waters of television and have any wisdom to share, please post a comment below!

Advertisements

Innermost Secrets 16 – 21

And so we continue our trip into my deepest, darkest places. Or at least, those deep, dark places that I didn’t mind sharing with people about a decade ago with people at YMCA Camp Manitou Lin. Need to brush up on Innermost Secrets 1 – 15? Check this post and this post.

16th Innermost Secret:

  • I am the spider that bites the British staff.

I shared in my 9th Innermost Secret about how the camp employed a group of British staff through an international work exchange program, and how I was jealous of them because being British is cool. One thing that I was not jealous of was the spider bites that they all got. Whenever the staff would sleep in the tents near the high ropes course, one of the British staff would get bit by a spider, but none of the American staff were ever bothered. Perhaps the Brits have sweeter blood, or perhaps the spiders are some kind of uber-patriots who still think we’re fighting the Revolutionary War.

17th Innermost Secret:

  • Kate Crawford is my ex-wife, also Pat Crawford is my ex-husband.

Pat and Kate ran the high ropes course at camp. They were an incredibly kind couple who were a few years older than the rest of us, and as such, they stayed above most of the camp drama. They also sold me a really nice hiking backpack. I wasn’t really married to either of them… or was I? No, I wasn’t.

18th Innermost Secret:

  • Innermost Secret number 2 is a lie.

Self-referential humor is the best humor. Also, since many of my innermost secrets are lies, I think it is funny to lie about lying. Does that make my 18th Innermost Secret true? No.

19th Innermost Secret:

  • Danger is my middle name.

I still like telling people this secret. But in truth, my middle name is not Danger. My middle name is Dumbledore.

20th Innermost Secret:

  • My second wife died in a pillow fight.

Aside from the past tense phrasing of this secret, this may well be true. But I haven’t actually been married twice, nor do I plan to be. Besides, my wife and I have agreed that neither one of us is allowed to die before the other. Either we both go at the same time, or not at all. Although, if I were to choose a way for both of us to die simultaneously, a pillow fight would be a pretty good way I feel.

21st Innermost Secret:

  • When I was a paperboy, I delivered papers to a dead woman for 3 days without knowing she was dead.

Hmm. To be continued next week!

How to Choose a Pizza Place | The 10 Factors of Quality Pizza

Is there a better food than pizza? One that is as affordable, multifaceted, and instantly crave-able? No. There is not.

According to pizza.com, 94 percent of Americans eat pizza regularly. When was the last time you were disappointed to hear that your work was throwing a pizza party? As a kid, weren’t you always happiest when the cafeteria served pizza? Let’s all be honest here. Pizza is the best.

And yet…

There are plenty of bad pizza joints out there. Or, at least, there are plenty of pizza places that could serve a better pie. But how can you tell the good from the bad?

Simple, I’m going to give you the 10 Factors of Quality Pizza. Once you have these, you can try out some different places and judge for yourself. Just take the criteria below and rate each place you go to. Once you find the best pizza place in your area, get all of your pizza from them. Why would you settle for an inferior pie and risk hurting your chosen joint’s financial stability? But anyway, the criteria.

1. Crust – Is the crust too thin? Too thick? Too doughy? Too hard? Is it sweet or bitter? Does it have those bread bubbles that are so good?

2. Sauce – Is the sauce too thin? To thick? Too spicy? Not spicy enough? Does it taste like old ketchup?

3. Toppings – Are there enough toppings? Are they fresh? Is the bacon crispy? Do they skimp on the pineapple?

4. Cheese – Do they use quality cheese or is it that type that evaporates when it gets too hot? Do they put so much on there that is tastes greasy? Do they skimp so much that you can see the sauce and the crust?

5. Value – Is the price set where you can afford a pizza whenever you want a pizza? Do they offer specials or discounts? Is the pizza size as large as you would expect it to be for the price that you paid?

6. Cleanliness – Is the pizza place clean? Are the floor dirty? Can you see toppings and sauce splattered all over the walls and floor? If the health inspector were to show up for a surprise visit, would you see the workers sweating?

7. Ambiance – Is there music set at an appropriate volume? Does the music annoy you? Is there a TV on and what are they playing? Is the lighting correct? Is it too dark or too bright?

8. Proximity – Is the restaurant too far to drive whenever you want a pizza? Do they deliver? Would the cost of getting to your pizza add too much to the overall bill?

9. Service – Are the workers happy? Do they thank you for your business? Are they attentive to your needs? Are they too intrusive? Do they anticipate your needs? Do they suggest appropriate add-on items?

10. Owner Availability – Can you speak to the owner directly? Does the owner seek you out to thank you for your business and ensure that you had a quality experience? Is the owner willing to take criticism or advice?

So there you go. Take these 10 Factors and start rating pizza places around you. As a rule, I’ve found that indie pizza places do a better job in just about every category than the chain pizza places do. But you’ll have to be your own judge.

For my area, it took a while for my wife and I to find a pizza joint that arrived at the best of all the criteria. We had been living in the Wyoming/Grandville area of West Michigan for a few years when we decided to start trying different mom & pop type pizza places. What we found were places that had good toppings but bad sauce, or good dough, but bad toppings, or good pizza but bad location and too expensive.

That is, until construction forced us down a back road and we saw a pizza place that we had never seen before.

“We should try them,” said my wife. “In fact, I dare you to get a pizza there with my in the next month.”

“Sure,” I said.

We waited about a day to try them out. I found their information online and wrote down their phone number. My wife and I were on our way home from the grocery store when I called in the pizza.

“Francesco’s,” said the voice on the phone.

“I have need of delicious pizza,” said I.

“Okay,” said the voice. “I can do that. What would you like?”

“What specials do you have?”

The voice told me the specials. I ordered a Hawaiian pizza with an order of bread sticks (you can tell a lot about a pizza place by their bread sticks too).

“This is my first time getting pizza here,” I said. “I hope it’s good.”

“It will be,” said the voice confidently. “I’ve tried the other pizza places around here and I can honestly tell you that you are going to love this pizza the best.”

Cocky, I thought. “We’ll see,” I said.

But after that first pizza, my wife and I were hooked. Francesco’s is now our favorite and exclusive pizza joint. The voice on the phone was none other than the owner himself, John. His cockiness was well-founded. They offer a great pizza (great dough, sauce, toppings, and cheese) at a great value (a 2-topping 18″ giant pizza for $13.50) within regular driving distance (about 3 miles from our house) and great ambiance, customer service, and owner availability.

We found our pizza place. You should find yours.

Support your local pizza joint, but support the best one. And if you don’t start testing them with the above criteria, how will you know which one is the best?

I need to stop talking about my childhood as though I remember it, because my mom reads my blog and remembers things better than I do.

So, last week I posted a thing on Black Friday about the Christmas when I didn’t give any gifts to my family. It was a great post but for the fact that apparently, it wasn’t 100% true. I said that my family would not remember what anyone else gave each other, but they would all remember that I gave them nothing.

Well, I checked my email a few hours after posting the story to find a message from my mom. See below:

Good morning Josh,

As usual, I read your blog this morning and I wanted to comment, but decided not to put it on your blog.

The footstool that I made wasn’t nearly as fancy as this, but it serves the same function. Also, according to Wikipedia, the man in this image is none other than William George Beers, noted Canadian dentist, patriot, and the “father of modern lacrosse”.

First of all, the gift you made for your dad was a console for his van.  You made a cardboard model.  Yes, I do remember being a little disappointed that you didn’t finish your gifts by Christmas, but again, yes, I don’t think it surprised anyone of us.  Going ahead a few months, I don’t know if your brother ever got his game, I think you did end up making a full size plywood console for your dad that he replaced with a bought model make of plastic.  I, on the other hand received a wonderful cushioned footstool with beautifully stained and sanded legs.  It didn’t have the lift top compartment that the model did, but I loved it.  Correction, still love it, it’s sitting beside me and I’ll probably set this computer on it when I’m done checking my email.  By the way, I still have my footstool model, it was made out of balsa wood and it had a lift off top that held a little wooden book and a carved pencil.  It’s sitting on the bookshelves beside the fireplace.  I loved getting it that Christmas and I still love it!!!

Your dad made me an end table and surprisingly, I still have that.  It’s in my living room.  I don’t recall what he made both of you, but I think they were made out of wood.

Bob made each of us something computer related, of course. I thank he made you and your dad some computer games.  He gave me lessons on how to build my own webpage.

I painted all of you sweatshirts.  To be honest, I don’t recall what I painted on yours and your brother’s shirts, but your dad’s was a pretty elaborate tall ship scene.

I thought that Christmas was good and I’d do it again.  Your girls are probably too young to do it this year.  🙂

So there it is. My mom remembers things much better than I do. I love you Mom!

Maybe in the future, I should preface stories with “This may or may not have actually happened. Ask my mom.”

I am colorblind in a color-coded Christmas wonderland.

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, it is finally appropriate to have Christmas trees on display. (For those of you who had your tree up before Thanksgiving, what is wrong with you? Have you no sense of propriety?) And as that is the case, I thought I would share with you my Christmas tree traditions.

There are three schools of thought when it comes to Christmas trees: the real, the fake, and the indifferent.

Many people are committed to the idea of heading out to the wilderness and cutting down a tree for Christmas. My mother is one of these people. First, there is nothing wrong with wanting an authentic Christmas tree to celebrate the season, and for my childhood, I think my mom got to have a real tree only a handful of times.

The reasons against bringing a feral tree indoors are some of the same ones that prevent bringing anything from the wild into your carefully groomed home. Feeding and watering them can be tricky if you don’t want to be attacked by their defense mechanisms (sap in the case of trees, claws and teeth in the case of other wild things). They have no shame when it comes to leaving their droppings wherever they want (needles for trees, excrement for others). And getting rid of the carcass can be a pain (trees don’t just disappear when the season is over, but wild animals are probably worse since they tend to smell when decaying). Also, fire hazards (trees are obvious, and some wild animals just don’t know how to stop playing with matches).

The second group of people prefer fake trees. You save money since you aren’t buying the same thing every year. You save time because taking a tree out of a box is a lot faster than trucking into the woods, finding an acceptable tree, besting it in a game of hand saws, dragging it to get the spare needles shaken off, strapping the thing to your roof like some environmentalist’s nightmare, figuring out how to carry it into your house without getting sap on everything, balancing it, watering it, and cleaning up after it. And you save a tree from seasonal doom so it can go on converting carbon dioxide back into oxygen, which is helpful for all of us oxygen breathers.

Sure the fake tree doesn’t smell like a real tree (unless you mix a few pine-scented air fresheners in with your traditional ornaments). And I know that the trek into the woods to cut down a tree is mostly about family time together and the fake trees don’t allow for the same experience. But fake trees have gotten a lot better and some even come pre-lit, which is terribly convenient to those of us who find untangling strands of Christmas lights a tedious chore.

Then the last group doesn’t really care what type of tree it is. It could be a picture of a tree and they would be happy.

I don’t think I made it a secret which group I fall into. But there is one good reason I should prefer a real tree to a fake, and I ignore it every Christmas. I am colorblind and I grew up with a color-coded fake Christmas tree.

My Christmas tree tradition started when the old, held-together-by-so-many-layers-of-tape-it-was-ridiculous cardboard box came out of the top of the garage. Inside the box was a pole with color-coded holes spaced a bit too far apart for the branches to look real, and a collection of various-sized plastic-on-wire branches, the tips of which corresponded to the coded holes on the pole. When the parts where out of the box, the sorting began. I don’t know why I always insisted on sorting. I think I just liked the challenge. But every year, the challenge proved too much and there were always mistakes in the sorted piles.

Having the wrong branches in the pile meant having the wrong length branch on the tree. So, many times, my non-colorblind family members would have to look over my work before decorating began in earnest. Once all the right branches were in the right places, the challenge became filling the gaps through which the central pole could be seen. Now, I’m sure that when it was new, our tree was as nice as any other fake tree on the market, but fake tree technology has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Our family’s fake tree had more gaps than branches, and it was only by expert application of garland, large ornaments, lights, and tinsel that we could convince the passerby to forget momentarily that our tree obviously came out of a box. And that was the fun of it.

For my Christmas tradition, I liked the challenge of taking something manufactured and transforming it into an original masterpiece. Sure, people who buy real trees don’t have to muck about with the transformational challenge, but for me, that was the point.

And so, whatever your school of thought is where Christmas trees are concerned, I hope that you get the masterpiece that you seek. Just remember that if you do choose a real tree over a fake, I’ll be judging you for taking the easy way out where creativity is concerned, and I’ll be laughing under my breath when you complain about how you were attacked by the sap as you tried to water the thing.

Merry Christmas!

An Alternative to Black Friday Shopping

On this day of intense retail frenzy, as some of you are now reading this post from your smartphone as you stand in line for a cheap doodad or gadget, let me tell you of an alternative to the insanity that is Black Friday shopping.

I was in high school the first and only year my family declared a “Make-it-yourself” Christmas. Things in the budget were pretty tight and it would be a creative opportunity to celebrate the spirit of giving without buying into the commercialization of Christmas. It was a good plan.

And so I set out to create some heart-felt, homemade gifts. For my brother, I was going to make a Cribbage board with an image of Snoopy on it from scrap materials from my dad’s wood shop. For my mom, I was going to make a footstool from scrap materials from my dad’s wood shop. For my dad, I don’t remember what I was going to get him, but there is a healthy chance that it would have been made from scrap materials from his own wood shop.

Do what want to guess what I actually gave them for Christmas that year?

Go ahead, guess.

The answer was nothing. I didn’t give anyone anything that Christmas. I started my brother’s cribbage board, but didn’t finish it in time. My mom’s gift never made it out of the toothpick model phase. And given that I don’t even remember what my dad’s gift was supposed to be, I’d be willing to bet that I didn’t even have a plan formulated for his gift.

Christmas morning came and we took a very short time opening the homemade gifts that everyone else had made. When it came time for people to open their gift from me, I could only apologize and say that I had not yet finished their gifts.

Everyone else had made something for everyone.

But here’s the thing. Ask my family what any of them received for Christmas that year. They won’t be able to remember the gifts that they got. But ask them what I gave that year for Christmas and you’ll get a story. None of them has forgotten the year that I gave nothing. But if that is true, then what I gave them wasn’t truly nothing, I gave them a story to tell. It is a story all about how our family never did the “Make-it-yourself” gift exchange since.

So if you are looking for an alternative to the craziness that is Black Friday, try giving your family nothing. At the very least, you’ll be giving them a story that will stand the test of time, though the same may not hold true for you depending on how important gifts are to your family.

Anyway, Happy Black Friday!If you insist on giving gifts even after reading this plea to do otherwise, do me a favor and shop at a locally owned business, or ever better, buy things from my employer, Baker Book House (bakerbookstore.com or by phone at 616.957.3110). Thanks for reading!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States of America. It is a day of eating too much, watching sporting events, and saying what we are thankful for. And since I overeat regularly without need for special day and I don’t really pay attention to sporting events, I will focus my attention on the third item.

I am thankful for my wife. She is better than I deserve or could ever ask for. Her work ethic is beyond reproach. Her smile brightens the room. And her sense of humor is perfectly suited to the sick things that make me laugh.

I am thankful for my daughters. They are pure delight and so worth the effort and the sleepless nights. I love being their dad almost as much as I love being my wife’s husband.

I am thankful for my job. Baker Book House is not only the best indie bookstore in the world, it is the best place to work in the world. For being a retail store, I have a standard schedule, good pay, and am surrounded by people whose company I honestly enjoy. Thank you Herman Baker for starting your wonderful store so many years ago!

I am thankful for my pastor. Pastor Nelson Koon helps the Bible come alive through his preaching and his lifestyle. Though this is his first church after Bible school, our pastor has maturity beyond his years and a deep understanding of the needs of his flock.

I am thankful for new opportunities that find me. In the last year, I started this blog, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book, I am getting back to review books, I have a mutually beneficial advertising arrangement with a pizza shop in town, I got to be part of the committee that made decisions for the building project at my bookstore, and on and on. So many cool things have happened and I feel honored to be part of them all.

And I am thankful for you, my reader. I know that sounds cheesy but having people read what I write validates this crazy dream of mine to be a writer. Thank you and have a Happy Thanksgiving today!