Fond Childhood Recollections: Freaking Phillip Out

3 Jul

I loved spending summer days and nights at my grandparents’ house.  Every year was a treat.  But one summer I remember particularly fondly.  That was the summer that I freaked Phillip out.  Repeatedly.  But first — some background. There was something special about going to my grandma and grandpa’s house as a kid.  Everything seemed so much better there.  Everything.  From television to food to the house itself; everything was special.  Every summer, my brother, sister, grandmas_suitcase2and I would each take turns spending an entire week at my grandma and grandpa’s house.  I would pack my little “I’m going to Grandma’s” suitcase and prepare for my stay in this magical far-away-land (a whopping 6 miles from our own house!). During the week of my visit, my mom would drop by each day to check in, as sort of a homesickness security-blanket.  I remember initially really looking forward to her visit at the start of the week, but as the week would progress I would anticipate it less and less.  Who could possibly think of wanting to go back home?  Grandma and Grandpa’s was like visiting another planet!

Case in point: they had cable TV.  They even had Nickelodeon!  Let that sink in for a second.  Coming from a house where we had 3 channels (possibly 5 if you turned the rotor on the gigantic roof-mounted antenna to just the right calibration), this was huge.  I can’t count the number of times that I would quickly switch the channel over to MTV (the devil’s channel!) as my grandma walked out of the living room, just to taste that forbidden fruit for even the briefest moment before she returned.

Speaking of TV, I have so many fond memories of watching television with my grandparents.  In the afternoon, my grandma would catch her daytime “stories” (naturally). And I may, possibly, on occasion, have watched one or two with her as well.  But the nighttime is where things truly came to life. My grandma would be sitting in her customary corner position on the davenport (always “davenport”!  Never “couch”.  Loved that.).  And on the television: a classic made-for-TV Columbo movie — or later on in the mid-90s likely an episode of Walker, Texas WalkerTitleRanger.  We’d talk about how Peter Faulk and Chuck Norris “seem like nice boys”, and she would share a few of her omnipresent pink Canada Mints which were always within arm’s reach of the couch.  And in the evening time, dinner was always eaten at the kitchen table as a rule. But right in the corner of the kitchen was a small TV, which without fail would be tuned to the Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy double-header.  I have never just sat and watched an entire episode of Wheel of Fortune on my own.  But seated with my grandma and grandpa at the kitchen table, I could happily watch Wheel of Fortune for hours.  There was just something about it.

A Magical Fun House!

My grandparents’ house was just super cool.   They had strange doors for all manner of things.milkshute  For instance, they had built-in compartments for their trash and recycling; you threw your trash in there and the garbage man would have access to the garbage from small doors outside.  My grandparents did not have to take out the garbage!  How did anyone ever get away with that?  Genius.  And they still had a working milk chute — a tiny little cabinet that opened from both the outside and inside of the house for the 1950s milkman to deliver the milk.  I was fascinated by this.  And sure, my grandmother’s massive Hummel collection (each figurine with its own origin story to be told!) spread across two entire curio cabinets was impressive.  But what really impressed me was that their house had a bathroom in the basement.  The basement.  With a shower!  I could go down to the basement, shoot a little pool, and then take a shower to cool off — all without ever going upstairs.  Amazing.  Like something out of a science fiction novel.  And they had no bathroom on the first floor.  Only on the second floor and in the basement.  That meant, if you had to go, you had to walk upstairs or downstairs.  Who would design a house like that?  It was like a fun house.Fat-Belt-4

Really, each and every descent into that basement was like entering a Museum of Strange Delights.  So many interesting things anywhere you looked.  There was the bright-red, upright, one-piece rotary phone, which I could never believe was an actual working phone.  And did I mention the belly-busting, fat-excising machine with the vibrating belt that you put around your waist, straight from the 1950s?  Of course they had that.  If you turned that thing on full power, you could seriously do some bodily damage.  And as kids, there was never anything but Full Power!  When that thing was going full-bore in the basement, it sounded like a fleet of jackhammers just going nuts.  It was so sweet.

Even bath time — that dreaded childhood experience — was somehow made enjoyable. There were strange bath toys, such as shampoo bottles in the shape of Bullwinkle and Mr. Magoo!  I had no idea who these characters were but I loved those things all the same.bullwinkle-shampoo-bottle  Even when I was way too old to take baths at home any longer, it still remained my cleansing method of choice when visiting my grandparents.

The unique experience wasn’t relegated to the house interior.  Similar wonders awaited outside.  There was the detached garage with a covered patio attached to it.  Occasionally on warm nights, I would get to sleep out on the patio, like I was camping out.  My grandparents would even let me take their old 13″ black and white TV out there, plugged in to a giant extension cord.  I would stay up until 1 a.m. watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone, then lying awake for hours wondering when one of the strange nighttime noises would finally reveal themselves to be a serial killer or some creature of the damned.  It was perfect.

Strange and Fabulous Culinary Delights!

Alright, let’s talk about food.  First off, let me get this out there: my grandparents actually had a candy dish with Werther’s Originals in it.  Just like the grandparents did in the commercials!  So that was a real thing.  I lived it.

At Grandma’s house, even something as simple as toast was a delicacy.  Toast!  Same bread. Same butter as you could get anywhere else.  But somehow the breakfast toast at Grandma’s house was so far beyond anything else that it practically ruined all other toast for me in the future.  Perfectly toasted, never overdone; the butter would always melt perfectly when applied. Was it the toaster — a gorgeous, ancient beaut covered in chrome?  Or was it maybe something special about the circulating air that warmed the bread differently?  I don’t know.  It makes no sense.  But it was a fact.

And don’t even get me started on their tap water.  Now, growing up we had well water whereas my grandparents had “city water”, so some differences were to be expected, for sure.  But their water was on such another plane that it was just ridiculous.  At my house, I drank water to sustain life.  At my grandma’s, getting water out of the ceramic blue pitcher in the fridge was an absolute pleasure, like enjoying fine sparkling champagne.toaster

The cornucopia of delicious things served at my grandma’s house was vast: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, chicken pot pies, chicken and biscuits… It’s also where I developed my love of such disgusting delicacies as olive loaf and cheese spread sandwiches. But I will forever thank my grandmother for  introducing me to legendary things-in-things combinations.  Mashed potatoes and corn mixed together?  You betcha.  Baked beans and cottage cheese?   Why not.  Scalloped potatoes and pork chops.  You get the picture.

Holidays are always the best times for food-based experiences.  And holidays at my grandparents’ were no exception. Christmastime always found the house at its most magical: huge tree in the living room, replete with vintage bubble candle lights.  Tinsel garland strung from the ceilings; ornaments, precisely spaced, dangling from above.  But even my favorite Christmastime tradition revolved around food. Each year, on Christmas Eve we would go to the Midnight Candlelight church service (so when we walked outside after it finished, it was Christmas!).  Other than being trusted with actual lit candles — a pretty big deal to a kid — the best part of candlelight service was going to Grandma’s for midnight chili afterwards.  Yes.  That was a thing.  How did that become a tradition?  It sounds so ridiculous. I’m sure it just happened one time, where someone had stopped by Grandma’s house afterwards one year, and Grandma happened to have some leftover chili from earlier that day that she thoughtfully warmed up before sending a loved one out into the cold. That one time is probably all it took.  For, as long as I can remember, every Christmas Eve at midnight, when everyone was way beyond tired, we dutifully went to my Grandma’s house and had a bowl of the best damned midnight chili ever.

Amid all of the myriad delicious things that I would eat at my grandparents’, the one that stood above all else was that Cadillac of foods: the Schwann’s mini pepperoni schwanspizzapizza.  You know the Schwann’s delivery trucks that you see driving around, delivering over-priced yet delicious frozen foods to customers’ doorsteps.  Well that truck delivered the mini-pizza of the Gods to my grandma’s house.  It was heaven. It was usually reserved for a late-night snack, while sitting in the living room watching television.  I still have dreams about how good these things were. And as with many things, I tried making the same exact pizzas at my own house but somehow the magic wasn’t there.  It was like eating a facsimile.  It looked the same.  Even smelled the same.  The first bite scalded the roof of your mouth with third degree burns just the same.  But the taste was slightly off.  It was not the same.  Not even close.

Now, I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly touch on the topic of expired lunch meats.  Every grandma — I’m assuming here; I’ve done no statistical study on this — keeps lunch meats in the fridge a bit longer than the recommended time period.  But my grandma turned this into an art form.  There might as well not have even been dates stamped on the lunch meat packaging.  I never once saw her look at one of them.  She would open up a package of lunch meat, lift it to her nose, give a quick sniff, and then set it on the table.  I’m not even sure why she even put on the show of performing the Smell Test.  I can’t recall a single time when oliveloafsomething actually failed the Smell Test quality process.  And once that lunch meat had passed the test and landed on the table?  Boy, you were eating it.  Bologna had a strange watery film on it?  Eating it.  Salami had turned a very pale, distinctively non-meat color?  Eating it.  It had passed Grandma’s quality control.  There was nothing else to do at that point, but eat it and pray that you did not wake up in the middle of the night with severe lunch-meat poisoning.  And you know what?  I never did.

The small door in the attic

Let me come back to my favorite part of my grandparents’ house: the attic.  The third-floor attic had two twin beds in it and I was allowed to sleep up there whenever I wanted to.  And I always wanted to.  And not just because the attic had a mystique all its own.  Like how the ceiling angled in an extreme way such that it would end up being a mere 12″ from your face as you lay in bed.  Or the shelves that held vintage board games from the 1960s (KerPlunk oh how you tormented me!).  Or the various neatly-stacked mounds of boxes that lined the walls, in which there was always a chance that you’d come across a forgotten present with your name on it that had somehow gotten misplaced for a Christmas or two.  No, the attic was special for another reason.

For in the attic lay the one true secret of the house that dwarfed all others. In the attic, at the top of the narrow staircase, there was a small door. Not more than four feet high.  And behind that door was the mother lode.  Stacks and stacks of comic books. Ones that my mother and my uncle had collected all throughout their childhood.  Whatever your tastes, whatever your interests, they had you covered.  I started out with Donald Duck, donaldduck318Richie Rich, and Archie comics.  Then I graduated to Superman and Detective Stories.  There were easily over 700 comic books there.  And as I kid I devoured them like I devoured Little Debbie snack cakes.  And I don’t believe that I ever did read them all.  Every time I visited, I always found something buried deep in those giant stacks that I had never even seen before.   I would select two or three candidates to read every night before bed.  Many, many hours were spent meticulously pouring through the stacks, looking for just the right comics to fit the mood.  You know, maybe start off with something light and airy like Baby Huey, before working up to darker, more adult material like Captain America.  Way more time was spent in this selection process than it ever took to actually read them.  But that process of discovery was all part of the fun.

Phillip

Now back to Phillip.  Phillip was the neighbor boy who lived adjacent to my grandparents.  He was younger than me.  And also, he was a bit of a spaz. One summer day, my sister and I were sitting in the parked car out in my grandmother’s driveway, waiting as my mother made one of her “quick” stops (never less than 15 minutes) into Grandma’s to grab something.

While trying to pass the time, we randomly pressed the button on the garage door opener attached to the car’s visor.  Miraculously, the neighbor’s garage door began opening. My sister and I looked at each other incredulously.  “Seriously?”  I pressed the button again.  The garage door began descending.  And so, as any children dealt the dual death knells of boredom and being stuck in a non-running car would do, we each started taking turns pressing the garage door opener.  We watched the neighbor’s garage door go up.  And down.  Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  Up.

Suddenly we saw the back door of my neighbor’s house burst open.  My sister and I ducked down, hiding ourselves from view.  We stole a glance to see what was going on. And there was Phillip, coming out of the back door like something straight out of Ghostbusters.  Hands clenched tightly together, index fingers fully extended to form the point of a gun, his face full of gritty determination.  He stepped lightly, creeping towards the garage.  I can only imagine what he must have thought, realizing that his worst fears had been confirmed, that his garage was truly haunted, and all the while knowing that any heartfelt pleas to his parents imploring them that “they must move, the house was haunted for real this time!” would go unheard.

Grandma’s house in Greenville, Pennsylvania.

Phillip made his way to the side of the garage, and pressed his body flat against it.  We waited as he built up the courage to confront the otherworldly presence.  Suddenly he jumped out from his position to face the garage head-on, imaginary gun still perfectly poised to shoot.  The garage door stood open.  Unmoving.  He took one step forward.  Then another.  He had crossed the threshold into the garage.  At that moment we pressed the opener and the garage door sprang to life.  Phillip freaked out and did a barrel roll out of the garage.  We again pressed the opener button and the door stopped its descent.  It hung there a quarter of the way down, motionless, the garage light still flickering in the garage.  Philip hung back for a few seconds and then slowly crept forward, neck craned upwards at the suspended garage door.  He inched forward.  We pressed the button and the garage door reversed course and started back upwards.  Phillip bolted for his house, leaping up all four steps to the doorway in a blur.  He was safely inside before the screen door had finished slamming shut.  A minute passed.  Eventually the back door opened and Phillip poked his head back outside.  That’s the thing about being a kid.  Even when you know that ghosts are real, that they are specifically targeting you, you still have to investigate it.  He tiptoed down the stairs over to the garage.  This time we let him get fully into the garage before we sent the door back down.  He bolted out the side door of the garage back to the steps of his house.  This beautiful back-and-forth dance must have gone on for ten minutes.  Eventually my mother came back to the car and it was time to go.  My sister and I said nothing.  But as we left my grandma’s house through the alley past Phillip’s house, my sister leaned over and pressed the garage opener on the visor.  Just one more for the road.  As we drove away, and the slowly-closing garage door faded from view, my sister and I smiled to ourselves.

Throughout that summer, I continued this game whenever I visited my grandma’s.  Phillip only ever made an investigative appearance twice more during that summer.  The last time he was still freaking out about it.  But not as much. And then, just like that, summer ended.  And that was that.  I sort of forgot about it.  The next year, I remember trying our garage door opener again, but this time nothing happened.  Either the neighbors had changed their garage door code, or whatever magic had allowed it to happen in the first place had vanished. The years moved on, and as I entered my teenage years I got to my grandparents’ house less often.  Yet when I visited, still every once in a while I would think back to that summer and press the garage door opener, just on the chance that Phillip’s garage door would open.  It never did.  And it was probably for the best.  For Phillip had gotten older too.  And I’m pretty sure that if his garage door had started moving by itself again, Phillip wouldn’t have frantically raced outside to eradicate whatever mystical force was terrorizing him.  He probably would have looked at the garage door, shrugged, and went about his business.

House sweet home

It seems that the one thing that magic can’t overcome is the passage of time.  Just as the magic of Phillip’s unexplained garage door phenomenon ultimately faded, so too did the magic feeling of my grandparents’ house.  My grandparents had to eventually move out of the home that they lived in for over fifty years.  Someone else lives there now.  Sometimes I wonder what the new tenants have stored in the mysterious attic compartment.  I’ll likely never get the chance to know, but I bet it’s not comic books.  In fact, I don’t know what became of the comic books that once resided there.  I think my uncle may have them in storage somewhere.  Probably waiting to finally cash in on his long-term comic-_a_house_is_made_of_brick_and_stone_a_home_is_made_of_love_alone___163ff234book investment strategy that he surely devised as a kid.  I’m not sure how much the collection would be worth, but I can tell you that whatever price it would fetch would not come close to matching its true worth to a kid who happened to stumble upon that hidden cache. I actually have a box in my own attic with the comic books that I myself collected as a kid, but it’s not even close in quantity or quality.  There’s maybe a couple hundred comics there, all bland and obvious choices. I’ll share my collection with my own grandchildren one day, and they’ll probably disinterestedly leaf through a few issues of Heathcliff before returning their focus back to their holographic video game system.  But that’s okay.  I just hope they manage to discover a little magic of their own behind whatever mysterious attic doors they find in life.

To this day, one thing that still resonates with me is the plaque that always hung in my grandparents’ kitchen:
A house is made of brick and stone,
But a home is made of love alone“.

Sometimes I try to understand what it’s like to identify a house as your “home”. I’m nearing ten years in the first house of my own, and it’s most definitely still a house. Will I one day share the same sentiments that were set down in rhyme on that plaque?  In fifty years will I feel as strong a desire to hold onto to my house as my grandparents did for as long as they could, not wanting to lose such a large part of my identity?  I wonder if my house will ever truly make the transition from house to home. But that’s not something that you can make happen.  It’s not a singular event.  It’s something that comes about only upon reflection, when you pause to look back upon some fifty years of living.  So I really don’t know when, or if, it will ever happen to my house.  I just know it’s not there yet.  But maybe that’s missing the important point.  Maybe, like the plaque implied, my grandma’s house isn’t what made memories.  Maybe it’s much simpler: home is just where Grandma is.

Still, I hope that my house does eventually become a home.  I hope my grandchildren have even half as many warm memories of their grandparents as I do of mine.  And I hope my grandma realizes how many cherished memories that she and her home have given me.

Most of all, I hope Phillip still sometimes fondly remembers the one summer that his garage was haunted.

Grandma Jesse Stuver

Grandma Jessie Stuver, with Tom and great-grandchildren. December 2012.

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Top 5 Favorite Vids of 2012

18 Dec

#5: Dragon Baby

I’m a sucker for babies doing un-baby-like things.  This baby straight out of Kill-Bill is incredible.

#4: O Fortuna Misheard Lyrics

There’s many Misheard Lyrics videos out there.  But this is the rare one where the lyrics are spot-on and none require a stretch to hear them.  “Hot temperate cheese” indeed!

#3: Yearbook Signatures (5 Second Films)

For me there was no greater comedy punch in 2012 than the 5 seconds spanned in this film from 5 Second Films:

#2: Jiggly Baby 3: The Curse of Adramelech

My Shameless Self Promotion entry. In any other year, a 4 minute (award winning!) film about a modern day genie assassin/dog-lover would be tops. However 2012 saw the release of the great horror juggernaut Jiggly Baby 3.  No contest.

#2 (for reals):  It’s Too Heavy

Almost as delightful as this video itself are the YouTube comments, which showcase a hilariously wide range of parents and non-parents.  From the parental replies of “Aww, too precious! What a ham!” to the other end of the spectrum: “THIS brat is why I will never have kids!!” and “Her parents should be locked up for not controlling such behavior”.  For the record I fall on the “That’s totes adorable” side of the fence.

#1: Hot Cheetos & Takis

This was easily my most-watched YouTube video of 2012.  Before this year I did not even know what Takis were.  Now I feel like my childhood was incomplete for not having had them in my younger days.  Validation enough for this getting my top spot: I have bumped this track (and found myself randomly singing it around the house) uncountable times not in an “Aww, cute kids rapping about snack foods!” kind of way, but in a “This is a seriously great, well-produced hip-hop track. Period.” way.

Did This Really Happen or Was That an Episode of Lassie?

8 Oct

In this entry of “Did This Really Happen or Was That an Episode of Lassie?” we look back on the one about The Horse and the Quicksand.

Growing up, my mother loved to ride horses.  She had horses of her own, and being that she lived in town, she would have to travel out to the country or mountains to ride.  One time while she was out riding deep in the heart of the wilderness, her horse got stuck in very thick mud.  My mother got off the horse and started to lead her horse through the mud.  As my mother was guiding her horse, she became aware that the mud was thickening and becoming more and more difficult to walk through.  At some point, she realized that she could not lift her boot out of the mud.  In fact her boot — and foot — was actually sinking down into the muck.  It was then that my mother realized that she and her horse had wandered right into a pool of quicksand.

Now I’m told that the most important thing to remember about getting stuck in quicksand is to not panic.  Thrashing around just makes you get further mired in the quicksand.  That piece of advice seems sensible when you hear it in a hypothetical “Here’s something that will never happen to you” kind of way, similar to “Here’s what to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse”.  But when it’s actually honest-to-God happening to you, I imagine it’s another thing altogether.  You need to first remember the proper procedure to follow, and then have the courage and level-head to follow through on it.  A person might stand a chance at following this advice.  But a horse?  No chance.  Not only did my mother have to extract herself out of the quicksand, she also had to keep her horse calm.  Somehow, miraculously, she got herself out of the quicksand.  And then with the help of some passerby managed to free her horse as well.  My mother ended the day with nothing more than a dirty horse and boots, and a good story to tell.

Now, as often happens, things that I remember happening to me with vivid detail turn out to actually have been acquired from some movie or book which I somehow appropriated as one of the important personal events that helped shape me into who I am today.  In this instance, I have a very sharp memory of my mother telling me this heart-pounding true-life tale when I was young.  I’m 90% confident.  But it also vaguely sounds like an episode of Lassie that I watched as a child.  So once again I must ask myself:  Did This Really Happen or Was That an Episode of Lassie?

Fond Childhood Recollections: Where are the Goddamn Scissors?!

19 Jun

When I was a kid growing up, there was nothing more terrifying than when my father would ask my brother, sister, or I to get something for him.  It didn’t matter what it was — it was always terrifying.  There was so much pressure.

The most frequent request that my father would issue — and which would send chills down the spine of whichever of us kids happened to be the unlikely target — was “Hey, go grab me the scissors, would ya?”

It sounds so simple.  So innocent.  But time would stand still when that phrase was uttered.  One of our world’s would be shattered, while the two who happened to be spared could breathe a fleeting sigh of relief, knowing that they had escaped the horror this time.

Looking back on it now, this sequence of my father asking for scissors seemed to happen with strange regularity during my childhood.  I’m really not sure why scissors were needed so often.  Why were there always things to be cut?  Was our way of life back in the 1980s just such that it required more cuts of various things?  I don’t know for sure.  I just know that we always needed scissors.

And when they were needed, they were needed with an urgency the likes of which few other household things demanded.

It played out like this: if you were the unlucky one charged with scissor-retrieving duties, once the realization of what you had been tasked with sunk in and had been replaced by an all-encompassing numbness, the process would begin.  You would slowly make your way into the kitchen, where the drama would unfold, same as it always did.  You would go through the well-worn routine, merely an actor in a sadistic play, the outcome already determined.

The first step would be to check the kitchen knife block set that sat on the counter.  Eight holes for knives.  Every knife always accounted for.  And below the knife holes, the square slot for the kitchen scissors.  That damnable square slot.  Always empty.  Always.   With some twisted amusement, you would remember the last time this happened, when you swore to never let it happen again, so you had actually doubled-up — shoved two pair of scissors in the square slot — just to avoid just such an outcome.  No matter.  Always empty.

However, not finding the scissors in the knife block was not really a concern.  This initial check did not even need to be performed, such was its fruitlessness.  It was a mere formality.  Just one more checkmark to cross off on your list.  (For no step on the list could be skipped.  When you had to give your final report, a full inquisition would be performed.  God help you if you had cut any corners, missed one of the cursory checks, no matter how futile.)

At this point it was on to step two – the kitchen drawer.  Here was your best hope.  The silverware drawer obviously contained silverware (duh), but there was always a little space in front of the silverware tray, which was a pretty convenient spot for a pair of scissors.  If ever through the course of a normal day you happened upon a pair of scissors “out in the wild”, this would be the go-to put-back spot.  Of course, when looking for scissors, this spot was always empty.  But even still at this point in the routine, there was no need for panic.  Scissors not in the front of the silverware drawer?  No worries.  Because sometimes the silverware tray would actually slide to the front of the drawer, thus creating a convenient space in the back of the drawer.  Upon absent-mindedly putting scissors back in their place, it was quite possible that rather than be belabored by having to move the silverware tray to its originating position, one might just accept the fate that the silverware tray had moved to the front of the drawer — and really, what could be done about it?  Who are you to determine the position of a silverware tray? — and so, the scissors would be placed into the space behind the rear of the silverware tray.  So when the cursory search of the front of the silverware tray comes up empty, there’s still roughly an equal percentage chance that they are nestled snugly in the rear of the drawer.

So you slowly reach your hand back, back, back behind the silverware drawer, going on feel alone.  Your fingers grope about steadily.  You would actually let the faint hint of a smile cross your face.  Of course the scissors had fallen back there.  It was so obvious, really.  As your hand completes the first back-and-forth scan and comes up empty, your smile fades a little.  Even as you start your second pass, with your finger tips beginning to bleed ever-so-slightly from the minute pin-pricks caused by corn-on-the-cob holders that randomly reside in the darkest, most remote recesses, you are still fairly certain that your fingers will eventually graze across the long, cool, blade of the pair of scissors that surely reside there.  After the requisite third, and then forth, pass come up empty, then and only then does a sense of urgency begin to creep in.

Now this whole process is horrifying on its own.  It is made far worse by the constant shouts from my father of “How we doin’ on those scissors?!” increasing in both volume and frequency as the search process drags on.

You take a breath.  Suppress the panic.  If you allow it to take hold now, it’s all over.  Because there’s still one final check.  The last hope.  The junk drawer.  Oh God, the junk drawer!  If ever there was any hope, it was the junk drawer.  EVERYTHING’s in the junk drawer.  Why, there’s probably five or six pair of scissors just floating around in there right now!  Opening the junk drawer brings such a relief.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Why, there could be anything in there.  You can’t even rely on first sight alone, because there are LAYERS to the junk drawer.  You have to actually brush aside the top layer of junk, to get to the second, and then finally the third layers.  If anyone ever had need for 50+ used bread ties, the junk drawer had you covered.  Dozens of random screws?  Check.  Disposable lighters, each one completely devoid of lighter fluid, yet not a single one disposed?  Yup.  Pencil with broken tip and decimated eraser?  Oh, you know it.  Book of matches, containing all book and no match?  You got it, buddy.  Scissors?  Not a chance.

A shout from the other room: “Can we get an ETA on those scissors?!”

Now’s where it starts to get ugly.  Panic starts to set in.  There really are no scissors.  You fly BACK to the silverware drawer.  The scissors weren’t in there, were they?  No.  But did you check UNDER the silverware tray?  Wait.  What?  How would a pair of scissors get under a silverware tray?  Doesn’t matter.  They COULD be there.  In fact, where else could they be?  Actually, it makes an odd kind of sense.  They probably are there, if you think about it.  Really, they MUST be there.  Of course.  You frantically tear out the silverware tray.  Only to reveal nothing but an old baby spoon or two — and my God there hasn’t been a baby in the house in some 10 years, why are there still baby spoons in the silverware drawer?!  STOP.  FOCUS.  Okay, no scissors under the silverware tray.  (Idiot!  Why would there be scissors UNDER the silverware tray?  What chain of events would transpire that would lead to a pair of scissors not only lodging under the silverware tray, but remaining there as family members blissfully ignore the huge rocking motion of the uneven silverware tray day after day as they constantly retrieve silverware for their daily meals?  It makes no sense.  How did you actually talk yourself into believing that was even a remote possibility?  Again.).  But we’re not giving up on the drawer just yet.  Yes, you already searched in the back of the drawer.  But not aaaalllll the way in the back.  You know how you can pull the drawer out until it stops, but then if you do a little finagling, a little bit of the ol’ pull-up-then-down maneuvering, the drawer becomes untracked and you can pull that sonofabitch a good two more inches out?  Who knows what’s back in those ancient recesses, caked with dust, exposed to the light of day roughly only once every five years.  You know what’s back there?  Probably a nice damn pair of scissors, that’s what!

But of course there’s no scissors there.  Jackass!  You curse yourself for giving into one more glimmer of impossible hope.  Why do you do it to yourself?

So now you’ve come up empty.  If the scissors aren’t in any of the places that you’ve searched, they aren’t anywhere that can be found — certainly not in the required time-frame suggested by the volume of the shouted status-update requests coming from the other room.  There’s no scissors.  There were never going to be any scissors.

It is time to give the report.  You start the slow, dazed shuffle out of the kitchen and back into the living room.  Brother and sister have long fled, not wanting to risk catching any collateral damage.  There stands my father, intent on whatever task requires cutting, not acknowledging your presence, just holding a distracted hand out in your general direction, palm-up.  Implication: “Place the scissors that you found right here.”  You clear your throat quietly.  “ahem.”  No acknowledgement.  A little louder “AHEM.”.

“What?” my father would reply.  Followed by: “Scissors?”

A low mumble “icouldn’tfindanyscissors…”

“What’s that?”

Another throat-clear.  “I said I couldn’t find any scissors.”

This was always the point where time would stand briefly suspended, as a look of disgust would slowly begin to spread over my father’s face.  It was in this brief moment that you would try to shrink down, make yourself as small as possible, hoping to become invisible.  Because you knew what was coming.

And then there it was.

“Where are the goddamn scissors!?”

Silence on my part.  What was there to say?

My father’s voice exploding now: “How are there never any goddamn scissors in this house?”

Pavlov’s Law was obviously not in effect in our house, for this little drama unfolded in exactly the same way at least twice a week.  Yet each and every time, my father’s incredulous reaction was just as unbelieving as the last.

The worst part of it was that you weren’t just the messenger of the bad news.  It was YOUR fault.  That was the insinuation.

“I just put the scissors away myself damn near 20 minutes ago!” my father would roar.

Fill in the blanks: “And NOW they’re gone.  I sent YOU to get them.  What have you done with the goddamn scissors!?”

The shouting and fuming over not having any goddamn scissors would go on for several minutes.  I can’t even remember how these scissors-requiring situations played out in the times when no scissors were to be found.  I guess things just didn’t get cut.  Or else my father’s giant-ass pocket-knife was coming out, and no one wanted that, as that was as likely to result in bloodshed more than any other outcome.

How it turned out in the end didn’t really matter.  For you had already lost.  For amid my father’s cries to the gods cursing the unjust nature of a world constantly devoid of scissors, there was a subtext of “You have failed me.  Both as a son, and as a Retriever of Things.  I gave you one simple task.  Bring me some scissors.  That was all I asked.  And you couldn’t do it.  I shouldn’t have even asked you.  I should have done it myself.”

Just another scissor-retrieving mission.  Just another failure. Now, these failures were not exclusive to scissors of course.  There were others.  Another common favorite was “Where is the goddamn flashlight?”  This was the worst, because in the off chance that your search actually did yield a flashlight, there was zero percent chance that it would actually turn on.  Thus segueing into “Now where’s the goddamn batteries!?  How do we not have any goddamn D batteries in this house?”  And there was also the equally-terrifying “Where’s the goddamned screwdriver?”  This was a bit unique in that generally you WOULD be able to find a screwdriver, but would invariably lead to an outburst of “Phillips head!  I said Phillips head!  Does this look like a goddamn Phillips head?”

But what I remember most are the scissors.  The goddamn scissors.

Now today, I have my own house, and my own family.  And whenever I go looking for scissors — which, true to form, are never to be found — I can’t help but think to myself with a smile: “Where are the goddamn scissors!?”

And when my kids get a little older, I can’t wait to help them develop a complex over that phrase all of their own.

Because, seriously now.  All kidding aside.  Where are the goddamn scissors?

ReminderFox: A Time to Refactor (or else)

27 May

ReminderFox is currently undergoing a “new-development” hiatus as we finish undergoing a huge refactoring undertaking.  Essentially due to some recent Mozilla directions, we had to refactor/modify almost every single line of code in ReminderFox.  This was essentially a 3-month long odyssey between myself and Günter Wahl (hugest of thanks!).

What is the refactoring all about?  Why did we have to do this? Recently with the arrival of Firefox 4, Mozilla has started to get really motivated about Firefox performance. As other browsers continue to improve, Mozilla naturally strives to continue to improve.  This is good.

Less good was that starting with the most recent ReminderFox update submission (each update for every single addon update is reviewed by a Mozilla editor), the update was reviewed and not accepted.  We were somewhat surprised as we had never received any issues or problems for any of the previous 50+ updates that we’d delivered.  They declared that there were two conditions that must be met before they would accept any future ReminderFox updates:  1) improve the startup performance of the addon, and  2) most of the ReminderFox code uses prefixed global functions (“reminderFox_doStuff”); instead every function and variable should be encapsulated in a single global “reminderfox” namespace.

We on the ReminderFox team were totally on board with both of these things.  These are both excellent, desirable goals.  However, we had two questions:

1) Out of the Blue-ness:

We had been releasing ReminderFox updates on addons.mozilla.org since 2005 — over 55 (!) separate releases.  At no time during any of those was performance or namespace issues mentioned.  Now we had an update with some critical bug fixes  (alarms weren’t working, for instance) that we really wanted to get out to the community, and without any prior notice it was being denied for code that had been as-is for many years.  The requested changes basically would require a 3-month-long refactoring/rewrite (time totally dedicated to the rewrite, meaning no other development or improvements were going on).  As one of the oldest and well-respected addons, we thought that maybe we could be given a little leeway here.  So I wrote the Mozilla editors team and agreed that the suggested changes were good, but that we had a critical update, and it would be much easier to gradually work in the suggested changes gradually over the next number of ReminderFox updates.  They allowed us a pass to release that update (which was awesome), but said that we must address their concerns before any future releases would be accepted.  So here we are.

2) The startup performance. 

This has been widely covered elsewhere, as many other highly-respected addon developers  have already pointed out that Mozilla’s performance targeting numbers are not necessarily accurate (and their initial scary wording and usages of percentages seemed purposefully misleading).  Basically without communicating with addon developers, Mozilla published a “shame” page of Poor Performing Addons.  Some of the most popular addons (AdBlock, Firebug, VideoDownloader) were at the top of the list.  Such a tactic generally gets results as its purpose is to publically embarrass addon authors to improving their addon.  I don’t doubt that this is an effective strategy, but I would hope it would be a last resort after working with addon authors directly to improve their performance.

In any case, ReminderFox was on the list.  It was showing as adding 50ms to the Firefox startup time.  That is 1/20th of a second.  You can see why Mozilla would not allow us to release any more updates until we improve on that atrocious number!  🙂

That said, we take pride in ReminderFox, so since then we have put a lot of time and effort into improving performance.  Essentially we now lazily load code that isn’t required until needed.  So if you aren’t using the Remote Networking feature, we don’t load the network code and functions until it is used.  We don’t load the code to handle Drag and Drop until you actually drag something onto the toolbar icon.  We don’t load the mail functions until you associate a reminder with an email.  Etc, etc.  In the end, it looks like we were able to halve the startup time from what it was.

Finally, for the record, I agree with all of the performance improvements getting focus by Mozilla, and I am really glad that they are taking performance seriously and actually doing something about it.  Certainly I would have preferred that they handled it a little differently, but however it came about, I am glad that we have made the improvements to ReminderFox.  I think overall it makes ReminderFox much cleaner; we separated out the code into functional pieces, and by moving functions out of the global namespace has allowed us to move to some best practices and should hopefully help with any potential Addon Conflicts that we would see from time to time.

-Tom

Welcome

27 May

This will be a page of my various musings.