Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Space Camp

I was shown this promotional video back in 1995 in my Young Astronauts club.

Yes, I was a full on nerd at a young age. I stayed willingly after school for my Young Astronauts club and I loved it.

The club was not funded by the school, so any sort of field trips or anything were funded by us. We didn't do many. I think we went to the Science Center in St. Louis once. 

Well in 6th grade, the teacher, Miss Sims, put the club on her shoulders and decided we would go to the Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. 

My parents scraped together a few hundred dollars, I sold wrapping paper and candy door to door, and I handed over my envelope with cash to Miss Sims with a giant smile on my face. I was ready to become an astronaut.

I was ready for the underwater training. I couldn't wait to land a space shuttle. I was prepared for my moonwalk. This video had me hyped for Space Camp more than anything else. 

It came time to actually go, I crammed into my chaperonage's tan Ford Taurus with their daughter who was also a Young Astronaut, their son who was along for the ride, and another guy from the club that I don't remember anything about. 

I was extremely susceptible to car sickness as a kid, so this was a huge concern. Surprisingly, I felt great most the car ride. That is, until we stopped at a Wendy's in Southern Tennessee where I bragged about how fast I could eat.

Their son that challenged me to eat 3 junior cheeseburgers faster than this double bacon cheeseburger. Being a guy that never backed down from food related challenges, I accepted... and won.

Now the gamble that you take when eating at a rural fast food restaurant is "will my food be fresh" and "how often do health inspectors come through."

This was a gamble I lost shortly after arriving to Space Camp, roughly 25 minutes into a conference where a few hundred kids crowded into a room and an astronaut talked about what it was like to be in space. I tapped my team leaders arm asking if I could go to the bathroom. He said, wait a few minutes and then I vomited all over the construction grade carpeting screeching the conference to a halt. 

The Space Camp nurse gave me crackers and Sprite and had me call my parents with my sweet calling card to tell them that I was throwing up and there was nothing they could do about it. 

As part of the Space Camp experience, you're supposed to get to stay in the "habitat." It's a dormitory that is made up to look like the Space Station. Well, as part of this craptastic weekend, Space Camp had over booked the habitat. So, not having bought the premium Space Camp package, our little rag tag group stayed in the Howard Johnson down the street, where I proceeded to continue vomiting everywhere. (Side note, because of this, I did not eat Wendy's again until college)

So the next day, I woke up feeling really great. I was ready to hit the ground running. Time to land a damn shuttle on Mars. 

Nope... not happening. Turns out, all the cool stuff they showed in the video is part of the premium package. So, we got access to the museum, the centrifuge, and a few small "science" experiments where you basically tried to stack blocks in a tank of water. The worst part of this was that the cafeteria we ate in circled all the cool moon walking and stuff. So while we ate our cafeteria food, we got to hear the joy of all the kids bouncing around like they were nearly weightless.

We did get to try to launch a shuttle which was pretty awesome, except that our pilot immediately crashed the shuttle and because the camp was so busy, we didn't get another chance. 

I rode the centrifuge no less than 13 times that weekend because after a stroll through the museum and a few pictures in front of the Space Shuttle, there wasn't much else to do. 

On our last day, we were shuffled onto a tram where we were driven around and shown the Aviation Challenge Camp, all of the NASA training equipment like the huge underwater tank, and all the discarded rocket parts. 

I stopped by the gift shop on the way out, buying astronaut ice cream and a few models to build and we drove home through tornadoes in Southern Illinois. 

Would I go back to Space Camp? Absolutely. It's a great memory and had some cool stuff. 

However, I would be in charge of planning and I would definitely get to land a damn shuttle on Mars. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

That Christmas Feeling

I miss the child wonder with Christmas.

You all know me well enough, I do not try to hide this, I love Christmas presents. I love getting them, I love giving them. I love the feel of wrapping paper being torn to shreds between my fingers.

I'm a greedy capitalistic, material-good loving, adult-man-child.

Part of the child wonder with Christmas was the un-relenting energy as we bopped around the entire area going to grandma's house for Christmas Eve, going to the aunts and uncles to see their trees, going to my Aunt Mary's for chili, knowing full well there were presents waiting at each place.

I could see my parents' eyes drooping with exhaustion after the marathon holidays. Fighting to stay awake during Christmas mass, their only quiet respite from the screaming, sugar filled cousins.

I miss running around in grandma's woods with Jake and Ryan, falling through frozen ice, shooting paint balls at each other, seeing if we could reach the end of the creek.

But most of all, I miss the thrill of the 2 a.m. gift check. I'd read by the nightlight, checking my alarm clock every 15 minutes to see how much time had passed. (In later years when I had my own basement room, I would quietly watch A Christmas Story on TNT over and over again.)

I'd gently rock Nick and Brett awake, pointing out all the creaky parts of the floors, tip toeing in socks out to the Christmas tree.

We couldn't make out the names written on the packages, signed "From Santa, XOXO" in the shadowed light cast by the tree lights. So we played a game, guessing which ones we thought were ours. The small gifts were inspected, shook, and weighed. We cross referenced the shapes with the gifts we had circled in the J.C. Penny catalog.

And after a good amount of time, the excitement at a fever pitch, we would turn out attention to the three largest gifts, knowing that they were going to be divided between us. Most the time we had no clue about these. Our parents were great at figuring out large items that we needed or would love: a new bike, roller blades, giant Star Wars bases.

After we argued about what came in that size, we'd sneak back to bed for a 3 hour nap, waking up again at 6 am. We'd wake up making enough noise to wake the parents up.

Dad would get the coffee pot going and go outside to have a smoke before manning the camera. Mom would give us stockings to keep us quiet, cutting up some veggies and ham for our Christmas omelet.

And we'd wait patiently for each round of gifts, one to each brother, opening at the same time. We'd have to hold back an energy explosion when our parents presents were sprinkled in between a round of ours. Hoping that mom would quickly inspect her new robe or dad his hockey shirt, so that we could move on with what was truly important, us kids.

And in the post present euphoria, we would start assembling LEGOs, putting batteries in our laser guns, and strapping on our hockey gear for a pickup game in the driveway, eventually passing out for a long nap around lunch. Then, we'd wake up, and have a lazy day in at the house.

These sleepy Christmas days are some of my favorite memories of childhood. Everyone in the best mood they could possibly be, filled with cinnamon twists and joy, wearing pajamas, just happy to exist.

Now, Christmas works almost the opposite.

I'm so excited to possibly be surprised, that I don't look for the gifts beforehand. It would be easy for me to sign into Sal's Amazon account and take a look at it or find a random packing slip laying around. But dammit, I'm chasing the childhood dragon, that rush of being generally surprised and every piece of information I know ahead of time takes a little bit of that magic away.

And I can't wait to snuggle up on the couch, with a nice Scotch, watching The Family Stone or Love Actually, thumbing through the new brewing book I have, or cooking a Christmas dinner while listening to my new records.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Learning the Hard Lessons the Easy Way

When I was a kid, schools and libraries would do anything to get kids to read.

It felt several shades of dirty, especially since I read anyway, so I felt like I was sort of cheating the system. Well, that and I was usually cheating the system.

The first was Pizza Hut's "Book It" program. Your teacher set standards for what was considered a a qualifying book and during the school year, every 5 you read, you got a free personal pan pizza.

The only rules I remember were that the books had to be more than 80 pages, you could only get 5 a month, and you had to write a page report on what the book was about.

By this time, I had a solid collection of about 32 Goosebumps books that I had already read. So, I would read one new book a month and then write reports on 4 Goosebumps books I had already read.

Over the two years my school participated in the program, I ate at least 12 free personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut.

Another one of my favorite reading memories was in sixth grade when our library received a bunch of new computers from Gateway. The school bought some sort of book database where you would read a book, take a quiz on the computers, and if you got 8/10 on the quiz, you received points. You could then turn the points in for items at the library.

Most of the stuff were things like Lisa Frank folders, candy, books, and lanyards.

Being a sucker for prizes, I scanned the window with all of the prizes and zeroed in on what I thought was the coolest thing, a skull pen where you held the spine to write with.

Now these quizzes were worth between 5-20 points depending on how difficult the book was.

I did the math and I knew that I would need 80 points to get the pen and I was determined.

I finished my first book and  I took the quiz. It was somewhere around question 6 when I realized that I could probably fake taking these quizzes. Most of the quizzes were based off context clues and things I could read off the back of the book.

If I read one medium point book, and took two easy quizzes a month, I would have my pen by Christmas.

Now, part of the restriction so that you couldn't just take all the quizzes you wanted is that you would have to check the book out from the school library to have access to the quiz.

So I would take all three books out at the same time, return the two easy books the next day, read the medium book, and then spend 30 minutes a month taking the quizzes.

I would nail the medium quiz with a 10/10, and usually could score the minimum 8/10 using context clues and the back cover of the easy books.

Finally Christmas break was upon us. With my chest out, I marched to the library ready to claim my prize.

And this is one of the rare instances where karma really bit me right in the butt. I got my pen, held it, loved it, packed it up and took it home. I forgot about it until after break where I used it in my first hour science class.

The hard plastic spine was not only incredibly uncomfortable to hold, but I actually poked my finger hard enough on one of the spine spikes that I bled. The pen lived in my pencil box as an ornament the rest of the year.

And that folks, is how I learned not to mess with the library.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Aware of My Knee

I'm always aware of my knee. Even on days where it feels fine, I know that it's not right. I know that that knobby mess of sinew is a time bomb waiting to be replaced.

I feel it mostly in my stride and posture. I sort of kick my injured leg out when I walk. It's usually very slight, but noticeable, especially after walking a lot.

Restaurants, dinner tables, and bars are usually the worst. The chairs are slightly too short for me to comfortably sit for a long period of time. If there's an option, I stand.

I often start stirring toward the end of the meal, longingly looking for the server for the bill. I know it makes other people feel uncomfortable or rushed, but if I were panicking as much as my knee is screaming for me to panic, it would be a much worse situation involving me flipping tables and throwing complimentary bread.

I try not to get frustrated, but when the weather dramatically changes like it has recently is when it's on my mind the most.

Generally, the hot humid summer causes my knee to swell. I feel like I'm walking with a peg leg most the time. Just another reason I can't stand the heat.

Then, when the humidity and temperature drop and we go into my favorite season, the knee swelling goes down. I spend a few weeks feeling really off. My knee cap doesn't track right. My skin feels a little loose. Everything basically has to get used to what a normal knee feels like.

Overall my knee feels great in the winter. Sure I get some arthritic pains when it's below freezing, but generally, it's the most normal my knee feels. That is, unless I try to run.

My normal gym routine involves 3-5 minutes of high intensity cardio on the treadmill in the middle of my workout to get my heart rate back up. This part has been very brief and painful the past few days. It feels as if the knee is just bone on bone.

It's the knee on knee that really bothers me. Although brief and only hitting during high impact cardio, it's a reminder that I will have to probably get my entire knee replaced by the time I'm 40. And for someone who is incredibly active (just ask my Fitbit friends) that bums me out.

I'm not sure how I'll feel with an artificial knee. All the examples I've seen are usually much older men, much heavier, much less in shape than I am. They sort of waddle around and groan when they have to stand up. I never pictured myself that incapable.

Who knows? Maybe it'll be better than what I have now. Maybe there will be robot knees by then and I can break into the NHL at age 40. Maybe my long walks will still be long, but cover much less distance. Maybe it will be the exact same as it is today...

Slightly uncomfortable, always reminding me that it exists, and a good excuse to get out of events I don't like.