Matt McHugh
Matt - Blog - February 2006


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Boy's Birthday Party
February 24, 2006

My son recently turned five. Birthday parties seem to be a much bigger deal than when I was a kid (at best, I got a dozen schoolmates in the basement for cake, ice cream, and a pinata) so, in keeping with current trends, I wanted to do something moderately big. We rented a church hall, invited all the tots from his pre-school class for two hours of carefully structured dinosaur-themed (my son's choice) fun. Actually, this was all my idea and responsibility. My wife wanted to hire a clown or a magician or something, but I said, "No, I'm going to plan a bunch of old-fashioned party activities for the tykes and serve as master of ceremonies." What's that they say about good intentions?

Anyway, here's what I had for the party

  • Two dozen inflatable dinosaurs
    18" tall T-rex's--cute as heck--for a buck a piece from a party supply company.

  • Two dozen inflatable globe beach balls
    Ordered from same company for the same price; I figured they were fun and educational--though, in a admirable bit of disclosure, the website warned that there were typos on the balls. I guess you can't expect Chinese manufacturers to get everything right all the time.

  • Two dozen large dinosaur illustrations for coloring.
    I scanned these from a coloring book, resized, then projected them--one-by-one (took me a couple hours)--onto poster board and traced them with permanent black marker. Then I picked up a few boxes of extra-large crayons to go with them.

  • Two dozen clay-filled boxes for dinosaur footprints
    These were interesting. I had a shedload of these little black boxes--about the size of the ones in which you get blank checks from the bank--leftover from a work promotion. I filled them with a tawny modeling clay, liquefied at 150-degrees in the oven, and got a nice level surface for imprints. Again, took me a couple hours.

  • Two dozen hand-carved wooden dowels to make dinosaur footprints
    I looked around for a while, but couldn't find anything really suitable to make footprints in the stiff clay. I just thought I'd buy some hard plastic dinosaurs and cut their legs off like stamps. Unfortunately, nobody seems to manufacture hard plastic dinosaurs anymore. They're all pliant and rubbery now, probably for whussy old safety reasons. So, I had to make some. A couple more hours shot there.

  • A pteranodon transparency for a decorative moving image light projector
    At Christmas, I bought light that focuses an image onto a rotating mirror ball to project illuminated moving images over a large area--e.g., it makes snowflakes that look like they're falling on your house. Pretty cool, actually. So I made a flying dinosaur slide for the thing. Worked pretty well. Took me a couple hours.

  • Dinosaur cutout cookies with food coloring markers
    Can't take credit for these. The wife's idea, and she made them. I did shop around for the food coloring markers, though.

  • King Kong picture for compositing kid photos
    These took the most time; half a week of nightly work to perfect. I downloaded some hi-res promotional images from the new King Kong and airbrushed out Naomi Watts. Then I bought a green shower curtain and worked out how to green-screen photos taken of kids into the pictures. I had my laptop, camera, tripod, and Photoshop all ready, figuring while the kids were having pizza and cake, I'd give them each turns to get a photo with Kong.

Finally, I loaded my iPod with a couple hours of kid-friendly party music and even brought along a few books to read to the kids if things got dull. So, there I was, with all this elaborate preparation. I had the dinosaurs and balls blow up, ready to play all kinds of bowling and tag games I'd conceived. The coloring posters set up on one set of tables, the clay-footprint boxes on another, and the coloring cookies on another. I had the whole two-hours carefully planned... then 20-odd pre-school kids arrived. Care to guess what happened?


They ran around and played with the balls and dinosaurs in an unstructured, unstructurable way. Some colored, some made footprints, some decorated cookies--but in a totally random fashion. My concept of shifting them from station to station in small, manageable groups just evaporated. I never got the green-screen photo area set up, and the ink-jet pteranodon transparency I made got melted by the halogen bulb. I kept trying to organize games with rules, but my own damn son had taken it into his head that it was his birthday and everything had to be the way he wanted (his words... literally), so he kept willfully thwarting my efforts. He got into a fight with anther kid and had to be sat down for fifteen minutes till he could calm himself. He cried and said he wished his birthday wasn't today. I tried to play with the kids, but they all--simultaneously, and for two hours--got the idea that just continuously beaning me with beach balls was the best game imaginable. It definitely was two of the longest, most frustrating hours of my life.

On the plus side, most of the kids (my own son excluded) seemed to have a grand time. In hindsight, of course, I see the errors of my ways. First and foremost was simply underestimating the sheer chaotic force of a group of kids like that. Second was misunderstanding their interests. They just wanted to play and didn't need coaching. But ultimately, the biggest mistake was my desire to do it in the first place. I wanted to make something spectacular. I wanted to. I was trying to create something to please myself, trying to craft a kids' party that fit my image of what a perfect kids' party should be, just for the sake of it. Party Gratia Partis. While far from evil, to be sure, it was certainly self-centered of me. Don't worry. I paid the price.

Ah, well. Live and learn. Next year: I'm hiring a guy dressed like Batman who does balloon animals.

-- mm

Pushcarts and Podcasts
February 19, 2006

I was just checking out the website of The First Line, a small fiction magazine where each story in a given issue must begin with the same first line. All you regular blog readers (if I haven't lost you over my sabbatical) know that they've published a few of my stories, as well as included one in a separate anthology. Additionally, a few months back, they chose to launch their podcast/audio series, TFL on Tape, with a reading of "See You in the Funny Papers."

Even more, they also informed me that they were submitting "See You in the Funny Papers" as a nomination for a Pushcart Prize. The Pushcarts are basically the farm team O. Henry's: annual awards for short stories published in "little" magazines. I'm not entirely sure what the relevant definition of a little magazine is, but First Line, with a circulation of a couple hundred subscribers, apparently qualifies. I notice on their Writers page, they actually do mention that my story is among the six nominees (the max allowable number from a single publication) they submitted to the Pushcart people. I estimate they publish about 50 stories a year, so them spending one of their six nominations on one of mine is a nice vote of confidence.

Even more: today, I see that they've done me again in their TFL on Tape podcast, this time posting an audio recording from a reading at the VoxPop bookstore in Brooklyn I did with two other authors from their Workers Write! Tales from the Cubicle anthology. I recorded the readings, ripped them to MP3s, and sent them to a couple of spoken word radio programs. No bites from any of them, but it looks like First Line dug them out to fill a hole in their podcast schedule. Hey, I'll take any publicity I can get.

-- mm

Me reading "Inboxed" at VoxPop, on TFL on Tape. (Note that this link points to their podcast home, so my recording won't always be on it.)

Turban Warfare
February 16, 2006

The continuing escalation of Muslim protests over the Danish Mohammed Cartoon have put my blood pressure up 20 points over the last few weeks. There's lots of hot-button issues there for me--not the least of which is hearing assorted Western leaders, from Dubya to the Pope, apologizing for the cartoons' offensiveness and saying we need to respect all religious beliefs. Right. Sorry, boys, but there is no reason to respect the beliefs of piss-ignorant savages (you heard me) who burn and pillage over ink on paper. Protests and boycotts? Fine. Go for it. I fully support the right of people of conscience to express their discontent with the power of free assembly and collective market forces. Firebombing embassies and KFCs? Nuke 'em. Nuke 'em all.

What was I saying yesterday about being surprised by a sunset? Oh yeah... beauty. It still exists. And that same sunset I saw over Secaucus probably occurs over Syria or Pakistan or Indonesia sometimes, too. And maybe there's someone there, sick at heart over the rampant stupidity of our race, who looks up and wishes people could let go of some of their self-absorption, mellow out a little, and appreciate a simple sunset more often.

Ah, on second thought, don't nuke 'em just yet. Maybe we'll muddle through this latest round of faith-based idiocy.

-- mm

Pretty in Pinkish-Crimson-Rose
February 15, 2006

The other day--Valentine's Day, as a matter of fact--I'm riding home on the New Jersey Transit train, passing through the increasingly development-scarred Meadowlands, when I happened to glance up from my Palm, filled with downloads of the day's typically depressing news ("Cheney's got a gun" jokes notwithstanding). There to the west was one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. Along the entire horizon was low cloud cover glowing the most amazing spectrum of red. Not quite red, though. You hear such sunsets described as blood red or fiery orange or the like, but that didn't capture it. I sat staring for a bit--the only person in the entire train even looking out the window, as far as I could tell--and tried to think how to describe it, how to name that magnificently surreal color.

Pink was the closest I could actually come. The color was incredibly rich and varied in the texture of the clouds, but in aggregate, pink is the label that best suited it. It is a much-maligned color, typically associated with pre-teen girls and locker room insults. But this day's end was nothing like the bland tint of a toddler's Valentine (I know because I checked it against the one I had in my bag for my daughter). Nope, this was a big, pink sky with balls and I felt humbled to behold it.

It was a psychological Kodachrome moment, to be sure. I spend so much time and energy fulfilling my basic work/family obligations--not to mention an almost perpetual state of rage at the assorted travesties of the world at large--that pausing to notice anything around me is pretty rare. It's a pleasant surprise to be reminded there's still beauty in the world. Yeah, I know colorful skies are largely the result of atmospheric pollutants (in Northern New Jersey? No!)--but, heck, if we've got to have the pollutants, a really cool sunset now and can at least provide some distraction.

-- mm

Back With a Bang
February 14, 2006

Well, not so much as a bang as a pop-shot-spray. Look, all I have to say about Dick Cheney accidentally shooting his hunting buddy is one word: karma. That's right. The veep's victim, Mr. Whittington, was a long-time Republican supporter, donating directly to both Bush campaigns. Karmically, he had it coming.

Of course, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood from Unforgiven: "We all got it coming, kid." That may well be true, but doesn't mean we can't enjoy it a little when somebody else gets it.

Schadenfreude, people. Schad-en-freude.

-- mm

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