Family newsletter

Who doesn’t love a family brag letter? Here’s what I sent out on Facebook this year:

Greetings from the Neill family! This spring, Elise finished her teaching certificate! She is substitute teaching in the nearby elementary schools, and is hoping to land a permanent position soon. She’s still playing oboe and English horn in the North Pittsburgh Symphonic Band. She became a girl scout leader for Katt’s troop. This past month, Elise has taken up loom knitting.

John sold our old house (just next door) to a kind and awesome family. These days, he spends most of his time preparing for a new career – a full-stack web developer. He claims to be a “JavaScript ninja”, and hopes to start his new career in 2018.

Early in the summer, Zach attended an improv comedy camp. Later in the summer, Zach underwent brain surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. Afterwards, he spent three weeks living at “The Children’s Home” in Pittsburgh, where he underwent intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Since the surgery, he has returned to baseline mentally. His right leg is around 95%, but his right arm still has a long way to go, around 50%. Feeling and fine motor skills have been slow to return in his right arm. The good news: he has been seizure-free since the surgery! He is doing well in school, and is taking a mix of college-level and “fun” classes – Calculus, 2D computer game design, 3D modeling and animation, Computer Science, etc. He misses playing sports – hockey, and basketball especially, and misses being in marching band (percussion) and playing violin. One step at a time…we are hoping he will be able to play drums again in time for the spring marching band trip to Disney World.

Asia was a pirate in her school’s Peter Pan musical. You should have seen the wild grin on her face as she was dancing, singing and yo-ho-ho-ing on stage! She played on a tournament softball team and crushed four out-of-the-park home runs during the season. Over the summer she spent a week with her Aunt and cousin in Toronto, and attended several volleyball camps back in Pittsburgh. She also did a six week internship at “The Mattress Factory” – an amazing art-installation museum here in Pittsburgh. She also attended several week-long girl scout camps. In the fall, Asia was the first freshman ever to make her school’s varsity volleyball team. After the season, Asia was selected to play on the top club-volleyball team in the region. Along with club-volleyball, she is also currently in the school musical “Aladdin”. She’s doing well in school, and is taking a fairly heavy course load.

Katt started kindergarten! She likes it! And she talks in school! She is learning to read, and has a ton of confidence in her artwork. She’s in dance and girl scouts.

Freedom, stuff, and no stuff

As a home owner, I acquired every skill necessary to fix or improve each facet of my house.  Self reliance meant freedom – freedom from dealing with contractors, freedom to build ANYTHING, regardless of how outlandish or impractical.  But…after 17 years of home ownership, I’m thinking I got it all wrong.  Self reliance did not give me freedom.  Paying someone else to do all that lousy work seems more like freedom – freedom from back pain, freedom from projects dragging on for months (years actually).

I would go as far as to say that a truer domestic freedom would be to rent, not owning a house.  Taken further, my ultimate freedom would be to own NOTHING (especially not a car), renting furnished apartments in urban locales.

So I asked Mrs. Neill if she could one day live possessionless.  She said, “no…I like to have stuff”.  So there’s that.


New house rule: Watch all the TV you want, as long as you’re on the treadmill walking.

There’s no party like a tea party.

I work seven days a week.  My primary responsibility is to occupy the time of a 20 month old named Katt.  Our favorite thing to do these days is to play in Asia’s room.  And what a room it is.  It’s got endless nooks and crannies packed with the most random things imaginable – a veritable kids version of Hoarders, but with cool stuff instead of junk.  Here we are taking turns trying on a mardi gras mask and a blonde wig.

You might notice that Katt’s shirt is on backwards.  Well maybe it is.  She didn’t complain.

Another thing we do is play tea party in Katt’s room.  Tea party is a solid game.  First I pull out a stack of old 78 records and spin them on the turntable.  Next we dump out the three baskets of toys we’ve stolen from Asia’s room.  Then we organize the loot into piles.  The most important pile is the miniature tea cup pile.  We choose our cups, clink them, and squeal “cheers”.  Our imaginary elixirs are then drained in a single gulp.  Sated, we bellow “AHHHHHH”.  Then it’s off to the next pile of semi-functional toys and whatever drama we can drum up.  Those 78’s sound absolutely magical when you play tea party.

Brag letter

Every December my sister Patricia sends out a fantastic brag letter.  It’s funny, somewhat self deprecating, and informational.  I’ve often thought of writing one, but I’m not so good with words.  My long suffering wife has spent many years trying to refine the blunt nature of my diction.  I remain a work in progress.

Little of my brag letter would make it past the censor, so what’s the point?  Alas the censor does not read this blog, or any blog for that matter, so here is how my 2013 brag letter might read:

  • In the spring, we spent four weeks in Buenos Aires.  The ice cream was real good and the sidewalks were super jacked up.
  • We bought two new used cars, so we won’t be going back to Buenos Aires or anywhere for that matter for a few years.  Cars are so dumb.
  • The basement project continued to go nowhere.  But at least I got that giant Jacuzzi tub up and running.  Who cares about anything else when you have a giant Jacuzzi tub, right?
  • Asia quit soccer and took up softball.  She’s looks smooth on the infield.  She’s made the traveling basketball team, so now there’s a new set of aches and pains I gotta hear about.  She also joined a Chinese dance troupe.  I’m not sure what it’s all about but I did see her holding a red lantern or something like that.
  • I forgot to sign Zach up for hockey, so he goofed around all fall.  He’s joined a jazz group, playing electric violin.  Over the summer he busked twice with his violin, netting just under $40.  I guess he’ll have options if he’s ever homeless.
  • We threw Katt a big 1st birthday party in June.  My favorite rock star, Josh Verbantes played some tunes, and our favorite taco truck pumped out tacos for all.

  • Zach started Jr. High.  He says it’s “like so awesome, man”.
  • Over the summer Asia spent three weeks away from home at overnight camps.  Zach was away camping for one week.  Aside from that crazy baby trashing the place, Elise and I had one very restful week.
  • I got new glasses.  Since then I’ve been told multiple times I look like a cross between Anthony Bourdain and Ira Glass.  Who knew glasses can make you look 3/4 Jewish?
  • Elise is back in her symphonic band playing oboe and English horn.  She got a gorgeous new do last week.  Aside from her hairstyle, she looks exactly the same as she did when I married her 16 years ago, a true timeless beauty.

State of my fellow Asians address

There are at least two new Asian families in the neighborhood.  It brings great cheer to my heart to see fellow Asians swimming in the local sea of whiteness.  The one family is championship material.  Their kindergarten son wears impossibly perfect layered clothing and appears to be loved and revered by his peers.  Grandpa walks him home.  Grandpa wears fine threads as well, and always wears a Pittsburgh Pirates hat.  Nothing says local like a “P” hat.

It’s the other family I worry about.  Every morning Mom and son wait for the school bus across the street from my house.  Mom has sonny wearing a mask, as is the custom in smoggy Asian cities:

This may not be child abuse in the strictest sense, but it’s a heartbreaking sight nonetheless.  Poor kid!  It’s a magnitude of obliviousness that is difficult for the local observer to process.  It reminds me of a time in high school when I was in much the same situation.

During homecoming spirit week, one particular day was college spirit day.  Or something like that.  Basically we were supposed to wear a University of Illinois, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Depaul, etc. shirt.  Sure a few kids wore Northern Illinois, or God forbid an Iowa Hawkeyes shirt, but they probably had good reason for their actions.  What did I wear?  The one college t-shirt I owned: The University of Western Ontario.  It was a shirt that did more than just confuse my friends.  It was simply not possible for them to process such a shirt or the existence of such an institution, or why anyone would knowingly or unknowingly wear such a shirt.

So, my fellow Asian friend, I wish you the best of luck with that smog filter.  May you find a place in this world.  If you stick around the hood, may you learn the unwritten rules of American culture.  I pray that one day you will heal, as I have, from the wounds caused by those unappreciative of your blissful ignorance.

The Special Diet™

So I’ve invented a new diet.  I don’t know much about diets, having never before been on one.  Actually, I didn’t even realize I was on a diet until I thought about it and decided to name my diet.  With no further ado, I present the Special Diet™:

I eat/drink things that contain refined sugars only if they are special, and I only drink booze if it’s special.

It turns out that most sweet or boozy things just aren’t that special.  Have you sampled the chocolate from Aldi?  It’s a steal; 5½ oz of dark chocolate made in Austria for $1.50.  It tastes fantastic too, nothing like that beeswaxy Hershey’s crap.  In fact, it’s so fantastic that I was up to a bar and a half every day!  But you know what?  It’s from Aldi.  So if you think about it, it’s just not that special.  No more unspecial Aldi chocolate for me.  If my daughter were to bake a cake from scratch, by all means I would load up, because that would be special.  But alas she almost never does.  Restaurants that have a particularly famous dessert?  Special enough for me!  Too bad I almost never eat out anymore.  As far as beer goes, as long as I am in the company of good friends, it qualifies as special.  Hmmm, I could see the Special Diet™ ending in disaster if you are an alkie.

But back to sugar.  I’d wager that the average plus-sized American would drop 10% of their body weight just by not drinking pop.  Mind you, I’m basing this on the anecdotal evidence of my sedentary nephew who slimmed way down from porky to husky just by swapping soft drinks for water.

If the only take away here is that Aldi sells good chocolate, then this is what you’re looking for:

The latest from West View

Every day I walk the Katt.  As long as I jam a constant supply of ice cubes in her mouth she is oblivious to the great mysteries of West View.  So it is up to me to report what is happening on the streets of my beloved borough.

Two days ago a van carrying four tweekers, sporting an I heart SCRAP bumper sticker sped past the Katt and I.  At each stop sign the driver slammed on his brakes, screeching to a halt.  In response, the passengers shouted in unison “THIS WAY!”.  The driver would then peel out, zooming toward the next stop sign.  So there’s that.

Yesterday, down by Bronx field, I witnessed a lone octogenarian smoking a cigarette.  In his possession were three plastic grocery bags filled with 12″ softballs.  One by one, he pulled out each ball and threw it as far as he could (which was not far at all).  Then he retrieved the balls and started over.  So there’s that too.

Curvy road trippin’

On last week’s drive to Vermont, Google insisted we drive through the Adirondack Mountains.  Who am I to argue with Google?  Pretty stuff, but it rendered us a bit car-sick with all the twists and turns.  Along the way, baby Katt learned a new word – FLOWERS, which she now says at every opportunity.

In Burlington, we went to K-art.  We didn’t buy much of anything artistic, just diapers and dish washing detergent.

I was too cheap to rent bikes in Burlington, so the kids spent many hours rollerblading along Lake Champlain.  I attempted to keep up while pushing Katt in the stroller.  It was the first time in my life I’ve ever jogged.  Let me tell you, jogging blows!

Along the path I saw raspberry-like fruit growing out of control.  I wasn’t sure if they were poisonous or safe, so I only ate a few.  They were strangely fuzzy, sort of like eating sweet tart cotton balls.  I lived, so next time I’ll gorge myself!

Zach obtained a busking permit and played some Tango, Klezmer, Irish fiddle, and Old-time fiddle on the streets of Burlington.  He made almost 20 bucks for his 30-40 minutes of effort.

Band practice

Zach has been in a band for three years.  Having stretched the definition of “being in a band” to its limit, yesterday Zach’s band got together in his bedroom and had their first ever practice.  I did my best to stay out of the way, nevertheless I managed to overhear the following:

“Musician” #1: Whoa Zach, where did you get this pick?

“Musician” #2: Yeah who is the hot babe on the pick?

“Musician” #1: Did you steal it?

Zach: It’s my mom.

Everyone: OMG

You see, Capital One allows you to put any kind of picture on their credit cards.  And when I’m bored with the picture I cut the card up and turn it into guitar picks.  If we go way back you might recall the circumstances surrounding this family picture:

Our best family photos always end up being, well, not Christmas card worthy.  Here’s the best shot from Buenos Aires:

It was taken at the Recoleta cemetery, easily on par with Paris’ Père Lachaise, if you’re in to that sort of thing.  Asia wandered off and snapped a few cell/tablet shots…