This Is Where I Used To Live

I wrote my first blog post in a while over at Dad Has A Blog, and that got me doing the kind of reflective life pondering that usually leads me to post over here on my (also somewhat abandoned) “regular” blog. I knew it was meant to be when something happened today that flipped my nostalgia switch into overdrive.

There I was minding my own business at work when I got an email from Redfin. Now even though my real estate fortunes are fairly locked up in a 15-year mortgage on a house that I’m in the process of remodeling, Redfin still sends me friendly missives every once in a while. These are usually updates on how the value of my three-bedroom home is decreasing and the value of the two-bedroom condo I sold on Redfin five years ago is skyrocketing and now somehow worth more than I paid for my house. I’m not sure if this is supposed to fill me with regret or make me want to sell my house, but it’s mostly just making me hate Redfin.

Today’s message did not provide another helpful update though. It just reiterated the sale price of my condo and listed a bunch of other recent sales and listings in the area. This got me wondering how much condos in that complex were actually going for these days, so I scrolled down to look at the recent listings. I saw one that was listed for quite a bit more than I listed mine.

Unit 307. Wait a minute. 307? That’s my unit!

Instantly, someone cued the Barenaked Ladies in my head:

It was back on the market! That meant there were probably fresh photos of the current interior! I could virtually break into the old apartment!

Pathetic or not, this was the fulfillment of a longtime dream for me. I’d been wondering since I sold the place what the new owner would do with all the aesthetic decisions I had made. Being the first time that I ever lived away from home, I poured some money, sweat and personality into the place. My place.

Before moving in, I spent many weeknights there cleaning things and painting things and filling it with necessary new things to make it my home. I spent a lot of quality time at Home Depot. I cleaned every inch of every appliance, cabinet and countertop. I chose colors and repainted every wall. I had new carpeting installed. I had a tile entryway installed. I tried to fix a toilet. Then I hired someone to replace a toilet.

When the eventual new owner first toured it, I remember him looking at my blue-walled Cubs bathroom and muttering something about that being the first to go. Would my light purple Northwestern bathroom suffer the same fate? I remember his real estate agent coming back a second time to measure the dining room to see if his moose antler chandelier would fit in the space. I remember asking her if she was serious. She was. I believe the word she used to describe it was “impressive.”

I never expected to sell it as quickly as I did. According to my vague life plan, this was going to be my place for a while. And those brief years when it was my place were vital for my formation into the independent, self-sufficient and less selfish person that I have become.

The place is also inextricably linked in my mind to the courtship of my wife. Living on my own and having a condo meant my first sustained foray into the dating world. I remember preparing dinner in my kitchen for various would-be sweethearts–my specialty was baked salmon and green beans–only to have things end with the usual disappointment.

Then I met Theresa, and the memories get a lot better. I vividly recall the excitement of my phone buzzing on my nightstand with a new text from her. Or the first time she came over for dinner–yes, it was salmon–and we died of laughter afterward while watching a Jim Gaffigan stand-up special on the loveseat in my living room. Or that time that I didn’t think I would be seeing her one night and she texted me to look out on my balcony, where she was smiling below in the parking lot. Or the time we sat on the couch and she showed me her favorite engagement ring styles.

We threw some great parties here, watched a lot of movies here, practiced swing dancing here, played a lot of board games here, had a lot of fights here (especially after board games), and just spent a lot of time here. This is where we fell in love. We affectionately refer to this era as the Dopamine Days, and they are forever linked to this condo.

So I was very excited to see what had become of a place that has such a special place in my heart and memory.

See for yourself:

If you like his better, don’t tell me. Sing it, Ladies:

Why did you change the floor?
Why did you paint the wall?
Why did you swap appliances?
I see no moose here at all.
This is where we used to live.

Four Years in Our House

Four years ago today, I moved into my house. In that time, it’s safe to say that I have fulfilled the cliche and turned this house into a home. 

I remember the first time I pulled up to it — back when it was still just a house. It was one of those fluffy snowy days in Chicago when the flakes are falling furiously and beautifully and the accumulation is swift. My then-future in-laws had endured the weather to drive up from southern Indiana to check out this house’s potential to be a home for me and their daughter. We weren’t yet engaged, and I already owned a condo in another suburb. My longterm visions had us getting married eventually and her moving into the condo with me, where we would save for a house and move out whenever the timing worked.

But when a family friend offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a house in the suburb where I grew up — 10 minutes from my parents’ house — it was too good not to investigate the possibility. The friend was not listing the house, so I hadn’t even seen any prettified, wide-angle real estate photos of the interior, just the Google Street View exteriors, via my limited Internet stalking of the property.

I can still remember exploring the largely empty rooms for the first time with my girlfriend — what an odd word to use for her now — trying to picture a future together in rooms that have since been filled with our furniture, our thoughts, our feelings, our offspring and four years’ worth of memories. As I wandered around the basement, growing more fond of the house itself and my imagined version of that future, I remember praying that my Mr. Fix-It father-in-law wouldn’t find any devastating structural dealbreakers. I also remember being silently grateful for my Can’t-Fix-A-Thing self that the house was recently flipped with a new paint job and new appliances. I liked this house.

The house ultimately passed the test and has been silent witness to so many momentous and mundane moments of my life ever since. I asked my wife to marry me in the living room. I jokingly carried her through the front doorway on our wedding night.

We have played countless board games in our dining room. We have watched hours of television and worked through countless fights on the living room couch. We have hosted outdoor parties and built a shed in our backyard

I slept off the effects of chemotherapy in our bedroom and spent six months working remotely from the confines of this house. We keep adding new mementos to our Chicago Cubs bathroom. We have hung wedding photos and baby photos everywhere.

We have passionate debates about if or when we should knock out the wall between the living room and the kitchen.

Our guest bedroom turned into a nursery where I rock my daughter to sleep every night. My Northwestern University-themed office room turned into the guest bedroom. The office-turned-guest-bedroom is now transforming into another nursery, where I’ll rock my son to sleep. The house is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our home.

Our unfinished basement holds memories of our past stacked against the walls. It stores our bikes during the winter. It hides some still unused wedding presents. Most excitingly, it holds the promise of the future evolution of our family. There are new rooms still to be created that will be the setting for even more memories to come.

We’ve crammed so much life into this house in four years.

It’s our home.

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Childhood nostalgia live on stage with ‘Animaniacs in Concert’

I spent the past Saturday night watching two middle-aged men get onstage and do cartoon voices and sing songs for two hours.

Out of context, this might sound like a complete waste of time and money, but for me it ended up being one of the most rewarding evenings of entertainment I’ve experienced in a long time.

That’s because the men on the stage were both responsible — each in their own way — for providing me with hours and hours of joy throughout my childhood and also significantly shaping my sense of humor.

In a small theater with about 100 others, the minimalist stage was set with a pull-down movie screen and a keyboard with a bench. That was it. Two men emerged with headset microphones and proceeded to perform songs, tell stories and answer questions from the audience of adoring fans.

The man behind the keyboard was Randy Rogel, a writer and musician who evolved from crafting dramatic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series to penning the majority of the clever, catchy and side-splitting songs from the cartoon series Animaniacs. Joining him onstage was Rob Paulsen, a man whose vocal stylings reverberated through my TV set and etched their way into my psyche as Yakko Warner on Animaniacs and a host of other cartoon characters over the years.

In this relatively intimate setting, these men were able to immediately transport the audience back to those weekday afternoons watching the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot escape their water tower to create mayhem. Every time Rob Paulsen opened his mouth and Yakko’s voice came out, I was startled by the reemergence of the character before my eyes, er, ears. As a nerdy pre-teen watching the show in the 90s, I was completely enthralled. Paulsen’s Yakko stood out to me in particular as the model of quick-witted humor to which I aspired. I wanted so badly to be the smart aleck with a one-liner comeback for every situation, although I think the only real resemblance I had was the high-waisted pants.

As Randy Rogel told stories about the songs he wrote for the show, I thought back to the Animaniacs soundtrack cassette that my brothers and I played so frequently that I still know every orchestra hit and vocal inflection on every single one of the songs. Rogel and Paulsen also did an impressive live performance of “I’m Mad,” a song that was released as a short that played before the theatrical release of the 1994 animated film Thumbelina. My brothers and I, who had absolutely zero interest in Thumbelina, dutifully attended a showing just so we could see the Animaniacs short, but we got there too late and missed half of it! We sat through Thumbelina and waited for the next showing so we could catch the full four-minute song. That’s real devotion. I’m happy to report that more than 25 years later, Paulsen — who voices both Yakko and Dr. Scratch ‘n Sniff in the song — can still hit every note. And that’s even after a recent successful battle with stage III throat cancer! He’s a living legend.

As Paulsen and Rogel gleefully plied their musical craft onstage, I couldn’t help but look around at everyone else in the theater and see that the diverse group all had stupid smiles on their faces as they were equally transported back in time. In the front row, a guy a few years older than me had brought his three kids to see the show — the live action version of forcing your kids to watch DVDs of your childhood shows — but the kids were smiling as much as everyone else.

There is a timeless and innocent quality to Animaniacs, even though it was a subversive kids’ TV show that had tons of humor meant for adults supplementing the falling anvils that appealed to its youngest viewers. Although some of the references are decidedly dated (“while Bill Clinton plays the sax”), the absurdist humor, one-liners and general irreverence never gets old. So often when I revisit shows I loved in my youth, I get that warm and fuzzy sentimental feeling mixed with a realistic downer dose of “Why did I like this? It’s kind of terrible.” Not so with Animaniacs. I watched an episode when I got home from the event and laughed like it was 1994 again.

The show maintains its appeal because the humor was universal but not one size fits all. Even as you were enjoying the show on some level as a small child, you could grow into the ever deeper and funnier levels of the show’s humor as you matured. It was just plain clever.

The show spawned unforgettable characters and a host of catch phrases, but perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature was its original songs. The music and lyrics conceived by Randy Rogel are nothing short of genius. Aside from the most-remembered ditty in which Yakko recites the nations of the world (which Rogel revealed was the first song he wrote for the show as an audition for the chance to join the writing staff), there are dozens of songs that are brilliant in their comedic lyrical escapades. The songs are so good that they frequently stood on their own as segments of the show.

To this day, these songs continue to pop into my head at random times — and they’re always welcome.

It was wonderful to see that both Rogel and Paulsen are down-to-earth, decent human beings who love what they do and truly appreciate the support of the show’s fans. Someone asked Paulsen the inevitable question of “What’s the bluest thing you’ve ever said as one of your characters?” and Paulsen’s response surprised and impressed me. He basically said that he considers himself a steward of the characters he portrays and would never compromise their integrity for a cheap laugh or an extra buck. He told a story of recently being asked to sacrifice Yakko to the parodying wolves of Robot Chicken and turning them down, even though he was flattered by the offer. He said the characters mean too much to the fans — including a new generation of children — and he wouldn’t want someone to be disappointed by hearing something inappropriately bawdy coming out of Yakko’s mouth. That’s an incredibly refreshing sentiment in 2017.

It also gives me some reassurance that if the Animaniacs ever did make a comeback — Rogel and Paulsen could neither confirm nor deny any rumors, but they offered a glimmer of hope— the creators and talent involved would remain true to the original spirit of the show and not try to reinvent them or add an edge to get some press or ratings. (I’m looking at you, Muppets.)

If you are a fan of the show, I highly recommend that you be alert for an opportunity to see this show in one of its iterations. Paulsen said that sometimes it’s just the two of them with a piano and other times it has been staged with a full orchestra and the involvement of all three voice actors for Yakko, Wakko and Dot. I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a live reincarnation of one of the essential shows of my childhood.

10 Movies That Prove My 1990s Childhood Was the Best Childhood

I was born in 1982, so I firmly consider myself a child of the 1990s. I was 8 years old when the decade began and passed through grade school and junior high wrapped in the comforting blanket of 1990s music, movies and pop culture.

The early-to-mid-90s were an incredible time to be a kid. In fact, I would argue that they were the best time to be a kid. Unlike today, when it seems that most kids’ amusement comes in the form of in-app purchases, the 90s were the last time that there were multiple chains of brick-and-mortar toy stores filled with physical toys, games and especially action figures that I wanted to own and play with. The impetus behind many of these toy obsessions came directly from the excellent kid-centric TV shows and movies of the time. If you take a look at all the movies that were released in the 1990s, you’ll notice a compelling trend: the kids movies were awesome. There’s a reason so many became instant classics.

Thanks to Buzzfeed and Jimmy Fallon, there is lots of 1990s nostalgia floating around in pop culture today, but I’m proud to say that for me and those my age (sorry, Fallon, you’re 8 years older than me) this nostalgia is not a bandwagon–we were kids at the perfect time, we lived through it and we remember how great it was.

Therefore, I believe that the following list of movies proves without a doubt that my 1990s childhood was the best time to be a child. [Editor’s Note: For the purposes of this list, I’m referring to the years 1990-1996, when I was 8 to 14 years old.] I remember anticipating the release of all of these movies and reading about them in those Movie Facts brochures., seeing them in a theater (at least once) and then later owning merchandise related to most of them. Consumerism at its finest? Perhaps. But also childhood at its finest.

So settle into your seat and let the General Cinema Candy Band lead you back to a simpler time…

10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and TMNT 2: The Secret of the Ooze (1992)
Our tour begins with a commercial property that would probably survive a nuclear holocaust and leave the cockroaches playing with nunchucks. I was in a mall the other day and saw a green, child-sized Michaelangelo hoodie that I caught myself briefly lamenting my inability to buy and wear. Turtle Power is still going strong! But I digress. Since the TV cartoon series began airing in 1987, I was already primed to see these Heroes in a Half Shell hit the big screen in 1990. The live-action movies–which don’t really hold up very well upon adulthood viewings–did not disappoint at the time. And the sequel perfectly combined two important 1990s touchstones, bad rapping and ninja fighting, in a scene that was almost too awesome to handle. Also, let’s be honest: if not for the Ninja Turtles, there would have been no 3 Ninjas (1992) or many other ninja knockoffs. I look forward to one day taking my own children to see whatever cinematic incarnation of the Ninja Turtles exists at that point. It will be incredibly helpful for playtime purposes that I’m already completely familiar with all the characters and mythology. And we’ll all get hoodies.

9. Hook (1991)
He wasn’t exactly a ninja, but Rufio was still 90s cool. (Admit it, you couldn’t even read his name without “ROO-FEE-OH!” chanting through your head.) Besides, he was the leader of a gang of boys who all lived on their own and did whatever they wanted, ate whatever they wanted and rode around on modified skateboard contraptions. Is there anything more appealing to a 1990s nine-year-old? Well, maybe watching Peter Pan and the Lost Boys have an epic fight with Captain Hook and his pirates. This movie has that, too. It also stars Robin Williams, who was arguably one of the Kids Movie Kings of the 1990s.

8. Jumanji (1995)
Speaking of Robin Williams, let’s talk about Jumanji. Everyone had read the beautifully illustrated children’s book, but this movie effectively translated it to the silver screen with all the ingredients of a classic 1990s kids film: the aforementioned Williams, children in perilous-yet-desirable situations, a youthful Kirsten Dunst, and extensive CGI that doesn’t look that good today. Nevertheless, to this day I still can’t go into any kitchen without thinking about that scene with the monkeys.

7. Toy Story (1995)
Like several of the flicks on this list, I could probably devote an entire blog post to the near perfection of this movie. Pixar has made a lot of cinematic magic, but I don’t think they ever topped this opening effort. Aside from appealing to both kids and adults, it’s one of the best buddy comedies of all time. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the perfect mismatched duo and almost every line of this movie is quotable. And I could quote it. Even more interestingly, this movie that I am now nostalgically treasuring also made 12-year-old me nostalgic because of some of the old toys and games included in Andy’s toy box. It’s a nostalgic inception!

6. Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day–an epic alien invasion/disaster movie that allowed Will Smith to create an action movie star template for himself that would go on to rule many a summer box office–had lots of things to captivate my 13-year-old interests: aliens, spaceship dogfights, Jeff Goldblum one-liners, Will Smith attitude, and extended special effects sequences of things like the White House blowing up. It also has an epic Bill Pullman presidential speech that everyone still likes to share on Facebook on the 4th of July. And, oh yeah, Harry Connick Jr. is in it! Now that everything old 1990s is new again, there is a Will Smith-less sequel in the works that could supposedly spawn a whole series of movies in the Independence Day universe. I don’t think any of this is exactly necessary. Just watch the original again.

5. The Baseball Fantasies: Rookie of the Year (1993), The Sandlot (1993), Little Big League (1994), Angels in the Outfield (1994)
The early 90s were a great time to be a movie buff and a baseball fan, which worked out well for me–a kid with a growing collection of baseball cards, a blind allegiance to the abysmal-as-usual Chicago Cubs teams of the time, and an interest in playing Little League even though my talent didn’t live up to my enthusiasm for the sport. These four movies, however, allowed me to at least see some great baseball fantasies played out on the big screen: A kid pitcher leads the Cubs to a World Series! A kid inherits the Minnesota Twins and gets to make all the decisions! A kid sees angels that are helping the California Angels to win games and joins the team as a consultant! A group of kids spend the summer playing endless baseball games and engaging in hijinks! I guess these movie producers really understood their audience. As it turns out, not all of these movies are actually good, but The Sandlot was a true classic and another endless source for timeless quotable lines. Mr. Baseball (1992) also came out in this decade, but we won’t talk about that one.

4. The Mighty Ducks (1992) and D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994)
It’s hard for me to hear the opening claps and stomps of “We Will Rock You” without thinking about The Mighty Ducks. When the first movie came out, I didn’t know anything about hockey. Heck, I still don’t. But it didn’t matter. I knew about teamwork. I knew about guts. I knew about glory. Quack…Quack…QUACK! Sorry, I got carried away there for a second. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Mighty Ducks is that the sequel is arguably better than the original, even though it was clearly just a moneymaking scheme for Disney, as it spawned an actual NHL team. What? There was a third Mighty Ducks movie? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let’s just leave it at D2.

3. Space Jam (1996)
When I wasn’t watching baseball in the early 90s, I was probably watching Michael Jordan dominate the NBA or Bugs Bunny reruns dominating Saturday morning cartoons. Space Jam magically brought the two together, even throwing in a side of Bill Murray and Wayne Knight. This came out around my 14th birthday when I was in 7th grade, and I thought it was the epitome of awesome. Little has changed in that time. Even the opening credits are cool enough for me to embed here. Come on and slam. And welcome to the jam.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Don’t you get a thrill just seeing that gate? At last we come to the impetus for this list. With Jurassic World coming out next week, it was a perfect time to revisit what was not only an instant classic, but also one of the greatest movies ever made. If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, Jurassic World-induced nostalgia is already flooding the Interwebs with think pieces about the glory of Isla Nublar.

Life found a way for Steven Spielberg to create a spell-binding world that seamlessly blends incredibly scary and lifelike animatronic dinosaurs with their still-looking-good-today computer-generated counterparts. The suspenseful and often funny script created legendary scenes and beloved characters brought to life by actors who will be forever tied to their roles in this movie. And how could I forget John Williams’ incredible score? Jurassic Park is quite simply a masterpiece. And if Jumanji didn’t give you nightmares about monkeys in the kitchen, this movie’s kitchen-dwelling raptors surely haunted your dreams at some point.

1. The Disney Renaissance
The only reason Jurassic Park doesn’t stand atop this list is because the early 90s also happened to be when the Walt Disney Company released some of its greatest animated features of all time. Their important place as a pop cultural juggernaut cannot be denied or even argued against. The Little Mermaid set the tone in 1989, but Disney’s creative juices reached a fever pitch a few years later with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). Oh, and let’s not forget about A Goofy Movie (1995).

Once again, I happened to be just the right age that these instant Disney classics were released when I was the target audience. Everyone can claim to love them, but these movies belong to my generation.

Well, that was a fun trip down movie memory lane. If those weren’t enough to prove my point, check out the list of honorable mentions below. Also, feel free to leave a comment with any of your favorites that I might have missed.

Honorable Mentions: Home Alone (1990),Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Beethoven (1992),Newsies (1992), Sister Act (1992) and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Homeward Bound (1993), Cool Runnings (1993), The Santa Clause (1994), Dunston Checks In (1996)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just realized that Jumanji is streamable on Netflix right now, so I’m going to make some popcorn.

Ferris Bueller…Way Off

Apparently Honda just couldn’t wait any longer, so this year’s most-talked about Super Bowl ad has already been released.

Unfortunately for Honda, a quick scan of the comments on YouTube shows that the reception hasn’t been all that great. (Best comment? “Save Ferris.”) I don’t mind the fact that Honda made this homage to one of the most beloved movies of all time. I don’t mind the fact that Matthew Broderick was so willing to reprise the role for a Super Bowl ad instead of a sequel. Some movies are best left without sequels.

What bothers me (as much as an insignificant Super Bowl ad could ever really bother me) is that this was clearly done without the rights to directly use anything officially Ferris Bueller-related. I would have appreciated a brief retrospective glimpse into the adult life of a middle-aged Ferris Bueller…not Matthew Broderick. Cameos by other cast members might have been nice, with clever interpretations of what they would be doing with their lives in 2012.

Instead, we get a trying-too-hard-to-look-youthful Broderick trotting out a few of the movie’s catch phrases and recreating scenes at an arm’s length that doesn’t infringe on any copyrighted material. It’s not horrible, it’s just not great. Or even pretty good. It all just screams “missed opportunity” to me.

This isn’t the first effort to update a classic 1980s movie for the Super Bowl audience. In 2010, some random company selling vacation homes (I’m not actually sure what they sell…great marketing!) got Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo to step into their old Clark and Ellen Griswold characters for a decently amusing short film about another haphazard Griswold vacation.

Sure, they’re ultimately trying to sell me something, but I don’t mind if I’m at least entertained and not completely let down by their revival of vintage (or, in Bueller’s case, immortal) characters. I’m curious how long it will be before this trend extends to the beloved characters and movies of the 1990s that were an even more integral part of my childhood. I wonder how I’d feel if the Animaniacs were trying to sell me a Honda. Or if the gang from The Sandlot got back together as adults for a reunion game and were all wearing Nike gear and feeding Purina Dog Chow to the The Beast. That might be too much for me.