Sunday, September 30, 2007

Those who live by the paddle…

In my vast three years of marital experience, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you must consider your partner’s daily victories and losses to be no different from your own, which is why it’s always a little bittersweet for me when I cream my wife Kara in ping pong. After each game, I always make a special point to empathize with her, gently inquiring to see how she’s feeling. “Boo-yah! How’d you like that, Woman?” I’ll ask, sensitively.

Ever since her parents graciously gave us a ping pong table to celebrate our emancipation from grad school, Kara and I have spent the better part of our waking lives down in our unfinished basement, smacking a little ball at each other and inhaling massive quantities of fiberglass insulation particles. The air down there is so thick with insulation that, after a few games, your nose and throat begin to feel as if you’ve just snorted an entire Pink Panther.

Before we got the table, which came in a box so large that I thought Kara had gone online and ordered us a mid-market condominium, the most meaningful rivalry of my life had been against my buddy Josh on Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for Super Nintendo. We’d yell and scream and throw our controllers on the floor and at each other. Of course it was a stupid thing to get so excited about, but you shouldn’t judge us unless you’ve experienced for yourself the joy of ripping off your friend’s head with his spine still attached.

While Kara and I haven’t achieved quite the same level of violence on the ping pong table, the scores of our games are getting uncomfortably close.

“I’m really sick of losing,” she complained last night after I delivered one of my patented topspin Dream Crushers™. But she’s getting better so quickly that I can feel my days as household ping pong champ coming to a close. I tried to encourage her, telling her that if our ping-pong rivalry was made into a movie, we wouldn’t be at the end yet; the synthesizer music would just be cuing up for the training montage.

“If this was Rocky IV, you’d be in Siberia chopping down trees and running through knee-deep snow right now,” I told her. “We haven’t gotten to the part where you come from behind and knock me senseless in the fifteenth round while the Soviet crowd chants your name.”

I didn’t dampen her hopes by telling her that her euphoria will turn out to be short-lived, as during our fight she will have sustained such massive brain injuries that she will decide making Rocky V sounds like a good idea.

For now, though, her training goes on and our scores continue to converge. Our rivalry is likely to soon become one for the history books, like Red Sox vs. Yankees or Autobots vs. Decepticons. Before too long, we might even be able to start a game on a point that I win. Score keeping officially begins (retroactively) after Kara wins a point, and we have to keep playing until she slams one in my face, preferably leaving a welt. These have become the house rules, though I sure don’t remember ratifying them.

We have become especially good at delivering welts to one another. I’ve found that when it comes to minor skin contusions, it is far better to give than to receive.

Last night, Kara said, “Nine to thirteen,” just before she served, and I was thrown off for a moment. After I thought about it briefly, I realized what had happened. It turns out that she was just reciting the score, not estimating the number of toilet paper rolls she goes through in a week.

You can send a ping-pong paddle up a creek to Mike Todd at

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The call of the semi-wild

My wife Kara and I are camping posers. We talk a good game, but when it comes right down to it, we spend less time in the woods than your average rhinestone-collared Chihuahua. The problem is that we have a bed with our very own toilet nearby. When you have a sweet arrangement like that, you sometimes lose track of how much you enjoy strapping a flashlight to your head and sleeping on roots.

When our buddy Jeff invited us to go camping at a local state park with some of his friends from college last weekend, we realized just how long it had been since we’d shaken the dust off of the tent, which, in all seriousness, is not a euphemism.

So we scrounged around the basement to find all our old camping stuff and rediscovered that we actually still qualify as bona fide campers, if only on the basis of the sheer quantity of Nalgene bottles that we own. The ubiquitous and bulletproof Nalgene water bottle can actually be run over with a car and remain unscathed, which gives campers the peace of mind that they could be identified by their Nalgene bottles if their dental records don’t work out. When you go camping, each Nalgene bottle you bring is a member of your entourage. The bigger the entourage you command, the more respect you get in the “club,” where the “club” is the area around the outdoor sink in which you wash the marshmallow off your face.

You might not know this if you’ve never experienced it for yourself, but camping in a state park on a Saturday night near a major metropolitan area is every bit as relaxing and serene as pitching a tent, crawling into your sleeping bag and curling up to sleep on the shoulder of I-95. Every campsite was filled with drunken partiers, screaming children or some combination thereof. Medium-sized carnivals have traveled with fewer tents than most of those families. At night, as the tiki torches came out, the chatter echoed off the tress and the fires blazed in all directions, it felt as though we’d wandered into an Ewok village on the eve of some great festival.

Of course, none of that really matters when you’re concentrating on making the perfect s’more. Kara takes great pride in her marshmallow craftsmanship. If she ever hosted “30 Minute Meals,” her episode on cooking s’mores would end with a “to be continued…” Really, I think people who spend that much time cooking their marshmallows are just looking for a socially acceptable way to manifest their exhibitionist tendencies.

“Oooh, look at this one, all perfect and golden-brown” they say, waving their marshmallows around for the whole world to see.

I just don’t have that kind of patience. I prefer to employ the “sugary ball of fire” method to cooking marshmallows. It’s more of a S’mores Foster approach. In the seconds before I scarf them down, you could use my flaming marshmallows to spelunk or, should the opportunity arise, weld bridge joints.

Going camping again also afforded us the opportunity to bust out our trusty old Therm-a-Rest inflatable camping mattresses. I’ve had the same pair of orange Therm-a-Rests since I was twelve, and they have seen tougher duty than most pro wrestlers’ underpants. They’ve never even needed a patch. After the apocalypse, all that will be left in the world are Therm-a-Rests, cockroaches and Dick Cheney. You know, because he was expecting it.

Despite the multi-lingual fight that broke out inches from our tent at two in the morning, the night’s rest was actually quite pleasant, thanks in no small part to the dedication of the park staff in leaving the “No Alcohol” policy completely unenforced. Sometimes, the only way to sleep through all-night whiskey-soaked hollering is to wear your own Miller Lite earmuffs.

It was good to get out in the woods again, even if we didn’t exactly commune with nature. And say what you will about state parks, but the bathrooms are always freshly stocked. At no point in the weekend did we even come close to running out of daddy longlegs.

You can smoosh Mike Todd between some graham crackers at

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Serendipity ain't just a movie my wife hates

About a month ago, somebody littered a sauna in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, with a paper that runs my column. An editor from the Chestnut Hill Local came in to catch a steam and, due to the disorienting effects of the heat and the foggy conditions that made it difficult to actually read the words on the page, he liked what he saw. They've run a few of my columns so far, but this one is by far the coolest (it has pictures and what not):

So thank you, inconsiderate litterbug at LA Fitness. And the Chesnut Hill Local folks, of course. You guys are cool on purpose.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Couches of Fire

Last Saturday, I survived my first marathon. It took nearly all day to reach the finish line, but the important thing about getting through a marathon isn’t really getting to the end first, but getting there at all. Any true marathoner will tell you that your only real competition is yourself, which works out well, because there’s no way you’re catching those dudes from Kenya.

In fairness to the people who run the full 26.2-mile events, I should probably mention that this particular marathon wasn’t a traditional “race” involving things like “running” and “loss of bladder control,” but more of a day-long marathon of America’s Next Top Model on MTV. Still, that didn’t make it any less grueling.

My wife Kara had one of her friends and her little sister up to our place for the weekend, and our plans to go hiking had been foiled by the weather forecast. We quickly adapted, parking ourselves on the couch for so long that we had to call the neighbors occasionally to come in and roll us over to help keep the bedsores at bay. We became so useless that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we showed up in the next Pottery Barn catalog. At one point, a three-toed sloth climbed up a tree outside the living room window, looked in and said, “Dang, they move so slowly. I’d hardly be able to tell that they’re alive if it weren’t for the blinking and the pretzels.”

The marathon lasted from early afternoon until midnight. One hour led right into the next nearly identical hour. It was like Groundhog Day. You’d think a show about gorgeous women trying to prove their sexiness would be entertaining, and for the majority of the people in our house that day it sure seemed to be, but somehow it just gave me the feeling that the Cretaceous Period would have been easier to sit through.

One of the judges on the show was Janice Dickinson, a former supermodel whose face has seen more injection molding than your average Hasbro factory. The only expression she can still make is one of complete surprise, like that’s the kabuki mask they gave her. In her defense, though, after all the work she’s had done, she still looks surprisingly reminiscent of a humanoid.

At one point during the show, she cut off the other judges to go off on a tangent about how, “I was Versace's muse, I was Valentino's muse, I was Alaia's muse.” It was nice to see that self-esteem issues weren’t slowing her down. Still, you have to have some serious gall to call yourself an artist’s muse, unless you are Helen of Troy or opium.

At the end of each episode, Tyra Banks kicked off one of the models for not “knowing herself” or some similar offense. Apparently, self-knowledge can be displayed through the proper puckering of one’s face while one is dressed like an ostrich and sitting on a sedated crocodile.

Fortunately for my remaining brain cells, I didn’t really sit through all of the episodes, as I had prepared an escape pod upstairs complete with a PlayStation2 and Fight Night 2004. There’s nothing like pummeling Rocky Marciano in four rounds to make you feel like a man again, even if it is on the little TV.

Honestly, I can’t complain about sitting around watching TV and playing video games all day. It’s good for your soul to be gluttonous and slovenly every now and again, just so long as you don’t make too much of a habit out of it. And programming choices aside, I had fun hanging out with the ladies last weekend. I guess in the end I also learned an important lesson from America’s Next Top Model about how to look your best. Just be yourself. Minus ten pounds.

You can hand Mike Todd a cup of water as he runs by at

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Support Janelle of the Commas!

Dudes -- Janelle (reader(s) of this page will remember her for her grammatical smackdown skills) had a frickin' good idea to create daily story cards for her kids. Each day, the little anklebiters got another card in their lunch to move the story along. It became so popular with the kids in the lunchroom that she had the idea to print up the cards and create a website for them. Check it out at if you have kids or if your own Knight Rider lunchbox is missing that little something special. Much respect to Janelle for the follow-through on a cool idea -- I'll keep a link in the sidebar. Word.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Getting mowed down

When my buddy Don found out that my wife Kara and I were moving to a new house, he decided to get us a second-hand tractor as a housewarming present. “It’s from a friend of mine who lives up in the hills. He has all sorts of tractors sitting beside one of his sheds. I’ll grab one of them for you,” he said.

Having some experience receiving hand-me-down machinery, I was hesitant. A couple of years ago, my father-in-law inadvertently handed us down a snowblower that functioned excellently as a gasoline squirter. Now that I think about it, maybe I was supposed to burn the snow off the driveway.

The next week, Don smiled with satisfaction as he said, “I got a couple of nice tractors from my buddy last weekend. One of them doesn’t have any blades, and the other one doesn’t have any brakes. I saved you the one with no brakes. I gave the one with no blades to my buddy so his kid can ride it around the yard.”

I stared at him blankly, my spider-sense tingling.

“Oh, don’t worry. It runs nice and smooth. It came from Montgomery Ward’s,” he said.

“Don, I don’t know about this. I’m sure your friend Montgomery means well, but aren’t brakes kind of important?” I asked.

“Oh, no. You don’t really need them on a tractor. Just don’t take it on any hills,” he said.

I pictured myself slaloming around the neighborhood, children diving into the bushes as I tried to steer to where the anchor could grab hold of a tree. At the very least, I’d need to put a bumper sticker on the seat reading: “This Vehicle Does Not Stop. At All.”

When I told Kara about the snazzy piece of equipment that Don had retrieved for us, she said, “Please don’t take a tractor with no brakes. We don’t need another project.” This may sound like reasonable advice, but Kara doesn’t have a whole lot of credibility when it comes to lawn-related issues. Just about every person who gets stuck with mowing the lawn attempts to develop some semblance of an algorithm to keep grass going under the blades. Back-and-forth. Ever-shrinking concentric circles. Here is Kara’s mowing algorithm:

1. Aim for tallest clump of grass

2. Repeat for five minutes

3. Return mower to garage

When Kara gets done mowing, the lawn looks like a Gremlin’s haircut. But still, she was right about Don’s tractor. I just wasn’t sure how to best handle the situation, as he’d already gone through so much effort to do something nice for us. It was like when your cat offers you a dead bird.

Luckily, fate smiled on all of us, reaching down with its wispy fingers and snapping the front axle as Don was trying to put brakes on. If it had to die, at least it died with someone who truly loved it. The tractor is dead. Long live the push mower!

Since we still haven’t sold the house that we vacated earlier this summer, I’m now mowing both of our lawns with my trusty old push mower. I don’t go anywhere without it. It’s the Silver to my Lone Ranger, except Silver probably required less pushing and, I would suspect, preferred a less invasive refueling procedure.

With so much of my time spent mowing, I fear that I may be slowly and irreversibly turning into Groundskeeper Willie. It’s only a matter of time before I start pushing a cart around the neighborhood yelling, “Get your haggis, right here! Chopped heart and lungs boiled in a wee sheep's stomach. Tastes as good as it sounds!”

Until then, if you need me for anything, try looking on the lawn. I’m the one in the kilt.

You can hit Mike Todd with a tractor beam at

Monday, September 03, 2007

Float like a canoe, sting like a bee

After I wrote last week’s column about planning to remove the above-ground pool in my backyard, a reader (we’ll call her “Anne,” because that’s her name), wrote to say that she had a similar situation in her own backyard, and likewise found the work/fun ratio of owning a pool to be just slightly better than the work/fun ratio of mining salt. Anne found herself dreading both spring and fall, two otherwise pleasant seasons that prominently feature trees dressing and undressing themselves while Gap tries to figure out how it can possibly persuade you to buy more khakis. Of course, you don’t notice these things if you own a pool, mostly because you’re too busy trying to tell if the underwater vacuum is sucking anything other than the joy out of your life.

Faced with the toil of opening and closing the pool each season, Anne would have been driven completely off the deep end, saved only by the fact that above-ground pools don’t have deep ends. Circles don’t really have ends at all, actually. Perhaps she would have just been driven to an area of uniform depth within the confines of the pool walls. Regardless, things had gotten so bad that Anne, moved to desperation, considered solving her temporary problem with a permanent solution: real estate. “I have thought about moving just to get away from the pool,” she wrote.

Luckily, the internet offers an easier solution. If you removed whatever you have right now in your bellybutton and offered it for free on Craigslist, somebody would come and take it from you. You probably wouldn’t want to invite them in for cookies, though.

I don’t mean to generalize too much; pools are great for some families, mainly other people’s. But if you’re thinking about getting an above-ground pool, you might want to pause and consider Anne’s story. There are many things in the world that would be more fun to get than a pool, like a Nintendo Wii or typhoid fever.

Our new friend Steve from Craigslist was as excited to get the pool as we were to give it to him. It was a joyous, cathartic demolition, like taking down a mean kid’s sandcastle or the Berlin Wall. As Steve was taking pieces of the pool around the house and loading them onto his trailer, my wife Kara and I raked over the crater where the pool had been. Just as we were finishing smoothing out the dirt, I noticed a bumblebee flying around Kara’s shirt sleeve. All of a sudden, the bee disappeared.

I should interject here that when my dad and I used to take canoeing trips with the Boy Scouts, there was a kid named Chris who gained fame over the years for his prowess at navigating through the more difficult rapids. Instead of yelling useful information back to his dad, such as “There’s a rock coming up on the left!” or “We’re about to go over a waterfall!” Chris would just yell, “Rock!” Every night at camp, his dad would say, “Chris, when we’re in the rapids, you need to tell me more than just ‘rock.’ Try to tell me where the rock is, or which way we should go to avoid the rock.” The next day, you’d see them colliding with half-submerged boulders as Chris yelled, “Rock!”

I was every bit as helpful as Chris when I pointed at Kara’s sleeve and said, “Bee!”

Kara suddenly looked as though she had a bee in her bonnet, and by bonnet I mean T-shirt. She ripped off her shirt and ran around the yard yowling in her bra, the first bee sting of her life fresh on her shoulder. Steve suddenly remembered that he’d left something in his truck, retreating from Kara’s impromptu exhibition.

“Ow! That really stings,” she said later, fully clothed.

“Yeah, that’s why they’re called that,” I said.

Now, whenever a bee comes within twenty yards, Kara runs around in circles yelling, “Babe! Babe!” as if I’m somehow responsible for the goings on. It’s not like I’m the one chasing her. I caught her years ago.

You can remove Mike Todd from your backyard at