Monday, December 31, 2007

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I’ve learned some important lessons this holiday season. For instance, if you see the back half of a good parking space at Home Depot on a Saturday, that’s because there’s a big orange shopping cart in the front half. I think I also learned something about caring for your fellow man by giving him a prize turkey, but I can’t recall the details.

This Christmas was much more relaxing than I’m used to, as my wife Kara has finally trained me to get our Christmas shopping done early enough to forego the usual ritual of calling stores on Christmas Eve to find out what time they close. That’s a bad feeling, walking through the mall frantically, knowing that you can’t leave without finding a present for some important family member, when suddenly the metal grates start to come down over the store entrances one-by-one, trapping you in the middle of the mall and narrowing your gift-giving options down to the Piercing Pagoda, the Verizon booth and Dippin’ Dots.

The Dippin’ Dots stand must be the saddest place in the mall, besides maybe the dark labyrinth of hallways leading to the restrooms. I’ve never seen anyone actually buying Dippin’ Dots. The sign reads, wishfully: “Dippin’ Dots: Ice Cream of the Future.” This sign hangs over the lone dude behind the register, who dutifully tries his best to stay awake, patiently waiting for the future to arrive. Every now and again, curiosity will get the better of me, and I’ll peer over the glass to see various vats of colorful beads. Each flavor looks, in its own special way, like the filling of a bean bag chair. Perhaps it’s due to my lack of business acumen, but it seems to me that ice cream is much more likely to be the Ice Cream of the Future.

Now that Christmas is over, it’ll be a while before I have a need to head back to the mall, though I think I might already be experiencing withdrawal. My eyes have become used to the twinkling displays of Christmas spirit, a spirit that can be measured in good will towards men and/or kilowatt-hours. And it’s tough to fight the urge to give my credit card to strangers, or to keep myself from walking on dawdling people’s heels, waiting for the cue from Kara to spring around either side of them and reunite on the far side. The worst part is knowing that I’ll have to wait a full three months before the Christmas displays are rolled back out.

While there are many things I’ll miss about the mall, I certainly won’t miss Kara saying, “Hold this. I’ll be back in a minute,” as she hands me her purse and disappears into the dressing room, ostensibly trying on clothes to make sure they’ll look good on somebody else. If I was a smart person, I’d run out at that moment and plant some corn by the shrubs at the mall entrance, entertaining myself with some subsistence farming as the seasons rolled by in her absence. After the harvest, I’d have plenty of time to sit back with some fresh corn on the cob, picking my teeth and pondering the continued existence of wool sweaters.

You never hear anybody say: “I love itchy wool sweaters. The more itch, the better. If you can’t find any itchy enough, just cut three holes in a burlap sack and give that to me for Christmas.” Yet the mall is filled with wool sweaters. Who is buying them? It’s almost like the stores think that wool is the Sweater of the Future.

In any event, it’s nice to slow down and spend time with family instead of throngs of shoppers, even though Kara and I end up driving all over the Eastern Seaboard to see everybody. During the holiday break, if you took a picture of me and Kara, we’d show up as animated red arrows stretching our way across a road atlas. Still, it beats being the Dippin’ Dots guy.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Rubbing elbows, flossing noses

The bottom of the invitation to our neighbors’ Christmas party read like this: “We ask that each person please bring a fun activity to share: a joke, a song, a game, a skit, a story.”

Of course, my wife Kara and I figured that this part of the invitation didn’t really apply to us. We’re special. We also don’t feel like we should have to stop when new stop signs are installed. Once you’re used to driving on a road without stopping, you should be grandfathered in.

Instead, we decided to bring a bottle of wine, thinking that it could, in a stretch, count as a game. “It’s a little game we like to call ‘Social Lubrication,’” we’d say.

As we got up to leave for the party, I walked to the front door while Kara headed for the garage.

“You seriously want to drive there?” I asked. “We’re only going two houses up.”

“You’re not the one wearing heels. It’ll feel like three miles in these things,” she said. It’s true that her heels were tall enough that, had they been made of wood and hidden under flashy silk trousers, they would have been excellent props for a Cirque de Soleil performance. Unfortunately, neither one of us can juggle flaming objects, except for the occasional failed batch of garlic toast.

“But we haven’t even left yet. You could still put on shoes that allow you to wear them and walk at the same time,” I suggested.

Eventually, I “won” the discussion, but winning is a relative term when your wife is angrily clopping ahead of you down the driveway. Over the past few years of marriage, we’ve found that the important thing isn’t THAT you argue, but HOW you argue. We argue so well that we made up before we got to the mailbox.

The party turned out to be an intimate gathering of very friendly people, wonderful for getting to know our neighbors but terrible for hiding one’s lack of preparation. After a few minutes, the discussion turned to the activities everyone had brought, with the judges all agreeing that a bottle of wine was very thoughtful but that we’d have to come up with something else. Slowly, we began going around the circle, with Kara and I left to go last.

One couple brought a Christmas trivia game. Here’s one for you: “In the Little Drummer Boy, what kept time?” If you thought “a metronome,” too, it’s a good thing we weren’t on the same team. I still don’t understand how “ox and lamb” are supposed to be musically inclined, but that’s less surprising to me than the fact that somebody actually knew the answer.

The host of the party whipped out a banjo and played a medley of holiday songs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. He played it like a pro, like he’d just come back from a gig played behind chicken wire.

I sat there wondering how I’d gotten to be thirty years old without developing a single useful talent. We didn’t have time for everyone to watch me play Elder Scrolls IV for five straight hours without taking a single bathroom break.

Kara and I had to come up with a party trick, and fast. I was imagining future conversations between our neighbors: “Whatever happened to that couple down the street?”

“Oh, you mean the talentless buffoons?”

I seriously considered the trick I’d seen on the Late Show where the guy snorted dental floss and brought it back through his mouth. Could a nasal floss be executed successfully on the first try? It seemed worth a shot.

In the end, we printed off one of my old columns and Kara performed a dramatic reading, which, despite the source material, she pulled off quite well, really nailing the “my wife Kara” parts and getting us both off the hook. In retrospect, they probably would have preferred the nasal floss.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

A stressful chapter finally closes

There are many things I would have preferred to do rather than trying to sell our house through the wintertime, such as hiking the Appalachian Trail in my wife’s “going out” heels or being a gladiator with a losing record.

Everyone knows you can’t sell a house in the winter. That’s because, even when it comes to a tough buyers’ market like the one we have right now, every real estate agent knows the secret to making a sale: balloons. Balloons, especially when tied to roadside signs, hypnotize buyers with their gentle bobbing, compelling purchases that otherwise never would have occurred. Used car salesmen know this secret as well, though they diversify their offerings with plastic flags and giant inflatable men with waggling arms. The concept is the same: mesmerize the buyer with colorful moving objects so that they don’t notice the water damage or the cracked headlight.

When the weather turns cold, though, real estate agents’ most powerful weapon is neutralized. Balloons hang limply, if at all, signifying a long, bitter stretch until St. Patrick’s Day, when the homebuyer drunkenly crawls out of its hole, seeing its shadow and waiting another six weeks before getting pre-approved for a mortgage.

Fortunately, my wife and I narrowly avoided this fate, with a closing scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, two weeks short of a year from when we began selling. If everything goes according to plan, our long-vacant albatross will finally be hung around somebody else’s neck. I mean that in the nicest way, of course, and honestly, I don’t even know how you hang an albatross, what with all the wing flapping and carrying on that would likely ensue. Regardless, if everything doesn’t go according to plan, please be advised that my next column may be a Caps Locked expletive repeated 650 times.

They call it “closing” because “closing the most stressful chapter of your life” takes up too much space on the paperwork. This will likely be the last closing I’ll ever attend, because if we ever have to move again, I think we’ll just peel out of the driveway in the moving truck with the house ablaze behind us.

If you’ve never been to a closing, it’s really an interesting display of civic pride. Pretty much the entire community shows up to ensure, in the spirit of brotherhood and fellowship, that every last cent has been whittled off your hide. You could walk through the monkey cage at the zoo with bunches of bananas in your pants and you would have fewer hands in your pockets than you do at a closing. Representatives of the real estate companies, the title company, the lending companies, Uncle Sam, Danny Bonaduce and his mom all show up to get their cut. Even so, we’re thrilled to have gotten this far along in what has been a gut-wrenching process, and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to jinx it all by writing about it before the deed, as it were, is done.

When one of my co-workers found out that we had finally gotten a closing date, she asked, “Do you have any pointers on selling a house? We’ve been trying for a few months now.”

You’d think that with nearly a year of experience, I might have had something worthwhile to tell her. After all, while selling a house in this market is difficult, selling a house with only one bathroom is even more difficult, especially when that bathroom would easily lose a playground fight with a broom closet.

After mulling over every lesson I’d learned in the past year, I said, “Is burning it down an option?” OK, not really. My real advice was to drop the price, whatever it was.

“What about refinishing the floors?” she asked.

“Drop the price.”

“Baking cookies before an open house?”

“Drop the price.”

Of course, even dropping the price doesn’t always help. Until balloon season rolls around again, though, the best option is probably the inflatable dude with the waggling arms.

You can pop Mike Todd’s balloon at

Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday electricity in the air (but not the bulbs)

As my wife Kara and I pulled our musty Christmas decorations out of their giant Tupperware sarcophagus last week, we found light strands so tangled that they resembled the way, given a piece of construction paper and a crayon, a small child might depict a plate of spaghetti. It reminded me of the old adage about wrestling with pigs: when you wrestle with Christmas lights, you both get knotted up, but the Christmas lights enjoy it.

Just as I was about to ask Kara if she had given up halfway through an attempt to knit me a sweater out of the lights, I remembered the last time I had seen them, about a year ago, when I indiscriminately balled up the cords and chucked them into the storage crate, rushing to get back to making absolutely sure that, as the man of the house, all the zombies in the PlayStation2 had been properly beheaded, thinking, “Eh well, I’ll deal with the lights next year.”

Last Year Me is always doing things to make life harder for This Year Me, like making little to no effort to solve the ever-worsening Bald Spot Dilemma and buying stock in companies whose executive leadership now spends much of its time making license plates and trying not to drop the soap.

As Kara worked to untangle the lights, I set about the much easier task of assembling our artificial pre-lit Christmas tree. Fresh cut trees have some things going for them, but you have to buy a new one every year. An artificial tree stays with you forever, like your first kiss or your creditors.

When I plugged our tree in, about three percent of the lights came on. If the world was a fair place, the overhead lights at the factory where they make Christmas light strands would work just like the strands themselves. A bulb would burn out in the second floor men's room, plunging the whole factory into darkness. The workers would go around with flashlights in their teeth, testing every bulb in the place until they ultimately concluded that the entire factory needed to be replaced.

After countless attempts to reason with the lights, we decided that the only way to get the tree working again would be to replace every non-working bulb. We went out and bought a cheap strand, intending to rip out its parts and patch up our tree like Frankenstein’s monster. As I removed the new lights from the box, I noticed this warning attached to the cord: “Handling the cord on this product will expose you to lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.”

Nothing gets me more in the Christmas spirit than exposure to known carcinogens. Luckily, I don’t live in California, so I’m probably immune, but it just seems a little rude that California wouldn’t tell all the other states. You’d think it would be neighborly to at least mention it to Nevada.

Even though the other states haven’t quite made up their minds about whether or not lead should be sprinkled over your breakfast cereal, it might be a good idea to go ahead and take bacon, lead chip and tomato sandwiches off the menu. Besides, we really shouldn’t be wasting all that lead when Mattel still has so many more toys to make. It wouldn’t be fair to the kids.

In the end, our tree refused to light up even after we’d spent an hour transplanting bulbs over from the new cord. The tree just sat there, dark and glum, taunting us with its few functional lights. The good news is that it is now even more obvious that Kara is the light of my life. None of the other ones work.

You can play reindeer games (like Monopoly) with Mike Todd at

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dodging the Christmas Cat

Over Thanksgiving dinner last week, my wife Kara got caught giving me the Signal.

The Signal is a special smile that she reserves just for me, a smile that she sneaks across crowded dinner tables to deliver a message that is to be received discreetly, lest some unsuspecting diner intercept the communication and conclude that Kara is improperly signaling to someone other than her husband the desire to have answered that most intimate of questions: “Do I have anything in my teeth?”

We’ve developed a system that allows me to reply using a series of hand signals, like I’m her third base coach. I’ll point to my left to let her know that she should start her search to the right of center. Before I could wave Kara home last week, though, my sister-in-law’s boyfriend Brad said, “What are you guys doing?”

Brad is in his first year of dental school, so he’s especially attuned to matters of the mouth. We shouldn’t have been so careless. It’s like we were trying to embezzle in front of an accounting major.

While Brad’s official dental education has just begun, he can already throw around words like buccal and occlude, making him the most knowledgeable dental person I’ve ever seen without an appointment. He spent a good chunk of the weekend rotating around a 3-D model of the human mouth on his laptop, presumably because he didn’t have Warcraft III installed.

A perk of being in dental school, besides getting to participate in spirited debates with proctology students over which end is better, is that industry reps shower budding dentists with free oral care products. Brad gets all sorts of free stuff from dental industry reps, making him a really good person to know if you, like many people I know, use toothpaste.

The dental theme also makes Christmas presents from Brad way less scary than presents from my sister, Lindsay Lohan* (name changed to generate more web hits). She recently moved into a Manhattan apartment with her significant other, with each of them bringing enough cats to start a feline Brady Bunch. The kitty territory wars began shortly thereafter. Lindsay Lohan has been trying to unload her field general on various family members ever since.

“Hey, Buddy, can I ask you something?” she’ll ask.

“Dude, I don’t want the cat,” I’ll respond.

“Think it over. I have to go call Mom now,” she’ll say. Lindsay Lohan’s a lawyer, so it’s only a matter of time before she cracks one of us. Until then, the joke around the family is that Lindsay Lohan is going to show up for Christmas bearing a large meowing gift box with airholes in the side.

With Brad, though, you don’t have to worry that his presents will shred your couch and soak your carpet. It is much more likely that they will leave you feeling minty fresh.

When he intercepted the Signal, I said, “Sorry, we were trying to be sneaky. Kara wanted me to check her teeth.”

My sister-in-law Sarah said, “I can’t understand Brad’s directions when I have something in my teeth. He’s always like, ‘You have something stuck between numbers six and seven.’ I don’t know what numbers my teeth are.”

Brad said, “You can count them with your tongue. They go from one to sixteen on top and seventeen to thirty-two on the bottom,” confirming my previously held suspicion that the average human head contained somewhere between twenty and forty teeth.

Really, Brad’s system was much better than the hunt-and-pick method Kara and I had developed, and it was nice to hang around with someone who was learning actual useful skills. If I were Brad, though, I’d be spending a lot of sleepless nights deciding what I’d do when the time finally came and I had to make a yes or no call on Trident. If you voted your conscience and went the wrong way, would the other 80% of dentists still hang out with you?

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