Sunday, January 27, 2008

Stripping isn’t for everyone

After spending the past week stripping wallpaper from our kitchen, I have become something of an involuntary expert on the subject. If you’re considering taking on such a project, the best advice I can offer is to throw out all your old scrapers, scorers and steamers. You’d be surprised how much easier it is when you decide to just douse the wallpaper with kerosene, set it ablaze and rebuild.

Of course, you may decide you’d rather do things the hard way, actually removing the wallpaper without destroying the house around it. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. People will tell you wild stories, passed down through the generations, of wallpaper that just pulls off, like you’re unpeeling a giant floral banana. This type of wallpaper probably exists in places where the streets are paved with gumdrops, but in the real world, the average sheet of wallpaper has been applied with more paste than resides in the collective digestive system of our nation’s kindergartners.

We should have known what we were getting into. A few years ago, we rented a steamer from Home Depot to remove some small pink borders in our old house, thinking that, worst case, it would take about an hour to take them all down. We slid head first into the rental department twenty-four hours later, exhausted and totally steamed.

Maybe we felt cocky this time around because we had our very own steamer. Turns out that, while it costs about forty bucks to rent a steamer for the day, you can buy one outright for fifty. Also, buying two four-piece McNuggets off the dollar menu is cheaper than buying a single six-piece. I’m afraid I just told you everything useful I’ve ever learned.

Before steaming a wall, you have to go over every inch with a scoring tool that pokes tiny holes in the paper. Never has so much scoring produced so little fun. But at least my wife Kara bribed me with food to get the job done. “I’ll cook if you strip,” she said. I rarely get solicited to strip, so I immediately set about stripping harder than I’ve ever stripped before.

Our steamer had this orange label stuck to it: “WARNING: This machine produces live steam and/or scalding hot water which could cause severe bodily injury.” I think it should have been a guarantee instead of a warning. After I started attempting to take the wallpaper down, I realized that I was really giving myself the third degree. The third-degree burns, I mean. I’m pretty sure that my wedding ring is now soldered to my finger.

When I mentioned this to some of my married friends, I found out that other guys take their rings off when they’re performing manual labor. That seems like it’s breaking a sacred trust. You should only take your wedding ring off when it’s absolutely necessary, like when you want to spin it like a top on a restaurant table or flip it like a coin as you walk over a storm drain.

My buddy Allen explained to me that he never takes his ring off because, “If you wear through your wedding band, that means you’re free.”

I don’t know about that, but I do know that it’s probably a whole lot easier to just decide that you like having a million repeating berries and flowers plastered around your kitchen than to actually do something about it. Why anyone has put up wallpaper since the invention of paint, I just can’t understand.

But somewhere, somebody is putting up wallpaper right now, hopefully not in a place that you or I will ever live. For every sheet that comes down, one must go up. It’s required to keep the universe in balance.

You can steam Mike Todd off your walls at

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Can’t get there from here

When you ask my dad for directions, he’s likely to respond with something like, “Oh, that’s seven miles southeast of here,” as he points towards the living room wall. What you are then to do with this information, I’m not exactly sure. I suppose it would depend on whether or not you remembered to grab the sextant when you came in off of your frigate.

My wife Kara and I won’t be bothering him or anyone else for directions anytime soon, though, now that we have Jill in our lives. Her arrival in our household marked an abrupt close to the era of asking for directions. She is the voice of American Accent (female) on the GPS unit that Santa-in-law gave to us. If you’re not familiar with GPS devices, just watch the Super Bowl commercials this year and you’ll be all caught up. A little bit dumber, but all caught up.

We chose Jill out of a list of several accents and genders. We originally thought we’d stick with Daniel, the British male voice. Right after Christmas, we drove around with Kara’s sister Sarah and her boyfriend Brad in the backseat while Daniel calmly guided us along.

“This is awesome,” Brad said. “I feel like I’m Batman and Alfred’s up there telling me where to go.”

There is something upper-crusty about having a British guy giving you directions, like you’re driving to a place where meals are served under big metal doohickeys. Unfortunately for Daniel, he was programmed to say “R.T.” instead of “route,” and he couldn’t tell the difference between an “I” and a “1,” which made him less than ideal as a guide for dispensing our particular dark brand of vigilante justice.

As Brad looked through the list of available accents, he said, “Too bad they don’t have any fun accents in here, like a drunken Irish dude or James Earl Jones.”

I pictured a family in a minivan driving down a quiet country road as their GPS unit suddenly barked, “Oy! Turn lef’, ya bloody wankah!”

Still, maybe Brad was onto something with the James Earl Jones suggestion. Who wouldn’t like to take a road trip with James Earl Jones? Also, if you called him James Jones, would anybody know who you were talking about? It would be like saying John Booth or Kermit Frog.

I’m a big fan of James Earl Jones, despite being wronged by him a decade ago. When I was a student at Penn State, he came on campus as part of a Distinguished Speakers tour. I went with some of my friends to see him in the packed auditorium. It was surreal to hear the first few words out of his mouth, like we were all starring in a movie that he was narrating.

Then he proceeded to give a canned speech on giving more money to the arts that I’m pretty sure he downloaded off the internet. As the novelty of hearing his voice wore off, the only thing one could do to stay awake was to picture him in his role as Thulsa Doom, evil tyrant and beheader of Conan the Barbarian’s mom.

At the end of his speech, he allowed time for a short Q&A. A brave student walked up to the microphone in the aisle and asked, “Could you say ‘Luke, I am your father’ for us?”

We all leaned forward in our seats in anticipation. James Earl Jones hesitated for a moment and then said, “Oh, you could do it better than me,” before moving along to the next, much more boring, question. The curtain behind him billowed with the disappointed exhales of a thousand college students.

Regardless, it would be really cool to have him tell me the fastest way to the mall. I can just imagine how awesome it would sound to turn on the car and hear him say, “It’s seven miles southeast of here.

You can tell Mike Todd where to go at

Monday, January 14, 2008

When a house becomes an igloo

The day before guests were set to start arriving for the biggest party we’d ever attempted to throw, my wife Kara and I came home to find our first floor entirely without heat. Apparently, we had done something to anger the universe, like not inviting it.

“What’s the thermostat set to?” Kara asked, casting a suspicious eye on me as she hugged her jacket tighter. I have been known, on occasion, to turn down the heat without the express written consent of other parties in the house, parties who think that a heating system should regularly be cranked up to such a degree that it can perform other duties, such as browning potatoes on the kitchen counter.

“I swear, it wasn’t me this time,” I said, looking at the display panel on the thermostat. It was registering 49 degrees, a temperature perfect for preserving meat but not marital relations.

I pulled together all of my knowledge about heating, cooling and refrigeration systems to perform a complicated diagnostic procedure known in the business as “flicking the thermostat and cussing.” After that, the only thing left to do was shrug, cuss a little bit more and call a professional.

I’m always a little hesitant to call in for backup. Contractors can pretty much do anything they want once they’re invited into your home, like old college friends and vampires. But this was an emergency, and we were feeling fortunate to have a cavalry to call.

As we waited for the repair van to show up, icicles began to form on our vast collection of remote controls, each of which has exactly two buttons that we ever actually press. The temperature continued to drop. Packs of wolves tracked elk across our couch. While we had been intending to vacuum the entire house just before the party, it was becoming increasingly evident that we’d need a Zamboni instead.

After the contractor showed up and poked around for a few minutes, he used his best funeral director voice to inform us that we probably had a frozen pipe in our baseboard system.

“I expect there’s already some damage. We’ll have to get in there and warm up the pipes individually to flush out the blockage. It’s 600 dollars for the first two hours, 250 for each hour after that,” he said. “And we’ll probably have to cut into your walls.”

A single tear froze on my cheek. But without switching to a heating system based on whale blubber, we saw few other options. As the contractor and his crew worked in the basement, I went back to cleaning while Kara chopped vegetables in the kitchen with her jacket on.

Few things in life are universal, but it’s a pretty fair indication that good things are not happening when a contractor working in your basement comes running up the stairs and barreling through your kitchen, yelling, “Follow me and bring towels!”

The blockage and corresponding burst pipe had been in our laundry room. When the pipe was heated up and the ice melted, gallons of water poured onto the floor, down the wall and into the basement. As we ran into the laundry room to discover our newly installed (if somewhat shallow) indoor pool, a house spider surfed across the floor on a dryer sheet.

The water, having been enclosed in our heating system for quite some time, had a distinct aroma.

“It smells like asparagus pee,” Kara’s friend Curry, who had come early to help us get ready, observed as she draped towels over the mess. Fortunately for us, the cleanup went pretty smoothly. The contractors fixed the pipe in short order. We have yet to find out if our homeowners’ policy will cover any of the expense, but it has been my general observation that insurance doesn’t cover things that actually happen.

At least the heat was on before party time. Next time, we’re inviting the universe.

You can cuss and flick Mike Todd at

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Beware the chocolate fountain

If we didn’t occasionally have guests over, our house would probably end up looking like one of the houses you see on the news about once a year, where police spend hours carrying out armloads of mangy-looking cats through the splintered front door after the neighbors report a horrible smell.

Of course, I’m exaggerating somewhat. Our house is unlikely to make the news without somehow being involved in the paternity of Britney’s sister’s baby. Still, I’m especially sensitive to how clean we can get the place before our friends start arriving this weekend.

Apparently, early January is the time to have a party. Everyone is just sitting around, trying to figure out how soon they can start pretending that their gym memberships have expired, waiting for an invitation. Several people we haven’t seen since our wedding three years ago accepted the invitation, and they’re not even going to get a nice meal out of it this time. We were counting on having a very low acceptance rate, but about triple the partygoers we expected have decided to matriculate.

The last time we had a party this big, it was really just a pre-party for the night’s main event, a show at local hotel ballroom put on by an X-rated hypnotist, a man whose livelihood depended almost entirely upon the willing suspension of disbelief and the ready availability of bananas.

This time, though, we do have one ace up our respective sleeves: the chocolate fountain we just borrowed from my parents. I’m a little anxious about using it without adult supervision, though. The last time my parents used the fountain, my friends offered to help clean it up afterwards. With the fountain almost entirely disassembled, my buddy Rob wanted to see what would happen if he turned it on again. The center piece spun around wildly, flinging gobs of chocolate indiscriminately about the kitchen. Those standing closest to Rob’s experiment looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he covered himself in mud so that the Predator couldn’t use infrared vision to find him.

Of course, I have no idea where we’ll put the fountain even if we do get it working. After perusing dining room sets, we decided we really didn’t want to afford one yet, so the dining room has been functioning as our trash room since we moved in. The trash room has turned out to be much more useful than a dining room anyway. I think trash rooms are the way of the future, like robotic dogs and Swiffer WetJets. Not many people know this, but Swiffer WetJets do not actually employ jet engine technology. Yet.

My parents have a trash room, too, though they call it the “storage room.” The storage rooms goes through its complete life cycle in about a decade; Dad will spend ten years filling it with karate pads and broken dehumidifiers, and Mom will spend a weekend throwing everything out. I don’t like it when the storage room is clean. It seems out of balance. It’s much more entertaining when you need a torch, a whip and a fedora hat to retrieve the hot tray. Besides, a trash room is nothing to be ashamed of. In college, I had an entire trash apartment.

You have to be careful how much junk you keep around, though. It’s a fine line between being a packrat and ending up on Oprah with the cameraman zooming in on verklempt audience members as the slideshow of your house rolls on.

At the very least, having a party is a good excuse to get the trash room cleaned out. And the party is likely to be a success as long as you don’t run out of game pieces, which is what my brother-in-law Chris calls bottles of beer.

“Can you get me another game piece?” he’ll say.

“A what?” people will ask.

“A game piece. For the game of Drink Beer,” he replies.

That sounds like a fun game. We’ll have to try it out this weekend, if we can’t find Scattergories in the trash room.

You can send your regrets (about reading this column) to Mike Todd at