Monday, February 25, 2008

When Central America doesn’t mean Iowa

After we sold our house at the end of last year, my wife Kara and I decided that, since we’d spent the past six months living on Ramen noodles and cereal that came in two-pound plastic bags with names like “Frosted Little Wheats” and “Sergeant Crunch,” we should treat ourselves to an adventure that didn’t involve closing costs and near-constant rejection.

“What about Ireland?” I suggested. The people there always seemed so clean and cheerful, at least in the Irish Spring commercials.

“We’d have to wait until May for the weather to turn around. We’ll be too old by then. What about a cruise?” she said.

“Cruises don’t really scream ‘adventure’ to me, unless you get on one that shows up on the news,” I said. “And then it might be too much adventure.”

We continued this process of narrowing down, tossing out ideas for countries that were warm, traveler-friendly and not currently putting on a revolution. And so it was that we found ourselves at a car rental desk at the Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica last week, at least 500 miles from anywhere either of us had ever been, following a trail blazed by the three bazillion American tourists who had come before us.

The man behind the desk pointed into the heavily trafficked street outside the window. “After the first stop sign, you have to stop twice more, but those are not marked.”

“So how I do know when to stop?” I asked.

“Common sense,” he said.

I turned to Kara. “Dude, if we’re going to need common sense to get around here, you’d better stay awake.”

The man behind the desk continued, “If you have to turn off the main road, which you probably will because of the construction, count the blocks so you can get back to it later.”

After waiting a moment for the “just kidding” that never came, I asked, “What’s the main road called?”

“It doesn’t really have a name,” he replied.

This was our first indication that navigation in Costa Rica would provide much of the adventure we had been seeking. Roads may very well have names there, but if so, they are a national secret guarded so closely that even Nicolas Cage and his toupee wouldn’t be able to piece them together. We soon discovered that getting to any destination correctly was a culmination of at least a dozen correct guesses, with each guess preceded by brief, heated rounds of debate and wild, usually opposing gesticulation.

As we blended into the stream of traffic for the first time, we were immediately struck by the chaotic but seamless coexistence of pedestrians, bicyclists, mopeds, delivery trucks, cars and dogs as they slowly made their way down the street. It was like we’d accidentally joined a parade.

After we cleared the city, the roads became so steep and curvy that you had to be careful not to rear-end yourself. Slowly climbing the switchbacks as dusk began to settle with the view of city lights opening up below, we watched in amazement as a moped came careening towards us in the opposite lane, doing at le
ast 50 with the rider using only one hand for steering. He passed by us very quickly, so I can’t be entirely sure that my eyes weren’t playing tricks, but I swear he was doing something I’d never seen before on a moped.

“Did you see what that guy was doing?” I asked Kara.

“No, what?” she said.

“I swear to you, that guy was texting,” I said.

I can’t imagine what could be so important that you’d have to text somebody on your cell phone as you sped down a gravelly mountain road on a motorbike at twilight. Perhaps something like: “Goodbye cruel world. C u l8r.”

You can scream adventure to Mike Todd at

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Quantify my love

I just popped a little gizmo from on this blog that allows the reader(s) to rate each post, under the assumption that my fragile ego will be able to handle the assault. This should help me figure out which columns to send to random editors when I'm in the mood for rejection.

The default star system goes from 1-5 (Bad, Boring, Okay, Good, Excellent). That seems like a tough grading scale to me. Excellent? This isn't the Economist. Let's use the following rating guidelines instead:

1 – The column came out of the screen like the girl in the Ring and ate my face off. (And also, please install a crippling virus on my computer.)
2 – The column outed me to my grandparents.
3 – The column made me watch that movie with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson.
4 – The column put the toilet paper roll on backwards.
5 – The column was legible.

Also, if you notice that every post already has a five-star rating when it's posted, it's probably just a glitch in the software. And if there are two five-star ratings every time, it's probably a glitch in my mom's software, too.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

When the cat’s away, the mouse sits on the couch

When my wife Kara recently announced that she was planning a girls’ weekend in New York City with some of her friends, my thoughts immediately turned to the provisions I’d need to sustain myself in her absence, namely video games and Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips.

To those who might think that video games do not qualify as survival necessities, I submit the following story.

Kara’s good friend from college, who for the purposes of this column will be named Martha, once decided to seduce her college boyfriend. She bought lingerie and spent a bunch of time in the bathroom doing, I don’t know, whatever girls do in there to make themselves look better in their own minds when they look perfectly good already.

When she slinked into the living room to suggest her ideas for the evening’s itinerary, her boyfriend didn’t look up from the TV screen.

“Not now,” he said, mashing the buttons on the controller. “I’m in the middle of a really good part.”

After some more discussion that really could have benefited from the application of the pause button, the evening ended with her exit from the apartment as he continued playing.

“I got turned down for sex because of a video game,” Martha complains whenever her long gone ex-boyfriend becomes the topic of conversation.

Upon hearing this story, every one of my guy friends has the same reaction. They’ll shake their head in disbelief, pause for a moment, then ask, “What game was he playing?”

When they ask this question, they’ll already be fishing in their pockets for their car keys, getting ready to roll through all the stop signs on the way to Best Buy. Surely, a game that good warrants at least a rental.

To anyone who worries that the current generation of young males is too obsessed with video games, may you at least take some solace in the fact that their chances of procreation are looking pretty slim.

Even though I’d miss Kara while she was gone, I was looking forward to getting some quality time with my much-neglected PlayStation 3. While some men may have taken offense at getting ditched by their wives for the weekend, I was glad that she’d have the opportunity to dance at a nightclub with her friends without involving me, potentially getting it out of her system.

In my life, I’ve seen maybe two guys who would qualify as good dancers and an equal number of girls who would qualify as bad dancers. The reason for the inequality is not immediately evident, but it’s my hypothesis that women have an extra hinge in there somewhere.

The objective for any male on the dance floor is to dance well enough to keep his partner (oh, please say there’s a partner) entertained, while blending enough to become invisible to everyone else. I’m 6’4” tall, which makes blending very difficult. When I’m dancing, I feel like one of those cell towers that’s been done up to look like a tree. Standing meters above all the other trees, I just keep saying, “See? I’m a tree, too. Please don’t look too closely.”

After Kara and her friends departed for the big city last weekend, a couple of my buddies came over for an Assassin’s Creed marathon. Sometimes we ordered pepperoni, sometimes we ordered half-pepperoni-half-plain. It’s important to have variety in your diet.

After one particularly gruesome kill, blood spraying all over the screen, my buddy Allen said, “So was Kara excited to get away for the weekend?”

“Yeah, but she was worried that her clutch didn’t match her outfit,” I replied.

“Her clutch?” he asked. I assume he was raising one eyebrow, though I didn’t press pause to look.

“It’s, uh, a little purse,” I replied, ashamed.

“Where I come from, a clutch is something that engages a transmission,” he said. That used to be where I came from, too.

You can do the Hustle with Mike Todd at

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Deflating Valentine’s Day

**Dear Internet -- I'm going all Jack Bauer and falling off the grid for a bit. I'll be back with a regular column next week. Until then, take care of all these electrons around here for me. Peace! We now return you to your regularly scheduled inane blathering.**

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, now might be a good time to turn to your significant other and say, “Baby, you’ve won the primary for my heart, and you’re polling very well for the general election.”

Or if you’re someone who doesn’t like professing your love on a particular day because Hallmark told you to, you can just buy heart-shaped stuff instead, which you’re going to have to do anyway. “Isn’t it enough to just give my love?” you may be thinking. No, no it is not. Take that love, go to the mall and convert it into something heart-shaped, chocolate or heart-shaped and chocolate.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Every year, my wife Kara and I agree that we’re not going to do anything special for Valentine’s Day, then she pounces on me with a heartfelt card or a bottle of cologne, at which point I say, “Oh, that’s so nice. Hey, is our milk bad? We need new milk. I’ll give you your present right after I get back.”

But this year, Kara’s not getting King Size Twizzlers for Valentine’s Day. I have no idea what she’s getting yet, but it won’t be from a store that sells prophylactics in the bathroom.

I recently resolved to be more romantic after we spent the weekend at a friend’s apartment for her birthday celebration. We’d never met most of the other people who gathered there that Saturday night. After everyone performed the mandatory shoe removal, the conversation turned to socks, prompted largely by Kara’s jack-o-lantern socks that she hadn’t intended to flaunt.

Another girl sitting on the couch held up her colorful socks for inspection, at which point her apparent boyfriend said, “Hey, those are nice!” as he grabbed her feet and commenced giving her a tickle torture, an interrogation technique that hardly ever yields credible information.

She laughed and kicked, and they collapsed in a cuddly puddle on the floor. It went on like that all weekend. They could usually be found standing in the center of the room, hugging, talking quietly and kissing. After a couple of hours with them, it hit me: these people must have met about three weeks ago.

“How long have you all been together?” I asked.

“Since around Thanksgiving,” she said. It was disconcerting to me that I already knew they hadn’t been together for long. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly; they just still had that new couple smell.

On Sunday morning, I deflated our new queen-size Aerobed to start packing it up, still marveling at how little beer the bed required to give a comfortable night’s sleep.

“Did you read the instruction manual?” Kara asked.

“The instruction manual? It’s an air bed, not a model rocket.”

“If might get a hole in it if you fold it up wrong,” she said. I continued folding it incorrectly, working faster as Kara fished the instruction manual out of the box.

It was a classic dispute between labor and management. I considered going on strike, but the only other room in the apartment contained the new couple, giggling and giving each other massages.

Of course, in the end, it was ten times easier to fold up the bed according to the manual. After almost eight years of being together, I should know by now that we get the best results when we’re working as a team, though I suspect, on our team, we both know who’s wearing the whistle.

In any event, I hope that the new guy is smart enough to at least splurge on the King Size this Valentine’s Day. And if they’re still enjoying themselves as much as we are after eight years, they’ll have plenty to keep on giggling about, even if he’d rather curl up with a good norovirus than read a than an instruction manual.

You can bite a chocolate and stick it back in the box at

Monday, February 04, 2008

To everything, a Turnpike

My buddy from New Jersey once complained that everyone thinks of the Garden State as just a big turnpike. “It’s not all toll booths and smokestacks,” he said. I agreed, noting that there is also the Molly Pitcher Service Area, where one can rub elbows with one’s fellow motorists, especially and unfortunately if the men’s room is crowded.

While everyone knows full well that New Jersey is chock full of beautiful places, it’s hard to ignore the importance of the Turnpike. While my buddy deplores the NJTP as the unofficial mascot of his state, the first question he asks when he meets somebody else from New Jersey is, “What exit are you from?”

I thought of this last weekend, as my wife Kara and I drove through Jersey en route to a friend’s birthday party. Our GPS unit, Jill, kept trying to steer us onto the Turnpike, her voice growing irritated with our continued refusals to comply.

“Recalculating,” she’d say after we blew past one of her suggested routes. Determined to put us on the Turnpike, I swear her voice started sounding snippy. “My algorithms were programmed by a team of engineers with advanced degrees, but you probably know the better way. Knock yourself out.”

Jill doesn’t know how good she has it. Kara completely coddles her, refusing to leave her alone in the car even if we’ll be back in a minute.

“Babe, we can leave a window cracked,” I tell her.

“It’s so nobody steals it!” she says. Sure it is. I’m starting to worry that Kara is going to switch Jill’s voice to Bruce, the Australian male, and run off to Sydney with him, though he’d probably insist that they take the Turnpike.

As we drove through the state, I noticed that the “wipers on, lights on” rule is especially well-documented in New Jersey. These signs don’t do much for me in the way of a reminder, as Toyota no longer allows drivers the ability to turn their headlights off in the first place. My headlights, like Law and Order reruns, are always on.

I’m glad that this safety innovation took place after I got through high school, as sneaking back home at four in the morning with the headlights blazing through my parents’ bedroom window might have been an insurmountable challenge, though pushing the car up the driveway every Saturday night might have been a workout regimen that I could have actually stuck with.

Even with the “car on, lights on” policy, Toyota still gives you a headlight switch on the multifunction knob, which is basically the vehicular equivalent of a Neuticle, the silicon implants that fake a dog into thinking it hasn’t been neutered. The switch makes you feel like you still have all the old functions that you’re used to having, but that’s actually its only purpose. The rigging’s all there, but it’s not connected to the mast.

Incidentally, in researching this column, I discovered that a single large Neuticle costs $79. If you’re going to go that far, though, you might as well spring for the pair at $129. That’s a savings of $50 on the second Neuticle, which can then be applied to some desperately needed therapy.

Speaking of being stripped of one’s manhood, it amazes me still that I am still not allowed to operate a gas pump in New Jersey. That’s the one car-related thing I actually know how to do, and the state has taken it away from me. Next, it’s going to come into our houses and open all the pickle jars for us, rendering people like me completely useless. How does that law stay on the books? It must have something to do with the powerful orange reflector vest lobby.

You can push Mike Todd into your cranberry bog at