Monday, December 29, 2008

Yes, we Cancún

As my wife Kara and I discussed our upcoming “can’t-carry-over-our-vacation-to-2009” trip to Cancún, Mexico, with a group of friends last week over dinner, our friend Anna warned us against bringing anything over the Transportation Security Administration-regulated 3.5 ounces of sunscreen.

“My friend had a half-full four-ounce container, and they made her throw the whole thing away,” she said.

We all gasped in horror. Sunscreen protects all of us, but who will protect the sunscreen?

Eventually, the conversation made its way to more esoteric regulatory issues.

“Are you allowed to wear gel inserts in your shoes when you fly?” someone asked. “What if they have too much gel in them?”

This brought the mental image of a TSA agent holding up his hand before allowing you through the X-ray machine. “Hold on. Federal aviation regulations require me to ask,” the agent would say. “Are you gellin’?”

If you didn’t get that joke because you haven’t seen the annoying-by-design Dr. Scholl’s commercials for gel inserts, then you can consider yourself on the winning end of that particular bargain.

Before Kara settled on Cancún as a destination, thanks to one of those elusive last-minute travel deals, I’d been thinking that maybe we’d go somewhere closer, like a nearby truck stop to check out the jerky selection. The only thing I knew about Cancún was that we, as a nation, sent all of our obnoxious college students there every spring to get rid of them for a week.

Apparently, though, people plan vacations to Cancún for reasons other than a proclivity towards wet T-shirt contests. Kara signed us up for tours to various natural and manmade attractions, including the ancient Mayan temple Chichen Itza, which I had heard of before, but always thought was some kind of snack cracker, like a distant relative of the Cheez-It.

So we pulled the trigger, and shortly after landing in Cancún, we found ourselves in an endlessly snaking line of tourists trying to sneak in a vacation before the holidays, creaking along with our roller bags and waiting to show our passports. Beside the line hung a huge and strategically placed billboard, which I had time to memorize down to the pixel, advertising the local Outback Steakhouse. Really, that’s why most people come to Mexico in the first place: to eat the authentic faux-Australian American food. Then they go to Switzerland to see if they can find any decent Hershey bars.

As of this writing (deadline: hours ago, but an editor’s physical threats are not nearly as scary when viewed from behind a margarita glass), we’ve been in Cancún for just over 24 hours, and it didn’t take nearly that long to understand why so many people come here. The weather has been perfect, the people we’ve met have been welcoming and the natural surroundings are beautiful to the point of approaching surrealism. When travelling, though, I always try to find something to whine about, so that I can feel better about where I live after returning home. It’s a defense mechanism, like rationalization or a catapult.

If you need a reason to justify living in the Northeast, to keep scraping your windshield when people in warmer climates are scraping the bottom of their piña coladas and worrying about whether they’ve evenly applied their sunscreen, let me offer you this phrase: year ‘round mosquitoes. Today, I’m pretty sure that I picked up a nice new mug for the kitchen and malaria.

Even so, a little yellow fever might be worth it. We’ve never tried to fit a vacation in before the whirlwind of Christmas with our families, but so far this one has been a great success. But I still think I deserved to place higher in the wet T-shirt contest.

You can drink the worm before Mike Todd gets to it at

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Some fiddles are fitter than others

This Christmas season, my wife Kara and I decided to be socially conscious and do our best to buy locally, so we headed over to do some shopping at a nearby bookseller, Barnes and Noble, one of our local corporate behemoths.

To our surprise, there was a good deal of very local activity going on in there; our next-door neighbors’ teenage son, Brian, was playing in a concert with his fiddle group in a roped-off area next to the café, where currency is converted into coffee mixed with sundae toppings. The young musicians had clearly not been paying attention in math class; they seemed to have been playing their instruments for longer than they had been alive.

“This is a song that I composed last summer,” Brian announced into the microphone, before heading into a performance that Mr. Holland would have gladly traded for his opus. During the song, three teenage kids played musical chairs with their musical instruments, switching between a piano, an electric guitar, acoustic guitars and fiddles (you could tell they were fiddles, not violins, because the people playing them were not wearing tuxedos). I half-expected Bugs Bunny to march across the stage wearing his one-man-band outfit, playing a trombone while swinging mallets into a bass drum with his ears.

I don’t come anywhere close to matching Brian’s success when I compose my own songs, which are generally improvisational message songs intended for much smaller audiences, with titles like, “The Itsy-Bitsy Husband Doesn’t Feel Like Emptying the Dishwasher.”

Regardless, standing among the toe-tapping, head-bobbing audience there beside the biscotti jars, I felt a certain camaraderie with those talented kids because -- and I don’t mean to brag, but -- in certain musical circles, I’m very highly regarded, especially and exclusively in the circles that are familiar with the high scores on our copy of Guitar Hero II.

For those unfamiliar with the Guitar Hero franchise, it’s a series of video games that makes players feel like Jimi Hendrix for the intrinsically nerdy act of being able to punch large plastic buttons on a guitar-shaped controller. I once overheard a guy at a party who, in the saddest boast I’ve ever heard, claimed to be the 24th-best Guitar Hero player in the world, which might be slightly more impressive to women than having the 24th-hairiest shoulders. A true Guitar Hero aficionado will do well not to spend too much time thinking about the real instruments they could have learned in the same amount of time.

We never upgraded to Guitar Hero III in our house, mainly because the pursuit of musical excellence on a pretend guitar began to seem somewhat counterproductive, especially when a very real guitar sat biodegrading in its case twenty feet away, gently weeping from neglect.

A couple of weeks ago, spurred by post-Grand-Theft-Auto-IV-conquering boredom, I pulled my old acoustic guitar out of the corner it had been occupying since before Tom Cruise was crazy. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that it doesn’t do the best things for your musical confidence when the first chords you strum on your chosen instrument send your dog into a barking frenzy, the same way the trash truck’s brakes do.

Her musical criticism aside, I realized that our puppy Memphis was barking because she’d never heard me play the guitar in the eight months she’d lived with us. After watching Brian and his fellow musicians calm and delight the harried crowd that had assembled mainly to throw elbows at its fellow shoppers, it became clear that all those days I heard Brian practicing through the windows, creating a disproportionately beautiful soundtrack for walking the dog, were paying great dividends.

In any event, Memphis is really going to freak out when she hears what our vacuum cleaner sounds like.

You can locate the exit door before Mike Todd’s encore begins at

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Getting some class at the mall

You know the economy’s not going well when the people who stashed their money in pickle jars are feeling smug. But still, as I read the news about the Obama administration’s proposals to alleviate our problems by raining money upon our nation’s infrastructure, my heart swells with hope that, besides the nicety of having bridges that don’t fall down, we may soon build more of what makes this country great, namely urinal dividers. Sure, bridges connect us, but I think most guys would agree that a country can’t be truly united until its urinals are divided.

And say what you will about our current economic difficulties, but you can’t blame my household. My wife Kara has done her part to help spend our way out of this crisis by attending a decorating class at Pottery Barn with some of her friends. For those not familiar with Pottery Barn, it’s the store in the mall where, if you have forty-nine bucks burning a hole in your Dooney and Bourke money-dispensing device, you can come home with a truly stunning fake stick.

To be fair, I just checked online, and the fake stick I saw in the store with Kara a few weeks ago, when I held my breath until she stopped looking at it, is not really a fake stick at all. It’s a Bittersweet Statement Branch. The Statement: I obviously live somewhere with no trees. The branch is actually on sale at the time of this writing (about three minutes after my deadline) for only thirty-four bucks. Still, even though it’s on sale, I think I’ll pass on purchasing one for now, since I’m pretty sure buying one would only make me feel the first part of bittersweet.

When Kara told me that she’d signed up for the class, I was impressed. If there’s one thing that’s difficult to find in the mall, it’s a commitment to higher education. And also the bathroom that’s tucked down the corridor to the loading docks. Oh, and a security guard to haul away the person from the lotion pagoda who tries to break your stride by asking, “Can I ask you a question?” as if they haven’t already done so.

I was surprised to learn that the admissions process for the Pottery Barn class wasn’t more stringent; Kara and her friends didn’t need to provide transcripts or references, or take standardized tests with questions like “colon:semicolon::Colin Powell: ?”. You’d expect that sort of free pass from the store with the vibrating footstools, but not Pottery Barn.

“What are you going to learn at this class?” I asked.

“We’re going to learn some holiday decorating tips,” Kara said. Sensing that she hadn’t quite convinced me of the academic merit yet, she added, “And the things they show us are all 10% off.”

This, of course, sent a shiver down my joint checking account. When Kara hears 10% off, I hear 90% on.

“Are you sure you’ve thought this through?” I asked. “There are so many questions you need to consider before matriculating in a Pottery Barn program. For instance, can the credits you earn in this class be carried over if you decide you want to transfer to Crate and Barrel? Maybe you should take a year off to find yourself before jumping into this.”

But Kara went on ahead to school with her friends, leaving me at home with an empty nest that was, for the moment, not built out of fake sticks. Left behind with the dog, I quickly developed my own home school curriculum devoted largely to the scientific method; specifically, I spent the afternoon testing hypotheses relating to how long the dog could hold it between presses of the pause button on the PlayStation 3.

You can feng Mike Todd’s shui at

Monday, December 08, 2008

Wren things go awry

When my buddy Derek recently opened our front door to leave after a weekend visit, a small brown bird shot into the house, flying right for my wife Kara like she was made of suet.

She saw the look on my face before she saw the bird.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, followed immediately by, “Aaaaaah! Is that a bat? Is that a bat?” as she flung herself off the couch and scuttled across the floor.

The aptly named house wren alighted on the lampshade that had been just over Kara’s head, then quickly made itself at home, conducting an impromptu self-guided tour of every lampshade and curtain rod in the house, mistaking each for a guest bathroom and returning the number of incontinent animals in our house to one. Apparently, housebreaking our puppy Memphis had thrown the universe out of balance. We were due for a correction.

As it turned out, Kara brought this upon us. The bird had built a nest in the wreath on our front door, and it wasn’t even our Christmas wreath yet. Kara buys wreaths like rappers buy Cadillac Escalades.

“Oooh, this one would make a nice summer wreath,” she’ll say, pointing at an overpriced bundle of sticks and berries that will soon be riding home in our backseat.

Derek, Kara and I ran around the house picking up tools that we thought might be helpful for corralling the wren. Kara grabbed a blanket. Derek snagged a broom. After frantically scanning the pantry for a helpful bird-catching implement, I came back with the best thing I could find: an empty Honey Nut Cheerios box.

“Babe, a cereal box. Seriously?” Kara asked.

Unfortunately, I skimmed over the part of the Guy Handbook that explained how to remove flying animals from the house. It must have been right next to the chapter that explained why you’d ever want to change your own motor oil.

The three of us ran around the house, chasing the wren to a scene that should have been accompanied by Benny Hill music. I helped Kara toss the blanket at the bird a few times, but a moving target is really hard to hit with microfleece. In any event, if I’m ever forced to be a gladiator, remind me not to pick that throwable net as a weapon. If the blanket is any indication, I couldn’t incapacitate the broad side of a barn with one of those things.

After several passes, Derek stuck the broom right into the wren’s flight path, and the bird, dazed, flopped to floor. At that moment, Memphis, who had been altitudinally challenged enough not to have been an issue until just then, shot across the room, the thought bubble over her head clearly showing a rawhide chew with flapping wings.

“No, no, no!” we all screamed together as the bird hopped to its feet and ran towards the couch, with Memphis closing quickly behind.

With a head-first slide under the couch, the bird narrowly avoided the shared and shredded fate of every dog toy we’ve ever bought.

Moments later, with Memphis locked howling in the bedroom, Derek and Kara gently rocked the couch back as I crawled under with the cereal box.

“Hey!” I said.

“Did you catch it?” Kara asked.

“No, but did you know that the Honey Nut Cheerios bee is named ‘Buzz’? I don’t think I ever knew that.”

As a team, we were eventually able to coax the bird into the box, perhaps due to the large print that promised lower cholesterol. Out on the deck, the bird hopped out of the box and flew into a nearby tree, where it probably swore off wreaths forever. If only I could get Kara to do the same.

You can smack Mike Todd with your broom at

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Administrivial pursuit

A couple weeks ago, I started a new blogroll (the list of links in the sidebar to other people's blogs, for the blilliterate) using the shiny new Blogger tools. The new blogroll is the one with the heading "Blogjammin'" on the right-hand side of the page. Incidentally, if you caught the reference in that heading title, then you win the Karl Hungus Award for Obscure Movie Reference Catching. (It's from The Big Lebowski, for non-Karl-Hungus-Award-winners.)

Anyway, in another couple-two-tree weeks, I'm going to delete my old blogroll (the one labeled "Your time would be better spent at:"), which has grown all long and out of control like that one crazy eyebrow hair.

Some of the blogs in the old blogroll haven't been updated since before the Internet was invented. Some of them once linked here before their owners came to their senses, and now they leave me with painful, unrequited linkage. But some of them are still active and updated by very cool people, so I hope that if those very cool people are reading this, they'll drop me a comment or an email to let me know that they'd like to be added to the new blogroll.

I couldn't think of a better way to decide which links to move to the new blogroll, and this will help me keep the new one neatly trimmed and current with awesome dudes who actually give somewhat of a Shatner that I'm linking to their blogs. Awesome? Awesome. Thanks, homepeople.

Oh, and if you click the new link in the sidebar to be added as a follower of this blog, all the awful things from the bottom of your chain emails will not happen to you. At least I hope not. I'll be pulling for you, is my point.