Monday, June 30, 2008

Raising a puppy, a toddler and Cain

Last weekend, puppy and toddler came together in our house, creating a swirling vortex of electricity that made the adults’ hair stand on end and popped circuit breakers in the next county. You may have seen the trail of flames crisscrossing our yard like we’d been turfed by the Delorean from Back to the Future.

The tumult began when my wife’s cousin Richard and his wife Norma brought their daughter Ruby over for a family cookout. As soon as Ruby met our puppy Memphis, the two of them became inseparable, joined primarily by way of Memphis’ tongue. Children are naturally drawn to puppies, and puppies quickly understand that kids are highly likely to drop any food they may have. The pair of them tore about the house in a Tasmanian Devil-like tornado; occasionally, you could see a paw or a tiny pink Croc sticking out as the tornado sucked up everything in its path, including dog toys, remote controls and digital cameras.

Of course, the tornado didn’t actually destroy anything, and in truth, the magnitude of its cuteness was such that if you stared at it for too long, you turned into a Hello Kitty lunchbox.

My wife Kara and I were thrilled to have Richard and Norma’s family over for many reasons, the very least of which being that we finally had to give the house a good cleaning. Without impending visits from houseguests, entropy exacts a heavy toll on our immediate surroundings. Shortly before their arrival, our patio table had enough pollen caked onto it to fuel a Clarinex clinical trial. A visit from a local friend barely warrants removal of underwear from the living room floor, but family visits, especially first-time family visits, get the full treatment, including dusting off the credenza and the vacuum cleaner.

As we watched Memphis following Ruby from room to room, Richard said, “I think in some ways, raising a puppy could be harder than raising a baby.”

I’m pretty sure he was just trying to make us feel good, but raising a puppy has to be better practice for parenthood than those sacks of flour we carried around in health class in the sixth grade. For a week, each of us had to carry around a sack of flour as if it was our baby, and we failed the assignment if we got caught putting it in our locker, leaving it unattended or making pancakes out of it. I’d like to think I did a good job of raising my sack of flour, and that maybe it has since settled down, met a nice sack of sugar and is off raising its own little packets somewhere.

Ruby’s favorite discovery was Memphis’ crate, which she immediately made into her own fort, creating the photo op of the day with Ruby and Memphis inside the crate, like one of those Wild West prison photos.

The brand name of the crate was “Petmate,” but the scene got me to thinking: “Where’s the ‘Kidmate’ version?” Harried parents could enjoy a nice worry-free night out, knowing that their children were safely crated at home. It might sound unworkable, but a cage is really just a crib that’s been upgraded to have a roof.

By the end of the afternoon, the adults all watched intently to see whether the puppy or the toddler would run out of energy first. Toddlers and puppies both function like Rogue from the X-Men, gaining power by sapping it from others. Lucky for all of us, Ruby and Memphis were sapping it from each other that day. By mid-afternoon, with Memphis passed out on the kitchen floor and Ruby giggling after squeezing her Freezy Pop so hard that the flavored ice shot over her shoulder, we had our answer: toddlers rule and puppies drool, though they both do a bit of each.

You can let Mike Todd out of his crate at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Dulles airport of all

Sometimes, when I’m wandering around airports, I get the sinking feeling that no matter how much good I’m able to do in my life, or at least the parts of my life that are left over after running over pedestrians and extorting shop owners in Grand Theft Auto IV on the PlayStation 3, I will never even come close to matching the accomplishments of the person who first thought to take a piece of luggage and attach little wheels to it. I hope that person got a big raise, along with the people who invented EZ-Pass and pepperoni, respectively.

I had plenty of time to think about these kinds of things in my hotel room during my short, accidental vacation last week to Washington, D.C, Home of the Connection That Doesn’t Connect, And Also Several Phallic Monuments. After foolishly booking a connection on the last flight of the day to Raleigh-Durham through D.C., I found myself stranded at Dulles Airport, the most beautiful and state-of-the-art airport within a 500-yard radius of itself.

As the man at the ticket counter mashed buttons on what looked to be a keyboard with no corresponding screen, I wondered if he was going to force me to be Mr. Irate Customer Man. I hate being Mr. Irate Customer Man. When the occasion calls for it, my wife Kara makes a terrific Mrs. Irate Customer Woman, getting all sorts of discounts and refunds that we never would have received if she wasn’t willing to hulk out every now and again. But this time I was on my own, alone in a long line of distressed travelers for whom a connecting flight had been the most recent broken promise to come out of our nation’s capital.

As the ticket agent’s fingers continued tapping, a printer under the counter shot out a couple of “Get Out of the Airport Free” cards. The tapping continued with one hand as the man wordlessly slid vouchers for a free hotel and shuttle across the counter, and with a wave of his finger he performed the trick of making me disappear. Without Kara there to negotiate, turn green and fling trash cans around the terminal, I figured I’d be lucky to walk away with a voucher for a free frosty at Wendy’s. Hulk happy.

There’s a certain freedom that comes with staying in a hotel room while your luggage remains stranded in the nether regions of the transportation system. Brush your teeth? Can’t. What to wear tomorrow? Exactly the same thing as today. It’s like being eleven again.

Back at the airport with the same clothes and much different breath the next day, I noticed for the first time that the security lines asked you to pick a category that best described you: casual traveler or expert. While I usually arrive at my destination at the same time as everyone else on the plane, I wasn’t sure whether that qualified me for the black diamond security trail. How do you gain the confidence to label yourself an expert traveler? I guess, to practice at home, you could wedge yourself between the toilet and the tub and have someone jam a serving tray into your knees.

I decided not to hot dog and stepped into the novice line. As it turned out, both lines ended up at the same place, though there were a couple of people in the expert line who looked intermediate at best.

When I got to the front of the line, the security attendant informed me that my airline, possibly because of my hygienic state, had chosen me for extra security screening. That sounded scary at first, evoking images of windowless rooms and latex gloves. But really, the only difference is that you get your own private escort through the X-Ray machine and then they give you a little massage afterwards as a reward. If you ever get a chance to take the extra screening, you should treat yourself. Just book the last flight out of D.C. and you’ll be on your way. Sort of.

You can request an aisle seat at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Free fallin’ in Philly

When I was twelve years old, some family friends (the Nevilles, to give credit where it’s due) gave me a tape for Christmas that contained the first music that ever really spoke to me, and when it spoke, it said, “This is what you’re going to listen to from here on out. You can throw away your Milli Vanilli tapes now.”

The tape was Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever,” and while it might be too much to label its acquisition as a life-changing event, getting that tape did enable me for the first time to have my own decent music without raiding my older sister Amy’s tape collection. Amy had a big-time salary from scooping ice cream at Friendly’s, so she could afford to fill her wall-mounted tape organizer, which would probably today qualify as an exhibit at the Smithsonian, with all the John Cougar Mellencamp and Beastie Boys albums she could get her sprinkle-covered (or jimmy-covered, if you must) hands on. Up until the Nevilles passed “Full Moon Fever” on to me, I had been a musical tapeworm, waiting for my host to try something new so that I could grab a little piece of it for myself.

So when my friends announced that they’d gotten extra tickets to the Tom Petty show at the Wachovia Center a couple weeks ago, my wife Kara and I jumped at the chance to go, even though the tickets cost enough that we could have purchased two barrels of oil or Bear Stearns instead.

To me, the coolest thing about a Tom Petty concert is the mix of people who show up; high school kids are represented in equal numbers with folks who can pull money out of their 401(k)s without penalty. Tom Petty himself will start collecting Social Security soon. I hope he buys himself something nice. In any event, it’s great to see a man who’s been cranking out albums for longer than Microsoft has been cranking out blue screens of death attracting a crowd full of kids who look like they should probably be home trading Pok√©mon cards.

The younger people in the crowd at the Wachovia Center could have learned a lot about concert-going by paying attention to the older folks, the seasoned veterans of getting the highest level of enjoyment out of such an event. For instance, a man in his fifties in the row directly behind me taught those around him an important lesson about how not to have your concert experience cut down in its prime. When a security guard confronts you during the show, shining a flashlight in your face and telling you to come with him, do NOT, under any circumstances, stop playing air guitar. I watched this guy repel security guards by wailing away on his invisible guitar for a solid fifteen minutes. It took them that long to figure out how to penetrate his force field of sheer awesomeness.

The younger folks also had a few tricks in their pockets. Did you know that etiquette now calls for holding up a lighted cell phone instead of a lighter when requesting an encore? Then if the request is denied, everyone can just listen to whoever has the best ringtone.

As always, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put in a solid performance for the screaming audience, playing songs old and new to a crowd that seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t yet the weekend. And while many of his songs are older than the fans who love them, somehow, the aging process doesn’t appear to be affecting Tom Petty at all. He looks exactly the same now as he did fifteen years ago. At least from a hundred and fifty yards, he does. Meanwhile, Keith Richards looks like he’s been through whatever process they use on beef jerky.

You can send your email into the great wide open at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Moving couches, stealing babies

When you have kids, besides signing up for a lifetime of being a caregiver, mentor and science-fair-project-completer, you also, as a reward for surviving their teens, get to carry their couches every year from one apartment to another. Your kids won’t have their own couches, though, so you’ll actually just be picking up the couches that used to be yours and lugging them to an apartment where the shower rod falls down when you turn on the fan.

My parents probably thought they’d gotten out of the business of moving my stuff around the country many years ago, but last weekend they started the enterprise up again, driving nearly four hours each way to deliver their pre-owned couches to our house. They did this because, besides being exceptionally generous people who pass along only the finest of furniture and genes, they saw the state of our previous couch, which was of course also their previous couch, and which had served for many years as a ferret burrow for our late varmint Chopper, making it rattier than a scratching post and holier than the Pope.

So when my folks ordered their own new couches, they volunteered to rent a trailer and bring their old couches up to us. Incidentally, did you know that U-Haul won’t let you hitch one of their trailers to a Ford Explorer? You’ll probably never need to know that, but you also don’t need to know what Tom Cruise’s baby’s name is, which makes it even worse that little Suri Cruise now occupies the shelf space in your brain where the quadratic equation used to be.

My wife Kara recently became a bit of an expert on hauling things herself. Before going to her cousin’s wedding a couple of weeks ago, Kara decided that we should go purse shopping, which is my favorite thing to do when I can’t find a grease trap to clean out.

“Ooh, what do you think about this one?” Kara said, holding up a large black bag with buckles or something on it. I can’t really say for sure what it looked like because I was staring off over the racks, wondering which video games my single friends were playing. There’s only so much purse shopping a man can be expected to handle. It’s like looking through someone’s photo album when you know there aren’t any pictures of you. One can only stay engaged for so long.

“You don’t like it?” she asked.

“Oh, no. It looks like it could hold stuff,” I said.

She ended up purchasing a purse so big that our friend Anna dubbed it a “baby-stealing bag.” The theory was that Kara could put her wedding flip-flops in the purse to carry around until the reception. Apparently, the shoes that women wear to wedding services are just the starting pitchers. They have a whole lineup of middle relief that they call in after the reception begins.

As we drove to the wedding with Kara’s family, she set her new purse in her lap.

“Oh, can I put these in there?” her sister Jill asked, holding up her own flip flops. Her other sister Sarah and her mom looked at the bag and their eyes grew bigger. Pretty soon, every female member of Kara’s family began producing flip-flops that had been hidden in jackets and, presumably, ankle holsters and throwing them into Kara’s bag. By the time we got there, Kara looked like she had enough provisions in her bag for a through hike of the Appalachian Trail. At least she had comfy couches to rest on once we got home.

You can hitch your email to Mike Todd’s inbox at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Can’t teach a new dog new tricks, either

My wife Kara finally got me to go to obedience school, but fortunately while we were there most of her attention was directed towards our new puppy Memphis.

I pictured obedience school as a big Chuck E. Cheese for dogs, where pooches frolic about and someone else teaches them to behave while you sit at the table, eating pizza and dispensing tokens. In reality, the dogs weren’t allowed anywhere near each other, and Kara and I were tasked with controlling what the teacher described as our “perpetual motion machine,” an animal so excited that any number of rabid wolverines would have been easier to teach to “leave it.”

The chairs in the room had been organized into pods, with room only for one dog per pod, along with its servants. Memphis whimpered and pranced, straining at her mangled, half-eaten leash, backing up and launching herself towards every other pod in rapid succession. I quickly downgraded my definition of success from leaving with an obedient dog to leaving with more than half a leash.

The dog in the next pod over glared at Memphis under the chairs, barking and baring its teeth. This was the dog that wanted to beat the other dogs up and take all their lunch money.

“Hey! A new friend!” Memphis thought, attempting a blast-off to go say hello.

A few weeks ago, when my sister’s otherwise very sweet cat tried to attack Memphis through a sliding glass door that was, thankfully, closed, Memphis wagged her tail as the cat hissed and slashed at the glass.

Excited, Memphis looked up at me as if to say, “Hey! A new friend!”

We’d had Memphis for nearly a month before we were able to take her off of house arrest. Until the endless series of puppy shots had been pumped into her, the three of us were under vet’s orders to stay cooped up, our house serving as one large doggy crate. That’s why puppies always seem so cute: the supply of them out in the open is artificially limited. It’s the same way diamonds stay expensive.

Having a dog that you can’t take off your property is like having a computer that has no internet. You can only keep yourself occupied with Spider Solitaire for so long. With the dog bouncing off of various household surfaces, I decided to break the rules, just a little, and walk her a few houses up the street.

One hundred feet into our adventure, a little Swiffer Wet Jet of a dog bolted out of the bushes, pausing in its yapping just long enough to attempt to nip Memphis on her tail. As I shooed the dog away and lamented my lack of chemical irritants with which to spray it, I looked down at Memphis, worried that she had just been permanently emotionally scarred.

She was wagging her tail in the direction of her assailant and looking at me as if to say, “Dude, my new friend has a bit of a temper.”

She seems to carry this attitude with her everywhere she goes, including when the head obedience instructor led her to the middle of the room to demonstrate, well, I’m not sure exactly what she had intended to demonstrate, but if it was futility, she picked the right dog.

With the instructor standing on the leash and snapping her fingers to get our dog’s attention, Memphis wagged her entire body, whipping her head from side to side as she tried to decide which new friend might enjoy a frantic and slobbery visit. In some areas of the world, decades are spent mastering a state of mind that allows one to pay attention to everything at nothing at once, a goal Memphis had achieved entirely by accident. Now if we could only get our little Zen master to lie down.

You can be Mike Todd’s new friend at mikectodd@gmail.com.