Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tiny bags of pretzels for the soul

Last week, I accidentally attended marriage counseling. With our fourth anniversary behind us, my wife Kara and I are actually doing quite well, despite the fact that she won’t let us get the orange juice with the pulp in it. But on a flight that connected home from Atlanta, I found myself sitting beside the happiest couple that had ever coupled, and the conversation that ensued was the most personal I’d ever had on an airplane, meaning that we covered topics other than complaints about the airline that was delivering us safely to our destinations.

Engaging in conversation with the person sitting next to you on a plane is risky. If you get done talking before they do, there’s no way out that doesn’t involve an altimeter, the exit row and a parachute. You can’t just say, “Well, it was nice talking to you. I’m going to turn the other way and stare out the window now. We can still play elbowsies on the armrest if you’d like. Bye!”

But the folks next to me this time were quite pleasant, still basking in the glow of ditching their four kids with the grandparents for a week, and after we’d talked long enough for me to name-drop Kara, the man turned sideways in his seat and said, “So, how do you like married life?”, staring at me intently to signify that he wanted a real answer.

Before simply blurting out, “Oh, it’s great,” I thought about all the things that Kara and I argue about, and realized the great coincidence that our arguments seem largely based on actions that tend to originate with, and emanate from, me: knuckle cracking, fidgeting with the battery caps on our remote controls until the plastic tabs snap off, chewing cereal like a moose chews floating clumps of grass, refusing to blow my nose on the grounds hthat sniffling is far less disgusting, etc.

The great thing about nearly all of these personal flaws is that they are what the insurance industry calls preexisting conditions. If your spouse knows about your preexisting conditions but chooses to marry you anyway, that’s their fault, not yours. You are only responsible for the annoying things you started doing postnuptially.

“Oh, it’s great,” I said, and that was the truth. If a couple’s worst marital strife centers in any way around the manner in which one of them consumes Cracklin’ Oat Bran, things can’t be all that bad.

The man went on to explain that he was interested because he was a marriage counselor. “There are five languages people use to express love: physical touch, servitude, words of affirmation, gifts and French.”

Actually, French wasn’t one of them, but I thought I was doing pretty good to remember four out of five when I still can’t dial Kara’s cell phone from memory.

“Rarely do two people get married who send and receive love using the same language,” he said. “Most marital problems come from people not understanding how their partner wants to receive love, or how they’re trying to send love.”

I’d never heard love described like a FedEx package before, but overall he was the least kooky stranger who’d ever offered me free advice.

His services might have been better applied to the couple one row forward. When the plane landed, the woman directly in front of me stood up quickly, cracking her head with gusto on the bottom of the luggage bins.

Without pause, her husband said, “Hey, watch your head when you stand up.”

He looked around to see if anyone else thought his wife’s near-concussion was funny, completely oblivious to the fact that she was rubbing her head and giving him a look that could have destroyed the One Ring much faster than the Fires of Mordor.

You can put Mike Todd’s tray table into its upright and locked position at

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Love Boat’s newest crew member

“Guess where I am right now?” my buddy Josh asked me on the phone last Friday. The way he asked, it seemed like he expected me to know.

“Holy cow, today’s Friday, isn’t it?” I said.

“You’re the worst friend in the universe,” he replied. Earlier in the week, he told me that Friday was the day his wife Jaime would be going in for a scheduled caesarian section. You can see how a detail like that would slip one’s mind, what with McDonald’s revamping its dollar menu and the new Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants movie coming out. The brain only has room for so many details.

In my defense, when I first heard the news about the C-section, I’d offered to come to the hospital for the big day, mostly because my idea of proper pregnancy etiquette is informed almost entirely by sitcoms. I have no idea what real-life friends are supposed to do in these situations, but TV friends almost always hang around waiting rooms, exchanging witticisms, accidentally knocking trays out of doctors’ hands and sometimes actually delivering the babies themselves. In reality, though, waiting room seats are best filled by family members, even if they aren’t participating in enough love triangles to keep a multi-threaded plot moving forward.

Josh and Jaime’s new little son displayed his first prenatal predilections towards orneriness by turning sideways in the womb just before he was scheduled for his big introduction to the world, necessitating the appointment for the doctors to pull him out of the womb in a procedure that must have looked, I can only guess, something like when the spaceship pulled Keanu Reeves out of his pink Jell-o pod in the first Matrix movie.

Before their little Eval Knieval started pulling his first attention-getting stunts, Josh and Jaime had been preparing themselves for giving birth the old-fashioned way, with an epidural and lots of swearing, by attending birthing classes, which Josh would then describe to me in graphic detail.

“It’s not bad enough that babies come out all encrusted in goop and nastiness,” he would say, and then he’d go on to describe, in hushed tones and words not fit to print in a family publication, something called “the afterbirth.” I remember sixth grade health class fairly vividly, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any talk of afterbirth, or maybe I just missed it because we were throwing clay from art class at each other every time the teacher wrote on the blackboard. As Josh regaled me with tales of the video he’d just seen in class, I felt like we were on the see-saw at recess as the older kid explained where babies came from, which was pretty much the case, minus the see-saw.

“They actually put this stuff in a bowl and poke it around and examine it like it’s the most interesting thing in the world,” he’d continue, “But the husbands usually don’t see that part anyway, ‘cause they’re out in the hallway high-fiving and making phone calls.”

And so it was that he called me from the hospital on Friday, after the first round of high-fives. Little Issac Phillip Perlson was resting comfortably with mom after their first of many big days together.


“Did you name him after the Isaac from Love Boat or after the Isaac who invented gravity?” I asked.

Turned out it was a family name, and a fine name at that, if perhaps lacking the pizzazz of a “Tulula Does the Hula From Hawaii,” the girl in New Zealand who recently made headlines after successfully suing to have her name changed. My suggestion to Josh and Jaime of “José Does the Pasa Doble From Newtown” never quite got the traction I thought it deserved.

So all is well with the new family, and the stress of going through with a C-section did apparently have some benefits.

“Isaac is already perfect-looking,” he said, as he rode his end of the see-saw towards the sky. “When they come out the normal way, their heads get all squooshed like deflated basketballs.”

You can send emails to Mike Todd’s delivery room at

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Backyard Chainsaw Massacre

About a month ago, a maple tree in our backyard gave up the photosynthetic ghost and came crashing to the ground at the edge of our property. The last leaf had barely fluttered to rest before my wife Kara had whipped out her favorite landscaping tools, the credit card and the telephone, to set about making the tree disappear. When I realized what she was doing, I dove across the room like a bodyguard taking a bullet, yelling, “Nooooo!” in slow motion as I lunged for the phone. I knew a Tool Purchasing Opportunity when I saw one, and Kara was about to waste it.

No tool can bestow undeserved coolness upon its owner like the chainsaw. You don’t even have to use it. You can just take the chainsaw out of the box and mount it on the garage wall like a trophy. Your friends will look at your trophy and admire it, while you hook your thumbs through your suspenders and say, “Yup, that’s an 18-incher right there. Bagged it just down the street at a little spot I know. Put up quite a fight. Took all I had just to wrestle it into the shopping cart.”

“Oh, no, that’s the last thing we need,” Kara said. “Remember when the chain snapped on Nelson’s chainsaw and smashed his safety goggles? He had to get stitches on his forehead.”

Leave it to Nelson to wreck all the fun for the rest of us.

“What if we talk to Gary first?” I asked. Our friend Gary works in landscaping and has actual credibility on a topic, a peculiarity among my buddies.

Kara reluctantly agreed, and when I broached the topic at lunch with Gary, he replied, “Oh, there’s a great five-hour safety course you can take. I’ll email you the contact information for the instructor.”

I wilted. Five hours. You could cut a tree apart with left-handed scissors in five hours. Besides, what could an experienced safety expert tell you in a full day of hands-on instruction that a Google of “chainsaw safety” couldn’t tell you in thirty seconds? Not much, I’ll continue assuming.

After reaching an agreement with Kara not to fire it up without adult supervision, I purchased a chainsaw and the sundry quart bottles that the hardware clerk threw into the cart. If you’ve never owned one, you might not know that you can’t just put regular unleaded fuel into a chainsaw; it requires a special mixture of gasoline and testosterone.

Even though the chainsaw is still sitting in its box in the garage, I already feel tougher. There’s not another tool that has captured the popular imagination quite like the chainsaw, and for good reason. Nobody would go to see The Texas T-Square Massacre. Jason Voorhees never donned a hockey mask and went after campers with a plumb-bob. Chainsaws are a powerful, scary tool, and mine is much less likely to halve me when it’s packed safely away in its styrofoam. I don’t regret the purchase, though. A homeowner should have a chainsaw handy; you never know when another tree might fall or a summer camp full of promiscuous teens might open up nearby.

Meanwhile, our tree is still out there in the backyard, awaiting proper dismemberment. Fortunately, it fell away from the house, so for now I can just kind of pretend it isn’t there, like a tip cup by the cash register.

On my twenty-first birthday, a friend of mine bought me a sadistic shot called a “prairie fire,” which consisted of tequila and Tabasco sauce. After I let the shot sit for ten minutes, my friend asked, “What are you waiting for?”

“For it to evaporate,” I replied.

The tree is pretty much the same thing. I’m waiting for it to biodegrade. That’s probably what the safety instructor would tell me to do once he saw me with a chainsaw, anyway.

You can put Mike Todd back together again at

Monday, August 04, 2008

Electroshock for the whole family

If you love something, let it go. But first, strap a low-voltage collar around its neck so that it’ll get zapped if it tries to cross your property line.

My wife Kara and I chose this approach last week with our dog Memphis, who is now the proud detainee of an invisible fence. We’d been dithering for months about whether or not we should subject our pooch and ourselves to the training process for one of these fences, but we eventually decided that giving Memphis the freedom to roam the yard without being tethered to one of us outweighed the yelping that would occur when we received the bill.

“How bad does it hurt?” I asked the fence man before we took Memphis out for her first training session.

“It’s not even what you’d think of as a shock. It’s just a mild correction. It feels like shuffling your feet on the carpet and then touching a doorknob,” he assured us. Everyone in the invisible fence business is very careful to steer away from the word “shock,” preferring the euphemism “correction” instead. It sounds much nicer to correct your dog. It’s like she’s a spelling test.

The settings on the collar went from 1 (Brookstone-style massage) to 7 (incapacitate a rhinoceros). The fence man set Memphis’ collar to 2. Wearing that collar with the little plastic box under her neck, Memphis looked like a miniature black St. Bernard, on her way to bring batteries to some stranded robots.

The learning process for an invisible fence required Kara to go just outside of the boundary, kneeling and making a big show of shaking the little white flags that dotted the perimeter while saying, “No!” Memphis of course ran straight out to say hello, receiving a warning beep and then her first correction, which she enjoyed receiving exactly as much as I enjoy receiving things like wedgies and property tax bills. When Memphis responded the way we’d hoped, turning away from Kara and coming back to me, I gave her a treat, which she accepted as she looked up at me with eyes that said, “Don’t taze me, bro. Don’t taze me.”

John Mellencamp once sang, “Sometimes love don’t feel like it should,” which he must have penned shortly after installing his own invisible fence. I could only watch the first few minutes of training through the fingers that were covering my eyes, much like how I’d watch horror movies if I didn’t go hide under the covers every time somebody puts one on. Fortunately for all of us, Memphis learned very quickly. After a handful of corrections, snuggling with a rabid wolverine or taking a joyride with Nick Nolte would have been higher on her to-do list than getting anywhere near those white flags.

After her first day of training, I finally couldn’t stand not knowing firsthand exactly how much juice her collar was putting out. It didn’t seem fair to subject our animal to something that I wouldn’t subject myself to, which, incidentally, is how we found out how much better teriyaki rawhides taste.

I took the collar out to the property line, pressed the metal contacts against my forearm, ignored the warning beep and walked across.

When I came to, I found that the best thing about my experiment was that the paramedic gave me a free lollipop, the big kind with white swirls in it, which helped to make up for the fact that my pants had burned off.

In truth, the correction doesn’t even feel as bad as a carpet-to-doorknob shock. I can see why it’s a sensation that a dog would rather not prolong, but I feel better knowing that we’re not giving our dog freedom at the expense of turning her into a Tesla coil.

You can correct Mike Todd at