Sunday, January 31, 2010

Our agent of destruction

While out for a stroll in town a few weeks ago, my wife Kara and I bumped into our old real estate agent, the one who helped us buy our first house back when people still bought and sold houses, instead of just giving them to the bank.

That old house had a lot to teach us, namely that after seventy years, houses begin to biodegrade. An old house just wants to give itself back to nature, and the only thing that can keep it from crumbling into a heap of splintered beams and broken shingles is your credit card.

We lived there for five golden years, four plumbing mishaps, three basement floods, two leaky skylights and a partridge skeleton in the heating duct. Actually, it was a rat skeleton, and we only lived there for four years, but you get my point.

Kara and I like to think that by the time we sold that house, things were generally in decent shape, but with an old house there’s always a feeling of impending destruction, that at any time, something is going to snap off in your hand, fall on your head or slice a hole right through your checking account.

“Don’t sneeze,” we’d say to each other as we quietly backed out the front door, stepping on the slate tiles that would flip up like garden hoes from a Three Stooges routine.

“I see you two have been busy,” our old agent Sandra said to us, peering into the stroller and waving at our son Evan.

Seeing her again brought back all the memories of our old place, and reminded me that there are some things I’m extremely glad not to have at this point in my life: diphtheria, twins, a real estate agent.

“Well, you better enjoy them when they’re this age,” she said, turning to face her teenage daughter, “because this is what they turn into.”

She threw her head back and laughed, while her daughter glanced up from texting just long enough to shoot a glance that said, “OMG, UR NOT FUNNY.”

When older parents see our baby, they invariably make a comment about how they wish their kids could be six months old again, which strikes me as completely insane. Sure, Evan is cute, and he’s even beginning to enjoy books, in the culinary sense. That is, he tries to eat them. He’s quite the consumer of literature.

But as much as we appreciate the small joys of his age, we’re looking forward to a time when he can interact more with us, share his opinions and torment the dog. I think parents who wish their kids were babies again are repressing about 75% of their memories, or at least the memories that occurred between 2 and 5am.

After a few minutes of catching up with Sandra, her daughter, who had been quietly attempting to explore the outer limits of unlimited texting, started rolling her eyes and tapping her foot.

“Maaaah-aaaaahm,” she whispered, nudging her mother’s elbow without looking up from her phone.

I could empathize. There’s nothing worse than being a kid and waiting for a boring adult conversation to wrap up. At least half of my childhood was spent waiting for my folks to get done talking with some boring adult about Freon levels or local politicians. Still, it was sobering to realize that we had somehow become the boring adults who were keeping this girl from her life of adventure on a Saturday afternoon.

I tried to think of a conversation topic that might not bore her to sad-faced emoticons, but I had no idea where to start. iPhones? Learner’s permits? The Jonas Brothers?

In the end, we cut the conversation mercifully short, said our goodbyes, and headed home, where we’ll hopefully have a few more years before the roof caves in.

You can foreclose on Mike Todd at

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Attack of the plastic monstrosities

“Oh, pooch, I’m so sorry,” I said to my dog Memphis as she pressed against my shins, cowering like she’d done something wrong. We’d just strolled out into the street for our nightly walk, an event that we usually both enjoy, or at least we do when we aren’t wearing shock collars that should have been removed twenty feet ago.

While I once had some misgivings about hooking up our dog to a system that is designed to treat her like a bug zapper treats a moth, I’m now a huge fan. Memphis has freedom that she’d never otherwise have, and she never tests her boundaries. The system works perfectly, if operated by a non-moron. At least I assume that it would.

I’d take full blame for not snapping off the collar for her invisible fence before taking her off our property, but really, if we’re being honest, the dog should never have trusted me. She knows that my brains are slowly turning into strained carrots.

Our normal routine had been shaken up minutes earlier, as I’d made several trips back to the house to drag appliance-sized boxes out beside the trash can, boxes that once contained the gigantic plastic monstrosities that now inhabit our living room.

One of the worst symptoms of baby-having syndrome, besides thinking that everyone wants to hear stories, see pictures, watch YouTube clips and read newspaper columns about your baby, is that every square inch of floor space in your house gets occupied by things that end in “-eroo.” Bounceroos, jumperoos, this-cost-$150-but-your-kid-would-rather-play-with-empty-Doritos-bageroos, those kinds of things.

Our seven-month-old son Evan now has more furniture than we do. Admittedly, my memory from that era is a little spotty, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t have nearly this many gigantic plastic monstrosities when I was his age. Back then, kids just stared at the wall, waiting for Super Mario Brothers to be invented.

Last year, my buddy Josh called to complain after he’d spent all afternoon assembling a huge plastic activity center for his son. “Dude, this stupid thing came in seven hundred pieces. I had to bust out a screwdriver and everything,” he said.

“You have a screwdriver?” I asked. Josh is a computer whiz, but he has less experience using tools than your average chimpanzee.

“Go ahead and make fun, but you’ll understand someday,” he said.

Someday is here, and while it might take all day to put one of these things together, if you want respect, you’d be better off playing guitar in Times Square in your underpants. Nobody is ever going to say, “Oh, man, you built that Fischer-Price jumperoo all by yourself? I had no idea you were such a stud!”

Whether or not getting distracted by the baby stuff was a sufficient excuse for getting the dog shocked is a matter for debate, one that I’d lose, but it does go to show that there’s hardly anything for which having a baby doesn’t at least supply a plausible excuse.

When the dental hygienist gives you a hard time about your lack of flossing, you just say, “Flossing? I have a baby. I’m lucky my shoes match.”

When you show up an hour late for dinner with your friends, you just point at the thirty-pound car seat that you’re lugging through the door, and they immediately understand. I mean, they would hypothetically understand, if you ever saw your friends anymore.

As far as Memphis was concerned, no excuses were necessary. One Milk-Bone and several apologies later, all was forgiven. I’ll have to be on my toes from here on out, though. You mess up with a dog, it costs you a biscuit. You mess up with a kid, you just might have to build a plastic castle where your dining room table used to be.

You can shock Mike Todd at

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What floats beneath

The reader(s) of this column may remember from last week that my house just experienced an aquatic mishap so severe that, had it taken place on a submarine, the remedy would have been to close the hatch to the bottom floor, sealing it off before the whole thing went down.

The ensuing events have been quite informative about how to recover from a water-damaged basement, after the stomping-on-every-towel-in-the-house technique has been exhausted. We learned about how to start the recovery process from my in-laws, who had recently experienced the unfortunate privilege of living in the first house uphill from a sewer blockage, which sent raw sewage a foot deep spewing into their basement through their downstairs john, marking perhaps the most unpleasant thing to come out of a toilet this side of the movie “Ghoulies.”

That fiasco at the in-laws’ helped my wife Kara and I to keep the proper perspective with our own basement problems. Whatever issues you may be having in life, if you can describe them without using the phrase “raw sewage a foot deep,” then maybe things really aren’t that bad.

When we came home to discover the damage on New Year’s Eve, I went running around to the neighbors’ houses, knocking on doors in the hopes of procuring a dehumidifier, only to discover that we were the only ones home on New Year’s Eve, adding “being the biggest losers in the neighborhood” to our list of problems.

After several frantic phone calls, my buddy Sergey came through in the clutch, giving me instructions, as drunken voices reveled in the background, for breaking into his house to steal his dehumidifier, a task that would have been much more exciting had his Rottweiler been home.

“Oh, the dog’s not there?” I said, pulling the tranquilizers back out of the T-bone steak.

Upon returning home and sloshing across the basement carpet, I set down Sergey’s dehumidifier and plugged it in. Water dripped from the ceiling. Drywall slowly crumpled. Newlyweds floated by on gondolas while their boatmen sang, “That’s Amore.”

But still, the dehumidifier bravely soldiered on, trying to get rid of the moisture when the odds were so clearly dripping against it. It was like the last of the 300 Spartans, but without the loincloth or the Crisco-smeared torso.

The next morning, Kara’s parents recommended that we call Servpro, the company whose motto is “Like It Never Happened.” This motto refers only to floods and fires, so there wasn’t anything they could do about Brian Kiernan shoving me into the girls’ room in tenth grade.

Very quickly, the Servpro folks removed our ceiling, cut out our walls, tore up our carpet and placed gigantic drying machines all over the house. The cumulative noise from these machines was indistinguishable from that of a jet engine, the presumable idea being to trick you into imagining that you were not in a messed-up house, but on the tarmac beside a flight bound for the Bahamas.

The strangest thing about this whole experience has been the help from our insurance company. When their check arrived, I gripped tightly onto the mailbox as I opened the envelope, bracing myself for the Earth to start spinning the other way, water to start running uphill and baked potato chips to start tasting better than fried ones.

I hesitate to say it before the repairs have really even started, but the insurance company has actually been quite helpful so far. Oh, okay, it’s Allstate. They’ve been very good. So good that I’ll probably never need to devote a month’s worth of columns to the negative experiences that I don’t foresee having.

In any event, we’re now dried out and starting to think about getting put back together again. And if things go south from here, at least I still have those tranquilizers.

You can hit Mike Todd’s eye like a big pizza pie at

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Not-So-Great Flood

The way I picture it, the hose under our kitchen sink was like a guy at the beach, sucking in his gut. While we were in the house, the hose was flexing its muscles, trying to impress us with its strength, walking carefully to avoid any unnecessary jiggling.

The moment we walked out the door, though, it said, “Ahhhhh,” and just let it all hang out.

We’re not really sure of the precise moment when the hose under our sink decided to dangle its belly over its swim trunks, but we can say with some degree of certainty that it happened between December 18, when we departed for the first leg of our two-family holiday tour, and New Year’s Eve, when we made what turned out to be our very exciting return home.

“I’ll be upstairs changing the baby,” I told my wife Kara as she hustled to the kitchen to prepare our son Evan’s bottle. He’d gone three hours without a feeding, which means, on the Incredible Hulk Scale, that he was about a seven: beginning to turn green and angry, though not yet bursting his onesie into tatters.

As soon as I set him down, Evan started kicking and shrieking on the changing table. I’ve heard it said about some parents that they could change a diaper on a running baby. I’m not quite there yet, but I can do a decent job while he jogs in place.

After a moment, I realized that Evan wasn’t the only one shrieking.

“Babe, if you’re saying something to me, I can’t hear you over the baby hollering,” I called towards the nursery door.

Kara screamed something else indeterminate.

“Sorry buddy, Mommy’s being crazy right now. I’ll be right back,” I told Evan, stepping away from the table.

“What are you yelling about?” I called from the hallway, finding Kara dashing up the stairs.


Some things are never good to have in your house, under any circumstances. Zombies. Brussels sprouts. Teenagers. Somewhere very high on that list: puddles.

Up until that moment, I’d thought my biggest problem was my holiday love handles, which had become much more ergonomic over the past two weeks, like those big-grip spatulas, but fortunately the universe stepped in to provide a handy distraction from my toffee-and-gumdrop-related troubles.

Kara ran to take the baby as I took the stairs two-at-a-time with an armload of towels. Under the kitchen sink, a small, steady spray of water shot from the hose that connected the faucet to the cold water supply. A quick twist of the shutoff valve turned the spray into a trickle, then to a drip, then to nothing.

We threw every towel in the house onto the kitchen floor, sopping up as much as we could, pretending we didn’t see the small tectonic ridges forming in the hardwood.

“Well, I guess it could have been worse,” I said. Kara nodded. And then our eyes both rested on the door to the basement. The basement that we’d just finished less than two months ago. The basement which sits directly beneath the kitchen. Well, actually, it doesn’t really sit there anymore. Swims, more like.

We knew that something wasn’t right before we even flipped the lights on. As we walked into the basement, we could hear the sound of water dripping onto more water, like we were descending into a medieval dungeon.

“Oh, dude,” Kara said.

Our recessed lights had been turned into water features, dripping steady streams onto the saturated new carpet, as large swathes of new paint bubbled off of the wall.

In times like these, it’s important to look at the dry side. If you can finish a basement, then you can also start it over. In the meantime, since ping-pong is out of the question, I’m thinking of taking up rice farming.

You can twist Mike Todd’s shutoff valve at

Monday, January 04, 2010

Two eggs with a side of guilt

“If you don’t get it, I’m going to squish it,” my wife Kara said last week, pointing at the stink bug that was quietly minding its own business on the living room wall.

Kara takes advantage of my delicate sensibilities, knowing that she won’t have to stand up to remove a bug from the room if she threatens to kill it. This is especially true of the gadfly, the unfortunate insect that, although perfectly harmless, suffers the affliction of looking like a mosquito that could suck a Big Gulp dry.

“Aaaaah! A giant mosquito! I’m going to squish it before it turns me into a raisin!” Kara will say, forcing me to intercede on the innocent bug’s behalf. I don’t have nearly the same soft spot for stink bugs, the non-native pests that have recently staged an invasion rivaling that of The Beatles (but without the boyish charm), though I still couldn’t just sit there while the stink bug met its fate in Kara’s Paper Towel of Doom.

“Okay, okay,” I said, rescuing the bug by flinging it out the front door, where it would probably freeze to death, shivering and wishing that someone would come along and squish it with a paper towel.

Later that afternoon, as I noshed on a ham sandwich for lunch, I wondered why I felt compelled to save stink bugs, but had no problem eating pigs, which are clearly cuter and much more likely to land talking roles in movies.

My buddy Johnny, who once shared a diet indistinguishable from that of a hyena, had just days earlier defied decades of precedent by telling me not to order any pepperoni on his half of the pizza.

“I’ve been a vegetarian for about a month,” he said, and he could have knocked me over with a bean sprout. He was the last person in the world I’d have pictured giving up an entire category of food on principal, especially tasty, bacony food. One day, he apparently just decided to quit cold pork chop. I can understand that a pig would thank Johnny for not ordering a spiral-cut ham, but would a pig really mind if you just took a few little harmless pieces of pepperoni? He probably wouldn’t even notice.

With more of my friends and family becoming vegetarians, pescatarians (vegetarians who think fish are vegetables) and flexitarians (vegetarians who’ll eat meat at your house), I’m wondering if I might someday reach a point where my guilt at eating meat will outweigh my lifelong distaste for food that didn’t come from a star of the song “Old MacDonald.” Unfortunately, the only vegetable I really enjoy eating is the onion, preferably deep fried and in ring form.

Some of my guilt for being an animal-loving near-carnivore is alleviated by being a waste-not-atarian. I regularly join the Clean Plate Club, which fortunately doesn’t interfere with my membership in the Put Your Dirty Dishes in the Sink and Pretend That You Didn’t Notice That the Dishwasher Needs Emptying Club.

All things being equal, I’d prefer, as I expect most people would, not to be eaten by a cannibal. But if I ever find myself served up, head on an ivory platter, apple in mouth, bald spot glistening with a nice orange chipotle glaze, I’d be pretty miffed if the cannibal pushed back from the table halfway through the meal and said, “Well, I guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Maybe I shouldn’t have filled up on potatoes. Anyway, I hope he doesn’t clog the garbage disposal.”

So maybe someday I’ll show up at Johnny’s place to join him for a plain pizza and a clean conscience. At the very least, that would give Kara a few minutes to squish all of our stink bugs.

You can throw Mike Todd out the front door at

Friday, January 01, 2010