Sunday, August 29, 2010

Things that Elmo does in the night

As I strolled through the downstairs in near-total darkness, checking the door locks one last time before heading to bed, a voice from the living room shattered the stillness, letting me know that I wasn’t alone, and sending my heart ricocheting off of various lesser organs.

“Elmo will be there soon!” the intruder announced.

My son’s Sesame Street jack-in-the-box sat in the center of the floor, speaking of it own volition. Nobody had asked it to say anything, but like a congressman, it went on anyway.

“What’s going on out there?” it asked before playing a few notes of Pop Goes the Weasel.

I breathed a sigh of relief and continued across the kitchen, where the remains of my Great Shame sat spread across the counter. My wife Kara had ordered a bookshelf from Pottery Barn Kids, and after I’d removed all the pieces from the box, a quick skim of the assembly instructions had seemed sufficient for throwing the thing together. As I tightened each shelf onto the frame with the supplied Allen wrench, the bolts made a satisfying wooden snapping noise, letting me know that I’d put them in nice and tight.

I turned the half-completed bookshelf upright to see that it was actually half-destroyed. The outer side panel looked like Frankenstein’s neck, with three bolts shooting through the splintered wooden veneer. At least the mystery of “How Come I Still Have All These Parts Left Over?” was solved. Some of those parts were apparently of some importance.

“Oh, I understand the problem, but we don’t sell replacement parts,” the customer service representative explained.

“I just need Part C from the assembly instructions. Can you put me in touch with the manufacturer?” I asked.

“They don’t sell them, either,” she said.

“And also, you’re the first person in the entire universe to mess this thing up,” she continued in the ensuing silence.

“So the only way to get a new side panel is to buy a whole new bookshelf?” I asked.

“Or you could call a carpenter,” she advised. “They do really nice work.”

That’s exactly what I wanted to do, call a master craftsman, someone who could mold wood to his will, and show him the bookshelf I destroyed with an Allen wrench.

In my defense, it does take a special kind of talent to destroy something with an Allen wrench, but it’s the kind of talent you’d only share in certain company, like making biological noises with your armpits.

I passed the wreckage of the bookshelf on my way to the thermostat, to see if Kara had punched the down arrow enough times for our house to reach equilibrium with the fridge. If a CSI came to our house and dusted the air conditioner’s thermostat for prints, they would find no record of Kara’s existence on the up arrow.

“I don’t understand. You’re always turning the AC warmer in the summer, but then you turn the boiler colder in winter,” Kara said to me recently, after we’d completed our millionth discussion about the temperature in the house, causing balloons and confetti to fall from the ceiling.

That’s when I came to realize something about myself: I don’t like it colder or warmer. I like it cheaper.

After quietly punching the AC up a degree, I headed towards the stairs, my nighttime checklist complete.

“Elmo will be there soon!” the jack-in-the-box called into the darkness, and it began to sound less like a promise and more like a threat. What does Elmo want, and why is he coming here?

Fortunately, I don’t get scared by much anymore, since I started keeping an Allen wrench in my pocket. I’m a menace with that thing.

You can punch Mike Todd down a degree at

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Taking one for the team

“Careful, Mike!” my little cousin Clara yelled as our extended family shuffled down Saddleback Mountain in the rain during our Maine vacation, my son Evan perched behind me in his big red backpack, quietly misplacing his trust in his dad.

“Don’t worry, Clara, if I fall, I’ll do my best to fall on my face,” I said, patting Evan’s hand. “I fully intend to take one for the team.”

Eleven of us, including six kids, hiked to the summit that day, and when we got to the top, exhausted and exhilarated, we turned around to see the 20% chance of isolated showers heading straight for us, a wall of dark clouds replacing the sweeping view that had been there moments before.

“No rest for the wicked,” my Dad said, and we all began hustling down the mountain, throwing the trail mix we’d been saving for a lunch break into our mouths as we went.

A few hundred yards from the summit, the rain swept in, soaking everyone except for Evan, who watched the proceedings with interest from under his rain bonnet. My little cousins were troopers, apparently not yet having realized that half the fun of hiking is whining about hiking.

Baby-stepping down the slippery trail, the heel of one foot never passing the toe of the other, we all arrived at the parking lot soaking but unscathed. Evan had just completed the longest hike of his life, raising his father’s confidence beyond the recommended safety parameters.

“Be careful,” my wife Kara said two days later, back home, as I left to take Evan and our dog Memphis for a stroll in the woods near our house.

“I’m half mountain goat,” I replied.

The first forty minutes of our walk passed without incident.

Then I started hurrying, worried about getting Evan home past his bedtime. And you know what they say: Haste makes waste, and also makes blood shoot out of normally placid orifices.

Out of nowhere, a miscreant root accosted my right foot, then my left.

I’d like to think that I consciously decided to take the brunt of the fall, but there wasn’t really time to think about heroics, much less unhook my thumbs from the backpack’s shoulder straps. The ship was going down, quickly.

Fortunately, the ground was there to arrest the increasing velocity of my face.

On impact, two water bottles shot down the trail like backpack-mounted rockets as something in my face made a sound I hadn’t heard since my last viewing of a Cap’n Crunch commercial.

The next noise I heard was Evan crying by my ear. Dazed, I wriggled out of the backpack and set him upright.

“Daddy’s so sorry, Daddy’s so sorry,” I said, frantically giving him a once-over. The bag had admirably passed its first (and, I hope, last) crash test, and Evan was without harm, except perhaps to his sense of paternal infallibility, if he had one to start with.

I took a moment to inspect my teeth, confirming that I still had them all. It was then that I noticed Memphis standing in the trail, looking at us with a cocked head as if to ask, “Why would you do that?”

The Tarantino-esque blood spurts emitting from my nose settled down after a moment, and we headed back down the trail slowly, like a car getting back on the road after a fender bender.

Back home, after Kara had a moment to digest our adventures of the past hour, she graciously poured on the sympathy.

“I might have whiplash, too” I said.

“You should go see a doctor,” she replied.

I whined one step too far. A good whiner whines just enough to get sympathy, but backs off before someone tries to send them to the doctor.

Anyway, my nose seems to be healing up just fine on its own, and I was right about being half mountain goat. It just wasn't the half I was hoping for.

You can have a nice trip and see Mike Todd next fall at

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The curse of a new generation

I’ve often seen the quote “May you live in interesting times” passed off as an ancient Chinese curse, as if the worst thing you could wish upon someone was a greater historical event affecting his or her life. Based on recent personal experience, though, I think the curse would pack a lot more punch if it were updated to say something more like: “May you drive to Maine with a constipated infant.”

My wife Kara and I lived through this curse last weekend on our drive back home from a family vacation in Maine. You might have noticed that my proposed revision to the curse mentions driving to Maine, not from Maine, but if the curse reflected our situation exactly, then you could only use it to curse people who were already in Maine, which would severely limit its usefulness as a curse, unless you ate a bad lobster and wanted to get back at the lobsterman.

“I think I’m going slowly insane,” Kara said as our son Evan wailed across the entirety of New Hampshire. We’d stopped multiple times to see if anything we could do would put him in better spirits, but nothing worked. I don’t know for certain whether his constipation had anything to do with his foul mood, but it seemed fairly clear that Evan was feeling as if Mozart had performed a movement more recently than he had.

A reasonable person might wonder why a family with an infant wouldn’t just fly to Maine, rather than attempting an automotive traverse of the Eastern Seaboard. This person would clearly have never visited Rangeley, Maine, a remote mountain town whose charm owes in part to its inaccessibility. Flying to Rangeley would be a fine option, if JetBlue offered pontoon flights. The only airports for hours in any direction are tiny little rich-person, bring-your-own-airplane airports. Rangeley doesn’t even have a McDonald’s. It is the Land That Ronald McDonald Forgot, or Avoided on Account of the Mosquitoes.

The drive home from a vacation is never as much fun as the drive there, with excited anticipation replaced by a grim determination to get home and chase off the fruit flies that moved in while you were gone. Evan, who had been on his best behavior on the drive to Rangeley, seemed to sense the difference, and both Kara and I would gladly have chosen to live in interesting times over spending another half-day in that car.

As we pulled back onto the highway after one of our sanity stops, Kara handed me a bag of Sour Patch Kids and said, “Happy anniversary.”

I responded by pulling a large bag of Twizzlers, her favorite candy for some reason, out of my pocket.

“Happy anniversary,” I replied. I’d scratched the price tag off the front of the bag because I didn’t want her to know that I’d blown $1.29 on her gift, even though she’s worth every penny.

The sixth anniversary is traditionally the iron anniversary or the candy anniversary, depending on whether you ask a blacksmith or Willy Wonka. Kara and I discussed it ahead of time and decided not to buy each other big iron monstrosities that we’d feel compelled to display.

The iron anniversary is a tough one. If you’re not married to an actor at a Renaissance fair, what can you possibly buy your spouse that is both made of iron and a decent present? If you get your wife a cast iron skillet for your anniversary, you should probably also get yourself a good helmet.

Instead, we decided to keep this anniversary simple, with my parents volunteering for a babysitting shift so Kara and I could go out to a nice dinner, a precious rarity for us. As we rolled into our driveway early that evening, Evan’s screams finally turned to smiles, and our times got a little less interesting. Though it was tough to tell the difference with the Sour Patch Kids stuffed in my ears.

You can curse Mike Todd at

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mainely pictures of Evan

Here are some pics from our big fat family vacation to Rangeley, Maine last week:

Sunday, August 08, 2010

When preteens attack!

As my friend Sergey and I approached our town tennis courts recently, I anxiously peered over my shoulder, performing a visual sweep to make sure the area was clear. You might not realize that when you’re standing on a tennis court, the chain-link fence turns you into a caged animal, at the mercy of whatever tormentors may happen to wander past. A few years back, I learned this lesson the hard way, taught by the most terrifying tormentors of all: twelve-year-olds.

My wife Kara, her friend Isabel and I met after work to play Canadian doubles (so-called because no more than three Canadians have ever tried to play tennis at the same time) on the courts near Isabel’s apartment. On the adjacent basketball court, six twelve-year-olds goofed around, a few of them halfheartedly hopping around on skateboards. After a couple minutes, they became tired of malingering and decided to turn their attention towards us, generously offering their services as spectators. For these kids, spectating was not a spectator sport.

“Yayyyy!” they yelled whenever Kara or Isabel hit the ball, even if it sailed out of bounds.

“Boooo!” they yelled every time I hit it, forcing me to endure more prepubescent jeers than a pro wrestling villain.

After this had been going on for a few minutes, I hit a winner down the line. “That’ll shut them up,” I thought, and indeed, there were no ensuing boos.

“Know what’s sad?” the ringleader said. “This guy’s probably been playing tennis his whole life, and this is how good he is.”

Just as I turned to give an annoyed look, my primary weapon for disciplining strangers, the ringleader ran around the fence and into the middle of our court. He proceeded to rip off his shirt, pass one end between his legs and pelvic thrust wildly, demonstrating a whole new genre of interpretive dance, and perhaps flossing.

As he made his exit to his friends’ cheers, he grabbed one of our balls.

“Dude!” I said, attempting to appeal to our common dudeness.

“Oooh, this is the best ball ever!” he said, throwing it in the air to himself as he ran back to his friends. They all made a show out of throwing our ball around, enthralled. We ignored them for several minutes, but then, as the ringleader held the ball towards me and danced around, I made a critical unforced error.

“You having fun with that?” I said, engaging the enemy through the Chain-Link Curtain.

“Did you just call me fat?” he said.

“No, I said ---,” but it was too late.

“I’m sensitive about my weight!” he screamed, once again ripping off the shirt he’d just put back on, suggesting that perhaps he wasn’t quite as sensitive as he was letting on.

He stomped back towards the entrance, feigning outrage, and began sprinting straight at me, screaming.

What is the safest way to respond to a charging twelve-year-old? Do you play dead, like when a Grizzly charges? Stand on your tiptoes and try to look huge?

I stood there, tennis racquet in hand, the kid charging at me like the English cavalry, wondering how I would react if he actually attacked. I felt like Braveheart, standing still and yelling “Hold!” as the onslaught arrived, except with no future plans for racist tirades that would end my career.

I learned that day that, if pushed hard enough, every man has a point at which he will seriously consider thwacking a twelve-year-old with a tennis racquet. At least I hope I’m not alone in that regard.

In the end, the boy pulled up short, danced another impromptu Chuffle Shuffle and ran back to his friends, our ball bouncing to a stop where’d he’d just been. We realized later that this was his way of returning the ball without having to show anything resembling politeness or contrition, which would have embarrassed him in front of his buddies. You might not think bellydancing in front of strangers is the best way to maintain one’s dignity; if so, you’re probably not twelve.

You can torment Mike Todd at

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The grandparent trap

I awoke at 9:15 last Sunday morning to the jarring sound of absolutely nothing. My wife Kara was already awake, staring at the cottage cheese hotel ceiling.

“This is strange,” she said.

“I know. I’d forgotten what it feels like to have this,” I said.

“The freedom?” she asked.

“The hangover,” I replied.

For the first time since our son Evan was born last summer, Kara and I spent a weekend away from him. We figured he’d be fine on his own, since we left plenty of Gerber jars on the floor, and we filled his water bowl right up to the tippy-top. Our biggest fear was that he might get mad at us for leaving him behind and pee on our bed or shred the drapes.

Actually, we left him with Kara’s parents, who graciously volunteered to look after Evan so that we could attend the wedding of our friends Julie and Sergey, who had finally decided to seal the deal after an eight-year test drive.

The last time we left Evan with Kara’s folks, which was several months ago, they watched him for twenty-four hours. When we left, they were healthy, vibrant people who could fairly be described as having a human hue.

Upon our return the next day, we opened the door to find her parents slumped on the couch, drained of all color except for maybe pale green. Evan sat in the center of the room, happily banging blocks together. There would have been no discernable difference to the scene if we’d left them locked up for a day with a vampire baby.

And I don’t really have a good way to prove that Evan isn’t a vampire baby, since every time he goes in the sunlight, Kara puts enough sunblock on him to earn a memorial wing at the Coppertone factory.

“We were much younger the last time we did this,” her mom laughed on the way out the door, the color starting to return.

So it was with our great appreciation that her folks were willing to sign up for an entire weekend with our little Edward Cullen (note to dudes: that’s the vampire from Twilight. Don’t ask me how I know.), which allowed me to earn my first hangover of the new decade.

Lest you conclude that drinking to excess is not the most responsible way to spend one’s limited time away from one’s child, let me just point out that my hangover was acquired in the performance of my husbandly duties, namely forcing my brain to shut down so it wouldn’t notice that my feet were joining my wife’s on the dance floor.

Fate is not always so kind to those poor souls who neglect to either muster or imbibe similar courage.

“What’s wrong?” I asked my friend (we’ll call him Fred) as he moped in a corner, his date (we’ll call her Ginger) sitting in a chair far away, phone in hand, her body language clearly reading, “I’m texting ‘I H8 FRED’ to all my friends right now.”

“Ginger wouldn’t stop asking me to dance. I just don’t feel like dancing.” Fred said. Of course he didn’t feel like dancing. Women already know that you don’t feel like dancing before they try to drag you out there. That’s why they’re so happy when you join them, because they love getting you to do things you don’t want to do.

I’ve heard you can score bonus points if you bring up the idea of dancing before she does, but my research suggests that this notion remains untested in the real world.

In any event, the wedding was beautiful, and we ended the weekend with many more nice memories than we’d started with. And Kara’s folks weathered the weekend without a scratch, even offering, insanely, to do it again soon.

Still, that Sunday morning, Kara said, “It doesn’t feel right. No baby crying. No dog thumping her tail against the bed.”

I agreed that something sure didn’t feel right, but the ibuprofen helped.

You can start a conga line with Mike Todd at