Monday, December 31, 2012

A man’s home becomes his bouncy castle

“Sorry, bud, there’s not time to go see the Christmas lights tonight,” I told my son Evan, breaking a promise I’d made earlier in the day and bracing myself for the consequences.

The three-year-old brain does many things well.  Playing hide-and-seek with somebody sitting on the same couch, for instance, or detecting and rejecting any food that doesn’t come in nugget form.  Or, if any food does slip past the nugget detector, making sure that it gets dunked in ketchup, even if that food is a strawberry.

But disappointment is not something it handles well, or quietly.

I winced as Evan processed the information.  We wouldn’t be visiting the house with the seven million Christmas lights tonight, the one that, for the month of December, requires its own dedicated nuclear reactor.  We wouldn’t be idling in our car, playing Christmas music, watching the lights twinkle and dance around their yard, while those of us in the backseat wondered where the daddy was at that house, and why wasn’t he walking around unplugging everything, grumbling that light switches go in two directions?

As Evan’s mouth opened, I felt my ear holes clench shut, even as my brain raced, and failed, to come up with a better term for ear holes.

“It’s okay.  Wanna jump in my bouncy castle,” Evan replied.

For his third birthday back in June, we gave Evan an indoor bouncy castle, and I fear that we may have ruined him.  He doesn’t care about anything else.

“What do you want to do this weekend?” you’ll ask him.

“Jump in my bouncy castle,” he’ll say.

“The whole time?” you’ll ask.

“Can we?” he’ll reply.

We thought the bouncy castle would live in a closet, and only get pulled out for rainy days or special occasions.  As it turns out, when your only responsibility in life is to make it to the potty in time, every day is a special occasion.

I worry that maybe Evan’s flying a little too close to the sun.  The grown-up equivalent of being three years old with your own bouncy castle is probably owning a convertible and having a full head of hair, which does not occur in nature.  We might be throwing the universe out of balance.

Growing up, the kid down the street had his own full-size pinball machine, and he turned out kind of messed up.  As a parent, it’s your job to make sure your kid’s life is kind of awesome, but not too awesome.  If yours is the kid who has everything, he’s probably also the kid who’s pulling the legs off of grasshoppers.

Bouncing is now part of our nightly routine.  Basically, we are a family of Tiggers.  Except that Evan is the only one bouncing, since his parents have to lie in the center of the bouncy castle, limbs outstretched like we’re worried about falling through the ice on a frozen pond, trying not to calculate how far over the 100-lb weight limit we are.

While Evan squeals and hops around, I like to pass the time by looking around the basement at all the things we can’t use anymore.  The ping-pong table.  The dartboard.  The video games.  It used to be such a good man cave down there.  Then a benevolent but capricious tyrant built his castle in the center of the room, banishing the original occupants to the outer reaches of the realm, never to be seen from again.

On the plus side, we can break promises to Evan about all the awesome places we’re going to take him, since he has no interest in leaving the house anyway.  We’ll still try to get him to the house with the seven million Christmas lights before it powers down for the year, though.  Assuming their dad hasn’t already gotten home and unplugged everything.

You can storm Mike Todd’s bouncy castle at

Monday, December 24, 2012

Some fiddles are fitter than others

I took this week off from the column.  Here's a seasonally appropriate rerun from 2008.  Happy holidays!  Now, back to the cookies.

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 cafĂ©, 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-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 dog Memphis was barking because she’d never heard me play the guitar. 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 16, 2012

I saw Daddy hitting Santa Claus

“Why’s Daddy hitting the Christmas tree?” my son Evan asked from the kitchen.  He could only see my legs sticking out from under the tree as it jostled and swayed in the living room, so he could be forgiven for thinking that the tree was trying to devour me, and I was doing my best to fend it off.

“He’s just frustrated right now,” my wife Kara replied.

“Because the stupid tree stand is stupid and we should have bought a normal one,” I answered, slapping the stupid broken pedal on the dumb thing.

“AAAAHHHH!” Evan screamed as the tree fell down again.

Last year, Kara bought a fancy tree stand that’s supposed to let you position the tree while you press the foot pedal, then it holds the tree in place when you step off.  We should have paid a few bucks more for the deluxe model that shouts “TIM-ber!” every time the tree falls down.

“Oh, #&$@%,” I said, looking at the fallen tree.  Evan’s eyes widened.  I knew he was within earshot, so I actually said, “Oh, hash-ampersand-dollar-sign-at-symbol-percentage-thing.”  It takes a long time to cuss when your kids are listening.

With the foot pedal hopelessly jammed, I pulled the tree back up and got it to stay put, but gravity wouldn’t be denied for long.  The tree would easily have been felled by a single creature stirring, even a mouse, and definitely a three-year-old.

Fortunately, it was easy to lock everyone out of the living room.  Our house has enough baby gates to qualify as a Supermax facility.  And our inmates aren’t allowed to use pointy silverware, either.

The next day, I called the tree stand company, which had printed its phone number (how quaint!) on the stand.  The operator bounced me to another operator, who bounced me to Matt, who advised me how to fix the stand with a butter knife.

“Nothing sharp,” he added, as if he’d known me my whole life.  I thanked him and hung up, skeptical.

“If this works, I’ll eat an ornament,” I said as I approached the tree with a dull knife, doing nothing to allay Evan’s concerns that I was engaging in mortal battle with our holiday decorations.

That Matt’s butter knife trick fixed our tree stand in two seconds was nothing short of a Christmas miracle.  Too bad the skirmish that started the next day couldn’t be solved that easily.  All else being equal, though, it’s best to solve family disputes without involving cutlery.  Even dull cutlery, if you can help it.  

“Aunt Sister and Uncle Charles sent you your first present.  We’ll put it here until Christmas,” I told Evan, sliding the box under the tree.

“But I want to open it now,” Evan said, sliding it back into the room.

“Waiting to open Christmas presents is part of the fun.  Then you get to open your presents all at once on Christmas morning.  Won’t that be awesome?” Kara said.

“Actually,” Evan said, pausing to feign consideration of Mommy’s wisdom, “I want to open it now.”

It’s almost as if three-year-olds have no appreciation for the joys of personal discipline and delayed gratification.

“Evan, we call them Christmas presents because we open them on Christmas,” I told him.

“WANNA OPEN IT NOW!” he responded. Clearly, Mommy and Daddy were not getting it.

“Well, you have to wait until Christmas.  It’ll be good for you to practice some patience,” I said.

“WANNA OPEN IT NOW!” he responded, throwing himself on the floor and writhing around, experiencing the severe growing pains of his rapidly building character.

A week prior, Aunt Sister had sent an email saying that Evan could open his present whenever he’d like, but his tantrum had ensured that he’d be waiting another couple of weeks.  Sometimes, it’s good to take a break from punching your Christmas decorations to teach your kid some self-control.

You can fix Mike Todd with a butter knife at

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sometimes say never again

The first rule of Date Day is: Don’t talk about Date Day, at least not in front of your kids, unless you want Date Day to begin with the peeling of inconsolable children off your shins.

“Hey, there’s a matinee for the new James Bond movie tomorrow at…” my wife Kara started to say, then she looked at our son Evan, who was staring at her while dancing in place.

“Do you have to go potty?” she asked him.

“No, I don’t,” he said, hopping from one foot to the other.  Fortunately, he was too busy holding it in to ask what “matinee” meant (the correct answer in that situation: “It’s a large underwater mammal that serves as a speed bump for motorboats.”) and the issue dropped.

When you have two kids, a day of romantic spontaneity doesn’t happen without some serious planning.  Several weeks prior, Kara and I had both scheduled a vacation day on an upcoming Friday so that – and here’s where the plan gets ingenious – we could still drop the kids off at daycare.  It’d be like having a weekend day from five years ago, back when free time was the default and we were allowed to lounge around, accomplishing nothing for the good of anyone.  It was awesome.

On the big morning, Kara and I played it cool.  When I dropped the kids off at daycare, as far as they knew, Daddy was headed to work.  Then I zipped back home, where Kara and I enjoyed a lazy morning, which might not sound like much, but on a normal day, our living room is more likely to host a motorcross rally.

“This is weird,” Kara said from the couch, coffee in one hand, book in the other.

“Want me to ask you for a waffle and then scream and refuse to eat it when you cut it in half?” I offered.

After a couple of hours, we headed over to a new tapas restaurant that we wanted to try, but that didn’t appear to be the kind of place with buckets of crayons behind the podium.  I’d never been to a tapas restaurant before, and would soon come to understand that “tapas” is the Spanish word for “still hungry.”

“Here you are,” our waitress said, putting four silver-dollar-sized plates in front of us.  I thought we’d placed an extravagant order, but that was back before I realized that lobster ravioli, in this context, was not plural.  They’d taken one lobster ravioili, cut it in half and stacked it on itself to make it seem taller, like a short guy putting lifts in his shoes.

After both delicious bites, we asked the waitress for our check, explaining that we were trying to make it to the Bond movie.

“My brother saw it.  He said it was AMAZING,” she said, getting so enthusiastic that she didn’t notice I’d eaten the plates.

At the theater, I ran to the ticket machine, credit card in hand, no time to spare.  That’s when I noticed that the showtime we’d been trying to make didn’t exist anymore.

“Dude, there’s no 1:10 showing,” I said.

“I just checked it last night,” Kara said, looking up at the marquee to verify my mistake.  But the showtimes had indeed changed since we’d checked, and there were no movies left that would get us to daycare in time to pick up the kids.  The marquee might as well have read: James Bond Skyfall:  NEVER.

We stood by the ticket vending machine, hugging, and I could feel that Kara was crying.

“I don’t care about the movie, we just don’t get to do this kind of thing anymore,” she said.

“Aw, babe, look at the bright side,” I said as we headed to the car, working out another plan for the afternoon.  “The next time we have a chance to see a movie, we’ll be able to legally pay for it out of our 401(k)s.”  

You can paint the town red with Mike Todd at

Monday, December 03, 2012

Nailing that deadline, retroactively

Due to a scheduling error last week (namely the scheduling of the print deadline a few hours before the column was finished), there's no column this week.  I feel a little guilty about missing a week every now and then, but with two small kids in the house, I'm proud of myself for finding time to keep my personal hygiene to a reasonable standard.  Finishing the column is extra credit.

Anyway, let's wheel in some cute kids to fill the dead air!  It's all their fault, after all.

I like to do this, too, except figuratively

'Til next week!  Probably!