Sunday, August 26, 2012

Send in the headless clown

If you're going to decapitate a clown, the best advice I can offer is to try not to decapitate one that has sentimental value to your wife.

I found this out the hard way about eight years ago, when we were moving into our first house, which was the size of many people’s first Tupperware.  I leaned a rug against the wall, which seemed like a harmless thing to do, until two hours later, when the rug slid and landed squarely on a ceramic figurine of two clowns that I’d never noticed before, smashing the head of the formerly happy guitar-playing one.

When Kara came into the room to see me sweeping up the carnage, she started to cry.  It’s true what they say: there’s nothing sadder than a headless clown.

“I know it’s silly, but I’ve had those clowns since I was a little kid,” she said, picking up the now-macabre knick-knack and rotating the base.  When she let go, the figurine played “Send in the Clowns” as it slowly spun on the floor, a strangely wistful song for a kid’s toy, as if it knew things weren’t going to end well.

I dumped the clown-head shards from the dustpan into a baggie, tucking it aside as if someday, armed with some Elmer’s glue, I’d reassemble the seven million fragments.  Over time, I came to accept that even a best-case scenario would have the reanimated clown looking like Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies.  Once you’ve decapitated something like that, it’s very difficult to recapitate it.

A few days ago, just before our eighth anniversary, our son Evan found the headless clown on a bookshelf in the guest room, where we’d put it to remind our guests what happens if they step out of line.

“That’s a great idea!” I said as Evan spun the base wrong way.

The eighth anniversary is the pottery anniversary, and my attempts to get Kara to start smoking so that I could make her an ashtray had failed.  Replacing her beloved and beheaded clown, though, was the perfect gift idea.

Finding a thirty-year-old musical clown on eBay took about three minutes.  An hour later, the auction was over and the figurine, a near-perfect match, was mine.

If you want to be a thoughtful gift giver, it turns out that a really effective method is to destroy your significant other’s sentimental objects so that you can replace them eight years later.  It’s called playing the long game.

We needed a little romance this year, too, since we spent our anniversary with our infant and our constipated three-year-old.

“Gotta go poo poo!” Evan yelled, prancing in place to celebrate his parents’ big day.  We were in the woods behind our house, turning over rocks to find critters.  We had just hit the mother lode: a salamander.  When Evan stopped paying attention to it, I could tell the situation was serious.

“Let’s go!” I said, scooping Evan up, already running as I slung him over my shoulder.  Evan had been using the potty exclusively for about two weeks, and I had no intention of having his first accident be on my shoulders.

Like a great freight train, we barreled across the backyard, CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA gotta go POO POO!

“What’s going on?” Kara asked as the door flew open and we stormed past.

“AAAAHHHHH!” Evan replied.

 Skidding into the bathroom, I dropped Evan to his feet and yanked his shorts down.

“Did we make it?  Did we make it?” I asked.

Evan looked at me as if I was unhinged.

“Don’t hafta go,” he said.

Someday, our anniversaries will once again be marked with nice dinners.  Until then, all I can do is wait, and maybe rip the arms off of Kara’s old teddy bears.

You can skip to the loo with Mike Todd at

Sunday, August 19, 2012

If a tree falls and a toddler hears it…

With several cracks and a boom, the old oak tree shattered the silence of the evening, losing its lifelong battle with gravity.  At the first crack, we glanced around the patio table at each other.  At the second crack, we all turned to look into the woods.  When the whole tree started to come down, we jumped up from the table, trying to decide whether we were about to become acorn cobbler.

Rather than falling toward us, though, the tree folded in on itself, imploding like a well-executed building demolition.  Our friends Julie and Sergey, who might have since decided that they’d prefer to dine in places less prone to arboreal ambush, looked at each other and said, “Whoa.”

Evan, our three-year-old, was inconsolable until we explained, in a move we have since come to deeply regret, that the tree had been weakened by the heavy storm that blew through a few days prior.  This information, combined with a recent power outage and an afternoon thunderstorm at daycare that sent all the kids scurrying inside, has swirled into a perfect storm of childhood fears.

“Go give Grammy and Grandpa a hug,” I said to Evan as I plunked him down in their driveway last weekend.  Usually, he runs down the walkway to wrap his arms around their legs.

“Is it gonna thunder?” Evan shrieked, hands over his ears, pressing his face into my shorts.

“No, Evan, it’s beautiful outside,” I said.

“Is it gonna rain?  Is lightning gonna come?” he cried.

The rest of the weekend, if you dragged him outside, he’d put his hands over his ears and cry.  The ability to ride out beautiful weekend days on the couch will serve him well as he enters his prime video-game-playing years, but as the mountain of angry birds that he’s shot backwards off the screen will attest, he’s not there yet.

Evan is coming to grips with the idea that the world is full of things that even his parents can’t control, which should have been evident after the Eagles’ 2011 season.      

“Tomorrow, we can go to the playground,” I said, hoping that the lure of the slide would tempt him outdoors again.

“NOOO!  I don’t wanna go!” he screamed, eyes wide with terror.

The stormy weather this summer has probably caused many parents to struggle with their kids’ irrational fears of the outdoors, so just in case other families can benefit from our experience, here’s a little script I prepared to help little ones understand the world around them.

“Dear child: I, your parent or legal guardian, have everything under control, and you are perfectly safe.  Thunder can’t hurt you.  It’s just nature’s way of letting you know that random bolts of electricity are shooting from the sky, occasionally destroying things and/or setting them on fire.  If you just flee inside, you should be okay, as long as a tree doesn’t fall and crush your house.  Oh, and watch out for hornets.”  

This isn’t exactly the speech I gave to Evan, but as he kept probing to find out more, I found it tougher to dodge the fact that sometimes, the world’s just not the friendliest place.  We’ve been steadily working on setting his mind at ease, though, helping him to see that most of the time, nature is just begging him to come outside for a frolic.

It is slow going.  It’s difficult to reason with a person who thinks that Captain America is his uncle.

This morning, though, for the first time in several days, Evan ventured out to the car without putting his hands over his ears or mentioning the weather.  The mental storm damage appears to have been temporary.  Which is good, because someday, when he discovers girls, he’ll have all the terror he can handle.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

It’s a dead mouse, after all

“Dude, what’s that sound?” my sister Amy asked from her air mattress in our basement. I shrugged, pretending not to hear the skritch-a-skritch coming from behind the drywall.  Then Amy turned her truth-extracting eyeball beams on me. She’s had them her whole life, but being a lawyer made them worse.

“Okay, okay, we have mice in the wall. But they just hang out in there. They probably won’t come out,” I said.

She took the news better than I’d expected. After one lap around the room, checking for possible entry points, she climbed back into bed, probably deciding that if a mouse came out to visit, she’d just subpoena it to death.

A few days later, we had to start storing our dog food in plastic bins. Some critters had been pillaging our pantry, burrowing holes into the bottom of our fifty-pound kibble bags. Then my wife Kara moved some old boxes in our laundry room to find that the corner of the room had become something of a rodent rest stop.

“This is so nasty. They carry diseases. We need to get rid of them,” Kara said, with “we” being me, and “get rid of” being used in the mobster sense of the phrase.

“What if I just housebreak them one-at-a-time instead?” I suggested.

In the end, I found myself at the hardware store, reluctantly choosing between various instruments of death, like a gladiator preparing to enter the coliseum, except less happy to be there. Poison? Too medieval, plus the unpleasant thought of mice keeling over in random places throughout the house. Glue traps, which just stick a mouse to a sheet that you throw in the trash while they’re still alive? Honestly, if you put down a glue trap, it’s not that you’re a terrible person, it’s just that a non-terrible person wouldn’t do that.

Staring at all the chemicals and devices that were designed to transport cute little critters off this mortal coil, it was hard not to picture the mice in red shorts, holding hands in our basement and singing “It’s a Small World.”

 The least awful solution seemed to be the old-fashioned mousetrap. I thought somebody was building a better one. What ever happened to that? Still, if a mouse had come shopping with me and witnessed the disturbing array of other options, I feel like he would have said, “Fine, yeah, just get some of the regular ones. You people are sick.”

That evening, donning my coonskin cap, I set about preparing the varmint traps. With peanut butter smeared on the triggers, I set the traps and placed them around the house, careful to put them where I wouldn’t catch a dog or a child. We have enough of those already.

In the morning, I approached the first trap with trepidation. What grisly, splattery scene would I encounter, causing me to get nauseous and leave the room whenever the movie “Ratatouille” came on?

As it turned out, mousetraps don’t actually catch mice, but they do make excellent mouse feeders. All of the traps had been licked clean during the night. One of them had a Post-it note stuck to the trigger, with a tiny scrawling that read: “Do you have anything in a super chunk?”

I could picture the mice fluffing the insulation inside our walls, flopping down with their bellies full, saying, “Do you think that was store brand? I think it was store brand. Would it kill him to give us some Skippy?”

My dad suggested a modification where you tie the head of a Q-tip to the trap with some dental floss, then coat everything in peanut butter, which makes the mouse work a little harder for what is about to be its final snack.

The next night, I tried his technique. At least none of them were wearing red shorts.

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

A very dairy crisis

The overhead light flickered out, leaving me hunched over the quick-start guide in the dark.  The storm hurled rain onto the garage door as if the house were riding through a carwash.  Other than my tiny flashlight, the only illumination came from the strikes of lightning that seemed to be feeling their way to our front door.

“Showtime,” I said, putting the flashlight in my mouth and the funnel in what I hoped was the hole where the motor oil was supposed to go.

“Add .63 qt motor oil.  DO NOT OVERFILL,” the instructions warned.  I turned over the motor oil bottle to see that it contained 942 ml, which meant, by my quick calculations, that I needed to pour in somewhere between none and all of it.

It was the first time I’d looked at our new generator since I’d taken it out of the box two months ago.  If it didn’t start up soon enough to save the contents of our fridge during this power outage, though, I’d need to save some of our gas to power an escape vehicle.

“Please work, please work,” I pleaded as I dragged the hundred-pound machine to the front of the garage.  The issue wasn't that we were worried about our ice cream stash, or that we'd lose our collection of condiments that, on average, had expired in 2007.

Our freezer was packed full of breast milk that my wife Kara had spent the last four months pumping.  To lose that milk would mean heartbreak for her, and possible arm or legbreak for me, since I’d had months to prepare for the likelihood of a power outage.

Preparing has never been my strong suit.  By definition, the thing you’re preparing for hasn’t happened yet, which means it might never happen, which means you could be playing Call of Duty instead.

“Is it going to work?” Kara asked from the doorway.  She cradled our youngest son, Zack, while Evan, our three-year-old, clutched her knee.  The dog cowered on top of her feet as thunder rattled the windows.  Presumably, cows were swirling around in the wind outside.

“Mmph,” I said, the flashlight offering a handy excuse to dodge the question.

I pulled the rope to release the garage door from the electric opener, so that I could manually open the overhead door like our parents and cavemen used to do.  I dragged the machine into the maelstrom and gave the starter rope a tug.  Who ever thought that the sweetest noise in the world would sound like a lawnmower engine?

Upstairs, dripping, live extension cord in hand, I realized that I’d need to move the fridge to plug it in, which hadn’t budged since two silverback-sized dudes wedged it into its slot two years ago.    

As I pulled the fridge with all my strength, determined not to be responsible for losing all that milk, I thought of the mythical woman who lifted a car off of her child.  An-inch-at-a-time, the fridge slowly slid across the floor, exposing the plug in back.  The adrenaline surge must have helped.  Also, the wheels on the bottom.

I marched into the basement, triumphant, anxious to regale my family with tales of heroism and humming refrigerators.  By the light of their flashlights, I could see that Kara had brought the iPad downstairs for Evan to play with.  When I was a kid and the power went out, we had to play board games by candlelight and talk to each other.  It was horrible.

But Evan wasn’t playing with the iPad.  With the thunder still rumbling angrily outside, he held Zack’s hand.
“It’s okay, Zack.  Don’t be scared,” Evan said, over and over.

It was enough to melt our hearts.  But not our breast milk.

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