Sunday, July 28, 2013

Comb on over, baby

“Dude, I just have to tell you this,” my friend Hofer began, smiling, looking at the picture he’d just taken of me.  I looked forward to hearing what he’d say next.  Hofer’s camera is rarely separated from his hands, and his photos have a way of bringing out the best in a scene.  He once roamed around Guatemala for months, taking portraits of strangers that were so excellent, they really should have been featured in “National Geographic,” even though, if you really think about it, the phrase “National Geographic” doesn’t make any sense. 

I leaned in, waiting for Hofer to wax nostalgic.  After all, this was the first time in nearly four years that my old group of friends had driven the three hours to visit my family.  Ever since we had kids, trying to get my old buddies to visit has been like inviting vampires over for garlic toast.  This night, though, with the kids in bed and the margaritas on the table, the four of us finally had a chance for some heartfelt catching up.  The way Hofer looked at that picture, it seemed like he had something good to say. 

“You’re really thinning out up there, man,” he continued, looking up from his camera and pointing at my head.  Having lifelong friends can be greatly overrated.

“Really?  I had no idea.  All our mirrors have been in the shop for the past decade,” I told him.

“Hey, man, you really think he wants to hear that?  If he is thinning out, I’m sure he’s aware of it,” my friend Gimp said, and my heart sank.  If there’s anything worse than having a friend make pointed observations about you, it’s having another friend defend you afterwards, however weakly.  That doesn’t happen unless you’re a helpless little frog who just got pounced on by a barn cat.

It’s true that for many thirty-five-year-old males, the balding process is an unfortunate side effect of still being alive.  Still, it beats the alternative.  Or at least the alternative of being dead, but not really the alternative of being alive and still having all your hair, which is clearly superior.

But from a biological perspective, my hair has served its purpose, and it doesn’t owe me anything.  My wife and I have our two kids.  Barring an act of God or booze, we’ve retired from the baby-making business.  Once you’ve passed on all the genes you’re going to pass, you’re free to become a bald, halitosis-having hunchback. 

“I don’t think it’s a big deal to lose your hair, anyway,” my friend Johnny said, a moment after running his hand through his mane that seems to be getting thicker with age.  After the nuclear apocalypse, there will be only cockroaches and Johnny’s hair left.

The regular reader(s) of this column may recall that Johnny, despite being one of my best friends since we were five years old, did not know my second son’s name six months after Zack had been born. 

“You gotta admit, other people’s kids all kind of blend together,” he’d told me. 

He was probably too busy fixing his hair to commit my son’s name to memory.  Fortunately for me, I won’t have to suffer those kinds of distractions for too much longer, though I will have to devote some time to figuring out what kind of convertible I should drive when I’m older.  Driving a convertible without a thought to messed-up hair is perhaps the biggest benefit to being bald.  If bald guys didn’t exist, the world would have 90% fewer convertibles and at least four fewer Die Hard movies.

In any event, our conversation that night soon moved on to more pleasant topics, and we did do some of that heartfelt catching up.  I’m lucky to still have friends like that in my life.  Plus, every now and again, I can wring a column out of our conversations, even if the premise might be a little thin. 

You can let Mike Todd borrow your hat at

Monday, July 22, 2013

Spending the night with a flight attendant

“Things just weren’t right between me and my husband, and I knew it wasn’t going to work out,” the flight attendant told me.  Under different circumstances, it might have been strange for her to open up to me like that, but since we were spending the night together, having a heart-to-heart seemed like the natural thing to do.

“Sorry it wasn’t meant to be,” I replied.

“There’s a difference between love and lust, and I didn’t understand that then,” she said.  I nodded, trying to think of any tidbits about love or lust I might be able to offer in reply to this person I’d just met.  It was a real stretch for me.  I’m so terrible at talking to strangers that I can barely order at Starbucks, freezing and stammering when I can’t remember the word for “medium.”  (It’s “mocha choca latte ya-ya.”)

“Is that one occupied?” asked the old man who’d already visited the restroom five times, interrupting before I had a chance to say something awkward.  He pointed at the door and smiled, exactly as he’d done thirty minutes prior.  Standing in the back of the airplane for an entire night, you start to recognize some of your fellow passengers, especially the ones with prostate issues. 

“Nope, go ahead,” I said, mashing myself against the wall in the little galley area so that we could begin our informal game of Twister as he attempted to scoot past.

The flight attendant had already headed back down the aisle, offering cups of water to the few people who were still awake.  They’re lucky she was offering anything at all.  Since the time when I’d occasionally fly as a kid, in-flight service has gone from: “Would you like chicken, beef or veggie?” to “Would you like a complimentary sandwich?” to “Would you like to buy a sandwich?” to “You gonna eat the rest of that?”

The bathroom door clicked shut, making my son Zack flinch against my chest.  Five hours into the flight that had begun two hours after his bedtime, Zack had slept for about ten minutes.  Trying to sit with him in our assigned seat was like trying to wrestle an angry greased piglet, with all the attendant screeching and flailing.  Standing up with him was a slight improvement, but my fellow passengers were a restless bunch, with the aisle logging more foot traffic than the Appalachian Trail. 

“Sorry, I have restless legs syndrome,” one lady reported as we squeezed past each other again, giving me irritated father syndrome.  My wife Kara looked at me with sympathy, our other son restlessly spinning in sleepy circles on her lap.

My only refuge was the food closet in the back of the plane, beside the two bathrooms, where the flight attendant and I had all night to complain about the distance between Newark, NJ and Anchorage, AK.  Really, someone should have put them closer together, but I suppose the distance is part of Anchorage’s appeal. 

While visiting Kara’s sister and brother-in-law in Alaska, we’d seen mountains shooting from the sea into the clouds, glaciers dropping chunks of ice and mountain back into the sea, whales, otters, bald eagles, grizzly bears and highway rest stops that were really just outhouses. 

We’d seen a mother black bear and four cubs running across the road, and a repeated look of awe in our kids’ eyes. 

Well, at least in our older son’s eyes.  Zack is only one year old, so if he looks in awe, that’s probably just a bowel movement.

So we’d had our fun, but to get back home, the piper had to be paid.  At least the flight attendant was there to help, handing Zack plastic cups and bags of snacks to play with as I bounced and cooed us all the way across North America.     

I don’t think anyone’s ever been that happy to be in Newark.
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Monday, July 15, 2013

Top of the world, bottom of the food chain

"I think I'll take a little walk and explore the neighborhood," I said, not realizing that I could get mauled for suggesting such a thing.

"You'll need to bring bear spray," replied my brother-in-law Kris, reminding me that even mundane activities are slightly less so when you're doing them in Anchorage, Alaska.

 Mmmmmm, I smell tourist

"Never mind," I said, settling back into my chair.  Evening strolls could resume once I'd returned home, where, as long as you don't count the mosquitoes, I rest comfortably atop the food chain.  Besides, bear spray doesn’t work like bug spray.  You actually have to hit the bear with it, which I’d find difficult to do while going to the bathroom, which is what I’d be doing (involuntarily) if a bear attacked me. 

My wife Kara and I had ventured northwest with our two sons and Kara's parents to visit Kara's sister Jill and her husband Kris, who have been living in Anchorage since last summer.  Jill and Kris moved to Alaska for the same reason everyone else lives there: because they angered an evil ice queen who banished them from regular civilization for eternity.  Just kidding.  They vacationed there once and decided they'd live there someday.  Then, rather than continue dreaming about it, they actually did it.

“Wow,” I said as we left the airport.  The allure of Anchorage is obvious from the moment you arrive, especially if you arrive in July, when your nostrils don’t freeze together.  As we drove across city blocks with flowering baskets hanging from lampposts, snow-dappled mountains loomed in every direction.  I’d expected everything to look more like the inside of the fish counter at the grocery store, except with more salmon.

"It's weird to me that everyone is carrying on like we're still in America," I said to Kris.  He smiled and cocked his head, and I could tell that he was wondering how much attention I’d been paying in fifth-grade geography.

I know that Alaska is as much a part of America as apple pie and diabetes, but still, it felt strange to fly three-thousand miles past America and still be there.  Seemed like there should be more yurts and less Carl's Jrs.  Or is it Carls’ Jr.?  In any event, whoever invented Carl’s Jr. clearly did not have easy pluralization as a top priority.  They probably never expected to have to build more than one.

When you first arrive in Anchorage and you drive past grocery stores, strip malls and schools, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the rest of Alaska is full of people, too.  In fact, 40% of Alaska's population lives in Anchorage.  The other 60% were eaten by grizzly bears last year.  I am wildly exaggerating, of course.  Some of them were eaten by wolves, too.  No, in all seriousness, very few people get eaten by the wildlife in Alaska, though they do need to be mindful of their politicians, who fly around in helicopters firing high-powered rifles at things.

In Anchorage, the city feels so normal that it’s easy to forget that you’re right on the edge of wilderness.  Sometimes, that wilderness wanders into the city, which is why you can’t just stroll out of Jill and Kris’ townhouse without strapping a canister of ursine tear gas to yourself.  Apparently, it’s fairly common to see bears walking down the sidewalks near their neighborhood, which can be quite a dangerous situation, since bears, especially when protecting their cubs, are notorious jaywalkers. 

It’s also important to point out that while we had a wonderful time in Alaska, we are back home now, so if you are a burglar, you already missed your chance.  The only thing worth stealing was the iPad, anyway, and we brought that with us in the hopes of entertaining our two kids on the twenty hours of flights.  That plan didn’t work, but I’m not ready to joke about it yet.

You can pluralize Carl’s Jr. with Mike Todd at

Sunday, July 07, 2013

I don't know, but Alaska

Have you ever tried to write a column while on vacation with your family in Alaska?  Me neither!  I'll be back next week with some Alaska-themed goodness, but since we took a red-eye home from Anchorage last night (or was it this morning?  or both?), I can barely keep my head propped up to type this excuse paragraph. 

'Til next week!

Also, a few pictures:

Monday, July 01, 2013

Panic down on the farm

“SCREEEEEE!!” screamed the tiny creature as it flapped into our car through my open window, landing somewhere between the door and my lap.

Five seconds before that, if you’d asked me where I’d put “keeping the car on the road” on my list of priorities, I’d probably have ranked it somewhere near the top.  All of a sudden, though, ramming into a roadside tree seemed like a pretty decent option.

People will try to tell you that vegetables are healthy (stay with me here), which is why my wife Kara signed us up for a deal with a local farm where we pick up a trash bag full of kale each week, but as we drove down the dusty farm driveway last Saturday, I couldn’t help but think that life seemed much healthier before we put ourselves in places where indeterminate organisms flew screaming into our car, attempting to make us perform vehicular treeslaughter.

“Dude!  What is that?  WHAT IS IT?” I screamed, back when Kara handed me my first green smoothie.

“It’s strawberries and banana,” she replied.

“Then why is it green?” I asked.

“It also has kale, chard, kohlrabi, bok choy, arugula, Caligula, jack-in-the-pulpit, Congolese shrieking peppers and horseturnips in it,” she said.  Or something like that.  She lost me at kale.  I’m pretty sure that she made up all the words after that, anyway.

“Oh, just try it.  It’s good,” she said, and I stared at her, waiting for her to mumble, “for you.”

Ever since we started doing this farm share, Kara has been sneaking vegetables into everything, aided by the VitaMix blender she recently purchased.  You may recognize VitaMix from their tagline: “You’re poor now.  Have a smoothie to take your mind off it!”   

After buying this fancy new blender, Kara took our old sixteen-dollar (perfectly fine) blender and stuffed it into the new one, frappeing our old blender into a frosty and delicious beverage.  The plastic-and-glass aftertaste really helped to hide the kale.

Kidding aside, Kara has actually been making use of almost all the food we’ve gotten from the farm, and though it often looks like she’s blending a rhododendron, the smoothies are delicious, especially if you don’t ask what’s in them.  The key to enjoying vegetables is to pulverize them until the particles are too small for your tongue to notice, then make sure your brain doesn’t get any clues about what they’re supposed to taste like.

So all of this is to explain why we were on the farm driveway last Saturday morning, minding our own business after picking up another bale of cabbage, when we were ambushed by the screaming creature.

“Dude!  What is that?  WHAT IS IT?” I yelled.

“SCREEEEEE!” the creature replied, flapping beside my leg.

“Stay on the road!  Calm down!  It’s just a cicada,” my wife Kara said.

“WHY IS IT SCREAMING AT ME?” I yelled.  This was not an exaggeration.  Being a parent with two young children, I have a keen ear for screams, and that bug was screaming.

If you’re not familiar with cicadas, they’re the red-eyed bugs that live underground for most of their lives.  Then, like many humans, they turn seventeen and swarm into the world to fornicate and cause havoc.

I pulled off the driveway and jumped out of the car.  The cicada crawled under my seat and dared me to go in after it. 

“I wanna see the cicada!” our son Evan called from his car seat, demonstrating more bravery than his dad, and shaming me into action.

After much reaching and prodding, I finally convinced the little critter to rejoin his friends at the farm.  Besides, if he was trying to escape all that kale, he picked the wrong car.

You can roll up your windows before Mike Todd gets in at