Monday, August 26, 2013

Something stinky this way comes

Just beyond the reach of the floodlight, something bad was happening.

“Memphis, get back here!  MEMPHIS!  No, no, no, no, no, no.  Aw, dude, this is bad,” I said. 

“What’s going on?” my wife Kara asked from her hotel room in Tulsa.  We’d been on the phone, saying goodnight during her work trip, when I’d decided to take the dog for one last visit to the backyard.  Rather than meandering down the stairs like usual, Memphis bolted down in one leap, ran to the edge of yard and then pulled up short, jumping and growling.  In the darkness just beyond her, I could see an occasional flash of white fur.

The regular reader(s) of this column will recall that last week, I discovered the laxative effect of having a large timber rattlesnake announce its presence beside my foot.  This column is the second (and I sincerely hope final) installment of a series I’m tentatively calling “Nature Sucks.” 

“Memphis!  Memphis!” I called, but the commotion continued.  A feral white cat lives in our neighborhood, emerging every couple of months to prove that it can take care of itself just fine without humans and their Fancy Feasts.  Memphis, I assumed, was tangling with the wrong feline.

Just as I started to run out to extract Memphis, she came slinking back into the light, trotting toward me with her head down. 

“Something’s not right.  This is bad,” I told Kara.

I opened the door and brought Memphis inside, turning up the kitchen light so I could get a better look.  No obvious damage, but she looked distressed.   

“I don’t see any blood,” I said, and that’s when it hit. 

“Aw, DUDE!” I said, throwing the door back open and commanding Memphis outside.  But it was too late.  She’d already brushed against the curtains, stepped on our carpet and wafted all over the place.  Apparently, from a distance, in the dark, much like Pepe le Pew, I can’t tell the difference between a cat and a skunk.

When you drive by a skunk, you think, “Hey, you know what?  That smells kind of bad.”

But when your dog takes a direct hit to the face and then comes into your kitchen, the input to your senses can no longer be described as a smell.  It’s a full sensory overload.  The concentrated stench of burnt rubber and sulfur would have made Satan dry heave.  It felt like a NASCAR race had just taken place inside my mouth, and all the drivers had just burnt their hair with curling irons. 

All of this is just a long preamble to explain to my neighbors why I was running around in my underwear at 1AM last week, cussing and chasing the dog with the garden hose, soap suds flying everywhere.

“Sorry I’m not there to help,” Kara told me after my initial pass at the dog, though part of me figured this was cosmic payback for the time both kids caught a stomach bug while I was in North Carolina.

“I can’t go to the store with the kids asleep upstairs, so I just had to use what we have in the house: Palmolive and Head & Shoulders.  Memphis still stinks, but she won’t be getting dandruff anytime soon,” I replied.

“What about baking soda?  That might work,” Kara suggested.

One helpful Internet post I’d read on the topic of skunk remediation said that if you didn’t get rid of the smell right after the incident, the odor could persist for up to two years.  So I dumped half-a-box of Arm & Hammer on the dog.

“Did it work?” Kara asked.  Memphis looked pasty and pathetic as she rolled around in the yard.

“I think it helped,” I replied.  “But if a heat wave comes through tomorrow, she might turn into a casserole.”

You can bathe Mike Todd in tomato juice at

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Pit vipers can really rattle you

The eastern timber rattlesnake hardly ever shows aggression towards humans, so, if you really think about it, I’m actually quite fortunate.  If I wasn’t a super-lucky dude, I probably wouldn’t have encountered the largest pit viper in North America at all.  That gigantic, venomous reptile might have just heard me coming and hidden somewhere until I’d wandered past, subjecting me to a serene, boring day in the woods without any heart palpitations at all. 

But I am a lucky person.

I’d set off down the trail last Saturday as a part of an elite expeditionary force, consisting of me, my 40-pound dog Memphis and my fifteen-month-old son, Zack.  We might not sound that elite, but right in the corner of Zack’s nursery, you’ll find a Diaper Genie II Elite model, which they don’t sell to just anyone (unless they have diapers to dispose of).  It says “Elite” right on the thing.  We have credentials.

The rest of our family had a baby shower to attend that day, so they missed out on our luck-filled adventure.

“I’m going to Julie’s baby shower tomorrow.  You can come with me and eat cake and help open presents, or you can go hiking with Zack and Daddy,” my wife Kara had explained to our four-year-old son Evan.

Evan loves hiking.  Something deep inside him just connects to the sounds of the birds, the crunch of the leaves under his feet and the unwrapping of the candy bar his father bribes him with.  (Go ahead and judge, but I bet Thoreau’s dad hooked him up with some serious candy in his formative years.)

But I knew I had no chance when the decision boiled down to this: Mommy and cake, or Daddy and exercise.  His four-year-old brain couldn’t even process the decision anymore once it hit the word “cake.” 

Without Evan on our expedition, I decided we’d go further from home and tackle a larger, more remote hike.  About five minutes up the trail from the parking area, Memphis trotted twenty feet ahead of me.  Zack sat perched on my back, quietly enjoying the ride, just as his big brother had done so many times before.

I was just getting my camera strap adjusted around my neck when this sound came from the bushes beside my ankle.  “I’M CONSIDERING KILLING YOU!” it said.

Actually, that’s just how I translated it, but the rattle sounded like a child’s car that you pull back, but instead of letting it go, you pick it up and let the wheels spin.  It wasn’t the gentle tika-tika-tika noise I would have expected.  The rattle was fast, urgent and an effective cure for constipation.

I looked down and saw a large, ornate snake within easy striking distance of my leg, piled on top of itself like a hastily coiled garden hose.  He watched as I jumped, cussed and scooted away, my heart pounding as I put precious distance between us.  Then he slowly straightened out and slithered across the trail as if to say, “Glad we have that settled.”    

In the research I’ve done since, I found that timber rattlesnakes are generally docile, rarely rattle at people, and even when they lunge, they often do so as a warning, with their mouths closed.  The majority of bites happen to adult males who intentionally provoke the snake, often while drunk or otherwise intoxicated.  At first, this sounds like damning evidence against my gender, but you can say this about us: At least we know better when we’re sober.

After the snake slithered into the bushes, heading for the open field beyond, I stopped to collect my breath and my thoughts.  Memphis trotted back and stood next to me.

“We’re pretty lucky, huh?” I asked her, giving her a pat. 

And indeed, we were.  Also, I’m lucky Zack’s not old enough to repeat the words he learned that day.

You can weld cast iron shin guards with Mike Todd at

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are these mental health days working?

As seems to happen about once a month these days, getting a column done for this week just wasn't going to happen.  I turned in this oldie-but-not-that-baddie instead.  Sorry for being a degenerate.

Just so your retinas have something to do for a few more seconds before you click along to a website that's actually been updated, here are some more pictures from our trip to Rangeley, Maine, a couple weeks back.  That place makes me smile.  'Til next week!  (Probably.)

Monday, August 05, 2013

Home on the Rangeley Lake

“Look out!  He’s going to crack his head open!” my wife Kara yelled, pointing across the cottage at our son Zack, who was wobbling along as if he were sailing on a storm-tossed ship.  I grabbed Zack’s shoulder and redirected him away from the Coffee Table of Doom, the one with edges so sharp that you could shave your legs just by walking too close to it.

Zack’s at that tricky developmental intersection at the corner of Ambulatory and Clueless.  Given the choice between going down stairs or a ramp, he will choose to go over the railing.  He navigates around rooms like a bat, except instead of bouncing sound waves off of everything, he uses his head.
In our normal lives, we’ve managed this situation by removing all the right angles from our house, or burying them in a half-inch of foam padding.  On vacation in a rustic Maine cottage last week, though, we had much less control over an interior that seemed designed as a baby obstacle course.

“AHHHH!” Kara yelled, diving to catch the lamp that Zack was pulling onto his head.

We knew what we were getting into.  My family has been renting the same cabins on Rangeley Lake in western Maine for nearly thirty years.  Looking back at the pictures from our early summers in Rangeley, it’s amazing how little the place has changed.  Only the people are different, with each of us, in our own way, getting thinner and better-looking every year. (Which is what you’d say, too, if you knew your family was going to read this.  In our case, it happens to be true.  Which is also what you’d say.)

The cabins, though, look exactly the same.  Every winter, they are battered by wind and snow, biodegrading at such a rate that without intervention, they’d be gone in five years.  Then the warm(ish) weather comes, and the family that owns the camp begins the process of cobbling the place back together, just keeping pace with entropy.  A woodshed collapses, a new gazebo is built.  Everything stays in balance. 

We like these cabins just the way they are, with nails poking through the floor, leaking pipes fixed with strategically placed bowls and extension cords stapled to the ceiling.  It wouldn’t feel like vacation without these things.  If my family wanted light switches instead of pull cords that you had to stumble across a dark room to locate, we could just stay home. 

We love it there because when you try to open that creaky screen door that wedges itself against the floor when you pull on it, just on the other side, you might see a loon pop up beside the dock, framed by a mile of water before the mountains rise in the distance beyond.  Or you might see one of your little cousins inviting you to come for a swim, or throwing cracked corn to an army of perpetually hungry ducks.  Or you might just see nothing but gently lapping waves and a soon-to-be-occupied Adirondack chair.

“Dude!  He’s going for the stove now!” I yelled as Zack tottered toward the Franklin stove with the concrete hearth.  Kara put herself on a direct intercept course.

While it’s great to see your kids experiencing the same things you experienced so many years ago, it’s tough to relax when your offspring is bent on self-destruction.  When I mentioned this observation to my cousin Rachel, who has three children of her own, she said, “We don’t call them ‘vacations’ anymore.  We call them ‘family outings.’  Helps us to keep our expectations in check.”

In the end, our family outing was quite a success, mainly because we managed to keep Zack from plunging off the end of a dock.  This may have been a temporary victory, though, since he’ll get another shot at it next year. 

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