Monday, December 30, 2013

Not the brightest Christmas bulb

It took a few moments for the realization to hit that the Christmas lights beside my foot were blinking off and on, even though they weren’t the kind of lights that do that.

My eyes followed the strand behind me, to the wall, where our 18-month-old son Zack stood, merrily plugging and unplugging the lights.

“Dude, Mommy’s going to kill me if she sees you doing that.  Also, it’s not safe,” I explained, trading him a bouncy ball for the lights.  Taking something from a toddler without giving anything in return is like taking a bone from a strange dog.  It might go just fine, or you might lose a finger.

I took the safety plug off the window sill and stuck in back into the outlet.  Zack watched, then pried the safety plug back out and handed it to me.  I looked in my hand and realized that this two-pronged piece of plastic was not a child safety device after all.  It was simply an adult inconveniencing device.     

“If Mommy sees him doing what?” my wife Kara asked, coming back into the room with a warm cup of her favorite tea, called Chamomile Nights, which could double as the title of the most boring romance novel ever. 

“Oh, Harrison, I feel so soothed, I could just put on full-length flannel pajamas and sleep all night,” the heroine would yawn. 

“Nothing.  You find the honey for your tea?” I asked.  In a moment of weakness, we’d bought a little squeeze bottle of local honey from a nearby farm for nine bucks, about three times what it would have cost to buy grocery store honey from faraway bees in countries with relaxed regulations on larva labor.

“No, it completely vanished,” Kara replied.  We’d never see that bottle of honey again, but we did get a clue about what may have happened to it about a week later, when Kara caught Zack dropping her wallet into the kitchen trash can.       

I unrolled another strand of last year’s Christmas lights and plugged it in.  Half of them came on, half of them shrieked, “Bah, humbug!” and stayed dark.

“That’s not right,” I said, looking at the box they came in.

“If one or more bulbs burns [sic, I think] out, others stay lighted,” the box proudly proclaimed.

At first, I thought the lights weren’t functioning as designed, but then I read the carefully worded message again.  It didn’t say how many others would stay lighted.  It just said others.  If I assumed that meant ALL others, well, that’s my faulty interpretation.

“Isn’t that being a little deceptive?” asked an intern in the conference room where the box was being designed.

“You’re fired.  Which means half of you are fired,”    the boss said, dividing the room with his arm and pointing toward the door.

My dad can fix anything.  He’s spent a great deal of his life with his head under cupboards, inside engines and between floor joists, swearing at things until they worked again.

“How do you fix a strand of Christmas lights?” I asked him over the phone.

“Easy.  Throw it out and buy a new one,” he said. 

Several years ago, I wrote that if the universe were a just place, when an overhead light bulb burned out in the factory where they manufacture Christmas lights, the entire factory would go dark until they figured out which bulb it was.  I’d like to amend that now to say they should just burn down the factory.

In any event, we’re ready for Christmas around here.  Our lights are now strung, and our children, though amped up, remain at the proper voltage.  No thanks to our outlet covers.   
You can get half-lit with Mike Todd at

Monday, December 23, 2013

Deck the halls with rubber serpents

“The only way you’re getting out of here is with me.  Let’s make this easy on both of us,” I said.  The door clicked shut behind me.  I inched into the room, hoping I’d pushed my fear down far enough that it wasn’t showing. 

My quarry pondered my words for a moment.  We locked eyes.  A tense silence filled the room.   A tumbleweed blew across the carpet between us.  Or was it a dust bunny?

Then, to let me know how easy he intended to make this on both of us, my quarry relieved himself on my wife’s dresser.  Then he launched headfirst into the ceiling, flapping and bonking his head over and over.

“Hey, could you just hold still for a minute?” I said, ducking as he swooped past.  The rational part of your brain knows that a little wren can’t possibly hurt you, but still, when one is flying around your bedroom, you really have to fight the urge to shriek and crawl someplace where the likelihood of a winged creature landing on your face drops to zero.

Each time the bird stopped to rest, I’d step slowly closer, only to flinch and take a blind swipe with my son’s miniature butterfly net as it flew past.

I may not be great at wren wrangling yet, but this wasn’t my first bird rodeo.  The bird entered the house the same way they always do: by riding on the wreath that hangs on our front door.  When the door swings open, the bird takes flight and boom!  Instant involuntary aviary.

Every year, we forget that this happens.  We merrily hang the wreath on our door, dooming ourselves to another run-in with a cute little winged menace.

“There’s a bird in the house.  He came in when I opened the door to let the dog out,” my wife Kara reported last week.

The last time this happened, I fashioned a crude net out of a trash bag, a garden rake, a coat hanger and some duct tape.  This time, I had a secret weapon: a four-year-old son.

“Evan, I need your butterfly net.  Do you know where it is?” I asked.

“I do!” Evan replied, taking a diving leap into a giant pile of colorful plastic paraphernalia in our toy room (formerly known as the living room), disappearing entirely, except for his feet.

When he emerged with the net, it wasn’t quite the size I’d remembered.  It looked more like a net you’d use to scoop a goldfish out of an aquarium.  

I thanked Evan for the net and followed the wren upstairs, down the hall and into our bedroom, where our final showdown would take place.

From my nightstand, the bird looked at me with his beak open slightly, as if he wanted to speak.  I looked back at him, and in this pause from our surface-to-air combat, we shared a moment.  The bird communicated with me.

“Dude, stop chasing me,” he communicated.

The one thing I’ve learned: If you chase a wren long enough, it will get tired.  It will get sloppy.  It will make mistakes.  Eventually, it will just sit there and say, “I’m pretty sure you’re going to eat me, but whatever.”

After a few more passes around the room, the bird sat still long enough for me to drop the goldfish net over his head and slide a piece of cardboard underneath.

“We really need to figure out how to keep this from happening again,” I said as the wren chirped at us from a tree in the front yard.        

Kara read online that putting rubber snakes in your wreath will keep the birds out.  We deployed our secret weapon to find some toy snakes in the rubble.

This is all a long way of explaining to our neighbors: Yes, that is a rubber snake you see in our wreath.  No, we don’t celebrate Halloween and Christmas simultaneously, unless you count the leftover Jolly Ranchers we’re still working through. 

You can wrangle wreath wrens with Mike Todd at

Monday, December 16, 2013

We’re going on a moose hunt

“Seriously?  These scavenger hunts are getting way too difficult,” my sister-in-law Jill replied after we delivered our latest request.  Jill had become a victim of her own success.  Like the child in the old Shel Silverstein poem, if she’d just broken a few dishes, maybe we wouldn’t have asked her to dry the dishes anymore.

“There’s a statue of Granite the sled dog somewhere in the Alaska Regional Hospital.  Can you find it and take a picture?” we’d asked a few months ago, back when our requests were still somewhat reasonable.  Our son Evan had read about Granite, apparently the awesomest dog in the history of the Iditarod, in one of his books, which featured an image of Granite’s regal statue on the back cover.  It’s a pretty impressive feat for a dog to distinguish itself enough to earn a permanent memorial.  If our dog Memphis ever earns a bronze likeness of herself, it will probably depict her running past the edge of the hardwood floor to barf on the carpet.

Three days after that request, Jill texted us a picture of the bronze pooch.  (She works at the Alaska Regional Hospital, a very helpful non-coincidence.)

“I like that picture!” Evan said, briefly appeased.  “Now can she send me a picture of a moose?”

Our family has a thing for moose.  Sure, the animals themselves are swell enough on their own, but for us, their presence has a deeper meaning: If you’re looking at one, that means you’re on vacation.  (One more solid indicator: Your last snack consisted entirely of beer and Oreos.) 

Before Aunt Jill and Uncle Kris moved to Anchorage last year, they promised Evan that they’d be his Alaskan eyes and ears.

“As soon as we see a moose, you’ll be the first to know,” Jill said. 

Granite had stayed put, making him easier to find, but the Alaskan moose were just not cooperating.  And then, one Saturday evening, my wife Kara’s cell phone announced a video chat invitation from Jill.  Kara gave the phone to Evan.  An excited, if somewhat pixilated, Aunt Jill announced, “Evan, look, there’s a moose in our yard!”

She pointed the camera out her window at the giant creature nibbling a snowy crabapple tree. 

Sometimes, I wonder if we should live in a place where cool stuff like that happens.  “Uncle Mike, can you send me a picture of a traffic jam?” is a message I’ll probably never receive.

When Jill ventured outside to get a closer look, the moose wandered off into the woods before it even got a chance to hear the door click shut behind Jill, locking her out in the Alaskan wilderness.  Well, the Alaskan wilderness of their townhouse development, which is at least 97% more wildernessy than any townhouses around here. 

“Oh, no,” she said, and we could do nothing from our end except watch, and congratulate her on her prescient decision to put on her jacket before venturing out.

Smart phones are funny things.  Beyond their primary function of helping you ignore loved ones on the other side of the couch, they can also apparently be used to connect with loved ones on the other side of the world.  What can’t these things do?  Besides unlock a front door, I mean.

After a brief intermission, Jill called back from inside her house, letting us know that her neighbor had given her back her spare key.  Evan had been looking over his moose book in the meantime.

“Aunt Jill, did you know that a moose’s antlers fall off each year?  Can you send me a picture of a moose with just one antler?” he asked.

He might just as well have asked her to get a picture of Sarah Palin speaking at an ACLU fundraiser.

“I might have to grab a picture off the Internet and pass it off as my own,” Jill told us later.  Or maybe she should just go ahead and break a dish.
You can take Mike Todd for Granite at

Update: And of course, the day after I sent in this column, Uncle Kris saw a one-antlered moose, just wandering down the sidewalk.  The moose took off when Kris tried to grab a picture, but he did manage to snag this shot:

If you blow it up and look at the moose's shadow, you can see the one antler (there are also a couple lighter pixels over one side of his head).  We're counting it!  Anyone have any other good Alaska scavenger hunt ideas?  Otherwise, we'll have to run with the Sarah Palin/ACLU thing.  Jill and Kris could probably get it done.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Wren things go awry

** The regular reader(s) of this column may recognize this one from December 2008.  Sorry if this a rerun for you!  But really, if your memory is that good, you should probably be working on cold fusion or something instead of reading this blog anyway. **
When my buddy Derek recently opened our front door to leave after a weekend visit, a small brown bird shot into the house, flying right for my wife Kara like she was made of suet.

Kara saw the look on my face before she saw the bird.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, followed immediately by, “Aaaaaah! Is that a bat? Is that a bat?” as she flung herself off the couch and scuttled across the floor.

The aptly named house wren alighted on the lampshade that had been just over Kara’s head, then quickly made itself at home, conducting an impromptu self-guided tour of every lampshade and curtain rod in the house, mistaking each for a guest bathroom and returning the number of incontinent animals in our house to one. Apparently, housebreaking our dog Memphis had thrown the universe out of balance. We were due for a correction.

As it turned out, Kara brought this upon us. The bird had built a nest in the wreath on our front door, and it wasn’t even our Christmas wreath yet. Kara buys wreaths like rappers buy Cadillac Escalades.

“Oooh, this one would make a nice summer wreath,” she’ll say, pointing at an overpriced bundle of sticks and berries that will soon be riding home in our backseat.

Derek, Kara and I ran around the house picking up tools that we thought might be helpful for corralling the wren. Kara grabbed a blanket. Derek snagged a broom. After frantically scanning the pantry for a helpful bird-catching implement, I came back with the best thing I could find: an empty Honey Nut Cheerios box.

“Babe, a cereal box. Seriously?” Kara asked.

Unfortunately, I skimmed over the part of the Guy Handbook that explained how to remove flying animals from the house. It must have been right next to the chapter that explained why you’d ever want to change your own motor oil.

The three of us ran around the house, chasing the wren to a scene that should have been accompanied by Benny Hill music. I helped Kara toss the blanket at the bird a few times, but a moving target is really hard to hit with microfleece. In any event, if I’m ever forced to be a gladiator, remind me not to pick that throwable net as a weapon. If the blanket is any indication, I couldn’t incapacitate the broad side of a barn with one of those things.

After several passes, Derek stuck the broom right into the wren’s flight path, and the bird, dazed, flopped to floor. At that moment, Memphis, who had been altitudinally challenged enough not to have been an issue until just then, shot across the room, the thought bubble over her head clearly showing a rawhide chew toy with flapping wings.

“No, no, no!” we all screamed together as the bird hopped to its feet and ran towards the couch, with Memphis closing quickly behind.

With a head-first slide under the couch, the bird narrowly avoided the shared and shredded fate of every dog toy we’ve ever bought.

Moments later, with Memphis locked howling in the bedroom, Derek and Kara gently rocked the couch back as I crawled under with the cereal box.

“Hey!” I said.

“Did you catch it?” Kara asked.

“No, but did you know that the Honey Nut Cheerios bee is named ‘Buzz’? I don’t think I ever knew that.”

As a team, we were eventually able to coax the bird into the box, perhaps due to the large print that promised lower cholesterol. Out on the deck, the bird hopped out of the box and flew into a nearby tree, where it probably swore off wreaths forever. If only I could get Kara to do the same.

You can smack Mike Todd with your broom at

Monday, December 02, 2013

The creature in the cup holder

“There’s a worm in my cup holder!” our son Evan reported from the backseat.

I glanced in the rearview mirror, which hadn’t been pointed at the cars behind us in years, to see if he was serious.

He pointed down to indicate that this was the real deal.

“Really, like a real worm?” my wife Kara asked.  Four-year-olds are not the most reliable witnesses.  A “worm” could be anything from a worm-like piece of thread to an actual boa constrictor to nothing at all.  After all, this is the same child who recently informed us of a tiny being called the Gobbler who lives in people’s ears and nibbles their toes while they’re sleeping.

“The Gobbler is definitely real,” he said quietly, as if worried that the Gobbler would intercept the message, which he probably would, seeing as how he lives in our ears.

“Yeah, like a real worm,” Evan replied.   

Kara took off her seatbelt and leaned into the backseat to get a look. 

“Don’t crash,” she said, which is what she always says when she unclicks.  Recognizing the wisdom of her advice, I took us off the collision course with that phone pole.  In a moment, she pulled herself back into her seat to report her findings. 

“Yeah, there’s a little white worm in there with his treasures,” she said.

Evan likes to collect treasures – acorns, rocks, leaves, sticks, flowers – and stuff them into any available receptacles, including the cup holders on his car seat (let’s not get hung up on the fact that Evan’s ride has more standard features than my first car).

“Like, a fat, squat, white worm?” I asked.

“Yeah, like that,” she replied. 

“And it’s moving?” I asked.

“Yes, just wriggling a little,” she said.

She did not freak out, which led me to believe that she had not identified the creature in the cup holder.  We drove along in silence for another few moments, as I contemplated how, or whether, to break the news that Evan had a maggot in his car seat.

We don’t claim to be the neatest of people.  We often have unfolded laundry on the couch.  Dust bunnies roam our hardwood with little fear of capture.  But, up until that point, we had at least been 100% maggot-free.  A low bar, sure, but one we never expected to trip us up.

“Dude, I hate to say this, but you just described a maggot,” I said. 

Kara took the news better than I expected.

“We are disgusting people,” she replied, a fair point.

When we arrived at daycare, I took Evan’s treasures – an acorn, a shriveled berry, some pebbles, the odd maggot – and put them under a bush.

“My treasures!” Evan yelled, but he quickly recovered his composure.  Sometimes, if you love a maggot, you have to set it free.     

A couple weeks later, Evan sat in my lap as I read him some hard-hitting journalism from the latest issue of Ranger Rick, Jr, with the cover story titled “Nutty for Acorns.”  As we got caught up on the latest in acorn-related current events, I showed Evan a picture of an adult acorn weevil.  The acorn weevil, we learned, inserts its eggs into an acorn in the summer.  When the acorn falls from the tree, the baby acorn weevil chews its way out into the world.  Or, in some cases, into Evan’s cup holder.

“Babe, you’ve got to see this,” I said, handing the magazine to Kara.

“What about it?” she asked.

“We’re not disgusting!” I replied, feeling vindicated.  Sure, it was still a maggot, but it sounds so much cuter to call it a baby acorn weevil. 

I’d been blaming the shriveled-up berry all along.  The acorn, as it turned out, was the root of all weevil.

You can get some grub with Mike Todd at