Sunday, September 29, 2013

Paving our driveway with good intentions

We weren’t prepared for the ambush, which is what made it such a good one.  The pickup truck pulled into the driveway behind us, blocking our escape route, its occupants intent on separating us from our money. 

I hadn’t even noticed the ringleader jumping out of the truck behind me, getting ready to execute her plan.

“Dude, these paper towels aren’t the Select-a-Size kind,” I said, peering at the avalanching groceries in our car’s cargo area.  Somewhere, under those piles, was a folded-up stroller the size of an Abrams tank, from which we’d hopefully remembered to remove the baby.  We’d set out to buy bananas and milk at the grocery store, and had somehow spent $200 on a pile of food that blotted out our car’s dome light.

“Aw, they’re the regular kind?” my wife Kara said, emerging from her seat.  Prior to having children, we used about three paper towels per year, mostly to clean up beer spills.  Now, with two small children bent on the destruction of our house via the contents of their plastic plates and sippy cups, we go through enough paper towels weekly to sop up a lesser Great Lake. 

To assuage our eco-guilt, we try to use the smaller Select-a-Size ones, which should really just replace the standard size altogether.  A normal-sized paper towel could, in a pinch, serve as a cape for a very low-rent (but super-absorbent) superhero.  If you need that size of paper towel in your life, it might be time to consider eating your meals in a kiddie pool that can be hosed out later.  We’ve thought about it.

“Truck!” our son Evan yelled from his car seat, recognizing the familiar rumble.  Finally, his lifelong quest to point out large motorized vehicles to everyone in earshot fulfilled an actual purpose.
I turned to find a woman looking down, pacing around our driveway while two guys waited for her in an idling pickup truck. 

“It’s holding up pretty good,” she said when she saw me looking at her.

I glanced at the truck and noticed the logo painted on the door, for a local paving company.  They’d coated our driveway a few years back.

“We like to do it every two years,” she said.

“I bet you do,” I thought. 

“Really?  That often?” I asked.  She mustn’t have known she was talking to a family with two kids in daycare.  Our general plan is to let our house biodegrade until next year, when Evan starts kindergarten.  Anything that falls apart or implodes in the meantime didn’t really deserve us, anyway.

“Yup.  It’s been three years since your last coating,” she said.

“Let’s make it four,” I thought.

There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld bit where he talks about maximum-strength headache medicine.  “Nobody wants anything less than 'extra-strength,’” he said.  “Give me the maximum allowable human dosage.  Figure out what will kill me, and then back it off a little bit."

If you turn that idea around, you’ll arrive at my general attitude toward the maintenance of our property.  Figure out what will anger the neighbors, then step it up a little bit.  Anything more is just wasting time you could have spent playing with your kids, or scrubbing dog barf out of the carpet.     

“Replacing a cracked driveway costs a lot more than coating it,” she warned as she handed me her card.

I thanked her for her waylaying our family and she hopped back in the truck.  Evan stood at the edge of the garage and waved as they backed out.  As the engine noise faded away, he started scanning the sky for airplanes.

She was right.  We really should coat the driveway again this year.  Or maybe I’ll just blot off the rain with our new paper towels.

You can hand Mike Todd his asphalt at

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New ways to get our kicks

“Look at you, man.  I can’t believe this day has come,” my buddy Jeff said as he watched me undergo one of life’s great transitions.  Like the doctor from “Field of Dreams” who could never go back to his old life once he stepped off the field, my life would never be the same once I walked to the edge of the parking lot and stepped onto the grass beyond. 

I’d begun the day as a regular dude.  I would end it as a soccer dad. 

My wife Kara, a newly minted soccer mom, was already on the field with our four-year-old son Evan, participating in loosely organized pandemonium.  A coach with a whistle barked out orders while a roiling sea of children attempted, for the most part, to comply.

The league was structured so that there aren’t fixed teams, just a gaggle of children who do practice drills for half an hour, then break into smaller groups for scrimmages. 

“They don’t have real games.  They don’t even have teams.  Who came up with this idea?” Kara asked when we received the email that explained how the league operated for Evan’s age group. 
 We pictured walking up on our first day to the soccer field, where there would be a drum circle and people in knit hats passing handrolled cigarettes.

“Dig it, man.  There are no losers in soccer.  Like, you know?” the coach would say.

But after watching dozens of soccer balls sitting patiently as tiny cleats whizzed past them over and over, it became clear that some skill-building was probably a good idea, especially before putting the kids in front of concession-stand-paying customers.

After the drills, the kids broke into smaller groups for the main event: the scrimmage.  Evan and his two teammates donned their blue jerseys, while the opposing three kids put on red jerseys.  Game on.  This is what we came to see.

“Let’s do this,” Jeff said.  After he’d booked his weekend visit with us, Jeff found out about the start of soccer season.  For his own master class in being a good sport, he attended the game with us.

As soon as a parent placed a ball on the field, the red team sprang to life, dribbling and passing the ball before kicking it into the open goal.  Evan gamely ran in the general direction of the ball while his two teammates cried and ran to the sidelines.  It wasn’t the other team scoring that bothered them, it seemed, so much as the idea of soccer in general.  There may be no crying in baseball, but, in my experience, there is a LOT of crying in soccer.

This process repeated itself about a dozen more times.  Eventually, a parent started serving as a goalie for Evan’s team.

“I think the red team is juicing,” Jeff whispered.

Final score: 37-2, or thereabouts.  And that was due to a late comeback, during which the opposing parents were holding back their kids by their jerseys.  Evan had absolutely no idea that his team had just been drubbed, though, so he walked off the field happy.

 You haven't lost if you haven't noticed.

Afterward, over a well-deserved pizza lunch, Evan said, “I think that boy was tryin’ to make me not get the ball.”

“That’s right, Evan.  He didn’t want you to have it,” I said.

“Why not?” Evan asked.   

We may have dulled his killer instinct with all our talk of sharing and being nice.  For all the good that sports can do for kids, helping them to excel apparently requires a bit of reprogramming.

“See that nice little boy wearing the different-colored jersey?  Destroy him, Sweetheart.”

That must be what soccer parents are supposed to do.  We’ll check into it, right after we purchase a minivan.   

You can give Mike Todd a red card at

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Cutting the umbilical cable

“Are you kidding me?” said the guy as he got in line behind me, shaking his head at the expanse of humanity between us and the service desk. 

I smiled and gave him a look that said either, “What are you gonna do?” or, “Hey, nice legs.”  I’m not that good at giving looks.

Even though some of my compatriots were disgruntled at having to wait in such a long line, I was quite gruntled; I’d gladly have waited all day to reach that desk.  At the end of the journey, I would be dumping off a money vacuum that had been inhaling piles of twenties straight of our checking account every month for far too long.

“You cutting the cable, too?” I asked the angry guy behind me.  We both cradled large cable boxes in our arms.  The previous month, we’d each paid the cable company $6.95 for the privilege of renting our respective boxes, including the twenty-four-cent surcharge for the remote.  During the six years I’d rented that box, I’d paid $500 for it, money which could have gone toward a much better cause, like twenty-three minutes of daycare.

He looked at me like I was nuts.

“Nope, just getting it fixed,” he replied.  Then, perhaps sensing that he was speaking to a person of extreme cheapness, he said, “But I’d love to dump it.  When you wrap in Internet and phone, I’m paying $240 a month.”

All of a sudden, the suspicion of insanity became mutual.  This guy might as well have just run through the nearest forest every month, dumping the contents of his wallet for woodland creatures to use as nesting material.  Generously assuming that internet and phone accounted for $100 of his bill, he was paying $140 each month for TV.  Nothing is that entertaining.  Squirrels could easily have made better use of that money. 

I’d recently waged a campaign in our house to rid ourselves of wasteful spending.  With two kids in daycare, we’re basically paying for a second house, except instead of lakefront views, we get glitter on our floorboards.  (Incidentally, if early learning institutions decided to put a moratorium on the use of glitter in art projects, I doubt anyone would complain.  Just throwing that out there.)

The cable box became my number one target.  By switching our phone provider and using cheaper TV alternatives, we could save $100/month without really changing our life-wasting habits.  The decision seemed to be a no-brainer, though one could rightly question the decision-making capabilities of people who choose to spend their precious few moments on Earth watching The Bachelorette.

Already, our kids have grown up watching streaming shows over the Internet, with no idea what a commercial is.  We find this to be a nice byproduct of foregoing regular TV, though our children may enter adulthood without the ability to synchronize bathroom breaks and commercial breaks.
Once, on a JetBlue flight, we found a Dora the Explorer episode for our then-three-year-old son Evan to watch.  Five minutes in, a commercial came on.

“PUT DORA BACK ON!  PUT DORA BACK ON!” Evan screamed while a cartoon bird tried to sell him Cocoa Puffs.  It was his first commercial.  We spent the remainder of the break wiping his tears and explaining capitalism to him.

Over time, we came to realize that with all the other available programming options, our cable box had become a very expensive clock.  It was the only clock in the house that was correct for the few weeks after a Daylight Savings Time switch, but the expense no longer made sense.

“What can I do for you?” asked the lady behind the counter when my turn finally came.

“We already shut off our TV service.  Just handing over the box and remote,” I said.  Then I gave her a look that said either, “What a relief,” or, “Hey, nice legs.”
You can cancel your Mike Todd service at

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Exercising in futility

“I’m going for a jog,” I said, then paused, letting those words hang in the air. 

“Wait, really?” my brain asked.  Then my eyes looked down at my feet and saw garish yellow shoes with built-in reflectors on them.

“I think he’s serious,” they reported.

I can understand why various body parts would be confused.  Between the ages of 18 and 34, I didn’t run a single mile.  At least not a consecutive mile.  If you added up all the times I ran across the room to keep one of my sons from falling down a flight of stairs, I might have logged more miles than, uh, you know, a famous long-distance runner.  For instance, several Kenyan people.  Also, the guy from Chariots of Fire.  Note to my young reader(s): If you want to get famous, long-distance running probably isn’t going to do the trick.  Keep posting Youtube videos of yourself riding shopping carts down ski jumps.  

Until last year, in answer to the question, “The last time you ran a mile, why did you do it?” I would have replied, “Because the gym teacher made me.  And so did the president.”

“It’s time for the President’s Physical Fitness Test,” Mr. Garber would say after blowing his whistle, smiling at our obvious distress.

We’d groan and rend our Umbro shorts at the beginning of the annual rite of passage, a battery of exercises designed to quantify our progress toward manhood.  It was like those National Geographic videos where the young tribal men jumped off a giant bamboo scaffold with vines tied to their ankles to demonstrate their courage, except I bet those guys didn’t have to try to touch their toes in front of the girls’ class.
By executive decree, though, we had no choice but to do all the exercises.

“Why does Bill Clinton care how many pull-ups I can do?” I’d wonder. 

When my turn at the pull-up bar came, I’d struggle and kick my way up to the bar a couple of times, then dangle for a while, wondering how long I’d have to hang there until my muscles got big enough to do another one.

I’d see Mr. Garber penciling a “2” on his clipboard beside my name as I dropped to the floor, ashamed that I’d failed my country.

Then I pictured the president’s chief of staff bursting into the Oval Office, waving Mr. Garber’s clipboard over his head.

“Sir, I’m afraid there’s a crisis.  We’re facing a severe shortage of adolescent upper-body strength in southeastern Pennsylvania.” 

But the pull-ups, though humiliating, were at least quick.  The mile run was the worst, oh, say, twenty-two minutes of the school year.  Or the worst seven minutes for the kids in decent shape, who then got to lounge at the finish line while the rest of us stumbled and wheezed across, hoping the girls across the field weren’t paying attention.   

So the president ruined me for running for a solid two decades, but the reality of approaching (okay, and possibly arriving at) middle age brought me back.

“I’m going for a jog” has always been one of those things that other people say, people who wear skintight pants in public and who know what gluten-free means.  But I’ve had to start saying it, too, because as you get older, you gain two pounds just by inhaling the steam off the pizza.     

A good thing about jogging when you’re in horrible shape is that, when it comes to setting personal bests, the competition is extremely weak.  For the first time in twenty years, though, I can jog a mile, sometimes even plural miles.  I kind of wish Mr. Garber would tell President Obama.  Presidents get pretty wrapped up in this stuff. 

You can blow past Mike Todd at

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Not much labor going on around here

What?  You're off celebrating Labor Day and don't have time to read a column?  Dude, that works out really well for both of us, since I didn't write one. 

How about we slap some hiking pictures from a few weeks ago out here and call it even?  Done.

Anyway, happy Labor Day, all!  And if you're a Russian comment-spammer or other person from another country, happy Monday!