Monday, December 29, 2014

Household of Brotherly Shoves

“I want the rings!” my son Evan yelled from his seat at the dinner table, reaching to snatch the object from his little brother’s hands.

“No, my wings!” Zack screeched, clutching the plastic circles close to his chest.

“Rings?  That’s the thing that holds the ketchup bottles together.  It has no other purpose,” I said.  We get much of our food from Costco these days, so our ketchup comes in triplicate. 

After wrenching the bottles apart, I’d set the otherwise useless but soon-to-be-coveted plastic doodad on the table for a moment, until I could squirt another gallon onto each of the kids’ plates, so they could keep their chicken nuggets properly lubricated.  Prior to having kids, a bottle of ketchup in our house would last about four years after its sell-by date.  Now, we buy a three-pack of gallon jugs just to get through the week.  Our kids eat so much ketchup, their blood type is Heinz-positive.

“My wings!” Zack yelled.

“No, my rings!” Evan said, making another lunge.   

“You know you guys are fighting over a piece of actual garbage right now, right?  Why don’t you fight over the egg shells I just threw away, or an old banana peel?” I suggested.

“What?” Evan asked, trying to figure out if he was actually allowed to go play with egg shells.  While he was distracted, Zack peeked at the plastic thing in his hand, wondering if it might be useful for anything other than tormenting his brother.

They call Philadelphia the City of Brotherly Love, which must mean this: People in the city really do love each other and want to spend time together, and also shove each other sometimes, and occasionally steal each other’s stuff.  That’s what brotherly love looks like in our house, anyway.

As our sons grow up together, I wonder what their relationship will look like as their bonds, and punches, grow stronger.  My dad is very close with his brother, our Uncle Ed.  They’ll chat on the phone for an hour or more, with Dad holding the phone just under the scar beneath his eye, which was given to him sixty-five years ago by the man on the other end of the line.

Dad was chasing Uncle Ed around their house in rural North Carolina.  With Dad closing in, Uncle Ed happened upon the perfect brother-impeding obstacle – some extra barbed wire.  He pulled the wire tight across my dad’s path, and dad ran right into the barbed wire, face first.  Mission accomplished, brother impeded.

Of course, this was back in the day when kids were allowed to be around things like barbed wire.  If we had barbed wire around our house now, my wife Kara would put foam rubber bumpers on each barb.  Animals would come from all around to rub up against our satiny-soft barbed wire.  Back then, though, “childproofing” wasn’t really a word, or if it was, it probably meant wearing protection, not adhering it to every corner of the coffee table.

The fight over the ketchup doodad ended like most of our kids’ fights do: they forgot they were fighting and ran off to the next thing, together.  As we cleaned up after dinner, the doodad sat next to Zack’s plate; once it lost its brother-tormenting properties, it became trash again.

Anyway, I can only hope that someday, Evan and Zack grow up to be as close as Dad and Uncle Ed (who still feels bad about the barbed wire thing, even though he’d already been apologizing about it for a decade before our current president was born), but it would be okay if they skipped the step where one of them almost takes out the other one’s eyeballs.  Besides, they’d have to figure out a way to do it with foam rubber.
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Monday, December 22, 2014

Just can’t elf my shelf

“Dear Sparkles, I am so very sorry that my sisster touched you,” the letter began, and I realized that I did not understand the rules at all.

“I will apolougey because she will not apolougey to anybody and I mean anybody.  I don’t want you to go to the elf hospital.  Love, Emily.  P.S. Jordan touched you, not me.”

If you are a practitioner of Elf on the Shelf, then this letter probably makes perfect sense to you.  The first rule of Elf on the Shelf, besides “Everyone must pay $29.95 for Elf on the Shelf,” is that you do not touch the elf, lest it lose its Christmas magic.

A high school acquaintance posted a photo of this letter, written by her daughter, to Facebook.  It prompted me to look up Elf on the Shelf, a phenomenon of which I was aware but did not completely understand, which describes my relationship with most phenomena.  

Apparently, some families have an elf that lives in their house through the month of December, sitting on a shelf and watching the proceedings, returning to the North Pole each night to squeal on the kids, and also to have a good laugh with Santa about how much people are willing to spend on a little elf doll.

“Ho ho ho!  Tell me again!” Santa says.

“$29.95!  For like two dollars’ worth of stuff!” the elf sputters out, and Santa’s belly shakes like a bowlful of jelly.

Actually, for that $29.95, you also get a cute little book, written by first-time children’s book author, the National Security Agency, which understands the importance of getting kids used to living in a surveillance state as early as possible.

When the elf returns back to your house from the North Pole, it chooses a different place to sit, so that each morning, your kids wander around the house until they locate the elf, so they know which room not to misbehave in.   

“The squealer’s sitting on the coffee maker, so we have to be good in the kitchen today.  Let’s go to my room and light roman candles out the window,” your kids will say.

Prior to Elf on the Shelf, I thought Santa had the surveillance thing under control all by himself.  If he can’t keep an eye on things without the help of the elf, I’m worried that some misdeeds might slip by unnoticed, like the scene in my car last week.   

“Where goin’?” my two-year-old son Zack asked from the backseat.

“To pick up your brother from school,” I said.

“Why?” he asked. 

“Because if we don’t do it, Child Protective Services might instead,” I said.

“No pick up brother.  Ice cream,” Zack said.

“Wait.  You want to stop and get ice cream instead of picking up your brother?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Ice cream,” he said.

 “Dude, we have to pick up your brother.  If you eat a good dinner, we can talk about dessert later,” I said.  Zack’s response was to scream for several minutes as he wondered why I couldn’t just be reasonable.  Perhaps it couldn’t hurt to have one of Santa’s goons around to scare him straight.

We probably won’t invite an elf to come live in our house, though, because I worry we might get an elf who forgets to travel back to the North Pole each night, on account of his already-too-hectic schedule.  That elf probably doesn’t need one more thing in his life to worry about.   

Incidentally, for the letter that sparked my interest in the first place, I changed the kids’ names rather than send a creepy message to a high school acquaintance asking for permission to reproduce the letter.  Facebook’s mission remains intact: To connect people who will never actually talk to each other again. 

I did leave Sparkles’ name unchanged, though, in the hopes that he might be encouraged to offer clemency.

You can keep an eye on Mike Todd at

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wreath beats turkey

“Where’s my turkey?” our son Evan demanded, pointing at the wreath on our front door accusingly. 

The huge-ornament-and-possibly-fake-pinecone-festooned ring occupied the spot where his beautiful crayon Thanksgiving drawing from kindergarten had been taped for weeks.

Silence filled the room.  My wife Kara had stuffed the drawing in the trash five minutes prior, after holding it up to me and looking sad.

“Bah, he’ll never notice,” I said.

“We could save these seasonal drawings somewhere, and pull them out throughout the year…” she said, her voice trailing off as she realized that we would never be able to pull that off without hiring a personal assistant.

“Oh, we had to move it to the kitchen to make room on the door,” Kara told Evan, which was technically true.  The turkey drawing really was in the kitchen, just the trash can part of the kitchen.

Fortunately for our peace of mind, Evan wouldn’t have found his drawing without doing some serious archaeology.  We’ve learned that when you throw away your kid’s art projects, you must always stuff them down deep.  You never leave them sitting on top of the other garbage, or you’re just setting yourself up for cries of, “AAAHHH!  Why’s my bunny in the trash can?”

Before you judge us, it’s important to understand that without a certain degree of purging, our house would not have room for humans in it.  You just can’t hang onto everything, or you’ll end up on a reality show, not being able to tell the interviewer how many cats you have under all that stuff.

But we do love our kids’ art projects, and look forward to seeing the magic they create with cotton balls, pipe cleaners, construction paper and glitter.  Well, not glitter.  The only reason that stuff is even used in schools, I presume, is because of the powerful Dust Buster lobby.

It was in the spirit of jettisoning the old to make way for the new that we assembled our family in the toy room, formerly known as the living room, to prepare for the Season of Receiving.

“If we can’t clear this room out, we’re going to have to put a sign in the fireplace that says, ‘Too many toys already.  Thanks anyway, Santa.’”   

“Nooooo!” the kids agreed.

I nudged an empty plastic bin into the center of the room. 

“We need to fill this with toys we don’t use anymore,” I said.  I figured they’d start with the little Happy Meal toys that litter our lives, since the kids generally spend more time playing with the McNuggets than the toys.

Without hesitating, Evan walked over to the avalanching mountain of toys and plucked a Woody doll out. 

“Here,” he said, dumping Sheriff Woody into the bin.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Dude, we got this toy for you at Disney.  It’s like an actual real one, just like in the movies” I said, grabbing Woody and pulling the string in his back.

“There’s a snake in my boot!” Woody said.

“Nobody ever plays with it,” Evan replied.  Woody didn’t have a friend in Evan.

“What about those plastic trumpets?” I asked.  I’d had it out for those trumpets since the day they came home from the county fair, their single shrill note bouncing incessantly around our walls and craniums.

“But we love the trumpets!” Evan yelled as Zack tried to wrest it from my grip.

“Okay, okay,” I relented.

After many more rounds of negotiation, we finally got the room to a place where we could tell what color the carpet was.  If Santa decides to skip our house, it won’t be because we didn’t make room. 

Also, I’m pretty sure that Woody doll is mine now.

You can put Mike Todd on the curb and hope the trash truck takes him at

Monday, December 08, 2014

Same room, different worlds

“Hey, sorry, we’re running behind.  We’ll be about an hour late,” my buddy Josh said, and I already knew he was lying. 

“No problem, see you in an hour,” I replied, hanging up and waiting for the rumble of his car in the driveway.  Three beats later, I heard two car doors slam, and then he was walking to the front door with his six-year-old son, Issac.

“We got you!  It was Isaac’s idea,” Josh said.  If that was true, Isaac comes by his sense of humor honestly, because his dad has been calling from our mailbox to tell us he’s running late for over a decade.  Some jokes, like my hairline, are genetic, which is only funny depending on your perspective.   

“Hey, look, Evan, Isaac’s here!” I said, curious to see if Evan would jump for joy or play it cool.  He’d been bugging me all day. 

“Is Isaac here yet?  Is Isaac here yet?” he’d been repeating for hours, to the point that the words began to lose their meaning.

“Is Isaac really his name?  Is ‘yet’ a word?  It doesn’t sound like a word.  Yet.  Yet.  Yet,” I thought. 
Evan hid behind my leg, going through his normal thirty seconds of shyness.  He’d played with Isaac several times, but since we live a few hours away, we can only get them together a couple of times a year.

Finally, Evan emerged into full view, smiling, looking up at me as if he had something important to say.  As a parent, you treasure moments like these, when the stars align so that your kids can carry a friendship forward to the next generation.

“iPad?” Evan asked.  The regular reader(s) of this column might recall that Evan has recently become obsessed with an educational (for the wrong reasons) game in which he controls a shark that devours people.

“Dude, you’ve been waiting all day for Isaac to get here,” I replied, trying to save the situation.

“Play iPad now?” Evan asked. 

Isaac looked at Evan, then back at his dad.

“Dad, can you go get my iPad out of the car?” he asked.

So that is how our kids came to be sitting in the same room, inhabiting different worlds.  To make the scene worse, our youngest son, Zack, just got a hand-me-down iPad from my father-in-law, a generous byproduct of Grandpa’s upgrade to a new one.

Great hangin' with you guys
 We asked if Grandpa would rather get some trade-in money for his old iPad, but apparently you can’t trade in the original iPad anymore.   

“Whoa, haven’t seen one of those in a while,” the guy in the Apple store said, as if he’d just been handed a gramophone. 

Do you remember when the original iPad debuted?  According to Wikipedia, it was released on April 3, 2010, after Marilyn Monroe invented it.  I have mustard in my fridge that is older than the original iPad.  That mustard has more trade-in value, too. 

Josh and I looked at the three kids sitting there, paying zero attention to each other. 

“Remember in college when that guy passed out on my floor, and we used him as a coffee table, propping our feet on him for hours while we played Mortal Kombat?” he asked.

Sure, when we were younger, we stared at the screen for hours with our friends, too, but at least we were staring at the same screen.  Also, it’s good to have friends in your life who can remind you of the times that you used human beings as furniture.

“This is making me sad.  Let’s make them do something else,” I said, motioning to the three zombies.

With the iPads stacked on the fridge, we found that a game of “Pelt a Dad with a Snowball,” is a great way to get the kids connected, assuming you can get them disconnected.

You can trade Mike Todd in for a newer model at

Monday, December 01, 2014

I, Dad, lose to iPad

Sometimes, before the sun even peeks above the horizon, you learn your place in the universe.

“Good morning, buddy!  Time to rise and shine!” I said to my son Evan as I pulled his blinds up with the ZIIIIIP that starts most of his days.  Now that our kids are no longer nocturnally yodeling babies, perhaps I derive too much pleasure from being the one who gets to do the waking, but you know what they say about revenge: It’s a dish best served to small people who can’t do anything about it.

“iPad,” Evan croaked from under his covers. 

“Dude, that’s not how you greet someone in the morning.  It’s good manners to say something like,
‘Good morning, Father!  It’s so great to see you!  I missed you all night long, and also you are exceptionally good-looking!’”

“iPad!” Evan agreed, letting me know where I stood in relative importance to a device that is, in all fairness, much cooler than me. 

Until last week, I thought Evan had escaped the curse of video game addiction, the affliction that plagued my childhood, leaving me with happy memories of idyllic summer days spent saving princesses, when I should have been outside getting Lyme disease and sunburn.

“Is he into video games?” a friend asked me recently.

“Not yet, but I’m not sure he knows what he’s missing,” I answered.  Marketers have a hard time getting to our kids since we cut our cable TV and dump the contents of our mailbox directly into the recycle bin each day, grabbing anything that looks important as it flutters past.

It’s kind of refreshing, being cut off from society.  At the grocery store checkout, I play a game where I get a point for each celebrity I don’t recognize.  “LAUREN’S REVENGE,” the cover says.  Don’t know who that is.  One point! 


But even without Madison Avenue’s help, Evan was bound to find out about the intrinsic awesomeness of video games on his own.  It happened last weekend, when Evan discovered an old game on our iPad that I thought had been deleted long ago, called “Hungry Shark.”  It’s not really meant for kids, though you could make the case that it is educational.

“Hey, Evan, whatcha playin’?” our friend Anna asked during a recent visit, noticing that the iPad was welded to Evan’s hands.  Of course, he did not respond, because when a kid is focused on entertainment, you can only communicate with them via the pause button, which will provoke an immediate and forcible response.

As Anna moved closer, she was probably expecting to see Elmo teaching Evan how to spell.

Then she heard a swimmer scream.  Hey, a shark’s gotta eat.

“Oh.  Oh dear,” Anna said, looking at the screen, and then at me, to see if I was aware of what was going on.  While we aren’t really wild about Evan playing this game, it’s not much worse than what he sees in nature specials -- you’d be surprised how often the gazelle doesn’t get away.

Evan’s also crazy about sharks, which are, for the moment, even cooler than dinosaurs.  We watch shark documentaries every night, which seems like a scholarly pursuit, so we consider Hungry Shark to be a lab exercise.  

Besides, back when I was a kid, we didn’t worry about learning things all the time.  We used “hand-eye coordination,” a concept invented by Nintendo’s marketing department, to justify wasting our lives. 

In any event, Hungry Shark is teaching Evan valuable life skills, like how to devour people whole, leaving nothing but their blood in the water and their screams hanging in the air, which will serve him well if he ever goes into finance.   

You can get a bigger boat with Mike Todd at

Monday, November 24, 2014

Paris Hilton with a bald spot

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you will find yourself in New York City with a dog in your purse, trying to bring her into a fancy restaurant.  You will think this is okay, because the dog is wearing a pearl necklace and a pink lace gown, so it’s not underdressed, as so many dogs are.

“Please don’t go any further, sir.  We could lose our license.  Do you have papers for your dog?” the host asked me, stepping out from behind the podium. 

I glanced at Coco, whose little white head poked up from the red purse slung over my shoulder. 

“My dog?” I asked, as if the suggestion was absurd.  I am a thirty-seven-year-old dude with a bald spot the size of a Doberman, not Paris Hilton.  Can’t a guy carry a dog in a woman’s purse without everyone assuming it’s his?  While the host’s assumption was understandable, he could have given me the benefit of the doubt, like the cashier when my wife Kara sends me to the store for wine coolers or feminine hygiene products.

But there I stood, in the foyer of Tavern on the Green in Central Park, trying to figure out what it means for a dog to have papers, and not being able to leave without somehow getting Coco past the bouncer.

We’d come to NYC for a small get-together of family of friends to celebrate the wedding of Kara’s friend Isabel to her new husband Jim, in preparation for a larger celebration in Isabel’s native Spain next year.  Kara and I showed up to Isabel’s apartment early that afternoon to help.  Well, Kara was there to help.  My job was to keep Kara company and stay quiet, much like a dog in a purse.  After they got done doing things I may never understand in the bathroom, Kara and I agreed to head over to the restaurant early to make sure it was all set up, while Isabel and Jim met a wedding photographer in Central Park.

“Oh, Mike, can you bring Coco to the restaurant, too?” Isabel asked on her way out.

When someone in a wedding dress asks you to do something, yours is not to question why.  Yours is to do whatever you tell me, pretty drill sergeant. 

I’d met Coco once before, on a prior visit.  When not in the purse, that dog will trot at Isabel’s feet, without a leash, weaving around the foot traffic and actual traffic, shadowing Isabel’s movements like a fuzzy little remora.  If we brought our dog Memphis to New York City and let her off leash, the over-under on her shuffling off this mortal coil would be about three minutes, if the first few cabs had good brakes. 

Coco is far better at navigating New York City than me.  I have gotten parking tickets 100% of the times I’ve left my car curbside.  If you find an empty parking spot in New York City, it is open because everyone but you understands why it’s illegal to park there.


This is all a long way of explaining, of course, how I came to have all eyes in Tavern on the Green on me, the guy with the canine bridesmaid in a purse.

“Does Coco have papers?  What kind of papers do dogs have?” I asked Kara.

“Yes, Coco is a service dog.  We have to go find Isabel to get the proof, though,” Kara replied.

We tracked Isabel down in Central Park and got the papers.  Coco very much enjoyed sitting under the table for the celebration, which was a great success, as was my first experience bringing a doggie bag to a restaurant.
You can let Mike Todd out of your purse at

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trying not to go paleo

“Can we go outside and dig for dinosaur bones?” my son Evan asked last weekend. 

He was really asking if we could go out to the woods in the backyard with one real shovel and one little plastic beach shovel, chipping away at the mixture of roots and rocks that passes for soil back there, which is only slightly tougher to penetrate than your average sidewalk.  Depending on your demographic, this activity is either viewed as paleontological adventure or backbreaking manual labor. 

“Sorry, buddy, but I have to go blow leaves right now,” I said, giving a typical blow-off-your-adorable-kid-because-you-have-stuff-to-do-but-someday-you’ll-look-back-on-this-moment-and-cry-while-listening-to-Cat’s-in-the-Cradle response.

Evan looked hurt.  Five-year-olds feel emotions harder than normal people.  You can tell this because an adult will rarely scream when told that they’ll have to wait until after their lunch to open their Happy Meal toy. 

“But I really want to dig for dinosaur bones!” he said, as if the only thing keeping us from unearthing a T. rex in the backyard was that he hadn’t expressed his desire clearly enough.

Until that moment, I hadn’t put my finger on the disconnect between his enthusiasm for this activity and my complete lack of it.  The major difference was that, in my mind, when digging up our yard in search of bones from the Cretaceous Period, there’s a zero-percent chance of success.  In Evan’s mind, it’s more like fifty-fifty.

He’s come to this conclusion honestly.  Last year, we made a big mistake when we brought our kids to the local children’s museum.  At one of the exhibits, we saw a full mastodon skeleton that had been found in a suburban backyard, discovered quite by accident when they started digging to put in a swimming pool.  We made of big deal of it at the time, trying to impress our kids with the wonders of the natural world, but now Evan is pretty convinced that if you don’t find a mastodon in your backyard, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

Instead of trying to tear up our yard that day, Evan really should have been trying to tear it up on the soccer field.  We’d skipped his game because, well, he didn’t want to go. 

“Do I have to go?  I’d rather stay here,” he said.

“Well, I guess you don’t have to,” my wife Kara replied.

At his age, they don’t even bother with proper teams – they just divide the big clump of kids into smaller clumps of kids and let them scrimmage, so nobody missed us. 

We do feel a little guilty that we’re not doing a better job of pushing Evan to sporting greatness.  Sure, we’d love for him to be so good at sports that he crushes the spirit of other small children each week, but for now, he’s content being curious, adventurous and creative on his own.  These skills may serve him well for the rest of his life, but who’s going to force him to enjoy kicking a ball, within the confines of a strict set of rules, if we don’t do it?

“Pleeeeeeease.  I wanna dig for dinosaur bones!” he pleaded.

Fortunately, my parents were visiting for the weekend and they had a free afternoon, since their services as soccer hooligans were no longer needed.

“You go blow leaves.  I’ll take Evan outside and watch him dig for bones.  I’m not going to dig, but I’ll hang out with him while he does,” my dad said.

Shortly thereafter, as I came around the corner with the leaf blower, I saw my dad, shovel in hand, standing knee-deep in a freshly dug trench.

Evan crouched beside him, peering into the hole.  With a wide smile, he pulled something out of the hole.  From where I stood, it looked like a rock, but maybe it was a T. rex tooth.
You can have a good time then with Mike Todd at

Monday, November 10, 2014

Snow way to live

At risk of great personal harm, our local weather guy predicted about 50% more snow than usual this upcoming winter. 

“We need to move.  I can’t take another winter like the last one,” my wife Kara said as she cranked up the thermostat.  After she’d taken a few steps away, I took out my phone and turned the thermostat back down.

We have one of those fancy Nest thermostats.  The regular reader(s) of this column may recall that we installed the Nest last year, since it was the only thermostat on the market that had been scientifically proven to get people to spend $250 on a thermostat.

The Nest also brings household climate warfare into the 21st century, allowing spouses to secretly change the temperature without going anywhere near the thermostat.  Kara likes the house warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, so she’s happy as long as the air in our house is as expensive as possible.  I’m happy with whatever air is cheapest, but have to be careful not to get caught engaging in thermal subterfuge, lest she crank it to broil when I’m not looking.

My sister doesn’t have to deal with issues like this.  Her family moved to San Diego, where a scorcher is eighty degrees, and a cold snap might hit seventy.  Instead of installing thermostats, people in San Diego just use a sharpie to write 74° on the wall, which is probably right.

“When I was working in Washington, D.C., I remember coming out to my car and having to chip the ice off before I could even open the door.  And I thought, ‘I don’t like this.  This is not pleasant.  I don’t want to do this anymore.’  People talk about missing the change of seasons, but whatever, I don’t miss being cold,” she told me recently.

She got me thinking.  People cite “the change of seasons” all the time as one of the benefits of living in the Northeast, or one of the things they’d miss if they left.  It’s not the seasons themselves, really, which alternate between Hades and Hoth, but the transition between them.  Is this not rather thin gruel?  It’s like people in prison talking about how great the meatloaf is.  Since you’re stuck there, might as well make the best of it. 

Of course, this all sounds rather whiny after we’ve just come through such a beautiful time of year, with the trees putting on a dazzling display of nature’s beauty.  Pretty soon, that beauty will be piled in my front yard about a foot deep, and I will join my neighbors out there to clean up the aftermath of the display, like the stadium janitors after a confetti drop. 

I’m just cranky because of that snow prediction.  Last winter, it snowed so often that, on the rare occasion when our kids could go to daycare, they were so bored from being cooped up that they’d pass the time by contracting pinkeye, just for something different.  Better to be oozing than bored.

But really, snow predictions this early in the season should be taken with a grain of road salt.  It’s silly to pretend that anyone could make an accurate prediction about what the weather will be two months from now, when the tenth-day of a ten-day forecast only exists because everyone knows you won’t remember what it said.  If the weather guy was being honest, instead of having a sunshine or cloud symbol, everything after about the third day would just be a big question mark with the caption, “The world’s a complicated place.”

So Kara and I, along with everyone else around here, will just brace ourselves and hope for the best.  But since we don’t live in San Diego, we’ll expect the worst. 
You can rake Mike Todd off your lawn at

Monday, November 03, 2014

In the kindergarten of good and evil

“Hey little kid, hey little kid.  Want the ball?” the older boy asked, holding out the ball to my five-year-old son, Evan.  I’d seen him take that ball from Evan just a moment before.

“He wouldn’t pick on my kid right in front of me, would he?” I thought, figuring that the presence of an imposing authority figure would form a magic barrier around Evan, the same barrier my wife Kara and I use to keep unsavory elements of the real world away from our kids.  Wars, diseases, most news stories, bullies, any words dirtier than “toot,” 99% of the Internet, artificial sweeteners, and plastic bottles not marked as BPA-free: these things do not have our permission to penetrate the magic barrier.  Soccer balls, hayrides, PBS Kids programming and moderate doses of ice cream can come in. 

“Okay!” Evan said, taking the bait, leaving my side and running toward the older boy, who promptly sprinted off with the ball, waving it over his head and laughing at Evan. 

“Aw, man,” I said, looking at my wife Kara as she watched from the car, mortified.  I’d hopped out to pick up Evan from the elementary school playground, where his after-school program turns the kids loose at pick-up time, like a stampede of wild horses.  Usually, I have to wade into the wood chips and pry his fingers off the monkey bars to get him to leave.  But on this day, he wasn’t quite so psyched to be there.

Evan came back to my side, crying, while the older kid continued waving the ball around and laughing.  I looked around to see if there were any imposing authority figures around who could do something about this, but, finding none, could only offer the kid an over-the-shoulder glare and head shake.     

“Wait, I need to say goodbye to my friends,” Evan said, shaking it off, running around the playground to hug several of the kids, just as he’d done with his friends at daycare before he’d come to kindergarten.  We’ve had the “high fives are better than hugs sometimes” talk, but he’s not buying it.   

In the car, Evan, already having forgotten about his recent tribulations, said, “My friend Emily doesn’t know what love is.”

“What do you mean?” Kara asked.   

“I said I love her because she’s my friend.  She said she just likes me.  But friends love each other, so she’s wrong,” he replied.  We tried to explain the intricacies of vocabulary as it applies to emotions and the way people express them, but, in the end, maybe the five-year-old had it right.  If someone says they don’t love you, the best answer is: you’re wrong. 

That night, after the kids were in bed, Kara said, “I’m worried about Evan.  He’s such a sweet kid, and he’s already learning that it’s not okay for boys to express their emotions.”

“Mmm hmm,” I replied.

“It’s like boys get taught at a very early age that it’s not okay to be sensitive.  Hugging his friends on the playground, telling the kids in his class that he loves them – it’s all so sweet and innocent, but pretty soon he’s going lose that innocence.  He’ll learn that boys don’t communicate the way they feel like that.”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“It starts in kindergarten, then it will just go on from there.  That’s how boys toughen up, I guess, but he shouldn’t have to toughen up.  Boys should be encouraged to be sensitive and sweet, and to share how they feel.”    

“Urgh,” I agreed.

She looked at me.

“What?” I asked. 

She shook her head.  Sometimes, she just doesn’t communicate that well.

You can pick on Mike Todd at

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The watch man

In horror, I jumped out of the shower, my comatose morning brain shocked into a state of high alert.     
“Dude, that was a close call,” I said out loud, looking at the only dry part of my body: my left forearm, which happened to have my two-day-old, non-waterproof birthday present from my wife strapped to it.

It’s the first non-Timex watch I’ve had on my wrist since the Hamburglar one that came with my Happy Meal thirty years ago.

“I don’t think I’m cut out to be a fancy man,” I told Kara later, as we slapped together peanut-butter-and-jelly-based sustenance for our children.

“Fancy man?” she asked.

“Wearing a non-waterproof watch.  It’s a big responsibility,” I said. 

She laughed, not understanding the depth of my reluctance to accept any addition to a daily routine that already barely features enough time to tend to basic human grooming. 

“The watch really isn’t fancy.  Most people don’t wear their watch in the shower.  I asked at work – all the guys take their watches off every day,” she replied.  Fine for them, but if I add this extra calorie-burning to my daily routine, something else will have to come off.  Skipping flossing wouldn’t count, either, because nobody does that in real life.

Perhaps my hesitation to accept this nice gift stemmed from a formative experience I had with a fancy watch in college.  I was working at I. Goldberg’s Great Outdoor Store, a very nice place that was famous for remaining in business until they built a Dick’s next door.

A middle-aged man chatted me up while I was working behind the knife-and-watch counter.  He was looking at the Swiss Army watches under the glass, considering one as a gift for his son.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, holding out his wrist so that I could get a good look at his giant metal watch, which was roughly the size of Captain America’s shield.

“No,” I said, guessing that “a watch” was somehow the wrong answer.

“It’s an Omega,” he replied, pausing a few beats to let that information sink in, but it just bounced off.

“It’s nice,” I said.

“It could pay for your college education,” he said, and I finally understood that I was speaking to someone of distinction; he held the distinction of being the biggest gasbag I’d ever met.

The funny thing about status symbols is that they actually tell you the opposite of what they’re supposed to.  That man’s watch didn’t tell me anything about how much money he had, only how much money he no longer had. 

Also, I bet that tuition-equivalent watch had to come off every day before that guy got in the shower, assuming he bathed in water, and not his own pretentiousness.  It’s like how fine china can’t go through the dishwasher, but our plastic Dora the Explorer plates can.  Fancy people like to be inconvenienced.

Water resistance is of special importance to me, because, as the regular reader(s) of this column may recall, I occasionally indulge in the sport of fishing my iPhone out of the toilet.  To excel at this sport, one must be prepared for wet appendages at any moment.  He who hesitates will soon be found at the Genius Bar, getting a new phone.

After all this, though, I’m still not certain whether my new watch is waterproof or not.  Look at this marvel of English from the product description: “Water resistant to 99 feet (30 M): withstands rain and splashes of water, but not showering or submersion.”

So it’s fine to wear the watch underwater, but DO NOT, under any circumstances, submerge it or take a shower while doing so. 

You don’t have these kinds of issues when your watch comes with small fries.

You can submerge Mike Todd to ninety-nine feet at

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cape Todd

The ocean inched closer.  Soon, we’d have no choice but to flee.

“A pincher!” my son Evan said, holding up a crab claw.  He deposited the claw into his bucket, which was close to overflowing with the soon-to-be-stinking parts of dead marine animals, the perfect souvenirs.

“Dead cwab!” his brother Zack agreed.

The rain, relentless, dripped off the brims of our hoods.  Underneath my drenched wind pants, my damp thermal underwear clung to my goosebumps.

“C’mon, ocean, get here already,” I thought, watching as each lapping wave moved the sea a little bit closer.

Our family recently learned this one weird trick about vacation: If you go to a place when nobody else wants to be there, it’s a lot cheaper.  This is how we found ourselves visiting Cape Cod last weekend, when we probably should have been doing something more seasonally appropriate, like carving pumpkins or purchasing the first batch of Halloween candy that wouldn’t last until Halloween. 

At this time of year, though, at least you don’t have to battle the crowds at Cape Cod, because the crowds know better.

“How long ‘til we’re there?” Evan had asked every five minutes during the drive, starting before we’d gotten past our mailbox, undaunted by the prospect of frolicking in the surf wearing galoshes and a jacket.

When he got his answer, he’d reply, “Are hours the long ones, or minutes?”

So once we got within striking distance, I tried a different method: “We’re about one Frozen away, buddy.”

He knows that length of time quite well, since it’s the only programming that his little brother will allow in our household.  We’ve tried to interest Zack in other shows and movies, but somehow, despite all the encouragement, he just can’t let it go.

Sunset?  Can't look now.  Watchin' Frozen.
“Awwww, a whole Frozen?  I thought we were close!  I just want to be there!” Evan yelled. 

“Evan, if you want a road trip to be fun, you need to focus on something else.  Sleep, listen to music, play a game.  If you want to be as miserable as possible, focus on how long it’s taking to get there,” I said.

Evan paused, and I could see my fatherly wisdom sinking in.

“How long ‘til we’re there?” he asked.

Once we finally got there, though, a little thing like horrible weather wasn’t going to keep our kids off the beach, which is just as well, since all those rotting crab parts weren’t going to collect themselves.

 My wife Kara had found a cottage just above a beach that became, at low tide, a child’s paradise, an endless tidal flat, just sand and shells all the way to the horizon.  Hours later, the tide would come rushing back in, sliding across the flats until they disappeared.  The sea would continue to rise until the beach itself vanished, and the first five steps of the staircases, the only escape over the dunes, became submerged.  If the sea didn’t reclaim the beach daily, forcing all land-based life to find refuge elsewhere, we’d still be out there.

“Okay, kids, the ocean’s just about here,” I said, shivering. 

“What’s taking it so long?” Kara whispered.

“But we need more shells to bring home,” Evan replied, just as Zack dropped another crab part into the bucket, briefly upsetting the flies. 

When the sea finally forced us back to the cottage, the kids were purple and chattering, and all the sand made their skin a medium grit.  As soon as they were warm and dry, they were pressing their noses against the glass, waiting for the beach to reappear.

We’re already looking forward to going back at the same time next year.

You can put on your jacket and go for a swim with Mike Todd at

Monday, October 13, 2014

Getting there is half the terror

“Isn’t there an easy way up?” I asked, staring at the sheer cliff face upon which, it seemed fairly clear, I was about to die.

“This is the easy way,” my brother-in-law Kris replied, pointing to the little crack in the face of the cliff as if it was the escalator outside JC Penney.  Just take that thing to the top, no problem.

My wife Kara stood at the base of the cliff, looking at the rope that connected her to Kris, who stood ten feet to her left.  Rather than making a straight line between them, though, the rope took a much sillier route, traveling from the harness around Kara’s waist, up through the carabiner fifty feet up the cliff face, then back down to Kris.  That route, much like rock climbing itself, was rather illogical.

“This looks impossible,” Kara said, wiping her hands across the smooth rock, looking for something to grab onto.

“Just put your shoe into the crack.  You’ll be amazed at how much traction they give you,” said Kara’s sister, Jill. 

Ah, the magic climbing shoes.  We’d heard much about their powers, but hadn’t yet experienced them for ourselves. 

That morning, when we were renting the shoes from the outdoor store, I sat in the chair, grimacing and stuffing my foot into the rubber-and-leather ballet slipper, feeling like Cinderella’s step-sister.

“How do I know if it’s the right size?” I asked the clerk.

“When it’s right, it should feel pretty uncomfortable,” he replied, leading one to wonder how one would tell when it was wrong. 

“Man, these kinda hurt, don’t they?” Kara asked, limping around the room.   

“I think these ones must fit,” I said, sucking in my lips and slapping the chair, hoping that the prince would be fooled.

We’d found ourselves in this predicament by trying to keep up with Jill and Kris, who picked up rock climbing several years ago, first as a hobby, then as a lifestyle.  For vacation this year, they’re going to Vietnam, where they can partake in an activity called “deep water solo.”  If you’ve never heard of this variant of rock climbing (which you wouldn’t have, unless you live in a Mountain Dew commercial), it’s when you step off a boat, grabbing directly onto a cliff face.  Then you climb as high as you can, without ropes.  When you’re done, you jump (or fall) into the water, ideally after the boat has moved out of the way.     

When Kara and I go on vacation, our idea of adventure is getting Oreo mixed into our soft serve.  We live in a Friendly’s commercial.

“You’re doing great, Kara!” Jill called up the cliff.  Kara had managed to pull herself right up to the top of the climb, avoiding the shame of having the day turn into a family story for the next few decades.

“That was fun!” Kara said when her feet touched the ground again, though I might have detected some verbal air quotes around the word “fun.”

As I took my turn, cramming my rubber shoes into the crack and dangling from my fingertips, pretending that the ground was not becoming an unsafe distance away, I started to feel like perhaps I was not so bad at rock climbing after all.  Then, thirty feet to my left, on a different rope, an eight-year-old boy scampered up the cliff, then rappelled back down, leaving me alone with my thoughts and my bald spot.  I had the same feeling you get when you’re snowplowing down a black diamond trail, feeling pretty good about yourself, when a four-year-old with no ski poles zips past you.  Except, you know, in reverse.

The day, which we survived with only minor aches and pains in our rarely used clinging-for-your-life muscles, gave me and Kara a great appreciation for the skills that Jill and Kris have acquired over the years, and also gave us a heightened sense of adventure.  Next time, we might mix in some crumbled peanut butter cups, too.

You can scale Mike Todd at

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The forbidden fruitie

“NOOOOO!” my son Evan screamed from inside the car.  I spun around, looking through the open window to find a gruesome scene unfolding in the backseat. 

Evan’s little brother, Zack, sat on Evan’s legs, blocking him from the fruit snacks that Evan had poured out for both of them to share.  With glee and haste, Zack shoveled the gummy fruits into his mouth.

“My fruities!” Evan screamed, pinned, helpless.   

 A few minutes earlier, when we’d pulled into the garage, the kids had lobbied to explore the car.  They love getting turned loose in there, climbing around, turning on the hazard lights and setting the windshield wipers to fire at monsoon-dissipating speeds the next time the car starts.  I don’t complain, because the kids are contained in there, so I can lean against the outside of the car and spend a few quiet moments paying attention to the thing that really matters in life: my phone.

“Fruities!” Evan had said when he’d found a packet on the floorboard in the third row.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I’d replied.  “If you’re going to open those, you need to share them with your brother.”

Evan dutifully poured them into the center cup holder so that they could share, which is when Zack crawled back to thank his brother for, and then take advantage of, his generosity.

I yanked the door open and caught Zack with the last fruitie in his hand.  I could have just taken it from him and given it to Evan, but I needed Zack to understand and correct the error of his ways.     
“You give that fruitie to your brother.  Right now,” I whispered, pointing at his chest.  I’d debated about leading with a good fatherly bellow, but those need to be used sparingly to be effective, and I’d already spent my fatherly bellow tokens the previous day.

“Cackers!” Zack had been screaming on our way home from work and daycare.

“We don’t have any crackers, Zack.  You can have some when we get home,” my wife Kara had replied.

“CACKERS!” Zack screamed, for ten minutes straight.  Finally, he broke me, and I unleashed the bellow. 


“Cackers,” Zack replied.

Back at the fruitie showdown, Zack looked at my outstretched finger, then at me. 

“Don’t you dare eat that fruitie.  You share it with your brother,” I said.

He looked me in the eyes as he deposited the fruitie into his open mouth.  His little cheeks broke into a grin as he chewed, never taking his eyes off of mine.

“MY FRUITIES!” Evan screamed, flopping backwards in that special convulsion of grief that children reserve for lost high fructose corn syrup.

Zack had tasted the forbidden fruitie, and I could see in his eyes the knowledge he was gaining with each chew.  Sharing is for suckers.  Stealing pays delicious dividends.  Authority exists to be flouted.  If someone’s in your way, sit on them and take their stuff.     

Children will test their boundaries, and if they don’t find any, they’ll careen into the abyss.  At that moment, if uncorrected, Zack’s path forward became very clear, and it was leading to horrible places, like prison or Congress.

“That’s it.  Straight to timeout,” I said, grabbing him by the armpits.  Bo Duke never exited a car so quickly.

Sitting on our front step, it was Zack’s turn to bellow as he served his two-minute sentence. 

Afterwards, he approached the aggrieved party.

“Sorry, Brudder,” Zack said as he hugged Evan.

Evan returned his hug, and then they were off running, side-by-side, to the backyard.  I joined them after locking the car doors, relieved they didn’t notice the granola bar on the floorboard.
You can steal Mike Todd’s fruities at

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Democracy takes a good licking

The lady on our front porch hugged her clipboard and waited for the lashing to stop.

“She’s friendly, she’s friendly.  Sorry.  No, Memphis, down,” I said.  The dog greeted our new guest as if she was made of beef jerky, running circles around her, sniffing and licking with a rather presumptuous lack of inhibition.

“It’s okay,” the lady replied, grimacing as the inspection and tail-flogging proceeded.  She may have been especially leery because a moment prior, Memphis had erupted into an insane barking frenzy, skidding into the front door like she was conducting a canine crash test.

Having a dog that barks when someone rings the doorbell is like having an app that rings your phone to let you know that your phone is ringing.  It’s all rather redundant, but Memphis doesn’t let our perfectly serviceable visitor-alerting device put her out of a job.  To her credit, the professional dedication she applies to freaking out gives our family great peace of mind against burglars who may try to sneak in after ringing our doorbell.

Behind me, my two sons played with their wooden train tracks in the entryway. 

“There, at least this stranger can see that some members of this family are capable of behaving themselves,” I thought, beaming with fatherly pride.

“Mah train,” two-year-old Zack said, grabbing the locomotive.

“No, MY train!” five-year-old Evan yelled.

“NO MAH TRAIN!” Zack rebutted.  Evan’s reply, as you might imagine, echoed similar sentiments to both of their earlier arguments, but with more volume. 

Most of the time, our sons go together like peas and carrots.  Other times, more like Mentos and Diet Coke. 

“Sorry, you caught us right before dinner,” I said, since it seemed like our family needed an excuse, though I was banking on it being common knowledge that hungry children are crazy children.

“Sorry for catching you at a bad time.  I’m a volunteer for what’s-his-face’s campaign.  Do you have a moment for a quick survey?” she asked. 

Of course I didn’t.  My wife Kara was in the kitchen slapping together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because we didn’t have the three minutes it would take to cook Kraft Mac & Cheese-like Substance.  The kids needed to be fed immediately, or civilization as we knew it would collapse.

“Sure,” I said as Memphis finally sat down and waited to see if this situation would produce anything in the way of treats.

The timing was inconvenient, but this lady was volunteering her time, so couldn’t I spare a moment of mine?  This is the basis of our democracy: people reaching out to their fellow citizens to annoy them.  We do it with our yard signs, our bumper stickers, our Facebook posts, our doorbells.  The gears of the republic are greased with irritation, and I needed to do my part to keep them lubed.

“Okay, great.  Will what’s-his-face have your vote on November something-or-other?” she asked as Zack picked up the miniature Golden Gate Bridge and tucked it into his body like a linebacker holding onto a fumble recovery. 

“NOOOOO, ZACK!” Evan yelled.

“Zack, put the bridge back.  Sure, absolutely,” I said, pretty sure that I sounded like I was lying, even though I might not have been.

“Dinner time!” Kara yelled. 

“Are you aware that what’s-his-face is on your side and cares about stuff?” the lady asked, in essence.

“DINNER!” the kids screamed, exiting stage left, followed by the dog, who could subsist entirely on what she’s able to lick off of Zack’s hands.

“Sure am!” I said.

“Great, thank you,” she said, “That’s it.”

The survey probably had more than two questions on it, but I wasn’t going to question its mercifully quick completion. 

I made a note to come back and hang some ear plugs on the doorbell button after dinner, though.  The next person to ring it would understand soon enough.

You can vote for whoever’s running against Mike Todd at

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cheap man walking

“You need to stop reading that, immediately.  It’s going to ruin your life,” my buddy Chunks told me over the phone.

“Dude, I can handle it,” I assured him.

I’ve been reconnecting with old friends over the last few weeks, calling them in the evenings when I walk our dog, Memphis, who politely invited me, in her own quiet way, to reinstate our nightly constitutionals, by destroying our house if I don’t. 

“It’s cool.  We don’t have to walk tonight.  I’ll just shred the wool carpet in the dining room while you’re at work tomorrow.  I’ll have plenty of energy for it, after all,” she says, every night.

So I have free time each evening when my legs are engaged in the preservation of our household flooring materials and my head is doing nothing productive at all.  It’s just perched there in the cool night air, watching houses go slowly by, freeloading on the rest of my body. 

Some people do their best thinking at times like these, when they can step away from the demands of the world and have a few moments for quiet reflection.  For me, this is the time I use to repeat the only words I can remember from that Lady Gaga song I heard on the way home, spinning over-and-over for forty-five minutes.

“My my my poker face.  My my poker face.” 

“Honestly, brain, can’t we think about the mid-term elections, or how we’re going to insulate the attic better this winter, or how I can be a more effective parent?”

“My my my poker face.  My my poker face,” comes the reply.  This is when I’ll pop in the earphones and start dialing. 

I’d just explained to Chunks that I’d happened upon a very interesting blog called Mr. Money Mustache, written by a guy in Colorado who retired at the age thirty, with a wife and son, after working for nine years as a software engineer and saving almost everything he made. 

“No, no, no,” Chunks replied.

“What?  You don’t think it’s empowering that a normal person can retire very early just by being mindful about wasting money?  Even if early retirement isn’t realistic, you can remove some anxiety out of your life just by doing some simple things,” I said.

“You’re already the cheapest person I know.  Reading stuff like this is going to create a cheapness vortex, where every dollar is stretched to infinity and fun can never escape,” he said.

He had a point.  At that moment, on my kitchen table, sat one of my two-year-old son’s blinky Superman sneakers, crunched by two C-clamps to hold it in place while the glue dried.  Does a normal person attempt to glue his son’s cheap sneakers back together?  From there, it’s probably just a hop-and-a-skip until you’re asking your fellow McDonald’s patrons if they’re done with their fries. 

Incidentally, I used to have some qualms about buying blinky shoes for my sons, since they put unnecessary batteries and lights into landfills when your kids outgrow them in three weeks.  But blinky shoes appear to be quite environmentally friendly, especially ones that have pictures of superheroes where the brand name is supposed to go, since they start to biodegrade almost immediately after going on your kids’ feet.

“Seriously, for your own good, stop reading that stuff,” Chunks said, and I appreciated his concern. 

After we hung up, I started to think about how, as a kid, I’d stash Halloween candy behind my laundry basket, saving each piece so that it would last until St. Patrick’s Day.  I began to wonder if some habits start at so young an age that your adult behavior is predetermined in elementary school, but then, instead, I thought: “My my my poker face.  My my poker face.” 

You can locate Mike Todd by his blinky shoes at

Monday, September 15, 2014

Left to our own devices

“Nice sandals, man,” my buddy Jeff said during his visit last weekend, and something in his tone told me that my insecurities were about to be laid as bare as my toes.

“Is something wrong with them?” I asked, looking down at the only footwear that might allow a grown man to maintain his self-respect while strapping things to himself with Velcro.  

“No, not at all.  Those are very sensible dad sandals,” he replied.  Dad sandals.  They’re like mom jeans you wear on your feet.

“Dude, these are not dad sandals.  They’re hiking sandals,” I replied.

“Hiking sandals?  That’s an oxymoron,” he said.  He had a point.  I’d never actually worn them hiking, on account of them being sandals.

“Whatever.  These are not dad sandals,” I said, taking a moment to craft a mental defense that would highlight the newness and coolness of my stylish five-year-old hiking sandals, but it was already too late.  Jeff had taken his phone out of his pocket and his thumb was swimming Facebook laps up and down the screen.

While I may get defensive when criticized by, well, anyone, I also appreciate the value of shame in a close friendship.  Without being shamed by my friends, I’d probably still be wearing tightrolled stonewash jeans and Big Johnson T-shirts. 

“Did you know we’re not allowed to wear cargo shorts anymore?  Someone decided that,” I said, offering the only piece of fashion advice I could think of to lure Jeff back to our current time and place.  I’d recently learned about the prohibition on cargo shorts when a distant friend shared a local news story on Facebook about an armed robbery captured on camera, in which the robber looked amazingly like my friend.

My friend’s defense?  “It can’t be me robbing that store, because the robber is wearing cargo shorts, and it’s 2014.”

In response, I immediately changed out of my cargo shorts, never to put them on again.

“Oh, yes, that’s right.  We can’t wear those anymore,” Jeff responded, briefly looking up.  Jeff is the most recent practitioner of a trend we’ve noticed in our house, wherein visitors travel great distances to stare at their phones in the company of friends and family.

While it’s easy to malign people for forsaking their actual, real-life friends for virtual candy-crushing, acquaintance-stalking and farming activities, I find myself doing it, too.   

“Maybe a high school acquaintance had another baby.  Why don’t you check?” my phone will say from my pocket.

“No.  People I actually care about are right here in this room,” I will reply.

“But maybe someone liked the photos you posted last night!” it will say.

“Well, okay, just for a moment,” I’ll reply, flicking through pictures of people I’ll never see again as my son takes his first steps in the next room.

Sometimes, though, our devices can bring us together with people we would have never otherwise met. 

Shortly after wishing Jeff a good night in the guest room, and warning him to prepare himself for being awoken in the morning by a two-year-old jumping on his head, I was jolted awake by the house phone ringing.

“Hello?” I mumbled, trying to sound awake, so as to impress the person calling at 1am with my alertness.

“Someone from this number just called me twice.  Can you tell me why?” a lady asked.  I couldn’t. 

After five minutes of interrogation, we left on better terms than we’d started, but we still didn’t have any answers.

The next morning, we found out that Jeff had used our house phone to call his cell phone to locate it, like Linus trying to find his blanket.  He hadn’t dialed a 1 first, so it called a local number instead.

“You have to dial a 1 first?  What is this, 1995?” he asked.

According to my sandals, yes.

You can pay half-attention to Mike Todd at

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The bus stops for thee

“I can’t talk about it right now,” my wife Kara said, and just like that, the list of verboten topics in our household grew by one.  I already knew that I’d never convince her that the toilet paper roll should pull from the front, or that we could burn less oil in the wintertime by wearing thermal underwear in the house, or that mouse-trap-emptying duties can be gender-neutral.  I’ve learned better than to talk about these things. 

But the newest addition to the list would be much tougher not to discuss, since it was going to change all of our lives very soon, and in a big way.  In just a few short days, a big, rectangular door will fold in half and slide to one side, our oldest son will step through it, and he and his childhood, along with the very fabric of our family, will be swallowed up inside. 

“Munch, munch, munch.  This childhood tastes delicious!” the school bus will say, and then it will rumble away, leaving us with our pictures, our tears and a cloud of diesel fumes. 

“Brother!” our youngest son Zack will yell when the cloud clears and he realizes that Evan has left him behind.

Then we’ll drive to daycare in silence, except for Zack, who will scream at us for letting this happen.  I’ll make mental notes of the tiniest details of that day, so that Zack can relate them in greater detail, forty years later, to his therapist.  I’ll glance into the rearview mirror to see Evan’s empty car seat, and regret all the times I yelled, “You’ll have to wait until a stoplight!” when he dropped his sippy cup on the floorboard for the seventh time, wailing as if he’d just seen an episode where Dora the Explorer catches Ebola. 

“It’s okay, buddy,” we’ll tell Zack as we drop him off at daycare, alone, for the first time in his life.   
“You and Evan will be in the same school again in three years, which is really not that long, even though it’s longer than you’ve been alive,” we’ll say, which won’t help.  Meanwhile, a bully will be dumping out the contents of Evan’s new Avengers backpack and stealing his chocolate chip bunny-shaped snacks.

This is the scenario that Kara fears, so kindergarten is a topic upon which we’ve been treading lightly.  Of course, I share these fears, but I’m a guy, which allows me to express my emotions by reading do-it-yourself articles on improving our attic insulation. 

Almost five years ago, when Evan started daycare, and we paid the first monthly bill that, at first glance, looked like we’d mistakenly assumed the mortgage on another house, I couldn’t have imagined anything other than elation at his graduation to public school.  The reality, though, has been decidedly more of a mixed bag, as we gradually come to understand that change for our kids is scary for us, too.

“You’re growing up.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.  You’ll have fun!  You’ll make new friends!” Evan will say as he pats us on the head.

I’ve heard it said that the best two days of owning a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it.  Perhaps a similar saying applies to daycare: The worst two days of daycare are the day you start and the day you finish.  (Oh, and also the day you catch pinkeye.) 

We’ll get a chance to find out about the last day very soon, when Evan cleans out his cubby for the last time, and his parents pretend like they’re holding themselves together.

But really, we’re excited for Evan and his new adventures.  Just don’t talk to us about it quite yet.

You can wait with Mike Todd at the bus stop at

Monday, September 01, 2014

Two wheels, no clue

“That sounds like a really dangerous thing to do,” my wife Kara said, ending the sentence without expressly forbidding me to do it, so I naturally assumed that we’d just reached an agreement.

“She’s letting me do it!  Glad that’s settled,” I thought.  Rather than test our fledgling accord by risking additional verbalization, I went back upstairs, satisfied that my husbandly communication skills had once again won the day, like that time that I, well, I’m sure there are many other great examples.

A few minutes later, I came downstairs, toting my big hiking backpack.

“Okay, I’m off to the grocery store now.  Text me if you think of anything else we need,” I said.

“You’re bringing your backpack?  Are you seriously still thinking about riding your bike there after we just agreed that you weren’t?” she asked.

Apparently, she hadn’t been paying attention to the part where we’d stopped the prior conversation just before it had gotten to that inevitable point.

I’d spent the prior two weeks staring at Google Maps, charting a bike path from our house to the grocery store, toying with the idea of actually doing it.  Not the grocery store right down the street, with the annoying customer loyalty card, wilting produce and six-dollar ice cream, but the good one, a few miles further, with the shorter checkout lines, happier employees and enhanced wife-angering capabilities.

Back in college, I’d bike everywhere, which was perfectly safe, because drivers back then hadn’t yet realized how much more efficient their lives would be if they texted while they drove.  A few weeks ago, we dusted off our bikes for our tenth-anniversary trip to Block Island, and rediscovered how much fun it can be to locomote like ten-year-olds.

Shortly afterwards, I hatched my bold plan to actually accomplish something useful while riding my bike.  I’d be like a caveman, venturing forth from our dwelling and returning with sustenance, using nothing but my cunning and my club (or its modern-day equivalent, the credit card).  I’d go at night to avoid traffic, and return with tired legs and frozen pancakes.  I’d use my new bike headlight, which was bright enough, if pointed upward, to summon Batman.  It was a great plan.

“This is a terrible plan,” Kara said.

We discussed it for a few more minutes.  After ten years of marriage, during which Kara and I have successfully negotiated at least two or three minor disagreements, it’s possible that I may have failed to learn a few obvious lessons.  For instance, when your significant other says, “Well, since you’re going to do it anyway, you might as well just go ahead and do it,” that doesn’t actually mean, “Just go ahead and do it.”  That means, “For the love of all that is good and/or chocolatey in this world, DO NOT do it!"

But since I was going to do it anyway, I went ahead and did it.

Biking at night gives you the chance to notice so many things you’d miss if you were in your car.  The chirping crickets.  The reflection of the moonlight off the pond in the distance.  The feeling that every approaching vehicle might be driven by a teenager playing Angry Birds, and that maybe wearing a Styrofoam hat doesn’t make you invincible.

After locking my bike to a signpost in front of the store, I pulled out my phone and texted Kara: “Sorry you married a stubborn person.  I am at the grocery store, alive.  Hopefully that’s good news.”

She reluctantly agreed that this was good news.  In general, though, if you’re going to do something after your partner says, “Since you’re going to do it anyway, just go ahead and do it,” it’s probably best if you keep a helmet handy.

You can pass Mike Todd on the left at

Monday, August 25, 2014

Play it again, Samsung

“We are family now, you and I,” I said, watching the blood drip from my finger, forming an unbreakable bond with my silent compatriot. 

“What are you doing?” my wife Kara asked from the doorway behind me.

“Just having a moment with the laundry machine,” I replied.  I’d never felt closer to an appliance than I did at that moment, with our washer’s bare frame in front of me and its parts spread all over the room.  The machine was at its most vulnerable, and it was depending on me, my Phillips screwdriver and all the king’s horses to get it back together again.

Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea

“Dude, is that blood?” Kara asked.

“There are some sharp spots in there,” I noted.  I hadn’t noticed the cut on my finger until blood smears started appearing on the pump housing.  When you’re a big, tough, appliance-fixing person like me, boo-boos are a part of the deal. 

Earlier that day, back when I knew nothing about appliance repair, our washing machine decided that rather than wash our clothes, it would prefer to sit there blinking the letters “ND.”  From some quick online searches, I found that “ND” is an error code, short for “Not Doin’ your laundry anymore.”

Some web searches showed a few easy things to try that would probably fix the problem.  None of them worked, but they still provided a nice respite from watching videos of people dumping buckets of ice on their heads.  (Which, by the way, I fully support, but would enjoy some variation to keep things interesting.  Buckets of spiders, perhaps?)

I called the manufacturer, Samsung, to see what they had to say, which was: “Unplug it.  Now plug it back in.  Still doesn’t work?  Huh.”

They generously offered to let me pay them to pay someone else to come fix it, but I needed to do more research first.  After talking to a local appliance guy, I found that a housecall would cost $110 for him to change out of his jammy pants, then another $135 to diagnose and possibly fix the problem, plus parts.  But I’d have to unstack the washer and dryer before he’d even look at it, which was the part that had the most cussing, grunting and toe-smashing potential in the first place. 
So I turned to the world’s most trusted source of reliable information: YouTube.

“Look, the guy in this video fixes it in eight minutes,” I told Kara.  I was feeling confident from my earlier success at patching our roof leak.  I was so good at it, I got to patch the same leak three times.  

As the video progressed, the guy took the top off the washer, then removed the panel of buttons, then the big rubber seal, then the entire front panel, and then he started playing with the innards.  The color drained from Kara’s face, the first time that day that anything in our house had drained properly. 

“You can’t break something that’s already broken,” my dad said over the phone, which was encouraging.  Not true, really, but encouraging. 

So I dug in, armed with nothing but a screwdriver, an iPad and a misdirected sense of self-esteem.  (I should also give credit to Kara here, because I wouldn’t have been able to drop the dryer on myself by myself.)

To my amazement, after following the eight-minute video for three hours, the washing machine worked.  It was the best fix-it job I’d ever performed, but I won’t call myself a hero, because people expect modesty from a hero.

The next day, I found a little rubber flange on the counter that had previously kept the flow of water going one-way into the machine’s pump.  Or maybe out of it.  So not only had I fixed the machine, I'd upgraded one of the pipes from one-way to two-way.  You don’t get that kind of service from someone trained and knowledgeable.

Anyway, Dad’s advice turned out to be good.  I gained confidence, skills and at least $235.  And possibly tetanus.

You can try to fix Mike Todd at

Monday, August 18, 2014

Newly kidless on the Block

“Wait, wait, wait.  It might bite you,” my wife Kara said.  I paused in the ankle-deep water, weighing the relative importance of getting this photograph versus keeping all of my fingers.

“I don't think horseshoe crabs can bite, can they?” I asked.  It was a question a person could only ask while on vacation, like: “Do my feet look sunburned to you?” or,

“What day of the week is it again?”

“Maybe not, but it sure looks like they could pinch or sting,” she said.

The crab scooted a little deeper into the sand while it waited for us to sort this out.

For our tenth anniversary, Kara and I were exploring Block Island, Rhode Island, which sounds redundant, until you realize that the people who named Rhode Island clearly had no idea what the word “island” meant.  Or maybe they did.

“By the time the tourists realize there's only water on one side, they'll be in Connecticut.  Forsooth!”

But unlike Rhode Island, Block Island is actually an island, and its miles of beaches proved to be a wonderful place to pretend that we didn’t have kids for five days.

“You’re at the beach?  Without me?” our five-year-old son Evan wailed into our videoconference on our third night there.

“Should have stuck with plain old phone calls,” I whispered.

“We found some pretty shells for you today, buddy!” Kara said, trying to pull the conversation out of the fire, holding her phone closer to her face so that Evan couldn’t see the sand behind her.

 “I wanna be at the beach!” he wailed.

We’d been rather vague about this trip with our two sons, telling them that Mommy and Daddy were going on a date for a few days.  With Grandma and Grandpa in town to babysit and the ice cream flowing freely, they didn’t ask questions.  It was okay that we were gone, just not okay that we were gone and having fun.

“We’ll all go to the beach together soon, I promise,” Kara said, and Evan calmed down, locking that promise into his memory banks.

A few moments later, we all said “good night” and “I love you,” and Kara hung up.  Even the red-orange sunset, glistening off of our wine glasses as the waves gently lapped on the shore just a short distance from our semi-reclined beach chairs, couldn’t alleviate our guilt.  But, you know.  It didn’t hurt, either.

On top of celebrating ten years of married life together and acting like the preceding four non-married years didn’t count, we were also location-scouting Block Island as a potential place for our wider family to gather next summer, including my sister’s family with their two small children.  

“Look at all the kid-friendly stuff there is to do here!” we wanted our photos to say.  Since we’d ditched our own kids, though, we had to demonstrate the kid-friendliness of Block Island in a more hypothetical context.

“Look!  There are little horseshoe crabs here that small children could harass, assuming these children had parents who hadn’t ditched them!” was the message we settled on, which is how I found myself crouched over a little horseshoe crab, debating the prudence of posing with it.

A caveman pondering an interaction with an unknown creature would just have to take his best guess (“Throg think tiger look tasty!”), which is why cavemen had an average life expectancy of about four decisions.  Too bad cavemen didn’t have iPhones in their backpacks.

“Nope, it’s safe.  They just use their tails for balance, and they can’t pinch,” I said, grabbing the crab for a quick photo op. 

Look!  A horeshoe crab!

Hang on a minute.  This one's dead.

 Look!  A different horeshoe crab!

Back in the water, the crab dug himself into the sand again, where there’d be less chance for an encounter with the paparazzi.

If we make it back with the kids next year, he might want to stay hidden.

You can take a relaxing vacation away from Mike Todd at