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