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.
You can give Mike Todd a brotherly shove at

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