Sunday, May 25, 2014

Neighborhood gone loony

“It can’t be,” I said, stopping in the middle of the street somewhere between my double- and triple-takes.  I pulled Memphis’ leash tight, keeping her close to my leg.  Zack, the two-year-old freeloader riding in my backpack, leaned over to see what was going on.

“Whassat?” he asked. 

Just down the street, a crowd was starting to form at the epicenter of the spectacle.  Two of my neighbors stood at the end of their driveway, looking down, joined by the UPS driver who’d hopped out of his truck.  He also stood in the middle of the street, box in hand, motionless.

“You probably don’t remember seeing one last summer, but that,” I said to Zack, “is a loon.”

It was actually a common loon, though it seems insulting to associate the circumstances, or the bird itself, with that adjective.  At this time of year, loons should be bobbing on a lake in Maine or Canada, not plopping down next to our neighbors’ mailbox, at least 200 miles from any place it might rightfully call home.  A flamingo strutting around the yard might have been less out-of-place. 

“Duck,” Zack said as we approached the bird.  With each step, its unmistakable white speckles on black feathers became more obvious, its red eyes watching its new audience with distrust. 

 When our family goes on vacation to Rangeley Lake in Maine each summer, as we’ve done since I was not much older than Zack, you’re lucky to get within one-hundred yards of a loon before it slips under the water, reemerging several minutes later as a dot in the distance, which is when you sigh and put your lens cap back on.  These birds know how to play hard-to-get, which is part of their allure. 

If you’ll forgive me, my family is a little loony when it comes to these birds.  We spend a week each year listening to their haunting calls across the lake, then swearing when we can’t get a half-decent picture of one.  We make up for the lack of photographs by supporting the loon-based economy.  If this bird had waddled a few more feet over to our house, he would have seen our kids’ stuffed-animal loons in the living room.  My mom has loon earrings.  My parents have a full-size wooden loon carving on their hearth.  This family, as the regular reader(s) of this column probably know by now, appreciates a good loon.   

“Well, it kind of looks like a duck, but it’s definitely a loon, buddy,” I said. 

“Duck,” Zack corrected me.  It’s tough arguing with someone who has the vocabulary of a parrot.
Our neighbor, Kim, walked around the yard on her cell phone, trying to locate someone who could take the bird and care for it.  A larger crowd had begun to form, conjecturing about how the bird had ended up here.  The loon didn’t look injured, but wouldn’t otherwise have attended an impromptu block party, and certainly not as the guest of honor.  During his migration north, something must have gone south.

Kim and her husband dragged their kids’ toys out to set up a barricade, keeping the loon from wandering into the street.  I waved goodbye and tried calling some local animal rescues as well.  When I walked by a few minutes later, the barricade was long and high enough to host a performance of Les Misérables. 

In the end, a local zoo agreed to take the loon and try to nurse it back to health.  As I found out the next day, the bird hadn’t suffered any injuries, but it was skinny and had some treatable parasites.  The hope is that it can be returned to the wild or live out a nice retirement at the zoo.  Which, incidentally, is the only place you’d be able to get a decent picture of him.
You can visit Mike Todd in the loony bin at

Update:  This story has a happy ending!  Check out this post from the very awesome Trevor Zoo for some more information and pictures of the loon's release.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Moving couches, stealing babies

The regular reader(s) of this column might recognize this one from 2008.  Had to take a break last week to deal with a sick kid (all better now), snapping our record-setting whole-family-healthy streak of ten days.  I don't remember writing this one, so hopefully it'll be new to you, too!  Back with new programming next week.

When you have kids, besides signing up for a lifetime of being a caregiver, mentor and science-fair-project-completer, you also, as a reward for surviving their teens, get to carry their couches every year from one apartment to another. Your kids won’t have their own couches, though, so you’ll actually just be picking up the couches that used to be yours and lugging them to an apartment where the shower rod falls down when you turn on the fan.

My parents probably thought they’d gotten out of the business of moving my stuff around the country many years ago, but last weekend they started the enterprise up again, driving nearly four hours each way to deliver their pre-owned couches to our house. They did this because, besides being exceptionally generous people who pass along only the finest of furniture and genes, they saw the state of our previous couch, which was of course also their previous couch, and which had served for many years as a ferret burrow for our late varmint Chopper, making it rattier than a scratching post and holier than the Pope.

So when my folks ordered their own new couches, they volunteered to rent a trailer and bring their old couches up to us. Incidentally, did you know that U-Haul won’t let you hitch one of their trailers to a Ford Explorer?  The problem is apparently a legal remnant of the Explorer’s issues with exploding Firestone tires in the 90s.  You’ll probably never need to know that, but you also don’t need to know what Beyonce’s baby’s name is, which makes it even worse that little Blue Ivy now occupies the shelf space in your brain where the quadratic equation used to be.

My wife Kara recently became a bit of an expert on hauling things herself. Before going to her cousin’s wedding a couple of weeks ago, Kara decided that we should go purse shopping, which is my favorite thing to do when I can’t find a grease trap to clean out.

“Ooh, what do you think about this one?” Kara said, holding up a large black bag with buckles or something on it. I can’t really say for sure what it looked like because I was staring off over the racks, wondering which video games my single friends were playing. There’s only so much purse shopping a man can be expected to handle. It’s like looking through someone’s photo album when you know there aren’t any pictures of you. One can only stay engaged for so long.

“You don’t like it?” she asked.

“Oh, no. It looks like it could hold stuff,” I said.

She ended up purchasing a purse so big that our friend Anna dubbed it a “baby-stealing bag.” The theory was that Kara could put her wedding flip-flops in the purse to carry around until the reception. Apparently, the shoes that women wear to wedding services are just the starting pitchers. They have a whole lineup of middle relief that they call in after the reception begins.

As we drove to a recent wedding with Kara’s family, she set her new purse in her lap.

“Oh, can I put these in there?” her sister Jill asked, holding up her own flip flops. Her other sister Sarah and her mom looked at the bag and their eyes grew bigger. Pretty soon, every female member of Kara’s family began producing flip-flops that had been hidden in jackets and, presumably, ankle holsters and throwing them into Kara’s bag. By the time we got there, Kara looked like she had enough provisions in her bag for a through hike of the Appalachian Trail. At least she had comfy couches to rest on once we got home.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

A pox in our car

Our son Evan stared at us from the back seat in stunned silence.  

“You did it on purpose?” he asked after he’d had more time to process what we’d just told him.

“Sure.  Back then, everybody did,” my wife Kara replied.

It’s amazing how quickly you become an old person who can regale younger generations with fantastical stories about how backwards the world used to be.  I’m only thirty-six, but it’s happening already, and I haven’t even told Evan about rotary phones and the weather hotline yet.

We’d been discussing Evan’s upcoming date at the doctor, where he’ll need to get a booster shot for his chicken pox vaccine to complete his enrollment for kindergarten this fall.  We’ll put aside for the moment the fact that Evan will be getting on a school bus in a few months, because just thinking about that makes the room go all foggy.  Some might suggest that the room itself is not foggy, and that my expression of emotion makes it appear that way, but that is impossible, because I am a dude.

“I have to go to the doctor?  Will I need a shot?” Evan asked.  The sugar-free lollipop at the end of the appointment apparently does not erase memories of the preceding ten minutes.

“Doctor!” our two-year-old son Zack chimed in from his car seat.  Zack has spent his life to this point either listening to our conversations or, more likely, screaming over them, so it’s nice to have him trying to participate, which he does by choosing a random word he hears and screaming it.  It’s like having a really expensive parrot.

“You’ll need a shot, but just one.  It’ll be quick,” I said.

“Shot!” Zack screamed.

“But it’s gonna hurt!” Evan said.

“Not as much as having chicken pox,” I replied.

“What’s chicken pox?” Evan asked.

We spent the next several minutes describing the disease, which kept Evan’s rapt attention, since we were talking about something gross.  Something happens in the brains of boys between the ages of three and five, when their grossness receptors get activated and they go from innocent little angels to innocent little angels who sing songs at the dinner table about bodily functions. 

“Like a million mosquito bites?” Evan asked.

“Bites!” Zack screamed.

“Yup, but that’ll never happen to you,” I said.

“You’re really lucky, Evan, because back when we were kids, everyone had to get chicken pox.  You only got it once in your life, and if you waited until you were an adult, it’d be much worse.  So every kid had to get it once,” Kara said.

“How did they get it?” Evan asked.

“Well, if you didn’t catch it on your own, your parents would probably send you to play with a kid who had it,” she replied, which resulted in Evan’s disbelieving, if momentary, silence.

To add insult to malady, back then, we didn’t even have decent video games.  Even the luckiest kid only had an Atari, and you couldn’t possibly kill a whole week playing Q*bert.  To take our minds off the itching and try to keep us entertained, the best our parents could do was advise us to use our imaginations, which was a total dead end.

“Do you believe that some people choose not to get their shots?” I said, thinking of the exemption on the kindergarten registration form that allowed parents to opt out if they, for whatever sincere and genuine reason, didn’t feel like it. 

“Shots!” Zack screamed.

“Really?” Evan asked, perking up.

I thought we’d sold him on the shot.  He might never appreciate how much better kids have it now, but at least he’ll get a lollipop out of the deal.     
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Monday, May 05, 2014

Bad help is easy to provide

“Help!” my two-year-old son Zack yelled from behind the eighteen-wheeler in our driveway, holding his hands over his head.  He stood directly in the intended path of several large boxes perched on the back of the truck. 

“I don’t think that’s the best idea, buddy,” I said, moving him several feet back.

Zack was actually offering help, rather than requesting it, but that’s only because he didn’t understand that the boxes he was offering to carry were heavy enough that if we’d gently placed one on top of him, he would have come out looking like a mushroom that Super Mario had just jumped on.   

The truck driver lowered the lift and wheeled the huge, flat boxes into our garage, managing not to squish any of my children, despite their best efforts.

As the truck rumbled into the distance, I stared at the pile of boxes and shook my head. 

“How long until it’s together?” my son Evan asked.

“Maybe a month or so,” I said.

“A MONTH?  I’m never going to get to use it!” Evan wailed, because, to a four-year-old, a month is the same thing as forever.

By purchasing an assemble-it-yourself playset, the backyard kind with slides and swings, I had doomed myself to the type of appreciation that Evan had just demonstrated.  No matter how complicated the item is, and how many hours it might take to assemble, nobody respects the person who just follows the instructions and pounds the thing together. 

“Oh wow, you really know your way around an Allen wrench,” is a compliment never bestowed. 

I fished out the instruction manual, which was so thick it looked like someone had printed all of Wikipedia and slapped a black-and-white picture of a playset on the front. 

“10-12 hours,” the front page estimated for the project’s completion, showing a picture of two adults.

Who was that mysterious second adult supposed to be?  My wife?  So while we’re in the garage, trying to figure out which piece is the LT Flange and which is the B Transom FSC, the kids would be upstairs, seeing how much Play-Doh the garbage disposal could handle.  The instructions didn’t seem to take into account the slight possibility that the people ordering a playset might have young kids to look after.

I checked the largest box for the second adult, to no avail.  Perhaps we could have invited one of our friends to come be the second adult, but people with young children will understand why that wouldn’t work.  You can have kids or friends, but not both.

In the beginning of the project, Zack tried his best to fill in as the second adult. 

“Can you put that washer on this bolt?” I’d ask him.

“Ish,” he’d reply, dropping the washer onto the bolt.  We’d high-five, then he’d push all my careful piles of different-sized screws, bolts, lock washers and flat washers into one giant, extra-convenient pile.  While I sorted that out, he’d drop my drill bits into the deepest holes he could find. 

In the end, we had to import our second adult from out-of-town.  The regular reader(s) of this column will recall how great I am at home repair when my dad and I work together.  We like to take a big job and divide it up equally.  He does the part that most people would think of as “doing the work,” and I do the part that most people would think of as “holding the flashlight.” 

After a mere three-day weekend and fifty person-hours of work, we had our new playset.  The best part about it was that three generations of Todd men contributed.  One generation to do the work, the other two to mix up all the screws.

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