Zack, I am your father

As we drove home last Wednesday evening, I performed the nightly ritual of wheedling information out of my four-year-old son, Zack, who protects the details about his time at daycare like they’re the nuclear launch codes.  During this ritual, it is my job to find out how his day went, and his job to withstand the interrogation without surrendering any actionable intel.

“What was the coolest thing that happened today?” I asked.  I’ve learned not to ask yes/no questions, since there’s no such thing as voluntary elaboration.  If you want to know how a kid’s day was, you have to come at them sideways.

“I don’t want you to die, Daddy,” he replied, throwing me off the trail of whether or not he’d had a good nap that day.  I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw him looking back at me, serious but not concerned, just voicing what was on his mind.

“That’s something we have in common, my man,” I replied, thinking that perhaps we shouldn’t have let him watch “Return of the Jedi” with his big brother, Evan, last weekend.  (Things don’t go particularly well for Luke Skywalker’s father in that movie.  I won’t spoil his identity in case you are also four years old and haven’t seen it yet.)

“I’d be sad forever,” Zack said.

“Aw, buddy, don’t worry about that.  I’m planning to hang around for a long, long time,” I said.  Zack doesn’t get sentimental too often, so I appreciated that he preferred me alive, even though I only let him have one piece of Halloween candy each night, so his stash will likely last until St. Patrick’s Day.

“But if you died, then I’d get a new daddy,” he said, perking up.

“Wait, what?  A new daddy?” I asked.  Luke Skywalker didn’t get a new daddy.  Your dad dies, then you go to an Ewok dance party and whoop it up.  That’s how these things go.

“Oh, maybe that’s not how it works,” Zack said, reconsidering after I didn’t immediately offer up another dad from the bullpen.

The discussion of my mortality stopped when we picked Evan up from school, but started again at dinner.  My wife, Kara, recently took a new position at work that keeps her a little bit later and often puts the kids’ evening nutrition in my hands, so I use the term “dinner” here loosely.

“Thirty-nine is not that old,” Zack said, dipping his Pop Tart in ketchup.

“Yeah, it’s a good age,” I replied as my spoon hovered over the raisin bran.

“Forty is really old, though,” Evan said, blowing on his microwave pizza.

“Yeah, that’s REALLY old,” Zack agreed.  Duly noted.  I shall do my best to enjoy my remaining good months.

That night I tucked Zack into bed, wondering if I’d helped at all to alleviate his fears, or at least done my part to tamp down his excitement about trading up for a better dad.  Sitting on the edge of his bed, I patted him on the head and looked into his eyes to make sure I had his attention.

“Zack, it’s a special thing, being your dad.  I love it, and I love you, very much.  And I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

He thought about it for a minute, his little-kid brain doing some heavy processing on some grown-up subject matter.  I gave him all the time he needed to put his emotions into words.

“Daddy?” he said after a moment, holding out his finger toward me.

“Yes, Zack?” I replied.

“Where can I put this boogie?” he asked.

Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got your kid figured out, you realize that you’re actually in a galaxy far, far away.

You can make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

The case against November

“Food is better in November than any other time of year,” proclaims my son’s bedtime book, “In November”, an ode to a month that seems an unlikely candidate for praise.  November is the gateway to winter, the time when any hope of T-shirt weather is snuffed out entirely, a bleak month of digging through our closets to find that matching glove.  By its nature, November is dreary and grim, which is why we feel compelled to slather cranberry sauce all over it.

In November, trees shed their October glory, going immediately from their most exquisite to their most pitiful, like a fluffy cat coming out of the bathtub, all bones and no dignity.

“Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers,” says the book.  And the music that plays for these dancers?  The drone of a million two-stroke engines rattling the ground, blowing the clothes that the dancers just dropped on the ground, expecting us to pick up.  Which we do, because we need to keep the grass alive.  Otherwise, we’d have nothing to mow in the spring.  This is what our parents did, and this is what we continue doing, so it must have made sense at some point.

As the leaves swirl around our yard, so do the candy wrappers swirl around our living room.  Now that my sons are four and seven, gone are the days of them forgetting all about their stashes of Halloween candy.              Perhaps there is some truth that November makes food taste better.  Nothing tastes better than your kid’s Kit Kat after he’s gone to sleep.  The heat from the guilt makes the chocolate meltier.

Just kidding, of course.  What kind of a monster would steal his kid’s candy, and then admit to it?  I definitely wouldn’t do that second thing.

“Good morning, Zack,” I will say to our four-year-old, pulling his blinds open.

“Can I have candy?” he will reply, his eyes not open yet.

He’s especially proud of his stash this year because of the way he earned it.  This was the first year that the boys were old enough to walk up to houses independently, while I waited for them on the street, which seemed fantastic at first.  Then I noticed that the transactions were taking a little too long.

As one of our nice neighbors bent down to talk to Zack, I walked closer to listen.

“I don’t like Skittles,” Zack said, staring up and waiting to see how she would rectify this situation.

“Oh, I have some chocolate around here somewhere,” she said, running off to her pantry despite my protests.

“Zack, you don’t negotiate with the neighbors.  You take what they offer and you thank them.  You can negotiate with your brother later if you guys want to trade candy,” I said on our way to the next house.

The next neighbor held out her bowl and said, “Take whichever one you’d like.”

“Two?” Zack asked.

“Sure, take two,” she replied before I could interject.

“Three?” Zack asked.

“Two is good,” she replied, and I gave her a thumbs-up.

To Zack, when a neighbor holds out a bowl of candy, that is merely their opening bid.

“In November, people are good to each other,” says the book.  Perhaps we’ve finally reached the point in this November where that can be true.  With the election over, we can look at our friends’ Facebook feeds again and remember why we liked them in the first place.  (On second thought, we may need a little more time on this one.)

But perhaps there are things we can like about November, especially if we don’t think too hard about what’s coming next.

Which reminds me: Seriously, where is that matching glove?

You can negotiate with Mike Todd for better candy at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Third down and thirtysomething

“Yes!” I said as the Penn State player dove into the end zone, my outstretched hands searching in vain for someone to high-five.

“Woof!” said our dog, Memphis.

“Quiet!” I whispered.

Of the eight people in our house, I was the only one who’d managed to stay awake until the fourth quarter to witness a Penn State comeback for the ages.  In Happy Valley, students were streaming onto the field and filing into the streets.  In our house, former Penn State students were drooling into their pillows, resting up for another full day of parenthood.

My wife Kara’s college roommate, Curry, and her husband, Bob, have always made the effort to visit us, even though we live three hours away and haven’t been any fun in over a decade.  Shortly after we all graduated college and the years still had that new millennium smell, we’d throw parties when they came to visit us, the kind of parties in which you had to pump the container to make the beer come out.

This past weekend, Curry and Bob brought their two sons to play with our two sons, creating a tornado of Y chromosomes that blew every toy in a hundred-yard radius off its shelf.  By the time dinner rolled around on Saturday, the kids were still going strong, but the adults were mostly pinned under the wreckage.

“Can I get you a beer?” I asked, looking in the fridge as I picked Tinkertoys out of my shoes.

“What do you have?” Bob asked, brushing the Legos out of his hair.

“Sam Adams Winter Lager,” I replied.  A couple of beats went by as we both did the math.  I could tell that Bob realized that it was October, and that the beer was likely older than his youngest son.

“We, uh, got a special pre-order deal.  It’s totally winter lager for this upcoming winter.  Not from previous winters, in case that wasn’t clear,” I said, as I continued fishing around, eventually finding an option that didn’t appear to predate any of our offspring.

At dinner, the adults all had a single beer or glass of wine while the kids created a mural out of tomato sauce on the tablecloth.  After the rodeo of putting the children to bed, I wandered into the living room to find the Penn State game on the TV, and Kara with a glass of wine in her hand.

“Whoa, did you pour yourself another glass of wine?” I asked.  Back in college, you could often find our friends under the table, right where Kara drank them.  As we’ve gotten older, though, we’ve found that parenting offers plenty of reasons to drink, but very few opportunities to actually do so.

“What?  No.  I just forgot about this glass and found it again,” she said.

We settled in to watch the game, feeling fortunate to have our house filled with so much friendship, family, and history, the Penn State game serving as a serendipitous reminder of the good times we’d all had together.  Sitting there on the couch with Curry and Bob, it was just like old times.

“I’m too tired to finish this glass.  Can you grab me some Tums before I head upstairs?” Kara said, right around halftime.  It’ll sneak up on you, but eventually, antacids will play a prominent role in your social life.

Curry looked at her phone.  “Whoa, what time is it?  10:00?  The kids are going to be up at 5:30.  I gotta get to bed.”

Bob hung in there until the start of the fourth quarter, then he, too, retired, leaving me and Memphis alone to watch one of the greatest football finales in recent memory, an experience that at least one of us would gladly have traded for an extra hour of sleep in the morning.

You can stay awake until the end of the game with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Hugging a baby: The last frontier

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, buddy, I think you forgot someone,” I said to my four-year-old son, Zack, and he looked at me with despair.

I pointed to the baby on the far side of the living room, whom Zack had conspicuously skipped during his round of good-night hugs.  Zack froze halfway up the stairs, contemplating his options, looking as if I’d just asked him to hug a flaming cactus.  Conrad, the neglected baby in question, tried to clap his hands together and whiffed, performing the infant version of a flubbed high-five.

“Come on, go give your cousin a hug,” I said.

Zack sat on the steps, defiant.  He would not hug that baby.  Whatever Zack may decide to do when he grows up, a career in politics does not appear likely.

“Aw, it’s okay, really,” said Aunt Jill, hoping to avoid the scene that Zack and I were intent on creating.  Conrad gurgled and smiled, bouncing on his mom’s knee, unaware that he was playing a pivotal role in the Shakespearean power struggle unfolding before him.

“Zack, if you don’t give Conrad a hug by the time I count to three, you’re getting a timeout,” I said, dispensing with any notion that a nice family moment was still a possible outcome.

“Hmmmph,” Zack replied.

Ever since Aunt Jill, Uncle Kris, and Conrad had arrived at our house a few days prior, visiting us from Anchorage, Alaska, Zack had been giving his eight-month-old cousin the kind of berth you’d normally reserve for an angry moose.

Conrad is a good baby, too.  Mellow, as far as babies go.  He didn’t even scream during his dozen-or-so hours on the plane.

“He was great,” Jill reported.

“You had to entertain him the entire time, right?” I asked.

“Yep, he didn’t sleep a wink,” she replied.

Everyone complains about babies screaming on airplanes, but nobody mentions the quiet ones.  You’ve been on airplanes with plenty of babies who didn’t scream at all.  The only reason those babies didn’t scream on your plane is because there were parents like Jill and Kris there desperately bouncing, cooing, and cajoling every second of the way.

“Oh, you have such a good baby,” relieved passengers from nearby seats will say as they prepare to disembark, and, as a parent, you will smile and say thanks.  But really, you’re thinking that the baby deserves about 15% of the credit.

“One,” I counted, meeting Zack’s gaze as we faced off like Wild West gunslingers.  In the distance, a crow cawed.  A horse neighed.  A clock struck the seven chimes of bedtime.

“Two,” I said.  Zack sat still.  His jaws clenched.  His eyes squinted.  The room went perfectly silent.

“Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” I said, giving Zack the chance to do the right thing before I rounded the corner into a vowel.

Zack’s eyes went over the Conrad, his only ticket out of a timeout.

“…rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” I said, and Zack finally jumped up and ran over to his cousin, leaning ever-so-slightly into him to stop the count.

I understood where Zack was coming from.  Babies are kind of scary.  Zack had been regarding Conrad as if he might detonate at any moment.  Really, could we promise that he wouldn’t?  You never know when something might come out of a baby where you’d need to use the word “projectile” as an adjective to properly describe it.

“A real hug,” I said.

Zack reluctantly put an arm around his cousin.  Conrad, for his part, swung his arms up and down and scooched all over the place, because that is what he was already doing.

“Awwww,” everyone said, encouraging Zack’s newfound, if somewhat involuntary, appreciation for his cousin.  Zack may not be a natural politician, but he may just earn our votes yet.

You can refuse to hug Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Keep Us in the Zoo

“Look at this, LOOK AT THIS!” my two sons, Evan and Zack, yelled as they ran down the stairs toward my wife, Kara.  Evan waved my phone over his head as the two boys hurtled across the living room.  I sat down near the top of the stairs to watch them, since they’d taken my phone, and with it, my ability to entertain myself.

“It’s a video of Zack reading to me last night!” Evan said as the boys dove onto the couch beside Kara.

At four years old, Zack can’t read, but he never lets his complete inability to do something stop him from doing something.  I’d recorded him the night before attempting to teach himself to read while reading “Put Me in the Zoo,” an old Dr. Seussian knockoff about a magical spotted animal that hates his freedom and wants to live in a cage at the zoo.

“Once upon a time, him had lots of spots,” Zack’s voice said in the video, and on the couch, both boys burst into laughter.

Kara smiled and put her arms around the boys.  Evan and Zack were laughing and enjoying each other’s company while watching a video of themselves laughing and enjoying each other’s company.  Our dog, Memphis, ambled over and curled up at the base of the couch.  It was a perfect moment.

I looked down from my perch on the stairs and felt so compelled by reality that I didn’t even miss my phone that much.

“Now his spots are orange, now purple, now they’re all over the place,” Zack’s voice said from the phone, and the boys laughed again.

All of a sudden, I pictured the kids in the distant future, packing up their things and heading off to college.  Moments like the one we were experiencing now would be just vague memories and warm feelings, the particulars long forgotten.  My eyes began experiencing a strange sensation, whereby they became moist almost to the point of dripping.  I would have looked on WebMD to diagnose my condition, but the kids had my phone.

As I thought more about the future emotional trauma that their natural development would wreak, I also realized that when the kids are ready to go to college, they will have been teenagers for many years.  Teenagerdom was invented as nature’s way of helping parents kick their kids out of the house.

“Everyone else is going to the concert!  WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO UNFAIR?” the teenager will yell, stomping into their room and slamming the door, spending the rest of the evening practicing their sighing and eye rolling.

“Thanks, nature,” the parents will whisper to themselves.

I regained my composure and came back to the moment, concentrating on appreciating every minute we have with the kids while they’re four and seven, they still think we’re cool, and all they want to do is hang out with us.  Kara glanced up and smiled wistfully, and I wondered if she was thinking the same thing.

“Hey, Zack’s squooshing me,” Evan said, sliding away from him.

“Am not!  Hey, now I can’t see!” Zack said.

“Stop it!  YOU’RE STILL SQUOOSHING ME!” Evan yelled, flailing his arms around while Zack leaned harder into him.

“CAN’T SEE!  CAN’T SEE!” Zack yelled.

“AAAAAHHHH GET OFF ME!” Evan screamed.

“That’s it.  Go to bed, both of you!” Kara said.

“NOOOOOOO!” they yelled in unison.  Maybe it’s not so important to appreciate EVERY minute.  Some minutes are really annoying.

The moment having passed, I hopped down the stairs to get their bedtime routines started.  They needed to get a good night’s sleep, since they’d be going to college pretty much the next day.

You can kick Mike Todd out of your house at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Get your kicks somewhere else

All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by dozens of onlookers.  If you’re a stand-up comedian or a street musician, finding yourself surrounded by an audience unexpectedly can be a great thing.  For pretty much everyone else though, it’s almost never good.

“Buddy, I’m really not supposed to be here,” I said, trying to retreat back to the safety of the sidelines.

“Don’t leave,” said my four-year-old son, Zack, grabbing onto my shorts.  In front of us, fifty children ran around in circles, each chasing their own soccer balls.  Ten adults wearing COACH jerseys ran among them like cowboys riding through a sea of cattle, corralling the herd while respecting its destructive potential.

Zack’s shiny new soccer ball sat next to his feet, right where I’d dropped it.

“Give it a kick, buddy!  You know how to do it,” I said, nudging him toward the herd.

“Nooooooo,” he lowed, grabbing tighter onto my shorts.

“Please don’t pull down my pants,” I said.  Whenever my sons get clingy in public, they tend to direct their clinginess toward my gym shorts, testing the elastic waistband’s ability to protect whatever shreds of dignity I may still possess.

Zack had been excited for the start of soccer season for many weeks, right up until the moment it started.

I looked over at my wife, Kara, and our other son, Evan, who had just set up their folding chairs on the sidelines.  I shrugged at them, and they gave me a thumbs-up, leaving me to wonder what exactly they thought was going well.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said, kicking his ball and chasing after it, dragging Zack into the chaos.  After a few minutes of that, Zack still showed no interest, but I felt like my dribbling was really coming along.

“Okay, now everybody clap your hands!” the head coach yelled.

I clapped in rhythm with the coach while Zack stared at me.  Then he stepped closer, accidentally stomping on my foot with his cleats, laying bare my strategic blunder of wearing sandals to this event, at which I had fully intended to be a spectator.  Zack only weighs forty pounds, but he had somehow become a rhino in soccer spikes.

“OWWW!  Aw, dude, wow, you can’t do that to Daddy,” I said.

“Sorry!  I didn’t mean to,” he said, while everyone around us clapped in relative unison.

As I surveyed the edges of the field, though, I saw no fewer than ten other little players sobbing and hanging onto their parents’ various appendages.  Zack wasn’t exactly out there bending it like Beckham, but at least he wasn’t making a scene.

When you’re dealing with four-year-olds, organized sports are something of an oxymoron.  We knew that Zack was perhaps too young, and that soccer might not stick, but we had to let him give it a try, even though giving your children opportunities to discover their talents, interests, and abilities makes it difficult to give your Netflix backlog the attention it deserves.

After thirty minutes of drills, the coaches broke the kids into small teams to play scrimmages, so that everyone could practice the skills they’d just learned.  For Zack, presumably, that meant thirty more minutes of pantsing me and stomping divots into my feet.

Partway through the scrimmage, Kara took over to let Zack stomp on her feet for a while.  Having no better luck, she escorted Zack off the field fifteen minutes before the game was scheduled to end.

“Hey, buddy, we’ll give it a try again next week, right?” I said.

“Nope, I’m not doing that anymore,” he replied.

And that’s how you fit an entire soccer season into forty-five minutes.

You can get your kicks with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

In Niagara, almost over a barrel

“How does it feel, leaving the United States for the first time?” I asked as we sat in traffic on the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, waiting for our turn at customs.  Looking at the skyline in front of us, a person could be forgiven for assuming that Canada is about 70% casinos.

“Feels the same,” said Evan, his seven years of life already jading him to the excitement of crossing into an exotic, nearly identical land.

“But it’s a whole different country!” I said.

“Is this where kangaroos live?” our four-year-old son Zack asked.

“That’s Australia, buddy,” my wife, Kara, replied.

“But I want to see kangaroos,” he said, crossing his arms, also unimpressed with his first transnational adventure.

To be fair, we’d already seen some pretty impressive things that day, so just being in Canada, as an activity unto itself, didn’t make the highlight reel.  We’d taken the Maid of the Mist boat tour, where they wrap tourists in hooded garbage bags and steer them into the roaring torrents of wind and water, so that we could all experience, like Weather Channel reporters being blown out of the frame, what it’s like to needlessly subject ourselves to harsh conditions.

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We rode our bikes around the trails at the top of the falls, stopping to peer down over the railings as endless rippling sheets of water dashed themselves far below, exploding into towering mist clouds.  For all the tourists throwing elbows and money-grabbing knick-knack junkeries lining the streets near Niagara Falls, the falls themselves really are awesome, and I mean that in the traditional sense of the word, because they are, like, super cool.

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As we rolled into Canada that evening, we did so knowing that we were taking a risk, leaving our bikes on the back of our car unattended overnight in the parking garage of our hotel.  Niagara was the halfway point on our drive to Mackinac Island, Michigan, a place that doesn’t allow cars, where we’d be depending on our bikes for the entire vacation.  Without our bikes, we’d be better off staying home for the week, watching the kids throw iPads at each other.

“What are you going to do if our bikes are gone in the morning?” Evan asked.

“Cry,” I replied, jiggling each of the bike locks that suddenly felt so chintzy.

That night, as I thought about the bikes all alone out there in that big parking garage, I took some solace in the fact that we were in Canada.  Canadians somehow seem slightly more dignified than their neighbors to the south, above such things as bicycle theft.  In America, we invented maple-bacon doughnuts.  Instead of sprinkles on top, they have bacon bits stuck on the maple glaze.  Canadians invented maple trees, and even have their own kind of bacon, yet still showed restraint enough not to invent maple-bacon doughnuts.  Surely, they could also refrain from stealing our bikes.

As we approached the car the next morning, I saw a small heap under the bikes that hadn’t been there the night before.

“What’s that?” I asked, but I could already tell.  It was my trusty cable lock, snipped in two.  That cable lock had always worked great, until somebody actually tried to steal our bikes.

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“The bikes are still there, though.  What’s going on?” Kara asked.

“It’s really weird.  Yeah, I think everything’s okay,” I said.

Then I glanced at the built-in cable lock that came with the rack, and noticed the saw marks on it.  The would-be thief made it through one lock, but for whatever reason, gave up on the second one.  That little centimeter-thick cable saved our vacation.

Just to be safe, next time we go to Michigan, maybe we’ll drive through Australia instead.

You can go over the falls with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Resist the pull of the pool

As I hurtled through the air, about to make contact with the water, my mind processed the thought that goes through the mind of most modern humans just before they escape underwater from the cruel heat of summer: “Did I take my phone out of my pocket?”

The phone was safely tucked away in a towel, but as I emerged from the water too late to do anything about it anyway, I still had to pat my pocket to be sure.  My son, Zack, took that moment of distraction to blast me in the face with a two-foot long, pump-action water gun, the kind you could use to power-wash the mildew off your deck.

“Zack, dude, not in the face aga…” I said as he blasted me if the face again.

“I have a surprise for you!” he yelled, waiting for me to move my hands so that he could hydro-exfoliate me one more time.  Instead, I swam underwater to join my wife, Kara, on the other side of the pool.  Kids buzzed around in all directions, the next generation of troublemakers gathered for a pool party at our friend’s house.

“This is nice, isn’t it?” Kara said, and I could tell that she was thinking about it again.  Pools.  She wants one.  I try to remind her that we already have one hanging on the wall in our garage, and that I would gladly take it down and spray out the spider webs whenever she’d like.  Then she could cool off by submerging four inches of any body part of her choosing.  For some reason, though, that doesn’t end the conversation.

Never mind the expense (though I do mind it), I feel like it might be helpful if Kara would recall that we had a pool once, at our previous house.  Because it sat under a dense leaf canopy, it saw less sunlight than Donald Trump’s tax returns.  For three seasons, its primary function was to serve as a convenient receptacle for our trees to store their leaves.  For the other season, it perpetually stayed an interesting shade of green, which might have made it suitable for hosting the Olympics, but since nobody was offering us any medals, we weren’t sufficiently motivated to risk going in.

To open the pool in the spring, I had to remove the cover that sat under two feet of rotting detritus.  After scooping bucket after bucket of tree sewage, I would spend an hour heaving and pulling and tugging and hugging this disgusting, Honda-Odyssey-sized bag of putrid leaves until I could finally wrangle the thing over the edge of the pool.

The experience wasn’t quite as traumatic for Kara, because she was inside watching Project Runway at the time.

A pool has the same work/fun ratio as a newborn baby.  Sure, you can have fun with it sometimes, but mostly it just takes lots of work and all of your money.  If you have friends with pools, though, the baby isn’t your responsibility.  You can be the cool uncle who comes over and whoops it up all day, then hits the road when the meltdown starts.

“Yeah, it sure is nice.  Seems like it’s working out pretty well for us to have a friend that has a pool, right?” I said.

“For now,” Kara replied, and a chill went up my spine.

Just then, our other son Evan leaped off the diving board with a huge smile on his face.  All around the pool, people actually talked to each other, in part because their phones were stashed safely away from the water, which is perhaps the most underrated feature of the swimming pool.

Behind me, a voice said, “I have a surprise for you.”  I turned around, slowly.

Even now, I bet you won’t find any mildew on my face.

You can do a cannonball next to Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Let’s not do the twist

“Tornado warning in the area.  Take shelter,” my wife, Kara, read quietly from her phone as the color drained from her face.  Rain pummeled the windshield so hard that it felt like a spinning scrub brush should appear in front of us at any moment.  We were deep in the woods with no buildings around, making our way down the two-lane road as quickly as we could, but had we been going through an actual car wash, our speed and visibility would have been about the same.

“There’s no shelter out here.  How close is the tornado?” I asked.

“What?  Did you just say tornado?” our son, Evan, asked from the back seat.

“It’s rainin’ hard,” his brother, Zack, noted.

“We can’t see anything.  We could be driving right into it,” Kara said.

“Let’s just stay calm and try not to scare anybody,” I said quietly.

Just then, a screeching alarm came over our car’s audio system, blasting the punctuated squeals of the Emergency Broadcast System through the car, the same noises that had been drilled into my head during childhood, and which had interrupted many episodes of People’s Court just as Judge Wapner was getting ready to deliver his verdict.  “My judgement is for the…. This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  This is only a test: SCREEEEEECH!  SQUAAAAAAAWK!”  You’d be lucky if you got back in time for Doug Llewelyn’s interview with the person who lost but, if we’re being honest, probably still had no intention of paying up anyway.

The noise came over our car’s audio system because my phone is connected to it via Bluetooth, which turns out not to be just a convenient technological feature, but also, if applied at exactly the right moment at the proper volume, a great cure for constipation.

“WHAT’S THAT!?” Evan screamed.  Zack put his hands over his ears like he does in public restrooms when the hand dryers come on, guilting the few men who actually practice good hygiene.  I slammed the power button on the dash to make the noise stop.

“Oh, that sound?  That’s you know, just a thing.  Just my phone acting funny,” I said.

We’d been out biking earlier that afternoon along a remote section of rail trail we’d never visited before.  Afterwards, just as we got back to the car, the thunder started rumbling.  We quickly hustled Kara and the kids into the car.  As the storm rolled in, I stayed outside to put the bikes on the rack, because I am the most expendable family member.

“Whew, okay, we’re good,” I said, hopping into the driver’s seat just as the rain started, feeling invincible in the safety of the car, assuming incorrectly that the sky wasn’t going to try to vacuum us up.

A few minutes later, the warnings started blasting onto our phones.

“Are we driving right into it?” Kara asked.  We had no way to know.  If you’re looking for a particular Pokemon, your phone can tell you within a two-foot area where you can find it.  There’s a Pikachu right there, on the toilet paper holder!  (I’m allowed to know this information because I have a seven-year-old.  Otherwise, I would welcome your ridicule.)

A tornado, on the other hand, you know.  It might be around somewhere.  Miles, feet, who can say?  The important thing to know is that a swirling cloud of death is nearby, heading in a direction of some sort, and you may or may not be driving right into it.  Here, listen to this horrible screeching noise while you ponder that.

As it turned out, the tornado was ten or fifteen miles away, and we never saw any cows flying across the road.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, though, we still got our undies in a twist.

You can do your best Emergency Broadcast System impression with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

 

Falling off the dock of the lake

Just moments before my son Zack sank below the surface of the lake, the water clapping together over his head like the jaws of a hungry creature snapping shut, my cousin Rachel had commented, “He’s sure getting close to the end of the dock.”

“Oh, he’s okay,” I said, confident that Zack’s respect for water and desire to continue feeding the ducks would render his complete inability to swim irrelevant.  Zack had fallen off that dock while wearing a lifejacket back when he was two years old, but since he’d turned into a sure-footed four-year-old, just keeping an eye on him felt like sufficient parenting.  Besides, as a parent, it’s my responsibility to allow my kids the freedom to make their own mistakes, otherwise they’d never learn for themselves the joy of mortal danger.

A few beats later, Zack slipped on the slick, water-worn wood at the end of the dock and wobbled in slow-motion, toppling over like a Jenga tower that collapses four seconds after the last block was pulled out of it.  SPLOOSH!

I’d been crouching about five feet away, taking pictures, so with a quick belly flop onto the end of the dock, I was right on top of him, grabbing his arm almost before his clothes had time to fully soak in the water.

When his face emerged from the lake, Zack took a couple of surprised breaths.

“You’re okay, buddy, you’re okay,” I said in that reassuring tone that people use with you when you’re not okay.

Once back on the dock, Zack started howling.

My wife, Kara, who’d been chatting back on dry land just a few feet away, came running to join us.  We were on vacation with our extended family, so she hurdled several cousins as she hustled out there, pausing briefly as she passed our other son, Evan.

“What happened?” she asked him.

“I caught a crayfish!” Evan replied.

We’ve often wondered how old Evan would have to be before he could babysit his little brother.  Apparently, seven is not quite there yet.

“Hey, Evan, remember that little brother you used to have?  Where is he?” we’d ask.

“Check out this awesome stick I found!” he’d reply.

As I cradled the waterlogged Zack against my soaked shoulder, Kara crouched down and put her hand on his head.

“What happened?” she repeated.

With water and tears streaming down his face, Zack looked at her as though it was pretty obvious what had just happened.

“I hurted my knee!” he wailed, pointing to a barely visible scrape that would be forever forgotten in about eight seconds.

“I think maybe she wanted to know more about the whole falling-in-the-lake part,” I suggested.

A minute later, Zack had settled down, and I carried him back up to the cabin to put on some dry clothes.  I squeezed him tight, wondering whether I should feel guilty, lucky, or just plain relieved.  Probably all three.  Did I take time to carefully set down my camera before grabbing him?  Could I have stopped it from happening at all?  What if I’d missed?

“Daddy got there fast, didn’t he?” I said, leading the witness.  I wasn’t going to put the word “hero” in his mouth, but if he wanted to put that title on the person who should have prevented this all from happening in the first place, I wouldn’t have objected.

“No.  It took a long time,” he replied.

“A long time?  I was there in like two seconds,” I said.

“But I still got wet,” he said.  Hard to argue with that.

For the rest of the week, we still gave him plenty of freedom to make his own mistakes.  While wearing a lifejacket.

You can pull Mike Todd out of the drink at mikectodd@gmail.com.