On pests and pastimes

“Get away from me!” my son Evan screamed, wildly swinging his baseball bat over his head.

“Buddy, I’m not sure that’s helping,” I said.

“It is!  I’m getting a few of them!” he replied, his bat whizzing back-and-forth through the swarming springtime air.

Some would argue that mosquitoes are nature’s most annoying creatures, but at least mosquitos make sense.  You have blood.  They want it.  While you may not appreciate their attempts to sign you up for an impromptu blood donation, you can still understand where they’re coming from.

Gnats, on the other hand, don’t get any benefit out of pestering you, except for whatever joy they may take from interrupting an otherwise lovely father-son baseball practice.

“Hello there!  I’m going to bounce off your forehead for a while,” they say.

“Would you just sting me or suck my blood or try to live inside me or something USEFUL already!” you scream back.

“How about I fly into your eye and drown in your tears, while you stagger around trying to get me out?” they ask.  Compromise is important.

I waited to see if Evan would use the gnats as an excuse to go back inside.  HE’D invited ME to come play baseball in the backyard, an unprecedented event.  I’d have understood if the bugs had convinced him to end our session, but a scorpion stampede wouldn’t have caused me to suggest it.

Playing baseball with your kid is the thing you imagine doing when that kid is a baby, screaming in your face at 3am and inventing new ways to make things come UP over the diaper waistband from the inside, something you’d never before considered as being possible.

“Someday, this screaming life-usurper will play catch with me,” you tell yourself as you curl up next to the crib and fall asleep on the floor.

With Evan, that promise has been realized.  After all the millions of decibels that his little lungs have projected into our house over the past seven-going-on-eight years, perhaps the sweetest have been the ones that carried these words: “Want to practice baseball with me?”

Evan has some new motivation for practicing.  Last year, his first year in little league, they took it easy on the kids: infinite strikes, you can keep running the bases even if you get out, everyone gets a trophy, the works.

The motto for the second year of little league: Welcome to the cruel world, kids.

Three strikes and you’re out.  When you’re out, you’re really out.  And instead of a friendly adult human throwing the ball, it’s a pitching machine, a trebuchet-like device that flings the balls across home plate at about three times the velocity that the kids are used to.


The Character Builder 3000

Last year, when the coaches were lobbing balls across home plate from their knees, they would slow it down when the kids were having trouble, or offer some words of encouragement.  The pitching machine is more like the Terminator.  It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you strike out.  Or hit the ball, which is unlikely.

That evening with the gnats, Evan stopped swinging his bat at the bugs, and got back into a batter’s stance.

“Ready,” he said.

“Elbow up, buddy,” I said.  I don’t really know how to help him too much, but I do know that you’re supposed to say “elbow up” for some reason.

Watching him standing there, waiting for the pitch, I thought that nothing, not even swarms of pests, could make this moment less than perfect.  Someday, he might tire of practicing with his old man.  But for now, every pitch is a ball.

You can’t bargain or reason with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.


It’s all downhill from here

“The brakes!  Do you remember how to use the BRAKES?!” I yelled at my seven-year-old son, Evan, as gravity swept him away.

“YYYYYEEEEeeeeaaaah!” he called over his shoulder as he wobbled, righted himself, and wobbled again, picking up momentum and heading straight for our neighbor’s mailbox.

If he truly remembered how to use the brakes, that knowledge didn’t seem to be manifesting itself in any obvious way.  He’d picked up enough speed that his shirt began flapping against his back, which is nature’s way of tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Dude, don’t fall right now, or gravel is going to end up in some really undesirable places.”

Up to that moment, he’d never gone faster than a walking pace on his bike.  Despite years of constant parental cajoling, his bike had sat in our garage serving as a spider habitat, like one of those ships they sink offshore to create an artificial reef.

As much as I wanted him to enjoy riding his bike, I couldn’t really blame Evan for not seeing the upside before that day.  It’s not like we were all of a sudden going to let him go tooling off into the world by himself, like I was allowed to do when I was a kid, back before we put all of our dogs and our kids behind invisible fences.

When I was a kid, a bike meant freedom.  I’d hop on my bike and ride around with the neighborhood kids, trespassing without a care, getting poison ivy in the woods, and doing lots of other things that make me nostalgic, but that I will never let my kids do.

When it was time to come home, my parents would stand on the front porch and – I swear, this seemed perfectly normal at the time — blow into a gigantic conch shell.

“aaaaWOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” the sound of the conch would reverberate across the neighborhood.  Whatever we were doing, I’d hop back on my bike and pedal home like mad, because conch-blowers, in general, do not take kindly to being ignored.

Sometimes, I think that childhood now isn’t so different from childhood in the 80s.  Then I remember that my parents’ primary instrument for long-distance communication with me was the shell of a large mollusk.  These days, kids wouldn’t understand that concept at all.  Their parents’ conch shells are much smaller and sleeker.

In any event, after years of ignoring it, one day Evan just dragged his bike out of the garage, evicted the spiders, and started riding the thing around the driveway in circles, yelling, “This is actually FUN!”

Wanting to encourage his newfound appreciation for being a bipedaling biped, I took Evan and his five-year-old brother, Zack, out for an expedition around the neighborhood.  (Zack’s bike still has training wheels and a handle in the back that lets me steer for him, so it’s more of a socially acceptable stroller.)

“Don’t let go, Daddy!” Zack said as we headed down a large hill.  I grasped the handle on the back of his bike a little tighter.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got you, buddy,” I said.

“Bye!” Evan said, pulling up his feet and bombing down the hill, prompting my shouted reminder about the existence of brakes.

I watched, helpless to do anything but spectate.  Evan was truly on his own, approaching a curve in the road at a speed he’d never attempted before, with only that mailbox there to catch him if he failed.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is to let go.  Or hold on.  Or both.  Or neither.  Actually, I have no idea what you’re supposed to do.

I winced, then exhaled deeply as Evan sailed around the curve, hitting his brakes at the bottom of the hill.

“I did it!” he yelled, proud of either his accomplishment, or the embolism he’d just given his father.  Both were quite large.

Evan bike

The little daredevil in flatter times (two weeks after this story), halfway through a 4-mile ride on our local rail trail. 

You can communicate with Mike Todd via the mollusk of your choice at mikectodd@gmail.com.

The winter is our discontent

“Never mind,” I said, shutting the front door as the dog skidded to a stop at my feet.  A plume of arctic air shot across the living room and the wind howled against the door, delivering a clear warning message to anyone foolish enough to consider stepping outdoors.

“Stay in! STAY IIIIIINNNNNNN!” it said, like a reverse poltergeist.

My phone confirmed that it was indeed nineteen degrees out there, heading down to thirteen overnight, well below my twenty-degree, sane-person cutoff for walking the dog.

“Sorry, animal, I’m going to do us both a favor and skip the walk tonight,” I told Memphis, and she headed back to the couch to settle into her Memphis-shaped cushion-crater for the evening.

A friend recently shared an inspirational quote on Facebook that read: “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”

This quote is attributed to John Ruskin, a famous art critic who died in the year 1900, after being swept away in a tornado.  Just kidding.  He actually died of non-tornado natural causes at the age of eighty, after losing his mind, which might explain the “no such thing as bad weather” idea.

Living in the northeast and having a sister who lives in San Diego, I would take no small measure of comfort in the thought of “no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather,” a theory that might exclusively apply to San Diego, but doesn’t seem at all to reflect reality around here.  Where I live, for four months of the year, the weather is actively trying to kill us all.

“Sure, it gets chilly out there, but it’s not trying to KILL us,” you might be thinking.

When you’re walking around in thirteen-degree weather, the only reason it doesn’t kill you is because, at some point, you come back inside.  It’s not that the weather isn’t trying to kill you, it’s just that you don’t give it quite enough time to succeed.

“Wait, come back!  Aw, shoot.  The one that got away,” winter mutters as you walk back into your house.

In San Diego, for twelve months out of the year, the weather just pats you on the head and tells you how good-looking you are.  They’re not even having a drought there anymore.  Couldn’t they at least give us that?

That frigid night with the dog happened a few weeks ago, after we’d already had some nice spring weather teasing us.  Winter likes to pretend it’s gone, tricking the daffodils into poking their little heads out of the soil, then WAM!  Winter comes back again like a giant, felt-wrapped hammer, whapping anything green back into submission.  It’s nature’s version of whack-a-mole.

But now, finally, we’re leaving all of that behind.  After several feints, winter has finally faded away, for real this time probably, and we emerge, blinking, from our homes that kept us safe from the air that has been attacking us since November, inhaling air that does not inflict pain on our lungs, as long as you do not count the allergens.

And then we notice that our decks could really use some staining.  And our mailboxes are listing off to the left.  And there’s mud where the grass used to be.  Without winter, we no longer have an excuse to hide indoors, shirking our responsibilities.  For the brief time we have while our weather pats us on the head and tells us how good-looking we are, we have work to do.

It’s almost enough to make you wish for winter again.  When you’re hiding from the murderous weather, at least the yard work can’t find you, either.

You can get some spring in your step with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Where a grownup can go insane

“We’re going to get through this thing together,” I said to my wife, Kara, as I took her hand.  We followed our children through the double doors, into our local Chuck E. Cheese’s, the place where a kid can be a kid, and a grownup can go insane.

“Can I please have my birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese?” our nearly five-year-old son Zack began asking about a month before his birthday, usually as his first waking words on any given day, thereby dispelling any notion that we’d be able to skate by for one more year without him noticing that we didn’t really throw him an actual party.

“That was your party!” we’ve been able to convince him every other year, and he never seemed to notice that, with the exception of his brother, he was descended from every other person in attendance.

At some point, though, you have to let your kid have a birthday party at their favorite rodent-themed arcade.  It’s a rite of passage.  In some cultures, you tie vines to your ankles and jump off bamboo towers.  In other cultures, where there’s a higher tolerance for pain, you invite all the kids from your son’s daycare to run around an establishment that is packed with enough children on a Saturday afternoon that there would surely be a fire code violation if kids didn’t only count as half a person.

“This is stressing me out,” Kara said as we advanced into the flashing, clanging, beeping, screaming cacophony of Chuck E. Cheese’s, which is essentially a training casino for children.  Kids put money into machines, push a button or two repeatedly, and occasionally get a little reward for their efforts.  The reward comes in the form of tickets that can be redeemed for prizes that you wouldn’t bend down to pick up off the sidewalk.  At this little casino, the mouse always wins.

“That’s my favorite game!” Zack said, pointing across the room.  When their grandparents are babysitting, our kids always con them into Chuck E. Cheese trips.  Zack’s such a regular there, I half expected a pit boss to comp him some pizza.

Zack strode into the arcade area, master of his domain, high-fiving the person dressed up like the eponymous mouse.  If you’re not familiar with Chuck E. Cheese, he’s kind of like what Mickey Mouse would be, if Mickey had made worse life decisions.  You just get the sense that Chuck E. is probably a good guy, but he’s living with some regrets.

Zack’s buddies all showed up shortly thereafter, and the kids orbited around each other as they bounced from machine to machine.  A while later, after the pizza and cake, Kara grimaced when she realized what was coming next.


“Dude, they’re going to put him in the barf chamber,” she said.

She was referring to the Ticket Blaster, which is like a phone booth that serves as the grand finale for the birthday child.  The child stands in the booth and catches as many tickets as they can in thirty seconds while tickets cyclone around.  Years ago, we watched a little girl get into that very same booth and perform what could best be described as an upchuck-E. Cheese.

“It’s been three years since that little girl threw up in there.  I’m sure they dumped plenty of sawdust on it,” I said.

Zack just laughed as the machine blew tickets, and who knows what else, into his face.


On the way home, Zack was still beaming, triumphant.

“What was your favorite part?” we asked him.

“The whole thing,” Zack said.

And really, what else matters?  Still, it’s nice to be back in the regular world, where an adult can be an adult.

You can comp Mike Todd some pizza at mikectodd@gmail.com.

The greatest ambulation

“Somebody’s there,” my seven-year-old son Evan said as we rounded the top of the hill.  Indeed, the bench at the overlook was occupied by an old man, enjoying the peace and quiet that he would soon find in short supply.

“HI!” Evan and his four-year-old brother, Zack, yelled at the man as they dashed past him, looking near the edge of the woods for the old geocache box that they knew was hidden under a pile of rocks nearby.  (If you’re not familiar with the hobby of geocaching, it’s like a give-a-penny, take-a-penny for household junk, stashed in millions of little boxes hidden by hobbyists all over the world.  You can locate the geocaches by using the GPS in your phone, or by listening for your kids to start hollering louder than usual.)

“Hello!  That’s a beautiful dog you have there,” the man said, pointing at Memphis, our black-lab-esque mutt, the final member of my entourage for the day.

While my wife was at work, I’d taken a vacation day to celebrate our complete lack of other childcare options on Presidents’ Day.  Since the kids were bouncing off the walls all morning, I ricocheted them out the door to take a two-mile hike in the unseasonably warm afternoon, which is how we happened upon the old man on the bench.


After we chatted for a few moments, the man, who had introduced himself as Al, turned to me and said, “I’m ninety-three years old.”

“Wow, I hope I’m still hiking when I’m your age,” I said, and he gave me a sort of “good luck with that” look, the same look you’d expect Michael Jordan to give if you told him, “I hope my tomahawk dunk from the foul line looks as good as yours someday.”

Just then, the kids finished rifling through the geocache box, not finding anything worthy of exchanging their Happy Meal toys for, and came over to rifle through my backpack.  I always bring plenty of junk-food bribes to help my kids enjoy the outdoors, just like Daniel Boone’s dad must have done.

“Here y’go,” Zack said, putting an Oreo into Al’s hand.

“Thank you,” Al said, taking a tiny bite to be polite, then giving the rest to Memphis.

“HE’S GIVIN’ CHOCOLATE TO THE DOG!” Zack yelled, pulling on my shirt sleeve.

“Shhh, buddy, Oreos don’t really have chocolate in them,” I said.  The man was a member of the Greatest Generation, and was wearing a hat that suggested he’d fought in World War II.  If he wanted to give my dog diarrhea, he’d earned the right.

“Can you take a picture of me at the overlook, and can Memphis be in it with me?  And can you send me a copy of the picture?  My friends won’t believe I made it up here,” Al asked.

“Sure, I’d be glad to.  Do you have an email address?” I asked hopefully, handing him a dog treat so that Memphis would pose with him.


“I’ve never had a computer, but I can give you my mailing address and pay you for the picture,” he replied.

If someone under ninety years old had made that same request, I would have been annoyed, but I agreed to do it for Al, even if we can never be Facebook friends.


“Want to walk back down the hill together?” Al suggested after the photo shoot, and we all agreed.

On the way down, I learned that he had indeed fought in World War II.  When he returned from the war, he’d taken a job mopping floors at an insurance company at night, eventually working his way into an office job.  He’d been married for sixty-six years.  And he walked faster than us.

Someday, I hope I can dunk like Al.

You can bribe Mike Todd with junk food at mikectodd@gmail.com.

A tough conversation, period

“What’s this?” my seven-year-old son Evan asked, holding up a tampon.

“Can I have some crackers?” my four-year-old son Zack asked at the same time.  Like a politician at a press conference, I chose the easier question.

“No, no snacks.  We’re just about to eat dinner,” I said.

“What’s this?” Evan repeated, pointing the tampon wrapper at me like he was Harry Potter casting a spell with his absorbent, unscented wand.  Expectum answeris!

Of course, their mother was out-of-town for work, so I couldn’t pawn off the question on her.  Before she left, though, she’d apparently skipped around the house, tossing feminine hygiene products onto various household surfaces from her woman basket.

Something in the way Evan stood there, pointing the tampon at me in an almost accusatory way, like he knew he was on the verge of discovery and I was stonewalling him, gave me a flashback to when I was a teenager, standing in my parents’ kitchen.

“What’s this?” my mom asked, holding up a tube of K-Y Jelly.  I recognized the tube from the glove compartment of my car.  As far as I knew, the tube came with the car, like an owner’s manual.  I hadn’t put it there, and I’d never really given its origins or intended applications too much thought.

“Oh, that’s the tube from my glove box.  I don’t know who put that there.  I assumed it had some kind of automotive purpose,” I said.  I didn’t know exactly what went on inside a Jiffy Lube, but it seemed plausible they might need some personal lubricant in there somewhere.

“It doesn’t have an automotive purpose,” Dad said, looking at me sideways, with an “I wasn’t born yesterday” look.  I think my parents thought I was much better at being a teenager than I actually was.

I never did get to the bottom of what was going on with that K-Y Jelly, but I’m pretty sure my parents never entirely believed me, and I still got tainted with a squirt of suspicion by the whole thing.  Stonehenge, what happened to D.B. Cooper, how that K-Y Jelly got in my glove compartment: the great mysteries of our time.

Over twenty years later, another member of my family eyed me suspiciously, sensing that I was weaseling out of giving a straight answer.  In retrospect, he might have thought that the tampon was candy, which would explain why he cared so much.  The wrapper looked a lot like the wrapper of the good kind of after-dinner mint.  He may have thought he’d just hit the jackpot.

“It’s, uh, it’s a thing that women use,” I said, pausing to take a bite of my Oreo, waiting to see if the conversation was over.

“Hey!  You said no snacks!  You’re eatin’ Oreos!” Zack yelled.

“I’m about to make you dinner, it’s been a long day, and I need the energy.  I’m doing you a favor by eating Oreos.  The energy from this Oreo is going right back into caring for you.  You’re welcome,” I said.

“What do women use them for?” Evan asked.

My brain ran through several possible responses, and it couldn’t come up with a single one that wouldn’t make his head explode.

“It’s a hygiene thing, like soap,” I said, trying to say the most boring possible thing so that the conversation could end, to be resumed in a few years, whenever his health teacher got around to resuming it.  That’s why I pay taxes.

“How much time until dinner?” he asked, setting the tampon down and walking toward his Legos.  Success!

“It’s not fair that you get to eat Oreos before dinner,” Zack correctly noted.

“You’re right.  I shouldn’t have done that.  We’ll all have cookies after dinner,” I replied.

As a parent, it’s important to be forthright and fair.  But it’s also important to try obfuscating and sneaking cookies first.

You can cast a spell at Mike Todd with the feminine hygiene product of your choice at mikectodd@gmail.com.

For whom the bird flips

By the time I realized we were on a collision course, our cars were only inches apart, our headlights preparing to occupy the same space.  Fortunately, we were crawling along in traffic at the speed of arthritic sloths, so we had plenty of time to avoid each other.  Plenty of time, but no inclination.

“Go ahead and crash into me, if that’s what you want to do,” is the attitude I usually take when playing chicken with fellow motorists, especially when driving my wife’s Civic.  We’ve had that car for seventeen years now.  We would consider getting rid of it, but Kara has an emotional attachment to it, and over time, I’ve come to empathize with the car, too.  Much like me, the Civic looked really good seventeen years ago, still runs just fine even with all that mileage on it, and has lately become somewhat of an eyesore.  Seventeen years can put a lot of wear and tear on a car and/or human.

My adversary had caught me at a disadvantage on this day, though, as I was driving our other car, a six-year-old Highlander, which I’m only supposed to crash by accident.  I also had my son, Zack, in the backseat, and while he would have probably enjoyed competing in a demolition derby, I decided to back off and let the other motorist merge in front of me, confident that the historical record would vindicate my position that it was indeed my turn to go next.

Long ago, I decided that the world can be ugly and mean enough without the sound of my car horn making it uglier and meaner.  I resolved to only use the horn when necessary to avoid an accident, but not to discipline other drivers.  Kara doesn’t share my aural pacifism.

“Dude, honk at that guy!  He totally deserves it!” she will say, reaching over to press the center of the steering wheel for me.

“Chill!  Chill!” I will reply, using my right arm like a windshield wiper to fend off her attacks.

In extreme circumstances, like when this guy decided he was entitled to take my (rightful, did I mention?) turn in the merge as we went from two lanes to one, I will register my displeasure with a quick flick of the high beams, or, as I like to think of it, the gentleman’s honk.


The gentleman’s honk says, “Cheerio, my good fellow.  What’s this about, then?”

So I gave the guy a quick gentleman’s honk, choosing a pinch of passive aggression over a dollop of ugliness.  Immediately, his window went down, he stuck his entire arm into the winter air, and he held one finger aloft in a decidedly non-gentlemanly gesture, keeping it there for a solid five-count.  Fortunately, Zack is four years old, wouldn’t have known what that meant, wasn’t paying attention anyway, and couldn’t have learned anything profane unless he happened to glance up and peer into that guy’s soul.

Didn’t flipping the bird go out of fashion around the time that “road rage” entered the lexicon?  I thought we all decided to be more polite out there so that we wouldn’t get shot.  Perhaps it’s a compliment of sorts when someone gives you the finger, since they’ve sized you up and think you look stable enough to handle it.

As we picked up speed, I wondered if the world has gotten meaner lately.  It sure feels like it.  Maybe we could all work harder to merge with each other a little better.

“Hey, buddy, tell me something good that happened today,” I said.

“I built a Lego ship that had a secret place for a toy dog to hide in it,” Zack replied.  And just like that, the world started to feel a little better.  But that guy still better hope he never meets me while I’m driving the Civic.

You can exchange a gentleman’s honk with Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.

Out with the old, in with nothing at all

“You really shouldn’t look in there,” my wife, Kara, advised, so of course I looked in there.

“Dude!  You’re really going to toss this?” I asked, pulling a Spider-Man lunchbox out of the trash bag and holding it out as evidence, like I’d just caught her trying to throw away a Faberge egg.

“You’re worse than the kids.  I told you not to look in there.  The latch is broken,” she replied.  She’d just spent an hour going through all the kids’ toys, figuring out which needed to be donated or tossed, and which were worthy of continuing to occupy vast swaths of our house that humans used to be able to use.

“My Spider-Man lunchbox!” our son Evan screamed, running over and grabbing it, his precious.  That he hadn’t touched the thing in four years no longer mattered.  THIS was the most important object in the world, until we stopped trying to throw it away, at which point he could go back to forgetting it existed.

When my sister was little, she went fishing with my dad, and they kept all the fish they caught in a bucket.  Dad intended to clean and cook the fish for dinner.

When he took the first fish out of the bucket and explained what he was going to do, Amy yelled, “No, not THAT one!”

So Dad let it go.  When he took the second fish out of bucket, Amy yelled, “No, not THAT one!”

And so on, until there were no more fish in the bucket.  Then they ordered pizza.

It’s the same with toys.

“No, not THAT one!” our boys will yell, as the plastic monster truck with the snapped axle hangs over the trash can.

“No, not THAT one!” to the Happy Meal robot that has been played with less than the ketchup packets it came with.

If the toys have no way to exit the house, they will take over.  Buzz Lightyear becomes the galactic commander of your living room.  Your kid’s closet will be ruled by a stuffed dragon who will push an avalanche of lesser stuffed animals onto the floor every time you open the door.  You will have to park in the driveway so that the plastic red car with the yellow roof can have your garage.  Eventually, Santa will have to jump up and down on your chimney to squish the toys into every last crevice of your house.

If you’re to have any hope of reclaiming your home from the little plastic dictators, it’s really a much better strategy to skulk around in the middle of the night, like Santa, except the opposite.  Spider-Man had Venom, the evil version of himself.  Santa has us, the anti-Santas, who sneak around the house removing toys from all the good little boys, while visions of sugarplums would be dancing in their heads, if anybody knew what a sugarplum was.

On this day, though, Kara was attempting a daring daylight raid, and I was jeopardizing the mission.

I came to my senses, quickly snapping shut the trash bag that she had packed, realizing that she’d done us all a favor, and vowing to remember that people are really the only things that matter, not rocket ships with the doors snapped off the hinges.

“Daddy, wait!” Evan said as I headed for the front door.

“Let’s not even look in the bag.  It’s better this way!” I replied, shutting the door behind me.

By the time I came back inside from the trash can, Evan was running around the house with his brother, the broken old toys already forgotten.  It’s nice to see that even if glue can’t fix the broken rocket door, the more important bonds endure.

You can let Mike Todd borrow your Spider-Man lunchbox at mikectodd@gmail.com.

When your Echo listens to you

“Alexa, put marshmallows on the shopping list!” my son Evan yelled into the cylindrical speaker sitting on our kitchen counter.

“Evan, you don’t have to yell at it, and we don’t need marshmallows,” I said.

I added marshmallows to your shopping list,” the speaker replied, deciding that it was human enough to both refer to itself in the first person, and to choose sides in a family debate.

“Take marshmallows off the shopping list,” I said, but Alexa sat in silence.  I’d forgotten she plays by “Simon Says” rules.

Without skipping a beat, Evan said, “Alexa, add Jell-o to the shopping list.”

“I added Jell-o to your shopping list,” Alexa replied.

“Hooray!” Evan cheered, taking a victory lap around the kitchen, not appreciating the very loose correlation between what goes on the shopping list and what we actually buy.

He was ganging up on me with our new Amazon Echo, a device that invaded our home, along with approximately five million other homes, this holiday season.  Amazon sold out of the devices well before Christmas, rewarding me for making the purchase way back on Black Friday, which gets its name from the amount of money that retailers make, and also from the color it turns our souls.

I bought the Echo for my wife, Kara, because we’ve been together for almost seventeen years, running at a rate of about thirty gift-giving occasions per year.  To avoid reruns, I can only buy her things that were invented since the last occasion.  For her next birthday, I’m hoping to buy her pretzels that get themselves out of the pantry, to save her the effort of asking me to get them for her.

For now, though, we’re still getting used to having the Echo in our home, sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to our every conversation in the hopes that someone will say, “Alexa, put boogers on the shopping list.”  Well, that might not be what she’s hoping to hear, but that’s what she’s going to get in our house.

Some privacy advocates (who must have something to hide) have noted that allowing a corporation to monitor every word you say in your home might not be the smartest idea.  In Arkansas, the police are seeking to retrieve information that an Echo may have recorded at a murder scene, raising an important point: You should always unplug your Echo before you murder someone.  As a corollary, if you’re hanging out with someone and you notice them unplugging their Echo, you might want to quickly find a different place to hang out.

Of course, the main purpose of an Echo is to play music, and I’ll be able to use the Echo to play motivational tunes while I use the gift that my kids got for me: A pull-up bar that rests on the trim atop a door frame, and somehow magically doesn’t rip the whole door frame down when a grown man ringed with five extra pounds of Christmas cookies hangs from it.  So far, the bar seems like a fantastic piece of workout equipment.  Some exercise programs brag about taking only thirty minutes out of your day, but as it turns out, with that thing, I can do a complete upper-body workout in five seconds.

“Why are you dangling there, Daddy?” Evan will ask.

“Don’t bother Daddy while he’s dangling,” I’ll respond, then the door frame will creak with relief as I drop to the floor, exhausted.  It’s going to take a lot of dangling before I look like the guy on the box.

Plus, dangling works up a hunger.  Maybe we’ll leave the marshmallows and Jell-o on the list after all.

You can ask Mike Todd to stop listening to everything you say in your house at mikectodd@gmail.com.


When it snows, it blows

The woman deposited a shovelful of snow beside her driveway just as we drove past, and it looked like she might collapse and deposit herself headfirst into the pile she’d just created.

“Man, she’s doing that whole driveway by herself with a shovel?” I said to the dog, who yawned; Memphis has little appreciation for the finer points of snow removal.  Snow disappears from the driveway, food appears in the bowl, poop vanishes on our walks: the world is full of magic.

For most of the morning, drizzle had been falling on top of the snow, turning each shovelful into a sopping, leaden concrete approximation, the stuff that keeps chiropractors in business.  I’d just spent the previous hour liberating my family with our trusty snow blower, and as soon as the driveway became clear, my wife, Kara, opened a window to let me know that she’d ordered pizza to be delivered to our house in a few minutes, by me.

When Memphis and I returned to our neighborhood with the pizza, we passed the lady again.  Fifteen minutes had transpired, and she’d advanced about three inches down her driveway.

“You guys get started on the pizza.  I’m going to take twenty minutes to go help this poor lady down the street.  I’d want someone to help you if you were ever in that situation,” I said.

“If I were in that situation, I’d pick up a phone and a credit card, not a shovel,” Kara replied.

I was reminded of the time twelve years ago, when Kara and I bought our first house together, and we made a trip to Home Depot at the beginning of our first winter there.

“We’ll need a couple of these,” I said, pulling two snow shovels out of the bin.

“Why do we need two?” she asked, and we stared at each other.  We’d each been making some assumptions about the other person’s role in the snow removal process.

“I thought you’d want some help,” I replied.

I parked my snow blower at the end of the woman’s driveway.  She only lives about five driveways down, but we’d never talked, because learning your neighbors’ names only mattered before iPhones were invented and actual people became obsolete.

“Hi!  Would you like some help finishing this off?” I asked, the idea suddenly striking me that perhaps my attempt at neighborliness was actually super weird.

“Oh, no, we have a snow blower, I just couldn’t get it started.  Maybe you could look at it?” she said.

At the entrance to her garage sat a beautiful, bright orange, brand new, gas-powered snow blower.  It was a parallel-universe version of my snow blower, with similar knobs but more of them, so it still felt like I was staring at the cockpit of an F-16.

“Hmmm, it can take a plug, just like mine,” I said, pointing to the electric-start receptacle.

“We don’t have a cord that’s long enough,” she said.

I checked the knobs and gave the starter rope a pull.  Then another pull.  Fiddle with a knob, pull again.  Different knob, ‘nother pull.  By the fifteenth pull, my credibility went PUTT PUTT PUTT silence.

Just as I was about to declare the situation hopeless, my eyes wandered to the garage wall, where a neatly coiled, 50-ft extension cord hung.

“That cord right there isn’t long enough to reach any of the plugs in your house?” I asked.

“Sure, but it’s not long enough to reach the whole driveway,” she said.

All of a sudden, I had useful information.  You just use the electricity to jolt the engine to life, in case you don’t have access to anyone with muscle enough to start it the real way, like us.  One minute later, the snow blower roared to life.

She clapped at first, then looked sad.  “I just spent two hours shoveling for no reason,” she said.

The important thing, though, is that she could finish the driveway without flopping down face-first into it.  But perhaps most importantly of all: the pizza was still warm.

You can build good fences between you and Mike Todd at mikectodd@gmail.com.