Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Conversation with My 5-Year-Old

MY SON: Is the house plugged, daddy?

ME: Huh?

MY SON: Can we play with the train? Is the house plugged?

ME: We can play with the train. What do you mean, “Is the house plugged?”

MY SON: The wires. Remember the towers?

ME: What wires? What towers?

MY SON: Dad, come on.

ME: Come on what, son? What wires? What towers? What are you talking about?

MY SON: I’m talking about the trains. Can we play with the trains?

ME: I said yes. We can play with the trains.

MY SON: Is the house plugged?

ME: Plugged?

MY SON: The towers.

ME: I’m gonna set up the train and turn them on.

MY SON: But, daddy, do you have batteries?

ME: The train doesn’t take batteries, son. It’s electric.

MY SON: That’s what I’m talking about, Dad.

ME: What are you talking about?

MY SON: Powder?

ME: What powder? Powder for what?

MY SON: For the tracks. Do we need it for the tracks?

ME: What for the tracks?

MY SON: Powder for the tracks.

ME: When have we ever put powder on the tracks?

MY SON: No, for the tracks.

ME: That’s what I said.

MY SON: What are you talking about, Dad?

ME: What are you talking about, son?

MY SON: What do you mean?

ME: What do I mean? What do you mean? What are you talking about with the house being plugged, towers and powder on train tracks? I don’t get what you mean.

MY SON: You’re mean.

ME: Huh?

MY SON: You’re mean, Dad.

ME: I’m mean? What do you mean I’m mean? Why am I mean? You know what, you’re mean. You’re rude. You don’t tell Daddy he’s mean. Go take a time out.

MY SON: Is the house plugged? Or is it still have to be plugged?

ME: Huh?

MY SON: It’s dark. How can I see in my room? Is the house plugged? Are they plugged into the towers?

ME: Are you talking about the electrical lines outside near the Christmas tree lot?

MY SON: Huh?

ME: The electrical lines. I’m talking about the electrical lines near the Christmas tree lot. Is that what you’re talking about?

MY SON: What are you talking about, Dad? It’s Christmas?

ME: No, it’s not Christmas. I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about . . .

MY SON: What are you talking about, Dad?

ME: The electrical lines. I’m talking about the power lines. Remember we used to drive by the power lines on the way to your pre-school? Right near the Christmas tree lot?

MY SON: We’re going to the Christmas tree lot?

ME: No. Forget the Christmas tree lot. I’m talking about the electrical lines -- the power lines on those towers near the Christmas tree lot. Remember when you were little I used to tell you that the wires on those towers were the plugs for our house that give our light sockets the power to turn on the train?

MY SON: That’s what I’m talking about, Dad.

-November 2008

Our Visitor and the $50 Soap

An old friend from bachelorhood called and said he’d be in town on business, asked if he could stay at my place so he wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel room. The guy was financially struggling. My wife and I said no.

“No,” I told my friend, “don’t get a hotel room. We’d love for you to stay here.”

He’d stayed at our house before. He knew we didn’t have a guest bedroom and that he’d have to sleep on the couch. But he could push our two couches together and make a bed, he suggested. Good idea, I said, and then warned him that my wife and I had no food in the house -- we’d go shopping for groceries the next day.

“How about I take you guys to dinner?” my friend offered. “It’s the least I could do.”

“No, we couldn’t let you do that,” my wife said. “It’s our treat.”

When the bill for the meal came, my wife and I tried to pay, especially since we were already planning to go out to eat -- and also because I ordered an extra dessert for myself -- but my friend handed the waiter his credit card before we could drop ours.

We got back home before 7 p.m. so my friend wouldn’t miss his favorite world travel show on TV. My wife and I hate travel shows because traveling, we’ve come to realize, is . . . very expensive, which equates to us never traveling, which is why we hate travel shows. But we wanted our guest to feel at home, so we let him watch his world travel show.

I don’t remember agreeing with my friend to go to the movies that night.

“I really can’t afford to pay for a movie,” I said when he brought up the idea. “Times are tough.”

“I’ll pay,” my friend said.

I didn’t want him to pay, and I didn’t really want to go to the movies, either, so I remained firm, and suggested we do something else.

When the movie got out, my friend asked if I wanted to sneak into a second movie down the hall. I told my friend yeah.
“Yeah,” I said, “I just can’t sneak into a movie without paying. That’s stealing. I’m kinda tired anyway. I say we call it a night.”

After the second movie, which my friend paid for -- against my wishes a second time -- he asked if I was hungry. I said I wasn’t.

When the bill came for our second dinner of the evening, I tried to pay, but you guessed it, my friend wouldn’t allow it. He wanted to pay, he said, for letting him stay at my house for “so long.”

“How long are you staying?” I asked.

“Only a few days,” he said. “Three weeks tops.”

That night, my wife and I had a serious talk behind closed doors about our houseguest. We agreed that we were delighted to help a friend during tough financial times. But we didn’t want our living room, the room we occupied most of the day, to be his bedroom for three entire days, let alone three weeks. We had to do something.

Turns out we didn’t have to do anything. The next day my friend was gone. He left a note that read, “Thanks for letting me stay at your place. I found your checkbook on the desk, and wrote a check to myself since I paid for those dinners and movies. I wrote the amount in your ledger.”

We checked the ledger and saw he wrote himself an $800 check. When we called the bank, they said they’d already cashed it. Worse, my friend changed his phone number and had no address.

And that’s why my wife and I cancelled our eighth anniversary weekend reservations at the Four Seasons Resort in Santa Barbara -- the same place we honeymooned -- and instead bought the comparably cheaper $50 bar of soap that the Four Seasons stocks in its rooms. Smelling the soap each day is just as good as, if not better than, staying at the hotel.

-November 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Curse of the Moon Men

I used to think Moon Men haunted one of the shopping malls where I grew up. Moon Men, I thought, crashed into the Earth many years ago and created communities underground. I’d seen the creatures driving their moon vehicles out of tunnel openings in the mall parking lot, searching for victims to prey upon.

I now know that what I thought were Moon Men were actually mall maintenance men, and the vehicles they drove were those golf cart-sized maintenance trucks. The “underground city” I saw the Moon Men access from the mall parking lot was an underground tunnel for mall employees.

Yes, I’m old enough and wise enough to know there are no Moon Men living underground. But as a kid, those Moon Men were real . . . and they were real scary.

The last time I went to that mall in my hometown, the mall I called Moon Man Mall, I was maybe 6 years old. My mom took my brother and me. We arrived at about 10:30 a.m.

Some background: Moon Men are unlike your average monsters that hide in swamps, in big castles or in dark alleyways. Moon Men come out among the people. After all, if they’re going to feed on people, they have to go where people go.

Knowing this, I made sure my mom got us home before the creatures came out from underground looking for humans to eat -- we had to leave the mall before noon.

At noon, my mom was ready to go home. We dumbly wandered out into the lot in search of our car -- we were McDonalds Happy Meals made to order for Moon Men. And sure enough, Moon Men had come up from the east tunnel, driving around in search of lunch. I tried to hurry my mom and brother along by taking the lead and walking really fast.

“Mike, slow down,” my mom said. I knew how to handle that. I said, “OK.” And then I walked faster.

I noticed more Moon Men coming up from the west tunnel. We’d never make it to the car alive. I broke into a sprint to the car. My mom grabbed my brother by the hand and chased after me.

“Come back here, Mike,” my mom said.

My running might’ve gotten us to the car faster, but it attracted the attention of the Moon Men. The creatures passed up a Brady Bunch-sized family without even taking a bite of them. They had appetites for me only.

At the car, I yelled, “Get in! They’re coming!”

“Who’s coming?” my mom asked, fumbling for her car keys as she tried to spot the oncoming trouble.

“Just hurry, woman!” I yelled.

She dropped the keys to the ground. I picked them up and unlocked the door. And then I armed myself with my little brother, using him as a shield as we got into the car. The Moon Men turned down our lane.

“Go, go, go!” I yelled.

My mom turned the key in the ignition. We had a 1975 AMC Pacer that always had trouble turning over. This time, the car finally did what it wanted to do so many times: it died. Was this a sign that we were going to die, too? I looked out the back window, and there were Moon Men approaching from both sides of the Pacer.

My mom made the classic “you’re gonna get killed” mistake, and got out of the car to look under the hood.

“Stay here!” I yelled. “The Moon Men are coming for us!”

And then the Moon Men passed us by.

My family loves to remind me about my Moon Men fears. Last weekend, my wife asked to go to “Moon Man Mall” (she’d just heard the story from my mom). Not giving in to her mockery, I took her to the mall. I pulled into the parking lot, drove up to the entrance . . . and I dumped her off and hightailed it out of there, keeping my eyes peeled for Moon Men. The love of my life took a cab home.

-October 2008

My Son's School Project

When I was a kid, I entered countless grocery store coloring contests, and colored my pictures with great skill and patience, my eye always on first-place prize.

In school, when assigned history day or science fair projects, I worked with the same ability and diligence for weeks -- sometimes months -- putting together amazing works of historic account and scientific ingenuity that were sure to earn me top honors.

The only thing that stood between first place and me: the parents of the kids in the competitions.

At 6 years old, I was quite an artistic force with my Crayola crayons. But I just couldn’t compete with some of the parents who had backgrounds in fine art and commercial illustration. Nor could my middle school history day movies that I produced on my home video camera compete with the “work of the kid” whose father worked for the local news station.

It just wasn’t fair. Why did I have to do all my own work myself?

My 5-year-old son is a kindergartener this year, and he’s being asked to create projects that will, no doubt, compete with the “work of his classmates.” Last month, my son’s teacher asked the class to create posters about themselves, with pictures of them with their family, pets, etc. Before my son could get started, I sat him down for a little heart-to-heart.

“You’re very talented,” I told my son. “You’re creative. You’re artistic. You’re inventive. But that doesn’t matter . . . because I’m going to do your project for you.”

I wasn’t about to let my 5-year-old lose to a 35-year-old.

I got started right away. I commissioned the artist who painted those popular 9-11 memorial posters back in '01 to create a moving piece of art that would capture the essence of my son. My wife thought I was crazy.

“You spent how much for just one picture?” she asked. She was right to be outraged. If I was going to spend that much money on the project, my son needed much more to show.

So I decided to produce a film as a companion piece to the poster, a three-part biopic dramatizing my son’s early years. Lucky for me the Screen Actors Guild hadn’t gone on strike, as they were threatening to do all summer. I was able to cast George Clooney to play me, Charlize Theron to play my wife, and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) to voice the animated version of my son.

While shooting the big action sequence of my wife and me as we raced to the hospital for our son’s birth, my wife pointed out that we didn’t have a ’68 Mustang Fastback GT390.

“We didn’t race recklessly through the streets of San Francisco either,” I said, “but we have to embellish our story a bit for this to be cinematic. Besides, we need good action sequences or all the money I laid out for the THX surround sound system for the final presentation will go to waste.”

It was when the school turned down my proposal to present a firework extravaganza as part of my son’s poster project that my wife and son finally sat me down and asked if I thought I was going a little overboard.

“Overboard?” I asked. “It’s not like I’ve got the Grave Digger monster truck crushing playground equipment at school. Although that’d be a good alternative to the firework display.”

I immediately called Dennis Anderson’s people over at Grave Digger Racing. My wife disconnected the phone before I could speak and, in a matter of minutes, masterfully talked me out doing my son’s project.

Now I’m stuck with a film in production, I've got UPS out front with a truckload of George Lucas’s THX audio equipment, I’ve got fireworks from all over the world brimming in my garage, and I’m the owner of a worthless half-painted masterpiece.

But my son is proud to present his class with his very own hand-drawn poster, and he’s happy whether it’s the best poster in class or the worst.

-October 2008

Gnome Sweet Gnome

I had to have a garden gnome.

My wife asked why I had the sudden urge to decorate the garden, and why a gnome.

“I just saw the little guy at the store and thought he’d look great in our garden,” I said. “The question is: How can you not have a gnome in the garden?”

“Don’t you think a garden gnome is like having those big pink plastic flamingos in the yard?” my wife asked.

“Oh, I have a pair of those on back order,” I said. (I’m so glad my wife and I think alike.)

I set up our new garden gnome near the front gate of our home so that the terracotta elf could sort of greet people who walked down the path toward the front door. I named the gnome Lampy, a good gnome name. And there he stood wearing a red pointy hat, pipe in his mouth, welcoming every single one of our guests to our home. My wife seemed pleased.

“You know,” I said, “the Germans used to believe that if gnomes were proud of their garden surroundings, they’d come to life at night when nobody was around and help with some of the landscaping.”

My wife didn’t respond. I think she was admiring the gnome splendor in our yard. My 5-year-old son, however, seemed frightened by ol' Lampy.

“Does he really come to life at night?” the boy asked.

“That’s what Daddy said,” my wife answered. Then she told me that maybe we shouldn’t have anything roaming around in the yard at night. It would, in fact, scare our boy.

I worried. I didn’t want to scare my son.

“He doesn’t actually come to life,” I admitted. “That’s just an old German myth. And anyway, Lampy here is a happy gnome, like one of Santa’s elves.”

My son ate up the Santa’s elf bit, and he was no longer scared.

I think my wife was happy that we were able to keep the gnome.

“Don’t you think Lampy kinda sticks out like a sore thumb?” my wife asked. “We don’t have anything else like it in the garden.”

She had a point.

So I ran down to the store and bought a few more gnomes.

As I set up Bimpni and Lumwinkle in the garden, I told my wife and son that having gnomes was like having pets. We now have a lot of responsibilities, I said, because gnomes require lots of attention and care.

“I don’t know if we’re really a good family for that kind of responsibility,” my wife said. “Since it’s so much work, maybe we should take them back.”

“No, no, it’s okay,” I said. “I’ll take on the responsibility. It’ll be tough, but I think I speak for us all when I say it’ll be worth it.”

My wife fell silent again.

And then she said, “Aren’t you worried that someone will come along and steal the gnomes? God forbid we come outside to find them missing.”

She reminded me of a game called “gnoming,” where juveniles kidnap a homeowner’s gnomes and send them on trips around the world, positioning them in front of various landmarks for photographs that later show up in the homeowner’s mailbox.

I was stumped. I didn’t want anyone stealing our gnomes, and I didn’t know how to combat that kind of criminal behavior. I told my wife not to worry, that I’d sleep on it.

The next morning, last Sunday morning, I woke and went outside to check on our little gnome village. The gnomes were gone! I was outraged. My son said he wondered if they came to life and ran away. My wife took it the hardest. She put on quite the show.

“Oh, that’s so terrible,” she said. “And I loved them so much.” She was clearly upset.

So I bought another family of gnomes to cheer her up. My wife was so surprised. I told her that that’s what husbands are for.

And then she came clean and said she never liked the gnomes. I was sad to hear the cold truth. To make her happy, I returned the gnomes to the store. Yes, my wife was happy.

But I still wonder: What was so bad about my garden that made our first batch of gnomes run away?

-October 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Tooth Fairy and a Big Lie

My wife and I recently heard that our 5-year-old son should expect loose teeth soon.

“The going rates,” my wife said, “are $5 for the first tooth that falls out and $2 for each tooth following.”

“Since when does the Tooth Fairy pay more than a dollar per tooth?” I asked. “It’s not like the Tooth Fairy’s operating expenses have increased over the years. Flying is fuel-free. And by the way, the Tooth Fairy isn’t affected by inflation because she’s a mythological being.”

“Everyone says that those are the going rates for teeth,” my wife said.

I just didn’t like that. One tooth under the pillow should only get you one dollar. And I didn’t want to pay my child any different -- or better yet, I didn’t want the Tooth Fairy to pay my son any different.

So I told my wife a lie.

“Well,” I said, “I asked (‘So and So’) what the going rates were for lost teeth, and she said it’s still $1 per tooth, whether it’s the first tooth or the last tooth.”

“(‘So and So’) said that?” my wife asked.

Not knowing the mess I was creating, I confirmed my lie. “Yes, (‘So and So’) said that.”

The next night, my wife wanted to invite “So and So” over for dinner. I couldn’t have that. If “So and So” came over for dinner, my wife would surely bring up the Tooth Fairy’s going rates, and then “So and So” would deny ever telling me that the rates were still $1 per tooth. My wife would be upset that I lied to her, and I’ve never lied to her. Honest.

So I lied again. “Actually, I wouldn’t even call (‘So and So’) if I were you,” I said. “She got kinda annoyed that you asked other people for the Tooth Fairy’s going rates instead of asking her. In fact, she said she didn’t even wanna talk to you anymore.”
“What?” my wife asked in disbelief. She went for the phone. I blocked.

“I’d wait a few weeks when all this blows over before calling her,” I said, hoping my wife would take my advice, then forget about all this in a few weeks.

Doing what wives do best, my lovely bride ignored me, moved me aside, and picked up the phone.

I panicked. I couldn’t let my wife call “So and So” about this nasty mess I made. I had to stop that phone call. But I had to be nonchalant about it or my wife would surely know I was trying to cover up a lie. So I hung up the phone while she was in mid-dial.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Uh . . . Uh,” I mumbled. And then I wove a tapestry of deep concern for my wife’s well being under such emotional circumstances. I was proud of my work. She was touched. She decided to cancel the call.

Last weekend, my son had a prearranged swim date with the daughter of “So and So.” Unbeknownst to me, my wife called “So and So” and left a voicemail to the tune of, “We don’t wanna spend our day off with you if you’re gonna be so mad and stand-offish.”

When my wife told me she left such a message, I spent the rest of the day babysitting the phone so I could intercept “So and So’s” return call.

I stepped into the bathroom for no more than 30 seconds when the phone rang. I didn’t even wash my hands. I bolted out of the bathroom, down the hall, over the couch to grab the phone, and fell face first into a Tinker Toy construction site.

Lying on the floor next to what was now Tinker trash, I spotted one of my front teeth. Not only did I lose a tooth, I lost my wife’s trust when she heard the truth from “So and So.” Worse, the Tooth Fairy only left me one lousy buck.

That’s a true story. You can trust me.

-October 2008

Family News in Brief -- September '08

A passenger jet carrying a reported 3,000 people from the Moon crashed in my living room yesterday morning. The damages were a nicked ear and a scraped cheek. “Our (5-year-old) son was flying his toy Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 over the Pergo Sea near the Love Seat Mountains when he encountered engine trouble,” I told my wife when she asked about my face wounds. “The vessel went down -- and it went down fast -- crashing into my head at full speed.” Asked if I was OK, I said yes, the wounds would heal. But now my son needs a new jet because one of the wings broke off in Daddy’s ear.

A local kindergartener was allegedly late for school earlier this month. The student’s spokesperson, Mom, said her daughter’s tardiness was excused. “I sent her with a note,” Mom said. Since the incident, half the class has been asking if they could be tardy for class as well. “Which day can I be late for school?” asked my own kindergartener during what is now being dubbed the “I Wanna Be Late For School, Too Crisis of 2008.” School authorities said classroom attendance and punctuality are the necessary ingredients for success in any endeavor, school included, and they suggested that kids not be late or absent if they can help it. “However, yes, it’s true,” an anonymous school official said, “we will excuse a student if he or she has a note.”

Having easily captured the most marbles in the first five minutes of last night’s final game in the Hungry Hungry Hippo finals, my wife, the Hungry Hungry Hippo champion of our house last week, gave up a big lead when her hippo regurgitated several marbles, and my 5-year-old son and I snatched them up with our hippos, winning the game and the series in a tie over Mommy. “My husband and son only had about one or two marbles in each of their hippo bellies, and I had all the rest, save the last two or three in the center ring,” my wife said after the game. “And then there was some sort of toy malfunction where my hippo’s mouth got stuck open, and the marbles that I’d already captured just rolled out -- back into play. It’s really not fair.” Life isn’t fair, sources say. And my son and I acknowledged those sources as we accepted last night’s victory.

Last week, my wife and I caught our kindergartener smuggling contraband into his classroom. After giving him a hug and kiss goodbye, I noticed his backpack was half unzipped. Just as I was about to zip up the bag, my wife asked me to wait a second. “Right there in his backpack were three Matchbox cars, a harmonica, about a dozen toy Army men, and worst of all we found an extra bag of fruit snacks!” my wife said. Asked what the boy was trying to do with such goods, our son said, “I dunno.” My wife and I confiscated the items and have been conducting routine searches of the boy’s backpack. “It’s amazing what a kid packs in his bag,” I told authorities. “Anything and everything from key chains and random toy parts, to weeds picked out of the cracks in a sidewalk, and even rocks. A boy’s backpack is really his treasure chest.” My boy has since been clean.

-September 2008

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fun is a 'Drag'

When I was a kid, I never got tired of playing with my Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. When my mom dragged me to the store, I always had at least two toy vehicles tucked in my pocket for a race down the cashier’s two-lane countertop.

My 5-year-old son is the same way with his Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. And he loves when I play cars with him.

Sure, I still enjoy playing with toy cars, except I need a pit stop after my 300th ride through the toy car wash.

“Don’t you wanna drive anymore?” my son asked me on one occasion after fake driving for several hours, a pain far worse than the pain caused from Chinese water torture -- I’d know, of course.

“How about we play with the Lincoln Logs?” I suggested.

That wasn’t the response my boy anticipated. And his response to my response wasn’t what I was anticipating.

“Do you wanna switch cars?” he asked as he swapped cars with me, and then continued playing cars.

We both knew who was boss. I responded accordingly with, “OK, we can play this game for another two days straight.”

As I entered my 1,922nd fake car wash, my proverbial wheels were spinning, trying to figure a way to add some kind of spark to the game. And then it hit me. I suggested that we gather all the Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, pair them up equally, and race them using my boy’s toy drag race launcher. Race by race, round by round, we’d narrow down the competition until we found a winner.

My son lit up like a set of Goodyears at a green light when he heard the idea. I was actually excited, too.

We set up the drag race launcher near the entryway of our home, and launched the cars down the Pergo floors toward the front door. Our queue of cars in line to race went down the hallway and spilled into the back bedroom. My wife nearly tripped over the cars as she rushed down the hall to answer the phone, sending my boy and I into a panic. She almost ruined 30 minutes of work we put into pairing up the vehicles.

When the dust cleared, I announced each race with my “Monster Truck Voice,” the voice you hear in those commercials for off-road spectaculars. You know, “SUNDAY, SUNDAY SUNDAY! WITNESS 3- 3- 300,000 CUBIC INCHES OF HY- HY- HYDROLIC TORQUE! LIVE AT THE L.A. COLISEUM! WATCH TRUCK- TRUCK- TRUCK-A-SAURUS REX EAT 9 MILLION POUNDS OF SOLID MACHINERY!”

My wife, who was on the phone, was completely annoyed that my volume went into the red. I apologized for being loud. And then I suggested she go into the other room.

My son and I had fun predicting the winners of each race. Any car could win. We’d set the cars on the launching platform, hit the button, and off the cars went. I suppose the heavier cars and the cars with the slickest rolling wheels were most likely to win. But sometimes even the best-equipped vehicles would spin out and crash into the wall.

For a while, my son kept picking the losing contender.

“Dad, you keep winning,” he whined. “Can you let me win?”

I told him the outcome of each race was out of my control.

The boy considered my response. Then he begged me to let him win the next race.

After three rounds of racing and over 300 individual heats, my son actually got tired of playing cars. I succeeded in burning him out. The game was driving him crazy, and he wanted desperately to play something else.

So I took out the boy’s Lincoln Logs, cleared an open play area in the living room, and let the log building begin. I saw that my son was happy again.

And then I jumped right back into two more intense rounds of drag racing until I found a winner. I was bummed my ’55 Chevy wasn’t the grand champion. I attribute the loss to carpet fuzz in the wheels.

-September 2008

Family News in Brief -- August '08

My 5-year-old son posted a big loss in the fiscal third quarter despite an effort to clean up more than two dozen gold coins from his pirate ship play set during a routine vacuum clean-up in the living room earlier this month. The boy claims Mommy rolled right over the coins with the vacuum. Mommy denies the accusation. “I opened up the vacuum bag and didn’t find one toy,” she said. My son sticks to his story, stating that the coins couldn’t be anywhere but inside the vacuum. To assure Mommy and Daddy that this loss wouldn’t become a trend, our boy said he’d protect his assets in the future by putting his toys back where they belong when he’s done playing with them. We stakeholders -- both Mommy and I -- are happy with our son’s new approach to toy management.

During the ride home from dinner the other night, my wife reported that she was cold, the first case of her being cold all summer and a sign that summer is coming to an end. Goose bumps on my wife’s arms confirmed her chills. “I’m freezing,” the lady of my life told me as we got onto the freeway. “Can you turn on the heater?” she asked. Experts advise those like my wife who get cold to wear warmer clothing such as pants, not shorts, and sweaters, not T-shirts. The same sources said they don’t recommend sandals either when exposed to chilly climates.

Our old neighbors and their new baby were spotted at the food court in the Westfield Valencia Town Center mall last week. My wife and I approached the couple and their newborn son, and said hello. The couple said hello back. “Wow, so good to see you,” said the man. His wife was busy shushing their newborn, and simply gestured her surprise to see us. Apparently, the couple goes to the food court frequently because the woman, when pregnant, acquired a taste for hot dogs on a stick. We exchanged phone numbers, turned to leave, and bumped into one of my wife’s old friends from high school. Food courts across the nation have since been reported as being better connectors than online social networks like Facebook and MySpace.

On Tuesday, the mailman failed to deliver mail to my home. According to my wife, both our neighbors received their mail that day. “Obviously, it wasn’t a holiday or some other special day for the post office to take off,” she said. “I started to worry that checks and important documents that I was expecting might’ve went to someone else’s house.” Post office officials had no explanation for the lack of mail in the mailbox. The next day, my wife found a note in our box from the mailman explaining that he couldn’t deliver the mail to our home the day prior due to the fact that the mailbox door wouldn’t open. Inside our mailbox -- the one our homeowners association replaced less than a year ago -- was two days’ worth of junk mail.

-August 2008

Waste a Wish

It all started in 1982 when I was 6 years old.

I got into trouble and had to take a half-hour timeout. I remember thinking that a half-hour meant an hour and a half, assuming that “half” was in addition to the hour. So when I sat down on the couch to do my stretch of time, I knew I was in for a long haul.

The first five minutes of my sentence was torture. After 15 minutes, I was convinced that I’d be old and gray before my time-out expired. Each minute felt like a decade, even though, at 6, I hadn’t yet experienced a decade.

Silently, I wished that time would speed up. I knew it was unlikely that my wish would come true, but I figured wishing couldn’t hurt.

After 20 minutes, time wasn’t moving any faster, and it seemed like the clock was ridiculing me, saying, “You think that long wait for Christmas morning and presents took forever? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, pal.”

So I verbalized my wish loud and clear -- I didn’t care who heard me.

Before I knew it, my half-hour time-out was over. And the wait wasn’t all that bad, especially since I was expecting to be “put away” for an hour and a half. I was convinced that my wish to speed up time had come true.

Years later, when I was 15, I bought a beat up old truck, planning to rebuild it before I got my driver’s license on my 16th birthday.

That 15th year of life was the longest year ever -- I came to that conclusion after only the first month. I was extremely anxious to drive, and the massive undertaking of rebuilding a vehicle from the frame up, which was as much fun as sorting through a massive stack of lawn trimmings and organizing the blades of grass by their height, didn’t help speed up time.

After three months of work on my truck, I decided I wouldn’t live long enough to experience my 16th birthday, and I’d certainly never see my little automobile project completed. So, just as I’d done in that timeout when I was 6, I wished out loud for time to speed up.

Guess what? It worked. In no time, I was 16 years old with my driver’s license in hand, I was finished with my truck, and I was driving it. Life was great.

Unfortunately, it never occurred to me to test my wishing powers on something other than speeding up time. Had I been conscious of my abilities, I might’ve asked for something more worthy like $1 million or a fourth “Godfather” film in the franchise. Instead, at 18 years of age, I wasted another precious wish.

Before I started college, I wished that the four years ahead of me would race by. Believe it or not, my college years did just that.

After graduation, time continued moving at a fast pace. I met a girl, we got married, we bought a house . . . Pretty soon, I got to thinking that time was moving a little too fast. So I made a wish to slow down time.

Nothing happened.

I guess you’re only granted three wishes at birth, and I wasted all three of mine before I was 30.
Time is still fleeting. Just last week, my son started kindergarten. I could swear he was born only yesterday.

-August 2008

Playing Army

Kids these days are always bored, and my 5-year-old boy is no exception. Over the weekend he said he was “tired of the games we usually play” and that he “wanted more action.”

I suggested we play Army.

My younger brother and I used to love playing Army with our friends when we were kids. We’d pick sides, then go down to the creek -- our war ground -- and we’d battle it out to be the last man standing in a full scale war like the ones we frequently watched on TV.

So when my son said he wanted more action, I took him to some nearby fields and we set up to play Army.

Aside from always being bored, kids these days have no patience. My son is no exception. Setting up to play Army is a lengthy process. My son had no patience for that kind of length.

“Come on, Dad,” my son bellyached. “I want action.”

“And action you’ll get if you’re patient,” I said as I dug foxholes into the ground.

“I’m having patience, but I just wanna play,” the boy said.

While my son was impatiently being patient, I finished the foxholes and then moved on to build a holding area where the medic could help wounded soldiers.

In case I forgot, my boy reminded me that he wanted action. I told him to relax -- again. Then I told him we had to have a place for patients.

“But I have patience, Dad,” he said.

“Not patience,” I replied. “Patients -- wounded soldiers.” My son let me know that my five-second definition of “patients” was “borrrrr-ing.”

Since when was “5 years old” the new “13?”

Eventually, we were ready for action. The battlefield was set. The enemy was somewhere beyond the trees. And my son and I were in a foxhole ready for war. All was quiet -- until my boy asked when the action would begin.

The enemy fired the first shot. My son and I returned the fire. Bullets were whizzing back and forth.

A grenade dropped into our foxhole, and we had to evacuate or die. I took the lead, and we jumped into a foxhole to our right. But the enemy was moving in on us -- and fast. My son and I couldn’t sidestep the enemy or sooner than later they’d be on top of us.

I had a plan to sneak around the opposition and attack from behind. The plan involved running through a small stream, which I knew my son would appreciate because what boy doesn’t love running through standing water? Then we’d have to slide into a mound of dirt, which, mixed with the water from the stream, would create that muddy mess that mothers hate but boys adore.

My son enjoyed every second of the plan carried out -- until our sneak attack on the enemy backfired and we tripped over some large tree roots in the ground and fell down the side of a cliff the size of a small skyscraper.

At first, I didn’t think I was hurt, and it didn’t sound like my son was in pain either. But once the dust cleared from our fall, I could see that my boy was a bloody mess.

As I tried to stand up to walk over to my kid, I found that the use of my legs would’ve been helpful. I fell flat on my face and cracked three teeth. My limbs felt like Silly Putty, and I was unable to reach my son who was in serous pain. Worse, there was nobody around to help.

My son was screaming, and he was losing blood as fast as bath water drains from a tub. He wanted action, and he got it.

As my boy stared at the massive gash down the right side of his body, he laughed with joy. That’s when my wife called to tell us dinner was ready.

So my son and I gathered up our toy soldiers, even the two injured ones that fell off the cliff, and we headed home.

After dinner, my soldier and my son’s soldier -- the ones that had fallen off the cliff -- died in their sleep. We put them to rest in tin Altoid breath mint boxes, and we buried them in the backyard. I played “Taps” on my harmonica. It was a moving moment.

-August 2008


My 5-year-old son started kindergarten on Wednesday, and my wife and I were among the 2 million parents there to say goodbye forever to our precious little offspring.

My wife and I felt that dropping our boy off at kindergarten was the same as dropping him off at pre-school. And it was the same as dropping him off at summer school. Why should kindergarten be any different? Why should we wear sad faces and tears? We were excited!

Driving up to the campus on that first day was madness. It felt like the traffic you’d expect at a Rolling Stones concert.

We eventually found parking six blocks away. And since there was no shuttle back to the campus, we had to walk. We took advantage of my son’s lunch for nourishment during such grueling activity.

When we arrived, we found that the school was packed. Parents shot pictures of their kindergartners hundreds at a time, and they shot enough video to make “Schindler’s List” look like a short film.

The scene looked like a red carpet event with the media and paparazzi everywhere. When the kindergartners lined up to go to class, their parents flanked the line, yelling for their children the way super fans try to get the attention of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Some parents were sobbing wrecks, like the ones in airports waving goodbye to their children going away for a summer week’s vacation at grandma’s house. Other parents acted as if they were sending their children to “the chair.”

My wife and I knew we’d see our son in a few hours. Kindergarten would be no different than pre-school or summer school. And why would it be different? Why should my wife and I be so traumatized? We were excited for our son.

I suppose we were somewhat concerned that our boy wouldn’t make friends on the first day, and that he’d hate school as a result. I think my worries stemmed from my own fears of school as a child. I was very shy, and didn’t make friends easily. I hated school, which is why I lied to my son and told him that school would be great fun.

But I didn’t need to convince my boy. He was very happy to be at school. And why not? He makes friends with everyone and anyone, even total strangers we pass on the street -- to the point where he wants to have play dates with them.

While my wife and I were worrying about our son’s social life, it eventually dawned on us that school is really about . . . education. I guess we had forgotten about that.

We recalled the recent awards ceremony at summer school where staff members awarded kids in each class for possessing winning traits like “Responsibility,” “Helpfulness” and “Resourcefulness.” My son was the only kid in the entire program awarded for being “Funny.” My wife and I felt our boy was being called the class clown, and probably rightfully so. We worried that he’d be too busy fooling around and making friends to learn.

But he always learned in the past, we thought. And we had the report cards to prove it. So why should kindergarten be any different? Why should we worry? We were excited.

After we said goodbye to our son, my wife and I hiked back to our car. Starbucks sounded good. We sat in two hours of traffic caused by school parents just to get to the nearest establishment -- only a block away. There, we bumped into other kindergarten parents. It seemed everyone needed a drink.

The chamomile tea didn’t run fast enough and neither did its calming effects. If parents were crying on campus, they were doing a good job holding back. At Starbucks, they let it all out.

My wife and I, on the other hand, weren’t sad at all. Why should we be sad? We were excited.

And then, for no particular reason, it hit us. Our son wasn’t a baby anymore. And we just put him on the fast track to puberty.

Needless to say, my wife and I stood out in front of our boy’s classroom with the rest of the sobbing parents, waiting the remainder of the day for class to let out.

-August 2008

Everyone Wants Our Babies

When you’re single, everyone asks when you’re going to get a steady dating partner. When you’re in a serious relationship, they ask when you’re going to get married. When you marry, “When are you gonna buy a house?” “When are you gonna have a kid?” “When are you gonna have another kid?” Then it’s, “When are you gonna retire?” Sooner or later, everyone wonders why you’re not dead yet.

I’m married, my wife and I are paying to own a house, and we have a 5-year-old boy. Everyone asks when my wife and I are going to have another kid.

“It’s so cruel to leave your son an only child,” people tell us. They make us sound like we starve our child and beat him with a garden hose if he says he’s hungry.

The other day at the grocery store, a stranger told my wife that she better have a second child before our first turns 6 -- or it’d too late. Not waiting for any logical reason why it’d be too late, my wife came to me crying and forced the “Should we have another kid?” talk, a conversation we’ve had many times.

We discussed this matter at great length in the past, and our decision to stop at one child seemed final. Why some random person from the grocery store made my wife think again was beyond me.

Friends, family, co-workers and, yes, strangers, too, have had no problem asking why my wife and I haven’t had another kid. At what point is someone so comfortable that he or she can ask when I’m going to impregnate my wife. That seems like a R-rated conversation to me.

Someone once asked me why my wife and I wouldn’t give our son a brother or a sister. I told this individual that it wasn’t that we were trying to torture our son with such a miserable and lonely life, but that in an attempt to provide a sibling for our son, like the good parents we obviously are not, we lost two babies and jeopardized my wife’s life.

“Third time’s a charm,” this person said.

I found it difficult to respond to that. But eventually I said, “Hey, if my wife can’t make a baby, I’m gonna put her down like a suffering pet and find someone else who can give me offspring.” I don’t think the lady liked that.

Another person tried to change my mind about having more kids, even though I hinted that I wasn’t comfortable with the conversation. When I told the guy my wife and I -- both working parents -- couldn’t afford another kid, he joked, “You write a family column. Why not just have the second kid and write him off as a business expense?”

I told him, “I already write off my house, cars, wife, son and vacations for that very reason, and if I add one more write-off, the IRS will surely audit me.”

The guy left the conversation thinking I actually write off my life since I write about it in my column.

In reality, my wife and I have had trouble having a second child. At one point, we assumed it was fate’s way of saying we shouldn’t have another. That was two years ago, and my wife and I haven’t had a change of mind -- for financial reasons, fate reasons and, most importantly, for health reasons.

And then came the other day when some stranger in the grocery store told my wife that she better have another kid before our 5-year-old turns 6. My wife said she felt “selfish” for not giving our boy a companion. She said our son would be “lonely.” She said our son could become “more responsible” if he had a sibling to take care of. This, of course, all came from the stranger.

Today our son has a companion thanks to his parents’ unselfishness. The boy isn’t lonely and he has responsibilities of his own. We bought him a pet fish.

-August 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tower a Terror

“You wanna go on something really fast and really scary?” I asked my 5-year-old son during a recent trip to Disney’s California Adventure Park. He seemed to think that every ride we rode at the park was too slow and too boring. So I wanted to excite him.

“Yeah,” my boy said with enough enthusiasm to make a cooped-up Jack Russell Terrier look like an energy-deficient loaf. “I wanna go on something really, really fast, and really, really scary.” And then my son did what he does when he gets excited. He jumped up and down.

“Twilight Zone Tower of Terror” is an elevator ride that takes riders to the top of what looks like the Hollywood Tower, and then drops them straight down to the bottom. It was pure terror. And we were in line to ride it.

My wife asked if it’d be too scary for our child. I said it couldn’t be worse than “Splash Mountain” or “Big Thunder,” scary rides my son had already survived and loved. I gave my wife a smile of confidence.

And then I looked to see if there were other 5-year-olds in line for the ride, you know, because I didn’t want to be the only bad parent with a young one. The youngest kid in line was maybe 24 years old.

As we neared the attraction, we could hear riders screaming things like, “We’re gonna die!” and we saw riders exiting the building with wet pants. My wife asked if this was a water ride. I told her it wasn’t.

I excused myself from line to use the restroom. I actually sought out a park employee and asked if it was safe to bring a 5-year-old on the “Tower of Terror.” She said that bringing a 5-year-old on the ride was a horrible idea, and very dangerous.

Just before I regained consciousness so I could run back to my family in line and save my son’s life, the employee laughed and said she was just kidding and that my 5-year-old would be fine.

I didn’t think this woman was funny. And just before I would get on the ride, I questioned whether she was even an employee of the park at all. But at that moment, what she said was enough for me to jump back in line with my wife and kid.
“This ride is going to be great,” I said with renewed enthusiasm.

“Is this ride gonna be really, really fast?” my son asked me, eagerly anticipating the terror.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s going to be more fun than ‘Splash Mountain’ and ‘Big Thunder’ put together.” And I meant it.
My son did what he always does when he’s excited. He jumped up and down.

Finally, the line of people we were waiting behind led us into the building, and into what looked like the depths of Hell, actually the elevator maintenance shaft. You could hear the roar of the elevator ride as it raced up to the top of the tower with its riders, then come plummeting down, the screams of the people even worse than the roar of the elevator car.

This was a terrible idea. My son was going to die. I had to take him out of the line. And that’s when we were shoved onto the ride and buckled in.

Right away, the elevator blasted off to the sky, putting my stomach on top of my toes. My son’s smile disappeared instantly. He wouldn’t survive, and I think he knew it, too.

Then the elevator car came crashing down, and I wondered if the Earth’s ground had disappeared since we kept falling and falling. My son went mute. I wondered if he was gone.

When we got off the ride, I checked all my son’s vitals. Surprisingly, he was alive. I asked if he was OK. He jumped up and down. Because that’s what he does when he’s excited.

It seems he truly had fun.

So I asked the boy, “You wanna go on something even faster and even scarier?”

-August 2008

Family News in Brief -- July '08

As my son’s first day of kindergarten nears, nobody can clearly say who will win dibs on that first goodbye kiss. My wife’s campaign to the kiss is going strong with support from as far as her uncle in South Carolina. My support doesn’t leave the state, but it might be enough to garner that first smooch on Wed., Aug. 13. “I just want to kiss Mommy and Daddy,” said my son in a statement earlier this week. Conservatives feel that my wife’s lips are what my son really needs first for that all-important goodbye because, as the mother, sources said, she gave birth to the child. Liberals, on the other hand, said that it’s time for a change, and that in this democratic nation either parent should have a chance at the first kiss.

My 5-year-old son checked himself into his room earlier this week for candy abuse. He admitted to sneaking candy from the candy jar on four accounts within the course of a day. “My son is surprisingly honest with his parents,” my wife said yesterday. “And he knows when he’s being too silly because of too much sugar. I think he just wants to cut down on the sugar intake, and we’re here to support him.” After an hour and a half in his room alone, the boy came out clean and with a new outlook on life.

In a chase that lasted three hours and spanned the distance of 10 football fields but within the confines of a Stevenson Ranch single-family dwelling, my father-in-law finally captured my 5-year-old son in the outskirts of the living room, and then he tickled the boy into an uproarious laughter. “I just didn’t want to be tickled,” my son said after the fact. “So I ran.” According to Grandpa, grandparents are supposed to tickle their grandchildren, and they’ll hunt those little ones down at any cost to produce that all-important involuntary laughter and wriggling. My son’s belly still hurts from laughing as hard as he did.

Despite efforts to keep the neighbor’s cats off the lawn, at least one feline left a mark that has killed the grass. “I remember a time when my lawn was perfectly green all around,” I said in a statement right now. “And now there’s a big ugly yellow spot right in the middle.” The said neighbor denies charges against him for aiding and abetting the criminal cat, claiming that his precious pets are all indoor animals. Various sources, however, said they saw the neighbor’s black cat cross their path on the sidewalk earlier this month. The damages to my lawn were $13.39 for Scotts Lawn Pro Step 4 lawn fertilizer from the Do-It Center.

-July 2008

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Wife’s Not a Fan of the Fan

My wife hates my fan.

It’s a little white two-speed oscillating fan that I use to keep cool at night while I sleep. My little fan helps save energy and money by giving my air conditioner a rest, yet my wife can’t stand the thing.

But before I make my wife out to have horns, a red tail and a pitchfork, I should give a little background on the fan. I can’t lie. I don’t use my fan just to keep cool. I’ve become addicted to the soothing humming sounds it makes, and therefore I use it each night -- even on cold winter nights -- for a sound that is to me what a lullaby is to babies.

The fan doesn’t help my wife sleep at all. In fact, it annoys her. But she doesn’t complain -- not often anyway -- because she took me for better and certainly for worse.

Last winter, my little fan joined forces with my wife and refused to turn on -- probably from overuse. I threw a fit. A couple sucker punches to the motor made the thing start up. But it was then that I realized I had a serious problem. I decided that I needed to kick my fan habit -- and now. 

Quitting was harder than I thought. I tried all sorts of methods to wean myself from the fan, but each night I needed that machine's sweet noise to put me to sleep. 

I bought one of those calming rain forest sound effects CDs and looped it all night, hoping that the sounds of crickets and birds in their native habitat would put me to sleep. Instead I tossed and turned and kung fu chopped the insects that I thought were attacking me as I tried to sleep.

I tried to quit the fan cold turkey. I asked my wife to hide the thing, and I told her to keep it hidden no matter what I said, no matter how upset I got.

After one night without the fan, I went into withdrawal, experiencing horrible mood swings. I needed my fan fix. But I couldn’t find my fan.

I threatened my wife, telling her that if she didn’t find my fan, I’d take her 4-year-old son from her.

My wife didn’t give in. Instead, she suggested we play music at night as a substitute, even though she knows that I hate listening to music while falling asleep.

On our first night as a married couple, my brand new wife asked if playing music at night would bother me. 
Still sedated by our “I dos” and wedding cake, I said, “If you wanna play music, please do, my love.”

I hated the music. Even the songs I loved became my worst enemies. My ears weren’t meant to be a rock star’s microphones while I slept. I soon learned that ever since my wife was a teenager, she needed music at night to sleep. I put up with her addiction for two years.

I finally suggested running an oscillating fan to kick the habit. I’d heard that the humming sounds could put anyone to sleep. So we bought a little white two-speed oscillating fan -- the same little fan I can’t find now -- and in a few nights, my wife didn’t need the music anymore. A few nights later, she didn’t even need the fan anymore. But that’s when I got addicted to the fan.

Today, I’m in more need of that little white fan than ever, especially with these hot, humid nights. Still, my wife won’t return my fan.

So I agreed to use music at night to kick my fan habit. After a few torturous nights of that, my wife was good and hooked on music as a sleep agent again.

And then I hid the stereo from her, which tortured her.

Can you believe my wife still won’t return my fan?

-July 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Four-Year-Old’s Sincerity Not So Sincere

My 4-year-old son hurt my feelings the other day. He said he wanted my wife to drive him to school. When I told him that I was going to take him, he said, “No! I don’t want you to take me! I want Mommy!”

My feelings were hurt, but I didn’t feel that bad because sometimes my son says he wants to do things with me and not with his mom. Nevertheless, my son doesn’t have to be rude.

And so I decided to teach the boy about hurting people’s feelings -- not an easy task. When I told him that he hurt my feelings, he asked to see my “boo-boo.”

“There is no boo-boo that you can see,” I said. “It doesn’t hurt on the outside, it hurts on the inside.”

“Does it sting,” my son asked, “like when I fell down and hurt my knee and couldn’t walk all day?”

“No, it’s a different kind of hurt,” I said. “It’s like being sad.”

“Oh, I know what sad is,” my son said as if he uncovered the meaning of life. “Sad like when your smile is upside down.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said.

I set out to teach a 4-year-old boy something very difficult, an emotion, and I was making great progress. He knew exactly what I was talking about.

Then he said, “If your smile is upside down, why don’t you just smile regularly?”

I was getting nowhere with the kid.

The boy continued throwing a fit because he still wanted Mommy to take him to school. I wasn’t going to let him be rude to me. So I did what most anyone would do in my situation. I punished the kid for yelling at me and for hurting my feelings -- again. I took away one of his favorite toys for a week. And that was that.

That night, when my son was saying goodnight, he told my wife and me that when he grows up, he wants to be a racecar driver, he wants to grow hair on his arms, and he wants to love his mommy.

“What about Daddy?” my wife asked. “Do you want to love him, too?”

“No, I just want to love Mommy,” he replied.

He hurt my feelings again!

This time, my wife tried teaching the boy about people’s feelings. He still wasn’t getting it, and he showed us his frustration by yelling, “I just don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom!”

We couldn’t believe the rudeness he displayed. So we did what anyone would do in our situation. We punished the kid.

“We were going to take you to the popcorn room (the movie theater) tomorrow and watch a movie,” my wife said, “but since you keep hurting Daddy’s feelings and since you’re being rude and yelling at me and hurting my feelings, we’re not going to go.”

“No,” my son sobbed as if we were torturing him on “the rack.” He kept saying that he was sorry.

My wife asked, “Are you sorry because you feel bad that you hurt our feelings, or are you sorry because you can’t go to the popcorn room?”

“No, I’m sorry because I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings,” my son said. He sounded very sincere, tears included. “What movie are we going to see in the popcorn room?” There goes his sincerity.

So we did what anyone would do in our situation. We gave up and went to the movies anyway.

-July 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

It’s a Gas-tly Situation

I’d like to report a crime.

Last night, a local gas station robbed me of my hard-earned dough. The loss was $62.78. And I didn’t even fill my tank.
All I wanted to do was treat my family to a nice Fourth of July weekend at the beach. So I went to the gas station to refuel my vehicle for the trip. I stuck my debit card into the ATM receptacle and then I raised my hands into the air while the pump robbed me of more than 60 bucks.

Then, as I was getting back into my car, I heard some happy-go-lucky voice over the station’s loudspeaker tell me to come back again and to stop by the snack shack to buy an $8 doughnut. I waited for the brash voice to add, “And bring your wife’s car next time. We know she commutes.”

Did you know that the world’s first gas station for automobiles opened for business in 1905? According to sources, gas was about 7 cents a gallon at that time. Between 1905 and 1999, gas went up about 90 cents a gallon.

So how is it that in a month’s time in 2008, gas went from $4 a gallon to $5 a gallon, the same dollar increase we experienced within almost 100 years time?

I’m kinda shocked I let the gas station take me for so much money for such a puny amount of fuel. And now that I have this “gold” in my car, I don’t want to go to the beach. I don’t want to drive anywhere. It’ll cost too much in fuel.

My 4-year-old son was very upset when I said we couldn’t go to the beach. I told him that for a cheaper price I could buy him his very own pet dolphin and we could build the marine mammal an aquarium in the backyard. He was happy.

I wonder: Has gasoline gone on the black market yet? I can see the dark figure now, in the shadows of a film noir-ish alleyway, the figure wearing a black overcoat, with keys to what looks like an ice cream truck, but instead of ice cream for sale the entrepreneur offers fuel at a price gas stations can’t compete with.

“Pull up to the truck,” the mysterious man would say to the person who wants his supply, and then he’d open up the back doors, and inside there’d be a big tank of gas. The man would fill up the buyer’s vehicle, and as he finishes the job, he’d tell the buyer, “Call me again when you need another fix.”

Gas is getting so expensive that I wonder if, in the very near future, having the fortune to buy a tank of gas will be considered a status symbol. The type of gas you buy might even determine your class. I can see rich teens bragging about having Chevron gas in their sport utility vehicles. Those same kids will ridicule less fortunate kids who have to fill up their economy-sized tanks with bargain gases from places like “Don’s Cheaper.”

The movie industry has a whole new set piece to utilize for its crime genre films. Instead of knocking over a bank and depleting the fortune within, masterminds will plan the heist of a lifetime at a Shell gas station. The criminals think they have the perfect plan, but while making a getaway with the fuel, two members of the four-man crew die in a firefight with armed guards who protect the precious contents within the pumps. Then the twist: The criminals get back to their hideout only to discover that the gas they stole was a mixture of one part fuel, nine parts water. No good.

Sure, gas is expensive today and on the rise. And sure, my family will be staying home for Independence Day due to high gas costs. But all is well because everyone I know is staying home for the same reasons. It’s the few people at the beach who are going to be lonely.

-July 2008

Family News in Brief -- June '08

Earlier this month, teachers and students reported that my 4-year-old son and one of his female classmates were dating. “The two of them were caught together in the tunnel slide sharing a moment of passion,” said a teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. “It seems they were sharing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, something they’re both passionate about.” Both my 4-year-old and the girl denied the alleged romance, stating that they were just good friends. The girl’s parents issued a strongly worded statement expressing the lack of seriousness between the couple. “The Picarella boy is very nice, and we’d love to have him over for a play date, but just because we use the word ‘date,’ doesn’t mean that the two kids are dating romantically,” the statement read in part. Since these suspicions have come up, my son and the girl have not been seen together again.

On the night of Fri., June 13, my fax machine of five years died in its sleep. I’d recently used it during the day to fax an important document to my insurance company. Afterward, I shut the machine down for the night, and the next day when I turned it on, it showed signs of illness, and then it passed away. Said the machine before its death, “Vvvvvv-tch-vvvvvvv-tch-vvv,” followed by what bystanders called a dreadful “blop.” Memorial services were held in my backyard at the Picarella Memorial Trash Can. After my wife’s lovely eulogy, my 4-year-old son fired a two-water gun salute. “We’ve all had a chance to remember the good times we had with that fax machine, but we’ve had to move on,” my wife said in a statement last week. “We bought a fax/scanner/printer/copier all-in-one machine, and life is good again.”

During one of the worst telemarketing call streaks of our time, Americans are standing up for their rights, demanding that telemarketers respect dinnertime as a time to hold off on sales calls. “Before sitting down for that final meal of the day, I take the phone off the hook,” said my next-door neighbor who claims telemarketers are a pain. Last week, a telemarketer called me at dinnertime reporting that I won $25,000. Aware of the oncoming sales hook, I asked the telemarketer to hold while I ran downstairs so I could verbally notify my wife of the alleged reward. With great enthusiasm, I bolted down the hallway and staged a nasty spill, which I enhanced with pots and pans hitting the floor. I acted as if I was in extreme agony, yelling out, “I can see the bone,” to which the telemarketer asked in a panicked state if I was OK. After hanging up the phone, I broke into the obligatory laugh, and, in an ironic twist of fate, actually tripped over one of the pans I’d thrown to the ground, and, according to medical professionals, twisted and sprained my wrist, making the use of a fork and knife at dinnertime a worse pain than a telemarketer’s phone call.

Dancing waters performed in what’s now being hailed a stylish work of magic and intrigue. Last weekend, a packed crowd, including my wife and 4-year-old son, stood around a man-made pond at a shopping center in Los Angeles and watched water squirt, spray and literally dance before us. “We basically have water jets, which are kinda like big squirt guns under the water, that shoot water out of the lake,” said a janitor at the mall. “We program those big, high-tech water guns to move to whatever music the mall manager chooses to play.” My son didn’t want to leave the lake, citing the water display as “really, really, really neat.” And so there we sat for three days watching water squirt all over the place to Neil Diamond hits.

-June 2008

The Big 'B'

It was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in July. I was already eating lunch -- a roast beef sandwich at Skip’s Deli down on 11th Street. They made the best coleslaw at Skip’s, and I was sure not to spill any of it on myself. I was wearing a lime leisure suit with a gold chain around my neck, with white athletic socks and white tennis shoes on my feet. I was everything a neighborhood kid ought to be except I wasn’t from the neighborhood. I was here to make a drop.

The Girl lived here. This was the kind of place where they spell “coffee” N-O, N-A-M-E, B-R-A-N-D-S, and if you suggested a chain store, they’d kill you.

The Girl and I first met at Barney’s, a coffee joint a few doors down. We’d only dated for two months and within a week had already shared a roast beef sandwich at Skip’s. We used to joke about other couples, how they’d come up with those ridiculous “pet names” for each other like Sugar Bub, Snooky Wookums and Baby Bunny Berry Pie. We promised that we’d never make up “pet names” for each other.

That is until today. The Girl had gone too far -- too far from home. She was on vacation at the other end of the country, visiting an aunt and uncle for recreational purposes. Yeah, The Girl had gone too far, and I’d make her pay.

At 10:30 a.m., The Landlord of the building usually stepped out to take The Mutt for a walk -- the kind of walk that means some poor homeowner would receive unsolicited lawn fertilization. Once The Landlord left for that walk, she’d leave the 4-unit complex vacant.

I’d utilize that time to slip into the building and into The Girl’s apartment unit with keys I’d secretly duplicated at the Do-It Center, and then I’d make the drop. Afterward, I’d high tail it back over to Skip’s before my slice of warm apple pie lost its steam.

It was to be an easy job, easy like finding trouble in Troublesville, only I’d be the trouble, and The Girl would find me -- or rather she’d find my handy work in her living room when she got back from her trip. You see, I’d created a giant looming-

Hold that thought. The Landlord just exited the building with The Mutt. They were early. It was 10:08 a.m. to be exact. She was making her way around the block, which meant I had about 20 minutes to get into the building, drop off The Package, and get out before she returned.

I finished off my coleslaw, asked The Waitress to hold my table and my tab, and made my way across the street to the apartment complex. I unlocked the front door of the building with my duplicate key and propped the door open. Then I went to the second door on the right, unlocked it with my other duplicate, and propped that door open.

With speed and skill, I nonchalantly sprinted out of the building, down the walkway to my parked sedan across the street, and then I looked both ways before I pulled out the six-foot tall-

Hold that thought. The Landlord and The Mutt were heading back to the building! There went my easy job. I was stuck, and my apple pie back at Skip’s would surely get cold. I’d never get those doors closed before The Landlord made it to the building entrance. She’d see me and wonder how I got a key, or she’d think I was a burglar and have me arrested. I could always tell her I knew The Girl. Perhaps she’d even seen me with her. But she’d never allow me in the building without The Girl’s company.

I acted before I consciously thought about what I was gonna do. I set off my car alarm, which produced the kind of noisy blast you might hear just before you die. It sent The Mutt, with The Landlord in tow, into a mad dash in the opposite direction.

Then I made my move back into the building with The Package, and made the drop. I buttoned up the place, de-squawked my car alarm, and was back at Skip’s finishing my lunch when The Landlord and The Mutt returned, looking like balloons that lost all their air. I had succeeded in a job well done.

When The Girl got home from her trip, she found a giant looming six-foot tall bumblebee -- stinger and all -- that I’d cut out from cardboard and painted. In the insect’s hands was a big paper sign with the words “Welcome Home, My Little Honey Bee” written on it. The Girl called and thanked me for the lovely and unexpected gesture. She even appreciated my ridiculous “pet name” humor.

Ever since then, The Girl -- who I’ve come to call my wife -- has never ever, not even for a second, gone too far from me. She also expects unexpected gifts at unexpected times all the time. Such is my luck.

-June 2008

A Great Family Man

With Father's Day approaching, my mother has just told me I've been a great dad to my 4-year-old son and a great husband to my wife. She said I was a great family man like her father -- my Grandpa Balsamo. This was a huge compliment. I felt touched. I felt honored. I felt like my mom was going to say, "Hah, just kidding!"

I've known since I was a young boy that my Grandpa Balsamo loved to play the saxophone and the clarinet, but I thought he did it strictly for fun. I learned that at one time he made money as a musician and had hopes of playing music for a living.

Unfortunately, because it was such a tough profession during difficult economic times, my grandfather was more likely to go pro as a rock/paper/scissors player than to make a living as a musician.

So, soon after getting married and starting a family, my grandfather began a career as a machinist.

Since my grandpa's death, I've often wondered if he was disappointed that his music career never took off. I wonder if he regretted taking work as a machinist. I'd like to know his true feelings on that.

I asked my mom what she thought, and she said my grandpa was always happy. She said she'd send me a video interview that my aunt had conducted with him. My mom said I might find what I was looking for in the video.

While I waited for the package to arrive in the mail, I dug up a picture of my grandpa when he was about my age. He was sitting at a work station in his garage repairing an instrument, a job he did during the day to make extra money while he played music at night. Like always, my grandpa was grinning in the photograph.

But I wondered, was his smile true or just for the camera? Was he worried that repairing instruments was earning him more money than playing instruments?

My grandpa’s skill with his hands would soon allow him a career outside the music business, an opportunity that would provide the money he needed to support his family. Did he know such a fate was ahead? Sitting there repairing that instrument in the photograph, one leg relaxed over the other, was my grandfather settling into a life unfulfilled, the reality of playing music professionally slowly slipping away?

I have dreams, just like my grandpa had, and I've had to put those dreams on hold at times to make a living to support my family. I know the feeling of defeat, and I know the feeling of fear that my dreams are slipping away. But I always try to convince myself that it's only a temporary defeat and not permanent. I tell myself that even Superman couldn't support himself rescuing people -- he had to become Clark Kent and work a day job at the Daily Planet in order to make ends meet. I try to believe that one day my dreams will become a reality if I just keep trying.

My mom's video showed up in the mail after a couple of days. I watched my grandpa's interview with great enthusiasm, examining every frame carefully, looking for clues to this man's passions in life, his successes and his failures, and for telltale signs as to whether he made the choice to abandon his dreams or if he had no choice in the matter.

I learned that my grandpa's dad, my great-grandfather, died before my grandpa was in his teens. My Great-grandmother Balsamo had to raise eight children alone.

In the interview, my grandpa said that, despite what happened with his dad, his was a very happy family, and that he was a happy kid. He did lots of fun things like working a paper route, attending school and shining shoes at a barbershop. Fun?

Each family member, young and old, my grandpa said, had to pitch in around the house and work so that the fatherless family could survive. But everyone was happy because they had each other, he said.

Later in life, my grandfather and my grandmother would raise five girls. It was a happy family, according to all. My mom tells me that my grandpa always put his family first -- before work, before music, before everything. My mom has countless stories to prove this, which is why when she told me that I was a great dad like hers, I was so deeply moved.

But when my mom told me this, I couldn't help but wonder if I was heading down the same path that my grandpa traveled, for better or for worse. I wondered if my dreams would ever come true.

Before my grandpa died almost five years ago, I visited him in the hospital. He asked about my personal dreams and if I was still pursuing them. Yes, I said, I was still working my way toward my goals.

He smiled, as if he knew the challenges and almost as if he knew my fate. And then he asked me about my family -- my wife and newborn son. I said we were all very happy. He smiled again. That was the last I saw of my grandpa alive.

About six months ago, I learned about a really bright girl who graduated from high school with outstanding grades and honors. She was offered $185,000 in scholarships for college -- an unbelievable opportunity. She turned it down.

I found out she grew up in a fatherless home with no siblings. For many years, she lived on the street. Instead of accepting the scholarships and an education, this girl got married to someone who really couldn't support her, and the two of them started a family. It seems that building a family was more important than anything else to this girl.

Still, so many people around her, including myself, couldn't believe she turned down so much money and an education, which would have made her life so much better.

But I wonder. If my grandpa were in the girl's place today, which way would he go? If I were in the girl's place today, which way would I go? Which way would you go?

-June 2008

I’ll Have My Velveeta and Eat It, Too

Being single wasn’t so bad. But at the time, I would’ve given up both my arms and a leg to have a wife like I have now. I would’ve given up my vision and my hearing. Heck, I would’ve taken more drastic measures and trashed my prized DVD collection to be with someone.

However, I wasn’t so desperate that I would’ve settled down with Godzilla’s problem daughter just to be in a relationship. I looked long and hard for a girlfriend, and when I did meet my soon-to-be-wife, I knew that I found someone worth giving up my entire world if that’s what it meant to be with her.

Relationships are great, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a lot of work. I grew up in a family of five. I played organized sports where you had to work as a team. I’ve collaborated with others on creative projects. I know that in order to be on any team (relationships included), you sometimes have to give up certain things for the good of the whole.

So when I took my soon-to-be-wife as a girlfriend, and when she said that she preferred Romaine lettuce to iceberg, and wheat bread to white bread, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to Velveeta’s brand, I had no problem giving up the latter for the good of the whole. After all, I didn’t have to give up my arms, a leg, my vision, my hearing, or worse, my prized DVD collection.

Sure, I ate iceberg lettuce, white bread and Velveeta’s macaroni and cheese here and there, but these weren’t necessities in my life. So I just stopped eating the stuff. And my relationship with my soon-to-be-wife began . . . and flourished.

As the two of us got to know each other better, I would give up other similar items. No more “drink” drinks. (“Drinks,” evidently, are made from artificial substances whereas “juice” comes from all-natural products.) My soon-to-be-wife often ate peppermint Life Savers as a means to cure upset stomachs. I’d later learn that peppermint “Breathsavers” didn’t do the trick, so we didn’t buy that brand anymore. As with the other things I previously gave up, these things I would surrender were no problem.

Almost 10 years later, I still haven’t missed these things -- until last weekend when eating dinner at a restaurant. I ordered a salad that happened to be made with iceberg lettuce. I ate the salad. And I forgot how wonderful, how terrific, how great the pale crisp juicy leaves tasted.

I said to my wife, “You know, this iceberg lettuce isn’t as good as everyone says.”

The next day when my wife left the house to run some errands, I calmly waved good bye, and then, in a mad rush, took off for the grocery store to buy iceberg lettuce, white bread, Velveeta Macaroni and Cheese, and all the other things I gave up for my wife.

Like an addict, I smuggled the stuff into my house, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and consumed the goods while hiding under the bed on the lookout for my better half. I was in Heaven, as if I’d tasted these fantastic products for the first time.

I wanted to consume all this stuff all the time. I’d long forgotten the painful days of singlehood where I would’ve given up so much just to be in a relationship. That day, while in “Heaven” under my bed consuming all those wonderful things, I no longer wanted to give up anything. And I still wanted to be with my wife. I wanted my cake, and I wanted to eat it, too, and I’d just have to explain that to the woman I loved, which wouldn’t be much of a problem since the two of us have such a candid relationship.

I candidly videotaped my thoughts for my wife, expressing my feelings about the things I’d given up. I wasn’t worried. It’s just that everything I’d built with my wife in our lives was on the line, with singlehood at bay if I took a wrong step, so I needed to present myself clearly, diplomatically, persuasively -- in other words: without the nervous stutter of someone who feared losing his life.

Video in hand, I was very confident in what I was about to do. But just in case, I bought my wife 10-dozen roses, took her to her favorite restaurant for dinner that night, and I even threw my jacket over a puddle for her before I set her in front of the TV, put on my video and ran.

After the viewing, my wife found me under the bed with an iceberg lettuce salad. She looked at me in silence -- a long silence as if piecing it all together, perhaps pondering how she’d dispose of my body once she ended me.

And then she said, “I don’t care if you eat that.”

Turns out she never expected me to give up any of that stuff I’d stopped consuming.

We’re both currently eating our meals happily ever after.

-June 2008

Monsters in May

It’s almost summertime, time for swimming pools, time for beach parties and time for barbeques. My 4-year-old son says it’s time for Halloween.

I thought this was strange, my son’s early anticipation for Halloween. But I was just like him when I was a kid. I celebrated Halloween all year long. But I paid the price for such an idiosyncrasy.

I was a unique individual with a rich imagination able to keep myself entertained with very little. Put another way, I was the weirdo kid in school who spent his days alone on the playground shoveling sand from one end of the sandbox to the other, with no friends whatsoever -- not even the loser kids.

Whereas most kids talked about movies like “The Love Bug,” featuring Herbie, a little Volkswagen that makes people say, “It’s alive?” all I could to talk about were the classic monster movies like “Frankenstein,” featuring a mad scientist who, when bringing a corpse to life, says, “It’s alive!”

Even in December when most of my classmates were dreaming about jolly old St. Nicholas and his elves, I was more fascinated with the evil monsters of Christmas such as the Grinch from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and Scrooge, the mean old miser from “A Christmas Carol.”

When my classmates were bragging about the new bikes and skateboards they got for Christmas or Hanukah, I was showing off the Halloween masks and scary sound effects albums that I’d received, which, to me, were far better gifts.

You can see why I didn’t have any friends.

My lonely childhood flashed before my eyes when my son asked if we could put up the Halloween decorations a couple weeks ago. I told the boy that Halloween was months away, and that we’d put up the decorations when it was the right time to do so, the right time of course being the month of August.

A few more days passed, and my son kept hounding me to bring out the Halloween gear. I just couldn’t let my son suffer socially the way I did as a child, so I gave him a firm “No.”

I found the Halloween boxes buried in the garage. I couldn’t help myself. It was the monster within me acting out. I dug up my Halloween stuff like Dr. Frankenstein dug up bodies in the cemetery. And then, like in the movie, I used the stuff I found to create my monster. My monster, of course, was my son, who is certainly becoming more like me, for better and certainly for worse.

The parent in me wanted to keep my son safe from public humiliation. So the child and I made a deal that if we took out the Halloween stuff, we wouldn’t talk about it at school until Halloween time.

At school the next day, I found my son and his friends bursting with joy as they planned what they’d be for Halloween, and how they were going to visit haunted houses to find monsters. So much for our deal.

But since the kids were so excited about Halloween, I decided to spill some additional monster lore on them, including, but not limited to, the recipe for witch stew (black cats, spiders and human guts), how you kill a zombie (decapitation) and the words you must say properly to raise the dead (Klatto, Verata, Nicto).

And then reality grabbed me like the strangler in the night, and I realized that I was supposed to be a responsible parent and not a monster teaching pre-kindergarten kids about such gruesome and terrifying things. What if these kids started having nightmares about devil bats coming after them, or what if they became afraid of the dark because “that’s when monsters come out from the closet and from under the bed?” What if these kids no longer wanted to go into cemeteries alone at night? (Maybe that last “what if” isn’t so bad, but I don’t think many parents would appreciate the previous issues.)

I decided to be a responsible adult and, before these kids’ parents complained to me about corrupting their youngsters, I’d arrange a meeting with the grown-ups and admit the cold truth of the matter.

I’d tell these adults, with my sincere apologies, that I didn’t know where my son got all the nonsense about Halloween and monsters, and that I’d punish him for teaching their children about such horrible, frightening things.

Before I could say anything, the parents I wanted to meet came to me and told me how my son had cured their children of their fears of the dark, and that the little ones no longer had nightmares. However, the adults seemed a bit concerned about the fact that their sons and daughters wanted to visit nearby graveyards at night to dig up corpses to create their own Frankenstein Monsters in the garage.

-May 2008

What Are We Doing for Memorial Day?

It’s almost Memorial Day weekend, and my family has nothing to do.

Last Sunday, I asked my wife what she wanted to do. She said she didn’t know. I asked my 4-year-old son what he wanted to do. He also said he didn’t know. The two of them asked me what I wanted to do. I said I didn’t know.

The next day, I left a voicemail for some family friends, asking if they wanted to go to the beach for Memorial Day. Just as soon as I left the message, I got a call from some other friends who asked if we wanted to go boating at the lake on Memorial Day. Not having any other solid plans, I said, “Yeah, that’d be great. Count us in.”

At home, my wife said she’d made plans for Memorial Day. She said we’d go over to her parents’ house for a barbeque, and that there’d be lots of extended family over there for fun and games.

“But I already made plans to go to the lake,” I said.

“You’re gonna go to the lake?” she asked.

“No,” I responded. “We’re gonna go to the lake.”

My son surprised both his mother and me when he and his buddy, the kid from next door, said they’d already made Memorial Day plans of their own to go to the nearby park to play. And since the neighbor kid’s parents heard those plans and assumed it was an official request my wife and I made, they booked the appointment.

Memorial Day is a holiday that asks Americans to remember the men and women who have died in battle to protect our country. My son will certainly remember his mommy and daddy as we battled to our deaths to protect our reputations among family and friends, trying to set plans for Memorial Day weekend.

But before we could actually kill each other, the phone rang. It was the party I had called, asking if they wanted to go with my family to the beach for Memorial Day. A big “Yes, we’d love to go to the beach” was their response. A long silence as I tried to think of a good excuse for canceling the invitation. And then I got a call on the other line. Holding the party in suspense without a response, I picked up the other line.

“So, are you guys coming up for Memorial Day weekend?” It was my parents, asking if I’d pack my family into the car, and drive up to Northern California so the proud grandparents could see their grandson -- never mind seeing their son and daughter-in-law. It was a question I couldn’t answer. The long pause only made my parents think that I didn’t want to see them, and that I wasn’t smart enough or quick enough to think of a good reason not to come.

Two days later, my parents were still emotionally damaged. The verbal war between my wife and I regarding this whole mess was still raging, and neither side had any edge on the other.

In an attempt to make peace, I finally threw up the white flag, and I became my own mediator, suggesting to my wife that we merge events and people into one gathering.

“We could go to the lake where the beach people can still get wet, and where the boat people can still ride in the boat, and then we could bring a portable barbeque for the barbeque people, and we could purchase or rent some portable park-type play equipment so our son and his friend can still play together. That way, everyone is happy. What do you think?” I asked, thinking I was quite clever to come up with such a brilliant solution. I called all parties involved and shared my idea.

Of course, the perfect solution is never perfect. Everybody, including my wife, hated the idea. They all took offense. And while my wife and I eventually made peace, everyone else banned my family from their plans.

My wife and I now have arrangements to spend the Memorial Day weekend alone with our son. No friends, no extended family, no beach, no lake, no boats, no park -- just our family at home sweet home, relaxing like we should’ve planned to do in the first place.

Ah, it’s going to be a great Memorial Day weekend -- unless some other party wants to invite us to their gathering for a better time. My wife and I are taking the first invitation. Anyone? Anyone?

-May 2008