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