Saturday, March 15, 2008

Never Shop on an Empty Stomach


I learned never to shop for groceries on an empty stomach.

Recently, my wife, 4-year-old son and I came home to find our kitchen was lacking food. It had been a long, tiring day for all of us, and we were hungry for dinner. Instead of going out to eat, we decided we’d go shopping for our dinner and for our weekly groceries as well.

At the store, I grabbed the smaller shopping cart (my wife and I rarely use the large cart), and my son grabbed one of those mini “little shopper” carts that he could push around behind us. We set out to shop quickly so we could go home, prepare dinner and feed our monstrous appetites.

Everything on the shelves looked very tasty -- we were craving it all. We loaded up on the usual groceries, and we made sure to include snacks we didn’t need.

“We haven’t had chocolate chip cookies in a while,” I said to my wife. “They look really good. Let’s throw a few packages into the cart. And some of these snack pastries, too.”

“Can’t we get a healthier snack?” my wife asked.

“Sure,” I said. Then I threw in a few packages of healthier snacks -- in addition to the cookies and pastries.

The store employees offering samples of food at the end of the aisles aren’t really helpful when you’re hungry. Each sample we tried made us crave more, and we, in turn, bought two and three of whatever they were selling.

At the seafood counter, my son spotted the live lobsters. He and I watched the lobsters crawl and play inside the tank. And then we put a couple of those hard-shelled crustaceans into the cart. My wife and I don’t even know how to prepare lobster. And I don’t even like seafood. But we were so hungry at the time that it sounded good.

Down one of the aisles I spotted a DVD rack. I threw at least two movies into the cart because it had been about half an aisle since I’d grabbed something. Why break pattern? The movies I picked up weren’t fit for kids, and I let my son know he couldn’t watch. But then he wanted a DVD of his own. So I found a movie for him because he’d done such a good job helping Mommy and Daddy with the shopping.

We still had half a list of groceries to pick up when I had to upgrade from the smaller shopping cart to two large carts. My wife and I even filled our son’s little cart. At one point in the shopping experience, our boy couldn’t push his cart an inch. He pushed with all his might, all the while his sneakers sliding out on the slick grocery store floor.

Checkout at the register took much longer than usual. Our bill was three times more costly than what we typically pay for weekly groceries. And that was with coupons and other club card deals.

At home, we didn’t have room in the cupboards and refrigerator for everything. We had so much stuff that much of it spoiled throughout the next couple of weeks because we couldn’t finish it before the expiration date.

And so my wife and I vowed to never again go shopping on empty stomachs. Our appetites made our eyes much too big.

Before the next trip to the grocery store, my family ate a feast comparable to what you might have at Thanksgiving. And we did great at the store. We didn’t even come close to filling up our small shopping cart. In fact, the grocery bill for the week was three times less than ever before.

We also didn’t have enough groceries to last two days. We had to head back to the store mid-week.

-February 2008

Rules Are NOT Made to be Broken


I’m a real stickler for the rules.

When my parents and teachers told me to do well in school because an education would help me get a job later on in life, I did as I was told for fear of being homeless.

When they told me to stay away from drugs because the substances had harmful effects, I did what I was told for fear of being brainless.

My mind works in extreme, neurotic ways, but I think that’s a good thing. I’m 31 years old and I’ve never really gotten into any trouble. And I’m very healthy -- for the most part. I had an incident last year where my heart stopped for nine seconds.
Doctors thought I might die if I didn’t get a pacemaker. So I got a pacemaker -- for fear of dying.

With the pacemaker came a whole new set of rules and consequences I needed to obsessively learn. No tackle football for me. But at 155 pounds, I’m already risking my life playing tackle football.

I no longer can stand near the microwave. And there’s yet another good reason why I shouldn’t go near a kitchen.

I’m not allowed to go for an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan of my body, which is fine with me. (After watching the scene in “Shawshank Redemption” where the main character crawls through a very claustrophobic sewer pipe, I had to run out of the theater for air.)

I’m not allowed to carry cell phones, iPods or magnets in my shirt pockets anymore. Such devices in close proximity to my pacemaker could put me back in the hospital for another surgery. Not a tough debate there.

So since I’m a stickler for the rules and since I don’t want to go under the knife again, I’ve been a good rule-follower. But my discipline recently annoyed my cardiologist when he wanted to test my pacemaker over the phone while I was in his office. He asked me to put a magnet up to my chest where my pacemaker was located.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t put a magnet up to my chest,” I told the doctor. “It’s against the rules.”

The doctor said that the magnet placed on my chest would allow him the ability to get a full diagnostic read of my pacemaker over the phone through some machine on his end. He assured me that the magnet wouldn’t harm me, though it would speed up my heart and would feel a bit “weird.”

“Weird?” That’s not what I wanted to hear. I don’t like “weird.”

“No thanks,” I said to the doctor. “I won’t ever need to test my pacemaker from home over the phone. I’ll just come into the office like usual if you want to test it.”

Like the doctor who told me I needed a pacemaker, this doctor wasn’t asking me to put the magnet up to my chest.

“Take the magnet,” the doctor demanded, a bit annoyed with my childish behavior.

My hand was like another being, as I had no control over it. I tried to get it to take the magnet, but my hand just wouldn’t obey.

The doctor grew more impatient, and as a result, I somehow forced my hand to take the magnet.

“Put it up against your chest,” the doctor said.

I got my hand to move the magnet in the right direction, but I couldn’t actually put the magnet on my chest. If you stick a fork in an electrical socket and get shocked, your brain tells you not to do that again. If you put your hand in a fire and your hand melts, your brain tells you not to do that again either. Every bit of my brain was telling my hand not to stick that magnet on my chest, yet the doctor, much like peer pressure, was telling me, “Go ahead, you’ll be fine. Every one of my patients is doing it.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my wife came with me to the appointment, and she actually took the magnet from my disobedient hand and stuck it on my chest for the doctor to perform the test diagnosis over the phone. The magnet sped up my heart like the doctor said. My arm, without my doing, actually jumped like a fish does out of water.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” both my wife and doctor said in cadence.

I verbally agreed. But between you and me, I’m never doing that again.

-February 2008

A 'Sensitive' Issue


Every couple communicates differently. For example, I speak with my wife through movie analogies.

One day my wife had a bad day at work -- nothing had gone as planned. In an attempt to help her find the bright side, I brought up the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and all the terrible things that happened to the main character, who just wanted to put together the perfect holiday gathering for his family. It was his journey, I told my wife, with all its mishaps that made the Christmas vacation so enjoyable.

“That’s just a movie,” my wife said. “In real life, problems suck.”

“Okay, then let me spill some real life on you,” I said in response. “According to the documentary on ‘The Godfather’ DVD, Francis Ford Coppola was miserable when making the first movie of the saga. Everyone on the movie set thought he didn’t know what he was doing, and even he himself doubted his work. Everything was going wrong. But ‘The Godfather’ is one of the greatest movies of all time.

"Maybe you had some problems today," I said, "but maybe your day’s work through those problems will bring out your greatest achievements yet.”

My wife didn’t magically cheer up like I thought. Evidently I’d spilled that story on her before. I guess it lost its luster and usefulness this 100th time around.

I remember when my wife thought my movie analogies were clever and cute. That was a long time ago, when we were first dating. Today, however, I think she’s grown tired of my analogies and even annoyed with them, kinda like how Sally Field’s character in “Mrs. Doubtfire” grew tired of her husband, Robin Williams’ character, always being a clown.

Taking a cue from “Mrs. Doubtfire,” I attempted to knock off my movie analogy shtick. I don’t want my wife to throw me out of the house like Sally Field did to Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Then I’d have to dress up like a female housekeeper, like Robin Williams did, so I could see my kid on a daily basis.

I felt like a quitter giving up on my movie analogy routine. I felt like a failure. I thought of Ed Harris’ character in “Apollo 13” when he said, “Failure is not an option.” That’s right. Failure is not an option. So I decided I wouldn’t give up on spilling my movie spiels altogether. Instead, I’d just lessen the quantity I delivered to my wife on a daily basis.

The other day while driving somewhere with my family, I came up with a great movie analogy regarding something my wife was talking about. I wanted to share the analogy with her, but I caught myself and aborted the mission because I’d already spilled a few analogies on her at the beginning of the day.

I became a wreck holding the analogy back. It was like keeping a lid on bottled soda under pressure: the contents were bound to come out. What came out of me instead was a bit of road rage aimed at another driver on the freeway. My wife, the world’s greatest backseat driver (but in the front seat), was quick to warn me about the impression I’d leave on our son.

So here I was holding back a great movie analogy in order to be sensitive to my wife’s needs, and she spills her backseat driver criticism on me, even though she knows that I hate back-seat driver criticism. Boy, did that make me mad.

I thought, Why not spill my movie analogy on her? If she’s not going to be sensitive to my needs, why should I be sensitive to hers?

“Besides,” my wife said, continuing her backseat driver criticism, “you know what happened to Dennis Weaver’s character in the movie ‘Duel’ when he decided to play games on the road with that truck driver.”

My road rage disappeared. Even the movie analogy I had bottled up inside seemed to lose its pressure. Instead, I was taken aback, impressed, thrilled with my wife who spilled such a wonderful movie analogy on me. After all, “Duel” is one of my favorite movies.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s a time like this that reminds me how lucky I am to have such a wonderful wife. And since my wife was sensitive to my needs, maybe I should be more sensitive to her needs and cancel the Valentine’s Day romantic movie marathon I had lined up. That’s more of a treat for me than for her.

And so I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day. Here’s to being sensitive to your significant others’ needs and not your own.

-February 2008

A Quiet Valentine's Dinner


Before my wife and I tied the knot, we dated -- which goes without saying. On one particular Valentine’s Day at a very romantic restaurant in a Northern California town called Bodega Bay, we spotted an older married couple “celebrating their love.” They sat there and ate their food. And that’s all they did. They didn’t exchange words at all. They didn’t even look each other, just the food in front of them. However, when they left the restaurant, they held hands and strolled off . . . very much in love.

My soon-to-be-wife and I spoke of how odd the scene appeared to us. We’d never had a loss of words for each other, especially on Valentine’s Day.

Every Valentine’s Day has been an intimate occasion between my wife and I, though the last few since our 4-year-old son was born have been less about the two of us and more about the family unit, which is still very nice, just less romantic.

Last year, my son’s karate studio offered a sort of “baby-sitting” program for Valentine’s night, and my wife and I enlisted our son into the program so that the two of us could enjoy a date night together to celebrate our love like we’d done in the “old days.”

Valentine’s Day started out with a bang. The flowers I’d bought my wife the day before, which I stashed in the garage, had flopped. I was going to put them on display in the living room as a surprise for my wife while she was in the shower, but instead found myself running down to the grocery store to buy more. I made it home just before she got out of the shower -- I’d like to thank my wife’s need to shave her legs in the shower.

Once my wife was off to work, I got dressed, and then got my son ready for school. I noticed that my wife had managed to pack up the Valentine’s Day cards that our son would deliver to his classmates. She left some residual mess from the cards on the kitchen counter, which took me an extra 20 minutes I didn’t have to clean up.

I attempted to pack my son’s lunch, but since my wife and I hadn’t shopped for food in a while due to our busy schedules, there was no food to pack. I got real creative, which took an extra 20 minutes I didn’t have, and I accomplished the feat.

As soon as I finished making the lunch, my wife called to remind me that lunch would be provided at school that day and not to pack a bag for our son. I’d like to thank fragile bones in my body, the logic that kept me from angrily sticking my fist through a wall.

The next task was to get my son to school on time. Of course, I couldn’t make the trip without a stop at the gas station -- I’d kept postponing the stop because my busy schedule hadn’t allowed me the time. I managed to make it to the station on fumes and get my son to school just in time.

On my way to work, my wife called again to tell me how work was working her like a rower on a slave ship in one of those slave ship movies. I hadn’t even started work for the day and I already felt the same way. And just as I was about to say,
“Things can’t get any worse,” things got worse.

I’d forgotten to finish a task I needed for work that day, a task that would normally take two hours to accomplish. I rushed home, finished the task in a record-breaking 20 minutes -- 20 minutes I didn’t have -- and then left for work.

The day continued on in the same fast-paced, hectic fashion, and when my wife and I met back at the house, each under the impression that the other would pick up our son at school, we realized the day was clearly not over.

By the time we picked up our son, cleaned him up for Valentine’s karate, and cleaned ourselves up for Valentine’s dinner, we had just enough time to make it to the karate studio before the end of the Valentine’s Day babysitting program.

My wife and I then rushed to make our romantic dinner reservation, which was almost given away, and finally got the chance to relax at the table. We didn’t say a word to each other. We didn’t even look at each other because even the simplest tasks, such as eating, required our full attention when in our particular state of being. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a young couple staring at us, and whispering to each other about how odd the scene of my wife and I had appeared to them.

I’d like to thank employers for offering sick days, as my wife and I will be “sick” this Valentine’s Day. May you have a
Happy Valentine’s Day, too.

-February 2008

Hooray, We're Going to Disneyland!


I’m so excited! My wife and I recently made the last-minute decision to take our son to Disneyland for his fifth birthday . . . in six months. I’m a Disneyland fanatic, which is why deciding to go to Disneyland with such “short notice” is a bit gutsy on my part.

To explain: I like to be well prepared before going to my favorite amusement park so I can take in all the sights and sounds to be had. I don’t want to miss anything. And I’ve been guiding my son toward this neurotic state of being from the day he was born. Since deciding to go to Disneyland, he and I have been playing “Disneyland” all over the house.

To explain: I have the six-disk “Musical History of Disneyland” collection, which contains recordings of entire Disneyland attractions, such as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Haunted Mansion,” and “It’s A Small World” that aid in re-creating Disneyland attractions at home. This will help to prepare us for what we’ll experience at the park.

My son and I turned the bathtub into the tropical rivers of the “Jungle Cruise,” complete with shrubbery from the backyard, fake snakes and hippos, toy boats and, of course, a soundtrack from the actual ride. I also searched the Internet and found the written spiel that the “Jungle Cruise” tour guides actually use on the ride -- so I could narrate just like a real tour guide.

My wife came home from work on the day we played “Jungle Cruise” and went into a panic at the front door.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why is the . . .”

I didn’t have a chance to say a word before she discovered why the garden hose had been run from the outside faucet into the house. I had it dangling over the shower door, dumping water into the bathtub where our little “Jungle Cruise” boats floated along. You can’t go on the “Jungle Cruise” without seeing the Schweitzer Falls waterfall.

Even a drive in the car isn’t complete unless it’s themed. And my wife knew this when she asked if I was going to drive like J. Thaddeus Toad from “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” one of my favorite attractions in Fantasyland.

“No, Mr. Toad hits a train at the end of that ride,” I told my wife. “We won’t get to go to Disneyland in July if we don’t survive this ride to the store. No, today our car is going to be ‘The Haunted Mansion’ ride.” My wife attempted to snap on her safety belt. “Do not pull down on the safety belt, please,” I said, sounding just like Paul Frees, the actor who provided the Ghost Host voice for the Haunted Mansion attraction. “I will put it on for you.”

“Oh, great,” my wife said, allowing me to help her with her seatbelt. “Just don’t pick up any hitchhiking ghosts.”

As part of our preparations, my son and I reviewed Disneyland books and brochures, and I made us Monte Cristo sandwiches -- like the ones I love to eat at the New Orleans Square Blue Bayou restaurant. We’ve even been watching other people’s home video footage of entire Disneyland attractions at YouTube.com.

Yes, my son and I have already laid a lot of groundwork for our trip. But we still have six months to wait, and a lot more to go over.

Yesterday, my son asked us if my wife and I could take him to Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of Disneyland for his birthday. I was mortified.

“What? Where?” I asked him, not believing what I was hearing. “No way. We’re all set to go to Disneyland, right?”

I looked for some support from my wife.

“Well, it’s his birthday,” she said.

“Yeah, but he doesn’t really want to go to a pizza place instead of Disneyland,” I responded.

“Yes I do,” my son said.

Eventually, my wife suggested we go to Chuck E. Cheese’s for my son’s birthday.

“You’re on his side,” I exclaimed.

“I didn’t finish what I was saying,” my wife said. “I was gonna say that we can go to Chuck E. Cheese’s for my his birthday in July, and we can go to Disneyland for your birthday June.”

“Oh, Okay,” I said, a little embarrassed.

My wife had a great idea for a compromise. But I have a new dilemma: less time to prepare for Disneyland.

-January 2008

Homeowner, Beware!


A few Sundays ago, I woke and went outside to find that my neighbor’s yard was covered with toilet paper.

Why do kids do that -- toilet paper or “T.P.” someone’s house? Did these kids even know the people who live there, or did that house just make a good target for the release of teen angst? All I know is that I don’t want my house to be covered in toilet paper.

And so I’m putting my Navy Seal training to work. (I actually don’t have any Navy Seal training, but I have seen the movie “Navy Seals” a few times, and so I know a lot of the moves.)

Each Friday and Saturday night since I saw the vandalized house down the street, I suit up in all black attire and camp out on my roof with a set of binoculars to spot the enemy (who we’ll call “Charlie”). I also set up a gigantic floodlight (set in the “off” position) to turn on and shine on Charlie when he’s in the act of vandalism. And I have a big net standing by to throw over Charlie when I do catch him in the act of trying to deface my property.

THE STAKEOUT
Last weekend was cold. On Friday night alone, I had to radio my wife a half a dozen times to replenish my hot chocolate thermos to stay warm. On Saturday night, I ran an extension cord to the roof and plugged in my little portable heater to keep me toasty. How’s that for a MacGyver move? (For those who don’t know, “MacGyver” was a TV show about a secret agent armed with infinite scientific resourcefulness.)

On Friday night, I didn’t see the enemy. Not one suspicious character.

On Saturday night, Charlie was combing the streets. My neighborhood is a thoroughfare to and from the park, so kids were all over. I guess the park is pretty popular at night.

Another neighbor down the street was working with me on “Operation: Catch Vandals,” and we radioed each other throughout the evening regarding suspicious activity between his house and mine.

PAPER OR PLASTIC
“He’s got a grocery bag,” Agent Y said over the radio. “Over.”

“Eggs?” I asked. “Over.”

“Can’t see through the bag,” Agent Y said. “It’s paper, not plastic. Over.”

“How many bags?” I asked. “Enough to hold a tree’s worth of toilet paper? Over.”

“One bag,” he said. “Over.”

Who do these kids think they’re dealing with? I thought. They’re obviously eggers.

Charlie came into view. I saw the brown paper bag in hand. The kids seemed harmless, but then again, the sheriff in “First Blood,” the first Rambo movie, thought Rambo was harmless. Sooner than later, Rambo was tearing the sheriff's men to pieces. I couldn’t let down my guard. And I didn’t.

“Agent X, I got another group here -- they’ve got firecrackers,” Agent Y said over the radio. “Over.”

“Do they have a backpack or some other type of bag?” I asked. “Over.”

“Yeah, a backpack. How’d you know? Over.”

“Where there’s one type of explosive, there’s always another,” I said. “Just be looking for mailbox explosives. Over.”

Activity over the radio was live for about 45 minutes nonstop that night. Overall, Charlie was innocent. Lucky for Charlie.

HOLD THE FORT
I told my wife the next few weekends would be active.

“These kids are just staking out the neighborhood,” I said. “They’re going to strike either this weekend or next weekend.”

“So you’re going to do this every Friday and Saturday night?” she asked me.

“I have to,” I said. “I have to protect the fort.”

“Fort?” my wife asked, almost insulted. “Our mortgage for this place is too expensive for it to be called a ‘fort.’”

“Whatever,” I said.

“I don’t know why someone would vandalize our house,” my wife said to me. “We haven’t done anything. We don’t even know any teenagers in the area.”

“That’s not the way it works,” I said to her. “You don’t know how it is. These kids don’t attack anyone they know. They attack ‘the homeowner’ in general. Any homeowner. Leave ‘Operation: Catch Vandals’ to me.”

“How do you know what kids attack and don’t attack?” my wife asked.

“Because I know.”

“What expertise do you have?” she asked.

“I have expertise.”

“Watching war movies doesn’t qualify,” she said.

“It’s not that,” I said.

“What is it?” she asked.

“It’s called karma,” I said.

“Karma for what?” she asked.

“I used to be Charlie.”

Enough said.

-January 2008

Where Does My Son Get That? - or - The Tale of the Super Bike


I noticed that once my four-year-old son started school, he started picking up bad habits.

Since beginning school, my son now says, “I can’t” every time we ask him to do something. He never said that before, and my wife and I always encouraged him to always at least try.

Since beginning school, my son has said some horrible words that my wife and I never taught him. We never even whisper those words in his presence for fear he might hear and repeat.

Since beginning school, my son has developed a problem with sharing, even though he’s always done fine with the neighborhood kids when my wife and I are around.

I think that other kids are corrupting my child. I’ve talked to some of the parents at my son’s school and asked what they thought. They’re with me. They think the other kids at school are corrupting their kids.

But what can you really do about that? You can’t protect your child from all that’s bad in the world. You have to teach him or her the difference between right and wrong, smart and dumb.

The other day, my son came home from school and said he wanted to turn his bike into a motorcycle. He asked for a baseball card to attach to his bike so that when the wheels were turning, the spokes would flip the card repeatedly and create a motorcycle-like sound.

I never told my son about putting a baseball card in the spokes of a bike -- like I used to do as a kid. I asked my wife if she taught our son about putting a baseball card in the spokes. She said she hadn’t. So the obvious answer: My son is a genius.

“Wow, you’re really inventive,” I told my son. “I’m so proud of you.”

I mounted a baseball card to my son’s bike so that it would flip on the spokes when he rode the thing, and sure enough it made a type of motorcycle sound. My son was having a blast, racing up and down the sidewalk as if he was going 200 miles per hour.

The next day, my son came home from school and said he wanted to put more cards in his spokes, and double up the cards as well to make a louder motorcycle-like sound.

I never said anything to my son about beefing up the sound of his bike by doubling up cards and adding more cards along the wheel -- like I used to do as a kid. I asked my wife if she told him about that. She said she hadn’t. So the obvious answer: My son is a genius.

So I doubled up the cards, added more cards along the wheel, and, soon enough, my son was riding around on what he called his “super-fast motorcycle.” He zipped up and down the sidewalk as if he was going 400 miles per hour.

The next day, my son came home from school and said he wanted to put a piece of thick plastic in the spokes of his bike to make his “super-fast motorcycle” super-charged. Wow, I thought. I never even thought of that as a kid. What a great idea.

I asked my wife if she told him about putting a piece of thick plastic in his spokes to make his bike louder. She said she hadn’t. And I thought, Wow, my son really is a genius.

I found a piece of plastic that was being used as a partition between cars in one of my son’s Matchbox car boxes. I mounted the plastic to my son’s bike so that when the wheels turned, it’d flip along the spokes.

My son jumped onto his “super-charged super-fast motorcycle” and took off down the sidewalk as fast as the speed of sound. And speaking of sound, the sound produced by the piece of plastic flipping against the spokes of my son’s bike was like the sound of a dragster, topped out in the red, as it roars down a quarter mile stretch of raceway.

Wow, that sounds really cool, I thought. I wish I woulda thought of that when I was a-

Just then I saw several spokes shoot out of the wheel of my son’s bike. Yup, they shot out like the buttons on a guy’s shirt 10 sizes two small when the guy flexes his chest muscles. And then my son munched out in some bushes near Mr. O’Brien’s house.

That’s when I thought, Now what kid at my son’s school taught him that dumb trick with the piece of plastic in his spokes?

-January 2008

Nobody Gets to Drive This But Me

I don’t like house chores at all. But my wife and I recently bought a new vacuum and I’ve since changed my attitude about the carpet cleaning duties.

Let me break down the model we bought. First of all, it’s not your typical vacuum. This piece of high-powered machinery has D2. What’s D2? D2 is Dual Cyclonic Technology. I still don’t really know what that means, except that it gives my new vacuum serious power.

This thing’s got like a 300-amp motor. When it starts up, it sounds like a jet engine. This vacuum’s also got things like a Power Brush, Anti-Microbial Technology and something on the back of the machine toward the bottom that says Power. That’s what I’m talking about. Power! Oh, that’s the “power” switch.

This vacuum is tough. It’s got a Scuff Guard on the front of the machine for ramming, it’s got wheels that you could take through any off-road course, and it’s also got extension hoses that could probably withstand several buckshots.

My new vacuum has a shiny metallic red coat of paint that would put any restored classic car to shame. I’ve already put a coat of wax on the machine, and it’s so shiny and reflective that I could use it as a mirror when I shave.

My old vacuum would miss small fuzzes, pieces of thread and dirt that got ground into the carpet, which is the main reason we replaced the thing -- may it rest in pieces. I’d go over the same mess numerous times with the old vacuum, and still it wouldn’t pick the stuff up.

Now, let me break down my new vacuum’s performance. I have to strap myself into this vacuum before operating the thing. Yeah, it’s got that much power. Once I’m strapped in, I still have to hang on.

I could pour honey molasses on my carpet, and this vacuum would pick it up.I’ve accidentally sucked up a few of my son’s Tonka toys and even grabbed pieces of furniture the way the Death Star’s tractor beam grabbed the Millennium Falcon space ship in the movie “Star Wars.” I’m sometimes surprised that my new vacuum doesn’t pull the carpet up into the vacuum waste container.

Yes, I actually enjoy vacuuming these days. I invite friends over to the house to show the thing off like it was a new motorcycle. Most of them are envious of my new machine and want to take it for a spin, but a man never allows another person drive his vehicles -- vacuums included.

There are the few friends who want to challenge me with their pieces of vacuuming equipment. Of course, they’re all talk. Not one of them has shown up for a challenge. Two of them converted to the type of machine I just purchased.

My wife is more than happy that I’ve claimed the vacuuming duties in the house. Ever since, she’s been on the computer surfing the Web obsessively. After a while, I got a little curious as to what she was doing. I could’ve just asked what she was trying to find, but instead I decided to play Sherlock Holmes and do a little snooping around.

I went online and checked the Web search history. I found several Google searches for things like “high-powered glass cleaner,” “high-powered iron,” “high-powered Swiffer,” “high-powered paint brush” and . . . you get the idea. And I get the idea, too. Maybe this new high-powered vacuum wasn’t such a hot idea.

-January 2008

Sick with Hitch

Thanksgiving for many years has included a hefty lineup of Alfred Hitchcock films in my house.

I love Hitch pictures, especially “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” “Rear Window,” “North By Northwest” and “Psycho.” One Thanksgiving, I just happened to catch a few of the suspense master’s movies on TV, and I’ve since made a habit of watching them on the big turkey day each year.

I feel a major Hitch fest coming on this year, as I’m starting to feel a major cold coming on, which could leave me in bed in front of the TV all day.

PICTURE WINDOW
Ah, I remember the year I was sick on Thanksgiving. I got the worst cold The Sick Fairy had ever dealt me, and was marooned on my mattress island all day -- almost the same way Jimmy Stewart was confined to his wheelchair due to a broken leg in “Rear Window.” At the time, I lived in an apartment complex. Just like Jimmy Stewart’s character in "Rear Window," I found myself infringing upon the lives of my neighbors through two panes of glass.

I saw that The Newlyweds of the complex were anxious to share their first Thanksgiving together. The table was romantically set for two, Christmas music leaking out the open windows into the warm Southern California air. The Newlyweds were sharing the turkey basting duties. How cute.

MURDER MOST FOWL
The people next door to The Newlyweds, the people I came to call The Castaways for the lack of technological enhancements in their lives, had brought a live turkey into their apartment. I supposed they were going to kill it for dinner -- something I supposed would not affect me in the least.

Perhaps the most entertaining tenants in the apartment complex were the members of The Family Musical. I gave them that name because they sang their dinners to the table. I’d hear them singing in the shower, at parties, and, yup, they were singing about Thanksgiving dinner.

The evening got exciting when The Castaways did away with their live turkey by way of -- what sounded like -- a shotgun. I noticed all my neighbors, with the exception of The Newlyweds (who had closed the curtains), came to their windows to investigate the loud noise.

No signs of a shooting could be found. Most of my neighbors went back to their holiday plans. The Family Musical, however, picked up the phone. I imagine they were singing the report to the police. Just then I spotted The Castaway boy, maybe 10 or 12 years old, sneaking across the alleyway toward my garage below with . . . a smoking shotgun!

I lay there in my bed helpless, all my bones rendered useless by the cold aches infesting my entire body. I had needed another dose of cold medicine hours before, but had skipped it because I wasn’t up for walking to the bathroom. But now I needed to move, for the cops were most likely on their way, and a smoking gun had been planted near my apartment unit. I was to be played for the fall guy in a murder -- just like Cary Grant’s character in “North By Northwest.”

As I tried to raise my body out of the bed, my reflexes instantly responded, and my hands reached for my head in an attempt to relieve the extreme pressure squeezing my brain. I fell to the floor in pain. And then I heard a knock at the door. The cops, no doubt.

I stood up in a mad panic and ran toward the front window on the second level of the apartment so I could view the individual behind my front door. Before I could reach the window, a sneeze snuck up behind my nasal passage and sent my body up and over the banister of the stairwell in the hallway.

I hung from the banister like Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Vertigo,” fearing for my life in just the same way.
“Open up,” a voice from outside yelled. “It’s the police.”

The cops busted the door in and sent such a shock through my body that the vibrations made my fingers release their grasp of the banister railing, which left me falling down, down, down.

CHOCOLATE SOLUTION
My wife found me lying on the tile entryway, blood surrounding my body.

“Why is there chocolate syrup all over the floor?” she asked me.

Chocolate syrup? It was all a mad dream caused by this cold of mine. I must’ve planted the fake blood in my sleep. (Chocolate syrup, as you know, was the substance used in “Psycho” for blood.)

As my wife helped me to the bed, I promised her I’d lay off the Hitchcock films. I ejected “Psycho” from my DVD player only to find that “The Birds” was, surprisingly, playing on cable. My Hitch addiction took hold of my every muscle and forced me to watch.

Later that night, a swarm of Thanksgiving turkeys came down and attacked my wife and me while we were asleep. The next morning we found ourselves covered in -- you guessed it -- chocolate syrup.

Yup, Thanksgiving is coming soon, The Sick Fairy is waving her wand upon me, and I’m looking forward to a long lineup of Hitch flicks. Only it seems my wife has hidden my Hitchcock DVD collection and the chocolate syrup.

That’s a true story. Happy Thanksgiving.

-November 2007

No Magic


In this story, my grandma will die, my family and I will get stuck on a defective aircraft, explosive personalities will collide, people will cry and I’ll realize that all this material won’t make for such a great column after all.

A couple of weeks ago, my dad came to town to visit the family and me. While having a great time during his visit, we got the news that my paternal grandmother -- my last remaining grandparent -- had died.

In the past, I’ve dreaded funerals. But some sort of magic always lifted the family and me out of the funeral gloom and brought us even closer together -- magic that I hoped to see again at my grandma’s funeral.

As we left for the funeral in Colorado, I noticed I had stepped outside my body and was watching my situation from a bystander’s point of view. (I’m always looking for column material.)

PROBLEMS, PROBLEMS
The show began at the airport while we were on the plane, waiting at the gate. I watched my family prepare for takeoff in what might as well have been a sauna bath.

Even though the air conditioning sounded like it was working in the cabin, the temperature was on a constant rise. I waited for flight attendants to hand out towels so passengers could strip down and use terry cloth instead of their own clothes to soak up the sweat.

Eventually, the pilot announced the aircraft was having mechanical problems, something that all passengers on a jet soon to be headed for thousands of feet above ground wanted to hear. I looked out the window and saw a mechanic banging on the wing of the plane. I’m not making this up. He actually banged on the wing.

About 30 minutes later, the plane made its way to the runway. Then we headed back to the gate for more banging on the wing. The problem, we were told, wasn’t fixed.

Another 30 minutes went by, the vehicle that pushes the plane back did its thing, and we were off to the runway again. And then we were back to the gate because the vehicle that pushed the plane had pushed too hard, breaking a bolt on the nose gear.

ARRIVING NOWHERE
At the gate, we sweated out another 15 minutes before passengers demanded they be let off the sauna -- I mean the plane.

To avoid mass chaos, the pilot announced the mechanical problem wasn’t going to be fixed anytime soon and that everyone would have to deplane. So we deplaned. This was about the same time we were supposed to be deplaning in Colorado.

NO NEED TO KNOW
In the terminal, airline officials announced the aircraft’s mechanical issues over the loudspeaker, which made no sense to me because, well, I didn’t go to jet mechanic school, so how would I or anyone else for that matter understand the problem? I wouldn’t know the difference between a faulty flawzee valve and a leaking spindle motor wing drive, so why kill me with the details? I just wanted to know when I could board a new plane that worked, and I wanted to know if the thing was going to get me to Colorado before my grandma’s rosary.

Eventually we boarded a new craft and we were airborne.

KEEPING THINGS LIGHT
On the ground in Colorado our family gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house. In order to keep things light, nobody in my family talked about my grandma -- that would be too emotional.

The funeral came and went. Everyone in the family did fine -- nobody broke down. Suppression is great.

Then the family went back to my aunt and uncle’s house, and we all did some more “keeping things light.” But all our suppression was doing just that: suppressing feelings. And those feelings were bound to burst.

FISTS ALMOST FLY
Without going into details, so that the guilty may remain innocent, two family members burst into a fight -- to the point of wanting to “take it outside.” Yup, a good old-fashioned fist fight was about to take place, and I wasn’t about to miss it -- I have no shame.

I grabbed my notepad (so I could take notes for my column), and rushed outside to capture the scene.

Nothing happened.

I guess that’s a good thing.

The night before the family left town, some of us began to show our true emotions. Tears were shed for my grandma’s passing. And then we parted ways.

And that’s my funeral story.

What does it all mean? I have no idea. But I will say this: There was no magic at this funeral. Sure, we all enjoyed seeing each other, but nothing lifted us out of the funeral funk. Nothing brought the family any closer together than we already were -- as past funerals had.

I think I speak for the rest of my family when I say that we all just missed my grandma.

I’ll be going to my cousin’s wedding next week. Maybe I’ll find the magic there.

-November 2007

The Stories We Pass Down


As I write this, my last remaining grandparent, my paternal grandmother, is in critical condition on her 94th birthday. Grandma Picarella might not make it out of the hospital alive.

When my paternal grandfather died -- the first of my grandparents to pass, I regretted not knowing more about him. So I made it a point to get to know my other grandparents better.

I spent hours of one-on-one time with each grandparent, listening to the stories of their lives and of the people around them. They told me many stories -- some new, some I’d heard before and some that couldn’t possibly be true but were fun to hear anyway.

My maternal grandmother, Grandma Balsamo, once told me the account of when she was a child and swallowed so much bubble gum that bubble gum bubbles inflated from her belly button. That’s right.

Speaking of belly buttons, my Grandpa Picarella once told me the true story of how we get our belly buttons. God lines everybody up on a cloud in heaven and walks down the line sticking his finger into each belly and twisting a belly button into the skin, saying, “You’re done . . . You’re done . . . You’re done.” Then God sends us down to Earth. Evidentially, that’s the finishing touch on us humans before we’re born. Yes, that is the true story.

Grandma Picarella tells the tale of how she was blessed with a baby boy -- my dad. She and my grandfather ate broccoli -- lots of broccoli. When she wanted a girl (my aunt), she cut the broccoli out of her diet and, since she cooked the meals, out of my grandfather’s diet. And voila! A girl was born. That’s all scientific fact. Go ahead and look it up.

Family members have told some really true stories that I’m not at liberty to tell in my column, but that I’m anxious to pass down to my son at some point.

THERE IS NO MAFIA
I’ve heard the family’s Mafia stories, which I’m told are all “just stories” because “the Mafia doesn’t really exist.” I know some fellow Italian-Americans who hate when their heritage is immediately related to the mob, but I’m told that my family is what it is -- for better or for worse -- because of its Mafia ties. I’m just excited to have one other thing that brings me even closer to “The Godfather” movies.

NAZIS AND WAR
Then there are the anecdotes of Grandpa Picarella in World War II. I have Nazi pins that, I would learn, he took off dead soldiers.

So that’s why he had those swastika pins, I thought after hearing the stories behind the pins. I guess my grandfather wasn’t a Nazi after all. That’s good to know.

My grandpa traveled home from the war on the Queen Mary, and he carved his name on a rail on the ship. And guess what? When I visited the ship a couple of years ago, I couldn’t find his name. I suppose the ship’s been renovated.

LEGENDS OF LARRY AND MARY
As Halloween approaches, I remember scary stories that I’m told were passed down through the generations.

There’s the story of the Larry Monster. The Larry, as some of you may or may not know, is the latrine. When my family would go camping, us kids were warned that, if we dared leave the tent in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, we risked bumping into the Larry Monster, who resides in the latrine and comes out to eat children who visit his lair when they’re supposed to be in their tent with their parents.

I’d rather my bladder explode each night than risk a possible run-in with the Larry Monster. My parents would tell me, “Just go to the bathroom before bedtime like we always tell you to do, and you won’t have to worry about either problem.” Made sense.

There was also the Bloody Mary legend, which always came up around Halloween time. A long-lost aunt named Mary had killed herself in the bathroom of her home because she had married the wrong man. In those times, divorce was out of the question -- but so was suicide, so that’s why Bloody Mary is still on Earth as a ghost.

DARE YOU
OK, so the story goes: If you go into your own bathroom, turn off all the lights, and say “Bloody Mary” three times in a row, you’ll see the apparition of this long-gone aunt of mine, Mary, appear in the mirror. Nobody I know ever tried it. Try it out . . . if you dare. I still don’t have the guts.

SLEIGH RIDE
My dad tells the story of riding in Santa Claus’ sleigh as a boy. He told my siblings and me that Santa had never taken anyone in his sleigh before or since -- not even Martha Claus, Santa’s wife. She’s afraid to fly, my dad told us.

Yup, only my dad has ridden in Santa’s sleigh. But that all changed when I became a father. Now my dad and I have both been in Santa’s sleigh.

GOBLIN
I have my own story that I plan to tell my son once he’s a little older. When I was a kid, I used to think there was a goblin that lived in the tree outside my bedroom window. There was a children’s Halloween book that told the tale, but I used to think, after reading that story, that the goblin really was sitting in my tree.

My imagination ran wild. My goblin was much more horrifying than the one in the book. I’d “hear” him moving around in the tree on windy nights. He’d just sit out there and wait for me to come to the window so that he could look me in the eye. Like Medusa, the mythical Gorgon, if my goblin looked me in the eye, I’d turn to stone. I never went to the window. My parents warned me not to get stoned.

WHERE BABIES COME FROM
My son has already come up with his own story. It’s the account of his birth. When he was in his mommy’s tummy, she lifted her shirt and launched him out of her belly into the air. He hit the floor sliding like a hockey puck. At the other side of the room, the doctor caught my son with a baseball mitt before he hit the wall. Then the doctor looked him over and said to Mommy and Daddy, “Here’s your baby.”

That’s my son’s honest-to-goodness story. I’m not sure where that comes from.

BACK TO THE BEGINNING
OK, so I began this column by writing about my dying grandmother and how I wished I knew her better, and how I got to know my living grandparents better by listening to their stories, and then I spilled all these crazy personal legends that I remember hearing from my grandparents and other family members when I was a kid.

Most of these stories have little to do with my grandparents or other family members. But then again, they have everything to do with them because of how these people told me the stories. They are stories that preserve the character of my grandparents and my family. And that’s more precious to me than just plain old history.

-October 2007

Human Pogo Stick


Last week, as I was walking downstairs to my car in a San Francisco parking garage, I missed a step. What immediately followed was a series of cracking sounds. The sounds came from my left ankle.

I had to drive all the way home to Los Angeles with what might’ve been a fractured ankle. Good thing I don’t drive a car with a manual transmission anymore -- the clutch would’ve killed me.

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t even stand on my left foot. I resorted to hopping around the house on my right foot, which made getting dressed and getting my son ready for school quite the challenge.

In the bathroom, I used a tissue to blow my nose -- the allergens and smoke in the air have been causing some serious headaches -- but instead of leaning down to throw the tissue in the bathroom trash -- mainly because it hurt to bend down -- I threw the tissue, and it missed the can. So I had to bend down anyway. It hurt my ankle like you wouldn’t believe to pick up that tissue and throw it out.

Then, on my way back up from the trashcan, I slammed my already aching head into the bathroom wall cabinet. There’s nothing like a head-on crash to start the day.

To make matters worse, my wife and I recently put our house on the market -- we’re looking to buy something a little bigger in the same area. How does this make matters worse? Keeping the house spotless in case there’s a potential buyer’s walkthrough is now a daily routine. So, since my wife had already left for work, I had to clean the house on my right foot.

Hopping back and forth made me sweat so much I looked like Patrick Ewing in the fourth quarter of an NBA playoff game. And my son had dumped his bowl of cereal on the new carpet, which wasn’t helpful: Try to picture someone on a pogo stick vacuuming a carpet.

I couldn’t even walk my son to class, a walk that’s only about the distance of a football field from the school’s parking lot with a little maze in between. I had to have a school official collect my son at the car. That was embarrassing. The official asked what had happened to my foot, and I told the truth.

“I was wrestling a rhinoceros, and when I took him down to the ground, his massive body fell on my ankle.”
Over the weekend, I had to mow the lawn. My wife said she could do it. My response: “No way.”

You probably think I’m just a stubborn man, but that’s not the case at all. I’m no dummy. I’m not gonna lose job security in my relationship with my wife.

I mowed about 6 inches of the lawn and then had to relinquish my duty. My wife ended up mowing the rest of the lawn. I at least got to weed-whack the grass. My wife just wasn’t doing it right, or anyway that’s what I told her, so, as I pointed out earlier, I could retain some job security.

Today my ankle is much better. I eventually went to the doctor (a few days after the injury) and found out that I had severely sprained my ankle. I’m supposed to keep my foot elevated.

I have to admit that I’m struggling to sit in front of my computer and write this story with my foot elevated. It’s very uncomfortable, and my back isn’t in the best condition anyway (boy, I’m a mess).

In fact, I’m not even writing this column, my wife is writing it. (She’s the greatest living individual on Earth.)

Geez, I’m losing job security right and left. I hope my next column won’t detail a sad story about my wife leaving me because she didn’t need me anymore. I better hop out and buy her some flowers or jewelry.

-August 2007

Our Family Vacation


My family went to New York for our summer vacation this year. It was my first time there.

We took a red-eye flight. My wife and I are no dummies. Our 3-year-old son doesn’t like to sit anywhere for more than one minute. So instead of him being awake, bored and antsy on the plane, he’d be asleep. My wife and I would sleep, too.

We got to the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank a few hours before our flight boarded. We checked in, and then got dinner.

At the restaurant, my son asked for a Cherry Coke with his meal. My wife and I, who don’t give our boy soda because it puts his already hyper personality into an amphetamine-like frenzy, deliberated on the matter, really breaking down the facts the way a jury might do before they send a man to prison for life.

After deciding that it was a good idea to keep our kid up late so that he wouldn’t fall asleep before the flight, guaranteeing his sleep during the flight, we said, “Sure. You can have a Cheery Coke. You’ll need all the energy you can get to stay awake -- for now.”

The sugar and caffeine didn’t affect the kid like we thought it would. Our son was actually fairly calm for having consumed a full glass of soda.

And then it was time to board our plane. The soft drink finally kicked in -- and at full power. My son was bouncing off the walls like a pinball. The passengers, mostly New Yorkers on their way home, who wanted desperately to sleep, eyed my wife and me like we’d just brought an earthquake on board.

Now, Californians can be your best friends. They’ll spend time with you and dine with you -- even though behind your back they might hate you. New Yorkers, on the other hand, will just kill you if they didn’t like you. Well, these New York passengers, who were about to be denied sleep because our juiced-up son was as loud as a firecracker, were ready to eject all three of us out of the aircraft -- in mid-flight if it pleased them.

Luckily, the sound of the plane as it rolled down the tarmac to the runway put my son right to sleep. My family was saved.

It was just past 10 p.m., our flight was on its way, and we could all sit back, relax and sleep.

Before the plane could even take off, it seemed everyone in the cabin had fallen asleep. Having never flown on jetBlue before with their cable TV at each seat, I was wide-awake for the duration of the flight watching “The Godfather” movies, even though I’d seen the movies more than 400 times before. So much for sleeping.

The next day, we arrived in New York before most people wake up. My wife and son were revived from a good night’s sleep, and they were ready to go. I was ready for a long nap.

I pounded a cherry soda, which gave me the energy I needed to survive the rest of the day, and then we began exploring the city.

We immediately saw the differences between New York and California. Being the child of New York and New Jersey natives, this stuff shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me. But it was. Let’s take a closer look:

GREETINGS
In New York, people are very straightforward.

“How are you?” you ask.

The typical New Yorker would respond to that greeting with: “Terrible. I’ve been in this heat too long, been at this job too long, been alive too long. Who the heck are you?”

In California, people tell you what you want to hear.

“How are you?” you ask.

“Great,” they say. Then they ask how you’re doing.

By the time you answer, they’re already halfway down the block.

SOCIALIZING
Everything’s a question in New York. Let’s say a New Yorker is with someone he doesn’t like.

“What am I, a jerk?” he asks you. “Why am I with you right now? You wanna tell me that? What’s with that ugly Hawaiian shirt? Why don’t you take a hike?”

In California, that same conversation would sound like: “Love to chat longer, but I’m late for a meeting. I love the Hawaiian shirt. Gotta go. Bye.”

TOUCHING AND TAKING
In New York, dozens of strangers touched my son -- you know, patting his hair and such. One guy even dropped his cell phone while patting my son on the head.

“What a good boy,” he said, even though the guy just watched his $200 phone hit the ground and shatter into 100 pieces.

In California, if a stranger patted a kid’s head, he’d be arrested for child molestation.

One night, while strolling down Mulberry Street in Little Italy, my family came across a restaurant owner who initiated conversation with my son. The dialogue exchange started small but became epic. So my wife and I were inclined to dine at the guy’s place.

A little later, that same guy came over to our table, grabbed my son and took him over to meet a group of good-looking female customers at the other end of the room. In California, that’d be called kidnapping. But no harm was done. When the man came back with our son, my wife and I learned that our little boy got a kiss from each of the girls at the other table. Mind you, all of these girls were over 18. In California, they’d all be on the 6 o’clock news for having had relations with an underage boy.

FAVORITE DISH
At a New York restaurant one evening, my wife asked our waiter if he preferred a certain seafood dish or a certain chicken dish. The waiter said he preferred neither.

My wife then asked what he recommended. The waiter was stumped. He had to look at the menu to find a dish he liked. During a pause that was very unsettling and could’ve lasted the remainder of our trip, my wife finally just said she’d have what I was having. Luckily the food was great.

In California, my wife always asks waiters what they prefer. California waiters usually respond with, “Everything on the menu is excellent.” Then we get the food and it’s terrible.

RESTAURANTS
New York restaurants don’t use a lettered rating system like we have in Los Angeles, where an establishment’s cleanliness grade -- A or B for example -- is posted on the front window. My family probably went to at least three places in New York that deserved a D rating. Not cool.

Here’s some more trivia for you: Did you know that New York restaurants and other businesses don’t have paper seat covers in their restrooms. That deserves another really big “Not cool.”

DRIVING
In New York, people consider their horn as important as -- if not more important than -- the gas and brake pedals. These people can’t drive two car lengths without honking.

In California, drivers are told to drive with their hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. In New York, motorists keep their hands at 10 and . . . on the horn.

But one thing’s for sure -- people move fast in New York regardless of the driving conditions. Coming from the land of rubberneckers, I was in heaven.

SIGHTS AND THE SITE
My family took in many non-tourist places of New York, which is how we discovered the city’s heart. And, of course, we checked out the usual stuff -- the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty . . . (My son actually found the seaweed around Liberty Island more amusing than the statue.)

We also saw the 9/11 Memorial Site where the Twin Towers once stood. During the whole vacation, my family was very talkative, especially my son, whose chatter sometimes blends into the background noise because it’s so constant. But when we got to Ground Zero, we all became quiet. And we didn’t have any family pep talk ahead of time, saying we’d be quiet and respectful. We just all stopped talking -- even my son. Seeing that hole in the city was very sad.

COMING HOME
When it was time to head back to California, we were tired and definitely ready to come home. It’s like a lyric from a one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs:

“It’s oh, so nice to go trav’ling, but it’s so much nicer, yes, it’s so much nicer to come home.”

A very friendly airport official at Burbank welcomed us Californians home.

“Thanks,” my wife and I said.

“I love that Hawaiian shirt,” the lady said to me. I thanked her.

As we walked away, I heard the lady tell a fellow employee, “That was the ugliest shirt I’ve ever seen. I hate this job.”

Yup, we were home.

-July 2007

New Pet Pup


My son became a puppy the other day.

Yes, out of nowhere, my son went from standing on two feet as a human being to standing on all fours, barking his head off like a little puppy dog.

I’m not sure why this happened. It’s not like my son was at a pet store or near any dogs. He wasn’t watching “101 Dalmatians” or any other movie or TV program featuring dogs.

Nope, just a random morph from human to canine in the blink of an eye.

“What are you doing, boy?” I asked my son.

“Ruff, ruff. Ruff,” he replied.

“Okay, so you can’t talk anymore?” I asked.

“Ruff. Ruff, ruff.”

“Guess not,” I said.

I have to admit that I was somewhat amused, even though I’m not really a big fan of pets -- especially dogs and cats. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love animals. I’m just not hardwired to be a pet owner. I don’t like fur all over my furniture and all over my clothes. I don’t like to find surprises on the floor. And I don’t like doggy bowl/litter box stations that take up the valuable real estate in my small house.

But my son as a little pup wasn’t that bad. He doesn’t make any of those messes related to real pets, I thought.

So I played along with my son/puppy for a while. I pet him on the belly. I asked him to sit and play dead. I even found some animal crackers in the kitchen pantry and used them as dog treats to teach the puppy how to roll over.

Then my son romped down the hall and stomped all over his room. He smashed up his toys, his bookshelf and his bed -- just like a real dog would do.

“What are you doing, boy?” I asked my son.

“Ruff. Ruff, ruff,” he replied.

“Okay, I think that’s about enough of the puppy thing,” I said. “Let’s become human again and clean up this room.”

Enter the wife. She was out at the store. Without knowing the scene involving her son as a pup, she announced while coming down the hallway that she had a surprise for him.

“I have a surprise for anyone who was a good boy today,” my wife said. Then she froze at the sight of the messy room. “Who made this mess?”

“Our new puppy,” I said.

“Well, our new puppy better clean up this mess if he wants a surprise,” my wife said.

“Ruff. I want a surprise. Ruff, I want a surprise,” the puppy said.

“Then you better clean up the mess, puppy,” my wife said.

“Puppies don’t clean up messes,” the puppy replied.

“And puppies don’t get surprises,” my wife said as she revealed a toy fire engine.

The puppy instantly became human at the sight of the toy and cleaned up his room faster than he made the mess. Then he was back on all fours and begging for the fire engine with his tongue out.

My wife handed over the fire engine. And the puppy was happy.

That evening, the puppy had trouble eating dinner. He wanted his food and water in bowls on the floor -- set up like one of
those doggy bowl stations I hate.

“No doggy bowl station,” I said. We battled for a bit, then my wife and I did what parents do best; we offered the child just two options, both of which satisfied the parents.

“Do you want to eat dinner at the table or do you want to go to bed?”

“Eat dinner at the table,” the puppy replied, feeling victorious since he alone made the choice. “Ruff, ruff.”

By bedtime, my son was beating a dead horse into the ground with his puppy routine.

“Aren’t you sick of being a puppy?” I asked my son.

The puppy -- panting with his tongue out -- nodded his head up and down.

“Then what are you doing, boy? I asked. “Why don’t you stop?”

“Okay,” he said.

“Meow.”

-May 2007

Life with a Super Heart


I’ve had a pacemaker for over two months. My family life seems to be back to normal.

I’ve had to visit my cardiologist a couple of times so he can see how I’m doing since the installation of my “bionic” part. I’m amazed with the pacemaker technology.

Basically, the pacemaker is a supercomputer. It holds in its memory everything that my heart does. If I feel my heart is beating faster than normal or harder than normal, or if I lose my breath at times, I simply write down the time and date of the incident.
Then I report the incidents to my cardiologist.

My cardiologist possesses what looks like a computer mouse that he wraps around the back of my neck and hangs in front of the pacemaker in my chest. He can then look up any time and date I give him, and he can tell me what my heart was doing at the time and if my pacemaker had to turn on -- no strings or wires attached. (My pacemaker only turns on to keep my heart rate from going below 50 beats per minute.)

My doctor can then make the needed adjustments to the pacemaker via his remote device.

I probably shouldn’t be giving this information out so freely. If my arch nemesis gets a hold of this knowledge, he could build his own remote device to control my heart rate, and consequently make me do whatever he wants me to do.

Worse, my wife could get a hold of that remote and speed up my heart to make me complete her “honey-do” lists at miraculous speeds. Then she could give me even longer “honey-do” lists. This pacemaker, you might say, is my Kryptonite. Drat!

I finally saw the pictures my friends and family took of me while I was in the hospital getting the pacemaker. I don’t know what I anticipated. I knew the images of me weren’t going to look good; I was sedated and I did not shave or shower for days during that hospital visit.

Yet I wanted to see what I looked like, kind of like when you get off a roller coaster at a theme park and you want to see the picture the park took of you just before going down that really big hill.

“Oh, my eyes were closed. Geez, was I really that scared?”

After seeing the picture, you wanna give money to the guy selling the pictures just so he’ll destroy the negatives because the pictures are just as bad as you thought they'd be, and you don’t want any record of them.

I paid off friends and family to destroy their hospital pictures of me. I didn't want any record of them.

But I’ve had some fun with my pacemaker. People ask how long the battery lasts, which is a good question because people are very curious about battery life these days with the advent of devices like the new iPhone. (The iPhone, as you may or may not know, is a phone, music and video device, calendar and address book that seems to require either a really long-lasting battery or a lot of plug-in time.) Cell phone batteries might last a day if you use it often. Laptop computer batteries last about five hours. How long can a pacemaker battery possibly last?

“About 10 hours,” I tell the inquiring individual. “Then I must plug in.”

“What?” the inquiring individual exclaims. “You have a plug for your pacemaker?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s one of those plugs with an automatically retracting cord that unwinds out of my armpit. When I’m done, I just pull it a bit, then it automatically winds back up into my armpit.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” I say. “And I can’t plug in unless the battery is completely dead, otherwise I’ll lessen the battery life.”

“How do you know if the battery is dead?” the inquiring individual asks.

“I have LED lights installed on my chest,” I say. “Five lights indicates a fully charged battery, one light indicates a dead battery.”
Sounds silly, but I’ve fooled many inquiring individuals with that line of answers.

In reality, my battery will last me about 10 years. Then the doctor has to go back in and replace it. The pacemaker only turns on about 6 to 20 percent of the time in a given week. Nevertheless, that’s still a long battery life.

Now, if only I can get one of these pacemaker batteries for my laptop computer or my cell phone. Maybe the makers of iPhone could adapt the pacemaker battery into their technologies. But if it costs as much as my pacemaker, nobody will be able to afford the iPhone.

My pacemaker has brought me closer to my family. It’s made us all appreciate life more. My 3-year-old son doesn’t really know what happened to me. He just thinks I got a “boo-boo at the doctor.”

But every night when I say good night to him, he asks to see my “boo-boo.” Very gently, he runs his fingers along the incision mark on my skin where the pacemaker was installed and asks, “Are you okay, daddy? How's your Super Heart?”

I always smile.

-May 2007

Live to Eat


I recently underwent heart surgery. During most of my recovery up until now, I haven’t had much of an appetite. However, as I begin to phase out the medication and return to my normal self, my hunger for food is becoming strong. In fact, my hunger is so strong that I feel I can eat all day long. I’m starving, and I can use a large meal.

I think of my Grandma Picarella and my maternal grandmother, Grandma Balsamo. These two women never left the kitchen, as far as I know, and made enough food on a given day to feed all the troops overseas -- on both sides of the war. Both of my grandmothers claimed the phrase, “Most people eat to live; Italians live to eat.” And it was their mission to cook.

As a kid, I remember several occasions when my siblings and I would spend the night at Grandma Picarella’s house. We’d wake up the next day to the smell of homemade meat sauce cooking. In the kitchen, Grandma would be preparing meat sauce for dinner that evening and making breakfast.

Breakfast wasn’t just eggs and bacon. Breakfast was enough food to make the Hometown Buffet spread look like a 2-year-old’s snack. I’d kill myself just trying to finish my first serving. Then Grandma would say, “Eat. There’s plenty more.”

“I can’t eat any more, Grandma,” I’d say. “I’m stuffed.”

“What’s the matter? You don’t like my food? Eat. I can’t save this.”

Grandma would tell me how I needed to eat because I was a “growing boy,” and that I didn’t want to be “skin and bones because the girls like big and strong men.” Italian guilt always worked on me; I always ate at least two or three more plates of food.

Stuffed for the remainder of the day, most of us at the table would retire into the living room or backyard to rest and digest. Grandma would clean up the breakfast dishes, then immediately get started on lunch.

While preparing lunch, Grandma would offer up some pizzelles (Italian cookies) that she’d made. Us kids -- not able to fit even two more morsels of food into our bellies -- would always say, “No thanks.” The adults knew better. They just ate the cookies to avoid unnecessary servings of Italian guilt. Eventually, us kids took the cookies, too.

Lunch followed very soon after. A variety of sandwiches would line the kitchen counters like the Macy’s Parade floats line the streets of New York on Thanksgiving Day. You ordered your sandwiches as you would at an Italian football wedding where someone calls out sandwich orders to another person near a cooler of sandwiches, and that person throws the sandwiches across the room to the order-taker:

“Dominic, I’ll take a capicola sandwich. Throw over a salami and provolone.” Swish, the sandwiches would fly through the air like footballs over the guests’ heads. Quite a scene.

Lunch always included side dishes of all sorts. By the end of the meal, you always wondered where you found room in your stomach to store so much food. After stuffing ourselves, we’d again retire to the living room or backyard to rest and digest.
Grandma would clean up the lunch dishes, then immediately get started on dinner. Dinner was a major deal, especially if it was a Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner always started around 3 p.m. and could involve neighbors and friends.

Grandpa Balsamo used to open up his home to practically anyone on Sundays. He actually left the doors open and invited pedestrians in for dinner. Sometimes strangers would come in for dinner. My grandma always had plenty of food. Believe me.

Dinner usually kicked off with the antipasto. Antipasto includes cheeses, raw or marinated vegetables, cold cuts and cured meats such as prosciutto -- somewhat of a meal in itself.

Next came the macaroni. Now, for those who think I’m talking about macaroni and cheese, let me explain: Macaroni is what most people call "pasta" with meat sauce or marinara sauce. I never heard the word “pasta” until I was about 6 years old. So I still call it macaroni. Some of my family members will actually argue about whether it’s called macaroni or pasta.

Following the macaroni was usually sausage and meatballs or pork or veal -- some sort of meat dish.

Then came the salad, prepared with homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing.

After that came fruit and nuts, then maybe a pastry like a cannoli, spumoni ice cream and/or more pizzelles for dessert.

The adults would follow that with coffee with anisette and some biscotti (hard cookies) for dipping.

By the time the meal was consumed, the sun had gone down and the party had moved into the living room or the backyard for resting and digesting, allowing everyone to play cards or tell stories. Grandma would still be occupied in the kitchen, cleaning up the dishes and getting prepared for the next day’s meals.

The other day, as a means to answer my stomach’s calling for food, I cooked up not even half the amount of food my grandmothers would typically make on a Sunday. I didn’t make a dent in the meal. I’ll have leftovers for two weeks.

Anyone wanna come over for dinner?

-March 2007

Gotta Have Heart


So I write this column at 30 years of age with a brand-new pacemaker in my chest.

I’m very frightened that I had to get a pacemaker at such a young age. In my usual fashion, I worry excessively and obsessively. Every little muscle twitch or gas pain near my heart makes me think my heart is going bad. I worry that this heart condition of mine is something that will haunt me the rest of my life.

In a couple of weeks I must go to the cardiologist for a “pacemaker interrogation.” I wonder if it’s anything like a police interrogation. I picture myself in a small room with two-way glass, sitting through the whole good doctor/bad doctor routine, the doctors trying to get information from my pacemaker to make sure the device is working properly.

“You’re gonna tell me what I wanna know,” the bad doctor says, “or I shut you down and install our later model that just came out on Monday.”

“Just tell him what he wants to know,” the good doctor pleads, “and then we can all go home.”

Since I was 14 years old, I’ve had issues with doctors. When a doctor wants to draw my blood, I black out. When an eye doctor wants to do that glaucoma puff test on my eyes, I black out.

Friends and family have told me that I’m just “afraid” of pain and doctors, and that I don’t “black out,” I “faint.” I’d tell them, “That’s ridiculous. First of all, I don’t faint. Squeamish people faint. I black out. Second of all, I’m not afraid of the doctor. It’s not a mental thing. It’s a physical thing. I have to eat properly and I’ll be fine. That’s all.” I diagnosed myself.

In my life, I’ve blacked out (not fainted) about 12 to 15 times. Luckily, I’ve only injured myself three of those times.

The first injury took place about eight years ago. I was a maintenance man at Costco, cleaning up some trash on the floor. I'd been working at Costco full time and going to college full time. I hadn’t slept and hadn’t eaten much on this particular day. So when I stood up after cleaning up the trash on the floor, I got dizzy and blacked out. My eyebrow caught my fall on the concrete floor. I had to get 32 stitches. Worse, I chipped a tooth.

I blamed the fall on my lack of sleep and my lack of food intake. Everyone else said it wasn’t a physical condition but a mental condition, and that I “fainted” because I had been talking about tetanus shots with a fellow employee and I got “scared.” You see, I’d just recently cut my finger on a metal shopping cart, and I thought I might have to get a tetanus shot. (By the way, after
I blacked out and split the top of my eye open, I had to get a tetanus shot.)

My second injury took place almost two months ago. I was seeing the doctor for a chronic cough. While the doctor was explaining possible “health conditions,” I blacked out and hit the floor. I cracked the same tooth I’d damaged eight years ago. The doctor explained that my blacking out was a physical condition and not a mental condition, as I had said all along. I smiled with delight since I’d diagnosed myself correctly. Then the doctor said that my blackout episodes were serious.

“Serious?” I asked, as if calling her statement ridiculous. “No, this is no big deal. This isn’t a physical condition. This is a mental condition. I’m just afraid of pain and doctors. Just ask everyone I know and all the past doctors I fainted in front of before.”

My doctor put me through a series of tests that would rule out health issues such as seizures. I had a heart test, a brain test, blood tests -- I’m surprised they didn’t make me re-take my driving test.

My third injury took place when my doctor put me on what’s called a Holter monitor, a machine that I wore for a 24-hour period to monitor my heart. At midnight, while wearing the Holter monitor, I woke up to use the bathroom. I felt my heart racing, and I immediately thought, Uh-oh, my heart is beating pretty fast. And it’s thumping pretty hard -- like it’s going to explode out of my chest. That machine is probably discovering that my heart is no good. I’ll need surgery. . . .

The next thing I remember was my wife trying to get into the bathroom. I was lying on the floor, blocking the door. I had passed out, fell on the floor and tore a gash in my shoulder. I also sprained my wedding ring finger.

The results of the Holter monitor prompted my doctor to call me the next night. She told me I had to see a cardiologist immediately! During the blackout, it seems my heart had stopped beating for eight seconds. The doctor showed me the Holter monitor chart. I actually flat-lined for eight seconds. Additionally, the Holter monitor chart showed that I had a very abnormal heart rate.

I’ve never had any health issues and I was afraid.

Armed with my set of car keys and holding one of them up like a sword, I tried to talk my doctor and four cardiologists out of the pacemaker they wanted to install in my chest. I told them that my heart rate problems were just a result of my sensitivity to doctors and potential health issues. “It’s a mental thing, not a physical thing,” I insisted. “Stand back! Don’t come near my chest or I’ll slice you! These Honda keys are a lot sharper than they look!”

Without going into the medical details of my condition, I’ll just say that the underlying message the doctors gave me was that I could die if I didn’t get a pacemaker.

Now that I have one, I freak out so much that I’m surprised I haven’t blacked out again -- or fainted, for that matter.
But while I had been thinking the worst of my situation since my pacemaker installation, someone just recently gave me a “glass is half-full” comment. My father-in-law said I had a machine that would back up my heart if there were any trouble. “Most people don’t have a backup for their hearts,” he said. “You’re lucky.”

I am lucky. With this new pacemaker, I’m better assured that I’ll stay alive long enough to grow old with my wife and see my 3-year-old son mature.

My father-in-law gave me a great way to look at my situation. So I write this column with a new sense of confidence and a new sense of security.

As I write, I feel I have a cramp near my heart. I’m worried it might be serious. I did just eat some cheese enchiladas and beans. But maybe I’ll call my cardiologist just to be sure this pain isn’t something more serious. Do you think I’m overreacting? Nah. What if . . . Don’t overreact, I tell myself. Don’t overreact. Life is too short.

By the way, thank you, everyone, for your thoughts and gestures.

-March 2007

Dirty Harry: Bug Killer


As spring nears, more and more flying insects begin to occupy the night. Come summertime, they’re everywhere.

I hate when flying insects get into my home. I must destroy them, as their buzzing and their flybys over and near my family’s heads drive us crazy.

When going in and out of my house, my family knows to move quickly. If the front door is open too long, an unwanted flying insect might enter.

I can’t sleep if I know there are flying insects in the house. I’ll stay up all night until I destroy them. I’ve been up as late as 4 a.m. trying to kill the same two flies during a six-hour period. My wife hates when I stay up late with such determination to kill these pests in our home. She’d rather have the insects loose in the house. But she married me for better or for worse.

One evening last summer, some TV station ran all of the “Dirty Harry” movies. I stayed up all night and watched them. The next night, when a fly came into my house, I became Dirty Harry: Bug Killer.

Using the same dialogue Clint Eastwood used in the fourth “Dirty Harry” film, “Sudden Impact,” I told the fly, “Go ahead, bug, make my day,” as the little bugger whirled around my living room looking for a place to land. Then it made my day and landed on a wall. I rolled up one of my wife’s magazines and spoke to the fly the way Dirty Harry talks to his suspects.

“This magazine is the most powerful flyswatter in the world. It’ll rip your head clean off. So you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

The fly looked at me with his beady little eyes, wondering if today would be his lucky day. Then I swung the magazine down upon him. I missed.

The same way Dirty Harry Callahan left messes all over the city of San Francisco as he shot .44-caliber Magnum bullet holes into everything around him while going after a suspect, I left messes all over the house. My messes, however, were magazine ink marks all over the walls and furniture, crooked picture frames on walls where I’d swung at the fly and missed, and chairs on the floor that I’d knocked over while running after the fly.

“Are you using one of my magazines?” my wife asked. “No,” I lied. “It’s one of my magazines.” She believed me.

The fly finally made a deadly mistake. It led me into the bathroom. I shut the door and locked myself inside with him. He’s going down, I thought. If he’ll just land, I can get him.

The fly never landed. He just kept flying. You’d think he’d get tired and land. Not this one. He just kept flying around the bathroom. And with stamina developed by chasing my 3-year-old son around my house all day, I kept following that fly around with my wife’s magazine, waiting for the perfect chance to swat him.

After about an hour of that, I finally just swung recklessly and repeatedly at the pest. By this time, my wife was in bed trying to sleep. It was past midnight and I was still up trying to kill the fly.

Boom! Bang! Smash! These were the sounds my wife had to put up with as I tried to swat the fly in the bathroom. She came to the door and, somewhat like the way the San Francisco mayor talks to Dirty Harry in the original movie, my wife said to me,
“You can swat that fly all you want, but just be in bed by 3 a.m. That’s my policy.”

In Dirty Harry fashion, I said, “Well, when a bug comes into our house with the intent to buzz around our heads and drive us mad all night, I stay up for as long as I need to until I destroy the bugger. That’s my policy.”

With fortitude and skill, I zeroed my concentration in on that fly, and then swung my wife’s magazine one final time. BOOM! Fly guts splattered all over Britney Spears’ latest cover picture.

“I got him!” I yelled. I danced around the fly’s corpse, which was lying on my bathroom floor. “That’ll teach you to come into my house, hammerhead,” I said to the fly as if his spirit -- moving on to Fly Heaven -- could hear me.

I brought the fly’s corpse out to my front porch to show all other flies outside what happens when they enter my house. As I opened the front door to drop off the carcass, three more flies quickly moved in.

Feeling defeated, I recited Clint Eastwood’s dialogue from “Magnum Force.”

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” I said. I knew my limitations. My son would be running me around the house in two hours. I let those flies live. And I went to bed.

-February 2007

Let's Eat!

This Thanksgiving, my family is getting together to feast. Now, most families do that. But this is the first time my younger brother will be joining us in many years. He’s lived out of state, and it’s been too expensive to fly out. But this year, he’s making the trip. And that means one thing: lots of eating.

Let’s flash back to 1990. My brother and I were little pipsqueaks. My parents took us to an all-you-can-eat buffet and told us kids to get their money’s worth of food. And so my brother and I set out to indeed get their money’s worth of food.

Before I go further, I’d like to flash back yet again to another story. When my brother and I were smaller kids, we used to race our bikes up a hill near our childhood home. Every time he lost, which was every time he raced me, my brother would throw a fit and my mom would have to buy him something. She’d buy him a new toy or an accessory for his bike -- anything to make him feel better.

Okay, we’re back to the first flashback, where my family is at the all-you-can-eat buffet. My brother was prepared to finally beat me at something. He was going to eat more food than I was going to eat. In preparation, my brother had gone two weeks without meals. He’d survived solely on potato chips.

Well, there was no way my little brother was going to out-eat me. I was just going to have to show him once and for all who was boss.

And so, with much to prove, my brother started the buffet battle big at the omelet table. And with a record and a reputation to uphold, I jumped right into the hams.

I never ate so much in my life. My brother and I were neck and neck in this scuffle of appetites. Plate after plate, we wore down the serving staff -- the servers couldn’t replenish our fresh plates fast enough. They couldn’t walk by our table without having to refill our orange juice glasses. And the place was running out of food. We made even the biggest of men look shameful.
Many of them left the place with their chins bobbing back and forth against their stomachs, their wives trying to boost their self-confidence with any lie they could think of.

My brother and I had eaten four different types of eggs; we’d eaten pancakes, waffles, pastries, cereal, toast, bagels, hams, bacon, sausage, fruit; we drank orange juice, hot chocolate, water, tomato juice -- I don’t even like tomato juice; we took down the dessert table, tore apart the frozen yogurt machine trying to get the last drop . . .

Oh, we got our parents’ money’s worth, that’s certain. In fact, we shut the place down for the next few weeks so the owners could recoup the loss.

In the end, my brother and I ate about the same amount of food. But we were so sick and so full that we couldn’t walk for two days. No kidding, that day my parents had a slew of activities planned for our family, but my brother and I had to stay in the car. We actually couldn’t get out of the car because our stomachs hurt so badly.

So now we return to the present day. Thanksgiving 2006. My mom is very excited to have the whole family together again for the first time in years, and she’s going to make sure it’s a great Thanksgiving with all the trimmings.

My mom, who’s Italian American and as a result will usually cook enough food for 30 Indian tribes, has set out to cook her ultimate feast. And my brother and I have a date for the title of the “Who Can Eat More” championship that we left tied up years ago.

I’ve long since ended my underestimation of my younger brother. And so I’ve gone without meals for the past month. I’m ready to eat everything my mom serves this Thanksgiving. I’m even prepared to eat cardboard if I have to.

To my brother, if you’re reading this: You better put on your game stomach.

To my mom, if you’re reading this: You better get a few more turkeys this year. And buy something to make that younger brother of mine feel better, like you used to do when I’d beat him in the bike races. You’ll thank me, because he’s gonna throw a fit after he realizes I’ve won again.

Happy Thanksgiving. This year, I’ll be thankful for antacids.

-November 2006