Thursday, December 1, 2011

Just Say Thanks

Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks.

So when my wife’s aunt and uncle invited us to their home for Thanksgiving a second year in a row, we should’ve said thanks but no thanks. Instead, my wife agreed to go.

Then I felt guilty.

“But they had us over last year,” I said. “We should be inviting them over this year.”

I believe that if a friend treats you to coffee, you should treat him to coffee next time. I can’t see abusing another person’s giving nature. A gift must be returned.

“We’re in no position to host Thanksgiving this year,” my wife said. “And my aunt and uncle aren’t like that. A return gift isn’t necessary. Our thankfulness is plenty.”

Maybe my wife was right. Maybe the gift doesn’t have to be returned. Maybe saying thanks is enough.

As a result of that revelation, I spent the month of November saying thanks and not feeling in debt to anyone who gave me something or did something for me. If people performed such a kind gesture, I thanked them. That was it.

My mom, who writes thank-you letters for thank-you letters, thought I was nuts. Typically, we’d be spending Thanksgiving with her this year at her home in Northern California since we spent last year with my wife’s family in Southern California -- we alternate from year to year. But my mom made plans to be out of town this Thanksgiving, so we’ll be in the southland for 2011.

“You’re going over to her aunt and uncle’s again?” my mom said. “Michael, you should be having them over this year. You have to return the gift.”

“A return gift isn’t necessary, Mom,” I said with my new outlook on life. “Our thankfulness is plenty.”

I went on behaving with that mentality.

Last month, when my wife and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary, a friend from work bought us a present. This month, that same friend celebrated his wedding anniversary. I felt no obligation to return the gift. I just congratulated him on five years. (I never thought outsiders should give gifts to those celebrating their anniversary anyway.)

Then, last week, when I was running late for work one morning, my neighbor helped me out by taking my son to school. I thanked her, and I didn’t feel obligated to give her son a ride to school the next morning when she was running late for work. I just waved to her as I drove away.

A dinner out, thanks to my sister-in-law, went unreturned. All compliments went unreturned, though I sincerely thanked anyone with nice words.

The same behavior applied to casual greetings. If someone said to me, “Hi, how are you?” I didn’t feel obligated to say, “I’m well, how are you?” back. Not anymore. Now when anyone asked how I was, I’d say, “I’m well. Thanks.” And I’d move on.

“Thanks.” That was it. I felt no guilt to return the gift.

But then I felt guilty for not feeling guilty about returning the gift. Worse, my wife was getting complaints from friends and family saying I was ungrateful.

“But I said thanks.”

Everyone who had done something for me this month had cut me off. I was dead to them.

I thought maybe I could give return gifts to redeem myself. But either it was too late or I couldn’t financially afford to return the gifts.

“I told you,” my mom said when I called for advice. “You can’t accept anything else.”

That was it -- I wouldn’t accept anything else.

But no one was offering anything else.

So I say here and now, thanks to all my friends and family for just being there. I don’t need anything else. I’m thankful for what I have. I’m thankful for the people in my life, for my community, for the roof over my head, for the food on my table.

Wow, that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about, isn’t it? It’s about giving thanks for what we already have.


Now who’s gonna give the thanks back?

-November 2011

I Suck!

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.
We’ve all heard that saying a million times, yet people say the darnedest things.

I’ve hated my curly hair since I was a kid. It’s nappy and grows all over the place. There’s not much I can do with it. I try to keep it short. But it grows fast -- and big.

When it’s long, people like to remind me to cut it. “Your hair’s getting nappy,” they say. When I cut it, other people tell me to let it grow.

“Yo gangsta,” they say mockingly in bad imitation. “Where’re yo Dickies pants and black Nike Cortez shoes to go along with that gangsta haircut?”

I can’t win. How about I just become another person?

The other day, a co-worker asked me about the film school I spent so much money on and what it was like to be a failed director. Who says that kind of thing to your face? And how do you respond to that? Do you strike back? Or do you follow your conscience: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.

I wasn’t going to ignore this guy like I usually do when people say rude things. But I wasn’t going to attack him either. Instead, I decided to turn his negative comment into a positive.

“Okay,” I said, “so I’m a failed movie director -- true. But you have to fail early in life before you can succeed later. That’s what I’m doing right now.” My co-worker was quick to shoot that down with a quote from author F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald said it, which can only mean one thing: It must be true -- I’m doomed to be a failure.

But, thanks to an instant Internet search on my smart phone, I discovered that Raymond Chandler turned writer at age 45, Paul Gauguin was 43 when he became a painter, Martha Stewart was originally a caterer before becoming -- much later in life -- the superstar business magnate she is today, and Ray Croc was 52 years old, selling milkshake machines when he set out to build the McDonald’s brand.

My co-worker’s not-so-nice comments actually led me to something inspiring. I wondered where I could get more painful criticisms.

I turned to my good friends. We met at a coffee shop for some sandwiches and hard truths. I got a healthy serving of both.

Right away my friends told me to get a haircut. Then came the juicy stuff: At 35 years old, I’m not making enough money, my house is a shack, and I’m a terrible parent because I’m leaving my 8-year-old son an only child.

Well, my wife and I physically can’t have another kid. But that’s beside the point. Thanks to another quick Internet search on my smart phone, I discovered that my wife and I are really good parents for only having one child. The world has shown us many incredible only-children, including Franklin Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Cary Grant and John Lennon. Those are just a few recognizable names.

“How else do I suck?” I asked my friends as I wolfed down my BLT. With my smart phone nearby, I was hungry for more truth. My friends dished it out. But they served more than I could chew. Even my phone choked.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that I just suck. I suck at my job. I suck as a dad. I suck as a husband. Sure, I’m lucky to have a great wife and a great kid. I live in a great area. But my friends convinced me that those great things are there to help me see how much I truly suck.

As the awareness of my suckiness sank in, I came to realize something cool. Without digging, I unearthed a positive aspect of sucking: If I suck at everything, then I don’t have to be good at anything.

So I took advantage of my suckiness. When the bill for our sandwiches arrived, I informed my good friends that they’d have to pay my portion. “Sorry,” I said. “I have no money. I know -- I suck.”

A few days later, my wife nagged me about my sucky driving. I pulled over and let her drive. My son said I wasn’t being fair. I told him, “I suck, don’t I? When we get home, you can clean your room.”

That brings me to a recent piece of sucky writing I shoved in front of my wife for an honest opinion. I wrote the piece, so I knew it sucked. And I knew I couldn’t fix it. Because I suck. But I showed my wife anyway, maybe just as one last proof to confirm that I do, in fact, suck.

“It’s really good,” she said. She didn’t say she was confused. She didn’t say it wasn’t funny. She didn’t even say I needed a haircut. She just said she really liked it.

Finally, someone had something good to say about me, something nice, which, really, could only mean one thing: My wife was lying.

-November 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pre-Halloween Surprise

Halloween is all about surprises -- scares, tricks, treats. This year’s surprise was Disneyland.

My 8-year-old son had no choice -- at birth, he was forced into our family. He wouldn’t get the news of going to Disneyland in advance like his friends got. No, he was going to find out upon arrival after a long, drawn-out production of a lie.

But here was the problem: Today’s kids are no dummies. When I was young, my parents could rely on my gullibility to trick me into believing anything. My son is far too skeptical for that, and so my set-up for the Disneyland surprise had to be even more elaborate than I envisioned.

Earlier this month, my wife ordered the Disneyland tickets online. Meanwhile, I outlined a script that she and I would follow in order to trick our son into the surprise. My spouse had long ago given in to my madness. Like most everything else I do, she just went along.

“Let’s just tell him now,” she said full of her own excitement.

“Can’t you just go along with me this one time?” I asked. It was Halloween time, after all, and Disneyland had to be a surprise.

We kept the secret for over a week. On the day before we were to go, we told the kid that, the next day, we’d have to go down to Orange County (where Disneyland lives) to help Grandpa (he lives in Orange County, too) run some errands. This was believable because we’d done it in the past.

The kid went right along with the story.

When he fell asleep that night, my computer called me from the other room. It seemed to know we were going to Disneyland, and it begged me to go online and check out the cool stuff planned for the Disney Halloween spooktacular. My wife wrote off the whole computer calling me thing as if I was making it up. Whatever.

Online, I saw how Disney dressed up the Haunted Mansion to look like the movie “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Space Mountain became haunted with a ghost that chases roller coaster riders through space. There’d be pumpkin carvers, a Halloween Tree (from the classic Ray Bradbury book of the same name), jack-o’-lanterns galore and trick-or-treating. Forget my son’s excitement -- I couldn’t wait.

On the day of the big surprise, we woke -- rather I woke and shook my wife awake -- ran into the kid’s room and woke him up, yelling, “Hurry up, get up, it’s time help Grandpa with all his errands!”

In the car, my wife and I recited the lines of my surprise script, telling our kid how we were all going to have to be patient because we had “a lot of boring shopping to do with Grandpa.” I told the boy that if he behaved well, we’d check out the Halloween store in the mall.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I asked, veering off the script I’d written, “if they had a ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ costume?”

My wife shot me a look, assuming I’d given away the surprise. No way -- our son had no clue.

“Check out that Disneyland billboard,” I said to my son about halfway into the drive. “Oh wow, it looks like they decorate for Halloween. I sure wish we could go.”

Again, my wife glared at me. Really? I knew what I was doing, even with my ad-libbing. Our son had no idea what was in store for him.

When we neared Disneyland, I really got into character, and I showed the world -- well, everyone in the car anyway -- that Al Pacino isn’t the only one with acting chops.

“Is this right?” I said, tapping the electronic gas gauge on my dash. “It says we need gas. I think I’m going to pull off here. Let me know if anyone sees a gas station.”

The kid totally bought my act. I took the exit before Disneyland so he wouldn’t get suspicious. I’d take back streets to the park.

“There’s a gas station,” the kid said when he saw one.

“Not Shell,” I said. “See if you can find a Chevron. I wanna put gas with Techron into my tank.”

When we got to the Disneyland parking garage, I was turning in an Oscar-worthy performance.

“What the heck?” I said. “I must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. Where the heck are we?”

My wife turned toward our child in the back seat so she wouldn’t miss his excitement when he finally discovered where we were.

“Daddy,” he said, “we’re at Disneyland.” Now I turned around so I wouldn’t miss his excitement. But he wasn’t excited. He was annoyed.

“You gotta turn around, Dad,” he said. “There’s no Chevron in the Disneyland parking lot.”

Yup, Halloween is all about surprises. The surprise that day, however, was on my wife and me. Even as we were boarding our doom buggy in the Haunted Mansion ride, our kid was asking, “So we’re not helping Grandpa run errands today?”

Happy Halloween. Here’s to your Halloween surprise -- or lack thereof.

-October 2011

My Kid the Salesman

My 8-year-old son is deep.

He said to his mother, who’s a middle school teacher, “Your students think eighth grade is next to ninth grade. I think third grade is next to college.”

He’s got something there. It’s quite profound. Or he just wants something from Mommy and knows his way to her teacherly heart.

Yup, our boy’s a salesman. Question is: Will he use his powers for good or evil?

My wife and I saw the full extent of the kid’s abilities when his teacher asked the class to sell magazine subscriptions to friends and family to raise funds for the school. My initial response: “I don’t want to ask anyone for money. No one we know has money right now, but they’ll feel guilty if we ask and they’ll fork over the cash, and I just don’t want that.”

Before I could finish saying my piece, my wife and son already had the address book out and phone in hand, eager to dial the family. I had to step up and lay down the law.

“Okay, who are we calling first?” I asked. Not much stepping up there. But I was able to at least lay down a few ground rules -- my wife and I came up with a list of family and friends our son could call. Everyone else in the address book was off limits.

The boy called my father-in-law first.

“Hello,” Grandpa said when he picked up.

“At my school,” the kid said without any greeting or introduction, “there’s this thing where you can buy subscriptions to magazines. Do you wanna buy one?”

One by one, family and friends came through. They were dropping their hard-earned cheese like it wasn’t all they had in their pockets to put food on the table. After a call to my brother, my son got back on the phone to other relatives, and my brother rang me up on my cell phone.

“I wish I could’ve done more,” he said, “but we just spent everything we have on the closing costs for this house.”

“You did plenty,” I said. “We appreciate it. And I know the school appreciates it, too.”

Boy, that school better appreciate it.

My wife got a similar call on her cell phone from a family friend. And so while she and I were thanking them graciously, our son was on our landline going through his list of contacts, selling subscriptions to each and every person he called.

My wife and I had only been away from our son for a minute -- two minutes tops. He had managed to go through the entire list of contacts, and then he dug into our address book and found other people he knew, people we told him were off limits, and he called them and made those sales as well.

“What are you doing?” I said when I caught him. “We told you to stick to the list.”

“But I just wanted to help the school more better,” he said.

“You should just wanna listen to Mommy and Daddy more better,” I told him. “Now you’re gonna have to call all those people who weren’t on the list and tell them the sale is canceled.”

My wife thought I was being a little harsh. But this time I actually got to lay down the law. The kid had gone too far.

So he called back those not on the list and canceled their orders.

Before going to school the next morning with his list of orders, our son told us, “If I made three more sales, I would’ve won a toy frog. But I don’t want you to think I’m addicted to prizes. I didn’t go into your address book so I could win the toy frog. I really just wanted the school to have more money.”

My wife and I weren’t buying. We sent the kid on his way.

When he returned home from school that afternoon, he told us how he handed over his orders and how the teacher congratulated him on a job well done.

“You did a great job,” I told him. “And I know you could’ve earned the toy frog if we kept your other sales, but more important is that rules are rules, and you have to obey the rules.”

“Oh, but I got the frog,” the kid said, pulling the toy frog out of his backpack.

“Did you steal that?” my wife and I asked when we saw the frog.

“No!” he said, hurt by the accusation. “I just asked for it nicely.”

The question, indeed: Will this kid use his powers for good or evil?

-September 2011

I Want a Reason

It was just a routine check-up.

I’d had a pacemaker in my chest for a little more than a year due to a slow heart rate and frequent blackouts. While the technician assessed me and my pacemaker, I noticed her eyes growing diameters bigger. Then she informed me that there was a problem with my heart.

She asked me to lay down, told me to calm down, relax . . . then she shot out of the room to get a doctor.

I checked my watch. I was late for a previous engagement. When the technician finally returned without the doctor, I was up and asking if this was really necessary -- I had a seat at Al Pacino’s AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in Hollywood.

“We might have to check you into the ER,” the technician told me.

“You don’t understand,” I told her. “I have to go to this Pacino thing. My mother-in-law got these tickets, and she’s waiting for me.”

My always-punctual, very disciplined mother-in-law had received two tickets to this event from a business friend, and she invited me to go with her because she knew I was a huge movie lover.

Lucky for my insurance company, my heart didn’t cut out that day, and my mother-in-law and I made it to the event on time.

But things don’t always work out so nicely. I think it’s safe to say that life, in general, doesn’t work out so nicely, not even for those of us who get to see Al Pacino in person.

My mother-in-law’s recent passing was unexpected. I’d like to believe there’s a good reason for it.

Maybe she accomplished what she needed to accomplish in life, and so she was finished here. She started out in a tiny house in East L.A. next to gypsies. From there she built a very successful banking career and helped raise a very happy family, happy even with her strict business-like regimen, which included grocery store lists organized by the aisle and frequent calls from the second-story landing for her husband. “RRRRROSSSSSS!” she’d lovingly yell on a regular basis, needing his immediate assistance.

My mother-in-law was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a banker, an expert witness, a teacher, a consultant . . . a fellow “Godfather” movie lover. She most recently worked as chief of staff to the western director of the FDIC and, even when she was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, was preparing for her job to end, firing up her resume to do more. She wouldn’t just give up. She couldn’t. She knew tomorrow the sun would rise and so would her family, the family she so loved. So she had to keep going. She had more to do.

No, I don’t think my mother-in-law accomplished what she needed to accomplish. I don’t think that’s the reason for her premature death.

But maybe she passed because she was needed in Heaven to watch over her family from a higher place. She did like being high up in the ranks, and the higher-ups always liked her.

So she gets to the pearly gates and St. Peter checks out her resume, gives her a heck of an interview. His job relies on whom he lets in, so he’s nervous. What if, he wonders, God likes the throw pillows where they are? And can you see God, looking over the world, and then, from some second-story cloud he hears, “GAWWWWWWD!” That’d be St. Peter’s job. So St. Peter asks for my mother-in-law’s intentions.

“If I get in,” she responds, “I’ll make sure my family is safe.” And she’s up there right now, looking over us, making sure we stay safe.

That sounds like a nice scenario. I’d like to believe that that’s the reason for my mother-in-law’s untimely death, that she left to be even closer to us all. I think the whole family would like to believe that that’s the reason. But I just don’t think she would have it that way. I think she could keep all of us safe and in line just fine from down here.

No, I think the truth lies in a passage I came across in The Bible. I haven’t read much of The Bible, but I picked it up and found the book of Ecclesiastes where it says, “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” In other words, any of us can go at any time, and there’s no reason for why and when, whether we’re good or bad.

The book offers this: “There is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live, that each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil.”

My mother-in-law did just that. She loved her work. She loved her family. She loved her days on Earth. And she wanted the same for others. She really wanted the same for others. And I think that’s why she waited a few extra days to make her final exit last week -- to make sure she got what she wanted.

My father-in-law will tell you -- his wife always got what she wanted. She wouldn’t just give up. She couldn’t. Yup, when she left, she left on her own terms, satisfied, knowing that tomorrow the sun will rise.

And so will we.

-September 2011

How to Survive 'Back to School'

Summer goes by too fast. Worse, stores prematurely advertise sales for “back to school” halfway through summer break, making summer fly by that much faster.

As a kid, I hated those sales telling me my summer fun was coming to an end. As a parent, I still hate those sales, reminding me that my kid is one year closer to becoming a teenager who hates my guts.

But no matter how much you hate the fact that school is starting, and no matter how much you remember despising your parents for making you go back to school when you were a kid, you still have to send your children to school, whether they beg to work from home or not.

“Yippie,” my 8-year-old son hollered when my wife and I gave him his back-to-school date this year. “I can’t wait to go back.”

Who is this kid? Certainly not yours. Your children will most likely refuse to go. They’ll threaten your life with the pudding spoons you pack in their lunches. Remember that this is normal behavior, and that your kids won’t actually attempt to make good on their threats. Then send them on their crying way.

I still hate first days back to school. You must bravely navigate through ferocious hordes that slam you out of their way into playground equipment, that swing over your head from monkey bars to get in line for class before anyone else. These are the moms and dads. The kids are sometimes worse -- only sometimes, though.

Then there are crying kids who don’t want to leave moms and crying moms who don’t want their kids to leave. Don’t let these syrupy scenes deter you from getting to your child’s class on time. It’s survival of the fittest out there -- cut others down before they cut you down.

Once you survive finding your child’s class line, be prepared to deal with real life-and-death problems. Your child will complain that all his friends are in other classes. Parents whose children got the best teacher in school will tell you that your child’s new teacher is the “fun one,” which means they think your teacher can’t teach and that they’re lucky their child got a teacher who can.

Defuse such a problem by asking these parents what they did for summer break. When they tell you what they did, fabricate a vacation “you took” that makes their trip look like a Sunday outing. That’ll tick them off. Then go to the office and see if you can switch classes.

The office will most likely deny your request, and rightfully so. No teacher deserves oversized classes, not even the so-called best ones.

Better yet, skip the hassle of going to the office and instead tell other parents and your child that you heard the teacher your kid got is actually the best in the school. Make up a few wild statistics to prove it. Don’t worry, nobody’s gonna fact-check you, unless, of course, you’re speaking with a room mom -- room moms can and will find out everything about your school.

Picture taking on the first day of school is a must. I’m not a fan of school paparazzi, but my wife is. We’ve got two external hard drives full of pictures to prove it.

This year, I was sent alone to cover the first day of school. For those of you who find yourselves in the same predicament, use your cell phone’s camera to be more discreet. Infringe on poses other paparazzi parents set up with your kids and theirs, and snap away. Your absent spouse will revel in photos she thinks you set up. Accept this unjust praise.

Checking the backpacks after that first day of school is always painful. This year, my son brought home two reams of paper from his teacher. When this happens to you, don’t smile and assume you just received free printer paper. This is your homework -- you have to fill out that mountain of paperwork and return the next day.

Throughout that paperwork will be indicators that your children will be learning more this year than you learned in all of your grade school education. My son’s in third grade, and he’s going to be learning calculus and how to write a multi-source I-search paper. Don’t feel inferior to your kids. Just tell them they won’t need any of that useless knowledge when they get into the real world.

The bottom line is your kids are growing. You might tell yourselves that they’re still your babies. This reaction is normal. It just means you don’t want to be older. I call this, fittingly, the “I don’t want to be older” phenomenon.

My wife and I are in our mid to late 30s with one child, and we’re guilty of not wanting to be older. We don’t want time to fly. We don’t want our son to grow up and leave us for a life of his own. We want the baby we had when we were younger, the baby who needs us, who wants us.

And so there’s a solution: Have another kid and relive those grand days of youth.

Only problem is, in just a few years, summer break will be over and that baby will be going back to school.

-August 2011

Taking Ownership

What age are your children when you let them use your computer? How about your iPhone to play games? And the DVR to record programs on TV -- when should your kids be allowed to use that?

How old are your kids before you let them use these electronic items unsupervised?

My wife and I have an 8-year-old boy. He’s used the computer and our phones many times. But each time we’re hovering over his every move -- we don’t want him accidentally deleting something important or messing everything up.

My step-dad told me that my wife and I are typical only-child parents, that we suffocate our kid, give him no room to grow and mature.

“He has to take ownership of his mistakes,” he told me. “It’s key to character building.”

Later my son asked if he could play a game on my iPhone while I washed the car. My first thoughts: What if he drops the phone when I’m not looking? What if he deletes something? What if he scrambles up the placement of my apps? Those took me hours to organize.

I could hear my step-dad’s voice from earlier, warning me to give my son responsibility, to let him take ownership if he makes a mistake.

I gave my boy my phone and told him to be careful. And I turned my back.

When I got the phone back, it actually looked okay. My son even asked me if the phone looked like it did when I gave it to him. I told him it did. Wow, maybe this experience was really teaching the kid to be responsible.

“Can I use the computer next?” he asked. My first thoughts: The iPhone is one thing. The computer has so many things he can screw up when I’m not looking, more important things like system preferences, our checkbook, and the order I have applications placed on my dock.

But there was my step-dad’s voice again, telling me to let the kid take ownership.

I got the kid set up on the computer and told him to be careful. And I turned my back.

When he was finished an hour or so later, I checked out the machine. What the heck? Nothing was totally destroyed.

So I taught him how to use the DVR, gave him full reign of our electronics in the house. I’m gonna get an award for being the best parent, teaching my kid responsibility so early on.

And then came the problems. My wife found 20 new “Words With Friends” games started with unknown people on her phone. We got over $30 in receipts from iTunes showing purchases neither of us had made for applications like “Icee Maker,” “Cake Decorator” and some werewolf hunter game that made no sense.

The DVR had no more space available to record. But the memory wasn’t taken up by cartoons or other kids shows. It was full of game shows like “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Family Feud.” That’s our son.

Then I found the real problem. I checked the computer and discovered missing application icons on the dock. Worse, the icons that were there were in the incorrect order.

My wife and I discussed taking away the kid’s electronics privileges. Obviously he couldn’t be trusted.

“I’m so sorry I messed everything up,” our son said, taking full ownership. “I didn’t know I was starting new ‘Words With Friends’ games with people you don’t know. And when I was playing this game on your phone, this ‘Icee Maker’ window kept popping up and I just pressed okay to try to get rid of it.”

In his defense, some of those free apps do allow tricky pop-up windows that could easily lead to accidental purchases. Even I’ve almost done that. As for the missing application icons on the computer dock and the rearrangement of the present icons, my wife wrecks that stuff all the time.

When I was a kid, my step-dad taught me how to work on cars. He didn’t just show and tell. He told me how to do the work and I did it. While working on a carburetor one time, I actually broke something very costly. I feared for my life.

But my step-dad wasn’t upset. The cost to replace the broken part wasn’t as valuable as the experience he was giving me, and the ownership he was teaching me to take.

Likewise, my wife and I didn’t take our son’s electronics privileges away. We pointed out the mistakes he’d made and showed him how to avoid them in the future. And we told him we weren’t upset about his mistakes. We taught him to own up, that not owning up was far worse than making the mistake.

Last week, FedEx showed up at our door with one of those Roomba vacuuming robots. Our son wasn’t taking ownership of that one. But my wife and I sure did. It cost us over $200 plus shipping and handling to own that thing.

And that’s the story of how our carpets came to be vacuumed automatically on a daily basis.

-August 2011

The Girl, The Date, The Dilemma

It’d been a year since my son, now 8 years old, met The Girl. The Girl’s a year younger. This was their first play date since their first meeting.

“Do you remember her?” I asked my son.

“Yeah, Daddy,” he said in a show-offy tone. “Of course I remember her. Duh.”

“You met her last year,” I said. “At this park. Her dad and I went to school together in San Francisco.”

“I already know all that, Daddy,” my son said to me, annoyed that I was filling him in with details when he just told me he remembered her.

“Do you remember her name?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Duh.”

I waited for him to say her name. When it was clear he had no intention of responding, I said, “So, what’s her name?”

My son blew me off, ran to the playground. The Girl followed.

“Evidently,” I told my friend, “knowing each other’s name isn’t grounds for being friends in the kid world.”

I called for my son.

“It’s okay,” my friend said, probably embarrassed to be a part of this scene.

“No,” I said. “He remembers her name.”

“It’s okay if he doesn’t.”

“Yeah, but I asked him a question and he just blew me off. That’s not okay.”

I called for my son again, this time using that fatherly voice that meant business. He’d come to me if he heard that voice.

My son just kept playing. I called again -- because I couldn’t back down now. Luckily my son came over -- I had no alternate strategy to show I held the power otherwise.

“Yeah?” he asked, as if I was inconveniencing him by calling him over.

“I asked you a question and you just ran off. That’s rude.”

“What was the question again? I forgot.”

“I asked if you remembered her name.”

“It’s really okay if he forgot,” my friend said, trying to end this whole thing.

“Yeah, Daddy,” my son said with pure teenager in his voice. “I have to do stuff.” Then he turned and ran back to the playground, my friend’s daughter in tow.

I could’ve let the whole thing end there. But there were principles at stake. My son stepped over a line. So I stepped over that line after him. My friend followed, not because he was supporting me, but because he’d look kind of awkward standing on the outskirts of the playground alone.

I took my kid by the hand and walked him to a nearby park bench, sat him down.

“I asked you a question twice and you ignored me. And then you were rude. That’s rude.”

“Sorry, Daddy,” my son said, no longer putting on the tough guy persona.

“You’ve been doing this a lot lately. You repeatedly misbehave around other people to try and show off or something, and then you just want it all to be okay afterward because you say you’re sorry. It’s good to say you’re sorry, but you have to start thinking before you act. Then you won’t have to say sorry.”

“Okay, Daddy, I’m sorry.”

“Now what was that girl’s name?” I asked. “Do you remember it?”

“No,” he said.

“Then why’d you lie and say you did?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“You’re not gonna get in trouble for forgetting someone’s name,” I said. I looked at my kid. He seemed to feel awful about the whole matter. So I dropped it. “Okay,” I said. “You can go play.”

My son rejoined The Girl at the playground. I rejoined my friend. We stood there, quiet for some time, watching our kids play. I finally said, “He was embarrassed that he forgot your daughter’s name. Silly, isn’t it?”

Then I asked, “What’s her name again?”

-July 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011


I’m not a cheater. But I’ve had second thoughts.

I was born a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, wearing Dodger Blue not baby boy blue. My first baseball game was with my dad at Dodger Stadium. It was helmet night. I still have that helmet. My first real hot dog was a Dodger Dog. First time I heard a game on the radio, Vin Scully was calling it as nobody else can. And no organ sounds as sweet as the one at Dodger Stadium, with Nancy Bea Hefley at the keys punching in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

L.A. is my town -- Dodgertown, as the marketing campaign suggests. So when my in-laws invited my wife, 7-year-old son and me to an Angels game in Orange County, I said, “No thanks, I’m a Dodgers fan. I watch baseball at 1000 Elysian Park Avenue.”

But my son, now quite the baseball fan, wanted to go. “Please,” he begged.

“If I go,” I said, “I’m wearing Dodger Blue.” (The Dodgers weren’t even playing the Angels.) My father-in-law said, “You’ll be the only one not wearing Los Angeles Angel red.”

“Good,” I said. “They’ll know I’m not with them.”

And off we went to see the Anaheim Angels(there’s only one baseball team really in Los Angeles).

Right away I felt like I was at Disneyland. The entrance was more like an amusement park plaza -- themed, corporate and pristine. The inside halls were the same. Even the seats were too nice for a ballpark. The place was like a sitting room I had in my childhood home -- we weren’t allowed to sit on anything. My mom feared that use would wear down the beauty.

Angel Stadium might be nice, but it has no character, not like Dodger Stadium. And the fans are just like their park -- we might as well have been at an opera with these people. They were so tame I was surprised when I heard a fan finally criticize the umpire for missing calls, telling him to “check his cell.”

“I hate to say this, Daddy,” my son said by the end of the first inning, “but this place is way cooler than Dodger Stadium.”

I think the kid only said that because of the Disneyland-esque waterfall in the outfield and the fireworks that launched out of the rocks out there. Little boys like that stuff.

“Hey,” I said, “this place would be way cooler if it had a haunted mansion ride in the team store, but that has nothing to do with baseball.”

On my way to get a hot dog, I actually checked to see if the stores did have any rides. And by the way, those “Angel Dogs” can’t compete with the non-grilled Dodger Dogs, let alone the grilled Dodger Dogs.

By the start of the fifth inning, my wife had caught Angel fever, and she’s a Dodgers fan. My father-in-law, who grew up a Dodgers fan but who goes to Angels games because he now lives in Orange County, caved and bought an Angels ball cap. Even my sister-in-law, who’s one of the biggest Dodgers fans I know, took off her sweatshirt to reveal a bright red t-shirt underneath.

“Everyone wears red here,” she said. “Don’t worry, it’s not an Angels shirt.”

I suppose she has a right to wear an Angels shirt if she wanted to. The Dodgers franchise has left so many fans disenchanted. Bad trades (I’m still not over the Mike Piazza deal), bad ownership, bad fan behavior, falling attendance, and now this bankruptcy nonsense adds up to more than just bad times. Why can’t it just be like it once was? Thinking about it, maybe it never “was.” Maybe it’s all nostalgia -- better with time.

As I watched everyone enjoying the game, I realized I wasn’t having a good time. How ridiculous, I thought. I’m at a baseball game not having fun. Why should it matter that the Angels have a better park, with better parking and a great front plaza, with clean facilities and happy—not rowdy—fans? I should be happy that I don’t have to chain my son to my body to make sure he stays safe?

So I enjoyed the rest of the game. And we left at the very end of the game instead of after the 7th inning and still pulled out of the parking lot with ease. We got right onto the freeway (big difference). The next day, I proudly admitted to everyone I came across that my trip to Angel Stadium was a great treat.

Summer is now here. It’s the Fourth of July on Monday -- the Dodgers play the New York Mets in L.A. and the Angels play the Detroit Tigers in Anaheim. My wife asked which game I wanted to attend.

“I’ve never been a cheater,” I said. “But I’m having second thoughts.” My wife’s jaw dropped. “Second thoughts only for a second, though. Dodger Stadium it is!”

-July 2011

Death Coaster

I’m what you call a roller coaster freak. If it promises to kill its riders, I wanna go on it.

However, I’m a family man -- I have a responsibility to live, and I can’t do things that threaten my life anymore. So of course when an old friend who made it big in the roller coaster-making industry asked if I wanted to be the first to ride his newest creation called Death Coaster, I said, “Heck yeah! I’m in.”

Back in our bachelor days, my friend always needed a place to crash. I called him The Crasher. I let him crash on my couch on a weekly basis. And I let him bring his friends over, too, and let them crash . . . and control my TV and use my shower and eat my food. The Crasher owed me big, though I never asked for anything.

Then, the other day, he called out of the blue and told me what he’d been up to the last 10 years -- building roller coasters. And he wanted to pay me back for all I’d done for him by letting me be the first to ride his new deadly roller coaster.

My wife said that I couldn’t die yet, that I still had to help raise our 7-year-old son. I could see her point.

On my approach to Death Coaster, I noticed workers still at work on the steel beast. For all I knew, there was missing track. I was so in.

At the coaster station, I bumped into other people waiting to go on the ride -- old friends from the old days, giving me a hard time because I was gonna get to go first. The Crasher said I’d be first to ride and he meant it. I was literally taking the maiden voyage. This thing hadn’t even been safety tested yet.

Now, these other riders were dressed as if they were testing the space shuttle, wearing boots and safety suits. I had on shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. My shirt had the words Oh Yeah! written across the front, which is what I said when I heard this coaster had 20 loops in a row. My sandals: Psyclones—those are some bad sandals.

The Crasher told me to put on close-toed shoes. I told him not to worry. “I got it,” I said coolly. I didn’t even take off my fighter pilot shades, nor did I accept a helmet to wear for when the coaster leaves the atmosphere on that first big hill.

I strapped into the coaster -- the only rider on this run. The others waiting to go next heckled me. “Don’t cry,” these hecklers called out, and “Hope you’re wearing a diaper.” I shrugged them off.

As the coaster climbed that first big hill, my man-ness began to dissolve. That thing just kept climbing and climbing into the clouds, and it was eventually gonna go down. I was a family man with a responsibility to live, with a 7-year-old son to help raise. What the heck was I doing?

That coaster took the life out of me. My Oh Yeah! shirt turned into an Oh No! shirt. My fighter pilot shades turned into Hello Kitty glasses. And my killer Psyclone sandals turned into Crocs.

When the coaster came to a stop, my face must’ve said it all. The hecklers in line laughed, hung me from the proverbial hook. I couldn’t respond. I had to make sure I survived first. I had. That fact alone helped bring on my victory face. That’s right, I thought, I did conquer Death Coaster. I destroyed that thing, killed it.

“Aren’t you gonna ride it backwards?” The Crasher asked me. I only barely survived that thing, I thought. Is this guy out of his mind? But I’m a man and men never say no. So I said, “I’m so in,” and got back into the coaster.

The hecklers razzed me some more. “You want us to get your mommy?” they shouted, and “Premium Pampers give you 12-hour protection with three layers of absorbency.”

Going up that first hill I tightened my safety harnesses so tight I couldn’t breathe. I was really going to miss my family, miss even my son’s teenage years.

The coaster took off backwards and I was dead by the first loop. My Oh No! shirt turned into an Oh, You Fool! shirt. My former fighter pilot shades were lost in space. And my sandals had become Cracker Jack toys. I really wished I had those three layers of Premium Pamper absorbency.

When it was all over, I realized I didn’t actually die. I got out of that coaster faster than you could drop twenty bucks at a movie theater.

The Crasher asked how I liked it. Those in line anticipated my response. Death Coaster was not safe at all. I couldn’t let anyone go on it. They wouldn’t survive. And then I heard the hecklers, poking at me for my reply.

“The coaster is awesome,” I finally said. “Next!” I called out.

-June 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pulling Teeth

My 7-year-old son’s teeth were loose. All he cared about was the money he’d get when the teeth came out.

“Money isn’t everything,” my wife and I told the kid. I felt his teeth -- they weren’t coming out any time soon. Thank God! The Tooth Fairy couldn’t afford a dollar, let alone two. The winged tooth-snatcher was off the hook for at least two months.

Three months later, our son’s teeth were ready to come out. Three months was more than enough time for the Tooth Fairy to round up some dough.

“What the heck is the Fairy gonna do?” I asked my wife after feeling my son’s looser than loose teeth.

“How should I know? With all the furlough days she’s getting this year, there’s no extra money, not even two bucks.”

“Mommy, Daddy,” our kid said. No way he overheard our conversation. “If the Tooth Fairy can’t afford to give me money for my teeth, can you give me money?”

My wife and I looked at each other. There was only one answer we could give the kid.

“Don’t you worry, you’ll get a dollar a tooth just like every other kid in the world.”

Our kid leaped for joy, ran to the bathroom and started yanking on his teeth.

“Slow down there, Indie 500,” I said, chasing him to the sink. “You don’t wanna damage your gums by—”

The kid had already pulled out a tooth.

“But it doesn’t hurt,” he said.

“But you could ruin your gums forev—”

There went the second tooth.

“That was easy,” the kid said. “Look, Mommy,” he yelled, running out into the living room with blood pouring from his mouth like a vampire who just preyed upon some helpless victim.

“Mrraaaahhhh!” my wife yelled when she saw the blood. She didn’t mind that it went all over the carpet like I was yelling about. She almost made it to the ER with the kid.

“I’m fine, Mommy,” our boy said. “I just pulled out my two front teeth.”

Meanwhile, I had the Resolve and a carpet brush trying to get the blood out of our white carpet. “Look what you did,” I said. “This’ll never come out.”

“Carpet isn’t everything,” our son said.

“No, but money is,” I replied. “And we can’t afford new carpet right now.”

That night our boy called various family members, including Grandpa and Grandma in Northern California, to tell them about his two front teeth.

“Oh boy,” Grandpa said over the phone. “Did you know the Tooth Fairy is giving out twenty-dollar bills and video games this year? She might even give you that baseball glove you really want.” Grandpa made sure our boy told us how gracious the Tooth Fairy was going to be that night, all the while laughing at what he thought was a “funny joke.”

“Ha ha,” I told Grandpa when I got on the phone. “So we’ll be expecting the Tooth Fairy from Sacramento tonight?”

“Oh no,” he said. “That Tooth Fairy passed the torch many years ago.”

Our son put his teeth in an envelope and shoved it under his pillow before saying good night.

“Can you believe the Tooth Fairy is giving away all that stuff this year?” our boy said as my wife and I tucked him in. “I hope she gives me a twenty-dollar bill. That’d be the best.” He was so excited.

My wife and I said good night to our boy, then trudged into our room to call it a night as well, unsure of what the Tooth Fairy would give our son for his two front teeth.

“It is what it is,” I said to my wife.

“But he wants that twenty bucks so bad.”

“Money isn’t everything,” I said.

“It certainly feels like it these days.”

The next morning, my wife and I heard our son moving. He was awake. We heard him go under his pillow and rip open the envelope he’d put his teeth in the night before. We waited to hear the disappointment.

There was no response that we could make out. We remained in bed and listened for clues. We heard him moving around the room: rustling paper, scissors at work, tape being pulled from his Scotch tape dispenser on his desk.

Then we heard tapping on our door, which was only slightly ajar.

“Mommy, Daddy,” his little voice crept in. He slipped into the room with his hands behind his back. He came to our bed and handed us a folded-up, taped-up piece of paper. My wife and I sat up, opened the paper. Inside it read, “I love you Mommy and Daddy. This is for all that you do for me.” Taped below his writing were the two dollars he’d received from the Tooth Fairy.

My wife and I smiled ear to ear. Our son gave us a smile of his own, a big hole in the front where teeth used to be.

-May 2011

Nothing for Mom

A few days before Mother’s Day last year, my mom called and told me not to get her anything. She said she didn’t need anything, that she wanted my sister, my brother and me to save our money.

How could I not get my mom something for Mother’s Day?

“You don’t have to get me something to show your appreciation,” my mom told me. “You prove your appreciation every day.”

How kind of her.

But how kind would I be if I didn’t get my own mother something for Mother’s Day? I told my wife about my mom’s ridiculous request.

“You have to get her something,” my wife said. “You don’t want her to be sad, not on Mother’s Day.”

“But I can’t get her something,” I responded. “I don’t want her to be mad, not on Mother’s Day.”

I did the logical thing -- I flipped a coin. Heads -- I’d send a gift. Tails -- I wouldn’t send a gift. Tails it was. I sent a gift anyway.

When my sister called to stress the importance of not buying Mom something, it was too late. My order had been shipped.

“She’s gonna freak,” my sister told me. “You have to cancel the order.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call the company right now.”

Instead I talked to other family members about what I’d done.

“I bought my mom this for Mother’s Day,” I said, showing a picture of the gift. Everyone loved it and said my mom would love it, too.

“But my mom told me not to buy her anything this year,” I continued.

“You bought her something anyway,” a relative told me. “That’s awful, Michael.”

I tried to cancel the order. The lady on the phone was one of the most helpful customer service individuals I ever dealt with.

There was nothing this individual could do -- typical customer service.

My brother called, asked if I was sending Mom a gift, said he wasn’t. I told him I wasn’t either. My sister called to see if I cancelled my order. I said I cancelled it. My mom called to make sure I didn’t buy her a gift. I said, “Of course I didn’t, I wouldn’t go against your wishes, not on Mother’s Day.”

I was doomed.

Then I found the solution to my problem. I’d just say I knew someone at this store who owed me a favor who got me the gift and the shipping for free.

My sister thought it was a good save.

“But,” I said to her, “will you feel bad that I got Mom something and you didn’t?”

My sister assured me that she wouldn’t feel bad. That was a load off my mind.

“But Mom will feel bad that you’re the only one of her kids to get her a gift,” she said. “You know Mom, she’ll feel bad for those of us who didn’t get her something.”

I told my sister I’d fix the problem. I’d drive from Southern California to Northern California, where my mom lives, and grab the package off her doorstep before she got home on Saturday.

And that’s what I did. Five hours later, when I got to my mom’s house, I thought about how ridiculous this all was -- my mom didn’t want us kids to spend money, but here I spent gas money on a 10-hour round trip to pick up a gift I paid for and couldn’t return. As I walked up the driveway, I considered leaving the gift, turning around and going home. Better yet, I’d surprise my mom with the gift and a visit.

At the door, I saw my gift. And I saw two others -- one from my brother and one from my sister. Those rascals.

My mom loved all the presents, couldn’t stop talking about how appreciated she felt. She was not mad at all. She was happy. I’d go as far as to say that last Mother’s Day was one of my mom’s best. We kids did the right thing.

My mom just called. She told me not to get her anything for Mother’s Day this year, that she doesn’t need anything. She wants us kids to save our money.

And so, to the Internet stores I go.

-May 2011

Easter Bunny Hunters

My 7-year-old son loves nature. He found a piece of hardened cement and asked me to look at his “shiny new rock.”

“This must be sedimentary rock,” I said, playing along.

“No,” the boy said, strapping on his junior scientist goggles. “It’s igneous.” He studied the cement more closely. “Daddy, do you think I’m a scientist because of how I discover enchanting stuff in nature?”

“Sure,” I said. Hey, if a piece of cement makes my son that happy, I have to go along.

Now the kid wants to discover everything in nature -- weeds, bugs, different shades of dirt. His latest challenge is to catch the Easter Bunny for scientific examination.

“Daddy,” he said, “did you ever catch the Easter Bunny when you were a scientist my age?”

“Sure,” I said, still going along.

“Don’t you think he’s out all week hiding eggs and don’t you think we can catch him?”

“Sure,” I said. Hey, if catching the Easter Bunny makes my son- Wait! What was I saying? Catch the Easter Bunny?

“Actually, son,” I backtracked, “the Easter Bunny can’t be caught. He’ll just disappear.”

“Disappear?” he exclaimed.

Then came my big mistake: “My brother and I caught him in a box and we saw him disappear.”

“You saw him disappear?” he said.

And so began our scientific adventure. We took out the leprechaun trap we used on St. Patrick’s Day (that’s another story) and painted over the green with pastel colors for Easter.

“Should we set the box up hot-dog style or apartment style?” my son asked. Evidently hot-dog style is the box laid out horizontally and apartment style is the box standing up vertically. We set it up apartment style near some bushes in the front yard. My son added a finishing touch -- along the side he wrote: The Bunny Catcher 101526.

“101526?” I asked curiously.

“I saw it on a TV at Walmart,” he said.

“You remembered the item number for a TV at Walmart?”

“Yeah, in case I ever needed a long number for one of my inventions.”

Next, my son and I hid behind a tree and watched the Bunny Catcher 101526 for activity.

“Daddy,” my son said, “I’m starting to feel like there’s no Easter Bunny. We’ve been here all this time and where is he?”

We’d only been waiting five minutes.

We went inside the house for an Oreo cookie break. My son was defeated.

“Erik at school said the Easter Bunny isn’t real.”

“Who’s Erik?” I asked.

“Remember, he’s the one who got his finger smashed in the door when I was in kindergarten?”

“Well there’s your answer right there,” I said. “Anyone who’d stick his finger into a closing door obviously doesn’t know much.”

“Yeah, well maybe he knows about the Easter Bunny.”

It was time to tell my son the truth.

“Okay,” I began. “My brother and I never caught the Easter Bunny, and we never saw him disappear.”

I continued, “The truth is, he can’t be caught or seen, just like the leprechaun can’t be caught or seen. But you and I put that gold in the leprechaun trap and when we flipped it over, the gold was gone. Just like on Easter our eggs will be hiding. That’s all the proof we need to know leprecauns and the Easter Bunny are real.”

My son’s smile returned. Then he said, “You know, Daddy, Easter isn’t just about the Bunny and eggs. It’s about Jesus rising out of the ground on Easter Sunday. His resurrection each year is our hope for an eternal life in God’s presence.”

“Eternal life in God’s presence?” I asked.

“I saw it on a card at Walmart,” he said. “Cookie break’s over, Daddy.” Then the kid strapped on his junior scientist goggles and grabbed a shovel. Now he wants to discover Christ rising out of the ground in our backyard on Easter Sunday.

-April 2011

The Earth Shakes, the Seas Rise

My 7-year-old son has been in lots of trouble lately. Discipline doesn’t help.

I dropped a 30-pound box of garage junk from a high shelf into my eyeball. There’s a big red blotch on my eye that feels like a sharp wooden splinter.

Oh, and a close relative just got cancer. It’s Stage 3.

To make matters worse, I injured my back and I can barely stand. The pain medication has made me extremely anxious, hyper and insensitive.

So someone tried to “cheer me up” with, “Stop whining, it could be worse.”

The aftereffects of my pain medication kicked in and I said insensitively, “Oh, so because it’s not worse, because my family isn’t living on the street, because we still have our limbs, I can’t get upset?”

No response.

And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse than they were, they got worse.

“Mike,” my wife called from the other side of the house. “Can you do me a favor?”

I thought about my answer long and hard. Half a second later, I said, “No, I can’t.”

Some people say that if two individuals stare into each other’s eyes for eight seconds or more without moving, they’re going to either kiss or kill one another. My wife and I didn’t kiss. After our 8-second stare, she threw down the gauntlet, challenging me to prove that I care about her needs and not just my own. Of course, this dilemma was bound to come up. I’d done something long ago to cause it. At the altar, I said, “I do.”

“I care about your needs,” I said in my defense. “I just have nothing else to give right now. This medicine is making me nuts and I’m wiped out and I’m drained.”

Clearly I was dramatic, too.

I retreated from what was slowly becoming a death match. My son tried to help.

“Daddy, maybe you should just take a cool bath and cool off.”

When I told my son that wouldn’t work, he asked if he could take a bath. He likes to take long baths because his skin shrivels up. He says the wrinkles make him look older, and he wants to look older. I told him that “older” isn’t better. “Older” means more problems.

“Trust me,” I said. “Stay young. Take a short bath.”

My wife walked by and didn’t say a word -- the silent treatment. She called her parents and learned they both had the flu. She asked if they needed her help. Evidently they didn’t because my wife kept insisting that they did.

When she got off the phone, she asked if I was going to say sorry. Typical guy, I said, “Sorry for what?”

She didn’t say a word. She got back on the phone, this time with her sister, and she learned her sister was helping their parents with shopping and cooking while they were sick. My wife started crying.

“Why do you get to help and I don’t?” she asked her sister.

When that phone call ended, I went to my wife and said I was sorry for what I’d done. I asked if she was okay. Things were bad for my wife, too. I didn’t have to make matters worse.

And then matters got even worse. My wife reamed me for keeping our son in the bath too long -- he was all shriveled up. So, with my medicine making me more and more anxious and insensitive, I struck back at my wife, saying her parents didn’t want her help because her help always creates more work.


About an hour later, the house was quiet and still. My wife was in the bedroom avoiding me for what I’d said. I was in the living room avoiding responsibility for, coincidentally, what I’d said. Our son tried to help. He turned on the TV looking for something to cheer everyone up. He found news about the earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. We all came together to watch.

Yes, things could be a lot worse. My wife and I never killed each other. We never were going to kill each other. We apologized and made up -- like we usually do. Japan’s epic problems made our simple domestic issues look like grains of sand, nothing to complain about.

A few days later, I cut my head open at work. While the doctor punched staples into my skull, I smiled, ignoring the pain. “Things could be a lot worse,” I said calmly.

Who am I kidding? I was furious. “God,” I yelled. “It just keeps getting better and better.”

Maybe we never learn.

-March 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Under 'Covers' Job

I’m having one of those days. One more problem will put me over the edge. It’s so bad I’m just looking for a reason to explode.

My wife does it. She pulls the covers off me like she does every night.

Fact: Wives always steal the covers. Why do wives do that?

So I take the covers back. I really wanna yank the covers from my wife so hard that I fling her out of bed onto the floor. But she looks so sweet asleep, so peaceful.

I gently pull the covers back so as not to wake her.

She tugs the covers back to her side.

I won’t get mad. I slowly pull the covers back.

I still won’t get mad. I pull the covers back to my side again.

Okay, if she tugs them again-

One more time and then I’ll really explode.

Okay, this is the last time.

Now she has no more chances.

This is really her final-

I’m not fooling around here.

Try it again and see what happens.

Keep it up.

That’s it.


Idea: What if I make a covers holder? I’ll call it the Covers Holder. It’ll hold the covers on my side of the bed. Stupid, right? Not really, if you think about it. How much sleep is lost trying to regain the covers each night. Men all over the world would benefit from such a contraption to hold the covers on their side of the bed when their wives try to pull them to their side, and they’ll get the sleep they so desire and so deserve. Yup, beginning tonight, my wife will no longer get my covers.

I go to the garage. I’m stealthy (it’s 2 in the morning). I gather some hooks and hoops, ropes and rods, clamps and clasps, and a big screw, and I build a mock-up Covers Holder on my workbench.

Now I gotta move it inside. It’s an amazing piece of craftsmanship. It would make Sears proud to see how I used my tools tonight. It won’t fit through the door.

I take it apart and reassemble it in the bedroom without waking my wife.

It’s 4 a.m. I have the Covers Holder set. I get in bed and can’t sleep. I’m eager for my wife to give the covers a tug. My Covers Holder has got a tight grasp on the covers. The covers aren’t going anywhere.

It’s 5 a.m. I just fell asleep. She finally gives the covers a tug. The Covers Holder works great. It holds the covers no problem.

Problem: The covers are now strangling me. I can’t breathe. I feel my eyeballs bulging out of my head.

I yank the covers back to my side. My wife glides into the air. She lands on my stomach, knocks the wind out of me.

“Not now,” she says. “It’s too late.”

I can’t speak. I can’t breathe.

“What are you doing?” my wife asks as I gasp for air.

“I was trying (gasp) to (gasp) take the covers back (gasp) in the name of husbands (gasp) all over the world.”

“I don’t wanna talk right now,” she says.

“That’s because you have covers on your side of the bed,” I say in one breath, and then I suck in for the air I can’t seem to get.

“Oh my God, you’re still talking about the covers.” My wife is back to sleep as she finishes her sentence.

I try to fix my Covers Holder. I’m tightening the last screw. My wife yanks the covers to her side of the bed. My Covers Holder blows apart.


Before I can sling the pieces of my contraption through the window, I hear a sound. It’s almost like chanting. It is chanting. It’s men around the world rooting me on to stand strong, not to give up.

I don’t give up. I get up. I turn on the lights. I bang away at my Covers Holder. I ignore my wife when she tells me to shhhhh.

I finally get my Covers Holder together and it works. It’s awesome. And now that it’s a success, I speak to husbands of the world to unite. Let’s kick this covers insurgence into high gear right now.

Question: How many wives out there are really going to let us attach this monstrous apparatus to the bed and keep it there?

-March 2011

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Valen-mine Day

Valentine’s Day is never about the guy in the relationship. It’s always about the girl. Flowers, heart-shaped jewelry, heart-shaped chocolate, flowery greetings, flowery dinners . . . Just look at the lines in grocery stores on Valentine’s Day -- no women, just men waiting to buy flowers that’ll die in a week, chocolate that’ll never be eaten, teddy bears that’ll just get donated, cards with glitter that’ll make an unruly mess . . . Men are expected to do for women, but what do women do for men?

This year, Valentine’s Day is taking a turn in my house. It’s going to be for me. That’s what I was thinking anyway, until my wife asked if we could go on a romantic weekend trip, which means we’re going no matter what. So much for the “for me” idea.

A romantic Valentine’s weekend trip should be nice, even for a guy. However, it never is. I can never have peace.

The cost of the hotel on Valentine’s weekend and the expensive dinners are enough to ruin any sense of mental calm. Then you’ve got the cost of a babysitter for the weekend, the cost of valet parking and the unfair cost of buy-one-dozen-and-only-get-a-half-dozen roses -- typical for this time of year.

Here’s the worst: For the past 10 years that my wife and I have been married, hotels have put us in rooms next to the ice machine. How romantic is that?

“I love you so—”

Ger-uggggggggg. (That’s the sound of an ice machine, which echoes through the room every 15 minutes throughout the night, usually accompanied with drunken or juvenile laughter.)

Nevertheless, there was no debate about going or not going on the trip this weekend. I just booked a room. I did it for my wife. But I set out to plan the trip with “me” in mind.

The first thing I did: I told the hotel clerk, “No ice maker!” Then I told the wife, “No flowers!” I said I’d get her some next week when they go back down to half the price. Then I told her that for every boutique store she dragged me through, we’d have to pay a visit to a brewery or something cool like that.

The Valentine’s Day card I picked out for my wife: no glitter, no flowery hearts and no flowery prose. It was straightforward: “I love you, Wife.” And that was it.

The trip was shaping up nicely. I got my in-laws to watch our 7-year-old for free. The clerk at the hotel was really nice. She gave me all kinds of discounts -- even a discount just for having unpleasant stays we’d had at other hotel chains.

And then reality came into view. I added up the costs. Wow, that became a small fortune really fast. I made the mistake of voicing my frustrations with my wife. By the time I realized my error, I’d already killed the excitement she had for the trip.

So I called the hotel clerk and cancelled my arrangements. I had a nice talk with her. She told me how husbands are always screwing up with their wives at this time of year, but said apologizing is what makes it Valentine’s Day. She asked if I still wanted to cancel the room -- this was a minion of Valentine’s Day to the death.

So I apologized to my wife, but it was really for her, not for me -- I truly felt bad about ruining Valentine’s Day. When she accepted my apology, I rebooked the room and got the trip back in order. I even bought some really expensive flowers, a new card that had glitter, flowery hearts and flowery prose, and I threw out my straightforward card and cancelled the walking tour of the missile site I really wanted to see while on the trip. Like old times, I even got the room next to the ice machine.

“I don’t get it,” my wife said to me. “These are all things that make you miserable. Why would I be happy if you’re in misery?”

“I’ll have one thing that makes me most happy,” I said.

“What, me?” she said with playful mockery in her voice.

“No,” I responded.

“No?” she exclaimed, unpleasantly surprised.

“I’ll have your happiness.” It was corny, but it was honest. And fitting for Valentine’s Day.

“I still don’t get why you wanted the room next to the ice maker,” she said.

“Well,” I responded, “by now I’d say we’re able to tune out the sound. Besides, the only other room is next to the elevators.”

-February 2011

The Shoes Are On Other Feet

How do boys go through shoes so quickly? My 7-year-old went through two pairs in two months.

“More shoes?” my wife and I said to each other when we saw the shredded rubber our boy was wearing on his feet. We can’t afford to turn on our lights at night, let alone buy new shoes. In fact, the other evening I pulled up one of our solar-powered yard lights and hung it over the kitchen table so we could see our dinner. It was that bad.

“But he needs shoes,” my wife said.

“If we buy shoes,” I told her, “we can’t buy cheap ones.”

“But we’re spending too much money on the good ones,” she replied.

“Cheap shoes will force him to hate us,” I said. Then I told her about the pain and suffering I had to endure because of the cheap shoes my parents made me wear when I was about our kid’s age.

At first, I didn’t have to wear my cheapies to school because my mom and dad knew how bad the shoes were. But I had to wear them the rest of the time.

Now, everyone knows that the shoes you wear in grade school and how your peers respond to them factor into what colleges you’re able (or unable) to attend. That’s right. Kids are brutal, and they can shatter another kid’s confidence easily, thus affecting that kid’s entire life.

I had a friend who had to wear the same pair of cheap shoes every day for three years straight. His parents would stitch them up if they tore and wash them when they got dirty. The white laces never got as white as the rest of the shoe. Kids always made fun of him for that.

I certainly couldn’t complain to him about my cheap shoe situation. He had it just as bad, if not worse. But he gladly towed me in my Radio Flyer wagon with his bike while I grinded the soles of my shoes against the gritty asphalt to speed up the wearing-down process. He asked what I was doing. I said I was braking. I just had to get rid of those suckers.

I’d take off my shoes and use them for batting practice. I’d kick walls, let the dog chew on them. No mud puddle was left without ripples. But when my cheap shoes became a mess, my parents didn’t cave and buy me new “good” shoes like I’d planned (I assumed they’d believe the whole “You get what you pay for” bit and buy quality). No, they saw my friend’s newly washed sneakers and, a day later, I was wearing bright white shoes with mucky white laces.

My parents talked about never getting me the expensive shoes ever again. The cheap ones seemed to be holding up really well, they said.

I was doomed. The day would come when I’d have to wear those stinkers to school, and then everyone would poke fun.

“Those shoes aren’t so bad,” my friend told me.

“What do you know?” I said. “You’ve worn those same beat-up cheapies for three years.”

What a horrible thing to say. I lost a good friend because of it. He even went so far as to point out my cheap shoes to everyone we knew. They all laughed at me and put signs on my back. Yup, I was a grade-A dork.

I eventually apologized to my friend for the horrible thing I’d said to him about his shoes. I told him I deserved everything I got and would continue to get once I wore my cheap shoes to school. He graciously accepted my apology and wished me luck.

The years went by and, believe it or not, I survived grade school, even with cheap shoes.

“It was rough,” I told my wife. “But I was lucky -- very lucky -- to have had such a good friend by my side to take the taunts with me.”

As we discussed our son’s shoe situation, I imagined a reality where our kid wasn’t as lucky as I was. I didn’t want him taunted for the shoe choices his mother and I made.

So we bought him a brand new pair of really, really expensive shoes, the kind that would last forever. He test-drove them around the store. I couldn’t catch him. The shoes were that good. And really nice.

A month later, the shoes were trash.

So much for “You get what you pay for.”

-January 2011

Have Your Cake and Wear It, Too

I love cake. So when I saw the table ad for chocolate cake at the restaurant, I knew I had to have a piece. My wife was against it. She didn’t want our 7-year-old son getting any ideas.

“If you get it,” she said, “then he’ll want it, too.”

“Want what?” our son asked. “What’s it?”

“It’s nothing,” my wife replied, doing her best not to give the kid any ideas.

It’s just cake,” I said.

“Cake?” the boy said with increasing excitement. “I love cake. What cake? Chocolate cake?”

“The sugar’s gonna make him hyper,” my wife warned me. When the warning didn’t make me budge, she reminded me of the messes our kid made with cake in the past. My wife knows I hate mess.

“I can handle it,” I said. “It’s all under control.”

The waiter came by and, on cue, asked if we wanted dessert. My wife said no. I told her it was too late, that I’d already ordered.

Then I actually ordered.

Bystanders could see the storm clouds on the horizon when I asked for chocolate cake all around, even for the 7-year-old. They shot up out of their seats and ran, leaving full plates of food.

Out came the biggest . . . triple-decker . . . double fudge . . . towers of chocolate cake I’d ever seen. The cake came with shovels.

My wife’s piece intimidated her. She didn’t touch it. I studied my slice, looking for an approach route. My son jumped right in, no plan at all.

The face on the busboy was telling: Help! He could foresee cake everywhere. He eyed the kid, looking for compassion. He got no such gesture. He eyed the mom. The mom cried. He eyed the dad. I gave him a look of pure confidence. I think the poor guy ran for the time clock.

I slowed my eating during my approach into Quadrant 2 of the cake. That’s when I noticed the mess my son was making. I got scared. Real scared. I caught the busboy in his travels (he must’ve been denied clocking out), and I requested a few hundred napkins. He obliged.

I didn’t know where to begin. The mess started on the table surrounding the kid’s plate, then spread to the hands. The hands touched the face and the hands touched the shirt and the pants. From there, the mess made its way to the seat, then to the floor. It somehow managed to make its way to the ceiling, too.

Nobody at our table could move -- we were marooned, afraid of the mess as if it were a monster. In hindsight, it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It was worse.

I left my cake unfinished and devised various strategies to get the kid out of the restaurant without tracking cake all over the place and, more importantly, without getting cake on me. But I couldn’t perfect anything. Making matters worse, the restaurant was pressuring us to leave to accommodate a line of people waiting for a table.

“You have to go,” the waiter said. The busboy grinned, happy to see me in peril -- misery loves company. I couldn’t pull myself together. Nothing was under my control. The mess was my fault and I had no exit strategy.

Then a plan came to me: Apologize to my wife for being dead wrong about the cake (maybe the first true apology in the history of husbands and wives) and apologize to the busboy for the mess.

The busboy took pity on me. He armed me with a stack of towels and offered me good luck. I welcomed his warmth with gratitude, and then I buckled down for the job I had to do. I wrapped my kid in towels and sprinted out the door.

The towels didn’t stop the mess from spreading. I got cake all over my hands and arms, all over my clothes. I made a chocolate cake path out of the restaurant and into the parking lot. The inside of my car was covered in double fudge. It looked like a cake had exploded in the back seat, and it might as well have.

When we got home, the mess continued onto the driveway and into the garage. It landed in the entryway, the hallway and in the bathroom. Even the dog, who was in his doghouse out back, found morsels of cake to eat.

My wife and I eventually got everything cleaned up and had our boy ready for bed at 11 p.m. -- two hours past his bedtime. The kid was so hyped up from cake he couldn’t sleep for another three hours.

Last night, we went to dinner. After eating, the waiter asked if we wanted cake. The cakes he showed us on a display plate looked so good. Yum.

“How about a cookie?” I said.

-January 2011

Healthy Holidays

My son has toys, but he plays with cardboard boxes, scrap paper, wrapping paper tubes and recycled Christmas bows. If he were a toddler, I’d understand, but he’s 7.

“Imagination is healthy, Daddy,” my boy said to me while building a nondescript machine out of old juice boxes and Scotch tape. I couldn’t disagree with what he was saying, but with Christmas coming, my wife and I wanted to know if we should be buying him toys or digging through the trash to find him junk.

We asked him to make a list for Santa. He told us the best stuff is what he’s seen on TV. My wife and I simultaneously felt our bank account go negative.

If we had a normal kid, we’d be right to worry. That stuff advertised on TV is expensive. It’s all video game systems, remote controlled gadgets and popular TV show-themed toys. But we have our son, who plays with junk. He doesn’t want expensive name-brand toys. He wants the stuff you see for $19.99 plus shipping and handling, and not the toys either.

Our son likes the weird household items, like the boot and glove dryer he saw on TV a few days ago. The kid doesn’t even own boots or gloves.

“Maybe I should watch TV and see what other great stuff I can find,” my son suggested. “But all that TV wouldn’t be healthy, would it?” he asked. “I don’t want to be ruled by TV. Did you know American kids spend about 30 hours a week watching TV? When they’re 70, they’ll have spent up to 10 years of their lives watching TV. That’s bad.”

“Where’d you learn that?” I asked with surprise.

“TV,” he said. Then he had a thought. “Maybe TV isn’t so bad.”

So my son set out to watch TV in search of “good” gift ideas for his Santa list. I sat with him and saw some really cool things advertised, like an actual flying saucer, a mini duck shooting gallery and a pretty neat mini magician’s magic set.

My son, however, had eyes for the Bug Vac (“It’s lightweight, Daddy, and it removes bugs with no mess.”), the Bed MadeEZ wedge (“Daddy, it’s designed by housekeepers from around the country.”) and the Twin Draft Guard (“Our drafty doors and windows are forcing us to crank up the heat, Dad. The Twin Draft Guard blocks air leaks from both sides”).

My son’s list grew with odd items. He couldn’t get enough. But he wanted more. He sat in front of the TV for days, collecting the names of weird items for his list.

“Mommy, Daddy,” he said one day. “I’m 7 and I have a TV problem. I think I better quit.”

Seven-year-olds think everything is just that easy. One day, when our son came home from a friend’s house -- a house that’s double the size of ours -- he asked if we could upgrade. “Can we get a bigger house? Just use your Chase card.” And after riding roller coasters at Magic Mountain another time, he asked if we could build a roller coaster of our own in the backyard. “Why can’t we build one, Daddy?” he asked. “You have wood in the garage.”

Yup, everything was an easy fix. But quitting TV was the kid’s first lesson in “easier said than done.” I caught him watching TV only minutes after he said he was finished with the tube.

“It’s okay, Daddy,” he said. “I don’t have a problem anymore. I’m perfectly healthy.”

He was perfectly in denial.

Then he went nuts. He hummed TV show themes nonstop and recited commercials word for word. My wife and I drew the line when he imitated kid pop star Justin Bieber, who he’d seen perform on TV.

We told our son we missed his made-up machines. We missed his made-up games. His imagination died and he was addicted to TV. Even he knew it.

A few days later, the TV gave our boy a way out. It advertised an “As Seen On TV” website. So I hooked the kid up to the Internet, with hopes it’d get him off TV. It seemed to work. And everything he ever wanted was there, even WonderFile, the ingenious organizer that turns any space into a neatly organized workplace.

A few clicks and a few hours later, my son’s Santa list was complete, and he’d forgotten all about TV. To celebrate, he asked if we could go outside to play.

“I’m so glad I don’t need TV anymore,” my son said while tossing a football. “But playing outside in this cold air doesn’t seem really healthy. Can I go inside and go online?”

And just like that, my wife and I have a true kid of the 21st century.

-December 2010

Working It Out

I’m broke. It’s my fault. I’ve given up.

Okay, so it’s really not as pretty as all that.

For the last 10 years, I’ve worked as a writer and content creator. But just barely. I’m on my way up.

In the last three years, there were months where I made no money at all. But sometimes I made very little money! My ultimate goal since I was a kid: sustain regular work as a filmmaker. And survive financially. That goal was all but in my grasp.

Now, at 34 years of age and little to no money in my pocket, I’ve had to consider going back to the job I got in high school, the one that supported me through film school, the one I so happily left to earn my living as a writer, which was beginning to work.

Before going back to that old job, I considered other options.

My wife and I had long ago cut frivolous spending. We don’t go anywhere fun. We don’t do anything fun. We don’t buy anything fun.

“What else can we cut?” my wife asked.

We sold the cars, leased two roller skates. Got rid of the house, rented someone’s closet. We’re wearing the same clothes since Tuesday . . . of last month.

“Mike,” my wife shouted. “What else can we cut?” she asked again.

I guess I was dreaming. I checked to make sure. Yup, I was wearing clean clothes and we still had our house and cars.

“There’s nothing else to cut,” I said.

So I made the decision to go backward, back to where I started, back to my first job -- manual labor with low, but at least steady pay.

While I filled out the online application, my 7-year-old son tried to keep me in high spirits. He talked about the wife he was going to get when he grows up.

“She’s gonna have blonde hair,” he said, “a pink shirt, blue jeans, and she’s gonna wanna play trucks with me all the time and have a family with me.” I wasn’t paying much attention to what my son was saying, but by the time I submitted my application, I knew I was making the right decision. My family’s well-being was more important than my career goals.

The next day, I got an interview for the job. I walked into the place I’d long since left and I couldn’t help but take in those sights, those sounds and those smells that I knew all too well. I swore that I’d never go back, that I’d keep moving forward no matter what. To go back would be to give up.

After leaving a decade ago, I occasionally had nightmares of being stuck at that job. I’d wake up in a panic, my wife assuring me I wasn’t back. I was doing well as a content creator for many years. I was making a living, building up a nice body of work and moving up. And right about the time things got bad, that’s when they got worse.

Four years of college that cost me $75,000 in student loans, and all the work I put into my career, not to mention the costly gambles I took to further that career, seemed to be meaningless as I went back to that high school job, asking for work.

Maybe I wouldn’t get it.

I got it.

My wife and son were thrilled. When I didn’t share their hoorays, my wife wondered why.

“I thought you wanted this job,” she said.

Wanted this job?

On my first day of work, I entered the building feeling like Tim Robbins’ character in “The Shawshank Redemption” as he encountered prison. I could almost hear the other employees chanting, “Fresh fish . . . fresh fish . . . fresh fish!” When I clocked in, it was like hearing my cell door slam home. On the outside I was a free man, the sky being the limit. Inside, however, I’m an institutionalized man, making just enough to get by, going nowhere.

That first day was the toughest, no doubt about it. My feet were sore, my back was sore, and I was constantly thirsty, spending most of my break time at the drinking fountain. The money certainly didn’t reflect the pain.

I knew right away I’d made a mistake. That night, friends and family tried to give me a boost.

“You weren’t going anywhere before anyway.”

“You gave your dream your best shot.”

“At least you have a job.”

 Yes, at least I have a job. My family can eat again. My wife and I can pay our bills, and we no longer owe anyone any money. But in that moment it seemed like something inside me died. My failure became a reality.

When I said goodbye to my wife and son on my first Saturday of work, I felt like I was saying goodbye to weekends with my family altogether. And I was.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” I said to them in a minister-giving-last-rites kind of way. “I enjoyed the time we had together and I’ll cherish it forever.” Before I got into my car to leave, my son presented me with a picture he drew of me at my new job.

“It’s for you, Daddy,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

There was some perspective.

Each day since then, I’ve gone to work feeling better about the choice I made. Sure, with this move I’ve gone backward. But maybe I was on the wrong path toward my goal. After all, I wasn’t making a living toward the end there. A dead end is a dead end, no forward movement there.

And so I seek a new path. I’ll continue to work really hard for many more years if I have to, and I might have to sacrifice as I have in the past, but forward I will go.

Like my son, I too once imagined a girl I’d marry -- one along the same lines as my son’s with blonde hair, pink shirt, blue jeans, likes to play trucks with me all the time, wants to have a family. I didn’t get exactly what I imagined.

I did better. And I’m very grateful for that.

-December 2010