Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Handy European Travel Tips

We are back from our two-week vacation to Europe, and we are almost totally adjusted back to Pacific Standard Time, if passing out at two in the afternoon and waking up ready to go at three in the morning counts as being adjusted. I have not been very productive this past week in my jet lag fog, but the least I figured I could do was impart some of my newfound travel wisdom. Just think of me as a really poorly-informed Rick Steves.

SMIDGE’S HANDY EUROPEAN TRAVEL TIPS


PLANES, TRAINS, AND TINY AUTOMOBILES

Traveling on airplanes with kids
If you are considering flying long distances with children, it is best to gather up their books and every electronic device you own (iPads, iPods, Leapfrogs, etc.), put them all in a backpack, and bring that backpack, along with the children, to Grandma's house and drop them off, because you should never fly with children.

Rental cars
Don't ever rent a car in Europe. You are not qualified to drive there. Italians drive like NASCAR racers on a combination of crack and grappa. Germans drive like Formula 1 racers on a combination of meth and more meth, and uppers. Lane lines are only fun road decorations in Italy, and have no bearing on traffic patterns. Lane lines on the German autobahns are strictly followed, on the other hand. The only problem is, neither lane is built for you. Traffic in the slow lane consists of big rig trucks going slower than you want to and traffic in the fast lane consists of Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes going about four kilometers per hour over the speed of sound.

Trains
Take the train between cities. Train stations offer a wonderful opportunity to stand confused in front of a large board written entirely in Latin and scribbles, and then a great exercise opportunity where you do the steeplechase while dragging three hundred pounds of luggage after you realize your train is leaving in two minutes, four platforms away.

Buses and trams
Once you have caught your train, and then subsequently changed trains to go in the correct direction, your awaiting destination city will have a marvelous bus and trolley system. The trolleys and busses run on very strict schedules, which are not posted anywhere, and are subject to change based on the meal and nap times of the driver. The bus lines are marked with all the stops, so they are very easy to decipher if you born in the city you are visiting. If you weren't, none of the stop names will correspond to any of the attractions you want to see, so just jump on board the first large vehicle that stops for you, and see where it takes you. It doesn't matter where it goes, because all European cities are old and historic, and there is a restaurant that serves beer and wine on every corner, so you really can't go wrong.

Tolls
Europeans love tolls. If you were crazy enough to rent a car, while you are still alive you will get to pay tolls. Many countries make you buy a sticker to put on your windshield. Austria is nice enough to let you buy a ten-day sticker that only costs a little. Switzerland is nice enough to let you only buy a sticker valid for the whole year, which costs enough to fund an entire road crew for a month.

Italy doesn't have stickers, because Italy loves tollbooths. Second only to Insane Cab Driver, Grumpy Toll Booth Operator is Italy's number two growth occupation. There is a toll booth at every single exit on major Italian freeways. Judging by the state of the roads in Italy, it seems that the tolls only go to support the toll booth infrastructure itself, and possibly the politicians’ girlfriends’ clothing and jewelry budgets.

Germany is the one country without road tolls. They gave up on tolls a few years ago, because everyone drives too fast to be able to collect them. They tried to install those automated coin basket toll booths, but too many hapless motorists were accidentally killed by stray Euro coins, like rifle bullets, being flung out of Porsche windows.

Parking
There is no parking. All the spots in Europe are already taken. Park on the sidewalk or in a field outside of town. (Side note: When renting a car, make sure it is no wider than the narrowest sidewalk - approximately eighteen inches.)


LOCAL FLAVOR

Language
It is very helpful to learn a few key phrases at a minimum for each country you plan to visit. The most important one is, “This is my cousin who speaks fluently and will order food for all of us.”
Other helpful phrases include:
“Do you know anyone who would be willing to buy our children?”
“Which one of these trains has Nastro Azzuro beer in the bar car?”
“Do you take third-party American checks at this toll booth?”
“What is the bail amount?”
And, “Have you seen our car? We parked it on this sidewalk last night.”

Dining
Eating is really the main reason for traveling to Europe, so enjoy yourself. The food is amazing. Just don’t expect to eat at a normal hour, or for a normal time period. Italy is the best example of this. Lunch in Italy occurs sometime between the hours of two and five in the afternoon. Restaurants do not open for dinner until after eight o’clock. Dinner is served in courses that last approximately three hours each, so expect to be at the restaurant anywhere from three to five days. Breakfast is served the night before.

Refrigeration
Europeans devote most of their time and energy to the culinary arts, doorknob design, castle maintenance, and road closures, so very few professionals are left over to handle refrigeration. To reduce service calls, all European refrigerators are set to keep food just above room temperature. If you have food you wish to refrigerate in your hotel or apartment, it is best to keep it in a basement, a cave, or submerged in a river. It will last longer that way. Also, do not ask for ice. Ice cubes do not exist in Europe.

Tipping
Europeans don't tip. You might be tempted to take advantage of this fact, but please don't. We as Americans must keep tipping. It's our strongest advantage in the war for seating priority.


AND FINALLY, BATHROOMS

Public restrooms
Back to tolls and infrastructure for a moment, the public toilet industry is also a major moneymaker in Europe. Short of your own accommodations, you will pay to pee most places you go. In a show of love and appreciation for the next generation, kids are always free. (Or maybe they just got tired of cleaning up the accidents when the parents couldn't find enough pocket change in time.) It will cost you, the adult, anywhere from twenty to seventy cents every time you have to tinkle, so have coins at all times. Most countries have automated turnstiles, but Italy still relies heavily on the personal touch. Creepy Coin-Collecting Bathroom Attendant is Italy’s third largest growth industry.

Showers
Just resign yourself to the fact that you won't have a satisfying shower until you get home. Many showers will try to fool you by being life size. Don't fall for it. You are sharing water pressure with the entire town, or you only get hot water in six-second bursts every three minutes. Otherwise, the shower will be the size of a phone booth, if you were to miniaturize a phone booth.

Counter space
Don't expect any. Counter space in most European bathrooms consists of the little flat spot in the side of the sink designed to hold the soap. Most airplane bathrooms have literally five times more counter space than the average Italian bathroom.

Toilets
Like the showers, don’t get your hopes up for powerful or robust plumbing. In many areas of Europe you are lucky to get a toilet instead of just a hole in the ground. Flush intensity ranges from “light mist” all the way up to “spilled a glass of water.”

Some places have the baffling “shelf toilet,” which has a flat porcelain plateau directly beneath your seat, with the exit hole moved all the way to the front of the bowl. Anything you happen to put into the toilet sits perched proudly on the shelf until the mighty flush, when it is (hopefully) punted off into the hole. Good call, Europe!

And then there’s the bidet
The most mystifying device in the European bathroom is the bidet. I will be blunt here, because the bidet is confusing enough as is. We Americans have a vague notion that this device is supposed to somehow aid us in the cleaning of our butts. Sure enough, the bidet is always sitting right next to the toilet, suggesting that a pants-down transfer is expected.

All the bidets we encountered had a standard-looking faucet that would shoot water horizontally across the top of the bowl, but with standard low water pressure, so as not to be able to accidentally shoot past the end of the bowl.

So, here’s the problem, Europe. If you are expecting this thing to take the place of my toilet paper, we’re going to need about sixty or seventy more PSI, here, and some kind of splash guard. This thing has a standard sink drain, so a toilet paper/water combo cleaning does not make sense plumbing-wise, even if there was a world where that would make sense practicality-wise.

In short, Europe, you have placed a low sink next to the toilet and I don’t know what you want me to do with this thing. After many hours of long contemplation, the only possible explanation I can come up with is that you want me to sit on this thing and use the water faucet in combination with one of my own hands to take the place of toilet paper. If that really is the case, I must ask you Europe, what in the actual hell are you guys thinking?  

(Side note: You probably shouldn’t ever shake hands with anyone who purposely owns a bidet.)


Well, the bidet may remain a mystery, but I hope I was able to help with some of the other stuff.

Safe travels!

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Psychic Travel Log, Volume III

We were supposed to come full circle back to Milan, but...

Psychic Travel Log, Volume III – Austria

After a magical week of lounging and eating in the Italian countryside, we punched a few new holes in our belts and reluctantly got back on the spider web of confusion known as the Italian highway system, headed north to Austria.

Everyone on the roads out in the Tuscan countryside was still trying to kill us, but they seemed to do it at a slower and more relaxed pace than in the big city of Milan. Unfortunately, however, they had tractors with crazy-old trailers, so it evened itself out to be just as death-defying.

Surprisingly, we made it to the border with all of our fenders and most of the original paint. As soon as we crossed over into Austria the drivers were ninety-seven percent less crazy, and I was able to pull to the side of the road and, with some considerable effort, unstick my hands from the wheel and get the blood flowing back to them.

At the first stop for gas (which was roughly three thousand Euros per milliliter), we noticed the other glaring difference in our new surroundings. Everyone sounded different.

What were they thinking when they invented German? They’re so close to Italy. Couldn’t they have just used Italian? Everyone in Italy sounded like they were offering me warm bread and telling me it was OK to take a nap. Everyone in Austria sounded like they were hacking up a fur ball while demanding that I fix the engine and run somewhere to put out a fire.

Still, as a Schmatjen, these were my people. Strangely enough, however, not one of them knew how to pronounce our last name. I know for a fact that we don’t pronounce it right, but I at least figured they would know the correct way. Everyone in Austria and Germany made the same “what in the hell is this mess of letters?” face that we get in the U.S. Bummer. I was hoping for some insight there.

Well, at least they have schnitzel. And German beer. For all their faults with the language, they sure know how to craft superb flat, breaded meat and brew wonderful beer.

We were on a whirlwind tour through Austria and Germany. We visited Innsbruck, which is German for “Holy cow, look at this place!” My people are very appreciative of their surroundings.

We toured a salt mine in Salzburg, which is German for “Salt Town.” My people are also very literal.

We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, which is German for “this is a two-bazillion square foot castle, but you’re only allowed to see the porch.” My people are not very welcoming with their big buildings, either, I guess.

Then we drove to Bamburg, Germany, which is another really old city with a lot of really old stuff. It was one of the only cities not to get bombed in World War II, so it is ironically named, from an American pronunciation perspective.

A lot of the stuff in the town of Bamburg is literally a thousand years older than me. Many of the residents have carpet older than the United States of America. Those facts were totally lost on our boys, who had just completely tuned out to how amazing Europe was and had deteriorated to the point of simply complaining about a lack of French fries and how everything was old and made of gray rocks.

This, along with our considerable lack of money, signaled a time to make our way back home.

From Bamburg, we were scheduled to drive back to Milan on what would end up being today, the 22nd of July, when all of you finally catch up to us and this column is automatically posted thanks to the wonders of the internet.

We were supposed to fly out of Milan on the 23rd. After careful consideration regarding the feasibility of a road trip back through Italy, however, we decided to drive to Frankfurt instead, purchase new full-fare flights home at the ticket counter using fake names, and report the rental car stolen, which we left in a ditch just outside the airport.

That just seemed easier than driving back through Italy.

It was a great trip, but we can’t wait to be home.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Psychic Travel Log, Volume II

Our European vacation adventure continues...

Psychic Travel Log, Volume II – Cortona

One week into our vacation we had almost fully adjusted to the time difference, although Son Number Three continued to fall asleep in his lunch and wake up at two in the morning. That was only a problem because our Milan Airbnb apartment was the size of our master bedroom at home. Naturally it was billed as “sleeps twenty,” because it was enormous by European standards. We spent a lot of time outside.

We spent two and a half days in Milan, with the main activity centered around going to see The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci. He painted it on an entire wall of a church.

Here’s a recap of the viewing:
Everyone: “Wow. That’s a big painting.”
Boys: “Why does it look so old?”
Me: “Because it is.”
Boys: “Who are all those people?”
Me: “Well, the one in the middle is Jesus. The scary looking guy is Judas.”
Boys: “Who’s the lady?”
Me: “That’s John, not a lady. I’m not really sure who all the other ones are.”
Boys: “Why aren’t they eating?”
Me: “They’re about to.”
Boys: “We’re hungry.”
Me: “Me too. Who wants to go get pizza?”

The World’s Fair was also in Milan this year, so we booked tickets ahead of time for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here’s a recap of the fair:

Boys: “Where are the rides?”
Me: “It’s not that kind of fair.”
Boys: “Where is the Ferris wheel?”
Me: “It’s not that kind of fair.”
Boys: “Where are the corn dogs?”
Me: “It’s not that kind of fair.”
Wife: “At least there’s no scary meth addict carnies.”
Me: “Who wants to see the exhibit on hybrid disease-resistant corn crops they’re growing in Africa?”
Boys: “We’re hungry.”
Me: “Me too. Who wants to go get pizza?”

We then rented a car and drove from Milan to Cortona. I bought the insurance because I don’t understand Italian well enough to know that it was being included. That was a good thing, because Italian drivers are insane, and Italian roads have no actual rules. At least they drive on the right side of the road, but the road signs make no sense. I feared for my life for the entire seven-minute drive from the car rental place back to our apartment.

The first time I drove in Italy we didn’t have kids yet. I remember it being kind of fun – sort of like driving in Tijuana while wearing a blindfold. I remember a lot of my life before having kids as being fun. Now, however, that my sweet, precious children were in the car with me, asleep and drooling at ten in the morning, the whole driving in Italy thing was no longer fun. It was ridiculous. Why is everyone in this country trying to kill my family with their cars and their scooters?

In order to accommodate six people, we rented the largest vehicle manufactured in Europe that is not a city bus or a cement truck. That being said, it was smaller than a Toyota Camry. Even so, our car did not fit in any of the lanes designated for vehicular traffic, nor did it fit on any of the sidewalks where Italians normally drive. There was also no place to park it. I was forced to simply leave our huge people mover in the center of the road blocking both lanes when I needed to stop. Fortunately, this is normal in Italy and no one noticed.

We were heading for a town called Cortona. Actually, we were heading for a farm house in a small village near Cortona that does not appear on any maps. What could go wrong?

Fun fact: If you are trying to find a farmhouse in a nonexistent village that is only two kilometers (whatever those are) from the town of Cortona, it will take you approximately four hours to locate it, once you have reached Cortona.

Italians apparently consider it rude not to know where you are trying to go, so if you ask for directions and they don’t know, they just make something up to be friendly. No wonder everyone here drinks wine like marathon runners drinks water.

Also, I learned that the Italians don’t bother with the diagonal red stripe on their “don’t do this” road signs. For example, a sign with a red circle and a car in the middle means “no cars,” even though there is no diagonal red stripe through the car. The red circle with the car in the middle and no diagonal red stripe definitely does NOT mean, “OK for cars to go here,” like one might surmise if one was used to the presence of the apparently-not-so-universal diagonal red stripe on “don’t do this” road signs.

Also, when you happen to drive your car into an Italian no-car zone, you will learn a lot of new hand gestures from the helpful locals.

Since we had been in Italy for almost a week on local time - or about three months on our bodies’ clocks - Son Number Two spoke fluent Italian by then, so he was able to pick up enough of the farm country dialect to figure out what all the hand gestures meant. Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to say those words in English.

We finally arrived at our farm house paradise where we spent the week swimming, eating, catching up with our long-lost relatives, and desperately avoiding driving anywhere unnecessary in our giant car.

Cobblestone streets in ancient cities may look quaint and picturesque, but they are hell to do a U-turn on when you misread a red circle sign.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Psychic Travel Log, Volume I

By the time you read this, it will be the 8th of July. I will have already been experiencing the 8th of July for longer than you have, unless you are reading this in Europe, because that’s where I am. At least, I hope I am. I’d better not still be in Portland at the airport!

You see, our family is on an amazing vacation to Italy, Austria, and Germany right now (hopefully), but I am writing this before we left. I was very skeptical of my ability to complete this column while on vacation with my family, since I’ll be traveling with my wife, my mother-in-law, and all three of our boys. I’m not even sure what I was thinking when I signed on for this trip, actually, but I have to assume I will be splitting my time between telling my children not to touch the five hundred-year-old piece of artwork and telling them to go to the bar and order me another Peroni. A bigger one this time.

Also, I’m not sure if Europe has the internet or Wi-Fi yet, so I wanted to be safe.

So, in lieu of three weeks of reruns or nothing at all, I thought I would write our European vacation travel log ahead of time. I have traveled extensively with my wife and her mom, and I have lived and traveled with our three boys all of their lives, so I am already pretty sure how things are going to go.



Psychic Travel Log, Volume I – Milan

We started our trip at the Sacramento International Airport. Like many things in Sacramento, it’s a smaller, duller, less awesome version of a regular city’s airport. It recently got the “international” status by finally offering a flight to Canada. Actually, it’s really a flight into Seattle with an optional bus ride to the border, but apparently that counts.

When we checked in, the gate agent said, “You’re going to Milan?”
“Yep.”
“From here?” she asked, with a puzzled look on her face.
“Yep.”
“Wow. Neat. And you’re flying with the kids?” she asked, watching Son Number Three climb into one of the giant potted plants by the end of the counter.
“Yep.”
“Good luck with that, sir.”

Five minutes into the flight from Sacramento to Portland, Oregon we realized that is was a colossal mistake to bring three children on an airplane with only three adults to chaperone them. The first flight was only an hour and a half, but we were already exhausted from playing man-to-man defense with no subs. What were we thinking? We sat stunned in the Portland airport dreading the next flight from Portland to Frankfurt. The flight would be approximately two hundred hours long. There was no way we could do that with the kids. We searched frantically near the shops and restaurants for someone to buy our children. No takers.

Reluctantly, we all boarded the aircraft. We gave up trying to control the children somewhere over Newfoundland. When we landed in Frankfurt, there was a tense fifteen-minute period when we could not find Son Number Three, but eventually one of the flight attendants located him in an overhead storage compartment in the galley. We were asked never to fly Lufthansa again.

The local time in Germany was listed as 2:00 P.M. on July 8th, but it was really 3:52 A.M. on the 12th of August on our bodies. Completely numb at this point, the short flight from Frankfurt to Milan was a breeze. That was largely due to the fact that we put the kids on a later connecting flight. Most of them made it into Milan on time.

While in Europe, we were not staying in any hotels - only Airbnb apartment and house rentals. This is because European hotels are designed to hold and average of 0.5 guests per room at a cost of approximately nine thousand euros for each half guest, with a surcharge of two million euros for every half guest after one and a half.

Safely at our final destination, we set about figuring out how to get ourselves and our considerable amount of luggage to our first apartment rental in downtown Milan.

Why are all the signs in a foreign language?

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Freedom isn't Free

The Fourth of July is a special time for me, and not just because of the magnificent pairing of beer and explosives. I have always loved celebrating our freedom, but the last couple of years have been extra special, because it was around this time in July of 2013 when I extricated myself from the business world to become a full-time writer.

Now, when I celebrate our freedom as Americans, I also have a little mini personal celebration of my daily freedom from having a boss. I guess I should say, a boss that I’m not married to. Two years ago I traded one boss for another, but my new one is much easier to work with, and I can sleep with her without it being an ethical issue.

Prior to my incredibly liberating decision to quit my job, I had an eighteen-year career in engineering. While I don’t miss much about the working world, I do miss the people now and again. I worked with a lot of good, smart people, a lot of good but not-so-smart people, and a few folks that can only be categorized as brain-dead.

Strangely, it’s the brain-dead ones I miss the most. They were never easy to work with (or for), but if you could survive the frustrations, they did provide a level of entertainment that you just can’t get anywhere else. 

Sure, now I’m home with my kids, and they say ridiculous things.
“Dad! He hit me in the nuts with an X-wing fighter.”
“Only because he just bit my butt.”

That’s all well and good for a laugh, but it’s slightly tempered because it’s to be expected from young kids. The real true comedy comes from when those inane comments are coming from a grownup. When you get that kind of idiocy from a colleague, a client, or your boss, that’s comedy gold.

Over my career (perhaps sensing that someday I would become a writer), I wrote down some of the verbal gems that I received. Here are some of the highlights:


Geography

I was talking with someone about a company’s operations in Thailand, and he kept referring to the workers as “Taiwanese.”
Importing people from a different country seems unnecessary.


I overheard this conversation in a break room once:
World Traveler: “I lived in Europe for two years. My favorite part was driving between all the different countries.”
Geography Major: “Did you ever drive over to Australia?”
WT: “Uh... I was in Europe. I did drive to Austria a bunch of times. It was great.”
GM: “I’ll bet the beaches were nice, huh?”
WT: “Uh...”
I’ll bet if that other company opened a facility in Australia they would staff it with Austrians.



English as a second language – Awesomely, however, every single one of these gems come from people born and raised in ‘Merca

I had someone substitute the word “oversight” for “insight” in a phone call and not skip a beat. “Your excellent oversight with that problem...”
Yes, any time I can help by overlooking your problems, I’m happy to do so.


I worked with a guy for a long time who just made up words. My favorite was “squose.” He believed it was the past tense or past participle of squeeze.  He would say to clients things like, “We squose four into the same space.” It was magical.


“Not the most eloquent solution”
Irony isn’t even a good enough word.

And then, just to really keep everyone on their toes, the same guy said, “In his eloquent way, he picked a Thursday to start the project.”
You aren’t even using the word wrong the same way. How many incorrect meanings do you think it has and what are they??


Someone talking about the honor his son was receiving for high school graduation:
“He’s graduating magna cum lau, or whatever”
So I guess the milkman helped him with his homework all these years?


"I point-blank alluded to him"
Nope, nope, nope, nope.



And my favorite category: Idioms – Know when and how to use them – and most importantly, what they mean. Again, awesomely, all from born and bred ‘Mercans

“Now he’s singing to the choir”
In the context of the conversation, this was a wonderful mixture of “singing a different tune” and “preaching to the choir.”


“He wants me at his call and beckon”
A good example of the rule – if you don’t know the idiom, don’t try to use it.


“This hits home right between the eyes”
It does?


“That’s been their Achilles' heel in their side... or however you want to say it”
However I want to say it? I guess if it was up to me, I would choose one or the other - Achilles' heel or thorn in their side. That's just me, though.


“Take the political middle of the ground”
I think it was a combination of high ground and middle of the road.


“I'm treading on a gray area”
Uh...?Possibly a mixture of “thin ice” and “gray area,” although, one of those is a lot worse than the other, so I’m not sure how serious this is.


“He beat him to the punchline”
Sure he did.


“Squealing like a stuffed pig”
Stuffed... stuck... they all squeal.


“The ship is sailing, but no one's at the helm, and we're not tied up to the port”
Uh... say what?


“I would undress him with both barrels”
Dress down, maybe? Or unload? Or are there some other issues you want to discuss?


“Didn't mean to throw gasoline on an open wound, there”
Fire... salt... who can keep track of all this stuff?


“Just tell them we’re keeping our pulse on it”
I would tell them that, but I don’t want to confuse them.


“I took it as a grain of salt”
Like, it was really small?


“Shot it up the ladder”
This was supposed to be “run it up the flagpole.” The only thing they got right was “it up the.”


“The ball is in my court, but I don’t have a player on the other side of the net”
Huh?


“We don’t want any black toes on this one”
Yes, frostbite is not a good option. My best guess is it was a hybrid of “black eyes” and “stubbed toes.”


“They’re breathing down my throat”
He meant “breathing down my neck,” but the misuse of the idiom left a visual that I couldn’t unsee inside my mind.


“I’m trying to tread water lightly on this one”
Jesus? Is that you?



They say freedom isn’t free, and that’s very true. I may not be tied to an eight-to-five office life anymore, but that freedom came at a cost. I lost out on a regular supply of this kind of comedy magic.

I mean, sure, one of my sons just told me he accidentally dropped his underwear in the toilet when he was peeing. That will be a hilarious story, but the fact remains that I still have to clean it up.

Happy Independence Day! God bless ‘Merca!

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

I Love Meth

It’s time I came clean. I can’t hide it anymore.

I love crystal meth. I can’t stop. I have to have it all the time.

Not the actual drug. What am I, an idiot? Don’t answer that.

No, I’m talking about the show about the drug; Breaking Bad. It’s soooo good. It’s the best thing I’ve put into my eyes since Pulp Fiction came out.

I was addicted from the first scene. The pilot episode begins with a middle-aged man wearing only beige socks, tan Hush Puppies, tighty whities, and a full-face gas mask, behind the wheel of an antique Winnebago, driving frantically at seventy miles an hour down a desert road, with an unconscious passenger riding shotgun in a gas mask, and two dead gang bangers and a destroyed chemistry set sliding around on the linoleum floor in the back.

You had me at hello. I will take whatever else you have to offer, please.

I know we’re about eight years late to the party, but we don’t have whatever channel it was on, and we’re too cheap to pay for Netflix, and we were busy raising kids and working and stuff, so we had to bide our time and wait to make friends with someone who owned it on DVD.

We finally found our DVD dealer, and now we’re binge-watching the chronicles of Walter White, high school chemistry teacher gone bad.

Through a rare perfect storm of writing, casting, acting, and directing, the geniuses behind Breaking Bad have made a show about meth more addicting than actual meth. My wife and I have watched thirteen episodes in two nights.

We are TV tweakers. Just like meth heads, our dietary habits and personal hygiene have gone out the window. Sleep? Showers? Dinner? Who cares? All we care about is the next episode. You’ve heard of meth mouth? I have meth butt. I am creating a divot in our new couch, and my back is starting to hurt, but I don’t care.

The only thing we care about is the next episode.

That became more obvious last night when my wife foolishly had a girls’ night out instead of watching the hijinks of Walter White with me. We were both a wreck. She couldn’t concentrate on the conversation, because all she could think about was getting back to the couch at home. I did nothing but pace back and forth in front of the television, waiting for her to get home and nervously itching my meth butt, craving my fix.

We won’t make that mistake again. We don’t need less Breaking Bad in our lives. We need more. From now on, we will always stay home. We need more Walter White. We need more Jesse Pinkman. We need more Skinny Pete. We need more of it all.

Is six o’clock in the evening a good bed time for the kids during the summer? It is if you’re trying to get to season three as fast as you can.

You guys didn’t get dinner? Um... here’s a bag of Cheetos. Eat them in your room. G’night. Yes, I know it’s still daytime outside. Go to sleep.

Why are you kids awake at five A.M.? Go away. Your mom and I were up until two this morning watching our shows. You’re hungry? Go see if the neighbors are having breakfast. You can eat over there. We need to sleep for another five or six hours.

We have to rest up. We’ve got a long night of meth ahead of us.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


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Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Ultimate Father's Day Gift - Repost

As far as I know, my children have made no progress whatsoever on The Blanket Anchor (TM pending), so I am reposting this in hopes of some good news this year.


Father’s Day is right around the corner. My boys are young, so I still get homemade cards, but it won’t be long before I start receiving ties that I will never wear and bottles of cologne that I will never open. My dad still has twenty-six bottles of Old Spice from me, and not one of them has ever been opened. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I realized he never wore cologne in the first place. I want to avoid this with my own kids before I have to find a spot to store thirty-five gallons of Axe body spray.

So, I am hereby publicly announcing what I want for Father’s Day. I would like my three boys to invent something. Something specific. Something that could change the world. Something that will benefit not only me, but possibly every father on the planet.

I want my boys to invent The Blanket Anchor.

Here’s the problem: I sleep in a king-size bed with a wife that has major temperature swings. You would think that the king-sized sheets, blankets, and duvets on a king-size bed would be more than enough to cover two people adequately. You would be wrong, in our case.

Depending on the time of year, my wife comes to bed either on the verge of sweating profusely or on the verge of freezing to death. There is no middle ground. At no point since having children has she been comfortable from a temperature standpoint, especially at bedtime.

And, no matter what her starting state, at some point in the middle of the night, her temperature completely reverses. During the winter, she can reach up to two thousand degrees by midnight. By morning, she is usually back to where she was when she came to bed.

These extreme swings in spousal temperature lead to a lot of blanket movement. There are times when I wake up noticing that I am a little warm and my movements are slightly restricted, only to find I am under a three-foot-thick pile of bedding. Most of the time, however, it is the opposite. Nine days out of ten I wake up without any covers to speak of.

My wife is in denial. I have tried to explain to her that while sleeping she tends to mimic an Australian crocodile doing a death roll, gathering all the sheets and blankets in a horizontal tornado-like fashion, wrapping herself up like a roll of toilet paper. She refuses to believe that she even moves during the night. She has gone as far as to accuse me of pushing the covers over onto her side. When I asked her to show me how exactly to push a blanket across a bed she just changed the subject.

All I can tell you is at the first sign of movement from her side of the bed, I grab onto the sheet and hold on for dear life. It usually doesn’t help. Anyone who thinks women are the weaker sex should try to get the covers back from one of them. During the day, I can beat my wife in any sort of physical strength competition like arm wrestling, but not at night. She is approximately twenty to thirty times stronger when she is asleep. The perfect tug of war team would be six sleeping women all holding onto the same bed sheet.

And if I ever have to get out of bed to pee (or in many cases with my boys, to clean up pee), I can simply forget about having any covers when I get back to bed. Now, many of you unmarried men out there are probably asking, “Why don’t you just wake her up and get your covers back?” That’s cute. I miss those days when I was young and carefree. I’m not going to begin to try to explain to you why that is such a bad idea. Just suffice it to say that I would rather simply get dressed and leave the house in the middle of the night, find a flock of sheep, shear some of them, and attempt to make my own blanket instead. That would be less troublesome.

So there it is, boys. All I want for Father’s Day is The Blanket Anchor. I want something that insures that the blankets and sheets I have when I go to bed get to be at my disposal for the entire night.

I don’t know what it will look like. I don’t even know how it will work. All I know is I want covers.

Until such time as the invention has been completed, I do not want ties and cologne as Father’s Day filler gifts. I would simply appreciate more homemade cards, with progress reports on The Blanket Anchor (TM pending).

Thanks,
Love,
Dad


See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Year Left

What would you do if they only gave you a year to live? That’s the situation I’m faced with right now.

You might spend some time coming to grips with it, then plan out an epic year full of family and friends and parties and eating and drinking.

I can’t do that.

You see, the news of my impending demise didn’t come from a doctor. It came from my rather adventurous mother-in-law, who called yesterday to tell me the “good news.”

“I just booked us for a mule ride down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon next June!”

That momentarily sounded like fun until I did a little internet research on this non-refundable adventure that I’m now contractually and familial-ly obligated to go on.

The mule ride company’s website started out sounding great. There is no Grand Canyon adventure more rewarding or more unique than a mule ride.  The overnight rides go deep into the canyon, staying overnight at Phantom Ranch. If you think the view from the rim takes your breath away, wait until you experience the Grand Canyon from within.

Then I found the You Tube videos from former riders capturing the experience. After watching the videos, I assume the cameras were found by hikers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon near the bodies of the riders and their mules. I now assume that the overnight spot is known as Phantom Ranch because no one ever actually gets there, and it doesn’t actually exist.

The trail appears to be about half a mule wide, and carved by God-only-knows-who into the side of the actual rock wall of the actual Grand Canyon, which, as it turns out, appears to be about nine million feet deep.

When my bowels recovered from the videos, I made it back to the company’s website and found out the really good news. Riders must weigh less than 200 pounds (90 kg), fully dressed.

I immediately weighed myself. I weigh 210 pounds naked. I wonder how much 90kg is?

I called my mother-in-law to break the news to her.

“Quit complaining. You’ll be fine. Just lose ten pounds.”
“Fully dressed!” I reiterated.
“OK, fifteen. What are you worried about? You have a whole year. Suck it up.”

As I hung up the phone from my super-helpful pep talk, my wife came home from the doctor’s office with even better news.

“I just had my physical. They weighed me on their scale, and it turns out our scale is about five pounds off.”
“Well that’s good news.”
“No, the other way. You’re heavier than you think.”
“Dammit!”

I re-read the website. Yep... fully dressed. Do you think they mean what I’m going to wear on the mule, or just dressed enough not to be arrested?

I kept reading.

Our mules are thoroughly trained, and are well adapted to the unique environment and work situation at Grand Canyon. Although we have over 100 years of experience working with mules, they are animals and not always predictable. The restrictions we place on our rides are intended for safety and to avoid distracting or disturbing the mules. There are always elements of risk due to trail conditions, other trail users, and sudden appearances of wildlife native to Grand Canyon. While serious accidents or injury seldom occur, risk is minimized by carefully following the trail guide’s instructions.

I’m not sure if any of that paragraph was intended to put me at ease, but if so, it failed. Here are two problems I see right off the bat:

Problem Number One:
You have over one hundred years of experience with this? That’s great and all, but that does nothing to make me feel better about the trail. Long trains of giant, heavy mules have been plodding up and down this trail for over one hundred years. That’s a lot of wear and tear. When was the last time a trail on the side of a cliff got wider with age?

Problem Number Two:
I have to assume that you cannot “thoroughly train” a mule to go up and down a tightrope-width trail at a thirty-seven degree angle on the face of a cliff without having him or her do it a bunch of times. That first time seems like it would be dangerous and scary for everyone involved. So, that being said, would you, as the mule owner, want to train a bunch of new mules all the time, or would you want to use your “thoroughly trained” mules all the time?

You see where I’m going with that? In a year from now, I’m going to get on a mule that either, A) is new to all this, or B) has done this so many times he or she has lost the will to live.

Either scenario is not good, but the slight edge goes to Molly the suicidal mule for being the scarier option. (Side note: “Suicidal Mule” would be a good name for a rock band.)

The suicidal mule problem puts even more pressure on me from a weight loss standpoint, because I’m very sure that I don’t want to just barely make the cut off.

“Good morning, Molly. Thanks again for doing the same thing every single day for the last twenty years. Here’s another 199.6-pound tourist for you to schlep down into the canyon while he kicks you and tries to give you orders that mean absolutely nothing to you. When you get down to the bottom... well, you know the drill. Have some oats and a nice nap, and then as a reward for your patience and service to the company for all these years, you get to carry him back up here. Then we’ll do the same thing again for the rest of your life. Have a great day!”

So now, based on how far out of whack my scale actually is, I really need to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-five pounds in the next year. So what will most likely be the last year of my life is going to be spent not eating pizza, not drinking beer, and running a lot. Super.

There was one bright spot for a moment. If I don’t lose the weight, the mule guys won’t let me go, so I won’t die from falling into the Grand Canyon.

That bright spot faded quickly, however, when I considered it further. I’d better lose the weight, because if I can get skinny enough, there’s a very slight chance I’ll survive the trip, but if I don’t lose the weight, there’s a one hundred percent chance my mother-in-law will kill me.

I’m between a rock and a hard place here, which, ironically, is where I’ll be on the mule, too.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


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Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Forget Square Dancing

We as a society are right in the midst of torpedoing an entire generation of kids. “How?” you might ask as a parent, in an earnest effort to learn what you can do to stop this catastrophe.

Cell phones.

“Cell phones,” you ask, confused. “What’s wrong with my child having a cell phone?”

A lot of things, in my opinion, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s the fact that we parents have cell phones that’s the problem. Specifically, cell phones with built-in video cameras.

You see, God gives us finite and imperfect memories for a reason. If we remembered everything, the species would never survive. Parents, you can totally back me up on this one: If you truly remembered what a sleep-deprived hell it was to have a newborn baby, you would never have another kid.

But those foggy, early-morning memories fade away, and pretty soon, along comes another newborn. Suddenly you’re up at three in the morning again thinking, “Wait a minute, I remember this now. This sucked. Why did we do this again?”

And then the third kid comes along and you have the exact same thought. God is sneaky like that.

It’s the same thing with growing up. The only reason we turn out OK is because the memories of all of our failures and painful mistakes fade away. At least, that was the case with my generation. That’s because our parents were not able to instantly record every single moment of our lives with a device they had in their pockets at all times.

For example, I just came from the elementary school year-end talent show. Sons Number One and Two played the piano, and their mom was not able to make it because she and her mom selfishly went gallivanting across three states on a road trip, leaving me here all by myself to manage three boys that do nothing but fight with each other for every minute that they are awake, driving me to the point of insanity each afternoon around three o’clock, making me want to run screaming away from the house, but I don’t, because I am legally responsible for their safety, and if left alone they would devolve into a three-boy Lord of the Flies scenario in less than fifteen minutes, but mostly because I just don’t like to run.

Where was I? Oh, yeah; recording…

Their mother was unable to be at the talent show, so she asked me to video them. No problem. I can do that with my phone. I dutifully recorded their performances and they both did just fine, despite their acute daily allergic reactions to piano practice.

They weren’t amazingly brilliant. They weren’t horribly bad. They were just good. As such, this time the video recording of their performance is not a big deal. “Here you are, son, performing well. Good job.”

The problem is, we record everything. If their mom had not chosen to abandon us here to fend for ourselves while she merrily tours the west coast, she would have still recorded their performances, even though she was there watching it herself. Go figure.

If we record everything, we will end up capturing all of their highlights, and all of their failures, along with all the regular, standard, unexciting, middle-of-the-road efforts. Depending on the parental video editing, kids these days could grow up thinking their childhood was one big victory lap. They will naturally forget the failures, but if we keep showing them the highlight reel, that’s how they’ll remember things.

On the other hand, if we don’t edit, showing them everything, they won’t be able to forget the failures. Neither one of those outcomes is good.

A better example might be square dancing. I was probably in a talent show as a kid, because talent isn’t a strict prerequisite for an elementary school talent show. I don’t really remember, and I can assure you there is no video evidence if I was, which I can also assure you, is undoubtedly a good thing. I know that I square danced, however.

When Son Number One announced in a dejected voice earlier this year that his fourth-grade class was square dancing at P.E., I said, “We did square dancing when I was your age. It was fun.”

Well, of course it wasn’t fun. It was probably horrific and painful. But God erased that memory for me so I could go on to lead a happy and productive life.

Well, the big hoedown day came for my son, and this time, unlike my childhood, all the parents showed up at P.E. to watch their kids square dance. And there I was alongside everyone else, cell phone in hand, recording the whole traumatic event for him.

He was in agony the entire time, being forced by the wicked gym teacher to do-si-do with actual fourth-grade girls, holding their hands and touching them, and having them smile at him. Ick. It was awful, and he will never be able to forget it.

He won’t have the luxury of that memory fading blissfully into the background fog of the elementary school years like I did, because it has been recorded for posterity. How will he ever reassure his children that square dancing will be fun if he has permanent video proof that square dancing is, in fact, awful? What if his kids see the video before they reach the fourth grade?

No good can come from that. The logical end result will be a nationwide fourth-grade revolt, causing a curriculum shift to remove square dancing, resulting in the first generation since the dawn of time to never learn to square dance, followed by the inevitable worldwide decline and eventual disappearance of square dancing altogether.

Hmm… That actually doesn’t sound bad.

Never mind everything I just said. Keep recording your kids. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go figure out how to get his square dancing video to play on the big TV downstairs so we can all watch it tonight.

Maybe a beer first, though. The kids will be home soon.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


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Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Real Last Day of School

We are down to the last two weeks of school, and frankly, everyone has quit trying. I say two weeks, but really it’s eight school days. Seven if you don’t count the last day, which is on Thursday next week. We can’t even make it all the way to Friday.

Next Thursday is officially the last day of school, but the real last day of school was the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. That was when the last bit of actual learning took place for this school year. Homework has stopped. Spelling and math tests have stopped. Everything educational has stopped. This week and next are just movies and cupcakes and field trips.

And when I say field trips, I don’t mean a trip to a museum or a historical monument. I mean walking to the movie theater and walking to the park. Why walking? Because it takes up more time than riding the bus. They’re just looking for activities to fill the time at this point.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing. I’m not concerned about this at all. I don’t blame the teachers for un-educational time-fillers. I empathize. I feel their pain. And I totally understand the logic behind it.

You have to have the useless weeks at the end.

Here’s the real-world scenario they’re dealing with: Imagine the office where Bob has come down to his last week before retirement. The last five days at a job before he will never go there again. Now imagine you’re Bob’s manager or coworker.

“Hey Bob, can you handle the really annoying and overtime-filled Jenkins account for the last five days you’re here, until you’re gone forever?”

“Sure, I’ll handle it,” says Bob, with a smile on his face.

Bob is still smiling later that morning as he hands the Jenkins file to the janitor and heads out for lunch.

It’s just like that for the teachers, except they have twenty-five little Bobs.

Bob’s last week is filled with sleeping in, leaving early, extended lunches with his favorite clients, spider solitaire, and Facebook and Twitter updates (#FourDaysTillPermanentVacationEqualsFourMartiniLunch, #DontBeJealous, #ImOuttaHere, #9to5OnTheGolfCourse).

Ending a long-term endeavor like a job or a school year is a paradox. It goes like this:

What are we here to do?
Be productive.
Can we really be productive on the last day?
No.
Then should we have the last day?
No.
OK, we’ll get rid of the last day. Now the second to last day is the last day.
Can we really be productive on the last day?
No.
Then should we have the last day?
No.

You see the problem. If we eliminate the useless last two weeks of school, then we have a new end date, which will naturally be preceded by two weeks of uselessness. So we get rid of those two weeks and move it back again.

You have to have the two useless last weeks or pretty soon we just show up for the first day of school and they say, “Great job. See you next year.”

So here we are. In the eight-day window of time-fillers.

Classroom pajama parties – Maybe if we tell them to wear their pajamas and bring pillows they’ll actually lay on the floor instead of climbing the walls. It’s worth a shot.

Walking trip to the water park – Sounded like a good idea, but in drought-stricken California at the moment, the water park consists of colored pipes sticking out of the ground with no water coming out of them. Whatever, let’s go anyway. It’ll burn a day.

The talent show – School-wide time-filler consisting of 473 acts. The acts have a 100% bravery ratio but, sadly, only a 9% talent ratio. Gets us out of the classroom, so let’s do it.

Walking trip to the movie theater – What’s playing? Who cares?

Day on the green – Put them all out on the soccer field. Activities? They’ll probably figure something out. Just lock the doors so they don’t come back in. Teachers can take turns rotating to their classrooms to sit in the quiet.

And finally…

The last day of school – It’s a minimum day. School ends at 12:20. Why do we even go through the charade of keeping them here for four hours? We’re not going to actually do anything. Shouldn’t we just show up in the morning, check them out on the clipboard, gather up the stuff from their desk and hand them off to the parents?

Come to think of it, why can’t we just check them out when they get picked up on Wednesday afternoon?

That’s a good idea. Next year we’ll just eliminate this useless last day. Have a great summer, Bob.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


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Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Spray on the Glamour

A long time ago when I was up way too late watching TV, I saw an infomercial for spray-on hair. If you had a bald spot, you could simply take the handy aerosol can of hair helper - expertly color-matched to your actual hair - and spray hair back onto the top of your head.

The possibly patented and expertly color-matched hair restoration formula would go to work by attaching to the hair follicles around the bald spot, thickening your existing hair. This would help cover the bald spot, and if the bald spot was too large, the amazing hair restoration formula would simply cover that bald spot all by itself, without needing to cling to and thicken existing actual hairs.

This amazing process would give your hair a natural, full, manly look. Your confidence would be restored, and instantly the world would think you had gone insane, because you just spray-painted the top of your head.

Sadly, spray-on hair only came in black or brown “hair.” Bald blonde guys had to just buy regular beige spray paint at Ace Hardware. The lack of hair color selection is probably why the product didn’t make it to the mainstream. Either that or Rust-oleum was just cheaper. Who knows?

I was reminded of that wonderful and amazingly short-lived product the other day when I read an article about Xtreme Green Grass. This is a company here in Sacramento that will come to your house and spray-paint your lawn. I’m not making that up.

In case you haven’t heard - or you live in another state and just don’t care - California is in a severe drought. We have about nine gallons of water left for the whole state. Those of you in other parts of the country may be thinking, “Ha! Have fun with that, morons.” That is a common (and often warranted) reaction to Californians’ problems, but in this case, just a heads-up; if you enjoy eating fruits, vegetables, rice, or nuts, you’d better start thinking about building a greenhouse and growing them yourself. Colorado can help you with the logistics.

Anyway, since we’re seeing the bottoms of all the lakes here, we’ve been asked to cut back drastically on the outdoor watering. I actually stopped watering my lawn a long time ago – well before the drought. Truth be told, it was because my lawn mower broke, and I was too lazy to fix it. I ended up on the leading edge of the water conservation movement by accident.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse, and watering anything unnecessary has become a bad idea. Not everyone considers their lawn to be unnecessary like I do, however, and some folks here are still watering their lawns regularly. You can all feel free to knock on their doors the next time you need to make a salad.

They just can’t seem to let their green lawns go. I, on the other hand, have embraced my brown, scrubby lawn much the same way I embraced going bald. It’s more convenient. Less maintenance. And I’m not at all concerned with how it looks.

I was already married when I lost my hair, so no problem there; I’m not trying to impress anyone anymore. My wife is stuck with me. Same with the lawn - I already had friends when the drought hit. I’m not trying to impress anyone. If you don’t want to come over to my house because my lawn is brown, I probably didn’t want you to come over in the first place.

Plus, I haven’t had to mow my lawn in over a year. Score another point for water conservation.

As we know, however, not everyone embraces the loss of their hair or their green grass with quite the same level of enthusiasm as I do. So, Xtreme Green Grass was born. The perfect company for those that have given in to the peer-pressure of stopping the sprinklers, but can’t stand to be seen with a brown lawn.

Dave Bartlett, owner of Xtreme Green Grass, and his crackerjack crew will come out to your house and spray-paint your brown lawn green.

Again, I’m not making that up.

Isn’t that bad for the environment? you might ask. Not at all, says Dave. Apparently, the dye is an “all-natural earth pigment,” whatever that is. I’m not sure how you get the color green from dirt, and if he’s using ground-up live plants to color the paint he’s using to color the dying plants, that just seems unsustainable. But, what do I know? Dave is the plant painting expert, here, not me.  

So it’s all-natural. That’s really all we need to know. Dave says it’s not harmful to people or pets, either. Your pets, your guests, and your children can continue to eat your newly-painted lawn as they normally would, without fear of any side effects.

I’m almost sold, Dave, but just like that late night infomercial, I’m still a little skeptical.

I mean, imagining my lawn with a pleasingly-natural, unidentified earth pigment tone of green applied to all the scorched, brittle, brown blades of Tall Fescue is certainly tempting. And while the estimated five hundred-dollar price tag to paint my yard is almost too good to be true, I think my lawn might have the same inherent problem as my head.

I don’t think spray-painting the bald spots is really the fix we’re looking for.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Amazon.com Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Real Tree of Death

Son Number Two got himself some birthday money last month. So, what did our newly-minted nine-year-old want to do with the loot? Buy plywood, obviously.

While many other American nine-year-olds would beg to be driven to the toy store, the sporting goods store, or the ice cream store, my son wanted nothing more than to go to Home Depot. I love him so much.

Off we went to the lumber aisle. His eyes lit up when I showed him four by eight-foot sheets of plywood for only eight dollars each. His eyes got even wider when we found eight-foot-long two by fours for three bucks. He was positively vibrating with excitement when I told him they would cut the plywood for him for free.

I know, buddy. I know. Home Depot is awesome.

Then we both went nuts when we found the cull cart. Seventy percent off. SEVENTY! Sure, they were random, twisted, splintered boards from the island of misfit lumber, but they were seventy percent off! The sixteen-foot-long pressure-treated two by four that has an eighty-degree twist in it would suck for building a house, but it’s worth every penny of four dollars to a nine-year-old building a backyard fort.

Backyard forts built by nine-year-olds do not need to be straight. I don’t think they physically can be. They always look like they were built by Dr. Seuss, not Bob Vila.

So we loaded up the truck with cheap twisted lumber and plywood and headed home. Son Number Two got to work immediately, with his main task, seemingly, consisting of spreading all my nails into the back lawn. Mowing next time is going to be an adventure.

Things were going well until halfway through his construction project I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

It seemed so innocent at the time, like uttering the words, “We should totally go to Mexico for spring break,” then the next thing you know you’re sharing an Ensenada jail cell with a three-hundred-pound ex-wrestler named Julio “El Papi Gordo” Valdez.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.

Anyway, I looked at his fort - which was starting to look like a cross between an Alaskan outhouse and the rec center at a refugee camp – and foolishly said, “We should put a thatched roof on it.”

If only I had known what hell those words would lead to.

I figured if we put some palm fronds on the roof it might look a little classier when company comes over, in an island slum classy kind of way.

I have never put palm fronds on a roof. How hard could it be? I have never owned a palm tree, so I had no idea.

Our good friends own a palm tree, and when I texted them, they said I could have all the palm fronds I wanted, as long as I came over and got them.

This is the problem with texting – you can’t hear the maniacal laughing on the other end.

In order to cut the old palm frond off a palm tree, you have to put a ladder against the tree and climb up inside all the hanging fronds. If you have never been inside a palm tree, let me try to describe it for you:

Imagine you are sitting under a willow tree in the cool green grass near a babbling brook. You are barefoot, peaceful, and happy. Then imagine you decided to climb up into that willow tree.

It’s absolutely nothing like that.

Now imagine that the tree trimming people show up and cut some of the branches off the willow tree. Then they take them and feed them into the chipper behind their truck that chews the willow branches into tiny woodchips and spits them out at five hundred miles an hour into the back of the truck.

The inside of a palm tree is exactly like the inside of the chipper. Only scarier.

Palm trees look pretty straightforward and non-threatening from the outside. It turns out, however, that each palm frond is really hanging from the tree trunk on a four-foot-long machete blade, lined down both edges with giant curved thorns. Palm fronds make a sawfish’s snout look like a cuddly baby toy.

If you remember the scene in Return of the Jedi, when Jabba the Hut is trying to have Luke thrown into the scary-ass spine-covered hole in the desert, the inside of a palm tree looks a lot like the inverted version of that thing.

Since I am an idiot, I decided to give it a try and get some palm fronds for my boy.

“I have gloves on. I’ll be careful,” I told myself.

That was really stupid.

I was being attacked from every angle. In order to get any fronds I had to saw them off at the trunk. That required actually moving around inside the palm tree chamber of doom instead of staying perfectly still like all my survival instincts were telling me to do. Five minutes into the project I looked like I’d been in a knife fight.

I got hopelessly stuck a few times. I had to climb back down the ladder twice without my hat and once without my shirt. Do you have any idea how hard it is to climb down a ladder inside a cylinder of shark teeth with your shirt getting pulled up and over your head? I didn’t either until I stupidly suggested that my son thatch the roof on his new fort.

A palm tree is built to keep its fronds at all costs. I don’t know why they are called “palm trees” anyway. They should be called sawfish trees. Or band saw trees. Or dragon trees.

I actually managed to get a few fronds off before I had to stop when I finally nicked an artery. I was afraid I was going to bleed out on top of the ladder, and the firemen would not be able to extricate my body from the dragon tree. That’s no way to go out. Not for a backyard fort.

I had to give up. There was no way I was going back in. Son Number Two would just have to use what we had. It turned out that I had managed to retrieve just enough palm fronds to cover the roof on half the fort. So at the end of the day, I made it look like an unfinished island slum. Not what one might call an improvement.

Live and learn.

I have always thought that the Tree of Death was in my front yard, but now I know that’s not the case. My tree may smell like rotting flesh each spring, which is bad, but so far it has never actively tried to kill me when I wanted to pick a few leaves off of it.

Palm trees are mean. Palm trees are evil. Palm trees should be known as the Tree of Death. Or Dragon Tree at the very least.

Excuse me now; I need to continue to apply steady pressure to the arterial bleeding.

See you soon,

-Smidge


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen


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