Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holiday Observations

I had the chance this holiday season, as I hope many of you did, to slow down a little from my normally busy routine and enjoy life a little more. As this year has wound to a close, I was able to reflect a bit on life, and the holidays, and I have made some observations.

Here are a few of my deep thoughts for you to ponder:

The number of days remaining until Christmas is inversely and exponentially proportional to my desire to get within three miles of the mall.

It’s really too bad that the guy who came up with “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg” isn’t getting royalties. That really caught on with the kids.

My wife asked me this year what kind of deals would need to be offered to get me to go to the 4:00am door-buster sales on “Black Friday.” After a little thought I decided that if Target was willing to pay me about $2000 to take something out of the store, I might go.

There is a tipping point in late November when my attitude about the homeowner who leaves his Christmas lights up year-round changes from mild disgust to unabashed admiration.

The LightKeeper Pro is the best invention, ever invented by anyone, ever.

When people refuse to say, “Merry Christmas,” but go with, “Happy Holidays,” what holidays are they talking about?

If we supposedly evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys? (I didn’t necessarily say they were all observations about the holidays… just observations I made during the holidays.)

Fruitcake is a lot like the Broadway musical “Cats.” People either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground.

There is quite a bit of build-up to Christmas Day, but no good mechanism for dealing with the bone crushing anticlimactic feeling of the day after Christmas. Perhaps this is why the English invented Boxing Day. Sadly, we’ll never know, because no one knows what Boxing Day really is.

Junior Miss sizes are not the same as Women’s sizes. When a guy buys his wife pajamas in a size she wears, but that size turns out to be a Junior Miss size, those pajamas will not fit that guy’s wife.

On an unrelated note, my local department store should do a much better job of delineating between the Junior Miss section and the Women’s section, so a guy can figure out where he’s standing.

Putting lottery scratcher tickets in your spouse’s Christmas stocking can either be a pretty fun, cool gift, or the most worthless, let-down of a gift ever.

The person that came up with the idea of replacing the wrapped box with the gift bag and tissue paper should get a Nobel Prize.

We had carolers come to our door this year. As I understand it from the old song, they used to demand figgy pudding. This group asked for $5 toward some drinking water project in Africa. What’s up with that? Still, it’s probably for the best. I don’t even know what figgy pudding is, but I had five bucks.

“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is a great concept if you’re staying home. If you’re travelling, however, it’s a different story entirely. I can assure you that when you’re caught in a blizzard on Interstate-5, off the port bow of an eighteen-wheeler blowing road-slush directly onto your windshield, and your wipers can’t keep up, you’re dreaming of a very dry, very hot Christmas.

Have a safe, happy, and productive New Year, everybody!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mrs. Claus

I must admit something to you. I’m not Santa. I know, I know… This comes as quite a shock to a lot of you, but I can’t live a lie. I’m not him. My wife is.

Around our house, my wife makes it all happen. With most holidays, but especially around Christmas, she is on top of the preparations and planning way in advance while I am barely aware that the holiday is occurring even while I’m in the middle of celebrating it.

It’s not that I’m apathetic about the holidays. On the contrary, I love them. It’s just that I’m really, really busy. I have approximately eight minutes of free time each day, which leaves precious little time for me to sit down and think about holiday planning.

Also, since we’ve had the kids around the house, my brain has gotten quite a bit smaller. At least, it feels like it has. I used to plan out an entire week’s worth of activities in advance, keep it all in my head, and never forget a thing. I’d go to Home Depot with a 30-item shopping list in my head, and leave 10 minutes later with absolutely everything I needed for my project. Nowadays, I forget why I was going downstairs by the time I’m on the fourth step. I need to write everything down, no matter how small the list. If I take our three boys with me to a store, I have to write down where I parked the car, so we don’t spend an extra 15 minutes in the parking lot on the way out, and it takes the better part of an hour to buy two nails and a paint brush.

Also, any space remaining in my new, reduced-capacity brain that used to store information has been usurped by a rapid-fire question processing function. When my sons are around I am constantly fielding a torrent of questions like:
“How come Superman can fly, but the Roadrunner can’t?”
“How come there are so many different kinds of hammers?”
“How do they make ceilings?”
“Why are lights bright?”
“Where’s that one Lego? You know… the one with the thing on it.”
“Why doesn’t water go sour?”
“What’s in your ‘adult drink’?”
“How can you hear me with ear plugs in?”

So, with my lack of free time and my severely reduced brain capacity, I have had to whittle down my holiday planning involvement to the bare bones. At this point, I am really only in charge of the car.

You see, most of our holidays involve travel, but we used to fly everywhere. Now since the airlines have started to crack down on what really constitutes a “lap child,” we have been forced to look into other alternatives. I mean, really! Since when is a six-year-old too big to share a seat with me? Come on! He’s only four and a half feet tall. Anyway, apparently now they want us to buy five tickets! Who am I, John Rockefeller? I think not. In light of that unfortunate fact, we are spending quite a bit more time in the car these days. And since I like to enjoy my holidays, I try to keep the car in good operating condition.

My wife will say, “4th of July,” and all I will think about is coolant and Freon levels. My wife says New Years, and all that comes to my mind is windshield wiper fluid and snow chains. Memorial Day… trailer lights. Labor Day… shocks and struts. Thanksgiving… wiper blades and tire pressure.

So, unless the pre-holiday task involves automobile maintenance, it usually falls to my wife. Luckily, I married Mrs. Claus.

If it was left up to me, the Christmas tree would go up at about 9:00 pm on December 24th. Again, please don’t misunderstand. It’s not because I’m scroogish, that’s just when I would get around to it. As it happens, she has me scheduled to drag our majestic pre-lit 8-foot faux Douglas fir out of the storage shed the day after Thanksgiving. I usually balk at that schedule on principle, but still always end up doing it while the calendar is still on November.

She then schedules me to put up the exterior Christmas lights. She knows better than to ask me to do this until it is at least December. You all know how I feel about that task.

In the mean time she has decorated the tree with the kids, baked 2000 cookies and made enough homemade almond roca to fill a mid-sized car from floorboard to roof. She makes cute Christmas ornaments and knick-knacks for friends and family, and assembles treat trays for all the neighbors. Our house has something Christmassy in every single room, including little Christmas bears hanging from the ceiling fan pull-chains. There is no spot in our house where you do not have direct line-of-sight on at least four snowman figurines. It’s an indoor winter wonderland! She organizes excursions to see Christmas lights, and every morning in December the boys get a small gift from a 6-foot by 3-foot “advent calendar” quilt hanging on our wall that she made herself. She truly is Mrs. Claus.

Speaking of gifts, she is in charge of that task for a whole host of different reasons. I like to think it’s just because I’m busy and she has more time to shop, but when I’m really honest with myself, that’s only one of the many, many good reasons. She probably took stock of some of the more notable gifts I’d surprised her with over the years and decided that there was really no way a man with such poor taste and judgment should be allowed to ruin Christmas for everyone. We have small children, after all. We want them to look back on their upbringing fondly. We can’t have their childhood memories of Christmas be filled with depressing scenes of unwrapping hand-me-down socks and sticks of beef jerky.

As far as the boys go, she has brilliantly figured out the Gift Answer Averaging System. Since children between the ages of two and six are wildly unpredictable with their answers about what they want, she has devised a clever way to decipher their desires. Over the course of many months, she repeatedly asks each one of them what they would like Santa to bring them for Christmas. She starts the questioning in the early spring. At first, I thought that was a little early, but after watching the process work, I am convinced she’s on to something. A three-year-old will almost always answer with the name of the toy or object that they played with last.

“What do you want Santa to bring you this year?”
“A squirt gun.”
(Ten minutes later)
“What do you want Santa to bring you this year?”
“A flower pot.”

Every once in a while, though, they have a moment of clarity, and will actually tell you what they really want. The trick is knowing which answer to use. By asking them so many times during the course of the year, she is able to compile a data set that she can then scan for repeat answers. Mrs. Claus happens to have a Masters in Statistics, and she uses it. She’s a genius.

I am only in charge of one gift at Christmastime. It is my job to take the boys shopping to get their mommy a present. My wife has either enough stubborn pride or misguided faith in me that she does not remind me of this task. Consequently, since it does not involve car maintenance and is not on any of my spouse-provided to-do lists, I usually forget and end up frantically pulling the kids out of bed late in the evening, two days before Christmas, to go shopping. For some reason, they’re pretty grumpy when we shop.

That reminds me – it’s pretty late and we haven’t bought her gift yet! I’d better go wake up the kids and get going. If the stores are closed, we can always go to the casino gift shop. Either that or the all-night auto parts place. I still need to buy new wiper blades, too. Hey, wait a second…

Do I hear two birds getting hit with one stone?

Merry Christmas, Mrs. Claus!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Do-it-Yourself Christmas Letter

Since it is getting dangerously close to Christmas, I thought I would help you out if you have not written your Christmas letter yet. Let’s face it; time is no longer on your side. There is no way you’ll get anything meaningful written and out to your loved ones in time for Christmas now. Any other year, you’d be up a creek. But this year, ol’ Smidgey Claus has got your back. Please feel free to use this handy do-it-yourself template to create a quality Christmas letter in nothing flat. Just fill in your last name(s) in the blanks and circle the appropriate choices, and you're in business.

Christmas 2010

Merry Christmas everyone,

We here at the ______________ house have had another (great/disappointing) year. Recently, Dad received a (promotion/severe reprimand) at work, and he is still on (cloud nine/thin ice). Earlier in the year he took up (golf/drinking) and is getting really good at it. He still spends quite a bit of his free time (volunteering/womanizing) at the local (homeless shelter/homeless shelter), and has proclaimed that this year has easily been the most (rewarding/depressing) of his life.

Mom threw out her (glasses and contacts/hip) this year after getting (laser eye surgery/drunk and falling) and has been (pleased with the results/grouchy) ever since. She continues her part-time (volunteering/mandated community service) in the city and added (teaching illiterate adults to read/another 120 hours) to her (activities/sentence) when she (heard about the program from a friend/mouthed off to the judge). With all of her (giving/griping), she still finds time to (feed us/yell at us) and keep us (warm and happy/guessing). She is a real (angel/piece of work).

Sister (graduated high school/stole a car) in June and was accepted into the (university/penitentiary system) in September. She has been doing (well/poorly) in her (classes/anger management therapy sessions). She has received (a nomination/little hope) from (her teachers/the warden) for (the dean’s list/early release). She is now (playing tennis/appealing her case) at the (collegiate level/appellate level) and has been (in the top five/shot down by the judges) repeatedly. We couldn’t be more (proud of/disappointed in) her.

Little Brother joined (the army/a cult) in the spring and completed his (basic training/new employee day) at (Fort Benning/KFC). He has been stationed (overseas/at the mall) and is on the fast track for (promotion/nothing). His (commanding officer/sixteen-year-old boss) is (pleased/apathetic) about his (natural initiative/lack of initiative), and he has received several citations for (meritorious service/marijuana possession). We are hoping he gets a transfer (back to Fort Benning/to the Mumbai KFC) so we can see (more/less) of him. We can’t wait to see him (again/leave).

As for me, I finally realized my dream and got the (Ferrari 599 GTO/X-Box 360) this year. I was in (Heaven/the living room) every day this summer as I (raced professionally/ate my way) through (the streets of Milan/numerous bags of Cheetos). My (Italian girlfriend Sonia/gaming buddy Lance) recently accepted my (proposal/challenge) for (marriage/a Halo rematch), and we are going to be (married/completely useless and pale) by this time next year. I am truly living the life I’ve always (dreamed/been warned) about.

Well, that’s about it for the latest news on the _____________ family. Please (come see us/stay away) whenever you’re in town. As we count our numerous (blessings/glasses of 100-proof eggnog), we hope this letter finds you feeling as (blessed/drunk) as we feel this holiday season.

Merry Christmas!

You’re welcome! Now just sign, copy and send. You’re all set.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh, Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Cool Yule Tool

This past Saturday, I performed one of my most cherished and anticipated holiday chores. I put up the Christmas lights on the front of my house. (Those two sentences truly highlight for me the overwhelming world-wide need for a sarcasm font.)

I should back up a bit and start at the beginning. If you are a long-time reader, then you already know how I feel about the icicle lights we put up – and by “we” I mean “I” – on the house each year. I hate them.

Now, for you new readers, please don’t misunderstand. I love the look and feel of the lights on the house, and I love all things Christmas, but I hate my lights. It’s not the lights that are lit that I hate. I love those. It’s the five-foot section of lights in the middle of the string that don’t light that I despise from the very depths of my soul.

Long-time reader of “Just a Smidge” or not, it might be best if you (re)read my December, 2009 post entitled “The Five Feet of Christmas I Despise” to get the full story. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

OK, so are we clear? We’re talking real, honest, loathing here.

Now let’s get back to this past Saturday morning…

Have there ever been times in your life when you have stopped and wondered why the you of the past was working against the you of the present? A perfect example of what I’m talking about occurred on Saturday.

I pulled out the two big plastic tubs labeled “XMAS LIGHTS” and popped the lids off. I stood in the garage in disbelief, staring down at a spaghetti-style mess of tangled light strings stuffed into plastic shopping bags. “Why would 2009 Marc have done this to me?” I asked myself. I extracted the first wadded up ball of icicle lights from the tub and slowly untied them into a straight line on the garage floor. I held my breath and plugged one end into the wall socket. There it was. The stomach acid-forming five-foot section of unlit bulbs, right there in the middle of the first string I pulled out of the tub.

I cursed under my breath, and a little over my breath, and retrieved another wadded-up string. This one was different when it was plugged in. The five feet in the middle worked fine, but both ends were out.

I tried to regulate my breathing as my temples began to throb and my right eye began to twitch. Why on Earth would 2009 Marc have done this to me? Why didn’t 2009 Marc throw these out? He had to know that 2010 Marc might have a stroke if he saw more bad light strings come out of the tubs. Did 2009 Marc wish 2010 Marc ill? He knows we’re the same guy, right? Why do I hate myself? Why????

I pondered what to do next. My 2009 alter ego had endured a humiliating Christmas season spent with a house that was 7/8 lit and 1/8 lame, resulting in 100% ugly, and amazingly, had done nothing to remedy the situation for the next year. Here it was, 2010. And there I was, standing in the garage, staring down at two malfunctioning light strings, trying to stop my eye from twitching.

I needed to make a decision. The way I figured it, I had two choices. It made no sense at all to put these lights back up on the house. Why would I intentionally make my house look like the Christmas equivalent of an abandoned Chevy Nova? No, the lights would not go up. I could either go inside and tell my wife that I would not be decorating the house this year, or I could put up some of the first string, wait until no one was looking, “fall” off the ladder in order to intentionally break my arm, and spend the rest of the day at the hospital.

I didn’t like option two at all, and after pondering option one for a minute, I decided it would likely end the same as option two. I was badly in need of a third option.

I was just about to start calling around for Mexicana Airlines one-way ticket pricing when it hit me like a ton of bricks. “The LightKeeper Pro!”

I had heard about this unbelievable tool last year when I was calmly discussing my five-foot outage issue with someone at work. He had heard from a friend of a friend about a mystical gun-shaped tool that fixed Christmas lights in the blink of an eye, just like magic. For some reason, 2009 Marc stored it away in his memory, but neglected to actually buy one for 2010 Marc. That guy is really starting to irk me.

I stopped dialing my travel agent, and dialed my local Ace Hardware instead. Justin answered the phone, and I inquired if he happened to have any LightKeeper Pros left in stock. He said that he had only a few left, and he had already sold 15 of them that morning. It was only 10:00 am. He promised to keep one at the counter for me if I promised to be there in ten minutes. I made it in four.

Apparently, this past Saturday was national “Men Putting Up their Christmas Lights Day.” I sped past no less than 30 other poor souls holding tangled strings of lights. Some of them were still on their ladders. Others already had their bags packed and their Mexican sombreros on. I said a short prayer for all of them as I raced toward my hopeful salvation.

I slid sideways into the Ace parking lot, dove from my car, hurled open the doors, and pounced on Justin. He informed me that he had indeed saved a LightKeeper Pro for me, and asked if I could please let go of him and let him up. I dusted him off and gladly paid him $21.64, and raced home with the tool that I hoped would be the key turning point in my relationship with Christmas lights.

It did not disappoint.

Please know, I do not say this lightly. (Get it?) The LightKeeper Pro is the best thing that has ever been invented, anywhere, anytime, by anyone. The space shuttle, canned beer, baby wipes, the microchip, the wheel, bottled beer, air conditioning, disease resistant crops, nuclear fission, draught beer, soap, penicillin, the printing press, spandex, and even the home keg-erator all take a back seat to this marvelous, magical, marvelous, marvelous tool.

You simply pick any one of the tiny bulbs in the section that isn’t working, plug it into the front socket on the LightKeeper Pro, pull the trigger, and presto, the section lights up. I have read up on how it works, but I wouldn’t dream of boring you with the technical stuff. The only thing you need to know is that it works. It is amazing.

I happily hung up all my lights. Half of them didn’t work. I didn’t care. I hung them up anyway, and 10 minutes later, with the help of my new LightKeeper Pro, the entire house was lit continuously from one end to the other. There are really no words to describe the sense of sheer relief that this marvelous, marvelous tool has brought to my life. This small, hand-held, light-weight, twenty dollar tool not only saved my house from another year of neighborhood shame, but it may very well have saved my marriage and even my life in the process!

To top off the day, as if my new-found tool-of-the-millennium wasn’t enough, when I was hanging the lights my six-year-old came outside and announced that he would like to rake the leaves in the front yard… for fun.

Some days are better than others.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Assembly Required

My oldest son, Number One, recently celebrated his sixth birthday, and received a transforming robot “kit” from his grandparents. On the outside of the exciting multi-colored box it showed the robot, standing proud and looking for adventure, and it displayed the two other “modes” that he could turn into, namely an airplane and a scorpion. It was solar powered and motorized to move on its own. The outside of the box looked like any 6-year-old’s dream. The inside of the box was another matter entirely.

We knew there was “assembly required,” because one of the fun features of the toy was that you got to “build it yourself.” I was excited about having a father-son activity where he could gain experience building something mechanical. He tore open the box and spread the contents out and on the table. I took one look at the inventory, and in as calm a voice as I could muster, asked him to put his hands on his head and slowly back away from the toy. The plan had changed. The largest thing in the box, by a wide margin, was the instruction manual. That’s never a good sign.

There were three plastic bags containing screws so small you could lose them all at once with a good sneeze. There were tiny plastic gears, a half-inch in diameter, with little drive shafts, no thicker than a paper clip. There was a one-inch-square solar panel connected to the smallest motor I have ever seen. The motor was no more than 3/8 of an inch long and less than ¼ inch round. It was tethered to the solar panel with two four-inch-long wires roughly the thickness of human hairs.

There were two rafts of plastic parts, containing roughly 80 parts each, all still attached to their spider web of molded plastic anchor points. Some of the parts were so small I was really not sure where I needed to cut to get them free. “Is that a part that I need, or is that the piece I’m supposed to cut off? I can’t tell!”

I was flabbergasted by how complicated and technical this child’s toy was, so I took another look at the box. It advertized that the toy was for ages 10 to adult, with the added caveat that no child under 4 was to get within a 50-foot radius of any of the small parts. I agreed wholeheartedly with the lower age limit, but not because I was worried about a choking incident. There was no part of the entire assembly large enough to choke a child. An infant could have swallowed the motor whole, no problem. I figured the warning was simply to give you a fighting chance of ending up with all the pieces you needed to make it work. To that end, it should really have read “no child under 18.”

I took serious issue with the 10 and up rating, however. I am 38 years old, I have an engineering degree, and I have been designing and assembling mechanical apparatuses professionally for over 20 years, and I had grave reservations about my ability to complete the task. I contend that there is no 10-year-old on this planet with the patience, forethought, dexterity, motor skills, mechanical knowledge, or even the proper tools to assemble one of these things.

There would be no father-son activity today. Involving a 6-year-old in this project would have been like asking Mike Tyson to tune your Stradivarius violin. Wrong guy for the job. I locked the door to the room and went to work.

Step 1 had me pressing the pinion gear onto the motor shaft. The gear was half the size of a pencil eraser, and the motor’s shaft was the diameter of a gnat’s eyelash. It was a “press fit” so the gear wouldn’t slip on the shaft, and I had to push it down as hard as my fingers could press to get it on, without accidentally bending the miniscule shaft. Ten-year-olds were disqualified on the first step.

In steps 12 through 18 I threaded two of the tiniest wires I have ever seen through an obstacle course of plastic needle-holes, snapping the assembly together as I went, making sure not to sever either of the wires accidentally by pinching them or looking at them the wrong way.

In step 35 I assembled a quadruple-reduction, eight-gear transmission inside a shrouded plastic housing. It was the plastic robot equivalent of the ship in a bottle, only the ship was the size of your fingernail, and the bottle wasn’t see-through.

In step 114 I had to go to the garage and find my straight shaft #0 Phillips head screwdriver in my specialty tool kit. Do you have a straight shaft #0 Phillips head screwdriver? No? Well, you would have been dead in the water at step 114.

In step 254 I assembled a double offset cam and linkage system that would have made Leonardo da Vinci weep with joy.

In step 316 I wept. Not with joy.

In step 496 I split an atom.

In step 513 I snapped together the last piece, and marveled at how small it was.

The entire robot, tip to toe was only 3-1/2 inches tall. It took me 1-1/2 hours to assemble it. That’s almost a half-hour per inch.

I unlocked the door and went out to display my accomplishment with pride.

“What took you so long?” was the only response from my wife.

I went back in and re-locked the door until I calmed down.

When I had regained my composure, I came back out and handed Number One his new toy. He and his middle brother, Number Two, went outside to set it in the sun, and cheered as they watched it walk down the sidewalk. Then they brought it inside and tore one of its legs off while calmly discussing who should be allowed to play with it next. It lasted 7-1/2 minutes.

Maybe we don’t need that leg for airplane mode…

This was quite a “toy.” I was just barely old enough to assemble it, and my boys were at least a decade too young to play with it. I think the box should really read, “Must be a 45-year-old aerospace engineer to assemble, and must be at least 35 to operate.”

I’ll give it one thing, though. At least it didn’t require any batteries.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Warm Thanks

The other night, we came home to a cold house. The heater was supposed to be on, and the house was supposed 68 degrees, but it was only 60 degrees upstairs. Now, I know you people from Minnesota are laughing at me right now, but just bear with me. That’s cold for us Californians. Anyway, the thermostat appeared to be working, and it seemed to think that the heater was on, but it wasn't. I pushed it up to 75, and still nothing.

I announced to my wife that I would need to "go take a look at things" to which she rolled her eyes and groaned. She does that sometimes when I announce that I need to fix something. I never know why. Anyway, out I went to the circuit breaker panel and flipped the heater’s breaker back and forth. Nothing.

Unfortunately, that was all I had. I was out of ideas. Why hadn’t that worked? What now? Hmmm… There was one other thing I might be able to do. I could go look at the actual heater in the attic…

So, up the stairs I went, ladder in hand. My wife saw me with the ladder and immediately got that look in her eyes that you get when you see a sad-looking homeless dog shivering in the rain. It’s her “Marc is going up a ladder again,” look of pity. The look is always followed by her grabbing the phone and keeping her fingers poised over the 9-1-1 buttons. I pretended not to notice her lack of faith in me.

I set up the ladder under the access hatch, closed my eyes, tried to mentally block out all the previous ladder related falls, and then up into the attic I went. I made it up successfully, and flipped on the light. There it was. The beast, sitting docile, not making a sound. If you have never seen a forced-air heater in an attic, it resembles a large sheet metal box. There are no levers, no knobs, no digital readouts, and no hatches. There are, however, 200 wires that go in and out of the box from approximately 87 different places, but that’s it. There are absolutely no large buttons that said “reset” or "push here if the heater is not coming on when it's supposed to." Believe me, I looked. Those would have been helpful, but I guess heaters don’t have those. Since the act of staring at the heater had exhausted all of my HVAC repair knowledge, I was at a loss.

As I sat and stared at the unit some more, wondering what to do next, it rumbled to life. I had not touched a thing. I would like to believe that my superior mechanical troubleshooting skills were sensed by the unit, and deciding it was no match for me, it acquiesced, but who knows with this type of thing?

I contemplated my options. Now what? Do I take credit for this, or do I tell the truth? Since a lot of my fix-it projects end less than impressively, I could use a win. Most of the time, whatever I was trying to fix stays broken, and I end up inexorably damaging something else expensive in the process. So do I go down the ladder and score some serious man points? My wife knows far less about our heater than I do, meaning she is vaguely aware that we own one, and I happen to know a lot of impressive mechanical terms. I could march downstairs and announce that I have masterfully handled the repair. I had immediately recognized that the McGruder valve was sticking, the Johnson rod was off-center, and the dual-chamber mixing system was all out of whack. I took care of all that, and while I was up there, for good measure, I also recalibrated the framisator valve and oiled the falangee nut.

I could pull it off. I would look like a stud and she would brag about me. It felt wrong, though. Partially because my folks raised me not to lie, but more importantly, I had the distinct sense of foreboding that any claim of HVAC mastery would come back to bite me in the butt. I could picture being asked to take a look at one of our friend's heaters in the dead of winter, with their kids freezing in the house.

"The repair guy said it would be two days, but the baby is so cold he's looking a little blue."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll send Marc right over. He fixed our McGruder valve the other night in 30 seconds! I guarantee he'll have you warm again in no time!"
"Uh, honey... There's something I should to tell you."

After some quiet deliberation in the attic, morals and good judgment got the better of me, and I went downstairs to tell my wife that it was working again, and I had no idea why. She just said, “I’m glad you’re not hurt.”

Huh. I never know why she says stuff like that.

Anyway, my decision to go with the truth was validated big-time the next day when my wife called me to say it wasn't working again. If I had gone with the "I fixed it" charade, I would have been chastised for not doing an adequate job and expected to rush home and perform my magic again. Since I went the honest route, I was able to handle the situation with two simple words: “Call Al.”

It was Saturday, and Al the HVAC guy couldn’t be there until Monday, so we were going to be without heat for two days. They turned out to be the two coldest days so far this year, where the temperature got all the way down into the mid 40’s overnight. (Insert Minnesotan laugh track here). Luckily, our California home was built with a decorative fake fireplace in our living room. It’s the kind of fireplace that is supposed to be used pretty much only when you have guests over for the Christmas party. It is permanently behind glass, has ceramic log-like features, and you light it by flipping a wall switch. Basically, it’s an indoor gas barbeque with a window. We fired that baby up, and it somehow managed to keep the lower part of the house livable (by California standards) for the weekend. We bundled up with extra blankets at night, and made it through the frigid weekend by the skin of our teeth.

Al arrived two days later, and the moment he stepped in the door, the heater came on and worked normally. Al, being a professional, said the same thing I did. “I have no idea what’s wrong.” He poked around for a while and said he would order a part, just in case. I think it was the McGruder valve… just as I had suspected. Maybe I could be an HVAC guy after all.

Al and the mystery part won’t be back until after the Thanksgiving holiday, so we’re on our own for the big weekend. We have lots of family coming to stay with us, so we have our fingers crossed for the heater to keep magically working, but I’m a little worried. It quit again yesterday, with the forecast for last night at 25 degrees. In sheer panic mode we managed to get it running again by flipping some breakers back and forth. We were warm last night, but I get the feeling that McGruder valve isn’t going to last much longer.

If it doesn’t though, we’ll still be thankful for the fireplace.

And the walls.

And the roof.

And each other.

And if we happen to get cold and start feeling too sorry for ourselves, we’ll just pause and remember those American men and women who don’t get to be home with their families this year.

Our soldiers are out there, on foreign soil, without heat or A/C in climates far more harsh than anything we have in this country. Even in Minnesota. None of them get to kiss their kids goodnight tonight, or share a good meal with their parents tomorrow, and many of them don’t even have walls or a roof, either. I tend to think about things like that a little more during the holidays, and it helps me keep our little heater “problem” in perspective.

I really don’t have a worry in the world.

So to all our soldiers out there, from all of us here in our lukewarm house, we say, “Thanks.” When we count our blessings tomorrow, you’ll be at the top of the list of things we’re thankful for. God bless you all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyclical Failure

I think if I had to boil down the essence of American fatherhood into one scene or activity, it would be the day out in the street when the father, running behind the child’s bike, lets go of the seat and watches proudly as his child rides a two-wheeler for the first time without the training wheels.

I could picture the scene in my mind. I would be sitting in my red leather chair in my study, wearing my crushed velvet smoking jacket and ascot, reading a classic novel. My son would knock respectfully at the door, and ask to speak to me about his bicycle. Having inherited my incredible balance and agility through his DNA, he would instinctively know he was ready to go from four wheels to two. He would beg me to remove the training wheels and I would ask him, “Are you sure you’re ready?” in that really cool fatherly way, where I know he’s ready, but I want to instill in him a sense of measured restraint and responsibility for his own actions, so I ask the question anyway in a concerned, caring, thoughtful, and deep voice.

He says, “Yes!” excitedly, because he knows all about my concerned, thoughtful voice, so he knows that I know that he knows that he’s ready. I give him a wink. Without saying a word, the wink says, “You’re turning out to be a fine lad, and you’re making me proud.” That one wink says it all. It’s a wink he’ll remember and cherish for the rest of his life.

We bound out to the garage where he sees that I have already removed his training wheels the day before, because I’m such an intuitive, thoughtful, caring dad that I can see these things coming. He smiles from ear to ear as he realizes how lucky he is to have me as his father. Out in the street, I run behind him holding the back of the seat for a few minutes, and then, using my innate dad skills, I recognize the perfect time to let go, and he rides off on his own, in a glorious display of two-wheeled balance and agility. I stand in the middle of the street beaming with pride as the neighbors erupt in applause for my son’s new achievement and for my superior dadliness.

That didn’t happen.

For starters, I don’t have a study, an ascot, or a son who knocks respectfully on anything, let alone a door. My wife and I have three boys, and crashing through doors head-first is about as restrained as they get. Anyway, my oldest son, Number One, as we refer to him, is about to turn six years old. I felt that it was about time he learned how to ride a two-wheeler, even though he had absolutely no interest in doing so. His younger brother, Number Two, is four and a half. He had plenty of interest in learning to ride a two-wheeler, but a distinct lack of balance, grace, agility, and good sense. He does have, however, a heaping helping of persistence.

I asked Number One to try.
He said, “No thanks.”
I told him we were going to take his training wheels off and give it a shot.
He cried.
A half-hour later I finally convinced him it would be a good idea, and he said, “OK.”

I tried to hold his seat.
He fell over.
I tried to hold his shoulders.
He fell over.
I tried to hold the handle bars.
He ran over my foot. Then he fell over.
He said he was finished.
I said, “OK.”

I limped back to the garage.
Number Two announced that he was ready to give it a spin.
I iced my foot.
He begged.
I said, “Maybe later.”
He pleaded.
I said, “OK.”

I took the training wheels off of Number Two’s bike and out to the street we went.

I tried to hold his seat.
He fell over.
I tried to hold his shoulders.
He fell over.
I tried to hold the handle bars.
We ran into a parked car.
He asked me to stop helping him.

Number One looked at me and said, “Dad, you’re really bad at that. You dropped me every time, and you ran him into a car.”

I had no argument in my favor. Now, in my defense, they were completely leaning to one side, not pedaling, not steering, not helping in any way, but the end result was, in fact, that I had ran Number Two into a car. The results speak for themselves.

I gave up and went inside. Number One went back to playing tether ball, but Number Two was not to be deterred. He decided that if his dad couldn’t help him, he would just have to figure it out on his own. For the next three days, every opportunity he had, he was out on his bike without training wheels, trying to learn to ride. Occasionally I would offer helpful advice, and he would give me a perfunctory “OK, Daddy” that really meant, “I’ll take it from here, old man. You may go now.”

When I returned home from work the next day, I was greeted by a positively beaming Number Two, who was tearing up and down the street on two wheels. He had done it. And, he had done it all by himself! I found myself more proud of him than if I had helped. He had overcome the giant hurdle of a useless coach and won the game on his own. He was truly an all-star.

He was also very, very aware of the fact that he could now ride a two-wheeler and his older brother couldn’t. So aware of that situation that I began to question his true motives. Had he done it so that he could accomplish a personal goal, or had he done it to stick it in his brother’s face? Hmmm.

The answer began to clear up at dinner that night. Our boys know that bragging is forbidden at our house, but, if you don’t mind me saying, they’re smarter than average in my opinion. My four-and-a-half-year-old knows that stating facts is not necessarily forbidden, so he decided to make some observations.

“Hey, Dad.”
“I’m four and a half.”
“Did you like how I rode my two-wheeler today?”
“Yes I did. I was very impressed.”
“Hey, Dad.”
“He’s almost six.”
“I know that.”
“I like riding my two-wheeler.”
“That’s enough.”

Can you guess who asked me to remove his training wheels that night? Two days later, Number One was back on top, no longer the kid whose younger brother could out-ride him.

I set out to teach my boys how to ride a bike. Three days later they had learned absolutely nothing from me, but I had learned a valuable lesson from them. Sibling rivalry is going to be a wonderful tool for me. It’s way more effective than anything I can say. Number Three doesn’t stand a chance!

As Number Two zoomed up to me that evening on his super-cool green motocross bike, I gave him the knowing wink. That one wink that says it all.

He just stared at me blankly. Oh, well.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Hero's Scrambled Eggs

My older sisters and I grew up eating a hero’s breakfast, only none of us knew it at the time – not even the cook himself.

On special occasions, my dad would cook us breakfast. His normal household duties did not include meal preparation, and for that, we were all grateful. (Just kidding, Dad.) His go-to morning meal was something he called “Van Inwegen’s Special.” With a last name like Schmatjen, it’s almost impossible that we would be eating something called “Smith’s Homefry Special,” or “Johnson’s Grits.” We go in for the weird names.

Van Inwegen’s is a skillet-type affair consisting of scrambled eggs mixed with ham, potatoes, cheese, and assorted vegetables. It’s heavenly.

My dad learned how to prepare this enticing dish while in the Air Force. He was stationed with Earl Van Inwegen, and in their spare time, these steely-eyed missile men did what all tough-as-nails, ice-in-their-veins fighter pilots do when they’re not going Mach-2 with their hair on fire – they traded recipes. I’m not sure what Captain Schmatjen had to offer as a trade, but Van Inwegen’s sure was good!

Years later, my dad was reading Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography, and came across the story of a hero. Early in the Vietnam War, Schwarzkopf was the commander at a forward fire-base called Duc Co, with American and South Vietnamese troops. They had taken heavy casualties, they were surrounded, and no one they could raise on the radio was willing to come help them. They could not care for their wounded, and the situation was looking grim.

The following is the passage from the book:

We were surrounded. In the space of two days, more than forty paratroopers had died and at least twice that number were seriously wounded. We radioed Pleiku and asked for medevac. “We’re sorry,” the response came back, “we can’t fly out there. Too risky.” Duc Co was in a basin, and airplanes trying to land had to come in over a high ridge where the enemy was dug in. But an Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Earl S. Van Eiweegen, heard about us that night in a Saigon bar and volunteered for the job. The next morning we carried our wounded on stretchers to the airstrip and waited.

The instant his two-engine C-123 turboprop appeared, the enemy opened fire. I didn’t think Van Eiweegen and his three-man crew would make it. By the time the airplane touched down, it had been shot full of holes and was leaking hydraulic fluid from three or four places. The crew tried to lower the tail ramp, but it wouldn’t go down. So we loaded the men on stretchers through the doors on both sides of the airplane as Van Eiweegen kept the props turning. Meanwhile the airstrip came under mortar attack. More people were hurt, and we threw them on the airplane, too. Van Eiweegen sat in the cockpit with his copilot, waiting patiently until I gave the signal. Then he turned the airplane around and took off over the same ridge, getting shot up some more. Even though the plane was seriously damaged, he bypassed Pleiku and took the wounded straight to Saigon, where he knew they’d receive more sophisticated care. His flight was the most heroic act I’d ever seen.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
The Autobiography
It Doesn’t Take a Hero

You may have noted the slightly creative spelling of Earl’s name in the General’s book. All I can say about that is, in an article by Schmatjen, citing a book by Schwarzkopf, in the passage about Van Inwegen, someone’s name is getting misspelled! I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat. My dad joked that when he flew with Earl, they were the only self-encrypted air crew. No Russian radio officer would ever believe Schmatjen and Van Inwegen were their real names.

All spelling aside, when Norman Schwarzkopf says your flight was the most heroic act he’d ever seen, that’s really saying something!

My dad was surprised to read about his old friend in Schwarzkopf’s book. Not surprised because of the heroism, but because it was the first time he had heard the story. He was stationed with Earl Van Inwegen AFTER this had happened, and in all their time together, he had never mentioned it, even in passing.

The internal fortitude, courage, and selfless sense of duty that makes a man like Earl volunteer for a mission like that - and complete that mission in such a manner - is the stuff that made this country great. You will find that stuff, more often than not, in our nation’s veterans.

They call it by different names – duty, honor, service, commitment. I call it heroism. And I’m more grateful for it than I will ever be able to show them.

So on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, when we take time to honor our nation’s veterans, remember the story of Earl’s flight to Duc Co. And remember that he volunteered to go get those men. I know General Schwarzkopf won’t ever forget that, and neither will I.

That kind of quiet, humble heroism is indicative of our nation’s finest men and women, who volunteer to serve, and who deserve our utmost gratitude and respect.

Thank you all for your service, and God bless every one of you.

And thanks for the recipe, too, Earl. Those eggs are delicious!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Rat's Tale

Halloween has come and gone, and you probably heard some scary stories. But I’ll guarantee I have one that tops anything you’ve ever heard. Bold claim, you say? Well, read on, my friend, and know that this story is only scary because it’s 100% true.

It was a day like any other day. I was at the office, and heading into the men’s room to take care of some important corporate business. We have a small office, and the bathrooms are “one-holers.” As I stepped through the doorway and flipped on the light, I caught some movement out of the corner of my left eye. I looked down mid-stride, and just milliseconds after my left foot hit the floor, a large, black rat coming at a dead run out from under the cabinet ran directly over the top of my shoe.

Every muscle in my body reacted at once, and while emitting an involuntary, yet very manly, high-pitched yelp of surprise, I recoiled in an impressive reverse long-jump back out of the bathroom. Carl Lewis would have been proud. My right hand was still on the door handle, and the door slammed shut as I vaulted backward to safety.

Our bathrooms are located in a small alcove that connects our offices to our manufacturing shop area. There is a men’s room and a ladies’ room side-by-side on one wall. There is an open breezeway-type door into the offices on the adjacent wall, and a door out to the shop opposite the breezeway.

My extremely masculine exclamation of surprise combined with my acrobatics in the alcove brought two of the salesmen over to see what all the fuss was about. I explained that I had just inadvertently trapped Goliath, the killer rat in the men’s room, and he now needed to be extracted.

We went out to the shop and enlisted John, the shop foreman, to help with the rodent removal. Being steely-eyed men of action, we quickly devised a simple plan. The two salesmen would man a large piece of cardboard in the breezeway, to keep Jumbo from getting into the office and wreaking havoc. John would hold the shop door open, and I would steady my nerves and go back in to the restroom and drive the beast out.

In I went, ready for anything. Our two bathrooms are very simple, consisting of one toilet, one wall-mounted sink, and one short, moveable cabinet on wheels. He was nowhere in sight, so I knew he was back where he had started, under the cabinet. I grabbed the long-handled plunger and gave the side of the cabinet a solid whack. Out came Jabba-the-Rat, bigger than I had remembered, and brandishing long, sharp teeth. He saw that I had a weapon, however, so he made his escape out the door of the men’s room and into the alcove. To his left was a solid wall of cardboard. To his right, an open door to safety. So, naturally, he made a hard right, and ran directly into the ladies’ room.

John, thinking fast, slammed the ladies’ room door shut. We had successfully herded an enormous rat from one bathroom to another. We had a few laughs as we contemplated ending our quest there. The potential ramifications of that decision, however, seemed more dire in the end than another encounter with the beast, so we forged ahead.

We went with our same simple plan, but with one change. We closed the other bathroom door this time. In I went, armed with my plunger of death, ready to do battle with a scared and angry Frankenrat. The ladies’ room is laid out in a mirror image of the men’s room, with the same sparse furnishings. He was not scurrying around on the floor, so he was obviously back in his favorite (and only) hiding place, under the rolling cabinet. I gave it a whack. Nothing. Another whack. Nothing. With nerves of tempered steel, I rolled the cabinet away from the wall, plunger raised, poised to bludgeon the largest rat in the world.

He was not under the cabinet. He was not in the cabinet drawers. He was not behind the toilet tank, which was the only other possible place to hide, if it was even remotely possible that at twelve pound rat could fit in a half-inch space. He was not in the bathroom. Four sets of eyes had seen him enter, yet he had vanished.

Although no one could truly envision it, we all knew there was one other possibility of escape from the bathroom. The very reason for the bathroom does indeed have a hole that goes to the outside world. As we all shook our heads in denial of the only remaining scenario, I walked over and peered into the toilet. There, sitting at the bottom of the bowl, perfectly visible against the stark white porcelain background, was a single, solitary rat poop.

I laughed a nervous, half-scared laugh. The others crowded into the bathroom to gaze into the toilet. They laughed the same shaky laugh of doom. The rat had been in the toilet. Now it was not in the toilet. There are only two ways out of a toilet, and we knew he hadn’t come out the easy way. None of us could really wrap our heads around it. We are intelligent men, and facts are facts, but this was too ominous to fathom. After some thought, it was clear. There was just one thing to do… Flush.

I hit the lever, and we watched the tiny rat poop swirl away. John was the first to speak.

“He’ll probably pop out of the men’s toilet.”

We all looked at each other. Naw. No way! But we had just come to the half-hearted conclusion that the giant rat had gone down a toilet. Why couldn’t it come up? After all, the two toilets were in essence back-to-back on either side of a common wall, sharing a common sewer pipe.

We hustled out of the ladies’ room and I flung the men’s room door open just in time to witness a huge, jet-black, soaking-wet, mad, scared, holy terror of a rat rocket two feet into the air, straight out of the men’s toilet bowl.

I stood frozen in the doorway as he landed back in the water with a sickening splash. He scratched and clawed out two full circular laps around the inside of the toilet bowl until he had enough speed to launch himself out onto the floor

When the dripping wet rat hit the linoleum, all hell broke loose.

I jumped/fell/careened backward out of the doorway waving my plunger in a desperate attempt to fend off the evil beast. He came out through the doorway, and made another hard right turn past the scrambling salesmen who were yelling incoherent epithets and making a desperate attempt to hurl themselves through the breezeway and back into the office. The hell-rat appeared to be trying to make his way back into the ladies’ room, but unfortunately for both of them, John was standing in the way.

The soaked rat was heading straight for John’s right leg. With his leg now being controlled by the primal instinct that is hard-wired into the back of man’s brain, John kicked out, hard and fast. His steel-toed boot caught the freakishly oversized escaped lab rat square in the face, lifting him off the ground and sending him flying across the alcove, slamming into the opposite wall three feet off the floor, leaving a wet, smudgy rat silhouette on the sheetrock. He hit the wall hard and fell to the linoleum… not the least bit fazed.

Up he came with a wild, crazed look in his eye, still running, this time toward the closed shop door. I let the plunger come crashing down toward him in a tomahawk fashion, missing him by mere inches, and leaving a two-foot-long black rubber streak on the door that we would later not be able to remove. The mange-ridden beast made a wild, slippery u-turn and picked up speed heading straight at the breezeway. The second salesman had just rolled onto the carpet, free of the doorway, when Lucifer, the New York sewer rat scrambled through the breezeway behind them and made his way unfettered into the office.

John and I gave chase, as the salesmen scrambled to their feet. As we poured into the office area, we caught sight of our quarry, but Ratzilla was moving quickly. The enormous rat from the bowels of Hades was now twice as fast and agile on the claw-friendly office Berber carpet. He made a right turn into the engineering department, and in a really personally offensive move, disappeared behind MY desk.

That was the last we ever saw of him.

We searched behind every desk, cabinet, workstation, and credenza in the entire department and never again laid eyes on the wet, slimy, massive, bulletproof, degenerate, mean-spirited rodent from hell. We have no idea where he went.

If Houdini did something we don’t know about that angered God, I’ll guarantee He sent him back to earth as a big, black rat. He had vanished into thin air only three minutes after I had first set eyes on him while entering the bathroom to use the facilities.

Funny thing, though. I didn’t have the urge to go to the bathroom again for a whole week!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All Hallows Month

When I was a kid, Halloween was on October 31st. We figured out what our costume was going to be sometime between October 25th and the 30th, and we dressed up for one night and set out on a mission for candy with our pillowcase in hand to hold the loot. Our costumes were simple, and consisted of clothes or cardboard and duct tape that we already had at home. The houses in the neighborhood were decorated with a single jack-o-lantern and a porch light that was turned off.

These days, Halloween is still on the 31st, but it has turned into a month-long event. We purchase our kid’s costumes at giant seasonal Halloween warehouse stores, and we do it in September. The kids wear their costumes to school, birthday parties, church functions, and around the house throughout the month of October. By the time Halloween night finally rolls around, the kids are putting the costume back on for the 200th time. Families begin preparing their houses for the big night promptly on October 1st. There is no time to spare. The house must be decorated from sidewalk to roof.

To be honest, I’m not even sure why we have Halloween anymore. In my day, we trick-or-treated to get candy. Plain and simple. We never had candy the rest of the year. At least, we didn’t at my house.

If you do not currently have small children, you may not be aware of a disturbing trend in birthday parties and get-togethers known as “The Gift Bag.” These days when kids attend a birthday party, the guests all go home with a “thanks-for-coming” goody bag full of little toys and candy. That strange new development, combined with the fact that almost every party has a piñata, has my children bringing home more candy from one birthday party than I saw all year as a kid.

And, let’s talk about pumpkins for a minute. I don’t really remember where my parents purchased our pumpkins when I was growing up. We may have gone to a pumpkin patch, or maybe they just picked them up at the store. One thing is for sure, we did not buy them at an amusement park like my kids do. Somewhere between my youth and my becoming a parent, the pumpkin patch turned into Disneyland for Vine Fruit. There are parking fees, parking attendants, gate fees, gate attendants, food pavilions with $8 hot dogs, train rides, petting zoos, side shows, giant play structures, face painting, cotton candy, stroller parking, support staff, hay rides, pig races, haunted barns, and… oh, yeah… pumpkins.

And how about the change in decorating for this “holiday?” Gone is the simple one jack-o-lantern porch. My wife has no less than three huge plastic storage tubs on our garage shelves dedicated to Halloween decorations. She chooses to mix genres when it comes to the outdoor decorations. We have the cutesy country décor hay bale and scarecrow on the front porch, combined with the spooky giant spider web and grotesquely large furry black spiders guarding the front door. We have eight small ghosts flying around underneath our tree on the front lawn, and they have been vigilantly guarding the place for three weeks now.

You will notice I said “outdoor” decorations. One very big change since my youth is the addition of indoor decorations for this all-important month-long holiday. We have Frankenstein on our sliding glass door. We have ghosts on our microwave. The boys have ghost and goblin pillow cases. We have a four-foot-tall witch on our staircase landing. We have a wood carving of the word “Boo.” We have scary napkins. There is something Halloweeny in every room in our house. Yes, every room. We actually have fuzzy jack-o-lantern floor mat/toilet seat cover combos for the bathrooms. Our toilets have been reminding us of the impending All Hallows Eve since October 3rd. That’s different.

I think the biggest change I’ve seen over the years, however, has been the change in the point of Halloween. The reason for the season, if you will. In my grandpa’s day, Halloween was a night of mischief. He and his friends used to roam around on October 31st performing one simple, yet effective prank on as many homes as they could hit in one night. They would sneak into the backyard and move the outhouse. Apparently, most outhouses just sat over the hole without much foundation, and they would slide them backward, just one outhouse width, so the hole was open to the world in front of the door. They were hoping for the inevitable outcome if the homeowner didn’t notice the outhouse had been moved in the dark. (I’ll let you take it from there.) And if you happened to get a backside full of birdshot while relocating someone’s commode, well, that was simply the price you paid for having so much fun.

In my day, we went out on Halloween to make sure our neighbors were following the rules. We felt we were owed candy, much like a mob boss is owed protection money. We said, “trick or treat,” and we meant it. If there was no treat, there was going to be a trick. The older kids had eggs or soap for the windows. Fair was fair. We wore costumes for the same reason armed robbers wear ski masks - anonymity. People had candy by the front door out of self defense more than anything else. When someone decorated their house above and beyond the single jack-o-lantern, they were actually trying to scare the kids away, not entertain them. Halloween was a night run by the kids and tolerated by the adults.

Today, in the suburban neighborhoods across this land, Halloween has been hijacked by the adults. We adorn our front lawns and living rooms for our own amusement, often competing with our neighbors in a game of decoration one-upsmanship that used to be reserved only for Christmas lights. We buy our kids expensive costumes so they can look just like a Star Wars storm trooper or Hannah Montana as we escort them from house to house and congratulate each other on how cool the front lawn graveyard looks with this year’s addition of the fog machine. If people don’t have candy, or no one’s home, we just say, “Oh, well,” and move on to the next house.

What is that all about? We’ve managed to get way off point here. How will our kids ever know what Halloween is really all about?

Come to think of it, what is Halloween really all about? It’s been a weird deal since its inception. Moving outhouses? Defacing your neighbor’s property as part of a sucrose extortion racket? That’s just plain strange.

The more I think about it, the more I think this new trend is a good thing. I mean, there’s always a truck-load of candy at the end of the night that I get to commandeer for my own consumption, my outhouse hardly ever gets moved anymore, and I never have to try to get soap off my windows. Plus, my boys get into enough mischief the other 364 days of the year as it is. I guess it’s OK if we’ve moved away from the annual night of mandated mayhem toward a kinder, gentler Halloween.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn on the hydraulics for the automatic creaky coffin lid and re-fill the water tank on the new fog machine. I am SO going to out-do my neighbor Bob this year!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Hearty Soccer Dad

My wife is very sneaky. Either that, or I don’t listen. I prefer to think of her as sneaky, but it’s probably the latter. Either way, due to her sneakiness or my inability to pay attention, this past spring I ended up being a baseball coach without my prior knowledge. I showed up to my oldest son’s first T-ball practice ready to watch from the bleachers, and she handed me a jersey and a hat and said, “By the way, you’re coaching.”

“What!?! Honey, I have no idea what the schedule looks like! I don’t have a clue if I can make any of the practices or the games!”

“Don’t worry, you can make all of them.”

“Oh, OK... Well kids, who wants to try to hit my curve ball?”

“It’s T-ball, honey.”

“OK. Who wants to make dirt circles with their cleats?”

So, toward the end of this summer when my wife casually mentioned that our oldest would be starting soccer this year, I immediately got defensive.

“Honey, I don’t know the first thing about soccer! It’s been 32 years since I played AYSO, and I was a goalie, because I didn’t understand it then, either. There is no way I can…”

“Relax, Captain Overreaction, you’re not the coach.”

“OK, great. When’s the first game?”

After experiencing coaching kindergarteners first-hand, I was looking forward to a relaxing soccer season, sitting on the sidelines in my lawn chair, leading my two youngest boys in “Ra-Ra-Sis-Boom-Ba” cheers as we watched their older brother dominate the field and score goal after exciting goal.

That didn’t happen.

I arrived with my family at the Rocklin soccer fields the first Saturday morning completely unprepared for what I would experience. Not unprepared in a “did we forget something?” sense, because believe me, we didn’t. The soccer game was only scheduled to last one hour, but I was packing more gear than I would normally take camping for a week. Chairs, blankets, water bottles, snacks, beach umbrellas, shade tents, hats, jackets, coolers… we almost didn’t fit in the Ford Expedition.

I had inquired a couple of times to my wife that morning as to why we needed so much stuff, to which she finally responded, “Shut up and help me close this tailgate.”

I started to get a feel for the program when we turned down the street toward the soccer fields. I remember the soccer fields of my youth looking something like this: grass fields with goals on each end with kids playing soccer and parents standing on the sidelines watching. I saw none of that at first. What I saw looked like a cross between an upscale refugee camp and the midway at a state fair. Shade tents were everywhere, but it was only 78 degrees. There were four soccer fields laid out side by side, and the areas in between them were so full of chairs, blankets, umbrellas, shade tents and coolers that it was hard to discern which field they were set up to view.

Twenty minutes later, after I had unloaded the car, we began to make our way past the ends of the fields, looking for the field that my son would soon dominate. At the first field I noticed that each team had a 4 x 8-foot vinyl banner, staked into the ground on their respective sidelines, being held in place with very well-made PVC banner stands. The banners weren’t homemade. They were the real deal, straight out of the custom print shop. Any U.S. corporation would be proud to have banners that nice at their next trade show. They were professionally printed, emblazoned with the team names and artistic logos. One had a flaming soccer ball and the other had an alligator wearing soccer cleats. They both had all the players' names on them, ensuring only one season of useful life.

“What couple of over-achiever parents came up with those?” I wondered aloud.

“Every team has one, including ours. You helped pay for it.”

“I did what?... This is the five and six-year-old league, right?”

“Get over it, sweetheart.”

We reached our field, and the other team dads and I spent the next 20 minutes setting up our tent city. By the time we finished, it was game time. Time for my son to dominate the soccer field!

I have already mentioned that I was unprepared for this new experience. This was not due to the game being more thrilling than I had anticipated. My son didn’t dominate anything. No child on the field dominated anything. The hopeful feelings I had about an exciting and action-packed soccer match quickly vanished with the first play near the goal.

We had the ball.
One of our boys kicked the ball toward the opposing goal.
The parents leaned forward in their seats.
He stood and admired his kick.
The other players stood and admired his kick.
The ball rolled in front of the goal.
The goalie, not two feet from the ball, stood and admired his kick.
Some of our players and some of their players ran toward the ball.
The parents leapt to their feet in anticipation of a happening of some kind.
The two teams' players arrived at the ball at the same time.
They stopped.
No one was sure whose turn it was to kick it.
They discussed it.
The parents lurched forward, hearts in their throats, shouting, “Kick it!”
No one kicked it.
The goalie wandered over and picked it up.
The parents fell back into their seats, hands thrown into the air, looking at each other with desperate and wild eyes.
“Why didn’t they kick it?”

We repeated that process no less than 40 times over the course of the first half.

There is the emotion and thrill of a fast-paced professional sporting event, and then there is the raw, gut-wrenching, breath-taking angst that comes from a sporting event where nothing is happening like it should. The sheer amount of highs and lows we experienced inside a five minute period was enough to leave a healthy adult gasping for air. My head pounded. My heart palpitated. My palms sweated. I was emotionally and physically drained. And absolutely nothing had happened.

When the other team finally scored a goal against us in the third quarter, it was strangely welcome. They had scored against us, which was not the situation I was rooting for, but at the same time, I was so darned relieved that an actual play had occurred with an actual outcome, I found myself happy and momentarily at peace. When the post-goal wave of normalcy rolled over me, I realized for the first time that day just how tense the game was making me.

I’m not sure what it is about soccer. I mean, nothing worked quite right when I coached these same aged boys and girls in T-ball, but it wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking to watch. It probably has to do with the fact that the soccer ball is always in play, so we the parents are always expecting the players to actually keep playing. When they stop with the ball at center field to inspect the grass or chase a butterfly, it is tolerable, and even humorous to witness. But when the ball is mere inches from the goal and all the players seem to suddenly forget what to do next, the breathless anticipation is almost too much to bear.

Whatever the reason, I was watching five and six-year-olds play soccer, and the emotional strain was so great, I was actually starting to worry about a possible sideline heart attack. I’m almost 40 now. I have to start taking my heart health seriously!

So, after the game, the team dads got together and we decided to all chip in and buy one of those portable defibrillators. The way we figure it, if the kids don’t improve to a level of at least kicking the ball and following it, the chances are pretty good that one of us is going down before the season is over.

It was an expensive unit, but we decided, what the heck, we already bought an expensive banner, and there’s no way that thing is going to save one of our lives. I guess when we finally revive the first poor, unfortunate dad who succumbs to the cardiac arrest-inducing inaction on the field, we can always break down the PVC stand and use the banner as a stretcher.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hot Chicks and Cool Dudes - Re-Post

Original posting 07-07-2008
Enjoy, and stay cool.

One of the main differences between men and women can be seen in the simple truth about ambient temperature. Men are comfortable in a thirty-degree temperature range, and the range is the same for all men. From 56 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 men will do just fine. Some may be a little sweatier or chillier than others, but no one is complaining. This range is hardwired in the male DNA and stays the same from birth until death.

Women on the other hand, are comfortable in only a three-degree range, and not only does that range vary widely from women to women, but throughout the course of an individual women’s day, week, month, year, and lifespan, it will jump all over the board.

These are indisputable facts. You just can’t argue with science. This disparity in the comfort zones of the sexes invariably leads to problems when men and women attempt to share an office, car, home, bed, table at a restaurant, tent, etc. The issue is most often solved by adjusting the temperature to fit the female’s needs. As long as the three-degree range is still falling in the male comfort zone, everyone gets along. If there are two or more women sharing the same space, the inevitable problem is usually solved with layers. It is not uncommon to visit an office where the secretary in the blouse with the personal electric desk fan is working right along side the HR manager in the parka with the personal electric space heater.

Financial issues can arise from this problem when men and women get married and buy a house that contains a thermostat. Men will do some rudimentary math, and pick one temperature to keep the house livable, foolishly assuming that this temperature will be acceptable for the entire season. Little do they know that the temperature they picked will not even be acceptable for an entire seven minutes. Women who normally complain that the clock radio is too complicated can decipher a thirty-eight-button, eleven-switch thermostat in a matter of minutes and operate any home’s A/C system like they were seated at a NASA control center. In many cases the temperature swings during the day are so violent that a man can actually see the money being sucked out of the double-pane windows.

I think the temperature issue is a physical manifestation of a psychological difference in the sexes. Women are genetically programmed to worry about more things than men are. I have no idea why, but again, you can’t argue with science. When women have no life-threatening situations to deal with, they will inevitably begin to search out things to be concerned about, often making things up to fret over. Hair, weight, money, age, wrinkles, relationships with friends, relationships with co-workers, me-time, us-time, down time, play dates, date night, pre-partum, partum, post-partum, carpet, color palates, window treatments, balanced diets, safety recalls, consumer reports, outdoor tableware, biological clocks, school districts, undercooked poultry, guest lists, footwear, closet organization, furniture, pediatricians, and the list goes on and on. And on.

With men, pretty much twenty-nine days out of the month if the cars are running OK and the house isn’t on fire, it’s all good.

So I hypothesize that women, being less comfortable inside about all the little things in life, try to micro-manage the external temperature settings to feel more comfortable outside. A way to gain some measure of control over their surroundings when life seems otherwise wildly out of control. Either that, or it’s a hormone thing and they actually are less comfortable. What do I know?

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Day the Internet Died

It happened at 3:14pm on Wednesday, October 6th, 2010. It was a day like any other day. Millions of people across the country were at work. A vast majority of them were bored, because it was 3:14pm on a Wednesday. One of the most bored, Bob Singleton, sat at his computer in his six by six standard office-gray cubicle. He was a mid-level manager of the inside salesmen at Sparteck Industries in Sandusky, Ohio. It would later be uncovered that his computer terminal, in the northwest corner of the third floor, in the nondescript concrete and glass office building at 3rd and West, was ground zero for the largest electronics melt-down the world had ever seen.

As I said, Bob was bored. Google’s home page was on his screen. He was searching for himself. He was searching for cat videos. He was searching for videos of dads getting hit in the groin by their son’s Wiffle Ball bats. Those videos cracked him up. Then it occurred to him… What if he asked Google to search for Google? What would happen? That could be funny. With his two index fingers, he typed g-o-o-g-l-e, and at 3:14:28 on 10-06-2010, he hit “Enter.”

Google diligently began its search.
0.0032 seconds later, the search engine back-traced the search string because its findings led back to the original search criteria. Then it started over. As the search repeatedly produced the same unanswered question, the search engine began using more and more server bandwidth in an effort to solve the problem, something the Google engineers had designed into the program without ever having thought of this one simple scenario. The search engine was stuck in a logic loop – sometimes called a “divide by zero” error – and there was no exit ramp on the circular path. The circle just kept getting bigger.

At Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, the ballooning bandwidth being used for one search set off alarms that had previously never been heard. One Google accountant was so shocked, she assumed the building was under attack from Bing, and leapt from a second story window. Fortunately, she landed on one of the many corporate bean-bags used to make Google seem like a really cool place to work, unencumbered by “the man.” Ironically, as an accountant, she knew all too well the truth. She had always scoffed at those bean-bags, but not today.

Three seconds before the Google servers did the digital equivalent of eating themselves, the engineering manager on duty figured out what had happened, but it was too late. Google was offline.

The chain reaction that followed was cataclysmic. Google Chrome was offline. Minutes later, Microsoft Internet Explorer went down because nearly 99% of all applications rely on the Google Toolbar. The engineers would later discover that even Bing was using Google Toolbar, much to the chagrin of Microsoft. Windows was immediately rendered useless, although the engineers never did figure out if that was due to the crash, or just another Windows bug.

With Microsoft and Google down for the count, all mobile devices except for the iPhone went offline. Skype, texting, and even the camera functions quit working. All digital cell tower traffic ceased, rendering even the least-used function of the mobile devices, the phone, totally useless. Apple’s iPhones and their other super-cool small white devices lasted another 2-1/2 minutes, but finally succumbed to the meltdown due to the ill-fated Microsoft Office Applications recently integrated into the otherwise pristine machines. There were unconfirmed reports that some non-Wi-Fi enabled iPads kept working during the catastrophe, but the forensic engineers could neither confirm or deny those rumors after the fact, primarily because no one really knew what they were for in the first place.

With all mobile devices gone black, millions and millions of young adults, ages 16 to 28, were completely offline for the first time in their lives. Their reactions ran the gamut from unbridled panic to catatonic paralysis. Most just began wandering helplessly in the streets, attempting to text each other on blank, black screens, weeping softly. No one was really sure how to help them, because they were unable to communicate their needs verbally, and their handwriting was completely illegible.

The nation had gone to Electronic DEFCON-5 in a matter of 7-1/2 minutes.

When President Obama was alerted to the situation, he was conveniently already in the Situation Room, dealing with another Biden tongue-slip debacle. After being briefed on the loss of the internet, he thought for a moment, then calmly commanded, “Get me Gore.”

“Brilliant!” his staff exclaimed. After all, Al Gore had invented the internet, so he would surely know how to fix this problem.

No one was sure how to call him, since all the mobile phones were dead. Then, someone remembered that the oval office had that really cool red desk phone. No one had ever used it, but they knew it was used in the past to make calls, somehow. After several attempts to dial his number, no one could find the “send” button with the little green phone receiver on it. They gave up after realizing they only had Gore’s mobile number anyway, so they wouldn’t be able to call him, even if they could figure out how to use the ancient phone. There was a lighthearted moment of discovery, however, when several of the staff members finally understood what the little green symbol was, after seeing the desk phone’s receiver, and finally making the connection. They also finally realized why they were called “mobile” phones, after seeing the cord running from the desk phone to the wall.

By that time, a senior Pentagon official had summoned his aide and they used the hand-crank radio in the corporal’s Hummer to broadcast a short-wave radio call for SOS. Earl-John Bullox from Hogsweat, Illinois, a 43-year veteran Ham radio operator was the first to receive their distress signal.

Upon receiving his official orders to track down Al Gore using the Ham radio network, Earl-John sprang into action. This was the day that he and his short-wave compatriots had been training for their whole indoor, weird, socially handicapped lives. Seven hours later, after networking with thirty-two Ham radio operators and exchanging three different recipes for grits, Earl-John patched Al Gore through to the White House.

Gore had been in a bar in Massachusetts, attempting to “interview” a cocktail waitress for his next documentary, “An Inconvenient Masseuse.” He was now in Thurmond Crummly’s basement Ham radio base/bomb shelter, talking to the President, and having to remember to hold the button down and say, “Over.”

After skillfully dodging the issue at hand for a few minutes, he was finally forced to admit that he actually had nothing to do with inventing the internet. When pressed further, he also admitted that he had no idea what Google was, no idea how Microsoft Excel works, and that he had real doubts that global warming is even a thing.

That was it. By 10:30pm all hope was lost. The internet had been off for nearly half the day. Life was simply not worth living any longer. There were people who hadn’t even seen one YouTube video all afternoon. It was over.

But before anyone was able to commit hari-kari, a ray of hope came crackling over the short-wave. At 11:10pm, Bill Gates made contact with the President through Earl-John.

“We’re completely blacked-out here in Washington, but I might know someone who can help. Someone off the grid.”

“You’re in Washington? Come over! We can hang out.” replied the President.

“The state, sir.” said Bill.

“The state of what?” asked the President.

“Never mind. His name is Elbert DeGroot. He lives in Lynnwood, Washington with his mother.”

“Where’s Lynnwood? I’ve never heard of it. Is that near Georgetown?”

“Can you put someone from the Pentagon on, sir?”

Elbert DeGroot, was the unknown former classmate and friend of Bill Gates and Paul Allen. After a bitter dispute over a Hardy Boys t-shirt, they kicked him out of their “Three Amigos Computing Club” just weeks before they launched Microsoft.

As a result, Elbert would not be caught dead with a Microsoft product, or anything related in any way, shape, or form to those bastards, Gates and Allen. He was still running a Commodore 64 with his own proprietary version of DOS, and he was fond of saying that anyone who needs more than 64Kb of RAM is a wuss. “Old 64,” as he referred to his machine, was connected to the world with a modem that had a telephone cradle for his rotary phone. He rarely used the modem, however, since the only other computer he could communicate with was one he had built for his brother, and they hadn’t spoken in years due to a bitter dispute over a Hardy Boys lunch box.

When the military envoy arrived at the DeGroot home, Elbert’s mother showed them to his room. After admiring his extensive Star Wars action-figure collection, they got to the point. The world needed his help. He would have been quick to dismiss them, knowing he would be helping his enemy Gates, but Elbert was a smart man. He could see that this was his ticket to computing stardom. The world would finally bow down to the greatness of DeGroot. He alone could save the world. And maybe later, the military guys would want to go out for pizza and talk to girls.

He quickly wrote a five-line program in Basic. He grabbed his rotary phone and dialed Google’s 1-800 number. He kept dialing “0” for the operator. When the senior-officer-in-charge questioned what he was doing, he simply held up his hand. Elbert DeGroot knew damn well that he would never get an operator. He also knew that on the eighth try, he would be dumped into the company’s general voicemail box.

You see, Elbert DeGroot, while totally unknown to most of the world, was actually quite famous in one small segment of society. He had invented the infamous corporate “general voicemail box.” He had originally developed it out of spite after the success of Microsoft. It was intended to be a cruel trick on the world that had otherwise abandoned him. What he hadn’t counted on was its wild popularity with large American corporations. When they learned of this new and handy way to ignore their customer base while giving them a cheery-voiced, yet completely false shred of hope that their call was in fact important to the company, they snatched it up.

Elbert Degroot was a rich man. He lived with his mother in his 20,000 square-foot mansion on a 45-acre estate. By all accounts he was almost as rich as Bill Gates himself. He was the billionaire on the Forbes list that no one ever recognized.

But, this was his chance to gain some real respect from the world that had done him wrong so many years ago. When the buttery voice of the Google girl came on the line, announcing that he could leave a message (that no one would ever hear), he set the receiver down on the modem cradle and hit the impossibly large enter key on his ancient keyboard. The five-line program sprang to life at a blazing seven kilobytes per second, and the Mighty DeGroot back-doored into the Google servers and interrupted the fatal infinite logic loop with a single command: “Quit.” Take that, Gates!

By midnight, the Google engineers had re-booted the servers, and everything was back to normal. As often happens in these situations, the NSA “locked down” on the whole mess, and the powers that be decided that no one could ever know about what had happened or how it was fixed, for obvious national and recreational security reasons. Elbert DeGroot would remain the most anonymous rich man in the world. Damn Hardy Boys t-shirt!

As for Bob Singleton from Sparteck Industries in Sandusky, Ohio, the man responsible for the whole mess… After his computer quit working, he just left the office and went to the bar to catch the game. When he got to the office the next day, everything was back to normal. It’s good to be Bob.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I'm Finally That Guy

A big “Thank You” is going out to my youngest son this week. He has turned me into “That Guy.” Allow me to explain.

It’s really probably a common tale among parents. Before I had kids I would occasionally find myself at the mall or the grocery store in awe of some poor parent whose kid was melting down. The child would be yelling, screaming, and throwing a fit, and there would be the parent, doing one of two things:
1) Threatening the kid to within an inch of his life as they drug him out of the store.
2) Or, simply ignoring the kid and attempting to shop as if nothing was wrong.

Depending on the parent’s reaction I always had either a feeling of pity for them, or a mixture of pity and mild disgust.

No matter what the circumstance though, I always had the thought in the back of my mind that, “My kids won’t behave like that!”

Now, I am proud to report that at ages six, four and two, my boys have had very few public melt-downs. You will note I said “very few” and not “none.” I have unfortunately been “that guy” a few times in the last six years, and it quickly dispelled my theory that my kids were perfect as well as my hope that I would never be seen leaving a Target dragging a screaming three-year-old behind me.

It is not bad behavior, however, that I am writing about today. No, I am writing today about another kind of inevitable kid situation that provokes sympathetic, empathetic, and sometimes just pathetic looks from the other parents in the near vicinity. With the kind of situation I am talking about, I have given plenty of charitable “been there, buddy” looks to fellow dads, but last Wednesday, I really got a chance to be on the receiving end… big time.

I met my wife at the gym after work, where she was already splashing and playing with the three boys in the kids pool. Our gym has three pools; a kids pool with an adjacent water park, a lap pool, and a square, shallow, multi-purpose pool.

I had only been in and playing with the boys for about five minutes when the head lifeguard announced that everyone needed to get out of the kids pool and vacate the water park. He was sorry for the inconvenience, but we would need to remain out of the water for forty-five minutes. I asked my wife what was going on, and she said a little girl had thrown-up in the pool, and they were required to chlorinate and skim before they could let everyone back in. The water park is fed with the water from the kids pool, so that needed to be shut down as well. No more fun! Everyone out!

Now, every parent knows there is no way to predict when a child might throw up. They are a lot like coke bottles. Sometimes, they just blow. So, for the most part, I just shrugged my shoulders, and moved the kids out of the water. But somewhere in the back of my head, explicable only due to human nature, a little voice was saying, “Come on, dude! Why’s your kid chunking in the pool? Thanks a lot, man. Now I have to go to the annoying pool.”

The multi-purpose pool requires a much higher level of parental vigilance for us, because it has no gradual beach-entry shallow end like the kids pool. It starts at three feet deep, which is too deep for Boy Number Three, so I need to hold him, or keep him corralled on the steps. Holding him wouldn’t be so bad, as he is mostly calm and happy, but he is also intermittently scared to death of the water. It’s a lot like holding a koala bear that occasionally turns into a crazed spider monkey. If you’re not careful, he’ll rip your nostrils right out!

We spent some time in the multi-purpose pool, nostril incident-free, and then got out to have our dinner. My wife had packed the boys some foil-wrapped bean burritos, and we all spread out on the warm concrete deck to eat. My wife left us there and headed home, and the boys and I ate and watched the ensuing aqua-aerobics class that had taken over the multi-purpose pool. After we had finished our burritos and I had answered approximately six thousand questions about aqua-aerobics, the lifeguard announced that the kids pool was back open for business.

Yay! Back to the kids pool for some more fun, and then home for bed. We hit the water with gusto, and were soon surrounded by twenty or thirty other frolicking kids and parents. Everyone was very happy to have the fun pool and water park back after the shut down.

I was sitting in about two feet of water watching Boy Number One and Two swimming with their goggles on, diving for toys. Boy Number Three was behind me splashing water on my back, hollering and giggling. All was right with the world. Then I noticed it.

At first I didn’t know what to make of it. It looked like someone had dropped some Cheerios in the pool and they had started to disintegrate. The disintegrated Cheerios were suddenly floating all around me, coming from somewhere behind me. Just about the time I started to turn around to investigate, one of the lifeguards shouted, “Hey, what’s that?”

I turned around and sprang to my feet when I saw Boy Number Three standing at the epicenter of a two-foot radius “Cheerio spill.” I snatched him up and did the stomach-over-the-forearm-pull-up-the-back-of-the-shorts poop check, and sure enough! Number Three had gone number two.

The kids pool had been re-opened for a grand total of four minutes and my boy had shut it down again!

Apparently, today’s “swimmy diapers” can only do so much when you neglect to check them regularly.

One of the younger female lifeguards tried to make me fell better – probably after seeing the look of total disgust and shame on my face – by saying, “Don’t worry. It happens all the time.”

I just barely heard her, though, as I fireman-carried all three boys and our gear bag at a dead sprint toward the family bathroom.

The lifeguard haz-mat response team was on the case, and I was not necessarily interested in staying poolside to preside over the evacuation and acknowledge the looks of scorn or pitiful understanding that I was sure to receive from the other parents.

It may “happen all the time,” but I can assure you, when it’s your turn to be “That Guy,” you really don’t want to hang around to take credit.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!