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!