Wednesday, March 30, 2011

El Arbol de Muerte

Our house came with six fairly good-sized trees. Two in the front yard and four in the back. It occurred to me the other day that I know absolutely nothing about them. I have no idea what kind they are. I know one of the two in the front yard is some kind of pine tree and all the others are the kinds that lose their leaves. That’s all I’ve got.

We’ll get to the reason why it occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about them in a minute. When I realized my lack of knowledge on the tree subject, I also realized that they are the only things I own that I don’t know a single thing about. I can’t think of anything else that I own that I am so wholesale ignorant about as my foliage. They just came with the house.

I could tell you at least seven details about my fence right off the top of my head. I know lots of really un-interesting facts about the water heater. I know the tonnage of my air conditioner, and the BTU rating of my furnace. I know what the roof is made of, the R-value of my insulation, and all about the inner workings of the toilets. Those things all came with the house, just like the trees did, but for some reason, I have no knowledge, nor do I have any interest in gaining any knowledge, about the trees.

Actually, it’s not just the trees, but the bushes as well. I couldn’t be less interested in them. When we bought the house a few years back, one of the first things I did was figure out the automatic watering system. There are in-ground sprinklers for both lawns, and a drip-line system that runs around the entire outer edge of the property, servicing all the trees and shrubbery. The first thing I did was turn off the drip system.

I simply do not feel the need to spend my time and money maintaining a drip line system and buying water for flora that should be able to survive just fine without my help. Plenty of trees and shrubs out there survive on just the water God sees fit to give them, and I don’t think mine should have any kind of special treatment above and beyond that. I don’t want to coddle them! I figure, if they survive, great. If they don’t, then it wasn’t meant to be.

Truth be told, I really only water the grass because it’s not socially acceptable to let it go native, either. I really don’t like spending my money hydrating something that grows perfectly fine on its own, just because my neighbors and my wife think it should be green year-round and be mowed every week during the summer. But, in this life, you must pick your battles.

As you may have guessed, I don’t exactly have a “green thumb.” I don’t know if my inability to care about plant species identification and welfare stems from my lack of ability to cultivate them, or vice-versa, but either way, it’s just not there. That became abundantly clear to me last year when our garden failed miserably.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I do water the garden. I have no problem with that, because the garden usually pays me back with produce. Our past gardens had done OK, producing what I considered a healthy amount of tomatoes, zucchini, and the occasional jalapeƱo pepper. Last year, however, we grew exactly one strawberry, four tomatoes, and zero zucchini. Most of the plants themselves grew a little, but produced basically no fruit at all. If you have ever grown zucchini, then you know its plant is like a weed. Normally, you have to be careful how close you plant them to everything else, because they will grow at a rate of three feet an hour and take over the whole garden. Last year they got about eight inches tall and quit. How could that have gone wrong?

I was lamenting our garden’s plight to a friend at a late-summer dinner party last year, and she began giving me some pretty startling facts.

“Did the zucchini plants ever flower?”
“Yes, but then, no zucchinis grew and the flowers just withered and fell off.”
“OK, well you would have had male flowers and female flowers. The flowers just never pollenated each other. You probably didn’t have enough bees.”
“I don’t have any bees that I know of. Am I supposed to have some?”
“Well, if you don’t have enough bees, you need to pollenate the female flowers by hand.”
“Excuse me?”

This was news to me. I have to do stuff? I though these things just took care of themselves, like my trees and bushes. And I’m not sure I want to pollenate by hand. The zucchini plants and I have a professional relationship, and getting involved in any kind of pollination activities seems much too personal. I think I’ll just go to the store instead.

Anyway… back to the trees. The thing that got me thinking about how little I really know about my trees was something Son Number One said the other day. One of the trees in our front yard (the one that loses its leaves) turns bright white at the beginning of spring. It sprouts a million tiny white flowers that make for a really nice looking tree for a few weeks, but there is one problem. They smell like death.

These beautiful little flowers give off the unmistakable aroma of rotting flesh. That whiff you get when you walk out into the garage and your brain says, “Dead rat.” That’s what the tree smells like. We have a lot of them in my neighborhood, so for the first few weeks of spring, our street is really pretty, but really stinky.

Number One and I were on the way to kindergarten the other morning, and he pipes up from the back seat, “Hey Daddy. Look at how many death trees there are around here!”

My son was just repeating what he had heard me call the trees, but it got me thinking. Maybe I should learn their real name before we get a call from a concerned teacher.

“Why is your son talking about a ‘death tree’ in his front yard? Is there something you need to tell us, sir?”

On the other hand, the real name, whatever it may be, won’t tell the story even half as well as, “Death Tree.” If that isn’t their real name, it should be. The plant nurseries might disagree with me, however. Something tells me sales of “death trees” might lag a little behind Japanese elms. Maybe they could use the Spanish name.

“El Arbol de Muerte” has a nice ring to it. Come to think of it, I’m going to start telling the boys that’s the name of the tree. They won’t know the difference, and they’ll sound a lot smarter!

Ignorance is bliss, as long as you don’t sound stupid, right?

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mexi-nadian Timeshares

My folks own a timeshare vacation property in Palm Springs. It’s a wonderful place, owned and operated by Marriott, and they love it. Every time I get to stay with them at one of Marriott’s first-class properties I always think back to the first timeshare presentation my wife and I attended. It was a little different.

We were thirty years old and newly married, vacationing with good friends in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We all signed up to go to a timeshare presentation on the first morning of our trip, in order to gain free passage on an all-you-can-eat-and-drink catamaran “booze cruise,” and free desert ATV rentals. (Wisely, they had scheduled those activities for two different days.)

We were to be served a complimentary breakfast while we chatted delightfully with the sales representative about the merits of Mexican timeshare vacationing, then we would be whisked off to our all-expense-paid fun in the sun. During the sign-up in the hotel lobby, all I heard was, “Free beer, free food, free beer, free food, free boat ride, free beer, free ATV.” I was in.

The next morning we met our delightful sales representative at the hotel’s restaurant and had our breakfast. The breakfast was great, but our delightful sales representative turned out to be a Canadian Tony Danza look-alike with slicked back hair and a cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He kept talking about how owning a timeshare in Cabo was really just “pre-paid vacation insurance.” I couldn’t get him to explain what he meant by that. Every time I asked, he would say, “You know what I mean,” and move on to another topic. The only actual piece of information I was able to extract from him was that this was not the type of timeshare where you actually own a piece of the property. It was just an annual fee to be able to rent a hotel room at the resort.

After our delightful breakfast and hotel room tour, we were invited back to the sales office to further discuss the amazing opportunity that lay before us. I politely declined and asked Tony Danz-eh if he had our booze cruise tickets handy. He informed me that the free swag was not available until after the full presentation, so off to the sales office we went.

Now it was time to talk turkey. Dollars and sense. In this case, Canadian dollars and sense. It turned out that the entire operation was staffed with Canadians. Apparently they had become fed up with cold weather, and Mexico has either non-existent or very lax anti-discriminatory labor laws, because there wasn’t a non-Canuck among them.

Our delightful sales representative finally got down to brass tacks, and threw out the number for the big-time, all-access pass to vacation paradise. All of our future vacations would be completely insured in a pre-paid manner for a mere $30,000. I didn’t bother to ask if that was in American dollars, Canadian dollars or pesos. I just laughed out loud.

We were thirty-year-old newlyweds who had recently purchased our first home. I think between us we had about $8.50 in the bank.

After my wife helped me gain some measure of control over my previously uncontrolled laughter (by kicking me under the table), I explained our financial situation to our salesman and told him that we could not afford to “buy in” to the timeshare today. I also informed him that I still didn’t have enough information about the “fabulous pre-paid vacation insurance” deal that he was offering us, and that I would really like some written literature about the resort.

Apparently, this was not the kind of operation that puts facts down on paper because no matter how many times I asked for timeshare informational literature, my request was met by a change of subject. After our salesman decided that he was making no ground with us, he called in the big guns. The closer was summoned, and the real dealing began.

Apparently, unbeknownst to our original salesman, the Smiths had just unfortunately had to sell their long-held timeshare due to an illness in the family, and that had freed up some once-in-a-lifetime deals that could be ours today at rock-bottom prices. Our ticket into the club was instantly 50% off, down to a measly $15,000. I repeated the process of explaining why I could not afford that amount and, no matter what the cost, I would not be writing any checks until I had some literature to read over and a night to sleep on it.

My requests for literature signaled to the closer that further price slashing was obviously in order, so we then learned of another unfortunate family, the Johnsons, who had recently been forced, due to uncontrollable circumstances, to give up their treasured timeshare, opening the door for us at a mere $5000 price tag.

Three or four unfortunate family situations later, our closer got to the final number. We could buy our way out of the delightful timeshare office for $1200.

“Could you go ahead and write us a check for that right now?” We were asked.

Let’s see, here. You started at $30,000, and got all the way down to $1200, and apparently I’m “buying” the same thing? I still don’t know what “pre-paid vacation insurance” means, and I’m getting the feeling you don’t either. I haven’t seen one shred of paper with any writing on it, and you seem petrified at the thought of giving me a day to think about this glorious opportunity that you have laid out before me. No one, including you, seems to know exactly what the Joneses just gave up that you are trying to sell me, and to top it all off, I have been in this office for over an hour and no one has offered me a free beer.

I’m in Mexico, dude. I didn’t even bring my checkbook. And even if I had, I wouldn’t write you guys a check for a dollar. American, Canadian, or otherwise. Go get me my booze cruise tickets.

The moral of the story: You can’t trust Mexican Canadians. At least, that’s what I took away from it.

The two hours we lost that morning turned out to be totally worth it, however. The booze cruise alone was reward enough for being subjected to the Canucxican timeshare hornswoggle. As we sailed back to the dock after a half-day of fun in the sun, while sipping my umpteenth free beer, it occurred to me that the Canadian sales team would probably do a lot better if they made their pitch after the booze cruise, instead of before.

“Pre-paid vacation insurance” almost starts to make sense if you’ve had enough alcohol.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 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, March 16, 2011

Low Fashion

I know that traditionally, complaining about “the clothes the kids are wearing these days” is a sure sign that you are getting old, but in this case, I think I can be granted an exception to the geezer club. I am here today to talk about some disturbing fashion trends, and I think you all will agree with me, and you’re not old, right?

Some time ago, I wrote about the recent phenomenon of people leaving the house in their pajama pants, going to the store, and thinking nothing of it. I still maintain that this behavior signals the end of civilization as we know it, but I don’t want to rehash that subject. Instead, today I would like to talk about actual clothing meant to be worn outside. Specifically the hip new casual wear.

T-shirts, for starters, have digressed in my opinion. I have always been a fan of T-shirts with words or logos on them – a style my grandpa did not understand or approve of, I might add – but today’s shirts have gone off track. T-shirt logos should be centered on the front or the back, or placed over the heart where the shirt pocket would go. These are the only three acceptable places for words or a logo, in my opinion.

T-shirts these days are starting to have logos and designs that are all over the place. Logos are off-center, and the artsy designs seem to consist mostly of swirling thorny vines, stylized fleur-de-lis, roses, ribbons with writing on them (usually something like “desire” or “passion”) and skulls. If you squint they look like the remains of a beauty queen and her sash after dying from being caught in a rose thicket.

Most of the newer designs are all climbing over the shoulder and onto the back of the shirt, making the wearer look as if they are tilting to one side. They look to me as if the person running the sewing machine got the fabric mixed up and sewed two backs together on accident.

What passes for a T-shirt design these days is getting really vague. I saw a woman the other day wearing a shirt that was otherwise plain, but had writing over one of her shoulder blades near the neckline. It said “fun-loving,” and appeared to be hand-written with a felt-tipped marker like a Sharpie. Was this a commercially produced garment, or was this woman labeling her shirts to correspond with a particular personality trait that she thought the garment highlighted? A few years ago, the answer to that question would have been simple, but these days I can't tell.

Now, I know logically that today’s T-shirt designs are just another trend in fashion, and my resistance to them is surely a sign of my age. I just happen to be too young for that to be the case, so today’s T-shirts are all wrong. End of story.

T-shirt trends are not the real issue here. I just had to get that off my chest, so to speak. The real problem is with the pants. Not so much the pants themselves, but the wearers.

There have been a lot of bad trends in fashion over the years. Togas, kilts, lederhosen, powdered white wigs, knickerbockers, Members Only jackets, Izod golf shirts worn with the collars up, parachute pants, acid-washed jeans, etc., etc. The list is too long and painful to go through.

Of all the weird fashion trends over the years, however, one thing has remained constant. No matter how goofy the look, the clothes always fit. Some were baggy, some were skin tight, but they were all manufactured to actually stay on the wearer.

The most disturbing fashion trend in the history of the world is today’s young men who wear their pants with the waistline hanging down below their butts. Even more so than outdoor pajamas, pants-below-the-butt signals in no uncertain terms that a segment of our youth is a total and complete loss. There is no hope for someone who would willingly relegate themselves to constantly having to grab their pants to keep them from falling to their ankles, and walking like an arthritic penguin when they need to use their hands for something else. This is truly the decline of civilization as we know it.

The insane part is, most kids I see with pants-below-the-butt actually have an oversized belt on the pants, making the pants even more top-heavy and susceptible to falling. The irony of the situation is, the level of brain function (or lack thereof) that it must require to put a belt on your pants-below-the-butt, compounding the falling down problem with the very device that was originally designed to solve the problem, would actually preclude the wearer from ever actually learning what “irony” means.

That’s really too bad, because from what I’ve seen, the kids who are wearing pants-below-the-butt, in my estimation, are the ones who will most likely attempt to run from the police on any given day.

The funny part is, after you’ve been easily tackled by a police office who is wearing a 50-pound belt, because your ½-pound belt made your pants drop to your ankles and trip you up because you had to let go of it to pump your arms to gain some speed, you end up in a jumpsuit with an elastic waistband.

Irony is totally lost on many of its victims.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Hydration of a Thirsty Nation

“Why is everyone so thirsty all of a sudden?” That’s what my grandpa used to ask me. “Nowadays everyone carries around their own personal bottle of water. They all must be really thirsty.” He was amazed and amused by the sight of it.

Nation-wide thirst has, indeed, increased dramatically in my lifetime. Think back to when you were a kid. Do you remember anyone ever walking around holding their own personal bottle of water? No. Because personal water bottles didn’t exist. Somewhere along the line – in the late 1980’s, I think – companies first produced the portable plastic personal bottle of water, and we have been a nation on the verge of dehydration ever since.

The invention of the personal bottle of water was huge -- bigger than the cell phone, probably -- because it spans all the generation gaps. Every single man, woman, and child needs their own bottle of water today. Everyone from the eighty-year-olds to the one-year-olds can be seen fighting off imminent dehydration with their very own 0.75-liter Evian life insurance policy. This was a massive double-play for beverage companies, because not only does the target market consist of everyone, but they had finally figured out how to get people to pay for something that was otherwise free. That really made my grandpa laugh.

I began to realize how truly water-crazy we have become when my kids started playing organized sports. Every kid on my son’s soccer team arrived at the first practice with their own water bottle. Some kids had those Thermos-type one-gallon jugs with the flip-top spout. They played soccer for about three minutes and then had a ten-minute water break. When I was a kid playing soccer we practiced for an hour and then you were more than welcome to go find a drinking fountain somewhere if you were thirsty. On game days, the parents brought orange slices. You weren’t allowed to leave the field to find a drinking fountain, so you got any liquid you might need from the orange pulp.

With my son’s team, they cancelled a few of the practices because it was too hot. I was left thinking, “Are they actually worried anyone will overheat? Between all the players and coaches they will have 400 gallons of water within arm’s reach. They could take what they don’t drink and fill a small swimming pool if they get too hot.” Oh, well.

And, don’t even get me started on T-ball. If there was ever a sport that requires as little movement as possible on the player’s part, it’s T-ball. I have never seen any of the players actually break a sweat, yet our entire squad comes equipped with giant personal tankards of liquids. We are constantly rotating kids off the field in the middle of games to go pee, and the floor of our dugout is like a Dasani minefield.

And not content with just plain old water anymore, many parents opt for sports drinks to keep their kid’s electrolyte levels acceptable. I know the electrolyte levels of us kids was always a big concern for my folks.

The shift in our perceived water requirements is a strange thing. Back in the day, if you were ever thirsty when you were outside playing, you found a drinking fountain or a hose. Nowadays, moms and dads actually follow their children around the playgrounds and parks with bottles of water, forcing them to drink water even if the kids protest that they’re not thirsty. On any given 70-degree day you’ll hear, “You have to drink some water, Billy. It’s hot out here!” Many of today’s moms may not believe this, but farmers used to work all day in the fields, only drinking water at meal times. Many of today’s moms also may not believe that pee is supposed to be yellow, not clear.

I used to work with a guy who was a coffee drinker and a smoker. He had been with the company for years running one of the machines out in the shop. One day I wandered over to his workstation holding a cup of water. He asked me what I was drinking, and when I told him, he said, “Huh. I can’t remember the last time I had a drink of water.” He was dead serious. He thought about it for a while and decided that he hadn’t had so much as a sip of plain old water in over 10 years. Wrap your head around that one, Mommy!

My wife is one of “today’s moms” who feels the need to keep herself and our three boys maximally hydrated. I am starting to think an over-abundance of water in the body sort of feeds on itself like a crack addiction, because no matter how much water we give him, Boy Number Two is constantly complaining about being thirsty. He is also the one that needs to go to the bathroom every eight minutes. Strangely enough, he is also the one who has had the most potty-training issues and nighttime “accidents.”

It occurs to me that our potty training might go a little smoother if our boys weren’t experiencing a level-nine bladder emergency every time they need to pee. In fact, I’m not sure that any of them have ever had just a simple urge to pee. It’s always been a zero-to-sixty rush to the toilet to unleash a fire hose.

They say the human body is about 60% water. I’d ask them to re-check. I’ll bet these days we’re more like 80%. And I’ll bet my boys are pushing 95%.

There goes one of them now, sprinting to the bathroom.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011


My oldest son is in kindergarten, and two out of our three boys are playing T-ball this year, so I have begun a new chapter in my life. I now shake people down for money. The different organizations usually call it "fundraising,” but let’s be serious about what we’re doing. Extortion. Coercion. Racketeering. That’s more like it.

When you need to demand cash from people in the name of children’s sports and education, there are three main target groups, the first of which is your family. The grandparents are easy money. They’re good for whatever you’re selling. We don’t even ask anymore, we just put them down for ten of whatever it is. Now, when they call, they just ask how much they owe us this month.

Your brothers and sisters are a little harder to convince, however, since they are likely in the middle of their own fundraising activities and were just about to call you. In the end, you just trade money. The extended family is hit and miss, because a lot of them have stopped answering the phone.

Your next target group is your co-workers. This is where the term, “I gave at the office,” comes from. As with many events in your youth, you don't really understand the circle of life moments you're living until you are completing the circle many years later. When I was in my twenties and my bosses and older coworkers came to me with the Scholastic book fair order form, or the Girl Scout cookies, I always made sure to buy as much as I could after doing some quick math in my head to make sure I would have enough money left for beer. The reason I obliged their request was purely political, however. When your boss comes to you selling something for his cute little daughter, you say, “Yes.”

What I didn’t understand was that I was just prepaying to cover my turn, ten to twenty years down the road. School and sports fundraising at the office is really just a giant book/cookie/raffle ticket/magazine pyramid scheme. I bought your ticket into the club, now it’s your turn to buy mine.

The third target group is the neighbors. This market lets you use a different and very persuasive technique: Taking the kids with you. Who could say no to the cute little five-year-old with the big blue eyes explaining all about how they need to raise money to fulfill their lifelong dream of hitting a ball with a bat? Anyone who answers the door is toast. The problem is they have the option of pretending they’re not home. Make no mistake about it, when they see you coming with the kids, holding an order form, they know what’s about to go down.

“Daddy, didn’t we just see him come home? How come he’s not answering the door?”

“He must be in the shower, son. Let’s go. I’ll have a little chat with Bob later.”

“How come the curtains are moving?”

“Probably the cat. Let’s go to the next house, son. WE’LL COME BACK TOMORROW AT DINNER TIME SO WE’LL BE SURE TO AVOID MISSING BOB AGAIN!”

“How come you’re talking so loud, Dad?”

“Never mind.”

Going door to door in the neighborhood is a fun and enlightening experience. My sons have no idea how valuable an education in human behavior they are receiving simply by standing on someone else’s front porch, asking for money. There are three types of neighborhood buyers: The people who are buying your five-dollar raffle ticket because you brought the kids with you and they don't want to say no; the ones who are thrilled about the opportunity to help out and happily purchase a ticket; and the ones like me, who have simply resigned themselves to the fact that this is just part of having kids. We don’t bat an eye, we just hand over the cash.

If I didn’t need to take the boys with me as a sales tool and for their own education, I would approach it completely differently.

“Look, Bob, here's the deal. I need to sell twenty of these raffle tickets. You’re only on the hook for one. You won't win the big screen TV, or the $500 gift card, so let's not kid ourselves. We both know the odds. Just give me the five bucks you were going to spend on your latte tomorrow morning and I promise to buy whatever the hell your kid is going to be selling next week, OK? You and I both know your waistline could use a few less lattes anyway, partner. You’re welcome.”

It would really be a lot simpler if we just self-funded these things, but what would that teach the kids?

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 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!