Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Lights Revisited

I put up my Christmas lights this past Saturday, and in doing so, had a few quiet moments up high on my ladder to reflect on my love-hate relationship with the ever-popular tiny white icicle lights. I used to dread the moment of truth, when I would plug them in and see, with indescribable angst, that not all of them were working. I fear that moment no more, thanks to a wonderful little tool I found last year. The tool that might possible have saved my very life. I chronicled this heart-wrenching journey of pain and discovery over the previous two Christmas seasons, and putting up my lights again this year has made me want to share it with you again. Enjoy!

The Problem:

“The Five Feet of Christmas I Despise,” originally posted on December 02, 2009

Since I’m a Christian, I really enjoy Christmas. We get to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with our family and friends, joyfully thanking God for His greatest gift to us. And besides, I really love sugar cookies! There is, however, one aspect of Christmas that I don’t like. Actually, “don’t like” isn’t strong enough. Loath. Hate. Despise… yes, there is one aspect of Christmas that I despise. It has to do with Christmas lights.

It’s not the lights themselves. I love those. I really like the way they make the house look. My wife likes icicle lights; the kind with the individual light strands of differing lengths that hang down from the eaves to simulate a sparkling frozen wonderland. They give the house a warm glow while at the same time making us feel like we have a winter paradise in our otherwise non-frozen California front yard. It’s really quite magical, and brings joy to my heart every time I pull into the driveway from work.

It’s not putting up the lights, either. I don’t mind that chore. I might even go so far as to say that I enjoy it. It’s usually a nice, crisp fall day. I’m bundled up against the early December breeze, high on a ladder, as the boys frolic in the red and yellow autumn leaves on the lawn below. They “help” by holding the ladder, and climbing up to my feet when I’m down low. It seems like the essence of being a father and a family man is all wrapped up in that one chore, and it makes me feel content with my life.

The problem comes when I plug them in. Night falls, and I make the extension cord connection and then stand back to proudly admire my work. And there it is. The five feet of Christmas I despise: The five-foot section of icicle lights that is out, right in the middle of the string.

Dark. Nada.

We’ve got plug end, five feet of lit string, five feet of dark string, five more feet of lit string, and the prong end. Awesome! Right in the middle of the front of the house. My house could be a magical, sparkling, winter wonderland, but instead, that five-foot section of lights, out of the ninety-five total feet of lights, makes the entire house look stupid. The five-foot outage actually takes the whole effort and turns it upside down. Instead of improving the look of the house for the holidays, I have detracted from it, and made it look like the Christmas equivalent of the neighborhood delinquent’s house where the lawn is never mowed, there’s a car with a 2-inch layer of dirt and four flat tires in the driveway, and the screen door is hanging on one hinge. What a wonderful night!

My wife comes out and asks, “Didn’t you check them before you put them up?”
I grit my teeth.

My smart-ass neighbor yells from across the street, “You missed a spot!”
Yeah, thanks, Ted. Why don’t you go back inside now?

My son asks, “How come you didn’t put any lights right there?”
Time for you to go inside now, too, junior.

I would fix it, but I don’t know how. I don’t understand how it’s possible. Is the electricity jumping from one spot to another in the cord, bypassing some of the lights? How on Earth can both ends of a continuous string of lights be lit, but the middle is dark? It’s like turning the hose on at the house, cutting it in half in the middle, and still getting water out the other end.

I’m almost positive I used that string last year and it worked, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept it for this year, right? So please tell me what happened to it while it was tucked away in a plastic tub in my garage for the past eleven months. Did the copper wires melt during the summer? Did the electrons go on vacation? Does it just hate me?

To make troubleshooting even harder, I can’t recreate the problem on a string that works. I’m fairly sure it isn’t a bad bulb, because I can pull the tiny individual bulbs out of their tiny two-copper-wire-prong sockets in the lit strings, and the rest of the string stays lit. Why? Can someone please tell me why? Please! Why???

Oh, well. At least the Christmas tree lights work. Wait a minute…. The whole left side just went out. Great! Someone find the lawnmower while I fix this screen door hinge.

I need a sugar cookie.

And the solution:

Excerpted from “The Cool Yule Tool,” originally posted on December 08, 2010

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 worldwide 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. 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.

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 © 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, November 23, 2011

The Speed Limit

Our two oldest boys, Son Number One and Two, have started taking an interest in speed limit signs. We tried to put a stop to it, seeing that it could only lead to a bunch of annoying questions, but they are persistent. So we've been fielding questions like, "How come you're going 4-5? The sign said 4-0."

The other night, I was driving them home from a pizza party and had this conversation:
“Dad, you should be going 2-5, but you're going 4-0!”
“Why do you think I should only be going 25?”
“There was a sign back there that said 2-5.”
“Well, yes, son, but the 2-5 sign had the word 'school' over it. That means I only need to go 25 if kids are in school. It's night time. Do you think there are any kids at that school right now?”
“Let me ask you something else, son. Can you reach the pedals from back there?”
“Then stop trying to help me drive!”

Actually, I didn’t say that last part, but I was thinking it. What I did do was decide that I did not want to keep fielding annoying questions about the speed limit, so I decided to just go ahead and explain everything to them right then and there.

Turns out it's pretty hard to explain the speed limit to kids.

“OK, boys, here’s the deal. Speed limit signs are really just a guideline. A set of suggestions, if you will. But, that’s only in town. They mean totally different things on city streets than they do on the freeways. They are a hard and fast limit on the freeway, but nowadays they are really the reverse of what they were originally meant for. It’s complicated.

On city streets, technically they are a rule about the maximum speed you can travel, but realistically they are a guideline for more or less what speed you should be traveling. Think of them as a suggestion of a safe speed for a mediocre driver. If it says 40, then you can really go anywhere from about 35 to 50 miles per hour, depending on how good a driver you are. And believe me, there are all different skill levels of drivers out there. If you are a teenage girl holding a cell phone, you ought to be more or less parked, but definitely going no faster than 15. If you are like Daddy, and are a highly experienced driver with reflexes like a cat, you can go 55.

Unless there is a police officer behind you, then they are a rule.

On the freeway, the speed limit signs are something totally different. Technically they are the same thing as on a city street, but realistically, they are totally the opposite. They are supposed to be the maximum speed you are allowed to travel, but really, a speed limit sign on a freeway is the absolute minimum speed that anyone traveling behind you, including police officers, will tolerate. So, really, they are still speed limit signs, they are just the minimum speed limit. If you are going under the posted speed on the sign, you will be unsafely tailgated by everyone behind you, and if a police officer sees you going below the speed limit, he will pull you over to make sure you’re not crazy or on drugs.    

There is an actual freeway maximum speed limit, but it is an unwritten rule of somewhere between 15 and 25 miles per hour above what is written on the signs, depending on which part of the state you are in. If you are in the range between the speed on the sign and the unwritten maximum, you’re OK. If you go over the unwritten maximum, however, and you get pulled over by the police officer, he will cite you for going over the posted speed on the sign.

Does that clear it up for you guys?”

“Uh, Dad?”
“What does ‘technically’ mean?”
“Never mind.”

“What’s the difference between a stop sign and a stop light?”
“Good question. They mean the same thing, only you always have to stop at a stop sign, but you only stop at a stop light if it’s red. But the stop signs only count if they’re on a real road. The ones in the parking lots are not real and don’t count.”
“So, you have to stop at all the stops signs on the real roads?”
“But, Dad, you and Mom don’t stop at stop signs like you stop at red stop lights.”
“Well, son, we live in California. What we do at stop signs is called a California stop. You’re not really required to come to a complete stop. Unless there’s a police officer behind you. It’s complicated…”

Turns out it's pretty hard to explain stop signs to 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!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Boys Versus Girls

The other day we had some friends and their kids over for one last backyard barbeque hurrah before old man winter puts the kibosh on that sort of thing. As will happen in the classic American barbeque scenario, the men ended up out on the back patio standing around the grill holding beers and watching the kids play, and the women ended up in the kitchen and living room drinking wine and complaining that the men were not watching the kids properly. At least that’s what we assumed they were talking about, since no man in the history of the classic American barbeque scenario has ever been foolish enough to go inside and inquire.

As you know, we now have a gigantic redwood play structure in our backyard that we got for “free.” The running total amount that the play structure has actually cost me is still climbing, what with the roofing materials I bought for it last week and the medical bills from the broken leg that are still coming in. I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway…

As the men huddled around the grill, and the women did whatever the women do inside the house, the boys were all playing joyously on the play structure. Six out of seven were playing on it, anyway. Our youngest son, who was the play structure’s first victim and the main reason for it not being very free at all, and who is still busy mending his femur in his Spica cast, was inside with the women. Poor kid. Anyway…

The other boys were having a great time playing some sort of fort/swing/cricket/dodgeball/jai-alai hybrid game that continually evolved with rotating team members and flexible rules, as kid’s games often do. It was hard to follow, but the kids seemed to always know what was going on. As near as the dads could figure, if you got hit with the batted Wiffle ball while in motion on one of the swings, you had to jump off the swing, climb up onto the play structure platform, and throw soccer balls at the guys with the bats. If you got hit with a soccer ball, you had to drop your bat and quickly get up to the platform and go down the slide before you were hit with one of your own Wiffle balls. If you caught the Wiffle ball, you had unlimited bomb powers… Like I said, it was hard to follow, but it was mighty entertaining.

A few times during the action one or two of the moms stuck their head out the sliding glass door to inquire about the safety of the game, but we assured them that Wiffle balls are mostly harmless, and the kids were just having fun, so everything was OK. They seemed unconvinced, but didn’t push the issue.

The game ran its natural course, lasting the standard 10 to 15 minutes of semi-coherent action, then devolving into small roving bands of children sort of still playing that game, but kinda playing something else. It eventually morphed into one small soccer game and a separate swinging height contest, both of which were far less entertaining for the adults. Just when we thought all the good action was over, a bright spot could be seen shining through the haze. One of the seven-year-olds seemed to have a quest. He had found our “Big Wheel” tricycle. You may have known it as a “Green Machine,” or by some other name, but if you’re my age, I’m sure you rode one as a kid. The all-plastic design, with the low-slung seat set back between the small-diameter wide rear wheels and the handlebars high above the large-diameter skinny front wheel with the direct-coupled foot pedals. An American classic. The Radio Flyer of the '70s kids.

Our young beacon of hope had found the Big Wheel and was in the process of holding it by one of the handlebars while walking up the play structure’s slide, dragging the Big Wheel behind him. We dads thought that was fairly impressive, since Big Wheels, despite being made of plastic, are pretty heavy for a seven-year-old. He made it all the way to the top of the slide and onto the platform with his load, and then began getting into position.

The slide is plastic with wooden side rails, and only about 20 inches wide. He put the large front tire in the middle of the slide heading down, but since the Big Wheel’s rear axle was too wide for both back tires to fit on the slide, he had to cockeye the back end and put only one back tire on the slide, with the plastic undercarriage near the other tire resting up on the wooden side rail.

Quickly assessing the situation, using the innate risk versus reward software that men hone and refine in our brains over our lifetimes, we dads concluded that the drag from the plastic undercarriage on the wooden rail would offset the low-friction rolling wheels, keeping the rider at a relatively safe and manageable speed. He would need to pull up hard on the handlebars for the launch off the end of the slide onto the lawn, and then cut it hard to the right to avoid a head-on with the fence, but he could definitely pull it off. His worst-case scenario was a few scrapes and splinters. Assessment: Totally worth it.

Approving of the venture, and eagerly anticipating the first test run, we watched as he worked out how to get onto the Big Wheel without it starting down without him. He was just making his way into the seat when a whole gaggle of moms came bursting from the living room and kitchen onto the patio, shouting, “No!!!”

We turned around in surprise to face the horde of naysaying mothers, shocked to see them glaring at us with icy, dagger-throwing eyes.

“It’s alright,” I said, trying to calm the group down. “That plastic frame isn’t going to hurt the wood.”

As it turns out, that wasn’t what they were concerned about at all.

As we listened intently to the ladies' concerns, and I watched the young boy’s mom dismantling what would have been a perfectly mostly safe and totally awesome test run, a thought occurred to me. This is why there aren’t too many female test pilots.

When a girl looks at a steep hill, she thinks to herself… I honestly have no idea what she thinks to herself.

When a boy looks at a steep hill, he thinks to himself, “You know, if I was on something that had wheels, I could go really fast down this sucker!”

When a girl looks at a bike, or a skateboard, or a scooter, she probably thinks to herself, “That looks like a fun and effective mode of transportation,” or something like that.

When a boy looks at anything with wheels on it, he thinks to himself, “You know, I bet that thing would go faster if the back end of it was on fire.”

Boys are doing math at a young age, constantly putting two and two together. Play structure plus Big Wheel equals fun. Pool plus roof of house equals bigger splash. Firecracker plus anything else equals awesome.

I have tried, but it seems to be a very hard concept to explain to my wife. I just don’t think women really get it.

He totally would have made it!

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, November 9, 2011

The Dog Collar

There is a chill in the air. The mornings are crisp, and the afternoons are staying cool. The calendar says November, and that can mean only one thing for yours truly: Pheasant season. I am a bird hunter, and have been all my life.

You know the old saying; the only thing better than owning a swimming pool is having a friend who owns a swimming pool? The same is true for dogs if you are a bird hunter. I don’t own dogs, but my friend does. Actually, he’s also the one with the pool. He’s a really good friend!

I had been toying with the idea of getting a dog of my own, but there was an incident the night before opening day a few years back that changed my mind forever. I never realized how dangerous dog collars could be.

During the summer my friend had purchased two new remote collars for his pair of German Shorthair pointers. Dogs are supposed to stay close in front of the hunters during the hunt, but occasionally -- especially at the beginning of the season when they are extra excited to be back in the field -- the dogs get a little overzealous and get too far out in front. Just like my children, when dogs are excited about what they’re doing, they apparently lose the ability to hear their master’s voice. That’s where the remote collars come in. (For the dogs, not the kids.)

The collars have two modes of operation. They have an audible tone that alerts the dog that his or her attention is needed, and a small electric jolt that commands the dog’s attention if the tone is ignored.  My friend’s brand new setup had a single remote that controlled both collars, and it wasn’t until the night before opening day of pheasant season that he realized he hadn’t even taken them out of their packaging yet. He put the two new collars on the wall charger, got batteries for the remote, and, being male, threw the directions in the trash can.

It was getting late, and we were meeting the next morning at oh-dark-thirty to hunt. When he decided it had probably been long enough, he took the two collars off the charger and began packing everything up. Then he had a thought: These collars were new, and the last thing he wanted was to be out in the field thinking the collars were working when they weren’t. He also wanted to make sure he knew which collar went with each set of buttons on the dual remote, so he wasn’t accidentally calling the wrong dog. He needed to test them.

He grabbed the remote and tested the audible tones. They worked great, and he was able to verify which buttons went with which collar. So far, so good. Then he tested the electricity. He put the power setting on level 1, and put his index finger on the silver contact inside the collar.
He pressed the button with his thumb.
He touched the silver contact in the other collar, and pressed the same button.
Uh oh. Maybe he didn’t charge them long enough. Or maybe setting number 1 is such a small electrical current that it’s hard to actually feel.
Go to level 2.
Press the button.
Other collar, same button.
What is wrong with these things?
Let’s try level 4.
Dang it! I need these things to work tomorrow. They must have been charged up OK, because the tone works just fine, and it’s nice and loud. Maybe the electricity levels are just really light?
Try level 6.
Press the button.
Other button.
Other collar, same button.
Other collar different button.
Damn it! Are these things defective? What kind of crap did I buy here?
All the way to level 10.
These things are broken! Now what?
Maybe you have to be touching both silver contacts inside the collar?
Press the button…

Level number 10 on a remote dog collar is likely made for when your dog is over 20 miles away, or possibly when he is defiantly eating one of the birds in front of you, despite your verbal threats to his life. But even if you hit your dog with level 10, he would only feel a momentary shock. It turns out, however, that if you yourself are holding the button down, and receiving the level-10 shock, it works a little differently.

Since your body runs on electricity, adding more can cause your muscles to contract without your consent. If one or more of those muscles happen to be holding down a button, you may find yourself temporarily unable to release said button. It’s sort of an electrical “Catch-22.”

When my friend’s upper body hit the ground, his thumb finally came off the button. He found himself on the floor of his living room, still clutching the now smoking dog collar, having fallen forward over the ottoman, legs in the air behind him, face in the carpet, and drooling. There was a strong taste of burnt metal coming from the fillings in his molars, and he was pretty sure his heart had stopped for at least ten to fifteen seconds.

It was 10:30pm when he inadvertently Tasered himself. By 11:00pm he had somewhat regained his sense of direction and smell, but despite needing to be up at 5:00am, he stayed awake for another three hours, afraid if he fell asleep he might slip into a coma.

When he arrived to the hunt the next morning, I had never seen a man so deprived of sleep looking so wide awake. Or so surprised.

After I heard the story -- and after I got done laughing -- I gave up any notion of ever owning my own hunting dog. I don’t need any more electro-shock therapy in my life. I get enough already from my home improvement projects.

I’ll leave the dog ownership up to my good friend. (And the pool ownership, too.) Come to think of it, it’s a good thing he wasn’t standing next to his pool that night. That could have been ugly.

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, November 2, 2011

The Spica Cast, Part III

I abandoned my principles on Monday, along with my scruples, my dignity and my pride. On Monday evening I went from solid, upstanding dad, to lowlife, begging, loser. It was really quite pathetic, but totally worth it.

As you probably know, my youngest son is in his fourth week of being confined to a Spica cast in order to heal his broken femur. He is dealing with being confined to his cast far better than his mommy is dealing with being confined to the house with him, but that is a whole other topic, and one I can’t really get into with you, for fear that she might kill me. Seriously, she’s that stir-crazy. Anyway…

All three boys were planning to be matching ninjas this Halloween. They already had their costumes, but when Son Number Three broke his leg and ended up in the mother of all casts, we talked pretty seriously about just getting four feet of gauze and covering up what was left of his skin, and going with “mummy-boy.”

He wasn’t having any of it. He politely explained to his mother that he would be a ninja, just like we had planned, because that was what he wanted to be, and also, “Mummies can’t pee.” We couldn’t fight our way through that iron-clad logic, so ninja it was.

Despite being completely rigid from the armpits down, he actually still fits in our stroller. We had already sold or donated our entire armada of strollers except one, which I had been constantly tripping over and cursing in my garage. I happily pulled it out of retirement when we realized he could “sit” right on the front edge. His cast is too wide for him to go all the way back into the seat, but if we stuff two bed pillows behind him he can kind of recline at a 30 degree angle with his leg sticking straight out in front, like a fiberglass battering ram. Cross your fingers that the miniature plastic stroller seat belt holds tight, and presto, movable child.

On the big night, my wife basically just sort of tied his black and red polyester ninja outfit to his cast. He was able to wear the torso portion and the ninja hood, but the legs of the costume were only able to lie on top of his legs. Fortunately, the costume came with ninja leg tie straps that I assume were supposed to simulate some kind of really inconvenient ancient Japanese footwear. On a normal five and six-year-old boy, they stay tied to their calves for about two minutes, then drag on the ground tripping the so-called ninja the rest of the time. On a three-year-old in a Spica cast, however, they are really handy for attaching the costume to the legs. A couple of black socks, and he was a mini ninja in a stroller. You almost couldn’t tell he was in a cast. That turned out to be the problem.

We set off into our idyllic suburban neighborhood to trick-or-treat. As we moved farther away from our house and our neighbors who already knew about Son Number Three’s leg, a strange thing began happening. My two ambulatory sons and their cousins would run up to a door, yell “Trick or treat,” get their candy from the smiling suburbanite, and make their way past Number Three and me who were last in line. The once naturally smiling homeowner would then force a smile, and almost reluctantly hand over another treat to the little ninja in the stroller.

The strange looks and forced smiles continued as the evening progressed, until I paused and assessed our situation. I came around the front of the stroller to take a look at my passenger. He was in good spirits and having fun, and his costume was staying in place nicely. That’s when it hit me. My wife had done too good a job of covering up the white cast with the black fabric. Standing there looking at him objectively, he looked like a perfectly normal three-year-old boy. A big, healthy three-year-old boy who should be walking, but instead was being lazily chauffeured by his ever-accommodating father. A boy at your door, lounging on two fluffy pillows, who couldn’t be bothered even to sit up from his slightly reclined position to accept your free candy.

Not wanting to continue to receive what I now understood were looks of scorn, and not wanting to have to explain our situation at each door, I simply removed the sock from the fully-casted foot, and adjusted the ninja pants a little, so that people could clearly see that his foot was in a cast. That should do the trick.  

Holy cow, what a difference. We went from, “Taking it easy tonight, huh?” to “Oh, bless his little heart! Here, have five pieces of candy and a balloon.” It was a whole different world.

Things started to go downhill, morally speaking, from there. I have never been one to play the sympathy card, but the sheer increase in candy output we were seeing from the little bit of cast showing was astounding. Then the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups started showing up, and I lost all sense of decency. I love Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and the freer they are, the better they taste.

I don’t want to relive my downward spiral of shame and peanut buttery goodness in too great a detail, so let’s suffice it to say that by the end of the night I had the entire cast on display, a three-year-old who was trained to say, “It just hurts so much,” whenever I said the code phrase, “little trooper,” a stroller underside cargo basket loaded down with 45 pounds of candy, and no dignity left whatsoever.

Was it worth it? Were the endless peanut butter cups worth the price of my soul? Absolutely! Dignity is overrated, but Reese’s can’t be beat.

All I can hope for is that Son Number Three is too young to remember the lesson he was taught by his unscrupulous reprobate of a dad. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go buy his older brothers’ silence with some more of my Kit Kat bars and grab another peanut butter cup from my stash. Man, those things are good!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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