Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Explosive Christmas

I love Christmas. I always have. I love it even more now that I have children of my own. Earlier this month, as I eagerly anticipated Christmas Day and envisioned all the wonderful activities and experiences I would share with my kids, one thing, above all else, never entered my mind. Bomb disposal. But, that’s exactly what I ended up doing on Christmas morning this year. Go figure.

My boys love flashlights. They love to pretend to be deep-sea divers and cave explores and police officers, and anything else you might do with a flashlight. Thank goodness they don’t know what a proctologist is! Anyway, as with any other toy or object found in our house, when they decide to stop playing with a flashlight, they simply abandon it wherever they happen to be. There is never a thought of returning it to its designated storage spot and certainly never a thought about turning it off. That’s why they never get to play with my flashlights. I like to know where mine are, and I like them to work when I pick them up.

Since I am the cold-hearted father figure, I am content with simply telling them, “No, you may not play with my flashlight.” Their grandma, however, is a softy, and wants them to be cave explorers or deep-sea divers or doctors with a strange specialty someday, so she buys them flashlights. As a result, we have approximately twenty to thirty small, cheap, plastic or aluminum flashlights hidden throughout the house, all with dead batteries. She buys them on sale at clothing stores, or at the dollar stores, so they are never a brand that can be found at any reputable hardware store or home improvement warehouse. What I’m trying to say is that they’re cheap. Inexpensive, and also cheaply made. That used to seem like a good idea, given the boys’ propensity for mistreating them. Not anymore.

This Christmas morning, lo and behold amidst the ripping and shredding of wrapping paper and boxes, all three boys received new cheap plastic flashlights from Grandma. We like to keep approximately half of our family’s total net worth in the form of batteries stored in our laundry room, so we had those babies powered up in no time. Son Number One, being the oldest of the three, got the biggest flashlight. His was the jumbo model that took two D-size batteries. (Insert your own proctology joke here). All three flashlights were the new blindingly bright LED models, and our house was suddenly lit up like an auto mall on Memorial Day weekend. Three minutes later, we were knee-deep in Legos, and all three flashlights were abandoned under couches or behind desks, all still turned on, draining the batteries. I miss having spending money.

After all the gifts had been unwrapped, the boys set about to playing with all their newfound treasures. Son Number One retrieved his new flashlight from under the couch and ended up playing with it for quite some time. He brought it to me after a while, complaining that it was coming apart. It was a twist on/off model, and he had been twisting the lens end enough that he had accidentally screwed it all the way off. I gathered up all the parts and screwed it all back together. Since it took me longer than two and a half seconds to fix, he had lost interest during the repair process and had moved on to something else by the time I had it back in one piece. Not bothering to call him back into the room, I just set the flashlight on the kitchen counter and got back to my duties as official Christmas cookie tester.

I was still in the kitchen five minutes later when Number One came back in to get his flashlight. He reached up to grab it, and immediately dropped it back onto the counter. “Ouch!” he said, “my flashlight is really hot!”
I set my plate of cookies down and picked up the flashlight. I, too, had to drop it back onto the counter. He wasn’t kidding. The plastic case was too hot to hold onto. Hmmm. That can’t be good.

I very calmly screamed for everyone to hit the floor and roll or crawl out of the kitchen, or as I am told I referred to it at the time, “the blast radius.” I dove across the counter and retrieved the barbeque tongs from one of the drawers, and gingerly picking up the incendiary device, made my way as smoothly and quickly as possible to the “bomb containment bunker,” or as we normally refer to it, the garage.

So there I am: Christmas morning, in my pajama pants and slippers, wearing my brand new Cal Poly sweatshirt I just received from Santa, stylishly accessorizing it with wrap-around safety glasses and boar hide gauntlet-style welding gloves, standing at my garage workbench diffusing a bomb made out of cheap foreign circuit boards and two large Duracell® batteries going supernova. You just never know what life’s going to throw at you.

I was able to get the impromptu pipe bomb apart and shake the D-cells out in time, but it was close. They were so hot they had started to expand, and they almost didn’t slide out of the plastic tube. Thankfully, getting the batteries out diffused the short-circuited flashlight and avoided a really ugly, smelly, and strange Christmas Day incident.

With a regular flashlight that has a standard bulb, there isn’t too much that can go wrong. Apparently, however, with the new LED flashlights, since they require internal circuit boards to work, if those circuit boards and assembly techniques get cheap enough, and just the right circuit board parts fail, they can create a situation where the flashlight becomes a space heater instead. A really inconvenient, unpredictable, flaming space heater.

This time of year, many people tend to get wrapped up in looking for the true meaning of Christmas, getting mired down with the inequities of life around the country or around the world, feeling guilty for their own good fortune or envious of others.

I say, don’t overthink it. Keep it simple, and always be thankful for what you have. Sometimes, the Christmas miracle is simply that the cheap LED flashlight didn’t burn your house to the ground.

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, December 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Santas

Every parent has the propensity to exaggerate their own kid’s intelligence. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you, their kid is the smartest one in the class. He’s reading at a 5th grade level at six years old… She’s on the pre-school’s honor roll… He potty trained himself at 8 months, etc.

Believe me, I have been guilty of that myself in the past, but only because my kids really are smart. Or so I thought. I was fully convinced my kids had above average IQs until a few days ago. Now I’m not even sure they have IQs above room temperature. What made me change my mind so drastically? Not a what. A who. Santa.

Two Santas, actually. The two Santas upon whose laps they have sat this year. Now, I will give my three-year-old a pass, but the fact that Son Number One and Two came down off of Santa Number Two’s lap without a thousand and one questions leads me to believe that they may not even be smart enough to come in out of the rain. Come to think of it, they usually try to go out and play in the rain. I should have seen this coming, I guess… Anyway, back to the two Santas.

The first Santa we visited this year was the Santa at Son Number Three’s preschool Christmas party. He is the Santa by which all others shall be judged. He is in his early sixties, and has a real purplish-red crushed velvet suit and hat, with white fur trim that looks like it might have actually come from an arctic hare or an albino mink. He has a real white beard and real flowing white hair. He has real black boots that probably have actual fireplace soot on them. He has a deep, booming voice, a cold, red nose, and an honest-to-goodness twinkle in his eye. He is so realistic, I want to sit on his lap and tell him what I want for Christmas, just in case.

They all jumped down off of Santa Number One’s lap wide-eyed and filled with joy, utterly convinced that they had just put in a sure-fire lock of an order for some new Legos.

Then came Santa Number Two, the Santa at my wife's yearly family reunion Christmas party. Every year, one of the cousins gets to be Santa for the little kids. This year it was Greg's turn. Greg is about a foot taller than the unfortunate cousin who had to be Santa last year, but the family Santa suit remains the same. You know the suit I'm talking about. The suit and fur is the same thin, fire engine red felt and feathery, unnaturally bright white fluff that the cheap Walmart Christmas stockings are made of. The front of the suit Velcros closed over the fake belly, and the “boots” are really shiny black vinyl shin covers with elastic on the calf, meant to keep them in place over your regular street shoes. The white, curly wig and beard are made out of the same itchy acrylic that you find inside of stuffed animals and couch throw pillows.

Greg, the man who was barely inside the suit, is a 6’-3” tall, mid-twenties firefighter made entirely out of twisted steel and good breeding. He has no belly. He has no actual body fat of any kind. When he sat down in the Santa chair, the fake belly strapped to his midsection bobbed all the way up to just under his chin, and the cuffs of the bright red Santa pants came up over his knees. He kept having to hike up his faux vinyl boots to try and hide the tops of his shins. He could not have looked any more different than Santa Number One if he had been dressed as the Easter Bunny instead.

All Santa suit differences aside, the real kicker was his voice. When Greg dug down deep for what he later described as his, “best old man voice,” it came out as not so much old, but foreign. I finally settled on “vaguely British” as the best overall description, but it varied at times anywhere from “Scottish golf commentator” to “German foreign exchange student.”

We, as Greg’s loving and caring family members, were almost hysterical with laughter as we tried to pin down his dialect and watched as he fought with his uncooperative foam-rubber belly and desperately tried to hide his knees. My kids, however, were sitting patiently, staring at him with the same wide-eyed reverence and awe afforded to Santa Number One, just a few days earlier.

They jumped up and sat on his lap. They asked him politely for Ninja and Star Wars Legos. They thanked him, and promised they’d be good.

Come on, fellas. You have got to be kidding me! No questions? No comments? How short is your memory? It’s not like we’re showing you mug shots, here. You’re sitting on his lap, for crying out loud. Not only are you not asking me why you had to tell him what you wanted for Christmas again, but you’re not asking me any questions about why he looks and sounds so different than he did three days ago! Are you deaf? Did you even look at his beard?

Since my wife and I still love the fact that our kids believe in Santa, we are not willing to break the spell, so we can’t question them about the obvious inconsistencies they are being exposed to. As a result, we have no idea if they really don’t see any differences at all, or if they simply have such an unquestioning loyalty to the big guy, since he is in complete control over gift distribution, that they are not willing to step out of line and voice any concerns about noticeable variations, for fear of a demotion to the naughty list.

This is kind of an uncomfortable position for me as a dad. While my heart is mostly filled with joy by their apparent belief in Saint Nick, I also don’t want to be raising a bunch of suckers or suck-ups. The way I see it, we’ve got three possibilities here:

1) They are still young enough that the Santa experience is so overwhelmingly exciting that it blinds them to casual observations.
2) They are a bunch of toy-greedy sycophants, sucking up to anyone in a reddish suit in the hopes of scoring some free gear.
3) I’ve got a bunch of dim-bulb, mouth-breathers on my hands.

Man, I hope it’s scenario number one! I’m going to let it slide this year, but if Son Number One, at least, doesn’t have some serious questions next year when he’s eight years old, I’m going to start getting really worried!

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, December 14, 2011

The 2011 Do-it-Yourself Christmas Letter

Once again this year, you have procrastinated in writing the dreaded Christmas letter, and once again this year, ol’ Smidgey Claus is stepping in to save your bacon. I have created another handy do-it-yourself template to create your 2011 Christmas letter in no time flat. As with last year’s template, just fill in your last name(s) in the blank and circle the appropriate choices, and you're in business. 

Christmas 2011

Merry Christmas from the _____­­­_________ house. We have had another (fruitful/wildly disappointing) year.

The (highlight/major disappointment) this year was dad's (hole-in-one/arrest). He had been shooting (par/rifles) all year at (the country club/out of season deer) and had been dangerously close to (the pin/being caught) quite a few times. In early October he hit a (nine iron/nine point buck) on a (par three/county road) from the (blue tees/cab of his truck) and down it went. (Luckily/Unfortunately) the (Marshall/Warden) was nearby and the event was officially verified. Dad was (celebrating/incarcerated) for nearly a month. He's finally (sober/been released) and is home recuperating.

Mom was (blessed/cursed) again this year with (good health/rotten luck). She spent most of her time at the (library/casino) volunteering her (time/money) to the (children/Kaweehaw Band of Indians). She was a fixture at the (learning time reading corner/Wheel of Fortune dollar slots) and could never quite (get enough/catch a break) when it came to those (smiling little faces/damned uncooperative machines).

Sister had another (blessed/trying) year. Her work as a (marriage counselor/drug mule) continues to provide her with boundless (satisfaction/stress and frequent flyer miles). She recently took up the hobby of (cross stitch/pickpocketing) and has made several (throw pillows/hundred dollars) so far. She still keeps in close contact with her (college friends/old cellmates), not letting the obstacle of (long distance/obvious parole violations) stand in the way of planning the next (reunion getaway/bank heist and getaway).

Little Brother continues to work hard at (XYZ Global/collecting unemployment checks) while maintaining his position as an (elder/off-the-books bartender) at the (Presbyterian church/off-track betting lounge). He loves his (family/horses) more than anything, and pours all of his (extra time and energy/available funds) into (his home/trifectas). He always says, "Life is a great (gift/big pain in the neck), so make the (most of it/easy money) whenever you can.

As for me, I am staying (busy/home) with my (hamburger franchises/court-mandated ankle bracelet). I am absolutely (swamped/bored out of my mind), and there never seems to be enough (hours/liquor) in the (day/cabinet). I am planning to hire a team of (managers/illegals) to help me with my (day-to-day duties/new credit card scam), so that I will have some more (free time/spending money). If all goes well, I plan to completely (retire/re-stock the liquor cabinet) by the end of next year. Fingers crossed for lots of (success/suckers)!

That’s all we can (fit in this letter/stand to tell you). We hope this finds you (as happy and blessed as/in better shape than) we are.        

Merry Christmas!

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

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, December 7, 2011

The Spica Cast, Part IV

Son Number Three was freed from his personal fiberglass prison on the day before Thanksgiving. It was a very liberating day for all of us. He was cut loose from his huge Spica body cast, and after an entire box of baby wipes and two baths, we were finally free of his tremendously powerful ammonia smell.  

While we are thrilled to finally be free of the stench, we have been left with another rather unpleasant side effect: Diapers. It’s our own fault really. We all got lazy.

At the time he broke his leg, our three-year-old was potty trained, but semi-unreliable. He was wearing big boy underwear during the days, and he always alerted us to when he needed to visit the potty, but his bodily function recognition system was still being debugged. He would announce that he needed to go pee, and then proceed to poop. He would say that he needed to poop, then get to the toilet, pee, and tell us “there is no poop in my butt.” To complicate things, he also got it right half the time, so you couldn’t just go with the opposite and be confident. Needless to say, after a few mix-ups while standing in front of the potty, he was a permanent sitter.

When he came home from the hospital in the crazy immobilizing uni-cast, he was no longer able to sit on the potty. To compensate for that, the hospital sent him home with a plastic wide-mouth bottle for peeing, and a plastic bed pan for pooping. Neither one was universal, and it was very difficult to get him positioned to try and use both the bottle and the bed pan at once. Given his lack of reliability on identifying what might be leaving his body at any given moment, you can see our dilemma. It was like a very high stakes game of whack-a-mole. You’d best be quick.

Once the cast went on, he was in diapers anyway, because the last thing you want with a Spica cast is an accident that you can’t get rid of for 6-1/2 weeks. We tried our best to use the bed pan and pee bottle for the first few days, but then we got lazy and tired of trying our best. And tired of cleaning pee out of the carpet. And out of our shirts.

By the end of Son Number Three’s first week in the cast, we were having this conversation:
“I have to pee.”
“OK. Go for it.”
“Are you coming?”
“No, buddy. Just pee in your diaper. I’ll change you right after you’re done so you won’t have a wet diaper.”

By the end of the second week, he was getting lazy and no longer giving us advanced notice, and we were all getting more comfortable with wet diapers:
“I peed in my diaper.”
“OK, buddy.”
“Are you coming?”
“Not right now. I’ll change you after your show is over.”

By the end of the third week, a total family laziness had set in and we were getting no notices at all:
 “Hey, buddy, it’s dinner time. Do you have a wet diaper?”
“Let’s check anyway… Holy cow, dude. This diaper is full.”
“Oh, yeah. I peed.”
“When did you pee?”
“At lunch.”

So now, here we are, two weeks after he was liberated from Spica cast confinement, and he is still in diapers and still not giving us any notice. We seem to be back at square one, potty training-wise, and it looks like we’re going to have to go through the whole ordeal again. We haven’t started yet, though.

Why, you ask? Well, there’s another problem. He hasn’t started to walk yet, either.

I contend it has to do with an overall laziness that has taken over every aspect of his life, but my wife keeps telling me it’s all part of the healing process. She also keeps pointing out how readily and vigorously he scoots himself around the house on his butt. She has a point. He does scoot an awful lot in situations where walking would be easier. I still think he’s milking it a little, but in any case, the point is, he hasn’t started back to walking yet.

What does that have to do with re-potty training, you ask? Let me give you a visual to help answer that question.

Imagine a three-year-old boy, who can’t walk because of a bad leg, who wants to sit in a chair. How does he do it? Well, first, he scoots on his butt over to the chair, straddling the chair with his legs. Then he hugs the leg of the chair, putting his face on the top part of the chair leg to gain some amount of leverage. He then proceeds to use his arms and face to grapple and shimmy his way up the leg of the chair, using his good leg to push and slide head-first onto the seat, until his belly is square in the middle of the chair. He then performs a complicated flip-scoot-twist-and-sit maneuver to get into an upright sitting position on the chair.

Now imagine that with a toilet.

We’re going to go ahead and just roll with the diapers a little longer until he starts to walk again.

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 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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Spica Cast, Part II

My three-year-old smells horrible. The boy reeks. He smells so bad, he’s hard to love. We are a little over two weeks into our Spica cast adventure, and it’s getting hard to take. If you do not know what a Spica cast is, please stop reading this and go back and read the “Just a Smidge” October 19th post entitled, “The Spica Cast.” We’ll wait for you.

OK, so now we’re all on the same page.

Turns out, the Spica cast on a preschooler has a few hidden logistical issues. For starters, the only parts of him that are not in the cast are half a leg, some shoulders, arms and a head. That means that almost 80-90% of his skin is under the cast. Anyone who has ever worn a cast on any amount of their skin will attest to that being a major problem from the sweat/itch/stink “trifecta of fun” standpoint.

Now, for the mostly potty-trained preschool crowd, add wet diapers to the mix, and you’ve got yourself one smelly party.

During the day, pee is not an issue (as long as the parent running the urinal bottle has their head in the game). At night, however, the diaper occasionally gets peed in during a deep sleep. If all parties involved are sleeping, that diaper can stay wet and tucked inside that cast for hours.

Mind you, the diaper is doing its job. The people at Huggies® have got super-absorbency down to a science. There are no liquids getting into the cast. But keep that wet diaper tucked inside a hot, sweaty cast for a while, and the vapors tend to migrate up into the cast lining. The result is a three-year-old with such a pungent ammonia smell about him that if you get within three feet of him, your eyes water.

We, as his family, have the ability to get away from him if we need to. He is trapped, however, with his nose six inches from the top of the cast. If he comes through this with any sense of smell left at all, it will be a miracle.

During many of the daytime hours, my youngest son can be found lying on his stomach on top of his beanbag chair, sans diaper, proudly airing out his butt. It’s not dignified, but it is necessary. Besides, he’s three, so he could care less.

There’s one other reason I’m really glad he’s only three and doesn’t have a developed sense of dignity or shame. That would be the Summer's Eve® feminine deodorant spray. My wife has been scouring the internet, reading Spica cast tips from parents who have gone through this, and feminine deodorant spray was one of the suggestions to combat the stink.

I read the directions printed on the back of the flowery pink and white aerosol spray can: “Shake well; remove cap. Hold can 8-12 inches away from your lovely lady parts, and spray away.”

I’m so glad he probably won’t remember this.

After watching my wife spraying the exact opposite parts intended for use with said deodorant, and getting a whiff of the now flowery smelling ammonia cloud, I decided a more manly approach was required. Something with 110 volts. Something with some serious CFM. Something with spinning rotor blades and pressure differentials. We needed air flow, people. We didn’t need to cover up the smell, we needed to blow it away!

I set out into my garage to make a ventilator for the boy. We would be cooling him off and airing him out in no time.

Prototype Number 1 involved a 20” box fan, like the kind you use to ventilate a whole room. I fashioned a giant pyramid-shaped funnel out of cardboard and a half a roll of duct tape that necked the 20” square fan housing down to a 3” hole. My plan was to duct tape a vacuum cleaner hose to the hole, with the crevice tool attachment on the end of the hose. We could then stick the crevice tool down his cast, fire up the fan, and de-stink-ify our patient.

The only problem with the final product was that it was really big. It was lightweight and had a convenient handle, but the whole thing ended up being the size of a small filing cabinet. Just prior to attaching the hose, I happened to be in our bathroom and noticed -- perhaps for the first time in my whole life -- that my wife’s hairdryer had a “cool” button.

I charged downstairs and confronted her. “Your hairdryer has a cool button!”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“All hairdryers have a cool button. Why would I have told you that?”
“They do?”
“Yes, moron. How is the house-sized ventilator fan coming?”

Prototype Number 2 involved a $10 hairdryer, and the vacuum attachments I was going to use on Prototype Number 1. It was a lot easier to make, and only took me about 10 minutes to put together. I proudly displayed the new anti-stink solution to the family.

“What happened to the giant, inconvenient fan?”
“I ended up going a different direction. Say hello to the hand-held model.”

With the cool button locked down, I fired up the Conair® Cast Savior 2000 and felt the perfectly cool air rush out of the crevice tool and across my face. Oh, the joy. Oh the ventilating that would soon… wait a minute. The cool air was suddenly not so cool. In fact, it was warm and getting warmer. As it turns out, hairdryers were not meant to force air through three feet of flexible vacuum hose and a skinny nozzle. The motor couldn’t handle the pressure it was being asked to produce, and subsequently began heating up. Forcing hot air down an already warm cast seemed like a pretty bad idea. Starting an electrical fire near an immobile three-year-old didn’t sound like such a great idea either, so I was back to the drawing board.

“What’s wrong, honey? The ‘cool button’ not working out for you?”
“I just need to make some minor adjustments, that’s all.”

After my walk of shame back to the garage, the first adjustment I made was removing the hose from the hairdryer, and throwing the hairdryer in the garbage can. Now all I needed to do was figure out what to attach the hose to. Would my pride let me go back to the box fan? Would my wife ever let me live that down? Probably not, but it would be worth it if we could get rid of the ammonia smell… Suddenly, it hit me. The Aerobed®!

Of course! Why didn’t I think of this before? Our inflatable Aerobed® portable mattress has a big, beefy air blower on it. That thing is so powerful you can lie on the mattress while you’re filling it up. That baby will surely do the trick. I ran upstairs to the hall closet, yanked it off the shelf, brought it back to the garage, and pulled it out of its carrying case. All I have to do is take the motor and blower off the mattress and then… Oh, darn…

Can I really justify this? I could always go back to the box fan... But this would work so well. He really, really stinks. She’ll probably understand…

Ten minutes later I walked back into the house holding Prototype Number 3. The coffee can-sized black blower motor was skillfully attached to the vacuum hose with enough duct tape to adequately cover up the ragged edges of blue mattress vinyl that I had to cut with my razor blade knife to free the molded-on pump housing from the mattress itself. For good measure, I used enough silver tape to cover up the Aerobed® logo on the motor.

As I opened my mouth to tell the world of my triumph, my wife called to me from the kitchen. “Come here, honey. Look what I found online. It’s called the CastCooler®. You just wrap it around the cast, hook up your vacuum cleaner’s hose to it, turn on the vacuum, and it pulls fresh air into the cast and removes all the moisture and stink. I just bought one on Amazon for $39.99.”

“Wow. Sounds great, sweetheart. That should really do the trick.”
“Did you want to show me something?”
“No. I’m just going to head back to the garage.” I need to go get rid of a queen-sized blue tarp with the giant hole in it and order a new Aerobed®.

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, October 19, 2011

The Spica Cast

“Daddy, I need to pee.”
“OK, buddy, hang on. I’ll be right there.”

My fully potty trained, three-year-old son is lounging on his back in the corner of the living room in a borrowed bean bag chair. He cannot be bothered to get up. I grab the plastic urinal bottle out of the “potty bucket,” and get down on my knees in front of him. I undo the protective outer size-6 diaper, and pull the inner size-4 diaper from its tucked-in position. I slide the plastic urinal between the bean bag and the wooden dowel, get it into position, and tell him to go for it.

Suddenly, everything is going wrong. Pee is spraying everywhere. I frantically try to reposition the bottle, but the pee just keeps going everywhere except where it is supposed to. What is happening? Why is this not working? Why am I an idiot? I left the cap on the urinal bottle. I think we’re going to have to keep this bean bag chair.

Such is life with a groggy dad and three-year-old in a Spica cast.

Son Number Three broke his femur last weekend, and we are in the middle of week two of the Spica cast. In case you are like me and had never heard of a Spica cast before, allow me to explain. SPICA stands for Sadistic Physician’s Inconvenient Children’s Apparatus. At least, I think that’s what it stands for. They didn’t actually tell us.

Since they cannot do orthopedic surgery on small children, apparently, the only way to mend a broken thigh bone in a three-year-old is to put him in the cast equivalent of a lower-body straight jacket. He is armor-plated and immobile from his chest all the way down to his toes on the bad leg, and to mid-thigh on the good leg, with a nifty wooden dowel spreader bar attached at an angle between the two legs to keep them apart and rigid.

Our once highly mobile little boy is now basically luggage. He stays where we put him until it’s time to pick him up and move him again. Unlike a suitcase, however, his seemingly super-convenient wooden handle is strictly off limits for lifting. Plus, he yells when he gets bored. My Samsonite never does that.

Our orthopedic surgeon told us, about the cast, “If we ever come up with a better way to do this, we will. But as of right now, this is as good as it gets.”

As we were getting the tutorial on how to kinda sorta stuff a diaper up in and around the poop and pee access hatch, and then kinda sorta keep it in place with a bigger diaper around the outside of the cast, and then just sorta try to keep everything as clean as possible for the next 4 to 5 weeks, I thought to myself, “We put a man on the moon, but this is the best we as a country have to offer in the area of preschooler bone mending? I don’t think we’ve really fully applied ourselves, here.”  

I guess I could put my engineering brain to work and try to come up with something more convenient, but it will have to wait. As the urinal bottle incident attests, I am not getting a whole lot of sleep lately. Just when my wife and I thought we were done with the sleepless nights of infant care and feeding, we’re suddenly back to sleeping in shifts. And the sleep we are getting is the non-satisfying light sleep that new parents and soldiers know all too well. Deep sleep never comes when your brain is busy listening for something all night.

We should be back to normal sleep in a few days. His pain level seems to be dropping off steadily, and he’s becoming his old cheery self during the days, albeit a little more hyper at times. We can’t fault him for that, though. When you cage a wild monkey, you’d better expect to hear the bars rattle.

On the first night that we were back from the hospital, I told him I was going to carry him up to his room, to which he replied, “Daddy, I don’t want to wear my cast to bed.”
He has since grasped the concept a little better, and has accepted his new reality a lot better than we thought he would. He even has a pretty good handle on the maintenance issues. His grandma and grandpa are here helping out, and the other night he announced that he had accidentally pooped in his diaper, instead of waiting for the bed pan. His grandma was the only one in the room when he made the announcement, and he looked at her concerned expression and asked, “Grandma, do you know how to do this?” When she hesitated, he said, “Go get Mommy, please.”

We can’t really leave him in the care of anyone not prepared to handle the Spica cast, which is pretty much everyone else, so his social calendar has been put on hold. He is playing hooky from preschool for the next month, and my wife’s daily gym visits have stopped abruptly. The good news on both those counts is that he is no doubt being read to more now than ever before, and his cast weighs as much as he does, so my wife is probably getting a better weightlifting workout at home.

You have to look on the bright side of things in this life. Our precious little baby boy is hurting, but we’ve received more casseroles and cookies in the last week than you can shake a stick at. Some clouds have a delicious, buttery, oven-baked lining.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The "Free" Play Structure

I now have a huge, redwood play structure in my backyard. It takes up one whole side of my back lawn. It has a big elevated deck with a sloping roof, two regular swings, a rope swing, a weird ball and handle swing, a chain ladder, a rope ladder, a regular ladder, and a slide. It even has an extra tire swing, if I could figure out where to mount it. The kids love it. Well, two out of the three love it, anyway.

We just got it this weekend. It was free. At least, my wife says it was free. I look at that a little differently. The price we paid for it was definitely zero dollars, as it was given to us by a friend of a friend whose family had outgrown it. The costs associated with getting this backyard behemoth to our house are another matter.

As my wife raves about our new “free” play structure, I just can’t help adding a few things up in my head:

Let’s see…

There were the three cases of beer that I bought for our friend and the previous owner as a thank-you. That was $49.

There was the 24-foot U-Haul truck that I had to rent to move the play structure from El Dorado Hills to Rocklin. That was $97.

There was gas for the U-Haul truck. That was $33.

There was the beer I bought for my brother-in-law and my friend who came over to help me retrieve, transport, and re-assemble the play structure. That was $32.

And lunch for the crew. One of whom ate three Chipotle burritos. $40.

And a pizza dinner for the crew and their families, since reassembly of the gargantuan play structure took all afternoon. Another $45.

If my math is correct, that already makes our free play structure cost at least $296. But let us not forget the hidden costs. I will inevitably have future work day obligations at my brother-in-law’s house and my friends' houses to properly complete the cycle of home improvement assistance reciprocation. Not only do those future days have gas and travel costs associated with them, but opportunity costs associated with all the things I won’t otherwise get done that day.  Also, I’m confident that my wife will want to get rid of the grass that is currently under the new play structure, and replace it with decorative bark. There’s another future weekend down the drain, and bark is not exactly free.

And as for this past weekend, we also need to take into consideration the gas my wife and I used to get the U-Haul and the meals. The gas my crew used to get to my house and back. The thirteen wood screws and two lag bolts that I had to find in my garage to finish the installation. All these things add up.

Then, there’s also the ER bills. And the cost of the overnight hospital stay. The bill for the team of two orthopedic surgeons and the anesthesiologist in the OR. The missed day of work I had while getting the three-year-old’s femur re-set in a cast. Those things might add up.

Did I forget to mention the broken leg?

Now, Son Number Three has been to the park probably hundreds of times. He has played on countless different sizes of play structures, both at parks, school playgrounds, and other people’s houses. He has never jumped off the top of any of those.

Apparently, however, when the play structure is suddenly located in your very own backyard, that obviously means that you can also fly. At least, to my three-year-old it did. Ten minutes after we finished the installation, that play structure got a whole lot less free when mini Superman learned a hard lesson about gravity versus imaginary super-powers.

I haven’t received any bills from the hospital yet, but after going back through my records on some of our previous ER visits and hospital stays, I’m estimating the “free” play structure is going to end up costing me about $27,000, give or take a few hundred bucks.

Outstanding. Oh, well. At least I have less lawn to mow now.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Great Juice Caper

Son Number Two is five years old and is almost two months into his first year of Kindergarten. (We are hoping it’s his first and only year of Kindergarten, but based on our experience, you never can tell.) He has a best buddy in his class named Luke, and he and Luke are as thick as thieves. Actually, they are thieves.

Now, it is no surprise when little kids get into mischief. What is surprising is when two five-year-olds get together, hatch a devious and complicated plan involving simultaneous stealth and deception in two separate houses, and execute the plan flawlessly every day for two weeks unbeknownst to their parents, only getting caught by sheer happenstance.

The silent alarm that these two miniature partners in crime unknowingly tripped came in the form of a casual conversation between a mother and a teacher. My wife was volunteering in Number Two’s classroom one morning, and had a few spare minutes to chat with Mrs. Camarda.

“Your son is a real pleasure to have in this class.”
“Thank you.”
“He is such a sweet boy. He and Luke are inseparable. They are so cute at lunch with their juice.”
“Excuse me?”
“I said he is a sweet boy…”
“No, no. About the juice.”
“Oh, you know. When he and Luke buy their juices at lunch. They think that is so fun.”
“He buys juice at lunch!?!”
“Well, not every day. Sometimes they buy chocolate milk.”

Upon further questioning, it turns out that the cafeteria at my son’s elementary school sells juice for a quarter and chocolate milk for fifty cents. Number Two and his buddy had been throwing back delicious lunch-time school beverages every day for at least two weeks. Luke’s mom happened to be volunteering on the same day, so she was immediately brought into the conversation to compare notes. Both boys were being sent to school each day with a lunch box and a bottle of water, and neither one had ever been authorized by a parent to purchase any extracurricular liquids, nor was either one ever given any money to do so.

My wife called me later that morning in hysterics. Hysterical laughing, that is. She explained what she had learned, and amazed, noted that Number Two had somehow apparently been leaving the house with money in his pocket every morning without us knowing. The questions were plentiful. Where was he getting the money? When was he getting it? Was he bringing money for Luke, also, or vice versa? Why is juice only a quarter? Can I, as a dad, get in on that? Etc.

As any good parents would do, we weighed our response options. How should we handle this? Should we sit him down and have a talk with him, or booby trap his piggy bank and scare the living daylights out of him? We debated for a while, but in the end, our hand was forced by the sheer lack of information we had. The junior juice larcenists had us in the dark. We had no idea where the money was coming from, so we were forced to talk with him without setting any elaborate trip wire/air horn devices. Oh, well.

Aside from being a key player in a beverage crime syndicate, Son Number Two is generally a very honest and generous boy. We were sure of a few things: If he was getting the money from a piggy bank, it would be from his own. (His older brother, Son Number One, would have been a whole different story.) Also, it was possible that he was funding the whole operation. He would happily buy his friend juice every day without thinking twice about it, and that would put us in the awkward position of needing to praise his generosity while chastising his deception.

As it turns out, each member of the Capri Sun cartel was paying his own way. Upon intense questioning by two moms who were trying very hard not to laugh, both boys sang like canaries. With an odd mix of relief and disappointment, my wife found out that Luke was the mastermind. It was his idea to steal the car, and our son had decided to come along for the joy ride. Number Two had been sneaking downstairs to his piggy bank early each morning to get his daily quarter and secret it into the pocket of his school clothes before getting dressed. As it turned out, Luke didn’t have access to his piggy bank, so he had been swiping coins from him mom’s kitchen change jar that was meant for vacation spending money. Busted!

They were getting together each day to decide on juice or chocolate milk, so they would know if tomorrow would be a one or two-quarter day. That is seriously long-range planning for five-year-olds, and amazing when you compare it to their lack of ability to remember almost anything else about their daily routine. Number Two can’t remember to brush his teeth even though he has to do it every morning and evening. He can’t remember to wash his hands even though he has to do it before every meal. But when it comes to deception and covert refreshment operations, he can remember to hold daily planning meetings, remember what the next day’s cash requirements are, and remember to pilfer the correct amount each morning before dawn. Go figure.

When all the details of the caper were uncovered, the four parents had a good chuckle, but our reactions to the miniature crime spree were mixed. We all had the same general thought, but the men and women viewed it from slightly different sides, as is so often the case.

Both mothers said, “Oh, great. They’re able to fool us already, and they’re only five years old. High school is going to be a disaster!”

Both dads said, “Holy cow. They can already fool us at five years old. That is so cool. I wonder what kind of stuff they’re going to be able to pull off by the time they’re in high school?”

Women are always looking at things so backward.

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!