Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Issues

Christmas can be a challenging time for a dad. There are the physical events, like tree wrestling and overhead decoration storage box lifting. Then there are the mental events, like light string outage troubleshooting and trying to keep all the lies straight about Santa Claus.

“I want a Wii for Christmas.”
“Sorry, son, Wiis are too expensive.”
“No problem, I’ll just put it on my list in my Santa letter.”
“What makes you think Santa would bring you an expensive Wii?”
“You said Santa’s elves can make anything, so why can’t they just make us a Wii?”
“Uh… Your mom and I already talked to Santa and told him no electronics. You get enough screen time as it is. Go play outside.”

Wii or no Wii, there are always financial challenges to Christmas as well, and it usually takes a few months in the austerity wing at the hospital to recover from the wallet-ectomy procedure that Dr. Retail performs on you every year.

I found this year that my two personal Christmas Eve challenges came as a direct result of Santa Claus. That jolly old elf and I need to have a chat. I know he is supposed to have a busy night, but he has caused me to stay up way too late on the night before Christmas.

A few years back, possibly after one or three too many Christmas Eve beers, I accidentally started a tradition. We were celebrating Christmas at my in-laws’ house, and the kids had all made “reindeer food” out of dried oats and glitter. (As if any animal, magical or otherwise, wants to eat glitter! What are kids thinking?) Anyway, after an elaborate and mentally taxing explanation of how Santa would be gaining entry to a house in a California beach town that doesn’t have a fireplace, it was decided that the obvious place to put the reindeer food would be all over the front walk. After the children were all snug in their beds (presumably with visions of toys or puppies dancing in their heads, since no one knows what the hell a sugar plum is), it was up to me to make sure the reindeer food was “eaten.” Out to the front walk I went with the broom and dust pan, and while sweeping up glittery oats, I unfortunately had a brilliant idea. I went and found a bucket, and with some water and dirt, fashioned muddy reindeer hoofprints on the front walk as evidence that Dancer and Prancer had gobbled up their treats.

It went over really well on Christmas morning, so guess what I do every Christmas Eve now? My wife won’t let me stop. Even when we’re at our own two-story house with a fireplace, and we’re leaving carrots for the sleigh team, it is still suggested through a wild series of parental lies and childish imaginations that it makes perfect sense that Santa would land on our roof, come down our chimney, eat his cookies and drink his milk, grab the carrots, head for the front door, throw the carrots out onto the front lawn, and whistle to the team to come down and have a treat, but to make sure to gobble them down quickly and get back up to the roof to meet him when he’s done with all the stocking stuffing. All I can say about that is be careful what traditions you start, or you might find yourself on your hands and knees out in the dark and cold with a handful of mud, smearing hoof tracks on your concrete while your wife is warm and cozy in bed.

My other challenge came after I had cleaned up and thawed out my hands well enough to hold my beer again. Son Number Two had spent more than a few hours creating a masterpiece poster-sized drawing that was a gift for Santa. It was a full-color depiction of Santa’s castle, complete with fortifications and gun turrets. I guess the North Pole is as rough a place as any. You never know when the elves will need to lay down suppressing fire to keep the invading hordes at bay. Anyway, it really was a great piece of six-year-old artwork, and it had spent the last few weeks rolled up and tied with a green pipe cleaner, leaning next to our fireplace with a note for Santa, explaining that it was for him to take back to the North Pole.

So here’s the dilemma: Santa has to take this picture back to the North Pole. Therefore, the picture has to disappear from our house. We cannot risk keeping it, but simply throwing it away wouldn’t work either, because through some unforeseen trash spilling incident, the picture could be discovered, and a six-year-old’s heart would be broken into a million pieces. So after I took a picture of it with my phone for posterity, I shredded it. On Christmas Eve, I was up in my office shredding a picture that my son spent hours creating for Santa. Talk about feeling like a Scrooge! Like punishment for bad behavior, or administering bad-tasting medicine, it was done out of love, but that rarely makes you feel any better about it.

It was most likely guilt from shredding the beautiful 4-foot-long poster that led me to the idea of having Santa leave him a thank-you note. Now, I imagine the real Santa probably writes notes on scrolls of parchment with an ink-dipped quill, and seals them with the Cringle family crest stamp in red wax, but since I didn’t have any of those things, I used Son Number Two’s very own construction paper and one of his Sharpies. I knew he wouldn’t recognize the materials, but he might recognize my all-capitals handwriting, so I had to disguise my penmanship. I spent the next half-hour trying to learn how to write in cursive again. I hadn’t even attempted a curvy letter that wasn’t part of my signature in 25 years. Even my signature doesn’t really have cursive letters anymore, except for a capital M. From there it has degraded to a short wavy line, a swirl meant to be a capital S, and a longer wavy line with a flourish on the end. It has actually gotten so bad over the years that I really don’t even know why I bother signing things anymore. I might just start using an X to save time.

Anyway, after five practice letters that I also had to shred, I was able to produce a pretty good thank-you note from the big man. He was very appreciative of Number Two’s efforts, and promised to take the poster back home to show Mrs. Claus who would surely love it. I admired my handiwork, and decided that Son Number Two would most likely frame the note after he read it in awe 19 or 20 times. Here’s how it went the next morning:

Son Number Two finds the rolled-up, scroll-like construction paper note in his stocking.
He mumbles, “What’s this?” and throws it over his shoulder to get it out of the way of the loot.
I stop him and say, “That looks like a note from Santa, buddy. You might want to read it.”
He says, “OK,” and unfurls it, attempts to decipher my cursive for a few seconds, then gives it to his mother to read to him.
She reads aloud the magical, personalized note from the most famous and sought-after gift-giver in the entire world, to which he responds, “Cool,” and goes back to tearing open gifts.

Hmmm… Feeling a little underappreciated, here, fellas.
“Did you guys see the reindeer hoofprints on the walkway?”
“Yeah, that was cool.”

Santa and I really need to have a talk. Between his existence and my brilliant ideas, we’re creating a lot of work for me here, with very little payoff in return. I put most of the blame squarely on his shoulders, but he’s hard to pin down to reason with. I was able to stick it to him a little, though. I ate all his cookies and drank his milk. That’ll teach him!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The 2012 Do-it-Yourself Christmas Letter

Once again, you have procrastinated in writing the dreaded Christmas letter, and once again, ol’ Smidgey Claus is stepping in to save your bacon. I have created yet another handy do-it-yourself template to help you create your 2012 Christmas letter in no time flat. As with previous years’ templates, just fill in your last name(s) in the blank and circle the appropriate choices, and you're in business. 

Christmas 2012

Greetings from the ________________ house. We had another (wonderful/pathetic) year around here!

Dad is really (enjoying/fed up with) retirement, and continues to (volunteer/gripe) at the local (food bank/AA meetings). The folks down there are (grateful for/sick of) him, and he gets endless satisfaction from (helping/annoying) them. A few people have even hinted that he should (join the board/start drinking again). We’ll see.

Mom divides her time between her (book club/favorite bar), the (ladies auxiliary/track), and her (charity/court-mandated) work with (the orphanage/highway clean-up). Her (infectious/incredibly toxic) attitude and general (zest/contempt) for life is a (blessing/curse) to us all. She never misses an opportunity to ask us about when she’ll be seeing some (grandchildren/beer money).

Sister and her (husband/boyfriend) were on TV this year! They were featured on an episode of (HGTV/Cops) for their (amazing/illegal) conversion of their (old barn/double-wide) into a (teakwood spa/meth lab). It was (exciting/depressing) to see them on television. They even filmed them in their (bathing suits/underwear), (lounging by/running through) the (hot tub/trailer park). They were both looking (tan and fit/pale and skinny)! Their project was (fun/ill-conceived), and besides the (exciting/unfortunate) TV appearance, it definitely increased the (value/toxicity levels) of their property and put their (neighborhood/trailer park) on the (map/DEA watch list).

For Little Brother, this year was one big (adventure/pain). He and his (girlfriend/chain gang) traveled up and down the highways (sightseeing/breaking rocks) in (their new RV/the blazing sun). They never had a (dull moment/moment’s rest) as they (explored/toiled) all across (this great land/the Arizona desert). I think he will (never/always) regret selling (his business/all that stolen property). He has been (having/doing) (a great/hard) time ever since.

As for me, I continue to work as a CPA, but I have (happily/begrudgingly) switched positions. The (local bank/Renoso cartel) (hired me away/bought my gambling debts) from the (big city firm/Gambini family). I certainly (don’t miss/regret) all the time I spent (commuting/at the track)! I don’t want to (brag/self-incriminate), but I have innovated the (home foreclosure/drug distribution) process, making it easier for (homeowners/dealers) to get low-interest loans that can help them stay in (their homes/business) during these tough economic times. While the big (banks/cartels) don’t traditionally like to negotiate with struggling (families/biker gangs), I managed to convince my organization of the value of helping our clients stay afloat until they get back on their feet. I like to say, “It doesn’t make much sense to just (foreclose/go all medieval) on everyone the first time they miss a payment. If we work with them, we have a much better chance of getting paid in the long run. Getting our clients a (loan modification/hundred pounds of product) with a 60 or 90-day float is sometimes all they need to turn it around. We can always (foreclose on them/waste everyone) down the road if they don’t live up to their obligations.” What can I say, I’m (an innovator/a hostage)!

We hope this letter finds you doing (as well as/much better than) we are. Here’s to a (productive/felony-free) and (fruitful/less depressing) New Year!

Merry Christmas!

You’re welcome! Now just sign, copy and send. You’re all set.
Get it to them quick, though, because Friday is the deadline. I guess this will be my last post ever, since the Mayans have said the world will be ending on Friday the 21st. It was nice knowing all of you.

See you on the other side,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

The Just a Smidge Anthology (Volume I) has arrived!
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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Decoding the Christmas Letter

The season of the Christmas letter is upon us. You may have heard the term “humble brag” used to describe some folks’ Christmas letters. That’s where people who are kicking butt in life try to tell you how awesome they are as tactfully as possible. In my own personal Christmas letter, I never do the humble brag. I brag about my life very openly, and not at all humbly.

On the other hand, there are those folks that muster the effort to write a Christmas letter not because they want to brag, but because they want to whitewash the disappointing truth. There is no special term for these types of letters, so we will simply call them “The Smith’s Christmas Letter.” This is your handy guide to decoding them. It was my pleasure. Don’t mention it.

What they wrote:
Dear Friends and Family,

What they want you to think:
You are very special to us. So special, in fact, that we took the time to write this letter just for you.

You are filler on an address list that includes people they don’t even actually know, just so they can tell the people they are trying to impress during the holidays that they sent their Christmas letter out to 250 people. The list you are on is so exclusive that this Christmas letter was sent to one person that died this year, and two people that died last year.

What they wrote:
We’ve had another fantastic year here at the Smith household!

What they want you to think:
Our lives are magical, and we are to be envied by you pathetic souls trudging through life with no hope. We are your hope. Look at our fabulous lives and bask in our glow. You will never measure up to our successes, of course, but you can glean some measure of happiness in your own dreary lives by simply being happy for us.

We have no idea how we made it through this crappy year without just calling the whole thing quits. If it wasn’t for alcohol, prescription drugs, reality television, and cat videos on YouTube, we would just stay in bed all day.

What they wrote:
We moved to a new neighborhood at the beginning of the year. The new house is fantastic. The floor plan is super-efficient despite its amazing size, and we couldn’t be happier. I finally have a vegetable garden!

What they want you to think:
While you are stuck in your old house that you hate, we are so affluent that we upsized to a huge mansion. We are living the dream, and I am such a delicious combination of Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray that I am growing my own food!

The bank foreclosed on us. We are renters again for the first time since college. The duplex we are shoehorned into came with a tomato vine in a planter box. It died.

What they wrote:
Ally is excelling in her junior year at Central High. She is such a beautiful young lady now, and continues to maintain a busy schedule. In addition to her vital position on the cheer squad, she belongs to numerous clubs at school, volunteers on the weekends, stays in constant contact with her friends, and still manages to keep her grade point average up there.

What they want you to think:
Our daughter is smarter, better, faster, stronger, prettier, and more popular than any of your children. If you have any hope whatsoever of being proud of your kids someday, you should pray they turn out like Ally.

Ally stays away from home as much as possible due to the incredible pressure she receives from her mom, and the simple fact that she does not really like any of her family members. She spends 18 hours a day sending text messages to her two friends about absolutely nothing, and her weekend “volunteering” consisted of one isolated incident where she handed out flyers for an SPCA pet sterilization program. She spent the other 51 weekends of the year at the mall food court. She is barely maintaining a C+ average at school, and only made the cheer squad because they needed someone “stocky” for the bottom of the pyramid.

What they wrote:
Can you believe Billy is a freshman at Central High this year? It’s fun to have both kids at the same school again. He enjoys his classes, and is still finding his way in the big high school system.

What they want you to think:
Our precious young boy is growing up so fast. He is a wonderful student, and he’s bravely making his way in this big world.

Billy hates school and always has. He views the education system as nothing more than a popularity contest that he is not interested in being a part of. He regularly cuts his afternoon classes so he can have more time to play Halo 4 with his online gamer “buddies,” none of whom he has actually met in person. He is fat and pale. There is a slight chance that he would lead a life of crime if he didn’t have his parents to sponge off of, but he would most likely just be a homeless beggar, because he doesn’t seem to have even an iota of ambition.

What they wrote:
Bob celebrated his 25-year anniversary at XYZ Corporation in September and continues to shine as a mid-level manager. He loves his job, but occasionally mentions the possibility of early retirement. We’ll see… Ha-ha. Bob spends most of his evenings relaxing in front of the television.

What they want you to think:
My husband is a wonderful provider and a top-notch employee. He is much more stable than your husband probably is, and he’s perfectly content with his role as the breadwinner, but would also enjoy the chance to get out of the “rat race” and spend more quality time with me and the kids.

Bob cannot believe he is still alive after trudging off to that life-sucking corporate behemoth for 25 bleepin’ years now.  He would quit his insanely boring job tomorrow and become a ski lift operator, or a lifeguard, or any other damn thing besides a mid-level manager if the kids were already through college and the mortgage was paid off. Truth be told, he’s really not sure why his position even exists, and he does not think he can make it until he’s 65, but every time he mentions quitting, Jane tells him to shut his pie hole and keep the paychecks coming. Bob goes through one Costco-sized bottle of  Wild Turkey per week just trying to “take the edge off” and find a will to live.

What they wrote:
As for me, it’s the same old story. I keep myself busy with my homemaker duties and my close circle of friends. I can’t believe how fast the time goes these days! Another year is coming to a close, and we are so very thankful to have you in our lives. Merry Christmas!

What they want you to think:
I am living the dream. For me, life is a blissful walk in the park. I artfully take care of my family, with a style and grace that you could not begin to achieve. You should be very, very thankful that you know me.

Jane’s life is so depressing, she doesn’t even want to talk about it. Xanax is the only thing that keeps her from going totally insane. She has even started grinding it up and sprinkling it into the sugar cookies to mellow out Bob and Ally. Billy didn’t need any. She feeds the family a never-ending assortment of take-out and frozen fish sticks, and rarely gets out of bed before 10:00 A.M. If it is a reality show on television, Jane watches it. She knows every detail about the lives of all the characters on 17 different TV shows, but not very much about her own family. You are not really in the Smith family's lives, and everyone involved can be thankful for that. The Smiths will have a merry Christmas, but only due to video games, sedative-laced holiday cookies, and 101-proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.

There you are. Now you can sit down with your glass of eggnog next to your roaring yule log and really, truly get caught up on how the Smiths are actually doing.

If you are lucky enough to receive a copy of my Christmas letter, please remember, none of this Smith-type subtext applies. Every word of mine is true.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

The Just a Smidge Anthology (Volume I) has arrived!
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Go get your copy of "The Tree of Death, and Other Hilarious Stories" for your mobile device’s free Kindle, Nook, or iBooks app. You’re going to love it!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Quitting, Part II

I am in a very strange predicament. I have a drinking problem, but not a traditional one. I am addicted to non-alcoholic beer.

You see, at the beginning of this year, I made a last-minute New Year’s resolution to quit drinking beer until my next book was finished. At the time, I thought I only had about another month to go, and I figured depriving myself of beer would be a good motivator. Well, the book took a little longer than expected. The Tree of Death, and Other Hilarious Stories came out just last month. (It’s an e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBooks. You should check it out. It’s really funny, and only 99 cents!)

Anyway, I think part of the reason it took me ten months to finish the book was that my no-beer motivation really did nothing to motivate me. As it turned out, I didn’t miss “real” beer at all. I missed the malted barley and hops, but I didn’t miss the alcohol. A few months into the year I discovered non-alcoholic beer, and have been drinking it ever since. “Drinking” might be an understatement. Guzzling is probably a more accurate word. Guzzling really doesn’t do it justice, either. Let’s just say, I’m pretty sure that I am personally keeping the O’Doul’s brand in business.

Being addicted to non-alcoholic beer is like being a crack addict in Hogsbottom, Kansas. Sometimes, it’s hard to find your fix. When you drink regular beer, it’s really easy to find. When you want beer that has had the alcohol removed, it’s like a snipe hunt in some neighborhoods. Most major supermarket chains will carry at least one brand, but it is not available at every convenience store like regular beer is. A good rule of thumb I have developed is this: The more heavily weighted the particular store’s beer cooler is toward malt liquor in 40-ounce containers, the less likely they are to carry non-alcoholic beer.

There has been a major learning curve on what to expect at the cash register if you do happen to find it in the far, upper-right-hand corner of the beer cooler. When you blow the dust off the six-pack and bring it up to the cashier, you are in for a treat. My latest encounter with the slack-jawed twenty-something stop-and-rob clerk with the giant holes in his earlobes went like this:

Clerk (in slower-than-standard speech pattern) - “What’s with the O’Doul’s, man? Don’t you like real beer?”
Me (in regular cadence speech pattern) - “I do. I just don’t drink it much anymore.”
“Oh. [long pause] I quit, too. I haven’t had a beer in three days. I used to drink Steel Reserve forties, but it’s better if I’m off the sauce.”
“Are you sure?”
“Never mind. Good luck with that.”

Most stores don’t know how to sell it, either. Some charge sales tax while others consider it to be food, and don’t charge sales tax. Most still ask to see my ID. I asked, “Why?” the first few times, and one girl told me it was because it still has a little alcohol in it. It has less than 0.5% alcohol by volume. I didn’t bother to point out to her that the expired apple juice on aisle four probably has a higher alcohol content by now. I just showed her my ID, and she was happy.

Restaurants are not without their challenges, either. Going out to eat in California seems to be pretty safe, non-alcoholic beer-wise. Most places have it, and occasionally it turns out to be something exotic, like Buckler, the brand made by Heineken. Then it’s a party! I have found other states can be more of a crap-shoot, though. I was in Ohio earlier this year, and had this conversation with my waitress at the steak house:

“What would you like to drink?”
“Do you have any non-alcoholic beer?”
“Non-alcoholic beer? You mean like beer that doesn’t have any alcohol? I’ve never even heard of that. Do they have that?”
“Yes, they do. Let me take a look at your beer list… Yes, you do, down here at the bottom. O’Doul’s. I’ll have one of those, please.”
“Yeah, you see here where it says ‘N/A’ next to it. That means we don’t have it.”
“No… that means it’s non-alcoholic.”

It took a while for her to bring it, because she said the bartender had to hunt a little to find it. I got the distinct impression I was the very first person in the history of Ohio to ever order a non-alcoholic beer.

It reminded me of the time I ordered a Coke with my lunch in a small town café in Mississippi. Prior to my asking for a Coke, the only beverage choices I was given were sweet tea or regular tea. The waitress looked at me like I was speaking Latin when I announced that I did not care for tea, sweet or otherwise. She begrudgingly brought me an unopened can of Coke, a glass with ice, and a separate glass with no ice, because, as she put it, “I didn’t have any idea how you would want to drink it.”

Anyway, possibly because I have since quit drinking Coke as well as regular beer, I am putting the non-alcoholic beer away at a furious pace. I have actually found myself wishing they made O’Doul’s in forties, because I go through the 12-ounce bottles too quickly. I think part of the problem is that due to the lack of alcohol, there is no clearly defined stopping point until I am almost too full to breathe correctly, and only then do I realize I have drank ten of them. I then spend the next twelve hours peeing every fifteen minutes. Besides being up half the night visiting the bathroom, it's killing my budget and my waistline. It’s the same price as regular beer, which just seems wrong, and even at only 65 calories a pop, they add up.

So, I find myself in the unique predicament of needing to fight an addiction to non-alcoholic beer. Do you think there is a Non-Alcoholics Anonymous? Obviously, I don't really need it to be anonymous. Non-Alcoholics Non-Anonymous? If I can’t find my local NANA chapter, I think I’ll need to start my own, because I really need to get off the sauce. Maybe I should start drinking real beer again to help wean myself off the fake stuff.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

The Just a Smidge Anthology (Volume I) has arrived!
Get your copy today for only $0.99!
Go get your copy of "The Tree of Death, and Other Hilarious Stories" for your mobile device’s free Kindle, Nook, or iBooks app. You’re going to love it!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Fine Corinthian Christmas Tree

My wife waited patiently as I chewed and swallowed the last bite of Thanksgiving turkey from my otherwise empty plate. When I wiped my mouth with my napkin and leaned back in my chair, groaning the happy, overstuffed, fat-man-with-a-belly-full-of-food groan, she asked, “Are you finished?”
“Yes, thanks. It was delicious.”
“Yeah, yeah, great to hear. Let’s talk about Christmas decorations. I want to get the tree up.”

It’s a new record. She didn’t mention Christmas decorations during the Thanksgiving meal this year. She waited until afterward. Three seconds afterward… but still.

“What about the pie?” I inquired.
“There will be plenty of time for pie after the tree is up, fat boy.”

It has always been my intention to continue the Christmas tree tradition of my childhood with my own boys. The Saturday family outing on the crisp December day to the forest (and by forest, I of course mean the Christmas tree farm), to cut down and haul home our own tree. Those pine needle and sap-covered trips are a series of treasured memories from my youth, and someday soon I will decide that we can no longer deprive our children of those magically pine-scented, and incredibly sticky, experiences.

At this point however, the thought of my three boys anywhere close to a chain saw, or any type of saw for that matter, quickly erases those thoughts. So, until I can muster enough courage to start that tradition, I am left with this tradition.

The epic battle between man and the 8-foot, pre-lit, faux pine Christmas tree.

And so it begins. I venture to the side yard, open the doors of the shed, and peer inside. Since we have already gone through the inane process of removing ourselves from Daylight Savings Time, the sun goes down around four o’clock in the afternoon these days, so it is almost completely dark outside. It is pitch black inside the shed. My flashlight pierces the night. There it stands. The box is over five feet tall, and two feet on a side. It weighs well over 80 pounds. It is obscured by rakes, shovels, leaf blowers, extension cords, and countless other implements of suburban torture, hopelessly tangled together in a lawn-and-garden Gordian knot.

I don’t even attempt to untangle them. I just drag them out onto the ground in front of the shed. As I climb back over the pile, I trip on a leftover roll of roofing felt that has rolled out of the shed. Fortunately, my fall is broken by the extra five-gallon barbeque propane tank on the shed floor near the tree. Meanwhile, our neighbors have seen the dancing beam of my flashlight, and heard me thrashing about, and called the police, thinking our shed is being robbed by a group of foul-mouthed hooligans.

After convincing the police officer that I am not stealing anything, I ask his opinion on a legal matter. He does not think that I can press charges on the roofing felt company or the propane tank company for my new head injury. He leaves.

Back to the shed I go. There, sitting on the top of the tree box, is the grim reminder of my future fate. The real tree stand, that I will someday use to mount an actual tree in our living room, just as soon as I can get past the image of our three young boys fighting over who gets to help run the saw. I move the tree stand off to the side, trying to put that disturbing thought out of my head, and drag the huge box out onto the ground in front of the shed.

The box has two handles on it, and a sticker warning the workers at the big-box store, where it came from, that this is a “team lift” item. I scoff, and mumble under my breath that the big-box store’s warehouse must be staffed with 12-year-old girls. I grab both handles and lift the large, ungainly box off the ground with the classic straight-leg, bend at the waist, whip-and-snatch technique.

I cry out in pain as the box finds its former home on the ground, with me now sprawled across the top of it, my hands still gripping the handles, and my sciatic nerve sending shots of pain down my legs and up my torso.

I roll off the box and collect myself by crying for a while in the fetal position next to the shed. When I can walk again, I go inside and politely ask my wife for help. She asks if we need to “team lift” again this year. I wonder how she knows that term.

We move the heavier-than-expected box to our patio near the sliding glass door. I take a moment to examine the box, reading the advertising stickers that are near the much too small, and not nearly clear enough, team lift sticker. The tree is billed as a 7.5-foot-tall Prescott Pine, with 800 clear pre-strung lights, 5.1 feet of girth, and 1,904 tips. It comes in three easy to install sections, and there is a series of photos showing a petite middle-aged lady in a snappy pantsuit putting the tree together all by herself, with only the assistance of a small stepstool.

This is why people despise the marketing department. For starters, there is no such thing as a “Prescott pine.” That is a made up name, like Ricardo Montalban’s famous “fine Corinthian leather” from the old Buick commercials. In fact, they should have just ripped that name off, because “Corinthian spruce” sounds better. Next, the lights boast the imaginary feature of, “when one bulb burns out, the others stay lit.” The first time I see that actually work, I will believe in Christmas miracles. I have no idea what the “tips” are, or what they think they have 1,904 of on this tree, but if they mean branches, they over counted.

And, finally, the “easy three-step process” with the nice lady and her stepstool is a total sham. She may have put the stand on the bottom section, inserted the middle section into the bottom section, and then inserted the top section into the middle section, but those are steps, 5, 12, and 15 of a 29-step process. They neglected to mention the step where you stand the bottom section upright, and get knocked backward with a mouth full of nylon “pine needles,” as the hinged branches fall down into place. They also missed the fun part about manually folding down the 75 branches on the top section, because for whatever reason, hinged branches are only available on the bottom two-thirds of the tree.

And, they also forgot to mention the intermediate nine-step process where you have to insert yourself inside the tree with a flashlight, and hunt down the six color-coded plug ends that make up the light string, making sure to match the plugs with the red stickers and the ones with the yellow stickers to their respective cord ends. That always goes perfectly. I guess the lady in the pictures didn’t want her tree to be lit.

And don’t even get me started on step number one. There is no way Ms. Pantsuit got that damned box out of the shed by herself!

Maybe next year I’ll just get the chainsaw out of the shed, instead. Getting a real tree has got to be easier than this, right?

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Boy, am I Thankful

It’s that time of year again. When we all sit around the Thanksgiving table and list what we are thankful for, trying to get it done as fast as possible, because what we are really thankful for is the big, mouth-watering turkey sitting in the center of the table, and we want to get to it.

In anticipation of this ritual, I have done a little bit of pre-Thanksgiving reflection this year, without the distraction of the savory bird. I am thankful for all the major things, of course. My wife and children are healthy, we have a roof over our heads and plenty of food, and my wife and I have retained a socially acceptable level of sanity through our first eight calendar years of parenting. I say calendar years because, technically, we’ve only had kids for eight years, but we have three of them. When you have multiple kids, I believe your parenting years are actually a cumulative total of their ages. We have eight calendar years under our belt, but nineteen multi-kid years to our credit.

Raising three boys, I often think that there should also be some sort of multiplier involved in that number to account for the additional energy and mischief level that young boys bring to the table. It is probably a draw though, because the parents of girls will surely need a multiplier for pre-teen drama, and teenage dating, and boys, and specifically, that idiot with the pierced nose that keeps being seen near their fifteen-year-old daughter.  

I will take rambunctious and wild over body piercings, boyfriends, and boyfriends with body piercings any day of the week. That leads me to what I am specifically thankful for this year: Shopping for birthday presents. Specifically, boy’s birthday presents.

Son Number One’s birthday is very close to Thanksgiving, so our Thanksgiving week holiday plans always involve some kind of birthday celebration as well. Now, don’t misunderstand. I am not thankful that I have to shop for birthday presents. I hate shopping, in any form. What I am thankful for, is that we have boys, which greatly reduces the time and struggle required to find a gift.

Boys like hardware. All boys like hardware. All boys like anything hardware related. It is a universal truth that does not exist with any other store except the hardware store. Most boys like sports. Most boys like trucks. Most boys like Star Wars. All boys like hammers.

If you are invited to an eight-year-old boy’s birthday party, you can try your luck at Toys R Us if you want. You can get him some Legos, and he may or may not like them. You can get him a football that he may or may not want to throw. You can buy him a remote-control car that he may or may not want to drive around in the street. Or, you can buy him a socket wrench set that he will think is the coolest thing he has ever seen.

In fact, if you were to walk into any hardware store – I said hardware store, not Home Depot or Lowes – and go down any aisle, stop in the middle, turn to your right and point, you will be pointing at something that a boy will think is awesome. You might be in the lawn and garden aisle. Doesn’t matter. He will think that new 29-inch D-handle trench spade is the best thing he’s ever seen. Then, he will dig a thousand holes.

If you buy a boy his own roll of duct tape, he will be as happy as if you gave him a million dollars. Happier, actually, because to a six-year-old, a million dollars and ten dollars are the same thing. If you get him a whole sleeve of duct tape, forget about it! He’ll be so excited, you’ll have to peel him off the ceiling. Actually, with that much duct tape, there’s a good chance he may really figure out a way to stick himself to the ceiling. You have to be careful, there.

Buy him a real flashlight. Buy him some rope. Buy him a chain binder or a come-along. Buy him a conduit bender. Vice-Grips. It doesn’t matter. You want to be his for life? Buy him a five-pound box of ten-penny nails and a claw hammer. Done.

So, this year, among all the other regular stuff, that is what I’m thankful for. I am thankful that I don’t have to shop for girls. If my wife and I ever forget to buy a birthday or a Christmas present, I know that at the last minute I could walk into my garage, close my eyes and point, and come up with a gift that my boys would love, in less than fifteen seconds. Try that with a girl.

I wouldn’t even know where to start with a girl. I get in enough trouble shopping for my wife. Just ask her about the ironing board incident of 2001. I don’t need the headache! I do much better sticking to what I know.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one other universal love for boys besides the hardware store. You can’t go wrong at the gun counter at sporting goods store, either, but my wife thinks I should wait until they’re at least nine before I buy them firearms. Or did she say, nineteen? I can’t remember.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deleting the Deceased

The other day at work, I received one of those thankfully rare, but occasionally necessary “We're saddened to have to report that so-and-so has passed on” e-mails from one of our vendors. He was an old-timer at a company in Arkansas, and I had never met him in person, and possibly only spoken to him once or twice on the phone in the last ten years, and only in a business capacity. If I had bumped into him on the street, we would not have known each other.

So, I read the e-mail, then promptly went into my contacts lists on my computer and phone… and deleted him.

The second thing I did was say a short prayer for his family.

I’m not sure if the order of those two events makes me extremely callous, or extremely practical. I prefer to think of it as practical, but honestly, I felt like kind of a jerk when I hit the delete button. There is no good logical reason why I should feel like a jerk, but it happened just the same. In fact, I was really attempting to be the opposite of a jerk by expediently deleting the deceased.

I was trying not to forget to delete him, and the only way for me not to forget, is to do it right away. I am deathly afraid of forgetting to delete him, because I know, somewhere in Arkansas, there is some poor administrative assistant (“secretary,” for those of you over 60), who will spend the next three months fielding emails and phone calls for the deceased and having to explain why he won’t be getting back to them anytime soon. I don’t want to be one of those accidentally uninformed people that she has to deal with.

The situation is even worse when it is a friend or a relative that has passed on. Obviously, the loss hits you harder, but I’m referring to the situation with the contact deleting issue. Even though it is a loved one, you still have the same immediate need to do it. In fact, it is because they were close to you that makes it even more important to wipe out their contact info right away. Since they were close to you, you obviously won’t forget they died, but if you don’t take care of the administrative aspect of their passing posthaste, you might completely forget to delete their contact info.

I end up feeling even more cold-hearted when my reaction to the news of a loved one’s passing is to purge them from my electronic records. Even though the prayers come first in that situation, erasing their contact info is still the second thing on my list. Again, there is a good reason for this. I am nothing if not practical, and my goal is to spare myself and others further discomfort and mental anguish in the future. I am desperately trying to avoid accidentally mailing or e-mailing something to the dearly departed.

I am really, really trying to avoid the incredibly awkward situation where one of my friends’ or relatives’ family members has to get in contact with me to make sure I know that the person died.

“Uh, Smidge, you just sent an email to Bob. You remember that he passed away last Tuesday, right? I mean, you were at the funeral. You gave the eulogy.”
“Uhhh… whoops. No, I didn’t forget he died. I just forgot to take him off the 'people to forward funny jokes to' list. Sorry about that.”

Not a conversation you want to have.

The situation gets even weirder, nowadays, when the deceased had a Facebook page. It usually falls to the next of kin to post an announcement to make the online friends of the departed aware of the loss. However, if the dead person had an uncrackable password, they might “live on” forever in social media. Deleting contact info on your computer and phone is a personal and private matter. But, what do you do publically about the fact that you are “friends” with someone who can no longer log in?

Prudence would dictate that you “unfriend” them right away. Good manners and feelings would dictate that you waffle on that and wait to see what everyone else does. This leads to a lot of dead people being “friends” with a lot of live people online for longer than everyone is comfortable with. Facebook itself adds an extra weird dimension to it sometimes, also. I actually received an automated notice from Facebook suggesting that I be friends with one of my relatives who had passed away earlier in the year. Apparently he had an uncrackable password.

Being the author of award-winning books (my kids give me awards made out of construction paper and glitter when I publish a book), and the keyboard jockey in charge of this column, I have quite a few friends on Facebook that I have never actually met in person. This makes the unfriending process even more difficult. Your relatives, who know you personally, will perceive your actions in a different light than someone you don’t know, who might only see you as “the callous jerk who just deleted my dead brother.” We really need a universally adopted period of social media mourning, followed by pulling the plug, as it were, on their page.

Possibly the best idea for dealing with the Facebook issue came from a conversation I overheard on a plane. A nine year old boy and his dad were sitting in the row in front of me, and I heard the kid say, “Hey dad. When you die, I’m going to keep updating your Facebook page. I’ll write, ‘Hey, they have wifi up here.’ That will freak people out.”

At the very least, Facebook needs a “reluctantly saying goodbye” button. “Unfriend” just sends the wrong message in a time of grief. As for my email contact issue, I feel bad enough when I’m deleting someone who has died. I wish Microsoft wouldn’t pile on.

"Are you sure you want to delete this person?"

Hey pal, don't judge me. I didn't want to delete them. That was God's call. I just need to update my records before I forget and accidentally try to send a dead person a funny joke or a Christmas letter.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Time for a Change

I understand time zones. Since the earth is round and rotates, they are necessary to make sure half the world doesn’t have to eat lunch in the middle of the night. What I don’t understand is Daylight Savings Time. I mean, I understand the concept of wanting it to stay lighter in the evenings, and I’m all for that. What I don’t get is why we swap back and forth. It presents all sorts of problems, and I am convinced that whoever came up with the brilliant plan to mess with the clocks twice a year never had kids.

We “fell back” this weekend, and when that happens, the news people always mention “the extra hour of sleep” we’re all supposed to get. Not at my house! On Sunday night the kids were literally falling asleep in their dinner. (And, yes, I am using literally correctly, there. We actually had to fish Son Number Three out of his macaroni and cheese for fear of him suffocating at the table.) And guess what happened on Monday morning? I can tell you what wasn’t happening. Sleep. Any mythical “extra” hour of sleep I received on Sunday was promptly nullified when I woke up at 5:00 A.M. to find Son Number One and Two fully dressed and sitting in front of the television, watching cartoons.

“What in the world do you two think you’re doing? It’s five o’clock in the morning!”
“But, Dad, we woke up at four o’clock and it was taking forever to get to six.”

Thanks a lot, Daylight Savings Time!

And why do we always change the clocks on Saturday night? I think the theory is that if you take care of it in the middle of the weekend, the people who forget won’t be late for work. So, let me get this straight. They’re OK with me being late for church, but not for work? Something tells me God doesn’t see it that way, but that’s not even my main objection. If I’m going to have to go through this hassle, you should at least give me the opportunity to have a semi-legitimate excuse for being late for work twice a year. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I’m already tired from my kids either waking up in the middle of the night in the fall, or having to drag them out of bed and give them CPR just to wake them up in the spring.

A Sunday night time change would be great. It would be called “time change Monday,” or “DST day,” and no one would expect you in the office before noon. It would end up being a holiday for the school kids, since, in my experience, school districts rarely miss an opportunity to take a day off.

And don’t even get me started on the actual clocks. My cell phone, my computer, and my Blu-ray player all automatically adjust themselves, and that’s fine. They are connected to the internet, so I trust that they’ll do it when they are supposed to, and even if they don’t, what do I care? I don’t use them to wake up on time for work. My alarm clock, on the other hand, has an optional setting for DST. This is possibly the worst “feature” on an alarm clock ever. I never know if the DST function is activated or not, and how the hell should my alarm clock even be able to know what day it is supposed to adjust the time, anyway? It’s not connected to the internet. I end up setting my clock ahead or back before I go to sleep, and then waking up three times in the middle of the night, comparing it to my wife’s clock to make sure it didn’t automatically change itself again at 2:00 A.M.

Then there are all the other clocks I have to deal with. At last count, that included the microwave, the stove, four bedside clocks, the house phone, two wristwatches, the VCR (yes, we still have one of those), two thermostats, the automatic sprinkler timer in the garage, a wall clock in my office, and two cars. Since the microwave and the stove clocks are right on top of each other, it takes me twice as long to set them, because I have to make sure they are exactly synchronized, or it will bug the bejeezus out of me when they say different times. One of our cars takes forever, too, because we have an aftermarket stereo in it, and we can never remember how to set it. My wife actually had to take it back to the electronics place where we bought the stereo once, just to get them to show her how to do it, because we gave up trying to figure it out.

And if the clocks themselves weren’t confusing enough, what about the states? Hawaii and Arizona do not use Daylight Savings Time, and half of Indiana doesn’t use it, while the other half does. What the hell is up with that? Trying to do the math on time zones is already enough of a headache, but when some states are allowed to further complicate the issue by going renegade on us, that is too much. I mean, come on, Indiana, half and half? Really?

I have first-hand experience in how confusing this can be. When I was in college in California, we went to Arizona for spring break. Arizona is on mountain time, so we knew we were in a different time zone, and needed to adjust the clocks ahead an hour, but someone knew that Arizona was either always on DST or never on it, but didn’t know which. Since we didn’t know whether they were permanently sprung forward, or permanently falled back, and no one was really even sure when we were supposed to change the clocks in California, we didn’t know if we should leave our watches alone, set them ahead an hour, or set them back two hours. Since this was before the internet and cell phones, the end result was a vacation where no one could agree on what time it was. Fortunately, the beer supplies held out, and no one really cared.

I personally think we should put all 50 states on permanent DST and be done with it. Sure, the winter mornings will be a little dark, but who cares? We’ll still have longer summers evening hours to play baseball, and no one will ever have to change the time on 17 clocks again, or deal with a seven-year-old who’s body doesn’t adjust, no matter what the clock says.

Like I said, the time zones are confusing enough. Let’s be done with unnecessary time changes and all the “spring forward, fall back” nonsense. Why overcomplicate things? As long as we’re on the subject, I also think it should be illegal for a state to have two different time zones. If you lived right on the line, how would you know when the store opened, or what time your favorite TV show comes on? How would you ever plan anything?
“Meet me at three o'clock.”
“Which three o'clock?”

 What if you lived in one time zone and worked in another?

That would be my idea of hell. I can’t even imagine what those poor folks in Indiana are going through right now.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallows Month

Original Post Date: October 27, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn on the hydraulics for the automatic creaky coffin lid and fill the water tank on the new fog machine. I am really going to outdo my neighbors this year!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No More Tears

I have a new theory on my role as a husband and father. I think my main job, when it all gets boiled down, is to keep my wife from crying.

Let me back up a little… I don’t like irrigation. That probably goes back to high school, when I worked for a summer on my uncle’s farm in Oregon. My buddy Scott and I went and spent an entire summer “moving pipe” in the potato fields of the fertile Willamette Valley. (Pronounced will-LAMB-et, not WILL-ah-met, for all of you non-Oregonians.)

Moving pipe involves grabbing the middle of a 30-foot long, 4-inch diameter aluminum pipe, picking it up and shaking it loose from its attachment point to the next pipe, curling it up to chest height like a tightrope walker’s balance pole, high-stepping over fifteen rows of waist-high potato plants, and setting it back down. Repeat the process for eight to ten hours a day for two months.

I won’t tell you I hated it, but “liked it” isn’t the right term either. Scott and I ended up having a good time overall, and we were in great shape at the end of the summer. While the experience may not have done much to illuminate our future career aspirations, it certainly did serve to give both of us a really good idea of what we did not want to do for a living, and a strong desire to go to college.

During college, I ended up having to take a few engineering-related classes on irrigation and irrigation theory. I had had enough irrigation practice up in Oregon to outweigh any irrigation theory that some professor who never moved a pipe in his life wanted to tell me about, so I wasn’t really very interested in hearing what he had to say. There are some things that text books just can’t teach you, like how to get a whole bullfrog out of a 1/8-inch diameter sprinkler hole at high pressure. I suffered through the classes and moved on.

Fast-forward to today, and you likely know my stance on home irrigation. I simply do not like to spend my time or money operating and maintaining a sprinkler system. Especially for something that is not a crop, and has no possibility of paying me back for my investment. Only the social convention of suburban houses having year-round short, green lawns keeps me from shutting off my sprinkler system entirely and letting the grass go native. I would do it in a heartbeat if the neighbors would cooperate.

I am willing to bend to social pressures when it comes to the lawns, but the very first thing I did when we bought our house was to shut off the drip irrigation system that was responsible for the trees and bushes. I was not about to waste time and money maintaining a system of tiny plastic hoses meant to water things that, in my opinion, should be able to fend for themselves. That was all fine and dandy until a week ago.

We had a long, hot summer here in Northern California, and a few of the leafier plants in our backyard ended up a lot more brown than green. My wife had made a few comments to me about them that went in one ear and out the other, but last week at lunch, she sat me down and said flatly, “I want a drip system for the backyard plants.”

When I said, “No way,” she cried.

Now, she claimed it was not my refusal to irrigate that started her tears. She claimed that my rebuff was simply the last straw on a large pile from a frustrating week, but I know better.

Apparently the appearance of the plants around the back fence of our yard is tied directly to her self worth, and it embarrasses her to have dead ones. I, on the other hand, could not honestly care less about them. When people come over to our house, I am not the least bit ashamed of the dead yellow bush in the corner. In my mind, it is the bush’s fault that it could not survive a summer in this climate, not mine. That bush is the one that should be ashamed for being weak.

She doesn’t see it like I do.

I was very taken aback by her tears. While she does have a long track record of tricking me into doing home improvement projects using deception and false naiveté, my wife is not one for employing emotional blackmail just to get her way. It was obvious that her desire for green shrubbery not only outweighed mine considerably, but was a much more serious concern to her than I had realized. Or not realized.

I don’t like it when my wife cries. I especially don’t like it when I’m the one who made her cry. So, guess what I did last weekend?

When I flipped the switch on the electronic sprinkler timer in the garage, and the drip line valve came on, our backyard looked like the grand finale of the fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Water was shooting straight up into the air from under almost every bush and tree. I hate drip line systems.

I ended up spending $64 at Home Depot for the supplies to patch the 18 geysers and replace the 16 feet of main line that I had torn out during a fencing project last year, thinking foolishly that I would never use it again. Shows you what I know.

It seems to have made her happy that she can now have green plants all year long. But, I didn’t do it to make her happy. I did it to keep her from crying. I will attempt to make my wife happy as often as I possibly can, but if I can keep her from crying, I think I’m really doing my husbandly job.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one that I think extends to all my roles as a husband and father, and will help me keep my eye on the ball, long term-wise. For instance, if I’m great at my job and make a ton of money, my wife will be happy. But also, if I’m marginal at my job and make a marginal amount of money, she’ll still be happy. However, if I’m bad at my job and get fired, or let my emotions get the better of me and quit one day, we’ll have no money. If we have no money, she and I will have to stop eating so the kids don’t starve to death, and that will make her cry, because she gets very cranky if she doesn’t eat. So, I need to maintain a marginal or better rating at work, and keep my job.

Another good example is our kids. If I do my job with the boys, and all three of them grow up to be something awesome, like astronauts, or doctors, or beer brewers, then my wife will be happy. But even if I do just an OK job with them, and they turn out to be just accountants, or managers, or computer programmers, she will still be happy. However, if I totally neglect them, and they grow up to be jobless ne’er-do-wells, she will cry. So, I need to make sure I do my part to make sure they grow up to be fine young men.

The way I see it, I need to focus on maintaining a level of operation as a husband and a father that strives to reduce spousal crying to a minimum, or in a perfect world, eliminate it altogether. If I can do that, I think I’m doing my job. If that job has to involve drip irrigation from time to time, then so be it.

Home improvement and career issues aside, I will be concentrating most heavily on the boys. I need to keep a sharp eye on them and make sure they’re heading in the right direction, because, as I said, if they grow up to be unemployed lazy bums, she’ll cry. But if they really take a wrong turn and grow up to be lawyers or, worse yet, politicians, we’ll both cry, and I do NOT want that!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 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 17, 2012

A Bad Call at First Base

A few years back, when I was coaching Son Number One’s T-ball team, we had an incident with a phone. We were in the middle of practice, and the kids were goofing off just a little too much, so we sent them on a run to the fence and back to dissipate some of the excess energy. One of the boys fell way behind the group, due to the fact that he was “running” at a pace that barely qualified as a brisk walk. I jogged up to him and said, “Let’s go, dude. Pick up the pace!”

The six-year-old stopped and looked me in the eye and announced, “I can’t go any faster than this, because my phone is really heavy and it’s banging around when I run.”

“Your what?”

He reached into the front pocket of his windbreaker and produced a BlackBerry smartphone. With a big wide grin, he declared, “It has BrickBreaker on it!”

Since he was not my own son, I was forced to resist my natural urge to snatch the phone from his hand and hurl it as far as I could. Instead, I simply told him to put the phone away and move his little patooty, or he would be running to the fence and back for the rest of the school year. He picked up the pace to a moderate jog.

I left the conversation dumbfounded. Why would his parents have given him their old phone? And more to the point, why would he be allowed to bring it to practice? And what the heck is BrickBreaker?

About ten minutes later, we were running a hitting and fielding drill, and the aforementioned T-baller was playing first base. When the batter hit the ball, the infielders were supposed to scoop it up and throw him out at first. Simple. Except for the fact that on the third or fourth batter, the shortstop fielded the ball and rifled it right over the head of our young BlackBerry owner. He had lost interest in the drill and was standing with both feet on first base, his glove on the ground at his feet, his head down, and you guessed it… playing with his phone.

When we saw the ball heading toward him and realized he wasn’t looking, three coaches and ten parents all shouted, “HEYOOW HEY AHHH LOOK OOOUT!” at the same time. He never even looked up. Complete oblivion.

Needless to say, he was removed from first base, and the phone was removed from his possession, at least for the time being. One of the moms later joked that he was probably updating his Facebook status. “Playing first base.” “Coaches seem mad.” “What’s up with these guys?”

Fast forward to today, and I am once again dumbfounded. This time by my own actions. I just gave Son Number One and Two our old BlackBerry phones.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wait a second, Smidge, you’re the guy who said your kids couldn’t have a phone until they were 35. I know I said that, but allow me to explain. I am just trying to save money.

This all started when my wife mentioned that she wanted to get MP3 players for the boys. For those of you over 60 years old, an MP3 player is the modern equivalent of a Walkman. For those of you over 80 years old, a Walkman is a portable music player with headphones. (And a BlackBerry is a mobile telephone, or “cell phone.”)

Anyway, she mentioned that she would like to get them MP3 players, which, with my wife means she had been shopping for MP3 players for about three weeks and was minutes away from buying them. I had to act fast. My initial response of, “I don’t think the kids need those,” only held her off for a day, then she was right back at it, listing all the reasons why music was important and why I was wrong and stubborn and wrong.

I could almost hear the Visa card being swiped at a Best Buy checkout stand, so I had to react quickly. “Why don’t you just give them our old phones?” I said, not believing the words had come from my mouth, even as I uttered them.

“Really?” she asked. “That would work?”

“Yes. They would be able to play music, plus they could take pictures and video.” Who is talking right now? This can’t be me saying this. “They could even record voice notes and type messages.” What am I doing? I’m breaking my own “no technology for kids” rules.

Or am I?

Yes, I am, but here’s how I can sleep at night: There is no cell service for the phones, and I disabled the Wi-Fi, so they have no connectivity to the internet, which is my main concern about children and technology. Also, I saved a bunch of money on MP3 players. (I know, I know. That’s weak. I don’t want to hear it.)

After going this long owning nothing more advanced than an Etch A Sketch, the boys are beyond thrilled. They actually like the voice recorder and the ring tones more than the music, but the camera is their favorite part. All in all, it is working out well, but here are two handy tips if you decide to follow my lead and recycle your phones to your kids:

Tip # 1: They still dial 911, so be careful! All cell phones, no matter if they are active or not, can still call 911. I know this because the nice 911 operator that I ended up talking to on my old BlackBerry told me so.

Tip # 2: Perform what is called a “security wipe” before you hand them over. This function removes all your contacts and email accounts from the phone’s memory. This ensures that even if your kid does figure out the Wi-Fi password, they can’t send an email to your best client or your pastor calling them a butt munch.

Other than those two things, there’s not much trouble they can get into with them, so I’m OK with it. But I swear, if one of those phones ever shows up at baseball practice, the next thing that comes in contact with the bat is not going to be a ball.

I will personally be seeing how much of an old BlackBerry I can hit over the fence.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 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 10, 2012

The Mortgage Jokers

Did you know that the word mortgage means “death pledge?” That should tell you almost everything you need to know about borrowing money to buy a house.

We recently refinanced our mortgage down to a significantly lower interest rate, and since we re-upped the loan for another 30-year stint, our monthly payment is a lot less. To compensate for adding additional years back onto the loan, we are making larger-than-required principal payments to reduce the length of the loan, and minimize the amount of interest we’ll pay.

At least, we tried to do that. The bank looked at our first larger payment and immediately chose the most inane way imaginable to allocate the funds. I won’t tell you the name of this whiz-bang financial institution, but it rhymes with Wells Fargo.

Here’s what happened: (I have chosen round amounts for simplicity, but not because I think you, the loyal reader, couldn’t follow along. I am attempting to make this as simple as possible in case anyone from the bank reads this, so they might have a fighting chance of understanding it.)

Let’s say our total loan amount is $100,000, and our monthly scheduled payment is $500. We sent them an October payment of $1100.

If we were to pay the scheduled $500/month for the next 30 years, we would pay a grand total of $180,000 to the unnamed bank. We would have paid them the $100,000 principal back, plus $80,000 in interest. We don’t want to pay them $80,000 in interest, so if we pay them $1100/month, paying an additional $600/month toward the principal, it only takes 9 years to pay them the $100,000 back, and we only pay $22,000 in interest.

Simple, right. We thought so.

Not to them, I guess. They took our October payment of $1100, looked at it carefully, and decided that we must have wanted to pay our standard October bill of $500, pre-pay our November bill of $500 -- $400 of which is interest -- and put the remaining $100 toward the principal. They sent us back a statement telling us that’s what they did with the money, and the good news was that our next payment wasn’t due until December!

An open letter to our mortgage lender:

What the hell are you guys smoking over there? You geniuses actually looked at my more-than-double-sized mortgage payment and concluded that I wanted to pre-pay next month? Really?

Has anyone in the history of the mortgage ever pre-paid a month? That is some serious outside the box type thinking right there, fellas!

You guys seriously thought that I am sending you extra money so that I can get a jump on paying you the entire $80,000 in interest as scheduled in the 30-year payoff plan? It didn’t even cross your minds that I might be trying to pay down the principal faster? Really!?!

So, by that same superior banker’s logic of yours, if I came into a bunch of money and wanted to pay off my mortgage tomorrow, and I sent you the entire $100,000 principal amount, you would naturally assume that I wished to pre-pay the next 200 months’ payments, so that I wouldn’t have a care in the world until the year 2028, at which time I would happily resume paying off the remaining $60,000 loan balance with interest over the next 160 months?

That makes perfect sense.

Now, I understand that I just sent the large payment in without any specific instructions. I can kind of see where you might have thought twice about what to do with the money if I had sent it in as a check, with no instructions, and the amount had been exactly two payments. Maybe you might have thought to yourselves, “This man will obviously be out of the country next month, and unable to send his November mortgage check to us on time, so he is obviously sending us that money now, so as not to disturb our fragile cash flow situation here at the nation’s fourth largest bank.”

I mean, if I squint really hard, I can almost see that scenario playing out at that think tank you guys are running over there. But, fellas, seriously… This payment came in electronically from my bank. Do you brainiacs think that I was smart enough to set up an online bill payment account with my bank, but I wasn’t smart enough to find the “recurring monthly payment” button?

This isn’t looking good, boys. You guys are facing the same conundrum that most of this country’s politicians are in right now. You can’t be even remotely mediocre at your job and screw it up this badly, so you are left with two unpleasant choices: Either you have to admit that you are about as smart as a box of hair, and unfit to run your own life, let alone a bank, or you have to admit that you are a crooked cheat. It’s either one or the other, because nobody with an IQ over room temperature would make that kind of mistake in earnest.

Thanks for giving me the loan in the first place. I really do appreciate it. But, play fair, or I swear, I will go through the long and painful process of refinancing my “death pledge” again, just to make sure you never get another penny of my money.

Sincerely yours,

Watch your bankers closely, folks. As with our politicians, something tells me I already know the answer as to why the “mistake” was made.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 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!