Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The 'Wildlife' of Discovery Kingdom

We were able to use our “free” tickets to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom this past weekend. I say “free” because my wife won four tickets, which didn’t include parking, and we also needed an additional ticket in order to get the whole family in. We didn’t feel like it would be fair -- or even legal -- to make one of the boys stay home, so we drained the checking account and headed for Vallejo.

When I was growing up, Six Flags was called Marine World Africa USA. I guess they felt like they needed to change the name when they started adding more roller coasters, or more flags. It’s now like a combination of Disneyland and SeaWorld, but with more Oakland Raiders fans, so it’s classier.

It’s really a great place. The roller coasters are world-class. Every one of them is guaranteed to loosen your bowels and help you find Jesus. And the animal shows are amazing. For the most part.

Right inside the gate, our boys were holding parrots on their arms, and in true modern theme park fashion, we were offered the chance to buy pictures of our adorable boys holding the large colorful birds for $2000 each. We opted for the cell phone pictures with the park photographer’s head in the foreground blocking half the shot.

We bypassed the snack shack selling $15 sodas (Free refills all day! Come for the rides, stay for the diabetes!), and headed straight for the attractions.

We saw tigers.
We saw lions. (They were all sleeping, but still lions.)
We saw giraffes.
We rode massive, thrilling roller coasters.
We saw a walrus show where a 3000-pound walrus the size of a pickup truck harrumphed its way up onto land, waddled over, and kissed its trainer.
We saw an elephant demonstration where the elephants were rolling on the ground, sitting up like begging dogs, and lifting 300-pound logs with their trunks.

Then we went to the dolphin show, and sat down close to the water in “the splash zone.” Son Number Two was incredibly lucky and was one of only two kids picked out of the crowd to go and help the trainers during the show. The dolphins were shoving the trainers out of the water fifteen feet into the air and doing backflips. One trainer rode a dolphin like a surfboard, and another rode two at the same time like a chariot. Son Number Two really wanted to ride one also, but apparently that maneuver is reserved for the highly-trained adults in wetsuits. He did get to give them commands, feed them fish, pet them on the noses, and get royally soaked by their splashing tails. He was on cloud nine, and he and his brothers all decided they wanted to be dolphin trainers when they grow up.

Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any more exciting, we went to the Wildlife Theater Show. We were right.

The Wildlife Theater Show started out pretty well, I guess. A pig went trotting past us down the front aisle as a parrot came out and announced that the show was about to begin. Then the human announcer arrived. He was a little too animated for my taste, but he was tolerable. Next, one of the trainers walked out with a two-toed sloth draped over her like she was holding a small child. That was pretty cool.

Then they brought out a skunk. OK...
Then a North American porcupine. Alright, that’s pretty neat.
Then a white-nosed coati on a leash. A coati sort of looks like a raccoon and an aardvark had a high speed collision. He climbed up a wooden pole.
Then a bobcat on a leash. The bobcat just walked around.

Then they brought out a house cat. On a leash. Hmm…

The house cat jumped from a post onto the wooden pole. Wow, it has claws. So did my grandpa’s cat. Hmm… A house cat. In the Wildlife Theater. OK.

Then they got back on track and brought out a serval on a leash. A serval is a spotted and striped African cat that sort of looks like a cheetah mated with a house cat on stilts. It jumped eight feet straight up in the air to snag a fuzzy toy off an overhanging pole. Pretty impressive hops for a cat on a leash.

Then they brought out a milk snake. It was not on a leash.

For the grand finale of this incredible, fifteen-minute show that inexplicably included a house cat, they brought out…another house cat.

This was a completely different house cat than the first one, they assured us. This one also had claws and was able to climb the wooden pole while on a leash. And then, as if that was not enough entertainment to blow our minds, they told us the second house cat’s incredible back-story. He was from two towns over. They got him when he was young.

Wow, Six Flags, you really outdid yourself here at the Wildlife Theater. I’m glad we hit some of the other highlights prior to this, or we may have been too exhausted from all the excitement to continue on the rest of the day.

House cats? Really? If you are willing to try and wow me with house cats, I have a few other cost-cutting measures you might want to consider.

For instance, on our walk through the park we saw a few "roaring rapids"-type white water adventure rides. Maybe you should ixnay those and have the park-goers just stand in a line while one of your employees sprays them down with a garden hose.

You could also just replace all the roller coasters with a low-speed minivan ride to the Walmart to buy socks. Flash Pass holders could get to ride shotgun.

Instead of the big, impressive dolphin show, we could all just go up to a small glass bowl and look at a goldfish. The lucky spectators chosen from the crowd could get to feed it a tiny pinch of fish flakes.

Tigers and lions? Too expensive to feed. You could go with little barky Chihuahua dogs and maybe a well-trained lab rat or two. The nice white ones, though. Not the giant, menacing black rats. No sense in scaring the children. And the elephants could easily be replaced by cows. Their poop is smaller and they eat less. Maybe even Texas longhorns if you wanted to get crazy. And you could always oust the giraffes in favor of the far easier to handle, guinea pig. Throw in a few old Labrador retrievers and you’re in business.

Also, if the six flags are getting too much for you to maintain, don’t be afraid to ratchet that number down. One Flag Discovery Kingdom still has a nice ring to it.

House cats aside, we really did have a fantastic day, and at the end of the “Wildlife” Theater Show, guess what animal all three of my boys waited in line to pet?

The house cat. Go figure.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2013 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


We went camping this past weekend with two other families. All three families have only boys, so our campsite consisted of six sleep-deprived parents and eight single-digit-age, wild and excited boys. So we gave them all knives.

Two of the brothers had received their very own Swiss Army-style pocket knives from the Yosemite gift shop on their last camping trip, so they brought them along. This led to all the other boys clamoring to have a turn with the knives. Not wanting anyone grabbing for a fast moving blade, in the interest of safety, us dads dug through our camping gear and gave them each their own pocket knife, and taught them the manly art of whittling.

It went something like this:

“Dad, can I use your pocket knife?”
“Sure son.”
(Glare from wife)
“Hey, son, if that knife gets dull, you can use one of the daggers your mom is staring at me with.”
“Never mind. Here, check this out. This kind of single-blade knife is cool, because if you put your index finger on this little lever and flick your wrist like this… bam, like a switchblade.”
(Icier, dagger-ier glare from wife)
“Never do that, though. Sorry, honey.”

As is so often the case, the fatherly approach to this type of situation differed slightly from the motherly approach. We dads thought the proper approach was to give our sons detailed instructions on proper knife safety and whittling technique, make sure the first aid kits were fully stocked, then sit back and watch them learn by doing.

As near as I could tell, the mothers’ approach was to attempt to keep them away from all sharp objects until they turn 25.

The dads finally won out, once we promised to take an active role in the refereeing of all knife-related activities, and soon all the boys were happily seated in their camp chairs around the fire pit, whittling like mad. We did, however, run into a few unexpected issues that we never got fully worked out.

For starters, we couldn’t get them to keep their elbows resting on their knees, allowing them to whittle straight out away from themselves. They kept leaning back and bringing the work closer to them and higher, ending up with the stick up by their face and the knife whipping rapidly past the tip of their nose.

They would also get easily distracted, but would continue to whittle, while their eyes wandered off to something more interesting beyond the fire pit. We kept having to say, “Either stop whittling or watch what you’re doing.” Again, the learn-by-doing method would have taught this quite a bit faster, but I guess the moms wanted to save the Band-Aids in case of a bear attack or something.

The kids would also regularly get up and walk around the inner perimeter of the campfire chair circle. It turns out that seven-year-old whittlers have little to no awareness of their surroundings, and neither do five-year-old walkers while in a campfire chair ring of whittlers. Most of our time was spent yelling, “Stop walking! Watch the knife! Be careful! Don’t stab your brother!” etc.

We had to make sure that the whittling remained the standard “sharpen the end of the stick,” or “get all the bark off the stick,” because some of the other things they came up with were not optimal. I found Son Number One with the stick pressed against the top of his knee, sawing a notch all the way around the stick with the knife blade. He was almost through when I stopped him. “Let’s try not to test out dad’s tourniquet skills on this trip, OK buddy? Besides, your mommy would faint and hit her head on a rock. We don’t want that.”

The next day Son Number One and Two both decided that they wanted to make miniature canoes out of ¾” diameter sticks that were 6” long. I just couldn’t see the interior of the mini canoe getting hollowed out very safely, and I figured our first aid kit would probably fall a little short if we had to attend to a knife sticking all the way through a hand. “Why don’t we just stick with ‘standard whittling’ instead, OK?”

For the boys, almost as exciting as being allowed to whittle was the prospect of simply having the knife with them in their pockets. My boys kept asking me if they could take the knives with them into the woods.
“Aw, dad. Why not?”
“Because you are not allowed to whittle unsupervised, or more than 50 feet from the first aid kit, and whittling is all you're allowed to use the knife for. Why do you want it?”
“For bears.”
“If you see a bear, I would like you to call to me, instead of trying to take it on with a 2-1/2” dull blade… Unless we tied the knife to the end of a long sturdy stick…”
(Icy dagger glare from wife)
“Never do that, though. Sorry, honey.”

It was a fun weekend. The boys started to learn a new skill, and they all lived to tell about it. As a side bonus, the activity of whittling did serve to slightly lessen the requests to throw another pine cone on the fire, although wanting to throw the other guy’s whittling stick in the fire did result in a few near knife fights.

Even though their mothers refuse to believe it, they were in far more danger after the whittling than during, from running around with the sharp, smooth sticks they made. Our knives were pretty dull.

All in all, it was a successful trip. We came home with all eight boys with the same number of holes in their bodies as they arrived with, and by the end of the weekend they had successfully whittled hundreds of sticks, which was fun for them. They had also successfully whittled their mothers’ nerves down to sharp, raw edges.

Thankfully, we don’t whittle at home.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2013 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Summer Reading

We are officially on summer break. By “we,” I of course mean everyone at my house except me. The first day of summer, my three boys looked at me as I was getting ready to leave the house in the morning and asked, “Where are you going?”
“Oh… You don’t get summer, too?”
“Shut up.”
I’m not bitter.

In preparation for a three-month period of not being able to get away from the boys, my wife went to our local library and picked up information on their summer reading program for kids. Apparently the public library system is trying to keep kids interested in stuff like books and reading, so they are offering an incentive program. You set a reading goal of a number of books to read, and you get to come into the library and pick up a prize when you reach your half-way point, and again when you reach the full goal.

Son Number Two, who will be going into the second grade next year, heard the word “prizes,” and was immediately on board. If there is ever something to win, whether it be a prize, a trophy, or just bragging rights, he is interested. Their last day of school was on Thursday, and they were released from the hellish prison of elementary school just after noon. When I arrived home around 5:30 P.M., he was very excited to inform me that he had already read eight books.

“No, buddy, you can’t count ones you read during the school year. It has to be books you read during the summer.”
“I know. I have read eight books today, since after school. I’m on nine right now.”
“They have to be real books. Not picture books.”
“I know,” he said. “I read these.”
He hands me a stack of books. They weren’t exactly Moby Dick, but they weren’t Go, Dog. Go! either. He had read five Disney Winnie the Pooh adventures, two Magic Tree House chapter books, and Dolphin Tale, which was so good, they made it into a movie. (Actually, I think in this case, the movie was made into this book, but either way, the movie starred the handsome, roguishly charming, and multi-talented Harry Connick Jr., so you know it was good. Oh, and Morgan Freeman, too.)

“Wow, dude. That’s a lot of books to read in five hours.”
“Yeah, my goal is twenty books, so I’m trying to get to the halfway point so I can get my first prize.”
“It’s called a ‘summer reading program,’ dude, not a ‘the day school gets out reading program.’”
“I think you should take a break now.”
“OK, I just need to read this one and one more, then I’ll be done. Can we go get my prize tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is the actual first day of summer. They won’t be ready for you.”
“Don’t worry, buddy. Mommy can take you in a couple of days.”

Well, that was last Thursday. In an effort to slow his pace a little, we told him he was only allowed to read long chapter books for the other ten. We went to a baseball game on Saturday, and he sat in the stands and read. My wife took the boys to the pool to swim with their friends, and he laid under her chair and read, until she had to almost throw him into the pool.

As of yesterday, five days after school got out, he was at 19. He has put us in a strange spot, parenting-wise. On the one hand, we are thrilled that he loves to read. On the other hand, we really don’t know if he loves to read, or if he just loves prizes, and would be eating live goldfish, or swimming naked to Alcatraz, if that happened to be what the library’s summer prize program entailed. On the one hand, we are thrilled to see him set a goal and work hard to achieve it. On the other hand, we have considered moving his goal from 20 books up to 2,000 in an effort to make it a “summer” program.  

We don’t want to tell him to stop reading, because that seems wrong from a good parental advice standpoint. We have to do something, though, because if we don’t, he will literally read all summer. I think we’re going to have to put him on a strict schedule, and try to balance out his activities. This is mostly a selfish thing on my part, because one of my main concerns is that he will get too smart, too fast.

He is already reading the Hardy Boys mysteries, and the Encyclopedia Brown series. At his pace, I’m really kind of worried that he will run through all of those and then graduate to the Sherlock Holmes collection. What’s next, John Grisham novels? I’m going to have to try and balance this out somehow. “Dumb it down,” if you will. I think I’ll make a rule that for every chapter of a book he reads, he has to spend at least ten minutes in the backyard banging a stick against a tree, or digging a hole with a spoon.

If we don’t do something like that, he’ll be on to The Count of Monte Cristo and A Tale of Two Cities in no time. Based on the furious book-devouring capacity he has already demonstrated, he will have read everything by the time he is 14 years old. I am well aware that when my boys are in their teens they will be convinced that they know everything, but I am not at all interested in trying to raise a teenage boy who actually does. This must be stopped!

My wife and my parents helped out the other day in distracting him, by taking all the boys on a summer field trip to an insect museum. Not only did this help by providing a four-hour window where he was unable to read, but it shed a hopeful light on our situation. He was allowed to spend some of his money in the gift shop at the end of the day, and what did my highly-educated, well-read seven-year-old son purchase? A three-inch-long piece of transparent hard candy with a scorpion encased inside. He’s currently sucking on the candy, trying to get down to the scorpion, so he can eat it.

Maybe there is hope. Maybe he’s not all that smart after all.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2013 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Romantic Nook

We’re on fire over here at Casa de Smidge this week. Two days ago my wife called me, very excited, saying, “Good news! I won four tickets to Six Flags!”
My immediate thought was, “There’s five of us.” I kept it to myself for the moment.

Then she said, “The kids are out of school at the end of this week. You should take a day off work!”
“A day off? What’s wrong with the weekend?” I inquired.
“Do you have any idea how crowded it will be on the weekend?”
Well, yes, things are usually more crowded on the weekends, because people like me have jobs.

“How did you win tickets to Six Flags, anyway?”
“A radio contest online.”
A radio contest online? Is that what you do all day while I’m at work? I kept that one to myself as well.

“Anyway,” she said, “we’ll talk and figure out when we can go. I’m excited we get to go for free!”

Hmm… free. Funny you mentioned free, because from the moment this conversation began, all I could hear was money being sucked out of my wallet.

For starters, we need another ticket. I looked up prices online, and a general admission cost $59.99. Then there is a $25 parking fee, gas to get there and back, $17 hamburgers and $9 sodas, and $20 pictures of us screaming – some joyfully, some in abject terror -- as we drop off the precipice of death on the roller coaster du jour.

All that, plus I need to miss a day of work and burn one of my precious vacation days that I like to use to avoid meetings? Free is starting to sound like it’s going to cost me just under $650. While I was on the Six Flags website looking up ticket prices, I noticed there was a “jobs” section. Maybe I can work there for the day while my family goes on the rides to try and defray some of the expenses that are coming with all this free stuff. Oh well.

Then, today at elementary school, our winning streak continued. Son Number One was the lucky second grade super reader to win a grand prize in the super reader grand prize giveaway. This is their last week of school, and apparently they have abandoned math and English in favor of talent shows, costume contests, and prize giveaways. It was announced to the entire school over the PA system that he had won a Nook e-reader. He called to tell me all about it.

“Dad, I won a Nook at school with my golden ticket!”
My immediate thought, besides a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tangent, was, “A Nook. OK, that shouldn’t cost too much to own. E-books are cheap.”
“Great, buddy! That’s really cool. You are one lucky dude. Is it color or black and white?”
“Huh? It’s real you know.”
“Yes, I figured it was a real one. I was asking about the screen… Never mind. I’ll see it when I get home. Congratulations, that’s really neat!”

When I got home, the new Nook was out of the box and charging up. I already had a Nook account, so I connected to our WiFi and logged in. When his new Nook synced up with my account, my son already had two books in his library; The Tree of Death, and Other Hilarious Stories, by yours truly, and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Hmm… I don’t remember downloading Pride and Prejudice. It must have been free. My book is written in family-friendly language and will be just fine for him if he decides he needs a laugh, but I’m not entirely sure about Pride and Prejudice. Let’s face facts, though. He may be a super reader, but he’s eight years old. I doubt he’d get past Jane Austen’s first page.

It was when I went to the Nook’s home screen that I noticed the obvious problem; namely the fact that this device is connected to the internet. There, on the bottom of the screen, was the “What to read next” section, showing us four helpful choices from the Barnes & Noble Top 100, complete with vibrant pictures of the book covers.

Silver Linings Playbook – OK. No big deal there.

The 1st Victim – No graphic cover art, but I’m not in love with the title. (Said the guy whose humor book is called The Tree of Death…)

Possession – This is what stopped me in my tracks. My eight-year-old’s new Nook has a picture of a topless woman with her back turned to us, holding a cluster of grapes, and showing a lot of side boob. Not good.

Beauty From Pain – Another topless women, this time lying in bed, partially covered by a sheet, holding a glass of wine, and showing a lot of leg. Not much better than side boob and grapes.

Hmm… This is not optimal. This reminds me of when I got my wife her first Kindle. As a joke, while I was setting it up, I downloaded a free “adult western novella,” called In the Marshall’s Arms, complete with the sweaty, shirtless cowboy on the cover, so it would be the first thing she saw. She said, “Very funny,” and erased it. The only problem with my little joke was, from then on, the only thing that pops up on my Amazon suggestions list are questionable books featuring sweaty, shirtless cowboys.

Now, I can’t imagine that Amazon has shared my supposed love of western-themed erotica with Barnes & Noble. That seems unlikely, given their competitive relationship. So I have to conclude that either the B&N 100 is mostly smut, or somehow, Pride and Prejudice triggers “romance novels” to show up in your feed.

I guess it doesn’t matter too much why it is happening. Since it is happening, I need to figure out a way to keep the Nook from delivering topless women to my eight-year-old, or he’ll never get to even see, let alone use, the cool prize he won.

There doesn’t seem to be any parental control features on the Nook, so I may have to simply download a bunch of children’s books and then disconnect the WiFi. The only problem is, I already logged in once. These things have a tendency to remember stuff like that and do it on their own. If I can’t get it figured out, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to tell him.

“Sorry, son. Unfortunately, the e-reader from school is a porn machine, so I bought you a Kobo instead.”

Hopefully it won’t come to that. Maybe I can distract him by telling him there was a mix up, and he really won a trip to Six Flags.

Then I could sell the Nook to pay for the fifth ticket.

That might just work.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2013 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!