Sunday, January 28, 2007

I hope you realize, this means war.

Every home ownership experience involves critters. My dad spent most of my childhood years hunting down chipmunks and squirrels as they made residence in the eaves of our garage. I would often find him peering out the window like Lee Harvey Oswald, pellet gun sight to his eye, waiting to smear death across the rooftops. My sister had an issue with flying squirrels in her attic (and yes, moose in her basement and a strange Russian couple in her garage), only to find out that they were a protected breed of flying squirrel and couldn't be killed or trapped. They could only be politely asked to leave, which didn't work so well.

As for us? Mice.

You'll recall before this whole renovation started, it was a veritable Stuart Little sequel in here. Well, now the little F*@ker has taken up residence in our tool shed.

Our shed has always been a magnet for critters. Heck, if it was a choice between the cold wilderness and the warmth of insulated PVC plastic, I know which one I'd pick. So this fall, I was careful to pack up all our spring deck furniture and other items carefully to ensure the best protection. Unfortunately, I found that all I did was make it more convenient for the little varmint to set up shop.

Today I popped open the shed to retrieve a sled for the kids, only to be greeted by the familiar stench of mouse pee. I looked around and at first didn't find anything, until I looked up on the top shelf in the back. On that shelf were the half dozen deck chair cushions, neatly piled high and out of the way. Bits of grass and twigs were poking out from between them. As I shifted them over, I was greeted by a bonanza of mouse turds, along with a nasty concoction of mouse-pee-soaked nest materials. Luckily he hadn't decided to eat his way into the cushions, but he certainly enjoyed using it as his loo.

Below that shelf was a 6-foot long cardboard box that contained the umbrella for the deck table. You know, insulated carboard is not something you should keep in a shed. The mouse had decided to make a condo unit out of the box, and on his way discovered that the fabric of the umbrella made for quite a tasty treat.

That deck furniture set wasn't cheap.

As I pulled everything out of the shed, I saw him. There he was, standing in the corner on the top shelf, looking at me like I was a shopping mall developer and he was the last resident to hold out and not sell to The Man. And I couldn't find a damned thing to throw at him.

When we discovered mice in the house last year, I felt full of remorse at the idea of using those "sticky" traps to get rid of them. But this time, it's personal. Enjoy your peanut butter, you varmint scum, for it's going to be your last meal.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Suddenly I'm the Dora expert

My friend Howard has taken to forwarding friends to me for shopping advice when it comes to buying Dora toys to give as gifts.

Dora Toys? I mean, come on. Skil saws, perhaps. Delta power planers, maybe. but Dora toys? No, that trophy belongs to my lovely wife, who can sniff out a sale on the Toys R. Us faster than you can say "gift card".

But since it's unlike me not to have an opinion, I felt compelled to share my years of Dora toy-shopping expertise with her. She was looking for a toy for a two-year-old. Of course I started by explaining that the person who invented the playset is responsible for global warming, and that if she wanted to remain friends with the parents of the child receiving the gift she should avoid buying a playset at all costs. This is common knowledge, but it's worth restating: the problem with playsets is as follows:

1. The packaging is retarded. Dozens of tiny pieces vacu-sealed in plastic, attached to a cardboard/plastic/asbestos display box with thousands of feet of wire, scotch tape, and ultra-stretchy fishing line meticulously tied by elderly Chinese women locked away in the dungeons of Taiwan. Unpacking these toys has been known to send many fathers to the emergency room with heart issues.
2. The product can never be re-gifted or returned. This is not because once you get it out of the box you can't get it back in, but because once the kid sees the new toy it's over. She will be instantly stricken with wonder, and if you snatch it back from her in an effort to utilize that gift receipt you'll cause major psychological damage that will stay with her through menopause.
3. After ten minutes of playtime, half the parts will be lost, and the other half will be broken. Those parts that aren't lost or broken will be embedded in the dad's foot.

So basically, don't waste your money on a playset. The parents of the gift recipients will remain friends with you as a result.

That said, there's a world of toys out there with Dora's football-shaped head and salad bowl haircut slapped on them. Everything from Chutes & Ladders "Dora Style" to entire bedroom suites of furniture with Dora, Boots, and all her little friends hiding in the underwear drawers. The world is your oyster.

This got me to thinking. Ford Motor Company has been having lots of financial troubles lately. They could clear up their issues with one quick branding agreement. "The Dora Explorer." Brilliant! You saw it here first, folks. The SUV would come in shades of pink and purple, complete with built-in backpacks attached to each seat, binoculars in the arm rest, and a GPS navigation system that, upon starting the car, would sing, "I'm the map I'm the map!" and then give directional advice such as "to get to the airport, first you have to drive through your neighbor's Magical Garden, then over the Singing Railroad Tracks, and Down the silly Parkway." Can you say it with me? Magical Garden! Singing Railroad tracks! Silly Parkway! Great!" They'd sell a bizillion of these. Of course each truck would come sealed in plastic and wire-tied to cardboard boxes, which means it couldn't be driven without first digging out the wire snippers from the basement.

Wow, I think I hurt myself on that one.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Electrical line protection plan

I opened my electric bill today, and one of the random pieces of junk mail inside it caught my eye. It was an enrollment form for their "electrical line protection plan." for $3.99 per month, I could be protected against unexpected repair costs.

I found the facts on the sheet amusing:

The front cover: "Your home contains up to 4,000 feet of wiring! 24 wall outlets! 10 light switches! 1 breaker panel!"

Hmm, I believe I ran about 4,000 feet of wire in just the new space during our renovation. And there's around 24 outlets in the new bedroom and bathroom alone, along with 13 light switches. Not to mention the fact that there's now a second breaker panel in the house.

Inside, were approximate costs for typical household electrical repairs:

Broken light switch: $150.00. Um, try about $1.50.
Repair damaged duplex outlet: $150.00. How about 85 cents?

Okay, so humor aside, I got to thinking some more about this deal. $4 per month, or $48 per year. This covers you for up to $1,000 in repairs every year, though it doesn't include pre-existing conditions, acts of god, among other things. I have a neighbor who tells me he's got some weird stuff going on with his home wiring. minor things, like electric shocks, outlets bursting into flames, and switches that do nothing one day, and work fine the next. he's been living with this situation for about a year now. It seems to me that for a few bucks a month, he could sign up for this plan, live with it a while longer, then after 6 months or so call the electric company and announce that the electrical wiring in his house has suddenly gone, um, haywire. Seems like a pretty sweet deal. Oh there I go, thinking in writing again.

The Power of DisMAY

Like a terrorist on "24", the Disney Marketing Around Youth (DisMAY) machine unleashed a powerful nuke on our household yesterday. We had no idea of the true strength of the machine, until my wife decided to throw out Natalie's toothbrush.

It started when Jessica decided to get pinkeye. Though not overly serious, pinkeye is highly contagious. My wife felt it would be wise to scrub the kids' bathroom and, while she was at it, toss out the kids' toothbrushes and replace them with fresh ones. That was a mistake.

Natalie had selected her Disney Princess toothbrush, with an image of Aurora of Sleeping Beauty fame on it, during a visit to Target about two weeks ago. Mind you she put more thought into the selection of this toothbrush than I will probably put into the purchase of my next car. And she was not ready to part with it.

My wife had already purchased a replacement toothbrush, and it was in fact a Cinderella model. Not good enough. Natalie was in the Aurora zone, and she wasn't interested in second best. She is quite picky about her princess branding. My wife also failed to inform Natalie of what she was doing, so the kid discovered Aurora in the trash, discarded like so much old salad.

"Why is my Aurora toothbrush in the trash???!!!" She exclaimed. We tried to explain the reasoning behind the new toothbrush, but she would have none of it. "But I just got it! I'm not ready to part with it!!!!! You can't throw it out!!!!"

We argued and reasoned with her, and finally (we thought) convinced her to leave it in the trash and accept Cinderella as a stand-in until the next toothbrush purchase opportunity. But Natalie had another plan in mind.

Only a couple of minutes after the screaming died down, she announced she had to go to the bathroom. I noticed that when she did, she closed the bathroom door. This is not normal for her, and I knew what was on her mind (you see, I often think like a six-year-old) She was enacting a plan to free Aurora from her state of refuse. Natalie "flushed", then left the bathroom and turned the corner, headed down the hall. I popped my head into the bathroom to see a trash can devoid of toothbrushes.

"Natalie!" I bellowed. "Bring it back!"

This prompted more screaming and tantrums, a lengthy timeout, a lecture on dental hygiene, and even a eulogy for a dead toothbrush. when she finally calmed down, she pulled out her art kit, and drew a picture of her Aurora toothbrush to enshrine upon her bathroom mirror like so many presidential portraits gracing the walls of the Capitol building.

And people wonder why we haven't gotten a dog yet.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Forget it, let's all stay home

There's a big stink in Pittsburgh currently surrounding a plan for Port Authority to cut 124 of 213 bus routes around the city, This, combined with a fare hike, is supposed to address an $80 million budget deficit for the 2007-08 fiscal year. Of course there's the usual stink and hubbub surrounding this. Yesterday a large group of folks with torches and pitchforks gathered downtown to express their outrage. One person's quote, when I heard it on the news, riled me up so much I wanted to reach through the car radio and throttle her.

The woman was quoted as saying that the reduction in buses to the north hills was going to create tremendous traffic, and the only solution was that we should open up the northbound HOV lane to ALL traffic during rush hour.

This person is a moron.

Okay, first of all, the north hills has the easiest rush hour traffic pattern of any direction headed out of the city. I've got no complaints. There's no tunnels, there are few ridiculous lane crossovers and merges, and it just works. Second, as someone who tries to regularly commute with friends to work in order to get on the HOV and perhaps save a tree or two, may I suggest to this person that perhaps she try that herself? Hello, have you been listening to the news about this crazy global warming thing? Would it really be too much to ask to find someone willing to ride-share, in order to take advantage of the HOV as it stands now? This plan to reduce the bus coverage pisses me off as much as anyone, even though I don't take the bus, because it's a very poorly thought-out plan. However the city should be thinking more creatively. I've always felt that the north hills corridor would be a perfect place for a metro rail line. Well, there's a long term solution. How come other cities can figure that out, but all Pittsburgh can do is come up with solutions that will drive yet even more people out of the city?

yYs, I'm annoyed.

Outlawing Spanking?

So I heard yesterday that some poor, misguided souls in California are attempting to pass a bill that would outlaw spanking. Now, seriously, what will this accomplish? You can't police for it. If I slap my child's wrist just before she reaches for the hot burner, do I go to the slammer? If my way-too-smart toddler sees a policeman and says, "daddy spanked me" to him, does he force me to the ground and slaps the cuffs on while she sits back and laughs?

Now, I'm not a spanker. Never have been. nor is my wife. We both prefer taser guns and violent shaking. Okay, so that was a joke, but let's face it. This bill is meant as an attempt to stop child abuse. And there are already laws around child abuse. There are also millions of vigilant doctors watching their patients for signs of child abuse. What there are NOT, however, are licensing requirements for parenting.

Why not? we have a license to drive. To be a doctor. To practice law. For goodness sakes, we have a license to fish. Yet there's nothing saying that Paris Hilton can't go out, find herself a willing dude, and become the world's worst excuse for parenting values. I know I'd apply for a license. And I'd pass too. That's because I'm the world's greatest dad, or at least that's what my kids say every time I pop in a Dora DVD so that I can head off to the workshop in peace.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Anyone selling a Weimaraner?

Jessica has made great strides in the potty training department. At home, she's a regular visitor to that little green, yellow and white plastic Throne Of Promise. She's taken to announcing to us that she has to go on a regular basis, even when she doesn't have to go, because she likes her little perch so much. She's no longer even getting horses for peeing successfully; she's just doing it to show off. In fact today my wife actually ventured briefly out of the house with her clad in fresh Dora tighty-whiteys, and it was a successful trip with no accidents. I can see it now...some day...leaving the house with nary a diaper bag in sight. Oh, the money saved...the destruction to the environment reduced...

Of course, that financial windfall we'll see when we stop buying diapers will most surely be tapered by the fact that my daughter announced we are getting her a puppy when she's completely trained. Uh huh. Yeah kid, that will happen. Not that I have anything against dogs. I love dogs. I want a dog. Some of my best friends are dogs. But first I want a brief respite from cleaning up after small creatures for a while.

Meanwhile, Jessica enjoys announcing, "I farted" every time she, well, every time she farts. I can't imagine where she got that term from. Wouldn't have been me. I mean really. Considering that the other day she told her mother, "mommy, I love you best. I love daddy too, but he's stinky and farts a lot," it would imply that she must have gotten the term from someone else.

But of course, her mother is horrified by this. "Can't you use another term, like I passed gas?" she questions. Jessica's older sister suggested a few herself. "I pooted! My tushie burped!"

One whisper in Jessica's ear by her classless, cromagnun father was all it took. "I cut the cheese!!!" Jessica announced proudly.

I'll be sleeping on the couch tonight.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Why worry?

I've been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
—Mark Twain

Let us be of good cheer, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which will never happen.
-James Russel Lowell

I've developed a new philosophy... I only dread one day at a time.
-Charlie Brown (Charles Schulz)

Troubles are a lot like people - they grow bigger if you nurse them.
-Author Unknown

If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
-E. Joseph Cossman

People gather bundles of sticks to build bridges they never cross.
-Author Unknown

Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.
-Leo Buscaglia

Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.
-Glenn Turner

Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination. -Christian Nevell Bovee

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.
Author Unknown

Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.
-Swedish Proverb

Robots to build homes in the future

Here is an article about two sets of researchers attempting to build robotic system that will be used to construct houses. Using a technology similar to the concept of 3D inkjet printers, the robots would spray precise layers of gypsum and concrete to build the shell of a house in 24 hours or so, with only one human being on site.

The technology sounds pretty wild. It reminds me of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon starring Michigan J. Frog introduced (and singing Hello, My Baby, Hello My Honey, Hello My Ragtime Gal..."). while demolition workers are taking down a building by zapping it layer by layer with a laser gun, causing the building to conveniently disappear. If you ask me, that technology would be FAR more useful than this one of Robots building houses. I'm still throwing leftover construction crap out and our renovation has been done for 5 months now.

But I wonder how many decades it will take for this to gain acceptance. It seems to me that much of the population would have a hard time accepting this not only for the "humans replaced by robots" factor, but simply because classic facets of construction seem to rule. I often read various homebuilding magazines that tout the next great technology that will change the business, but I rarely hear about that technology in action. This seems primarily due to expense. For example, every magazine writer loves the concept of radiant floor heat. But in reality installing it can cost several thousand dollars, and running it can be expensive as well. Sometimes a $100 baseboard heater pays.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

You're only old once

This week I had my annual physical, which I always make sure to schedule like clockwork once each decade. After the usual questionairing, the looksee inside the ears, and the head-turn-cough maneuver, I realized something.

Annual physicals should be performed by a home inspector.

When we bought our house, I followed the home inspector as he carefully assessed the condition of the place. His Maglite at the ready, he checked every nook and cranny of the place such that by the time we were done we knew the amperage of every circuit in the circuit breaker, how many kinks were in the gas line feeding the oven, and the genus and species of each and every spider living behind the washing machine. We checked the foundation. We checked the roof. We crawled through the attic. We pulled apart the furnace. We came out of there confident that, in fact, the house was not going to vaporize itself into a pile of dust the moment we moved our piano in.

These days, it seems that annual physicals don't even come close to that level of detail.

The physical was pretty typical. Take the vitals, check the ears, fill the jar, and get a scrip for a blood test. There was even a questionnaire. But as I pondered the answer to many of these questions, I thought to myself, "how would I know?" Have I been getting headaches? Well, sure, doesn't everyone? Does my family have a history of major illness? Well, no, but we haven't discussed their future illnesses, have we? Have I had any irregularly shaped bowel movements? Um, define "irregular". Should I be comparing each one to a bust of Richard Nixon? Have I ever had a stress test? No! Should I? SHOULD I??? Dear God, DO I NEED A STRESS TEST???!!!!

My point is, let's just imagine there was a small alien creature that had crawled inside my ear late one night, and had set up a reconnaissance post in my left elbow. Would turning my head and coughing diagnose that? Could that explain my post nasal drip?

I think I'm beginning to see the virtue of the full body scan.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Gadgets..when's it gonna stop?

Many of my friends and family will not believe me when I say this, but frankly I'm completely and utterly tired of gadgets. This world has gone completely insane. The Consumer Electronics Show is currently happening in Vegas, showcasing this year's future landfill fodder in all its glory. Last year the largest flat-screen TV one could buy was 103 inches. This year the ante has been upped to 108. Samsung has just released a gadget called USBTV that allows you to plug it into your computer, copy a show onto it, then walk across the room and plug it into your 108" TV so you can watch it.

Okay, let's think about this for a second. You spend, I don't know, let's say 20 minutes downloading an episode of Scrubs (I'm including not only download time, but messing-around-with the computer time, blogging time, etc). You then spend another ten minutes digging out your USB doohickey and copying the show onto it. Then, you walk over to your TV, plug it in, and do it all again in reverse. Ever think that perhaps maybe computers haven't made our lives so efficient after all?

Okay, yes, I am the pot calling the kettle black. I love my iPod. I have a laptop. a TiVo. A Blackberry. and yes, a flat-screen hanging on the wall. But what I don't have is a desire to buy a gadget only to find out another gadget's been invented that's slightly better than the last gadget, making the one I have now horribly outdated and embarrasing to be seen with.

Now Bill Gates is telling us we all need servers in our house. Why? So that we can offer up our own "content" to all our various computers in the house. Oh, and so that we don't have to use that USBTV thing and can instead grab a show from the server on any TV that's networked. The hell with that, my kids are getting bikes.

I remember when Ma Bell gave up renting home phones, and offered them up for sale. I believe my parents even bought one. It was a rotary. They still have it. It still works. My dad has a Rockwell radial arms saw in his workshop that's older than I am, and at that age it's still far more accurate than my 2-year-old Delta table saw. Heck, just last week I took my $40 Craftsman cordless drill to Sears in hopes of getting a replacement battery, where I was told a new battery would cost me $53. Yes, you read that right.

With the renovation on our house came a ton of new, but relatively unusable, attic space. I think I'm going to rent out some of that space to permanently bury the old PCs, non-working televisions, dead cordless drills, palm pilots and Tivos so they don't make it to the landfill and pollute our streams. In fact I think I just stumbled on a new form of home insulation. yes folks, this house has an insulating factor of R-30 and because the walls are filled with Blackberrys!

Ironically, I don't think the heart of the problem lies with us, the consumer. We're not stupid. We're not going to buy crap we don't need just because it's there. Every gadget I ever bought, I bought for a good reason and to fulfill a need. Okay, so the plasma TV was a bit extravagant, but it's only a 37", making it about 450 lbs. lighter than an old fashioned CRT TV. and we needed a new TV anyway, as the old one (which lasted 14 years) was busted.

The problem lies with the manufacturers. They've somehow made the manufacturing process so easy, so efficient, and so mundane, that they think nothing of completely changing a gadget every couple of months to offer a new hot thing, throwing it up on the proverbial wall in hopes that it will stick.

Oh dead lord, I'm ranting. We'll, tomorrow's speech by Steve jobs at MacWorld will surely set me straight. Can't wait for that new iTV to come out.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Movie Review: Barnyard (a.k.a. "Bulls with teats")

Tonight we watched the animated movie Barnyard. The movie centers around a teenage cow named Otis, played by Kevin James (King Of Queens) who enjoys goofing around and taking nothing seriously. His father (Sam Elliott) is responsible for the safety of the farm animals and when something happens to dad Otis is thrust into a leadership position he's not ready for.

The story is completely familiar. In fact, it weaves a similar tale to Bugs Life, as Otis has to figure out a way to protect the barnyard from mean and hungry coyotes where in Bugs Life it was grasshoppers. Perhaps an even closer storyline is Chicken Run, since it involves chickens in peril and a goof-off assigned the task of protection. Overall the storyline was completely forgettable. It's been done.

What made this movie, however, were several things. First of all, the animals were drawn to look like squishy toys (see the pic). It was a very convincing bit of animation. You just wanted to reach up and squish them. Second was the party scenes. One major premise of the movie was that after the farmer went to bed, a complex arrangement of trapdoors, pulleys, and gadgets were used to instantly turn the barn into the scene of a serious hoe-down. Yes, again like Chicken run, but very well done. There was square dancing, stand-up comedy, musical performances, and even this strange "Cousin-It"-like dancing thing that roused up the joint.

Perhaps the best bit came when all the animals were having a rave party, and of course the nosy neighbor woman is peering out the window telling her husband, "Lou! Lou! I tell ya, that farmer's up to no good!!" The husband's response is priceless. I won't ruin it for you.

Of course, the attacking coyotes did a fine job of spoiling the moment for my easily-frightened five-year-old. Unfortunately the coyotes were not nearly as pragmatic or interesting as the grasshoppers from Bugs Life, but come on, we're talking Kevin Spacey versus David Koechner.

In the end, the kids got some major belly laughs, we watched some good animation, and there was a surprising lack of fart jokes. I'd give it a B+.

By the way, one thing bugged us as we watched this movie. Okay, so we're suburban folk and don't know nuttin' 'bout milking cows, but aren't males of the bovine species known as bulls? and do bulls have udders? I'm thinking not. And it turns out we're not the only ones thinking this.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

PT 101

With a week of vacation over the holidays, we decided to focus more of our efforts on getting our younger one to recognize the virtues of the potty seat. I think it started something like this:

"C'mon sweety. Which would you rather do? Pee in a diaper that soaks it all up and gets it out of your way so you don't even have to think about getting up from your 15th time watching Wonder Pets this week, or hold it in until you can rush to this closet of a room, fumble with your zipper, and plop down on this cold, hard, porcelain throne to pee, noisily flushing it away along with your very own soul down the drain never to be seen again, followed by a thorough hand washing and re-dressing, only to rush back to Wonder Pets and discover that you missed the scene where the mouse with the pilot's helmet managed to get the team together and save the rhino stuck in the mud? I mean, really.

Come to think of it, I look forward to getting old and wearing Depends, so I won't miss any of Wonder Pets either.

We were actually moderately successful this week. My wife formulated a brilliant plan starting with the purchase of a display case containing little toy horses, which we set on top of the TV for the kid to see. We told her she would get a horse each time she successfully peed in the potty. So far she's gotten two horses, named Nichole and Michael. I believe her plan now is to mate them and make her own new horses, thus having no need for our silly plan.