Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Cross Country Gap

I have decided that the only way to have any consistency in behavioral outcomes when parenting your children is to have only one child. If you have more than one kid, they’ll be completely different. At least, ours are.

As far as we know, we didn’t do anything differently with our parenting from one kid to the next, so it must be the kids’ relationships with each other that change them. Either that or they’re totally different people with different hopes and dreams, but I fail to see how that could be the case based on how much they look alike.

Whatever the cause, we have three boys who are vastly different on the inside. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at them, though. I don’t like to brag, but they all have huge heads, which they get from me. Consequently, they’re all very smart, which, quite obviously, they get from their mother’s side. Facial features, intelligence, and adult-size bike helmets, however, is where their similarities end. Their differences lie in what motivates them.

Son Number One is motivated by remaining as still as possible while staring at any screen emitting light. One day he will make a fantastic computer programmer, or some other job that involves sitting perfectly still and not being required to spell.

Son Number Two is motivated by competition. He has a multitude of varied interests, centering mostly around total domination of any contest or hobby. It seems blatantly obvious that he will one day become a Navy SEAL.

Son Number Three is motivated by the voices in his head that tell him to scream wildly and run in circles. One day he will make either a good stunt man or a troublesome inmate.

The differences in Son Number One and Two are currently being highlighted every week by the sport of cross country. Much to Son Number One’s dismay, our elementary school does not have a four square league. Long distance running is the only “school sport” there is.

Unfortunately for our school’s overall win record (but fortunately for the coaches) the runners have to be in fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, so our second-grade Tasmanian Devil, Son Number Three, is not eligible yet.

Son Number One was eligible to run on the team last year, but we didn’t even bother mentioning it. This is a boy who, at five years old, told his soccer coach, “It would be great if I could just play goalie, because I don’t really like to run.”

Son Number Two, on the other hand, asked his soccer coach, “I’d like to score as many goals as possible, so can I play forward all game?”

(Son Number Three yelled to his soccer coach, “Wooooohoooo!” as he ran at the speed of light in the wrong direction.)

So, this year when it was time to sign up for cross country, I took Sons One and Two aside individually. I talked to Number One first.

“I’m signing you up for cross country.”
“I don’t want to run.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll have fun,” I lied. I agree with him. Running is never fun.
“No I won’t. It’ll be lame.”
“It’ll be fun,” I lied again. “Besides, your brother is doing it, and you don’t want him to get all the glory, do you?”
“OK, I’ll do it.”

Son Number Two took less convincing.
“I’m signing you and your older brother up for cross country.”
“I’m going to beat him.”
“Glad you’re on board.”

An elementary school cross country meet is an activity where 1500 kids, 20 coaches, and 2500 parents all show up at a park and wonder where the course is, while the one teacher in charge from the hosting school has a nervous breakdown and hides in the play structure.

A typical course is one mile, and is delineated by three traffic cones, one twenty-foot piece of caution tape, and two curved arrows spray-painted on the grass. The start of a race is like a scene out of Braveheart, but with less spears. Then they all get to the first turn and all bets are off. There are still nineteen kids missing from yesterday’s meet who took wrong turns somewhere on the course.

The main problem I am seeing with my sons’ performance at the meets is they are not in the same grade, and the heats are run by grade level. At the first meet, Son Number Two’s goal was to finish in the top twenty to get a medal, and he did. Son Number One’s goal was simply not to finish last. He also accomplished his goal. He finished second to last.

We have been to five meets already and Son Number One’s goal has not waivered. Just don’t be last. I would like him to aim a little higher, and train a little harder, but it’s not going to happen. Son Number Two is racing everyone in his heat. Son Number One could really care less about beating anyone except his younger brother. The physical ability is there. We’re just lacking motivation. Lacking drive.

The only thing that would truly motivate Number One is a format change in the race. If his younger brother was in the same heat, they would finish first and second. There is no doubt in my mind. I have seen them wrestle each other. It’s the only time Son Number One won’t let up.

So we obviously need to combine the fourth and fifth-grade boys. It’ll be a win-win across the board for our school, and for my oldest son’s confidence level. Plus, if we get more kids on the course at once, maybe fewer of them will get lost. I really hope they find at least some of those nineteen kids before the next meet.

I’ll try to suggest the fourth/fifth combo to the hosting team’s lead teacher at the next meet... if I can manage to find her in the play structure.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, September 30, 2015

Lego My Book Fair

Dear Scholastic and Lego Corporations,

I think I speak for all of us when I ask, can you both please just stick to your own product lines and stop trying to team up?

Lego, I’ve got some heartburn with you folks on a number of fronts, but let me focus on Scholastic first. Books. That’s what a publisher makes. I think you guys have forgotten that, so I just wanted to remind you.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to thank you for continuing your long tradition of school book fairs. You guys help raise a lot of money for our school each year, and we’re very appreciative. What we’re not super excited about, however, is all the extra crap you send along for the “book” fair. If I didn’t know any better, I would think it was a poster and toy fair that happened to have a few books.

My son doesn’t need an eraser that looks like a calculator. I was told at the beginning of the school year that kids don’t need to spell words on paper anymore, or figure out the actual answer to math problems anymore, so he really doesn’t need an eraser or a calculator, let alone a strange hybrid sold to him by a book manufacturer.

He also doesn’t need a poster of all the NFL helmets. He might want one, and I might consider buying him one, but I don’t want to do it at a BOOK fair. Same goes for plastic sharks on a stick, bouncy balls, and pictures of pop stars. I mean, Justin Bieber, Scholastic? Seriously? That kid wouldn’t know what a book was if I hit him in the face with it, which I would definitely do if given the chance.

Again, I think I speak for all of us elementary school parents when I say, the only non-book item we really need to see at a book fair is a bookmark. And we think those should be free, as God intended.

Now let’s talk about your new hybrid books, which is where Lego comes in. Son Number Three wouldn’t get off my leg at this year’s book fair about the Lego book he wanted me to buy him. Lo and behold, this “book” had a big clear plastic bubble built into the cover containing an actual Lego guy.

OK, so now I know why he wants it... Let’s see what the inside of the book has to offer... Oh, I see. For ten bucks I get this little Lego guy, plus a forty-page book apparently written by the Lego CIA, giving me the dossier on twenty different Lego guys, all of whom happen to be on Lego TV shows that Lego no doubt wants my son to watch.

The red ninja guy wears red all the time. He is on a TV show. His swords are sharp, and his head is yellow, even though you can’t see it under his red ninja guy ninja head wrap thing. He is awesome on the TV show. He likes sushi and running on the beach. You should stop reading this “book” and watch his TV show.

Hmm... Phenomenal content, Scholastic and Lego, but I think I’ll pass.

And, before you jump down my throat, Scholastic, I know Lego isn’t the only one responsible for hybrid books. We also saw books that contained shark teeth, and books that had plastic military dog tags. Son Number Three wanted all those books, too. That doesn’t make it better.

But, Lego, you guys have been on my list for a while, so I’m using this latest Scholastic book fair as a jumping-off point.

Here’s my main problem with you. You guys really gave my generation a raw deal. I have enough problems with fending off an entitlement mentality in my kids without you guys piling on. Back when phones were attached to the wall and Pluto was still a planet, all our Legos were square. Nowadays, my kids get all huffy if they can’t find the right color rear stabilizer fin for their rebel alliance snowspeeder with the smooth sweeping curved edges and the pivoting nose bar attachment. You know what that thing looked like in my day, kid? A bumpy green rectangle with razor-sharp edges, that’s what. We had to have an imagination.

You have replaced imagination with the Lego Club Magazine – an insidious publication that comes to my house each month and turns my kids into whiny, slobbering beggars.

You know what I could build with your amazing Legos when I was a kid? I could build a cabin. They were basically plastic interlocking Lincoln Logs. My kids can build a flying dragon that actually shoots round plastic fireballs out of its mouth. How is that fair to me at all?

And don’t even get me started on Star Wars. Those movies came out when I was still a kid, but MY kids are the ones that get all the cool Star Wars Legos? Where were you guys on that one? My generation would have loved Star Wars Legos. Our kids don’t appreciate them enough, because you offer them a hundred other TV/movie/Lego combinations. We only had Star Wars and E.T., man. That's all we had. And we had to wear corduroy pants and thick polyester shirts the whole time we were playing with our square, sharp, non-Star Wars Legos. My kids’ clothes are so damned comfortable compared to ours back then, it’s not even funny.

Sorry... I got a little sidetracked there. Where was I?

Oh, yeah. Can you both please just stick to what you do best? One of you just make books and the other one just make toys? I’ll leave it up to you to figure out who’s going to handle what. Thanks!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, September 23, 2015

Fall for the Head Fake

My cell phone rang on my desk the other day, and my heart immediately sank when I saw the name on the screen. It was my boys’ school. Just great! One of them probably threw up, or more likely, set something on fire, and now I have to stop my work day and go pick them up.


“Yes, Mr. Schmatjen, this is the school nurse. We have Son Number Three here in the office. He hit his head on the big giant brick wall out in the middle of the playground, but he’s fine.”

Yes! Just a head injury. My day is saved! “Well, I’m relieved to hear he’s OK.”

“Yes, he’s fine. It’s just school policy to call home whenever there’s a head injury.”

Wow. How do I not get more calls? That kid’s head is a magnet for hard objects. “Well, that sounds like a very good policy. So, just to be clear, it sounds like what you're telling me is this isn't going to affect my day at all?”

“Uh... No, I guess not. Again, he appears to be just fine.”

Hmm... Perhaps I should sound more concerned. “Well, as long as both his pupils are the same size, go ahead and kick his little butt back in the direction of his classroom.”

“Uh... Yes, he’s not showing any signs of serious injury. We’ll send him back to class. There will be a note coming home with him today. Again, just school policy.”

“Great. I’ll be sure to read that. Thanks, gotta go.”

“Uh... Would you like to talk to your son? Mr. Schmatjen? Sir?”

*Dial tone*

By the time I went to pick the boys up after school was out, I had forgotten all about the morning’s head vs. wall incident. It wasn’t until we were all home for an hour or so that I got around to looking through their folders.

School District Health Services Head Injury Letter

“Oh, yeah. Hey, buddy, how’s your head?”

“It’s OK. But I threw up in class today.”

*sound in my head of record scratching to a halt*

“You did what now? Before or after you hit your head?"


"Hang on, buddy. I need to read something."

School District Health Services Head Injury Letter
Since symptoms of a concussion may occur within 24 hours, we feel it is important for parents to have the following information:

Children should be kept under observation for the next 24 hours. The child should be encouraged toward quiet activities during the observation period.

Hmm... So screaming up and down the street on his scooter right after school wasn’t the right call?

Apply ice for 1 hour to relieve pain and swelling.

We’ll call that one taken care of, more or less.

Give only clear liquids until no vomiting for at least 6 hours.

Well... He just ate a burrito when he got home from school, so I’m going to have to say I failed on this one.

Keep him awake for the first hour or so, after which time he may sleep if he want to. Awaken him every 4 hours to see if he is arousable, recognizes his parents, and to see if his pupils are equal size.

Well, he doesn’t seem sleepy, but I can tell you right now I won’t be able to wake him up if he does go to sleep. He’s the hardest sleeper we have. On any given night I can pick him up, slap him, and roll him down the stairs without waking him up. So how am I supposed to know if he’s normal or concussed?

I guess we could try to keep him up past his bed time, but that will end up being a problem with about half of this list of symptoms. Specifically:

Unconsciousness, “in a daze”, or unable to awaken child
Inability to recognize familiar people or objects
Slurred speech
Double vision
Staggering gait or loss of coordination

Every one of those things happens to him if he stays up even an hour past his bed time. So, I can’t let him go to sleep, and I can’t keep him awake. What now?

“Why didn’t the school call me again when you threw up?”

“Oh, it was just a little. I was bending over like this right after lunch, and I burped, and a little came out. It wasn’t a real throw up.”

*sound of School District Health Services Head Injury Letter crumpling up*

“Go ride your scooter some more while I make you another burrito. Don’t forget your helmet!”

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, September 16, 2015

A Fifth Open Letter to Lifetouch School Portraits

Dear Lifetouch School Portraits,

As you obviously know, picture day is tomorrow at my sons’ school. As you also know, in years past, for the most part I have written you these letters after picture day, usually after you send me a bunch of pictures I didn’t order or want, containing silly instructions about how I’m “required” to do things for you. You guys are hilarious!

Anyway, as you also know, since I am such a selfless humanitarian, these letters have always been in an effort to help you improve your business model, which, as near as I can tell, was conceived and implemented by a group of six-year-olds.

I am starting to get the impression that you’re not reading these letters, or if you are, you’re not taking my unsolicited advice as readily as I accept your unsolicited picture packets full of mirror hangers and plastic rulers that don’t measure anything.

However, since I am such a selfless humanitarian, as I already stated, I will continue to offer you my advice free of charge, whether or not you have the good sense to listen. Come to think of it, that’s actually the same arrangement I have with my kids.

So listen up – You have angered me. I am not at all happy with your website, and I am appalled at either your unfair treatment of our Spanish-speaking community, or your blatant favoritism toward them. I’m really not sure which you’re doing, but I know I don’t like it!

My ire on both fronts stems from your ridiculous “Family Plan.” This is a special deal that you offer families with more than two kids by highlighting the discount at the very bottom of your paper order form in and unrecognizably small font size. I think it might be Times New Roman negative five.

I couldn’t find a magnifying glass, so I set the form a few feet away from myself and was eventually able to read the Family Plan verbiage with my binoculars.

Family Plan - For parents with more than 2 children attending school. First 2 children’s portraits are full price, additional children’s portraits are half price. To receive your discount: 2 children make full payments. Do not combine payments. Complete the information below, cut out and put in envelope.

As you know from my previous letters, I have three boys, and your photographers have yet to manage to coax a natural smile out of all three of them on the same day. However, we understand that you are dealing with Son Number One’s chronic Forced Smile Disorder, and that is not at issue here today. What is at issue is the fifty percent discount you promised me on Son Number Three’s fine quality studio portrait session.

I foolishly assumed that since you offered this discount on the paper order form, I would be able to receive it on the website as well, since most of the space on the paper order form is dedicated to inviting me to use the website instead.

I went through the ridiculously tedious chore of ordering my $18 “entry” level picture packages on your website, spending approximately seven hundred minutes on each child’s order denying the myriad of upgrades and add-ons that require me to individually opt out before I could get to the checkout screen.

When I finally made it to the “place your order” page, I was shocked to see that my total was $54, which if my rudimentary math is correct, is $18 per kid for three kids. As you might recall, you told me on the paper form that if I had three kids, the third one would only be $9. I looked and looked on your super-helpful website for the “apply the family plan algorithm” button, but I could not locate it.

Since, as I understand it, websites these days are built with math and stuff, I would have assumed that the “take 50% off all the kids after the first two” thing would be built in. Seems like that would be pretty easy for a first-year web programmer to put in there. I guess not.

Nine bucks is nine bucks, so I didn’t want to give up without a fight. I moved my mouse over to the “Live Chat” button and clicked it. Up pops a screen with way too many fields for me to fill in just to chat with someone about my order. Name, email, school name, school picture day code, my address, etc. Now, I hate to have to keep being the one to point all this stuff out to you guys, but I had already entered all those things in the pit of despair that is your online order process. Again with the first-year programmer thing...

Anyway, I let out a heavy sigh of disappointment and filled in all the info, just so I could have a slim chance of getting my $9 discount. I hit the “Submit” button, and do you know what you told me?

Sorry, no operators are available at the moment. Please try back later.

You have a button on your website that says “Live Chat,” and when pressed it says, “sorry, no one’s home?” What the actual hell, Lifetouch? Are you kidding me?

To make it even better, there was no button for “Resubmit,” or “Try Again,” just in case Chip, the lone Lifetouch Live Chat Operator, was just getting back to his desk after a potty break. Just a button that said “Close.” Your website is the DMV office of the internet.

Based on your website and all my previous dealings with you, I guess I should not assume you have the same feelings about the DMV as the rest of us, so to be clear, what I’m saying is this: Your website sucks!

I went from being disappointed to mad at that point. Now I’ve spent more time than anyone should have to on your website, and I’m not willing to throw that time away and go back to the paper order form just to save nine bucks.

But like all my selfless advice giving to your company, this isn’t about me. It’s about the Mormon families out there. And the Catholics. And the Amish, if you guys take pictures of them. And all the potentially not-that-religious families out there that just can’t seem to stop having kids. What about the folks with five kids, or even six? The problem is exponential, because your website can’t do math, and you won’t allow us to combine payments with the paper order form.

You have created a situation where someone with five kids has to write five separate checks and include them with five separate paper order forms in order to qualify for the family plan. News flash: Someone with five kids doesn’t have that kind of time.

It’s almost as if you don’t want to offer the Family Plan discount at all... It’s occurring to me now that the DMV is actually more functional than your company. They take my picture too, and they also don’t care if I was smiling or not. The only real difference is that I can’t renew my car registration through you guys.

Oh, yeah. Then there’s the matter of our Spanish-speaking friends. (Spoiler alert, Lifetouch - This doesn’t help your case.)

When I flipped the paper order form over, I noticed the reverse was in Spanish. I have a border cantina/Taco Bell understanding of Spanish, so I got out my binoculars again and read the “Plan Familiar.”

Plan Familiar - Para padres con mas de 2 hijos que concurren a la escuela. Para recibir el descuento: Por 2 hijos corresponden pagos integros. No combinar pagos. Completa la siguiente informacion, corta e inserta en el sobre.

Hmm. Something doesn’t look right, here. There doesn’t seem to be any further mention of the particulars of el descuento... To be sure, I plugged it into the Google translator:

Family plan - For parents with more than 2 children who attend school. To receive the discount: For two children are full payments. Do not combine payments. Complete the form below, cut and inserted into the envelope.

Just as I suspected-o. You don’t tell the Spanish-speakers what the discount is. You only tell them how to get it. Actually, you don’t even tell them that.

This leads me to believe one of two things: Either,
A) You do not want our Spanish-only friends to get the discount, or
B) You are giving our Spanish-only friends their third or mas picture packages for free.

Either way, now, I’m really mad. You have a double standard going here that either affects me morally or financially. I don’t like either option!

I guess there could be a third option. Maybe the fourth-grader you hired to do your website programming is the same kid in charge of order form translation.

Anyway, I needed to get on with what was left of my life, so I kissed my nine bucks goodbye and begrudgingly hit the “Place Order Now” button.

Thanks for your order. Please take a few minutes to take our survey and help us improve our site.

That’s optimistic! Unless you were going to pay me $9 or more to take the survey, I wasn’t going to spend another second on your website. I wrote you this helpful letter instead.

Not that I expect you to read it. You’re probably really busy explaining all the survey answers to the fourth-grader.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, September 9, 2015

Juror Number Seventeen

I sit in the quiet room, filling out my questionnaire. It is a quiet room of despair, filled with rows and rows of comfy leather chairs, arranged like a movie theater, facing two flat-screen TVs.

There are a lot of us in the room, and we are all sitting the required one seat apart from each other to maintain a somewhat social comfort level. As comfortable as you can be while awaiting your doom.

The tension in the silent air is palpable. There is a faint ray of hope every once in a while, as the thought comes over you, “Maybe I'll be excused and get to leave soon and not have to come back.” Then the cold reality of the situation squashes that dream. No, you will be here all day, and you will have to come back forever. Someone will replace you at your job and you will never see your children again.

The jury notice said to arrive by 8:30 A.M. People are still showing up at 8:40. New rule: People showing up late should have to be on the jury. Anyone who was early should be dismissed. I will talk to the judge about the idea. He or she should probably go for it, since it makes good sense.

We have done nothing other than fill out our jury questionnaires in the foreboding silence. At 8:50, the woman who checked us in at the front desk comes in and tells us we have a ten-minute recess. Recess from what? We haven't done anything yet. So, you tell us to be here at 8:30 and then we don't start until 9:00? I have a bad feeling you do that to make sure all the late people get here. Further good evidence why my "late people are the jury" rule should immediately be put into effect.

A guy’s phone rings. He silences it without answering. No one will break the silence of despair.

There are signs up at the front of the room warning us to beware of jury duty scams. What the hell could a jury duty scam be? I must read the sign, but I will not get up from my seat of despair and break the utter stillness in the room.

Suddenly, a motivational video springs to life on the flat-screen TVs. A former juror tells us it will be great and we'll learn a lot. We learn that California is the greatest state in the union, but sometimes we have issues. Many times, we don't trust only one person to impart justice. That's where I come in.

There is some mention of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Former jurors tell us that we, as Americans, don't want professional jurors, and that regular people like us serve on juries every day. Another former juror tells us that common sense, an open mind, and impartiality is all it takes. She also tells us that when she was on a jury, she brought a book, so it wasn't bad when she had to wait around a lot. Also, the people in the courtroom will tell us what to do, so we don't already have to know anything about how the courts work. That’s a relief.

We learn that the attorneys may ask us about our personal thoughts, and it's nothing personal if a lawyer doesn't pick you, so we shouldn’t be sad. OK, I’ll try to remember that. We learn the shocking reality that if we’re picked for the jury we’re not allowed to investigate the crime ourselves, so we can't go to the scene and check it out on our own. Bummer.

In a moving reenactment of a real-life court scene, the witness on the stand reported seeing a blue flash at the moment of impact. We are left wondering what in the hell that was all about. A former juror then tells us that they thought the deliberation with twelve perfect strangers was the best part. They probably didn’t get out of the house much before the trial.

There is a crescendo moment in the video where “The decision of the jury has been made. Justice has been served!” Duh da duh daaaa.

We then learn that jury service is often a deep and moving experience, and many jurors stay in touch after the trial! One man felt good about himself afterward. He had brought common sense to the table, and he felt great about that.

The parting shot of the video is a fade away on the blindfolded, scale-holding “Lady Justice” statue. She is showing some boob. That seems unnecessary.

Surprisingly, no one applauds. The video ends, and we all just stay put, easily slipping back to our original quiet despair. No one seems more pumped to be on a jury now. I don't think the video worked like they wanted it to.

An older lady on the other side of the room begins wheezing to break the silence. A nice lady asks if she needs help. She seems to have asthma of some kind and she has forgotten to bring her inhaler. One lady goes out to tell the clerk, and another lady offers her an albuterol inhaler from her purse. She refuses it politely, claiming she uses "the round one" instead of that kind.

Now Asthma Lady gets to leave the room. I smell a rat. Dammit. Why didn't I think of that? Maybe I'll fake a heart attack. No. They’ll probably hook me up to a portable defibrillator. If I don’t die from that, they'll probably just make me come back next week. Never mind.

Some lady with a badge comes in and collects Asthma Lady's stuff for her. She's not coming back. I wish I had asthma.

I do a rough headcount while trying not to look like a stalker. I would say there are about 65 of us in this room. So, my rough odds of getting on a jury are 12/65ths. That's not that bad. I'd even go so far as to say those odds are good. A glimmer of hope cracks through the cloud of despair.

A lady comes in and makes us swear that we would do everything fairly, or something. I’m not really listening, but I say I do. I'm sure I do.

Then the lady reads a clipboard and calls me by name. So much for those good odds. I am the second to last of the first eighteen prospective jurors. Lucky me. I am now being referred to as “Juror Number Seventeen.” Cloud of despair: 1. Glimmer of hope: 0.

We exit the room and there is Asthma Lady sitting comfortably in a chair, not wheezing anymore. I hate her.

We enter the courtroom and I am now sitting in a row of chairs out in front of the regular jury box. I want to try to trip the defense attorney if I get a chance. I probably swore not to do stuff like that earlier, though, so I won't.

The judge explains to us that it is a privilege and an honor to serve on a jury, and if we try to get out of jury duty we are un-American and we're disrespecting all the veterans who have served and died for us. He may be right, but I still need to pick my kids up from school.

The judge really enjoys hearing himself talk. We have done five minutes of actual business in the last hour. My butt is falling asleep.

We meet the defendant. He smoked pot and drove his car, and he's pleading not guilty to DUI for some reason. Apparently his parents have more money than common sense. This little idiot is going down.

The judge goes through our questionnaires one by one. He chats with each of us as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. He loves being here. He is the only one.

The judge likes the fact that I'm an author. I don't think I can leverage that in any way to help me here. Oh, well. Maybe he'll buy some of my books.

We break for lunch. We need to be back in an hour and a half. That seems efficient.

After our relaxed lunch, the defense attorney asks us ridiculous questions about how we feel about marijuana. He wants to know if we think we can put aside our opinions and judge whether someone can have it in their system and not be "under the influence." He doesn’t like my answer to his idiotic question. He also has annoying shoes. I might try to trip him if he gets close enough.

Now he wants to know if the testimony of a police officer would carry more weight with us than the testimony of a civilian. He doesn’t like my answer again.

Potential Juror Number Four, Mr. Anderson behind me, won’t stop interrupting everyone to ask inane questions that pertain to absolutely nothing. He is also an idiot.

The defense attorney with the ridiculous shoes wants to know how I feel about “medical marijuana.” I tell him it’s one elephant shy of being a full-blown circus. He doesn’t like that answer either.

The prosecutor seems to like all my answers. Mr. Anderson interrupts him with stupid questions also.

Questions are over. The lawyers confer with the talkative judge. We have been here for six and a half hours. I hate Asthma Lady even more now.

The defense would like to ask the court to thank and excuse Potential Juror Number Eight. The former mayor of a small town near here leaves the courtroom with a smile on her face.

The prosecution would like to ask the court to thank and excuse Potential Juror Number Four. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson. I take it all back. You are obviously a genius.

The defense would like to ask the court to thank and excuse Potential Juror Number Seventeen. That’s a good call, Silly Shoes. I would’ve canned his little stoner ass.

In terms of sheer euphoric joy washing over you, being excused from jury duty and walking out of the courtroom is probably rivaled only by heroin. Or maybe really good weed... Hang on, I'll go back in and ask the defendant.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, September 2, 2015

Under the GATE

Our school district has something called the GATE program. It stands for Gifted and Talented Education, so the first time I ever heard of it I immediately dismissed it in my mind for my children. They may be cute, but “gifted” is a long stretch. They’re just normal boys.

My wife, on the other hand, seems to think that her children might fall under some of the GATE parameters somehow. She is very intelligent, but I reminded her that half of their DNA comes from me, so that’s working against them. She still wanted to get them tested, so she obviously thinks her half of the DNA has a choke hold on my half. She may be smart, but her overly-optimistic awareness meter probably needs some calibration.

We were late getting the forms in, so I ended up being the one in charge of filling them out and rushing them over to the school office. I am a very honest person. Honestly, I’m not lying about that. So, I filled out the questionnaire honestly. She might regret me being in charge.

Learns easily/understands concept quickly
I hesitate to answer yes to this. Sure, he seems to do fine in school, but he’s been wearing shoes for his entire life and still can’t figure out where they go when he takes them off.

Asks a lot of penetrating questions
Asks a lot of questions. None of them are penetrating. Most of them are about why I always make him do homework and chores instead of letting him have fun.

Becomes unusually upset at injustices
Half credit? He throws himself on the floor and wails when an injustice is perpetrated on him, but he laughs when anything unjust happens to his brothers.

Persistent, resourceful, self-directed, independent worker
I’m going to have to just say a flat no on this one, since I have to ask him every three minutes to get back on task with his homework and stop licking the kitchen counter.

Shows unusually high ability in a particular subject or subjects
Yes. Unfortunately it’s farting on his brothers.

Shows unusual interest in a particular subject or subjects
This is a yes, but only the subject of why I won’t let him spend his entire day playing video games. That might not be unusual these days, actually. Oh, and fart noises and fart jokes. Probably not what you were looking for.

Constantly wants to know how or why something is so
Constantly wants to know why we’re so mean and won’t let him have fun. Past that, not really.

Seems unusually concerned about social or political problems
Not actually aware that any social or political problems exist. He is concerned about his food and why he has to eat it all when it’s the worst thing ever. Other than that, not concerned about anything at all.

Organizes, leads, takes over group activities
I’m not sure what he does at school, but here at home he has two brothers, and all three of them want to lead, so mostly they just yell and fight.

Unusual or highly developed sense of humor
Farting on your brother is probably not that unusual at this age. I’m going to go out on a limb here and also say that it’s not too highly developed. So, no.

Has a better reason for not doing what you want done
Half credit here. Always has a reason not to do what I ask. The reason is never better.

Becomes impatient if work is not perfect
Hang on, I can’t stop laughing. For my boys that should read, becomes impatient if he has to spend more than five seconds on any one thing. Cries if he ever needs to use his eraser. Always forgets to put his name on his paper.

Has his/her own ideas about how things should be done
Again, you guys know you’re asking these questions about elementary schoolers, right? That’s like asking, does he/she breathe?

Shows unusual leadership ability
Always wants to lead. Never has any idea where he’s going. Based on how our government works, I’d say that’s pretty usual, so I’m going to answer no on this one.

Unusually large vocabulary
For words from the English language, not really. For words from Lego Ninjago and Legends of Chima, yes.

Unusually insightful
I can’t answer yes to this about a kid that still hasn’t figured out to wear a coat when it’s cold outside.

Unconventional ideas and opinions
Again, he’s a kid. All of their ideas and opinions are unconventional. And mostly idiotic. For example, he wants me to let him ride on the top of the car.

Highly competitive in some areas.
Yes, his body contains testosterone.

Seems more responsible/mature than age level peers
If all of his age level peers are galactically irresponsible, then he might squeak by here, but truthfully, he can’t really even wipe his own butt properly every time, so I hesitate to give him high marks in this area

Resists drills in spelling, math, handwriting (rote skills)
Uhh... Are you ending with a trick question? Seriously, you know he’s in elementary school, right? Don’t they all do this? (By the way, I don’t mean to tell you your business, but I think it’s “wrote skills” for the handwriting thing.)

Well, honey, they’re signed up for testing. Just promise me you won’t get your hopes up too high. Based on the fact that they all look exactly like me, something tells me these boys might be made up of more than half of my DNA.

As Judge Smails from Caddyshack once said, “The world needs ditch diggers, too.”

And if they end up not even qualified to dig ditches, they can always be humor writers like their dad.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, August 26, 2015

Back to School Date Night

It’s that time of year again! Tomorrow is Back to School Date Night.

Many of you might know it simply as Back to School Night, or BTSN if you’re a hip elementary school insider, but not around our house. BTSN is the biggest date night of the year. Last year we went to Home Depot. It was amazing!

Those of you without kids are probably thinking, “Home Depot? What is he talking about? That’s not a date, that’s an errand. What about going out to a club and staying up until three in the morning?”

No, no, no. Don’t be silly, you crazy youths. Once you have children, “date night” takes on a whole new meaning. When you have kids, a date is anything you can do together without the kids.

You see, the thing you don’t fully comprehend before you have kids is the amount of time you are required to spend with them. Someone has to actually be with them for all of the minutes of all of the days, or else they will pour Comet in the fish bowl, eat a poisonous snail, and then burn the house down. And that’s just the teenagers. Little kids are much worse.

So all of a sudden the ability to go anywhere without kids becomes the most precious commodity in the world. If you ever see an adult just wandering around in a grocery store without a cart or a basket, chances are they are an escaped parent. They have come to the store just to marvel at all the products they actually could notice and buy if they weren’t constantly yelling at someone to drop the box of Froot Loops and climb down off of the banana display.

Now, the reason that BTSN is a big date night at our house is because it’s one of the only nights of the year when we are forced to get a babysitter. Babysitters cost money, therefore we don’t hire one very often.

Children are not allowed to attend BTSN, and since we have three kids, we have three classes to visit. One parent cannot attend while the other stays home with the kids. Two parents aren’t even enough to cover it, really.

Since there are only two of us, every year before BTSN we are forced to choose which child we will ignore. Fortunately for Son Number One’s education, he is never left out. Being the oldest, he is always entering a grade that is new to all of us, so we must visit his classroom and get the important information from his new teacher, like if math will be taught with actual numbers this year, or if we’re sticking with the “new math” from last year that involved a lot of stories about Simone and Raul and grouping their colored balloons into different columns.

So the decision is always between Son Number Two and Three. Which one’s classroom will we visit, and which one will be summarily ignored for the entire school year? All three of them are very smart (which has led me to question their mother extensively, but she insists that they really are my children), so needing to have our finger on the pulse of their education is not super-critical. Usually we just flip a coin.

Whichever way that coin lands, I’m excited about date night tomorrow night. I know we’ll go to the grocery store and wander around holding hands, but if we have time, we might even get to go to Kohl’s and look at shirts. Who knows?

The BTSN activities are always fun as well. I can’t wait to see what Simone and Raul are up to this year. Our babysitter had better be on time, though, or I might not be able to help the boys with their homework. I mean, I can figure out 354 x 98 the old-fashioned way, but with the new math, I need to be retrained every year on which column to put the goldfish in.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, August 19, 2015

Sesame Street Blues

As if Legos that now actually fire projectiles and the intolerable addition of swamp-idiot Jar Jar Binks to Star Wars weren’t enough of a slap in the face to my generation, yet another thing from our childhood has changed forever. Sesame Street is leaving PBS and moving to HBO.

The PBS press release was disconcerting at best.

“We here at the formerly nonprofit PBS are sad to see our friends from Sesame Street go, but we are greatly comforted by the giant mountain of money we now have in the middle of the office. We will spend the next few days climbing up to the top and rolling down into the champagne moat we have constructed, and then we plan to take a year or three off and travel the world. As we search the globe for new programming inspiration and expensive shoes, have no fear about a lack of quality content on your local PBS station. For the near term we are rolling out a brand new format of 24/7 live-broadcast fundraisers. Enjoy!”

HBO’s press release was troublesome for the Sesame Street purists, but it met with guarded approval from many industry insiders.

“Since 1969, the Sesame Street franchise on PBS has been an amazing success. Now, in 2015, we here at HBO are thrilled to announce that we are ready to take Sesame Street to even greater heights. All great sums are a function of their parts, and that’s why we have decided to launch the iconic show into several exciting spin-offs.

As always, Big Bird leads the pack, and his new show is no exception. Our giant yellow friend will star in “Big Daddy,” a gritty New Jersey crime drama about one bird’s rise from the mean streets of Sesame Hill through the drug gangs and organized crime rings of the big city. He’s in for the fight of his life to stay on top and keep his massive empire from crumbling when his top lieutenants start to believe that someone else might really be calling the shots. Is the mysterious Mr. Snuffleupagus just a drug-induced hallucination of the giant feathered crime boss, or is he the power player who’s really pulling the strings?

Oscar the Grouch reveals his dark side in the new bone-chilling murder-mystery, “Trash Day.” A mysterious year-long rash of pet disappearances on Sesame Street ends abruptly one cold week in January. Hardened SPCA detective Elmo Van Buren’s gut tells him it’s the work of a serial killer, and he can’t ignore that the last report coincides with the disappearance of one of Sesame Street’s most notorious figures. Oscar “The Grouch” Plovich, the trash can-dwelling derelict from the wrong side of the street, has vanished. With his marriage on the rocks, the fuzzy red detective follows Oscar’s trail all the way to the Louisiana bayou, where Oscar’s trash can has been found in an abandoned shrimp processing plant. Tensions mount when Elmo learns the truth about Oscar’s past. Could the dirty green hobo be his long-lost father from a loveless Dumpster encounter thirty years before? Reports of missing pets have spiked in Cajun country since Oscar’s arrival, and now Elmo must unravel the mystery. Coincidence or murder? What will the squeaky-voiced detective find when he lifts the lid?

The neighborhood grocery store is the setting for our new paranormal thriller, “Hooper’s Revenge.” Since Mr. Hooper’s mysterious death in the ‘80s, Hooper’s Store has had unsteady management at best. David was left the store in Mr. Hooper’s will, but soon he couldn’t wait to sell it. Mr. Hanford took over the reins, but quickly sold out to good-natured and unsuspecting Alan, the current proprietor. None of the owners could ever manage to get any of the Sesame Street regulars to work in the store for any length of time, or even help out on weekends. What are the puppets from the street hiding? What do they know? Alan soon finds out what many have suspected for years. Mr. Hooper may have died, but he never left the store. Alan struggles to maintain his sanity as the ghost of Mr. Hooper wreaks havoc on his life and his business. Will Alan uncover the truth behind how David really acquired Hooper’s Store? And will Alan find a buyer before he buys the farm?

Bert and Ernie team up again, this time as detectives on the San Francisco police narcotics squad in “Partners in Crime.” The City by the Bay has a major new player in town, and he’s brought in the highest grade heroin anyone has ever seen. Overdoses are rampant, and the mayor is breathing down the police chief’s neck to put a lid on the new smack, quickly. Bert is forced to go deep undercover into the seedy world of underground nightclubs and motel room drug deals, while Ernie can only watch helplessly from the sidelines. Tempers flare on the job and at home as Ernie confronts Bert about his reckless behavior. Bert knows that to bring down this kingpin, backup is not an option. As Bert seems to spiral out of control into his undercover role as a high-priced male escort, will Ernie be his lifeline, or will the duo finally be forced to split, permanently?

And last, but certainly not least, comes the new original series, “Crank Street.” Fun-loving, mild-mannered, and mustachioed science teacher Gordon has lived an ideal existence at 123 Sesame Street for years. His perfect life is suddenly turned upside down when he’s diagnosed with Bubonic plague. Hit with the realization that he only has twenty-seven cents to leave to his family, he levels his sights on a grim future. Gordon’s knowledge of chemistry is the one thing he has to work with, and as his health rapidly deteriorates, he lures Grover, the neighborhood meth tweaker, into his web of despair. The brownstone at 123 Sesame Street soon becomes one of the most productive meth labs in the tri-state area. More innocent victims soon fall prey to Gordon’s insidious plan to leave his family millions instead of pennies. Count von Count can hardly keep up with the influx of drug money in need of laundering. The Cookie Monster regrets his decision to join the crew as the enforcer, but the steady supply of Chips Ahoy from Gordon keeps him reluctantly on the payroll. As rival gangs move in on the crew and Grover becomes more and more self-destructive with guilt, Gordon struggles to keep his meth empire intact. Will he cash out before the plague - or his own enterprise - does him in?

We here at HBO are excited about the acquisition of Sesame Street, and confident that the resulting new lineup of shows will blow you away!”

Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letters H, B, and O, and the number $.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, August 12, 2015

Mule Salad

I have to ride a mule next summer. That, in and of itself, is no big deal since people ride mules all the time, I am told. The problem is I have to ride a mule down a two-foot-wide crack in the wall of the Grand Canyon (approximately 70,000 feet above the canyon floor, based on the videos on YouTube).

Lots of people, including my oldest son and my mother-in-law, would consider that to be a fantastic adventure. For me, however, it’s a small-scale version of The Biggest Loser.

The mule ride company’s rules state that each rider must be under 200 pounds, fully dressed. I would argue that they need to buy sturdier mules, but they are very adamant about the weight limit, even throwing in the verbiage “No Exceptions” for good measure.

My initial weigh-in on Monday morning was 214 pounds, in my boxer shorts.

So, I need to lose some weight. Actually, quite a bit of weight, since I figure I better be 190 at most in my boxers. That’s assuming the mule ride company will accept shorts, a T-shirt, and flip flops as “fully dressed.”

If my rudimentary writer math is correct, I need to lose just over 11% of my body weight. Possibly more, since my wife thinks our bathroom scale is lying to us. I wonder if any POW camps offer monthly membership packages?

I’m not going to lie. Things look bleak at this point. That is possibly due to the fact that our family went to Europe this summer. We visited Italy, Austria, and Germany. Do you know what they have in Italy? Margherita pizza. It’s basically a cheese pizza, but Italy has some kind of culinary voodoo magic that makes everything ten to fifteen times better than anywhere else. I basically ate an entire margherita pizza (with sausage added, because, sausage!) every day for lunch. What makes that possible is the pizzas are thin crust. What makes that not great is they are fourteen inches in diameter.

Italy also has pasta carbonara for dinner, which is pasta with eggs and bacon. The perfect complement to a whole pizza for lunch. They also have really good red wine and pretty decent beer.

Austria and Germany have schnitzel. Schnitzel is meat of any variety, pounded flat, breaded, and fried. (Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.) I ate at least two per day. They also have really good beer every place they serve schnitzel, which is every restaurant.

Basically, Europe made me fat. If it wasn’t for all the walking and hiking we did, I would need to lose fifty pounds right now instead of twenty-four. I blame the euro exchange rate. It was basically one to one with the dollar, so I was forced to eat and drink about 1.7 times more than I would have in previous years. Damn you, euro.

The only ray of hope that I have for not being the guy that didn’t get to go on the mule ride - or worse yet, the guy who ruined the mule trip for everyone by somehow faking out the scale and then dying when his hopelessly overloaded mule fell of the cliff - is that I have been under 200 pounds before. Sure, it was in high school, but still...

In fact, I think I weighed around 180 pounds my senior year. Of course, back then I could eat the entire left side of the fridge and lose a pound. I’m pretty sure I bulked up in college, though. A diet consisting mainly of Top Ramen and Keystone Light is a great way to pack on the manly pounds, apparently.

The idea of getting back to my college weight, let alone my high school weight, seems a bit daunting, but I have to try. The highlight of an entire summer vacation depends on it.

In order to lose 11% of my current body weight, the only mathematical solution is to stop eating. Stop eating anything that tastes good, anyway. Sugar and bread are out, which is really unfortunate, since I have survived for the last few years on a diet consisting mainly of chocolate chips, chocolate chip cookies, and sandwiches. (The sandwiches had no chocolate chips... normally.)

Pizza is my favorite food. Pizza is out.

And beer is out.

I don’t want to talk about it.

Breakfast now consists of fruit, and lunch is now a salad with a little chicken on top. I call it mule salad. I’m on day three of mule salad and I’m already sad. Dinner consists of a glass of water and some air. It’s going to be a long year.

Plus, the sugar withdrawals are giving me a headache. Or maybe it’s the kids. My wife selfishly went back to work this week and left me here with all three of them for the whole day. Every day. Just me, three boys who love to argue with each other, and mule salad. (Normally beer would mitigate some of that, but like I said, I don’t want to talk about it.)

The boys go back to school next week, so that should alleviate some of the headaches, but I’ll still be here with my mule salad. Every day. With no sugar and no bread of any kind.

I’m sad.

All I can say is this better be one spectacular mule ride. Everyone who’s gone says it’s the trip of a lifetime, but even if it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I know I’ll have a good time. I’ll be the one riding the mule down the Grand Canyon while eating a sausage pizza and washing it down with a giant beer and a dozen chocolate-covered doughnuts.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, August 5, 2015

A Tale of Two Soakings

Jet lag is an amazing force of nature. When combined with alcohol in adults, jet lag can produce an effect much like getting shot with a tranquilizer dart big enough to take down a rhinoceros. It is even more powerful in children, even without the alcohol.

Mostly, jet lag simply produces long and unexpected periods of deep sleep. Occasionally, however, it can produce unexpected urination as well.

A long, long time ago, when I was an elementary schooler, our folks took us to Europe. I had barely ever left the west coast before, let alone flown half way around the world, so major time zone changes were something new to me. When we arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house in England mid-morning, I immediately passed out on the first soft horizontal surface I came to.

I woke up hours later, groggy and feeling like my arms and legs were made out of lead. It was still daylight, and as I wandered down the hallway, I passed one of my cousins’ bedrooms, where my mom and my aunt were puzzling over a strange wet spot on the carpet in the middle of the room. “What could have caused this?” they wondered aloud to each other.

As soon as I saw it, a wave of foggy, dreamlike memories came over me. At some point that day I had “woken up,” needing to pee really badly. I scurried around the unfamiliar house, desperately trying to find the bathroom, but to no avail. When I found an empty bedroom instead, my sleepwalking, jet lagged brain said, “Perfect!” and I peed all over the carpet. Then I just went back to bed.

Once I was actually awake and witnessing the aftermath of my semi-conscious brain’s poor decision making abilities, I was horrifyingly embarrassed. I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I was surely old enough not to want to cop to something as idiotic as peeing on the carpet. I just shut my mouth and walked in the other direction.

That was my first experience with the power of jet lag.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when we took our boys to Europe. Good news; it’s still there! Bad news; so is the jet lag. This time, however, it didn’t strike right away. The adults adjusted quickly, despite the copious amounts of Italian wine that the waiters kept bringing us for some reason. The boys seemed to adjust quickly as well. Little did we know that jet lag would rear its ugly head more than a week into the trip.

We spent a wonderful week plus in Italy (with among others, my mom and my English aunt), then moved on to Austria. That’s when it happened: A similar - yet at the same time very different - jet lag peeing incident involving one of the boys.

Now, we have a notorious and storied sleep pee-er in our house. You have read about his carpet and stair peeing adventures from time to time in this column. Strangely enough, it was one of his brothers, and not him. I won’t tell you which brother, to protect the unaware. He still has no idea any of this happened.

There we were, on our first night in our Austrian apartment near Innsbruck. A magical day of summer mountain luge track racing and gondola rides awaited us. We settled into our beds, with two of the boys on a bed in the living room, and one of the boys sleeping with Grandma in the room next to ours. I was just about to go to sleep when a commotion arose in Grandma’s room. Grandma could be heard saying things like, “What are you doing?” and, “What the hell!?”

I was getting out of bed to investigate when she came out of the door to her room, looking more than a little bewildered and slightly off put, shall we say.

“What happened?”
“He just peed on me.”
“He peed in the bed?”
“No! He got up, came around to my side of the bed, and peed on me!”

No wonder she looked a little miffed.

Apparently, our jet lagged son’s semi-conscious brain somehow mistook Grandma’s side of the bed (and consequently, Grandma), for the toilet. He just got out of bed, walked around, stood there, peed on her, then walked back around and got back into his (dry) side of the bed, still fast asleep.

So instead of going to bed, I did laundry in the bathtub for a while.

Given my jet lag/urination history, I can sort of sympathize with him, but this kid took things to a whole new level. Dude, are you trying to get cut out of the will? You peed on your grandma! Seriously, who does that?

Thankfully we were able to find enough wine the next day that Grandma was able to laugh about it. Briefly. As for the boy, he’s still clueless.

I guess some people just react differently to jet lag than others. All I know is it’s lucky for our boys that I only peed on the carpet when I was their age. I’m pretty sure if I had peed on my aunt back then, I’d still be too embarrassed to make eye contact with her, so we probably wouldn’t have made the trip back this summer.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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, July 29, 2015

Handy European Travel Tips

We are back from our two-week vacation to Europe, and we are almost totally adjusted back to Pacific Standard Time, if passing out at two in the afternoon and waking up ready to go at three in the morning counts as being adjusted. I have not been very productive this past week in my jet lag fog, but the least I figured I could do was impart some of my newfound travel wisdom. Just think of me as a really poorly-informed Rick Steves.



Traveling on airplanes with kids
If you are considering flying long distances with children, it is best to gather up their books and every electronic device you own (iPads, iPods, Leapfrogs, etc.), put them all in a backpack, and bring that backpack, along with the children, to Grandma's house and drop them off, because you should never fly with children.

Rental cars
Don't ever rent a car in Europe. You are not qualified to drive there. Italians drive like NASCAR racers on a combination of crack and grappa. Germans drive like Formula 1 racers on a combination of meth and more meth, and uppers. Lane lines are only fun road decorations in Italy, and have no bearing on traffic patterns. Lane lines on the German autobahns are strictly followed, on the other hand. The only problem is, neither lane is built for you. Traffic in the slow lane consists of big rig trucks going slower than you want to and traffic in the fast lane consists of Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes going about four kilometers per hour over the speed of sound.

Take the train between cities. Train stations offer a wonderful opportunity to stand confused in front of a large board written entirely in Latin and scribbles, and then a great exercise opportunity where you do the steeplechase while dragging three hundred pounds of luggage after you realize your train is leaving in two minutes, four platforms away.

Buses and trams
Once you have caught your train, and then subsequently changed trains to go in the correct direction, your awaiting destination city will have a marvelous bus and trolley system. The trolleys and busses run on very strict schedules, which are not posted anywhere, and are subject to change based on the meal and nap times of the driver. The bus lines are marked with all the stops, so they are very easy to decipher if you born in the city you are visiting. If you weren't, none of the stop names will correspond to any of the attractions you want to see, so just jump on board the first large vehicle that stops for you, and see where it takes you. It doesn't matter where it goes, because all European cities are old and historic, and there is a restaurant that serves beer and wine on every corner, so you really can't go wrong.

Europeans love tolls. If you were crazy enough to rent a car, while you are still alive you will get to pay tolls. Many countries make you buy a sticker to put on your windshield. Austria is nice enough to let you buy a ten-day sticker that only costs a little. Switzerland is nice enough to let you only buy a sticker valid for the whole year, which costs enough to fund an entire road crew for a month.

Italy doesn't have stickers, because Italy loves tollbooths. Second only to Insane Cab Driver, Grumpy Toll Booth Operator is Italy's number two growth occupation. There is a toll booth at every single exit on major Italian freeways. Judging by the state of the roads in Italy, it seems that the tolls only go to support the toll booth infrastructure itself, and possibly the politicians’ girlfriends’ clothing and jewelry budgets.

Germany is the one country without road tolls. They gave up on tolls a few years ago, because everyone drives too fast to be able to collect them. They tried to install those automated coin basket toll booths, but too many hapless motorists were accidentally killed by stray Euro coins, like rifle bullets, being flung out of Porsche windows.

There is no parking. All the spots in Europe are already taken. Park on the sidewalk or in a field outside of town. (Side note: When renting a car, make sure it is no wider than the narrowest sidewalk - approximately eighteen inches.)


It is very helpful to learn a few key phrases at a minimum for each country you plan to visit. The most important one is, “This is my cousin who speaks fluently and will order food for all of us.”
Other helpful phrases include:
“Do you know anyone who would be willing to buy our children?”
“Which one of these trains has Nastro Azzuro beer in the bar car?”
“Do you take third-party American checks at this toll booth?”
“What is the bail amount?”
And, “Have you seen our car? We parked it on this sidewalk last night.”

Eating is really the main reason for traveling to Europe, so enjoy yourself. The food is amazing. Just don’t expect to eat at a normal hour, or for a normal time period. Italy is the best example of this. Lunch in Italy occurs sometime between the hours of two and five in the afternoon. Restaurants do not open for dinner until after eight o’clock. Dinner is served in courses that last approximately three hours each, so expect to be at the restaurant anywhere from three to five days. Breakfast is served the night before.

Europeans devote most of their time and energy to the culinary arts, doorknob design, castle maintenance, and road closures, so very few professionals are left over to handle refrigeration. To reduce service calls, all European refrigerators are set to keep food just above room temperature. If you have food you wish to refrigerate in your hotel or apartment, it is best to keep it in a basement, a cave, or submerged in a river. It will last longer that way. Also, do not ask for ice. Ice cubes do not exist in Europe.

Europeans don't tip. You might be tempted to take advantage of this fact, but please don't. We as Americans must keep tipping. It's our strongest advantage in the war for seating priority.


Public restrooms
Back to tolls and infrastructure for a moment, the public toilet industry is also a major moneymaker in Europe. Short of your own accommodations, you will pay to pee most places you go. In a show of love and appreciation for the next generation, kids are always free. (Or maybe they just got tired of cleaning up the accidents when the parents couldn't find enough pocket change in time.) It will cost you, the adult, anywhere from twenty to seventy cents every time you have to tinkle, so have coins at all times. Most countries have automated turnstiles, but Italy still relies heavily on the personal touch. Creepy Coin-Collecting Bathroom Attendant is Italy’s third largest growth industry.

Just resign yourself to the fact that you won't have a satisfying shower until you get home. Many showers will try to fool you by being life size. Don't fall for it. You are sharing water pressure with the entire town, or you only get hot water in six-second bursts every three minutes. Otherwise, the shower will be the size of a phone booth, if you were to miniaturize a phone booth.

Counter space
Don't expect any. Counter space in most European bathrooms consists of the little flat spot in the side of the sink designed to hold the soap. Most airplane bathrooms have literally five times more counter space than the average Italian bathroom.

Like the showers, don’t get your hopes up for powerful or robust plumbing. In many areas of Europe you are lucky to get a toilet instead of just a hole in the ground. Flush intensity ranges from “light mist” all the way up to “spilled a glass of water.”

Some places have the baffling “shelf toilet,” which has a flat porcelain plateau directly beneath your seat, with the exit hole moved all the way to the front of the bowl. Anything you happen to put into the toilet sits perched proudly on the shelf until the mighty flush, when it is (hopefully) punted off into the hole. Good call, Europe!

And then there’s the bidet
The most mystifying device in the European bathroom is the bidet. I will be blunt here, because the bidet is confusing enough as is. We Americans have a vague notion that this device is supposed to somehow aid us in the cleaning of our butts. Sure enough, the bidet is always sitting right next to the toilet, suggesting that a pants-down transfer is expected.

All the bidets we encountered had a standard-looking faucet that would shoot water horizontally across the top of the bowl, but with standard low water pressure, so as not to be able to accidentally shoot past the end of the bowl.

So, here’s the problem, Europe. If you are expecting this thing to take the place of my toilet paper, we’re going to need about sixty or seventy more PSI, here, and some kind of splash guard. This thing has a standard sink drain, so a toilet paper/water combo cleaning does not make sense plumbing-wise, even if there was a world where that would make sense practicality-wise.

In short, Europe, you have placed a low sink next to the toilet and I don’t know what you want me to do with this thing. After many hours of long contemplation, the only possible explanation I can come up with is that you want me to sit on this thing and use the water faucet in combination with one of my own hands to take the place of toilet paper. If that really is the case, I must ask you Europe, what in the actual hell are you guys thinking?  

(Side note: You probably shouldn’t ever shake hands with anyone who purposely owns a bidet.)

Well, the bidet may remain a mystery, but I hope I was able to help with some of the other stuff.

Safe travels!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 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!