Sunday, December 27, 2009


There are jokes that circulate through a society that most people don’t want to hear. They are cruel, or mindlessly unpleasant, or concern themselves with dead babies or Helen Keller or chickens that may or may not have crossed the road.

For example: How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her when she was bad?

They rearranged the furniture.

This is either proof of a sick society—that such a thing could even be thought of in the first place, let alone shared (in any number of joke books and Internet sites)—or, if you’d care to be less negative for just a fraction of a second, perhaps Helen’s parents were believers in feng shui and were just trying to figure out how to bring good luck to their home.

Moving the couch away from the wall, or certain potted plants to particular compass points, might improve the flow of energy, or ch’i. Sure, Helen might stumble about for a few days, but that would be a small price to pay for the universe to smile upon the Kellers and bring forth a beneficial life force. A small price, indeed, unless your name was Helen.

For thousands of years the art of placement has been followed by many people. None of those people lived in this country, because it was a superstition unique to a foreign land. It didn’t arrive in the good ol’ U. S. of A. until someone figured out how it could be marketed and sold to a group of New Agers who had tired of shamanic chants, aura photography, pyramid hats, and ear candling.

Folks jumped at the opportunity, because rearranging the furniture seemed a lot less dangerous than holding a burning candle to their ear. This feng shui business would improve their dwelling or workspace and create maximum harmony with the spiritual forces believed to influence all places.

That’s great, I suppose, if you believe in ghosts. Or making wishes on falling stars. Or planning for the great hereafter. As Artie Johnson used to say to Ruth Buzzi on TV’s Laugh-In, “Do you believe in the hereafter?”

“Of course I do,” she’d respond, quiveringly.

“Then you know what I’m here after!” He’d lunge toward her, and she’d smack him with her purse. Feminism in action. I think Ruth Buzzi has excellent ch’i. And she probably never trips over her own furniture.

It makes perfect sense to arrange the items of your home and office in a harmonious manner. If your feng shui consultant (yes, they exist) advises you to set up your living room so that you can see someone entering the room from any seated position, go ahead and do it. At the very least it will allow you to greet your visitors. Likewise, sitting with your back to your office door is silly from a practical standpoint. Who are you avoiding, besides your ch’i?

After that, you should fire your feng shui consultant, even if she is fully certified (yes, that exists as well, and is available through a Distance Learning program for only $1000, though I shudder to give you any further information for fear of advertising their silly business). If one feng shui consultant will tell you that you shouldn’t hang a mirror at the end of your foyer for fear of reflecting positive energy out of your house, and another will tell you that you definitely should hang a mirror at the end of your foyer to reflect out bad vibes, then who is right?

This is the ch’i version of determining if your glass is half full or half empty. It’s all attitude, baby. If I live in fear of my beer mug being half empty, then I no doubt think that negative energy is always following me into the house. Mirror up. If, on the other hand, I know the mug is half full (and not only that, there are still six or seven beers still in the fridge), everything is right with the world. Mirror down.

Like all superstitious beliefs, feng shui suffers from its own vagaries. Beyond where the ottoman goes, practitioners want to insure your fertility with the proper color scheme in your bedroom and to build your wealth by placing a blue rug at your front door and to help you achieve business success by fixing that broken desk drawer. Because everyone knows that no one ever got pregnant sleeping in a dirt brown room.

When the rules can’t be nailed down, you know it is most likely dishonest puffery. Despite the number of times you might hang a melting candle over your ear, bad things will still happen to you. It is called the human condition. If I trip over the furniture in the middle of the night, maybe it was placed in such a manner that evil forces are seeking to harm me. Or maybe it is the wrong color.

Or maybe, just maybe, I had too many half full mugs of beer before calling it a night.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


For weeks now, men of every size and hue (and some women) have been sitting in ornate chairs in the middle of shopping malls and greeting thousands of strangers as if they were glad to see them. In reality, they were not. But they had to act the part: it went along with the black boots, red suit, and snow-white beard.

Santa is always happy to see you, even if you are a tear-stained, arm-flailing, screaming toddler.

Many of the lap-sitters smile for the camera and quietly tell St. Nick of their fondest hope for the Christmas season. Perhaps it is world peace, or maybe that Daddy won’t be dipping into his secret sauce as much as he did last year. Some probably even ask for a gift, and the most astute of these new millennium greedy kids will whip out their cellular telephone to show a picture they took of that particular gift.

“I can give you the UPC if you need it,” the child says, “and the URL for the best online sites. You can probably even get free delivery if you order by the twenty-first!”

“Ho, ho, ho,” the Santa says, although it sounds rather like, “Ho, ho . . . no.”

It must be a tough job. Hours of sitting, dirty fingers clutching at your beard, children grumpy from standing in the long line. Smart mall owners (or those fearful of a lawsuit) will provide a variety of translators so that Santa doesn’t promise a cheese grater or tire chains just because he didn’t understand what the kid said.

The translators hover around the throne waiting to hear a language they understand. Then they run off to the food court during their federally mandated lunch break to scarf down deep-fried Christmas snacks. Meanwhile, Santa sits undefended, fighting the porcine scourge of the 2009 holiday season.

Yes, the swine flu.

At the same time that our fellow citizens were outraged by reports that Fortune 500 CEOs were lobbying for front-of-the-line status when it came to flu shots, conservative talk show hosts were complaining that Guantanamo Bay detainees were also in the queue before good old regular Americans. Then Kris Kringle got in on the act, in the form of the AORBS: the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

This very real group is proud of their membership, because these are fellows who truly could pass as St. Nick. Their beards don’t pull off, and they aren’t skinny old-timers with a couple of extra pillows stuffed under their shirts. These fellows are not just play acting; they are Santa.

As such, they have sat for years, trying to avoid the tears and the snot and the hacking coughs spewing from their littlest visitors. They have to duck and lean and dodge all manner of airborne death. As I said, they’ve been doing it for years.

Suddenly, though, swine flu threatened their very existence. If they couldn’t get the shot, the AORBS said, these jolly men wouldn’t sit at your local ShopTown Mall and let your little brats rub their sticky fingers all over them. It wasn’t just a matter of not getting sick, they also didn’t want to help spread the germs. The Christmas carols piped in through tinny speakers underneath the Santa throne might have to be rewritten. “Deck the Halls (With Purell),” or something like that.

Unfortunately the Santas have fallen prey to the scare tactics of modern medicine. The common flu kills tens of thousands of people every year, and this latest strain has killed far fewer. Yet it is hyped as a bigger threat. Instead, the AORBS should be embracing this potential epidemic with other new songs, like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Swine Flu.” Laugh in the face of danger, or something like that.

I never have had a flu shot, and I won’t this year either. I come into contact with a goodly number of students in my travels as a substitute teacher, but they don’t sit in my lap and they rarely have their fingers anywhere near my face. I don’t live in fear of the Little Contagious Drummer Boy, but apparently I might if I was a mall Santa. That, however, will have to wait until my beard is longer and whiter, and my beer gut is more prodigious.

In the meantime, if swine flu was originally transmitted from pigs to humans and now travels from mall brats to Father Christmas, maybe other species aren’t impervious. Perhaps reindeer are at risk. Maybe Rudolph’s nose isn’t red just so he can guide that sleigh that night; maybe he is infected.

Oh Cough, All Ye Faithful.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Wait a minute, something sounds wrong there . . .

“Twas”? Really? Nobody talks that way anymore. If old movies can be colorized, and old jokes can be decreed verboten because people are becoming overly sensitive to their diminutive height, hair loss, national heritage, or skin hue, then can’t we update a Christmas classic that kids sing in classroom all over the country?

“It was the night before Christmas . . .” That works just as well, and it sounds better grammatically, which is important in these times of rapidly declining student achievement. The problems with the poem, however, don’t end there.

It gave the luster of midday to objects below. Hmm.

As far as I know, there is a Web page designed for people to find out if there are lusters living in their neighborhood. Is Santa really on the prowl for sex offenders when he is out on his appointed rounds? I don’t think so.

Assuming luster means gleam or patina and not “one who lusts,” can’t we just say shine? Luster, gleam, patina, they all the same thing, except they are not as clear as “shine.” What could be more clear than “shiny as a bald man’s forehead”? Except we can’t say “bald” anymore (see above).

“Midday” is not exactly clear either. I think it means noon, but some wiseacre over in the next humor column cubicle says that midday is between dawn and dusk, and that can range all over the clock depending on the time of year. Assuming we are speaking of December 24 (remember, ‘twas the night before Christmas), midday on the west coast of the United States would be 12:08.

That might be close to noon, but it is not noon. In other words, it twasn’t. So we ought to lose the midday and just say what time it was. It gave the shine of 12:08 p.m. to objects below. I can live with that.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot

Really? Fur pants? I can see the hat and the coat, especially if the Great One had recently departed the chilly North Pole (where his closest neighbor is reputed to be Superman and his Fortress of Solitude), but fur pants in the lower forty-eight are just silly. Especially if the fellow wearing them is excessively jolly. That will just invite taunting.

Assuming the fabulous sled being pulled by eight flying reindeer has been upgraded in recent years, I’m sure there is a heater on board. Let’s lose the crazy pants and put on something reasonable. Dockers, for example.

And where is PETA in this whole conundrum? They should definitely be boycotting fur pants, whether it is fake fur or not. Fake fur pants are simply a gateway drug to real fur pants, especially during this time when everyone wants to feel Christmasy. PETA likes to say, “Be comfortable in your own skin; and let animals keep theirs.” They should include Santa in their recriminations.

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.

How joyful an image! How healthful! A cloud of smoke, pumped voluminously from a stinky pipe clenched between his rosy cheeks. I can just assume that as soon as the song is over, St. Nick is coughing his lungs out through his brown teeth. As little Suzie or Jimmy wander down stairs to check on the “clatter,” they get a good five years’ worth of secondhand smoke in a matter of seconds.

Happy holidays, kids! We hope you enjoy the Christmas stench! Now, see if you can find that can of peppermint chewing tobacco that Santa left in your stocking! Speaking of stockings . . .

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk.

Sure, in this case “jerk” means yank, or jolt, or twitch. All of you old people get it, but try reading the poem to a classroom full of prepubescent pupils. I did recently. As soon as I said, “then turned with a jerk” half the class started yelling at me.

“You said a bad word!”

“You mean ‘jerk’? Give me a break, kids, it’s just a stupid poem.”

“Ooh, I’m telling Miss Perkins. You said the s-word.”

I was certain I had done no such thing, until they informed me that “stupid” is the new s-word. The other s-word is too common in the movies and videogames that even the youngest children see that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow anymore. But say “stupid” and you are suddenly the Anti-Santa.

Or “jerk.” You can’t say that at school anymore either. Unless you are talking about a substitute teacher. I have been called Grinch, and I have been called Scrooge.

But I believe this was the first time I was called a Christmas Jerk.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


There are a lot of parking lots in the world. Environmentalist wackos like to decry the number of cars polluting the planet, and goodness knows the house next door to me has about eight vehicles and only three licensed drivers, but just imagine how this extrapolates to parking lots.

All of the cars on the planet aren’t being used at any given moment, but spots have to be available in front of every convenience store, exercise center, or proctologist’s office for anybody who might drive up. That’s a lot of asphalt. Wide open and ready for use. If only someone would drive in.

For some reason, I find myself in a lot of parking lots. I might be taking a short cut on one of my runs, or I might just be looking for dropped coins, but as I stand there I think, “Hmm, what a waste of land” and I think, “Hmm, what’s with those folks who don’t know how to park properly?”

Whether the lot is full or not, I can always find some vehicles that aren’t parked nose in. You know, the way the rest of us park. There is an unwritten social contract that says we all park the same way: headlights facing front, blinding the old geezer reaching for the gearshift in his own car.

In some cases the social contract isn’t unwritten. To stem the tide of these ne’er-do-wells, some small and private lots post un-unwritten rules. “Please park forward.” That’s the nice one. “Do not back in.” That’s the one for when nice just doesn’t cut it. There is a reason such a request, whether it is cute and informal or brisk and direct, is made. That reason is “a friend of mine.”

I had a friend a while back who always used to park his van backwards in parking lots, and even on his own driveway. It took him slightly longer to park, what with the three-point turn and having to carefully navigate in reverse between other vehicles, but his departures were much quicker than those of us who had to back out.

He could just floor the gas pedal and turn the wheel. It made escapes much easier, which is possibly why he did it. He had a lifestyle, which, shall we say, obligated him to be able to flee at a moment’s notice.

Those who might have been after him are the same who also park rear-in when they take a short break to buy doughnuts and coffee. Every police car I see in front of a convenience store or pastry shop is always parked nose-out. That’s when it hit me: it was either to aid in fleeing, or in pursuing. The fugitive needs an easy out, and the hunter needs to be able to quickly follow. The rest of us ease into our slot and then carefully back up later after the proctologist declares us fit and healthy.

Backing out of a parking space certainly takes care, but it seems harder to back in. You have to crank your head around until it is ready to spin off your shoulders, and the tires that are leading the vehicle aren’t the ones that turn. That makes it more problematic.

Because it is more difficult, it takes more time, and every time someone is trying to back into a spot in a crowded parking lot, traffic begins to back up. That’s why we have the social contract. If the traffic flow is messed up, it leads to flaring tempers, and the world ends in a fiery rain of anger.

I can’t see going to all that trouble. We all should do whatever we can to prevent the world from ending in an angry rain of fire.

Better everyone just stops parking backwards. Granted that police officers should be allowed to back in whenever they are on duty—lest they arrive late to the scene of the crime—they shouldn’t do it out of habit in their private vehicles. Likewise, criminals shouldn't park that way because now, with no one else doing it, their getaway car will stick out like a sore thumb.

The obvious nature of their criminal enterprise will be further exacerbated by them running around, guns drawn, with alarms blaring behind them. They need a better getaway plan than simply the rear-parked car.

If you, or someone you know, need to discuss options for fleeing, you should talk to my old friend. Just call ahead to make sure the facility isn’t in lockdown.

And only use his ideas that were successful.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


If the name Ron Popeil sounds familiar to you, it is probably because at some point in the past you have purchased one or more of his products. Chop-o-matic. Inside-the-Egg Scrambler. Showtime Rotisserie. And don’t tell me you’ve seen him on TV but never called the 800 number. I know there is a Pocket Fisherman somewhere in one of your closets, you just don’t want to admit it.

Another of his infomercials offered GLH-9, otherwise known as Great Looking Hair Formula #9. This was, in essence, spray paint for your head. It may have been nutty, it may have been ludicrous, but it made the man some serious money. I don’t know if the stories of gunk running down from hairlines during strong winter storms are true, but if mascara runs when the ladies cry, why wouldn’t hair thickener?

The garden equivalent of GLH-9 has now been unleashed on the world. There are companies offering to come and paint your yard, either to improve the home’s curb appeal while it is for sale, or to cut down on your watering bill. Or just because you like to be the first person on your block to do something stupid.

It seems to me most lawns that would qualify for a nice coat of paint probably front a home in a similar state of neglect. If the porch is piled with faded newspapers, and the front door handle has one of those jumbo realtor lock safes and several pizza ads attached, and a curtain is blowing out of an upstairs bedroom window accidentally left open when the family secretly vacated the premises in the middle of the night several months earlier, then I’m thinking a new coat of Behr’s Lustrous Emerald is going to look rather ridiculous.

The theory of making your home look as presentable as possible when trying to sell it makes sense. Picking up the toys, doing the dishes, making sure the men and boys in the house haven’t completely fouled the area in and around the toilet—these are easy, cheap, and logical. The fact that this practice has morphed into an entire home staging industry is surprising.

That it has now reached the point that we are considering painting lawns is madness.

I know people who dye their hair (dye—not spray paint). I have heard some of them say “this is the last time,” generally when they are trying to bridge the gap between years of dye jobs and a coming out of their glorious elder gray. Every time the roots start to show, though, they rush back for auburn highlights, unwilling to suffer through the inevitable transformation.

Here’s the thing: you’re not fooling anyone. Same with a bad toupee, too tight clothes, or teeth so white and straight that they look they were chiseled off a marble statue. Real life ain’t so perfect. It has rough edges, imperfections . . . and brown lawns when no one is watering.

The same thing would happen outside your front door. If the grass needs to be painted twice a year at a cost of up to $500, are you really saving any money? And if you have only “cut back” on your watering, aren’t you still encouraging its growth, and, therefore, its roots to show?

I thought the fake lawn had hit its low point years ago with Astroturf. For sport fields I can understand it, but it makes no sense at home. Despite the protestations of synthetic lawn proponents, I know it is ridiculous, because the vast majority of people won’t do it. And by “vast” I mean so many people that I might as well say “everyone.” Doesn’t matter how brown their lawns are or how high their water bill goes, plastic grass just doesn’t cut it at home.

This newest debacle will surely fade, no matter how they try to pitch it. First it was to help improve the fading beauty of foreclosed properties, but it wasn’t a huge hit, plus foreclosures inevitably decreased. So now it is marketed to citizens in the midst of a drought.

It still won’t sell.

Would a homebuyer prefer to see an abandoned and foreclosed property with a perfectly manicured and beautiful lawn? Or would that give them something to worry about? Who’s been taking care of it? Squatters? Maybe the green paint running across the sidewalk after a light rain is the clue.

“They painted their lawn?” the potential buyer says. “What, they think we’re idiots?” And off they go to look at another house.

Pretty soon some knucklehead so-called entrepreneur will suggest painting backyard patios blue and calling them swimming pools.

And bigger knuckleheads will actually do it.


Last year we had a Christmas tree in the house, after several years of not. Actually, some of those several years we had alternatrees that did not suit the needs of three children. Sure, they want to be all grown up and have driver licenses and are practically ready to move out on their own if you asked them, but send around the holidays and they clam up their cries for independence and want instead presents and trees and stockings-full.

One year our untree was made from backyard scraps. I had some extra PVC pipe from a sprinkler project and I decided to build our own Christmas tree. It was more or less a pipe pyramid, with holes drilled along the tubes to hang ornaments. Lights were strung across and around, and it lit up just like any other Christmas trees. The kids demanded that it never come back.

Then there was the year we inherited a twelve-inch potted tree. We placed it on one of the stereo speakers and hung all the ornaments it could hold: about three. It was a legitimate Christmas tree, but would be better served in the land of midgets. The kids said they should be able to gather around our Christmas tree and look up in wonder. Not down.

I think it ended up in the trash.

There have even been a couple of years with no tree at all, real or alternate. Blame my frugality, or the misguided notion that it is cruel and unusual punishment to the tree. When you stop having a tree, the pattern ingrains. Last year’s tree almost broke the trend, but it was a fake tree we inherited from a friend. It had built in lights, went together fairly easily, and looked great. But the damned thing weighed a ton! Where was I going to keep it the other forty-eight weeks of the year?

So I found a great place to store it: the Salvation Army. Now it is in the way at someone else’s house.

This year there was again a debate about getting a tree. I was told that Kate was going away to college next year, that the house would smell great, that darn it the kids just wanted one! The kids, the kids, it’s all about the kids! It also ended up being all about the fact that it was four to one in favor of getting a tree. I was the lone dissenting opinion.

What a surprise. I lost.

We were thinking of going up in the hills to cut one down as we had in earlier years when the kids were much smaller (and when a Christmas tree made more sense, but I have to whisper this or I’ll get in trouble all over again with the family). I had done the same with my family when I was a kid. Christmas tree farms are plentiful in the mountains surrounding the Bay Area: all you have to do is drive along their pitted, alignment-jarring roads, grab a long-handled saw, and murder the tree of your choice. It is a lovely holiday tradition.

For those clamoring for a tree, all I asked was that it be a family trip, so that we could spend time together crammed into the car, whining about whose foot was in who’s space and can’t you just scoot over a little bit? You all want a tree? FINE! Get in the car and be quiet!

I don’t know what I was thinking. Why would I torture myself that way?

Instead we opted for a lovely specimen retrieved from the jolly holiday Home Depot parking lot. It worked out perfectly because Kelsey was practicing her driving skills in anticipation of her upcoming test and Kristin was in the car with her. Kristin was the real ringleader in the coup to get a tree, so I said, “Go, get a tree, have fun!”

They were driving down the road and saw the sign for cheap trees, and without causing an accident Kelsey made a legal left turn and parked mostly straight. Now the tree is in the house, and even I can admit it looks splendid. I had to do very little, nothing more than hold it straight while the kids screwed the clamps directly into its soft pulp.

Say, was that the sound of a tree screaming? Oh well, who cares, there’s is a nice pine aroma in the living room, glittering lights and shiny ornaments are festive and pretty, who cares if the decorated thing is dying. We can mask its pain with another decorative strand of tinsel. We can drown out its cries for help by singing the Christmas carols a little louder.


“Hey, maybe we should pick a different song,” I said.

Pine needles are strewn from one end of the house to the other, compliments of the dog, and we are on constant fire alert. “Did you water the tree?” “Who watered the tree?” “Does the tree have water?” I figure if the tree goes up in flames we can just borrow some chestnuts from whichever nutty neighbor would have some, and we can roast, roast, roast away!

Open fire, indeed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


There are some awfully confusing signs during the teenaged years of the common American. Are you getting the sign to give a kiss at the end of the date, or are you getting the brush off? Do your friends like you because you are strong, or funny, or because you have the keys to your dad’s liquor cabinet?

In my house we debate whether having your house toilet papered is a sign of respect or the very opposite of respect. Otherwise known as disrespect. When I was a kid it was a sign of popularity. No one would spend the time and money festooning someone else’s front yard with strands of toilet tissue unless they liked the victim.

Kristin recalls that it was more of an insult, as in “normally I’d use this to wipe my backside, but tonight I’d rather scatter it willy-nilly amongst your foliage.” Though I doubt such hooligans actually used the word “foliage.” And since Kristin hearkens from very near the hill country of North Carolina, the youth there could be forgiven their ignorance of whether respect is good or the opposite of respect is good. They were probably too busy hunting for ingredients for that evening’s road-kill chili to attend school.

Our house was egged a year ago (yes, I am pretty sure an egg bombardment is not meant as a compliment) but we had thus far been able to escape the toilet papering. Until this summer.

I was going to bed one evening when one daughter or the other received an alarming call on her cellular telephone. A friend of hers had noted something odd going on around our property as he drove by, so he called to report it. (Why didn’t he just stop and intercede? I dunno. I asked the same question, and got no answer.)

There is, of course, no logical reason that he should be driving right there, right then, but such is the logic of teenagers. It was all just a big cowinky-dink, they both said, and they swear so to this very day.

I was much more interested in going to bed, but I decided to check the perimeter of the house, just to make sure we were all safe and sound. The friend had no details other than “shadowy figures.” The dog hadn’t gone crazy, as she does when she smells or hears or psychically intuits ne’er-do-wells on the premises, so I expected to find nothing before heading quickly to my slumber.

On the front porch I immediately identified strands of flowing white tissue draped across the yard and could tell that we had been papered. No worries, I thought, it’s a compliment. It only happens to popular people. I thought about which one of my friends might have done it.

Then I realized I wasn’t seventeen anymore. It had nothing to do with me. Someone who knows one or more of my children had pilfered the rolls from their own house and proceeded to decorate mine. In honor of one of the three youngest Baxters. For a moment I was proud.

Then I went to clean it up, and I saw what a terrible job they had done. It was really embarrassing, how poor their efforts were.

It’s true that we didn’t really give much for the offending morons to work with. The front tree was replaced a few years ago with a lovely maple Autumn Blaze that still doesn’t stand tall enough to serve such a thrashing. The only other front yard tree, at the end of the driveway, was chainsawed to a height of three feet just last year.

That doesn’t leave much, does it? The large oleander took the brunt of the damage, but it was cleaned up in about thirty seconds. Some was scattered over small bushes but it was really a pathetic effort. There were two benches they could have covered, and the basketball hoop was completely ignored. Bad, really bad, boys and girls. Next time, try a little harder, eh?

When the neighbors woke the next morning there was really nothing different about the Baxter property. The yard was still yellow and weedy like it had been one day earlier. I missed one two-foot strip at the top of the oleander but that was gone as soon as I saw it in the light of day.

As the so-called victim of this crime, let me simply say that it was much easier to clean up than the egging of twelve months or so ago. Thank you, boys and girls, for using a paper product rather than a protein-based food. I really appreciate it. But it doesn’t make up for the poor quality of your work.

In the final analysis, because I was outside shortly after the aerial assault ended, I gained four rolls of only partially used toilet paper that the youthful hooligans were nice enough to leave on my front lawn. They couldn’t even be bothered to use up their supplies. No one else in the house had any interest in using the free toilet paper, but I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Seriously, the unrolled parts weren’t wet at all! Or dirty!

Everything worked out in the end, except I wonder if the lackadaisical manner in which the hoodlums approached this “job” is indicative of their future performance for the employer foolish enough to hire them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Let me preface this wordy bit of self-denigration by insisting that I am not utterly devoid of basic social skills—I just keep them well hidden. I don’t engage in friendly banter, I ignore the proper utensil order when setting the table (but hey, I am setting the table for goodness sake!), and I couldn't care less if I’m caught wearing pink after Labor Day. Or whichever color is verboten.

Kristin doesn’t have these problems. She is not obsessed with the formality of proper behavior, but she can toe the line and behave in an appropriately grown-up manner when necessary. This might stem from the fact that she was nearly a debutante during her upbringing in North Carolina. She escaped, however, to California and saved herself that ignominy.

Whenever visitors descend on our house, therefore, Kristin is the designated host. She can greet with a smile (I do not) and effortlessly relieve the intruders, I mean guests, of their burdensome purses and jackets (I will not). Kristin can also provide a refreshing beverage without even asking what they’d like—she’s that good.

I’ll point out the kitchen faucet and assume the guests can find the nearby drinking glasses. That is, if I have even bothered to look up from whatever I am reading on the couch. It’s not so much disinterest as it is a lack of interest.

The most recent social event at our house was comprised of thirty teenaged girls, blowing in from the nearby high school for a pre-game pasta dinner and taking over my house in a loud and teenaged fashion.

It was “pre-game” by about twenty-four hours. The field hockey game was the next day, but the girls often gather one day prior for a team-building meal. This started out several years ago as pasta dinners—probably because it was cost effective—but have morphed into whatever the host-daughter can convince her parents to provide.

Kelsey (defender and occasional goalie) wanted me to barbecue burgers this time. It had everything: the party atmosphere of grilled meat; not the regular boring food; and me cooking in the backyard (in other words, out of the house). The latter was important to help make the evening more enjoyable for everyone.

This was no assembly line, “you’ll get it like I like it,” meal. I have served those to my own children for the better part of two decades. Doing that in this instance would have resulted in thirty-plus burgers with mustard and onion and nothing else, and plenty of disgruntled girls with strong arms and long sticks ready to do me damage if I didn’t become a little more flexible.

Kelsey made sure I had a couple of vegetarian patties available, and even a few hot dogs. There were condiments galore, cheese if you please, and various vegetables (lettuce, tomato, onion) that I knew would go mostly unused.

Never fear: they would be Kelsey’s dinner salad the next night.

The grilling started off reasonably well before the players arrived, and while it never really went out of control, it most definitely toyed with the idea for a while. I cooked more meat than this at any given dinner service back when I worked at Burger Pit, but I was dealing with a much smaller work area in the backyard, and possibly more flammable food.

Apparently thirty individual hamburger patties, each comprised of roughly 83% real meat, drop a tremendous amount of melting fat on the flames beneath. This only angered the flames, which rose high to melt even more fat and perhaps even remove my eyebrows if I was standing too close. At one point I was disoriented by the smoke, and the flames reached out to grab my best spatula. I rescued it in the nick of time.

Despite the fact that I had been banished to the backyard to be away from the crowd, the party slowly moved toward me. The girls were sitting on the ground and chatting over snacks, though I know some were watching me trying to beat back the inferno. They were probably worried about their meal, and quite possibly I had become the evening’s entertainment.

In the final analysis, the only charred meat was served on my own dinner plate, and the guests were all satisfied. When the gas was finally shut off, I was left on my own. Kristin took care of whatever else came up, with assistance from Kelsey. Like a flock of birds, the team departed in a mad rush, just as they had arrived.

They were all appreciative and called out “Thanks!” on the way through the front door. I waved and left them alone, because I didn’t belong at the center of the evening’s festivities. I belonged behind the scenes, especially as this was rather a rather large party. Quick, but large. My hosting skills have atrophied, although I can imagine this possibility:

“Baxter, party of one?” Now that’s a party I could host.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


A horde descended on places of commerce recently, and though it wasn’t a plague of locusts or an invasion of zombies, it was no less destructive. Those who survived congratulated themselves on surviving, and also for finding seventy percent off deals that would be the envy of their friends (unless those friends got seventy-five percent off elsewhere).

In the wake of the event were store shelves torn from their moorings, disheveled stacks of slacks and sweaters, minor flesh wounds such as dislocated digits caused by tug-‘o-wars for electronic gizmos, and an abundance of lessons for the younger citizens on how not to behave. Watch the news tonight, kids, maybe you’ll see mama fighting for your Christmas gifts. I loooooove this time of year!

Welcome to the world of competitive shopping.

The term Black Friday has multiple origins, but nowadays it refers primarily to the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. Stores used to mail print ads to bring shoppers out the day after Thanksgiving, and everything was going along normally, even in the midst of the capitalist machine.

Then, it went nuts. Stores started offering bigger discounts and nuttier hours. It wasn’t only a competition for those spending money they didn’t have, it became a rivalry between Toys R Dust and Best Byze. If one opened their doors at six a.m., another tried five. Four o’clock in the morning wasn’t unheard of, and was only surpassed by those willing to welcome customers at midnight before the turkey dinner was even digested.

Experts say this doesn’t increase sales, but it certainly makes for excitement. It shouldn’t be newsworthy, and yet there are the reporters and the cameras and, sadly, the coroners. On Black Friday ‘08, one unfortunate fellow was trampled in New York by a mob trying to enter a store where he was working, and two idiots shot themselves to death in California outside a store after fighting inside.

Okay, argue with me that the California lunacy wasn’t directly related to Black Friday, but hey, they were out in the crowded store, where stress was on sale right next to Disney Monopoly and cable knit sweaters. It could not have helped their mood. And you know, they might have been fighting over Transformer action figures. So there you go.

I deplore the mass hysteria and blame everyone involved, from the stores ill-equipped to deal with large crowds to the individuals who, together, become the large crowds, but I realize that the mass of people out shopping last Friday did so without calamity. Parking was difficult, lines were long, and frustration was likely simmering, but most shoppers probably expected it and dealt with it in an appropriate manner.

My son was out at midnight, with a friend who had money to spend. Kyle was low on funds, so he was just along for the ride. When he got home in the morning, he went to bed. Everything worked out. I stayed at home all day, didn’t spend a dime on anything, and everything worked out for me as well.

So next year, let the eager beavers rush out and spend their time and money as they see fit. Let the stores open early if they can find employees willing to work. And let us all keep our heads. Black Friday will always come to an end, and the TV economists will debate if it was a strong indicator for the retail sector, and I will still stay at home.

I have found a different event to celebrate for Turkey Day Friday, and that is called Buy Nothing Day. Proponents don’t advocate the end of the consumption-based economy, but they do say, “Hey, give yourself a break, don’t spend anything today and see how you feel!” To some degree it makes sense, because you do get to avoid a certain amount of the madness.

But my brother has a point when he says that folks on either side of the spectrum—to buy nothing or to buy everything in sight—are bombastic when they complain about their opposites. It is possible to be unpleasantly dogmatic about your position, and to skip over that whole “live and let live” philosophy. Which is odd in this supposed festive time of year.

To mock the housebound when standing in the checkout line, or to rant at the TV images of Black Friday shoppers from the comfort of your own home, is the same unpleasantness.

Either way, you destroy your soul in the process.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I used to be one of those people who jockeys for the “best” checkout line at the grocery store. I would approach stealthily, counting the heads I could see above the candy racks, but checking for short customers as well. It’s often the short ones that get you to commit to an aisle before you see them.

If the conveyor belt had a lot of little items on it, that would be a bad aisle. Loaded with larger items (24-pack toilet tissue, large bags of dog food, or, my personal favorite, cases of beer) I knew that the clerk would be able to move it along quickly. It was amazing how much time I would spend analyzing such a small part of my daily existence.

Now I’m a little more relaxed. I don’t purposely aim for the aisle with the doddering or chatty clerk who will slow everything down, or the customer who doesn't begin rummaging through his or her purse or pocket for the debit card until after the grand total is announced . . . I’m not a masochist.

But I pick an aisle and go with the flow. No switching to what appears to be greener pastures once I’ve committed. If things slow down I’ll just read the covers of the silly newspapers and magazines in the racks. Or I’ll wonder how they can charge a buck ninety-nine for my beloved Reese’s peanut butter cup two-pack.

I was subbing in a kindergarten class recently that reminded me of the grocery line competition that we all go through. Really. Bear with me for a moment. As we approached the cafeteria at lunchtime we found a conundrum worthy of the most impacted register at the local Safeway (or Raley’s, or Whole Foods, or the regional food store of your choice). The line was long and it wasn’t moving. There were no options in this, the only, hot lunch line. Trying to move around a slower moving class would have just been rude.

It was the first day of a new ID card system, where the students were expected to walk up to a large display and promptly find their card amongst hundreds. Fact 1: the cards were not grouped logically by class. Fact 2: the font used for the students’ names was tiny. Fact 3: these were five-year-olds I was trying to help. Fact 4: I was the last of four kindergarten classes to get in the line.

Final outcome, half our lunch period was spent waiting in line. Just like when I show up at the store at 5 p.m. to buy a carton of milk and some apples (okay, a six-pack of beer and a box of Bagel Bites) and everyone else has a cart full of a week’s worth of groceries.

On the positive side, by the time we got to the board many of the cards were already taken, so it was a little quicker for us. Still, the pupils were quite antsy. I wondered briefly if these small citizens would be the ones to grow up and bollix up the lines at my neighborhood grocery. We may have been teaching math and reading in class that day, but we certainly weren’t educating them on effective line management skills.

That sub assignment was exasperating, at least during lunch. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I did a four-day stint in 7th and 8th grade P.E. Those kids don’t even know the meaning of the word line. We tried to line up to take attendance but they hovered around like drunken bees. Every time I got eight or ten to stand still, eight or ten others would flit about with their friends.

“Line up!” I’d yell again. Some smart aleck would point out that they are each supposed to stand on one of forty numbers that were laid out in a five by eight grid on the black top. “Fine,” I’d say. “Number up!”

“Number up?” several muttered. Others were tiring and began sitting on their numbers.

“Stand up!” Complaints came from every corner, except for those pupils who had already wandered off. I’d lost control. Line up, number up, stand up, none of it was working, so I went with my standard response. The one that indicates I have lost all control.

“Shut up!”

They hadn’t lined, numbered, or stood, so of course they didn’t shut either. Finally, I did what any self-respecting substitute teacher would do: I handed the roster to a future Employee of the Month grocery store clerk and asked her to mark down anyone she couldn’t see.

She would learn some valuable inventory skills, and the knuckleheads would get some practice lining up for detention.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I have finally discovered what has led to the good fortune showered upon me during my lifetime. Years ago I thought it was marrying Kristin, a smart, hardworking girl who had great potential from salary and childbearing perspectives. Later it was working for Automatic Data Processing, with its stock options for upper management and the life skills it taught me, like how to fire people without feeling guilty.

Now I have figured out what has truly been my lucky charm, and it turns out I’ve been carrying it around since I was fifteen years old.

Yes, the 1977 version was a wispy and laughable amusement, but ever since I first let the hair between my nose and upper lip grow unimpeded, things have been going great.

Perhaps calling that eighth grade atrocity a mustache is being too generous, but it shows up in pictures from that era. So it was either a mustache or a shadow or a bit of dirt. Pardon my ego stroking if I’m sticking with the first option.

During my high school years I was led to believe that the whiskers were the key to girls. At least that’s what the guys with facial hair said. I did ask a few girls out, and a few said yes, but usually within a short period of time they would discover that there was really nothing of interest besides the mustache. Then the girls would go off to find another boy with perhaps a thicker, more luxuriant lip warmer.

Or maybe the other boys were more interesting. Could that be it?

I shaved on occasion, but that was just to knock down the weeds, so to speak. The first real removal of an honest-to-goodness mustache was at the end of my senior year, when I shaved off the whole thing along with my first attempt at a beard and, for some peculiar reason, put the trimmings in a box and presented it to one of the guidance counselors at school.

I’m sure she thought I was the creepiest guy to ever pass through those hallowed halls, but she always liked my older sister so she forgave me. I think.

During the ensuing thirty years or so, I have had a mustache and beard combo for probably 363 days out of every 365. I cut it all off every once in a while, but typically it begins growing back in a matter of hours. I don’t like what I see in the mirror when I have nothing to hide behind.

The American Mustache Institute (yes, there really is such an entity, dedicated to “fighting discrimination against mustached Americans”) has a veritable laundry list of great mustachioed men, their worldly accomplishments, and how having a mustache improves not only the life of the wearer, but the lives of all with whom he comes in contact. The AMI also recently reported that those of us with hair under our nose earn 4.3% more than the clean-shaven.

Hooray! This is why I have a mustache, to better fill my retirement accounts. I’ve heard that taller people make more than the vertically challenged (another notch in my favor), and reportedly people of my gender earn more than the opposite sex (although not in my house). Once again, everything was going my way. Then I read the bad news: the mustached fellows actually earn 8.2% more than those with a beard.

Egads! How horrible! Just when I thought I was doing all right, I learn that my beard is likely holding me back. If I had stuck with a ‘stache by itself, not only would I look like Tom Selleck or Hulk Hogan but I could have retired at 35. Why, or why, did I ever grow a beard?

Oh yeah, the reason that I maintain facial hair to this very day is that I am just too lazy to shave regularly, despite the fact that the AMI says I’d be richer with a chin that showed. They also taunt the bearded among us, claiming that we spend three percent of our income on beard combs and lice removal kits—a number that I dispute most vociferously.

It turns out that the American Mustache Institute, while defending the mustached against discrimination, actually discriminate against those of us with beards. They call my facial hair a “spousal compromise,” and claim that I am not man enough to go with just a mustache, a lip brow, a soup strainer.

Shame on you, AMI, we should be working toward unity and not fomenting discord, or making silly lists of mustache euphemisms (lip hugger, push broom, face sweater, hair snake, etc.). Everyone with facial hair should feel welcome in your little club.

Even the ladies.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


There are many auditory experiences that can be enjoyable, yet such divergence between what individuals want to listen to. Some people love the joyful shrieks of children; their childless neighbors do not. Opinions differ on train horns, cacophonous sports stadiums, and even the haunting hoot of a great horned owl.

I have few friends or family members who share my primary taste in music, so we simply agree to disagree and find something innocuous along the middle path during parties and family gatherings. Something that won’t offend anyone.

Which pretty much ensures that it won’t please anyone either.

When it comes to making music, I exist in a similar gray area. For a goodly number of years I warbled on a clarinet, and to a lesser extent, a tenor saxophone, but with the exception of a solo or two I was rarely heard on my own. Instead, I was simply a member of the instrumental chorus. It was a good place to hide.

My rattling the keys of woodwinds ended many years ago, so the only music you are likely to hear me making at this point in my life is when I press “play” on my iPod or when I sing in the shower. For your sake, I hope you never experience the latter. First of all, it isn’t that good. Secondly . . . why are you in the bathroom when I am bathing?

I sound all right echoing off the tile enclosure and with copious amounts of water streaming over my ears, but in the light of day (make that: in the tone of the day) I don’t have a singing voice worth listening to. I was never comfortable singing in a group at church—yes, Doubting Thomases, at some point in the distant past I had the opportunity to sing hymns at church—or belting out The Star Spangled Banner at a ball game. I’d sooner just mouth the words.

That was my advice to Kristin as she prepared for her first singing gig in over twenty years. “Just mouth the words,” I said, “no one will know.” Turns out that just isn’t good advice for someone who loves to sing.

You see, when she was a younger woman, Kristin minored in music at college and sang in several concerts before I whisked her off her feet and got her barefoot and pregnant. I demanded she keep my house clean and my refrigerator well-stocked, and by the way, make a little money as well. More than a little if possible. Before you knew it, two decades had passed.

During those long years the refrigerator always had a variety of delicious and healthy options for us all—me, the little woman, and the growing kids. So some things worked out just fine.

Other things didn’t. Kristin missed her singing. Real life had gotten in the way. And maybe me as well. Recently, however, she was able to rectify the situation.

Through a colleague at school she heard of a choral group based in the Bay Area that was having tryouts for their new season. In trying to keep the group fresh, the director was requiring all members to try out, even those who had been in the group for years. There were about seventy folks trying to be one of the lucky forty.

Kristin had a shaky first tryout, hooked up with a vocal coach for several lessons, and practiced her heart out. Unlike me, she can sit in a chair or at the piano and sing . . . actually sing a song that makes people say, “Hey, that girl can sing!” Raw talent, buried beneath real life.

In the end, she got the golden ticket! She made the team! Kristin was handed forty-five songs to learn for the upcoming season, a series of four concerts from October to June. Plus a four-day trip in the spring to Arizona where they will compete against other choral groups. And for the ultimate in jaw-droppers: a visit to Barcelona, Spain, for an international competition in late 2011.

This ain’t no glee club we’re talking about, ladies and gentlemen. This is some serious singing business, and Kristin has the chops. Recently the group had a fundraising gala to start off the new season. Kristin was nervous, and that’s when I gave her the best advice I had: “Just mouth the words.”

She politely declined, and then asked why I was wearing Kelsey’s soccer socks to the concert. It turns out that with my wardrobe downsizing in recent years and the infrequent use I have for fancy clothes, I don’t have many fancy clothes. The brown shoes matched the brown slacks, but the belt and the pin-striped shirt would have looked better with black or blue.

The tube socks were nothing less than a grotesquery. While Kristin sang like a beautiful nightingale, I sat with borrowed lengthy knit black socks showing between my brown shoes and slacks. The audience didn’t notice, because it wasn’t a fashion show, it was a musical concert.

But if I had worn the only alternative—my white running socks that wouldn’t have ridden up high enough to cover my hairy legs—there surely would have been a public outcry. Fortunately, the amazing choral performance of Kristin and her fellow warblers distracted everyone from the doofuses in the audience.

Or perhaps I should just say “doofus.”