Sunday, December 26, 2010


Amidst the hoopla of resolving to eat right or exercise more—because January 1 is upon us and we all must now make numerous and uncommitted promises to ourselves to turn from the slippery slope of bad habits on which we are currently slipping—I fear a contraption has entered my home. This was somewhat surprising, as I fervently work toward nothing entering my home. Ever. I am a minimalist, and stuff is my Kryptonite.

It happened like it always does. Someone says, “Hey, I’ll give you [thing]. I’ll bring it over, set it up, provide supplemental parts, etc etc etc.” This is said in an excited tone of voice and you are swept over by the notion of now owning this thing you didn’t know you didn’t need.

There are some cases in recorded history where this did not end in fiasco. I can imagine Ben Franklin dropping off a lovely ink pen set to his friend Thomas Jefferson rather than selling it at his neighbor’s garage sale. Good ol’ Tom could then have used it to write the Declaration of Independence. Sure, this turned out great for the rest of us, but it was still one guy dumping his junk at his pal’s house.

And what of the Wright brothers, you are probably asking yourself right now. Would we be happy to know that their first flight would not have been possible without a collection of scrap gears (and maybe airplane schematics) that others gave away rather than throw away?

Every time, either in these historically inaccurate stories or in real life, such presumed “helpfulness” is really the transfer of crap from one place to another, and I have learned to pathologically fear participating. I have stood firm for many years now. Why, then, is there a twenty-year-old Soloflex in my spare bedroom?

I could blame Kate for moving out and leaving an empty room in her wake, but that was destined to happen at some point, one way or another, so perhaps I should have had a better plan. I suggested to Kristin that we set up a home brewing operation in the room, but the combination of open flame and gallons of fermenting liquid was a deal breaker.

I was talking about fitness with this guy I know, and how running and bicycling is serving me well below the belt, but that my upper body is beginning to wither. Nearing a half-century of use, and no longer doing the heavy lifting common to a younger man. Now I get one of the kids to move the furniture or hoist the box into the garage loft, or I avoid the task entirely.

Helpful Guy said, “Hey, take my Soloflex.” He helped load it in my car, he helped me understand how to set it up, and he helped himself to a good laugh as I drove off.

One heavy piece of stuff that he would no longer need to deal with.

Mind you, he had upgraded to a better workout machine years ago, and had kept the Soloflex in a corner of the room. It was doing well as a dirty clothes organizer but he was happy to get rid of it. The only question was would it turn out to be a sensible thing for me to have acquired, or would I rue the day.

Let’s consider the past. Kristin and I purchased one of those silly riding machines many years ago. I think it was called a Healthrider or something like that. We used it for about a week. Then it started to collect dust and dirty clothes and eventually we found some poor sucker to take it. We inherited a rowing machine at one point and spent far more time stepping around it than we ever did sitting in it.

I had an old barbell from my teenaged years that was shoveled off to one corner or another in one room or another. Kristin’s parents have given us a mini trampoline or two, and Kristin has purchased Pilates DVDs and those big balancing balls. None are ever used.

The fact is that these kinds of items aren’t used in 99% of the homes that have them. They become “stuff.” And everyone ignores their own stuff before they find an easy way to make it someone else’s stuff.

The Soloflex, then, just might be doomed. Kyle and I looked over the poster-sized operating directions and have identified certain exercises we enjoy. Moving the bars and the rubber straps that provide resistance is mildly annoying, so if we have a plan to do exercises that minimize the number of adjustments we are more likely to use the machine.

First, of course, we have to open the door to the room where it hides, and we have to actually use it. So far we are not batting a thousand.

Hey, you wouldn’t be interested in a fine piece of home exercise equipment, would you? I’d be happy to bring it over . . .

Sunday, December 19, 2010


“It’s the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you’ll be of good cheer. It’s the most wonderful time of the year” . . . with everyone yelling the Christmas season started way too early and does it really have to be so commercialized and whatever happened to the real meaning of Christmas and can’t we all just get along?

The only reason Christmas has been able to stake out so much acreage on the yearly calendar is its popularity. People love the decorating and the giving and receiving and the glad tidings and Rudolph’s bright nose and the associated winter holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and stores and other commercial enterprises are thoroughly thrilled by the likelihood of increasing their bottom line and nothing does that better than great big “Christmas Sale!” signs as early as possible.

Some day we may indeed witness Christmas displays going up just as the Independence Day bunting is taken down. And the only thing that could suitably follow that catastrophe would be the entire city becoming one big year-round Christmas in July gift shop.

It’s not just people who are griping. Other holidays are feeling shoved out of the way and they are beginning to speak up. At a fictitious city council meeting recently held in the city of [name removed], several holiday symbols, including a menorah and a cornucopia, protested a 7-0 vote to drape tinsel on the lights on Main Street in mid-October. No arrests were made, but there was some serious tension when the menorah began waving around its lit candles.

Rather than civil unrest, I think there is a better way. For example, instead of mindlessly complaining that Halloween’s formerly sacred time is being invaded by the spirit of Christmas, folks should adopt some Christmas images for October 31. That will simultaneously prove the point while taking all the air out of Santa’s posturing. It’s so annoying when he struts around his North Pole workshop saying, “Who’s your daddy? That’s right, Santa’s your daddy.”

Next year, if you don’t like seeing Christmas starting up too early, stand up and fight back like the Angry Menorah (holiday symbol trademark pending). Pass out candy to everyone who comes to your front door throughout the fall season. Decorate your house with orange and black lights. And try some of the following ideas in your neighborhood to bring back the miracle of Halloween.

Send your kids out in reindeer ninja costumes, with sharpened antlers and brass hoof plates. Have them team up with other, similarly clad, children. Suggest mild forms of vandalism for them to perpetrate, whilst singing Christmas carols in scary voices.

Plant a few red, fuzzy Santa arms coming out of the front yard. This effect will be enhanced by some nearby gravestones. “R.I.P. St. Nick.” “Here lies Kris Kringle.” That kind of stuff.

Modify one of those now common Halloween decorations, replacing the witch with Santa and his sleigh. It’ll look like he slammed into a tree, no doubt killing the pilot and destroying the many gifts therein. Ho ho ho indeed! Cheerful scorch marks will add to the merriment.

Send Halloween cards to friends and family with a letter itemizing all of the horrible things that happened to you in the last year. Invent your personal catastrophes if you have to! Include photos of a Christmas tree aflame, with your children dressed as little evil elves, standing around the burning Tannenbaum toasting marshmallows made of the heads of little angels.

When setting the scene for this pictorial family memory, remember to watch out for molten, dripping tinsel, as that could cause major burns. Unless you plan to use such a misfortune for next year’s misery letter.

Any Frosty the Snowman rolled up in your front yard (for those of you lucky enough be digging out of October snow) should have a maniacal Jack-o-lantern face, carved out of ice with warmed utensils. A knife stuck in the ice crystal head would be a nice touch, and perhaps a spatter of ketchup.

Try any or all of these brilliant suggestions. No longer do earlier holidays have to suffer the transgressions of Christmas. Labor Day can be celebrated under the mistletoe. Easter decorations can be spruced up (and made more dangerous) with pointy holly leaves. Cheese logs for Flag Day, turkey-flavored candy canes for Thanksgiving, and nothing says Memorial Day like a poinsettia slowly dying on the living room coffee table.

Take that, Santa. Two months later, when Halloween is a memory and Christmas rolls around again, tell everyone you know that the bearded fellow will now be known as Svatý Mikuláš (that’s Saint Nicholas in Czech). It sounds ugly in its native tongue, and he brings potatoes and coal for the naughty kids. Brings to mind Charlie Brown and “I got a rock.” Halloween will have invaded Christmas.

The kids who have been nice will have to fend for themselves. Perhaps by going door-to-door and begging for candy!

Problem solved.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Yes, I am one of those sorry individuals who has Googled his own name. You might be laughing right now and thinking superior thoughts, such as “I’d never do such a thing!” or “How does it feel finding 0 hits?” or “What’s for dinner?” I applaud your self-control and your lack of involvement in the New World Order.

By the way, the answer is pork and beans.

Sometimes I do it to see if the local newspaper has included my latest column. I write for them once or twice a month, separate from this mattbaxx foolishness, and I like to print out a copy for the “All About Matt” bulletin board that dominates our living room wall as well as forward electronic copies to discriminating readers.

If I’ve never forwarded one to you, don’t be upset. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. You can stop by and see the bulletin board if you’d like to.

Enough about your insecurities, though, let’s talk about mine. I think when my name comes up people ought to be thinking about me. They ought to picture my face (full head of hair, rosy cheeks, wide smile—actually none of the above) and all of my accomplishments and where they were when they met me and aren’t I just the greatest Matt Baxter there is? But it turns out if you Google me you are likely to meet . . . someone else.

First and foremost there is always, the web home of quite an accomplished jazz guitar player. When I first wanted to preserve myself on the Internet, I found someone else already had. So I came up with mattbaxx. It was either that or, and let’s be honest, that was never going to trip smoothly off anyone’s tongue.

There’s also Matt Baxter, photographer extraordinaire in Tennessee. His pictures are nice, but he hasn’t updated his blog in nearly a year and a half. Slacker.

Matt Baxter, the head coach at the Portland [Maine] Porpoise Swim Club, also shows up on my self-congratulatory Googling. The Portland Porpoise web page has a picture of Matt with some of his young protégés, and he appears to be young, handsome, and bearded. I can relate. In at least one way.

And though he left one consonant out, Mat Baxter of Sydney, Australia, the former chief strategy officer at MediaCom, was recently appointed chief executive of Universal McCann (in a surprise move, some say). You probably hadn’t heard this news before because it happened in late August, the same time that I was celebrating my twenty-fifty wedding anniversary. Sometimes we Mat(t) Baxters cancel each other out.

In the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles, California, a fellow by the name of Matt Baxter was promoted to the position of Vice President, Multi-Platform Marketing. My only concern is that the position was described as “newly created,” which makes it sound less exciting. After all, Big Fish Marketing, his employer, is one of “the entertainment industry‘s preeminent brand marketing and advertising agencies, specializing in the design, creation and production of consumer and B-to-B campaigns.”

I don’t really know what that means, but if the position didn’t exist before, has this Matt sullied the reputation of us all by succumbing to the Peter Principle? Why did a new position have to be created for him? Was he a failure everywhere else? I demand an investigation! And until such time that we can determine the truth, I insist that he no longer be called Matt Baxter. We don’t want to sully the brand name, after all.

Matt Baxter is a Web developer in Dallas, and Matt Baxter is a senior at Kent Island High School in Maryland (running back on the football team), and Matt Baxter is a technician at Mike’s Foreign Car, Inc. in Anaheim, California. This last Matt gets good press on the company Web page:

“Matt has a degree in automotive repair from Automotive Training Center in Pennsylvania. He has ten years in the automotive industry as a Technician for Volkswagen Inc. He attained Expert Technician status through Volkswagen's training program and has the skills, knowledge and tools to fix your vehicle right the first time. The training he received from Volkswagen gave him the ability to be a great Technician!”

I think we can all agree if you need any work done on your 1981 pop-top Vanagon, go to Matt. Matt at Mike’s.

Finally, Matthew Baxter of Colorado (or just "Baxter" as he is commonly known) has been actively researching the paranormal for over fifteen years, dealing with such specialties as UFOs, ghosts, demonology, fraud detection, psychology, and cleansings, among other areas.

Hmm. The rest of us sound all right, as though we might be normal guys, going through life with a most extraordinary name. That last fella seems like a nut, and might just be ruining the name for the rest of us.

I think at the next Matt Baxter club meeting I’ll propose that our membership director (Matt Baxter) begin to take a look at exactly who we are letting in. Perhaps our membership standards should be tightened up a bit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Here’s a good one (written by a professional, certainly not me):

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow

Seekers of enlightenment like to find an ancient practice or foreign belief system to adopt. Maybe it must be crammed and bent to fit—because having grown out of an entirely different culture it doesn’t naturally mesh like a puzzle piece—but the enthusiastic seeker has plenty of arm strength. He is happy to beat it into submission.

Chanting and drumming were usurped from Native Americans and hawked at New Age festivals for many years. Folks lined up to beat out their rage and frustration (which worked to a certain extent, probably like scream therapy) or to bring the rhythms of the planet into perfect alignment. That didn’t work so well.

Thankfully, drumming waned, as all New Age gimmicks eventually do. If it doesn’t incorporate well into modern life it will remain at odds with everything else. People aren’t drumming on their coffee breaks or when visiting friends, and as a solo sport it left a lot to be desired. It died on the vine.

Feng shui seems to have a little more life in it, but it might just be another fad. Where to build your building, and how to decorate it by compass points, might make sense from a style point of view, but hoping such decisions affect your good luck and your life energy appear to be misguided. At least as it is practiced in modern America. Here it is put to use as soon as you pay your friendly neighborhood feng shui consultant, and it is unlikely you can buy mysticism steeped in its original glory. Mysticism ought to be something a little more natural, less wallet-based.

Haiku is another Asian hand-me-down that has been warped by modern hands. Originally haiku wasn’t used so much for enlightenment, but rather to more keenly see the natural world, to strip down to the bare essence of something, to increase quiet and increase contemplation. All good things.

Again, from an ancient master:

An old silent pond
a frog jumps into the pond
splash! Silence again

Nowadays haiku is the subject of argument. Is it supposed to be three lines, never more or less? Must it be seventeen syllables exactly? Opponents stand on either side and try to prove their case, except that is so anti-haiku. There are rules, unless the rules must yield, in which case there aren’t rules. Besides, the seventeen-syllable rationale is based on seventeen of something that translates from the Japanese as “syllable” but isn’t exactly that in the original.

I like to email my brother absurd rock and roll lyrics because they annoy him. Recently he turned the whole thing on its ear and sent the lyrics back in the form of a haiku. It almost made me sit down in the lotus position and contemplate it with my mind’s eye, except I was too busy bothering other people with my emails.

Bothering emails
to the corners of the globe
make me laugh ha ha

Okay, that one was pretty weak, but I just made it up. Perhaps the best haikus take a little consideration. Like the ones my brother can twist out of a song. He’s so good at it I put together a blog for them.

I don’t really want to advertise any of the other modern haiku blasphemies, but you can find beer haiku online, celebrity death haiku, and even online generators that make up trillions of completely random haiku that may or may not make sense. It just depends on how open your mind is, dude:

Ferris wheels whimper
steaming mud waits torn paper
lucid dreams midnight

Yeah, man. You can, like, read “whatever you want” into the poem. It “lives its own life” and, like, can “mean many things.” Yeah. Sounds like a bunch of New Age hippie drivel. You can’t find deep meaning in an art form that requires contemplation if you’re too busy rushing around looking for meaning. I don’t mean to harsh your mellow, dude, but a fact is a fact.

I think I’ll stick with my brother’s higher quality stuff. It’ll take you back to the songs of your youth. Or not. Depends on what you used to listen to. Did I mention the blog already?

Rock and roll haiku
seventeen cool syllables
subscribe online now!

Sunday, November 28, 2010


It has always been my goal to avoid prison. At least in regard to going in and not being able to leave when I wanted. I’d be more than happy to visit a friend or family member who might find themselves behind bars. I’d submit to the x-ray and the pat down if necessary to get in (hey! visiting a prison is now a lot like going to the airport!) and I’d even be willing to talk to the prisoner through the two inches of bulletproof glass.

After all, dear friend or family member, it’s the least I can do, as it is likely you have taken the fall for me. Which I really appreciate! I’m working on the appeal right now, so please maintain our code of silence. Remember: given my previous record it was better that you accept responsibility for our crime.

So far I have succeeded in never doing any serious jail time. If there is any reason I might be suddenly and swiftly incarcerated, my attorney tells me I am under no obligation to tell you. Take that under advisement, as I have.

But enough about me. What do you think of me?

Despite my pathological avoidance of the penitentiary, plenty of other people are willingly going to prison. In this case it is not the conclusion of a legal battle, but instead it is a career move. As we Americans have continued to incarcerate more and more of our fellow citizens, we need places to put them and we need people willing to point guns at them if they don’t follow directions.

Communities are thriving with new prisons, or at least they hope to. It is a growth industry, replacing oil production in Colorado, coal jobs in West Virginia, and farming in California. Mississippi and Alabama and others are also seeking their fair share of the criminal element—as long as handcuffs and shackles are used liberally.

There are plenty of ways for people to make money in this new world order. It begins with the extensive construction process and continues through to the day-to-day operation. Ironworkers are needed, as are carpenters. Because these new prisons are so high-tech, they need electricians, too. And the guard jobs aren’t for dummies; they need to be able to count heads in the cellblock and keep track of which gates are open.

Instead of putting on a suit and tie and pushing paper from one side of the desk to the other like the stereotypical modern office worker, prospective prison employees must be willing to holster a gun and pepper spray. Even more important, they must be willing to use them. We are told these are the jobs of the future.

After all, teaching jobs disappear (because the economic horror in [your state or county] has forced all of the parents to flee with their families to other parts of the country) and no one wants to open a bookstore or boutique or tavern if all of the potential customers have moved away. Workers would rather listen to tin cups rattling against the iron bars of jail cells for eight hours a day.

Prisons used to fall under the edict “not in my backyard.” They were unsightly and with the caliber of their population they immediately made the neighborhood a more dangerous place to live (although as George Carlin once pointed out, wouldn’t escaped convicts likely run far from the prison, not hang around to torment the neighbors?) and no one wanted to include “turn left at the prison” when giving directions to their home.

Frustration with crime has led us to be more forgiving. We agree to lock up increasing numbers of inmates, and because we don’t want to become China we must house them in humanitarian ways. This creates lots of jobs, and with that the small town nearby just might come back to life as the newly sworn in prison guards need grocery stores and boutiques (and taverns—I would imagine working in a federal penitentiary would be a highly stressful job and good for the business of selling alcohol).

If manufacturing is never coming back as the great American economic model (as many doom-and-gloomers are saying) and the so-called “knowledge industries” of the twenty-first century are boring you to death, go to prison! This will work up until the point that there are too many convicts for the rest of us to keep under control.

Then we might have to try something else.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The best kind of product reviews are those where the author is highly opinionated, has never actually seen or used the product in question, and instead relies on preconceived notions formulated over many years of being skeptical and sarcastic. It works for movie reviews as well, I suppose, but that’s a bit off topic at the moment.

Let us consider, then, the Colgate Wisp. I first heard about it from a televised commercial. A handsome woman clad in a skimpy outfit and sitting in the backseat of a luxury car parked outside a popular nightclub had a sudden emergency. Her breath was not fresh! Possibly she had shreds of spinach caught in her teeth from her dinner salad as well.

She needed help, and it arrived in the form of a small brush with a pre-applied bit of mouth cleaner. After a quick swipe, she grinned widely in the rearview mirror and went inside the club to dance erotically and probably drink too much. The commercial didn't show her four hours later when the club closed, but I presume she would need to freshen up again.

Sadly, the item she used in the car was designed to be thrown away. No concern for landfills and bulky plastic garbage. Nope, she tossed the first one and probably got another one from her purse later, just in case her kissing bandit showed up again.

The “emergency” that propels people to buy the Colgate Wisp is slightly fictitious, and even if it wasn’t, that particular problem was solved decades ago. I know fresh breath and clean teeth are important, but it seems unnecessary to have them both twenty-four hours a day. As human beings, we sometimes have to eat and drink, and that affects our ability to perpetually smell like sunshine and love.

I don’t eat two dozen garlic cloves and expect anyone to get too close, but here’s the thing: I rarely eat two dozen garlic cloves, and even less often is anyone trying to get too close. Kristin does on occasion, I think it happened once or twice this past summer in fact. But there is usually plenty of time to react.

The folks in the ad who need this product are the ones who are flying around town in a constant state of excitement and, quite frankly, never know who they are going home with. Anyone in a long-term relationship can say, “Hold on, sweetheart, let me take care of something,” and then proceed to look for a toothbrush, mint, or mouthwash. If it takes a few minutes no one cares, because they don’t live in fear of the person running off.

Pity, then, the hot number in the mini-skirt (or his date) who can’t turn away for even a moment for fear that the object of their affection will immediately look elsewhere. A quick check in a pocket or clutch bag and he, she, or it has disappeared. Fresh breath ain’t no fun if you don’t have anyone to share it with.

What they don’t realize is this: it’s not a real emergency if you smell like your dinner. That’s normal. It happens to everyone about once a day and we all should expect that from each other. To have the fish stew and then smell like a peppermint candy is what’s weird, not breathing out the cod. It’s only bad if you don’t like the smell of cod.

Some people like beer breath on their paramour, others not so much. But there have been ways to deal with this for years. The folding camping toothbrush from my youth, for example. I used to take it to school after I got my braces on so that I could brush during lunch. Not because I was making out with any classmates or the teacher, but because I was ordered to by my orthodontist. He was a scary dude.

I’ve seen people dab toothpaste on a finger and swish that around. There have been fast acting mouthwashes—and “curiously strong” mints that can easily override any chilidog with extra onions—available for purchase for many years. We didn’t need this new product, the Colgate Wisp. Certainly our landfills don’t need all the crap generated from just one mouth cleaning, and I’m not even a rabid environmentalist.

I just don’t like stupid.

If you’re worried about offending someone, breathe in another direction. If you are pretty sure you are going to be kissing someone later, but you don’t know who that person is because you haven’t met him or her yet, I suggest you have a bigger problem than bad breath. In the meantime, brush before you leave the house.

And don’t have the spinach salad.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


The only way to truly keep a secret is to not tell anyone. Doesn’t matter who you tell, or how “besties” you think you are with your best friend. Once you’ve spilled the beans, the beans will eventually be shared, and it will be out of your control. Guaranteed.

The bigger the secret, the easier it is shared, as well. Maybe it is not easy to share, but it is hard to keep to yourself. You want to be the one known for knowing it. You want to be the first. You want to get something for it. When it is an earth-shattering, I-can’t-believe-it kind of secret, it will slip between the lips of whoever you’ve told quicker than you can say, “Hey, listen to this!” and then it will spread like wildfire from there.

That’s why I knew those Chilean miners were doomed. The worst part of their experience won’t have been the 69 days they spent half a mile underground. It is going to be the weeks and months after being returned to the world. Being swallowed by the earth will seem like good times compared to trying to keep their pact to stay united.

Like most people I was captivated by the initial reports out of Chile of the cave in and the subsequent plans for rescue. It was horrific to imagine being in their position, and the aggressive plans for retrieval were awe inspiring. Then the rescue was coming sooner than first imagined, and it went off like clockwork, and suddenly the 33 men were once again living under the blue sky and everyone wanted to hear their story.

The plan to work as a team was to be lauded. They could share in the proceeds of whatever might fall their way, and surely they were due whatever people were willing to pay. After such a story (longest buried alive, tight living quarters, mistresses vs. wives, etc.) they should be able to turn it into a few bucks. The more the merrier. Each penny being split 33 ways was a great plan.

Except it was never going to work. The human animal ain’t built that way.

There was no chance that someone wouldn’t go rogue. Too many agencies, too many publishers, too many offers would be coming from too many different directions. All they had to do was flash enough green and one of the miners would cave (ha!) and like a house of cards it would all implode.

Though these might not be technically secrets the miners are going to disseminate, it is a story that only they can tell. If they do it together, great! If it comes out piecemeal, it will only decrease in value. There are too many variables. There are too many miners.

Sometimes they are in the news as a cohesive group, attending a Chilean soccer match together or being nominated as Time Magazine’s persons of the year or being photographed in matching Oakley sunglasses (donated by the company and worth $180 each, the first payout other than the 48 hours of free medical care when they first surfaced).

Sometimes, though, we hear about dissention in the ranks. One guy was the strong leader type underground but another more gregarious fellow has become the face of the group aboveground because he is always willing to smile and talk. One miner recently ran the New York City Marathon, and unless he paid the entry fee and hotel costs himself, according to their pact his compatriots should have received something of equal value. The same guy was on the Letterman show and was offered a trip to Graceland because he is a big Elvis fan.

Do all the miners get to go to Graceland? Do they all want to? Would some rather visit the Colorado Territorial Museum, where they flaunt their history of 77 executions (45 by hanging, 32 by gas) and inmates such as Alfred Packer, the only man convicted of cannibalism in the U.S.?

I am beginning to sense a strain in the whole team concept. If they can stick together, the group, as a whole, will be better off. There will be colossal amounts of money from books, movies, videogames, interviews and other appearances. It’s not exactly a zero sum game, where anyone’s gain is offset by another’s loss. They could share equally in the bounty.

But the pot of money is in some ways limited, if not in dollar amount then at least in time. The story will be superseded eventually by a political scandal, weather catastrophe, or a surprising upset in sports. And if one miner goes out on his own in an attempt to benefit himself or his family, or because he thinks he is not getting his fair share, instead of hearing stories of triumph and courage we will be told of backstabbing and infighting.

There will be no way to tell if things were fair. Which makes sense, because this is life, ladies and gentlemen, and life isn’t fair. The miners might give it their best effort, but there is possibly too much working against them for everything to go smoothly. They just might have been doomed from the outset.

And I’m not talking about the cave-in.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Every day the future arrives and it seems pretty much like the thousands of days that have gone before. Instead of the flying cars we were promised, we get traffic nightmares as cities try to add one more lane to the already congested freeways. And Dick Tracy’s wristwatch with the two-way communication to headquarters pales in comparison to any throwaway cell phone used by fourth graders with permissive parents, but we don't seem better off as a species just because we are talking more.

“But, Matt,” you say as though I were in the room, “aren’t cell phones the modern day equivalent of the Star Trek communicator? Aren’t the Robomow automatic lawn mower and the Roomba autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner the next step in human evolution? Now we can just sit around with TV images being displayed directly onto our video display goggles.”

No. And no. No, no, no! We don’t have food replicators or the ability to transport solid matter from one place to another. Captain Kirk and the Jetsons were lying to us. Our space station barely has enough room for grown men and women to maneuver comfortably. Every time they talk to us from space they are crammed together and look like five or six people trying to use a single-seat outhouse.

The idea of technology making our lives futuristic, culminating in the personal robot servant that roles around on one wheel answering our every beck and call, has not happened, and it never will. We are going to sit on this planet for some time to come (I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we are going to sit on this planet until we are extinct) and find joy in simple things that seem futuristic, like cruise control, web cams, and robotic litter boxes for pampered cats.

The rest is a pipe dream, good for science fiction movies but nothing else. Certainly not for how people should plan to live out the rest of their days.

Advancements will continue as scientists and explorers and inventors tinker with existing knowledge and expectations, but not on the order of the flying car. If we can’t even manage two-dimensional travel without coming up with new psychological afflictions like “road rage,” there’s no way we could successfully deal with adding “up” to our choices of “left” and “right.”

Similarly, those of you expecting moon colonies and x-ray glasses have to get your noses out of your comic books and take a look at real life. Other than having a curiosity for discovery, we humans are just another life form trying to get food into our mouths and finding shelter in inclement weather. We should be grateful that our grocery store clerks only have to drag our frozen food packages over the bar code reader rather than trying to find an iced-over price tag.

We should also be grateful that there are still people willing to do such an interesting job, but as I’ve been saying for many years, in the future we will still need cab drivers and grocery store clerks and soccer coaches. We will not be populated entirely by highly educated and overpaid computer programmers ever.


The day when we can fill the grocery basket and simply walk out the door as a scanner instantly tabulates the cost of each and every item (and accurately deducts the amount from our bank account) is not going to arrive. Don’t waste your time waiting for it.

If I’m right, then, what exactly are we waiting around for? Am I all doom and gloom and waiting for the 21st century equivalent of the Dark Ages?

Well, yes. And no. Mostly no.

As our expectations settle in and we become better able to discern between realistic advancements and science fiction buffoonery (even Captain Kirk occasionally walked into a malfunctioning automatic door), we will realize that we don’t want to relegate what constitutes real life to a bunch of unfeeling machines. We (or at least most of us) will not want to be part of the Matrix.

The point of the future is that there is one. Having the next day arrive, be it sunny or foul weathered, is better than the alternative. In the meantime, the average citizen will have to be happy with the fact that they can buy shampoo and conditioner in the same bottle, and that they can track down old high school chums on a social media platform only to discover why they never kept in touch with old high school chums.

That’s the real future, folks. Forget about the robots.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


For nigh onto forty years, and possibly more, I have been a self-mutilator of my fingernails. Some sort of nervous habit I picked up when I was in elementary school. Perhaps it was one of those terrible early grade teachers who tormented me with lessons and homework and high expectations and who always wanted me to be quiet in class.

It was hell, I tell you, sheer hell.

Whatever the reason, I was a picker. Not a biter, those people are just weird. My fingers would take turns ripping off the end of any nail within reach, and just as soon as it grew back it would be assaulted again. Many good and kind people have tried to help me over the years, but at some point it became part of my being and would not be eradicated.

About sixteen years or so ago I was scheduled to go on a few business trips for my then-employer. My jagged and sore fingertips would not be the proper way to introduce myself around the country, so I suddenly stopped picking. Stopped cold. Within two weeks they were grown out and I even visited a salon near work to have them buffed and trimmed to appropriate man-length.

I felt a little odd going in, but it ended up being all right. I mean, I never intended to go back, but at least I didn't look like a freak while I traveled. After I got back home for good, though, I tore them all off and went back to the old habit. And I kept at it religiously, at least until very recently.

In just the last few weeks I have once again grown real nails, just like I had in 1994. By stopping the daily picking it was as if they grew by magic. Plus I stopped picking: that might have been the magic. I could tap them on table- and countertops, and could scratch my scalp as I massaged in the dandruff shampoo. My daily shower went from two minutes to five just so I could enjoy the tactile sensations.

Okay, it’s never really been a daily shower, but I was in there as often as necessary.

I had fun for a few days as folks oohed and ahhed, and I felt like I just might have become a grown up. No longer did I rise from a chair to find the floor littered with bits of my nails and flesh. People were impressed with my incredible feat of self-restraint. If I could stop picking my nails, then surely there was the potential for peace in the Middle East.

Now . . . they are just getting in the way! I scratch myself accidentally, they bend backwards painfully after being caught on a door handle or while folding clothes, and all kinds of crap gets stuck underneath them. Peanut butter, grease, dirt, the long nails are always dirty.

It was time to return to a professional, but I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the best source for manicure information available to me: my teenaged daughter. She has a favorite place where they trim and buff and color and stripe her nails and ask her, “You have boyfriend?”

Her manicurist is right next door to Jerry’s Barbershop, where I spent many formative years getting haircuts with extra gel—before I started going across the street to whatever was the inexpensive shop in those days: Cheapcuts or Looksbad, something like that. Nowadays it would have a dot-com at the end. As if you could buy a bad haircut over the Internet!

Silly kids.

When it came time for a second manicure, though, I couldn’t do it. During the first excursion there wasn’t another soul in the shop when I walked in, and I was the only one there during the appointment. Just the way I liked it. Anonymous.

Kelsey’s shop was way too busy, and there was always the risk that Jerry would be standing next to his barber pole when I walked up. “Matt?” I could imagine him asking, “You’re here for a manicure? Hahahahahahahahahaha!” He would double over, gasping for breath.

Then one day Kristin and I were playing canasta and she saw my nails. “Wow, they’re really getting long,” she said. “I’m surprised you haven’t broken one yet.”

Ninety minutes later as I was grilling some burgers for dinner I did just that. The nail on my right index finger bent and broke. The wife had cursed me.

The next day I reached over a student’s shoulder at school to point out something on his math worksheet and I scratched his arm. I wasn’t used to allowing space for my sword-like fingers.

The boy screeched and threatened legal action, and when I tried to apologize and showed my fingers as some sort of explanation, the class recoiled in disgust. I was now the creepy old guy with long fingernails. A la Howard Hughes, if that particular reference is not lost on all of you.

Now the question is “how long is too long?” And the other question is “file, clip, or cut?” And the third question is “should I get another manicure?” It has become a more cumbersome process to care for my fully grown nails than it ever was to explain my obsessive compulsivity to pick.

I think it would be easier if I just went back to the self-mutilation.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Whatever happened to a couple of triangle eyes and a half moon grin with one snaggly tooth? Porches from sea to shining sea were festooned with piles of orange gourds with amateurish carvings and people were happy. With the exception of a little blood dripping from where Dad accidentally nicked his knuckles, and little Suzy running away as her younger brother attempted to throw a handful of seeds and other slimy bits at her, all was peace and joy.

The worst part of these Halloween pumpkins (wait, no, Jack-o’-lanterns; once there’s a face they are no longer pumpkins) was when the lid was cut poorly, with straight down slashes rather than at a slant. That’s when the stem would plummet through the hole and into the hollowed out gourd, and the neighbors would laugh.

Mom would try to prop it up with toothpicks, but it was still the most embarrassing Jack-o’-lantern on the block.

As things have become more complicated in this life (such as jeans that don’t stay up because foolish boys try to belt them below their hips and giant SUVs that don’t fit in small parking spots at the Dollar Tree), so has the Halloween fun of carving up a pumpkin. Instead of a simple little activity for the family, it has become expensive and competitive, not to mention beyond the average person’s capability.

All we used to use were a butcher knife and a large spoon. That’s why the eyes all had three sides. There was no fine work or close attention to detail, and certainly nothing round. Just slash and scoop.

This new world order is the result of the competitive nature of the average American citizen. And it doesn’t hurt that the Great American Marketing Machine has figured out how to turn it into a tidy profit. Victims of the marketing and distribution of silly things fall prey, and they find items in stores that they don’t need, but buy in bulk anyway.

There are carbon steel blades in a variety of sizes and levels of hazard, allowing the most intricate of designs while doubling or trebling the risk to life and limb (but mostly limb, there have been very few documented pumpkin carving fatalities). Patterns to trace are included in the overpriced packages (which mysteriously increase in price during the week before Halloween, only to be “drastically reduced” on November 1), to ensure that nothing is creative or unique. Everyone’s porch looks exactly the same and children arrive home from trick or treating, only to find that they are standing on someone else’s porch.

Hopefully not the neighborhood weird guy’s, or you just might never see Suzy or her little brother again.

Newfangled scraper tools are used to not actually punch holes in the gourd, but to scrap away the skin and some of the flesh to make thinned out areas that will radiate with a little of the light from within. Shadows and light, people, shadows and light. This is an art project that would earn an A+ if it didn’t have that store-bought look.

Speaking of light from within, we have moved away from the traditional candle and matchstick system. Whereas the carving has become a more dangerous procedure in the modern era, worried mothers have championed the new, and supposedly safer, ways to flicker the Jack-o’-lantern’s grin. Battery operated lights, LEDs, even strobes and flashing colors are all the rage.

No more singed eyebrows or blackened fingertips. Yet I still find nothing wrong with a candle that burns the inside of the hollowed out gourd. Makes the whole front porch smell like a pumpkin pie—a pumpkin pie your grandmother burned in the oven because she was watching her soap operas and never heard the timer go off.

The one thing that has stayed the same during all these years, from my parents’ youth through mine and down through my kids’, is the pumpkin seed project. Industrious moms and dads have the kids wash the seeds from the rest of the stringy guts and then roast them in the oven (the seeds, not the kids). If salted just right they make a tasty snack (again: seeds not kids) for the youngsters to take to school for many weeks to come.

Except it all gets thrown out when the parents aren’t looking. There has never been a kid in history to willingly eat homemade roasted pumpkin seeds. So, really, parents, knock it off.

Trick or treat indeed.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The local middle school has embarked on a spelling adventure. I inadvertently inserted myself into the process when I recently subbed for a group of fifth graders who were urgently studying for a school-wide spelling bee. One of our tasks the day I was there was to complete a brief written spelling test, the results of which would be used to determine who would go on to the next level of persecution.

I mean, the second round. It was a mixed blessing, though, because the five best spellers from each classroom would be tested on the next group of new and more challenging words during their lunch break.

“Why do we have to do it during lunch?” one top speller asked.

“Because,” I said, opting for the disobliging response. “Quick: spell disobliging.” He began, “D – I – S.” And I ran swiftly from the room.

Later I saw two girls quizzing each other. “Scheherazadian,” one said to the other. The other girl rattled it right off, while I was stuck trying to decide between “Sh” and “Sch.”

And I always thought I was a good speller. I remember being involved in one spelling bee when I was a fifth grader. As I recall, I won, but of course I might be mistaken. I also remember always being polite to adults when I was younger and flossing my teeth in the school bathroom after lunch. And never doing anything wrong. Never, ever.

Maybe I didn’t win the spelling bee after all.

I used to equate being a good speller with smarts, but I have begun to take a second look at such a theory. I have met intelligent people (pupils and adults) who seem to lack basic spelling skills. Whether this is a function of nature vs. nurture, I don’t know. My own talent in this area is likely a result of my voracious reading—books, proctologists’ pamphlets, and Do Not Feed the Animals signs. If it is written, I wanna read it.

Poor spelling, therefore, might result from a lack of exposure to language. Of course, for some people it could also be indifference. I’ve met some of those people. Thay kare nuthing fer propar speling.

Regardless the cause, efforts are made to help people who are thusly challenged. There are plenty of rules designed to increase spelling skills, but I wonder if they really do much. Not for the ones who don’t care, because rules won’t make them care. For the ones who do care, the rules are a bit vague and sometimes untrustworthy.

For example: the time-honored rule of “i before e except after c.” Or the rest of the sing-song standard, “unless sounding like a as in neighbor or weigh.”

Works great, especially for neighbor and weigh and other words which fit. “I before e except after c,” unless that weird dude Keith has seized all the codeine.

Basically “i before e” is a rule, except when it is not. In which case you are on your own. This is unhelpful to the spelling-challenged among us. They need rules, and guides, and acronyms that work. Or at least a good spell checker.

Of course a good spell checker doesn’t know if you mean though or through or thought. Not only are they different by just one letter, but the vowel combination of “ou” sounds different in each word! And it gets worse, because enough, bough, and cough present three more ways to pronounce “ou.”

The English language is rife with ridiculous spellings, making it nearly impossible to apply any logic. Hence, you either spell well somewhat naturally, or you spend so much time memorizing lists of words that other facets of your life—like work and family—suffer. If you choose neither of those routes, you are simply doomed.

If you are one of the doomed ones, fear not. Poor spelling has generally not caused death or disfigurement. No one has lost their inheritance because of an inability to spell “inheritance,” and the reverse of poor spelling (otherwise known as the national spelling bee) looks like an even worse way to live.

The pressure-packed national spelling bee, nowadays shown annually on television, proves that a vast amount of studying is necessary to be a national champ. It also helps to be homeschooled, of foreign birth, and quite possibly to have an idiosyncratic way of keeping the spelling beat, like tapping the thigh or spinning the eyeballs. Also, familiarity with the phrase “can I have the language of origin, please?” can be beneficial.

For just about every contestant except the winner, the national spelling bee seems to end in tears. Can you spell “crushing defeat?” Of course you can, because you just suffered it. On national TV no less! Talk about pressure!

Hopefully the local middle schoolers are better able to deal with their ultimate humiliation. Except the kid who wins, of course.

That newly crowned nerd will just be shunned.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


In my experience as a speaker, I have, uh, occasionally peppered my speech with, um, useless little words that would be better left, hmm, out. It is easier to edit in written form because you can go back over and delete anything you find superfluous. I don’t think I’ve ever put “um” in a written work unless I really meant it. Like earlier in this paragraph.

Not so when speaking. Um, uh, and other little timewasters slip out easily. When hearing the same from others it is painfully obvious how distracting it can be for the audience. Someone once told me just to pause when considering what to say next. There is no need to fill every space with some sound or another.


When I have been better prepared I think the verbal tics diminish, but they don’t ever go away entirely. Habit? Laziness? I dunno. It is, uh, what it is.

You know what else is what it is? The verbal tics of the younger generation that grate on all of our nerves. Sure, they often sound foolish when they talk, but hey, they’re kids. Very little that comes out of their mouths is interesting, even the fully formed sentences. Why worry about what might sound lazy or ignorant? Why constantly correct them? It’s not as though they make any sudden corrections. If they eventually speak like we want them to, it will be through maturity and experience, not due to a constant haranguing at home.

Perhaps we are not in the midst of language deconstruction, but rather are witnessing the further advancement of our language. What I like to mock in the speech of my children and their peers might be the very thing that eventually lifted American English out of the Elizabethan Age. Else I’d be yelling this at home: “Foul spoken coward, that thund'rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform.”

I don’t even know what that means.

Third grade teachers are always harping on their students to use other words than “said” when adding dialogue to their boring stories. (If you are a teacher please replace “harping on” with “providing quality education to,” and if you are a student please replace “boring” with “thrilling and clever.” No need to insult the easily insulted.)

He uttered, she exclaimed, he yelled, she whispered. Like that. Sure, students are supposed to use such words to make their writing more interesting, but in my years of raising my own children and teaching many others, I have never heard any kid say, “He yelled, ‘Clean your room!’”

Now certainly the same kid would say, “My dad yelled at me,” but that’s entirely different. That’s a verb, not an indication of speech. Maybe what kids are using for “said” isn’t the crime against humanity that old people like me make it out to be.

For example: “So he went, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I’m all, ‘Oh, yes you will!’ And he goes, ‘[expletive removed]!’”

Conjugations of the verb “to go” are the modern favorites to indicate what someone might have said. Wherever this came from, it doesn’t seem to be going away, and if youngsters carry the habit into adulthood it will eventually be entered into the Oxford English Dictionary (“the definitive record of the English language”) and Shakespeare will discontinue rolling over in his grave.

People were uncomfortable when I have said “uh” to distraction, and the younger citizens are saying “like” as though it were going out of style. You’ve heard it yourself, and I’ve made fun of it here.

“I’m, like, at the mall, and I can’t decide what color nail polish to buy. Can you, like, come down here right now? It’s, like, an emergency!”

So “like” is the new “uh” or “um.” To those of us who don’t use it, it sounds horrible. We think the barbarians are at the gate. And yet I hear it occasionally even from people who decry its use.

Is it really, like, so bad?

This all may be the evolution of language. We may bristle, but we don’t really know how this will all turn out in fifty or one hundred years. After all, Shakespeare wrote, “Thou didst drink the stale of horses and the guilded puddle which beasts would cough at.”

I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that the great master apparently ended at least one sentence with a preposition. And where I come from, that’s, like, a real no-no.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Some houses get egged by hooligans. Ours has suffered on occasion. Even more get toilet papered. Ours has met with that fate as well. A less destructive form of taunting is the forking, with plastic forks thrust into the ground tines down—sometimes by the hundreds. We’ve had that, too.

Even more enjoyable is the true vandalism. Like the fist-sized rock that was thrown through the back window of one of the cars spending the night on the driveway last year. That was fun. Nothing like trying to replace a pane of glass on a twenty-two year old car. They aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. And a few weeks ago someone was kind enough to take advantage of our open garage door and abscond with my bicycle.

Thank you sir or madam, I hope you are enjoying my fairly pricey bike. And I hope you crash and break your neck.

Despite the trials and tribulations we have faced in the matter of various house assaults, we Baxters keep a stiff upper lip. After all, who can tell from where these attacks originate? The three teenagers certainly have crossed paths with people who either love or hate them. And Kristin teaches at a middle school, so lots of young hooligans know her.

I am a paragon of virtue, as you no doubt are aware, but I live about two miles from where I grew up. I am in the midst of friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, and crossing guards who have known me since I was not a paragon of virtue, and some of them may be holding a grudge. Or many of them might be holding several grudges.

It just may be that I am the black hole of grudges.

The other morning we all exited the house to go to school or work (or in my case, wherever it is I go when I go somewhere) and once again found something in the front yard that wasn’t there when we went to bed. It appeared to be graffiti on the driveway, and we were momentarily horrified, until we got a little closer.

One message read: I♥KB.

The other: You’re an awesome family!

Some sort of cheerful, positive affirmation graffiti. We are, of course, an awesome family, led by the awesome wife/mother Kristin. Three awesome kids, and a reasonably awesome dog I like to make fun of. Which makes me a different kind of awesome: only a little bit of awe. Not quite as much as the others. My family members are full of awesomeness; you might even say they are awe-full. But that doesn’t sound right, does it?

The question, then, is not who is awesome. The question is, who is KB?

KB is, of course, Kelsey Baxter. She’s a senior in high school and on the field hockey team, and she and her friends appear to enjoy driving around and writing messages on each other’s cars. She’s a leading candidate for the target of the attack, but there is no way to tell for sure.

After all, KB is also Kyle Baxter. Perhaps someone loves my youngest child and only son. Well, of course someone does. Momma does. Grandmas and Grandpas do too. But this is a message scrawled on pavement. This takes a certain amount of passion, heretofore unknown in Kyle’s young life. I’m sure if he could track down who did it he might just find his date for the upcoming homecoming dance.

Let us not forget: KB could be for Kate. Sure she lives in Arizona now, but I’m certain there are still people in San Jose who pine for her. I know I do (but I also know I wasn’t the one who desecrated my driveway). Former classmates, babysitting clients, the possibilities are endless.

Last but not least, I♥KB might have been written for Kristin. I certainly could have written the note for her, except like I said—I didn’t do it. I am, however, willing to fight anyone who would write such a love note to my wife, though I would prefer some sort of amicable agreement. Maybe I could have her Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other weekend.

Let me know, Graffiti Artist, who you were writing to, and if I need to tell Kristin to pack.

There’s been no rain lately to confirm that these two notes weren’t written with some sort of permanent stain, but I think they will eventually dissolve, during an early fall storm. Or maybe a blast from the hose. I am reasonably certain that the notes, positive though they are, will not be around in perpetuity.

There’s only one thing I know with 100% certainty: no matter how full of awe I might be, the ♥ wasn’t meant for me.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Back around 1981, my old pal James and I rode our motorcycles to Yosemite. I sat upon a Honda 360, his was a 400 of unremembered vintage. We were young and vigorous and arrived without incident.

That’s when we sat at the wooden table at the campsite and thought, “Hmm, perhaps we should have brought some food.”

We were cramped in the two-man tent, and hungry. Then we got cold. We were awakened early, while it was still dark, by the falling rain that had nearly collapsed our poorly tethered tent. By the time we found a place for coffee and breakfast we were dripping wet.

It was a grand adventure!

In 1986 Kristin and I took a two-week trip to Canada, on our 1983 Kawasaki 750. We had a windshield and a radio and we were comfortable beyond belief. The only campground incidents included a squirrel that had chewed through the side of our food bag and died—gorging on trail mix—with its hindquarters hanging half outside the bag, and the apparent theft of a buck knife and a flannel shirt.

I have wondered, lo, these many years, what kind of thief is in need of a weapon and lumberjack clothing. Regardless, it too was a grand adventure.

So now, after many years of not cycling far from home, busy with trying to work as little as possible and seeing just how long I can make one loaf of bread last for a family of four, I once again took to the highways and byways to see what sort of mischief I could get up to. I have recently returned, after nine days and 1,781 miles. There is some debate whether, in style and manner, I was more like Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper. I’ll leave that up to you decide, as long as you don’t choose Jack Nicholson. He was just a passenger in that movie.

And if you don’t know what movie I’m talking about, get thee to a motorcycle rally.

My iron horse on this particular journey was a Kawasaki Vulcan 900 (903cc if you want to obsess over the details), and a smooth and powerful ride it was. There was no question it could get me safely to my destination. In question, though, was whether I should travel with any flannel shirts, and whether I would get blown off on the way.

I chose not to put a fairing on the bike, because it would ruin the look of this beautiful gray cruiser. But I’m almost fifty years old, and hanging on to the handlebars for hours on end tends to weaken my weary muscles. I felt some trepidation, but went anyway. You never know unless you go, right? Turns out the headwind wasn’t too bad. I just leaned back, kept my speed constant and steady, and tried not to relax so much that I fell asleep.

The grand culmination was visiting daughter Kate at her new digs in Prescott, Arizona. But I also saw Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Laughing Buddha Coffee House, and Barstow, California.

Not sure what to say about Barstow. I’ve probably already spent too much time talking about this dry, dusty, drive-through town. But I’m sure the residents are all fine individuals.

I also went to Sedona, Arizona, but it wasn’t as goofy as I thought it would be. It is known for being a haven for mystics, hippies, UFO hunters, and New Age weirdos. There was some of that, but it was mostly a thriving tourist trap. There were more cars with out of state license plates than there were mystical crystal-reading aura-diviners.

It had been many years since my last lengthy motorcycle road trip, and I found that the thrill of the open road still calls to me. Without Kate’s move, though, I’m not sure I would have been compelled to venture so far from home. I just might have to convince the other two children to relocate when the time comes to keep my blood flowing. Maybe Bozeman and Atlanta. Or Omaha and Pensacola.

And Kristin will have to remember how to pack all of her belongings in one small saddlebag. She was good at it 24 years ago, but judging by our bedroom closet she is clearly out of practice. Until that time comes:

Get your motor runnin’. Head out on the highway. Lookin’ for adventure. And whatever comes our way!

Sunday, September 19, 2010


For those readers under the age of 21—and if you don’t have proper ID I don’t care how gray your hair is—let it be known that nary a drop of liquor passed my lips before I was of legal age. I was too busy studying my lessons, and volunteering for several local charitable organizations, and tending to all of the chores around the house.

My sister and brother were no help at all.

If you are already old enough to drink, then you know most of what you just read is malarkey. Except the part about my evil siblings. I was Cinderella and they just stood there and laughed at me in my dusty frock. And I did study and volunteer and chore myself to death, wondering which day my prince would come.

Or princess. I wasn’t picky.

When it became legal for me to buy liquor, I did. If memory serves, the morning of May 15, 1983 I found the nearest liquor store with the earliest “Open” sign and bought myself a birthday present. I say “if memory serves” because I don’t really remember all that well. Probably because of the passage of time . . . or because I drank a case of beer on my own just because I could.

I have sampled many different drinks in my day, and I have a few favorites. Fortunately, friends keep introducing me to new concoctions and my favorites list grows. It gets to the point that I visit my local BevMo superstore and just stand in the center near the snack racks with my arms outspread, slowly spinning hypnotically. Until I am asked to leave, which I try to do quietly (as long as I can grab a bottle or two on my way out).

In my own defense, let me assure you that my life doesn’t revolve around alcohol. I’ve successfully held down a variety of jobs over the years (but yes, as a substitute teacher you might say that I am currently underemployed) and the family budget has never had a line item titled “booze” (but yes, that might be due to the difficulty in separating expenses including beer from the gas station and drinks with a nice dinner out and cash purchases at the liquor store and trading cigarettes for moonshine with neighborhood hillbillies).

Moderation and I have a passing acquaintance, an uneasy alliance you might say. I don’t nag it for being a party-pooper, and it generally leaves me alone unless it finds me lying in a gutter. Then it drags me home and drops me on the front porch, to be thwacked in the head when the morning newspaper is flung porchward.

Despite my apparent adult fascination with a wide variety of drink mixers and concoctions, I most often return to my first love: beer. It can be refreshing after late afternoon yard work, and it can be used to toast celebratory events as widely diverging as a Superbowl victory or the birth of a family heir. Even better, if you’ve had a few too many you might be forgiven for drawing a mascara mustache on the little heir.

My newest adventure in beer is the home brewing of it. I want to follow in the steps of a friend of mine who has successfully brewed two batches of beer and who has been kind enough to let me share in the joy. I didn’t have to share in the joy of the work, or the hours of boiling and mixing and storing and bottling and waiting. No, I didn’t even have to wait.

I drank store-bought beer until Kurtis called me up and said his was ready to taste. That’s exactly the moment I was able to share: the tasting.

His was so good I want to try it on my own, but I am scared. I am scared of the capital investment, because if I don’t take pleasure in the process of crafting my own ale I will be stuck with large piles of equipment. Bottles and caps and a capper; kettles and brushes and funnels and a carboy; thermometer and hydrometer and siphon and airlock. As a minimalist that would seriously irk me, to have it all sitting around and taunting me.

I am also scared of not being very good at it. I don’t want to make beer that people spit out. I am also scared that there are just too many brands left on the BevMo shelves that I have not tried.

So maybe I will join Kurtis in the actual work the next time he brews his five gallons—if he’ll let me—and I’ll see if I actually feel an urge to do so on my own. If the answer is yes, I’ll buy the equipment and jump right in to the process.

If not, I’ll drink Kurtis’s and find some other hobby. Hmm, maybe I would enjoy growing wine grapes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I am in the midst of a project. I am trying to figure out if the family dog (“Zen,” if you insist on personifying her with a name) is smarter than the rest of us, or dumber than a box of rocks.

This domesticated beast that lives among us is equal parts canny observer and oblivious hound. She has run into sliding glass doors thinking they are open, but at least one of my children has done the same so that may not be an appropriate indication of mental acuity. Zen has also smashed at least two screen doors off their tracks, thinking that her slender figure can fit through the opening once the screen has slid two or three inches to the side.

Either she lacked a certain spatial awareness, or she had a deep-seated drive to chase down a squirrel scampering across the backyard fence regardless what stood in her way. Neither is exactly a brilliant display of intelligence.

In her defense, however, Zen has learned a variety of ways to control the behavior of the humans in the house. She’s not much of a food beggar, but if one of us two-legged creatures is cooking breakfast or dinner she will sit nearby in the kitchen, quietly. For a while.

If it becomes apparent that her mealtime is in danger of passing, she will do her snapping thing that gets our attention. She snaps her jaw shut loudly to bring the focus back to her. We have thus far been lucky to avoid having any fingers in harm’s way.

Once we meet her eyes she opens her mouth. Kristin says she is smiling; I say the dog is simply breathing. Regardless, the psychic message is clear: “Food. Bowl. Now.”

With nary a please or thank-you we carefully measure the kibble and present it on her own eating mat. A little while later we will be asked to open the back door so that she can make business in the yard, and possibly chase wild neighborhood rodents. If done quickly, damage to the screen can be minimized.

While outside, Zen certainly behaves as if she were Empress of the World. She sniffs the grass and the agapanthas, passes by the lemon tree, and eventually squats for a bit. She makes a token attempt to cover her deposit, no doubt to appear civilized, but she doesn’t really look where she is scratching. Half the time the dirt and grass fly over her pile.

Then she looks up at whoever might be nearby as if to say, “There you go. Take care of it at your leisure.”

Same thing when we take her for a walk. She walks ahead and we hold the leash as if it were a gown that has to be held above the ground. At whatever moment she decides, and on whichever lawn she chooses, she makes business again. Some of the time we have to bow down and bag it. I know others had to do the same for me in the long distant past, but I eventually learned to take care of myself.

Not so the dog. She will be forever needing our assistance. Or our obsequiousness. Either she is too dumb to take care of herself, or too clever. Perhaps we are being manipulated by the cunning canine.

Lately Zen has taken to burrowing into the bathroom wastebaskets. She knocks them over as if she were looking for something in particular. If the smell is intriguing enough we might find a trail of her discoveries across the bathroom and even out into the hall. Usually, though, the various paper products and clumps of hair—from self-administered haircuts—litter the area around the sink.

I don’t know if Zen knows what day of the week it is and is saying, “Hey, empty the trash already, the garbageman comes tomorrow morning” or she is only responding to the basic reactions of her underdeveloped mammalian brain: “Mmm, me like dirty smells.” She never appears concerned that we might not clean up after her. After all, she has us well-trained.

There is currently not enough data to make a final determination on the whole brains vs. rocks discussion. Given the fact, however, that Zen has a platoon of humans ready to put food in her bowl twice a day, and at the right time, and these same humans follow behind her in the yard and on the leash with a plastic bag at the ready to pick up her unmentionables, I’m thinking Zen has the upper hand at this point.

The morning I wake up on her beanbag and find her under my covers, I will officially declare my surrender. Then she can start cleaning up after me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Labor Day is upon us once again, and as its origination continues to pass further into the distant past we as a people do little more than thank our lucky stars we have another paid holiday. Except for those folks who still have to work because they are in some sort of service industry . . . and, I suppose, those people who have a job but don’t have decent holiday pay benefits. And a day off with pay certainly does no good for one of our many unemployed citizens.

Come to think of it, for a lot of people Labor Day may be just another rotten, stinking Monday.

Here’s to you, then, those of you left behind. I salute your disheartened and slippery grasp of the American Dream.

Since Labor Day began as some sort of political chicanery between a scheming President of the Democratic Party and the Labor movement, it would seem appropriate that Republicans not share in the bounty. After all, they oppose Democrats at every turn, and certainly the Right is no friend of Labor or the unions.

So, attention all Republicans, starting in 2011 you no longer get the first Monday in September as a paid holiday. But don’t worry, to even the score we will take away Thanksgiving from the Democrats. There’s no reason a bunch of turkeys should stay home from work and eat their own kind.

There. Now everyone should be happy. I am an equal opportunity offender.

As the 2010 version of Labor Day approaches, I am reminded to be thankful. Yes, I did indeed just mash together the two aforementioned holidays. To complete the image, I am wearing a Halloween mask and have a basket of brightly colored eggs by my side. But that’s not what I’m thankful for.

What pleases me is that I accomplished a goal this summer. Not the goal of riding 4,000 miles on my bicycle this year, which will be met (or not) toward the end of December. Which reminds me: in the spirit of the holiday mash up, I should set up the Christmas tree today.

And not the goal of home brewing my own beer, that keeps getting postponed because I am still finding delicious new varieties at BevMo. Someday, though, I vow I will be called Beer Maker.

What I achieved this summer took patience and planning and a whole of sitting around. From June 16 to July 27 I watched The X-Files. Yes, the show that went off the air in 2002. Yes, the show I only watched occasionally when it was originally broadcast. And yes, I still don’t have TV reception, ever since the government forced us onto the High Def Entertainment Rainbow. I’ve got an analog set and an antenna on the roof, and all I get to watch is static.

Unless I go to the public library. There I found all nine seasons of The X-Files on DVD, plus the two X-Files movies made in 1998 and 2008. By checking out one season with my cheerful librarian and placing the next one or two on hold, I could watch the entire nine years in order.

Back to back, hour by hour, 202 episodes. In 42 days.

Now sure, you could take issue with me. Perhaps this doesn’t really qualify as much of a goal. Not like running a marathon in each of the fifty states (six down, forty-four to go). Where’s the commitment in doing nothing more than sitting in front of the boob tube and watching bright images flicker past my face? Perhaps my time would have been better spent interacting with my wife and children, or tending the dog, or watering the lawns.

One of those three is definitely a lost cause, and it’s not the one about the family because during most of those 42 days they were out of state on a variety of vacations or hanging out with friends. I was the one at home, wondering where the dog had run off to and refusing to water the lawns, and so I watched some TV.

Once in a while the dog would join me, though usually she wouldn’t hang around for more than one episode while I dutifully plowed through three or four a day. Or seven. Okay, I didn’t just watch “some” TV, I watched a lot.

It was almost a relief when I finished this little project. I enjoyed each episode, but they started to overwhelm each other. Kind of like eating eight tacos but the ninth or tenth or eleventh is overkill (another lesson I had to learn the hard way). I have, quite frankly, had my fill of The X-Files, and will now turn my attention to some other activity.

After all, there are forty-four states I have not run a marathon in, and I’m not getting any younger. Maybe it is time to put down the tacos and the remote control and head out for a pleasant twenty-mile training run.

Or maybe I’ll eat just one more before I leave.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


The modern automobile is an extension of the people who buckle themselves therein. The old, bald guy in the red sports car is a cliché, but only because he exists in great number. The soccer mom in the ginormous SUV takes up two parking spots at the grocery store when she stops to pick up one bag of food.

Young men in their twenties hover under the hoods of their muscle cars for hours, other folks religiously wash and wax their vehicles and vigorously spray Windex and Armor All on whatever surfaces warrant it, and some people drive unsightly beaters simply as a way to get from Point A to Point Wherever-They-Are-Going (a.k.a. Point B).

We are all free to do as we wish with our cars. I saw a minivan the other day that had uncountable bumper stickers across the entire rear surface. Even the back window had a bunch, with two small spaces left clear, presumably so the driver could back up with at least a modicum amount of safety. I see cars like that every once in a while and strain to read at least a few of the important messages before the vehicle speeds off.

They are often funny—“Jesus Saves . . . at Raley’s” for example. Or politically incorrect: “Earth First! We’ll strip mine the other planets later.” Sometimes one contradicts another just inches away. Which is also funny.

I used to have a Darwin fish on the back of our old pickup truck. Other people prefer the IXOYE version or the one advertising Buddha, Gefilte, or Cthulhu. All can be ordered online, and many more, for a small delivery charge. Individuality is great, no matter whom you might offend.

I don’t mind Jack in the Box antenna balls, rusty bumpers, or extra wide bicycle racks that extend dangerously past the sides of the car. License plate frames are fun to read—unless the font is so small that I have to seriously tailgate to get the joke—and the myriad special license plates, with or without personalized tags, are a waste of money, but I say do it if you want to. It’s your car. And your dime.

Here’s my point:

I really don’t understand the little sticker families that are taking over the rear windows of our personal transportation vehicles. You know the ones: stick figures to represent dad, mom, each kid, and often even the family pets. For some reason the drivers want passersby to be able to verify that everyone in the family is indeed in the car so that the home can be safely burgled. It’s the perfect way to case the joint.

Obviously it is just another form of self-expression, but it is rife with dilemmas. The stickers representing little Johnny and Susie are smaller than the ones for the parents, but eventually Johnny is going to tower over Mom, as will Susie if her pituitary gland continues to misfire. Think of the expense in updating the stickers each year . . . it’ll likely wipe out the kids’ college funds.

Then somewhere down the road another baby will come along, and his or her sticker will be slapped on right in order, after the two cat stick figures. That ought to be the basis of several years of psychotherapy.

Stickers will have to be removed after death and divorce, and then replaced when the much younger stepmother enters the picture. Her kids will have to be included in the family display at some point, but maybe that should wait until after an appropriate mourning period. Like after Mom’s casket sticker is removed.

It’s a whole “my nuclear family is better than your nuclear family” thing. I don’t see any single folks putting on one sticker on their cars, and I have yet to see an arrangement that includes only one parent figure. Or, for that matter, two parental units of the same gender. This is an outrage! It is discrimination! People with one arm have no representative sticker! My brother with the ponytail can’t find a decal that shares his true nature with everyone who drives by.

Come to think of it, I think he prefers it that way. He likes to be anonymous, other than the fact that he’s an old guy with a ponytail. But maybe that’s just my bald head being jealous.

I am not jealous of these stickers, though. I think they are stupid, but I grant the rest of you the freedom to apply them to your cars if you want. Maybe it is the best way for you to make sure the entire family is in the car before you leave on vacation. Just match the stickers to the humans and away you go! The same counting system will also prevent accidentally leaving one of the kids in a gas station bathroom as you drive across the country to visit the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas.

Unless, of course, that is exactly what you intended to do. Maybe your son just wouldn’t stop counting telephone poles out loud. That could be really annoying.

Don’t worry, Dad can always scratch off Junior’s stick figure at the next rest stop to update the head count.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Ah, love. That deep emotion we yearn for and fight over. Civilizations rise and fall for love. Great deeds are accomplished with such feeling, and horrific acts as well. Sometimes elusive, sometimes ever-present. It might seem to be furthest from your own grasp when you see nothing but clutching couples everywhere you look, yet it can surprise you around the very next corner.

What we love can spurn us. What we push away often loves us all the more. It is a tangled web we weave, yet most of us cannot stay away for long. Even after being dumped, we go back for more. Sometimes even to the same person!

My own personal love trail has had its share of twists and turns and dead ends. Early failure might very well have turned me into a hermit. But I persisted. Even after the darkest days, I persisted.

The first time I told someone “I love you,” she said, “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

Guess what? It never was. At first all had been bliss and happiness. She was an older woman (only a year older, but when you are fifteen that is a big time score!). We went to movies and out for burgers and ice cream and other such stuff. After a few months, though, she met some redheaded dude at a roller skating rink who was more exciting than Mr. Sophomore With His First Girlfriend. So I got the “Let It Go” speech.

I have hated that speech ever since. But I love the bumper sticker I saw years later: “If you love something, let it go. If it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it.” It always made me think of our short, exciting fling and the burning ache as she drove away for the last time. Such cruel fate. I was not old enough to drive, so I had to be the one standing there sucking exhaust fumes.

The second time I told someone “I love you,” she said, “There are lots of different kinds of love. Love for a puppy, for example. Love for a book, love for a friend. You need to think about this a little more.” And she sent me packing. I did not go back and tell her a second time.

The real problem this time was she liked a friend of mine, a blonde, bronzed, and brawny fellow, while I was the skinny, non-athletic band geek. Perhaps I was also not quite the catch my mommy and grandma always told me.

The third time I told someone “I love you,” she said, “Oh.”


There is no way to recover from that. You’re holding a Valentine’s Day gift for your girlfriend, you say “I love you,” and then you pucker up.

And she says “Oh.” The thanks she offered for the present meant nothing and all I could do was think “stupid stupid stupid.” My puckered lips turned sour and I stumbled into the kitchen to check on dinner. A week later she had her brother tell me she was dumping me.

There we have it. Three strikes and you’re out! Twenty-two years old at that point and ready to enroll in the nearest monastery. Perhaps I was just not suited for this love thing. I put love out of my mind and buried myself in work, drink and Fritos.

Then I met Kristin. We worked together and became friends. I liked her smile, her laugh, the easy way she got along with people. She liked my motorcycle jacket. When I convinced her I wasn’t as old as she thought, she agreed to go out with me. And we married seven months later.

It’s been twenty-five years at this point, and Kristin has taught me what love really is. It is taking care of someone, tending to their needs, and being tended by them when necessary. It is taking the best of each of you and making a union that is more than the sum of its parts.

It is always wanting to see that person, and missing them terribly if you spend too much time apart. It is solving problems, creating joy, and working through the inevitable difficulties. Together. True love is wanting to spend the rest of your life with that person, through every eventuality.

But it is more than the wedding vows of sickness/health, richer/poorer and so on, because those are shared even at weddings that are bound for divorce court before the honeymoon is over. True love is the soothed ache in your soul because this person makes you whole.

The fourth time I told someone “I love you,” Kristin said, “I love you, too.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010


No one mocks the draggy pants of today’s young men more than I, but it becomes apparent that my comments say more about me than Mr. Draggy. After all, there have been a few occasions during my life when my behavior or sense of style was rightfully ridiculed.

Okay, a few thousand occasions.

But I find myself nowadays more often pitying the young folk than mocking them. They are woefully overscheduled by their parents, with extracurricular sports, theater, music, and equestrian activities. (If your parents never bought you a pony when you were a kid, replace equestrian with rodentia, which just means you were more likely to be found playing with a hamster named Squishy.)

I used to shake my head at the über-connectedness of youth, with their iGizmos and their regular twittery updates on social networking computery things and their cellular telephones that are so small they can get lost in a pocket between two coins. Now I marvel that these miniature adults can organize all that tech stuff and still manage their own lives.

It must be a difficult way to grow up. I’m glad I survived my younger years without draggy pants, ponies, and Facebook. I daresay, as the grumpy old man that I am, that life just might have been easier back then.

Going to college was easier as well. That pre-senior summer activity known as “figuring out where you want to go to college” has spiraled out of control as well. It used to be that the upcoming graduate would either matriculate at whatever university had a building named after his grandfather, or she’d apply to a couple of places she had heard of.

The application was completed by hand and it just wasn’t worth the effort to fill out too many. I did so for a university that was a few minutes from my front door, another where my sister was a student, and a third that my mom and I visited to see what it had to offer. That was it.

Our modern students, with the power of Google at their fingertips, can easily apply at dozens of institutions that will happily propagate their information so that it is a nearly painless process (simply click debit or credit and you will be ready to go). It doesn’t make sense to apply to a dozen colleges, unless you listen to the alumnae fundraising group of whichever school is currently under consideration. Then the more, the merrier! They encourage you to apply early and often.

Kristin and I now begin our second of three college application processes—for our children, that is. Our bank account will be zapped for fifty or sixty bucks every time Kelsey clicks [APPLY HERE!] just like when Kate did it two years ago.

We have gone on a couple of college tours with Kelsey, and she has been fortunate to visit other campuses with other family members. I go not to support the silly notion that you have to actually walk the streets to know if it is the right school to attend, but because I have time to kill and I always enjoy a road trip.

The tour guides are all well-meaning and cheerful, but I wouldn’t want to count on them for any accurate information. They are the university equivalent of the under-dressed ladies waving their arms over the latest vehicles at a car show. And since they are generally college seniors at the time they lead us around by the nose, it’s not as if they have actually finished school and can be any kind of good role model to the younger visitors. They’re floundering like everyone else!

The high school students along for the tour, anticipating possibly attending the esteemed institution where they find themselves, never have any questions for the tour guides. They stumble along silently, perhaps giggling with a friend who came along. It is the parents who pepper the guide with interrogatives.

“Is it a safe campus?” Sure. In relation to what?

“Does anyone really major in dance?” Yes. The tour guide, in fact.

“Does the school guarantee finishing within four years?” Hahahahahahahaha.

The last seemed like a really foolish question, given the rate of impacted programs and the length and breadth of four-year degree programs in general, and the likelihood that the student might just have other things to do than fill up the class load. Work, for example, and parties—and of course work parties.

I came to realize why the students were quiet during the tour. They had no interest in asking the questions that truly interested them, especially not with their parents standing nearby.

“Where do you rank on the list of party schools? And as a follow-up, I’d like to volunteer to help you improve in that ranking.”

“Where do the cutest boys (or girls) hang out?”

“Are my grades sent to my parents?”

We are just about done with Kelsey. She’ll go off in one direction or another. When it is Kyle’s turn, the last of the three, he’ll be lucky if we hand over the credit card number for the applications. And as for tours, we’ll just print out a map and wish him good speed.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Every few years I get a hankering to be a harmonica player. It’s in the genes, I guess. My grandfather was a master of the instrument, and not just the little ten-hole plaything most of us have blown at one time or another. Grandpa played the Super Chromonica, a twelve-hole device that utilizes a button-activated sliding bar to essentially double the number of holes.

Then you’ve got the fact that each note can be changed by reversing direction of the breath, and Grandpa was blowing 48 different tones! No wonder he could reel off so many different tunes, sitting in his comfortable chair in the living room, the grandchildren huddled at his feet.

“Play another one, Grandpa, please!” we’d plead.

That’s what I notice about the difference between Grandpa’s harmonica playing and mine: no one ever begs me to play. I’ve walked down the sidewalks of Palo Alto, California with my brother-in-law as we attempted to warble the blues, and I have on occasion made an effort at a song with someone else in the house. But I rarely draw anyone to me; I don’t attract a crowd.

My most loyal following came when I used to teach kindergarten. It didn’t strike me as a thing to do in class right away, but one day we were singing “You Are My Sunshine” and I remembered that used to be one of my standby songs. (That, and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” were pretty much all I knew.)

The next day I took my harmonica to school and we sang the sunshine song, except this time I accompanied rather than sing along. The students were struck by the novelty of the situation, if not my skilled playing, and asked if I knew any other songs. When I played “Jolly Good Fellow” they shook their heads in disappointment.

“What’s that?” one asked.

When I tried to explain that it was a song traditionally sung at retirement and promotion parties at Fortune 500 companies, I was upstaged by a bright little girl.

“No, it’s ‘The Bear Went Over the Mountain.’”

We went back and forth with the “no it isn’t”/“yes it is” argument until she sang the first stanza. Lo and behold, she was right, the bear did indeed go over the mountain to see what he could see . . . but I wasn’t ready to give up. Some of the pupils were whining that they were bored, so I asked, “Well, then, what would you like to hear?”

I should have known I was setting myself up for failure.

They immediately clamored for “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” (Note: they weren’t clamoring for me, they were clamoring for the songs, an important distinction.) Simple enough I thought, so I gave it a try.

After a few moments, one asked, “What was that one?” as if he was tired of the entire event.

“‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Yes, it was.”

Here we go again.

“It didn’t sound like anything.”

I tried to sound out the nursery rhymes as best I could, and if the kids actually sang along they drowned out my discordant tunes. We did Mary, and then Twinkle, and then Mary again, and then Twinkle again, and then someone asked if I could play anything else. And that was pretty much the last time anyone asked me to play.

It didn’t stop me, though.

I found one of Grandpa’s old Super Chromonicas and had it cleaned up at a music store. Its wooden case needed a little TLC and I took care of that with some glue and twelve-inch clamps. Then I tried to play it with the soul and emotion of its original owner.

Despite the newly refurbished slide button and the hours of practice (okay, a few minutes a couple of times a year), I couldn’t entertain even the most disinterested people. Perhaps disinterested people by their very nature would lose interest in amateurish harmonica playing. I prefer to think that disinterested people don’t have the inclination to seek out their own entertainment so they are happy to sit back and experience whatever comes their way.

Doesn’t quite work out that way. Interested people lose interest in the unenjoyable. Disinterested people look elsewhere for something to interest them. Either way, my audience diminishes to zero.

I am not exactly living up to Grandpa’s legacy, but I am still trying. I have found songs online to practice, and can play “Blowin’ in the Wind” well enough that adults can sometimes identify it, if they stick around long enough.

Usually my audience consists only of the dog, and if she doesn’t leave the room I figure it’s been a good show.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Perhaps you have heard of the scam when someone calls up and says, “Grandma? Hi, it’s your grandson. Hey, I’m in a bit of trouble and was hoping you could wire me some money.”

Grandma is not going to turn down such a heartfelt entreaty. Grandpa might, but that’s why the caller never asks for Grandpa. He’s a grouch, and barely says hello when the grandkids come for a visit, which they do with decreasing frequency because they are so busy with their friends and their jobs and their electronic doohickeys. Grandma, though, always has a smile and a welcome hug, and without question will hustle down to Western Union at the merest hint of trouble, ready and willing to empty her bank account.

Unless she asks a few questions. Where are you? What happened? Enough questions that the caller mysteriously hangs up. The grandma who survives this scam is one with the proper amount of skepticism.

Those who prey on the older generations used to do it door to door, convincing them to agree to unneeded roof repairs or signing for unsavory home equity loans or purchasing Fuller brushes even though the bathroom cabinet was clogged with plenty already. I used to think such victims ought to be a little wiser, and perhaps bore a bit of the blame.

Then I grew old and became wary of all the smooth-talking youngsters at car dealerships and blood donation centers and bank teller windows. Each one meaning to cheat me out of what was rightfully mine. The scams were no longer so unbelievable.

And then one of these scalawags called my mom.

I thought the Grandma Scam almost sounded too foolish to exist. Who would waste their time doing this as a job? Who would fall for it? My mom proved that it actually did exist.

At the time my son was traveling out of state. We don’t know how the caller knew my mom was a grandmother (hey, AARP . . . are you selling your membership lists to Canadian con artists?) but there was no chance that this particular teenaged boy was out of the country on his own and needed thousands of dollars sent immediately.

One or two questions and the rip-off fell apart. Simply asking, “What do you want?” prompted the guy to hang up, likely to call the next number on his list.

My mom is a scam ninja, ready to karate chop any swindler who tries to take advantage of her. She isn’t going to fall for such malarkey, and for that I am thankful. (I’m also thankful I was able to determine that it actually wasn’t my son calling and trying to pad his woefully thin bank account.) My mom will not suffer fools . . . well, none other than me. She has to put up with me, though, because I’m her little boy! And I’ve got a birth certificate to prove it.

I don’t know what kind of jackass considers such dishonest work a good career move. Mom reports that there was the telltale pause of the telemarketing call when she first said, “Hello,” when you know someone is just working their way down a list of phone numbers.

And they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t work. Like new salesmen are taught, you’ve got to be told “no” seven times before you walk away. The circulars in your mailbox are sent to tens of thousands of citizens in the hope that a tiny percentage will actually shop because of them.

As long as one grandma somewhere in this country will wire five thousand dollars to some phony grandkid, they’ll keep calling. Even the less offensive phone calls, the ones that aren’t out-and-out scams, are kept alive by a few people who won’t just hang up.

As long as a few people are willing to participate in opinion polls on politics, television, or the economic condition of the country, they’ll keep calling. As long as kind but misguided citizens purchase candy and magazine subscriptions from strangers on their front porch in an effort to supposedly help keep kids out of gangs, they’ll continue to knock.

As long as even a few folks contribute to police benevolent societies and Save the [enter favorite animal here], they’ll keep calling.

Some of you are taking the time to respond to those callers on the telephone even though their sole purpose is to separate you from your money. You try to say “no, thank you” but you eventually give in. I can only assume this because I keep getting the same damned calls. I’d like it to stop, but I can’t do it without your help.

Instead of saying “no, thanks” and not hanging up, please say, “get a real job.” And hang up.

I guarantee if it is actually your grandson, he will call back, and he will forgive you.