Sunday, February 28, 2010


In the living room we have three small picture frames, each holding a photo of one of the kids when they were young. One is grinning into a camera from her kindergarten classroom, another is sitting on Grandma’s brick hearth, and the final kid is sitting well clad in a snowdrift.

Each is precious. The children have all grown beyond their initial innocence and the pictures are not a sappy remembrance of how things used to be. They are simply a way to recall what it was like having kids who didn’t drag us into court.



When Kristin answered the knock on the front door she had no way of knowing that the nameless gentleman on the porch would be dragging us into legal proceedings. Until he handed her an envelope stamped “Summons.” Then she knew it was serious.

The individual named therein was a certain Kyle Baxter, a minor, our son; a good boy with a not exactly spotless record. Nothing to concern yourself with, but let us not say that he was a choir boy. Because he wasn’t. Except for that time he was in the school choir. That was completely different.

Once Kristin got past the heart attack factor, it turned out that Kyle was being summoned to appear as a witness against a burglar who had traipsed through our neighborhood the previous summer. The criminal in question had scampered over a neighbor’s fence and into our backyard as Kyle watched from a second story window.

The perp dropped a few salient items in our yard and Kyle, ever the trustworthy and responsible citizen, picked them up and delivered them to the investigating officers. After the future felon was cuffed and sitting on a neighbor’s lawn. That’s when the boy learned that it would have been better to have just alerted the authorities, rather than actually moving the items. That made him a material witness.

“Cool!” Kyle said. He told all of his friends as soon as possible. “I’m going to court!”

Kristin and I tried to impart the seriousness of the event. Without success.

“No, really! I have to sit on the stand right next to the judge. It’ll be like an episode of Lawn Order!” I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

I was, however, a little concerned about the entire event. It didn’t seem likely that the accused would have a posse of hooligans ready to knife my son once he left the courtroom, but what do you do when faced with such a possibility? I asked the Assistant District Attorney over the phone. He assured me that there shouldn’t be any such problem, and that he would be happy to talk to Kyle before he actually took the stand. There was even the possibility that the guy would plead guilty and the trial would be averted.

We would be kept abreast of all developments. Or so we were told.

The trial date approached and Kyle was still stoked. He would be able to skip a day at school, and this would no doubt be a positive item to be listed on his application for the police academy. He has considered law enforcement a possible career ever since his eighth grade exhibition project on the academy. He has treated the idea seriously ever since, and I have no reason to hold him back.

If it turns out that’s what he wants to do, I am not going to tremble in fear every day that he has a dangerous job. After all, fat and lethargic in a cubicle is no less dangerous. At least from a health standpoint.

The trial date arrived and was postponed for a few weeks. Unfortunately, as the new one drew near, we received no further updates. Instead of being told what day Kyle should be in court, we sat in a quiet and dark house wondering what had happened to the criminal justice system. I called and left a message for the formerly responsive Assistant District Attorney, but never heard back. The week came to an end, and I don’t know if the trial commenced, or if the perp pled to some equal or lesser charge.

I don’t know if Kyle’s participation will still be required, and I don’t know if the ADA is still alive. Could the accused somehow have coerced an associate to commit some heinous such as causing the ADA to “disappear”? Has the entire event turned into something unsavory and dangerous?

And what’s that strange car that’s been parked across the street from the house for the last three days? And who are the fellows in it that are watching our house through binoculars?

Uh oh.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I hope I am alive in one hundred years. Not just because I want to sit in my rocking chair and yell at my great-great-grandchildren about how hard it was in my day (although that will be a cherished moment, I assure you). No, what I want to be able to see is whether I am correct on the whole high speed rail issue.

For those of you who have first hand knowledge of the Pony Express, perhaps you ought to return your attention to the gruel your nurse is trying to feed you right now. Everyone else knows that over the course of time there are technological improvements made that bring us collectively to a higher consciousness. The computer chip did so, as did Oprah, and pretty soon we will able to communicate purely with our thoughts and someone will finally figure out the perfect hangover cure.

I live for that day. The cure, that is; I can live long and well without knowing your thoughts.

In the meantime, before this perfect future arrives, we adapt or eschew so-called improvements to our way of life. Whether it concerns organic food or Google or transportation, each has rabid believers who wish to indoctrinate the world. The world just isn’t sure if it wants such indoctrination.

For example, there are people who want to build a high speed rail system between Northern and Southern California, very few of whom have any real vested interest in the project, other than wanting to be known as a proponent when it works out. Which it won’t.

There just aren’t that many people wanting to travel by train from Hollywood to San Francisco. Or vice versa. If the only proof that it would work is that it does in Japan and China and France and Germany and even, to a limited degree, on the East Coast of the U.S., then I am sorry to disappoint everyone. But I have one simple word for you.


Here’s another one: Toyota.

We are a car culture in this country, for right or wrong, and, notwithstanding trillions of recall notices being sent out by Toyota recently (and, in smaller numbers, from every other manufacturer of two- and four-wheeled motorized transportation units on a regular basis), a car culture we will remain. A few people might hop on board the newfangled train for the ride up or down the state, but not enough to justify the expense.

And, oh, what an expense!

We’re talking billions of dollars, and still we are not sure where it will be built. The middle part is easy, right through some cauliflower fields in the Central Valley. But then how do you get in and out of the major metropolitan areas at two hundred miles per hour?

You can’t. That’s the simple fact. It will have to slow down and deal with cities, and while the folks inside the train think to themselves, “Gee, that was fun, we should do it again, after all, there are so many seats available!” everyone on the outside will say out loud, “That’s why I don’t ride that damned train!”

Just because it works in Europe isn’t necessarily proof that it can work in the good ol’ U. S. of A. California is a large enough state—in square miles and population—that train proponents think it will help the citizens, but most of those citizens are happy to just tootle around in their gasoline-powered global warmers.

What might make sense is a high speed rail system that connects the west coast with the east. After all, it is a wide country with a lot of desolation between the ends (sorry Wichita, Kansas, but it’s true). A nice fast train track between, say, San Francisco and Raleigh, North Carolina, might be interesting. In truth, though, how many Americans would such a ride benefit? The answer: too few to matter. It just doesn’t seem to make sense here.

If you want to prove your case by listing all of the first world countries with high speed rail, let me ask two questions. How many citizens does it actually serve? And which so-called developed countries are able to survive without this transportation option? Oh, and here is my third of the two questions I promised: seriously, why do you have this bug up your rear?

Some people love the idea of high speed rail in California and will shout it from the highest rooftops. Some hate it, and have lots of stats as to why it won’t work. I don’t presume to know enough to say it will never work, but I highly doubt it. Since I don’t have a crystal ball I guess I’ll just have to stay alive for another fifty years or so and see how it all progresses.

My first thought is that it will still be under discussion, but the price tag will have grown into the quadrillions of dollars. If it turns out that I was wrong, and thousands of passengers are happily saving time and money hurtling across the ground in high speed railcars, I urge you to let me know. Really, send me a thought-mail or whatever passes for communication in this practically inconceivable future.

I promise to give your message as much attention as I would today.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


When my brother visits, he often pulls a football out of the trunk of his car and plays catch with my son. He used to ask me, but I would usually say no. I only play catch with a Frisbee.

Now that Kyle is big enough, he can actually catch the football with his hands. At first it usually just bounced off his head. With his newfound skills, he has fewer headaches, and he can lob it just about as far as his uncle. Kyle has not yet passed me in height or waist measurement, but I believe he he has in arm strength.

Last year, as a high school freshman, Kyle was on the swim team, another skill I was unable to help him with. He has become a better swimmer than I, and has continued to build his shoulder and arm muscles as mine continue to atrophy. I might be able to run marathons but my upper body has the scrabbly little appendages of a T-Rex.

This year Kyle has joined the golf team at school, and I am happy to report that I have been able to help him with his golfing goals. No, I haven’t taken him out on the links to share my copious skills. Mostly I just identified the person who could properly answer his questions.

A golfing champion I am not.

I sent Kyle around the corner to my friend’s house, a friend with a ridiculously low handicap like 5 or 6. For those of you who don’t know much about golf, that’s like being able to balance a lawn chair on your nose while using chopsticks to eat lunch with one foot and kicking the dog with the other. In other words, it takes skill.

Kyle had a list of questions his coach wanted answered, and my friend helped admirably. Do not take practice shots. Remove your tee. Step back to allow the next golfer a chance to hit. Shout “fore!” in advance of the head injury to reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit. Do not carry more than one six-pack of beer for your personal consumption during the round.

There was the matter of proper grip, body posture, and positive mental attitude, this last one to prevent any bending of clubs after an errant shot. Kyle returned home, eager to hit the course for the first time. He had the enthusiasm of a real golfer, from a real golfer.

Kind of like how he enjoys throwing a football, because he practiced with my enthusiastic brother. Such excitement can rub off on a kid, and undo any harm caused by an amateurish and lazy father.

Of course, now Kyle has to take whatever he has gained in skill and knowledge and put it to work on the golf course. This is where I failed as a golfer. It short-circuited my business management career, and ended my hopes of having an active social life. I was a terrible golfer, and my clubs were eventually given away. (The clubs breathed a sigh of relief.)

And he is showing promise on the golf course. Of the boys with little to no experience, Kyle seems to be a rising star. There is even a chance that he will make the varsity squad when the real games against other schools start in a couple of weeks. He tops a ball every once in a while, and isn’t immune from a dangerous slice now and again, but his swing is forming and he is getting under the ball more consistently.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to caddy for him, and I’m not sure if high school golf is much of a spectator sport. If I have to live vicariously through his stories once he returns home, I can live with that. If he wins any sort of trophy or award at the end of the season, it will be easy enough to get a small bit of tape to cover over “Kyle” and write “Matt.” I’m sure he won’t mind sharing.

When Kyle runs cross country each fall I get into it and we even run together sometimes. Then he confuses me by trying a sport I have either ignored or failed in. If Kyle gets excited about the current winter Olympics and decides to form a high school curling team, I think I will have to rein in his enthusiasm with a little bowling. I can handle bowling; it is not a cold sport. I can even break one hundred in the first or second game.

After that my dinosaur arms weaken appreciably.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Last Christmas Day we hosted a few family members for dinner. The menu was fairly simple: porcupine balls, mashed potatoes, and green beans. I know what you’re thinking. Nothing says “season’s greetings” like porcupine balls.

And no, the main dish had nothing to do with roadkill. It’s actually meatballs with rice mixed in, like quills. Get it?

We often make mashed potatoes at home without peeling the tubers. Something about many of the nutrients being stored in the skin, and the texture it provides in the final product, and . . . oh, yeah . . . I am a really lazy man. Not having to spend time peeling the potatoes is a step in the right direction, at least in my cookbook.

“Sure, I’ll help with dinner,” I say. I grab a bunch of potatoes, and rinse, rinse, rinse. “Here ya go!” Mashed potatoes ready to make. They just need boiling, mashing, and whatever else is required to get them on my plate. I’ll leave all that hard work to others.

Kristin wanted to make the mashed potatoes for our visitors in the more traditional style, and so I volunteered to help peel. It was the least I could do, seeing as how I hadn’t helped with the shopping, gift wrapping, decorating, or holiday cheer in any other way. I pulled the peeler from the kitchen drawer that stores all rarely used implements and began hacking away.

It felt like I was on KP duty in an old war movie. Standing over the sink, trying to finish each spud in just a few seconds so that I could go on to the rest of the pile. Five hundred pounds of potatoes in the movie in my mind; more like four pounds for our assembled guests.

When it came time to clean out the sink, I knew my newly installed disposer could handle the mess, so I turned on the water and flipped the switch. Hungry chewing sounds emanated from the hole as I shoved down the potato peels. It was over almost before it began, no muss, no fuss.

Two minutes later the sink backed up.

We made it through the holiday without our guests knowing of the problem, and the next morning the sink was draining better. I figured the peel pile had moved on down the pipes.

It had. About two feet, from my best estimate. The next time we washed a load of laundry the garage sink backed up.

We hung an “out of order” sign on the washing machine and told the kids they would just have to wait to wash their favorite outfits. Every day I would take the plunger out to the garage and see if I could fix the situation externally. Of course, as any respectable plumber will tell you, plungers are mostly just a joke tool that can’t accomplish any sort of significant repair. Yet two days later the garage sink was draining again!

Score one for the amateur handyman and his plunger.

“Dad!” Kelsey screamed from the house. I ran inside and found her gagging in the hall bathroom. She was covering her mouth and plugging her nose with one hand and pointing at the bathtub with the other. Water was coming up from the drain, in what can only be described as the wrong direction. And the wrong color as well. It was, more or less, black.

Clearly the potato peels were still wreaking havoc on my pipes. I crawled under the house and did some quick analysis. The sludge was slowly making its way through the system, and I could figure out where it currently sat based on where the pipes joined from the kitchen sink, the garage sink, and the bathroom tub. There was a short connecting joint in the vicinity, the result of an old repair job, so I removed that and brought down some muscle.

The plunger wasn’t going to cut it. I needed power, force, an unwillingness to ever, ever give up. I needed the garden hose.

Kristin wasn’t home so she couldn’t complain about the hose being brought in through the front door and down into the narrow crawl space. I shoved it in the opening in the pipe, as bits of dark, gooey matter plopped onto my hands and arms. The water on the ground, having exited the pipe as soon as I opened it and splashed into a nice little puddle, was slowly reaching for my shirt.

Back outside—with a lot of crawl space dirt dropped on the tile in the foyer—I cranked open the spigot as fast as I could. I heard the water rushing through the hose and crossed my fingers. Either the blast of water would clear the blockage, or I would have just added about five gallons to my under-house puddle.

I let it run for a minute and then shut it off. Back inside, I peered down into the crawl space, afraid I had added an underground swimming pool to our home’s amenities. The puddle was no larger, though. As I extracted the hose I got even more sludge on me, but with the pipes back together I was able to run water down all the problem sinks without a backup.

The cheap-o plumber had achieved victory, and celebrated by taking a long, hot shower in the grime leftover in Kelsey’s tub. Cleaning the body only took a few minutes.

Scouring the sludge marks off the porcelain took considerably longer.