Sunday, March 28, 2010


Like many of you, I spent a number of years climbing on rickety metal risers with my classmates for the annual class picture. We’d push and shove each other, make rabbit ears behind the head of the kid that nobody liked, and end up with our own awful rictus grin that looked pasted on. It seemed as though our goal was to torture the teacher and the photographer.

Most of you have grown up and long ago left that world behind. I, meanwhile, chose to become a teacher in my late 30s, and there I was again, grinning into the camera, muttering between my still lips to any pupil who dared try to ruin the experience for everyone else.

“Do you really want your mom to see you like that?” I would hiss.

Of course he would. He didn’t care. And yes, it was inevitably a boy.

Spring 2001 was my first kindergarten class picture since 1968. I was much taller, but still looked uncomfortable in my “best” clothes. The twenty little faces surrounding me were also decked out in outfits they otherwise never would have worn to school. Several of the moms hovered around Room 13 that morning, ready and willing to apply spit and forty comb strokes to smooth out the most unruly locks of hair.

I was in a dress shirt that day—short-sleeved—but at least it had a collar and a full set of buttons. Since seventy-five percent of my wardrobe was T-shirts and twenty-four percent was faded polo shirts, it was no small feat for me to be in such a photogenic outfit. This particular shirt spent most of its time in the back of the closet, always waiting to be pulled out but usually forgotten. Until some sort of event came up that required I dress like an adult.

A grownup dinner party. Some sort of church service. Or a kindergarten class picture.

The next year my wardrobe had not increased in size or variety. I didn’t give much thought to what I would wear, because there was still limited choice. When the 2002 class picture arrived I hung it up in the classroom for all of the students to see.

“Mr. Baxter, why are you wearing the same shirt as last year?”

“What?” Sure enough, there I sat in the new picture, in the middle of a different group of students. Same shirt, same jeans, same silly grin. “Well, it’s my only good shirt. Now, how about some math!”

They booed the math and forgot about the picture. I did neither.

It became a tradition for me to keep wearing the same shirt every year. At first no one really cared except me, and I had to bring the unusual situation to others’ attention. As the years passed and the picture collection grew, I continued to sit in the same position, surrounded by new faces. Former students would come by to see the latest addition, dragging along their friends who had never even been in my class. It became the stuff of legend.

Generally the parents thought I was a little odd. They would look askance at me if I dared try to explain my little Dorian Gray experiment. They pitied my wardrobe selection and my lack of fashion creativity. They wondered if they could perhaps pull their child from my classroom, but by that time it was usually too late. Spring had sprung and the end of the school year loomed.

Besides, they had known I was a little odd since the first day of school. This picture business was just one more oddity on the list of oddities.

When I started teaching fifth grade I no longer sat in the front middle. The photographer seemed to think it would look better if I stood to the side, level with the other heads. Which was fine with me, as long as I was in my famous shirt.

Which I was. Every year. Stood right next to the ten- and eleven-year-olds and grinned at the camera, knowing full well that the shirt and I were achieving some sort of lasting fame that would eventually be known only to those who had ample time to waste poring through their old yearbooks and noticing such things as the goofball who showed up on picture day with the same shirt, year after year.

Eventually even a periodic laundering will stress the finest garment. Perhaps it was the fading of the class picture shirt that prompted my exit from full time teaching. One of the buttons slowly loosened, the collar no longer would lie flat, and in the summer of 2008 I tossed the shirt in the trash. That fall, I was no longer a teacher.


You be the judge.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


There is something about men I don’t get. The posturing, the clenching of muscles, the grim stares, the heightening by slightly lifting their heels from the floor . . . all in attempt to best their opponent. And their opponent can be anyone at any time, they are that eager for a battle. This is more common in younger men, but I’ve seen it as well in older guys who should know better.

My antipathy likely stems from my underweight youth. I was skinny and passive when I was younger, and only got in one real fight. Which I lost by unanimous decision (mostly because I didn’t realize it was going to be a real fight until it was over; by then it was too late). I didn’t participate in contact sports, and I didn’t drag my testosterone to bars when I reached drinking age.

Whether it is true manliness or not, I have been left out of the bravado loop. All snickering aside (and seriously, stop snickering), using a Star Wars metaphor I am more Luke Skywalker than Han Solo. More Wimpy than Popeye, more Jim Rockford than Thomas Magnum, more Sonny than Cher. [Insert your own funny comparison here.]

The other day I sat in my car doing very unmanly things. I was sipping a white chocolate mocha from Starbucks with whipped cream (likely one of their least macho offerings) and attempting to gift wrap a just-purchased birthday present for my young niece. I was in full-estrogen mode, having remembered to bring the gift wrap, the transparent tape, AND the scissors. If not for the beard I might have been mistaken for a woman.

As I sat contemplating my gentleness I heard loud voices coming from nearby, and looked up to see a couple of males going at it. They might have been itching for a fight, if they weren’t working so hard at avoiding any real contact. Typical guy posturing. Like a couple of roosters scratching in the dirt.

The little guy (well, he looked little because he was sitting in a small car and was generally looking up at his fellow combatant) was defending his driving skills. The other guy, a swarthy and stockier dude, stood near the front corner of his large pickup truck. The kind of truck that says, “A real man drives me!”

If trucks could talk.

The trailer behind the truck was stacked with a variety of yard care equipment. The trailer said, “A real gardener drives me!”

Mr. Truck was yelling about the other guy cutting him off, apparently as they had been driving around the parking lot. He accused, and the accused denied doing anything wrong. In fact, he turned the argument on its head and complained about the large truck with the trailer taking up too much space.

Eventually the ultimate swear word was tossed around, alternately as verb or adjective, its use increasing as the sentences got shorter and less erudite. Mr. Car never made a move to exit his vehicle, choosing instead to flail around his arms and swear some more. Mr. Truck made one brief feint toward Mr. Car but never truly stepped out of the shadow of his truck. It seemed like they both wanted to fight, but were holding themselves back.

Then I realized: it’s Thursday, about eleven o’clock in the morning. They are both probably heading for whatever counts as work for them, plus the light of day is shining brightly on their idiotic behavior and they are likely stone cold sober (though possibly, like me, highly caffeinated). As typical male brawlers, they were itching for a fight, this just wasn’t the right time.

If the same altercation happened in a different parking lot, say at a bar, about thirty-six hours later, say late Friday night, no doubt fisticuffs would have flown. They would have been surrounded by their respective friends and beaten each other senseless, or at least until the authorities showed up. Then they would have smiled through their swollen eyes and bloody lips, their friends lauding them for a fight well fought, and no matter how badly one of them lost he would think he won.

Because they are stupid. Brawling hooligans who mistake machismo for confidence. The kind of guy I am glad I did not grow up to be.

One more white chocolate mocha to go, please.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


People pursue exercise in many different ways. Some like to throw cash at it, purchasing gym memberships or home equipment that they might even use on a regular basis (if they buck the trend of using it as a clothes hanger). Others go a more natural route and choose to run or bike on trails either natural or asphalt.

For me that is highly preferable to running in place on a treadmill or cycling in place on some sort of recumbent ugliness complete with TV screen. I’m sure it works for some people, in fact it works for a lot of them. I see them in long rows whenever I am unfortunate enough to be near a gym. They pant and drip sweat on their hamster wheels to nowhere.

I shudder and walk away.

But even going au natural can be improved upon. If the neighborhood community center has a track, folks drive there and then run around in circles rather than just running in their neighborhood. Or they hop in the car with the bicycle strapped to the roof or disassembled into the trunk to find a nice place to ride, instead of just opening the garage door and pedaling away.

As a charter member of the Cheap and Lazy Club, I will almost always begin my run or ride from my own driveway. Working out in a club just requires me to work more to afford the monthly dues. Gas to drive to the nearby track or other trail is cheaper than the club, but still requires money. Too cheap to spend the funds, and too lazy to have to go somewhere to exercise.

If I can reduce my work hours by running and biking more simply, and utilizing push-ups and sit-ups at home to exercise other muscle groups (and turning yard work into yet another fitness regimen), I can use those freed up hours for that very exercise. More time for me, which is always my ultimate pursuit.

About two miles from home I can access a fairly lengthy trail that runs along Los Gatos Creek. Those two miles to get there are on surface streets so I have to maintain constant vigilance for vehicles under the control of distracted drivers. Whether they are late to their yoga class or just trying to find the volume control on their GPS unit, they will certainly win any physical confrontation between us. So I always defer to their right of way . . . even if they don’t have the right of way.

Easier when I am on the sidewalk going by foot, but let us not pretend that no pedestrian has ever been run down by an out of control car. I’ve seen it happen in a lot of movies, and since movies are simply a reflection of reality, I know it could happen to me. So I stay to the right and keep an eagle eye out until I reach the safety of the trail.

Ha! What an illusion. “The safety of the trail.” What a crock. If I get out during the week it isn’t too bad, but weekends it is a madhouse. Too many people are following my example of exercising by actually moving their bodies forward under their own power (although I suspect many of them drove to the parks that are scattered along the trail . . . infidels!)

The simple rules of the road are too often ignored by these health conscious individuals. They’d never veer across a line without looking behind them if they were driving (well, that is not entirely true, but let’s go with it for a moment and see where it takes us . . . watch out!) yet walkers regularly swerve across to stop at a drinking fountain or just to look at something on the opposite side of the trail from four feet closer than where they were.

Dog walkers use extendable leashes that allow Rover plenty of room to make his own decisions, and let me tell you as the runner or cyclist that is about to pass you, Rover would rather cross the path in search of the scent left by the last dog to walk by. And he won’t check over his shoulder first. He’s a dog.

Toddlers are left to exit their plastic tricycles and stumble about, and slightly older children are working on their balance in the early days of their bicycle riding experience. When they see someone coming in the opposite direction it is a scientific certainty that they will be propelled into the way of the other person, in direct proportion to their efforts to stay out of the way. Like I said, scientific certainty.

Which is why when I was out riding the other day I was glad to see more pedestrians using the dirt edge rather than taking over the path where we cyclists want to ride by at dangerous speeds. That way, when they paused to let their dog lift a leg or to allow their goat to nibble on some long grass, there was no chance that we would smash into each other.

You read that correctly. There was an older couple walking along, each with a goat at the end of a leash. They were smaller than expected—the animals—perhaps some sort of diminutive household version of the tin-can eating animal in many of my childhood storybooks. I could almost hear a gentle “maaaa maaaa” as I rode past. On my speedy return trip I saw them again, still munching on the weeds.

The goats knew the rules of the road and were good role models for all the people stopping to smile and point. Stay to the right. Don’t cross the center line.

When the desire to eat overpowers the desire to move forward, move into the weeds. More small children should do the same.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


The other day I was subbing in a second grade classroom. I’d worked at that particular school a handful of times, and in that very classroom once. Many of the students remembered me and greeted me with a smile when they walked in the door.

“Hi, Mr. Baldy!”

Let me explain . . .

I am not bald. If anything, I might be described as “balding,” but that is a decades long process that has only recently begun. As far as I am concerned, I have a fine head of hair and will be “balding” for the next three decades or so.

But perhaps I protest too much. Theories abound of hair loss through the generations, and presumably I can blame my maternal grandfather for grooming a fine ring of hair around his generally bald pate. If that is any indication, then I am either a bald man, or bald man to be. Either way, I embrace it. Cuts down on shampoo. Also barbers, though I haven’t been to one of those since 1999.

I was cultivating a really embarrassing ponytail back at the end of the last century, and it needed regular maintenance to keep it stylish. For that I would pay a paltry sum at a well-known hair-cuttery chain store that did nothing more than spritz a little water on the hair before hacking away. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had pulled out a bowl to cut nice even bangs.

Since then I trim it myself, every six weeks or so. At the point I might be called shaggy I stand in the bathroom and reduce it to about two millimeters. Nearly to the point of baldness, I suppose.

The students (from the early part of our story) called me Mr. Baldy not solely because of my threadbare hair threads, but because there was a fellow who was also a regular substitute teacher who went by the name. It wasn’t his real name. He was legitimately bald, and I guess his real name was too hard to pronounce. So he told them to call him Mr. Baldy.

And I deal with it to this very day. I don’t know if it is because we are both guys, or both have beards . . . we certainly aren’t the same height, since I have at least a few inches on him, but maybe from the diminutive perspective of the pupils we look the same. So we share the name.

During my lunch break on my most recent “Mr. Baldy” day I hacked onto the teacher’s computer. Technically, it wasn’t a hack attack, because I remember the default passwords the school district uses from when I used to work there full time. (Hmm . . . perhaps I am outing myself here.) If I had nefarious goals perhaps folks should be worried about the safety and security of their network, but all I wanted to do was use the computer.

It was either that, or go to the staff room and hang out with other teachers. I generally don’t like to do that. Teachers often ostracize unknown subs, and even when they don’t, all they talk about is teaching. It makes me shudder.

I had a devil of a time going online and searching for celebrity news and home brewery recipes. The computer was acting very oddly and I kept getting access errors. It turned out that every time I hit the space bar the keyboard ignored me, and every time I pressed the “m” I got “mn.” That last sentence would have looked something like this:


How was I going to spend my free time without a proper functioning keyboard? Just about every Web site I might have visited was a dot-com, or, in my new world view, a dot-comn. I couldn't exactly go shopping on amnazon.comn. So I tried to compose email messages to my friends and loved ones that didn’t require the “m” key. Or the space bar.

I wrote to Kristin, who thankfully has a dot-org email address.

“Help!” I wrote. She didn’t understand.

“911!” I replied. She thought I was joking. This is a natural result of my many years of acting ridiculous. I joke, I taunt, I rib, I exaggerate tales to the point that their veracity might be questioned and then I post such tales online. Except the following two things are frighteningly true.

One: I am balding.

Two: the space bar did not work.