Sunday, May 30, 2010


I used to visit my grandma when I was a kid. I might stay a night or two, or, in the summer, up to a week. There was yard work to help out with and other basic household chores, but most of the stay was very relaxing.

The pay was ridiculously high, but that’s what grandparents do. I might do nothing more than pull a few weedy mint plants in the side yard and rake the driveway (no, I wasn’t a fool, it was a dirt driveway) and I’d pocket enough coin for a couple of comic books from the corner store down the street with plenty left over to taunt my friends once I got home.

My friends were never too fond of me when I returned from Grandma’s house.

But while there I ate whatever I wanted; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I would have chosen waffles, BLTs, and stuffed meatballs every single day, but Grandma had me expand my gastronomic curiosity a bit. She didn’t want me to grow up an embarrassment to the family—though I’m not sure if she succeeded.

There was lots of time to relax as well. I’d read books, do puzzles and play games, and watch TV. Grandma and I would careen around town occasionally in her Plymouth Fury III to run errands. The schedule was very flexible, except for one brief period every afternoon.

During this time I was wise to stay out from under foot and to keep my trap shut. It was time to choose a chair or sofa cushion and sit for the only thing that had to happen every weekday, Monday through Friday, at one-thirty. As The World Turns was on the telly, and interruptions were frowned upon.

As soon as the show was over, Grandma would call her friend on the telephone and they would discuss what just happened as if the characters were their friends. I would wander away and wonder what was so interesting about it, but the seeds were planted.

When I moved into my own place at the age of 20 I fell into a slightly different routine than Grandma. I had to work every day, so I couldn’t watch TV in the afternoon. Fortunately, we had these crazy machines call VCRs, which allowed us to tape programs to watch later. It was a technological revolution!

I would get home from work around 5:30. I’d curl up in the recliner I had in the corner of my bedroom, grab a bag of corn chips and a pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea, and watch . . . yep . . . you guessed it . . . As The World Turns. I was hooked.

The soap opera is a funny thing. The plot takes months to go anywhere. One day the character of Bob is played by a tall fellow with dark hair, and then magically the next day he has dropped several inches in height and dyed his hair blond. Oddly enough, his face also looks entirely different.

Days go by and the characters are suffering the same problems they were last week, or last year. Nothing ever gets resolved. Sometimes the evil folks turn good, but that’s usually for ratings and not because they are suddenly good. Viewers have become accustomed to them and their evil ways and they seem almost charming.

Until they kill someone.

But don’t worry, because dead people always come back to life in soap operas, and there is always a mysterious twin confusing who is really doing what to who.

I never really discussed the show with Grandma once I became a watcher on my own. I wish I had. I don’t know what the attraction was for her. It seemed somewhat compulsive and addictive for me, at least until I stopped. Eventually it just seemed like a silly way to spend an hour every day (or 48 minutes by zipping through the commercials).

At some point my passion faded.

I turned it on the other day to see what was going on. Many of the same actors were still on the show, although they had definitely aged in the past twenty years (unlike me). There were lots of young actors scampering around being sexy. Some had familiar character names but new faces.

Which is to say that everything had stayed relatively the same. The only thing different is that in a few months it all ends. As the World Turns has been canceled, like every television show that loses viewers and no longer makes as much money as it used to. It will air its last episode on September 17, 2010.

I’m almost glad that Grandma doesn’t have to witness the show’s demise. Otherwise she might have come to realize that soap operas are just escapist pabulum and not worthy of her time and interest. It makes me wonder if perhaps she had just the tiniest shred of an addictive personality, and once she started watching she couldn’t stop.

I wonder, though, if she would have fallen prey as easily for our new national television shame: the reality TV program.

I shudder to think so.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Sometimes words matter. What you say has to really be what you mean. Otherwise great confusion can ensue and people can get mad.

That’s why Kristin got mad at me. Because I didn’t say what I really meant. I would have worded it much better if I had thought about it a little more. In that case I wouldn't have just blurted it out.

She was telling me about her idea for the backyard. We have a bit of a lawn, though we let it mostly die during the summer. Something about not wanting to pour water out of the sprinklers, trying to keep the grass in a semi-arid plain alive during the warm summer months.

I don’t mind the lowered water bill either.

Besides, the grass always comes back lush and green, as it did this year after our heavy rains. And being that it is now late May, it seems to be lasting longer than usual. Which is disconcerting. I’m not paying for it from a utility standpoint, but it does require regular mowing.

I used to be responsible for that, but now that falls on my son’s capable shoulders. Thanks, Kyle! But don’t worry, it will die again at some point. Then you can go back to your little technological toys.

Kristin and I are in agreement on the point of letting the lawn die each year, by the way, so we really haven’t gotten to the crux of the problem. The words I shouldn’t have said. Or the words I might have said more judiciously.

No, I think I was right the first time. I shouldn’t have said them.

When the grass is long and green, it is also often damp, especially in the morning. I believe that is called “dew.” When Kristin wants to walk out to her free-standing hammock she does not particularly care for the mushy feeling. In a few weeks she’ll begin to have a different problem: the dead grass will be brittle and harsh. She won’t want to walk on it then, either.

What she said she wanted to do was put some stepping stones from the small circular patio outside the sliding glass door all the way to the hammock. Possibly to where the faucet and hose are as well, but mostly for the hammock.

The hammock that, being free-standing, gets dragged around a bit in order to get into or out of the sun on any given day. Depending on the needs of the user at the time. Hence, how can you put stepping stones to it? It might not be there next time!

So I said what any thoughtful, loving husband would say.

“I forbid it.”

You would have thought I’d strangled a hummingbird.

“You what?” Kristin asked.

I knew instinctively that I shouldn’t repeat the f-word. The look on her face told me so. And the tone of her voice. And the fact that I am not a complete imbecile.

“Well, you know, the hammock moves all the time. What’s the point of stepping stones to nowhere?”

Her pause frightened me. She allowed me to continue digging. The hole I was standing in wasn’t quite deep enough yet.

“It’ll be a pain to mow around them all the time.” Now Kyle was staring at me, too.

“We don’t need them,” I said with a smile. None of it was working. Apparently sometimes my charm has its limitations. “I’ll carry you out to the hammock whenever you want!” I finally screamed. I was sweating bullets.

“That’s. Not. The. Point.”

Of course it wasn’t the point. The question at hand wasn’t how Kristin would get out to the hammock. It was how one spouse could “forbid” anything to the other. I tried to convince her that I didn’t mean “forbid” in its classic sense, but more in a loving and doting husbandly way. A recommendation, maybe. Or just some sage advice from the guy who does most of the yard work (be quiet, Kyle).

Of course words matter, though. And “forbid” means what “forbid” means. I briefly tried to impugn her character by pointing out that in our twenty-five years together she has certainly forbidden me certain things, but she denied it and I couldn’t come up with any concrete details.

So I no longer forbid her to put in stepping stones to the wandering hammock. But if they are installed, I absolutely refuse to relocate them every time the hammock changes location.

And meanwhile she has forbidden me to use a certain word.

That seems unfair.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


When I was in high school I participated in a talent show. We were a costumed jazz band, made up of fairly decent musicians. I wore a cleric’s collar, and, since I had a saxophone solo mid-song, we were called Pastor Baxter and the Holy Rollers. We came in second place to a couple of morons who hopped around on crutches.

That’s why I think my two friends were less interested in participating the next year. I wanted the three of us to dress up in spandex and lip sync to a new Bee Gees song. No doubt my pals just didn’t want to suffer the ignominy of coming in second place again.

That, or they didn’t like the whole idea of a spandex and falsetto gig. Our plans fell apart, and I never got the chance to wear form fitting stretch fabric again . . . until this year.

This year my exercise regime has morphed from primarily running to primarily bicycling, and it turns out that when one has a nice bicycle and one rides a lot of miles, one is better served with proper equipment. Water bottles, flat repair equipment, a helmet, stuff like that. Oh, and padded spandex shorts.

My first thousand miles passed in late April, exclusively in my regular shorts. Not bad for thirty minute rides, and passable for sixty, but once I hit three or four hours in a day, and fifty or sixty miles in a row, the seat was molded into my shorts and, through them, to my flesh. I had to practically peel myself off the saddle.

It came time for me to buy some real bicycle shorts, and I could only do that at a real bicycle shop. A guy in a foreign accent said the padded crotch was normal and, no, I wouldn’t need to wear underwear. I assume he was a salesman. I hope he was a salesman.

Whoever he was, he eyeballed me in a not too uncomfortable way and estimated my size. Then I was directed toward the expensive racks. When he turned his back to fawn over someone else, I did what I could to save some money. I found mid-priced tighties and slipped into the dressing room.

It took a surprising amount of upper body strength to drag the shorts up my thighs. They were very clingy, and suddenly I knew what Peter was complaining about when he had to dress up for the Brady Bunch Variety Hour. There’s nothing wrong with glitter and rhinestones and yards and yards of day-glo Lycra, but at some point having a layer of clothing that is closer than your own skin is unnatural.

With this fashion atrocity surgically attached, I eventually headed out on my favorite bicycle trail. It felt weird at first, but eventually the padded butt certainly started paying dividends. It didn’t feel like I was sitting in my favorite Barcalounger, but I was no longer astride the rock that is the modern professional bicycle seat. Fifteen or twenty miles with a little extra tush was breathtaking.

The one thing that didn’t change on my bike rides was my indifference to my fellow citizens. I am as oblivious on the trail on a bike as I am when running. I don’t run into or over people, but other than making sure I give them a wide berth I don’t really pay attention to them. Thus I don’t recognize people when they call my name. Or wave. Or smile.

Why, for goodness sake, would someone smile at me just because I am passing them on a creek trail? Just because of my form fitting shorts? Seems like a nice waste of facial muscles.

Oh, maybe they recognized me. Parents and kids from the schools where I teach, neighbors and coworkers, or people I see on a regular basis on the trail. All of them are just trying to be nice. Maybe that’s not what I easily recognize, the phenomena of being nice. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Hmm.

Or being tightly packed into shorts. Not used to that, yet, either.

So I have decided to take my newly adopted clothing style and be a newly friendly person out on the open roads. I will look more people in the eye and nod at their acquaintance. When they smile, I will smile in return.

It is what my wife and others have been talking about. The sociability of Matt. A work in progress—tight shorts notwithstanding.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The first time I ever ate escargot was under duress. I was wearing a white tux with tails, and on a date with a girl who would have rather been dating the fellow sitting opposite me at the table. Meanwhile, the girl to his right would have had none of that! He was hers for the evening.

Thirty years later, neither couple had survived. I’m pretty sure my relationship ended about three hours after I choked down the snails. My friend might have gone out with his date for a while, but eventually he ended up with another.

On the night in question, the foursome was at a fancy restaurant prior to going to our senior prom. Despite the tight collar and tails and ruffles on my white suit (seriously, what was I thinking?) I was having fun. I felt very grown up, and the girl on my arm was pretty and smart, and it seemed like everything was going to work out for me. The future was so bright I had to wear shades, which also helped hide my identity in case anyone I knew saw me in my white tux.

Okay, enough about the tux. That’s really not the point of the story. And besides, “anyone I knew”? I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school, but I wasn’t exactly invisible.

But really, a white tux with tails? It was her idea, of course, and I went along with it because it seemed like it was a deal breaker. She obviously had a lifelong dream of going to her prom with a guy in a white tux with tails, and the dream was going to come true, through hell or high water. My only dream was going to the prom, and actually my only dream was going out on a date with her, and actually my only dream was going on a date with anyone, and actually my only dream was . . .

So I ate the escargot at my date’s urging, and though the thought of it sickened me, the reality wasn’t too terrible. It was a nice restaurant, and they knew how to serve it properly. In the ensuing years I have had escargot another time or two, and I have certainly learned that it can be prepared poorly. Yuck! Nothing like a drippy gastropod mollusk with excessive garlic to completely throw you off your meal.

Certain accommodations had to be made in order for me to attend the prom. I could have stood my ground and been less of a door mat, but that would likely have just led me to being home alone on that night. I wasn’t willing to go that route.

I have now been the parent of a prom attendee three times; my kids are high enough on the social ladder that they attend the junior and the senior prom! So far they seem to be making good choices and not falling under the spell of having to go or else. Of course, it probably helps that so far it is the daughters who have gone—perhaps they are the ones making unreasonable demands on their dates.

My son is a sophomore and has thus far not attracted the attention of the upper classmen (upper classwomen?), so he has not yet gone to a prom. When his sister and her friends gathered at our house this past Friday in preparation for the big event, he made sure he was nowhere in sight. He wanted to avoid the entire “scene.” In the next two years, though, I expect the subject will eventually come up—even for him.

I don’t want any of my kids to regret going to such a seminal high school event. I don’t regret going to mine, despite the snails, the goofy picture, the tuxedo, and the ultimate rejection at the end of the night. I don’t regret driving away from her house after being summarily dismissed without so much as a kiss, and then passing another friend’s house where all the non-prom-goers had gathered.

I don’t regret being the loneliest boy in the city that night. Really, I don’t.

My offspring appear to be taking the bull by the horns and directing the entire proceedings. Their dates have been polite and well coiffed, and despite several times going as “just friends” the young men have handled it well. There has been no blowback or animosity. I hope that continues: the lack of emotional commitment and the absence of hard feelings. It seems to be the best way to survive prom season.

Besides my exceedingly useful humor column, I will attempt to help my children continue to make wise decisions prior to going to their own proms by dragging out the photo of me standing in a white tux (with tails) and telling them about the escargot.

I’m pretty sure that either the story of the ultimate turn down or the eating of snails will convince them to be true to themselves.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


My sister did try to help me out when we were younger. She told me that my elephant bell bottoms were hopelessly out of style, but I wore them for another year or two past their expiration date anyway. She tried to point out that my shaggy hairdo needed a trim, but I refused to do anything about it. I was diametrically opposed to being stylish.

Obstinate is a good word, because it really had nothing to do with style. I wasn’t rebelling against the status quo, I was rebelling pointlessly. Anything anyone offered to me as advice or suggestion I immediately turned against. Lisa was trying to help me present a better Matt to the world, but I was uninterested.

And obstinate.

She might very well have also said that I should perhaps be changing my clothes a little more often. There was no reason a high school boy should wear the same jeans every single day for months on end—certainly not if washings were few and far between. And to let an entire week go by with only a single change of shirt might have been an olfactory offense to sicken the entire school.

Like just about any teenager, I had my ways, and I was going to stick with them through thick and thicker. I had no use for advice.

My son sometimes has no use for advice, either. Especially mine. I realize this is somewhat natural, and as long as he doesn’t paint his room black or pierce himself or burn me in effigy on the back lawn I can live with most of it. There are times when Kyle does accept advice, however, and most notably that’s when it comes to fashion advice from his sisters.

Maybe my indifference originated because I had only one older sister. It was like a tennis match: she’d serve, I’d volley, she’d try again, and then I’d walk away because I was sometimes stupid. Okay, often. Kyle isn’t so lucky. He has two older sisters, and they can tag team him (in my solitary wrestling metaphor for this week) or team up two-on-one (for my third and final sports metaphor).

Kyle has come to accept that if Kate and Kelsey are telling him the same thing, he might be wise to consider it. That shows a certain maturity, but it makes it difficult for me to relate. I simply don’t understand his passion for clothes and hair.

He currently has something like four pairs of jeans. Based on their color and their fit, they are to be worn only in certain situations. Recently he asked me to take him shopping for a new pair. I naturally refused because, like I said, he’s already got four. I have one, a habit that has worked for me since I was his age. Four is just ridiculous.

When it comes to his hairstyle, Kyle also takes recommendations. He has been known to take a picture from a magazine and, escorted by a sister, proceed to identify exactly what he’d like the hairdresser to do. Sometimes he gets a little shaggy, but when it comes time for a coiffure he is all about sideburn length and whether or not he will be able to comb it up into one of those faux hawks that are all the rage with the young boys.

He also uses a variety of products in his hair and on his body, and smells positively scrumptious when he exits the bathroom. This is my son? The last time I smelled scrumptious was, well, let’s see, probably never. If something smells scrumptious and I’m in the room, I think we can all agree: it ain’t me.

When I was Kyle’s age the barber did whatever he thought was right, and I lived with it. Probably why I didn’t go back until I couldn’t see through the mass. The last product I put in my hair was some greasy junk called Valvoline or something like that. Maybe it was Vitalis. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I stopped when I was eight years old.

It was greasy and took too much time to apply and I just didn’t care. Hair and clothes weren’t that important to me when I was a kid. I think it is pretty clear that they still aren’t. Which makes me curious about Kyle’s desire to look fashionable and smell like soap.

Come to think of it, I’m probably just jealous.