Sunday, July 25, 2010


I’ve never been the kind of guy who can diagnosis automotive problems by looking at the engine or smelling the tailpipe. If the key turned and the car roared to life, I was fine. Otherwise, it was time to buy a new car.

Even in the old days when cars were basically mechanical beasts and young men loved nothing more than leaning under the hood for hours on end to tinker. Adjusting a belt, reconnecting a hose, monitoring fluid levels. None of it really makes sense to me. Sure, I can add a quart of oil when it sounds like the car is about to shake apart, but half of the oil runs down the outside of the intake and slops on the garage floor.

Better to just ignore the problem altogether.

When problems can’t be ignored and I am in no mood to deal with a car salesman, I will instead deal with the car mechanic. I’ve got a fellow I take the autos to, but it is a scary proposition because there is so much trust involved. I have to trust his skills and his equipment (and perhaps more importantly the grease monkeys he hires) and I have to trust the service will be top notch and properly priced.

Mind you, I have had no indication that I have ever been gypped at this particular establishment, but every time I go I enjoy a slight burning sensation in the pit of my stomach. That’s not the taco I had for lunch, either, it is the complete supplication I have for the automotive specialist. If he told me the ancillary cog on the secondary radiator needed replacing, I’d say, “Have at it!” even though that part doesn’t really exist.

If he told me it would take six days to get the part from the warehouse and three months to install it, I’d laugh and tell him how much I enjoy walking.

If he wrote the expected cost for the work and the number was too big to fit in the box marked “estimate,” I would shrug my shoulders and prove then and there how much I enjoy walking. Three months later I’d walk back to pick up my car.

When car repairs are required, I just have to go with the flow, since there is no chance I can take care of it myself. Being a control freak and being able to take care of most things in my life on my own, it is a feeling I don't particular enjoy.

I have the reverse problem with another kind of specialist. The medical professional, the general practitioner, the physician-slash-doctor, has knowledge of certain things that are far beyond my ken, but I have found them somewhat unhelpful in recent years.

I wanted a standard physical before I embarked on my marathon running and the doctor told me—before running any tests, mind you—that I would die and leave my children fatherless. I needed an ankle injury checked, and another doctor said it was sprained or broken. Evidence of either, proof of neither, or something like that. He sold me a pair of crutches and sent me on my way.

A third physician took one look at a part of my anatomy and recommended a lotion. I was looking for something more immediate as it was, well, rather painful, but all he could suggest I do was purchase a tube of such-and-such that I would find on the next aisle over from the dog food. I could have found the rash cream on my own, without the joy of the waiting room and the co-pay.

All three of these fellows did their job, I suppose, but provided nothing I couldn’t have done on my own. If my internal organs ever become external I’ll visit someone who graduated from medical school, but until then I think I will continue to self-diagnose.

The fine line of when the specialist is needed is ever changing. Sometimes we rely on so-called experts when a little common sense will do. Other times we try a little do-it-yourself and things go from bad to worse. I guess it pays to know your own strengths and weaknesses.

I have a pretty good handle on mine. I have never and will never attempt any sort of automotive repair. And my wife has a couple of medical dictionaries I can use to identify and resolve any ailment that might come my way.

I just hope the car is working when it comes time to rush me to the emergency room.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I’ve never been thrown to the ground and handcuffed behind my back. Thrown to the ground? Maybe. Handcuffed behind my back at the same time? My lawyer quietly requests I decline to answer the question on the grounds it may incriminate me.

Some things I’ve never done despite what you may have heard. And unless you are able to provide photographic proof to the contrary, you should just mind your own business. And read on.

I’ve never come in first place in a marathon. Never came in last either, in case you were wondering. When I used to teach kindergarten, I’d bring my new marathon medals to school to share with the pupils. They are shiny and heavy (the medals, not the pupils . . . well, not all the pupils) and the five-year-olds enjoyed oohing and aahing over my stories.

At least I think they did. They might have been groaning.

Every time I brought in a medal, I’m talking every single time without exception, some kid or another would ask, “Did you come in first place?”

“No!” I’d bark. “That wasn’t the point.” They were too disappointed to pay attention to my explanation of what makes an old man run a long way and be happy with not winning. They would have to grow up and survive long enough to learn how it is we adults suffer through life, properly and privately.

I never could figure out why that was always the question du jour, even if the same class had seen me earn five or six medals. I guess they always held out hope that I might win, despite what they knew of my stats.

“Did you come in second?”


“Did you come in third?”


“What place did you get?”

“2,563rd. Are you satisfied now?”

They were never satisfied. Or maybe it should be said that I never satisfied them. Perhaps I should have run faster. Perhaps I should have left the medals at home. Sometimes I am my own worst enemy.

Like at weddings.

I have gone to a fair number of weddings over the years, and four or five times I have been brazen enough to predict divorce for the currently-being-wedded couple. Not loudly, of course, but in quiet whispers to my wife, who found my behavior quite distasteful (a problem that has come up repeatedly, and not just on the subject of marriage implosions).

Here’s the point: I have never been wrong. Even as my unblemished track record grew in number, the next time I foresaw a future break up Kristin would deny such inevitably whilst simultaneously shoving her elbow in my side. So while I was never wrong, she was never amused. Everybody has a “never” story to tell, eh?

I go to fewer weddings nowadays (coincidence? you be the judge) so I must amuse myself in other ways. That’s why I never turn down an offer to conduct a wedding. And no, clever person, it’s not because it is easy to not turn down something that is not offered. I have been asked precisely once, and I followed through with it exactly that same number of times.

Also no, clever person; the wedding for which I had a one-day pass from the county to act as ringmaster was certainly not one where I caught the scent of dissolution on the breeze. That union is doing just fine, and their son calls me Uncle even though there is no blood relation. The boy just happens to like me, and has never been disappointed by me.


In all honesty, the handful of failed marriages were easy to predict, probably half the people in the crowd were thinking the same thing. Sometimes you just know. But if you never want your own beloved to shove her arm between your ribs, you just might want to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Some things I’ve never done, but I fully expect to do them some day. I’ve never visited Antarctica, but I believe I will before being called to my final reward. I’ve never cared about separating the whites from the coloreds (laundry, folks, just the laundry), but one more pair of pink underwear might convince me to reconsider.

On the other hand, I’ve never killed a man, and I believe I will draw my dying breath saying the same. I’ve never painted my toenails purple or made a suit out of cardboard, and those will likely not come to pass either.

Sometimes a never is a good thing.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Many are the stories of individuals who seek knowledge, enlightenment, or plain old peace and quiet through aloneness. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Siddhartha Gautama under the Bodhi tree, even the old guy in the ramshackle house near you who only comes outside to yell at neighborhood kids who might be walking within reach of his dry and brown juniper bushes.

Peace and quiet and whatever it might lead to. It’s an honorable goal, although the method might sometimes be in question.

I socialize on occasion, but I am equally comfortable in my own skin, in my own room, on my own. I certainly don’t thrive on having company over. Peace and quiet is often my aim, and if enlightenment shows up at the same time, I certainly won’t turn it away.

For many years, summer in our house was controlled by the kids. Swim lessons, family trips, driving them places they needed or wanted to go. And of course the wife and I had to provide nutritious meals and a safe home where they could play and we needed to make sure they went to bed and woke up the next morning. Excruciatingly humdrum.

Now the children are older and some of the requirements of responsible parenting are still in play, but it is vastly easier. One has moved to Arizona, another has a valid driver’s license and keys to a working automobile, and the third has a bicycle and many friends’ homes where he is welcome to spend the afternoon, the night, or the weekend. Being alone isn’t always a planned event, but it can be welcomed with open arms if it happens to knock on the front door.

My opportunity for solitude during this summer of 2010 came courtesy of the great deserts of the American southwest. Kate came home for a visit but then returned to Prescott, Arizona. Kristin and Kelsey went to Las Vegas to visit Kristin’s parents. Kyle hopped on a plane to spend a month in west Texas, choosing a vacation with the family of one of Kristin’s cousins.

By June 30 they were all gone, and it would be eight days before the first would return. That might sound frightening to those of you who thrive on companionship, but it sounded like just what I needed. I looked at the dog and shrugged my shoulders. After all, in solitude there is no reason to speak. The dog looked back at me and smiled. Or maybe she was just breathing; it’s hard to tell with dogs. Regardless, she certainly didn’t break the code of silence with any unpleasant talking.


Eight days of peace and quiet. Eight days of being alone without being lonely. Not exactly the two years Thoreau had at Walden but about the same amount of time the Buddha stared at the Bodhi tree, and he achieved monumental spirituality when his week was up. What would I do with my eight days? It didn’t seem to be completely impossible that I might too achieve enlightenment and become a world renowned leader of a new religion.

Unlikely, yes, but not completely impossible.

Other plans were necessary, if theology wasn’t the point. So I rode my bicycle every day, racking up about 150 miles, and didn’t drive the car at all. I didn’t buy any groceries, surviving instead on whatever I could find in the house. With one caveat: liquor didn’t count as groceries. There’s nothing like a little ceremonial wine to help achieve a higher consciousness, or beer if the wine is all gone.

I hung my old dartboard in the family room, after it has languished unused in the garage or Kyle’s room for many years. I tested my aim with the calmness and surety of the most pious holy man, and could even hit the bull’s eye on occasion. I left a lot of holes in the wall, too.

By the end of my self-imposed confinement I had not unleashed a new religion. Perhaps that does not surprise you. But it could be said that I have a new appreciation for the ascetic, and I have learned how to spend vast amounts of time wisely on my own. It wasn’t all just bikes and darts and beers, people.

At this point Kelsey is the only one who has returned from her particular desert, and I am now a hermit with a teenaged daughter on the premises. Sometimes she is even home to share a meal with me, but of course her friends missed her so much that she has to make herself available. Her friends don’t do so well on the solitary way of beingness, but I have offered to provide counseling on the matter should they be interested.

Thus far, they are not. Isn’t that always the way for shunned mystics like me?

I will instead distract myself with the only thing on my To-Do List (a distasteful leftover of modern life that I successfully ignored for eight days): patching the thousands of tiny dart holes in the wall before Kristin comes home from Vegas. She is unlikely to accept enlightenment as a reasonable explanation for the damage to the house.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Father’s Day always seems to be a bit of a forgotten holiday. Sure, it has been celebrated for 100 years, but that’s not as many as Mother’s Day (which has precisely one more). One wonders if Father’s Day would have ever come to mind if Mother’s Day hadn’t been made up first. Just another example of fathers being second-class citizens.

Mother’s Day enjoys the mild spring weather of mid-May while Father’s Day sits smack dab in the middle of the vernal equinox, just as the heat of summer is beginning to permeate the atmosphere. Mother’s Day occurs during school months, allowing teachers to plan a multitude of art and gift-making activities for the students to take home to mom.

Father’s Day comes a few weeks after school is out and is overshadowed by graduation season. As an afterthought, an ugly tie or unneeded fishing lure is poorly wrapped and left at dad’s breakfast table, the gift giver having long since left the house to hang out with friends.

Children love to wake early on Mother’s Day to serve mom breakfast in bed. Then a few weeks later they call from inside the house, “C’mon, Dad, hurry up with that barbecue!” If Dad didn’t cook on his special day he’d probably go hungry.

Pity the poor father. Even if his years as male parent haven’t been as bleak as described, something is lacking in his special day. Father’s Day is more Groundhog Day and less Christmas; more Flag Day, less Halloween. So I decided to dress it up this year and make it the preeminent event that would be remembered for years to come.

My kids have done many nice things for me on Father’s Days past, I’m sure of it. After all, I’ve been celebrating Father’s Day since 1991. I just can’t remember any of them. The homemade cards, the clay sculptures from school, the undercooked sausage and egg served in bed with warm beer. They all fade in the annals of time. Father’s Day 2010, however, I will remember, for a long, long time.

Taking a cue from the Baxter Family Book of Important Things, I discovered a particular concert would be held in a nearby city on this year’s Father’s Day. Kristin and I had seen this act in the past, thrice in fact. In 1985 after dating for about two months, and then in 1986 and 1988 as a married couple. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you . . .

Iron Maiden.

I hope you are not thinking, “Who?” I’d be embarrassed for you. But for a one-paragraph history lesson, let me simply say that Iron Maiden is one of the most successful bands to come out of the Second British Invasion of Heavy Metal in the early 80s. They’ve been making music for thirty-five years, with the same core musicians for thirty of those years. I have all their albums and my children can sing along with many of their songs. Oh yeah, one more thing: Kristin is in love with the lead singer.

So we got tickets. The crowded parking lot that Sunday night took me back to the heady days of early-Reagan. The line to enter the gates snaked around the perimeter fence while fans drank their seventh beer, leaving the empties to rattle around the asphalt. There were a lot of gray-tops like me, but this was not simply a novelty act for oldsters to reclaim their lost youth. There were kids as young as ten, and plenty of teenagers (including two named Baxter who kept following me around).

The big difference I noticed that evening was my short-term memory. When I saw Iron Maiden in the 80s I could go home and remember the set list, even days later. Then I noticed at a Blue Öyster Cult show a few years ago that I was forgetting some of the songs they played . . . while the show was still going on! I didn’t want that to happen to my new Father’s Day memories.

“Hey, Kyle!” I shouted, even though he was four inches away. Iron Maiden was really blasting the tunes. I think their amplifiers went all the way to 11.

“What?” Kyle screamed.

I pointed to his iPod Touch and mimicked tapping its tiny on-screen keys to make a list of songs. “The Wicker Man,” I said, the first song that had just ended. I wiggled my fingers again and Kyle understood. He proceeded to enter the first song, and then typed “Ghost of the Navigator,” the second.

I nodded my thanks and returned my attention to the band. They were flailing around the stage, drums a-banging and guitars a-wailing and the object of Kristin’s affection (the lead singer, not the Father’s Day celebrant standing next to her) a-shrieking. I offered the appropriate response: rock ‘n roll devil horns. Fist raised in the air with pointer and pinkie extended, arm thrown forward in time to the music. Kyle dutifully recorded each song title as it began.

It was a magical evening, with one sad realization. I was back in my rock and roll element, sharing it with my wife and kids, and hearkening back over twenty-five years of heavy metal concerts.

But my brain had been replaced by an electronic toy.