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.