Sunday, October 31, 2010


For nigh onto forty years, and possibly more, I have been a self-mutilator of my fingernails. Some sort of nervous habit I picked up when I was in elementary school. Perhaps it was one of those terrible early grade teachers who tormented me with lessons and homework and high expectations and who always wanted me to be quiet in class.

It was hell, I tell you, sheer hell.

Whatever the reason, I was a picker. Not a biter, those people are just weird. My fingers would take turns ripping off the end of any nail within reach, and just as soon as it grew back it would be assaulted again. Many good and kind people have tried to help me over the years, but at some point it became part of my being and would not be eradicated.

About sixteen years or so ago I was scheduled to go on a few business trips for my then-employer. My jagged and sore fingertips would not be the proper way to introduce myself around the country, so I suddenly stopped picking. Stopped cold. Within two weeks they were grown out and I even visited a salon near work to have them buffed and trimmed to appropriate man-length.

I felt a little odd going in, but it ended up being all right. I mean, I never intended to go back, but at least I didn't look like a freak while I traveled. After I got back home for good, though, I tore them all off and went back to the old habit. And I kept at it religiously, at least until very recently.

In just the last few weeks I have once again grown real nails, just like I had in 1994. By stopping the daily picking it was as if they grew by magic. Plus I stopped picking: that might have been the magic. I could tap them on table- and countertops, and could scratch my scalp as I massaged in the dandruff shampoo. My daily shower went from two minutes to five just so I could enjoy the tactile sensations.

Okay, it’s never really been a daily shower, but I was in there as often as necessary.

I had fun for a few days as folks oohed and ahhed, and I felt like I just might have become a grown up. No longer did I rise from a chair to find the floor littered with bits of my nails and flesh. People were impressed with my incredible feat of self-restraint. If I could stop picking my nails, then surely there was the potential for peace in the Middle East.

Now . . . they are just getting in the way! I scratch myself accidentally, they bend backwards painfully after being caught on a door handle or while folding clothes, and all kinds of crap gets stuck underneath them. Peanut butter, grease, dirt, the long nails are always dirty.

It was time to return to a professional, but I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the best source for manicure information available to me: my teenaged daughter. She has a favorite place where they trim and buff and color and stripe her nails and ask her, “You have boyfriend?”

Her manicurist is right next door to Jerry’s Barbershop, where I spent many formative years getting haircuts with extra gel—before I started going across the street to whatever was the inexpensive shop in those days: Cheapcuts or Looksbad, something like that. Nowadays it would have a dot-com at the end. As if you could buy a bad haircut over the Internet!

Silly kids.

When it came time for a second manicure, though, I couldn’t do it. During the first excursion there wasn’t another soul in the shop when I walked in, and I was the only one there during the appointment. Just the way I liked it. Anonymous.

Kelsey’s shop was way too busy, and there was always the risk that Jerry would be standing next to his barber pole when I walked up. “Matt?” I could imagine him asking, “You’re here for a manicure? Hahahahahahahahahaha!” He would double over, gasping for breath.

Then one day Kristin and I were playing canasta and she saw my nails. “Wow, they’re really getting long,” she said. “I’m surprised you haven’t broken one yet.”

Ninety minutes later as I was grilling some burgers for dinner I did just that. The nail on my right index finger bent and broke. The wife had cursed me.

The next day I reached over a student’s shoulder at school to point out something on his math worksheet and I scratched his arm. I wasn’t used to allowing space for my sword-like fingers.

The boy screeched and threatened legal action, and when I tried to apologize and showed my fingers as some sort of explanation, the class recoiled in disgust. I was now the creepy old guy with long fingernails. A la Howard Hughes, if that particular reference is not lost on all of you.

Now the question is “how long is too long?” And the other question is “file, clip, or cut?” And the third question is “should I get another manicure?” It has become a more cumbersome process to care for my fully grown nails than it ever was to explain my obsessive compulsivity to pick.

I think it would be easier if I just went back to the self-mutilation.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Whatever happened to a couple of triangle eyes and a half moon grin with one snaggly tooth? Porches from sea to shining sea were festooned with piles of orange gourds with amateurish carvings and people were happy. With the exception of a little blood dripping from where Dad accidentally nicked his knuckles, and little Suzy running away as her younger brother attempted to throw a handful of seeds and other slimy bits at her, all was peace and joy.

The worst part of these Halloween pumpkins (wait, no, Jack-o’-lanterns; once there’s a face they are no longer pumpkins) was when the lid was cut poorly, with straight down slashes rather than at a slant. That’s when the stem would plummet through the hole and into the hollowed out gourd, and the neighbors would laugh.

Mom would try to prop it up with toothpicks, but it was still the most embarrassing Jack-o’-lantern on the block.

As things have become more complicated in this life (such as jeans that don’t stay up because foolish boys try to belt them below their hips and giant SUVs that don’t fit in small parking spots at the Dollar Tree), so has the Halloween fun of carving up a pumpkin. Instead of a simple little activity for the family, it has become expensive and competitive, not to mention beyond the average person’s capability.

All we used to use were a butcher knife and a large spoon. That’s why the eyes all had three sides. There was no fine work or close attention to detail, and certainly nothing round. Just slash and scoop.

This new world order is the result of the competitive nature of the average American citizen. And it doesn’t hurt that the Great American Marketing Machine has figured out how to turn it into a tidy profit. Victims of the marketing and distribution of silly things fall prey, and they find items in stores that they don’t need, but buy in bulk anyway.

There are carbon steel blades in a variety of sizes and levels of hazard, allowing the most intricate of designs while doubling or trebling the risk to life and limb (but mostly limb, there have been very few documented pumpkin carving fatalities). Patterns to trace are included in the overpriced packages (which mysteriously increase in price during the week before Halloween, only to be “drastically reduced” on November 1), to ensure that nothing is creative or unique. Everyone’s porch looks exactly the same and children arrive home from trick or treating, only to find that they are standing on someone else’s porch.

Hopefully not the neighborhood weird guy’s, or you just might never see Suzy or her little brother again.

Newfangled scraper tools are used to not actually punch holes in the gourd, but to scrap away the skin and some of the flesh to make thinned out areas that will radiate with a little of the light from within. Shadows and light, people, shadows and light. This is an art project that would earn an A+ if it didn’t have that store-bought look.

Speaking of light from within, we have moved away from the traditional candle and matchstick system. Whereas the carving has become a more dangerous procedure in the modern era, worried mothers have championed the new, and supposedly safer, ways to flicker the Jack-o’-lantern’s grin. Battery operated lights, LEDs, even strobes and flashing colors are all the rage.

No more singed eyebrows or blackened fingertips. Yet I still find nothing wrong with a candle that burns the inside of the hollowed out gourd. Makes the whole front porch smell like a pumpkin pie—a pumpkin pie your grandmother burned in the oven because she was watching her soap operas and never heard the timer go off.

The one thing that has stayed the same during all these years, from my parents’ youth through mine and down through my kids’, is the pumpkin seed project. Industrious moms and dads have the kids wash the seeds from the rest of the stringy guts and then roast them in the oven (the seeds, not the kids). If salted just right they make a tasty snack (again: seeds not kids) for the youngsters to take to school for many weeks to come.

Except it all gets thrown out when the parents aren’t looking. There has never been a kid in history to willingly eat homemade roasted pumpkin seeds. So, really, parents, knock it off.

Trick or treat indeed.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The local middle school has embarked on a spelling adventure. I inadvertently inserted myself into the process when I recently subbed for a group of fifth graders who were urgently studying for a school-wide spelling bee. One of our tasks the day I was there was to complete a brief written spelling test, the results of which would be used to determine who would go on to the next level of persecution.

I mean, the second round. It was a mixed blessing, though, because the five best spellers from each classroom would be tested on the next group of new and more challenging words during their lunch break.

“Why do we have to do it during lunch?” one top speller asked.

“Because,” I said, opting for the disobliging response. “Quick: spell disobliging.” He began, “D – I – S.” And I ran swiftly from the room.

Later I saw two girls quizzing each other. “Scheherazadian,” one said to the other. The other girl rattled it right off, while I was stuck trying to decide between “Sh” and “Sch.”

And I always thought I was a good speller. I remember being involved in one spelling bee when I was a fifth grader. As I recall, I won, but of course I might be mistaken. I also remember always being polite to adults when I was younger and flossing my teeth in the school bathroom after lunch. And never doing anything wrong. Never, ever.

Maybe I didn’t win the spelling bee after all.

I used to equate being a good speller with smarts, but I have begun to take a second look at such a theory. I have met intelligent people (pupils and adults) who seem to lack basic spelling skills. Whether this is a function of nature vs. nurture, I don’t know. My own talent in this area is likely a result of my voracious reading—books, proctologists’ pamphlets, and Do Not Feed the Animals signs. If it is written, I wanna read it.

Poor spelling, therefore, might result from a lack of exposure to language. Of course, for some people it could also be indifference. I’ve met some of those people. Thay kare nuthing fer propar speling.

Regardless the cause, efforts are made to help people who are thusly challenged. There are plenty of rules designed to increase spelling skills, but I wonder if they really do much. Not for the ones who don’t care, because rules won’t make them care. For the ones who do care, the rules are a bit vague and sometimes untrustworthy.

For example: the time-honored rule of “i before e except after c.” Or the rest of the sing-song standard, “unless sounding like a as in neighbor or weigh.”

Works great, especially for neighbor and weigh and other words which fit. “I before e except after c,” unless that weird dude Keith has seized all the codeine.

Basically “i before e” is a rule, except when it is not. In which case you are on your own. This is unhelpful to the spelling-challenged among us. They need rules, and guides, and acronyms that work. Or at least a good spell checker.

Of course a good spell checker doesn’t know if you mean though or through or thought. Not only are they different by just one letter, but the vowel combination of “ou” sounds different in each word! And it gets worse, because enough, bough, and cough present three more ways to pronounce “ou.”

The English language is rife with ridiculous spellings, making it nearly impossible to apply any logic. Hence, you either spell well somewhat naturally, or you spend so much time memorizing lists of words that other facets of your life—like work and family—suffer. If you choose neither of those routes, you are simply doomed.

If you are one of the doomed ones, fear not. Poor spelling has generally not caused death or disfigurement. No one has lost their inheritance because of an inability to spell “inheritance,” and the reverse of poor spelling (otherwise known as the national spelling bee) looks like an even worse way to live.

The pressure-packed national spelling bee, nowadays shown annually on television, proves that a vast amount of studying is necessary to be a national champ. It also helps to be homeschooled, of foreign birth, and quite possibly to have an idiosyncratic way of keeping the spelling beat, like tapping the thigh or spinning the eyeballs. Also, familiarity with the phrase “can I have the language of origin, please?” can be beneficial.

For just about every contestant except the winner, the national spelling bee seems to end in tears. Can you spell “crushing defeat?” Of course you can, because you just suffered it. On national TV no less! Talk about pressure!

Hopefully the local middle schoolers are better able to deal with their ultimate humiliation. Except the kid who wins, of course.

That newly crowned nerd will just be shunned.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


In my experience as a speaker, I have, uh, occasionally peppered my speech with, um, useless little words that would be better left, hmm, out. It is easier to edit in written form because you can go back over and delete anything you find superfluous. I don’t think I’ve ever put “um” in a written work unless I really meant it. Like earlier in this paragraph.

Not so when speaking. Um, uh, and other little timewasters slip out easily. When hearing the same from others it is painfully obvious how distracting it can be for the audience. Someone once told me just to pause when considering what to say next. There is no need to fill every space with some sound or another.


When I have been better prepared I think the verbal tics diminish, but they don’t ever go away entirely. Habit? Laziness? I dunno. It is, uh, what it is.

You know what else is what it is? The verbal tics of the younger generation that grate on all of our nerves. Sure, they often sound foolish when they talk, but hey, they’re kids. Very little that comes out of their mouths is interesting, even the fully formed sentences. Why worry about what might sound lazy or ignorant? Why constantly correct them? It’s not as though they make any sudden corrections. If they eventually speak like we want them to, it will be through maturity and experience, not due to a constant haranguing at home.

Perhaps we are not in the midst of language deconstruction, but rather are witnessing the further advancement of our language. What I like to mock in the speech of my children and their peers might be the very thing that eventually lifted American English out of the Elizabethan Age. Else I’d be yelling this at home: “Foul spoken coward, that thund'rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform.”

I don’t even know what that means.

Third grade teachers are always harping on their students to use other words than “said” when adding dialogue to their boring stories. (If you are a teacher please replace “harping on” with “providing quality education to,” and if you are a student please replace “boring” with “thrilling and clever.” No need to insult the easily insulted.)

He uttered, she exclaimed, he yelled, she whispered. Like that. Sure, students are supposed to use such words to make their writing more interesting, but in my years of raising my own children and teaching many others, I have never heard any kid say, “He yelled, ‘Clean your room!’”

Now certainly the same kid would say, “My dad yelled at me,” but that’s entirely different. That’s a verb, not an indication of speech. Maybe what kids are using for “said” isn’t the crime against humanity that old people like me make it out to be.

For example: “So he went, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I’m all, ‘Oh, yes you will!’ And he goes, ‘[expletive removed]!’”

Conjugations of the verb “to go” are the modern favorites to indicate what someone might have said. Wherever this came from, it doesn’t seem to be going away, and if youngsters carry the habit into adulthood it will eventually be entered into the Oxford English Dictionary (“the definitive record of the English language”) and Shakespeare will discontinue rolling over in his grave.

People were uncomfortable when I have said “uh” to distraction, and the younger citizens are saying “like” as though it were going out of style. You’ve heard it yourself, and I’ve made fun of it here.

“I’m, like, at the mall, and I can’t decide what color nail polish to buy. Can you, like, come down here right now? It’s, like, an emergency!”

So “like” is the new “uh” or “um.” To those of us who don’t use it, it sounds horrible. We think the barbarians are at the gate. And yet I hear it occasionally even from people who decry its use.

Is it really, like, so bad?

This all may be the evolution of language. We may bristle, but we don’t really know how this will all turn out in fifty or one hundred years. After all, Shakespeare wrote, “Thou didst drink the stale of horses and the guilded puddle which beasts would cough at.”

I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that the great master apparently ended at least one sentence with a preposition. And where I come from, that’s, like, a real no-no.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Some houses get egged by hooligans. Ours has suffered on occasion. Even more get toilet papered. Ours has met with that fate as well. A less destructive form of taunting is the forking, with plastic forks thrust into the ground tines down—sometimes by the hundreds. We’ve had that, too.

Even more enjoyable is the true vandalism. Like the fist-sized rock that was thrown through the back window of one of the cars spending the night on the driveway last year. That was fun. Nothing like trying to replace a pane of glass on a twenty-two year old car. They aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. And a few weeks ago someone was kind enough to take advantage of our open garage door and abscond with my bicycle.

Thank you sir or madam, I hope you are enjoying my fairly pricey bike. And I hope you crash and break your neck.

Despite the trials and tribulations we have faced in the matter of various house assaults, we Baxters keep a stiff upper lip. After all, who can tell from where these attacks originate? The three teenagers certainly have crossed paths with people who either love or hate them. And Kristin teaches at a middle school, so lots of young hooligans know her.

I am a paragon of virtue, as you no doubt are aware, but I live about two miles from where I grew up. I am in the midst of friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, and crossing guards who have known me since I was not a paragon of virtue, and some of them may be holding a grudge. Or many of them might be holding several grudges.

It just may be that I am the black hole of grudges.

The other morning we all exited the house to go to school or work (or in my case, wherever it is I go when I go somewhere) and once again found something in the front yard that wasn’t there when we went to bed. It appeared to be graffiti on the driveway, and we were momentarily horrified, until we got a little closer.

One message read: I♥KB.

The other: You’re an awesome family!

Some sort of cheerful, positive affirmation graffiti. We are, of course, an awesome family, led by the awesome wife/mother Kristin. Three awesome kids, and a reasonably awesome dog I like to make fun of. Which makes me a different kind of awesome: only a little bit of awe. Not quite as much as the others. My family members are full of awesomeness; you might even say they are awe-full. But that doesn’t sound right, does it?

The question, then, is not who is awesome. The question is, who is KB?

KB is, of course, Kelsey Baxter. She’s a senior in high school and on the field hockey team, and she and her friends appear to enjoy driving around and writing messages on each other’s cars. She’s a leading candidate for the target of the attack, but there is no way to tell for sure.

After all, KB is also Kyle Baxter. Perhaps someone loves my youngest child and only son. Well, of course someone does. Momma does. Grandmas and Grandpas do too. But this is a message scrawled on pavement. This takes a certain amount of passion, heretofore unknown in Kyle’s young life. I’m sure if he could track down who did it he might just find his date for the upcoming homecoming dance.

Let us not forget: KB could be for Kate. Sure she lives in Arizona now, but I’m certain there are still people in San Jose who pine for her. I know I do (but I also know I wasn’t the one who desecrated my driveway). Former classmates, babysitting clients, the possibilities are endless.

Last but not least, I♥KB might have been written for Kristin. I certainly could have written the note for her, except like I said—I didn’t do it. I am, however, willing to fight anyone who would write such a love note to my wife, though I would prefer some sort of amicable agreement. Maybe I could have her Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other weekend.

Let me know, Graffiti Artist, who you were writing to, and if I need to tell Kristin to pack.

There’s been no rain lately to confirm that these two notes weren’t written with some sort of permanent stain, but I think they will eventually dissolve, during an early fall storm. Or maybe a blast from the hose. I am reasonably certain that the notes, positive though they are, will not be around in perpetuity.

There’s only one thing I know with 100% certainty: no matter how full of awe I might be, the ♥ wasn’t meant for me.