Sunday, April 24, 2011


When I was a kid, there was a grocery store nearby that we could reach by car or bicycle without spending a single moment on anything other than residential streets. It was called Wings, though I don't know why. Maybe it was Wing’s. Facebook has a tribute page for a Wing’s Grocery but it appears to be from Texas.

Elsewhere online I found a Wings Grocery supposedly in Hayward, California, but it appears to be located in a residential area. Not sure I want to be poking around the produce section in someone’s house. The only currently operating Wing’s Grocery I discovered were two in British Columbia and Alberta (in Canada, don’t y’know) and I’m not sure I’m willing to travel that far down memory lane.

Anyway, Wings—with or without the apostrophe—eventually became Nob Hill and then Nob Hill moved across the street and the old Wing’s building became
Big Lots!, where one can by all sorts of cheap plastic crap. It seems like Nob Hill could have just done a little updating and remodeling rather than truck all of their food products across the street. I wonder how much ice cream melted on the way . . .

The upgrade mindset of the common man (new car every three years, new house every ten, new wife every . . . oops . . . never mind) is repeated by large corporations like Nob Hill. There’s a national drug store chain with an existing location in a strip mall in San Jose that is building a new and more grandiose building . . . in the front of the parking lot of the same strip mall! It seems to me it would be easier to just stay where they are.

I generally seek out the easy over the hard. I mean, I’ll run a marathon or climb Mt. Whitney or motorcycle 700 miles in one day, but generally on the day-to-day business I want it all easy. And I have happened upon a rather easy life with the kids and the wife. There are moments of difficulty, of course, what with me being a stubborn and argumentative soul, but the overall picture, the CliffNotes™ if you will, is like the big red button at Staples Office Supplies: easy.

This begs the question: has Staples ever made the decision to close a store just to open another within a stone’s throw? That might disprove their claim that they are the keepers of the ease. I’ll have to look into that.


My easy life has come under attack by yet another grocery store taking their business elsewhere. When we moved to our house in 1992 we were pleased to have a grocery store just about a quarter mile away. Sure, when I was a younger man and not so eager to live easily, I usually drove there, but in recent years I have taken to walking for a couple bagfuls of food whenever we needed something.

The trip to Safeway was not much longer than my long ago sojourn to Wings, though I did have to cross a five-lane boulevard. Nevertheless, I made my way safely by foot many times, as did my kids. Yes, I have trusted my children out in the great big world without me hovering over them, worried about every possible catastrophe. It is . . . easier . . . that way.

Safeway didn’t want to do it the easy way. Rather than remodeling my existing space (they preferred calling it “their” space . . . whatever) they found some other poor building made vacant by another failed business and remodeled it, moving with much hoopla and pomp and a ten-dollar coupon for me to use at the new store.

The only problem is I can’t walk to their new store to use the coupon. Instead of making my life easier, Safeway has made it more complex. Their new store is very large, it offers tens of thousands of items when I can generally choose well from about one hundred, and the parking lot is large to match, and that brings too many of my fellow citizens to the store at the same time.

I have a few alternatives. The now-empty Safeway’s neighbor is a drug store that sells many of the non-food items I used to buy at Safeway. I can walk there. There is a discount grocery not much further in the other direction that sells some trustworthy food items (and some knockoff brands that look positively scary). I can walk there.

And then there are all of my neighbors’ refrigerators, which are well-stocked, and I happen to know that many of those people leave their homes, sometimes for hours at a time.

Some solutions may not be nice, but they are easy.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I am pro-choice. Yes I am! I think we should all have the choice to choose where and how we live, and who our friends are. We should be able to make other, more personal, choices as well—such as what we want on our burger, how often we want to bathe, and (unless you are a high school student in an Honors English class) what we want to read. Sometimes, though, I think we have too many choices from which to choose.

A closet full of clothes may seem like a good idea, but I’ve seen too many people spending too much time dithering over the proper outfit. If there were fewer to choose from, perhaps the process would be streamlined and we could actually get somewhere on time for a change!

[note: yes, a bit of a rant on the wife, but let it be known that she isn’t really a clotheshorse, and she doesn’t a have a stultifying number of hangers in the closet, but she does regularly suffer from decision-itis]

By way of comparison, I have one pair of jeans and one pair of shorts. My leg covering choice is a function of (1) how’s the weather and (B) where am I going. Surely this is just as extreme as having too many clothes, but in the battle of “how fast can you get ready” I’ll win every time.

Elsewhere on the choice front, and as mentioned just above, I like to be able to adjust my hamburger from the way it is offered on the menu. When I was a kid I had to wait extra time for my McDonald’s quarter-pounder because it always came with cheese and I didn’t want cheese. They had to make it special, and the pimply-faced clerk seemed put out by my request. But at least they would do it.

Restaurants that don’t allow for substitutions are nothing less than Fascist regimes. Feel free to charge me an extra buck or two if need be, but if I want to exchange the baked potato for some curly fries I should be allowed to! Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us . . . that kind of thing.

But to provide choice to the point that the actual ordering of the food is delayed, then we have crossed the line. There’s a burger joint near our house, one of a small chain actually, that boasts of providing over 312,000 different combinations. Four different kinds of meat and non-meat patties, each of which comes in three different sizes, are topped by one of twelve different cheeses, up to four of thirty different toppings, and one of twenty different sauces.

By the time I’ve waded through all of that information I cannot be expected to pick which of their five different buns I’d like. Just bring me another beer and I’ll drink my misery away.

Choice is good, up to a point. Abundant choice is not good. It gives the feel-good illusion that we are in control, and yet it makes what should be relatively easy decisions ridiculously complex. Choice is supposed to make life better, not worse.

That’s the one thing I like about warehouse superstores. I don’t need a three-quart container of cashews (although they look delicious, don’t they?) nor will I ever seek out a container of laundry detergent that would keep a small apartment building in the suds for twelve calendar months. But I do appreciate the fact that there aren’t eleven different catsups and 43 different kinds of cookies.

I may not need 64 ounces of mustard, but I’d prefer that over an entire row of different mustards. And I can always find a desirable cracker within an available selection of three or four different kinds. I don’t need a forty-foot aisle with five shelves of crackers and cracker-like products.

Yes, even the store must make a choice. If it is going to provide anything that anyone might want, I will have to choose to shop elsewhere. I prefer a smaller store, with fewer patrons inside, and some quick decision-making. No more will I be stuck behind a gaggle of shoppers with their too-full baskets, standing in mindless awe of microwave meals or the vinegars (balsamic and otherwise) or the loaves of bread.

Nope. Just me and my snap decisions. What’s that? I bought the wrong mustard? Heck, it’s not my fault, they only had one kind!

Sunday, April 10, 2011


When I have to mow my lawn, I push a lawnmower. I say “when I have to mow” because I often don’t. During the summer I don’t water it, hence, it doesn’t grow. And as Johnny Cochran said as he stood in front of a grinning O.J. Simpson, “If it doesn’t grow, you mustn’t mow.”

Or he said something like that.

Sometimes Mother Nature prefers that my front yard not be an arid wasteland, so she dumps rainfall by the bucket. This spring has been particularly wet, hence, whatever groundcover was clinging to life in the soil has been thoroughly resuscitated. Lush, green, and lawn-like. What a pain.

Mostly it is a pain for my son, because when the lawn needs mowing, he is more than likely the one to do it. On occasion I would have to badger him, but eventually he learned that there was no escape, and he could either do it now or later. Later just ensured that it would be longer, and while your garden-variety power mower has no problem with long blades of grass, the push mower does exactly as its name implies.

You push the mower, the mower pushes over the tall grass rather than clipping it, and as you pass the grass stands tall and seems to give you the finger . . . a long, thin, green finger.

With the warming weather we are reaching the point when we can once again store our mower for nearly six months. It fits neatly along the wall of the garage, sticking out barely twelve inches, and is forgotten—except perhaps by the wife who has to make sure she doesn’t stub her toe on it whilst climbing into the car. But, hey, twelve inches! Try being a little more careful.

If we had a riding mower it would be much more difficult to store, though much easier to avoid stubbing a toe upon because it is just so damned big. Our front and back yards are not of sufficient size to warrant a riding mower, but I’ve seen folks with not much bigger plots than mine who own such a mechanical beast. Probably too much disposable income, or they like their toys, or they just aren’t burning enough gas in their SUVs driving a half-mile to the grocery store. Some people like to burn gas.

When I bought my most recent push mower it was an easy decision because they only sold two models. There were a dozen or more gas or electric models, but the quasi-Amish had a very limited selection. I stuck with the trusted man-power option because it was what I grew up with. Choosing between the two was easy: I went with the cheapest.

If you are going with a riding mower, however, beware: you will spend as much time choosing your mower as you spent naming your first-born. And you will spend as much as you spent on your first car. These things are rated by horsepower, cubic centimeters, width, length, and maybe even girth, and priced accordingly. A hasty decision is not recommended.

Five speed or only four, anti-scalp wheels (whatever those are) or not, CARB-compliance for those of you mowing in California, it is a heady mix of choices. You can even buy spiked tires à la Mad Max to aerate your lawn as you mow . . . or to effectively staple your neighbor’s foot to the ground if he should accidentally trespass while trimming the hedge you share.

The latest method of one-upmanship between mowing madmen (and let’s face it, we are talking about men here; most women are sensible enough to hire someone to do the work should their yard be of too-large size) is the turning radius of their suburban tractor. Like you (perhaps), I thought a zero-turn riding mower meant it only went in a straight line. Useful if your lawn is four feet wide and a hundred yards long.

What it actually means is that the vehicle has a turning radius of zero inches. It will pivot through 180 degrees without leaving a circle of uncut grass. None of this back and forth to line up the blades and overlap the last cut. I don’t know why this is such a big deal. If the square footage of the lawn in question warrants the ownership of a riding mower, surely there is enough room to operate a mower that turns more like a 1968 Plymouth Valiant.

After all, when I mow the lawn, I have to turn the push mower around and take a moment to line it up.

I mean, my son does.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


The Department of Motor Vehicles does more than just issue licenses and register boats. It also teaches patience. Like a good Zen monk, the DMV asks the unanswerable questions. What is the sound of one hand waving you forward after waiting in line for over an hour? What moves: the flag or the wind? Because it certainly isn’t this line!

I have sat around the DMV quite regularly over the past few years. There was the purchase of two new vehicles for the wife and me, and then the three children all reached the age of licensing. Followed shortly thereafter by the purchase of several used vehicles for people who don’t deserve new cars.

In other words: teenagers.

With all three kids I took a few moments to discuss the benefits of going to the DMV to transact business. Even at a young age they had heard stories, probably from whiny adults they had come in contact with, of how horrible it was to have to go the DMV.

“Balderdash!” I would say. Gesturing toward the orderly folks at the Appointment line, I pointed out that they had planned ahead. The much longer Non-Appointment line, while full of people with last-minute business or an inability to schedule a visit weeks in advance, was still relatively calm.

“That, my dear child, is the sound of one hand clapping.”

Rather than treating it like an uncomfortable inconvenience, I choose to view the DMV as a place for some quiet introspection. Like the proctologist’s office, it can be either an intrusion or welcome relief. It’s up to you.

Last week I actually went to the DMV twice. The first time was on Wednesday, when I had two matters to deal with. A vehicle needed an updated annual registration, and though I could have done that online I also had to go to renew my own driver’s license. After many years of just renewing by mail, they were finally requiring a visit. To verify that I had a still had a pulse, perhaps.

What better way to achieve inner peace than doing two things at the DMV without an appointment! I waited in line for about fifteen minutes before receiving my queue number, and then found a molded plastic chair to wait some more. After thirty minutes I was at the counter and shoving a number of papers at the lady. She must have been a bit distracted because she processed the vehicle registration in whole dollars. I could have paid just over a buck but instead I spoke up like an honest Zen master and paid just over a hundred bucks.

For the first time in my life I had to pass the vision test with spectacles, and my driver’s license shall forevermore be stamped “corrective lenses.” Not only does that show my age, but two days later I went back to take my son, the third and final Baxter child, for his driving test. I must officially be an old man if all of my offspring are old enough to drive.

Kyle had excelled at the original written exam and been practicing on the roads with a driving school and his very patient parents. What else can you be but patient when hurtling down the open roads, an inexperienced child at the wheel, without a second brake pedal at your disposal?

Kyle’s driving test was on Friday, April 1, and you are no doubt aware of the joke-making that can be had on that particular day. I anticipated a bunch of comedy at the conclusion of the exam.


“Sorry, you didn’t pass. [pause] April Fools! You passed!”


“Congratulations, here’s your license. [pause] April Fools! You didn’t pass! Better luck next time.”

The proctor was in no mood for jokes, though. Kyle passed, and she told him simply that he had passed. Very boring. But he was excited, and I was excited, and I offered him a burger or caramel macchiato as a reward for a job well done. He preferred cash, as it was date night at the movies, so I gave him some cash. And he wants a car, but that just might take a little extra while to earn.

I have now unleashed three young drivers on the open roads, and I would like to officially absolve myself of all responsibility for the mayhem they have or will perpetrate. But I don’t know if I get to do that. Instead, I will simply focus on my breath, and think calm thoughts for them. And for all other new drivers out there. Maybe chanting will help.