When reviewing the past year, the main question I ask is, "What broke?"
The obvious answer is the nation's economy. But that problem is out of my jurisdiction.
Other notable breakages were in my domain. And at year's end I like to remember them.
Like the time the car's pulley wheel stopped pulling when I was perched above the Patapsco River.
It happened on that amazingly high ramp that connects Interstate 395 to Interstate 95 north, near Hanover Street. It is a ramp that is so steep, that as you travel up it, all you see is sky. At the highest point of the ramp, the road bends and dives down to the interstate. On this stretch all you see is the Patapsco River. Every time I drove the ramp, my stomach churned. Then one Saturday morning as my 6-year-old son and I were headed up the ramp, not only my stomach, but the car's engine started grinding.
As soon as we cleared the top of the ramp, the car lost power. And so with the engine groaning, and the traffic whizzing past us, we coasted all the way down from the top of the ramp to Hanover Street.
Right before we reached the Hanover Street bridge, I pulled the car over to the side and parked it. Then, after shaking with relief for several minutes, I walked across the street and called a tow truck. It turned out the car's pulley wheel, which controls all sorts of important belts, had flown loose.
Months later the kid was still a little nervous about riding on the ramp. Not me. I sold that car.
The battery-operated pencil sharpener broke about 10,000 times last year. I fixed it about 9,999 times. I kept fixing it because without sharp pencils, the kids seemingly can't do their homework. And if the kids have sharp pencils, not only will they do their homework, they will also go into another room, giving their mother and me a few moments of peace and quiet.
When the battery-operated pencil sharpener finally went kaput, I splurged and bought a fancy plug-in office model. Peace and quiet at any price.
In reviewing the year, I can think of a few success stories as well. Like the other night when my son and I saved the football from the storm sewer.
We were headed out to a neighborhood Christmas caroling party. It began as a typical family outing, with half of the family members protesting that they didn't want to go.
As a compromise, the 11-year-old got to bring his new screaming turbo football along. This was a small football made primarily of foam, that "whistled" when it moved through the air. It was a Christmas gift and the kid had played with it virtually non-stop after taking it out of the package.
In a pre-caroling warm-up, he and I were walking down the street tossing the ball to each other. Suddenly the ball slipped through my son's hands, fell to the street and disappeared into a storm sewer. The joy, which moments before had filled my son's face, now drained from his cheeks.
Right away I pulled out my flashlight. I had brought along a flashlight to read the lyrics of the carols. So I turned on the flashlight and got down in the gutter to study the sewer.
As a kid, I had retrieved many balls from many sewers. Back then, we got balls back by popping the metal top off the sewer with a crowbar, and getting some skinny kid to climb down into the brick-enclosed hole and fetch the ball.
But this sewer didn't have a pop top. All it had was an opening, about 1 foot high where the storm water, and footballs, could tumble down.
With the flashlight I spotted the ball at the bottom of the sewer, about 6 feet down, resting on some wet leaves about a foot away from the sewer's drain pipe.
I thought a minute, then ordered the 11-year-old to hurry home with me and help me get the tools of a sewer fisherman's trade: a hoe and a leaf rake.
We hurried because it was getting dark, and while sewer rescue work is always delicate, it is made even more so by nightfall. Besides, the caroling was about to start.
At first I eased the rake into the sewer and tried to pull the ball up. The rake couldn't hold the ball. It kept fumbling. Then I switched to a hoe. That worked better.
Slowly, carefully I lifted the orange and black football up from compost toward freedom.
I paused as the prize neared the top of the sewer. Once before we had gotten the ball this far only to have it slip back into the muck.
This time my son and I were careful. My son handed me the flashlight, and as I held the ball on the hoe, he reached into the sewer and, ever so carefully, wrapped both hands around the ball.
When he got the ball out of the sewer, a smile spread across his face. He hugged his muddy ball to his chest, the way a mother nestles a newborn.
We felt good. A denizen of the nether world had been been pulled up from the darkness, and returned to its rightful home.
Unto us, a screaming football had been given.
It was a good way to end the year.