I Love That You Don’t Care

Speaking as one of the slothful, unemployed wretches draining our nation of its vitality and self-respect, I enjoyed the movie Frozen. My wife and I saw the early showing, because the early tickets cost less, and what else do I have to do in the daytime, really? I’ve applied for enough jobs to form a new NBA comprised of tubby, nearsighted white guys. But thus far no one has needed my particular set of skills, which do not include stabbing terrorists in the eye with a screwdriver.

Lately I’ve been networking like Truman Capote at one of Andy Warhol’s parties, without the LSD, and it’s brought promising results in the way of people calling me about jobs. My wife listens with great patience when I describe the virtues of networking. I know she really cares because she loves me and she hates choking down store-brand peanut butter.

My sweetie has embraced the idea of networking and has begun networking on my behalf, something I appreciate quite a lot. The other day she mentioned my employment deprivation to a friend, and he asked what kind of jobs I’d had.

Rather than use my actual titles in the rest of this post, I shall henceforth use alternate titles evocative of my level of responsibility. In answer to our friend’s question, my wife said I was some kind of Sea Otter Wrangler.

As my wife and I walked across the theater parking lot, digging dollar bills and quarters out of our pockets, I felt perplexed. I told her that I had once been a Sea Otter Wrangler, but that was years ago. After that I became the Manager of Sea Otter Logistics, and I was subsequently promoted to Director of Whale and Dolphin Operations. Most recently I was Chief of Aquatic Creatures That Suckle Their Young. I paused to let that sink in.

My wife responded, “I know it seems like I don’t care about your titles and what your jobs are, but that’s just because I don’t.”

Now some fellows might have been surprised by that, and some might have gotten their feelings hurt. I laughed and clapped my hands so hard that I almost scattered quarters across the sidewalk.

She added, “It doesn’t affect my life.”

I told her that’s what I should have expected, and that’s one of the things I like about her. Her opinion of me has nothing at all to do with my job. In today’s world, that is a gift beyond price. It’s made this job search easier by an order of magnitude.

A lot of things aren’t too important to my wife. When we got engaged, she didn’t want a diamond ring. You can see that I won the fiancé lottery. She doesn’t care whether I remember her birthday, or if I watch TV shows about vampires with her. I bet she’s not even antsy about being unable to buy a shirt at Target.

She cares how we treat each other as people. How we talk to each other, do things for each other, touch each other. That’s what counts. It took me a while to grasp that, and maybe it doesn’t make sense to other people. It makes sense to us, so there it is.

All right, I’m lying just a little. She does care about whether I scoop the cat litter before she gets home. That’s true love, right there.

This sea otter needs to be wrangled in a professional and authoritative manner. As soon as I get off my break.
This sea otter needs to be wrangled in a professional and authoritative manner. As soon as I get off my break.

 

Save Your Marriage From the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe

My wife and I subscribe to the “Oncoming Train” theory of relationship management. It’s based on the idea that every so often a gargantuan freight train of a problem will come along and try to obliterate your marriage. I mean a problem like losing your job, or a death in the family, or bouncing around the house for a year rearranging all the furniture by weight because you think the foundation’s moving.

We’re too puny to stop an oncoming train. We’re too sedentary to outrun it, and we’re too clumsy to dodge it. Our only hope is to keep our heads down and trust that the track won’t come apart.

Within our theoretical framework, my wife and I are each a separate rail on the track. I like to think I’m the right-hand rail, because that’s the side I sleep on and that’s where I sit in the car when my wife’s driving and I’m praying to Jesus. I’m not even religious, so that says something. Our theory states that rails must stay some distance from each other in order to be structurally sound. Really, if two rails are leaning all over each other, then you have mushy rails. What kind of weenie rails are those? A train will squash the snot out of them.

As an example of this, my wife invited me to see an exhibit of steampunk-inspired art. Since that sounded like as much fun as doing something nasty with a dirigible, I declined. But never in the grimiest depths of our psyches did we think that meant she shouldn’t go without me. She’ll go see the brass gears and crap while I stay home and sharpen knives. We’re both happy in our own little worlds.

(This also lets us believe different things without going to war with each other. Recently we’ve argued about issues like teaching intelligent design, and why we don’t just assassinate people we don’t like. We’re both still ambulatory and sleeping in the same bed.)

You may see the flaw here. Independent of one another, rails can sort of drift apart, and they won’t stand up to a Monster Train Assault when one is heading east and the other is heading to Vegas. So our theory contains railroad ties that keep the rails linked.

As an example, here’s how we behave when the other is sick. When my wife feels bad I bring her tea and snacks and the TV remote. I put her in the recliner, cover her with a blanket, and throw two or three cats on top. She seems to like this. When I feel bad, the first thing she does is ask whether I’ve taken aspirin/benadryl/pepto bismol. This is great, because I can say no and she can feel helpful, then I can go off and wait undisturbed for nature to either heal me or kill me. We each provide the nurturing that the other needs. It’s something we share.

Over the years my wife has created, refined, and frequently explained the “Oncoming Train” theory. I came up with the name, which by the standards of our society means I am the theory’s inventor. She says we’re two parallel, independent rails, but all along the way we’re tied by certain things we share. Whenever Hell’s Own Locomotive arrives, we plan to hang on and ride it out.

Or, my wife can just assassinate the engineer.

Looks like the "Bought a vacuum cleaner and a box of toner cartridges for her birthday" train is coming.
Looks like the “Bought a vacuum cleaner and a box of toner cartridges for her birthday” train is coming.

In Which Cookies Attempt to Emasculate Me

My wife has been invited to tea with a bunch of her friends tomorrow. I understand that this event involves drinking tea, eating snacks, and wearing big hats. If you leave out the tea, it sounds a lot like the rodeo to me.

Anyway, my wife has been planning to bake cookies for the tea party, but life interfered today and gobbled up all her potential cookie-baking time. Being a nice husband with some time on his hands and an interest in having sex again at some point, I undertook the baking of her chosen cookies.

My wife wanted Basil-Lime Shortbread Cookies, which are the girliest of all cookies in existence. Just reading the recipe made me want to put mousse in my hair. To defend my masculinity, I cranked up Netflix in the kitchen and blared an action-heavy TV series while I grated lime zest and whipped stuff until it was light and fluffy.

It must have worked. Three dozen ultra-feminine cookies are cooling on wire racks in my kitchen, and I can still tell the difference between a Remington 870 shotgun and a Winchester M97 shotgun.

Some cookies are made with love. These cookies are made with explosions, fire fights, car chases, torture, and bioterrorism.

I dodged a bullet on this one.
I dodged a bullet on this one.

 

The Morally Questionable Side of Streaming Video

A few weeks ago my wife informed me that a new word has been added to our language, the same language spoken by Winston Churchill and Walter Cronkite. Our society has created the verb “netflix.” One may be said to netflix when one chooses a television program on Netflix and watches it one episode after another without pause.

For example, last night my wife and I netflixed the program 4400. It was enthralling. Seriously, we didn’t want to go to bed.

However, a few days earlier we found ourselves engaging in a related behavior for which no word exists, as far as I know. We decided to find something on Netflix to watch, and then we spent the next hour scanning through the available titles and talking smack about most of them. We never did watch a program. It was like being the two geezers in the balcony on the Muppet Show.

Is there a verb for this behavior? I can’t find one. I thought we might call it “net-trashing,” as in, “We net-trashed a lot of romantic comedies and monster movies last night.” That doesn’t seem quite right though.

Any suggestions?

"Net-napping?" "Net-snoozing?" "Net-coma?"
“Net-napping?” “Net-snoozing?” “Net-coma?”

 

All I Want for Christmas is a Chainsaw to Cut My Novel in Half

Guilt is for children with sticky fingers and mysterious stains.

I declare this to be true in defiance of all religious and sociological thought, because I don’t want to mess with guilt today. I haven’t posted for a month, and I don’t even need a reason, never mind a good reason, because I state that I do not.

Ignorance, however, is for everybody.

I am not as clever as God, nor am I even as clever as J.R.R. Tolkien. A couple of years ago I took on a fantasy novel project. After three months of obsessive writing, during which my wife suspected I was no more real than Bigfoot, I produced an 180,000 word story that I adored. To provide a sense of scale, 180,000 words are roughly the length of the New Testament, or The Fellowship of the Ring. What joy to stand among such giants.

God probably didn’t have to impress literary agents. Perhaps Tolkien didn’t either. I do, and agents let me know in a snapping hurry that 180,000 words is an unacceptable count for a novel, no matter how much I love it. If I can’t bring them something about 100,000 words or less, I should just go back to sitting around Starbucks and talking about the book I plan to start writing someday.

I had created a waddling beast of a manuscript.

I’ve met writers who spend years trying to fix their novel, ending up with a book that forever needs one more month of polish. So, I put the manuscript on the shelf like a third grade science medal, and I moved on to more disciplined projects.

This fall, with some of my newer projects floating out to agents, my Godzilla project arose from the shelf and dared me to cut it in half without killing it. I don’t want to get too detailed, but my process involved staring at an Escher print for about a month. Then I irradiated the manuscript for two months like I was a mad Japanese scientist, and I finished with a 103,000 word story. Today I celebrate.

Tightening language and eliminating redundancy got me part of the way there. Advice from Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel on ways to cut a novel was invaluable. But my secret weapon was to:

Find everything I love most in the story and kill it. Well, perhaps not everything, but a lot of things. The more I loved it, the less likely it was to really help the story. I silenced clever dialogue, I obliterated characters from the storyline, and I blasted subplots out of the space-time continuum.

With as much objectivity as I can manage, I believe that this version is a far better story than the original. Final editing can wait for my brain to quit vibrating, and anyway, I need to sit and stare at my Escher print for a while to think about the next project.

That’s what I hid in my office and did with my holiday season. I hope yours was just as much fun and just as terrifying.

BillMcCurryWriterEditingNovelLengthHumorFantasyBooks
Artist’s conception of an agent mesmerized by my newly-trimmed manuscript.

Artist: William-Adolphe_Bouguereau
Museum: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Mary D. Keeler Bequest

 

 

No Misery on Thanksgiving

I have been commanded by faceless internet tyrants to write a post about Thanksgiving. The message just showed up on my Facebook page with no explanation, but containing a hint of threat. Since the people running the internet can now ruin anyone’s life as easily as dropping a towel on their spouse’s nice, clean floor, I’m afraid to say no.

So, here’s the story of the most miserable day in my dad’s life, which he told me about last night as we ate pizza for Thanksgiving. After he came back from the war in Korea, he was stationed with a jillion other marines at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. His superiors decided to stage a big amphibious landing exercise, just to keep everybody from getting bored.

If you’re part of an amphibious landing, that means you start on a ship, then you climb down the ship’s side on a net as if you were a homicidal howler monkey, carrying everything you need to kill people. At the bottom, you drop into a floating metal box called a landing craft, which takes you to shore and forces you to run onto the beach and fight because part of it falls off, rendering it no longer seaworthy.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Someone chose to hold this exercise during the winter. Even though San Diego weather is constantly temperate to the point of catatonia, on this day the temperature was in the 40s. However, the marines were dressed appropriately for invading a tropical island held by the Japanese Army, so it was okay.

After all the marines had climbed down into the landing craft for the exercise, the wind blew up some rough seas. That was no fun for anybody, but it really wasn’t fun for the guys on the first two landing craft that reached the beach and flipped over in the surf.

I like to imagine that somebody said, “Everybody back to the boat!” However, unloading marines so they can climb back up those nets is slow work when the landing craft and the ship are both jumping around like frisky dolphins. Every craft had to wait its turn. Steaming in a circle. Tossing around like Satan’s personal carnival ride.

Now comes the really miserable part. The sea water was 18 inches deep in the bottom of my dad’s landing craft, and every man got seasick except him and one other guy. This added a modest quantity of vomit to the sea water. For the next four hours they went around in a circle, as wet as tadpoles in a windy 40 degrees, propping up helpless seasick men so they wouldn’t drown in their own vomit. Once they did reach the ship, my dad helped tie all the seasick men to bosun’s chairs so they could be hoisted up.

At this point my dad said he and the other survivor “ran up that net like squirrels.”

So in the spirit of the holiday, my dad is thankful that shit isn’t happening today. Happy Thanksgiving!

Artist's rendering of the beach in question
Artist’s rendering of the beach in question

Give the Newlyweds Some Napalm and a Bazooka

I’m drinking to celebrate the fact that, as of today, I’ve been to more weddings than funerals this year. I’ve grieved that several of my loved ones passed beyond the reach of man, although at least I hadn’t loaned any of them books. On the other hand, more than twice as many friends promised to love and honor each other forever, and they celebrated by accepting ugly wall clocks and pretentious 1-cup coffee makers.

It’s a happy situation. I’m therefore drinking vodka, which is nasty, rather than tequila, which is loathsome.

As I listened to the vows in today’s ceremony, I thought about my own wedding vows. If I wrote my marriage vows today, they’d be vastly different from the ones I wrote for my actual wedding. In addition to love, honor, and cherish, I might include vows like:

  • I promise to do whatever it takes to keep you warm, even if it means adopting more cats to pile on the bed.
  • I promise to pay attention to things you like so I can buy them for you later.
  • I promise to pay attention when you tell me I’m acting crazy.
  • I promise never to cook Garlic Orange Chicken Stir Fry again.
  • I promise not to make fun of your addiction to making lists.

Then I realized most of that was pretty dumb and not at all what I want to say. Then I thought about what I want to say instead of that. Then I drank vodka, which kind of helped. Then I decided that I really wanted to talk about how marriage changes things. I mean, one moment you’re in love, and the next moment you’re in love and married. What the heck does that mean?

Here’s the short version. Love is a gift you give your lover. Marriage is a war you fight against yourself.

Here’s the long version. I think the “love is a gift” part is pretty understandable. It includes basic things like giving flowers and back rubs, physical intimacy, and treating your lover no less courteously than you would treat a librarian or a beloved English actor.

On another “love is a gift” level, whenever I’m out later than expected, I call my wife. She does the same for me. As I call her, my buddies may harass me by saying she “really has me on a short leash.” I explain that I’m glad she at least cares where I’m at instead of using my absence to frolic with a grunge-punk band and shoot dope under her toenails. Besides which, being so paranoid about really short leashes makes them sound like they have tiny penises.

The “marriage is a war” part is less obvious. Whenever my wife and I behave like loving, caring individuals, no war is necessary. But sometimes we act like regular people, which is to say irrational and thoughtless. When I feel my wife is acting that way, I have decisions to make and possibly a war to fight.

Here’s an example. I indicate to my wife, I think successfully, that I’m interested in a little hanky-panky later in the evening. I receive promising indications, but not a positive confirmation. We go to dinner with a friend, and my wife orders a barbeque plate of heroic proportions. I anticipate her request for a doggie bag, but it never comes. She enjoys the entire meal. Now any attempt at hanky-panky that evening would result in nothing but her shrieking like a rabbit caught in a gate.

My war against myself begins inside my head.

“Was I clear? I know I was clear. Does this mean something? Maybe she’s not too interested in me anymore. Or maybe I wasn’t clear. Did she have to order the big plate? It’s not like we were going to a French restaurant or something. We can go to this place anytime. Am I less desirable than a barbeque sandwich? I don’t know what to say to that. That can’t be right. But hell, she didn’t have to eat the whole dinner—she could have taken part of it home for tomorrow. Am I less sexy than half a barbeque sandwich? I can’t ask that! What if she says yes?”

At this point I am losing the war. I have taken something she did that annoyed me, and I’ve transformed it into a marriage-threatening cataclysm that I can’t talk to her about because I’m terrified of what we might say. Even better, as long as I don’t say anything, this will now creep around unseen in our marriage like a French Resistance fighter causing more creative and disruptive sabotage forever after.

How do I win the war? I risk everything. I open my mouth and say the stupid things I was worrying about. Even if it hurts my wife, hurts me, and hurts the guy who made the sandwich. I listen to her possibly-horrifying responses, because if our marriage survives this then at least we won’t have it under the surface tearing our marriage apart.

That’s what I mean by marriage being a war you fight against yourself. I’m not sure what that would look like in a wedding vow. Maybe something like:

  • I promise to fight for us. We’re worth risking everything for.

Now I’m going to cook dinner. We’re having soup. And vodka.

It was a beautiful water-side wedding. An hour later the groom’s father whispered to him, “Son, you’ll be fine if you just have some guts and don’t act like one of those guys with a tiny penis.”
It was a beautiful water-side wedding. An hour later the groom’s father whispered to him, “Son, you’ll be fine if you just have some guts and don’t act like one of those guys with a tiny penis.”

Photo by Brocken Inaglory.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Etiquette for the Wretched Unemployed

I’ve learned how to derive an extraordinary amount of self-esteem from washing dishes and scooping cat litter. That’s because we unemployed people have to seize our ego-boosts wherever we find them. Folding laundry may not seem like something to celebrate, but after a certain number of fruitless job applications your self-image is dragging behind you like toilet paper on your shoe.

Like every good 21st Century American, I wrap a lot of my identity up in my occupation. Everybody does to some degree. You’re a teacher, he’s a bricklayer, she owns a frozen yogurt store. That’s who you are. Even a crack dealer can say to himself, “Hey, I sell crack. I sell people something they want until they die sprawled in the gutter with antifreeze and rat shit.” He has an identity.

It may take me some time to find work, because my skills are rather eclectic. I don’t want to get specific, but by way of analogy it’s as if I were a great fry cook, a fine goat farmer, and a pretty good loan shark. I’d need to find a bookie operating out of a greasy diner that serves gourmet goat steaks, raised on the premises because you can’t trust a commercially produced goat. Only in that environment could my full range of skills be employed.

During this jobless time I’m leaning a bit on my identity as a writer, but that’s been battered by a recent salvo of rejection notices, leaving my writer image structurally unsound at the moment. Some of the rejections said nice things about my work, but they all ended with the familiar phrase, “not for me.”

However, I’m tempted to write an etiquette guide for the unemployed. There’s a real need. For example, when you go to a party or funeral or something, people will ask, “What do you do?” Kicking that person in the knee is bad manners, especially if the dearly departed is nearby. What’s the proper response?

You could say, “I’m looking for a job.” It’s direct and truthful. But there are only two responses. Your questioner could raise his eyebrows before saying something sympathetic that fails to conceal his searing contempt. Or he might ask what kind of job you’re looking for. That leads to an awkward conversation about goats and loan sharking that goes nowhere good or even tolerable. Forget that.

You could lie. You might say, “I’m a hedge-fund manager.” That’s perfect because no one knows what it is, but it sounds good and people know you make lots of money while screwing everyone on the planet, including orphans and kittens. Or you could say, “I create computer icons. Every time you start up Internet Explorer, I get a penny.” These lies are pretty satisfying, but two minutes on Google will reveal your prevarication, and then you’ll look like a bigger loser than ever.

The appropriate response to the, “What do you do?” question is a combination of the truth and a lie. You first say, “I’m looking for a job.” Then, as your interrogator raises his eyebrows in snide sympathy, you show a smile that implies someone’s given you a puppy that drools 30 year-old whiskey. You add, “I have enough savings to go two or three years before I have to get a job, so I’m taking my time and being selective.” Just watch as envy devours every bit of his face. That is how to handle that question.

We unemployed folk face a lot of similarly awkward social encounters. How to get people to take you to restaurants you can’t afford and not look like a deadbeat. Creating believable and marginally truthful business cards even though you don’t work for a business. Managing social media statuses so that you don’t appear to be a hobo. Yes, writing a book about unemployment etiquette is just what I need to pump up my self-esteem. I only need a title:

Jobless but Genteel: You may lose your job, but you can keep your dignity.

Yak
Because when you talk about etiquette, the first thing you think of is “yak.”

This photo is by travelwayoflife, and is a Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

My People’s Nonchalant Regard for the Facts

Someone at your memorial will speak the facts. They’ll say you were born then and died now, describe the work you spent your life doing, mention the people you loved who are still alive and the ones who died before you. Everyone in the room will already know those things, but they’ll expect someone to say it all anyway. It’s a declaration that yes, you did live and now it’s all right to say what they remember about you while the memories are as strong as they’ll ever be.

When my people memorialize our dead, first we tell the facts and then we tell the stories, which are far finer than mere truth. We don’t exactly lie. The events really did happen, but a little creative plumping is expected. If the deceased were allowed to attend, he might feel embarrassed, but he’d probably sew on a couple of his own embellishments. Bigger stories make better memories, and this is the time we want the best memories we can get.

After my uncle’s memorial yesterday, my sister lamented that she’d forgotten a story about him until after we had left. My people particularly like stories about what sort of child a person was. It’s as if we think childhood tales show our real selves before life lowers curtains of artifice around us. My sister and I have heard this particular story dozens of times from my mother.

When my uncle was seven years old and my mother was five he took her to the department store to see Santa Claus. It was a different world then, and no one worried about these children tracking down some holiday fun by themselves. At the store they joined the long, long line to see the jolly elf, whom they referred to as “Santy Claus.” The line moved slowly. My uncle, a vocal boy, expressed impatience, especially towards the heavy-set woman just in front of them.

After some length of time that my mother never detailed, my uncle lost patience with the inconvenient facts of his situation. He kicked the woman right in the middle of her backside and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santy Claus!”

My mother never described quite what happened next, but we were always laughing too hard for it to matter much.

Now my uncle is gone, my mother’s gone, and certainly the fat lady and Santy Claus are gone as well. But we still have this story that we can share to explain who my people were and how we got this way.

My mother on Santa's lap, experiencing her first PTSD attack.
My mother on Santa’s lap, experiencing her first PTSD attack.

Photo from Buzznet
http://cdn.buzznet.com/assets/users16/addictedtojane/default/msg-126159756918.jpg

Death’s Practical Jokes Are Better Than Ours

I’ve reached the age where I seem to be attending more funerals than weddings.

One of my uncles died this morning. Oddly enough, he expired in his doctor’s office. Right place, but evidently the wrong time. He was my mother’s older brother, but my dad called him “the closest thing to a brother I ever had.” My dad’s real brothers were a lot older, so I suppose to my dad they were more like uncles, or maybe Great Danes.

I’ve been thinking about a simple way to explain who my uncle was. This story may do it.

When my uncle was a young man, he and my dad framed houses. One time a third fellow was helping them–my mother’s fiance. This was before my dad became her fiance and the former fiance ended up crawling around in the front yard with a flashlight looking for the engagement ring she threw at him. That’s another story.

My uncle and my dad were nailing ceiling joists to the tops of walls. The fiance was standing around on top of the wall, talking, and paying no attention to the work. He wore cheap boots with soles that stuck out from underneath the uppers. As the fiance expounded on everything except work, my uncle tacked a nail through the exposed sole on both of his boots, nailing him to the wooden cap of the wall. He did it so casually that the fiance never even noticed. Until he tried to take a step and almost broke both legs.

That’s the kind of guy my uncle was.

My uncle at graduation with three of his many sisters. My mom is the one with attention disorder.
My uncle at graduation with three of his many sisters. My mom is the one with attention disorder.