Category Archives: Life

You May As Well Laugh

There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.

At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.

He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.

I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.

A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:

One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”

At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.

My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.

My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.

When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”

I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.

In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.

Murdering the Facebook Monkey

A couple of weeks ago I was shamed into cutting my Facebook time down to 10 minutes a day. I experienced mixed success with that, which bothered me a little. So last week I decided on a whim to stop checking Facebook at all for a while–maybe a week. No announcement to my Facebook friends or anything. I looked at the clock and noted that I was quitting at 8:32 a.m. last Tuesday.

I swear, for the first day it was like laying off the hooch or something. Every time I checked my email I felt a visceral pull towards the Facebook icon. When I finished a task, my entire being wanted to check Facebook before I started the next task, like I needed a smoke break. It was that bad.

The next day I only had to fight off the Facebook compulsion a couple of times.

For the remaining five days my mouse/finger drifted towards the Facebook icon unbidden a couple of times, out of residual reflex, but I didn’t really care about it when I caught myself and did something else.

Across the whole week I guess I reclaimed at least four or five hours from my former Facebook habit. I devoted this time to other things like studying, looking for a job, writing, cleaning out my inbox, washing dishes, and reorganizing my wallet. I kept a log.

So, after the first couple of days, I didn’t miss Facebook at all. I quit Facebook and lived.

I’m going to cross-post this to Facebook. I know that sounds stupid, but the only people I know who can appreciate it are my friends still riding the Facebook merry-go-round of death. Or of wasted time, anyway.

I don’t plan to continue my 100% Facebook-free lifestyle choice, but do I think this experiment will go a long way towards helping me keep my Facebook time down to 10 minutes a day. I’m still looking for a job, and my glove compartment needs to be cleaned out in the worst way.

Artist's conception of me after 1 hour of Facebook deprivation.
Artist’s conception of me after 1 hour of Facebook deprivation.

Image: “Despair” by Cyn McCurry

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.

The Perfect Alaskan Day I Didn’t Want

Alaskan Cruise, Day 6 – Wilderness Exploration

Today we went on a “breathtaking tour in which renowned naturalists, magnificent wildlife and an exploration of six ecosystems – ocean, estuary, river, lake, muskeg and rainforest – await in this town aptly nicknamed the ‘Valley of the Eagles.’”

That’s how the brochure described it. It could also be called “Four hours on a bus hanging out with Stacie and Terra.”

The brochure was accurate in every respect. Two young women who know more about wildlife than everyone in my hometown put together took us to all six of those ecosystems and showed us animals. Yet the tour wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be. I had imagined we’d be pushing through the brush like mountain men, spying on bears down by the stream as they knocked back a few jumping salmon. I don’t care that watching wild bears eat is about the stupidest thing you can do. It’s what I expected.

Stacie and Terra gave us something infinitely cooler than my expectation, which would have ended with my entrails flying around like streamers on New Year’s Eve. They showed us a few birds as we drove past, and they told us about the dozens of God’s creatures that God decided not to let us see today. They also spent a lot of time telling us about life as an Alaskan tour guide, living in a tent and recycling everything but toilet paper.

The whole experience was like a laid-back party after a day at the renaissance fair, but without the drum jam.

Terra also took advantage of the beautiful, warm weather by leading us on a short walk through a muskeg, which is another name for a bog. She didn’t explain why they don’t just call it a bog and stop screwing with us stupid people. She then led us on a short walk through the temperate Alaskan rainforest, which looked a lot like the muskeg to me, except that the ground didn’t try to suck off our feet.

Here’s the muskeg/rainforest:

This is a temperate rainforest. It's seems to be a bog as well, since we got back on the bus with two fewer kids than when we got off.
This is a temperate rainforest. It’s seems to be a bog as well, since we got back on the bus with two fewer kids than when we got off.

Stacie and Terra delivered even more than the brochure promised by visiting two additional ecosystems:

First, we visited the “side garden ecosystem” of a nice lady who let us watch wildlife through telescopes beside her house as long as we didn’t disturb her goats. That was fantastic because bald eagles were nesting across the river. With the naked eye, their heads looked like tiny white blobs. Through the telescope, their heads looked like slightly bigger white blobs.

I swear this could have been a burrito wrapper stuck in the tree and I'd have never known the difference.
I swear this could have been a burrito wrapper stuck in the tree and I’d have never known the difference.

The day’s final ecosystem was “Haines City Park.” The community of Haines is the town nicknamed “the Valley of the Eagles.” In the park we ate grilled chicken Cesar wraps, Sun Chips, and oatmeal cookies. The brochure had been entirely mute on the subject of cookies, so we had Stacie and Terra to thank for this flourish.

Eating cookies with our new friends Iman, Isam, and the children they have remaining after the muskeg.
Eating cookies with our new friends Iman, Isam, and the children they have remaining after the muskeg.

If you’re ever in the Valley of the Eagles, I recommend that you visit Stacie and Terra. In fact, I advise it with immense gravity. Their tour fulfills the only criteria that matter when seeking a successful and enjoyable life experience.

You don’t die, and you get a cookie.

The Moose Expect Me to Wear a Tuxedo

I should be arriving in Vienna right now. The lovely Danube River should this very minute be gurgling along 20 feet beneath my plump, bratwurst-fed hindquarters, delivering me into the classiest city in the world. The Viennese don’t seem to make any effort to be cultured, yet no one in the world is more cultured than they are. They don’t even have to try, so I’d say that makes them the most civilized folks on the planet.

However, I am not looking at the sunrise behind the Vienna skyline right now. By the way, it would look kind of like this, without the sunrise part:

Elegant Vienna. It is not okay to swim in that fountain. If that’s what turns you on, go to Italy.

I am instead looking at this:

It looks messy, but I can find anything within 5 seconds, as long as I don't care what that thing is.
It looks messy, but I can find anything within 5 seconds, as long as I don’t care what that thing is.

The reason I’m looking at this Welsh tinker’s nightmare of a desk is that our European river cruise, for which we’d saved and planned rather a long time, was canceled at the last minute because God turned most of Central Europe into a freshwater lake. I thought all of that flooding meant our boat could just bounce around wherever our fancy led us, as if Europe were a gigantic pinball machine. But our travel agent explained to me why that was not so. I think it had something to do with hydrodynamics, low bridges and tall churches. I said, “Uh huh,” a lot, and she refrained from mocking my hopeful ignorance.

This is not my wife’s fault. I want to say that right now. I admit there’s a certain amount of evidence that disagrees with me on this. Back when she joined Girl Scouts every activity the troop planned got canceled due to rain, measles outbreaks, chemical contamination, or some other damned thing. However, once she dropped out of the troop, the plague of misfortune ended. A few years ago we visited Disney World, and a hurricane shut down the park for the first time ever. We took a Caribbean cruise the week Hurricane Rita smashed through the Gulf. When we drove through New England to see the fall colors, we found that a spring drought had produced leaves as washed out as a tie-dye skirt from your granny’s attic. And now the worst European flooding in 500 years.

I repeat, it is not her fault.

Although schedules prevented us from re-booking the European cruise, I don’t want to complain too much about the canceled trip. Our agent helped us find and book a last-minute Alaskan cruise instead, which is nothing to whine about. And I’m not complaining about the complete change of plans, or the non-refundable hotel deposits, or any of that.

I’m complaining about the luggage. I had convinced my wife that we could thrive for three weeks in Europe with just two carry-on bags to hold everything needed to cover our nakedness. She resisted at first, but she came around after we researched the topic for a few weeks. After I built a box the size of our not-yet-purchased bags and she practiced packing in it, she agreed it was possible. It even became entertainment, as for months we discussed packing strategies and microfiber underwear instead of watching TV. Our logistics for two small bags became every bit as sophisticated as the load-out for Apollo 11.

That plan is now blown to hell.

Somehow Alaska requires more clothes than Europe. I was surprised, since we’d planned to look fairly sharp visiting those German cathedrals and the Vienna Opera House. I figured for Alaska I’d just need a couple of sweaters and a pair of jeans. It turns out that an Alaskan cruise involves formal clothes, and dressy clothes, and extra scarves, and an improbable number of shoes. I could have photographed quaint Danish streets with my serviceable, cigarette-pack-sized camera. In Alaska I’ll need a big camera with a big lens, because I might spot a moose or some salmon a quarter of a mile away.

So we’ll be checking all the bags we can check and carrying on everything we can lift. I feel oddly defeated over the packing, but that’s a quibble, really. Each day I’m getting more excited about sailing north on a ship while our house sitter lounges around our home with my wife’s Remington 870 tactical shotgun:

This season, discriminating homeowners are accessorizing their tactical shotguns with paintings of naked people.

And we’re timing this vacation right. Even though Alaska experienced record heat earlier this summer, with temperatures in the 90s, that’s all over. The weather’s settled back down to its normal cool, welcoming climate. Although this morning I did hear that the hot weather has spawned record swarms of horrible Alaskan mosquitoes.

But that is not my wife’s fault.

Happy Birthday, and Go Beg Someplace Else, You Mewling Rat-Pill

This blog turned two years old yesterday. No party, no cake, no balloon animals. I had in fact forgotten the event until WordPress sent me a cheery note of congratulations.

Once I was reminded, the milestone did make me think. I thought hard about this blog, enabling me to ignore several more pressing topics that would have required greater effort and focus. The automated reminders at WordPress saved me when I needed them, and I’d extend my thanks if they cared.

After two years this blog has published a couple of hundred posts, has collected a couple of hundred followers, and draws a modest readership on the days I post something. That generates a few comments and a few “likes.” All of which is fine.

However, my last post has led me to wonder whether perhaps I don’t understand my audience. I cross-posted that item to the Humor section of a public blog forum. I figured that my audience consists of people wanting to laugh. I was unprepared for the volume of hits on my post. It exceeded my normal volume by a factor of 50. It shocked me.

My post’s ratings on the forum were a bit more positive than negative, but one fact really astounded me. Out of the thousands of people who came to my blog from that forum, not one signed up to follow the blog. Maybe the post was poor, and I’m not denying that possibility. But maybe I’m kidding myself when I think the “Humor” folks are my audience.

I’ve decided to ask you, the people who spend time reading these posts, to please help me out here. I am in the most emphatic manner possible not asking for an ego boost. But I would appreciate suggestions and ideas about who my audience really should be and where I might go to find them. Who would like this stuff, and where are they?

Thanks to everyone who has read and supported this blog. I’ll try to remember the party next year. No clowns and balloon animals, though. Hookers and vodka—maybe.

I may have clowns at the party if this guy can make it.
I may have clowns at the party if this guy can make it.

Photo by Vnon via Wikimedia Commons.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

 

Your Cat Hates You Some More – and Says So Out Loud

This is an experiment, hopefully not the kind that ends with a hole eaten in the table or someone turned into a bug-human hybrid.

Last week I found myself reading one of these posts aloud to a person. It might have been in a therapist’s office, or in a job interview, or at the cleaners. They run together sometimes. The person listening to me said, “Hey, you should try reading some of that stuff out loud and putting that on your website.” This evening I waited a bit too long for dinner and tanked my blood sugar, annihilating my resistance to that suggestion.

Below I present one audio track containing the post “Why Your Cat Hates You.” Posting such a thing may be a wonderful idea, or it may be lunacy. I get credit for wonderful ideas. Lunacy gets blamed on my therapist/hiring manager/dry cleaner. Either way, I appreciate any comments about whether this sort of thing should happen again.

 

This time illiteracy is no excuse for ignorance, so pay attention.

For God’s Sake, Don’t Let Me Reproduce

I like strong-willed children. I believe they will go far if they’re not hanged. It’s my bias, of course. I was known to be a kid who followed the rules, but in fact I was a kid who broke the rules whenever they aggravated me. I just didn’t get caught very often.

It’s easy for me to say I like strong-willed children because my wife and I chose not to have children. I don’t have to do battle with an unruly kid every day until he goes to college or goes to jail. I’m being kind of presumptuous, really. But when I see a little kid who knows what he wants and creates hell on Earth to get it, I don’t think to myself, “There’s a bad kid.” I think, “There’s a parent who’s slacking off but is still a better parent than I would be.”

Some of our friends tell my wife and me that we should be parents. I love these friends the way I love people who believe in world peace and unicorns. I would probably produce clever little thugs with a dubious neurological heritage, and after the first time our toddler snottily defied my wife I’d be driving to prison for conjugal visits. I’m pretty sure that’s an exaggeration, but I wouldn’t bet my soul on it.

Yesterday we visited with friends who have two little boys, about elementary school age. This is the age when most boys should be thrown into an iron box and fed through a slot. They were among the most well-behaved children I have ever met. Their parents released them unsupervised into the wilderness of a toy store while we chatted, with only the words, “You may each get one thing.” Then they ignored their boys, except occasionally when one returned for guidance on something he was considering.

Half an hour later each child had chosen one toy and presented it with boyish, wiggly excitement. As the clerks checked us out they kept talking about how nice and polite the boys were, as astounded as if they’d just seen vermin build a suspension bridge. At lunch the kids ordered with articulate, polite efficiency. Later we walked around the mall full of insanely enticing childhood attractions like free cookie samples and toy cars roaming the floor. The boys bounced around and pointed, but they never caused any problems.

I was pretty dang impressed.

So where does this strong-willed-children comment come in? As I talked to the older boy, I realized that his civilized behavior had not been easily won. His parents confirmed that it was a fight with him sometimes. The kid reminded me of one of those circus elephants that’s been taught to play nice, but that knows deep down it can’t be denied if it goes after something.

As we walked the mall I began thinking it might have been nice to have kids. The parents and I talked about nothing much, and then they mentioned that they’d like to figure out a way to let their kids play against other kids in games on the X-Box, but they wanted to do it in a way that won’t rot their sons’ brains.

“You could let them play, but only if they can figure out how to cheat,” I said. “It’s like an intellectual exercise.”

The subsequent silence indicated that was not a good answer. So maybe it’s better after all that we haven’t reproduced. No kids, then.

But to continue a theme, I also like difficult women. That’s a different story with a lot fewer references to being well-behaved.

Earth-Touch_Elephant_Botswana
I may be balancing a ball in the circus today, but tomorrow I’ll be free to fling dirt on my head.

Photo by Cojharries
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earth-Touch_Elephant_Botswana.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.