I pitched my new book to agents at the writer’s conference today. Two of them want to see chapters, and one wants to see the full manuscript. I hope the words on paper will live up to the words that came out of my mouth. I’ve only been writing like a maniac for a few years. I’ve improvised, cajoled, and spouted bullshit on a professional level for a lot longer than that.
Even though agents have asked me for chapters before, this makes me nervous. Yeah, I should be ecstatic, and a sliver of my consciousness is partying like Keith Richards on the day they legalize smack. But most of me is fixating on the gulf between the writer I am now and the writer I want to be. I refer to writing skill. I refer not to the glamorous lifestyle of a professional writer.
My sister is an artist of fabulous skill and determination. She once traveled to another city in which a gallery was showing her work. She said it was like being a rock star. People drove her around town, took her to eat, effused about her work, and generally worshipped her. It was an amazing week. The day she returned home she had to scrape dried peanut butter off the kitchen floor.
It puts things in perspective.
I wonder if I waited too late to get aggressive about writing. It takes time to get good at things. I’m a better actor now than I was 20 years ago. It’s not like I’m John Barrymore or anything now, but it’s relative. The universe of things I don’t know about writing stuns me when I can stand to think about it. Actually, I think about it a lot. My brain won’t stop thinking about writing.
Bad brain. Off the couch.
It’s almost time for tonight’s party here at the conference. I’m certain most of the writers, agents and editors will be there. How do I know this?
Free gin and tonics. That’s the glamorous lifestyle of a writer for you.
This post is an excerpt from my compilation Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit, available at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. It contains a good number of essays from this blog with new photos and sarcastic captions, plus some essays not found here–all in one convenient package!
I believe that a kick in the shin is better than sex. I can argue this with unassailable logic. If we weren’t all impelled towards the sex act by our hormones and heritage, I wouldn’t need to argue. Everyone would see that I’m right, receive a hearty shin kicking, and agree with me.
Sex feels good for a little while. I won’t deny that. And a shin-kicking feels bad for a little while. But things that feel good aren’t necessarily better. If they were, then heroin would be better than sit-ups. So, I propose that the “sex feels good” argument isn’t by itself conclusive.
No one has ever contracted a disease, accidentally gotten pregnant, or been shot by an angry spouse because they were kicked in the shin. Good sex can be messy, while you don’t typically have to clean up after a good shin-kicking. A person can kick you in the shin almost instantly, but sex requires some time, otherwise someone is going to be unhappy. Sex becomes awkward when your children rush into the bedroom to whine because there aren’t any Pop-Tarts. But children already know what a shin-kicking is, and they probably were doing it themselves a few minutes earlier. In fact, the entire family can comfortably share in this activity.
When you kick someone in the shin you may hurt their feelings. Sex also presents challenges where feelings are concerned. Sex can make you happy. Sex can bring you closer together. But sex can also make you unhappy when someone treats you like dirt just because they want sex. That kind of unhappiness can last a long time, while unhappiness from a kick in the shin passes pretty quickly. Sex also can make people feel angry, guilty, and anxious. A shin-kick will never make you feel good, but it probably won’t make you feel too bad, and you always know what you’re getting.
When you don’t have sex you’ll probably feel frustrated. Unfortunately you’re just wired that way. It can cause all kinds of bad behavior like ignoring your partner’s requests to clean the garage, or making a pass at your co-worker. You may also experience frustration when you don’t kick someone in the shin, like your boss, or your mechanic, or the guy in line at the grocery store. But generally you can go a month without kicking someone in the shin and not be too frustrated.
I believe I’ve made my point. On almost every count, a kick in the shin outshines sex like the sun outshines a somewhat smaller sun. If we could eliminate the sex drive, I expect that every person on earth would limp like a three-legged rhino from all the shin-kicking going on. Finally, I admit that sex prevails for procreation. No number of kicks in the shin will produce a baby in nine months. So if you’re after a baby, go have sex already. Save your kicks in the shin so the mother can use them on the father in the delivery room.
Last night I looked up from writing my novel synopsis and eating peanut butter cookies, and I realized that this blog has achieved a phenomenal milestone. It has existed for 660 days. The significance may not punch you in the face right away, so I’ll explain. The numeral 660 is the area code for Sedalia, Missouri. That town is only a two hour drive from Branson, Missouri. I visited Branson once. I think it’s pretty much how Las Vegas would look if it were built by the cast of Hee Haw, and yet the place entertained me in spite of myself. Ergo, milestone. Don’t you feel silly that you didn’t see it for yourself?
In celebration, I devoted a few minutes to thinking about the posts in this blog, and the number of posts (176) made it hard to keep them straight in my brain. If my tentacular mass of prior posts confuses me, then it probably confuses more recent regular readers, not to mention folks who stumble across the blog.
And I don’t know about you, but when I find an interesting blog with a long history, I’m puzzled about how to locate the parts of that history I might be most interested in. I know that’s what categories and tags are for, but what does it really mean when a post is tagged “camel”? How to ride one? How to raise them? How do they taste roasted? Do you prefer regular or menthol? It would be nice if the blogger would do some extra work for me. I have my own work that needs to be done and cookies waiting to be eaten.
A quick survey revealed that while this is my general humor blog, it does often follow certain themes. Creativity, marriage, work, family, fear and confidence are common themes. In addition, 33 posts mention movies, 35 posts mention death, 17 posts include strong profanity, 7 posts mention snot, and immersion blenders figure prominently in 2 posts. Cats appear in a full 100 of my posts.
Okay, this is a perplexing mess, and I’m cutting through it right now. I’ve extracted eight general groups of posts and a few posts from each group. You can find them below, along with a sentence or two describing each group to help you decide whether those posts might be interesting to you in any way at all.
In order to understand a lot of my posts, it helps to understand my wife. This group of posts describes about 10 percent of her being, but that’s the portion she employs daily, not the 90% capable of sinking you like the Titanic. We’ve discussed getting t-shirts that say “Bill will make you cry. Kathleen will make you disappear.”
Employment and unemployment seem to weigh on everyone these days. In these posts I touched on employment challenges, with a subtext of living in a ditch and eating dirt, rejected by everyone with more than four teeth, and forced to count my lice to keep from going insane.
All right, maybe this shouldn’t even be a category, but these posts look at some odd aspects of living in the world, such as fear, failure, and walking around with a metaphorical stick up one’s backside.
I hope this presentation was helpful to folks interested in checking out some of the older posts. Putting it together helped me. I had no idea I’d never written a post containing the word “spleen.” Until now.
It’s not really that I don’t love you. I have reasons for ignoring you and this blog over the past couple of weeks. They are bad reasons, but then people often have bad reasons for not doing things. Bad reasons for not exercising, bad reasons for not saving money, bad reasons for not walking away from the computer before posting that rabid Facebook flame. I’m claiming solidarity with the world’s self-deluded procrastinators.
In the interest of whining about how busy and hard my life is, I’ll point out that I have a job—for now—and a family life that require me to devote blocks of time if I want to continue having jobs and a family. For example, I’ve been helping my father refinance his house. I love the optimism inherent in securing a loan that won’t be paid off until you’re 105 years old, but it does require time to arrange. Also, I’m happy to spend bonding time with my wife by sitting on the couch watching hour-long crime-solving comedies that always seem to show graphic autopsies and melting flesh just when I’m eating my dinner.
However, I’ve spent time on a few other things in recent weeks, and I can use them as whimpering excuses for my absence from this blog space. Let’s look at my creative endeavors.
For the past few weeks I’ve been in rehearsals for an eight-week show that opens this weekend. I love performing, but it eats time the way my cats eat yogurt, which is to say, voraciously. This is an ideal commitment for me to cite as a bad excuse for ignoring my other commitments. People assume that actors are kind of artistic, irresponsible, flaky types anyway, so that works in my favor.
I also have the opportunity to pitch a book project to agents a month from now, so I’ve been editing and polishing the thing like it was a ’58 T-Bird. I’m obsessing over everything from typos to profound thematic problems, such as, “If the bad guy ambushes the hero and traps him in a church, why doesn’t the hero just slip out the back door and run away instead of standing there to get pummeled? Is he stupid?” I’ve been surprised at how many stupid things my characters do just because I want to get them into a certain situation.
I’ve been using a book called Nail Your Novel to guide me through editing. It’s been terribly helpful, but all this still takes time. In fact, I have a plan for writing so that it doesn’t suck away too much family time. I write as much as I want four weeknights each week, and the fifth weeknight is for my wife and me (and whatever melted-flesh TV programs we’re watching). I don’t write at all on the weekends. If I can average 1,500 words per night, in 14 weeks I have an 80,000 word first draft. I squeeze in other writing (like this blog) at other times, such as early morning or lunch.
It’s structured, and it works. It avoids those situations in which my wife doesn’t see me for three months because I’d rather write than do anything else, including eating, sleeping, and showering. It also serves as another bullshit excuse for not updating this blog in the past couple of weeks.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself off work early. That would have been an ideal time to blog, before evening when I would start editing my book. But instead of blogging with this free time, I chose to replace a florescent light fixture under our kitchen cabinet. A few weeks before, my wife had bought a new fixture to replace the current 40 year-old cracked and sagging fixture, and she laid it on the bench in the kitchen. She told me it was there, I said I’d put it up, and then she didn’t mention it for a week or so. At that point she said she should probably replace the fixture herself sometime. I might have mumbled that I’d get to it soon. Thereafter she ignored the fixture and didn’t mention the fact that it lay on our kitchen bench, and that I stacked stuff on and around it almost every day.
So, yesterday afternoon I resolved to replace the fixture, knowing that I could blog afterwards. I’ve done this sort of repair pretty often in my life, so the old fixture came down, and the new one pretty much flung itself up onto the underside of the cabinet. At that point I was reminded of a fundamental principle of home repair. When attaching something to the bottom of something else, you will have screws that point up.
My hands like to tell me to go to hell sometimes, for technical reasons beyond the scope of the current discussion. When I focus on doing something they will shake. When I really concentrate, they shake even more. When I get frustrated, that’s like permission for them to do The Harlem Shake (you young folks check the link). When I leaned over the counter, under the cabinet, backward and upside down to thread these screws, that’s when the fun began.
About an hour later I passed my wife, who was sitting in the den, and she asked what I’d been laughing about. I told her I’d just taken an hour to do something I used to be able to do in about 30 seconds, and she expressed her sympathy. I didn’t touch on the hour’s worth of events that took place before I laughed. Here’s an excerpt:
I try to thread a screw and drop it.
I try to thread it with the other hand and drop it.
I put it on the end of a screwdriver and drop it, where it falls behind the toaster.
I think bad words and consider smashing the olive oil bottle on the inconceivably hard tile floor.
I drop the screw five more times in a row.
I actually pick up the olive oil bottle but take a deep breath and put it back down.
I drop the screw four more times.
I start to ask my wife for help, but I think ‘What if I was here by myself?’
I drop the screw three more times, until it falls on the floor where it rolls under the refrigerator.
I walk around the kitchen a couple of times thinking that I could take the olive oil bottle out back and down the alley to smash it, where no one would ever need to know.
I move the refrigerator and get the screw.
I fold masking tape on my fingertip and stick the screw to it, then I try to thread it and drop it inside the toaster.
I shake the toaster upside down for the screw, and I clean toast crumbs off the counter, wondering why we haven’t died in a fire.
I drop the screw ten more times in a row.
I wring the dish cloth full of toast crumb really hard. I think some of the molecular bonds may have broken.
I drop the screw another ten times in a row.
[Imagine that this goes on for about another 45 minutes]
All the gods from every religion in history guide my hand, and I thread the screw.
I laugh because nothing is broken and everyone is still alive.
Now that I have, in the manner of a neurologically-challenged Prometheus, restored light to our kitchen, I’m pretty much out of bad reasons for not updating this blog. I can’t think of any good ones either, so here we are. All I need are a title and a photo before I post this. What photo should I use? The light fixture conquered and gloriously mounted on my cabinet? Or the cat eating yogurt?
No one has ever called me sentimental. At least, I don’t remember it ever happening. It’s not that unsentimentality has been one of my goals. I never woke up on New Year’s Day and said, “This year I’ll learn to speak German, lose 20 pounds, and become a son of a bitch.” And yet, yesterday when I told an old friend that I don’t really have a list of people I dislike, she looked at me as if I’d said I don’t really breathe oxygen and have a peristaltic process.
I will say that I hang on to a lot of stuff that means something to me, or that once meant something to me, or that meant something to someone else. Or that looks cool, or might fit me again one day, or that I put in a drawer and forgot about. I like stuff, just as my mom did.
Whether or not this behavior is sentimental, it drives my wife nuts. I cannot possibly express how much she does not care about stuff, unless the stuff is a coffee mug or a bottle of honey-pineapple revitalizing body splash with conditioner. I know that she loves me, because she’s come to tolerate, if not respect, my obsession with stuff. And I think “obsession” is the right word, not sentimentality.
My father cares no more about stuff than he cares about any given paramecium in his yard, and he holds an absolute lack of sentimentality for holidays, birthdays, greeting cards and so forth. If you consider those things to be the cozy fire of warmth in the human heart, then he is -273.15 degrees Celsius, and you could shatter bananas on him like they were light bulbs. He’s a caring guy in other ways, but that’s not one of them, and from him I inherited my immunity to the charms of greeting cards.
When I get a card I look at it, think how nice the sender was to remember me, and smile for the benefit of my wife. Then, in most cases, I immediately toss all memory of the card into the recycle bin, along with the physical card itself. I do not add it to a stack of memories boxed up somewhere in my existence.
On the other hand, my mom was created out of sentimentality. She was like a Care Bear that played mournful country music while carrying a book of baby pictures and pressed flowers on her back. She died last year, and about a month later, when my birthday was approaching, I caught myself thinking that I’d see a card from her in the mail soon. I of course stopped that train of thought right away and switched it to, “Well, shit.” Then I realized that I had thrown away everything she had ever written to me.
That realization did not support the festive birthday atmosphere that my wife was trying to create. I moped around a little while trying to look like I wasn’t moping and was instead examining the structural integrity of the birthday cake.
Then my gaze drifted over to our filing system. It consists of four piles lying on the kitchen counter. Three piles belong to my wife. I’m not sure what they contain, but things appear on them, get moved from one pile to another, and somehow disappear, at which point our bills are paid and we’re allowed to continue living in our house. My single pile gets taller and taller until it starts toppling over, at which point I throw away 90 percent of it and put the rest in a tiny pile on my desk. I throw the tiny pile away a couple of weeks later when I get tired of looking at it.
I started wondering whether the card my mom had sent on my previous birthday lay in some stratum of my pile. I dug through it in a casual fashion. It was pretty tall. The postmarks regressed through the previous year, but the last item only reached back to mid-summer. With that possibility shredded, I decided to sit in the library, where my birthday cake wouldn’t be spoiled by the stench of my moping.
A bit later my wife came into the library. She had deduced what I’d been doing, since I’d been muttering about it so loudly that our cats had been peering at me and preparing to hide under the bed if things went to hell. My wife brought me a stack of older stuff she’d taken away from my pile some weeks earlier. She had placed it on my desk in a logical and obvious spot, ensuring that I’d ignore it practically forever.
Without much hope I sorted down through this stack of neglected stuff, and I did not find the card I was searching for until the end. I mean, that card was at the bottom of the pile, the last thing of all. Somewhat stunned, I opened it up and took a peek.
I don’t believe in miracles, or spirits, or destiny. I do believe in the space-time continuum, procrastination, and the law of large numbers. I also believe in my wife’s determination to impose order on a disorderly universe. But setting belief aside, I can say for a fact that on my birthday it’s nice to eat structurally sound cake and read some things that my mom wanted to say to me.
My attic is a squirrel hotel. The residents appear to have used their teeth, which generate the approximate cutting power of a reciprocating saw, to create an entryway under my eaves. I even now can hear them frolicking through our Christmas ornaments and tacky decorative baskets. It’s driving my cats berserk.
This is one of the perks of home ownership.
I just got off the phone with the fellow who will repair that hole next week, hopefully with titanium plates. Then I have to trap my little rodent guests and relocate their probably-rabies-free selves to some safe and convivial locale, like a park. Far from here. Maybe on another continent.
These buck-tooth thugs haven’t been my only homeowner challenge lately. Rabbits excavated so far under our front walk that it looked like a bridge in Venice. A disease slaughtered both of the trees in our backyard with the efficiency of a Hellfire missile, and now nothing remains of them but a little sawdust where the stumps used to be. We enjoyed rain in our living room throughout five re-sealings of our roof, until some bright fellow figured out that our chimney needed to be torn down and rebuilt.
The front doorknob came off in my wife’s hand, a light fixture dropped off the underside of the kitchen cabinet, and sunlight disintegrated the dining room curtains. Most of our double-pane windows have unsealed themselves, and now they function like single-pane windows that block the view because of condensation. My air conditioner is giving me nightmares because it’s old enough to drink.
Even my stupid mailbox is no longer a cheerful red, but instead is the color of mud that’s been baked in a Georgia summer. I know that’s not hard to fix, but I just feel like pouting.
Our house is approaching its 30th birthday. For 20 years other people got to enjoy it before we came along, so I suppose we’re paying the tab for some of their fun. I should expect a little wear. But damn, I didn’t expect a Willie-Nelson’s-face amount of wear.
Then again, we have a house to enjoy, and a lot of people can’t say that, so I should stop pouting. I can hear my wife, who rarely pouts, telling me, “It’s broken? Let me add it to the list.” The list is a kind of magical place where things go to get taken care of, assuming you ever remember to read the list and don’t mind some hard work. So our house may be rather crumbly around the edges, but we can slap some spackle on it and sit in the den with all our cats, speculating on the meaning of the popping and groaning sounds coming from walls.
We already know what the thrashing sounds in the attic are.
I admit I am a vengeful person. I admit it just like I admit I’m a person with bad knees. It’s inconvenient and annoying, but it’s become an unfortunate part of who I am. I’m trying to let my grudges drift away, but I think that would require some sort of radical intervention, similar to cutting out my knees and replacing them with knees made of gentle and forgiving titanium.
Some people say they can hold a grudge until it’s old and gray. I can hold a grudge until it dies. Then I stuff it, mount it, and hang it over the fireplace. Then I chat with it through the Ouija Board. My wife shakes her head when I say that, but she doesn’t say, “Oh honey, you’re not that bad.” She says, “Someday you’re going to have a stroke while you’re trying to destroy a Wal-Mart Super Center with just the power of your mind.”
I hear that the first step is admitting you have a problem. Okay, I have a problem. But it strikes me that I don’t know just how bad this problem is. I don’t know if it will ruin my life, or if it will just ruin my breakfast once in a while. I decided to check out what history’s great thinkers had to say about vengeance and anger.
A quote has floated around for a long time, attributed to Buddha, who was certainly a wise old chap. It is:
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
— Someone who wasn’t Buddha
Why do I say that the author of this quote wasn’t Buddha? I did a little poking around, and Fake Buddha Quotes convinced me it was so. Nobody seems to really know where this came from. For all we know, some washer woman ruined Buddha’s favorite robe and he never forgave her.
Confucius was another terribly smart fellow, so I checked him out and found this gem:
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
— Someone who wasn’t Confucius
Again, nobody seems to know who actually said this. It appears nowhere in Confucius’ writings. Maybe some blind-drunk blowhard in a Kyoto bar came up with it and decided it would sound better if people thought a famous Chinese philosopher said it. We don’t know.
I looked for any kind of well-known observations about vengeance. A lot of people talk about this one:
“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
— Someone who wasn’t a French novelist whose book would someday be made into a movie in which John Malkovich hisses like a viper
Nobody can figure out who came up with this one. Some people say it was Choderlos de Laclos, who wrote the novel Les liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons). Different people say it was Shakespeare, or an anonymous Japanese guy, or Mario Puzo. We might as well say it was Ricardo Montalban in The Wrath of Khan and move on.
I don’t think anybody really knows a damn thing about how much it hurts you to hold a grudge.
Regardless, I’ve set some limits for myself when it comes to vengefulness. I am not allowed to hold a grudge against any person I could reasonably be able to communicate with in my lifetime. If I might meet them, talk to them, exchange emails, or be tempted to call them a walking goat’s whang on Facebook, they are strictly out of bounds. That leaves plenty of people whom I may regard with seething hatred. For example, I will never watch a Dallas Cowboys game as long as Jerry Jones owns the team. I don’t care if they win a dozen Superbowls and give every orphan in Texas a puppy. My rage is pure.
It’s a sacrifice to deny myself any grudges against such a large group of people, but I reward myself by despising non-human entities with searing vehemence. I won’t name them here, but there are airlines I refuse to fly, stores I refuse to shop in, and bars I refuse to get drunk in. I have gazed upon certain businesses with bitterness whenever I drove past, and I’ve rejoiced when on occasion one closed its doors forever.
Yes, I’m a vengeful son of a bitch.
The corollary to all this bitter vengefulness is blind, stupid loyalty to “my” people and institutions, even when that loyalty may not be too wise. If you’re my friend, I don’t care what you do, I’m on your side. First of all, I’ve probably done something as bad or worse than whatever you did, and second, if I stop being your friend when you screw up or disagree with me then I wasn’t much of a friend in the first place.
When I was a kid my father told me that the world is full of people, and every one of them is looking for a friend. That’s a pretty extreme statement, but I’ve found it to be true. Yet I’ve kept my list of friends pretty short, and there’s a good reason for that. I consider someone to be my friend if I feel like it’s okay for them to puke in my car.
Maybe I’m not the nicest guy around, but I’d like to see Buddha top that.
I’ll be looking for a job pretty soon. I realize that people who can give me a job will expect me to tell them what I’m qualified to do. I don’t mean that resume crap. That stuff’s almost fiction, even if it’s technically true. If my skill was begging in the gutter for burrito wrappers, I could make it sound like “acquiring recycled commercial materials in atypical urban areas.”
No, I’m talking about looking someone in the eye and telling them, in one breath, just what I can do. After which they’ll feel that if they don’t hire me they’ll live in regret and never be happy again for the rest of their lives. My challenge is that I’m a senior manager, so the things I’m capable of sound stupid. For example, I could look my prospective employer in the eye and say:
“I’m great at saying no. Really, I’m like a negativity machine.”
Based on that statement, even I wouldn’t hire me. Hell, I’d spray for me, like I was a chinch-bug.
It’s a problem.
By the way, any grammar fans may have noted that in the earlier paragraph I should have written “…the things of which I am capable sound stupid.” I didn’t do that because it doesn’t flow well. I know it’s wrong, but I offer a quote that’s been attributed to Winston Churchill:
“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
On Saturday I interrupted my musings on unemployment long enough to visit my father. I go there to talk about building things, and stupid politicians, and grilled cheese sandwiches, among other things. I also go there to write checks to pay his bills. His hands shake too much for him to write because of a raucous and unwelcome party in his cerebellum, so I help out. I’m hoping that my wife will be kind enough to write my checks when I get older. To be truthful, she writes most of them now, so things wouldn’t be that different.
My father and I found ourselves talking about job qualifications, just after we’d been discussing how much useless crap is in his attic. Right away he told me that he didn’t learn anything in college that helped him get a job, or that helped him at all in his career, for that matter. I found that discouraging. When he was still working he supervised the construction of schools and hospitals and so forth. However, in college I think he mainly knocked people down and pulled semi-larcenous pranks on the Texas A&M football team. So maybe this wasn’t entirely surprising.
We backtracked and talked about whether his military service had given him qualifications he could present to future employers. He said that had been problematic. After the Korean War his discharge papers stated that he was well-suited for any civilian job requiring a “small arms technician.” He didn’t feel that was too helpful, since it meant “move about silently and kill people.”
We agreed that it can be hard to explain what you’re qualified to do.
I guess I’ll keep working on it. I may need something more generic, like, “I don’t usually screw things up,” or, “I haven’t been killed by my own employees so far.” Maybe I can adapt one of those common sayings about success, like, “Success is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” I could turn that into:
“I sweat a lot. You ought to see it.”
Or here’s another one I like. “Ninety percent of life is showing up. Nine percent is paying attention. One percent is getting laid.”
When I was four years old I knew that stealing a cookie today is worth more than the promise of any number of future cookies. I knew it in my marrow, and my sneaky fingers knew it too. I forgot this knowledge once I got an allowance and could buy my own cookie. Today I can express the concept, but I don’t really know it anymore, not like I did when I was four.
It’s aggravating to forget things. It’s worse when you remember that you used to know something and that you don’t know it now.
As I’ve grown older my mind has emptied itself like a pitcher, and it hasn’t always been refilled with similarly precious knowledge. For example, when I was in high school I could talk calculus to you all day. Now I can barely figure tips and make change. I have bartered away my math skills to instead become the Michelangelo of Powerpoint slides.
Other knowledge has drained out of me throughout my life. When I was seven I could look at a picture of a dinosaur, tell you the beast’s name, and pinpoint when it lived, within a hundred million years or so. Now when I hear paleontologists talk they use entirely unfamiliar dinosaur names that I believe they’re just making up to screw with us. As another example, at twenty-four I could diagnose and repair about any gasoline engine. Now when I open a car’s hood it makes no more sense to me than looking into the abdomen of a dissected hippo.
Today I find myself needing to learn German. The idea fills me with perplexity and dread because I don’t know any German at all. This despite the fact that I once had a German class. I had several. One time I said some German sentences to real people who spoke German in a real country called Germany. They answered me, and I said some more sentences, and I think I ended up in a stuffy restaurant eating a gigantic, greasy pig shank with a warm beer.
I don’t understand a single word of German today. In college, I studied German in Germany and minored in German. I should be ashamed.
As an aside, I majored in sociology, specializing in statistics and research methods. That includes telephone surveys, like the calls you get on Sunday afternoons asking what radio stations you like. If you think about it, I literally have a university degree in how to annoy people.
I need help to learn German again, and for that help I turned to my servant and companion, Google. Like a faithful Irish Water Spaniel, Google brought me three German-learning options and laid them at my metaphorical feet. I shall refer to these as “Option X,” “Option Spends-A-Lot-On-Advertising,” and “Option Holy-Crap-It’s-Free.” Here’s what I found.
Option X has an informational video that includes a drawing of Yoda, so that was in its favor. It claimed I’d learn just like a small child learns, and lots of testimonials promised that this system is amazing. It made so much sense and was so popular that I immediately developed a virulent, suspicious hatred for it. And yet, it includes no writing or grammar, and I can take the lessons in the bathtub if I want. I was promised that I’d learn useful phrases quickly, and the basic course costs less than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on Blu-Ray, so I ended up pretty impressed.
Option Spends-A-Lot-On-Advertising must indeed spend a lot on advertising, since the full course costs as much as an iPad Mini. Even the basic course is pricey. Instead of buying it, my wife and I could each have our own Lord of the Rings Trilogy Blu-Rays, with another copy for our cats, and we could all learn to speak Elvish. But the cool thing is that I’d get a sophisticated computer learning experience with audio feedback to tell me that my German words sound like a ’58 Impala shifting gears. The less cool thing is that I can’t do that in the bathtub without electrocuting myself. It teaches grammar, writing, and a huge vocabulary, although it may take a while to get past phrases like, “the girl is above the train station.” I figure if I want to approximate two years of 8 a.m. German classes, this is the way to go.
Option Holy-Crap-It’s-Free has some German lessons you can take on the computer. But really, who gives a shit? It’s free.
I know which one I’m choosing.
In the spirit if getting off to a good start, I decided to begin reclaiming the German language and my profound childhood cookie philosophy at the same time. I thought I remembered that the German word for cookie might be “kuchen.” A short web search showed that a “kuchen” is actually a cake, and “küche” is the room in which you cook a cake. The German word for cookie is in fact “cookie.”
That seemed too easy. And it was. If cookie is “cookie,” then why is the Cookie Monster called “Krümelmonster” by German children? And I’d think that “Christmas cookie” would be “Weihnachts cookie,” but sadly it’s “Weihnachtsplätzchen” instead.
I wonder how you say “Tyrannosaurus Rex” in German?
I remember when I was eleven years old doing my very best to cut out my grandfather’s heart and eat it. He was trying to do the same to me, so it was all fair. Plus, it was on Christmas Day, so we deserved some kind of forgiveness, or dispensation, or something like that.
Here’s how it went. On Christmas morning my sister and I assaulted our toy-encircled tree like a troop of baboons, after which my family opened gifts. Then, before we could play with our new toys that made every other toy we’d ever owned look like cow flop, my parents made us get dressed and drove us to my aunt’s house. The entire extended clan ate the noon meal together, with us kids at the short tables. In this way my people broke the holiday bread, reaffirmed our family bonds, and in the afternoon, as the Good Lord intended, we played poker.
I don’t know why we played poker within spitting distance of the Nativity Scene, but that’s what my people did. I didn’t learn much about religion, but I learned that if you’re not playing poker to cut out someone’s heart and eat it, you might as well be playing with a wad of dirty newspaper and a stick. I also learned that faith is a wonderful thing, but don’t draw to an inside straight.
We played for cash. Nobody cared that I was eleven years old. If I was dumb enough to raise into a pair of aces, I must be too stupid to spend my allowance on anything good anyway.
My father didn’t play poker with us. I didn’t think about it then, since he pretty much minded his own business and nobody bugged him about it. But yesterday he explained to me why he didn’t play. When he was in Korea during the war, neither he nor any other marines got paid. The Corps held onto their money, since they sent men to places where there wasn’t a damn thing worth buying anyway. The Corps finally shipped them home on an actual ship, which stopped in Japan so the men could get their back pay in real, U.S. cash.
Poker games broke out in every unused cranny of that ship. Not every man played, but a lot of them did. After all, there weren’t many recreational activities on a ship crammed with marines. However, the main point is that by the time they reached San Diego about six guys owned all the money, and hundreds of fellows were broke.
My father did not play poker. When he got home, he bought a new car.
This is all fantastic evidence that poker is a game of skill, not a game of chance. Here’s a fun fact for you. If you look around the poker table and can’t tell who is the least skilled player at the table—you’re the one whose heart is about to be cut out and eaten. Now that I think about it, that’s true of a lot of things in life.
My grandfather died when I was 15. The family drifted, and after a few years the Christmas dinners stopped. We didn’t play poker anymore. But by that time I felt like I was a pretty good player. In my twenties I decided to see how good I was, and I started flying to Las Vegas to play poker. I won a little sometimes, and I never lost much, so I kept playing.
The crazy point came when I landed in Vegas, went straight from the airport to the casino, and played for 40 hours straight. At the end of that time I was $10 ahead. I thought, What the hell? I’d won a lot of hands, and I hadn’t lost too much money on any hands. Then for the first time I paid attention to something I’d seen thousands of times. Every time someone bet, the dealer pulled out ten percent and dropped it in a hole in the table, where it went to pay for electric lights, and Wayne Newton, and hookers for Japanese high-rollers.
It wasn’t enough to be good. You had to be supernatural. I never surrendered poker money to a casino again. I played other games like craps and blackjack, and I lost my ass because I hardly understood them at all.
To wrap this up, jump forward in time to my wedding. I’m not the wildest guy on my block, and my bachelor party was an event of less than thermonuclear festivity. Instead of strippers and tequila, my best and oldest friends came over to my place for the evening, and we bonded by drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing poker.
I took all their money. I cut out their hearts and ate them. Hey, we were playing poker. Screw ‘em. If my grandfather was fair game, what did they expect?