Category Archives: Marriage

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.

Is Glacier Bay Better Than Disney World? Let’s Put a Kid in a Humpback-Whale Suit and Find Out

Alaskan Cruise, Day 7 – Glacier Bay

Before I left home, a friend warned me that I must not fail to be on deck to observe Glacier Bay when the ship enters it. She told me I’d have to get up early to experience this event, but it would make the entire trip worth the effort.

So, this morning I bounced out of bed at 5:00 a.m., just an hour after sunrise. I dressed myself in every piece of clothing I possessed. My wife lay under the covers and didn’t say anything. She merely watched me the way she watches one of the cats just before it rolls over in its sleep and falls off the dining room table.

I knew that the ship was approaching Glacier Bay, and I didn’t want to miss anything. By 5:30 a.m. I was standing on the tallest observation deck with my camera, binoculars, and high expectations. I scanned the horizon for magnificent vistas, but we had not yet reached any areas of magnificence. Occasionally another passenger joined me, shivered for a few moments while glancing at the lovely but customary Alaskan landscape, and then they trotted back down the stairs. The wind and cold were ghastly. Had I not been clothed in the equivalent of two sheep, I’m sure I would have died instantly.

Two hours into my shatteringly cold vigil, my wife came looking for me. She found me braced against the railing, examining the coastline for any sign of glaciers, or a bay, or even some chunks of floating ice in the water. My wife said, “You should consider the fact that your definition of ‘early’ and other people’s definition of ‘early’ might not be the same.” Then she led me downstairs to the breakfast buffet.

By 9:00 a.m. I was back in my firing position on the observation deck. Glacier Bay chose that time to show itself. My friend hadn’t lied. It was astounding. I snapped off 938 photos, three of which I consider decent. The rest captured the bay’s glory no better than I could have with a Crayola between my toes.

Here’s a shot of the mountains over the bay:

I chose to crop the bottoms of the trees out of the frame. I hope it looks artistic rather than like I was drunk on Alaskan Rhubarb-flavored vodka.
I chose to crop the bottoms of the trees out of the frame. I hope it looks like an artistic choice rather than a blunder inspired by Alaskan rhubarb-flavored vodka.

Here’s a photo of a glacier because, heck, it’s Glacier Bay:

I don't remember the name of this glacier, but as far as glaciers go this one's a badass.
I don’t remember the name of this glacier, but as far as glaciers go this one’s a badass.

A bald eagle surprised us by springing aloft from a floating chunk of ice and flying past the ship:

 

I'm shooting downwards at this fellow because cruise ships are about 1200 feet tall. I could be wrong about that. They're probably taller.
I’m shooting downwards at this fellow because cruise ships are about 1200 feet tall. I could be wrong about that. They’re probably taller.

Glacier Bay was every splendid thing I’d imagined. I’ll never forget how wonderful it was.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 8 – Glaciers in College Fjord

More ice, more water, seen it all before. Blah, blah.

Despite Our Best Efforts, Alaska Fails to Kill Us

Alaskan Cruise, Day 3 – Sailing North

I’ve found that cruising is about three things: food, booze, and karaoke. The booze isn’t free, and my tolerance for $12 martinis is limited. Nobody would ever sing karaoke unless they were lit up like Chernobyl. That leaves food, which is available 24 hours a day in quantities limited only by the fear of your heart exploding.

My wife and I have faced cruise ship buffets in the past, and on this trip we resolved to gain no more than ten percent of our body mass. Our strategy is to never step into an elevator. If we can’t climb the stairs to our destination, we do without. This has two benefits. First, we work off a few calories whenever we go anywhere, because the most interesting thing on our deck is the Laundromat. Second, before I climb the nine flights of stairs standing between me and the buffet, I have to want veal cutlets and mashed potatoes a whole lot. I think the strategy’s working, and I figure I’ve only gained about a pound a day.

We came here with a second strategy to keep us from dropping dead the moment we get home. My wife and I planned to walk around the top deck some heroic number of times every morning to keep fit. This morning we climbed all the way up past the Promenade deck, the Emerald deck, and the Lido deck to the Celestial deck, where we stepped outside and realized we’re morons.

When we left home we were enjoying normal mid-summer weather, which is to say a daily high temperature of about 100 degrees. In Vancouver we adjusted to the brisk 75 degree afternoons pretty well. At sunrise on a ship in the Pacific off British Columbia it was 50 degrees, which we’ve experienced at home several times. The 30 mph wind put us to the test, but we’re pretty tough. However, on deck we learned that a ship sailing at 25 knots into a 30 mph wind on a cold day with 100 percent humidity is what kills people from Texas. Here’s a picture of my wife on deck before we ran back to our cabin and put on all the clothes we’d brought with us.

My wife, freezing to death against the railing. You can see where the Grim Reaper has marked her chest.
My wife, freezing to death against the railing. You can see where the Grim Reaper has marked her chest.

Okay, we had to buy more clothes. However, buying clothes from a cruise ship store is financially unwise, like cashing in your IRA and giving the money to chimps. We’re scheduled to dock in beautiful Ketchikan, Alaska tomorrow, so we hope to survive until then.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 4 – Ketchikan

Ketchikan is beautiful. It’s dim and awkward, with a disproportionately large number of bars and tattoo parlors. Every house and shop is painted a different color, and in the sunlight it would probably look Disney-esque. Under today’s low, dripping skies it looked like a black and white photograph that’s been colorized in a few quirky spots. But two things in particular endeared it to us: no wind and cheap gifts.

Here are a couple of views of Ketchikan:

My first view of Ketchikan. It's like they knew I was coming.
My first view of Ketchikan. It’s like they knew I was coming.

 

It looks like where the Hobbits would live, if they were all tuna fisherman and drank Jim Beam.
It looks like where the Hobbits would live, if they were all tuna fisherman and drank Jim Beam.

I learned from a shopkeeper that 800 people live in Ketchikan, and 8,000 cruise ship tourists swarm the place every day. I expect that’s why the residents need a large number of bars per capita. Today, I think all 8,000 of those tourists were packed into three downtown blocks, picking through gold stores, diamond stores, jewelry stores, gold and diamond jewelry stores, art galleries, and a trendy shop selling bamboo sheets. Another store sold dead and skinned examples of every creature native to North America. Yet another carried smelly candles and lotions and soap, which I believe are all exactly the same stuff but in different packages.

None of those things interested me at all. I wanted to find a crass tourist mega-store that sold reasonably-priced souvenir sweatshirts with glittery wolves and bears glued to the chest. We needed a few of those to keep us warm in the northern ocean. I found the place I wanted right there on the waterfront—we couldn’t have wished for an establishment more crass and tawdry. We purchased the sweatshirts we’d been searching for, and we left with them. By coincidence, we also left with some t-shirts, a Christmas ornament, a novelty hat, a quilt, a pair of white fur gloves that could be worn by a hooker, and two pounds of fudge.

I believe that Ketchikan has saved our lives.

As our ship steamed north towards Juneau this evening, I stood on our balcony, toasty and even sweating a little under three Chinese-made Alaskan sweatshirts. I’d been wanting to photograph the sunset, and now I could endure the cold long enough to do it. One of my shots is below. You might notice that the sun has not set. It’s about 10:45 p.m., and I’m tired of waiting for the damned sun to set already. I’m going to bed.

Jeez, the farther north we go, the later the sun sets...

Jeez, the farther north we go, the later the sun sets…

We Migrate North, Like Mammoths Following a Free Buffet

When our meticulously planned European vacation-of-a-lifetime was canceled by God, my wife and I found a great last-minute deal on an Alaskan cruise. We grabbed it and undertook this new adventure with shockingly little planning. Really, I’ve seen better-organized demolition derbies. I almost forgot to pack underwear and lithium. But now we’re underway, and I will record a few observations here in case we’re trampled to death by a caribou herd, and we never return with our thousands of glacier photos taken from minutely different angles.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 1 – Vancouver

The cruise would depart from Vancouver, and to lower our stress level we planned to get there a day early. Vancouver’s a beautiful city. Well, all the parts that I haven’t seen are beautiful. Our taxi driver took us through the nastiest, busiest, and most disorienting parts of the city to reach our hotel. It was like being dragged through The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari by a surly Filipino in a pea-green Audi.

I now love the people of Vancouver. One lady saw us staring at a directory on the street corner like goldfish waiting to be fed, and she stopped to tell us about all the great restaurants three blocks away. Even though we didn’t eat at them because we didn’t want to spend $120 for lunch, she was sweet. And the wizened guy who ran the dim, claustrophobic crépe shop managed to communicate, through frowns, grunts and extra roasted peppers that he thought of us as his kids.

Officially one of the coolest statues ever. By the Vancouver Convention Center. (photo by Kathy)
Officially one of the coolest statues ever. Beside the Vancouver Convention Center. (photo by Kathy)

Alaskan Cruise, Day 2 – Embarkation

We don’t often drink coffee, but Vancouver has coffee shops on at least half the street corners, so we tried one for breakfast. The coffee was lousy, and I didn’t drink much, but the cinnamon roll as big as a baby’s head made sure I stayed peppy even without caffeine.

A couple of hours later we wound through the cruise line’s security/immigration/boarding pass gauntlet. We had arrived early and were rewarded with two hours in a waiting area until the ship was prepared to receive us. While waiting I noticed that we were younger than 95% of the other passengers. I’d been warned to expect that. I also noticed that about half the passengers were Chinese individuals visiting Alaska to examine the parts they intend to buy during the next decade. I spent most of the wait reading Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends and becoming increasingly depressed because I’ll never write that well.

We boarded and found our stateroom, which was as far forward as one can get without being cantilevered off the anchor. I didn’t care, since it had not just windows but also a balcony. On a prior Caribbean cruise our cabin had made me feel like I was Cool Hand Luke spending the night in The Box. We unpacked and met Panya, the gentleman who would be taking care of us.

Our packing had been a miracle. My t-shirts, cargo pants and sweaters came out pristine. My suit and dress shirts looked like something pulled out of a wino’s armpit. Panya promised to help, as long as we could pay the laundry bill. I felt compelled to agree, else I’d be attending formal dinners in my Jack Skellington t-shirt. As I looked around at our closet and drawers, a doubt skittered up my back on spider feet and whispered that we may have packed incorrectly.

Tomorrow… Day 3

Our room. Yes, those are real, live balcony doors, through which is pouring real cold ocean air.

Our room. Yes, those are real, live balcony doors, through which is pouring real cold ocean air.

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.

Let’s Just Let Everyone Assume We’re Dead

Tired eyes? Looked at too many ugly things today? Listen to this post instead of reading it!

 

This morning I walked out of my bedroom and into a linguistic booby trap every bit as dodgy as pungi sticks smeared with excrement. My wife sprang the trap, which isn’t all that surprising. I don’t find many other people besides her outside my bedroom before breakfast.

My wife stood at the vanity, holding lipstick in her right hand and a plain red business card in her left. The card was blank except for a few words in her handwriting, which is as legible as hieroglyphics scratched out by a turkey smoking hashish. She waved the card and gave me a significant look before gazing back at the mirror. She said, “I wrote it down just in case you wanted to know about the other ones. There are two other ways to set it up, but I don’t know which one will make you happy.”

I wondered about her definitions of the words “it,” “one,” and “ways.” I went ahead and wondered about her definition of “happy” while I was at it. Since I didn’t have enough information to say something stupid, never mind something useful, I waited.

She went on, “I know we have some time, but my part is figured out, so you just need to decide on your part. We don’t have that much time, so I figured I’d better tell you about it now.”

I didn’t even try to understand that. I just catalogued words so that when any one pronoun got defined then the whole message would crystallize like a catalyst creating a snowflake. I nodded a little and waited for the narrative to continue.

My wife looked at the card and said, “It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, especially the one I picked. You may decide you want more, but I don’t think we’ll need it since there’s probably a bar on every street corner.”

I narrowed my eyes at my wife, the woman who turns the consistency of motor oil when she drinks one fuzzy navel. I decided that I might have to ask what the heck she was talking about, but then she saved me by laying the business card on the vanity red-side down. The card’s other side read “Verizon,” our cell phone provider.

That semantic payload illuminated her entire message:

  1. We plan to leave the country soon. 
  2. My wife has determined how to make her phone and iPad work overseas. 
  3. There are other options though, so she wants me to call about my own telephone and iPad, since she knows I’m a contrary son of a bitch. 
  4. But really, who needs cellular data when every bar and café has free wifi?
  5. (Subtext: I can smoke weed in Amsterdam if I want, but she’d just get a headache and be unable to talk for a week, so she’ll be shopping for scarves and teacups.)

I smiled at my wife, as proud of my comprehension as any well-trained labradoodle. She did not say, “Good boy,” or anything that sounded like that. She gazed down from the innate moral high ground possessed by those who have jobs and said, “They have to send me a phone so it had better be done today, but I’m leaving in a few minutes and don’t know if I’ll be late, so you’ll take care of it, won’t you?” Of course I said okay.

I planned to execute my cell phone task with the brutal precision of Sherman marching through Georgia. Yet the next 90 minutes of my life resembled a fourth-grade kickball game rather than a precise military campaign that would leave the South psychically scarred for 150 years.

The people I spoke to at Verizon were friendly, knowledgeable, cooperative, and yearning to help me to the extent that my own lack of preparedness allowed. Which was almost not at all. Juanita told me everything I needed to know, including that I wasn’t an authorized user on our account. (My wife went with Verizon first and then sucked me in.)

Since I was logged in to our account right there on the dang website, Juanita asked if I knew our special, secret billing code, which would let her make me an authorized user. I had no idea. She encouraged me to give it a go and said she had confidence that I could guess it if I tried hard. I tried hard and failed every time.

I couldn’t call my wife. She’s a court reporter and can’t just take calls. “Just hold that thought, Your Honor, my husband is calling to tell me what a dope he is.” I sent her a text and an email pleading for help, but she didn’t respond. She was clearly busy documenting how some lawyer was calling another lawyer an asshole. At that point Juanita could do nothing else for me, and she tried to cheer me up as we ended the call.

I scrutinized the website for non-obvious avenues that Verizon may have left available for loyal but simple-minded customers. There were none. I went to the “Make Your Foolish Husband An Authorized User” screen, and I spent 30 minutes trying to crack it using guile, guesswork, and rage.

I really, really didn’t want my wife to come home and find that I’d failed to get this done. I might as well be sitting up in bed eating bon-bons when she arrived.

At last, some shadowed recess of my subconscious vomited forth the secret password. I was in! I set myself up as an Authorized User, and Verizon sent me a text with a new password. I logged on, and the website presented me with an enormous page of empty boxes I was required to fill. It included picking another new password, a security question, a personal security phrase, and a security image from a gallery of several hundred lovely photos. I am not kidding. Despite the time it took to fill all this out, I felt a bit giddy from all the security goodness that we were setting up around my account.

Then I clicked submit, after which the site asked me to log on. And it rejected me for a bad password. I tried again. No luck. And again, only to fail. The site locked me out. That’s when I got really mad.

After requesting a new password, I went through the whole process again, filling in all the required boxes and the fortress of security questions. It rejected me again.

Like a fool I went through the whole thing one more time. Yet more rejection. It felt like high school.

Then I realized that although the website hated me, Juanita had been nice to me. And now I had our special, secret billing password. I called Verizon, forgot my wife’s login password (necessary now for some reason), and stalled the whole process when I transposed digits in her social security number. Patricia pitied me and let me try again as if she were running some remedial spelling bee.

At last I had provided all the required passwords, codes, identifications, and challenges. If we’d been on video chat I’m sure there would have been hand signals. Patricia took care of everything I needed in a happy, efficient way. We declared victory and told each other how great we were.

Ten minutes later my wife texted me our special, secret billing password, which of course she’d told me about weeks before. I was able to reply, “No problem! It’s all done now!”

A little self-respect is nice. Besides, it’s not as if I’m just sitting around the house doing nothing. If I hurry I can scoop the cat litter before she gets home.

If I don’t have my iPhone when I’m in Köln, how will I ever find McDonalds?
If I don’t have my iPhone when I’m in Köln, how will I ever find McDonalds?

Photo by Ahgee via Wikimedia Commons

This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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
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The Carrot and the Stick and the Lithium

My wife gave me that look again yesterday. It’s not really a bad look, but it is specific to certain situations. I like to imagine that at some point General Custer was talking about whether to ride down to Little Big Horn or to just go home and drink beer. And I like to imagine that during that discussion Custer’s aide looked at him the way my wife looked at me last night. It’s the look that says, “I don’t know why you’re saying these things, but I hope we end up having a party instead of pulling arrows out of each other.”

I started off by telling her I had an unimportant question, and then I asked what the idiom “the carrot and the stick” means to her.

“It means you reward someone to get them to do something, and you punish them if they don’t do it,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s the common definition,” I said, “but that’s not the way I learned it. The carrot is a reward, and the stick holds the carrot in front of the donkey where he can’t get to it. He just keeps pulling towards it.”

I paused to let my wife say something in response. Instead, she gave me that look.

“Nobody gets punished,” I said.

She kept that look trained on me, even though the cat chose that moment to dig his claws into her leg and launch himself across the den like a cruise missile.

“You don’t hit the donkey with the stick,” I went on. “The stick just hangs there.”

My wife rubbed her perforated trousers leg and said, “Is this for something you’re writing?”

“No, I’m just thinking about it.”

She leaned away from me a fraction, the way you’d stand back to get perspective on a magnificent tree, or to get perspective on a manic person who’s talking about pudding enriched with brain-strengthening vitamins.

“Really! Think about it!” I said. “If you hit a donkey with a stick, you may get bit. Even the stupidest donkey in the world isn’t going to think the stick hit him by itself.”

I paused again for my wife to speak, but she just gave me a glacial nod to continue.

“But if you just use the stick to dangle the carrot, the donkey won’t get pissed off and bite you. Even if he gets aggravated, he’ll probably just bite the stick. It’s better all the way around.”

My wife crossed her legs and said, “Okay. And why did this come up?” Followed by the unspoken, And were you stockpiling food and Geiger counters at the time?

“No particular reason. It’s just, you know, the donkey never sees the stick that’s holding the carrot. So, when I look around here I can see the carrots. Where are all the sticks?”

“Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks?”

“No! But if I’m working for carrots that I can never get because some hidden something is keeping them out of reach, I want to know what that something is and do something about it!”

My wife leaned back another fraction. “Are you complaining because you can’t see invisible sticks and then bite them?”

“Well… yeah. Kind of. Not literal sticks. The sticks are metaphors.”

She waited for a bit. When I didn’t continue, she said, “Metaphors for what?”

“I don’t know! That’s what I want to find out!”

“Should I clean out another closet so you can fill it with bottled water?”

“No, you’re missing the point!”

“Which is?”

“It’s hard to explain,” I said.

“Does it have something to do with the donkey? You have to give the donkey a carrot before all this, or he won’t know he likes carrots.”

“Yeah, it goes without saying that the donkey likes carrots!”

“And if you don’t feed the donkey sometime he’ll die.”

“Just forget about the damned donkey!”

“You’re the one who wanted to talk about the donkey. I was watching TV,” she said.

The truth of that statement kicked me in the larynx, and I stopped talking for a moment. Then I said, “You were right, this is for something I’m writing.”

I saw her shoulders relax. That look disappeared from her face like a pricked soap bubble. “Oh, okay. Anything else?”

I shook my head, kissed her, and went back to my office, where I further contemplated the question of donkeys and invisible sticks. That question had become secondary, though. My primary interest had become appreciating the complexity of my wife’s job.

My wife contributes to our partnership in a lot of ways, and one of them is observing my behavior. She doesn’t so much observe it as she scans it with the diligence of a forest ranger. But she’s not scanning trees for signs of fire, she’s scanning what I do and say for signs of an irrational brain that needs tweaking. You could say that she’s a Brain Ranger.

It’s a hard job. People pay me to say things that no one would expect a normal person to say. Even when my brain is working fine, I sometimes say things that make everyone stop for a moment and then look away. How can a Brain Ranger tell when I’m malfunctioning and when I’m just being my normal, strange self?

I can’t explain how she does it. But I will say that for a person like me with an unruly brain, a vigilant, no-bullshit Brain Ranger is invaluable. There’s nothing like having someone who can listen to you talk about your metaphorical donkeys and invisible sticks in the context of your metaphorical forest and figurative fire, and assess whether your behavior is abnormally weird or just regular weird.

Someone's Brain Ranger has some exciting times ahead.
Someone’s Brain Ranger has some exciting times ahead.

Public domain photo by Karen Murphy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

via Wikimedia Commons

We Have a Profound Spiritual Connection Through Peg-board

It’s well-known that my wife and I could not be more different, unless one of us carried chimp DNA. That would probably be me, by the way. Therefore, this morning my understanding of the world shifted when I noticed that on some obscure, metaphysical level she and I are the same person.

I will present my evidence. Here’s a photo of my tools:

Tools

And here’s is a photo of my wife’s makeup:

makeup

I believe nothing more need be said.

I Will Take My Beating in Cowed Embarrassment

Writing brings out the mental illness in me. My wife can testify to this.

I’m in control of my behavior almost all the time. As Mark Twain said, “For business reasons, I must preserve the outward signs of sanity.” If I wake up to find my brain mired like a mammoth in tar, I can trick my brain into sucking itself free and stomping onwards across the plains. I rarely buy extravagant, useless things, because I have a rule. If I want to buy something that costs more than a couple of hundred dollars, I can’t buy it until I think about it for at least six months. I almost always follow that rule. Almost.

Judiciously applied chemicals are my friends. Free range chemicals and alcohol are not welcome in the home of my brain, apart from the occasional tequila shot or pomegranate martini. Come on, I’m not a nun or anything. But my best friend is me acting the way I want to feel, no matter how my brain tells me I feel, or at least doing my best to create the outward signs of sanity.

It works pretty well at this point in my life.

My wife refrains from trying to convince, trick, or bribe me into not behaving like a crazy person. It’s my job to take care of all this. She’s happy to help if I ask, and she demonstrates philosophical acceptance when I suddenly fill up the office closet with 30 gallons of bottled water, or when without warning I decide we need some more cats. Not only is she tolerant, she’s smart. If she tried to manage all this for me, I’d probably explode like a hand grenade.

Writing screws all this up. Well, not all writing causes problems. I can write a thousand words, declare success, and smile as I move on to something else. It’s the big projects that make me crazy. I’ve written three novels in the past three years, and the insanity they create goes like this.

I get an idea for something I want to write. It’s the best idea for a book that anyone’s had in the past 100 years, or maybe ever. I’m so excited that I talk to my wife about it almost every minute we’re together. I lay awake thinking about it and even consider waking my wife up in the middle of the night to talk about the greatness that is my idea. This goes on for about three days.

I begin the planning and research required to bridge the chasm between having an idea and writing words. I realize that my idea is rubbish. It’s less creative than a bucket of vanilla pudding. If brought to reality, it would be less popular than asphalt-flavored baby food. I feel shame. The only reason I keep working is that I talked it up so much to my wife I’d be embarrassed to never write a word of the thing. This goes on for about a month.

I start writing the first draft, expecting that after one chapter I can honorably surrender to the fact that my idea was horrible. After the first thousand words I find that I’m amusing myself, and I start to feel better about the project. I read the first chapter to my wife. She doesn’t say anything bad about it, which confirms my growing suspicion that it’s a work of magnificence. I begin laughing and hooting like a fool as I write, and I find I’d rather write than eat or sleep. This goes on until I finish the first draft, or about two to three months.

I put the manuscript aside to cool, planning to begin editing in about six weeks. Within 24 hours I realize that I was engulfed by irrational euphoria this whole time, and in fact my manuscript isn’t fit to wipe the ass of a sweaty heroin addict living in a ditch in Bangkok. I try to put this debacle behind me and concentrate on ideas for my next project, but I can only generate enough motivation to watch Saving Private Ryan and eat pie. This goes on for about two months.

Some grisly sense of obligation forces me to open the manuscript and pretend I’ll edit it before I trash it and funnel my creative urge into learning the ukulele. After reading three pages I can’t believe I’ve forgotten how brilliant it is. I perform several rounds of edits like one of those yipping dogs that never stop to sleep. I’m afraid that if I take a day off then the magical spell will be broken and I’ll once again see that the manuscript is just a snap-toothed yokel with mismatched shoes. This goes on for about six weeks.

The manuscript is finally as good as it’s going to get without an editor. I begin writing query letters, synopses, overviews, biographies, and the other artifacts that agents and publishers want to see. I become profoundly convinced that any agent would be more impressed if I just sent her an envelope full of fish guts. I grit my teeth and push on. I’ve come too far now. I’ll just send out the queries and then take my beating in cowed embarrassment.

Then it’s time to start a new project. And even though it means starting the cycle of crazy all over again, I don’t mind all that much. Not everybody get to experience three days of knowing that their book idea is absolutely the most perfect and radiant idea of the last century. It feels great. It’s entirely worth the subsequent months of the despair when you understand just how appalling your idea in fact was.

Really. I’m not joking.

Outward signs of sanity, dude.

Little yipping dogs - my spirit animal when editing.
Little yipping dogs – my spirit animal when editing.

Photo courtesy of cutedogs.com via wakpaper.com.