Bad At Small Talk

The Manute Bol Problem

Chances are, you’ll never do as much good as Manute Bol did in his lifetime. But cheer up. Chances are, your death won’t be nearly as excruciating.

When the NBA center died over the weekend, the initial reports referenced his cause of death as being a combination of kidney failure and “a painful skin condition.” That condition, more specifically, is known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

Here is what happens, in a nutshell, with Stevens-Johnson syndrome: Skin cells begin to die off, at first giving the appearance of a rash. But as the condition worsens, and as cells continue to die, the epidermis detaches from the dermis.

In a much smaller nutshell: Your skin peels off. And you feel it.

Here, again in a nutshell, is what most people mentioned about Manute Bol after his death: He was 7-7, Sudanese, not much of a basketball player save for his ability to block shots, seemed to be more affable than the typical professional athlete and more or less bled himself fiscally dry in his charity efforts toward the Sudanese people.

So the implied question so far: Manute Bol’s philanthropy ate most of his NBA fortune, and he died in extreme pain. Where’s the justice?

A personal aside: I wasn’t familiar with Bol as a player, or with his work in Africa. I would not have known about his death if it hadn’t happened on a day when boredom kept me online reading news. I kept reading articles until I found one that specified his “painful skin condition.” Then I went to Google.

A suggestion: You do not want to see photos of people with Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

Something my hippy-dippy stepmother used to say when I was young: “Karma is very real.”

So upon reading of Stevens-Johnson syndrome, Bol’s charity and Bol’s agony, I naturally dug further. Because, naturally, there had to be more. Illegitimate kids? A drug addiction? Dead hookers? Something?

Okay, I finally found this: He had a gambling problem. It doesn’t really balance the scales.

Here’s a quote from Jeff Ruland, one of Bol’s former teammates: “If that guy didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.”

Perhaps you’re chewing on all this, which, granted, isn’t what people come to social networking sites to chew on. But in the name of personal vanity, let’s assume you are. But you’re not a former pro athlete. You’re not going to blow your fortune on helping people (and, okay, a little blackjack.) Statistically speaking, you won’t need morphine before you die.

So let’s get into the real world. And, patience permitting, a longer personal aside.

Years ago, I had this coworker. Let’s call him [NAME REDACTED]. [NAME REDACTED] was, for lack of anything better, a doofus. He dressed poorly, looked goofy, made simple mistakes and, the downfall of doofuses everywhere, had no aw-shucks manner of admitting that he was, in fact,a doofus.

So we tore him apart.

Not to his face, of course. Adult bullying doesn’t work that way. Adult bullying takes place around the water cooler or in the parking lot, where words are said far away from the victim. [NAME REDACTED] became our pinata, our hobby, the one thing that brought us together and made us feel better.

We had a ringleader in this bullying. It was me. See, I had been the office doofus before [NAME REDACTED] came about and out-doofused me. So when it came to undercutting poor old [NAME REDACTED], I led the charge. When [NAME REDACTED] made some inevitable goof, I laughed the hardest.

Here are some other things about [NAME REDACTED]: He volunteered his time with kids. He went to church, but in the good way. He never said anything unkind about anyone who wasn’t there. He adopted a dog.

[NAME REDACTED] also joined a local community organization. He had to…we made sure he was never invited to any office get-togethers. One night, after a party at the home of one of those organization members, [NAME REDACTED] got pulled over. His blood-alcohol was barely above the legal limit. We laughed about that one, me the hardest of all. He had to take a second job to cover the suddenly-high insurance rates on his vehicle. It was a humiliating job. I laughed the hardest if all.

Not one of us, lest of all the ringleader, ever “paid” for our “crimes.” Oh sure, in the years since then, I’m sure we all have had flat tires, fender-benders, credit card debt and kidney stones. Maybe all that was our “karma.” Pretty lame.

It never got better for [NAME REDACTED]. He got laid off from one job, then another, then another. I got some laughs out of that, too. And my career took off.

Assume this for me: We don’t know what happens when we die.

Assume this for me: There’s no such thing as karma.

Think about this, then. Think hard. Which may not be what you’re in the mood for. But just do it. Sit there and consider that you, really, are off the hook. Not for things like first-degree murder or farting in an elevator, but for the day-to-day things. You’re off the hook for the little ways you sit on your friends and family because you know they’ll let you sit on them. You’re off the hook for that split-second pump you get when you’ve said something so perfect and so cruel that you know you just “won.” You’re off the hook for the little betrayals, the moments of self-indulgence, for the excusable irratability.

You’re also off the hook for all the good you can give before your body gives out. You’re off the hook for the small kindness that changes someone’s mood, the way you make your pet’s sleeping area just so, the time and money you give to others, the time you spare for those who need it.

Consider that your career might take off regardless. Consider that your kidneys will fail and your skin will peel off and it will hurt. Consider that your house won’t flood, that your child will excel, that your boss can’t afford to keep you and that you will get pulled over.

What would you do, if you weren’t tethered to anything? If your ultimate reward turned out to be a punishment, and your ultimate punishment turned out to be a reward? Could you still give everything? Would you take everything? Would you fall somewhere along the spectrum?

Decide.

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June 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stop Poking Me There

I understand now. Completely. Those suspects left in interrogation rooms, left marinating in their own thoughts while the detectives take their sweet time, I know why they crack. Like most who like police procedural dramas, I’d always thought in the back of my mind that I’d be an unflappable suspect. I’d get my story straight. I’d look the bad cop straight in the eye.

Baloney. Complete.

I spent 20 minutes alone in a small plain room today, with nothing but contemporary Christian music softly coming from a speaker I never could find. I was ready to confess to atrocities if it would get me out of that room.

You would think, in the midst of a still-teetering economy, that an independent business would do everything within the realm of sanity to keep its customers happy and non-freaked out. A business like, say, an eye clinic, wouldn’t have bible verses painted on the walls, or nothing but Gideon bibles or Billy Graham pamphlets to read in the waiting room, or, yes, that spookily just-a-hair-away-from-being-homoerotic contemporary Christian music wafting to all rooms.

You would think. You would be wrong.

But this is not about religion, or even the right to expression. Or about customer service. It’s about those prisoners.

The wait in the waiting room was long enough. It was a busy day. No one, myself included, was touching the reading material. No one, not even the little old ladies seated together in a corner, helped themselves to a bible or a pamphlet outlining God’s plan for all of us.

So for 30 minutes I sat and stared with other people who sat and stared. Which was an unnerving effect. Because they were sitting and staring, I couldn’t stare at them without being stared at. So I’m even denied the time-passer of people watching.

I should have brought a book.

But then a tech (that’s what the nurse-types in eye clinics are called, my mother was a tech for years) called my name and led me to an exam room, where The Doctor Would Be With Me Shortly.

He was not there shortly. And there was nothing to read. A roomful of quasi-alien eye exam instruments to fiddle with, yes, but I am not a daredevil. Just me. And the music (I will stay on my kees/to keep you by my side…that sort of thing).

So here’s what I did.

I sat in the exam chair and looked at the small mirror on the wall. And even though the mirror seemed to be level with the top of the exam chair, it evidently wasn’t, because only the very top of the exam chair was reflected. I looked straight into the mirror, and I couldn’t see the top of my head. I extended my arms, and had to extend them quite a ways before they showed up in the mirror.

So I sat and pretended I had suddenly turned invisible. I made up my mind that somehow crossing the threshold into that exam room had left me with the power of invisibility. Except I didn’t feel like I had a “power” at all. Rather, it felt like an affliction. I was gone, now the ultimate sit-and-stare guy. Most people fear never being able to see their loved ones again, not the other way around.

At that point, making objects seemingly levitate or spending quality time in the women’s locker room were the furthest things from my mind. I would never actively participate in anything again, but I would get to hang around to see the world just putter along without me.

This was despair. And because the eye doctor was busy explaining cataract procedures to old people or refilling the waiting room baskets with Jesus pamphlets, I spent a good half hour in this despair. I was alone, I was convinced I was invisible and nobody seemed in a particular hurry to open the door to the room and rescue me from a life of invisibility.

When the doctor did come in, he tested my eyes’ response to pressure. He administered eye drops that stung, then numbed my eyes. Then he poked my numb eyes with a small probe.

He needn’t have done that. I was perfectly ready to confess my crimes.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pleasure To Serve You

 While living and working in the Arkansas delta shortly after college, I had a friend whose top choice for Saturday night fun was strip clubs. Now, I often had to work on Saturday nights, which also gave me something of an excuse to beg off these trips. Not that I had a problem with strip clubs per se – for a heterosexual 23-year old with a perfectly functioning endocrine system, I was pretty non-committal on the subject.

 What made me uncomfortable was that my friend operated under the assumption that there was always at least one stripper that liked him. As in, there was a real connection made beyond the usual strip club offerings. He had claimed, without verification of course, that he had slept with more than one stripper after hanging around after the strip club had closed (we’re talking around the 4:30, 5 a.m. range.)

 I realized the kind of spell he was under when I hit a rare Saturday with no work to do. It was the kind of Saturday that’s familiar to any single person in their 20s who is working in an unfamiliar environment – you’re not sure about where you’re at and where you’re heading, and you would do just about anything to leave your endearingly discombobulated one-bedroom apartment because you know that if you stay there throughout the night, all you’ll be doing is thinking about where you’re at and where you’re heading.

 So I rode with my friend to the strip club.

 By “the” strip club, I mean a place called The Wild Rose. It doesn’t exist anymore. And it’s when I realized just where my friend was coming from. Because a well-known and profitable strip club resided in a metro area that was about a 30-minute straight shot up the interstate. But that’s not where we were going.

 Sitting in the passenger seat of his silver pickup truck, I watched as the lights of our town faded and we boomed down empty delta highways. We passed soybean fields, tractor dealerships and Wal-Mart-less towns like Grady, Gould, Dumas and McGehee. After about an hour, we entered the bayou town of Lake Village and pulled over to the side of the highway. That was where The Wild Rose stood.

 I remember one of the strippers having thick glasses and fat rolls. Another had to be in her late 40s. One was pregnant. The strippers would go from table to table and visit with the men, visits that would end in offers for lap dances. This made me uncomfortable. The place didn’t serve beer, but allowed people to bring their own, so kids from a nearby agricultural college would come in with giant coolers, pound beers and heckle the strippers. This I found excruciating.

 We had come here because my friend “knew” the people there. He knew the DJ that introduced the strippers by their fake names. He knew some of the patrons. And, of course, he knew the strippers. They came by, said hi, asked him about his job and his dog. Then they offered lap dances for the standard issue price.

 I don’t remember how many lap dances my friend had…I do remember him once scurrying to the dusty ATM located in a corner, and wondering what the surcharge would be. I didn’t get any lap dances myself, not because I was above such behavior or any such thing,  just because the strippers really weren’t that attractive. We left after a few hours (I had subtly talked my friend down from his proclamation earlier in the evening to stay until closing time) and took another hourlong ride back home. My friend was glowing. I was exhausted.

 I think I’ve been to strip clubs twice since then. Even when the strippers are attractive, strip clubs just don’t do it for me. There’s a weird self-consciousness thing that sets in, coupled with the fact that I’m really not paying for anything.

 But I do go other places. I go to the Starbucks near the interstate on mornings that I’m in a rush to get somewhere. Or sometimes I go there to write, study or do a bit of off-site work. There is a bar right down the street from where I work, modeled after an Irish pub. I like it because it has a good beer selection, bartenders that know their craft and a distinct non-meat market atmosphere. I go sometimes with friends and sometimes with myself and sometimes with a book. It can be a fun place and an adult place and a quiet place. I like it.

 The barista at “my” Starbucks knows my name and I know hers. We chat as she gets my coffee or tea. If there isn’t a line, we chat longer. We know each other’s names and have a cursory idea of what the other is doing these days. I joke with my friends about having a Starbucks crush, but then am quick to also joke that I would know about as much to do with a young recent college grad as I would with a live rooster.

 Yes, but that’s not really the point, is it?

 I know the people at the bar a bit better. That happens when alcohol is involved and when you get a reputation for tipping fairly. I know the bartender who just graduated from college and hopes to move to Florida with his girlfriend while pursuing a masters degree for teaching English as a second language. I know the tattooed waitress who grew up outside of Mountain Home, who likes Mel Brooks movies and natural foods. She’s trying to get her shit together and she’d like to go to school someday because, really, she does like to learn on her own terms. She also doesn’t own a car, sometimes stays at the bar because she can’t get home, and she sleeps with many strange men. Looking back about a month ago, I realize I probably could have been in line to be one of those men had I stayed at the bar and kept drinking with her.

 At the time, and still even now, I also kept in mind that these were parts that were being played. I was paying for something, not just service but recognition. That sweet status as a “regular” that can feel so good, especially to those people who don’t fall into the groups that are presented to us as options in our normal day-to-day lives.

 Yes, but that’s not really the point, is it?

June 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

10 Rules For Success In The Vocation Of Print Sports Journalism As Seen By Someone Who Has More Or Less Succeeded, And More Or Less In Spite Of Himself.

 1. Read everything. Especially everything that doesn’t involve sports.

 2. That said, having actually have played competitive sports will help you to no end.

 3. The sooner you learn the difference between awards and achievement, the better.

 4. Journalism is fearsomely cliquey, and sports journalism takes the idea of pack mentality to new heights. Relish being the lone weirdo. Aspire to it.

 5. So of course, find a support system completely outside of the work and stick to it like glue.

 6. Even if your bosses truly are stupid, tell yourself they’re not. Self-brainwash if necessary. Only in the movies is raging against authority romantic. In reality, it will leave you perpetually pissed off at best, fired at worst.

 7. Print journalists love to bemoan the state of the industry. Instead of bemoaning, work harder. Getting laid off may be unavoidable, but one can be cut loose with no regrets.

 8. Avoid practiced cynicism. Sports writers love to appear jaded for coolness points. Find a different peer group for blowing off steam. Smile when everyone’s pissy, and be pissy when everyone smiles. Chances are, you’re right on both occasions.

 9. Good interviewing makes for good writing. And good interviewing is really surprisingly easy. All it takes is being totally immersed and interested in the subject. Have a conversation. Ask questions because you’re interested, not because you think they’re the questions that need to be asked.

 10. Go easy on the fucking food.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Credentialed

 For the next four days, this will be my home. It’s an arena in the standard form, and I will arrive every day at about 10 a.m. and leave typically between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. I am here because there is an event here.

 Three rooms will matter to me, the media room, the interview room and, of course, the arena floor. All right now are empty, because I am here early. I will arrive early all four days, because that’s what I’ve done since childhood. It’s a reflex.

 I don’t want to be here, and in fact, I hate it here. But I am also happy to be here. Twice this year, with no warning, they have started cutting  jobs. The first time, they didn’t announce it. They just did it, and I found out via people’s comments on social networking sites. The second time, because it was bloody, they announced it. I was scared and I stayed home. Next time they give an announcement, I will also stay home.

 Other men begin to file into the media room. I don’t know them, but they’re all familiar. Sports journalists are almost always either ex-jocks or nerds. They are almost always big, one way or the other. I am too short to be an ex-jock and too slight of build to be a nerd. There are other differences: Goatees are favored, and I am clean-shaven. Sideburns, inexplicably, are favored. There are more glasses than contacts.

 I don’t know these men, and by the end of these four days, I won’t know them any better. But invariably, they will do things. They will gossip, discuss the troubled state of the industry and mask their fears with gallows humor. When not filing stories, they will browse message boards devoted to sports journalism. Next to discussing the possible loss of jobs and livelihood, debating exactly who on these boards go by what online moniker is the top choice of conversation.

 They will also, following the post-game press conferences (self-consciously called “pressers”) exchange knowing chuckles and eye-rolls regarding those who have breached press conference etiquette. Possible violations of press conference etiquette include: Starting the press conference with a really hard question, starting the press conference with a softball question, asking questions that are of no use to the rest of the media, not asking a question at all and instead beginning a sentence with “tell me about…,” stammering through your question, forgetting your question or delivering your question so smoothly that it sounds like the questioner is on the radio.

 I have a partner in this, assigned to me from the office to lend me a hand. I do not know him, have never met him, but he also looks different. He is tall and sinewy, a recreational runner. Over the course of these days, he will talk with me about nothing other than the games. I will try to get more from him, and I will fail. He speaks in a flat, low, abrupt tone. I think people would call him “dry” or “mellow.” Even though he is incapable of discussing anything but basketball, because I am short and tightly wound and he is lanky and mellow, he will make me feel unsophisticated. I am glad when he leaves a day early.

 The games are the worst part of my day. I am not awed by the household name players. I sit on the front of press row, courtside. I am close enough to see acne, smell sour sweat, see white caked deodorant on underarms.

 I don’t know what to feel about the coaches. They are placed under lights during the press conference, and the light reveals pale skin, sunken eyes, utter exhaustion. They are well paid, and on the sidelines they wear designer suits and exude urgency and control. After the games, they are spent, cars that must be wound up again. It is hard to imagine these men are happy.

 I won’t go back to the press room to write. There is a feeling of overall rush and adrenaline in the press room, as men peck away in the rush to meet deadline. There is an electricity, but I work better away from the electricity. I return to the arena floor, which is being broken down by the arena’s employees. It is not quiet, but it is relaxed. I am writing rapidly, but I do not think about deadline. I write quickly for the same reason I unload my dishwasher quickly: It is a task, and the sooner it is completed the better off I will feel.

 I am parked far away from the arena, and this is on purpose. This is the best part of my day. Not because it is over (there will always be more events,) but because when I walk to my car in the middle of the night, all alone, I feel like I’m shedding skin. Nothing else makes me feel this way.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Rabbit Goes Around The Tree…

My entire 20s are summed up thusly:

I was never going to get the tie tied.

I was standing in my roommate’s bedroom. Not my bedroom. I needed a serious mirror for what I was doing, and I didn’t really have one. My roommate, though, was the kind of person who of course would have a serious mirror in his bedroom. And boy I needed it.

I felt weird about being inside his bedroom, seeing as how he was at work and all and that bedrooms are intensely personal spaces. They’re where you sleep, and I think sleep is about the most intensely personal thing someone can do. I spend a lot of time thinking about sleep. Chances are, if you know me, I’ve visualized you sleeping at one point or another.

So I was an intruder in my roommate’s sleeping quarters. But screw it. I needed the mirror. No, check that. I needed a miracle.

I should have been in the car. On the road already. Leave for things early. Obscenely early. Always, always, always. Drilled into me from my dad. Yes, you’ll get there impractically early (bring a book if you must) nine times out of ten, but that one other time…when there’s a major traffic accident, you have to turn around because you left something at home, you suddenly get explosive diarrhea…you’ll be glad you left at 4 p.m. for a 6 p.m. awards banquet that’s 30 miles up the interstate.

This whole thing had given me an excuse to run out and buy a new suit. Here’s something you don’t know: I look great in a suit. Yes, I’m putting that on the green felt table. I. Look. Fantastic. Yeah, okay, so maybe remnants of a fat childhood make me still refuse to ever be seen shirtless, and my witty asides mask the fact that I really am sort of embarrassed about being the size of the average eighth-grader, and my inability to tan surely does me no favors…screw it. Put me in a suit, and I will go up against any man in any manly challenge of man confidence. I will bench more weight than you. I will uproot that tree stump before you. I will go home with your girl. I will fix the plumbing.

So here’s something else: I can’t tie a necktie.

Through college, where I had to wear a jacket and tie often (long story, not important,) I usually had a trusted friend tie my tie and then, ever so carefully, I would loosen it, loop it over my head and place it in my closet. Then, when it was tie time again, I would put it back on and carefully tighten it up.

No fuss, no muss. And after college, where my tie needs involved three seperate job interviews (all which led to jobs, thanks,) I would find someone to help me muddle through.

But alone, in my roommate’s bedroom, no one is helping me muddle through. My thinking seemed so clear earlier. I would go to the gym, work out to the point of feeling confident and in shape, return home, shave my face and head, shower, throw on my citrusy-smelling adidas aftershave (because when you think personal fragrance, you think adidas,) put on my suit and then simply type “tying a necktie” into Google, become instantly proficient, and then, then, arrive super-early to the university where (after sitting by myself in the parking lot and reading) I would walk into a banquet room full of journalists. I would have worked out, then put on the suit, so I would be radiating confidence, complete confidence, confidence enough to not even worry about the fact that none of these people know me, that even though I have been in their line of work and have worked in buildings with some of them, I’ve never gotten invited to their dinner parties and pub crawls and (at least when it comes to the journalists in their 20s or 30s) their ironic halloween costume parties.

It’s fine, because I am one of the winners, one of the honorees, someone who has single-handedly brought journalistic excellence to our fair state in the past year. And I want to look good and I want to radiate confidence and capability when I am introduced and receive my award, my award for simply being there when something newsworthy happened, and never mind the fact that what happened was terrible enough to make me not sleep, then drink in order to get to sleep, and then just drink whether I could sleep or not…I was going to radiate, dammit, show that I don’t need their dinner parties or their costumes or their grindingly boring conversations on free-vs.-paid content and the future of print and the rise of blogging and blah blah blah blah…

Those “How To Tie A Necktie” diagrams are just as impossible to follow online as they are in real life.

I break down. I fail. Because I know what I must do, and by doing it, I will lose my all-important glow of confidence.

I call my roommate. I ask for Help.

He is not at his office, as I thought he would be. No, no chance slipping in the back door, walking upstairs to his solitary, private office and closing the door while a man two years my junior has to, really, dress me.

No. He is breathing heavily on his cell phone. There are rhythmic whirring sounds in the background. He is at the gym. On the eliptical trainer.

Have you ever walked into a gym wearing a suit?

Bless his heart, he didn’t decide to tie me in the middle of the gym. No, he understands me, understands that I now feel very much like I’ve not accomplished anything, not truly, and that deep down I very much want to be invited to those dinner parties even though I find my job and just about everything surrounding it very mundane and boring and not worthy of off-hours re-hashing.

We go to the lobby.

And there, in the lobby, he places the tie around my neck and goes to work. And I’m sure it looks hilarious, especially because he is tall and I am not, and he is lanky and I am not, and he is in workout clothes and I am in a suit getting a necktie tied by another man in the lobby of a gym and I’m staring alternately at his Adam’s apple and my shoes.

(Okay, and also maybe it occurrs to me that my dad never thought to teach me this sort of thing. Not once. Nor how to make a bed, balance a checkbook, how credit works or how to cook rice. So at the end of the day, it’s not my fault that I am losing the confident glow that I was hoping would floor my colleagues. I can blame my parents.)

Why is he taking so long? Why is he taking so long? Good God, tie the thing already, I need to get on the road, people are staring, I’m sure, the whole night has been shot to hell anyway, it doesn’t need to be perfect anyway and…

“Doug Crise? Is that YOU?”

Of course. It figures. The only thing missing from this was a chance meeting with the mother of the girl I more or less pined for throughout college (and a year after), the girl who I could never get out of The Friend Zone with despite watching her go through dating failure after dating failure with men much more awkward than even myself…

“Oh, wow, it IS you, how are you doing?”

I have a man standing basically crotch-to-crotch with me. That’s about all that’s new on my front. How are you?

“Well, I’m sure you know that [DAD’S NAME REDACTED…ACTUALLY I FORGOT IT] died…”

I did know. He was fit, sinewy in the way that extremely fit older people are, ate perfectly, was a monster raquetball player and didn’t smoke or drink. Heart attack.

“But, better news, [DAUGHTER’S NAME REDACTED FOR OBVIOUS REASONS CONCERNING EMBARRASSMENT, MINE AND HERS, AND SHEER TERROR, MOST DEFINITELY HERS] is getting married!”

We’ve arrived at the Can’t Get Worse part of the tour.

“To a police officer!”

Whoops.

He finishes my tie after something like five hours.

“So what are YOU doing here all nice and dressed up?”

January 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lois

 I think my first memories of Lois were from when I was around four or five. The thing I loved about her was how grown up she seemed, far more grown up than even my parents. And I was one of those kids for whom adulthood was royalty.

 At the time, she lived on an upper floor apartment in The Plaza, an upscale eating-and-shopping section of Kansas City. She would often pay for things with money from her change purse, and that thing fascinated me to no end. I was too young to understand the concept of dollar bills (how could they be worth anything if they weren’t shiny?) but I was fascinated by coins. And when Lois snapped her change purse open, it would always have more coins than I had ever seen in one place. I thought she was extraordinarily rich.

 There were other things I loved about her, all of them having something or other to do with an aura of hyper adulthood around her. She worked part-time at Sacks Fifth Avenue, and while I didn’t understand why the store wasn’t located on Fifth Avenue and why it sold clothes instead of sacks, I knew she and the people she worked with had to dress nicely. One reason I admired grown-ups was that they dressed nicely. And I knew that grown-ups were supposed to smoke, and naturally, Lois smoked even more than my parents.

 But she was a kid where it counted with me: food. I, like most four-year olds, hated food. Lois did too. She dressed elegantly like an adult, but she ate like I would if my parents let me. Her favorite meal was always a slice of sharp cheddar cheese and half a can of cold Coke poured into a glass with no ice.

 When my parents moved from the city to the suburbs, Lois followed and lived in yet another apartment nearby. After a few years, a tradition was born. Friday nights with Lois. She would pick me up from Walnut Grove Elementary School (having a ride waiting for me at the end of the day, rather than getting on the school bus, always seemed awesome to me) and together we’d go to dinner. Not just any dinner, but Wendy’s. Lois would sometimes eat something, and sometimes she wouldn’t. I was well removed from my pre-school finicky eating at this point, and I enjoyed my cheeseburger, fries and Frosty. But the real treat was the salad bar (which Wendy’s had back then), because the salad bar had something called ranch dressing. And the salad bar had all my favorite things that tasted even better with ranch dressing: shredded cheese, ham, hard-boiled eggs, pepperoni. I eventually eschewed lettuce altogether, creating a kind of ranch-and-fixins soup. I would start dreaming about it usually by Wednesday.

 After dinner, I would spend the night at Lois’ apartment, usually watching ABC’s TGIF lineup. The anticipation of these Fridays was amped up considerably if that night’s programming involved the conclusion of a two-parter, as I was always keen to see if Uncle Jesse got his guitar fixed in time to jam with the Beach Boys or something.

 I would spend the night in the guest bedroom and sleep better and deeper than I would all week. The bed was bigger and firmer than what I had at home, but my favorite part was the smell of Lois’ apartment. It was a clean smell, a perfect smell. The perfect smell to fall asleep to.

 Saturday morning was breakfast and cartoons. Sometimes breakfast was peanut butter toast, but sometimes she’d spring some serious morning food on me…eggs, bacon, pancakes or the best homemade French toast to ever grace the midwest.

 Things happened after that. My parents divorced, which did not rattle me. My mother began demanding more from me in the way of hugs and hand-holding, which did rattle me somewhat. But more to the point, Lois moved in. And she brought her cooking with her.

 The first few years were good. Lois still made French toast from time to time (and spaghetti one would propose to), and she introduced me to things like grocery store paperbacks and afternoon talk shows. Because my mom was either working and constantly tired or unemployed and demanding hugs, Lois became my go-to person for the daily panic of pre-adolescence.

 Here’s when it started: I came home from school one day and, for the first time, found the front door to be locked. The door wasn’t supposed to be locked. It was supposed to be unlocked, I was supposed to open it, walk into the living room where Lois would be sitting, smoking and watching Donohue and I would yell “I’M HOME!” as if she were upstairs or in another room. It was a joke between us.

 Lois would unlock the door shortly before I got home. But not this time. Maybe she forgot. I rang the bell. No answer. And my 12-year old brain opened its limited file cabinets of possible scenarios, and found the one most logical. She’s hurt.

 Suddenly nauseous and sweating, thinking up worse scenarios by the second (cut herself in the kitchen…fell in the shower…choking on a piece of sharp cheddar cheese…a good old-fashioned heart attack) I ran to the backyard, grabbed a rock from the garden and smashed my way through the sliding glass door to our basement. I ran up the basement stairs, yelling for her, looking room to room, finally seeing her as she walked through the garage door with a bag of groceries.

 She’d been held up at the grocery store. She wasn’t dying. She wasn’t dead. But those three minutes that started when I found the front door locked opened an internal gate and let something out. Lois was a person. An old person. And she was going to die. She was going to die before my mom. She was going to die before my dad. Both of whom I also didn’t want to die, but not half as much as I didn’t want Lois to die.

 So of course the only thing left was for Lois to start dying. Which she did, year-by-year. The doctors took part of her lung, told her she needed to quit, took yet another part of her lung and told her that no, really, she needed to quit. The winters brought attacks of bronchitis so severe that she would wake up in the middle of the night, her room next to mine, and gasp “Oh…God…oh…God…oh…God...” Since my mother couldn’t hear the gasps down the hall, it was my job to walk to Lois’ room, calm her down, walk down the hall, wake my mom up (the phone was in her room), dial 911, go back to Lois’ room, empathize in the nicest way possible yet at the same time suggest that a cigarette would not help at present time, re-wake my mom up and wait for the ambulance.

 You would think I hate hospitals. Everyone hates hospitals. Yet the only good I could take from these post-midnight happenings was the subsequent trip to the hospital. Yes, she could be dying. I tried not to think about that. But here was the hospital, this brightly lit and moving thing existed and hummed while the rest of us slept. I had a bit of a childhood obsession with buildings at night, so circumstances aside, I loved being at the hospital.

 Eventually, I was afraid that if I didn’t hear Lois gasping when she had an attack, she would die. So I learned how to keep myself up in the winter.

 Lois was dying. She was also becoming old. There is a difference. Lois still cooked up a storm when feeling good, but she also began controlling my portions. I had become fat, she told me (nothing I wasn’t hearing at school,) and I needed to do something about it. Increasingly, she talked about Bruce, her youngest son, the Harvard grad, the eye doctor, the millionaire. Bruce was in good shape. I needed to be in good shape. Bruce played football starting in junior high. I needed to play football. Bruce made As. I needed to make As.

 Suddenly, my mom didn’t seem so bad anymore. She would cry, but she wouldn’t critique how I dressed. She, of course, demanded constant touching and physical contact, but she didn’t make me do sit-ups. She, middle child that she was, was also tired of hearing about Bruce. Lois was dying, Lois was angry and suddenly I loved my mother.

 We moved again. Now to Wichita. Now to start at a new high school. Mom working at Bruce’s medical clinic, the one with the family name on the sign. Lois in an apartment, rent paid by Bruce. Medical expenses paid by Bruce. Everything handled by Bruce. So my mom would resent Bruce more.

 Two years of bliss. Not much Lois. I wasn’t fat anymore, though I sometimes thought I was. For the first time in my life, I had friends, a social life. Awkward in junior high, I was finally given the pass key to the teenage world in this new setting. Gossip, girlfriends, drama, bad music…I was in with both feet. Lois still smoked. My mom had stopped demanding hugs, as well as a whole lot of other things. I was independent, popular, the kid who didn’t have a curfew and who wasn’t being pushed to do well in school. I was the kid who was allowed to do whatever the hell he wanted to do, and after over a decade with Lois, I was glad to find some new company. Some of my friends had houses that smelled even better than Lois’ apartment when I was in the fourth grade. Sometimes I slept at their houses, too.

 Lois had two days, give or take a few hours. On the floor with her own shit and wetness. I was in Kansas City visiting my dad. My mom usually swung by Lois’ on the weekends, but she’d just begun a new job, one at a high-end clothing store, and they were having a big weekend sale. Bruce was vacationing. So it took a while for us to realize we hadn’t heard from Lois. It was a stroke, and as for what triggered it, the doctors said it was one of those take-your-pick situations. The cigarettes? Sure. But don’t discount the diet, or lack of one. Cheese. Cokes. Chocolates. Point being, it hit and she was partially paralyzed. Couldn’t call for help.

 I still avoid doing much serious thinking about what those two days must have been like. Especially once the sun went down.

 I did not visit her in the hospital. [Here is where the author would place the moving, unflinching admission that he wasn’t scared, he just didn’t care. This is where he would be frank but charming in admitting that, yeah, in the summer of 1998, finding a girlfriend was a bigger priority at the time. Getting in shape for his senior baseball season was just a little more important. He’d find a way to say that the fun training-traumas of teenagerhood were just a bit more inviting than holding somebody’s palsied hand. He’d also concoct a way to point out that, remember, Lois had changed some, and those changes had done a real number on his self concept. And at 16, in no way was he able to grasp something so sophisticated as knowing that, well, sometimes old people just sort of GET that way, but that doesn’t change the years before they get that way. The ability to convey just that sort of thing in just that sort of way is part of why he started this very random blog which so far he has not shown anyone (though he certainly planned to, at least before this entry, so now he’s a little bit in vapor lock here, since he won’t better his writing without peer review, but would any of his peers really want to know that his whole response to his grandmother spending two wet-and-alone days on her hallway floor was to call his friends and tell them he was finally getting a car?), but he still has a pretty limited cache as you can no doubt tell.]

 Lois went from the hospital to a rehab facility to a nursing home (one of her biggest fears), and of course, all of this was handled by Bruce. For those interested in chronology, this all happened before the start of my senior year of high school. I did not visit her. I graduated and did not visit her, I moved in with my dad an stepmother in Kansas City and did not visit her, and I went off to college in Arkansas and did not visit her.

 I also never found an obituary notice. Not at first. Sometimes, when I wasn’t busy with Starting A New Life, I would do a Web search for Lois. Nothing. Nothing until 2003. All the cigarettes, all the rotten pieces of lung and for all of those two days, yet Lois lived a long time. Not just “longer than we ever could have expected,” but long, period. I had smashed a glass door to “save” her, and I had conducted sleepless vigils trying to listen for her telltale gasps, but it seemed my efforts were wasted. She didn’t need me. Or maybe she did. Maybe one of those nights when I did hear her gasping ensured she would live to see the 21st century. Whether or not she’d want to live that long given the circumstances is another question altogether.

 One thing about the obituary that I finally found, it listed the surviving family, including the grandchildren. My name was not included.

January 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Like, He Knows What To Tip Hotel Employees And That Sort Of Thing

I just recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment, a move necessitated by my now-former housemate’s decision to “take the next step” by moving in with his girlfriend of three years.

It’s funny when I mention this to people, because the reaction is invariably something along the line of “that sucks.” As in, “that sucks that you had to move,” which sort of translates to “that sucks that you basically got booted out of your living arrangement,” which kind of almost sounds like “Wow, so you’re like a whisker away from 30 yet still are living in a manner befitting of a recent college grad or desperate loner. That sucks.”

Yes, there are drawbacks. I do not like apartments. I also do not like living by myself. The fact that said housemate was, is, and probably always will be my best friend is also a factor. But the primary bummer is that for the last 4.5 years (which sort of is inappropriately longish to be living with another hetrosexual male) has provided me with an experience I believe is rare in life.

Namely, I lived with someone who is my complete superior in every way.

This is not false modesty. Our mutual friends would agree on this. He is a sturdy 6-3 with neatly trimmed blonde hair and is well dressed all the way up to his designer glasses. I have the body of a wastebasket, am about as tall as one, look somewhat like Kevin Spacey had he opted to shave his head, and I often forget to take my contacts out before bed.

This is just the beginning.

He presently is in the midst of a warm, loving, histeronics-free relationship with a smart and beautiful woman. Every one of my own relationships has ended with screamed threats of first-degree murder. His nuclear family is anchored by two doting parents, both educators. I don’t even know the present whereabouts of my own parents. He’s a whiz in the kitchen, never has to clean because he never makes a mess, and knows precisely where everything he needs is located.

I once started a small fire in my college apartment while trying to make pancakes.

Perhaps this is the sort of thing that could wear on one’s self-esteem. That’s not the case here. My self-perception has enjoyed an all-time high over the last few years. There’s something to be said about starting each day knowing exactly where you are on the universe’s slide rule. Perhaps initially it can be a drag, but after a while, the absence of wondering is comforting.

Of course, I could have spent the last four years instead living with a semi-employed doofus with limited people skills. But that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. I would have been a god in my own living room, but still a clod in the world at large. Worse yet, then I would have the erroneous impression that I somehow had mastered my life.

Besides, there are bonuses. Thanks to him, I’ve become willing to take risks such as cooking meals, tucking my shirt in, ironing my clothes and actually trying on pants before I buy them.

All of which comes in handy, since now the training wheels are off. I never felt the full weight of being by myself when I went off to college, nor when I graduated. In fact, at no point previously have I ever felt so much on an island as I do presently. I had lived by myself before moving in with him, of course, but back then I wasn’t as acutely aware of how badly I was flubbing things up.

Naturally, I’m glad he’s moving to a great situation. Yet if anyone could handle living alone, it’s him. And if there’s anyone who needs a 24-7 life coach, it’s me. Still.

December 30, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Always Low Prices

 I was at Wal-Mart today, and found myself thinking about those little evaluations they throw at you in the checkout line.

 Know what I’m talking about?

 If you opt to pay via debit or credit card, you are first given a quick quiz on the card-swiping monitor. You run your card through, and the first thing that pops up is “Did your cashier greet you today?”

 You must hit YES or NO to continue, and various issues of liberal guilt always lead me to hit YES, even if the cashier did not in fact greet me.

 But what if this were something employed by other services?

 I wonder…

 Was your waitress attractive enough and friendly enough to the point of making you think that there was some kind of genuine connection there, as opposed to her feelings about the rest of the customers, who clearly are not as cool as you?

 Did your therapist adequately relate each and every issue in your adult life to how you were treated as a child?

 Has your mechanic painstakingly explained the problems with your car in language you could not possibly understand, and have you, being a man, stood there and nodded as if you actually comprehended what he was saying?

 Has your barrista made the act of ordering a simple cup of black coffee only slightly more complex than understanding the NBA salary cap?

 Same as Question 1, w/r/t strippers

 Did your lifting partner bark out enough motivational phrases – including (but not limited to) “COME ON!”, “ONE MORE!” and “GO FOR IT!” – to adequately motivate you to bench press your desired weight?

 Has your dinner date provided just enough strained conversation as to give you the erroneous impression that there is actual chemistry between the two of you?

 

December 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getcha Some

 It’s been a little over a decade since I moved to the south, a move that I never thought would last a decade. And I’ve learned something.

 The biggest difference between northerners and southerners isn’t politics. Or taste in music. Or views on race. Or religion. It’s food. Primarily, it’s the offering of food.

 I was never really taught much in terms of manners or social custom until I reached college, but what little I did pick up I learned from my grandmother. And my grandmother was a northerner: Born and raised in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan and even went steady with a football player named Byron White who did some things after graduating.

 Yankee ideals drilled into me included: Not discussing politics or religion in mixed company, not gossiping and always, always politely refusing an offer of food when you’re a guest in someone’s house.

 There were things I was prepared for when I passed the Mason-Dixon line. People here like Jesus. They want you to like Jesus. Liking Jesus will keep them from gossiping about you, but only to a point, and they most certainly will gossip about you depending on who you vote for. Which they will ask you about.

 One thing I was not prepared for: People here would rather have the skin stripped from their very bones than not offer you food. And a polite “thanks, but no thanks” is akin to scuffling mud across a stranger’s fine carpet.

 This has been difficult for me on many, many fronts. There are times when I am a guest in someone’s home, and am in fact starving, yet my grandmother’s from-the-grave voice chastises me for accepting so much as a Little Debbie. Yet there are other times when I have already taken care of everything I needed to on the food and drink front, yet my hosts continue to insist that no, really, I should get me some food.

 A subset of this dilemma is that there are many staples of southern food that I am simply not cut out for. I tend to not like the smell of fried food. Too much grease often leads later to digestive issues too heinous to mention. Due to a fat childhood, I try to limit my indulgences and control my portions. So there are times when perhaps I am hungry, but I need to avoid the food being served.

 And for the most part, it’s not that southerners look down on someone cutting calories. It’s that they often truly do not get it. I was once in a situation where the following conversation took place:

“Ain’t you gonna get you some chicken strips?”

“Nah. I’m good. Thanks.”

“You sure? They’re awful good. Go on, getcha some.”

“I really shouldn’t. I need to cut down on fats.”

[In a genuinely confused voice] “But…they’re good.”

 This whole cultural difference has led to all sorts of problems. I have left houses feeling full to the point of illness. I have left houses hungry to the point of wanting to eat my arm. I have left houses feeling just fine, save for the sinking certainty that I offended someone by passing on the cobbler.

 Somewhere, I hope my grandmother approves. Not that she would vocalize it if she did. That’s another northern trait.

December 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment