Friday, March 9, 2018

Mom the Saint

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I was a truly terrible child. Appalling. Abominable. A real nightmare. I was mouthy and whiney and pissy and needy: basically, I was insatiable, and I could not have cared less what my rotten behavior cost me in terms of either dignity or basic privileges.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I stole or lit things on fire or supported Nixon. I just wanted to get my way, immediately and for all time, which more often than not involved having the constant, undivided attention of my mother. My mother, who had a full-time job in addition to four considerably less rotten (but still a little rotten) kids, and me, the crown prince of rotten. This was not a woman with a lot of what you might call free time on her hands. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you she paid a great deal of attention to all of us, which is why we’re all brilliant and funny and, each in our way, a little bit charming.

But, again, I was insatiable, so I pushed the envelope with impunity. One afternoon when I was probably about four, she got out of work early, and I was so delighted to have her home I decided to join her in the living room for, you know, a little debrief on my day. At some point she noticed I wasn’t wearing socks (because, yeah, I was that kind of asshole – I’m sure the socks I’d been assigned that morning were somewhere that made no sense for a reason that made even less), and so she instructed me to climb the stairs to my room and put on a pair of socks. When I opened my sock drawer and saw the array of options, I immediately realized there was only one person who could help me choose: my mom. So I wrapped my stupid, puny arms around the entire pile and carried them to the top of the stairs to go seek her guidance. But, being an asshole, I immediately dropped a pair on the stairs and proceeded to slip, banana-peel style, and then tumble ass over tea kettle all the way to the bottom. Surprise twist: I broke my collar bone, which necessitated a trip to the emergency room. Gary: 1, Mom: 0.

Of course, that was actually a fairly benign event: inconvenient, definitely, and almost certainly costly, but that was just me as a doofus, not me as a dick. Me as a dick generally resulted in an entirely predictable and not unreasonable banishment to my room, where I would then proceed to yell, at the absolute top of my lungs, about how unfair this was (because I was smart, so I opened with full-throated negotiation), then I’d shift into desperate supplication, and when that failed, my finishing move involved a particularly virulent attempt to shame her: I would tell her she was the worst mother I’d ever had. In spite of the fact that this happened some forty-five years ago, I still distinctly remember the thought that followed the moment I first came up with that line: Oh, man, that’s gold. She let me be impressed with myself for a few punishment sessions over the course of, say, a week or two, before she finally pointed out the flaw in my judgment of her: “Gary,” she said, “exactly how many other mothers have you had?” Hoisted on my own petard. Mom: infinity, Gary: shut up.

I could literally tell you a hundred stories like that from my childhood: stories in which I was a jerk and my mom was, in retrospect, kind of a saint. I say she was a saint in retrospect because, in spite of all the grief I caused her, over and over again unabashedly, it turns out my mom liked me. She liked most everyone, and she certainly liked all her kids, and I’m not saying she liked me more than the others (because I know she liked us all equally), I’m just saying she liked me in spite of how much I didn’t deserve to be liked. And she didn’t just like me because I was her kid (although, let’s be honest, it didn’t hurt). No, she liked me because she thought I was pretty smart and pretty funny and pretty interesting. She thought I was pretty cool, despite all the ways in which I wasn’t nearly cool enough to her. I’m no expert on super powers, but I feel confident that was hers: an uncanny ability to see through the nonsense so forcefully presented and appreciate the underlying intangibles. If not for that, there’s no way this woman doesn’t drown me in the bathtub when I’m two. And I’m grateful for that, for many reasons, but right now mostly because her patience and benevolence gave me the opportunity to know her for a little more than forty-nine years.

My mom went into the hospital with pneumonia the day after Valentine’s Day. She’d been dealing with a handful of chronic health issues the last few years, one compounding the other on a rollercoaster ride that lasted three weeks. She took her last excruciating breath right around midnight Wednesday, her most rotten son stroking her hair and smiling down at her. There are words you hear and words you use, but I can tell you it wasn’t until the nurse walked into the room and said, “She’s gone. She passed,” that I truly understood the meaning of the word forlorn.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy or so you’ll send me hugs, I’m sharing this in part to honor my mom, Cheryl Socquet, who was not only not the worst mother I ever had – she was the best mother I could have hoped for. And I’m sharing this to offer you some very basic but useful advice, advice I wish I’d taken much, much more often. That advice is this:

Call your mom.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Home Before Dark

All the ordinary cliches are on display this morning: a couple awkwardly, enthusiastically swapping veiled miseries over coffee and scones; a handful of earnest progressives preaching to the small choir of themselves; the grizzled fallen man, reeking of wet wood smoke, sitting by the front window, head on a swivel in hopes of catching someone's, anyone's eye; the forty-seven year-old sham writer in noise-canceling headphones relentlessly playing solitaire on his laptop. It's been twenty minutes, and the woman sits up straight but deep in her chair, the smile now tight on her lips. The progressives are talking over one another, each of them desperate to be the one who voices the perfect argument. The homeless man does a brief inventory of his possessions. The writer unexpectedly types.

What does one call a date born on a website? Online dating, I suppose, but that phrase doesn't entirely satisfy. It's not, strictly speaking, a blind date, and yet their coming together was orchestrated by a benevolent third party that, based on parameters of geography and alleged interests and best-side profile pictures, decided they just might hit it off. This is what passes for a leap of faith these days: an eyes-open backflip off a third-floor ledge, into the warm embrace of a net made strong by algorithms and diminished expectations. But if I may rely on the evidence of appearance alone, I'll say the woman absolutely voted for Hillary and the guy without a shred of doubt not only voted for Trump but agrees with everything that polished turd purportedly stands for. He showed up for a date in a camouflage jacket, she's wearing a cashmere sweater and lipstick. I'm just not sure this one's a love match. I give them no more than twenty-eight months.

The progressives are rushing to slam shut the barn door now that all the horses have long since run away. None of what they're saying is fundamentally wrong, it's just that they're so determinedly myopic, it's like watching Mr. Magoo answer the iron when the phone rings and then grab the cat to smooth the wrinkled shirt on the ironing board. Like Magoo, their hearts are in the right place, and also like Magoo they'll always come through somehow unscathed, but there's no reason to believe they'll ever actually hit their mark.

Dana the homeless man is one of those people about whom everyone seems to think they know a little something. Once upon a time he was a lawyer, a prosecutor somewhere down on the coast. I've heard people speculate that he had a case go sideways on him, the sort of case that leaves a mark on everyone it touches, and in the aftermath he lost every last one of his bearings. I've also heard he was a functioning alcoholic up until the point when he was more one than the other, and it cost him everything he had. I've heard stories, that's all, and I don't vouch for any of them. I've never asked him his story, in part because I've heard him recount bits and pieces to passersby, and you can't trust anyone who insists he's the hero of his own extended suicide. Mostly, though, I've never asked because I'd only be doing so for the sake of cheap spectacle: to know something about someone without having to know him at all. I understand myself well enough to know that's where the road would end, and I get more than enough of that from Facebook.

I first encountered Dana on a regular basis the year I lived in the windowless office space from which this blog takes its name. Several times a day I'd stroll down Main Street to the park in the city square to smoke and stretch my legs and let my thoughts wander. I don't know if he didn't like smokers or if he didn't like me or if he didn't like anyone, but whenever I passed I could hear him muttering derisively in my wake. I knew he was cracked, and I understand almost nothing is personal when it's coming from someone whose mind has, in one way or another, gone mostly round the bend. In spite of the tone of his mutterings, I tended to think of him as no worse than a benign crank. I also felt the ignoble empathy of knowing that, while my circumstances were considerably better than his, they were nonetheless not at all great, and at the time I could lay claim to little more than being but a few steps back from the cliff's edge off which he'd long since fallen. He was, I reasoned, an effective cautionary tale. As the months wore on, though, he became as ubiquitous as my own shadow, drifting down the sidewalk in rough approximation of my own meanderings whenever I crept from the cave and into the light, and there were times I couldn't help but wonder if he was less a cautionary tale than an emblem of things to come. Sure enough, it's five years later, and here he is again, showing up in the bars I frequent, in the coffee shop where I sit now, and I realize it's circumstantial: it's winter, there's snow and ice everywhere, so a bench in the park won't suffice. I know it's not personal for him, there's no earthly reason it would be, and yet it haunts me just the same, which is how I know it's personal for me. It's certainly fair to say that there but for the grace of good friends and dumb luck go I, but that is a marginal truth at best.

Which brings us back to the writer. It's early afternoon now and the day has grown surprisingly warm beneath a mackerel sky. Almost five hours ago the writer cast his eyes around the coffee shop, wondering as he so often does where and how people manage to find the tiny shreds of hope that boldly compel them to meet internet strangers for coffee, or to gather over like-minded discourse and honestly believe they're going to change the world, or to carry their lives from place to place to place in a fistful of tattered shopping bags rather than simply lying down in the street and saying "Time to go." He typed, the writer did, and typed some more and some more and some more, until he realized he'd managed something a tick or two better than mere typing. A day and a half deep into a new year that promises bewildering and discouraging change, that's what the writer did, because that's all he has and all he knows, and sometimes complicated questions have the simplest of answers.

My shadow sits idly by the door, waiting for my next move. With a little luck, I'll be home before dark.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Night in America

Something I've noticed about myself as I've gotten older -- and it's something that should come with age, if you weren't fortunate enough to stumble across it earlier in life -- is that I have a better sense these days of the difference between the urge to say something and the need to do so. With the exception of a small handful of barbs tossed around social media, I've been mostly silent about the 2016 presidential contest, and when I did feel the faint tickle of an impulse to engage, I usually paused long enough to consider whether there was any real value to adding my voice to the din of shrill remonstrances and half-sincere hand-wringing. Any spectacle that manages to equally embolden both the stupid and the sanctimonious will invariably devolve into a pissing contest in which every last participant is guaranteed to find his shoes thoroughly drenched, and this presidential race could easily prove to be the all-time super-soaker of urination altercations. But now, with just days remaining until this race to the bottom mercifully ends and we anoint a dubious heir to the scorched earth that remains, I have a few thoughts to share, not because there's anything left that needs to be said, but simply because, to be perfectly honest with you, I sleep for shit these days.

I slept for shit my entire childhood. An anxious kid from as far back as I can recall, I allowed my imagination carte blanche to conjure worst-case-scenarios to explain every last bump in the night. A whiff of smoke from a backyard bonfire up the street meant our house must be on fire. A late autumn windstorm brushing branches against the eaves meant the old oak tree in the yard would come crashing through the roof. The night a carload of teenagers wrapped itself around that very tree, it made such an incomprehensible racket I fully expected to find the car sitting in the living room below, having crushed my mother where she sat quietly enjoying her latest issue of Reader's Digest. This was the 1970s, and each evening the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, peered into our living room though the grainy Zenith, reporting news from around the world: Vietnam, Watergate, the Munich Olympics, endless violence in the Middle East, and that incomparable bogeyman, the Soviet Union. At home there was widespread unemployment, an anemic stock market, rampant inflation, decaying, crime-riddled cities, and an international oil shortage that rendered much of the country disconcertingly inert. I was obviously too young to appreciate the significance of what I was seeing and hearing, but the pall it cast over everyone and everything was as unmistakable as it was unshakable. This was the decade of haunted slumber that would ultimately land a mediocre b-movie actor in the White House, and four years later when Ronald Reagan announced that it was morning again in America, I still hadn't slept a wink.

From an early age I idealized all things America. I absorbed the gentle histories doled out in school, admired and appreciated the inimitable fathers and protectors of the Republic in proportion to their respective legends, and took bold comfort from unchecked faith in virtuous men. It was a Frank Capra world view: a belief that there would always be a Mr. Smith going to Washington. But the times make the cynic, and I'd only just grown up enough to grasp the essence of Watergate when Iron Ron gave us Iran-Contra, a modern classic of shadowy old-boy network shenanigans that, inexplicably, is remembered today mostly as a series of sardonic punchlines about Bedtime for Bonzo and that good soldier Ollie North. Then came the 1990s and the tabloid Congress that was far less interested in doing the work of the American people than it was in putting on trial the question of whether or not Bill Clinton blew his load on the dress of a woman who was not his wife. And who can forget the cooked intelligence (twice-baked, thrice-baked, whatever-it-takes-baked) the Bush-Cheney machine used to justify and re-justify pursuing the 9/11 terrorists in the one place they knew full well they wouldn't find them, Iraq. I mention these snippets of America's greatest hits not to preach or to rail, but simply to tell you this: I used to think we had it pretty bad.

When I look at the current state of American politics, what comes instantly to mind is a cheap hot dog: it's all lips and assholes. It's exactly how you'd picture a presidential election between Marie Antoinette and Richard Nixon, except in this case it's an orange blowhard with an exquisitely bad toupee saying, "Hey, let them eat cake. It's terrific cake. We've got all the best cake. It's really terrific. They should eat cake. I really believe that." And Nixon's the one wearing pantsuits and, like so many in her generation, unable to figure out how to use email. There may be philosophies and ideals and solutions lurking somewhere in the candidates' briefcases, but for the last several months it seems all they've done is pick apart each other's dubious characters, as though this is a trailer park beauty pageant and not a presidential election. And I realize it's fashionable and in most cases lazy to criticize the media for their role in this fiasco, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that the yellow journalism of the late 1800s looks relatively innocuous in comparison to the puce journalism of the Little Shop of Horrors that is 24-hour cable news, where every innuendo is batted back and forth across the news desk like a greasy ping pong ball and headlines are framed as questions rather than declarative statements. This isn't reporting the news, it's titillating the lizard brain, all for the sake of market share. It's appalling and shameful and, from sea to rising sea, we hear the cries of "Enough!" and "Please make it stop!" But just as in the 90s when poll after poll reported that Americans were growing tired of hearing about Monica Lewinsky, the truth is we tune in to watch in ever increasing numbers, complicit as any getaway driver. The revolution may or may not be televised, but the devolution is being broadcast as we speak, and for that we're all culpable.

Whatever happens Tuesday, I don't see an end to this symphony of dissonance any time soon. If Hillary Clinton wins, she faces a Senate that seems determined to spurn its constitutional responsibility of at the very least considering for confirmation the President's Supreme Court nominees. She faces a collection of halfwits in the House whose guiding principle appears to be obstruction at all costs. If Donald Trump manages to win, well, I don't even want to try to qualify the madness that scenario would usher in, but I suspect it would pale by comparison to the shitstorm he's likely to incite among his lunatic fringe supporters if he loses and follows through with the veiled threats he's leveled when asked whether he'll accept the outcome of the election. They say it's darkest just before the dawn. I can't help but wonder what sunrise on Wednesday November 9 will bring. Given what we've witnessed these last many months, who could be blamed for expecting that day to bring a long, cold night in America?

Yeah, I sleep for absolute shit these days.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Quasimodo on His Bar Stool

When people ask me how I met Katie, I tell them she gave me water. I try to say it like Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in the 1939 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame "She gave me water" but it's a reference too obscure for most people under the age of 45, or anyone who grew up with more than rabbit ears on a grainy black and white TV. Of course, I wasn't having anything like the kind of day Quasimodo had, locked as he was in the pillory having endured a sound thrashing and the violent contempt of the fine citizens of Paris, all but one of whom ignored his desperate plea for a simple drink of water. No, I was just a cantankerous drunk sitting at a table alone, glowering at no one in particular over the top of my pint.

Katie was my Esmeralda that night, a brown-eyed, tattooed Maureen O'Hara cheerfully doing her job as hostess and offering to top off the glass of water I'd hardly touched except to idly sip it in the interminable minutes between the last empty beer and the next full one. The first time she asked, I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye and extended literally nothing more than a shrug in reply. I was drinking beer and watching a mediocre Red Sox game at the tail end of a pretty miserable season. I wasn't looking for company or conversation, and I took it for granted my terse response would convey that message unambiguously. Hence my surprise when, scarcely an inning later, I found her standing at my table again, offering me another inch of water. "Sure," I consented this time, more than a little puzzled by this woman who seemed impervious to my withering glare. She came by my table just once more that evening and, without a word, poured half an inch of water in my glass, smiled, then spun on her heel and scooted away before I could even attempt to say a word.

What I didn't realize that night, and wouldn't understand for some time, was that Katie had done her homework. For weeks she'd watched my mostly solitary vigils at the bar, watched me drift outside alone to smoke a cigarette, watched me pass through clusters of acquaintances and relative strangers alike as though they weren't even there. I can't begin to imagine what in that solidly misanthropic behavior she found appealing, but I know one thing: she recognized that this was no time for holding out a fistful of peanuts trying to get the sweet little squirrel to eat out of your hand; no, her best and only option was to offer her weaker arm in hopes the most ill-tempered squirrel in town wouldn't decide to rip it right off. Given that a year has passed (and at the risk of executing a cheap pun), I'd say she didn't overplay her hand.

At the time we met I was nobody's idea of a good time. Most of the friends I'd surrounded myself with the last five or six years had drifted off to other lives, and I was just drifting back into a semblance of a life of my own that consisted primarily of keeping my own counsel and avoiding the sorts of entanglements that might preclude me from disappearing into my hole whenever I chose to. I was alone and, if not happy about it, certainly comfortable. Still, after that first odd encounter when she gave me water, I found my feet leading me again and again in the direction of the bar where, almost without fail, there would be Katie, ready to settle in beside me for drinks and smokes the minute her shift ended.

I could tell you what we talked about those nights sitting at the bar swiftly becoming pals, but it wouldn't mean anything to you because it's the ordinary stuff of two people getting to know each other: music and movies and books, family histories and relationships past and that thing you did in college. For someone like me, it was never the particulars of what we talked about so much as the peculiar sensation of not just enjoying but ultimately seeking somebody's company. Ask anyone who knows her and they'll confirm: Katie is phenomenal company. Or simply consider the fact that this curmudgeon kept coming back for more.

For more than a month those nights always ended the same way: we'd amble down Main Street to the corner and, under the glow of the Care & Comfort sign, we'd say our gradual goodbyes and go our separate ways: for me, just around the corner to my cramped apartment in the old-people apartment building, for her the long walk through the city's underbelly to the end of Water Street. Then one night (finally) I took her home, into my bleak, sparse, dedicated bachelor pad, with its piles of books and clothes and half-fulfilled promises. Part of me expected her to take one look and bolt, but it turns out she was very nearly right at home. A little tidying here, some pictures on the walls there, actual food in the fridge, and it's become a place, a year later, where we're happy to sprawl together on the couch, taking turns cueing up music and expounding on our distinctive philosophies of everything, with the whole rest of the world safely locked away on the other side of the door. The best measure of a partner in crime is whether you want her around when there are no crimes to commit. It's been a year of no crime, and we're still here.

Lest you think this is some naively enthusiastic glorification of Katie, I'll peel back the veneer a little: for one thing, I've never known anyone for whom the physical world is more of an ongoing challenge. I don't believe she's ever held anything in her hands that she didn't drop at least once, usually into or behind the toilet. In the year or so we've known each other, I can say with considerable confidence that she has bumped, banged, scraped or smacked every single part of her body against something: chairs, tables, walls, doors, countertops, sidewalks, parked cars, lamps, display cases. I'm pretty sure she managed to jam a toe against a ceiling somewhere along the line. It's as though her body exercises a deliberate aversion to the fact that the world is oh so imperceptibly turning, which prompted me to suggest to her that she's not actually clumsy, it's just that the world keeps coming up short on her. But I suppose the important thing is that she wears her bruises and scars like a true scrapper: What, this? You should see the other guy.

She's flawed, as are we all, she's more than a little peculiar in her peccadilloes, and there are times when I fear for every breakable object in our apartment (as well as a few that presumably aren't but, well, you never know). But those are the things that make her the strange human she is, the characteristics that keep her grounded while in the midst of also being the kindest and most generous person I've ever met. And all that is good, but none of that is the reason I like her so much. No, my favorite thing about Katie is, oh man, do we laugh. I've had more big laughs with this girl in the last year than I can remember having the entire last five years combined. And that right there, kids, that's the good stuff. Because all the rest of it comes and goes, the stuff of life interferes and twists you up, but if you find yourself somebody who makes you laugh, somebody you can make laugh too, you're going to find yourself with a hell of a lot more good days than bad. And that right there is nothing to take lightly. When Esmeralda brings you water, fellas, you'd better damned well drink it. Only a fool would say no.

So if you happen to see Katie in your travels in the next few days, take note of the fact that she's managed to endure an entire year with this cranky old cynical bastard. Give her a smile and a pat on the back, and please don't forget to point out to her that she can obviously, absolutely, do better.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sic semper tyrannus

Not all cowards are bullies, but every last bully you'll ever meet, without exception and straight down to the bone, is most assuredly a coward.

We all know a bully when we see one: he (or she) is small-minded, self-important, generally crude and often sadistic. They hate themselves and are loved by few, and they lack the intellectual depth or strength of character to take on any but those they perceive as weak. They thrive in small ponds and wilt in the glare of rational thought or a more substantial opponent. It doesn't take much to steal a smaller kid's marbles. It doesn't take much to shame someone for being poor when you've lived your whole life over a safety net. It doesn't take much to get someone to kiss your ass when you control her means of supporting herself. And yet, in spite of the obvious ease with which they achieve their objectives, bullies always seem disproportionately pleased with themselves, as though they've just accomplished an impressive feat. Such is the feeble perspective of the bully.

The most famous bully in my area code, of course, is our newly re-elected cretin of a governor, Paul LePage. LePage is famous for many things: bluster, sanctimony, "plain-spokenness," and all around dick-wagging. He doesn't negotiate, doesn't compromise, and basically doesn't give a shit about what anybody thinks unless they embrace his top-heavy agenda. To my knowledge, Paul LePage has never lost an election, and god did I want him to lose this one, for the obvious reason that he's driving the state at breakneck pace back to the nineteenth century, but mostly because I was hoping that, for once in his miserable life, somebody -- in this case Maine voters -- would essentially whack him on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper and say "Bad dog." Because that's what a bully needs: he needs to get his nose bloodied. And perhaps that little bit of perspective might have prompted him to wake up the next day and, oh, I don't know, reevaluate a few things, and maybe stop being quite such a douchebag of a human being. But that didn't happen, so now we'll never know. We'll just never know.

My favorite local bar is managed by a junkyard dog. She's a classic bully: she intimidates the staff, she manipulates their schedules if they piss her off, and if she wants them to quit, she simply limits their hours to the extent that there's no way they could make enough money there to feed themselves and keep roofs over their heads. I've watched her run roughshod over the staff there for a few years now. Recently she and I had a minor run-in, a disagreement from which I was content to simply walk away rather than endure a full-blown argument (after all, it's simply unkind to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed person). Because she lacks the stones to address her frustration to me directly, she instead resorted to messing with my girlfriend, who works at the bar, punishing her by reducing her schedule, week by week, from full-time to, now, about half-time. She's taken her off nearly all the lucrative shifts. The junkyard dog is giving my girlfriend the shaft because she's mad at me and, because she's a coward, she can't confront me directly.

My girlfriend is one of the good ones. Patrons and co-workers alike are fond of her. She works hard, she's knowledgable and attentive, and she is possessed of a personality that is both appealing and genuine. Beyond all that, she simply does her job and doesn't complain about it. She was doing her job tending bar a couple weeks ago when I went in there with my laptop, ordered a sandwich and a few drinks, and sat quietly with my headphones on, typing away and listening to my music. In other words, I was a customer, one who spent about forty dollars on what was a slow Saturday afternoon. Two days later, through a proxy, the junkyard dog relayed a directive to my girlfriend that it wasn't appropriate for me to be in there "hanging out" with her while she worked. Never mind that I was a paying customer, never mind that we didn't interact any more than she did with any other customer, never mind that she was, without fail, doing her job. The junkyard dog saw what she thought was a loose thread and, because she's simple and mean, she just had to tug on it to see how much she could unravel.

Nobody deserves to be bullied, particularly at work, but for a manager to aggressively alienate a good employee seems pretty stupid to me. To also alienate a long-time customer who has spent a lot of money in your establishment, well that just seems like a pretty fucking stupid business practice. Not that my presence, or even my money, amounts to much in the grand scheme of things, but I can tell you I haven't been in there since, and I don't see myself going back anytime soon. Which is harsh buds for me because, in our crumbling little backwater, it's slim pickings when it comes to bars. But such is life.

I lost a job once as the result of a bully. He came into the company where I'd worked for five years and started stirring up shit, creating little rifts and cliques, effectively marginalizing anybody he felt he could easily intimidate. We were a small company that had grown exponentially in a few short years, and that success was the fruit of hard work by good people, people who had more than earned the right to feel secure in their jobs. But the boss was both paranoid and a coward, and so he brought in his own junkyard dog in the person of the guy he was fucking at the time. It's always a dangerous game when you give the junkyard dog the run of the place, but when your enforcer is also the person who lays his head on the adjacent pillow every night, well, that's a mess nobody's going to want to clean up. For months I watched the staff suffer mostly in silence -- mostly, except for the ones who came to me. And when I'd seen and heard enough, I rolled up a newspaper and I whacked him, hard, right on his little piggy snout. The consequences were foreseeable and, ultimately, pretty devastating for me personally. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all it takes for iniquity to thrive is for good men do nothing. And the shame of having done nothing is not a shame I relish bearing.

If there's a point to this rant, it's this: that in spite of the fact that the bully will often win out in the end, it's still worthwhile to step up and stand up to him or her. You may lose your job or get your teeth kicked in, or you may end up with four more years of a mean-spirited ignoramus running your state, but it still feels goddamned good to know you were the one who said, "Enough." In the end, the simple truth is that a bully is as fragile as a Faberge egg. Take your whacks, and sooner or later you'll knock the tyrant off the wall, and neither all the king's horses nor all the king's men could ever hope to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Little White Scar

There's a quarter-inch long scar on the knuckle at the base of my left thumb. It's been there since the summer of 1996, when I sliced it with a Stanley knife trying to trim a notch in a piece of clapboard I had to replace on an old farmhouse I was painting. The rotted piece I removed had stretched beneath a second-story window, and I'd already climbed down from the ladder three times to trim the notch in the new piece the right way: on a makeshift workbench on the ground, not against a rung of a wobbly ladder sixteen feet in the air. But still it didn't quite fit, and there are only so many times a stubborn man will climb down a ladder to do the same simple fucking thing before he decides he's not making that roundtrip again. And so, muttering and sputtering an entirely inappropriate accusation at the piece of clapboard, I pulled out the knife and yanked the blade neatly through the notch and right into my thumb.

You see the future in moments like these. Granted, it's only a split second into the future, but you do see it, in vivid technicolor, as the little voice in your head implores you not to do the thing you are most definitely about to do, and it's always this premonitory flash that plays on a recurring loop in your head as, suddenly almost unreasonably calm, you slowly descend the ladder and dig around in the toolbox for something resembling a bandaid. The best you can do is a roll of black electrical tape, which does the trick both because it stops the bleeding and because it looks ridiculous in proportion to the stupid thing you just did.

I bring this up because, for the last two days, that tiny white scar, for no good reason at all, has itched like a motherfucker. This is nothing new, of course: the half-dozen memorable scars I carry around have all, from time to time, made minor nuisances of themselves, demanding my attention for a few days, casting my mind back to the circumstances of their respective arrivals. A scar is like a pin in a wall map, showing a place you've been, and when someone points to it you invariably find yourself nodding and saying something like, "Ah, yes: Istanbul." Every scar tells a story, and when one itches, you're hard pressed not to scratch it.

The skin is the largest organ of the human body, and by virtue of its surface area and proximity to the booby-trapped, indifferent world, it is the most easily and apparently scarred. Your skin, however, is by no means the only vulnerable organ you possess, and the scars you carry in your heart and mind are no less insistent when they start to tingle. All those non-fatal wounds suffered over the duration of your life leave their marks in a place only you can see, and just like that thin white scar at the base of my thumb, sometimes the itch comes out of absolutely nowhere and lingers while I rehash and reflect. Ah, yes, fucking Istanbul.

Sometimes a cut is deep and broad enough that it scrapes against the scars that came before it, cross-hatching them with fresh abrasions that compel them all to sting at once. This is what we talk about when we talk about despair, and unless you're very strong or unusually lucky, it will almost invariably land you in a place from which you can see no escape, leaving you very much like a turtle on its back in the middle of a busy highway. Once you've been there and made it back, the truth is, nobody wants to hear about the stretches when some or all of it comes flooding back, haunting your sleep and your daydreams alike. Your friends were there, they saw the worst of it and, frankly, why would they want to watch the second act if it's just going to be a mashup of scenes from the notorious first?

Which is part of why I spend so much time alone, keeping my own counsel, or deftly muting it with a twelve-pack of cheap beer. As much as it's managed to fuck me pretty remarkably over the last forty-five years, I am nonetheless rather fond of my mind's finer attributes. Whether your mind is a vintage Montblanc or a blunt and broken Crayola, it is still, in the end, the single greatest resource that will ever be available to you. When you find yourself in times of trouble, don't just let it be: use your fucking head.

And so today, at the tail end of a week of relentless dreams about a girl who was never there, I sit beside the living room window, glaring at the grey, unpromising spring, scratching with freshly cut nails at an itch that won't go away, knowing full well you can pull the pin out of the map, but that doesn't change where you've been.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Forty-five With a Bullet

For no reason whatsoever I woke up at five o'clock this morning and found myself inexplicably throwing back the covers and rolling out of bed. Three minutes later I stood shivering in my kitchen, sipping a glass of orange juice and staring out the window at streetlights muted by the low-hanging exhaust of chimneys spewing incessantly in the arctic pre-dawn. It looked remarkably like Armageddon. "Happy birthday," I whispered.

This is probably the case for most people, particularly as we get older, but I don't remember much about most of the forty-four birthdays I've had before today. I mean, of course I remember the last few -- I'm not that fucking old -- but it gets harder and harder to pinpoint the details of any given birthday. I remember turning seventeen because that night my girlfriend surprised me with a warm bed rather than the rear compartment of her mom's hatchback -- her sister's family were out of town, so we had the run of the place for the night. It was an awful lot like being a grown-up couple rather than a pair of fumbling, horny teenagers (which we were, we just weren't humping within inches of the spare tire for once). That night she also gave me Stetson cologne: who could forget that?

A few years after that I turned twenty-one, as was the custom of the time, but that one doesn't stand out for the reason you might think. It was my junior year of college, and my buddies and I had returned to campus from Christmas break the night before my twenty-first, everyone with an assortment of beer and liquor in tow. I can't tell you what I drank that night other than to say I drank all of it, and the next day I didn't manage to peel myself off my mattress until four in the afternoon. I had a hangover my buddy Peaches would classify as an existential crisis, and the last thing in the world I wanted to put in my body was booze. Or food. Or oxygen. That evening as I clung to what was left of my life, my pal Josh showed up in my dorm room, listened patiently to my feeble pleas to be left alone so I could just die, then said, "Fuck that. You're twenty-one, we're getting drunk." So he drove me to the store, stuffed some money in my hand and sent me inside to purchase the devil's elixir, which we did indeed drink until we were drunk, thus confirming that legends aren't born, they're made, often by other legends.

The next thirteen birthdays were a blur. Then came 2004, when my daughter, who was eight at the time, announced that she wanted to make me lunch for my birthday. When she asked what my favorite food is, I replied (of course), "Sandwiches." I suspect most of my friends are familiar with my feelings about sandwiches, but for those not in the know, here goes: I believe making someone an excellent sandwich is one of the truly great gestures one person can offer another. Depending on my mood, I put it either just behind or just ahead of donating a kidney. The girl of my dreams, if she exists, will almost certainly appear out of nowhere holding a freshly made sandwich and say, "Here." If ever I needed proof that I got immeasurably lucky with the kid who ended up being my daughter, Braden showed up on my thirty-fifth birthday and made me the best sandwich I've ever had. Somewhere out there is an eighteen-year-old knucklehead who has no idea how fortunate he's going to be someday.

It's stunning to me that Braden made me that sandwich ten years ago. Ten years -- ten years, man! And that's the proof of middle age, isn't it? That a decade passes like that. No matter what age you are, time is always slipping through your fingers. When you're young, the illusion that you'll live forever arises in part from the fact that you can still feel the texture of the fabric as it slides between your thumb and forefinger. The older you get, the more that fabric feels like bittersweet, shiny polyester.

And yet we go on. There's a lot of Samuel Beckett rattling around in my head today, which is strange because I haven't read Beckett in -- dare I say -- a couple decades. I admit, the last couple weeks I've felt a tad glum about turning forty-five, and I suppose it's as simple as, all of a sudden, I'm starting to feel my age. Nine months ago, I was counting the cash drawer at work, and I found a wheat penny. I used to collect coins, and so it's just a long-standing habit to flip a wheat penny over and check the date, which I did -- except, this time, I couldn't make it out. I tried holding it at different angles to the light, tried holding it closer, then at arm's length, but no matter what I did, I couldn't see the numbers. Everyone in my family, including my daughter, has been wearing glasses for years. Mine were the last eyes standing. Until this past year: the year I got old.

I said as much to my buddy Hank a few months ago, and without skipping a beat, he scoffed. "Old?" Hank said. "Fuck that. This is the year you got good." Hank has standing to scoff at a sentiment like this: he was there for the worst of it, having watched from the front row as I stuffed myself down the rabbit hole in 2010, and never once leaving his seat while I burned up nearly every last chip of collective goodwill during the two years it took me to pull myself out of that particular abyss. After witnessing all that, seeing me entirely back on my feet must seem like a bit of a miracle to him. And the thing about the appearance of a miracle is that it makes every other miracle seem possible. Including living forever. Including living happily ever after. And quite possibly including bifocals. So it goes. Happy birthday.