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.