Thursday, February 24, 2005

 

In Which I Take "Taboo" to a Whole New Level...

This will come as a shocker: I love word games. I've written here before about my unabashed ardor for haiku and anagrams. I'm also fond of puns and other such word play.

But word games. Man, I am on them like an umlaut on a German vowel. As a kid, spending summers in our little camp in New England, we didn't do TV. It wasn't that my family was ultra-progressive, it was just that there was no cable or satellite service then. Consequently, the only station we could pick up on the portable black and white TV was an ABC affiliate that seemed to show only weather reports and a locally produced children's show, both of which were hosted by the same person. Everything else was preset to The Static Channel.

So we played a lot of games. Even at a young age, I was way into the word games. Spill N Spell, Boggle, Upwords, Scrabble. And we were competitive! I remember going around grocery stores and bookshops, obsessively counting the numbers of letters in words (seven-letter words for Scrabble, 15-letter words for Spill N Spell) against the day when I could Use All My Letters in one turn and earn the maximum number of points.

Actually, I think I was the only one who did that. And it eventually came to bite me in the ass (or gluteus--SEVEN LETTERS!!), because I started winning these games--against my parents, even--and wouldn't stop. To make it fair, I agreed to a set of stringent handicaps, which included not being allowed to use all my letters in any one word on any turn in any word game. In Scrabble, I was also not allowed to use triple-word score squares. At one point, it was also a requirement that if I played a word or words, I had to use them in a sentence (this because my brother didn't think I should be allowed to play a word if I didn't know what it meant). During one memorable Spill N Spell, this forced me to utter a sentence using the words "defiled" and "virgins." My sentence was: "The Angel of the Lord defiled virgins for a living." I was 8 years old.

While I have no doubt those extra rules played some part in my life choices and ultimate career path, at the time it was a lot to juggle, and eventually we all stopped playing the word games. And then, sometime after college, I got way into them again. Only now it was different: As an adult, I went through a long period of really sucking at them. I had spent so much of my youth hampered by those handicaps that I couldn't shake them, and tended to ignore scoring opportunities that my opponents naturally exploited.

Consequently, when I first met Her Lovely Self's parents, my future mother-in-law, a competitive Scrabble player in her own right, was distinctly unimpressed with my level of play.

But then one night, during my first long weekend with her family, we played Taboo.

I had never heard of this game before, but it was a revelation. I'm sure you all know the rules, but just a quick recap, (in case my brother's reading or something): You play in teams, and take turns drawing a card which contains the "taboo" word, the word you cannot speak. So you have to give clues and phrases using other words so that your team can guess the word. On each card, there is also a list of secondary word you cannot utter because they're too close to the taboo word.

For example, if the taboo word is "orbit" some of the secondary taboo words are things like "rocket" "space" "John Glenn" etc. And you can't say any of them, so you're forced to say words like "elliptical...geosynchronous" or whole phrases like "aging senator I can't name was famous for doing this as part of the Mercury project."

Anyway, it's a great game because it forces to you to be at your articulate best, picking your words carefully and still trying to give good clues. Unfortunately, for me it became the game equivalent of crack.

Not only could I not get enough of this game, but it altered my behavior, which I'll get to in a minute. But my team won every time we played. Which was fine at first. My wife's family is pretty competitive about games. But they're also a very kind, polite, proper bunch. As my Dad once put it, "They wouldn't say 'shit' if they had a mouthful of it."

Consequently, this put a new handicap on my game play. On one of our earliest visits to meet the folks, Her Lovely Self had cautioned me to avoid any salacious words in playing Scrabble with her mother. No defiled virgins on that board, I can tell you. In that sense, my whole weekend was like one giant meta-game of Taboo, choosing my words carefully and making sure I didn't get penalized for saying the wrong thing.

I tried to apply the same restraint to my actual game play, I really did. But it's tough. To win at Taboo, my strategy was to unhook my mental editor and free-associate when a team member started giving clues. Thus, if I'm on your team in a game of Taboo, it's a bit like having someone who has just developed Tourette's Syndrome. Because I just rattle off a string of words and phrases. It's unsettling at first, but I get results, baby. I think the record for my team is about 12 words in one minute.

My wife's family has become used to this tendency, but on that particular weekend, I'm sure they didn't know what to make of me.

Especially in the last game of Taboo that we played that fateful weekend. On my team was my future father-in-law and D, the boyfriend of Her Lovely Self's middle sister. We were playing against the girls, which included Her Lovely Self, her two sisters, and her mother. Four women versus three men. We were the underdogs and the pressure was on me to make up the difference. And we were winning, too, right up until D took his turn giving clues.

He stares for a long time at this one card. Time is running out. I'm rocking in my seat, making impatient "c'mon c'mon" gestures with my hands. Finally, he gives his clue: "I wake up with this every morning."

And I blurt: "An ERECTION!!!"

Game play, all sound, every heartbeat, the very motion of air molecules, it all stopped. This was a polite, proper bunch, remember. Wouldn't say "shit" if I had deposited some right there on the table, although that was the verbal equivalent of what I had done. Her Lovely Self looked positively stricken. They all did: a room full of virgins that I had defiled with my erection.

Thank God for D, because after a few seconds, he couldn't contain himself and collapsed laughing. My future father-in-law followed suit. It took longer for the girls to get over it (in fact, I recall Her Lovely Self's sister fleeing the room, her face beet red). But hey, it broke the ice.

The word, by the way, was "coffee."

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

 

In Which I Live One Life, Furnished In Early Slapstick...

Crazy morning, running running. Personal soundtrack: some of that bouncy, silent-movie piano music. My life just feels like that right now.

Lots of page layouts to edit, weird stuff to fix. Meanwhile, I have a story pitch meeting just after lunch. Lunch! Hungry!

I grab a sandwich and a cup of chicken soup to eat at my desk. Sit, take a breath, prepare to eat...

Suddenly, the phone rings. I grab it and knock the soup everywhere. Chicken broth flowing, hot as lava, across the desk, over the lip of the desk, on a collision course for my lap.

I leap to my feet, knocking over my office chair and then tripping over the chair and falling backwards across it. On the way down I take a stack of story folders with me. Page layouts flutter like giant leaves. Some land in the soup, still dripping down off the desk, making a puddle on the floor. The phone receiver lies nearby and I can hear our copy editor squawking in it. I wonder briefly what it all sounded like on her end.

Like prairie dogs looking to see what's up, the heads of my staff pop up over the cubicle walls. I'm bent backwards over the wreckage of my chair, arms and legs flailing, a spatter of noodles and yellow broth spread across the desk in front of me. "It looked like you threw up so violently, the force of it shot you back and over the chair," one of my editors remarked later. When he stopped crying from laughing so hard.

I right my chair and mop up the mess, realizing as I do that all hard copy on my story pitches has been soaked through. I look at the clock: 10 minutes to my meeting! Hastily print out fresh copies, retrieve from printer.

I sit back down at my chair to make some notes. Pen is not working. I pull open the desk drawer to get a new pen--

--and a half-cup of soup sloshes out of the drawer, where it had secretly dripped after spilling over the lip of the desk. It lands squarely onto the front of my pants.

There is no graceful way to wipe your crotch, especially in a public place. As I'm blotting fruitlessly, I look up: meeting time!

Dash to conference room, where I meet my supervising editors. I'm holding a folder in front of me as I come in and I sit down quickly, so no one notices the great wet spot.

An hour later, the meeting's over, and I've become so engrossed in story ideas that I forget the soup incident. Until I stand up. The soup has dried, but it has left behind an enormous stain. An enormous yellow stain. An enormous YELLOW CRUSTY STAIN. On the front of my pants.

I try to explain about the spilled soup, but to my bosses it much surely look as though I have suffered--heck, wallowed in!--a moment of lavish incontinence.

So I'm going home to change. The way my slapstick day has been going, I'll probably get stuck in the elevator again. Or maybe while driving home I'll get pulled over. By the Keystone Kops.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Saturday, February 19, 2005

 

In Which I Am Trapped...

5:40 PM: Leaving work Friday night I decided to take the parking garage elevator up to the roof, where my car is. I usually take the stairs, but I've got a heavy box of stuff with me, so I get in, push the button for the fourth floor and...nothing happens. Push again. This time the elevator starts upward, then begins to shake violently. My intestines immediately do the same as I wait for the bottom to drop out. Instead, there's a sudden settling sensation and the elevator stops. Between the third and fourth floor of the garage. I am trapped.

5:43 PM: Still trapped. Have tried without success to open the doors and the roof hatch, both of which have evidently been secured against people like myself, lest we make too big a mess for the custodial staff when we are suddenly bisected or found dangling upside down in bloody ribbons among the shaft cables. Yes, I tried the phone. First thing I did. Opened the little compartment door and was met with four bare wires, each a different color. If I were MacGyver, I could probably tap out a simple Morse code message and get rescued, but in the event all I can do is stare sullenly at the wires. Why would they disconnect the phone? Maybe they just figured any one who was trapped would use their--

5:44 PM: Remember mobile phone, which I dig out of my bag. Battery is, of course, dead.

5:46 PM: Still trapped, but now have laptop turned on. Battery works great. I have a friend who is an electrical engineer who could probably figure out a way to charge my cell phone using my laptop battery. Hell, he could probably turn my laptop into a jet-pack. But he is not here. And it's just as well: The elevator is roughly the size of a small closet. Three people could stand side by side in it, but that's it. The elevators are situated on the outside of the garage and the back wall has a clear Plexiglass oval cut out of it, giving me a stunning view of my office building, a scant 30 feet away. The ground is about 100 feet below. I can see a little courtyard down there, where coworkers sometimes have their lunch. But it's winter. And getting dark. I can't see anyone.

5:53 PM: Still trapped. Have tried pounding on doors and yelling. No response. Interesting acoustics in here, though.

5:56 PM: Down below, walking to the garage, it's my assistant! I'm saved!! I begin hopping up and down and banging wildly on the Plexiglass. Hey! Hey up here! Look, it's me! Me! I'm waving wildly with both hands. She stops, looks up, waves, and...oh for Pete's sake! She's walking on, shaking her head and laughing. Oh, that wacky Magazine Man, doing his jumping jacks in the elevator! I scream her name, sounding like Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

6:03 PM: Still trapped. You know, it's not exactly warm in here.

6:05 PM: Still trapped.

6:08 PM: Still trapped. While rooting through my bag, foraging for anything edible (found three petrified Tic Tacs), I come across a short phone cable for the laptop modem. I look at the emergency phone box, door still open, bare wires hanging out, and a plan hatches. If I can strip the down the wires on one end of my phone cable, I could splice it to the wires in the phone box, plug in the modem, turn on the built-in mic and call the security desk! I rummage through the bag looking for a knife. Find nail clippers. That'll do. Kiss my ass MacGyver! The Magazine Man is dialing out!!

6:21 PM: Never mind. Line is dead, and now I need a new cable for my modem. And I was so impressed with myself too...

6:22 PM: Yes, I already tried my Wi-Fi card. The closest hot spot is the Starbucks five blocks away. My engineering friend could probably fabricate some kind of booster for my card, using my phone cable, the petrified Tic Tacs and the waistband of my underwear. But he's not here. Good thing too: I'd be forced to gut him and climb into his body cavity for warmth. It's cold.

6:30 PM: Still trapped. To pass the time, I begin perusing my hard drive and find all sorts of odds and ends, including a list of things I wish someone would invent. My favorite is the Personal Undo: a device based completely on that ever-useful pulldown menu feature. Only instead of Undo-ing a spelling mistake or a formatting error, the Personal Undo would save you from a life of embarrassment and poor choices. Asked an oval-shaped coworker "When's the baby due?" only to get that stare that tells you instantly that she is not pregnant and you have put your foot seriously in it? Just hit the Undo button and start again. Got on a dodgy elevator instead of taking the stairs? Undo!

Also open a brief document titled "Nose Knowledge" and find these three interesting facts, which I evidently felt were important or unusual enough to capture, but which I have no recollection of writing. I didn't even know I knew the word "surfactant." The document reads as follows:

1. Chapped lips but no lip balm? Run a finger along the side of your nose and apply to your lips. The facial oils that collect on the side of your nose have natural emollients that protect lips too.

2. Another nose oil fact: if you're pouring a fizzy drink--such as soda or beer--and the foam is about to spill over, you can stop it by running a finger alongside your nose and touching that finger to the foam. The natural oils act as a surfactant and reduce the foam (be careful no one is watching you do this. They will automatically assume you are depositing boogers into a drink.)

3. The nose contains erectile tissue identical to erectile tissue, um, elsewhere in the body. Both are controlled by the same part of the brain. This is why some people have reported explosive sneezing fits during foreplay and intercourse. Also a small number of women on certain medications (notably antidepressants and antiseizure drugs) have reported experiencing orgasm after sneezing (if I ran a pharmaceutical company, I'd be throwing my entire R&D budget after that!) Any practical application? Well, if you've ever felt a sneeze coming on, only to go away (I hate when that happens), thinking of something arousing--for men, a Playboy centerfold (for my wife, an image of me cleaning the bathroom without being asked)--can trigger the sneeze.


6:40 PM: Still trapped. For an hour now. I've been trapped three other times in my life. When I was a kid, my brother dumped me into a giant wicker laundry basket, then put something heavy on top of the lid. I was probably 4 at the time, and couldn't get out, but I wasn't freaked out either. Instead, I made a little nest out of the linens in there and fell asleep. Eventually my mom got to wondering where I was, and when she couldn't find me, my brother was too scared to tell her what he had done, so a house-to-house search of the neighborhood ensued. When he thought the coast was clear, my brother returned to let me out, but mom caught him. It was a sweet moment.

Many years later, in graduate school, I lived in the servant quarters at the top of a dilapidated old mansion near Dempster St. Had my own bathroom and everything. One day, I ran to the bathroom, slammed the door shut behind me, and as it closed I heard a "sproing" and a clattering sound that suggested something essential had just come loose in the door. Sure enough, when I went to leave, the doorknob turned freely in my hand, but would no longer engage the bolt inside. I was alone--my housemates were gone for Spring Break. After a few futile minutes of trying to slide my credit card into the catch, I ultimately escaped by knocking out the hinge pins, using my toothbrush and the heel of my shoe as a hammer. Could not have been more impressed with myself if I had successfully spliced a couple of phone wires and called for help from a stalled elevator.

The worst time, though, was when I was about 8 and messing around on the roof of a house we were fixing up. I wasn't supposed to be up there, but my dad had gone down the hill to the truck about 100 yards away, so I took advantage of the fact by climbing up and having a look. My mistake was in deciding to investigate the chimney. Of course, I lost my grip and fell in feet first, slipping out of sight, getting wedged tight about three feet from the top. I tried to move, but one of the belt lugs on my pants was hooked on something. I'm not claustrophobic really, but man, it was like being entombed alive and I panicked. I shrieked as though I'd been dealt a mortal wound. My dad is generally a laid-back, phlegmatic type, but I learned that day just how quickly he could move. In about 5 seconds, he appeared--slightly winded--at the top of the chimney, leaned down, hooked a hammy fist under my arm and yanked. I was so grateful to be out of there, I didn't even mind that he had pulled me right out of my pants.

6:55 PM: Still trapped. It's dark. It's cold. Think my computer battery is dying. Feel sleepy, actually. If someone finds this on the hard drive of my laptop (after prying it from my stiff lifeless fingers), please post this final message to my blog, Somewhere on the Masthead, and let everyone know my real name is--

Hang on a sec...

6:56 PM: I can hear someone below me! Fiddling with the elevator buttons! I suck in a lungful of air and yell with such force that I pull a muscle in my foot. Faintly in the distance, I hear a voice ask, "Someone stuck in there?"

I discover that "Duh" is one of those words that loses all meaning if you scream it really loudly. But I think I got my point across.

7:10 PM: Elevator is moving! Laptop almost out of pow


------

10:27 PM: Home! In bed, warm, sipping a hot wife, with a drink at my feet, and the dog in my arms. Life=good.

Where was I? Seems like I was about to tell you all something important. Ah well...

"Bet you're glad to be out of there," says Her Lovely Self.

"I'll say," I mutter. "But at least I managed to keep my pants on this time."

She's giving me A Look. All of a sudden, it's colder than an elevator in here...

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

 

In Which Hearts Are Won and Broken (Again)...

Despite my big build-up to today, Valentine's Day is actually not such a big deal in our house. Her Lovely Self has no use for it, and so consequently I'm not supposed to either. But just to be on the safe side, I still come home with flowers.

As I was commenting on a few other blogs earlier: this day, I was surprised to find a little something for me when I got home: a package of athletic socks sitting on the bed.

"What's this?" I asked my wife.

She replied, "I asked you this morning if there was anything you needed."

(Pause)

"On the morning of Valentine's Day, you ask me if I need anything and the answer you heard was 'Socks'??" I asked, perhaps a tad shrilly. Although come to think of it, I actually do need socks too.

I guess the lesson is, always enunciate.

Lest you think it was just one big romantic comedy here at the Magazine Mansion, I must also report that a heart was broken too, and this day it was my daughter's heart, that sweet, 4-year-old pulsing light of my being. Although it must be said that pulsing light reports having her heart broken several times per day. This time, she was crushed because the stem of the carnation I had given her had broken, and she felt this entitled her to Mommy's bouquet. She then tried to haul the bouquet--great-grandma's antique vase and all--off the kitchen table and up to her room. I was forced to intervene and there ensued much throwing of the tantrum.

In the midst of the wailing and gnashing of teeth (what I like to think of as a Sneak Preview of the Teen Years), I sagely observed that splaying oneself upon the kitchen floor and crying oneself to the brink of hiccups was not likely to solve anything.

In a blink, the hysterics ceased and this tiny 4-year-old woman stared up at me with such intensity I actually took one step backward.

"I wouldn't have to cry if you would just follow my directions," she said evenly, then went back to the wailing and gnashing and splaying and crying.

Man, no problems enunciating there.

Hope you all had a happy VD.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Sunday, February 13, 2005

 

Love's Labour...Found (A Random Anecdote)

It's early June. I've just moved into a small apartment complex where everyone else is just like me: a summer intern for the largish publishing company that is based here in the South.

Oh but one difference: most of these folks are still in college. They did what all good journalism majors do, and go their internship taken care of in the summer between their junior and senior years. The summer between my junior and senior year, I hauled trash for my uncle, worked in a bank and was a receptionist at a hotel. This was because the only internships I could lineup that summer were unpaid ones and, really, I needed cash more than I needed a line on my resume.

So now here I am, one week after my 21st birthday, three weeks out of college, actually ready to start working a full-time job. Except...it's the Recession. There are no jobs! Oh, but there are internships, and this was a paid one: $250 a week (before taxes, but rent was included). So I jumped at it.

I arrived late last night and unpacked. Today, my roommate arrived and we decided to go exploring. I need to find a supermarket, a laundromat, a bookstore, the usual essentials. I meet my next-door neighbor, another intern. We hit it off and he decides to come to the mall with us, which is where the local bookstore is. My roommate goes back into the apartment to get sunblock or something, and while we're standing there in the parking lot of the little complex, I hear a voice somewhere above me.

"Are you guys going to the mall? Can I tag along?"

Our building is a two-story affair with a front balcony running the length of the second floor. A young woman is leaning over the balcony. She's wearing a skirt and front this vantage I can see right up it. Cad that I am, you'd think that's all I'd look at, but instead my gaze is riveted on the perfect lips that just uttered the words.

Her blonde hair and hazel eyes remind me of Patty's, but this is no high-school girl. This is a Woman. She has a hand on her hip in a pert, expectant way. Several seconds have elapsed and it sinks in that she has introduced herself and is waiting for a response.

"Um...hi. Hi. Hi there," I say stupidly. "Yeah, yes. We're going to the mall. Right now in fact. Come on along!"

She bounces down the stairs and I make my neighbor clamber into the back of my car so that she sits in the front seat next to me. She's absolutely lovely. She's an intern, too, and is curious and inquisitive about her newfound friends. I start doing my Smart-Ass Talking thing, which makes her smile, but not laugh. I think: Oh God, she doesn't think I'm funny. But girls always think I'm funny. It's one of my assets. Hell, that ALL I've got going for me. Feeling a little panicked despite myself, I pull out of the parking lot, partly intent on the road, mostly intent on getting this woman to laugh.

We're a mile from the mall when I realize that I've left my roommate back at the apartment.

By the end of our trip, I realize that the woman I've begun to think of as Her Lovely Self is way out of my league. Hell, scalpers wouldn't sell me tickets to watch her league play, as the saying goes.

So for the rest of the summer, I spend my time breaking up with my girlfriend and sort of hooking up with another intern, Kiki. But every time I'm walking from the building where my magazine is to, say, the library, or a coffee shop, I always find myself going way out of my way to pass the building where Her Lovely Self works. And once I'm there, I often find a reason to end up on her floor. And once I'm there, well, it would be rude not to poke my head into her cubicle and say hi. She is always nice, and seems pleased to see me. But I never quite get her to laugh. And that fact reminds me just how far out of my league Her Lovely Self is. Too bad: There is just something about her, that face, that smile, those lips that beg (for someone. Not me, but someone) to be kissed.

And then the summer ended, and that was the end of that sad little crush. I departed for a long driving tour of the Midwest, a trip which took me through Chicago, where I stayed with a friend. While I was there, I looked into a graduate program that the boss at my internship told me about. Then I drove back east, and embarked on a long and terrible fall and winter where I proceeded to remain unemployed in my career. I did, however, get to watch from a distance as Gretchen, my college girlfriend, got a job in her chosen career, promptly got a new boyfriend and moved in with him. In fact, I got to watch all my friends from college get jobs and marry or move in with significant others...except me. For a time I had a sort-of long-distance thing going with Kiki, but in the end, she turned out to be more interested in the idea of me than the actuality of me. Looking back on how I was then, I can't say I blame her.

In a moment of sheer boredom and a desperate desire to move forward somehow, I dashed off an application to that graduate journalism program my old boss had been so keen on. The application deadline was that week, and I liked the excitement, however forced and fake, of rushing to meet a deadline. It felt like work. It felt like I was doing something.

And of course what I was really doing was a whole lot of nothing. The job market in magazines was pitiful: I interviewed for an editorial assistant job at a small gardening magazine. The spot paid $18K a year and I was one of 400 people who applied. And that was considered a good prospect! So that should give you some idea how things were.

Six months out of college and the first of my student loan payments began. The old bank I worked for a couple summers earlier had offered me a job through the holidays, so I jumped at it. After the bank (where, incidentally, I met J.D. Salinger) the only job I could get was on the night shift downloading computers at a medical billing office at the hospital near my parent's house. So I had to move back home where, for the first time since childhood, I was forced to share a bedroom again with my brother, who still lived with my folks (in fact, who STILL lives with my folks. My brother is worthy of a blog devoted just to his misadventures, so I won't go into them here).

This was problem because my brother had a girlfriend, the first serious big-deal girlfriend of his life, a real hot nursing student named Kristi. My parents both worked days and my brother and I both worked nights, which meant that during the day, Kristi would sneak into the house sometimes and I, um, would be forced to vacate the room. One time, when my brother was out of town, I woke up to find Kristi getting in bed with ME! And she was wearing her student nurse's uniform (just the uniform, if you follow me). I was pretty goddamn depressed, and not a little lonely at this nadir in my life, and well, I'm as susceptible to womanly charms (and a nursing uniform) as the next man. But when your brother was the previous man, well, that was too weird for me. Oh, and I had some self-respect and a sense of loyalty to my brother. That too. So like I said, it was a time where I did a whole lot of nothing.

The medical-billing-computer-downloading thing was a good gig in that it was two hours of actual work, followed by six hours of waiting for the computers to download to the backup tape drive. I figured I might as well freelance, so I used that time to write stories and pitch letters to magazines. I sold one story to a magazine that folded one issue before running my piece. I placed another story with a local magazine that paid in contributors' copies. I tried to write for a lot of publications, including a certain kind of men's magazine ("Dear Sirs: I never believed the letters in your Forum section were true, until my brother's girlfriend, a hot nursing student, climbed into bed with me early one morning...") I collected a metric ton of rejection letters.

And then on Valentine's Day, 15 years ago, I got a phone call. It was the chairman of the graduate program at the school I'd applied to. Apparently my old boss had written quite a recommendation for me. I was offered a full-tuition scholarship to attend the program. All I had to do was pay my own food and rent. Which meant going out to Chicago to find an apartment. And starting work on my master's degree that fall.

It was an accelerated program and I got my degree in a year. I did some of the hardest work I've ever done since starting the job I have now. I also spent a little quality time with Ariana, who I had a major lust thing going for, right up until the moment we were driving to a show when, upon realizing we'd be a little late, she threw a hissy fit so severe, she lost control of the vehicle. Later she apologized and recited a list of various psychoactive pharmaceuticals she was taking. We didn't see each other much after that.

Months passed. A week before I was set to graduate, I got a call from a local publisher of trade magazines. They needed a bright new editor to come in and write stirring prose about store shelving and chain link fences. I went for the interview and met their human resources manager, who was impressed with my resume, especially my time working as a summer intern. She smiled and said, "We have somebody else on staff who was there. I think she went through the same program."

When the manager said "she" I felt every hair on my arms and neck stand up. Even though no name was said, I suddenly knew who it was. Knew it. On the way upstairs to meet the hiring editor, the human resources manager took me down a side corridor, and into an office space full of cubicles. Suddenly she stopped and peered into one cube. "I thought you might like to say hello," she said.

And there was Her Lovely Self.

"Well, there you are! I've been looking all over for you," I said, as though I'd just seen her yesterday. The human resources manager shrieked with laughter. Her Lovely Self just smiled. We chatted for all of 10 seconds--not nearly enough time to cover where we had each been since we last saw each other, nearly two years ago and 1,000 miles away. But when the manager took me upstairs to meet the editor, I knew I had to get this job. Had to. The editor was a complete dink, someone in any other circumstance I would have--should have--avoided working for. But I didn't care about this guy, or the work, or my career, at that point. Somewhere beneath my life, the great, long-dormant engine, the one labeled FATE, had begun ramping up and I knew what had to be done. I threw everything I had into winning that job. I remember gritting my teeth, making a physical effort to will this editor to hire me (and readers who followed the Salinger link earlier may recall what carried the day). Two weeks later, I got the formal job offer ("The editor thought you demonstrated a lot of passion," the human resources manager remarked at the time).

Two weeks after that, I pulled into the parking lot of my new publisher, the first day of my life as a full-fledged magazine man. As I was getting out, another car pulled up next to me, and Her Lovely Self got out.

"You got the job!" she cried, smiling that gorgeous smile.

"I got it, all right," and I made some smart remark about my new boss. She laughed. She actually laughed, a sweet, slightly startled noise, as though she had surprised herself. And perhaps she had. The engine under my life was roaring, almost deafening. But even over the thrumming in my ears, I could hear two voices: a small, desperate one that said, She's still out of your league.

Almost in rebuttal came another voice, the voice of the boy who had made Liz and the other second-grade girls laugh. The kid who made Maryanne and Robin laugh. The smart-ass who made Gina and Patty laugh. The young man whose college life had become a sit-com, one with a laugh track populated by women giggling with him (and at him).

I watched Her Lovely Self walk across the parking lot. As I did, that other voice said, You're going to spend the rest of your life making her laugh.

And so I have.

Epilogue:

Thirteen or so years later, I'm eating dinner. I ask my son, all of 6 years old, how his day was. He rarely talks about school, so I usually have to prod. Not this time.

"Oh!" he says, dropping his fork. "Today was library day! And Mrs. Dodd let me and...well, she let me go." He says, stopping suddenly and picking up his fork and stabbing his food.

"Let you and...what? What happened?" I ask, turning The Dad Voice on. My son occasionally gets in trouble for not quite doing what he's supposed to.

Stab stab stab at the food. Head down. I'm about to repeat the question, when he looks up and says, in a funny, quavery voice, "Mrs. Dodd let me and Alyssa go." He drops his fork and lifts his arm up to cover his eyes. "And Alyssa grabbed my hand and pulled me down the hall!" His arm is still covering his eyes. He can't look at anyone, but I can see the flush in his cheeks.

Oh, my God.

From across the table, Her Lovely Self looks up. "What's wrong with your eyes?" she asks our son. She hasn't caught on. Or she's in denial.

I try to wave her off, but it's too late. The Little Sister goes into mimic mode. "Yeah, what's wrong with your eyes?"

"NOTHING!" he shouts and dashes to the bathroom.

I turn to Her Lovely Self and hiss, "It's not his eyes! It's Alyssa!"

She blinks at me, and for a second, the light flickers on. But I can see her push the idea away, violently. Her baby boy, smitten with puppy love? Impossible!!

Her Lovely Clueless Self looks concerned now, but determined to ignore me. "His face looked a little red," she continues. "Maybe he's coming down with something. Maybe I should call the doctor."

"Trust me," I say. "There's no cure."

Yours (and Hers),
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Thursday, February 10, 2005

 

Love's Labour Lost and Found (A Random Anecdote)

Okay, all kidding aside, it's kind of hard to write about my college romances, probably because they really weren't all that long ago, and some moments are still kind of awkward and painful for me to relate.

Also, the sheer lack of college romance may have something to do with it.

If you must know, fully two-thirds of my time at college was a bit like a sit-com where all the jokes hinge on the main character's disastrous liaisons, romantic near-misses and utter inability to get with the program in the "college is a time of wild sexual adventures" department.

Perhaps it's best if we move through these years via a series of character portraits:

Betty: I had kind of a low-level crush on Betty when I first met her in French class. We hung out a lot, watched TV together, went on road trips, even lived together at one point. And absolutely nothing happened EVER, except the night I walked her home from a party and she stumbled drunkenly on the sidewalk and I reached out to steady her--and accidentally made the briefest nanosecond contact with her right boob. But that hardly counts. Eventually, she just ended up in the sister-I-never-had compartment of my heart, which means that we were utterly devoted to each other, when we weren't busy pissing one another off. The plot twist: When my best friend from high school came to visit me, the thunderbolt struck them both, they fell madly in love and got married and have two kids now. And what did I get for all of that? That's right: a frickin' boob touch!

Veronica: I had kind of a low-level crush on Veronica when I first met her in this funky Honors program thing we were in. (Incidentally, this was the same day I met Betty.) Veronica didn't spend as much time with me as Betty, but when she did, she was always willing to bandy about a topic that was very much on my mind: sex. The problem was, Veronica was actually having sex with, oh, quite a lot of partners. Whereas I...was not, so our relationship was a bit uneven. On the bright side, Veronica actually let me kiss her once or twice, for which I remember feeling deep appreciation. The plot twist: Veronica once promised that, if I was completely unable to get laid during my college career, she would "step in and help me out." Boy, what a pal!

Sabrina: She claimed to be a witch, as in a worshiper of the goddess Diana. Cool, I thought, when she told me. However, I was not the least bit attracted to Sabrina, but not because of her religious preference. And not because she had extremely hairy legs (over which she insisted on wearing black panty hose with numerous runs in them, which caused all the hair to stick out in strange tufts). And it certainly wasn't because of her tendency to announce the onset of her period with the ringing cry, "There's sooooo much blood!" It was more what you might call an accumulation of traits that made me think we weren't compatible. But then one day she revealed that, via secret incantations in her room, she had placed a love spell on me (prime ingredient of the spell: menstrual fluid!) and that terrible things would befall me if I resisted. I said I'd take my chances. The plot twist: Not too much later, Sabrina was in a car accident just outside the dorm. It was a minor fender-bender and Sabrina didn't even go to the hospital. But a day later, she claimed to have amnesia, a very specific kind of amnesia that knocked all memory of me out of her head. Just to make the point, every time I saw her in the dorm, she'd come over with a quizzical look and ask, "Do I know you?" I think she was just embarrassed over the whole love spell thing and came up with a creative way of blowing me off. It worked for me.

Medusa: Veronica and I both knew Medusa from the Honors program thing we were involved in. Medusa wore very heavy makeup and had very long hair. I mean freakishly long, down to her shoelaces long. Medusa had a boyfriend who was a senior and who spent long hours working on some ill-defined project over in the communications building, which gave her a lot of free, lonely evenings. One night she invited me to her room, ostensibly to work on an honors project together. Instead, she made a clumsy pass at me, and suddenly her hair was in my eyes, my mouth, enveloping me, suffocating me. The plot twist: Then there was a knock at the door and it was the boyfriend, who gave me the stink-eye as I made good my escape. I was so flustered, I went straight to Veronica's to tell her about it. "Sounds like things got pretty hairy there," she deadpanned.

Mindy: A sweet, utterly gorgeous young woman with whom a few (not a lot, but enough) sparks flew upon our first meeting, so much so that I asked her out almost immediately and she accepted just as quickly. A few days before Spring Break, we went out, enjoyed dinner and a movie and a goodnight clinch with enough heat that I knew there'd be a second date, at least. The plot twist: When I went home for Spring Break, my mom informed me that one of my best childhood pals had killed himself. I was beyond devastated. When I got back after the break, I was exhausted and depressed and kept myself to myself. When I finally came out of it, it was almost the end of the year and Mindy was already dating someone else. Shit.

Gina: Yes, THAT Gina. The one from high school. We ended up going to college about four hours away from each other. One day, she called me out of the blue. A friend in her dorm was driving to the big city west of my college and she thought she might hitch a ride, pay a visit. She arrived early Friday night and found me and my roommate and a couple friends drinking screwdrivers and watching some home video I'd taken on my travels (I had just spent a semester in England). The evening is a blur (the screwdrivers may have had something to do with it), but I remember suddenly finding myself alone in the room with Gina (my friends had long since left and my roommate was up in his room, calling his girlfriend, who lived out of town). Next thing I know, Gina and I are going at it like we're 16 again, only sloppy-drunk. She breathes three vodka-laced words in my ear--"I want you"--and heads upstairs to my bedroom to wait for me. I'm reeling, for a lot of reasons. I thought I was over this girl. Wasn't I? We had our moment in the summer sun, years ago. No, no, this was a mistake. And yet, here's me, heading for the stairs. It was like one of those dreams where things are happening to you, but you're powerless to prevent it. The plot twist: Thank goodness I had taken the precaution of drinking as much as I did, because when I got to the top of the darkened stairwell, I became so disoriented that I ended up staggering into my roommate's room, uttered the words, "Ready when you are, baby!" then passed out on his bed. I woke up the next morning, dignity intact (well, aside from thereafter being known as the guy who got lost in his own apartment). Anyway, I showered, vomited (these actions were not sequential, but simultaneous), and later had a little about-last-night talk with Gina and we parted as friends. I saw her maybe once after that, when she visited my family in New Hampshire and somehow ended up canoodling with my Big Brother (let's let THAT image sink in for a moment). But I barely noticed at the time, because I was too busy spending my off hours with...

Gretchen: Oh man, there are still days I thank God for Gretchen (Veronica does too, since Gretchen's presence relieved Veronica from a certain promise to me). She was an absolutely charming woman of German descent who, for a time anyway, thought I was just the cat's meow. For reasons that frequently escape me, she was utterly devoted to me, and her devotion put an end to my sit-com lifestyle. I pretty much lived at her house my last year of college (much to the chagrin of her housemates, especially after I caused the washing machine to emit a black, black smoke). The plot twist: So it's kind of odd that, the summer we graduated, I couldn't get away from her fast enough. I took a summer internship at a publishing company in the south and that was the beginning of the end for Gretchen. I spent most of that summer trying to understand why I suddenly wanted to be a free agent again. Part of it was that Gretchen was ready to find an apartment and live together with a very clear view towards marriage (not immediately, but someday). Writing to a friend about my feelings at the time, I said this:

Re: my break-up with Gretchen. It's too easy to say I reverted to type and became a classic commitment-phobic male. The truth is, I'm at a point in my life where I need to commit myself to something else. I've been making some strides in my aspirations as a writer, but I have a very strong gut sense that I need to have a few wilderness years, making my way and paying my dues. Only once I've proven myself (to myself if no one else) only once I begin my career (and this internship hardly counts) do I feel like I can turn my attention to something as serious making plans to spend a future with someone.

Wow. That sounded a lot more convincing 15 years ago than it does right now. See, what I didn't know then was that, even as I wrote those words, I had already met THE love of my life.

But first, I had to survive the Season of the Crazy Women...

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

 

Love's Labour Lost and Found (A Random Anecdote)

Patty was a freshman when I was a senior but because I had started school at a fairly young age (I entered kindergarten at 4 and just went from there), there ended up being about 18 months difference in our ages, which was about the difference between myself and Gina (and every other girl in my class). I knew her a little bit from drama club, and now here she was in the girls' chorus of the school musical.

We started talking in the early evenings before rehearsal. I lived a long way from school, and my mom (who had the car) has started working in the evenings (later, she'd get some time off to help with the musical's costumes), so I just hung around at school from the time class was over until rehearsal began. Patty, on the other hand, lived within walking distance of school, and one night she showed up early. We were the only two people in the cafeteria, and she seemed a little nervous (it wasn't til much later that I learned it was nervous excitement from being alone with me, if you can believe it) so I started making smart remarks about the adults running the play, she laughed, and we were off to the races.

Once she knew I spent almost every afternoon by myself at school, she began showing up earlier and earlier. I welcomed the company. She was a sweet, sweet girl, with curly blond hair and sea-green eyes. She was shy at first, but when she warmed up and started talking, I think we were both surprised to find out how much we had in common (I remember well her astonishment at realizing how close we were in age. I had already forgotten how, as a freshman, I had thought the seniors were so much older. She felt the same way too, so learning how old I was made her feel much more comfortable around me, one of the few times my age was ever a social advantage).

After a month or so of this, I was down in the cafeteria one Friday evening and...no Patty. At first I didn't think much of it, and then as darkness settled in, I began to worry. There had been some kind of mugging near our school a few weeks earlier. I didn't remember all the details, and didn't really care because I lived the next town over. But Patty...she walked here. How could I have been so stupid? What if something had happened to her? It was winter, it was cold, it was dark. I wasn't sure how far away Patty lived, but I knew the general direction, and it went through a part of town that suddenly was seeming downright sinister. I've always had an overactive imagination when it comes to picturing people I care about in danger (remember my dream about Robin falling off the World Trade Center?), so in very short order I had worked myself into a lather. I "borrowed" a flashlight from the stage office--a big metal one like police use because they double as cudgels--and had my winter coat on, prepared to head off into the snow...

...and here comes Patty through the door, with several members of the girls' chorus. It had been someone's birthday and they had all gone to a party after school, then come back for rehearsal.

She stopped talking to her friends right away when she saw me. "Where are you going?" she asked.

And there I am: Nanook of the North, bundled up for an expedition, ready to deal out some flashlight-handle justice in the name of this defenseless girl...who was at a birthday party. I felt silly, of course. But more relieved than anything. I'd like to tell you I uttered something dead romantic, but in the event I mumbled something about not seeing her and getting kinda worried and sorta thinking about going looking for her. Yeah, I was embarrassed.

Over time, I have come to realize that my "type" of woman, if I have one, is someone who, to varying degrees, finds the idea of a guy being worried about her to be a big turn-on. If you overdo it, you come off as being possessive, or a stalker (not that I'm speaking from experience), but I guess if the feeling is sincere enough, it pushes some serious buttons.

It certainly did in Patty's case. She lit up like a Christmas tree, gave me a smile I can still see with my eyes closed, and wrapped her arms around me, right there in front of the girls' chorus.

In short order, Patty and I started "going out"--I gave her my school ring and everything. I was pretty happy about these developments, but I think it's fair to say that Gina had a problem with it. It's probably not even stretching the truth to suggest that it drove Gina up the ever-loving wall. I don't remember feeling any satisfaction about that, although I suppose there was a certain poetic justice to it all, after the way I'd been treated when we got back to school.

But, Sensitive Guy that I was, I at last came to the conclusion that she'd had her chance. And now...well, it was time to move on. And so I did.

For the next few months, things were great, greater than great. I thought of Patty then--and sometimes think of her still--as my first love, not because I was delusional and had forgotten, oh, Liz, Maryanne, Robin and Gina, but because this was how I had always imagined love would be. That is, this pure, uncomplicated relationship where you both feel the same way about each other at the same time (for more than a couple weeks in summer, I mean), where issues of confidence and propriety become inconsequential. All that, plus a good healthy dose of hot-n-heavy teen lust.

Patty and I were inseparable. I barely remember graduating from high school because I spent most of that spring figuring out how to get over to Patty's house, or how to get her over to mine, how to sneak her out of study hall and into the student government room (to which I still had a key, from when I was a class president), where to meet her before, during or after the weekend dances. Every ounce of my being seemed bent upon the task of spending as much time as I could with her. And she was the same way. Looking back, I'm a little appalled at how single-minded I was. Granted, I had good reason because Patty was a little hottie back then, far more of one than I had any right to expect or deserve, I thought.

Well, given our mutual obsession, it's no wonder our parents--specifically our moms--got involved. And that's when it all started going sour.

To give a balanced picture, I have to say that I wasn't too thrilled when my mom started finding excuses for me not to see Patty. We had a few arguments about it and that wasn't pretty. I realize now that she was trying to be the voice of reason (seeing as how I didn't have one of my own at that time). I was going off to college in a few months; Patty had three more years of high school. You could see where she was going with this: a long-term, long-distance relationship was just not going to make sense. I understood it; I just wasn't happy about it--nor happy with my mom for pointing it out.

But my mom's intervention was nothing--NOTHING--like what Patty experienced from her mom.

Her mom was...what's the word? Oh yes--NUTS. I'm convinced the woman was functionally insane. I later found out that when she first heard Patty had a crush on me (way back in the drama club play days), she would encourage Patty to walk over to school early to see me. Would sometimes even drop her off. After we started dating, she would pump Patty for absolutely every painstaking detail of every time we spent together. Patty ended up telling her stuff about us that I STILL wouldn't want MY mother to know about. It all sounded pretty goddamn creepy to me, this old woman (Patty was the youngest of 7 kids, and a pretty big surprise, if you know what I mean) living vicariously through her 16-year-old daughter.

I wasn't the only one who thought the woman was creepy. I remember driving home one night after our families had spent the day together, my mom was really quiet. I knew she and Patty's mom had chatted, but she wouldn't say what they discussed. All my mom would say was, "Be careful around that poor girl's mother."

And I began to see why my mom might want to warn me. When Patty's mom wasn't egging Patty on and pumping her for juicy details, she would turn around and lay the Catholic-mom-keep-your-virtue-guilt-trip on her. Psychologists have a term for this, you know: it's called crazy-making behavior. And after a while, I guess it did make Patty crazy, in a way.

For starters, out of nowhere, she started flying into these insane jealous rages about my time pursuing Gina. Never mind that she and I were history by the time Patty and I started dating. The problem, see, was that my mom and Gina's mom were still friends, and sometimes Gina would tag along if her mom came to our house to visit. Just knowing Gina and I were in the same house together when she wasn't there was enough to send Patty into these crazy rages that were positively frightening (and she was much smaller than I). It got to the point where I found myself ignoring Gina as completely as I could, and not just in class, but whenever I saw her, which was more than rude; it was unworthy of me (and of her). And yet, I was so committed to maintaining Patty's increasingly delicate emotional equilibrium that I hardly knew what else to do.

Except for one thing.

So, one night late in August, a few weeks before I was to head off to college some 500 miles away, we had yet another stupid little argument, only this one ballooned into an ugly blow-out in my driveway. We said some awful things to one another (I might have said something about her being as crazy as her mother, for example) before she hurled my class ring at me and got in her car. With gravel flying from under the spinning wheels, Patty reversed out of the driveway--and my life.

Although it seemed like ages, it had been almost exactly a year ago that I had come to end of my idyllic summer with Gina and would embark on THAT wild emotional ride. And now here I was, at the end of another summer, alone and confused and annoyed and frustrated and just at the end of my rope.

But as my thoughts turned to the great new adventure I was about to begin, I was in a more philosophical frame of mind. On the one hand, I was now not going to be to Patty what that College Guy had been to Gina, and that in itself seemed like some kind of moral victory.

On the other hand, I was grateful for my experience with Gina and Patty. I thought: My God, what one can learn in a year about the minds and bodies of women. It had been by turns sad and wonderful, and while I could have done without the crazier parts, on the whole I felt somehow that every moment of my experience in the past year would ultimately serve some greater good. Or at least some personal good. Either way.

And on the third hand, I was now a free agent. College--and college women--beckoned. I think don't think it's telling tales out of school to say that part of me (not saying which part) was looking forward to the immediate future as the...heh heh heh...Season of Sowing My Wild...BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA ...ahuhahuhA-HA-HA-HA-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAH-HAHAAAAA

(gasp) Oh God, heh-heh-heh, I'm so sorry. Hahahahaha. I just couldn't type that last part and keep a straight face. Because, see, I already know the punchline to this joke...

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

 

Love's Labour Lost and Found (A Random Anecdote)

For those of you just tuning in, I can't seem to shut up about the great (and small) loves of my life. Having started with Liz and Maryanne and continued with Robin, and, uh, some more Robin, we're finally seeing some action as our hero, age 16, finds himself in the wilds of northern New England, in a town of less than 200 people, with nobody else his age to hang out with except Gina, his comely and, it must be said, well-constructed high school crush, who has come to visit him for a month.

Finally, oh thank you God, FINALLY, our hero has gotten over himself and kissed the girl. As the young couple stands on the sun-dappled shores of a pristine lake, he delivers a line that for the next 20 years no one will believe he had the presence of mind to utter at 16 (but he did, oh yes, he said every word) and summons the nerve to pucker up. In his passion, our hero leans in too far, loses his balance, and falls face-first into the lake. It was embarrassing. It was an accident. But it was the best accident of his young life...


Right, so we'll just let that sink in for a moment.

At the time, I remember looking on our afternoons alone like we were on a desert island. It did seem like we were the only two people in the world, and that was just fine with me. The reader will note that I am absenting any specific details, not because they're particularly sordid (if you must know, it was pretty innocent teenage clinching and groping) but just because when I think back on that time, it's not really what happened that I remember, but how I felt. I was just happy. Things seemed to have clicked into place. Up until that point, all my crushes and puppy loves had been juvenile things. Now, I had a real girlfriend 'n stuff.

A couple weeks later, Gina and her mom went home and we had a pretty interesting exchange of letters, the high point of which was the letter she sent telling me she loved me, a letter I still have somewhere, and which I still remember reading over and over in a state of total bliss.

And then I returned from New England to begin my senior year of high school and it all went to hell in a handbasket.

Where to begin? Well, for starters, the girlfriend thing never really happened, not with Gina, not after that summer. When I arrived back home, I learned that in a post-idyll-in-New-England attack of guilt, Gina went back to her college-bound boyfriend, who for the rest of the year could be counted on to turn up pretty much every weekend and holiday that I wanted to be with Gina (which was all of them). I had, you might say, a problem with that.

Then there was the Underclassman, this junior who started hitting on Gina and whose attentions Gina found flattering, so the next thing I know they're canoodling at the Saturday night dance (the one weekend College Guy wasn't in town, natch) while I'm stuck at home, fuming. I also had a problem with that.

But, but this summer, we... I thought. But, but that letter... I thought. I never got a straight answer about what had changed. So I got fed up and washed my hands of her. I quietly resolved to keep my distance. Several times, in fact. See, it was tough because whenever the College Guy wasn't around, Gina would come back, all goo-goo eyes and flirty. And well, good God, I'm just a guy, you know? And back then, just a 16-year-old guy, at that. Self-respect? Dignity? Sometimes I had it. Mostly, not so much. Eventually, I had to face up to the truth that, with her steady squeeze gone, she wanted to play the field, and I was just another chalky white line in the turf.

It came down to this: I was NEVER going to get back to that brilliant summer, that first kiss. Once that realization sank in (and I'm embarrassed to say it was a long time sinking in), I realized that Gina was a bad habit I needed to give up.

It was awkward, though. Our moms were still good friends so we were constantly thrown together. And I think Gina was a decent enough person to feel bad about pinballing between me and her significant other, but couldn't quite help herself. I think she spent a lot of that winter feeling lonely and genuinely missing me. To make matters worse, it wasn't like I had anyone else interested in ME (or so I thought), so I was lonely too. But I resisted, survived a season of great temptation, and am so glad I did.

It helped that I kept myself busy in school, particularly extracurricular stuff, like drama club. At Christmas, I was cast in the lead role of one of three plays that were put on for the school and alumni. There was a little awards ceremony after the plays and a panel of audience judges awarded me the best actor prize, which was cool. More interesting was the fact that one of the judges was the guy who directed the school musicals. He knew me because for three years I had been the All Purpose Guy during the musicals: I worked lights, I painted scenery, I helped the real actors run through their lines, and even occasionally got cast in crowd scenes on stage. "Why have you never tried out for a lead in any of my musicals?" he demanded.

"I can't sing," I said.

"Sing Jingle Bells with me," he said. I was full of adrenaline from being on stage and winning the award and all, so I belted out the song, and only after I finished did I realize he had stopped singing it with me after "Dashing through the snow..."

"See you at rehearsal," he said.

And just like that, I was cast as one of three male leads in the school musical.

I mention my thespian career, such as it was, because (and you could probably see this coming) Gina was cast as the sole female lead (oh, Fate thy fickle thumbnail is sharp!), and suddenly it was as though art was trying to imitate my life of the previous few months, as the male leads, on stage (and sometimes off) tried to curry her favor.

As amusing as these little twists seem now, at the time I was in a high state of perturbation. How had my life turned into such a frigging soap opera? Was I never going to pull myself free of Gina's orbit? Couldn't I just have a girlfriend without all the asinine complications?

As it turned out, the resolution to these questions was not long in coming. Because somewhere in the middle of this, right smack in the proverbial Thick Of Things, I began to notice Patty...

Monday, February 07, 2005

 

In Which I Follow Management Advice From My Dad...

My dad and I couldn't be more different. He barely hits 5-foot-5; I'm just a whisker shy of 6 feet. He started losing his hair at 19; thank God I still have mine. I lost the last vestiges of my New England accent when I started working for a college radio station; my dad's accent has only grown thicker with age to the point that, if the word "ayuh" was in a dictionary, you'd find it in a word balloon above a picture of my father, by Gorry.

If you've viewed the images of him in my little holiday tale, you can see for yourselves he's a bit on the rustic side, somewhere between a gnome and Santa Claus's kid brother. I'm no cover model, to be sure, but I don't look anything like that. I have a longer face, a significantly less bulbous nose. Also glasses, without which I am functionally blind. Well into his 60s, my dad still has the eyesight of a fighter pilot.

In our life's work, we've gone in different directions. By trade, my dad is a welder, coordinating teams of pipe-fitters at thousands of construction sites across the country, but his knowledge extends well into carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, masonry, and other related areas. He can and has built houses from scratch. It's all I can do to center a picture frame or hang a bookshelf level.

Which is why in some ways I am astonished at how alike we are, how much overlap we have in our professional lives. Mostly this is because I have my dad's work ethic (something he would not have believed possible, when I was 13 and used to hide in the woods any time yardwork needed doing). Some years ago, when I was working on a photo shoot of assorted electronics and giant home-exercise products and what not, we hired some guys to come in and assemble some of the more elaborate items. At least three of the big items were put together incorrectly. The photographers assured me no one would notice, but the night before the shoot, I went to the studio and stayed well into the wee hours re-assembling the stuff so it would function correctly. Getting it right, even though no one else will notice or care: that's what my dad would do.

We're also both managers, and the longer I'm in management, the more I find myself looking to my dad for an example of how to handle things. If he has a problem with an employee, he handles it himself. He doesn't go in for back-stabbing political maneuvering. He doesn't go to his superiors to have them lower the boom on a malingering worker, or to document grievances so that human resources can initiate a formal probation. Forget that shit: He goes toe-to-toe with the guy and they either work it out, or my dad shows him the door.

My dad was very much on my mind once, some years ago, after an uncomfortable staff meeting in which it was announced that we had incurred some hefty overtime charges at the printer for our latest issue. Specifically, for one of my stories, in which an image had to be changed at the last minute. The new image was sent to the printer on time, but someone hadn't changed the caption to match the new image. Captions are words, and words are the editor's problem, so I caught the heat.

But the truth is, a certain person, notorious on staff (actually, in the company) for lazy, corner-cutting habits, sent the new image to the printer without telling anybody like, oh, the editor. I didn't even know a new image had been chosen until I saw the final proof. But by then, you're paying overtime fees for any changes so we were stuck. It was not the first time this sort of thing has happened. And there was always some excuse to the effect of how much work this person had or how busy they were and how much trouble it would have been to go find an editor (who were all in a 20-foot radius from this person's door. Also, the editors all had phones and email accounts. I checked.)

I can't stand lazy people who get away with slipshod work, and in that my dad and I have another thing in common. I really wanted to speak up for myself in the meeting. But I could hear my dad saying, "Hog the blame, share the credit, especially in front of the bigwigs." Everyone who mattered knew the back-story there. If I tried to explain what happened, I would just look like some weasel-y defensive manager trying to palm the blame off on another department. So I shut my mouth and made the mea culpa face.

But another one of my dad's nuggets of managerial wisdom is, "If you gotta eat shit for someone, make sure they KNOW you ate shit for them." The philosophy being: if the person you're shielding is a good worker, they're worth eating shit for, and knowing you shielded them makes them more inclined to trust you and be loyal to you and work better for you. And if they're a lazy-ass slipshod dink, they need to know that they haven't gotten away with something. So you better believe I had something to say to this person later, in private.

I've often thought that much of my dad's managerial wisdom could be made into an entertaining and effective book for all managers: Blue-Collar Wisdom for Blue-Chip Companies, something like that. Too bad my dad doesn't know anyone who writes...

Of course, I'd have a hard time making some of my dad's management experiences work for a mass audience. He's still a legend in certain circles for dealing with a disgruntled employee who stormed the job site the day after my dad fired him. The guy was a gorilla, an ex-Marine who was well over a foot taller than my dad. He had put bigger men in the hospital and had in fact been fired for threatening a co-worker with a knife. He had that knife now as he confronted my dad.

"Try and throw me off the job now, you sumbitch," the ex-Marine brayed, his face inches from my father's. "A pissant like you--you'll never put a hand on me!" he boasted.

"You got that right," said my dad, who ignited the welding torch he was holding, and set the guy's shirt on fire. While the ex-Marine was hopping around trying to put himself out, my dad cold-cocked him with a length of pipe.

See? This sort of thing almost never happens in corporate America.


Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Saturday, February 05, 2005

 

In Which I Am Double-Tongue Tied...

The tireless staff here at Somewhere On the Masthead (that would be me and the dog) are just beside themselves with glee tonight, after having discovered this entry (scroll down til you find "Tetris edit") at the Double-Tongued Word Wrester site. As they correctly note at the top of the page, my little, ahem, neologism, may never make it to common parlance, but just having it recorded somewhere besides here feels like an accomplishment.

So, did somebody send them a link to my entry on Tetris editing? If so, fess up in comments so I can thank you properly!

And if Grant Barrett's crack team of hardened wordhunters found this site on their own, we bid you welcome, and hope you'll come back soon, even if that "crack team" turns out to be only a man and his dog, just like

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Friday, February 04, 2005

 

In Which Youth Is Wasted...

What a day. The kids are sick. I'm STILL sick. I feel like I'm wearing a label that reads: MM's Cold, New and Improved--now, with a SINUS Infection!

Times like this, I wonder where I get the energy to make it through the day.

And then I find this, something I wrote almost exactly 10 years ago, and I wonder where the hell all THAT energy went:

Well, on Friday, I met my impossible copy deadline for my first book. The original copy deadline was a nice, respectable, middle of April sort of thing. Then, by way of a New Year's gift, it was handed down from on high that this book should come out much sooner, so our deadline got backed up to February 1.

(insert dramatic chord here)

This may not sound like the big, splintery pole up the butt that it was, so let me clarify. Before the deadline shift, I was expected to put out 12 pages of copy per week. With the deadline change, I was writing between 23 and 25 pages a week.

!!!

But now it's done, and the beauty of it was that my deadline fell just afore the weekend. And Her Lovely Self and I have tickets to Chicago. Before the flight, after my deadline, I went out first with the guys from the office to a bar in the basement of an 18th century farmhouse, drank barley wine for 90 minutes (ever had it? thick as stout, sweet as cider, strong as whiskey), then found I could barley drive home.

Got home, got a hangover, got packed. Her Lovely Self and I raced to l'aeroport, got our 8:35 flight and touched down in Chi-town at 9:40. Pal Jeff picked us up and drove us straight to the Huettenbar, in our old neighborhood. There, we met Bill and his new squeeze. I was recovered from my hangover, and was in rare form for a little hair o' the dog that bit me.

It didn't end there. After the bar closed, we careened to White Castle and ate a half-dozen sliders apiece, then collapsed back at Bill's, our stomachs gurgling and hissing louder than the radiators in his apartment.

Two hours later, we ate a massive breakfast of pancakes and bacon, then went to the skating rink on State St., downtown Chicago, right across from Marshall Field. I have never skated before, and found it to be an experience almost totally, but not entirely, unlike skiing. Plus, it was 40 degrees out, so it was really a kind of water-skating that we were doing. I did this long enough to look like a good sport whilst Her Lovely Self, who took skating lessons in her youth, and Bill, who is so good he OWNS his own skates, gamboled and spun across the ass-breaking surface with a heedless abandon that made me want to spill a bag of kitty litter in their paths. I checked in my rented skates, then we wobbled off to Al's Italian Beef, where we ate hot dogs and fries and dripping Italian beef sandwiches that melt in your mouth.

We raced back to Bill's in time to drink some more beer, then went out to Delisi's for the best deep-dish pizza you can find in Chicago, perhaps America. Also, we had something to drink.

After that, it was off to see the theater troupe known as Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a scene which I enjoyed, and which was populated by people I enjoyed making much fun of. Not of the troupe itself, for they were excellent and entertaining in the extreme, but for the bevy of slackers and poseurs who waited with us for the 11:30 show to begin.

To set the scene: The theater is above a funeral home. You get there around 10:15, and a guy hands you a plastic ticket--it's your place on line when they finally open the theater doors. Meanwhile, you wander around this huge second floor, which has a coffee bar and a giant auditorium type room that features the work of a different artist each week.

This week, it appeared the art was a series of quasi-Illuminated self-portraits of the artist, who looked a little like Bobcat Goldthwait, only buck-naked and 60 pounds heavier. Painting after painting sported bronze and gold leaf frills, with a cut-out black and white image of the guy pasted over the metals. One was called "St. Aubergine's Rise to Himself" and it was a nude self-portrait of the artist, in Christ pose, shlong hanging out. Glued to the painting were three vials, helpfully labeled: one contained the artist's blood, one contained some of his fingernails, and one contained a few of his pubic hairs.

Meanwhile, two extremely hirsute fellows in Atari t-shirts appeared, set up a drum kit and a few horns, and began blatting and whisking. If someone had been there to recite beat poetry in the foreground, it would have been acceptable. As it was, it was just plain annoying. They stopped every so often to announce that they'd appreciate payment so they could eat. Before I could stop myself, I blurted "I'll pay you to stop playing." and enough people heard me nearby to start applauding. The musicians thought it was for them and were inspired to play even worse.

We finally got in to the theater after a paying experience you won't find on Broadway. The price per person is three bucks, plus a roll of a die. Her Lovely Self rolled a one, I rolled a four. Kind of a neat idea--the nightly take is left largely to chance.

We got our seats and had a wonderful time. Too Much Light's gig is they perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. The numbers 1 thru 30 are hung on a string above the stage, and the audience screams out which number they want them to perform, until they're all done or the 60 minutes are up. It's a wonderful notion; I imagine you never get bored attending, or performing, come to that. Cos each week, the players write at least six new plays--they've done 1,900 this year--and they run the gamut, from comedy (I howled at a two-minute play called The Lame Ass Show On Earth, a circus spoof that is impossible to describe); to political theater (one of the players in a spotlight, angsting over the fact that he was updating the company's mailing list, and noticed an address from a Navy base in Annapolis. His dilemma: If he puts the guy's name in the database, he'll automatically get all of the company's flyers, including the one touting their annual gay/lesbian awareness performance--receiving this in the mail at a naval base is enough to warrant that man's investigation by internal services. Should he put the guy's name on the list?); to absurdity (one play called Pushing the Envelope, featured just that--a guy kicking an envelope across the stage).

At the end of the night, the troupe had pizza delivered for the audience (their show sold out, and their motto is, When We Sell Out, We Order Out) and sang a cute little song about how much they loved us (You came to Our Show/That Makes Our Hearts Glow).

Then, they took a minute to introduce the awtist, St. Aubergine himself, who it turned out was sitting right in front of me the whole time. "Is this your first pubic--uh, public exhibition?" I asked.

On the way back to Bill's, we stopped at a couple bars, then got up on Sunday for a huge breakfast at Walker Bros., a pancake joint out in the burbs, which I had never heard of. But they served coffee in big cups, the kind you have to put your whole face in to get the last sip. I ate giant flapjacks--as big as the plates. Then, since it was 50 degree weather out, we went and played miniature golf. At the 9th hole, the temperature dropped 15 degrees in 5 minutes. We played a fast nine more holes, then went bowling. Finally, we packed up our gear and on the way to the airport, stopped in at Byron's for a Chicago-style hot dog. We got to the airport just in time, had a 90 minute flight back home In bed by midnight. Whew!

I have indigestion just reading that. I remember the slog to get that book done. I wrote close to 20,000 words in less than a week. And then boozed it up with the staff, hopped a plane to Chicago and back, ready to go to work Monday! All that in 48 hours! If I tried that today, I'd still be in the basement of that farmhouse bar, face-down, snoring in my own drool.

And I'd be glad to get the extra sleep!

Gawd I feel old.

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

 

Love's Labour Lost and Found (A Random Anecdote)

I had known Gina since 8th grade. Our moms were good friends; both volunteered at the library and worked on costumes for school plays. Gina was vivacious and quick-witted, and a shameless tease (being well constructed for her age didn't hurt either). So it was only a matter of time--in this case, right around spring of junior year--before I developed the most hopeless crush on her. Hopeless because she was dating an older guy, a senior who would soon be graduating and would therefore be a college guy, which at the time conferred on him a certain kind of elan and sophistication that I didn't think I could match (although now it occurs to me the guy was a bigger doof than I was, and who would have thought that possible?).

Instead of pining for the girl, though, I found myself flirting with her, or at least trying to bend my smartass snappy patter to the task of charming her, something I had never consciously attempted before. It wasn't a level of verbal interplay on par with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, to be sure, but it felt like it.

And then the year ended and I had to go away for the summer, first to this dumb-ass camp for high-school leaders, and then on to New England, where my family had taken to spending every summer since we moved back from the Midwest. I remember thinking: What lousy timing. Just when things were getting interesting.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I arrived in New England after my leadership camp and learned that my mom had invited Gina and her mom to come for a visit.

They arrived in the middle of summer with their camper and stayed for almost a month. I was working for my uncle at the time, who was the town land baron--and trash collector. "Mistah Man, we are gonna work your skinny ass off," he remarked--with a certain unnecessary glee--when I first began working for him. "But by gorry," he continued, "before summer is over, you're gonna be able to crack a walnut on that ass!"

No, I never tried to, but I must admit that working for my uncle put me in the best shape of my life, and my long hours in the sun had burned the acne off my face and shoulders. I'm sure time and a general tendency towards self-mythologizing have skewed my memory of the figure I cut summer I was 16, but hey, it's my memory, and if Gina had found me that hard on the eyes, what happened wouldn't have happened.

And what happened at first was...well, a lot of nothing.

Because for most of her first week there, all she did was talk about her boyfriend, the guy who was starting college in the fall. The guy she'd been dating for most of high school. The guy who wanted to have a long-distance relationship with her, see her on weekends and holidays. I was a little nonplussed. When this guy graduated, I had thought that Gina might now be turning her attention to some new contenders and that I might be one of them. I thought her coming to visit might present me with an opportunity for making, move-wise.

But hearing her moan on and on about her boyfriend threw me. Suddenly, I was 12 again, nailed to my seat at the 8th grade dance, slowly letting my moment slip away.

It didn't help that my uncle was ribbing me mercilessly about my comely visitor. Like my dad, my uncle was a true rustic, a son of northern New England and gifted with equal powers of plain-speaking and ribald humor at the expense of others.

Which is why every morning of Gina's visit, I'd hop in the cab of the dump truck, he'd wave pleasantly to Gina (who often as not woke up to see me off) and then turn to me and ask, "So, ol' fella, you puttin' the wood to her yet? By Gorry, I wish you'd come out of it already and get your leg over."

Most mornings I just sat silently, my face turning red. But one morning I just laid it out for him, telling him how she never shut up about her boyfriend and how mixed my signals were. And he just looked at me with a mixture of pity and wry amusement.

"I dunno why in hell you're so het up. She's here, ain't she? Seems to me the only reason she's yammerin' on about the other fella is she's looking to you to stop her mouth for her," he remarked, then added as a helpful after-thought. "And by Gorry, if you ain't fit to do it, I'd be most glad to trade places with you. Holy-o Christ, ol' fella, what do you think's gonna happen if you muckle onto her anyway?"

"What if I'm wrong?" I asked. "What if she pushes me away? I'm not up for that rejection."

"Oh hell!" said my uncle. "So what? At least you tried. And if she kicks you in the balls for it, well, then it all becomes part of a really good story, don't it?"

It was an absurd moment, me getting romantic advice from the garbageman. But he had a point...

That day, like all the others, my uncle worked from dawn til about 2 in the afternoon, and after that I was free. My mom and Gina's mom spent nearly every day off at antique stores and flea markets, (my dad was working out of state at this point and my brother worked 12-hour days at some restaurant) so when I came back to our lakeside "camp" (which was a pretty nice vintage Airstream trailer up on blocks) to get cleaned up, the only person waiting for me was Gina.

That day, I washed up and changed and we went down to the lake. It was one of those perfect mild New England summer days. The sun was bright and hot, but a breeze coming in off the lake made the weather perfect. We took off our shoes and socks and stood on the sandy shore, soaking up the moment. And then Gina started talking about her boyfriend again.

My heart was beating in my throat. She was never going to give me the opening I had been waiting for, although exactly what I thought that opening would be, I'm not sure. I probably just wanted her to say "Kiss me, you fool!" and take the pressure off me. Was I ever going to get over this moment, the paralyzing moment of indecision that had caused me to miss other opportunities?

She was still going on about College Guy and how she wasn't sure how this would work out. I put my hand on her supple, bronze arm.

"You have to stop talking for a minute. There's something I have to say."

She turned and looked at me, the breeze riffling her raven-black hair, her dark eyes reflecting two pinpoints of sunlight. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the laughter of children. Beneath me, waves rolled in, then washed back out, drawing sand out from under our feet each time. As the sand and the water rushed away, it felt like some great and subtle force was tugging at the soles of our feet, drawing us in.

"Do you feel that under your feet? Like something's pulling you in?" I asked, my mouth bone-dry. She nodded. "Well that's how I always feel around you. That's what it feels like to be attracted to you. That's--" and then I ran out of words. So I kissed her.

As moments go, it was a pretty good one. One of the best.

I remember thinking one thing: It all becomes part of a really good story.

And then I lost my balance, grabbed her arm and fell into the lake...

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