Monday, October 31, 2005


October Moments

Like a lot of people, fall is my favorite time of year, and October is my favorite month for a lot of reasons, and not all of them being reasons you might pick.

Because of Halloween, October is a month associated with the spirit world, a world I happened to spend some time in when I was a kid. It started purely by accident: my parents bought an 18th century farmhouse in which some very strange and unexplainable things happened. We lived in that house for 5 years and in those 5 years, I saw, heard, and felt things that were, to be blunt, unbelievable. And yet they happened.

If you believe in that sort of thing, then you might be interested in these October moments, which include not only moments I spent in that house long ago, but also other strange moments that have occurred in Octobers throughout my life.

And if you don't believe in that sort of thing, but like a good story anyway, then you might still be interested to read these. Just don't ask me to prove it all to you. Because even though some of these stories come with photographic evidence, if you're inclined to write these off as fiction, then nothing I say or do will change your mind. In the end, you'll just have to take me on faith, which is, of course, the belief in something you can't prove.

These stories simply underscore that belief:

The Man in the Church: As I've gotten older, my sensitivity for the unseen world has dulled, but it will probably never go away. This is the story of one of the last powerful experiences I had, at an old church, on the eve of a friend's wedding.

What The Brownie Saw: A brief glimpse of that world, through the eyes of my 4-year-old daughter.

News From The Other Side: During a very stressful time in my life, an unexpected messenger delivered words of comfort to ease my mind. Not terribly extraordinary, until you realize that the messenger appeared in my bedroom closet, and there was no possible way he could have appeared to me, being dead and all.

The Telltale Tapping: In 1980, my family spent our first night in the old farmhouse. And almost immediately, my brother and I were made aware that we were sharing the house with...others. Includes weird photo goodness.

Cemetery Tales: A high school history project turns into something substantially more profound. More photos. And no, that isn't smoke.

God's in the Overalls:
Even though it happened in July, this moment--in which the Brownie's life is saved by the intervention of a strange old man in my back yard--has October written all over it.

Anxiety In The Attic: Perhaps my worst experience in that old farmhouse, and one that launched me on a journey of discovery that was both fascinating and frightening.

More to come. Feel free to read as many as you can stand.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


An October Moment...

Last Week of October, 1981:

I was a freshman in high school, working on a community history project: the restoration of an 18th century Methodist cemetery, which a farmer had recently rediscovered in an overgrown patch in a distant field on his property. The cemetery wasn't far from the small town where we lived so it was easy for my brother and me to spend our weekends there, working to remove the fallen trees and cut away the decades of vines and bushes that had grown up.

The overgrown area--about 300 yards square--had been the site of one of the earliest Methodist churches in the area. Through research at the historical society, we had found a church registry and had begun matching up registry names with the graves we were slowly uncovering from the vines and myrtle that had overtaken the site. The church and the cemetery had last been used in the 1870s, before the main Methodist church was built in the next town over. The original site was left to fall into disrepair and was eventually forgotten.

You'd think it would be creepy for my brother and me to spend our fall afternoons in a grove of vine-entangled trees, surrounded by pale white stones poking up from the underbrush like massive teeth from some unseen giant skull, but given where we had lived for the past year, this was nothing. After all, there were no walls from which emanated mysterious knocking, no fleeting glimpses of women in blue, no objects hurtling across the dining room. My family had experienced all of this and more since the previous summer. At first it had been shocking, to say the least. But the human animal is ridiculously adaptable to change, and by the fall of 1981, my brother and I took it in stride.

I had started to take something else in stride too: odd things that began to happen to me outside our house. My uncle, no stranger to the paranormal, had a theory that the longer you were exposed to forces unseen, the more sensitive you became to them wherever you went. Driving home late one night, my family's car passed a local historic landmark--an old inn dating to the 1740s--and I clearly saw something rolling around in the pitch-black yard. It bounced across my field of vision, looking like a glow-in-the-dark tumbleweed. Then it vanished. Once, visiting a family friend at an old firehouse, I had heard scuffing noises from a room that turned out to be empty. And cold spots! I could take you the town where lived then and point to three buildings all right next to each other on the main street--the bank, an old Woolworth's, and the town movie theater--and show you the cold spots in each one of them.

The cemetery, though, was peaceful. It was quiet and serene and we enjoyed doing something productive with our time. And so it was that my brother and I were up early one Saturday morning, preparing for another day of clean-up. My father was already working out of state at this time and my mother was off at a craft show with some friends so my brother and I were on our own to gather the tools we needed and await our ride to the cemetery. As the project's official reporter, it fell to me to record the day's progress and the names on whatever stones we uncovered, so I also brought along a notebook and some pens. I remembered our teacher had wanted some photos, so that day I also retrieved my old 110-film camera from my room. I checked the cartridge--the camera held about 10 pictures--so I put it in my jacket pocket and took it with me.

I knew as soon as I got to the cemetery that something was different. To this day, I can't guess at what might have caused the change, but the moment I set foot in that quiet field, an odd chill hung with me. Any other time, I'd have thought I was coming down with a flu. But I had had a year of odd experiences and this chill felt familiar somehow. Like a cold spot, but not quite. Almost like a cold spot was nearby but I kept missing it. I tried to shrug it off and joined my classmates in our work, carefully clearing vines and weeds from around any new gravestones that we discovered, hauling brush down to the dirt road where a volunteer had offered to truck it to the dump. But as the day wore on I felt increasingly spacey, not really focused on the work. Whenever we took a break to rest or eat, I wandered among the ivy-covered branches, always careful not to trip over some unseen log or headstone, still hidden in the deeper overgrown recesses of the site.

At length, I stood at the boundary between the uncleared, overgrown area of the site and the cleared area where my classmates were, brushing dirt and moss out of stone engravings.

And without really knowing why, I took the camera out of my pocket and began to take pictures.

I snapped pictures until the film ran out, then put the camera in my pocket and forgot about it. I took my usual notes about stones we'd uncovered and the area we'd cleared. Eventually the sun settled low over the sky and we all clambered into our various cars for the ride home.

A few weeks later, getting off the bus from school, my mom met me at the door with a stern but strange look on her face. She wasn't mad, exactly.

"What were you kids doing at the cemetery the other week?" she demanded. Usually, she or our teacher or another parent came along to supervise, but that one weekend we'd been on our own.

"Why?" I asked.

"Did you start a fire without permission?" she asked. Her tone sounded almost hopeful, not accusatory as I would have expected. Early in the project, there had been some discussion of lighting a controlled brush fire at the site to clear away the overgrowth and dead wood. But in the end we had abandoned the idea because we were afraid the fire might damage any stones underneath. And anyway, it turned out the local fire department wouldn't grant us a brush permit anyway.

"We didn't have a fire," I assured her. "What is it?"

"Somebody was smoking, maybe?" she asked.

My brother and I shook our heads. None of our group smoked.

Exhaling in a resigned way, my mom reached into her purse and produced a packet of photos she'd retrieved from Fotomat that day.

"Take a look," was all she'd say.

Of the 10 photos I'd taken, nearly all of them were blurry or hazy. But not this one.


Or this one.


"Holy shit!" my brother exclaimed. "It's like that one from last year." He peered closer at this last picture. By the way, that's him in the background, in the blue sweatshirt and white painter's pants. My brother wasn't looking at himself in the picture, though. He was peering into the mysterious white.

Here's a closer look.


"Is that somebody? Do you see that?" he asked.

"What could cause this?" my mom wondered, more bewildered than afraid.

We had no idea.

But if it makes you feel better, tell yourself what so many have before you: that the smoke is some kind of fog. That I lied about starting a fire. That we kids were smoking giant cigars (or something more potent) and didn't want to admit it.

Go ahead. You won't offend me. Do what it takes to fight the chill you're feeling on the back of your neck.

I wish I could.

You see, I thought the strange chill that hit me that day at the old cemetery eventually faded to nothing.

But I realize now that it never truly left me.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, October 28, 2005


An October Moment...

October 1, 1980

Three months earlier, we had moved from Kansas to southern New Jersey, an area of unexpected rural beauty. Many fields and leafy old villages, tangled forests and swampy marshes. My parents purchased a monstrous old green farmhouse with black shutters. On the front porch was a sign mounted by the local historical society, bearing the name of the original owner, and the date it was built--1785 (we learned later that it was likely built much earlier, but the date came from the first tax or church roll taken in the community).

The house had three stories plus a dank old stone-lined cellar, and when we arrived there in the middle of the night that summer, I delighted in exploring it. It reminded me so much of the old abandoned houses my friend Shawn and I had snuck into in Kansas, only this house was quite a lot more structurally intact.

On the first floor was a kitchen with a low ceiling. It dated from the original part of the house and the original door was still there too, a black-painted wood-slat door with massive square-head nails holding it together. A black, hand-tooled iron latch held it shut, although above this someone crudely drilled a hole for a deadbolt.

The kitchen led off to several rooms--a breakfast bar on one end opened up to a family room and a small den. To the left was the door that led to a rickety old back staircase and a dilapidated room full of shelves, which we would come to call the pantry (although the room itself was actually larger than the kitchen). To the right was a low doorway that led to a massive, high-ceilinged formal dining room, which marked the most ambitious extension of the house. In the 1850s a sea captain had owned the place and had done well enough for himself to add the dining room, a grand foyer with winding staircase, and an equally grand parlor dominated by a giant mantelpiece, wide windows, and a huge chandelier. All the doors down here were about four inches thick and sporting ornate brass and glass doorknobs and locks.

Upstairs on the second floor was the master bedroom, a small nursery and the one bathroom in the house. A second smaller bedroom was nearby. To the right of the landing was a small odd set of steps that led down into the original part of the house again: a low-ceilinged bedroom just above the kitchen. In the back of this room was an 18-inch wide doorway that led to one more bedroom with a walk-in closet that contained the door to the back stairs.

On the third floor, under the eaves, the grand staircase petered out into a series of narrow, rickety steps. Here, the small space was illumined by one window at the end of the house. On the other end was a small latched door leading to dusty room that served as the attic. My brother had his room up on the third floor, where he slept in a narrow brass bed--the only bed frame we had that fit under the eaves--and his desk. It was a creepy place, with dark, groaning floorboards and iron hooks embedded into the ceiling. My dad said they were for hanging things--perhaps people, I wondered. My brother came to hate the room. So did I. It just had bad vibes.

But we didn't feel any vibes that first night, just an ebbing excitement giving way to utter exhaustion. After I exploring the place, I chose the low-ceiling room as my room and my brother and I slept there that first night, in the oldest part of the house, lying on the hardwood floor in our sleeping bags (the moving van was not to arrive with our furniture for a few days).

We finally turned in that night around 11:30. I could hear my parents settling in on an air mattress in their room. My brother and I were still whispering excitedly to one another when I was interrupted by a sudden noise:

Rap. Rap-rap-rap.

It was coming from the wall just behind me.

"What are you doing?" my brother asked in the dark.

"Nothing," I said. "I--"

Rap. Rap-rap.

"What IS that?" my brother asked.

I sat up now, but my hand on the wall.


It was louder and harder now, hard enough that the rapping caused my hand to vibrate as it rested on the wall.

My brother turned on his flashlight and played it around the room before resting on me.

"Sounds like a woodpecker," he said.

Rap. Rap. Rap. Rap.

Now the knocking was coming from his side of the room, from a spot on the wall directly over his head. He squawked and got to his feet.

I came over to his side of the room and as I did, the rapping sounded from both places. It was like listening to someone beating a drum in stereo.

"Maybe it's water pipes," I said, remembering my father had to turn the water on when we arrived. "Might just be air in the pipes."

My brother, who was much more mechanically minded than I, said, "What pipes, ass-wipe? There's no water up on the third floor and no radiators either."

Rap. RAP. Rap. RAP. Rap. RAP.

There seemed to be a definite cadence now, but this time the rapping had returned to my side of the room. What was on the other side of the wall?

I walked up the short flight of stairs to the second floor landing. Just down the hall was a doorway to the room next to mine, a small room with a wide, flat, built-in table. The previous owner has been a seamstress and had used this as a sewing room. My mom was planning to as well. I flicked the light on and looked around. Nothing.

And the rapping had stopped.

Shrugging, I went back down the steps to my room.

As soon as I stepped in my room, the rapping started again.

Now my brother and I both went to our parents' room. My father was already sound asleep but my mother got up and investigated. Of course, when she got to the room and waited with us, there was no rapping. She eventually dismissed it as the house settling, or perhaps a branch outside was hitting the roof, some acoustical trick causing the noise to be conducted into my room. She trudged off to bed and my brother and I lay back down.

"That was weird," I said.

"Yeah," my brother agreed. "It--"


It was so loud now I had my hands over my ears.

"What the fuck is that?" my brother cried, and he didn't swear then like he does now, so I knew he was worried.

"God. Stop it!" I said, to no one in particular. Then, in frustration, I pounded on the wall, BAMBAMBAMBAM

And instantly the rapping ceased.

That had been the first incident.


Now it was October and I was a month in school. We were all moved in and despite that odd knocking--which had not happened since-- I still decided to stay in the room I had picked. It had three nice windows that gave me a view of the street and the yard beyond. I had plenty of room for my bed, my typing desk, my five strongboxes full of comics. It was the first time I had a room of my own and I was thrilled. I spent hours up there after school, typing away at some story or letter to a friend, reading, sitting on the wide windowsills and looking out on the acre of field behind us.

It was warm that afternoon, and I had the windows open. I was at my old black Royal typewriter, clacking out a letter to my pal Shawn, when I heard my mom call me for dinner. I finished typing the sentence I was on--"Don't worry, I'll definitely send you some pictures of the house this time"--then got up. I walked up the short flight of steps to the second floor landing, walked across the hall to the main staircase and turned to go down.

To my right was the open door of my parents' bedroom. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and so, even as I was already taking a couple steps to go down, I turned and saw my mom sitting on her bed, with her back to me. She seemed to be looking out the window onto the old King's Highway that ran by on that side of the house. I almost said something, but it was my turn tonight to set the table, and I was already late, so I called out something to my mom like "I'll have the table set before you get downstairs." She didn't move. She just continued to sit there in her long blue dress, staring out the window.

I bounded down the steps, strode through the parlor and into the den, then came past the breakfast bar, intent on grabbing silverware out of a nearby drawer.

And that's when my mom stood up from behind the bar, where she had been stooped, picking up a measuring cup she had dropped.

I yelped. "Jeez! You startled me!" I cried, then froze. "Hey, did you come down the back stairs?"

My mom looked at me. "No. I wasn't upstairs. I've been making dinner."

Then I saw that my mom wasn't wearing a long blue dress at all, but a beige one.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Upstairs!" I yelled, grabbing her hand and pulling her back to the stairwell. I dragged her up to the landing two steps at a time, jabbering the whole way about seeing her--seeing someone, something--in her bedroom.

Of course, nobody was there.

"Now stop it," said my mom, as I babbled. "This isn't funny."

"I'm not joking!" I cried as we stood in the doorway. I walked into their room. "Someone was right here, looking out the---Aaaaaaa!"

As I said this last, I stepped to the very spot where I'd seen the woman in blue, and as soon as I did I felt my first cold spot. It was like being electrocuted by ice cubes. I leapt back, my arms instantly goose-pimpled. My mom thought I was having some kind of fit and dragged me out into the hall.

She and my dad slept in the guest room that night.

The next morning, I was still a bit shook up and so found lots of reasons to stay outside. I had my old 110-film camera and as I had promised Shawn, I was taking snaps of the long back yard we had, the unusual old sheds, and the massive trees that had been growing in our yard since the place was built. Finally, I turned and took a picture of the house as seen from the back yard. Here it is. It's not a great shot of the house, but it's the only one I have left.


You can see what a big house it was. Behind that hedge on the right was the porch off the kitchen. The two windows above it are the ones in my room. That white clapboard structure in the center is the outer wall of the pantry. No idea why it wasn't painted green like the rest of the house.

Eventually, I used up the roll of film, got the pictures developed and sent them to my friend.

Around the end of October, he sent one back with a note indicating something in the picture. On the note he wrote:

What the heck is THAT?

This is what he was talking about:


Here's a closer look:


"What the heck IS that?!?" I asked my mother when I showed it to her.

She didn't know.

I sure didn't know.

All we could be certain of is that we were in the presence of a mystery.

One I would spend many more Octobers--and the rest of my childhood--trying to solve.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, October 27, 2005


In Which I Get the Break-Up Speech...

After the phone conversation in which I told Her Lovely Self I had taken a job in Washington without, um, really talking to her about it, she refused to come to the phone any of the 14 times I called at her parents' house over that weekend. Which is excessive, if you ask me (the not-coming-to-the-phone part, I mean).

She didn't return any of the messages that I left at her apartment, either (not that she would, because I left most of them while she was at her parents' house, but still!). When I got back to Chicago, I waited around with her roommate til very late Sunday night, before I called her parents again, waking her mother up, who informed me that Her Lovely Self had decided to take an extra day off and wouldn't be back in the city til late Monday. But in the mean time, I should stop calling.

So I waited.

And waited.

Monday night, after my phone had failed to ring all day, I finally called her apartment one more time. To my surprise, she answered.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," she replied.

"I've-- you-- Quick question for you... Did you get my message? Messages?"

"I just got in," she said, sounding exhausted. "I'm going to bed."

"Wait! Can I come over? Can we talk?"

"No," she said simply, and I thought, finally. "I'm way too tired. It would be a bad idea to talk now. I have a lot to say to you and I want to make sure I say it right."

Uh-oh. That didn't sound so good.

"So--?" I began.

"I've got a press conference to cover in the morning and a bunch of things to catch up on. We can go have dinner tomorrow night and get this over with," she said, her voice hard and dead.

Oh crap, I thought.

"Okay. Tomorrow night," I said, and she hung up on me.

My roommate looked in sheepishly from the kitchen. "Boy, she's really pissed, huh?"

"I'll say," I replied. "In fact, she sounds like she's finished with me."

My roommate patted me on the shoulder as he walked by and headed for bed. "Well good luck," he said. "I hope you get the chance to propose to her before she breaks up with you."

In the end, it was a very near thing.

After the work day on Tuesday--which lasted about 300 hours, by the way--I raced home and took a shower, hoping to wash the funk of the Worst Day Ever off my body. Few things, I decided, were more agonizing than working in the same building as your girlfriend, especially if your girlfriend was pissed at you. Indeed, perhaps the only thing worse might be accepting a job offer more than 1,000 miles away without consulting your girlfriend first, thus getting her supremely pissed at you, all two weeks before you had been planning to propose to her.

Indeed, the only bright spot in the day was the arrival of the box. The box that had been clutched in my clammy hand all day. The box that contained the engagement ring that I'd bought a month ago and sent to New Hampshire where I was going to give it to her, only to blow it and have to ask my Dad to FEDEX it back to me. That box.

I had had this dead romantic proposal planned. After attending a wedding in Massachusetts, we were going to New Hampshire to hike up to the Ledge, the overlook at the top of the 120 acres of timberland my parents owned. Legend had it that the first member of our family in the New World--Great Grandpa Nicholas--had been granted whatever land he could see from the Ledge. And indeed, when you stood on the Ledge, you could see the entirety of the hill my parents owned, the pasture and farmhouse beyond, the shoreline around the lake, and a far green hill on the other side of the meadow. All of it had been part of the family farm at one time. Now, my aunt and uncle owned the shoreline, my other uncle owned the farmhouse and my dad owned the last undeveloped acreage, unspoiled since the time of Great Grandpa Nicholas. Here, we were going to have a picnic, enjoy some early spring weather and talk in that way that couples in love did, finishing each other's sentences and using each other's pet phrases. Eventually, if the black flies weren't too thick and didn't drive us from the ledge, I'd get down on bended knee and there, on my homeland, in the presence of the spirit of my ancestors, I'd ask Her Lovely Self to become part of my family. And she would say "Abso-friggin-lutely!"

Only now I had totally fucked it up.

I raced around the apartment, looking for clean underwear and, failing that, settling for a semi-clean shirt and pants. I briefly wore a pair of mismatched shoes, corrected the error, then brushed my teeth with my finger (having accidentally knocked my toothbrush into the toilet in my rushing around) and bolted out the door. Came back, grabbed the box, checked to make sure the ring was inside, stuffed it in my pocket, raced out the door again.

Boy, was Her Lovely Self pissed. I'd never seen anyone be consistently mad for four days straight, but she had managed it. After her brief, weak, weepy moment, during which she professed her undying love for me (she'd professed it to her parents, alas. I had to find out third-hand, and weeks later), she had poured some kind of quick-drying shell of anger around her and it had hardened to bulletproof thickness. When I skiddered to a stop in front of her apartment, she wasn't waiting on the steps like she usually did. I had to ring the bell, then watch through her window as she laconically finished a phone call she was on, hang up, come back, feed the cat, disappear again, then finally emerge at the door.

I went in for the kiss, knowing it would be icily brushed off, but also knowing that if I didn’t attempt the kiss and give her the opportunity for the icy brush-off that she'd be even angrier with me than she already was. She stiffly got into the car and I joined her.

"So..." I said, "Where do you want to go for dinner?"

"Doesn't matter," she said, staring straight ahead. "Wherever you want."

"How about that place over by the university?"

"I said it didn't matter."

"Okay, then let's go to Byron's."

"No, the place by the university is fine."

So off we drove. I got onto Lakeshore Drive, attempting to engage her in conversation throughout the drive. But I kept stalling. Finally I stopped saying anything. For several seconds, the silence was deafening.

"Golly," I said. "Can’t get a pause in edgewise."

She eyed me through narrowed lids. "You always have to be funny."

"I have a feeling the alternative isn't so good right now. Listen, I'm sorry. I am. I put the 'so' in 'sorry.' I abso-friggin-lutely should not have believed you when you said you'd move to Washington--"

Giant tongues of flame leapt out of her eyes.

"Okay, let me put it another way. We should have talked first. I was just so excited to get the offer and get out of that job, and I thought--"

"No you didn't! You didn't think at all! But I've been thinking. A lot." She said.

I could almost hear the dramatic chord in the instrumental soundtrack that runs constantly in the background of my life.

"Oh?" I said, as the car piloted itself through the busy Chicago traffic.

"I told you when we first started going out that I wasn't ready to be in a serious relationship again. I get too dependent on people. That's what happened here. I got too used to having you around. I started needing you and now your leaving made me realize it was a mistake. And it's a good thing you're going. Because I won't have to be dependent on anyone anymore."

Oh shit, I thought. She's doing the break-up speech. These are the opening remarks. I looked around wildly. Lake on one side. Apartment buildings on the other. This was no good.

"Anyway, you made a decision, and I made one this weekend too," she said, folding her arms.

"Wait!" I said wildly, running a seriously yellow light. Up ahead I saw as good a spot as any. "I know what you're going to say and I think you're going to feel really stupid later if you say it now."

"I can't feel any stupider than I felt this weekend when I knew you didn't care enough about me to talk about our future," She replied, crossing her arms.

I almost drove up on the curb and into the lobby of an office building at that. "What?!? Our future? You're the one who never wanted to talk--" I caught my breath. "Never mind. Hold on." I veered across two lanes of traffic and parked at an awful angle in an open parking space. "Get out," I said, as she steadied herself.


"Come on. Don't break up with me in the car. Let's go over here." I jumped out and gestured over to the tree-lined path near Buckingham Fountain.

But she wasn't looking at the fountain. Now, she was finally looking at me, the bullet-proof veneer broken when I had said "break up." Then her eyes hardened again. "That's what you want, isn't it? So you can be free to go off and screw around Washington."

I laughed then, a mix of nerves and I don't know what. But it was a dumb thing to do. She almost pushed me into the path of an onrushing car. Instead, we made it across the street to the path by the fountain (she refused to hold my hand, of course).

Suddenly, it was quiet and peaceful. The constant rush of the traffic had been replaced by the constant rush of water from the fountain. It was a cool night and there under the canopy of trees, I could see every bead of moisture on the leaves, on the new blades of green grass, and in the eyes of Her Lovely Self.

"Listen," she said, her voice quavering now. "This is really hard for me. I'm glad you got a job you're happy with, but I thought we were happy too. I thought you wanted to be with me."

"I do," I said seriously as we walked on under the trees, hoping that would not be the last time I got to say those two words to her.

"Then you should have talked to me first. I'm not ready to leave Chicago. I have a job here and friends and I'm close to my family." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "And I don't want you to go."

This sounded better. "You don't?"

"Don’t be stupid. I want you to stay. But if you go, then I'd want to go with you. But I don't think I'm ready. I don't know what to do and--" here she began punching me in the arm and chest "--I'm so-mad-at-you-for-screwing-it-up!" She paused, caught her breath. "I hate you. I don't know what to do now."

I looked around. Women never gave me as good an opening as I wanted. This would have to do.

"Well, I know you're mad, and I know you want to break up with me..." I said, patting around my pockets. Oh shit, where was it?

"What? What are you doing?" she asked impatiently. "Why are you stopping?"

I looked at her now and for a moment, I was scared to death. What if I had misjudged everything?

Well, then it becomes another good story, I thought. Just one I won't feel like telling for a while.

"I have a secret to tell you," I said. "When you're not around, I call you by another name."

She stared at me blankly. "What--?"

"I don't call you by the name your parents gave you. I call you 'Her Lovely Self.' It's how I refer to you in letters to friends. I almost never use your real name, even in my mind. It's how I think of you, this ideal woman I aspire to be with."

She snorted. "I'm hardly ideal."

"Then I guess that makes two of us. So as long as we've got some common ground now..."

I'd like to tell you an amazing anecdote about what happened next.

I'd like to tell you about some well-choreographed event incorporating the fountain and helicopters and a brass band and Frank Sinatra and ninjas, with a parade and confetti and a news crew thrown in for good measure. I'd like to say I burst into song and swung my skinny ass around lampposts like Gene Kelly on crack.

But in the end, all I did was make the world stop for a moment, as I knelt down in the wet grass and looked up into her eyes.

She wasn't looking at me, though.

She was looking at the open box in my hand.

"Quick question for you..." I said.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


In Which The Future Is In (and Out Of) His Hands...

I had considered myself so clever, having the engagement ring I had purchased for Her Lovely Self shipped to my parents. Not only would I be spared the anxiety of carrying that ring around with me for the next three weeks, I could also save a little money that could be put towards the wedding or the honeymoon. Assuming Her Lovely Self said yes.

That prospect that looked increasingly unlikely as I stood in the lobby of my future office in the Washington DC area. Having just accepted a job halfway across the country--without consulting Her Lovely Self first--I knew I was in deep doo-doo, doo-doo of a depth I'd never before experienced. This was no time for flowers or gifts or treasure hunts. It was time for the nuclear option. It was time to retrieve the ring from my parent's house.

At first, I announced to my dad that I was going to drive straight up to New Hampshire, a 6-hour drive from where I was in Virginia. I could be there by midnight or 1 AM. With the ring in hand, I could drive to Ohio, where Her Lovely Self was spending the weekend visiting her parents. I could be there by late Saturday night, early Sunday morning. I could make things right, propose to her there in front of her family, and--

"Stop," My dad said simply.

I shut up immediately.

"Take a deep breath and let's think this one through," my dad said. He then pointed out some facts, such as the fact that I had been up since dawn in my efforts to get to Washington for the interview. That I was exhausted. That there was some sense in staying put and looking for an apartment if I was indeed taking the job. Furthermore, my dad, a disciple of the Weather Channel, had been monitoring a weather pattern bringing heavy precipitation all across Ohio and New York in the next 24 hours. That coupled with the start-up of summer construction--and one-lane roads--on the highways I'd use put a serious damper on my plans.

"You'll be lucky to make it there by Sunday afternoon," my dad reasoned. "And where will she be by then?"

"On her way back to Chicago," I muttered.

"Ayuh. Never mind that even if you did make it to her folks', you'd still have to turn your ass around and drive back to Washington to drop off your rental car--and don't you goddamn think of driving it all the way to Chicago. Avis'll charge you an arm and leg in penalties if you do that. On the other hand, if you make the drive out to Ohio and try to make it back, you'll miss your flight, which puts you back in Chicago Sunday night. Which is when she gets back anyway."

"But--you don’t understand--"

My dad laughed. "I guess the hell I do. You fucked up sumpin big and now you wanna go jumping through flaming hoops to make up for it. But I am here to tell you, Mistah Man, all you're gonna get out of that is a red-hot asshole. I might know a thing or two about that, living with your mother for 30 Christly years."

I wasn't sure I wanted to pursue that line of thinking at all, but of course, he was right. "So how--"

"Tell you what," said my dad. "I'm looking at the ring right here. Been in the box ever since FEDEX delivered it last week. Can't do nothing on the weekend, and FEDEX don't do pick-ups out here. But come Monday morning, I'll call in late and drive down to Manchester and walk it on the goddamn plane if I have to. You'll have it Tuesday morning. Sound good?"

I was hugging onto the payphone now, all strength having fled my body. Tuesday seemed like years away. But my dad was right. It wasn't the way I wanted to do it, but it made the most sense.

"Abso-friggin-lutely," I said finally. "Thanks."

"Call me tomorrow and let me know how your apartment search went," he said. "Oh, and congratulations. Not every day someone offers you a goddamn job on the spot. Never happened to me, I'll tell you. I'd a taken it too."

"Really?" I asked.

"Cawse, your mother woulda torn me a new asshole if I hadn't talked to her first. But you'll find after the first couple of extra assholes you get, the new ones don’t hurt near as much."

We talked for a few more minutes, and once he was satisfied I wasn't going to do something stupid like show up at his door in the middle of the night, my Dad rang off.

He stood in the peaceful silence of the kitchen there in the woods of New Hampshire, staring at my little box of truth and beauty. It dawned him then that the box held a great deal more than that, and not just for his son, but for him too. Monday, and the pocked road to Manchester, suddenly stretched out before him like a vast and treacherous desert.

He looked over at one of the many cats my parents kept.

"Jesus H. Christ, Moxie, what in the hell have I gone and agreed to do now?" he asked.

Well, it was quite a weekend for all of us. I spent it hunting for apartments and feeling like shit, and so as a result selected for myself the most miserable, depressing, crack-neighborhood style apartment I could find. Her Lovely Self later wished she had been a fly on the wall (and she would have been lost in the crowd at the apartments I looked at) so she could have taken private delight in my misery, seeing as how I had caused plenty for her.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, HLS's parents were not quite sure who had shown up at their house, but it wasn't their daughter. In her place had arrived a crazy woman, someone who had jumped clear off her track and was in the midst of an emotional crisis. It was as though every feeling she had kept bottled up for the past 18 months--perhaps even the past 23 years-- was now bursting forth. First, she was weepy, telling her parents how she had driven me away, how I had taken a job in another state and hadn't told her, obviously because I wanted to be rid of her. She told them she loved me more than any other man on earth and she wanted to marry me and have my babies (not a million, but a few) and now she had blown it.

Her father, who knew his daughter, asked, "Honey, did you ever tell him any of this?"

HLS blinked at him for several seconds, then wailed, "N-o-o-o-o-o-o!"

Then she was hysterical for a while.

Then she was mad.

By the end of the weekend, she was done with me.

She informed her parents that when she saw me in Chicago again, she was going to break it off. By "it," one could only hope she meant the relationship. I wished I had been there for the first part, the emotional part, the part I never got to see in all our time dating. It would have been nice if HLS could have admitted these things under other circumstances, of course, but who was I to quibble?

Later, though, we both agreed that neither one of us wanted to be in my dad's shoes.

During the week it had been sitting on the kitchen counter, my dad hadn't given it a second thought. Now, the ring began to weigh on him.

All day Saturday, whether he was on his way to the barn to get a tool or heading down to the pasture to collect firewood, he'd stop in at the house and cast an eye over to the corner of the kitchen where the box sat. One nasty moment after lunch he looked and saw the box was gone and cried out. My mom informed him that she was afraid the cats would knock the box over and damage it--plus she was sick of him coming in and staring at it--so she had relocated it to the bedroom.

By Sunday, my dad was carrying it from room to room, so he could keep an eye on it. When his alarm clock sounded at 5 Monday morning, he sat up and reached across the nightstand for the box before he even shut the alarm off. box!

He leapt out of bed, and it was then that he saw it sitting partially under his pillow. Had he placed it there? He couldn't remember.

Within a half-hour, he was on the road to the highway that would take him to Manchester. But his first cup of coffee was already having an inevitable physiological effect.

He pulled in to McKenna's, a local diner near the highway. He locked up the truck, something he had never done before, living as he did in a small New Hampshire town. He started towards the diner, then stopped, went back, unlocked the car and grabbed the box. He carried it into the diner, order a cup of coffee and a sausage biscuit to go. Then he stepped into the single-stall men's room to have his morning sit-down.

A few minutes later, he stepped out, paid for his coffee and sandwich and headed back to the truck.

He had driven halfway across the parking lot when he realized he'd left the box on the back of the toilet in the bathroom.

With a squeal of brakes and a high whir of wheels turning in reverse, he fishtailed back to the diner and leapt out of the truck, leaving the motor running. When he saw someone was in the bathroom, my dad almost broke the door down. Instead, he held a muffled and awkward conversation with the current occupant and finally got him to hand out the box. After a quick inspection to confirm the contents, Dad raced back out to the truck and peeled out of the parking lot.

He got to the Manchester airport with hours to spare. When the man at the FEDEX desk told him they had a full service depot up a Hanover--a mere 20 minutes from my parents' house--it did nothing to lighten his mood.

But mine was lightened considerably when, on Monday afternoon, as I sat in my office in Chicago, typing the same line of the same story over and over, the phone rang and my dad rattled off a tracking number. I'd have the ring by 8 AM tomorrow.

Now if only I could get Her Lovely Self to talk to me again...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


In Which I Am On Serious Business...


His name, I swear to God, was Alan Gembola. I know I make up a lot of names on this blog, but this one is not. At least one of my regular readers was there and he can vouch for that much, should vouching be required.

Alan was my height. He wore a cashmere sweater vest and a very shiny shirt with a narrow tie. His hair was thin, but poofed up in a dramatic perm. He had blue/green eyes. I remember his eyes, because he had a flaw in one of his irises--a tiny sliver of brown in the perfect turquoise.

I thought this was an ironic detail, considering the man was a professional diamond seller.

When I was buzzed into his store on Wabash, under the El tracks, he strode over to me, open hand stretched way up high but already arcing down towards me for the shake, the march of the salesman.

"Alan Gembola, graduate gemologist," he said, handing me his card with a magic-trick flick of his fingers. And from there, he practically never shut up. He spoke in the clipped, hyper-attenuated manner of someone who'd had a little too much espresso--espresso laced with Ritalin--that morning. But his speech had a strange, wonderful, hypnotic cadence to it too. I tried to figure out who he reminded me of and only later was I able to place my finger on it. He sounded as though he had stepped whole and breathing from a David Mamet play. He entered stage left and spoke his opening lines:

ALAN (clasping MM's hand, looking him up and down): "What are we here for? What are we here for? Don't tell me, because I can guess. I can guess. You're--I can tell, it's you, not your friend (looks at MM, points at friend). You're a serious man here to do serious business. You're here...

(pauses, theatrically closes eyes, like a psychic picking up vibes)

ALAN (eyes snap open): You need a ring. You're shopping for a ring. No! Not a ring. Not a ring. I correct myself. Rings are a dime a dozen. Rings are meaningless. You, my friend, you, you're shopping for a diamond. That is a different thing. That is a different matter. That is not a purchase, my friend. That is a quest. Undertaken for her. For the woman. That is a search. And what's the search? What is it? I'll tell you. It's the search for purity. And beauty, always beauty. Purity and beauty.

(ALAN sweeps hand behind him, showing the dozen glass cases, each of them glittering with stones, each of them manned by a gemologist. Some are engaged in hunched, quiet discussions with other men there on serious business. Some are staring into the distance.)

ALAN: Let's find it together.

And so it went from there. We sat at a glass case and together regarded an empty square of velvet. Alan rummaged behind him and produced a creased pamphlet.

"MM, you know what this is? You know this? This is the document. This is the document that explains the 4 Cs. You know this?"

I nodded. I'd seen the document several times now and knew more than I wanted to about cut, color, clarity and carat weight.

Alan nodded. "Of course you do. Children need to be taught this. This is knowledge men have. Children do not come here. You do not come to my place of business without knowing what you know. You were sent here by someone, by a friend. May I ask who?"

I gave him the name of my old grad school advisor, who knew, it seemed, every secret place to shop for the best of everything in Chicago. When I told him I was in the market for engagement rings, this is where he sent me. "It doesn't look like much on the outside, but they're honest, and they'll do on-site IGI certification. And the prices can't be beat...if you're willing to haggle," my old advisor had said.

Alan nodded. "I know this name. And I know he wouldn't send a child to me. Children do not come here. Men come here. On serious business." He tossed the creased pamphlet behind him. "You have the knowledge, MM. But do you have the understanding? Understanding is the door to the truth, my friend. And truth is beauty. Do you want to see beauty? Are you ready to see beauty? I have it. I will show it to you. Tell me you're ready and I will show it to you."

I nodded and Alan immediately fished a wad of keys out of his pocket and disappeared into a back room. I turned to look at my best friend and we giggled like children, not the like the men on serious business that we were.

Alan returned bearing a metal tray filled with small pieces of folded paper.

"Here's beauty, my friend," he said, and began opening the folds of paper, one at a time.

I looked at some truly stunning pieces of pure carbon, gazing at each through the loupe he loaned me. As I did, Alan rattled off information about fluorescence, table percentage, symmetry and other details that more or less went in one ear and out the other.

If I thought I had spent some serious coin on Her Lovely Self's birthday, that had been nothing compared to the money I was about to spend--and indeed had been spending since we started dating. Weekend getaways, dinners, movies, concerts.

I'm not complaining, mind. Her Lovely Self and I had grown closer in 18 months than I would have thought possible. We weren't just inseparable. We finished each other's sentence. As you already know from previous installments, we had even adopted each other's pet phrases, like "abso-friggin-lutely" and "Quick question for you..." So any money I had spent on our relationship was money I was only too glad to spend. But it was still money spent. And it wasn't too long into our relationship that I realized I needed to start socking away money for something else, such as an engagement ring.

Since the beginning of the year I had accepted every freelance opportunity that came my way--including the loathsome business stories I hated doing--saving as much cash as I could. I had moved out of my old apartment and found cheaper digs, with a roommate, further in the city. Her Lovely Self thought I had done this to be closer to her apartment and all the places we enjoyed frequenting. And while that had been a nice side benefit, the truth was I needed to save every cent I could. I was on a mission. A mission that had brought me to this dark shop under the El tracks.

Where serious business was conducted.

After looking at about a dozen examples, I kept coming back to a particular stone. A marquise cut diamond that caught the light like no other I had seen. It was virtually colorless and glowed so brightly I half expected it to give off heat when I waved my hand over it. It was a little bit bigger than I had been looking for--it was no doorknob, for sure, but it wasn't going to be mistaken for a record-player needle either.

"You like it," Alan said. "It's not a question. It's a statement of fact. And the fact is, it's a good stone, my friend. It's the size you want, I think it's where you want to be in terms of all the other markers we discussed." He paused. "But is it beautiful, to you, MM? Is it a thing of beauty? What is beauty to you? Does it speak to you? Because if it doesn't then it is not beauty. It is not the truth. It is a lie. It is ugly, my friend. And I will never let you walk out of here with an ugly lie."

" much?" I asked, looking up from the loupe.

Alan stepped back, spread his arms and was silent for so long I thought maybe he had had a seizure. Finally he spoke. "This is it. This is the hardest part of my job, MM. This is the part I hate, I'm telling you. Do you want to know why? You want to ask me why? Ask me why. Ask me: 'Alan, why is this the hardest part of a job you love?' Ask me. Go. Ask me."

He waited.

Finally I said: "Alan, why do you hate this part of the job?"

He leaned in. "I'm glad you asked. And now I'll tell you. I hate this because you came here for truth. You came here for beauty. And how do you put a price on beauty? How do you add a dollar sign to it? This--" he gestured at the stone. "Is one of nature's purest moments of...purity. The forces that shaped it gave no thought to money when it was formed. And now I must. I must, MM. And this is a serious business. But I hate to do it. I have no stomach for it. It makes my soul hurt." And he hunched over, heading hanging, permed hair wilting slightly.

Then, he looked up at me. "I figure $2,000, my friend."

I sucked on my teeth for a bit and looked down at the rock to which he had so quickly assigned his price.

"Really?" I asked. "Doesn't look like a $2,000 stone to me."

Alan sat down before me and scribbled the figure on a piece of paper. "That is the price, MM. That is the price of beauty. That is the truth. Men come here knowing this. They come here on serious business. They know what to expect. Did this surprise you? Are you surprised? I'll be disappointed but you should tell me if this comes as a surprise to you."

I shrugged. "I just need to see a smaller number on that piece of paper."

Alan wiggled his pen between his fingers. "You have a number in mind, MM? Because, what? I should negotiate with myself now? I should talk to myself? No. Men talk to one another. They forge agreements. Talk to me, MM. Give me a number. Whatever it is, I'll write it down."

As my friend stood by, silent as a stone, I gave Alan a number and he promptly wrote it down.

"That's not a good number," he said instantly. "I wrote it down. I said I would. But I have to tell you what I have to tell you. And I'm sorry to tell you this, but I can't go back to my boss--" he pointed to an open door behind him that led to a darkened room (I imagined Harvey Keitel or Joe Mantegna sitting back there, smoking a cigar, watching everything through a bank of fuzzy black-and-white security monitors, interrupting this activity to occasionally issue statements wherein every other word was "fuck.") "--I cannot go to him with this number. I would lose my job, MM. Do you understand? I would lose my job because I would be wasting his time, my time, your time, with this number. So you understand me when I tell you this is not a good number." His hand was a blur on the paper.

"This is a better number. Not a great number. Better for you than for me, my friend. But it might not cost me my job if I went to my boss--" again he gestured to the door "--with it."

We sat silently for a time, looking at each other. Somewhere, I remember hearing someone once say that in a negotiation, the first person to speak loses.

Finally, Alan spoke, "Well, MM? What shall we do? Shall I speak to my boss? Shall I?"

"Yes, you shall," I said, not able to stop myself.

My friend wandered about the shop while Alan put the diamond-filled papers back in their tray and retreated to the darkened confines of the back office with my particular stone in his hand. I was almost certain that no one--not Harvey nor Joe nor anybody--was back there, just Alan, leaning against a wall, counting "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi..." My uncle always said diamond sellers, horse traders and car dealers were all of a kind and there were certain tactics of negotiation that were more successful with them than others.

Presently, Alan returned, looking reflexively over his shoulder at the doorway. He was still clutching the piece of paper. More numbers were written on it.

"Okay, okay," he said, arranging himself at the table. He set the diamond back down between us. "Okay." He laid the piece of paper down and walked me through the numbers. "We have over a thousand settings, gold settings, nice settings, some custom settings. We have settings, is what I'm saying. Anywhere else, you pay for that, the ring, the time to set the stone, everything. For you, today, we eat that, MM. That's on us. An engagement gift and God bless." He crossed off the number that represented the price of the ring. He pointed to another number. "Here's the tax, no way around that. Tax is tax. That and death. These are certain things. That's tax." Finally, he moved his thumb and uncovered the final number. "That's what my boss will let me do."

I shook my head. Alan sighed, exasperated.

"What should we do, MM? This is as far as we can go with this stone. You want we should look at others? We can start over. Tabbela Rayza. You know that, MM? That's Greek for carte blanche. It means we start over. Should we start over?"

I fought the urge to correct his last statement in so many ways. Instead I stood up and fished in my pocket. I'd seen my uncle do this buying trucks, but had never attempted it myself.

In my hand, I had a small roll of 100-dollar bills, representing the entire contents of my bank account, my total freelance output of the last several months. Plus the last of my vintage football cards and a small run of really nice old Spider-Man comics, all converted to this little bundle of green.

Bringing the roll out was like saying "E.F. Hutton" in that room. Everyone who wasn't hunkered down at a table watched as I counted off the bills, placing them on the velvet. When I got to the last bill, it made a decent stack, although the total was less than the split-the-difference number Alan's "boss" had okayed, and even a little less than my original counter-offer. But it was cash, not the credit everyone applied to their purchases.

Alan looked at the bills, then at me. His face was blank, a true tabula rasa.

"I'm here on serious business," I said. "Quick question for you Alan... You want to tell your boss you couldn't get the price he wanted? Or..." I fished around in my other pocket until I found a crumpled dollar bill and a handful of change. I tossed these on the table too. "Or do you want to tell him you just got some guy to give you every cent he has for one of your stones? Which, by the way, is the truth. Which sounds better to you, Alan?"

He looked at the cash, then at me, face still impassive. "The truth sounds good," he said. "Every cent you've got. I like that." He stuck out his hand and we shook.

"You just bought a nice stone, MM," he said, finally smiling.

I raised my eyebrow. "You forgot to check with your boss."

Alan winked at me. I saw a flash of the flawed iris. "Ah. We'll tell him later."

As we did up the receipt, I thought of one last thing. Her Lovely Self and I were going to my best friend's wedding in New England over Memorial Day weekend. My plan had been to propose to Her Lovely Self afterwards, on a day that we went hiking on my family's land.

"Hey," I said suddenly. "Can you ship this somewhere?"

"Anywhere in the world," Alan said. "But we'll have to figure different sales tax. And some states carry a luxury tax--"

"Ship it to my parents in New Hampshire," I said.

Alan looked at me. "Why you want to do that?" he asked.

"No sales tax in New Hampshire. The man just shaved $200 off his bill."

We both looked up. Standing in the darkened doorway was a stout man in black glasses, holding an unlit cigar. He didn't look like Harvey Keitel or Joe Mantegna, but I knew in a heartbeat he was the boss. So there was one after all. He waddled over, personally tore off the receipt and handed it to me, along with the difference in the final total, which I had saved on the sales tax. Then he and Alan saw us to the door.

And just like that I had bought an engagement ring...

Monday, October 24, 2005


In Which A Certain Offer Is Made and Accepted...

In 1993, as I was in the midst of trying to escape my first job in magazines, I got a call one day from an editor at a trade magazine in Washington, DC. The magazine was devoted to the healthcare industry, but being inside the Beltway, it had a lot of political coverage. At the time, Bill Clinton was trying to pass new and sweeping healthcare legislation. Although it eventually fizzled out, at the time it was very exciting stuff and it sounded like interesting news to cover. Plus, I figured doing any kind of health and healthcare writing would help me transition from trade to consumer magazines eventually. After all, nearly every consumer magazine had some kind of health coverage, so having that kind of experience made sense.

To top it off, I loved the idea of living in Washington. I'd been there a few times on business and it always struck me as an incredibly vibrant, exciting place, especially for twentysomethings.

To my delight, Her Lovely Self agreed. In fact, I remember well her coming up to my office late the day I got the call. I can see in my mind's eye the moment that I told her about the job possibility in Washington. Her eyes got big and she began to babble excitedly about how much she liked Washington herself.

"Quick question for you...should I apply?" I asked her, using her favorite phrase by which to preface any query.

"Oh, abso-friggin-lutely!" she said, using my own favorite exclamation (I told you we were a nauseating couple at this point). "I think you should definitely apply." She gripped my arm and looked at me in what I thought was a meaningful way. "I would move to Washington in a heartbeat."

Well, that seemed to settle it, as far as I was concerned. Her Lovely Self hated to talk about our relationship or its future, so to say this much sounded like more than a ringing endorsement; it sounded like she was making a certain commitment.

I called the editor back and we set up an interview for the very next week, on a Friday. I made my plane reservations and had even asked HLS to come with me--we could make a quick getaway of it. But she had already made plans to go to Ohio to see her parents that very weekend. So I simply promised to call her once the interview was over and off we went to our respective destinations.

I know in movies and on TV, someone's job situation is always made more interesting and exciting than it is in real life. People are forever making profound impressions on future bosses and next thing you know they're offered a job on the spot or given a corner office or have scads of money thrown at them. When as you know, in reality, this pretty much never happens. You get offered a job only after weeks of deliberation. And then you're offered something at the low end of whatever pay scale they've set for your level of experience. And if there's a corner office, your boss's boss's boss is the one who occupies it. That's just the way it goes. And it's a good thing. If real life were as whirlwind-crazy as popular culture makes it out to be, we'd never have a minute to collect our thoughts or do our jobs or discuss things with significant others.

The same was true of this opportunity. My interview was conducted in a sterile corporate park somewhere in Virginia. Everyone worked in cubicle--there was no corner office. The job paid crap--I made $1,500 more a year at my current trade mag job than what this one was paying (on the other hand, the content I'd be working on was infinitely more interesting, and I'd get a title change, from lowly assistant to associate editor).

See? Boring real life.

I had spent a long morning meeting the editorial staff. Then I had lunch with the president of the small company that ran the trade magazine. He had been impressed with my freelance efforts, especially some recent pieces I'd managed to place at Men's Health and the fledgling Men's Journal. In fact, I think it's fair to say we got along pretty well. I just didn't know how well, until I had finished interviewing with the editor. That interview had been pretty much a joke, and I don't mean that in a bad way. I'd been freelancing for this editor for years and I knew her well. So well, in fact, I had once dated her sister-in-law and, thankfully, she didn't hold that against me (but that's a whole other story).

So in the middle of us whooping it up in her cubicle, her phone rang and she answered it. Her tone got immediately serious and hushed and she excused herself. I occupied myself by rummaging through past issues of the magazine. Presently, an assistant came to my office and said, "They need you in the conference room right now, please."

Despite myself, I was vaguely alarmed. I had been working in such a toxic environment lately, I half expected to find my crazy boss sitting in the conference room, with the news that he'd followed me from Chicago and was accusing me of embezzlement.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. I walked in, and there was the president and the editor. Both smiling.

"Well," said the editor. "This is a first, but the president here and I really like you. We've interviewed several candidates already and truthfully, none of them touches you in terms of your experience. Plus, we've worked together forever. You know the magazine inside and out."

"Well, that's nice to hear," I said, sort of uncertain. "So..."

"So we want to offer you the job," said the president. "Right now. Today."

In the same breath, the president quoted a figure that actually matched what I was making at my current job. Then he threw in a small amount of relocation money to help me make the move from Chicago to Washington.

"I know you're here for the weekend," the editor said. "If you say yes today, you can spend the time looking for an apartment." The president nodded.

I'd like to say I nodded too, but my head was spinning so fast, nodding it might have caused me to topple over. I was absolutely floored. I mean, who gets offered a job on the spot? It certainly had never happened to me before (and likely never would again). What's more, it was a great job, working with some cool people. And I wasn't taking a pay cut. And I was moving up the masthead, title-wise. It was win-win-win-win.

Quick question for you... I thought. What would Her Lovely Self say?

She'll be thrilled, said some unidentified voice in the back of my head. Remember how she said she'd move to Washington in a heartbeat? Think how impressed and excited she'll be.

As I've mentioned before, though, I wasn't a complete and irredeemable moron. I knew you really weren't supposed to go off and accept a job--even one you'd been offered on the spot--without first talking to your girlfriend about it. As cardinal sins went, that was, like, the cardinalest.

"I, I don't know what to say," I said. "I'm so flattered and overwhelmed. I--"

The president looked at his watch. "We have to run to a strategy meeting. You don't have to answer right now--"

Oh thank God, I thought. When I get back to Chicago, Her Lovely Self and I can discuss it. And by then, maybe I can mention my little plan--

But then the president finished his sentence. "--so why don't you take a walk, get some fresh air, think about it, and meet us back here in an hour with your answer."

To my credit, I didn't say "Eep." But I was thinking it.

I kept my composure intact until I reached the elevator, but as soon as the doors closed, I hopped up and down, screaming in a voice that was mixed with both excitement and fear (much to the chagrin of the little old lady who was sharing the elevator with me). When I got to the lobby, I dashed for the payphone and called Her Lovely Self at her office. No answer.

On the second try, I zeroed and pounded my way to the office assistant, who informed me that HLS had left early for the weekend. Of course, she was on her way to her parents. I asked when she left and tried to do the logistics in my head. She'd been gone a couple of hours, which would put her somewhere in Indiana. This being 1993, neither one of us was quite in the financial bracket to afford a mobile phone yet. But I had to reach her somehow.

So I did something crazy. I called information and got the phone numbers for every rest area on the Indiana Toll Road. Two of the rest areas didn't answer, but the other three or four managers actually took pity on me and placed an emergency page for Her Lovely Self. It was a long shot, of course, and she didn't answer.

Finally, after some deliberation, I called her parents. Her mom answered the phone and asked me how my interview had gone. I didn't want her to be the one to tell Her Lovely Self, so I just lamely said it was fine.

"But listen, if she calls to check in or something, could you please have her call me at this number?" I read the pay phone number to her. "Or this number?" I added, giving her the magazine's main number.

"Umm, okay," she said. "Are you sure everything's--?"

"It's fine. Fine! Just tell her I have a quick question for her."

With that I hung up and spend the next 45 minutes hunched over the payphone, drumming my fingers so hard I left indelible prints on the top of the phone enclosure.

As the hour crept by and the phone continued not to ring, I wondered what to do. I had been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here. And while I probably wouldn't offend anyone by asking to wait to answer, I didn't want to cheapen their gesture by making them wait either. An on-the-spot offer deserved and on-the-spot answer, I felt. And the editor was right: if we sealed the deal now, I could spend the weekend looking for an apartment. This was an important consideration. This was a small magazine after all, and what little money they'd offered for relocation would barely cover gas and rental for a U-Haul, certainly not another round-trip ticket and hotel accommodations for a later apartment search.

And besides, Her Lovely Self had said she'd move here. And she knew how much I had grown to hate my job. She was none too happy with hers either. Granted, because the way our relationship was conducted we had never really talked seriously about what we would do if one of us had to move.

What to do?

Well, my lovelies, you who know me from my romantic recounting of the treasure hunt adventure can surely guess what I did: that I went upstairs and thanked them nicely for their offer and said that, as much as I wanted to accept the job on the spot, I had to discuss this with my girlfriend back in Chicago, and could they give me a couple of days to think on it and talk about it with her?

You can guess that I did that.

But your guess would be wrong.

Instead, I marched back into the conference room after an hour and, full of excitement and youthful exuberance, I accepted the job on the spot and shook hands all around and went off with the editor to gather up some newspapers and a couple of apartment guides she had in her office. We made plans to meet up for dinner tomorrow night and I bade them goodbye.

Head still spinning, I took the elevator back down to the lobby and tried to concentrate on the guides I was looking at. My new boss (my new boss!) had said Arlington was a good place to start looking. That was where she had lived. And--

At that moment, I stumbled and the papers went flying. It shattered my concentration, although I'm not sure that was good thing.

For, as I stooped and gathered the papers, I realized the payphone across the lobby was ringing.

And then, everything I had just done came to me in a flood and I felt my fillings turn to water. Ice water.

I dashed to the phone and picked it up.

"Hello?" I asked tentatively. It could be anyone.

"There you are!" a familiar voice answered. "I just stopped at this rest area and called my parents. They said to call you right back. So, quick question for you... How'd the interview go?"

I told Her Lovely Self that they offered me the job on the spot, expecting her--well, not to squeal exactly--but at least to show some excitement as she had when I first told her about the opportunity, and to recognize the offer for the compliment it was.

But instead, she said, very quietly, "Oh."

In the moment, I chalked this up the fact that that was how Her Lovely Self was. Not emotionally demonstrative, especially about big things.

"Well? Isn't that pretty cool?" I asked.

She didn't agree. "So they really offered you the job? What--what did you tell them?"

All of a sudden a large, testicle-crushing boulder fell from a great height and landed directly on my crotch as I realized, too late, the enormity of the mistake I'd just made.

I took a deep breath. "Um, well. I, um, I took it."

There was a long pause. But I could hear heavy breathing, like in an obscene phone call. Only this was the exact opposite of sexy.

When she finally caught her breath, Her Lovely Self said, " WHAT?!!!?"

I couldn't answer. All the oxygen in the lobby suddenly vented into space. My tongue fell out of my head. I couldn't answer.

"You decided to quit--quit and leave Chicago--quit and move across the country--just now?!? Today?!? Without even talking to me about it? Don't you even CARE what I think?"

I found one tiny sip of oxygen. "But-- but you agreed this was a great job," I squeaked. "You said you'd move to Washington."

"And you took me at my word?" she bellowed.

Well, she might not have said that, exactly, but it came down to the same thing. I had totally violated one of the most sacred tenets of boyfriendhood: Check first. Hell, I often cleared my daily schedule with her to make sure it didn't conflict with anything she was doing. I didn't even make dinner reservations without asking her if it was okay. And now? Now...

Oh shit.

"Listen..." I began.

"I can't--I can't--listen to this--anymore," she said, and she sounded more upset than I'd ever heard anyone sound, and this is coming from someone with a long and storied career of upsetting people. She was trying to get the words out but she was sobbing into the phone. The tremor in her voice practically caused the handset on my end to vibrate with pain and rage.

"But--we should talk--"

"Oh now!" she cried, finding her voice. "NOW you want to talk! Just shut up! Shut up! I was so stupid to think you actually gave a shit about me. That I actually thought we had a future. Just shut up! I hate you for doing this to me! I abso-friggin-lutely hate you!!" And on that rather shrill note, she slammed the phone down on me.

I didn't have to look at my reflection in the mirrored glass of the lobby then to know I was ashen-faced. I could see my hands trembling. If I ever thought I had fucked things up before, I now had a new benchmark by which to judge all fuck-ups (a benchmark that exists to this day, by the way).

I stood for a long while, staring into space.

Finally, I came to a decision, picked the phone back up and dialed a number.

"How'd the interview go?" my dad asked when he answered.

"Oh, just great," I said, dripping sarcasm all over the phone. "Listen. I've got a little emergency here."

I took a deep breath.

"I'm driving up to New Hampshire tonight to get the ring..."

Friday, October 21, 2005


In Which I Have Quite A Job Ahead of Me...

Man, I can't win for losing.

Ladies, my faithful lovelies who check in here everyday, I have to tell you something. As gratifying as it was to hear your words of appreciation over my recent story of wooing Her Lovely Self, as much as it made your hearts go pitter-pat, I must ask you to restrain yourselves from sending the story to your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/lover.

I had no idea how many men read the Masthead until the hate mail started coming in from all the disgruntled significant others who were now feeling slightly less significant because my antics were being held over their heads as the model of How to Treat Your Woman.

(Of course, if you have never done one over-the-top crazy thing in an effort to win her, then you probably should feel like shit. You probably also ought to get on your horse and get started).

Let me put things in perspective. After reading some of the reactions and emails from the ever-growing team of women who want to have a million of my babies (see Kat? No need to feel self-conscious at all), Her Lovely Self had this to say: "So, they're saying this because of that treasure hunt? It was nice and all, but that was 13 years ago. Also, you said yourself you were just pretty lucky. What if I'd pitched that fax? What if I hadn't seen the cab at the airport? It's like everyone's calling you a financial wizard just because you won the lottery."

See, guys? You can bust your ass, you can spend an entire paycheck and use every scintilla of creative energy to fashion a golden moment, and still you run the risk that some day your beloved will manage to turn it into a joke where YOU are the punchline.

On the other hand, Her Lovely Self sort of had a point. The day of the treasure hunt was a rare kind of planets-in-alignment moment that happened once. And immediately thereafter I went back to my usual pattern of fucking things up left and right.

As proof, I offer this story. I was saving it for a special occasion, or at least until I got through telling you about Magazine Man: Year One, but in light of the MM Revenge Squad that seems to be forming among the male contingent, I thought it was important to get this story out there. To provide some balance. And more importantly, to prove that on occasion I can be just as clueless and insensitive as the next guy. Sometimes more so.

So, if you sent your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/lover my earlier story, please be sure to send them this one too:

When last we left you, our happy couple was now a, well, a happy couple. In short order we were doing all the drippy, mushy happy couple things that happy couples do. We walked everywhere with hands intertwined or in each other's back pockets. We began calling each other pet names like "honey" and "babe" and "Scruffy" (never mind). We began using each other's favorite phrases. Back then, I was in the habit of saying "Abso-friggin-lutely!" if I emphatically meant "yes" and Her Lovely Self very quickly picked it up. For her part, she always prefaced a query with "Quick question for you..." and then she'd ask. I absorbed that phrase like a sponge. Like I said, it was so drippy and mushy that it was disgusting. So let us skip over the next 18 months or so of romantic dinners and moonlit picnics and skinny-dipping in public parks and serenades in apartment courtyards and all of the intervening heavy breathing and groping and gasping that those events tend to include.

By the summer of 1993 Her Lovely Self and I were pretty much joined at the hip, and other areas adjacent to the hip. Ever since SJ crashed and burned on her birthday, Her Lovely Self and I had been dating more or less exclusively, with only a few brief exceptions. There was that trip to New Orleans with her girlfriends that she won't talk about. And there was the time her old college boyfriend came to town for a weekend and it was like I had ceased to exist. And there were one or two other instances that escape me just now, but which I like to bring up, especially after Her Lovely Self has recently dismissed the most romantic endeavor of my life as requiring no more effort than buying a lottery ticket .

In retelling the early days of our relationship, I realize now that Her Lovely Self is starting to come off as a bit of a self-centered, inconsiderate heart-breaker. But I looked at it differently. One of my friends in Chicago put it simply, and put it best: our stereotypical gender roles in the relationship had been reversed. I was "the woman": always remembering anniversaries and trying to do nice things and wanting to talk about the relationship and where we were going. She, meanwhile, was "the man": would never say "I love you" if she could help it; was annoyed with me whenever I asked where she had been or who she was going out with; felt tied down whenever I objected to her going away for a week with her friends or spending a weekend with an old boyfriend; didn't want to discuss "the relationship" at all because it was just too much of a downer. She was, in short, a total commitment-phobe. All this--plus raging PMS every 24 days--sometimes made our relationship a little strained.

I had some understanding for her attitude, but only because I knew something of her relationship history, early long-term deals in which the boyfriends were so possessive as to be suffocating, and even abusive. And she came from a family that was not terribly demonstrative in any way, especially emotionally.

But I knew how she really felt. There were glimmers, shining gem-like moments that I treasured. Such as when my birthday came around and she baked me a cake from scratch, including the frosting. Considering she hated to cook (a position she has impressively reversed), this was a tremendous gesture. Or when she invited me to come with her one weekend to meet her parents. This was a landmark moment, because--as her parents and sisters informed me--she used to bring boyfriends home all the time, but stopped because the boyfriends ended up liking her family--in particular her smoking hot sisters--even more than her. And so she swore the next man she was bringing home was the one she'd marry. It was also a landmark moment because her parents were ultra-conservative Catholics and watched you like hawks, and she more than once said how she'd never have the nerve to have sex under their roof, even once she was married and it was perfectly okay.

(Did she get over that? Abso-friggin-lutely. And on our first night in the house.)

The idea that I might be a man she'd consider marrying was an arresting one, and I would dearly have liked to explore it further, but every time I brought it up, she'd shy away from it. Usually, she'd bat it away with a self-deprecating remark like "Quick question for you...Why? Why would you want to marry someone like me?" Or similar. But then, once in a while, in the heat of some moment or other, she'd say something else. One night, at a 10,000 Maniacs concert, as we were listening to Natalie Merchant singing "These Are Days" she leaned in and said "I love this song. I want them to play this at our wedding reception." And I responded: "Abso-friggin-lutely!"

So I had some idea of where she was heading. From our months hanging out and talking when we were just pals, I also knew how much she craved surprise, even in a seriously committed relationship. She had once told me that she hated the idea of being such a tight couple that she and her boyfriend would end up shopping for engagement rings together. She felt that on some level, a proposal of marriage needed to be a surprise, almost a shock when it happened. And she wanted her intended to choose the ring. "Besides," she said, "if I don't like the ring, I can always make him exchange it later."

All of which is to say I had a few encouraging if oblique signs of where things were going. Still, that didn't stop me from wishing, just once in a while, that she might register an emotional response somewhere above normal, that she might just once act out of passion.

But that wasn't exactly a day-to-day concern. My days at that point were filled with trying to find another job.

I don’t wish to ruin the narrative of what I'll eventually tell you during Magazine Man: Year One, but suffice it to say that two years at my trade magazine job had been quite enough, especially since I had played boy-detective and determined that my boss was up to something fishy with our freelance budget. In the back of my mind, I was worried that if I didn't get out soon, he was going to try to pin it on me somehow.

Problem was, there were no jobs to be had in Chicago, not the kind I wanted. Sure, I could have jumped to another trade magazine or newsletter in a heartbeat. What I really wanted, though, was a full-time gig with one of the big magazines in the city, like Outside or Chicago. Unfortunately, they weren't hiring.

So I put the word out among the editors I worked with as a freelancer, hoping someone knew someone who might think of me the moment a position opened.

Within a few weeks, that's exactly what happened...


The Mighty Blaze!

Unfortunate Update, 2011: Blaze may be gone, but he will never be forgotten, and these posts, I think, make a fitting monument that speaks to the special brand of love, devotion, and general awesomeness that he brought to our lives. I wrote every one with a sense of wonder and gratitude (and often with a smile on my face) at my good fortune to have such a dog. I hope reading them elicits the same response.

Original Intro:

Due to popular demand, my dog has gone from being an occasional supporting character here to a co-star, much like the Fonz did on Happy Days. And much like Henry Winkler's character, Blaze brings a certain level of style, elan, and general coolness that this blog would otherwise lack, since God know I am incapable of generating any of the above. That Blaze is also furry and cute and brave and faithful doesn't hurt either. He appears often in my posts, but these are the highlights. If I've overlooked a favorite, let me know:

My Dog the Hero

A letter written to my dog, after he was diagnosed with cancer (a diagnosis that, happily, turned out to be completely incorrect). A certain writer of my very close acquaintance wrote a different version of this story (which ended up winning an award) for a magazine, which is why the link here will take you off the blog. Warning: May induce simultaneous laughing and crying.

My Dog the Hero (Again)

Blaze really is extremely protective of my children, especially the Brownie. This news story recounts an exciting morning at the Magazine Mansion wherein Blaze raced around like Lassie on crack, trying to warn me that my daughter was in danger, before taking it upon himself to save the day.

My Many Head Wounds

Another extremely popular entry. Readers wrote in using words like "guffaw" and "coffee" and "spewing" so it must have been funny. This is the second part of a story in which I had to take the Brownie to the ER to get her head stitched shut. Along the way, I distracted her with stories of my own numerous head wounds. Bonus content includes a moment when I manage to numb myself with the one topical anesthetic on the planet that I'm not immune to, and my dog speed-dialing my mother. It's got something for everyone!

The Noise in the Night

What if you woke up in the middle of the night and thought you heard someone rummaging around in your garage? And your dog snoozed through almost the whole thing?

Speaking My Dog's Language

Our brief and surreal attempt to speak Dog, and the hilarity that ensued. Also includes a link to a bonus audioclip.

The Wild Rumpus

You'll find the full story of this weekend in "The Ones Everyone Asks About" but I include the first installment here for the hilarious if unfortunate picture of poor Blaze, who put the "rump" in "rumpus."

Guest Dogger--er, Blogger

This longish post features a story told from three different viewpoint, but it was the last of these guest bloggers who stole the show.

Return of the Guest Blogger

Three guesses who this is...

Patrolling the Mean Streets

What happens when some dink in a car tries to jump you, but doesn't realize you have a dog who will rip your leg off the moment you yell "LOAFER!"

Two Words: Ass Strep

Nuff said. In fact, the less said, the better.

Fetching Blaze

The longest saga in the adventures of me and that damn dog. It starts here, near the very end, and continues for several days. Even I can't believe it, but it happened.

A Long Walk, Shortened

Blaze may be kind of a one-note dog when it comes to heroics, but I'm not complaining. Here, and not for the first time, he protected one of us (me) from a dog attack, standing paw to paw with two ravening German Shepherds. He came out of it a little worse for wear.

Then again...maybe not.


From Somewhere on the Masthead


The Ones Everyone Asks About

Greatest hit lists are always pretty subjective. Mine is mostly a conglomeration of posts people made a big deal of (via comments or email) or seemed to remember even after several other entries. Or sometimes, they're just bits of writing I happened to be very smug and self-satisified with.

23 Things About Me

Who IS the Magazine Man? It's a question I've wrestled with for years, and which some of you have wrestled with for months. In the interest of quelling some of the curiosity, I posted this variation on the 100 Things post that is the mainstay of many blogs. Oddly, it only seemed to increase interest in figuring out who the hell I was.

Fixin' the Foxhole

This saga began last spring when I finally convinced Her Lovely Self to let me convert some dead space under the eaves into a walk-in attic. My plans for an ultra-cool secret door (hidden behind a bookcase, no less) ran aground early on in the project. But somehow, the Brownie managed to co-opt the project--and my Dad, who worked on it--for her own ends. The result was just a little bit magical...

MM: Medical Oddity

One thing readers of this blog learn quickly: I have no shortage of unusual medical adventures. Most of these are self-generated, but every once in a while, I find the fickle thumb of Fate jammed up my ass and something really odd and freakish happens to me. This is a case in point, which occurred, conveniently enough, just a few weeks before I got married. You can't make this stuff up, people. And when you live my life, who needs to?

Letter to the Magazine Man

No matter what magazine I've worked at, one of my favorite jobs has always been sorting through reader mail. This is a compilation of some of the best letters. By "best" I mean "worst."

The Guy in the Trunk

Boy, a lot of you loved this story, being an account of my experience at a party where I had to endure some asshole pawing Her Lovely Self, and I just snapped. We weren't dating yet, understand, but I didn't let that stand in the way of my righteous retribution.

The Infamous Bikini Shot

For reasons that escape me just now, I made an idle threat about posting a picture of Her Lovely Self in a bikini on a beach in Barbados and all hell broke loose. I still have some of the emails from Shane begging me to post it...naw, I kid. Before Art Lad hit the Web, this post contained what was by far the most widely viewed image on my Flickr account (no, not the one of me being crushed by a wave). I can't imagine why.

Day in the (Insane) Life

Back when Sharfa and Batonga were pretty much the only readers, I posted this long entry about a crazy day at work that I realized afterwards had unfolded in exactly the manner I had imagined every day of my adult life would be like back when I was a child. It's a living example of the old adage, "Be careful what you wish just might get it." I don’t know if this got emailed to friends or mentioned elsewhere on the 'sphere or what, but right after this post, traffic started to pick up in a big way.

Absinthe Absurdity

During my road trip this past summer, I brought along a rare and highly illegal bottle of absinthe to share with my pals. This entry is a drink-by-drink log of the experience so you can wonder, along with me, why in the world anyone would wish for a super power like "x-ray bison."

The Hangover

A companion piece to the above. Even though it's the next morning, it's obvious I'm still pretty far gone. Pretty much the only reason it's here is because it made Shane laugh a lot (and isn't that reason enough?).

Jules of Wisdom

A proto Art Lad piece, this Father's Day entry recounts my son's decision to trade drawings with one of the greatest illustrators alive, Jules Feiffer.

I am the Sex Man!

Thanks to a slight language barrier, a dating book I wrote in the US is reborn in China as a tell-all sex memoir, complete with a picture of my ass (apparently) on the cover.

The Artist At Work

After the Jules Feiffer entry, lots of folks asked to see some of my son's artwork. I posted his personal favorite and absolute best work, entitled "Dinner." Reader response was overwhelming. Also, at that time, certain grandparents opined that it would nice to see more such drawings. Plus Thomas began following me around with a large box of pictures. I caved to the pressure, and Art Lad was born.

A Short History of C.R.A.P.

Ever since I gave a name to my family's inherited disease, dozens of fellow C.R.A.P. sufferers have come forward to share their stories. I'd like to say our being in touch helped one another, but really all it did was give me a chance to foist my crap on someone else in my first annual giveaway.

Of Bicycles and Baseballs

Man attempts to teach daughter to ride bicycle. Daughter bails out in middle of lesson, kicks Dad in sensitive spot. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

Meeting the Bus

In which I make a promise to my son and attempt to keep it, with the aid of a great deal of luck and a Bob the Builder hat, and despite being attacked by my own dog and having my car towed.

Speaking My Dog's Language

Once again, my dog worms his way into the blog. Here I recount my efforts to literally try to speak his language, a real struggle, although everyone else around me learned to do it effortlessly. Also contains a link to my first audioblog.

Art Lad vs. Magazine Man

My first vlog, featuring a lightsaber duel in the perilous Basement of Crap. As one commenter remarked: "It just...kept...happening..."

The Wild Rumpus

What happens when I watch the kids while Her Lovely Self is gone for 36 hours? The answer, which took me four days to write, is here.


Everyone mistypes a word now and then. I mistype words that are then printed in magazines read by millions. Here's a sampling of my worst moments. By "worst" I mean "best."

BB Turns 40

My brother is slightly famous here for his often illuminating, always skewering comments, so it was right that I should mark his passage from young curmudgeon to old bastard. No one really remembers what I wrote about my brother on his birthday. All they remember is that I used the word "cunnilingus" in a sentence.

There are worse ways to be immortalized, I guess.

Daddy's Little "Procedure"

You'll have no problem figuring out what this one's about. Men, cross your legs before reading.


My latest efforts to deal with back pain go oh, so horribly awry. And in the middle of a big meeting, too.

So there you have it. It's a growing list, by the way and I'm a shameless panderer, so if you don't see a favorite represented here, by all means let me know below.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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