Tuesday, May 31, 2005

 

The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #4: Snack-Bar Boy (Part II)

"So where are the snack-bar girls?"

It was only an hour after I had opened the snack bar, but it was already the 20th time someone had rolled up in a golf cart and asked me the question.

Always it was some old guy (the man who was asking me right now was well over twice my age. Had to be at least, oh, 36 or 37), and always he would look around behind me, hoping to catch a glimpse of Rachel or Kim, the girls who before me had always served the men a free glimpse of cheesecake to go with their overpriced hot dogs and hamburgers.

After about the 5th time someone asked me where they were, I began to think up alternative answers to the question, such as:

"Mr. Jones, don't you recognize me? It's Rachel! I got an operation!"

or

"That hamburger you're eating? That's Rachel. No, hang on, the hot dogs are Rachel. THAT'S Kim."

or

"They're gone. But they left their bathing suits behind. Want to see one? It's five bucks extra. Want me to wear it? That's another 500."

or

"They quit after I walked into this very snack bar and saw them naked. Sorry. Sorry I didn't have a camera, I mean."

Of course, the last answer was actually the truth, but I couldn't very well admit it because I was 15 and stupid and had allowed myself to be guilted into taking over the snack-bar job after the girls had quit. The real blame lay with Michael, the bombastic Irish culinary-arts student who ran the Richman food service staff, and who had also asked me to go down the snack shack and unlock the door that fateful day. He knew what I didn't--that the girls were inside, changing out of their swimsuits. And while part of me was sort of grateful for the circumstance (which allowed me my first live glimpse of naked female) the rest of me was a little annoyed at being put in the situation. It didn't help that when the girls quit, Michael blamed the whole thing on me. And, by association, my brother, who also worked for Michael.

The upshot: He told my brother that if I didn't come and work the snack bar that weekend, it was my brother who would suffer the consequences.

I affected like I didn't care, but as I mentioned earlier, when the chips were down, my brother and I generally looked out for each other. As convoluted as this chain of events had become, one thing seemed clear to me: my brother was in trouble for my antics, and if I wanted to set it right, I was going to have to work the snack bar.

Is that enough of a recap?

I hope so. Because that's actually more than a recap: it's almost the whole story. I could write about the next several weekends, and the many afternoons I worked the snack bar that hot month. I could go on about my days of flipping burgers and retrieving wieners from an ancient steamer (that managed to keep the very core of the hot dogs frozen solid yet turn the tiny snack shack into a sauna. No wonder the girls wore their bathing suits in here!) I could reduce you to a snoring, drooling heap by sharing with you those precious, stolen moments I enjoyed when some kid would come to the snack bar and order ice cream--and I would stuff my whole upper torso into the ice cream freezer, just to feel the blessed cool air.

But I won't. We've all had jobs like that, in one way or another. And I honestly have no interest in reliving those sweltering days moment by moment, burger by burger.

As always in my life (and probably yours too), it's the jarring moments, the crazy-ass anecdotes, the sudden disruptions in my routine that I remember most clearly, and that I think are worth dwelling on. And for summer, pretty much all of the above were supplied by my new boss, Michael.

Who, not to put too fine a point on it, turned out to be, in the deathless words of my uncle, "crazier than a shithouse rat."

Which I didn't really notice at first, probably because of the high level of functional insanity in my own family. At this point in my life, my father was a mighty erratic fellow and his behavior and actions towards my mom, my brother and me are worth a few blog entries of their own. For now, let it suffice to say I was pretty well conditioned to deal with wingnuts.

But after a few weeks, even Michael's behavior was too odd to ignore. He could go from greeting you as warmly as a long-lost brother in the morning to screaming at you in front of paying customers in the afternoon. That was no big deal; I'd dealt with people who ran hot and cold like that plenty of times. But Michael also did things that made me think he might be more than just odd, but odd and violent and barely in control.

For example, he seemed to take great delight in burning himself--and anyone else in arm's reach--with cigarettes. He did this repeatedly, despite fairly vocal and unanimous protests against this behavior. The more you made it clear that it really wasn't remotely funny, the more it seemed to encourage him.

He also managed to rig the kitchen's walk-in freezer so that it could not be opened from the inside, which was a truly dangerous--never mind illegal--adjustment. There was one dishwasher in particular who,if memory serves, had claustrophobia, and made the mistake of saying so in Michael's presence. Thereafter, Michael would barricade him in the freezer every chance he got (the poor dishwasher eventually quit).

My first exposure to this behavior was my second weekend, working the lunch rush. Michael came in to supervise me, so he alleged. He ended up standing directly behind me, literally looking over my shoulder while I grilled several burgers. I figured he was waiting for me to say something, but I was busy, and my default setting was to ignore him.

After a few uncomfortable minutes of this, Michael started bumping my elbow every time I reached across the grill to flip a burger. He did this once or twice, then pushed hard, forcing the edge of my hand onto the grill and giving me a pretty nasty burn.

I whirled and yelled "CUT IT OUT!" right in his face, but he just pushed me back and looked at me with cold eyes. "You don't talk to me like that. I'll do as I fucking please." And then he left.

The moment was bad enough on its own, but then a few hours later, as I was closing up for the day, he came back, all smiles and solicitation, offering a lame apology for burning my hand, claiming it was "just a bit of fun." I just nodded and continued cleaning up. But I was thinking, You're a total nutcase.

Aside from the dishwasher, I don't know who else Michael like to antagonize, but there must have been others. When I showed my brother my burned hand at the end of that day, he looked annoyed, but not overly concerned. "Michael just likes to fuck with some people," he said. It was easy for my brother to laugh this off: he outweighed Michael by more than 50 pounds. Aside from the occasional insult or mild verbal abuse, Michael generally left my brother alone.

"Well, if he does anything like this again, I'm going to Jerry," I said. Jerry was the guy who ran all operations for Richman's food services. He was also Michael's boss.

My brother's look went from annoyance to alarm when I said this. "Yeah, well he'll just deny it. It's your word against his. Then Michael will get you back--and probably me too--for trying to get him in trouble."

That stopped me. I had no desire to make things worse, and I'm sure living my father had conditioned me against making crazy people even crazier. On the other hand, I didn't think Michael should get away with his passive-aggressive antics. And I was annoyed with my brother for trying to talk me out of going to Michael's boss. "You're such a chicken-shit," I told him and stalked out of the restaurant.

The problem was, so was I. At 15 I think I had roughly 4 ounces of muscle mass on my entire body (and most of that was almost certainly tied up with assorted sphincter functions). I weighed all of 100 pounds, and Michael was not above getting violent. This was, after all, the guy who would get drunk on weekend nights and show up the next morning with assorted bruises and stories of his various brawls. In short, I realized that if I said anything against this guy, my mouth would be writing checks my body couldn't cash.

Looking back, I'm just in drop-jawed amazement at my stupidity. This situation was never anything my brother or I discussed with my parents. I barely mentioned it to my uncle (whose advice was to lie in wait for Michael one night as he went to his car and them pummel him senseless with a baseball bat. "Then piss in his gas tank. Always piss in their gas tank," he said. It was kind of a motto with him). I never compared notes with other employees. I never did anything to remedy the situation. In short, I became a classic enabler, keeping a low profile out in my little snack shack and justifying and making excuses for Michael's behavior. It was, as you can imagine, a pretty miserable time.

So it's a good thing, really, that my tenure in snack-bar purgatory lasted only another couple of weeks.

My last day at the snack bar began innocuously enough. I was going through my usual routine of firing up the steamer and getting the grill ready, when I heard this ungodly caterwauling from up at the restaurant.

I looked out the back door of the snack bar and could see the service entrance to the restaurant. And there was Michael, yelling and howling. He was by himself--there wasn't even anyone sitting at the picnic table where the kitchen staff liked to have cigarette breaks--so I don't know whose benefit the yelling was for.

But in a second, it didn't matter. Michael spied me looking up the hill at him. He pointed at me and made a great, doglike baying sound, which would have been funny under any other circumstance. Except then Michael stopped baying and, with a finger still pointed at me, he charged down the hill making exaggerated grunting noises.

Well, I didn't want any part of that, so I slammed the door shut and locked it. Of course, Michael had the key, and he fitted it in the lock, growling all the while like some wolf-man from the movies. Every time the lock turned, I turned the latch back on my side. This went on for several seconds.

Next thing I knew, Michael was at the service window and was crawling through it, still making his rabid doglike noises. If I'd had a baseball bat then, I probably would have pummeled him. But in the surreal moment, I panicked and simply fumbled with the back door. I got it unlocked and had it partly opened when Michael clambered all the way through the window, scrambled across the floor and grabbed me by the ankles.

I went down with a yelp and tried to get back up, when Michael threw me to the floor, raised his head and howled. Then he bit my left nipple.

I don't care who you are, man or woman: having some strange guy suddenly bite your nipple is absolutely the very definition of No Fun. And that previous sentence is the very definition of An Understatement.

To this day, I have no idea what caused Michael to charge down the hill and terrorize me. Maybe in some fucked-up way, he really did think he was just having fun, messing with people's heads, and he just didn't know when to stop (such as before actually making unwanted dental contact with another man's nipple). More likely he had some kind of psychological disorder which modern therapy and pharmaceuticals could have helped (and maybe by now it has). I suppose I should have felt sorry for Michael. But I was too busy having my nipple bitten off.

Okay, to be fair, he didn't bite it off. He just bit through my shirt and sort of pinched the skin around my nipple. He didn't break the skin, but he left a very distinct bite-mark that didn't go away for the rest of the summer. The attack also left me with a very sore throat, since the moment Michael bit me, I let out a scream that must have vaporized the lining of my esophagus.

Those few seconds were a sensory blur. It started with howling, growling, then a sharp pain in my chest, followed by me screaming, and Michael laughing. Then there was a flash of metal in my field of vision and suddenly Michael was off me, yelling in surprise and holding his neck. There was a clatter of metal, then I felt a hand roughly grab the back of my shirt, and my brother pulled me to my feet. I was never so glad to see him before (or, I must confess, since.)

(What? He's my brother. You think I'm gonna get all gushy and complimentary about him? He reads this, you know)

Michael was holding his neck and looking in disbelief at my brother. For a second, I thought my brother had stabbed him with the bread knife I kept for slicing hamburger buns open. But then I saw that my brother's hand was near the grill. Near the metal spatula sitting on the grill.

"Did you burn me?" Michael asked, goggle-eyed, still clutching his neck. "Did you fucking burn me?" My brother looked down at the hot spatula, then snatched it up and began some caterwauling of his own. Michael gave him the briefest of looks--a wonderfully uncertain look of realization that he may have just met someone secretly crazier than himself. Then he bolted past me, out the door and down the hill.

My brother--who evidently had finally had enough of Michael's crap--chased after him,
roaring and brandishing the upraised spatula like it was a battle axe. I watched them go. Because of his bulk, my brother was always slow out of the gate, but I could see that with enough distance and with gravity on his side, he'd catch Michael at the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, they disappeared behind a stand of trees before I could see that happen.

I stood there in the door for a few seconds. Then I heard someone pull up to the service window in their golf cart.

"Hey," some old guy yelled at me through the window Michael had climbed in moments ago. "Can I get a burger?"

Still in a daze, I responded automatically, going over to the grill. Then I stopped and looked around for a few seconds before it dawned on me.

"Sorry," I said. "But my spatula just ran down the hill."

Then I laughed this long, crazy, high-pitched laugh. I don't remember if I talked the guy into taking a couple of hot dogs instead, or if he just drove off in an attempt to get away from the crazy kid. Either way, that insane laughter had a marked effect on me. I suddenly knew it was time to end my snack-bar career. I closed up the grill and within a couple hours, I locked up the rest of the snack bar and left the keys on the desk in Michael's office (who had still not returned, by the way. Neither had my brother). I never formally quit, but that was my last day at Richman. I got on my bike and rode home and haven't set foot in that resort since.

If that isn't anticlimactic enough for you, how's this: To this day I don't even know whether my brother caught up with Michael or what. He came home late that night after closing. He usually finished work around 1 or 2 in the morning, after everyone in the family had long gone to bed. But this night I waited up for him. He walked in and gave me a funny look. Suddenly he raised his hand and banged the spatula down on the kitchen counter. Then, without a word, he stomped off to bed.

That night and for days--years--thereafter, I begged him to tell me what happened, but he refused.

Maybe if I'd said "thank you" he might have.

But I didn't.

So he didn't.

...

(God! Okay, okay! I know you're reading this, so: Thanks for chasing your crazy boss away after he bit my nipple.

Which I'm compelled to point out would never have happened if I hadn't taken the job to save your ass in the first place, but never mind.

THANK YOU.

All right?

Happy now?

Jeez!)

...

I do know that Michael himself left shortly thereafter. My brother ran the kitchen for the few remaining weeks of the summer and everyone was very happy with the change in management. In fact, with Michael gone one of the snack-bar girls--I think it was Kim--was willing to come back to work, which no doubt made all those leering old golfer men happy.

But I guess she had to bring her own spatula.

Because I still have the one my brother took from the snack bar.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead



NEXT>>

Friday, May 27, 2005

 

The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #4: Snack-Bar Boy


The summer I was 15 I actually ended up working two jobs. It sounds very industrious, but let me be the first to assure you that this circumstance came about quite by accident.

I began the summer perfectly content to work one job, the job I had worked the previous summer: hauling trash for my uncle. It was a good gig, especially this year, because my uncle actually paid me cash money for my work (I had promised long ago not to reveal that fact to anyone in town, but I think mentioning it here on an anonymous blog isn't really betraying any trust).

How it happened was this: while fixing a roof in early spring, my uncle fell and broke a few ribs. While he was fine to drive the trash truck, he could barely lift his arms over his head, so I was doing all the heavy lifting. And not just on the rubbish route, but around the house and in the management and maintenance of the various properties he owned. For this extra work, I became a bona fide employee of the Dubba Land Corp. and earned the princely wage of $3 an hour. We worked from 6 AM to 2 PM everyday. And though it was a full day's work and I was exhausted the first month of doing the job, by July I had actually become accustomed to the workload and began to relish having the rest of the day free to explore the woods and trails of the little town where we summered.

I was in pretty goddamn good shape then, which meant I often had the energy to ride my bike the 10 or so miles up some pretty hilly terrain to the posh resort where my brother worked.

My brother. He's a pretty peripheral character here at the Masthead, and not for lack of stories about him, no sir. I just haven't gotten around to them (but I will). For now, let me give you the Reader's Digest version: he's about three years older than I am, and about three times my size. Always has been, probably always will be. Growing up, this had its plusses and minuses. On the minus side his size, coupled with his poor impulse control (did I mention he was diagnosed with ADHD, what they called "hyperactivity" back then?), meant that I was the occasional target for his rage and frustration. Granted, I may have egged him on now and then (it may surprise you, gentle reader, to learn that I am a congenital wise-ass). But the net result was that I was sometimes his punching bag, to the extent that he put me in the ER no less than 5 times when we were kids. I'm sure many younger brothers out there had a similar experience.

On the plus side, my brother generally had a pretty kind heart (well, for a big brother, anyway). And--though it would have killed me to admit it then--we tended to look out for each other. His ADHD issues meant he had a tough time in school, especially in reading and writing, so I helped him, usually by reading his assignments and being a kind of human Cliff Notes for him. In return, he tended to beat the crap out of any older kid who tried to bully me.

During our long summers in New Hampshire, we generally got along well. There weren't many kids in town at all, so we had almost no one to hang out with but each other. Which is why when I'd finish working for my uncle, I'd often end up at the resort, which I forget the name of. Let's call it the Richman Resort, after the kind of people who lived there. Richman was one of these condo vacation places up on a mountain, with a private lake and golf course, private restaurant, shops. It was a bit like an elite country club, but bigger.

My brother was 18 and starting college in the fall, studying culinary arts at Johnson and Wales. If you saw him, you'd understand why he wanted to be a chef. He loved food. And I don't just mean he loved to eat it (although my God he did). I mean that he was (and is) a truly gifted chef. As a kid, he treated the kitchen like a giant chemistry set--only one where you could eat the results. He didn't use recipes; he tended to make up his own on the spot. So at 18, he decided to use those talents--and get a sense of what being a chef would be like--by getting a job at the private restaurant up at Richman. The kitchen staff there were all high-school and college-age kids, usually hired from the families who summered there. It was the only place around for miles where we might see kids our own age, although under any other circumstance, we'd never have hung out with them (we simply weren't in that kind of financial bracket). Most of the kids were my brother's age or older, but I wasn't picky. Mostly, what I was was lonely.

To his credit, my brother would let me hang out and give him shit, as long as I didn't really interfere with his job. The guy who managed the kitchen crew--a college senior from J&W named Michael--seemed to take a liking to me too. My brother had mixed feelings about Michael, for reasons I would soon discover. But when I met him, Michael was fascinating to me. He was from Ireland and had a strong accent, which I enjoyed hearing. He was full of fascinating stories, usually involving him being drunk. Or getting in a fight. Or getting in a fight while being drunk.

After a week or so of my hanging around, Michael started giving me small jobs to do. It was nothing I was paid for, but it occupied me and made me feel useful. Usually, it involved going down to the lake or the golf course to find Jerry, the boss, the guy who ran all of Richman's businesses. But sometimes, in anticipation of a dinner rush, I'd help by hauling boxes of food from the freezer to the kitchen, or running food supplies out to the snack bar.

The snack bar was down the hill from the restaurant, a little shack situated equidistant between the lake and the golf course. It mostly catered to golfers, who could drive up in their carts and get a quick burger or hot dog. But kids liked to come up from the lake and get ice cream, which the snack bar also sold. The snack bar was run by Rachel and Kim, who the golfers simply knew as "the snack-bar girls." In the mornings, they worked as lifeguards down at the lake. In the afternoons, they ran the snack bar. On really hot days, they didn't bother to change out of their bathing suits when they came up from the lake. While I'm sure it was a health department violation to prepare and serve food in such skimpy attire, none of the middle-aged golfer guys who frequented the snack bar ever complained. In fact, business had a way of doubling when the girls worked that way.

The girls were older than I and tended to ignore me when I brought them a new tub of ice cream for the freezer, or a block of frozen patties. But one day, they noticed me in a big way.

It had been a rainy day off and on, so my uncle decided to knock off work early. Thus I rode my bike up to see my brother early. He was busy getting ready for the lunch rush, but Michael noticed me hanging around and gestured for me to come in to the office he occupied, just off the corridor to the kitchen.

"Here," he said, handing me a ring with a single key on it. "Go down to the snack bar and stock it up for the girls. Take a box of hot dogs with you. I'm going out for a smoke." He had kind of a smirk on his face that made me want to ask him what was up. But I was young and stupid and didn't say anything. Instead, I grabbed the key and as Michael walked out for his cigarette break, I swung by the walk-in freezer for a box of hot dogs, then headed out the back to the snack bar. On the way, I passed Michael and few of the other guys on the kitchen crew. They were all sitting at the picnic table near the back door to the snack bar, puffing on their ciggies and shooting the shit. I put the key in the lock of the back door and opened it.

Since it was a semi rainy day, I guess Rachel and Kim had decided to change out of their bathing suits and wear actual clothes. What I didn't know was that instead of changing in the locker rooms down by the lake, they changed in the back of the snack bar.

In fact, they were changing as I opened the door.

Rachel was in the act of buttoning her shorts, but had not yet found time to put her top on. Kim was more or less completely buck naked.

I had never seen a real naked woman live and in person with my own eyes before so I wasn't quite sure what the protocol was when you saw one (never mind two). I was kind of stuck in a moment of indecision there. A long moment.

Then the box fell from my hands, burst open, and 50 frozen weiners skittered across the floor.

This triggered a flurry of activity. Both girls screamed. Well, swore would be a more accurate term.

"CLOSE THE DAMN DOOR!" Kim screamed, holding her t-shirt in front her.

Dumbly I turned and saw all the guys on their cigarette break, clapping and hooting, enjoying the show. I jumped inside and closed the door.

"Not with US you stupid shit!" Rachel shrieked, slapping at me with what I think was the top of her bathing suit. "GET OUT! GET OUT!" she cried.

I fumbled with the door. My feet were slipping on the frozen weiners. Then I flung the door open and practically fell out. The door slammed behind me. All the guys cheered. Michael got up, still smirking, and slapped me on the back. "Brilliant, that was! Well done, you!" My face was beet red. Embarrassed as though it had been my goods on display, I ran for my bike and got the hell out of there. Behind me I could hear the guys still laughing and hooting, and under their din, I could hear the girls, still shrieking and swearing.

When my brother came home that night, he was shrieking and swearing too. I thought maybe he was annoyed because he had missed the show. But no, apparently something else had happened.

"Michael's furious at you," he said.

I was stunned. Were we talking about the same guy who had patted me on the back and told me "well done"?

"What?!? What'd I do?" I asked. I was a young 15, and I wondered if I was somehow in big trouble. "I didn't know they were in there. Michael told me--"

My brother cut me off. "The snack-bar girls quit. Michael's got no one to run the snack bar this weekend."

My mouth dropped open. Rachel and Kim quit? Because of what happened?

Indeed they had. They were angry and embarrassed over the impromptu peep show. And rightfully so because, as I realized later (I told you I was a young 15), Michael had orchestrated the whole thing. He knew they were changing in there, and he had set me up. That was why he and so many other guys on the kitchen crew just happened to be at the picnic table taking a cigarette break. In their righteous indignation--and also to spare themselves having to be ribbed about the event for the rest of the summer--the girls walked out. Michael's little prank had backfired on him, and now he was pissed at me.

"Well, don't worry," I said, kind of annoyed myself. "I'm not going back there."

My brother's eyes widened, the way they did when he was fighting the urge to pound me. "You don't get it, ass-wipe!" he shouted. "Michael wants YOU to work the snack bar this weekend!"

And that's how I became a snack-bar boy...



NEXT>>

Thursday, May 26, 2005

 

In Which I Put #37 To Bed...

#37: Post my birthday post and then realize my throat feels all scratchy. Plus I feel hot and kind of, I don’t know...heavy. Leaden.

"It's the weight of age," says my assistant. Har har.

But it is not the weight of age, and it is not fatigue brought on by my whirling-dervish style efforts to finish the Foxhole over the weekend.

By the time I get home, I can barely speak, let alone swallow anything. But here's the Brownie and Big Brother. The Brownie has dried bits of cake batter in her hair and a telltale goatee of chocolate frosting encircling her mouth.

"Ta da! We maked a cake!" she cries, pulling me to the refrigerator, where she shows me their work of art: a heart-shaped yellow cake that is half-covered with chocolate frosting. "We ran out of frosting," she says, the words spilling out of her chocolate-covered mouth without the slightest note of shame or irony.

My throat is a fleshy cylinder laced with razor blades. I force myself to eat three bites of the cake and smile and make "mmm" noises while they watch. If there's an Oscar for Best Performance By A Sick Daddy, I should goddamn well get it.

Then the kids are engrossed in their own huge slabs of cake and ice cream. "You feel really hot," says Her Lovely Self, and she's not being complimentary here. "Go take your temperature," she orders. I slouch upstairs and look in the medicine cabinet but cannot find the thermometer, so I go to the bathroom drawer where we keep the kids' medical supplies. There's the thermometer. I am a half-second away from putting the thing in my mouth, when I see the red letter "R" emblazoned on it and realize it is the rectal thermometer we used on the kids when they were babies.

I recover from the shock of the near-miss and then rummage a bit more and find a compact little ear thermometer. Seems simple: push the button, stick it in your ear. But the battery must be low or something, because when I stick it in my right ear, it reads 102. When I stick it in my left ear, it reads 99.8. Am I supposed to average the two?

I'm too sick to care. I collapse into bed and putting myself--and #37--out of my misery.

Long story short: I have strep throat. Who gets strep throat on his birthday?

"Oh, you used to get it like clockwork this time every year when you were little," says my mom, who calls me the next morning after I've returned from the doctor and have collapse back into bed. "In fact, on your 12th birthday, I remember you were on antibiotics for strep and it gave you the runs something fierce. You were in the bathroom the whole day."

I have no recollection of this, and I say so. "I've never been sick on my birthday," I croak.

Her Lovely Self--not that she's eavesdropping or anything--pokes her head in the room. "You had strep on your birthday the year after we had our first child [#31, for those keeping score at home--MM]. Remember? You went to work anyway and were so sick, you laid down under the conference table in the middle of an editorial meeting."

My mind is likewise a blank on this.

Her Lovely Self clucks her tongue, muttering to herself, "And everyone says he has such a good memory."

Despite the antibiotics, I am still down for the count. I'm sure exhaustion--and of course the weight of age--have something to do with it. My doctor ordered bed rest. What I really need is a vacation.

Astoundingly, it appears I'm going to get one.

In the form of a road trip.

I mean a classic, buncha-guys-in-a-van road trip.

In about two weeks.

I'll bring a laptop along but I don't anticipate being able to do live updates from the road. I may just have to phone it in. I've always wanted to do an audioblog.

But not today. Today it's more popsicles and watching DVDs and lying around uselessly.

Now why couldn’t I have done THAT on my birthday?

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, May 23, 2005

 

In Which I Count to 37 (and skip a lot as I go)...

I have a reputation in my family for having a great memory. Not for useful things, like remembering to bring down the new roll of toilet paper (which I was actually sent upstairs to retrieve). No, my specialty is long-term memory, and in particular for details, or a short sequence of details, often to the exclusion of everything else, such as context. I've come to call it "anecdotal memory" and it has served me well over the years.

Last week, I mentioned that I tended to recall the week leading up to my birthday more clearly than the actual day. And while that is true, I still remember interesting (to me anyway) moments or anecdotes from past birthdays. Taken as a whole, they make for an odd, disparate crazy-quilt of images with no real connection other than that they occurred on my birthday (having said that, I notice now that three of the moments revolve around baseball, which is odd, because I'm actually not that big a baseball guy). I can only hope these images are not the ones that will flash before my eyes when I breathe my last; I'd hate to enter the afterlife all confused and shouting "What the hell WAS that?"

#1 (fragment): I'm moving very quickly across a huge, sunny room. And I'm buried under a mound of dirt.

See what I mean about details? This contradictory moment bounced around in my head for years, and would have ultimately been dismissed as a half-remembered dream. But one day, planting the garden with my mom, I caught a whiff of sweet, decaying soil and the image came back to me in a rush. I mentioned it to my mom and she looked startled, suddenly remembering herself. Apparently, on my first birthday, Mom was in the kitchen, baking my first cake, while I was rolling about the house in a 1960s-era baby walker: it was essentially a sack with leg holes attached to a metal framework on wheels. I had a short torso but long legs, so while I could push myself along in the walker, I could barely see over the top of the thing. I wheeled myself over to a giant potted plant my parents kept in the breezeway. The physics of it escape me--I could not possibly have had the leverage to do this--but somehow I managed to uproot the plant and pull it out of the pot, along with most of the soil that was clumped to the roots. The pot, which was as tall as the walker, tipped over, filling the walker’s cloth sack--and covering me up to my face--with dirt. And as it fell, the pot also nudged the walker, sending it across the hardwood floor into the living room. My mom looked out the kitchen doorway in time to see the walker full of dirt careening by, the only sign that I was still in it being my furiously kicking legs. She caught me half a nanosecond later, and hauled me out, spitting dirt and squealing furiously. The cake burned.

#5: The surprise gift this year is something called The Pitch Back, a large net strung across a metal frame. In the center is a square panel with the picture of a catcher's mitt on it. This thing has been advertised on TV every afternoon and weekend since the beginning of spring. I have only just started playing catch with my dad and brother, but neither of them really like to play with me for very long because I didn't have very good aim. The Pitch Back seemed like a great way to solve that problem, so I begged for it. The idea is you throw the ball at it and no matter where it lands on the net or how far away you are, it'll pitch it back to you.

I just want to throw balls at it. I'm dying of suspense during the 15 minutes it takes my father to assemble this collection of poles and wingnuts. Finally, it's up. I stand about 10 feet away and throw the ball for all I'm worth. It hits the net and with a speed I can't believe, the Pitch Back launches the ball right back at me, hitting me squarely in the crotch. I go down in a silent "hoooff" of agony. My father can’t stop laughing.

It takes several minutes to catch my breath, but when I do my first words are "I HATE THAT BITCH PACK!!!" (I was prone to wixing my mords when I got angry). No amount of cajoling or reassurance from my father will compel me to throw anything else at the net. My dad gets frustrated--I'm sure the Pitch Back wasn’t cheap. "Goddammit!" he hisses, snatching the baseball from me. "Now watch! If you throw it right and catch it, there's nothing to be afraid of!" He winds up, hurls the ball at it and...yep, you got it. Pitch Back smashes HIM in the crotch too. By day's end, it is stowed in the furthest corner of the garage, a jumble of poles wrapped in a net, where it stayed til we moved.

#7: My pants are on fire. Specifically, the left pocket of my pants is on fire, because the 10 dollars my grandfather gave me is a burning a hole through it. It's the first real birthday money I can remember and I can spend it on anything I want. There's no Toys R Us in New Hampshire in the 1970s, so we are on our way to the 606 Toy Store in Manchester. My brother goes there to buy model kits (if memory serves, half the store was devoted to hobby stuff like models and trains, but the other half was traditional toy fare). My beloved Mego Batman action figure needs wheels, so I invest my money in a sleek Batmobile, which I treasured and which I still own.

#9: I'm in 4th grade and the school year is winding down. We have a class project planned for the last week of school, where we each get to dress up as our favorite celebrity or historical figure and do a presentation about that person. Most of the boys have chosen sports figures, and I am no different. I have decided to be Carlton Fisk, whose performance in the 1975 World Series is still pretty fresh in my memory (and who, like me, also knew what it was like to get hit in the crotch with a baseball). All my friends are basing their presentations on information from encyclopedias and sports almanacs and well-thumbed copies of Sports Illustrated. But I remember hearing that Fisk was from Vermont and still has a home there, so I get it in my head to write to the guy. My teacher, Miss Seaver (who had a brother named Tom, but not THAT Tom), encourages this endeavor, to the point of letting me write the letter during English class and even giving me the stamps to send it (one for the letter, one for the SASE I include to make a return reply easier).

But that was over a month ago and now here we are just a few days away from the presentation and I am a bit of a laughing stock among my friends. Jimmy Carr, the class jerk, has been making fun of me ever since I wrote the letter. "You can't write to Carlton Fisk! What a stupid idea! Like he'd answer you, oh I'm so sure!"

So there I am, sitting at my desk, poring over a sports almanac, when there's a knock on the classroom door. It's my mom. She conferences with Miss Seaver for a second, then they both gesture me to the door. I wasn't too surprised to see my mom. After all, it's my birthday and on birthdays, parents often showed up with an afternoon treat for the class--cupcakes, stuff like that.

But my mom isn't holding cupcakes. She’s holding an envelope. She hands it to me and I see it's in my own handwriting, and bearing a Vermont postmark! Inside are three items: two index cards densely packed with handwriting, which begins:

"Dear MM,

I was born in 1947, the day after Christmas, in Bellows Falls..."

The letter went on from there. The third item is something I hadn't even asked for: an autographed picture of the man himself. The letter was signed "My Best Regards, Pudge Fisk." You better believe I showed THAT to Jimmy Carr!

(Sadly, I don't have the letter and picture here, otherwise it would be posted today. My mom assures me it's in the iron box back home where she keeps wills and birth certificates and other important documents. She'll bring it on her next visit so you can see the letter my friend Pudge wrote to me.)

***(UPDATE 3/08: The Lost Fisk Letter is FOUND! Click here to read it!)***


#12: The birthdays blur for a while, but I remember this moment: It was my last day in the Midwestern town where we lived for a few years. It was also the last day of school. We're within hours of hitting the road and my best friend Shawn and I are sitting on the front steps, watching the movers load the van. We're sad, but not talking about it. Instead, we're making plans for when Shawn comes east to visit (he will end up spending a couple summers with us. It becomes an annual thing for a while). But he has to get home soon and we both know it. He stands up to leave, but fishes in his bookbag first and hands me a clumsily wrapped package.

"Something to read on the trip," he says. "It's not Encyclopedia Brown, but they're kinda good. Happy birthday. Open it when I'm gone." We shake hands awkwardly and then he's off, loping across the field to the bridge that will take him over the railroad tracks and home.

I rip open the package and two books fall out: The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles (it is, I'm embarrassed to say, my first exposure to the character of Sherlock Holmes). Inside one is a brief inscription that brings a lump to my throat: "To my Best Friend, who I am real sorry is leaving. I'll miss you but see you soon. Your Friend Always, Shawn."

#21: like my 12th birthday, this day is a confluence of many events: having recently wrecked my shit-brown Chevette, I have just taken delivery on a brand-new car (partially paid for by my family, which gave me the down payment as a college-graduation present). It's a grey Chevy Spectrum (later, they were part of the Geo line). My girlfriend Gretchen is in town, bringing her own gift: a car stereo, which my dad has spent the morning installing. We are listening to it now as we tear down I-89 to...the dentist. After a year of pain and discomfort, the impacted wisdom teeth in my upper and lower jaws must come out, and May 23 is the only open day to do it. Some people honor their 21st birthday by allowing people to buy them drinks. Others might enjoy, say, a celebratory romp in the sack with their buxom German girlfriend (if they have one handy). I spend my 21st birthday in bed, all right: mouth packed with bloody cotton, slurping Jell-O and milkshakes, and taking spoonfuls of grape jelly with crushed Tylenol-3 inside.

#24: I'm in Chicago. Gretchen has come and gone. Graduate school has come and gone. Even the poor Spectrum has come and gone, lost in a spectacular highway accident that should have killed me. Instead, here I am, alive and well, in my apartment, surrounded by friends. Her Lovely Self and I have been dating for 3 months and she has spent a good chunk of that time buying me new clothes (at this point in my life, even a blind man has better fashion sense than I). She keeps calling them early birthday presents, so now that my actual birthday has come, I beg her not to get me anything else. She doesn't. Instead, she bakes me a cake. Not from a box. From scratch. She also makes this amazing buttery frosting. From scratch. Only my mom has ever baked me a birthday cake before, so I'm overwhelmed. The fact that it also happens to be a delicious cake is just, well, icing. My dad always said he married my mom not just because she was a good woman, but because she was a Good Cookin' Woman, a distinction he could never quite explain to my satisfaction. Now I finally know what he's talking about.

#27: I'm on the company softball team and we have a game. I have to leave early because Her Lovely Self is taking me out to dinner. But this game is important too: we are playing our hated rivals, the loutish, braying team who work for a local manufacturer of ball bearings. They argue every call, deliberately slide into basemen and swear at every opportunity. They also are excellent ball players and we have not beaten them once this season.

Aside from being hit on the head by a softball earlier in the season, I am actually not such a bad fielder. I am, however, a terrible batter. Just awful. If I don't ground it to second base or doink it into the pitcher's glove, I end up popping out to right field. I have already struck out once today (and who strikes out in softball?), so in my second and last at bat, the ball-bearing team is waiting for me and begins jeering in earnest. We have two outs and two men on base. I am primed to choke and they know it.

So it surprises everyone--including me--when I send the first pitch flying. And I mean in one of those perfect arcs out to right field, way over the fielder's head, just 6 feet from going over the fence. I'm almost too stunned to run. Time slows, then stops completely. My dumbfounded teammates are off the bench, mouths all open in mid-scream. My friend Pudge Fisk is hunkered down next to me, catching the game--he winks at me through his mask. Even Randy Newman is here on the sidelines, sitting at a keyboard, playing the theme from the movie The Natural.

And then I see the right fielder chugging after the ball like his life depends on it and I bolt.

I make it home, even though the cut-off man snaps a throw to the plate that almost takes my head off (jerk). Those three runs put us in the lead and we win the game. It is a sports performance that will never again be duplicated.

#30: We're at the hospital for an ultrasound. The ultrasound is hooked up to some kind of VCR apparatus and last time we had asked for a copy of the tape, but were told by an imperious nurse that getting a personal copy was against state and hospital regulations (which turned out to be bullshit, but never mind). This time, while we're waiting for the technician to come in, I take a VHS tape out of my bag, pop it in the unit and hit the "record" button. The technician comes in to run the doohickey over Her Lovely’s Self’s abdomen and is so busy watching the screen, she never notices the red recording light is on. We watch in stunned silence as our son puts on an amazing show, doing things no baby has ever before done in the history of mankind, including yawning and sucking his thumb. In a few minutes, the technician steps outside to get some paperwork and I find the presence of mind to eject the tape and slip it in my bag. Back home, after fast-forwarding through 7 minutes of static, we watch the miraculous images over and over and over again.

#33: Like my good pal Jesus, here I am, crucified. Only I'm nailed to the cross of my own spine. The pain is enormous, a pulsing force of nature ramming down my leg. It's been this way for a month, ever since an afternoon of yard work gone horribly awry has left me with a bad back and this never-ending, inescapable, shooting pain. I am lying on the sofa, which is damp from the countless ice packs I have propped under me. My young son is crying, wanting to know why I won't give him a piggyback ride. Her Lovely Self comes in and says, "Trade you?" Without waiting for my answer, she leads my son away, but not before putting my 3-week-old daughter on me. The girl I will come to know as The Brownie stirs, muttering, gives me a baleful look, then settles on my chest and begins to make contented grunting noises. I can feel her rabbit's heart thump-thump-thumping against my own chest. I focus on the sound, the pain subsides. In seconds we are both asleep.

#35: The phone rings. It's the Really Big Magazine, with a really big birthday present. "We want you to come work for us," someone says. I don't remember the rest of the conversation or, indeed, the rest of the day. It's kind of a blur.

#37: That’s today. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Saturday, May 21, 2005

 

In Which We See How Deep the Foxhole Goes...

Well, it's not quite as my father and I had envisioned it, but by God, The Foxhole is done (except for a few minor touch-ups and things only Her Lovely Self would notice).

Come have a look...

First, understand that The Foxhole is a piece of magical real estate. As such, one does not simply open a door and walk there. One must tread on secret paths. One must have special help to get there: magic words, talismans, strange artifacts. Things like that.

In this specific case, we require a Magic Doorknob.

What could be inside?

When The Brownie first insisted on a Magic Doorknob for the secret door in her closet, I was a bit flummoxed. What qualifies as a Magic Doorknob to a litle girl? Her Lovely Self, who was forced to live a childhood marred by pragmatism and practicality, was no help on this front. One of my very favorite bloggers suggested a glass doorknob, and even sent a helpful link to a place that supplies same. I got a lovely, large, multi-colored cut-glass doorknob, which was indeed magical. Unfortunately, in a trial mounting on the secret door, someone opened that door and drove the glass doorknob straight through the closet wall. Oops. Half a can of spackle later, it was determined I needed to go with a much smaller knob (however, the glass doorknob will end up on the door to The Brownie's bedroom, so all is not lost).

Magic Doorknob 2.0 began life as a child-safety product. But with a little pink paint, a fox sticker and an old Timex box (oh, plus magic), well, you get this:

Match the face...

I wound some pink string around it and thus the Magic Doorknob could also function as a fashion accessory. When we got out of the bath tonight and found this gift waiting with our jammies, it was VERY well received. We didn't even stop to dry our hair:

Keeper of the magic doorknob

Except, how does it work?

The Brownie regarded the secret door. She pulled the knob, but the door seemed stuck fast. How to open it? The sticker on the upper right corner of the door provided a clue:

Note upper right corner...

Realizing the image matched the picture on the Magic Doorknob, The Brownie put two and two together and voila (or perhaps, Open, Sesame?)

Match the face, match the fox...Through the secret door...

The ferns startled her. Imagine if you were expecting a white room with ugly brown carpet and saw this:

The world of the foxhole...

I heard her gasp, then she turned and flashed me a look of pure delight that made me think this might be one of those moments she'll carry with her forever (one can only hope). And then she slowly crept in to The Foxhole...

Curiouser and curiouser...

Anyone still want a Before and After picture? Here ya go:

First there was this...

100_0239

Then this...

Ancillary walk-in attic

And now this...

View from the walk-in attic...

Originally, Dad and I had planned to wall off the small section, but then my mom convinced us she could sew a fun curtain that would have cloth trees and leaves sewn onto it. Except she left before she could get to it. I can darn socks, but that's about the outer envelope of my sewing skills, so I raided this giant box of plastic plants and vines that someone had left in the prop room at the photo studio of one of our freelance photographers. He was happy to get rid of the stuff. I never thought I'd be welcoming faux greenery into the house (and I can tell the dog was a little thrown by them too) but they did a nice job of defining the space and actually making it feel like a hidden little cove in a forest.

Love those curtains...

Fox howl...

Truthfully, if I stare at it long enough, the overall effect seems tremendously tacky. But then, it's not for me. And the person it IS for seems to like it just fine, judging by the number of times she (and her brother and the dog) ran through it.

At play amidst the strangeness and charm...

It's hard to give you the full view, but basically, The Foxhole is about 4 X 10, just large enough for a couple of stacked milk crates full of books, a short box of comics, and The World's Largest Beanbag.

At play amidst the strangeness and charm...

Which, despite my dad's prediction, was less like moving a dead gorilla or baling snot and more like trying to wrestle a monstrous marshmallow, especially when I had to haul the thing out of its original hot-pink slipcover and stuff it into a new one that had a more appropriate woodland hue. The bag is over 5 feet across and weighs close to 100 pounds. It's a minor miracle that I got it up two flights of stairs with only one mishap (it freaked the dog out and he tried to jump over it. In the middle of the stairwell. Hilarity ensued).

But even if I'd had to carry that fricking beanbag on my back up a hill wearing heavy woolen clothes and flip-flops, and being chased by a pack of ravening pit bulls, it would have been worth it. Tonight, when I sat down in the beanbag with her and read The Little Fur Family, she snuggled in close under my neck, like she used to when she was a baby, and heaved a big contented sigh and whispered, "Daddy, this is the best thing that happened to me, ever. I love you bigger than my beanbag."

We stayed in The Foxhole til WAY past her bedtime, but on the way back home to her room, she gave me a look that will become one of those moments I'll carry with me forever.

Why I did it...

People have been asking me all week what I want for my birthday. If they could see this picture, they'd understand that no gift could top what I already have.

Yours,
From Somewhere In The Foxhole


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

 

In Which We Come to The Last Week...

I don't quite recall when this started, but I have a tendency to remember the week leading up to my birthday with far greater clarity than the actual day itself.

It was the week in which I always remembered all the things I had planned to do--but never quite got to--in the year since my last birthday. Which meant that I'd invariably spend some time alternating between trying to rush a project through to completion (finish a treehouse, lose my virginity, start a novel) or, more often, kick myself for not getting on the ball and getting it done during the other 51 weeks I had somehow pissed away.

(Hence my little to-do list freakout of yesterday. Do you have any idea how long that compost pile has been sitting in our driveway? Ask my wife: She'll quote you the time to the minute, I bet.)

It was a big week for clearing the decks, and I suspect this habit came from my mom. When I was a kid, she forced me to clean out my closets, trying on and throwing out old clothes. I went through the toy boxes under my bed, pitching anything broken and creating a pile of toys I had outgrown (These I usually gave away to smaller kids who lived nearby). It ended up being a great anticipation-builder, I can tell you that. I always felt like I was making room for all the great new stuff I was about to get.

(Although, come to think of it, I never got a ton of new stuff for my birthday, unless it was during a birthday party, of which my parents had the tolerance to host exactly two for me in my lifetime. No, on my birthday, I would get four gifts, more or less, and they always fell into specific categories:

The Underwear Gift: This was anything useful or practical--something you actually needed, like socks or new pants or, of course, underwear. It was a bit of a non-gift. I mean, your mom had to get this for you anyway, right? So the only thing gifty about it was that she wrapped it. Ya. Hoo.

The Toy Gift: This was any toy, game or activity kit that you not only NEVER asked for, but often had no idea even existed. It was just something your parents saw in the store and thought you might like. It was the wild card gift, because some years it was something amazingly cool (my first LEGO set) and some years it was a real dud (the Pitch Back baseball device that nearly killed me. More on this another time).

The Book Gift: Always my parents gave books as gifts, and thank God they did. For me, it was usually a Hardy Boys or Three Investigators book I hadn't read, but sometimes it was a stack of comics, and once it was a journal, in which I began to write stories.

The Big Gift: By "big" I don't mean big in size (although sometimes it was), but big as in anticipation. As in build-up. As in the one thing you wanted all year and finally got, or the one stretch-goal item you knew was too expensive or way too fun (read: potentially dangerous) to ask for but you asked for it anyway and your parents actually delivered the goods (I still have the miniature tape recorder and the Swiss Army knife my parents gave me back during my boy-detective days).

Where was I?)

It was also a big week for taking long walks and/or bike rides, and thinking long-range thoughts. When I was younger, it was during these times that I would tally up all the new things I had learned or done during the year. As I got older, I added to the tally the things I'd screwed up royally, and spent a lot of my walks and rides figuring out how not to make the same mistake twice (although often I would). I haven't made time for many of those walks in recent years, but I need to.

And ever since I turned 13, I've tried to make this my Week of Good Deeds. I'd love to say this is a result of my strong moral and religious upbringing, but really it's more a mish-mosh philosophy cobbled together from reading too many comics books (all those do-gooders!) and being, at 13, a little too enamored of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, wherein it is revealed that, as a matter of tradition, hobbits tend to give gifts to others on their birthdays. I don't know why this stuck in my mind. I was--and am--as grabby for gifts on my birthday as the next person. But it's also fun, too, to send gifts and trinkets and stories to unsuspecting people, to ask the neighbor's kid to test some new gadget or video game a vendor has sent me, to pick one aspiring writer out of the slush pile and write her a detailed letter explaining why her story didn't work for us and what she can do to improve her odds the next time. Kind of odd, I guess, but in the could-do-worse category, it scores significantly higher than, say, drinking and whoring, which is what a former coworker of mine treats himself to every year.

If the above sounds self-serving, I should also add that I long ago realized the only reason I do this is so I can feel good about myself. And more importantly, so I can spend the rest of the year being a heartless bastard and not feel guilty about it.

Just a little gift to myself, I guess.

You'll have to excuse me now. I'm off for a long walk.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

 

In Which We Thumb Through The Catalog Of Woes...

I love spring but I hate it too. Spring used to be that time when I would seem to ignite the moment I stepped outside the door or cracked open a window. My head was filled with dreams and spring just called to me to run out into the green and the breeze and make those dreams come true.

Nowadays, spring still ignites me, but it often as not fills my head with possibilities and those possibilities translate into projects. Which end up on my to-do list along with all the chores and promises and other Things Yet Undone.

Here's just a sample of what's on the list:

Move compost pile to back yard
Clean back deck
Sand and re-treat playfort
Move compost pile to back yard
Make appointment to see surgeon about the thing you're not ready to blog about yet
Turn 37
Move compost pile to back yard
Finish the goddamn foxhole already!

We can't quite strike that last one off the list, but we're close.

You may recall, the Project when my Dad was here last month was to build a walk-in attic, an endeavor quickly hijacked by The Brownie, who determined we should instead create The Foxhole, a private lair accessible through a secret door in her closet.

Well, after many delays and work-related injuries and labor shortages and lost weekends visiting in-laws, I am pleased to announce that it's finished.

Well, the walk-in attic part is.

Here's the Before and After.

100_0239Ancillary walk-in attic

As for the Foxhole, it will be in that back part of the room. I just need to finish the secret door (including the installation of a "magic doorknob," as specified by the contractor), and install a reading light and a bookshelf and 10,000 glow-in-the-dark-star stickers, and move in 467 stuffed animals, and hang some kind of curtain that mimics trees (?!?) and undertake the Sisyphean task of transporting the World's Largest Beanbag from the basement, up two flights of stairs and through three doorways, a job that my own father wouldn't touch. "Be easier to move a dead g'rilla or bale snot than move that goddamn thing," he said encouragingly.

So just one or two things and I'll be pretty much finished, I guess.

And soon, so will spring.

NEXT>>


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, May 16, 2005

 

In Which I Say the E Word...

For some reason the topic of ethics in journalism is fresh on my mind today, the past few days, the past week. No, I really don't know why.

But I'm not here to lecture about it--this ain't Somewhere On The Soapbox. In fact, I remember how godawful boring my ethics professor was back when I was in J-school. Jesus, I'd have given money for him to shut up (but of course that would have been unethical). Truth to tell, all that ethics class needed were some real-world scenarios. Bring in some alums, have them talk about their greatest temptation or their worst mistake on the job. We'd be bound to get into some ethical stuff.

At the very least, the professor could have given us some theoretical exercises, a little bit of "What Would You Do?"

Which is what I decided to do here today.

In 15+ years of print journalism, I've found myself wandering into all manner of interesting ethical quagmires. Offers of really expensive stuff in exchange for good press? Honestly, scarily, it happens so often, I barely even notice anymore. Insider tips on pharmaceutical and tech stocks about to go through the roof? Yeah, once or twice (indeed, there's a certain stock that I still check every day just to make myself crazy). I've written elsewhere about my early struggles with the truth, and it's a struggle that's still ongoing, every time I look at a quote and decide whether to change it to something grammatically correct, or leave it and let the poor mumbler sound like a shnook.

We're not going to talk about any of that stuff. Today's ethical dilemma is this:

Let's say you work for a Really Big Magazine. A magazine that has an editor who is a real stickler for integrity and telling the truth, always a good thing, but which always means more work (as anything worth doing does). For example, she insists on reported leads for lifestyle and issue-oriented stories. That means if you're doing a story on date-rape, she doesn't want a lead that begins "The last thing Jane (not her real name) remembers was someone handing her a beer..." Nor does she want the second-person theoretical lead: "So you're out with a blind date and he hands you a beer. In seconds, the room is spinning..." This is not Choose Your Own Adventure Magazine. She wants Jane--real name and all--on the record. Anything else is considered lazy reporting and an outright fiction, and she has fired people for it.

So, with that in mind, there you are, just about to close an issue when a call comes to you. It is from a woman--let's call her Lois--who was interviewed for a story on which you have already performed a final edit and are within an hour or two of sending to the printer. Lois was quoted in the story--indeed, she is the opening anecdote of the piece--and she's distraught. She wants to be taken out of the story. She wants her quotes stricken from the piece.

Just to make it interesting, let's say the story is about a sensitive topic. Lives are not at stake here, but some people might find it a somewhat embarrassing or controversial subject. Perhaps it has a sexual component, or speaks to a very private health issue.

To clarify: Lois is not claiming foul play. It's not that she was misquoted. Indeed, she talked to the writer completely on the record, and signed off on her quotes when your researcher called her to fact-check those quotes. Unfortunately, in the days since that final fact-check call (and this is why so many magazines do NOT fact-check), Lois has thought about a different--but not entirely unrelated--fact: that in a short while her name and her story will be at the very top of this article on this sensitive subject and millions of readers--including Lois' parents and her kids' teachers--will read this story. It's stage fright and cold feet wrapped up with that dream about coming to school naked. She's had all weekend to catastrophize and so she feels pretty convinced that this story will also be read by her boss and coworkers.

In short, Lois is calling in the firm conviction that this story will ruin her life. And she wants out. There is no arguing with her. There is no placating her.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the phone, your mind is making the mental calculations for the hyperspace jump that will take your ship well clear of the black hole known as Story Gone To Hell. But you're up against a serious brick wall: You're less than an hour from shipping your issue to the printer. There is absolutely NOT enough time to find a new source, to report a new anecdote to put on top of this story.

No, there is no substitute, no extra, emergency story you have lying in a drawer against this moment. Your deus has left the machina. It's this story or blank pages.

For the purposes of this exercise, you can also assume that there are no other sources within the story whose anecdotes or quotes can be re-edited and made into a lead. The story's writer, having been rendered comatose in a freak golfing accident the week before, is likewise no help, in case you were thinking of ringing him up and asking if he happened to have any outtakes from the story.

No, you're on your own.

The story needs a lead. If you choose to take out Lois' material, you have to replace it with something, and your only option at this point is to construct one of those theoretical leads we talked about earlier. Or use the story of Jane (not her real name) because the writer's notes (which he sent in before the freak golfing accident) DO happen to have plenty of info and anecdotes from people who didn't want to be identified. Improbable, I grant you. But just go with me on this.

Because, remember, it really doesn't matter if you write a theoretical lead or use an anonymous one. You work for a magazine where it has been made clear to you that employing either device in a story is tantamount to printing a falsehood. It is, if you'll recall, a fireable offense. Because, in the words of your boss, it would be fiction, and you would be lying to your readers.

Now, those astute among you are saying, "Well, on the record is on the record. She should have thought of that before she talked to the writer. Screw her. She can't just change her mind." And there, most journalists would say you are on solid ground legally and, yes, even ethically.

So, let's take this one step further. Let's assume that Lois' conviction is correct: Her appearance in this story really WILL ruin her life. Not kill her, just make her life an embarrassing hell, make her kids the object of scorn and derision. You're no idiot. You know the reach of this magazine, the power of media to influence. If you let it happen, you will have to live with the knowledge that you could have changed things for the better...but didn't. Don't just brush this off. Live with that idea for a moment.

Or you could change things with, almost literally, the stroke of a pen.

But to do it, you'd have write something that your boss would consider "lying to your readers." And it will probably get your fired.

What would you do? And how would you justify it?

No right or wrong answers here, folks. I'd just like to know.

And NO, I don't think I will tell you what I did (what? you thought this was totally theoretical?), because I can rationalize anything and it'll just end up being self-serving.

What would YOU do?


Friday, May 13, 2005

 

In Which Walter Mitty Has Nothing On Me...


"Hey you! Get your damn hands off her!" I bellowed.

The back porch grew silent. Every head turned to watch my swift transit across the porch.

Joe's glassy, drunken eyes suddenly grew wide in alarm and fear.

"What-?" was all he had time to say. And then he couldn't talk. Because his mouth was full. Of loose teeth.

I followed up my right cross with a jab that flattened his nose in the most satisfying way. He staggered back against the porch rail. I grabbed him by one shoe and helped him over. With a piteous wail, he plummeted into the darkness of the alley below, then was silent.

I felt a slim arm around my waist and turned to behold the face of Her Lovely Self, shining with gratitude.

"My hero," she said, and brought her lips to mine...


I'm usually down with my man Plato when he says things like "The unexamined life is not worth living." But if I could amend that statement, I'd probably add "...just do your examining AFTER you've beat the shit out the guy who's got his hands on the woman of your dreams."

I was halfway across the porch, but already whatever had snapped in my mind was snapping back into place. Reason was taking hold. Even as my mind conjured perfect fantasy scenarios for this situation, some other part of me was thinking about serious injury (almost certainly my own) and lawsuits and the reaction of Her Lovely Self when I lost control.

It was that reaction that really settled on me. I had promised myself that I wouldn't be an ass at the party (Joe was obviously operating under no such restriction), and so I figured that meant I would spend the evening avoiding Her Lovely Self and her slobbery date. But my mom raised me to be a gentleman, and last time I checked, gentlemen don't suffer grabbing, pawing, disrespectful assholes gladly. So here's me striding purposefully across the back porch of the apartment building where Her Lovely Self lived, heading for Joe, not quite certain what I'd do once I got there.

But when I arrived, I realized that gentlemen also don't go to parties without saying hello to the hostess. So I forced myself to smile and hoped it didn't look like I was simply baring my teeth.

"Hi!" I said, a little too brightly, giving Her Lovely Self a quick hug, as one would give any friend.

Joe swayed diffidently. "Who're you?" he demanded.


"Men call me the Magazine Man. What women call me is something else entirely. But you, you frog's testicle, you will simply know me as...YOUR DOOM!"

And with a loud cry, I drew my sword, a famous blade known by many names: Ass Hammer, Drunken Tongue Cleaver, Bane of Feel Coppers. Joe would have called it The End. Had he lived long enough to name it.

The blade sliced through the humid air. Joe had just enough time for one scream...


I introduced myself and stuck out my hand. I had no desire to shake hands with this guy. But I figured it would at least get his filthy hand off Her Lovely Self's chest for a few seconds. Now watch, I thought, as he finally lifted his hand. He's going to squeeze my hand as hard as he can. Which of course he did.

"Nice to meetcha!" I bellowed with forced good humor. His grip tightened, crossing my pain threshhold. I wasn't going to play this game, so with my free hand I slapped his arm in a jocular way that also unfortunately caused him to slop his beer on himself. Aw too bad, I thought.

"Whafuck?" he bellowed. "S'matter with ya?"


"Nothing, my friend," I said mildly. "But soon I think something will be wrong with you." And with that, I narrowed my eyes and concentrated, feeling the familiar buzz at the base of my skull.

For none, not even Her Lovely Self, knew my secret: That I am a mutant. Blessed or cursed (depending on your point of view) with metahuman abilities. Some of my kind have extraordinary powers: the ability to shoot devastating beams of force from their eyes; the power to transform into a being composed of organic steel; absolute control over the very weather of the planet. That sort of thing.

Me? Well, I'm the best there is at what I do. And what I do is...wield the power to inflict obscure medical conditions on any foe!

"Testicular torsion," I muttered.

With a sudden gasp, Joe clutched his crotch and collapsed to the floor, writhing in terrible agony.

That should have been enough. But the power coursed through me like a fever. I couldn't resist its siren call.

"Hyperemesis gravidarum," I said. Joe began convulsing, and with a gurgling scream, he brought up the half-keg of beer he'd consumed--along with a good portion of his esophageal lining.


"Sorry!" I said, never sounding more unapologetic in my life. "Come on, I'll get you another." Anything to get you away from her, I thought.

It was probably the lure of beer that did it, but Joe actually detached himself from her and followed me, his soaked shirt dripping beer. I looked back and gave Her Lovely Self a cheery wink. She smiled and silently mouthed the words "thank you" at me. Yes!

I poured Joe the longest possible beer ever. Gosh darn it, it just took me forever to get a grip on the slippery dispenser, and then of course I had to pour a little, then wait a little while the foam in the beer settled. While I did this, I kept talking inane bullshit at Joe.

"So what do you do?" I asked.

He looked at me as if I hadn't spoken at all. "See her?" he said, pointing in the general direction of Her Lovely Self. "I'monna get me a piece of that tonight."


I continued pouring, and while Joe was undressing Her Lovely Self with his unworthy eyes, I palmed the cyanide capsule and silently slipped it into the foam of his drink.

"Cheers!" I said, handing it to him.

He took an enormous gulp, then sniffed at the glass. "Huh. Is this flavored beer? Smells a little like almonds."

"The bitterest almonds you ever smelled," I said, as Joe suddenly dropped like a stone. "Also the last."


Eventually, I handed him the glass and he began his slow, swaying way back to Her Lovely Self, who had managed to become full engrossed in a conversation with four of her girlfriends, who had more or less formed a cordon around her. One of them--her roommate, actually--saw Joe coming and looked him up and down.

"Dude, what happened to your shirt? You pee on it?"

All the girls giggled and Joe looked down, troubled. He tried to wring his shirt, but neglected to put down the glass of beer he was holding in order to do this. Now he was soaked, and the girls were guffawing at him.

"I got a clean tee shirt in my gym bag," he said irritably, fishing in his pocket for his car keys. He stared at Her Lovely Self for a lingering moment. "Don't go nowhere. I'll be back and we can go to your room."

Over my dead body, I thought. Or yours. Either way.

He started down the steps of the back porch, heading for the alley leading to the street. Without knowing quite what I was doing, I followed him.

Joe had late model Buick sedan. Nothing flashy, but it was a sizeable car. He had parked it by a Dumpster just off the street where Her Lovely Self lived. It was a relatively secluded spot. Secluded enough that Joe felt perfectly free to unzip his fly and relieve himself against the Dumpster. He hadn't seen me walking slowly up the darkened alley.

What WAS I planning to do? I honestly have no idea. I certainly didn't intend the guy any harm. Well, not any lasting harm. Well, not anything fatal, at least. Mostly I just wanted him gone from the party, wanted him away from Her Lovely Self.

His back was to me now, as he opened his trunk and began to fish around inside for his gym bag. It was a big trunk and he bent down, reaching in further and further. He leaned in so far, only one foot was touching the ground...


And I stepped up, grabbed an ankle, flipped him into the trunk and closed the lid. Then, just because I could, I unscrewed the gas cap on his car and peed into the tank.


And then, before I could stop myself I REALLY DID step up, grab his ankle and flip him into the trunk. I heard a muffled grunt just before I slammed the lid shut.

I did NOT pee in his gas tank. Instead, I ran like hell back to the party.

I know, I know. I'm so ashamed.

The guy could have suffocated, could have passed out and choked on his own vomit. Someone could have seen me and I'd have been in deep shit.

It was a stupid, stupid thing to do and I'm still wrought with guilt over it.

Well, not really.

Because nothing happened. Well, except for the fact that Joe did indeed pass out and spent an uneventful--but hopefully cramped and uncomfortable--night in the trunk of his car. In the morning, he was discovered by a resident of the building as she was throwing her trash in the Dumpster and heard the thumping and swearing from the trunk. It took some doing to get Joe out apparently, because the keys were in the trunk with him and he couldn't manage to release the catch from the inside, nor batter down his own back seats to get out. He became famous among his circle of friends as the guy who got so drunk he locked himself in the trunk of his own car, which he apparently never lived down.

What amazes me now, looking back, is how absolutely justified I felt that night. I went back to the party and whooped it up. After a few hours, when Joe failed to return and everyone assumed he’d gone off to Rush Street early, Her Lovely Self gravitated to me. I was in heaven for the rest of the evening.

By morning, though, I was astounded at what I had done. Her Lovely Self would kill me if she ever found out (and no, she still doesn't know. And as long as you keep quiet, she never will. It's not like she reads this thing every day). But before I could allow myself to be wracked with guilt, I summoned up that one burning image of Joe with his sweaty paw on her right boob, whispering drunken come-ons into her ear. Just like that, I felt that awesome surge of jealousy well up and the guilt evaporated. A scary thing, jealousy. Amazing how it completely short-circuits your common sense. I learned a valuable lesson that night. And I'm glad Joe was there to help me learn it.

I wandered over to HLS's apartment later that morning, partly to see if Joe's car was still there (it was gone, though it was days before I learned what had happened) but mostly to bring bagels and coffee to Her Lovely Self and her roommate and to offer to help clean up after party.

HLS accepted the coffee gratefully. "You're such a nice guy," she said, but the kiss she gave me when I showed up was not the peck on the cheek we Nice Guys normally get, no indeed.

"Can you believe that Joe?" she said later. "What a jerk. He just vanished last night. After making such a big deal about being my date."

I'm not much of a blusher, but I felt my cheeks get hot. "Yeah, boy, he WAS an ass. And his hands were all over you," I muttered.

She gave me a coy look. "Were you jealous?" she asked.

"Maybe I was," I allowed. "But I managed to keep a lid on it."

And then I laughed because I thought I'd made a great little pun. Her Lovely Self asked what was so funny.

I thought, I really should tell her. She won't mind.

And in my head another voice replied, In your dreams, buddy. In your dreams.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, May 12, 2005

 

In Which Jealousy Wins...

Back from a really long visit with the in-laws, which was nice. But at some point the topic of Her Lovely Self's old boyfriends came up, which is always amusing to hear because, well, hey, I won.

But driving home I remembered something from my early days in Chicago with Her Lovely Self. Something I did that I'm not proud of, and that will probably cause many of you to rethink your opinion of me and this blog. But I can't keep it to myself any longer.

And it's not like I can very well tell Her Lovely Self, now can I?

First, let me preface this by saying I'm not the jealous type.

Well, let me amend that. I AM the jealous type, but over the years I've learned to govern my jealousy. When Robin, my first high-school crush, went off to the Homecoming dance with the class football star instead of me, I spent what seemed like years dining on my own guts about it.

I'm not sure when it happened, but I do remember having an epiphany of sorts when I came to realize that jealousy was nothing more than wanting to be in the other guy's shoes. But that implied that you wanted to BE the other guy. Which, when it finally dawned on me, was a horrifying thought. Yes, Robin's Homecoming date was the deer-footed football star, with his feathered blond hair and nice ass and teeth bright enough to be seen from space. But he also had the personality of a deck chair, considered fart jokes to be the very apex of humor, and couldn't carry an intelligent conversation without the aid of a forklift.

This was the beginning of the realization that I could sidestep jealousy by focusing on my own strengths, on doing the things I was good at, that I was meant to do. On running my own race and not trying to run someone else's. It was a good strategy insofar as it:

1. Distracted me from having to think about Robin and her new beau and

2. Put me in the orbit of girls who liked the same things I did and were more apt to see me doing the things I was good at.

Thus, over time, jealousy as regards relationships became a pretty minor thing for me.

Right up until I fell in love with Her Lovely Self.

Elsewhere, I've noted my certainty that my future wife was out of my league, that even if I had tickets to watch her league play, the ushers (all tight-assed and with feathered blond hair) would probably kick me out of the stadium.

But what put me in her orbit was that we were in the same line of work. We were both editors for trade magazines. Although a fine business writer and editor in her own right, HLS never considered herself to be the kind of person who could write a good story for a consumer magazine. Consequently, when she learned that I was actively freelancing for some local and national magazines, she was intrigued and always asking about my efforts, sometimes even tagging along with me while I did stories. I was pretty focused on the work at the time, and so don't remember the details, but apparently it impressed her. She liked palling around with me, especially because I would share information with her and answers her many questions.

And HLS had A LOT of questions, which is a great gift in a journalist. The only problem was that she apologized for asking them. I eventually learned this was because she tended to date the kind of guys who would laugh at her for asking about obscure sports rules or make her feel ignorant for not immediately catching the reference whenever a movie line or song lyric was uttered. For my part, I loved answering her questions, because it made me feel smart and important. What I hated was the fact that she still insisted on dating the guys who made her feel stupid.

At this point, it's worth noting that HLS and I were not dating. We were the proverbial "just friends" and I was still in the process of figuring out how to reveal my true feelings. Around the time I came along, HLS had about three guys vying for her attention.

Number 1 was a Tim Allen lookalike who she met on a bus to Wrigley Field. The guy just sat next to her and started hitting on her. But he was nice about it, so that made it okay (?!?) He was pretty much her sports date and he was the guy who would make her feel stupid for asking any questions related to game play. Also he would tend to vanish off the face of the earth for days, and call her up to cancel dates at the last minute. But then he'd redeem himself by showing up at her house in the middle of the night, begging forgiveness. For some reason, she had the biggest crush on him and her affection for him was inversely proportional to how well he treated her. The worse he treated her, the more she liked him.

Number 2 was Rick, a guy she met on a flight to Los Angeles. Their connecting flight was cancelled so they spent their layover bonding. Rick traveled a lot, which made him dashing in some way that was a total fucking mystery to me. Whenever he was in town, he'd call Her Lovely Self up and she would blow off whatever friend she might have made plans with (guess who?) and go see him.

And then there was Number 3.

His name was Joe. Because my life is nothing if not ironic, the guy naturally had perfect feathered blond hair, perfect teeth, a fricking dimple for chrissakes, and the lean muscular body of a triathlete. Your basic nightmare, in other words.

HLS and her roommate lived in an apartment building in Chicago that was pretty much party central for their neighborhood. Every Friday or Saturday night, the whole building was lit up like a cruise ship and from a distance it always appeared to be pulsing slightly from the throbbing music that emitted from the very cracks in the bricks.

When HLS invited me to her next party, I was thrilled, until she felt compelled to reveal that Joe was coming. As her date.

"What does that mean, 'as your date'?" I asked. Joe came to every party she'd ever had, and from what I'd heard from HLS's roommate, every time he showed up, he'd get roaring drunk and hang off Her Lovely Self like an enormous, stringy booger. With hands.

"Well, he called me up and asked if he could be my date to the party, which I thought was sweet," she said. I of course thought this was the stupidest, most transparent, stupidest, manipulative, and stupidest thing I’d ever heard.

"I see," I said, although "I seethe" would have been a more appropriate statement. "Why are you telling me this?" It sounded more adversarial than I meant it to. But I was curious. After all, we weren't dating. She owed me nothing in the way of an explanation. But evidently she felt she did.

"I don’t know," she said quickly. "I just wanted you to know what was going on. I mean, we've been spending a lot of time together and I didn't want you to be mad if I spent most of my time at the party with Joe. You're not mad are you?"

I shrugged. I knew the score here. Her Lovely Self was not interested in getting into a serious, exclusive relationship. She had been in two back-to-back multi-year relationships before moving to Chicago, both of which had completely soured her on the idea of serious commitment. She just wanted to go out and have fun. Nothing slutty. Nothing serious. This made it problematic for me to figure out how to tell her I was attracted to her like a refrigerator to a magnet. I knew how she felt about a serious relationship at this point. I knew the rules going in, but I also figured every rule has an exception and why couldn't I be the exception in this case?

Well, in any event, I wasn't going to be spilling my guts at the party.

Which I did go to, not because I was particularly interested in watching Joe paw the woman I was pretty sure I'd fallen in love with. It was because the idea of NOT going--and instead being left to imagine what might happen when the booze started flowing and hands started roving--was too great for me to bear.

It was because, in short, I was jealous.

When I arrived, the party was in full swing. I immediately bumped into a couple of fellow journalists and we started talking shop. But even as we talked, my eyes were roving the crowded apartment. I finally found them out on the back porch, surrounded by a knot of people. Her Lovely Self looked absolutely, stunningly hot in a skirt and black tank-top. Unfortunately, she was also wearing Joe.

HLS stands around 5-foot-2, whereas Joe was a little over 6 feet. He was leaning on her, his sweaty arm looped around her neck so that his hand was stationed directly on her right breast. She was trying to talk to someone and he was interrupting her like a petulant 5-year-old, leaning down to breathe a few beer-laced words into her hair. She'd smile and try to more or less prop him back up, but a few seconds later, he'd be hunkered down on her shoulder again, a giant howler monkey with perfect hair and a dimple.

I edged to the nearby keg to refill my glass and now could hear what he thought he was whispering. Every few seconds, it was something different, yet each statement somehow managed to be more piggish than the last.

"Hey a bunch of us are going to Rush Street later. Wanna be my date to the bars?"

"Heh heh. I can feel your boobie. I got my hand on your boobie. Heh heh."

"C'mon, honey, you're so hot. You're so beautiful. Let's go to your room and bump uglies."

Something in me snapped. I couldn't listen to this anymore. I couldn't continue to watch this drunken lout, with his moist hand defiling her perfect breast, his beery words fouling her precious ears. I downed my own drink in one foamy gulp, then turned and made a beeline straight for the mashing bastard...

NEXT>>


Friday, May 06, 2005

 

In Which I'm Off...

First, on behalf of The Brownie, many thanks for the good wishes as regards her recent trip to the ER. You'll be pleased to know she is so fully recovered from her injury that she is now using it as a device of manipulation. When she wakes up the next morning after getting stitches and tells you she can't go to pre-school because her head hurts, you're willing to give it to her. When she tells you at dinner time that she can't eat her asparagus because her head hurts, you know the healing has truly begun.

Second, while I'm pleased my litany of injuries proved so amusing to so many of you, I found myself slightly troubled over the entry. I was wracking my brain (well not really, it's been wracked enough, as you saw) to figure out why and then it hit me: in constructing my timeline of injury, I unconsciously mimicked the structure (but obviously not the content) of "After A Fall," an excellent essay by Garrison Keillor which was written shortly after the great man himself took a spill off his porch steps. He also recounts various falls he had taken and survived in his life (such as The Haymow Header of 1949). Anyway, it's highly recommended reading, and certainly different from my own effort (for example, Mr. Keillor's piece is way funnier and a far superior piece of writing). One of these days, I'll have to tell you the story of how I met the man...

Third, I'll be taking a few days off, but you may expect my return some time next week. Where will I be, you ask? Well, this is a blog shrouded in mystery, of course, so I shall leave it to the astute reader to guess.

But as a clue, I offer the following entry, written many years ago for a magazine which had hired me to be their relationship columnist, but which then folded before this piece could be published (at least they paid me first). I had quite forgotten about it until a certain movie starring Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro came out. And then everyone was writing a piece just like this, so I buried it again. A variation of it did appear in...oh hell, why don't I just shut up and let you read?

Pleased To Meet You?

Few moments in a relationship are more awkward and more nerve-racking than that moment when she brings you home to meet the folks. Standing in full view of the people who created the love of your life, you feel like a chimp in a tuxedo, a knuckle-dragging oddity that everyone is staring at, waiting to see what tricks he can do.

You smile, nod politely, and gently clasp her mom's hand in your great leathery, hairy paw. Then you turn, muster your best grip and take the outstretched hand of her father.

You're thinking: I'm sleeping with his daughter.

Dad's thinking: He's sleeping with my daughter.

But this awkward moment passes and when it does you realize something: Being introduced to her parents is actually a wonderful compliment. It means you have passed some kind of muster. Your honey considers you important enough to show you off to the other people in her life who are important enough to her. It's a moment that is good but weird. But good. But weird.

Because when you meet her parents, you're not just on display, you're on probation, aren't you? Sure, there's a slim chance you might turn out to be one of those mythical fellows who immediately endears himself to the parents of the woman he dates or marries. Just like there's a slim chance you might secretly be Superman.

We're not going to dwell on chance here because, after all, this is no chance encounter. But if you have a future with the woman who brought you to this moment, you can bet it will be a repeat encounter. So you might as well start it off on the right foot, laying the foundation for a longer relationship that will help you earn and maintain their respect. Who knows? You might even end up liking each other.

What follows are just a few gems of wisdom to help you get through that portentious first meeting. They were mined from relationship experts WAY smart than you or me (well, me anyway).

I might also have slipped in a smidge of personal experience here. Hope it helps.

--Smile and nod. A first-contact situation is NOT the time to be showing her parents what an exciting and dynamic person their daughter has latched onto. In a first encounter, in a parent's mind, "exciting and dynamic" equals "ultra-liberal" or "substance-abusing." Assuming you have a future with Her Lovely Self, you'll have plenty of time later to show her parents what a wonderful, eccentric genius you are.

--Mind your manners. When you're in a tough spot, it sometimes helps to have a set of rules or guidelines to fall back on. This is why coaches draw up game plans, why the Boy Scout Handbook is in it zillionth printing. Meeting her parents for the first time, the rules you should fall back on are the ones of basic etiquette. Let your manners be your shield against whatever happens to you as you enter their domain.

This will help you in two ways. First: It's a sign of respect. Second, it's excellent PR for you--good manners under pressure reveal you to be a man of poise and nerve. Parents who see a man with good manners think maybe that man was raised by someone just like them. So how bad could he be? (Don't worry, eventually they'll answer that one for themselves)

Quick refresher: shake Mom's hand first, then Dad's. The little fork is for salad. Keep your feet and elbows off the furniture. And NEVER sit in the recliner or any seat with a remote on the cushion--that's her father's chair.

--Show love, not lust. So you love her and see no reason why the rest of the world shouldn't know it. Shout it from the rooftops if you must. But in a first encounter, for the love of God, would you keep your hands off her? At least while they're in the room?

Let's be clear: it's important to show your feelings for their daughter. If they see that you love and respect her, your odds of eventually winning their love and respect (okay, well maybe just their respect) will be that much higher. But you show it through non-tactile means. By complimenting her (sincerely, now! Don't ham it up). By deferring to her in conversation. By holding doors open for her and stuff.

If instead her parents see you pawing her on the rec room sofa or fondling her bottom every time you walk by, they're going to dismiss you as a masher who's taking advantage of their little girl. A dad who sees this kind of behavior gets a certain wistful look on his face. Trust me: That wistful look ISN'T because he's recalling what it's like to be young and in love. It's because he's trying to remember where he keeps the shells for the shotgun.

--Suck it up. Aside from answering direct questions or throwing the occasional comment into conversation, try to speak less and listen more. Listening is a sign of respect and good manners. So sit there and absorb it all. Yes, even if her parents turn out to be a real nightmare. In that event, should they spend the entire visit heaping abuse and condescension on you, soak it in with a smile. Just because they've forgotten their manners doesn't mean you should.

Cold comfort, yes.

But if it helps, remind yourself that they will die sooner than you.

###


I know, I know. Can you believe someone paid me for that? But hey, at least you didn't have to.

See you next week.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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