Wednesday, January 31, 2007


In Which He Has A Bone to Pick...


TO: Staff

FR: Blazey Bellow Hoska Boo Boo Ba Doo

RE: Implementing New Policies for Calendar Year '07

Yes, let us all raise a bowl to the new year. And let us hope 2007 will be filled with joy and wonder and all those other meaningless platitudes that people use to Vaseline these memos.

Right. To the point.

Over the past year, I took note of specific concerns and issues I should now like to address with you, my house staff. Some are minor and should require little change on your part, but some issues may be considerable indeed and in such cases I would be only too happy to render whatever assistance I can to ensure that these issues are resolved quickly, amicably and, most importantly, to my way of thinking.

1. Walking Etiquette

This issue mostly affects The Man, whose primary job function (so far as I have been able to tell) is to accompany me on my daily tours of The Territory. We have of course discussed his continuing need for The Leash and while I find it inhibiting, I appreciate that The Man requires the security of this connection to my person in order to feel safe while out in the world. So in the interest of compromise, I am willing to tolerate The Leash for yet another year. In return, however, I should be very glad indeed if The Man could adhere to the following:

--A significant part of touring the Territory involves taking frequent and random samplings of both ground and air. What you refer to as "sniffing" is in fact a delicate scientific process that allows me to detect minute changes in the environment, volatile organic compounds that could indicate a dangerous presence in the Territory, and rabbit droppings, which are considered a delicacy among my kind. Please refrain from tugging on The Leash when you feel my time engaged in such sampling exercises has exceeded your meager endurance. The process takes as long as it takes. If you lack the patience to permit me to acquire proper samplings, you may drag your knuckles back to the house at any time.

--When I am engaged in my morning, afternoon or evening toilet, I would appreciate it very much if you would refrain from your stupid apelike chittering at me. This is a moment of supreme concentration and that concentration is not helped by attempts at sophomoric humor, such as wondering aloud if I got my degree from P.U.; asking me if I would like a magazine; or imitating the involuntary grunting sounds I am compelled to make because of the low-fiber dog food you force me to eat. This is a private moment that I am forced to endure publicly, and with a great deal of technical difficulty, especially this time of year, and I don't require further complications. I ask: How well would you fare if you were forced to move your bowels on a street corner, in the nude, with your hind end mere inches from a field of frigid ice, a sub-zero wind wafting through your nether regions, while some orangutan in a parka tugs at a rope around your neck and insists on calling you "Nugget Boy"?

--Also, when you retrieve my leavings, is it really necessary to gag and retch like a cat working on a hairball? It's a personal fetish that you enjoy at my sufferance. No one makes you collect my droppings, you know. It's not as if there's a law requiring you to pick it up, is there? I mean, honestly.

2. Feeding

Once again, I have resigned myself to enduring the desiccated droppings you call dog food, if only because my lady friends at The Spa insist it is for my health. However, there are some policies regarding supplementary feeding that I wish to review:

--While The Girl enjoys many special privileges, there are some that need not be exclusive to her. For example, house staff should feel perfectly free to join The Girl in feeding me choice samplings of whatever meal happens to be on the table. Roast beef, pork tenderloin and prime rib are particular favorites, as long as we are on the subject.

--During any holiday rituals involving food, I would like to remind staff that, as tasty as chocolate and chocolate-flavored products are, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, they can be toxic in high doses. While I have enjoyed the egg hunts you have staged for my personal enjoyment late on the night before Easter in years past, in the future you may wish to hide, say, biscuits for me, or perhaps to stage the egg hunt only for the children. I'm afraid that the chocolate made me a little ill, and the colored foil wrappings of each egg, while leading to festive droppings, nevertheless were a source of agitation while in transit. At Christmas, during the ceremonial leaving of cookies and milk for me at the hearth (I assume as an early holiday present), consider leaving sugar or peanut butter cookies, rather than chocolate chip. Also, please remind the children to keep the area clear of all stationery and art supplies. In years past, they have accidentally left notes of personal correspondence to someone name Claus, and I would hate to get crumbs on them.

3. Child care and entertainment

While I am consigned to the fact that an inordinate portion of my day is devoted to daycare, the time would pass much more pleasantly if we can all observe the following rules:

--From this year forward, children are not permitted to wrap anything around my person. This includes toilet paper, plastic wrap, elastic bandages, scarves, support hose, jump ropes, garden hoses, and pasta. Neckerchiefs and baseball caps will be permitted on a case-by-case basis.

--Certain accessories from toy doctor's kits may still be used to perform faux examinations upon my person. These items include blood pressure cuffs (to be used on my forepaws only) and stethoscopes. At this time, I would like to remind all children that toy syringes and thermometers are for external use only. Remember: it is everyone's responsibility to prevent The Shocked Face.


--I will be glad to reprise my role as The Big Monster or The Bellowsaurus in any play involving action figures and dinosaurs. However, this year a maximum of only 27 figures will be permitted on my person at any single time.

--Battery-powered racetracks will be permitted to operate in all areas of the home. In fact, as you know, I endorse this mode of play, especially when The Good Car is put on the course. Please note: No children or guests of children are permitted to touch The Good Car. It is mine.


--This year we will increase the number of times we play Catch The Squeaky Toy from three times a day to at least seven times a day. In the event that this year's Squeaky Toy is reduced to stuffing, use of Auxiliary Squeaky Toys and/or any stuffed animals on the premises is authorized.

--Under no circumstances are items from the Finding Nemo line of toys permitted in my water dish at any time. This restriction also applies to Aquaman figures and the cast of the G.I. Joe Frogman Adventure Set.

--Finally, a note about future child care: As we all know, The Woman is carrying puppies. Until she has her litter, I must be permitted to be near her at all times. This includes following her from room to room, inserting myself between her and any person or persons who may be at the door, and placing my head upon her rounded belly whenever she is prone. The Woman has raised a concern that my presence apparently creates a tripping hazard for her. To this I can only say: Deal with it. If you at such a late stage in your pregnancy that cannot see your feet, we can arrange to have safety mirrors installed around your midriff.

4. Household Security

Upon arrival, all service people, deliverymen, and contractors must present themselves to me for Crotch Inspection. Such personnel are required to use the front door at all times, and to announce themselves each time they come into the house, even if they have just stepped outside to retrieve a part from their vehicle or to cock their leg on a tree.

Note: Personnel are not permitted to be within 20 feet of The Girl at any time. I cannot stress this point highly enough. Last year, a plumbing assistant entered via the back door of the house, without knocking or announcing himself, while the Girl was alone in the family room. He had no one but himself to blame for losing his shoe, nor for ending up perched on a kitchen counter, screaming for help. Once more: I will not tolerate strangers to come into the house unannounced nor to come anywhere near The Girl.

And no, I will not give the shoe back.

I believe that addresses my main barking points. If other issues arise as we move in to the new year, please do not hesitate to bring them to my attention; I shall be glad to include them in a future memo. Until that time, I remain,

Your Humble Servant,

Blazey (BHBBBD)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


After Twenty Years...

(First, this is going to be a heavy one, so if you're looking for something more upbeat--either before or after you read this--I would happily direct you here, where you will fresh Art Lad today. Get it while it's hot.)

A few months back, I ended the latest round of October Moments on a bit of an off note. Of course, I don't have to tell you that true ghost stories often end in the most unsatisfyingly unresolved way, but that wasn't the reason I hit a clinker with that one. The reason is, I just didn't have the heart to finish it right then.

As you may recall, my best friend Shawn and I had tracked down a man who had a rep for being a legit psychic and he proved it to me by spouting some facts about me that only I knew. Then, he freaked me out further by wanting to have a private word with Shawn. I ended the story without telling you what the man said to my friend. And the truth is, it was years before I found out.

When Shawn came to visit me for Christmas during our junior year of high school, we not only got up to one last ghost-story adventure, my friend also finally revealed what the Witch Man had said. As Shawn related it, the man told my friend that he was special because he would have a rare gift and that gift would be control over life and death. Shawn told me this with a funny kind of smile, which I mistook to be a smile of humility. I predicted that Shawn was going to be a doctor or a veterinarian, which had been his ambition since we were kids.

But too late I would realize that the funny look Shawn gave me that day was the look that indicated he wasn't telling me the whole story. I never found out what the Witch-Man really said to my friend, but I have a feeling it was something to the effect that my friend would have control over his own life and death.

See, Shawn killed himself. Twenty years ago today, in fact.

I've told you a little bit about what happened, but not nearly all of it.

I will never forget the moment I found out. I had just gotten out of the car of a classmate from college who had given me a lift home for spring break. We were to meet my mom in a parking lot in Nashua, New Hampshire, and from there I'd ride home with her. But it turned out my mom and dad were both waiting for me. Dad had been sober for a couple of years at this point, but he had spent so long in detox that he was still working crazy hours to dig our family out of the financial hole his unemployment had left us in. He was supposed to be working a night shift finishing a wastewater treatment plant upstate. It was not like him to take time off just to pick me up. Unless something was terribly wrong.

After we transferred my bags into the back of the truck, I hopped into the cab beside my mom and she grabbed my wrist in a grip that I'm sure was meant to be firm yet gentle, but in fact her fingers thrummed with tension, and her nails dug into the soft part of my flesh under the forearm.

"Oh God," I said before she could even utter a word. "It's bad news, isn't it?"

My mom looked me square in the eye. "Yes. It's bad. It's very bad." And when she told me that my friend was not only dead, but had taken his own life, I just lost it. My first impulse was to get away from her, from the news, and I actually laid hold of the truck door, thinking to jump out and run away, even though we were already rolling out of the lot at 25 miles an hour. My mom, always surprisingly strong for her size, pinned my arms to my side and held me fast. I was crying so hard it felt like I was having convulsions. I thought I had prepared myself for bad news, but nothing could have prepared me for how hard I was hit. My mom held me in her arms like that and I cried for the entire two-hour drive north.

It was March when this happened. We didn't learn of Shawn's fate until two months after he was in the ground. My mom had received a brief note from a teacher she had been friendly with in Kansas, and this woman had thought to send a memorial card from the service. In what was to be the first of many mindless fits of rage, I shouted at my folks--and at no one in particular--demanding to know why we hadn't been told sooner. I'd have wanted to go to my friend's funeral. But really, of course, I was mad because I'd have wanted to know he was in trouble in time to go help him, somehow.

Our friend's letter was very short and offered no detail. But I was determined to know, so the next morning, I got her number out of directory assistance and phoned her up. She wasn't happy about it--she didn't feel it was her place to tell me what I was asking--but in the end she shared with me the fact that my friend, who had grown increasingly moody in recent years, had sunk into a full-blown depression since the last time I'd spoken with him (which had been the fall of the previous year). There were numerous triggers for this, and I talk about some of them in a previous post, but here suffice it to say my friend's depression was serious enough that he was put under psychiatric evaluation at the campus health center where he was going to college (studying to be a veterinarian, incidentally). He was going to be put on a bus for home by that weekend, but instead he managed to sneak out of wherever he was staying, got to his car and drove himself to a secluded spot where he wouldn't be interrupted while he ran the hose from the exhaust pipe in through the window. That was January 30, 1987.

About five years after the fact, I had a chance to go back to Kansas for work. In the time since I'd left Kansas, the old house my family had lived in had been converted to a bed and breakfast, so I was able to make reservations for my old bedroom. I used the time to wander around town, visiting some of the old familiar haunts. I told myself and others I bumped into that I was merely indulging in a nostalgic visit to an old home. But in truth, I was on some kind of personal salvage mission. I was there to absorb as much of Shawn's memory and life as I could, and that quest culminated in a visit to my friend's grave at a municipal cemetery in Ottawa.

In general, I'm not emotional about grave sites. When people die, they don't stick around by their graves, I've always figured, anymore than I might go to the dump to visit an old pair of shoes I've worn out. But once again, the rules were changed where my friend was concerned. When I found his gravestone, close to sunset that hot summer day, I collapsed in front of it, tears in my eyes, and spent a good two hours there, just listening to the trill of the cicadas in the dusk, smelling the high sweet smell of the tall grass in the field beyond the cemetery and thinking about my friend and all the adventures we shared in Kansas when we were kids. I'd like to tell you my reminiscences were fond, but at that point, all I could feel was the bitter senselessness of what had happened.

I've heard the word "tragedy" overused when attributed to bad turns, but if ever an incident deserved the term, it was this. I have always tried to believe that you can find the good in anything if you look hard enough, but my friend's death is one of those events that just belies that notion. Every way I look it at it, this was just something that should not have happened. And not just because my friend died, and not just because he died by his own hand, and not even because it happened when he was so young, with so much life and great potential ahead of him. To make the matter worse, his suicide had a terrible domino effect in his family, particularly among the siblings he so loved and who he took such good care of when we were kids. Not a year after my visit, Shawn's brother sat himself down in front of the gravestone--no doubt where I myself sat--put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself instantly. He would have been in his early 20s, possibly even his late teens. His sister, who had been just a toddler when I knew her, had grown into a troubled young woman and tried twice to follow her brothers. Last I heard, she was still in a psychiatric hospital. I don't think she's even 30 years old yet.

Shawn's last sib, another brother, was still alive at last accounting, but up to his eyeballs in trouble, mostly over narcotics, which he apparently used with abandon. Jesus, wouldn't you?

Understand, I don't blame Shawn for the turn his family's lives have taken. He already had more than enough responsibility for them laid at his feet when we were kids and I would never add to that burden, even posthumously. But that doesn't stop me from feeling that some terrible unnatural wrong occurred here. It doesn't stop me from wondering how it could have been averted. More specifically, how I could have averted it. If only I had somehow realized what was going to happen. He was my best friend. We considered him a member of our family. How could we have missed it? How could I?

This just wasn't supposed to happen, and I would give anything--really almost anything at all--for the chance to go back and keep it from occurring.

Shawn was 20 when he finally decided to exert what little control he felt he had over his life.

After today, he will have been dead longer than he was alive.

In this world, anyway.

But not in my heart.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, January 29, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #12: Outgoing Intern

Somewhere in the midst of having my tender jaw sanded with a power tool, the laughing gas seemed to be wearing off and I alerted the student dentists and the attending by moaning louder than the dental sander. They stopped and when I informed the dentist of my resistance to novocaine, the kind man left the room and returned with a small syringe. "This ought to help," he said, injecting me in the arm with it.

Man, was he ever right. I don't know what was in that shot--could have been heroin for all I was able to determine--but let me say right here and now that it was fucking great. It was to the laughing gas what an atomic bomb was to a hand grenade. I don't even remember the rest of my time in the chair, although they obviously sanded down the spur and stitched me shut, because the next thing I knew, I was handing 40 dollars in cash to the receptionist and stumbled out the door, clutching prescriptions for antibiotics and painkillers, which I was able to fill downstairs at the pharmacy in the student health center.

I was pretty loopy, but not so far gone that I didn't realize I should remain on foot. So I left my car in the lot and, after a swaying moment of appraisal of the campus map, I set off across the grounds, feeling that if I could just maintain a straight line, I could walk all the way over to the dodgy side of town where my apartment sat.

All went well until I stepped off campus and encountered an old man with a long gnarled beard and extremely dirty sweatpants and shoes (he was unencumbered by a shirt of any kind. No doubt he was insulated from the elements by the layers of grime and dried sweat that he had accumulated over the years). He was swaying just as much as I was, staggering across the sidewalk in my general direction. I thought he might pass, but it is a universal law that when one drug-impaired body comes within 50 feet of another drug-impaired body, the two will exert a powerful attraction on one another and ultimately collide. And so the man jostled me as he passed.

"Sca-yoose me, suh!" he cried in an exaggerated Southern accent. "Maht ah impose on yew fuh the loan of a dollaw thutty-seven?"

I will say this about my neighborhood; it had the most charming bums. They had the most impeccable manners, and they never asked for spare change, or a dollar, or five bucks. They always asked for an oddly specific amount, as though they had almost enough money to make a crucial purchase, but had come up short at the last minute and needed to rely on the kindness of their fellow man.

After parting with 40 bucks at the dental ER, a buck and change was about all I had, but in my state, I was an easy mark for this man's gutter charm, so I dug into my pocket and when I came up with the money, I noticed the man was hoofing it in the other direction, fast.

Maybe the policemen behind me had something to do with it.

I don't know how long they had followed me, but these good ol' boys had evidently seen enough of my behavior to inquire after it. And I had to remind myself that I was in a state where public drunkenness could earn you jail time, even if you weren't behind the wheel of a car.

"You all right, sir?" one of them asked me, while his partner walked in a semi-circle behind me. "You have something to drink with lunch, sir?"

I imperiously (well, sort of) stared down at the officer and informed him that I had just come from the university dental clinic and wanted to walk home so I could rest.

"And where's home?" the other officer asked.

"Why, over on the end of 13th Street," I said, and as soon as I gave the street name, the two officers looked at each other as though a certain piece of their private puzzle had clicked into place.

Then I remembered: The crack house. These gomers probably thought I was heading over there to get loaded again.

"Maybe you should come with us," the first officer said, directing me to his car. "And while you're at it, we'll want to see some ID."

I stopped and began fishing around in my wallet for my license--although being out-of-state, it wouldn't confirm my address--when I saw someone across the street, taking in the scene. I was about to give this looky-loo the stink-eye, when I saw who it was.

Her Lovely Self.

"Hi!" I cried, waving and dropping my wallet at the same time. Cards flew and as I bent to pick them up, she walked across the street. "Are you okay?" she asked, looking at the officers as she said it. They asked her a few questions. While they did this, I opened my mouth to show one of the officers the bloody gauze wadding that I thought should prove that I had just received outpatient surgery. Between my display and the obvious level-headedness of Her Lovely Self, in the end the officers decided to leave us alone (but I couldn't help but notice that they drove right by the apartment complex a while later to confirm that that was our eventual destination).

"Wow, you sure are good timing," I slurred as we walked back together. "How come the office isn't with you? That you're not there."

"I had some research to do over at the university library. But what happened to you?" she asked, eyeing me warily. So I told her about my dental odyssey as coherently as I could, which wasn't very. She seemed most horrified at the thought of Dr. Rancher chomping his candy while he tended to me.

"That is the grossest thing I've ever heard," she said, and indeed that image would remain so in her mind until years later, when I would introduce her to the term "ass strep." But that was some time off, far into a future neither one of us would ever have predicted at that moment.

I'd love to tell you we had a special moment, my future wife and I, but all she did was walk me home and then head back to work. That's how it went. We were part of a larger group of interns who were friends mostly because of circumstance. Take away the circumstance, and it was a group of people with whom I had very little in common. For example, Her Lovely Self, like so many of my fellow interns, was going back to campus in the fall to reconnect with her friends (and in her specific case, a boyfriend. Actually, two boyfriends, but that's her story to tell, not mine) and enjoy her last year of college.

Meanwhile, I was facing life in the so-called real world. As this little incident had so amply demonstrated, I had some grown-up issues to begin resolving. For one thing, I had no insurance. For another, I would soon come out of the grace period on my enormous student loan debt and would have to begin paying that in a hurry, on top of the car payment I now had on the car I’d gotten to replace the one I'd wrecked. Which would be quite the neat trick to pull off, since I didn't have a full-time job. These were the sorts of thoughts I had to contend with, beginning pretty much the next morning, after the shot had worn off.

Much as I was enjoying the internship, it was clear I was on borrowed time and needed to get my ass in gear. I had taken this job in gratitude because it meant I had a plan for my future. But really, I'd been kidding myself. All this job had done was buy me a little more time to get a real plan that would help me achieve my dreams. And what had I done towards formulating that plan? Nothing.

But for the rest of that summer, let me tell you, I didn't let the grass grow under my feet anymore. I polished up my resume--now including my vast editorial experience as an intern--and began applying for open jobs as they came up within the company. I had a brief glimmer of hope with that plan. About two weeks before the end of the summer, I applied for an editorial assistant's job at the magazine where Her Lovely Self was interning. I met her boss and must have made a good impression, because he offered me the job.

However, in a stroke of what would come to be a signature example of my bad timing, the company had imposed a hiring freeze between the time I applied for the job and the time it was offered to me. A bit embarrassed, the hiring editor informed that I really was his top pick and he really could use the help, but unfortunately all the company would allow him to do was to extend my internship for another six months. I was a little annoyed about this, although it wasn't the editor's fault. I thanked him nicely but told him I'd prefer to get a full-time job, so I turned him down, not knowing that was the only magazine job offer I would get for the next two years.

So I started sending resumes to magazines on the East Coast and began to make plans for my return home. I didn't leave empty-handed. One of the minor bonanzas the company oversaw was a lively group of regional magazines and newsletters, including one that was sponsored by the Connecticut phone company, and which was sent in the monthly bills of all subscribers. My girlfriend Gretchen--with whom I'd officially had on-again-off-again status all summer--had come to visit me and during that time we resolved to be on again. She invited me to stay at her parents' house in Connecticut (in her brother's room, since he would be off to college).

Her visit also shut the mouth of my roommate Langston. Over the summer he had become annoyed by the fact that I continued to be unruffled by his endless attempts to embarrass me with sexually explicit questions, to the extent that he was now telling anyone who would listen that it was obvious that I wouldn't talk about sexual issues with him because I was impotent. And being impotent, I was too embarrassed to discuss anything of such an intimate nature, lest the truth of my affliction be revealed. As usual, I ignored Langston (although at this point in the summer, I dearly wished to clout him a good one). And then, on Gretchen's first night, I inadvertently got my sweet revenge.

I'm not one to kiss and tell, but at this juncture in the narrative, let me just say that Gretchen could be a bit, um, vocal, when in the throes of passion. This is not me patting myself on the back; it's just a fact. In college this hadn't been terribly noticeable because Gretchen's apartment was in the basement of an old house and was practically soundproof because of the old stone walls of the place. Plus Gretchen had a really nice, really loud stereo. My apartment, however, had paper-thin walls and not one of us had a sound system more powerful than a Walkman. Everyone could hear everyone else.

And absolutely everyone heard Gretchen.

So while I was on the receiving end of some generally good-natured you-go-guy ribbing by my colleagues, Langston became the object of ridicule for having all of his claims about me end up being so, er, vociferously refuted by my girlfriend. It was a sweet moment. In more ways than one.

(Although it would come to bite me in the ass years later, when I was began dating Her Lovely Self. She often threw that incident in my face, and could occasionally be counted on to be retroactively jealous in that way that only girlfriends can be.)

You'll be pleased to know that I completely recovered from my bone spur--those student dentists did a fine job indeed. And I repaid Jim's giving me the day off by working like a madman for remaining weeks of my internship. My stock rose considerably and I soon found myself invited to planning meetings and spending more time with our managing editor, a minor legend among rock critic circles for her groundbreaking work with Rolling Stone in the 1970s. It was during my talks with her that she mentioned a former colleague of hers from those days was now in charge of a master's program in magazines out in the Midwest. I took only polite interest in the information then, not realizing I would be eventually applying to and attending that program.

Andy eventually found his way out of Africa. He got home my last week on the job. He looked seriously sick and underfed and was still in the throes of raging dysentery (for which I had nothing but sympathy, having contracted the same thing myself in Africa). While he spent a long while swearing he'd never travel again, all in all, that trip was a turning point for him. He wrote about his experiences for a travel magazine. They rejected it. But National Geographic didn't. And so began his long career as a travel writer. Pick up most any big travel magazine these days and you're likely to see his byline.

It's a good thing Andy found his niche, because not long after that summer the wunderkind visionary boss who founded the company ended up defaulting on a $100 million line of credit and his two biggest investors ended up taking control of his burgeoning video and broadcast efforts as well as several of the more profitable magazines. The hiring freeze that prevented me from working there full time was never lifted and in fact just a few weeks after that summer ended, the layoffs began. The company's large stable of magazines folded on the average of one a month.

The Connecticut magazine that gave me a freelance assignment was a particularly bittersweet casualty for me. I wrote a story for them about a halfway house for kids from abusive homes and sent it to them in September. A month later, I got two surprises in the mail: a check for $495--my fee for the story (and good money even by today's standards); and a separate letter from the editor telling me the magazine was being cancelled. Their October issue would be the last one. My story had been slated to run in November. So while that moment marks my first official payment as a freelancer, it was a bit of a hollow milestone because I didn't have a clip to show for it. Glad as I was for the money--and I think many writers will understand exactly how I feel when I say this--I would rather have had the clip.

Dotty quit before they could lay her off and ended up writing edgy columns and features for the city's alternative weekly, but last time I saw her name on a masthead, she was at the very top, launching a brand-new magazine devoted to natural and alternative health. I spent several years writing health stories myself and always figured we'd bump into each other one day, but so far it hasn't happened. And if it did, she'd probably still call me "NN." That's if she remembered me at all.

Jim, my boss, the man who hired me, the man who I consider to have given me my start in magazines, quit the same week that Andy came back, my last week on the job. And he was leaving magazines for good. Turns out he dabbled with script-writing in his spare time and had just sold a story idea to the Newhart show, a sitcom that was extremely popular at the time. He had to option to script the story, so he was packing up and heading West, hoping to use this one chance to get into the business. His Newhart episode never aired, but he enjoyed some success as a screenwriter before jumping over to the business side of the television industry. Last I heard, he was an executive VP of programming at one of the major broadcast networks. He never sends me Christmas cards.

My managing editor was laid off when the magazine she edited--yep, the one that was part of the biggest launch in the history of the industry--folded, part of the overall implosion of the company. She was pretty unfazed, though, as she could return to music-writing. She has since produced several highly entertaining biographies of some of the biggest names in the music biz.

Although we all traded addresses, I never kept in touch with the bulk of my fellow interns. Lee went back to California and continued to win friends and influence people. Last I heard, he was designing political flyers and posters for congressional candidates.

Langston went back to school in Connecticut, not far from where I was staying with Gretchen's parents. He threatened to visit me a couple of times, but during my few months there, I always managed to be away on a job interview. Last I heard, he was going to pursue a Master's in creative writing. He also wanted to do a dual major in sex therapy, no doubt so he could be licensed to ask people intimately invasive questions.

You pretty much know my story. I spent the fall in Connecticut, sending out resumes by the bushel, going to job interview for anything remotely related to magazines. While I was waiting I used my amply free time to earn my keep, doing yardwork for Gretchen's parents (and living on Connecticut's Gold Coast as they did, they had quit a bit of yard that needed seeing to) and working for a temp agency that fed me secretarial gigs one or two days a week. I failed to get any kind of magazine job. Heartened by that one $495 check, I did embark on a quest to do lots of freelance, about which I'll tell you when I recount my life as a hack.

While my freelance efforts were just getting started, I managed to distract myself by breaking it off for good with Gretchen, moving back home to my parents' house, and sharing the tiniest of rooms with the biggest of brothers. Eventually, I would apply to that graduate program my managing editor had told me about, I would get accepted and I would make the move west. Eventually, I would get a job at the very same company where Her Lovely Self was working and we would end up spending a lot of time together--like, the rest of our lives.

For a while there, it didn't seem like I was any closer to having a plan in place than I was during those last exciting yet fretful weeks of college, when I was calculating the distance between my current location and my dreams and seeing if I had the strength to leap the gap.

What I didn't realize was that even then, in that summer of 18 years ago, pieces were being slowly, quietly laid into place, components of a bridge that would eventually span that gap and enable me to reach my dreams. It wasn't an easy or speedy process. It was slow and often agonizing. But looking back, I have to say that I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Except for the bone spur. That's one hard knock I could have done without.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, January 25, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #12: Outgoing Intern

At 7:30 the next morning, I was on the outskirts of the city in an area that had "desperately needs urban renewal" written all over it. Ten or 20 years ago, this must have been a posh area indeed, but now all I saw was block after block of forlorn 70s-style ranch houses with sagging roofs and peeling paint. The multi-tiered concrete shopping plazas looked dingy and positively Third World. Most shopfront windows were soaped-over or papered with lease notices. The ones that were open were pawn shops, convenience stores, hair salons, and at least one dentist's office.

I knew this, of course, because I had called a dentist in this part of town yesterday, after my stunning toothache had subsided. I'd had toothaches before, but this one redefined the genre. It felt as though my whole head was just one big rotten tooth and all the world merely so much pulpy gingiva.

The worst part was not the toothache, though. The worst part was that I had no dental insurance. My coverage under my parents' plan expired on my 21st birthday, the day I'd had my wisdom teeth removed (and that operation was covered only because the doctor had originally scheduled it the week before but had had to postpone for professional reasons. He called the insurance company and got an extension), which meant I was on my own. So I spent the afternoon alternately dabbing clove oil on my gums (a surprise gift from the previously indifferent Dotty, who had taken pity on me) and calling dentists in the metro area to determine who had the cheapest rate for an office visit.

Dr. Rancher was the most economical by a wide margin. Where most dentists were charging 40 or 50 bucks just to look in my mouth, the gruff assistant who answered Rancher's phone informed me that an office visit was $18, including an X-ray if I needed it. I should have wondered about such a low rate--and the fact that when I asked if the doctor had any cancellations or openings for tomorrow, the gruff receptionist snorted and said, "Yeah, we got cancellations. Everyone cancelled tomorrow. The whole day's open. You pick a time." I picked the first available time, of course.

And now here I was, parked in the cracked and debris-strewn lot of the office complex where Dr. Rancher plied his trade. His was apparently the only business still left in the plaza, and evidently it had been that way for some time; the leasing notice that took up every window of the second story was missing several letters that had long since peeled off and fallen to the empty interior floors above so that RENTAL SPACE AVAILABLE! PHONE NOW! simply read:
__ONE _OW!

The front entrance was locked, but I found a side door with a broken latch and let myself in. After a few minutes of wandering around the empty first floor (the reception desk in the front was almost completely covered with slick black garbage bags full of broken tiles of drop-ceiling and stacks of old phone books), I made my way up the darkened stairwell to the back of the plaza, where I could hear someone coughing. The last door in the back hall was lit and I could see "J. RANCHER, DDS" etched on the frosted glass.

Inside, a fellow was sitting at the receptionists' desk, feet up, reading the newspaper and making terrible slobbery sucking sounds as he worked a hard candy around his mouth. I introduced myself and said I was there to have my appointment with the dentist. The fellow stayed hidden behind the paper for a long, awkward moment, then he flicked the top edge of the paper down and stared at me.

"Fill that out," he said gruffly, and I realized this was the ray of sunshine I'd spoken to on the phone yesterday. He slurped slightly now and glanced at a battered clipboard next to his scuffed cowboy boots. I grabbed the clipboard, then looked around. "Umm, do you have a pen I can use?"

This time there was no awkward pause. "Nope," he said from behind the paper, then made a long sucking sound to punctuate this.

I looked around helplessly. "Well...uh...I didn't happen to bring one. So..."

With a huff the man threw down his paper, got up, and disappeared through a door behind him. I heard him rummaging around back there for a bit, then he came back out front and shrugged. "Guess I don't have one. Well, never mind. Why don't you come on back and we'll have a look."

Maybe it was the lack of sleep from having a toothache, but for a moment I thought he was suggesting I come in the back to help him look for a pen. But then I saw that he was wearing a white smock and the lightbulb went off.

"Um, you're Dr. Rancher?" I asked, following him into a large, spare examination room.

He nodded and pointed to the chair. Before I could even get both cheeks onto the seat, he hit a switch and reclined the back of the chair so quickly, I almost did a backwards somersault off of it.

A second later, a blinding light was in my eyes and I could feel his hands prying my mouth open. I could smell his hands, but they didn't give off the usual vaguely unpleasant taste and odor of latex I had come to associate with dentists in this dawning age of AIDS awareness. In fact, I was pretty sure Dr. Rancher hadn't bothered to wash his hands since I walked in. Which may explain why they smelled of newsprint.

But before I could dwell on this, I could hear fresh sucking noises and a moist clicking sound that can only come from someone working a hard candy over one's molars. Incredibly, even as he leaned over me to examine my mouth, Dr. Rancher was continuing to enjoy his hard candy. I kept waiting for some green-apple-flavored pendulum of slobber to drip into my open mouth. But instead, Dr. Rancher began crunching his way through the hard candy. Tiny flecks of the stuff began to rain down on me as he spoke.

"Little swelling on the left side, but can't see anything else wrong," he said, moving the light away. "Let's take an X-ray."

He returned with one of those plastic bite card thingies that I permitted into my mouth only because I had seen him actually open and remove it from its cellophane wrapper.

He jammed it into my mouth and I moaned as the sharp edge of the card bit into my tender gums. "Okay, hold still," he said, and got up to leave the room.

"Wait!" I cried around my mouthful of bite card. "Aren' yoo onna ut a lead hingy on me?"

He pshawed me with a wave of his hand. "It's only a little radiation. You don't really need a lead apron."

I sat up and pulled the bite card out. This was the last straw. "Fine. Then YOU can stay in here with me."

Dr. Rancher stopped, stared me as if I was crazy, then crossed back to the door nearest me and disappeared through it. A moment later he appeared with a very dusty-looking lead apron and dropped it unceremoniously in my lap.

Isn't it amazing how much crap you'll take when you're younger, mostly because you know no better? I actually let the candy-chomping dentist put his fingers in my mouth and take X-rays and the only time I registered anything close to a complaint was when I insisted on lead shielding during my X-ray.

After a few minutes, Dr. Rancher returned and informed me that he could find nothing wrong with my mouth. "You're good to go," he said.

I stared at him for a long moment. "Except for the fact that I still have a toothache!" The dentist--by now I'm using the term loosely--just shrugged. I dropped the apron in the seat and strode out the door. He called after me about owing him $18 and I cried "Bill me!!" and ran out of there.

(By the way, the guy did actually have the audacity to bill me, as I saw when the invoice arrived at the intern apartments a week or so later. I can't tell you what pleasure it gave me to Frisbee that thing into the trash.)

I went to work then, more miserable than ever. My jaw hurt so bad I couldn't eat or drink. I could barely speak. My editor Jim, at this point, was used to dealing with personal injury thanks to his long tenure with Andy, the accident-prone associate editor, so when I shared my experience with Dr. Rancher with him, Jim was extremely sympathetic. He called me into his office where he handed me a tea bag and instructed me to stuff it in my mouth (a home remedy that was intended to help gum inflammation. It sort of worked), then proceeded to make a couple of phone calls. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me.

"The university has a really good dental school, although I'm guessing the guy you saw wasn't a graduate of the program. Anyway, I just called some friends of mine over there in the PR office and they tell me the school has a walk-in dental ER. It's a flat fee of 40 bucks, whether you need a cavity filled or root canal work. Students do the work, but they're supervised by real dentists. I'd say that's your best bet. Here's the address. Why don't you take the day off and go see them?"

Tears in my eyes--and not just from the pain--I nodded gratefully at Jim and took the slip of paper. People since have marveled at my fearlessness to have students poking around in my mouth, but I think now you can understand I how I might have perceived them as a welcome change compared to Dr. Rancher.

By the time I got to the walk-in ER, my jaw was throbbing so badly I was seeing double. I must have looked pretty bad to the receptionist too, because she took me right back to the exam room, a large open bay with several dental chairs. I was seated next to a man who was holding a bloody rag to his mouth and who, I discovered when he took the rag away to spit up a great mass of white and red, had somehow managed to break every tooth in his head. On my other side was a woman who had a string hanging from her mouth and who volunteered the information that her son had lodged a fishhook between her molars during a particularly aggressive cast.

Mine was the mystery ailment and so got a lot more attention from the attending dentist, who brought students over and let them all have a look. At first, I wasn't happy about this arrangement, but then they hooked me up to a tank of nitrous oxide and two whiffs later, I wouldn't have cared if every student had climbed inside my mouth and decided to pitch a couple of tents there.

Then, the attending dentist shone a powerful light in my mouth and started talking about the scar tissue from where I'd had my wisdom teeth removed back in June. He reached in casually with a dental implement--not a sharp one either--and touched a shiny line of scar tissue along the jaw bone. When he did, my head burst into nuclear fire and I let out a scream that took the hair off the man's arm. I'll say this, though, the guy had a great bedside manner. He was exceedingly apologetic and to make it up to me, he cranked the laughing gas up to full. I suddenly found myself in a very forgiving mood.

And as I lay there, I listened to the doctor explain my problem. Apparently after one has one's wisdom teeth removed in the manner that mine were taken out (which is, they were pulverized, not actually pulled, because they were horizontally impacted), it's not uncommon to have bone slivers remain behind in the gums. Usually, he went on, these work their way out on their own (!), but sometimes they don't and can cause infection.

With that, he turned and began working on me. He injected me with novocaine, which I tried to tell him wouldn't help, but it didn't matter, because I had the laughing gas. Then he reached in with a scalpel and split my gums open (I felt it go, and man, even with the benefit of the gas, it's something I could go the rest of my life without feeling).

Then, to my open-mouthed astonishment (and there at the dentist's, what other kind of astonishment would I have had?), the dentist began pulling out several small white shards of tooth. Some seemed as small and fine as sewing needles, while others looked almost the size of a pinkie fingernail.

After he pulled out about five pieces, the dentist looked in, then called a couple of his students over to take a peek too. The dentist informed me that, in addition to the slivers he'd pulled out, I had a bone spur--a not uncommon side effect of wisdom tooth surgery. Apparently the spur had grown, causing pressure against the gum tissue, and increasing my pain. Before I could attempt to ask him what he was going to do about it, one of his students produced what looked like a Dremel with a sanding bit attached to it. Then the student reached in, turned the thing on, and proceeded to sand the inside of my head with it...


Wednesday, January 24, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #12: Outgoing Intern

Within my first week on the job, I got a promotion.

The following Monday, I found myself in the office of Andy, the assistant editor who had greeted me so enthusiastically my first day. In front of me was a story folder--my first story folder. And it was, alas, mighty thin. I had been assigned to do a personality feature on the living descendents of assorted U.S. presidents. Into the story folder would go any research material--interview notes, clips of stories from other magazines, newspapers, etc. The folder should have been fuller because this had been Andy's story for the past several months, but he'd evidently had better things to do. Aside from a nigh-unintelligible piece of legal paper covered with notes, the only other item in the folder was a stapled clump of photocopies of the book jacket and opening pages of an Elliott Roosevelt mystery.

The story was mine now not because Andy had dropped the ball on researching and reporting, but because Andy was in the hospital. Two days earlier, at a party in the home of some friends who were freelance photographers, Andy went to mix himself a drink of bourbon and water, but the jug of chilled water he pulled from the fridge wasn't chilled water. It was fixer. One gulp of his bourbon-and-fixer cocktail and Andy found himself being rushed to the ER, but only after lavishly redecorating his friends' kitchen with his vomit.

As ingredients in the home-development process go, fixer is apparently quite caustic. Andy was fairly sick for a week and had almost no voice for almost a month thereafter. So his story workload had to be farmed out and, aside from the other assistant editor, Dotty, there was only my boss--Jim the associate editor who'd hired me--to do the work. It was one of those opportunities you hope for when you're young and hungry, the chance to prove yourself. Jim liked me, liked my eagerness, and knew what a reporting slog lay ahead of the person who had to do this piece, so it was an easy assignment to make.

But now as I stared at this slim folder and felt my pulse hammering in my neck, I wasn't so sure that anything else about this story was going to be easy. I had no contacts to get me started. The scribbled notes had no magic phone numbers giving me an inside track to finding any one of literally thousands of people who had descended from our various presidents.

I indulged in a few moments of pure panic, then pulled myself together. I had been training for this moment for years. I had all the basic reporting skills I needed to get this job done. All I needed was a first step to get me going and I'd be fine.

Today, of course, it would be the work of a minute to Google a few presidents or genealogical societies, but back then, we had no Internet. Heck, we had no computers in our offices, only typewriters. Back then, "Google" was called "the library." And so I strode off to the city's excellent public library, where I spent the morning poring over the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, looking for any recent profiles of presidential relatives. While I was in the reference department, I also found a directory that listed all of the presidential libraries in the country and I copied their numbers down, thinking staffers there might have some way to contact other branches of the executive family tree.

By lunch, I had a preliminary call sheet started, which included the libraries, the number for Elliott Roosevelt's publisher, the name of a law firm in New York that counted among its partners one of Thomas Jefferson's great-great-lotsa-great-grandsons, and the talent agency in Hollywood that represented George Washington's great-great-great-great-great-great nephew, John Augustine Washington V (in fact, the image of John that you'll find on this Web site is one of his publicity photos that ended up appearing in my story).

It had never occurred to me then that my morning--or the others like it that I was soon to spend--was remarkable in any way, until I taught a basic journalism course a couple of years ago and realized how little my students knew about the basics of shoe-leather reporting, of scratching up a list of likely starting points and making cold calls to sources. Their first--and often last--stop was online. And granted, I've come to rely on the Web as much as the next guy. But, and this was the question I posed to the class, what's your fallback when Google doesn't pull up the information you need?

Judging from the silence that met my query, the class really couldn't conceive of such a thing happening. But you know, it does all the time. And today I work with freelancers who will occasionally call to bail on a story--or to beg for help from me--because they "can't find any information" about the topic I've assigned. What they mean is, they couldn't find it using a search engine and they lacked the basic enterprising skills needed to be their own search engine. Which is why, whenever I teach journalism courses now, I always include a week or two where I give students assignments to write stories based on topics I have carefully confirmed have almost NO useful information to be gleaned from Google. Then, they have to hand in two items to me when the assignment is due: the story itself, and a brief document that walks me through their discovery process in finding sources for the piece.

Back during my internship, none of my full-time coworkers would have been terribly impressed with my research--after all, that was simply how it was done. But I did make a favorable impression because of what happened during my walk back to the office. By the strangest quirk of fate, it so happened that a presidential relative--the multi-great grandson of one of the children Andrew Jackson adopted--worked in a law office in our city. In fact, as a quick review of the Yellow Pages revealed, the man's office was as close to my publisher's building as the crack house was to my apartment complex. So, since it was literally on the way back, I stopped in at the posh law office, preparing to leave my name and number with a receptionist. Instead, she made me wait while she made a quick phone call, then ushered me into the office of the man himself, a laid-back fellow who just happened to have time for an interview and welcomes the spontaneity of the moment. I'd gone from a morning where I had a nearly empty story folder to an afternoon where I had a bunch of people to call and an interview already in the can.

Jim, the magazine's associate editor, was quite tickled by this, so much so that he brought me into the office of his boss, the managing editor, a woman named Martha who I had not yet met. Martha was even more curt with me than Dotty had been the other day, but when Jim told her that I had tracked down a source right there in town and showed up without an appointment to do an interview, she came to look on me in a new light.

"Well, well," she said, gesturing that we sit down. "Aren't we the go-getter? That's more than our last intern did."

Jim nodded. "Oh yeah. Uri. He was a piece of work."

"What about him?" I asked.

Martha smiled. "Oh, he just didn't do very much. Except make phone calls home. To Russia. On his office phone."

"Then when we caught him and told him to stop, he started making calls at night from Dotty's phone," added Jim. "I guess he thought he was throwing us off the track. I mean, he probably figured we'd never wonder at the coincidence of Dotty suddenly making $400 phone calls to the same town in Russia that Uri was."

"Anyways, he didn't last long. But Dotty's been mighty cool towards interns ever since. Speaking of interns, if you want to move out of the intern cube and set up in Andy's office while he's gone, that would be fine," Martha added. This was a treat. Andy's office was roomier. And he was one of the first round of folks scheduled to get an in-office computer, to be installed any day.

"Oh," I said. "Has he gotten worse? I thought he was going to be okay."

"No, no, he'll be fine. He'll be out of the hospital and home today. But he starts his vacation this Friday. Andy scored an incredible deal--a $250 flight to Africa--and is going for two weeks on safari and in general having all manner of adventures," she said.

"Assuming he doesn't get eaten by a lion or trampled by an elephant," added Jim.

Martha nodded, smiling. "Ol' Andy IS the original bad-luck kid. Anyway, you get set up in his office and keep cranking on this presidential relatives story, MM. You do it up right and we'll keep giving you Andy's assignments to finish."

As I went back to Andy's office, I could hardly believe my luck. I was a de facto assistant editor. I finally had a decent story to work on--with more to come. Best of all, I'd have something with which to hold my own at the lunch table.

Every afternoon, we interns all met downtown at the company café and compared notes about our respective jobs, see, and after the first week, I'd been more than a little jealous of my peers. My roommate Lee, for example, was already making plans to go on a cover shoot to the Rockies with his art director. Langston, my eccentric, fife-playing roomie, was doing profiles of well-known novelists. Her Lovely Self had wrapped up her first week by interviewing that young actor from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Hmm, okay, so maybe spending a day at the library and doing a walk-in interview with a lawyer didn't quite measure up.

But my coworkers were impressed anyway. Like me, they too wanted to get jobs in magazines (although unlike me, most of them still had a year of college left to go, and perhaps didn't have quite the same sense of urgency as yours truly), and so were inspired by anyone who might be on a path of advancement towards that goal, whether by his own merits or by a total accident. I may still have been just a $250-a-week intern, but I was taking on the mantle--desk and all--of a full-time staff editor.

And it was a mantle I'd be taking on for a lot longer than the next two weeks.

Remember that $250 bargain flight of Andy's? Well, poor ol' bad-luck Andy had failed to realize that it was such a great deal because it was a one-way flight, so when he arrived in Africa, he was in some straits, not having a return flight home and all. It was my first exposure to the fact that you didn't have to have a lot of brains or common sense to do well in this field. If it had happened to anyone else, I would have suspected that person of engineering a way to take a longer vacation than usual; however, his coworkers quickly assured me that this kind of blunder was not by design, but was indeed another "Andy Accident." Andy ended up blowing all of his vacation time--and spending a few days on unpaid holiday--on this trip. Plus he had to borrow money from a series of relatives who had to wire him the cash so that he could pay for food and lodging on his unexpectedly extended stay and purchase what turned out to be a significantly more expensive return-trip ticket, and one that went home by way of several obscure and far-flung stopovers. He arrived back in town a sick and broken man, one who vowed never to leave the country again.

But before that happened, I had me one heck of a month.

And I'm not talking about all the work and story opportunities either, alas.

Because a few days after Andy left on his African odyssey, I was sitting in his office, transcribing a phone interview, when with no warning I suddenly felt a white-hot bolt of pain rip through my jaw. I doffed my headphones and clamped my hand to my face. Another wave of pain hit, bringing me off the chair and to my knees.

And it was at just this moment that Jim came striding by the office. Dotty was with him. They passed. But in unison, they stuck their heads back in the door a beat later.

"Uh. Are you okay?" Jim asked.

Before I could answer, another stab of pain caused me to shake and moan. "Oofake!" I cried, holding my jaw while tears streamed down my face.

Dotty just shook her head and looked at Jim. "Told you the bad luck would rub off on him. Looks like we got us a new Andy," she said...


Monday, January 22, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #12: Outgoing Intern

Well, it was a busy few weeks between the time I got The Call offering me a magazine internship and my arrival to begin that job, in a state some thousand or so miles south of where I usually summered.

These days I don't accomplish an awful lot in the space of six weeks, but looking back on that early summer of 1989 it's clear I was inspired. In that span I managed to:

--Wreck my car
--Graduate from college
--Get a new car
--Turn 21
--Get my wisdom teeth out
--And almost get shot by my brother

(Those last three happened all on the same day. I'll tell you about it some time).

I also began to get signs that this was going to be one fucking great job. I had done quite a bit of homework on the company I was going to be working for. At the time, it published 20 some different magazines, newsletters, and what they called wall media--big posters with little stories that were posted in college dormitories across the land. The company--headed by its visionary young founder (a gentleman who I realize with some shock was only 4 years older than I am right now, and even then he already made seven figures, had a hobby farm in Vermont and an apartment in the Dakota in New York)--was moving into some video initiatives.

I personally was going to be working on a "group" magazine, which we'll call Special Bulletin, a slick, glossy, oversize magazine that hearkened back to the glory days of the business. SB was the largest launch in history because it was actually four magazines in one, and each magazine would cover a different topic related to popular culture. I was going to be working on the magazine that dealt with lifestyle features and personalities--kind of like People magazine. All in all, it sounded like excitement itself.

And I couldn't have been happier with the terms of the job. It paid $300 a week--that it was paid at all was a wonder. Even better, by accepting a pay rate of $250 per week, I could as part of my compensation be housed in a furnished apartment complex that the company just happened to own for the very purpose of putting up interns. I was, after all, one of 35 that they hired.

So it was that one day in early June, bright-eyed but still slightly puffy-cheeked from my wisdom-teeth surgery, I bade goodbye to New England, and headed South, occasionally glancing at the map that the company had FEDEX'ed me, along with the key to my ground-floor suite, which I learned I would be sharing with two other interns.

I still remember that drive with great fondness, heading off alone towards a horizon entirely unexplored, hurtling (sometimes in excess of 90 miles an hour, I'm ashamed to admit) towards a destiny that was completely my own, even if it was one I only barely perceived. Somehow, that made it all the more thrilling.

Others, I would later learn, did not share this thrill. Others were nervous and scared and feeling entirely vulnerable and alone, being as they were, one of the first people to arrive at the intern apartments.

I was the fifth person to arrive at the complex, late on Friday and so happy to be there I sprang out of my car as though it had an ejection seat. I was greeted by the company's intern coordinator, who was making one last check of the accommodations, and who had just been upstairs assuring others that more interns would be arriving soon. She went to great pains to direct my attention to the features of the two-story apartment complex which, I must tell you, was a basic concrete bunker whose main amenity was that it had a front balcony on the second floor, which made it an excellent place from which to view the goings-on of the house directly across the street from us. The house the coordinator was directing my view from.

The crack house.

Yes, sports fan, if a city of any size has a seamy underbelly, you can trust your humble narrator to find it. But back then I was so overflowing with enthusiasm, I didn't care that we were in the very center of the proverbial "bad neighborhood" near the local college. The neighborhood all the college students avoided. Unless they were buying drugs. As it happens, I wasn't in the market at that point in my life, but think if I had been! How convenient!

With that strange sense of immunity to crime that can only come from being very young, very poor, and very stupid, I eagerly set about unpacking nearly all my earthly belongings into the one single bedroom (which I claimed as the first occupant of my suite. My future roommates would have to bunk up), not bothering to mind that the lock on my bedroom window--which gave a pleasing view of the dark alley behind the building--was broken. Indeed, I wouldn't notice it til almost the end of my time there, but my immunity held out. Either that, or burglars who broke in clearly saw that I had nothing worth taking.

My first roommate, whom we shall Langston, arrived some hours later, just after midnight, as I was sitting in front of the air conditioner in our living room, watching Gunsmoke reruns. Langston was, like most of the interns, a junior in college. He was from Connecticut and while first impressions revealed him to be a decent enough sort to live with, he also seemed to be an eccentric one. He was given to reciting poetry and playing a fife, two things he revealed almost before he was through the door. Now I was doubly glad to have arrived first and claimed a room for myself.

Langston was one of those people who seems to delight in being overly candid, and in supposing that you should be as well. As I helped him unload his car, he spent most of the time telling me that he was in an experimental phase, sexually and was bi-curious. "Not," he added, "that I'm propositioning you! Hee hee!" Langston spelled his laughs like that. Langston was, in general, pretty preoccupied with sex--I mean, I was too, of course, but Langston took it to a ridiculous degree. With almost no preamble he took to quizzing me about my sex life.

"Are you still a virgin? You look like you might be, but I can't tell. You seem very comfortable in your own skin, and many virgins are not," he said.

"Is this how you bond with all new roommates?" I asked.

"You're evading the question," Langston said.

"No," I corrected. "I'm simply not answering and am too polite to tell someone I've just met to fuck off."

Langston laughed. "Hee hee! I'm just kidding. You don't look like a virgin. I just wanted to gauge your reaction to a probing question. I like doing that." There was a pause. "So, are you?" he asked.

And so went our first night.

Since we had the weekend before we were to begin our respective jobs, we spent the next couple of days exploring the area, finding all the essentials--bookstores, laundromats, supermarkets. The very next morning, in fact, was our trip to find the local mall, and it was at that point that I first beheld this lovely creature, whose radiant beauty outshines even the drama of her late 80s hairstyle. This is the first known photograph I have of her.


See? Some of you think the only time I post pictures of Her Lovely Self is when she's in a bikini. But it's simply not true.

(It still isn't. That's a one-piece.)

HLS joined us on our trip to the mall and was glad of our company, having spent a miserable first night alone (her roommates had not yet arrived). Gee, I'd have been glad to remedy that I thought rakishly. But it's important to remember the kind of appearance I cut in those days. The kind, in short, that more or less automatically marked me as A Man Not to Bring to Your Bedchambers. Even if he did change his t-shirt.


Oh, and that's Langston on my right, in a rare moment where he's not fifing or asking probing personal questions.

While I was at the mall trying to entertain this creature of divine yumminess, our third roommate, Lee, arrived from California. Lee was an odd duck too. He was a design intern, but nearly all the books he brought with him were not of a visual nature. They were self-help books, and self-help books along the very specific track of manipulating others. How to Win Friends and Influence People and How to Work A Room were just two of the titles I remembered him reading. And he was constantly putting what he'd read into practice, as I noticed at one of the first group parties we went to on Sunday, after most of the other interns had taken up residence in the building.

My previous two years at college, my roommate had been my best friend, someone who was so scarily like me in all respects that it was nigh effortless to live with him. Indeed, it was a pleasure. So by Monday morning, I'd had just enough of both my roommates to decide that I needed a breather from them, I got up early, intending to walk to work. I had reconnoitered the area over the weekend and determined it was just a few blocks' walk to get out of our dodgy neighborhood, then you could trot across a footbridge that took you to the city's lovely park and state fairgrounds. From there it was another five blocks to the building I was to report to.

As I stepped out the door, there was Her Lovely Self, bent over the building's cluster of mailboxes, affixing her name to her box. Although I was still years away from drinking coffee every morning, the fluttering in my chest and the surge in my brain (and elsewhere) felt like I'd just been bumped full of some thrilling stimulant.

"Are you walking too?" she asked, genuinely thrilled. Well, not "thrilled" so much as "relieved." "I didn't bring my car and I'm a little nervous walking around here. Do you mind if I go with you?"

"No, no not at all, nosirree!" I said, hating myself for doing my nervous gibbering talking thing. But it was hard not to lose my composure when she smiled. So we set off together and compared notes on roommates, hers having finally arrived, and sounding like less of a pair of wackadoos than the two I'd drawn. HLS's office building was just the other side of the fairgrounds, though, so our conversation was a short one. I made a mental note of where she was, wished her good luck, and continued on my way to my own building, a modern skyscraper that overlooked downtown proper.

I found my way to the 28th floor, gave my name to the receptionist, and a few moments later saw a tall, slouching, long-haired man with thick black glasses come hurtling down the hall towards me. He was wearing a dirty polo shirt and a baggy pair of khaki shorts that revealed hairy legs covered with bandages.

"MM!" he cried as if I was an old pal he'd seen last week. "You made it! Welcome!" He grabbed my hand and pumped it twice, then threw it away. Up close, the man's appearance was even more startling. His reddish hair was so big it was positively leonine. And I noticed that in addition to his glasses, he had a couple of other interesting features, including an amazing scar that ran from his ear to halfway along his jawline. He also had what appeared to be a fresh set of stitches above his eyebrow.

"Are you Jim?" I asked, referring to the editor who had called to offer me the job.

"Nah! I'm Andy! Jim's in a meeting, but you'll see him later. Come on, I'll show you to your cube. You got your own typewriter and everything."

Then Andy all but dragged me down the hall, showing me along the way where all the important things were, such as the men's room, the copier, the conference room where the staff met twice a week to discuss the current issue they were working on, and a bank of 10 shared computers for the floor (this was 1989, remember, and many companies were only just transitioning to a total PC environment).

Along the way, we passed an extremely thin woman with a head of straight blonde hair that was very long in front and very short in back.

"MM, this is another editor you'll be working with, Dotty. Dotty, this is our summer intern."

Dotty eyed me with an utter lack of interest, then turned to Andy. "Where'd those new stitches come from?" she asked.

Andy waved it away. "Ah, long story. My cat jumped from the top kitchen cupboard to the ceiling can--it was off--and ended up hanging off one of the fan blades. I climbed up to get her, but she lost her grip and ended up grabbing onto my legs--" here Andy pointed to his band-aid covered lower self. "I lost my balance and grabbed the pulled chain for the fan. Thing turned on right away and one of the blades caught me." He shrugged. "Who'd a thought a ceiling fan could start so fast?"

Then Dotty looked at me again and gave me a sardonic smile. "Andy has the funniest bad luck of anyone I've ever met, NN" she said. "Don't hang around him too long. It might rub off."

I laughed at this, but before I could answer--or even correct her mistake about my name--Dotty turned back to Andy, ignoring me completely, and said, "Boss wants us downstairs looking at those slides from that thing."

"Oh!" said Andy, looking at his watch. Then he grabbed me by the arm and hustled me to a cubicle around the corner from the shared PCs. "I gotta leave you here," he said. "But Jim will come find you when his meeting's over. Meanwhile--" he pointed to a stack of printouts sitting on my desk. "Those are galleys for the latest issue we just sent to the printer. Start looking em over to get a feel for what we do. You'll especially want to look at the feature on all the people who've been on Candid Camera over the years. You're gonna be working on a similar piece, tracking people down for it. Bye!"

And with that, I was alone.

I sat down at my desk, slowly, almost reverently running my hands along the desk, looking at the bright, shiny typewriter, the walls that were covered with schedules and editorial calendars and outtakes from photo shoots. I grabbed the hefty stack of laser-printed galley pages and let the smell of toner and ozone wash over me.

Look at me, I thought, as I dove into the galleys. I'm a Magazine Man.

I wasn't yet, of course. But that summer would definitely put me on the path.

And meeting Andy would put me on another path, too. Dotty was right: Andy's bad luck did rub off...


Thursday, January 18, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #12: Outgoing Intern

It was late April, 1989, about two weeks before I would graduate from college and a month before I would turn 21. It's hard to explain the mingled sense of excitement and dread I felt during those last few weeks, and I'm just lazy enough of a writer to hope that most of you will reach for a similar cusp-of-fucking-big-change moment in your own lives that will allow you to nod your heads in instant identification.

But I think it's fair to say that for most of April, dread was really winning out over excitement. By then, the only thing confirmed in my life--besides the fact that I was going to be out of school for the first time since I was four years old--was that I had no plan for the future. None. I'm not kidding. Sure, I had my dreams, my goals, but without a plan for achieving them, my dreams and goals were so many baseballs overzealously swatted onto a rooftop, and me with no ladder. Just a bat to beat myself over the head with.

Now, it wasn't for lack of trying that I had no plan. My plan had been, of all things, to stay in school, to pursue a Master's or a Ph.D. In something, although what that something was depended on my mood. I had applied to several schools over the previous winter, some to study English, some to pursue a degree in literature, some to study advanced composition, and some to ply my academic way in the world of creative writing. If you were to ask me why I did this--especially in such a scatter-gun fashion--I'd have been hard-pressed to give you a convincing answer. My life is filled with moments where I've done the right thing for the wrong reason--or sometimes for no reason at all. At some later point, when the tumblers align and something great happens to me, I look back and convince myself that this was actually part of the plan all along, I just hadn't been able to articulate it at the time. But over time, I've come to realize that I have a really good gut about things I need to do, paths I need to take. Either that, or I'm just lucky in the most circuitous possible way.

In either case, my desire to pursue an advanced degree (which I would eventually do, and which would figure largely not just in my industry, but also in my future goal to teach college level full-time. Not any time soon. Not with three kids and a dog to support.) had by that late date in April become somewhat, er, academic. Every single college or university to which I had applied had rejected my application. Never mind that I was hundreds of dollars out of pocket in application fees; I was out of a plan. I had no ladder. Just a bat to beat myself over the head with.

Although I am generally an optimistic fellow, it began to dawn on me that I might need a Plan B back in February, when the first of the rejection letters rolled in early, perhaps even enthusiastically. So I had trotted down to the college placement office and began to search for job openings. Unfortunately at that time, in the magazine industry as elsewhere, there was a bit of a recession going on, and the pool of job openings had become more of a cracked, desert riverbed. Indeed, on the day I went to the placement office, I was stunned to discover there were absolutely NO listings for entry-level full-time positions at any magazines.

And so, on the spot, I conceived of Plan C, which consisted of looking for internships at magazines, or newspapers that had Sunday magazines. Unlike nearly all of my classmates, I had never had a professional internship. At that time my school didn't require it as a condition of graduation. Nevertheless, it was understood that before you graduated, you really ought to have an internship under your belt. Which is why my academic colleagues had largely served theirs during the traditional time--the summer between junior and senior year.

The problem there, which I had learned last year to my open-mouthed dismay, was that many of these internships were unpaid. And not just unpaid, but unpaid and based almost exclusively in New York. And since you worked normal business hours, there was no way for you to get a second job that made ends meet, unless perhaps that second job was prostitution. In truth, most of my classmates came from fairly well-heeled families, well-heeled enough that they were able to spend their summers gaining valuable professional experience thanks to an endowment from the Mommy and Daddy Foundation. That was a practical impossibility for me. My parents were already killing themselves to help put me and my brother through school, at a time when my dad had been in and out of detox and so we had a very modest collective income indeed.

So here I was, late in the season, looking for an internship that

A: Still had an open deadline
B: Accepted applicants who had already graduated (many didn't)
C: Paid some kind of wage
D: Were based in a part of the country where that wage could get me at least a straw-filled mat on the floor of some flophouse
E: Were even tangentially associated with the magazine industry

And to think I had ever chided my roommate for being disorganized or leaving things til the last minute.

As you can imagine, that left me with a pretty short list of likely candidates. And as I walked out of the placement office, I began to think a little more blithely about Plan C. Surely I would get into graduate school. I mean, so what if three schools had roundly rejected me? It was early in the year and I had plenty of time to hear from others.

Just the same, I dashed off a scant application packet to each of the places on my list--each got a jaunty cover letter, an old, fuzzy photocopy of my resume (such as it was), some yellowing clips from the school paper (some even torn off my wall, where I often posted them)--and a few hard-to-read samples of the comic strip I wrote with my roommate.

Looking back, I'm appalled at how cavalier and slap-dash I was about the process, all things considered. You can see I really didn't think Plan C through. In fact, by April, when the last grad-school rejection letter arrived to complete the collection that had grown on my wall (far eclipsing my posted newspaper stories), I had completely forgotten about Plan C.

So you can imagine my surprise a few days later, when I moped back to my apartment on the far edge of campus and discovered a message on our answering machine.

It was a surprise for two reasons. First, my roommate and I almost never got messages anymore. We were overcome with our own cleverness and had taken to leaving really long outgoing messages--once it was a lame, white-guy rap ("You've reached 555-9352/ So here's a little message/ From us to you/ Huh Huh!"); another time we blasted Mission: Impossible music in the background while my roommate left a caper-type message ("The number is 555-9352. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the phone system, leaving behind your name, number, and a message...This tape will beep in five seconds.")--the overall effect of which was that most people would hang up in annoyance before ever leaving a message, unless it was either of our moms calling, or someone to whom we owed money.

But the second reason the message was a surprise was exactly because it wasn't my mother, or a bill collector.

"Hey, MM, this is the Hiring Editor at the Upstart Visionary Media Company Down South where we are in the midst of the biggest magazine launch in the history of the industry. Liked your clips--the comic strips were fun--and thought someone with your attitude and sense of humor might want to come down and work for us this summer. Here's my number before the tape self-destructs..."

You could have knocked me over with considerably less than a bat. All of a sudden, I had a plan.

Of course, there was more to it than that, although I didn't realize it at the time.

See, that was no ordinary message. That was my future calling...


Tuesday, January 16, 2007


In Which I Am Back (Again)...

They wheeled me into the cold, sterile environment of the operating theater. My feet made strange scuffing noises from the blue booties they'd forced me to wear. A dishy nurse patted the table for me to lie upon, face down, while another dishy nurse grabbed the waistband of my sweatpants and gently pulled them down. For a moment, it seemed as though I was in one of those Penthouse Forum letters.

And then a deep masculine voice said, "You're gonna feel something back here," and suddenly I went from Penthouse Forum to Turkish prison.

The needle went in about two inches to the right of the scar that I've worn on my low back for 5 years, the scar that denotes where I had my herniated disk operated on. I immediately tensed, forehead sweating.

"Better give me a minute," I said, trying to warn the doctor that local anesthetics don't work quickly--if at all--on me. But my face was stuffed into a pillow as I said this and before I could raise my head to enunciate, he inserted the catheter under the skin and then inserted the needle into the catheter.

"Might feel some pressure down your leg here," he said.

Pressure! It was as though someone was trying to insert another, slightly smaller leg in under the flesh and bone of my existing leg. I thought surely everything from my hip on down was going to explode, leaving the dishy nurses in a spatter of gore. The world before me swam, a wave of nausea swept up, and I fought it back by concentrating on something else.

All I could focus on, though, was my life, circa two weeks ago. There I was, minding my own business, throwing the Brownie into a beanbag when my whole back, from the base of my skull to my rectum, just locked up. With a gasp of pain, I collapsed to the floor and began writhing like I was doing a play about the trials of Job.

As you all know, I've had a bad back for some years, mostly the result of a contest between myself and a bush I wanted to uproot (the bush won). But it's been a long time since I had a lock-up of this magnitude. Every move was agony; even the simple act of getting out of bed became an exercise in severe muscle contraction and I found myself frozen in mid-pose, back twitching, sweating streaming off me, lips forming swear words I didn't have the oxygen to speak.

Which is why I ended up in bed, pillows propped up under my knees for a few days.

Happy 2007.

The dog knows when I'm ailing. He tries to graft himself to my left armpit, resting his chin on my chest and thumping his tail in an encouraging way any time I look at him. The only problem with his ministrations is that when the kids come home from school, I become--well, not chopped liver, because he likes to eat that, but something equally unappetizing to dogs. He leaves me to go greet his children, and does so in the most expedient way possible: by jumping over me. Occasionally, though, he misjudges and ends up stepping on my pancreas, or my testicles, or both, and I'm left convulsing in pain, first lurching forward in reaction to the sudden stimuli, then falling backwards in a spasm of back pain.

And so it had gone.

Until this morning. After days of suffering and lying around and lurching about the office and then lying around some more, I found myself in the ambulatory surgery office of my back doctor, prepared to get another epidural steroid injection, this one intended to target the nerve root causing so much pain down my right leg. Epidurals are never something you'd choose as a leisure activity, of course, but this one was particularly uncomfortable, in part because the doc was giving me two injections, and both were in a very narrow corridor in the twisted nerve paths of my back. The pressure I felt was actually a good sign--if feeling that your leg is about to burst could ever be considered a good sign--because it meant the doctor had hit the spot he was going for. Presumably the area that felt so uncomfortable this morning would feel the effects of the steroid injection in a few days and I would be back to my old, spry, accident-prone self.

But today, I'm strictly out of commission.

Her Lovely Self picked me up when I was done. "How was it?" she chirped. It was 8:30 in the morning, so she was bright and chipper. I'm not a morning person even when I'm not having needles stuck into sensitive spots in my back, so I just grunted and tried various ways to get in the car without sending a jolt of lightning down my leg. The local, if indeed it had ever taken effect, was wearing off fast.

By the time we got home, I was moaning with discomfort. My body had tensed up quite a bit when the doc stuck me with his needles, so now I was in the throes of a full-body charley horse such as I wouldn't wish on all but my bitterest enemies. I wouldn't say I'm a big baby when it comes to pain, but enough's enough, you know? The past two weeks have been as full of pain as I've felt since I first decided to get my back surgery and I just wanted to wave a magic wand and have it all over with.

My long-suffering wife simply made soothing noises at me ("Come on! It doesn't hurt that bad, does it? Put some pants on, for pete's sake!") and helped me into the house. A neighbor passed this scene and wondered aloud who was in trouble--the moaning guy or the pregnant lady. Determining it was me, he simply moved on (WTF? Didn't he think the pregnant lady might need some help carrying me into the house?).

We made it upstairs and HLS dutifully pulled off my shoes and jacket and was about to go down and bring me some fruit cocktail--which I enjoy having brought to me when I'm not feeling well--but as she turned to go, I let out a great cry of agony and fell sideways across the bed.

"What's wrong?" she cried as I flopped this way and that, swearing and pawing at my back. Even the dog came in to have a sniff.

"My back!" I cried. "Something's really--agh!--wrong!"

"Where?" she asked.

"I dunno!" I gasped. "Right at the injection site. Hurts!" I thrashed a bit more, trying to find a comfortable position, but every movement was agony.

I tried to think of all the things that could go wrong with an epidural injection--leaking spinal fluid, staph infection, paralysis, impotence, severe headache and vomiting. I tried to decide which setback I could live with the most, but given the list, it was hard to pick a number-one choice, you know?

"What does it feel like?" HLS asked, trying to grab my shirt.

"I dunno! It's--ow!--it's a sharp pain. Almost feels like something's pulling on me. Gawd! It feels like my skin is being torn off. What are you doing?!?"

"I'm trying to take a look. Hold still!" she said.

"Can't!" I cried. "Maybe I should call the doctor and see--"

Just then my wife did something to my back that made the pain increase sharply, then vanish instantly.

"Oh thank God!" I cried, panting. "What did you do?"

HLS gave me a well-worn look of mingled pity and disgust. "It was the Band-Aid the doctor put over the injection site," she said, waggling the adhesive strip in my face.

"Oh. Thanks."

She left without a word.

That was an hour ago. I'm still waiting for her to bring up the fruit cocktail.

Meanwhile, I've kept myself busy, noodling about online. Hope you're pleased with the results. Like that logo? It's from Evan, his good deed after winning an animated movie about dog poop during my Giveaway of CRAP. Only took me a year to post it, huh?

Speaking of being overdue, I guess I need to get the next Giveaway up and running soon, too, huh?

Well, I will. I promise.

Just as soon as I'M up and running.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


Saturday, January 06, 2007


In Which I Want To Be Alone...

I've read--and written--stories about relationships and one of those eye-candy factoids that always pops up somewhere in the copy is the Main Reasons Couples Fight. Mostly, it boils down to intractable differences regarding money and/or sex (and here we're including any consequences of sex, such as children). Surprisingly (to me anyway), money is far and away the more corrosive of the two.

Her Lovely Self and I don't argue so much about that sort of thing. Well, to clarify: we do argue about that sort of thing (on the money side, I still haven't lived down the time I bought a beanbag with a six-foot-diameter footprint without clearing it with her first. And the fact that it only cost $125 carried no weight with her. And on the sex side, replace "argue" with a more appropriate verb, such as "grovel" and you're pretty much there). It's just that our squabbles are never bad enough to warrant breaking the promises we made to each other almost 13 years ago in front of God and everyone.

But if there's one issue that's going to divide us--and I'm not saying our marriage is in trouble, I'm just saying if anything had the slimmest hope of becoming a marital deal-breaker--it's the subject of free time.

Her Lovely Self grew up in a house where she, her mother, father, and three sisters, did everything together except going to the bathroom (and I'm not even sure about that). They were a very tight family, in point of fact. When HLS went to college, and then later to Chicago, she never would have considered living without a roommate (preferably two). When we met, one of her reasons for agreeing to go out with me--aside from pity--was the fact that I was always willing to accompany her wherever she wanted to go. In short, she can't stand to be alone. It was a personality trait I was perfectly happy to exploit when we were younger, but I never foresaw the consequences that this kind of trait would have on her mindset over the long haul. Because, see, she has a hard time imagining why anyone would want to spend some time by himself. More to the point, she has a hard time not taking personally the fact that someone would want time by himself.

And we all know who himself is in this scenario.

As for me, I've always been perfectly happy being by myself. Some of the most cherished moments of my childhood were those times when I made a conscious choice to part from the crowd and strike off of my own. Growing up in my household, there were times when getting away by myself was not merely an indulgence but a coping mechanism. When my dad was drinking and went off on one of his hitting-and-shouting tirades, my flight response kicked in and I always hot-footed it for the fields and forests beyond our house, staying there in relative solitude and safety until darkness would begin to fall and my brother would come find me with the news that dad had left or passed out.

In school, I always had friends, but I was also the guy who enjoyed sitting up in a far corner of the bleachers during lunch or a free period, reading or writing, or sometimes just staring into the distance and thinking long-range thoughts. I do my best thinking when I'm alone and it's the time when I can best center myself.

And the hell of it is, I haven't had any alone time to myself in ages.

I get a little time to myself in the evenings, after the kids have gone to bed and HLS passes out, exhausted, usually by 10, but often sooner, since she's now sleeping for two. That gives me a few hours, but lately, with the pace of work, I've been pretty damn tired so I don't get too much time on my own that doesn't involve slumping sideways on the sofa and waking to discover I've drooled on the dog's head.

It used to be I had plenty of time on the weekends--HLS would be off shopping or gardening and I could spend time puttering in the basement or taking a long bike ride or working on a story. But weekends are the only times the kids get to see me during daylight hours and the truth is, I'll always give up the chance to be alone for the chance to do stuff with them.

Up to a point.

And I think I've reached that point.

The hell of it is, it's a subject that is so touchy to broach with my wife, whenever I try to do it, I want to call in the bomb squad first. HLS instantly supposes that my wanting to be myself equals my not wanting to be with her. And for all the eloquence I can muster, I can't get her to see that it just isn't so. I mean, I spend 90 percent of my free time with her. Is it so wrong to want 10 percent to myself? It's not like I prefer the company of others to her, like I want to go off and hang with the guys or bang my mistress (I have no mistress, let me hasten to add. I'm being hypothetical here). I just want some peace and quiet and the secure knowledge that I'm going to have a block of time to delve into other things, without worrying about the door opening and someone calling down to wonder what I'm doing or when I'll be coming upstairs.

I've tried to explain to her that I use that time to indulge in creative endeavors, things that require me to let my imagination run riot, and I can't do that when she's sitting in the chair behind me, asking me what I want for dinner tonight, or whether I've read the article she's reading. I can't do it when the kids come over and want to know when I'm going to be off the computer so I can play a video game, and then come back three minutes later and want to know when I'm going to be off the computer so I can play a video game, ad nauseum for the rest of the afternoon.

As you might guess, we had this discussion just the other night, and although she often says she understands that I need my "alone time," we both know it's a big fat lie. Inevitably, she acts hurt and starts to suggest ridiculous measures, such as taking the kids to Florida to stay with her parents for the rest of the winter, or giving me every weekend alone until Easter, during which time she'll take the kids to do every fun things I've wanted to do with them.

And at some point in her discussion, she'll bring it up. The Remark.

"Well, I guess they were right. Marrying me was a big mistake for you, because I've taken away all the free time you'd use to write and sucked up all the energy you'd use to pursue your goals," she huffed.

"They" by the way, are a married couple I will jointly refer to as BettyBob, two friends of mine from childhood. I adored them and considered them dear friends but the truth is they were not such good friends to me all the time. Betty and I had a brother/sister relationship which, alas, included all the negative aspects of such a relationship. In other words, we often bickered and had petty little fights. And she had a somewhat possessive sense about me, especially when it came to women I was dating. Bob mostly kept his mouth shut and did whatever Betty told him, which didn't help.

So when BettyBob visited me in Chicago and met Her Lovely Self for the first time, it was not an auspicious meeting. In fact, my friends were downright rude to HLS. And later, after she left my apartment one evening, BettyBob made it clear that they didn't see me being with HLS long term. And then Betty said that they saw HLS as a clingy type who would suck away all of my creative energy and free time and I would never achieve what they both felt was my considerable potential as a man who was good with words.

My biggest mistake was in sharing this remark with HLS, which I did not because I wanted to hurt HLS, but because I was amused by what I thought was the most incredibly, ironically, pot-calling-the-kettle-blackly blind remark I'd ever heard. Because for most of my college career, Betty was making constant demands on my time, and hung out at my apartment so much, my long-suffering roommate once suggested that we charge her rent. Moreover, HLS knew BettyBob didn't like her and demanded to know what they said about her. I have never liked to lie to HLS, so like an idiot I told her, not realizing that it would scar her for life. Because even though that comment was made some 15 years ago, and even though we eventually patched things up and spent many good times with BettyBob (and Bob was even in my wedding), the truth is HLS has never quite forgiven them for their remark, but she has also never disagreed with it either. Unlike me, HLS has always had a self-esteem problem, which means she is highly susceptible to the criticisms and suggestions of friends and family. If her friends had said something like that about me, she'd have seriously considered dumping me. Whereas I have never had a problem telling the dearest people in my life to fuck off if I think they're full of shit.

So it is that at times like this, when I casually suggest that I might need an afternoon to myself this weekend, or to propose that this February she takes the kids to Florida without me--for a week, not a season--she immediately gets pouty and brings up the Remark, throwing it in my face as if it was something I had said.

Which I never would, for the simple fact that it isn't true. In fact, if it wasn't for the love and support of my wife, I can categorically state that I wouldn't be where I am. I can think of three key strategic career changes I have wanted to make in my life, all vital to me either getting a chance to write a book or having the opportunity to work at a Really Big Magazine. But in every single case, those chances involved HLS giving up a sweet job with good money (often more money than I was making) to pull up stakes and move to some new city, almost always a city that has put her farther and farther away from her family, who she used to live so close to, she could visit them every weekend.

I know a host of girlfriends and spouses--and I'm talking reasonable women here, not just the crazy ones--who would have been justified to put their foot down and forced me to pass on the opportunity. But in every case, my wife went along with it--more than that, encouraged it--because she knew it would be good for my career and my long-held ambition to, well, be where I am.

I told her this--as I've told her this every time she brings up the Remark, but it tends to go in one ear and out the other, or else be dismissed out of hand.

This time she said, "Well, okay, so you've achieved a goal you set for yourself in magazines, but if you and I hadn't stayed together, you'd have had these opportunities anyway. And on top of it, you'd have had plenty of free time to pursue your other dreams, like that comic book you always wanted to write, or the book ideas you've always talked about. If you didn't have us weighing you down, you'd have achieved those things by now."

And usually this is where we get into an argument because I'll tell her she's being ridiculous and that will really set her off.

But last night, I decided to take a different tack. I don't know what possessed me, but I opened my mouth and said, "You know what? You're right."

Boy, that brought her up short. Her eyes widened and she gave me a look of mingled pain and triumph. "See? You finally admit it," she said.

"I admit that I made a choice. To be with you and to have kids and to live this life. You didn't make me do it. I did it of my own free will. And I even did it with advance warning. I mean, BettyBob alerted me to this danger, didn't they?"

HLS didn't respond. She just sat there glumly waiting to see just how big a hole I might dig for myself in this little speech.

"What you don't understand is: even if I knew for a fact that marrying you meant I'd never write that comic book, that I could have kids or I could have best-selling books but not both, I'd still choose to be with you."

Which is self-serving to tell you, of course, but it is what I said. More to the point, it IS how I feel. I mean, don't get me wrong: I'd love to have a couple of books and a comic-book series under my belt and be the literary idol of millions. But I love my family more. And heck, if I'm willing to sacrifice my life for any one of them, sacrificing a portion of my writing life is a pretty cheap price to pay (assuming it was true, which I don't think it is).

So, Her Lovely Self and I had a little "Awwww" moment and it was all very loving and happy at the Magazine Mansion, until she looked up at me with her puppy-dog eyes and said,

"So does this mean you still want some alone time this weekend? Because I really need you to finish cleaning the basement."

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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