With Fathers' Day rolling around yesterday, I've been thinking about something my own dad once said to me in my youth.
I don't remember the exact situation; I was dealing with some challenge or disappointment or a girl who'd put gum in my hair. Or who hadn't put gum in my hair, or who didn't appreciate the gum I'd put into her hair. Something traumatic like that.
Anyway, I remember my dad sat me down, heard me out, and then offered a single piece of fatherly wisdom:
"Son, life isn't about the things that happen to you. The question is, when those things happen, what sort of man will you become?"
(I think it was my dad who said that. Come to think of it, I might have been a Growing Pains rerun. Or Family Ties. I have this strong feeling of being annoyed with Tina Yothers in there somewhere.
You know what, screw it. My old man can have this one. I'm giving it to him.)
"I can finally tell my father -- and anyone else who wants to know -- what kind of man I've become."
Of course, I didn't have an answer to the question then. I was still a kid. I had no idea what things would happen as I grew up, or how I'd react or which people would be putting their gum into which other peoples' hairs.
But now, I know. Decades of experience later, and I have the answers. I can finally tell my father -- and anyone else who wants to know -- what kind of man I've become. To wit:
I'm the kind of man who:
I'm not so sure Dad's going to be so keen on this stuff. Or understand some of it. Or want to hear anything about any of it.
Maybe I'll paste it in an email and send it to Alan Thicke, or Meredith Baxter-Birney. That seems safer. Yeah, I'll go with that.
Semantics is a funny thing. With all of the nuances in language and syntax, it's possible for two sentences that seem almost identical to have very different meanings. It's trivially easy to misunderstand, misinterpret or fully miscombobulate, depending on context and mindset and prior experience.
I find that this happens all the time. Even when it comes to personal philosophy.
Or perhaps, especially when it comes to personal philosophy. Sometimes the closedest of closed books is other people. Particularly when they're trying to tell you how to live.
"Sometimes the closedest of closed books is other people."
For instance, take this truism that seems to orient a fair number of people into a particular philosophical mindset:
"Things could always be worse."
People usually say this after something awful has happened. It's ostensibly meant to cheer someone up who's just gone through some awful injury, trauma or modern Star Wars sequel. As in, "Sure, you broke your arm, but you could have broken both." Or "Hey, at least there weren't two Jar-Jar's in that train wreck."
I for one don't find this comforting. It comes off as a guilt trip. Sure, you have it tough. But something worse happened to someone else at some point, probably, and you don't her him complaining.
Of course, that poor bastard is probably dead, what with the two broken arms and the George Lucas nightmare tearing apart his soul. But, see? Things could always be worse!
The pinnacle of this line of thinking is the old proverb which says:
"I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet."
Frankly, I don't see how that changes things. The author's still running around shoeless, probably stepping on rocks and bees and other sharp things. The footless guy doesn't have this problem. And besides, if the other guy's got no feet, then maybe he's got an old pair of shoes to give away. He's not using them. Help a barefoot brother out, is all I'm saying.
The point is, the message of "things could always be worse" seems to me to be: shut up and deal, because you got off easy and other people have been hit by lightning and eaten by bears and sat through the English Patient, and I don't even want to sign your cast any more, ya crybaby.
I'm paraphrasing, of course. Obviously, no one has sat through the whole English Patient movie without crawling out of the theater or committing hara kiri with a Twizzler in the balcony. But you get the idea.
Now, contrast that with a favorite phrase of mine, which I nearly exclusively use when things are going reasonably well:
"It can always get worse."
See the difference?
No? Fine. Nobody ever seems to.
Here's the thing -- my saying is a warning. A checkpoint. A simple "be prepared" and don't get overly comfortable, because the universe will throw you a curveball now and then. I don't say this when someone's been run over by a bus, and I don't invoke some tale about how some other person was once run over by two buses, so zip your feeding tube hole and be thankful. No. That would be rude.
Instead, I say it at happier times, when our collective guards might be down and we might need a gentle reminder that life can be an up-and-down sort of experience. These are the situations for "it can always get worse" -- wedding toasts, for instance. Birthday parties. In Christmas cards. Right after sex.
Now you see the difference. When "things could always be worse" than some awful tragedy that just happened, the horrors are limited only to our imaginations. This horrible event could be just the first of many -- and certainly not the worst so far, what with all the broken-limbed, footless cretins apparently limping around in the past.
But when "it can always get worse" than, say, a birthday party? Well, sure, there's probably no birthday party tomorrow. Or if there is, then they might serve vanilla cake or store-bought cookies or graham crackers and prune juice. That would certainly be "worse". But nobody has to lop off their feet, or feel bad about some Greyhound-trampled jerkhole in a body cast taking it all in stride. That's his problem. We've got a pinata here. Carry on.
But just remember: it can always get worse.
Sometimes I think I can deduce what people watch on TV based on how they behave. I just assume that overly melodramatic people are big soap opera fans, and people who like to cook watch a lot of food shows.
(Of course, the inverse isn't necessarily true. I watch a few "foodie" shows, and I couldn't cook my way out of a microwave popcorn bag.)
Generally, I figure an awful lot of people I run into must be watching Jackass rerun marathons every few hours, but that's not the point just now. Instead, I'm thinking about the viewing habits of a woman in my office. And I'm convinced she's into Columbo, the old police show starring Peter Falk.
Now, maybe you're not familiar with this particular show. Perhaps you don't watch a lot of detective dramas, or you're not ridiculously old enough to have caught it in its heyday. Or, possibly, you're really ungodly old, and you were busy watching Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger instead.
"That's loosely translated from Latin. Via the Temptations."
(But you're reading a blog. So you can't be that old, surely. Unless your AOL search is acting up, and sent you here accidentally. So sorry.)
Anyway, why Columbo? Because, in his parlance, this lady follows Columbo's M.O. That's modus operandi, of course, meaning "the way you do the things you do".
That's loosely translated from the Latin. Via the Temptations.
I'm not saying this person has adopted all of Detective Columbo's various peculiarities. For instance, he wore a shabby overcoat and chewed cigars a lot. So far as I know, she doesn't do this. Maybe in the privacy of her own home. I haven't asked.
What she does emulate quite well is Columbo's particular style of interrogation. Which is particularly unsettling, given that she's not actually a detective. And that I'm not a perp. And that she only comes to my office to ask computer questions. Frankly, I'm not quite sure how to respond.
She'll come sauntering in aimlessly -- very Columboesque, you know -- and start with a bit of harmless-seeming chitchat. The weather. The weekend. Woolly mammoths, for all I know -- I usually tune this part out.
Next come the questions. Little ones at first, just nibbles. How much RAM does this take? Can I open this other thing in Excel? What's a megabyte? Every once in a while, the interrogation will cover old material; that's when I feel like a '70s-style suspect from the show, with an overwide collar and paisley socks and maybe a body stuffed under the stairs.
"We've covered this!" I say.
"Oh yeah, of course, sure. That's right. I just wanted to make sure."
And so I smile that tired indulgent smile that the perps used to smile at Columbo, and we let the session run its course. She gets her information, bit by bit, drip by drip, until finally there's nothing left to learn. And then she stands, and heads for the door.
And she reaches the doorway.
And she turns.
And then, invariably, like Falk reincarnated, rest his stogie-chomping soul, she squints a little and waggles a finger back in my direction and delivers the signature, soul-crushing, suspect-damning line:
"Er, ah... just one more thing...."
And then she asks another half hour of questions, and I wish I actually did have a body under my stairs so I could tell the cops about it and escape. But I don't. So I can't. And the dance of faux Columbo goes on.
It could be worse, I suppose. She could be like one of those other TV detectives. The really nasty ones on Law and Order: SVU, for instance. She could come in slamming doors and desks and growl, "NOW HOW DO I MAKE A PIVOT TABLE, SLIMEBALL?!"
That would be uncomfortable. Possibly preferable, on some days. But definitely uncomfortable.
Instead, we're locked in on Columbo. It's almost like it was still on television, in fact. Every week, for about an hour, we have our episode. Thirty minutes in, the "just one more thing", only there are no commercial breaks and I don't get thrown in jail at the end. I suppose at this rate, when I can see it coming, it's just about manageable.
But if this lady ever goes into syndication? And schedules an all-day Columbo marathon?
No. At that point, I'm out. I'm a patient man and all, but I'm sorry. If it gets any worse, this lady will just have to go Falk herself. Series cancelled.
It's been six months since our precious pooch scampered off to that golden kennel in the sky.
(Not really; I'm being euphemistic. She's actually in an urn on our bookshelf.
And probably peeing in it.)
Without a mutt to meander with, I don't walk around the neighborhood as much as I used to. And when I do make the local rounds, I apparently don't pay much attention to the signage. Because it was just yesterday that I noticed, a couple of blocks over, an old sign on an apartment building that reads:
Please Keep Dogs on Leash
Clean Up Mess
$25-$200 Fine for Violations
Now, the leash thing I've got no issue with. We kept our dog on a leash at all times outside because, frankly, she was kind of an idiot. Oh, there was little chance -- in her last eight years or so, anyway -- that she'd bolt into traffic or run away to join a fleabitten circus or something. But she was curious, and stubborn, and off leash she would've wound up sniffing poop behind a thorn bush or up a telephone pole or some other dumb inaccessible place. Leashing was just easier.
"This poop math, it's not an exact science."
Likewise, I'm all for people -- including me -- cleaning up their dog's droppings. My wife and I were quite diligent about this, partly because it's just the polite and neighborly and responsible thing to do.
But also because if we left a pile of turds lying around somewhere, we're the sort of people who are likely to step in it later. So "neighborly", yes. But also, we just don't watch where we walk so much, and we can only tolerate so many pairs of stink-ass shoes.
(I've done some math on this subject, by the way. We had our dog for twelve-and-a-half years. At two bowls of kibble a day, plus Snausages and biscuits and whatever she snarfed from strangers, and four to six walks per day, lessee... carry the one, an extra walk on weekends, and... I estimate that we've bagged roughly forty-three billion turds since the turn of the century.
Give or take a steamer. This poop math, it's not an exact science.)
It's really the last part of the sign that concerns me. Not because there's a fine. Not because of the size of the fine. What concerns me is that there's a range of values to the fine. Which makes me wonder:
What criteria determine the size of a dog poop fine? And who decides?
I picture a guy, some flunky on the police force or at the county courthouse, whose job is to review the turd files. Maybe he goes over pictures or forensic evidence. Maybe he even interviews witnesses:
"Was the poodle fully in the azalea patch, or just hovering its butt above?"
"This doesn't look like malamute plop. Are you certain it was a malamute, sir?"
"What the hell are you feeding that thing -- firecrackers with sriracha sauce?!"
Probably not once of those "love your job" kinds of job. But now I almost want a dog, so I can walk it over to the apartment building and leave piles of terrier turds on the lawn until someone catches me. Not maliciously; I just want to see the process. Is a sidewalk stain an extra twenty bucks? Do you pay more for spread, if it's not in one of those curly little piles? These are questions just sitting up and begging for answers. It'd even be worth a hundred bucks to find out.
Or a hundred and fifty, if I take a Saint Bernard. Those mothers can poooop.
This weekend, the missus and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. We've been married for brgzuflught years, and... what's that? You didn't catch the number? Oh, well, it's not important. Let's just say it was a little while ago.
We could also say that the last ice age ended a little while and a smidgen ago, or that the sun coalesced from a cloud of hot cosmic gas two or three little whiles ago. But we won't do that. Will we? No. We won't.
As we often do at anniversary time, we decided to get away for the weekend. In the past, we've gone to more or less 'down to earth' places -- Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; the movies -- but this time we decided to hit another New England spot that we'd never gotten the chance to see: Martha's Vineyard.
"I figured it was a bunch of people with polo mallets and stiff haircuts drinking out of highball glasses and wearing white at the appropriate times, but never at the non-appropriate times, whenever the hell those are, respectively."
Now, I didn't know much about what happens on Martha's Vineyard. I figured it was a bunch of people with polo mallets and stiff haircuts drinking out of highball glasses and wearing white at the appropriate times, but never at the non-appropriate times, whenever the hell those are, respectively. And it totally is that, in some places on the island. Those are not the places I'm allowed to go, or to be seen near, or to reference by name here, lest the inhabitants look sternly down their noses at me in contempt. So I won't.
We were, however, allowed entry into quite a fair number of Martha's Vineyard locales, and they weren't quite so posh as to turn us away completely. Sit us in a corner, perhaps. Throw a presumably stylish and high thread count sheet over us, sure. But we still got to eat, or drink, or shop as we liked, so long as we didn't scare the fancy folk.
But the clearest hint that I may not be a 'Vineyard person' was that I couldn't even figure out how to describe it. People asked me if we were going away this weekend, and where, and I didn't know what to tell them.
"We'll be at the Vineyard." ?
That sounds a little too polo-mallet for my non-blue blood.
"We'll be on the Vineyard." ?
It is an island, after all. And frankly, I'm not sure I saw any grape vines anywhere we went. But syntactically, this sentence makes no sense to me. Unlike:
"We'll be in the Vineyard."
That sounds more like a weekend I would have -- possibly including sleeping there, among the sauvignons and burgundies and Concords or whatever. I don't really know from grapes. But they do look pretty comfy after a long day of wine sipping.
So I don't know how to describe it -- at least, not without breaking the rules of grammar or sounding like a Kennedy's poor suburbanite illegitimate cousin. But it's been a great trip. We've had a nice ferry ride over. A romantic dinner and evening at the hotel. And tomorrow, we'll visit an alpaca farm and a brewery.
Those are two different places, by the way. They're not actually brewing beer next to alpacas, and serving pints in soft wool coozies or something.
At least, they're not yet. I'll talk to them both tomorrow; maybe we can work something out. Meanwhile, it's anniversary weekend. I'm checking out -- from the Vineyard. G'night.
There's an odd phenomenon happening at my desk at work.
Okay, to be fair, there are lots of odd phenomena happening at my desk, most any time I'm there, but I'm not talking about those. Probably, you'll hear about those sooner or later, too. Unless the HR lady hears about them first.
This particular odd phenomenon is different, not least because I'm not the one causing it. I am, however, perhaps the only one noticing it. It involves cell phone reception.
First, let me say that signal -- at least, T-Mobile brand signal -- seems to have a tough time penetrating our building at all. We work in an office in a big converted structure -- it used to be a train station or a molasses warehouse or a zeppelin hangar or something -- and there's a lot of room for wavelengths to get lost in. I'm assuming that's how wavelengths work, anyway, because most places I go in this big cavernous hulk, wavelengths get lost.
"Nobody wants me in a laboratory. I don't want that. The company doesn't want that. The world doesn't want that."
I get no reception downstairs, none in the back hallway, and none in the laboratory spaces. Luckily, these are places I don't go to -- and not allowed to go to, mostly, being largely shackled to the desk in my office. Which is fine. Nobody wants me in a laboratory. I don't want that. The company doesn't want that. The world doesn't want that. Trust me.
The thing about my desk is that it's maybe twenty feet inside the wall of the building, a conference room-width and a hallway from the outer bricks. This is, coincidentally, just about the distance that my carrier's signal will travel inside before being degraded into its component atoms or wavicles or cellular bosons or whatever. Which means, one side of my desk has signal. And the other does not.
This creates some challenges to actually using a cell phone in the office. I'll remember -- usually -- to drop my phone on the right (i.e., outermore) side of the desk, if I'm expecting a call or am anxious to see the next word some virtual 'friend' has played in fake Scrabble. But it's easy to get distracted. I'll take a call, and edge a bit toward the office door to stay in range. But then I'll roll back to the laptop to look something up or find directions, and the call winks itself away. It's like an electronic fence -- only, instead of keeping a dog in, it's keeping me off the phone. And my shock collar is made by Samsung.
I won't pretend there aren't some advantages to living on the crest of a signal wave. For instance, if I don't want to take a call, I've only got to drop my phone on the left side of the desk, another three feet away from the outdoors. Over there, it's a paperweight. That side of the desk hasn't heard from a carrier in at least a year and a half. By now, it's probably thinking of having T-Mobile declared legally dead.
(This also works when I've got a shitty rack of tiles, and don't want some smug yahoo dropping a bingo on my QVJKBUT and ruining my afternoon. The pseudo-Scrabble door swings both ways, friend.)
Sometimes, I'll have a little fun with some stranger who's cold-called me up. These don't happen often, so I like to take advantage. Once I figure out it's some phonomarketer or survey taker, I pretend their nonsense is my new favorite thing in life. Well, of course I want to buy fourteen magazine subscriptions! And yesyesyes, I'd be thrilled to participate in a ninety-minute questionnaire for a shot to win a refurbished Sony Walkman! It's a dream, I tell you! A dream come true!
Then just about the time they're asking for my credit card, or gender / age range / income bracket, I start eeeeasing over toward the Dead Zone. Still enthusiastic, still eager. Here, let me start the first four digits of that card... and tell me again how 'strongly agree' differs from 'moderately agree', and-
Aw. Did I lose you? That's too bad. And is the phone going to sit on the shelf over there in no-man's land for the rest of the day, in case you decide to call back? It is? Awwwww.
So it's not all bad, I guess. At this point, I'm just curious about any health effects this might have. Some day, when there's a study linking cell signal exposure to some awful chronic disease, I'll probably only be affected on one side. That's... comforting, sort of, to know that only the right side of my brain will explode, or only one testicle will catch on fire. I suppose it could be worse.
No. I know it could be worse. I could have Verizon. Yowza.
Since I mothballed the Eek!Cards series of between-post tidbits, there haven't been quite as many updates around here. And with ZuG.com off the interwebs, my weekly article gig is kaput, too. Does that mean I'm writing less? Not exactly.
Does it mean the writing is going as swimmingly as usual? Oh, sure. Swimmingly.
One thing I'm doing is working on a couple of science fiction pieces. These are notable only for reminding me again of an old lesson: given a choice, it's always easier to do the easy thing.
That's hardly profound, i guess. But in this case, it's pretty clear. One idea I'm working on is short, maybe four or five thousand words when it's finished. The other, fully fleshed out, could be novel-length or close -- maybe a couple of hundred thousand.
And progress? The short piece is half-done. The long one, I haven't gotten through the first scene. Easy is easy, and hard for some other time. Like when I'm retired, maybe. Or have the money to hire a writing slave.
I've also been gently rooting around for another regular writing gig. I had a good lead, just after ZuG.com wrapped up shop. The guy who ran the site sent an email to the staff writers, saying that the head writer wrangler at another humor site would be glad to have us aboard. And here was his personal email address, if we'd like to follow up.
I did follow up, and sent a personal email to the head writer wrangler at that personal email address, saying that I'd be quite glad to be had aboard.
That was two months ago. I haven't heard a peep. At this point, I'm guessing either the email address was a spoof -- ZuG was a prank comedy site, after all -- or the ZuG honcho was just too nice to add at the end of his email, "...would be glad to have any of you aboard. Well, any of you except that guy."
It's okay. I've been that guy before. My parents considered making "Thatguy" my middle name. I'm used to it.
Then there was the educational outfit I touched base with a couple of weeks ago. They were looking for fun and creative ways to teach vocabulary words to high schoolers. Well. That's right up my alley. I mean, if one can use rhyming mnemonics to learn grammar, why couldn't one use a similar approach for teaching vocab lists? With, say, bawdy limericks? Like so:
There once was a fellow named Neil,
Who rear-ended a gal's Oldsmobile;
Though he'd mangled her tire,
His panache lit a fire --
Now his lugnuts are screwed on her wheel.
Old Tom never believed the old dictum;
He thought everyone had just tricked 'im.
So Tom chose his friend Winger,
Then Tom pulled out a finger,
Reached right up his nose, and he picked 'im!
These people never wrote back to me, either. Obviously.
Finally, this week I looked into another gig writing articles for a humor site launching soon. I sent some links to things I'd previously written, and they didn't run away bleaching their eyes in terror. They asked me to pitch an idea for a writing sample in the format they like, and they didn't shut down their email address and try to have my internet cut off when I responded. In fact, they told me to write that sample, and they'd take a look at it today and get back to me.
Or throw the article down a pit, burn our correspondence and pretend they're suffering from permanent amnesia, should I ever pass one of them on the street. Which is roughly what I expected.
Instead, they got back to me, said they really liked the article, and signed me up as a new contributor. So it looks like I might have a new gig, after all -- and if it works out, I'll surely be hawking links to those articles here. Stay tuned for that bunch of goodness, and do try not to hold your breath in the meantime. I can't afford to lose any of the one-and-a-half readers I have.
So -- a solid win on that last thing, right?
Well... almost. Everything was great about that last email confirmation and the invitation to join the freelance writing pool. Everything except the very beginning, which read:
Now, probably one of two things happened. Either the guy writing the email sent out a bunch of these in succession and forgot to change the salutation, or he just spaced on my name after reading a bunch of article pitches and typed the wrong thing. But there's also the chance he got the addresses mixed up, and the email was actually supposed to go to somebody named Chris. And not me. Which would be sort of a problem.
Because I would totally have to answer to "Chris" from now on. At least in emails, from this one place, and in the bylines of any articles I send in. And I thought Zolton was a pain in the ass to remember.
Does it ever end, the madness? All signs point to no.