One thing I find strange is that in most occasions, it’s not considered polite to talk about one’s sex life with acquaintances. Except for one exception--when people talk about attempting to have a baby.
They say, “We’ve been trying for a while now.”
And I have to stop and just deal with that image for a second. Because not only have they just said “We’ve been having sex a lot lately,” but “We’ve been having pretty intense sex, and there’s a bunch of emotional issues wrapped up in it.”
Yet no one ever blinks an eye--and, apparently, I’m the only one who needs to take a few seconds to visualize it, which usually leads to people snapping their fingers in my face and saying “Are you still with us?”
I’ve learned that, despite this extremely intimate confession, it’s not okay to follow up with “Well, have you tried using toys?”
It really doesn’t seem fair, though. I’m not allowed to say “Yeah, recently me and my girlfriend have been really pounding each other in the sack, and to be honest, it’s all pretty emotionally charged.”
Although maybe this would be acceptable if I conclude with “But it’s all right, we’re thinking about having a baby.”
Not wanting to take on the additional expense of a gardener right now, I’m handling my front and back yards by myself. But I have no idea what I’m doing. Usually I grasp the garden shears and hurl myself into the plants like Freddy Krueger among a bunch of sleeping, half-naked teenagers. If I’m in a mellow mood, they get just a little off the top, like a friendly barber: if my head is full of Sarah Palin and British Petroleum executives, it gets bloody. Branches and leaves strewn around like broken limbs and entrails, weeds uprooted and sent on diaspora.
I don’t think any of this is helping my place look nicer, but it is therapeutic. I’m getting used to it. If I do hire a gardener, I don’t know if I can give it up. I would need to hire someone who can also help me express my feelings. “I finished clipping the vines. Now tell me more about your childhood.”
There’s one plant, though, that is my personal nemesis. It’s tall, green, and thorny--so sharp that it draws ruby-colored pinpricks of blood if you touch it even slightly. It’s what Jack’s beanstalk would look like if that fairy tale had been written by a practitioner of S&M.
It took me a long time to figure out why the former owners of the house would even have planted such an ugly thing, but then it sprouted white flowers in the spring and I sort of got it. Nevertheless, I decided to clip it down to size. I hacked away at it with my shears--and to my horror, the top part broke away and slid over the fence into my neighbor’s yard.
My neighbor just moved in, and I’ve only met her once. Her name is--well, she might Google herself, but trust me when I say that her name is the equivalent of Moon Unit Zappa, so that’s what I’ll call her. She introduced herself to me:
“Hi, I’m Moon Unit Zappa.”
“Great, well, congratulations on moving in.”
“Or should I say, congratulations on coming in for a landing.”
Moon Unit made me promise to let her know if she plays her music too loud, although I’ve never heard so much as a note drift out of her house, and this caused me a great deal of concern. She was clearly the type to dance barefoot in a wild frenzy of neo-hippie mania, and I had just launched a barbed wire beanstalk into her back yard. What if she went all Van Morrison and Moondanced herself right across the thorns?
When confronted with the need to tell someone about a danger to themselves that I inadvertently caused, I typically take the low road out: don’t do anything. And, as this happened several weeks ago, I’m glad to say that I’ve heard neither music nor screams of agony from Moon Unit’s place (or, as I like to think of it, “Moon Landing"), so perhaps she never went barefoot dancing after all. Still, I am thinking I may need to accelerate the gardener thing. It’s one thing to slaughter plants in the privacy of my own yard--but when the carnage threatens to engulf innocents, it pushes me uncomfortably close into becoming an eco-terrorist.
As expected, my late father bequeathed his gun collection to me and my brother. And he owned a lot of guns. Colts, magnums, shotguns. Also knives and swords. And one crossbow.
Growing up as a kid, it seemed as though there were weapons everywhere--behind glass cases, hanging on the walls, locked in trunks. It took me a while to realize that this was actually a compromise: if my mother had her way, there wouldn’t have been any artillery within 50 miles of the house. My father had been respecting her wishes and holding himself back. Imagine what the house would have been like if he hadn’t been so constrained: instead of getting a car for my 18th birthday, I probably would have been offered a tank and a howitzer.
I mentioned my new possessions to the VP of Sales at my work. He said, “Are you planning on selling any?” I said, “Probably. Why, you need guns?” He said, “I won’t be satisfied until I have two guns for each windowsill.”
I never heard Dad use that phrase, but I think he would have liked the sentiment. For him, carrying weapons constituted a fundamental right, and he was often shocked to find out that people had serious problems with them.
One notable example of this occurred just over a year ago. Dad’s illness had already made it difficult for him to walk long distances, so he was in a wheelchair when we went to Disneyland for my niece’s fifth birthday. Trying to enter the park, he was stopped by an attendant who pointed at the gift-wrapped box resting on his lap. “You have to open that, sir,” the girl said.
“It’s a gift for my granddaughter,” he said. “I’m not opening it.”
“We have to see what’s inside.”
“Oh all right.” Disgusted, and acting reflexively, Dad reached into his pocket and whipped out a large Paul-Hogan-Style-This-is-a-Knife and started slicing through the wrapping paper.
The girl’s eyes opened wide as she registered the new threat. Suddenly, this harmless old man carrying a gift for his granddaughter had transformed into a potential terrorist. “Sir, you--you can’t take that into the park either.”
Naturally, more arguing ensued--to the point that Dad was shouting--but he eventually rolled away, to deposit the knife back in his hotel room. As he did so, he launched his final, devastating salvo at the hapless park attendant: “I’m writing this up on Yelp!”
Inexplicably, at age 69, my father had become an inveterate Yelp writer with hundreds of reviews to his credit. In the heat of his fury, he was convinced that a Yelp review detailing his unceremonious treatment would be the Force-guided missile that would detonate and destroy the Disneyland Death Star.
My brother and I will probably take months or longer to go through, catalog, and decide what to do with all the guns. But I was surprised when my brother said, “Why don’t you take the sword that was hanging in the den? I know you want it.”
I had forgotten mentioning it. But I did want it. It looks old--it’s chipped and battered. It’s not worth anything.
But that sword hung in the house where I grew up for as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d be playing video games or reading a book and sometimes I’d just look up and stare at it. I liked looking at it, running my gaze along its cracks and crevices, seeing how the silver metal was spotted with gray and black imperfections. I liked how it wasn’t straight but curved, like a half moon. I liked how it looked as though it had countless stories to tell. There may not be a single item that, in my mind, is more emblematic to me of growing up in that house.
I was glad to take it back to my place, and when I buy a few nails, I will hang it on my own wall. And I will sometimes stare at it. It will make me think of Dad, of course. But it will also tell me the exact same thing that it did when I was a child. It will tell me: You are home now. You are home. You are home.
I wrote this post in early 2008, but did not publish it here until now.
My mother wore a shirt this weekend with cartoon depictions of stool from a variety of local forest animals. The headline was “Endangered Feces.” I laughed, not just at the shirt but because it was my mother wearing it; she is not prone to having funny T-shirts. Unsurprisingly, it was my father who bought it for her.
I was at my parents’ place, in part, to help out with chores. I started by sweeping the deck. The act of making long, loping strokes with the pushbroom is as familiar to me as my own name. How many times did I sweep that deck growing up? Over a thousand? Usually, I wasn’t even paying attention to what I was doing: I would be, say, fourteen years old, simmering with thoughts of sex and high school politics.
My father has shaved his head because he’s expecting his hair to fall out when he starts radiation treatments next week. His face looks like an egg, but also more like my late grandfather than I ever would have imagined possible. My brother says it’s a way for our father to keep control: remove the hair before the radiation and the chemo has a chance to do it for him. I think my brother is right.
My brother showed up unexpectedly with his whole family in tow. He came because we had decided to start filming my father, to try to catch his stories and his life on tape. We don’t know how long he has left. It might only be a few months. In any event, he will soon change, as the radiation eats away at his internal organs even as it attempts to destroy his lung cancer.
We were amazed how well the taping went. Dad had always been quiet, taciturn, uninterested in talking about his past or his feelings. We had heard dribs and drabs of it over the years, of course. But today he opened up about everything: his painful childhood, his contentious relationship with his parents, his ambitions. He seemed to be enjoying it. He seemed to realize that there was no point in holding anything back. He was ready to talk.
“Posterity will think he was always that expressive and honest,” my brother joked later. “It will be his last, great misdirection.”
Filming Dad was, in a sense, the second step of a potential new family tradition. Dad had filmed his own father several years ago, although that was on VHS and the footage has never been transferred to digital or edited. I wondered if all Howards would do this in the future. My niece might film my brother in fifty years. We all might step in front of the camera on our way out of this life, a final, formal curtain call. Digital tape might evolve into holograms; I like to imagine a Hall of Heads where our images sprout up and crackle as we talk, overlapping, about times and people long gone.
We taped for two hours this weekend. I had heard most of the stories, but some of them surprised me:
“My parents used to give me money on Sunday to take my brother and sister to the movies. It was a double feature with a cartoon, and it cost a quarter. They also gave us a nickel for candy. It took me years later to realize why they did this. Because one day, we returned home and they were upstairs in their bedroom. I found a used condom on the floor outside the door. They got us out of the house every Sunday because this was their day to have sex.”
Dad has already started losing weight. When he starts treatments, he will shoot under 150 pounds. My whole life, he has been overweight--which, as a child, I didn’t register as a negative thing. Rather, he was like a land mass, a continent that I could put my arms around. He was sometimes intimidating, even severe, but always protective and always loving. I can’t find a way to comprehend that he will shrink down until he weighs less than me. And that means I’m nowhere near to accepting that he will keep on shrinking. Dwindling. Growing even smaller until he winks out like a light.
My father died in his sleep on April 12, 2010. Long before I ever started a blog, as well as during the years that I wrote one, he was always by far my most loyal reader.
My boss had a spare ticket to an Alicia Keys concert and asked if I wanted to go. It’s not really my kind of music, but hearing artists perform live really changes the game for me. I’d go hear RNC Chairman Michael Steele play the kazoo if it wasn’t too far away.
The opening act was Robin Thicke, whom I never even knew existed but apparently he is Alan Thicke’s son. Robin is touring with Alicia to promote his new album, Sexual Therapy. Can you imagine the album titles that he decided not to use?
“Let’s call it Orgasmaeriffic. No wait, that’s a bit too subtle. How about Sexual Therapy?”
My boss hadn’t thought that Thicke would make it, because apparently his wife gave birth to their first child earlier in the week. But no, Thicke showed up, And he introduced his masterpiece by saying “I wrote this because all women need a little Sexual Therapy sometimes.” Well, perhaps they do. But what about Stay-at-Home-and-Help-the-Wife-with-the-New-Baby Therapy? Nope, no degree in that. Seems to me that his wife is likely to need a little actual therapy nine months following the Therapy.
Alicia was fine and definitely gets a pass from me because she sang her song from the last James Bond film--anyone who ever sings a James Bond song is allowed to live, which is why I continue to suffer Madonna to walk the earth--but she kept talking about how hard her struggle was to become a successful performer, and how she was proof that anyone who believes in a dream can achieve it.
Yeah, right, Alicia--have you seen yourself lately? You have cheekbones as high as the Swiss Alps. Of course you achieved your dreams. Let’s do a compare and contrast:
ME: I’d like some dreams.
FATE: You’re ugly. Next.
ALICIA: I’d like some dreams.
FATE: Sure! Have a bunch of Grammys. And you look hot in that dress.
The moral of the story is: Don’t be a motivational speaker, just shut up and sing. And also, if you’re going to have children with someone who holds a degree in Sexual Therapy, don’t expect a lot of help with late-night feedings.
I recently found a pea-sized bump under my right armpit. Since I keep informed on matter related to medicine--by that I mean, I regularly watch Nip/Tuck--I was aware that this could potentially be a form of male breast cancer. I thought, that would be pretty ironic. I’m not even really a breast man. It would be far more appropriate to die of long-leg-aphomia, or curved-buttock-atrophy.
So I scheduled a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor assured me, “It’s called [UNINTELLIGIBLE SKIN THING THAT I DON’T REMEMBER] and it’s completely benign. If you want, you can have it removed--although since that would qualify as elective surgery, your insurance won’t cover it.”
I said, “If it’s benign, why would I do that?”
“Well, for aesthetic reasons.”
“Aesthetic? It’s an armpit. I wasn’t planning to enter it in any beauty contests.”
“Some people like to have those sort of things removed.”
“Doc, if I’m going in for elective surgery, it better be for something cool like grafting Pegasus wings to my back. Lasers are for shooting at stormtroopers; I don’t want them anywhere near my armpit.”
Anyway, that pretty much wrapped up the point of my visit. But since I was already there, I went ahead and had the rest of the checkup done--including blood work. The young girl came in and prepared to put the needle into my arm.
She said, “You have great veins.”
I blinked. “Thanks?”
“It’s true. I’ve had patients in here all day but these are the best veins so far.”
I said, “Don’t worry. I’m not vain about it.”
Then she said, “Okay, I’m about to put the needle in. You might feel a pinch.”
A second later, I said “That didn’t hurt at all. You’re a pro.”
“Yeah. I get that a lot.”
No wonder she doesn’t like puns relating to the word “vain.” She’s got more vanity than all the characters in a Thackeray novel put together. If I was carting around that kind of ego, I’d be touchy about the subject too.
My Games Manifesto. Although I am tolerant of people’s Mafia and Farmville addictions, if you add me although we never talked in high school for the sole purpose of trying to recruit me to your Farm, I’ll annul our virtual coupling faster than Charlie Sheen can say “Another court subpoena?”
My Stalker Manifesto. Yes, I will continue to drop in on your profile every now and then. Yes, it’s because we did that one thing that one time. And I do realize that you could de-friend me at any time--although if you do, I’ll simply worm my way back into your network by pretending to be your long-lost cousin Olaf. By the way, like that dress in your profile pic.
My Stalkee Manifesto. Feast your eyes, Glenn Close. It’s my treat.
My Don’t-be-So-Literal Manifesto. Yes, I know that every time you log in, Facebook asks “What’s on your mind?” Think of it as Facebook making polite conversation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook wants to know how much you need coffee, or a nap, or a way to get the lint out of your clothes. If you keep it up, Facebook is going to run away from you--just like everyone at the office.
My Picture Tagging Manifesto. Okay, look, I know you have that pic of me and the aardvark. Please don’t upload it and tag me for everyone to see.
My 2nd Picture Tagging Manifesto. Or the one of me and the mongoose.
My 3rd Picture Tagging Manifesto. The one with the ferret is okay, though, because I’m pretty sure I was wearing a Groucho Marx mask and rainbow wig at the time.
My Ignore-the-Luddite Manifesto. Whatever, so you don’t want to “risk your personal information,” or “compromise your privacy” or something and that’s why you refuse to join Facebook. Fine, that’s your choice. Just don’t expect me to respond to your emails and texts. Do you know how much energy it is to hit “reply” and type something? I would much rather simply click the “Like” button and enjoy the fulfillment of a genuine moment of human interaction.
My Arms-Reach-is-Close-Enough Manifesto. I like being your Facebook friend because it allows me to see your life with my peripheral vision--not straight on, but crooked, like peering through slanted blinds. And I may occasionally leave a comment. But if you leave a post on my Wall saying we should get together some time, I’ll simply leave a non-committal “that sounds good.” Because really, that person you’re with--not so great. And that thing you do, not so hot.
I wish you well, though. Perhaps you’d like to join my Farm?
I knew it would be a change to go from a large company, where I oversaw a team of six, to a startup with an annual operating budget that’s only slightly higher than the average budget for a junior high presentation of My Fair Lady. But it really has been a learning experience. By the end of my long tenure at my last company, I was ordering my employees to go out and get haircuts on my behalf. Now? I have to do everything myself.
ME: We’re launching our new site in two weeks! We need to record videos of our high-tech widget!
THEY: Great. What’s your plan?
ME: I know several vendors who can do the job!
THEY: Do they work for free?
(THEY drop a video recording and editing software package on my desk.)
THEY: Congratulations, Spielberg.
ME: The videos are done! Now we need voice talent to record the audio tracks!
THEY: Great. What’s your plan?
ME: I’ll hire Kate Beckinsale! She has the sultry, sensuous style that’s needed to truly differentiate our high-tech widget in the marketplace.
THEY: And how much does Kate Beckinsale cost?
ME: I think I can negotiate her down to two mil. Actually, I hear she’ll do it for one mil if you don’t force her to wear her leather jumpsuit from the Underworld movies during the recording.
THEY: Given that our budget for voice talent is zero, we advise you to start doing diaphragm exercises.
ME: Me? Do the voice work? I’m not a professional voice artist.
THEY: Just do your normal speaking voice.
ME: But my normal speaking voice is a falsetto that intermittently breaks out into the chorus of “No You Girls” by Franz Ferdinand.
My new morning routine includes a 20-minute walk through San Francisco to work. I’ve started to recognize a few regulars. For example, as I emerge out of the subway I often see a homeless man who spreads his arms, twists, and pirouettes in place, off in his own little corner. He never asks for money or even mumbles to himself. He seems fixated on filling up a little patch of space with his own twirling self. On Martin Luther King Day, which was a vacation for much of the city (but not for me), he wasn’t there. It’s good that he took the day off to recharge; pirouetting takes a lot out of you.
A girl often thrusts a newspaper at me whenever I climb the stairs out of the subway station. I think she must recognize me, because I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only people who takes the steps two at a time. (Life is too short to take steps one at a time.) I always smile and shake my head at her, and for a while she gave up. But every five days or so she thrusts her newspaper at me obstinately, as though hoping that last night was the night I destroyed all my RSS feeds and swore my undying allegiance to newsprint.
A guy on the corner sells stuff. During last month’s cold snap, he sold gloves. Lately, during the downpour, he’s been selling umbrellas. I want this guy around whenever I’m mugged; he’ll probably be selling tasers. Or when I’m making out with someone; he’ll be selling...well, anyway.
I walk down 2nd street and I am constantly amazed how many places there are to buy coffee. With all the competition, you’d think that they would fall over themselves to please their customers. But I have found myself ignored when I want to order, or glared at impatiently as a woman stands by with a sponge, waiting to wipe the counter when I’m done pouring in cream. I wonder if perhaps the point of selling coffee in the city isn’t profit. Perhaps they are all part of a big Coffee Hive, and it doesn’t matter which of them does the selling. They’re all in it together--a vast network of caffeine vendors--and all they want is to make us speed up, walk faster, last longer, go farther.
The people I really like to see are a rare occurrence, but I keep an eye out for them. They’re the people who come at you from the opposite direction. And they’re smiling and laughing. You have to look to see if they’re actually talking on a bluetooth, or if a little white wire trickling out of their ears indicates they’re listening to a funny podcast. If not, then you’re in the presence of a very rare sighting. You’ve found the people who are remembering something or thinking something so great that they can’t keep it inside of them. It floats up to their face and causes them to grin as they walk, and they carry their amusement with them like a balloon.
We all carry burdens with us as we move forward on our life’s journey, and I’ve recently realized that I have many unresolved issues in regards to Ryan Reynolds.
It has nothing to do with taking Scarlett Johannson off the market--he can have her. Nevertheless, my issues with Reynolds are manifold:
1. First, I had a screenplay in mind a while back that Reynolds would have been perfect for, but I never finished it and shortly afterwards his star really took off. So that’s annoying.
2. He ditched Alanis Morissette, and her music seems pretty angry to me. What did he do to her? I bet it wasn’t nice.
3. I am highly distrustful of his admittedly impressive trifecta of comic timing, perfect hair, and abs. You can be funny or you can have abs, but you can’t have both. And he always shows them off in movies, which is annoying. They tell you to turn off your cell phone in the movie--can they also tell Reynolds to sheathe his abs?
I’ll record the voiceover myself: “Please, be considerate of other patrons and keep your shirt on for the duration of this movie. If you cannot comply, the usher will be by to kick you all the way back to Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place.”
And finally, he’s got the same problem that Jude Law did a while back: he’s everywhere. In fact, it’s possible that he’s stalking me. I’ve seen several movies lately, and he’s been in all of them.
The Proposition. First, you may be asking me why I saw a Sandra Bullock romantic comedy. The answer is simple: shut up. But you know, it could have been kind of good the way the first Miss Congeniality was. Sandra Bullock is more naturally funny than the raptor-like Julia Roberts. But no--the experience of watching this movie made me long for the sweet, simple pleasures of a sucking chest wound.
Adventureland. The main stars of this indie coming-of-age story are Jesse Eisenberg (recently in Zombieland) and Kristen Stewart from the Twilight movies. Reynolds has such a small part that I can only assume he took the role specifically to annoy me.
The Nines. Reynolds is the star of this movie from writer/director John August, and I liked it quite a lot. I suspect most people will have issues with the confusing story construction and the completely over-the-top ending, but John August, who wrote the brilliant Go, didn’t bore me once and brought his trademarked snappy dialogue, and so I enlist myself as this movie’s personal bodyguard. Reynolds, however, takes off his shirt.
And finally, I got a chance to see Avatar. You never know what you’re going to get with these CGI movies, but all I was hoping for was a little freedom from the burdens I carry in my everyday life. Instead? It was a lightning-fast frame of the film, but in the background of one of the Na’vi scenes, I could clearly see:
Some people wonder when it’s necessary to enter into couples therapy. Personally, I like to do it on the first date.
It’s pretty simple to do as long as I don’t tell her about it in advance. I take her to dinner, maybe a couple of drinks, and Boom--Suddenly we’re inside an office with wood paneling and framed degrees on the wall. I say, “Well, doctor, I think she thinks that I undertipped at the restaurant. It sounds trivial now, but it will escalate into major problems down the line.”
The best part is when she’s staring at me incredulously. “See?” I like to point out. “She’s completely dumbstruck. This indicates a lack of trust and commitment.”
People tell me that they believe in therapy because it helps them “work” on themselves. You know what I’m working on these days? My upstairs bathroom. The grouting is insane. Apparently, the former owners of my house thought that grout was like a gang sign and you should “tag” your bathroom. The grouting is all over the place, kind of like Obama explaining why he’s committing more troops to Afghanistan. Unless therapy involves grouting, I categorically refuse to spend my free time “working” on anything.
None of this is to say that I don’t think that couples can’t benefit from a third party perspective. I genuinely believe that people in love should visit someone who can assess them objectively, explain their current situation, and help them map out a path for the future. It’s just that I don’t call this individual a therapist--I call this person an accountant.
I’m not putting this here because I can’t say “I love you” to you, because I can; it’s just that I want to say it more than once, and use as many mediums as I can find. I’d skywrite it above Pacbell Park if I could, interrupting the game and forcing everyone to crane their necks upward. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t understand the message--even though it’s left where they can find it, it’s not for them any more than hieroglyphics are for museum patrons.
I know you have to leave, and I never expected you to stay forever, and so now I want to tell you that there have been times in my life when I’ve needed strength, and I had strength, and the strength was yours. There have been times in my life when I’ve needed courage, and I found courage, and the courage was yours. There have been times in my life when I’ve needed wisdom, and I found wisdom, and the wisdom was yours. I wasn’t able to get all of it, but I was able to learn something about how you used yours, and then I was able to use part of it for myself.
And it’s not just me. People around you are attracted to those qualities in you and often stand in awe of them. And you’re able to share them, to allow other people to gain the benefit of them. Here, perhaps this will be an analogy that you like: you create a thermodynamically favorable reaction--you transfer your qualities to others and they receive the energy, like a transition from a high-energy state to a low-energy state.
That doesn’t quite add up? Well, you know that kind of talk isn’t my comfort zone. It’s the thought that counts.
I know there’s no way to make this easier on myself, and I find that all I really want to do is make it easier on you. So maybe I’ll just remind you of a few things: for those who won’t have a chance to know you, I will tell them all about you and their heads will fill up with images of you. Pictures and videos and stories will be passed on from person to person. It will be easy to remember you because no one will ever have forgotten. And through the cycles of forgetting and remembrance, they will also carry the embers of your strength, wisdom, and courage. Your store of these qualities is tremendous and it is not so easily depleted.
I understand that we may not meet again, but even if we did, saying “Until we meet again” is a cop out: that’s not what I want to say. I want to say that I’m glad that we met at all, that I knew you and for so long, and even though I wish it were longer, I’m still grateful for the time we had. And I want to say “Goodbye” and I want to say “I love you.” And I will keep saying it until you have to leave, and I will probably continue saying it for some time, even if you can no longer hear me.