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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Parental Undersight

Another victim of glasses

Parental Undersight

1.
In a five-day, four-eye-doctor marathon (counting the school nurse who started it all), my nine-year-old niece learned she has one really bad eye. It dawned like some elaborate hoax on my sister, Kristine, who started off thinking, “Well, the school nurse is kind of an idiot, so maybe it’s nothing.” But it wasn’t the school nurse who identified the problem—it was a visiting county nurse, testing wholesale, one assumes, the many eyeballs of the children of greater Los Angeles one class at a time. At least a lieutenant in the ranks of school nurses, and she did manage to spot the problem that had somehow eluded everyone else.
    My sister called me early in the process, probably because I have the worst eyesight in the family, and have worn glasses since I was five. Plus, my daughter Penelope wears glasses now.
    “I feel like such a horrible parent now,” Kristine said. “We just went to the eye doctor at Cosco, and they said they’d never seen anything like it. The optometrist shined that light in her eye and said, ‘I can see all the way through her eye!’ And then she said they might not even be able to make glasses that will work for her.”
    “Really?” I asked. “Why? Because one lens would be so much thicker than the other? I think they can make glasses for anyone now. And what did she mean, She could see all the way through her eye?” Like, into her brain? Kristine had wondered the same thing.
  
Raleigh looks just like her dad (in photos, we have referred to her as “Li’l Shane”), but she may have inherited some unfortunate Woody traits—eye trouble for starters. Heritable Woody meanness may have passed her up for her little sister, Georgia, who used to rage against chairs in a knee-high gladiatorial fury, such that curious onlookers would ask, “Why is she so mad?” to which my sister would reply, “I don’t know—she was born a dwarf… you’d probably be mad too, if you were born a dwarf.” After the Cosco visit, Kristine said they would have to try a more expert eye doctor. Georgia complained, “Does that mean I’ll have to sit through ANOTHER long eye appointment?” Nothing can infuriate a Woody like another Woody.
    “Are you kidding me?” my sister snapped. “Do you know how many of YOUR appointments we’ve had to sit through, you little shit!” Being a dwarf, Georgia had required many doctor visits, especially for ear problems.
    “Isn’t shit a bad word?” Georgia groused.
    “Yes,” Kristine said, “You’re being a shit.” Later she told me that she might make sure Georgia attends Raleigh’s eye appointments regardless of babysitting availability.

Everyone wondered how Raleigh’s bad eye hadn’t manifested openly if it was so bad—no lazy eye or eye crossing like my daughter Penelope, no apparent trouble seeing chalkboards and such, as I’d had when I was little. But, she does have one perfectly good eye. Apparently her brain just relied on the strong eye and let the bad one sit out, getting even weaker with disuse.
    Since they live in California, I barely know the kid, but Kristine reports that she’s kind of like I was in early years—shy at school, bookish, not very socially assertive. I wonder, as I have before, if vision problems in some way precipitate introversion, which in turn may feed the creaky stereotype that glasses signify smarts/social inferiority/general nerdiness. Fortunately for Raleigh, the stereotype has faded enormously in our time. Not only have nerds conquered much of pop culture, but nerd chic has elevated many of them (the attractive ones) to higher social rungs. We 40-somethings grew up watching Christopher Reeve and Lynda Carter downgrade Superman and Wonder Woman into hapless weaklings by putting on glasses*. Sure, Katy Perry still has to ditch them to live a “Teenage Dream,” and superheroes still don’t wear them, but at least it’s been a long time since I heard someone called “four eyes” on a sitcom. My wife (glasses unnecessary) and daughter get crazy compliments on their glasses, so I know it’s a thing.



*There’s even a beauty pageant episode of Wonder Woman where she has to infiltrate and inevitably win the pageant to stop something nefarious. At some point, the dopey Major Dimwit/leading man turns to Wonder Woman after she has spun down into her secretarial “Diana” mode, with her glasses and pulled-back hair, and says something clueless like, “I wish you could enter the pageant, Diana… but we need someone who is really beautiful.” Curious and ironic that comic-book alter-ego formulations intended, most likely, to give nerdy fans an empowering association with hidden strength were finally dumbed down to one subtext: eyeglasses can make even a demigod looked like chopped liver.

"If only these glasses didn't make me look like a leggy bucket of sewage."
 
My sister drove Raleigh into LA to see another eye doctor on Saturday. I think, in Los Angeles fashion, she based the choice largely on location and availability—living in LA is mostly about avoiding as much of LA as possible, after all. Unfortunately, they ended up at another optometrist rather than at a pediatric eye specialist. The ominous prognosis suggested by the earlier examinations meant that the whole family went. Shane and Kristine were both quite worried, and Georgia was of course in tow for make-up empathy points.
    At the clinic they were told that only one parent could accompany the patient in the exam room. But that’s not how Kristine and Shane roll. They all wanted to go in, so that’s what they did. When the eye doctor entered, he grumbled about how there were too many of them in there.
    “Oh,” Kristine said, “I thought you were joking about that.” She was just trying to defuse his authoritarian impulses, but she later said he stuck slightly to his guns and remained a bit of an asshole. “Shane was really worried, and I wanted him to hear everything—he’d missed the first appointment. That doctor just wasn’t very friendly.”
    So Raleigh got another eye exam. This new doctor had similar misgivings about her eyes, and wrote a prescription that was more than 200 points different from the previous one. Fortunately, he also recommended they go to a specialist, providing a doctor’s name and a warning: “Most people don’t like her very much, but she’s a good doctor.”
    “Why don’t people like her?” Kristine asked.
    “She doesn’t have a very good bedside manner.”
    “So,” Kristine told me later, “I was kind of worried, like, if this jerk thinks she’s bad, then HOW BAD is she going to be?”
    “Yeah, who knows?” I said. But it did cross my mind that maybe the enemy of your enemy could be your friend. “So, no idea which prescription is right?” I asked. “Those are really far apart.”
    “Oh, they’re crazy different.”

Once freed from the exam, my sister felt compelled to consult Yelp, the Californian’s handiest, iPhoniest oracle, about the next eye doctor. I don’t know how many reviews she found, but they were predominantly negative. So, they entered Raleigh’s third appointment with considerable apprehension.
    After Kristine summed up their story, the doctor tossed the first of several bedside-manner grenades that immediately demonstrated why Yelp is a mouthpiece often hijacked by semi-pro complainers and weak whiners overloading their squeaky-wheeled shopping carts.
    “So why” asked the doctor, “did you think that the place where you sample sausages and get your tires rotated would be the best place to have your kid’s eyes examined?”
    Ha ha! I don’t know if she told the doctor the same truth she told me in the retelling: “We go to Cosco all the time, we love it… the other night when there was a big storm, Shane decided he really wanted some of their cinnamon rolls. So we were driving around in all this wind, seeing trees broken on the road, but we just had to go eat cinnamon rolls!” I suppose the doc would have asked if they also sampled some sausages and picked up a six-pack of faulty glasses for the whole family!
    So the fateful moment arrived. Raleigh got a real eye exam from a real ophthalmologist. Kristine asked her if Raleigh would be able to get glasses. “The other place said maybe they couldn’t even make glasses for her because… they could see all the way through her eye.”
    “Because they’re idiots!” said the doctor. “I’ll bet they didn’t go to Stanford and get one of these.” She pointed to her diploma on the wall.
    After dilating Raleigh’s eyes and a couple more jokes at the expense of the stupid optometrists of greater LA, they had a prescription for glasses that sounded, in the one lens, not all that far from my own strong lenses.
    “So, she said Raleigh could get glasses?” I asked later. “Her eye wasn’t going to be a lost cause anymore, like the others made it sound?”
    “Yeah,” Kristine said, “she told us to try the glasses for a couple of months and then see her again. She sounded like it wasn’t that big a deal. I mean, she’ll probably have one weak eye from here on….”
    “But at least it’s correctable,” I said. The optometrists had scared us into thinking there was something freaky and calamitous going on.

2.
One excuse for my sister’s failure to get it right the first time (or the second) is the generalized overuse of the term “eye doctor” for the vaguely similar words “optometrist” and “ophthalmologist.” A bigger excuse is that we Woodies were raised rather carelessly and on the cheap. Even by the more libertarian and free-range standards of that earlier time, we were parented haphazardly. Our parents meant well, I assume. We didn’t get any drunken beatings, exposure to drugs, rapey molestation, or even diddling by untested mom-boyfriends. Just envelope-stretching neglect (more than once in the 5-7 age range, I had sunburns so bad that coin-sized water-filled blisters covered my back, because I suppose I should have known to pack my own sunscreen) punctuated by screaming fights and the occasional rage eruption ending with broken furniture or a horse beaten to death. My dad, as might be expected, was the anger volcano, but I’ve learned over the years that my mom is far from innocent when it comes to keeping the peace. Despite appearances of sweetness, she became a master of turning our lives into a pressure cooker of intolerable conditions—most notably, accumulating animal hoards at the expense of a decent lifestyle.
    It also takes a special sort of patience to put up with my mom’s layer cake of mental illness—a cake that self-frosts with blame for others when it comes to the screwball drama of her own life. Unfortunately, she’s become a completely unreliable witness, especially when it comes to reporting her own experiences. A snowballing mass of obsessions, paranoias, and revised memories clouds her judgment in general; in particular, our family history and her own health issues have been distorted by years in the echo chamber of her mind, where she has spent decades hammering away on the anvil of her favorite narratives: being Norwegian (she’s only half, and has never been to Norway), improving people’s lives by selling them purebred dogs (maybe in some cases), blaming my dad for all that’s wrong with her, being “a survivor,” having to figure out her own medical needs because most doctors are bad people if not conspiring against her along with Obama and the government, and a smorgasbord of racist/socioreligious prejudgments, simplifications, and misconceptions. The ice cream on top of the cake is that many years of bipolar thinking and medication have perhaps eaten away at the wall between her objectivity and her subconscious. She literally lets material from dreams—maybe even daydreams—scurry into her record of day-to-day experience, so that she believes firmly in a number of things that never happened. Finally, as if to specifically annoy her family, she has a terrible memory for things that we think matter (such as my wife’s full name or where she works), yet seems to have total recall for the detailed personal histories of her kennel customers.
    At the time of Raleigh’s eye trouble discovery, my mom was tangled up, as always, in a new and unnecessary drama. At least this time it wasn’t her fault, but the outcome is always the same—there’s little room made in her life for meaningful interaction with her kids/grandkids. Just the day before, she’d phoned me about my dad having a psycho-rage-fit at the neighbors—their best neighbors, who have helped them with numerous problems—after both parties’ herd bulls knocked down fences to fight each other in the road. Mom was naturally upset; unlike my dad, she prefers not to be friendless. Such emotional messes always launch her back into accounts of the bad old days when she was institutionalized, and how my dad had her put away, and was going to let them kill her by putting her in (the state mental hospital in) Nevada (, Missouri), because if you go to Nevada you never come back (even though I believe she did go there once), and if it hadn’t been for Greg Crouch (their large-animal vet in the ‘80s—large-animal vets are frequently the heroes in my mom’s mythology), she would have been put away forever and probably killed… and my dad didn’t care, he went away to work and didn’t even leave money for food for us kids, all while Family Services was trying to get us kids.  
    “Well,” I responded, “we did eat… I mean, I remember we weren’t starving.”
    To make sense of some of this, you have to know more backstory. Family Services was never TRYING to get us—had they had been trying, it wouldn’t have been hard. I was seven, Kristine was 12, and for weeks at a time we were left alone on a farm with a few dogs, a few dozen cattle, and several horses. My mom spent a few months that year committed to a mental hospital. My dad did month-long stretches, on average, working out of state for other cattle ranches. By today’s standard’s it’s insane. Back then, it was somehow possible to squeak by, by not saying anything to teachers, and with the help of a complicit neighbor or two. As far as I can tell, that would be the neighbor who was also our landlord, so I suppose he wanted his payments to keep coming in. Our closest relatives were near Chicago. That’s really where we should have been sent, but then my dad would have had to pay someone to feed his livestock. Ironically, he never seemed too keen on having kids, but he still thought the two of us were reliable enough to balance the farm on our scanty little shoulders.
    “You kids only had money to buy food,” my mom claimed, “because Kristine found the silver dollars from Reno that your dad kept in a drawer.”
    Having never heard the silver dollar thing in that context before, I wasn’t prepared to argue. Plus, I had been six years old at the time in question, so those memories are quite spotty. The next day, I spoke to my sister again.
    “Mom thought we bought all our food with those silver dollars,” I said, “but there’s no way, I mean, there were only a handful of those… I stole a couple, but I don’t remember riding our bikes up to Willard with our pockets loaded down with silver dollars. Didn’t Dad leave us a twenty or something? I seem to remember getting twenty bucks worth of groceries.”
    “Yeah, but Dad didn’t send us anything for food. He was too much of an asshole to do that,” Kristine said. “He would send us a check in the mail to buy feed with, for $100, but it was made out to the feed store, wherever we got our cattle feed.”
    “Uh… Tindle Mills.”
    “Yes, and then I had to ask them if they would give us money back if we bought less grain, so I’d say, Can we just buy 80 bucks worth of grain, and then get 20 bucks back? And they were cool with it!”
    “Ha ha!” I said. “But how did we get up there? We couldn’t drive yet.”
    “The neighbors drove us. The Burkses.” I can’t really remember any of that, but I was probably just in the back of the supercab reading a dinosaur book, along for the ride. I don’t even know if we used our truck or theirs.     

I don’t recall very much from that time. I know my sister told me what to do, and I usually did it, but every once in a while I would get snotty, probably in refusal to do what she deemed my share of the work, and she would clobber me. I remember never brushing my teeth, and not bathing for a week or longer. Either I was too young to stink much, or too young to be conscious of it. I did fine in school, if not quite well. I read a lot. My interests were shifting from dinosaurs to Encyclopedia Brown and nuclear war.
    Some years ago, I wrote a poem about those days. I think it remains pretty accurate.

    Sympathy for the Mental

When they took away our crazy mom,
my sister and I survived for a while
without her. Days or weeks at a time
we were alone. Our dad went to work
in other states and told us what to feed
the cattle and horses before he left,
and knowing him he probably left us
a twenty but no real advice on how kids
of six and eleven should get groceries.
We only knew we had to be careful
to seem cared for, so Family Services
wouldn’t come take us away, but I
rarely bathed or brushed my teeth. My sister
looked nice, though, I’m sure, as we rode
our bikes to the IGA food store in Willard.

We weren’t wise when we shopped—buying
junk, our dad would say—but we got bread
and some other right things, plus marshmallows
and pop. I’ll bet we looked at Lucky Charms
and Fruit Roll-Ups, and ruled them out: too high,
for the rich, a frightening magic word back then,
meaning people who might get us, but also
what we wished to be. We bought pickles
that day—sweet gherkins, like Gramma would eat—
hoping no one there would remember us
from when our mom screamed about the Devil
and spread-eagled herself in the automatic door
so we could escape these people, their store
suddenly a trap set just for us.

Paper bags wrapped over bike handlebars,
we rode home, avoiding cars. Almost there,
my sister’s bag split open on the last big hill,
pickles smashing on the road, lighter stuff
flying into the ditch. I remember thinking
all those pickles were really still good, we
could just gather them up, pick out the glass.
I can’t remember what we did with them,
though—my sister was the mom at the time.

And we had some fun being by ourselves:
me not bathing, warming fish-stick dinners,
mixing a ketchup-and-mayo tartar sauce
that we thought was the best. Missing
our mom wasn’t so bad—I stole silver dollars
from my dad’s drawer, as big as my palm,
cold silver dollars “from Reno,” and bought
candy with them. I read dinosaur books
and collected rocks. But I figure our mom
had a harder time, locked up with strange
strangers in the mental institution, the devil
always rooming just around the corner,
a hospital like a maze full of “city people”
who smoked and ranted and never rode horses—
locked away from her life while her kids
and her dogs went on without her.

I wore glasses back then, too, so someone must have taken me to the eye doctor at some point. But it was never in a hospital. Back then, Pearl Vision was just about the only game in town. I think we had to go all the way to Battlefield Mall, which meant the south side of Springfield, which meant a 40-minute drive and complaints about how much my glasses cost. I can’t remember prices, but I know I felt guilty about the cost of my glasses—enough that the life of any pair I ever had was stretched out as long as possible. Many months could be added to the useful life of any glasses with a combination of squinting and duct tape. Even if my parents were around, I can’t remember them ever volunteering that I needed new glasses. I think I just played it cool (or, super uncool, with my duct-taped loser glasses) as long as possible so they wouldn’t grouse about how expensive my eyesight habit was getting, every couple of years. Ophthalmologist? None of us knew what the fuck that was. I was lucky to see a damn optometrist—and in the rich-people mall. It was near an Orange Julius!
    So, any deprivations suffered by Penelope, Raleigh, or Georgia are rather dinky by comparison. Except of course the part where Raleigh’s eye almost died. I’ll try to tamp down my dickish Woody instincts to remind Penelope how many sacks of Sweet Grain we could have bought with her eyeglasses money, or to call Raleigh a cyclops.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Moment of Terror

WHERE'S THE DEVICE?!
 Several years ago, it was about 24 minutes before the final episode of 24, and I had just enough time to make it home from work for the sake of Jack Bauer’s inevitable pyrrhic victory. Then, in a plot-twisting complication, I got a phone call from Elizabeth, the 70-something retired secretary from my workplace. It had been a couple of years since we worked together, but I still talked to her sometimes, and helped her with lawn chores ‘n’ whatnot.
    “Chad, it’s Elizabeth. I just wondered if you could come by. My refrigerator is making a bad sound, and I’m afraid it’s going to die on me.”
    “Oh, uh… Yeah, I’m headed home now, so I can swing by.” Aargh! This would make me late, for sure! I almost made an excuse based on the fact that I don’t really know much about refrigerators anyway, but if Jack Bauer can consistently go 24 hours at a time without eating, drinking, peeing, or defecating, then I can stop by an old woman’s house to listen to her fridge.
    Once there, I entered the pantry area, where a few stairs lead to the kitchen. Elizabeth said she just started hearing the noise an hour or two earlier.
    “Huh,” I said, “You don’t think it ever made this sound before?”
    “No, it really sounds sick.”
    Using my youthful-human hearing abilities, I quickly homed in on the buzzing. It wasn’t coming from the refrigerator at all. A few feet from the fridge door, a furious buglike sound came from a beige canvas duffel bag squished beneath some sacks of stuff—probably a wealth of Ritz crackers and Werther’s Originals. Elizabeth’s place is always overstocked with snack foods. If her refrigerator does fail, she can still survive for several weeks on candy, crackers, and cookies.
    “Sounds like it’s in here,” I told her, “Kinda sounds like an angry mud-dauber.” I cautiously unzipped the bag. In seconds, I switched from stinging-insect apprehension to a completely unexpected fear. Shifting the contents of the bag, I found the butt-end of a plastic cylinder, the size of a flashlight… was it a “personal massager?” Was I about to pull an old lady’s vibrator out into the light of day? Too late to retreat now.
    “I guess it’s this,” I said, lifting the object from the bag.
    “Oh, that thing,” Elizabeth said. I turned it to find the OFF switch, and was relieved to see the brand PEDI-PAWS stamped into the rubber grip. “Sophie’s nail-trimming doodad.” Phew, little dog Sophie had her own personal hygiene needs. I turned it off.
    “Mystery solved, I guess.”
    “It must have gotten turned on,” she guessed, “when I set that other bag on top of it.”
    I scooted on home, wondering how many Pedi-Paws are sold to people without pets.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Wisdom Derived From Dolphins


How Performing Dolphins Can Predict Your Family’s Future

1. A Regrettable Pennypinch

My wife and I were extracting ourselves from the Dolphin Show Pavilion (or whatever it’s called) at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium as the show ended. The audience hesitantly filed out, checking cameras and children, glancing back at the water to catch any unscheduled farewell antics from mankind’s aquatic buddies/captives. This was the main event, in a sense—the pay-extra-for-it ticket option at the entry counter, so I’m sure people wanted to feel very dolphin-saturated and -satiated before they cut loose from the acrobatic geniuses of the sea. I remember feeling less than aglow but basically satisfied, dolphin-wise, and guilty after stealing numerous glances at a nearby woman with a very lovely ear and elegant nose-profile, when I looked at my wife. We decided we were glad that we’d paid the extra ten or twelve bucks apiece to see this part of the aquarium. A stream of kids ran by and I almost started crying then, realizing that, several years earlier, I’d brought my little brother here but passed up the rare chance for farm kids from Missouri to see dolphins. I’d been too cheap.
    In the Big Picture this becomes more tragic, if you’re prone to rolling up the Big Picture and beating yourself with it: All of us are born in only one place and one time, with all of human civilization building toward this golden age when marine spectacles are corralled for our edutainment until that fast-approaching day when they—or we—will likely become extinct, not to mention all the minor happenstances governing our own lives that must line up favorably to make such a trip possible: having time, not being tied down by work or school, having gas money, owning a working vehicle, etc. In this case, it was probably the last time my brother and I took a trip together before growing up into separate lives. “You only live once,” as folks would say. At the most.

2. One’s Own Weaknesses

But before this becomes a simple “stop and smell the roses” tale, I’ll jump back 25+ years and dig up the earlier episode. When I was about four, I was taken with my sister to the Great America (Six Flags over Great America?) Theme Park, somewhere in Illinois. My sister was five years older than I was (still is, luckily), so she and my mother were calling all the shots I’m sure, pulling me wherever they went, which would inevitably involve animals. This drew us to an amphitheater where dolphins leapt from the water in splashy, crowd-pleasing parabolic curves. I really remember nothing of it, except for the brightness of the outdoors (I wonder if little kids have any special evolutionary eyeball defenses to offset the need to run around looking up at/for adults) and that my fifteen minutes of fame lunged at me too soon, in a belittling forest of human witnesses.
    The dolphin trainers went zipping through the crowd for volunteers, and suddenly I was singled out: Would I like to go help a dolphin do a trick? I looked around. What? No, not by myself.... I was too shy. Could my mom or my sister go with me? No? No, not by myself. I must have been cute enough to draw them in, but of course they had to get the show on the road, not stand around while some little boy struggled to overcome innate shyness in the freight-train glare of audience anticipation. So, the moment passed—they moved on, finding some other shrimp to hold a sardine out, leaving me to years of disappointed admonishment from my sister and mom. They both so wanted me in that smidgen of limelight that I think they formed an unspoken agreement to jibe me into sociability with little reminders of how lame I was, like, “Oh, wouldn’t that have been neat if you would have gotten into that dolphin show?” I know they told the story throughout the land, and it always ended with, “But Chad was too shy to go with them, so he didn’t get to do it.” It’s probably my earliest recollection of failure as a social being—the first in a rich and lengthy tradition.*


3. The Most Charismatic of All Megafauna

So maybe the hype about dolphins is true: maybe they do have the power to show us who we are. In my case, not because I give a particular shit about dolphins or believe them to be magical, spiritual creatures (maybe they are; I’m sure they’re very nice and smart), but because each time I’ve ever been around them, my sibling relationships have been summed up instantly** as if the dolphins were shining some psychic flashlight on us:
    My sister, the showpiece of the family, who should have been selected from the dolphin audience and would have jumped at the chance if offered, who could have handily starred successfully in a new TV version of Flipper if given a few pointers, clearly had the social chops to cavort with dolphins. Hanging with such popular creatures requires charisma, which requires confidence and a non-crap attitude; I would be lucky to withstand the company of a hermit crab or a newt or a pigeon or a mudskipper, which is a precise summary of the pets I would have in the ensuing years. Allowing most of them to die or escape on their own biological timeline would eventually cure me of the need to claim a pet of any kind. My sister, on the flip side, has long-standing companionship with horses, great danes and colorful birds. She’s just the kind of person you’d expect to see zipped into a wetsuit handing food to marine mammals in a shower of cheers. I, on the other hand, used to let a scrawny anole crawl around in my hair.
    It’s easy to see how people came up with the idea that witches had familiars in animal form, or that Native Americans had animal totems, or even lycanthrope forms. People are drawn to other living things that reflect them or sympathize with them. I believe I’ve seen a Warner Brothers cartoon where people walking their dogs look like those dogs: a beefy construction worker led by a bulldog, a snooty old lady tethered to a French poodle, etc. I think it’s a parallel we all get, and we get the joke when the pet doesn’t fit the owner, like a hugely muscled bruiser carrying a shivering teacup Chihuahua.
    While dolphins are generally beyond the sphere of pets, they still operate as totems, radiating oceanic romance, acrobatic speed and agility, and smiles seemingly built right into their faces, not to mention legendary intelligence that lets them interact with people on the level of colleagues. They’re animals of the highest order. They’re also assigned, by some commentaries, credit for therapeutic empathy with humans, especially crippled or retarded ones. I think this is constructed by our culture, but built around the naturally pleasing appearance and role of this animal: they swim as well as sharks, but don’t tend toward eating us; they’re smart as chimps, but don’t throw poop or scratch mangy patches of hair; they’re cute as ducks, but less silly; they’re mammals unbound by any of the landlubber rules of mammaldom.***

4. The Dolphin Crystal Ball has 20/20 Hindsight

Maybe we think dolphins are smart for the same reason one might think my mom is dumb: they usually seem very pleased with things. The capacity to be pleased probably has little to do with raw intelligence, but it is definitely wise to be pleased with things: if an otter will spend much of its time clutching at glossy edibles while splashing about, it might as well feel good doing so. The Dalai Lama has been squeezed out of his own country and he still has the gumption to seem pleased. When my mom says to my brother, “Bubby, don’t you think that girl would make a nice girlfriend for you?” he’s likely to say, “Shut up, you’re dumb.” This is the sort of response that makes us all marvel at my brother’s harshness, and makes me think I failed him somehow—maybe it was when I didn’t buy us tickets to the dolphin show; maybe it was when I left him in dirty diapers while my friends slept over and he got raging diaper rash; maybe it was when I was teaching him the alphabet by making little letter cards (which are still sticking to the inside of my closet door at my parents’ house 20 years later), and I gave up after the letter “E.” Maybe I screwed him up. Or maybe I made him better. Kids are complex machines, and adults are downright inscrutable. Most people would be easier to kill than to change. We are pretty much who we are. That’s why it’s so impressive when someone loses 400 pounds, or gives away all his possessions and hikes to Alaska. What power, to rewrite one’s own identity.
    While writing this, I learned that my sister’s new baby will be a dwarf, according to doctors. Suddenly all previous comments about how fat and Bibendum-like this baby is seemed like clues to her proportion problem. While no one in my family is tall, we have no known history of dwarfism, either. It might be fun to blame the air quality in Los Angeles, or terrorists, or Don Rickles, but I knew right away that my sister would think it was karma balancing some kind of vanity scales. My mom confirmed this later, and I decided then that, while karma is a good belief system for society at large (sort of an inescapable Golden Rule that keeps people on good behavior), it falls far short of the truth. If the scales are made to be balanced, they rarely balance in this lifetime, so what’s the point?
    The truth is, chance, physics, and biology do it all, and we imagine patterns shaped by karma, or God’s will, or Satan’s trickery, etc. We imagine the dolphins are smiling when the shape of their mouths is likely just hydrodynamic design. We imagine shapes and names for constellations because we like shapes and names. We imagine this daughter will be sad when she can’t reach a cabinet or eclipse the silhouette that says, “You must be taller than this to ride this ride.” We imagine our own weaknesses through the lives of others—weaknesses they may not have.

5. However

My mom frets a lot despite seeming pleased, and dolphins still look like they’re smiling when they’re caught in a fishing net. It took me 29 years just to get my first date despite being genetically normal and arguably satisfactory-looking, while being legally blind has been only a minor inconvenience (unless of course it was the glasses that kept me from getting dates, in which case I’m pretty fucking pissed off about that). When this short baby gets older, she may do a dozen things better than any of us—have a miniature horse rodeo or her own small merry-go-round, and so many friends and accomplishments that we’ll say, man, I’m getting sick of that little hot-shot making us look like chumps!
    If dogs can sense fear, what can dolphins sense?


*Competing mainly with breaking the grandfather clock my grandfather made, letting my hermit crab die by not watering it, and asking my well-mannered grandma if she farted after hearing her fart, which rather infuriated her.

**in a way I wouldn’t see until years later, of course

*** They also have their shitass tendencies, if you pay close enough attention to nature shows. They’ve been caught on film harrassing lesser creatures, even mauling/killing them for fun (or at least, not for food), like cuttlefish, which they often tear to shreds but do not eat, and I think they sometimes commit what appears to be rape.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars & You—Episode I



Even if you have no interest in Star Wars, you’re stuck with it. Not just because people won’t stop talking about it, but because everything is Star Wars now. From the inescapable parallels in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy*, to the fact that “believe in yourself” became the #1 theme in Hollywood films for the past generation, you’re constantly rewatching Star Wars. That’s no accident. George Lucas deliberately built the story around Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology ideas, reverse-engineering a new myth from the archetypes of the old ones. Temptation, virgin birth, the hero’s journey, transcendence, prodigal sons, seeking ancient wisdom, betrayal and redemption—it’s all in there. So, in a sense, everything was always Star Wars, just without the merchandising.

In a Bill Moyers interview, Lucas said that after the first film came out, there were people of all faiths saying, “Hey, there’s our religion up on the screen” (my paraphrase). Of course, Campbell had pointed out examples such as the virgin birth of Osiris out of Isis being a precursor to the Christian nativity, boiling down the archetypes into transparencies. Lucas took the creative next step, rebooting it all in outer space (but, fittingly, LONG AGO) so that he could not only make an entertaining film, but also so he wouldn’t have religious zealots targeting him for blasphemy a la Last Temptation of Christ or The Satanic Verses… although his own take on a virgin birth produced almost as much controversy among movie nerds. In his Bethlehem there was born, not a savior, but the many-layered, often cringeworthy life story of Anakin Skywalker in all its toe-curling, pod-racing, Princess-wooing bravado. This would end in heartbreak for all, starting with Liam Neeson's character, as if punishing him for trying to reduce the previously spiritual Force to blood-borne cells called mitichlorians.

Some folks work hard to dismiss Lucas from his own creation, especially when it comes to the much-reviled prequels. Since he was more in command with the making of Episodes 1-2-3, backed by the enormous financial and technical wealth of Lucasfilm, and presumably unfettered by any editorial controls, they assume he is probably to blame for their suckitude. I see the prequels as a mixed bag, though—a judgment also fair for Return of the Jedi. Yes, almost all the travails of young Anakin are lame, and the melo-dialogue hits spectacular lows especially in romantic interludes, and Samuel Jackson sadly does not a Jedi make; but I love Ewan MacGregor’s exasperated humanity as Obi Wan Kenobi, the superior martial arts, surprising new applications for lightsabers, and of course the final, brutal, chilling “end” of Anakin Skywalker. There’s much to enjoy, and probably just as much to dismiss, but dismissing Lucas himself? Hm.

“What’s George Lucas good at?” asked a friend about a week before Episode 7’s release, right after she said she was glad Lucas gave up control of Star Wars (I agreed). He’s not an ace at writing dialogue, or at directing actors. “World-building” was the only answer I could come up with at the time, but even that might not be defensible, since artists like Ralph McQuarrie and Jim Henson’s creature workshop did most of the heavy lifting when the Star Wars universe was populated and engineered. But, just like Stan Lee over in the Marvel universe, with his huge debts to Jack Kirby and other artists, or even Steve Jobs and his legendary “asshole with vision” status, there was still some kind of magic at his command.

In our own universe, the ability to channel the Force does not, however, necessarily grow with experience and/or wisdom. Sometimes it’s like catching lightning in a bottle. Stan Lee had a hell of a run in the Sixties and Seventies, but it’s fair to say that by the time he got around to creating “Speedball” 20-some years later, he was spent. Lucas did fine co-creating Indiana Jones, but somewhere in there he made Willow, which can safely be called a swing-and-a-miss.

I’m not film nerd enough to research decades of minutiae about Lucasfilm, but I still think I can elaborate on the “world-building” thing. Lucas was good at big ideas, at naming things, at establishing archetypes, at themes and conflicts, and at commanding convincing, game-changing imagery. He committed terrible but occasionally brilliant dialogue (admit it—for every dumb thing that is said in a Star Wars movie, you can find an equally awesome thing—and it’s not fair raising the bar too high, because these movies are for kids as well as adults, which is also why we must suffer through Ewoks and Gungans), and he created characters who, despite some dumb aspects (I never realized until reading a recent Facebook post just how silly it is that Chewbacca can’t say his own name), lodged themselves quickly into the popular zeitgeist and are now dictionary-level household reference points.

It’s a testament to this kind of vision to observe that, as Americans, my generation grew up sympathizing with “the Rebellion” despite living in the current dominant imperial power on this planet, where the closest analog to Luke blowing up the Death Star is probably Tim McVeigh blowing up the Oklahoma City government building. Of course, that building didn’t scoot around star systems and obliterate inhabited planets, but it was still filled with plenty of oblivious functionaries of the Empire: storm troopers, janitors, droids, and trash-compactor monsters who were just doing their jobs. I suppose Hollywood helps us all live double lives, thanks in no small measure to George Lucas—convinced deep down that we are rebels all, and harboring some special inborn capacity to channel a hidden power despite our humble origins.

*Is Groot Chewbacca, or is Rocket Chewbacca? Maybe both. Is Star Lord Han Solo or Luke Skywalker? Maybe both. Is the green chick Leia? Pretty much. There's some shuffling of the Star Wars deck, but you get the picture.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Intolerance Rant

I’m impressed anew at the shortsighted intolerance, lack of empathy, and transparent political immaturity of our more vociferous “us-mongers.” Phoboholics for Us. I wanted to say, “Phoboholics for America,” but they dislike America, for the most part. They only champion the most comfortable notion of Us.

Ironically, Phoboholics everywhere are scrambling to sound tougher than ten-year-olds while being weaker than seven-year-olds, popping flag-boners while eating Chick-Fil-As in the lobbies of Hobby Lobbies and then pooping in those Starbucks cups. I don’t approve. What’s so difficult about simply pooping in one’s pants like the babies of previous generations? Plus, remember, who is the guy who has always refused to go to Chick-Fil-A because the name is too gay? This guy. ME, queerbaits.

Test people at the border and admit only Christians? Really? Got telepaths on your team? As an atheist, I can attest, it’s not that hard to fake Christianity. I’ve done it, death row inmates do it—hell, most Christians are doing it right now.

If I had my druthers, I’d only admit atheists. I’d send fundies of every stripe on to the godforsaken “holy land”—which is where they ought to want to be anyway—to just crusade and murder and murder the shit out of each other. Burn black churches, puree infidels into spiritually nutritious smoothies, whatever floats your faulty, scripture-addled minds, all ye faithful. Leave the atheists here to measure oceanic acidity or whatever horrible rationality they’re always spitting like venom into the face of God in their fetishistic obsession with looking at nature objectively.

Truly though, I’ve learned to live with religious people. I married one. Several Christians take care of my child all the time. It’s not that crazy. I just have to step back and hope they don’t get raptured while driving Penelope to the brainwash! Just kidding. They don’t believe that Star-Trekky “Beam me up, Jesus” bullshit. I hope. I feel like I can count on them to have massive strokes or hemorrhagic seizures while driving my daughter, none of that angel-wings nuttery. With luck, I’m the one in greatest danger of dying for the Christian dream this and every holiday season, by falling off a building while hanging and repairing Christmas lights for the glory of a higher power bill. And if I do go splat, I swear to God, I’ll—do nothing. I’ll be dead.

The astonishing thing is that so many people are so excited to kill and to die over a bunch of poorly translated fairy tales, and not even the good ones from decent countries, such as The Little Mermaid. I mean, I swore allegiance to Marvel Comics back in junior high, but even I am not willing to kill a fat man wearing a Batman shirt. I won’t even bludgeon a Muslim woman for reading Aquaman in public without her vulva properly squished for Mohammed, or whatever the faithful are doing these days. I will proudly gouge no one’s eyes out for the gratification of any imaginary supervisors. Hell, I’ll even read a Superman comic, if that’s what it takes. 

But, you may retort, in your bland stupidity, “Christians are being hunted like gays and gay vampires here in Obamerica!” Why don’t you just come over to my residence so I may beat your fucking ass, pussy? Better yet, read and comprehend the previous and following sentences, guaranteed to set your weak mind on the proper course: the true account of my last Saturday encounter with some of the last few Christians that have not been whipped and Obaminated to tidbits in their pews for their wealth, freedom, and cultural predominance.

Two Jehovah’s Witness gentlewomen rang my bell. Penelope, obliviously toddling offspring that she is, refused to look up from her commie-pinko PBS Kids indoctrination cartoons to open the door she isn’t strong enough to open. Even my “Christian” wife shunned them. It fell upon me to answer the door with my godless anatomy. I chose to use my hands, rather than my prehensile atheist unmentionables. Door open, they dared speak to me in their churchy lady clothes, a mere arm’s length from my slumping, moldy jack-o-lantern still waiting to be composted, which will add nutrients back into the soil without my giving any credit to the lord for His creation. Now the clash of civilizations would begin.

Would the Jehovah’s Gentlewomen be raped? Would they be hunted like gay dogs? Would I use my diabolical atheism to abort their precious stem cells? I’ll never tell, but I can tell you, I gave a silent, inner groan when I saw what they were. But in my exasperatingly consistent way of conserving dignity, I let them spiel, pretty much. I expected them to say something about ISIS in Paris, but if there’s one thing Jehovah’s Peeps are consistent about, to their credit, it’s international goodwill. They’ll even use and compliment a Jap-made Kubota tractor, if you can get them out of their churchy clothes to do a lick of fucking work.

Penelope waddled out to bring the cute, so I had to set a decent example of sociability. I did give them a glimmer of a hard time when their lead gentlewoman spake along the lines of, “It’s a beautiful day, but you know there’s a shortage of good news in the world.”

Me: “No! I’m remodeling my bathroom, and it’s looking really good!” to which I wanted to add, “Plus, have you seen all the porn you can punch up for FREE now?” and then to their mortified faces, “Ah, I’m just fuckin’ with ya!” For once, I was thinking of that stuff in time to actually say it, not post-encounter, but holstered my heat. I kneed pajamaed Penelope back inside the door to conserve heat as well as dignity.

Fortunately, they agreed that a successful bathroom remodel is a good thing, but stopped short of laying some hands on it, unless that Watchtower they gave me was meant to be bathroom reading. Then I got the fuck back to work.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hard-luck Lesbian—Episode 1

On a quest for picture frames, I parked by Michael’s. Looking up from my iPhone, I saw a couple of yuppie women (now known as soccer moms?) tying up a conversation about dog grooming. Back to the phone. Suddenly the women were gone, rapidly, scattering like prey spotting an oncoming predator. Now I would be the prey. A wobbling female approached me with intermittent teeth and an aura of motivation. Up came that feeling, that fizzy intestinal dread-knot: I would now be panhandled, but with what result?

Over my half-open window, I beheld her, and she began. I have been trapped like this before. I hate to be rude, but I also have little patience for bullshit. Not only do these panhandler humans usually get money from me, they leave me feeling conned, ripped off, bamboozled. Not so much because they scored some small amount of cash from me, but because I always sense I’m being lied to, and I think that is part of their game. Sometimes I even assume that, when streetpeople cross paths behind Brown Derby or under laundromat awnings or wherever, they trade strategies—as in, which tales of woe get the best results. Why do I always feel this way? It probably started back when I was just as poor as they were, when their lack of a cigarette seemed no more urgent than my lack of a cold drink. But now that I am much more middle-classy, I still can’t stop parsing the theatricality of the various need-ploys that arise.

My mind racing, I rolled up my window. She immediately assumed that this was to shut her down, but it was actually just the current step in normal car-parking procedure. I planned on hearing her out, but now she was walking away, with a bit of piss in her gait. I climbed out of the car and promptly locked my keys inside, instantly realizing my mistake. Simultaneously I was trying to ask her what she needed, while also experiencing potent “aw, shit!” rage that might have gone about 30% of the way toward killing her. But instead of slinging her to the pavement by the shirt and yelling, “I JUST LOCKED MY KEYS IN MY CAR BECAUSE MY PANHANDLER ANXIETY BLEW MY FUCKING MIND,” I said something like, “Hang on, what do you need?”

Apparently I had a strong subconscious desire to be five bucks poorer, because I could have just let her keep walking. Some preliminary stammering later, she was asking for money in the most roundabout way possible—a shabby, hard-luck narrative, something involving a bus ticket that would get her child back from another state, or take her back to said other state to find her child, I think. I’ve heard a few variations on the bus ticket theme before. Bus tickets figure heavily in the panhandling universe, which makes perfect sense x2: buses are all about carrying poor people (truthiness), plus the NIMBY bonus—giving this person money gets this person away from me. Some towns even have programs where they round up homeless people and give them bus tickets which must be used to leave town, under threat of jail. So, adding a bus ticket to a panhandling narrative gives you more buck for your bang, in my estimation.

This is about the time I remembered, mercifully, that one of my back doors was probably unlocked. Thank fuck, it was! Keys back in fist, I was able to come to grips with the woman. I finally just gave her five bucks. That’s honestly something for me, because I still scold myself for breaking the five dollar mark at lunchtime. However, in the adrenalized afterglow of not quite locking my keys inside my car, five dollars down felt like a goddamn breeze of enfranchised relief.

Completing my Michael’s mission, I hit the nearby Walmart by way of the Nursery. Maybe 15 minutes had passed, and there by the houseplants and shovels was my sponsored lady-friend, hug-hanging on her lesbian lover. They were buying some stuff that didn’t seem conducive to at all to bus travel, such as houseplants. That’s fine, I just think they should have invited me over to see what they’re doing with the decor.

Of course I wish I could say “honesty is the best policy” to beggars, but I suppose that wouldn’t be honest. Had she come up and asked for money because she and her girlfriend had a list of housewares they wanted, then I might have just said, “No shit? Cuz at your age, I had an apartment in Florida furnished entirely by dumpster diving!” Except, when my sister found out I was sleeping on the floor-ida (see, it’s easy to write for Bob’s Burgers), she phone-ordered me a futon… so maybe we all need sponsors.

But maybe all I really want is for panhandlers to be required to listen to some story of mine before getting my money. I mean, I’m the one with the cash, so they should have to listen to me and pretend I’m smart as any self-help guru, because next to them I’m obviously Suze Orman, with my paid-off automobile and my numerous teeth. If Hardluck Lesbian had any tenacity, I would say, “Hey, I have aloe vera plants and a wandering jew—I don’t know if that’s racist to call a plant that, but that’s what it’s called—I can give you starts from both those plants for free. All you need is, like, two cups of dirt.” But then, Suze Orman doesn’t pay people to listen to her—they pay HER. So I guess I’m not Suze Orman, but I still think beggars should have to listen to me, and listen good.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Rock ‘n’ Roll Odyssey, Parts I-IX





Just imagine our address is "2112"
or, I Think I Drove a Meth Head to a Rush Concert

I was on my way out of a rain-soaked Springfield Thursday afternoon, headed to Kansas City to see Rush for their 40th-year, probably final, tour. I had my Mountain Dew, my Golden Oreos, and two styrofoam flats of hot Chinese food given to me by the cook at Bao Bao for watching his restaurant while he was in Switzerland. I also had my wet socks draped over the dash, trying to dry them with alternating blasts of heat and AC. I had my stack of Rush CDs and had already burned through one album. The rain was breaking up to reveal a nice gray day, perfect for driving. Having left work about two hours early, I was just getting comfortable as the will-someone-from-work-call-me-with-a-problem? danger zone evaporated.

Somewhere around Clinton, I passed a hitchhiker at a crossroad, holding a little cardboard sign that said, “KC MO, Rush $”. Instantly began the internal war between my serial-killer-obsessed wife’s voice saying I would end up dead and sodomized if I picked him up, and my own Alfred E. Neumann voice saying, “What, me worry?” Of course I felt bad thinking that this guy had no ride to see the show. The “$” meant he might chip in for gas, but I had a full tank, which was enough for the whole round trip, so that was no real concern. I slowed down and U-turned. Even though I was not playing A Farewell to Kings, I had to do what was Closer to the Heart, right? What kind of a dick would I be if I drove on by, playing Rush to the three empty seats in my car? (Four, if you count my toddler’s car seat).

I pulled up to him, and he was happy. As usual, my car was full of junk, so I hopped out to clear his seat and floor. He was saying thanks, and shook my hand. I said he made the right sign as I stacked CDs and Chinese food into the back seat.

“I saw the Permanent Waves CD in your seat,” he said, “and I knew this was the right car. We’re gonna see Rush, man!” He tossed his sign into the floor and got in. I smelled alcohol immediately as I buckled in again. He said he had only waited about 10 minutes at that point. I think he said his name was Dean. The first thing you need to know about Dean is, he’s a talker. Also, a repeater of talk. Also, a terrible but unabashed singer, a Rush superfan, a man of low impulse control, and more!  

Dean was 48 going on 12. “My girlfriend (at least he didn’t say “old lady”) wouldn’t let me take the car because I’d had two beers—she said I was drunk—I had two beers!” He remained rather excited for the duration of the trip, which would be about 90 minutes for him. He had no ticket to the concert, but assured me, “Oh, there’s always a way in, man! I’ve got 500 bucks with me, I’ll get in. These shows never really sell out.”

I gathered the following information in no particular order: Dean had a few teeth missing—luckily none at the front, because his mouth was open a lot. He was from Minnesota, had been living in Missouri for only a few months and said he really liked it, and worked at the Tracker boat factory. He claimed to be part Native American, but said that didn’t mean anything—he brought it up in relation to living near a reservation “way up north.” His girlfriend of several years was depressed and stayed home most of the time.   He had seen Rush seven times, which he told me at least five times*, but by the third iteration, he admitted he’d only seen them six times, because once, when he had three great tickets that were around $300 each, he couldn’t go because he was in jail for about a month. He assured me he wasn’t the kind of guy who spends a lot of time in jail.
    *so, like 35 times in my mind**
        **Thanks for the math, Dan’l

Suddenly, Dean really had to pee! I guess the two beers had ramrodded their way through his system. We were cresting a hill, looking down at a town rich with shit pertinent to our scenario: bathrooms. It couldn’t have been more than 25 minutes since I plucked his sorry ass from the roadside, said my internal trucker who frowns on stops that do not align with an empty gas tank. But, as Dean was now adjusting his shorts in a way that may have been cover for crotch-crimping, I decided this would be a good place to stop. I honestly didn’t give a shit what he had consumed, as long as he remained lucid, compliant and continent in my vehicle. We had plenty of time.

I picked a gas station. Dean made it to the john while. I decided to pee while there, and when I came out of the bathroom, Dean was getting money out of an ATM, which he gave to me.

“Here, man, take this,” he said, handing me two twenties. I told him that was too much, really, but he insisted with a touch of hitchhikerly pride, so I took the money. Back at the car, he angled for a smoke break, which I said was fine. I took a minute to change socks again, moving the dampest ones to the trunk.

“Sorry about the stinky socks,” I said, “I’m still trying to dry my shoes out.” Dean didn’t care, taking a moment to make fun of some woman’s looks as she exited her car nearby. A couple of young ladies of slutty presentation lounged against the gas station wall. I worried Dean might try impressing them with some inappropriate behaviors, but he played it cool.

Just a few miles down the highway, my passenger had a coughing fit for about one minute. When he finally seemed recovered, I asked, with a trace of humor, “Did you get a bad cigarette?” Dean said rather seriously, “Don’t say that, man.”

After the pee & smoke break, Dean really hit his stride. He turned up my radio without asking (to about 38 Toyota volume units, if you’d like to recreate the experience in another Toyota), which wouldn’t have bothered me, except then he kept on talking and expecting me to hear him, between a number of disastrous singalong attempts. He obviously knew the songs, but was rampantly off tune and timing. I tried to just roll with it, with a smirky smile. Maybe my smile wasn’t convincing, because about once per song, he would say, “I’m sorry, man, I’ll stop singing,” but then he’d start again almost immediately. He threw in some air guitar flair when he could, which I countered with diplomatic smatters of steering wheel thumb-drumming, plus the occasional appeal to reason, such as: “Hey, uh, we’re looking for Truman Road, I guess it’s Exit 271,” I’d read the relevant direction from my envelope of mapquesty shorthand. Dean didn’t seem worried. His only feedback was, “I like how you drive, in the fast lane the whole way!” Which was weird, because I think I had been using the full range of lanes. At one point I made myself chuckle by imagining an abrupt pulling off onto the shoulder, where I would stop and tell Dean, in my best Clint Eastwood voice, “GET OUT.”

At some point, we talked a little about the band, and how it was likely their last tour. I had recently read in Rolling Stone that singer Geddy Lee was more energetic about the band in a ten-years-younger fashion, where Alex Lifeson, the guitarist, had some physical problems dragging him down, and drummer Neil Peart was more mentally sick of it—which had always been the case. Dean said, with some relish, “Yeah, I think Alex parties harder than the other guys, maybe that messed him up,” and then asked me if I’d read Neil’s book (he’s written more than one, though), which I hadn’t. He said I had to read it, and he would give it to me. Then as he paraphrased some stuff from Ghost Rider, I could only think, “How is he going to give me that book?”

Further highlights: he pointed out an older Cadillac on the highway, saying that it looked just like his car. And some story from his living in California years ago, where a guy he worked with invited a few people over to watch some other dude have sex with his wife. Dean said, “I decided not to go, but I went home with a big hard-on! That guy’s wife was really hot.” Impulse control, Dean—and too much information. Maybe we two were discount versions of the Hemispheres dichotomy: Dean the naked figure, I the suit-wearing dandy.



As we entered KC proper, Dean displayed some oddly aggressive staring at people in other vehicles, including a police van, which I called a paddywagon. I let the paddywagon in front of me, telling Dean that’s how we keep them on our side. I joked that maybe the cops were going to the concert. Then I decided the joke was true, and followed them all the way to the Sprint Center, which looked like a lovely god-size cut-glass bowl with tour buses parked around it.

“Hey, this has to be it, right?” I gave myself a mental thumb’s-up: despite my rider’s distractions, I had made zero wrong turns. We had arrived at a crowded area with lots of cops and Rush t-shirts containing humans of every sort. Now we just had to park. Dean rolled down the window. I worried he was going to yell at people, but he just asked an extremely inarticulate man about parking, receiving a flustered arm-spasm in response. I turned down a skyscraper-shadowed street that immediately broke my parking balls, so before getting too sunk, I thrilled Dean with a totally illegal U-turn and bragged on my car’s smallness. Backtracking a couple of blocks put us in much more Springfield-looking territory, where I quickly spotted parking. It was $10, but very close to the arena, and Dean’s $40 made me uncharacteristically decisive in the face of a parking fee that I normally might walk thrifty miles to avoid.

Out of my back seat, I changed into my Roll the Bones 1991-92 Tour shirt so I could project my Rush-veteran status. Locking the car, I asked the parking attendant the address and punched it into my phone, encouraging Dean to do the same. Even though he had twice said he would like a ride back, he didn’t want to trade phone numbers or take down the address. Yet, he talked about getting dinner or a drink before the show, which was almost an hour off. My phone chimed with about the third text from Tony Gray, who had been in KC all day, was already in the Sprint Center, and had checked in on my progress almost as if thinking I was the sort of fool who would pick up strange people from the roadside.

“Are you sure you don’t want to trade phone numbers?” I asked Dean. “I mean, I’ll wait for you, but, maybe I won’t know how long to wait.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me! You’re gonna be seeing the most awesome show, just enjoy it—an evening with Rush, man!” Dean was peering into the fronts of businesses, scouting the eats-n-drinks that I was not keen on sitting down to with him.

“I know, I’m just thinking ahead.” Maybe I should have explained to Dean that thinking ahead was a cornerstone trait of those of us who can drive ourselves places. As if to illustrate, I stopped right then on the sidewalk. “Oh shit! I forgot my ticket. It’s in the car.”

“What? Really?" Dean looked a little suspicious, as if I were just making shit up to avoid eating with him. I really had left my ticket in the car, and said, “Sorry, I have to go grab it.” At that instant, we both found the perfect exit from our alliance. I obviously needed my ticket, and Dean obviously lacked the patience to backtrack 500 feet for something.

“Ok, well, I’ll watch for you after the show,” I said.

“Don’t worry about me, man, we’re gonna see Rush!”

“I know.” As I walked back to the car, he ambled energetically away. Then my stomach was punched by my imagination: what if Dean had cunningly yoinked my ticket off the dash when we disembarked, and I was now the one with no seat in the Sprint Center? I walked faster, escaping from Dean but also losing evil-ticket-stealing-Dean forever in the crowd. Fortunately, my ticket was right where I left it, so he wasn’t the master of deception I almost had to mistakenly tackle to (not) get my seat back.

Joining one out of many lines, I entered the Rush-shirted throng. I was probably one of the commonest types, but the age range was quite wide, including young women and even kids. That makes sense for a 40-year career span, but it was also puzzling—at least for children—until you look closer and realize that kids today actually share interests with their parents. I looked over at an apparently operational box office, and wondered if Dean would be caught dead in the un-rock-n-roll tactic of simply buying a seat there, if any remained.

That’s when I started hearing little covetous comments about my shirt: it was 24 years old and in good shape, so it must have been a thing of pedestrian wonder. Every several minutes I’d hear “Roll the Bones!” over my shoulder, and one guy said, “I wish I could fit into that Roll the Bones shirt,” suggesting, I guess, that if he could fit, he would get it from me by any means necessary. I suppose it was just an oddity in a sea of much newer shirts. Once inside, I discovered the many expensive souvenir T-shirt options, starting at $40 and going up to $100 (for embroidered jerseys). Maybe that explained the desirous feelings about my shirt. Suddenly immersed in a t-shirt driven economy where the common, entry-level shirt is $40, lord knows what a rare and ancient shirt might be worth. Forty-one dollars? A hundred? A human life?

I started catching up with Tony Gray by text. My last update had been over an hour earlier, after Tony asked if I was in KC yet:
    ME: “Just passed Osceola Cheese.”
    TONY: “That’s good cheese.”
Now he wanted to know if I was in the arena yet. I skirted a bunch of food lines and souvenir lines, found my seat, and considered looking for Tony while the seats in my row were mostly empty. He was in a group who had scored a skybox-style suite on the upper level, courtesy of a friend who works for Burlington Northern. Tony said later, sort of jokingly, that he was trying to blend in as some kind of train engineer. Probably didn’t want to get “yard bossed.”

Then my brother texted from somewhere not far below. He’d never told me that he had a ticket, though I knew he intended to see Rush. I’d sort of assumed he would tell me ahead of time, and we would carpool, but maybe he wanted to smoke pot in the car, or maybe he wanted his own shot at picking up a drunk hitchhiker. (Later my wife asked why we didn’t go together. I said, I didn’t know he was even going for sure. She said, “You guys are weird.”)

Plenty of heads even balder/grayer than mine.
In a few minutes, the seats around me filled. The seat to my left was overfilled by a double-wide of a man; to my right, a guy about my size and age who spoke to his adult son with a gruff veneer of anger, as in:
    SON: “Must be getting ready to start—this sounds like Clockwork Angels.” (Classic rock songs on the PA had yielded the clock-alarms opening of “Time” by Pink Floyd)
    DAD: “Nooo... this is Pink Floyd.”
    SON: “They’re supposed to start with their newest album.” (Clockwork Angels= most recent Rush album)
    DAD: “This is fuckin’ Pink Floyd! I’ll bet you a hundred fucking dollars!” Once or twice he kind of cussed all the lit-up phones in the arena, which made me self-conscious when I finally pulled mine out to take a few pictures later on, but oh well.

Aside from the mad dad’s habitually abusive diction, everybody was well behaved. I assumed “Time” playing meant that it was showtime—because it was—but then a few more songs played while the place filled up. Finally the show began, first with a wacky animated video that ended with the band arriving in KC, MO, and then with a rather percussive onslaught which was exactly what we all paid to have thundered through our skulls. It was ever-changing sensory overload, with big screens, lasers, a dash of pyrotechnics, and the usual comedic touches. Back in the ‘90s, I remembered that Alex and/or Geddy had done a bit of stage cleanup with vacuum cleaners during gaps in their guitar sequences. Dean had mentioned that one of the more recent tours had featured giant rotisserie chickens turning on stage. This time the gag was stagehands dollying out a row of front-load clothes dryers on spin cycle. There was also a song from Counterparts, “Animate,” where giant words were projected in a way that looked like sharp holograms. Maybe my eyes just weren’t good enough to see the screens. I don’t know how the fuck they did it.

After about an hour, the first set ended, winding back the song clock to about the mid-1980s, with “Subdivisions.” Since I’m half-bald now, I no longer look like the kid in the Subdivisions video, but I still go, “Hey, that’s me!” when it is played.

During intermission, I changed my mind about six times and finally bought a blue R40 tour shirt. It seemed like the most popular of the choices, but I decided it looked like the most wearable. The $40 seemed almost painless considering that was what Dean had given me. I wondered where the sorry bastard was.

I squeezed back in between Mad Dad and King Beefy for the second half, Mid-'70s-early '80s, where the real heat of the Rush catalog dwells. No words. Mind blown.

Unfortunately, my phone's mind was also blown.



Yay, they played "The Camera Eye"
Something with guitars
"Xanadu" w/o Olivia Newton-John

In the ear-sizzled, brain-fried aftermath of the show, I shook off my post-2112 ennui and joined the human millipede that funneled into the surprisingly orderly urination zone, breaking my rule against organized bathrooming. Driving home would be interrupted soon if I didn't go now. I hoped Dean was doing the same. Just to make sure he had time for due diligences, I revisited the souvenir-industrial complex, trying to figure out what the hell was in the $20 programs. Kinda wanted one… Nah, the shirt would be enough.
After the five-minute walk back to my car, Dean was not there. I think it was almost 11:00. I called my wife for a quick check-in while I waited, but I didn’t tell her I was hauling a hitcher, because she would freak out and maybe lose sleep. We talked for several minutes, but still no passenger. I scarfed down the remainder of my cold lo mien, ate some cookies and hit the road.

In a few minutes I retraced my path and found a ramp onto 71 South. Just as I got that cozy feeling of settling onto the right highway for many miles to come, I shit you not, there was Dean with his thumb in the air!
    “Whaaaaaaat?” I cried out as I looked over my shoulder at him shrinking into the past. “You dumb son of a fucker!” I was laughing, but also feeling bad, like I’d abandoned a kindergartner or dumped a puppy. But there were two cars right behind me, and no easy turnarounds, so I just drove for about a mile in a state of cackling dismay, shaking my head, saying “shit” every ten seconds until I decided Dean was someone else’s problem. I wondered if he had seen me. I kind of wanted to go back just so he couldn’t say I doublecrossed him or whatever, and I kind of wanted to go back so I’d have someone to help keep me awake, and so I could find out if he really would have loaned me Neil Peart’s book, which would have been an odyssey in itself, requiring a visit to his house, and maybe waking up his depressed, probably medicated wife.

I still had my Mountain Dew and my Rush albums, and Dean's cardboard sign… I guess I should have slowed down back on that ramp and yelled out the window, “You can miss a stride/ but nobody gets a free ride!” But then he might have gotten in again and started singing.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bathroom Anxiety Runs Deep

or, The Bathroom as Enduring Misbehavior Zone


1. Never have I relished the idea of pooping, or even peeing, in a public place—even a private public place like a public restroom. Now, as an adult (ostensibly), I have no real anxiety* about it, but as a kid I had deep misgivings about the stalls and urinals of the realm. For obvious reasons, grade-school restrooms had no door locks, and were designed as communal spaces. (For kids, there is a fine line between communal, tribal, and primal.) The stall dividers didn’t go down to the floor, so the feet of occupants could be seen unless lifted off the floor into evasive position. We were, as a rule, herded to the restrooms en masse at opportune times—between lunch and music, or after recess, or between drinking and pants-wetting. I even recall a trough-style, wall-spanning urinal for an undetermined number of (ab)users. All in all, no shortage of features bent toward the elimination of privacy.

For these reasons and likely others I’ve forgotten, some of my early memories revolve around strategic avoidance of school bathrooms. Well, of actually having to use them for relief of bladder or bowels. As mentioned, teachers used to corral us all and send us in, but I did not partake unless the need was dire. I know now they were saving themselves the later hassle of little bozos asking, one at a time, asynchronously, “Can I go to the bathroom?”, which would amount to the death of productive class time by a thousand small cuts. 

On rare occasion, I would get permission to slip out of class for an excretory necessity, but my main strategy in the early years was 1) Hold it all day, then 2) Take the bus home, then 3) Run the last half mile to the toilet because our bus didn’t go all the way to my house in grades 1-2. This quickly evolved into an evasive maneuver where I could urinate a little sooner if I timed it properly: About six kids were dropped to distribute themselves along the last 3/4 mile of our dead-end road, but there were two hills in the middle of that stretch. I found that I could casually break away from the pack, pretend I was in a rush to watch cartoons, trot ahead, then break into a run once I got over the second hill. All the bigger kids were talking and too cool/empty-bladdered to care what I was up to. If I got ahead by the right amount, there was almost a minute where I was out of sight because they were in the trough between hills. Then I’d drop my bookbag and pee with enough force to hit the barbed wire fence from the paved road. I always felt like I was really keeping a secret, but who knows. If they had me figured out, I’m surprised none of them ever pursued and embarrassed me. Then again, flirting with my sister probably already had higher cache than calling out a small child on his self-imposed bladder challenges.

Why go through so much discomfort? Well, I was a poorly socialized freak. But I also have vague, early-‘80s memories of witnessing these bizarre restroom dignity-removal sessions—all the helplessness of lynchings, with none of the bloody mess. Some other kid would make the mistake of being found on the toilet in his greatest moment of need, and an unsympathetic posse would kick the stall door open, point at the hapless pooper, laugh at his strained face as if it was some sort of uncommon sin he was committing, and then move on to kick the other stall doors open. I don’t think they even looked for feet; they just kicked all the stalls open. Such privacy-busting may have happened only once, or many times, but I know I saw it, and I lived in fear of it from that day on.

2. Leap forward about 35 years, to 2015. Springfield holds an election that proves, once and for all, that bathroom anxiety still runs the show, still trumps rationality, even in our politics and public life.

Proposition 1 was framed such that those voting NO (myself included) were opposing a citywide repeal of an earlier law that banned discrimination against LGBT people in business, housing, etc. Those voting YES were supporting the repeal, supposedly to protect the religious beliefs of those business owners and landlords who don’t want to hire or house queers, or whatever you like to call them. This is just one episode in a widespread revival to reassert religious freedom over the rights of others, even though we’ve been through this before and made clear in this country that one’s religious beliefs, while protected, don’t really trump the civil rights of other people. In general, you can think whatever you like, but your notions shall not trump the material well-being of others: If you believe hot-dogs are intolerable, you may forswear them, but you may not forbid others to eat hot dogs, nor take jobs or shelter away from eaters of hot dogs. 

Springfield’s Bible-belty geography made this cultural showdown all the more zesty. A local megachurch or two got involved, adding dollars and pulpits to the fight. No surprise— normal Culture Wars material. But both sides got revved up pretty hot, and then came the classic/weird/predictable/nonsensical fearmonger tactic that probably decided the race (YES votes won by less than 1% in the final tally). Billboards appeared, asserting, basically, that cross-dressing perverts and gay creeps couldn’t wait to totally diddle your children in public restrooms.

This is brilliant politics, because no one wants their kids molested in bathrooms. Ask anybody with kids. And the second you bring up the idea, the human mind races ahead to the grossest assumptions about the horrible people who might corner children in the slightly stinky corners of our bathroom anxieties. And racing ahead to the grimy urinal underbelly of human anxiety keeps one from asking, Is this fear realistic?

Well, sure. Anything can happen in a bathroom. I’ve seen Jimmy Barnes lay a brown paper towel over a sink drain to make a blinking “fish-eye” of the escaping water. I’ve had wet paperwad fights with Chris DeLozier in a bathroom, have seen graffiti in Sharpie, ballpoint pen, and poop. I’ve heard of high-school students having consensual sex in bathrooms. I watched as Doug Ackerman called under a stall divider, “Hey, what’s that on the floor?” and then pissed on the shoes of that person. I even saw a drawing of a fabulous sasquatch-like creature called “Dick-Tit,” as well as many phone numbers attached to mysterious, illicit promises (Unfortunately, no phone number was provided for Dick-Tit). The stuff people have gotten away with in bathrooms is pretty nutty, and gross, and sundry, and sometimes bad.

Somewhere, I’m sure, a child has been molested in a public restroom. But I don’t know of any, and if it happened, it was likely done by a non-LGBT molester who was using the gender-appropriate facility. Actually, all the molestations I have ever heard of were committed by the victims’ family members, or clergy, or family friends, probably in totally private places where nobody can just dodge in for a piss or a nose-blow. In our most famous local case, a trusted, career-long school employee abducted his victim in broad daylight, took her to a private residence, and finished her off after unspeakable acts, without ever using the other gender’s bathroom.

Ironically, the same source of anxiety—that anyone could barge in on you at any time—serves as a sort of barrier to extreme deviant behavior, just as it prevents real comfort. Extra ironically, some of the people who supported the YES vote are the same social conservatives who pump the ostensibly libertarian idea that conceal-and-carry gun-toting will reduce crime because criminals are scared you might whip it out on them. Death by lightning is probably more common than being a real-life gun hero, as is accidental gun discharge. But until we have security guards who frisk all who enter bathrooms, who is supposed to enforce any of this anyway? Who knows what some people are toting around in their underwear? Did we learn nothing from SNL’s “Pat,” or The Crying Game, or Jerry Springer? And I doubt anyone will propose that restrooms be filled with cameras to catch people sneaking a ding-dong into the wrong room. So, the whole thing falls apart, until you realize that it was all for shock, to stoke the outrage of the people most likely to ride a wave of fear to the polls.

Public restrooms may be the ideal laboratory for true libertarianism: get in there, do your business, stay out of mine, and it should all work out fine. Here in America, we should be steered to the toilet by pragmatism, not politics. Or maybe I should say, “Just because American politics belong in the toilet doesn’t mean they should come in there with us.”


*Of course, I still have some anxiety on the laughable level. A life-long problem for many, and one that still affects me on occasion, is “Fraidy Pee,” a term I borrow from Josh Trotter. It is of course that hesitation to pee when one finds oneself next to a stranger in a bathroom. It’s a universal enough problem that Trotter and a friend of his had worked out, in graduate school at the University of Florida (as a pastime, not as an academic project), a quiz on which urinal/stall you will choose, depending on which ones are open at the time. While not as impressive or influential, their predictions for human behavior were in the vein of Game Theory, and of similar reliability. Basically all of the rules were reliant on human susceptibility to Fraidy Pee. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Price-Man’s Bathroom : “Ideas for the Ages” #1

This supreme cat tower is the most remarkable feature of Jeff's bathroom. Even decapitated, could it be the source of unidentified cosmic power?


About two years ago, I went to visit my friend Jeff Price on Long Island for the occasion of an art show, but also just to go. I’d never been there—the island, or Jeff’s home. Just months before, Matt Wittmer, a mutual friend, had stayed there for a few days. In his usual abundance of sharing, Matt had numerous recommendations, which in his adamance can seem like spirited wake-up calls or even demands.

Something about taking the train from the airport to a place called Ronkonkoma, and Jeff’s wife making tea—those were things not to miss. Matt spent time checking out the not-too-distant Amityville house of paranormal fame, and although he knows I’m not especially interested, those places that lodge into his imagination are generally presented with the feeling of “you should check it out” recommendation. But above all else, Price’s bathroom was touted as a peak experience. Matt raved about it in a vaguely hallucinatory, almost spiritual sense. Perhaps not a Shangri-La, but it was endorsed iwth mind-bending awe/wonder, with the gumption—if not the diction—of a Coleridge writing phantasmagoric ad-copy for Xanadu. Of course I was intrigued. On the other hand, I’m not exactly a connoisseur of bathrooms, and I knew in advance that Matt is prone to obsessive flights of fancy.

Sink of minor delights.

To compress a long story, I made it to Jeff’s bathroom and had no idea what made it so special in Wittmer’s mind. It seemed pretty normal. Was it constructed with subtle Golden Ratios tuned specifically to Wittmer’s aesthetic cortex? I couldn’t see any. This was an all-around decent bathroom—far superior to, say, Robert McCann’s St. Louis bachelor pad bath, which had almost blown an OCD fuse in my wife’s brain years earlier—but I wasn’t seeing greatness. I looked out the window for a special view, but came up clueless. I even took on some projects there, mostly out of my own lightweight compulsions toward home repair, but perhaps because Matt had planted in me the seed of this bathroom’s ponderability.

Pyramid of Abundant Wiping oriented toward Ring of Lofty Towel Utility. While this configuration mimics structures such as pyramids, ziggurats and observatories that orient on the cosmic, powers greater than successful flushing did not manifest.
After my toothbrushing runoff failed to scoot promptly down the drain, I opened the sink plumbing to remove a clog. It was caused mostly by a shred of duct tape inside a pipe elbow, damming a fine paste of iridescent makeup particles. I re-caulked the leaky shower stall after spotting some post-shower floor-water. Even with my small improvements, Price’s bathroom was, to me, merely a mortal bathroom.

Cat refreshment is sanctioned. This zone of intrigue is so intriguing that cats monitor other cats.

When I revealed my findings, Matt’s enthusiasm was undiminished. Whatever had enchanted him was still in effect. I had to wonder—did he lay too long, on the inflated guest mattress, in need of urination, and then transfer his eventual bladder relief to the experience of the room? Did he have a mini-mini stroke there, or inadvertently soak up a few psychoactive molecules of Price’s purported marijuana residues? No, when it comes to Matt Wittmer’s mental landscaping, extraordinary incursions are not required. The terrain as a whole is naturally psychoactive, contoured meticulously over a solid bedrock containing countless deposits of rich silly putty. Whatever made Price’s bathroom magical to Wittmer remains locked in that singular nervous system.

Pentagon of Contemplation. Not a litter pan.

Some time later, I bought and moved into a new house, with three bathrooms. In trying to describe one of them, I realized one of my “Ideas for the Ages,” which I’ll define as ideas that, despite being good, will probably never come to fruition. Since Matt has a history of making fine, detailed models of numerous buildings of consequence (Alcatraz, the Waco Davidian compound, the Psycho house, Amityville house, etc), I thought it would be cool if I could cultivate his fascination with Jeff’s bathroom to the point where he would make a model of it, which I would then hang in one of my bathrooms. Even better, if all three of us had tiny replicas of each other’s bathrooms, one each, on display in bathrooms thousands of miles apart—New York, Missouri, California. It’s the sort of totally pointless concept art that I tend to steer clear of, but in this case it has a special, poetic sort of dada weirdness that I like. But, I suppose I don’t like it enough to put in the work and execute it, much like the works of Kilgore Trout in Vonnegut fictions. To paraphrase local painting professor Hugh Yorty, “That may be the sort of idea best left as an idea.”

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Customer Service Spectrum

Yes, there's something wrong with these people.
Lately I’ve found myself pulled between the gravity of two equally undesirable planets. One is the Earth of Unservice, or F.U. Earth, whose capital is Shitsville. The other, which occurred in Newtonian counter-reaction to F.U. Earth, is UberEarth, the world of over-the-top customer service. This overwrought analogy brought to you by Blogorrhea! The thought process that arduously replaces actual wit with something like overdoing it immaturely.

For some years now, F.U. Earth has been accreting greater mass, as many menial jobs have been taken on by young folks who know just enough to realize that crappy jobs are not only barely worth clocking in for, they may be so crappy that the only way to do them is by personifying crappiness. More likely, the kids just don’t care. So you’ll encounter cashiers who joke with a co-worker for a while before they realize you’ve been standing there for 30 seconds… and if they keep flirting, you might just go to another register and not bother them.

But lo, and behold, it’s not only young people manning the stations of F.U. Earth. There are also some older folks. Maybe they have been paired with a computing device they don’t really understand, or maybe they can’t hear your moans of frustration when the self checkout thinks your can of hossenfeffer weighs too much, or maybe they just care as little about your shopping experience as the flirting teens do.  

I’ve developed a handy, 3-tiered Goldilocks-inspired ratings system for navigating today’s unpredictable customer service matrix. (Because it's a pleasure to write for you.)

TOO HOT:

SONIC
I live quite close to a Sonic, so for much of the past two summers (both have been Summers of Shakes, btw), I’ve been a customer. As a bonus, I no longer live near the Grant Beach Sonic, rumored to have had a meth-cookery found somewhere on the roof. Now I live by the Sunshine & Lone Pine Sonic, which remains meth-free. But, my wife and I both agreed that the drive-through voice saying “It’s been an honor to serve you!” is a bit much. That just makes me feel as if the youngster at the mic has been force-fed an unnatural canned phrase. To make things worse, they really sound like they mean it. That just makes me sad. I’m not saying that drive-through communications is a field that lacks honor. I’m just saying that handing me a shake or a big-ass limeade is nothing to get excited about.

FedEx/KINKO’S
There’s a lady running that joint who’s just too much. She’s been too much for a long time now. It seems like she is unavoidable, almost always there. I really should know her name by now...Wanda or something. She is fundamentally helpful, but I get the idea that she would forego all of her pee breaks if it meant that she could catch someone copying copyrighted material. I feel that, if challenged, she would be ready with her résumé, which would show how she trained extensively at a Kinko's boot camp in Kansas, after being genetically enhanced with DNA from school librarians and Southern Baptist women. She makes me nervous.

HOME DEPOT
Too many people asking if they can help me, even when I'm briskly en route to my item. About a year ago, after three different employees asked me that in one visit, I told the third, "Yeah, don't ask me that." Of course, when you do need help finding something, no way will any employees be handy. On the other unhandy hand, I think it was a Home Depot employee (one of the Home Depot “peopo,” as I like to call them) who tried to make me feel like a chump for buying a $15 light bulb. Suck it, bastard, I love LEDs, and now I’m gonna kick back and let the energy savings trickle in while soaking up the warm glow of my mercury free 2700 kelvin warm white 9.9 watt 25,000 hour light bulb of the gods. It seems like the excessive employee helpfulness dropped off a bit after their credit card biz got hacked last year. Maybe the hackers were sick of it, too.

TOO COLD:
LOWE’S
Most of the time, Lowe’s is just right, but the one in Republic has an irksome old woman who runs the self-checkout array. By “runs” I mean “doesn’t run.” She stands there staring, offering nothing, when for three visits in a row the checkout screen locks up on me for no reason. Poke the screen all you want, she won’t have anything helpful for you. “Unexpected item in bagging area,” the screen would claim, while showing that exact item on the screen. That scale is out of whack, or programmed wrong. The old woman is either oblivious, or taking perverse pleasure in my techno-fail, so I just abandon ship and take my stuff to a human cashier.

BARNES & NOBLE
The checkout line at Barnes & Noble gets wound off to the side with an implied “velvet rope” scheme, where you stand in a maze of gifty crap and magazines. It’s arranged more like a permeable buffer zone than a line--more like “Plinko” than Glenstone Ave. Some customers approach the serpentine mess from different directions, so the bottleneck can be confusing. I was rebuffed by a middle-aged cashier who, after beckoning to a couple who had arrived 1-2 minutes AFTER me (but they NOBLy gestured that I should be first) she seemed to resent me a little. I said something like, “Sorry, I thought the line used to turn by the magazines.” Instead of just letting me be right, she said, “No, it’s always been this way.” Thanks for not only making me feel stupid, but then bugging me for the umpteenth time to join the fucking Book Club. No thanks. I should have said, in a fake British accent, “You must be Barnes, because you certainly are not noble.”

MARIA’S
Notoriously ungracious, hasty waitresses from a cabal of attractive college-age gals, but they sling some of the best food downtown, so what can you do?

McDONALD’S
McDonald’s is normally fine, but they failed me at a critical juncture. Last year I was heading, after work, to MSU to see George Saunders read. I was super hungry, but only had time for a drive-through. McDonald’s didn’t even appear busy, but my McChicken and 3 cookies apparently created some kind of logjam in the system. I sat at the window for a few minutes. A really cute girl handed me cookies, but no sandwich. Another long delay, her back to me as she leaned on the window as a chat platform. “Sorry, I have to leave,” I said, abandoning a paid-for McChicken to the ages.

JUST RIGHT:
BRAUM’S (v. SUBWAY)
I don’t go to Braum’s very often, but the last time I was there, the counter girl was helpful and understanding about my chronic bewilderment over the too-numerous ice cream/shake flavors. I have the same problem at Subway—too many choices, and when I see something that looks good, I still don’t know what it’s called, and then I start to feel like I’m holding up progress. In fact, a more apt name for Subway, in my mind, would be Agoraphobic Sandwich. I guess verbally steering another person through the steps of sandwich making is not my idea of a good time. Braum’s has ice cream tubs arrayed similarly to Subway’s many toppings tubs, but the pressure is off because I don’t even have to get ice cream. I did want a shake, though. I just defaulted to Strawberry after the girl subtly steered me away from some kind of low-cal sludge. Braum’s is no place to take a diet. Then I had to decide on a size. A boy behind the counter fired me up about the medium size: “Get the medium. It’s the best value,” he proclaimed with mathematical certainty. “Give it to me,” I agreed, riding his wave of decisiveness.

VILLAGE INN
I can’t recall any good anecdotes, but my alignment with this level of service apparently makes me some sort of geezer, considering that the average age of Braum’s and Village Inn customers is around 70. Probably no coincidence that they specialize in epic, delicious pies.

DILLONS (RIP)
Dillons was never really my favorite place, but it was a Springfield staple that I took for granted. Just when I started warming up to the one near my new residence, the whole chain went under. I wasn’t crazy about their Shopper’s Card doodad, or the relentlessly stupid pricing schemes, such as 10 for $10, or 5 for $4, etc. I was always wondering if I really had to buy 10 yogurts to get them for $1 each. I usually don’t want 10 of anything. If I can buy fewer for a buck each, why test my resolve? Are they just drilling us with remedial math? Feeble math challenges are a bonus for those with a Shopper’s Card?

The only customer service memory I have of Dillons, I offer now in memoriam. It’s neither too hot, nor too cold. It’s probably not even “just right,” but more like “haplessly entertaining.” A few months back, a strikingly rotund cashier opened his register just as I arrived at the checkouts with my three items. “Jackpot” was my first assessment—but I was wrong. He tried for about a minute to key in some kind of code, so he could access the register and do his job. By the third attempt, his joviality was fading. His eyes rolled. He muttered, “Good god!” He called to a Jessica. Someone who was not Jessica came over and gave him a different code. He tried that one twice, failing twice. Not-Jessica was gone, so he called her back again. I think she finally keyed it in herself, with some kind of secret final keystroke, so he could work, maybe under her identity so she would get all his hours or something. Whatever the hell the problem was, he kept his cool throughout the five-minute crisis, which is longer than I could have held back from throwing the register through a candy bar display. I hope his patience was rewarded in the Dillons afterlife, which came to pass about a month ago.