Gimme A Witness

I was awakened last weekend, on a beautiful Saturday morning, by a knock on the door… Okay, I wasn’t awakened, it was 11:30, but I’d just gotten up and I was brushing my teeth when I opened the door, and I was greeted by a pair of shiny, smiling, well-dressed people wearing their very best “Sunday Go To Meetin'” clothes and carrying Watch Tower magazines.

Now this in and of itself isn’t a problem. I have two brothers who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’ve heard all the sales pitches, I’ve read the magazines, I’ve been to the meetings. In fact, I find that this familiarity with the pitch, this hipness to the word, is actually a great defense against these early morning attacks.

“Thank you,” I say, “but I have two brothers who are Witnesses. I don’t really need to have anything explained to me.” That usually puts the kibosh on the whole thing right there. “Ah, well,” they will surely say, “if his own brother couldn’t bring him over, well then, the Force is strong in this one.”

But not this time.

“Oh,” she says, “You’re Steve’s brother.”

Now, I’m not sure exactly why but it got the hackles up on the back of my neck … I felt like I had a target taped to my soul.

My immunity to Salvation, apparently, is legendary. Rather than being an indication that I am immovable, rather than marking the doorway with some invisible, unseen sign of the Dark Side that will keep future Witnesses at bay, protecting them from the black malevolence that is my resistance to divine rescue, there is instead a price on my head. My soul is now the Great White Whale of souls… the El Dorado of souls… the Super Bowl of souls. My soul is the stuff of legend… and my name is whispered in the smoke-filled back room of the Kingdom Hall.

So rather than throw their hands up in desperation, they looked at me with a gleam in their eyes, one very nice Church Lady, with lace around her neck and sensible shoes, and a fat, sweaty, happily rosy-cheeked guy with a suit and a tie that squeezes his neck out of his collar like a water balloon through a napkin ring.

“So your brothers are witnesses, and you … are not?”

That is correct, I assert. I am, in fact, not a Witness.

“Do you believe in God at all,” they press on, “or are you just a … non-believer?”

I’m not comfortable discussing this with you, here, in my doorway, in my sweats, with a toothbrush in my mouth, I answer. I haven’t had my coffee. This could go very wrong, very quickly.

“Just one last question,” he presses on, “and you don’t have to answer now. I only ask that you think about this.

“Do you actually believe that there is no divine intervention, no way to assure our everlasting salvation, that Mankind will just continue to go on, forever, in his current, depraved, selfish way, destroying himself, and the planet, wreaking havoc in a global attempt to consume and ravage and rape and kill, and that it will never end? That there is no higher purpose? That we can’t be forgiven for our fundamental nature and invited into the Kingdom?”

I thought he was going to ask me something hard.

“Of course,” I say, “What a stupid question. People are selfish, and short-sighted, and angry, and spiteful. They want cheap CD’s and free sex and more Jackass. They want cell phones, and DSL lines, and microwaves, and each and every one of them wants more than they need. No, there’s no higher purpose. It’s about instant gratification. Don’t you know? That’s why we have religion. It excuses us from being self-destructive rampaging pricks. Sorry, God, we didn’t mean to wipe your precious owls off the face of the Earth, we’re just men, we’re born with sin, it’s not our fault! You’re counting on that, or you wouldn’t be able to sell your little magazine with the picture of the lamb and the lion on the cover!”

In fact, it’s true that people want what they want, they want it cheap, and they want it now. Consequences be damned, whatever the price, I’ll eat hamburgers fried yesterday and warmed under a heat lamp if I can have it for 49 cents. I’ll buy a 50 gallon drum of mayonnaise if it gets the price per-ounce down under a nickel.

We’re a society of people who stand in front of the microwave and screams “hurry up! I can’t wait more than 30 seconds to get that macaroni and cheese inside me, give it to me now, make it go faster, screw it I’ll just snort the cheese powder through a straw and inject the noodles past my gag reflex with a turkey baster!”

We are a culture that measures the quality of our lives based on how instantly we get gratification. What is this, the Olympics? Is this life the hundred-yard dash of consumerism? What am I going to do with an extra 7 seconds? Does anyone actually organize their life in 7 second increments? Do I really need 7 more seconds of Ricki Lake, Internet porn, or Survivor? Whatever happened to the thrill of the hunt?

So I’m standing there in my sweats, without my coffee, with my toothbrush hanging out of my mouth, in my doorway, with this stranger trying to sell insurance against my eventual and assured Damnation, when the phone rings and I turn to them and say “Sorry, but I’ve got to get the phone.” They say goodbye, wish me a happy morning, and they are on their way.

I pick up the phone, and on the other end is a lilting Southern voice that says “Hello, Sir? This is Elvira from AT&T about your platinum card. I’d like to offer you a free service, to protect your purchasing power and your valuable credit rating, by insuring your balance and making your payments in the event your ability to pay is compromised. The service is free, Sir, for the first 30 days, and anytime you want to cancel you just call.”

“No thank you,” I reply, “I have two brothers with credit card protection, and I’ve heard all about it.”

“Just one last thing,” she pressed on, “and you don’t have to answer now. I only ask that you think about. Let me leave you with an 800 number, just in case you change your mind.”

So go ahead, that’s the message, overspend, consume, buy more than you need, make poor decisions, it’s what you do, it’s in your nature, it’s your original sin. It’s not your fault, and we won’t make you pay, there’s always an insurance policy, it’ll just cost you 3% of your balance per month and after you die we’ll send you to that Golden Valhalla where everything is free, the rivers run with wine, and elephant crap Web sites download in less than a tenth of a second.


That’s it. That’s all I got.

Almost Boyfriend Man

According to contemporary social myth, all it takes to be a hero is to be standing nearby when something bad happens. Given how often bad stuff seems to be happening, you and I are officially heroes.

If something bad hasn’t happened near you yet, fear not. It soon shall.

Lately, given my status as hero, I’ve been giving some thought as to what my super power might be, in that bad stuff has been happening to me for a long time, so it seems as though it ought to have made itself evident by now. I should have an inexplicable mysterious power, allowing me to accomplish amazing feats beyond the understanding of common men, like Spiderman, The Hulk, or Arsenio Hall.

Since we’re all heroes in this era of terror, I looked around at my fellow citizens, to see what kind of super powers others have been endowed with; what unique abilities and talents this time of stress and strain has borne.

I found a woman working in the customer service department at CitiBank who is bestowed with the amazing ability to keep any caller from finding the department that might be able to help them.

I discovered a man blessed with the unequaled power to appear at the front of any line he didn’t feel he needed to wait in.

And several people all appear to be sharing the talent to create a parking space in which to wait for their spouse in the red zone in front of Safeway where none of the rest of us could hope to get away with it.

I could sure use that one.

The more I thought about, the more I realized that I had, at various times, had and lost a series of super powers.

I used to be Fast Metabolism Boy, able to eat ice cream without having it go to my hips.

Once, I was Captain Fearless, beholding of the power to convince myself I was immortal. Not actually immortal, mind you. Just seventeen.

Unfortunately, those youthful super powers are fleeting, and unable to stand up to the evil Doctor Time.

I have, in the intervening years, developed a new and growing super power. My new super power is to make the people I care about go away.

For a while, I was Daddy Man, defender of the defenseless, larger than life, destroyer of under-bed monsters, maker of pancakes with funny faces on them.
Unfortunately, like Thor, like Pan, like Vulcan, like all heroes and Gods, our existence as Daddy Man depends on belief. When the worshipers find more mundane and secular objects for their affections, champions fade away like steam.

And I have been, on multiple occasions, Almost Boyfriend Man, good friend and confidant, cuddler and supporter, lover and dependable intimate, whose only threat is the dreaded Rejectionite.

Of course, along with each super power comes some kind of angst-filled irony; a sad estrangement from family and friends, or the need to carry on a life of lies to protect yourself and those around you from danger. Generally, a sad separation from the very society you are bound to protect. Superman can’t tell Lois who he really is. Spiderman must resign himself to loving that redheaded chick from afar. And Plastic Man must spend his time hanging out with the rest of the Fantastic Four, to whom, of course, he is simply the other lonely hero with no normal friends.

Almost Boyfriend Man avoids the dreaded Rejectionite by way of an uncanny ability to choose the exactly right woman at the exactly wrong time. Choosing the exactly wrong time gives Almost Boyfriend Man the opportunity to hang out with the exactly right woman, without fear of the dreaded Rejectionite. The dreaded Rejectionite, you see, is bound by the strict rules of Space-Time, and exists only in the exactly right time, when, if he had actually stumbled across the exactly right woman, he would open his lunchbox and find a pile of glowing stinking Rejectionite which would peel his skin like an orange. But never fear, Almost Boyfriend Man unflinchingly chooses the exactly wrong time, and spends his energy demonstrating what a great boyfriend he would be, were he a real boyfriend, and were this the exactly right time, creating healthy expectations and giving the exactly right woman all the information she needs to go out and find a real boyfriend.

Not exactly satisfying in the short term. But heroic in the sad, lonely, estranged from society like a guy who turns green when he’s pissed sense.

It’s been rewarding, being Almost Boyfriend Man. I’ve made many wonderful friends, and watched them leave for better and more satisfying lives which they all say they’d never have had the opportunity to enjoy had they not spent enough time with me to want to get away from me and start over. With any luck, the kids I’ve driven away from me will someday have the opportunity to say the same. They’re bound to realize how wrong they were sooner or later, after all.

But I find myself now hoping that the time for heroes is gone. I’ve had enough of difficult times catapulting me to heroism. It’s time to set aside the super powers, and try life as a regular mundane guy, a guy whose arms don’t stretch, whose eyes don’t shoot laser beams, whose focus is not the fear of the evil Doctor Time or the dreaded Rejectionite.

Or at least move on to a new and less isolationist super power.

I just want to be Mister Mundane. Able to avoid drama and angst with a single snore.

Oh, and a sidekick. Got to have a sidekick. Preferably, the exactly right sidekick.
Is that asking too much?

That’s it. That’s all I got.

Awkward Stage

We all go through an awkward stage, trapped somewhere between “got it all figured out” and “gave it all up”.

We like to think we only go through it as kids, as teens trapped between childhood and adulthood, longing to hang onto the simplicity of toys and imaginary friends and Saturday morning cartoons over a bowl of Super Honey Crunchy Nuggets with enough extra sugar to make the leftover milk too thick to drink without a spoon, and anxious to taste the freedom and opportunity of adulthood that we perceive the world is spitefully holding just out of our reach. We are exactly in between two better places to be.

In reality, we go through lots of awkward stages, a series of awkward stages, a plethora of awkward stages, one, long, painful, excruciating, lifetime awkward stage.

I’m going through an awkward stage right now, trapped in a funhouse of mirrors where everywhere I turn I see myself reflected back just slightly twisted, almost me but not quite me, a little wider here, a little thicker there, a little more transparent here, a little in the dark there.

I look behind me and I see myself in my son, all feet and hands like a Great Dane, trapped in the body of a man with the emotional maturity of a turnip. That’s the boy I was, trapped in amber, and as many times as I’ve said to myself “I wish I knew then what I know now” I can’t seem to get the young seventeen-year-old me that lives on in my son to accept the gift of what I know now. In fact, he refuses it like a bad meal and sends it back with his nose wrinkled, and so instead of being the more well informed me he has the opportunity to be, he is the obnoxious and self-righteous and irresponsible me I was all over again.

I look ahead and I see myself in my father, all Velcro shoes, stacks of newspaper clippings and heavily invested in the company of a cat. I am more receptive to his hand-me-downs than my son is of mine, perhaps because he’s mellowed with age and is making more sense, perhaps because I’m less my son than I am my father, but I also find that he’s no more receptive of my hand-me-ups than am I of my son’s. In other words, he won’t hear my advice to remain active, go on a date, take a trip, get a tattoo, pierce something, do just one of the things I hope I’ll still be doing when I get where he is rather than simply walking a daily route around the family room double-checking the volume setting on the answering machine and rotating the batteries in the remote control.

My awkward stage is pretty much just like my son’s, trapped between two unsatisfactory eras, and much like he can’t wait to get to my wonderful magical world of adulthood where life is all about driving and endless sex and drinking and staying out as late as he wants spending the hundreds of dollars per month he’ll make on anything he damn well pleases, I’m trying desperately to get to the freedom and flexibility of the golden years, where life is all reduced prices on movie tickets, free frozen meals delivered right to your door by volunteers with bags of groceries, and free money from the government in the mail every month.

What I can count on is that I don’t get to stay here, so I better not be getting too satisfied with how things are right now. This awkward stage is only tolerable if there’s something better coming along… being a cranky, tired, slacker teenager is only tolerable if we’re convinced that life as a grownup is all freedom and opportunity. Being a cranky tired slacker middle-aged guy is only tolerable as long as we’re sure that getting older will bring us freedom from the tyranny of the time clock, the freedom to wear black socks with sandals, the freedom to steal batteries. So don’t you dare tell me that ain’t the way it’s going to be, because then I’ve got nothing to look forward to, and like my son I’ll just be pissed off and stuck in between.

It appears that wherever we are, it is exactly halfway between two better places to be. Life is just one long awkward stage, desperately fleeing a crappy dissatisfactory past in search of a better situation that’s just a reflection in a twisted mirror where things are actually further away than they appear.

The only little joy I get is in knowing that my son will one day look back and realize how lucky he is at this moment.

If I was more insightful and less focused on being sure I don’t miss out on my own son’s disillusionment, because real dads wait for that day like others wait for the sweet sixteen, I might realize that my father, the me I’m going to be one day, is feeling exactly in between two better places to be, looking back at himself in me and wishing he were either here now or ten years older and plugged into a machine that does his chewing for him with a nurse to rotate the batteries in his remote.

But catching myself thinking how lucky I am right at this moment would take my focus off my own cynicism and perpetual dissatisfaction.

And we can’t have that.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.

The Great Big Book Of Me

Call me Ishmael.
It was a dark and stormy night.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Every good story needs a good opening line. Something that grabs you; that sets the tone; that establishes the tenor of all that follows, forecasting all the creativity, drama, success and adventure to come.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the opening line to my life.

“It’s Thursday, I’m tired, and tonight I’ll eat a hotdog.”

Welcome to The Big Book of Me.

Books are supposed to have introductions, and story arcs, and conclusions with character development and resolution.

Some books have complex storylines, and subplots about spys and illicit love and marvelous adventures.

My book is like Doctor Seuss without the rhyming. Just a mundane story about a guy who likes ham, and not at all poetic.

Chapter One: Childhood.

I was an only child. What that means for most people is too much attention, no sharing, and all the toys. For me, it meant both my parents had already been divorced, and lost their kids to their spouses. They both had complicated lives with too many kids in too many places, and I was about as lonely and average a kid as you could be. I went to school. I had a dog. I collected spiders and lizards, I listened to Mac Davis, pined for the Principal’s daughter, and wrote horrible poetry. When it was over, I was glad. I thought entering puberty was a good thing.

Little did I know.

Chapter Two: High School.

High School was easily the most horribly mismanaged series of opportunities any one person has the right to throw away. It was unremarkable, transient and unimportant; they were the beige Pillsbury Doughboys of years. I had the body of a man, and the complexion of an aggregate driveway. I was at the height of my sexuality, and scared to death of girls. I was independent, and paralyzed into inaction. I lived to get laid, and I was not getting laid. When it was over, I celebrated.

Chapter Three: That thing that comes next.

Being a young married expectant parent at twenty years old is the fastest way to bring the moderate momentum you’ve established to a screeching halt. No twenty-year-old friend of yours understands why you can’t pick up and take off for a drink, or a pizza, or a road trip. I loved my wife, and my children, and being married, and being a father, and yet I fought becoming whatever it was that it seemed to be inexorably leading to with all my fiber, and extended instead my irresponsible and unremarkable adolescence right through the childhoods of my offspring. Not funny, just true. Luckily, they were in their first chapters, and likely never even noticed.

Chapter Four: Middle Age.

The children are gone, I’m single and free, I’ve been laid by now so I’m pretty sure I know how to do it, I make way more money than a teenager, I can buy booze and cigarettes and porn, and I can stay out as late as I want. There is the potential for an exciting new chapter, a twist in the plotline, a sequel of unprecedented success.

Unfortunately, they call it middle age because that’s where you age the fastest – in the middle. It hurts when I walk, it’s hard to bring the porn into focus, and I have difficulty staying up for Letterman. Rather than newfound freedom and adventure, my life consists of going to work, working, and going home from work to recuperate. I have no exciting stories from my youth, no adventures to reflect on, no great political or artistic laurels upon which to rest.

The deal is, I’m a stalagmite. In the early years, time drops little lumps of crap on you, and slowly over time the crap adds to you. It makes you taller; it adds to the bulk of you, and you grow. You get more stable, one hopes, with time, while you simultaneously reach for the heavens.

Then, eventually, you’ve reached about as high as you can; you’ve absorbed all the crap you can, and the crap reaches its angle of repose. Any new crap that drops on you no longer makes you taller; it just rolls down the sides of you, making you wider. Thicker. It’s just more crap, and it doesn’t matter very much.

That’s my future. Wider and thicker. No more reaching for the sky … no more altitude to be had. I am, at this point, just absorbing the crap. The best to which I can aspire may be to eventually connect to the thing that drops the crap on me; to become one with the source of the crap.

Oh sure, I’ve endured, I have history, I’ve raised smart and funny and loving children, I’ve paid my bills and fulfilled my obligations and participated in society in my own banal transparent way. I have made the most out of my crap that I could.

So therein lies my story. No fiery conclusions. No O. Henry twists. No poetry. Welcome to The Big Book of Me. The best-laid plans of mice and men do often go awry.

I guess I have my closing line.

I should quit while I’m in the middle.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.

Real Men Don't Buy Kitsch

I was out doing a little shopping, a little consuming, prowling the aisles of the Cost Plus, the Ross Dress for Less, the K-Mart, the Everything’s a Dollar Store.

So I’m at Ross, and I’m cruising the Kitsch aisle (which is right alongside the Crap aisle, across from the Broken Stuff Somebody Else Threw Out aisle) when I find the perfect thing for my front door… a hand-painted wooden scarecrow with real straw hair, a horn-o’-plenty and a precious, dangling little sign that says ‘Welcome to Our Happy Home’ in sloppy printing with a backwards ‘E’.

Isn’t that pwecious? Who wouldn’t want that on their front door?

I have a hard time imagining that there are enough people in the world who would want this crap… enough actual people with pulses who need a papier-mâché night-light of a Hobo leaning on a lamp-post whose ass plays ‘How Dry I Am’.

If there was one blue-haired cat-raising Alzheimer’s patient that wanted one of these, I wouldn’t be surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover there are five, or eight, or maybe even eleven.

But thousands? Maybe even tens-of-thousands? Did Nostradamus talk about this? Are the men with ice on their helmets marching forth from Prussia?

So I think about this a little harder… this thing is made up of maybe six or eight or ten individual parts, each one cut by a power tool from processed wood products, painted and stapled and tied together, hand-assembled by nimble foreign fingers somewhere overseas.

Then of course, they are wrapped and packaged and stacked into cartons, stored in a warehouse until Macy’s calls and orders twenty or eighty or a hundred for their discerning clientele. Then they’re loaded on a truck, and sent to a train or a boat or a plane and shipped to Macy’s and unpacked and unwrapped and priced and put on the shelf and dusted and straightened and inventoried and then re-boxed when nobody buys them and returned and stored until Everything’s 99 Cents and Up buys them in an estate sale and then packed and shipped and unpacked and re-priced and put on a shelf where I turn it over and find out that it’s selling for $3.99.

So I ask myself, how much can it cost to make this crap if you can put it through a hundred hands and 10,000 miles of travel and still make a profit at $3.99? How is this possible?

Who would have thought that there was such a valuable natural resource in political dissidents?

I used to make a real effort not to buy products made in oppressive regimes, knowing as I do that they’re often manufactured by prisoners. Not that there’s a problem with that… it’s the least they can do.

But I want my kitsch to be assembled by real criminals… I want to hang my $7.99 singing rubber bass secure in the knowledge that I’m keeping a murderer from getting bigger and stronger and badder and more dangerous by keeping him in the factory instead of the weight room.

I want to know that my collectible Ron Popeil-shaped Chia Pet was molded and boxed by a genuine rapist who otherwise would have been swapping cigarettes for a pleasant snuggle with a skinhead named Preacher.

I want to be pretty sure that the Who’s The Boss anniversary potholders hanging on my refrigerator were stitched by a guy who ran a red light with an ox.

But I don’t want my crap made by a guy who just wanted his kids to have an opportunity to read a book.

But what are we gonna do? I mean, I’ve looked at the bottom of a lot of cheap-ass merchandise, and it’s virtually impossible to buy unnecessary, poorly designed and shabbily manufactured excess crap that isn’t made by a political activist – it appears that he’s the guy that made half the stuff at Ross. And the more cheap-ass crap we all want to buy, the more some oppressive regime needs to create cheap-ass prison labor to produce it and feed it to us to keep our money floating overseas.

There’s no doubt that it’s important for us to keep our economy liquid – to keep our cash out of our mattresses, or retirement accounts, or CD’s or Municipal Bonds, and instead flowing from our pockets to the cash registers of 7-Eleven and Wal-Mart and Borders, so that cashiers and stock boys and truckers and airline pilots and wholesalers and importers and advertising execs and cleaning ladies and security firms and utility companies can all reap a little financial stability. It’s the ready availability of useless crap that ensures that tasteless Americans will continue to purchase and consume, keeping our dollars out of Health Insurance and College Funds and the Boys and Girls Clubs and the soup kitchens and invested instead in wicker pillow shams.

But since we’ve created a climate in which we can’t afford to work for a tenth of what we currently work for, and we steadfastly refuse to pay enough for our consumer goods to pay our own fellow citizens a decent living for assembling our cheap-ass crap right here, we have no choice but to purchase products manufactured by twenty-three year old college students who make the mistake of searching for “Democracy” on the Internet, or forty year old fathers who wanted their daughters to have an education. Without these Godless radicals serving their much-deserved time in the factories that produce so much of our critical consumer goods, the wheels of our robust economy might come to a screeching halt.

Then I remembered. This is America… we’ve got plenty of real criminals right here, we keep them in real good shape, and they’re serving time for real crimes. Carjackers, and snipers, and pickpockets, and gang-bangers. Enron executives, and child abusers, and cop-killers, and kidnappers.

Sure, they’re busy picking up trash on the side of the highway, putting honest State Employees out of jobs. They’re cutting fire roads in the wilderness, putting honest Parks Employees out of jobs. They’re pumping iron, and having anal sex, and watching television, and studying law, and filing appeals, and having anal sex.

Surely they’d be more useful helping generate cheap crap for us to buy and break and throw away so our wheels of commerce could continue to spin. Surely we’d be comfortable asking them to contribute meaningfully in a safe atmosphere carefully monitored by Labor Officials, so we could still have cheap crap without giving oppressive governments a reason to throw another college kid in jail.

And we’d never try to create more labor ourselves by jailing political dissidents. Hell, they’re more protected than Bald Eagles. They’re safe.

So I envision a world in which we assemble all the cheap-ass poorly designed and manufactured kitsch product right here, with our own labor, keep our money local, keep our economy flush with liquid consumer dollars, and export our excess knick knacks to other countries.

I hear we have plenty of extra US flag stickers.

Those would look cool on an ox.

That’s it. That’s all I got.