Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ninety-Four: Part Five: Wherein I Reveal That I Am Brilliant And That My Memory Does Its Own Thing.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part five; find the table of contents here.

There is a reason that I rarely, very rarely, look up and connect with old friends, and that reason is because no matter how we would like to be remembered, no matter what impression we think we made on the people we knew when we were younger, the actual impression we left is one that is both unexpected and embarrassing. There is no doubt in my mind that each person who meets someone from their past, someone from high school, goes through this, thinking that the person-from-their-past will remember them as that funny guy who made that one joke in Math class, but the person-from-their-past instead remembers them as the kid who wet his pants in church.

Not that I'm speaking of anyone in particular.

The rule -- we are only remembered for the things we hope others will forget -- is why I don't feel too badly about the two things that pop into mind first when I think of Rip, my roommate for four months in Washington, D.C. For each person I met in 1994, -- each person that I remember, that is, for I've forgotten many of the people that I met and there may be people who I have forgotten about forgetting, people who flitted in and out of my memory so fast that there may be nothing of them left there, nothing of them shaping me today -- for each person I remember meeting as I traveled to Washington and then Morocco that year, I can dig up one or two salient facts, one or two things that I remember most about them.

About Jawad, I remember that he wore glasses that were too large for him and he was too skinny.

About Nick, I remember he wore baseball caps almost everywhere and that he had large teeth.

About Rene, I remember that he would hunch over as he sat in front of the computer, and he looked at me for too long before beginning to speak.

About Hanan, I remember that she had large eyes, and that she kissed me in Milwaukee.

About Rip, I remember above all that he was hairy, and that he had a strange way of pronouncing the word "Dragon." I should be sorry that those are the first two things that spring to mind when I think of Rip, but I'm not, because how can I help what I think when I think? I don't have any control of the images my mind stores, of the associations my mind creates. I try, at times, to control what I remember and what I think, through a few conscious methods.

I heard once that we need to hear, see, or read something seven times before we remember it. I don't, stupidly enough, remember the source of that information. But I remember the information itself, and so I've cultivated the habit of listening in class (1), writing down the important information (2)... and then hoping that the other five times would fall into place, maybe as I talked with other people in the commons or complained about how much homework I had. Because truthfully, I never got to (7) when studying. Even in law school, I would listen (1) and write it down (2) and then when exam time came, I would read my notes (3) and make an outline (4) that I always intended to then review before the exam itself, but I never really got around to it. You can see, too, that even then, my plans wouldn't have gotten me to (7) -- reviewing the outline was only (5).

While I didn't apply the seven-times-remembering trick to the art of acquiring knowledge, I do it sometimes still to try to remember things, like the names of songs that I want to buy when I get to my computer. I'll hear a song on the radio and will repeat the name to myself seven, or more, times, in the hope that when I get home I will remember the name of the song. Instead, I usually remember saying the name but don't remember the name I was saying.

I also tried associations, trying to remember names by associating the name of the person with something about them, but that failed miserably time after time, most notably when I tried to remember the name of a man I used to talk to, when I still smoked, while I smoked outside my office. He told me his name, and I listened and looked at his glasses and mentally I used the trick, thinking his name to myself and associating it with his glasses, saying it in my mind over and over: name- glasses, name-glasses, name-glasses, and you can tell how well it worked because to this day, years later, I can remember doing that, and I can remember, in fact, exactly how his glasses looked (rather large, rounded on the bottom and almost-perfectly-straight across the top, medium thickness, a mottled brown) but I cannot remember his name. Also, because I was trying so hard to remember his name, I missed his conversation that day.

If conscious efforts to remember things don't work for me, then leaving things up to my subconscious is bound to be even more haphazard, and I had no choice but to do that when I met Rip because I was bewildered more than ever. I was hauling my things into the tiny dorm room we'd share for four months or so, a room where our beds were separated by only about three feet, a room that was maybe 20 by 10.

I'd shared a room for a great deal of my life with my brothers, one or the other at a time, beginning at age 10 when my sister Katie was born and Matt and I had to move into a room together because Bill was older and got his own room and Katie was a girl and got her own room. Later, after Bill moved out and Matt moved into Bill's room and Bill moved back in, I shared a room with Bill because it wasn't fair to make Matt move out of his room in favor of Bill. (I was given the choice, when Bill moved back in, of having Bill and Matt share a room while I, as the oldest-kid-who-did-not-move-out-and-back would have my own room, but I liked my room and had lived in it since we'd moved into that house and didn't want to move into Bill's/Matt's room, so I opted to share with Bill.)

When you share a room with a family member, it's fairly easy to get along, or not get along, as the case may be. When you share a room with a brother, you can agree to leave your Star Wars figures on the dresser and you can divide up the room pretty evenly and you can argue about whether the light should be on or off and you can pull the door away from your younger brother Matt while he's leaning the bunk bed ladder up against it so he can reach the high shelf in the closet, making him fall down with his knuckles underneath the ladder so that he starts yelling and you get in trouble, and you can have your older brother Bill take all your cassette tapes and throw out the little cardboard inserts that have the band names and album names and songs on them, cardboard inserts that are necessary for you to know the lyrics to the songs, and necessary for you to be able to identify the cassette tape while it sits on the shelf, so that without them you have twenty or thirty blank plastic cases that you have to pull off the shelf to see what cassette is in there, you can have your brother do that because he thought it made your cassette tapes look neater (and you can punch your brother in the chest for doing that, punch him in the chest even though you want to punch him in the face, but you never punch in the face because the unwritten rule of brother fights, the rule that older brother would break twice, including one time when he breaks your nose, is that you never hit in the face)

You can have all of that happen and still get along pretty well because with family members, not much is expected of you other than, maybe, that you don't hit in the face.

It's different when you live with a stranger. I found that out when I shared a dorm room, in 1987, with my first-ever stranger roommate, Dave, and I found that out, again, because I'd mostly forgotten about Dave, when I moved into the dorm with Rip and wondered, as I entered the room, whether I should take the left or right side of the room, and wondered, too, if I'd get along with my roommate.

I stopped wondering that pretty quickly, because Rip began talking pretty quickly, introducing himself, talking a lot, telling me who he was, where he was from, what he was doing here, and all kinds of other information, including mentioning "Dragon," who I would eventually learn is a woman Rip knew, a woman he always called "The Dragon Lady" or more often, simply "Dragon."

I don't believe I ever met Dragon. I have a picture of her in my mind, though. I picture "Dragon" as an old-style Japanese geisha with a sly, almost-evil look on her face, and her hair done up in one of those buns only the buns are held together by thin daggers. Also, I imagine that she has a sword. If I did meet Dragon, she did not look like that, because I certainly would have remembered meeting a female samurai. Or almost certainly would have remembered that. Who knows, with me? Maybe I'd have only remembered it if there was also a song I liked playing in the background. Then I'd remember at least the song. I remember music really well, including remembering the entire "Toys-R-Us" song from the commercials when I was a kid.

I introduced myself to Rip, I'm sure, and told him about me -- I would have told him boring stuff, mostly, my age and where I was from and a little about my family, and things like that. I also told him that I was going to be working for, as I recall now, some sort of research group or local politician.

The point of the study program in Washington was to intern somewhere, to work for a government office or something in D.C., and learn about the ins and outs of government that way, find out what really made it work and get valuable first-hand experience in something. We would take a class or two while we were there, but we were expected to spend forty hours a week working (for no pay) at some office or another. The group that set up this program took care of matching each student up with their job or internship or opportunity and everyone was told what they were going to be doing in advance, so as we talked in the dorm rooms and people walked by and moved in and laughed and high-fived and complained and got each other in headlocks and wrestled, they also compared what jobs they were going to have: I'm going to work for a senator, I'll be working for a policy research group, I'll be at the State Department, I'll be at the embassy. There was an art to saying it, too -- whoever spoke first generally felt that they had the upper hand, a really good job, and the listener then put in their own job either quickly, because they had a good job that they thought was better, after which each would pause for a second and try to determine who won that round; or the listener would know their own job was inferior, and would hesitate, and say something like oh, that's cool, I'll be, you know, working at the Department of Agriculture. It was something like the card game "War," only with internships.

Rip's job, as a staffer at a Senate office, ranked pretty high. My original job, the internship I was supposed to be having, the one I'd anticipated for a month or so and thought about and no doubt wrote about in the red notebook, was not so good. I hadn't cared much when I found out about it because it was an internship in Washington, D.C. As someone who was studying political science, who loved politics, that was enough for me. As someone who had, from a young age, been told that he was smart, that he was a genius, that he was going to be president someday, going to Washington D.C. to work at any job was my trip to Hollywood: it was the beginning of a journey that no doubt would end at the White House. From my lowly internship to the Presidency -- someday, it would be recorded and mentioned that way, a Ken Burns photo-montage documentary showing sepia-toned shots of Trinity College while a voice-over intoned that he knew, even then, as he hauled his cardboard box out of the cab's trunk and tipped the driver, that it wouldn't be the last time he'd see the White House, and that eventually, he would be residing there.

I was actually one of those kids who was told how smart he was, who was told that he was a role model for his brothers, who was held up (academically, at least) as someone who his brothers should try to be more like, who was told that Someday you will be president, and I believed it, all of it. I believed that I was smart, that I was brilliant. I had a t-shirt when I was a kid, a t-shirt that had those press-on letters, bought at a store next to Spencer's Gifts at Brookfield Square Mall, with the letters, gleaming silver metallic reflective letters, spelling out "The Great Brain," a shirt I'd had made after I read all the "Great Brain" books and earned the nickname for myself. I assumed that I was brilliant, believed it, knew it, and have never stopped knowing and believing that. I was told I was brilliant, and I was, and I was told that I was going to be president, and I had no doubt that I would do that, too. Doubt never crept into my mind, even though I'd also been told that I was so brilliant that I was going to be a doctor, and I was not a doctor, not by a longshot, had not made even the slightest progress towards becoming a doctor, unless "progress" includes enrolling at the UW-Madison in 1987 as a "pre-med" student, signing up for 13 credits including calculcus and chemistry, then getting a 17 out of 100 on the calculus midterm despite copious amounts of time spent studying and having to drop the class, then also starting to skip chemistry classes because they were early in the morning, skipping so often that I had to read 17 chapters in one night for the final exam, a final exam I needed to get an "A" on simply to pass the class... if "progress" towards becoming a doctor can be defined as those actions, then, yes, I made some progress towards that goal before deciding that calculus, and chemistry, and pre-med, and doctoring, were not for me.

That failure -- a word I rarely use in relation to my own efforts-- failure to become a doctor did not cause me any doubt or hesitation as I went to Washington. It never entered my mind that because people had been wrong about my doctorization, they could be wrong, too, about my presidentialization.

So when I introduced myself to Rip, and to the others who were headlocking and laughing and already breaking out beer, and told him whatever lowly internship job it was that I was headed to, I didn't hesitate the way the lower-ranking person was supposed to. I just told him what I'd be doing. There was no shame in it, after all (even though Rip, I still recall, did hesitate, then, and cocked his head, maybe curious why I wasn't a little hesitant to name that as my job), no shame because it was the first step on the ladder, and the last step on the ladder was the presidency.

I don't recall now, either, fifteen years later, where I was originally going to work in Washington, what my internship was supposed to be. I recall others thinking it was not so hot, and that it wouldn't have been a very good internship. I recall others saying, too, that it was lucky for me that in the end I didn't get that internship, after all. But I didn't think that I was lucky, at all, when about a half-hour after moving in, while I talked with Rip and just before we met Carlos, a woman from the program came in and said that she had at last found me and that she had some bad news and I didn't have an internship after all.

"What?" I asked her. I recall looking at my dresser, where I'd already taped up some pictures, at my stereo which I'd set up and put a cassette tape into (explaining to Rip, as I did so, why none of my tapes had cardboard inserts.)

"We're sorry. We didn't confirm it. So you don't have an internship."

I looked around again, and at Rip, who very carefully turned his Dragon-knowing, Senator-interning (and very hairy) back towards me, giving me what privacy he could in the tiny dorm room. I looked back at my dresser and wondered if I needed to pack my things up again, and whether I should have maybe kept that cab driver around.

Question of the Day: 34

How could they DO that?

Ellen the Cylon?

Are you kidding me?

I knew it. I knew they'd do it to me.

For the record, I'm guessing -- hoping -- hoping-- that everyone in the show is a Cylon.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Quote of the Day, 3:

Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.
-- Don Marquis

I have been on the run today -- leaving early to get to work on time for a change, then in court and in court again and interrupting my mouthful of leftover pizza to take a phone call -- and I've had so little time that here it is 3:40 p.m. and I haven't even read Peanuts yet today.

All of which is by way of explaining that I haven't had all that much time to do anything bloggin-wise today, and the newest installment of Ninety Four that you may have been expecting will be along soon.

Then again, is it really procrastination if I didn't do something because I was busy doing something else that needed doing? And also, did you know there's a patron saint for procrastinators?

And also-er, I suppose that looking up the patron saint of procrastinators, and then spending six minutes reading about him, qualifies as procrastination.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Question of the Day, 33:

I asked this of Editorial Ass, but haven't seen an answer yet, so I will throw this question out to the Universe and hope that the Universe answers and that the answer makes sense:

Why must I include an SASE when submitting a query letter or work for publication?

I just this morning finished putting an SASE into a short story I'm sending to a literary journal, and, as I do each time I put my self-addressed envelope in, I think to myself: Why must I do this? If they don't want the story, then I don't need to get a form rejection letter back on my 42 cents. If they DO want the story, shouldn't they be willing to not only write me a letter saying that, but also to pay for the stamp?

I mean, if I send in a novel to a publisher and they read it and they think This is the most brilliant novel ever written! It's like Solzhenitsyn and Twain got together to write up an idea from a Faulkner outline... if they read it and think that, will they then say "Oh, but there's no SASE. Ah, well, toss it out and let's get back to publishing collections of fan fiction."

Also: Yes, I did have to look up how to spell "Solzhenitsyn."

Five Pages is coming soon. Check back often to find out what that means!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kung Fu Socializing

I am not one of the most social people you'll ever meet. I'm probably one of the least social people you'll ever meet. I am so unsocial -- I'd say antisocial but that has a weird, sociopathic-y vibe to it, and I don't like to think of myself in that way, so I'll stick with unsocial -- I am so unsocial that I was nervous, for a while last Friday, that Sweetie was planning a surprise party for my 40th birthday party. Actually nervous about it, and I don't get nervous about hardly anything anymore. I can't think of a single thing that makes me nervous with the sole exception of that opening scene in Mission Impossible: 2 where Tom Cruise is climbing the rock and dangling from various tiny outcroppings and hanging by one hand. That makes me nervous. That makes me incredibly nervous, because I have a fear of heights that is pretty much wildly out of control and improbably disabling.

My fear of heights begins at roughly 2 inches off the floor. When I stand on a chair or stepladder, I get a little worried about falling. Put me three stairs up on a ladder and I get tense and appreciate it when people hold the ladder, although my appreciation is muted by the fact that they are never serious about holding the ladder. Ask someone to hold a ladder for you and they'll maybe comply but what they'll do is put a hand on the ladder, or maybe two hands, and they'll watch while you start to climb up, and then when your back is to them (as it must be, to climb the ladder) they'll take one hand off and start watching TV or looking at a squirrel near the road or something, forcing me to take my mind and attention off the all-important task of gripping the ladder so tightly that my hands hurt, and instead, focus my attention and mind on the next-to-all-important task of making them hold the ladder tightly. But it doesn't matter because they cannot possibly hold it tightly enough for me. I say I want people to hold the ladder but what I really want, if I have to climb the ladder at all, is to have the ladder's legs driven deep into the ground and encased in good solid concrete. Being a clear-headed thinker, though, what I really really want is to have someone else climb the ladder, but because I'm a man, I frequently have to climb ladders and mask my fears, which is hard to do when I'm gasping "Hold the ladder" between clenched teeth.

You'd think that my fear of heights wouldn't kick in unless the height could actually hurt me, but that's not the case. Standing on a ladder trying to clean a gutter makes me nervous even though if I were to just drop, entirely, I'd likely not even be hurt. The fall from our gutters is so short that if I somehow dropped and spun around so that I landed on my head I probably wouldn't be hurt, even then, but that doesn't stop me from worrying about the dizzying height of my gutters. My fear of heights is so profound, and improbable, that fictional heights scare me -- like when Tom Cruise is climbing around rocks. There's a scene in Kung Fu Panda where the characters go up on some tall rocks, and that worries me, both because they go up on some tall rocks and might fall, and also because it means that at some point there will be a sub-branch of acrophobia meant to specifically describe my condition, the fear of fictional cartoon panda heights, and while I mean to make a mark in the world, I don't mean to make a mark in the world by serving as a case study for people who are afraid that a cartoon character may fall to his death.

It was that kind of nervousness I felt at the prospect that Sweetie might have a surprise party for my 40th birthday -- a social phobia and nervousness brought on by the idea that when I got home from work on Friday after my first full 5-day workweek since prior to the holidays, there would be a houseful of people waiting for me and I would have to talk with them -- and nervousness, too, that I would have to talk to them while Sweetie was secretly upset with me.

I was worried that Sweetie would be secretly upset with me because I was late, on Friday, to pick up the repaired window that Mr F had broken. I had until 5:30 to pick it up from the window place, something I knew because Sweetie had reminded me of it the night before, and that morning, and that afternoon when I'd talked to her, and she had brought it up again when she'd called me at 4:55 to ask whether I'd left work yet to go pick up the repaired window.

She was calling me at 4:55 at work for two reasons, at least. First, she had to call me at the office because I'd let my cell phone power down the day before. I hadn't charged it in about 5 days and it'd run out of power and then I couldn't find it because I'd misplaced it. Ordinarily, I put the cellphone in my little dresser drawer near my iPod and camera and the combination lock I used to use for my bicycle back when I used to bicycle. But that Thursday night I'd put the cell phone somewhere else because I meant to make sure that I plugged it in to charge it up for Friday, only somewhere between "meaning to plug in the cell phone and charge it" and "actually doing that" I'd put the cell phone somewhere and couldn't remember where it was, and I couldn't locate it by calling the phone because it was out of power. So I had no cell phone Friday and Sweetie had to call me at the office at 4:55 to remind me that I had only until 5:30 to pick up the window and also to remind me that I'd told her that morning that I was going to leave the office at 4 p.m. that day.

"What are you still doing at work?" she asked me.

"Working," I told her, and explained that I'd gotten tied up in doing various things between 4 and 4:55 -- things that I probably could have done earlier but "earlier" was when I'd been busy reading old Peanuts comics online, so I was running behind schedule.

I didn't tell Sweetie that last part. I just assured her that I would be leaving the office immediately to go pick up the window and come home, and she sounded disappointed and a little irritated that I was going to be about an hour later than I'd told her I would be, even though it really wasn't my fault that Peanuts had been so interesting to me that day.

I then left the office only about 15 minutes after finishing that phone call, and was hurrying to make the 30 minute trip to the window store in the fifteen minutes I had, and as I drove along and tried to not crash in the snow falling and coating the road and also tried to set up a playlist of mostly-Noah-and-the-Whale songs, it occurred to me that I was probably not going to be in time to get the window, and also that Sweetie may have been disappointed that I was late because (I thought) Sweetie maybe had a houseful of people there waiting to yell "Surprise!" when I walked in, and those people would have been waiting around an extra hour.

Sweetie might have, I reasoned, wanted to throw me a surprise party because I'd once thrown her a surprise party, back about 10 years ago, when I got people to come and decorate and wait for her and I got her out of the apartment through the ruse of saying I was taking her to dinner. We got back to the apartment and I was about to lead her upstairs when she stopped and headed downstairs.

"Where are you going?" I asked her.

"I've got to grab the laundry from the dryer," she said, and she insisted on carrying the laundry, and what could I do, tell her no, leave the laundry for later but don't ask me why?, the result being that Sweetie was carrying a load of laundry for folding when her party surprised her.

So Sweetie might have wanted to get me back, or reward me (depending on your perspective) for that and might have been planning a surprise party, and I was nervous about not just the fact that, yes, I was late picking up the window so we'd have to have another night of cardboard-and-green-blanket hanging in our front window, but also about the idea that when I got home I'd have to tell Sweetie that I was late, didn't have the window, and then I'd have to talk to a bunch of people and pretend that I was a social person when I'm not and what I really wanted to do was relax in a pair of sweatpants and my "Gators" sweatshirt.

Sweetie didn't, in the end, have a surprise party; she was concerned about my being late because she had Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rocky Rococo's pizza waiting for me and it was getting cold, but I don't think I can really be blamed for fearing the worst and dreading a social gathering as I drove home that night because sometimes my social interactions with others are ... problematic.

Take when Dad came over on Saturday for a combination Christmas/birthday party. We'd had that planned for some time, and then had to go through with the visit when the weather didn't cooperate and Saturday was bright and sunny and the roads were drivable. So Dad and his wife, Pat, came over to visit and bring presents and eat dinner, which all should be enjoyable but is instead fraught with concern and sometimes repetition.

A visit from Dad is fraught with concern because Dad's staying is always unpredictable. He may come for an hour, he may come for a whole weekend, and you just don't know because he won't tell you in advance because if he did, you might tell him he couldn't do that. We once had this exchange:

Dad: "Well, I'll come up there on Saturday and stay overnight."

Me: "That's not that good. You can come up Saturday but we really don't have any place for you to stay and we've got to get out of the house early the next day for Church."

Dad: "It won't be any trouble."

And I was so befuddled wondering what wouldn't be any trouble -- having to leave early? Having no place for him to sleep? His coming? My life? -- that I couldn't respond and he did come, sleeping on the couch and then getting up and being around for breakfast (we had to skip church, because we didn't want to abandon him and he was sitting at the table drinking coffee when we would have had to leave for Church) and then staying around even after I left to go into work. Sweetie told me later that he didn't leave until 2 p.m.

Then there was the time he came up around 11 a.m. on a Saturday, stayed for lunch, and dinner, and was still around at 6 p.m. when he suggested that we put in a movie. I went to get a movie to watch and came back to find him asleep on the couch.

It doesn't even help to tell him that we're busy or won't be there. He wanted to come up one Saturday and we weren't going to be home; we had plans and I told him that. He apparently didn't believe me because when we got back from our errands, there was a pile of things stacked in front of our garage door, little things he'd brought to drop off for us, and a message left that he'd been there and we for some reason were not home.

Saying that we have vague "plans" or that it won't work never puts him off. Even having a specific, iron-clad excuse won't work. He called one time and wanted to come up on a Saturday, a day that Sweetie and I had been looking forward to just hanging out relaxing and doing nothing and not having company. When I told him that Saturday wasn't good, he said he wouldn't stay long. So I lied and said:

"You can't come up because I won't be here. I'll be judging the high school mock trial competition." In reality, I wouldn't be doing that for a few more weeks, but I figured any port in a storm.

"How long does that take?" he asked.

"Most of the day," I said. "Maybe 'til early evening."

" he said, and then said "Well, I'll just come up and hang around the family until you get home," at which point I was stuck, because Sweetie was adamant that I could not disappear for the day and leave her and the kids to deal with company. So when he came and visited, I had to lie again and say that I'd traded judging days with someone else so that I could hang out with him.

It's not that Dad is a bad guy; it's just that his visits are long. I think he makes them so long because they're so rare -- we only see him about 5 or 6 times a year. But they're rare because he makes them so long. I always want to tell him that if he'd come for an hour or two, he could come more often, but then I don't know how I'd enforce that.

I'm not sure he realizes how long his visits are, either. This past Saturday, he got there at about 2, as we'd planned. He stayed until about 8:30, which is an awfully long time -- he stayed through snacks, and dinner, and clean-up, and giving Mr F and Mr Bunches their baths and then putting them into their pajamas and then more snacks, too, and it was about the time I was wondering if he and Pat were actually going to stay over that he finally got up and left.

Here's how long his visit lasted: When he first arrived, I asked him about how his Christmas Eve was, and he told me a story about how Pat's granddaughter Natalie had handed out the presents and played Santa, wearing a Santa hat and complaining, at one point, that the hat was hot and she was sweaty.

Later on, around 8 p.m., while Sweetie was up putting the Babies!' pajamas on them, Dad and Pat and I were sitting downstairs with the football game on and silence lingering because we'd run out of things to talk about. That's when Dad, out of the blue, said this:

"Did I tell you that on Christmas Eve, Pat's granddaughter Natalie played Santa, and even wore a Santa hat?" And he went on to tell me the story all over again, almost identical to the first time I'd heard it 6 hours before. So Dad stayed so long, on Saturday, that he went into reruns.

Phone calls aren't much better. My mom called me Friday to wish me a happy birthday, and last night I finally called her back, only to learn that she was having some troubles with her phone, and that the phone company had been out there to fix it but it hadn't worked that well.

Rather than tell her I'd call her back some other time, something I worried would insult her because it would make her think I didn't want to talk to her (I didn't, but not out of any malice to her; I just don't like talking on the phone, to anyone) and something I also felt would simply keep the need to call her hanging over my head like an albatross, I tried instead to soldier through the call, living through a few hang-ups and disconnections, after each of which we'd both do the same thing that people always do in that situation, which is wait a second, then try to call the other one, get a busy signal, then wait a second, then call again, and do that a few times before then setting the phone down to wait for the other one to call.

It was in one of those breaks, when the phone had cut out, that a thought occurred to me. You know how, when you're waiting for a phone call, you don't want anyone but that specific person to call you because you're worried that the specific person will call you at the same time as whatever jerk is calling you, and as a result you'll miss the call you were actually waiting for? I know exactly how that feels, because I've gone through it twice in my life, both times when I qualified for the next round of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? contestancy, a qualification which meant that the next day I might get a phone call that would tell me I was flying off to New York to be a contestant, the results of which were that I sat by the phone all day hoping that Millionaire would call and that nobody else would call because I felt that if someone who was not "Millionaire" called me, they'd call at the exact time that Millionaire was calling and I would have lost out on my opportunity.

As it turns out, Millionaire never called me, but my fears were still well-grounded.

My thought last night, during the intermittent conversation with Mom, was kind of the exact opposite of that. It was the second time that her phone had cut out, and when I got the dial tone I hung up and then dialed her number, getting a busy signal. Then I tried again, and got a busy signal. So I put the phone down to wait a minute or two for the line to clear, and I was certain that Mom, on her end of the line in Milwaukee, was mirroring my actions. That's when I thought this mind-blowing thought:

What if both of us set the phone down to wait a minute or two and then waited for the other one to call and then neither of us ever picked up the phone to make the call the other one is expecting us to make?

We might never talk again.

But that didn't happen; instead, she called a minute later and we began again, trying to pick up where we'd left off, with limited success because then Mom's phone went even more haywire: her phone began making calls on its own. It began clicking and dialing and then my call waiting clicked, and I told her I had another call.

"That's because my phone just autodialed yours, for some reason," she told me. My phone clicked again, and I said:

"So you just called me in the middle of my call?"

Mom said she didn't know what was going on with her phone, and then said this:

"Go answer that call in case it's me."

It's not enough, then, for people to simply visit me or call me. They have to visit me so long that they're visit wraps around on itself and begins to repeat, or they have to call me twice in the same phone call, warping space and time just to chat with me, which I suppose should be flattering and I suppose I should be pleased that I am so important to people that they would violate the laws of physics as we know them just to spend a little time with me. But I'm forty years old, and I'm not a very social person, and I get tired at the end of the day, so I'd appreciate it if people would obey the laws of physics, give me a little time to myself now and then, and also hold that ladder more tightly.

Do Pizza Samples Really Exist?

At long last, the first TBOE book is ready to go.

Do Pizza Samples Really Exist?

collects up The Best essays you've loved on this site -- essays you can't get here anymore -- into one handsome volume, suitable for buying, reading, buying for someone else to read, buying for someone else to give to someone to read, buying because you bought one and then lent it to someone who was too cheap to buy her own and didn't give you yours back and you really want to have a copy in your library...

Click HERE to buy a copy for a price as low as $2.00. Two bucks! That's practically free!

Quote of the Day, 2:

"Lack of money is the root of all evil."
-- George Bernard Shaw.

I like this one because it strikes right back at all those people who say "Money doesn't buy you happiness" or similar quotes. My father-in-law -- a person with money -- said that to us once: Money can't make you happy, he said.

Maybe it can't, but it can remove sources of unhappiness. There is no life that would not be better if it had more money, and there is no problem so terrible that the infusion of a lot of cash wouldn't make that problem a little more bearable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Great Ranking Of Problems Is Now A Reality.

Today's entry: Having to shovel some snow off the driveway so that I can brush snow off the car without tromping the previously-fallen snow into hard-to-shovel compact snow, only to then have to reshovel the same area because the snow I brushed off falls onto the area I shoveled to get to the car in the first place.

I will rank that at:

173!: Preshoveling & reshoveling snow.

Prior entries:

721: Printer not holding a lot of paper at once.

15,451: Almost napping.
14,452: Worrying that there's too much peanut brittle leftover to eat before it goes bad.

22,372: Having hair which isn't quite a definable color.
22,373: Having too many songs on an iPod

Question of the Day: 32

How long could YOU leave a cup sitting in your garage before you decide that it's no longer fit for its original purpose (i.e., drinking out of?)

There's a coffee cup in my garage that I must have taken out of the car and then set down on a shelf in the garage, for some reason. Then I just ... never picked it up and brought it in. So now, it's been there maybe two years and I saw it the other day when I was thinking, briefly, about whether I should pack away the now-deflated Giant Rudolph and other decorations. When I noticed it, I thought: I should bring that in and put it in the dishwasher. Then I thought: no, that's gross. Then I was going to throw it away, but that seemed wasteful.

So I left it there.

Do Pizza Samples Really Exist?

At long last, the first TBOE book is ready to go.

Do Pizza Samples Really Exist?

collects up The Best essays you've loved on this site -- essays you can't get here anymore -- into one handsome volume, suitable for buying, reading, buying for someone else to read, buying for someone else to give to someone to read, buying because you bought one and then lent it to someone who was too cheap to buy her own and didn't give you yours back and you really want to have a copy in your library...

Click HERE to buy a copy for a price as low as $2.00. Two bucks! That's practically free!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The beginning of a story that is not yet ready to go on: 84 down, 9,264 to go.

Today, as I was eating my salt water taffy for lunch, I suddenly thought of one of the greatest openings for a book ever. I don't have a title yet. I don't even have a story yet. But I have this opening, and someday, this opening will have a story that follows it. But I can't wait until I've got the whole story. I've got to get this out. So here goes:

The man is driving down the highway and he's got a packet of crackers that he's trying to open with one hand, holding them against his knee while he uses his other hand to click through songs on the music player attached to his radio. His jobs, flipping through songs and opening crackers, are made more difficult because it is apparent that the man does not want any particular song, or any song at all. He wants no songs. He is dissatisfied with each song within the first few seconds and clicks again, and again, and again, past each song. None is good enough. His jobs are also made more difficult because he is using both of his hands, one to skip past each song that is not the song he wants to hear, and the other to open the crackers, which leaves him steering with his knee, and he has chosen to use the knee that is also holding the crackers up for his hand to pick at.

The man is lucky the road is straight, and he is not lucky that his car pulls slightly to the left, something he notices more when he is driving with his knee. There is a large soda cup, the kind that can be bought for $1.09 at a convenience store, perched in between his legs. He is still flipping through songs when he gets the crackers open, and picks a cracker out of the packet. He stops clicking songs not because he likes the one that is on -- he doesn't -- but because he needs to use his hand to pull the car back into the lane he is supposed to be traveling in.

As he drives and listens to the song he put on, an Irish-sounding song, he puts the cracker in his mouth, a cracker sandwich, cheese and crackers. He looks to his left while he eats it, not at anything in particular. He is looking to his left to see what he looks like looking left. He is looking to his left because in his imagination, he is supposed to look to his left.

Then he looks to his right, because that is what he is supposed to do then. He puts another cracker sandwich into his mouth. He chews it theatrically, acrobatically, moving his jaw up and down and around and scraping it around. He leaves the Irish-sounding music on although he is not in the mood to hear that song, any more than he is in the mood to hear any other song. But it is a good soundtrack.

He puts a third cracker sandwich into his mouth. He flips it around using only his tongue, holding it between his teeth. He bites into it and catches the front half with his lips, pulling it back in. When he does this, he raises his eyebrows and looks to his right, catching the eye of a person who is not there. Then he looks meaningfully at the road again, narrowing his eyes.

The man is pretending he is in the opening of a movie. If you were to ask him what he was doing as he drove along and ate cracker sandwiches, he would tell you he was pretending to be in the opening of a movie. If he did not lie to you, something he does, lying, not out of malice but of necessity, and he might not find it necessary to lie to you about what he was doing as he drove along the deserted highway and as he ate his cracker sandwiches and as he was dissatisfied with music.

Then again, he might. He might find it necessary to lie to you. But take my word for it, because I know: He is pretending that he is in the opening of a movie.

I thought of that in its entirety and had to write it down right then and now I've typed it here, and I wanted to go on writing that story so bad my teeth hurt. Although that may have been the salt water taffy.

So someday, that will open a story that I will complete.

Oh, and song 84? The Story of Grandson Of Jesus, by Cloud Cult:

Song 83 here.

Enemies List: 4

1. People who honk their horn.

2. Pepperoni pizza.

3. The 2008 Detroit Lions.

4. The guy who programmed my cell phone camera and did it wrong so that when I took some pictures of Mr F and Mr Bunches at McDonald's Playland it caused some kind of bug so that now half the time when I try to take a picture or look at my pictures it re-sets my phone entirely, and also so that now sometimes when I try to take three pictures of a sculpture at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, one of the whole thing and the other two a close-up of the head and the hand, I can only email myself one of the three, because the other two say that I've "exceeded maximum file size" and so they're trapped on my phone forever until I delete them in disgust.

But for some reason I could send the picture of the hallway. I don't know. I just kind of liked it:

Quote of the Day, 1: "Disquiet," and envy.

From now on, I'll be alternating "Question of the Day" with "Quote of the Day," neither of which is to be confused with "Poem of the Week" or "Soup of the Month." That latter isn't really a thing, but shouldn't it be?

Here's today's quote:

Our envy of others devours us most of all.
-- Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Here's how today's quote matters in my life:

Last night, having finished Disquiet in one day on Saturday, I went to Barnes & Noble for a new book. I wandered, carrying Mr Bunches, into science fiction, where I saw The Host by Stephanie Meyer. The Host is a book I read about before I knew who "Stephanie Meyer" was, and I put it on my list of books to get. Then I found out who Stephanie Meyer is, and I envied her success and now, I can't bring myself to actually buy The Host. Not yet.

Plus, because of Stephanie Meyer, about 99 of the top 100 books on the best seller list are about vampires. So it's not purely envy that's making me upset with her.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Question of the Day: 31

What purpose do measures serve in music?

I've played the piano for 32 years and never understood why music is divided into measures. Those little lines dividing the measures don't serve any purpose I can tell. They're not supposed to make you pause, or stop, or speed up. They don't denote a new thought, like a paragraph does. So why do they exist? Why, when we say four beats to a measure does there have to be a measure, period?

Pervigilium is not a word: Sunday's Poem Number 1

The Sunday Poem is a new feature on "Thinking The Lions." Feel free to submit your own favorites.

by Andrew Hudgins

Storms of perfume lift from honeysuckle,
lilac, clover—and drift across the threshold,
outside reclaiming inside as its home.
Warm days whirl in a bright unnumberable blur,
a cup—a grail brimmed with delirium
and humbling boredom both. I was a boy,
I thought I'd always be a boy, pell—mell,
mean, and gaily murderous one moment
as I decapitated daises with a stick,
then overcome with summer's opium,
numb—slumberous. I thought I'd always be a boy,
each day its own millennium, each
one thousand years of daylight ending in
the night watch, summer's pervigilium,
which I could never keep because by sunset
I was an old man. I was Methuselah,
the oldest man in the holy book. I drowsed.
I nodded, slept—and without my watching, the world,
whose permanence I doubted, returned again,
bluebell and blue jay, speedwell and cardinal
still there when the light swept back,
and so was I, which I had also doubted.
I understood with horror then with joy,
dubious and luminous joy: it simply spins.
It doesn't need my feet to make it turn.
It doesn't even need my eyes to watch it,
and I, though a latecomer to its surface, I'd
be leaving early. It was my duty to stay awake
and sing if I could keep my mind on singing,
not extinction, as blurred green summer, lifted
to its apex, succumbed to gravity and fell
to autumn, Ilium, and ashes. In joy
we are our own uncomprehending mourners,
and more than joy I longed for understanding
and more than understanding I longed for joy.

Discussion topic: If pervigilium was not a word before the poet used it, is it a word now? And will you make an honest effort to use that word in conversation this week?

Punk Rock Pickle: